The last few days proved a very odd mix of media watching. From the 1930s to 2014, and from powerful to putrid and back again.
Hangmen Also Die! (1943) is one of Fritz Lang’s best Hollywood anti-Nazi films. Sure, the Nazis chew the scenery, the Czechs are played by Americans or Brits, and some of the dialogue is surprisingly cheesy given that Bertolt Brecht was the screenwriter. Yet, this is one of few WWII-era films in which mass murder is shown (not graphically, of course). Even at its most artificial, the film’s engagement with Nazi dehumanization and genocide is palpable. And Anna Lee is particularly good as our heroine. If you’ve seen Man Hunt by Lang and wanted more, this is the film to see. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Wrong Road (1937): Mistakenly watched this soon after Hangmen Also Die!, seeking some new pre-noir to enjoy. Wow, this was cheesy. It feels like one of those bad 50s educational films, in this case telling you why you shouldn’t steal $100,000 from a bank and expect to get away with it and still be the person you were before. A young unmarried couple (Richard Cromwell and Helen Mack) with delusions of grandeur are sick of living on the cheap. They come from privileged class families and want that lifestyle. When the fella is going to be fired from his bank clerk job, they hatch a plan to steal $100K, hide it in a music box, and then take their jail sentence, knowing they can reunite in 5-10 years and live happily and wealthily ever after. Suffice it to say, things go wrong in every way possible. The problems are aided by a wise and fatherly investigator (Lionel Atwill) who gets them paroled and follows them, promising that if they give themselves and the money up, he’ll get leniency for the youngsters so they can live happily and honestly ever after. It’s like Gun Crazy (1950) without the guns or the bleakness. It’s positively un-noir. Silver lining limited to the fact that Richard Cromwell is beautiful to look at, just don’t expect any acting ability from him or Helen Mack. Also watch for Marjorie Main in a small part if you decide against my advice to watch this didactic mess. NOT RECOMMENDED.
Penny Dreadful (2014-), episodes 1-3: At a friend’s recommendation and because the first seasons are now on Netflix, I’ve begun watching Penny Dreadful. It’s a gorgeous mash-up of diverse literary horrors brought together with an original framing plot, including lush gothic excess in mise-en-scene and dialogue. It uses the HBO-style combo platter graphic violence and sex to titillate (a la Deadwood and many others since), and frankly I wouldn’t mind a little less of both, particularly the splatter gore it delights in. I’m interested in character-driven narrative, and it’s trying to give us that, but as a pulp-oriented show, it gives a lot of pulp. Highlights for me are Timothy Dalton getting some good acting in and the incredible Victorian look of the show, from street scenes and living spaces to fashion. Eva Green is beginning to get on my nerves after only three episodes, though Reeve Carney’s Dorian Gray is very well done and you can’t help but love Rory Kinnear’s Creature. Weakest acting so far goes to Billie Piper, whose dreadful “Irish” accent, spoken entirely through her nose, makes me roll my eyes or groan every time she speaks. We shall see what future episodes bring… RECOMMENDED if you can handle repulsive graphic violence every five minutes.