A Walking Plague Called Sheila

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)Think of the teeming hub of humanity that is New York City and then imagine a person with a highly contagious and deadly disease wandering among the masses, spreading death and panic. Based on an actual case in 1946 – a smallpox scare in which millions of New Yorkers received free vaccinations – The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) is a fictionalized dramatization of that incident. It stars Evelyn Keyes as Sheila Bennet, a modern day “Typhoid Mary” who contracts smallpox in Cuba while serving as a courier for Matt (Charles Korvin), her no-good musician boyfriend, in a stolen diamond smuggling scheme.

Smallpox vaccine is administered to citizens of New York City in 1947 during an outbreak of the disease

Smallpox vaccine is administered to citizens of New York City in 1947 during an outbreak of the disease

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The Original Odd Couple

Robert J. Flaherty (left) and W.S. Van Dyke collaborated on White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).

Robert J. Flaherty (left) and W.S. Van Dyke collaborated on White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).

Either by accident or design, MGM came up with the most unlikely partnership in the history of motion pictures in the late twenties. Imagine if you can a collaboration between Robert Flaherty, the filmmaker who is generally credited with pioneering the documentary form (though some film scholars take issue with that classification), and W. S. Van Dyke II, who was known in the industry as “One Take Woody” because of his quick, cost-saving shooting schedule. Flaherty’s filmmaking method was just the opposite. His painstaking preparation for each film was legendary; both Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926) took over two years to complete. Somehow these two men were brought together by MGM mogul Irving J. Thalberg for White Shadows in the South Seas (1928).   Continue reading

Fade to White

Charles Denner retreats from the world in Life Upside Down (1964), directed by Alain Jessua

Charles Denner retreats from the world in Life Upside Down (1964), directed by Alain Jessua

Films that explore mental illness, especially Hollywood productions such as The Snake Pit, The Three Faces of Eve and A Brilliant Mind, usually tend to be heavy on the histrionics providing highly dramatic showcases and Oscar award opportunities for actors. But a descent into madness isn’t always signaled by wildly disruptive or overwrought behavior from the afflicted. Sometimes the illness can creep up slowly by degrees and pass for something more fleeting and subtle that avoids detection during the early stages. Life Upside Down (La vie à l’envers), directed by Alain Jessua, is a remarkable example of this, presenting a man who goes quietly mad while interpreting his erratic behavior as a profound new self-awareness.     Continue reading

The Devil Made Me Do It

The Blood on Satan's ClawLooking for a Halloween film to creep you out? How about The Blood on Satan’s ClawContinue reading

Fishing with Dynamite

La_grande_strada_azzurra_plakat_itaGillo Pontecorvo began as a documentarian and his interest in social and political issues was already evident in early works like Giovanni (1955), which follows a textile laborer and her female co-workers through punishing work conditions into a full-blown protest against the factory owners. So it comes as no surprise that his first feature length film, The Wide Blue Road (aka La Grande Strada Azzurra, 1957), has an underlying social agenda even if it looks like a slice-of-life melodrama on the surface.   Continue reading

There’s No Business like Zombie Business……

Poster - Zombies on Broadway_02In 1941, the unexpected success of Buck Privates – a whopping $10 million dollar B-movie blockbuster – officially launched the comedy team of Abbott and Costello who became Universal Studios’ most profitable film franchise for more than a decade (The duo made their debut in One Night in the Tropics (1940) in supporting roles but the musical comedy with top billed Allan Jones and Nancy Kelly was not a boxoffice hit). Naturally, it inspired other studios to follow suit but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. Case in point – Wally Brown and Alan Carney (no relation to Art Carney), two former nightclub comedians recruited by RKO for a series of low-budget farces beginning with The Adventures of a Rookie (1943), a blatant attempt to ape the formula of Buck Privates. For critics who thought the humor of Abbott and Costello was déclassé, Zombies on Broadway (194) was a further step down but perfect for eight year old boys who enjoyed the simple concept of two nitwits with one (Brown) assuming superiority over his dim bulb pal (Carney).   Continue reading

Mining for B-Movie Gold

Senta Berger is in charge in Jean-Pierre Desagnat's Les Etrangers (1969)

Senta Berger is in charge in Jean-Pierre Desagnat’s Les Etrangers (1969)

It’s a rare thing when a crime thriller departs from the usual formulaic expectations and rewards the viewer with a much more unpredictable and entertaining twist on a familiar genre. Such is the case with Les étrangers (aka The Strangers, 1969), which begins with a carefully planned diamond heist in a remote desert town that goes spectacularly awry before transitioning into a deadly game of cat and mouse between a fleeing fugitive and a couple that offer him temporary shelter. This is a superior B-movie that feels like an A-picture with its iconic international cast of actors from France (Michel Constantin), Austria (Senta Berger), Spain (Julián Mateos) and South Africa (Hans Meyer), a spaghetti western-flavored score by Michel Magne and Francoise de Roubaix, and atmospheric cinematography by Marcel Grignon, who received an Oscar nomination for Is Paris Burning? (1967) and filmed such cult favorites as Roger Vadim’s Vice and Virtue (1963) and Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975).     Continue reading