Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Heart of an Actor: Why I Love Boris Karloff

When we're younger we have less respect for hard work and dedication and more appreciation of the cliched and showy. We make grand pronouncements about what's great in this area, what's great in that and through it all hold fast that our youthful convictions are not only accurate and correct but always will be. As a parent to four children ranging in age from 8 to 20 I've seen the black and white certitude of youthful judgment firsthand from the other side as well. When we get older however we learn to, as the cliche states, appreciate the finer things, those things not necessarily thrown in front of our collective faces with lights flashing and bells ringing. Since childhood I have acted, played and composed music, drawn and painted and worked on short films. I love the arts and my view of the arts has changed as dramatically as my view of most other things in life.

I find myself now reacting with cringes and bristles to much of what I accepted without question in my youth. In youth I would have ranked Jimi Hendrix as the greatest guitarist ever and probably did but as an adult who loves the guitar I can now see the foolishness of such a proclamation. Oh it's not that Hendrix wasn't great and didn't know his way around a six-string, it's that in his short time here he didn't leave enough of a record and never grew as I know he would have beyond the basic trappings and limitations of the blues and rock and roll form. I'd still rank him pretty high but now find myself much more impressed with the fretwork of Wes Montgomery or Django Reinhardt or Les Paul. Hell, if I had to rank the 25 greatest guitarists of all time probably no more than two or three rock and roll guitarists would even make the list. But rock and roll is showy and rock and roll critics never grow much older than seventeen intellectually so don't expect much of a shakeup next time you stumble across a "Best Guitarists of All Time" list. Expect Hendrix near the top. Again. Look for the incredibly rich, expansive and mature stylings of Wes, Les and Django much further down the list and don't bother looking for geniuses like Barney Kessel or Jim Hall at all. Most twenty-something rock critics don't even know who they are.

Same goes with most of the other arts and certainly acting is no exception. When I was a teen studying acting and learning my craft it's probably an easy guess who I spent a lot of time brooding over as the all-time great. Brando. Of course. And again, as with Hendrix, I'm certainly not here to tell you that Brando wasn't great. Like Hendrix, he was. But something happened to me with acting as I watched thousands and thousands of movies and became a figure of authority and responsibility to four children getting ready to face the world. I began to greatly appreciate hard work. Greatly. Let's face it, Brando phoned in more than his allotted share of performances throughout his career and while that amuses me most of the time there arrives a point when it irritates me as well. I love Marlon Brando in many ways but it also feels like he never quite matured as he should have. Willaim Redfield, known to most people, if at all, as the chain-smoking patient Dale Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was an actor working in theatre since the thirties and he had great hope for Brando. He felt Brando could bring to America the theatrical tradition that existed in Britain. But it was not to be. Redfield repeated in interviews later in life how disappointed he was in Brando's lack of dedication and his abandonment of the theatre. As a youth I might not have understood that but as an adult I feel Redfield's disappointment.

And all of this brings us around to a conversation I had with my wife just two days ago. We were talking about Peter Cushing and I remarked that when Cushing was making Star Wars, just one year after making At the Earth's Core, he had no idea of the magnitude of the success that Star Wars would have. Working on a soundstage in front of odd, futuristic looking sets he must have imagined this film would result in roughly the same level of technical quality as his previous Amicus production and probably around the same fate financially. And yet there he was turning in a goddamned performance, a real performance, despite it all. Peter Cushing did not phone it in. And neither did Boris Karloff, but more than that, Karloff was the one who set the standard.

Boris Karloff came to prominence in the most stepped on, beaten about and disrespected genre of filmmaking there is, horror. He played Frankenstein's monster and played it supremely well. So well that he became the standard bearer for the genre for most of the next two decades. He played the monsters, the mad scientists and even the dangerous butler and he played them all at the top of his form. Karloff must have known that despite his fame and popularity he was being sneered at by lesser known actors of the legitimate theater and he didn't care. He never stated it publicly, at least not to any direct degree, and never let it affect a performance. Hell, he even gave his all in this lighter commercial!

While other actors complained about being typecast Karloff revelled in it (as noted in the quote in the banner above - seen here for those using a reader view) and never let it affect his attitude. Whatever part he was given he would devote to it all of the skills and tools he had accumulated in learning the craft of acting. Karloff lent respect and credence to the growing success story of the horror genre in the thirties. The fact that such a fine actor happened to be where he was at the time Universal was casting Frankenstein, preventing the role from going to a lesser actor who may never have filled the role with the necessary pathos, is an act of supreme historical luck and a great gift to the genre and all fans of it.

And another stroke of incredible luck was that this actor of such awe-inspiring talent was also an actor of hark work and dedication. The genre not only needed someone with talent to lend it respect but someone willing to be a refined and well-spoken cheerleader inviting in the masses that might otherwise turn away.

As for myself, I came to realize all of this much later in life. As a youth I saw all the Universal classics and loved them through and through. I knew Karloff was a good actor but never thought of him as a great actor, so blind was I to the brilliantly mimed performance of Frankenstein. Then, years later, older and hopefully wiser in the ways of film, I saw The Body Snatcher. It was a revelation. I was immediately struck by the supreme artistry on display as I watched Karloff's murderous John Gray weave webs of cunning charm and sinister pseudo-sincerity all the while hypnotizing the viewer. It was a brilliant performance, sadly and unfairly ignored for consideration for an Oscar during the time of its release.

Not long after seeing The Body Snatcher Karloff began to elevate in my mind as an actor and soon, very soon, he was among my favorites. And his hard work and dedication to the genre that he helped achieve its greatest success inspired other actors of dedication to follow, such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

I can offer up many accolades to Boris Karloff as an actor but for me, personally, it is his hard work in honing his skils to complete his craft that stands above all else and says something to me about him as a person. There are and will continue to be several great actors in the world of film and I like many of them but as I get older I love Boris more and more and it's only natural. Karloff goes better with age, or better put, age goes better with Karloff. Boris Karloff was and is an actor for grown-ups, and that's the highest praise I can offer.


This post has been a contribution to Pierre Fournier's Boris Karloff Blogathon taking place at Frankensteinia this week.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Lost Frankenstein Film

Rare still from Frankenstein Meets the Jazz Singer, produced and abandoned by Universal and Warners in the mid-thirties. In this shot the monster performs "Mammy" in Green-Face.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Time to Kick Back

I have a few things I'm writing now and others in development but this week is done. It's a holiday week meaning, for me at least, the house will be full, friends will be stopping by and family flying in. I'll keep putting up the pics on The Invisible Edge and The Gunslinger (well, maybe not Thursday) but I think I'll wrap it up here until next week when I post for the Boris Karloff blogathon hosted by Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia. It lasts from the 23rd through the 30th. Meantime, I'll see you on The Edge, The Gunslinger and Facebook. To all my stateside friends - Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Toerifc November

If you've seen Mishima, Toerifc's November selection, recently or know it well enough already please head over to Crips and Mutes, the home of blogger Krauthammer, for a full discussion of the film starting at 10:00 a.m. this morning (or apparently, thereabouts. Let's call it "tennish" at this point) EST. Hope to see you there.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

January 12, 2010

In less than two months, on that date, Luise Rainer will be 100. I can handle the cake but could someone help with the cups, plates and napkins? Also, anyone know if this is on the Mayan calendar?

Seriously though, 100. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn (100 in 2007) and Bette Davis (100 in 2008) Luise will be around to celebrate it with us, God willing. Now Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine just have to make it to theirs, in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Kirk Douglas reaches his 100th in 2016 as well. Almost all of Classic Hollywood, and by the use of "classic" here I am referring to the first wave of sound productions in the thirties and forties before television took hold, is gone. There are only a few left. After they go, all of what is known to us as "Hollywood's Golden Age" will be academic.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TOERIFC November
(plus other TOERIFC announcements)

First and foremost, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is the selection for TOERIFC November and will be hosted by Krauthammer on Monday the 23rd. It is not, repeat NOT, available on i-tunes, Amazon Video on Demand or Netflix Instant which means you have to get the DVD itself. If you have not done so DO IT NOW! It will be upon us in only six days.

Second, I'd like to request that we bump everyone back a month and take December off. I know that pushes people back one more month who have been waiting a long time to host a selection but I think it's important that we give ourselves some downtime to avoid overload burnout and December is the perfect month for it in my opinion. If you've got kids it's the time where, starting around the middle of the month (which is usually when we post), school is school "in name only" and preparations are being made for the oh-so insufferable holidays as they quickly approach and so it'd be nice to just take a month off. Last December I took a whole week off from just before Christmas to after the New Year and it was great. I highly recommend it.

Third, I've still got everyone's e-mails who wants to be a part of it and I'm happy to put their link in the sidebar (which I will eventually) but if you are interested I ask two things only: Put "Toerifc" in the subject header of the e-mail for easy retrieval later and two, participate. I'm not calling anyone out you understand, I'm really not. I'm simply saying that I get e-mails asking how someone can be a member and write up a film. I write back and say all you have to do is watch the movie and join in and at a later date we can discuss when you can host a selection. Then, nothing. They never join in. Now we have several members who have trouble joining in due to work and time issues. I understand that and have noted that pretty much all of them still manage to chime in with at least one comment to offer praise on the write-up and apologize for not being able to take part. I've got nothing but thanks for anyone who takes the time to do that and if you go to the main site you will see their names on the selection list and they'll stay there. So if you've had trouble joining in due to work or time, believe me, I understand and I'm not referring to you. But for anyone thinking about e-mailing me whose only real interest is in drawing attention to their blog via a write-up, well, that's not really what we're about. We really are here to discuss the movie in question and if that's what you want to do then by all means you are welcome any time.

That's all and remember: Mishima, Monday, November 23rd at 10:00 a.m. EST. Hope to see you there. Below is the sidebar banner for anyone who wants to use it. Thanks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

At the River Crossing
Edward Woodward 1930-2009

"These are memories to be hoarded" - Harry "Breaker" Morant

The first time I had any real knowledge of who Edward Woodward was was in the 1984 Hallmark Hall of Fame version of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. In that version Woodward plays the Ghost of Christmas Present and in every version of A Christmas Carol I have ever seen (and I have damn near seen them all including several versions on stage) I stack up the actor playing that part against Woodward. They always come up short.

Edward Woodward was an actor of formidable ability. He enjoyed brief fame on television as the title character of The Equalizer, a show I enjoyed watching if only for him, but if one really wants to understand the depth of Edward Woodward the actor one need view only two films, The Wicker Man and Breaker Morant. He is brilliant in both.

I saw both films not upon their release but years later after seeing Woodward in A Christmas Carol and The Equalizer. In The Wicker Man Woodward plays the part of the self-righteous rigidly Christian policeman so well that I would have sworn that's who he was as a person had I not seen his other work that convinced me likewise in respect to their characters. When one thinks of the superb film that is The Wicker Man one has to wonder how effective the film would have been without the central character being utterly believable. In other words, I don't watch that film and see an actor playing a self-righteous man that the audience will lose sympathy for, no. I see a character filled with piety who believes in his principles and is trying in his heart and according to his religion to do the right thing and save an abducted girl. Woodward lets the rigid adherence to dogma show but never lets the audience off the hook by making his character despicable like a mad Christian zealot. The audience believes that his character would in fact abandon some of his beliefs if it meant saving that little girl and that's a hell of a feat on the part of Woodward.

And then there is Breaker Morant, a beautiful and fascinating film that is by all measure the final argument one needs in the case of Edward Woodward, underappreciated actor. As Harry "Breaker" Morant he blends the rugged militaristic rough edges of an Australian officer fighting in the Boer War with the soul of a poet. His performance is magnificent and the denial of an Oscar nomination underlined the lack of peer recognition this great actor would receive throughout his career.

Edward Woodward died on November 16 at the age of 79 from complications from various illnesses including pneumonia. He will be missed.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Land Before CGI
Raise the Titanic

In 1980 Raise the Titanic was released to across the board pans from the critical community. The public too seemed dissatisfied with the film as it tanked at the box office. Even today all it can muster on IMDB is a rating of 3.9. So, were the original pans warranted? Yes and no. In all honesty, it's not a very good movie, granted, but it's not the worst thing ever made either. It's a cold war thriller and as far as that kind of thing goes it's decent but not without problems. The main problem of Raise the Titanic is a supreme lack of confidence in its story, taken from the novel of the same name penned by Clive Cussler. Directed without an ounce of flair by Jerry Jameson it plods through scenes that need not exceed seconds in length and exits quickly scenes that actually might hold interest. It's maddening watching someone direct a film counter to all common sensical instincts but by God that's exactly what Jameson does. To make matters worse the movie's third act is clearly truncated and rushed through. The tale of trying to extract a rare mineral thought to have been placed as cargo aboard the Titanic in 1912 spends 90 percent of the movie talking about what to do (raise the Titanic of course!) then 10 percent doing it in a race towards a climax and dénouement.

Critics and audiences were most likely reacting to the film's price tag of 40 million dollars at a time when the average film cost around eight. It is unfortunately fairly clear that 39 million went into the Titanic raising part of the movie and a million or so went to everything else. But again, as a cold war thriller with a twist ending it's not entirely bad but yes, one can find better thrillers elsewhere so why bother?

Well, because its Titanic raising sequence is pretty damn amazing for those of us who still appreciate great model work done in the most difficult setting imaginable for a miniatures/model artist to work: water. Water cannot be scaled down. It is the size it is, period, so when a big drop passes by the model it becomes clear that it's a model. High powered fans are often used to blow small thin ripples briskly across the surface while high-speed cameras shoot the action to be played back at a slower speed, hopefully simulating an ocean rather than a pool. Sometimes the effect works, sometimes it doesn't. Here, for the most part, it works. The model for the Titanic is fairly big as these things go, approximately 55 feet in length, so much of the miniature effects look good even in the water. Only a couple of shots, particularly an early one of the anchor, betray the model for what it is. The sequence was filmed in Malta and directed by Ricou Browning with superb sound editing by William Wistrom. Enjoy the clip and please remember this film was made in 1980, six years before Bob Ballard pinpointed the wreck and discovered it had broken in two before settling on the sea floor. I say this not to my usual informed readers but to anyone who may stumble across this piece by a random google search without possessing the proper historical knowledge since, remarkably, the ship coming up in one piece is criticized on many message boards I have come across for not being historically accurate. Most do not realize that unlike what is shown in the James Cameron film the ship most likely broke apart just beneath the surface hence the lack of eyewitness accounts of the ship's separation (although there were a couple of eyewitness theories along those lines based on the sounds they heard). At the time of this film's release the prevailing view was that the Titanic had gone down in one piece.

One last thing. If you are interested in the behind the scenes of the model work and filming done for this movie there is no more valuable place to go on the internet than this Raise the Titanic YouTube page where you can see great stills of the model in production here as well as a host of other interesting morsels for your consumption.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Order and Uncertainty
Random Thoughts on A SERIOUS MAN

This rambling piece of writing is an attempt to bring together various and disparate thoughts on A Serious Man. A month after the film's release it is, as the classic cliche states, a day late and a dollar short. Its position is clear enough, here on this blog, but its momentum, if any, cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

Understanding physics is easy. I've been studying it as a layman since childhood and have found it fascinating, enlightening and useful. Where there are questions it provides answers. Where there are answers it provides questions. Like I said, it's easy. It's the math that's hard.

Religion works along the same lines. My father was a Brother in the Carmelite Order in the 1950s. He renounced his vows and left, which in turn allowed me to enter the world. While my father remains a believer he realized his belief ran in a more moderate direction and the strict seclusion of monastic life did not suit him. That life, he thought, provided too many rigid answers. He had too many questions that required more shades of gray than the black and white world of monastic life could provide. Besides, he found the strict adherence to ritual offputting. He never tires of telling me how strange it was to be told to be quiet when not a sound was being made. The head of the order would pass by his cell while he was engaged in the required contemplative prayer, stop, look in and say, "Brother Ferrara, please keep it down." That kind of bizarre ritualistic existence wasn't for him. But it is important because it represents the math, the nuts and bolts of the devotion to the monastic lifestyle. Trouble is he didn't want the math. He wanted the stories.

But do the stories mean anything? Do the parables of the Bible, the illustrative stories given in physics, the legends we create for our everyday lives - Do they mean anything, provide guidance in any way or are they just a way to comfort ourselves with eternal questions knowing if we ever arrived at an answer it would all be over? There are so many stories, so many examples, so many illustrations. How can solace be derived from such a confusing labyrinth of tradition, history and age old wisdom?

Let us approach this from a different angle.

Carl Sagan once illustrated how much reading one can do in a lifetime by using a row of bookshelves in the New York Public Library. He went by an average of two books a week for around seventy years. Were that the case one could hope to read 7,280 books in one's lifetime. This number took up only a few bookcases in the New York Public Library, a library that contains more books than one can read by factors of ten. Thus the library houses more books than anyone could ever possibly read. Even reading constantly for decades a person will come up extremely short given how much there is out there. No matter how hard one tries, no matter how much one reads, one will never read everything. "The trick," said Sagan, "is knowing which books to read."

But which books, or stories, do we read?

A Serious Man, the latest cinematic effort by Joel and Ethan Coen, is one of those illustrative stories in physics. It provides answers by asking questions and asks questions by giving answers. It takes the thought experiment of Schrödinger's cat and presents it in cinematic form. The characters are both dead and alive in the end and will only be one or the other if we the viewers open the box. Until we do, and we cannot, they will be both.

Or take the possible dybbuk of the prologue, a "dybbuk" being a wandering or evil spirit. A man is helped by a neighbor but his wife tells him the man who helped him died long before and that he was in fact a dybbuk. When the man/dybbuk shows up at their cottage and engages in polite conversation she stabs him with an ice pick. He continues to talk for a short while but soon after begins to bleed. He leaves before the couple can determine if he were a real man who would die from his wounds or indeed an evil spirit who would simply vanish. He is gone and his outcome is uncertain.

Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the film, teaches physics and early in the film argues with a student about the very idea of uncertainty and how it can be understood through math, while stories only exist to help illustrate the math. The student says he understands the stories but not the math and doesn't think he should fail. Understanding the stories should be enough. Larry understands the math but not the stories even admitting as much to the student. Since the purpose of the class, and of physics, is the math, he must fail the student if in fact the student doesn't understand the math. The student leaves and an envelope of money appears on Larry's desk. Did the student leave it as a bribe? He says he didn't, Larry says he did. Schrödinger's cat is now in play as the envelope itself becomes the cat, both existing (alive) and not existing (dead) according to which observation one goes with.

None of this, none of it, is helpful to Larry. At the moment of our story Larry's life is falling apart. The problem for Larry is that he teaches math and the math of his own life - his wife leaving him, his brother's employment, physical and legal problems, his children's wandering existence - doesn't form a coherent equation. It does not follow that this decision or that experience equals this crisis or that tragedy.

Larry Gopnik needs a story to illustrate the math of his life. In an effort to find one he visits three Rabbis to speak of his troubles and hopefully receive an answer. The first visit provides simple-minded questions asked by a junior Rabbi who has not yet experienced enough of life to go beyond that parking lot outside his office. What would those cars look like to someone unfamiliar with them?

The second Rabbi provides an amazing story of a mystical experience that has no conclusion, no climax, no payoff. It just... ends. But that story isn't about an ending. It's not about payoff. It's about looking for an answer to a riddle and realizing there isn't one and that once that is accepted, one can move on. This is entirely unsatisfactory to Larry. He can only move on with an explanation. Without one the mysteries of life become overwhelming. Larry cannot accept that an equation can be formed but not produce an end product of rational design.

The third Rabbi has the answer but Larry never gets to hear it. The third Rabbi, Marshak, has the wisdom to help Larry but the answer that Larry needs from him will take too long to explain, on the order of decades. There's an old adage in the fitness world that says there is a magic pill that can help one lose weight and get in shape, the only catch is it takes thirty minutes to swallow. It's called exercise. Rabbi Marshak has the answer that Larry needs but can't tell him. Larry has to provide the answer for himself and can do so with the only catch being that it takes decades to provide it. It's called life.

But what if Larry dies before that answer comes?

That's why he has to know which books to read. He has to know and he has to find out now with the only problem being that he can only find out by exploring each possible outcome, none of which provide certainty.

And there are so many outcomes.

The most wonderful thing about physics and religion is that they provide stories to illustrate the nuts and bolts of equations and life but the stories are so simplistic as to render them pointless as adequate descriptions. The complexities of scientific and theological thought usually produce the unfortunate by-product that stories designed to explain them actually lead the student down an entirely different path. Take Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It states that an the momentum or velocity of a particle and its position cannot be known simultaneously with certainty. Its momentum can be determined dependent upon how well defined is its wavelength but if its wavelength is not well-defined its position can be accurately measured but not its momentum. Essentially it is simply this: the requirements necessary to determine one run counter to the requirements for knowing the other. Thus, one can know with certainty only one at a time, never both simultaneously. And yet from this theory we get popular culture interpretations such as those found in Larry Gopnik's own class that we can never know anything. Heisenberg would be amused at how general and sweeping the explanations for his principle have become. His intricate model for stating the uncertainty in determining the position and momentum of a particle has been transmogrified into a nihilistic philosophy of life. So it goes.

Larry and indeed all of physics is as guilty as anyone for this oversimplification of the laws that order the universe. He too has come to believe that the stories provide more logic and understanding than the math. But they don't. Math provides the answers and in religion those answers come from the very mechanisms rejected by my father. It's the dull stuff, the rigid ritual, that gets one to a satisfactory conclusion. This is this. All else is masturbation.

But my Dad is no fool. He didn't want a pat sum to a pre-ordered equation. He wanted vagaries and ambiguities and all they can offer. He could only get this as a layperson, not a monk. The physicists and the Rabbis know the math. For them it's about measuring position and momentum. For the layperson it's about not knowing anything. From that position the layperson can then begin exploring their life and searching for answers that have no predetermined sum.

The Coen brothers know the stories of physics. They know the philosophies that have been born twisted and flipped around from what was originally a thesis filled with symbols and numbers, illustrative of nothing more than the laws of nature itself. They know that people look for answers that have soft edges and blurred lines. They don't like answers with visible definition. Tell the average Larry Gopnik that A + B = C and he's likely to want to know why it does and beyond that, what does it mean? Of course, it means nothing. It means that A + B = C. That's all. To find any further meaning requires a story, one that can illustrate why A and B come up with a C. And this quest for a story to explain the math is what tradition is all about. And this need to hear a story and tell a story is the meaning. It is the answer.

Carl Sagan was no fool either. He enjoyed playing the lay ideas of physics against the canonical ones of the experts in the field. He was often looked upon with resentment and suspicion by members of the physics community because it was felt he approached physics from too philosophical a position, one that played into the desires of the public to hear stories that illustrate the ideas because the math was simply too bewildering. But he knew that was how you got people interested in the math, by telling them a story. His illustration of how many books one can read in a lifetime was really a lesson on life. His remarkable conclusion that states, "The trick is knowing which books to read," is a paradox and Sagan knew it. One cannot read every book so one needs to know which books to read but one can only know which books to read by reading every book, which one cannot do. Thus one can never know which books to read. So live your life, and the answers you need will come and their meaning will be provided by you, exclusively. Who knew a physicist could be such a fine Rabbi?

And who knew a movie could so confidently illustrate a complex notion like uncertainty so concisely and so eloquently as does the last few minutes of A Serious Man? Position and momentum. Uncertainty and precise measurement. Actions with consequences, and actions without. Like the dybbuk in the prologue A Serious Man exits before an outcome is certain and that is what gives it all of its meaning. And beauty. And of that I'm certain.

Friday, November 6, 2009

On this Day, Gene Tierney

At the end of October I put up a post saying, essentially, that I hadn't done all I wanted to do. In a month in which I had planned to delve fully into the emotional passions involved in horror I had, to my eyes, come up short. As such, I said I was going to extend October celebrations throughout the year. Well, here's the first holdover. Warning: SPOILERS ABOUND!

On this day in 1991 Gene Tierney died from complications arising from emphysema. She was 70 years old. Tierney was both a beauty and a fine actress with more than her share of personal tragedy. If you'd like to read about her personal life there are more than a few online biographies you can turn to for information. The reason however that I was going to write about her in October was for the 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven which is a sort of spiritual Godmother to Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction. Her character even commits suicide but makes it look like murder which is exactly how Fatal Attraction was slated to end before preview audiences stepped in and became screenwriters causing nutless Adrian Lyne to gleefully change the ending of his own movie. Not so with Leave Her to Heaven which must have turned some heads back in 1945 with its tale of a woman so possessed, obsessed and heartless that she watches the helpless paralyzed brother of her husband drown and doesn't bat an eyelash. She throws herself down a flight of stairs just weeks before giving birth to force a miscarriage ... just to get sympathy and attention from her husband who she suspects is falling for her sister (she's right). And in the end, as noted above, she kills herself by poisoning and frames it on her sister. Damn.

These kinds of movies have always been popular whether the obsessed party is male (King of Comedy, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Fan) or female (the above mentioned Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction) there's just something really creepy about someone who won't stop thinking about you! In Leave Her to Heaven, one of the first of its kind, the same maddening and mystifying traits of the stalker/obsessor are examined. Ellen (Gene Tierney) has had relationships before so what is it about this one with Richard Harland (Cornell Wilde, and no, he doesn't blog at Movie Morlocks) that sends her over the edge? Her former fiance, played by Vincent Price, is clearly in love with her and wants her but she, for whatever reason, has locked her sights onto Harland and won't veer away. From the first unilateral decision she makes, announcing to everyone after only a single outing with Harland at her family ranch that they are to be married you know there's going to be trouble. Later, when Harland, a novelist, decides to dedicate his latest novel to Ruth (Jean Simmons), Ellen's sister, he is told by their mother, "Oh no. You should dedicate it to Ellen. You should dedicate all your books to Ellen." The mother knows what Richard is willfully choosing not to see and this is her way of warning him. Foolishly, he doesn't heed the warning and the events described above, leading to her suicide, begin to unfold. But does she win? Will Richard and Ruth go to prison for murder? Yes and no. I won't completely spoil the film for those who haven't seen it (although I've come pretty damn close) but it's compelling that the movie allows the murderous Ellen a even partial victory in the end. And on top of that, she went out at the hour and means of her own choosing effectively avoiding justice for her murderous deeds.

Leave Her to Heaven is a well told tale of murderous obsession and Tierney would never again have a role that demanded as much from her as an actress. She wasn't Ingrid Bergman or Katherine Hepburn it's true, but she was a damn good Gene Tierney and in this film, more than even Laura, she showed an impressive display of acting chops. This November 20th would have been her 89th birthday.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Calling All Krauthammers!
A TOERIFC All Points Bulletin

It occurs to me that the next TOERIFC movie, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is coming up soon but...

I don't know when!

And I cannot locate any e-mail anywhere for the mysterious Krauthammer who is the one covering it. So, Krauthammer, please comment below or e-mail me as to when the hell we're doing this thing. The 16th or the 23rd would work best. Let me know which is preferable.

And until we all find out when this is going to happen, everyone please get a hold of a copy of Paul Schrader's Mishima and give it a look so you can join in the discussion. Thanks.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Land Before CGI
San Francisco

One of the best parts of blogging is starting new features that are invariably forgotten, scuffed up, stepped on and finally, mercifully, left for dead. "I'm starting a new feature..." is bloggerspeak for "I'm bored and have an idea that I will stick with for one or two posts, maybe three, and then move on. Hope you're not expecting too much!" I've done it and most other film bloggers have done it too. Whether or not they want to own up to the whole sordid affair is their business. But here's the thing:

I'm starting a new feature!

And like a gambler convinced he's finally figured out a way to beat the system I am here to assure you it will not be forgotten. Why? Because in my feverish obsession with editing together images and effects and music I have already created enough clips for this feature to last well into 2011. I purposely held off starting it until I was absolutely positive I had enough clips to carry me through the lean years, as it were. And what is this new feature (hold for maximum reader letdown)? A celebration of miniature and effects work from before 1993, the year Jurassic Park all but effectively killed the miniature business in Hollywood. There are still great examples of miniature work done post 1993, like Independence Day, but not many. My feature will focus on the craftsmanship behind the work that went into creating these little worlds on the silver screen.

One very important point: The quality of the film is of no concern as evidenced by my mention of Independence Day. My concern is to celebrate great hands-on effects work from a bygone era, even if it is the only thing worth seeing in the whole movie. Also, if making fun of how "fake" miniatures and models look is your bag these posts will hold little appeal for you. I'm not here to poke fun at the amazing work done by craftspeople and artisans that the average person couldn't duplicate with a million dollars and all the time in the world if their life depended on it. I'm here to celebrate it. Each clip will start with the title and director but will end with the names of all involved in the production of the effects sequence, often uncredited on the movie itself but recognized today thanks to the complete credit listings for most movies found on IMDB. On the flip side I am also not here to deride CGI which I recognize is enormously important in the effects world today and has changed the industry immeasurably. It's just that celebrating the lost art of miniature and model work is the primary concern.

We start with San Francisco, a 1936 W.S. Van Dyke production with Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy. Its story of romance and business rivalry is well told but ends on a much too sentimental note to really embrace all that came before. Nonetheless, it is worth a viewing and the effects sequences for the earthquake are terrific.

Two of the most difficult things to deal with in miniature work are fire and water. Getting them "to scale" is impossible. A drop of water instantly betrays the size of the model ship it graces just as the size of a flame gives away the game for a model building. In San Francisco, effects photographer Loyal Griggs got around the problem as best he could by optically printing flames from a larger fire behind the models and making the models themselves as big as they could but still manipulative as miniatures.

Another problem faced with miniatures is the speed at which debris falls. On a larger scale it appears to fall more slowly and so high-speed cameras are employed to shoot the footage at many more frames per second than is custom so that it will play back at a slower but graceful speed. This sometimes but not always works. Note the dynamiting of the Victorian house in the clip. It is shown twice being dynamited. The first time looks like a model, the second time it appears much more natural. Why? The fault lies not with the high-speed photography but with the fact that the house was designed as a breakaway house rather than letting the explosives blow it apart. Thus, after the first explosion, we see whole sections of the house suddenly make clean breaks from the rest of the house betraying its model status. But the second explosion deals only with debris and as we see it fly into the air and slowly cascade down it has the look of the real thing.

Unfortunately, even on IMDB, the model makers are not listed, only members of the special effects crew. I hope that means the model makers as well because I would hate to not credit them for their extraordinary work. Also, as with any special effects sequence, sound is very important but the only credit is for the famed Douglas Shearer, head of the sound department. While he was certainly involved in many films of the era it was also common practice to simply put the head of the department on the credits (like Cedric Gibbons or Edith Head) giving short shrift to the many technicians working beneath them that often did most of the heavy lifting. I'd like to list the technicians who did such great Foley work on these scenes but sadly their names are lost to the ages.

Finally, let's remember that all the special effects members listed did some amazing full-scale work as well as seen when the street splits in two or the opera house starts breaking apart with hundreds of people inside. Enjoy.