Film Review: Clash by Night (1952)

Release Date: May 30th, 1952 (limited)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Alfred Hayes
Based on: Clash by Night by Clifford Odets
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, Marilyn Monroe, Keith Andes, Silvio Minciotti, J. Carrol Naish

Wald/Krasna Productions, RKO Radio Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.” – Mae Doyle

While I love the hell out of Fritz Lang movies, especially his noir films, as well as just about anything that Barbara Stanwyck has done, this film mostly missed the mark for me.

This also has Marilyn Monroe and Robert Ryan in it too but regardless of the film’s star power, I found it mostly dull and sort of wrecked by Paul Douglas, who had me wanting to kill him by the third act of the picture.

Now I haven’t seen much with Paul Douglas in it, except for the original Angels In the Outfield, but he really started grating on my nerves due to how overly intense he was once he lost his shit due to his wife running around with Robert Ryan behind his back.

Sure, I understand the guy would be pissed but he wrecks the scenes he’s in by acting like a bull in a china shop. That might not be Douglas’ fault though, as Lang probably thought that it was effective, as he was sitting behind the camera directing these scenes. I guess my biggest issue with it is that it pulls you out of the picture and diminishes the great performance by Stanwyck, who felt like she was whispering her lines next to a madman with a bullhorn.

Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with Douglas’ character and maybe that’s just the magic of it all and Fritz Lang got the performance that he wanted out of him. And maybe I didn’t see how effective it was until that final scene that closed out the film, which had a surprisingly pleasant conclusion and made my heart warm for the two leads.

This isn’t the type of noir I fancy the most, however, as I like gritty crime stories. This one is more about a woman that creates human wreckage in her wake but starts to realize that she’s found something she didn’t even know she needed. Unfortunately for her, at least at first, she learns this way too late, after her selfish impulses have caused a lot of damage.

For those who prefer noir pictures that focus more on human romance, this will most assuredly be your cup of tea. It’s hard to deny how great Stanwyck, Ryan, Monroe and J. Carrol Naish are in this. And while this isn’t close to Fritz Lang’s best, you leave the film fairly satisfied with how it all turns out, which is kind of odd and unique for the noir genre.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other classic film-noir pictures of the era, especially those featuring Barbara Stanwyck or Robert Ryan or directed by Fritz Lang.

Film Review: Humoresque (1946)

Release Date: December 25th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jean Negulesco
Written by: Clifford Odets, Zachary Gold
Based on: Humoresque: A Laugh On Life with a Tear Behind It by Fannie Hurst
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant, J. Carrol Naish, Joan Chandler

Warner Bros., 125 Minutes

Review:

“Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?” – Sid Jeffers

I wasn’t sure what to think about this film going into it, as I didn’t know much about it. It pops up on a lot of film-noir lists but if I’m being honest, it’s barely film-noir.

At its core, Humoresque is a romantic drama with a nice musical touch to it, as John Garfield’s character is a well renowned violinist, whose musical career is central to the plot.

The film stars Joan Crawford as an alcoholic socialite mess that is enamored with Garfield’s violin skills to the point that she pretty much starts managing his career.

As the film rolls on, she falls in love with him and we get a bunch of turbulence that ultimately ends pretty darkly.

I think the noir aspects of the film are the cinematography and the twists and turns of the plot. Even though this is focused on romance and business instead of crime and murder, it does have strong similarities to the noir style.

Plus, Crawford dabbled in film-noir quite a bit and this fits better with her noir work than many of her other films.

The acting was absolutely stellar and Crawford was exceptional from your first glance at her up until that powerful final moment.

This isn’t really my cup of tea but I still enjoyed it for the performances, the music and the visual style. It’s certainly a very well made motion picture and I can understand why it’s beloved by some classic film aficionados.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other Joan Crawford noir-esque pictures: The Damned Don’t Cry, Mildred Pierce and Possessed.

Film Serial Review: Batman (1943)

Release Date: July 16th, 1943 (first chapter)
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Written by: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser
Based on: Batman created by Bob Kane
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson

Columbia Pictures, 260 Minutes total (15 episodes)

Review:

The first time that Batman hit the big screen wasn’t 1989’s Batman or the 1966 Batman film based on the hit television series. It was actually way back in 1943 when Batman was only four years-old. Batman is a 15 chapter serial produced by Columbia Pictures and it went on to inspire a sequel and paved the way for a ton of future Batman films and television series for generations.

Lewis Wilson has the distinction of being the first live action Batman, while Douglas Croft is the first Robin. The villain was not from the comics however. Instead it was a Japanese secret agent named Dr. Daka and was played by J. Carrol Naish. The cast is rounded out by Golden Age Bruce Wayne love interest Linda Page (played by Shirley Patterson) and the famous Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by William Austin).

Like pretty much every action adventure serial, it is broken up into several chapters, each featuring a cliffhanger that wouldn’t be resolved until the following episode was released.

The highlight of this serial is the cinematography. It is well shot and really captures the advantages of black and white film. It uses a lot of contrast, shadows and highlights. The opening scene of the first chapter looks fantastic, as Batman sits at a desk in the dark Batcave with the silhouettes of bats flapping around.

The costumes are pretty good for the era. Although, Robin’s mask is a bit too big and Batman’s ears look more like devil horns. Although, it is pretty consistent with the look of early Batman comics. Unfortunately though, there is no Batmobile; our heroes just drive around in a normal car.

Batman and Robin aren’t as good at fighting as they would later become. They have trouble tangling with normal mobsters but in the end, they still win.

Dr. Daka is an okay and passable villain for a serial but he is just a white guy in yellowface. While common for the time, especially being that this was made and released while we were at war with Japan, it just doesn’t play well today. It is really just a reminder of the racism in the entertainment of that era.

All in all, Batman is a fun serial. It is well executed, well shot and pretty artistic in its presentation. It is certainly worth a look for hardcore Batman fans.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: Universal Monsters, Part I – The Frankenstein Series (1931-1944)

I decided to rewatch all of the old Universal Monsters films. I wanted to rank them all for a list (which I already posted) but while I was watching them, I figured that I’d review them too.

The Frankenstein series is the first one I have watched this go around and it starts with two films that are arguably the best out of all the Universal Monsters films.

Well, let me just get into the reviews.

Frankenstein (1931):

Release Date: November 21st, 1931
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, Robert Florey, John Russell
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Bernard Kaun
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

frankenstein-1931Review:

Frankenstein is pretty damned close to a masterpiece. It was directed by James Whale, who was a legend most known for this film and its first sequel but had a catalog that reached outside of horror and encompassed many styles and genres. Unfortunately, most of his work is unknown today and has fallen into obscurity, but I was lucky enough to have a friend that showed me some of his other work.

This film also introduced us to Boris Karloff and his interpretation of the monster, which has gone on to become the definitive version of the character, as people today are still most familiar with Karloff’s makeup and overall visual style and behavior.

The film sets the tone that would be well represented and maintained throughout the other Frankenstein films. It borrows heavily in style from the silent German Expressionist films of the early 1920s – most notably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) as well as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Granted, this was a bit of a modernization and a more realistic interpretation of that style, but it does carry that same sort of German Expressionist vibe into a new decade and presents it to a new audience on another continent.

The acting by Boris Karloff as the monster is spectacular. The real gems of this film however are Colin Clive as Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his sidekick Fritz played by horror icon Dwight Frye (who also played Renfield in Universal’s 1931 Dracula film).

This film is perfection for its time but it was eclipsed by its first sequel, which I will review now.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935):

Release Date: April 22nd, 1935 (Los Angeles Premiere)
Directed by: James Whale
Written by: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Ernest Thesiger

Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes 

bride_of_frankensteinReview:

How do you take a legendary film, which was already legendary just four years after its release, and attempt to top it? Well, you stick to the formula and style that made the original successful and you up the ante without compromising the original vision. Bride of Frankenstein is a great answer to the popular question, “Name one sequel better than the original.”

First of all, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive are back. The film is missing Dwight Frye as Fritz (he plays a less dynamic character in this one) but it gains much more with the additions of Ernest Thesiger as the villainous Dr. Pretorious and Elsa Lanchester as the title character of the film. Lanchester does double duty however, as she also portrays original Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in the opening scene of the film.

This movie takes the tone and style of the original and magnifies it. James Whale created a beautiful world in his original film and expands on its magnificence in this chapter. Bride of Frankenstein should be required viewing for any film studies class, as well as any real art class (in addition to some of the German Expressionist films it is certainly an homage to).

This film is unique, especially for its time, in that it is a true sequel that goes beyond just the material it is based on. It revisits Shelley’s concept in a new way and expands on it. While purists may not consider it true to the nature, tone and overall point of Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel, it explores uncharted territory nonetheless and does so with gusto and style and although being limited in scope and the production value of the era it was created in, it is a near flawless companion piece to the ideas of the original tale – one of the greatest novels ever written.

Son of Frankenstein (1939):

Release Date: January 13th, 1939
Directed by: Rowland V. Lee
Written by: Wyllis Cooper
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Frank Skinner
Cast: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi

Universal Pictures, 99 Minutes 

son_of_frankensteinReview:

So what do you do when you lose Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and the awesome additions of Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester? Well, you bring back Boris Karloff as the monster and you bring in horror legends Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. And being frank, this is one of my favorite Basil Rathbone performances of all-time.

Now this film is the start of the decline in the series but it doesn’t mean that this film and the ones after it were crap. Quite the contrary, these films are still great and play well today as classic horror masterpieces. The problem is that after the James Whale films, it was hard for Universal to replicate his quality and ability to weave a timeless tale visually – conveying emotion through the sets, the lighting, the make-up and the subtle nuances he brought forth in directing such an elite group of talent in those first two films.

Basil Rathbone owns the screen in this film as the very likable son of Henry Frankenstein named Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi is beyond fantastic as the now iconic Ygor, who wants nothing more than to control the monster in an effort to exact revenge on the townsfolk who wronged him.

I really loved the set design in this film. The use of lights and shadow brought me back to the old German Expressionist vibe even more so than James Whale’s application of the style. The style was done in a more primal and straightforward way here, which lost the lushness and complexity of Whale’s films but gained in the more obscure and supernatural atmosphere that they created. The Frankenstein house, through lighting techniques on the set was able to be inviting and haunting all at the same time. The strange non-symmetrical architecture inside, especially the staircase and its ominous shadows, were a sight to behold. You never feel quite safe or comfortable with these sets. While I prefer Whale’s refined style, this film is visually more unsettling.

Ultimately, this film is also another gem in Universal’s Monster catalog. Then again, this is from an era where they had to try really hard to produce a bad film.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942):

Release Date: March 13th, 1942
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Scott Darling, Eric Taylor
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: Hans J. Salter
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers

Universal Pictures, 67 Minutes 

ghost_of_frankensteinReview:

Boris Karloff sat this one out. So who did Universal get to play the monster? Well, they went to Lon Chaney Jr., son of Lon Chaney – the man who starred in several classic Universal horror films of the 1920s. Chaney Jr. had also already played the title character in Universal’s The Wolf Man, which was released just before this film. This movie also reunited Chaney Jr. with Bela Lugosi, who also had a part in The Wolf Man. Lugosi again played Ygor, whose streak of sinister villainy was not yet over.

This film introduces us to another Frankenstein son, this time Ludwig Frankenstein – played by Cedric Hardwicke. This film also gives us the uber-talented Ralph Bellamy.

I find this film to be the weakest of the series. I still love it but it seems to be more of a rehash of the previous film with a few minor changes. The most interesting thing really is that Ygor controls the monster with a special horn he plays.

The style is still consistent but at this point it is also becoming a bit of a caricature to itself and maybe a detriment. Either that or the formula and this franchise has ran its course regardless of this still being an enjoyable piece of film history. You definitely get the vibe that this is where the franchise was just being used to milk money from pockets instead of being more concentrated on making great films like the ones that preceded it.

House of Frankenstein (1944):

Release Date: December 15th, 1944 (New York City Premiere)
Directed by: Erle C. Kenton
Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr., Curt Siodmak
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Dracula by Bram Stoker
Music by: Hans J. Salter, Paul Dessau
Cast: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, J. Carrol Naish

Universal Pictures, 71 Minutes 

house_of_frankensteinReview:

How does one jump the shark before that was even a term Hollywood knew anything about? Well, you jam pack as many monsters and stars into one film as you possibly can because if you own the rights to a bunch of monsters, why not have them duke it out in a free-for-all? And honestly, at this point in the Universal Monsters timeline, across all their multiple horror franchises, this pretty much had to happen in order to keep things fresh and interesting.

Boris Karloff returns but this time he is a mad scientist with a hunchback assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, who is brilliant in this film, as you really pull for him and then find yourself somewhat distraught after he goes over the edge in the end.

Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as the Wolf Man, John Carradine shows up as Count Dracula (a role he would also play in House of Dracula a year later).

This film plays like an anthology piece, where the first half of the film follows the Dracula story and the second half follows the Wolf Man story while Frankenstein is mostly on a table the whole film and doesn’t do much. It isn’t as epic as the Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man confrontation between the two characters, which was released the year prior to this (and will be reviewed when I cover The Wolf Man series of films in an upcoming post).

I like this film, even though this is where things just got silly.

More Universal Monsters reviews are coming. Next up will be the Dracula series.