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: 12 to the Moon (1960)

Also known as: Twelve to the Moon (alternative spelling)
Release Date: June, 1960
Directed by: David Bradley
Written by: Fred Gebhardt, DeWitt Bodeen
Music by: Michael Andersen
Cast: Ken Clark, Michi Kobi, Tom Conway, Anna-Lisa

Luna Productions Inc., Columbia Pictures, 74 Minutes

Review:

“I should have known, what… what a stupid unthinking fool. I deserve this.” – Dr. Feodor Orloff

12 to the Moon is a pretty dreadful and boring sci-fi picture from an era where most sci-fi pictures were pretty terrible. It’s actually hard to believe that 2001: A Space Odyssey came out just eight years after this.

To be fair, this came out in a time when this genre still didn’t have respect and the vast majority of these pictures were made by cheap studios without a lot of money to help make these film’s better.

Now Columbia Pictures isn’t small but this was obviously made to be thrown on B-movie double bills to attract the youth of the day and drive-in theater crowds that just wanted to make out and eat popcorn. I don’t recommend trying those two things simultaneously, for the record.

This would probably be a long forgotten dud had it not been featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Because of that, it will always have some sort of relevance, as long as MST3K fans are still alive and still going back to watch old homemade video tapes of the episode. Honestly, you can find most of the episodes on YouTube; so you don’t need to dust off the VCR or your VHS library.

At first glance, this is a movie about the space race, as it focuses on a team of twelve scientists who go to the moon to claim it as international territory before those Soviet Reds gets there and claim it for themselves. They even bring a couple of cats with them.

Anyway, this evolves into a movie where the environment is out to kill these scientists at every turn and the scientists even display a level of stupidity that can only be matched by the scientists in 2012’s Prometheus. One idiot discovers some bubbling liquid and excitedly runs over to put his hand in it, burning himself. Somewhere in the galaxy, Picard is facepalming hard.

There are alien hieroglyphics, plots about freezing America, French communists, Nazis being forgiven for horrible crimes, more alien shit and a bunch of clunky sets, bad actors and production crew members that were seemingly asleep at the wheel.

As bad as this is though, I don’t hate it. I can’t recommend it but if you want to subject yourself to this picture, at least watch the MST3K version.

Rating: 2.5/10
Pairs well with: other schlock-y outer space movies that were on MST3K.

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: The Seventh Victim (1943)

Release Date: August 21st, 1943
Directed by: Mark Robson
Written by: DeWitt Bodeen, Charles O’Neal
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter

RKO Radio Pictures, 71 Minutes

Review:

“No, that room made her happy in some strange way I couldn’t understand. She lived in a world of her own fancy. She didn’t always tell the truth. In fact, I’m afraid she didn’t know what the truth was.” – Gregory Ward

The Seventh Victim is a movie that sort of walks a tightrope between multiple genres while being completely its own thing. It is a mixture of noir, horror, mystery and could mostly be considered a very dramatic thriller. It is also quite short at 71 minutes but it packs a solid punch despite its dainty running time. Tiny and meaty, it is like the filet mignon of early film-noir.

The cool twist of this picture, is that the story revolves around the existence of a Satanic cult in Manhattan. That’s some pretty dark and mysterious stuff for a film from the early 1940s but the movie doesn’t get quite as dark as you might hope, which is really the one thing that worked against it in my opinion. I was hoping for a sort of hybrid between early noir and something in the style of Universal’s horror franchises, at the time. RKO still made a dark and interesting thriller, regardless.

In this film, we meet a young female student who comes to discover that her older sister has been missing. She sets off, leaving her education behind, in an effort to find her missing sister. As the film rolls on, we learn that the older sister has some sort of involvement with a cult that worships the Devil. She exhibits strange behavior and is actually suicidal and wants to die. After betraying her cult, the punishment is death. However, she doesn’t want to die because someone else wills it, she wants to die when she is damned good and ready.

The Satanic sister is played by Jean Brooks and she puts in an enchanting performance. She is like a statuesque phantom in the night, exuding beauty and mystery. The younger sister, played by Kim Hunter, is a perfect contrast to the darkness and brings a bright beacon of light and hope into the story. Tom Conway is the top billed star but this film really stars the two sisters.

Ultimately, the picture is a bit disjointed and lacking the gravitas I had hoped it would have but it is interesting and entertaining. Plus, the performances of the two main actresses is really good. Additionally, few women have been able to exhibit a haunting allure in the way that Jean Brooks does in this picture.

Rating: 7.5/10

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.

Rating: 9/10