Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Year in Movies: 1931 - Mystery and Horror

Dracula (1931)

It's tough not to compare Tod Browning's Dracula to Murnau's Nosferatu from nine years earlier. The ability to add sound to movies was a great reason to do a new version of Stoker's story (with all the proper rights, too, instead of sneakily changing the characters' names) and Browning was a good choice to direct it. His style is very different from Murnau's, but it's distinct and creepy and brings some beautiful atmosphere to Dracula.

But Murnau's version is actually scary and Browning's never is. Murnau's Count Orlok is a true monster, from his very appearance to his strange powers that Murnau so cleverly gives him through special effects. Browning's version - truer to Stoker's novel - is meant to be creepily charming. You don't realize he's a threat until it's too late. Which is cool, but Browning uses so little effects that even when Dracula is supposed to be frightening, it's mostly suggested by the way other characters are reacting to him.

That can be very effective sometimes, especially in the case of Dwight Frye's Renfield, who's easily the most chilling character of the film. Edward Van Sloan also adds to Dracula's menace as Van Helsing. The Van Helsing character is a giant weakness of Nosferatu, but I always have a lot of fun watching him work in Dracula, trying to first figure out who the vampire is (initially suspecting Renfield), then playing a game of wills against Bela Lugosi's monster.

I wish that Helen Chandler was a better Mina, though. Mina is the heart of any version of Dracula and it's important to get her right. Nosferatu gives her a tragically heroic role (renamed Ellen and played with full commitment by Greta Schröder). In Browning's movie, Mina is simply the MacGuffin; the object that the characters are all fighting over. She's not written very well, but she's played even worse by Chandler who never eases into the character and always reminds me that she's an actress playing a role. (Lupita Tovar is much better in the Spanish version that was shot simultaneously with Browning's using the same script and sets, but with a different director and cast. That's a different review, though.)

The movie is also dreadfully slow, but in spite of that and my misgivings about Chandler, I always enjoy revisiting Browning's Dracula for its mood and its cultural impact and especially for Lugosi, Frye, and Van Sloan. I should give a quick shout out to David Manners' John Harker, who's mostly nondescript, but has one great moment when he throws down his newspaper in disgust and leaves the room because of Van Helsing's crackpot ideas about shape-changing, immortal blood-suckers. Manners is visually pretty nondescript, but he's grown on me as an actor and I always seem to find something to enjoy in his performances.

The Sleeping Cardinal (aka Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour(1931)

Unlike the silent Sherlock Holmes from 1922, this is a pretty good representation of Holmes and Watson. Holmes is smart and knows it, but his arrogance is gentler than in a lot of adaptations. Watson is always a step behind, but he's familiar with Holmes' methods and no fool. I liked these guys a lot.

I also enjoyed how much focus the movie gives to some of the supporting characters before bringing in the detectives. That helped pull me into the mystery.

M (1931)

Sort of Ocean's Eleven meets Silence of the Lambs with a gang of crooks teaming up to capture a serial killer/pedophile. Peter Lorre is super creepy and appropriately baby-faced as the murderer, but my favorite part is the cat and mouse game when the criminals have him holed up in an office building and he's working to get away from them. That section holds up next to any modern thriller.

And the film wraps up with a fascinating meditation on justice that had my son and I arguing about what the right thing to do would be. Nicely done.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

It's been a long time since I've seen the original, so I can't compare the two versions, but I really enjoyed Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. He's a sleazy, but charming ladies' man in a way that Bogart can't possibly pull off. As interesting as that is, though, I couldn't really root for him the way I can with Bogart. And I kept missing Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet.

It was sure great seeing Dwight Frye as a tough though. I love that guy.

The Black Camel (1931)

It's fun to see Warner Oland as Charlie Chan interacting with Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye from the same year as Dracula. And The Black Camel a pretty good mystery story. But this is early days in the Charlie Chan series and it moves slowly. There are much better as the series goes along.

Murder at Midnight (1931)

Fun, if unbelievable and convoluted mystery about a murder that takes place during a party in front of witnesses. Once you know the relationships between the victim and the other characters, the broad strokes of the plot are predictable, but there were also a couple of twists that I didn't see coming.

Daughter of the Dragon (1931)

Aside from the problems of non-Asian actors playing Asian characters, I always enjoy Warner Oland as Charlie Chan. That doesn't make him a good Fu Manchu though. He's not threatening enough, though Daughter of the Dragon's script gives him a pretty good scheme to implement.

As the title suggests, it involves his daughter, played by Anna May Wong. She's great in the role, but the character has super shaky motivations for taking over her father's vendetta against an English family. And not just that, but she also has extremely good, personal reasons not to pick up that mission. But even though her struggle isn't really earned, the movie does some interesting things with it and there are enough pulpy elements to keep the story entertaining.

The Phantom (1931)

I usually have a high tolerance for slow-moving movies of the early '30s, especially if there's an old, dark house involved, but I couldn't finish this one. Without an interesting actor to latch onto or any sort of plot development that I haven't seen done better in countless other mystery/horror films, it became too much of a chore to keep going. Dull and unremarkable.

Frankenstein (1931)

Seen it a million times, but I'm still surprised at how scary and creepy it is. Not much faithful to the plot of Mary Shelley's novel, but very faithful to its themes.

My only issue is the way it rushes through parts of its final act. Everyone learns about the monster and processes that information really quickly. On the other hand, I'm not sure I actually want a slowed down version.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

The inventive camera work can be distracting, but the performances are so earnest and March's makeup is so effective that the movie is legitimately horrifying, even today. Miriam Hopkins is especially heart-breaking as Hyde's terrorized, primary victim. March's Hyde is easily the most monstrous of movie monsters from that era.

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