Tag Archives: Roy Webb

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 Ghost Ship (1943, Mark Robson)

Although the title suggests otherwise, The Ghost Ship is not a supernatural thriller. It is, however, a very effective suspense picture.

Russell Wade (in a sturdy lead performance) is a new officer. On his first ship out, he begins to suspect the captain–Richard Dix, who steadily gets creepier–is a little off his rocker. Of course, almost everything about the ship is somewhat strange, leaving Wade in a bit of a pickle.

The film moves along at a brisk pace–director Robson keeps the scenes short, which makes it feel more substantial than its seventy minutes. Only towards the end does Robson compress too much, likely due to the low budget.

Ghost Ship gets better as it moves along, mostly because the first third is so narratively disjointed. Wade’s undoubtedly the protagonist, but a mute sailor (Skelton Knaggs) narrates the events. The eerie narration is for tone, but Ghost Ship doesn’t need it. The dark ship–Nicholas Musuraca lights the picture beautifully–is never safe, even during the day scenes.

Donald Henderson Clarke’s screenplay recovers in the second act (only to falter for the finish). But Ghost Ship is always unnerving, thanks to Robson’s sure direction and the acting.

There are some strong supporting turns from Dewey Robinson, Edmund Glover and Edith Barrett. Some of the crew members are a little weak, but they’re passable.

John Lockert’s editing is poor. Nice score from Roy Webb.

Ghost Ship has its problems–particularly that finish–but it’s an good, uncanny trip.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Donald Henderson Clarke, based on a story by Leo Mittler; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by John Lockert; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Russell Wade (3rd Officer Tom Merriam), Richard Dix (Capt. Will Stone), Edmund Glover (Sparks, the Radioman), Dewey Robinson (Boats), Ben Bard (First Officer Bowns), Skelton Knaggs (Finn, the Mute) and Edith Barrett (Ellen Roberts).


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The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940, Jack Hively)

George Sanders can do no wrong in The Saint’s Double Trouble, so much so, he has the ability to smooth the film over. He’s such a joy to watch, the critical part of the brain shuts down. Eventually, as the film nears the conclusion, Sanders looses his control, letting judgments percolate to the surface. This condition isn’t particularly rare, but what makes Double Trouble is the repeating effect. Even after it’s clear the film’s charm is pulling the wool over the viewer’s eyes, it goes ahead and charms him or her again, setting up another realization a few minutes further into the running time. It keeps it up until the final shot, which plays on the surface like it should get a pass… but it’s really quite hollow.

There’s a distressing lack of content to The Saint’s Double Trouble. It opens rather grandiosely–or, with grandiose promise–in Cairo. Bela Lugosi shows up, mailing a coffin back to the States (there’s no reference to Dracula, which is kind of unfortunate, because it’s got to be what the viewer’s thinking). Lugosi’s actually quite good in Double Trouble–it might be his best performance (or the best performance I’ve seen from him). But then the film skips to Philadelphia and in The Saint’s Double Trouble, Philadelphia only has one exterior street corner. There’s a depressing lack of scale, with the script, budget and direction failing each other. Hively doesn’t do anything to make the film feel like it’s taking place anywhere other than a backlot. He’s a decent director, even if he likes cheap shots occasionally–and he can’t direct a suspenseful scene–but he’s generally fine.

The script’s a different story. It’s got some good one-liners and some fine conversations, but the film’s plot is so addlebrained, the incredibly complex series of double crosses–occurring off-screen–is never unraveled. It’s not as important as the film’s hook, George Sanders playing both the Saint and the villain. These two characters apparently know each other–it’s implied, at least–but there’s never anything more about it. I’m all for letting the viewer figure things out for him or herself, but The Saint’s Double Trouble asks the viewer to ignore critical reasoning and it goes down like castor oil.

The film’s abbreviated running time–sixty-six minutes soaking wet–means not only does Lugosi get short-changed (he’s even funny at one point), but so does second-billed Helene Whitney. She has a bunch of history with Sanders–thank you expository dialogue–but it doesn’t go anywhere. Their scenes together are wasted, accelerating the plot. Sanders is great in the scenes, but the film doesn’t have a single payoff. It keeps deferring the payoff–it really does seem like it’ll come at the end–but no. The film pulls it away again… and the end is so cheaply done, it makes The Saint’s Double Trouble seem like a low budget impression, filmed in someone’s backyard. Hively’s not entirely at fault–RKO controlled the budget–but he doesn’t do anything creative.

The supporting cast is good. Jonathan Hale’s hilarious as Sanders’s erstwhile sidekick slash pursuer. Whitney certainly shows potential. Elliot Sullivan’s a solid henchman….

It’s a fine diversion, but Double Trouble wastes its ingredients.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hively; screenplay by Ben Holmes, based on the novel by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Theron Warth and Desmond Marquette; music by Roy Webb; produced by Cliff Reid; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Simon Templar / Boss Duke Bates), Helene Whitney (Anne Bitts), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Bela Lugosi (The Partner), Donald MacBride (Chief of Detectives John H. Bohlen), John F. Hamilton (Limpy, a Henchman), Thomas W. Ross (Professor Horatio T. Bitts) and Elliott Sullivan (Monk).


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