Criminally Insane (1975)


Criminally Insane (1975) movie poster

director Nick Millard
viewed: 01/12/2017

More like “Criminally Hungry”.

Criminally Insane is like Repulsion, but made by some bastard child of H.G. Lewis and John Waters. And instead of trauma by sex, it’s trauma not getting enough to eat.

“My heart’s just fine as long as my stomach’s not empty.”

Plus points for San Francisco location.


Dark Passage (1947)

Dark Passage (1947) movie poster

director Delmer Daves
viewed: 12/04/2017

Dark Passage is one of the great San Francisco noirs. Directed by Delmer Daves, a native of the city, the movie features a litany of shots around both San Francisco and Marin, capturing the City by the Bay in its state of being in the late 1940’s.

But that’s just one angle on the film.

It’s Bogey and Bacall in their third screen pairing. It’s also the great Agnes Moorehead in a nasty, venomous role.

It’s also the big breakthrough for pulp crime novelist David Goodis, an adaptation of his novel of the same name that had been serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and would wind up his most well-known work for years beyond his death.

I think that the last time I watched Dark Passage, I had just recently read the novel, and I had more of an issue with the film’s notable first-person camera perspective that hides Humphrey Bogart from the camera through the first entire hour. This time through it, I enjoyed that gimmicky approach, enjoyed the approach of the whole film, flecked with great character performances throughout. (The best sequence is the plastic surgery one, with the disgraced artist surgeon and the sly cab driver).

“Ever see a botched plastic job?”

Dark Passage isn’t Goodis’s best novel, but it’s a great film noir, worth taking in for a number of reasons or angles.

The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920) movie poster

director Wallace Worsley
viewed: 10/21/2017

Lon Chaney stars as “that cripple from hell,” a criminal mastermind in San Francisco who lost his legs in a trolley accident (though more significantly due to malpractice), by the name of Blizzard.

1920’s The Penalty is a sleazy pulpy proto-noir that helped Chaney burst into stardom despite playing largely villains or monsters. Really, he himself is the special effect. He plays a man who lost his legs beneath the knees and moves around with the help of buckets and crutches. Chaney’s legs were strapped painfully behind him.  It’s an amazingly physical role as he climbs around and menaces venally. He even slides down a fireman’s pole.

I’m not sure how much of it was shot in San Francisco but parts of the film certainly were. It’s a glimpse into a much different city.

It’s not brilliant but it is good pulpy fun despite the rather odd deus-ex-machina happy ending. It’s cool that Chaney was such a star since he’s so against type as a star though full of star-power.

“Don’t grieve, dear, death interests me,” a sweet epitaph.


The Lineup (1958)

The Lineup (1958) movie poster

director Don Siegel
viewed: 06/28/2016

On the police procedural side of a crime flick, Don Siegel’s San Francisco-set The Lineup manages to fall enough into noir to qualify in that classification.  However you want to approach it, it’s a pretty great movie.

Interestingly, it was a film version of a television show of the day, but one that really diverged from its TV counterpart.  Warner Anderson plays Lt. Guthrie from the show, but he’s got a different sidekick in Emile Meyer.  Writer Stirling Silliphant shifted the focus from the Dragnet-like cops to top-billed villains Eli Wallach and Robert Keith, and that is where the movie really thrives.

Wallach is great as Dancer, the killer protégé oozing violence, and Keith is excellent as his handler/tutor, obsessed with the last words of their victims, recording them in his little notebook for posterity.  They’re tracking down unsuspecting travelers who have unknowingly smuggled heroin into the country and relieving them of their hidden drugs and often their lives.

But as much as Wallach and Keith are the stars, Siegel delivers one of San Francisco’s best movies as well, capturing some amazing shots of now long-gone pieces of the city.  The biggest star of these locations is Sutro’s, which by the time of the filming in 1957 was no longer a bathhouse but a massive museum/penny arcade/skating rink and much else.  It would burn down in 1966 and be eradicated and left to ruins ever since.  It’s remarkable to see inside it, but it also features for one of the best scenes in the movie, the showdown with “Mr. Big”.

But that’s not all of the SF sights now bygone.  The finale features a great car chase through the Presidio that ends on the then under-construction Embarcadero freeway which would be damaged in the 1989 earthquake and disassembled thereafter.  But also the scenes turn to the Steinhart Aquarium, remembered so well from Orson Welles’ noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947).  That too is gone, replaced with our modern Academy of Sciences.  There are exterior shots that include the whole plaza and the old DeYoung & Asian Art Museum.  There is also the Embarcadero YMCA (playing the Seaman’s Club).

Sorry to go on to such extents but it’s a fantastic use of the city as well as a wonderful document of the city as it was at the time.  A great thriller with action and character (and characters!)  Totally highly recommend!

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude (1971) movie poster

director Hal Ashby
viewed: 05/06/2016

A cult film by the time I saw it in the 1980’s, Harold and Maude is a black comedy somewhat of its time and somewhat out of time.  If nothing else, it has given us one of the great Ruth Gordon characters, an extreme converse to her evil evil evil neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the septuagenarian Holocaust survivor free spirit extraordinaire Maude.

In the 1980’s there wasn’t I much hated more than the 1970’s.  And this odd little film is super-steeped in its place in period that even its amusing morbidity and its anti-establishment attitude clashed against the Cat Stevens soundtrack of soft and easy folk rock.  And Bud Cort, part of why he winds up lovable is because he’s such a permanent weirdo of a guy, fitting in nowhere, no time, ever.

Hal Ashby is one of the directors highlighted in Peter Biskind’s 1998 history of 1970’s American filmmaking, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, whose only film I had ever seen was Harold and Maude and still is to this day though several of his films sit in my long, long film queue.

This viewing was for my kids.  I was looking for a change-up and what more out of left field can you get than this film that fits in with the incongruous and eclectic shelf of old school cult movies?  It wound up just me and my daughter watching it, but she enjoyed it.  I hadn’t seen it in probably 2 decades.  It has that added benefit of being filmed in part in San Francisco, in particular at the Sutro Ruins which I have long visited and which have eroded considerably since this film was shot.

Yes, the best scene is when Harold’s mother (the terrific Vivian Pickles) fills out a dating questionnaire for her son with her increasingly personal reactions rather than his.

After the Thin Man (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) movie poster

director W.S. Van Dyke
viewed: 12/31/2015

I settled myself down for a The Thin Man (1934) marathon with TCM for New Year’s Eve, kind of knowing I wouldn’t make it all the way through.  Though I’d seen the first film a few times, I hadn’t ever watched any of the other films in the series.

After the Thin Man picks up where The Thin Man left off, with Nick and Nora Charles (the splendid William Powell and Myrna Loy) back in San Francisco, just trying for a quiet New Year’s Eve when friends, family, and a murder mystery step in on their fun.

Though it was two years since the first film, director W.S. Van Dyke was back with screenwriters  Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, from a story by Dashiell Hammett.  Stretched to 2 hours, the picture packs in a lot of charm and comedy as well as a slew of character actors and even a young Jimmy Stewart!

It’s not quite the martini-swilling romp of the first film, but Powell and Loy make the thing fully worthwhile.

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman on the Run (1950) movie poster

director Norman Foster
viewed: 11/30/2015

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City earlier this year at the Castro Theater in San Francisco ran a restoration of the 1950 B-movie Woman on the Run, describing it as “the best cinematic depiction ever of mid-20th century San Francisco.”  Unfortunately, I missed the showing but as luck would have it, the film is in the public domain and is available on Amazon Prime as well as through the Internet Archive.  While the print is watchable, it surely makes you yearn to see a restored version of it.

There is a ton of old San Francisco on display in the film, indeed far more than any one other film I can think of.  It’s a rich glimpse into the real streets and vistas of the city from a time now 65 years past, many generations gone.  And watching the muddy-ish old unrestored version, I just kept wishing to see it in more pristine form.  Hopefully, a DVD of the restored version will be released.

The film itself is a good yarn, if not exactly the most believable or straightforward a story.  A man out walking his dog witnesses a murder of a murder witness, gets shot at and then lams out.  The police and a reporter chase after his mostly estranged wife (Ann Sheridan as the titular “woman on the run,” although it’s her husband who’s on the run, not her) hoping to track the man down.  Spoiler alert!  The gunman is the reporter.  I’m not really sure how this twist makes sense.  Seems like the police would know that he was the guy they were after.

As a San Franciscan of 25 years, the setting makes the picture, moreso than other noirs set in The City like Dark Passage (1947), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), or D.O.A. (1950).  Shots from Telegraph Hill, the Embarcadero, and Chinatown, as well as other more average streets and then finally in part at Playland at the Beach (though apparently some of the finale was actually shot at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.)

I will totally watch the remastered version of this film the first chance I get.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) movie poster

director Philip Kaufman
viewed: 09/27/2015

It’s tempting to think that every generation gets its own Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Though it’s really this version of the film that even brought that into being, the first re-make of the original adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel “The Body Snatchers”.  The 1956 film by Don Siegel, echoed explicitly here in Philip Kaufman’s re-make, loaded with Red Scare paranoia of one kind or another was certainly a thing of the 1950’s.  But what is the working metaphor here, in the late 1970’s?

Whatever the subtext, Kaufman’s film is a terrific horror tale, developing the scares and paranoias through a subtly building freak-out where the regular people are getting replaced with vegetable doppelgangers, lacking emotion, but able to accusingly point and howl menacingly as all get out.

The film stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, features a cruel pop-psychiatrist Leonard Nimoy, a young Jeff Goldblum and an always evocative Veronica Cartwright.  And, perhaps notable as well, a damp and gray late 1970’s San Francisco, whose muted exteriors are not the stuff of postcards but of mundane nightmares.  Vividly captured as well.

Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 film and Don Siegel, director of that classic, both appear in brief cameos, McCarthy’s as an almost continuum of where the older film left him in 1956 suddenly still freaking out on cars threatening the doom of “They’re coming!  They’re coming!” like that was all he’d been doing for 22 years.  Siegel interestingly has joined the dark side as a cabbie with ulterior motives.

So it’s not Communism, nor is it the fear of the Red-baiting Commie haters. It’s a gelatinous space seed blown on solar winds, not seemingly tied to one ideology or another.

The effects are more gruesome, in full color, though not necessarily the key to making this film compelling.  The most striking image of the film (perhaps besides the howling, pointing people) is the human-faced dog, a thing of nightmares.  This freaky image seems to have been handled in the most simplistic of ways.  It seems a mask of a human face on an actual dog, and the kicker, the creepiest moment, when the dog’s tongue runs out of the mouth and licks its face, it was probably just a dog…licking the mask.  Still, so effectively edited in, it’s a standout shocker to this day.

Kaufman’s Invasion is rich and eerie work.  Subtext or no.

Petulia (1968)

Petulia (1968) movie poster

director Richard Lester
viewed: 06/27/2015

Despite being directed by Richard Lester, the man behind two hipster Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), being photographed by the impeccable Nicolas Roeg, and featuring live music scenes featuring The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Petulia is a seriously unhip dud of a flick from 1968.

Shot on location in San Francisco in 1968, the “Summer of Love”, the film tries to pose a story of its time.  A middle aged doctor, played by George C. Scott, leaves his nuclear family as the times they were a-changing, seeking personal freedom and finds himself in the hippie/love-in era with a beautiful, troubled young woman, Petulia (played by Julie Christie) as his love interest.  Constructed in a non-linear fashion, I’m actually a little confused about the total order of events in the movie but at the same time don’t really care at all.

There is a stiffness to Scott’s character, the total square in the room trying to hang with the hipsters, but really the film feels like the square in the room too.  Whatever vibes the film tries to pick up and inflect feel mostly odd and on the outside, unlike films of this era that really seem to be infused with its true feeling and sensations.

My favorite moment was when Scott takes his two boys to watch some performing penguins somewhere in San Francisco.  I couldn’t totally figure out where it was though it seemed close to the Palace of Fine Arts.  I guess that is just how bored I was by this movie that that was the one point of interest I glommed on to.

Tragically square in San Francisco in the Summer of Love.

Greed (1924)

Greed (1924) movie poster

director Erich von Stroheim
viewed: 06/14/2015

Considered one of the Silent Era’s masterpieces, perhaps one of all-time cinema’s masterpieces, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed is indeed a major film of note.  It is also one of the epic masterpieces that was so sprawling in length (the original cut of the film was reportedly 7 to 10 hours long) that it was also ruthlessly edited down to a duration and form that the director, von Stroheim, ultimately utterly disowned.  The original uncut version has been described as “the Holy Grail” of film preservationists, but what we have here is the 140 minute release that MGM went with and which tanked at the box office, leading to Hollywood infamy.

Really, though, it seems that a lot of von Stroheim remains intact in this film.  Certainly, even at 140 minutes, Greed is still considered a masterpiece of cinema.

I had caught Greed at some point on public television.  I’m not sure when this was exactly.  I want to say it was in the  1980’s when I was first getting interested in film, because I remember hearing about it, its notoriety, and being interested, though daunted by the length.  The luminous and terrific ZaSu Pitts struck me at the time as reminding me of my high school girlfriend.  However much of the film I caught, I’m certain I didn’t catch it in its entirety.  It has since been one of the films I’ve most wanted to see again.

TCM plays all kinds of great movies and last Sunday they offered two films that I had long harbored desires to see, Dave Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) and von Stroheim’s Greed.  You never know with TCM, what films will be available on demand for a while after airing, or available on for a while after airing, or which films will end up in rotation again in a few months.  Such is their programming cycle, so I made it a point to watch the movies while I had a chance.

Greed is adapted from Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague, which is a tale of vice and avarice, set in Polk Gulch in San Francisco.  When published, McTeague was a tale of the times, a sociological parable, and a somewhat raw attempt at realism.  I’ve read the novel, and it’s really quite something.  But where the novel is interesting and well-worth reading, it’s certainly not “literature” at its highest levels, where arguably von Stroheim’s adaptation elevates the material to one of cinema’s most significant works.

Shot on location in San Francisco, Northern California, and Death Valley, the film stars Gibson Gowland as McTeague, the unlicensed dentist, Pitts as Trina, his wife and downfall, and Jean Herscholt as Marcus, Trina’s onetime boyfriend and villainous adversary turned by greed and envy.

The Greed we have is still remarkable.  The ending is really quite amazing, quite a lot as in the novel itself, an escape into Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth, utterly desolate and doomed, two men fight to the death but become chained together in handcuffs, leaving them both to ultimately die alone and far from anything, except the corpse of a horse and a bag of money with no value to them at all.

There is too much to say, too much to comment upon, for me to blather on about.  Besides, it’s been said and delved into far more deeply than I can with just one recent viewing.  I’m cutting it short here.  But what can I say, it’s an amazing film.