In Brief: Two Nights

nightcity1Quick post regards what I’ve been up to. By weird coincidence (its funny how these things happen) I’ve watched two films that share the word ‘Night’ in their titles: Night and the City, an outstanding film noir set in postwar London starring Richard Widmark and Night of the Eagle, a really effective horror film starring Peter Wyngarde. Both films really were very impressive (Night of the Eagle evoking -yes there’s THAT word ‘Night’ again- the classic Night of the Demon– so much so it’s sent me to the shelf for my copy of that film for a timely re-watch). Although I’d heard of Night and the City a few years ago I hadn’t gotten around to buying the Blu-ray until now (nothing like a sale price to finally swing it), but I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Night of the Eagle before, so that film (another catch on Talking Pictures) proved to be a very welcome surprise. Its just a pity that film hasn’t been released on Blu-ray over here; again, one has to wonder how many of these genuinely great old films fall through the cracks, never get a disc release and seldom get aired on mainstream channels.

I can’t say I ever really warmed to Richard Widmark; I don’t really know why, but I suppose with any actor, part of the process is one of chemistry and empathy. There are actors which, as a viewer, one can instantly strike a rapport with and subsequently enjoy any film they feature in, but at the same time the opposite can be true. In the case of Night and the City, the coolness I feel towards Widmark as an actor likely worked in the films favour, as his character, the hustler/chancer/selfish rogue Harry Fabian is pretty much a contemptible character anyway, so far as me as a viewer was concerned, half of Widmark’s work was done. Perfect casting maybe. To be fair to Widmark, an interview with him from 2002 that accompanies the film on this BFI disc was a bit of an eye-opener for me, gaining me new appreciation for the man and, who knows, maybe his work too. An opportunity for future re-evaluation then.

nighteagAs for Night of the Eagle– what a cracking horror movie. Soon as I noticed that the screenplay featured the work of Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont I guessed that I would be in for a treat. Its a finely wrought script that balances reason with the inexplicable and the film confidently suggests more than it shows (and to be honest, even when it ‘shows’ it does so surprisingly well). The cast, too, are uniformly excellent, I think; Peter Wyngarde is very good but I was particularly impressed by Janet Blair, who played his wife. Yet again, however, I find myself chagrined by being greatly impressed by an actress only to find her subsequent career destined for ill- in Blair’s case, one removed from film pretty much entirely, instead languishing in television guest-star spots.

Real-world issues have impacted my blog-writing over the past few days but I’m hoping to get proper reviews posted for these two, but if not, hopefully these brief notes will suffice until I can.

The Raven (1963)

raven1Watching The Raven is a delight, but I must confess it hardly feels like a proper Edgar Allen Poe movie. In a similar way to how The Haunted Palace was really a H P Lovecraft story posing as a Poe story (bookending the film with Price reading passages from Poe’s poem The Haunted Palace to maintain its place in the Poe series of AIP films by Roger Corman), I got the feeling that Price reciting lines from Poe’s The Raven, and then diverting into something else entirely, was a way of launching it into some other literary territory. This time it wasn’t Lovecraft but another of his Weird Tales contributors, Clark Ashton Smith, that was the inspiration.

Or maybe not. I’m not aware of any specific leanings towards CAS being admitted by the films creators or mentioned in the films credits. I doubt that the films screenwriter Richard Matheson ever admitted to it or likely even intended it, but Matheson was obviously aware of the writings of Clark Ashton Smith so there is a suspicion that its possible. I may indeed be barking up the proverbial wrong literary tree, but it just feels very much like a CAS story.He wrote such wonderfully rich, powerfully vivid stories of sorcerers and magic, that The Raven‘s central theme of three extravagant rival magicians, played with such scenery-chewing aplomb by horror thespians Price, Karloff and Lorre, seems to somehow channel the spirit and vitality of CAS’ prose so well, intended or not.

The obvious problem for any movie based on Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting poem The Raven is that there is little cohesive narrative to it- certainly not enough to fill a movie. Richard Matheson solved the problem by using the poem simply as a starting point for the film; not only that, but he dropped any leanings towards any horror implied by the title or by the film being part of Corman’s Poe series of films, by instead turning it into a comedy. And it works- it just doesn’t feel, as I stated earlier, authentically ‘Poe’. Perhaps it was turning it into a comedy that lost ‘the Poe’, but Clark Ashton Smiths stories certainly had plenty of macabre humour, and the subject matter echoes some of his writings.

But all this may be utter tosh and hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, as The Raven is a hoot, whatever its literary origin/influences. You just have to be in the right frame of mind, as it can be rather disorientating early on, if you are expecting a serious horror film and find yourself instead watching this strange comedic tale. Its one of those weird films in which nothing seems real, the characters behaving very oddly indeed.

The cast in particular is a joy, and includes a very young Jack Nicholson which seems quite bizarre, in a ‘was he ever really so young?’ sort of way (all the time I have known of him he always seemed middle-aged onwards re: The Shining, Batman etc, so much so that seeing him so young, and so, well, heroic/innocent/non-crazy in this does seem weird). Indeed Nicholson’s casting, considering his fame afterwards, in such a minor role in what is obviously a very b-movie production just makes the film seem more nuts than intended, somehow. Chief delight though are the great actors chewing up the scenery, hamming it up with the warm Matheson script (and ad-libbing and improvising like crazy when they aren’t, apparently). It looks like the film was just great fun to be involved with when making it, and its infectious too- by the midway point, whatever misconceptions you may have had, you can’t help but get carried away with it.

It is, to be sure, daft 1960s hokum, like the Batman tv series or the campier episodes of Star Trek. As opposed to Hammers more serious Gothic horrors of the period, these Corman films always had a West Coast, Rock and Roll, ironic sensibility and none more so than in this film.