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Tag Archives: Elsa Lanchester

Mystery Street (July 28, 1950)

Mystery Street
Mystery Street (1950)
Directed by John Sturges
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

“Mystery Street” is too generic a title for this groundbreaking crime thriller.

To me, Mystery Street sounds like one of those mystery programmers from the ’30s and ’40s designed to run as a second feature — perhaps featuring Charlie Chan or The Crime Doctor.

But with its focus on forensic investigation, Mystery Street is an innovative police procedural. Only its title is run-of-the-mill. If you’re a fan of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Bones, make some time to watch this movie, and see where the genre got its start.

Montalban and Bennett

In the post-war years, “reality” entertainment was king. The “ripped-from-the-headlines” police procedurals that are still all over TV kicked off with the film He Walked by Night (1948) and the radio show Dragnet, which began broadcasting in 1949 and quickly inspired a slew of imitators.

Mystery Street follows the established formula of the police procedural, but focuses on the process of forensic investigation. When Lieutenant Peter Morales (Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to a murder case with no clues — only skeletal remains that have washed up on the beach — he turns to Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett) of Harvard Medical School. (Incidentally, Mystery Street was also the first Hollywood film to shoot in Boston and Cambridge, MA.)

Discriminating fans of CSI will enjoy the outlandish example Dr. McAddoo gives Lt. Morales when he explains the kinds of crimes forensic science can solve: a seemingly open-and-shut murder case that turned out to be a combination of a bloody nose, a paroxysmal seizure, and a head injury caused by a fall. (It only looked like the woman’s husband had beaten her to death.)

Mystery Street is a stylish and very entertaining noir. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. I think it would make a great double bill with Border Incident (1949), another film that starred Ricardo Montalban when he was first establishing himself in Hollywood. He’s a compelling and charismatic leading man, and it’s fun to watch him before he was a household name.

According to Wikipedia, Mystery Street lost money at the box office, which is a shame, because it’s a great little flick. Maybe a better title would have helped?

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The Big Clock (April 9, 1948)

Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) wasn’t the only film in which Ray Milland got into trouble because of booze.

In John Farrow’s The Big Clock, based on the best-selling novel by Kenneth Fearing, George Stroud (Milland) misses the 7:25 train home because he’s knocking back stingers with Pauline York (Rita Johnson), a former model for Styleways magazine, one of the many imprints of Janoth Enterprises. In the film, Janoth is a Manhattan publishing juggernaut that also owns magazines with names like Artways, Airways, Sportways, Futureways, and Crimeways.

Stroud is the executive editor of Crimeways, and not long after the film begins he offers Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) his resignation. He’s been promising his wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) a honeymoon since they were married, and now that they’ve been married long enough to have a five-year-old son, her patience has reached its breaking point.

Of course, Stroud strains her patience even further by missing that 7:25 train home, and Georgette leaves for their belated honeymoon alone while he goes out to nightclubs and passes out dead drunk in Pauline’s apartment, fully clothed on the couch. Oh, and did I mention that Pauline is the girlfriend of Stroud’s temperamental boss, Earl Janoth?

In Fearing’s 1946 novel, it’s made explicit that George Stroud has sex with Pauline (whose last name in the book is Delos, not York). He’s a regular cad and even has an overnight bag ready for any illicit sleepovers that might come his way.

With The Big Clock, Farrow crafted a remarkably faithful version of Fearing’s best seller. Stroud’s extramarital affair couldn’t be shown in a Hollywood film, obviously, and all mentions of homosexuality had to be expunged from the script, but in adapting the book Farrow and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer seemed to adopt an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach.

There are some minor changes that neither add nor detract from the story, like how the Strouds of the film have a five-year-old son while the Strouds of the novel have a five-year-old daughter, but there’s one big change that works extremely well. In the novel, “the big clock” was merely George Stroud’s personal metaphor for the rat race — the vast machinery of life and society that never stops ticking forward — but the big clock has been made literal for the film. It’s an enormous contraption that dominates the lobby of the building that houses Janoth Enterprises, and — no surprises here — the climax of the film involves a good amount of crawling around in its works.

The central conceit of The Big Clock is too good to screw up. Stroud leaves Pauline’s apartment moments before Janoth steps out of the elevator and sees a shadowy figure leaving down the stairs. Janoth and Pauline have words, he flies into a rage, and murders her. Janoth’s co-publisher Steve Hagen (George Macready) convinces Janoth that they need to find the mysterious witness and eliminate him.

Since Crimeways has an investigative team, Janoth and Hagen put Stroud in charge of the search for the mysterious witness. Stroud knows Janoth killed Pauline, but he can’t speak up or his marriage will be ruined. He also can’t mess up the search for himself too badly without raising any red flags. All he can do is try to stay one step ahead of things.

The Big Clock is full of nail-biting suspense — especially the last reel — and features fine performances all around. I can’t picture anyone but Charles Laughton as Janoth, a grotesque, vain, sensitive, mercurial publishing genius with one of the silliest little mustaches you will ever see on film, and Milland is perfect as a very intelligent man who knows just exactly how badly he’s trapped but who never stops trying to figure out his escape route. I also especially liked Harry Morgan as Janoth’s personal masseur and probable hit man Bill Womack, a creepy guy who wears dark clothes, has a perpetual scowl, and never speaks.

And in case you were wondering, the director, John Farrow, is indeed Mia Farrow’s father. He and Maureen O’Sullivan were married on September 12, 1936, and had seven children together; Michael, Patrick, John Charles, Mia, Tisa, Prudence, and Stephanie.

The Razor’s Edge (Nov. 19, 1946)

Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the best-selling 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, features an Academy Award-winning performance by Anne Baxter in a supporting role, great-looking sets, deliciously bitchy acting by Clifton Webb, and a chance for Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney to show that they were better actors than they are usually given credit for.

So why didn’t I like it? Everything about this film reeks of “Oscar bait.” It’s high-minded, pretentious, and self-important, but ultimately shallow. There are a number of interesting characters in the framing sections of the film, but the central story about a young man named Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) seeking enlightenment in Eastern spirituality falls flat, and everything else in the movie hangs on it.

Darrell is a veteran of the Great War who returns home to Chicago in 1919 questioning life after a fellow soldier — a friend of his — died saving his life. His confusion and guilt lead him to reject ordinary life and travel the world searching for meaning. He leaves behind his fiancée, porcelain-skinned beauty Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), as well as a sharply drawn cast of supporting characters; Isabel’s uncle, the fabulously wealthy and snobbish Elliott Templeton (Clifton Webb), the tragic hanger-on Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter), and “regular guy” Gray Maturin (John Payne). Just as in the novel, Maugham himself (played by Herbert Marshall) pops in and out of these characters’ lives.

When Tyrone Power first appears in the film, the character of Maugham says in voiceover, “This is the young man of whom I write. He is not famous. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end, he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be that the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men, so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

Maugham’s words are prophetic. In the decades after he wrote The Razor’s Edge, many young men (and some women) would seek wisdom and enlightenment just as Larry does, traveling the world working a series of menial jobs and seeking truth in non-Christian religions.

While working in a coal mine in France, Larry plays cards and drinks with an old man who eventually turns out to be (unshockingly, based on the dialogue that passes between them) a defrocked priest running away from himself. The priest tells Larry of an Indian holy man who is vastly wise, and who may be able to set Larry straight.

Larry makes his way to India, and it was at this point that — at least for me — the movie took a nosedive. While all kinds of terrible things are happening to the other characters — Isabel is in a loveless marriage, Sophie loses her baby and becomes an alcoholic, etc. — Larry hangs out in a set that looks left over from Anna and the King of Siam and studies with an Indian guru who is ridiculously played by British actor Cecil Humphreys. The holy man speaks only of “God,” nothing specific, and certainly nothing polytheistic. His mysticism is inoffensive New Age stuff along the lines of Deepak Chopra’s vague aphorisms.

After Larry learns all he can from books, the holy man sends him on a pilgrimage to the mountains, where he receives “enlightenment” in the form of a matte painting of sun bursting out from behind the clouds and one last mealy-mouthed conversation with the guru.

All of this might have been meaningful in the novel. I can’t say, as I haven’t read it. But at least in this film, Larry’s spiritual journey is a bunch of vague nonsense that trades on the supposed exoticism of the East without actually including anything strange or specific enough to offend Peoria. Worst of all, he returns to his circle of friends, who are now bumming around Europe, with what amounts to a bag of parlor tricks. He does some hypnosis, forcing his friend Gray to drop a coin after he counts to ten and then tells Gray that he will feel pain no longer. Stuff like that. I was surprised he hadn’t learned to turn himself invisible, like Lamont Cranston in The Shadow.

When the movie ends, we’re supposed to believe that everyone who came into contact with Larry is better, somehow, because he is possessed of the most powerful force in the universe, goodness. But what is it about him makes him so good? He agrees to marry Sophie when she is in the depths of her alcoholism, which leads another character to describe him as being in the grips of self-sacrifice, which seems more apt.

Is Larry a good person because, at the end of the film, he works his way back to America on a tramp steamer? So do legions of cruder, simpler men. Does the mere fact of Larry’s enlightened attitude make his manual labor somehow nobler than the manual labor of “lesser” men? If it does, then why? The film never answers this question, but rather asks us to accept its thesis at face value.

I love all the actors in The Razor’s Edge, and they give some of the best performances of their careers in this film. But while it contains plenty of strong individual scenes, it’s a sodden, overlong snoozefest.

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.