Boris Karloff is The Body Snatcher (1945)

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To view The Body Snatcher click here.

Director Robert Wise is widely regarded as a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents. In The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 critic Andrew Sarris famously labeled Wise’s output as “strained seriousness” asserting that the director’s “stylistic signature . . . is indistinct to the point of invisibility.” David Thompson parroted these claims in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film when he stated that Wise’s “better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance” and complained that his filmography was merely a “restless, dispiriting search among subject areas.” While it’s true that Wise explored a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, noir, westerns, musicals and war dramas, his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview and he possessed the extraordinary ability to elicit career-defining performances from many of the actors he worked with.

A few of the remarkable roles Wise nurtured and defined include Lawrence Tierney’s ruthless Sam Wilde in Born to Kill (1947), Robert Ryan’s down-and-out boxer in The Set-Up (1949), Michael Rennie’s peace-pursuing alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Susan Hayward’s doomed career criminal in I Want to Live! (1958), Rita Moreno’s spirited and vengeful Anita in West Side Story (1961), Julie Harris’s meek and melancholy Eleanor “Nell” Lance in The Haunting (1963) and Steve McQueen’s solitary sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). But my favorite acting feat in all of Wise’s directing oeuvre can be found in The Body Snatcher (1945). Currently streaming on FilmStruck, this classic Val Lewton production directed by Wise, stars Boris Karloff in what is arguably his most accomplished performance playing John Gray, a merciless grave robber with soul-piercing eyes and a bone-chilling grin.

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A Chilly Early Christmas: L’assassinat du Père Noël (1941)

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To view L’assassinat du Père Noël click here

First of all, let it be said that this film has one of my all-time favorite opening credit sequences. It’s almost a lost art these days how much impact you can have on an audience the first time they see a film’s title blasted on a theatrical screen stretching from floor to ceiling, and the one here is just killer. Sure, it’s always cool to see the words Gone with the Wind (1939) scrolling across in huge letters or Star Wars (1977) blasting in your face with the full John Williams musical treatment, but there’s something about the opening minute or so of L’assassinat du Père Noël (1941) that really grabs you by the throat as a lurching figure carrying a sack loaded with gifts stumbles to the camera in moody lighting, his hood and beard picking up an eerie glow from behind as he gets closer to the camera. It’s both sinister and charming, a perfect opener for a film that mixes those two qualities in great abundance. I don’t care if Woody Allen’s been recycling that same black background and Windsor font for decades now in his opening credits; I’m a sucker for a riveting curtain raiser like this, and hopefully you are, too. [...MORE]

The End of the Affair: Cynara (1932)

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To view Cynara click here.

Ronald Colman signed as a contract player with the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, cranking out heart-tugging romances all the way through the transition to sound, as in the 1932 production Cynara. A particularly “adult” pre-code drama, it frankly discusses extramarital affairs and suicide in a tone of disarming directness. Adapted from a hit play, Goldwyn wanted faithfulness to the material, though director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion sought ways to make this stage scenario more cinematic. The resulting film leads one to think that Goldwyn won most of the battles, as it is ends up as a very well-acted filmed play, though Vidor does find ways to be inventive at the edges. Ronald Colman, in his penultimate performance for Goldwyn, plays against type as a boring barrister who falls into an affair with a young shopgirl. He is no great lover, as he portrayed in a series of hit silents with Vilma Banky, but a nervous, guilt-ridden, self-flagellating one. Colman wasn’t happy with the film because it clashed with his established persona, but that is what makes the film so fascinating today.

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Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Tonight!

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To view A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum click here.

During the late 1950s, film adaptations of Broadway productions began to dominate the musical genre. Film historians such as Rick Altman, author of The American Film Musical, grumble about this trend, which often resulted in stilted adaptations or clumsy attempts to “open up” the original. According to Altman, adaptations lacked the freedom “to exploit the versatility of the film medium” compared to original film musicals. He compared Vincente Minnelli’s original musicals (An American in Paris [1951]) to his later Broadway adaptations (On a Clear Day [1970]) to make his point, which is valid.

I find A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) to be an exception. It’s light, breezy surface belies its modernist approach to production numbers, clever verbal humor and well-researched production design, making it a unique adaptation of the Broadway hit. Forum is currently streaming on FilmStruck along with other films by director Richard Lester.

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William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (’39)

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To view Wuthering Heights click here.

Following the success of Dead End (written about here) in 1937, director William Wyler headed over to Warner Bros. to direct Jezebel (1938), a romantic drama set in the antebellum South, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. The film was a critical and commercial success, and earned Davis her second Academy Award for Best Actress. Jezebel marked the first time that Wyler had tackled a period drama; one that is often held up against the more popular Gone with the Wind (1939), with many considering Jezebel the superior film—myself included. Thanks to Jezebel, Wyler proved that he could hold his own as a director outside the control of producer Samuel Goldwyn.

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A Roar, Not a Whimper: The Wind and the Lion (1975)

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To view The Wind and the Lion click here.

A stunning epic adventure that would have been a massive hit had it been released ten years earlier, The Wind and the Lion (1975) is one of those movies I always look forward to revisiting every few years. Its unusual, clear-eyed look at global relations and the weirdness of national politics hasn’t dated a bit, and in fact, I’d say time has helped this film look even better and more relevant than when it was originally released to respectful but muted reviews and box office sales. Additionally, it was only nominated for two Oscars, Best Sound and Best Music (Original Dramatic Score) for one of the best scores Jerry Goldsmith ever wrote. (However, Goldsmith would have to wait a year to bring home his first and only Academy Award for The Omen.) Despite the modest initial reception, I’m here to announce it’s a film worth exploring. [...MORE]

The Swashbuckling Lover: Bardelys the Magnificent (1926)

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To view Bardelys the Magnificent click here.

By 1926 director King Vidor and star John Gilbert were one of MGM’s most bankable duos, thanks to the massive success of their WWI drama The Big Parade (1925). They were immediately thrust into the similarly high-minded period piece La Bohème (1926), and were cast in The Glory Diggers, about the construction of the Panama Canal. But MGM had to drop the latter project, and to keep them working swiftly re-assigned both of them to Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) instead, a tongue-in-cheek romantic adventure in the Douglas Fairbanks mold. It was a departure for the duo, but they proved to have the appropriately light touch, and Gilbert flies across the screen as if sprung from a trampoline. Gilbert pokes fun at his “Great Lover” persona, here pushed into a seducer caricature of Casanovian proportions. Once thought lost, an incomplete print was discovered in France in 2006 and restored by Lobster Films. The third reel is missing, with that section filled in with inter-titles and stills. It is this version that is on DVD from Flicker Alley and is now streaming on FilmStruck.

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Revisiting On the Waterfront (1954)

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To view On the Waterfront click here.

In a limited engagement on FilmStruck, Criterion is streaming On the Waterfront (1954) through October 31. The offer also includes Criterion’s extensive bonus material package. I hope young subscribers will take this opportunity to watch the film, which should be on everyone’s must-see list. As mentioned by one of my readers recently, fewer and fewer young people are turning to classic films for their viewing pleasure. Unable to see beyond the black and white surface and unfamiliar stars, they assume “old movies” have little to offer them.

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The Bleak Reality of William Wyler’s Dead End (1937)

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To view Dead End click here.

Following the success of These Three and the film adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (written about here and here), both released in 1936, William Wyler brought another popular Broadway play to the screen: Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. Kingsley’s play tells the story of a group of young boys growing up in poverty in the slums of New York. With no clear-cut path to a decent life, the boys have nothing better to do but to find trouble, resorting to a life of petty theft, gambling and bullying. After seeing the play in its original run, both Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn were interested in adapting Kingsley’s work to the screen. The characters’ struggles were relatable for a Depression-era audience, and while it was risky to make a realistic film for an audience desperate for escapism, Wyler had proven that he could make a film that was both serious and entertaining. Goldwyn purchased the film rights and immediately began production. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, Dead End (1937) was a relatively faithful adaptation of Kingsley’s play. When casting the gang of young boys, Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t having much luck, so he decided to bring several of the boys from the original stage production, including Billy Halop and Leo Gorcy, to Hollywood, offering them a contract. This marked the beginning of the famed “Dead End Kids.”

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Untapped Fears: The Plumber (1979)

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To view The Plumber click here.

Our fears take many forms. I was born and (mostly) raised in California so it’s probably not surprising that I fear natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, which are currently ravaging the place I call home. Others are terrified by serial killers and mad gunmen such as the Las Vegas shooter who recently killed 59 people and wounded nearly 500 others. There are those who fear monstrous creatures like werewolves, giant apes and vampires and some who have phobias triggered by clowns, arachnids or great heights. War, disease and the death of loved ones are typically things we all fear. In the case of Peter Weir’s The Plumber (1979), the main protagonist fears a discourteous plumber who invades her privacy and personal space during a string of ill-timed repairs.

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