RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Isle of the Dead

The 10 Best Films of 1945

Before we dive into all the fine (and not so fine) films released in 1946, let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the best offerings of 1945. This list is limited to the films from 1945 I was able to see, and like all top 10 lists, it’s completely subjective.

1. Detour

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. It’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations. Shot through with a nightmarish sense of uncertainty and doom, it has an eerie and hypnotic power that can’t be fully explained.

2. The Lost Weekend

I have to side with the Academy on this one. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is one of the most powerful tales of addiction ever put on the screen, and Ray Milland’s performance is still one of the most realistic and maddening portraits of alcoholism I’ve ever seen. Its Oscar wins (for best picture, actor, and director) were well-deserved.

3. Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is a finely crafted and enjoyably loony psychological thriller anchored by fine performances from Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, as well as George Barnes’s gorgeous cinematography and Miklós Rózsa’s memorable score. Hitchcock was reportedly less than thrilled with the final product, but I thought it was a top-notch mix of romance and suspense.

4. Mildred Pierce

Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce is a fantastic mixture of film noir and melodrama. Joan Crawford brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role of Mildred, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

5. Anchors Aweigh

I don’t generally like musicals, but I loved Anchors Aweigh. Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes, it’s the kind of Technicolor fantasy that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. Gene Kelly’s dancing and Frank Sinatra’s crooning are both wonderful, and Frank Sinatra’s dancing and Gene Kelly’s crooning aren’t bad, either.

6. I’ll Be Seeing You

A moving romantic drama starring Joseph Cotten as a shell-shocked serviceman on leave and Ginger Rogers as a prisoner on a furlough. It beautifully depicts a fragile, growing romance between two likable people who each have something they try to hide from the other.

7. The Story of G.I. Joe

The full title of this film, directed by William A. Wellman, is Ernie Pyle’s “Story of G.I. Joe.” A well-acted, emotional war movie, it focuses on newspaperman Pyle (Burgess Meredith) as much as it does its cast of ragged but determined infantrymen, in particular Robert Mitchum as Lt. (later Capt.) Bill Walker and Freddie Steele as Sgt. Steve Warnicki.

8. I Know Where I’m Going

Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, I Know Where I’m Going is a playful film with touches of magical realism. “The Archers” (Powell and Pressburger) show remarkable attention to detail in their depiction of an island in Scotland, and the lead performances by Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are warm and nuanced.

9. Isle of the Dead

Director Mark Robson’s film, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Boris Karloff’s performance as a cold and brutal general in the Greek army who quarantines an island with the use of military force is fascinating and terrifying in equal measures.

10. Cornered

There’s a scene in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1944) in which Dick Powell’s drug-induced confusion is telegraphed to the audience by a web of gauze superimposed over the frame. Dmytryk uses no tricks like that to aid his star’s performance in his second outing with Powell, who delivers a hard-boiled and grim performance in Cornered, which is a really solid little thriller.

Honorable Mentions:

The Body Snatcher, Dead of Night, Dillinger, Hangover Square, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, Scarlet Street, The True Glory, A Walk in the Sun.

Advertisements

Isle of the Dead (Sept. 1, 1945)

IsleOfTheDead
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Director Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, takes place in Greece in 1912, during the First Balkan War. In it, Boris Karloff plays a cold and brutal general in the Greek army named Nikolas Pherides. Known as “The Watchdog,” Gen. Pherides is the kind of man who, when faced with an officer who has failed to complete an objective, hands the man a revolver with a single bullet in it and orders him to shoot himself.

When Gen. Pherides and some of his troops are garrisoned in a house on an island, the serving girl, Thea (Ellen Drew), refuses to pour him wine, because he once gunned down people in her district who refused to pay taxes. He confronts her in private. She denounces him for murdering people who were rebelling against unjust taxation. “Who is against the law of Greece is not a Greek,” he says. Not only is he a rigid interpreter of the law, he seems to take pleasure in wielding power. After his encounter with the girl, he tells another man, “When I went up there she wasn’t quite so impudent. She was frightened.” He says it with grim pleasure.

The next day, however, the island is faced with an outbreak of septicemic plague, and Gen. Pherides promises that the quarantine on the island will observed. Having the military, under the command of someone like him, available to enforce order falls under the category, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and not surprisingly, there are complications. A woman named Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), who is staying on the island with her husband (Alan Napier), suffers from attacks of catalepsy. Unable to refill her medication on the mainland, she falls into a catatonic state, is presumed dead, and is buried alive.

Compounding this horrific event is a superstitious old woman named Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), who has the general’s ear. She convinces him that Thea, the young serving girl, is a vorvolaka, a harmful undead creatures from Greek folklore, roughly equivalent to the vampires feared in neighboring Slavic countries, although blood drinking is not something they seem to engage in. In the world of the film, the vorvolakas are sent by the gods to punish humans who offend them. The combination of the plague and the apparent death of Mrs. St. Aubyn gives Kyra’s mad proclamations a certain believability, and Gen. Pherides becomes convinced that Thea was responsible for Mrs. St. Aubyn’s “death.”

After Lewton’s phenomenal success with Cat People in 1942, RKO would give Lewton a title, a maximum running time, and a budget. Most everything else was up to him. He could have been handed a script called Zombie Gut Munchers and ended up making an eerie film about the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844 in Prussia that was more about poverty and oppression than it was about the living dead. Starting in 1945, however, the studio also forced Karloff on Lewton, a move he reportedly wasn’t immediately happy about, since Karloff was emblematic of the Gothic and increasingly corny Universal Pictures approach to horror films that Lewton actively resisted. Karloff was an exceedingly good actor, however, and his performances for Lewton are some of the strongest of his career. (Isle of the Dead was the first to start production, but shooting was suspended when Karloff needed to take time off for back surgery, and The Body Snatcher ended up being their first collaboration to be released into theaters.)

Like The Ghost Ship (1943), which was also directed by Robson and produced by Lewton, Isle of the Dead is a meditation on the abuse of power. Unlike The Ghost Ship, however, Isle of the Dead is not just a metaphorical title, and the film delivers some truly stunning and horrific scenes in its final reel. In fine Lewton fashion, Mrs. St. Aubyn is never shown inside her coffin, desperately clawing at the wood that imprisons her. A shot of the coffin sitting on a stone bier accompanied by her screams suffices. Later, the coffin is shown again, with water dripping on it. There is no other sound. The viewer is left to wonder whether or not the woman inside is still alive, being driven mad by the sound of the water.

There is a theory that some people who were buried alive in less scientifically enlightened times may have clawed their way out of their graves and shown up in town filthy and quite possibly raving mad, and that this phenomenon is what led to folk tales and legends about vampires and their ilk. Whether or not this ever actually happened, Robson and Lewton take full advantage of the concept to fashion a denouement that is not supernatural but that still ranks among the most horrifying depictions of a person rising from the grave ever depicted on film.

What leads up to it is sometimes stilted and slow-moving, although a second viewing reveals a lot of well-done foreshadowing. Like a lot of Lewton’s films, the symbolism in this film is overt. Gen. Pherides is known as “The Watchdog.” Several times in the film there are shots of a statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who stopped the souls of the dead from escaping Hades back across the River Styx. Which is exactly what the general does. There are many shots of water, and of decaying marble columns and balconies that hearken back to a more enlightened time in Greece.

At the end of the film, someone says of the general, “Back of his madness there was something simple, good. He wanted to protect us.” This is a charitable description that is not entirely supported by what comes before. Karloff’s portrayal of the general is not as overtly malevolent as other roles he has played, such as Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher, but he has few redeeming characteristics.