SHOCK CORRIDOR (Samuel Fuller, 1963).
Fuller was noted for exploring edgy social themes within a B-movie
context. Here we have an egotistical reporter (Peter Breck), desperate
to win a Pulitzer Prize, deliberately getting himself committed to a
mental hospital in order to solve a murder. The murder mystery is practically
weightless. The film's real purpose is to display the lurid environment
of an insane asylum through the eyes of an outsider, and to make some
barbed social criticism along the way.
There are a few bold ideas and powerful moments here, wrapped up in
a big wad of melodramatic nonsense. Fuller, who wrote the script, had
the unfortunate idea of making the reporter's girlfriend (Constance
Towers) a stripper, and this love interest angle, with long scenes of
her anguishing over his decision to join the madhouse, along with ludicrous
dream sequences where her superimposed image pops up around the reporter's
head while he sleeps, is painfully bad. The handsome Breck, whose face
is familiar from numerous TV roles, flails about within his limited
acting range, and is never convincing. Fuller tries to ratchet the emotional
level up at every moment. The effect is tacky, overwrought, and -- in
scenes such as Breck stumbling into the nympho ward, or a fellow patient
force-feeding him chewing gum -- frequently laughable.
On the plus side, some of the film's devices pay off. Stanley Cortez's
black-and-white photography looks great (although Fuller's idea of interspersing
brief color sequences when the patients talk about their dreams doesn't
work). A subplot involving a black patient (Hari Rhodes) who believes
he's the Grand Wizard of the KKK is actually quite compelling. Watching
this man spouting racist slogans and baiting a black attendant is an
eerie spectacle indeed. Fuller also takes a shot at militarism and the
arms race, through the character of a Korean War vet (James Best) who
thinks he's a Confederate officer. The idea is that America has become
a madhouse, but the film's idiotic storyline and grotesque stereotypes
of mental illness undercut its intended social impact.
I'M ALL RIGHT JACK (John Boulting, 1959).
Upper-class twit Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is too feather-brained
to succeed in management, so his shifty uncle (Dennis Price) gets him
a job as a worker in his missile plant. The union members, headed by
a dogged socialist named Kite (Peter Sellers) immediately suspect Stanley
as a plant, but eventually he wins their trust, even moving in with
Kite and his contentious family. But his naïveté, and the
sinister machinations of management, lead to disaster.
From the very first scene, the film establishes itself as one of the
cleverest and most delightful British comedies ever made. The Boultings
(brother Roy was the producer) go beyond even the surface propriety
of the Ealing comedies, sparing no one in their satiric assault on the
greed and dishonesty of the English class system. At the same time,
the picture is never heavy-handed; it always has the air of a silly
romp. Carmichael is the empty-headed fool par excellence. Richard Attenborough
and the wonderful Margaret Rutherford are on hand representing the idiotic
venality of the ruling class. Terry-Thomas, a comic actor who rarely
appeared to advantage in his later films, is perfect here as the arrogant,
yet slightly befuddled plant manager. The rest of the cast embody their
various caricatures with zest.
But Peter Sellers steals the film as the stolid, dogmatic, not-too-bright
shop steward Fred Kite. Sporting a Hitler mustache and an air of shabby,
put-upon dignity, Sellers almost plays the role straight. He never overplays
or goes for the cheap laugh, and thus makes his eccentric character
oddly sympathetic. With just a pained look in his eyes or a shift in
body language he can convey the most amusing quirks. This is the role,
along with his turn in The Mouse That Roared (released the same
year), that vaulted him to international attention.
The movie was very successful, but the left wing in England was quite
unhappy with it. The picture takes shots at both management and labor,
making them look equally ridiculous and petty. There's no question that
the screenplay employs gross exaggeration -- the idea, for instance,
that workers would be paid to sit around and play cards because the
union wouldn't allow them to be laid off, is preposterous -- but exaggeration
is the stock and trade of comedy and satire. Critics complained that
I'm All Right Jack was too negative, as if satire is supposed
to provide positive solutions to problems instead of making fun of them.
But with the passing of forty years, we can clearly see this movie for
what it is -- a remarkably fresh, intelligent and well-acted film that
is still as funny as ever.
DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER
(Fritz Lang, 1922).
The sinister psychiatrist and master of disguise Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf
Klein-Rogge) uses his powers of mesmerism to win huge sums from unsuspecting
gamblers -- money that funds his gang of murderous criminals. On his
trail is a determined police inspector (Bernhard Goetzke) who recruits
a dissolute countess (Gertrude Welcker) to try to infiltrate the gang.
Lang's epic-length film, released in two parts, took the crime melodrama
to a new level. With its many characters and intricate, complicated
storyline, the picture is a more unified version of the great crime
serials such as Feuillade's Les
Vampires, or Lang's own Spiders. The longer form
gives Lang a chance to stretch out, particularly in exploring a connection
between eroticism and decadence, in the passion of a dancer (Aud Egede
Nissen) for the power of Mabuse, as well as the effete thrill-seeking
of the Countess, who frequents gambling dens for entertainment and complains
that no sensation is strong enough to stimulate her any more.
The popular character of the master criminal Mabuse was created by
novelist Norbert Jacques, who worked closely with Lang and Thea von
Harbou on the adaptation. Klein-Rogge dominates the film in the title
role -- the intensity of his stare really is frightening. The acting
is generally understated for its day, and the cinematography (Carl Hoffmann)
is breathtaking. There was a kind of vogue for very long movies in 1920s
Germany -- the four-hour running time for Dr. Mabuse (albeit
originally in two parts) was not that unusual. This aspect makes it
somewhat less accessible today, however. The picture starts off at a
brilliant pace -- an early sequence in which the disguised Mabuse manipulates
the stock market to enrich himself is a little masterpiece of crisp
editing. But in Part Two, the film starts to drag. There aren't enough
new ideas in the story to sustain the length, and Lang relies too much
on extended scenes of talking, with wordy intertitles. Still, by the
end of the film we've witnessed grand theft, hypnotism, murder, abduction,
suicide, a rousing gunfight, and a descent into madness. The film was
a huge success. Most of all, it succeeds in creating a mood of chilling
and implacable corruption. The plot is outlandish, but the atmosphere
of dread reflects social conditions that were very real.
The Image DVD features a beautiful print restored by David Shepard,
with a fine musical score by Robert Israel and interesting commentary
by scholar David Kalat.
THE BIG COMBO (Joseph Lewis, 1955).
A detective (Cornel Wilde) is obsessed with catching a vicious gangster
named Brown (Richard Conte), and he's also in love with the gangster's
beautiful girlfriend (Jean Wallace), who is torn between attraction
to Brown and loathing of her corrupt life.
The plot, with an implausible hook concerning the detective's search
for Brown's wife (Helen Walker), is run-of-the-mill, and the dialogue
(Philip Yordan) is nothing to get excited about either. But Lewis had
a remarkable ability to infuse poetry into the most banal material,
and The Big Combo is one of his best efforts. He uses film noir
techniques -- high contrast lighting, shadows and fog, unusual camera
angles -- to accentuate the more subliminal aspects of character and
action. Intense lighting makes the icy blonde Wallace (Cornel Wilde's
offscreen wife) stand out from the darkness around her like a beacon
of desperate hope. A scene where Conte starts kissing her and then sinks
downward out of the frame while we keep looking at her face, was quite
daring for its time and was almost cut by the producers. Another scene
involving Wilde being tortured by Conte and his henchman through the
use of a hearing aid, is brutally effective -- and later the same hearing
aid (belonging to Brown's partner in crime, played by Brian Donlevy)
is used in a brilliant touch that I won't give away. A strange sidelight
to all this is the passionate devotion, which will have unmistakably
homoerotic undertones for most of today's viewers, felt for each other
by Brown's two hitmen, played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman.
Everyone in the film is tormented in one way or another, and fear is
rampant, but the lead-footed script might have undermined the mood if
it weren't for the performance of Conte, who is a wonderful villain
-- supremely self-confident, smiling, and dapper. He knows that menace
is more effective when conveyed through smooth-talking charm rather
than a snarl.
The Big Combo is not a masterpiece; it's not as startlingly
inventive as Lewis's best film, Gun Crazy (1949), but it's a
quality B-film, satisfying and dark.
COUNSELLOR AT LAW (William Wyler, 1933).
George Simon (John Barrymore) is one of the top lawyers in Manhattan,
with an office in the Empire State Building. A little crooked at times,
he takes high-profile business cases for the money, while finding the
time to defend poor clients as well. A scrapper from an immigrant background
who has climbed to the top through talent and hard work, he adores his
haughty upper-class wife (Doris Kenyon), who cares more about her social
standing than about him. Meanwhile, he doesn't notice that his loyal
secretary (Bebe Daniels) is in love with him.
We learn all this naturally in the course of the film, rather than
being told, which is one of the many virtues of this fast-talking adaptation
of an excellent play by Elmer Rice, who wrote the screenplay. The perfectionist
Wyler finally came into his own with this film, and he did it by staying
true to the play; maintaining a crisp, exciting pace; and getting the
best out of the actors, especially Barrymore, who is magnificent.
Everything takes place in the offices (and outside hallways) of Simon's
law firm. Wyler wisely saw that there was no need to "open up" the play.
Instead he has the characters constantly moving between the various
rooms, while spouting rapid-fire dialogue. We are kept on our toes throughout
the story, having to keep track of the many different characters and
storylines, so there is never a dull moment. The drama is leavened with
humor (Isabel Jewell's high-voiced receptionist is a scream), and the
minor characters are peculiar without seeming too exaggerated. This
is a movie for grown-ups -- there is no false sentimentality or melodrama
to mar the picture's smooth, engrossing style.
Although the word "Jewish" is never mentioned (it was taboo in the
movies of those days), the film doesn't hide the issue of antisemitism,
for those who were aware enough to see it. Simon's mother (Clara Langsner)
is obviously Jewish, and the cool distance that Simon's gentile wife
keeps from her is pointedly expressed. A plot to have Simon disbarred
is obviously instigated by forces that resent the success of someone
with his background. Even the topical (and controversial) subject of
Depression-era class struggle is not skirted at all, in the character
of a young socialist (Vincent Sherman) whose case is taken by Simon,
but who scorns the lawyer's compromises with society. (Carl Laemmle,
Jr., who produced the film for his father's Universal studio, was more
open to such political elements in his pictures than the heads of the
major studios would ever be.)
Barrymore's performance is tremendously disciplined -- his character
is wry, gruff, quick-thinking, and tender by turns, yet the acting never
goes over the top. Simon's maniacal obsession with work, and the contained
fury of his working methods, are beautifully conveyed. It's really like
nothing else Barrymore ever did on film, a breakneck acting style that
looks ahead to the later screwball era. The character's insecurities
are as believable and integral to the role as his energy and strength.
The underrated Bebe Daniels is sensitive and touching as the devoted
secretary Roxy, and the entire cast (many of them recreating their stage
roles) is first-rate. Counsellor at Law is a complete triumph
of script, acting, and direction. They really don't get much better
©2004 Chris Dashiell