Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Phantom Creeps (1939)

The Phantom Creeps was produced by Universal Pictures and directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind.  Commonwealth Pictures was a motion picture company that dealt with the redistributing and reissuing of films and shorts but played no part in actually producing the serial.  The screen play was written by George Plympton who also wrote screenplays for some other favorites of mine such as The Green Hornet (1940), Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), Holt of the Secret Service (1941), Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949) and many, many others.  The serial stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka/Dr. Zane, Robert Kent as Capt. Bob West, Dorothy Arnold as reporter Jean Drew, and Edward Van Sloan (sans German accent) as Jarvis the spy chief.

Dr. Zorka is an inventor, but not your average inventor.  He invents things like an "invisibility belt" that can render the wearer invisible to the human eye.  He's the creator of one of the most evil looking, remote control robots that I've ever seen.  And, he's invented some little metal disks that attract exploding mechanical spiders which cause anyone in their vicinity to fall into a state of suspended animation.  Of course all these items use the power harnessed from a piece of meteorite that Zorka had previously recovered.

For some reason (potentially lots of money) Zorka doesn't want to share these discoveries with the U.S. Government, so his ex-partner Dr. Mallory (Edwin Stanley) and Zorka's wife (Dora Clement) call the military intelligence officers themselves.  After the doctor sabotages the government plane with his exploding spiders, not realizing his wife was also on board, the plane crashes and his wife is killed.  Zorka goes mad  and vows revenge on everyone and becomes intent on ruling the world.  After faking his own death in an automobile accident, and with the help of his inept assistant Monk (Jack C. Smith) who whines about getting caught and sent back to prison in practically every chapter, Zorka uses his "invisibility belt", becoming "The Phantom", to move around unnoticed and prevent the Feds from gaining access to his devices.  And, at the same time he tries to stay one step ahead of a gang of international spies, who lead by Jarvis (Van Sloane), are trying to steal his secrets and the meteorite fragment from which he extracts the element that powers all his inventions.

So what we end up with is Zorka trying to track down the "mystery box" containing his stolen meteorite which changes hands so many times, I forget who ends up with it.  Monk gets shot by the Feds and the spies so many times throughout the serial I lost count.  And of course you have Bela Lugosi putting one hundred percent effort into yet another role that he could have just slugged through half-heartedly.  But that's not the way he works.  As a matter of fact he looked like he was really enjoying this role.  You'll do a little moaning and groaning, and maybe roll your eyes a few times.  There are a few over-exaggerated gestures and over the top moments, but they just add a little fun to the overall viewing experience.  Dorothy Arnold is cute as the news reporter trying to get a scoop, but she's no Lois Lane.

There's lots of stock footage of building fires and explosions.  In one scene a train gets derailed and wrecked and I'm pretty sure it's the same scene that's in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942).  And I think I caught a glimpse of a very young Lee J. Cobb as a demolition crew foreman in one of the last chapters (maybe someone can verify that for me).  The serial's chock full of fist fights, car chases and crashes, the giant robot dispensing a few beatings (at one point the military gets involved), and impossible escapes from certain death scenarios.  At one point there's a plane crash and one of the G-men just carries someone out of the wreckage, dusts himself off, and goes about his business.  Like I said, it's a little rough in some spots but gets better towards the end so try to stick with it.

When Zorka really goes over the edge and starts bombing just about everything he sees, laughing hysterically, you see Lugosi at his best.

You never know what you'll learn watching some of these classics.  For instance, I never knew that Dr. Zorka was responsible for the Hindenburg disaster!!  Serials are so educational and informative.

Overall it's a fun serial to watch, and Lugosi fans will certainly appreciate his work.  I know I did ...

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

I know, I know...  Some of you folks are saying The Most Dangerous Game is a really good film.  And I totally agree .  Let me just say I'm not a big fan of the colorization process or the attempt to colorize classic films and shorts.  I've always lived by the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", especially when it comes to the classics.  That's where the guilt comes in ...  Watching The Most Dangerous Game colorized.

The problem is that the color really isn't that good, although some scenes are better than others.  It seems as though the color becomes more of an issue, understandably, when there's more movement and action on screen.  The edges of the moving objects seem to blur and blend with other surrounding objects and colors in the scene, which results in a very fuzzy image.  But. a few of the scenes do look pretty good in color and those kind of help get you through the film.

Based on the 1924 short story of the same name written by Richard Connell, The Most Dangerous Game is a great adventure/drama/horror film.  It was the first screen adaptation of the short story, although there were other variations of the story produced afterwards, even being spoofed in a Gilligan's Island episode "The Hunter" with Rory Calhoun guest starring as the title character who hunts Gilligan.  There are a lot of big names associated with this film.  It was released by RKO, produced by Merian C. Cooper and David O. Selznick, directed by Irving Pichel and Robert Schoedsack, and it boasts a pretty good lineup of stars including Fay Wray, Joel McCrea, Robert Armstrong, Noble Johnson, and Leslie Banks.  The musical score by Max Steiner is incredible with, according to IMDB.com, an uncredited Wally Westmore doing a great job as always with the makeup.  There's also an uncredited appearance by Larry "Buster" Crabbe as a sailor who falls into the water when the ship explodes, don't blink or you'll miss him!

A yacht carrying a group of men returning from a hunting trip are shipwrecked after hitting a reef in shark infested waters off the coast of a remote island.  A sole survivor Bob Rainsford (McCrea), manages to swim to the island's shore.  While searching the island he discovers an old secluded fortress inhabited by an eccentric Russian, Count Zaroff (Banks), and his Cossack servants.  Speaking to his host Rainsford finds that there are other survivors, brother and sister Martin and Eve Trowbridge (Armstrong and Wray), from a previous shipwreck already staying as guests of the Count.  After dinner the other guests explain to the newly arrived Rainsford that they are stranded on the island "temporarily" while the Count's launch is being repaired.

While entertaining his guests the Count recognizes Rainsford as a famous hunter and author, and Zaroff explains how he is a hunter himself, and how he received the scar on his forehead as a result of an attack by a Cape Buffalo in Africa.  Zaroff also explains how he was becoming bored with hunting, and after trying different weapons, found that what he needed was to find "a new animal" to hunt.  Pulling Rainsford aside Eve expresses her concern about their safety and being held prisoner.  She explains how sailors who were shipwrecked with them had each disappeared after the count had showed them his "trophy room".
 After the Count sends Eve and Rainsford off to retire for the evening, and quite obviously annoyed by Martin's excessive drinking, Zaroff offers to show Martin his trophy room.  Later in the evening, Eve goes to Rainsford's room to ask him for help when she becomes concerned about her brother being missing, and that he was last seen with their host earlier.  They come to the conclusion that the most obvious place to begin looking is in the trophy room.  While investigating the secret room they discover the gruesome secret to Zaroff's "most dangerous game".  When Zaroff  returns unexpectedly with his servants carrying a covered body on a stretcher. he finds the two hiding and has Eve taken away to her room (at this point Wray cuts loose with some of her signature screaming) and has Rainsford shackled to the wall.

The Count admits to Rainsford that he had shifted the marker buoys in the channel off the coast in order to sink passing ships and divert survivors to his island.  Zaroff, actually trying to reason with Rainsford, tries to talk him into joining him on the hunt.  When Rainsford balks at the idea he soon realizes that he is to be the Count's next victim.  After escaping from her room Eve finds Zaroff and Rainsford outside the fortress as the Count explains the rules of "the game" and releases the pair into the wild.  If Rainsford, taking Eve with him, can survive and elude Zaroff until sunrise he wins the girl and their freedom.

So the hunter becomes the hunted and the stage is set for the deadly game of cat and mouse through the island jungle.  The mad Count exchanges his Tartar war bow for a rifle, and then finally releases his hunting dogs on the pair as he chases them through the jungle and swamp, and the pair struggle to stay ahead of him as sunrise slowly approaches.

Armstrong plays his part well but does become more annoying than comical after a while.  McCrea is good through most of the film.  And Fay Wray, pretty in pink, does a nice job considering her part was created for the film and doesn't exist in the short story.  But Banks steals the show playing the part of Zaroff to the hilt as the character seems to drift back and forth over the fine line between sanity and insanity, spending more time in the latter than the former, and rubbing his scarred forehead evoking the demented hunter from within. 
Steiner's score drives the chase through the jungle as there is less dialogue during the chase in the second half of the film.  Special effects master Ray Harryhausen has explained how important music is to "enhance the visual image" of a film and it definitely works extremely well here.  Steiner also composed the music for King Kong (1933) and She (1935), two more great Merian C. Cooper productions. 

The film was fairly inexpensive to make, costing only about $200,000, so The Most Dangerous Game was more profitable for RKO than the more expensive production of King Kong was.  You'll notice some other  similarities between The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong other than the cast.  Much of The Most Dangerous Game was shot during the filming of King Kong, so many of the jungle sets were shared  by the two films.

So even though I think the original black and white version of the film is better, my guilty pleasure is watching the colorized version of The Most Dangerous Game ...  every now and then ...

Friday, September 9, 2011

Twilight Zone - Episode 142 - An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge -- Original Air Date - February 28,1964

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival 1962, and winner of many other international awards,  An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge opens with a special introduction by Rod Serling.  According to Mr. Serling's intro the film was shot in France by "others", and is a "haunting study of the incredible". 

 The "others" that Mr. Serling was referring to were Ambrose Bierce, whose short story the episode is based on, producers Marcel Ichac and Paul de Roubaix, and director Robert Enrico.

First off the cinematography is incredible.  The camera sweeps across a forest of barren trees to a small railroad bridge that crosses a creek.  A squad of union soldiers march a prisoner (Roger Jacquet) across the span and prepare to hang the confederate collaborator. 

The entire episode has a nightmarish quality to it, especially when the camera switches to the prisoner's point of view showing him looking from one end of the bridge to the other, only to see soldiers standing guard at any possible route of escape.  The camera pans down to show him standing on a plank, with a soldier standing opposite him holding down the other end of the plank preventing him from falling, suspended above the water below and the noose carefully being placed around his neck.  The suspense builds to an almost intolerable level as the soldiers bind the prisoner's legs and feet,  his hands already bound behind his back, and the sun rises and day breaks slowly over the hillside.  The condemned man closes his eyes and with a tear running down his cheek sees visions of his wife and children.

At this point I was about to reach for my anxiety medication when the Union officer gave the command, the soldier stepped off his end of the plank, and the prisoner plummeted down into the river below trailing the broken rope behind him as he sank deep into the water.  Struggling below the water's surface, he manages to untie himself and make his escape down river evading the enemy gunfire, caught in swirling river waters, and swept downstream.  The man pulls himself up on to the riverbank delirious that he is alive and has avoided being captured.  But the feeling is short lived as he realizes the soldiers are in pursuit.

Of course we're talking about the Twilight Zone here, a world of imagination and fantasy where nothing is as it seems.  The story was purchased for $25,000 by producer William Froug, but the purchase allowed the film to be aired only twice.  According to Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion  "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was the last episode of the classic Twilight Zone series to be "produced" (presumably referencing the reediting and the addition of footage of Rod Serling, as production of the series was cancelled afterwards.) It was not, however, the last episode of the series to be broadcast".

This is one of my favorite episodes and classic Twilight Zone from start to finish.