A few years ago, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of influential film critic Pauline Kael, I wrote the following:
“I think (Kael) did a lot to expose the truth… that directors, writers and actors who often work awfully close to the surface may still have subterranean levels of achievement or purpose or commentary that they themselves may be least qualified to articulate. It’s what’s behind her disdain for Antonioni’s pontificating at the Cannes film festival; it’s what behind the high percentage of uselessness of proliferating DVD commentaries in which we get to hear every dull anecdote, redundant explication of plot development and any other inanity that strikes the director of the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com to blurt out breathlessly; and it is what’s behind a director like Eli Roth, who tailors the subtext of something like Hostel Part II almost as an afterthought to be bleated out in defensive bursts on Larry King. Better to let your movie do the talking for you.”
In an age where everybody’s got something to say about the work they’ve done as filmmakers, and usually a forum in which to expound on it, it’s gotten to the point where most of the time nothing is really being said. If you punch up the commentary track for, say, Sucker Punch or the Star Wars prequels, you’re likely only going to get a bunch of inside dope from technical wizards about the sets and special effects and, yes, lots of junket-ready anecdotes about how great he or she was to work with or what a brilliant genius he or she was in facilitating all the sound and fury on screen.
Directors themselves can be frustrating in this regard too—Paul Verhoeven’s commentary track on Starship Troopers was intermittently entertaining, but also disappointingly facile when it came to discussing the political satire embedded in his film. Yet filmmakers as diverse as Robert Altman (Nashville), Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and Don Mancini (Seed of Chucky) have all contributed commentary tracks that are genuinely illuminating about the subject (and subtexts) of their films and the particular creative processes of each one.
And those everybody-grab-a-mike-and-headphones affairs can be maddening tune-outs, but they can also be a lot of fun—the track contributed by Kevin Smith and company for Mallrats was famously far more entertaining than the movie they were ostensibly there to comment upon; The Howling featured an engaging and consistently good-natured reunion between director Joe Dante and actors Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone and Robert Picardo; and when noir czar Eddie Muller put himself and critic Kim Morgan behind the mike for Jean Negulesco’s Road House, the result was a 95-minute smarty party well worth listening to.
The more academic variety of what Muller and Morgan got away with, however, can be pretty deadly—I can’t think of too many variations on hell worse than having to listen to a wise film expert reading perhaps well-written copy about the movie’s themes and ideas in a robotic monotone or, worse, with an air of spoon-feeding disdain for the very audience being catered to. The Coen Brothers skewered this sensibility brilliantly on the audio commentary track for Blood Simple, in which the ponderous and pompous “expert” Kenneth Loring (actor Jim Piddock) spent the entire film spinning flat-out lies, offering up dead-end observations about the demeanor of the characters, or describing with boredom exactly what’s happening onscreen. (“Now we have rain again…”)
Which is where the mad genius of Richard Harland Smith comes in. Smith has been writing about film since 1997 with his first contribution to the popular journal Video Watchdog, and has contributed to such collections as North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide, Hey, Kids, Comics!, British and Irish Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide and Vamipros and Monstruos: The Mexican Horror Film of the 20th Century. For years Smith created, in anonymity, the hugely influential horror-centric blog Arbogast on Film, where he described himself as “a ubiquitous print and Internet critic blogging under an alias just for the love of the game.” Smith was also a key contributor to TCM’s daily Movie Morlocks blog—though now subsumed and available through Filmstruck under the “Streamline” banner, Smith’s proliferation of columns like “Old Movie Guys Who Were Younger Then Than I am Now: A Lament” and “Hand in Hand in Hell: My Top 10 Horror Movie Brother Sister Acts,” which melds passions both extremely personal and cinematic, are brilliant feats of sustained observation and remembrance, all written in a smart prose which never stumbles into condescension. My absolute favorite, “The Only Think Piece The Corpse Vanishes Is Ever Likely to Get” begins thusly:
“I was watching The Corpse Vanishes (1942) again recently and I forgot to laugh. I understand that laughter is the proper response because just about every critic — even the ones predisposed to horror, to Bela Lugosi, and to the inconsistent charms of Poverty Row cinema — tell us that the movie is no good, that Lugosi is no good in it, that the celluloid used to make it would have been better used for guitar picks, and that the only proper response is yuks. Ask most people in their 30s and 40s if they’ve ever seen The Corpse Vanishes and they’re likely to tell you, “Yeah, that was one of the best Mystery Science Theater 3000s ever!”
One of the things that’s really special about Smith’s writing is how the voice of authority and intellectual rigor you hear while reading him harmonizes so effortlessly with the distinctly unpretentious style he brings to the compositions of his words, sentences and ideas. In this age of snark and insta-opinions on simply everything, it’s a true marvel how Smith, especially in the piece on The Corpse Vanishes but, really, almost everywhere in his work, manages the balance of respect and understanding with the recognition of a movie’s hard-scrabble origins, its intentions (however well or not-so-well realized) and the way it plays to actual audiences, most of whom may not harbor the same reserves of respect and understanding, all the while recognizing and admitting to the various instances when one may be in the presence of a genre masterpiece or a steaming turd.
Over the past few years Richard Harland Smith has also become one of those names whose presence on the back of a Blu-ray box, alongside introductory copy that usually characterizes him as “film historian” or “expert,” indicates the presence of an exceptionally scholarly, mind-bogglingly well-researched and often hilarious audio commentary. The films to which Smith has lent his prodigious mind and voice might not often seem like the sort of fare that would much lend itself either to digitally-restored preservation (Philip Gilbert’s 1971 Blood and Lace) or a lovingly detailed exegesis dedicated to its production (Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s 1974 Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile). But it is in precisely these arenas that Smith’s audio accompaniments consistently surprise the viewer willing to sit down and listen.
I have several Blu-rays on my shelf that have been graced by Smith’s lived-in, reverently irreverent erudition, including the aforementioned Blood and Lace and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, as well as excellent editions of The Devil Bat (1940), The Death Kiss (1932), Burnt Offerings (1976), The Seven-ups (1973) and a slew of nifty titles from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, including The Earth Dies Screaming (1964), Donovan’s Brain (1953), Beware! The Blob (1972), Chosen Survivors (1974), Panic in Year Zero (1962), Twice-Told Tales (1963) and the one I watched last night, The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, a schlocky sci-fi knockoff of The Creature from the Black Lagoon directed by Dan Milner for American Releasing Corporation, which under the aegis of fledgling producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson soon morphed into American International Pictures.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of information, trivial, unexpected and often piquantly observant, which the viewer encounters from Smith over the movie’s 80-minute running time, all of which broadens our appreciation maybe not of the movie so much as the effort and the talent that, whether or not it’s immediately apparent, went into the making of The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues. The movie’s very first sequence, of a fisherman floating on a fishing boat in the Pacific, belies a modest set-up that most of us wouldn’t give more thought to than could be jammed into the few seconds it takes to absorb its unremarkable quality. But by then Smith has already gotten our heads spinning by informing us of the identity of the fisherman—he’s John Hanson, son of the renowned deep sea diver and underwater stuntman/photographer Al Hanson, who shot the movie’s underwater sequences and whose mother, Norma Jean, played the titular undersea creature. And hey, look, there she is, looming ominously among the seaweed, setting what Smith remarks with ingratiating humor must be, at 48 seconds into the film, a world record for introducing a movie monster. Whew! If you’ve looked at a Blu-ray case for a movie like The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues and wondered what the audio commentary guy could possibly find to talk about for 80 minutes, well, you’ve never heard Richard Harland Smith when he’s cooking with gas, which is what he doing right off the top of this one.
What’s marvelous about the way Smith approaches a disc like The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, featuring a cast and crew of people whom, to a man and woman, you may never have heard of, is how scrupulously he avoids the sort of obvious mockery of MST3K while maintaining a humor just as sharp as the denizens of the Gizmonic Institute. At the same time, he also finds a way to honor, not denigrate, their often marginal careers as actors and filmmakers and their status simply as humans who are out there struggling in their lives and in their professions just like the rest of us. From leading man Kent Taylor, groomed as “an economy-sized Clark Gable,” to the difficult and ultimately sad history of would-be Fox movie starlet Cathy Downs, who began as the title character in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine and ended her career in low-budget pictures like this one, and on to behind-the-scenes talent like screenwriter Lou Rusoff and his incredible CV of credits for American International hits like The Day the World Ended, Dragstrip Girl and Beach Party— Smith musters the sort of respect for the often modest achievements of folks like these that is usually reserved only for more high-profile figures in classic and modern movie history whose own work, despite access to more money and glitzy publicity than any of the folks who made The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues would ever see, might still be just as mediocre and uninspired. (Smith observes poignantly of cinematographer Brydon Baker’s career that it began in the silent era and that Baker toiled in several Poverty Row pictures before “the trail goes cold in 1935… The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues was Baker’s comeback picture.”)
Smith’s command of knowledge in the realms of the cinematic and the real world is formidable and inviting. While soaking up all the observations he has to offer on a disc like Phantom you will find out a lot of interesting information about some of the Southern California locales frequently used and reused in pictures like this—the somewhat tragic fate of Paradise Cove Pier, which was torn in half by a giant El Nino wave in the ‘80s and is seen repeatedly in the movie, is a particular point of focus, and Smith also makes time for a quick review of Catalina Island, another favored location here, in which we learn much about how the vacation spot was utilized both in movie and in baseball history– owned by William Wrigley Jr., it was once the home of the training camp for the Chicago Cubs. Okay, some of that might sound like info which could be tucked away in passing on just any old audio commentary. But Smith delivers it with detail and an offhanded confidence that takes us as listeners, and him as our genial host, well beyond the realm of simply listening to copy being read from a Wikipedia page. Smith convinces us that, like few who have ever undertaken the particular task of the historically devoted audio commentary, he actually knows what he’s talking about. In fact, you may frequently find yourself thinking with admiration, while listening to this or any of Richard Harland Smith’s audio pieces, this guy knows everything!
And by the time you begin to sense Smith’s synapses really starting to crackle, making some of the most unlikely and convincing connections between dissimilar films, worlds and sensibilities, you begin to really understand just how unique and valuable Smith’s particular window onto the world of genre film history really is. I mean, there is literally no one else I know who could examine a routine morgue scene in a movie like this, which Smith describes as being a genre movie staple we’ve all seen a hundred times—cop and partner stand at table, cop lifts sheet, gets meaningful look on his face, makes declarative statement about what must be done next—and then instantly takes us on a tour of morgue scenes stretching from Murder in the Rue Morgue (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) to Jaws (1975), ending up at Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1976), the great Swedish director’s name and work being perhaps the last that anyone could have ever reasonably expected to be invoked on a commentary devoted to a micro-budget B-movie footnote like The Phantom of 10,000 Leagues.
But before you get the idea that Smith is out to convince anyone that Phantom is anything more than it ever was—a cheaply produced exploitation picture which filled the bottom half of a double bill designed to lure teenagers to the drive-in during an era when just the promise of some titillating sex and gruesome violence was enough—he whips out that unmatched sense of humor about the whole thing that is as informed as anything MST3K ever churned out, minus the above-it-all derision. Smith’s commentary is no occasion for the film historian and expert to relentlessly crack wise about the el cheapo goings-on, but that’s not to say it isn’t funny, and sometimes riotously so. At one point scientist Kent Taylor and his policeman pal, played by character actor Bill Grant, seek out and encounter the titular undersea phantom during a diving expedition. But after some musings about the difficulty of underwater shoots and nostalgia about Thunderball and undersea frogmen fights, our narrator observes the men emerge safely onto the beach and begin dressing, casually talking about the monster and an ongoing police investigation, which is where Smith really gets his dander up:
“The last set piece, when the scientist and the cop meet the monster, should have been the movie’s tentpole. It should have sent the rest of the narrative flying down the slope to its big finish. But as you’ll see moving forward, it’s just a series of really dull setups and conversations. These guys have just seen a monster—an actual, literal monster. That should have been a life-changing event. They shouldn’t even be the same people as they were before they dove a half hour ago. But, you know, here they are talking about physical evidence and how they can establish the guilt of Dr. King (Michael Whalen), as if this were still a police case and not a monster situation. IT’S A MONSTER SITUATION! They should be calling in the navy or the coast guard, or whipping up a posse or a torch-bearing mob or something. But no. Look at them. They’re futzing around with their jackets like they just wrapped up a squash date. Kenneth Tobey would not be having this shit, I tell you what! I swear, there’s more unnecessary jacket taking off and putting back on in this movie than any other movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life!”
As we’ll have already figured out, Smith has seen a few movies in his life—you’ll be thinking, maybe every one ever made. But it’s the path he takes between those movies and observing how they link together in history that’s remarkable. In one of my favorite sequences from the Phantom commentary, Smith takes a routine eight-minute scene in which Cathy Downs, undressing in her room while traveling from closet to bathroom and back again, and back again, and then naked into the shower, and then being tantalizingly interrupted by Kent Taylor at the door and turns it into a brilliant and revealing exegesis of the history of boundary-stretching in terms of nudity and the anticipation of nudity and lusty behavior, just what had been seen before, what could be seen, what teenaged patrons at the drive-in hoped they’d see, and what a scene like this eventually led to in pictures like Peeping Tom and Psycho, both released only five years after this one debuted on the bottom half of a double bill with Day the World Ended in 1955. And then, in the aftermath, like the equivalent of a cigarette in bed after a bout of great sex, you get the Smith personal touch, with a dollop of endearing self-deprecation to boot:
“That’s what I love about movies, about any art form—seeing who plays by the rules, who breaks the rules, who takes a chance and who takes a step forward and brings it to the next level, as Hitchcock certainly did. The only thing that would have made this scene more memorable is if the phantom had come in on naked Cathy Downs, not just Kent Taylor. But if that had happened and she had to play her confrontation scene with the monster while wearing a towel, then The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues would probably be considered a true cult classic rather than a schlock curio, and somebody more famous than me would be doing the audio commentary.”
We can all be exceedingly glad that it’s not been somebody more famous. All those titles I listed above, and God knows there may be others I have somehow yet missed, including Kino’s recent release of Felix Feist’s rarely-seen 1933 disaster epic Deluge, prove Richard Harland Smith to be a superbly knowledgeable and personable guide through the bottomless depths of sometimes trivial, sometimes emotional, always fascinating information and profound connections that can be made throughout the history of even the most disreputable, dishonored and ignored genre pictures. Smith recently announced that the Kino Lorber edition of Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game, entitled A Game of Death (1945), would be his last, and that he will be moving on from writing and commenting on movies altogether into a new chapter of his life, and yes, that is a loss for us. But as writer Tim Lucas, founder of Video Watchdog, recently observed in commemorating Smith’s work, Smith never looked upon movies as going to church, the way so many young Internet-bred writers and film enthusiasts who know everything about aspect ratios and nitrate prints and restorations and festivals and all other movie-related minutiae, sometimes to the exclusion of life itself, often seem to do. And that’s what made his work especially valuable—no matter what crazed, bloodthirsty genre classic had caught his gaze at the moment, Smith always found a way to weave his own brand of humanity and personal observations about everyday concerns, however seemingly tangential or unrelated at first, into his eloquently expressed observations about vampires, zombies and serial killers.
Since my own arrival in Los Angeles in 1987 I have met two people who have honored me with their peerless knowledge about film and made me understand so clearly not only how much less I knew than I thought I knew, but also how to apply that knowledge to an enriched and more meaningful way to live life outside the cinema. One of those people died about 25 years ago. The other, Richard Harland Smith, who I met in 2010 when he recruited me and four other lucky film nuts into an exclusive club called The Horror Dads, and who I consider a true and most valued friend, is moving on from the movies to a different world, one where family and real-world joys and concerns will take their rightful place as the feature attraction in the theater of his mind. Richard has simply figured out that, compared to those joys and concerns, the obsessive pursuit of the movies doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Fortunately, for the rest of us, we’ll always have Richard’s peerless audio commentaries. And as I continue to on listen to the ones I have still yet to hear, I suspect the undertaking will take on the contours of a continuation and remembrance of our old ties, and of course the beginning of a new and beautiful friendship.
Here’s looking at and listening to you, Richard.