Movies Till Dawn: In Glorious Black and White

12 a.m. – “The House of Mystery” – Adventure/Drama/Serial

71KdCQthS4L._SL1408_(1921-1923, Flicker Alley) Think of this ten-episode, six-and-a-half-hour silent French melodrama as an arthouse thriller in serial form, with the best qualities of each of those styles and genres. Produced and directed between 1921 and 1923 by Russian émigré filmmakers who had set up shop in France following World War I, “The House of Mystery” follows the template of the ciné romans, or episodic features, so popular in Europe during the period, with serpentine plotting and plenty of action and style (Louis Feuillade’s “Judex” is a perfect example). Here, it’s the versatile and magnetic Ivan Mosjoukine as a lovestruck young man whose jealous friend (Charles Vanel) sets in motion an elaborate plan to separate him from his intended (Helene Darly) by framing him for murder. As with Feuillade’s efforts, “House of Mystery” is a remarkable blend of artistry and technique; director Alexandre Volkoff (with an uncredited Viatcheslav Tourjansky) manages to broker both the brisk pace and requisite action set pieces for serial viewers without sacrificing the complexities of the story. They also produce some extraordinary visual sequences, most notably the marriage of Mosjoukine and Darly, which is shot entirely in silhouette. Volkoff’s artistic ambitions are also aided by the presence of Mosjoukine, whose boundless energy and intense presence lend weight to the emotional and physical drama. “The House of Mystery” is a silent foreign film for viewers who get antsy whenever they hear both terms; it’s gorgeous to look at, with an engrossing plot and packed with excitement – and it’s the rare binge-watching experience that’ll make you feel classier when you’re done. Flicker Alley’s three-disc set includes a slideshow of rare production stills, as well as an excellent booklet that discusses the production and its participants.

1 a.m. –  “The Big Shot” – Crime Drama

61EH2YwZadL._SL1000_(1941, Warner Archives Collection) As the saying more or less goes, a Humphrey Bogart picture is a lot like pizza or other experiences that satisfy on a deeply personal level: it’s enjoyable, even when it’s just okay (though WAC’s recent release of “Swing Your Lady,” a musical wrestling comedy with Bogie, may be an exception to the rule – more on that another time). Released on the heels of his star-making turns in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon” (both 1941) and shortly before “Casablanca” (1942), “The Big Shot” is a throwback of sorts to the first decade of Bogart’s career, when his hangdog face and clipped growl made him ideal for tough hoods. Here, he’s Duke Berne, a gangster on the skids lured into a bank heist by crooked lawyer Stanley Ridges. Duke knows he should go straight – another conviction will earn him a life sentence – but he can’t resist the offer, since it puts him back in the orbit of former flame Irene Manning, who’s now Ridges’ wife. With such a setup in place, the robbery has nowhere to go but spectacularly awry (with two guards dying in surprisingly graphic fashion) and Duke is soon back behind bars, thanks in part to double-dealing by Ridges. Determined to reunite with Manning, Duke busts out of prison during a talent show (anchored by the jaw-dropping sight of Chick Chandler in blackface, dancing with a lifesized gollywog doll), and sets up a cozy love nest with Manning in a remote cabin. But no sooner has happiness been glimpsed than Duke’s bad luck streak fires up again – young car salesman Richard Travis, who tried to help out during the trial, has been pinned with a murder rap by Ridges. Duke tries to do right, but once a hardluck case, always a hardluck case, and the gift pays forward to everyone he knows. Did I mention that Duke narrates the story from a hospital bed? Directed by Lewis Seiler, a veteran of WB’s gangster and social drama pictures, “The Big Shot” is a good crime picture, not a great one – a good deal of it doesn’t read straight, and people do things they’d never do, even in a stick-em-up movie – but it’s Bogie that sells the whole thing with that sad, magnetic face and wiry frame. He knows that things aren’t going to work out – they never do for guys like Duke – but he’ll do what he can in the time he’s given, and you can’t help but like a guy for something like that. WAC’s widescreen DVD looks just fine, and includes the original trailer, featuring staccato narration by Bogart.

2:30 a.m. – “Syncopation” – Music/Drama

51QWnScV19L(1942, Cohen Media Group) A genuine oddity, if a well-intentioned one, this 1942 musical drama from William Dieterle, who helmed prestige pictures for Warner Bros. like “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936) and “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937) comes as close as any picture during the ‘40s (and decades after) to depicting jazz as an American artform created largely by African-American musicians. That’s certainly the case in the striking opening montage, which traces the black experience from Africa to New Orleans, where jazz is passed down from generations like an oral tradition before making its way into white culture. That’s about as far as “Syncopation” wants to attribute jazz to black players; from there, the focus shifts to horn player Jackie Cooper and pianist/singer Bonita Granville as the music’s primary torchbearers, overcoming social prejudice and assorted obstacles to sell white audiences on swing. A cadre of real jazz players, including Benny Goodman, Harry James, Gene Krupa and Joe Venuti – all white – close the show, and while their presence is a plus, it doesn’t quite wipe away the sourness of the picture’s retrospective falsification (imposed by the film’s producers, according to Bertolt Brecht, for whom Dieterle screened an early cut). Cohen Media Group’ Blu-ray attemps a palate cleanser by including a brace of short films, all featuring great black and Latino jazz players. These, too, have their uncomfortable moments – Louis Armstrong somehow manages to preserve his dignity while wearing a leopard skin in “Rhapsody in Black and Blue” (1932) – but there are remarkable images, too, like “St. Louis Blues” (1929), which features the only existing footage of blues legend Bessie Smith, and the striking, surreal “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1929), with Duke Ellington and actress Fredi Washington dancing herself to death to the title tune. Ellington also appears with Ivie Anderson in “Bundle of Blues” (1933) and a 19-year-old Billie Holiday in the extraordinary “Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life” (1935), while Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael and Artie Shaw are each featured in additional shorts.

4 a.m. – “Thunder Road” – Action/Drama

51ZTuQR8ISL(1958, Timeless Media Group) A longtime favorite of gearheads and drive-in aficionados alike, this Southern-set action-drama was produced, written and possibly co-directed by Robert Mitchum, who also co-wrote and recorded a compulsively finger-popping cover of the title theme (sung by Randy Sparks in the film). It’s a B-picture, through and through – the core premise, which pits Korean war vet turned bootlegger Mitchum against dogged revenue agent Gene Barry, is mostly an excuse to show lots of souped-up Fords tearing through the backroads of Asheville, North Carolina – but Mitchum’s trademark insouciance lends an edge to the picture that might otherwise be absent with another actor in the role. Singer Keely Smith, as Mitchum’s love interest, provides the same blend of baby-I-don’t-care cool and subcutaneous steam heat; you almost wish they’d made more movies together, or a had a slightly better showcase for their pairing. Mitchum’s son, Jim, plays his brother in the picture – it’s a role originally intended for Elvis Presley, which just boggles the mind to conceive – and Sandra Knight, a late ‘50s starlet whose career stalled in low-budget horror like “Frankenstein’s Daughter” and “The Terror” (opposite her then-husband, Jack Nicholson), is a young local with starry eyes for the elder Mitchum. The go-for-broke stunt driving, largely handled by the legendary Carey Loftin, is the real reason for the film’s enduring cult status, and made it a staple at regional drive-ins well into the 1970s while also wielding considerable influence over subsequent Southern car chase pics (Peter Fonda namechecks the film in “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry”) in that decade. Loftin himself handled the film’s single most insane setpiece, in which he rolls the ’58 Ford into an electrical power station, with appropriately explosive results. The scene is so impressive that it was borrowed to lend production value to other projects, including “They Saved Hitler’s Brain” (!) as well as “The Prime Mover,” a second-season episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

5:30 a.m. – “Pit Stop” – Action/Drama

51kM8FtAIBL(Arrow Films, 1969) Director Jack Hill’s gift for melding genres – horror and black comedy in “Spider Baby,” blaxploitation action, crime drama and urban realism in “Coffy,” girl gang crime and political commentary in “Switchblade Sisters” – is in full effect for this little-seen stockcar racing picture, which manages to fuse elements of drive-in action, noir and European arthouse drama into a wholly enjoyable and unique film. Richard Davalos (East of Eden) is a thorny loner looking for new behind-the-wheel kicks; seedy promoter Brian Donlevy (in his last role) delivers them in the form of Figure 8 racing, which is just as it sounds – stockcars loop either side of a figure eight track and then hit the gas at the intersection at its center, hoping to avoid a head-on collision. The scenes of real vehicular destruction (filmed at the Ascot Speedway in Gardena and Whiteman Stadium in Pacoima) lend a lot of gearhead excitement to “Pit Stop,” and serve as a perfect metaphor for Davalos, a car wreck on two black denim-clad legs who totals everyone who stands in his way of the checkered flag (the movie’s original title: “The Winner”). Pile-ups incurred along the way include Ellen Burstyn, billed as Ellen McRae, as the lonely wife of fellow racer George Washburn; regular Hill player Sid Haig as his chief competitor, whose goony track persona is cover for an equally damaged interior; and George’s sister, Beverly (from “Spider Baby”) as a track Betty who susses out Davalos’ toxic M.O. Produced by Roger Corman (who wanted a straightforward racing picture), “Pit Stop’s” gorgeously stark black-and-white photography – a technical necessity rather than a budgetary one, as the color film of the time couldn’t accurately capture the numerous nighttime race scenes – is one of its key virtues, lending grit to the physical and emotional violence and connecting its quieter moments of introspective dialogue to the arthouse scene of the time. But it also helped to limit its box office potential, and consigned “Pit Stop” to a fate similar to “Spider Baby” – forgotten by all but the most omnivorous grindhouse devotees. The Quentin Tarantino-led reappraisal of Hill’s career in the ‘90s led to a revival of “Pit Stop” and several DVD presentations; Arrow’s Blu-ray is the best of these, featuring a print taken from Hill’s own collection and a wealth of extras. Chief among these is commentary by Hill himself, who is typically low-key and self-effacing but also very informative; interviews with the always entertaining Haig (“The Devil’s Rejects”) and Corman, as well as the original trailer, round out the disc, while a pair of essays detail the Daily Flash, a Los Angeles-by-way-of Seattle psych band featuring former members of the Mothers of Invention and Iron Butterfly that recorded the film’s incredible fuzz-blues soundtrack. LA Beat readers with an interest in the city’s past may appreciate glimpses of George Barris at his Kustom City showroom and the Wilshire Auto Wrecking Yard, as well as a haunting and lovely sequence of dune buggies weaving through the sands at Imperial Dunes at night.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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