Sunday, March 29, 2020


Of all the seven deadly sins, jealousy is the most deadly.”

It’s ironic, I suppose, that I became positively obsessed with Gene Tierney the first time I saw Leave Her To Heaven. I tracked down every film I could at the time, which meant following a lot of the Fox reissue series from the DVD era. It was a good mini label, often using A&E and AMC programming as extras, and they numbered the spines. Someone was paying attention to the Criterion obsessives.

Why I say it’s ironic is because Tierney’s character Ellen is obsession personified. Driven by jealousy, she fixates on her husband, determined to share him with no one else. Not his brother, nor her sister, nor eventually even their own child. Ellen is so alluring and so attentive, he’s blind to it far longer than he should be, ignoring all warnings. And, of course, as a film fan, I was glued to her every move.

Leave Her To Heaven is considered a hybrid of film noir and the “women’s picture,” as perhaps best personified by Douglas Sirk. Like many classic movies, I sought out Leave Her To Heaven  based on a Martin Scorsese recommendation. My purism rejected the notion of a Technicolor noir, but resistance was futile. I ultimately had to see it and sample this cinematic Reese’s peanut butter cup. You got my noir in your melodrama!

When it comes down to it, though, Leave Her To Heaven has few noir trappings. It’s set in a rural domain, it’s mostly in sunlight, and it’s far more romantic than fatalist. It’s actually more of an upending of the “bad husband gaslighting his wife” movies, like Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door [review], Max Ophuls’ Caught [review], or Sirk’s own Sleep, My Love [review]. Director John M. Stahl--working from a screenplay by Jo Swerling, adapting a novel by Ben Ames--instead has the wife slowly undermining her husband’s faith in himself, ironically chipping away at his love rather than securing her position as the only thing in his life. (Fun aside: Stahl directed versions of both Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession before Sirk’s more famous remakes [review of both versions of Magnificent Obsession].)

Cornel Wilde plays the husband, novelist Richard Harland. Criterion viewers will know him for The Naked Prey [review], his triumphant directorial/starring vehicle, but he doesn’t fare as well here. He’s a bit of a weak link, failing to be charming or seductive. Honesty, his rap is so bad, down to quoting his own book, I have cause to wonder if Ellen picks Richard because he’s a bit dim and thus easily manipulated. Likewise, most of the supporting cast is fairly mediocre, giving more room for Tierney to control the frame. Her only competition is from her Dragonwyck co-star Vincent Price, who here plays her jilted lover, but who really gets to shine as the district attorney in the courtroom scenes that occupy Leave Her to Heaven’s final act. Price manages to distinguish himself because his character is the only one as driven as Ellen. His passion in front of a jury is blazing.

But then, he also doesn’t have to compete directly with Tierney. It also helps that he’s hot in ways that she’s cool, creating a balance between them. Tierney’s take on Ellen is sculpted out of ice and steel. The key to her villainy--and, arguably, to her sexiness--is how together she is. It’s not just that Ellen would never have a hair out of place, but that she rarely has an emotion out of place. She might seethe when she sees some competition for Richard’s affection, but the wheels immediately start turning on how to get the advantage back. Her best moment is that iconic scene on the lake, the one that is highlighted on the Criterion Leave Her to Heaven cover. In that segment, we see her coldly seize an opportunity and then course correct in order to cover her tracks when it appears she might get caught.

Leave Her to Heaven was shot by Leon Shamroy, the cinematographer of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, but it’s worth noting that there is also a Technicolor director, Natalie Kalmus. The colors here are phenomenal. Tierney in particular stands out for her gorgeous clothes, like the baby blue swimsuit and nightgown that she wears for a couple of her worst deeds--a color that the internet tells me should resemble “trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.” I doubt this is a choice that was made without consideration. All of Leave Her to Heaven has an almost unreal pastel look to it, arguably Stahl’s replacement for the shadowy confines of noir. In his world, evil is bright and pink and has shiny red lips.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, March 8, 2020


This piece was originally written as part of a review of the boxed set The Sidney Poitier Collection back in 2009.

Sidney Poitier stars in A Patch of Blue, a different kind of love story, playing career man Gordon Ralfe. One day meets, Gordon a blind girl, Selina (Elizabeth Hartman, Walking Tall), in the park. After sharing a conversation with her, he realizes that she has not been educated to get along on her own. In fact, as he will ultimately discover, she lives with her alcoholic grandfather (Wallace Ford, in his last role) and her equally drunk mother, Roseanne (Shelley Winters, who won her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work). Despite the fact that Roseanne was the one who blinded her daughter, she holds the girl's condition against her and makes Selina work like a slave around the house. Until recently, when Selina started convincing her kindly boss (John Qualen) and her grandfather to take her to the park, the blind girl had barely been beyond her apartment. She has no idea how the world works for seeing people, much less for the sightless.

Selina also has no idea that Gordon is African American. Her only encounter with anyone of a different race was a young girl who lived in her building whom Roseanne forbad her to play with, though it was never explained to her why. Thus, amongst the many things that are beyond her, Selina has no concept of race or racism. Gordon, on the other hand, is far too aware of the judgmental glances he and the white girl receive when they are together. Even his brother (Ivan Dixon) raises concern at seeing the two hanging out, seeing only trouble for Gordon. Gordon does his best to keep his feelings in check, extending an honest helping hand to his new friend, but Selina falls for him immediately. She has never been shown kindness, it's only natural.

A Patch of Blue was written and directed by Guy Green, adapting a novel by Elizabeth Kata, and though the movie has strains of melodrama, Green also balances that with a tough realism. Selina's squalid existence is full of cruelty and hatred, and the director does his level best to show what production standards at the time would allow. He even pushed the boundaries of those standards by filming an interracial kiss shared by Poitier and Hartman. Though these scenes were excised from a lot of prints at the time, particularly in more racially divided areas of the U.S., A Patch of Blue is intact on modern home video releases.

The film manages to avoid getting too sappy, as Gordon keeps his head and makes the right choices for Selina, no matter how hard or bittersweet they may be. First-time actress Elizabeth Hartman rightly earned accolades for her portrayal of the blind girl. She is so convincing that I actually had to double-check that she wasn't blind in real life. Selina is an innocent in a harsh world, never entirely aware of the horrible things that have happened to her. Beyond the issues of race, Green seems to be indicting society more for its lack of compassion. How could Selina get through so much of her life without anyone ever extending a hand to aid her? The contrast between the world outside the apartment and inside is practically Dickensian, creating a sharp divide between the exploitative family relationship and the gentility of Gordon's care. The world outside the four walls of the apartment may still have its problems, but at least there is a possibility to advance.

Saturday, March 7, 2020


This review originally written for in 2003.

...after all these years, Young Sherlock Holmes is still a good bit of entertainment. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Barry Levinson (Bugsy [review], Wag the Dog) from a screenplay by Chris Columbus (who went on to direct the worst of the Harry Potter franchise [review]), this is the kind of adventure romp for all ages that Spielberg was regularly producing throughout the 1980s. Young Sherlock Holmes came out in 1985, a year after his own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and in a way, this is like the more cerebral version of that film: less gore, more mystery, and a loving wink to the literature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rather than pulp serials.

In this gentle reimagining of the story of Holmes and Watson's first meeting, the future detective is played by Nicholas Rowe (at the time of this writing seen as Rivesh Mantilax on Dr. Who). He meets the nervous and portly Watson (Alan Cox) when the boy comes to his boarding school. They quickly bond, and the relationship dynamic of forward-thinking adventurer and his bumbling pal is established immediately. Holmes is a bit of a misfit at the school, beloved by some teachers, annoying others, and finding jealous rivals amongst the students. An eccentric old professor (Nigel Stock) who keeps trying to build a flying machine is his mentor, and that professor's niece, Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), is the sleuth's sweetheart.

When the kooky professor ends up dead, Holmes realizes that this is one of a string of murders. The local police chief, a fellow named Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), doesn't buy the boy's crackpot theories, and a school prank has gotten Holmes expelled. So, he must work in secret with Watson and Sophie, looking for the connection between the deceased and searching for the source of the poisoned thorns that have caused them all to hallucinate their way into a nasty demise.

The hallucination sequences are some of the more famous from Young Sherlock Holmes, alongside Levinson's homage to his producer, when Holmes and Watson pilot the rickety flying machine past the moon. Most of the delirium is shown as stop-motion animation, and though less smooth than we might be used to today, the old-school quality makes it kind of neat. One could even argue that since they are the delusions of dying men, they need not look real, the way dreams often don't look real. One absolutely stunning effect, though, is a knight who steps out of a stained-glass window. This is credited as the first-ever completely CGI effect in a motion picture, and it was overseen by no less than Pixar-hero John Lasseter while he was still with Industrial, Light and Magic. It's a cool looking creation, and the quality of the achievement extends beyond the historical.

Levinson's direction and Columbus's script are both expertly handled, though at times maybe with too much expertise. Seasoned viewers will be able to spot the technique in both men's work. Levinson's mis en scene for the suspense sequences is lifted straight out of old Val Lewton creepfests, and the twists and turns of the plot offer very little that is surprising. Still, it's the kind of stuff that has worked for decades for a reason, and it's no less effective here. Younger viewers who aren't as familiar with storytelling devices will be totally enraptured. Rowe provides them with a stalwart, intellectual hero they can wish they could be, Cox gives them a sidekick they can identify with, and well, it's hard to imagine a teenage boy not getting a crush on a cutie like Sophie Ward. I know when I was 13 I wanted to hop in the flying peddle-bike and carry her off to our own adventures. Kudos, as well, for the filmmakers not pulling any punches with the ending. There are some dark things here, but ones that make sense in the context of making Sherlock Holmes the man he will become.

Sunday, March 1, 2020


It doesn’t take long into Journey to the Beginning of Time, the first movie in Criterion’s excellent Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman collection, to have cause to wonder why the pioneering director isn’t more famous. Released in 1955, the same year It Came from Beneath the Sea showcased the artistry of Ray Harryhausen, Journey to the Beginning of Time’s special effects are just as impressive, just as innovative, with Zeman proving himself a worthy successor to George Melies. Is it because his movies were aimed at children? That doesn’t stop us from liking Wes Anderson’s animated movies or Zazi dans le Metro [review]. It’s puzzling.

Karel Zeman is a Czech filmmaker who began his career in the 1940s, working on short films for the leading animation company in Czechoslovakia. Four of those early efforts are included here as bonus features, and the chosen entries already showcase a level of experimentation that is impressive, including 1949’s Inspiration--a fanciful cartoon featuring glass objects come to life. A glass blower imagines a whole world contained within a raindrop, and it invigorates his art. 1945’s A Christmas Dream similarly shows a young girl dreaming of a discarded toy dancing for her favor in a bid not to be discarded for her newer presents. Those films have live action elements, but 1946’s A Horseshoe for Luck is entirely stop motion. It was the debut of Zeman’s popular creation Mr. Prokouk (Mr. Puppet), a little man with a penchant for slapstick, and this particular short was made to encourage people to recycle their scrap for the greater good. A post-war PSA!

These extras are rounded out by the longest piece, the half-hour King Lavra from 1950. This full-color stop-motion fairy tale is based on a satirical poem--but is constructed as a silent film? Something is being lost in translation somewhere. Exquisite vintage animation, stylish puppets, but the story of a king, his unruly beard, and his rabbit ears (?!?) falls flat.

The main body of the boxed set kicks off with the aforementioned Journey to the Beginning of Time, Zeman’s second feature-length film, and it’s comparable to a Disney adventure picture or even a drive-in B-movie. Journey stars a quartet of young boys who, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, decide to find their own pathway to the past. This is something they do easily, the way adventures begin in a lot of children’s literature, from A.A. Milne on up. Once you start out, you are there. In this case, after finding a trilobite fossil near a cave on the river, they follow the clue and sail the water into the cavernous depths, coming out the other side in the Ice Age, and traveling further back in time the closer this river takes them to the ocean. Along the way, they spot a number of prehistoric creatures fighting and eating and generally just living their lives along the banks of the water.

Zeman’s main composite trick here is to show the children in the river, with the dinosaurs in either the foreground or the background, letting distance aid in the illusion of present and past combining. In other shots, he builds larger models and puppets so the children can get closer. There is not much story here, nor much that surprises, but that simplicity aids in the suspension of disbelief. Zeman’s greatest tool is a childlike imagination, and the young actors in Journey to the Beginning of Time go a long way to selling the reality via their acceptance of their surroundings. This story is real because they believe it to be so.

In essence, Journey to the Beginning of Time is both a travelogue and a museum exhibit come to life. Each turn of the river takes us to a new diorama of the past. It’s a perfect showcase for Zeman to show off his skills, but also an educational adventure that I am sure inspired awe back in its original time, as it still remains impressive today. Younger children will still likely get wrapped up in its sense of exploration, while older viewers like me can appreciate the technique on display.

There is a definite maturation from Journey to the Beginning of Time to 1958’s Invention for Destruction. The plotting may still be simple, but the presentation is anything but, as Zeman takes his style to the next level and then to the next level after that.

Based once again on the writings of Jules Verne, Invention for Destruction tells the story of a young scientist caught up in a plot to steal benign energy technology and turn it into a terrible weapon. The narrative Zeman concocts is nothing progressive--a mentor figure is clueless to his failings, a naïve girl falls for the villain yet ends up with the hero--but the film is nevertheless something astounding to behold. I imagine this is the kind of thing that Kerry Conran intended with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a dazzling visual pulp; luckily, Zeman doesn’t get so lost in his own construction that he abandons story and character completely a la Conran. There’s just enough here to ensure Invention for Destruction is more than simply pretty pictures.

Oh, but what pictures they are! Invention for Destruction is not just a combination of live actors and cool stop-motion effects. There are submarines and dirigibles and the giant lair of an evil mad scientist. Zeman’s sets are all made to look like storybook illustrations, as if the entire world has been drawn around his actors. It’s a surprisingly seamless illusion that lends to the authenticity of the impossibilities the movie portrays. Zeman’s vision is clear, and yet, he’s only just getting warmed up.

Four more years passed between Invention for Destruction and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, time well-spent not just building the movie, but advancing Zeman’s considerable craft. The picture starts on the moon, combining practical effects with animation to create a world of pure cinematic myth, a manifestation of the titular Baron’s tall tales. Then the adventure takes us to Earth, through the palace of a sultan and onto the high seas and even into the belly of a giant fish. All the while, Zelman’s composite animation grows more seamless. There is also an added experimentation with color and sound, scenes tinted with one hue and dialogue turned to garbled brass (think the adults in Peanuts cartoons) with both restored to full clarity as story demands, that makes The Fabulous Baron Munchausen all the more dazzling.

The story is also more fun and a bit more high energy than Invention, though not nearly as high-octane as Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Even if Gilliam and Zeman were not fiddling with the same source material, it would be impossible not to compare them, as Zeman is a clear influence. It’s not just the cut-out animation style that Zeman sometimes uses, or the irreverent sense of humor, but storytelling devices. His Munchausen has a tagalong witness that gets involved in the narrative expedition, just as most of Gilliam’s heroes do, right up through his most recent The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I’d say the later filmmaker could use some of his predecessor’s restraint, but honestly, I can’t say I wish Zeman had Gilliam’s resources, because it would kill some of his resourcefulness.

It feels so rare to be charmed by movies the way I was by the ones contained in Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman. With other “fantastic journeys” seemingly just a mouse click away these days, it’s easy to forget just how imaginative and special cinema can be. Using only the physical objects at his disposal, be they paper, paint, or even flesh, Karel Zeman managed to turn the simple into the remarkable, and translate his own sense of wonder to the screen without losing an ounce of its energy. His aim was to entertain children, but he ended up striking a much broader audience...

...especially now that this collection is readily available. Getting in the spirit of their subject, Criterion have really outdone themselves with the creative packaging for Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman. Do yourself a favor and get your copy now, because the first printing comes in a fold-out cardboard case, with special die-cut pop-up designs for each movie. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

These discs provided by the Criterion Collection for the purposes of review.