Laura with Shelby Carpenter

A complex psychological thriller masquerading as a film noir, 1944’s Laura is about three men who are bewitched by a woman so ethereally, transcendentally beguiling that it is entirely appropriate that, when director Otto Preminger takes the curtain up, Laura (Gene Tierney) is already dead.

What follows is a basic whodunit pulled in various unusual directions. A for-instance: the cop on the case, Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), invites one of the men suspected of killing her, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), to accompany him while he cross-examines other witnesses. What cop does that? Another: the cop doesn’t do very much actual investigating and instead spends an inordinate amount of time in the dead woman’s apartment, making big moony eyes at a portrait of Laura hanging on the wall, as if it’ll tell him who did the deed.

The two other men in the dead Laura’s life are men with bits missing. Though it’s never stated up front, acid-penned columnist Lydecker is a homosexual whose relationship with Laura has been of the courtly older gent/young ingenue variety, though he, bucking against the constraints of his sexuality, wants more, much more. Vincent Price plays Shelby Carpenter, the would-be playboy of the western world who’s held back by a lack of cash and is hoping to rectify the situation by marrying the self-made Laura.

Neither man has the full complement of what Laura needs. If only decent, stand-up McPherson – a red-blooded male happy to live within his means – had met Laura while she were alive.

Lydecker in his bath meet cop McPherson
Lydecker meets the cop

The casting is spot on. Preminger (who also produced) fought hard to get Webb for the role of Lydecker, and won out against the wishes of studio boss Darryl F Zanuck, who was unhappy about the star’s open homosexuality, when this was what Preminger – who had an instinct for a lurid tabloid sell – wanted him for. Price is suave to the point of being reptilian, in the days before he’d begun his slide into grand guignol. Andrews is particularly good, and plays what is essentially a mad role – the infatuated cop – with a great deal of subtlety and restraint.

There are two important women. Laura, of course, with Tierney doing good work as the go-getter who takes the breaks offered to her by Lydecker and becomes a lone female force in the male-dominated world of advertising. What’s particularly good about her performance is the way she catches the beautiful woman’s in-built expectation that men will fall over themselves to be near her. As a kind of shadow version of Laura is the nicely over the top (as ever) Judith Anderson, four years on from playing Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, and here playing the doomed friend of Carpenter, unrequited love busting out all over and with not quite enough of what Laura’s got to get what Laura gets.

Preminger always had a taste for the melodramatic and squeezes the mood from initially highly frivolous (when the cop first meets Lydecker, Lydecker is in the bath) to incredibly fraught. The scene towards the end where the cop announces over the telephone, and in front of a room full of people hanging on his every word, that he’s about to arrest the murderer just as soon as he’s finished this call, is a bravura bit of writing and directing Agatha Christie would have been proud of.

It’s a country-house murder-mystery with an urban (and urbane) update, and Preminger is at pains to keep everything moving as if on castors, so much so that the one sharp move in the whole film really generates a frisson.

A triumph for Preminger, a rebuke for Zanuck, who not only hadn’t wanted Webb but didn’t want Preminger to direct and even forced a contrived rewritten finale on his director. Preminger, a bull at a gate, got what he wanted in all three instances, and was vindicated when Laura became one of the big hits of the year. Laura’s Theme – later recorded by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald – was a big hit too.

Laura – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

While the City Sleeps

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino sitting at a bar

While the City Sleeps is one of the great noir titles. Which is not the same as saying it’s one of the great noir movies. In fact it’s barely noir at all.

Though it does start off looking like it might be. A lurid murder before the opening credits, then titles that come blaring at us in gigantic white letters, while Herschel Burke Gilbert’s title music of clarion brass and shrill strings suggests a great noirish feast is about to be served up. The director’s name – Fritz Lang – also promises the same. He’d done Scarlet Street and The Big Heat, after all, noir lodestones.

There’s been a murder and the murderer has left behind a message scrawled in lipstick on the wall of the apartment where he killed the unlucky woman. “Ask Mother,” it reads, leading us into what actually turns out to be one of the great prototype serial killer movies – Seven takes quite a few of its cues from While the City Sleeps. The murderer who loves to leave a clue, who taunts the police, who acts out of a kind of demented sense of destiny, is a twisted ball of mother-love.

There are three stories in one here. The serial killer story, with Dana Andrews as the crusading journalist Ed Mobley. A love story – of sorts – in which Ed tries to get sexy newspaper secretary Nancy (Sally Forrest) into bed, while she tries to get him to the altar, that’s if hard-bitten hack Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino, laying on the Hedda Hopper) doesn’t peel Ed off first for some booze-soaked sex. And weaving between these two stories is the actual driver of the plot, a neat bit of inter-media rivlary in which the section heads of the gigantic Kyne media conglomerate – a newspaper business, a newswire agency and a TV station – all vie for an editor-in-chief position after old man Kyne dies and his feckless son (played by Vincent Price) takes over.

“While the city sleeps” is when newspaper guys (and they are guys) do their work and this is one of the great heroic-journalism movies, set in a world full of people desperate for a scoop and going into battle armed with the conviction that newspapers are a public good. The days of big bad MSM and fake news are way, way in the future.

The drinking is also heroic and Andrews – who has to play drunk a couple of times – was apparently drunk through the entire shoot. It’s one of his best performances, humane and sparky where he can sometimes be a bit bloodless and flat.

Great performances all round. Thomas Mitchell as the grizzled old editor of the Sentinel, a newspaper guy to his fingertips, George Sanders as the oily boss of the wire service, James Craig grabbing the short straw in an underwritten role as “Honest” Harry Kritzer, the lothario head of pictures who’s also secretly having an affair with the new owner’s hot wife (Rhonda Fleming).

Vincent Price as Walter Kyne
Vincent Price as Walter Kyne

There are three noir females – women who get what they want by manipulating men – Lupino, Fleming and Forrest all coming at the femme fatale from slightly different angles, Fleming as the most overtly wanton, Lupino playing the boozy dame who grabs her kicks where she can and Forrest’s Nancy at the Doris Day end of the spectrum. Perky. And she has been dressed so we notice just how perky.

Lang is an in-camera director, as usual, preferring to do with crane, dolly and track what other directors achieve with an edit in post production. It makes for a gloriously fluid film and the longish takes give his actors something to chew on. Ernst Laszlo, one of the great directors of photography, does a fine job but only really gets his head in the scenes towards the end when Mobley is chasing the serial killer down some subway tunnels lit in a style reminiscent of The Third Man.

The whole serial killer angle is a bit of a feint, really, and John Drew Barrymore (father of Drew) is wheeled out to sweat and boggle his eyes only as and when the other elements of the story, which are doing perfectly well on their own, need a bit of a breather.

For all the many claims to greatness, this is a bit of a potboiler, albeit one done with plenty of craft polish and with a lot of fine actors giving it their best. Having virtually created the noir genre in the mid 1930s, Fritz Lang is effectively bringing it to an end in the mid 1950s with this film and its follow-up, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, a noirish courtroom drama that’s also a bit of a genre mishmash.

Neither is a classic but then the genre, like Lang himself, was exhausted.

While the City Sleeps – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Theatre of Blood

Vincent Price and Diana Rigg in Theatre of Blood


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 May


Sam Jaffe born, 1901

On this day in 1901, one of the great characters of Hollywood was born, in Harlem, New York. Sam Jaffe, not to be confused with the actor of the same name, dropped out of high school and, thanks to his brother-in-law being a producer, got a job as an office boy at Paramount.

He rose quickly and by 22 was production manager on films directed by such luminaries as Lubitsch, Von Sternberg and Mamoulian. Having dated Clara Bow and saved Paramount studios financially by inventing the “night for day” system of shooting – which used the nightime streets (plus massive amounts of lighting) as sets rather than the incapacitated studios (being refitted for talkies) – Jaffe worked briefly at Columbia in the 1930s. Then he went solo and went on to become an agent for Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, David Niven, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick and others. It was Jaffe who took out insurance in case Humphrey Bogart was shot by his own wife while making Casablanca. He also became in independent producer, until the McCarthy enquiries into Communist sympathisers holed his business below the waterline.

He moved to London in 1959 and officially retired, though continued producing projects that took his fancy, making films such as 1966’s Born Free and 1973’s Theatre of Blood. Otherwise he studied and collected art. He returned to Los Angeles in the 1980s and became an avid student at UCLA’s perpetual learning (PLATO) project. He died aged 99 in 2000.




Theatre of Blood (1973, dir: Douglas Hickox)

As the British movie industry went into one of its periodic flop-sweats in the early 1970s, it turned to soft porn, smutty humour and feature-length versions of TV comedies to bale it out. The Hammer studio continued making horror films, with more breasts. The comedy series Carry On carried on, also with more breasts.

Which makes Theatre of Blood something of an oddity – a witty horror film eschewing nudity, with a big cast of familiar actors, sumptuous sets, good locations, all the things that say “proper movie”. And a movie star – Vincent Price, hot off the back of the Dr Phibes films, which also mixed high camp and comedy.

Here, Price is playing a dreadful old ham actor, no stretch, who is working his way through the critics who cruelly denied him an acting award, on account of the fact that he’s no damn good. Undaunted by fickle opinion, Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart continues to believe he is the best interpreter of Shakespeare – all other playwrights are beneath him – ever to have trodden the boards. And so he kills them all, these critics, one by one, in scenes lifted from Shakespeare, loosely adapted by Lionheart and his aide whose bubble perm and moustache combo appears to have been borrowed from ELO’s Jeff Lynne. The aide is in fact Lionheart’s daughter in disguise, played by Diana Rigg, and I’m not sure if we’re meant to know it’s her or whether it’s all part of some big reveal.

The deaths of the actors are fairly gruesome – one is drowned in a vat of wine, another gets a spear through the chest, another is electrocuted in a hairdresser’s chair… but I’m spoiling the fun. And it is fun, watching ripe British talent such as Harry Andrews, Michael Hordern and Robert Morley getting a few minutes in the spotlight before they shuffle off this mortal coil. Fun but not funny, I must say. Camp rather than hilarious, much as director Douglas Hickox’s previous film, Entertaining Mr Sloane, had been (well worth a gander if you haven’t seen it).

Other little joys include shots of London, after decades of post-War decline, just poised on the beginning of the decades-long climb back to being one of the glittering global capitals. There’s also Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography, which really lifts this from out of the normal rut of British films of the early 1970s (he’d worked similar magic on Get Carter two years earlier).

If you were going to make a shortlist of Price’s best films, then this, along with Witchfinder General, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven and House of Wax (possibly the first Phibes film) would be high on any shortlist, because it is Price playing Price, a man who has spent so long in grand guignol mode that he isn’t sure where the off switch is.



Why Watch?


  • One of Vincent Price’s best films
  • Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography
  • The cast is all top drawer
  • Because the 2014 restoration is so good


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Theatre of Blood – at Amazon

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Witchfinder General

Vincent Price


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



30 January



Oliver Cromwell executed two years after death, 1661

On this day in 1661, Oliver Cromwell was posthumously executed.

A member of parliament who had entered the civil war against the king, Cromwell had risen quickly to become on of the best generals on the side of the “roundheads”. In 1649, Cromwell was one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. In 1653, having led campaigns against the Irish and Scots, he abolished a quarrelsome parliament and became de facto monarch of the country. When he died five years later, in 1658, the title of Lord Protector went to his son, though Cromwell Jr would hold it for only a year, leading to the end of the Protectorate.

In the power vacuum that ensued, George Monck, the English governor of Scotland, seized the initiative, marched on London, restored the parliamentary system that had been in existence under Charles I and set about organising the restoration of the monarchy.

On 30 January 1661, 12 years after Charles I had been executed, Cromwell’s body was dug up from Westminster Abbey and was subject to a ritual execution. His body was then hung on chains at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) and his head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall for the following 25 years.

Whether it actually was the body of Cromwell which was “executed” has always been moot.




Witchfinder General (1968, dir: Michael Reeves)

Set in an England where the fighting between Oliver Cromwell’s men and royalists has torn the social fabric, allowing opportunists of all sorts to make sport, this cult horror film comes at the real-life tale of witchfinder Matthew Hopkins from a typically 1960s direction – youth, sex and zoom lenses.

Ian Ogilvie is the callow member of Cromwell’s army, Vincent Price the witchfinder terrorising the people of Norfolk with his pointing finger, and Hilary Dwyer the soldier’s comely fiancée who catches the eye of the charlatan.

It’s a cult horror film for several reasons, not least the death shortly after it was made of its young director, 25-year-old Michael Reeves. And though Reeves is often over-rated by horror geeks he clearly had something about him. For example he managed to persuade Vincent Price to leave the full basket of fruit at home, wrangling a performance out of him that’s ripe rather than rotten (this wrangling is the subject of a brilliant and amusing BBC radio play by Matthew Broughton you can hear here).

Witchfinder General is the best of Reeves’s slim output of four films, a brutal and bleak treatise on terror that survives the poor acting and post-dubbed sound thanks to its psychological insight, measured treatment of its villain – Hopkins is a man led astray by power, not the devil – and an eye for a pastoral image.

It’s sometimes called The Conquering Worm in the USA, where it was sold as the latest in the line of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. But though Poe wrote a poem called The Conquering Worm, and that title is tacked on the front of the DVD for its US release, this film has nothing to do with it. And unlike those Poe films, or almost any other horror film of the time, there is no supernatural element in Witchfinder General at all. As with The Wicker Man, with which it is sometimes lumped, the horror here is all man-made, psychological, political and very nasty.



Why Watch?


  • Vincent Price playing it straight (ish)
  • A cult film from a cult director
  • Play “what would Reeves have produced if he hadn’t died”
  • British folk horror at its psychological best


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm – at Amazon

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The Raven

Artwork for the original poster of The Raven


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



23 November



Boris Karloff born, 1887

On this day in 1887, the great horror actor Boris Karloff was born. Disappointingly, his birth name was William Henry Pratt and he wasn’t born in some Carpathian cave but in the inner suburb of Lewisham, South London. A well educated young man with a lisp and a stutter, he dropped out while training to become a functionary of the British Empire and instead took to farm labouring before becoming an actor. He took the name Boris Karloff while in travelling repertory theatre in Canada, and after arriving in Hollywood he played a number of villain roles before getting some notice in the Oscar-nominated newspaper drama Five Star Final. The same year, 1931, saw Frankenstein hitting the screens with Karloff as the monster. He instantly became one of the most famous actors in the world. Within a handful of years he had also appeared in The Mummy and The Old Dark House, other classics from Universal’s golden horror era. Karloff loved to work and was always grateful for the opportunities the bolt-necked monster had given him. He continually sought to widen his appeal, though it was as mad scientists, deranged villains or even as the demented Captain Hook that his gifts for deadpan and the sibilant vestige of his lisp would stand him in best stead. Towards the end of his career his star waned. Whether he would have kept his career in better health by not being so ready to spoof himself, so keen to work in no matter what low quality B movie, to appear as a regular on any old TV show is debateable. What isn’t is that Karloff was a trooper and a gentleman who gave handsomely to charity and dressed up as Father Christmas every year to hand out presents to orphaned children. He worked right to the end, through emphysema and arthritis: Peter Bogdanovich cast him in his first film, Targets, as a horror actor approaching the end of his life. It was in fact Karloff’s final film (though four further Mexican films, shot earlier in 1968 would appear posthumously). He died in England, of pneumonia, and was cremated and laid to rest as William Henry Pratt in a low-key service.




The Raven (1963, dir: Roger Corman)

There’s a scene towards the end of the final Harry Potter film when the massed might of Hogwarts stand up for a “wands at dawn” showdown against Voldemort’s cohort. It’s a thrilling sequence that brings to mind the finale of Roger Corman’s great adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. Like all Corman productions it was made on the cheap. But Corman always had an eye for talent going for a song, rising stars who’d work for buttons and, most of all, the main chance. All combine in The Raven, which sees the cut-price horror triumvirate of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, rising star Jack Nicholson and genius sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) collaborating on one of the best fantasy B movies ever made. The plot is Poe’s (sort of): a retired widower wizard named Dr Erasmus Craven (Price) is visited by a talking raven (Lorre) who claims he was turned into a bird by the most powerful magician in the world – Dr Scarabus (Karloff). After Craven returns the raven to human form, he learns that his wife isn’t dead after all; she’s shacked up with Scarabus. Apparently. So off the pair head to Scarabus’s castle for a showdown. Cue wands, wizardry, special effects and ever increasing amounts of camp. It’s here that the film comes into its own, as Karloff and Price try to outdo each other with “serious face” spoof-acting, while Lorre bounces around improvising trying to make them corpse. Corman was just off a string of Poe adaptations with Price and both are clearly enjoying the opportunity to have a bit of fun at the old drunkard’s expense. This was the first time that Lorre, Price and Karloff appeared together. And though it happened again the following year in Comedy of Terrors, the later film is not a patch on The Raven. As for Jack Nicholson – let’s just say he was yet to invent the “here’s Johnny” persona.



Why Watch?


  • A great example of a Roger Corman film – cheap but full of ingenuity
  • Karloff was also in the 1935 The Raven – which is nothing like this
  • Lorre’s improvising
  • A camp classic


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Raven – at Amazon