Film Review: Nightfall (1956)

Release Date: November 9th, 1956 (UK)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Stirling Silliphant
Based on: Nightfall by David Goodis
Music by: George Duning, Morris Stoloff
Cast: Aldo Ray, Brian Keith, Anne Bancroft, Jocelyn Brando

A Copa Production, Columbia Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“Anyway, I’m scared. You don’t know what it is to live with your back against the wall, Marie. Inside you change. You really change.” – James Vanning

Jacques Tourneur was always a solid director, so I definitely wanted to check out this film-noir picture of his, as I hadn’t yet seen it. Plus, it was part of the Criterion Channel’s Columbia Noir featured category and I’m trying to work through all of the films on that list that I haven’t yet seen.

I jumped on this one because I like Tourneur and I also wanted to see something with Anne Bancroft that came out much earlier than her most famous role as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate.

Tourneur had a great eye and a real understanding of cinematography, lighting and shot framing. He was a maestro of mise en scène, which is very apparent in his earlier horror films: Cat People, I Walk With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and his most famous noir: the Robert Mitchum starring Out of the Past.

Nightfall is no different and frankly, it’s a fabulous looking picture with a meticulous attention to detail in a visual sense. It looks crisp, pristine and the silvery hues are greatly accented by a mostly subdued but pretty apparent chiaroscuro presentation. The film uses contrast greatly, which is mostly done fairly subtly except for the wilderness scenes where the snowy landscape sort of works as a blank backdrop and pushes the characters to the forefront. The big fight at the end is the greatest example of this, as the two men fight in the snow, ending with the villain getting eaten alive by a snowplow truck. I kind of expected some black blood splatter but that was too graphic for 1956. Tourneur probably would’ve given it to us if this was one of his horror pictures though.

The film also benefits from the good chemistry between its leads: Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. Their relationship seemed natural and organic and in the early moment in the film where you feel that she set him up, your heart sinks a little bit.

Aldo Ray, who I haven’t seen in much, made me a fan with his performance here. He is a rugged man but he is able to convey a sort of gentle softness without sacrificing his masculinity. You feel for the guy and want to see him come away from this story unscathed but this is a noir picture and that’s something that rarely happens.

While you may feel a bit of frustration with Bancroft after her first encounter with Ray, she wins you back over rather quickly and even if you are waiting for that standard femme fatale double cross later in the film, she’s very easy to like. But does she turn against our hero? And does he have a happy ending? I’d rather not spoil it.

Nightfall is a much better film than I anticipated it being, even as a Tourneur fan. It’s a solid film-noir even if it doesn’t go as dark as the genre typically does. I’m kind of baffled that it isn’t more widely known and held up as one of the top noir pictures alongside Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Columbia Pictures noir films: Pushover, My Name Is Julia Ross and Drive a Crooked Road.

Documentary Review: Val Lewton: The Man In the Shadows (2007)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2007
Directed by: Kent Jones
Narrated by: Martin Scorsese, Elias Koteas

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Turner Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, 77 Minutes

Review:

I remember seeing this on television a decade ago and it is where I really discovered who Val Lewton is and why his contribution to the film industry was so important.

When I was a kid, I discovered classic film early, as my mother and grandmother were both avid watchers of AMC, which at the time still stood for American Movie Classics. I also watched a lot of TCM, or Turner Classic Movies, when that cable network debuted. I got pulled in to old school horror, as I loved the Universal Monsters movies, Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures and the movies put out by Hammer with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I didn’t quite experience Val Lewton’s body of work though, until years later.

My appreciation for all that other stuff, really gave me the foundation to appreciate and understand what Lewton was trying to do for RKO Radio Pictures. His mission was to run the B-movie unit for the studio, where he and the artists he brought in, would create films to rival what Universal was doing with all their successful Monster franchises.

I’m glad that I found this on television a decade ago and it was really fantastic revisiting it now, as it is streaming on FilmStruck.

It is produced and narrated by Martin Scorsese with Elias Koteas jumping in to narrate Val Lewton’s actual words.

It is a nice and quick documentary that covers a lot of ground and gives a good amount of time to each of Lewton’s pictures. It also gets into how his collaborations with Boris Karloff came to be and how Lewton initially didn’t want to work with Karloff but quickly grew to love the man’s work, as he helped contribute to these films, which were much more psychological and intelligent than the majority of Universal’s horror pictures.

Lewton created horror movies that had a noir style about them. In fact, his films sort of built a bridge between German Expressionist horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the film-noir movement of the 1940s.

If you love classic horror or film-noir and haven’t seen Lewton’s films, you need to. You should also check out this documentary, which is a great primer on the man and his work.

Rating: 8.75/10

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

Film Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Also known as: Build My Gallows High (UK)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring
Based on: Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming

RKO Radio Pictures, 97 Minutes

Review:

“My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.” – Whit

Up until now, I had never seen Out of the Past. It was one of those film-noir thrillers I was really excited to check out though, as I always heard about how good it was and it starred Robert Mitchum. It also gives us Kirk Douglas in only his second film role, following his success in his debut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Add in noir beauty Jane Greer, in probably her most memorable role, and you’ve got a pretty solid recipe.

Also, this is directed by Jacques Tourneur, whose work was always pretty stellar in the horror genre. In fact, his horror-noir hybrid pictures under Val Lewton at RKO were superb. As was 1957’s Night of the Demon and the two films he did with Vincent Price in the 1960s.

Out of the Past is a solid picture and definitely at the high end of the spectrum that is Tourneur’s oeuvre. I prefer his horror-noir movies that came out a few years before this: Cat PeopleI Walked With a Zombie and The Leopard Man but this is still quite a good film. It is top notch as a straight up film-noir tale.

Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas command the screen when they are present but both are slightly overshadowed by Jane Greer, a true femme fatale and arguably one of the all-time best. I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from Mitchum or Douglas; both men bring an intense bravado and gravitas to this picture. Greer just has an enchanting quality that permeates and makes her transcend the celluloid that has captured her.

The cinematography is handled by Nicholas Musuraca, a veteran that worked on several noir-esque pictures before. He worked with Tourneur on Cat People and continued on at RKO with the fabulous The Seventh Victim, as well as The Curse of the Cat PeopleBedlamThe Spiral Staircase and the psychological horror film The Ghost Ship. Musuracsa was a favorite of Val Lewton and was a key contributor to the look of the highly respected Lewton produced films for RKO.

Out of the Past has a very layered story that is difficult to describe without getting too detailed. In a nutshell, it showcases a man who has a hidden past. He opens up and tells his story to his girlfriend, as he drives to meet with an old rival. His story involves a femme fatale, his time as a private eye and the events that lead to him seeking out a new life, far away from his old one.

I really liked Out of the Past. It is a real testament to how skilled Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca were. I don’t quite consider it to be their magnum opus but it makes a strong case. The film also helped to propel Mitchum, Greer and Douglas to legendary Hollywood status.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: The Leopard Man (1943)

Release Date: May 8th, 1943
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Ardel Wray, Edward Dein
Based on: Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Jean Brooks, Margo

RKO Radio Pictures, 66 Minutes

Review:

“You don’t get the idea, mister. These cops banging those pans, flashing those lights, they’re gonna scare that poor cat of mine. Cats are funny, mister. They don’t want to hurt you, but if you scare them they go crazy. These cops, they don’t know what they’re doing.” – Charlie How-Come

I’ve been working my way through Val Lewton’s horror films for RKO. He produced some of the coolest scary movies of the 1940s and The Leopard Man is a pretty solid film that was directed by one of his best collaborators, Jacques Tourneur. Mark Robson, who would also direct some of Lewton’s productions, worked on this picture as its editor.

The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, who would go on to work in film-noir throughout the decade. He is joined by the mesmerizing Jean Brooks, who completely owned the screen in another Lewton production, the horror film-noir The Seventh Victim. She had a very strong presence in this and an enchanting aura about her. It’s surprising to me, actually, that she never went on to be a megastar in the era of film-noir.

Like Tourneur’s other films under Lewton, this is a picture where the audience has to often times rely on their own imagination. This is a classic suspense horror picture, through and through. It’s the things that aren’t seen that are the most scary. For instance, when the first victim dies, you witness this from the other side of a locked door, hearing her bloodcurdling screams, until they abruptly stop and a pool of blood starts pouring into the house from under the door.

Additionally, when another victim is attacked in a graveyard, much is left to the viewer’s imagination. You see the victim’s reaction and a branch violently shake before the attack. But it is done in a way that is more effective than seeing the monster attack on screen. And for the twist ending of this film, it is actually necessary to obscure the killer and allow the mind to fill in the blanks.

The plot of the film is pretty simple. A showman rents a black leopard to spruce up the act of one of his top ladies. The leopard is frightened and runs off, escaping into the small desert town. Shortly after, a girl is mauled outside the front door to her house, as her mother and little brother listen in horror. Some other killings happen while the police are trying to find the leopard, who is blamed for the deaths. As the story progresses, we learn that it might not be the leopard that is killing these people after all.

The big reveal at the end is pretty predictable but it doesn’t make the film any less effective. Plus, you’re never really sure what’s happening and why. The “why” is as big of a question as the “who”. While the answers might not be totally satisfying, everything leading up to the mystery being solved is pretty well structured and executed.

Tourneur and Lewton made another horror movie in the same visual style as the noir pictures that would come to dominate the 1940s. There’s a bit of a German Expressionist influence in the lighting and the use of shadows for contrast and a chiaroscuro presentation.

The Leopard Man is a much smarter horror picture than what was the norm for the 1940s but this would become Val Lewton’s specialty and even if they weren’t as big as Universal’s horror franchises in terms of popularity, they were better than most of those pictures in quality.

Film Review: I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Release Date: April 21st, 1943 (New York City)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Curt Siodmak, Ardel Wray
Based on: I Walked With A Zombie by Inez Wallace
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway

RKO Radio Pictures, 69 Minutes

Review:

“I thought voodoo was something everyone was frightened of?” – Betsy Connell, “I’m afraid it’s not very frightening. They sing and dance and carry on. And then, as I understand it, one of the gods comes down and speaks through one of the people.” – Paul Holland

Hollywood producer Val Lewton had a pretty good stint at RKO, a studio that was instrumental in the development of film-noir. After Citizen Kane proved to be a financial dud for them, at least initially, RKO wanted to have a branch that focused on B-movies in the same way that Universal had done with their hugely successful monster franchises.

In came Lewton, a man that created some great horror pictures for RKO but unlike Universal, Lewton’s were more adult and more serious films. They were initially just viewed as B-horror pictures in the same vein as Universal’s work but over the years, the Lewton produced horror films at RKO started to get the recognition they deserve as something greater than just makeup and fur slapped on Lon Chaney Jr.

I Walked With A Zombie is the film that Lewton supposedly loved the most out of his horror work for RKO. The quality of this picture also has a lot to do with Lewton picking the right men for the job.

Jacques Tourneur was selected as the director and he did a few other pictures with Lewton for RKO: The Cat People and The Leopard Man, both of which were also really solid films. He would go on to do the film-noir classic Out of the Past and get back into horror with the underrated Night of the Demon and a couple Vincent Price pictures in the 1960s for American International.

The script was penned by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray. Siodmak had already written a bunch of scripts that got turned into monster movies by Universal. So Lewton grabbing him was probably a good way to try and emulate Universal’s success for RKO. Plus, Siodmak could write more mature horror features that were smarter than his work in the Universal Monsters franchise.

I Walked With A Zombie is a pretty great film for what it is. It has a sort of film-noir visual allure to it while being in a lush Caribbean setting. Also, it is a zombie movie, albeit not of the modern style, this is a subtle suspense thriller that has voodoo zombies (my favorite kind of zombie, actually) and is more of a tale about the religious island culture of the West Indies.

This is a rather short film but that was the norm with these Lewton produced horror flicks. Regardless, the story is solid, well paced and the actors do a good job with the material. Frances Dee feels like a real person in a real situation in a time when acting tended to be overly dramatic, especially in the horror genre.

I like this film a lot and it was cool discovering it now, as I got to see it without nostalgia playing a factor. Lewton, Tourneur and Siodmak turned out a very good picture that unfortunately, not a lot of people know about. But that’s probably because it doesn’t feature famous monsters and it isn’t overtly horror, despite the catchy title.

Film Review: War-Gods of the Deep (1965)

Also known as: The City Under the Sea (UK)
Release Date: May 26th, 1965 (USA)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Charles Bennett, Louis M. Heyward, David Whitaker
Music by: Stanley Black
Cast: Vincent Price, Tab Hunter, Susan Hart, David Tomlinson, John Le Mesurier

American International Pictures, Anglo-Amalgamated, 85 Minutes

war-gods-of-the-deepReview:

Vincent Price starred in a lot of pictures for American International. Most people remember his Edgar Allan Poe films with director Roger Corman. Well, he did some other films for them as well, War-Gods of the Deep being one of them.

Trying to capitalize off of the success of Price’s Poe pictures, the film was titled The City Under the Sea in international markets. While it had nothing to do with that Poe story, it worked, considering the plot of the film.

The movie follows our hero, played by Tab Hunter, and his companion, an annoying British fellow who carries a chicken around, as they follow their abducted female friend into a giant underwater city ran by a madman played by Vincent Price. The underwater city is on the brink of destruction, as a nearby volcano has become very active. Price’s character is obsessed with the girl he had abducted by one of his gillmen. He also wants the hero and his idiot chicken-clutching sidekick to help him solve the issue regarding the volcano. All the while, Price executes a few traitors and sets a bad example of how to be an effective and sane leader.

In regards to the monsters, the gillmen look like really poor recreations of the title monster from the classic Creature From the Black Lagoon. These gillmen also have patches of long hair for some reason and resemble a mixture of some Sam Raimi demon creature and the toxic waste guy from the original Robocop. They are also kind of a non-event in the film other than being lower than low-level henchmen. And even then, they’re barely used.

The atmosphere of the film is great, though. It feels like most other American International horror films of its era but the undersea element gives it a unique twist. The lighting is dim but vibrant colors are used well to highlight certain things and to generate specific moods.

Jacques Tourneur was a fine director for his time. He made the classic Curse of the Demon, as well as Cat People and Comedy of Terrors (also featuring Vincent Price, plus a slew of other horror icons). Tourneur’s approach gives this film a different tone and feel than the Price-Corman collaborations, which were turned out heavily at the same time. Even though the sets and the visual aesthetic of the films are similar, Tourneur was able to make this motion picture feel like its own thing.

The only real negatives about this film, are that some parts seem a bit dragged out. It certainly isn’t boring but it needed a little more depth to the plot. Also, the underwater battle towards the end of the movie just goes on for way too long. It was also hard to follow what was happening with most of it.

War-Gods of the Deep is an underappreciated film in the long list of Vincent Price’s work. Although, it is far from being his best picture.