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March 7-13, 2007

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This Week's Revivals

By Richard von Busack


Movie Times Morocco/The Love Parade
(1930/1929) Marlene Dietrich's first American film has her prowling the hot light and deep shadows of Lee Garmes' photography; a cabaret singer, kept by Adolphe Menjou, she can't keep her eyes or her hands off a new-in-town Foreign Legionnaire (Gary Cooper). Inexplicably glorious. BILLED WITH The Love Parade. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star in a frothy operetta about how the Queen of Sylvania met her match. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. (Plays Mar 10-11 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times The Thing/Isle of the Dead
(1951/1945) At an Arctic military base, an alien sneaks in just as a snowstorm breaks out. The much-imitated horror film is rich with Communist-terror subtext. Apart from its historical interest, it's still very effective, with James Arness as the vegetable-based critter, and Margaret Sheridan as the typical Howard Hawks tough lady. Christian Nyby directed, but producer Hawks was on-scene frequently; you could get into one of those "Did Spielberg direct Poltergeist or did Tobe Hooper?" donnybrooks with ease. BILLED WITH Isle of the Dead. Although Isle of the Dead is the least of Val Lewton's films, it is as good in sections as anything the producer did. For its oddity, it is a brace, even existential, tale. A Greek general nicknamed "The Watchdog" (Boris Karloff) is mopping up after a bloody campaign in the Balkans war of 1912. At the suggestion of an American reporter named Davis (Al Gore look-alike Marc Cramer), the two go to a nearby cemetery island to visit the grave of the general's wife. The grave has been violated. Now investigating the matter, the general stays over as the guest of a Swiss archaeologist expatriate living on the island. The film shifts into a standard haunted-house motif: the guests are stranded because of a septicemia plague outbreak, and they die one by one. One old woman, Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), believes that the real culprit is a "vorvolaka"—a vampire/succubus taking the form of a lovely young woman. The guests—and this part is much more like Camus' The Plague—find solace against the possibility of death through their various faiths in medicine, personal will and God. Finally, an evil accident makes a monster out of one of the trapped guests. Karloff rarely had such deep material to work with. He's first made to believe in the uncanny, and then he's broken by it. The film also stars Ellen Drew as the suspected vampire, Ernst Deutsch (the "Baron" in The Third Man) as the cold yet heroic Dr. Drossos and Skelton Knaggs in a cameo as the plague's first victim. (Plays Mar 7-9 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)

Movie Times White Heat/The Body Snatcher
(1949/1945) "The old knock-down-drag-'em out again, without a touch of imagination or originality. The leading character, Cody Jarrett, was just another murderous thug. For some kind of variant, I said to the writers, 'Let's fashion this after Ma Barker and her boys, and make Cody a psychotic to account for his actions."—from Cagney by James Cagney. Despite his efforts, it's a middling film lit up with a really out-of-town lead performance: Cagney as a devil on the loose with a machine gun. BILLED WITH The Body Snatcher. Highly recommended; a tragedy as much as a horror film. It's based on the noble old story of Burke and Hare, a true legend visited by everyone from Robert Louis Stevenson to Hammer Studios to Dylan Thomas. 1831: A ruinously proud doctor (Henry Daniell) decides to help himself to the local graveyard for medical cadavers; he's aided by the nicest strangler you'd ever hope to meet, a coachman named Gray (Boris Karloff). A satisfying business for all, but then there is interference by a half-bright underling, played by a dubious foreigner called Bela Lugosi. Director Robert Wise worked under the direction of producer Val Lewton, who once again demonstrated his elegance in the presence of the macabre. Everyone talks about the coach-ride finale; I'd almost trade it for the scene where Karloff enters a dark tunnel to harvest a street singer: greed, pathos, an echo, silence. Then the long slow black fadeout. (Plays Mar 14-16 in Palo Alto at the Stanford Theatre.)


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