Category Archives: 1944

Experiment Perilous (1944, Jacques Tourneur)

Experiment Perilous is a strange film. Not the plot–well, some of how the plot is handled–but the strangeness comes from the result of how the film is executed. It’s a Gothic family drama set in twentieth century New York City without a lot of the family. There’s a flashback sequence, but Perilous is rather modestly budgeted so the flashbacks are pragmatically executed, not abundantly. The family at the center of Perilous is background to the adventure of amiable city doctor George Brent. With a couple of late exceptions, the scenes are always from his perspective.

And, from his perspective (and some of director Tourneur’s perspective), Brent is in a thriller. Rich guy Paul Lukas is mentally torturing his much younger wife Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr is top-billed, but the film puts off bringing her in, treating her as a prize, which is only appropriate because she’s shockingly objectified in every one of her scenes. That objectification is also part of the plot. Screenwriter and producer Warren Duff seems to miss the connection, partially because his script denies Lamarr characterization whenever possible–something Tourneur doesn’t encourage but does utilize to further the thriller vibe at times. Again, Experiment Perilous is a strange film. The way everything comes together but never synthesizes. Despite a thoroughly competent execution, the film just doesn’t have the scale to succeed. Separate from Lamarr’s problematic part is the budget. The film aims for Gothic melodrama and concludes as one, much to the determent of its cast.

So the film opens with Brent meeting scared old lady Olive Blakeney on the train back to New York. There’s a terrible storm, there might be danger. Brent comforts her. It’s good stuff and Brent and Blakeney are both extremely likable. They soon work up a nice rapport, even if the parts are a little thin. She’s sister to Lukas, on her way home for the first time in five years. Brent hears a little about the family, doesn’t think much of it, but takes note of it. Brent’s observant. Unless he’s throwing over de facto fiancée Stephanie Bachelor for Lamarr.

After they get to New York, they go their separate ways. Blakeney off to see Lukas and Lamarr (who haven’t appeared on screen yet), Brent to hang out with Bachelor and drunken sculptor pal Albert Dekker. Experiment Perilous is a Gothic melodrama where the hero’s circle of friends consists of independently wealthy dilletante artists. In 1903 New York. It’s weird. Though there’s some decent foreshadowing from a Medusa sculpture, even if Duff didn’t get it or wanted to avoid it.

Dekker knows Lucas–really, really, really well as it turns out, so well it’s unbelievable Brent could have avoided getting stuck meeting him–and also crushes on Lamarr. All men crush on Lamarr. Young men like independently wealthy poet and magazine writer George N. Neise, old men like Lukas. Men in the middle like Dekker and, eventually, Brent. About twenty percent of Lamarr’s performance consists of listening to men praise her appearance.

Then another five percent for her internal wonderfulness.

It’s not much of a part for Lamarr, except when it’s in the flashback and she gets to enjoy life and not think she’s being tormented by Lukas. See, Lukas is very passive aggressive in his torturing of his wife. He brings in Brent to observe the effects of his abuse on Lamarr. Brent’s supposed to then convince Lamarr she’s unstable. There’s a lot to it. And Experiment Perilous doesn’t get into much of it, because immediately after Brent meets Lamarr a second time, his whole arc is about being in love with her. Only Brent doesn’t play the mad love arc with any more intensity than he played the inquisitive doctor arc, so it doesn’t come off. It also couldn’t come off because of budget and run time and script. But it’s like Brent knows it’s not worth it and doesn’t make the effort.

Because Lamarr’s not really in mad love with Brent. Or Lukas. Or anyone. Because Lukas groomed Lamarr–in the flashback–presumably when she was in her late teens. Even if it’s Lamarr and Lukas playing the characters in the flashback, with no attempt at making them appear younger (again, sometimes just a strange movie because of how things come together). Lukas only sort of weirds Lamarr out–he did keep his hands off for the two years he paid a fortune to turn her into a Parisian society woman in after all–and things are good until they get back to New York. Presumably, there’s a big skip ahead in the flashback.

And then we discover Lukas likes showing off Lamarr and then getting pissed at her for the male attention he invited. Some guys get more serious than most. Though when Lukas lashes out at any of them–we learn in later dialogue–it’s the only time Lamarr finds him desirable.

Lot of depth. But in a throwaway line like Duff didn’t realize what was in it.

Now what’s going to happen with Brent snooping into the family’s secrets, not to mention falling for Lamarr….

There are some surprises, there’s a good fight scene (way too short, but good), there’s not much for the actors. But it’s an engaging film throughout. The parts are thin. Lukas probably makes the most of it, albeit with multiple qualifications. Brent’s a great lead. Lamarr does really well sometimes, kind of flat other times. Tourneur doesn’t do much directing on the actors and Duff’s script doesn’t do much characterizing so it’s a really rough part for Lamarr. She gets her good moments when the movie forgets it’s supposed to be reducing her to a prize.

Blakeney’s awesome. Dekker improves somewhat throughout. Bachelor’s fun.

Decent score from Roy Webb. Decent cinematography from Tony Gaudio. It’s not noir, it’s not a thriller, it’s a Gothic melodrama period piece so the lighting doesn’t add much mood. Similarly, Tourneur doesn’t have any grand thriller sequences. He’s got some effective thriller transition stuff occasionally and his direction is fine. Ralph Dawson’s editing leaves a lot to be desired, however. But it’s not all him. Tourneur’s not comfortable with his actors acting very much in close-up.

Perilous is a strange picture. Not neccesarily successful but far from a failure. It’s always engaging and its cast does put in the work, just within some rather harsh constraints.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Warren Duff, based on the novel by Margaret Carpenter; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Ralph Dawson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Duff; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Brent (Dr. Huntington Bailey), Hedy Lamarr (Allida Bederaux), Paul Lukas (Nick Bederaux), Albert Dekker (Clag), Stephanie Bachelor (Elaine), Carl Esmond (Maitland), and Olive Blakeney (Cissie).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR BLOGATHON HOSTED BY SAMANTHA OF MUSINGS OF A CLASSIC FILM ADDICT.


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The Lodger (1944, John Brahm)

The Lodger begins four murders into the Jack the Ripper killings (the film actually goes over the historical number but also makes some rather liberal changes to the history). Just after a murder occurs, which seems a rather unfortunate event since the victim passes a number of police officers and even a vigilante gang, a gentleman inquires about some lodgings nearby. Said gentleman is Laird Cregar, a pathologist; the lodgings are in Sara Allgood and Cedric Hardwicke’s house. Her sister has passed. Not only is there a sitting room and bedroom for Cregar, there’s also an attic with a kitchen. He’s very interested in the attic. Allgood and Hardwicke have fallen on somewhat hard times–he made a mistake and lost his position, they need lodging income. Cregar overpays. Perfect arrangement.

Hardwicke’s not particularly happy to have a tenant, but Cregar promises he’ll be a model tenant. Though he does go into conniptions about there being portraits of stage actresses on his sitting room wall. And he doesn’t seem thrilled at the prospect of sharing a roof with one–Allgood’s niece, Merle Oberon, is a music hall singer and dancer of growing renown. But all seems well.

Other than Cregar being exceptionally suspicious. Down to giving what seems like has to be a fake name.

As the murders continue, Allgood becomes more and more suspicious of Cregar’s odd behaviors. Hardwicke’s usually the one to dissuade her. And after his initial apprehension, Cregar is able to at least appear kindly towards Oberon, maybe just a little nervous. Cregar’s a big guy, but appears meek most of the time he’s opposite Oberon or the rest of the family.

While Oberon’s new show is opening, a former actress (Helena Pickard) is murdered. She’d just been visiting with Oberon, which leads Scotland Yard to the theater to ask some questions. George Sanders is the inspector. Oberon is what keeps Sanders coming back asking questions. All the victims, he reveals, have been former actresses. Seems Lodger’s Ripper has a definite type.

Soon Allgood’s suspicions finally lead to Oberon and Hardwicke getting more interested, but their initial investigations into Cregar don’t reveal anything suspicious. He’s just a giant, socially awkward, meek pathologist. Even if he did burn his bag at the mention of the Ripper having a bag. And will soon be burning a bloody coat with a flimsy excuse. Oberon’s busy with Sanders’s charming courtship, which starts at Scotland Yard’s murder museum.

When the film gets into the third act and Allgood and Hardwicke finally confide in Sanders–but not Oberon, who’s obviously in great danger but preparing for a bigger opening–everything starts coming together, despite a last minute (and unresolved) foil in the evidence against Cregar. The Lodger doesn’t even run ninety minutes, has two musical numbers, two murder sequences, and it’s still got some occasional padding. What’s unfortunate is how, despite Allgood and Hardwicke being present throughout, it feels like they disappear a bit too much in the second act when Cregar gets comfortable enough to talk to Oberon. And Sanders vanishes altogether for a bit; his subsequent courtship of Oberon, despite showing so much promise, is offscreen and unmentioned. Cregar’s the star, to be sure. Sanders’s second billing is inflated. Arguably so’s Oberon’s top billing but, well, she’s got the two musical numbers and is the unwitting object of Cregar’s obsession.

All the acting is great, particularly Cregar and Hardwicke. Allgood would be better if she had more to do as the film progresses. She’s still great, but the part shrinks. Oberon and Sanders are both good. But they don’t have anything near the “wow” moments Cregar gets. At the start of the film, Lucien Ballard casts a light on Cregar’s eyes to make him appear creepier than he already appears. It doesn’t last for long, just focuses the audience’s attention on Cregar’s odd behavior. Once the light stops, Cregar just gets better. It’s like director Brahm figures out how to showcase his disturbed behavior better, without literal lighted emphasis on him, instead on how to frame Cregar in shots. And Ballard’s there to make sure the shots are phenomenal.

Nice supporting turns from Pickard and Queenie Leonard (as the maid).

Outstanding score from Hugo Friedhofer. Friedhofer, the sets, Ballard’s photography, Brahm’s direction, and Cregar’s intensity make The Lodger something special. Ballard’s lighting success isn’t just on Cregar or in Brahm’s expressive shots, it’s in the functionality of the gaslight era. He’s constantly changing light in shots as a character will turn off the gas, light a candle, and so on. Or move throughout the house in the same shot. The house itself is never creepy, just dark (which might explain why no one is ever too weirded out by Cregar while they’re at home). There’s also all the exterior stuff–the foggy London streets and alleyways; they’re all beautifully done, but in detail and Brahm’s direction of the action on them.

Barré Lyndon’s script is a tad slight on the investigation stuff, slighter still on the romance between Oberon and Sanders (Sanders being a distinct character is superfluous by the third act, as he doesn’t interact with Oberon with any specificity), and then the postscript. After a fantastic chase finale, The Lodger’s got no resolution.

Still, it’s a rather effective thriller. Exquisitely produced and acted, especially by Cregar, who manages to not so much to humanize a monster but reveal human monstrosity.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Brahm; screenplay by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by J. Watson Webb Jr.; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Robert Bassler; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Laird Cregar (Slade), Merle Oberon (Kitty Langley), Sara Allgood (Ellen Bonting), Cedric Hardwicke (Robert Bonting), George Sanders (Inspector John Warwick), Queenie Leonard (Daisy), Doris Lloyd (Jennie), David Clyde (Bates), and Helena Pickard (Annie Rowley).


THIS POST IS PART OF BLOGATHON JACK THE RIPPER HOSTED BY ALESSANDRO OF REDJACK.


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Gaslight (1944, George Cukor)

At the end of Gaslight, when all has seemingly been revealed, there’s only one question left. If Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Cotten isn’t an American in London, why doesn’t anyone notice his lack of accent. It’s a wise choice not to give Cotten an accent–presumably he couldn’t do one–but it also means there’s always something a little off about him, which just furthers his likability. And his likability is important, because (intentionally) there’s not much likable in Gaslight.

The film opens in a flashback–teenage girl Ingrid Bergman is being hurried out of London for the continent, presumably something to do with a strangler on the loose (a newspaper headline informs the viewer). Ten years later, she’s training to be an opera singer. Only it’s not going so well and she’d much rather run off with her pianist, Charles Boyer. So she does, meeting a British woman (Dame May Whitty) along the way; turns out Whitty lives just across the street from Bergman’s childhood home, where she fled in the opening scene, following the murder of her aunt.

Bergman’s ready to go back to London, however, so long as Boyer’s with her. He’s always wanted to live in London. How coincidental she just happens to own some property there. Even if she has nightmares about her time in the house.

Until this point–them arriving in London–Boyer’s been the perfect suitor, now husband. But on their initial tour of the house, Bergman comes across a letter from an admirer to her aunt and it drives Boyer into a fit. He snatches it away from her, explaining he’s upset at how upset the house is making her. He’s such a considerate fellow.

The action cuts ahead–using Whitty snooping on her new neighbors, without much success–and it’s a very different household. Boyer’s just hired rude young maid Angela Lansbury, who he sort of flirts with, sort of doesn’t, but definitely implies interest. He’s constantly chastising Bergman for losing things, even though she has no memory of it. Seemingly to prove his point, she loses something that very day, a family heirloom he’s given her.

On one of the few occasions Boyer lets her out of the house, they happen to pass Cotten, who thinks he recognizes Bergman–for her aunt–and begins inquiring into the still unsolved murder. And finds out it was also a robbery; the thief grabbed precious jewels. Boyer and Bergman had just been to visit the crown jewels, where Boyer salivated at the sight of them. Rather suspicious.

For about the next half hour, Boyer is just tormenting Bergman. He’s absurdly cruel and controlling, even though the film doesn’t actually reveal him doing anything criminal. He’s just some guy who married a wealthier woman, took over her property, and treats her like garbage. Nothing too uncommon for 1885 London, though it’s hard to say as he doesn’t let Bergman meet anyone. Especially not Cotten, who’s still trying to figure out what’s going on with the pair.

Then, at about the hour mark (the film runs just under two hours), we finally see Boyer do something rather suspicious and almost obviously devious. The second hour, which has Bergman start further breaking down, Cotten finally figuring out what’s going on, then multiple showdowns, is phenomenal. The first half is setup, the second half is payoff. And Bergman gets some payoff too, which is a welcome change since most of the first hour and some of the second is just watching Boyer mentally abuse her. Boyer’s cruel in his abuse, not charming. Gaslight accounts for Bergman’s isolation as a factor, but has a hard time showing it. If Bergman’s not with someone else or being terrified while alone, she doesn’t have any scenes.

It’s not until she and Cotten get their first scene alone together where there’s just this phenomenal acting and reveal on the character she’s been creating all along. It takes Gaslight a while to get to its payoff, but its worth it right away when it starts.

Gorgeous photography from Joseph Ruttenberg–especially once the walls, proverbially, start closing in on Bergman. That phase of the film is when director Cukor starts getting rather creative as well. There’s not much in the way of visual foreshadowing on Boyer; in fact, Gaslight usually avoids it, not giving him any suspicious behaviors when he’s just gotten down manipulating Bergman. The way it plays him off Lansbury is phenomenal.

Ralph E. Winters’s editing is also crucial. He’s got to keep up the pace, which drags a little first hour, then never slows down for a breath in the second, even during Cotten’s exposition dumps.

The actors are the stars–earnest Cotten, haunted Bergman, quizzical Boyer. There’s obviously some bad going on with Boyer (from his first scene in London), but it’s never clear what. He’s never sympathetic or redeemable, he’s just cruel. Increasingly cruel. In a special way or just in a bad Victorian husband way is the question.

Bergman spends the film pent up. When she finally gets loose–starting with a wordless exclamation–there’s no stopping her.

Cotten gets to be the steady throughout. He’s always cute, always sympathetic. I mean, his first scene has him taking his niece and nephew to a museum, how can he not be likable. Even if he’s got that obvious, inexplicable lack of English accent.

The supporting cast is all good, especially Lansbury and Barbara Everest (as the hearing impaired cook who can’t ever confirm Bergman’s audial suspicions). And Whitty’s fun. She’s in it for the punchlines mostly and she gets them.

The production design and set decoration are excellent. And Ruttenberg’s lighting of them. Cukor’s got some fantastic composition in Gaslight too, particularly for how he moves the actors around the frame. The screenplay is quick and nimble, though maybe more for Cotten than anyone else. Boyer’s big suspicious action scenes are always a little too big. It’s not clear enough, at the start, why Bergman wouldn’t be more concerned with his behavior.

Gaslight’s an outstanding thriller. Just too bad Bergman didn’t get more to do in the first hour.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L. Balderston, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by Bronislau Kaper; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Ingrid Bergman (Paula Alquist), Charles Boyer (Gregory Anton), Joseph Cotten (Brian Cameron), Angela Lansbury (Nancy), Barbara Everest (Elizabeth), and Dame May Whitty (Miss Thwaites).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JOSEPH COTTEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD AND MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Lifeboat never feels stagy, which is one of the film’s greatest successes. The entire thing takes place in a single lifeboat, with director Hitchcock not doing many medium or long shots of the lifeboat exterior. All the action is with the actors, Hitchcock using distinctive composition–Glen MacWilliams’s glorious photography helping quite a bit, of course–to work up a visual rhythm. Jo Swerling’s screenplay is mostly dialogue, but the narrative rhythm isn’t in the cadence of the lines or even in what character gets what material, it’s in the characters themselves. The script’s narrative focusing is its greatest strength and greatest asset to the film.

Because there’s only so much the characters in Lifeboat can do to influence events. They survive the ship’s sinking by chance, they survive on the lifeboat by chance. There is a certain predictability to the film and the characters. But then the first act does everything to establish them as not being predictable. Lifeboat’s biggest twist–maybe only twist–is one of the characters not being predictable. Hitchcock and Swerling aren’t so much fooling the audience as not even trying to give them enough information.

There’s almost no minutiae in Lifeboat. There’s sometimes expository dialogue covering what’s happened offscreen since a scene transition, but Hitchcock and Swerling have zero interest in showing the characters’ daily chores to maintain on the lifeboat. Lifeboat isn’t about minutiae, it’s about big ideas and as big of character drama as Hitchcock can do in confined space.

The survivors on the lifeboat are a swath of Allied civilians. Tallulah Bankhead is a celebrity columnist, John Hodiak is one of the crew, so are William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, and Canada Lee. Mary Anderson’s a nurse. Henry Hull’s a millionaire industrialist. Heather Angel’s British and heading back from New York. And Walter Slezak is the Nazi sailor they rescue.

One of the script’s nicest tricks is having Hodiak, Bendix, Cronyn, and Lee all have an indeterminately long history together. They’ve known each other for years. Helps when revealing character backstory. It can come up in conversation naturally. Bankhead and Hull know each other too. And then it turns out Bankhead speaks German and offers Slezak a sympathetic ear.

Lifeboat keeps petty in-fighting to a minimum. The characters are too desperate to be petty (even when it seems like they might be acting so). And everyone gets a nice arc. Nine characters, nine separate arcs (with some overlapping); all in ninety-six minutes. Hitchcock and Swerling seem to know they can only last in such a confined space for so long.

The big dramatic in-fighting scenes–the film’s set pieces (an argument is more compelling than a storm hitting the boat)–are fantastic. Sometimes character development points with intersect in these scenes. Eventually there’s some pairing off amongst the survivors and it changes how things play, not just to the audience, but to the other characters. And never stagy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to as much as Hitchcock and Swerling might hope. The ending is large scale action, followed immediately by a large scale morality message. Because Lifeboat is about big ideas, particularly in the treatment of Nazi Slezak–Hodiak, Bendix, and Cronyn are on one side, Bankhead and Hull are on the others. It’s the snobs versus the slobs. Hodiak has some great scenes arguing with the snobs at the beginning. And it turns out to develop into a lot more.

Anderson, Lee, and Angel are basically on the sidelines during the big idea scenes. There’s even some commentary about why they’re on the sidelines, when Lifeboat still seems a lot more ambitious in its progressive presentation of reality than it turns out to be. There are some great approaches and details in the film, but they’re not the point. With nine characters and ninety-six minutes–and maybe four bigger parts–the supporting material needs to be good. Appearing ambitious and being at least somewhat successful makes a lot of impression.

And it sometimes gives the actors great material.

Bankhead and Hodiak are the stars. Bendix and Hull are the main support. Slezak next. Then everyone else. Though Cronyn (doing a totally fine but peculiar English accent) does go sweet on Anderson, which gives them a little more time.

Bankhead’s good. Her character’s wobbly at times–particularly at the end–but Bankhead’s good enough to cover. Hodiak’s similiar, though it’s his dialogue–he has some big speeches–to wobble. Hitchcock doesn’t direct for the performance and the dialogue sometimes needs that touch. Bendix is awesome, but his part’s not great. Hull’s fine. He always comes through. Same with Slezak.

More sympathetic direction would probably have helped Hull. It’s the big idea speeches. Hitchcock can’t figure out how to do them. They need to be rousing and patriotic while still vaguely humanist and he sort of just pauses for them. He makes up for it in the next scene, usually with some great overlapping dialogue shots, but Lifeboat’s a propaganda picture. Hitchcock tries to ignore the propaganda instead of accepting it.

The uneven tone hurts the end of the film, which has already been through a way too rushed second-to-third act transition.

Excellent direction from Hitchcock, great photography, great performances. Fine script. Lifeboat’s about as good as a straight propaganda picture can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Glen MacWilliams; edited by Dorothy Spencer, music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J. Rittenhouse), Walter Slezak (Willi), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), and William Bendix (Gus Smith).


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