Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Musuraca’

My Classic Movie Pick: 1942’s Cat People

It’s the month of October which means stores are chock a block full of decorations and candy for the upcoming Halloween celebration on October 31st.  This month also causes many classic film fans to remember great classic movies from the horror and/or sci fi genres.  I decided to pick a classic film which is eerie and haunting, and fitting for this time of the year, 1942’s Cat People.

1942-lobby-card-cat-people

If you’ve only seen the later remake, the 1982 version, you really need to see the original film.  It’s  a good film, tight plot, the scares aren’t in the open but hidden in the shadows which make them even scarier as it allows the viewer’s imagination to add to the terror hinted at on the screen.

The film is about Serbian immigrant to the U.S., Irena Dubrovna.  She’s a talented fashion designer, living in NYC, and for fun likes to sketch the animals at the Central Park Zoo.  One day while she’s sketching, she  meets engineer Oliver Reed.  There’s an instant attraction and before long, the two are engaged, much to the disappointment of Oliver’s co-worker, Alice.

Oliver meets Irena for the first time

Oliver meets Irena for the first time

Telling Oliver about the statue that shows King John killing a cat

Telling Oliver about the statue that shows King John killing a cat

At a local restaurant where Oliver’s friends have gathered to celebrate his marriage to Irena, a strange woman, with a cat-like look about the eyes, stops at Irena’s table and utters something to her in Serbian.  As the woman slinks away, Irena shudders and asks for Oliver to take her home.  Once home, Irena explains to Oliver her great fear, that the woman at the restaurant raised in her.  She called Irena “sister” insinuating that Irena is under the curse of the Cat People.  From an earlier moment in the film, Irena tells Oliver how King John of Serbia drove the witches out which resulted in a curse: that when any of the female descendants of these witches feels passion, they will turn into a deadly panther and go on a killing spree!  Oliver doesn’t believe in this curse, but Irena does and begs him to be patient with her as she’s not ready to be a wife to him just yet.

The strange woman who speaks to Irena in Serbian at the restaurant

The strange woman who speaks to Irena in Serbian at the restaurant

Oliver confides his marriage woes to Alice, and also gets Irena to agree to begin seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd.  As Alice draws closer to Oliver, she will be put into danger.  As Dr. Judd draws closer to Irena, he will be put into danger.   Danger and mystery swirl around all of the characters in this film.

Cat People was the creative project of producer Val Lewton.  A former journalist, writer and story editor for Selznick Studios, Lewton wanted to make his own movies and RKO gave him that chance, hiring him to  make horror films on low-budgets.   Lewton hired Jacques Tourneur to direct and the outstanding cinematography was by Nicholas Musuraca.  The film was shot in about a month, for $140,000, which was just under the budget RKO gave Lewton.  The film was a huge hit for RKO, bringing in $4,ooo,ooo.

French actress Simone Simon, who’s career in Hollywood began in 1936 and was floundering, had gone back to France to continue acting there, when WWII broke out. Simon returned to Hollywood and Cat People, was her second successful American film.  She is great as Irena: mysterious, pensive, and showing a streak of jealousy when it comes to her husband, Oliver, and Alice. Kent Smith is fine as the strong, silent-type, very logical engineer, Oliver.   Jane Randolph as Alice is also very good, a very logical thinking woman, who knows she shouldn’t be falling in love with her married co-worker, but she just can’t help it, especially when he confides in her about his marital problems.  Tom Conway is also very good as the elite, intellectual Dr. Judd, who wants to help Irena, but his one method isn’t at all wise.

Some famous scenes to expect: when Oliver takes Irena to a local pet shop to buy her a bird, all of the animals behave strangely when Irena enters the shop, the fellow Serbian woman(Elizabeth Russell)who startles Ireana at the restaurant, Alice walking home alone in the dark and convinced she is being followed by some creature, bloody animal prints that evolve into human footprints, Oliver and Alice threatened by some creature late at night at their office, Alice at her apartment’s basement indoor pool hearing growls and seeing what may be a large cat ready to pounce on her, Dr. Judd’s attempt to kiss Irena.  Lots of shadows, flickers of firelight, all of these images add to the eerie feelings this movie evokes.

Something sinister is following Oliver and Alice at the office

Something sinister is following Oliver and Alice at the office

Was that a growl? At my apartment's indoor pool?

Was that a growl? At my apartment’s indoor pool?

Um, Dr. Judd, kissing Irena isn't a good idea!

Um, Dr. Judd, kissing Irena isn’t a good idea!

Turner Classic will be airing Cat People on Friday, October 30th, at 8:00 pm Eastern time/7:00 pm Central time.  Don’t miss it!!

 

My Classic Movie Pick: The Spiral Staircase

I enjoy suspense movies and not the slash and gore films that seem so popular with the younger generations.  I like a suspense film that doesn’t show all of  the violence or the evildoer immediately,  but simply hints at the fact that something bad is going to happen or is happening.  Of course, the suspense films I like also have a  good triumphs over  evil ending and the main character, who has been in danger, will now be safe.The Spiral Staircase opening shot

The Spiral Staircase is my kind of suspense film.  In the beginning of the film, the audience is swept into a local hotel that also shows silent films.  It is in this audience that we meet heroine Helen(Dorothy McGuire) who is thoroughly caught up in the plot of the silent movie that she is watching. ( The silent film shown is D.W. Griffith’s The Sands of the Dee.)    As the movie plays for the audience, we are taken upstairs where  a young woman is looking out her window.  She then walks to  her closet and we notice that she has a noticable limp.  She takes a dress out of her closet and what we see, but she doesn’t see,  is that a man is hiding in her closet!  The camera zooms in on just his eye and we see his pov,  watching the young woman dress.   With her arms over her head and the dress about her, the camera again zooms in on her hands as they clutch the air and show signs that the young woman has been grabbed.  We hear her groans, and then the scene cuts to the hotel’s movie audience.  They are happily getting their coats and hats and preparing to leave when above their heads they hear a loud thud and the sound of  breaking glass.  The hotel owner rushes upstairs and with the help of another hotel guest(character actress  Ellen Corby, aka Grandma Walton from the 1970s tv show, The Walton’s) he goes to the young woman’s room and finds her strangled to death.

Helen enjoying the silent movie.

Helen enjoying the silent movie.

The killer hiding in the closet!

The killer hiding in the closet!

Victim #3, the poor crippled woman.

Victim #3, the poor crippled woman.

Something evil has recently begun in this quiet, small New England town near Boston.   We learn that two young women  have been murdered for no apparent reason other than the fact that they both had a physical defect.  One of the victims had a facial scar and the other was described as “simple-minded”.  Now we see that the third victim was crippled in her leg.  Soon we learn that Helen, a maid at wealthy Mrs. Warren’s (Ethel Barrymore) home, is a mute.  That can only mean one thing, Helen’s life is in danger!

We don’t know a lot about Helen’s previous life.  We do know that she used to be able to speak but when coming home from school one day as a youngster, she discovered that her home was on fire and her parents died in the fire, the local firefighters unable to save them.  This horrific event has caused Helen to not be able to speak.  Who she stayed with until she reached adulthood we don’t know and we also don’t know how she came to be in Mrs. Warren’s employ.  We do learn that she is in love with kind Dr. Parry(Kent Smith), the young, handsome, new doctor in town and he also loves Helen.  He wants her to go to Boston and be evaluated by a team of doctors who, he believes, will be able to help Helen get her voice back.  There is a scene in the film where Helen daydreams about dancing with Dr. Parry and then she is at the altar to marry him and it breaks her heart that she can’t utter the words, “I do” during the wedding ceremony, with all eyes upon her.

Dr. Parry telling Helen about the doctors in Boston who could help her.

Dr. Parry telling Helen about the doctors in Boston who could help her.

Helen, frustrated that she can't utter the words, "I do."

Helen, frustrated that she can’t utter the words, “I do.”

Since we, the audience, know the killer is a man, the movie’s script cleverly introduces 4 male characters who could possibly be the killer.  There is Professor Albert Warren(George Brent), his younger brother Steve(Gordon Oliver), Mr. Oates(Rhys Williams), and even Dr. Parry.

Professor Warren seems very preoccupied, dislikes his younger brother, Steve,  immensely, and keeps intruding whenever his brother is trying to grab and kiss the Professor’s secretary, the very beautiful Blanche(Rhonda Fleming.)   Turns out Blanche and the Professor also had a past relationship so it really sticks in his craw to see his former girlfriend in the arms of his younger brother!

The constable asking the Warren brothers where they were when the 3rd murder happened.

The constable asking the Warren brothers where they were when the 3rd murder happened.

Steven and Blanche

Steven and Blanche

Mr. Oates, the caretaker of the Warren mansion and grounds, is seen entering the house in a dark raincoat and hat, which we saw the killer wearing earlier when he was stalking  Helen on her way home to the mansion from the hotel.

The killer, following Helen to the mansion.

The killer, following Helen to the mansion.

Mr. Oates answering  the constable's questions.

Mr. Oates answering the constable’s questions.

Steven seems to be a lazy, layabout, with no job.  He’s just returned from a tour of Europe with nothing but time on his hands when he decides to embark on getting closer to Blanche.  Later in the film, he cruelly scoffs at Dr. Parry’s suggestion that doctors in Boston could help Helen speak.  Why does the thought of a person with a disability getting help make him so angry?

How the killer sees Helen and her lack of a voice.

How the killer sees Helen and her lack of a voice.

Even Dr. Parry, so kind to Helen, is he really who he seems to be or could he be  hiding  an evil side, ala Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The women in the film are also just as interesting as the men.  Mrs. Warren, cold to her two stepsons,  reveals that their father thought them both weaklings and wastrels.  She is insistent to Helen that she must get out of the house that night, that something bad will happen to Helen if she doesn’t get away.  She is also a concealed carry believer!(This performance earned Barrymore a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.)   Mrs. Oates(Elsa Lanchester) is the cook with a penchant for sneaking a drink.  Her husband’s scoldings about her habit she ignores and unfortunately, that “little nip” while washing up the supper dishes will prove to be unhelpful to Helen later that night!  Then there is Blanche, the dutiful secretary, drawn to bad boy Steven, and a search in the basement for her suitcase will prove to be a deadly decision on her part!  Of course, hats are off to Dorothy McGuire’s portrayal of Helen.  She has to emote and convey so much with no words being uttered.  A truly remarkable performance.

Mrs. Warren has a gun and she knows how to use it!

Mrs. Warren has a gun and she knows how to use it!

Blanche knows who the killer is!

Blanche knows who the killer is!

Professor Warren reminding Helen to stay indoors and to go to him if she needs any help.

Professor Warren reminding Helen to stay indoors and to go to him if she needs any help.

Mrs. Warren urging Helen to get out of the house!

Mrs. Warren urging Helen to get out of the house!

Mrs. Oates waiting to sneak a bottle of brandy.

Mrs. Oates waiting to sneak a bottle of brandy.

The Spiral Staircase does an excellent job of showing the twists and turns of very complicated people and it leaves one guessing as to who the killer is until the last 10 minutes or so of the movie.  I also enjoyed the photography shot by Nicholas Musuraca.  Lots of lights and darks, shadows where a killer could be lurking in the old mansion, and a large mirror on the first landing of the grand staircase is used for quite a few interesting shots and views.  If I ever had a basement, it wouldn’t be as dark and dank and creepy as the one in this movie, I can tell you!!

One can find The Spiral Staircase at Amazon.com, but I warn you, it’s really pricey.  I was shocked at how high it’s price is!  It’s not available at TCM’s shop, only a remake which was done in 1975 starring Christopher Plummer, Jacqueline Bisset, and Sam Wannamaker.  It is available on Youtube, however, in its entirety.  A Spanish or Portugese(sorry, I cannot tell the difference between the two languages) fan of the film put it on Youtube, with subtitles for the Spanish or Portugese viewers.

The Spiral Staircase was made in 1946 by RKO Studios, produced by Dory Schary and directed by Robert Siodmak.  The screenplay was written by Mel Dinelli, adapted from the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White.  I also discovered that the killer’s eye seen in the woman’s closet at the film’s beginning belonged to the director, Siodmak!

For a wonderful suspense film that I think younger filmmakers could learn a lesson or two from, seek out The Spiral Staircase!  The Spiral Staircase poster 3