Tag Archives: Amazon Prime

Musing on old movies

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been streaming a lot of old B movies of late on Amazon Prime. The films range across several decades, but (for some reason) I have a special fondness for the ones from the 1930s – when talkies were new and nobody had yet figured out how to handle the technology. (A well-known example is the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, in which all documents are visibly sopping wet. That was because they hadn’t worked out how to filter the sound of crackling paper.)

Today my theme is acting styles. My view of the old silent movies is that they’re really a form of interpretive dance. Actors had to use broad, unnatural gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey their messages to the audience. These were skills that transferred pretty well from stage acting, where you have to play to the cheap seats. This meant that nobody was ready for the subtleties that sound demands.

The first film I watched was One Rainy Afternoon, a 1936 effort starring Francis Lederer and Ida Lupino. Lederer was a Czech actor who plays a Frenchman here – because everybody knows Americans can’t distinguish foreign accents (and they’re right). Irving Thalberg had plans to make Lederer a big star, but died before he could get the ball rolling. Instead Lederer got rich in California real estate.

Here he plays a young actor who’s having an affair with a married woman (this is an English version of an earlier French film). They go to a movie together, but enter separately. In the dark, Lederer sits next to the wrong girl – a very young and pretty Ida Lupino. When he kisses her, thinking it’s his paramour, she reacts in a big way. Soon there’s a riot, the press is called in, and Lederer is pilloried in the newspapers as “the Monster.” Guardians of public morality call for his prosecution, and he’s sentenced to a few days in jail. Lupino, regretful about all the fuss, secretly bails him out. You can probably predict the rest of the story based on that.

What stuck in my mind about this movie was the portrayal of the proto-MeToo women’s group that calls for Lederer’s blood. When their leader makes her denunciations, she strikes attitudes appropriate for a speech to a large arena, and uses a voice appropriate for the same arena with no sound amplification. It’s entirely artificial and embarrassing to watch. But at the time, this was cinematic convention. Margaret Dumont, in the Marx Bros. films, actually toned it down a little.

Also present is an actor named Hugh Herbert, who is mostly familiar to my generation from the many times he was caricatured in old animated cartoons. His shtick was acting flustered, patting his fingertips together and making “Woo-woo” noises. His form of comedy is preferable to the feminist oratory, but only by a little.

Moving along, I saw another movie which is generally better, though it was made earlier. I’ve reviewed “Sapper” McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond on this blog. This is the film version from 1929, based on a stage play. Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is described in the books as big and not very handsome. Here he’s played by Ronald Colman, who is not particularly big and quite good looking. The character would be played by several actors over the years, but all would follow this precedent.

Bulldog Drummond is a young World War I veteran in London who chafes at peacetime boredom. He longs for adventure, and apparently has no sense of fear at all (you might put it down to PTSD nowadays). He advertises in the Times for dangerous work, and gets a note from Miss Phyllis Benton (played by a very pretty, very young Joan Bennett). She is concerned that her father has gotten involved with sinister characters. She is correct in this, so Drummond plunges in in his customary senseless style, pulling irritating practical jokes on the plotters, until he finally escapes certain death and thwarts a major criminal conspiracy.

Notable in this movie is a different kind of bad acting. The villains talk… slow. They strike dramatic attitudes and enunciate every word carefully through curled lips. This may account for Drummond’s improbable success against long odds – these oafs give him lots of time to act while they’re just talking. Once again, this is (I think) a carryover from silent films. What actors and directors still hadn’t figured out was that the challenge now was not to communicate thoughts, but to replicate reality (or rather the illusion of reality).

Also notable in Bulldog Drummond is his sidekick Algy, played by Claud Allister. Think of Bertie Wooster, without the massive intellect. All nose and teeth, with a monocle and a tendency to stand with is mouth gaping open, Allister is the archetype of the upper class twit. I actually found it painful to look at him sometimes. It was like staring at a freak in a sideshow.

Nevertheless, Bulldog Drummond left me with a positive feeling, while One Rainy Afternoon just felt embarrassing. Things (and people) have to be judged according to their times and contexts, not compared to our own ideals – which will, no doubt, look stupid to our descendants someday.

Free-Lancing, and ‘The Girl Hunters’

Happy Friday. Some people still have Fridays, I’m told. Such people are described as Essential. I am not worthy, I am sure, to unlace the latchets of their sandals.

I was busy yesterday, though. The translation job I got had me working 12 hours straight, pausing only for meals and comfort stops. Also to open the windows, because the day was beautiful.

I won’t say it’s a joy of the free-lancing life, but it’s certainly one of its qualities, that much of the time you wish you had work, and then occasionally you have too much. The big stars can regulate their own schedules, but the rest of us are carrion birds, on the watch for cadavers of opportunity.

While I was working, I streamed a curious old movie on Amazon Prime: The Girl Hunters, a 1963 Mike Hammer flick. What makes it memorable is that the creator of the character, writer Mickey Spillane, played his own creation in this one.

The story involves PI Mike Hammer waking up from a long drunk to find that his secretary Velda is dead, and that his cop friend Pat Chambers now hates his guts. Then Mike gets a hint that Velda might be alive. He will, of course, steamroll anybody who tries to keep him from finding her.

As a late semi-noir, The Girl Hunters isn’t bad. It was produced by an English company, and the obscure cast (except for Lloyd Nolan and Shirley Eaton, who’s best remembered for getting painted gold in “Goldfinger”) turn in solid work. Spillane himself is better than you might fear. He gets his words in the right order, and generally keeps his facial expressions and body language consistent with them. His big problem is that he has zero charisma. He’s not good looking enough to be a leading man, and on top of that he isn’t likeable. You wouldn’t trust this guy to watch your suitcase in a train station.

But the production’s not bad, the music’s good, and the script is adequate. Worth watching mostly for the novelty of the thing.

Amazon Prime Review: ‘Bosch,’ Season 6

Barrel, Bosch, & Crate, photo credit: Lacey Terrell, IMDb

Has it actually been six years we’ve been enjoying Amazon Prime’s outstanding Bosch series? This isn’t exactly the world, or the characters, you’ll find in Michael Connelly’s bestselling crime novels, but it’s true to the spirit of the exercise. And Titus Welliver, as I’ve often said, has the character of Harry Bosch nailed.

This season, like the previous ones, is based on more than one book. So you’ll need to pay attention to keep the multiple story lines straight. Plot lines include the murder of a scientist near the famous Hollywood sign, which at first looks like part of a terrorist act by right-wing extremists. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and police mistakes lead to serious blowback. There’s also a cold case, one of Harry’s “everybody matters” crusades, in which he tries to find the murderer of a teenaged street prostitute, attempting to give her mother some closure. And Harry’s partner Jerry Edgar is deep in an investigation of Haitian street gangs, which brings up bad memories of his own childhood in Haiti and leads him to contemplate crossing some lines.

It’s all intense, and fascinating, and compelling. A couple of points linger with me. I appreciated the expanded role for the Mutt ‘n Jeff detective team known as “Crate and Barrel,” older guys who started out pretty much as comic relief, but are now being permitted to demonstrate the qualities that earned them their gold shields in the first place.

Also the series took an interesting approach to its Alt-Right extremists. Although they’re clearly in the wrong, they’re given a chance to make their case, and they’re not entirely unsympathetic. Also – very oddly – they’re depicted as a multiracial group. I appreciate that touch, though I don’t find it very plausible (could be wrong).

Anyway, I consider Bosch one of the best series on any entertainment delivery system at the present time. Extreme cautions for language and mature themes.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Trapped’

My part-time job keeps me generally aware of Scandinavian miniseries, but somehow this Icelandic one, a few years old now, had escaped my notice. Trapped (Ófærð) is a crime series that has much in common with so many European crime series these days (except that the main character, instead of being a plucky single mother, is a plucky single father). But it‘s interesting in its own right, and the locations are fresh and scenic.

On a winter‘s day in the small northern Iceland town of Siglufjordur, a headless, limbless torso is fished out of the fjord. Since the ferry from Denmark just came in, the police have to detain the boat and all its passengers – displeasing the passengers, the crew, and the Danish government. The “big boys“ from the Reykjavik police are supposed to come in to investigate, but a sudden blizzard grounds all aircraft and road travel. So the responsibility falls on the three-person local force, most especially on the chief, Andri Olafsson (played by Olafur Darri Olafsson, surely a contender for some award for the most generously bearded TV detective in recent memory).

But Andri’s problems aren’t limited to solving the torso murder. There are the difficulties associated with the blizzard, as well as an avalanche that follows. Questions arise anew over a crime from the past – the death of Andri’s ex-wife’s sister in a fire in a fish factory, for which a young man went to prison (unjustly). There’s also a human trafficking investigation, involving two young Nigerian girls wandering lost in the snow. And there is political chicanery on the part of the town’s governing authorities, all involved in a shady land scheme with the Chinese.

It all works out to be pretty fascinating. The main character is a compelling and principled presence on screen, and the production values are high (this was the most expensive miniseries ever made in Iceland). The resolution ties up loose ends pretty well, though it’s typically Scandinavian in being rather downbeat and bleak. The Icelandic title has a broader meaning than the English word – it also refers to a blocked road. A running theme is the discontent of the town’s young people, who feel trapped in one of the remotest towns in a generally remote country.

But I enjoyed Trapped, and recommend it, with cautions for language, sex, brief nudity, and disturbing themes. There’s a second season, too.

Amazon Prime Video review: ‘Mindhunter’

The Amazon Prime miniseries Mindhunter is well-done. I’m not sure whether I’d call it “watchable,” because sometimes it’s hard to watch (though, thank Heaven, there are no dramatizations of actual murders, which might frankly have driven me off). And having watched both the first season and the newly-released second season now, I’m not entirely sure what the point is.

The series is based on the development of the discipline (I won’t say science) of criminal behavioral profiling at the FBI in the 1970s and ‘80s. The main characters, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt MacCallany), are based on real men – John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler. They are, however, fictionalized beyond all recognition. Holden is a young agent, kind of a genius with an intuitive understanding of human motivation, but poor at social relations and office politics. Bill is old school, at first skeptical of profiling but gradually won over. He runs interference for his partner when he steps out of line. Which is often. There’s also a professional psychologist, Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who is a closeted lesbian and chafes at being kept out of the action on the street.

The experiment begins with the agents doing long, intense interviews with various incarcerated serial killers. Richard Speck is one of them, and they “get” Charles Manson in Season Two. But the most “helpful” is Ed Kemper, the “Co-Ed Killer” (Cameron Britton), who is portrayed as remarkably articulate and self-aware, but helpless to control his impulses – a fascinating performance, chilling in its ambivalence. Gradually (they believe) they begin to recognize social and behavioral patterns matching various kinds of “organized” serial killers.

The show is fascinating (I think) mainly in its portrayals of the criminally insane. I’m less impressed with the value of behavioral profiling in itself. In the real world (or so I’ve read), profiling doesn’t really do much to solve crimes. By its nature it can’t provide positive evidence. That problem seems to be echoed in the aura of futility that hangs over much of the production. Season Two ends with the conviction of Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Killer, but the resolution leaves the agents frustrated. And Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, appears in regular vignettes. But in fact, profilers had little or nothing to do with Rader’s conviction. He was identified through digital forensics.

So I’m not sure what to say about Mindhunter. It’s fascinating to watch the process and be shocked by the face of evil, but there aren’t a lot of satisfactions here. Serious cautions for disturbing material, foul language, sex and nudity.

Amazon Prime Video Review: ‘Bosch,’ Season 3

Bosch Season 3

I’m pretty sure I reviewed Bosch, the Amazon Prime Video series based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mystery novels, earlier on this blog. Still it’s been a while, and I just finished the new third season, so I’ll praise it again. Because it is quite good.

Harry (Hieronymus) Bosch is a Los Angeles homicide detective. He’s a military veteran and has a high case clearance rate, though he can be a pain in the anatomy to his co-workers and superiors. He’s almost obsessively by the book in his work ethic, but he can cut moral corners when he feels it’s justified. He is in fact motivated by inner demons, but he keeps them buttoned up.

In this third season, the first major plot line involves a reprehensible Hollywood producer (that’s an oxymoron, I suppose), who had a lowlife acquaintance murdered because he knew too much about a previous murder he’d committed (this is complicated by the fact that Bosch has been pursuing the guy himself over another matter, and has the murder on film, which he can’t use because his surveillance is illegal). The second big plot line centers on a group of former Army Special Forces guys who pull off a big theft and aren’t shy about killing people along the way. Their combat skills make them formidable adversaries for Bosch – and eventually for each other. Continue reading Amazon Prime Video Review: ‘Bosch,’ Season 3