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Monthly Archives: March 2010

La Bataille du Rail (Feb. 27, 1946)

About five years ago I saw a fantastic World War II movie from 1964 called The Train. Directed by John Frankenheimer, The Train stars Burt Lancaster as a French resistance member who has to stop a train bound for Germany that is carrying priceless art treasures. Filmed in grimy black and white, the film eschews any silliness like having Lancaster put on a fake French accent, and scores high marks as both a drama and an action film.

The reason I bring up The Train is because I couldn’t get it out of my mind while watching René Clément’s film La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails). If Frankenheimer and his crew didn’t study La Bataille du Rail when they were making The Train, I would be surprised, since Clément’s film is a landmark of vérité war action, and some of its action sequences are very similar to ones found in The Train. The gritty look of the picture also seems to have influenced Frankenheimer. Unfortunately, La Bataille du Rail doesn’t score as highly as a dramatic film, which would be fine if it were a documentary, but it’s not. It only looks like one.

The film opens with the following preamble: “This picture, which recalls actual scenes of the Resistance, was produced in cooperation with the Military Commission of the Resistance National Council.” How accurately any of the action reflects what actually went on during the war, however, I don’t know, but they unquestionably derailed an actual train during the climax, which was impressive.

There are many characters La Bataille du Rail, but they are played by unprofessional actors (who are listed in the opening credits only by surname), and they are never really allowed to develop personalities. The structure of the film is episodic, and depicts an escalating war of attrition. The resistance sabotages trains necessary to the German war effort, and the Germans respond by executing members of the resistance and increasing their military presence on the tracks.

At points, the film reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Stachka (Strike) in the way that it placed its numerous human characters against an enormous backdrop of industry. The smoke and grime from the trains covers everything, and the machinery dwarfs the people fighting and dying all around it. There’s an impressive nighttime battle sequence that ends with a resistance member being run over by the treads of a tank. It viscerally drove home the message that while the spirit of a collective can accomplish remarkable things, the integument of a single human body can be crushed by the machinery of war as easily as a person can step on a grape.

Most of the visuals in La Bataille du Rail are impressive because of their scale, but there’s one memorable scene that achieves its impact more subtly. A group of resistance members are lined up against a wall by the Germans and shot one by one. The camera lingers on a single man’s face. He grimaces as each shot is fired. The shot then cuts to what he is seeing; a spider spinning its web along the wall. It’s the last thing he will ever see. It’s a remarkable sequence, and one that makes its point without any dialogue.

I watched La Bataille du Rail immediately after watching Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), another film about resistance under the Nazis that is shot in a semi-documentary style. In my review of Roma, città aperta I complained about some of the characters and the melodramatic storyline, which I felt undercut the impact of the more vérité material. La Bataille du Rail went completely in the other direction, and never developed its human characters at all. It’s effective in the context of the film, but keeps the viewer at a distance. It’s an impressive film, and I’m glad I saw it, but I’d sooner watch The Train again than La Bataille du Rail. It probably didn’t help that the DVD I watched, from Facets, looked like crap. The film could do with a restoration. The print was fuzzy, and the nighttime scenes looked muddy and were occasionally confusing because of it.

Roma, Città Aperta (Feb. 25, 1946)

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) premiered in Italy on September 27, 1945, and premiered in New York City on February 25, 1946, at the World Theatre on 49th Street, a 300-seat theater where it would continue to play for nearly two years. It was shown at Cannes in September 1946 and won the festival’s grand prize. It also received the New York Film Critics Circle award for best foreign film of 1946. It’s cited as one of the earliest masterpieces of the Italian neorealism movement, and has been generally accepted as a great film since its release. The problem with instant masterpieces is that sometimes they coast for decades on reputations that might not be fully deserved.

Does Roma, Città Aperta fall into this category? Yes and no. The cartoonish villains and black and white morality sometimes skirt the edge of the ridiculous, and the Italian population is painted as victims of the Nazis to such a large degree that a person who saw this film in a vacuum would be forgiven for thinking that Italy was an occupied Allied power. Also, the exteriors are shot in a verité style that sometimes clashes with the more traditional interior shots. For example, a sun-drenched, slightly overexposed street scene with genuinely angry-looking extras might be followed by a carefully lighted interior scene featuring a stereotypically mincing Nazi officer and his right-hand dyke. For the most part, however, Roma, Città Aperta holds up as a suspenseful, well-crafted wartime espionage yarn that inspires and uplifts, even though … spoiler alert … all the good guys die.

Roma, Città Aperta arrived at just the right time for a positive reception. While Mussolini’s Italy was an Axis power, the country had been completely dependent on Germany since the end of 1941. Rome was occupied by the German army, with help from the Mussolini’s fascist blackshirts, but Italy has never been the most organized or politically unified country, and plenty of Rome’s citizens were understandably restive during this time. Roma, Città Aperta is a story of resistance that takes toward the end of the German occupation of Rome. Rossellini began working on the script with Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei in August 1944, two months after the Allies had forced the Germans out of Rome, and he began shooting the picture about five months later. The picture’s politics (staunch Communist and anti-Fascist) were also perfectly suited to receive a warm reception from audiences immediately following World War II. If it had been shown in America and Britain just a few years later, the picture’s cheerleading for Communist principles would doubtlessly have gone over less well.

The new DVD from the Criterion Collection I watched looks great. It’s the full version, too, with the blowtorch torture sequence in its entirety, and while the subtitles are merely adequate, they do appear for each line of dialogue (a complaint about one available DVD version I’ve seen is that whole sections of conversation weren’t translated). Even the snatches of conversation in German are subtitled, which seemed unnecessary, since the main baddie, Maj. Bergmann, speaks Italian most of the time. (He’s played by the Austrian actor Harry Feist, who lived in Italy most of his adult life.) Visually, the film captured my interest immediately. The sequence in which resistance member Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) eludes the Gestapo by fleeing along the rooftops is thrilling. The human drama took a little longer to jell for me, partly because there are a lot of characters, and since this is a neorealist picture, they don’t appear at the beginning with title cards explaining their relationships. Aldo Fabrizi gets top billing. He plays the priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini, who ties all the characters together. He transmits messages, cash, and weapons for the resistance. Giorgio’s friend Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) is a fellow member of the resistance, but seems less dedicated to the cause than Giorgio. Giorgio’s girlfriend, Marina (Maria Michi), works at a nightclub and doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of Giorgio’s situation. Francesco’s fiancée Pina (Anna Magnani) shelters Giorgio and cares for her young son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), who gets involved with his own resistance against the Nazis, a sort of children’s crusade that involves blowing shit up really good.

As I said, it’s the cartoonish villains that seem most silly six decades later. Maj. Bergmann is as prissy and effeminate as he is cruel, which would be easier to ignore if he weren’t paired with an evil lesbian named Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti). The scenes in which Ingrid cajoles the easily manipulated Marina are like something out of a ’60s James Bond film.

There’s an oft-repeated story that Roma, Città Aperta was an ad hoc production, and that it was shot on scraps of discarded film, which gave it its distinctive choppy look. According to David Forgacs’s recent book on the film for the British Film Institute, however, when the Cineteca Nazionale restored the film in 1995, they found that the original negative consisted of just three types of film; one for the exteriors and two different, more sensitive, types of film for the interiors. The inconsistencies and changes in brightness are now blamed on poor processing. It’s an alluring legend, though; Rossellini and his crew shooting in a beautiful, ancient city still damaged by war, picking film up out of the gutters, but it’s just that … a legend. There’s another great story about the film, also of questionable veracity. According to Fellini’s essay “Sweet Beginnings,” the American producer of the film, Rod Geiger, was a half-drunk American private stationed in Rome who bungled his way on to the set and misrepresented himself as a producer with connections. With a copy of the film in his barracks bag, Geiger somehow managed a theatrical distribution deal when he got back to the states, even though, according to Fellini, Geiger was “a nobody and didn’t have a dime.” Geiger disputed Fellini’s account, however, and the essay was the subject of a defamation lawsuit that led to the film being banned due to legal reasons in some countries.

Roma, Città Aperta is a very good film, but I think its reputation as a masterpiece is partly due to when and how it was released. In my opinion, Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione is just as good, if not better, but it wasn’t shown in the United States until the ’70s, partly because it was produced during the war, but mostly because it was an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and legal trouble affected its distribution. It’s a must-see for students of cinema, especially ones interested in both film noir and neorealism.

Kris (Feb. 25, 1946)

The Swedish film Kris (Crisis) was acclaimed director Ingmar Bergman’s first film. His only previous credited film work was the 1944 film Hets (Frenzy), which he wrote. Based on a play by Leck Fischer, Kris opens with shots of an idyllic little town, accompanied by a voice-over narrator. A strange, worldly woman steps off the bus one morning (the town is too small to have a railway station). The narrator tells us that it is Mrs. Jenny (Marianne Löfgren), who, after 18 years, has come to see her daughter, Nelly (Inga Landgré), who has been raised by Miss Ingeborg Johnson (Dagny Lind), a piano teacher. The narrator ends his opening monologue with the ironic words, “Let the play begin. I wouldn’t call this a great or harrowing tale. It really is just an everyday drama. Almost a comedy. Let’s raise the curtain.”

Despite the source material, and the narrator’s references to theatrical convention, I thought Kris avoided staginess for the most part. A lot of this is due to the direction. If Bergman had never made another film after this one, he almost certainly would not be remembered as a great director, but Kris still shows a lot of greatness. Also, Landgré, the 18 year-old actress who plays Nelly, is incredibly pretty and naturalistic, and the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without her assured performance at its center.

Nelly calls Ingeborg “Mutti” and calls her birth mother “Aunt Jenny.” Before Jenny shows up, Nelly and her mutti seem quite happy, although Nelly is beginning to champ at the bit, and longs for more excitement than her little town can offer her. Ingeborg also has a roomer, Ulf, played by the 38 year-old actor Allan Bohlin, who is in love with Nelly. She likes him, spends a lot of time with him, and affectionately calls him “Uffe,” but he’s too old to arouse her romantic interest. Ingeborg is destitute and in poor health. She borrows money from her elderly aunt and her cleaning lady. Nelly seems unaware of their financial difficulties, but when Jenny buys her a beautiful party dress for the ball she can’t wait to attend, it contrasts sharply with the simple dress Ingeborg purchased for her.

Jenny, who is approximately 40 years old, also brings with her the reedy little 25 year-old dandy Jack (Stig Olin). Jenny refers to him as her “half-brother’s son,” but he’s clearly a gigolo who services her. Things come to a head at the ball, when Jack gets Nelly liquored up and starts an impromptu swing band session that scandalizes the older townspeople. He catches up with Nelly outside, and they enjoy a tryst by the lake until Ulf shows up, chastises Nelly, and beats up Jack.

Back at home, Nelly hugs her mutti Ingeborg good night and tearfully says that she never wants to leave her. In the cold light of morning, however, with the gossipy townsfolk spreading word of the scandals the night before, Nelly runs off to the city with Jack and Jenny, and takes a job at Jenny’s beauty salon, called “Maison Jeannie,” and the love triangle between Nelly, her birth mother, and Jack plays itself out while Ingeborg suffers through loneliness and a single, painful trip to see Nelly in the city.

The dramatic arc of Kris is nothing we haven’t seen before, but the acting and the direction elevate it. The textures in the film’s outdoor scenes are especially beautiful, and hint at some of what was to come in Bergman’s career. As someone who hates day-for-night photography, however, I felt that Bergman was a little too in love with the sun-dappled lake next to which Nelly and Jack have their rendezvous. For a scene that takes place at night, it couldn’t look any more like the middle of the afternoon.

For the most part, however, I thought Kris was a very good film. Its attitude toward sexuality was a little more frank than American films of the time, and the human relationships in the film were nuanced and believable. I could have lived without having to look at Olin’s mustache the whole time, however. While its disturbing qualities were appropriate for his ne’er-do-well character, it was really hard to deal with. The poster above doesn’t really do its sleaziness justice. You have to see it for yourself.

Tomorrow Is Forever (Feb. 20, 1946)

Tomorrow Is Forever
Tomorrow Is Forever (1946)
Directed by Irving Pichel
International Pictures / RKO Radio Pictures

Irving Pichel’s weepy wartime melodrama Tomorrow Is Forever premiered in London on January 18, 1946, and premiered in New York City a month later, on February 20th. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept the convoluted, coincidence-laden plot, it’s quite a fine movie, with excellent performances and a moving story.

The film begins on November 11, 1918, as the First World War is drawing to a close. Charles Hamilton (Douglas Wood), the head of the Hamilton Chemical Works, Inc., in Baltimore, is joined by his son Lawrence (George Brent) and other members of the company in toasting their success. He raises a glass to the part the company played in winning the war, as well as their contribution to the nation’s victories in the Spanish-American War and the Civil War. Lawrence Hamilton walks over to a pretty woman named Elizabeth MacDonald (Claudette Colbert) who is sitting by herself, and offers her a glass. Charles Hamilton drinks to peace and prosperity, and declares the rest of the day a holiday. Lawrence talks to Elizabeth, a research librarian at the chemical works, and learns that her husband, John, who went to war as an officer just four months earlier, is coming home soon. Elizabeth is elated.

A little time passes. Presumably it’s a little more than a month, since there’s snow on the ground, Max Steiner’s lissome score breaks into an orchestral interpretation of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and Elizabeth is carrying a little Christmas tree. When she get home, however, she receives devastating news; a telegram informing her that her husband, Lt. John Andrew MacDonald, was killed in action on November 5th. She goes to their bedroom, stands in front of the dresser, and he appears behind her in the mirror like a ghost. He’s played by Orson Welles, and he and Colbert play out a touching scene. They were clearly very much in love, and seeing him go away to war was difficult for her. In the end, he holds her tightly and promises her he will come back. (Return he does, and that’s where the audience’s suspension of disbelief will come into play, but more on that later.)

Not only has Elizabeth lost her husband, she learns that she is pregnant with his child. Lawrence Hamilton takes her in, and cares for her and her son, who is named John Andrew after his father. Elizabeth and Lawrence marry, and while it is a marriage based on friendship and respect rather than passionate love, it is also a successful marriage, and they have another son of their own, Brian (Sonny Howe). John Andrew Hamilton grows into a strapping young man (played by Richard Long), whom his parents call “Drew.” They never tell Drew, however, that Lawrence is not his biological father.

Meanwhile, we learn that John didn’t actually die in the war, but he was so badly injured that he didn’t want to live, and refused to identify himself to his attending physician, Dr. Ludwig (John Wengraf). In their scenes together, only Welles’s left eye can be seen through his mass of bandages, and he begs Dr. Ludwig to put him out of his misery. Dr. Ludwig refuses, and tells him that with extensive reconstructive surgery and physical conditioning, he can be made well again. It’s not entirely clear why John wants to be allowed to die and never see his wife again, although it seemed to me that “shattered body” was code for “irrevocably damaged genitals.”

Twenty years pass, and war again conspires to destroy Elizabeth’s happiness. Germany invades Poland, and Drew and his fraternity friends, including his best friend, “Pudge” Davis (Tom Wirick), make up their minds to go to Canada to join the R.A.F. and train as pilots. Drew is a few months away from his 21st birthday, however, and Elizabeth refuses to give her consent. Drew is the image of his father, a man she loved with a passionate intensity, and to lose him to battle would be like losing John all over again.

At this point, an Austrian chemist named Erik Kessler enters the United States as a refugee, along with a little blond girl named Margaret (Natalie Wood). Kessler is played by Orson Welles, and it soon becomes clear that he is John A. MacDonald, even though he has an Austrian accent, a beard, glasses, and walks with a limp. He goes to work for the Hamilton Chemical Works, and enters the lives of the Hamiltons.

It’s at this point that the film began to seem ludicrous to me. Kessler immediately recognizes Elizabeth when he meets her, but she does not recognize him. Welles certainly looks and speaks differently as Kessler, but he was less recognizable in his old-age makeup in Citizen Kane (1941) than he is here. How can she not recognize him? A willing suspension of disbelief is required, as well as an appreciation of the conventions of the stage. It is enough to know that Kessler received a great deal of plastic surgery to reconstruct his face, so while the audience can recognize Welles in his new guise, they have to accept that no one else in the film can. Was I able to do this? Well … sort of.

Tomorrow Is Forever is a story about loss and letting go. The performances in the film are excellent, especially Welles and Wood. Their scenes together were my favorite in the film. Just seven years old when she made this film, her first credited role, Wood was able to project a wide range of emotions and even delivered her lines in German relatively convincingly. Long was also very good in his first film role, even though his performance is pitched mostly at a single tone; earnestness. It was clearly made as a star vehicle for Colbert, however, and it’s her emotional journey that drives the film. As I said, you have to accept all the coincidences in the story and the idea that Elizabeth is not able to recognize who Kessler really is to go along for the ride, but if you can, Tomorrow Is Forever is a pretty good film.

Ambush Trail (Feb. 17, 1946)

Even by 1946 standards, Ambush Trail looks like a relic of an earlier time. The film stars cowboy actor Bob Steele, who played in more than a hundred westerns from the silent era onward, but Ambush Trail is the first film starring him that I’ve seen. He was a supporting player in The Big Sleep (1946), which I have seen, but I couldn’t have picked him out of a crowd if you paid me. Even though it’s a talkie, Ambush Trail has all the hallmarks of a bad silent film; stilted acting, awkward pauses, and lame comic relief from a rubber-faced sidekick (Syd Saylor). It’s also blocked and edited like a silent movie, and only really comes alive during the fistfights, of which there are many.

A small, trim man (his listed height is 5’5″), Steele had dark, curly hair and a neat little mustache. (Check him out in the lobby card above. He’s the one with the whitest hat, the bluest jeans, and the fanciest shirt.) Steele’s earliest roles were in a series of shorts directed by his father, Robert N. Bradbury. He originally went by his birth name, Bob Bradbury, Jr., and his first film role was at the age of 14, in the Pathé short The Adventures of Bob and Bill (1920), which also starred his twin brother, Bill Bradbury. The two young men went on to star together in more than a dozen semi-documentary nature adventure shorts with titles like Trapping the Wildcat (1921), Outwitting the Timber Wolf (1921), and Trailing the Coyote (1921). As he grew older, Steele became a star in his own right, and a box office draw as a star of westerns.

By the mid-’40s, however, his star was fading, and it’s not hard to see why. Steele may be the best actor in Ambush Trail, but that’s only because everyone else is so God-awful. He plays a cowboy named Curley Thompson who has just purchased the Flying A Ranch. To his surprise, Curley learns that the ranch comes with a pea-brained foreman named Sam Hawkins (Saylor), who can’t even ride a horse. (He can handle a buckboard, however, which will come in handy later in the picture.) Curley quickly runs afoul of the local boss, freight owner Hatch Bolton (I. Stanford Jolley). Bolton is systematically ruining the local ranchers so he can buy them out cheap and sell their ranches to a grain combine in Chicago.

After Sheriff Tom Gordon (Henry Hall) is ambushed and disappears, his brother, Deputy Walter Gordon (Kermit Maynard) takes over. Gordon and his gal pal, Alice Rhodes (Lorraine Miller), join up with Curley and Hawkins in their fight against Bolton. When a local rancher named Joe Moore (Al Ferguson) is shot through a window and murdered while he’s meeting with Curley, Bolton and the crooked Marshal Dawes (Ed Cassidy) pin the murder on Curley. After Deputy Gordon frees him from the local jail, Curley hunts for evidence against Bolton that the missing sheriff may have left behind, and the fight is on.

Throughout the picture, Steele moves and emotes as though he’s in a silent film. He delivers his lines in a competent fashion, but he still looks as if he’d be more comfortable with heavy makeup and a live piano accompaniment. His character is a bit of a wet blanket, too. Curley drinks lemon soda instead of liquor, and even weans his sidekick, Hawkins, off the hard stuff, too. Steele’s not terrible, and neither is Ambush Trail, but it’s not very good, either. It’s a passable B western, but only if you really like B westerns.

The Seventh Veil (Feb. 15, 1946)

Compton Bennett’s film The Seventh Veil premiered in London on October 18, 1945. It was the biggest box office success of the year in Britain. The first record of its showing in the United States I can find is on Christmas day, 1945, in New York City. It went into wide release in the U.S. on February 15, 1946, and won an Academy Award the next year for best original screenplay. The story and script were by Sydney and Muriel Box. Sydney Box also produced the film.

The title refers to the seven veils that Salomé peeled away in history’s most famous striptease. As Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) explains to his colleagues, “The human mind is like Salomé at the beginning of her dance, hidden from the outside world by seven veils. Veils of reserve, shyness, fear. Now, with friends the average person will drop first one veil, then another, maybe three or four altogether. With a lover, she will take off five. Or even six. But never the seventh. Never. You see, the human mind likes to cover its nakedness, too, and keep its private thoughts to itself. Salomé dropped her seventh veil of her own free will, but you will never get the human mind to do that.”

The mind Dr. Larsen is attempting to strip bare is that of Francesca Cunningham (Ann Todd), a concert pianist who has lost the will to live, and who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. For the first hour of the film, her psychoanalytic sessions with Dr. Larsen act mostly as a framing device for Francesca’s flashbacks, but by the end, the high-minded hooey is laid on nearly as thick as it is in Alfred Hitchcock’s contemporaneous film Spellbound.

In her first flashback, Francesa recalls her schoolgirl days with her friend Susan Brook (Yvonne Owen). Susan’s insouciance towards academics is responsible for both of them being late to class one too many times. If Susan is punished, we don’t see it. Francesca’s punishment, however, will have dire ramifications. Brutally beaten across the backs of her hands with a ruler on the morning of her scholarship recital, she blows it completely, and is so devastated she gives up the piano.

When she is orphaned at the age of 17, Francesca is taken in by her uncle Nicholas (James Mason), a man whom she barely knows. She learns that the term “uncle” is a misnomer, since Nicholas is actually her father’s second cousin. Interestingly, both Mason and Todd were 36 years old when they appeared in this film. Their lack of an age difference isn’t too distracting, though. Todd has a wan, ethereal visage that lends itself to playing young, and Mason’s dark, Mephistophelian countenance is eternally middle-aged and handsome.

Nicholas is a confirmed bachelor who walks with a slight limp and hates women. He is also a brilliant music teacher, although his own skills as a musician are only average. Under his sometimes cruel tutelage, Francesca practices four to five hours a day, and eventually becomes an accomplished musician. Nicholas’s control over her comes at a cost. While she is studying at the Royal College of Music, Francesca falls in love with an American swing band leader named Peter Gay (Hugh McDermott). When Francesca tells Nicholas that she is engaged, he refuses to give his consent, since she has not yet reached her age of majority (in this case, 21), and tells her she will leave with him for Paris immediately. She does so, and continues her education in Europe.

For a melodrama, The Seventh Veil manages to be fairly gripping, especially if you find depictions of live performances stressful. When Francesca makes her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Muir Mathieson), performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, the film cuts between Francesca sitting at the piano, her hands (doubled by the pianist Eileen Joyce), Nicholas standing offstage, and her old friend Susan, who is in the front row. Not only does Susan, now a wealthy socialite, enter late and talk during the performance, but her mere presence reminds Francesca so strongly of the brutal whipping her hands received as a girl that the act of playing becomes almost too much to bear. She makes it through the performance, but when she rises to bow, she collapses from sheer exhaustion.

Francesca’s next trial — and the one that will result in her institutionalization — comes when Nicholas hires an artist named Maxwell Leyden (Albert Lieven) to paint her portrait. Francesca and Maxwell fall in love and go away to live together, despite Nicholas’s violent objections, but after a car accident, Francesca becomes convinced that her hands are irreparably damaged and she will never play again. Dr. Larsen, however, tells her there is nothing physically wrong with her, and he makes it his mission to cure her.

In the end, it is a recording of the simple, beautiful melody of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique,” along with a good old-fashioned session of hypnosis, that frees Francesca from her mental prison. The climax of the film does not hinge on whether or not she will perform again, however. It hinges on which of the three men in her life she will end up with; Peter, Maxwell, or Nicholas.

As soon as her choice is made, the film ends. There is no depiction of consequences. How satisfying the viewer finds the ending partly depends on which male character they like best, I suppose, although there are other considerations, such as how one feels about the question of whether it is better to be a great artist or to be happy, or even if Francesca can have one without the other. Personally, I found it all a bit ridiculous, but I enjoyed the film overall.

Gilda (Feb. 14, 1946)

Charles Vidor’s Gilda premiered on February 14, 1946, and went into wide release on March 15. It’s best remembered as the film that made Rita Hayworth the biggest sex symbol of the ’40s. (Not that she was a shrinking violet before 1946. I saw her in the 1944 film Cover Girl when I was a kid, and I never forgot her.)

Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn in 1918, Hayworth was the daughter of Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, Sr. and Ziegfeld girl Volga Hayworth. With that kind of pedigree, her hundred-megawatt sex appeal should come as no surprise, but it does, even today. Usually the only image I post with a review is the theatrical poster, but for this review I was tempted to plaster up several cheesecake shots of Hayworth. The only problem with photos of her is that they lack something. She looks great in all of her pinup shots, but her blisteringly hot sexiness is something that needs to be seen on film to be believed. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every line in Gilda is an innuendo. When she first appears on screen, throwing back her mountain of wavy hair, and her husband asks her if she’s decent, the long pause after her bright, “Me?” followed by the husky response, “Sure, I’m decent,” clearly has nothing to do with whether or not she’s fully clothed.

Besides the obvious lascivious value Hayworth offers the production, Gilda is a pretty good movie, full of nasty double-crosses and intrigue in an exotic locale. At one hour and 50 minutes, it overstays its welcome by at least 10 or 15 minutes, but it’s still an entertaining film noir about love-hate relationships, high-stakes gambling, and double-dealing.

When we meet Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), he’s just another down-on-his-luck gringo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a post-war hot spot (and not just for Nazi war criminals on the lam). In noir fashion, Farrell narrates the picture, sounding jaded and world-weary when he’s not twisted up with hatred and lust. Caught cheating at craps, Farrell is saved from a vicious beating at the hands of a bunch of thugs by a dapper gentleman named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) who wields a sword cane. Mundson tells Farrell of a casino where he can go to make some real money; a ritzy, illegal establishment that operates in the open, thanks to bribery. Mundson warns Farrell, however, not to cheat there. The bullheaded Farrell does exactly that, and is caught. A couple of mugs drag him into the second-floor office to face the boss, who turns out to be none other than Mundson. A fast talker, Farrell convinces Mundson to give him a job in the casino, and he quickly rises to the level of right-hand man.

Things go along swimmingly until the day that Mundson ignores his own advice that “Gambling and women don’t mix,” and brings home his new wife, Gilda (Hayworth). From the look on Farrell’s face when he first sees her, he might as well be seeing the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. Unaware that Farrell and Gilda share a history, Mundson entrusts his right-hand man with Gilda’s care and keeping. Forced to shield Mundson from Gilda’s constant indiscretions with other men, Farrell’s hatred of Gilda increases. Only it isn’t really hatred. It’s that strange brand of love/hate that fueled many a post-war film noir. Or, as Mundson himself puts it at one point, “It warmed me. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.”

Meanwhile, Mundson’s secret plans to form a cartel with a group of Germans to control tungsten production in Argentina slowly comes to light, and Farrell realizes that the Argentine secret police are onto Mundson, and that the whole casino is a powder keg waiting to be ignited.

Argentina had a checkered history during World War II. The nation broke relations with Germany and Japan in 1944 only under heavy pressure from the United States, but continued to maintain its neutrality. On March 27, 1945, Argentina declared war on Germany, when German defeat was a foregone conclusion.

It’s a great setting for a tale of steamy intrigue (with a brief narrative sojourn in Montevideo), but the political and criminal machinations take a back seat to the sexual tension between Farrell and Gilda. Their love/hate relationship takes some nasty turns, both physical and psychological. (In the scene in which Gilda slaps Farrell across both sides of his face, Hayworth reportedly chipped two of Ford’s teeth.) The story also takes a back seat to the sheer physical spectacle of Gilda, in particular the show-stopping number in which she performs “Put the Blame on Mame.” Hayworth lip-synched to Anita Ellis’s singing voice, and did an excellent job. Just from watching the movie I wouldn’t have had any idea she wasn’t singing herself.

“If I’d been a ranch, they would have named me the Bar None,” Gilda says at one point in the film. Truer words have not been spoken.

The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.

Terror by Night (Feb. 1, 1946)

Thrillers set on trains have a special place in my heart. It’s not only because I love to travel by train. It’s also because I think a passenger train is the perfect setting for a mystery. It provides a single location and a set cast of characters/suspects, just like any good English country manor, but with the added excitement of constant movement and breakneck speed.

A short list of my favorite thrillers set on trains would include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Narrow Margin (1952) (the 1990 remake featuring Gene Hackman is worth seeing, as well), and Horror Express (1972). But even lesser efforts set on trains delight me, such as the Michael Shayne mystery Sleepers West (1941) and the Steven Seagal slugfest Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995).

So when I saw that Roy William Neill’s tenth outing in the director’s chair for a Sherlock Holmes film (and the thirteenth film in the series overall) was set on a train, I was really looking forward to it.

Terror by Night, which stars Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his faithful friend Dr. Watson, does not disappoint. Loosely based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” from His Last Bow (1917), with a few elements taken from The Sign of Four (1890), Terror by Night follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to foil the theft of a diamond on a train bound for Scotland.

The diamond in question, the ridiculously ostentatious “Star of Rhodesia,” is owned by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), who is traveling with her fey son Roland (Geoffrey Steele). Also aboard the train is a young woman named Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey), who, in the first scene of the picture, has a special coffin prepared, supposedly to transport her mother’s body. The presence of a secret compartment in the coffin, however, alerts the viewer that Miss Vedder is probably up to no good.

Also aboard are an old friend of Dr. Watson’s from his time in India, Maj. Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray), the dependably lunkheaded Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), Prof. William Kilbane (Frederick Worlock), whom the blustery Watson interrogates in a comical scene, and a skittish married couple (Gerald Hamer and Janet Murdoch).

Universal Pictures’s Sherlock Holmes series is my favorite mystery series of the ’40s. Except for a few duds early in the series that focused too much on World War II-era propaganda, the Holmes pictures with Rathbone and Bruce and some of the most thoroughly enjoyable, clever, and fast-paced mysteries I’ve had the pleasure to see.

The Flying Serpent (Feb. 1, 1946)

George Zucco was born in 1886 in Manchester, England. He appeared in nearly 100 movies during his 20-year career. He was a fine actor, but he appeared in a lot of bad movies. Case in point: The Flying Serpent, which was directed by prolific schlockmeister Sam Newfield under the pseudonym “Sherman Scott.”

Like White Pongo (1945) — the last steaming pile of celluloid by Newfield that I saw — The Flying Serpent begins with an onscreen prologue that raises more questions than it answers. The viewer is told that the “wiley [sic] Emperor Montezuma,” in order to outsmart Cortez, hid his treasure somewhere far to the north of San Juan, New Mexico, where the Aztec ruins are located, and implored his guards to protect it.

I’m pretty sure none of that is true. And I’m pretty sure the filmmakers are confusing San Juan County in New Mexico, where the Aztec Ruins National Monument is located, with the town of San Juan, which is in a neighboring county. I’m also pretty sure they either didn’t know or didn’t care that the name of this national monument is a misnomer, since the ruins are actually ancestral Pueblo structures, and have nothing to do with the Aztecs. But I digress.

Before you can ask how anyone sent by Montezuma to protect treasure 500 years ago could still be around to fulfill his duty, enter Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. First seen in the shadows (or possibly just the murk of the lousy print used for the public domain DVD I watched), Quetzalcoatl is a puppet of indeterminate size locked safely behind iron bars in a secret mountain lair attended to by the archaeologist Dr. Andrew Forbes (Zucco). When Dr. Forbes pulls a lever, the stone roof of the cage opens, and the flying serpent takes wing. In flight, with nothing to give the puppet a sense of scale, it looks a little like the giant flying monster in the Japanese film Rodan (1956).

The only other appearance of Quetzalcoatl on film I can think of right now is Larry Cohen’s B movie classic Q (1982), in which the enormous Mesoamerican deity terrorizes Manhattan. Unlike Rodan or Q, however, the monster in The Flying Serpent turns out to be ridiculously small once it appears in the same frame as a human. When it lands on its first victim, Dr. John Lambert (James Metcalf), it looks as if he’s being attacked by a feathered Labrador Retriever with wings.

The Flying Serpent isn’t nearly as bad a film as White Pongo, but it never quite reaches the level of craziness I demand from an entertaining bad B movie. Zucco is always entertaining to watch, though, no matter how far down in the gutter he’s slumming.

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