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Tag Archives: Horror

The Lost Moment (1947)

220px-poster_of_the_movie_the_lost_momentThe Lost Moment is based on Henry James’ novella The Aspern Papers, though the movie is rather different in tone and plot (I want to review the novella in a later post). The movie is more in the line of a Gothic thriller/romance, akin to Rebecca.

Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings) is an American publisher interested in the writings of American poet Jeffrey Ashton (Jeffrey Aspern in the novella), a poet in the mold of Shelley or Byron. Ashton had written exquisite poems to a lovely woman named Juliana (Agnes Moorehead). When Venable hears that Juliana is still living at 105 years of age, in Venice, and that she might possess love letters from Ashton, he is determined to get his hands on those papers and publish them.

After his request by letter is refused, he visits her under a false name and becomes a lodger (she is badly in need of money). Also living with Juliana is her niece, Tina (Susan Hayward), who is distinctly hostile to Lewis. The entire house is riven with secrets and everyone – Tina, Juliana, and Lewis – are obsessed with those passionate love letters and the poet who wrote them.

There’s sort of a mystery, though not everything is answered at the end. Lewis feels strong hero-worship for Jeffrey Ashton and seems all to ready to topple headfirst into the ghost-ridden, self-contained fantasy world that Juliana and Tina have constructed for themselves.

Interestingly, the story ends up being Tina’s story most of all. When we first meet her, Susan Hayward plays her like a young Mrs. Danvers in training (seriously – if someone had ever made a movie about the backstory of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, Susan Hayward would have been a candidate). She has the same frigidity, same way of doing her hair, the habit of suddenly appearing without having seemed to have walked, same hostility to the new member of the household.

However, as the story unfolds, she reveals an exceedingly vulnerable side to her character. It’s almost like she’s playing dual roles, with her soul at stake. But unfortunately, the film ends too abruptly and there are many questions that are never answered about her. Who were her parents? How is she really related to Juliana? Why does the priest say that she never had a chance at happiness from the moment she was first born? We needed a bit more.

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Agnes Moorehead, playing 105 years of age

Agnes Moorehead, on the other hand, is nearly unrecognizable as Juliana. When the film came out, much was made about her makeup…and deservedly so. She’s plays her like a dried up husk of a human who seems more like a ghost than a real human, shrunken into herself. I would never have known it was her if I hadn’t already known it was her. Juliana lives on her letters and memories from Jeffrey Ashton

There is something very poisonous about her, even though Tina initially comes across as the hostile one. Almost as though Juliana was inadvertently possessing Tina (Plot Spoiler: Tina occasionally goes into fits where she imagines that SHE is Juliana and steals the letters from Juliana). Juliana even complains at one point about feeling as though she had lost Jeffrey to Tina. She resents her, but sort of inhabits her, as well.

It’s a fascinating movie. Imperfect. There is a potential villain who’s character ultimately goes nowhere and the last third does not quite live up to the first two-quarters, either. The film built such an excellent ghostly feel, but didn’t quite know how to wrap it all up.

The film is the only movie directed by Martin Gabel and it’s somewhat uneven at times, though I do not possess the necessary cinematic knowledge to say why. It just feels uneven, how scenes transition – not as seamless as, say, a Hitchcock film. However, The Lost Moment fairly reeks of atmosphere and I liked the score by Daniele Amfitheatrof (who also wrote a gorgeous and moving score for Letter From an Unknown Woman).

Robert Cummings actually does pretty well. He is borderline smarmy, which seems to suit the character, willing to use all the women to get what he wants, including a highly impressionable and young maid. The film is not quite, properly speaking, a romance. The filmmakers seem to be trying to bend the story in that direction at the end, but it by no means feels inevitable.

Another Plot Spoiler: The final irony of the film, I thought, was the ultimate fate of Jeffrey Ashton (a fate completely made up for the movie). He is this extraordinary poet, writing passionate love letters to the Divine Juliana and her extraordinary eyes, yet at the end of the film, he is revealed to have been just another cad, loving and leaving his woman. Ultimately, he comes off as less extraordinary than the people in the movie: Juliana, Tina. It’s the opposite in the novella, where the characters prove to be rather inadequate compared to the glorious poet.

Juliana ends up being the one who holds the key to the whole story, though she is not in the movie as much as Tina and Lewis Venable. But Agnes Moorehead does a magnificent job of sort of haunting the film. We don’t even get a good look at her face half the time she is in the scene, but she still haunts it. Like a living ghost. I would have enjoyed seeing more of her and getting more of her story and Tina’s. It’s not often that one complains about a movie being too short, but this is one of those times.

This is my contribution to “The Agnes Moorehead Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, who I want to thank for hosting this marvelous event! Click here for all the rest of the posts about her.

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Posted by on December 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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Evening Primrose (1966)

mv5bmtmzmde2ntuzml5bml5banbnxkftztcwndm1mjy4mw-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_Evening Primrose is a musical written for the television series ABC Stage 67, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and I am indebted to Realweegiemidget for making me aware of this film. It sounded too quirky to pass up. A sort of grotesque little Romeo and Juliet set in a department store.

Anthony Perkins is Charles Snell, a poet who decides to get away from the world and devote himself to inspiration and poetry by hiding out in a department store. To his surprise, however, the department store is  already inhabited by people, who pose as mannequins during the day and live their lives at night. Almost all of them are elderly. Mrs. Monday (Dorothy Stickney) is the original resident, arriving in the department store before the turn of the century. During various depressions (1921, 1929) more people arrived.

There is one young person there, however. Ella Harkins (Charmian Carr) was left in the department store as a child and now works as a servant to Mrs. Monday, though she is viewed and treated as an outsider. Charles is immediately enchanted with her, but Mrs. Monday and her people have very strict rules. One does not associate with Ella, who is not living there from choice; one cannot ever leave (they are afraid of exposure); and one apparently must do everything Mrs. Monday says, who’s really running a kind of snobby dictatorship. Her will is enforced by “the Dark Men,” mysterious inhabitants of a mortuary who periodically visit to enforce Mrs. Monday’s laws by turning people into mannequins.

It makes one wonder very much how many of the mannequins are really mannequins and how many are simply corpses. Interestingly, all the mannequins are young people. Though one perhaps could make a case that the elderly inhabitants, playing their bridge, dancing their waltzes, are half-mummified, too.

It’s ironic. Charles left the world so he could leave the petty money and social concerns of life and encounters another oppressive society in microcosm in the department store. Ella and Charles have to meet on the sly while he teaches her how to read and do arithmetic. It’s actually very touching, along with Ella’s desire to “see the world,” which she can barely remember. She poignantly sings about her memories in a song that compares things like the sky to various department store items.

It’s a rather romantic film, if ironic and deeply quirky, even horror-ish, and it totally had me going until the end, at which point I was a little horrified. I laughed, and was a bit horrified.

downloadEvening Primrose, as I understand it, is distinctly minor Sondheim, but the songs are rather catchy and poignant, especially “Take Me to Your World. It was televised in color, but only recently did they find and released the black and white copy on DVD. It still looks rather grainy, but the film has a certain atmosphere about it. It made me think of a wax museum.

I must admit to being taken aback to learn that Anthony Perkins did a musical, but he does well. His voice has a somewhat limited range, but it works for the role. Charles Snell is still a little eccentric, but one still feels completely invested in his character.

I can’t help but think of Charmian Carr as Liesl, but it was nice to see in her an another film. Here, she is sad, eager, both brimming for life and longing for it – they are a rather adorable couple. If you like Perkins or Carr, are in the mood for something a little offbeat or are a fan of Stephen Sondheim, it’s definitely worth seeing.

The film can currently be seen on youtube.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Unknown (1927) – Joan Crawford Blogathon

PosterunknownusxI was going to call The Unknown a horror story, but that doesn’t exactly capture the essence of the film. It is more like a macabre and lurid melodrama.

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife-thrower who is obsessed with Nanon (Joan Crawford), the daughter of the circus owner (Nick De Ruiz). Alonzo is not alone, however, in wanting Nanon. Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry) is the strongman of the circus and is also interested in her.

But Nanon has an extreme phobia of men’s hands. She says they have never done anything but paw her and one wonders very much about her father (who seems like the abusive type). She is attracted to Malabar, but she shrinks from him every time he tries to touch her. The only man she feels safe around is Alonzo.

But Alonzo has a secret. He really has two arms, though he keeps them hidden and strapped down for his act. He is also wanted by the police for theft and murder and would easily be recognized by his two thumbs on one hand. But as Cojo (John George), his assistant, tells him, he could never marry Nanon anyway. On their wedding night she would discover he really has arms and she would hate him.

But as Cojo also knows, Nanon does not look on Alonzo has a potential lover. She views him as a surrogate father, though this seems to have escaped Alonzo. There is one scene in the middle of the film where she leans in to embrace Alonzo and for a moment Cojo (and we the audience) thinks she’s going to kiss him on the lips, but instead she leans against his cheek. Cojo is visibly disappointed because he realizes what it means, but Alonzo is in an ecstasy that she kissed him at all. He’s already left reality and it’s scenes like this that make me love silent film, how they can convey so much without a word.

Alonzo smoking with his feet while Nanon asks him about their future plans now that her father is dead

Alonzo using his foot to hold and smoke his cigarette

Another remarkable scene occurs when he is moodily smoking and thinking about Nanon while Cojo watches in fascination. Alonzo’s arms are not strapped down to his sides, but instead of using his hands to hold his cigarette, habit takes over and he unconsciously uses his feet to light and hold his cigarette, while his arms hang at his side like dead weights. It’s a remarkable physical performance by Chaney (though much of knife-throwing and other stunts involving the use of legs and feet were done by a double, Peter Desmuke, who really was without two arms).

But this lack of dependence on his arms leads Alonzo to a a rather grotesque conclusion. Why not simply remove his arms for real? What’s rather alarming is that given his goals (avoiding the police, winning Nanon), there is a certain logic to this conclusion. He just does not take into account that Nanon does not love him or that Malabar will finally figure out why Nanon shrinks from him (his hands) and work to overcome it.

When Alonzo returns after having his arms removed, and finds that Nanon is cured of her hand phobia, he goes mad in spectacular fashion and the ending is a real killer. The pitch of tension created is almost unbearable.

The film was directed by Tod Browning and it was nice to see some of his silent work and not just think of him as the guy who directed Dracula. This was evidently the sort of story that he excelled at. Unfortunately, the present print of The Unknown seems to be missing some footage and flies by at a breathless pace of 50 minutes! It makes the film feel unnaturally rushed at certain points, as if we’re dashing between plot points.

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Joan Crawford as Nanon

Lon Chaney is, of course, magnificent (he seems to combine subtlety and intensity with over-the-top charisma), but I was really watching the film for Joan Crawford. The most recent Joan Crawford film I saw before The Unknown (1927) was Johnny Guitar (1954) and in The Unknown she is so young that I hardly recognized her as the same woman. She is much looser, more relaxed, almost girlish, but still with the dynamism that would propel her to stardom. I’ve never thought of her as uptight, but after watching how loose she was in The Unknown, I’ve begun to rethink that. Tense? Tightly-coiled in later films? But in The Unknown she’s almost naturalistic.

And maybe it’s partly the absence of her voice. Somehow, while watching The Uknown the voice I was hearing in my head was not Joan Crawford’s voice (whenever I see someone like William Powell in a silent film, I can always hear his voice). It made her seem less tough, more vulnerable.

But she could definitely hold her own against Lon Chaney. She may be playing a somewhat naive, emotionally battered and vulnerable young woman, but she was not overwhelmed by Chaney. I could have actually wished for more at the end, more of a confrontation between them, more time for her character to register the revelation of Alonzo’s real character. I felt rather cheated of a show down between them, though perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, Lon Chaney was a well established star and it’s his movie all the way. But knowing what she’s capable of, I still felt the loss. Though perhaps it was more the fault of the film’s rapid pace and missing footage.

It’s clear that even if sound had not come to the movies, Joan Crawford would have been a star. Although she went through a variety of personas – flapper (Our Dancing Daughters) during the silent era, shop-girl making her way through a tough depression-ridden, male-dominated world – The Unknown felt like a pre-persona role, which might also account for the apparent naturalism. I had to keep reminding myself that I was indeed watching Joan Crawford. Which made the role all the more interesting.

This post is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to whom I am most grateful for hosting this event! For more great posts on Joan Crawford, click here.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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