Agnes Moorehead

All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)

The third act of All That Heaven Allows is all about agency. Who has it, how they avoid it, why they avoid it. For a while it seems like it’s about Jane Wyman having it, then about Rock Hudson having it. Wyman’s always implied agency, right from the start. Hudson, who doesn’t have a scene from his own perspective until the third act, has always had an air of agency but not an active one. At least not where Wyman’s concerned. The third act suggests it’s going to mix everything up.

And it does… sort of. Until it stops and gives up on the whole idea.

All That Heaven Allows is the story of somewhat recent widow Jane Wyman who starts a clandestine love affair with her gardener, Hudson. He’s younger (though barely looks it, which says more about Wyman than Hudson) and doesn’t subscribe to the fifties rat race. He’s happy being a gardener and going into tree growing, which Wyman’s friends and neighbors from the country club find to be a disgusting rejection of good capitalist ideals.

Of course, they’re all buying their Christmas trees from Hudson and his tree-growing pal Charles Drake, but whatever. The film never even slightly implies often drunken WASPs should be taken seriously. The only good one is Agnes Moorehead, who’s stuck in the life–the film implies–because she hasn’t got any children; she’s Wyman’s best friend. Though she kind of disappears in the third act when Wyman’s got to do her thinking and feeling (and living) for herself.

The film rarely lets Hudson and Wyman have a peaceful moment. During the initial courtship and flirtation, sure. Wyman’s unsure of Hudson’s affections–though never for the reasons everyone else is worried about–while Hudson is too good to be true. He’s six feet, four inches of thoughtful, considerate, zen man meat. The scenes where Wyman’s female friends are mortified by Hudson are hilarious, given all their husbands are grossly out of shape and completely bores. If not burgeoning rapists. So when it comes time for Wyman to have to chose between Hudson and her pals, the choice should be clear.

Especially since the film establishes from the start the only one she actually cares about is Moorehead. The rest are incapable of actual human concern.

But Wyman’s got two kids. There’s proto-feminist social worker Gloria Talbott and Princeton man William Reynolds. Talbott talks a big talk but pushes Wyman in front of a bus while gushing over her dimwit suitor, an uncredited David Janssen. Reynolds wants Wyman to live in reverence of his father’s memory. Peg Fenwick’s screenplay has very little time for Talbott and Reynolds, though they have a lot of scenes and a lot of dialogue, but it’s pretty clear they’re complete heels from their first scene. Sure, the townspeople are bores, drunks, and gossips, but Talbott and Reynolds actively feed off Wyman’s emotions. They drain her from the start.

And they don’t much like Hudson. He lives on some undisclosed acreage of prime, undeveloped land–which has been passed down generations–but he’s got to be after Wyman’s (i.e. her dead husband’s) money. Talbott’s exasperating but not malicious. Reynolds is malicious and woodenly so. Especially given the way director Sirk shoots the film.

Heaven has a lot of color and a lot of shadows. Outside it’s always a clear, sometimes snowy day. Inside there are various colors, warm and cool, and shadows. The shadows usually fall on whoever’s opposite Wyman, a way of focusing a spotlight on her but a somewhat naturally occurring one. Russell Metty’s photography is phenomenal.

Those shadows make most of the men in Heaven into caricatures, at least the ones in Wyman’s life. Not sweet doctor Hayden Rorke or even sweet, unexciting standby suitor Conrad Nagel, but everyone else. Reynolds is the harshest, because out of those shadows he’s firing daggers at mom Wyman. Ones she apparently has no defense for.

Hudson is apart from the gross displays of blue blood machismo–when he and Drake talk about masculine responsibility in the third act, it’s an actual surprise. Then it turns out to be some manipulative narrative efficiency and the damage is slight, but still there. Every misstep and short cut in the third act resonates because the film ends so perfunctory. The whole thing promises Wyman this fantastic arc, starts delivering it, dodges and implies Hudson’s going to get the feature arc, dodges him too and just finishes things up. It could go out happy, it could go out sad, it could go out cynical, instead it just… goes out without any ambitions. But satisfactorily enough.

Wyman’s great. Hudson’s really good. She gets a much better part. He remains a partial enigma until the end. He too got the shadowy face during some interiors. But he’s also got some great moments where he’s breaking through the mystery to reveal himself. The film really wants to be about Wyman realizing the shadowy faces don’t matter as much as her own, metaphorically speaking, but never quite gets there. It’s simultaneously five minutes too long and ten minutes too short.

The supporting cast is all good. Moorehead, Nagel, Virginia Grey. Grey even manages to get through Fenwick’s worst scene, talking through a series of generic colloquialisms in an exposition dump–which Fenwick, nicely, never repeats. Reynolds not so much. He’s effective, but he’s nearly as villainous as Donald Curtis’s country club sexual predator.

Outstanding music from Frank Skinner. Fantastic direction from Sirk. Heaven always looks amazing and the way Sirk, Metty, and Skinner (and whatever composer Skinner occasionally borrows from) come together to focus on the characters (read: Wyman) and the weight of their unspoken burdens and constraints… it’s awesome.

It’s also a shame the ending is so pat.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by Peg Fenwick, based on the novel by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Frank Gross; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Gloria Talbott (Kay Scott), William Reynolds (Ned Scott), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Jacqueline deWit (Mona Plash), Charles Drake (Mick Anderson), Donald Curtis (Howard Hoffer), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), and Conrad Nagel (Harvey).


Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster)

Journey Into Fear has a number of insignificant problems, a couple significant ones, and one major one. The major one is Foster’s direction. It’s not bad, it makes good use of the sets, it even uses some of the supporting cast well, but it’s not frightening, it’s not exciting. Journey Into Fear, not just because of the title, has to be frightening, it has to be. And it’s not. Foster shoots too much of Fear like a melodrama–albeit a quirky one–and his crew does the same. There’s nothing foreboding in Roy Webb’s score, not even when Fear finally gets exciting at the end, and Karl Struss’s photography’s a little flat. Competent, but flat. And it doesn’t utilize the sets well.

The film runs just under seventy minutes, which wrongly implies a spry pace. Instead, there’s an awkward opening with American munitions expert Joseph Cotten (who also wrote the screenplay) in danger in Turkey. His wife–a wasted, but still momentarily wonderful Ruth Warrick–knows little to nothing about it. Cotten’s been hanging out with a bad influence–Everett Sloane in a fun smaller part–and ends up in protective custody. Orson Welles’s the cop. He has a good time chewing the scenery as an action hero. So, a bunch of good performances in an awkwardly paced first act, which has little bearing on the rest of the film. Sure, Welles tells Cotten who’s after him, but it doesn’t really matter. They could have any motive, the point is the, you know, Fear.

Most of the film takes place on a freighter; Cotten’s smuggling himself to safety. There are a bunch of eclectic passengers, there’s a flirtation interest for Cotten, there’s presumably danger to Cotten. Dolores del Rio is the flirtation interest. There’s a significant portion of the film where it could just be an unfunny comedy of errors–del Rio’s business parter, Jack Durant, thinks Cotten wants to marry her–because there’s not even a threat to Cotten’s wellbeing. He’s just an inconvenienced tourist.

All the eclectic passengers are good–Eustace Wyatt, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Readick, Edgar Barrier–and Cotten, as screenwriter, does give each of them a little to do but it’s not enough. Moorehead and Readick are this hilarious married couple–Fear actually would’ve been better with someone who could appreciate the humor better as well–only neither gets enough to do. Especially Moorehead, who Foster introduces in long shot no less.

The third act seems like it might save the film, especially once there’s an action sequence. Only then it slips again. Journey Into Fear is disappointing given the cast–given it reunites Cotten and Welles (though they’re clearly having a great time together), given it’s a Welles production, given everything. Foster just never finds the right pace for the film, never the right tone. It’s a shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Foster; screenplay by Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; director of photography, Karl Struss; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Howard Graham), Orson Welles (Colonel Haki), Dolores del Rio (Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (Mrs. Stephanie Graham), Jack Durant (Gogo Martel), Eustace Wyatt (Prof. Haller), Everett Sloane (Kopeikin), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Mathews), Frank Readick (Matthews), Edgar Barrier (Kuvetli) and Jack Moss (Peter Banat).


Caged (1950, John Cromwell)

Max Steiner does the music for Caged, which is strange to think about because Caged barely has any music. Director Cromwell instead emphasizes the silence, especially as the film opens. Right after the opening credits, which do have music, Caged gets very quiet. “Silence” reads all the walls in the women’s prison where protagonist Eleanor Parker finds herself. At its most obvious, one could say Caged is the story of Parker going from first time offender to repeat offender, which is besides the point. Parker’s fate is decided right from the start. There are four principal characters in Caged, two inmates, two prison employees. None of them have any free will, it’s just how they come to realize it.

Cromwell, thanks to Carl E. Guthrie’s photography and Owen Marks’s editing, is able to do a lot with the filmmaking. Caged’s silences–waiting for a noise, praying for more silence–is just one of the many techniques Cromwell uses to get the viewer into the cage with Parker and everyone else. Caged should feel stagy at times; same sets, over and over. The outside world is just a glimpse and a bland glimpse at that. There’s not even a world over the wall, when the inmates are in the yard. They, along with the viewer, know there’s a world out there but it’s left to the imagination for everyone. Caged just concerns this place and these people.

Virginia Kellogg’s screenplay juxtaposes innocent Parker and Agnes Moorehead’s compassionate superintendent. Both women have bad role models–Parker has Betty Garde’s hardened con woman while brutal matron Hope Emerson wants to sway Moorehead back to viciousness. Once it becomes clear Parker isn’t just the subject of the film–Caged might have some social commentary to make, but it isn’t trying to propagandize–but the protagonist and the viewer has to stick with her, follow her hardening, it becomes even more frightening. Most of the scares happen in the first half of the film, but the second half, as despondence sets in, is even more terrifying.

Parker is singular. There aren’t adjectives to describe her performance. Moorehead’s great, Emerson’s great, Garde’s great. The supporting cast is all good. Look fast for Jane Darwell.

Caged is an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Cromwell; screenplay by Virginia Kellogg, based on a story by Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Marie Allen), Agnes Moorehead (Ruth Benton), Hope Emerson (Evelyn Harper), Betty Garde (Kitty Stark), Ellen Corby (Emma Barber), Jan Sterling (Smoochie), Olive Deering (June Roberts) and Lee Patrick (Elvira Powell).


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)

Unfortunately, I feel the need to address some of the behind the scenes aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons. Not because I plan on talking about them, but because director Welles’s career is filled with a lack of control. There are always questions–what did editor Robert Wise do on his own, what did he do with Welles’s input. With Ambersons, one can get lost in the possibility. But the reality is more than strong enough on its own.

With Ambersons, Welles creates a nightmare. He creates a nightmare of a child in the humorously awful, spoiled little rich kid (a wonderful, uncredited Bobby Cooper), who becomes a nightmare of a young man (Tim Holt in a phenomenal performance). The thing about Holt’s character, who negatively impacts everyone around him in one way or another including himself, is he doesn’t change. He just has a certain set of skills, he applies them to all situations without regard to whether they’re appropriate for those situations. Welles doesn’t care if the audience is sympathetic to Holt, he cares if they’re interested. Holt–and the Magnificent Ambersons exist regardless of audience sympathy; they even have a haunted mansion to loiter around.

Because even studio meddling and Wise’s ego can’t alter the “in camera” aspects of Ambersons. There’s an amazing mansion set where Holt terrorizes his elders. There’s Stanley Cortez’s gorgeous photography. There’s the acting. And, frankly, some of the editing is so obviously under Welles’s instruction, especially in the first act. Ambersons runs under ninety minutes and covers a decade and a half. It’s mostly told in summary, with actual scenes left to haunt the characters and audience alike. It’s a weighty film; director Welles narrates it himself, applying further pressure to the audiences’ shoulders. It’s got a perfect narrative distance. Was that distance Welles’s intention or the result of meddling? Who knows.

Wonderful supporting performances from Ray Collins and Richard Bennett. Dolores Costello is great as Holt’s mother, Agnes Moorehead’s great as his aunt. Joseph Cotten’s great as Holt’s love interest’s father. Cotten is also Costello’s love interest, which what all the drama is about. Anne Baxter plays Cotten’s daughter. She has the most important role in the entire film (outside Moorehead, who has to humanize Holt). Baxter has to be believable as the object of Holt’s affection. It works, thanks to Baxter, Holt and Welles, but it’s an achievement. It isn’t about Baxter being appealing, it’s about Holt being monstrous.

The Magnificent Ambersons, in its under ninety minute runtime, offers somewhere around eighty-five minutes of perfect filmmaking. The other three or four minutes, meddled or not, have perfect acting and excellent studio filmmaking. It may have a haunted history, but it’s appropriate. The Magnificent Ambersons is all about being haunted after all.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; screenplay by Welles, based on the novel by Booth Tarkington; director of photography, Stanley Cortez; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Tim Holt (George Minafer), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson Minafer), Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer) and Richard Bennett (Major Amberson).


The Bat (1959, Crane Wilbur)

There ought to be something good about The Bat, but there really isn’t anything. Agnes Moorehead is actually quite good, all things considered, and Vincent Price seems game too. Moorehead’s a successful mystery novelist vacationing in a scary old house–summering, actually–and Price is a murderous physician. Why is Price murderous? So the audience can suspect his every action in the film.

After a protracted first act, The Bat gets underway with terrifying Moorehead. Only Moorehead doesn’t terrify, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It ought to be a cool turn of events, but director Wilbur’s screenplay is as abysmal as his direction (The Bat’s a thriller without any thrills whatsoever) and he doesn’t give Moorehead anything to work with. He doesn’t give anyone anything to work with, but Moorehead is visibly capable of improving a thin part. She just doesn’t get the chance.

The dialogue’s usually expository (Moorehead’s got such a bad part, her sojourn to the country never gets a good enough description). Sometimes it’s so expository Wilbur has to backtrack to explain how the characters could possibly know something, given it’s against all their previous development.

Like I said, Price’s game but he has nothing to do. Gavin Gordon’s bad as the investigating detective and Lenita Lane’s awful as Moorehead’s sidekick. Elaine Edwards isn’t bad.

William Austin’s editing is weak, though with Wilbur’s dreadful composition it’d be hard to cut together a good scene out of any of it. I suppose Joseph F. Biroc doesn’t do too bad with the cinematography. It’s competent, anyway, though not scary.

The fault lies with Wilbur. His script’s bad, his direction’s bad. Between Moorehead, Price and an old dark, house, there’s no reason The Bat shouldn’t have been at least amusing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Crane Wilbur; screenplay by Wilbur, based on a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by William Austin; music by Louis Forbes; produced by C.J. Tevlin; released by Allied Artists Pictures.

Starring Agnes Moorehead (Cornelia van Gorder), Lenita Lane (Lizzie Allen), Elaine Edwards (Dale Bailey), Darla Hood (Judy Hollander), Gavin Gordon (Lt. Andy Anderson), John Sutton (Warner), John Bryant (Mark Fleming), Harvey Stephens (John Fleming), Mike Steele (Victor Bailey), Riza Royce (Jane Patterson), Robert Williams (Detective Davenport) and Vincent Price (Dr. Malcolm Wells).


Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

In Citizen Kane, director Welles ties everything together–not just the story (he does wrap the narrative visually), but also how the filmmaking relates to the film’s content. Kane’s story can’t be told any other way. That precision–whether it’s in the summary sequences or in how scenes cut together–is absolutely necessary to not just keep the viewer engaged, but to keep them over-engaged. Even with the conclusion, where Welles reveals the film’s “solution” (quote unquote); it doesn’t resolve that mystery in a timely fashion–Welles drags it out to get the viewer thinking, questioning. Welles puts together this perfect film and then asks the viewer to wonder whether or not it was all worth it. Not just his making it, but the viewer’s watching it.

The little moments in the film–Welles gets in these subtle things with melodramatic fireworks going off in the background, whether its Dorothy Comingore’s humanity or Everett Sloane’s wistfulness or “protagonist” William Alland’s frustration–remind the viewer the story’s still about people. And why shouldn’t it be? Most scenes in Kane feature two to three working characters. Sometimes Welles has people in the background, sometimes he doesn’t. The little moments in big scenes–like one between Joseph Cotten and Sloane during a party–are often more devastating than the little scenes.

Welles unforgivingly asks a lot of the viewer. He opens the film with a complex fading sequence to bring the viewer into the world of Kane, then abruptly pulls the film out of itself, into a newsreel. And for almost twenty minutes, Welles barely gives himself any screen time. It’s always such a big deal that first time Welles lets Kane have an audible line in the newsreel.

All that control isn’t to prime the viewer, isn’t to get him or her desperately wondering about Rosebud, all that control is because the film needs it. Kane spans forty-some years in under two hours. Far under two hours if you don’t count the newsreel “first act.” When Welles establishes his character as an older man, an atypical protagonist–Kane’s infinitely sympathetic while never likable, though Welles knows his charm goes a long way in lightening a heavy scene–he does so without hostility. Nowhere in Kane does Welles play for the audience, but he also doesn’t artificially distance them. The opening does, quite literally, guide the viewer into the film.

Kane is an unsentimental film about a sentimental subject and Welles does wonders with that disconnect.

Comingore probably gives the film’s best performance. Welles is amazing and mesmerizing, but so much of the second half has to do with how he plays off her, she’s essential. Of course, there aren’t any merely good performances–even Erskine Sanford, in the closest thing to a comedy relief role, is great. Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris–all fantastic.

And Joseph Cotten as the film’s “good guy?” He’s marvelous.

Impeccable Gregg Toland photography, great Bernard Herrmann music.

500 words aren’t enough.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Orson Welles; written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Robert Wise; music by Bernard Herrmann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane), Joseph Cotten (Jedediah Leland), Dorothy Comingore (Susan Alexander Kane), Ruth Warrick (Emily Monroe Norton Kane), Everett Sloane (Mr. Bernstein), George Coulouris (Walter Parks Thatcher), Agnes Moorehead (Mary Kane), Harry Shannon (Jim Kane), Paul Stewart (Raymond), Ray Collins (James W. Gettys), Erskine Sanford (Herbert Carter) and William Alland (Jerry Thompson).


The Woman in White (1948, Peter Godfrey)

I’m not sure what’s more impressive in The Woman in White: Max Steiner’s exceptional score or Sidney Greenstreet’s performance. Both are phenomenal–it’s probably Steiner’s finest score. Greenstreet’s performance of the film’s cogent, ruthless villain is not just one of his finest performances, but one of the finest villains in film history. I’ve seem the film before, but somehow Greenstreet’s endless supply of sinisterness made me frequently question the ending I remembered.

Almost everything else about The Woman in White is excellent–not on the level of those two particulars–but, overall, excellent. Peter Godfrey knows how to construct a shot–and especially how to move a camera–and there’s some great comic moments in the film, which is not, overall, comical at all. John Abbott is great as a wacky recluse, John Emery is great as Greenstreet’s sidekick. Great’s a word I’d use a lot to describe aspects of The Woman in White… like Agnes Moorehead, she’s great in a difficult role. (No surprise). However–I was just going to say the editing isn’t great, but it isn’t just the editing–The Woman in White has some drastic changes in its narrative and they hamstring the film.

The first half of The Woman in White, with Gig Young starting a new job as a drawing instructor for wealthy Eleanor Parker who comes across a strange girl, recently escaped from an asylum (also Parker), is fantastic. Absolutely wonderful. Here’s the best direction in the film, the best part of Young’s performance and two good roles for Parker. Alexis Smith is good as the friend who’s got the crush on Young, even though Young and Parker (as the wealthy heiress, not the escaped mental patient) are getting romantic. Young and Parker have great chemistry, regardless of the role Parker’s playing. Young’s new to the estate, just like the viewer, and the film draws them both in at the same time. It’s masterful.

Then it skips ahead some months and now it’s Smith the film’s following, except not really, because Greenstreet eventually locks her in a room and then it follows Greenstreet for a long time. Parker’s wealthy heiress is poisoned so that role is made inessential and the mental patient role doesn’t have quite enough for her to do (though there are some nice special effects of the two of them in the same frame). Young and Smith have no chemistry as their romance takes off and the film drags on and on. Greenstreet’s great in this part, best in this part, and his scenes with Smith do a lot for the picture. Young’s almost useless, a long fall from the beginning, when he’s absolutely fantastic.

Overall, The Woman in White‘s best parts–with the exception of Greenstreet and Steiner–don’t make it to the end. Parker’s performance as the cursed mental patient is wonderful, but the romantic stuff with her and Young in the first half–which goes away–is just as good. By the end, it’s hard to believe Young started out so strong and even Steiner’s score, for the last bit, isn’t as good as it had been. So, disappointing as a whole, but its pieces are stellar.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Godfrey; screenplay by Stephen Morehouse Avery, based on the novel by Wilkie Collins; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Max Steiner; produced by Henry Blanke; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Alexis Smith (Marian Halcombe), Eleanor Parker (Laura Fairlie/Ann Catherick), Sydney Greenstreet (Count Alessandro Fosco), Gig Young (Walter Hartright), Agnes Moorehead (Countess Fosco), John Abbott (Frederick Fairlie), John Emery (Sir Percival Glyde) and Curt Bois (Louis).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: Dream Factory.

Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, Jack Smight)

While Frankenstein: The True Story singularly credits Mary Shelley as source material, the actuality is a little more complicated. A Universal-produced TV mini-series, True Story actually mixes some of the Shelley (basically, the end in the Arctic and a brother for Frankenstein), with Universal’s 1930s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with a little of The Ghost of Frankenstein thrown in too). It also goes so far as to play Frankenstein as a bit of the patsy–he’s not particularly smart, just an assistant to a couple mad scientists. There’s also a serious homoerotic subtext to the film–first, Frankenstein rejects his fiancée for his mad scientist buddy, then becomes obsessed with the Creature’s physical beauty, rejecting it once it becomes ugly. The subtext disappears around the first hour mark, which is incidentally when Leonard Whiting, as Frankenstein, starts acting well. Until the point of betraying the Creature, he really doesn’t do anything but plead with his mad scientist friend to let him play too. However, once there’s some conflict, Whiting has something to work with, so much so, by the end, I was wishing True Story was a better story, just so Whiting’s acting wouldn’t be wasted.

There are a lot of good performances in True Story, but most of them follow the same pattern as Whiting’s. Slight in the first part, better and great in the rest. For example, Nicola Pagett was annoying as could be as Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiancée) in the beginning, but then she went from good to great in about twenty minutes. David McCallum as the first mad scientist is amusing, but nothing more. As the Creature, Michael Sarrazin is good once he starts getting ugly. When Frankenstein’s primping him around London (yes, True Story moves the setting to England for some ludicrous reason), Sarrazin looks like David Bowie glammed out. Once he gets ugly, he gets to show some emotion. Agnes Moorehead, unfortunately, gets stuck with this terrible housekeeper role with an awful accent. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud both turn in small cameos (Richardson as the blind woodsman). Richardson’s terrible, but Gielgud’s great. However, whenever he’s onscreen, True Story belongs to James Mason. He’s playing this absurd, handless mad scientist (based on the one from Bride) but this time he’s got Chinese assistants and plans to takeover Europe. Mason realizes how crazy it is and he thoroughly enjoys it.

Unfortunately, True Story is a technical mess. The costumes seem to be intended to emphasis the men’s butts (given Whiting’s famous butt shot in Romeo and Juliet, I doubt it’s unintentional), while the set decoration looks like something out of the 1930s… at the latest. As True Story should be set in the late 1700s, I doubt I should recognize a chair as one I’ve sat in. Some of the sets are mildly interesting–like the lab–but once Mason’s pseudo-Chinese mysticism lab shows up, True Story‘s sets look like a farce. Jack Smight’s direction is, unsurprisingly, uninspired, but rarely bad.

For a mediocre three-hour film, True Story is actually pretty good. It moves fast and when it doesn’t have good performances, it has moments (the sets, the homoeroticism) to amuse the viewer in other ways. At times, in small ways, it comes close to being something special, particularly with Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s relationship, but more often than not, the writing stomps the life out of those moments.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by Richard Marden; music by Gil Melle; production designer, Wilfred Shingleton; produced by Hunt Stromberg Jr.; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Mason (Dr. Polidori), Leonard Whiting (Victor Frankenstein), David McCallum (Henry Clerval), Jane Seymour (Agatha), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Michael Sarrazin (The Creature), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Blair), John Gielgud (the chief constable), Tom Baker (the sea captain) and Ralph Richardson (Mr. Lacey).


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