D.O.A. (1949)

Life is tough for Frank Bigelow. Not only is he uncertain about his feelings for his girlfriend and secretary Paula, but he is also dying after having been poisoned by a radioactive substance slipped into his drink. The film D.O.A. begins famously with a long tracking shot as we follow Bigelow into the police station where he goes to report the murder of himself. The rest of the film is one long flashback, explaining all about how he came into such circumstances.

Edmond O'Brien and Pamela Britton in D.O.A. (1949)

The abbreviation DOA stands for “dead on arrival”, and that is basically what Bigelow is as he enters that police station. This gives the whole film a sense of impending doom, one which is strengthened by the protagonist’s clothes. From the beginning of the film to its very end, Bigelow wears the same elegant double-breasted suit. Only, the further the film progresses, the more beat up Bigelow gets, and the suit with him.

In addition to its many other good qualities, D.O.A. is gifted with an abundance of quirky personalities. Frank Bigelow himself is certainly among these, and in many ways he fits the archetypal cynical noir “hero”. About the only sane person in the entire film appears to be his sweetheart Paula.

This film is best enjoyed if you like a good story with lots of nice and unexpected twists. This one has them in abundance, even for a film noir. Sure, it may be a little improbable at times, but that is easily forgotten and forgiven.

Neville Brand and Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A. (1949)

D.O.A.
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Year: 1949
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Robert Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (953 M)

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Hercules (1958)

The sword-and-sandal, or peplum, genre of films has a long history, starting in the silent era. But for a few short years, the genre was the bright centre of the cinematic universe, at least in Italy, and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Western world. And that short period in the early 1960s all started with one single film, Hercules with the muscular Steve Reeves in the title role.

Steve Reeves and Sylva Koscina in El Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules (1958)

Hercules, more so than most other sword-and-sandals, is solidly grounded in ancient Greek mythology. The plot centres around the legend of the quest for the golden fleece (complete with Argo, Jason and many of the most famous Argonauts), and mixed into the brew are several segments from the legend of the labours of Hercules.

It is difficult to grasp just how popular the sword-and-sandal films were at their peak. The genre is hard to define exactly, so any count of how many films were produced during the peak years must be made with care. One estimate I have seen suggests that during the period 1960 – 1965, an average of one new film every ten days(!) was released in Italy. It is easy to understand that the market was saturated eventually, and after 1965, the genre more or less died, or at least dropped to more reasonable levels.

A few other sword-and-sandal films featuring Hercules are available at the Internet Archive, most interestingly Hercules Unchained from 1959, which was a direct sequel to Hercules; the two are often mentioned together as the two films that sparked the tremendous interest in the genre.

The version I have chosen for this post is a pretty good widescreen version. The Internet Archive also has a different version, edited for 4:3 aspect ratio. It is much less interesting, but if you are fanatic about this film, you may wish to compare them side by side.

This film is best enjoyed for its high production and entertainment values, but also as a truly pivotal piece of cinematic history. Sure, you will have to endure some pretty bad dubbing, but the overall experience is certainly worth some minor suffering.

Steve Reeves in El Fatiche di Ercole / Hercules (1958)

Hercules
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Year: 1958
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Language: English
Director: Pietro Francisci
Stars: Steve Reeves
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (831×376; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Suddenly (1954)

When I think about Frank Sinatra, I think about him as a singer. But he also acted in dozens of films, mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, and he was not a half bad actor. Today, his acting is perhaps best remembered for roles in classics such as From Here to Eternity (1953), Ocean’s Eleven (the 1960 original) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). But he made many other memorable performances, not least so in Suddenly.

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)

Here, we see Sinatra as a cynic war hero who has turned into an assassin, taking money for doing what he does best – killing people. He has taken on the job of shooting the president of the United States, and decided to do so in a small town named Suddenly. There his chosen firing position forces him into a close encounter with the local sheriff and the sheriff’s sweetheart, the widowed Mrs. Benson who lives with her father-in-law and her son.

During the first part of the film, the acting feels a bit stiff, especially by Stirling Hayden, who plays Sinatra’s nemesis, the sheriff. Hayden was an excellent actor, and the stiffness was no doubt deliberate on his part. He must have wanted to create a slightly boring but totally dependable and patriotic hero, just what American movie-goers needed at a time when the world seemed a very dangerous place to live, and the president was much more of a symbol for the entire nation than is perhaps the case today.

Suddenly was remade in 2013 by Uwe Boll, but the remake is said to be far inferior to the original.

This film is best enjoyed when you understand some of the political undercurrents of the time. The moral message of this film is perfectly clear: Unless you have a bigger gun than your enemy, and unless you are prepared to use it, he is going to make you suffer. In that respect, you can see this film as a metaphor for the entire Cold War. Sinatra and his gang represent the communists, and his sniper rifle represents their nuclear arsenal. It is a good thing there were still righteous Americans around in the 1950s.

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly
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Year: 1954
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: Lewis Allen
Stars: Frank Sinatra
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1488×1090)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Through the years, I have not reviewed very many horror films at this blog, and some of those I have written about, quite frankly, are not all that horrible. This week, however, I present one of the real classics in the genre, The Last Man on Earth with horror master Vincent Price in the title role.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Vincent Price plays the last surviving human in a city full of living dead vampires. He seems to be immune to the virus that has infected all humanity, and in wont of better things to do, he spends his days trying to kill as many vampires as he can. He uses all the classical anti-vampire tricks in the book: garlic, wooden stakes, crucifixes, even mirrors. The works. And he succeeds because the vampires are more or less without mind. They move and they try to kill, but they are very slow and they have no conscious plan.

Technically speaking, The Last Man on Earth is a vampire film, but thematically it is rather more of a forerunner to the modern zombie film. The disease that infects nearly all human beings and makes them into mindless slayers is a typical zombie cliché. The modern vampire film, on the other hand, often has the vampires living as intelligent beings in secret communities among normal humans.

There are moments when you can see that this is a pretty cheap production. For example, in the beginning of the film, we see a series of shots of empty buildings, empty roads, empty parking lots, and so on. There are no signs of life. But, wait … There, at 00:43, on the right in the picture, is a small boy standing on a balcony. He was clearly not meant to be there.

Cheap or not, the film is really beautiful. Many scenes are really well composed, and Vincent Price was a brilliant actor. The film was made in Italy, and like most Italian 1960s productions, it was dubbed in post-production. I am guessing that Price made his own voice, but synch is not always perfect. That, I think, is the most blatant flaw in an otherwise very good movie.

Quite often, when a film at the Internet Archive is labeled “HD”, it turns out not to be true High Definition at all. Either, resolution is much lower than advertised, or it is “fake” HD, converted from a lower definition. But The Last Man on Earth, at least the version I link to, is true HD to every last pixel. This is an excellent version, and even if you are stuck with pretty lousy bandwidth, it is worth waiting for the 3.6 gigs to download.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a bit of cynism in your life. Like many of the best vampire films, The Last Man on Earth is dark, gritty and distressing. There is very little hope for humanity to be found here.

Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The Last Man on Earth
Download link
Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Directors: Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow
Stars: Vincent Price
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1696×738)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.6 G)

Les Vampires (1915–16)

I have previously written about a number of serials. Looking at those earlier reviews, one might easily get the impression that serials were mostly a sound film phenomenon. Ah, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It has proven difficult to find reliable facts about silent serials, but the first ones seem to have appeared as early as the first decade of the 20th Century. By 1915, production was in full swing, on both sides of the Atlantic, and before the era came to an end around 1930, hundreds of silent serials had been made. I am guessing that many are incomplete or lost today, but many others survive, and the best are quite up to the standards of the so-called “Golden Age” serials of the 1930s and 1940s. They were not yet as clichéd and predictable as the later serials usually were, and quite often they created the elements that were later to become cliché.

Édouard Mathé in Les Vampires (1915)

The French serial Les Vampires (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) is often considered to be among the best of those early ones, and indeed some claim that it is one of the best serials of all time. It tells the story of how newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande tries to thwart a group of criminals who terrorize Paris. In spite of the title, Les Vampires has nothing to do with any vampires. It was simply the name that this gang of criminals used for themselves.

The plot, meandering in various directions, is a bit too complex to summarize here, but it is impossible to review this serial and not mention the character Irma Vep (note the anagram), who makes her first appearance in Episode 3. Vep is a close associate to the leader of The Vampires. She is totally unscrupulous and a master of disguise, and for the rest of the serial, she remains the main antagonist. Irma Vep has certainly been one of the strongest cultural footprints of Les Vampires. She remains a popular character and icon among silent movie fans.

According to Wikipedia, Les Vampires was made “quickly and inexpensively with very little written script.” Well, that shows, and the plot seems pretty random and incoherent at times. I know that some people have a problem with that, but I do not find that it detracts from my enjoyment. There is so much to like about this serial that some small rough spots are easily overlooked. Besides, modern Hollywood scripts are not always too coherent either.

This serial is best enjoyed because of the huge influence it has had on later crime cinema. Among the film makers said to be strongly inspired by it are such giants as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. There are good reasons why this particular serial became so influential. Watch it and find out for yourself!

A Vampire thief in Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
Year: 1915–16
Running time: 6 h 40 min
Language: English
Director: Louis Feuillade
Stars: Édouard Mathé, Musidora
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Eight men, one woman. They have formed a secret society, the aim of which is to better mankind by murdering those who deserve to die. They have gathered on this day to decide if a certain person will die, and if so, who is to perform the deed. Such is the beginning of The Ace of Hearts. The title indicates the fateful card that is used to randomly choose the murderer.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

But love is about to complicate our plot. Two members are rivals for the love of the only woman, Lilith, but she loves neither back. She only has feelings for the Cause. Ah, but what will happen when one of the two is chosen to commit a murder for that Cause? Can she separate her feelings for the man and the ideal? This plot may seem a bit corny, but works really well togehter with the excellent actors and the nice photography.

Around this time, film cameras slowly started to move around; to pan, to track, to zoom. The camera in The Ace of Hearts, however, is always completely static. But that is not entirely a problem, because when the limits of the set are known, the director and cameraman can use the set as if it was a painting, carefully composing each detail to balance the whole picture. Akira Kurosawa was to use similar techniques a lot in many of his best films, decades later, and Wallace Worsley does it here, almost to perfection. Watch, for example, The Man Who Deserves to Die striding slowly from the restaurant entrance to the dining hall’s vault. Splendid!

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, then this may or may not be a film to your taste. This is the only film I have seen where Chaney does not in any way use heavy makeup or prosthetics for enhancing his role and performance. Chaney is good enough an actor that he is excellent even without this, but if your fancy are his many amazing horror masks, then this film may disappoint you.

Like any silent film, I am sure this one would have been even better with a good soundtrack. However, thanks to the film’s poetic imaging and slow but deliberate tempo, I did not find the lack of sound disturbing. The mere visuals keep tension up by themselves. If silence makes you nervous, a version with an acceptable organ score is also available, but unfortunately it has lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed as a conceptual sequel to The Penalty from the year before. The Ace of Hearts had the same director, the same star (Chaney), and was based on a novel by the same author, Gouverneur Morris. And even though the films are set in very different surroundings, they share the delving into the darker recesses of the human psyche.

Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy and John Bowers in The Ace of Hearts (1921)

The Ace of Hearts
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)

Love Affair (1939)

I sit here on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, waiting for Christmas dinner to be prepared and for presents to arrive (where I live, Christmas Eve is more important to celebrate than Christmas Day). Every year, I try to include at least one Christmas themed movie around this time. This year, I have chosen the classic Love Affair.

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939)

True, the entire film is not about Christmas. It is only in the last twenty minutes that the Christmas theme comes in, but it is fitting enough at that point, because that is where the film turns into a real feel-good melodrama. I will not reveal too much of the plot, except to say that it involves true love at first sight, forced separations, great personal sacrifice, and I do not think I spoil too much by revealing that there will be a happy ending, although one not entirely without complications.

Like many other popular old movies, this one was adapted into a radio play, and Irene Dunne even reprised her role from the film. I have not listened to this particular adaptation, but those old radio plays are often very good. If you are interested, Love Affair and many others are available as part of the Screen Guild Theater series.

This film is best enjoyed because the chemistry between Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne is excellent. The plot have a few weak moments if you start analysing it too closely, but Boyer and Dunne nevertheless manage to make the story believable.

Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya and Irene Dunne in Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576; including black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)