The Scariest Film Ever Made?

The Eponymous Villain of Curse of the Demon

As of today, I have seen Jacques Tourneur’s excellent The Curse of the Demon at least half a dozen times. (The film, released by Columbia in 1957, is also known as Night of the Demon.)

I regard films involving demonology as potentially the scariest of horror films. After all, there are ways to overcome vampires, Frankenstein monsters, mummies, werewolves, and zombies; but no one can overcome Satan himself. The script is based on a famous short story by M. R. James entitled “Casting the Runes.” You can find a copy of the story by clicking here.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) is a skeptical investigator sent from the U.S. to England to speak at an international conference on the paranormal, shortly after one of the other speakers dies gruesomely outside his home. It is suspected that Dr. Julian Karswell, a British Satanist, was involved.

Karswell meets Holden in the British Library Reading Room, where he chivalrously reaches down and hands Holden a file he has dropped. Inside that file is a strip of paper with an ancient runish curse that Holden will die at 10 pm several days hence.

As the time approaches, Holden and the niece of the dead investigator try to understand what is happening and to cleverly circumvent it.

Along the way, there are weird sequences when Karswell summons the powers of darkness to scare Holden and convince him that he is a goner.

This is a film worth seeing multiple times. Watch out that you don’t bite your tongue while munching on popcorn during the scarier scenes.

Favorite Films: Out of the Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in RKO’s Out of the Past

It seems the most unlikely place to open one of the greatest film noir productions that Hollywood ever made: the bright sunny town of Bridgeport, California, within view of the Eastern Sierras. (But then, didn’t Warner Brothers’ High Sierra end up with Humphrey Bogart’s death in the same general area?)

I have seen Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past approximately half a dozen times now and am nowhere near tired of the film. It contains early performances by Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, and a sockdollager femme fatale performance by Jane Greer. Jane would have had a brilliant career if Howard Hughes hadn’t fallen in love with her and gotten the brush-off when she married someone else: She remained on contract to RKO, but she was not chosen for many roles.

The plot concerns a gas station operator in Bridgeport who has, in the past, worked for a sleazy gangster played by Kirk Douglas. Though he changed his name and disappeared to a small town, Douglas has him tracked down and sucks him into his criminal schemes. In this, he is abetted by the devious Jane Greer, who, it seems, is unable to tell the truth, even when she and Mitchum fall for each other.

It’s strange that so soon after the glorious victory of World War Two by the so-called Greatest Generation, Hollywood produced so many great films noted for their pessimism. And this is one of the most pessimistic, with the message that if you should stray ever so slightly off the straight and narrow path, you are an irredeemable goner.

This is a film that never grows old. I may have aged since the first time I viewed it, but the film is still as fresh as an Eastern Sierra field full of wildflowers.

Greater Than Griffith?

In Hollywood, Sjöström Became Seastrom

Much has been written about D. W. Griffith as the greatest early director. True, his very early films were revolutionary; and he had a great actress in Lillian Gish. But it is difficult to like a director who made the Ku Klux Klan into heroes in Birth of a Nation (1915), and to tolerate the Victorian sentimentality of his later films. At almost the same time that Griffith was working in Hollywood, Victor Sjöström was making great films in Sweden, films like A Man There Was (1917) and The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), both of which starred the filmmaker.

When Sjöström was brought to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer of MGM, he made several silent masterpieces in quick succession:

  • He Who Gets Slapped (1924) starring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert
  • The Scarlet Letter (1926) with Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
  • The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

These three pictures are—all of them—in my list of the ten all-time best silent films made anywhere. And two of them star Griffith’s favorite star, Lillian Gish, who shines more in both films than she does in any of Griffith’s productions. And without all the ludicrous sentimentality.

Ingmar Bergman (L) with Sjöström

Sjöström went back to Sweden in 1930, supposedly because he was unwilling to be bound by the many restrictions of early sound films. After making three more films in Europe, he returned to the theater as well as acting. He can be seen in his role of Dr. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957).

If he weren’t so sentimental, I would rate Griffith higher than I currently do, but I still think Sjöström was better.

(Non) Motion Picture

Scene from Chris Marker’s La Jetée

One of the greatest of all science fiction films is a short consisting of nothing but black and white stills accompanied by a voice-over narration. I am referring to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which is all of 28 minutes long. And yet for all its uniqueness, the film holds the viewer in its grasp until the last shot (shown above). Following is the film’s plot summary from Wikipedia:

A man (Davos Hanich) is a prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris, where survivors live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. Scientists research time travel, hoping to send test subjects to different time periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”…. They eventually settle upon the protagonist; his key to the past is a vague but obsessive memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman (Hélène Châtelain) he had seen on the observation platform (“the jetty”) at Orly Airport shortly before witnessing a startling incident there. He did not understand exactly what happened but knew he had seen a man die.

Apparently, motion is not necessary for a successful motion picture. As long as the images grab you, and as long as the story is well crafted, the result can be more than good. It can even be great.

See for yourself. The film is available in its full length on YouTube in French with English subtitles:

New York or Not New York?

The New York World’s Fair 1964-1965

In the summer after my junior year at Dartmouth College, I felt I had to make a decision as to which graduate school I would attend. My top two choices were New York University (NYU) and UCLA. The University of Southern California (USC) also had a good program, but I was told by one of my classmates that it was in a bad part of town. (The Watts riots were to take place in August of that year, and decided me against the place.)

So the whole family packed up and drove to Passaic, NJ, where my father had some relatives. We stayed at the Hotel Lincoln in Passaic and took the bus through the Lincoln Tunnel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. While my parents and brother went to some tourist place, I took the subway to NYU and managed to find Haig P. Manoogian, who apparently was the whole film department, in his office.

Although Martin Scorsese idolized Manoogian, I received an entirely different impression. I was interested, not in film production, but film history and criticism. Manoogian was not, and made no bones about it. The result: Scratch NYU.

This trip turned out to be fun in an entirely different way. It was the second (and last) year of the New York World’s Fair, which we all attended. My memories of the Fair are twofold. First, upon entering, I was so struck by the place that I tripped over a small child. Second, it was the first time I had ever eaten a taco, from a no less authentic place than the Mexico Pavilion.

The final upshot of the trip was that I applied for admission to the UCLA Film Department, which accepted me and led to my moving out to Los Angeles, where I have lived ever since.

Simone, Naked, Cell Block J. Hobby Room

The Painter Moses Rosenthaler and Simone

Films can be amazing, even they are not great. A couple of months ago, I viewed Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (2021) in Palm Desert with my brother and sister-in-law. The film sets were nothing less than outstanding, and the cast was to die for. But, overall it just didn’t make the cut.

But I fell in love with the actress who played Simone, the prison asylum guard who poses nude for the imprisoned painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). The part was played by Léa Seydoux, a stunning French actress with wide-spaced eyes. The memory of those eyes has made me watch her scenes several times.

Simone in Uniform

Although I will never think of The French Dispatch as a great film, there are scenes in it that I will never forget. Perhaps, in the end, it is a better film than I thought.

A Lemming Named Desire

Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Wife Geri

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s film Casino about the mob days in Las Vegas, you’ve seen Sharon Stone in the role of Ginger McKenna as well as Robert DeNiro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. Throughout the film, names were changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. The actual characters were named Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Geri McGee Rosenthal.

Between 1976 and 1983, Rosenthal was in charge of four casinos that were secretly skimming profits to Chicago and other Midwestern mobsters. As a nationally known sports bettor, he had in 1969 married a Vegas showgirl named Geri McGee.

Vegas Showgirl Geri McGee

Geri was one of those tall, lovely showgirls for whom most men would sell their souls. Not that Lefty had not sold his soul early on, but hooking up with Geri turned out to be a nightmare. Although Lefty and Geri had two children together, Geri started taking drugs and having a not-well-hidden affair with mob enforcer Tony “The Ant” Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in the film).

As her marriage began to implode, Geri had a very open break with her family and took thousands in cash and jewelry that Lefty had in a joint safe deposit box to prove his trust in Geri. She left for Los Angeles and was dead within months of a drug overdose. Lefty, meanwhile, was the victim of a car bomb, which, fortunately for him, he escaped without major injury. But shortly after that, he was finished in Vegas and moved on to Laguna Niguel, California, and then Boca Raton, Florida, where he died in 2008.

Sharon Stone in the Role of Geri

As men, most of us dream of falling for a long-stemmed beauty like Geri McGee, but it rarely ends well. There’s something about the whole mechanism of sexual desire which seems to militate against long-term happiness.

Nightmare Alley²

How do you feel about celebrating the holidays in a morass of darkness? That’s what I did today when I saw the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara.

If there are any predictions possible from seeing a single film, I would have to say that we are entering a period of gloomy decadence. All the scenes take place either in heavy rain, a blizzard, and—just for a change—a modicum of dusty and hazy sunshine. Standing out from the dark edges are glittering reds, blues, greens, and browns.

Although the 2021 version followed the original 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle, the del Toro film is ever more shady, especially with Cate Blanchett as the psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter. She not only robs Carlisle of his ill-gotten gains, but shoots his ear off with a 22 caliber pistol. Blanchett bids fair to become the neo-noir equivalent of such noir queens as Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame.

Both film versions are worth seeing. In fact, I would also recommend reading the William Lindsay Gresham 1946 novel upon which they were based.

One side note: There is something unspeakably grimy and evil about the whole carny world as it is presented in books and films. If you are drawn in, you might also want to check out Robert Edmond Alter’s Carny Kill (1966). You might also want to dip into his Swamp Sister (1961). Neo-noir doesn’t get any better than this.

Favorite Films: Europa 51

Of the greatest filmmakers, the one I know the least about is Roberto Rossellini. Today, I had a chance to view his Europa 51 (1952) and found it to be a masterpiece. For some reason, the great postwar Italian films (dubbed Neorealism) have, for some reason, faded from view. Included were films by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, and Roberto Rossellini.

The films I have seen by Rossellini dealt with the fragility of life in Italy as part of the aftermath of the Second World War. And, when you think of it, the problems for Italy really began in the early 1920s with the rise of Fascism and Benito Mussolini. By 1945, it was an exhausted nation.

In Europa 51, the Girards have a sullen twelve-year-old son who, to get attention, falls down a flight of stairs during a party. He seems to be recovering, but suddenly dies from a blood clot. The mother, Irene (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly finds her life at home as totally unfulfilling. With urging from a communist relative, she begins to try to help the miserable slum dwellers of Rome, one of whom is played by Giulietta Masina of La Strada fame.

As her marriage begins to fall apart, she gets committed to a mental institution. Abandoned by her upper middle class family, she is revered by the poor families she has helped.

Whereas in the United States, the postwar period saw growth and prosperity, much of Europe lay in ruins. Beginning with Rome, Open City (1945), Rossellini concentrated on the devastation with some films like Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948), and Stromboli (1950). I think these films need to be seen, especially as we have developed a whole basket of myths surrounding World War Two and “The Greatest Generation” and other such rot.

If you were to read Tony Judt’s prizewinning history, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, you would find that he begins with the horrors of the immediate postwar years in Europe. I was born in 1945, and I remember my mother sending packages to our relatives in Hungary, which were under a Stalinist Communist dictator in the early 1950s. When I visited Budapest in 1945, I saw a city that still had the bullet holes of not only the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but the Nazi siege of the city at the end of the war.

Like Father, Like Son

The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.

What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.

Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.

Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.