Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie Reviews: Heat Wave, The Phantom of The Opera

Heat Wave
directed by Ken Hughes
This is another of Hammer's film noirs. Heat Wave was in the package my brother sent me. Like many other genre movies Heat Wave owes a lot to The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The movie looks grand. It's shot in black and white. It has the typical use of shadow and staging that one expects from such films. Everyone and their mama is smoking a cigarette and throwing down scotch and bourbon. There is the light filtered through the Venetian blinds. There's a fair share of tough guy and tough gal dialogue. I like film noir and usually enjoy watching genre flicks. Yet for all that the story ended up not being top tier. In my opinion, the two leads didn't really have much chemistry together. And the femme fatale was a bit too hard bitten. Camera closeups didn't exactly do her any favors in my view. Instead of being able to easily understand or take for granted how and why the male lead fell so hard and fast for this married blonde I was constantly wondering why he just didn't pursue her much friendlier, prettier and apparently unattached stepdaughter, who apparently had a fancy to him anyway. So that took me out of the film a bit. If you want me to believe that a man will risk everything for lust because if making love to that woman is wrong he doesn't want to be right then you should show the passion more than Heat Wave did. Nevertheless older movies remain interesting time capsule documents of how human nature doesn't change that much over the decades or even the centuries. Lust, selfishness, loneliness, and cunning are constant elements of the human emotional stew. People will risk a lot to get their needs met.
There will always be women who marry older men for money or social status and end up regretting it. There will always be richer, successful men who wrongly think that their wealth and power can purchase love and fidelity. There will always be less successful men who decide that even though they aren't Mr. Right for a wealthy bored lonely socialite, they'll settle for being Mr. Right Now. Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol) opens the film having drinks in a bar with an unidentified someone. Mark is a man with regrets. He's also a weak man. It was intriguing how often the film made the taller than average (6'1") and athletic appearing Nicol look submissive and indecisive. It was a nice piece of acting and writing. Anyway Mark wants to share his whole story. Mark gives occasional voice over to a tale which is one long flashback. Mark is an American writer living in England. Money is tight. He has enough money left to rent a cottage on Lake Windemere. Mark is suffering from writer's block. Mark hopes that the solitude and natural beauty will inspire him to complete his novel. His advance money is almost gone. He's missed the first deadline to complete the opening three chapters. Mark ought to be writing. But instead he's staring wistfully across the lake at the party that a rich couple is having. He's surprised when the woman of the house Carol Forrest (Hilary Brooke) phones him to virtually order him to bring across some of her friends on his boat. As Mark later learns Carol is not a woman to whom it is easy to say no.

Upon arriving Mark is struck by Carol's beauty. Both Carol and her ultra-rich much older husband Beverly (Sid James-a comedian who like Redd Foxx died having a heart attack which people thought was part of his act) separately invite Mark to stay at the party. It becomes clear to Alex that Carol is not faithful to Beverly, ("women don't look at their husbands the way Carol was looking at the piano player" ) a characteristic which Beverly feels incapable of changing. Beverly is likely far past the wild uninhibited monkey sex period of his marriage. He's not healthy. He's older and shorter/smaller than his wife's lovers. Most importantly he still loves his wife and won't divorce her. This last is against the urgent advice of his daughter Andrea (Susan Stephen) who dislikes her stepmother. Beverly has made peace with the fact that everyone just wants money from him. Beverly forgives Carol her affairs. Mark finds himself simultaneously becoming friendly with the fatalistic Beverly and infatuated with the icy Carol. Mark is arguably just as responsible for the film's events as Carol. The film doesn't necessarily judge him.  I didn't see enough beauty or occasional softness from Carol to offset her general unpleasantness. If the actress had been allowed or able to show just a little more generosity or vulnerability, I would have better appreciated why men were drawn to her. Of course the hope of marrying a rich widow after Beverly kicks the bucket is always a motive. Mark is such a cipher that it was difficult to sympathize with him. He just floats along. 

This film was also known as The House Across The Lake. This wasn't a top of the line film noir. Still if you like film noir or are just curious about the style this was an acceptable way to spend a little over an hour or so. Sid James gives the film's best performance. You end liking him instead of having pity or contempt for him. 

The Phantom of The Opera
directed by Terence Fisher
It is interesting from a film history perspective to watch actors that you only know from one movie show their talents when they were younger in a completely different film. I didn't really put it together until about halfway through The Phantom of The Opera but Herbert Lom (playing the title character) was the same man who played Chief Inspector Dreyfus in The Pink Panther movies.  Additionally Patrick Troughton, who had a small role as the ratcatcher would go on to win fame playing Dr. Who and the doomed Father Brennan in The Omen. Go figure. This movie felt overly restrained. That's partially because Hammer's then current distributor informed Hammer after shooting had completed that the film needed to have a family friendly rating. So rather atypically for Hammer there is no over the top cleavage, virtually no spurting blood and only a few deaths. And the damage to the Phantom's face is only shown once or twice in passing and even then only briefly. This movie featured the usual high quality acting, music, sets and especially cinematography that Hammer was known for but the directorial decision to over emphasize the love story and music combined with the relative lack of thrills and chills meant that this iteration of the classic tale didn't really deliver on the horror front. If you are however just a sucker for Victorian period dramas then this could be a decent film for you. The bubbling brown sewers, the carriages, accents, garish red, blue and green lights, the petticoats, and the blue tinged cadaverous hands of the Phantom all combine to make this film a visual and auditory treat. It completely lacks the ugly cynicism or gratuitous sex and violence that would later become virtually required for horror films. 

Lord Ambrose (Michael Gough) is an arrogant, bossy and unpleasant aristocrat who also happens to be a musical composer. He's similar to Dick Cheney in that he will hit a person upside the head with his walking cane and then expect a full apology from that person for hitting his cane with their head. Ambrose is overseeing the opening of his Joan of Arc opera, which has been plagued by mysterious accidents. Ambrose is impatient. He lacks business sense. He relies upon the opera house manager Lattimer (Thorley Walters) and the friendly handsome producer Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) to do most of the work. He tries to bully and insult them but Harry in particular stands up for himself and gives as good as he gets. When the body of a hanged stagehand swings into view during the climax of the aria the audience is scandalized. The high strung star soprano Maria quits. Harry finds a new soprano, the young and naive Christine (Heather Sears). Although Harry is interested first in Christine's singing talents the dirty old man Lord Ambrose is interested solely in her womanly talents. He invites her out to dinner where he makes it crystal clear that he expects her to be "nice" to him in return for being hired. Because this is before English law recognizes anything like sexual harassment things look dim for Christine until she sees Harry entering the same restaurant. She invites Harry to accompany her and Lord Ambrose back to his city apartment "to work on the music". Recognizing what's really going on and happy to rescue a lady in distress Harry agrees. Obviously this is not at all what Lord Ambrose had in mind for his evening. He angrily departs alone.
Christine finds the younger and chivalrous Harry much more to her liking. They talk over dinner. She tells him of the strange voices she's been hearing and odd things she's seen in the Opera House. The next day when Lord Ambrose fires both Christine and Harry, Harry has more time to investigate strange events both past and current. When Christine is imperiled, Harry must try to rescue her, play detective and save the opera from Lord Ambrose's heavy handed incompetence. I was more familiar with this story through the Phantom of The Paradise reinterpretation so it was funny to see camera shots, film techniques and story lines which I first saw in that film on display here. Many of the Hammer version's themes were recycled from the 1943 film version. Hammer's ending runs a little long. There are some important questions left unanswered. This version of the Phantom is more misunderstood victim than a real bad guy. Herbert Lom spends most of the film acting with just his voice and one eye visible which I suppose is impressive when you think about it. Although Heather Sears was not the va-va voom type actress for which Hammer became known she nonetheless was a good fit to this film's theme.  
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