Film Review: Grand Central Murder (1942)

Release Date: May, 1942
Directed by: S. Sylvan Simon
Written by: Peter Ruric
Based on: Grand Central Murder by Sue MacVeigh
Music by: David Snell
Cast: Van Heflin, Patricia Dane, Sam Levene, Cecilia Parker, Virginia Grey, Tom Conway

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 73 Minutes

Review:

“Where were you raised? Didn’t anyone ever tell you its bad luck to whistle in a dressing room?” – Mida King, “I’m sorry miss, I… I was raised in a cattle boat, where folks whistle when they feel like it, including the cows!” – Whistling Messenger

Grand Central Murder is an example of a very early noir picture just before the style really started to take shape. It’s also a comedy and because of that, isn’t a straight crime picture but more of a tongue-in-cheek, amusing take on the evolving crime genre.

This sits just between the super popular gangster films that ruled the ’30s and the noir boom that happened in the mid-’40s. It also stars Van Heflin, who might just be the perfect guy to be featured front and center in a film that works as a bridge during this stylistic shift.

While I liked the amusing bits, I think that this would’ve been a much better and actually, really good, crime picture had it played it straight.

What I did like about this movie is that it doesn’t waste time and it moves at a brisk pace getting from point-to-point without trying to pad itself out with a bunch of filler. Even with the comedic moments, the film still flows like a steady river and picks up the right sort of momentum, leading into the climax.

Like a typical noir picture, it has a mystery that comes with some swerves. But I thought that the reveal and the solving of the crime was well done, especially in a time where this picture couldn’t be influenced by all of the other films like it. For the most part, those films didn’t exist yet.

Granted, I can’t necessarily call it an intelligent film but it’s more than competent and it certainly entertained this noir buff for 73 minutes.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other very early film-noir pictures.

Film Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Release Date: July 9th, 1942 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Cast: Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Don Dillaway, Orson Welles (narrator)

Mercury Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 88 Minutes, 148 Minutes (original cut), 131 Minutes (preview version)

Review:

“Something had happened. A thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last; George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.” – Narrator

While this is considered to be one of Orson Welles’ all-time classic motion picture masterpieces, I was somewhat underwhelmed by it.

The main reason is because it felt like it needed more meat and potatoes. The story was a bit skeletal and I felt like I needed to know the characters on a deeper level to be more invested into the story and their lives.

However, this problem with the film isn’t really the fault of Welles, as his original cut was 148 minutes, not the 88 minutes that this ended up being. Had this film had that extra hour, I think it would’ve been a much richer, more intimate and more complete body of work that could’ve possibly lived up to the iconic status of Welles’ previous film, Citizen Kane.

Still, most professional film critics today seem to have a very positive view on this film and apart from the issue I already mentioned, it’s easy to see why.

The film is absolutely stunning and beautiful. This “magnificent” world looks authentic and lived in. The sets are perfect but even more than that, the lighting, cinematography, shot framing and general mise-en-scène are stupendous. But coming off of Citizen Kane, Welles’ had already proven himself as an absolute maestro of cinematic craftsmanship and artistry. This honestly just adds even more credibility to the man’s legendary, iconic status as a filmmaker and visionary.

Additionally, the picture is superbly acted with Welles’ regular star, Joseph Cotton, taking the lead but also having solid assists from Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and others. Also, Welles’ narration adds an extra level of magic to the film.

All those solid positives aside, though, it still suffers from a lack of depth and context. The film is full of many characters, all of whom are interesting, but only a few really get explored at length. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Welles’ intent but the finished film is somewhat diminished but this.

Ultimately, this is still a very good, almost great, motion picture. But it also makes me yearn for what could have been had Welles’ intended vision actually made it to the silver screen.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other early Orson Welles pictures.

Film Review: Casablanca (1942)

Also known as: Everybody Comes to Rick’s (original script title)
Release Date: November 26th, 1942 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Based on: Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
Music by: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Warner Bros., 102 Minutes, 82 Minutes (cut version)

Review:

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” – Rick

As much as I love Humphrey Bogart, noir-esque pictures of the classic era and the films of Michael Curtiz, I’m still going to be that oddball that says that this film is slightly overrated.

Don’t get me wrong, I still adore Casablanca and it has left the universe with possibly more famous lines than any other motion picture but it’s not perfect, even if I still see it as a cinematic masterpiece.

I also can’t fully quantify or elaborately explain why I don’t view it as “perfect” but I kind of just put that on the fact that it’s not a film I really want to revisit all that often. In fact, as much as I do actually like it, I put off reviewing it for a long time because I just wasn’t ever in the right mood for it.

Full disclosure, I was also waiting to revisit it on the big screen but it’s one of those all-time classics that hasn’t played on the big screen in my area since before I started Talking Pulp. If my local theater plays Gigi one more time over anything else, I’m going to throw popcorn bucket at the theater director.

Moving on, as much as I like Bogart, I wouldn’t call this his best performance. It’s absolutely exceptional but I still think it falls below his acting in 1950’s A Lonely Place. Bogart was always on his A-game though, and this film is no different and it still ranks up towards the top of greatest acting performances of all-time from any era.

I also really liked Ingrid Bergman in this and it made me realize that I need to go back and watch some of her other films, as this is the first thing I’ve reviewed with her in it. Her performance in Notorious was also top notch and that may be the first one I revisit.

The film also features Conrad Veidt, a guy mostly known for his work in the silent era. In fact, his role in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs was so chilling and iconic, it inspired the creation of The Joker, Batman’s top nemesis. In Casablanca, it is really neat hearing him speak and seeing him have to act in a different style, as he plays a Nazi commander and primary antagonist in the story.

Claude Rains and Peter Lorre also show up and both men are legends of not just the horror genre but of motion pictures in general, as their range is far greater than just playing silver screen monsters.

More than just the stupendous acting and fabulous story, the film’s greatest asset was its director, Michael Curtiz. The man is a legend and it definitely shows in this picture from his ability to get some of the most iconic and replicated shots in history, as well as getting performances out of his actors that eclipse even their own greatness. He also shows that he had the right crew working to achieve his vision just based off of how perfect and majestic the general cinematography, lighting and set design were.

Casablanca is a special film. It definitely deserves its historical status, even if I don’t see it as a pillar of absolute perfection. It’s still significantly better than some of the other films in history that are debated over as the best of all-time.

Rating: 9.75/10
Pairs well with: other Bogart starring pictures of the ’40s and ’50s.

Film Review: Saludos Amigos (1942)

Also known as: Hello Friends (literal English title)
Release Date: August 24th, 1942 (Rio de Janeiro premiere)
Directed by: Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, 
Written by: Homer Brightman, William Cottrell, Richard Huemer, Joe Grant, Harold Reeves, Ted Sears, Webb Smith, Roy Williams, Ralph Wright
Music by: Paul Smith, Edward H. Plumb
Cast: Lee Blair, Mary Blair, Pinto Colvig, Walt Disney, Norman Ferguson, Frank Graham, Clarence Nash, Jose Oliveira, Frank Thomas

Walt Disney Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 42 Minutes

Review:

“Here’s an unusual expedition: artists, musicians and writers setting out for a trip through Latin America to find new personalities, music and dances for their cartoon films. So, adios, Hollywood, and saludos, amigos.” – Narrator

Following five fantastic animated feature films, Disney, for some reason, decided to switch to a new playbook and started making package/anthology movies. This is the first one of those.

Saludos Amigos is pretty entertaining and kind of serves as Walt Disney’s way of promoting tourism in South America. I’m not sure why but maybe Walt just loved it down there.

This is both an educational film and a fictional one with fantastical elements and cool stories used to teach the audience about South American culture, geography and well, just about everything else.

It’s a mix of animation and live-action footage and is comprised of a few short pieces sewn together in an anthology format.

What’s cool about this is that it features some of Disney’s core animated characters like Donald Duck and Goofy and it also introduces a new one, who was really popular at the time, José Carioca, an anthropomorphic Brazilian parrot known for his dapper style.

This is the shortest of the Disney package films but it still packs in a lot for its running time.

Overall, the animation is good, the stories are quick and enjoyable and it’s a pretty lighthearted short film.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other 1940s package/anthology films.

Film Review: Bambi (1942)

Release Date: August 8th, 1942 (London premiere)
Directed by: David Hand (supervising director), James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright
Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright
Based on: Bambi, a Life In the Woods by Felix Salten
Music by: Frank Churchill, Edward H. Plumb
Cast: Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright, John Sutherland, Sam Edwards, Paula Winslowe, Sterling Holloway, Will Wright, Cammie King, Ann Gillis, Perce Pearce, Thelma Boardman

Walt Disney Animation Studios, RKO Radio Pictures, 70 Minutes

Review:

“What happened, Mother? Why did we all run?” – Young Bambi, “Man was in the forest.” – Bambi’s Mother

In spite of it’s darker moments, Bambi is one of the most peaceful and serene motion pictures ever produced. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at and Disney once again shows a leap in improvement in the fluidity of their animation.

What’s interesting is that not everything in this is hand-drawn. Most of the backgrounds and landscapes are painted but it also blends really well with the traditional animated characters. It has a wonderful, dreamlike symbiosis and even if it looks like the patented Disney style, it also has a real uniqueness to it. Frankly, the picture looks more like a painting come to life than anything they’ve done before this.

Now I wouldn’t say that it’s as an incredible as the masterpiece that was 1940’s Fantasia but it’s an impeccable looking animated feature in its own way.

As far as the story goes, this is one of the most heartbreaking films Disney has ever made. It’s effect still holds up and even if you’ve seen Bambi a dozen times over, it’s emotional moments are still a punch in the gut.

At its core, this is really a simple coming of age movie where the characters just happen to be animated animals. But their issues and struggles aren’t all that dissimilar from human beings and it’s not hard to relate to what happens onscreen.

Out of the original five pictures, I’d rank this towards the top.

After this movie, Disney got a bit more experimental and wouldn’t return with a feature length animated story until 1950’s Cinderella.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Disney’s other early animated feature films.

Film Review: The Glass Key (1942)

Release Date: September 8th, 1942 (Toronto premiere)
Directed by: Stuart Heisler
Written by: Jonathan Latimer
Based on: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett
Music by: Victor Young
Cast: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, William Bendix

Paramount Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“Hey, Rusty, Little Rubber Ball is back. I told you he liked the way we bounced him around.” – Jeff

The Glass Key was film-noir before film-noir was a thing. A lot of people consider 1944 to be the year where noir took over but there were a few films that paved the way and this was one of them. Plus, it was based off of a Dashiell Hammett novel ala The Maltese Falcon.

This also pairs Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, who worked together in seven movies, four of which were noir pictures.

For the most part, this helped set the stylistic trends of cinema for two decades. It isn’t the best noir, far from it, honestly, but it boasts pretty good cinematography, shot framing and shot motion that would become the norm.

Also, from a plot standpoint, it showcases political corruption, gangsters and a look at American life at the end of World War II. These are all tropes that would be a big part of movies well into the ’50s.

But even with all that, it doesn’t resonate with me as greatly as some of the better noirs do. I can’t deny that this was doing some solid things from a filmmaking perspective before the rest of Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon but I found the film a bit dull.

The acting was good, the film looks nice and the story had some decent curveballs thrown in but it lacked the panache and energy that would come later, as the noir style really took hold.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: the other noir films featuring both Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.

Film Review: This Gun for Hire (1942)

Release Date: April 24th, 1942 (Denver premiere)
Directed by: Frank Tuttle
Written by: Albert Maltz, W.R. Burnett
Based on: A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
Music by: David Buttolph
Cast: Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd

Paramount Pictures, 81 Minutes

Review:

“You are trying to make me go soft. Well, you can save it. I don’t go soft for anybody.” – Philip Raven

I feel like this picture doesn’t get the respect it deserves for establishing the noir genre and style. A lot of people don’t want to consider anything that came out before Double Indemnity as true film-noir but that’s bullshit. In fact, I consider Fritz Lang’s M from 1931 to be a part of the genre, even if it predates the era by a decade and was a movie made in Germany.

This Gun for Hire predates Double Indemnity by two years but it also came out a year after The Maltese Falcon and if you don’t consider that classic noir, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Plus, this movie stars Veronica Lake in her prime; that alone screams noir.

I really like the story in this too, as it puts Lake’s character between a rock and a hard place. She’s really just an innocent woman wrapped up with trying to reason with a killer that doesn’t have her in his sights but is hunting down the man who double-crossed him.

In part, the film is a character study of Alan Ladd’s Philip Raven, who confides in Lake’s Ellen about his past and how he fell into a very shady and violent life. Ellen wants to save Raven from himself but this is film-noir and it’s very rare that the bad guy ever gets off scott free.

There are typical noir twists and they make this a pretty layered and exciting film from start to finish. Things escalate quite a bit as the picture rolls on and it’s not entirely clear as to whether or not Ellen could also have a bad fate just for trying to save Raven from himself.

I think that the fact that this has a great plot is due to it being an adaptation of a Graham Greene story. Every film based off of his work that I’ve seen has always given me a pleasurable experience.

Additionally, this encompasses the noir vibe in its visual style. The credit for that goes to cinematographer John F. Seitz, a guy who won seven Academy Awards before he hung it up.

Sure, director Frank Tuttle also deserves credit, as he brought all the pieces together and really got superb performances out of Veronica Lake, Robert Preston and Alan Ladd. Not to say that these three aren’t always more than capable.

This Gun for Hire isn’t a film-noir that gets talked about as much as some of the more famous pictures but some of those better movies probably wouldn’t have existed in their same form if it wasn’t for this trendsetting motion picture that was just a few years ahead of its time.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key, Murder, My Sweet, Criss Cross and Phantom Lady.

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.

Rating: 9/10