RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: May 2013

Unknown Island (Oct. 15, 1948)

Unknown Island
Unknown Island (1948)
Directed by Jack Bernhard
Albert Jay Cohen Productions / Film Classics

If you liked everything about King Kong except King Kong, then I’ve got a movie for you.

Dinosaurs first made their way onto film in 1914, in both animated and live action films. The most significant early films to feature dinosaurs were probably The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).

The first dinosaurs I remember seeing on film are the animated ones in Fantasia, which was released in 1940, the same year that gave us the slightly less memorable One Million B.C. (1940), which starred Victor Mature as “Tumak” and Carole Landis as “Loana.”

During World War II, the American public’s taste for the fantastical cooled, and for the most part, science fiction elements could only be found in horror movies.

But by 1948, producer Albert J. Cohen decided we were ready for a movie about dinosaurs, and in color no less! Jack Bernhard’s Unknown Island is a low-budget film, though, so it’s shot in Cinecolor — Technicolor’s shabby cousin that makes movies look like old color photographs that have been left in the attic too long.

Nevertheless, Unknown Island will forever have the distinction of being the first live action film in color to feature dinosaurs. It borrows liberally from both The Lost World and King Kong, particularly the latter, with its mysterious island, its rampaging prehistoric creatures, its damsel in peril, its dueling male protagonists (one of whom is more interested in capturing a live specimen than he is in the girl), and a crew of vicious, rowdy seamen who ferry our cast of characters to an uncharted land where dinosaurs roam.

Unlike the stop-motion animation dinosaurs created by Willis O’Brien for King Kong, which are still pretty impressive, the dinosaurs and other assorted beasties in Unknown Island appear to be puppets and actors in rubber suits, and aren’t very impressive.

But if taken in the right spirit, Unknown Island is a fun picture. Blond, tanned, square-jawed Richard Denning — the voice of Mr. Lucille Ball on the radio sitcom My Favorite Husband (1948-1951) — makes for a good hero. He plays John Fairbanks, the only person in the expedition who has first-hand experience of the Unknown Island, and who is haunted by what he experienced there. Virginia Grey is likeable and attractive as the only woman in the film, Carole Lane, and Phillip Reed is nicely unlikeable as her glory-hound fiancé, Ted Osborne. The real gem in the cast is Barton MacLane as the nasty, hard-as-nails Capt. Tarnowski, who rules his crew of Laskers with an iron fist.

Jack Bernhard previously directed the (in my opinion) overrated B noir Decoy (1946), as well as Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1946), Violence (1947), Perilous Waters (1948), The Hunted (1948), and Blonde Ice (1948).

Unknown Island looks pretty good, but the shadowy jungle scenes featuring the human actors never quite jibe with the brightly lit special effects work with the dinosaurs. Still, it’s an early example of the kind of low-budget giant-monster movies that would become commonplace in the 1950s, but which were still pretty rare in the late 1940s, and for that reason alone it’s worth seeing.

Advertisements

Moonrise (Oct. 1, 1948)

Moonrise
Moonrise (1948)
Directed by Frank Borzage
Republic Pictures

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise is a surreal Southern Gothic drenched in noir atmosphere.

Based on the novel by Theodore Strauss, Moonrise stars Dane Clark as a man named Danny Hawkins who is haunted by his father’s execution for murder. Danny has grown up in the shadow of his father’s crime, both figuratively and literally (this is a noir, after all).

In nightmarish flashback scenes, we see the young version of Danny being mercilessly taunted by his schoolmates.

In the first few minutes of the film, the grown-up version of Danny finally lashes back at the worst of the bullies, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), who is the son of the wealthiest man in town. Danny beats Jerry Sykes to death on the outskirts of a carnival, and leaves his body to be discovered by the authorities.

For the rest of the film, Danny is tormented by guilt but is too terrified to turn himself in. And soon after the murder, he strikes up a desperate romance with Jerry Sykes’s girl, Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a schoolteacher and the prettiest girl in town.

Clark and Russell

Moonrise was an attempt by Republic Pictures to break out of their Poverty Row rut and release an A picture. (The budget was $849,452, whereas the Western B pictures the studio pumped out on a regular basis usually cost around $50,000.)

It was still a modestly budgeted film by Hollywood standards, and Borzage shot the entire film on only two sound stages. Although Moonrise wasn’t a hit, I think the claustrophobic “staginess” works in the film’s favor when watched today. Lionel Banks’s art direction and John L. Russell’s cinematography give the film a dreamlike quality. Especially in the early going of the film, there are instances of dream logic — such as a terrible car accident that seems to have no consequences in the next scene — but that only contributes to the film’s hypnotic power.

Dane Clark’s performance as Danny is similar to the romantic, sad-eyed fugitive he played in Deep Valley (1947). Gail Russell is gorgeous, although her role as Gilly mostly requires her to be wide-eyed and worried.

There’s some really terrific work by the supporting cast. Lloyd Bridges only has a minute or two on screen, but his nastiness and sense of entitlement is palpable. Ethel Barrymore is wonderful, as always, as Danny’s grandmother. Allyn Joslyn grounds the film with his role as philosophical sheriff Clem Otis. And African-American actor Rex Ingram gives an amazing performance as Mose, Danny’s friend who lives deep in the swamp, raises and trains dogs, and avoids people as much as possible. The character of Mose has aspects of the “magical Negro,” but Ingram is a good enough actor — and the part is written well enough — that he mostly escapes cliché.

Moonrise is a hard film to categorize. It’s stylistically a film noir, but thematically it ranges from Southern Gothic to European art film. It’s worth seeing if you have any affinity for any of those genres, or even if you’re just someone who can appreciate a beautifully made black and white movie.

The Fallen Idol (Sept. 30, 1948)

The Fallen Idol
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions / British Lion Film Corporation

When producer Alexander Korda introduced director Carol Reed to writer Graham Greene, it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that would produce Reed’s most enduring film, The Third Man (1949).

But before they made that classic, Greene and Reed collaborated on an equally masterful film, The Fallen Idol, which Greene adapted from his short story “The Basement Room.” (Lesley Storm and William Templeton contributed additional dialogue to the script.)

The Fallen Idol is a tale of lies, deception, and half-truths as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Phillipe who lives in the French Embassy in London.

Phillipe — or “Phile,” as he’s more commonly called (it’s pronounced the same as the name Phil) — is played by Bobby Henrey, a nonprofessional actor who was 8 or 9 years old during filming.

This was the first time I’d seen The Fallen Idol, and while I was watching it I was struck by what an unaffected and natural performance Henrey delivered. The events of the film are seen mostly from Phile’s perspective, and his performance is central to the movie’s effectiveness.

So I was surprised when I watched the 2006 documentary short A Sense of Carol Reed and learned that Henrey’s “performance” was largely created by Reed and his editor, Oswald Hafenrichter.

In the documentary, Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, recalled of Henrey, “He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. Much worse was his attention span, which was of a demented flea.” According to Hamilton, they’d sometimes shoot thousands of feet of film to get just one line from Henrey.

Bobby Henrey

Reed was patient and had a tremendous facility for directing actors of all ages. He never humiliated actors or cut them down in front of the crew. If he was unhappy with a take, he’d rarely yell “Cut!” until the actor had left the frame. On the occasions that he did, he’d do it in a tricky fashion, such as taking a nail from his pocket, dropping it on the floor, then calling out, “Cut! Can we have quiet, please?” Then he’d quietly say something to the actor like, “Since we have to start over anyway, perhaps you could…” — and get the performance he wanted that way.

I don’t think The Fallen Idol would be as brilliant as it is had it starred a seasoned child actor capable of memorizing pages of dialogue. Henrey may have been frustrating to work with, but all that matters is what’s up on screen. Phile seems like a real child, not an adorable singing-and-dancing moppet with a studio contract.

Phile’s parents spend very little time with him, and his only friend in the embassy is his father’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson).

Phile’s nemesis is Baines’s wife, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), a strict, cruel woman who has no patience for Phile’s antics or his little pet snake, MacGregor.

One day, Phile follows his father figure to a café, where Baines is meeting a young French woman named Julie (Michèle Morgan). And just like that, Phile becomes an accomplice to his hero Baines’s infidelity. He doesn’t fully realize what’s going on — he believes that Julie is Baines’s niece and Baines doesn’t disabuse him of the notion — but any time a child is told by an adult, “No one needs to know about this,” the child will realize that something isn’t quite right.

The film continues in this vein, and the layers of secrecy and deception build until Phile finally believes he has seen Baines do something truly horrid, and he clumsily tries to help his friend by lying to the police for him.

Ralph Richardson

The Fallen Idol is a great film. Vincent Korda’s set design is marvelous, and the spacious interiors of the embassy are as much a character in the film as any of the actors. Georges Périnal’s cinematography is full of unsettling Dutch angles and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting. All the actors are wonderful, but Ralph Richardson’s performance is pitch perfect — he’s so kind and charming that we can easily see why Phile idolizes him, and when we begin to see the small, tragic man beneath the warm exterior, it’s heart-breaking.

The Fallen Idol is tragic and moving in parts, but Reed and Grahame also have a very light, wry touch, and there’s a great deal of humor and irony in the film. If you’ve never seen it, by all means do so. If you want to make a triple bill of it, first watch Odd Man Out (1947), then The Fallen Idol (1948), and finally The Third Man (1949). They’re as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.