Recently Rated Movies #7: Lemmy Caution & Mad Science Apery

"All things are normal in this whore of cities..." - Alphaville (1965)

I am gleefully stuck this weekend in Godard's Alphaville. I have not seen this film since I was eighteen and the owners of my favorite video store loaned me their personal copy of it. It has not changed: it is still one of the strangest films that I have ever beheld, and I'm sure it would tax the patience of even the hardiest of viewers. Myself, I think it is marvelous fun, and I have dug into its treasures three times over the course of the last two days. A caveat: I say that I am having fun, but of course, to me, Eraserhead is a casual walk in the park.

The film seems to take itself seriously, yet is obviously a parody of both spy and science-fiction films, especially those of the dystopian future genre. It is clearly a case of Godard having a good deal of fun at the audience's expense, especially if the decidedly mixed history of reviews for the film are any indication. I was having fun with the puzzle within the film, and even if half of the questions raised do not get resolved, I really did not care. The journey seems to be the point. And speaking of journeying, and it could be the translation is highly faulty, or perhaps in French it might make more sense, but somehow you can drive your car from planet to planet. (I just had flashbacks to the car from Repo Man...)

Eddie Constantine is absolutely riveting as a tense, bulldog-looking version of James Bond named Lemmy Caution, whom he played in several films previous to this one. He might be parodying his former turns in the role, but I have not seen any of those other films, so I cannot say such a thing with any certainty. And if all Seductresses Class Three were as smolderingly heart-breaking as Anna Karina, I think I would probably get sucked into the machinery of Alphaville myself.

Regardless of the black-and-white starkness that much of the film takes place in, Godard fills the film with visual punnery, and he gives many of the characters that we meet or hear of names from all over popular culture, and seems to take great delight in giving it to practically all ideologies right in the ass. Not a perfect film by any means, and it trips over its own feet here and there (or does it, Jean-Luc?), but I feel it is far better than I have read or remembered from my previous viewing.

On the sleazier side of the tracks, I next watched a poverty-row Monogram thriller starring Boris Karloff from 1940 called The Ape. as readily as I will view anything that the Great Karloff appeared in, this proved to be not such an enjoyable undertaking. However, it provides me the opportunity to add a side-note on Curt Siodmak.

Siodmak adapted the play (!) and co-wrote the screenplay for this one, and while the film seems to be a horror film, it is actually a rather under-average thriller, wherein the doctor played by Karloff, in order to obtain spinal fluid in which to restore hope to a young woman's stricken with polio, kills and skins an escaped circus gorilla, and then dons the skin to take out his victims while all of the blame is placed on the "killer gorilla". This would be a great idea if the entire county weren't out for blood and shooting at anything hairy that moves. Thus, the doctor's plan and timing are sheer idiocy. Since he already has the gorilla's skin, why doesn't he just bludgeon his victims, extract their precious spinal fluid, and then leave tufts of the gorilla's fur at the scenes of the crime? Why parade around in the gorilla suit? Luckily for him, the circus gorilla has apparently been groomed to look and trained to move just like Ray "Crash" Corrigan in an unrealistic gorilla suit, so the doctor doesn't have to work too hard to effect the proper (improper) gorilla impression.

I mention all of this because The Ape is another Siodmak film, much as in Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), where the supposed "monster" is revealed at the end of the film to be simply a man in a "monster" suit, though the difference this time is that the audience is in on the killer's plan, rather than an audience full of kids believing they are watching a monster movie and then having the rug pulled out from under them at the film's conclusion. So, did it take Curt over fifteen years to finally stew up a variation on the ol' "blame everything on the escaped gorilla" plot, which this extremely average Karloff "thriller" embodies? (There is a fellow who wrote a review on IMDB who says that, like him, you have to be a fan of the old black-and-white horror movies of the 30's and 40's to enjoy this film. Well, I am, and no, I did not...) Even taken as cheese, it is unfulfilling even as an appetizer.

I followed this inanity with another similarly produced PRC poverty-row effort, though of considerably greater quality, from 1944 called The Monster Maker . Despite sporting another guy-in-a-bad-gorilla-suit, the film is directed, with far greater talent than I expected, by PRC vet Sam Newfield, This film is a surprisingly nasty piece of work, especially given the era in which it was made. J. Carroll Naish is a clearly mad scientist who craves the affections of a piano virtuoso's daughter, who just so happens to be the spitting image of his dearly departed wife. To force her hand in marriage, Naish injects the father (Ralph Morgan) with the virus that causes acromegaly, which is the affliction that cursed Rondo Hatton. The makeup work on Morgan is extremely weird-looking and well-done, somewhat approaching the look of the real-life "Elephant Man," Joseph "John" Merrick. There is a stunning-looking shot of Ralph Morgan done up in overcoat, hat and scarf that totally reminds me of Darkman, at least, to my eyes. All in all, I am saddened that I took so long to actually watch this film, as I have had a copy for a number of years yet had never gotten around to viewing it. Of this, surprises are often made...

As for Bharat Mata (English title: Mother India), this supposed Bollywood "Gone With the Wind" I found by turns beautiful, enchanting, funny, tragic, and ultimately, after an interminable nearly 3 hours, boring and disappointing. I found the resolution completely unsatisfying (though a bit shocking, which was nice) as I would have taken care of the nasty business that occurs about 15 years earlier than it does in the film. I'm sure there are details about Indian village protocol that I am not privy to here in the U.S., but I found the molasses-like way that the put-upon family deals with the villain completely annoying. I did not have any problem with the musical sequences, though they are the source of some comedic chuckling amongst people generally unfamiliar with Bollywood films. I will admit to being a relative novice myself, having only seen about fifteen examples of the genre or so, but to a certain degree, most of those examples have all seemed to be the same movie in many respects. While there is a good deal of variety within each film, almost like someone is re-assembling the same grab-bag of ideas for each film, I prefer some elements of my films to be separated once in a while. In the end, while I have no problem with lengthy Bollywood epics, and look forward to seeing others, this one left me wanting something a little more.

Turner Classic Movies, almost unwittingly it seems, showed a pair of Jack Arnold films over the weekend that he directed for Universal in the same year (1957). No comment was made by Ben Mankiewicz in his introduction, which might not be surprising as he is not actually doing the intros live, but Turner did show these films within the same 24-hour period, and I thought that maybe a little contrast and compare would have been interesting. Turner does often sync these things up, so I was surprised that no mention was made.

In the first, a modern western called Man in the Shadow, Orson Welles stars in a fun but small and ultimately indifferent role as shady ranch dictator Virgil Renchler (who has a grown-up daughter with the moniker Skippy! She also has a pet kangaroo named Jif... nah, I'm pulling your leg). The film moves nicely to its predictable conclusion, there are many comments made about racism and class distinction, and Jeff Chandler takes a pretty impressive screen beating as the sheriff in over his head with trouble.

However, if I were a shady ranch dictator, and one of the migrant ranch hands were beaten to death on my property by a couple of my boys, and all of the evidence were taken care of and there wasn't the slightest possibility that anyone in a predominately white county bought and paid for by my money were going to take the word of another migrant worker seriously, I think my orders would be to let the sheriff onto the property unprovoked and without sticking guns in his face. On my end of things, as that shady ranch dictator, why act unbelievably suspicious and distrustful? Were it me, I would have been, "Come on in! Take a look around! Have some coffee? Game of checkers? Take a ride on Skippy?"

There are two other amusing things in Man in the Shadow: Royal Dano plays a character named Aiken Clay. That's right: Aiken Clay. And William Schallert shows up dressed up in cowboy gear. Pretty funny, given that he plays the doctor in the next film that I watched: the still worthy science-fiction classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. I don't need to say much about this one, except that they keep trying to recast this film as a comedy, and I believe that is a mistake. They failed with the distaff Lily Tomlin version, and I am not holding out much hope for the upcoming Keenan Ivory Wayans version, which I'm sure will be top-loaded with penis jokes.

Sure, the original version has moments of unintentional comedy, especially to eyes viewing it almost fifty years later, but that can be said about nearly any film made in another era when attitudes, acting styles, and technological effects are so different from what we know today. Remember, or try to understand, the era that this was made in, and you will discover a very sober and somber reflection of a man dealing with his rapidly changing place in the universe, and I believe that the movie's effects, on the whole, hold up remarkably well today, especially once the shrinking Scott Carey (Grant Williams) ends up trapped in the basement and his epic battle begins against the resident spider. (The house spider is slightly miscast as a tarantula, but they are scarier looking. At least to most people; not to me.) The movie has one of those endings where I am not sure whether I am happy or sad for the protagonist. Just as he has to shuffle his feelings toward his experience, the viewer seems to be asked to take the simple stance of acceptance in the face of amazing odds, rather than railing against them. Whether this a good idea or not (I would rather go down spitting in the face of such odds myself), it is a remarkable stance for what most would consider a standard B-picture. At least, all of the picture's existential musings haven't been ruined by a plethora of dick jokes.

Herewith, all of the films from the past week:

Alphaville, une etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) Criterion Collection DVD - 8
Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) (1960) DVD - 8
Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) (1958) DVD - 9
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) TCM - 6
Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969) TCM - 5
The Ape (1940) DVD - 3
The Monster Maker (1944) DVD - 5
School of Rock (2003) DVD - 7
The Last Waltz (1978) IFC - 8
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) TCM - 9
Blade II (2002) DVD - 7
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) TCM - 8
Bharat Mata (Mother India) (1957) TCM - 6
Man in the Shadow (1957) TCM - 6


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