Saturday, September 28, 2013

HOUSE OF WAX: 3D/2D Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1953) Warner Home Video

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of House of Wax (1953) is that its director, Andre De Toth had only one eye, thereby denying him the depth perception grossly exaggerated in this rather gimmicky, but lavishly mounted turn-of-the-century 3D fright-fest. House of Wax is a remake, of Michael Curtiz’s two-strip Technicolor classic, Mysteries of the Wax Museum (1933); the plot basically the same, but given the added on-the-nose touch of stereoscopic depth - objects and people being hurled at the screen – to its own artistic detriment. I suppose I ought to preface this review by stating that I am decidedly not a proponent of the third dimension. 3D draws the viewer away and out of the traditional cinema narrative; unnecessarily interrupting plot and, in general, sacrificing dramatic integrity for the thirty-second ‘in your face’ surprise that makes the audience duck, dodge or otherwise cringe in their seats. Like three camera Cinerama, 3D is really about the process rather than what’s being featured on the screen. You could shoot a flock of geese migrating south so long as they appeared to pass from the proscenium into the theater and at least half the audience would pay just to see the illusion. But in the end, one is reminded of the silliness of the exercise rather than awed by the propensity of its staying power.   
3D, in its initial run had a very short life – basically from 1952 to 1954 – with perhaps a handful of titles worthy of mention or resurrection today; House of Wax among them. 3D was actually a novelty invented in Britain for still images in the late 1890's; resurrected in North America by various competing interests in 1922 on celluloid. Even then 3D had no real credible purpose: certainly, not as a way of producing full-length movies. Hollywood in its heyday paid the stereoscopic process virtually no mind at all. They didn’t need it. And 3D, because of its two-camera projection, could not accommodate a full feature anyway without imposing an intermission - awkward and unnecessary for any movie running less than two hours. But in cash-strapped post-war Hollywood, with the threat of television looming large on the horizon and theater attendance dropping by half 3D suddenly looked like a good investment to get patrons back into theaters. After all, it offered audiences something they could not see in the comfort of their own living rooms.  The desperation inside the studios’ front offices must have been very great indeed, the marketing campaign behind 3D almost as queer as the process itself.
At least in hindsight, 3D bastardizes the concept of ‘a night out at the movies’; devolving its artistic importance from the status of a major event on par with live theater, and, geared mostly to adults (who used to dress up for it), to a popcorn-munching carnival sideshow, catering to the relative ridiculousness of the oddity itself. Movies in 3D owe more to the traditional freak show than cinema art. So perhaps Warner Bros. was hedging its bets with House of Wax – the horror genre already considered something of a red-headed stepchild in an industry whose moguls frequently aspired to produce high art, but were not above trading on the appeal of a low-brow trickery to make a quick buck. Thus, House of Wax promised chills and shudders along with the added enticement of 3D. And unlike other movies shot quick and dirty, merely to capitalize on the process, House of Wax featured a solid cast and Stanley Fleischer’s production values photographed in lurid color.
I’m probably one of a handful who can still recall seeing House of Wax projected in 3D during 3D’s brief renaissance back in 1982. The polarizing effect then was quite good. But seeing the movie several years later on late night television (obviously projected flat) I was struck by the fact that apart from its more obvious and exploitative moments encumbered by the gimmick (the carnival barker’s bouncing paddle balls, as example), House of Wax really didn’t need 3D to function as basic storytelling (the same way Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and George Sidney’s Kiss Me Kate work just as well without it) – the trumpeted ‘depth perception’ marginally interesting at best.
House of Wax marks the first full-fledged ‘horror’ movie in Vincent Price’s illustrious career; Price, a 2oth Century-Fox favorite as the perennial ‘male beauty’ in the mid-1930’s and throughout the 1940’s, tempted us with his obsessive, mentally deranged Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck (1946) – a superior melodrama that in some ways seems to foreshadow Price’s rise to prominence as the more menacing middle-aged ghoul: in retrospect the perfect segue into his Henry Jarrod in De Toth’s flashy and flavorful grand guignol. House of Wax can be fun. But most of its melodrama tends to creak like an antique rocking chair, the movie’s original directionalized stereo (long since lost or destroyed) now rechanneled to mono with a very heavy-handed mixture of loud thuds and bombastic chords screeching David Buttolph’s ominous score.  3D doesn’t seem to augment House of Wax so much as it just adds more noise (visual, this time) to the presentation
The story of a mad disfigured artist embalming cadavers from the city morgue, but then graduating to live victims encased in wax in order to mount his lavish chamber of horrors was rather tawdry and perverse fare in 1933. But by Puritanical 1950’s standards House of Wax grew ever more salacious and – in 3D – obnoxious – especially when De Toth tries too hard for it to be a 3D movie, completely forgetting that it’s also supposed to be a really good show. Personally, I have always been perplexed that the highlight of both House of Wax and its 1933 original (the torching of the wax museum for insurance money) occurs roughly eleven minutes into the start; the rest of our story a rather conventional and occasionally tepid ‘who done it?’ in which the audience already knows ‘who did’ and is merely waiting for the rest of the characters in our story to catch up. None of the resulting machinations – not even with the added ‘appeal’ of 3D - ever rivals the level of shock experienced during this opening spectacle; watching figures in wax, applied with intense heat, ‘decompose’ before our very eyes.
Apart from Vincent Price the rest of House of Wax’s cast is largely forgettable, save a brief appearance by a, as yet unknown Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) as mute sculptor, Igor. Phyllis Kirk, who would briefly find prominence on television’s The Thin Man (1957-1959) and, in fact, steadily appeared on other TV shows throughout the 50’s and 60’s, but who never made much of a splash in the movies, is prominently featured in House of Wax as the probing and inquisitive ingénue, Sue Allen; the only one to suspect Jarrod is using real people for more than mere inspiration to build is museum.  Another TV alumni Carolyn Jones, isn’t quite so lucky. De Toth’s roster is rounded out by the Warner stock company; Paul Picerni as gifted sculptor, Scott Andrews; Roy Roberts - schemer Mathew Burke, and, Frank Lovejoy as Lt. Tom Brennan. It’s a solid cast to be sure. Yet, none of the principles apart from Vincent Price have their ‘break out’ moment. This leaves the story curiously off balance; the audience neither invested in the plot nor its characters, merely tolerating their dumb show until the equilibrium-altering effects of 3D have their more flamboyant moments.  As such, House of Wax remains a rather artifice-stricken and graceless movie whose most grotesque element remains its stimuli-stiffening special effects.
We begin our excursion, typically, on a windswept/rain-soaked eve; Prof. Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) toiling in his wax museum. Jarrod is a true artist. His figures are not of horror but genuine beauty – recreations from history brought magnificently to life; so life-like in fact that they illicit awe and admiration from wealthy patron, Sidney Wallace (Paul Cavanagh) who offers to ‘consider’ backing Jarrod’s venture and possibly even investing in a new exhibit. Regrettably, Jarrod’s partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts) remains unimpressed. In fact, he’s rather desperate to recoup his own investment, electing to torch Jarrod’s museum for the insurance money. Horrified, Jarrod attempts to prevent the destruction of his beloved creations. After a rather brutal fight (in which no opportunity is wasted to hurl furniture and other props at the screen), Jarrod is left unconscious and trapped amidst his burning figures. He stirs and rushes into the adjacent stockroom, the museum’s paraffin and open gas main igniting in a hellish fireball.
Time passes. Jarrod resurfaces, having survived his ordeal but seemingly wheelchair-bound with outlandishly disfigured hands. Nevertheless, with Wallace’s money and the aid of his mute assistant, Igor, Jarrod has managed to resurrect his dream of opening the House of Wax. This time, however, Jarrod’s creations cater to the more salacious moments in human history; murders, suicides, and other heinous acts of violence. The place is a huge hit with audiences; particularly after the debut of Matthew Burke’s wax figure dangling from a rope – the most recent ‘headline gripping’ suicide brought shockingly to life. What the attendees do not know is that a hideous fiend (actually, Jarrod) broke into Burke’s apartment, strangled him and then dumped the body down an elevator shaft to make it look like a suicide. Later Burke’s corpse was stolen from the morgue and taken back to Jarrod’s museum where it was preserved in wax.
Jarrod becomes transfixed by the beauty of Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) – a failed chorine and Burke’s ex-girlfriend, living in the same boarding house as art student, Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Not long after, Cathy dies and Sue, haunted by the memory of their last conversation, is equally disturbed to discover an uncanny ‘likeness’ of Cathy on display inside Jarrod’s wax museum, reconstituted as his Joan of Arc about to be burned at the stake.  Sue’s boyfriend, Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni) assures her that the resemblance to Cathy is just that. Matthew introduces Scott to Jarrod as a great sculptor and Jarrod decides to take him on. Sue, however, cannot rid herself of the unsettling feeling that Jarrod has not merely captured Cathy’s portrait in wax but has, in fact, somehow managed to embalm her best friend.
Jarrod now becomes enamored with Sue as the epitome of his waxen ‘Marie Antoinette’ lost in the blaze that consumed his original museum. He begs Sue’s indulgence to pose for him. No time like the present, I suppose. For later that same evening Jarrod’s fiend stalks Sue along the midnight vacant Victorian streets, terrorizing and chasing her to Scott’s family home. Mrs. Andrews (Angela Clarke) is empathetic. But when Sue tells both she and Scott of her suspicions about Jarrod neither believes her. Still, Scott turns to the kindly Lt. Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy) for answers to quell Sue’s fears. Brennan humors Sue by casually investigating Jarrod at his museum.
The fiend returns the next evening, almost successful at whisking Sue from the Andrews’ upstairs bedroom where she sleeps. Sue’s terrific screams ward him off at the last possible moment. Brennan becomes suspicious of Jarrod and decides to have Sgt. Jim Shane (Dabbs Greer) shadow his movements. But Jarrod has been particularly clever in arranging his isolation of Sue. Sending Scott on an errand to fetch some last minute supplies Jarrod now awaits Sue’s arrival at the museum to meet Scott after hours. She enters the House of Wax alone and, in the darkened recesses, is compelled to approach the Joan of Arc figure, removing its black wig to reveal Cathy’s blond tresses beneath. Jarrod emerges from the shadows, rising from his wheelchair and taking hold of Sue. As they struggle she breaks his wax mask, revealing (just in case the audience hasn’t already figured it out for themselves) that Jarrod and the disfigured fiend are one in the same.
Stricken with paralytic fear Sue passes out, is carried by Jarrod to his wax embalming facility beneath the museum and prepped for the procedure. But Scott has returned, along with Lt. Brennan and Sgt. Shane; the trio saving Sue by knocking Jarrod into a bubbling vat of smoldering pink paraffin. Given the monstrous nature of the plot, the tacked-on ‘happy ending’ involving Sue and Scott joking about the discovery of a wax head in Lt. Brennan’s likeness, is rather absurd.
House of Wax is at times comically perverse. Its best moment is undeniably the destruction of Jarrod’s first museum. But De Toth also establishes some good spine-tingling moments as Sue begins to suspect Jarrod’s figure of Joan of Arc as the body of her former best friend, Cathy. Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together superficially works – but it has no spark of mystery. We already know Cathy and Joan of Arc are one in the same. If only the screenplay didn’t suffer from ennui; the characters too homogenized or, at times, even discernible from one another. The dialogue is pedestrian at best, with only Phyllis Kirk sporadically rising above the banter to at least seem genuine in her investigative probing. Vincent Price is, of course, exquisite as the seemingly mellifluous and cultured proprietor of the wax museum. But as his alter ego – the disfigured fiend – Price tends to go way over the top. With his oddly attempted half-limp/part-shuffle, skulking about the deserted streets after Kirk’s screeching ingénue, Price’s malignant gimp takes on the flavor of an over-sized Quasimodo.
It is also something of a curiosity that De Toth and his screenwriter have relocated House of Wax in the never-never-land of Victorian New York – actually looking very much like Edwardian England; its capricious assortment of flickering gaslights, top hats, opera cloaks and corsets set against a misty backdrop of wrought iron and shutter clan streets.  The setting for the original movie was actually contemporary Manhattan circa 1933. Stanley Fleisher’s art direction occasionally falters; as in the romantic moment between Matthew and Cathy – presumably at an outdoor beer garden that never goes beyond the remedial trappings of an obvious indoor set; sterile, artificial and looking as though it was cobbled together moments before the actual shooting of the scene began. Perhaps the biggest problem with Fleisher’s sets is that they look more fake and uninviting than anything outside of Jarrod’s wax museum.
And then, of course, there is the stereoscopic theatrics to either admire or contend with; the hurling of chairs and other objects at the screen during the fight between Jarrod and Matthew; the toppling of Matthew’s cadaver toward the camera (and thus, out into the audience), the museum’s street barker (Reggie Rymal) and his incredible ping-pong paddle and balls attached to strings, the latter directly addressing the movie audience with the interminable threat to strike one of them in the head with his ricocheting balls. It all works very well as a wild display of nonsense to show off 3D to its best advantage.  But it also detracts from the grand guignol of the movie – repeatedly taking the audience out of the story. Gimmick in place of story, and style (such as it remains) eclipsing substance; House of Wax takes its place as the archetypal amusement park ‘dark ride’. It’s fun in the moment but utterly forgettable once it’s over.
Warner Home Video has finally come around to debuting House of Wax in 3D. The illusion has been well preserved, but I still think the 2D rendering suits the movie’s nimble plot better. Without 3D one can concentrate on the story unencumbered by the anticipation of the next object or human entity about to burst forth from the screen. Regarding the transfer quality –virtually identical in either format – House of Wax exhibits a robust, colorful and consistently contrasted image that is extremely grainy throughout and can look marginally soft from time to time. This is as it should be, since the movie was photographed in rather inferior WarnerColor. Bottom line: House of Wax was never going to look like a vintage Technicolor feature with razor-sharp detail and lurid colors. It does, however, manage to give a faithful representation of the ‘opening night’ thrills one might have expected from the original theatrical engagement. Warner has done a fine job tempering age-related artifacts too.
The newly mastered DTS-HD 2.0 mono is very engaging. House of Wax was originally presented with 4-track magnetic stereo (played off an independent spool of magnetic tape synced to the visuals). The stereophonic version was screened only in limited engagements as many theaters were not equipped for it. So a mono mix was also created to give the movie wider distribution. Apparently, only this mono mix has survived. As ludicrous as it may seem by today’s standards, it was not uncommon in the cost-cutting 1950’s for studios to keep only the bare essentials archived while reusing what they could for other pending features. I suppose we could criticize the dream merchants for their shortsightedness, except that no one could have conceived of a time when movies would be considered more than disposable first-run entertainment. Certainly, none could have envisioned the creation of ‘home video’ back then, or the public’s insatiable desire for nostalgia and need to ‘collect’ film art as we take for granted today. When Warner released its DVD back in 2000 it featured a re-channeled stereo 4.0 track. Apparently, for this Blu-ray Warner thought it best to stick with preservation elements from the mono mix rather than this faux stereo which, after all, was not indigenous to the original presentation. Regardless, House of Wax sounds very impressive.
Warner Home Video has decided to augment this Blu-ray with other goodies instead and they’re all worth the price of admission, beginning with a very informative audio commentary from David Del Valle and Constantine Nasr. We also get almost an hour of Behind the Scenes: House of Wax: Unlike Anything You've Seen Before in HD; a documentary with a host of Hollywood alumni weighing in on 3D and its lasting impact. It also features vintage snippets of Vincent Price. The rest of the extras are direct imports from the old Warner DVD, including the garish two minute vintage junket, Round-the-Clock Premiere: Coast Hails House of Wax as well as Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Regrettably, Warner has seen no validity in remastering the original movie in 1080p. Instead, it’s 480i and predictably lacking in clarity and color fidelity.  Badly done!
I’ve gone on record before and I’ll do it again herein to reinforce the logic that if original movies and/or documentaries are going to be offered up as ‘extra features’ for the hi-def market then there really is NO point other than to release them in hi-def; doing an up-conversion when no original elements survive. Just slapping out old footage in whatever condition merely to advertise it as a ‘bonus feature’ doesn’t cut it anymore – period! Not that it ever should have been considered ‘the norm’ in the first place! Finally, we get House of Wax’s trailer, showing no scenes from the movie, but a series of painted title cards trumpeting the new technological wonder of 3D.  Bottom line: recommended for those who love this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, September 23, 2013

ALAMO BAY: Blu-ray (Tri-Star 1985) Twilight Time

With its moralizing patina of corruptible rednecks and doe-eyed Vietnamese – both sides attempting to make their points stick and/or count in Amy Arlen’s screenplay (though never casting much of a judgment call one way or the other), Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985) is a convoluted, infrequently disturbing, and, mostly lackluster melodrama inspired by real life events in Texas circa 1979-81. The movie is weighed down by its good ol’ boy crossed swords clichés. Malle stirs his gumbo of racial intolerance with a healthy helping of socio-political disillusionment.  It’s a train wreck, chiefly because both sides have valid concerns fleshed out in self-destructive ways, neither able to articulate with any resonance without delving into ferocious fear-mongering. Worse, the axiom has metastasized to a tepid love match turned rancid. At times, Malle – born to affluence in France and far removed from his subject matter - seems much too engrossed in exposing these social prejudices, instead of aspiring to even the feeblest attempt at a more intimate portrait that would have arguably crystalized the movie’s superfluous ‘racism/sexism is bad’ faux incredulity. 
To be sure the volatile situation occurring between Texas shrimp boat fishermen and the newly arrived Vietnamese – who merely seek better lives through competing interests – is one of America’s dirty little tragedies of inequity; the blood feud compounded by the misinformed who lump these émigrés in with the Viet Cong; the still gaping wounds and backlash of the war grotesquely manipulated by Ku Klux Klan mouthpiece, Mac (William Frankfather), who has the temerity to reference Martin Luther King as his template for ‘public relations’.  With very few exceptions, the Texans are trounced upon as hot-headed, bumble-brained, backwoods know-nothings; their unofficial spokesman, Shang Pierce (Ed Harris) a failed shrimper in danger of losing his boat, the ‘American Dream Girl’ due primarily to over-fishing and the natural ebb and flow of the industry. But to accept the inevitable as nobody’s fault would be too easy. And so, the blame game begins.
Ed Harris and Amy Madigan – who met and married on the set of Places in the Heart (1984) - exhibit smoldering sensuality in Alamo Bay; the oddity being that ‘love’ is hardly the nub of their salacious affair. The sex is good – period. Madigan’s flat-chested Glory is inexplicably drawn to the rather scruffy and thoroughly scummy Shang ever since their high school days (Harris looking as though we would immensely benefit from being dipped in a vat of Varsol). Shang is saddle-bagged in a brittle marriage to local supermarket cashier, Honey (Cynthia Carle), a possessive shrike. All in all, his life is an abysmal failure, culminating in his dead-end badinage with Glory and their cataclysmic break-up (he calls her the ‘c’ word and tells her she has a fairly ‘big ass’ for such a small girl…what a prince!). Worse, Glory has the effrontery to side with Dinh (Ho Nguyen); a newly arrived refugee imbued with bright-eyed optimism about to get his own very rude awakening.
The Harris/Madigan interactions notwithstanding, Alamo Bay consistently misfires on almost every level; the Vietnamese – chronically perplexed by the rabid xenophobia that surrounds them. As individuals they are never etched beyond badly stereotyped cardboard cutouts; the indigenous Texans distilled into an even more unflattering cavalcade of gun-toting bed-sheeted bungling yahoos, whose seething hatred is so contemptible it borders on the psychopathic. When all else fails, blame religion; the mandarins of each sects’ respective churches empathetic in a ‘play it safe but don’t get directly involved’ sort of way; chairing ineffectual meetings that serve no public good but, in fact, promote the tempest.  Arguably, the movie’s strength – its authenticity – is also its weakness; the narrative at the mercy of Amy Arlen’s verisimilitude and completely forgetting that what plays to moral shock value on the eleven o’clock news needs a modicum of artistic license to function with the same potency as two hours of movie ‘fiction’.
I suppose Louis Malle ought to get top marks for the semi-documentarian feel, albeit with stylized key lighting. But the drama never attains its desired level of revulsion for the obvious scandal – crumbling race relations in America. Even worse, in its final act, Alamo Bay devolves into the typically rank ‘Hollywood’ shoot ‘em up between Dinh and Shang with Glory as the de facto referee. She casts her deciding vote – sacrificing her late father’s family business, her own freedom and the one great – if thoroughly undeserving – love of her life. But Alamo Bay never asks the broader question ‘why should we care?’ perhaps because director Malle is too mired in the particulars; the characters trapped in their quasi-moment-to-moment existence; Arlen’s screenplay ignoring the overall dramatic arc of the story. As such, Alamo Bay singularly fails in its most basic intent – to entertain – despite good actors in too few vignettes allowing them to shine.
Our story begins on a lonely open road. Dinh is hitchhiking his way across Texas; his eager thumb disparagingly frowned upon until delivery truck driver, Leon (Gary Basaraba) decides to give him a lift into the small ramshackle of trailer homes and makeshift businesses dotting the Gulf Coast. Leon offers to speak to the proprietor of Wally’s Shrimp Shack on Dinh’s behalf to get him a job. Wally (Donald Moffat) is a curmudgeonly sort. But he respects the Vietnamese for their work ethic. Besides, they’re cheap labor. But their competition in the bay has already begun to frazzle the patience of locals who begrudgingly observe as the price for their catch plummets while at the same time the size of the Vietnamese community has exponentially grown. Tenuous race relations reach a fevered pitch after Shang goes to the bank to ask for an extension on his loan on the ‘American Dream Girl’ only to be turned down by Wendell (Michael Ballard); its chief financial officer who is sympathetic to Shang’s plight but cannot see his way past the charter of rules.
Dissatisfied and unwilling to go back home to Honey and kids, Shang picks up with Glory against Wally’s strenuous objections. The two share a playful romp in the sack, at the end of which Shang hints he could really use some money. Glory offers to see if Wally will give her back an investment she made in the family business. Wally, however, has either spent or squandered the cash merely to keep the business afloat. He cannot afford to pay his daughter back. Upon learning this from Glory, Shang’s mood toward her quickly sours. Glory realizes that Shang probably never loved her in the first place and increasingly she begins to side with Dinh, who is hard-working and aspires to have his own shrimp boat someday. At the Zanadew Lounge, Dinh attempts to buy an outboard motor from Skinner Johnson (Rudy Young), who instead threatens Dinh with a knife before tossing him out of the bar in the pouring rain. Glory is disgusted by this behavior, pursuing Dinh before crawling into Shang’s truck, only to suddenly realize what a cold, calculating brute he is.
The fishermen rebel against Wally. They trash his front yard with garbage, causing Wally to suffer a heart attack. Rushed to a hospital in Austin, Wally dies a short while later and Glory decides to make a go of the business with Dinh. Their timing could not be more ill-advised. For Mac, having goaded the locals into siding with the Klan, is outsized in his support by Shang who turns rebel and acts as the Klan’s point man; spreading tyranny across the open waters and in town, forcing the Vietnamese to vacate their homes – all except Dinh, who remains by Glory’s side even after the locals have barred Leon from entering the wharf, thus forcing him to quit. To meet her commitments Glory decides to drive the latest shipment into Austin by herself. Shang takes advantage of the fact that Dinh and another Vietnamese, Ho (Tuan Tran) will be alone at the docks. Armed with his rifle, Shang engages the pair in a shootout. Ho and Skinner are killed and Glory’s boat firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. Shang now goes gunning for Dinh, his warped notion of white supremacy turned insular and intent on destroying just one man to satisfy his bloodlust. Instead, Glory returns in the nick of time, shooting her lover dead to save Dinh. In the final moments, Dinh is rushed to hospital from wounds sustained in his fight and Glory is taken away by the Sheriff (Bill Thurman) who has thus far relinquished any responsibility for getting involved to diffuse the situation.
Alamo Bay has its moments but they never come together. Ed Harris is a brilliant actor and thoroughly adept at playing the bastard we love to hate. But it’s a monolithic performance we get from him herein; the brief flashes of Shang’s softer side – witnessed mostly during his post coital exchanges with Glory glossed over in a screenplay that insists he revert to the proverbial ‘bad man’ run amuck.  And Harris does, in fact, play this cliché of the gun-toting bigot exceptionally well – steely-eyed and menacing. As for Amy Madigan, whose movie career was made mostly by playing variations of a grassroots Holly Hunter-esque ingénue; she manages in Alamo Bay to imbue Glory with genuine intensity as her character steadily acquires a backbone. Harris and Madigan obviously have chemistry. Regrettably, it isn’t enough to sustain the plot.
Almost from the moment we are introduced to these characters Louis Malle’s melodrama morphs into a fractured ‘message picture’; curiously minus the message itself. What is the point to Alamo Bay? That deep-seeded racism continues to rot the American landscape from within; particularly in isolated, economically-strapped enclaves that time and polite society would rather forget exist in the first place? This we already know; the inexhaustible template of racial intolerance rife and known to anyone who has not buried their heads in the sand over the last one hundred years. At its most basic level Alamo Bay is a judicious surveillance of working-class American life. But the movie muddles along without narrative clarity, the screenplay choking on its own ever-present issue of territorial rights on the open waters. Yet these remain unresolved.
The best stories – cinematic or otherwise - deal with racial inequality by stripping away the hypocrisy of it and shedding light on the complexities behind racism itself. It’s not only a black and white issue, pardon the pun. But Alamo Bay makes no attempt to go beyond the basics. Any validity or rationale to the fisherman’s plight is eclipsed by the sudden appearance of a burning cross on the front lawn of the Vietnamese church. Any hope for understanding the Vietnamese from an alternative perspective is diffused by their representation as a globular voiceless/faceless community; virtual nondescript and living apart from the rest of the town; their presence telescoped through the eye-opening experiences of Ho Nguyen’s semi-articulate scrapper.  Yet even Nguyen’s Dinh is given precious little to do except react to situations beyond his control. No, it doesn’t come off – at least, not as it should. A real shame too, because there is arguably a compelling story yet to be told in Alamo Bay.  
While I decidedly did not care for this movie I have nothing but positive things to say about Twilight Time’s Blu-ray – the ‘wow’ factor in evidence in every frame of Sony’s new hi-def master. Alamo Bay exhibits a fantastic transfer with rich, vibrant colors. Flesh tones are very natural. The film’s palette favors a blue-green-beige spectrum. Fine detail is exceptional, the image snapping together with incredible film-like clarity. This is the way all movies should look on Blu-ray. Fantastic! The 1.0 DTS audio is faithful to the original theatrical presentation and will surely not disappoint. Alamo Bay comes with an isolated score, showcasing Ry Cooder’s effective compositions in true stereo. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Good stuff. I just wish the movie had more to offer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, September 21, 2013

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1939) Twilight Time

What more can be said of director John Ford; the movie’s unofficial poet laureate of the official mythology on the American west? The caustic, curmudgeonly Ford frequently displayed an outward contempt for actors and authority figures. But I suspect Ford’s exquisite visualizations of the frontier come much closer to the metal of the man, his outward astringency used as a mask or shield to will his masterpieces into existence come hell or high water. And Ford, for all his temperament, was an artist; his camera eye astute and lyrical as any famed canvas graced by the brush strokes of a Charles Marion Russell, George Catlin or Frederick Remington. In 1939, Ford debuted a rarity in his otherwise monochromatic canon: the lavish Technicolor masterpiece - Drums Along the Mohawk; imbued with familiar themes of struggle and hardship, the towering buttresses of Monument Valley traded for the harrowing milieu of revolutionary conflict. 
For one reason or another, the nation’s turbulent birth has always presented America’s filmmakers with a quandary – lengthy, episodic and malignantly disorganized chaos defying the conventional Hollywood narrative.  Thematically, every war contains elements rife for melodrama. And Ford could revel in his aesthetical mastery of rural/agrarian topographies; the impediments of wild animal and Iroquois attacks notwithstanding; the nascent rise of a new nation – the so-called ‘grand experiment’ rebelliously refusing to succumb to the onslaught of the British.
War and gallantry are frequently confused; intermingled in the mind’s eye as valorous death and chivalry run amuck; the battle fatigue of the Revolutionary War’s incongruously planned and haphazardly executed bloody conflicts lacking overall arc or trajectory to satisfy the cinema storyteller’s needs.  Walter D. Edmonds’ novel was, in fact, heavily rewritten by screenwriters, Sonja Levien and Lamar Trotti both to assuage the governing body of censorship in Hollywood, but also to satiate Ford’s first-rate romanticized portrait of America at its burgeoning crossroads – the untamed, herein epitomized by the native population, and the entrenched, most definitely characterized, though queerly camouflaged in the movie as the marauding Tories (British).     
Here too it is perhaps obvious, though nevertheless prudent to remind the viewer that Drums Along The Mohawk was made during a twelve month period in Hollywood’s illustrious golden age marked by such iconic movies as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind. Many have attempted to theorize why 1939 should have yielded such an embarrassment of riches; Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, The Women, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Ninotchka and The Hunchback of Notre Dame among them – each the quintessence of their respective genres. But at least in retrospect the year 1939 also serves as the inevitable turning point in the debacle soon to engulf the European hemisphere in a holocaust of fear and flames.  Seen in this light, Drums Along The Mohawk is perhaps ever more John Ford’s personal declaration against the war; the colonialists prideful when pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds, refusing to bow to the will of omnipotent forces invading from abroad.
Given 1939’s political climate, and America’s then current Anglo-alliance soon to lure the United States into its theater of war, Ford and 2oth Century-Fox studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck silently concurred that all references to the British as opponents of America’s early freedom should be excised from the movie. Hence, the elemental conflict in Drums Along the Mohawk remains somewhat emasculated. The First Nation’s peoples manipulated by ‘Tory’ forces are represented almost exclusively by a rather rancid cliché: the patch-eyed villain, Caldwell (John Carradine) with narrowly a ‘red coat’ in sight. It’s a minor distinction, perhaps, but one that arguably blunts the overall impact of the movie. Thankfully, Drums Along The Mohawk isn’t really about the war – or rather, is – as seen through the eyes of a pair of newlyweds: starry-eyed colonialist Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) and his highborn bride, Magdelana ‘Lana’ Borst (Claudette Colbert), brought down a peg or two after their departure from her family’s stately home in Albany.  Over the course of the next 104 minutes each will have their hearts repeatedly broken. But only one will experience a miraculous conversion; the symbolic stoicism of America’s boastful resolve heartily exemplified in the unlikeliest tabernacle: a privileged woman stirred to grass-roots patriotism through hard work and exposure to cruelties inflicted on her livelihood by these wide-open spaces.    
Ford’s dramatic tapestry in Drums Along The Mohawk is greatly enhanced by his superior use of 3-strip Technicolor (Ford’s first color feature, in fact). Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon’s gorgeous cinematography recreate Albert Bierstadt-inspired coniferous backdrops, the rustic Dixie National Forest in Utah subbing in for the Mohawk Valley. Zanuck very reluctantly agreed to the expenditures for this location shoot (Ford would have preferred New York state) – and at a time when virtually every studio worked within the confines of its own back lot and sound stages. But Zanuck would lament his decision when inclement weather sent the project fiscal budget into a tailspin.  Yet, nothing could dissuade Ford from his vision – perhaps, because nothing ever did; the man as pig-headed, stern and steadfast, particularly when he blindly believed in the work and the importance of achieving what he had initially set out to do.
Thus, Drums Along The Mohawk emerged as something of Ford’s cause célèbre against Zanuck, the elements, and a decidedly cheeky star in Claudette Colbert who, apart from constantly worrying she would not photograph flatteringly in glorious Technicolor, repeatedly tested Ford’s patience with her own demands. Colbert, who could be counted upon to be obstreperous and occasionally arrogant – usually getting her way in the end – had decidedly met her match in the equally intractable Ford. “They pay me to direct, honey,” Ford explained to Colbert, “What do they pay you to do?” Colbert and Ford were, in fact, evenly matched in their sparring, she having committed almost as many works to celluloid as him.
If Ford’s attitude toward Colbert was less than conciliatory his quiet admiration of Henry Fonda remained unchanged and steadfast.  Fonda’s career had been given an immeasurable boost by his being cast as the great emancipator in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), arguably Fonda’s most promising work to date. And like Ford’s other perennial favorite – John Wayne – with who Ford had just finished shooting Stagecoach (1939) – Henry Fonda was a ‘real ‘reel’ man’ on the screen; one whose presence alone belied ‘acting.’ In viewing Drums Along the Mohawk today, the stylistic differences between Fonda and Colbert are immediate evident and occasionally jarring; her affected Park Avenue mannerisms juxtaposed against Fonda’s never faltering earthy appeal as the ‘every man’.  Yet, despite this chasm in their performances, Fonda and Colbert manage to discover an uncharted territory of common ground somewhere in the middle, complimentary and cementing their appeal as the romantic leads of the piece.
There is, of course, at least one other truly outstanding performance to consider in the movie; that of the ebunkular New England widow, Mrs. McKlennar (played by the irascible and irreplaceable Edna May Oliver); a very fiery and equally hilarious anchor to Ford’s middle and last acts. Oliver manages a rather sad-eyed passionate kiss with Gil to send him on his way into battle. She also finagles an even more lusty exchange with bumpkin frontiersman, Adam Hartman (Ward Bond); all the while remaining insubordinate, if evergreen to her late husband, Barney’s memory. And Ford has rounded out his cast with an exceptionally fine roster of seasoned pros to flatter the principals, populating even the smallest cameo with instantly recognizable faces at a glance; Clara Blandick, Robert Grieg, Ward Bond, and, Jessie Ralph among them.
Our story begins in 1776, with Gil and Lana’s marriage in her parent’s stately home in Albany. Gilbert Martin (Gil) has promised Lana the world. She, of course, expects it – having come from a rather pampered Puritan upbringing, with a considerable dowry that includes a set of dishes and a prized cow. Ford quickly dispels such notions compliant to those stored-up dreams in a young girl’s mind. Stopping overnight at the King’s Inn, the couple is introduced to the mysterious Caldwell (John Carradine) who wastes no time inquiring about Gil’s political views. Late the next afternoon under ominous skies and a gathering storm Gil and Lana arrive at Deerfield, the meager farmhouse he built with his own two hands. Lana’s thinly veiled first impressions decidedly echo her disappointments, her emotional and physical exhaustion stirred into a frenzy after laying eyes on the shadowy figure of Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree); a benevolent Seneca whom Lana immediately mistakes as a blood-thirsty ‘red skin’. Lana is inconsolable, brought back from the brink of her mania by a firm slap across the cheek – a very rude awakening indeed. Blue Back returns with a stick, encouraging Gil to beat Lana until she becomes a ‘good wife’.  
Ford’s movies don’t usually falter – especially in their initial establishment of male/female relationships. Yet herein the director seems genuinely reticent. Our first scenes with Gil and Lana are little more than fragmented snapshots. Lana’s premature disillusionment dovetails into a newfound pioneer-woman’s spirit that is all but dismantled after Deerfield is burnt to the ground by the Tory’s complicit Iroquois warriors; her devotion in marriage galvanized only by the last act. Gil and Lana’s flourishing love of the land parallels their more meaningful passion for each other. It’s a curious analogy, one not altogether efficacious with Ford’s more grandiose set pieces jam-packing and frequently interrupting this more intimate plotline.
After taking refuge with the others inside a nearby fort, Lana suggest to Gil she could hire herself out to Mrs. McKlennar; the idea, at first, repugnant to Gil who briefly contemplates returning to the relative safety of ‘polite society’ back in Albany. But Lana has had more than a taste of Gil’s idyllic freedom, her love of this untamed wilderness momentarily outsizing his own. Gil and Lana are immediately hired by the widow McKlennar to look after the property; Gil agreeing to work the farm while Lana mends and sews. News of an advancing Tory uprising causes the town’s cleric, Rev. Rosenkrantz (Arthur Shields) to side with the edicts of Gen. Nicholas Herkimer (Roger Imhof) who orders every available man into immediate conscription or face execution for treason. Gil marches off with the other soldiers, including newlywed George Weaver (Arthur Aylesworth) and Adam Hartman; Lana following the men down the road, though careful not to let Gil see her.
The widow McKlennar is a caustic mule, but one with a saintly 14kt heart of gold. Her astute reflections on life and loss are a strange comfort to Lana until the eve of another violent thunderstorm; the stragglers from the Battle of Oriskany emerging bloody but unbowed – all except Gil whom Lana eventually discovers nearly unconscious and wounded by the edge of the fence. Dr. Petry (Russell Simons) orders the amputation of Gen. Herkimer’s leg without the benefit of anesthesia; the General administered a strong brandy and the surgery mercifully taking place off camera. Gil regales Lana with their accursed victory. It is a moment of sheer and unsurpassed eloquence for Fonda, whose recital of careworn battle details was improvised by Ford asking Fonda impromptu questions from off camera, later edited out and interpolated with close-ups of Colbert’s Lana tending her husband’s shoulder wound. Amidst the chaos, warmly lit by kerosene lamps Ford’s painterly style generates a bizarre, almost cozy camaraderie. However, in the steely gray of dawn victory looks quite different; the mood dampened by Herkimer’s death and the realization that the conflict rages on.
Not long after the widow McKlennar is visited by two Iroquois who torch her home but manage to save the widow after she staunchly refuses to vacate her marital bed. Gil, Lana, McKlennar and her housemaid, Daisy (Beulah Hall Jones) retreat to the fort, pursued by the Iroquois warriors under Caldwell’s command. The fort endures repeated attacks and local Joe Boleo (Francis Ford – John Ford’s brother) elects to make a run into the forest for help. He is captured and bound to a hay wagon set afire as Gil and Adam look on before putting Joe out of his misery. The widow McKlennar is mortally wounded by a stray arrow, dying in Adam’s arms, a chillingly poignant farewell to what is arguably the movie’s most memorable character.
With supplies and ammunitions dwindling Gil decides to make a break into the forest. He is pursued by a trio of Iroquois but eventually escapes, returning in the nick of time with army reserves. Asked about Caldwell, Blue Back proudly places the traitor’s cap upon his own head, the implication pointedly clear. Amidst the carnage, Lana and Gil are reunited. Word arrives of Gen. Cornwallis’ surrender and Washington’s victory is introduced to the survivors the following day, by the appearance of America’s ‘pretty’ flag hoisted atop the church steeple as the beleaguered, but hopeful, look on; Ford’s penultimate flag-waving poeticism diffused by Gil’s more frank observation, “I reckon we better get back to work. There’s going to be a heap to do from now on!”
Drums Along The Mohawk is often overlooked in John Ford’s repertoire, perhaps because, in hindsight, it remains such an anomaly; Ford’s singular critique of the American Revolutionary War and his only work in color until 1948’s unabashedly sentimental 3 Godfathers. Yet Drums Along The Mohawk contains kernels of truth indigenous to every John Ford movie preceding it; his own sense of community and each eccentric individual’s place in it enriching the intimacy and the grandeur of life’s intricately woven tapestry. Fair enough, the film lacks an overall dramatic arc, particularly during its first third leading up to the burning destruction of Deerfield. Occasionally, the action can seem ever-so-slightly strained or even, at times, relying almost exclusively on characterization to carry a plot point.
Yet Ford’s fidelity to the unfocused mood and pace of the Revolutionary War is uncanny. His characters are not on a vision quest. They are, in fact, inspired by an intuitive thirst for the as yet undetermined promise later to be coined as the ‘American dream’; to live, love and build a world out of the fertile nothingness that surrounds, and with their own two hands. This is the message that resonates throughout Ford’s masterwork with all the clanging clarity of the Liberty Bell (again, not yet a part of the American way of life) though perhaps symbolically represented within the movie as the tolling of the fort’s church clapper; Ford and his scenarists looking beyond the film’s vignettes, but also reminding the audience of the many miracles that have come to pass since the movie’s own timeline that will never come to pass for our protagonists.
Drums Along The Mohawk is a superior effort. In any other year it so easily would have been Oscar-nominated as Best Picture. That it received only two lesser nominations in 1939, one for Edna May Oliver’s Best Supporting Actress, the other for Ray Rennahan and Bert Glennon’s cinematography, is arguably forgivable, given the tidal wave of accolades afforded Selznick’s Gone With The Wind; the pluperfect paradigm of studio-made, Hollywood-born, Technicolor epics. That the reputation of Drums Along The Mohawk has inexplicably faded over the years is an oversight perhaps more recently rectified by our own renewal of interest in John Ford’s formidable reputation and career.
Ford, who gave us so many high-caliber movies of such poignant and varied characterizations, consistently top-notched; who mythologized the west for a generation who never knew it any other way, and, as no one of his ilk could (and virtually none who have followed him has been able); who cast his critical eye along the vacant mesas or thickening woods to seek out, discover and celebrate the humanity of a bygone folk; these have since evolved as lore to represent a distinctly American way of life – mostly imagined. There has never been, and will likely never be another John Ford. The times are not conducive to his temperamental artisan. And the era in film-making that governed, afforded, approved and sustained Ford’s pursuit of perfection is no more. Yet, John Ford’s America survives. Hence, when we see a film by John Ford, history – whatever its imperfections – melts from view and the Fordian principles of America become America itself for just an hour or two. It is a world, quite simply, without parallel; imbued with optimism, the strength of Ford’s own convictions and a repeal of the oft’ popularized notion today that America’s best days are a thing of the past. A Ford film is therefore a celebration of America: the beautiful - disseminating hope from darkness, and elevating nostalgia, pride in one’s self and one’s country, and, that other oft’ bastardized notion of blind patriotism into a very fine art indeed.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of Drums Along The Mohawk is cause for celebration. The 1080p transfer exhibits some gorgeous Technicolor hues. Thanks in part to a stunning restoration performed several years ago, and the advanced clarity of a new hi-definition master, the movie belies its 75 year vintage. Contrast seems just a tad weaker at the start; flesh tones marginally paler than they appear throughout the rest of the movie. The image is bright without contrast boosting. Technicolor being a grain-concealing process, film grain throughout this presentation looks marvelous. Age-related and digital artifacts are a non-issue. The DTS mono audio sounds just a tad strident during Alfred Newman’s main title, but again, improves almost immediately thereafter. Although the liner notes indicate an ‘isolated score’ prepared by Mike Matessino, no such audio option exists on this disc. * Please note: Screen Archives’ Twilight Time’s internet page clearly indicates that no surviving elements exist for an isolated score, so the insert is obviously a misprint.
But we are well compensated for this absence by two spectacular extra features – each worth the price of admission. The first is Becoming John Ford – Nick Redman’s utterly fascinating retrospective from 2007, produced for, and previously released in conjunction with, Fox Home Video’s lavishly appointed Ford At Fox DVD box set – alas currently out of print. Redman, who also co-produced this feature-length biography gains spellbinding insight into the director’s career from such notable historians as James D’arc and Rudy Behlmer; Julie Kirgo’s lyrical writing (also showcased in the extensive liner notes) and Bengt Jonsson’s moody cinematography conspire to create one of the best Hollywood back stories about a true giant in the industry. The second extra that definitely makes this disc a ‘must have’ is the Redman/Kirgo audio commentary – feature-length and exceptionally detailed. Great stuff – as anticipated. We also get Fox’s badly worn B&W theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, September 19, 2013

THE UNINVITED: Blu-ray (Paramount 1944) Criterion Home Video

Despite some intriguing touches and the occasional moody fright, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944) is a fairly uninspired thriller; its leitmotif of ‘do you think the dead come back to observe the living?’ seeming old hat even by the mid-1940s.  Hitchcock had plumed the well superbly with the Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940), an infinitely more atmospheric excursion into the dark old house premised potboiler with a mysterious past. On this occasion, director Lewis Allen utterly fails to delve beyond the beginnings of a pseudo-Gothic horror replete with stock clichés: animals that can sense foreboding before their human counterparts, unexplained phenomena occurring nightly, flickering candles in the front hall and a young woman compelled by unearthly desire to destroy herself. We’ve seen all this before, and done to better effect elsewhere than in The Uninvited.
Dodie Smith/Frank Partos' screenplay doesn’t do all that much with Dorothy Macardle’s novel, Uneasy Freehold, except to sporadically shake, then lightly stir the melange of evil spirits on the loose. Just when you think the movie’s about to get good – or at least scary - as in the sequence where Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey) discover a chill in the air of the artist’s atelier - but fail to notice the fresh bouquet of flowers introduced into the room withering to rot before their very eyes - the screenplay pulls back from the supernatural to concentrate, rather badly, on a some light comedy and heavy-handed melodrama awkwardly blended, though never entirely fleshed out.

The Uninvited plays very much like the screwball that ran away with the 'who done it?' The cast spend more time perplexedly skulking about the nearby town than sleuthing with any degree of certainty within the haunted Winwood estate, supposedly at the crux of a spurious familial legacy. Director Lewis gets his spirits confused, and frequently confounds his audience with some intriguing foreshadowing that regrettably comes to not shortly thereafter; more concerned with maintaining the brooding atmosphere than cohesively linking his moments into a chronologically functioning narrative. Periodically taking the action out of Winwood diverts the audience’s sense of anticipation. And Winwood is hardly as spooky in its nightly haunts as one might expect.
The chief flaw with The Uninvited is two-fold; first, at how unremarkable its surroundings remain throughout the story, and second, by how long it takes to get the central narrative off the ground. Hitchcock, as example, was a master at knowing when to introduce the more sinister elements into his seemingly congenial ‘normal’ world; plying every moment leading up to that pivot with his exceptional sense of timing and pace. Director Allen seems to lack such focus. There are too many parallels between Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Uninvited to go into at any great length in this review. But a few bear closer inspection. Both films, as example, begin with a voice-over narration, The Uninvited’s spoken with a queer tedium by Ray Milland, dropping hints about the supernatural occurrences at Winwood House; appropriately situated on a craggy moor near Cornwall.
For the Fitzgeralds, sharing a cramped flat in London, the estate – with its vast windswept property overlooking a rather turgid sea and barren landscape – has its definite allure. Rick’s a failed music critic; Pamela, the spinster ‘do nothing’ sibling who fancies herself mistress of a grand country house. Curiously enough, the movie never quite explains how Rick’s salary as a magazine writer is able to pay for the sale of the property – even at its incredibly reduced price – or, in fact, where all the Fitzgerald’s lavish furnishings that eventually fill up Winwood’s expansive rooms were being stored beforehand: certainly not in their congested London flat!
After the Fitzgerald’s dog, Bobby, runs astray through one of Winwood’s open windows in pursuit of a squirrel, Rick and Pamela make chase through its vacant interiors, affording the audience a lay of the land, so to speak. It’s a curious introduction, not the least for its elementally failed ‘screwball’ model that belies the purpose of the rest of the story. In Rebecca, Hitchcock uses the estate of Manderly as a character, its rooms briefly visited at the start of the movie, to be revisited later on with heightened dramatic intensity; these interiors affected by lighting, cinematography and the seemingly natural progression of the story from melodrama into suspense. In The Uninvited we are given a Cook’s tour of rooms we will never see again. It’s a little bit like taking a house guest on a walking tour of a medieval castle, but then informing them they will be spending the rest of their vacation in the woodcutter’s cottage just down the road. And anyway, Winwood is no Manderly, its hollow interiors never harking to that mysterious past; the audience expected to intuitively feel and remember a history that doesn’t exist or rather, is never revealed to us until quite late in the third act.  Winwood is just a place, a series of walls and windows put up by Paramount’s art department to evoke…well…we’re not entirely sure.
Rick is bitten by the squirrel hiding under the kitchen stove. Bobby pursues the poor terrified creature to an open grate, the squirrel escaping up the flue.  Pamela decides to go exploring and quickly becomes enamored with Winwood, coaxing a very reluctant Rick to see things her way. The pair eventually arrives at the home of Commander Beech (Donald Crisp); a curmudgeonly recluse of means to whom the property currently belongs. Rick and Pamela first meet Beech’s granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) who emphatically insists Winwood is not for sale. But only moments later Beech declares that they can have it for a song. What’s wrong with the place? Oh, it’s haunted. Really? How exciting!  
Without much ado or haggling Beech sells Winwood to the Fitzgeralds, hinting that the previous tenant was driven out by curious sounds and superstitions; this brief history intriguing Pamela and Rick who take immediate possession of the house. But is Winwood possessed? At first, neither Rick nor Pamela thinks so. Pamela stays on to tidy up, encouraging Rick to return to London and settle accounts with the magazine; also, to send their belongings on ahead while Rick makes plans to bring over their Scottish housemaid, Lizzie Flynn (Barbara Everest). However, when Rick returns a week later with Lizzie and her cat, Pamela tells them that Bobby has run off. The house has no electricity so the interiors are all lit by flickering candlelight; a rather strained contrivance considering the movie is not taking place in 17th or even 18th century Europe but supposedly modern day England circa 1944. Everyone retires for the evening except Lizzie’s cat, rather vehemently refusing to go upstairs. Later that evening Rick hears a woman’s echoed sobbing and ventures beyond his bedroom with candelabra in hand. But he cannot pinpoint the location of the wailing. It seems to be coming from all around. Pamela confesses to Rick that she has heard this same mysterious crying every night since her stay at Winwood.
The next afternoon Rick confronts Commander Beech, who is as reticent as he remains haughty and elusive about explaining anything. Afterward, Rick meets Stella in town. In fact, she has been waiting for him. Stella apologizes for her behavior and Rick, sensing the sadness within, decides to intrude on her prearranged errands to take the girl out for a sail. It’s not much of a ‘cute meet’. Rick becomes sea sick, relying on Stella to sail them back into port. Still, she finds him attractive and he makes a gallant attempt to please by inviting her to Winwood for dinner. Beech admonishes Stella after learning she has accepted this invitation. He orders his adult granddaughter to her room. Although she momentarily complies, Stella makes it quite clear she will not remain a prisoner in his house and later defies Beech by returning to Winwood in a party dress for that dinner engagement. In the meantime, Beech telephones Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), the proprietress of the Mary Meredith Asylum, with a cryptic message to meet.
Pamela deduces that Rick is smitten with Stella and encourages the romance. But the night’s festivities are interrupted by a strange fate. Having taken Stella to the artist’s atelier, newly converted into his musician’s loft complete with grand piano – and serenading her with the now iconic Victor Young composition, ‘Stella by Starlight’, Rick takes notice that the girl has suddenly drifted very far away from him in her thoughts. Without cause or warning, Stella darts from the room, down the stairs and out the front door. Rick chases after Stella and narrowly prevents her from hurling herself over the craggy cliff into the swirling ocean waters below.  Moments later, Lizzie’s screams force everyone back inside; Lizzie claiming to have witnessed an ominous fog creeping up the stairs toward the artist’s loft. Stella tells Pamela and Rick that her mother committed suicide on the cliff when she was only three and Rick elects to get to the bottom of things with Beech the next afternoon.
Beech is close-lipped, instead suggesting that Rick sell back the property and vacate it at once. Rick refuses. Beech then tells Rick to leave Stella alone. Once again, Rick defies Beech by picking up Stella along the open road and driving her to church. But by now even Rick is certain Stella should never return to Winwood – a decision that leaves the girl momentarily forlorn. Rick relents to Stella’s requests to return to Winwood. But when she collapses inside the atelier, Rick sends immediately for Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) who explains something of the mystery of Winwood. It seems that Stella’s father, Meredith, was an artist of some repute who had an affair with one of his models, a Spanish gypsy named Carmella. When Stella’s mother Mary learned of this she ordered Carmella out of Winwood. But Carmella’s return met with an untimely end when Mary was cast into the sea and Carmella later committed suicide – or, at least, so it would seem.
We move into the third act under the duress of a litany of clichés; beginning with a séance conducted by Rick, Dr. Scott and Pamela for Stella’s benefit. It’s a rouse, Rick conspiring with Dr. Scott to control the movement of the wine glass so that Stella will receive answers to her questions that will satisfy her curiosities about her mother. But when Stella wisely deduces that Rick and Dr. Scott are manipulating the results she orders them to remove their fingers from the glass, the cut crystal moving on its own across the table before casting itself into the nearby open hearth. The room fills with the scent of mimosa, a memory rekindled from Stella’s childhood recollections of her mother and the girl begins to speak in tongues – Spanish, actually. Afterward, a cold blast of air from the French doors invades and Stella collapses, Beech bursting in and demanding that Stella be placed in his care. Beech also relieves Dr. Scott of his duties as family physician and places Stella in Miss Holloway’s care. Holloway is cruel woman – her menace implied as she willfully goads Stella into believing she is losing her mind. Holloway tells Rick and Pamela that she was Mary Meredith’s best friend from childhood and that Carmella likely murdered Mary out of jealousy by pushing her off the cliff near Winwood.
Yet, the pieces don’t quite fit.  So Dr. Scott conveniently consults the diaries of his predecessor, the late Dr. Rudd who disliked Miss Holloway but wrote extensively on Mary’s condition shortly before her death. Rudd speculates that Holloway – not Carmella – murdered Mary to attempt a seduction of her husband, Meredith – who later died of presumably natural causes in France. Scott, however, manages to piece together the clues to reveal a darker truth – that Stella was not Mary’s child but rather Carmella’s, the girl kept from her biological mother after Mary bitterly agreed to adopt the child. But when Carmella returned to be near both her baby and the man she loved, Mary murdered Carmella, accidentally plummeting to her own death. As a bitter spirit, Mary has been determined to keep Carmella from loving and protecting Stella. It is Carmella’s cries that have been heard in the night; Carmella who spoke to Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott through Stella during the séance; Carmella who protects Stella from Mary’s ghost, the latter plotting to drive Stella to kill herself in the same manner as her mother died.
Having gone insane, Miss Holloway releases Stella from her care, encouraging the girl to take a train back to Winwood where she is certain Mary will take her life. Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott, who have come to the asylum to demand Stella’s release, discover she is already well on her way to the house and make haste to prevent the seemingly inevitable. Arriving first to Winwood, Stella discovers Beech, who is dying, waiting for her in the upstairs attic. He orders her from the house, telling Stella it is for her own good, as death will surely come there to claim her. But it is too late. Mary’s ghost has re-materialized, causing Beech to suffer a fatal heart attack. Stella’s screams are heard by Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott – her panicked departure from Winwood moments later thwarted by Rick who once again who prevents Stella from going over the cliff where her mother – Carmella – died. Confronting Mary’s ghost, Rick hurls a candelabra into the upstairs atelier, thereby driving out Mary’s destructive spirit from Winwood once and for all. As everyone listens, Carmella’s echoed laughter fills the halls.
The Uninvited is rather convoluted and unevenly paced. The spirits of two violently opposed women who continue to struggle for the soul of the child whose birth effectively killed them both really doesn’t make all that much sense. Why, for example, is Mary’s more sinister apparition the stronger influence throughout our story, capable of compelling Stella to attempt suicide twice, while Carmella’s can only weep during the waning hours of night or speak to Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott using her own daughter as a medium but in a language none of them can understand?  Why does Beech elect to place his granddaughter in the care of Miss Holloway when she so obviously despises Stella? And why does Holloway release her to return to Winwood moments before Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott arrive to demand Stella’s release anyway? No, the screenplay is a heavy-handed affair at best; unable to drop visual clues that would allow the audience to piece together the mystery for themselves. Director Lewis Allen instead relies on leaden, wordy and utterly contrived ‘explanations’ given by various characters ad nauseam: Rick, Dr. Scott and Pamela talking through the history of Winwood in a series of very static deductions and discussions.
It doesn’t really work except in a faux Agatha Christie-esque sort of way; the perfunctory conclusions made almost as afterthoughts to explain away the phenomena thus far defying logic. But movies are about ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ – or should be. Visually, The Uninvited is rather uninspiring. The scenes taking place at night are simply done in darkness and shadow while the daytime sequences contain no sense of foreboding or foreshadowing whatsoever. Ray Milland is a weak – and far too old - love interest for Gail Russell’s placid ingénue; a mere waif to his cultured sophisticate. It’s an odd and not very convincing love match with virtually no spark of romance to recommend it. Ruth Hussey’s place in the story is rather pointless, her devoted sister dear fading into the background almost from the moment the Smith/Partos screenplay decides to focus on Stella and Rick’s awkward and, at times, woefully contrived romance instead. Cornelia Otis Skinner’s wicked asylum curator is a rather obvious attempt to invoke the sinister qualities of a Gale Sondergaard. But Miss Holloway’s conversion from steely-eyed vamp to emotionally unhinged gargoyle is too quickly realized to be believed.
The Smith/Partos screenplay mangles and wastes its first act on a series of vignettes that quite simply never add up – the sail around the coast where Rick becomes seasick, as example – meant to establish the feeblest of romantic interest between Rick and Stella that will just as quickly be discarded after he assumes a rather paternal affection to get to the bottom of her supernatural malady. The screwball chase through Winwood by the Fitzgeralds that kicks off the movie, with Bobby pursuing his squirrel; Rick and Beech’s adversarial sparring; two stubborn mules at loggerheads that goes absolutely nowhere fast; Beech’s cryptic contact with Holloway whom he implicitly trusts despite his obvious devotion to his granddaughter and Holloway’s even more obvious maniacal tendencies toward the Meredith family.
Watching these moments rather haphazardly unfurl – most as red herrings – lumped together like the ill-fitted pieces of a perplexing jigsaw puzzle, one is reminded of Hitchcock’s superior handling of similar elements in Rebecca and the way Hitchcock builds situational romantic comedy into a moment when all of its lightness believably, suddenly – and unexpectedly - evaporates into a far more sinister reality afoot.  The Uninvited’s first act never achieves this seemingly natural progression toward suspense, but repeatedly delays the inevitable until late into its second act, before unleashing chaos in its final moments; the revelations detonated rather than exposed, as though they were sticks of narrative dynamite to be exploded in the audience’s consciousness. It’s a troubling, rather than unsettling last act, capped off by Milland’s glib shrugging off of Mary Meredith as “She might have been my mother-in-law!” a moot point considering Mary’s been dead for well over a decade.
Various notable critics and movie directors have labeled The Uninvited as the greatest ghost story ever made. I just don’t see it. I found it dull, boring and occasionally absurd with only a few brilliant flashes to recommend it. What can I say? We all have our opinions as to what makes a great movie. Mine obviously differ from the ensconced status quo. However, on what constitutes a great hi-def transfer, the opinion is frankly unanimous and Criterion’s newly minted Blu-ray, which I have been fortunate enough to pre-screen and therefore can offer an opinion about well in advance of its official October release is an exemplary mastering effort. There’s really no point in comparing previously issued DVDs with Criterion’s newly minted hi-def master. This one excels in virtually all aspects; the tonality of the gray scale superb, with solid contrast and razor-sharp fine details. If you are a fan of this movie then you are decidedly in for a treat. The Uninvited looks spectacular with only spotty age-related flaws and virtually no obvious digital manipulations to detract.
The PCM mono audio provides an added kick to Victor Young’s iconic score, dialogue sounding more refreshed and vital. Michael Almereyda’s nearly 30 min. visual essay, Giving Up the Ghost is about the only highlight worth mentioning. We also get a pair of radio adaptations. Personally, I must confess to never having listened to just about any of these as extras. Criterion rounds out its special features with a trailer and liner notes by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview conducted with director Lewis Allen. Bottom line: The Uninvited was fairly unwelcome at my house. Your thoughts and appreciation of it may differ, but I really wouldn’t recommend it – certainly not as one of the best ghost stories ever made!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)