Monday, April 21, 2014

THE SQUEAKER (1937)

aka MURDER ON DIAMOND ROW

When the latest diamond robbery occurs and a Scotland Yard man talks about trying to follow the crooks, flippant reporter Alastair Sim suggests that they follow the diamonds instead. Indeed, this is the latest in a string of incidents involving an underworld fence nicknamed "The Squeaker"; he gets a low price for the booty offered to him because if he doesn't get it, he threatens to call the police on the thieves. The Squeaker knows who pulled the job, but they never see him. Meanwhile, jewel thief Robert Newton pulls one last job, stealing the Van Rissik pearls, before settling down with exotic singer Tamara Desni. The pearls are worth quite a bit of money but the Squeaker, who deals with the thieves from inside his darkened car, writing his offers in the fog on the car window, only offers a pittance and Larry says no. As the Squeaker drives away, Larry thinks he recognizes him. Scotland Yard winds up getting assistance from a disgraced alcoholic former detective (Edmund Lowe) who goes undercover at a company run by Sebastian Shaw, who specializes in hiring men who need a second chance. Lowe and Ann Todd, daughter of the company's owner, carry on a flirtation while he tries to tie up all the threads of the case and catch the Squeaker.

This mild thriller is based on a story by prolific English author Edgar Wallace, and has been adapted at least three other times. The gimmick of the mysterious tattletale fence known as the Squeaker is a good one and this adaptation is fine, though because Lowe is a weak leading man, the movie belongs to the supporting cast. He and Todd have no chemistry, though Todd tries hard. Newton (pictured to the left of Lowe) and Shaw are both very good, and Sim gives an eccentric comic performance; he is not central to the plot but he's fun when he's on. There are some awkward jokes made at the expense of Lowe's alcoholism, and the climax, which involves a strange set-up by Lowe as he tries to trap the Squeaker, is odd and a little creepy. Desni has a couple of musical numbers in which she comes off as a second-tier Dietrich. [Criterion streaming]

Saturday, April 19, 2014

OUR WIFE (1941)

On a cruise ship we meet a scientist (Ruth Hussey) traveling with her father (Charles Coburn) and brother (John Hubbard), all in academics; Hubbard complains that Hussey hasn't been having fun because she doesn't have a romantic bone in her body. Enter Melvyn Douglas, a bandleader whose wife has left him. Quite drunk, he tumbles overboard and later annoys Hussey with his late-night trumpet playing. The next day, Douglas goes ashore at Christobel intending to stay there, but Hussey and family see him, again quite drunk, and assuming he needs to get back to the ship, take him with them. When he sobers up and they realize his room is no longer available, they let him stay with them and they all get very chummy, to the point where Douglas invites the family to stay at his house on Long Island for the summer. They do, and he stays as well, sober and in the process of writing a serious concerto mixing jazz and classical (didn’t Gershwin get there first?). At the concert premiere of Douglas' piece, Hussey runs into Douglas’s wife (Ellen Drew) who is having second thoughts about leaving him, especially when she sees that Douglas and Hussey are hitting it off. When Drew visits Douglas at home and falls down the stairs, she is bedbound for an indeterminate amount of time, and a battle of wills between Drew and Hussey—who is convinced that Drew is faking her injury—begins.

This is a mild romantic comedy which draws on some of the trappings of the screwball genre (meeting cute, divorce proceedings, zany schemes) without ever quite working up the energy needed to go full screwball. Hussey and Hubbard are likeable and Drew makes a good foil for Hussey. Coburn is fine though underused, but Douglas (pictured above with Hussey) is the weak link: he's not a very convincing drunk and he seems too bland to be fought over. Much of the dialogue is snappy but Douglas just doesn't have the fizz to carry his weight (that sounds paradoxical but you know what I mean). Lloyd Bridges has a tiny early role as a taxi driver. The title is a bit strange; I guess Drew is Hussey and Douglas' wife, though "Our Husband" would seem to be more appropriate. [TCM]

Friday, April 18, 2014

THE FLYING SERPENT (1946)

At the site of an Aztec temple in New Mexico, a treasure is rumored to exist, guarded by the flying serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Slightly demented archeologist Forbes (George Zucco) has found the treasure and also discovers that Quetzalcoatl (known hereafter as Q) is real: when his wife was holding an ancient feather from the bird, the flying serpent attacked and killed her. Somehow, he manages to trap the creature in a cell in the ruins. Forbes and his grown daughter Mary (Hope Kramer) live near the ruins, and Forbes has tried to keep others away from the temple. All this is presented as exposition; when the film begins, Forbes is upset that an ornithologist named Lambert has published an article about the ruins. So he does what any mad scientist would do: he plants a Q feather on Lambert, then lets Q out of its cell so Q can attack and kill Lambert, drain his blood, and fly back to the temple with the feather in its mouth. As more people get interested in what's happening, Forbes repeats the above, over and over, until radio journalist Richard Thorpe (Ralph Lewis) catches on and sets up a plan that involves catching Forbes and Q during a live radio broadcast.

Despite the nicely exotic touch of Quetzalcoatl in the title role, this is essentially a Poverty Row remake of an earlier Poverty Row film, THE DEVIL BAT which featured Bela Lugosi in the George Zucco role. Most critics disparage this film, mostly for the cheap puppet with the visible wires that is used for the serpent, but I rather like Q; he's creepy looking, generally not visible too long so he doesn’t look too Muppety, and he's certainly better than the sad-looking buzzard of THE DEVIL BAT. The serpent attacks are quite effective for this grade of movie. I like Zucco, but he doesn't hit the campy heights that Lugosi does. Ralph Lewis is quite acceptable as the B-movie hero, and Hope Kramer is fine as the heroine. Less fine is Eddie Acuff in a lame comic relief role. No gem, but slightly better than its reputation. [DVD]

Monday, April 14, 2014

CAST A DARK SHADOW (1955)

Great opening: a close-up of a middle-aged woman in darkness, screaming, then quick shots of scary figures in the dark. It turns out that the woman, Monica (Mona Washbourne), is in a Tunnel of Love ride with her handsome and considerably younger husband Teddy—full name Edward Bare (Dirk Bogarde). Her lawyer is convinced that he married her for her money and counseled her to make a will leaving the house to him but her money to her sister Dora who lives overseas, but now she is ready to change her will to leave both the house and her money to him. Teddy finds out she's making a change and, thinking it will leave him out in the cold completely, kills her and makes it look like an accident. Of course, he winds up with just the house, so he goes on vacation looking for another rich meal ticket, which he finds in Freda (Margaret Lockwood), an attractive widow. She's on her guard, but thinking that he has a fortune, she marries him. He then begins plotting how to get her money. Meanwhile, a woman named Charlotte (Kay Walsh), new in the neighborhood, gets friendly with the couple, and maybe a little too friendly with Teddy, making Freda jealous, despite her suspicions about her new husband. Soon tensions between the three explode, but I can say no more about the plot except to note the satisfying ending.

Though I don’t see this as a film noir as some critics do, this is definitely a solid woman-in-peril thriller in the mold of NIGHT MUST FALL—young psychopath terrorizes older woman—but with a couple of interesting twists. The first is that Teddy misreads the situation in the beginning, leading to the murder of Monica—it's based on a play called Murder Mistaken; if he hadn't been so quick to assume, he would have been in clover for the rest of his life. The second twist is that Freda is no naïve and helpless damsel; she's aware that Teddy might have ulterior motives, and she goes into the marriage as something of an arrangement rather than "true love." The third twist is that there is more to Charlotte than meets the eye. The look of the film (inky shadows, odd angles) is probably what gets it called a noir, but Bogarde (pictured) is no anti-hero, he's a bad guy, plain and simple, though a charming one. He gives a strong performance, but Lockwood is every bit his equal. The only other notable performance comes from the reliable character actress Kathleen Harrison as Monica's (and then Teddy's) maid.  A very good thriller, recommended. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

THE PLEASURE SEEKERS (1964)

Rarely has a movie title been more misleading. This is a remake of THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN in which three young American women spent time in Rome looking for love. The title of this version, along with the presence of three sexy 60s starlets, might indicate a high quotient of hedonistic activity, but these rich girls are actually looking for commitment rather than sheer pleasure. Carol Lynley, a secretary at a news agency, and Ann-Margret (pictured), a lounge singer and dancer, share a fabulously spacious apartment in Madrid; as the movie begins, they welcome their friend (Pamela Tiffin), the least worldly of three who is (gasp!) still a virgin. Romantic complications occur as follows: 1) Lynley is trying very hard to have an affair with her married boss (the considerably older Brian Keith), ignoring the hunky but somewhat prickly reporter (Gardner McKay, pictured below) who is clearly in love with her; 2) Ann-Margret is grazed by a hunky but shy doctor (Andre Lawrence) on a motorcycle; they strike sparks but her money comes between them; 3) Tiffin falls hard for a hunky but philandering playboy (Anthony Franciosa) who had dallied with Lynley last year; Lynley warns Tiffin about his nasty ways, but Tiffin is sure she's tamed him—until she goes to meet his family.

This isn't really a bad movie—after all, Ann-Margret dances in skimpy clothes (at least twice, her wardrobe conjures up her character in BYE BYE BIRDIE) and there are some nice shots of Madrid, and a short art history lecture in the Prado about El Greco—but it is very predictable. The only two who seem to actually engage in anything remotely scandalous are Ann-Margret and her doctor who spend one illicit night together before they decide to commit. [Spoiler (but not really): they all wind up happy with their appropriate hunky men.] All six of the lead couples are attractive, though the acting is variable; Tiffin is one-note and irritating, and Lawrence is rather bland. The apartment set is very cool—I wish they had spent more time there, though the few scenes that do take place there are marred by the running joke of a peeping Tom neighbor. There’s a weird "private weekend" middle-aged men orgy that Keith takes Tiffin to in order to finally start their affair, but Keith's wife (Gene Tierney, in her last screen role) gives Tiffin a scolding and a slap, and that's that. Contrary to some reports, this isn't really a musical. Annie does get to sing and dance a few times—the best number is "Everything Makes Music When You’re in Love" which she performs on a beach—but most of those songs are in the context of her job as a singer. Ultimately, rather ho-hum. [FMC; be sure to catch a widescreen airing]

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

SHE'S MY WEAKNESS (1930)

Young Marie Thurber has been dating young Tommy Mills, and he plans to marry her whenever he sells some land that was left to him. Marie's folks like Tommy, but Marie has gotten tired of Tommy being such a goody-goody around them, with Tommy going so far as to choose to play bridge with the parents rather than go out on the town with her. Marie's uncle David, who lives with them, thinks more of young Bernie Norton as he's more of a go-getter—he has an orange and green car, after all! Things come to a head when Mr. Thurber tries to get his town's civic improvement association to buy some property from him. Problem #1: Tommy is making arrangements to sell his land to them first, not aware of Mr. Thurber's attempt. Problem #2: Uncle David actually prefers Tommy to Bernie but thinks that Tommy needs some more backbone, so he encourages Tommy to act sourly toward the Thurbers, assuming that will impress Marie. Problem #3: Bernie has already gotten a marriage license. After more complications and crossed signals, Marie eventually chooses Tommy, and both Tommy and Mr. Thurber get to sell their land.

This is a cute B-romantic comedy, though your enjoyment of it may depend on your tolerance for Arthur Lake (Tommy), known best as Dagwood Bumstead in the Blondie movie series of the 30s and 40s. Here, he's a lanky juvenile who bounces between cocky and mild-mannered. IMDb reviewers tend to find him irritating but I thought he was fine—certainly no more bothersome than the average comic juvenile. Sue Carol, who made only a few more movies before retiring from the screen in 1937 (and who later married Alan Ladd), is charming as Marie. The only other actor to stand out is William Collier Sr. as Uncle David. There a number of fun scenes: in one, Mr. Thurber and Uncle David argue over Tommy and Bernie; in another, Tommy tries his best to be rude to the Thurbers. The final scene, played in pouring rain (see picture), has the drunken Tommy sneaking into the Thurber house through a window to tell off Marie—which, of course, leads to their reconciliation. A cute movie considering its age and its static, stagy style. [TCM]

Friday, April 04, 2014

WHIPLASH (1948)

Dane Clark is a struggling young artist who lets café owner S.Z Sakall put his stuff up on the walls, even though Clark is embarrassed at the crudity of his work. One day Sakall sells one of Clark's pictures to the lovely Alexis Smith (pictured with Clark), visiting from New York City. Clark goes to get it back, but after a brief period of verbal sparring, they wind up taking a moonlight stroll along the beach and he declares his love. The next morning, as Smith waits in Sakall's café for Clark, a slimy looking guy pops in and plays the jukebox, leading Smith to leave and head back to NYC. After some soul-searching, Clark follows and discovers that Smith is unhappily married to bitter, crippled nightclub owner and fight promoter Zachary Scott, a former boxer now confined to a wheelchair, who sent the slimy jukebox guy out to find her. Scott is able to hang onto Smith because of the power he has over her brother (Jeffrey Lynn), a surgeon whose botched operation may have been responsible for Scott's disability. To stay near Smith, Clark, who boxed in the past, agrees to be become Scott's protégé, but during a tussle with one of Scott's thugs, he gets a concussion which could mean dangerous brain damage. Still, Scott insists that Clark fight, hoping that he'll get a blow which might kill him.

I like all three leads (Clark, Smith and Scott) and they're all at pretty close to full strength, so I enjoyed this, even though I am not a fan of boxing movies. To be fair, the boxing scenes take up a small part of the film and the rest is an average noir-tinged romantic triangle melodrama reminiscent of GILDA. The acting is fine and the dialogue a notch above B-melodrama fare. The wonderful Eve Arden lends strong support as a sympathetic neighbor of Clark's. There's a cute club number, "The Guy with the Spanish Drawl" with the chorus "Besame mucho, y'all." Jimmie Dodd, later the host of the original Mickey Mouse Club, is seen briefly as a piano player. [TCM/DVD]

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

THE LOOKING GLASS WAR (1969)

In Finland, a German pilot makes contact with a British spy, passing him a roll of film which contains information that would confirm or deny the existence of secret Russian nuclear weapons, but the spy is killed on the road and the roll of film falls on the ground, unnoticed by anyone. Back in England, spymaster Ralph Richardson has recruited a hunky young Polish sailor (Christopher Jones, pictured) who has defected to the West to see the girl (Susan George) who is carrying his baby. Jones is trained by Richardson and a younger agent (Anthony Hopkins) to go on a mission to find the film or to see the missiles for himself. Jones finds George and after a quick roll in the hay, she tells him that she had an abortion. He and Hopkins go drinking together and Jones doubles down in his spy training. Unfortunately, poor Jones is still a bit of a loose cannon, and once he is past enemy lines, he kills a truck driver who tried to seduce him and winds up stuck out in the middle of nowhere. In the end, Jones meets a tragic fate and Hopkins is left pissed off that Jones was sacrificed in what amounted to a game, the outcome of which was not crucial to the Brits or the Russians. This bleak, cynical thriller, based on a John LeCarre novel, is interesting but doesn't really stand above any of the others in this genre (THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, THE KREMLIN LETTER). Jones is handsome, coming off a bit like a James Dean/Brad Pitt type, and carries the weight of the central role well, and Richardson and Hopkins are fine as always. Anna Massey and Susan George are also in the cast. The first half, with the scenes of Jones and Hopkins training, is the best. [DVD]

Friday, March 28, 2014

SPLIT SECOND (1953)

The day before an atomic blast test is scheduled to take place in the Yucca Basin in Nevada, Stephen McNally and Paul Kelly break out of a Carson City prison. With Kelly wounded, the two pick up another convict and wind up at a gas station where McNally pistol whips and eventually kills the owner, taking Alexis Smith and her boyfriend hostage. Meanwhile, reporter Keith Andes, who has been assigned to cover the breakout, is on the road having picked up Jan Sterling, a showgirl heading for Reno. Their path soon crosses that of the crooks, and when Smith's car runs out of gas, McNally forces everyone into Andes' car. Even though Smith is estranged from her husband, McNally finds out that he's a doctor so he forces Smith to send for him to patch up Kelly; the whole group holes up in a ghost town waiting for him, unaware that they are at ground zero for the atomic blast which will take place at sunrise. This is a solid, tense thriller that briefly makes you think they might actually blow everyone up, good guys and bad. Aside from the novelty of the setting, the cast of B-actors is the most interesting thing here. Kelly always provides reliable support, especially as a villain; I'm always happy to see the handsome Andes (pictured with Sterling) pop up, and Alexis Smith is one of my favorite B-level leading ladies of the classic era. McNally is serviceable, though as he is the lead baddie, I wish he and Kelly had switched roles. Richard Egan shows up briefly as the doctor and Robert Paige is fine as Smith's lover. My favorite line—socialite Smith to chorus girl Sterling: "You must run into a lot of men in your line of work"; Sterling to Smith: "I run into a lot of men when I’m just loafing." Dick Powell directed; even though the tension comes and goes, it's worth sticking around for the ending. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

HAT, COAT, AND GLOVE (1934)

Lawyer Ricardo Cortez is in a department store shopping for a new coat; he runs into his estranged wife (Barbara Robbins) who is shopping for a hat; another shopper, buying gloves, is John Beal, a struggling young artist and Robbins' lover. They're all very civilized even though Cortez is still hoping for a reconciliation. She invites Cortez to dinner at her place that evening, but when Beal calls from his Greenwich Village apartment, she leaves to spend the night with him. The next day, Cortez goes to Beal's place, hoping to talk things through, but instead he finds Dorothy Burgess, a former lover of Beal's, who has just faked a suicide attempt in an effort to win Beal back and is in the middle of getting very drunk. At some point, Burgess picks up a gun, Cortez tries to take it away from her, and she winds up shot and killed. Cortez leaves, Beal is arrested, and Robbins (who doesn't know that Cortez was involved) asks Cortez to defend her lover in court, agreeing to return to Cortez after the trial, no matter what the verdict. When the hat, coat and glove of the title come into play in the courtroom, can Cortez keep his cool and save Beal without incriminating himself?

This is a short, fun, fast-moving melodrama which must have sneaked in at the tail end of the pre-Code days—the ending is unpredictable only because under the Production Code, it could never have happened. Of course, the frank bedroom arrangements could also not have been made quite so explicit under the Code. Cortez (pictured to the right of Beal) is one of my favorite 30s actors, never a big star, but always welcome as a slick leading man, lover, or crook, and he's very good here. Robbins is colorless, but Beal and Burgess make the most of their roles, and Margaret Hamilton has a fun scene as a dressmaker who calls herself Madame Du Barry. Favorite line, concerning Beal's choice of gloves: Robbins: "That glove spells quiet dignity"; Cortez: "In fact, it shrieks quiet dignity." [TCM]