Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vigil in the Night

A movie has to be pretty damn good to get me past killing a five year old boy in the first five minutes. Vigil in the Night does just that and though I felt like I could hardly forgive it for such monstrousness, I decided to hang in there at least until Brian Aherne showed up. I managed it and I'm glad I did. It's embarrassing to admit just how much I cried during this movie despite the fact that I was wary of the obviously manipulative writers with the whole dying kid thing. To say Vigil in the Night is a melodrama isn't quite fair to it. It would be lumping it in with all those ordinary melodramas that have only half a dozen far-fetched calamities piled on top of one another in two hours. Vigil in the Night has so many more, it's difficult to list them all. It's one of those films that if you step out to make a cup of tea, you better hit the pause button or you won't know where you're at when you return. In fact, skip the tea altogether because that's how the kid dies: his nurse steps out to get a cup of tea and he suffocates.

Carole Lombard plays a nurse who takes the heat when her sister's lapse in professionalism and love for hot caffeinated beverages allows a sick child to die. Brian Aherne plays the doctor she loves. A very determined series of coincidences and calamities keep the lovers apart (just barely) for two hours. It all winds up in quarantined fever ward where doctor and nurse put it all on the line to save a ward full of sweating little tykes. The story is based on the novel by doctor turned novelist, A. J. Cronin, who also wrote The Citadel. Today we take the medical drama as a genre for granted. There's no disease too horrifying that it can't play out for us in prime time. Back in the thirties though, the genre was just finding its feet. Of course, good doctors are glorified to a ridiculous degree (and bad ones vilified in the same extreme), but what I liked about this movie was the focus on the nurses. In one scene, the head of nursing looks at a room full of workmen scrambling to get a quarantine ward ready and comments, "it's the first time I ever saw a man work as hard as a nurse." There's a lot religious imagery in this film, and it's not difficult to see the parallel between nurses and nuns. Well, nuns who get to canoodle on occasion with Brian Aherne, anyway. If you have a nurse in your life, you could do worse than watch this movie thinking of them and then call them up and thank them for working their butts off for humanity.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gog (1954)

It was worth watching Gog, which is a fairly tedious, but stylish 50s sci-fi outing, just to see Herbert Marshall with these awesome round, tortoise-shell glasses and undone polka-dot bowtie. If I didn't know better I'd say that Thomas Dolby stole his entire look from this screencap. (Of course, I do know better. He stole it from Harold Lloyd.) I would have felt amply reward for my time, but I was also treated to the image of urbane and elegant Mr. Marshall carrying a flame-thrower later in the film. In that scene, Marshall bears the most priceless look: a mixture of boredom, loathing and back pain that perfectly sums up this late period of his career. At that moment you can see that he is thinking that Ernst Lubitsch or Alfred Hitchcock would never have made him carry a flame-thrower.

I work in an almost 100 year old physics building, which is mainly furnished in cold war Herman Miller and old oscilloscopes. One of the credits in the film thanks Minneapolis Honeywell Controls, a name intimately familiar to Minnesota physicists. I could walk out the door of my office and start filming Gog. Or rather Wes Anderson could. Since all Anderson's films are elaborately set-up homages to art directors of films past, I think he could really do something with Gog. And when he does, brother, do I have the dials and gauges for him.

Speaking of work, watching Gog is a bit like being on the job because it takes so long to get to the actual plot of the film. Each of the labs in the elaborate underground facility has a little cast of characters doing a different futuristic experiment. They range from the plausible (a space mirror that blows stuff up) to the campy (a sexy couple who wear magnetic leotards and dance around trying to simulate zero gravity conditions). Each experiment is explained in detail to the point where even Wes Anderson would be shouting, "get on with it already. Bring on the killer robots."

Since I brought up killer robots you should know a couple of things. First of all everyone in Gog pronounces the word "robot" as if were "row-bit" stressing the first syllable and barely pronouncing the second. This also happens to be the quirky habit of a character on the kid's tv show, Word Girl, that my son watches. I'm not going to say "robot" the right way any more. I'm going to say it the Gog/Word Girl from now on. The second thing you need to know is the robots roll around slowly and swing their arms randomly. They are about as terrifying as the Daleks on Doctor Who, which is to say not terrifying at all.

The very Leslie Nielsenesque Richard Egan, "stars" and forties film noir siren, Constance Dowling plays Marshall's assistant who takes us on the real-time tour of the endless laboratory. Dowling manages to fill out a jumpsuit in an inspiring way, but she is saddled with a horrible haircut that reminds me of Jobriath. Egan's character is sent in to investigate a series of killings in the laboratory, which means when the plot does eventually arrive it feels like an episode of Columbo with good production values. The robots kill everyone remotely by manipulating all the automated controls around the lab. Oh goody! More closeups of dials and gauges! I'm sure there are people out there who have a fetish for vintage scientific equipment, and Gog is to them the most amazing porn ever, but the rest of us will long for the robots to roll slowly up to someone and bludgeon them with random arm movements.

I'm not really all that interested in 1950s science fiction except as a clearing house for some of my favorite actors of earlier eras. You know I watched Forbidden Planet just because Walter Pidgeon was in it. To that end, Netflix Instant has been streaming a lot of rarities in the genre, like this one. Stream it while you can, people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Colorado Territory

Film buffs know Colorado Territory primarily as a Westernized re-make of High Sierra. The chief advantage to me of the later film is getting to watch Joel McCrea instead of Humphrey Bogart. McCrea plays Wes McQueen a train robber who breaks out of prison and plans to pull one last big job before going straight. He meets a hard luck rancher who has a pretty daughter (Dorothy Malone). He plans to marry the girl and use the loot from the robbery to stake himself in his new life. His schemes are complicated by his accomplices who want to kill him and take his share. There is also a "bad girl," nick-named Colorado,(Viriginia Mayo) who wants to shack up with him.

Never mind the horses and cowboy hats. This is film noir. In typical noir fashion, the hero is neither as good or as bad as Hollywood film poster copywriters would like. The good girl, is actually a bit of a greedy tramp and the bad girl turns out to practically a saint in disguise. Mayo and McCrea are really delicious together and true to the genre (noir that is) their supposedly illicit relationship is actually full of quaintness and purity-- they try to give the money from the heist to a mission church.

Director Raoul Walsh who also made High Sierra, and Gentleman Jim, keeps the tension ratcheted up till the inevitable shoot-out in a dead -end canyon. The ending made me think that Bob Dylan must have been watching this movie when he wrote Romance in Durango. That's as much of a spoiler as I'll give you, people.

I'm not sure why but Colorado Territory stuck with me for weeks after watching it. I found myself dressing in peasant tops and long skirts and bidding on Navajo jewelery on Ebay. Sometimes a really solid, well-made movie has more staying power than something more ambitious. Colorado Territory is just such a film.