By Brian Saur
Some cinephiles may not be aware of director John Brahm, but let me just say that he is a solid chap. If you've not had a chance to check out his films HANGOVER SQUARE or THE LODGER (which he did better than Hitchcock), do seek them out forthwith.
Both are dark and moody gothic tales told well. I was lucky enough to catch a double bill of the two films at L.A.'s Egyptian Theater some years back and it was one of the best doubles I've ever seen there. Sadly, I let Brahm slip off my radar for a while, but I was glad to be reminded of him again via several nice Blu-ray releases from Kino Lorber in the last few years.
Part wolf-man monster story and part old dark house murder mystery, THE UNDYING MONSTER clocks in at a breezy sixty-three minutes. Despite its poster image, the film focuses the majority of its running time on procedural aspects and the investigation of a mysterious attack on two people. The brother and sister have lived in their family manor their whole lives and it has something of a curse about it. There is even a placard which warns of going out on nights when the moon is full and there is frost on the ground. One of them makes that mistake at the beginning of the film and ends up mauled, while the woman he was escorting is left in a coma after the animalistic assault. Scotland Yard is called in and they are determined to solve the mystery - which seems to be leaning towards a supernatural explanation.
The monster is sadly (spoiler) not seen until about the last ten minutes or so, but the impression he makes is a good one and the transformation is not bad for 1942. The movie has fun aspects though, from several shifty characters who clearly know more than they are letting on to a secret basement crypt in the house which adds even more to the Universal horror milieux. So the only thing you have to come to terms with is that there isn't much monster in the movie and that the whole thing is more whodunnit than creature feature and you'll be fine. It's still a well-made slow burn, so that when the monster finally dies appear, it is ultimately a nice payoff to a solid build.
Fans of THE WOLFMAN and other Universal classics (with more than a dash of Sherlock Holmes) will likely find this worthwhile and should grab it when they can. It feels very much like a film trying to cash in on the success of universal and does so suitably well. It even held my then seven-year-old daughter's attention (and that's saying something) when I showed it to her - even though she's a big SCOOBY-DOO fan and that likely informed her enjoyment of the picture.
You know what would make a lot of mediocre movies way better? A good villain. I have a (perhaps obvious) theory that the better the villain, the better the movie. This can't be applied as a blanket statement across all of cinema, but I've found that more often than not, the villain is kinda the crux of everything, especially in any kind of thriller. Some of the best kinds of villains just keep coming at the hero relentlessly. They absolutely will not stop until he/she is dead. Case in point: THE TERMINATOR, or George Sanders in MAN HUNT. Don't get me wrong, Sanders ain't no Cyberdine Systems model 101. He's human, and faux-English and wears a monocle. He's kinda the opposite of a Terminator. But what the two have in common is a tenacious determination that is quite unsettling. I've seen the occasional bad guy role from Sanders, but this tops all of them. To be completely honest, I find Sanders to often be a rather bland screen presence, but that low key nature works well here to make him more menacing as the heavy.
The lead role in MAN HUNT is played by the affable Walter Pidgeon. Pidgeon is one of those actors whose work I've come to know more intimately over the past few years. I've been a gigantic FORBIDDEN PLANET fan for some time and was always aware of him there (where he plays the not-so-good guy himself), but I was unaware of some of the work he did as a younger man like the NICK CARTER films or all of his collaborations with Greer Garson. MAN HUNT opens rather memorably with Pidgeon's character creeping up to a villa, pulling out a high powered rifle and training his scope on Hitler himself. It's a powerful opening to a movie because it sets up the idea of the "sporting stalk" which becomes a recurring paradigm throughout. You see, Pidgeon's character is a renound big game hunter and he becomes the "prey" of George Sanders' nazi major who just will not let him get away. They have a few great scene se together. As I mentioned, I can often find Sanders to be less than vibrant and Pidgeon isn't always an energetic dynamo himself, but they both really shine in this film.
The only occasionally distracting thing about MAN HUNT is Joan Bennett's performance. Let me start by saying I like Bennett quite a bit and think she's rather lovely (she reminds me of a young darker haired Lucille Ball for some reason). In this film she plays a rather working class type girl who's supposed to have something of a cockneyed accent. Herein lies the problem. I'm not sure what they had in the way of dialect coaches back in the day, but Bennett could have used one. Her accent is just at the edge of passable and often feels like she's not making much of an effort with it. This was my second viewing of the film so it stiff out to me a little more this time. It's a tough thing too because her portrayal is otherwise pretty strong, emotional and quite sympathetic. Overall, it's a minor quibble and I must admit to being a bit more easily distracted by accents than perhaps other viewers will be.
The cast is rounded out with a nice turn by John Carradine (as part of Sanders' evil crew) and a very charming turn by an extremely young Roddy McDowall. It is especially rewarding to see McDowall here as he is free of a lot of the unique cadences he would develop in his later years as an actor. Don't get me wrong, I love those cadences and the way he throughfully delivers dialogue in general, but it was interesting to see him a little less inhibited and just starting out as an actor (he was about 13 when he made this film). He and Walter Pidgeon play well in their handful of scenes together. McDowall would work with him again, also in 1941, on HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. What a year for the young actor - to work with Fritz Lang and John Ford must have been something quite memorable for him.
MAN HUNT is really well shot and shows the deft hand of a true artistic genius behind the camera. Many of the compositions are wonderful tableauxs of shadow and light that feel so meticulously designed and yet not distracting in their effortless loveliness. The use of darkness and contrast in each frame also plays perfectly into this underlying sense of paranoia that envelops every scene. I instinctively think of Hitchcock when it comes to this kind of thriller material and shooting style, but Lang has a much grittier sensibility about him. He really creates a stylized canvas on par with anything Hitch did in this period with MAN HUNT. It's one of his best and yet still slightly underappreciated films.
TENSION has all the early earmarks of an almost cliched noir film, but it works great in the end. It starts with what is basically a fourth wall break and Barry Sullivan (as a police detective) talking to camera about the story we're about to see. From there, he continues to narrate for us in that way that, as I say, almost feels like a spoof. It works somehow though and what we're left to watch play out is a wonderful hard-boiled noir tale with a wonderful femme fatale at the center of it. That fatale is played perfectly by Audrey Totter. In the opening scenes between her and her henpecked pharmacist husband (Richard Basehart), I was immediately reminded of the relationship between Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. in Kubrick's THE KILLING.
The two characters are so intensely dislikable that if they ever existed in the same room together I feel like they might create some kind of evil energy paradox and open up a rip in space-time. Both Totter's and Windsor's characters are a love-to-hate kind of proposition and they really drive their respective films in a very specific direction. Their evil is something so well placed in film noir whereas in most other genre's they would be absolutely intolerable. In the noir context these characters are endlessly entertaining and the centerpiece of the tension (and often comedy as well).
The plot of this movie is simple enough. Lowly pharmacist has a trampy trophy wife who mistreats him in a big way and yet he will do anything to keep her. When she finally bails on him, the pharmacist decides to create an alter ego for himself to facilitate the murder of the man she has left him for. As is always the case, things do not work out as planned and their are many nice twists and turns that increase pressure in this pressure cooker.
One thing I love to see in a movie is when they bring in some heavy hitter actors/characters more than halfway through the story. In this case, they’re Barry Sullivan and William Conrad as the two homicide detectives assigned to a murder case. It's neat because Sullivan has been narrating from the first frame but he doesn't appear in the movie for quite some time. On top of that, he and William Conrad have great chemistry together and are a force to be reckoned with (and both are often pretty funny too). The hardboiled dialogue levels jump way up when these two cops enter the scene. Audrey Totter's character has that kind of street-speak down as well so it's just fun to hear the characters interact. Overall, the movie just has everything you could really ask for from this kind of movie. Cops, jealousy, passion, murder, tramps and more
Walsh's comedy SAILOR'S LUCK ranked very high among my Film Discoveries list way back in 2011. He's a great director I must admit to having underrated. His epic tale of the life of General Custer (played with much aplomb by Errol Flynn) truly lives up to the cult film status I had read about years ago. Ranks among my favorite Errol Flynn performances (nearly toppling Robin Hood). Olivia De Havilland is at her always excellent here too. The amazing supporting cast includes Arthur Kennedy, Anthony Quinn, Sidney Greenstreet, Gene Lockhart and more.
For anyone who has seen Woody Allen's film SMALL TIME CROOKS, this movie will seem very familiar (as he pretty blatantly ripped it off). The story focuses on three ex-cons (Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy) buy a luggage shop next to a bank so they can tunnel into the vault from the basement of the store. What they don't count on is all the customers that keep coming into the store to buy luggage! No matter what they try - including giving their inventory away for free - they cannot seem to get people to stop coming in and that is not a good thing when you are using a jackhammer for digging. Throw a woman (Jayne Wyman) into the mix and things just get wackier and wackier. Just seeing Edward G. Robinson get more and more annoyed and cranky with his flunkies is absolutely delightful and I really want more people to see this one so they can enjoy it.
Brian Saur is a podcaster and blogger from Los Angeles that specializes in cult and classic films. He is co-host of the Pure Cinema Podcast and also produces and hosts another show called Just the Discs, which focuses on Blu-rays. He has run the Rupert Pupkin Speaks website since its inception in 2009 and continues to highlight obscure cinematic gems there on a regular basis. Follow him on Twitter (@bobfreelander, @justthediscspod, @purecinemapod), Facebook, or Instagram for more film recommendations.