The Mummy (1959) – Review

I’ve always preferred Universal to Hammer in the field of monster movies, but there is no denying the allure and talent behind those British films. With two of my favorite actors, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee frequently starring, you know you’re in for a good time when you sit down to watch a Hammer film (generally speaking).

Hammer was famous for taking the Universal monster stories and taking the action, gore, and sexuality up a notch. Given the fact that I enjoyed their reworkings of Frankenstein and Dracula a great deal, the next logical step forward for me was to watch The Mummy.

This film takes place in the 1890s, and begins like many in its genre, with a team of archaeologists attempting to find a tomb. Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer) heads the expedition, with his son John (Peter Cushing!!) ailing from a broken leg nearby. They are busy looking for the tomb of Egyptian Princess Ananka when a local priest warns them that their actions beg for consequences. Of course, there is a curse involved.

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Discovering the tomb. Sound familiar?

While poking around inside the tomb, Stephen finds an ancient scroll and starts reading from it. Apparently seeing something shocking, he starts to scream and goes into shock (it is later revealed that him reading the scroll revived the mummy Kharis). The others find him there, and later pack up some of their finds and return to England. A few years later, Stephen is living in a nursing home, and evidently snaps out of his state. He tells John about what really happened in the tomb—reading the scroll had brought back to life a mummy, specifically Kharis, the high priest and forbidden love of princess Ananka. He was entombed alive thousands of years ago for trying to resurrect her. Apparently, Kharis’ mission is to destroy the desecrators of the tomb.

Later on, the mysterious Egyptian priest from the beginning of the film arrives in England, bringing with him a large crate. He hires two drunkards to transport it to his home, but they go so fast that the crate falls off the carriage into a swamp. Using the scroll, he commands Kharis, who was inside the crate, to kill Stephen Banning. The film really shows its stuff whenever Kharis is on a rampage. He breaks the barred window at the nursing home and strangles the old man Stephen, and later kills Joseph Whemple, John’s uncle and another expedition member.

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Stephen meets his end.

John, now acquainted with this monster, realizes he is the mummy’s next target and vows to destroy it. In one of The Mummy‘s more exciting scenes, Kharis breaks in to John’s home and nearly kills him, only to stop when he is distracted by John’s wife Isobel, who looks exactly like the long-dead princess Ananka. John swiftly gets to the bottom of this and suspects the Egyptian newcomer (the priest) has something to do with it.

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One of many times Lee has attacked Cushing on film.

At the film’s climax, Kharis, under the priest’s command, attempts to kill John again. Kharis becomes distracted by John’s wife and kills his master when he tries to intervene. Carrying Isobel outside, Kharis is followed by John and some policemen into the swamp, where he is defeated by volley after volley of bullets and sinks beneath the waters.

The Mummy clearly takes inspiration from other films in its genre that came before it. Not just Universal’s film of the same name from 1932, but also a few of its ‘sequels’. Elements from Universal’s original film are used, like how Stephen Banning mistakenly revives Kharis by reading the scroll, and the mummy believing John’s wife is the reincarnation of princess Ananka. Otherwise, the name of the mummy, Kharis, is taken from Universal’s The Mummy’s Hand (1940) as is the concept of the mummy being controlled by a sinister priest. Kharis being transported overseas to kill off the expedition members is lifted from The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and the swamp-centered finale reminded me of a similar one from The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). It is worth noting that this film also spawned ‘sequels’, three of them, none starring Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.

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Hammer’s The Mummy suffers a bit from being so derivative; there’s not a ton of surprises in store for a mummy film made after so many others. Thusly, it is a bit predictable in terms of story. This film also suffers from the use of flashbacks. It’s inevitable that a mummy-centered flick will have some flashbacks to ancient Egypt, the mummy character’s origins, yada yada. The one that this film boasts goes on for far too long! I suppose it was lengthened to give Christopher Lee a speaking role (Kharis the high priest; Kharis the mummy has no lines), but it overstays its welcome time wise. The second(!) flashback shows us the resurrection of Kharis from old Stephen’s point of view; this time we actually see Kharis scaring the crap out of Stephen and driving him into his catatonic state. I question the inclusion of this second flashback. One did not need explicit confirmation that it was Kharis who appeared in Ananka’s tomb at the start of the film. That supposition, I think, was easy enough for the audience to conceive on their own.

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Christopher Lee actually gets lines in the film’s lengthy flashback.

Phew.

On the upside, whenever Kharis is on a rampage, the film really shows its stuff. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing well-dressed Peter Cushing fight Christopher Lee in a monster costume? It’s great fun to see these two icons duke it out in Hammer’s monster movies. This film does benefit from its cast greatly. Lee, who is hardly recognizable as the title character, still effectively shows signs of emotion and conflict behind the makeup, especially when he believes John’s wife is his princess. Cushing is decidedly calculating as John; refined but not afraid to get his hands dirty in taking down the mummy and his priest. One of the film’s best scenes is a great performance-driven war of words when John pays a visit to priest Mehmet Bey (George Pastell) and they begin to argue over the true aims of archaeologists.

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Cushing brought a level of quality to just about every film he appeared in.

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So did Lee. To my surprise, the emotional side of his character is done well.

The Mummy did not entertain me as much as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) or Horror of Dracula (1958), but it isn’t bad. It is worth watching, even through the boring segments (like the too-long flashbacks) just to get to the good, meaty parts. This isn’t Hammer Horror at its finest, but it’ll do nicely.


 

Be on the lookout for another Laurel and Hardy short film review this coming Saturday; next Wednesday I will be reviewing a surprisingly good horror sequel… stay tuned, and don’t go poking around ancient tombs unless you want monsters following you!

 


 

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Oliver the Eighth (1934) – Saturday’s Short Spotlight

Laurel and Hardy made quite a few short films that dealt with macabre subjects, but always in a comedic manner. Every Saturday in October, I will be reviewing one of these comedy classics.

Today’s short film is Oliver the Eighth, from 1934.

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Stan and Ollie run a barbershop. While looking through the newspaper, Stan discovers a personal ad. A wealthy widow (played by Laurel and Hardy regular Mae Busch) is looking for a new husband, and, after some deliberation, they both decide to answer. Oliver secretly throws Stan’s letter away and comes back for a shave.

It is revealed later that this widow is a serial murderer, targeting men named ‘Oliver’. The title of this film itself is in reference to the fact that she has previously murdered seven other Olivers! Ollie is invited to her large house, and greeted by the nuttiest butler I’ve seen in cinema. Jitters the butler plays cards with an invisible deck, and serves invisible soup. These gags are well-played and it is a delight when Stan plays along, to Oliver’s bewilderment.

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Not at all subtly, the butler warns Stan and Ollie of the widow’s tendency to cut the throats of her houseguests while they sleep. Ominously, she confirms that they are trapped in the house, and with no other choice, the boys head off to bed.

Stan happens to find a shotgun in the closet of their bedroom, and almost kills Ollie with it a couple of times. The two agree to sleep in shifts, just in case the widow tries to slit Ollie’s throat. Stan keeps falling asleep, and in an attempt to keep him awake, Ollie is knocked out cold.

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The murderess is on her way down the hall as Stan gets himself locked in the closet. She is just about to murder Ollie when a loud crash is heard, and Ollie wakes up and starts screaming. He bolts to his feet, realizing that he is still in the barbershop, and says to Stan: “I’ve just had a terrible dream!”

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What to expect: Oliver the Eighth runs a bit longer than it needs to, but there’s enough funny gags in store to keep it interesting. The plot is certainly dark for a comedy short but this one succeeds in both creeping me out and making me laugh.

Creepiest moment: It used to scare me a bit when I first watched this many years ago. It’s the short shots where Mae Busch’s character is slowly creeping down the hallway, sharpening her big knife. The idea that someone could be coming for you in the hallway outside your room is a creepy one!

My favorite part: For some reason I laugh the most at this bit… The boys are trying to go to sleep later in the film, and Stan notices Ollie’s foot is peeking out from under the covers at the end of the bed:

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STAN: Ollie?

OLLIE: What?

STAN: Don’t look now but there’s a man’s hand holding on to the foot of the bed!

(Ollie takes a peek)

OLLIE [Hiding under the sheet]: Get that gun.. and shoot to kill.

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Stan shoots Ollie in the foot!

While not my favorite of their short films, Oliver the Eighth isn’t all that bad. It’s got some specific gags and moments that work very well, and Laurel and Hardy are always funny no matter what situation they seem to be in.


I hope you enjoyed this (pretty short) short film review! Look for another feature Halloween Month review next Wednesday, and for another look at a spookily funny Laurel and Hardy short next Saturday!


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The Raven (1935) – Review

In 1935, legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff teamed up for the third time on the silver screen. The result was The Raven, Universal’s “adaptation” (as it is so-called on the poster) of Poe’s classic tale. Upon its release it was criticized for its over-the-top horrors and sadistic themes; censor boards ordered several lines and shots trimmed or cut entirely.

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The two greats appeared in 8 films together, from 1934-1945.

Some people overlook this film as being a lesser entry in Universal’s horror saga. While it certainly isn’t as notable as Dracula or Frankenstein, or as prestigious as Bride of Frankenstein (which came out the same year, 1935), The Raven still offers chills, though more bombastically so than some people care for.

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“KARLOFF and Bela (DRACULA) LUGOSI” … I love these posters.

It certainly is quickly-paced. The opening scenes set the stage concisely and tell us all we need to know.

Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) has been injured in a car accident. Those at the hospital all agree that there is only one man so skilled to delicately fix her: Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi). Vollin, as we are skillfully shown, is a retired surgeon who is obsessed with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He even has mock-ups of Poe’s torture devices in his house. Talk about fandom!

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After Vollin’s successful operation, he becomes ingratiated into Jean’s family circle to some extent. Jean’s father, a judge, has come to realize that Vollin’s kind gestures are more than him just being friendly. The doctor has fallen in love with Jean, who is already engaged to another man. When Judge Thatcher calls on Vollin to forbid any further contact between him and Jean, the surgeon’s dark side manifests itself.

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Judge Thatcher begins to realize that Vollin is a bit too enamored with Jean.

Meanwhile, a fugitive, Edmond Bateman (Karloff), visits Dr. Vollin with the hope that the doctor will give him a new face. Bateman thinks that his ‘ugliness’ drives him to commit crimes, and his new face may help him hide from the police. This exchange of dialogue in particular made me chuckle:

 

“Ever since I was born, everybody looks at me and says ‘you’re ugly.’ Makes me feel mean.”
“Why are you telling me this? I am not in-ter-est-ed in your life story!”

– Karloff (Bateman) and Lugosi (Vollin)

Vollin plays Bateman like a fiddle, hideously disfiguring his face (personally, I didn’t think that Bateman was that ugly in the first place, all he really needed was a good shave). The fiendish Vollin has Bateman right where he wants him, and promises to fix his face if the criminal helps him carry out his revenge against the Thatchers.

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“Do I look…different?” Karloff’s makeup in this film looks better the farther away the camera gets.

The (secretly) maniacal doctor invites Jean and her fiancé Jerry (and some other colorful, almost out-of-place 1930s characters) to his home, with the disapproving Judge Thatcher showing up, too. They’re all particularly frightened of Bateman, but spellbound by Vollin and his ideology. Little do they know what is in store for them. One by one, they are taken to Vollin’s dungeon, filled with Poe’s torture devices (the Pendulum and the Shrinking Room, most notably). It’s in these climactic moments, one half of the cast trying to rescue the other half, where the film truly shines as a macabre masterpiece. See it for yourself!

The Raven would be much less entertaining without Karloff and Lugosi. Although Karloff received top billing, this truly is Lugosi’s movie. His part is the center of the film and he certainly acts like it. His performance is definitely over-the-top at times, but not in an annoying way. Every monologue is infused with madness, and Lugosi plays madness very well. He relishes the part and you really believe that he is insane. Or is he?

 

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“You can’t make people believe in you if you’re playing a horror part with your tongue in your cheek. The screen magnifies everything, even the way you are thinking. If you are not serious, people will sense it. No matter how hokum or highly melodramatic the horror part may be, you must believe in it while you are playing it.”¹

– Bela Lugosi

Karloff’s role is subdued (he doesn’t appear for a good while) but he does an effective job with the material. His character’s conflicting motives really show, especially after his purposefully-botched surgery, even though his dialogue is limited. He brings his acting chops from Frankenstein and puts them to good use here.

It is well-known (and often exaggerated) that Karloff and Lugosi were competitors in the horror film industry. Lugosi always seemed to get the short end of the stick in Hollywood, Karloff being the preferred choice by studios. Because of this, Lugosi’s career faltered and stumbled on while Karloff’s remained stable. Although Karloff is a great actor and I like him a lot, I’ve grown to prefer Lugosi overall. It’s great to see Bela in this film, getting to upstage Karloff’s character, though never quite upstaging him in real life. Maybe that’s why I like this film 😉

I can see why 1935 critics were off-put by The Raven. Some scenes are filled to the brim with sinister qualities, and proved to be too much for some at the time. England responded to this film by banning any films of this sort for a while, and with Universal Pictures’ big change in management the following year, new horror films disappeared from the market (largely) until the end of the 1930s.

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Shots like this, in particular, were criticized by censor boards.

I am a fan of The Raven, overall. The dialogue wears it down only a little bit, and the supporting performances do what they are meant to do: service the story. One shouldn’t expect much out of the supporting cast of The Raven, except some interesting characterizations. The two stars cement this film’s place in horror history, making it a delightfully macabre watch. It runs just over an hour, so it is absolutely worth a watch. Pair it up with The Black Cat (1934) for a spooky good time.

 

 

I own this film as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection DVD (on the far left). It includes 5 films Lugosi made at Universal, 4 of them co-starring Boris Karloff. Otherwise it is available MOD (manufactured on demand) all by itself from Universal, or if you’re super retro you can find it on VHS (that’s how I first saw it)!

Stay tuned for more horror movie reviews this month, leading up to Halloween! There will be one every Wednesday, a short film review each Saturday, and a special review on Halloween itself! In the meantime, please consider giving me a follow (both here and on twitter)!

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¹Mank, Gregory William. “The Raven of 1935.” Karloff and Lugosi: the Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together, McFarland, 1990, p. 104.

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Announcement: Horror Month 2017!

Hello there, fellow film geeks!

I’d like to give you a little preview of what to expect on Peyton’s Classics during the month of October. What better month is there to review some horror films?

Here’s what to expect:

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Wednesdays: Every Wednesday there will be a feature film review posted! There will be a decent variety but there is no theme to the selection of films reviewed, except for the horror genre in general.

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Saturdays: Look for a Laurel and Hardy short film review every Saturday! The boys made quite a few shorts that featured macabre plot elements, and I will be looking at some of them.

On Halloween, look for a final feature film review (an underrated Universal horror classic, but I’m not telling which one), and another surprise post.

That’s about it! Check back on October 4th for the first review in my October Horror series. I’m excited to show you my appreciation of classic horror films.


 

 

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) – Review

This is my entry in the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings! Click here to view a list of all the other posts!

This little film is one of Boris Karloff’s lesser-known efforts, and was the first of his films under his new contract at Columbia Pictures. Expect a low-budget thriller that feels like someone took the stories of Saw (2004), Frankenstein (1931), and Clue (1985) and put them in a blender.

The Man They Could Not Hang was released in 1939 by Columbia and was directed by Nick Grinde, who would come to direct two more Karloff/Columbia flicks. Five of the films Boris Karloff made during this time are collectively known today as the ‘Mad Doctor Series’, which makes my choice of this film extra-perfect for the Blogathon!

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Karloff as Dr. Henryk Savaard

Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, an at first good-natured scientist with the best mad doctor name ever. Dr. Savaard has developed an artificial heart mechanism, designed to restore life to patients (that were “scientifically put to death”) after surgery, and he intends on testing it out. He and his assistant put a volunteer to death, but Savaard’s nervous nurse runs to the police. Quickly, Savaard sends his shifty-looking assistant Lang (Byron Foulger) into hiding with the artificial heart. The good doctor is arrested before he can attempt to bring the man back to life.

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On trial.

In the courtroom, Savaard is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. Before he is led out of court, he delivers a chilling monologue that sets the mood for the rest of the film:

“You who have condemned me, I know your kind. Your forbears poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me in my work is a crime so shameful that the judgement of history will be against you for all the years to come!”

Karloff as Dr. Savaard

It is really a treat to watch Karloff in his element. He seems to relish every line he reads, especially in this scene. That aspect is one of the hilights of the film!

After Savaard’s execution, several members of the jury, the judge, and the prosecutor recieve mysterious invitations to Savaard’s mansion. When they all arrive, none of their stories as to why they were invited there match up. Even the butler does not know who hired him.

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“Surely you would not leave without speaking to your host?” Doctor Savaard lives!

In a twist that is forseen but still pretty chiling, Savaard makes his entrance to the macabre dinner party. He has been revived by his assistant Lang, who took posession of Savaard’s corpse in the name of science after his hanging, and resurrected him using his own artificial heart invention. Dr. Savaard now has a vendetta against everyone in his mansion, and traps them there. The windows are sealed shut, and the foyer gate is electrified. Savaard, now fiendishly and creepily speaking from an intercom upstairs, plans to kill off his guests one by one, fifteen minutes apart.

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Dinner with a dead man.

This is where the film is at its best. No fooling, this part is very fun to watch. Just like the courtroom monologue scene, Savaard is in complete control and chews the scenery. Basically, he intends to manipulate the guests into causing their own deaths. I won’t give away too many particulars; the film is worth seeing for this sequence alone. It is one of two shining scenes in an otherwise by-the-numbers thriller.

Unfortunatley, it is all too short-lived and the film falls flat on its face afterwards. Savaard’s daughter shows up and discovers the remaining guests trapped. She places her father in a complicated situation, as she is about to touch the electric gate. Either turn it off, saving her but letting his prisoners go, or letting her touch it, keeping the guests alive for more ‘fun’, but killing her. It is an interesting dynamic, and one that would have been more timely (in my mind) if the one-by-one deaths had gone on longer.

I won’t divulge the ending, but it is tacked-on, nothing too special, and makes you wish the film was in the hands of better filmmakers. Other than Karloff, who gives a great performance, the film could’ve benefited from better talent, behind and before the camera.

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The doctor takes aim…

After all, this film is a b-movie. One should not expect more than that, but given some of its standout moments, I felt myself wishing that the rest of the picture could have been equally as good. Boris Karloff is the pole that holds the film up and he makes it worth seeing, and there are some fun (yet macabre) moments. At just over an hour, this film is worth your time.

Personally, I would love to see a remake of this film. In the right hands, it could be even more exceptional. As it exists, The Man They Could Not Hang is a fun and macabre low-budget thriller, with a great performance by Karloff. Don’t expect perfection, just expect some fun and chills.

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♩He’s gonna be your Frankenstein!♩

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This movie is available on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment, along with the other 4 movies in the “Mad Doctor Series” Karloff made at Columbia Pictures. Also included is The Black Room, a 1935 film Karloff made at Columbia before his contract. The set is a good deal, but don’t expect extraordinary picture quality. All screenshots in this review come from this DVD set!

A side note: fans of The Three Stooges will recognize character actor Dick Curtis as one of the jurors, namely the one who gets stabbed in the ear. Curtis appeared in twelve of the Stooges’ films, most often playing antagonists.

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading my opinion on The Man They Could Not Hang! Be sure to check out the other Mad Scientist Blogathon posts (and while you’re here, check out the other posts on Peyton’s Classics)! Thanks for reading!

Sources:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031614/?ref_=ttmc_mc_tt

http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/236922%7C0/The-Devil-Commands.html

http://www.threestooges.net/cast/actor/292

 

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written by Peyton James Ennis, 2017

 

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – Review

Most of the time, I only purchase DVDs or Blu-rays of films that I have seen and enjoyed, so I know that my money is not wasted. However, a few months ago I was feeling a bit adventurous and decided to buy a Peyton-unseen classic film on a whim.

I settled on Witness for the Prosecution (1957), which I had never heard much about. I recognized the names of most of the cast, and of Billy Wilder, the director, but knew little of the plot beyond what is stated on the back of the Blu-ray. It turns out, this movie was released the same year as 12 Angry Men, another well-done courtroom drama and a personal favorite of mine. I finally watched the movie recently and discovered I had stumbled upon quite the gem!

This film was based on the short story and play by famed author Agatha Christie. Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power) has been accused of murdering a rich, older woman who had befriended him. It turns out that she had left Vole a large amount of money in her will; this and other circumstantial evidence lead to Vole’s arrest.

Heading up the defense team is Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), an aging and ailing barrister who is known for being one of the best. Constantly shadowed by his doting nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s actual wife), Robarts is a gruff but thorough man of the law, proving himself time after time in the film to be an effective defense for Vole. The way Laughton’s character subtly manipulates those on the witness stand to exact the truth is a marvel to watch.

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“Now, sir?” Sir Wilfrid is asked to try on his Bermuda shorts. “Shortly,” he replies, pushing them aside. The film contains many bits of witty humor like this one.

 

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Sir Wilfrid gives Vole the monocle test, shining the reflection in his face whilst questioning him.

It would be remiss of me not to highlight Marlene Dietrich, who plays Christine, Leonard Vole’s German wife. A cold and calculating character, she (to the surprise of Sir Wilfrid, the court, and just about the whole audience) appears as a witness and tries to implicate her husband in the crime. This is but the first of many twists this film has to offer, and Dietrich’s character truly makes the film more interesting.

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This is the first Marlene Dietrich film I’ve ever seen, and I can already tell why she was so popular.

The cast of Witness for the Prosecution is top-notch. Each of the actors, especially Laughton and Dietrich, inject a good amount of nuance into their roles (example, Sir Wilfrid organizing his pills during the trial). The only performance I have a problem with is that of Tyrone Power, the only American character in the film. I did not enjoy his acting style, which is less nuanced and more straightforwardly American. I know his character is amongst a slew of European performers, so the difference will be noticeable, but it may have been a better idea to make the character English.

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He may seem bored, but I promise, he isn’t bor-ING. Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid.

That being said, Power does inject some.. ahem… power into a couple of key moments, most notably when his character Vole is called to the witness stand. Being pressured by the prosecutor’s questions, Vole cracks and yells out, proclaiming his innocence. One can tell he is totally exasperated and he shows the relatable frustration of being in a situation where no one else believes you.

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Power’s standout moment.

Instead of classifying itself as a typical whodunit, this film is more focused on whether Leonard Vole is innocent or not. For most of the film, I was not concerned with who the murderer was, but whether Vole was to be proved innocent by the court or not.

As the trial progresses, the witnesses are questioned and questioned, the prosecution building a good case, just to be shot down by Sir Wilfrid’s defense techniques. The bulk of the trial is the most fun part to watch, save for the ending.

Oh, yes, the ending.

With more twists than Chubby Checker, the ending of this film is best left a surprise. Heck, the film even ends with a prompt narration asking viewers not to divulge the ending of Witness for the Prosecution to their friends. I am honoring this request.

This film received 6 Academy Award nominations for the 30th Oscars, but won no awards. It was nominated for best picture, but lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai (dang, that one is great, too).

I thoroughly enjoyed Witness for the Prosecution and I highly recommend it! You will be taken in by the great characters and engaged by the drama. The trial scenes and the ending had me glued to the screen as some people are during football games. The performances on display here drew me in, and I stayed for them and the well-crafted plot; certainly one that only Agatha Christie could conjure up.

Seek this one out! It is available on Blu-ray here, via Kino Lorber, and the picture quality is very good. For a blind purchase, this was fantastic!

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Man-Made Monster (1941) – Review

Last night I felt like killing some time via Universal horror movies! Always a good idea. I watched this film, and The Black Cat (1941), neither of which I had seen before. I will link my thoughts on the latter film if I review it.

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The VHS slipcover for the film. Don’t worry, I have the DVD.

Man-Made Monster was released in 1941 and was directed by George Waggner, who would later direct The Wolf Man (1941). This film also stars future wolf man Lon Chaney Jr. as the man turned monster.

The plot concerns Chaney’s character, Dan McCormick, who is the lone survivor of a tragic bus accident, in which all of the passengers were electrocuted to death after the bus struck some power lines. In incredibly good spirits, McCormick, who is a carnival performer that dabbles in electrical illusions, is taken in by Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds). Lawrence wants to innocently study his apparent immunity to electricity, but his sinister colleague Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) plans to turn Dan into a subsurvient glowing zombie.

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Throughout the film we see the juxtaposition between the two scientists, how Dr. Lawrence wants to use Dan’s gifts to help people and how Rigas plans to achieve world domination (it always seems to be the goal among Universal monster movie scientists). That dynamic is interesting to watch, especially on Rigas’ side. Lionel Atwill is at his most sinister in this role, and chews the scenery around him with glee. A poignant moment arises when Rigas is giving Dan his first major dose of electricity, and Dan smiles at Rigas, unaware of the doctor’s true intentions. Rigas just gives him a cold stare.

Chaney is very charismatic in the first half of this film as Dan McCormick, pre-monster. It is easy to see why Universal liked the actor enough to give him the starring role in The Wolf Man later that year. He smiles through practically everything, until Rigas gets ahold of him.

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The everyman.

After his transformation into a glowing hulk of a man, however, he becomes less interesting. He has only a few lines and mostly walks around with a constipated look on his face. I felt for the character, but his lack of verbal anguish and pathos just didn’t sell it for me all the way through. Universal gave us a more compelling protagonist in The Invisible Ray (1936), starring Boris Karloff (as a glowing man) and Bela Lugosi.

The effects here are impressive, especially the animated glowing auora around Chaney. For a low-budget film, it is pretty good-looking. The bus crash at the very beginning of the film is also not bad (until the bus actually crashes), and initially I could not tell if it was a miniature.

 

(Left) Karloff in The Invisible Ray and (right) Chaney in Man-Made Monster. Their physical actions in these screenshots give the accurate impression that Karloff’s character is more methodical, and Chaney’s is more of a monstrosity.

 

This movie seems to take bits (both literally and thematically) from other Universal films. The mad scientist character who toys with electricity clearly invokes memories of Doctor Frankenstein. The frantic search for the monster in the countryside reminds me of The Invisible Man (1933). Horror buffs will recognize shots of some contraptions in Rigas’ lab as being lifted from Frankenstein (1931), and one of the machines in particular seems to be the exact same one Boris Karloff and J. Carroll Naish use in House of Frankenstein (1944). The glowing protagonist is incredibly similar in appearance to Karloff in The Invisible Ray (1936). Universal often repeated itself in making these B movies in the 1940s, however here they combine elements from previous films and turn it into something familiar, but new.

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Spoilers follow.

I really did not like the ending. The climax of the film is Chaney’s (now zombielike) character heading off to the electric chair for the murder of Dr. Lawrence earlier in the film. This is all a test  in Dr. Rigas’ mind, however, to see how powerful Dan can really become (Rigas was responsible for Dan murdering Dr. Lawrence). He escapes the prison, heads back to Rigas’ lab, and saves Dr. Lawrence’s neice June from Rigas, who he electrocutes.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Dr. Lawrence has a neice, and she has a boyfriend, but neither character is that important or compelling; they’re just… um… there to unravel the plot for the audience.

Anyway, the glowing menace saves June’s life, but then inexplicably carries her out of the lab and into a nearby field. Why? Did the producers really want a money-shot of the iconic monster carrying the girl away trope that badly? Rigas was dead, and the good guys were on their way, so he had no reason to carry her off if his intent was to save her life. June would have been just fine if he’d left her there.

I won’t reveal the fate of Chaney’s character here, but just as a note, it a bit similar to the finale of The Wolf Man (1941).

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We’ll see whether he’s crazy or not. Atwill delivers a good performance in the film.

This movie starts out promising and delivers a servicable story, until after the prison scenes in my opinion. It is not very long (less than an hour, a definite plus), and the pacing is relatively quick, so if you want to see it, go ahead! It is a decent monster movie with a couple of exceptional performances (Atwill and Chaney), and is best viewed back-to-back with another movie; a nice double-bill experience.

6.5/10

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The film is available on DVD; I recommend buying it in this collection, you get five minor Universal horror films for a good price.

It is also available by itself on MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD from the Universal Vault series.


 

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