Hitchcock’s second Hollywood outing, SUSPICION (1941), is probably most famous for its ending – an example of studio executives’ interference and retroactive aversion to portraying Cary Grant, in all his dashing glory, as a devious murderer. Hitchcock’s latter interviews with Truffaut display the director’s own post-mortem of a film which he felt would have been so much better, had it not been for the slight of hand from RKO pictures.
But – and I am in an unequivocal minority if IMDB is anything to go by here – I am rather of the opinion that the film’s coda as it stands represents something of a coup. Unlike its predecessor, REBECCA (1940), the photography is bright throughout SUSPICION (1941); it’s only with the passing of time and Fontaine’s descent into conjectured mistrust that the frames here darken, finally resulting in the iconic ‘glass-of-milk-up-the-staircase’ scene – one of the finest and statuesque sequences Hitchcock put on film. It’s this closing down of Fontaine’s world, and her grip on reality, which is the underlying story of the film. Convinced she’s about to be murdered, Fontaine flees for the sanctuary of her family home; unknowing of Grant’s genuine lack of murderous intent, before finally realising she’s entirely misunderstood events (just have we the audience) as Grant saves her from falling to certain death during the car journey there.
Of course, generations all assume that Cary Grant is the villain of the piece; but as our ‘odd’ mystery writer lets on earlier in the film, it’s the (would-be) murderers who are heroes in this genre. Joan Fontaine, a woman sodden with the paranoia meticulously tracked on camera, is actually the malefactor to Grant’s self-reflective libertine. This is the true meaning of the ‘studio’ ending, whether they meant it or not. And isn’t this all-the-more interesting in theme and narrative, than simply “that nice movie star is actually a cold-blooded killer?”.
Whilst I have a truck with the majority view of the ending, I am less-inclined to lavish a degree of praise such as to raise the rest of the film into the upper strata of the great director’s cannon. It’s not on the same level as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), ROPE (1948) and PSYCHO (1960) but it’s a better film than some of Hitchcock’s widely-acclaimed movies such as DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), which rely mostly on a polished aesthetic alone. For example, the dynamic between Grant, Fontaine and Nigel Bruce as the ill-destined “Beaky” seems heartfelt here and the aforementioned 50s thrillers lack a degree of that playfulness.
Feudal Japan, jet-black in look and heart, is the setting for this outstanding slice of horror fantasy. Shindo’s film is, at a human level, about the destructive effects of jealousy and lust but also serves as a wider allegory for the corruption of war and the economic system.
The story is something of a fable. The linear narrative concerns two peasants – an old woman and her daughter-in-law- who are forced to murder passing soldiers in order to steal their possessions and trade them for food, as war rages across the country. Men are in scarce supply due to the fighting, so when a returning male neighbour sets out to target the younger woman as a means to satisfy his desires this sets off a chain reaction of green-eyed envy. One could wonder where the horror element enters proceedings, well this comes in the form of a masked Samurai – reportedly maintaining said mask to protect a handsome face – who is quickly despatched by the old woman and falls into a pit holding the skeletons of the couple’s previous victims. The old woman then realises that she can use the Samurai’s mask as a prop to scare her daughter-in-law away from her lecherous suitor.
You know you’re in for something different from the off, as the opening scenes establish our two peasants as unscrupulous and efficient murderesses in a well-choreographed dialogue-less sequence. Their art of murder runs like clockwork, indicating a solid track record in the killing and pillaging of returning Samurai.
There’s lots of shots of nature here; close-up takes of reeds dancing in the wind and of clouds rolling in the sky. Just as stunning are the quick edits of emotion-etched faces and burning eyes darting around the claustrophobic interiors of the small dwellings. The masterful black-and-white photography and exotic visuals alone would be sufficient for a gushing review – and it’s incontestably the images of the mask set against the velvet night which stays with you on the first viewing – but the sound design is a lesson in the utilisation of effects to maximum degree. The whispering reeds, rhythmic (and at times, passion-filled) breathing and dread-inducing score are huge positives. What might surprise a modern audience is the gratuitous display of female nudity and coupled with the presentation of sweaty bodies in sinful embrace, makes for a wave of carnal instinct definitively choked with sexual tension that still stands up today. You can really feel the salacity of the characters in a way which is unusual for films of this period.
The curse of the demon mask itself emerges as quite terrifying in the film’s climatic scenes, punishing both the Samurai and the old woman for their sins. In the Samurai’s case, his sin is presumably that of narcissism whilst the old woman realises only too late that she is being punished for her envy and deception. This final sequence in which the old woman, now panic-stricken, desperately tries to remove the mask from her face is agonising to watch. That said, the horror in ONIBABA is not primarily of a supernatural origin. There’s more brutal fear to be evoked from the inward-looking motivations of human beings, in the extreme circumstances of a situation in which physical possessions are worth far more than life itself.
The reach of ONIBABA has evidently been great, influencing the visual depiction of the demonic face in Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) and also the symbolic well in 1998’s J-horror classic RINGU.
If there’s a problem with Shindo’s film, it’s most likely in the pacing with the running time being around 15 minutes too long. But that’s of course tolerable when the quality of filmmaking is as high as this. All in all, a simply gargantuan movie in horror cinema and one to be savoured. Indeed, this is in all honesty one of the best films I have seen in years.
Hotdog rating : an easy 10/10
Antonio Bido’s giallo owes a lot to genre predecessors, but this is more than a derivative rehash of Italian horror fare. Set against the backdrop of Venice like Aldo Lado’s superb “Who Saw Her Die?” (1972) – for my thoughts on that, see here https://hotdogcinema.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/who-saw-her-die-1972/ – and thematically similar to Lucio Fulco’s masterpiece, “Don’t Torture a Duckling” (1972) (and for my views on that particular gem see here https://hotdogcinema.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/dont-torture-a-duckling-1972/), it’s also a film deserving of praise in its own right.
The set-piece play warrants a specific mention. Now, elaborate set-pieces are typical of the genre but – unlike those established by Bava and Argento’s bravado – here less attention is paid to the act of murder itself with devotion instead to the tension created in the build-up. Bido takes this to the extreme in the murder of “the count” (played by Massimo Serato, probably most famous for his role as the priest in “Don’t Look Now” (1973)) in a lucidly executed sequence rolling on for minutes, and heightened with a glowing Goblin-esque score.
Loose acting, and difficult scripting, can plague giallos and render them unsatisfactory to modern audiences. Not so in this case. Former 20th Century Fox contract player Craig Hill is cast as Don Paulo – a murderous priest crippled by schizophrenia – and Lino Capolicchio (the lead in 1976’s “The House of Laughing Windows”) gives a sympathetic account of his conflicted visiting brother. Bido stuffs his film with the vintage characteristics and red-herrings which have become so well-loved. There’s a witness to a brutal murder by a cloaked figure on a stormy night; a mentally-retarded son locked away from public view; a mysterious painting depicting a decades-old crime and some mandatory shots of hollowed-out dolls.
What endears the film to me is that it’s all taken seriously, and apart from one rather ridiculous ‘romantic holiday getaway on a boat’ scene, the film is all the better for it.
The nod to Vertigo at the film’s closing is hearty and there’s some ace editing as our killer realises his own guilt. All in all, one of the more solemn entries in the genre which still packs a punch.
Hotdog rating: 8/10
Carol Reed directs Graham Greene’s story in a film which is now mostly forgotten, a victim of the duo’s later success in the form of acknowledged classic “The Third Man” (1949). This is a noir-ish thriller hooked on gorgeous photography, palatable suspense and a heck of a performance from Ralph Richardson as an embassy butler increasingly accused of murder.
Reed tells the story from the viewpoint of Phillipe, the ambassador’s son, but this is no children’s film. There’s a deep coverage of morality and the quandary we can find ourselves in when lies and secrets abound. Phillipe’s coming-of-age through the events of the film is the major plot device but it’s Richardson’s conflicted valet , Baines, who is most magnetic.The script is strong, with a melancholic line delivered superbly by Richardson being so pondrous that it quietened me abruptly: “some lies are just kindess”.
The relationship between Baines and Phillipe is well-handled, and the subject of the film’s title. Yet, the ambiguity over which one of the two is the actual ‘idol’ is inspired. Sonia Dresdel is positively bewitching as a ‘bad-disney’ like nanny character with a heart of steel and a viper-like tongue. Both Phillipe and Baines try desperately to escape from their mini-prison in the embassy to avoid her.
Reed’s technique and style, immortalised to audiences within the reel of The Third Man, is showcased just as well here. The Dutch angles and low camera shots are perfectly suited to the child’s POV, and feel a more natural fit in this film.
The black and white photography is ravishingly handsome, with two particular scenes standing out from the pack. The first is the ‘hide-and-seek’ sequence, which for me is one of the best set-pieces put on film by any British director. Phillipe, Baines and Julie (Baines’ love interest) dance amongst the baroque lighting, dynamic editing and swish visuals whilst Mrs Baines haunts every shadow and crevice of the gothic set.
The second, occurring minutes later, are the night-time shots of darkened London Streets as Philipe runs away from the scene of the crime. This culminates in the brilliant shot below.
There are strong parallels to Hitchcock’s work, with Reed building suspense in similar ways. There’s a forward-look to the themes in “Rear Window” (1954) – and I think Hitchcock surely picked up on some of Reed’s ideas here – and a cracking shot of a pair of feet which is timed so well, it chills you to the bone. That’s without mentioning the ‘paper aeroplane’ schtick , which would nowadays could easily be mistaken as a prime-cut of Hitchcock nirvana.
There’s only one issue with the film and that’s the ending which is so out-of-character with what’s gone before that it feels like the coda to entirely different movie.
Overall, an exemplar of British film-making which dominates your mind. I preferred this piece of claustrophobic drama to the more widely-acclaimed “The Third Man”….
S. Craig Zahler’s ambitious genre-mincing Western has attracted a lot of praise, and not without justification. The ever-dependable Kurt Russell leads a pack of men on a rescue mission to recover a woman and deputy who’ve been taken prisoner by some unsavoury Native American cannibals. What follows is a mash-up of a Hawksian Western and an early 80s Deodato film; sound strange? well, it is one quirky effort.
Not for the squeamish given the sporadic yet vivid actions of brutality and gore, which bookend the picture form the start to finish, most of the film focusses on the posse’s ride out to locate the savages. It is, as such, more an in-depth character study of the protagonists and their motivations, and less a no-holds-barred cannibal Western. That said, Fulci fans may be pleased at the climax as a man is scalped and split in two right before our eyes.
These kinds of films – being so dependent on maintaining audience interest in the characters – can only ever work when the performances are strong, and they are indeed. Alongside Russell’s principled sheriff, Richard Jenkins provides witty comic relief – very much in the ilk of Walter Brennan’s ‘Stumpy’ from Rio Bravo (1959) – whilst a driven Patrick Wilson and chilling Matthew Fox complete the posse. These four protagonists are more or less who we spend the entire film with and it’s the ease at which they act together which is genuinely the glue that holds the whole thing together. The script is moody and is perhaps overly heavy due to the depth in the screenplay; with the best lines coming from Jenkins’ motor-mouthed old timer. In terms of the photography, its coolily crisp but at its best in the town at the beginning of the film.
There were problems for me. By concentrating so much on the group’s ride, Zahler neglects the atmosphere of the town of Bright Hope which he so effectively establishes in the opening 15 or 20 minutes – particularly in the Saloon scenes. Just as importantly, the lack of a score was clearly an explicit decision by the filmmakers but its absence doesn’t go unnoticed, and I couldn’t help feel that an appropriate choice here could have added a real dimension to the film.
In sum then, a meaty (excuse the pun) addition to cult cinema with a stupendous ‘scalping scene’, certain to go down in genre folklore.
Hotdog rating: 7.5/10
Jules Dassin’s half-noir, half-documentary reserves its romance not for its characters but for the city of New York itself. Introduced by Mark Hellinger’s playful narration, the film pays a moving tribute to the city that never sleeps. In terms of plot, everything is pretty straightforward, avoiding the convoluted stories of its genre companions. The cast’s performances are solid and Hollywood stalwart Barry Fitzgerald nearly eats the scenery with his over-the-top leprechaun of a cop, being a real joy to watch.
The genuine heart of the film is a depiction of everyday New York – on location – and the workings of a ‘real-world’ police investigation into one of the many stories the city has to offer. The themes on display are still relevant today – a city both gives and takes in equal measure with the daily pleasures and vibrance hiding a dark underbelly which is unforgiving once entered.
Given the aim here is representing authenticity, not necessarily aesthetic, it’s even more surprising that the film is so good to ogle.
Specifically, the film has two mighty shots, although they are not related to the on-location shooting which perhaps make the movie best-known. The first is a well-framed sequence where the rural parents of our murdered dame bemoan the vulgarities of city life, beautifully set against a glowing moon above the riverside. The second, near the film’s conclusion, is a stunning vertical shot of a spiralling staircase as our detective chases the murderous wrestler – a debuting Ted De Corsia – responsible for all the trouble. This shot seems an early forerunner to Hitchcock’s own use of these camera angles in Vertigo (1958).
Overall, a picture whose pseudo-documentary feel uniquely identifies it as something of a classic; but the modestly timid approach to plotting means The Naked City (1948) isn’t a timeless one. The film also lacks some of the defining characteristics of the noir genre: there’s no femme fatale, expressionist lighting nor morally unsure anti-heroes. In contrast, Dassin’s Rififi (1955) goes the full hog and is a step above. That said, by disregarding the comic book aspects of noir, this is still one of the most accurate attempts to showcase real police work in 40s cinema.
Hotdog Rating: 7.5/10
The Man Who Knew Too Much remake is a professional job, as Hitchcock said in his own words. For sure, the set piece play is some of the great director’s best. The early scene in a hectic Marrakesh marketplace and the extravagance of the finale at the Albert Hall are stand-outs. Both work as odes to Hitchcock’s earlier career in silent film by eschewing dialogue and relying on the visuals and score alone to tell the story; indeed the Albert Hall sequence even shows the characters mime their scripted lines as a crescendo of concert hall music drowns out the panicked conversations between Stewart and Day, who are desperate to avoid a murder and save their son.
These set-pieces are what we’ve come to associate with Hitchcock’s brand of suspense. I recently saw this film in public and was quite taken aback by the audience’s shocked reaction when, from behind a scarlet curtain, a gun is pointed at a young boy’s head – just when we think we’ve reached the happy ending. A testament to the power of the film that even today you can get kind of reaction to a film over 50 years old.
The technicolour images here are also something which grab your attention. Hitchcock had not actually made too many colour movies when he shot this reworking, yet his grasp of the colour medium was already requisite masterful. For me, the best images are those shot in Stewart and Day’s Moroccan hotel room as they entertain the mysterious Frenchman whose bathed in a kind of navy hue light.
On our leads, James Stewart is compulsive viewing and Doris Day puts in a good turn subject to caveats that I’ll come on too. But it’s the assassin, Reggie Nauder’s character, who just LOOKS like a hitman but has few spoken lines, that remained most memorable to me (he also played “Mr Barlow” in Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot (1979)).
But for its many positive, there are some drawbacks here. Hitchcock’s remake dwells for far too long on Doris Day’s musical numbers and after a time these just serve to grate with the audience. The remake is also (unapologetically) slower than Hitchcock’s original 1934 blaster of a movie. This 50s version is at its strongest in Morocco and once the action transfers to London, Hitchcock seems less tight with his pacing and gives the impression that he’s not quite sure where to go next. As an example , there’s some rather senseless to-and fro-ing around Day/Stewart’s London hotel room which, honestly speaking, adds little-to-nothing to the picture. It seems to take a long time to get to the Albert Hall…
For many its superior technique and polished look will make the remake the better of the two versions, which to emphasise is not an indefensible view by any means. But I prefer the rough diamond that is the 1934 original, primarily because of the dynamism inherent in the fast-paced screenplay but also due to Peter Lorre’s intoxicating villain “Abbott”.
Michele Soavi, heir apparent to the ‘soon-to-falter’ Dario Argento, was one of most talented directors working in the italian horror genre during the late 1980s. Soavi’s contribution here is one of the more visually stunning films of the era. Not so subtle in terms of subtext, the film is literally about a church built on the roots of a heinous crime.
From a gregarious opening sequence depicting the slaying of a village – supposedly of devil worshippers – by the teutonic knights, the aesthetic is sublime. Soavi shoots some of this through the viewpoint of the cross-shaped visors in the knights’ helmets. After this disquieting beginning to proceedings – which involves a horse trampling a baby stored safely away in a basket – Soavi carries out a fantastic tracking shot from the basement of the church which houses the tomb of the villagers right through to the modern interior and exterior of the church. This shot transposes us straight from the middle ages to the present day (well, 1989 Germany to be exact).
Thematically similar to Michael Mann’s oft-forgotten The Keep (1983) with a touch of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), Soavi disregards plot coherence and leads us through a succession of gothic alchemy. The scene in which the cathedral’s ‘security device’ turns on to entomb those inside looks like something of a nightmarish version of The Goonies (1985) and there’s a real coup-de-grace moment as the mount of the undead rises up through the floor of the church during the finale.
Whilst originally intended as the third film in the “Demoni” series, Soavi neglects the gore-infused zombie chaos of those films and relies on the power of the suggestive through hallucinations experienced by the ‘possessed’. The end result being the film is much the better for it. As in Soavi’s earlier Stagefright: Aquarius (1987), the score pays in spades. Controversially, a very young Asia Argento has a pivota role – slain in the village – but apparently re-incarnated as the daughter of the cathedral’s sacristan. Soavi implies that she is some kind of eternal witness to the demonic acts of humanity.
This film showcases just why we hold the Italian filmmakers in such a high regard. It all makes so little sense (“the secret is buried in the architect’s mouth!” – eh?) but it’s gorgeous cinema.
The Cannon group excelled at producing relatively low budget action movies, bordering on the line of exploitation, with the stars of yesteryear. As part of this enterprise, Charles Bronson and J Lee Thompson were something of a team for Cannon in the 1980s.
“10 to Midnight” is maybe the best of that collaboration. It’s a brutal picture with lashings of nudity of both the killer and his victims. In sophisticated film circles, it’s regarded as a vulgar piece of 80s sub-culture alongside much of the Cannon group’s offerings. But I wanted to write something against this opinion, because to me it’s childishly wrong.
Yes, this film is over-the-top.Yes, it’s an oddball mix of action and slasher. Yes, there’s an eye-popping degree of nudity for the time. And most importantly, yes, Bronson chews the scenery. But things are not so straightforward.
It’s worth remembering that J Lee Thompson was the director of 1962’s Cape Fear, and I see some of the themes in that movie here. There’s a rallying against the perceived injustices of the legal system and the dubious morality of men who fabricate evidence to convict the dangerous when the system will not. Critics interpret “10 to Midnight” as a right-wing tirade against the ‘liberal’ law system but I feel this is to see the film in too much of a linear way. Bronson’s character may be a hero but he’s a fallen one; in conflict with those around him who are painted in a heavily sympathetic light (including his younger partner Andrew Stevens).
Secondly, the murder sequences are shot stylishly. It’s hard to see why this aspect of the film was flippantly dismissed as gruesome exploitation, but the director’s skill with the camera is quite evident for those willing to look. This is a pretty, if grimes, presentation of mayhem. Furthermore, the film’s violence could be seen as brave and its ilk soon became a characteristic of the genre’s highest-flyers – think David Fincher’s Seven (1997), which also shares a killer’s pursuit of the investigating detective’s family.
Thirdly, there’s an unusually interesting supporting cast here – Geoffrey Lewis as a slick defence lawyer and Wilfrid Brimley as the police chief struggling to contain Bronson’s increasingly vengeful cynicism. Gene Davis plays the good-looking killer with a dictionary definition of ‘creep’; a performance often mistaken as wooden is actually a solid attempt at portraying the autistic awkwardness of a psychopath.
Once you throw in the pulse of an 80s synth and Bronson’s cold, cold eyes “10 to Midnight” is a decadent thriller and a memorable addition to cult cinema. Watch out for the knockout final scene with a killer punchline from Bronson.
Hotdog rating: 8/10
Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter (1987) is a film best-described as an elaborate – if silly in terms of plot – suspenser which primarily benefits from style behind the camera and a seasoned cast.
Roddy MacDowell and Jan Rubes are the filmmakers hiring Mary Steenburgen’s struggling actress to replace another whose left their small production. Invited to the producer’s isolated home, the film is an increasingly disturbing game of cat-and-mouse between Steenburgen and her ‘hosts’, set against an ongoing blizzard. MacDowell plays the part of an innocent but creepily resourceful manservant to the hilt and Jan Rubes is the wheelchair-consigned producer whose wit and charm soon slide to reveal a malicious streak. Mary Steenburgen spends most of the screentime as a petrified woman unable to fathom what is happening to her.
The film starts off with a sweetly choreographed murder sequence, which could be straight out of a DePalma or Hitchcock picture. Penn stays with these directors in terms of theme; there’s a sense of VERTIGO (1958) throughout with the idea of a doppelgänger and dual intendities featuring as prominent plot devices. Out of nowhere really, the threat-level jumps during the last 40 minutes when previous pacing has led us slowly into a mystery more than a thriller. To be sure, one of the film’s big successes for me is this transition away from a poignancy which had earlier characterised Steenburgen and MacDowell’s relationship.
For an 80s movie, the film just feels bizarre. It’s an old-fashioned approach which relies on the strength of its characters and the draw of its photography. The decade’s excesses seem a million miles from the proceedings here – and it’s all run in something of a parallele universe, dominated by the rich and famous playing games with one another. Indeed, a perceived lack of realism was one of the reasons Dead of Winter achieved a hit-and-miss critical reception. It’s an unfair criticism of a film which is more interested in the fantastical than the real.
Well worth your time.
Hotdog rating: 7/10