Sunday, December 25, 2022

The Illusionist

The Illusionist
Directed by Sylvain Chomet
Written by Henri Marquet, Sylvain Chomet (screeplay), Jacques Tati (story)
IMDB Entry

Jacques Tati is the last of the great silent comedians.* He started making films long after sound came in, but continued the art form. There was sound, but no actual conversations. They story was told through actions and character reactions. Generally, any speech was short and consisting of a handful of words.  But the visual comedy was top notch,Tati died in 1982. He only directed five full-length features, all of which are gems of comedy. The Illusionist is an animated film that was adapted from a screenplay that he never directed.

It's the story of Tatisheff,** a stage magician. He's good,  but no one is interested in his act, and he keeps appearing in smaller and smaller venues. He travels with his recalcitrant rabbit, to a small village in Scotland for a performance, and sees a young woman, Alice, working as a maid. Feeling sorry for her, he buys her a pair of decent shoes. When he travels from there to Edinburgh, she decides to go with him.

They hole up in a theatrical hotel and he gets work where he can, while she admires him, and they set up a father-daughter relationship.

The gags are funny and, in typical Tati fashion, there are more than one going on at once. It's not slapstick, but about the reaction of the human reactions to the event.

There are plenty of memorable characters, especially in the hotel. There's a ventriloquist who is kind to Alice and never puts his dummy down, three acrobat who are always practicing their art, the hotel owners who are little people and who go in their office by only opening the lower part of a Dutch door, and a rock band that steals his thunder.

The film is visually superb. Backgrounds are filled with details and the portrayal of things like smoke and rain is unsurpassed.

The movie got an Oscar nomination but didn't win. Director Chomet had made a mark with The Triplets of Bellevue, but hasn't been able to do much since, especially since his studio and distributor folded.

There was some controversy over the film. Tati had written it for his daughter, as a way of apologizing her for his being too busy for her. Members of the family didn't like the usage, and objected to changes that Chomet had made, but I think the result is well worth it.

You don't have to know Tati to enjoy this. It's full of charm and pathos and an example of a film that uses animation in a way that is rarely seen.

*I don't count Mel Brooks, whose foray into silent comedy was a one-off thing. Shaun the Sheep is the only real challenger.
**Tati's real name. The character design is clearly based on Tati, too.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Hangover Square

Hangover Square
Directed by
John Brahm
Screenplay by Barré Lyndon* from a novel by Patrick Hamilton
Starring Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders, Alan Napier, Faye Marlow
IMDB Entry

Laird Creger was one of the great losses to the cinema of the 1940s. He was a charismatic actor, and a strong cinema presence. But his performances showed a lot of promise before he died at age 31. Hangover Square is one that shows how good he was.

It starts out strongly:  we see a shopkeeper being murdered and his shop set on fire. The killer's face is not seen, but we show George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) stumbling through the streets. Bone is a composer and we learn that he suffers from blackouts where he cannot remember what has happened. His fiancée, Barbara Chapman, learns his situation and takes him to a police psychologist, Dr. Alan Middleton (George Sanders). Middleton investigates and sees no evidence Bone killed the shopkeeper and suggests take a break to relax, and he ends up going to a nightclub where he spots Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), who convinces him to write songs for her. He falls for her, but one day realizes he's being used.  And the blackouts start again.

Cregar puts on a fine performance. He's not a villain, and doesn't realize he's done anything wrong, since he remembers nothing about it. He's a tortured man who can't find peace and is especially good when he starts to go mad.

Sanders is his usual urbane self as he begins to suspect the truth. Linda Darnell makes a great femme fatale. 

Modern fans can spot Alan Napier (Alfred  from the Batman TV show) as Bone's future father-in-law.


*An obvious pseudonym. He won an Oscar for the screenplay of War of theWorlds.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

One Body Too Many


One Body Too Many

Directed by
Frank McDonald
Written by Winston Miller, Maxwell Shane
Starring Jack Haley, Bela Lugosi, Jean Parker, Lyle Talbot, 
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a cast list surprises you, and I was delighted when I stumbled upon One Body Too Many.

Albert Tuttle (Jack Haley) is an insurance salesman who goes to sell a policy to Cyrus Rutherford, an eccentric millionaire. Problem is, Rutherford is dead and the family is gathered for the reading of the will. It lives up to eccentric:  there is no listing of who gets what until Rutherford in buried in a special glass-domed crypt. The family will be getting different bequests, at smaller and smaller amounts, but, if Rutherford is not buried as designated, the one with the smallest bequest getting the largest, and vice versa.

Haley stumbles on this crew and is stuck there overnight as a storm rages. And people start getting murdered by people who think they were going to be stiffed by the will. Rutherford's niece (Jean Parker) asks the timid Tuttle for help, and he reluctantly agrees.

Haley, of course, is primarily known as the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz and you can see that in this role, along with a hint of the cowardly lion. Bela Lugosi -- billed third -- is there as the butler, a role that gives him nothing to do but act vaguely sinister.

Also in the cast it Lyle Talbot, who was a familiar face in movies and TV.

The film is a mildly amusing programmer, with more smiles than laughs.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Mayor of Hell

Mayor of Hell
Directed by
Archie Mayo, Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Written by Edward Chodorov,  based on a story by Islin Auster
Starring James Cagney, Madge Evans, Dudley Digges, Allen Jenkins, Frankie Darro, Allen Jenkins
IMDB Entry

People often make the charge that modern films are too "woke," usually meaning that they are conscious of social issues. They don't seem to know that films have been dealing with social issues almost from the beginning. Warner Brothers especially became known for stories showing society's losers and The Mayor of Hell is a prime example.

We fist see a group of boys, let by Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro) who are running some minor scams on the people. They get caught and some of the gang, including Jimmy, are0 sentenced to reform school.  The school's superintendent, Thompson (Dudley Digges), treats his charges with a firm hand, while enriching himself. This is upset when the deputy commissioner, Patsy Gargan (James Cagney) shows up and begins to reorganize the place, treating the boys with respect, giving them decent food, and setting everything up a democracy.

Considering that at the period, Cagney was usually playing tough guy roles.* He's tough enough to earn the respect of the boys, but clearly is looking for them to be well treated.  Madge Evans plays the nurse at the reformatory, who urges him to do what is needed to help the boys.

Of note is the performance of Allen "Farina" Hoskins. He was a major star of the Our Gang silent comedies -- possibly the most successful Black actor of his time. By this point, he had aged out of Our Gang and was struggling to find roles. One good thing was that he was treated by all the boys as an equal and didn't resort to the usual stereotypical behavior.

The social commentary in the movie is more than obvious and Thompson ends up getting more than his due. The point was especially important in the 1930s, when people sometimes skirted the law due to poverty.

*Indeed, most posters make it look like Cagney is a gangster type.