Underappreciated Gems

In this post I’d like to promote some films that deserve more recognition:

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)

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Rivaled only by The Passion of Joan of Arc in dramatic intensity among silent films, this bizarre thriller is the pinnacle of the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney collaborations. Chaney plays a circus knife thrower so obsessed with his beautiful but apparently frigid assistant, who suffers from a phobia of men’s hands, that he has his arms amputated in a gesture of his undying love for her. Luckily for Chaney he possesses amazing pedal dexterity which allows him to smoke, drink, gesture, throw knives and play guitar with his feet! But when Chaney finds out that the girl has miraculously overcome her phobia and married the strongman, his face, not his feet, becomes the focal point. Held in tight close-up Chaney’s countenance undergoes an astonishing series of expressions, first grimacing, then forcing an absurd smile, then laughing hysterically, and finally, twisting his face into a visage of murderous intent until the strain is too much and he faints – proving that The Man of a Thousand Faces might just as well have been dubbed The Man of a Thousand Facial Expressions.

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Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942)

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Even those who despise boxing should enjoy this spirited biopic of Jim Corbette, which features one of charismatic Errol Flynn’s most dynamic performances. As played by Flynn, Corbette emerges as a colorful and engaging lad, cocky yet immensely charming, the kind of guy who, through the sheer force of his personality, draws everyone’s attention wherever he is. His girlfriend would sometimes like to see someone knock the conceit out of his swollen head, but she’s irresistibly drawn to his magnetism anyway. I love when he shows off his fancy footwork by darting back and forth between pedestrians walking in a crowded street, a scene that nicely showcases Flynn’s athletic gracefulness and captures his character’s exuberant cockiness.

Despite his brashness, it’s hard not to like him – unless of course you’re the champ, Ward Bond, who’s the target of Flynn’s merciless taunting. But the film concludes with a wonderfully touching scene between the two fighters following Flynn’s decisive defeat of the prideful Bond. Bond used to strut around boasting that he could whip any man in the world, but when he shows up in shame at Flynn’s victory party to hand over his championship ring, Flynn magnanimously tells him that he’s glad he didn’t have to fight him in his prime. The macho emotionalism of Flynn’s gesture of good sportsmanship is a genuinely touching moment, beautifully capping off this highly enjoyable winner.

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The Suspect (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

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One of the great practitioners of film noir, Siodmak made a string of excellent thrillers in the ‘40s, none better than The Suspect, a taut suspenser in which henpecked Charles Laughton’s infatuation for beautiful Ella Raines drives him to murder his shrewish wife. Siodmak pulls off a couple of gripping Hitchcockian set-pieces, notably a marvelously suspenseful scene in which unexpected visitors to Laughton’s house sit on the very couch he has hidden a body behind, but the film’s true strength lies in its poignant character study of a fundamentally decent man who resorts to murder for perfectly understandable reasons. Because Laughton, in an unusually restrained performance as a humble, genteel English gentleman, is far more sympathetic than his monstrous victims – his wicked wife and a no-good, blackmailing neighbor – we want him to get away with murder and run away with his beloved Raines. But, alas, his fate is sealed, ironically, by his own sense of decency in the genuinely moving conclusion.

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The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)

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The snapping whip belongs to Christopher Lee, the ravishing body to Daliah Lavi in this thrilling sado-masochistic fantasy from horror maestro Bava. First in life and then from beyond the grave, Lee derives pleasure from exerting his power over Lavi by violently flagellating her until she’s “whipped” into a sexual frenzy, with Bava’s camera fetishistically capturing every detail of pain and pleasure, desire and shame, that registers on Lavi’s lovely face. Treading about as far into sexual taboo territory as a mainstream director can go, the result is at once deeply unsettling, powerfully erotic and, thanks to the haunting piano concerto Carlo Rustichelli composed for the ill-fated S&M lovers, oddly romantic. Listen to Rustichelli’s music here.

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Last Night at the Alamo (Eagle Pennell, 1983)

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The traditional image of the macho cowboy takes a serious beating in Last Night of the Alamo, one of the best, if sadly little known, independent features of the ‘80s. Revolving around the various characters at The Alamo, a once-popular local waterhole about to be torn down, the film chronicles the death throes of a way of life, and the attitude of the filmmakers toward its demise seems to be, “good riddance, cowboy!” The big man at the Alamo, suitably named Cowboy, is the very embodiment of the cowboy ideal and aesthetic. But as the film progresses, Cowboy, like the bar itself, will be chopped down to size. His boastful talk of becoming the next John Wayne is pure delusion; his promise to use his “connections” with the governor to stop the razing of the bar utter nonsense; and his alleged stature as a ladies’ man is seriously called into question when he reveals a bald head hidden under his ten-gallon Stetson – a perfect symbol of the cowboy image long past its heyday. Boasting vivid characterizations, insightful observations, and a richly detailed sense of time and place, Last Night at the Alamo is more than worthy of rediscovery.

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