Good Cinema: The Raven (Dir: Lew Landers, 1935)

“When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad.”
Dr. Vollin in The Raven

***

Fewer actors are identified by a single role more than Bela Lugosi. In fact, when many of my co-workers spotted me reading Lennig’s biography on the man, they didn’t have a clue who he was until they noticed the cover with Lugosi in full Dracula garb – the visage that has adorned countless t-shirts, action figures, postage stamps, and coffee mugs; a quick Google search of the word “Dracula” yields a picture of Lugosi as its first image. It seems only fitting that a man who played the world’s most infamous “undead” would continue to be immortal, even in death.

Since his heyday in the early ’30s until the day he died, Lugosi himself was trapped in a purgatory like state with his relationship to the Count, desperately trying to convince studios that he was more than The Vampire – yet knew that he could always rely on “Dracula” to bring him quick cash. Chronically broke and habitually underpaid by major and minor studios alike, Lugosi would tour between film projects in various productions of the play that made him a Broadway star, even creating various truncations that he took around to old vaudeville houses and radio programs; in his old age when the world had all but passed him by, he even sat around his apartment with fan boys reciting dialogue from Dracula, purportedly still remembering all of his lines. So engrained was the image of Lugosi as Dracula that he chose to be buried in his cape; an image ironically that Lugosi had to practically beg for when Universal wanted resident horror icon Lon Chaney as The Count – but he fortuitously died before production could begin.

Despite performing Shakespeare with the National Theater in his native Hungary and known for being somewhat of a handsome playboy (he dated Clara Bow and was married 5 times), Lugosi, due to his heavy accent, was the victim of “othering” in Hollywood – cast primarily as a mad scientist, vampire, swami, or other nefarious characters.

***

Next to Dracula, Lugosi’s greatest legacy was his on-screen pairing (and off-screen rivalry) with fellow horror icon, Boris Karloff. Competing to be Universal’s Next Great Horror Star after Chaney’s death, Karloff was seen as the more bankable and versatile of the two (in no small part because of Lugosi’s accent – even though Karloff had a very pronounced lisp himself….) and as a result always pulled bigger salaries and was afforded the liberty to play a more diverse range of roles, including of course Dr. Seuss’ famous Grinch; on their films together, Karloff ended up getting star billing and double Lugosi’s weekly rate, even on films like The Raven, in which Lugosi was the clear star. Ironically, Lugosi once scoffed at the idea of playing the mute Frankenstein monster when Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr. first developed the property for him – the role that of course launched Karloff’s career; to add insult to injury, the role of Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace, a role Karloff originated on Broadway, was one that Lugosi played more than once on the road in between tours of Dracula and a variety of Poverty Row film projects, forever destined to be in Karloff’s shadow. [Sidebar: Lugosi and Karloff did see eye to eye on one thing; they were both two of the first members and most active proponents of the Screen Actors Guild; Lugosi was quite political – i.e. Communist – and helped form a similar organization in Hungary, which precipitated his need to flee the country when the Communist regime lost power].

52b871400207ad78fd0ce17e99be017c.jpg

Lugosi and Karloff made eight films together, although only two truly pit them against one another as co-leads, battling for supremacy. The first of their pairings, The Black Cat (1934), is an excellent thriller based very loosely on Poe’s story, in where Lugosi, freshly released from a military prison, goes to visit his old friend Karloff to discover what became of his wife and daughter while he was incarcerated. Turns out, his wife died years ago and Karloff has kept her preserved in glass in the hopes of one day resurrecting her – of course for his own purposes. The film is filled with atmospheric cinematography and inventive direction – helmed by Edgar G. Ulmer, famous for his B-noir masterpiece, Detour (1946) – great acting from its leads (including some tender moments from Lugosi), and such daring topics for 1934 as necrophilia and Satanic worship (Ulmer was heavily inspired by Aleister Crowley).

Again inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven (1935) is the third pairing of Lugosi and Karloff and possibly Lugosi’s greatest performance. Despite Karloff’s prominent billing position, Lugosi’s character is really the star [Notice the way in which the publicity department felt the need to remind audiences that Lugosi was Dracula, whereas Karloff is known simply by a single name…].

Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) – famed dancer and the daughter of a prominent judge – is critically injured in a car accident. The doctors claim there is only one man who can save her: the brilliant surgeon – and avid Poe enthusiast – Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) implores Vollin to help his daughter, but he is retired and only interested in research and his Poe collection; Vollin, a man who has been surrounded by death and sickness for decades, doesn’t see death in the same way as others and has transcended mortal concerns like empathy. In fact, the eponymous raven is seen prominently in silhouette against his wall, as if Death is an almost welcome friend in his presence. Yet when told he is her only hope, Vollin’s ego supersedes his ambivalence and he agrees to help.

With Jean resurrected, she and her fiancé Jerry (Lester Matthews) – a fellow doctor whom Vollin has recently promoted – are indebted to him. Jean surprises Vollin with a new ballet based on “The Raven” she has created as a thank you. But what surprises Vollin most is that he has fallen in love with Jean. Notice Lugosi’s performance during the ballet and its surrounding scenes. He imbues these moments with tenderness, desperate romance, and a dose of sensuality; it is easy to see that he was once a heartthrob in Hungary. Thatcher notices Vollin’s attraction and begs him to stay away from her. Which does not go over well with Vollin’s ever-increasing madness. Vollin is not a man whom others tell no. Enter Bateman.

That night, a recently escaped convict named Bateman (Boris Karloff) enters Vollin’s chambers with a gun, demanding that Vollin change his face [“Maybe if a man is ugly, he does ugly things”]. Vollin assures him that the gun is not necessary. He is willing to quid pro quo: he will change his face on the condition that he does something “in his line…torture and murder.” Bateman begrudgingly agrees. But Vollin double crosses him and makes him even more monstrous in order to blackmail him into keeping his end of the bargain.

Lugosi and Karloff are glorious in this scene. Bateman’s hopes of being changed into something less terrifying are met with Vollin’s mad cackles [“Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use that hate!”]; Bateman shoots out all of the mirrors in the room, leaving him with an empty chamber when given the chance to kill Vollin [Karloff primitively grunts and shakes his fist in a moment reminiscent of the Frankenstein Monster]. Bateman is left with no other option than to do Vollin’s bidding.

boris karloff en el cuervo

Vollin makes his sadistic tendencies abundantly clear. He shows Bateman his personal collection of Poe inspired torture devices – including a Sword of Damocles that undulates like in “The Pit and the Pendulum” – they will use to seek revenge on the people who have scorned his love. It is worthy to note that Vollin’s madness is brought upon not by the desire for world domination or blood or material possessions but by love – he describes himself as “a god…with the taint of human emotions”; from an actor most associated with otherworldly obsessions and motivations, The Raven cleverly uses the most human of phenomenon as his downfall. Bateman tries to use the machine against its creator, but Vollin warns him that if he dies, there will be no one who can fix his face; the film early on establishes Vollin as singular and we believe that no other surgeon could undo what he has done. So once again Bateman acquiesces to his “Master’s” wishes. Lugosi is great here, knowing Vollin has the trump card, but behind his confidence plays a tinge of panic in his eyes.

Vollin invites Jean, Jerry, and Judge Thatcher to a dinner party he is having for some friends. Much to Thatcher’s chagrin –  “Oh, Dad. He’s not going to slit our throats in our sleep” – Jean and Jerry decide to attend; Thatcher follows after. Throughout the evening, the disfigured Bateman tries to warn them of the danger they are in, but Vollin is quick to intercept. And that night with the guests all asleep, Bateman drags Thatcher into the dungeon and straps him to the table to await the impending sword. Jean’s room, which is actually an elevator, is then lowered into the dungeon. Jerry and some of the other dinner guests chase after her.

365c5f1c

Vollin throws Jean and Jerry into a room with compressing walls (much like the trash compactor in Star Wars). With mania in his eyes, he brags to his slave, “What a delicious torture, Bateman! Better than Poe!” Though he has been subjugated, Bateman serves as the only person who could possibly understand the thrill of killing and Vollin professes his triumph with glee; it must be lonely at the top for a sadist.

Bateman will not stand for this and opens the room, disfigured face be damned. Vollin shoots him, but before he dies, he knocks Vollin unconscious and drags him into the chamber; he awakens just as the door slams and the walls begin to close in on him. Thatcher is saved, everyone flees, and Bateman dies alone on the floor.

***

The Raven is a taut thriller clocking in at 62 minutes with no wasted scenes. The cinematography by Charles Stumar (The Mummy, 1932) is not quite as Expressionistic as The Black Cat‘s obvious German influences, but still creates a mood of anticipatory horror. Universal had some unique promotional ideas like a “Chamber of Chills” in where part of the lobby would have pendulums and the like and a “Curtain Teaser Stunt” where “brave” filmgoers could open a curtain with the doom-laden message, “This Curtain conceals a Face that is a Crazy-Quilt of Horror! Look at it Before You Dare See The Raven” [paging William Castle…]

The Raven was panned in the trades [The New York Times said it had “the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film…”] and its gruesome nature saw that it was censored (or not even shown) all over the world, especially in England. Given Britain’s ties to the American market, this led to a brief moratorium on horror films, which among other factors, definitely hindered the rising career of Bela Lugosi; he was never given a role as dimensional and exciting in a film as good as The Raven again.

Based on his performance as Dr. Vollin alone, it’s a shame – and somewhat of a curiosity – that Lugosi was not given better projects in which to shine. Studios continued to underestimate his potential and continued to throw their support behind Karloff and eventually Chaney, Jr; Lugosi even had to fight for the role of Dracula in Universal’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)! [To wit: when Karloff made Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), he was paid double what Lugosi made for his outing with Bud and Lou…] And when Lugosi’s brand of horror finally fell out of vogue in lieu of science fiction and a post-WWII sense of American prowess (having defeated the ultimate of Evils), he was destined to a “career” (which is being generous) of butlers, red-herring heavies, and an embarrassing finale of duds with Edward D. Wood, Jr.  – as well as a debilitating addiction to morphine.

th.jpeg

When Lugosi died, after almost 40 years as an actor, his estate was worth less than 2000 dollars. When Lugosi’s son and widow tried to sue Universal for profiting off his image without their consent, the studio fought the lawsuit – and won. [In 1985, Lugosi vs. Universal was overturned and replaced by the California Celebrity Rights Act, in where a deceased celebrity’s likeness is treated as a copyright, protecting their heirs from exploitation for a period of 70 years, post-mortem].

In 1995, Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Lugosi during the final years of his life in arguably Tim Burton’s greatest film, Ed Wood (1994); finally, albeit indirectly, giving Bela Lugosi the artistic recognition he so desperately craved.

***
*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The Raven is available on YouTube.

*FURTHER VIEWING:

  • Dracula (Dir: Tod Browning, 1931)
  • The Black Cat (Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
  • Invisible Ghost (Dir: Joseph H. Lewis, 1941)
  • The Return of the Vampire (Dir: Lew Landers, 1943)
  • Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (Dir: Charles Barton, 1948)
  • Bride of the Monster (Dir: Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1955)

*FURTHER READING:

  • Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration by Gregory William Mank
  • The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig
    • A caveat: while a great place to start on information about Lugosi’s career and personal dealings, the book is plagued by its author’s blatantly biased fandom for his subject; filled with unnecessary minutiae, broad suppositions, and personal anecdotes of his time with Lugosi (and then having the hilarious gall to use the ironic moniker of “the author” to make it seem less subjective), as well as snide putdowns of anyone who dared say a word against his idol (including but not limited to Boris Karloff, and in the most tasteless display, questioning the veracity of some of Lugosi’s female co-stars memories because, perhaps, they were mad he didn’t flirt with them).
  • Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. by Rudolph Grey
    • While not directly about Lugosi, it outlines the world and company Lugosi kept in his final years (and is one of the best books on Hollywood I’ve ever read).

 

 

Good Cinema: It’s a Gift (Dir: Norman Z. McLeod, 1934)

w-c-fields.jpg

“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
– W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol’ drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.

To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father’s fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father’s abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.

Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world as a double until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn’t allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion’s share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father’s checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for all of his “wife” and “son” characters in his work.

wcfields05-big.jpg

***

Fields’ genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing “feud.” The only medium he didn’t tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.

He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else’s rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.

899eddaeb56940874be767d7a769d4c7.jpg

He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15000 – $25000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.

Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the “authoritative” version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White’s Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You’re Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So’s Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.

W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed “types,” variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae’s sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy’s schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello’s naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.

Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:

  • the Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar
    • For examples, see:
      • Pool Sharks (1915)
      • Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
      • Two Flaming Youths (1928)
      • The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
      • Poppy (1935)
      • You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
  • the Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him.
    • For examples, see:
      • It’s the Old Army Game (1926)
      • So’s Your Old Man (1926)
      • The Potters (1927)
      • Running Wild (1927)
      • The Dentist (1932)
      • The Barbershop (1933)
      • The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
      • You’re Telling Me! (1934)
      • It’s a Gift (1934)

***

It’s-a-Gift-4-488x373.jpg

In It’s a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing “bis-o-nay” to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle’s death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife’s chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:

  • The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being “duped” into an investment, came from The Potters.
  • The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film’s original title was Back Porch 
  • Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, “The Family Ford” and “The Sport Model.”
  • The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It’s the Old Army Game.
  • Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby’s bottle with gin…) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You’re Telling Me!) as his neighbor’s child and his inept clerk, respectively.

Annex - Fields, W.C. (It's a Gift)_02.jpg

What anchors It’s a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold’s humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life’s savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold’s failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields’ delivery of the line, “Come on back, Amelia. I’ll drive you” – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians.  Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields’ whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.

But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.

***

It wasn’t until Fields’ final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West’s chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description…); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to “get ahead” seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).

The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It’s telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer’s famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in Art because they so rarely do in Life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. 

11-fields-poppy00011.jpg

But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields’ friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields’ life: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.

 

Good Cinema: The Strained Melody of Nothingness (Dir: Ricky Gervais, 2016)

Ricky Gervais, the underrated auteur of our time, has just released his newest short film, exclusively to Twitter. Its title, The Strained Melody of Nothingness, is an intentional misnomer. It is neither strained, nor about nothing. In its all too brief run time, Mr. Gervais has captured the frustration of the masses with one gurgle of an expletive; the pointed summation of a fed up society – sick of celebrity fascination, sick of posturing politics, sick of oppressive religion, sick of bathing, sick of the constant disappearance of the McRib, sick of it all. As he channels a combination of Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) and Whitney Houston’s final moments, Mr. Gervais, our preeminent misanthrope, revels in his own filth, washing away all pretense, and making us reevaluate everything we thought we knew to be true.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 12.23.04 PM

Good Cinema: Black Christmas (Dir: Bob Clark, 1974)

A group of young girls is being mercilessly targeted by a crazed killer on a beloved holiday. At the end of the film, only one survives and the killer has disappeared into the night, presumably to strike again.

black-christmas-

If you thought I was describing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), you would be wrong, but not off base. In fact, without Black Christmas, there might not have been a Halloween at all. Carpenter, a huge fan of Black Christmas and friend of director Bob Clark, was talking with Clark about a potential sequel to Black Christmas. Clark’s response: While he didn’t want to make one, if he did, he could imagine the killer breaking out of a mental institute and wreaking havoc. Oh, and it would be on Halloween. Carpenter ran with it and created an indelible masterpiece that has gone on to reap all of the acclaim of being the progenitor for the slasher.

But it’s not only the potential plot that Carpenter borrowed from Clark. If you watch Black Christmas, you will see a few of the tropes that have gone on to define the genre which have been attributed to Halloween:

  • the camera stands in as the POV of the killer = the opening sequence of Halloween outside the Myer’s home, which Carpenter has long attributed to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), can also be found here.
  • the lone girl survivor = while this trope should technically be attributed to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was released in theaters a week earlier, Black Christmas sets the killings within a sorority house (another trope continued to this day in TV shows like Scream Queens). Where Halloween differed and laid new ground is that while Laurie Strode was the virginal goodie-two shoes that came to define the “lone girl,” Black Christmas’ survivor Jess was a liberal minded woman, set on getting an abortion.
  • the killer attacks on its victims’ own turf = While Michael Myers slew and stalked his victims in places in which they felt at home, Billy (the faceless murderer in Black Christmas) actually committed all of his murders within their home, the sorority house, even making his ominous phone calls there, a trope later popularized in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and parodied in Scream (1996).
  • the killer disappears into the night = Halloween‘s glorious ending sequence, as the camera takes us through the various murder locations, can also be found at the end of Black Christmas.

None of this is meant to take anything away from the majesty of Carpenter’s masterwork. Seriously. It is one of the greatest films ever made and possibly the greatest horror film of all time (barring Psycho, of course). But in fairness, Black Christmas should get some of the credit it is due.

Black Christmas - 1

Black Christmas, a parody on the famous Bing Crosby tune, is set during Christmas break at a sorority house. The girls have been receiving prank calls from an anonymous moaner. Up until now it has all been rather amusing. But when one of their sisters disappears, the others think it may have something to do with their disturbed caller. Suddenly, it is a race against time with the police (led by the sexy John Saxon) in tow to try and catch him before he strikes again. Along for the journey is the father (James Edmond) of the missing girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her obsessive boyfriend who may be the murderer (Keir Dullea), the sorority drunk Barbara (Margot Kidder), the wallflower (Andrea Martin) and the comedic den mother of the sorority house (Marian Waldman, paging her best Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life).

black-christmas-1974-007

So is Black Christmas just “important” or is it good too? Well, it’s both. In particular, some of the murder sequences are very artfully crafted, albeit without the blood and gore to which we are accustomed; it wasn’t until Friday the 13th (1980) rolled around that this became an acceptable and expected element (although Herschell Gordon Lewis had already made a name for himself in the 1960s as the Godfather of Gore with his cult films, relegated to the fringes of cinema). The performances are more earnest and stronger than in some of its later knock offs because the script tries to give them all three dimensional characters with stakes – and very talented actors were cast; Olivia Hussey was fresh off of Shakespeare and Margot Kidder had just completed her dual performance in DePalma’s Sisters (1973). However, the story of Black Christmas is overdrawn and over complicated and feels at times that it is unsure what type of movie it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it police procedural? Is it black comedy? All questions one must work out when laying the ground work for a new genre. Black Christmas, while not as great as its descendants, deserves a viewing. Especially for those interested in the history of horror.

blackchristmasdeath

Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The film is also known as Silent Night, Evil Night because distributors were worried that people would think Black Christmas was a blaxpolitation film.

*For further viewing on the history of the slasher, see Michael Powell’s excellent Peeping Tom (1960).

*Available on YouTube.

Good Cinema: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Dir: John Hughes, 1987)

All Neal Page wants is to get home for Thanksgiving. To leave the hustle of New York, escape the drudgery of his advertising meeting, and dash to the airport just in time to hop his flight to Chicago.

Then he meets Del Griffith.

Del Griffith, the tacky shower curtain ring salesman who shucks his cheap plastic to anyone with a buck. Del Griffith, the type of man that you dread sitting next to on a plane. The incessant talker who refuses to acknowledge those blatant social cues – like, say, reading the vomit bag – that lets people know you are not listening to their gibberish. Del Griffith, the obnoxious optimist who has an anecdote for everything and sees life as a series of adventures. Del Griffith, the overweight slob who leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor and smokes in the car.

Del Griffith, the unlikely best friend who teaches you something about yourself you didn’t know you didn’t know.

***

John Hughes is the king of comedy with heart. His films are about growing up, whether his protagonists are snarky kids (Home Alone), self-aware teenagers (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles), or immature adults who realize that they still have a lot to learn about life (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Uncle Buck, Beethoven, The Great Outdoors). The greatest example of the latter category for me is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

MV5BMjE4MzI2MTY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTY2NTA0OQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_

Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (the always excellent John Candy) meet-cute when Neal, rushing for a cab, trips over Del’s grip. Desperately late for his flight, Neal haggles with a man to buy the taxi he has hailed. Before either of them know it, another man has loaded his stuff in the back and sped away, leaving a red plastic shower curtain ring in the curb side puddle as the only proof that he was there.

Neal eventually makes it to the airport and plops down in the waiting area across from a man who looks awfully familiar. It is Del Griffith. Del, earnestly unaware that any cab theft was perpetrated, apologizes and tries to make up for it anyway he can. A coffee, a tea, a stick of gum, a Lifesaver, a magazine. Neal begrudgingly says thanks, but no thanks and returns to his newspaper. This defeat is the first of many moments where Candy shines as a man whose biggest downfall is that he wants to be loved at all costs. Del realizes that his normal gregarious charm is not going to work as easily on Neal Page.

Neal misses his first flight; therefore his first class ticket is bumped to coach. And guess who is in the seat next to him? Yep, Del Griffith. There he is chatting away, taking off his shoes, and drooling on his shoulder.

Planes

A snow storm in Chicago lands them in Wichita. While Neal calls home to the wife, Del, the chronic charmer, calls his friend at the local hotel and books a room. He brings Neal along, hoping to swing a room for him as well, but of course, they are full. So Neal and Del, near strangers who don’t exactly get along, are forced to share a bed for the night.

Hughes really sets up Del’s character here as a man who lives on the road. He treats everywhere like his home (placing his wife’s photo on his bedside table and leaving his personal items strewn about) and treats everyone like a friend; his relationship with the hotel owner is obviously one of mutual affection and warmth. Just the way Del is greeted upon arrival gives you the sense that these men have shared things over the years, maybe even worked out the world’s problems over a hot cup of Joe. Del has this affect on everyone. Everyone except Neal. Which makes him try even harder.

After Del spills beer in the bed, uses all of the towels for his shower, and makes a series of disgusting pre-slumber noises, Neal finally lets him have it. He is fed up with his stories. Fed up with his slobbery. Fed up with his tacky charm. Martin delivers this monologue brilliantly. You would think a man like Del would crumble at this blatant attack on his character, incapable of saying an unkind word to anyone, let alone hearing his faults flung from a man whom he desperately wants to be his friend. But Candy and Hughes do something wonderful. Del fights back. He holds a mirror up to Neal and without being cruel, shows him to be an insensitive asshole. A man whose job requires him to suck up to everyone and wear a shit eating grin. But not Del. With Del, what you see is what you get. Always. He likes himself. His wife likes him. And his customers like him. He is not changing for anyone. Least of all some white collar snob. This scene alone should have gotten Candy an Oscar nomination. With some defeated clarity, they return to bed and shut out the light, like a married couple with nowhere else to turn but each other.

thosearentpillow_8col

The next morning, Del and Neal awaken snuggled up like love birds. Of course, the two men jump out of bed disgusted that they were ever so intimately entwined. Today, it would read as pretty homophobic and over the top, but I think Hughes handles this moment the best way he could in the 1980s. They have their freak out and then return to their lives.

With planes grounded in Chicago, the boys decide that land transportation is going to be their best bet. So they hop a train. Del naturally books the tickets with his friends at the station, but the new girl doesn’t seat them together. Neal is more than thrilled at this happy accident. They say their goodbyes and go their separate ways. Until the train breaks down a few miles up.

Del secures them a ride in the back of yet another friend’s pickup to the car rental place where again they plan to go their separate ways. But the car that Neal has rented is mysteriously not there. And boy, does Neal let the customer rep have it in the film’s most famous scene.

But of course, Del gets a car and back together they ride.

Things continue to get worse for these two as they are robbed by some kid and their car erupts in flames, forcing them to hitch a ride in the dead of winter to Chicago in the back of a refrigerator truck.

MV5BMTQ0NjY0Mzc4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTQ2Njc2OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_

But through all of the misery, they have formed this bond. Two men who are just trying to get home to their families. Neal has learned how to be humble and Del has learned to have a few boundaries. They tenderly embrace and send their love to each other’s wives.

As Neal finally gets his long-awaited moment of silence, he reflects on his time with Del. Suddenly, he realizes what has been going on here all along. He rushes back to the train platform.

And there is Del, alone and lost with nothing but his luggage. He has no home. His beloved wife Marie has been dead for eight years. And Del has been roaming ever since, reaching out to share his love with anyone he can.

Cut to Neal and Del carrying Del’s baggage – the thing that first began this crazy journey of self-discovery – together down Neal’s street. They enter to a crowd of love. Neal’s wife Susan descends the stairs. Neal proudly whispers, “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.” And Susan, with so much wisdom, so much empathy, whispers back, “Hello, Mr. Griffith.” Hughes ends the film on Del’s face. After so many years of searching, he has finally found a home.

11-18-11_film_Great_Moments_In_Cinema_Planes_Trains_and_Automobiles_3

***

Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

Good Cinema: Seconds (Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1966)

I discovered this movie on accident by strolling the selections at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Rock Hudson + John Frankenheimer + Black and White thriller? I was in.

***

seconds_c

Seconds tells the story of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph – Roseanne’s dad on Roseanne), a bored middle aged banker whose life is going nowhere. His days are routine and his nights are spent sleeping in a separate bed from his long suffering wife. One evening while boarding the train, a mysterious man slips a piece of paper into his hand with an address on it. Could this be connected to the ominous calls he has been receiving? The calls from his dead friend, Charlie? Arthur folds the paper, puts it in his breast pocket, and takes his seat on the train.

That night, Arthur receives another call from the man claiming to be Charlie, the caller even going to the extent of describing Arthur’s study. Charlie begs him to visit the address. Arthur says no and Charlie hangs up on him. Arthur returns to bed, disheveled and confused. His wife Emily (Frances Reid – long time Alice Brady from Days of Our Lives) tries to comfort him with sex, but he refuses, numb to her caress. Arthur knows he needs a change, but what? And how?

Unknown

The next day he decides to visit the address to see what this is all about. Before he knows it, he is drugged, video-taped “performing” a faux rape, and coerced into cooperating. Arthur is then informed on the particulars of his death. His body – or a body that looks like Arthur – will be found ablaze in a hotel fire. Emily and their daughter will be well taken care of financially from his new life insurance policy (the one the Company has had the liberty of drawing up for him) and Arthur will be given a new identity. A new look, a new profession, a new life. For a man who is essentially dead anyway, this sounds like a golden opportunity at starting over. The Company takes pleasure in giving unhappy people a second chance at happiness – and the life insurance money they skim off the top doesn’t hurt either.

A still from Joel Frankenheimer's 1966 film "Seconds."

After an extensive surgery, Arthur becomes Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson in one of his better performances), an established painter, complete with a respected body of work, degrees from legitimate universities, and a gorgeous house in Malibu. The Company even sets him up with an assistant John (Wesley Addy) to help him with his transition.

One day on the beach, he meets Nora (Salome Jens). She takes him to a wine festival, a Dionysian celebration full of frivolity, transformation, and nudity. As the grapes become wine, Arthur sheds his own skin and embraces Tony’s. He laughs for the first time probably in years.

images

Later on (days? weeks? months?….time is somewhat relative in this film), Nora and Tony throw a neighborhood party. Tony gets drunk and does the unthinkable: he mentions his former life to the guests. Some of them are confused and think it is just a drunken game; others know all to well that what he says is true. They are the ReBorns, other men who have been through The Company’s program. And Nora? She is a woman assigned to make sure he keeps his mouth shut. The next morning the phone calls from Charlie resume. He warns him to stay put and not say anything else until he can get there. But Tony has had enough. It’s time for him to go home.

Reminiscent of Damn Yankees’ interpretation of the Faustian legend, Tony decides to visit Joyce under the auspices that he and Arthur were co-workers. But what Tony really needs to know is how he (Arthur) let his life slip away so poorly, how he let the woman he loves become a stranger, and how he could make such a devastating decision to leave her for selfish gains. With this knowledge in hand, he returns to The Company with a new plan. He knows he can’t go back to being Arthur Hamilton, yet is tired of being Tony Wilson. What he wants is another chance. Another identity to take the lessons he has learned and to get it right this time.

seconds5

The Company is amenable to his demands; they have had their fair share of “failures” over the years. All they ask is that he refer them to someone else. Their business is word of mouth, after all. In fact, Charlie (Murray Hamilton – Big Daddy Devereaux from The Golden Girls) recommended Arthur to The Company in the hope of getting his own transformation reversed. But Tony/Arthur refuses to play ball. He will not be bullied. Little does he realize how powerless he actually is. Will he be left to languish in The Waiting Room? Or something more sinister…

***

As the plot intimates, Seconds was not typical 1960’s Hollywood fair. Despite being helmed by the acclaimed director of The Manchurian Candidate, starring Rock Hudson, and getting an Oscar nomination for its cinematography (James Wong Howe’s work is exceptional, reminding one of Gilbert Taylor’s claustrophobic work in Repulsion), it tanked with the critics. It later found a solid cult following, culminating in its inclusion in The Criterion Collection (and library shelves everywhere).

Check it out!

*Read up on my other Good Cinema selections here.

Good Cinema: Bernie (Dir: Richard Linklater, 2012)

Unknown

Eventually, if actors work long enough, they are given chances they wouldn’t have originally been given. To his credit and/or detriment, Jack Black is known as being part of the Frat Pack, comprised of people like Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, and the Wilson Bros; men stuck in adolescence, the kind that always end up in movies directed by Judd Apatow, films that are passing as this era’s version of comedy. But Jack Black – like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction, and Seth MacFarlane cutting an album of standards without a stitch of irony – is capable of more. His work in Margot at the Wedding is pitch perfect, dialing back the zaniness to give us, like the rest of his brilliant co-stars, a lived in relaxed performance. Bernie could have been played for big laughs, but Black and Linklater control the satire beautifully; I wish Black would have been cast as the Baker in the upcoming Into the Woods….

***

bernie

Bernie is an assistant funeral director. He does the embalming, the eulogies, the handshakes, and the tears. He looks after the grieving widows with kindness and love. He volunteers at the local theatre. He loans people money to open businesses. The whole town adores him. Which is why they can’t believe he would kill anyone. But he did. Although, it’s no big deal. After all, as the townsfolk tell us, “Well, he only shot her four times.”

The “her” in question is Margaret Nugent, the biggest bitch of the town, played, of course, by Shirley MacLaine. Like all of her characters, Margaret wears an overcoat of knives, keeping anyone who dares to show emotion at bay. But unlike Aurora, Tess, or Ouiser, Margaret is not fleshed out enough to make us care about her, or to give MacLaine really anything to play but glares and bouts of shouting. In fact, the film keeps us at a distance from all of the characters, even Bernie. It is austere, which is part of its charm. Bernie is not concerned with getting you to like or connect with anyone. Like all great satire, it is concerned with its message. Bernie explores the relationships in small town Americana, the way one is worshipped or vilified for their character; the way faith runs supreme and knowing that the Lord is on your side is all you need. It is also about sociopathy and the lines between sanity and insanity. Does doing one horrible thing erase the kind things you have done? How far the line of forgiveness?

Similar in tone to The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter, Bernie is a nice trifle for a rainy Sunday afternoon. The film is instant on Netflix. Co-starring Matthew McCougheney, in another sleazy, unattractive part.

***

Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

Good Cinema: Adventures in Babysitting (Dir: Chris Columbus, 1987)

Trevor had been begging me for months, years.

“Gurl when are we gonna watch Adventures in Babysitting? It is werking so hard!” 

Unknown

It had gotten to the point where I almost didn’t ever want to see it. It had gotten to the point that I could only be disappointed, sold on the promise of greatness. But tonight, after jamming to the new Mariah Carey (which has some fabulous moments btw…), after a false start watching La Vie en Rose (which looked like a HOT snooze…), I decided, what the hell. Let’s do this. I texted Trevor. He was ecstatic. I was cynical.

And I am here to say….it is glorious.

***

images-2

OK. So Elisabeth Shue, rocking her best 80s hair, dances around her room to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” whp for a Golden Globe nod. The power of love overtakes her body. It’s her anniversary and she is getting gussied up for her man. But wouldn’t you know it. Her boyfriend’s sister is sick. And he needs to take care of her. Well, we can see from a mile away that his sister isn’t sick. He’s stepping out with another girl! But Elisabeth i.e. Chris is none the wiser, despite the warnings from her anxious friend, Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller). With no pressing plans, when she gets a call to babysit the Andersons, she heads out for a night of easy money and boredom. Or so she thinks!

That worrisome Brenda has run away from home and begs Chris to come get her from the bus stop before the homeless man who lives in the phone booth attacks her. Well, Chris, being the dependable friend – the virginal paradigm set forth by Laurie Strode – dashes from the suburbs into the scary streets of New York City to rescue her friend, kids in tow. There’s 10 year old Sara (Maia Brewton) who thinks she is Thor, 15 year old Brad (Keith Coogan) who is sporting a serious crush for Chris, and his 15 year old friend Daryl (Rent‘s Anthony Rapp) who blackmails them into a night of adventure. And adventures are aplenty!

Unknown-1

It starts with a flat tire. Simple enough. Annoying, but not devastating. Unless you don’t have a flat. And the pick up truck driver is kind of creepy with his hook hand and instead of taking you directly to the mechanic’s, goes to try and kill his wife’s lover. And then to avoid getting shot, you duck into an open car. That just so happens to be in the process of being stolen. So there you are, taken to a hot garage, surrounded by gangsters, locked in their office, escaping through the skylight by straddling the beams in the ceiling like a damn circus performer with the stolen Playboy in your bag; the one that has all that secret information across the centerfold, the centerfold who looks like Chris. So you escape only to be chased by these gangsters, trapped on stage where you have to sing the blues to escape and you tear down the house (Shue is really werking this scene…) and the next thing you know you are stealing a thug’s knife saying classic lines like, “Don’t FUCK with the babysitter” before dangling from windows and finding out your boyfriend with the sick sister actually IS running game on you and your 15 year old crush calls him out for being a douche. Then you’ll get your car from Vincent D’Onofrio, race home, narrowly beating the kids’ parents, and bonding with your ward over the best night of your life…so far.

images

Adventures in Babysitting feels like John Hughes Light, filled with charm, but missing the gravitas and hopeful cynicism. The soundtrack is filled with grooves and the cast is really excellent and sells the over the top plot. The tone of the film is not obvious satire like Heathers, yet it is not meant to be taking seriously; you never believe that the kids or Chris are in any real danger, which leaves Shue’s performance feeling somewhere in between great and just missing the mark. She underplays where she could camp it up and downplays her stunning beauty when she could use it to their advantage. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. If made today, Chris would need to be more sassy, more guarded, more kick ass. Think Ellen Page or LiLo. But there is an innocent maturity to Shue’s interpretation. After all the too-smart-for-their-own-good teens committed to celluloid in the ’80s, Shue’s Chris is kind of refreshing as an average girl without the life skills asked of her.

Adventures in Babysitting is a great time. Stop putting it off and watch the thing today! Thank you, Trevor!

photo-3

*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

**I would watch this as a double feature with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, also starring Keith Coogan, and an inevitable Good Cinema selection…

Good Cinema: Outrageous Fortune (Dir: Arthur Hiller, 1987)

“You’re an actress. Bullshit him.”
“I don’t use my training to tell lies to people.”
“Then what do you use it for?”

When I write about films for this column (and its sister column, Bad Cinema), I like to spend a substantial amount of time with the movie and its universe, reading up on its significance, perusing what other critics had to say about it, or watching it multiple times, with director’s commentary if possible. For example, when I was writing about Vamp, I listened to Grace Jones on repeat; when writing about THX 1138, I made sure to watch George Lucas’ student films to gain perspective; and when writing about Sextette, I delved breast first into Mae West, reading her autobiography and fast forwarding through her terrible filmography.

Outrageous Fortune, however, is a film I have seen innumerable times, one of those childhood stalwarts, like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, that I could quote from memory. Yet, strangely, I do not own it. (Or PTA…yet mediocre BS like Igby Goes Down and the Ernest Goes To…Box Set line my shelves. Figure that one out…). Last night, I made a special trip to Amoeba, the giant media store on Sunset that seems to have everything in search of this gem, but it was nowhere to be found! Not even in the $1 bin! I even scoured the row of VHS tapes. You know you are desperate for Outrageous Fortune when you are scouring the row of VHS tapes… I could have rented it for $2.99 from YouTube or ordered it from Amazon in a Bette Midler 3 Pack for $14.98 (which I still may do and am kind of embarrassed I didn’t…), but for now, I am going from memory.

Unknown

OK, Outrageous Fortune is a buddy road movie starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long. That’s all I really need to say. What? You aren’t pulling your hair out in pursuit of its digital presence? Hmmm…OK.

Shelley plays Lauren, a stuck-up bitch who thinks she knows everything (so Diane Chambers…), yet works in a dime store; Bette plays Sandy, a hustler, promising sexual favors for information. They are both actresses at the end of their roads. Their paths cross when Sandy busts in to an audition looking for “one phone in this whole fucking town that works.” Lauren is beyond insulted that this woman, this thing, would dare interrupt her VPS exercises. And not only that! Since she’s there, she’s gonna audition too. Well, Lauren loses it:

“You do not audition for a man of Korzenowski’s reputation without the classic presentation: that’s Shaw, Ibsen, Shakespeare. I’m doing ‘Ophelia’s Mad Scene.’ I’m not waltzing in here off the street thinking, (with thick Brooklyn accent) ‘Gee, I think I wanna be an actress.'”

Sandy/Bette’s signature response: “You know what I bet? I bet you haven’t been laid in about a year.”

Unknown-1

Well, they both get in. After class and back at work, amidst Lauren’s utter frustration (“He let her in! And on scholarship too! I just bet I know what she did for an audition…”), Michael (Peter Coyote) strolls in asking for a pumpkin costume. One of his kids (he’s a teacher) has a learning disability and he thinks “it would give him such a boost if he had the best damn costume in the pageant.” Well, they don’t have any vegetables so Lauren, blinded by his beauty, decides to make him one. They end up in bed.

images-2

Next day at class, she’s flying high. “My, my, my. THAT kind of evening, huh?” “Well, not the kind you’re used to. No money changed hands.” Later that day, we learn that Bette…is ALSO sleeping with Michael! Just wait until they find out their beloved is sleeping with the enemy! They’ll kill him!

Turns out they don’t have to. Michael blows up in a flower shop explosion. The women are devastated until they… well, just watch.

Knowing that Michael is at large, the two join forces to track him down and find out once and for all: who’s it gonna be!?

Long and Midler play off of each other perfectly (despite their onscreen struggles), elaborating on their well established personalities and finding new notes of brashness and sympathy, respectively. Their characters use their acting training to get tangled (and untangled) from drug dealers…

images-3

 

…airline officials (I used to act out this scene ad nauseum…)…

Unknown

…whore house madams…

images-4

…and the KGB.

images-5

 

All in the pursuit of love. And of course, in the grand tradition of the buddy comedy, they become best friends.

Oh, yeah. George Carlin is in it too.

images

And that guy from The Golden Girls who plays Gil Kessler.

images-1

***

Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

 

Good Cinema: Dolores Claiborne (Dir: Taylor Hackford, 1995)

“Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold on to…”

dolores_claiborne_poszter

Kathy Bates.

I am sitting here trying to figure out how to properly convey the greatness of Dolores Claiborne and all I can come up with is Kathy Bates.

Which is a little unfair. Yes, Kathy Bates shines, dazzles, floors you as the titular character – a maid who is charged with murdering her boss – but the above statement seems to undersell Jennifer Jason Leigh as her estranged pill-popping, smart mouthed, big city daughter. Or Christopher Plummer as the smarmy detective. Or John C. Reilly in one of his earliest roles as the good-natured deputy. Or David Strathairn as…maybe I am getting ahead of myself.

Based on Stephen King’s novel (and for my money, the best film based on one of his books yet), Dolores Claiborne tells the dual story of a double murder: the pending homicide investigation of Vera Donovan, the richest woman on an island off the coast of Maine…

images-1

and the 18 year old death of Joe St. George…

images-2

…deemed an “accident” by everyone except Det. Mackie (Plummer) who still believes that Dolores murdered him, got away with it, and ruined his perfect record. But not this time. Now that he has her back in the throes of the law, she will be punished for Joe via Vera – even if she is innocent.

Screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Devil’s Advocate) drastically changes King’s monologue style structure to one of interweaving past and present narratives. Hackford’s directorial touches are inspired. He shoots the present day material in a blue filter, symbolizing the austere, emotionless ways the characters relate to one another and the blanket of malaise that seems to suffocate them, yet we are always aware of their breath from Maine’s cold coastal breeze; and he shoots the past scenes in an almost Technicolor vividness to give an ironic tone to their completely dire circumstances – some scenes even come off Sirkian in their phoniness, like we are watching a play on a cheap soundstage. Hackford is making a statement on memory and how we romanticize even the awful, yet the present is seen as nothing more than a frigid wasteland. Selena (Leigh) and Dolores are so beaten down by the past that they have no life left to give to the future. The transitions between the past and present are seamless, illustrating the way the past never truly leaves us, but is merely a glance away.

images

The film’s central crux is the relationship between Selena and Dolores and the secret they don’t know they remember. It’s better if I don’t give it away. But trust me. I have seen this film about a dozen times and could not recommend it more.

***Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.***