September 23, 2022

Postcards from Ulysses

Poster - Ulysses (1954)
Now Playing:
Ulysses (1954)

Pros: Kirk Douglas’ energetic performance; Beautiful cinematography, costumes and production design
Cons: Stiff acting by most of the cast; Unnecessary changes to the original story

I may not be a scholar or a gentleman, but every once in a while I enjoy a good movie based on a classic book (actually reading the book, well, that’s another matter). So when I saw that Paul at Silver Screen Classics was hosting another Classic Literature on Film Blogathon, I jumped at the opportunity. When you’re done with the trials and travels of Ulysses here at Films From Beyond, wander on over to Paul’s blog to learn more about film adaptations of classic literature.

Homer’s Odyssey is about the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of setbacks and misfortunes designed by capricious gods to drive ordinary mortals mad (kind of like airline travel these days).

I won’t say that producers Dino De Laurentiis (grandfather of celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis) and Carlo Ponti (one time spouse of Sophia Loren) went through Odyssey-level trials to get their adaptation on the silver screen, but it was no walk in the park either.

The producers wanted to pull out all the stops to give the beloved epic the treatment it deserved, including signing big name American actors Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn (Ulysses and Antinoös respectively). At that point, Douglas had two Academy Award-nominated roles under his belt, for Champion (1949) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and was making another fantasy epic for Disney, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

Quinn was also on a roll that year, having been recruited by Federico Fellini to star in what would become one of his great masterpieces, La Strada (The Road, 1954; also produced by Ponti and De Laurentiis).

Studio press releases for Ulysses (the Roman variant of Odysseus) bragged that much of the film was shot on location in and around the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean as described in the Odyssey. Filming was scheduled for Ulysses’/Odysseus’ home island of Ithaca, but the gods intervened with an earthquake that put an end to that idea.

Lobby card - Ulysses, 1954

The great German director G.W. Pabst was originally scheduled to helm the project, but he pulled out at the last minute when he found out the producers wanted to shoot it in 3D. Mario Camerini, who was primarily known for the light comedies he directed in the ‘30s (?!), was then brought on board (the film was shot in 3D, but only distributed theatrically in 2D).

When Camerini himself faltered during shooting, cinematographer Mario Bava was tapped to help finish the film, uncredited. Later in the decade, this would become almost routine for Bava. He took over directing duties on two separate occasions for Riccardo Freda, when Freda argued with his producers and abruptly left the sets of I Vampiri (aka Lust of the Vampire, 1957) and Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959). Bava was finally given the opportunity to direct upfront, on his own, and the result, Black Sunday (1960), became one of the most influential European horror films of all time.

As befitting an epic, it took a slew of writers, including bigshot American writers Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw, to commit the cinematic Odyssey to paper. As per usual with film adaptations, story details were changed, compressed, switched around or omitted in order to come up with something that would entertain audiences in under two hours.

Over the years, Ulysses has developed a reputation for being an ambitious failure. In watching the Italian-dubbed, English-subtitled version on Amazon Prime, I found Douglas’ boyish energy and enthusiasm to be one of the best things about the film (even though the voice is not his -- it’s almost like watching a good silent film performance). In contrast, the rest of the cast mostly stand around with their arms at their sides like Greek statuary (but they look absolutely fabulous in the meticulously crafted costumes).

Still - Sylvana Mangano as Penelope in Ulysses, 1954
"Step right up gents! String Ulysses' bow and win the fair Penelope!
Who will be first? Don't be shy!"

Others have not been so impressed with the star of the show. Douglas’ portrayal reminded one contemporary reviewer of “a Villanova halfback on summer vacation in the Mediterranean.” [Wendy Wilson and Gerald Herman, World History on the Screen: Film and Video Resource, J. Weston Walch, 2003, p. 3]. A little more charitably, reviewer Tony Thomas thought that Douglas played “the Greek super-hero with brawn and vitality, but all too obviously [looked] like an American actor cast in an Italian picture.” [Tony Thomas, The Films of Kirk Douglas, Carol Publishing Group, 1991, p. 111]

In his book on war veterans in film, Emmett Early is perhaps overly harsh in his assessment of Ulysses, but does give voice to some common complaints about film adaptations of classic works:

“Italians should never be trusted to portray the Greeks’ own Odyssey. [Editor’s note: Ouch!] For one, most of the names are changed. Odysseus becomes Ulysses. Poseidon becomes Neptune, although for some reason Athena gets to keep her Greek name … In this Ulysses the actors are so stiff they seem like Monty Python cartoon figures with their mouths moving. Kirk Douglas plays the war veteran and Anthony Quinn plays Antinoös, the chief rival among the suitors. The script does violence to the story with horrible distortions and plot compressions. For example, when Ulysses is washed ashore at Phaeacia, he has no memory of his adventures or his own identity. As his memory returns, the story unfolds, such as it is. This dramatic ploy deprives Ulysses of his chief attribute, his metis, or ability to deceive. … Kirk Douglas, for his part, made a passable adventurer, but he would have been better off trading roles with Anthony Quinn. Quinn would have made a great Antinoös and Anthony Quinn has the sturdy build that Homer attributed to Odysseus.” [Emmett Early, The War Veteran in Film, McFarland, 2010, pp. 82-83]

Whatever else the movie’s faults, Harold Rosson’s cinematography is not one of them. (On Ulysses’s IMDb page, Mario Bava is only listed as an uncredited camera operator.) Even watching a muddy, standard definition print, you get a sense of how great the outdoor vistas and the moody shadows of Polyphemus's cave and Circe’s lair must have looked on a real movie screen back in the day.

At practically any point in the film, you can freeze it and have something worthy of framing, or maybe putting on a deluxe postcard. Come to think of it, what if Ulysses had taken the trouble during his long voyage to send a postcard or two?...

Postcard 1 - Ulysses gleefully sacks Troy

Postcard 1 message: "Greetings from Troy! It took way longer than I expected to crash the party..."


Postcard 2 - Neptune's son, the one-eyed Polyphemus

Postcard 2 message - "My dearest son! Was thinking of you when we drank wine with Neptune's son Polyphemus..."


Postcard 3 - Ulysses strapped to the mast of his ship

Postcard 3 message - "Just dropping a note to thank you for those wax earplugs you made for us - they worked great when we sailed past the Sirens..."


Postcard 4 - Ulysses with Circe

Postcard 4 message - "My darling, it won't be much longer before I'm home. I'm hanging out at a great B&B run by Circe..."


Postcard 5 - Ulysses standing among the corpses of the suitors

Postcard 5 message - "Hey, I've got a great idea for a new Olympic event: the Suitor Decathlon..."

September 16, 2022

The Dark Before the Dawn of Hammer Horror: Stolen Face and Blackout

It’s blogathon time again! This post is part of the 9th annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon hosted by Terence Towles Canote at his A Shroud of Thoughts blog. After you’ve explored the dark world of Hammer film noir here, check out Terence's blog for more thoughts on films from the UK.

Mean streets. Dark alleyways. Conniving crooks. Corrupt cops. Double-dealin’ dames. To the classic film fan, it all seems as American as apple pie. Of course, greed, shady schemes and murder rear their ugly heads everywhere. And successful movie formulas have a tendency to spread far beyond national boundaries.

The term “film noir” originally circulated among French film critics in the late 1940s to describe Hollywood films of a certain dark, cynical type, but eventually grew to encompass a significant slice of world cinema that shared the same themes and style.

After the unprecedented horrors of WWII, the world’s popular culture could be forgiven for turning to the dark side, even in a country like the U.S. that emerged from the war stronger and more prosperous than ever.

Great Britain’s film industry had good reason to explore dark themes, as the war accelerated the decline of the empire and left Britons with shortages and rationing that lasted for years afterward.

Years before Hammer Films became famous for its technicolor Gothic horrors, the studio cranked out low budget programmers in a variety of genres: mysteries, thrillers, comedies, a smattering of science fiction, and, especially in the post-war years, Hollywood-style crime dramas.

DVD cover art detail - VCI Entertainment Hammer Film Noir Double Feature

The director who was instrumental in helping Hammer usher in its horror renaissance, Terence Fisher, refined his craft on several gritty B crime pictures before unleashing The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula on the world.

Many of these films were made by Hammer in arrangement with American distributor Robert L. Lippert, and featured at least one American star, backed by a solid British cast, to ensure box office appeal in the states. (The stars were either on their way up in the business, or more often, on the way down, and thus available to work cheaply.)

In many cases the titles were changed for American distribution -- it’s easy to imagine a frenetic, cigar-chomping Lippert dictating the snappy, hard-boiled titles to his gum-chewing, buxom secretary.

In addition to the two films discussed below, Fisher directed such noirish titles as Man Bait (1952), Dead on Course (1952), Man in Hiding (1953), The Black Glove (1954) and Kill Me Tomorrow (1957), among others. Other noir-sounding titles (directed by others) include: Bad Blonde (1953), Paid to Kill (1954), Heat Wave (1954) and The Glass Tomb (1955).

Beginning in 2006, VCI Entertainment, in association with Kit Parker Films, released DVD sets of what they called “Hammer Film Noir,” focusing on the Hammer-Lippert output of the early-mid ‘50s. While noir purists might take issue with the film noir designation for many of the titles, it’s nonetheless a great service to fans, highlighting an interesting period of Hammer film history that otherwise might swirl down the memory hole. Best of all, many of the sets are still available from online sellers.

Poster - Stolen Face, 1952
Now Playing:
Stolen Face (1952)

Pros: Presence of veterans Paul Henreid and Lizbeth Scott lends a veneer of A picture class
Cons: Character motivations and actions are contrived and unbelievable, as is the ending, which is also abrupt and unsatisfying

Despite the presence of once-superstars Paul Henreid and Lizabeth Scott that shouts FILM NOIR in all caps, Stolen Face is barely even a crime drama, instead shading into romantic melodrama territory, albeit with occasional glimpses into a somewhat tame British criminal underworld.

The film wastes no time in establishing its main character, Dr. Philip Ritter (Henreid), a renowned plastic surgeon, as someone too good to be true. In the opening scene, Ritter is playfully bantering with a young boy whose hand mobility he has saved, and reassures the mother who tells him she can’t pay him immediately. Then, after turning down £1000 to perform unneeded cosmetic surgery on a rich, vain dowager, he’s off to the local women’s prison to perform free plastic surgeries on deformed and disfigured inmates.

Ritter believes that correcting the women’s physical deformities can help them reintegrate into society. (A noble aspiration, but one wonders where the money for his practice is coming from, or if he’s just so rich that he doesn’t need it.) The warden has a new case for him -- Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie) an habitual thief whose face was severely scarred in the London blitz.

Ritter interviews the coarse young woman and is intrigued. But on the drive back from the prison, the exhausted doctor nearly wrecks the car he’s driving, and is given marching orders by his associate to take a needed vacation.

Next thing he knows, Ritter is having a meet cute at an out of the way country inn with a glamorous American concert pianist, Alice Brent (Scott), who is similarly decompressing due to career stresses.

Ritter hears someone in the next room coughing and sneezing, and in reflexive doctor-mode he scribbles out a whimsical prescription for “two aspirin and a shot of whiskey,” which he slips under the door. The prospective patient turns out to be the beautiful and classy pianist. Fortunately, Alice has the aspirin and Ritter has the whiskey, (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Lizabeth Scott and Paul Henreid in Stolen Face, 1952
The doctor prescribes rest and relaxation in front of the fireplace.

They both decide to stay on a couple of extra days, she supposedly to recover from her bad cold and he to take care of his new patient, but of course it’s all about the mutual attraction. They conduct a whirlwind romance via a montage sequence, saving some wear and tear on the viewer’s patience.

Just as Ritter is falling head over heels in love, Alice packs up and leaves with no notice. Later, back at his surgery, Alice calls, explaining that she is engaged to be married (to her manager, David, played by Andre Morrell).

Devastated, Ritter distracts himself with work, remembering his promise to Lily to make her into a new woman. In 1950s Britain, there’s no give and take between doctor and patient, especially for a patient who is a female convict. Lily is grateful for Ritter’s magnanimous attention, but she has no say in the ultimate outcome. She asks him twice what she will look like, and he tells her he doesn’t know. It’s just assumed she will look completely different, and presumably far more beautiful than she was prior to her injuries.

Ritter is set to go all-out Pygmalion on Lily. His surgical office looks more like an artist’s studio, with sketch pads lying about and a large clay bust representing the idealized Lily -- covered, so as not to spoil the surprise -- situated prominently in the center of the room. Lily’s face is just so much clay in the “artist’s” hands.

While outwardly solicitous and professional, inwardly Ritter is roiling with disappointment, so we know what’s coming. In yet another montage sequence, we see Alice playing the great concert halls of Europe, while Ritter uses his surgical skills to recreate his lost love. While I think montage sequences tend to be a bit tacky, in this case the intercutting between Alice and and the new “Alice”-in-the-making effectively serves to foreshadow the clash of doppelgangers at the climax.

As Lily/New Alice is recovering from her surgery, there is a shot, where Ritter is tenderly holding her bandaged arm, that reminded me of Colin Clive in the original Frankenstein hovering over the monster on the lab table like a proud new dad, or for that matter, the monster trying to take Elsa Lanchester’s hand in Bride of Frankenstein. Unfortunately from that point, instead of a horror-tinged noir, we get a rather staid British lesson in manners and class distinctions.

Ritter's surgical lab in Stolen Face, 1952
An updated mad scientist's lab, circa 1952.

Of course Ritter’s work is a complete success, and Lily emerges from the bandages an absolutely fabulous duplicate of Alice, at least physically. When Dr. Frankenstein’s Ritter’s associate learns of the doctor’s plans to marry his creation, all the do-gooder pretenses go out the window and upper crust revulsion at the lower classes takes over -- he protests that Lily is a recidivist criminal and psychopath (so much for salvaging the the not-so-good, the bad and the ugly through plastic surgery).

If this had been an American noir, there would have been a body count and hell to pay for the sheer hubris for trying to make a vulnerable, not-too-bright prisoner into the spitting image of a lost love. But instead, Stolen Face fritters away its potential with scene after scene of Ritter the dyspeptic elitist disapproving of his new wife’s lifestyle choices.

Lily’s/new Alice’s worst misdeeds in this ostensible crime drama are preferring jazz clubs to the opera, shoplifting a gaudy brooch and fur coat that her wealthy husband won’t buy for her (he uses his influence to make the charges go away), drinking too much and having raucous parties at their mansion.

The worst crime of all is that the film seems to side with the arrogant and selfish doctor, making him out to be the victim, and figuratively tsk-tsking at Lily’s antics like some blue-haired grand dame complaining about the help.

The court of stiff-upper-lip opinion brings the Hammer down on Lily at the climax. When Alice's fiancé David realizes who she is really in love with, he does the civilized thing and releases her from the engagement. Alice, unaware of the existence of Lily and the marriage, rushes to Ritter. Let’s just say there is hell to pay, and I’ll leave it to you to guess who pays it.

Despite the lost opportunities and the sour ending (your results may differ), the film is saved by the presence of ‘40s icons Lizabeth Scott and Paul Henreid (kind of like good plastic surgery that smooths over sagging spots and wrinkles).

Both were on the downslopes of their careers: Scott was still under contract to Paramount at this point and kept getting loaned out to indifferent film projects by a studio that didn’t know what to do with her; Henreid had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a “communist sympathizer” and was in no position to be choosy.

Scott is as beautiful and glamorous as ever in her dual role, believable as someone who could drive an esteemed physician batty with love/lust. Henreid, with his usual urbane sophistication and calm, assured manner, almost makes you believe that surgically altering a poor, hapless stranger and marrying her is a reasonable thing to do.

Lizabeth Scott as Lily at the climax of Stolen Face, 1952
It suddenly dawns on Lily that she's wearing someone else's face.

Although crime dramas were numerous for Terence Fisher leading up to Hammer’s horror renaissance, they weren’t the only pictures he worked on. Just a year after Stolen Face, Fisher both wrote the screenplay for and directed Four Sided Triangle (1953), a low-budget, oddball sci-fi picture with an eerily similar premise.

Young, slightly mad scientists Bill and Robin (Stephen Murray and John Van Eyssen) have invented a matter duplicator. Both are in love with their childhood sweetheart Lena, who is back in England from an extended stay in the U.S. (Lena is played by blonde bombshell Barbara Payton, who -- yep, you guessed it -- was on the downside of her career due to scandals arising from her off-camera love life, including a fraught love triangle.)

When Robin successfully woos Lena and marries her, Bill decides to use the invention to make a duplicate of Lena for himself. Except that he didn’t figure that Lena 2 would be an exact replica in every detail, including her love choices.

In his book on Terence Fisher, film critic Peter Hutchings found at least one common thread in the director’s work from the early - mid ‘50s:

“As in the case with those other pre-1956 Fisher films that are distinctive in some way or other, there appears to be a conservative tone to the proceedings here. A comment made by the old doctor in Four Sided Triangle might well stand for this aspect of the work generally: ‘There is often less danger in the things we fear than in the things we desire.’ Desire is threatening, sexuality is dangerous, and anyone ‘infected’ with desire -- whether it be Bill in Four Sided Triangle, Ritter in Stolen Face, Duncan Reid in Portrait from Life or Chris in The Astonished Heart -- will suffer because of it. Yet at the same time this fearful emotion of desire is also an object of considerable fascination for the films. One outcome of this is that both Stolen Face and Four Sided Triangle reveal and dwell upon some of the more disturbing aspects of male desire, and their conservative but also somewhat contrived conclusions do little to resolve issues raised elsewhere in the films.” [Peter Hutchings, Terence Fisher, Manchester University Press, 2001, p. 67]
Monster unveiling, The Curse of Frankenstein, 1957
Lily rips off the bandages to reveal her new face... Oops, wrong movie!

Bonus Review:

Now Playing:
Blackout (1954)

Pros: Dane Clark’s energetic performance; Belinda Lee is the coolest of cucumbers
Cons: One too many plot twists make it hard to keep up without a scorecard

Unlike Stolen Face, Blackout is the real noir deal. It asserts its credentials in the opening scene, where a down and out American, Casey Morrow (Dane Clark), is getting stinking drunk at a London jazz club, with only an ashtray full of cigarette butts to keep him company.

Enter a luminously beautiful and classy mystery woman (Belinda Lee) who, before Morrow passes out, offers the broke American £500 to marry her that night! In the morning, he wakes up with a huge hangover in a strange artist’s studio/apartment, with no memory of the night's events, and bizarrely, sitting in the middle of the room, a portrait on an easel of the very same mystery woman. 

The artist/apartment tenant, Maggie Doone (Eleanor Summerfield), tells Morrow that he showed up in the middle of night banging on her door. Neither Maggie or Morrow know how he got there.

Things start to get interesting when Morrow finds out from the morning newspaper that the mystery woman is wealthy heiress Phyllis Brunner, her father has been murdered, and Phyllis is missing.

When Morrow goes to pay the newspaper vendor, he discovers a wad of pound notes in his pocket. It wasn’t a dream after all, and now he’s a person of interest in the murder. Morrow is going to have to become his own private investigator if he’s to clear his name, and there are a lot of possible guilty parties: was it Phyllis herself in a bid to inherit the family fortune and pin the murder on Morrow; or the sketchy solicitor Lance Gordon (Andrew Osborn), Phyllis’ supposed fiancé and the family business manager; or even Mrs. Brunner (Betty Ann Davies), who may have suspected that her husband was stepping out on her?

Belinda Lee and Dane Clark in Blackout, 1954
If a beautiful blonde who is way out of your league takes a sudden interest in you, watch out!

Blackout is another in a long line of noirs featuring protagonists suffering from memory lapses or amnesia who have stumbled into a world of trouble, and must race against time to clear their names -- Two O’Clock Courage (1945), Fear in the Night (1946), High Wall (1947), The Crooked Way (1949) and Man in the Dark (1953) are just a handful of examples.

The film checks off a bunch of noir elements, including apparent double-crosses, real double-crosses, red-herrings, corrupt wealthy families and their equally corrupt lawyers, psychopathic henchmen, and best of all, the patented icy blonde femme fatale who can turn on the charm when she needs something from a man.

Leading man Dane Clark owns the film from beginning to end. Clark is a man apart in a world of pursed-lip Britishness, rattling off screenwriter Richard Landau’s hard-boiled dialog and borderline non-sequiturs like a Brooklyn-accented dervish:

Morrow: “The last time Miss Opportunity knocked at my door, I let her in.”
Phyllis: “Oh, what happened?”
Morrow: “Now I haven’t even got a door.”


“Because when he turns up, if he turns up, he’s going to be the deadest man ever killed!”

After some work on Broadway, Clark jumped into movies in the early ‘40s. His first credited role was in the war picture Action in the Atlantic (1943) with Humphrey Bogart. He spent the war years playing average Joe, All-American soldiers, sailors and airmen in such pictures as Destination Tokyo (1943), God is My Co-Pilot (1945), and Pride of the Marines (1945).

By the late ‘40s he was “decommissioned” as a Hollywood soldier and joined the ranks of noir protagonists, appearing in Whiplash (1948), Backfire (1950), and two other Hammer near-noirs, The Gambler and the Lady (1952) and Paid to Kill (1954).

Clark is one of the Hammer-Lippert partnership’s better leading men, and his spirited, wryly humorous performance is ample reason to check out Blackout.

Dane Clark studies Belinda Lee's portrait in Blackout, 1954
"Where have I seen that face before?"