Dressed to Kill (1946)

Later this week, this blog turns four years. With this week’s post, I therefore take you back to where it all began: Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in 1946.

That first film I wrote about was Terror by Night, arguably the best of the many Sherlock Holmes films available at the Internet Archive. Later that same year, Rathbone along with Nigel Bruce were to make their last screen appearances as the famous detective and his sidekick. While not quite as good as the earlier film, Dressed to Kill is not a bad pick if you like old-school mysteries.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill begins with two preludes. First is a scene from a prison, then one from an auction hall. Both involve music boxes, and this is of course no coincidence. Later, we find ourselves on home turf, as far as Holmes mysteries go. Holmes and Watson sit in the 221 B Baker Street apartment, the one playing the violin, the other musing over some old cases that have recently seen print. Watson’s old pal “Stinky” calls for a visit, and of course he brings a somewhat intriguing mystery. A mystery with a music box. Well, who would have imagined?

In an attack of lacking imagination, the producer and writer here re-used the plot of the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, which had already been filmed with Rathbone two years earlier as The Pearl of Death. But there is a twist. The music boxes that are featured in place of the original’s Napoleon busts are not exactly identical; the music they play has slight variations, and in those variations is a code. A code that only Sherlock Holmes can crack. We are also treated with a number of memorable crooks, including a femme fatale well played by Patricia Morison.

With this film, I consider myself to have mined the Internet Archive for worthwhile Sherlock Holmes films, except for one little bonus feature that I saved for next week. There are several other Holmes-related films in the Archive, but all are either too poor or too short, usually both. Of historical interest is, for example, a series of silent shorts.

In addition to this one and Terror by Night, two of the fourteen Rathbone/Bruce films are available for download at the Internet Archive, and in the intervening years since my first post I have written about both. They are Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943) and The Woman in Green (1945).

This film is best enjoyed whenever you are in the mood for some good, classic, Holmes. Few are better than Rathbone, and add to that solid scenography, dialogue and directing. I still think that Terror by Night is the best Holmes film at the Internet Archive, but when you have seen that, you will want more, and Dressed to Kill is not a bad next selection.

Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946)

Dressed to Kill
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.1 G)

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The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Imagine being kicked in the shin. Repeatedly, over and over again, for almost two hours. That is what it feels like to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special. I normally try to stay away from writing about bad movies on this blog (although on occasion I make an exception or two), but this is one you just need to experience because, you know, you have to see it to believe it.

Patty Maloney, Micke Morton, Paul Gale and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Everyone knows that the first Star Wars film premiered in 1977. Less well known is that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was actually not the second part of the saga. That honour goes to The Star Wars Holiday Special, which made its TV premiere for the Christmas season of 1978. Here, you will see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels (C3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader) reprising their roles from the first film. However, none of these are the main characters. Instead, the action centres around Chewbacca’s family – his father, wife and son – living in a tree house that would have made Johnny Weissmuller green with envy.

This is where the Holiday Special’s problems start. Through much of the film, these relatives just walk around, howling their lungs out in poor imitation of wookie language (which, embarrassingly, was created by Ben Burtt himself). The so-called story, about Chewie having to make it back home in time for celebrating the all-important Life Day holiday, is stupid enough in itself, but every step of the execution just keeps making it worse, and then worse again.

There is actually one segment of the Special that is rather good (when compared with the rest). About halfway through, there is a ten-minute animated short film. The inclusion of this is incredibly silly, plot-wise speaking, but when seen in isolation, the animation (which is not in any significant way connected with the rest of the plot) has a number of redeeming features. Sure, the animation is a bit too cartoonish and the voice actors (also the original cast, as far as I can tell) certainly did not put their souls into the job. But on the other hand, and very much unlike the rest of the Special, it has a lot of nice Star Wars-esque alien planet environments. The story is simple but not bad. As an oddity under the Star Wars brand, this short is well worth exploring. Also, it is the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett.

Since The Star Wars Holiday Special has never been restored and officially released after the original airing, copies found online tends to be of really low quality. The main copy at the Internet Archive is the best I have seen, with almost-decent technical quality. There is also another version available, with worse quality, but on the other hand it comes with all the commercials from the original airing. They provide a welcome break from the inanities of the Special, and also add some unintended entertainment of their own.

This film is best enjoyed because you know that pain is your friend. Besides, what does not kill you will make you stronger. George Lucas has allegedly gone on record saying that, if he could, he would smash every existing copy of this film with a sledgehammer. This in itself is reason to watch it. Also, when properly applied it can actually be useful. Carrie Fisher has stated that she always puts this film on when she wants her late guests to leave the party.

R2D2, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The Star Wars Holiday Special
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Year: 1978
Running time: 1 h 48 min
Director: David Acomba, Steve Binder
Stars: Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (597 M)

Tsvet granata (1967)

One film can often have many different titles, and it is not always easy to know which one to use. For Tsvet granata (Цвет граната), for example, I have used the Russian title, since that is the one used on the Internet Archive copy to which I link. But in the west it is better known as The Color of Pomegranates (which I believe is just a translation of that Russian title), sometimes with different spelling variations. Occasionally, however, the Armenian title Nran Gujn (Նռան գույնը) is used, and sometimes the name of the film’s protagonist is the title, Sayat Nova.

The Color of Pomegranates / Nran Gujn / Sayat Nova / Цвет граната / Tsvet granata (1967)

Whatever we choose to call it, the film itself is pure visual poetry. On the surface, it is a biography about the Armenian 18th century poet and musician Sayat Nova. Before watching the film, I had never heard about him, but he is apparently a very important character in the cultural history and literature of his own country.

Interestingly, however, though the film is based on events in Sayat Nova’s life, and though it follows an apparently chronological structure, from childhood to death, it is not in any way a traditional biographical film; or, for that matter, a traditional film of any kind. Each scene is like a piece of art in itself. It is mostly shot with a stationary camera at long to medium distance, and in every scene actors perform various acts. Not like actors act in a traditional sense, trying to give the impression of mirroring reality, but instead they interact with the scenery and sounds around them as if posing for a portrait, or executing slow and elaborate dance moves.

The scenes often appear static, but this is part of director Sergei Parajanov’s extremely powerful visual language. A language of contrast, colour (not least the red of the title’s pomegranate), sound and metaphor. As I watch, I feel that there is a massive amount of culturally significant metaphor swooshing incomprehensibly past my mind, because I lack the cultural background knowledge. Yet, I do not perceive this as a problem. The dephts to which I cannot reach become a strength, a tantalising promise that there is more to discover.

Unfortunately, the version I link to is a Soviet cut that was censored by several minutes due to religious content. A complete version with the original Armenian title cards (rather than Russian) exists at the Internet Archive, but it is of inferior image quality.

This film is best enjoyed if you can focus fully on the experience, but on the other hand it is not necessary to view it all in one sitting. Since there is no plot, each scene can be enjoyed as an isolated piece of art. This is not to say that you should not watch the entire movie. In spite of the lack of story, this is definitely a whole movie, with many themes and threads running through the length of the picture.

The Color of Pomegranates / Nran Gujn / Sayat Nova / Цвет граната / Tsvet granata (1967)

Tsvet granata (The Color of Pomegranates)
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Year: 1967
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Stars: Sofiko Chiaureli
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (684 M)

Moonlight Sonata (1937)

Off the top of my head, I can think of no more than maybe half a dozen international fictional films where all or most of the action is set in my native Sweden. Therefore, it is extremely fascinating that out of this half dozen, two were made in the same country (England) and in the same year (1937). One is Dark Journey, which I reviewed almost exactly a year ago. The other is the subject of today’s post, namely Moonlight Sonata.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski at the grand piano in Moonlight Sonata (1937)

Other than the (coincidental?) connection with Sweden, however, these two films are radically different. While Dark Journey is a spy thriller with nationalistic and political overtones, Moonlight Sonata is a romantic drama, or perhaps rather melodrama, with very little thrill at all.

At the center of the story we find the young Swedish man Eric Molander and his beloved Ingrid, whom he wants to marry. She, however, is uncertain about her feelings, and when fate intervenes in the shape of a forced landing with a passenger aircraft things take some rather unexpected turns.

The plane carries two passengers, the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and the businessman Mario de la Costa. While waiting for transportation from the island where the plane went down, they are invited to stay at the baroness Lindenborg’s mansion, where Eric and Ingrid also live. But not everything is the way it first seems, and the visitors affect their surroundings, each in different ways.

Paderewski, who plays himself in the film, was a very interesting person. He was a world famous composer and concert pianist, but he was also a Polish nationalist and politician. In 1919, he became one of Poland’s first prime ministers when the country was reformed after World War I. But in this film, made only a few years before his death, all focus is upon his skill and fame as a pianist. The film, in fact, begins with a very long concert performance. If, like me, you enjoy good classical music, then this is one of the film’s absolute highlights. From a dramatic point of view, however, it detracts from the film’s story.

There are some annoying logical glitches in the story. For one thing, according to IMDb, the downed plane shown in the film is a de Havilland 84 Dragon. It is highly unlikely that any such planes were ever used to travel between Stockholm and Paris, but if they were, it would have been completely impossible to make the flight non-stop. At least one refuelling stop would have been necessary, probably in Hamburg. So, why does de la Costa ask if they have yet reached Paris after he wakes up?

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no Swedish family of Lindenborg barons. There is, however, a Danish manor by that name, owned for generations by the counts von Schimmelmann. Perhaps that was the inspiration behind the name?

Let’s face it: Moonlight Sonata is a boring film about boring people doing boring things for boring reasons. Yet I do not hesitate to recommend it, because even though it is not very good, it is still interesting.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of classical music. Paderewski’s piano playing is impressive and deserves to be remembered. In addition, the film is interesting for its image of Sweden and Swedes.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Marie Tempest in Moonlight Sonata (1937)

Moonlight Sonata
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 25 min
Director: Lothar Mendes
Stars: Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Marie Tempest
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (833 M)

A Christmas Without Snow (1980)

Movies about choirs (or, rather, the individuals in them) are not all that common, but if you watch a lot of film you have probably seen a couple, such as Swedish As It Is in Heaven (2004) or English Song for Marion (2012).

Being myself a choir singer, I have definitely seen my share, and I have come to the conclusion that the majority of such films are built around a common template or structure. In terms of dramaturgy, they share a number of traits and characters. I will describe these traits and exemplify with an old TV movie, A Christmas Without Snow.

Early in a choir film, often just at the beginning, we see the Change. Something happens, usually an external force, that takes the choir in a new direction, or even causes its creation. Such Change is usually connected with the Leader, typically the conductor. In A Christmas Without Snow, this Change is the arrival of Mr. Adams, a retired musician, to take over as the Leader of the small and rather bad choir in a San Francisco church.

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Almost immediately, Mr. Adams announces his intention to perform Händel’s Messiah for Christmas. This is the film’s Goal, which is often closely connected with the Change. This announcement is followed by a period of Consolidation where the choir grows and improves. During the Consolidation we get to know many of the other members, including the Soloist Mrs. Kim, who sets a good example for everyone with her exceptional voice and personality; the Dissenter Mrs. Burns, an old opera singer who creates tension through her egotistical personality; and the Disharmonist Inez, a well-meaning old lady who no longer manages to sing in tune.

It would be a boring film indeed if there was not a Crisis to upset the order and, seemingly, make the Goal impossible to reach. A Christmas Without Snow has no less than two separate Crises. First the church organ is vandalised, and there is no money to repair it. But the choir decides to do the job themselves; a Turning which resolves the Crisis. But then Mr. Adams has a stroke only days before the concert. He survives, but cannot lead the choir. Again, of course, there is a Turning to make things right. Arrives finally the day of the big concert. The church is full and the choir makes an excellent performance in the Accomplishment of the Goal.

Now, if you think I ruined A Christmas Without Snow for you by spoiling all the crucial parts, not to worry. There is plenty of plot going on in addition to the “template” events, so this nice (if a bit overstuffed) movie still offers much to discover. Not least the main story about Zoe and her frustration of having to leave her son behind while she is looking for a new job.

The structure I have outlined above, with a Change, a Goal, a Consolidation, a Crisis, a Turning and an Accomplishment, is one you will be able to recognize in almost any choir movie you watch. There may be slight variations. Song for Marion, for instance, conforms to the basic structure, but has no Disharmonist and no clear Dissenter.

This choir film structure is one that can also be seen (although usually not quite so dramatically intense) in most real choirs, as the choir builds itself for the next concert performance. This real-life drama is perhaps one of the reasons why choir singing is such a popular pastime. But there are also fascinating parallels with another genre of movies, namely sports films such as The Bad News Bears (1976), where the new coach has to take the league’s worst team to the top. It is interesting to speculate about the reasons for these parallels.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a choir singer yourself, but should work for anyone who wants to get in the right mood for the Holidays.

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A Christmas Without Snow
Download link
Year: 1980
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: John Korty
Stars: Michael Learned, John Houseman
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (496×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Divx (699 M)