Category Archives: 1950s

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Director: Terence Fisher

Ah, how nice to finally have an anamorphic edition of this film, not to mention a high-definition one (even if I could’ve lived without the tarantula being in higher resolution, obviously), and how pleasant to revisit it tonight. The novel seems to be widely regarded as peak Sherlock Holmes, and Hammer’s film version of it was certainly one of their finer hours, not to mention markedly more faithful to that novel than their takes on Frankenstein and Dracula were… still fiddled with somewhat but the broad outlines at least are a lot closer to the source than their versions of Shelley and Stoker. And it was, obviously, the most logical Holmes adventure for a studio like Hammer to take on; late Victorian gothic setting, ancestral curse, monstrous hound apparently from Hell… they couldn’t go far wrong with it. And even now, the decision to cast Christopher Lee as Sir Henry, i.e. the hero (or at least the good guy) rather than the villain, and the romantic lead at that, still seems kind of remarkable, counter-intuitive and yet perfectly successful because it’s so head-scratching. Peter Cushing’s Holmes doesn’t seem to have been appreciated by everyone at the time, but he obviously impressed the BBC well enough to give him the role again in 1968, though Andre Morell’s Watson seems to have been more widely praised. But really, it’s just a generally solid example of Hammer’s strengths; excellent cast, strong production values on a moderate budget, and well-deployed atmospherics. And, to be sure, some not entirely happy comic relief, but the good reverend is still much less aggravating than some of Universal’s mood lighteners. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have been a box office hit, and so an apparent series of Holmes films (another cue they were taking from the old Universal films, though I wonder if they would’ve been more faithful to the original stories) never went ahead. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, though, as it left the 1959 Hound to stand by itself without having to trail a bunch of follow-ups that might not have been up to its fairly high standard…

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

Director: Henry Levin

Jules Verne has been a late discovery of mine; only this year have I started reading his books (though given how bad most of the old translations of his works seem to be, it’s probably a good thing I waited so long for better ones to emerge). But I have seen films of those books before, indeed this is now the second one I’ve actually reviewed on here… and I must admit to liking this rather more than the previous one. Much as the 1954 20,000 Leagues took liberties with the book, so did this film, although this time I’ve actually read the book and so the changes (added romantic interest, new characters including a duck) were rather more immediately obvious. Verne would, of course, have recognised the broad outline of his story—scientist goes on foolhardy expedition to the centre of the Earth with assistant, they experience assorted wonders—but I suspect he might’ve raised an eyebrow at some of the changes, which make the film a bit more of a conventional adventure thriller than the book is. One must assume 20th C. Fox felt the book had insufficient conflict or something. The primary conflict in the film, of course, is between the characters’ duelling accents; Hamburg-based professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel now become Edinburgh-based professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, no stranger to Verne on film of course) and his student Alec McEwan (Pat Boone—who, obviously, also had to be given a song to sing that’s not in the book either). Mason’s fine, though sounding more English than Scottish, but Boone is… wobbly and his accent sounds much more obviously (and not terribly well) put on. The narrative conflict, though, is ramped up by adding a new character, a descendant of the original explorer Lindenbrook is following who isn’t happy with these people entering “his” domain. On its own terms, though, it’s actually pretty good; it was an expensive film at the time but it looks it on-screen, especially once we go below the surface, with good use made of the Cinemascope screen. It’s perhaps even more quaint now than Verne’s book, but it’s still a pretty decent example of late classic Hollywood “big” filmmaking. Plus it’s not every 1950s Hollywood film that has one of the cast members eaten by one of the others…

Destination Moon (1950)

Director: Irving Pichel

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t the first film of its kind, indeed it wasn’t even the first film of its kind in the year it came out; after the pre-release hype surrounding this George Pal production, Robert Lippert managed to get his cheaper and faster-made knock-off Rocketship XM into cinemas ahead of Pal’s film. In spite of that, this still represents a landmark in the SF film genre; it had a real SF author on board (Robert Heinlein being one of the screenwriters; one of his books was a partial source for the film) and it looked like a serious attempt to elevate the genre—such as it was by that time—above the B-grade serial level. In spite of which, Destination Moon is not exactly without its own pulp elements; there is a bit of a “boy’s own adventure” aspect to the plot (and it most definitely is “boy’s own”; no one of the female persuasion in this crew!), involving the first rocket to the Moon, which is actually kind of underlined—intentionally or not—by what I presume was intended as the “adult” libertarian subtext (I’ll bet that was Heinlein at work), the railing against government and the insistence that only good old private enterprise can be relied upon to get us—more particularly, the US—to the Moon. And, of course, just look at how the rocket takes off in brazen defiance of government orders not to. (At least by being an independent production, the film did kind of live up to its own political stance.) The cardboardness of the characters, too, is perhaps another pulp hangover, and it’s a more problematic; the characters are so ho-hum it’s hard to invest much in the way of emotion into their plight when they get to the Moon but find they’re going to have trouble getting away from it again. (Good old American optimism and the need for a happy ending presumably meant copying the ending of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon wasn’t an option.) Still, though I have quite some reservations about Destination Moon, I’ll give it its due respect as a genre landmark, and I will applaud the inspired use of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the art of rocket science both to the private investors being asked to back the project and to us in the audience. It’s an unusually blunt bit of exposition, but a very clever way in which to present it.

Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

Director: Arthur Crabtree

I’m fascinated by films that seem to be precursors of later trends but don’t seem to get acclaimed as such. Arguably, this is one such film; you can see it as a forerunner of the serial killer film, obviously, but, given the slightly… baroque, shall we say, nature of the killings, it also struck me as looking forwards to the giallo. I mean, binoculars that have six-inch spikes concealed in them so that when you hold them up to your eyes, they stab you through to your brain. That’s a hell of a beginning for a film, and in its relative explicitness it’s genuinely stunning for something made in 1959; outside of Hammer, was anyone doing anything as overt as that in films then? (The reference to the head of the second victim going missing is kind of startling too.) This is the year before Peeping Tom, too (and Eyes Without a Face as well, although that film was a bit nastier with that surgery business. It was in b/w, though, unlike Horrors). Mind you, it’s hard to call the film particularly good as such, because in so many ways it’s not; some of the acting is ropey at best and there are a few loose threads even I picked up on (what DID happen to that missing head? Why does the killer’s face go that way? Why does the woman who runs the antique shop think she can get away with blackmailing Bancroft after, you know, giving him that “weapon” as if she thought he wouldn’t use it on her? And what is he doing with some of that gear just lying there in his “black museum”… did he keep that vat full of acid in case it might come in handy one day?). It’s all kind of preposterous, but Michael Gough in the lead role—which was originally slated for Vincent Price—certainly does his best to rise to the occasion, leaving teeth marks all over the scenery in the process. Utterly and unrepentantly B-film in every way, actually a substantial hit in 1959 too; it probably needs a fairly open mind now, and a willingness to overlook certain things, but taken for what it is, it’s kind of fun. And the final kill, executed while jumping off a fairground ferris wheel, is indeed inspired.

I vampiri (1957)

Directors: Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava

Kicking off my contributions to this year’s Italian horror blogathon by going back to the beginning… well, as near to same as we can. This was apparently the first horror film made in Italy since 1920 or something, Mussolini having not been a fan of the genre which he banned from Italian screens. With him out of the way, that wasn’t a consideration. For years I probably thought it was the rise of Hammer that triggered the Italians, so I’m interested to discover I vampiri actually beat Curse of Frankenstein into cinemas by about a month and might even have beaten it into production as well. Alan Jones’ DVD booklet essay (the film is a bonus feature on Arrow’s Black Sunday release) reckons the belated Italian release of the 1930s classics was the real impetus for Riccardo Freda to boldly go where no Italian filmmaker had gone before. Or at least not since 1920 or so. (Certainly one key effect in I vampiri was lifted from Mamoulian’s Jekyll & Hyde.)

Amusingly, the Italian horror industry began as something of a bet, with Freda promising his producers he could make the film in less than two weeks. Jones observes that Freda was a notorious gambler; alas for him, his mouth wrote a cheque his arse couldn’t cash this time, and with two days left on his schedule only about half the film was done. Freda’s demands for more time were, perhaps understandably, met with “but you promised, two weeks” and he stomped off in a huff. And so Freda’s cameraman, Mario Bava, stepped up to the plate instead and did the rest of the film in just the two appointed days. To be honest I couldn’t particularly see the joins and it didn’t feel overly rushed; Jones says one subplot got mostly cut, but that bit of business still comes across OK in the film… I was interested to see I vampiri actually wasn’t quite the traditional gothic I was expecting; actually it’s more of a “mad science” deal, a modern-day update of the Countess Bathory story, in which a very ancient countess has her scientist husband devise a way of keeping her forever young, a way that somehow involves young girls… I’d be lying if I said this was a particularly great film, the plot could’ve come from a 1940s Poverty Row B programmer (this very one, in fact) and it doesn’t rise much above that level. What the film does have, though, is Bava’s visuals, which are pretty damned amazing; Arrow’s print is a particularly good one that shows those visuals off in fine fashion. You could probably argue that Italo-horror’s style over substance tendencies began here too, but I vampiri is certainly always watchable and efficiently made; fortunately its box office failure at home wasn’t enough to stop Freda and Bava from trying again…

Written for the 4th Annual Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

Nineteen Eighty Four (1954)

So I’m beginning my contributions to the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon with a consideration of one of his earliest big roles… He may be better known for some of the films he made after this, but I don’t think any of them resulted in questions being asked in parliament, nor headlines about someone allegedly dying from shock while watching it. Yes, the night of November 12 1954 saw a major stink being made with Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of the Orwell novel… Unfortunately we don’t have that performance; what we do have is the remount of it from four nights later, which the BBC staged rather grudgingly thanks to the fuss the first performance had generated (said fuss also making sure the replay was a big ratings hit for the BBC as well, which I don’t suppose they objected to). Cushing apparently thought the first one was better, in which case we can only imagine how heavy it must’ve been; the remount is hardly lightweight stuff. Looking at it tonight, I actually found it easy to imagine it causing the uproar that it did; even now it’s still pretty intense (and some aspects of it still have some disappointingly contemporary resonance). Obviously stunningly played by Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell (Julia), though Andre Morell’s O’Brien mustn’t be overlooked, and neither should Donald Pleasance in the somewhat smaller role of Syme, the man working on the Newspeak dictionary; Pleasance uses the joy he shows in the destruction of language to give Syme the sort of villainous cast so many of his later roles would possess, elevating this little man into something more menacing than perhaps even Orwell had intended. The remarkable thing, of course, is that this was live television, and in many ways—although, ironically, one of the American drama anthologies had already adapted the book in 1953—Cartier’s production is leagues ahead of the examples I’ve seen in the Golden Age of Television box. It’s markedly longer, for one thing, the subject matter is remarkably adult (I’m still amazed by how far it goes, given that we are talking about 1954), and the BBC obviously didn’t have ad breaks to give them a few minutes’ grace; the handful of pre-filmed segments are all the rest the actors would’ve got. The smoothness of the whole thing is remarkable; apart from one or two mild fluffs you’d barely notice and what looked like a classic BBC wobbly wall in Winston’s apartment, I’d barely have guessed it was, in fact, completely live if I didn’t already know. Quite something.

Written for the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon at Frankensteinia

Cairo Station (1958)

There are a number of fields of world cinema where I am, frankly, pig-ignorant, and Middle Eastern cinema is one of those areas. Indeed, I don’t know if Egyptian cinema even counts as Middle Eastern or if it counts as African… anyway, suffice to say it’s far from being an area of expertise for me; Cairo Station was as good as virgin territory for me, what with my only other recorded experience of Egyptian cinema being a later short film by the same director. I accordingly don’t know a great deal about Youssef Chahine, other than that he was reasonably well established as a filmmaker by the time he made this; and I similarly know nothing about the penetration of Western cinema into the Arabic markets, but Cairo Station suggests that Chahine at least had more than a passing acquaintance with the film noir phenomenon… story revolves around events at the titular train station and particularly Qinawi (Chahine himself), the newspaper vendor, and Hanouma, one of a number of girls who sell soft drinks illegally on the trains as they pull up. Qinawi’s been given the job by the news stand owner in sympathy for being disabled, but even before the credits roll we gather it’s not just his leg that’s a bit twisted. There are a few quite startling moments in this reasonably melodramatic film—and I’d be willing to bet that  there had been few if any such overt sex bombs in Egyptian cinema as Hind Rostom’s Hanouma in this film—but arguably Qinawi’s descent into madness is most startling of all, because it’s so underplayed; it would’ve been terribly easy for Chahine to play the character as loud and brassy as Rostom plays hers, and I’m kind of glad that he went the other road, cos it stops the film being excessive. I don’t think Cairo Station‘s quite a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty effective and efficient bit of filmmaking, and you can have fun comparing it to how Hollywood would’ve done the same story; I suspect the union organiser would’ve been more villainous, for one thing…

Shadows (1959)

The one and only time I saw a John Cassavetes film (Faces, at university in 1997), I hated it so much that I pretty much swore off Cassavetes ever after. However, as the years have gone by, that occasional niggling voice that keeps telling me I can’t make a fair assessment of someone generally acclaimed as a great filmmaker (unless you’re writing for Alt Film Guide, interestingly) without actually seeing more of his films has kept tut-tutting me every now and again, and so tonight I finally caved in and watched Cassavetes’ legendary first film. I need to ignore that voice more often, it seems. I will say I preferred Shadows to Faces, but that’s purely because it’s only 81 minutes long rather than 130… at least that’s what the timer on the DVD player told me, cos it felt as long as the other film. It achieves an interesting paradox, feeling simultaneously way ahead of its time in terms of its overall feel (even if its claims to be an “improvisation” are at least a little overstated) yet also totally anchored to the period in which it was made in terms of its narrative concerns, i.e. the lives of three black siblings in New York in the late 50s, one of whom can pass as Caucasian, whereupon complications ensue. None of the three siblings nor their various affairs—music careers going to shit, romantic entanglements with racists, hanging out with hipster arseholes—struck me as being terribly interesting, neither in themselves nor in their presentation; too many people in this film I just wanted to slap silly (particularly Lelia Goldoni as the “white” sister, who irritated seven shades of hell out of me). Overall I thought Shadows was a monstrous bore, and that’s about the worst thing a film can be for me; it’s not actively bad, but neither does it seem capable of overcoming its problems. I’ll acknowledge its historical position, but however fresh and exciting it must’ve seemed in the context of American cinema at the time it just struck me now as awfully flat and dull. And this was the one I actually thought I might like; maybe Cassavetes and I really are doomed to failure after all…

The Ten Commandments (1956)

I don’t know why ABC1 showed this today (and I don’t know why I chose to watch it, since I do have it on DVD and could watch it whenever I like… maybe just cos it happened to be on today), cos it feels more like an Easter film than a post-Xmas film. Maybe that’s just cos it always used to show on TV at Easter, cos it’s not really an Easter story, is it… but it is kind of the embodiment of 50s Hollywood, perhaps not always in the best way; Rosenbaum’s description of it in the 1001 Movies book, “simultaneously ludicrous and splendid”, really is the best possible summation of it. There are few if any recognisably human figures in the film, almost everyone is operating on a strictly mythic level (Charlton Heston more than anyone), and it’s oddly hard to actually feel anything for them (Yul Brynner does good cartoon villain, though). The self-consciousness of this epicness is probably the hardest thing to swallow about it now, entailing some godawful acting, wooden scripting and an overall ponderousness (to say nothing of the minimal relevance of the actual commandments to the story; this is not the 1923 version); it must’ve seemed old-fashioned in 1956 and it seems even more so now. As for the historicity of it all, well, who can say… But anyway, no one watches it, surely, for that; like King of Kings, and indeed like his own older version of The Ten Commandments, this is an extraordinary mix of DeMille’s basic sincerity and belief in this stuff and his propensity for showmanship which managed to override all other considerations in the end. As spectacle it remains quite amazing (surprising, though, that DeMille chose to film in VistaVision rather than Cinemascope); if the material is often ludicrous, the handling of it is invariably splendid. Pretty much every cent spent on the thing is visible on the screen, in the sheer number of people and things (the Exodus must’ve been a logistical nightmare), the riotous Technicolor, the massiveness of the sets and effects. The Ten Commandments is a huge entertainment and genuinely awe-inspiring (perhaps in spite of itself at times), which is why I’ve seen it so many times by now and was happy to see it again today, and though I know uncle Cecil fully intended to make more films after it, even so it stands as about as suitable an end to his career as could be imagined…

Throne of Blood (1957)

Because, frankly, I’ve been needing to watch Kurosawa again for rather a while (I appear not to have watched any since June last year), and since I’m kind of focusing for the moment on 1001 Movies titles, I picked this. Once again, it’s a film I haven’t seen in years (probably not since the mid-90s), and last saw in a not exactly adequate copy (SBS’ old version again!), and it was pleasant to see it in an actually good version (Criterion again! I’ve actually had the DVD for a few years, just never got around to actually watching)… This, as you presumably know, is Kurosawa’s take on Mr Shakespeare’s Scottish play, which I’ve always loved even if it is, frankly, a slur against the historical MacBeth; however, he doesn’t take the route followed by Grigori Kozintsev in his Hamlet and Lear of using Shakespeare’s own text in translation (apparently two of Kurosawa’s scriptwriters had never even read the Shakespeare play), but instead settles for transposing the overall narrative and dramatic features—with certain changes; Toshiro Mifune’s Washizu is less ambitious than Macbeth and more obviously driven more by Lady Washizu’s temptations, etc—to his favoured setting of late 15th/early 16th century Japan. Similarly, he enhances the telling of the tale with embellishments borrowed from Noh theatre, although Noh is pretty much a blank for me so I’m relying on the DVD to actually educate me as to what those elements are—use of makeup to recall certain Noh character masks, particularly with Mifune and Isuzu Yamada (Lady Washizu), plus use of music, staging, etc. And yet it’s never “theatrical”, it doesn’t feel like a filmed play; indeed, business like the appearance of Miki’s ghost—which is apparently another Noh touch—is managed in a way (moving the camera in to Mifune, then moving back out to show the ghost has manifested in the meantime) that couldn’t be done on stage. Terrific film, and I really like the DVD commentary too for helping me appreciate it that bit more…

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