Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Sex, death and Boris Karloff - Reviews #1

Hello - and welcome to Advice to the Lovelorn, which is going to be like that thing I used to do on the Advertiser website, but much, much better. And much shorter, which is sort of the same thing. Future posts promise such exciting fare as previously unpublished interviews, previously unread features and the enthusiastic plugging of the career of folk singer Ruth Notman. But we'll begin with a handful of reviews.

The post title sums up most of my viewing, truth be told, so I might be forced to repeat it a few dozen times this year.

Films are rated from one (Spice World) to four (The Searchers), in the style of Uncle Len.


The Big Easy (Jim McBride, 1986) - I'd always wondered why Dennis Quaid was a star - and now I know. He's excellent here as a Cajun cop with a shark grin and a sideline in the protection racket. The Big Easy is a richly atmospheric New Orleans-set thriller charting two investigations that dovetail into one, in typical (neo-)noir fashion. The first sees Quaid looking into a series of grisly murders - apparently the result of a drug war. The second has DA Ellen Barkin tackling suspected police corruption, and being drawn towards charismatic tough guy Quaid. The dialogue in the opening scene is a touch mannered, but soon the stylised exchanges start to ring true, and the smart plotting, fine Cajun song score and sizzling Quaid-Barkin chemistry begin to work their magic. Though the whodunnit element is a little too obvious, this is a fine piece of work, and vastly superior to the similar Sea of Love. I never thought I'd say this - but which other Dennis Quaid movies are worth seeking out? (3.5)


Belieing the De Mille-esque title, Pagan Love Song (Robert Alton, 1950) turns out to be an unexceptional but pleasant Tahiti-set musical, with Oklahoman Howard Keel inheriting a plantation and falling for splashy Esther Williams. Despite Harry Warren and Arthur Freed providing the bulk of the score, there are no real standouts beside the title tune, while the swimming set pieces skimp on the splendour. Still, lovely scenery and nice playing by the leads make it decent escapism. Trivia note: this one has only the third song I've ever seen performed on bikes, after the one in Mad About Music and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, by The Smiths. Exalted company indeed. (2.5)


SHORT - Curious Contests (Pete Smith, 1950) - From A Smith Named Pete comes this collection of peculiar competitive customs, taking in train wheel-turning, basket-carrying and marathon dancing - the latter utterly tragic if one considers the context. It's pretty good, though Smith's commentary is less amusing than normal, tipping over into self-parody. (2.5)


SHORT - The Chump Champ (Tex Avery, 1950) - Decent Droopy short, with the melancholic, deceptively nippy dog taking part in an athletics event, and somehow contriving to lose. Sort of. Droopy's delivery makes me laugh; the jokes are mostly good. (3)


Tarzan and the Amazons (Kurt Neumann, 1945) is a pretty joyless third entry in the low-budget RKO continuation, following the very strong Tarzan's Desert Mystery. Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is being sullen and stupid - ignoring Tarz's best advice as he helps lead a dodgy expedition to a rich land ruled by women. Then Muscles has to go and bail him out. Wooden acting and predictable plotting sink it, after a reasonable opening. Brenda Joyce appears as the returning Jane - her first entry in the series - with Barton MacLane your arch villain. The cast also includes Henry Stephenson, as key supporting players of the '30s and early '40s find themselves somewhat slumming. (2)


Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)
was one of a string of stunning horrors from genre pioneer Val Lewton, including The Seventh Victim, I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People. It's an ensemble piece set in Greece in 1912, with Boris Karloff as an aged general who travels to a nearby island to pay tribute to his deceased wife and finds himself quarantined with a journalist (yeah!), a woozy Brit, a nervy married couple with a secret, a peasant girl who may be pure evil (Frances Dee) and a scary old bag. It starts off slowly, with a jumble of accents and some patchy pacing, but builds to a genuinely terrifying climax. Lewton's trademarks - shadows, sudden jolts and a fondness for employing folk music to eerie effect - are all present and correct, while the script has his usual depth and intelligence. No other horror scribe would have bothered with Karloff's touching line about his wife or imbued Dee's fear-fuelled monologue with such pathos and uncertainty. As the Fred and Ginger films (also at RKO) contained passages of transcendent wonder, their feet seeming to grow wings, so Lewton's movies boast stretches of pure poetry: heightened, superbly constructed set pieces where everything is that bit sharper, slicker and more inventive. The one that climaxes Isle of the Dead is simply brilliant: seven minutes of nerve-shredding terror as a comatose woman is entombed, a white-clad apparition haunts a graveyard and the more earthly Karloff spends his final moments trying to stab Frances Dee to death. (3.5)

Thanks for reading. There's more on the way.

1 comment:

  1. Big Easy- one of my favourite films of the decade and, yes, without having seen it you might be a tad confused about Quaid! Because relatively else has lived up to it. For me, there are moments in Great Balls of Fire, and a very good performance in Far from Heaven. HIs Doc Holliday is very good, I think, and others like Frequency a little more than I do. But with Big Easy as a calling card, I kind of expected more.