The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat poster

Running time: 01:04:00
Writers: Edgar Allen Poe (not really), Edgar G. Ulmer and Peter Ruric
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

A shout out to Turner Classic Movies for giving me an opportunity to see this flick after harumph years, uncut and commercial-free. I remembered it as disturbing and stilted, but maturity has given me new insights (I think I last saw this film when I was about 12). Man, what a movie!

What’s interesting about The Black Cat are the following three things, in this order:

1. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together without monster makeup!

2. That house!

3. How can such an awful movie be so amazingly mesmerising?

Let’s take these points in reverse order, after a brief plot summary.

While on honeymoon in Hungary (huh?), milksop idiot couple Peter and Joan Allison (David Manners and Julie Bishop under the stage name of “Jacqueline Wells”) find themselves sharing a seat with kindly but creepy Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) and his hulking manservant Thamal (Harry Cording). There are accidents, and the foursome end up at the home of Werdegast’s best friend/arch enemy, Hjalmar Poelzip (Karloff). While Joan recovers and Peter stumbles about moronically, Werdegast plots to kill Poelzig for his having married and killed Werdegast’s wife and daughter (or so he thinks).

When the truth is revealed and the idiot milksop couple hopelessly entangled, the reality is far more sinister than even Werdegast had imagined. In a fantastic climax, the evil Poelzig is flayed alive by Werdegast (who, despite being nutty as a fruitcake, is the good guy here) who then is shot by a misunderstanding Peter, and the milksop idiot couple move on to the milksop idiot denoument. The (very rushed) end.

Yes, it’s pretty much Standard Horror Plot #37 with a couple of nice twists. One of them is that Lugosi’s character is frightened to death of cats, so much so that he kills one in front of everyone (and nobody bats an eyelash). This is the movie’s only connection to the Edgar Allan Poe story on which it’s ostensibly based.

What makes this movie stand out from the thick river of horror movies produced around the same time is that so much of the actual horror is understated or imagined rather than actually seen by the viewer. This is as close to radio as a horror movie is likely to get!

Instead of blood, guts, gore or monsters to keep up on the edge or our seats, director Ulmer uses eye-poppingly gorgeous Bauhaus sets, costumes and hairstyles, and extremely Ayn Rand-ian performances from Karloff and Lugosi. Their “creepy” phasers were set on “kill” in this one. Stripped of their usual arsenal of makeup, they rely on their great chemistry to light up the set, and they do so easily every time. The architecture of the house and interior sets are so stunning that it should get third billing, behind Karloff and Lugosi but ahead of Manners and Bishop. As another reviewer noted, “architectural nuts probably rent this movie as architecture porn. The house is that cool.” She’s absolutely right.

Once it’s revealed that Karloff (who beautifully underplays his evil) is a Satan worshipper who sacrificed his wife (Werdegast’s former wife) and married Werdegast’s daughter (I told you this was hella creepy!) and has his eyes on sacrificing Joan Allison to the nether gods, we speed all too rapidly to the finale. The first two-thirds of the film are all just getting to the house and then Lugosi and Karloff threatening each other as only old pals can, the last 20 minutes literally fly by with action.

The climax, as I mentioned above, is really quite stylish and stunning, ruined only by the ridiculous denoument, which any viewer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show will have seen coming a mile off (incidentally, this is not the only influence The Black Cat had on Richard O’Brien’s little moneyspinner).

Most “bad” movies are laughably bad, easy to dismiss. This one is laughably bad in a load of places (have I mentioned Karloff’s hair? Chant it with me now: KAR-LOFF’S HAAAAAAIIIIRRRR!), but is hardly easy to dismiss. That’s probably why it still stands out 70 years after it debuted. If you’re ready for something off-beat, classic yet wonderfully dated, silly and scary all at the same time, you are ready to cross paths with The Black Cat.

My rating: Highly Recommended

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The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Running time: 01:03:00
Writers: Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson
Director: Wes Anderson

Finally got a chance to see this movie, one of the few times I’ve ever looked forward to an “all-star” vehicle. At the time of this writing, I have seen Anderson’s Bottle Rockets but I haven’t yet seen the one film of his my friends keep commending to me, Rushmore. Normally when you get a cast of this calibre together, you end up with some overblown nonsense like Cannonball Run or the recent Rat Race, but this time there is no attempt to have a story as grand as the actors, and the focus is smaller and more personal — an approach that seems to work.

Anderson is known for his quirky characters, and The Royal Tenenbaums is little more than a parade of such personalities. Each member has a oddity that is uniquely theirs, a desperate cry for individuality in a family made up almost entirely of facades and a lie to themselves that they are not part and parcel of that facade.

The movie really belongs to Gene Hackman, who brings out his best “comedic scoundrel” persona and moves the plot along with his various plots and embellishments. Royal Tenenbaum (the man) is a perfect homage to a bygone movie stereotype — the lovable but penniless schemer who will do anything to hold on to that last shred of dignity. He is enabled in this by his faithful manservant and would-be assassin Pagoda (scene-stealing Kumar Pallana) and his bellboy and (fake) doctor, Dusty (Seymour Cassel). Like the lovable con artists of yore, Tenenbaum’s deceptions are usually quickly unmasked, but he effortlessly and unrepentantly puts up another in the blink of an eye.

A key scene to illustrate this occurs early in the film, where Royal first contacts his wife Etheline (Angelica Huston) as part of his plan to win her back and move back into their home. He tells her that she has to help him because he is dying of an unspecified disease (a lie, naturally). When her reaction to this news (she hasn’t seen or spoken to him in 14 years) is much stronger than he anticipated, he changes stories and tells her he’s fine. When she gets angry at the deception, he changes stories again. It reminded me of a kid trying to suss out what to tell the folks and trying to tailor his lie to what he thinks they want to hear — before that skill is really fully developed.

The actual plot of the film is rather thin: Royal discovers that another man is wooing his wife and decides that even if she no longer wants him, she can’t have anybody else — a typically selfish position that most everyone in the film shares. He tries to interfere with with his wife’s developing love life while simultaneously winning over his estranged children and their offspring and/or partners in a series of goofy vignettes that often fail but always amuse. The real appeal of TRT is in it’s Welles-meets-Wodehouse literary style, the memorable characters and the delight the filmmaker has in setting up absurd situations and following them to their conclusions.

Each of the grown-children Tenenbaums share their father’s inability to live up to their name: In particular, Gwyneth Paltrow’s uncanny Margot Kidder impersonation as Margot (who makes much hay of her secret obsessions) and Ben Stiller as a too-wound-up Chas (who has forgotten the meaning of the word “relax” so completely that he thinks wearing a track suit 24 hours a day will make up the difference) stand out. Bill Murray contributes as Margot’s long-suffering husband but doesn’t really get the chance to shine that I’d have hoped for. Luke Wilson’s troubled Richie (in love with his adopted sister — a surprisingly dark turn in an otherwise lighthearted film) is masterfully underplayed compared to Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), who is meant to be the comic relief in a film full of comic despair. Doesn’t quite work in my opinion.

The outrageously good soundtrack (compiled by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and made up heavily of forgotten touchstone songs of the target audience’s youth — songs bounce from Nico/Cale laments to Vince Geraldi’s “Peanuts” theme in the blink of an eye) sets the proper mood for the film — familiar but strange, normal on the surface only. It’s David Lynch territory, but Anderson doesn’t feel the need to delve too deeply into the blacker parts of the psyche, whereas Lynch would have made the entire film about Richie and Margot’s secret.

Like all good tales of loss and redemption, TRB works itself out in the end, but hardly as the characters themselves intended. Moviegoers expecting a traditional straightforward tale will likely be befuddled by the film’s refusal to develop these characters in a normal manner, but fans of the Adaams Family and other lovers of dark humour will see this picture as a mild but worthwhile effort to bring dark comedy to the masses. For the most part, I think it succeeds at straddling the line between a film with artistic merit and one with commercial appeal. With the exception of Owen Wilson, all the actors have a chance to play outside their normal range and they clearly relish it. There are enough out-loud laughs and enjoyable moments to keep the film from falling into the “art-house only” category, yet plenty of quirky elements for those that enjoy them.

My rating: Interesting

Il Mi Viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy) (1999)

Running time: 4:06:00
Director/Narrator: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Turner Classic Movies

I’ve chosen a documentary to kick off Film Moi because it is my favourite form of film, particularly when you get something that either takes you to a place you’ve never been before, or when it sheds new light on something you thought you knew.

Being a film dork, I am much better versed than the average bear when it comes to the history of Italian cinema. Thanks to my years of wasted youth in dark art-house theatres in Atlanta, I had a good working knowledge of Fellini, Visconti, and Antonioni’s body of work before I hit my early 20s. I had also seen numerous other examples of Italian filmmaking over the years, such as Umberto D and The Bicycle Thief, but apart from Fellini I had never bothered to actually study these filmmakers, or take in the overall concept of Italian cinema as a whole. I just thought they made either great foreign films (such as Cinema Paradiso) or enjoyably bad ones (like Danger Diabolik!).

If I went to the finest film school in the world, and spent as much money as possible on it, with all the finest teachers, I still could not have gotten one-tenth the education in Italian film I got for free courtesy Martin Scorsese and Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of My Voyage to Italy (now broken up into two mini-docs for TV viewing).

On my first viewing of the doc (when in premiered back in June of 2002), I was so astonished at what I was seeing I could scarcely comprehend the magnitude of it. The best teachers are always the people with the most passion for the subject, and here Scorsese proves this rule by doing a brilliant job of parsing his way through the history, starting with a lengthy look at the roots of Italian cinema in silent pictures (that era itself the subject of a different documentary!), right through the war years, the postwar and experimental fifties and sixties pictures and leaving us teetering on the brink of the mid-60s with Fellini. He devotes a luxurious amount of time to showing key scenes from a huge number of films, but is rarely obtrusive with his comments — and in fact his commentary is minimal, just enough to put the viewer in the proper mood or arm them with a key piece of knowledge, and then let their own imaginations and the scenes themselves take them the rest of the way — the exact opposite of most film teachers who over-explain and bore their students.

By gathering these disparate films together, Scorsese manages to accurately recreate the cumulative impact his viewings of them — mostly from his youth on a tiny black & white TV with bad reception — had then and have now on his own filmmaking and his love of cinema. More than anything else, that part comes through from the softspoken director loud and clear — he is passionate about movies, not just Italian ones (he did an earlier but somewhat less effective homage to the American films that have influenced him called A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, but that doc should be considered a dress rehearsal for this one).

After a longish beginning detailing his own personal history as the son of immigrant parents (a reprise of this tale is the subject of yet another doc, Italianamerican) Scorsese recovers with a well-done but too short look at Italian silent movies before moving on to examine the work of Roberto Rosselini, clearly one of his favourite directors (and father of Isabella Rosselini, possibly the most glamourously beautiful movie star ever). While I had boned up on the Italian silent era thanks to a doc a couple years back at the Florida Film Festival, the Rosselini material was largely unknown to me and of great interest.

Most interestingly, Scorsese spends considerable time pointing out a major influence in the form of a TV show –episodes of a show called “Paisa” (“Paisan”) that were mandatory viewing in the Italian-American neighborhoods of New York where Scorsese grew up. The gritty, realistic style of the show, he argues, influenced not just him personally but had an effect on filmmakers of the time (in addition to being like a slightly-fictionalised mirror of Italian life for those who had emigrated away, itself a powerful influence). Not many film directors are personally honest enough to admit the huge effect television has had on their own filmmaking. It is fascinating to see these clips and then realise that Scorsese has sometimes used them shot-for-shot (or at least message-for-message, atmosphere-for-atmosphere) in his own work.

We then move on to Rosselini’s film work, including Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero) and Voyage to Italy (Viaggio In Italia). When we get to the surreal Flowers of St. Francis, the groundwork for Last Temptation of Christ becomes painfully plain.

The second hour is mostly devoted to Vittorio De Sica and Neo-Realism. Long, uninterrupted scenes from The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D are shown to illustrate not just how De Sica’s stories, but how he tells them — how he manipulates the audiences’ attention to small things, or makes entire movies out of “small” things. How he makes us care about the lead characters, how the atmosphere becomes an inherent part of the story, how De Sica uses his own love of cinema to create great cinema. For Italians and much of the rest of the world, this was among the first times that the art of filmmaking rose above the functionary level and became part of the tale being told itself. This was new. This was interesting.

Recognising that few people who view My Voyage to Italy are all that familiar with the films being presented, Scorsese does a brilliant job condensing the essential plot points down and trickling them out like breadcrumbs as we watch the clips … he is leading us subtly but effectively to an appreciation of the film even if we can’t see the entire thing.

In Part Two (or the second half), we finish up with De Sica and head towards the Italian directors most (older) Americans might be familiar with — the trio of Antonioni, Visconti, and of course Fellini. I’ve heard it said that Scorsese plans to do a further documentary outlining and analysing post-1963 Italian cinema, but that’s as far as we go here.

Where I find this documentary most engaging is in Scorsese’s unerring choice of pivotal scenes — sometimes pivotal by plot, but more often by style — and his willingness to divulge plot points and climaxes. It takes little away from seeing the original film “cold,” and acknoledges that 95% of the people lucky enough to see this doc have either already seen many of the films in question, or are never going to see them (in complete form, anyway). So often does Scorsese take a scene or a moment from a film like Guazzoni’s Fabiola or Visconti’s La Terra Trema and really make you feel it — not only does the story leap off the screen, but the director’s intent and technique as well. As an introduction to the art of film appreciation, you could hardly do better than this documentary.

Michaelangelo Antonioni gets something of a short shrift in My Voyage to Italy compared to directors Scorsese was more influenced by, but not before he takes some serious time to thoughtfully dissect Antonioni’s most interesting contribution to what was then being called “New Wave” filmmaking in other parts of Europe: the mind-blowing inventiveness of L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) and L’Avventura (The Adventure) which remain today extremely challenging films.

Scorsese spends his last 45 minutes or so looking closely at Federico Fellini and his awe-inspiring vision of cinema as it’s own art form. Like very few before or since, Fellini paints a complete but jarringly different world in his later work, but bringing out the rarely seen early films such as I Vitelloni and La Dolce Vita show in a stunningly well-done fashion how Fellini grew and changed over the course of his career.

Indeed, my only complaint with My Voyage to Italy is that a few other important Italian directors who were active in the same period (most notably Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci) are completely unmentioned. Perhaps Scorsese intends to give their work more attention in his planned sequel, but it’s a shame that they were left out.

Somebody other than Scorsese probably needs to do a documentary examining the works of less artful but still important Italian directors such as Sergio Leone and Mario Bava. I get the feeling that spaghetti westerns and campy farces are not Martin’s cup of tea and didn’t influence him (as much as they perhaps should have).

If you’re looking to expand your horizons in film (be it Italian cinema or not), if you’re interested in a good primer on the history of cinema d’Italiano, if you’re a filmmaker who needs tips on how to make really compelling, unforgettable movies and want to learn from the best, or if you’re just someone who would like to see some pristine examples of film as art — few documentaries will take you to the heights of My Voyage to Italy.

My rating: Compulsory Viewing

Welcome to Film Moi

Hi, I’m Chas, your host of American Movie Cla– wait a minute, that’s not right — anyway, I’m this guy who watches a lot of movies. I don’t get paid to do this blog, but I do get paid to watch movies. At least some of the time.

Welcome to Film Moi, my personal journal of films. What you will find here is frequently-updated reviews of films I’ve seen (very few “mainstream” films, just so you know), rants on the state of moviemaking, enthusiastic recommendations on art-house films you’re likely to miss if you don’t pay attention, and suchlike. I recently figured that I average about one film a day (about 60% things I have seen before, 40% new things). Before you judge me some horrible lunatic, let me explain why: I write reviews and articles for TimeOut magazine in London, Film Threat.com, and MovieMaker and BoxOffice magazines, as well as others for a living. So you see I have to do this. 🙂

Film Moi was inspired, as so many things are, by Ron “The God” Kane. I will resist embarking on a long biography of someone you’ve never met (I’ve never met him in person myself), but let’s just say he’s a deeply cool guy who has inspired many things from me and my circle of friends. Check out his music/video review blog, linked above.

You may recently have seen a documentary called Cinemania that’s making the rounds (notably on Trio TV of late) about a gaggle of “movie buffs” (complete with capital Ls on their foreheads) who support and terrorise New York art-house festivals.

I want to emphatically state that I am not one of those people. 🙂

I love movies the way those losers do, but the big difference is that I do actually leave the cinema and have a life outside it (or, more accurately, several other compulsions that I also attend to). I have a wife, do not live with my parents, have a modestly-successful career as a magazine writer going, socialise with people who do not share my love of movies, and I even drink occasionally. I know people like the cellu-noids portrayed in Cinemania, I can even relate to them on some levels, but I think my dorkiness is in remission (despite being an avid computer buff as well).

This blog, an offshoot of my main blog, is dedicated to Ron and to Jim Donato, another individual whose unerring good taste and singular dedication to perfection in music and video has shaped my life and personality at least as much as my parents ever did. 🙂

No promises about how often this will be updated, though I will try to publish at least weekly. I recommend you stop by once a week and catch up. I don’t have a comment system set up yet, but in the meantime I invite email (the address is to your left somewhere on this page).

Thank you for stopping by, and go see an independent art-house movie today! 🙂