Film Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

Release Date: July 13th, 1977
Directed by: Don Taylor
Written by: Al Ramrus, John Herman Shaner
Based on: The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
Music by: Laurence Rosenthal
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart, Nick Cravat, Fumio Demura

Major Productions, Cinema 77, American International Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“If one is to study nature, one must become as remorseless as nature. You should know that!” – Dr. Paul Moreau

I saw this once, when I was a kid. However, I thought it was a really cool movie and it was my introduction to H. G. Wells’ work beyond just “The Invisible Man”.

In fact, I was initially excited for the 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau but between the critics and my friends trashing the hell out of the film, I ended up going into the theater, prepared for disappointment. Needless to say, I was very disappointed but I also barely remember the movie now and plan to rewatch it in the very near future.

Anyway, this is about the ’70s adaptation, which I can now say isn’t as good as the ’30s version but I do think it’s closer to the source material and more fleshed out.

Additionally, I thought that Burt Lancaster and Michael York both put in really convincing performances and they had a good rapport in the film, until shit started to go sideways. The film reveals its mysteries like a slow burn and even if you know how this story is going to go, the reveals of what’s happening on the island are still effective.

Honestly, I’ve liked York for ages but this is one of my favorite performances by him. It’s also cool seeing him be able to hang with a legend like Lancaster.

I love the practical makeup effects in this, as well, and while they are vastly improved upon in the ’90s adaptation, there is something creepier about how they’re applied, here. You still see the humanity in the faces of the distorted creatures and their eyes are utilized well, speaking through their disfigurements.

This actually stands up to time, fairly well. In fact, it’s similar to how the original Planet of the Apes movies utilized similar effects that have also stood the test of time in spite of the limitations of the era in which they were made.

All in all, this was pretty damn cool to experience again, so many years later.

Rating: 6.75/10

Film Review: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Release Date: June 27th, 1957
Directed by: Alexander Mackendrick
Written by: Clifford Odets, Ernest Lehman
Based on: Sweet Smell of Success by Ernest Lehmen
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene

Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, United Artists, 96 Minutes

Review:

“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” – Sidney Falco

Sweet Smell of Success teamed up Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, who also served as one of the film’s producers. We also get powerful performances from the sweet Susan Harrison and the cool Martin Milner, who is believable as a jazz guitarist.

The film revolves around an older brother (Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, a well respected newspaper columnist) that disapproves of his sister’s boyfriend and puts in motion a very complicated and layered scheme just to try and break the couple up. He bullies Manhattan press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) into planting a false rumor about the jazz guitarist boyfriend that paints him as a dope-smoking Communist. Hunsecker would then try to rescue the boyfriend’s reputation and assuming that his help would be rejected by the jazz man, his sister would then see the guitarist as a loser and leave him. Of course, this is film-noir and things never play out well for the schemers.

One thing that really stands out with this film is the dialogue. It is a well written script that is witty and feels authentic. When the characters speak, they don’t just sound like classic silver screen archetypes of some bygone era of overly dramatic Hollywood gum flappers. Characters are written as characters that come off as extensions of the actors themselves and not just cookie cutter lines that could be spoken by any handsome star available. It feels as if there was some real method acting on the part of the cast, as well as on set rewrites or ad libbing.

Expanding off of that, the acting is absolutely superb and this should be a primer on how to carry scenes. The stuff with Curtis and Lancaster is amazing. Harrison also impresses, especially in the scenes where she plays alongside the two male leads. The film’s finale is so well acted and plays out magnificently. Your heart breaks for Harrison’s Susan, as the consequences of the two men’s actions ruin her life and push her towards suicidal thoughts.

Serious props have to go to Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, the writers, for giving these great actors something exceptional to work with. The directorial work of Alexander Mackendrick, also can’t go unmentioned. He was an accomplished man behind the camera and this may be his best work, even though he boasts some well known pictures in his filmography: The LadykillersWhisky Galore! and The Man In the White Suit, just to name a few.

With all the talent in front of the camera, behind it and on the typewriter, there was also a great man in charge of the picture’s cinematography: James Wong Howe. He is an artist that received ten Academy Awards nominations for his cinematography work. He specialized in deep-focus cinematography and was a real artist with his use of shadows and a chiaroscuro style. He actually went on to win two Oscars for his work on The Rose Tattoo and Hud.

At its core, this is both a film about amoral people and the wreckage they cause, as well as being an artistic dissection of fame and the power of the media. It was a film ahead of its time and its message still rings true today. The film has aged well and fame hungry weirdos should probably learn the lessons that are taught here. However, morality lessons would probably be over the heads of most of those people.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: The Killers (1946)

Also known as: Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, A Man Alone
Release Date: August 28th, 1946
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Richard Brooks, Anthony Veiller, John Huston (uncredited)
Based on: Scribners Magazine short story The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Garner, Edmond O’Brien, Sam Levene

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“If there’s one thing in this world I hate, it’s a double-crossing dame.” – Big Jim Colfax

In the 1940s, Robert Siodmak made some of the most memorable film-noir motion pictures. The Killers is considered to not just be one of Siodmak’s best but one of the best films of the noir style and of the decade.

The Killers is really high up on a lot of the noir lists I have looked at from top critics, blogs, books and magazines. I thoroughly enjoyed it but I wouldn’t say that it was my favorite Siodmak noir, as of now, that honor goes to Criss Cross. However, I still haven’t seen Phantom Lady or The Dark Mirror yet.

I have enjoyed Siodmak’s work for a long time but as a kid it was primarily in the form of Son of Dracula and The Crimson Pirate. I was much more into horror and swashbuckling back then but my experience with those films had me enthused when I realized that the guy who directed both of those films, had a handful of noir movies wedged between them.

This film stars Burt Lancaster, a regular of Siodmak. This was also his debut on the big screen and for a first time performance, Lancaster knocks it out of the park. He was teamed with film-noir regulars Edmond O’Brien and Sam Levene. However, it was his scenes with the elegant and fascinating Ava Gardner that helped to set this guy’s career on a long and fruitful career that saw four Academy Award nominations and a win for his part in Elmer Gantry.

The Killers is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. However, the Hemingway story only really comprises the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, which shows the contract killers arrive and murder Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” Anderson. Where the film begins to follow Edmond O’Brien’s Jim Reardon, as he investigates the murder, the plot is wholly original and works as an expansion on Hemingway’s story. It was said, by Hemingway’s biographer, that The Killers “was the first film from any of his works that Ernest could genuinely admire.” John Huston, also an accomplished film-noir director, contributed to the script. He wasn’t originally credited for his contribution due to his contract with rival studio, Warner Bros.

With crime dramas running rampant in the 1940s, this is one that wasn’t a cliché on celluloid. While I love film-noir and I honestly have a hard time trying to find truly bad ones, sometimes the rehash of tropes, over and over and over again, can get mundane. The Killers, like Siodmak’s Criss Cross, is one of the films that lifts the cinematic style to a higher level. Plus, with a score composed by Miklós Rózsa, you can expect a lot of energy, excitement and a real soul within the film.

I love The Killers, it is hard to deny its greatness between the solid direction, iconic performances and its pristine look.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Criss Cross (1949)

Release Date: January 19th, 1949 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Criss Cross by Don Tracy
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Alan Napier

Universal Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“I should have been a better friend. I shoulda stopped you. I shoulda grabbed you by the neck, I shoulda kicked your teeth in. I’m sorry Steve.” – Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez

Working my way through a lot of film-noir for the month of Noirvember, this is one of the ones that really stands out. In fact, Criss Cross could be a top five noir for me.

Burt Lancaster plays Steve Thompson. He is perfectly cast for this film, as he literally lives in every scene where he is on screen. He’s handsome, he’s tough, he’s clever and there is just an air about the guy that glows through the celluloid.

Then you have Dan Duryea, who is just so good at playing stylish slime balls. While I enjoyed Duryea’s work in Fritz Lang’s Woman In the Window and Scarlet Street, both opposite of Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson, his villainous Slim Dundee, in this film, takes the cake. He’s an awful bastard in this and he’s spectacular.

Yvonne De Carlo is enchanting and viscous as Steve’s ex-wife and forced lover of Slim. She plays a hardened woman yet still a damsel in distress… or is that just her angle? While she had to compete with two powerful and charismatic men in this film, she held her own and felt at home in this picture.

The film starts with a powerful theme, as soon as the credits roll. You immediately get dragged in and watching the behind-the-scenes machinations of how the armored truck driver job works, is fascinating. The director, the great Robert Siodmak, and the cinematographer, the veteran Franz Planer, did a fantastic job showing this world in a visual sense. Plus, there are just some great shots in this film, particularly when the armored truck arrives at the plant for the big setup and we get a nice bird’s eye tracking shot of the truck traversing between the buildings.

Criss Cross is a true film-noir in every sense. It’s got the lead that falls for a textbook femme fatale, gets in over his head because of the girl, does some dirt and despite his unfortunate circumstances, has to face the music for his actions.

This isn’t a great film because it has a perfect noir narrative, many noir pictures hit the right narrative notes. In the case of Criss Cross, it has a great cast, a great director and cinematographer with great eyes, it’s great technically and everything just sort of comes together like magic.

Criss Cross is one of the best film-noirs of the classic era.

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: Brute Force (1947)

Release Date: June 30th, 1947
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Richard Brooks, Robert Patterson
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Ella Raines, Charles McGraw (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 98 Minutes

Review:

“[to Captain Munsey] That’s why you’d never resign from this prison. Where else whould you find so many helpless flies to stick pins into?” – Dr. Walters

Brute Force was directed by Jules Dassin, who did a hamdful of noir pictures, all of them pretty interesting in their own regard. He always brought a sense of authenticity and realism to his pictures. This one is unusual, as it takes place in a prison and the only time we really leave the confines of the cold walls and steel bars is through flashbacks of life before incarceration.

The film starts off with a bang, as we are treated to ominous shots of the prison and a pounding yet beautiful score by Miklós Rózsa. The whole vibe in the first few shots reminds me a lot of the experience of playing the first Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, except shown in a film-noir visual style.

Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn both star in this and both actors are absolutely magnificent. Lancaster plays a prisoner that wants to escape, as his wife is dying of cancer. Cronyn plays the head prison guard and truly is the embodiment of evil, as he is a power hungry maniac ruling over the men in the penitentiary with a strong arm and a heavy club.

Ultimately, I thought that this film would defy the morality censors of the time but the old adage that crime doesn’t pay is still made very apparent in this picture. I wouldn’t say that the film has a predictable ending and for something from the 1940s it has a much harder edge than  you might expect. The big finale is especially satisfying for those wanting a film-noir with serious gravitas and without fear of pushing the envelope too far.

The characters are well written with diverse personalities that make each one stand out in their own way. The camaraderie between the prisoners feels genuine and you care about Lancaster’s criminal crew more intimately than you would background players in other films from this era.

The movie is well shot with nice cinematography by William Daniels, who also worked on the underrated Lured, as well as Naked City, which was also directed by Jules Dassin. He gave the prison life, even if it felt dead, cold and overbearing.

Brute Force was a surprise for me. I expected something fairly decent with Dassin at the helm and with Lancaster and Cronyn in front of the camera. What I experienced was something much better than the norm with bigger balls than the 1940s typically allowed on the silver screen.

Rating: 8/10