Tuesday, May 24, 2016

THE DEVIL'S HAND (1961)

Robert Alda tells his fiancée (Ariadna Welter) that he's been plagued by creepy dreams of a dancing blonde woman. Once he is even compelled to get up in the middle of the night and head to a nearby curio store where he sees a doll with the dream woman's face. In the daylight, Alda and Welter stop by the shop, run by dollmaker Neil Hamilton, and find the doll on the shelf, near a doll that looks remarkably like Welter. It turns out that Hamilton is the leader of a Satanic voodoo cult that meets in the back of the shop—they worship a demon named Gamba—and when he sticks a pin in the Welter doll, she collapses in pain and winds up in an extended hospital stay, leaving Alda free to be seduced by Linda Christian, the real-life cult member from Alda's dreams. (Why the cult goes through such convolutions to snag the drab, passive, out-of-work Alda for their ranks is never explained. We also never see what the Satanists get out of their worship, and their rituals are not especially creepy.) When the cult snatches Welter to be sacrificed, will Alda manage to break free of their influence and save her? This is a pretty drab B-flick with little to recommend it. Alda is a personality-free leading man and Welter pretty much matches him in that department. Hamilton, an old pro from the classic era (and Commissioner Gordon on TVs Batman), acquits himself nicely, though I'm sure he wishes he were somewhere else. The low-budget sets make this film look like a cheap TV episode. The plot is OK but someone should have expended some effort into giving the cult more background and giving the characters more personality. Skip it. [DVD]

Friday, May 20, 2016

THE 13TH LETTER (1951)

In a small Canadian town, young Dr. Pearson (Michael Rennie) is a new arrival and he has stirred up quite a bit of talk. Some patients like him for his no-nonsense manner, others think he's too brusque and cold, and many of the women think he's quite handsome and would make a nice catch as a husband or lover. Denise (Linda Darnell) fakes illnesses to get his attention; Cora (Constance Smith), the wife of older doctor Paul Laurent (Charles Boyer), boldly makes advances in his office. Pearson rebuffs them both, but Cora's sister Marie is quite put-out by Cora's behavior—even though Paul himself seems unworried. Soon, anonymous poison-pen letters which accuse people of affairs and other questionable behaviors start arriving and the stated purpose of the letters is to get Dr. Pearson, who may have a distasteful secret buried in his past, to leave town. Paul advises Pearson not to take them seriously, and soon enough Marie is held and charged with sending the letters—in addition to her anger at Cora, she holds a grudge against Dr. Pearson for his reprimanding of her care of a patient. But even after Cora is jailed, the letters continue. This is a remake of a fine French film, LE CORBEAU. The original is darker and more psychologically complex, but this version stands fairly well on its own, with an atmosphere of noir light (if that makes sense). Boyer and Rennie are the standouts; Smith is fine, but Darnell is rather bland as the primary love interest. Judith Evelyn, who I know as the deaf woman in THE TINGLER, gives a solid performance as the unlikable Marie. The best moment is when one of the letters floats down from the choir balcony during a church service. Pictured are Darnell and Rennie. [Streaming]

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

THE DAY THE SKY EXPLODED (1958)

Astronaut John McLaren is piloting the XZ, an atomic moon ship built by Americans, Russians and the British, and sent aloft from a base in Australia. McLaren is supposed to orbit the moon a few times and return, but something goes wrong and he has to jettison his cabin, sending the rocket out in space where it explodes. When he returns to Earth, strange things start happening, apparently due to the explosion: animals begin migrating away from coastlines (and even domestic pets aren't immune from taking off), balls of light appear in the sky, tidal waves go crazy, and scientists figure out that some foreign object out in space is absorbing Earth's magnetism. The culprit is a bunch of asteroids which, because of the XZ explosion, have fused together into one huge mass which is on a collision course with the earth. There's disaster and panic, and with time running out, can McLaren come up with a plan to save our planet? This Italian made B-film uses a lot of stock footage, and the human storylines don't hold the attention all that well—there's the collapse of McLaren's marriage and a tepid romance between the stodgy mathematician Katy and the moderately handsome scientist Peter (both pictured). But the plot has promise and the solution to the apocalypse is interesting. There are moments that cry out for an MST3K treatment, as when it's announced that the entire world's coastal areas can be evacuated in three days and governments can just "requisition what they need" to make that happen. The cast is a mix of Italian and Swiss actors, none of whom were familiar to me but whom were all mostly adequate. Future director Mario Bava did the cinematography. [Streaming]

Monday, May 16, 2016

I WONDER WHO'S KISSING HER NOW (1947)

Around the turn of the century (the 19th into the 20th), Joseph Howard works as a demonstrator of organs for the Tabernacle Supply Company, but he'd like to be making a living writing popular songs. He lives with his guardian, Uncle John, and John's daughter Katie who has grown up like a sister to Joe, though she has deeper feelings for him than he notices. Joe takes Katie to see vaudeville songstress Lulu Madison perform his song, "Hello, My Baby (Hello, My Ragtime Gal)" but is upset when he realizes that the song, which is a hit, has been published under Lulu's name. Katie is then upset when Joe and Lulu iron out their differences and he goes on the road with her as a pianist. Soon Katie shows up on the road, claiming that Uncle John has died and she needs a job, so she's hired as a backstage assistant. But as any astute viewer will figure out, John isn't really dead, Katie's just jealous. And so it goes until Joe and Katie break out in their own successful act. They get a chance at a Broadway show but various jealousies lead to trouble and to Joe leaving the show, into which he has sunk all his money. He plays the sticks for a while, but in the end, discovers that his show went on and became a hit with Katie in the lead, and Joe finally gives in to Katie's advances.

Joseph Howard was a real songwriter (and the title song is presented as a tune that Joe comes up with early on but can't quite get finished) but this is an almost totally fictional version of his life. It's fairly entertaining even if the central romantic story is a little strange; though they're not related by blood, their relationship feels very much like a sibling one, so when Joe suddenly has a change of heart at the end, it feels uncomfortable, and given the constant subterfuges Katie uses to keep a hold on Joe, I wasn't rooting for the two to get together anyway. However, I liked both the actors (Mark Stevens and June Haver) very much. Reginald Gardiner injects some fun as a producer's assistant, and I liked seeing William Frawley and Gene Nelson in smaller roles. The final production number goes over the top but the others are pleasant enough. "Pleasant enough" is a good phrase to describe the whole movie, I guess. [Fox Movie Channel]

Thursday, May 12, 2016

THE BAMBOO BLONDE (1946)

This cute WWII comedy is told in flashback by Ralph Edwards, head of the Bamboo Blonde cosmetic company, as he explains his rise in the business world to a reporter. A couple years earlier, Edwards ran the Club 50 which, for some reason, was temporarily "out of bounds" to military personnel. Russell Wade, the new leader of a seasoned bomber crew, is sent by his men, as a prank, to the Club supposedly to meet them for dinner. When he gets there, the club's lovely singer (Frances Langford) hides him from the military police. After hours, the two go out on the town and the next morning, as the crew meets to ship off to the Pacific, they see Wade kissing Langford and assume the two are a hot and heavy item, though he doesn't even know her name. Overseas, the crew adopts Langford as their mascot, painting her picture on their plane and calling her the Bamboo Blonde, and soon she's a sensation in the press—with Edwards happy to fan the flames of publicity for the sake of his club. Eventually the crew is sent home for a cross-country war bond tour. Wade is excited for the chance to meet back up with Langford, but his bitchy fiancée (Jane Greer), who ignored Wade for the duration of the war, and was in fact stepping out on him even before he went overseas, puts a kink in his plans. Another possible complication: Langford thinks Wade is a corn-fed farm boy but he's actually from a rich family. Ralph Edwards, known mostly as a TV host (This is Your Life, Truth or Consequences), is top-billed here, but despite narrating, he's really a minor character. Langford—best known for appearing in Bob Hope's USO shows—and Wade are the whole show and they're perfectly fine; both are a little on the colorless side but I enjoyed being in their company for 70 minutes. Directed by Anthony Mann who went on to specialize in film noirs and westerns. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

JAILBREAK (1936)

This movie has a misleading title: there is a jailbreak in the last few minutes, but it's really a B-mystery set mostly in a prison. Mike Eagan is a former gangster gone legit, but he keeps getting leaned on by old crony Ed Slayden. Now Slayden is in trouble; in the course of stealing a truckload of furs, he kills a guard and is on the run. He wants Eagan to give him money to get out of town and to help hide the furs, but Eagan refuses. Slayden gives him 24 hours to change his mind. Eagan's secretary, Jane Rogers, is worried that Eagan might wind up dead, but Eagan decides to solve his dilemma his own way: he goes out and punches a cop in the face, leading to an arrest and what he assumes will be a safe 30 days in jail where Slayden can't touch him. But because of Eagan's record, the judge sentences him to two years. In the meantime, Slayden is caught and thrown in jail, the same jail where Eagan resides. And even though the warden knows about the bad blood between the two, Slayden winds up right across the aisle from Eagan. On the morning of Eagan's early release on parole, he is found shot to death in his cell. Slayden seems too obvious a suspect; could it be the prison guard who hated Eagan because of his role in his son's death years ago? Soon, the investigators discover that Eagan had let it slip that he had a lot of money stashed away—could someone who overheard him have decided to try and get the money for himself?

This is a passable B-film with a couple of flaws that stop it from being truly good. You will notice that in my summary, there is no cop, detective or hero mentioned. There actually is a cop, top-billed Barton MacLane, but he has little to do except be flummoxed and rely on the real hero, a reporter named Ken, played by Craig Reynolds. The handsome and charismatic Reynolds is always an asset to a B-film, but, like MacLane, he is ill-used here, popping in and out of the story and getting very few scenes in which he can shine. In terms of screen time and narrative, the real stars are Joe King as Eagan—he's very good in a fairly colorless role—and Dick Purcell as Slayden. June Travis (picured with Reynolds) is competent as Eagan's secretary (and mild love interest for Ken) and I liked seeing the familiar supporting faces of George E. Stone as a thug and Mary Treen as a fast-talking reporter. Interesting but needs a stronger script. Best line, spoken by someone holding a gun: "If you pick up that phone, you’re dialing the undertaker!" [TCM]

Friday, May 06, 2016

COSMO JONES, CRIME SMASHER (1943)

This one falls under the category, "I watched this so you don’t have to." The idea behind this B-film came from a radio show written and performed by Frank Graham, who plays the title role here. Cosmo Jones is a mild-mannered egghead who took a correspondence course in criminology and now fancies himself a detective. In the middle of a crime wave, two gangster groups, one led by Jake and one led by Biff, start battling each other and Cosmo winds up in the thick of things when Jake kills an underling of Biff's and dumps the body on a sidewalk where Cosmo just happens to be walking. Cosmo begs Chief Murphy (Edgar Kennedy) to let him help out; Murphy is not receptive to the idea, but Cosmo worms his way into the good graces of Sgt. Flanagan (Richard Cromwell) and is soon helping out with both the gangland war and with an investigation into the attempted kidnapping of the daughter of an oil magnate. Most critics fault Graham for this film's problems, but he's not exactly bad, he just is not very commanding—he doesn't enter the film until quite a ways in, and when he does, he's colorless and not terribly amusing. The pieced-together plot is just as much at fault as Graham is, and as usual, this Monogram outing can't sustain much tension, in part due to the lack of a background score. But there are a few meager pleasures: Mantan Moreland (pictured with Graham) manages to overcome the built-in stereotypes of the "black sidekick" role and gets a few guilt-free laughs—he is also more important to the plot than usual; Edgar Kennedy does a nice job as the often flustered police chief who refers to a cadaver as "cavier," and says early on in a speech to his men, "Elimination of crime must be stopped!" A young Gale Storm appears as a love interest for Flanagan, who really is the central character, and though Cromwell is, like Graham not terribly commanding on the screen, he at least has energy and is nice looking.  This was intended to be a series, but no sequels were made. The title on screen is COSMO JONES IN THE CRIME SMASHER. [YouTube]

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

THE BRIBE (1949)

Robert Taylor is a federal agent visiting the town of Carlota on a Central American island, hoping to break up a war surplus smuggling ring. His chief suspects are a sultry club singer (Ava Gardner) and her husband (John Hodiak), an alcoholic war vet with a heart problem who can't keep a job. Taylor himself seems to be under surveillance by a slovenly and sweaty low-life (Charles Laughton) who eventually offers him $10,000 to leave the island.  The owner of a Peruvian mine (Vincent Price) with whom Taylor arrived on the island shows up on occasion, and while Taylor is on his fishing boat, Price engineers it so Taylor takes a spill into shark-infested waters. Boat hand Emilio saves him, but Emilio winds up eaten by a shark. Emilio's father offers to help, and tells Taylor that: 1) Hodiak, Gardner and Laughton are all involved in the smuggling and 2) Price is actually the brains of the ring. Now Taylor has to struggle with his conscience as he's fallen in love with Gardner.

Film noir in look if not in details, this is a slow-moving crime tale which benefits from a mildly exotic setting and a slam-bang ending which plays out against a nighttime fireworks display. Taylor, whom I rarely find appealing, is at his most wooden and artificial here, and though Gardner tries hard, there is zero chemistry between the two. Often when the leads are inadequate, I can find some positives in the supporting cast, but not so much here. Laughton (pictured behind Gardner) is usually reliable, hamming it up if he thinks he's slumming, but here he can't even bring himself to show any real interest in his character. Price is a little better, but his role is fairly small. Hodiak, an actor I'm not crazy about, is pretty good as a guy who's basically given up on life when the movie begins, and goes downhill from there. The noir elements are mostly visual, though Gardner's character is a kind of half-hearted femme fatale. It has its moments but overall, not recommended. [TCM]

Monday, May 02, 2016

CRIME UNLIMITED (1935)

Scotland Yard is itching to get their hands on the Maddick gang, a group of jewel thieves who often use average citizens as patsies to get their hands on gems. When a policeman is found dead, clutching a piece of paper that says "Maddick B 1935 AD," the Yard becomes more determined to find this mysterious culprit who, supposedly, no one has seen. Young detective Pete Borden (Esmond Knight) poses as a thief and fakes a jewel robbery just to get into contact with the gang, and when he meets Maddick, all he sees is a shadowy figure hidden behind a bright light, playing chess and communicating through an intercom. Pete becomes an accepted gang member, hits it off with fellow thief Natacha (Lilli Palmer), and begins leaking information to his fellow policemen, but soon Meddick becomes suspicious and lays a trap for Pete, which leads both Pete and Natacha into trouble.

This is a "quota quickie" a British B-movie produced to satisfy the requirement that a certain percentage of films shown in England be homegrown. This is not one of the stronger ones, though it has its moments. The best elements are its lead actors: Knight, who went onto have a long career as a supporting actor, is handsome and personable, and the German Palmer, in her first English language film, is just as good. There is a clever gimmick in which Knight, stashed away in an apartment by the gang, gets information out to his fellow cops by opening his window shade and mouthing his words to a lip-reading cop across the street to "read" (pictured). The scenes of Knight's meetings with Meddick are atmospheric, though the revelation Meddick's identity is anti-climactic. Much of the narrative feels disjointed, and scenes that could be suspenseful are abruptly cut off or just end in an awkward fade. But there are pleasures to be had, and at 70 minutes, it moves quickly. [TCM]

Friday, April 29, 2016

THE LOST CITY (1935)

It's serial time again, kids! This one starts with hunky scientist Bruce Gordon (Kane Richmond) trying to find the source of a slew of natural disasters (electrical storms, floods, etc.) around the world. He finds strange magnetic disorders coming from the middle of Africa and he and his pal Jerry (Eddie Fetherston) go off to investigate. In Africa, the natives who live in the village where the slave traders Butterfield and Andrews operate are attacked by giants and hauled off to the Magnetic Mountain where, in something called the Lost City (not a city so much as a small compound), they becomes subjects in the experiments of Dr. Manyus whose Expanding Ray turns the slaves into brain-addled giants. Manyus and his daughter Natcha (Claudia Dell) are being held by the evil Zolok (William 'Stage' Boyd) who wants to collect an army of giants and take over the world—I assume, as we never really get an explanation of how he plans to benefit from the ray. Zolok also plans to wrest control of Mayus's Freezing Ray and a formula that turns the black natives into white people (!!). The cast of characters includes another slave trader named Ben Ali; Queen Rama, ruler of the Spider Men (that is, men who sacrifice other men to their Spider God); Hugo (Sam Baker), the main giant; and the skimpily-clad muscle lad Appollyn (Jerry Frank) who spends the whole movie roaming the jungle at the bidding of Zolok but not really having much to do with the plot—though because Zolok can see Appollyn on a TV screen, a title card at the beginning of a chapter says, "While Zolok televisions frantically…"

This was apparently one of the more financially successful serials, and much of it is indeed fun. But there is a deadly imbalance in the narrative—the first four chapters have quite a lot going on, much of it in the fairly cool Lost City, but the middle chapters, set mostly in the jungle, bog down in routine and repetitious action as good guys keep getting captured by bad guys, escape, and get captured again. Richmond makes for a fairly solid hero; many viewers think Boyd makes a good, over-the-top villain, but I find him generally a little too low-energy until the final chapter—he spends most of the middle chapters sitting at his desk "televisioning" with Appollyn. And speaking of Appollyn, I looked forward to his appearances, not just because of his solid build and fabulous costume, but because as an actor, Jerry Frank seemed to be enjoying himself. Fetherston is also reliably good, though Dell seems out of her depth (I did get pleasure out of a scene in the last chapter in which she draws the word “cruel” out to five syllables).

Some highlights: the Tunnel of Flame; the Lion Pit;  the art deco city sets; George "Gabby" Hayes as Butterfield, who goes from bad to good to bad, etc.; the Enlarging Ray effect is effective; the best thing in the movie, and it happens almost once per chapter, is Sam Baker as the giant Hugo who puffs himself up, gets a horrible grimace on his face, lets out a dreadful scream, and grabs some victim by the neck—he really is pretty scary; and, of course, the delightful Appollyn. Some minuses: as noted above, most of the acting is only so-so; the fistfights are lackadaisical, as the men basically throw their arms at each other, clearly not making contact, like little kids play-fighting; chapter 6 is almost entirely recap material; Queen Rama is a character they introduced but then couldn’t think of much to do with. Of course, the casual racist attitudes about the natives will rankle viewers, but that is part and parcel of films of the era. Overall, despite the many weaknesses, one of the better serials. The black & white photo is of Richmond, Dell and Featherston; the tinted still features Frank (in his Tarzan-like togs) to the left of Boyd.  [DVD]