The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

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The Most Dangerous Game (1932, dir. Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack) knows what it is and doesn’t hold back. Starting with its mysterious opening credits (that Max Steiner theme tune!), it lets us know straight-away what we’re getting into.

A ship sails through a channel off the South American coast. Aboard is Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), a big game hunter, and his wealthy friends, who engage in a debate about hunting for sport. Rainsford opines that there are two kind of people in the world: those who hunt and those who are hunted. Shortly afterwards, there’s a crash. The ship sinks with nearly everyone in it and, after two of the passengers are eaten by a shark, Bob becomes the only survivor. He emerges in a small island, and stumbles on a sinister mansion. As it becomes clear that he’s not the only ‘guest’, Bob realizes that the tables have turned… 

Right from the beginning all the way to the movie’s heart-stopping climax, The Most Dangerous Game is non-stop thrill-fest. And like with most horror pictures, the villain is the most interesting character. Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), the owner of the house and a big game hunter himself, is an eccentric, well-spoken, clever, peculiar-looking, homicidal maniac who takes sadistic pleasure in killing (‘Kill, then love… when you have known that, you have known ecstasy..’). His fortress is certainly a reflection of his self-absorption: a menacing, sinister place in the middle of a deserted island, with perhaps the creepiest knocker you’ll ever see – making its second appearance after the credits. Because it’s horror, Bob walks into this gothic house, and the door closes behind him, revealing Ivan (Noble Johnson), the servant. We’re in. And as Zaroff comes walking down the stairs, elegantly dressed and scar-faced, we realize that this is not going to end well. Bob is stuck, locked in, in a way that is reminiscent of William Holden in Sunset Blvd (1950). And there’s a sort of party going on. A strange party of four, consisting of himself, Zaroff, and siblings Eve (Fay Wray) and Martin (Robert Armstrong), two passengers from the previous ship-wreck. Things get even stranger, as Zaroff and Bob exchange opinions about hunting that lead to philosophical existential questions which contribute to the reversal of role identity (villains vs hero) of both Zaroff and Bob, as we’re forced to answer their questions ourselves and decide what’s wrong and what’s right in this underrcurent debate of hunters and huntees. However, as this goes on, Zaroff slowly reveals his true intentions… The most dangerous game is that of hunting men, of course (sexual undertones galore in this one!) and by the time Bob realizes this, it’s too late.

One of the most thrilling pictures of its day, The Most Dangerous Game still holds up fantastically well today and is often thought to be the finest adaptation of Richard Connell’s classic story – and there have been quite a lot. Not to mention that Zaroff, as well as Banks’ outstanding perfomance, should rightfully go down on history as one of the greatest villains in horror history.

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DOUBLE BILL #19: The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolfman (1941)

Horror is fascinating. Horror characters are fascinating. Whether they’re human, or monsters in the classic sense, the many complexities that you find in all of them are equally disturbing and wonderful. And The Invisble Man (1933) and The Wolfman (1941) are two of the finest in the bunch.

The Invisible Man (1933) starts in an English inn on a cold winter night. A heavily bandaged man, wearing a hat and dark goggles, comes in from the cold and asks for a room upstairs. The landlady, played by Una O’Connor, informs him they don’t rent out rooms at this time of year, but the man insists. Two weeks later, landlord Mr Hall (Forest Harvey) attempts to evict him for not paying rent, leading the man to push him down the stairs. The police arrives and as they confront him, the man removes his bandages and to everyone’s surprise, he’s invisible. This is Dr Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), a chemist who has discovered the invisibility drug. Unfortunately, the side effects are brutal and he becomes insane…

James Whales’ adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel is widely regarded as one of the ultimate horror movies of all time, rightly so. Apart from its innovative special effects, which are still astonishing to watch, its ironic humanization – however you want to look at it – of the invisible man does not go unnoticed. The invisibility drug renders Dr Griffin insane and power-hungry and, in a speech to Kemp (William Harrigan), whom he has forced to be his visible partner, he vows to take over the world, by committing a ‘few murders here and there’ and asserting his reign of terror, stating that an invisible man could rule the world, He’s an out-and-out monster. And he’s unapologetic about it. He’s a menacing, malicious, murderous monster. And a human one at that. Literally. This is clearly a clever nod to the audience and that message still holds up beautifully. Claude Rains’ performance as the titular invisible man is nothing short of amazing. Relying purely on his physicality and his voice, probably the most beautiful male voice in Classic Hollywood, he delivers a thouroughly convincing, horrifyingly scary performance that could not have been more perfect for his American movie debut. Especially because of how complex it is. It’s not just scary, there’s also a human side to it, in the form of Flora (Gloria Stuart), his fiancee and the only person he shows any affection towards. This humanity almost shifts the character’s identity from villain to tragic anti-hero. Almost. Were it not for his truly disturbing deeds. Is he the most dangerous of all the classic monsters? Maybe. But if he’s the most dangerous, then the Wolfman is surely one of the most tragic.

In The Wolfman (1941) (.dir. George Waggner), Larry Talbot Jr (Lon Chaney Jr) returns home after an eighteen-year absense to make up with his father (Claude Rains) after the death of his brother. While there, he meets and falls in love with Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), who works at an antiques shop. As a way of striking up a conversation, he buys a walking stick decorated with the head of a werewolf. That same night, in an attempt to save Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) from a wolf attack, he kills it with his walking stick but is bitten in the process. Later, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), a fortune teller, tells him the wolf was actually his son Bela (Bela Lugosi) and that he too will be transformed into a wolf…

Boasting one of the greatest scripts if its genre, The Wolfman is a lot more complex than it might seem at first. It is, essentially, a psychological drama that takes on the form of a horror picture, so to speak. Larry Talbot is a tragic figure. He craves the love and approval of his father, and he never seems to fully get it. What’s more, he never has. We understand that straight-away during their first meeting. Later on, he seeks the companionship of a woman by creepily watching her from his bedroom and then lusting after her (predator-like?) even though she’s already engaged. He seems to be entirely unadjusted to the society he walked back into, and he’s quite repressed. Depressed even. Which certainly suggests that the psychological angle is stronger than we may think. Does he become a werewolf as a sort of response to his emotional needs? As a way of coping with it? The mere fact that he doesn’t seem to want to be a werewolf, trying his hardest to get away from it, suggests denial. The movie’s brutal ending – featuring one of Claude Rains’ best movie moments – is all the more horrible because of the psychological aspect of it. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a truly scary atmosphere here. There is. Enveloped in fog right from the off, starting on the night of Larry and Gwen’s first date, the mood is eerie, dark and spooky. And it’s magnificent.

The similarities and contrasts between these two main characters are quite striking. One of the things that I find interesting about them is that they seem to come from a background that wouldn’t lend itself to this sort of thing. One is a chemist, the other comes from a rich, well-regarded family, yet they’re both fighting their demons, despite (or maybe because of) their background. I also like the fact that the Invisble Man is very much a visible figure, in the sense that everyone’s aware of him and he himself doesn’t hide or try to conceal what he is or what he wants to achieve. The Wolfman, on the other hand, is a mysterious creature, to the point where most of the villagers and even Larry himself doubt its existence. This is certainly evident in the opening sequence in both movies. In The Invisble Man, we open on a cold, snowy night, after which the mood of the inn is disturbed by our man, who walks in and demands a room, bandaged up but not really afraid to show himself. Larry Talbot’s entrance is quite the opposite. The Wolfman starts off innocently enough, in the main family home, seemingly protected by this very notion of the ‘family home’. This isn’t to last of course, but that won’t be for a while. The Invisible Man, in other words, doesn’t pull any punches. The Wolfman reveals itself slowly… Their respective townspeople’ own perspective of them certainly corroborates this. Everyone in the English village is utterly terrified of the Invisible Man, whereas the villagers in The Wolfman are quite relunctant to the mere thought that there might be a werewolf walking around. The psychological aspect, again, contributes to this. The Invisible Man’s assured, arrogant attitude and The Wolfman’s resistance in accepting himself lead the two movies down very different, yet kind of similar paths.

Again, it’s a fascinating genre and one that can lead to several discussions. That’s what I find amazing about it, and that’s what I love about these two movies and these two characters. Apart from the fact that they’re both truly, genuinely terrifying in their own way. Besides, you can’t go wrong with Claude Rains!

 

The horror…!

October’s here (have I been doing this for every month?) and while I’d like to think I’m an open-minded film buff, I keep telling people (and myself) that ‘horror’s not really one of my favorite genres’ in casual conversations. There’s no real reason for it, other than the fact that I really haven’t given it much thought or made a real effort to properly watch some horror flicks. As I’ve said many times, I don’t like it when I don’t like a movie. And I especially don’t like it when it’s a whole genre. I used to feel that way about Westerns (again, no particular reason) and then The Searchers (1956) and Stagecoach (1939) changed my mind (I love Stagecoach a whole lot more than I would have guessed I would). So… guess what I’ll be doing this October?! You’re darn right. It’s time to finally give horror a chance. Here I go…

COMEDY GOLD #9: Gossip from The Women (1939)

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Look, I like what The Women (1939) meant to do. I like the whole thing about it having an all-female cast, about it being about women and everything. Unfortunately, I’ve always felt that it missed the mark entirely. Yes, it’s hilarious. Yes, it’s got a great cast (understatement!). But its depiction of women and female friendships and relationships does have its problems, which is ironic considering a woman wrote the play it’s based on (Clare Booth Luce) and two women wrote the screenplay (Anita Loos and Jane Murfin).

Directed by everyone’s favorite ‘woman’s director’, George Cukor, The Women is all about their men. More precisely, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer)’s husband, who’s having an affair with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), which apparently everyone else knows about – gossip! With a cast boasting comedy queens Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell, one would be tempted to pick a scene with either of them, but actually my personal favorite scene is the one where the cook, Maggie (Mary Cecil) and the maid, Jane (Muriel Hutchison) are having a detailed conversation – gossiping – about an argument that Mary had with her husband. What I like about it is that it just seems so uttery innocent, unlike the ‘catty’ tone of nearly every other interaction throughout the film. Jane genuinely cares about Mary, and Maggie delivers one-liner after one-liner, which more often than not comes with sane advice – again, unlike the rest of the film.

I suppose I have a love-hate relationship with The Women. I admire its boldness, I like how special it was back in the day and I love Norma Shearer’s performance as Mary, the only truly sympathetic character in a sea of stereotypes. But is it really the best classic movie about women and their relationships with each other? No. Stage Door (1937) is. Still, The Women is a comedy triumph and one of the most iconic movies from Hollywood’s greatest ever year.

 

Cool Mitchum…

We all know Robert Mitchum was THE coolest cat. And Out of the Past (1947) might just be the coolest he’s ever been. But one scene that never gets mentioned is the one that I personally rewind at least three times every time I watch it. No, not ‘Baby I don’t care’, although that one is certainly fantastic. I’m talking about the scene towards the end, where he enters the club, walks up the stairs, walks into the manager’s office, punches him, answers the phone in his most nonchalant ‘yeah’, picks up the file he’s looking for, lights a cigarette and walks out again. All seemingly done in one extraordinarily smooth go. Pure class.

September Madness

It’s been a crazy week. I turned 26 on Sunday and then this week I moved house, which means that not only am I exhausted, I also haven’t had time to watch any movies! Not good. I’m all settled now, so everything should be getting back to normal. Movie night tonight? Oh yeah.

DOUBLE BILL #18: Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957)

collagecvjkfIt’s not unusual for a director to remake their own movie. Hitchcock did it, Cecil B. DeMille did it (twice!), and Leo McCarey did it. Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957) are two of the greatest romantic films of all time and while it’s easy to make that claim about a whole array of movies, these two surely stand out from the crowd, precisely because of McCarey’s sensitivity, subtetly and humanity as a director.
In Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957), Terry McKay (Irene Dunne/Deborah Kerr) and Michel Marnet/Nickie Ferrante (Charles Boyer/Cary Grant) fall in love aboard a transatantic ship, while engaged to other people. As a result, they vow to meet again on top of the Empire State Building in six months so they can finally be together. It’s a tale as old as Hollywood itself and like so, it has been remade, copied and referenced countless times, because why not? Its message is timeless, and both films are just lovely enough and poignant enough to balance themselves between romantic comedy and romantic melodrama. The simplicity and straight-forwardness move the story along effortlessly and its comedic value adds to what would undoubtedly be a soppy tale otherwise. On top of this, the performances of the two leads are obviously the stand-out points of each film. In Love Affair, Boyer’s debonair coolness and Dunne’s endearing wit and charm are a wonderful combination and the two enjoy great chemistry and ease with each other. In An Affair to Remember, Kerr and Grant play Terry and Nickie with just as much grace, ease and confort as their counterparts. Kerr’s ability with comedy and drama (and a wonderful touch of sarcasm) rivals that of Dunne, who’s always been known for that, while both Boyer and Grant bring a touch of class and irresistible sophistication to their roles, without ever losing the depth of their characters, even though Boyer’s Michel is much less reserved about his playboy reputation. This has perhaps to do with the more relaxed tone of Love Affair. While incredibly moving, Love Affair has a 1930s romantic dramedy feel (McCarey’s glorious period), while An Affair to Remember has a darker tone to it. It was made 18 years after Love Affair, and in that time, McCarey’s life had eerily mimicked that of Terry McKay and her tragic accident, which might explain the ‘life is too short’ type of vibe in An Affair to Remember. Love Affair is perhaps more carefree, while An Affair to Remember is wiser. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a great deal of sentiment and maturity in Love Affair. There is. Not least because of the grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya, in a role later played by Cathleen Nesbitt), a sort of figure of wisdom in both films.

Personally, I adore both of them. They’re nearly virtually identical and equally great. If pushed, I’d say I might prefer An Affair to Remember, simply because of that wonderful, immortal line, ‘Winder must be cold for those with no warm memories. We’ve already missed the spring.’ Oh Deborah, why must you do this to me?

 

 

COMEDY GOLD #8: The tiara scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

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There isn’t one second of this movie I don’t love. On the surface, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (dir. Howard Hawks) might seem slightly dated these days but, in reality, it’s actually quite subversive in a rather subtle way. Yes, Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) are man-hungry and money-obsessed, respectively, but they’re both highly intelligent, extremelly witty and their friendship is one of the greatest relationships ever in film. In what can be described as a rather simple and somewhat old-fashioned plot, the showgirls and best friends travel to Paris on a cruise ship looking for love, money, sex and diamonds, and while that might seem quite silly, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is utterly funny, sweet and adorable, not to mention understatedly progressive.

In one of the movie’s many, MANY funny moments, Lorelei meets Piggy Beekman, the owner of a diamond mine, played by the always wonderful Charles Coburn, and immediately begins flirting with him, due to his wealth. When his wife Lady Beekman (Norma Varden) arrives, she shows Lorelei her tiara, which she always carries in her purse, because she’s ‘afraid to leave it in the stateroom’. ‘And you’re not afraid to show it to Lorelei?’, Dorothy replies, in her usual way. Lorelei asks to hold the tiara and tries putting it around her neck. She’s baffled when Dorothy says it goes on her head, and when Lady Beekman tells her that that is indeed how you wear it, Lorelei puts it on and replies ‘I just love finding new places to wear diamonds!’.

I love this little scene, so simple and yet so funny. And I especially love Dorothy’s quips, which are a standout throughout the film. The contrast between the two friends is one of the things that make their friendship so loving and strong. No matter what happens, they’re always there for each other, and while they spend most of the time talking about men – kind of inevitable given the plot – you can tell they care deeply about one another. BFF goals.

DOUBLE BILL #17: Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

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Summer’s here, so I thought I’d go for a summer-themed Double Bill this month. And yeah, there’s a lot to choose from, but in the end, I went with… Esther Williams! And why not? Why not watch a couple of Esther Williams films, you know, the ones where she’s in the pool all the time? They’re fun, they’re sweet, they’re gooooorgeous and they have that harmless summer-y loveliness that makes you feel all warm inside.

Thrill of a Romance (dir. Richard Thorpe) is a perfectly charming film about a swimming instructor named Cynthia (Williams) who falls with war veteran Tommy (Van Johnson) while on her honeymoon. A fairly straight-forward plot, the film enjoys a supporting cast that very nearly steals the show, with Henry Travers and Spring Byington providing the laughs as Cynthia’s uncle and aunt, and Big Band icon Tommy Dorsey and opera singer Lauritz Melchior giving the movie that all-too-familiar MGM musical flair. Despite its stupid title, Thrill of a Romance is a lot better than it sounds. It isn’t the greatest of summertime romance movies, but it is absolutely lovely and thouroughly entertaining, albeit slightly dated. Besides, it’s an MGM picture! If nothing else, you get to look at it. It’s colorful, it’s extravagant, it’s bright and those bathing suits! Oh! I hate to use the expression ‘guilty pleasure’, but if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is.

Million Dollar Mermaid (dir. Mervyn LeRoy) stars Esther Williams as pioneering Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman and documents the early part of Kellerman’s life, from her childhood to her rise to stardom, highlighting her struggles, achievements and influence. The film co-stars Walter Pidgeon as Frederick Kellerman, her stern but supportive father and Victor Mature as Jimmy Sullivan, her manager and romantic interest. Often considered Esther Williams’ most iconic film, Million Dollar Mermaid is a suprisingly progressive film and it should not be underestimated. The similarities between Kellerman’s and Williams’ own life – both started out as swimmers, then went on be in movies – are apparent and, let’s face it, there was nobody more suited for this than Williams, who delivers a fine, slightly atypical and informed performance as the Australian icon. On top of this, Million Dollar Mermaid is an MGM spectacle, you know, the kind MGM was so outrageously good at, full of color, big, beautiful sets and breath-takingly stunning musical numbers.

Thrill of a Romance and Million Dollar Mermaid are fine films in their own right, as well as perfect summertime entertainment. I love this sort of stuff. I wouldn’t mind spending all day watching MGM extravaganzas and while these two are not necessarily my favorite summer flicks, you can’t go wrong with either of them. Besides, I thought I’d give Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) a break for once. Even I’m sick of talking about it.