Tag Archives: Sam Jaffe

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise)

The Day the Earth Stood Still opens with these sensational titles. 3D text jumping out, set against the backdrop of space, Bernard Herrmann’s score at its loudest; the titles suggest the film is going to be something grandiose. It is and it isn’t. For the first act, director Wise moves quickly, short scenes setting up the world’s reaction to a flying saucer circling the planet. Newscasters report, air traffic control investigates, people worry.

And then the ship lands. The special effects in Day the Earth Stood Still are excellent without ever being sensational or outlandish. There are only a couple major effects sequences–the space ship landing, the titular incident–otherwise, the film’s rather quiet. It starts big, then Edmund H. North’s script starts closing it in, making it smaller and smaller until it can fit into a house. Specifically, into second-billed Patricia Neal’s boarding house. She’s just a resident, a widow living there with her son, Billy Gray.

They’re there, listening to the radio, when a new boarder arrives. That boarder, Michael Rennie, is the space man, escaped from the Army hospital (some grunt shot him after he walked out of the space ship and got out a gift for the President). At that moment, the film changes. Or, more accurately, perturbs in an unexpected, gentler direction. Rennie’s quiet, reserved, inquisitive, and gentle. Sure, he’s got a giant robot with laser vision, but Rennie just wants to see what humans are like.

Rennie’s mission to Earth is simple. He wants to address the world leaders. The United States government, its nipples hard at the thought of a prolonged Cold War, is no help. So Rennie decides he’s going to try the scientists, starting with Sam Jaffe. Only Jaffe’s not home when Rennie comes to visit.

Until the middle of the movie, North’s script never takes the focus off Rennie. Gray’s around a lot, but he’s never the focus. It’s Rennie, the alien, who acts as the viewer’s guide through the film. And the film keeps the viewer informed about Rennie’s plans and, often, his thoughts. Eventually, Neal has to take the lead–she’s got to stop her idiot boyfriend Hugh Marlowe from dooming the planet–and she stays in the lead until the end of the film, but the first half is all Rennie.

Besides the big Earth standing still sequence, there’s also a big chase sequence at the end involving a military dragnet. Wise and editor William Reynolds are methodical with it, tightening the net around Rennie in real time, tightening viewer expectation as it progresses. The viewer knows to be concerned more than Rennie, who’s cautious but not enough. He’s kind of powerless, after all. Interplanetary traveller or not, the film establishes right off he can be hurt. It also establishes most Earthlings are more than happy to shoot first and not ask any questions at all.

But the film’s never cynical. It can’t be with Gray around. He’s thrilled to have a new friend in Rennie, who acts as babysitter so Neal can hang out with Marlowe. She just thinks Marlowe’s pushy, not an abject tool. Gray and Rennie’s day out, which includes the first visit to Jaffe’s house, also has the unlikely duo visiting Gray’s father’s grave in Arlington Cemetary. The war isn’t mentioned but it’s omnipresent, kind of like government bureaucracy; the film does extremely well with its Washington D.C. setting and some of the city’s locations. The scene at the Lincoln Monument is particularly effective.

Gray’s lack of cynicism stands up to a lot of pressure, including some from Neal–her rejection of cynicism is what hands the film off to her. It’s too bad the film drops Gray in the second half; Day only runs ninety minutes, there’s not a lot of room. It’s either got to be Gray and Rennie or Neal and Rennie active in the main plot.

Much of that main plot takes place indoors, in the ordinary. People are scared, unsure about what’s going on with the flying saucer and the spaceman on the loose (Rennie’s incognito at the boarding house). Wise and cinematographer Leo Tover have these confined–but never cramped–shots inside. Outside they open up, especially when they get to do location shooting, but inside… well, Rennie wanted to find out how people lived, didn’t he?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is always methodical and never ponderous. Wise, screenwriter North, editor Reynolds, they all keep things moving. It’s fantastic but in a mundane, thoughtful way. Just like Rennie. He keeps an even keel throughout his adventures on Earth, no matter how dangerous things get for him.

Excellent performances from everyone–Rennie, Neal, Gray, Marlowe, Jaffe–it’s not a big cast. It’s a big story, sure, but the film keeps that story contained. The human element is most important; even during the big effects set pieces, Wise makes sure the human reaction is present. He ably scales the human element when needed. Confined to big, big to small. It’s reassuring. Just like Rennie.

Day is a fine film. It’s got its limits, but Wise and company accomplish what they set out to do. Though, maybe, not what those 3D opening titles suggest they’re going to set out to do.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Edmund H. North, based on a story by Harry Bates; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Reynolds; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Julian Blaustein; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Billy Gray (Bobby Benson), Hugh Marlowe (Tom Stevens), Sam Jaffe (Professor Jacob Barnhardt), and Frances Bavier (Mrs. Barley).


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The Dunwich Horror (1970, Daniel Haller)

There’s a handful of good things about The Dunwich Horror. They can’t overcome the bad things, but they’re still pretty neat. The script, at least for a while, is fairly nimble. There’s a lot of bad exposition from old dudes Ed Begley and Lloyd Bochner, but the younger folks do quite a bit better. See, Dunwich ought to be hip, but it’s not. The script knows it needs to be hip; director Haller can’t do it. And even if he could do it, cinematographer Richard C. Glouner couldn’t do it. Editor Christopher Holmes tries to be hip with his cutting. He doesn’t do a good job of it and the film’s poorly edited, but he is at least on the same page as the script as far as tone.

Because it’s Dean Stockwell as this smarmy geek who manages to seduce little Sandra Dee away from college with promises of hippie orgies and such. It’s a great idea for a smart genre picture. And Haller butchers every minute of it. There’s some solid dialogue from Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky. There’s good characterization of Donna Baccala as Dee’s concerned friend. There’s nothing to be done about Begley and Bochner however. They both refuse to chew at the scenery. They just look miserable instead.

The sets are fairly awful. They’re poorly lit, but they’d still be pretty bad. Dunwich is never pragmatic when it needs to be, except with some of the special effects.

And here’s the other big bad in Dunwich. The last third of the movie when Haller’s trying to do monster suspense. He butchers it, over and over and over and over and over again. Every time it seems like something might actually be creepy or scary, he screws it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch, just because there’s never anything going for it and it’s all Haller’s fault.

I mean, even the perv shots of Dee’s body double writhing in Cthulic anticipation get cut with some kookiness from Stockwell. He goes nuts for the part while still maintaining this creepy sweet guy thing. It’s an awesome performance. Not good, just extremely entertaining. In terms of actual acting, Baccala and Talia Shire are the best. Dee’s okay but she eventually becomes, well, a human sacrifice.

Finally, the music. Les Baxter’s score is hip, romantic, lush, subdued and a dozen other things. It doesn’t always get cut right–because Holmes is bad at the editing thing–but it’s always kind of amazing. It’s a delight in an almost delightful mess. But Haller and Glouner just tank it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Daniel Haller; screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum and Ronald Silkosky, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Richard C. Glouner; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Les Baxter; produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Dean Stockwell (Wilbur Whateley), Sandra Dee (Nancy Wagner), Ed Begley (Dr. Henry Armitage), Donna Baccala (Elizabeth Hamilton), Lloyd Bochner (Dr. Cory), Sam Jaffe (Old Whateley), Talia Shire (Nurse Cora) and Joanne Moore Jordan (Lavinia Whateley).


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The Spies (1957, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

I’m not all that familiar with Clouzot, or maybe I am. I’ve seen Wages of Fear and Diabolique. I didn’t even know The Spies was one of his, I was just queuing a Peter Ustinov spy movie. Apparently, Topkapi didn’t teach me anything.

I’m kidding. About The Spies, not about Topkapi. Topkapi is pretty shitty. The Spies is not.

It’s actually one of the lowest 3.5s I’ve ever given. Usually, I score throughout the film, just after the first act, I keep an active count (invariably, my internal dialogue questions itself about the rating and it just pops in–wow, we’re really getting Castaneda about film ratings tonight, must be the lack of sleep). I’ve been thinking about integrating star ratings into the Stop Button experience, but it’ll have to wait. The Spies final rating actually rings in and out in the last scene.

Problematically, Clouzot sets up The Spies as a comedy. If you’ve seen Les Diaboliques (which I remember being okay, nothing more), you know Clouzot likes to mess with the viewer. He likes to trick you, even more than Hitchcock, because Hitch never really messed with you. He messed with his characters and let you watch. Clouzot does both. It’s frustrating in The Spies because he wants the viewer to appreciate how much he’s messing with the characters, but he’s also messing with the viewer.

When you finally figure out what’s going on in The Spies–which takes a while, because Clouzot structures every conversation, every glance between characters, to mislead… or inform–you can begin to appreciate how good the film really is. It’s beautifully shot, of course. Clouzot’s a fabulous director. There’s also not a bad performance in the entire film and the lead is quite good, but I can’t name him because of all the accent marks. It’s 11:45 and I’m really lazy.

What I’ve seen of French New Wave never impressed me and a lot of Truffaut’s stuff embarrassed me (there’s a digital record I rented The Story of Adele H. out there somewhere), but between Renoir, Cocteau, and Clouzot, there appears to be a good thirty years of French cinema I need to check out.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; screenplay by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi, based on a novel by Egon Hostovsky; director of photography, Christian Matras; edited by Madeleine Gug; music by Georges Auric; production designer, René Renoux; released by Pretoria Films.

Starring Curd Jürgens (Alex), Peter Ustinov (Michel Kiminsky), O.E. Hasse (Hugo Vogel), Sam Jaffe (Sam Cooper), Paul Carpenter (Col. Howard), Véra Clouzot (Lucie), Martita Hunt (Connie Harper) and Gérard Séty (Dr. Malik).