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Isolation drills from Groucho Marx to Sam Rockwell

Seldom has a 70-year-old film felt this topical

The Killer That Stalked New York: Blonde death.
The Killer That Stalked New York: Blonde death.

When the lockdown first caught hold, I pinky-promised myself not to devote column space to movies focused on quarantines, vaccines, epidemics, or violently insane world leaders who suggest injecting household chemicals as a cure for what ails us. Why would anyone turn to such dire topics as a source of entertainment, particularly when one had the daily coronavirus task force briefings to shock and amuse? This week’s trio of titles was to have been based on “Bad Girls of Film Noir”, the two-volume, four-disc, eight-title (none of which I had seen) DVD collection found at La Mesa’s Re-animated Records. Having long ago been vaccinated with a chronograph needle, I slid Disc 1, Vol. 1 into the tray and hit “play”. What are the chances that the first film out of the gate would be The Killer That Stalked New York, a “fresh as today’s headlines” expose of how a diamond-running doll smuggles both stones and smallpox across the Cuban border? Next up, Skidoo! — Groucho Marx’s cinematic swansong casts him as a mysophobic mafioso who has spent the past 20 years of his life sailing the seven seas under self-quarantine — and Sam Rockwell’s stellar lunar breakdown in Moon.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

Sheila (Evelyn Keyes) had a headache. Was it a premonition ther her husband (Charles Korvin) was carrying on an affair with her younger sister (Lola Albright). In all probability it was the T-man, hot on the trail of $50,000 in Cuban ice, who followed her off the train at Penn Station. Diamonds weren’t the only thing she was trafficking. Sheila was smallpox in the form of blonde death, a killer out of the past let loose among millions, who brought New York to its knees. (She had passed through an area of contagion, and with no quarantine restrictions between Cuba and the US, it was easier smuggling the disease across the border than the diamonds.) Breath means death; one out of three will perish.

Video:

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) trailer

Stop the carrier and they’ll stop the disease. Their only hope is to vaccinate the entire city. But naysayers call it nothing but a publicity scam and condemn the mayor for misspending taxpayer’s dollars. Seldom has a 70-year-old film felt this topical. You’ll gasp at something as simple as children pressing their lips against a public water fountain that just moments earlier quenched Sheila’s thirst. An overdone climax staged on a five-story ledge notwithstanding, screenwriter Harry Essex and directorial one-hit wonder Earl McEvoy walk us documentary-style through as many examples of how a disease spreads that 79 minutes will allow. With: Whit Bissell as Sheila’s brother and the manager of The Moon, a flophouse with a beautiful view of the cemetery, and Jim Backus earning a rare slap in the face for lechery as the nightclub owner who moves in for the kiss of death. And fans of The Honeymooners will instantly recognize Korvin as Carlos Sanchez, the mambo-dancing gigolo of 328 Chauncey Street.

Video:

Skidoo! (1968) trailer

Skidoo! (1968)

A hitman (Jackie Gleason), called out of retirement to infiltrate a prison and kill his former partner, turns pacifist after accidentally licking his hippie cellmate’s acid-laced stationery. Groucho Marx plays “God,” a germ-phobic mafia kingpin who has spent the last 20 years of his life quarantined on a bulletproof yacht overseen by George Raft. It was Groucho’s last feature, one of only three in color, and the only time he ever performed while on LSD. No stranger to acid trips, Otto Preminger had been wanting to transform his travel findings into a vehicle aimed at the youth market. (Hippie money spends.) The director went so far as convincing Gleason and Groucho to join him in throwing back an electric sugar cube. Even by J. Cheever Loophole’s standards, Groucho looks ridiculous under a sky-blue sport coat, blacktop widow’s peak, and an electrical tape moustache. And for a seasoned pro, Groucho appears to be giving cold line readings. Shunted off to the far left of the screen, he had to stare across the vast Panavision expanse, struggling to decipher the cue cards. This mean-spirited emergence was seconded by Groucho’s osteopathic handling of starlet Alexandra Hay. Was Otto’s experiment a success? How hip an assault can be waged when Carol Channing is positioned as the conduit between the flower children and la cosa nostra? Still, Preminger has more on his counter-culture agenda than simply mowing down a couple easy-riding stoners.

Video:

Moon (2009) trailer

Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones’ Moon gifted Sam Rockwell with the rare privilege of a one-character show, that character being a lunar miner named Sam Bell. Bell’s three-year gig harvesting Helium-3, earth’s primary source of energy, is drawing to a close. An on the bum satellite has deprived him of live earthly transmissions, literally placing his life on tape delay. The isolation begins to take a devastating toll, starting with a rapid decline in his health. Then a near-fatal accident places him in touch with his doppelganger, a younger, angrier version of himself. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers set the bar for split screen technology and Moon came awfully close to raising it. Watching Sam play ping pong with his clone is techno-geek nirvana. The characters’ movements and the whizzing white ball are timed and matched to perfection. At one point, Right Side Sam decides to take his frustration out on the table, pushing it at his opposing self. It’s seamless; nothing in the frame loses perspective. Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, computer and/or robot sidekicks have become genre accessories. (The chimpanzee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars has yet to be surpassed.) Kevin Spacey voices Gerty, the base’s down-to-earth computer designed to babysit Sam in a manner becoming a Hal 9000 knock off. But for a film that gracefully and intelligently integrates technology into its narrative, one touch of character business that was taken too far. Don’t you love it when you spot a purposely-but-unobtrusively-placed object in the frame? For the first two-thirds of the movie, Gerty sports a Post-It affixed to her backside that reads “Kick Me.” It’s a great throwaway gag designed for big screen observation. Even on a giant home monitor, the sticker would be hard to spot. Perhaps that’s why director Duncan Jones feels the need to finally insert a close up so enormous, people in the adjoining theater would notice it.

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The Killer That Stalked New York: Blonde death.
The Killer That Stalked New York: Blonde death.

When the lockdown first caught hold, I pinky-promised myself not to devote column space to movies focused on quarantines, vaccines, epidemics, or violently insane world leaders who suggest injecting household chemicals as a cure for what ails us. Why would anyone turn to such dire topics as a source of entertainment, particularly when one had the daily coronavirus task force briefings to shock and amuse? This week’s trio of titles was to have been based on “Bad Girls of Film Noir”, the two-volume, four-disc, eight-title (none of which I had seen) DVD collection found at La Mesa’s Re-animated Records. Having long ago been vaccinated with a chronograph needle, I slid Disc 1, Vol. 1 into the tray and hit “play”. What are the chances that the first film out of the gate would be The Killer That Stalked New York, a “fresh as today’s headlines” expose of how a diamond-running doll smuggles both stones and smallpox across the Cuban border? Next up, Skidoo! — Groucho Marx’s cinematic swansong casts him as a mysophobic mafioso who has spent the past 20 years of his life sailing the seven seas under self-quarantine — and Sam Rockwell’s stellar lunar breakdown in Moon.

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)

Sheila (Evelyn Keyes) had a headache. Was it a premonition ther her husband (Charles Korvin) was carrying on an affair with her younger sister (Lola Albright). In all probability it was the T-man, hot on the trail of $50,000 in Cuban ice, who followed her off the train at Penn Station. Diamonds weren’t the only thing she was trafficking. Sheila was smallpox in the form of blonde death, a killer out of the past let loose among millions, who brought New York to its knees. (She had passed through an area of contagion, and with no quarantine restrictions between Cuba and the US, it was easier smuggling the disease across the border than the diamonds.) Breath means death; one out of three will perish.

Video:

The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) trailer

Stop the carrier and they’ll stop the disease. Their only hope is to vaccinate the entire city. But naysayers call it nothing but a publicity scam and condemn the mayor for misspending taxpayer’s dollars. Seldom has a 70-year-old film felt this topical. You’ll gasp at something as simple as children pressing their lips against a public water fountain that just moments earlier quenched Sheila’s thirst. An overdone climax staged on a five-story ledge notwithstanding, screenwriter Harry Essex and directorial one-hit wonder Earl McEvoy walk us documentary-style through as many examples of how a disease spreads that 79 minutes will allow. With: Whit Bissell as Sheila’s brother and the manager of The Moon, a flophouse with a beautiful view of the cemetery, and Jim Backus earning a rare slap in the face for lechery as the nightclub owner who moves in for the kiss of death. And fans of The Honeymooners will instantly recognize Korvin as Carlos Sanchez, the mambo-dancing gigolo of 328 Chauncey Street.

Video:

Skidoo! (1968) trailer

Skidoo! (1968)

A hitman (Jackie Gleason), called out of retirement to infiltrate a prison and kill his former partner, turns pacifist after accidentally licking his hippie cellmate’s acid-laced stationery. Groucho Marx plays “God,” a germ-phobic mafia kingpin who has spent the last 20 years of his life quarantined on a bulletproof yacht overseen by George Raft. It was Groucho’s last feature, one of only three in color, and the only time he ever performed while on LSD. No stranger to acid trips, Otto Preminger had been wanting to transform his travel findings into a vehicle aimed at the youth market. (Hippie money spends.) The director went so far as convincing Gleason and Groucho to join him in throwing back an electric sugar cube. Even by J. Cheever Loophole’s standards, Groucho looks ridiculous under a sky-blue sport coat, blacktop widow’s peak, and an electrical tape moustache. And for a seasoned pro, Groucho appears to be giving cold line readings. Shunted off to the far left of the screen, he had to stare across the vast Panavision expanse, struggling to decipher the cue cards. This mean-spirited emergence was seconded by Groucho’s osteopathic handling of starlet Alexandra Hay. Was Otto’s experiment a success? How hip an assault can be waged when Carol Channing is positioned as the conduit between the flower children and la cosa nostra? Still, Preminger has more on his counter-culture agenda than simply mowing down a couple easy-riding stoners.

Video:

Moon (2009) trailer

Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones’ Moon gifted Sam Rockwell with the rare privilege of a one-character show, that character being a lunar miner named Sam Bell. Bell’s three-year gig harvesting Helium-3, earth’s primary source of energy, is drawing to a close. An on the bum satellite has deprived him of live earthly transmissions, literally placing his life on tape delay. The isolation begins to take a devastating toll, starting with a rapid decline in his health. Then a near-fatal accident places him in touch with his doppelganger, a younger, angrier version of himself. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers set the bar for split screen technology and Moon came awfully close to raising it. Watching Sam play ping pong with his clone is techno-geek nirvana. The characters’ movements and the whizzing white ball are timed and matched to perfection. At one point, Right Side Sam decides to take his frustration out on the table, pushing it at his opposing self. It’s seamless; nothing in the frame loses perspective. Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, computer and/or robot sidekicks have become genre accessories. (The chimpanzee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars has yet to be surpassed.) Kevin Spacey voices Gerty, the base’s down-to-earth computer designed to babysit Sam in a manner becoming a Hal 9000 knock off. But for a film that gracefully and intelligently integrates technology into its narrative, one touch of character business that was taken too far. Don’t you love it when you spot a purposely-but-unobtrusively-placed object in the frame? For the first two-thirds of the movie, Gerty sports a Post-It affixed to her backside that reads “Kick Me.” It’s a great throwaway gag designed for big screen observation. Even on a giant home monitor, the sticker would be hard to spot. Perhaps that’s why director Duncan Jones feels the need to finally insert a close up so enormous, people in the adjoining theater would notice it.

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