Friday, 26 June 2015

TEEN-AGE CRIME WAVE












d. Fred F. Sears (1955)


According to the prologue of this film, teenage delinquency is ‘a plague’. I don’t disagree with that but I always think of delinquency as being no worse than some petty crime and vandalism, maybe some minor violence, somewhere between high spirits and childish frustration at the adult world. I'm clearly very na├»ve as here the teens start off with armed robbery before very quickly moving on to several murders, including the shooting of a police man.

The protagonists are Mike Denton and Terry Marsh, a teenage Bonnie and Clyde with a penchant for guns and heavy petting in public. Mike is about five foot four, has a scar on his face and a chip on his shoulder. He’s the sort of person for whom it’s not enough to have a gun, he has to keep pushing it in people’s faces. You can’t want for the tough guy act to slip and for him to start snivelling and bawling.
His girlfriend Terry wears a satin blouse and talks out of the side of her mouth in a clipped hardboiled tone, like Mae West and Jimmy Cagney's lovechild. She has no intention of being taken alive, which is just as well, as she won't be. A victim of sorts, she’s had a tough upbringing (think Cinderella but without any of the magic stuff, especially not a handsome prince) and cries and moans in her sleep.
Most of the film is taken up with a siege at a mid-west farmhouse. It all gets pretty intense, so it’s a relief when the duo and their hostages break out and take to the road. The climax takes place at the Griffith Observatory, more famously used at the end of Rebel Without A Cause*. There’s a real humdinger of a fist fight in one of the rotating telescope domes, and Terry gets her wish, evading capture by being shot in the back and killed. The beaten and bloodied Mike, under arrest, breaks down and cries like a big old baby, or rather like the little kid he actually is - and well he might, as his next stop will be the gas chamber.
* The James Dean film came out barely a month before Teenage Crime Wave, so it may have even been a coincidence. But I doubt it.

Friday, 19 June 2015

THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED












d. Fred F. Sears


A dedicated scientist invents a machine that can forecast earthquakes just in time to predict that the world is about to be destroyed by a series of uncontrollable explosions. The cause is Element 112, a previously unknown type of rock that (rather like the stuff in Monolith Monsters, but in reverse) increases its mass when it dries out, then explodes with enormous force. Nobody is quite sure why this is happening, or where all the stock footage came from, although a pretty young scientific intern has a theory: ‘it’s like the Earth is paying us back for stealing its natural resources’*.
An early-ish example of an eco-disaster film, The Night The World Exploded is cheap but charming, if slightly confusing (the disasters take place during the day for a start). Despite being just over an hour long, however, and being about exploding rocks and volcanoes and the end of the world, it does drag a little bit, not least in the scenes where we watch people descending rope ladders into the Carlsbad Caverns for about ten minutes.

Later on, the chief scientist comes up with a theory: 'it's like the Earth is paying us back for stealing its natural resources'.

Friday, 12 June 2015

PANIC IN YEAR ZERO!











d. Ray Milland (1962)


A sombre, tense film about life in America in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike, Panic in Year Zero! starts happily enough, with Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland) and his family setting out on a fishing expedition. A couple of hours into the journey, Harry sees a series of flashes in his rear view mirror, and stops the car just in time to see a mushroom cloud billowing over what used to be Los Angeles.

What happens next unfolds slowly and meticulously, as Harry tries to get his family to a safe place in the hills before the world goes crazy. In order to do so, he must become a more ruthless and resourceful man than his wife ever expected him to be, a man of decisive action and no little force: within an hour, for instance, he is holding a shop keeper at gun point for refusing to take a cheque then, a little later, he knocks out a filling station attendant who is trying to charge him $300 for $10 of petrol.

Harry has immediately grasped that the war will not just be between America and its enemies but between ordinary people fighting to live, not to mention an element that will use the bomb as an excuse to let their more anarchic tendencies loose. Harry’s wife very much disapproves of her husband’s methods, even after their teenage daughter is raped by two hoodlums. While she cries and wrings her hands Harry tracks down the rapists and kills them, ably assisted by his son (Frankie Avalon), who is not only seeing his stuffy old man in a totally different light, but also getting quite an apprenticeship in the ancient art of survival.

The army picks up the reins after a few days and things start to return to - well, not normal as most of the cities of the world have been wiped out. It’s been a nightmare, of course, but, secretly, you know that Harry and his son are just a little disappointed that it’s all over. A final caption states 'There must be no end - only a new beginning'. Good luck with that. 

It would be interesting to know what the US government thought of the film, as it’s not a particularly edifying or comforting message. But it is realistic, thought provoking and rather good. 

As a final note, there are a lot of automobiles in this film, and most of them have wood stuck on the side of them. It’s rather a sweet, forgotten detail: human beings used to make their motor vehicles partially out of wood, as if we weren’t quite ready to make the leap from cart to car.

Friday, 5 June 2015

HANDS OF A STRANGER













d. Newt Arnold (1962)


A noir-ish take on the much filmed Hands Of Orlac, this is a torrid tale of a self-obsessed concert pianist called Vernon Paris who has his hands mangled to buggery in a car crash. He is treated by an equally egocentric surgeon, who takes the decision to illegally graft the hands of a victim of a gangland slaying onto Paris’ bloodied stumps. The operation is a complete success, if you don’t count the bit where Rose goes insane and starts killing people, first by mistake, later by design. Oh, and afterwards he plays the piano like a chimp at a tea party, so that didn’t work either.

This is a terrifically entertaining film, filled with intense performances and clever but florid dialogue which goes a mile a minute and would probably call a spade a hand operated metal and wood earth penetrating excavation device. It’s also choc-a-bloc with clever camera work and punchy visual motifs, mostly hands and pianos and hands playing pianos. Everything is played in deadly earnest and without a scintilla of camp, which, of course, makes it all ten times better (and ten times camper).
Unlike the Orlac story, we never find out who the transplant hands belong to, so there is little emphasis on the hands as being evil or imbued with evil, although it does make you wonder why they spent the time establishing that the donor was a gangster if they weren’t going to use that as part of the story. Here, the supernatural is replaced by the practical, the psychological: put simply, the accident and transplant snap Paris’ already brittle mind, and drive him to kill over and over again (he breaks his victims fingers, then strangles them). This ripe exchange sort of marks the boundaries:

'If you're concerned with the possibility that the donor might have been some kind of madman, let me assure you that psychotic tendencies don't transfer themselves to the physical extremities after death!'

'You know that for a fact?'


'No, no, I don't!'


Need I say any more? Recommended.