Category Archives: Movies

Casting the Runes

We live in a golden age of things to watch.

There’s the addictive Trump Reality Show broadcast 24/7/365 by CNN, MNBC, and Faux News.

HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. are producing their own wonders.

The Oscars might have suffered a decrease in viewers, but THE SHAPE OF WATER deserved every good thing that has come its way. When Sally Hawkins offered that egg to her new amphibian friend I was filled with wonder and trepidation.

That being so, why spend time on 40-50 year-old film adaptations of 100 year-old ghost stories?

Perhaps, because at times they also fill me with wonder and trepidation.

The ghost stories of M. R. James are erudite, they are a luxurious read, and if read thoughtfully, they are scary as hell.

Page-turners? No.

Sleep disturbers? Oh-h-h-h, yeah.

Two of his stories; “O’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “Casting the Runes” are not only effective as stories but seem particularly useful for film treatment.

The multiple times I’ve watched the 1968 BBC Omnibus production of “O’ Whistle” featuring a remarkable performance by Michael Hordern (mumbling, insular, soaked in intellectual hubris), unseat my ease every time.

Jacques Tourneur directed CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) based on James’ “Casting the Runes”. I am unabashedly of the legions of film fanatics that revere Tourneur’s work with producer Val Lewton; CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN, and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

<<  Let’s take a quick time-out here. I hear the snickering over I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. You could not be more wrong. It’s a voodoo rendering of JANE EYRE and totally mesmerizing to watch…though, admittedly the appearance of Sir Lancelot, a calypso troubadour is a head-scratcher.  >>

Tourneur’s treatment of James’ story is not faithful, but who cares? Dana Andrews captures our interest and sympathy. We tag along breathlessly as he un-puzzles the situation. Niall MacGinnis is charmingly and gleefully evil. I would considered it a life well-lived if I never met the man. Séances, mysterious storms, hypnotism, curses on parchment, trains, planes, and automobiles in Britain – what’s not to like?

Thanks to my receiving another box of delights today from my friends at Sinister Cinema, tonight I watched a 1979 British TV production of “Casting the Runes” featuring Iain Cuthbertson and Jan Francis. Once again the adaptation is loose, but once again, who cares? The premise is plausible, the threat is real, the mechanisms are eminently difficult but doable…and the outcome is troubling. I’d call that; “mission accomplished”.

As loose as these adaptations are and as gifted as the adapters are, I can’t help thinking if the original story had not been so very fine…

Perhaps one more mosey through the M. R. James canon might be in order.

All the President’s Men

Notes on a re-screening (#9, I believe) of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

Rotary phones, paper slips at the Library of Congress, typewriters, walkies-talkies, real taxis with lights on the roof, phone booths and phone books, Rolodexes, legal pads, smoking in an elevator…these give such texture to a story untamed by 21st century whitewashing filters.

I enjoyed THE POST, but it’s not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

The journalism depicted in ATPM is sharper, harder earned, elbows are pointier, and the stakes are higher. That resonates with me these days.

Jane Alexander’s anguish is palpable. It also resonates with me these days.

There is hope expressed;

“The truth is these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.” –Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat.

After a day of Sam Nunberg, this is what hope sounds like.

A Close Encounter Revisited

Movie Night!

We cling to and cherish what constants we can find in our lives.

Well…..maybe not death and taxes…but most of ‘em.

For example, these are some of the verities upon which I depend;

  • Melinda Dillon will forever be Ralphie’s mom, possessor of all wisdom concerning the ocular hazards of Red Ryder BB guns.
  • Richard Dreyfus will forever haunt the drive-in restaurant and eat popsicles with Wolfman Jack and just miss appointments with Suzanne Somers.
  • Francois Truffault will forever make films about making films with Jacqueline Bissett and the exquisite Valentina Cortese in the totally sunny South of France.
  • Terri Garr will forever be Buck Henry’s befuddled date in the Steve Martin comedy short; THE WAITER.

I sleep better knowing these things are forever true.


Everything I thought I knew about these people…forget it.

Plus, there are visitors from outer space pickin’ up hitchhikers.

Double plus, I can hum the alien theme song.

I love it.

“Sometimes you do…”

I was lucky enough to work on the stage version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for about eight weeks one summer. There were so many moments of inspiration in the text it would have been easy to slip into the creative trap Peter Brook refers to as “holy theatre”. Fortunately, we had a fiercely intelligent director that kept us out of danger.

Of all those inspirational moments, I think my favorite was Atticus’ explanation of courage;

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Sometimes you do…

That phrase has gotten me through a few difficult decisions.

It seems useful to turn to it again just now.

Thank you, Ms. Lee.

Don’t Just Move…Stand There!

I’ve been pondering mobility, or rather the lack of it, as an important element in some horror films.

Normally, we’re a lot more a’feared of a terror whose current location is uncertain and moves mysteriously and quickly (ala the alien in ALIEN or Zika-carrying mosquitoes) than we are of a known and fixed enemy like…say…a patch of poison ivy. I don’t fear poison ivy, I avoid it like the plague that it is. I can’t outrun much on this planet, but I can outrun poison ivy. It can’t “cut me off at the pass”. Mosquitoes however…those little suckers are everywhere! This is the stuff of most horror flicks.

But there are a number of horror films that feature stationary menaces or menaces that move at glacier-like rapidity. I happen to have viewed a couple of these recently; THE LIVING HEAD (Mexican), and THE HEAD (German). Two other previously viewed films; THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN and DONOVAN’s BRAIN (both USA), would also fall into this sedentary and thus far inadequately studied category; films about living heads with no bodies (no legs, arms, wings, or driver’s licenses). The writers of these films are required to strive mightily to make these threats plausible since anyone could escape by simply falling down and crawling.

So, how do they do it?

Well, in THE LIVING HEAD and THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN, we are shown mesmerized worshipers of the head toting it about from place to place. No one seems to notice or care until it’s too late.

In DONOVAN’S BRAIN the title brain (aka the leading lobe) enforces its desires through emanations (wouldn’t that be a great name for a baseball team or a doo-wop group?) In THE HEAD it’s as if the writers don’t even try. The threat simply exists as a sideshow to be gasped at. Meh.

Until Brendan Fraser, mummy films had much the same problem. Bandage-bound Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee were not precipitous critters. Writers on these films worked hard to either trip or trap. They would trap their victims in a corner, or just trip them repeatedly, or paralyze them with fear. Fainting was a popular and useful (to the script writer) response. Plausibility fled as the mummy shuffled.

Two films come to mind that actually turned this lack of mobility into a positive. In THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, those malevolent pods can’t move, but are placed where they are most effective by previous victims of the pods. This is effective because of the mathematics of the situation. One victim begets two. Two beget four. Four beget eight. Eight beget… You see the problem. The rapid and devastating multiplication of zombie-fied neighbors and public officials is completely plausible and scary.

I hate pods to this day. I look at sugar snap peas and tremble.

In the beginning of the film THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, the title plants apparently cannot move. But after the Earth’s population is blinded by a handy meteor shower, the plants pull up their roots and reveal their slow, but inexorable mobility. The fright factor soars. Kudos for the writer! BUT, look how hard it was to make effective – handy meteor shower? Please.

And that’s my point. Writing is hard work. Why make it harder? Writers should unleash their terrors, not nail their feet (or whatever might pass for feet) to the floor.

Indulge me one more example.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS featured mountains that grew quickly (stay with me, now) and fell on you if you were foolish enough to stick around and watch.

Let that sink in…but don’t let it fall on you.

This film reminded me of my one and only visit to Phoenix, Arizona. I looked out the window of my hotel room and saw, not too far away, a butte. Is that the correct term? There were two impressive houses built snugly into the base of the butte. I remarked to the bellman that I would be fearful of living in those houses because of the possibility of gigantic rocks falling on me. He replied that the rocks never fell.

Let that sink in.

I gazed again at the butte surrounded by the Greyhound-Bus-sized boulders that formed the 60-70 foot high slopes of the butte. It reminded me of my California-living friends who blithely dismiss earthquakes as a factor in their lives with; “But the weather’s so nice all the time.”

Blissful denial…perhaps that’s the key to the monolith monsters’ path to success. Well, it might work for malevolent mountains but it’ll never get you elected president…or…

Give me a moment, I’m letting that sink in.

Japanese Noir

I watch some fairly awful movies with great regularity and glee. Nothing could promise less and truly deliver accurately on the promise than movies like THE GIANT GILA MONSTER or I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF? I maintain to this day that GILA MONSTER could have been nominated for an Oscar for best song in a movie. Hey, sure the song (chant?) is cheesy as hell, but it was a slow year for movie music. GIGI was better? I’m not so sure.

And TEENAGE WEREWOLF has points of interest.

  • Teenage boys are known to fret over their complexion and when they might start needing to shave. This flick posits a bizarre take on both anxieties.
  • Plus, watching Michael Landon struggle to bring life to this title character by grunting his lines (human and lycanthropic) makes the viewer ponder if this early acting challenge aided or impeded his mature dramatic efforts (Little Joe in BONANZA and the dad in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE). It’s a head-scratcher for 30-40 seconds.
  • If this story were remade today, it would probably include a scene in which Nick Saban would pay a recruiting visit to our high-school werewolf promising to change Alabama’s football schedule to all night games.

What delights.

I also watch Japanese movies with regularity. They usually fall into one of two categories;

  • Happy foolishness featuring Godzilla or his runnin’ (actually flyin’ buddies) buddies Mothra, Rodan, Ghidra, et al.
  • Seriously serious films directed by Akira Kurasawa (the man is a god to me).

But tonight’s 1961 Japanese film is a new experience for me. None of the actors are wearing rubber suits, Tokyo is not destroyed, Toshiro Mifune is not in the cast, and thousands of mounted warriors with helpful identifying flags are not raising the dust.

ZERO FOCUS (I haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the title) is beautifully directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. I prowl the overnight offerings of Turner Classic Movies just in hope of finding flicks like this.

If you are a fan of film noir and Hitchcock, this is your meat.

  • It’s in black and white.
  • There are trains.
  • The characters speak Japanese, but the language of the film is “bleak”. I happen to be fluent in bleak – I suppose it’s from doing too many Sam Shepard plays and walking out on too many productions of WAITING FOR GODOT.
  • There are trains.
  • The plot twists and then twists again.
  • The characters play for keeps. Those who die stay dead, though occasionally we wonder.
  • Did I mention the trains?
  • Segments of Japanese post-war society of which I was totally ignorant are explored (dredged?).
  • I cared about every one of the characters in this story.

This is fine storytelling.

The acting is also fine. Excuse me for throwing some names at you, but these ladies are new to me and I was so very impressed.

  • Yoshiko Kuga is plain, pathetic, smart, and determined.
  • Hizuru Takachino is polished and desperate.
  • Ineko Arima is heartbreaking……………….just heartbreaking.

These women drive the film. How unusual is that for 1961?

Behind these performances, the music is gripping.

I was so taken this film by Yoshitaro Nomura, I proceeded to watch reputedly his best film; THE CASTLE OF SAND. Lucky me.

THE CASTLE OF SAND contains another satisfying quota of “noir” elements.

  • It pairs an older/wiser investigator with a younger/more energetic partner (I’m hearing the theme music from THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO now). They work on the case in question separately and come back together to compare their discoveries. Those discoveries are meager, but spark progress in each other through this cross-pollination. Yes, there are some “Eureka!” moments, but not the usual Hollywood kind. Mind you, I’m not knockin’ Hollywood “Eureka!” moments. They’re usually pretty exciting storytelling. But it’s intriguing to see these two hard-working, sweating, high-integrity guys tease just enough new information to keep their investigation flickering.
  • The film has bar scenes, dining car scenes, and police headquarters interview scenes. Check, check, and check.
  • Again, it has trains. I know that sounds strange but this is always good for me. It makes me a passenger with no control. I am caught in a powerful, loud machine hurling me towards the next chapter in the adventure at hand. Gulp.

The film does not have Ginzu knives.

But wait! There’s more!!

Unlike ZERO FOCUS, this film is in color. Mr. Nomura uses that color to exploit the beauty of rural Japan. Imagine if the Ingmar Bergman of SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT had shot a film in rural Kentucky in early summer. The vistas are impossibly green and people stand small in them. The roads/trails are generally straight and so are the people. Integrity is high – tolerance is low. Hospitality is ubiquitous – charity is rare.

The acting in this film is perhaps not as uniformly fine as in ZERO FOCUS, but the portrayal of the older detective by Tetsuro Tanba (fellow James Bond aficionados will remember Mr. Tanba as Tiger Tanaka in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) is very nice.

The treasure in this film is the remarkable way the resolution is revealed and, as in ZERO FOCUS, the intriguing use of music. Our detectives apply for a warrant to arrest their suspect. To do so, they must present their case to an assembly of police officials. As they tell their story we see their story in painful and lush flashback. As they speak and we watch, everything is underscored by a piano concerto written and played in concert by our prime suspect. The camera smoothly and logically and relentlessly moves from police conference to rural saga to concert performance. I could not look away. The plot twists as the story is unveiled are effective and startling………and plausible.

This is a gem.

A Prequel to CASABLANCA?

Are you a fan of the film CASABLANCA?

Do you have a pulse?

Are you worth knowing at all?

Depending on what day I’m asked, my reply to “What’s your favorite film?” is any one of about a half a dozen films, one of which is CASABLANCA. I could go on and on about the flick, but I’ll spare you the gush except on one point. Every time I see the ending of CASABLANCA, I wish there was more.


Well, it’s Movie Night and tonight’s entrée is the 1937 French offering; PEPE LE MOKO. This is well worth a look. There is much about this flick that is reminiscent of CASABLANCA, though CASABLANCA was actually made five years later.

Claude Rains played Captain Renaud in CASABLANCA as a man despicable in action but sympathetic in heart…and as smart as Rick (Humphrey Bogart). In PEPE LE MOKO, we have an outsider policeman named Slimane. He is played wonderfully by an actor I know nothing about; Lucas Gridoux. He also is despicable in action, but despicable as well in heart…and as smart as Pepe Le Moko (Jean Gabin). Gridoux slithers. He insinuates. He invades people’s space. He smokes their cigarettes…and needs a light. I felt the need for a shower after each of his scenes. It’s a fine performance.

Pepe, a thief and all-around rascal, is perfectly free to live as he pleases in the Casbah. The police are incapable of touching him there. He is also imprisoned in the Casbah. His power and immunity evaporate should he leave his safe haven. He pines for freedom. He pines for a Paris he remembers with a street-by-street affection. Sound like someone else you know? Maybe someone named Rick?

His memories of Paris are re-ignited by Gaby, played luminously by Mireille Balin. I watched their scenes with the phrase “We’ll always have Paris” running in my heart.

The connection between these two films is further emphasized by the inclusion of Marcel Dalio in the casts. He plays an ill-fated messenger in PEPE, but is better remembered as the unfortunate croupier requesting additional funds in Rick’s Café Americaine in CASABLANCA. Mr. Dalio in real life was also married to the beautiful Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, Rick’s jilted local lover in CASABLANCA. Their real life desperate escape and winding journey from France to Portugal to Canada to the United States mirrors that of the refugees pictured in CASABLANCA. Marcel Dalio also appeared to good effect in LA GRANDE ILLUSION, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE RULES OF THE GAME, and CATCH-22. Interestingly enough, he also played Captain Renaud in the TV series of CASABLANCA (1955-56).

Finally, there’s Jean Gabin.

I really like watching Mr. Gabin work. I have seen him referred to as a French Humphrey Bogart and I can see why though I see him more as a French Jean Gabin. His work in PORT OF SHADOWS and LA BETE HUMAINE (both 1938) is compelling. Later in his career, in FOUR BAGS FULL (1956) he gives a performance full of surprise and relatively free of cliché. I’m a fan.

If you cherish CASABLANCA as I do, you will find much to delight you in PEPE LE MOKO.

Sign of the Wolf – 67 Year Old Spoiler Alert

Movie Night!

Janie and I have been binge-watching GAME OF THRONES and our raggedy dog Chloe has been joining us. Chloe is quite taken with the wolves in the series and is now demanding to be referred to as our “dire” pup.


She’s good company though, so I’m trying to nurture her new-found cinematic interest. I allowed her to choose tonight’s film.

Unsurprisingly, she chose a 1941 Rin Tin Tin/Lassie wannabe; SIGN OF THE WOLF.
The title is totally misleading. There are no wolves in the film – not one – zilch – nada.

There are however, not one but two big athletic Alsatian Shepherds named Smokey and Shadow. And if you think about it, that makes a kind of sense. You can’t reasonably expect any one dog to replace Rin Tin Tin or Lassie and to be perfectly honest about it, Smokey and Shadow combined are not really up to the mark either. Oh sure, they can climb walls and fences. They can jump hurdles. They can survive plane crashes. They’re faster than a speeding bullet (For real! They actually seem to outrun the dozens of rifle shots taken at them in this flick) – it’s uncanny. The dogs do all these things in the film. To quote that great philosopher, Groucho Marx; “It’s a hell of an act!” But in the personality department, they are sadly lacking. It doesn’t help that they spend most of the film running around in dirty snow. How charming would you be? In my world, the only thing worse than snow is dirty snow. It’s a black and white flick – I can’t tell if the snow is yellow…but it’s dirty.

This is a Canadian production which is fine by me, but it means Smokey and Shadow bark in Canadian accents. It changes things in subtle, but disconcerting ways. Using the identical barks that Lassie employed to say; “Come quick! Timmy’s fallen in the well!” Shadow’s rescue-seeking bark is interpreted as; “Come quick! Mantan Moreland is trapped in a plane crash!” Frankly, I was baffled.

The film also features Dobie Gillis’ brother, Darrell Hickman as the “Timmy” character. I find most child actors to be quite moving and effective…and awful. Hickman simplified things by going straight to awful.

The film is based on the story by Jack London but that’s okay, Mr. London had died by the time this film was made so he didn’t get to see what happened to his story.
Then of course the snow fell on Friday and Chloe spent Saturday running around in the new, clean snow, barking in Canadian, and looking for plane crashes.

The neighbors fear she’s gone mad.

Camille Claudel & “Me Too”

A few days ago, I watched the film CAMILLE CLAUDEL again.

I think in these days of “ME TOO” and the obscene disparity in gauging the value of male and female work, this film has powerful things to say. Bullies and tyrants and narcissists do what they do “because they can” and “you can’t stop me”.

Resist them.

Shine the brightest of lights upon them and their actions.

Keep their path uneasy.

Point them out.

Stop them.

I’d also like to take a moment to reflect on the remarkable Isabel Adjani. Her performance in this movie rips my heart out. The last shot of this ferociously talented character being carried away in a cage is devastating.

I am a big fan of Ms. Adjani.

Yes of course, she’s beautiful.


AND she’s given us other captivating performances in THE HISTORY OF ADELE H, NOSFERATU, DIABOLIQUE, QUEEN MARGOT, and THE TENANT.
Don’cha think it’s time we forgave her for ISHTAR?

What THE POST is Not – Spoiler Alert

My friends continue their assault. They are determined I should watch some films from this millennium. But you’ll notice the films are set in the 1960’s. They’re trying to ease me into it.

Tonight it’s THE POST. It’s real good. I liked it!

BUT, it’s not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN…and that’s OK.

It certainly looks like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN…happily so. Ben Bradlee was there, in his same office, with his feet up on the same desk…happily so. The news room looked and sounded the same…yes, happily so. Nixon is foiled…so very happily so.

But the stakes are different in the events depicted.

In THE POST, the object of intrepid journalism is “The Ellsberg Papers”, a collection of reports about the history and motivations of a war in Southeast Asia assembled by a team in the Secretary of State’s office mostly by simply asking the Pentagon for the information. It was devastating information confirming the worst fears of a movement of young people opposed to a conflict that killed one to three-and-a-half million people (depending on whether you consider Cambodia, Laos, and political assassinations as part of the casualties – I tend to do so).

In THE POST, this devastating information was not that hard to obtain. The drama…the courage…the journalism was deciding to publish in the face of threats of court action by the White House.

The lesson to be learned was in the question of why it took so long to assemble the information that had been gathering since the early fifties. The answer was in the cozy relationship that had developed (festered?) between the press and the people in government. Hard questions, awkward questions got delayed and forgotten in the warmth of golf with Ike and touch football on the White House lawn with Jack and Bobby.

THE POST makes this point. My hippie sensitivities might wish the point had hammered longer and harder but that’s not fair. It’s a movie, a work of art, and a damn fine one, and the point was made within that reality.

The events depicted in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN are about the clumsy burglary of the political office of an already defeated candidate. What’s the big deal?

– Only that the burglary was authorized in the office of the Attorney General of the United States.
– Only that the money paid to the burglars to buy their silence was raised by fundraisers of the President of the United States at his behest.
– Only that the President’s suggestion to the newly appointed head of the FBI was to drop his evidence in the Potomac.

I repeat; what’s the big deal?

I mean…no one died.

But two young nobody reporters sifted through files, pounded on doors, waited on recalcitrant elected witnesses, cornered reluctant participants, lingered in parking garages, and endured the public berating of the most powerful office on Earth to deliver a truthful report.

A report that a few years before might not have been published had not the Washington Post had the guts to publish “The Ellsberg Papers”.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is the better film.

How could it not be?

I might be the world’s biggest Meryl Streep fan and I can’t be far behind on Tom Hanks. But ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN has complete performances by Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Penny Fuller, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, and Martin Balsam.


I have confessed to being both an old hippie and a true geezer. I have lived through these events.

If you are interested in moving towards a relevant-to-today understanding of these happenings, may I offer a triptych?

– See THE POST, it’s real good.
– Read ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (Woodward/Bernstein).
– See ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN it’s even better.
– Read THE FINAL DAYS (Woodward/Bernstein).
– Read BLIND AMBITION (John Dean).

I have a writer friend who talks about the mystic power of three.

It seems much of my art-consuming life, I have encountered trilogies regularly (…and happily so); THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STAR WARS, Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS, Clint Eastwood’s DOLLARS westerns, THE GODFATHER, and INDIANA JONES.

Might this be another?