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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Serial Killers (originally published 3/04)

It goes without saying that murder and murderers hold a fatal attraction for filmmakers. In fact, the only thing that cinema storytellers like more than a good, juicy murder is a whole string of them. Serial killings are tailor-made for the action film genre, since nothing keeps the old plot line moving like a fresh corpse every few minutes.

If you doubt it, go and see “Twisted,” the current release starring Ashley Judd and Andy Garcia as a pair of cops tracking down a serial killer. If you’ve already seen “Twisted,” and haven’t been reduced to peeking under the bed at night by the experience, you might also enjoy these serial killer movies.

“M” (1931). Director Fritz Lang’s classic suspense film is one of the most respected masterpieces of the German cinema. Peter Lorre, in his first major role, is outstanding as a compulsive child murderer. His eerie signature is the melody from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” that he whistles whenever murder is on his mind. In trying to track him down, the police become so eager that their investigation begins to hamper the activities of the local organized crime syndicate. To get back to business as usual, the criminals set out to find the killer themselves, so that he is eventually under pursuit from both sides of the law.

“While the City Sleeps” (1956). Years later, in the United States, Lang made this fascinating echo of “M.” Again, there is a serial killer terrorizing the city. A newspaper publisher offers the position of editor-in-chief to any member of his editorial staff who finds the killer, sending each editor scrambling for sources to pursue the murderer’s identity. As in “M,” Lang presents us with an organization outside of law enforcement mobilizing to catch a serial killer for all the wrong reasons. Apparently the cynicism that informed Lang’s work in pre-war Germany remained undiminished in postwar America.

“The Boston Strangler” (1968). Tony Curtis portrays Albert De Salvo, a real-life serial killer who terrorized the Back Bay of Boston between 1962 and 1964. Director Richard Fleischer chose to tell the story in a semi-documentary style. He also made use of a split screen technique that was in vogue at the time, dividing the wide screen up into multiple images seen simultaneously.

“10 Rillington Place” (1971). Fleischer’s other serial killer film, less well known but every bit as good as “The Boston Strangler,” stars Richard Attenborough as John Reginald Christie, the British serial killer. Christie’s testimony had resulted in the execution of Timothy John Evans for the murder of Evans’s wife and infant daughter. Only later was it discovered that Christie had committed those murders, and others besides. This was the case that led to the abolition of the death penalty in England.

“Eyes Without a Face” (1959). French director Georges Franju’s gothic classic is a triumph of moody horror. A plastic surgeon is overcome with guilt when his reckless driving causes the disfigurement of his daughter’s face. Determined to restore her beauty, he kidnaps and kills a series of women in order to remove their facial skin. His efforts to graft the new skin onto his daughter’s face repeatedly fail, necessitating more and more murders.

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947). Believe it or not, there are even a handful of comedies on the subject of serial killings. This one was made by Charlie Chaplin, who cast himself in the role of a wife-murdering bluebeard. Chaplin was trying to make a point about hypocrisy – that a world that sees no moral problem with atomic bombs and other horrendous weapons of war shouldn’t be troubled by a little thing like serial killings. In the light of the atrocities for which medals are given in time of war, Chaplin thought, a bluebeard is by comparison a laughing matter.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Ealing Comedies (originally published 3/04)

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, are clearly fans of classic movies in addition to being exceptionally talented filmmakers. They have drawn inspiration for many of their films from popular genres of the past, and even borrowed the title of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) from the script of a Preston Sturges comedy called “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). Their next release, however, a comedy called “The Ladykillers,” is their first out and out remake.

The film they have chosen to remake is one of a series of beloved British comedies from the Ealing studio, each of which starred Alec Guinness. If you only know Guinness from “Star Wars,” you really owe it to yourself to see these remarkable showcases of his talents. For a sampling of the work that inspired the Coens, look for these classic Ealing comedies on home video.

“The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951). Guinness plays a bank employee, a mousey little clerk who rides along with the armored cars that carry the shipments of gold bullion. He is fussy and persnickety, insisting that security procedures be followed to the letter each and every time. In reality, he has been quietly plotting for years to steal the gold. The film is full of wonderful British character actors, including Stanley Holloway, whom you may remember as Alfred Doolittle from the film adaptation of “My Fair Lady” (1964). The film’s final chase scene is especially hysterical.

“Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949). This is the story of a family black sheep who calculates that in the improbable event that eight of his snobby relatives should pass away in rapid succession, he would inherit a dukedom. Seeing that it would be risky to leave such a sequence of events to chance, he resolves to murder all eight of them. He is motivated partly by personal gain, but also by the fact that the family treated his mother shabbily. I know, it doesn’t sound much like a comedy, but it is. Guinness, you see, doesn’t play the young murderer. Instead, he is cast in the roles of all eight of the victims, one of whom is a woman.

“The Man in the White Suit” (1951). Guinness plays a chemist working for a British textile plant. Working on his own time and without company authorization, he develops a formula for a fabric that cannot be soiled or stained, and which will never wear out. He is elated about his discovery, but, to his surprise, his employers receive the news with dismay rather than appreciation. They realize what he hadn’t – that this formula would in short order make their entire industry obsolete. Suddenly this inoffensive little chemist who only wanted to contribute to humanity finds himself at the center of a political firestorm. The satire is biting and very funny. Even the noises made by Guinness’s infernal machine are funny.

“The Ladykillers” (1955). In the film that provides direct inspiration to the Coens, Guinness is again on the wrong side of the law. He and his gang rent rooms from a dotty little old lady, where they plan their robberies. When she accidentally sees a cello case full of money, the gangsters decide that she knows too much and must be killed. But God, apparently, is on her side. As each one in turn tries to do her in, something goes wrong and it is the would-be killer who meets an untimely end. The outstanding cast includes Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, who would later play off each other so hilariously in the “Pink Panther” series with Sellers as Clouseau and Lom as Chief Inspector Dreyfuss.

I should probably pause here to point out the obvious. Ealing Studios in England made pictures for the home market. If the Yanks overseas liked them too, well and good, but if not, that was okay too. To really thoroughly enjoy these films, then, you need to have an appreciation for the eccentricities of British humor. Most especially, an appreciation for black humor is required.

Still, if the success of “Raising Arizona” (1987) and “Fargo” (1996) are any indication, the Coens have very effectively zeroed in on a segment of the American audience that does appreciate eccentric filmmaking. If you like their work, trust me, you’ll love the Ealing comedies.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side (originally published 8/05)

The adage is as old as show business itself: never perform with children or animals. They’ll steal the show right out from under you without ever even knowing that they’re doing it. Unfortunately for thespian egos, movies featuring both types of scene stealers never seem to go out of style with audiences.

In the animal movie category, this year’s “March of the Penguins” has become a box office smash in a year not overburdened with such successes. For those who prefer their movie stars furry, feathered, or with fins, I thought I’d mention a few favorite animal movie titles. I am, however, ruling out dog movies and horse movies on the grounds that they constitute categories unto themselves, if only by reason of sheer numbers.

“The Yearling” (1946). Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was adapted for the screen by veteran director Clarence Brown. Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman play the parents in this sentimental tale of pioneer hardships. Their son is played by Claude Jarman Jr. The story is a familiar one. The son adopts a fawn as a pet, but finds that his family’s hardscrabble existence doesn’t allow for such luxuries. When the fawn becomes a threat to their survival, the boy must face the hardest and most heartbreaking decision of his young life. It is a deeply touching story, skillfully told.

“Bedtime For Bonzo” (1951). This harmless little movie became the butt of innumerable jokes during its star’s tenure as president of the United States. I had my share of fun with it too, but with the Reagan administration safely tucked away in the dustbin of history, it’s time to admit that this is really a pretty good movie. In addition to being amusing, it uses humor to address one of the great scientific debates of the century: nature versus nurture. Professor Peter Boyd (Ronald Reagan) is committed to demonstrating that it is environment, not heredity, that determines who we are. To prove the point, he takes a chimpanzee named Bonzo into his home to raise him just as he would a human child. So, you see, Ronnie was actually ahead of the curve in advocating family values. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“Born Free” (1966). Based on the nonfiction book by Joy Adamson, this film tells the story of an African game warden and his wife, and of their pet lioness named Elsa. Having raised the orphaned Elsa and her siblings from cubs, Joy finds that she is too attached to Elsa to part with her. Eventually, of course, she has to face the fact that lions were meant to be free. But by then Elsa is grown, so it is up to Joy to teach her how to survive in the wild.

“Doctor Dolittle” (1967). I realize I’m in the minority here, but I much prefer this earlier version of Hugh Lofting’s classic stories to the Eddie Murphy remake. Neither version measures up to Lofting’s imaginative originals, but this one at least attempts to stay closer to his storylines. It also has the advantage of Rex Harrison’s charming performance in the lead role. More importantly, it raises, in an entertaining way, some of the animal rights issues that are only now beginning to be taken seriously. Even so, it was a resounding flop at the box office, and is regularly cited on lists of the worst films ever made. Well, I don’t care. I still like it.

“Flipper” (1963). This was the film that led producer Ivan Tors, during the latter part of his career, to specialize in moves and TV shows featuring animals. The story of a boy who adopts a dolphin as a pet clearly echoes “The Yearling,” but without the emotional depth, and with a much happier ending. Even so, the leisurely, almost European pacing is beguiling, and Flipper was endearing enough to be cast in a successful TV series.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that “March of the Penguins” takes the animal movie to its logical conclusion by eliminating the onscreen human co-stars altogether. The lone homo sapien thespian, Morgan Freeman, is relegated to the role of narrator. From the producer’s point of view, this would seem to be a no-brainer. Animal actors rarely come with entourages, and almost never demand their own trailer or a percentage of the profits. Human actors might do well to watch their backs.