Dave's Movie Hall of Fame: March '18

Night of the Hunter

Rear Window (1954)

You ever get the feeling that you’re being watched? Here you watch a laid up Jimmy Stewart watching his neighbors like he’s watching television until one of those neighbors looks back and notices him. Hitchcock’s meta cinematic experience leaves the viewer feeling more than a little self aware. Easily in the top five of the masters work, and in terms of technique I would say the most definitive of his style. The premise lends to a seamless blending of thematic elements to give the viewer not only the directors trademark suspense, but comedy, romance, drama, musical, and art film as well. It’s a complete package and so much more. The key is how the film allows you to immerse yourself as a viewer in the position of Jimmy Stewart by experiencing things from his perspective (and let’s face it who wouldn’t want to be Jimmy Stewart for little while). As he looks across the yard at the lives vignetted in the apartments  facing his window you look with him, and what he finds interesting you find interesting with him, and as he is drawn into the possible murder mystery so are you. As Hitchcock began his career in the silent era he’s particularly apt at making these little scenes viewed from a distance draw your attention, with Stewarts commentary providing, in a sense, the insert contextual exposition. It is a unique treat that a film can be so compelling to an audience on such a complex myriad of levels without the slightest danger of exhausting the viewers attention. This is because the execution is so brilliantly simplistic. It doesn’t take a PhD to unpack this one, it’s the vicarious thrill of voyeurism turned entertainingly to terror when the watcher becomes the watched.

 

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

It’s been said that Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was a character too sophisticated for the line of work he was in. If that’s the case then Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer may be the right man for the job. At times the film plays like a critique of the kind of fantasy antiheroism the hard boiled detective genre usually indulges in. When you see the actions Hammer is willing to justify Marlowe seems like a saint by comparison. Director Robert Aldrich and outright leftist screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides used Spillane’s novel to highlight how distasteful such a character would be, infuriating the author by doing so. Hammer is less a detective than low brow brute, repugnant even to the murdering gangsters he comes up against, who punches his way through the chain of evidence in his numb pursuit of “The Great Whatsit”. I was initially taken aback by the meanness of the violence in this film, not to mention the sadistic pleasure the protagonist is shown to take in dishing it out, as in the scene where he grins while pressing a screaming man’s fingers in a drawer. Though, as much as the film takes the character to task, Meeker brings a superb level of mystique to the role. I can’t help calling up the scene where a thug approaches Hammer and offscreen Meeker takes him out while we see a second thug back away in horror and can only imagine what Mike did to the guy to cause that reaction. Alongside its shocking self conscious brutality there’s an astounding amount of poetry to be found in the dialogue, the thematic elements, and the cinematic style of the film. It’s clear to see how this alluring combination inspired later filmmakers, chief among them Quentin Tarantino, who directly transposed the films mysterious glowing box into the suitcase for Pulp Fiction. After seeing a film like this you feel like you should have to check your skin for burns.

 

The Thing from Another World (1951)

This movie kicks ass! While it may be the predecessor to the far superior John Carpenter remake, for an early 1950s horror film it sure brings the goods. It is surprisingly well written, though when you realize it was scripted by the writer of His Girl Friday it’s much less of surprize. It also manages a few scenes of real tension which not only hold up well today, but clearly influenced later films. Like when the beeping geiger counter alerts them to the aliens advance and they have to rush to get their plan together before it bursts down the the door and they toss kerosene on it and set it on fire in the screens first full body burn stunt until it leaps through a window to put itself out in the arctic snow. Shades of this can be seen in Jaws when the barrels come to the surface, Alien when they’re tracking the creature through the ship, Jurassic Park when they see the ripples in the cup of water before the T-Rex attacks. Some of the films fantastic atmosphere was pure accident, as in the monster makeup looking so bad they decided to always keep it in the shadows and never show it close up, and it ended up making the movie scarier. While not as artistic it was more viscerally intense than Dracula or Frankenstein, and as a kid it was like a rollercoaster ride; both thrilling and terrifying.

 

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

I grew up - and remain - a monster kid. My parents, understandably conservative in the matter, limited what I had access to, but the classic creeps were available to me and each soon found a place in my heart. I felt for Frankenstein’s creation, role played The Wolf-Man, was astonished by the might of King Kong and Godzilla, but the one that fascinated me the most was The Creature. This is an exciting movie with lots of action, which I’m sure helped when I was young, and the design of The Creature is so incredible and a brilliant work of art in itself. The full body rubber gill-man suit made The Creature far more imaginative in appearance than the other classic monsters in that it wasn’t a man, nor was it an oversized animal or insect. The next thing that even comes close for me in a monster suit that is both as strange and elegant as this is the xenomorph in Alien. The scene of it following underneath the woman swimming on the surface in an almost underwater dance is just as mesmerizing to me now as when I first saw it, and, I believe, as it was for audiences back in 1954.  

 

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

I believe it was Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger himself) who described this film as like a cautionary tale told by firelight. The only directorial credit by actor Charles Laughton, who not only applied his knowledge of acting to get fantastic performance out of his stars but also turned out to have an incredible cinematic eye for creating powerful imagery that draws on the subconscious imagination; depicting scenes like how the mind remembers them as opposed to realism. This is a American Gothic Tale in the tradition of Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe. It meditates on morality, religion, the rational vs. the irrational, guilt, puritanism, and the uncanny element of strangeness within the familiar. It is also a Film Noir crime picture of its era, but opposed to usual case of setting those stories in New York or Los Angeles here they filmed against the backdrop or rural West Virginia, lending to the aforementioned American Gothic style. Noir standby Robert Mitchum transcends the genres sadistic criminal role to become a true cinematic bogeyman. A psychotic imitation preacher with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers, and who responds to sex by pulling out a switchblade knife. Mitchum is beyond phenomenal in the role, and between this and Cape Fear redefined the modern psychopath on the screen from the bug-eyed ranting lunatic to an inwardly seething force of malevolent nature. For whatever reason it wasn’t successful in its time - perhaps it was too ahead of its time for audiences in ‘55 - to be sure it is now not only considered a great film but a sublime work of art. Anyone seeing it today will certainly be left gobsmacked by the experience.

 

*Bonus Short: Birds Anonymous (1957)

Everybody knows that Warner Bros. cartoons were funnier than Disney’s and a short like this illustrates one of the reasons why. Looney Tunes didn’t shy away from dark humor. Here is a Sylvester and Tweety bit where Sylvester tries to give up eating birds and goes through withdrawal symptoms in a parody of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s damn near uncomfortable to watch, yet is such a great abstraction of the subject you can’t help but laugh. It’s amazing use of character motivation to create comedy, too. It’s not just what the character is doing, but why he’s doing it that makes it funny. In any of these cartoons the gag is that Sylvester wants to eat Tweety and what’s funny is what prevents him from doing so. Usually that’s Tweety outsmarting him, but in this case it’s Sylvester’s own internal turmoil and the efforts of his Bird’s Anonymous sponsor that keeps the yellow bird out of his gullet. The result is one of the Warner gangs best efforts, and, if you need proof, it won them an Academy Award.