Tag Archives: Peter Lorre

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)

Arsenic and Old Lace has to be one of the finest–if not the finest–film adaptations of a stage production. Nothing about the film, save the knowledge it’s from a play, suggests its theatrical origins… not the one night present action, not the one set. It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, down to what has to be Frank Capra’s most inventive direction. Capra’s confined to that one set for the majority of the film and he keeps things very interesting. He reveals the house gradually, not even exploring the full size of the main room–where around seventy percent of the story takes place–until well into the third act of the film.

The film’s full of fantastic performances, but the story’s split between Cary Grant and Raymond Massey. Grant disappears for a while and Massey takes over, but filling a completely different role than Grant. The film sort of goes without a protagonist for a while in Grant’s absence (Massey isn’t really an antagonist at this point) and the story accelerates into a different area without him. When he returns, he doesn’t inhabit the film in the same way. For the first half, watching Arsenic and Old Lace is watching Grant. Sure, lots of good stuff is going on around him, but his performance is captivating. It’s unlike anything else (Grant hated the performance) and it’s wonderful. Maybe because it so perfectly matches the viewer’s expectation of a reasonable person’s response to the film’s fantastic situation. The romance between Grant and Priscilla Lane–which has a lot of texture independent of the main action’s two plots (the aunts and their gentlemen and Massey’s return)–is wonderful too. Lane and Grant play great off each other; it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Massey has the film’s most difficult role, since it’s so incredible. I wonder how much Arsenic and Old Lace did for Boris Karloff’s name recognition, as Massey has to personify the idea of Karloff (and the unmentioned Frankenstein) from his first moment on film. But Massey has to go further–he has to be both menacing, dangerous and silly. The viewer has to be scared of Massey and what he might do, but also has to be able to laugh at him. By the time he’s ready to go after Grant, the viewer’s already had a chance to laugh at him a little, but Massey brings it all around to present real danger.

Peter Lorre has a similar position. He has to be funny–Lorre’s performance is one of film’s great comedic performances–but also endearing and a little disturbing. He’s still Massey’s partner in crime, even if he’s incredibly likable. There isn’t a weak performance in the film or even one less than stellar, but Lorre still stands out.

The rest of the supporting cast–Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the two aunts are great–is all exceptional. Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those flawlessly casted films.

My wife had never seen the film before, which made the viewing even more entertaining. It’s least like the rest of Capra’s films of the period, but that dissimilarity somehow makes it more exciting to see from him. It’s as close to experimental as Capra ever got with his style. It might even be his most impressive work as a director; he’s essential to the film, which has such a strong script, it’s easy to think he could have gotten lost somewhere.

I’m hard pressed to identify my favorite part of the film. I love the sequences with Lane and Grant in the graveyard, but Grant’s long stretch of discovering what’s going on–where he’s the whole show–is fantastic too. But then there’s Lorre….

There’s just too many great things about Arsenic and Old Lace to narrow it down.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Max Steiner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Herman Einstein), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), John Alexander (Theodore Brewster), Jack Carson (Officer Patrick O’Hara), John Ridgely (Officer Saunders), Edward McNamara (Police Sgt. Brophy), James Gleason (Lt. Rooney), Grant Mitchell (Reverend Harper), Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Witherspoon), Vaughan Glaser (Judge Cullman), Chester Clute (Dr. Gilchrist), Edward McWade (Mr. Gibbs), Charles Lane (Reporter at Marriage License Office) and Garry Owen (Taxi Cab Driver).


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M (1931, Fritz Lang)

I don’t think I’d ever realized M‘s technical importance. Lang creates quite a few filmmaking standards here, still in use today. Non-specific to genre, M features some brilliant off-screen dialogue work. It’s the earliest example (I’ve ever seen) of hearing a scene’s action while looking at something else. There’s also Lang’s approach to the sound. Lang uses the silence for the emphasis, shocking the viewer with loud noises every once in a while. There are, I’m sure, a few other ones, but those are most obvious.

Except for the genre specific norms. Watching M, one can see a lot of genre norms–the modern criminal investigation narrative, going back years, owes it all to me. There’s the suspect disappearing behind a moving car shot, but there’s also the detective who uncovers the long-hidden clue and has his eureka moment. Watching M is, at these moments, stunning. It’s seeing Lang create these familiar filmic mechanisms.

That use of sound, something I only mentioned in passing, is all the more amazing because of its place in film history. Talkies were very new when Lang made M and his masterful use of sound in film is something Hollywood wouldn’t begin to match for another ten years, until Welles and Citizen Kane.

But M isn’t just staggering because of its significance as a historical artifact. Lang and wife Thea von Harbou’s script is fantastic. The film’s without a central protagonist, just a handful of primary characters. There’s the police inspector, played by Otto Wernicke, and the criminal mastermind, played by Gustaf Gründgens, and then, of course, there’s Peter Lorre as the child murderer. Lorre appears early on, but isn’t really a big character until the second half.

The split of M is interesting. The film has a somewhat modern gimmick–the criminals go after the criminal the cops can’t catch. One could just see it as Ashton Kutcher’s breakout, “tough” role. Except the gimmick isn’t even a part of the film for the first hour. Instead, Lang concentrates on establishing the mood of a city in constant fear. He uses crane shots to both bring the city’s inhabitants together and to highlight their isolation. M is very much about the urban experience. But then he moves on to a lengthy review of the police’s attempts at solving the crime, followed, near the halfway mark, by the underworld getting involved.

The hunt for Lorre is split as well–there’s a lengthy break from it, as Wernicke questions one of Lorre’s pursuers.

Much of the film, in that first half, is exposition. But Lang opens the film with a measured sequence of a woman realizing her daughter is missing. This opening makes the second part, the lengthy exposition, involve and affect the viewer–it otherwise would not. The introduction to the underworld characters brings the human element back in and their decision to hunt Lorre keeps it in the rest of the film.

Only at the end, after M gives Lorre the chance to shine in a revolting role, do Lang and von Harbou stumble, bringing back the didacticism from their earlier efforts. But it’s too late for it to hurt M.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; written by Lang and Thea von Harbou; director of photography, Fritz Arno Wagner; edited by Paul Falkenberg; produced by Seymour Nebenzal; released by Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH.

Starring Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber), Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker), Friedrich Gnaß (Franz, the burglar), Fritz Odemar (The cheater), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket with six watches), Theo Lingen (Bauernfänger), Rudolf Blümner (Beckert’s defender), Georg John (Blind panhandler), Franz Stein (Minister), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Police chief), Gerhard Bienert (Criminal secretary), Karl Platen (Damowitz, night watchman), Rosa Valetti (Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert’s landlady) and Hertha von Walther (Prostitute).


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Strange Cargo (1940, Frank Borzage)

A lot of Strange Cargo is really good. Borzage isn’t the most dynamic director, but every time he has a startlingly mediocre shot, he follows it with a good one in the next few minutes. The film’s got lengthy first act–thirty minutes–and then moves from confined location to confined location. The first act is the prison, the second moves through jungle and sailboat at sea, with the third mostly contained in a room. Borzage does the best–and the film’s at its best–during the jungle sequences, when it feels like a big Hollywood vehicle for Gable and Crawford, only with a wacky subplot juxtaposed.

The wacky subplot is Ian Hunter’s Christ figure, helping out this group of prison escapees. Why they’re so important–not Gable and Crawford, who I can understand, they’re big stars, I mean the supporting cast (Paul Lukas being the best known)–is never explained. As plot holes go, it’s not the biggest in Strange Cargo (or the smallest–for example, when Gable escapes, he hightails it out of the line. He’s missing in the count and Hunter shows up in his place… suggesting they two know each other, which would have been interesting–they do not, unfortunately), but a lot’s forgivable, since Strange Cargo, while definitely strange, is also a big Hollywood vehicle.

Gable and Crawford have great chemistry with their characters–he’s the con who won’t serve his relatively short remaining sentence quietly because he’s not going to be locked up and she’s the woman who’s ended up, through a long string of bad choices, in the High Seas, singing and dancing at a bar–and, during their jungle scenes, it feels right. Later, when they reveal their inevitable deep emotions for each other, their performances keep it going. The script’s not bad and is quite good in some places, but it’s not exactly discreet in its symbolism.

Some of the supporting cast–particularly Lukas and Peter Lorre–is good. Hunter is okay, nothing more. Albert Dekker and John Arledge are not good. Still, they’re not terrible.

Unfortunately, the second act builds toward the film being better and then the third act, practically a stage production, falters. The end, with the neon symbolism, is also problematic. But Gable and Crawford bring it through.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Borzage; screenplay by Lawrence Hazard, based on a novel by Richard Sale; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Robert Kern; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Borzage and Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Joan Crawford (Julie), Clark Gable (André Verne), Ian Hunter (Cambreau), Peter Lorre (Pig), Paul Lukas (Hessler), Albert Dekker (Moll), J. Edward Bromberg (Flaubert), Eduardo Ciannelli (Telez), John Arledge (Dufond), Frederick Worlock (Grideau, the Prison Head), Bernard Nedell (Marfeu) and Victor Varconi (Fisherman).


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