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by Michael Barrett

5 Jun 2015


With the success of MGM’s made-in-England series of Miss Marple movies starring Margaret Rutherford, producer Lawrence P. Bachmann thought it auspicious to try Agatha Christie’s other famous detective, the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. If he hoped for another series, the plan didn’t get beyond one movie, which is now available on demand from Warner Archive.

Like the Marple films, The Alphabet Murders is more of a comic lark that diverges in tone and plot from Christie. Indeed, it goes farther, seeming to parody Poirot films almost before they existed. The spoofiness is signaled right away as Tony Randall addresses the camera as himself before transforming into Poirot and addressing the camera some more. It’s all a joke, and this approach didn’t please Christie or mystery fans, nor even fans of Randall.

by Michael Barrett

4 Jun 2015


Alfred Hitchcock‘s Jamaica Inn isn’t an overlooked masterpiece, but it has been widely and unfairly dismissed for decades for complicated reasons. The film gives a star introduction to Maureen O’Hara (after a couple of minor screen roles) as its young Irish heroine Mary, archetypally beautiful and spunky. O’Hara would embody this persona for the rest of her career.

With great presence of mind and not a little temper, Mary falls among a gang of murderous shipwreckers on the Cornish coast of 1819 when she goes to stay with her put-upon Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) and rascally Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks). When Mary rescues a gang member (Robert Newton) from being hanged, they seek help from the local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), but they don’t know what the viewer knows: Sir Humphrey is the head villain.

by Michael Barrett

3 Jun 2015


Spaghetti westerns are marked above all by a monotonous emphasis on revenge, violence, and sadism perpetrated by ambiguous antiheroes and the men who hate them. The best examples inject social commentary or dress it up with a flashy style of widescreen vistas and ear-catching music. Day of Anger is among the better examples, especially when we can see it in such a clear, vibrant, properly letterboxed transfer.

by Michael Barrett

2 Jun 2015


Time has not only been kind to Staircase; it’s also been illuminating. Directed by Stanely Donen and scripted by Charles Dyer from his play, the entire drama consists of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison playing an old gay couple sniping at each other in elaborately bitchy dialogue—which pretty much describes the currently acclaimed Britcom Vicious with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi.

In 1969, mainstream critics found the movie tasteless. In the post-Stonewall era, gay activists like Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet found it embarrassing because, in the context of just about zero depictions of homosexuality in cinema apart from cross-dressing psychos and suicidal sissies, the movie relies on the stereotype of the effeminate, limp-wristed, campy, mother-dominated queen instead of a politically preferred image of butch “mainstream” types. It was the era when one character in the supposedly progressive and groundbreaking The Boys in the Band wished “we just didn’t hate ourselves so much.” Films like Staircase and Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George were bleak instead of validating, and activists didn’t want that any more than they wanted movies about drag queens (even though there really were drag queens at Stonewall).

by Michael Barrett

2 Jun 2015


With arresting use of slow-motion and freeze-frames, the opening credits of Blind Woman’s Curse present a beautiful clash between one gang and a rival group whose tattoos form one dragon on their backs, and who are led by the daughter (cult icon Meiko Kaji) of the late boss. This gives us the impression that we’re seeing a samurai movie, but the scene turns out be the heroine’s dream (yet also a flashback) experienced while in a women’s prison. Contemporary audiences didn’t know it, but the beautiful and self-possessed Kaji would soon become famous in a series of films about Female Convict Scorpion, which now gives the scene an extra frisson.

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