Frank Capra: State of the Union

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next few weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses State of the Union (1948).

As much as there is to admire in State of the Union, the more I think about this film, the less I like it. Technically, it has a lot going for it, such as a stellar cast and good production values. Frank Capra’s direction is deft as usual, and because the screenplay features political commentary that remains relevant (one character asks whether there’s any difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, a question that usually comes up at least every four years), one can see why Capra was attracted to the material.

Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) plans to make Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) President of the United States, using her influence via her newspapers to deadlock the Republican primary and then promote Matthews as a dark horse candidate. Matthews’ estranged wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) agrees to campaign with him because she believes in his idealism. Along the way, Matthews compromises his positions and ideals to ensure backing from special interests. As he compromises behind the scenes, his character starts to change for the worse.

Thorndyke may be the character with the plan, but the story belongs to Matthews. He has to struggle with his ideals and his newfound ambition, and he has to decide between his wife and his lover, Kay. Most of the time, when the story focuses on Matthews, it works; there is, however, a cute but unnecessary and unbelievable airplane sequence that does not work with the rest of the film.

The main weakness in State of the Union is the treatment of the two main female characters. The characters are not written as real human people but as representations of ideas, Kay representing ambition, lust, and corruption, and Mary representing idealism and family. It’s another rendition of the virgin/whore trope that still permeates literature, television, film, and music to this day. Kay is not allowed to have any real virtues, and any characteristics she has that could be seen positively are instead used to show her in a bad light. Mary, in contrast, is not allowed much in the way of flaws, and when she starts to compromise in support of her husband, he puts an end to it—she isn’t even allowed to save herself.

Neither Kay nor Mary goes through the kind of journey that women in earlier Capra films did—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example, Jean Arthur starts out cynical but through her growing familiarity with Smith (James Stewart), starts to lose her cynicism and become an optimist, even helping Smith with his apparently quixotic filibuster. In State of the Union, Kay starts out cynical and remains cynical while Mary starts out righteous and optimistic, and ultimately stays righteous and optimistic. If the characters don’t feel like cardboard, much of the credit must go to Lansbury and Hepburn.

As mentioned above, however, the political commentary was smart and strong and is not dated. For example:

“Because you politicians, instead of trying to pull the country together, are helping pull it apart, just to get votes.” Matthews (Spencer Tracy).

 “Oh, I’m a good Republican, but the voters do control the lease on the White House, don’t they? Not just the Republican Party.” Mary Matthews (Katharine Hepburn).

“You politicians have stayed professional only because the voters have remained amateurs.” Mary Matthews (Katharine Hepburn).

Despite its flaws in its depiction of (especially) the female characters, State of the Union continues Capra’s tradition of smart political commentary. It isn’t in the same league as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take It With You, or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and overall, it isn’t Capra’s best effort, but the actors’ performances and the political commentary make it watchable.



Frank Capra: Arsenic and Old Lace

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

Despite featuring next to none of the hallmarks of most of his films, Arsenic and Old Lace still feels like a Frank Capra film. Theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is more big city elite than populist, there’s no heroic struggle against a corrupt system (though it could be argued that there’s an inefficient system—or two—involved), and Priscilla Lane’s Elaine Harper is not cut from the same cloth as the women in the other Capra films discussed in this series. Thematically, it’s almost a throwback to Capra’s silent film work with Harry Langdon; it’s more escapist entertainment than thought-provoking message piece.

The story follows Mortimer Brewster, theater critic and author of several books severely critical of the institution of marriage (e.g., Marriage Over Matrimony), as he marries his childhood sweetheart and neighbor Elaine, discovers that his two sweet aunts have a “very bad habit” that he must put to an end, and deals with his returning brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey, in the role originated on Broadway by Boris Karloff), who has homicidal tendencies and an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

Attempting to keep his Aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, respectively) from poisoning any more prospective boarders, Mortimer frantically works out the paperwork to get his brother Teddy committed to Happy Dale Sanitarium. Before he leaves to get a judge’s signature, he makes his aunts promise not to let anyone in the house until he returns. Shortly after he leaves, however, Jonathan enters the house with his partner in crime, Dr. Einstein. After everyone goes to their rooms, Teddy comes back down to collect the latest “yellow fever victim” from the coffin-shaped window seat to bury him in the cellar in the newest lock in the "Panama Canal."

Jonathan and Einstein try to move their latest homicide victim, Mr. Spenalzo, to the basement (“Rather a good joke on my aunts,” says Jonathan), but Elaine, who thinks Mortimer has returned, interrupts them. Einstein turns on the light, leaving Jonathan flabbergasted that Spenalzo seems to have vanished.

While Arsenic and Old Lace foregoes some of Capra’s favorite themes, it is a study in the use of dramatic irony for comedic effect. The sets are obviously sets, but the artifice serves the film—some of the acting choices would seem too over-the-top in a more realistic set (or perhaps a more realistic set would have limited the acting choices).



Frank Capra: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next few weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Though it was controversial at the time of its release, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one of the best-loved of Frank Capra’s films, and may be considered the quintessential Capra movie. Themes and concepts we’ve seen in other of his films that also make an appearance here include corruption in the political process, unconventional (even unheroic) heroes, a villain who turns at the end, women with strength and character, and lost causes. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington also features the iconic filibuster sequence that celebrates the heroism of the American political process.

The story begins with the governor of an unnamed state in fly-over country trying to decide on a replacement for a recently deceased senator. His political bosses want him to select someone of their choosing, while popular committees prefer a reformer. The governor’s children suggest Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), head of the Boy Rangers. The governor eventually decides to flip a coin, heads for the corporate stooge, tails for the reformer; when the coin lands on its side next to a newspaper story about Smith, the governor decides that Smith’s wholesome appearance would appeal to the reformers while his inexperience would make him easy to manipulate.

When Smith is introduced, he’s nervous, awkward, and unpolished. When he arrives in Washington DC, he’s dazzled by the history of the Capitol and overwhelmed by the political process. He’s easy pickings for a press that sees a hick who’s unprepared for public life. Some of these themes echo similar themes in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and even Platinum Blonde.

Among other lessons filmmakers can take from Mr. Smith is Capra’s dedication to characters and casting. Capra made sure that characters appearing on screen for only one scene remain in the audience’s consciousness. Small parts still serve an important function. In Mr. Smith, the President of the Senate (Harry Carey) has about 20 lines, but he serves as a surrogate for the audience, lending the character more importance than suggested by the paucity of lines.

Capra didn’t feature anti-heroes or leading characters with few redeeming characteristics because he thought the audience would care more what happens to a likeable character when he gets into trouble. He tried to make sure his villains weren’t cartoonish by giving them their own sense of ethics so they could think they were right. The conflict between opposing sides ensures that the hero, however good and sympathetic, would have to struggle for and earn his happy ending.

When it came to casting, Capra usually didn’t do screen tests—he preferred to talk with actors on a one-on-one basis, usually without asking them to read anything. He also didn’t let an actor’s reputation get in the way of casting. Jean Arthur, for example, had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but Capra considered it his job to get her on set; once there, she consistently delivered good performances,

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington features a more jaded look at Americans, particularly those in politics, than had been seen in earlier Capra pictures, but it stands out as probably his strongest statement on the change that can be effected by an individual citizen.



Frank Capra: You Can't Take It With You

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

If you haven’t seen Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, some of the subject matter will surprise you. His recurring themes of class relations, the corrupting influence of money, the seemingly powerless individual going against a wealthy adversary, and cynicism being overcome by the inherent goodness in people all play significant roles in the story, but some of the minor points seem timely now as well, especially Tony Kirby’s (James Stewart) interest in alternative energy.

Jean Arthur plays Alice Vanderhof, a secretary in the bank owned by A. P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), Tony’s father. Tony’s mother (Mary Forbes) strongly disapproves of the match, a feeling that intensifies when Tony brings his parents to the chaotic Vanderhof residence to meet Alice’s family. The meeting doesn’t go as Alice had planned – between an unprepared dinner for which the hot dogs are still to be purchased, the pet crow (named Jim), Alice’s constantly dancing sister Essie (Ann Miller), and a police raid, approval from the Kirby’s seems unlikely.

Like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You features a courtroom scene that descends into chaos while the presiding judge watches, amused. Unlike Mr. Deeds, You Can’t Take It With You has a prison sequence, where Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) and A. P. Kirby talk about whether being wealthy is important at all. As a result of this conversation, Kirby has a change of heart about the Vanderhofs, and especially about Alice, when he realizes that he will lose his son if he doesn’t make significant changes in the way he treats his son. Even Mrs. Kirby begins to soften toward the Vanderhofs.

James Stewart is charming as Tony, and Jean Arthur is very good as Alice; they’re good together – but their romantic comedy section of the film follows well-worn paths leading up to a predictable conclusion. Grandpa Vanderhof and A. P. Kirby have the more interesting relationship – on first viewing, the change Kirby undergoes doesn’t seem as predestined as one might expect.

Barrymore has the unenviable task of pontificating at length during the prison sequence and making the lines seem like something a real person would say. His lines during this sequence would, with some editing, make a fine speech at a political rally. At one point he says: “Lincoln said, ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all.’ Nowadays they say ‘Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’” Capra has a reputation for making movies that radiate optimism, but he has enough of a realist’s perspective to keep that optimism from turning saccharine.

The portrayal of the Vanderhofs’ two black servants, Rheba (Lillian Yarbo) and Donald (Eddie Anderson), can make for uncomfortable viewing for modern audiences. They play to stereotypes for laughs; Capra usually made a point of treating all of his characters with respect and love, even as he had them engage in ridiculous business (e.g., Deeds playing the tuba when he’s told of his inheritance), and while he didn’t treat Rheba and Donald with malice, it’s difficult to see the same depth of characterization that the white characters have. It’s easy to dismiss Rheba’s and Donald’s nondimensionality as being part of the time (1938), and any presence of black characters on the screen as an important step in the progress of black actors in mainstream cinema, but in other films Capra manages with other black characters – extras, really, as they have no lines – to show more dignity and depth of humanity than he does here, that his approach here is comparatively lazy, even though Rheba and Donald have more screen time, lines, and names.

Despite its shortcomings, and if it weren’t for certain other of Capra’s films, You Can’t Take It With You could be considered the quintessential Frank Capra movie – part screwball romantic comedy, part social commentary, populated with memorable characters, and a few unforgettable highlights.


Frank Capra: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) of Mandrake Falls inherits $20 million from his uncle Martin Semple. Semple’s attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbrille), locates Deeds and brings him to New York City. Cedar hires ex-newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) to keep reporters away from Deeds, but Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) gets close to him by pretending to be a poor woman who’s spent all day trying to find work. She writes a series of unflattering articles about Deeds, portraying him as a hick. Deeds is eventually disillusioned with everything in the city, including himself, until a dispossessed farmer (John Wray) breaks into Deeds’s mansion with a gun, complaining about the wealthy man’s failing to do anything with his money to help people. Deeds decides to provide 10-acre farms for homeless families willing to work the land for several years. Cedar tries to have Deeds declared mentally incompetent in order to regain control of the fortune. At his sanity hearing, Deeds delivers what may reasonably be considered the message of the film:

It’s like I’m out in a big boat, and I see one fellow in a rowboat who’s tired of rowing ad wants a free ride, and another fellow who’s drowning. Who would you expect me to rescue? Mr. Cedar, who’s just tired of rowing and wants a free ride, or those men out there who are drowning? Any ten-year-old child will give you the answer to that.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town featured many of the recurring themes and characteristics of Frank Capra’s films: class, socioeconomic relations, an affinity for working people, and the fast snappy dialogue that helps keep the audience entertained as they watch what could have been a dull, preachy film.

The studio didn’t care for this film on the grounds that Deeds was a “poor hero.” He is usually reactive in most situations, but once he’s broken, he finds his strength and fights for himself and what he thinks is right. Capra always wanted Cooper to play Deeds because of his honest, stalwart good looks—he thought the audience would believe that he wouldn’t care if he inherited $20 million.

Carole Lombard was originally cast as Babe, but just days before production began, she left to make My Man Godfrey. Capra serendipitously saw some rushes from another film with Jean Arthur, and chose her to replace Lombard. Arthur had a reputation for being difficult—she didn’t like being in front of the camera (film actress seems like an odd career choice). Capra thought she came alive on film, and was willing to deal with her idiosyncrasies.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town takes place during the Great Depression, but Capra focused on more universal themes such as human relations where socioeconomic inequalities exist. Because it stresses these broad ideas within the context of a screwball romantic comedy, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town retains its relevance.


Frank Capra Jr. Remembers Mr. Deeds


Frank Capra: Meet John Doe

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Meet John Doe (1941).

Meet John Doe touches on several of Frank Capra’s favorite themes: politics, media, power, money, and society’s ill treatment of the poor. Barbara Stanwyck plays Ann Mitchell, who has been ordered to write one last column for her newspaper before clearing out her desk. She writes a letter from “John Doe” protesting the state of society and threatening to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. After a rival newspaper suspects the fraud and starts investigating, Mitchell is rehired, and she devises a plan with the editor to keep the “John Doe” story alive to push sales.

The paper auditions numerous poor men to be their John Doe. The film reduces the auditions to a montage that uses several techniques adapted from the silent era. The paper settles on John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former baseball player, to play Doe, rents him a hotel suite, buys him a new wardrobe, and pays him $50. Willoughby’s friend, the Colonel (Walter Brennan) has severe misgivings about the charade, and complains about the “heelots” – heels whose sole purpose in life is to snooker people out of their money. “Money goes to your head,” he says, “even just $50.”

Mitchell’s columns about John Doe and the speeches she writes for him lead to a nationwide movement and the establishment of “John Doe Clubs.” The newspaper’s publisher, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) sees an opportunity in the clubs to establish a ready-made constituency for a run for political office. He tries to co-opt the movement, and when Willoughby tries to speak his own mind, the publisher sets out to ruin Willoughby. Norton successfully stymies Willoughby’s attempts to redeem himself, so he decides to go through with the suicide attempt. Mitchell and members of the John Doe clubs try to dissuade him from the attempt, with Mitchell telling him, “If it’s worth dying for, it’s worth living for.”

Cooper is believable as a former baseball hero, if a bit clean to play a tramp. Stanwyck plays Mitchell with verve and just enough cynicism to make her anger at being fired believable but not so much that her softening toward Willoughby strains credulity. As usual, Capra’s affection for all of the characters is apparent on the screen.

Capra had made many films championing the poor and the downtrodden, and his work made him rich. In Meet John Doe, the audience can sense Capra working through his issues with socioeconomic classes and how money can affect one’s values. If Meet John Doe feels dated, it’s because so much of the story takes place in a newspaper office. Thematically it remains relevant because the socioeconomic issues of the early 1940s are not so different from those of today.



Frank Capra: Platinum Blonde

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Platinum Blonde (1931).

In Platinum Blonde, one of his early romantic comedies, Capra continues to work on themes that would intrigue him throughout his career. Class relations, sex relations, right and wrong, and the news industry all play roles in the story.

Robert Williams plays Stew Smith, a newspaper reporter with a scoop on a scandal involving Michael Schuyler (Don Dillaway), who is being sued by a chorus girl for breach of promise. The Schuyler’s attorney tries to bribe Smith not to write anything, which the reporter refuses. When Smith returns to the Schuyler’s lavish estate to return Michael’s love letters to the chorus girl, who had planned to use them to extort more money from the Schuylers. Michael’s sister Anne (Jean Harlow) offers him $5,000 for the letters, which Smith refuses—he’ll print news, but he won’t facilitate blackmail. Smith’s sense of ethics infuriates his editor, but intrigues Anne.

Anne’s interest in Smith evolves into romance, which displeases Anne’s mother (Louise Closser Hale), especially when the romance leads to marriage. Smith’s sudden elevation to the society pages results in his being teased mercilessly by his former co-workers, the exception being his best pal, Gallagher (Loretta Young), who has hidden romantic feelings of her own for Smith.

The class humor still seems relevant, especially regarding the marriage of a wealthy woman to a poor or middle class man. The way the rival newspapers give nicknames (e.g., Cinderella Man) to Stew Smith after his marriage and the way he responds to the ribbing would feel at home in a modern romantic comedy.

The sex-relations humor, on the other hand, is dated. At one point, Smith tells Gallagher “Don’t turn female on me,” a line that today would not be given to a romantic lead who is treated as sympathetically as Smith is.

Jean Harlow represents a rare example of miscasting in a Capra film. She looks fantastic in her wardrobe, but she doesn’t fit with her on-screen family, and it’s difficult to believe her as coming from old money. Add to that the strong chemistry between Williams and Young, and it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief in order to accept Stew’s interest in Anne.



Frank Capra: The Strong Man

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses The Strong Man (1926).

Frank Capra and Harry Langdon had a short but impressive partnership in silent films in which Langdon played a character similar to the Tramp character played by Charlie Chaplin, and achieving similar, though less lasting, fame. The Strong Man was one of the first films Capra and Langdon made together with Capra directing. The film opens on a World War I battlefield, with Paul Bergot (Langdon) reading a letter from his pen-pal, Mary (Priscilla Bonner). His reverie is interrupted by a one-on-one fight in which he is armed with a slingshot and his opponent with guns.

Bergot is taken prisoner by a German soldier and eventually returns with him to the United States. They get separated in New York as Bergot tries to locate Mary. When a woman in New York (Lily, played by Gertrude Astor) stashes some money in Bergot’s pocket to keep the police from finding it on her, she pretends to be Mary in order to get the money back. This impersonation leads to one of the most memorable bits of physical comedy in the entire film.

Later in the film, Bergot meets the real Mary, who had not told him that she was blind. Bergot’s reenactment of the story for Mary uses no dialogue, and the audience follows without difficulty. The skinny Bergot eventually is pressured into taking over a scheduled performance for an unconscious strong man. In the process, he saves Mary’s hometown from being taken over by bootleggers and other criminals. The silly plot serves to provide Langdon opportunities to do the physical comedy that was his forte.

Langdon and Bonner have a genuine connection that provides the film its emotional heart. Even at this early stage of his career, Capra had an affection for his characters that made it easy for the audience to relate to them, even if the storylines were occasionally preposterous.



Frank Capra: It Happened One Night

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses It Happened One Night (1934).

Frank Capra’s screwball comedy It Happened One Night was the first film to win all five of the top Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, Screenplay), an accomplishment that was not repeated until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, and then again in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs.

The film stars Claudette Colbert as Ellie Andrews, an heiress who marries “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas) against her father’s (Walter Connolly) wishes. Exercising his influence, Alexander Andrews has the marriage annulled. After a spat with her father on his yacht, Ellie dives off the boat to try to meet up with her would-be husband. She becomes a news story, and when she boards the same bus as unemployed newspaper reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), he gets her to agree to let him write her story exclusively.

Ellie soon finds herself penniless and entirely dependent on Peter, who tries to teach her a thing or two about being ordinary. One of the most famous scenes involves Peter trying to show Ellie how to hitchhike; all of his attempts fail even to slow down a passing vehicle. Ellie then hikes up her skirt to show some leg, and immediately the next car stops and picks them up.

Another famous scene takes place at a motel where Peter and Ellie pose as a married couple in order to hide her whereabouts. Peter sets up a clothesline between the twin beds in their room and hangs a blanket on it. He calls it the “wall of Jericho,” not as strong as a stone or brick wall, but sufficient to provide them each some privacy.

Several themes in this film would feature in many of Capra’s later works, especially the mixing of the socioeconomic classes. The differences and similarities of people in different classes and what people can learn from others’ experiences remain the most relevant parts of his films, even as some of the treatment of the sexes and the races remain entrenched in the time in which the films were made. (Capra was a favorite for actresses at the time, as he did feature intelligent female characters who had more intelligence and more business than female characters in other films, and while he rarely featured an African-American actor in a significant role, he relied less on stock stereotypes than some of his contemporaries. Still, some of the humor related to sex and race is dated.)

It Happened One Night may not be the first film people today think of when they hear Frank Capra’s name – they likely think first of It’s a Wonderful Life or perhaps Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – but it’s certainly a must-see for any Capra fan, or any student of film history.



USPS Director Stamps: Frank Capra

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses the career and influence of Frank Capra.

Like John Ford, Frank Russell Capra started directing films during the silent era. Like Ford, Capra used his experiences in silent film to inform much of what he did after the transition to sound. However, Capra embraced sound, especially dialogue, in ways that Ford did not. In fact, while much of the industry viewed sound as a passing fad, Capra understood that it was the way of the future, a prospect which pleased him as he did not feel comfortable making silent features.

Capra’s directing style relied to a great extent on improvisation. He was known for shooting scenes with only a general idea of the content—how the characters knew each other, what was supposed to happen, etc., and leaving the specifics of the performance to the actors; he considered it his job to make sure the cameras captured the action.

Capra moved the camera more than Ford did, but they shared a distaste for gimmicky camera tricks—Capra thought the camera and its movements should not intrude on the audience’s experience.

Capra’s career hit its zenith in the 1930s and 1940s. It Happened One Night (1934) was the first film to sweep the top five Oscars, including Best Picture. Capra went on to direct some of the best-loved pictures of the era: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and State of the Union (1948).

With the exceptions of It’s a Wonderful Life and State of the Union, Capra’s optimistic post-World War II stories fell out of sync with the public, which seemed more appreciative of the cynicism of film noir. The director was also falling out of sync with the new post-War Hollywood—actors were gaining power that often compromised the director’s vision. Capra blamed his comparatively early retirement on the public’s growing cynicism, the increasing power of stars, and especially on an increased desire among film producers to shock audiences.



John Huston: The Man Who Would Be King

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

John Huston wanted to make The Man Who Would Be King in the 1950s with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. After Bogart died in 1957, and Gable in 1960, the two leads went through several possible casting choices before Huston finally settled on Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Huston adapted the Rudyard Kipling story of two ex-non-commissioned officers of the Indian Army in British India. Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Danny Dravot (Connery) decide to travel through Afghanistan to Kafiristan, where they plan to become kings. This sounds preposterous at first to Kipling (Christopher Plummer), but he shows them maps of the territory to help them, anyway.

The friendship between Carnehan and Dravot forms the heart of the story; consequently, casting was critical in making the film a success. Connery and Caine seem an unlikely partnership initially, but they perform their characters’ banter exquisitely. Even though their quest feels doomed from the outset, their optimism and cheekiness make the audience want to follow their adventures.

The Man Who Would Be King ended a period in Huston’s career when he was in less demand than he had been after The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The high adventure reminded audiences of how good a relatively simple story in the hands of a master could be. Huston made some changes to the story, and he exposed moral complexity in the source material that might not be obvious on a casual reading. All of the characters have flaws, whether it’s the sense of superiority displayed by the English characters, or the sometimes brutal superstitiousness of the native characters, or the questionable ethics of the two leads.

Although the story is superficially simple, the complexity of the characters give the movie unexpected depth and sophistication.


Call It Magic: The Making of The Man Who Would Be King


John Huston: The Night of the Iguana

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Night of the Iguana (1964).

If there’s a quest in John Huston’s film adaptation of The Night of the Iguana, it’s the Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon’s attempt to repair his reputation. This quest fails early in the film. The more dominant theme in this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play is enduring (or overcoming) one’s demons. The main character, Shannon (Richard Burton), opens the film with an initially boring Bible lesson that gradually transforms into a loud and public confession that results in Shannon’s dismissal from ministry. We next see him as an unhappy tour guide, almost out of options.

The Night of the Iguana is a difficult film for a number of reasons, but chief among these is the difficulty in believing that Charlotte (Sue Lyon) would want anything to do with Shannon, which is due mostly to Lyon’s unconvincing performance. While we can believe in her rebelliousness, her attempts to seduce the shamed ex-minister make the young actress look like she's acting, not seducing.

The story centers on aimless characters, and it sometimes feels like Huston doesn’t really know what to do with them. The characters with direction are minor characters who provide obstacles for the major characters, but the major characters don’t drive much of the action, and when they do, it’s usually a reaction to a minor character’s action.

Huston’s relationship with playwright Tennessee Williams was much more harmonious than that with Ray Bradbury. Huston welcomed Williams’ visits to the remote set, even asking for his assistance when there were difficulties on the set.

The Night of the Iguana is a mixed bag of a movie, and it received mixed reviews when it opened. For all the problems with The Misfits, it at least feels more like a movie and less like a filmed play than The Night of the Iguana.



John Huston: The Misfits

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Misfits (1961).

The Misfits is an oddity among John Huston’s films—it’s more Arthur Miller’s movie than his. Miller wanted a producer for his screenplay whose vision included more than the bottom line. The result was a film with a rich Hollywood pedigree that didn’t feel like a Hollywood film.

Miller wrote The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe in mind for the part of Roslyn. Huston was one of the few directors Monroe trusted, mostly because he saw her as an actress and not merely as a sex goddess. According to Miller, Huston “saw her as some kind of a crazy genius; she liked him because he respected her ability.”

Monroe was unreliable on the set—she didn’t always know her lines, and despite the fact that her then husband wrote Roslyn for her, she was very insecure and not convinced that she could play the role. However, some of the scenes that caused Monroe the most anxiety are among the best of her career. When she dances deliriously without music and ends by embracing a tree, she creates a strong sense of longing while also closing herself off from her new friends. Miller gives her several opportunities to acknowledge the persona that made her famous while dismantling the image in devastating ways.

Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach play the three men vying for her attention. All of the main characters are misfits, so it’s natural that they find each other.

Gable plays Gay, the aging cowboy who hates wage jobs. He’s a bit of a snob about it, really—he tells Clift at one point that he “stinks of wages.” Gay has many admirable qualities, perhaps the best being his “great regard for people,” as Miller put it. Contrast this with his distance from his family—he just isn’t cut out to be a conventional husband or father. Gable was unsettled on this film—it was a Western with none of the usual Western tropes. Miller called it an Eastern Western because the people and their relationships overwhelmed the cowboy action. It was a great role for Gable; his charm was there, but muted compared to It Happened One Night or Gone With the Wind, and Gay was more deeply flawed than Gable’s characters in those two classics.

Huston’s artistic touch makes The Misfits beautiful to watch, even when the subject is unappealing. He had a light touch as a director, but he also knew when he had what he wanted. When Clift finished the first take of his scene in the phone booth, he was surprised that Huston didn’t want a second take. Huston assured Clift that he’d never do it better than the first time.

The Misfits remains a powerful examination of the human condition, with characters yearning to connect with each other but afraid of the consequences. “It could have ended differently,” according to Miller; in fact, it could have ended any number of ways. Nothing that happens seems destined; consequently, when the film ends, the audience can’t assume anything about the future for these characters.



John Huston: Moby Dick

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Moby Dick (1956).

John Huston had wanted to film Moby Dick for ten years before he was finally able to start production. He had thought of his father Walter for the role of Ahab, but after the elder Huston died in 1950, the part went to Gregory Peck. Filming took three years on location in Wales and Ireland, the latter then Huston’s residence. While there are some minor changes from the novel (all of which tend to make the story more cinematic), this film version of Moby Dick was the first adaptation to remain true to the novel, and the first to retain the novel’s ending.

Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay, but he and Huston argued over the script and ultimately, Huston had his name put on the screenwriting credits as well. Bradbury and Huston’s relationship was so tense that Bradbury went on the dramatize it twice, once in the story “Banshee,” which was produced for Ray Bradbury Theater with Peter O’Toole in the Huston-inspired role, and again in the novel Green Shadows, White Whale, which centered specifically on working with Huston on the writing of the Moby Dick screenplay.

Huston’s relationship with Gregory Peck also suffered during the period—Peck didn’t think he was right for the role of Ahab, and when he learned that he was cast primarily to secure funding, he felt he’d been deceived by the director. Later, Huston rebuffed Peck’s attempt to patch things up, saying it was “too late to start over.”

Moby Dick may have been Huston’s white whale—production costs more than doubled, two professional relationships were irreparably damaged, and it was not the artistic success that his previous films had been. While the film has some admirers now, for most film fans, it’s more important for what happened off screen.



Fall 2012 Television: Elementary

By LR Simon

Because Elementary has not used any of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, there really is no need for the characters to be named Holmes and Watson. The only real connection to the source material beyond the characters’ names is a few pieces of dialogue (e.g., Holmes’s attic theory of the mind). It will be interesting to see if and how they try to use other characters (Moriarty, Irene Adler) or some of the more popular stories.

Because it features the Conan Doyle characters in a modern setting, Elementary invites comparison to the superior BBC show Sherlock. Sherlock has advantages—90 minutes of screen time per episode, four weeks to shoot an episode, three episodes per series; Elementary has less than 45 minutes of screen time per episode, a little over a week to shoot an episode, and it looks like 22 episodes per season.

Still, it is an above average CBS procedural. Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu, and Aiden Quinn are good in their roles and work well together; Miller in particular has had some nice scenes, especially in the 10/25 episode when Sherlock talks to Gregson (Quinn) about his past and the truth of his relationship with Watson. It looks like this series is going to spend a fair amount of time developing characters and relationships, giving the actors more to do than just solve crimes.

Look for our upcoming series on film and television portrayals of Holmes and Watson, with special emphasis on The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Fall 2012 Television: Mockingbird Lane

By LR Simon

I decided to keep an open mind about Mockingbird Lane in order to make as fair an assessment of it as I could. Then I learned that Eddie Izzard plays Grampa Munster. It’s possible that I may have opened my mind just enough to let part of my brain fall out. Izzard perfectly balances humor and menace, and his scenes are the best in the show.

The characters look like they’re inspired more by post-Munsters monsters than the original Munsters did. The original Herman Munster was modeled after the Boris Karloff Frankenstein creature; here, Jerry O’Connell looks like he’d be more at home in a Tim Burton animated feature (think Sally in The Nightmare Before Christmas). Izzard’s Grampa looks more reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s Dracula than Bela Lugosi’s. Portia deRossi’s Lily looks like any number of hot vampire brides—Yvonne de Carlo’s Vampyra-inspired long black hair with the white streak is long gone. The decision not to follow the original series too closely was wise, and paid off.

The show is still campy, and the actors are obviously enjoying themselves, though there are a few more chills and scares than in the original. The Munsters was sheer silly fun—much of the show’s humor derived from the family’s delusion that the more monstrous of the clan were normal and Marilyn was the scary one. In the reboot, the family is aware of its differences from normal society, with the exception of Eddie, who does not know at the start that he is a werewolf.

All in all, Mockingbird Lane is entertaining without being particularly thought-provoking, exactly what it sets out to be. We'll see if NBC orders any more episodes. The network seems unsure about its potential (understandably), but its ratings last week helped Grimm.

John Huston: The African Queen

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The African Queen (1951).

The African Queen began production during turbulent times in Hollywood—the studio system was beginning to break up and the House Un-American Activities Committee was driving talent out of the United States. The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, signed director John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn before he secured the money to finance the production.

Hepburn’s and Bogart’s characters were a study in contrasts: she played a prim, church-lady type (Rose) who represented “civilization,” while he played a coarse, secular pragmatist who represented “nature.” When the war reaches the isolated village where she was doing missionary work with her brother (who is killed by invading Germans), she wants to join the fight out of duty, while Charlie would rather ride the war out away from the fighting. Rose has a plan to turn The African Queen into a torpedo boat in order to destroy a German gunboat. (Bogart’s character, Charlie Allnut, was re-written to be Canadian because he could not handle the Cockney accent of the character as originally written in the source material. Bogart won his only Oscar for this film.)

Because much of the film takes place on the boat, filming presented technical challenges beyond tight quarters. Sets included several pontoons with parts of the African Queen; another pontoon carried the Technicolor equipment, and Hepburn’s contract called for her to have a private loo, which was transported on another pontoon.

Huston had already established a preference for shooting on location rather than sets, so The African Queen was shot mostly on location in Uganda and the Congo. Sets were used for sequences that were considered too dangerous, such as the rapid scenes.

While not a perfect film (changes to the ending to please the studio strain credulity), The African Queen endures for the performances and charm of its leads and the stunning cinematography.


Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen


John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

Another noir film by John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle is a heist film that’s more gritty than jaunty. As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the characters fail (this can’t be a spoiler for a Huston film, can it?) at their task. While the characters are engaged in illegal activity, the film portrays them somewhat sympathetically, allowing the audience all the complex emotions necessarily inspired by likeable but flawed characters doing meticulous but condemnable deeds.

Vice is a recurring theme in this film—every main character has at least one vice, and the vice turns out to be the character’s undoing. Vice is weakness, but it’s also an addiction; Doc (Sam Jaffe) says, “One way or another, we all work for our vice.”

The Asphalt Jungle features at least ten significant characters, each of whom gets enough time on screen for the audience to be able to follow the plot and its intricacies. In addition to being the inspiration for many crime thrillers and capers (including the highly regarded Rififi), it serves as a study in making a story with so many important characters and plot points easy to follow without insulting the audience.

The Asphalt Jungle was one of Marilyn Monroe’s early films, before she had fully developed her sex goddess persona. MGM didn’t see her potential, and failed to sign her to any long-term contract. You can see in this film the beginnings of what she would become, but you can also see a little of the road she might have taken with more influence from a director like Huston, who respected her abilities more than her appearance.

Huston won an Oscar for directing and shared another with Ben Maddow for the screenplay. While I don’t consider it one of Huston’s best, it’s certainly a very good film worth studying for its contribution to its genre and for its story construction.



Killer Cuts, Part Six

By DC Green
Last of a Series

Killer Cuts #13 - Night of The Creeps & More

If any movie can proudly stand as the perfect potpourri of 50's contrivance and 80's aesthetic, that movie is Night of the Creeps. Written and directed by Fred Dekker (who also brought us the criminally underrated The Monster Squad), this particular gem was originally released to VHS in 1986 only to be lost to us for nearly 25 years until Sony finally bowed to fan requests and released the movie to DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009.

I think of all the "lost" horror movies of my youth, Night of the Creeps holds a special place in my heart. With overwrought dialogue and broad performances that mesh straight-laced portentous 1950's atomic-age invasion movie delivery with 1980's teen angst, Night of the Creeps is frankly a hoot.

A meteor, alien slugs, zombies! If this all sounds to you like a description of James Gunn's Slither (2006), you'd be right. Gunn claims to have never seen Night of the Creeps, but to have been inspired by David Cronenberg's 1975 cult-classic Shivers (aka They Came from Within). While this may be true, all I know is that while watching Slither, I couldn't get my mind off Night of the Creeps.

Leaving no room for debate, this movie is horror-geek heaven --- it’s got scares (alien slugs who force their way into your body, disgusting zombie action), it’s got laughs (the fast-talking dialogue, the ham acting, the grotesque sight gags), and it’s got shotguns...and tits. Tits and shotguns -- yep, what a combo.

Bottom line: Night of the Creeps is a great way to start or finish any horror marathon, and the more sleep deprived or inebriated you may be, the better it gets.


So that's it for this year's Killer Cuts. Stick to these thirteen films and your scare cinema soiree can't go wrong. I hope all of you discovered something new in this set that you've either never seen before or had long since forgotten about -- most importantly, I hope you enjoyed yourself while watching any of the selection on this list.

As a final bit of fun, I've made a list of my top 13 favorite horror movies, though there are MANY more where these came from. I don't have avant-garde horror tastes (ex. no Human Centipede for me), and can heartily recommend any of these films for the mainstream horror palette. Adding or substituting any of these into your fright film festival will result in a good time being had by all.

The Butcher's Dozen (in no particular order)

2. The Evil Dead Trilogy (a bit of a cheat, I know)

7. Halloween (1978)

10. Psycho (1960)

13. Scream


Killer Cuts, Part Five

By DC Green
Part Five of a Series
Killer Cuts #10  - Videodrome

David Cronenberg is an admittedly weird breed of Canadian, and his movies are always interesting, if not always successful. Videodrome manages to be both of those things, as well as a prophetic treatise on the increasingly plugged-in-yet-tuned-out world we currently live in. In Videodrome, the voyeuristic and disconnected nature of technology literally dehumanizes us (here in the form of television), leading us to sexual (and other) depravity, mental breakdown and finally something altogether worse. Despite hitting theaters 27 years ago, Videodrome remains as exciting, disturbing and relevant as ever.

Killer Cuts #11 - Undead

This visually-stunning-yet-low-budget Australian horror-comedy from 2003 has to be one of the more "unique" zombie pictures ever made, what with the meteor showers and space aliens and killer undead fish. Written, produced and directed by the Spierig brothers (who also crafted the VFX out of their garage), Undead is the sort of movie that holds nothing back in terms of throwing wacky sci-fi/horror concepts at the audience, and if wacky horror is your thing (fans of Peter Jackson's Brain Dead aka Dead Alive comes to mind), you'll find Undead to be crazy, gory, hilarious, and guaranteed to satisfy.

Killer Cuts #12 - Pontypool

Based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, and the subsequent radio drama of the same name, Pontypool manages to take a single-set, dialogue-heavy screenplay and turn it into a tension filled horror treat. Imagine the original War of the Worlds radio drama filmed a la Hitchcock's Rope, and that should give you some idea of the conceit and tone of Pontypool; the story of a news radio DJ who struggles to stay on the air despite the fact that the world (or at least a small borough in Canada) is going to hell in a hand basket.

I'm not going to give away the method by which all hell breaks loose, as this is part of the mystery and intrigue of Pontypool, and even though the catalyst of this chaos seriously strains credibility, it works as an effective fear mechanism if only because of the environs in which the narrative takes place.

Though Pontypool can drag on a bit, it maintains a high level of tension throughout and manages to deliver scares that may not make you jump or cringe, but ones that get under your skin and stay with you well after the end credits have rolled.


Killer Cuts, Part Four

By DC Green
Part Four of a Series

Killer Cuts #8 - The Funhouse

When I think of movies that exemplify the slasher genre of the 1980s, the usual suspects come to mind (Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but one movie that is often overlooked is Toby Hooper's criminally underrated The Funhouse, which in many ways stands as the anti-slasher film, a movie that, while embracing the conventions of the sub-genre, also seems to eschew them for more iconographical and emotional scares.

This is not to say that The Funhouse is a great movie, or even a great slasher picture...in fact, it sometimes pales in comparison to its more pop-culture friendly kinsman, especially when compared to the only slasher movie to truly transcend the sub-genre, the original Nightmare on Elm Street. The Funhouse is however an interesting and original movie, one that may reignite your old fear of clowns and of all things freakshow.

In many ways this unusually moody and emotionally driven slasher piece displays a deft touch in composition and storytelling that Hooper would later show in Poltergeist, but then subsequently lose all ability to repeat as he shot craptacular scare cinema like Lifeforce and The Mangler.

So when looking for a taste of something different in your slasher cinema, The Funhouse may be just what you need.

Killer Cuts #9 - The Devil's Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

The Devil's Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) is a spooky and atmospheric ghost tale cum gothic thriller from director Guillermo Del Toro (Blade 2, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth). Taking place at an Spanish orphanage in 1939 during Spain's civil war, The Devil's Backbone tells the tale of Carlos, a newly arrived young boy who finds himself encountering the dead spirit of a former resident, Santi, who appears with a cryptic warning that "many will die."

If and how this tragedy comes to pass, as well as the secret to Santi's mysterious death and other goings-on at the orphanage are all part of the giant mystery that is The Devil's Backbone. Superbly crafted with both beauty and elegance, this gothic gem is as emotionally moving as it is creepy.

As a word of warning, the film was originally shot in Spanish, but for those of you who can't stand reading subtitles, there is a tolerable English dub available as well.

John Huston: Key Largo

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews Key Largo (1948).

The first time the audience sees ex-Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), he’s riding a bus headed for Key Largo, and we see his reflection in the bus’s rearview mirror. This is our first symbolic clue that McCloud’s past informs his character and therefore also his future. He knows that change is difficult—at one point in the film he says, “Your head says one thing, your whole life says another; your head always loses.”

McCloud plans to tell George Temple’s survivors how he died and where he is buried. James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora (Lauren Bacall) operate the Hotel Largo, which is where most of the film’s action takes place.

Six other characters have taken up residence at the hotel, one of whom stays in his room upstairs. These guests are soon revealed to be gangsters involved in counterfeiting. Their boss, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), is in the country illegally, but has plans to return to his life in the States. He reveals his ruthlessness in several ways—keeping the hotel closed to the Seminoles who have traditionally stayed there during hurricanes, challenging McCloud to a duel but handing him a weapon that is later shown to be unloaded, and blaming the death of the deputy on a couple of Seminoles wanted by the police for escaping from custody.

Most heartbreaking, however, is the scene in which Rocco makes the oft-inebriated Gaye Dawn (Clare Trevor, an Oscar winner for her performance) sing a cappella for a drink; when her performance doesn’t meet with his approval, he refuses to supply her with alcohol. In a quiet but powerful rebuke of Rocco’s behavior, McCloud fixes a drink and gives it to Gaye. Trevor repeatedly asked Huston for rehearsal time, but the director kept delaying, insisting they had plenty of time; he gave her no warning before they shot the scene, and he used what they shot. The lack of rehearsal kept Trevor’s performance of the song rough and unpolished, and the scene is one of the most powerful on film in any era. The scene also shows what it takes for a person to make a significant change in their lives—Gaye is the only major character to significantly change the direction of her life by film’s end.

While Key Largo is a gangster film, Huston eschews some of the types of scenes that are usually expected of the genre—there are no chase scenes and no love scenes, for example. The director and actors create all the suspense, and they do so in confined spaces—a hotel boarded up for a hurricane, and later aboard a boat. The film inherits the confined spaces from the play on which it is based. Huston almost always chose good material to adapt to film, and Key Largo is no exception.



Killer Cuts, Part Three

By DC Green
Part Three of a Series

Killer Cuts #5, 6, 7 - ReAnimator, From Beyond, Dagon

For today's Killer Cuts we're going for the horror hat trick and featuring three films by director Stuart Gordon, all loosely based (and by “loose” I mean middle-aged porn actress loose) on stories by one Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Gordon is a director who I find to be hit or miss, but he seems at his strongest when adapting and modernizing Lovecraft, all the while adding his own sense of psycho-sexual perversion and dark humor to the proceedings.

Re-Animator is wrong on oh-so many levels, it is a darkly funny, disturbing and somewhat erotic take on obsession and lust. Anchored by a manic career-defining performance by Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator is a movie that for many reasons could not be made in today's extremely politically correct zeitgeist. Maybe it could, but I think modern pop culture would have a hard time getting past the headless cunnilingus. While we're on the subject, the fact that I used the words "headless cunnilingus" in describing the film should make you want to fire this guy up in the old DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming-whatever as you trek through your terror trove this Halloween.

From Beyond is a deeply flawed movie, particularly in the final act -- but up until then it delivers as much freaky dirty horror fun as one can legally have. Bringing back his leads from Re-Animator (Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton), Stuart Gordon goes deeper into the rabbit hole of pain and sex and pleasures of the flesh, almost but not quite stepping into Hellraiser territory. Yes, some of the effects in From Beyond are laughably bad, as is some of the dialogue, but ultimately a horror movie like this should (in equal parts) freak us out, disturb us a little, and do it all while titillating some primal urge within us. Despite its great and many flaws, From Beyond manages to do all of those things.

Dagon is the most recent of Gordon's attempts to adapt Lovecraft and is a movie that finds itself as the odd man out. Not as wild and fun as Re-Animator and not as memorable as From Beyond, Dagon is nonetheless a creepy and effective horror film, imbuing the viewer with a palpable sense of dread and discomfort.

Perhaps the thing that sets Dagon apart from Gordon's previous films on this list is a distinct sense of restraint. Call it the maturity of a director much more experienced than when he made his first two Lovecraft adaptations, or chalk it up to the natural result of a creepy setting that lends itself to suspense -- either way, Dagon is built on a potboiler framework with a sense of isolation that makes the movie quite effective. Those who prefer slow escalating scares to the madcap insanity of Re-Animator or the kink of From Beyond may find that Dagon is their favorite of the three.


Killer Cuts, Part Two

By DC Green
Part Two in a Series

Killer Cuts #3 - The Midnight Meat Train

With a name suitable only for horror or porn, The Midnight Meat Train is a disturbing mystery wrapped up in a gruesome riddle. Who exactly is Mahogany (snicker -- Vinnie Jones in what I swear IS NOT a porn movie) and what is his sinister purpose? This is exactly the question that art photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) seeks the answer to after his chance encounter with Mahogany, an encounter that leads Leon toward a dark destiny from which there is no escape.

Based on the short story by Clive Barker, The Midnight Meat Train is a brave sort of horror film, smarter than you'd think at first glance and willing to take you to unexpected places. While the ending has been found to be a bit divisive among horror fans, it doesn't matter whether you willingly accept the ending of the film or not, you'll enjoy the very stylish, very bloody trip there.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding this movie's release (or lack thereof) and it's kind of criminal how Lionsgate treated this film. After internal management changes, LIonsgate began pushing the release date of the movie back indefinitely, using their dollars to promote lesser films such as The Strangers (which I didn't think was nearly as effective as everyone else) and Saw IV, so they decided to bench MMM for an undisclosed period of time. After horror fans began clamoring for it by way of online petitions and requesting it for festivals, Lionsgate finally relented, releasing it in a limited engagement in August 2008 --- to second run theaters. That's right, this baby didn't go straight-to-DVD...it went straight to the dollar theater.

I don’t know about you, but with a title like The Midnight Meat Train, and given its relatively low budget, you would think that the Lionsgate marketing department would push it to an October release, and have a field day with this one. "This Halloween, don't drive to the party, take the train." The sexual innuendo and publicity via bad taste alone would be pure gold..."Up For Some Naughty Halloween Fun? Ride The Midnight Meat Train." Those aren't great examples, but you get the point. Bottom line: Don't make the same mistake as Lionsgate, do yourself a favor and ride the train this Halloween.

Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore) is an Italian horror comedy (don't worry, it's in English) that, like most Italian horror, is part gonzo fright film, part existential meditation. The one thing that Cemetery Man has over most of its Giallo progenitors is an actual plot, though in the Italian horror tradition, the ending of this one will leave you scratching your head. However, the sex, blood, humor and hypnotic visuals will ensure you stay happy in the process of getting there.

Buffalora, Italy, is a town permeated by strange happenings; the town is often subject to intermittent earthquakes, and ever more strangely, the dead residents of the cemetery like nothing more than to crawl themselves up from the ground, hungry for living flesh. Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the caretaker at the local cemetery, and is a man tasked with the most peculiar of jobs -- keeping the dead in their graves...a job with which Francesco is becoming more and more disillusioned.

Francesco's problems are further compounded when he falls in love with a newly widowed beauty, sending his life into twisted new entanglements. Cemetery Man is weird, sexy and way out there, a description that should earn it a place in your Halloween horror catalog.


Killer Cuts, Part One

By DC Green
Part One of a Series

When the calendar passes into October, my mind inevitably turns to Halloween...chills, thrills and more specifically, horror movies. As you may know, I'm a bit of a horror aficionado and love nothing more than settling down in a darkened room on a cool, crisp October night and spending some time with a few fright flicks.

So as I build my list of celluloid scares to spend time with this Halloween, I thought I would share some choice cuts with all of you to help build your own menu of macabre movies to enjoy in celebration of All Hallow's Eve. I'll profile a couple films a day for the next week or so as everyone prepares for their Halloween entertainment.

Killer Cuts #1 - Trick 'r Treat

Trick 'r Treat is a great throwback to horror anthologies such as Creepshow or Trilogy of Terror, or Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, though better than any of those. Writer/Director Michael Dougherty (screenwriter for X-Men 2 and Superman Returns) weaves a web of interrelated tales that include a school principal with bad intentions (Dylan Baker), a disturbing urban legend about a "school bus massacre", a red riding hood (Anna Paquin) who finds herself chased not by a wolf, but (ironically) by a vampire, and finally an encounter between the old neighborhood curmudgeon (Brian Cox) and the mysterious "Sackboy." The film is far from perfect, but it's a new Halloween classic—the sort of horror movie that hasn't been made in years; it's original, gory, creepy, disturbing and darkly funny.

It's a shame that Warner Bros. never released Trick 'r Treat theatrically, because a late October release would have made them the budget back on this baby and then some, particularly if they had released it soon after Anna Paquin earned her horror hottie cred with True Blood. Originally scheduled for release in 2007, WB put it on the shelf for two years and sat on it until fan outrage finally convinced them to release it straight-to-video last October. I suppose the ultimate audience for this movie would have been built on video anyway, but a theatrical release could have done wonders for its profile. Either way, do yourself a favor and stream or give Trick 'r Treat a spin in the player this Halloween.

Killer Cuts #2 - Splinter

This cinematic slice is a bit of a modern throwback as well, recalling the kind of creature features that have become such a rarity these days. Like John Carpenter's The Thing, where isolation and suspicion are used in conjunction with a truly horrifying enemy, Splinter uses this same formula to create a sense of panic and dread that sticks with you long after the movie is over.

A young couple (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) on a camping trip find themselves kidnapped by a fugitive (Shea Wigham) and his strung-out girlfriend, only for the four of them to face something much worse when they stop to fuel up.

Typically I find that F/X maestros don’t make for particularly effective directors (Stan Winston and Robert Kurtzman both come to mind), but with Splinter, director Toby Wilkins appears to have bucked the trend. Splinter is atmospheric, suspenseful and disturbing, and more importantly, it's realistic and respectful of both its characters and the situation in which they find themselves.

All in all, Splinter is a terrific way to fill one's modern monster movie quota when it comes to your Halloween horror choices, with the only caveat being that the shaky-cam filming style is a minor annoyance, but one that doesn't detract from the overall experience.