I’ve managed to watch some movies from before 1971, so let’s take a look at them. We’re going all the way back to a point where even cranky oldsters like Jeff Nettleton have to admit these are old-timey movies!
A Trip to the Moon (1902). Georges Méliès’s 15-minute classic is fun viewing, as the effects remain incredibly impressive even 120 years later. The print I saw was in color, as these old movies were often either filmed partly in color or were tinted in post-production, but those prints degrade over time, so we don’t think of them as being in color. This film’s color has been meticulously restored, and while it’s a bit goofy (the colors are pretty garish), it’s still interesting to see. There’s not much else to write about this movie – it’s definitely something every film buff should see, but it’s mostly just for the effects, because the story – scientists go to the moon, almost get killed, and bring back what appears to be an intelligent moon creature simply to display it in a cage – is not exactly “politically correct.” But it’s neat.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). I still haven’t seen the Chuck Heston version of this movie, but now I’ve seen the silent version! This is a long-ass movie (2½ hours) and it drags at times (all the Jesus stuff is kind of dull, sorry), but it’s still pretty keen, and the battle at sea and the chariot race (run at the corner of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles!) are breathtaking, as is the set design and the brief scene of the earthquake that hits Jerusalem when Jesus dies. The time frame makes no sense, as it seems to take place over about 25 years but no one actually ages, but whatever. Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman are terrific as Ben-Hur and Messala (childhood friends who are 16 years in age apart!), as you really get a sense of Ben-Hur’s nobility and Messala’s arrogance. The history is crap, sure, but that’s the way it is. This movie was filmed partially in Technicolor, which has been restored, and it’s quite neat. The tints on most of the rest of it have been restored, and some of it – the Valley of the Lepers, for instance – is extremely moody and keen. I’m not very sure how they actually filmed the chariot race, because it’s really well done, and I imagine someone could write a book (and probably has) just on how they managed to film this thing. It’s an interesting movie – I’m not sure I really liked it, because I’m just not tuned into silent movies as much as some people are – and it’s definitely worth a look. If you’re going to watch any silent movie, this would be one to check out! (I like the weirdly casual nudity, too – this was pre-Hays Code, of course, although there were censors checking out films, and apparently they let the nekkidness go – it’s very brief and non-sexual – because it’s a story about Jesus and that made it okay.)
Doctor X (1932). Lee Tracy is a New York reporter who’s trying to discover the identity of a “moon killer” – a serial killer who strikes only during the full moon – and he gets on the trail of … Professor Xavier of the X-Men?!?!?! Yes, Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) is brought in by the cops to consult, but it turns out that the killings all take place around his institute, so the cops are suspicious. In the grand tradition of Bruce Wayne joining the cops on their investigations, Dr. Xavier begs the police for 48 hours to find the killer before they move in, because he thinks the publicity – even if his associates are innocent – would be bad for him, and the cops agree. Oh dear. All his scientist buddies and he convene at his huge Gothic mansion on Long Island, where he’s come up with an experiment to determine the killer. Meanwhile, Tracy infiltrates the house trying to find out the truth, and he flirts with Dr. Xavier’s daughter, played by Fay Wray. It’s a silly movie with a silly explanation, but it’s cool to look at, as its color has also been restored, and the green in Dr. Xavier’s laboratory when he’s running his experiments adds a nice touch of surrealism to the proceedings. It’s a missable movie, but it’s kind of fun.
Isle of the Dead (1945). Boris Karloff plays a Greek general during the First Balkan War who, along with an American war correspondent, decides to visit the island where his wife is entombed to pay his respects. When he gets there, his wife’s body is missing, but that’s not what the movie is about. It turns out an archaeologist has decided to live on the island while he excavates it, and he’s entertaining a group of people, one of whom dies in the night. They figure out it’s a plague, and they quarantine themselves on the island, but Karloff and an old Greek woman begin to be convinced that something supernatural is going on. It’s an interesting psychological thriller, and it doesn’t really play out like you might expect. The cast is solid – Karloff is very good, and I always wonder about people like him, who get typecast in a certain way but are obviously talented, and how annoyed they are to be typecast. Ellen Drew as the woman who makes Karloff grumpy is quite good, far better than Marc Cramer as the war correspondent, who plays “American” in the blandest way possible. Katherine Emery as Drew’s employer is good, as is her husband, played by Future Alfred Pennyworth Alan Napier. Helene Thimig as the gloomy old Greek woman is a bit stereotypical, but pretty good, and the archaeologist is a perfectly fine Jason Robards. When I saw that name in the cast, I thought it might be an early movie from the actor, but this is his dad, which is a bit odd (the “real” Robards was 23 in 1945, so he could have been in this, I suppose, although he didn’t make his screen debut until 1947). Anyway, it’s very atmospheric, as director Mark Robson, in only his fourth feature, does nice work with shadows and light (Robson directed Von Ryan’s Express, about which more below, as well as Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls – dude was all over the place!). This is a neat, creepy movie, in case you’re interested. (And dang, Karloff could be the mysterious real father of Omar Sharif and Jeremy Irons, because they apparently saw this movie and loved it, because they’re channeling him in this movie a lot!)
Malaya (1949). This is Sydney Greenstreet’s final movie, for what that’s worth, and he’s terrific as usual, playing his usual role of guy who knows shit, is kind of mysterious about it, and is never quite trustworthy. Greenstreet’s first movie was The Maltese Falcon in 1941 (yes, he was 61 when he made his film debut), and he packed a lot of cool shit into eight years. Jimmy Stewart and Spencer Tracy are also in this movie, and they’re fine (Tracy and the woman he digs, Valentina Cortese, have a nice relationship), but the movie overall is a bit disappointing. Stewart is a reporter who claims he can smuggle rubber out of Malaya for use in the war effort rather than recycling what’s already in America, and his boss, Lionel Barrymore (a nice cameo), sends him there with Tracy, a prisoner in Alcatraz whom Stewart knows, to facilitate it. It’s not a bad movie until the actual smuggling gets going, which grinds the movie to a halt. It’s just not that exciting, even though director Richard Thorpe tries his best to make it so. This is worth it if you’re a Greenstreet fan (and, I mean, who isn’t?), but both Stewart and Tracy did better work.
Forbidden Planet (1956). Despite this being a sci-fi classic, I had never seen it (well, I had seen the “monster at the fence” scene, but only because that’s famous), so I figured I should sit down and watch it. It’s pretty good and it holds up pretty well, which is nice. Leslie Nielsen is beautiful and all-American as the spaceship captain (in his film debut after several years on television), with the lovely Anne Francis as the object of his desire. She’s the daughter of Walter Pidgeon, the only survivor of an expedition to a planet in the Altair system that landed 20 years previously, and he shows Nielsen and his crew members around, revealing the alien technology he’s been studying for two decades. Soon, of course, the bodies start dropping, and it’s fairly obvious what’s going on, but I suppose in 1956 it was a bit of a surprise. The special effects hold up remarkably well, and the size and scope of the Krell civilization is really impressive. Even the animation works very well within the live action of the movie. Two things crack me up, because the movie is so dated: the scientific mumbo-jumbo in these movies always cracks me up, and that’s not a function of 1956 because the Avengers talking about time travel cracked me up; and the movie is wildly sexist, which isn’t surprising. Nielsen and two of his crew members blatantly ogle Francis in front of her father, who doesn’t seem bothered by it at all. Later, Nielsen’s lieutenant tells Francis that kissing is good for her health, but Nielsen tells him to take off before he, presumably, gets to telling her that performing fellatio is good for her health, too. Then Nielsen yells at Francis because she’s too tempting, even though these are military men and ought to be a bit more disciplined. Then he decides to put the moves on her, and she instantly falls in love with him. His lieutenant even gives him his approval, because 1950s Leslie Nielsen is so scrumptious, I guess. It’s very funny, but luckily, it’s not a big part of the movie. This is a classic for a reason, and it’s pretty cool to see, even 60+ years later.
Seven Days in May (1964). This is a depressingly still-relevant movie, as President Fredric March signs a non-nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union (okay, that part’s not exactly relevant any more) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Burt Lancaster, decides he’s weak and plans a coup. His aide, Kirk Douglas, discovers this and moves to thwart it. It’s a decent thriller, as we don’t really believe Lancaster will succeed, but we’re not sure if he’ll do at least some bad things and kill some characters before he’s thwarted. Lancaster and Douglas were kind of at Peak Hotness at this time (Lancaster was 52 and Douglas was 49 but both looked several years younger than that), and they’re excellent actors, of course, so them squaring off against each other is cool to see. Martin Balsam and Richard Anderson are in the movie, too, as is Ava Gardner for reasons that never really become clear (she’s an ex-mistress of Lancaster, but nothing really comes of that). This movie relies a bit on the idea that government is good and that people who work in government are fundamentally decent, which is why it feels so old-fashioned today, sadly, but it’s still a pretty interesting piece of work.
Von Ryan’s Express (1965). This is an odd war movie, but it’s entertaining, so there’s that. Frank Sinatra gets shot down over Italy and sent to a POW camp, where he immediately becomes the ranking officer, as the British dude who would have outranked him has just died. Trevor Howard, the second-in-command, defers to Sinatra, but I don’t get that. Why would an American be in charge of everyone, even British soldiers, even in a prison camp? I guess that’s just how it goes. Anyway, Sinatra orders the Brits to stop trying to escape, because he thinks it will result in better treatment for the prisoners, who are being punished by the venal camp commander for the escape attempts. Howard thinks he’s a douchebag, but eventually, Sinatra comes around and they escape, on a train heading north, which they think they can get to Switzerland. It’s a bit silly in places, but overall, it’s a pretty gripping movie. The movie isn’t afraid to kill off characters, some rather unexpectedly, and while it’s the Sixties and therefore we don’t get any gore, we do get some of the horrors of the Nazis and their practices. We also get some moral ambiguity, as some of the choices Sinatra makes with regard to decency and the rules of war come back to bite him in the ass. James Brolin, in an early role (he was 25 at the time), doesn’t have much to do, but Edward Mulhare, known to my generation as Devon Miles on Knight Rider, has a blast as the preacher who impersonates a Nazi officer to help get the train through some dicey depots. Adolfo Celi, best known as Largo in Thunderball, is quite good as the unctuous prison camp commander. It’s not the greatest war movie, but it’s better than average, the action is good, and Sinatra and Howard do nice work pissing each other off but respecting the skills of the other, as well.
The Chase (1966). Apparently this didn’t do well at the box office and its critical reception wasn’t great, but I thought it was quite a good movie. I wonder if the problem was that the title (and the trailer; see below) promises kind of an action movie, and this is really not an action movie but more of a drama about small-town America and the problems bubbling just under the surface of white-picket-fence towns across our fair land. Redford plays a con who escapes from prison and heads back to his home, presumably to see his wife, Jane Fonda (Sixties Jane Fonda was such a fox, amirite?). His imminent arrival stirs up a hornets’ nest of emotions, with Marlon Brando as the sheriff trying to keep everyone calm. Fonda is sleeping with James Fox, who’s the son of the town’s big business magnate, played by E.G. Marshall. Robert Duvall, meanwhile, knows a secret about Redford’s original crime, and he’s worried about that. The dude who broke out with Redford kills a guy and steals his car, but everyone thinks Redford did it, so several townspeople want to mete out some frontier justice, but Brando wants to make sure Redford gets taken in alive. It’s a really tense movie – Lillian Hellman, of all people, wrote the screenplay, and Arthur Penn directs it well, seemingly practicing for Bonnie & Clyde, which was his next movie. The cast is great – Brando is excellent, Redford is all wounded and vulnerable, Fonda is trying to make the best of a bad situation, Fox is naïve and somewhat childish, Marshall is indomitable on the outside but broken on the inside, Duvall is nicely meek, Angie Dickinson (as Brando’s wife) is great at understanding what Brando is going through, and the villains reveal their villainy slowly and horribly. Paul Williams shows up, too, which is nice. It doesn’t end well for all concerned, and I just wonder if people didn’t like it because it was a bit ahead of its time in its scathing indictment of casual racism (unlike the more overt racism condemned by earlier movies) and of so-called “American” values. Or maybe people just wanted to see more of a chase. Either way, it’s pretty darned good.
The Kremlin Letter (1970). John Huston directed this odd spy thriller, about a team sent to Moscow to retrieve a letter sent by the U.S. to the Russians promising military assistance if China gets a nuclear bomb, a letter that could be very embarrassing – not to mention criminal – if it became public. It’s a strange MacGuffin and the mission itself is a bit weird. A team of spies, led by Patrick O’Neal, the new recruit of the group, infiltrates Moscow and simply sets up shop, one as a drug dealer, one as a cultured homosexual, one as a black-market operator, and does … almost nothing. O’Neal, who has an eidetic memory, is the clearing house of their information so they don’t write anything down, but we never really learn what their big scheme is before it all comes crashing down and the bodies start dropping. It’s a tense movie, and it’s wildly unglamorous (this is one of the “anti-Bond” movies that show up every so often during the Peak Bond years), and the cast is very good. O’Neal is terrific, and there’s Bibi Andersson, Barbara Perkins, Richard Boone, Nigel Green, George Sanders, Orson Welles, and Max von Sydow, playing a sadistic Russian intelligence agent with a lot of menace. It’s not that the way things go badly is bad, because I’m sure this kind of stuff happens, and the moral ambiguities of the story are fine, as is the cruel stinger at the end, but it’s a very weird MacGuffin, for one thing, and the spies don’t seem to have much of a plan. Maybe that part is in the novel and it got cut from the movie. Still, it’s not bad at all, just a bit odd.
If you have any thoughts about these movies (or anything else; we’re not picky around here!), sound off in the comments!