RKO Radio Pictures

Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler)

Along Came Jones gets by on its gimmick and its charm–it’s got a lot of charm, both from the cast and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay, which is good as director Heisler doesn’t bring any. Jones is a lower budget Western, lots of rear screen projection, lots of boring setups from Heisler. He prefers medium long shots, avoiding close-ups for most of the supporting cast. He also doesn’t have much of a feel for the material.

Gary Cooper plays the titular Jones. He stumbles his way into a mistaken identity story–everyone thinks he’s gunfighter Dan Duryea but he’s actually just a bit of a doofus. Cooper has fun with the role. It’s thinner than it should be since Heisler isn’t doing much directing of the cast. Johnson’s script has something approximating an arc for Cooper but it doesn’t really come off. As the film resolves itself, it gets its pass not for a creative conclusion but for everything leading up to it. Maybe if the film weren’t so breezily paced, the soft ending might hurt it more. But Jones moves along–the middle section is a lot of lengthy action sequences and they’re solid. Johnson knows how to pace the dialogue and the action. Heisler handles that section best, though just as indistinctly as the rest of the picture.

There’s also a love triangle–Cooper gets himself into the mess over Duryea’s girlfriend, played by Loretta Young. It’s mildly successful. Duryea’s got no personality in Jones; he’s okay, but unenthusiastic. Young’s enthusiastic. She and Cooper have enough chemistry they keep bumping against Heisler’s plodding direction. Especially since doofus Cooper is magic with the ladies. It ought to be a lot funnier, but it isn’t. When he’s not pressed for time, Heisler misses the script’s beats.

William Demarest plays Cooper’s suffering sidekick. It’s William Demarest, he does fine. It’s not a particularly good part though. Johnson’s script is more concerned with the pace than the characters. It’s not a bad script, it’s just overly pragmatic, overly confident in its actors to give it more heft than it might deserve. It’s a mildly successful move from Johnson and Cooper (who also produced). Overall though, Jones just seems like a missed opportunity. It’s got a great cast, it could’ve been more than a diverting comedy Western.

Along Came Jones moves well, it’s got a solid supporting cast (especially Don Costello), it’s got Cooper and Young. It’s just a shame it’s not a better made film–Heisler’s mediocre direction, Milton R. Krasner’s strangely boring photography (he doesn’t do anything with the sets) and Thomas Neff’s awkward editing. Heisler doesn’t know how to direct a gun fight. Even if Jones is a comedy, it’s a Western. You need a competent gun fight.

Anyway, it’s cute. It’s cute enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Alan Le May; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Thomas Neff; music by Arthur Lange; produced by Gary Cooper; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Melody Jones), Loretta Young (Cherry de Longpre), William Demarest (George Fury), Dan Duryea (Monte Jarrad), Frank Sully (Avery de Longpre), Don Costello (Leo Gledhill), Russell Simpson (Pop de Longpre) and Willard Robertson (Luke Packard).


Thirteen Women (1932, George Archainbaud)

Thirteen Women runs just under an hour. A minute under an hour. There was pre-release cutting on the studio’s part. But with those fifty-nine minutes, director Archainbaud is still able to create one heck of a creepy film. The film’s not a mystery. It’s not even a thriller. It’s all gimmick, but it’s suspenseful all gimmick.

The story’s simple–Myrna Loy is an Anglo-Indian woman whose plans to assimilate into white culture were once dashed. To get her revenge, she enlists C. Henry Gordon’s questionably insightful mystic to terrorize her victims and to push them into suicide and worse.

The film opens with a couple of the victims, using their plight for exposition. Not the Loy backstory, which comes in later. It’s relevant throughout, however, because the most peculiar thing about Thirteen Women is how reasonable Loy’s villain comes across. When Irene Dunne, who’s one of the intended victims, argues with Loy about motivation… well, it’s a little strange to hear the two talking around white privilege back in a pre-code RKO thriller. It makes me interested in the source novel. Loy and Dunne basically split the runtime, but Loy’s got a far more dynamic character and part in the story. Dunne just has an annoying kid–Wally Albright, who looks at the camera way too much–and a fetching police detective, Ricardo Cortez.

Of course, Cortez describes Loy in slurs. It’s pre-code, sure, but it’s very weird. Cortez and Dunne’s bigotry doesn’t get heroic presentation. It doesn’t get negative, not until Dunne has to acknowledge her responsibility for it. Thirteen Women knows exactly what it’s doing, at least in terms of Loy’s story. Who knows if it’s from the studio cuts or just Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz’s screenplay, but the Dunne sections plod along. Dunne’s fine, but she has nothing to do. Everyone who acts opposite her gets more material. But then those characters just disappear because Thirteen Women does only run fifty-nine minutes and it features multiple action set pieces. It’s sensational and not just in its raciness. Archainbaud goes all out with the film.

Good performances from Loy and Dunne. Pretty good from Cortez. He’s lazy, but his scenes are pretty lazy too. He basically calls out for all the story’s actual detective work to be done; he’s fine at the exposition, but it’s all he’s got. Gordon’s awesome as the mystic. Jill Esmond’s fine as Dunne’s sidekick who disappears.

The film doesn’t have a natural narrative flow, except for Loy. It’s jerky with everything else. Archainbaud holds it together admirably, with nice technical support from cinematographer Leo Tover and editor Charles L. Kimball. Max Steiner’s score is outstanding.

So Thirteen Women has its problems, but it’s well-made, well-acted, reasonably charming and only fifty-nine minutes. It’s all right.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Barlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz, based on the novel by Tiffany Thayer; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by Charles L. Kimball; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Myrna Loy (Ursula Georgi), Irene Dunne (Laura Stanhope), Jill Esmond (Jo Turner), Ricardo Cortez (Police Sergeant Barry Clive), Wally Albright (Bobby Stanhope) and C. Henry Gordon (Swami Yogadachi).


Murder, My Sweet (1944, Edward Dmytryk)

Murder, My Sweet takes a peculiar approach to the detective story. Lead Dick Powell graciously lets everyone overshadow him in scenes; he doesn’t exactly fumble his way through his investigation, but he does befuddle his way through it. He’s the audience’s point of entry into the mystery and he’s just as confused as anyone else. Or is he? The film runs just around ninety minutes, with a bookending device; director Dmytryk is all about precision with how the audience (and Powell) experience those ninety minutes.

The film opens with Powell being very jokey, which is nearly off-putting. He doesn’t seem to take anything seriously enough, not being questioned by the police, not having man mountain Mike Mazurki threaten him. Powell’s not exactly passive in his scenes, but he’s certainly not active. Dmytryk and screenwriter John Paxton set Powell’s id loose, but more in a way to get the audience situated. Once you buy into the vague unreality of Mazurki’s giant, somewhat lovable moron, you can accept Mazurki as serious. The same goes for the male supporting cast, Otto Kruger and Miles Mander. The film eases the viewer into accepting them beyond face value. It’s awesome because one might think Dmytryk would be too busy with the many technical aspects of Murder.

Dmytryk lets the film wander (carefully, of course) through Harry J. Wild’s photography. Dmytryk even shows it off at times, with characters turning on and off the lights, playing with the idea of what the light hides and the darkness reveals. During the first act, when Powell’s more amiable than anything else, it’s a very strange, then wonderful disconnect. Especially once Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley show up.

Trevor is the femme fatale, Shirley is the good girl. Neither dominate the plot, but Paxton does a great job implying their presence and their importance when they aren’t around. Powell has great chemistry with both, which should be another place the film fails from the disconnect but instead succeeds–they’re different types of characters, Powell’s chemistry with each actor is different. Powell doesn’t get a character arc, not an internal one, but watching Murder, My Sweet is about figuring him out.

Great music from Roy Webb. Great editing from Joseph Noriega.

All of the acting is outstanding. Trevor, Shirley, Mazurki and Mander all get multiple amazing scenes. Kruger is good too, but he’s the closest to a Powell analogue in terms of style. They get to be playful, no one else does.

Paxton’s script is awesome and Dmytryk’s direction manages to be consistently surprising. He always finds a new way angle, whether it’s for a mood shot or just some dialogue. The film’s style is constantly building on itself. It’s fantastic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Dmytryk; screenplay by John Paxton, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; director of photography, Harry J. Wild; edited by Joseph Noriega; music by Roy Webb; produced by Adrian Scott; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Dick Powell (Philip Marlowe), Claire Trevor (Helen Grayle), Anne Shirley (Ann Grayle), Miles Mander (Leuwen Grayle), Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy), Otto Kruger (Jules Amthor), Donald Douglas (Police Lieutenant Randall), Paul Phillips (Detective Nulty), Ralf Harolde (Dr. Sonderborg), Douglas Walton (Lindsay Marriott) and Esther Howard (Jessie Florian).


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).


Magic Town (1947, William A. Wellman)

Magic Town is too much of one thing, not enough of another, but also not enough of the first and too much of the latter. There’s a disconnect between Wellman’s direction and Robert Riskin’s script. While Wellman can handle the broad humor of the script–there isn’t much of it and it stands out like a sore thumb–he also finds the humanity of the characters. Riskin’s not so much interested in the small h humanity of leads James Stewart and Jane Wyman; he’s more interested in the big story.

Stewart is a cutthroat–or so we’re supposed to believe–New York pollster who descends on an idyllic small town. It has the perfect ratio of people and opinions to match the national opinions and trends. With him, Stewart brings sidekicks Ned Sparks and Donald Meek. Sparks gets a couple things to do, but he and Stewart’s relationship is never clear and needs to be. Meek barely gets anything.

Of course, being a pollster, Stewart knows if the people learn they represent the national average, they’ll spoil. Following the Prime Directive, he pretends to be an insurance agent. The only one of the townsfolk in on the scheme is Kent Smith, who’s one sidekick too many. Riskin’s script gives Stewart two and a half external consciences for the first half of the picture, while he’s romancing Wyman, apparently thinking have too many external consciences will make up for Stewart not having an internal one.

Riskin’s wrong.

The first half of the picture is mostly Stewart and Wyman courting. They’re often lovely, thoughtful scenes completely out of place even in the first half. Looking back on them after Magic Town changes gears in the second half, they make almost no sense. It’s around the halfway point it becomes clear Wyman doesn’t really get to have a character in the film either. She doesn’t even get to take responsibility for her actions. And the last act treats her plain awful.

But she’s still good. Better than Stewart, who’s always likable, even when he’s being a complete jackass, if only because the film doesn’t recognize him having the ability to be responsible for his own actions.

Wellman approaches the filmmaking seriously when it comes to Stewart and Wyman’s ordeal. Magic Town looks like a dark noir, Joseph F. Biroc’s moody photography, Roy Webb’s emotive score. It’s just the script doesn’t recognize the ordeal. Riskin has some exposition he wants to get into the characters’ dialogue. He doesn’t have time to make the human drama work.

Nice support from Ann Shoemaker and George Irving.

Magic Town tries too hard with what its got without ever fixing what isn’t working.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Riskin and Joseph Krumgold; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Sherman Todd and Richard G. Wray; music by Roy Webb; production designer, Lionel Banks; produced by Wellman and Riskin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Rip Smith), Jane Wyman (Mary Peterman), Ned Sparks (Ike), Kent Smith (Hoopendecker), Donald Meek (Mr. Twiddle), Ann Shoemaker (Ma Peterman), George Irving (Senator Wilton), Wallace Ford (Lou Dicketts), E.J. Ballantine (Moody), Howard Freeman (Nickleby), Mickey Roth (Bob Peterman), Mary Currier (Mrs. Frisby) and Harry Holman as the mayor.


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).


Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks)

I’m hard pressed to think of a better comedy than Bringing Up Baby. Between Hawks’s direction, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde’s script, the acting (particularly from Katharine Hepburn, who’s so funny, one just starts laughing when she starts talking to save the trouble of having to laugh after her line), it’s probably not possible to be any better than Baby.

The film opens with a hen-pecked Cary Grant getting his mission for the film–get May Robson to donate a million dollars to the museum. What Grant doesn’t know is how Hepburn’s going to get in his way, for how long and how intensely (not to mention she’s Robson’s niece). So Baby is a perfect blend of screwball and situational comedy. There’s enough room for everything, with Hawks and editor George Hively keeping it moving a brisk pace.

After Grant’s established, Hepburn sort of takes over as protagonist, though once Charles Ruggles shows up as this delightful dip, Hawks hovers between characters. They’re hunting a leopard in New England after all.

Baby is never mean-spirited–except maybe about Virginia Walker as Grant’s fianceé–all of the characters mean well and Hepburn either confuses them or they’re inept (or both). The approach gives the comedy has edge without ruthlessness. And Walker’s barely in it, otherwise dismissing her wouldn’t work.

Some great supporting performances–Robson, Barry Fitzgerald, Fritz Feld, Walter Catlett–it’s a big cast and Hawks handles them masterfully.

Baby is a singular motion picture, brilliantly made, absolutely hilarious.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, based on a story by Wilde; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by George Lively; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Susan), Cary Grant (David), Charles Ruggles (Major Applegate), Walter Catlett (Slocum), Barry Fitzgerald (Mr. Gogarty), May Robson (Aunt Elizabeth), Fritz Feld (Dr. Lehman), Leona Roberts (Mrs. Gogarty), George Irving (Mr. Peabody), Tala Birell (Mrs. Lehman), Virginia Walker (Alice Swallow) and John Kelly (Elmer).


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The Brighton Strangler (1945, Max Nosseck)

While a lot of The Brighton Strangler meanders, there are some rather effective moments in the film. It's a B picture, with John Loder as an actor suffering from amnesia who imagines himself his latest role–a murderer. The film's set in London, with blackouts and air raids–not to mention service people–all part of the setting and story.

Loder has a difficult part; he needs to be both menacing and sympathetic. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really want to deal with the question of responsibility and hurries through the third act to get the film to a nicely tied conclusion. Also unfortunately… this nicely tied conclusion ties to the inept opening. So the film opens and closes on its weakest points.

The middle section of the film has amnesiac Loder inserting himself into servicewoman June Duprez's life, with only her beau–an earnest but bland Michael St. Angel–suspecting.

Director Nosseck occasionally does wonders even on the low budget. The entire London bombing sequence is phenomenal and clearly the most expensive thing in the film. Except it's only a few minutes and the film really could have used some expense during Loder's vacation in Brighton. He goes from hotel to house to street–the street scenes aren't terrible, but Nosseck doesn't use establishing shots; there's no sense of scale.

Duprez is appealing, Miles Mander and Gilbert Emery are both good in small parts. Loder goes overboard, but it's the script. It doesn't know how to handle him.

Strangler's occasionally boring, but it's got its moments.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Max Nosseck; written by Nosseck, Arnold Phillips and Hugh Gray; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Les Millbrook; music by Leigh Harline; produced by Herman Schlom; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring John Loder (Reginald Parker), June Duprez (April Manby Carson), Michael St. Angel (Lt. Bob Carson), Miles Mander (Chief Inspector W.R. Allison), Rose Hobart (Dorothy Kent), Gilbert Emery (Dr. Manby), Rex Evans (Leslie Shelton), Matthew Boulton (Inspector Graham), Olaf Hytten (Banks, the valet), Lydia Bilbrook (Mrs. Manby) and Ian Wolfe (Lord Mayor Herman Brandon R. Clive).


I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur)

Before it stumbles through its third act, I Walked with a Zombie’s biggest problem is the pacing. It’s exceedingly boring during the second act. Its second biggest problem is it’s too short. The second act plays so poorly because there’s not enough going on, there’s just not time for it in sixty-eight minutes.

Otherwise, the film’s wondrous. Tourneur’s direction is sublime, beautiful music from Roy Webb, luscious black and white photography from J. Roy Hunt and these amazing sets. The film takes place on a small Caribbean island, with a nurse (Frances Dee) caring for a strangely ill woman. The nurse discovers she’s the fourth wheel on a love triangle between the woman and two brothers (Tom Conway and James Ellison).

The great performances from Conway and Ellison can’t make up for them disappearing occasionally for relatively long stretches. Dee’s fine in the lead–a more dynamic performance might have helped with the second act but nothing can fix the ending. Nice performances from James Bell, Edith Barrett and Theresa Harris too.

Some of the problem is the script, obviously. Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray accelerate the romance between Dee and Conway and don’t actually give them a courtship. Instead, Ellison gets those scenes. And it’s never clear if Harris is a villain or not. Not to mention there being a mystery angle introduced late in the second act. It’s all a mess.

It’s a beautiful one, but Zombie’s often magnificent pieces don’t add up to a successful picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tourneur; screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray, based on a story by Inez Wallace; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Frances Dee (Betsy Connell), Tom Conway (Paul Holland), James Ellison (Wesley Rand), Edith Barrett (Mrs. Rand), James Bell (Dr. Maxwell), Christine Gordon (Jessica Holland), Theresa Harris (Alma), Sir Lancelot (Calypso Singer) and Darby Jones (Carrefour).


Bedlam (1946, Mark Robson)

Bedlam is about a third of a good picture. It’s like writers Val Lewton and (director too) Robson didn’t quite know how to make it work, what with having to have Boris Karloff in it. Karloff’s the villain, the head of a mental institute in the eighteenth century. Karloff’s so evil–and surrounded by so many bad people (the aristocracy has inmates perform for them)–the film’s always unpleasant.

But Karloff’s not the lead; the lead’s pretty Anna Lee and she learns being rich and comfortable is nothing compared to caring for one’s fellow man. She’s even got a Quaker love interest (Richard Fraser) who helps her find the right path.

Maybe half the film is Lee figuring out she should do something to help the people in the institution. Then the second half is after Karloff institutionalizes her.

During that second half, the film shines. Lee discovers she is capable of actively helping her fellow man instead of just advocating for his or her help. She’s got a great narrative arc, but Lewton and Robson have no idea how to write it. They give her awful patron–Billy House in a weak performance–way too much screen time.

As for Robson’s direction, he’s disappointing. Most of the film either takes place in House’s house (sorry) or the institution. The budget doesn’t exactly show, not until one realizes how unimaginative it gets.

Maybe if Lee were better. She’s okay, nothing more. And Karloff’s a caricature.

Bedlam is an unpleasant disappointment.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Val Lewton and Robson, suggested by a painting by William Hogarth; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Lyle Boyer; music by Roy Webb; produced by Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Anna Lee (Nell Bowen), Richard Fraser (Hannay), Boris Karloff (Master George Sims), Billy House (Lord Mortimer), Ian Wolfe (Sidney Long), Jason Robards Sr. (Oliver Todd), Leyland Hodgson (Wilkes), Joan Newton (Dorothea the Dove), Robert Clarke (Dan the Dog), Elizabeth Russell (Mistress Sims), Vic Holbrook (Tom the Tiger) and Skelton Knaggs (Varney).


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