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The Fly (1958)

220px-TheflyposterAt the end of The Fly, I hardly knew whether to giggle or shudder. I tried a little of both. It’s that kind of movie. The concept is both chilling and silly.

The movie opens with a woman, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens), in a warehouse who has just crushed a man’s head in a hydraulic press. She calls her brother-in-law, Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) and tells him she’s killed her husband, Andre (David Hedrison). Francois then calls the police. Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) thinks she must be insane. She’s obsessed with locating a certain house fly, one with a white head. Francois can’t imagine that she could do such a thing – he’s also always loved her, though he cared deeply for his brother, too. Finally, he gets her to tell him the truth, which is shown in a flashback, but is so incredible that Inspector Charas does not initially believe her. Not, he says, until they can show him the fly with the white head.

Most people coming into this film already know the plot, a scientist invents a teleportation device and when he tests himself in the device, a house fly gets mixed up in his DNA and he emerges part fly, with parts of his human self on the fly. But The Fly is framed as a mystery and I like how they build suspense, not because I am in the dark, but because the characters are in the dark. Inside the mystery framing is a flashback about Helene and Andre, their happy home, his ambition and his mistake that leads to tragedy.

The film really wants to deal with the theme of scientific hubris, the Frankenstein syndrome. A scientist is meddling with things he ought not to meddle with. Andre is all for progress and invention, but his wife is afraid at how fast things are changing. But it has occurred to me that the real problem with these kinds of scientists is not what they are trying to do. It is that they do it alone. It makes them prone to all sorts of silly errors, like putting an abnormal brain in their creation or not checking to make sure there is nothing else in the teleportation device except oneself. Really, such silly mistakes could easily be avoided by working with others.

Andre’s also unbelievably impetuous and reckless. He’s having some difficulty with his transporter, so what does he do? He tests it on the cat! I had a hard time forgiving him for that one (Griffin, in the novel The Invisible Man, also tests invisibility on the cat: the real message here seems to be that animal cruelty is always avenged with scientific catastrophe). And then Andre recklessly tests the device on himself.

photo-la-mouche-noire-the-fly-1958-10

David Hedrison is hiding his fly head under a blanket while his wife reacts to his fly arm – the film is actually in lush color

The plot, to be honest, doesn’t make the most amount of sense. Why does Andre decide to destroy all his research, as if it was the research itself that was the problem? And perhaps if he’d enlisted aid outside of his wife, more could have been done and he could have been saved. And why does he retain his mind when he’s lost his head and acquired a fly head? Perhaps I’m over-analyzing this. If you can accept the basic premise of the film, it’s rather compelling.

What makes it compelling is partially the setting. It’s a normal, domestic setting for such a freak accident. The real heart of the story is actually not Andre, but his wife, Helene. We see everything in the flashback from her perspective, the horror of finding a fly head on her beloved husband. Andre keeps his fly head covered for much of the time and we only see it when she does and we come to realize as she does that the fly DNA is gradually taking over his instincts. We sense her sense of futility at the impossibility of trying to find a fly (Andre needs the fly with the white head so that he can put himself and the fly through the disintegrator-integrator device in the hope that it will unscramble their respective DNA). Imagine trying to locate one household fly, which could be anywhere. And then she freely admits to killing her husband, but then acts insane in an effort to shield her son, Phillipe (Charles Herbert), from what happened. She’d rather Phillipe have a mother who’s mad than hung.

Vincent Price has the rather unusual role of Andre’s brother. Unlike his brilliant, scientific brother, he is the boring, understanding and steady type who has always loved Helene, but is not jealous of his brother and is also a caring uncle. It’s a more understated role for him, but he’s still good. I think his mere presence serves to lend more credibility to the plot than it could otherwise have.

Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert, and Vincent Price

Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert, and Vincent Price

The role of Inspector Charas is played by Herbert Marshall, another veteran actor who I’ve always had a weak spot for. One of my favorite movies as a child was The Secret Garden with Margaret O’Brien and he played Mr. Craven. As Inspector Charas, he gives a sympathetic, but no-nonsense, performance. He is trying to handle the matter delicately – since he believes Helene to be insane – but no matter how much Francois begs him, he must issue a warrant for her arrest. I think his general no-nonsense performance also lends credibility, especially to an ending that  could have been laughable farce.

Apparently, Price and Marshall did have trouble filming the final scene because they were laughing so hard, though you wouldn’t know from watching the film. I laughed when I first heard the voice, “help me!” in a squeaky tone. It is the fly, with a man’s head and arm (since Andre has the fly’s head and arm), trapped in a spider’s-web, with a spider bearing down and about to eat it. Somehow, Charas’ utter horror sells it, as he crushes both the spider and the fly with a rock. But now that he’s killed a fly with a man’s head, he feel just as morally culpable as Helene, who killed a man with a fly’s head. He and Francois instead manage to come up with a story about how Andre committed suicide and Helene is not arrested. It’s certainly a memorable ending, even if I still can’t decide whether to laugh or shudder.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

downloadVincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone? All in the same movie? I figured it would be worth it even if the movie turned out to be a turkey. But The Comedy of Terrors, directed by Jacques Tourneur, is not a turkey, in large part because of its delightful cast, but also the script by Richard Matheson, who seems to take special joy in an highly extensive vocabulary. It is a black comedy that does not seem to be to everyone’s tastes (some find it belabored – it does have a somewhat relaxed pace), but gave me some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. The film spoofs everything from grave-robbing (think Burke and Hare) to Shakespeare. There’s actually a lot of Shakespeare references, starting with the title of the film (based on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”).

Mr. Waldo Trumble (Vincent Price) is the junior partner of Hinchley & Trumble, an undertakers business. But Hinchley (Boris Karloff) is so deaf and senile that he doesn’t seem to be much aware of what is going on (like the fact that Trumble keeps threatening to poison him). He has a wonderful collection of memories of how people have been embalmed throughout history, though. Trumble’s much-abused wife, Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), is also Hinchley’s daughter and has illusions about being an opera-singer (she’s terrible) and plays the organ when necessary at funeral receptions. And Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) works for Trumble as his assistant and secretly adores Amaryllis (love, in this case, is not so much blind as tone-deaf). Completing the household is the cat, Cleopatra (Orangey), who gets to watch all the murderous shenanigans.

Murderous because Trumble is a drunken cheapskate of an undertaker and the business is in decline (they’ve been using the same casket for thirteen years – they dump the body in the grave and save the casket). But he’s found a way to generate business when he needs it. He simply kills someone (smothers them with a pillow) and then fortuitously shows up at their house and offers to bury their dead while the grieving family is still confused. This backfires, however, when the young widow of the man he kills leaves him with the body and makes off with her inheritance (“Is there no morality left in this world?” Trumble bemoans).

Sitting: Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price

This is awkward because Trumble’s landlord, Mr. John F. Black (Basil Rathbone), is dunning them for an entire year’s worth of rent that has gone unpaid. But Trumble rises to the occasion and conceives of the idea of killing to two birds with one….well, pillow, as he says. He will simply kill Mr. Black (and for some reason brings the cat along with him on his mission). At which point the movie could have been titled “He Won’t Die!” Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy and although his servant warns the doctors that he’s been declared dead before, the doctor insists that Mr. Black is indeed dead and ready to be buried. But he won’t stay dead. Trumble and Gillie have to keep shoving him back in his coffin (Mr. Black protests: “I consider this inimical to good fellowship.”).

The cast is fantastic. Initially, I thought Trumble’s venom towards his wife was a little off-putting, but gradually it became very funny (no one says a snarky line quite like Vincent Price) and his ultimate fate pretty much atones for all his verbal abuse, since everyone gets the last laugh on him. Peter Lorre is always perfect, with his sad eyes, quite sensitive, despite being a former lock-pick who spent time in jail (“Why did I ever escape from prison? It was so peaceful there.”). But he doesn’t like murder and only helps because Trumble blackmails him and because he wants to be near Amaryllis.

Boris Karloff is the doddering old man who remains completely oblivious to what is going on around him and Karloff plays him with great comic timing. I love his rambling eulogy for Mr. Black

And so, my friends, we find ourselves gathered around the bier of Mrs… er… Mr… You Know Whom… this litter of sorrow, this cairn, this cromlech, this dread dochma, this gart, this mastaba, this sorrowing tope, this unhappy tumulus, this, this… what is the word?… this… er, coffin! Never could think of that word. Requiescat in Pace, Mr… um… Mr… the memory of your good deeds will not perish with your untimely sepulture.

Joyce Jameson more than holds her own in a movie filled with horror heavyweights (however hammy). My favorite scene with her is when she sings a song at Mr. Black’s funeral, “He is not dead, but sleepeth. He is not dead at all,” which she sings emphatically and off-key, totally unaware of any irony, much to the distress of Trumble and Gillie.

Poster - Comedy of Terrors, The_05But the real scene-stealer, if there can be one with such a cast, is Basil Rathbone as the Shakespeare quoting landlord who will not die. He especially likes to quote from Macbeth. He gets more returns from the dead than a cat. Every time he wakes up from a fit of catalepsy, he asks “What place is THIS?” which sounds impressive when coming from within a coffin. The poor cemetery keeper (played by Joe E. Brown) is frightened out of his wits when he hears, issuing from within a crypt, a hollow voice (hollow because its coming from the coffin) asking “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

He sputters and quotes and even slashes with a sword at one point and his death scene at the end is truly epic. In fact, the film’s end is epic, in a zany, crazy way. Mr. Black emerges from his crypt to wreak revenge on the house of Trumble & Hinchley, like a Shakespeare-spouting, raging, psychopathic ax murderer. It’s totally unforgettable. As 1000 Misspent House and Counting says in regards to the film, “the movie ends with a pair of lovers mistakenly believing each other dead a la Romeo and Juilet, and a pile of corpses (some mispresumed, some actual) deep enough to rival Hamlet.”

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Song of Bernadette (1943)

220px-Song_sheetWhen my grandmother (Nana) was in high school, every year there would be a day when the nuns would announce that classes were canceled and they would show The Song of Bernadette. Nana and I were talking about the movie, which I had never seen, and she was curious what she would think of it now. We watched it and were both deeply impressed. It’s not theologically deep, but the heart of the film, the themes that it speaks to, and the story it tell is very moving.

The movie begins in 1858 in Lourdes, France. The Soubirous family are poor and living in an old jail while the father (Roman Bohnen) is out of work and the mother is struggling to keep food on the table (Anne Revere). Their daughter, Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is a frail child, with asthma and she struggles in school. But she has a vision of a lady in white who asks her to come to a certain spot every day for a certain number of days and to have a shrine built there.

When people start hearing of her visions, it creates a disturbance in the town. Her parents do not initially believe her but eventually support her, with her mother, aunt and sister even going with her to the grotto where she sees the lady. No one else can see the lady, but soon people in the town are coming, too, and having communion there. This disturbs both Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford), who says the Catholic Church does not endorse Bernadette’s visions, and the city authorities, because they feel it reflects badly on them and is disturbing the peace, however peacefully.

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jones

But when Father Peyramale asks Bernadette to ask the lady for a miracle, a different miracle than he asks seemingly occurs. The lady tells Bernadette to wash in the spring, though there is no spring; but after Bernadette digs in the ground and washes her hands and face in the dirt, a spring is found where she dug and soon healings are reported. One man’s blind eye is restored when he puts the water over his eye (the doctor thinks he just pressed on the eye so much it excited the nerves) and one woman, in desperation, washes her dying and crippled baby in the spring and he is cured.

Soon people are coming from all over France to bath in the spring. Sometimes people are healed and sometimes not. Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price) first believes that Bernadette is a fraud and when she proves sincerely to believe her visions, tries to have her committed for insanity. However, Father Peyramale comes to her defense, having begun to believe her. He wants the church to have a formal investigation of her claims and the miracles. It takes years and as she grows up, he suggests that she has a call on her life and should become a nun.

The acting is impressive, with Vincent Price, Charles Bickford and Anne Revere as especial standouts. And Jennifer Jones, who was twenty-four, married and had two children, is remarkably convincing as a child, and also quite moving.

Vincent Price and Jennifer Jones

Vincent Price and Jennifer Jones

The film is based on the novel by Franz Werfel about the historical Bernadette, who was canonized as St. Bernadette in 1933. Some things have been changed from history – Dutour is made into an atheist when he was actually a devout Catholic who was skeptical of Bernadette’s claims. But what the film has done with his character is to make him part of a tableaux of responses from people  to Bernadette, and I assume that the writers wanted an atheist to round things out.

It is not clear to me exactly what the lady wants. It’s a little vague. She asks for a shrine to be built and apparently causes there to be a spring that can heal people. But she never mentions God or Jesus or has a message to give. Even Father Peyramale has trouble when Bernadette tells him that the lady said she was the Immaculate Conception (how can one be a conception?). But where the film shines is in portraying the the different reactions of people to Bernadette and her visions and what it reveals about them.

The miracles attract all sorts of people: the devout, the desperate, the superstitious, the curious and the opportunists. There are people in dreadful poverty who have no hope, desperately seeking healing. The mayor is at first opposed to it all, but as the people come to his city (presumably spending money there) he gets the idea that he could sell bottled water from the spring. Dutour is opposed on principle. To him, it is a reversion to medieval superstition. There is the poverty of most people juxtaposed with the desire of the city leaders to modernize. Reactions to Bernadette range everywhere from belief to jealousy; some think she’s mad, some think she’s a fraud and liar, a few people care about her – like her family and the man in love with her, played by William Eythe – and choose to support her because they love her, though they are not sure what to make of her visions.

Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere as Bernadette's parents

Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere as Bernadette’s parents

In that way, the responses of the characters mirrors the response of many people to Jesus in the gospels. There are the droves of people seeking healing from the springs, as in the gospels people sought healing from Jesus. There is the skepticism from the religious community who are also concerned she will bring discredit to the church, as well as the concern from the civil authority. There are the people who ask for miracles as proof. There is the doubting, but loving family. There is the jealous reaction to her fame. There is pressure brought to bear on Bernadette, at first from her family, then from the church authorities and also from the civil authorities. All these things happened to Jesus.

The film opens with the quotation: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” 

Dutour cannot believe because he is not willing; it’s out of the question and does not fit with his understanding of the world. The doctor (Lee J. Cobb) knows some things are occurring that he cannot explain, but he is essentially agnostic on the subject. He doesn’t know what to think. Gladys Cooper plays a nun who is antagonistic to Bernadette. She cannot accept that Bernadette could have been granted this gift of seeing the lady when she has not suffered as Gladys Cooper’s character has suffered through life. It turns out that Bernadette has suffered – she dies of tuberculosis of the bones, a very painful disease, and never once complains of the pain. Suffering in life is another theme of the film.

imagesHowever, Bernadette does not see the lady just because she is worthy or has suffered. There is a direct parallel drawn between Bernadette and the Virgin Mary. Bernadette sees the lady because, like Mary when an angel tells her she shall have a child, she has a receptive heart. She is willing to see, hear and to obey what the lady asks.

The movie leaves room to question whether or not Bernadette truly sees the lady. No one else sees the lady. Many of the miracles could have a natural explanation. However, there’s really no doubt by the end that Bernadette’s visions and the miracles are for real.

The movie is 156 minutes, but it goes by quickly and I found the film absorbing. It’s not just an intelligent movie, it is a well-made movie that is entertaining and reverential and stayed with me long after I had finished watching it.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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