Tag Archives: Lon Chaney Jr.

I Died a Thousand Times (1955, Stuart Heisler)

Going into the third act of I Died a Thousand Times, the film is in great shape. It’s got a strange pace but it’s all working out, mostly thanks to lead Jack Palance’s peculiar and strong performance, and it doesn’t seem like it could do anything wrong enough to screw things up. Unfortunately, the resolution is one giant choke. One where Palance is basically a bit player (or less) and the script fully embraces the casual misogyny it’s been flirting with the entire time. It seemed like it had gotten over it–Thousand’s casual misogyny has highs and lows, what with slut-shaming female lead Shelley Winters and then damsel in distress Lori Nelson’s arc from sweet young girl to callous, shallow tease (the film’s also got issues with the young people and their fast music, eventually—and perfectly—personified in an uncredited Dennis Hopper, who Palance sadly doesn’t beat to a pulp). But for the finish, when the film’s drained everything positive like sap, it brings back that casual misogyny. It’s not just disappointing and beneath W.R. Burnett’s script, it’s also annoying.

The film opens with Palance driving through the desert, headed west. We get the ground situation in pieces. He’s an ex-con bank robber, paroled after eight years. He’s not hostile so much as guarded. But he lets his guard down right away with kindly old couple Ralph Moody and Olive Carey. And not only because of their fetching, though club-footed and shy granddaughter Lori Nelson. Palance and Moody have a good rapport, which may or may not get some context in the script later on. Writer Burnett’s got some really big first act dialogue problems—when Palance and Winters first meet and shoot really bad slang at each other–but the script’s got a really delicate arc for Palance. It makes some leaps and bounds, particularly with the relationship with Palance and Winters, but it doesn’t ever seem rushed, just truncated. Lots of the credit goes to Palance, whose performance is initially as much about presence as delivery.

We meet Winters after we get the setup—courtesy cop turned crook James Millican (it also doesn’t help the film’s take on law enforcement takes a 180 for the third act)—crime boss Lon Chaney Jr. (who’s delightful) pays to get Palance pardoned so Palance can knock-off the jewelry stored at a swanky mountain resort. Even in 1955 dollars, I imagine it must have cost Chaney a lot to get Palance pardoned—despite being in for life—from a federal penitentiary. Probably more than the heist is worth. And if it was so expensive, why not have good backup for Palance? Instead, Chaney’s hired young punks Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin. Not only do they like fast music, they also bring along a dame—Winters. Ostensibly she’s there with Marvin, but she’s also keeping Holliman on a low boil. It’s because she’s manipulating the young sociopaths Palance lets her stay. See, Palance is actually a big softy. We know it with Moody, then we really know it once he friends the puppy at the tourist cabins where they’re all staying. He never entertains Winters, but he doesn’t disrespect her. He trusts her to handle the boys. It’s a very interesting relationship between them, because every time Palance seems like he’s warming up, he pulls back immediately, no warning. It’s a really nice performance.

Winters has her hands full, in the first act, with Marvin and Holliman (despite not having many scenes with them). Died has that weird structure I mentioned earlier. The first and second acts almost overlap because two such distinct things are going on. There’s Marvin, Holliman, Winters, and inside man at the resort Perry Lopez goofing off at the cabins, then there’s Los Angeles with Chaney and Millican, but also kindly old folks Moody and Carey (not to mention Nelson). When they’re finally gearing up to pull the heist, there’s a shock because there’s been no expectation of seeing Holliman or Marvin actually having to participate. They seem way too passive, not just in their behavior, but also in how the film positions them.

Though, actually, they’re in the background of the heist, just like they’re in the background of Palance and Winters. So it seems Heisler and Burnett agree. Or just didn’t want them in the way during the heist, which is fine. Marvin and Holliman are fine, but they’re not interesting to watch. Palance, Winters, even someone with a lesser performance like Nelson or Millican… they’re interesting to watch. A lot of Died takes place outside, often on location, and the film just feels more natural outdoors—another irony given the ending. Heisler rarely has ambitious shots outside the location shooting, but he and cinematographer Ted D. McCord succeed with that location shooting so credit there—but he’s more interested in the cute puppy than the relationship between aging career criminal Palance and girl with a past Winters, though Heisler does perk up a little once they’re making face. Because Winters falls hard for Palance. He’s a big tough guy who occasionally poetically describes the human condition and likes puppies and is kind to old people.

Winters doesn’t get the best part. Like, her exposition feels like it’s been given a G rating when it needs to be an NC-17. Because 1955. But Winters gets it across. The strongest thing, which the film doesn’t pursue, is how Winters interacts with Palance after she’s realized he’s a sweetie. The end fails the hell out of her too. It’s a real bummer.

I Died a Thousand Times—which actually makes no sense as a title since Chaney at one point talks about how you can “only die once”—really needs a better third act. It’s not even as competent, technically speaking, as it ought to be. Because it’s foreshadowed from the first or second scene, only in a really obvious way where they shouldn’t have really gone for it. Especially not since there’s another bookending device sitting there available, apparently just a passive addition to serve the plot but with a lot more possibility than the actual ending.

Is it worth seeing? Yeah. If it had a solid ending, it would’ve given Palance an amazing lead performance and possibly a great supporting one for Winters. It’s just… a real bummer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Ted D. McCord; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by David Buttolph; produced by Willis Goldbeck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Palance (Roy Earle), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Lee Marvin (Babe Kossuck), Ralph Moody (Pa Goodhue), Olive Carey (Ma Goodhue), Lori Nelson (Velma), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza), Howard St. John (Doc Banton), James Millican (Jack Kranmer), and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico).



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High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

High Noon is a film all about courage and cowardice, so it’s appropriate the film starts with the most courageous thing it’s ever going to do and it does a few. It commits to its theme song. Not a piece of music from Dimitri Tiomkin, but a country song (written by Tiomkin, lyrics by Ned Washington, sung by Tex Ritter). It’s about the movie. It’s the story of the movie, sans specifics, from the perspective of the protagonist.

And High Noon uses the song throughout when lead Gary Cooper is walking around alone. Only the character in the song is nothing like the character in the movie so it creates this disconnect. The song lionizes, Cooper humanizes. Fits sort of perfectly in with the Western hero, which the film comments on rather quietly. High Noon is an intentional metaphor for the HUAC witch hunt. It’s all about Cooper needing help from his neighbors and his neighbors chosing their own self-interest, with a lot of excuses.

In those excuses, screenwriter Carl Foreman comes up with a great deal of transcendant material. Noon becomes not just about a person’s cowardice in HUAC, but about a community’s cowardice in general. There’s a lot of little stuff in High Noon–the film’s not even ninety minutes and it often refuses exposition–and there’s the steady theme about how greed and racism fuel self-interest. The racism comes in with Katy Jurado, who plays a Mexican businesswoman. She gets one of the four plot lines. Well, she sort of shares it with Grace Kelly but Jurado gets the better character.

Let me back up.

The film opens with the song and Lee Van Cleef. Van Cleef is by himself, waiting, playing with his gun or something. Just being creepy and ominous. As the song plays, the lyrics soon confirm the ominous. But Van Cleef does it on his own. Along with Zinnemann’s stark composition. The settings aren’t neccesarily stark, but Zinnemann and cinematographer Floyd Crosby shoot the film with completely empty skies. It’s bright and unforgiving, intensely examining its characters.

Cooper is marshal in a developing frontier town. Thanks to him, decent women can walk the streets during the day. Not sure about night time. After Van Cleef joins up with two other villainous types–Sheb Wooley and Robert J. Wilke–they ride into town and passed the justice of the peace where Cooper is getting married to Kelly. The song has already let us know what’s going to happen in the movie and introduced at least two characters–Cooper and wife Kelly–so the actual introduction to Cooper and Kelly is… not strange, but startling. It’s a long song. It takes Van Cleef and pals a while to get through the opening titles and into town.

The three bad guys are going to the train station to meet another bad guy. That bad guy is the one who’s going to come after Cooper. He just got out parolled from prison (“up north,” where the bleeding hearts free killers) and so he’s on his way home to kill Cooper. Or so everyone assumes.

And so the good townsfolk put Cooper and Kelly on their wagon and send them out of town. They were leaving anyway. Cooper just resigned as marshal. In addition to being half his age, Kelly’s a Quaker. No more gunfights for Cooper.

Only then Cooper decides he can’t run. So he turns back, confident the good townsfolk will help him. They’re all neighbors and friends.

The first friend to turn Cooper down is judge Otto Kruger, who hightails it. Then there’s Harry Morgan, Thomas Mitchell, and Lon Chaney Jr. They’re all good friends with Cooper, but none of them will help. See, the town doesn’t have enough deputies and the only other active one, Lloyd Bridges, picks that day to finally lose it.

See, Bridges is jealous of Cooper and wishes he could be Cooper but resents Cooper for his envy. Bridges wants to be the next marshal, Cooper thinks he’s too immature. Of course, Bridges has already proven his manhood by shacking up with Jurado, who had a romance with Cooper a year before. Pre-Kelly. Jurado’s aware of Bridges’s personality flaws, but apparently finds him amusing. It’s in Jurado’s performance. She has a patience with Bridges.

So Bridges isn’t going to help Cooper. Bridges has a fantastic character arc in the film. Probably the best. It culminates in a great fist fight where Zinnemann and editor Elmo Williams show off. High Noon’s fist fight is better than its gun fight, because Zinnemann’s got a reason not to glamorize the gun fight but the fist fight is fair game.

The story lines are Cooper, Bridges, Jurado and Kelly, and Van Cleef and friends. Everyone except the bad guys intersect throughout the film, which is fairly real time and has Cooper trying to find people to help him before the bad guy arrives at, well, High Noon.

And there’s the song to accompany Cooper when he’s out alone. Until it’s not there anymore. The film picks just the right time to eighty-six the song and let Cooper’s performance take over. And it’s no different in how it handles Cooper, other than the song being gone. He’d been doing this performance the whole film. The film just decides it’s time to stop talking about Cooper and instead be about him.

And the other story lines. Though the bad guys’ waiting for the train one is pragmatic and Bridges’s masculinity one is truncated (and very nicely echoed through a lot of the rest of the town, definitely in the bar scenes), the one with Kelly and Jurado gets a lot of attention. It’s the film’s main subplot, specifically Jurado. She connects to all the characters, eventually.

Cooper’s great. A lot of his part is reactive and the film never gets too interior–Cooper’s experiencing a lot of fear, anger, and disappointment. He ought to be seething, but he doesn’t get to seethe because he’s got to be the guy in the song. The song haunts him. And hounds him.

Kelly and Jurado are good. While Kelly will break down in front of Cooper, she won’t in front of anyone else. Jurado doesn’t break down in front of anyone. So when they finally get together, Kelly and Jurado are adversarial. Only Foreman’s script has much higher ambition for the characters. It gives Jurado a great arc in the film too. Cooper and Kelly end up with the least impressive character development arcs in the picture. They still have perfectly good arcs, Foreman just concentrated on Jurado and Bridges. Because Cooper and Kelly’s arc is tied and very complicated. She doesn’t just object because he’s outnumbered and she’s a Quaker. There are things going on. With Cooper too. Their arc builds–is surface, is subtext–it even echoes.

Foreman’s script is really, really good throughout and especially on that arc.

Bridges is fantastic. Mitchell, Chaney, Morgan. They’re all good. They’re kind of cameo parts though. Kruger’s fine. He’s a lot better being a weasel than not, however.

High Noon’s great. Zinnemann, Foreman, Cooper, producer Stanley Kramer. They make something singular. And not just because they get away with that song.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Zinnemann; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a magazine story by John W. Cunningham; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Elmo Williams; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Gary Cooper (Marshal Will Kane), Grace Kelly (Amy Fowler Kane), Katy Jurado (Helen Ramírez), Lloyd Bridges (Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell), Sheb Wooley (Ben Miller), Robert J. Wilke (Jim Pierce), Lee Van Cleef (Jack Colby), Thomas Mitchell (Mayor Jonas Henderson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Martin Howe), Harry Morgan (Sam Fuller), and Otto Kruger (Judge Percy Mettrick).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 4TH WONDERFUL GRACE KELLY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA AND EMILY OF THE FLAPPER DAME.


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House of Dracula (1945, Erle C. Kenton)

House of Dracula is immediately disappointing. The film opens on man of science Onslow Stevens as Dracula (played by a boring John Carradine) comes visiting, hoping for some cure to vampirism. Will Carradine try to seduce Martha O’Driscoll’s fetching nurse? Will something go wrong with Stevens’s cure for Carradine? Unfortunately, yes to both. Director Kenton and screenwriter Edmund T. Lowe Jr. don’t so much have foreshadowing in Dracula as much as they immediately follow tangents.

The film feels relatively tame; I wonder if it was meant for a more child-aged audience than usual. George Robinson’s photography is boring, though somewhat competent–the shadows don’t tell stories or hide monsters, they’re just contrasted well against the lights. There’s no nuance to Dracula. Kenton’s particularly disappointing.

Lon Chaney Jr. escapes mostly unscathed. He has a lousy part but he does try. Same goes for the rest of the cast, with the exception of Carradine. Once Stevens starts to feel the effects of the vampirism, he plays an excellent Mr. Hyde. But Lowe’s script is still lame. Kenton’s direction is still disinterested.

Some of the problem is how uncomfortable the film gets with Jane Adams’s nurse. She’s the hunchbacked assistant this picture, only Lowe doesn’t give her anything to do. Kenton gives her a little more–mostly because O’Driscoll’s just around for the nurse’s outfit’s skirts–but not enough. The film’s in desperate need of a protagonist. It’s not Stevens, it’s not Chaney, it’s not Adams.

In Dracula’s smallest significant role–inciting, wrong villager–Skelton Knaggs does some good work. It’s a shame there’s not a good film here for him to be doing that work in.

House of Dracula barely runs sixty-five minutes. It’s boring from the first three minutes. Nothing so short, so full of monsters and effects and Universal contract players should ever be boring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; written by Edmund T. Lowe Jr.; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; produced by Paul Malvern; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Onslow Stevens (Dr. Franz Edlemann), John Carradine (Count Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (Lawrence Talbot), Martha O’Driscoll (Miliza Morelle), Jane Adams (Nina), Lionel Atwill (Police Inspector Holtz), Ludwig Stössel (Siegfried), Skelton Knaggs (Steinmuhl) and Glenn Strange (The Frankenstein Monster).


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House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C. Kenton)

Just over half of House of Frankenstein is glorious. Kenton’s direction is outstanding, the sets are imaginative, the actors are doing great. Beautiful photography from George Robinson. House is a scary movie, what with physically but downright evil Boris Karloff running the proceedings. What doesn’t work–like John Carradine’s “just okay” Dracula–gets smoothed out by unexpected gems, like Anne Gwynne and Sig Ruman. It all starts to fall apart when second-billed Lon Chaney Jr. shows up. It’s not Chaney’s fault, it’s just when exhaustion is setting in.

Well, except the general exhaustion accompanies some script problems. Edmund T. Lowe Jr.’s third act for House of Frankenstein is unmitigated disaster. If Kenton had embraced the chaos, maybe the film would’ve kept its momentum, but he tries to rein it in and fails. All of the subplots come up–with the exception of Carradine, who basically gets his own episode. That episode, costarring Gwynne, Ruman, Peter Coe and Lionel Atwill, is probably House’s best section. The sets aren’t the best, but it’s a creepy little story. And Gwynne, Ruman, Coe and Atwill are all pretty dang good, Ruman and Gwynne more so. But the other little stories, which Lowe and Kenton do succeed in establishing and encouraging throughout the busy picture… they don’t end well.

Karloff and Chaney suffer the worst. Karloff had almost half the picture to be amazing and then the second half reduces him to a bit part of a lame mad scientist. It goes from being a physical role to a sedentary one. Karloff is spellbinding in the physical parts. Standing around in a lab coat, he seems like he’s just cameoing. As for Chaney, he never gets a good part. He’s got good chemistry with Elena Verdugo, but she gets all the material. She’s quite good, but the film does just have Chaney standing around.

Verdugo’s part of both Chaney’s subplot and J. Carrol Naish’s subplot. Naish is Karloff’s assistant. Naish is pretty darn good in the film, because you want to like him, you want to be sympathetic. He’s kind of a creep though, so maybe it was a mistake to feel sorry for him. But then what does that rejection of sympathy say about you? Kenton and Naish have a great time with the character throughout the film and it even seems like he might get something to do, but no. The third act fail takes Naish down with it.

By the time Glenn Strange starts moving about as the Frankenstein Monster, the film’s completely derailed. Howe’s script can’t bring all the elements together right. The measurements are off. Simultaneously disappointing, the acting is nowhere near as good in the last fourth or so. The angry, thinly written (and acted) villagers in the second village can’t compare to Gwynne, Ruman and Verdugo examples of villagers. The frustrating thing about House is it seems to realize its collapsing. There’s a resigned air to the third act, which should help with certain storylines, like Chaney, Verdugo and Naish’s, but it doesn’t.

So it’s a disappointment. A glorious disappointment, with mostly great direction from Kenton, some excellent acting from Karloff, Gwynne and Verdugo, some decent acting from Naish and Chaney, wonderful production values (until the final act), and an occasionally ingenious script from Lowe. It’s a shame all the dim moments came together at the end.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Erle C. Kenton; screenplay by Edmund T. Lowe Jr., based on a story by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Philip Cahn; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Paul Malvern; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Doctor Gustav Niemann), Lon Chaney Jr. (Larry Talbot), Elena Verdugo (Ilonka), J. Carrol Naish (Daniel), John Carradine (Baron Latos), Anne Gwynne (Rita Hussman), Peter Coe (Carl Hussman), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Arnz), Sig Ruman (Burgomaster Hussman) and George Zucco (Professor Bruno Lampini).


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