Film Review: Saboteur (1942)

Release Date: April 22nd, 1942 (Washington D.C. premiere)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, Dorothy Parker
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Norman Lloyd

Frank Lloyd Productions, Paramount Pictures, 109 Minutes

Review:

“Very pretty speech – youthful, passionate, idealistic. Need I remind you that you are the fugitive from justice, not I. I’m a prominent citizen, widely respected. You are an obscure workman wanted for committing an extremely unpopular crime. Now which of us do you think the police will believe?” – Charles Tobin

I love that Starz has a ton of Alfred Hitchcock stuff up, right now. It allows me to delve into some of his lesser known pictures from a time when he wasn’t yet seen as a true auteur.

Saboteur is a spy thriller film-noir that follows an aircraft factory worker that goes on the run after being wrongly accused of sabotage, which also resulted in the death of his best friend.

Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings) travels from Los Angeles to New York City in an effort to clear his name and expose the real saboteurs who are led by Charles Tobin (played by Otto Kruger), a respectable member of society but really a pro-fascist sympathizer.

Ultimately, this is a thrilling road movie that sees our hero encounter a lot of people that are willing to help him and do him harm. But it is all about the great final sequence, which takes place on the Statue of Liberty and will certainly make you think of the Mt. Rushmore sequence from North by Northwest.

While not my favorite Hitchcock film, it is hard to deny the great craftsmanship that went into this. It is superbly directed, the acting is good and the cinematography by Joseph A. Valentine is very pristine. It doesn’t have the same visual style that would become standard with noir but this also came out at the very early stages of the classic noir era. So it doesn’t use a high chiaroscuro style but it still utilizes contrast well. I absolutely love the shot from the opening credits scene.

In retrospect, and I’m not sure how people saw this in 1942, the film feels like a really good B-movie with a mostly B-movie cast. The budget, due to some of the larger sequences in the film, make it feel grander than something simple and low budget but it just has that sort of B-movie style but with a layer of quality that is very much Hitchcock.

The final sequence is great though and really, the highlight of the picture for me.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other Hitchcock films of the era: Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent and Lifeboat.

Film Review: The Mad Monster (1942)

Release Date: May 8th, 1942 (premiere)
Directed by: Sam Newfield
Written by: Fred Myton
Music by: David Chudnow
Cast: Johnny Downs, George Zucco, Anne Nagel, Reginald Barlow

Producers Releasing Corporation, 77 Minutes

Review:

“Gentlemen, I wish you were here to see the proof of my claim that the transfusion of blood between different species is possible. Perhaps you will change your mind one day soon when Petro tears at your throat.” – Dr. Lorenzo Cameron

More often than not a studio from Poverty Row would remind the world why they were a studio on Poverty Row. It’s not to say that they were incapable of quality, they made some good stuff now and again, but when you don’t have the finances or the nice studio to compete with the big dogs in the old Hollywood era, every project was an attempt to make chicken salad with chicken shit.

The Mad Monster looks and feels like a Poverty Row film. It’s poorly filmed with bad sound, bad camera work, bad acting and a script that didn’t need refinement, it just needed to be thrown out.

I’d imagine that this gem of awfulness would have been completely forgotten by this point, had it not been featured in the first nationally televised season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Because of that, it found new life and will always exist, as that show’s die hard fans won’t let anything die.

It should go without saying that the effects are terrible, the acting is dog shit and the monster is cheesier than a Philly steak sandwich buried under Velveeta nachos. But there is an endearing quality to it because of those things.

Sadly, the film is pretty damn boring for the most part and relies on the same small swamp set over and over. The film feels confined, cheap and barely has any redeeming qualities other than the fact that a monster was created by a transfusion of a dog’s blood into a man’s body.

So as is customary with movies like this, I have to run it through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 3 Stool: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface.”

Rating: 2.25/10
Pairs well with: The Monster MakerThe Corpse Vanishes and The Vampire Bat

Film Review: Cat People (1942)

Release Date: December 6th, 1942
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” – Irena Dubrovna

Cat People was the first picture produced by Val Lewton for RKO. It was also his first collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur. And like their other collaborations, it is very much horror but sort of has a film-noir flair to it in a visual sense.

The story takes the typical werewolf tale and gives it a few new twists. Firstly, the were-monster is a woman, as opposed to it being a man, as seen in 1935’s Werewolf of London or 1941’s The Wolf Man. Secondly, the creature is a cat, as opposed to a canine. RKO was trying to compete with Universal’s horror franchises, so taking a familiar formula and breathing new life into it made this picture unique and stand out from the pack, pun intended.

The main character is Irena, a Serbian fashion designer. She marries an American man but she is afraid of intimacy because of a curse she believes she has. She assumes that if she is sexually turned on or becomes angry, that she will transform into a killer cat. Her husband thinks it is old country nonsense and that her fears are just Serbian superstition. He ends up confiding in a pretty co-worker, which angers Irena and sets the really dark part of the story in motion.

Due to budgetary constraints, Cat People is a film that utilizes the less is more approach. The film completely hides its monster and the horror mostly happens out of frame. It forces you to have to use your imagination but the direction by Tourneur, enhanced by the enchanting cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, pulls you in and doesn’t let go. The part where the character of Alice is being stalked through the night is an amazing sequence that really is one of the best horror moments of the 1940s.

This definitely seems to be the most popular of the Lewton and Tourneur collaborations. I like I Walked With A Zombie just a bit more but this is an incredibly well produced and directed film. It was also the start of a good string of work from both men. Plus, Cat People builds suspense and a feeling of real dread in a way that Universal’s were-creature movies did not.

Film Review: The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Release Date: May 8th, 1942
Directed by: Wallace Fox
Written by: Harvey Gates, Sam Robins, Gerald Schnitzer
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin, Minerva Urecal, Elizabeth Russell

Banner Productions, Monogram Pictures, 64 Minutes

Review:

“You should forget all that silly nonsense about those brides dropping dead.” – Alice Wentworth

Bela Lugosi fell on troubled times as he got out of the 1930s, which was the height of his career following 1931’s Dracula. By 1942, he was mostly relegated to making schlock. He tried to work as much as possible but even just a decade later, his Dracula had become sort of a caricature.

The Corpse Vanishes is one of his better known B-movies but that doesn’t mean it’s good. It is a film that would go on to be lampooned in the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and for several very good reasons.

The plot is awful, the script is worse and the acting is pretty horrendous. Even Lugosi couldn’t carry this picture and by this point, Lugosi always played Lugosi and was pretty one-dimensional. He was simply dialing it in, as were the crew and the other actors.

Lugosi plays the evil Dr. Lorenz, a mad scientist that sends a peculiar orchid to young women on their wedding day. The orchid has an effect that causes these women to drop dead at the altar. In reality, he is putting them into a form of suspended animation. He goes on to rob the “corpses” of the brides before burial and takes them to his evil lab.

While not too far outside of the box of what were normal plots for these sort of films, the premise is still pretty ridiculous.

The Corpse Vanishes is a disaster and it is sad to see how far Lugosi has fallen in a decade. Where Boris Karloff seemed to continue to get quality roles all the way up until his death in the 1960s, Lugosi wasn’t so lucky. But at the same time, Karloff was just a lot more versatile as an actor.

Out of respect for Lugosi, I’ll refrain from running this through the Cinespiria Shitometer.

Film Serial Review: Spy Smasher (1942)

Release Date: April 4th, 1942 (first chapter)
Directed by: William Witney
Written by: Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, William Lively, Joseph O’Donnell, Joseph F. Poland
Based on: character by C.C. Beck, Bill Parker
Music by: Mort Glickman
Cast: Kane Richmond, Marguerite Chapman, Sam Flint, Hans Schumm, Tris Coffin

Republic Pictures, 214 Minutes total (12 episodes), 100 Minutes (film)

Review:

Spy Smasher might not be a well-known and beloved character in modern times, but he was the focal point of what is considered by many to be the greatest serial of all-time.

The character of Spy Smasher was a comic book hero published by Fawcett Comics, similar to their other hero Captain Marvel. And also like Captain Marvel, he is now owned by DC Comics and appears in their titles now and again.

What makes his serial Spy Smasher so well regarded is the fact that it had superb writing for its genre. Also, it had some unique cliffhangers. It also bucked trends when one of the cliffhangers saw a character die. The serial formula, at the time, always showed the person escape danger in some miraculous way.

Spy Smasher also has some of the best cinematography and writing a serial has ever had. The bulk of the acting duties were on the shoulders of Kane Richmond and his leading lady Marguerite Chapman.

The serial is twelve chapters but each one is well paced and executed. It also resonated well with audiences as our hero was pitted against Nazis during the World War II era.

As far as serials go, Spy Smasher was damn good and one of the most historically significant to come out.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part IV – The Invisible Man Series (1933-1944)

The next branch of the Universal Monsters tree that I have rewatched is the Invisible Man series of films.

This character and the other invisible characters in this series, were like the Mummy in that they never really got to crossover with the other monsters of their era. I would’ve loved to have seen how Claude Rains’ Dr. Jack Griffin a.k.a. the original Invisible Man would have fared against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man.

Like other characters in the Universal Monsters mythos, this one was milked to death. It also spawned a total of five films.

The Invisible Man (1933):

Release Date: November 13th, 1933
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: R.C. Sherriff
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

the-invisible-manReview:

Directed by James Whale, who gave us Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, this film is another classic gem in the catalog of his stellar work. Whale, once again, gave us some amazing cinematography even though this was an insanely difficult film to shoot for its time. The tone, the humor, the dread, all of it worked to a tee and came together like a perfectly woven tapestry.

Claude Rains is one of those actors that I cannot praise enough. He was a genius and between this film and his Phantom of the Opera adaptation, he proved that he was not just a master of horror but a master thespian able to perform at a level far exceeding many of the well-known dramatic actors of his era. There are few things in life that I prefer watching to Rains playing Dr. Jack Griffin in this film. His voice work, his body work, all of it was perfection.

This is the best film in the series and a solid, if not still the best, interpretation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Invisible Man. This is a great example of James Whale’s supremacy as a director, especially in the horror genre, as well as one of the very best films put out by Universal – not just in their classic monster series and not just in that time period but of all-time.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940):

Release Date: January 12th, 1940
Directed by: Joe May
Written by: Joe May, Kurt Siodmak, Lester Cole
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Cast: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Vincent Price, Nan Grey, Alan Napier

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes 

the_invisible_man_returnsReview:

The title is somewhat misleading, as this is a different character entirely. Although Dr. Jack Griffin’s brother Frank is a new character in this film and weirdly, Jack is referred to as “John” in this movie.

The film stars Vincent Price, a legendary horror icon in his first ever horror role. Price would gain more fame and legendary status several years later after starring in House of Wax. Regardless of that, Price played a likable and not so horrific character as this film’s incarnation of the Invisible Man. His character, Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe is sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Knowing that he is innocent, the brother of the original Invisible Man injects himself with the invisible serum so that he can escape and clear his name.

One thing leads to another and we get the happy ending.

Alan Napier who played Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series has a big role in this film. Vincent Price would later go on to star as the villain Egghead in that same series.

This was a solid sequel and I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t a rehash of the original film, it was a pretty original idea and it was executed greatly.

The Invisible Woman (1940):

Release Date: December 27th, 1940
Directed by: A. Edward Sutherland
Written by: Kurt Siodmak, Joe May
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka

Universal Pictures, 72 Minutes 

inviswomanReview:

With Universal pumping out an insane amount of sequels to their horror franchises, they wasted no time in releasing The Invisible Woman the same year they released The Invisible Man Returns. Sequel-mania was running rampant at Universal!

This was the first film in the series to really take a plunge. There was nothing really “horror” about it and in fact, it was a comedy.

The plot sees a recently fired department store model get revenge on her boss after she is made invisible by a loony scientist. It was basically like the plot from 9-to-5 starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. Except it was about one woman and she was invisible.

This is a pretty forgettable film and had it not been wedged into this series – ending up in box sets like the one I own, it would’ve been lost in the sands of time.

The Invisible Agent(1942):

Release Date: July 31st, 1942
Directed by: Edwin L. Marin
Written by: Curtis Siodmak
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Ilona Massey, Jon Hall, Peter Lorre

Universal Pictures, 81 Minutes 

invisibleagentReview:

This film takes The Invisible Man formula and gives us something pretty awesome: an invisible agent fighting the Nazis and a Japanese associate during World War II. Additionally, Peter Lorre is in this as the Japanese villain, which is intriguing, bizarre and just totally awesome! Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the villainous Nazi, making his second appearance in this series, as he also played the villain in The Invisible Man Returns.

This is my favorite sequel in the series, as the plot is awesome and it was well-executed.

Coming out at the height of World War II, this must have been an exciting film to watch. The special effects are once again top notch and the acting was good from all parties involved.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944):

Release Date: June 9th, 1944
Directed by: Ford Beebe
Written by: Bertram Millhauser
Based on: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Jon Hall, John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 78 Minutes 

invisiblemansrevengeReview:

The final film in the series gives us John Carradine as a scientist who is another new character with the power of invisibility.

New character wants to harness the power, new character gets the power, new character seeks revenge against those who wronged him. Sound familiar?

Well, at this point the traditional formula of this series has run its course and unfortunately, we didn’t get something as original and new as the previous film in the series.

This film isn’t a complete waste and it is okay but you’ll watch it swearing that you’ve seen it already. Plus, I really love John Carradine.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Wolf Man series.

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part III – The Mummy Series (1932-1944)

Continuing on with my quest to rewatch and review all the classic Universal Monsters franchises, I have now gotten to the Mummy series.

The Mummy (1932):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1932
Directed by: Karl Freund
Written by: John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer
Music by: James Dietrich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward van Sloan, Arthur Byron

Universal Pictures, 73 Minutes 

the_mummy_1932Review:

Immediately following the success of 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein films, Universal went with the next monster needing to scare the crap out of theatergoers: the Mummy. And who did they get to portray the now iconic character of Imhotep a.k.a the Mummy? Well, they went to Frankenstein’s monster himself, Boris Karloff.

This film was directed by Karl Freund and it was his official directorial debut. For a rookie director behind the camera, Freund had a great eye for capturing intense dread and a very visual gothic style of storytelling. The film was consistent with the vibe of Universal’s other early monster films. While not exactly on the level of what James Whale created in the first two Frankenstein films, this movie does deserve to be applauded as a feat of cinematography and lighting.

Karloff was as amazing as he always is and that should be no surprise. He gave us a much more organic Imhotep than what was given to audiences in the bad 1999 remake of this film. Karloff’s face, especially his eyes, during the waking of Imhotep from his 2,000 year slumber was pretty enchanting and frightening.

I think that this film is overlooked in comparison to the other franchises under the Universal Monsters banner and looking back at it now, I am not sure as to why. It is just as chilling and just as effective as their other early films.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940):

Release Date: September 20th, 1940
Directed by: Christy Cabanne
Written by: Griffin Jay, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, Cecil Kellaway, Eduardo Ciannelli, George Zucco, Tom Tyler

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

the_mummys_handReview:

After an eight year hiatus, the Mummy returned! Except this mummy was a new character.

The mummy in this film is named Kharis and although his origin story is very similar to Imhotep in the first film, there are some differences. Additionally, this is almost the start of a new series itself, as Kharis continues on as the series antagonist leaving Imhotep behind. In this film, Kharis is played by Tom Tyler, who was best known for starring in low-budget westerns and as Captain Marvel in the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel.

This film uses some pretty awesome sets and that was the biggest takeaway for me in the realm of design and art direction.

This film also introduces the concept of the mummy needing tanna leaves to survive and to be controlled. It is a fictitious plant, so there is no need to worry about people actually using tanna leaves to animate mummified corpses.

This film is generally forgettable and the weakest in the series other than its set design.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942):

Release Date: October 23rd, 1942
Directed by: Harold Young
Written by: Neil P. Varnick
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

the_mummys_tombReview:

In this film, we get Lon Chaney Jr. playing Kharis the mummy. This is actually the first of three films where Chaney takes over as the undead monster. So Chaney has played the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster. He’s been four out of the six monsters from the Universal Monsters franchises. If only he were the Gillman and the Invisible Man and he would’ve done a clean sweep.

I liked this film better than the previous one. Chaney brought a level of credibility and emotion to Kharis and he made him more relatable.

The problem with this and this branch of the Universal Monsters’ tree is that these films almost blend together too much. There isn’t a lot that sets each one apart and they feel like a retelling over and over again. It is hard to make the Mummy character as compelling as the other Monsters as it is really just a slow moving guy in bandages that wobbles around and moans. Yes, it is a scary concept, especially at the time it came out but it is the most one-dimensional of the Universal Monsters.

Lon Chaney Jr. did a good job and he owned the role probably more so than Boris Karloff did. Besides, Karloff was barely in bandages and spent most of his film playing an Egyptian dude in disguise.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944):

Release Date: July 7th, 1944
Directed by: Reginald Le Borg
Written by: Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames

Universal Pictures, 61 Minutes 

mummysghostReview:

Here we go again, another Mummy film.

At this point, I am growing tired of the formula and I am a pretty big old school horror aficionado. This is where I realized, that this is probably the weakest of the Universal Monsters sub-franchises.

Lon Chaney Jr. returns but even he can’t make this as interesting as I hoped it would be. I also don’t understand why Universal made the poor mummy walk up and down a steep sloped roller coaster track that led to his hideout. Why wouldn’t the evil jerk who is controlling the mummy pick easier terrain for his tortoise-like assassin?

But at least when it comes to style and cinematography, it is consistent.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944):

Release Date: December 22nd, 1944
Directed by: Leslie Goodwins
Written by: Leon Abrams, Dwight V. Babcock
Music by: William Lava, Paul Sawtell
Cast: Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine

Universal Pictures, 62 Minutes 

themummyscurseReview:

Two Mummy films in the same year? Man, wasn’t Universal getting burnt out on the most mediocre of their Monsters series? And wasn’t Lon Chaney Jr. in desperate need of a break between these movies and all the others he was pumping out?

The mummy wants his bride and that is the plot of this one. Well, that and the fact that some bad guy has nine tanna leaves once again and can therefore control Kharis to do his evil bidding.

At five deep, these films just keep blending together more and more. There is nothing to really set this film apart. Plus, these movies are so short, that it was like watching five different pilots for the same show.

But, the series is over.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming as soon as I rewatch them. Next up will be the Invisible Man series.