Monday, April 30, 2012

The Cemetery

Django (1966)
dir. Sergio Corbucci

Rango (2011)
dir. Gore Verbinski

from Mahlertov Cocktail

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Wedding

"I now pronounce you man and wife. That'll be two dollars."
Arrowsmith (1931)
written by Sinclair Lewis and Sidney Howard

"I now pronounce you man and wife. That'll be two dollars."
Damaged Lives (1933)
written by Eugène Brieux, Donald Davis, and Edgar G. Ulmer

A Look at Poverty Row, part 4: The Sin of Nora Moran

Part 1     Part 5
Part 2     Part 6
Part 3     Part 7

THE SIN OF NORA MORAN (1933, Majestic Pictures)

In a way, The Sin of Nora Moran is relatively well-known because of its iconic one-sheet, a poster designed by the great pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. It's a beautiful poster which has virtually nothing to do with the film it advertises (Nora Moran has black hair and, unfortunately, never dresses like that), but it works because it captures the film's sexual anguish and because its dark composition recalls the film's pivotal dream sequence:

The disorienting spaceless look in the latter half is one of the film's great strengths.

Poor Nora Moran's sin is being in love, though she also has the temerity to be trusting, innocent, and a woman in a society which disdains them. Like her spiritual sister Caddy Compson, Nora Moran is an oasis of good in a wretched world - a world so ugly that even our relatively compassionate narrator describes quite unashamedly how he "groomed" his brother-in-law to "further [his] own political power." We learn in the first few minutes that Nora is the first woman sentenced to death in her state in 20 years and then, in a backwards structure that Citizen Kane would copy almost verbatim, we learn why. It's a sad and painful story, enhanced by Zita Johann's aching vulnerability. This performance is a career high. There's a moment when she paces around listening to the official charges which calls to mind Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.

One neat thing about the film is the unspoken sisterhood - all the women, wounded by the callousness of men, seem united in mutual understanding and compassion.

It's a great performance in large measure because it's such a great script. It doesn't waste a second of its slim running time (only 65 minutes - it's basically the length of a CSI episode plus a bathroom break, so there's really no excuse to skip this one), hooking us immediately with an intriguing mystery - just what the hell was a Governor doing sending love letters to a convict? - and a measured unraveling of a sad life. 

The camerawork is slick, too. Transitions in and out of flashbacks are wonderfully theatrical - faces, clocks, and fire dissolve in and out of one another, creating a paranoid and frantic mood. At one point a clock dissolves into a fire, predicting Delmore Schwartz's 1937 line "time is the fire in which we burn." This fluid approach to time is another thing Orson Welles learned from Nora Moran.

This adoption sequence was improved upon by Welles in Kane.

I'm not quite sure why this movie isn't more highly acclaimed. Pre-Code fans should enjoy its sexual atmosphere, film noir fans should take to its dark and labyrinthine structure, and Orson Welles fans should love to see all the little bits he elaborated on. The rest of the world should love it, too, because it's a captivating mystery told with class and a lovely, wounded heart.

This was one of Majestic Pictures' final films before it was absorbed into Republic in 1935. Director Phil Goldstone, who puts on such a lively and professional show here, helmed a handful of difficult-to-find silent Westerns before doing this, his first sound film. Sadly, he only directed one more film - 1937's Damaged Goods, a sleazy remake of Ulmer's VD film Damaged Lives. He's much better known as the producer of the Poverty Row classics White Zombie and The Vampire Bat. He died in '63 at the nice round age of 70.

Screenwriter W. Maxwell Goodhue never wrote another script! He has four published plays which appear to have been well-received. He died in '38 at 65, and judging from his track record I think it's safe to say his talents were never fully expressed. His co-author Frances Hyland did well for herself. Before Nora Moran, she was Universal's first female gagwriter. She also wrote The Thirteenth Guest, arguably the first slasher film.

Strange portrait of Zita

The lovely Zita Johann, who is as beautiful here as anyone has been on film, has a small but impressive résumé - she debuted as the lead in DW Griffith's final film, 1931's The Struggle. The film is a mixed bag, but she puts in great work and at times recalls Griffith's greatest find: Lillian Gish. In 1932 she starred in Howard Hawks' Tiger Shark and the essential and underrated The Mummy, in which she puts in an eerie and hypnotic performance. She's in only 8 movies and excepting her cameo in Raiders of the Living Dead (the highlight of that mess) they were all in a three year span between 1931 and 1934. In 1933, she was injured in a car accident with her then-boyfriend John Huston, mere months before Huston killed a 23 year old dancer named Tosca Roulien in a similar accident. In 1934, Zita left film for Broadway, and the state of cinema is poorer for having lost her. I believe she had it in her to stand alongside Ingrid Bergman or Joan Crawford, and The Sin of Nora Moran is my proof.

It's on the archive and it's on youtube. You can practically finish it in a lunch break. I highly recommend this one, then watch it again. Among other reasons, the opening scene of people mocking Nora's love letters takes on a whole new cruelty after her story is told.

I just love this dress and couldn't squeeze it in anywhere else.

The Leg

The Graduate (1967)
dir. Mike Nichols

Marlowe (1969)
dir. Paul Bogart

Gotcha! (1985)
dir. Jeff Kanew

The Sick Chamber

Death in the Sick Chamber (1895)
Edvard Munch

The Dead (1987) (flipped horizontal)
dir. John Huston

Unaltered The Dead screencap after the jump.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Look at Poverty Row, part 3: Hitler's Madman

Part 1     Part 5
Part 2     Part 6
Part 4     Part 7

HITLER'S MADMAN (1943, PRC (later acquired by MGM))

In time, Douglas Sirk would be considered one of the greatest of all filmmakers. Rainer Fassbinder, deeply indebted to the man's work, called his films "among the most beautiful all in the world." Truffaut was equally reverent, calling his Written on the Wind "the best work that has ever been done in this [genre]."

But in 1943, the man was lost. He had fled his native Germany - where he had made a splash directing several promising films - and foolishly signed a seven year contract with Columbia Pictures. They retained him as a writer, a job in which he produced virtually nothing and was paid accordingly. 46 years old, (an age by which Billy Wilder, who also fled Germany in the same exodus, had collected three Oscars), confident, and broke, Douglas Sirk took a chance and accepted a gig at the lowly PRC Studios. It was a typical wartime hiss and boo film, but it was work behind the camera so Sirk lowered his sights and took it, fearing for his reputation all the while. He recounts in Sirk on Sirk:
I was offered the picture, which was to be shot at some speed: I was given one week's shooting time. It was specifically presented to me as a very low-budget film, not even a B-feature, but a C- or D- feature. I realized that it was both a chance and a danger. It could be useful, and it might launch me. Or it could stick me as a B-feature director. And when this happens to you, no matter how good you are, you can just get stuck. Ulmer, for example, I think is a very good director, but he got stuck with B-features all his time in Hollywood.
Douglas snagged as cinematographer the great Eugen Schüfftan - one of the best in the world! The Schüfftan Process takes its name from the man, who cut his teeth with Fritz Lang on Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, Gance's Napoleon, Wilder/Ulmer/Siodmak/Zinneman's People on Sunday, and Pabst's L'Atlantide.

Sirk's "semi-documentary" approach is akin to the procedural crime films of the '50s.

Hitler's Madman was freshly topical. It is a biography of the recently deceased and unlamented Reinhardt Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution and one of Hitler's most despicable cohorts. He was killed in an ambush by the Czech Resistance, almost exactly one year before Hitler's Madman's June 1943 release. Sirk cast John Carradine as Heydrich, and it's very nearly the finest performance in the veteran character actor's almost comically vast career.

Expressive, layered sets made for like a buck eighty five.

Sirk and Schüfftan do wonders with the meager PRC sets. Sirk's camera swoops through space in the vast, soaring way Ophüls (so many umlauts) would become famous for. The story is wonderfully handled - it doesn't fall into the traps of most of these wartime films. It never falls into moralizing (years later, Sirk would declare that when you try to teach the audience, you are making a bad film), instead working as a grand and majestic tragedy. It's operatic yet small and intimate, and it builds to a powerful and painful conclusion. Truly powerful filmmaking.

Hitler's Madman was a huge success before it even made it out of the studio. MGM had caught wind of the project and Louis B. Mayer purchased it - the first film MGM released that was made by another studio.

"The bit-part actress to the far left is an uncredited Ava Gardner."

Sirk - who had met Heydrich casually at UFA parties - made one more film on Poverty Row, 1944's Summer Storm. He, of course, went on to an incredible career at Universal, culminating in his grand Technicolor melodramas. A Time to Love and a Time to Die, the second-to-last of these, is a long and lush Cinemascope romance about two young Nazis whose lives are wracked by the war. It makes an interesting companion piece to Hitler's Madman - two exceptional studies of the effects of total war on citizens of both sides, told in totally contrasting styles.

Schüfftan had visa problems and couldn't be credited for his work on the film. That credit went instead to Jack Greenhalgh, a solid if unremarkable journeyman responsible for Tomorrow We Die and Strange Voyage. Don't feel too bad, though - our friend Eugen went on to shoot Eyes Without a Face, Port of Shadows, and The Hustler among others. He has a résumé of classics as long as any I'm aware of.

Carradine's birdlike face is used to sinister effect.

The ubiquitous John Carradine appeared in somewhere between 200 and 400 films. He appeared in at least 7 movies that year alone, and though I've never seen him give a bad performance, I've rarely seen him give one as good as his dark turn in Hitler's Madman, certainly one of his most unique and unsettling roles. Patricia Morison, who played Heydrich's most visible victim, left film for theater, where she played the lead in the original Broadway run of Kiss Me, Kate.

Because MGM snapped it up, Hitler's Madman is not available for free online like much of Poverty Row, but it is easy enough to find. It's a magnificent pseudo-debut, a great film which has been unjustly forgotten.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Look at Poverty Row, part 2: Manhattan Tower

Part 1     Part 5
Part 3     Part 6
Part 4     Part 7

MANHATTAN TOWER (1932, Remington Pictures)

Manhattan Tower is about a young couple in love who get swindled by their sleazy employer. It's all set during one typical crazy day at the new Empire State building. In the end, it's just a simple love story and a simple Stagecoach-ish tale of corporate greed, but it's all told in a very fresh way. It feels contemporary and light, and yet it is very much a product of its year for two reasons:

Firstly, it's totally fascinated by the idea of a skyscraper. This is pre-King Kong, probably the first real cinematic exploration of a skyscraper (I'm almost certainly wrong there so if anyone can come up with an earlier one, post a comment). The sense of vertical scale is omnipresent, and Chekhov's Height pays off at the end.

Secondly, the specter of the Great Depression is all over the film. The very existence of the tower, which is introduced (as its mascot King Kong would be) as "The Eighth Wonder of the World," is played as a remedy to the economic woes which crush the edges of every frame. This was the case in real life. This is one of those movies, like Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience or Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, in which every conversation is about money even - hell, especially - when it's not.

"We never caught up [to our debt] in all these years," we're told early on, a horror which colors every minute of the film. Even if it wasn't any good - which it is - this film would be worth watching just to see this all-too-contemporary view on economic uncertainty and the suffocating pressures of debt.


In the film's first shots, we're shown a few New York milestones (including the Chrysler Building which, let's face it, is the prettier building), culminating in a overwhelming shot of the Empire State Building splashed across the screen from edge to edge. We're craning up at it. We move in on our first characters, two window washers suspended above the city. We view them from below. Then we see a busload of tourists craning their necks up at the window washers, we see the from above. We see our leads enter in a bird's eye view, too, and it's not until everyone's settled in and working in the skeleton of the building that we get eye-level with anyone.

Bird's eye within bird's eye

The film isn't using its verticality to make judgements, but instead to place us all together, window washers, tourists, bosses, and employees as cogs in a great metropolitan wheel. Height equals perspective here, as in a lovely scene in which a spatting couple reconciles while watching a bunch of chicks in a model house from above. I love this moment - characters we once watched from a bird's eye perspective now watching birds from the same. It's subtly recursive and quite lovely.

Our heroine is overwhelmed in lines

The set design is simple but beautiful. Vertical lines abound. The camera is often pulled back far enough to remind us of the vast scale of the building, a nice way to make things appear larger than they are. For a brief introspective moment, we go to an exterior atop the tower. This scene is prime Poverty Row - a simple faux-concrete wall, properly applied, represents the overwhelming height and perspective. Scene transitions are handled by pulling one scene up or down as the next rises or falls into place, each change of story in the building heralding a change of story in the plotline. And so we drift up and down the building, weaving a small Hawks-esque epic.

 In context, this scene is pretty harrowing. So much space suggested so easily.

Behind the scenes, Remington Pictures only made two films, this one and Sleepless Nights, both 1932. I don't know what happened to them and I don't know how to find out, but I bet they were either a dummy corporation or were eaten up by another studio.

Mary Brian (and her butt)

Our film stars Mary Brian, Irene Rich, and James Hall. Mary Brian was a minor star best known for her role as the love interest in Brown of Harvard. She had just left her studio contract and was freelancing. Seems like she got a happy ending - a long career, a longterm marriage (to the editor of Rear Window!), and a star on the Walk of Fame. Manhattan Tower was just one of many in a long career. Co-star Irene Rich has two stars on the Walk of Fame - which frankly I didn't even know was possible - and rounded her career out with roles in Borzage's superlative Man's Castle, John Ford's classic Fort Apache, and a cushy role in the Ingrid Bergman bomb Joan of Arc. Both women died at the age of 96. Perhaps Manhattan Tower was some kind of good luck charm, like a reverse-Poltergeist curse?

If so, the charm didn't extend to star James Hall. Hall did alright for himself for a while there. He starred in John Ford's underrated Four Sons and Josef von Sternberg's missing The Case of Lena Smith, as well as Manhattan Tower director Frank R. Strayer's 1928 Just Married. In 1930, he had second lead in Howard Hughes' massively successful Hell's Angels, a fascinating film worth reading up on. But two short years later, his career ended with a splat. Manhattan Tower was his final film. A terrible drinking habit ended his career just as it was heating up, and cost him his life at age 39, in 1940.

Ira Morgan's inky work on Fog Island

On the technical side, Director of Photography Ira H. Morgan never left the little leagues, but he did photograph some of the nicest looking products of Poverty Row - The Sin of Nora Moran, The Vampire Bat, Isle of Forgotten Sin (one of a long line of collaborations with Edgar Ulmer), Fog Island, and the original 1948 Superman serial and the 1949 Batman and Robin serial. He also shot Brown of Harvard with Mary Brian and Man to Man with James Hall - I've always wondered if such chance reunions remembered each other.

Frank R. Strayer enjoyed a long career at Columbia Pictures, directing among others 13 of the Blondie films. He seemed to take to Poverty Row to supplement his income, knocking out quickies like this, the hilarious The Vampire Bat, and the atmospheric but fun The Ghost Walks. His films are always fast and witty, the product of a very skilled workingman director.

Like much of Poverty Row's output, Manhattan Tower is on Youtube and The Internet Archive in an evidently fan-made restoration. It's one of my favorite Pre-Code films and I think y'all will get a lot out of it. It clocks in at a brisk 67 minutes.

Click for big

A Look at Poverty Row, part 1

Part 2     Part 5
Part 3     Part 6
Part 4     Part 7


As some of you might know, I'm in the middle of a project right now to watch every movie directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. It's quixotic as hell - I can't even get a clear count of how many he directed (it's somewhere between 47 and 53), but it's equally rewarding and I'm semi-seriously considering writing a short book about the man and his work.

Basically the only clear picture online of the ever-elusive Edgar G. Ulmer

I bring the man up because one of the inspirations for the project (aside from the fact that he's just a damn good director) is my ongoing fascination with Poverty Row.

Poverty Row is kind of a loose term, as nebulous and difficult to draw borders around as Ulmer's filmography, but in essence it refers to the dozens of cheap production companies which turned out bill-filling movies between the dawn of the sound age and the end of the studio system. These studios made everything, but as a rule tended to focus on westerns, horror movies, and serials.

They became a training ground for filmmakers on the rise - among others, Douglas Sirk and Sam Fuller got their start in this arena - and a refuge for filmmakers who had fallen from grace, like our Mr. Ulmer and, most famously, the tragic Bela Lugosi.

PRC Studios, circa 1942

Republic Pictures is the most famous of the bunch - though some maintain that it was too successful to truly fit the bill. Certainly by the late 1940s when the studio had pioneered its own color system and produced an Oscar winner, it had outgrown its peers. They made a killing in the fifties because in a time when most studios were fighting against the tide of television, Republic wisely and quickly sold the broadcast rights to their catalogue.

Monogram Pictures, the studio that discovered Randolph Scott, Robert Mitchum, and Lawrence Tierney, is the next-most-famous, notable for its dedication in Godard's Breathless - a gesture which illustrated their product of choice: low budget crime films. They never reached the heights of Republic, but made a hell of a run.

And then there's PRC. If Republic's meteoric success made it the Jack Kennedy of Poverty Row, and Monogram's near-miss with greatness made it Robert Kennedy, PRC's scrappiness, long life, and unsung breadth of output place it firmly Ted. PRC was Ulmer's home of choice, a great talent in a rather lifeless studio (this isn't to trash the many greats who passed through the PRC gates, but overall their crop was not the best). Good old PRC is famous for never spending over a hundred grand on a film, I would also believe they never went over 75 minutes.

Hahahaha awesome

There are dozens of other such studios - Eagle-Lion Films, Invincible Pictures, K.B.S. Productions, Victory Pictures, World Wide Pictures, the list goes on, a hundred studios with ten thousand forgotten names. Much of their output has lapsed into public domain, and hundreds of Poverty Row features, shorts, and serials can be seen for free on - among others - youtube and

As far as I can figure it, the most famous product of these studios is Edgar Ulmer's 1945 noir classic Detour. It's as fine a starting place as any, featuring all the hallmarks, both good and bad, of this movement. It's a small (both in scale and, at 68 minutes, length), intimate, angry film shot in about a week with a few sets and a few actors. It prickles with a raw energy you don't see in more polished studio output. 

In the shadowy world of Detour, this is the most expansive look at New York City

Detour is a true masterpiece. It's a part of the National Film Registry, is on Time Magazine's "Top 100 Movies," and Noah Isenberg wrote a monograph on it for BFI. We all love Detour. But it seems like there's a strong belief that Detour is an aberration, a fluke masterpiece in a sea of duds.

That just isn't so. Edgar Ulmer was more than just Detour, as I'm learning every week in my Ulmer-a-thon, and goddamn it, so was Poverty Row. So let's move beyond Detour and witness some other great films from this forgotten movement, a wealth of films more easily accessible now than ever before.

Republic's The Red Pony (1949) is not really Poverty Row, but at least one of these pictures should be color - plus, Mitchum.

But first, some stipulations:

1. This is not about movies are "so bad they're good." Voodoo Man and Maniac are hilarious, I know, but I'm much more interested in finding signs of real honest-to-god talent in these cinematic slums. When it happens, it's thrilling. Culturally, we rush to celebrate and mock the bad, and often forget the good. Some true talent went through the Poverty Row ghetto, their films forgotten, and they deserve their due however meager and belated this may be.

2. Republic Pictures post-1948 is disqualified. As I said above, Republic is the Cadillac of Poverty Row, and at a certain point they jumped to the majors. I draw the line at 1948 - it's not easy to hardline, but the year they released Orson Welles' Macbeth and spent a million plus on Wake of the Red Witch is as good a barrier as I can find. They made some great stuff after 1948 that I'd love to write about, but it's unfair to compare it to PRC's $20,000 quickies, and besides, I really hope I don't need to tell any of you to watch The Quiet Man.

3. This isn't a ranking. This won't be a list of The Greatest films, and it won't be sorted from best to worst. It's a cross-section, some solid and underrated films, hopefully hitting every major genre.

4. No serials. Serials are a whole different world, more analogous to TV than present day film. So that's a whole different list. Maybe I'll write it out one day - in the meantime I'll just say: Manhunt on Mystery Island. You're welcome.

The Window Seat

The Thin Blue Line (1988)
dir. Errol Morris

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
dir. Lynne Ramsey

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Face in the Doorway

Our Town (1940)
dir. Sam Wood

The Shining (1980)
dir. Stanley Kubrick

Our Town cap from the lovely oldfilmsflicker.

The Flag-Down

Tomorrow We Live (1942)
dir. Edgar G. Ulmer

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
dir. Robert Aldrich

The Great Movie

Purple and pianos, Frank Borzage's 1946 Republic Picture I've Always Loved You is awash in both. It's never been out on DVD, I assume because of that ridiculous stranglehold Lion's Gate had on the Republic catalog. With any luck, maybe we'll see this one hit Blu-Ray, because my god is it beautiful. Criterion, this one has your name all over it.

No comparison pictures here, I just wanted to post some stills from one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.

I've Always Loved You (1946)
dir. Frank Borzage

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Snake in the Water

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)
dir. Dwight H. Little

King of the Hill "Serpunt" (2007)