Back in January, I linked to Matt Singer’s This Year, Make a Movie-Related New Year’s Resolution and noted that the suggested resolution to watch 50 films made before 1950 was a good idea. Looking at my viewing from last year, only five movies qualified (and even then, I’d already seen two of them). I’m still quite behind on this project and didn’t really resolve to do it until the last few weeks, but I’ve already beaten last year’s total, which is a win. For posterity, here are the first six entries in my 50 Under 50 challenge:
- Fallen Angel (1945) – Otto Preminger’s noirish tale of a penniless con man who blows into a small town looking to make a buck, falls for a waitress named Stella. She wants nothing to do with him, unless he can find a way to make himself rich, so he hatches a scheme to marry a wealthy heiress for the money. Naturally, he gets more than he bargained for.
It takes a little while to get going, but it gets there, and I must admit that the final twists did work well for me. Of course, the story hinges on some relationships that develop mighty quick, but it’s easy enough to go with. The cast is reasonably good and the filmmaking is solid. The writing has some worthy noir zingers, my favorite being the phony medium played by John Carradine: “I hope to see you in my room later, I have a fine collection collection of friendly spirits there, Scotch ancestry.” Heh. Not exactly a classic film noir, but a worthy watch. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **1/2
- The Golem (1920) (AKA: The Golem: How He Came Into the World) – Writer/Director/Star Paul Wegener actually made three movies about the Golem, but the first two were lost (about 5 minutes were somewhat recently discovered), and this third entry is all that remains. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, The Golem is considered a classic example of German Expressionism. Of course, those two other movies set a rather high bar that is difficult to clear. The Golem has some great visuals, but nothing quite as stylized as Caligari, nor the deep shadows of Nosferatu. The story concerns Jews who are being persecuted, and a Rabbi who creates a giant golem out of clay to protect the people. It’s slow to start (the Golem is initially used to perform menial tasks around town, like chopping wood), but it has its moments later in the story. This is a clear precursor to Frankenstein and worth watching for students of the genre for that alone, but it’s also not quite the classic that, well, all the other films listed are. (The Amazon Prime copy is a slightly shortened version with “full sound”, meaning a modern soundtrack and terrible voiceovers.) **
- Secret Agent (1936) – Alfred Hitchcock’s follow up to The 39 Steps (arguably his best British effort), Secret Agent is another tale of espionage that bears some of Hitch’s trademarks, though perhaps only in embryonic form. Three British agents are ordered to assassinate a mysterious German spy during World War I. While initially thrilled by the adventurous aspects of their mission, two of them grow a conscience, which obviously makes things difficult. A few twists and turns, this does wind up being “minor” Hitchcock, but even his lower tier offerings are worth watching. While not as visually striking as Hitchcock’s other efforts, he does seem to have enjoyed playing around with sound, whether it be the snappy reparte between characters, or the loud sounds of the casino, or the booming machinery of a chocolate factory. Hitch was clearly still adjusting to the talkies at this point, but it all works well enough. Some bits work great, and there’s some decent zingers here too (one of our spies had their death faked, at which point their superior asks: “Tell me, do you love your country?” and he responds “Well I just died for it!” Heh.) The only thing that really grates is Peter Lorre’s womanizing “Mexican General”, which is clearly a turn-off for modern audiences, but functional in the story, I guess. Probably only worth it for Hitchcock fanatics, and like I said, you see some of his favored tropes here in their embryonic state, but nowhere near Hitch’s best, even in this era. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **
- Saboteur (1942) – More minor Hitchcock, this time from his early American period. A man working in an aircraft factory is wrongly accused of sabotaging the plant, causing a fire that killed his best friend. Naturally, he goes on the run and tries to clear his name. Hitch sure did make a killing on wartime espionage stories, and this one is a decent enough example. Probably not the best, but it’s a good wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time tale that Hitch is always great at pulling off. I don’t think it’s the first example of setting a climactic scene at a monument, but this one does go to the Statue of Liberty (which has a nifty symbolic note), a feat only really rivaled by Hitch’s later use of Mount Rushmore. Again, this one is probably more of interest to Hitchcock fanatics, but it’s definitely a step up from Secret Agent, if not exactly competing with the true classics. (Watched on Blu Ray, though I do think this one’s on Amazon Prime too) **1/2
- The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) – Mysterious death’s plague a small, African port town. It turns out that the local bar owner is actually a vampire who’s grown weary of time’s inexorable march. Not the most culturally sensitive and pretty straightforward, it does have enough entertainment value to carry the day. I actually sought this one out because it was co-written by Leigh Brackett, and I wanted to check out some of her earlier work. Again, not a whole lot to it,
but I enjoyed it well enough. (Watched a copy from Internet Archive) **
- The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) – Mr. Wong is a fictional Chinese-American detective who appeared in a series of stories in Collier’s magazine, which was then adapted into a series of films starring Boris Karloff as the titular character. This is actually the second in that series of films (I stumbled onto it by accident, not realizing it was a series), but it appears to be standalone. It’s basically a murder mystery. Mr. Wong attends a dinner party where an antiques collector is murdered under mysterious circumstances. It turns out that he had come into possession of a famously cursed jewel named “The Eye of the Daugther of The Moon.” Hijinks ensue. Not exactly high cinema, but the mystery actually works and Karloff is always great. This series of films was put out by Mongram pictures, a low-budget studio who traded in cheap thrills at the theater. They churned out Mr. Wong movies at a 6 month clip, but if this one is any indication, they managed pretty well. I might actually check out more of these. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **1/2
I should probably gravitate more towards classics here, but I’m actually kinda enjoying this midlist stuff, even if the ratings don’t quite bear that out. You’ll notice that most of this is available on Amazon Prime, which does have a pretty wide selection of older films (unlike, say, Netflix, which has, like, 10 movies made before 1950). Anway, I’m 5-6 movies behind on this whole project, but that should be simple enough to resolve throughout the rest of the year.