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]

Guess Who Killed The Woman in Question (1950)

THE WOMAN IN QUESTION, from left: Jean Kent, Dirk Bogarde, 1950

To view The Woman in Question click here.

My mother loved mysteries. Loved them. It was her favorite genre (science fiction and adventure were a close second and third) and whenever I discover a new one, it makes me think of her. One of the pleasures of watching a good mystery is trying to figure out who did it – I’m sorry, I meant whodunit – before the detective, amateur or pro, reveals everything at the end. In many cases, there simply isn’t enough information because the writer is holding out so that the reader/viewer can’t figure out the ending. I’m sure there are many mystery fans that like that but I prefer being able to figure it out, if I can, and when I get it right, there’s a sense of satisfaction, not disappointment. I discovered a new mystery recently (new to me I mean, it was made in 1950), The Woman in Question (aka, Five Angles on Murder), directed by Anthony Asquith, and starring Jean Kent as the titular character, Agnes/Astra, a palm reader at the amusement park and, unfortunately for her, a murder victim. We get to know her and the situation surrounding her murder from five people who knew the victim. And, yes, I figured out whodunit. And, no, that didn’t ruin the movie for me.

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It’s Okay with Me: The Long Goodbye (1973)

THE LONG GOODBYE, Elliott Gould, 1973

As with many years past, I’m spending the transitional period between Christmas and New Year’s in Los Angeles — and as anyone else around here can tell you, it’s a calm but vaguely spooky environment. All of the usual traffic jams and chattering people have temporarily vanished into the ether, leaving a city still filled with sunlight, palm trees and holiday decorations everywhere. We’ve seen a lot of notable films shot in L.A. over the decades (and you can sample most of them in the superb documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself), but the one that really captures this eerie feeling of being in L.A. at winter time (even if it isn’t specifically set at that time of year) is The Long Goodbye (1973), one of the great ’70s noir films and a highlight in the career of director Robert Altman. [...MORE]

Venomous Snakes & Poison Ants: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” – Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings, the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

This puzzling pastoral horror picture is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Cinema Passport: Australia series, a curated selection of films from the land down under that also includes Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Watched together these films provide a thought-provoking introduction to the Australian New Wave that emerged in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Unlike many other international New Wave film movements that launched in the 1960s, Australia’s got a late start but the results are equally compelling.

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Truffaut’s Waltz into Darkness

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Though he still doesn’t quite enjoy household name status, Cornell Woolrich might be the most influential American mystery writer of the past century. The adaptations are an obvious place to start with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) leading the pack, but his real legacy is the way he permanently embedded modern thrillers with recurring themes of the unreliability of memory, the pitfalls of falling in love with someone you think you know and the inescapable darkness that can claim even the most virtuous of souls. If you want to find out where films like Memento (2000) and The Usual Suspects (1995) came from, look no further than this master storyteller.

Hollywood really jumped on the Woolrich bandwagon in the ‘40s with a slew of radio adaptations as well as fascinating films like The Leopard Man (1943), Phantom Lady (1944), The Chase (1946), and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948). The big screen took less of an interest in him the following decades as television honed in on him instead, churning out numerous versions of his novels and short stories for home viewers on such programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. The 1960s would prove to be Woolrich’s last decade on earth with his passing in 1968, but he had another resurgence from a most unlikely source: acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut.

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Beware of Birds: Crow Hollow (1952)

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Actress Natasha Parry, star of Crow Hollow (1952)

Crow Hollow (1952) is a little seen low-budget British B-movie typically categorized as Film Noir in the few books where I’ve seen it mentioned. After catching up with it recently I discovered that it had much more in common with Gothic mysteries, Gaslight (1940) inspired thrillers and classic “Old Dark House” movies. Directed economically by Michael McCarthy, who excelled in television and made a number of suspenseful WW2 dramas such as The Accursed (1957) and Operation Amsterdam (1959), the film lacks the stylish flourishes and sophisticated set pieces that the material cries out for. But it is held together by some sharp performances and a twisty plot based on a book by Dorothy Eden and it’s Eden’s involvement that drove me to watch Crow Hollow.

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The Thin Man Marathon: Conjugal Concord

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If you are planning to spend New Year’s Eve at home this year you will find some great company on TCM where Nick and Nora Charles, as played by the dapper William Powell and charming Myrna Loy, will hold court while sipping cocktails, trading quips and solving crimes along with their lovable dog Asta. The party kicks off at 8PM EST/ 5PM PST beginning with the original The Thin Man (1934) followed by all five of the Thin Man sequels airing in chronological order; After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). Tune in and you’ll encounter some holiday cheer as well as lots of laughs and mysterious goings-on set amid the urbane elegance of nineteen thirties New York and San Francisco.

There are many reasons to love the Thin Man films. They’re smart, funny, sophisticated and flat out entertaining mysteries but I’m particularly fond of the way they make marriage look so damn fun. Nick and Nora are best pals as well as romantic mates and their breezy back-and-forth banter suggests an intimacy that is sadly missing from many depictions of marriage on screen. Best of all, they share a similar sense of humor and as the old maxim goes, “a couple that laughs together, stays together.”

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Nameless Fear: The Lost Moment (1947)

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Lost_MomentI felt the past closing all around me like a fog, filling me with a nameless fear.
- Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings)

After enjoying many of the Susan Hayward films that aired on TCM last month, I decided to seek out some of her other work and in the process I stumbled across The Lost Moment (1947). And as regular readers know, I usually focus my attention on horror films and thrillers during the month of October and this neglected black-and-white gem that tells a haunting story about lost love and an unspeakable crime of passion is the perfect film to kick-start the season of scaring.

This surprisingly sumptuous Universal production takes place in Venice where an ambitious publisher named Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings), disguises himself as a writer and takes lodging in a sprawling waterway estate owned by the 105-year-old lover (Agnes Moorehead) of a renowned poet who disappeared under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He hopes to gain access to a stash of love letters written by the poet to his lady love but the woman’s stern niece (Susan Hayward) suspects that the publisher is up to no good. While attempting to find the missing letters, Cummings’s character uncovers many horrible family secrets hidden within the walls of the crumbling cobweb coated estate that he hadn’t bargained for.

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Two on the Run: DEADLY STRANGERS (1975)

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In case you haven’t noticed, Sterling Hayden is TCM’s Star of the Month and I’ve enjoyed catching up with the tall, blond and brawny actor’s filmography on Wednesday nights. Today Hayden is best remembered by film lovers for his memorable roles in a number of classic noirs and westerns that air on TCM regularly as well as subsequent standout parts in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972) and Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Late in life, Hayden also made a brief but notable appearance in an unusual thriller called DEADLY STRANGERS (1975), which I was compelled to revisit again over the weekend. Directed by the talented Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS; 1960, BURN WITCH BURN; 1962, THE TRAP; 1966, REVENGE; 1971, A BRIDGE TOO FAR; 1977, Etc.) and starring Hayley Mills along with Simon Ward, this low-budget British horror effort may not rate as one of Hayden’s finest hours among his devoted fans but I think the film is worthy of reconsideration due to its smart direction and probable influence on beloved horror classics including John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN (1978).

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Aaahoo! She-Wolf of London (1946)

swlposterThe setting is London in the early 1900s, where a young Scottish woman named Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing to wed her beau (Don Porter). The happy couple’s plans are interrupted when someone or something begins killing locals at a nearby park. Terrified Phyllis is certain an old Scottish curse that has plagued her family for centuries is turning her into a bloodthirsty werewolf while she sleeps but her domineering aunt Martha (Sara Haden ) and lovesick cousin Carol (Jan Wiley) seem to think otherwise. Is Phyllis a werewolf? Is she going mad? Or is something else even more sinister stalking the nearby park under the cover of night? SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946) is often dismissed as one of the lessor entries in the Universal monster cannon but while watching this briskly paced B-movie again recently after decades of reading numerous dismissals, I was swept up by the films moody atmosphere and shaken by its surprising brutality. The film may not satisfy viewers anticipating a typical monster movie but SHE-WOLF OF LONDON has plenty of things to recommend it and with Halloween quickly approaching it seemed like the perfect time to praise its unsung sinister charm.

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