Friday 31 March 2017

The Apartment (1960)

Nøglen under måtten
I am on a roll, 1960 has become a much better film year lately. Enter Billy Wilder and good becomes great.

Billy Wilder has become one of my favorite directors. I cannot remember ever being disappointed by his movies. On the contrary, I see his name on the credits and I know I am in for something different in the best sense possible. Lübitch may have had the Lübitch touch, but Wilder had a keen eye for thinking outside the box and present stories or genres we may think we know in way we did not expect and just nail it. Take “Sunset Boulevard”, “Ace in the Hole”, “Some Like it Hot”, “Double Indemnity” and on and on. This is all brilliant stuff.

I am not sure “The Apartment” is his best movie ever. With a list like the above that is a tall order, but it is on par with a lot of the good stuff and that says a lot.

“The Apartment” is Billy Wilder’s take on the classic romantic comedy. In such movies there is a boy and a girl and usually some other boys or girls involved. The boy and a girl go through a lot of misunderstandings, but always gets each other in the end and in the process, we get a lot of laughs. It never gets really dangerous. In Wilder’s hands it gets a lot stranger.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is working on the floor of a massive insurance company. He has somehow gotten involved in a scheme where his bosses borrow his apartment for their extra-marital activities. Baxter is a push-over and the bosses are holding out the prospect of promotion and as a result Baxter is a stranger in his own home. This could easily be pathetic or sycophantic, but Jack Lemmon presents a character who is quite innocent and just happen to be that unlucky guy who got rolled into this and cannot get out again, although pressure from health (spending a night out in the cold) or disapproving neighbors is making him utterly sick of this arrangement. Yet Baxter has enough integrity to play along and be discreet.

The scheme is fun and weird and leads to a lot of laughs as we watch Baxter struggle to cope with his predicament.

This whole arrangement moves up a notch when top dog Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) enters the scene. He also needs an apartment for his dates and raises the stakes significantly. Baxter gets promoted off the floor and decides it is time to make a move on his own crush, the elevator girl Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Unfortunately Kubelik is the very girl Sheldrake is currently dating. This can only go completely bananas and of course it does. To whom does Baxter own his allegiance? The girl he loves or the boss who patrons him?

There is a lot of old school screwball here with confusions, mistaken identities, rapid and witty dialogue and so on, but Wilder takes it so much further. It is never a secret to us what goes on in that apartment. This is not for children, though they all have a swell time doing it. We have a suicide attempt and sleazy nepotism and I am pretty this was all more than the audience was used to in 1960. And in the midst of all this Baxter still comes out as a nice guy we want to care for.

Shirley MacLaine is also perfect as the girl who is caught up in this scheme. She can be tragic and comic at the same and that is a rare skill. When the movie turns from comedy to romantic comedy it never gets as sweet and cloggy as the story suggests, but actually rather painful. Here are two people who are used to be pushed around realizing that this is the end of the line.

Analysis aside, what really matters here is that I thoroughly enjoyed myself from start to finish. I normally chop up a movie to fit into an otherwise busy schedule, but I could not do that with this one, I had to watch it to the end and that tells me more than anything else that this is top notch. The last time I succumbed to that was also Wilder. Hail Wilder, Hail the King!


Monday 27 March 2017

Black Sunday (La Maschera del Demonio/The Mask of Satan) (1960)

Djævelens maske
I love it when a movie I have heard nothing about and have absolutely no expectations for blow me away. That is one of the main reasons for doing the List, to be forced to watch movies I would not have picked myself and get that totally unexpected wow experience. I must have mentioned this so many times by now that it forms a lame and repetitive introduction, my apologies, but it still holds true.

The “Mask of Satan” (or “Black Sunday” or “La maschera del demonio”) is not the best movie I ever saw by a long shot, but it was refreshing and very much a surprise. Who said Italian movies was synonymous with neorealistic, arty and depressive films? Probably me until I saw this one.

What works in “The Mask of Satan” is that it is a gothic horror movie that takes itself serious enough to go all the way and does not pull any punches en-route. This is not a movie that winks at its audience or admits to any cheese and that is a rarity in this sort of movies. We get it all, demons, gothic dracula’esque castles, ghost carriage ride through the night, the dead awakening and lots and lots of gore. It would be so easy to laugh at this or call cliché, but the movie believes in its story, even its weaker parts, and I love it for it.

The film opens with an angry mob lynching a man and a woman as warlock and witch, in league with Satan. As part of the prosecution they ram a terrible nailed mask onto their faces, but not before the witch, Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), has cursed her family in all future generations and vowed to return.

Two centuries later, in the nineteenth century, two doctors, Professor Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) are travelling by coach through this region. Halfway through a forest the coach loses a wheel and the doctors pass the time exploring a nearby crypt. This happens to be the very crypt where the witch is entombed. Kruvajan does all the things he really should not do. He breaks the crucifix keeping watch over her, removes her mask and drips blood onto her face. Now literally all hell breaks loose.

The warlock rises from his grave and starts haunting the old castle where the decedents of the Vajda family lives and when he strikes at the old Prince the doctors are called in to help the son and the daughter. Particularly the daughter is interesting because she bears a stunning resemblance to the witch (guess who is playing her).

What follows are murders, ghosts, undead demons and a luscious temptress. This is like Dracula but with more action and a very hot witch.

The visuals are great. You can tell that this is a movie made by a cameraman. I have not seen anything as goth as this since “Frankenstein”. Sets, effects, costumes, make-up (especially the gory stuff) is very well done. The acting is more mixed. You can tell that not all the actors are pro’s. Steele is good and so is professor Kruvajan, while Richardson is too much of a dandy.

The one thing that did not work was the sound. What I got was a dubbed version (I actually first bought a DVD with the original sound, but no subtitles and I speak neither Italian, nor Catalan…) and that worked poorly. Much worse was the soundtrack. That was just cheap and apparently very far from the original score. I may want to sit through the original version just to get the right soundtrack.

Towards the end the movie loses some of its strength, mainly I think because Richardson gets more space. Had the demons killed the whole bunch this could have been a 10/10 movie.

Despite that I loved this movie. It rushed by as only good movies do and I had a great time. It just does not get any more goth than this.

Thursday 23 March 2017

Peeping Tom (1960)

Fotomodeller jages
Quite by coincidence I am on to another psychopathic killer movie. “Peeping Tom” follows right on the tail of “Psycho” last week and it is entirely fitting. Those two would make an excellent double feature.

Where “Psycho” was leading us to believe that the nice guy at the motel is actually a nice guy and not a mad killer, “Peeping Tom” goes the completely opposite way.  Right from the opening we know that Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) goes around killing people. Only then do we learn that Mark is actually a nice and gentle boy who struggling with some personal demons that makes him kill people. It sounds like an impossible task. How can you make a crazy killer sympathetic? A man you would actually root for? But Michael Powell, director and producer, actually accomplishes just that and that is in my opinion what makes this movie special.

Gradually through the movie we are let into Marks world, a truly strange and horrifying place. We see how he was ruined as a child by a sadistic father who did fear experiments on him and filmed it all. The result of that upbringing is an obsession with filming anything, everything really, and hunt for that perfect image of fear as people watch themselves die. It is clear that Mark get off on those images. Even the thought of them makes him sexually aroused and the murders seem to be orgastic release for him. This is seriously weird stuff, way beyond dressing up as a dog or hanging out with plastic dolls and a perversion far ahead of its time.

Personally I have some problem following the logic of his particular affliction. It does not really make sense and it gives me the nasty suspicion that his condition is deliberately gory and extreme, but then, I am not a psychiatrist, I have no idea if this sort of psychosis is a real thing. It bothers me because repelling as it is we get to like Mark and I want to understand why gets suck a kick out of filming people watching their own death.

Between working on a film set and going around killing people for kicks Mark meets a nice girl. Helen (Anna Massey) is a tenant is the big house Mark’s father left him who is endeared by the shy and gently boy. She wants to get to know him, but has clearly no idea what she is walking into. Mark falls in love with Anna immediately in part because he is desperate to reach out for someone to help him, yet, understandably, afraid what such a person would think of him. This part is quite interesting, both because we learn a lot about Mark, but also because I get strangely torn between hoping Anna can help him and urging her to get out of his reach that he does not kill her too.

Mark is of course a lost cause. The police is closing in on him and his relationship with Anna can only end in disaster. His secret is not something you can just learn to live with. The question is merely which disaster will happen first. However Mark has planned that moment and know exactly how he wants to check out.

There are a number of interesting elements to this movie. First of all why choose an actor with a distinct German accent as Mark? It is never explained, but I think it is with the war in mind, that at this time the British public would associate a German accent with a sadistic nazi villain.

Another element is the theme of voyeurism. Mark is not the only one who gets a kick out of watching. There is a great scene in the newsagent shop with an older man eager to buy pornography, but shy about it when a school girl enter the shop. Maybe a way of saying that voyeurism is a common thing, though in my book there is a big step up from porn to murder.

Then the movie has a whole meta thing going with the film set Mark is working at. A film about the process of making a film.

Powell has sprinkled humoristic elements over the movie, particularly on the film set, but also in scenes involving the police. I am not sure I like that levity. Mark’s affliction deserves to be taken serious and the silliness attenuates some of the bite. Normally I like that break in depressive movies, but here I find it unfitting.

My favorite character of the entire movie must be Anna’s mother, Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley). She is blind and therefore cannot be a voyeur and perhaps therefore she possesses more clarity than any other character. Also she is one sharp woman with a dry wit.

All in all “Peeping Tom” is a daring movie that does thing we are not (or were not) used to watching. It is cleverly made and swings itself up to an impressive level of suspense. It is impossible not to compare it to Psycho and in that comparison I think “Peeping Tom” falls short. I understand intuitively what is happening to Norman Bates and why he thinks as he does, but Mark is simply too far out. I simply cannot relate to his sexual obsession. But then again, I would hate to have another end sequence with a psychologist lecturing on his condition. Mark’s spectacular demise must and should speak for itself.


Friday 17 March 2017

Psycho (1960)

I cannot say I have been terribly impressed with last batch of movies I have been through. They generally have not struck a chord with me, even if some of them have been famous and admittedly influential. Maybe that is why I felt so relieved and energized watching Psycho.

“Psycho” is not the best Hitchcock movie I ever saw. It may not even be top tier. But even an average Hitchcock movie is a great watch and “Psycho” is a movie with a lot to offer.

At first it may seem disappointing that “Psycho” is in black and white. Come to think of it all the movies in 1960 so far have been in black and white and I am longing to some glorious Technicolor, but “Psycho” must have that noir’ish black and white cinematography. It simply would not work in color. This is something I only get to realize much later in the movie when the story takes some dramatic and unexpected turns. Yet the disappointment quickly fades as I am snuggled into the familiar comfort (or discomfort if you will) of a Hitchcock production. The score, a Hitchcock hallmark by now, is eerie and haunting, maybe one of his best scores, and the framing of each scene expertly made. Best of all we get some spectacular acting right from the get-go.

“Psycho” is about a woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who is involved in an affair with a man who is in debt and still tied to a woman he is trying to divorce. The relationship as it is is too distressing for her, but if only they had a lot of money…

That money suddenly appears when a client of her boss deposits 40.000 $ with her. She makes a quick decision and runs off with the money. Marion however is a terrible thief. She has guilt painted all over her and it seems to be only a matter of time before she is caught. Her attempt at shaking a curious policeman by changing car is simply pathetic and useless and as she stops for the night at a motel she starts having second thoughts. Especially after talking with the young and sympathetic owner of the motel (Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates) who seems to be even more trapped than she is.

This is where the movie changes completely. This movie is not about Marion Crane and the 40.000 $, but about a psychopathic killer lurking at the motel. Marion is stabbed to death in the legendary shower scene and disappears out of the movie. A private detective appears, looking for the woman and the money, but he is also killed.

If you did not know the story already this would be one of the greatest plot twists in movie history. The entire premise of the movie is turned upside down and we are plunged into something a lot darker than a romance and a theft. Problem is we know this plot twist already. “Psycho” is one of the most iconic movies ever made, the shower scene is more famous than anything I can think of and we know Norman Bates is a psychopath. I feel robbed really. I wanted that surprise, the spectacular twist that people back then in 1960 would line up in long queues for and promise not to tell anybody about (another legend of the movie), but I can only guess how they most have felt. It is like watching “Sixth Sense” knowing that Bruce Willis character is already dead. Ufff…

Sure, I did enjoy it, how can you not. Anthony Perkins is absolutely perfect, both as a nice and shy young man, as a terrified and angry man and as a psychotic villain. Even knowing what he will eventually be doing it is difficult not to be sympathetic towards him. He may be one of the most interesting bad boys in movie history.

A second reason for liking it despite the surprise having been spoilt is the expert composition. “Phycho” is a case where cinematography, score and editing complements each other perfectly. The view from the motel towards that ominous house with the all-strings score is genius and so is the famous shower scene.

The one thing I did not like was the psychologist appearing in the end. I do not understand why we need a 7-minute lecture on Bates’ sickness at this point. It is pretty obvious what has happened by then and these things usually work better unexplained. On top of that the actor doing the lecture is absolutely awful. It is lecture as a show, posing for the camera and it looks ridiculously stupid. Cut this part and I would make “Psycho” a top tier Hitchcock.

At the end of the day it is difficult not to be impressed by this movie. I liked it a lot and probably more than I normally would thanks to the mediocre fare I have been offered lately, but objectively the parts of this movie that are famous deserve their fame. This is a movie you must see… from the beginning.


Thursday 9 March 2017

The Housemaid (Hanyeo) (1960)

I have a certain affinity for Korea and Koreans. Through work I have visited Seoul many times and come to like it a lot. Going around is Seoul it is strange to think that this was not always a glitzy and modern place, that there was a time where Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world and that is not even that many years ago. Korea started this century as an occupied country and only just earned its freedom when it was thrown into a devastating war. Those were harsh times and it is no wonder that the first Korean entry on the List is as late as 1960.

At this time Koreans where eager to get out of the poverty and were very inspired by the West, most notably America. In that light Hanyeo, today’s movie, is an American thriller transplanted to Korea with a lot of focus on the necessity of earning wealth. Makes sense, no?

Hanyeo is a very effective movie. With obviously cheap tools (few sets and mediocre actors) the director Kim Ki-young is able to wrench an insane amount of intensity out of his ludicrous story. This is a horror thriller with a true monster who does not hesitate to kill and wreck to get what it wants and all that inside the home of a small family.

Dong-sik Kim (Kim Jin-kyu) is a musician teaching a class of women at a factory to sing. For some reason the women are madly in love with him. One girl sends him a love letter and is summarily dismissed from the factory and kills herself out of grief. A second one tries to get piano lessons from the musician and so enters his home.

At home Dong-sik Kim has a wife and two children. They just moved into a new house they can barely afford, but they are eager to get a high living standard and so the wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) sews at home and Dong-sik Kim accepts to take in the girl for piano lessons. However the wife is heavily pregnant so they decide to take in a housemaid and ask the piano girl to find one. And so she does… Myung-sook (Lee Eun-shim), the housemaid, is a monster from the nether realms of hell. While Dong-sik Kim managed to deflect the first girl and barely manage to deflect the piano girl (although she is pretty) Myung-sook is not so easy to get rid of. She forces Kim Jin-kyo to have sex with her (she practically rapes him) and then use that as a tool against him and his family. She starts to kill them off and their attempts to get rid of her are hampered by their unwillingness to lose their hard-earned wealth.  

The problem with this movie is that it is way over the top. Everything is super exaggerated, there is always thunder when Myung-sook appears, she will typically be looking in through a window when it is least opportune and she is raving mad. All the while the conflict is in fact entirely unnecessary. The family have plenty opportunity to get rid of her early on and there were plenty of signs that she was very unstable. Even later when she starts killing off the family members their excuses for keeping her sounds hollow and lame. Yet depite these issues it is still a very entertaining movie because of the nerve mentioned above and because Lee Eun-shim is great as the demonic housemaid. She goes way further than you would normally see in an American erotic thriller and even in European one. She is raw lust and need and completely controlled by her animal instinct.

Had the story been tempered with a less ludicrous script this could have been a great movie. As it is it is fun despite itself and I found myself laughing out loud several time. That is great, I love that kind of movies, but this could have been a different and far more sinister movie with a bit of care.

Also the ending is one of the weirder ones…

Friday 3 March 2017

The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara) (1960)

Meghe Dhaka Tara 
The year 1960 seems to be particularly heavy on depressive movies. I certainly feel I am caught up in a flood of them. I do not mind tragic stories, but this is starting to wear me out. I could really do with a bit of feel-good, but that will not be today, because today we are going to India again and India is, based on these old movies, just about the most depressive place in the world.

“Meghe Dhaka Tara” or “Cloud-Capped Star” is the story of a Bengal refugee family who probably used to be well off, but fled what is now Bangladesh and is now eking out a living in a refugee camp outside Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is not to be confused with the 2013 movie of the same name, which I found by mistake and got an hour into before I realized my error (it is also black and white and takes place around the same time). In any case in this family the father and the elder daughter Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) support the family, him by running a small school and her by tutoring children and students. Neeta is clearly gifted and was supposed to do a master degree, but she has become caught up in the job of supporting the family. As her father tends to waste away the money the family is completely dependent on Neeta’s income.

Neeta has a brother, Shankar (Anil Chatterjee), who dreams of singing. He does nothing all day but sing and beg money of Neeta for silly things like a shave. At least he is sympathetic if useless. Neeta’s sister Geeta (Gita Ghatak) is equally spoilt. She does nothing but complain about poverty and all the things she cannot get and of course beg money of Neeta. I believe there is another, younger brother as well who is studying. Their mother is one on those wailing mothers who does nothing but complain about everything while she toils for her useless children.

This is the story about Neeta. It starts bad and gets progressively worse. Her farther gets sick so she is now alone bringing home an income. She has a nice boyfriend, Sanat (Niranjan Ray), but when she insists that she cannot leave her household since they are all depending on her he gets frustrated and in steps Geeta and steals Sanat. Geeta does not mind leaving the household and Sanat promises to get decently wealthy. Did I mention that Geeta is a snake? Then the younger brother drops his studies and takes a job only to have a bad accident. Hospital treatment is not cheap and again it is Neeta who has to take care of it. Finally she contracts tuberculosis…

Basically the story is about Neeta’s sacrifice and suffering. When her family finally starts being grateful and a bit ashamed it is too late. Neeta’s life is washed out.

Such an uplifting story is exactly what you need on dark, winter nights…

Actually despite the obvious melodrama and Neeta’s intolerable family this is not a bad movie. It does have a progressive story and it is not as prone to stalling as other movies I have recently watched. Supriya Choudhury as Neeta is surprisingly good and her growing frustration and loss is felt more than seen as only good actors can do. This means that you cannot look away from the story and it moves surprisingly fast.

I am always struck by the poverty and grittiness of life in India in these old movies and this is no different. Neeta is of course a victim of that poverty, but more than that she is a victim of her own family. She willingly sacrifices herself for them and thereby she is also guilty in that exploitation. She could have objected and had a good education and a very good and dedicated husband, but she is caught up in her obligations and as a result she loses everything.

Add to that the irony that Shankar does become a famous and rich singer who buys the family a new house with two stories and that Sanat and Geeta gets beautiful children and prosper and Neeta can see that her sacrifice is thankless and did nothing for herself.

“Meghe Dhaka Tara” is a blow to the stomach, a movie intent on making you cry or get angry, but it is also a surprisingly well made movie. I am just not sure I can handle any more depressive movies right now.