Thursday, January 29, 2015

THE DISEMBODIED (1957)

Deep in the African jungle, Carl, a doctor, lives with his young, vivacious wife Tonda (Allison Hayes; she looks about as Caucasian as he is, but she's apparently a native) at the edge of a small village. She doesn't seem terribly content with her lot in life—in the first scene, we see her use a voodoo doll to cause her napping husband to start suffocating, though when Suba (a villager and house servant) arrives to help him, she stops. Soon after this, three filmmakers—Tom, Norman and Joe—arrive, with Joe unconscious and badly injured from a lion mauling. The doctor tends to him but warns them that the case looks hopeless. Tom (Paul Burke) and Tonda hit it off and, while flirting, he asks, "How can a young and beautiful girl be happy living in the jungle?" Her sultry reply: "How do you know I'm happy?" Suba sees her with Tom and calls her a "bad, bad woman" but kisses her up anyway, which naturally bothers Suba's wife Mara. That night, Tom witnesses Tonda leave the house and lead the villagers in a voodoo ritual that involves the tied-up shirtless Suba having a dead chicken thrown on his chest. The next morning, Suba is dead but Joe is miraculously recovering from his wounds. The problem: the ritual has caused a transmigration of souls, and Suba's soul inhabits Joe's body, so needless to say, Tom's a little confused when the recovered Joe goes off with Mara. He's even more confused when Tonda asks Tom to kill her husband so she can go off with Tom.

Allison Hayes was a B-movie "scream queen" in late 50s films like ZOMBIES OF MARA TAU and ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, but this, though definitely a B-movie, isn't a horror film as much as a mildly exotic melodrama with supernatural overtones. And when the murder plot becomes apparent, it turns into DOUBLE INDEMNITY starring a frustrated voodoo priestess instead of a frustrated California housewife. Hayes was not a particularly good actress, but she had a certain "va-va-va-voom" (as we would have said as kids) element going for her, and that's good enough for this movie, though her voodoo dancing isn't as enthusiastic as male teens of the 50s might have liked. She doesn't even try for a native accent, though her skin does seem to have been darkened a degree or so, maybe with the same kind of make-up Ava Gardner used to "dusky up" in SHOW BOAT. Paul Burke, best known for TV work on Naked City and Dynasty (and as the male lead in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) acquits himself well enough as the moderately hunky hero. Once you realize that the horror/gore quotient here is fairly low—one character's heart is cut out but we don't see it—it's an enjoyable enough trashy melodrama. [Warner Archive Instant]

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

WILD ORCHIDS (1929)

Middle-aged businessman Lewis Stone is married to young trophy wife Greta Garbo; we first see the two arrive just in time to board a ship to Java. She's looking forward to the trip as a second honeymoon, but for him, it's mostly a business trip about investing in plantations. In the hallway outside her room, Garbo sees the handsome, exotic Nils Asther beating a servant. She's revolted by his behavior, but Asther is entranced by her and, as he happens to own a tea plantation in Java, he cozies up to the couple, inviting them to stay at his estate and even offering to host a tiger hunt. That night, when he and Garbo are alone, Asther comes on strong, comparing her to "the mysterious, misty orchids" of Java and kissing her. She slaps him and leaves, but later has dreamy, sexy visions of Asther's whipping incident. Over time at Asther's plantation, he and Garbo soon grow close; it takes a while for the oblivious Stone to suspect that something's up, but it isn't until the tiger hunt that things come to a head. There's nothing very original going on in this silent movie version of the traditional triangle involving the frustrated wife, the distant husband, and the appealing playboy, but it's all pulled off fairly well, with MGM gloss and solid acting. The first shot of Garbo arm in arm with Andy Hardy's dad (which is how I'll always think of Lewis Stone) was a bit disorienting but I got used to them. Asther doesn't really have much of a character to fall back on, but he's handsome and strikes a nice balance between slick and slimy. Though the film is silent, there are, in addition to a full musical score, numerous sound effects throughout. [TCM]

Monday, January 26, 2015

EDGE OF DARKNESS (1943)

The Norwegian resistance movement during WWII is well-documented, and stories of the bravery of the Norwegian people were used as the basis of several propaganda movies of the era—as were stories of collaborationists who came to be called "quislings" after the Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling who worked with the Nazis after they occupied the country in 1940. Though THE MOON IS DOWN has the most distinguished pedigree—based on a play by John Steinbeck—this is probably the most exciting and entertaining of the mini-genre. The small fishing village of Trollness has put up with the occupation, under Nazi captain Helmut Dantine, for a couple of years, but most of the villagers have remained cold to the occupiers and are looking to the unofficial leader of the resistance movement (Errol Flynn) and his girlfriend (Ann Sheridan) for guidance, though all are getting restless. They soon get word that the British are smuggling in arms and they are asked to wait to rise up until a coordinated effort all along the coast is ready. During what appears to be a routine church service, the villagers, all the while looking forward at the pastor (who is a pacifist), debate three points: rebel now, wait, or do nothing. They decide to wait and accept the weapons, though Sheridan's father (Walter Huston), a respected doctor, is uncomfortable with any active resistance. Meanwhile, Sheridan's brother (John Beal) arrives from out of town and takes the collaborationists' side, becoming friendly with Dantine and a Polish woman (Nancy Coleman) who is being "kept”" by the Nazis. When a respected retired teacher refuses to give up his home to the Nazis, he is beaten in public and has all his books torn up. This flashpoint passes as the wait for the rest of the coast continues, but after Sheridan is raped by a Nazi and a German soldier is killed, Dantine rounds up the town leaders (including Flynn, Sheridan and Huston) and holds a public execution, forcing each Norwegian to dig his own grave first. Surprisingly, it's the pastor who fires the first shot against the occupiers and triggers the armed revolt.

Though the story is a Hollywood fantasy of resistance—there was apparently no armed uprising of any kind in Norway—it is compelling, well-acted and directed with some visual flair by Lewis Milestone (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT). There is interesting use of camera movement and miniatures, and the church meeting sequence works up quite a bit of tension with odd shots from behind and from the sides of the actors. Flynn and Sheridan make a good leading couple, and though Flynn is the star, it's to his credit that his character ends up more or less blending in with the rest of the townspeople. Huston shines by underplaying, and in a cast full of small but meaty roles, the standouts are Judith Anderson as another village leader, Morris Carnovsky as the teacher, Charles Dingle as the quisling owner of the town fishery, Henry Brandon as a British spy who wears a Nazi uniform, and Richard Fraser as the pastor. (The picture at left shows Huston, Sheridan, Flynn and Anderson at the execution site.) The movie has a grim opening, one of the darkest of any Hollywood movie of the era, set after the climactic revolt: two German pilots flying over the town see a Norwegian flag flying instead of the German flag, land to investigate, and find the village heaping full of corpses, both natives and Nazis. Yes, it's a glossy studio production and rarely shakes off its soundstage feel, and with a running time of two hours, could have used some judicious editing, but overall it's one of the best of the WWII propaganda films. [DVD]

Friday, January 23, 2015

COP HATER (1958)

In a striking opening set at night during a big city heat wave, a shirtless man gets up from a nap, grabs a gun, gets dressed, kisses his wife, and walks out onto the street where he is immediately shot down and killed in cold blood. He was a policeman, and when his partner is shot down a couple days later, the newspapers report a cop hater on the loose. The two chief investigators are Detectives Carelli (Robert Loggia) and McGuire (Gerald O'Laughlin); as they track unpromising leads, we get a picture of their private lives: Carelli has a good relationship with Teddy (Ellen Parker), his deaf girlfriend, and McGuire has a stormy relationship with his sexpot wife Alice (Shirley Ballard). There's also a reporter who thinks that a street gang (led by a young Jerry Orbach in his first movie role) is responsible. When a third cop is killed, we are treated to a CSI-type scene of forensic investigation before Teddy winds up in danger from the killer.

Based on an Ed McBain novel which was the first in his popular 87th Precinct series, this is a short, tense, effective B-thriller which kept me guessing despite some predictable moments—as soon as you see that Teddy has an elaborate system at her apartment in which a light blinks when someone is coming, you know she's going to wind up in trouble. The summer heat is conveyed nicely, and there are some surprisingly sexy moments between the beefy O'Laughlin and the curvy Ballard (pictured at left), particularly one scene with O'Laughlin sprawled out in a chair in only his boxers and Ballard trying on a new bathing suit at his request. Even Ellen Parker plays her big menace scene dripping wet in a wraparound towel. Vincent Gardenia (Mr. Mushnik in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) has a small role. Loggia (SCARFACE, BIG) is so young and fit, he's practically unrecognizable (pictured above to the left of O'Laughlin). O’Laughlin (Lt. Ryker in the 70s TV show The Rookies) is very good; I don't remember seeing him before but I'll keep an eye out for more of his roles. Last line, from Robert Loggia as the credits role and the cops get back to business as usual: "There’s a guy with his insides hangin' out over by the river…” Small-scale enjoyable. [DVD]

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950)

Barbara Stanwyck is single and pregnant; her lover (Lyle Bettger) abandons her, leaving her only a train ticket to San Francisco. On the train, she strikes up a conversation with Patrice, another pregnant woman who, with her husband, is heading off to meet her in-laws for the first time. The train derails and Stanwyck is taken to the hospital where she has her baby. Patrice and her husband are both killed, and circumstances lead the doctors to assume that she is Patrice. Stanwyck, weak and confused, doesn't correct them, and soon she is off to Frisco posing as Patrice. The family accepts her though she's caught off-guard a bit when the dead husband's brother (John Lund) comes home and she feels an attraction develop. Just as Stanwyck is feeling fairly secure, Betteger shows up to blackmail her. All the noir elements are in place, so of course there's guilt, deception and murder in the offing. Based on Cornel Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man (what a great title; I don’t know why it wasn't used for the movie), this is a top-notch noir melodrama, tainted only slightly by a typical Production Code ending that cops out; the novel's ending is perfect, and I highly recommend reading the novel, and anything by Woolrich. Stanwyck, of course, is good, as is everyone else. Lund, pictured with Stanwyck, is solid in the role of the largely passive male who digs in when he needs to; Bettger shines as the attractive but slimy blackmailer; Jane Cowl, as Stanwyck's mother-in-law, is good in a small but crucial role. A scene where a body is disposed of is reminiscent of a similar scene in Stanwyck's DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and in general the shadowy noir atmosphere is well presented. Recommended, but do yourself a favor and read the novel (which was remade more recently as MRS. WINTERBOURNE) as well. [DVD]

Monday, January 19, 2015

BOMBS OVER BURMA (1942)

Anna May Wong is a schoolteacher in Chungking during the Sino-Japanese War. It seems odd when an itinerant street peddler comes into her classroom one day hawking his wares, but he is actually delivering a coded message to Wong who does some spy work for the Chinese. She is to accompany a group of people on a bus along the Burma Road and help keep a food supply caravan safe while also being on the lookout for anyone who might be leaking information about such supply trips to the Japanese who then bomb the roads in an attempt to stop the supply chain. Back in the classroom, there is a horrific scene of a Japanese bombing; Wong evacuates the room but forgets one child who had been made to sit in the corner for misbehavior, and he is killed by a bomb blast. Distraught, Wong is even more determined to carry out her mission, but along the way, the bus breaks down and the small group of travelers spends the night in a Buddhist monastery. Tensions rise among the group members, which include a British diplomat (Leslie Denison) and an obnoxious American (Dan Seymour), and when it's discovered that the head monk (Noel Madison, pictured at left with Wong) has a secret transmission room hidden behind a large Buddha statue, we're not sure who to trust.

In general, I can't join the chorus of voices in praise of Anna May Wong. She was certainly a culturally important figure as one of the first popular Asian-American movie stars, but I've rarely found her performances compelling, with words like "wooden" and "low-key" recurring in many of my reviews of her films (DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, WHEN YOU WERE BORN, CHU CHIN CHOW). The same goes for her here; the only time I found her effective was when she expressed sorrow over the death of the child. The first half of this Poverty Row B-film is sluggish, but the pace picks up with the interplay of characters at the monastery, which itself has a nicely mysterious (albeit low-budget) atmosphere. Aside from Wong, the acting is fine, and the way the climax plays out is especially interesting, with a surprisingly intense moment of reckoning for the villain. Sadly, it seems the only print available is in bad shape with lots of splices and dirt; it's just this side of watchable. [Streaming]

Thursday, January 15, 2015

BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER (1960)

Astronaut Robert Clarke is being shot into orbit higher than anyone has ever been, and at one point it appears as if his craft splits into two. He loses contact with ground control but is able to land with no problem. But when he gets out of his plane, the airbase is deserted and indeed looks like it has fallen into ruins. A group of deaf-mutes hustle him away to an underground place called the Citadel where he learns his has traveled in time to the year 2024. A nuclear plague has sent remnants of the human race underground—too many atomic bomb tests tore apart the ozone layer and the earth is ravaged by dangerous cosmic rays. Only a handful of people can still speak, including an old guy called The Supreme (no Motown puns, please), and even fewer are fertile, such as his lovely deaf-mute—and telepathic—daughter (Darlene Tompkins). The speaking elite want Clarke to mate with Tompkins, but a small rebellious band of speakers, led by Arienne Ulmer, want to get Clarke back to his own time to warn everyone and make the world stop the bomb tests. For a B-movie (directed by the king of the Bs, Edgar G. Ulmer), this is fairly ambitious. Some of it works and some doesn't. The sets, all pyramids and triangles (see picture at right), are pretty nifty for a low-budget film; apparently the interiors were shot in Dallas at the Centennial Fair Grounds. The plot is OK, though the acting is about average, no better. There's a subplot about primitive mutants who suffered the full brunt of the "cosmic plague" and are enslaved which feels like an underbaked steal from The Time Machine. For fans of the B-movie SF genre, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

THE RETURN OF BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1934)

I've reviewed films in the Bulldog Drummond series previously, but before the series became a Hollywood property with restless former soldier Drummond turned into a sleuth, this British entry, based directly one of the original novels by H.C. McNeile, presented a different Drummond, an adventurer and vigilante, and maybe a bit of a fascist. When the president of the World Peace Organization is assassinated, an underground group called the Black Clan vows to act against foreign agitators who the Clan believes are responsible for the death and for the spreading of pro-war propaganda. Drummond (Ralph Richardson) is secretly the leader of the Clan, and his usually useless and rather dandified buddy Algy (Claude Allister) is his very helpful right-hand man. Carl Peterson (Francis L. Sullivan), posing as a minister working for orphan relief, is actually the head of the warmongers. He whips up a poisonous gas that can paralyze its victims, kidnaps Drummond's wife (Ann Todd), and drugs Drummond and puts him in a car headed straight into a river. Of course, Drummond and Algy win in the end, but on our way there, this is a very entertaining thriller in the Boys' Own Adventure mold; I especially liked the black leather outfits and goggles that the Clan members wear (see the picture of Richardson at left). Richardson is quite good in the lead role, and Allister goes nicely against his usual effete persona—in fact, the middle of the film has a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel feel to it, perhaps crossed with the atmosphere of Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent. Nice for something different, but probably not if you're in the mood for a more traditional Bulldog Drummond mystery. [Criterion streaming]

Friday, January 09, 2015

A BELL FOR ADANO (1945)

During the American occupation of Italy near the end of WWII, Army major John Hodiak is put in charge of bringing some semblance of order back to the village of Adano. When he and his men arrive, they find mostly women and older people, with many of the younger men in prison camps and others in hiding. Some time is spent getting the trust of the people, and sorting out the Fascist collaborators, but as townsfolk begin trickling in, the most important matter to them is replacing the revered church bell that the Fascists took and melted down for bullets. The people of Adano are slow to take to Hodiak, but when the Army bans horse carts on the roads, an action which hurts the people's livelihoods, Hodiak stands up for them and slowly he and the townspeople build up a mutual respect and even affection. Though he has a wife back home, Hodiak also begins feeling affectionate for blond native Gene Tierney—she dyed her hair blonde in order to feel special. With some help from the Navy, Hodiak manages to get a bell for the church tower, but when the Army finds out that he has subverted their orders, he may not get a chance to see the bell put in place.

This sweet-natured but not sappy film, based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by John Hersey, reminds me of the later film TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, both involving American military men who gain the trust of an occupied population and get into trouble with their superiors. The film is very low-key—there never seems to be much at stake here, and even the Fascists are treated with humor if not warmth—but the characters are well-drawn and well-acted, and though the ending is nothing if not predictable, I was still happy to stick around and spend some time with these folks. I don't usually like Hodiak, but I got used to him quickly here—it helps that he looks very good with a crew-cut, and that he's not trying too hard as he did in THE HARVEY GIRLS—and he and Tierney (both pictured above) do have a nice intimate chemistry in their tender moments together. Fine support is given by William Bendix as Hodiak's buddy (he gets a good drunk scene near the end), Glenn Langan as a Navy man with a can-do attitude, and Harry Morgan and Marcel Dalio. Not earth-shaking, but a nice movie that has been difficult to see until recently. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

THE KILLING (1956)

Stanley Kubrick’s third feature film is a solid crime thriller which shows occasional signs of the style that made Kubrick an important figure in cinema. With Dragnet-style narration, the story is told of an attempt by a group of men to make a killing by stealing millions of dollars from a racetrack in broad daylight, while the track is open and with crowds milling about. The boss, Sterling Hayden, is a crook just out from a stretch in jail. Two guys who work at the track (Elisha Cook Jr. and Joe Sawyer) are the insiders who will help Hayden get to the room where the money will be transferred to an armored truck. An over-the-hill Russian boxer will start a fight in the bar to distract the crowds and the security men; at the same time a hired gun will shoot a horse during the race to cause even more confusion. Hayden will put on a face mask with a bulbous nose and hold the staff at gunpoint while he stuffs a huge sack with all the cash that will fit. On his way out, he will dump the sack out of a window where a crooked cop catches it and stashes it away for Hayden to pick up later to split up among the men. What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, there’s the milquetoasty Cook's knockout wife (Marie Windsor) who, when he lets the plans slip, makes her own plan with her studly lover (Vince Edwards) to get a piece of the pie (or maybe even the entire pie) for themselves. Not to mention the sweet old lady with a poodle who, in the climax, inadvertently winds up being as big a problem as Edwards. Kubrick's showy visual style is on display here, but it’s fairly subtle, used primarily in a series of tracking shots across rooms through the film. Though the story is generally presented in chronological order, the narrative is fractured in places, leading to flashbacks, and the occasional presentation of an event from two perspectives. The film is tense without resorting to artificial melodramatic tricks to tighten the screws. Acting is sometimes thought of as a weak link in Kubrick's movies, but everyone is practically perfect, from the reserved, tightly controlled Hayden right down to Timothy Carey as the off-kilter gunman. Best, however, are Cook—who winds up almost as the star of the show—as a sweaty, weasely schmoe, Windsor as his lusty, conniving wife, and Edwards (at right with Windsor) as the chunk o' sex who throws the biggest wrench of all into the proceedings. I've liked him in his 50s films, but it’s a shame that his TV stardom as Ben Casey seems to have ended his film career before it could blossom. A must-see for fans of crime, film noir, and Kubrick. [DVD]