Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Spiral Staircase (1945)


A silent film. A woman playing the piano. A man cranking the film. An enraptured young woman. Upstairs, a limping young woman, an impending storm, and a closet full of dresses. Behind the dresses? An eye! The limping girl is strangled! The piano continues to play.


So begins The Spiral Staircase (1945) starring Dorothy McGuire, Kent Smith, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, and a few other familiar faces. We know from the moment the credits start that this is going to be a suspenseful film. The eerie music can mean nothing else as the notes slide up and down, immediately inducing a feeling of uneasiness. And when a murder happens before the first line is spoken, one can only wonder, how many others are going to die during its course? But back to the scene of the crime.


Downstairs at the hotel where the murder took place, the moviegoers are sent home and the town doctors come to inspect the body. Through their conversation it is established that the younger doctor, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith) is new to the town and gets on the nerves of old Dr. Harvey, who resents the fact that some of his patients prefer Dr. Parry.


On his way home, Dr. Parry picks up the young woman (Dorothy McGuire) who had been watching the movie. We learn that her name is Helen, she works at the Warren house as a caretaker to old Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), and today is her day off. We also learn that she is a lost her voice several years ago. Dr. Parry believes that with a specialist's help, she could regain her voice back. It is apparent that Dr. Parry and Helen are attracted to one another.


Before they reach the Warren house, a boy runs up to their buggy and says that his mother is sick. Dr. Parry lets Helen out and leaves with the boy. As Helen walks home through the woods, the tension builds along with the growing storm. A rustling noise turns out to be a rabbit. As she reaches the gate, the storm lets loose. She drops her key in a puddle and we suddenly see that she is not alone. A dark figure in a raincoat is watching her and starts to move towards her just as she finds her key and takes off running to the house.


In the house, Helen heads to the kitchen to dry off before going upstairs to see Mrs. Warren. We learn from the housekeeper (Elsa Lancaster) that this murder was not the first and that the murderer targets only young disabled or disfigured women. The first had a scar on her face, the second was "simple-minded," and now this third girl who had a limp.

 

While going upstairs, Helen stops to look at her reflection in the mirror, moving her lips as if talking and then putting her hands to her silent throat. The camera backs away from the stairs and again that dark figure is watching her and his eye fills the screen. He sees Helen's reflection without a mouth, as she can't speak. This time he only watches, then disappears into the shadows.


Up in Mrs. Warren's room, the atmosphere seems to be more relaxed. She appears to be asleep but as Helen builds up the fire, she opens her eyes and tell Helen to come to her. It is obvious that the invalid woman is very fond of Helen. Her little smile turns serious and she warns Helen that she isn't safe there and must leave tonight!

Stephen, Dr. Parry, and Albert

Downstairs we meet the rest of the family. There is Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), his secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and his younger step-brother Stephen. Stephen, who has just returned from a long stay in Paris, is a bit of a womanizer and turns his attentions to Blanche. The constable stops by and warns them to keep an eye on Helen, as they have traced the murderer to their vicinity. Albert tells Helen to stay in the house and trust no one.


Back in Mrs. Warren's room, she has another attack. She expresses displeasure that Stephen has returned, as he always brings trouble with him. She also knows that there has been another murder, even though no one told her. When Dr. Parry arrives, Mrs. Warren tells him that she likes him because he is strong like her husband, not weak like her sons. She also tells him to take away Helen at once. The strain causes another attack. They send a man to town for some more ether, which they use as a stimulant.


Downstairs, Dr. Parry tells Helen to pack her things and he will bring her to his mothers and then to Boston to see about restoring her voice. He also tells her that he has learned how she lost her voice from a visitor from her hometown that was at the home of his last patient. When Helen was a girl, she saw her house burn down with her parents still inside. Dr. Parry believes that if she stops blocking the memory out, her voice will return. After he leaves, Helen has a daydream where she and Dr. Parry are getting married. It is broken when she can't say the words "I do."

 

While she is packing, Blanche visits her in her room and decides to leave too, as she doesn't like being the cause of the animosity between Albert and Stephen (she had been Albert's girl first). She heads down to the basement to find her suitcase. She is frightened by someone she knows and her smile of relief turns to terror as whoever it was strangles her, her face and the murderer shrouded in darkness.

While all of this is taking place, Mrs. Warren tells Helen of a murder she saw many years ago, on the grounds of this very house. It was a simple-minded girl. A "tree" moved and threw her into the well. Mrs. Warren couldn't find a rope to save her. Then she says something strange: "You were that girl, Helen." Again she warns her to leave, or at least hide under the bed.

Full movie

*THE REST OF THE POST CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Helen then goes downstairs to find Blanche and finds her body. She now knows the murderer is in the house. Suddenly she hears someone behind her. It is Stephen. He tells her to go call Dr. Parry. Helen runs out and locks Stephen in, thinking he is the murderer. She rushes to the phone but when the operator asks for the number she can't say anything. Albert walks in and she writes down what has happened. He starts to take her upstairs to his step-mother's room but stops at the mirror. He reveals that he is the murderer. "There is no room in the whole world for imperfection." He explains his actions as disposing the weak that his father detested. "He would have admired me for what I'm doing."


Helen manages to get away from him and locks herself in Mrs. Warren's room. She frantically begins searching for the gun that is usually on Mrs. Warren's nightstand. Then she sneaks back downstairs to let Stephen out but stops when she sees Albert's shoes at the bottom of the spiral staircase, where he was about to go tend to Stephen. She turns to go back up the stairs and who should be standing there with a gun but Mrs. Warren! Albert comes our of his hiding place and she shoots him multiple times, "ten years too late." Helen, for the first time, screams. She then goes and lets out Stephen, who rushes to his mother, who has now collapsed. "Forgive me, Stephen, I thought it was you. He always waited until you came home, so I thought it was you." Stephen again sends Helen upstairs to call Dr. Parry. This time she is able to speak.

"It's I, Helen."

*END OF SPOILERS*


This post is part of The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read all of the other posts on this talented family! Also, be sure to check out my post on Ethel Barrymore's final film, Johnny Trouble (1957).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Johnny Trouble (1957)


Johnny Trouble (1957) is Ethel Barrymore's final film and the second film I saw of hers (the first was Portrait of Jennie in which she has a somewhat minor but still important role). It is also the last film of director John H. Auer. The only other "big" name in the film is Carolyn Jones of the later Addams Family fame. The title character is played by Stuart Whitman (The Comancheros). It was his first leading role. Fun Fact: he was considered for John Gavin's role in Psycho (1960). The film, though not well known, is still worth watching and is yet another emotionally outstanding performance by Miss Barrymore.

Katherine Chandler (Barrymore) is a widow who lives alone with her faithful butler/chauffeur/caretaker Tom (Cecil Kallaway) in an old apartment building that is being turned into a boys dormitory for a nearby college.

Mrs. Chandler, who is wheelchair-bound, refuses to move from her home. The college gives up and lets her stay. This causes some unique problems for the boy, as they have to be warned to clear the halls so she won't see them walking to and from the shower and they have to keep the noise down when she's sleeping. The boys soon all grow to love her and fit right in with her routine, like carrying her wheelchair down the stairs when the elevator is removed. They also try harder to live up and be the honorable young men she believes them to be. She truly brings out the best in them, not to mention she also invites them to tea every week.

One day Mrs. Chandler hears about a troubled student named Johnny Chandler (Whitman). She wonders if he could be the grandson of her only son, who had run away after being expelled from school so many years before. She sets out to befriend him, which isn't easy with his explosive temper. He's a war vet, a marine, and a little older than the other students. He doesn't know why the old lady keeps bothering him but the other guys won't let him disappoint her. She's like a grandmother to them all.

One evening Mrs. Chandler meets Johnny's girlfriend, Julie Horton (Jones) when she climbs through her apartment window, so she won't be caught in an all-boys dorm where she was visiting Johnny. While Mrs. Chandler doesn't approve, she befriends the young woman too and allows her and Johnny to meet at her apartment - while she's there of course. Johnny is grateful and begins to like the old lady, though it puzzles him why she chose him as her special friend and why she always asks questions about his childhood and parents.

Before the school year is out, Julie discovers she is pregnant with Johnny's child. Johnny plans to leave both Julie and school until Mrs. Chandler guides him into seeing that he really loves Julie and he should marry her. Julie is of course very grateful.

The end of the film is very emotional and beautiful. Luckily, the entire movie can be watched here for free! It can also be downloaded. There are over 500 hard-to-find/ not-on-dvd films on this site.

Every Ethel Barrymore fan should watch this film. If you haven't seen much of her work, this is a good film to watch. She transforms a mediocre film into something beautiful.

This post is part of The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to read all of the other posts on this talented family! Also check out my post on The Spiral Staircase (1945).

Monday, August 15, 2016

Not Your Typical Noir: "Nobody Lives Forever" (1946)

 
Nobody Lives Forever (1946) is one of my favorite Noir Films. It stars one of my favorite actors, the ever-troubled John Garfield. It is also unusual in that much of the film takes place in the sunlight instead of the typical Noir darkness and on the beach instead of the city streets. Even then, the dark scenes are shrouded in mist instead of bathed in garish neon lights.
 
 
The story begins with Nick Blake (Garfield) getting out of a military hospital. A former con artist, his stint in the army and his injuries have changed his views on life and he is ready for a fresh start. His best pal, Al (George Tobias), is going to make the change with him. 
 
 
The first person a guy usually wants to see when he gets out of the army is his girl. Before he left, Blake left his money for safekeeping with his girlfriend Toni (Faye Emerson). He heads to the nightclub in New York City where she works. Upon arriving he sees that business is thriving and presumes that she started it with his dough and made a good profit off of it. But like most women of Film Noir, Toni sold the struggling nightclub to her new boyfriend, Chet King. She tells Blake that his money is gone but he won't stand for that. He roughs up King, gets his dough, and then leaves New York behind for the sunny beaches of California.
 
 
In California, Blake rents a bright and spacious beach house. He also meets up with another old friend and fellow conman, Pop Gruber (Walter Brennan). His vacation doesn't last long, however, as he is approached/blackmailed by his old enemy Doc Ganson (George Coulouris) to do one more job. In return, they will leave him alone.
 
 
Before he went straight, Blake would con unsuspecting rich widows into sinking their money into phony companies by romancing them. His "assignment" this time is the young and beautiful Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), worth two million. She is traveling with her business manager (Richard Gaines) and isn't having a very good time. He gets her interested in his "company," invites her over to his beach house, and takes her out dinner, dancing, and the theater.
 
 
Gladys quickly falls for him and surprises him with a date of her own. She takes him to the old Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra. Its a lovely and poignant scene.
 
 
 
It is there that Blake realizes he is in love with Gladys. He tells Ganson he's not going through with the con and will pay the gang their original cut of the money, $30,000, out of his own funds. He then makes plans with Gladys to leave. Gladys is radiantly happy, and doesn't believe her business manager when he tells her his suspicions of Blake's shady past.
 
 
Everything looks like its going to work out for the happy couple when Toni enters back into the picture. She learns of Gladys and convinces the gang that Blake has simply cut them out so he can marry Gladys and get all of her money for himself. Before Blake has a chance to come clean with Gladys, she is kidnapped and taken to an abandoned shack on the dock.
 

 
Blake and Pop go after her and the film ends with a climatic noir gunfight. I won't tell you how it ends. You'll have to watch it to find out!
 
 
Before I wrap up this post, I want to share a few more screen shots with you. First, this awesome hat:
 
Front view

Back view

Side view

The brim is removable!!!
 
And some shots of the Spanish Mission:
 






 
This post is part of The Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to check out all the other posts, as well as my post on Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). 

Free TCM Slapstick Class!!!!!!


Just discovered TCM is offering another free online course in conjunction with Ball State University and Canvas Network on Slapstick films!! If you took their Film Noir class last summer, you know we are in for a real treat!! It even has the same teacher!

During the month of September, TCM is focusing on Slapstick films and lucky for us, also having this class. I have been hoping they would offer another class soon but when they didn't announce anything for the summer I was afraid there wouldn't be anything until next year. So I am very excited right now!!!!! I really just want to put a ridiculous amount of exclamation points here right now...

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There. It's not a ridiculous amount but it will suffice ;)

Here's the page where you can find out all you need to know about the class and enroll. And FYI: you DO NOT need to have TCM to take the course. They provide links to free movies online for those who don't have access to TCM.

Can't wait to "see you" all there!!!! August 28th can't come fast enough!!!!

What I'm acting like inside right now

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

The Parody film, or spoof - a "humorous imitation of something in which its characteristic features are exaggerated for comic effect," are nothing new. They have been around since the dawn of film. In recent decades, the output of parody films has risen, with some of the best made in the 1980s and 90s. The films of Mel Brooks immediately spring to mind: Blazing Saddles (Westerns), Young Frankenstein (Horror), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (Swashbucklers & Action), and several of his other films. Brooks of course isn't the first one to spoof those genre's and he certainly isn't the last.

One of my favorite spoofs is Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), a spoof of the Film Noir genre and directed by television's great Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). Not only is it hilarious, but it's full of familiar Film Noir faces: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurrey, Ava Gardner, Burt Lancaster and several more. And yes, this movie is from 1982.

The film stars Steve Martin (whose birthday was Sunday). Filmed in black and white, the movie uses clips of Classic Films Noir and intersperses them with new footage of Steve Martin, to make an entirely new film. The editing (by Bud Molin) is fantastic in this film as the old and the new blend seamlessly. The idea came to Martin, Reiner, and George Gipe during a lunch meeting where they were discussing a script that Martin had written. "What if we used a clip from an old movie in this thing?" quickly became "What if we did a whole movie using old clips?" It was an idea liked by all. Reiner and Gipe sifted through hours of film to find singles and over-the-shoulder shots that they could easily incorporate Martin into. They also listened for dialogue that could be worked into an original story. They ended up using clips from 19 different films and 18 different Noir actors. "We came up with a plot that certainly wasn't any more confusing than The Big Sleep."
According to Alan Ladd's #1 fan, Hamlette, he was actually 5'6" or 5'7"

I knew it was a one-in-a-million idea.

To do the costumes for the film, Edith Head came on board. "When Edith Head said she'd take the assignment, I knew we had a good movie," Reiner remembered. Martin said, "I felt a sense of history working with her and I wanted to live up to what she presented." Head made over 20 suits for Martin alone, injecting classic 40s style suits with a little bit of the 80s. She was also called upon to recreate costumes she had designed over 40 years ago. In one scene, Martin dresses like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. She had come full circle in her career. Two weeks after production wrapped, Head passed away.


The over 85 sets used in the film were created by Production Designer John De Cuir. He recreated sets to match the clips used in the film as well as original sets in the style of Classic Film Noir, like the quintessential cluttered detectives office. The Director of Photography watched Noir films to study the lighting and camera angles so that the old and new would match.

Martin with Cary Grant (Hitchcock's Suspicion)

The only person who didn't watch a lot of Noir films during preparation was it's star. His reason? "Simply because I didn't want to act like Humphrey Bogart. It is very easy to pick up his style. I consciously stayed away from them because I didn't want to be influenced." The result was one of the most unique films ever made, with Martin bringing the perfect amount of humor that the film called for.

Your typical Noir detective

In the film, Martin is a detective named Reardon hired by the beautiful Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward) to investigate the murder of her father, who was a prominent scientist and cheesemaker. In Dr. Forrest's office, Reardon finds two lists: Friends of Carlotta and Enemies of Carlotta. He also finds a signed photo of Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). The lists are stolen from him by Alan Ladd, who shoots Reardon in the arm (he gets shots in the same arm multiple times throughout the film). After Juliet removes the bullet, he begins to look up the people that were on the lists. The investigation eventually leads to South America (where his pajamas get dirty). He also falls in love with Juliet, despite the warnings of his partner Marlowe (Bogart).


I won't tell you how it ends (it involves cheese and Nazis). You'll have to watch the movie yourself (or look up the synopsis), but if you love Film Noir, you will love guessing what film all the clips come from (or you can scroll to the bottom of this post). Carl Reiner and Reni Santoni also star in the film.

The beautiful Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward)

Note: Unfortunately this film is not appropriate for children - unless you're good with the mute button - as there are several references to female body parts.

         

         

This post is part of The Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to read all of the other posts! Also, check out my other post, Not Your Typical Noir: Nobody Lives Forever (1946).


Sources:
 
Scroll down to see all the actors and films used (or don't and just watch Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and test your knowledge of Noir films)