Early Animation Shorts by Ray Harryhausen

Animator and special effects genius Ray Harryhausen is seen working on his 1951 fairy tale short, THE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL.

Special effects wizardry has always been a key component in creating fantasy and futuristic worlds in the cinema and one of the greatest creators in the genre was Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013). Hardcore fans know that he worked uncredited on the 1949 fantasy adventure Mighty Joe Young before establishing himself as a stop motion animation artist in such sci-fi classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Still, the best was yet to come in the second half of the 20th century when he created fantastical worlds of the imagination in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) to name just a few. Before all of this, however, Harryhausen learned his craft and trade by experimenting with the short film format. 

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A Danish Original and a Canadian Remake

The Danish film poster for THINK OF A NUMBER (1969), which was remake as THE SILENT PARTNER in 1979.

In March 1979 a small scale but offbeat and ingenious little crime drama entitled The Silent Partner slipped into U.S. theaters without any advance word. A Canadian tax shelter write-off, the movie might have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been for a handful of U.S. film critics who championed the release such as Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times, who called it “a thriller that was not only intelligently and well acted and very scary, but also had the most audaciously clockwork plot I’ve seen in a long time…it’s worthy of Hitchcock.” And Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it “a dense, quirky, uncommonly interesting movie, this time with a high quotient of suspense.” 

Over the years The Silent Partner has built up a considerable fan base and has become a welcome Yuletide viewing alternative (it is set during the Christmas season) to the umpteenth airings of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. What most American viewers don’t realize is that The Silent Partner is a remake of the 1969 Danish thriller Think of a Number (Taenk pa et tal), directed by Palle Kjaerulff-Schmidt.

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Heart of Darkness

The Pre-Code era of Hollywood when films were much more explicit, suggestive and racy is generally believed to be that period between 1929 and 1934, the year the Production Code was officially enforced. After that the studios had to comply with a long list of restrictions imposed on motion pictures by Joseph Breen (director of the PCA aka Production Code Administration) in terms of subject matter, situations and characters if the producers wanted their films to get a commercial release. Of course, film censorship in Hollywood existed before 1934 but it was not always enforced. Complaints from moral guardian groups and religious organizations like the Catholic Legion of Decency were crucial in pressuring Hollywood to reduce the amount of sex, violence and decadence in movies. Some of their earliest targets were three films from MGM, which were a collaboration between director Tod Browning and Lon Chaney – The Unholy Trio (1925), The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). All three of the films contain perverse and unsettling storylines but West of Zanzibar tops them all in terms of shock value even by today’s standards.  

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The Man with Gunsight Eyes

Lee Van Cleef in one of his most iconic and entertaining spaghetti westerns, SABATA (1969), directed by Gianfranco Parolini.

With his lean, angular features and narrow, piercing eyes, Lee Van Cleef had the sort of presence you didn’t easily forget in supporting roles, especially villainous parts in westerns (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Bravados) and crime dramas (Kansas City Confidential, The Big Combo). Unfortunately, it took more than 12 years and over 100 film and TV appearances before the actor finally moved into leading roles after a career that began in 1952 with his debut in High Noon. And like Clint Eastwood, he finally found fame in Italy when he was almost forty, opposite the former Rawhide TV star in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965), the sequel to Eastwood’s star-making breakthrough in A Fistful of Dollars (1965). After The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), in which he played “the ugly” Angel Eyes in the final installment of Leone’s Dollars trilogy, he carved out an impressive career in some of the best spaghetti westerns of the late sixties and early seventies such as The Big Gundown, Death Rides a Horse and Day of Anger (all 1967). Less serious than those but just as entertaining is Sabata (1969), which adds some tongue in cheek humor, gymnastic action and fancy weaponry to the spaghetti western formula. 

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All the Youthful Days

A scene from Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s THE BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983).

For many young people, the time period immediately after their high school graduation is a crucial phase in which their lives could take many different paths depending on the decisions they make. This is especially true for those who don’t go to college and either go to work, are drafted into the military or hang out with friends before adult responsibilities consume their lives. Falling into the latter category is 1983’s The Boys of Fengkuei (The original Taiwanese title Feng gui lai de ren roughly translates as All the Youthful Days), an evocative coming-of-age drama from internationally renowned director Hsiao-Hsien Hou.

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Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People

Though little known in the U.S. today except by movie buffs, Thorold Dickinson is an important figure in the development of the British film industry. A screenwriter, editor, director and producer, Dickinson wore many hats and exerted considerable influence in his various positions over the years as Coordinator of the Army Kinematograph Service’s film unit, Professor of Film at the Slade School of Fine Art and Chief of Film Services at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). In addition to collaborating with other British filmmakers on their work and co-directing several features, he rose to prominence on the basis of a small but impressive filmography. Among them were the commercial hits, Gaslight (1940), remade in 1944 in Hollywood with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, and The Queen of Spades (1949), an adaptation of the Alexander Pushkin short story which is considered possibly the best of its many film versions. His skill as a documentarian was equally renowned and The Next of Kin, a military training film he made for the War Office in 1940, was so effective it was given a theatrical release. Men of Two Worlds (1946), a semi-documentary collaboration between the Ministry of Information and the Colonial Office, was co-scripted with novelist Joyce Cary (The Horse’s Mouth, 1958) and focused on the problem and treatment of sleeping sickness in African tribes. Yet, the most ambitious film of Dickinson’s career – and the one that almost ended it was Secret People (1952), which was an examination of the terrorist mindset and years ahead of its time. 

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Pachyderm Love

How many filmmakers come from a background as a game warden in an African national park as well as being a passionate advocate for wildlife protection? Simon Trevor is a unique case. After moving from England to Africa with his family in 1946, he got the filmmaking bug at 15 when he received his first 8mm film camera. After leaving his position as game warden at the Tsavo National Park in 1959, he focused solely on filmmaking that raised awareness of the plight facing Africa’s wildlife, especially elephants. He worked as cinematographer for the popular BBC series On Safari (1957-1965) featuring Armand and Michaela Denis, pioneers in the field of wildlife television documentation, and later assisted Sydney Pollack and Michael Apted as a second unit cameraman on their films Out of Africa (1985) and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Trevor’s own work is not as well known but deserves to be and a good place to start is his 1971 debut documentary The African Elephant, which was retitled King Elephant in some markets. 

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The Feather Gatherers

The Yugoslavian film poster for I EVEN MET HAPPY GYPSIES (1967)

There have been hardly any films about gypsies and their culture depicted in Hollywood’s golden age unless they were background figures (The Wolf Man, 1941) or treated in a broad, theatrical manner in comedies (The Bohemian Girl, 1936) or costume dramas (Hot Blood, 1956). King of the Gypsies (1978), based on the Peter Maas novel and featuring Eric Roberts in his film debut, was an attempt to offer an insider look at this often demonized group but seemed more like an unintentional parody than a serious drama. It wasn’t until filmmakers outside the U.S. began to focus on gypsy culture that a number of influential movies on the subject began to appear later in the 20th century such as Aleksandar Petrovic’s Skupljaci Perja (1967), which was released in the U.S. as I Even Met Happy Gypsies

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Kiddie Matinees That Weren’t for Kids

Back in the fifties and sixties it wasn’t uncommon for neighborhood theatres – at least in the South – to run a series of kiddie matinees on Saturday mornings, usually during the early part of summer when school ended. The neighborhood kids would pile into a car and some parent would drop them off at the theatre and come pick them up two hours later, after which you’d go to the pool or play softball or hang out at a friend’s house. Some of my earliest movie memories are from this time. Of course, the ones that really stand out are the ones that weren’t actually for kiddies.    

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The Mighty Mountain Will Punish the Bad

The Japanese film poster for Ginrei no hate aka SNOW TRAIL (1947).

Many people believe they are masters of their own fates but occasionally mother nature steps in to remind them that there are outside forces they cannot control such as a mountain wilderness or a blizzard or an avalanche. Such is the case in Snow Trail (Japanese title: Ginrei no hate, 1947), an engaging B-movie crime drama in which three bank robbers flee to the snow-covered slopes of Mount Hakuba, located in the northern alps of Nagano Prefecture. With the law in close pursuit, the trio soon find themselves in dire straits with no experience in mountain climbing or dealing with extreme weather conditions. Nature is simply indifference in such matters.  

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