The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

MasqueoftheRedDeath

The Masque of the Red Death – 1964

Director – Roger Corman

Starring – Vincent Price

Despite it’s lofty source material, and it’s pedigree of themes, this Roger Corman directed version of  The Masque of the Red Death seems more interested in cheap spectacle than it is in characterization and story-telling.  This isn’t necessarily bad, as sometimes cheap spectacle, gratuitous cleavage, and gaudy thrills is just what the doctor ordered.

The Masque of the Red Death stars Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, a sadistic and cruel ruler of a castle overlooking a small town.  As the story begins, he is verbally attacked by one of the towns people who are sick of the mis-treatment, and abuse they receive from him.  Prospero sentences the man and one of his compatriots to death, but before this can be carried out, the wife and daughter respectively of the two men, pleads for their lives.  Seeing a game, and some amusement in all of this, Prospero brings them all to his castle.  On their way out of the small town he discovers a kind of plague called the Red Death in the village, and orders the town burned to the ground.  From here, the story takes place completely at Prince Prospero’s opulent castle. 

Not having seen a Roger Corman film before, I didn’t know quite what to expect.  The sets were bargain basement.  They consisted of a couple of shoddy props dressed up with strong lighting and color, and this ended up being the true star of the show.  The craft of the film was, at best, shoestring, and at worst, threadbare.  The acting was hammy and overwrought, and the motivation of the characters seemed cartoonish and exaggerated. 

That being said, I can understand the motivation for making something like this.  I have to imagine the goal was to spend as little time and money on a feature film, quickly edit it and get it out there, and try to make as much money with it as humanly possible.  I can understand the attraction of audiences wanting to see a movie like this.  I enjoyed myself, after all.  It was full of campy hilarity, and it kept me busy for an hour and a half.  And I understand the historical significance that Roger Corman and Russ Meyer played in the movie industry.  Each man brought film-making a step closer to the people, and a step further from the studio’s control.  They gave the first chances at directing to some of those who would be considered the best of the best from the 70’s through the present (Scorsese, Cameron, Bogdonovich, etc..), and allowed them the creative freedom to get their feet in the door.  What I don’t understand is why this film deserves to be on the list of 1001 movies that someone should see before they die.  Again, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it seemed like they wanted to represent a specific genre of film, but didn’t feel that any one in particular could be singled out, so they just picked it out of a hat.

These movies are fun.  I really like Vincent Price, and he lives up to his reputation as a ridiculous, over-the-top personality in this film, but it is easily replaced by any number of campy horror themed classics, from this era.  Too bad,  I thought it was gonna be awesome.

The Player (1992)

ThePlayer

The Player – 1992

Director – Robert Altman

Starring – Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Lyle Lovett, Fred Ward, and Peter Gallagher

I’ve had a little time since watching this movie to let it sit in my brain and smolder, and just like the other Altman movies that I’ve seen, smolder is exactly what it’s been doing.  As I’ve said before in my review for The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman seems to work best after a couple of days of thought and rumination.  This theory holds strong for the Player, the ultimate meditation on movies, the formulaic happy ending, and the cost of entertainment.

The player in question is Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a studio executive whose job is on the line thanks to the “next-hot-thing” producer played to the nines by Peter Gallagher.  Mill, who, has for some time been receiving death threats, crumbles under the mounting pressure.  He pieces together the evidence at hand, and finds the man he believes to be his harasser (the battery acid spewing Vincent D’Onofrio as Dennis Kehane).  They meet, and heated words eventually turn physical.  Fully feeling the danger of losing his job, Mill lashes out at the writer and, in the heat of passion, accidentally kills him.  Upon the realization of what’s happened, Mill makes it look like it was a simple robbery.

It is at this point that the typical Hollywood set-up begins to fall away.  We have the obvious path that we believe the story is going to follow, man commits crime and runs from the cops only to be caught and tried justly in a court of law  Instead there are a few twists and turns that complicate things.  One of those turns comes as Altman is playing with the juxtaposition of Hollywood ending, and realism.  We expect the police to conduct a thorough investigation, put together the clues and come out in the end with the criminal in handcuffs, but what we get instead is the slow steady bending of the conventions of Hollywood film.

After the gravity of his crime has sunk in, Mill falls in love with the dead man’s girlfriend.  As his fascination grows, this motivates him to distance himself from his current steady girl.  He spends more time planning his romantic interludes than he does evading the police, who at this point have solidly fingered him for the crime.   It is through chance, and bad eyesight, that Griffin manages to remain a free man, but this distraction only seems to get in the way of his new obsession.

The seeming indifference of Mill to the severity of his crime is mirrored in the cut-throat world of movie making.  Directors, writers, executives, and actors, all give up their integrity and vision in order to claim a piece of the back end.  It is only in this type of world that a man could not only get away with murder, but profit quite heavily from it.  It is this environment that managed to produce this very movie.  I bet the studio execs were less interested in what the movie was actually saying, and instead, focusing their attention on how many star cameos could be packed in, and the impact said cameos would have on the opening weekend box office.

Altman was smart enough to see this this fact, and in lesser hands, I can only imagine this movie would’ve never been made.  The films ending, gives us both a saccharine hollywood finish AS WELL AS the realistic, gritty, unsettling ending. 

 (***SPOILERS AHEAD***)

Griffin Mill escapes unscathed from his crime, he’s used the confidence and authority it gave him to manipulate his way to the top, dispatched of his former girlfriend, while making off with his new love.  The bad guy wins, and not only does he win, but the people who are honest and hardworking end up losing (Dead, Rejected, Un-Employed, etc.).  In the end, we are left feeling both satisfied and let down.  Altman, gives us what we want, and then makes us feel guilty for wanting it.

(***Spoilers END***)

Movies are so important to this film, they are not only central to the plot, and to our involvement with resonance of the story, but they also inform us about the state of the characters, and the state of the movie itself.  Just short of actually breaking the “fourth wall” and talking directly to the audience, we are given various signposts and clues referring to the lineage from which this film comes.  The opening segment is an homage to the long tracking shot in Touch of Evil, and sets the stage for the eventual murder story to come.  Likewise little clues into the psyche of the characters comes from the movie posters that they are surrounded by (or the lack of), and the movies that they talk about and watch (M, The Bicycle Thief, etc.).  The Player utilizes our common social knowledge of movie cliches to actually get beyond them, and become something more.  It is not only a commentary on film, but on the responsibility of the audience as voyeurs as well.

Laura (1944)

Laura - 1944

Laura – 1944

Director – Otto Preminger

Starring – Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price

Laura is the story of a Detective who becomes facinated with the victim of the murder that he is assigned to investigate, the movie’s namesake, Laura.  Detective McPherson isn’t so much a fully realized character in this story as he is a vehicle through which the audience can be introduced to, and participate in this story of un-requited love and murder.    Inspite of this, or maybe even because of it, we the audience are still drawn in to the fold. 

We  are placed in the detective role, and are given a cast of characters from which to choose the killer.  There are some red herrings in the lineup, some genuinly shady people, and some obvious innocents, but isn’t that half the fun of watching a brassy noir movie anyway?  Guess at the beginning and at the end seeing if you’re right.  (I’m happy to say that I did indeed guess correctly)  We are presented with the well-to-do, writer-mentor, Waldo Lydecker, played to the hilt by a flamboyant Clifton Webb, the unfaithful, yet seemingly good natured love interest/fiance, played by a venomously charming Vincent Price, and the icy two-faced Aunt Ann Treadwell, fleshed out by Judith Anderson.  It is throught the lenses of these characters that we learn about Laura Hunt, told at first through flashback.  Each of them provides a different spin on the events leading up to the night Laura was murdered, and each in turn reveals more about their potential motives than the intend to.

The pace is quick.  Quick enough that, at one point, we are left reeling and unsure about whether we are seeing reality or the a booze deluded dream.  In the interest of not spoiling a major plot point, I won’t say exactly what that event is, but rest assured that without an immediate explaination we simply have to wait and see to be sure.  This , of course, only leads to more questions about conspiracy, motives, and method.

Despite really enjoying Laura, I’d have to say that this movie didn’t have nearly the effect on my that some others noirs, such as “The Third Man”, “Sunset Boulevard”,  or “Out of the Past”, did.  It’s almost unfair to judge any movie this way, these movies helped introduce me to, and cultivate my appreciation and love of the film noir genre.  Still I think the comparison holds water because of the shared subject matter, the bent reality that the audience is presented with from the beginning, the hoops the characters must jump through along the way, and the long twisty, torturous path towards the truth that our hero (and by extension, we) must travel.

Laura was a solid, thouroughly enjoyable movie.  From the deep shadows of this duplicitous world, to the campy excess of Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb, Laura never faltered in it’s execution, and it never failed to keep my attention.  Bravo.