Film Review: The Prowler (1981)

Also known as: Most Likely to Die (working title), Pitchfork Massacre (reissue title), Rosemary’s Killer, The Graduation (alternate titles)
Release Date: November 6th, 1981
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Written by: Neal Barbera, Glenn Leopold
Music by: Richard Einhorn
Cast: Vicky Dawson, Farley Granger, Lawrence Tierney, Christopher Goutman

Graduation Films, Sandhurst, 89 Minutes, 87 Minutes (edited cut)

Review:

“I want you to be my date, Rose.” – The Prowler

I haven’t watched The Prowler in a long time but I did like it enough to rent with some regularity when I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. I also thought that “The Prowler” had a really cool look. The best slashers always have a cool outfit and a unique gimmick. This is the same reason why I love the bad guy in My Bloody Valentine. Like that movie, this is a film that isn’t spectacular but is made better by having a cool killer.

The film starts with a prologue that takes place in the 1940s. It is used to setup a connection between that time and modern times (or 1981 when the movie was released).

As is typical, someone is murdering young hot girls. It’s a big mystery and the murders are gruesome. You’ve probably seen this all before, maybe dozens of times, and there isn’t much to set this movie apart from its competition but slashers are rarely great and fans of these films don’t watch them expecting to experience a masterpiece like Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho.

Compared to some other films in the slasher genre, this one is a bit tame. Yes, there’s stabbings and gruesome murders but this is nowhere near as gory as some of the harder stuff out there. It certainly can’t compete with something like the Spanish slasher Pieces.

Surprisingly, this was a one and done slasher picture and didn’t churn out a bunch of sequels. But I guess that this early in the genre, studios were more into just making slasher pictures in general and not developing franchises. Friday the 13th only had one movie when this was made and A Nightmare On Elm Street was still three years away. The early ’80s were full of these one and done slasher pictures.

There isn’t much else to point out with this movie other than mentioning that it had two classic film-noir actors in it: Farley Granger and Lawrence Tierney. Modern film fans probably know Tierney best as Joe Cabot, the mob boss, from Reservoir Dogs.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Other early ’80s slashers: The BurningPiecesMy Bloody ValnetineTerror TrainNew Year’s Evil, Happy Birthday to Me, The Mutilator, Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, The Initiation, etc.

Film Review: Strangers On a Train (1951)

Release Date: June 30th, 1951
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Ormonde
Based on: Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Patricia Hitchcock

Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law.” – Guy Haines

Alfred Hitchcock was a bit derailed before the release of Strangers On a Train. While he had had an incredibly successful career up until this point, his previous two films were box office duds. Those pictures were Under Capricorn and Stage FrightStrangers On a Train got the auteur director back on track, however, and it really set the stage for what was to come with a string of incredible pictures throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s.

This is also a Hitchcock picture that falls into the film-noir style. It even stars Farley Granger, a guy who worked in several notable noir movies: They Live by NightSide StreetEdge of Doom and Hitchcock’s own Rope.

Alongside Granger are Robert Walker and Ruth Roman, a woman who does not fit the typical Hitchcock female lead archetype, which were almost always stunning blonde women. Hitchcock had reservations about using Roman and he also didn’t feel like Granger was believable as the type of man another man would become infatuated with.

Speaking of which, this is a film with very well hidden gay undertones in it. Robert Walker’s psychotic Bruno Antony was infatuated with Granger’s Guy Haines. While it isn’t explicitly stated, when you understand that this was an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith story, it makes that aspect of the men’s relationship much more apparent. She was known for writing about gay characters and obsessive infatuation in her novels, even if they did come out in a time when the subject was incredibly taboo. It is very clear though when you see later adaptations of her work like The Talented Mr. RipleyCarolRipley’s GameRipley Under Ground and The American Friend.

The story starts with Guy, on a train, as he is approached by Bruno, a complete stranger. Bruno has a weird obsession with the young man and it doesn’t take long to realize that the guy is off his rocker. Bruno suggests that he kills Guy’s soon to be ex-wife and in exchange Guy kills Bruno’s father. It will be a perfect set of murders as neither man has a real motive to kill their victims or any personal association with them. Guy continues to try and dismiss Bruno but Bruno follows though and murders Guy’s wife. He then becomes enraged when Guy doesn’t seem like he wants to return the favor and thus, begins to blackmail Guy and try to pin the murder on him.

Strangers On a Train is a dark and twisted movie that showcases the great and intelligent Highsmith story with respect and care. It is a film that has a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera. Superb direction, stellar photography and believable actors that pull you along for this wild and intense ride. Hitchcock was the “Master of Suspense” and this movie is a perfect example of how the director earned that moniker.

There are some incredible shots in this movie. Most notably, the scene where Guy’s wife is being strangled to death and you see it from the perspective of a reflection in the lens of her glasses, lying on the ground. The special effects shot of the carousel spinning wildly out of control is another great shot and in fact, that whole big finale is a visual delight.

Strangers On a Train is not my favorite Hitchock motion picture but it is really high up on my list of his best.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Side Street (1950)

Release Date: March 23rd, 1950
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Sydney Boehm
Music by: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell, James Craig, Jean Hagen, Charles McGraw

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 83 Minutes

Review:

“New York City: an architectural jungle where fabulous wealth and the deepest squalor live side by side. New York is the busiest, the loneliest, the kindest, and the cruelest of cities – a murder a day, every day of the year and each murder will wind up on my desk.” – Captain Walter Anderson

This wasn’t the first time that Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell played a couple. They first worked together in 1948’s They Live by Night, which had a similar plot, as Granger in both of these films, is a fairly decent guy that makes a bad decision that gets him in over his head, while O’Donnell just wants to live a simple life with her man.

In this film, Granger plays Joe Norson. O’Donnell is his wife Ellen. Joe is a father-to-be and he and his wife are struggling financially. Unfortunately, Joe gives in to temptation and steals money from a lawyer’s office. The lawyer and the money has ties to the seedy underground, which puts Joe in a lot of danger, as he is on the run from gangsters and the law.

The film is directed by Anthony Mann. While he would be most remembered for the westerns he directed in the 1950s, his 1940s film-noir pictures were also pretty good. Before this, he directed T-MenRaw Deal and Border Incident. One thing that you get with a Mann picture is a profound understanding and execution of mise en scène. His films, even in the early days, featured breathtaking cinematography. He knew how to capture mood, tone and real grittiness. He was also innovative in shooting action, something that Side Street has a good amount of, especially the car chase during the grand finale of the movie.

Farley Granger is perfect as these sort of kindhearted but foolish noir heroes. And maybe “hero” isn’t the right word, due to his early actions, but his end game is always something virtuous and he puts himself out there in an effort to get justice or to provide for those he loves. He’s not a selfish thug or a morally driven “by the book” sort of guy. Granger seems to like these roles where he is in the middle, where he isn’t innocent but his intentions are noble.

Cathy O’Donnell is always believable and perfect alongside Granger. She isn’t what one would consider film-noir gorgeous, she is just young and pretty and more like the girl next door. She always feels frail and innocent but somehow musters up genuine courage and stands by her man in the worst of situations.

The cast also includes Jean Hagen, who isn’t around long but made a big impact in this. In fact, her performance here, led to being cast in another classic noir, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.

Side Street is a bit underrated, in my opinion, as it offers up some great scenes, great acting and pulls you into this world emotionally. You want to see Joe succeed and to get out of his perilous situation, even if it was his own fault. The film is also magnificently shot and presented. The chase scene through real city streets was definitely a high point and set this film on a different level in regards to how it achieved its dynamic action.

Rating: 8/10

Film Review: They Live by Night (1948)

Release Date: August, 1948 (London)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take steps a block long. Anyone gets in my way, I’ll stomp ’em!” – Chickamaw

While They Live by Night isn’t my favorite Nicholas Ray picture, it was the start of his career and was a much better film than most director’s first efforts.

The film is also a sort of prototype to Bonnie and Clyde, not officially, but it shares a very similar narrative about two lovers on the run from the law. However, the original novel could have been inspired by the real life Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in 1934, just three years before the novel Thieves Like Us was published.

The story starts with some prison escapees fleeing towards freedom in 1930s Mississippi. The men decided to rob a bank. One of them, a young man named Bowie, was wrongfully convicted of murder and feels that he can use the money from the bank heist to pay for a lawyer that can prove his innocence.

Things go sideways, Bowie is hurt and finds refuge with the daughter of a gas station owner. The two fall in love and plan to live an honest life away from all the crime and violence. Keechie, the girl, gets pregnant but at the same time, the two men from Bowie’s gang return, demanding his help. Of course, things go sideways again.

The film was well shot and very well directed and it even featured some innovations. For instance, the helicopter shot during the opening credits was pretty unique for 1948 and it kicked this film off with a lot of energy. Also, being a mostly noir picture, it leaves behind the genre’s typical tight interior sets and spends a good amount of time in the wide open spaces of the rural Mid-South, the same geographical region where Bonnie and Clyde committed their robbery spree. They Live by Night is a wide open picture compared to most of the films like it.

The starring duo of Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger were pretty much newcomers to the big screen but they held their own and their love for one another seemed genuine. O’Donnell was especially good and you feel nothing but sadness for her, as she is thrown into a heartbreaking and perilous situation.

They Live by Night is a very well made motion picture. There isn’t a whole lot that you can say about it that could be negative. It has a good director, nice cinematography, treads some original ground and has good acting. If you like Bonnie and Clyde, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Nicholas Ray would go on to make some better movies but this one still holds a special place.

Film Review: Rope (1948)

Release Date: August 26th, 1948 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents
Based on: Rope by Patrick Hamilton
Music by: Leo F. Forbstein, David Buttolph, Francis Poulenc
Cast: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Joan Chandler, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson

Transatlantic Pictures, Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 80 Minutes

Review:

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a film I am on the fence with. Generally, I like the picture but it has some issues, mostly with the narrative, that bothered me.

It certainly isn’t as refined and near perfect as Rear WindowNorth By NorthwestPsychoVertigo or The Birds but it does display some of the same stylistic approaches and tropes of those films. Rope also predates the youngest of those films by six years.

My real issue with the narrative is that the overall plot is just kind of silly. To surmise, two Ivy League students murder their friend in an apartment. Their motive is to commit the perfect murder with no real motive because without a motive, they can’t be discovered. It is also revealed that the two boys have strong elitist attitudes in which they believe that they exist in society on a level above all others. Therefore, any sort of suspicion against them, in their minds, is impossible.

The murderous boys then hide the body in a trunk and cover it with a table cloth where they plan to hide it, as party guests are on their way to the apartment. The rest of the movie deals with philosophical discussions about social classes mixed in with the realization that the murder victim is late to the party and that he’s a responsible person and always on time. This makes James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell, a housemaster at the boys’ school, very concerned and later, suspicious.

As the film moves on, one of the boys acts so blatantly guilty and strange that it is a dead giveaway that something happened. It is almost too convenient how much the boy gives away and points the finger at himself. As the party goes on, the boy stupidly provides clues and eventually loses his grip completely. While leaving the party, Cadell is mistakenly given the victim’s hat and thus, he knows something is definitely awry.

Ultimately, the story is really just a device to examine some philosophical points. Rope gives us some good debates in regards to social classes and morality and how the two interact. It also leads us to a point where Cadell’s words and lessons to the young students come back to haunt him in a way he never theorized. Rope is essentially a film about how words can take on very different meanings in the minds of other people. In the case of this film, those people happen to be evil.

From a technical standpoint, the film is comprised of a series of long takes and the entire film takes place in one confined space: the apartment of one of the killers. The film is comprised of just 11 takes over its 80 minutes, two of those takes being ten minutes long: the length of a reel of film at the time. A few of the edits are very noticeable for their deliberate attempt at cleverness but they feel a bit hokey, most notably the cut where the camera zooms into a suit jacket only to cut as the suit jacket then moves away from the camera. Ultimately, I feel as if this was more of an experiment in style for Hitchcock.

Rope is a compelling picture in regards to its philosophical tones but it falls short of Hitchcock’s later films. That isn’t to say that it isn’t a fairly fabulous movie, it is. Unfortunately, it seems like a rough cut of what could have been a much better picture.

I tend to hold Alfred Hitchcock to a specific standard; Rope just falls short of that standard.