(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) It’s easy to like Arsenic and Old Lace if you already like Cary Grant—after all, the film is his showcase, as he goes from being a suave newlywed man of letters to becoming increasingly frantic as he discovers that his aunts and then his brother are all proficient serial killers in their own ways. It’s not a good thing to discover on one’s honeymoon, and things get crazier as he also tries to manage an insane uncle, friendly policemen and fights to stay alive given the presence of a psychopath or two. The black comedy of Arsenic and Old Lace is a bit surprising in a post-Code mid-1940s comedy, but the film did have a strong theatrical pedigree, being an adaptation of a long-running Broadway play. Frank Capra directs what is essentially a stage play with some flair (a bit of a departure from his usual fare), but much of the work is done by the actors. If you want to see a face-off between Cary Grant and Peter Lorre, well, this is your movie. Grant does play the role very broadly, but his facial expressions are terrific—the sequence in which he’s tied up and gagged has some hilarious comedy moments simply because of the way he uses his face and eyes. Grant hasn’t often played a character as out-of-control as in Arsenic and Old Lace, but it works largely because his usual persona is the one we see at the beginning of the film—what if such a person got in as bad a scrap as in here? There’s even a metafictional moment in which his character comments on the stupidity of stage characters … while making the exact same mistakes. The beginning of the film is a bit laborious, but like most farces it converges in time for a high-spirited last act in which everything collides. Some of the acting and staging choices will seem a bit on-the-nose, but Arsenic and Old Lace is still funny and still well-worth seeing today.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) Before Alfred Hitchcock immigrated to the United States, before he cast James Steward and Doris Day in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, there was a black-and-white version of the same story, also directed by Hitchcock in 1934. Now, don’t expect a faithful remake: while both versions share a common premise and significant similarities in their plotting and characters, both films have significant differences as well, which makes it interesting to watch the earlier version even knowing what happened with the later one. Hitchcock famously described the difference between the two versions as “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional” and that describes it rather well—the remake is the one to watch if you only have time for one, but there’s a lot to like in the first one too: Having Peter Lorre as a villain is always fun, and the film doesn’t hold back in featuring a big police shootout as part of its conclusion. There’s some sun-worshipping weirdness in the plot, but much of the film is solid thriller filmmaking, as competent now as it was back then—along with The 39 Steps, it clearly shows Hitchcock working at a high level even at that time in his career.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) It’s easy to dismiss early cinema as somehow less than what is now possible. I suspect that much of this easy dismissal comes from the examples set during the Hays Code, which stunted the emotional development of American cinema for decades. But there are plenty of examples of movies (either pre-Code or non-American production) that show that even early cinema could be as hard-hitting, mature and disturbing as anything else since then. A good case in point would be Fritz Lang’s M, an upsetting crime drama set in Berlin during which a serial killer of children is hunted by both the police and organized crime. Peter Lorre plays the killer, in a performance that is instantly repellent, then pitiful as he finds himself targeted for summary execution by crime syndicates none too happy about his actions and the ensuing police crackdown. A true noir film in which the black-and-white images belie the gray morality of its characters, M remains a captivating piece of work even today. Deftly using primal fears to move its audience (up to a fourth-wall-breaking final shot), M is a well-controlled achievement that certainly gets reactions. The use of sound, not even five years after the introduction of the technology, is quite effective — “In the Halls of the Mountain Kings” is used as a meaningful leitmotif, and even in German, the film does quite a lot with the voices of its actors. It is a bit long, perhaps slightly inefficient in the ways it moves its characters in the middle third, but the overall dreadful atmosphere of the film is striking, and the nightmarish quality of the last sequence makes up for most shortcomings. There is an added dimension to the film for modern audiences knowing that the society depicted here was already in fully Nazification. All of that, and more, combine to make M essential viewing today, not just as a piece of movie history.