Colorado Territory (Raoul Walsh, 1949). This Raoul Walsh western both locks in on the form and offers a sort of sour, woozy commentary on its many tropes. Joel McRae plays a notorious outlaw who’s sprung from jail and gets himself enmeshed in the fabled “one last job,” a train heist that will net him and his conniving compatriots enough money to allow them to retire for good. Along the way, he also becomes enamored with a lady bandit, the wonderfully named Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). Walsh had used the exact same source material to make a film noir crime picture a few years earlier, and the whole thing smacks of easy comfort unsettled by a restless creativity. It’s a decent enough western, but it’s a resoundingly amusing genre exercise, a reminder that cinematic audacity comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s little more than smartly assembled layers of reinvention.
Mama (Andrés Muschietti, 2013). With the Guillermo del Toro stamp of approval that comes with his name settled in one of the executive producer spots (a credit that often indicates about as meaningful of a contribution to the creative process as a famous author who agrees to contribute a blurb to the back of an acquaintance’s thick novel), Andrés Muschietti transformed his own Argentine short to feature length. The horror story revolves around a pair of young girls who have been rescued from several years of apparent isolation deep in the woods, a circumstance that stemmed from their father snapping and abducting them after first committing a series of shootings. When the father dies, the two are left alone, and are essential feral when retrieved by their uncle and his goth guitarist girlfriend, the latter played by Jessica Chastain, both slightly miscast and impressively committed. Adjustment issues would seem to be the main concern, but it’s instead the spectral guardian the girls have brought along with them. Muschietti has a nice sense of style, which helps carry the film over its many silly stretches. Logic sometimes lapses and there are a couple of cardboard villains around the fringes, both problems almost endemic to modern horror films. Uneven as it is, there’s an undeniable appeal to its jagged darkness, especially a fairly grim conclusion.
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950). Well, it’s a masterpiece. Tempting as it is to leave it at that, I’ll note that Akira Kurosawa’s justifiably famous exploration of the dynamics of unreliable narrators is rife with great performances, led by Toshiro Mifune’s live wire warrior and Machiko Kyō’s beset samurai wife, who–to appropriate Kurosawa’s tendency to borrow from Shakespeare–could be Ophelia or could be Lady MacBeth, depending on who’s telling the story. Perhaps the most remarkable element of the film is the way Kurosawa keeps the multiple variations on the single story thread coherent and always novel. As the same tale of an ugly conflict in the middle of the woods is told and retold (and retold and retold), Kurosawa always manages to make it feel novel, reinforcing the film’s thesis that a single encounter exists in an infinite number of ways, the truth of it elusive if not a pure impossibility.
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Lee H. Katzin, 1969). A trippy, twisted horror film in which vicious psychological maneuvering reaches almost feverish levels. The great Geraldine Page plays Claire, a widow who discovers that her seemingly wealthy husband was actually deep in debt, effectively leaving her destitute unless she comes up with a creative way to collect money. When she hires a new housekeeper named Alice (Ruth Gordon), it quickly becomes clear that Claire has a devious endgame and that Alice is actually there somewhat undercover, trying to determine what happened to a friend of hers who disappeared while in Claire’s employ. The film is overheated and a little goofy, trafficking in that strange nineteen-sixties fascination with elderly women as horrid monsters (the title itself is the big tip off, deliberately evoking the most famous example of the sub-sub-genre in favor of the source material novel’s more accurate The Forbidden Garden). The film is shaky, perhaps indicative of swapping directors midway through shooting (Lee H. Katzin replaced Bernard Girard), though it is consistently a pleasure to watch Page and Gordon act against one another.
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959). This urban film noir was partially responsible for director Robert Wise being recruited to pitch in on West Side Story. The story centers on a former policeman who orchestrates a bank robbery, unwisely recruiting a black man and a racist to be his partners on the job. The film is tough-minded and plainspoken and features a nice performance by Ed Begley as the desperate mastermind of the job (Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan play his cohorts in the crime), even if it builds to a denouement that underlines its points so strongly that it tears the paper. The film consistently looks great, thanks to the black-and-white cinematography of Jospeh C. Brun that was in turn guided by Wise’s desire to use infra-red film which gave natural skies an almost otherworldly gloom.