10 Favorite Femmes Fatales—in GIFs!

I never met a femme fatale I didn’t like. Whether they’re powdering their noses or filling their ex-lovers full of lead, the bad girls of noir still manage to draw my sympathy and admiration. Twisted, I know, but what’s the point of noir if it doesn’t tap into the darkest parts of our natures?

Besides, let’s face it, film noir is a dame’s genre. Men of noirland might stumble around thinking they’re in control. However, more often than not, those hapless schmoes who pass for protagonists don’t realize they’re just playing a supporting role in somebody else’s plot—and that somebody is probably wearing lipstick and high heels.

Tumblr cannot hold them! Climbing up from the underbelly of Photoshop CS6! Here are 10 GIFs I made to celebrate my favorite dynamite dolls from classic noir…

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Jack Bernhardt’s Decoy (1946)

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“Reality? What do you know about reality?”

(You can stream Decoy right now on Warner Archive Instant. I can hardly think of a better way to pass 70 minutes in Noirvember!)

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946)

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“I’m poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me! I’d be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them!”

Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

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“I told you, you know nothing about wickedness.”

Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) in Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947)

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“Go ahead and kiss me. You don’t have to mean it.”

Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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“I’ll never let you go. Never, never, never…”

Vera (Ann Savage) in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

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“Shut up. You’re a cheap crook and you killed him. For two cents I’d change my mind and turn ya in. I don’t like you!” 

(You can watch Detour on YouTube for free!)

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950)

annie

“I’ve been kicked around all my life, and, from now on, I’m gonna start kicking back.”

(You can also stream Gun Crazy on Warner Archive Instant.)

Nancy (Laraine Day) in John Brahm’s The Locket (1946)

laraine

“I want you to want me, very much.”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1945)

phyllis1

“We’re both rotten.”

Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1946)

kathie

“Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”

Happy Noirvember, you molls and mugs. Now, who’s your favorite femme fatale?

The Strange Woman (1946): Take Hold on Hell

The Strange Woman (1946Hedy Lamarr’s beauty hits me like Novocain. The word “stunning” shows up too often to modify things that are merely remarkable. But Lamarr literally stuns me, numbs my brain, and turns almost every critical bone in my body to mush. I’ll pay attention to camera angles later. Must. Look. At. Face.

I find it quite ironic that such a brilliant woman—the mother of modern telecommunications—should unintentionally exert a stupefying effect on those who gaze upon her. (She seemingly froze producers’ brains, as well, otherwise how do you explain White Cargo? Then again, that risible hokum was a box office smash, so perhaps the joke’s on us.) Lamarr is like a reverse Gorgon, paralyzing viewers with her physical perfection.

However, when I focus very hard to counteract the harmony of ratios that added up to produce Lamarr’s face, I realize that her beauty is just a piece of what makes her interesting to watch onscreen. She not only possessed a far-reaching mind, but could also summon a lot more acting talent that she’s typically given credit for.

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And, if you want to see beyond the glamour, The Strange Woman is the movie to start with. As director Edgar G. Ulmer said, “It’s the only picture where she really had to act.” Now, Ulmer was certainly exaggerating, but Lamarr’s portrayal of a conflicted seductress does stand out as her most fascinating, layered performance. She’s not a villainess, a male fantasy, or the hero’s prize for good behavior; she’s a full-blown anti-heroine who carries the plot.

In the mid-1940s, Lamarr formed her own production company, Mars Film Corporation, a move that granted her far more control over The Strange Woman than she’d exercised over her previous studio films. Rather than choose a high-profile director to helm her first release, Lamarr personally selected fellow émigré Ulmer, who’d been displaying vast creativity on low budgets at the Poverty Row studio PRC.

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The Strange Woman adapted and sanitized a novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams (whose Leave Her to Heaven had offered a fierce, captivating role for Gene Tierney, another underrated and alarmingly beautiful actress). Set in Bangor, Maine during the early 19th century, the story follows Jenny Hagar, daughter of the town drunk, who leverages her looks and intelligence to marry well. Shrewd Jenny wins over the townspeople with her outward piety, manipulates her husband’s son to commit patricide, and eventually builds a business empire for herself. When she marries her friend’s fiancé, her first taste of true love ultimately proves her undoing.

hedylamarrA florid example of 1940s noir-flavored costume drama, The Strange Woman cultivates the audience’s sympathy for its femme fatale protagonist. The title alludes to a Biblical proverb warning against temptresses, a verse also used in the film’s publicity campaign: “For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil, but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.” Yet, whereas the Bible refers to such female sinners as almost supernatural menaces, equating adulteresses with uncanny succubi, Ulmer and Lamarr set out to humanize the “strange woman.”

Her end may be as “sharp as a two-edged sword,” but her character also cuts both ways. The whole movie hinges on Lamarr’s performance, and she makes both extremes of Jenny’s nature, from heartfelt charity to merciless greed, plausible and compelling.

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You’ll notice plenty of material in The Strange Woman that would seem more at home in a pre-Code movie, including blatant sadomasochism and strong intimations of incest. In the film’s most famous scene, Jenny’s father, jealous of her lovers, decides to whip the Devil out of her, threatening, “This is one beating you’ll not like.” Instead of discreetly cutting away to another scene, Ulmer delivers subversive medium shots of Lamarr wearing facial expressions closely related to her Ecstasy collection, if you catch my drift.

hedylamarr12Before you accuse the film of needless titillation, this unhealthy corporal punishment confrontation provides the key to Jenny’s psyche. It exists to show us that her upbringing has irrevocably perverted her emotions, crossing the wires for love and hate, pleasure and pain in her mind.

In fact, at the end (Spoiler Alert!), Jenny causes her own death in a carriage accident, barreling towards her husband and his ex-fiancé, furiously whipping her horses. The excitement on her face, the angry thrashing of the whip, and the context of jealousy all echo the earlier scene with her father. Damaged by the circumstances of her childhood, Jenny cannot escape the fury that her father took out on her and is doomed to propagate dysfunction. She’s not so much a “strange woman” as an all-too-familiar tragedy: a woman unable to heal from the wounds inflicted by an abusive father.

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To make the lasting impact of Jenny’s traumatic childhood even clearer, the film begins by portraying her as a precociously vicious child, an apt liar, and a total afterthought to her irresponsible father, who spends his time bumming grog money off more affluent townspeople. Ulmer transitions from this exposition to the plot in earnest when the young Jenny peers down at her reflection in the river, insisting, “I’m going to be beautiful!”

Her nearby father thoughtlessly throws his empty liquor jug into the water, shattering Jenny’s image. After a hidden cut, the water settles to reveal a glimpse of grown-up Jenny. The camera pans upwards and there’s Hedy, brimming with savage energy and determination. The presentation of Jenny’s passage from youth to adulthood—visually triggered by the careless discarding of the bottle—highlights the destructiveness of her father’s alcoholism.

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Throughout The Strange Woman, Ulmer’s love of sinuous camera movements, Baroque shadows, reflections, and expressionistic angles partner well with Lamarr’s slinky grace and the quietly diabolical intensity that she channels. In contrast to many glossy, talky, high-key Hollywood period dramas, this one didn’t try much to smooth the edges of a rough-hewn era.

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It went a million dollars over budget, but still taps into some of the Poverty Row rawness that infuses many of Ulmer’s films. He evokes a cruder time in American history when boomtowns were dangerous places filled with dangerous people and you did whatever you had to for survival. The stakes of Jenny’s social climbing, we know, aren’t frivolous. The tough faces of the sailors and lumberjacks, the muddy streets, the blazing riot fires in the distance, and the grunts of offscreen brawls all tell us that.

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Even in a halfway decent print, the candlelit night scenes really are dark. Those nocturnal exchanges anchor the film. For instance, Jenny talks her husband’s son into murder while gazing at her own proud beauty in the mirror, as though putting herself into a trance. She creeps over to kiss him, but not before looming in the foreground as he wrestles hopelessly with his conscience. Later, the night becomes Jenny’s accomplice again when she draws her final husband towards her simply by lying inert on a bed, like a spider waiting for a fly to get stuck.

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If Jenny’s calculating side chills us, flickers of genuine kindness and generosity prevent the audience from condemning her fully. Sure, she might donate to the church primarily to boost her reputation, but the compassionate ease of her interactions with the poor leaves no doubt: she likes helping people, especially children, in need. She’s not all bad. And her own badness torments her, as indicated by the tear she sheds in close-up while a thunderous evangelist rails against wicked women.

hedylamarr3Most poignantly, she refuses to desert her battered old friend Lena, a waitress with a less than pure reputation. When Jenny’s second husband orders her to turn Lena out of their house, she rebukes him: “You good righteous man! You hypocrite! Telling others what they must and must not do while you live in this house with me.”

The Strange Woman’s ambiguity, hinting that a woman can be both cruel and magnanimous, good and evil, puts a decidedly feminist slant on what could’ve been a mildly sensational sermon. On a visual level, the preponderance of close-ups throughout the film sets up Jenny’s face as our primary emotional frame of reference; we identify with her. We feel through her, whether she comforts a hungry child or wordlessly ponders killing off her husband. Ulmer believed that directing really consists of pulling the audience into the thoughts and struggles of a character: “I’m trying very hard to give it a viewpoint: tell it from somebody I can feel for.” He and Lamarr certainly succeeded in doing so in The Strange Woman.

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By the time a radical preacher starts spewing fire and brimstone, we’re close enough to Jenny that we perceive the contradictions at work. “You cannot hide behind your beauty,” he howls. “Your beauty has made you evil. And your evil destroys itself.” Try again, holy man. Beauty encourages those who perceive it to press the pause button on their brains and consciences, but you can’t blame the beauty alone. As long as anyone sees a beautiful woman as a target, an object, or, worst of all, a devil and not a person, can you really blame her for using her allure as a weapon? I sure can’t.

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The Strange Woman has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube and download it for free from the Internet Archive.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bob Hope

coverDescribing Bob Hope as “underrated” may sound strange. After all, he remains one of the most recognizable people of the 20th century. However, a new, comprehensive biography suggests that few of us fully appreciate Ol’ Ski Nose and his significance in American culture.

Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it was. The book matter-of-factly addresses the star’s less lovable side, including his womanizing, his stifling conceitedness, and his heavy reliance on sycophantic employees.

Despite the sometimes uncomfortable honesty, Hope proves an ultimately inspiring read, largely due to the clear-sighted appraisal of its subject’s vast legacy. Not too long ago, Christopher Hitchens crankily asserted that Hope wasn’t funny. I guess that’s a matter of opinion (Not in my house, but I’m trying to be diplomatic…). What Hope certainly was, though, was influential.

In his prime, Hope made it cool to crack wise about current events. Never content with the constraints of a medium, he broke fourth walls, stressed the connection between comedy and reality, and developed a cozy, familiar bond with audiences. Hope also set a precedent for today’s stars by wading into the arena of public causes. He demonstrated the power of celebrity to improve lives and stir a nation.

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As Zoglin points out, Hope not only developed a fast-paced, wry style and character unique to him: “brash, sophisticated, modern.” He also adapted it to an astonishing range of media and venues—from vaudeville to radio to film to television. Following Hope’s story really takes the reader through a dizzying century in the history of mass entertainment.

While reading Hope, I learned a lot about the comedian and discovered facets of his life and career that I’d never known about before. Here are a few of those.

 1. John D. Rockerfeller gave Hope his first important piece of career advice.

To supplement his struggling family’s income, 12-year-old Leslie or ‘Les’ Hope (his real name) sold newspapers on the street in Cleveland. One night, a limousine stopped and a well-heeled older gentleman tried to buy a penny paper with a dime. Lacking the change, Leslie asked if he could run to a store to get some.

The gentleman waited and gave the young Les a tip of the intangible variety: “If you want to be a success in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep change on hand. That way you won’t miss any customers while you’re going for it.” The customer drove away, as a bystander informed Les that he’d been talking to the founder of Standard Oil.

bobhopeportraitThis tale—a favorite anecdote of Hope’s—might sound apocryphal, but Zoglin makes a strong case for its plausibility. Old man Rockerfeller did indeed make the rounds of Cleveland and enjoy chatting and dispensing wisdom to the mere morals he encountered on his drives.

2. He spent time in a reform school—a fact he covered up for the rest of his life.

You’d think that Hope would’ve exploited his time in juvie as comedy material. However, he never publicly mentioned the experience, which hints at how traumatic the stint in reform school must have been for him.

According to surviving records, 15-year-old Hope committed an unknown offense (probably shopliftng) for which he was “adjudged a delinquent” and sent to the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. Although he was released after a few months, young Hope violated his parole terms and was readmitted for at least another full year.

3. One of his earliest successful show business gigs involved dancing with the famous conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton.

daisyandviolethiltonIf you’ve ever seen Tod Browning’s famous horror melodrama Freaks (1932), you’ll remember the fresh-faced, cheerful Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins. Years before making that famous movie appearance, the duo proved a major attraction while in the vaudeville circuits, with spectators lining up literally around the block to see them.

The talented sisters wowed audiences by playing a saxophone duet and then performing a tight dance number with two partners. For a long stretch, Hope was one of the partners.

As he remembered, “At first it was a funny sensation to dance with a Siamese twin. They danced back to back to back, but they were wonderful girls and it got to be very enjoyable—in an unusual sort of way.”

4. His first crack at a Hollywood career was a total disaster.

Touring on the prestigious Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in 1930, Hope visited Pathé in Culver City for a screen test and performed his act for the cameras. Heartened by the chuckles of the crew, he braced himself for stardom. However, when agent Bill Perlberg screened the test for Hope, the up-and-comer just about died: “I’d never seen 1938anything so awful. I looked like a cross between a mongoose and a turtle. I couldn’t wait to get out.” It would take almost a decade before Hope could rustle up the nerve to take another try at the movies.

5. His famous “Thanks for the Memory” number in The Big Broadcast of 1938 was recorded live on the set.

Departing from the typical pre-recording of musical numbers, Mitchell Leisen, who directed Hope’s film debut, wanted to capture the song’s wistful intimacy by recording on the soundstage. Hope and Shirley Ross sang the unforgettable tune—which would become Hope’s theme song—for the cameras, accompanied by an off-screen orchestra. Reportedly, there wasn’t a dry eye on the soundstage.

6. Hope’s racy language and quips got him bleeped on radio. 

Hey, foul-mouthed rappers and raunchy comedians everywhere, guess what? Bob Hope was getting bleeped before you were even born. Admittedly, those were the days when censors practically had a nervous breakdown over the prospect of Clark Gable saying “damn.”

bobhoperadioStill, Hope’s willingness to be controversial showed he had guts. In his heyday, the brash comedian was a far cry from the bland, innocuous old timer of his later television specials. By defying the censors with risqué jokes, Hope also became a target for Catholic reformers. When that happens, you know you’re onto something good.

7. His joke rhythm and timing impressed even his idol Charlie Chaplin.

As a boy, Hope entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and took either first or second place (depends who you talk to). In 1939, when working on The Cat and the Canary, Hope got to meet his childhood idol, married to the film’s star Paulette Goddard. Chaplin saw a few takes of the movie and complimented Hope on his delivery: “I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I’ve ever seen.” High praise indeed!

8. He really did risk his life to entertain the troops during World War II.

We’ve all seen the images of a slightly disheveled Bob Hope standing at a microphone in Hope_WWII_44front of a sea of men in uniform. But do we realize exactly how tough it was to get him there?

Flying to a performance in Alaska at night, his small plane barely made a landing after the pilots instructed Hope and his troupe to say their prayers. Driving through North Africa, Hope and singer Frances Langford cowered in a ditch and narrowly escaped burning debris from crashing German bomber planes. In Algiers, despite General Eisenhower’s assurances of safety, Hope and Langford spent over an hour huddling in a wine cellar while enemy aircraft bombarded their hotel.

Perhaps riskiest of all, in Palermo a middle-of-the-night air raid caught Hope by surprise in his vulnerable hotel room. Unable to make it to a bomb shelter, he watched helplessly as tracer bullets and flak narrowly missed his window. For Hope, it was “the most frightening experience of my life.”

9. He came up with Tony Bennett’s stage name and gave the singer his first big break.

In 1950, Hope embarked on a vaudeville-style tour and brought along a rising Italian-American crooner known as Joe Barry as one of his troupe. Barry’s singing at Pearl Bailey’s nightclub in Greenwich had impressed Hope, but the comedian felt that the phony stage name was holding the young man back.

jokesHope thought that Barry ought to change it to something more similar to his birth name (Anthony Benedetto) and pitched “Tony Bennett.” When Hope took the newly-rechristened performer to L.A., Bennett recalled, “It was the first time I ever sang in front of a huge crowd.”

10. By the end of his career, there were over a million gags in his comedy vault.

One of the first comedians to openly acknowledge his debt to good writers, Hope kept a meticulous collection of his jokes, gags, and wisecracks, indexed by subject, in a fireproof vault in his home. You could count the jokes, but can anyone comprehend the impact of the joker? Speaking for myself, I’m still chuckling.

Thank you to Dana Trocker of Simon and Schuster for making advance copies of Hope available and to Noralil Ryan Fores of TCM for offering me one!

Now You’re Talking! Let’s Chat about Film Dialogue for #MTOS

eveI’m honored to be hosting another #MTOS tweetalong! For those of you who haven’t yet participated in this enlightening Twitter event, MTOS or Movie Talk on Sundays is a weekly discussion of a subject pertaining to film. I invite everyone to join in at 8 p.m. GMT for some good cinephile fun.

This time I’ve chosen movie dialogue as our topic.

I realize that’s a pretty vast subject, and we’ll only be scratching the surface with the questions below.

So, fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

Q1. Do you seek out and enjoy dialogue-driven films? Why or why not?

Q2. To what extent is great dialogue about creating memorable lines? What other aspects/goals are important?

Q3. What’s a movie that, in your opinion, has brilliant dialogue? What makes it so good?

Q4. What’s a movie that you find “talky” or overwritten in terms of dialogue? Explain.

Q5. Of directors who don’t write their own scripts, name one who handles dialogue scenes well. What is s/he doing right?

Q6. Name a writer-director whom you consider a master of dialogue scenes. What makes his/her work effective?

Q7. Name an actor whom you consider especially gifted in bringing the nuances out of dialogue. Elaborate.

Q8. How does genre influence a film’s dialogue? Tell me about a specific genre and what you expect the dialogue to be like.

Q9. Within a given movie, dialogue/styles of speaking often illustrate contrasts between characters. Give an example.

Q10. What is your favorite movie conversation or dialogue scene (not just a movie line, please)? Why?

13 Chilling Episodes of “Suspense” Radio to Enjoy for Halloween

maninblackCall me old-fashioned, but I prefer horrors left to my own imagination. Perhaps that’s why I find old-time radio (OTR, to its fans) so efficiently unsettling. In the right context, a few creaks, groans, and a diabolical laugh can be enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck.

But why is a blogger obsessed with classic movies featuring radio? Well, the golden ages of both Hollywood and American radio drama intertwined considerably. Alfred Hitchcock himself launched Suspense in 1942 with a tense radio adaptation of The Lodger, the same story he’d filmed in 1927.

One of the most prestigious and longest-running classic radio programs, Suspense specialized in—you guessed it—thrillers and potboilers, presenting a guest star each week. The show’s tour-de-force leading roles gave top Hollywood acting talent, radioincluding such major stars as Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Myrna Loy, a chance to prove how effectively they could work on the audience’s nerves with their voices alone.

Most Suspense radio plays fall into the vein of crime melodrama. However, when the show went in for horror, whether supernatural or psychological, it plunged into bloody and unnatural deeds with relish.

You can listen to all of these world-class programs for free. I’ve embedded audio for the episodes here.

So, what are you waiting for? Cozy up with a cup of cocoa and turn the lights down low. Fair warning, though: these episodes are well calculated to keep you in… suspense!

1. “The House in Cypress Canyon” (aired 12/5/1946)

robert_taylorAsk any OTR junkie about the creepiest episodes ever to travel the airwaves, and this chiller is bound to come up. An industrial chemist (Robert Taylor) and his wife consider themselves lucky when they buy a quaint new house in Cypress Canyon. Little do they know an insidious force behind the closet door threatens to destroy them.

With a terrifying, ambiguous plotline that the listener could interpret in any number of ways, “Cypress Canyon” will haunt you far beyond its half-hour runtime. Need a starting point for getting into OTR? Look no further!

 

2. “Ghost Hunt” (aired  6/23/1949)

ralph_edwardsA cocky radio host spends the night in a notorious haunted house and takes his microphone with him. He never makes it out, but the recording of his last hours hints at what drove him to a sudden death.

Not only does this creative episode deliver major goosebumps, but it also foreshadows the “found footage” horror subgenre. Plus, if you dislike guest star Ralph Edwards as much as I do for his patronizing treatment of Buster Keaton and Frances Farmer on This Is Your Life, you’ll thoroughly enjoy listening to him descend into madness!

 

3. “Three Skeleton Key” (aired 11/11/56)

vincent_price_radioNot for the squeamish, this episode. On an isolated French island colony, a trio of bickering lighthouse keepers find themselves under siege. A horde of rats arrives on a derelict ship after months at sea—and they’re hungry.

As producer William M. Robson warned listeners, “It is unconditionally guaranteed to chill your blood… unless you love rats.” In my opinion, he wasn’t exaggerating. Guest star Vincent Price could make oatmeal advertisements sound stomach-churningly gruesome, but here he’s working with serious gross-out material at his ghoulish best. Plus, the high-pitched, gibbering squeaks of those ravenous rodents will make your skin crawl.

 

4. “Narrative About Clarence” (aired 3/16/1944)

laird_cregarOne of the creepiest screen villains of the 1940s, Laird Cregar lends his soft, insinuating baritone to this tale of revenge and mesmerism. After studying the secret mystic practices of India, n’er-do-well Clarence returns home to stay with his half-sister, Lillian, and her skeptical husband.

Before you can say “hocus pocus,” the self-proclaimed mental scientist is using his powers to control Lillian’s young daughter. Can Clarence be stopped before he settles a long-festering family grudge in the ugliest way possible?

 

5. “August Heat” (aired 5/31/1945)

ronald_colmanOn a stiflingly hot late summer day, an artist (Ronald Colman) draws a picture of a man he’s never seen—a man he happens to meet that very afternoon. But what does it mean when that man turns out to be a funerary mason who’s made a tombstone for the artist purely by chance?

The text of W. F. Havey’s short story about coincidence and premonitions of death hardly seems meaty or dramatic enough for even a half-hour program. Nevertheless, clever writing, snippets of otherworldly music, and some subtly foreboding sounds at the end make it all work, offering a brilliant example of radio’s singular spell.

 

6. “The Whole Town Sleeping” (aired 6/14/1955)

aggieThere’s nothing supernatural or occult about this gripping episode—just a flesh-and-blood serial killer, stalking women who pass through a ravine on the edge of a little midwestern town. The ultimate radio drama heroine, Agnes Moorehead rips into the material, penned by Ray Bradbury, with her usual tightly-wound élan.

Since much of the story is told in real-time—step-by-step as the protagonist walks home in the dark—the audience powerfully identifies with her fear. This is one of those horrors that frighten us so deeply because they’re not as removed from real life as we’d like to believe.

 

7. “Donovan’s Brain” (5/18 and 5/25/1944)

orson_wellesA scientist recovers the brain of a recently deceased tycoon and decides to use it for his experiments. Soon the brain’s power is reaching out to control the will of the man studying it.

This adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel hit the airwaves almost a decade before the story served as the basis for the cult sci-fi film starring Lew Ayres. And the radio play is scarier. Way scarier. Let’s just say the ending isn’t quite as cheery as the film’s.

Orson Welles delivers possibly the finest radio performance of his career, voicing both the calculating, pedantic scientist and the gruff, domineering Donovan. Running a full hour, this two-part episode lets the creepiness linger and build slowly, as the beeping, bubbling sounds of the lab gizmos that keep the brain alive grow utterly oppressive.

 

8. “Fugue in C-Minor” (aired 6/1/1944)

vincent_priceFor a late 19th century lady in search of a husband, Mr. Evans seemed like the perfect catch: a sophisticated, rich widower. Such a shame about his first wife, who died in a carriage accident.

Why, then, do his little children insist that their mother is walled up in vast mechanisms of their father’s pipe organ?

Ida Lupino and Vincent Price strike just the right note of buttoned-up Victorian paranoia in this original play by Lucille Fletcher, who contributed several of Suspense’s most famous episodes. And sepulchral organ music adds a sense of doom and dignity to this bloodcurdling Gothic homage.

This is a recording of a rehearsal; the actual broadcast has been lost, I believe.

 

9. “Flesh Peddler” (aired 8/4/1957)

deforest_kelleyWho doesn’t love a creepy ventriloquist story? A dogged talent agent (DeForest Kelley)—or a “flesh peddler” in carnie parlance—sees Arthur Wilson and his dummy Oliver in a cheap carnival and senses something compelling about their chemistry. Trying to sign the act, the flesh peddler gets a little more than he bargained for…

Despite an implausible ending, the noirish rhythm of the dialogue and the cast of midway “freaks” endow this episode with a sordid, Tod Browning-esque ambiance that’s difficult to wash off afterwards.

 

10. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (aired 7/29/1948) 

aggie_mooreheadEnclosed or limited settings showcased the strengths of radio as a medium, minimizing the complex imagery that cinema often does better in favor of searing character studies. And few tales are more claustrophobic than Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s first-person account of a woman imprisoned in her own home.

Confined by her husband for an unspecified health condition, a doctor’s wife begins to obsess over the ripped yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. At first, she hates its garish pattern, until she thinks she notices a woman trapped behind it… The ever-superb Agnes Moorehead manages to cultivate our sympathy for the narrator’s plight while simultaneously creeping us out with her bizarre, elaborate fantasies.

 

11. “Deep, Deep Is My Love” (aired 4/26/1959)

lloyd_bridgesDon (Lloyd Bridges) loves to skin dive alone, explaining to his wife that he needs some time to himself beneath the waves. He’s lying; he only wants to join the golden woman who beckons to him from an underwater grotto.

The trouble is, Don isn’t sure that the strange woman really exists. Perhaps narcosis—nitrogen intoxication, a side effect of diving—is playing a deadly trick on him.

Vivid descriptions of marine life and seascapes imbue this episode with a lyrical, almost hallucinatory quality. On the other hand, the wheezing respiration of Don’s mask, his oxygen diminishing with each breath, maintains the delicate balance between his seductive dreams and a lethal reality.

 

12. “The Black Door” (aired 11/19/61)

A young archeologist travels to the jungles of Central America to search for “the City of the Fire God.” Teaming up with a local guide, our intrepid hero follows the trail down to a temple in the center of an extinct volcano. What could possibly go wrong?

I tend to find later episodes of Suspense overblown and tacky, but this one proves an exception. The mysterious, exotic score and intense narration recall some of the show’s spookiest fare from the ’40s and ’50s.

 

13. “The Hitch-Hiker” (aired 9/2/1942)

Any list would be incomplete without this ominous classic. A lonely driver (Orson Welles) encounters a phantom hitchhiker who somehow seems to precede his car wherever it goes. Modern listeners aren’t in for any surprises, but this episode’s desolate, somber atmosphere (amplified by music from the great Bernard Herrmann) gets its hooks in you and doesn’t let go. Just don’t listen to it on your next solo road trip…

 

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any nightmares you may experience after listening to these after dark. But, as Orson Welles says, “Personally, I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like a good ghost story…”

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Dracula (1931): The Eye of the Storm

drac1Nobody’s been able to kill Tod Browning’s Dracula, but that sure hasn’t stopped critics from beating a dead… um, vampire.

Sadly, it’s become rather fashionable to dismiss the original Dracula as an overrated relic, lauded mostly because of its status as the first sound horror film.

Why, last week even I noted that the camerawork in the Spanish-language Dracula makes Browning’s movie, shot simultaneously, seem anemic by comparison. And I do stand by that statement; Spanish Drácula is a more technically accomplished film.

However, today I come not to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, but to praise it as a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s time for me to reveal my undying (though not undead) devotion to the Lugosi version.

Are other adaptations of Stoker’s classic more faithful? More dynamic? More emotionally involving? Certainly. But I don’t think Browning wanted to shock us or take us on a thrill ride, although he could have. (Watch The Unknown if you don’t believe me!)

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Dracula may appear primitive, but therein lies its uncanny beauty. Sometimes sophistication isn’t half as convincing as simplicity. Eschewing ostentatious special effects and action sequences, the director chose to chill his audience with the silence and stillness of the grave.

As the documentary Universal Horror pointed out, audiences were accustomed to music during the silent era, so Browning wisely deployed the hissing nothingness of Dracula’s early talkie soundtrack to spook viewers. Similarly, the somnambulistic staging and acting reflect the emptiness of Dracula himself, a walking, talking corpse. Why do we wonder at film’s inertia? Its deadly title character freezes all that surrounds him, transforming every space into a tomb.

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And there’s something elemental and profound about how those famously Gothic visuals unfold. We watch the coffins open, the rodents and insects crawling around them, the dead brides rising. And then, the camera tracks into the Master, slowly, as though our desire to see, our curiosity, were an irresistible gravitational pull. This iconic scene doesn’t serve character or narrative—we’ve already been told who and what the Count is. The images urge us to feast our eyes on decaying, eerie splendor, the ultimate in decadence. Everything about Dracula’s introduction calls out to us, tempting us just to look and be caught in looking by a creature that controls humans through their eyes.

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By regressing to an archaic, almost presentational style of filmmaking, this adaptation seeks to regress the audience back to the receptivity of childhood or perhaps to the superstitious dread of our ancestors. Dracula is no mere movie. It is a ritual, a summoning, almost a séance.

Lest we forget, in 1931, a movie character who turns out to be a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as one, was a revolutionary—and risky—proposition. The original Dracula trailer marketed the film not so much with promises of shudders, but rather with disturbing questions: “Do vampires really exist? Do they leave their prisons in the dark hours—reaching out for new victims?”

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For over 80 years since, we spectators have been training our suspension of disbelief, but we must remember that Dracula was a key film in setting up our credulity in the face of the impossible. Without Browning and Lugosi’s success in presenting a bloodsucking demon as stark reality, horror as a talkie genre might not have developed to the extent it has… or not at all.

The need to establish credibility explains the film’s apparently unimaginative style. Innovative editing or florid tracking shots might’ve startled us out of the hypnotic spell that Lugosi casts with his penlight-enhanced eyes. We accept the vampire as a threat because he doesn’t seem like a trick of the camera—or a product of hours spent in the makeup chair. His dark glamour locks right into our schema for dangerous melodrama seducers, gaining audiences’ acceptance because he modifies a type of villain they recognize. Lugosi created a vampire that suited Hollywood perfectly, luring victims and viewers alike with his imposing charm.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m26s110But, in the end, what makes Lugosi’s performance immortal, frightening, yet charismatic? What pushes his performance over the edge from bad guy to pure, ageless evil?

In my opinion, the throw-away shots of Lugosi—the ones that almost get lost among the jack-o’-lantern close-ups and those erotic bite scenes—often reveal most about his definitive interpretation of the Count.

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For instance, after Dracula leans in to bite Renfield at Castle Dracula, the scene shifts to the Vesta, a ship bound for England. Now the Count’s servant, the maddened, hysterical Renfield wakes the Master up while a tempest pummels the ship. Once he’s risen from his coffin, Dracula glides above deck. As the camera gently rocks to suggest the shifting of the waves, the Count gazes offscreen with detachment and the sounds of the storm swirl on the soundtrack.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m58s172Browning cuts to shots of the ship’s deck, as men in rain slickers desperately struggle against the might of the gale, trying to control the violently thrashing ship. And then he cuts back to the Count, unaffected literally by the storm and figuratively the misery and imminent doom of the sailors.

This juxtaposition, bordering on a lack of continuity, between the motion of the ship and the comparative stillness of the Count, endows the shots with an unearthly quality. He’s the eye of the storm and everything around him, everything he touches, turns dead calm.

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As I revisited Dracula a few days ago, this overlooked moment reminded me of a passage from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. A bit of a leap, I know, but this is how Marlowe describes the Svengali-esque blackmailer Amthor:

“His eyes were deep… And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.”

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-15h06m05s40The allusion to a certain very specific torture leads me to suspect that Chandler had the model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, specifically in mind when he wrote that. In any case, what Chandler evokes here, the utter lack of compassion for (or even reaction to) suffering, helped me pinpoint the unique attribute that Lugosi conjured as the Count.

The classically-trained 49-year-old actor—who’d ironically won acclaim as Hungary’s foremost Passion Play Jesus once upon a time—brought a diabolic, remorseless disdain to Dracula that remains unmatched. But he didn’t need to express it or emote it. He projects it even when totally motionless, exuding that disdain from every line of his arrogant, mask-like face, communicating it with his aristocratic, rigid posture. And film’s oddly static style parallels the unholy immutability and the frozen contempt of Dracula.

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Which brings me to the part of Dracula that I find most frightening. I’ve probably seen this film a hundred times since childhood, but the flower girl scene never fails to creep me out. To refresh your memory, on a London street corner, a waif is selling violets for gentlemen’s buttonholes. A new prospective client, seen as the a silhouette of a top hat and a sweeping cloak, towering over the tiny girl, steps out of the mist.

If foreboding were an image, it would look like this.

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Still shown in long shot, the flower girl opens her mouth in amazement. In close-up, Dracula bears down on her, his eyes glowing. The girl stares back in stupefied terror. And then he leans in, as though to kiss her, pushing her back behind a column. Her pathetic shriek pierces the air.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h50m07s29Immediately afterwards, the Count strides along the street in his top hat and cape, satiated and puffed up by his latest meal. A whistle shrieks. Bystanders gather around the column and huddle over the flower girl’s dead body.

Meanwhile, Browning shifts to an establishing shot of the theater where the next important scene will take place. That’s the only real narrative purpose for the image, although Karl Freund embellished it with a subtle crane movement. In a slightly closer shot, Dracula arrives, turning around to survey the people coming and going. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see his lips curl into something like a scornful smile. There it is again—that glimmer of arrogance, that immovable conceit.

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The notion that this monster can look at a human being, a vulnerable girl trying to eke out a living, and think of her as a snack, scares the daylights out of me. It scares me more than all the spilled viscera and jump shocks in horror movies since. That brief episode defines Dracula’s depravity, leaving the viewer surprised and mildly disgusted.

The random ruthlessness of the flower girl scene haunts me most, though, because it punctures the romantic aura of the vampire myth. Dracula resembles a hot-blooded lover in the Valentino mold, but the Count’s sangfroid and his icy contempt put him in a freakish category all his own. And yet, we’re still attracted to him, aren’t we? (Speaking for myself, I’ll come out and say it: yes.)

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Lugosi incarnated what I consider the most seductive portrayal of evil captured on film. As he creeps towards the camera, advancing on the audience as well as Mina, his face contorted into a hungry grimace, we’re repulsed, yet spellbound. I suppose that’s partially what I mean when I say that Dracula is a summoning. It calls up some primal region in the human psyche where predatory impulses, which we rationally reject, become desirable—in spite of ourselves.

Whatever its detractors say, Dracula resonates in its unnerving stillness, compelling us to sit uncomfortably with all of the conflicting human feelings that this inhuman creature stirs up.

In 1950, when asked about his most famous role and its impact, Lugosi replied, “Dracula never ends.” And, you know, he was right.

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Doctor X (1932): The Triumph of the Weird

posterA cannibal serial killer prowls the city streets on full-moon nights. Mad doctors perform sick biological experiments in secret labs. And Fay Wray shrieks in a silky, sheer negligée. Doctor X really wants to push your buttons… whatever buttons you’ve got.

As the film’s Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (famous for his English-language malapropisms) declared, “It’ll make your blood curl!”

After the double box office smash of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Warner Brothers decided to outdo Universal—which started the horror trend—in terms of shock value. Jumping on the craze for scary movies, the Warners shrewdly turned out a gruesome chiller all their own. Even in the context of no-holds-barred pre-Code Hollywood, the word bizarre doesn’t begin to cover Doctor X.

Unsurprisingly, the hardboiled studio of gangster dramas and newspaper comedies brought a radically different, absurd sensibility to the horror genre. Opting against a supernatural thriller or a Gothic adaptation, producers bought a spooky stage play and built an ultra-modern sci-fi whodunit on that framework. Rather than trying to evoke the tenebrous black-and-white poetry of Universal’s chillers, Doctor X attracted viewers in droves with the novelty of bloodcurdling deeds captured in color.

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Yes, that’s right: we’re talking about a feature film from 1932 shot in color. But a very special kind of color.

What we all recognize as glorious Technicolor—exemplified by films like Gone with the Wind and The Red Shoes—is a three-strip process, which combines blue, green, and red to reproduce a complete and vivid range of tones. However, Doctor X is one of comparatively few full-length movies filmed entirely in the earlier two-strip Technicolor process. Expensive and inconvenient, requiring sweltering hot lights, color tests, and special technicians and advisors, two-strip Technicolor still registered colors only as shades or derivatives of red and green.

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 I say, darling, you’re looking rather pink today…

Although two-strip Technicolor couldn’t reproduce the full spectrum of reality, this disadvantage suited the oddball plot of Doctor X perfectly. In the words of an original ad, Doctor X looks “so different it might have been filmed in another world.” Since a major plot point involves (slight spoiler alert!) synthetic flesh, the fact that about half of the colors show up in flesh tones—or else a sickly green—amps up the creep-out factor. When the villain finally does reveal himself, the sequence makes us wonder if we’re hallucinating. Electrodes buzz and blink as the man-made monster smears his face with molten flesh putty, all the more revolting in shades of leprous pink-orange set off by ominous green shadows.

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Curtiz looks on as Wray gets a lipstick touch-up on the set

Director Michael Curtiz (who’d go on to helm The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) wasn’t anybody’s dream boss, marching around the set begrudging the cast their lunch breaks. As Fay Wray recalled, “It was like he was part of the camera. He was steel.” Nevertheless, his expressionistic flair incorporated the two-strip Technicolor palette to masterful effect. Instead of trying to minimize the strangeness of the color process, Curtiz indulged his preference for silhouettes, showy compositions, and jarring angles. All of these elements, in conjunction with the unnatural hues, contribute to the audience’s sense of nightmarish disorientation.

Years before Douglas Sirk styled his celebrated Technicolor delirium, Curtiz harnessed psychedelic hues of rose and emerald to put the viewer into a kind of trance, mentally preparing us to swallow an implausible storyline.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h12m29s71And what a loony storyline it is… When the police suspect that someone from a prestigious research institute has committed a string of heinous cannibalistic sex crimes and mutilations, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) makes a deal. If the cops keep the matter quiet for 48 hours, he’ll use cutting-edge technology to find the guilty man among his staff and save his institute’s reputation. It’s ethical to do that, right? Meanwhile, wisecracking reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) crashes Xavier’s remote lair to get the scoop. In the process, he’ll shake skeletons in the closet (literally!), go head-to-head with the terrifying killer, and romance Xavier’s feisty daughter.

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With its satirical, sinister portrayal of medical researchers, Doctor X betrays an abject disillusionment with—and mistrust of—scientific progress in general and scientists in particular. Only a year before, Colin Clive had portrayed Dr. Frankenstein as a dashing misunderstood genius, a romantic matinee idol Prometheus. By contrast, Dr. Xavier and his colleagues come across as, at best, eccentrics and, at worst, dirty old men who channel repressed sexual impulses into kinky experiments and flashy lab gizmos.

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Curtiz frames the film’s most striking shots with some chemical or electrical apparatus interposing between the viewer and the characters. The bubbling flasks or sparkling electrodes in the foreground loom large and dwarf the scientists, making them seem vaguely ridiculous. Even when the laboratory paraphernalia doesn’t dominate the screen space, it draws the eye, distracting from the scientists themselves. They are not masters of their chosen field, we understand, but slaves to it, consumed by their fetishized equipment and their dangerous projects.

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In its grotesquely comic way, the film suggests that all of Xavier’s colleagues, and even the doctor himself, are likely candidates for serial killers. Frankly, the shock isn’t that a murderer walks among them. It’s that only one of them is a murderer! Consider this exchange between two of the doctors, right as they’re about to submit to Xavier’s physiological examination:

—Were the murdered women… attacked?

—Does your mind never flow into any other channel?

—What do you mean by that?

—I mean that one day your sadistic tendencies may carry you too far, Dr. Haines!

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In case you missed it, “attacked” serves as a not-so-subtle euphemism for “sexually assaulted.” Can I get a great big yuck for that dark little peek into the minds of guys claiming to be mankind’s benefactors? Without doubt, Doctor X hints that perversity instead of goodwill drives scientists to immerse their lives in study and research. Even Dr. Xavier has to rationalize his comrades’ creepy behavior to the cops by explaining, “Sometimes, in the overdevelopment of one part of the brain, another part is weakened.”

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But even if that’s true, does the doctors’ collective brainpower justify their volatility? Um, no. At least, that’s what the movie seems to conclude. Ultimately, Xavier’s elaborate experiment—designed to unmask the killer by monitoring fluctuations in his heartbeat as he watches a reenactment of his crime—fails spectacularly. Twice. Xavier’s theories practically have their own body count!

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Whenever I watch Doctor X, the movie’s dim outlook on the scientific perspective reminds me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, a fascinating treatise on the power of rare events. As Taleb explains, “Before Western thinking drowned in its ‘scientific’ mentality, what is arrogantly called the Enlightenment, people prompted their brain to think—not compute.”

Sound familiar? Xavier unquestioningly relies on ice-cold logic. And logic lets him down. Big time. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that what seems like a perfectly reasonable inference almost proves the death of his nearest and dearest… The unforeseen twist or “black swan” that Dr. X implicitly eliminates from his pool of possibilities returns to haunt him with all-too-real consequences.

vlcsnap-2013-09-24-20h11m03s232According to Taleb, academically bright individuals like Xavier and his lab-coat-wearing compadres often succumb to the “ludic fallacy.” That is, they tend to think (erroneously) that we can model life’s uncertainties with straightforward calculations and probabilities. In so doing, however, such traditional thinkers ignore the larger, fuzzy probabilities or “unknown unknowns” that enter into any given situation. Meanwhile, the real risks of life are bizarre and off-model. Freak occurrences shape the course of human history much more than we’d like to believe.

To vastly oversimplify Taleb’s point, we live in a weird world. So, having a weird mind, one prone to farfetched theories instead of rationality, might be a strong edge for survival. And only by scrutinizing weirdness can we ever begin to understand, well, anything at all.

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Which brings us back to Doctor X and its real protagonist. The movie might bear Xavier’s name, but it truly belongs to Lee Tracy as Taylor, the brash, fast-talking newspaperman. Taylor’s gift for sensational journalism spurs him to speculate wildly and focus on outlier events like the so-called “moon killings.” Taylor doesn’t command society’s respect like Xavier does. However, he saves the day—while all the doctors sit incapacitated by their logic, literally handcuffed by the rules of their experiment.

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When I first watched Doctor X, I felt that Taylor, with his morbid quips and upbeat demeanor, belonged to another movie. Then I realized that he actually reflects the movie’s oddness even better than the nutty doctors.

Despite their own deviant weirdness, the scientists don’t allow for the true enormity of the world’s weirdness in their calculations. Despite Taylor’s outward normalcy, he does. He rolls with the weird and actively seeks it out. His zigzag brain hasn’t closed itself off to black swans and freak occurrences.

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Thanks to Taylor, I have a new theory about life: you need to live it as though you’re in a 1930s horror movie.

No, I’m not suggesting you roam around misty moors at midnight in a lacy nightgown. What I actually mean is, don’t act like most characters in 1930s horror movies—who have no inkling they’re in 1930s horror movies and tend to baulk at the idea of monsters and psycho-killers.

In life as in film, it pays to contemplate the improbable, to steep yourself in it, rather than scoffing at it. And perhaps no movie defines “improbable” for me better than Doctor X.

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Funnily enough, every time I tweet this film with the #TCMParty someone complains, “Ugh. I hate colorized movies,” because he or she has automatically rejected the possibility of a color feature from the early 1930s.

Regardless of whether we think it should or shouldn’t exist, though, it does.

So, in its own way, Doctor X—the first horror film shot entirely in color—is something of a cinematic black swan… a triumph of the weird.

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As of this writing, you can stream Doctor X on Warner Archive Instant (which I totally recommend signing up for). So check it out for Halloween!