Angel’s Flight (1965)

Angel's Flight (1965) title shot

directors  Raymond Nassour, Kenneth W. Richardson
viewed: 01/28/2017

Somewhat maligned (one imdb.com user review reads “Bad Writing, Bad acting, Bad Editing – Great Locations!”) and super obscure, the 1965 film noir Angel’s Flight is pretty interesting. It’s named for the funicular railroad running up Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill, the structure still exists, though the hill itself and the neighborhood depicted in the film, were razed in 1969 via urban renewal.

I’d noticed the Angel’s Flight funicular railroad in another film noir, 1949’s Criss Cross, and it really caught my eye. Apparently, Angel’s Flight and Bunker Hill showed up in a bevy of films noir like Cry Danger (1951), Joseph Losey’s American re-make of M (1951), and Robert Aldrich’s classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). I’ll have to make it a point to watch and re-watch those.

The movie itself is low budget and feeling it, but watching the movie via a rough YouTube print, cries out for restoration. To get your hands on an obscure flick, it’s worth watching, but the print doesn’t do the movie any favors.

Indus Arthur stars as a neighborhood burlesque dancer (read: “stripper”) who slashes “pretty men” when they start to get fresh. William Thourlby (the original Marlboro Man) is the drunken writer who wants to pen an ode to Angel’s Flight, falls for the dancer, and discovers her secret.

There are campish aspects to the movie, but it’s also far from the worst movie of its period and type. The camera work is actually pretty good. And then it’s got what it has: location, location, location.

There is an excellent write-up about Angel’s Flight on noiroftheweek.com by Steve Eifert. I had the pleasure of seeing the railway first-hand the very day I watched the movie (the raison d’etre for the viewing), but it’s very interesting, even if you can’t see what’s left of it in person.

Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960) movie poster

director Michael Powell
viewed: 01/26/2017

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is a terrific film. Often cited in counterpoint to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (also 1960), it’s a dark portrait of a psychologically unbalanced cameraman who doubles as a serial killer. It’s all voyeurism, the male gaze, and a reflection of the art and act of cinema. It was also controversial on its release and was a huge hit on Powell’s career, stark contrast there with Hitch.

It’s creepy. It’s brilliant.

It’s all been said.

It’s also beautifully lurid in its hues. But then isn’t every Powell film gorgeous?

Condemned to Live (1935)

Condemned to Live (1935) movie poster

director Frank R. Strayer
viewed: 01/25/2017

“What good can there be in a hunchback?” – Mob member

Actually there are a few good lines in this “vampire” picture. Condemned to Live is a cheap 1930’s thriller-maybe-horror film from the Invincible Pictures studio. While it’s not exactly Poverty Row, it’s also not exactly the big time either.

Vampirism as seen in Condemned to Live is a disease, transferred by vampire bat to pregnant woman to fetus, eventually showing itself in middle age when that fetus has grown up into a noble member of the gentry. The transformation is werewolf-like (not a constant state of being), but only requires a scowling countenance, lost memory, and biting people to death.

There is not a lot here, though it’s also hardly worthless.

The Body Beneath (1970)

The Body Beneath (1970) movie poster

director Andy Milligan
viewed: 01/23/2017

I’ve had a number of Andy Milligan films in my queue, on my watchlist, in planning to see, but The Body Beneath was the first one I ever watched.

And I really don’t know what to say.

Reading about Milligan’s life is interesting.

The Body Beneath comes from his brief stay in Britain. So it’s about an English vampire clan seeking…”new blood”. It’s clearly made on the cheap, but it has a totally different vibe from say Ted V. Mikels, H.G. Lewis, really any low budget schlockmeister that I can think of. Maybe the closest I can come is to say it’s like a Kuchar brothers movie with all the intentional camp sucked out of it. And Kuchar movies are almost 100% camp.

I don’t know. Still pondering.

The Living Dead Girl (1982)

The Living Dead Girl (1982) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 01/22/2017

“A girl in trouble is a temporary thing.” — Romeo Void

The girl(s) in trouble in Jean Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl are not likely temporary things. One is a reanimated corpse, thirsting for human blood, though gaining sentience as she goes. Her childhood friend, not full-on Sapphic friends as in many of Rollin’s films, just truly deep soul-mates, is thrilled to find her alive again and willing to help procure for her.

Rollin is tremendously consistent in his themes, ideas, and depictions, and so, The Living Dead Girl typifies many aspects of his films. Tragic beautiful females, often lovers, empowered beyond normal life often as vampires, on the run from society (some form of it). In several films, as here, events are triggered by an ecological disaster of some sort, perverting life and death.

I’ve come to like Rollin more and more through weaving my way through his filmography. Sadly, Fandor, who had featured many of his films, has pared down their offerings. Living Dead Girl now one of few.

This one is a little more gory than most, which is almost surprising, all things considered. Gore doesn’t seem to be Rollin’s best angle on things. His milieu is the French countryside and old decaying houses, filled with somnabulant beauties often shedding their clothes, tragically in love, cursed by the world.

Rififi (1955)

Rififi (1955) movie poster

director Jules Dassin
viewed: 01/22/2017 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

A few big differences since I first saw Jules Dassin’s masterpiece, Rififi. This time, watched it as part of the Noir City festival at the Castro Theater, alongside my kids. In the intervening 8 years since I first saw it, I’ve managed to see a number of Dassin’s other film noirs. Rififi was the first of Dassin’s films I ever saw and I knew little or nothing of him specifically at the time.

One big thing that is still utterly the same is the film itself and its brilliance.

That Dassin, however French his name may look and sound, was American is significant. He was blacklisted in Hollywood, chased from the country, and harassed even from afar to find employment in film. Rififi was the first film he made in France and the first he had made in 5 years, after the also brilliant Night and the City (1950), filmed in London. Top that off with featuring as a great character performance himself in the film as César “le Milanais”, what did he NOT do?

The heist is the film’s centerpiece and is duly and rightfully praised and influential, but the whole of the film is amazing. Paris is a bleak yet beautiful backdrop to the criminal activities and the rain-soaked streets emblematic of the fatalistic reality of the common man, even if he is a common criminal.

The brutality toward his nightclub moll is the one troubling aspect of the film for me. Women are rarely treated well in noir, but the nasty beating Tony (Jean Servais) metes out to her, while it makes contextual sense in the narrative, is still rather hard to sit with. Tony is, in the end, a good guy, and women, in the end, are largely functional or decorative in the film. So. Yeah. Anyhow.

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 01/21/2017

Among other things in my life, I read a lot. And in recent years, I’ve been reading Charles Dickens and liking him a lot.

Great Expectations is Dickens via David Lean with a great cast including Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt, Francis L. Sullivan, Bernard Miles, Jean Simmons, and more. As with any major literary figure, there are a lot of versions of a lot of his works, and so a lot of versions probably have their assets and weaknesses, some may vie for “best”.

For my money, this Great Expectations is excellent, containing the over 500 page novel into a 2 hour movie (there is often a lot of sprawl in Dickens), capturing the classic characters like Pip, Estella, Mrs. Havisham, and Mr. Jaggers vividly, and even succinctly and deftly creating the scenery: the marshes, London, Satis House, visions imagined made “real”.

More than anything though, Mrs. Havisham’s house and her dedicated decay are very effective when made visual. There is a hauntedness like a ghost story.

All that said, Pip (John Mills) falls for the cruel Estella, groomed for evil of heartbreaking, heartlessness, as he does in the book. I watched this with my daughter who is going on 13, and she had a hard time understanding why he would like someone who was so outwardly cruel and mean. Well, if it was Jean Simmons, I think I could make an argument, but that is one aspect of truncating a story that can’t always translate.

Sorcerer (1977)

Sorcerer (1977) movie poster

director William Friedkin
viewed: 01/20/2017

I really don’t know what I have to add to the litany of words of praise and commentary on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. While Sorcerer is not a re-make of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fantastic 1953 film The Wages of Fear, it does tackle the Georges Arnaud novel from which it was adapted. Friedkin pulled off one of the great challenges in film, to rework a great film and come up with something new, fresh, and potentially as brilliant as the original.

More than 20 years after Clouzot’s film, Sorcerer ups the ante on scale and challenge, shooting a more global story in more rough and isolated locations, building set pieces of greater height and danger.

I’ve been working my way through Friedkin’s heyday films because he’s someone that I have not given enough attention to over the years. If anything, Sorcerer underscores his prowess as a filmmaker, an auteur in the 1970’s American Hollywood explosion of excellent, ambitious and inventive film production. It’s great that Friedkin was able to get a fresh print of Sorcerer made because it absolutely solidifies and emphasizes his reputation as one of the greats of the era. And thus of any era.

Human Lanterns (1982)

Human Lanterns (1982) movie poster

director Chung Sun
viewed: 01/18/2017

Pretty pleasing Shaw Brothers Wuxia flick verging towards horror. Human Lanterns has the feel of a traditional ghost story revenge fable, but it’s luridly colorful, packed with action, blood, gore, and a crazy guy in a hairy skull mask. What’s not to like?

Ultimately, a tale of revenge, it also plays out a bit Yojimbo-like. Two big shots in a small village vie and complete with one another in many ways, but especially in the art of lantern making. The more evil of the two seeks out a talented craftsman who he had scarred in the past to help him deliver the winning lantern. The scarred craftsman decides to employ an ancient technique that requires human skin for his lanterns and sets about kidnapping and murdering the women in the two competitors’ lives, setting them more and more against one another.

The set design and camerawork are excellent, and the use of color does echo of the hues of Mario Bava.

Andy Warhol’s Bad (1977)

Andy Warhol's Bad (1977) movie poster

director Jed Johnson
viewed: 01/17/2017

I don’t know how I never got around to seeing Andy Warhol’s Bad, directed by Jed Johnson, before. I’m actually a little fuzzy on the Andy Warhol-produced cult features that I HAVE seen. Even those would have been in the Eighties.

Bad is “like” John Waters, but also not quite like John Waters as well. Waters’s films are far more camp, more hilarious, less slick, less polished. But they share a sense of dark satire, not only of American culture, but of American genre films too. So cultural critique but also cinematic play. And a mordant sense of black humor.

Carroll Baker stars as the stay-at-home matriarch, clad in what would be even for the time a sort of retro-chic middle-Americana, who runs a DIY electrolysis clinic from her kitchen and a handy hit-person service by phone. Susan Tyrrell steals the show as her frumpy daughter-in-law who is constantly feeding her freakish baby whom she seems to be in utter horror of. Perry King enters the scene as a young hunk wanting to break into the assassin business, of whom Baker is not to certain, as she primarily employs women killers.

There is a lot more to it, but it’s sharp and funny, bizarre and cool. And campy, just a very different vibe than John Waters. Different but easily shelved next to him.

Pretty great, in my estimation.