Friday, 27 February 2015

BABY FACE NELSON












d. Don Siegel (1957)


Americans love outlaws, and cinema, so it's not surprising that most notable American criminals have been commemorated on film. Yet these notorious people, whether they are Jesse James or John Dillinger, Butch and Sundance or Bonnie and Clyde, have something else in common besides celluloid immortality: they're all scum bags. Despite the glamour and mythology that springs up around them, outlaws are very rarely Robin Hood style philanthropists, or even oppressed people striking a blow against the system. Instead they are usually violent criminals, ruthless, amoral people who steal and kill and spread misery and fear: fascinating but not exactly admirable. 

Take Lester Gillis aka Baby Face Nelson, as played here by Mickey Rooney. This character has but one redeeming feature, the love of a beautiful woman (Carolyn Jones). By the end of the film, even she is becoming sickened by his blood lust and, it would seem, his death wish. Nelson is a monster, no-one is safe around him and no matter how much money he steals, how many people he kills, he never stops, he can't stop. The real Nelson died after being shot seventeen times. Even then he managed to make it home and die in his bed, a defiant final 'fuck you' to the world. Here, his wife administers the coup de grace in a graveyard after he is fatally wounded, which is a more obviously dramatic finale, but a less satisfying one.

Director for hire Don Siegel doesn't particularly distinguish himself here, but he keeps everything moving. Outlaws life stories always seem to have a kind of fatal momentum, anyway, a short, quick charge to death or imprisonment. Rooney is far too old to play Nelson (Nelson was dead at 25, Rooney is pushing 40) but has the right look and the right stature (throughout Nelson is referred to as 'shrimp' or, ironically, 'the big man' - he doesn't like it). His performance has two gears, a sort of closed off auto pilot that allows him to function on a day to day basis, and a murderous, explosive anger that drives him onwards. This uncontrollable ire is the focus of one of Siegel's few directorial flourishes, a big close up on Nelson's face as he swears revenge, his right eye twitching involuntarily with rage.       

Friday, 20 February 2015

WOMEN IN BONDAGE












d. Steve Sekely (1943)


Cheap but potent propaganda, Women In Bondage takes the unusual step of showing Nazi Germany on the home front, and from the perspective of the women caught up in the mad world of Hitler and his murderous stooges. 

All women must join a paramilitary organisation, for instance, and spend their time marching, identifying enemy planes and informing on their friends, colleagues, neighbours and anyone else who dares question the Fuhrer. On their spare evenings, the girls are expected to be sexually promiscuous, particularly with soldiers, doing their bit to keep the master race well stocked. Then there are the intrusive medical examinations, and the obsession with Aryan purity (one girl is unable to marry her SS man boyfriend because she fails an eye test), as well as other sundry surprises that the insanely inhuman and unsentimental logic of the Reich throws up (a woman's husband returns from the Russian Front a hero but an impotent invalid; she is officially instructed to get pregnant by his brother instead). 

It's occasionally strong stuff, and is particularly successful in the way that it presents the regime (quite realistically) as a sick but ultimately rather banal bureaucracy that, like all totalitarian states, can only function by the constant exertion of force, a mountain of paperwork and a willing workforce of goon-like enforcers. 

Please note that the title refers to bondage in the sense of serfdom or slavery, not the act of tying or binding for sexual pleasure. Although there is a bit of that, and some whipping.   

Friday, 13 February 2015

THE GIANT CLAW











d. Fred F. Sears (1957)


The Giant Claw is surprisingly considered for a film about a massive killer bird from outer space which looks like a cross between a new born vulture and Rod Hull's Emu. The enormous (and enormously goofy looking) winged monster is, in fact, from a galaxy many millions of light years away, a galaxy made of anti-matter. As such, the Giant Claw (for the record, it has several giant claws) is impervious to our weapons and so flaps around the world quite freely, destroying planes and trains and cars as if they were simply slightly shabby scale models, knocking the tops off buildings and chomping down pedestrians and parachutists like screaming fleshy tic tacs.  

It takes a lot of collateral damage and a great deal of convoluted sort of science chat before the forces of humanity are able to blast the creature out of the skies for good, although, before hand, and to their great satisfaction, they do manage to find its nest and scramble its huge solitary egg with a couple of sniper rifles.

This film went by so quickly it almost felt like a dream, just not as realistic. It works very well on its own terms and the super-sized death turkey with its mohican hair-do (or is it a wind blown comb across?) and tombstone teeth is a once seen, never forgotten creation.

Friday, 6 February 2015

THE COUCH













d. Owen Crump (1962)


Charles Campbell (Grant Williams) has issues: he's a thief and a fantasist with delusions of grandeur; he's choking with anger and sexual rage; he pretends that his hated dead father is alive, and his beloved alive sister is dead, and, every night at seven pm, he goes into the busy streets of the city and stabs a stranger to death with an ice pick. He's also in love with his psychiatrist's niece and, god help her, she feels the same way about him.

Nearly noir, nowhere near normal, most of the action takes place in public places rendered desolate and full of shadows: out of hours offices, a lonely spot overlooking the neon lit city, the busy streets at night where thousands of people walk shoulder to shoulder and fail to notice one another. No wonder some of them go a little crazy although, to be fair, our protagonist takes it as far as he can without actually falling off the edge of the planet.  

Grant Williams is a favourite actor of mine. He's somewhere between a matinee idol and a method actor, although he has a curiously pitted face, and his skin looks like a sheet of low density sandpaper. Williams plays the psycho killer as charming and weird, managing to keep his character constantly off beam but without ever rolling his eyes, gnashing his teeth and playing the obvious villain. You even feel sorry for him. When he hears something he doesn't like he shoves his fist in his mouth and bites down on it, a fairly standard bit of dramatic business apart from the fact that, when you see his hand a little later, he has actual bite marks on his knuckles. It's not necessarily acting, but it is impressive.