The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh)
  2. Official Secrets (Gavin Hood)
  3. House of Strangers (Joseph Mankiewicz)
  4. The Searchers (John Ford)
  5. Ad Astra (James Gray)
  6. Downton Abbey (Michael Engler)
  7. The Girl from 10th Avenue (Alfred E. Green)
  8. Brother John (James Goldstone)
  9. Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson)
  10. Blood on the Devil’s Claw (Piers Haggard)

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1- I was so satisfied with Official Secrets. A good, tight script based on a true event that I had no idea about.  Just the right length, just the right amount of suspense, just the right amount of history.  Well done!

2- I am beginning to thing that All About Eve was an outlier. That is such a work of genius and perfection. Not one false note, exhilarating story telling, acid wit, beautifully drawn characters. So far, every other Mankiewicz has paled.  House of Strangers was really weak. A slightly interesting story, developed in fits and starts, with tons of lacunae. Edward G. Robinson sporting an atrocious Italian accent. Why is it always ok to portray Italian-Americans so stereotypically?

3- Downton Abbey was exactly what you would expect it to be, no more no less. You have to decide for yourself if that is enough.

4- On the plus side, Ad Astra offers a view of the near future that isn’t your cliched dystopian apocalyptic vision.  In all likelihood, the near future will be like today, except with more tech.  The image of stations on the moon seemed interesting in that that they didn’t have a Jetsons air to them.  On the negative side, this is one of the bleakest films I’ve seen in a long time. It is kind of a riff on Heart of Darkness, but without the belly laughs.  But boy, Brad Pitt is aging well.

5- Continuing my exploration of every foot of celluloid that features Bette Davis, I watched The Girl from 10th Avenue. Thank you TCM. These pre-code films just knock me out. It really shows how much more realistic depictions of relationships were in the 20s and 30s and how reality retreated behind a curtain of self-imposed morality once Mr. Hays got his grubby hands on Hollywood.

6- Brother John is always mentioned with reverence when discussing the films of Sidney Poitier.  It sure is unusual. Poitier is playing a character who may or not be an angel or a messiah-like figure heralding the impending apocalypse.  Or maybe not.  The film makers seem skittish about committing.  Is this a facet of this kind of film – don’t confirm anything….keep it all ominous but ambiguous.  I get tired of that kind of fence-sitting.  But this was quite a fun watch.

7- October had the greatest of secular holidays – Halloween.  I celebrate every year by watching as many classic and not-so classic horror films as I can.  This year I kicked off the festivities by watching a sublime one, Isle of the Deadand a not so sublime one, Blood on Satan’s Claw.  The latter dates from early 70s and is surprising for its overt sexuality and unfiltered gore.  Very much in the vein of The Wicker Man. If you like murderous, devil-worshipping adolescents in the forests of 18th Century Olde Englande, this is the film for you!  Isle of The Dead might be the jewel in the crown of the Val Lewton oeuvre.  At 70 minutes it is so taut and the script moves like clockwork.  Superstition and ignorance and bigotry are shown in a way that explains how people cling to them.  And how about a posthumous Oscar for the amazing Helene Thimig, the vorvolaka-obsessed Madame Kira.  She gives the great Boris Karloff a run for his money.

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Isle Of The Dead (Mark Robson)
  2. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)
  3. The Devil’s Own (The Witches) (Cyril Franklin)
  4. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
  5. Woman Of The Year (George Stevens)
  6. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
  7. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
  8. Pretty Poison (Noel Black)
  9. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
  10. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)

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1- Hallowe’en is my favorite secular holiday.  OK, I know that it originated in All Souls Day, but just shut up. That is not what it is about anymore and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.  My greatest happiness during this holiday is watching the kind of horror films that satisfy the need for Gothic eroticism.  Thank you Val Lewton for your marvelous little miracles of haunting horror.  So good to see The Isle of the Dead featuring Boris Karloff’s greatest role. It is as multi-faceted and troubling as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers

2- I used Hallowe’en as an excuse to re-watch Ugetsu Monogatari.  I mean, it is a ghost story, right? It is also breathtakingly beautiful, even in its depictions of cruelty.

3- Whimsy is a difficult thing for a movie.  It requires great skill from the filmmakers to keep it from teetering into being excruciating.  It also requires an agreement from the audience to indulge in an emotion which today is often despised: sentimentality.   When I first watched The Royal Tenenbaums years ago, I was not ready to uphold my end of this bargain.  I think that Wes Anderson and his co-creators did for the most part.  Watching something whimsical when you are not in the proper frame of mind is not fair to the whimsy.   This time around I had already seen and was enchanted by The Grand Hotel Budapest and Moonlight Kingdom.  Also, many people who I respect have told me how much they love this movie.  So, watching it again, I did a better job of being in a whimsical mood.  Ironically, now that I was ready to meet the movie on its own terms, I found that Anderson & Co. did not keep their part of the contract.  I could see where the whimsy was trying too hard, and that killed a lot of the immediate joy I was supposed to feel.  Still, I liked it a lot more that I did before.  The characters, though  undeveloped, were ingratiating, and the plot was silly enough to carry me along.  Maybe thrice is the charm?

4- You don’t need me to tell you how wicked and smart Get Out! is.  It is at once a up-to-date critique on race as well as an homage to all your favorite horror tropes.  So good.

5- Not sure what to think about Moonlight.   It is the bleakest film I’ve seen in years.  My difficulty is that it has the trappings of a ‘triumphing over adversity’ film, but the story goes another way.  The tone of the movie is not what the movie is ultimately about.  I think.

6- There were a lot of funny yet creepy films that came about as a result of the sexual revolution of the 60s.  Some are just smarmy comedies that have no other agenda that being all in your face with sexual frankness.   Then there are films like Pretty Poison.  I always wanted to catch up with it. It was one of those films that was lauded but unseen when it was made. Now it has a patina of a classic, but a really sick classic.  What a tragedy that Tuesday Weld didn’t have a greater career.  She is terrific in this.

7- I kept thinking that Daniel Aronofsky made Jackiesince it made me nervous the way his films make me nervous……………..

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb)
  2. Love Among The Ruins (Massimo Ali Mohammad)
  3. My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell)
  4. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick)
  5. Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu)
  6. The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nobuo Nakagawa)
  7. The Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton)
  8. Carnival Of Souls (Herk Hervey)
  9. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur)
  10. The Ghost Ship (Mark Robson)

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1- Everyone told me that Jiro Dreams of Sushi was amazing. It just seemed like the typical hagiographic programs one sees about chefs. It was nice to see Tokyo scenes, though.

2- I love Tim Burton’s stuff.  On the very, very long flight to Tokyo I watched several movies and what a treat to see the delightfully creepy, slightly scary but ultimately sweet Nightmare Before Christmas. It helped me initiate this year’s round of horror film watching. I was thinking recently, that even though I am a great lover of musicals, film musicals always disappoint. Not this one!  Wonderful, weird Danny Elfman score.  Adorable trio of singing vampires.  Oogie Boogie.  What more could you want in a musical?

3- I thoroughly loved rewatching Mr. Thank You.  The glimpse into pre-WWII Japan always fascinates me.   Also, I am constantly amazed by the level of feminism in Japanese film. I will leave others to argue whether a feminist film can be made by a man.  The plight of the young girl travelling to Tokyo on Mr. Thank You’s bus, probably in order to be sold into prostitution, is heart-rending but drawn with great understatement.

4- With this year’s round of Halloween movies, I confirmed for myself that what I love more than anything in this genre is a gothic atmosphere accompanied by a romantic spookiness. Nothing delivers that better than the films of producer Val Lewton.  See my article Have You Tried Val Lewton?  

5- In a more gory, but still spooky vein, I was happy to revisit The Ghost of Yotsuya. One of the highlight’s of our trip to Japan  (and one of my main reasons for going in the first place) was a visit to the Grand Kabuki theater.  I did a lot of reading and viewing beforehand to prepare, especially watching NHK World’s Kabuki Kool every week.

So much of Japanese historical film is based on stories that first appeared as Noh and Bunraku puppet plays which then got adapted into more popular Kabuki pieces.  Considering Japan’s great tradition of ghost stories, it isn’t surprising that lots of Japanese films are based on these tales.  They can be haunting like Rashomon and Ugetsu, or scary/gruesome like The Ghost of Yotsuya. Both genres are tremendously satisfying.

 

 


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Have You Tried Val Lewton?

For nine years, starting in 1942, a remarkable string of low-budget films were produced at RKO Studios.  They were produced by Val Lewton, a Russian-Jewish emigre born as Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon.  He was the nephew of Alla Nazimova, the scandalous actress who played in Camille opposite Rudolph Valentino, as well the title character in the insane, all-Gay 1923 film of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which you can see here.

After working for David O. Selznick, even contributing a scene or two to the script of Gone With The Wind, Lewton moved to RKO to head a unit charged with making B-pictures, i.e., movies intended for the second half of a double-bill. He was instructed to create films that would be competition for the horror classics coming out of Universal Studios (Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc.) He was given a minuscule budget, sometimes as low as $100,000. He and his crew would tell the powers-that-be that the were working of projects like I Walked With A Zombie or The Curse of the Cat People.  Satisfied that Lewton and company were churning out cheap horror programmers, the money men left them alone.

This was perhaps Lewton’s  greatest stroke of genius.  By supplying lurid titles and, more importantly, delivering the movies on-time and under-budget, he was free to exercise a great deal of artistic freedom. The result is a group of surprisingly literate Hollywood films suffused with a magical Gothic sensibility.

Lewton’s early death from heart disease in 1951 at the age of 46 prevents us from knowing what A-pictures he would have surely been given to work on. However, what we do have are treasures.

The first of these movies is the landmark Cat People. Much has been made of the fact that limited funds forced Lewton to create his horror effects more by suggestion than by explicit special effects.  True, much is done with sound and shadows, but I think it would be selling Lewton and company short to suggest that economy was the only reason for the films looking and behaving the way they do.  Of the string of films we are discussing, Cat People is  one of the few with overtly supernatural elements. Up until the very end, whether what is happening is happening due to unearthly or psychological causes.  The story it tells ties the horror elements with an unmistakable sexual component.  However the treatment of the sexual component is much more subtle than the hilarious, over-the-top marketing of the time would suggest.

cat people

The walk through the park at night with its ominous footsteps, as well as the magnificently edited scene in the swimming pool makes this 73 minute a classic of the genre. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps most famous for directing Out Of The Past, a film which is to Film Noir what Cat People is to horror.

Cat People  was a huge success and the money men asked for more of the same. Lewton delivered a sequel a few years later, not surprisingly called The Curse of the Cat People. Who knows what grisly images that title conjured up for the audiences of the time? Instead of more sexually-related cat delerium, we are given a touching story of a very misunderstood and confused child.  The horror here is not from another world. It comes from adults who fail to understand the child’s world and their complicity in creating the self-preserving fantasies she has created for herself.  It is extremely moving.

Once again the marketing folks had a field day with the title, basically ignoring what the film was about.

 

curse of the cat people

The films appeared quickly one after the other.  The best of them is probably The Isle of the Dead with a magnificent performance by Boris Karloff as a brutal Greek general whose superstition leads to tragedy when he is trapped on a cemetery island that is quarantined due to an outbreak of plague. No supernatural horror here, just the human horrors of prejudice and small-mindedness, with a dash of narcolepsy thrown in for good measure.

By far the strangest and most Gothic of the series has to be The Seventh Victim, a very strange and somewhat messy story of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village.  It contains a creepy shower scene that presages Psycho by a good 15 years. The meditation on suicide and living with your burdens, along with quotes by John Donne, ensure this is not your typical B-movie horror film. It looks gorgeous, too.

The most famous of the films, outside of Cat People, must be I Walked With A Zombie, a title to warm the hearts of the RKO moneymen. “That should pack ’em in!”  In actuality, it is a moody story of voodoo and family trouble in the fictitious Caribbean island of San Sebastian.  The night-walk through the sugar-cane to get to the voodoo temple is one of the most haunting sequences I know of. The movie doesn’t entirely work and though you will often hear that it was a variation of Jane Eyre, I don’t see it.  There is enough great stuff in this film. It doesn’t need the Bronte imprimatur.

Along with the so-called horror films, Lewton also produced a film based on a Guy De Maupassant story (Mademoiselle Fifi) ,  a spiffy Western (Apache Drums) as well as a the-trouble-with-kids-today film (Youth Runs Wild).

A complete list of the films follows.

All the films are worth trying.  I am curious to hear what you have to say.

If you found this interesting, please have a look at my general intro to Horror.

The Films:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
Youth Runs Wild (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)
Apache Drums (1951)