Tag Archives: Paul Lukas

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.


RELATED

Advertisements

Deadline at Dawn (1946, Harold Clurman)

Given all the excellent components, Deadline at Dawn ought to be a lot better. It has a compelling plot–a naive sailor and erstwhile murder suspect (Bill Williams) has to solve the crime before he ships out, but he’s just met a city hardened girl (Susan Hayward) and crushing on her and she’s warming to him–and Clifford Odets’s screenplay doesn’t do it justice.

Odets uses pat, declarative statements for the most part, giving Hayward almost nothing to work with. Williams is better the less he has to do, probably because Odets and director Clurman spend the first half of the picture establishing he’s a dope.

The supporting cast is (mostly) fantastic. Paul Lukas’s cabbie gets involved in the amateur investigation, a helpless romantic out to help the couple. Then there are Joseph Calleia and Jerome Cowan, who both get roped into tagging along. Odets’s script handles Dawn‘s large, shifting group of characters quite well. It’s just a shame he can’t write better dialogue or keep up the pace.

While some of the supporting cast–especially the cops–are unimpressive, only Marvin Miller is bad.

As a director, Clurman owes a lot to his cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca. Dawn always looks great, even when it’s a lousy action scene (there are two or three)–editor Roland Gross can’t cut them. Clurman has one bad composition for every two good ones. The city sets look fantastic.

After a strong open, Dawn gets tedious. Hayward, Calleia and Musuraca make it worth a look.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Clurman; screenplay by Clifford Odets, based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Roland Gross; music by Hanns Eisler; produced by Adrian Scott; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bill Williams (Alex Winkley), Susan Hayward (June Goth), Paul Lukas (Gus Hoffman), Joseph Calleia (Val Bartelli), Osa Massen (Helen Robinson), Jerome Cowan (Lester Brady), Marvin Miller (Sleepy Parsons), Steven Geray (Gloved Man), Joe Sawyer (Babe Dooley), Constance Worth (Mrs. Raymond) and Lola Lane (Edna Bartelli).


RELATED

Berlin Express (1948, Jacques Tourneur)

Berlin Express is a postwar thriller. In the late forties and early fifties, there were a number of such films—most filmed either partially or totally on location in the ruins of Germany. I was expecting Express to be more of a noir, but it’s not. With its pseudo-documentary approach, down to the narration (an uncredited Paul Stewart occasionally sounds exactly like Burt Lancaster, which is disconcerting), Express carefully presents its audience with a look at what’s going on in Germany and what the Allies are doing there too. For the first twenty minutes, a compelling narrative is besides the point.

Eventually, the mystery and espionage thriller elements take over, but Express still handles them differently. Instead of relying just on leading man Robert Ryan (who’s excellent), the film brings in a multinational cast of characters who team up to solve the mystery.

Merle Oberon is sort of Ryan’s love interest, at least until the film gets so philosophical at the end. The ending is where Express falls apart. It goes so far patting the Americans on the back, it becomes a commercial for the occupation of Germany by the Allies—the Americans in particular—instead of a reasonable conclusion. The film resists most of the propaganda pitfalls throughout only to collapse at the finish.

Of the supporting cast, Roman Toporow is the best. Paul Lukas is solid and Robert Coote isn’t bad.

Tourneur’s direction is outstanding.

Berlin Express is a significant historical document, but it’s also mostly successful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Harold Medford, based on a story by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Sherman Todd; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Bert Granet; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Merle Oberon (Lucienne), Robert Ryan (Robert Lindley), Charles Korvin (Perrot), Paul Lukas (Dr. Bernhardt), Robert Coote (Sterling), Reinhold Schünzel (Walther), Roman Toporow (Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov), Peter von Zerneck (Hans Schmidt), Otto Waldis (Kessler), Fritz Kortner (Franzen), Michael Harvey (Sgt. Barnes) and Tom Keene (Major).


RELATED

The Benson Murder Case (1930, Frank Tuttle)

I wonder how Eugene Pallette felt–more, how his co-stars felt–about having the closest thing to a close-up in The Benson Murder Case. I’ve never been more acutely aware of shot distance than I was during the film. Tuttle has a standard pattern. Long shot–usually a lengthy long shot, sometimes an entire scene is one shot–followed by a medium shot for emphasis. At the end, Pallette gets the European medium shot (waist up) for one of his punch lines. Sadly, Pallette’s only got three or four jokes as his befuddled police detective in this Philo Vance entry. He and William Powell–who work well together–probably only have five scenes together.

What makes Benson Murder Case even more peculiar is its pacing. It’s a murder mystery where the murder doesn’t occur until almost a third of the way into the film–the film runs just under seventy-minutes and I don’t think Richard Tucker dies until after minute twenty. I wondered, as the film concentrated on Tucker’s dealings with his various co-stars, if there was supposed to be some confusion about who was going to die. Then I remember it was called The Benson Murder Case, which just made it stranger. While Tucker is supposed to be an unlikable jerk–he’s a stock broker who puts solvency ahead of his clients’ whims during the Crash of 1929–anticipating his death isn’t really all that interesting. After minute ten, I figured there was a chance he’d make it through most of the film. It would have been more interesting if he had.

The long first act introduces not just Tucker, but his antagonists–Natalie Moorhead, Paul Lukas, William ‘Stage’ Boyd and May Beatty–and then the second act refocuses on Powell and the investigation. There’s also district attorney E.H. Calvert’s re-election bid, which the film’s running time can’t make space. The result is the film’s initial characters disappearing for a while, only to reappear as subjects–Powell’s not even the protagonist until the latter half of the second act (remember, the film’s only seventy minutes), spending almost an entire interrogation off camera.

It’s a disjointed experience, bound together by some competent acting and a sufficiently mysterious mystery. Boyd is a fine villain, Moorhead and Lukas are good. Powell’s good, but Benson really shows how an actor needs close-ups to identify with the viewer. He’s got a character here, not a personality.

Tuttle’s quizzical direction also draws attention to the artifice. It’s obvious the film was shot on three-sided sets. They’re real high and well-decorated, so they’re interesting to look at (they have to be, given the length of the takes), but they’re empty of any meaningful content.

It’s an amiable seventy minutes, the kind of film good for passing time and nothing else.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Barlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Archie Stout; edited by Doris Drought; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Natalie Moorhead (Fanny Del Roy), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), Paul Lukas (Adolph Mohler), William ‘Stage’ Boyd (Harry Gray), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Richard Tucker (Anthony Benson), May Beatty (Mrs. Paula Banning), Mischa Auer (Albert), Otto Yamaoka (Sam), Charles McMurphy (Burke) and Dick Rush (Welch).


RELATED