Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Boundaries Which Divide

The Dante’s Inferno double bill on Thursday night at the New Beverly was a pair of Roger Corman films, both of which have nothing to do with each other aside from that fact except for being shot in color and Scope, dating from the early sixties. One is considered possibly one of his very best films, the other doesn't seem to have much of any reputaation at all. I’d never heard of the WWII tale THE SECRET INVASION before and even Joe Dante claimed not to have seen it since it was first released. I was expecting that whatever print we saw would be blurry and dupey-looking, so it was a genuine surprise when it turned out to be the crispest, most colorful print imaginable, considering it's a film you'd almost expect would have vanished. Why is it that certain classic studio titles aren’t available to be screened at all, yet Warner Bros. not only has a print of THE SECRET INVASION, it looks absolutely fantastic? Who knows.

Stewart Granger is a British Army officer who assembles a group of criminals to go on a mission behind enemy lines to retrieve an Italian General being held captive by the Russians. It sounds like a knockoff of THE DIRTY DOZEN except it was three years before that film, so if anything it could be looked at as a smaller-scale attempt of the sort of big war movies being made around that time. Photographed on location on Dubrovnik, it’s one of Corman’s better-looking movies and certainly makes the most of where it was shot—it looks like it would be a wonderful place to spend some time. A fair amount of the story moves fast enough that we don’t notice that much of it takes place over hushed meetings in rooms and what looks like about ten enemy soldiers. But these thoughts go away during the last third which is presented on a surprisingly large scale, with several battle scenes using a surprising amount of extras—the locals must have been extremely cooperative with Corman. In addition to Granger, the team is made up of a rogue’s gallery consisting of William Campbell, Henry Silva, Mickey Rooney, Edd Byrnes and Raf Vallone. Much like the layout of THE GRAT ESCAPE, each team member has their own area of expertise (demolition expert, forger, etc) and all of them are well-used within the plot. Rooney, bizarrely, is playing an Irishman. Or an Englishman, I’m not sure with that attempt at an accent. Maybe he was cast because of his resemblance to Richard Attenborough, but it’s still strange. Particularly good are Henry Silva, who takes part in the most shocking scene in the film and Raf Vallone (Pope John Paul 1 in THE GODFATHER PART III) who becomes the most likable, most charismatic member of the bunch. Maybe the middle section could use some more action, but the climax more than makes up for it and it’s surprising how ‘big’ some of it is. It’s not THE GREAT ESCAPE—hey, what is—but it’s still a nice little surprise.

Before the second film TOMB OF LIGEIA started Joe Dante brought out the one and only Roger Corman for a Q&A. As it turns out, the idea for THE SECRET INVASION came when he was reading a National Geographic article about Dubrovnik and then, when he got into the dentists’ chair, he began formulating the story in his head to get his mind off the drilling. I’ll try to keep this in mind next time I go to the dentist. Corman also took the opportunity to praise Dante’s HOMECOMING episode of “Masters of Horror”, adding that Dante’s name is now on some sort of special watch list whenever he flies anywhere.

The second film on the double bill was an absolutely gorgeous print (that makes two--sometimes you have good fortune with these things) of TOMB OF LIGEIA. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this one and my tired state of mind (hey, I have to get up really early) made me want to see it again real soon. Corman spoke in the Q&A about making this last Edgar Allan Poe tale that he would make on real locations, unlike the deliberately stagebound entries in the series that he had previously directed. But the castle ruins it is filmed on, truly striking to look at, manage to lend an air of unreality to it anyway and it strikes me how healthy that must be for an artist. Pledge to take a specific approach with a film and then see how you can veer from it. It can sometimes make for a stronger film and in the case of TOMB OF LIGEIA, one that feels truly unique when compared with the films it was meant to emulate. And as much as you think of Vincent Price with this movie, I was also struck throughout by the rather amazing performance by Elizabeth Shepherd, who is never at the top of the list of favorite female horror icons, but whose inquisitive appearance throughout sets her apart from all the other heroines and an impression of more going on underneath the surface than the script (a very good one by Robert Towne, incidentally) possibly indicates (It also reminds me how in my first viewing long ago I didn’t realize at first she was playing a dual role—those who’ve seen it will understand). For the very first time, I also noticed the presence of Richard Vernon, who the very same year played Colonel Smithers in GOLDFINGER, which possibly means that I’ve seen GOLDFINGER way too many times.

The New Beverly also showed a surprise third feature that night, SKI TROOP ATTACK, which Dante announced was “Quentin’s print”. It’s only 63 minutes but really, I had to go home and get some sleep. I wasn’t happy about doing so. I heard good things about it, so maybe someday.

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