I have mixed feelings about I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016), Again I came to this having read a short interview with Christopher Lloyd and the trailer for the film which really was selling me a very different film. Like anything you’re sold, you want to believe the advert or promotion portrays a positive and accurate spin on what you have bought into. Which was a disturbed teenager who sees a few murders and becomes fascinated by them, and becomes inspired to follow in the serial killers footsteps, were we seeing his victims as the trailer progressed. I was miss-sold this film. Even the small role that Lloyd was supposed to be playing.
Moving on from my initial complaint I need to lay down a few points as to what I received in the full film. I came to this film bringing my thoughts from having recently revisited Shadow of a Doubt (1943) which I can only draw minor comparisons too. Looking at the dark conversations between our disturbed teenager John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) and Max (Raymond Brandstrom). (I’m wondering if the lead characters names inspired by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy) There was a relationship based on the dark murderous content of their conversations. Reminiscent of father Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) and his neighbour Herbie Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) which begins as playful, a way to unwind and let the imagination run wild, Which disturbs Josephs daughter Charlie (Teresa Wright) whose very concerned about her Uncle Charlie’s (Joseph Cotten) motives for staying with them. That dynamic is not really developed further than a few scenes at the start of the film. Probably to tell us that John has serial killer tendencies trying to lead a normal teenage life, that’s against the backdrop of all the murders.
The Hitchcock connections don’t stop there, from the trailer we could be looking at a Norman Bates type, the quiet boy next door who doesn’t get out much. Yet this one does, spending his free time helping his mother April (Laura Fraser) at the funeral home. An early joke about the home not going out of business anytime soon, two bodies in a week. We are however allowed to see the start of the embalming process, with a focus on the blood-letting process, it’s not properly explained but filmed with a fascination that stays with you – there’s a small positive to take away from the film. It’s the first time we are given no real explanation of whats going on – that’s the main fault of this film.
Moving away from the master of suspense to look at the John himself, we’re told he has all the makings of a serial killer, so already we are looking to him to potentially kill someone, he likes to hang around with his mum at the family business. His social skills are limited to alienating bullies who find him to be an outsider who they spend very little time on. I see a young man who is deeply troubled yet fascinated with death and human anatomy. Spending so much time with the dead has a turned him into an anti-social loner who is trying to function among his peers. Being presented with a possible future that he’s trying to prevent. Yet the events of the present could easily mold him into a different more dangerous person complete with murderous tendencies which are simmering on the surface.
The murders at first are mysterious, the victims arrive at the funeral home, usually already open and a few organs missing, soon its arms too. John’s fascinated by the freshly delivered corpses, wanting to explore them in more detail. The closest he gets a first to the killer, to understand his methods, exploring them like a child would their food, in short he’s a disturbed guy. However we learn far too early on who the serial killer is – it’s the old guy living across the street – Mr Crowley, but that still doesn’t explain the black oily gloop that can be found at the scenes of the killings. If only we could wait a little longer to discover the killer. It’s the curiosity of John the drives him to keep looking, spotting odd behaviour and following him from a distance to what is grisly end in the snow. Taking us out of straight forward crime thriller into I don;t know what – supernatural bizarre maybe. The killing is over in a flash, like a poorly shot YouTube video, I couldn’t believe my eyes
We go into a the second half of the film to a game of innocent chasing the guilty, trying to catch him out and get him arrested, it’s not as easy as he hopes it would be. A could be killer following a killer in action. The danger of finding and understanding him is too much to pass-up, just as he wants to control and prevent that future happening to himself. It’s like a Luke Skywalker constantly being tempted by Palpatine to join the dark side, yet his humanity and the lighter side of the force sees him resist the temptation.
Admittedly there are moments of real dread, from the imagined death that’s described to John lashing out at his mum. However it’s when he almost crosses the line from his potential to certain future, trying to understand the psychology of a serial killer he tests a theory out that forces emotions that could see him enter a darker part of his life. For a few moments such as this we are given some real thrills, its too far and between to really make it worthwhile. The deaths and danger gets closer to home, then we reach the really weird ending which at first is shocking, we see John taking control, clear headed as we’ve ever seen him. He’s saved his mum but at the cost of revealing the killer and what is actually going on. I’m left scratching my head, wondering what the hell just happened. The final images stay with you, but given no real explanation for them, which is frustrating beyond the fact that the beast inside Crowley has been harvesting organs because he is dying. Nothing more is given, the loose ends aren’t tied up, we’re left with more questions and leaving us with The Spirit in the Sky to play out the film.
There’s some potential in the film, as much as there is for John to go either side of being a serial killer, exploring a future that’s being played out before him. It’s pure temptation, it’s just a shame we see little of that after the reveal, going into hunting him down, trying to understand him, which we don’t get to. It’s frustrating really and little time is given to explore other characters and how they are affected by the murders. I wish more time was given to his friendship with Max which is just 4 short scenes, his only link to the real world – or normality. It’s dark at times, and very flawed trying to be more than it is with so much there to work with. I have to admit that the cast of Lloyd in the villianous role is something I have forgotten he does so well. He’ll be forever associated with Doc Emmett Brown, however he has before and since played the weird and wonderful and the bad-guy so well so long. His height and face have allowed him to to produce some memorable roles, I can safely say this role can be added to the list, its the film that lets him down.
Now you can’t categorise Duel in the Sun (1946) as a straight forward western, either as a historical epic, a outlaw or the good bad-guy (yes I’m reading more about the genre at the moment). I would say that it falls into the epic but sliding into romance, ultimately its one of those obscure overlooked Westerns that came out after WWII. Most notable for being David O. Selznick‘s attempt to recreate the success of Gone With the Wind (1939) which undeniably the runaway success, it wasn’t really topped at the box-office until Jaws (1975) (adjusted for inflation). It’s that second product syndrome, when you release a product that is so successful, you and the public wonder what you will bring out next. Will it be better and bigger than the first, it’s well known that surrounded Pixar when they were working on A Bug’s Life (1998), how do you cope with all the expectation? Let it go to your head, scare the life out of you or just go ahead, reinvest the money you’ve made into the new film and just get on with your next production, hoping it breaks even. For Selznick he would always live in the shadow of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler never able to break free of them.
So why return to this admittedly obscure film that tries so hard to be as grandiose as Gone With the Wind? I guess it was a chance to see where all the energy and ideas went, also a healthy dose of curiosity to try and understand the thickly laid sexual overtones in the film which went over my head originally, or memory has simply failed me. I needed ultimately to understand what’s going on in this film that has been shouting at me to take in once more.
My first reaction was how grand a scale this Western is, before we even meet Pearl (Jennifer Jones) the mixed race woman who is eventually torn between two men. We see a mass of people outside in Mexico, sex, dance, drinking and debauchery, it’s a world you want to be part of before, the exotic of Mexico filled with characters we won’t even meet. No expense has been spared in making this a rich, dramatic and intense film. At least that is the intention; there are times that I think that O’Selznick is just showing off, spending money like water, running away from realism into pure romanticism, trying to repeating the winning formula of Gone With the Wind, 7 years previously, he’s fighting the giant that is his own shadow and it shows. There are literally hundreds of extras, this is in the time of sound and increasing costs, its madness at times. However when it comes together we have these dramatic moments that raise this from being just another routine Western yearning to be an epic.
Ultimately we have another version of Gone With the Wind really, except we are not fighting the Yankees, they have long since won the war. There are still two men to one woman with a different dynamic to the love triangle, they are both after her, instead of each one after another, a winning formula for romance and drama, lets just see how it plays out. A woman coming from a mixed marriage, tainted by blood of a Mexican/Comanche and a White Southerner – Scott (Herbert Marshall). Both die in the opening scenes of the film, leaving her to live with her fathers first cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish) who has two sons so very different they bring out the best and worst in Pearl. They do however awaken her from her innocence, a young woman, confused and dirtied by her heritage, sexually unaware of her power.
It’s the brothers who I remember the most, good vs. evil, the best and worst of their parents. Lewton ‘Lewt’ McCanles (Gregory Peck) the epitome of the cowboy who can break a horse, have a good time on a drive, complete with a sex drive that has to be met. Hoping he has found his equal in Pearl who at first rejects his advances. Instead turning to the educated Jesse (Joseph Cotten) the polar opposite of his brother in every possible, wanting to bring out the best in Pearl who wants to be the girl that her father wanted her to be. However since his death she has to make her own path in a world that is full of temptation in the Wild West.
What I found interesting about the casting is that Selznick, casting three very popular actors opposite three from the silent era (Harry Carey, Gish and Lionel Barrymore), the producer is catering to audiences old and young. However the themes are very adult, even for a post war audience, I’m surprised so much got passed the censors, from the longer than three second kiss to the advances in the bedroom, the flesh in the skinny dipping. Today we wouldn’t think any more of it, you could say it was ahead of its time, brave even to depict such themes so overtly. The emotion and action is cranked up, the use of technicolor, the use of reds, yellows and oranges to increase the intensity of the film. Visually the film is very unique meaning it will always have a places in the genre, for being just that; unique and it’s wanting to be more. It’s over the top visually and emotionally, bleeding it at times that you need to take of your handkerchief to clean up the excess.
I’ve been looking for this Western for a while now, catching it originally a few years ago and not completely understanding the subtleties of this actually quite dark film. Not on a Fordian scale, or even that of Budd Boetticher, we are returning to the murky realms of Robert Aldrich who could move from genre to genre with ease. Here in The Last Sunset (1961) he pits two leading men of Hollywood against each other. From the opening titles, if you look carefully, the same landscapes covered by two riders, taking the same path. We don’t tend to see that unless there is a chase midway into a film. It’s a chance for a double take, to question the audience attention to what is going on, to look beyond the surface of the image we are given.
We learn that Brendan ‘Bren’ O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is on the run but in no real hurry. In fact he’s enjoying the chase, riding into the Brenkenridge Ranch, meeting Belle (Dorothy Malone) who lets him stay the night, O’Malley as like many of Douglas’s roles are neither good or bad, he’s elusive, charming with a dark streak that he carries it all off with a little too much confidence. With his time on-screen first we believe he’s the good guy as much as you can if you are familiar with Douglas’s past roles. Building up the role of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) who is after him. Instead of going into hiding he encourages John Brekenridge (Joseph Cotten) to take him on to lead his cattle North to Texas.
On the face if it we have a cattle drive with rivals who are waiting to kill each other, it’s anything but just that or we would have this film today, it would be a run of the mill Western that would have long been forgotten. If we under the surface we have a yearning in O’Malley for the past, an old flame in Belle who knows why he’s back. Making a deal with John for a 5th of the herd, and his wife. A very unusual deal to strike, luckily struck as John’s an alcoholic and a coward whose walked all over.
Add to that the 16-year-old daughter Melissa ‘Missy’ (Carol Lynley) who believes she’s a woman at her young age. Perceived as such in Mexico so acts that way. It’s not questioned by those around her. It’s not long for her to start falling O’Malley who at first has no interest. Cinematically this is a very dark area, even for the early 60’s leaning towards underage sex, is played innocently on-screen. O’Malley does little to encourage her. Its only when a seed that’s planted earlier in the film’s brought to light, a yellow dress that O’Malley last saw her mother at the same/similar age in that dress. Producing feelings in O’Malley to transfer his emotions from mother to daughter.
Yet the first half of the film there is a love-triangle form between O’Malley, Belle and Stribling, as John is blissfully unaware and drunk. Played by Cotten who I thought would be out-of-place, however its an interesting choice that pays off, the older man, a Confederate veteran who has a secret history of cowardice that has taken the form of alcoholism, he’s respected however by all in his company. Stribling doesn’t make a move on Belle, leaving him to fend of O’Malley who takes any chance he can get, again ignoring the admiring Missy. O’Malley taunts Belle, whistling a tune that’s repeated throughout, a motif that plays on our minds and that of Belle.
The Last Sunset’s filled with psychologically conflicted characters who are placed into this cattle drive which is not a jolly affair, darker than Tom Dunsons in Red River (1948) that sees two very different men pitted against each other. However 13 years later the Western has changed so much in that time. Good and evil becomes blurred here so they can live alongside each other for so long before the warrant that was originally raised can be fulfilled. Stribling having been made a deputy to ensure he can get justice for his sister. Even that isn’t black and white as we later find out.
The final twists which I had completely forgotten hit me as fresh as it would have originally. Maybe I should wait this long again to watch it (4 years I think?). Its a dramatic twist, the possibility that O’Malley might be Missy’s father. It would make sense. Of course there is no way to prove this, it’s down to belief alone that soon hits home for him. Leading up to a classic, fast paced edited showdown that leaves us on the edge of our seats. It’s a unique Western, much like others by Aldrich who also gave us to takes on the gunfight at the OK Corral and that’s just to begin with. He adds a psychological depth and uncertainty to his work they aren’t just a standard genre film.
My dad has the idea that Marilyn Monroe was no good as an actress which is true…to a point as I have found with her last film The Misfits (1961). I believe she unfairly earned this title due the directors she worked with, taking advantage of her, the film industry creating an image she couldn’t live up to and the pressure of public live being labelled a sex-symbol. And this is before the days of the internet when she would have surely suffered far worse under the gaze of the media. You have to look at earlier roles such as her small bit part in All About Eve (1950) where she was more a character role with a few lines, playing the blonde for a scene. Playing up that persona before it really took root a few years later. Another stronger example in Niagara (1953) where she’s paired against Joseph Cotten, yes the very same who found fame thanks to Citizen Kane (1941) and a strong of thrillers, a credible actor from the theatre who made the transition to Hollywood. It seems a very strange pairing on the face of it today. Yet it’s not really, take a pretty young thing who knows no better to bring in the audience and an established actor and there you have on-screen couple for a film. It happens sadly to this day, Hollywood really hasn’t broken that mould. Hopefully as more actresses speak out about the sexism in the industry we may finally get change,
As much as Monroe plays more to the classic femme-fetale this time, the blonde who can really drop a few knocks along the course of the film, getting her husband George Loomis (Cotten) all tied up, Not long out of a psychiatric hospital the couple are taking a break at the iconic resort of Niagara Falls, it’s not really what the doctor ordered for the Loomis’s who are further apart than ever before, just about able to stand each other in their cabin. On the face of this all American location dark secrets are beneath surface ready to seep out in the blazing Technicolor film-noir. George’s troubled by feelings of jealousy which consume him, unable to move on, which is pushing the couple apart. As Rose (Monroe) has gone to the arms of another man already whilst on holiday.
We discover the Loomis couple have out-stayed their welcome when The Cutler’s arrive on their “honeymoon” something that is never really explained. Promised that cabin the Lomis’s are still occupying, the two couples an uneasy friendship, the Cutlers aware of the Rose’s overt sexuality towards the other guests staying at the resort, playing music that stirs up George to the brink. I found the Cutlers to be underdeveloped as a couple, first meeting them at the border, before we learn they are not really newlyweds, so what are they, just a couple taking a holiday. Ray (Max Showalter) is hoping to meet his boss Mr. J.C. Kettering (Don Wilson) and his wife, hoping to take advantage of the situation. However it’s Polly (Jean Peters) who has the most excitement, discovering more than she expected whilst enjoying the attractions.
Polly’s caught up in the mess between George and Rose as things get messy, the disappearance of George before turning up dead a few days later. The all American holiday destination’s tinged with death, lies and alteria-motives that Polly is tangled up in unable to her herself free unlike her husband Ray who is harder to persuade. You could say its a classic Hitchcock where all this dark activity is going on, and only one person really knows the truth. Both of the Loomis’s are very different people, the very definition of opposites when it comes to a couple, the honeymoon period’s indeed well and truly over.
Henry Hathaway has taken the film-noir genre and brought it into the light of day, the all-American couple is no longer going on a happy holiday where you lie on the beach and get-drunk, a place where you can forget your troubles, they come with you and never leave. He has cleverly cast Monroe as the femme-fetale, using her beauty to distract us from what is going on inside her. Whilst Cotten is sometimes out of place, probably too old to really be her husband (like I said earlier a symptom of Hollywood) he’s possessed with jealousy and anger, not to the same level of darkness of Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the anger within him has come from a different place as they couple tear shreds out of each other. Hathaway also makes great use of the bells throughout really adds a sense of dread. On first hearing them they are to taunt us, as they ring out a previous song. Before acting as a foundation for more powerful scene that is both brave and daring in full colour, relying on the audiences memory to complete the scene as we’re distracted by the murder below.
This really was a surprising, a rare colour film-noir, with the addition of Monroe before the mid-fifties when her fame was cemented for very different reasons. We see what she could have become in this beautiful location that is synonymous with what is great with America. It’s very classic in it’s form, tinged with darkness. You’ll never go on holiday and feel the same again.
- NIAGARA (1953) (hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com)
- Niagara (1953) (colemancornerincinema.blogspot.co.uk)
- NIAGARA (1953) (theordinaryreview.blogspot.co.uk)
- Friday’s Old Fashioned: Niagara (1953) (cinemaromantico.blogspot.co.uk)
- Classic Films in Focus: NIAGARA (1953) (virtualvirago.blogspot.co.uk)
- The O Canada Blogathon: Niagara (1953)(thrillingdaysofyesteryear.blogspot.co.uk)
- Still waters fall deep… Niagara (1953) (ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk)
- NIAGARA (1953): The Technicolor Film Noir (loveletterstooldhollywood.blogspot.co.uk)