Wednesday, March 04, 2015

PHAEDRA (1962)

Phaedra (Melina Mercouri) is the second wife of Greek shipping magnate Thanos (Raf Vallone); when we first see her, she is at the christening of a new ship named for her. Thanos is upset that Alexis (Anthony Perkins), his son from his first wife, is wasting his life in London trying to be a painter and he sends Phedra off to bring him back to Greece and get him into the family business. Phaedra's companion Anna predicts trouble, and sure enough, when Phaedra meets Alexis, there are sparks and soon the two of them are lovers. As part of a bribe to get Alexis home, Thanos promises to buy him an Aston-Martin sports car, so Alexis and Phaedra return to Greece where things begin to go wrong immediately as Thanos tries to marry Alexis off to the daughter of another shipping millionaire to forge a strong connection between the two companies. When the S.S. Phaedra goes down at sea with much loss of life, it seems to be a portent of things to come for the flesh-and-blood Phaedra.

If you know your Greek mythology, you will know from the beginning that this is going the way of all Greek tragedy: Phaedra, wife of Theseus, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus and bad things happen. Because the narrative is overdetermined, you can sit back and enjoy the overheated soap opera machinations and the lovely black and white cinematography. Mercouri is gruff-voiced and striking looking, and is perfect for Greek tragedy. Some critics have said that Perkins is in over his head here, but I think he's fine as the sleek, callow, puppy-dog boy who doesn't really know what he wants. Their first lovemaking session is filmed in front of a fireplace through hazy glass with rain pouring over it, and though not explicit by today's standards, it gets the point across that these two in are in lust. Vallone is, surprisingly, a largely sympathetic figure and gives a strong performance. At two hours, this drags a bit near the end, especially since you know what's going to happen, but for fans of this kind of melodrama, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

Monday, March 02, 2015

DECOY (1946)

What a pleasure to watch a movie that's marketed as film noir and to discover that it really is a film noir—and a good one!—and not just a black & white crime movie. The opening sequence is tantalizing: a nervous man (Herbert Rudley) is washing his hands in a filthy gas-station restroom. When we see his face in the jagged shard of glass that passes for a mirror (pictured at left), we figure he's either sick, scared, or insane. He leaves in almost a trance and hitchhikes to San Francisco where he arrives at the apartment of Jean Gillie; he shoots her, then drops dead. A cop (Sheldon Leonard) walks in and attends to the seriously wounded woman who keeps asking for a large locked box. The rest of the film is a flashback. Gillie is the moll of gangster Robert Armstrong; he got away with a big chunk of money during a robbery and managed to hide it, but eventually was caught and because he killed a guard, he's about to be put to death by gas. Gillie and gang member Edward Norris get Rudley, an idealistic but tortured prison doctor, to administer a drug called Methelyne Blue to Armstrong right after the execution that is an antidote to the gas and will bring him back to life. Sure enough, it works, and that's where all the trouble starts: Armstrong may not want to split the money; Rudley doesn't want to go along with the gang's plans; Gillie proves herself capable of anything to get her hands on the dough.

This is a straightforward B-noir: crime, nighttime shadows, a morally ambiguous antihero, and a vicious femme fatale, all on a low budget. It's not a great movie, but it's good enough to feel like a discovery. The situations and characters are solid, but the B-acting is a little disappointing. Gillie (pictured at right) is a British actress whose career never really got off the ground—she died of pneumonia just three years later, at the age of 33. She's only so-so here, but she's certainly promising, and the character is a juicy one. Her best moment: making a guy who has outlived his usefulness to her get out and change a flat tire, then running him over and checking to make sure he's dead. The character of the doctor is the definition of the noir antihero; he’s a good man, or at least, not a bad man, but he makes bad choices for mostly understandable reasons. But Rudley's acting weakens the impact this character's fate might have had on us. Aside from the powerful and disorienting opening, he mostly just looks anxious and depressed, and we never get any sense of what makes him tick. Edward Norris, who had a strong B-movie career, is very good, as is Sheldon Leonard as the cop. Armstong doesn't have much to do, but he gets a really creepy moment as he tries to kiss Gillie after he's been brought back from the dead—and the addition of the horror/sf element is interesting but not overdone. The musical score is a little bombastic, which perhaps is better than the usual Monogram Pictures lack of a score. Overall, this is one for noir fans to watch for. [Warner Archive streaming]

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE (1958)

One of the summer guests staying at Flavia's California ranch is Jessica, Flavia's young niece, who is a bit on the ethereal side; she insists that she can find water in the ground, as well as buried lost items, with her dowsing rod. Not all the other guests (who include Gordon, a handsome archeologist who remembers Jessica as a child, his artist buddy Hank, and Hank's girlfriend/model Linda) believe her, but when she finds Linda's lost watch buried in a squirrel hutch at the base of a tree, they wonder. Gordon gives her an elaborate crucifix he found nearby while digging and she promises to wear it always. Handyman Boyd and his doltish assistant Mike find a brass box that was buried in 1579 near the tree. Gordon plans to open it the next morning, but Boyd and Mike, assuming it contains treasure, break it open that night and find the head of devil worshipper Gideon Drew, buried 400 years ago but still alive. He was put to death, beheaded, and put under a curse that his head would remain living until it was reunited with its body. Though the head can't speak, it puts Mike under its hypnotic command and has him kill Boyd, then keeps putting others under its power and uses them to search for his body, which is buried nearby.

Interesting idea but executed blandly, shot like a particularly drab TV show. The characters are fleshed out slightly better than in most B-horror films; when Linda is taken over by Gideon's head, she turns cold toward Hank, leading him destroy her portrait and to turn to Jessica as his next model, and we actually care a bit about that situation. The shots of the head, either in a box, on rocks, or being held, are effectively creepy. The acting is adequate: William Reynolds makes a solid, handsome hero as Gordon; Carolyn Kearney is OK as the mildly strange Jessica, though when she falls under the head's influence, her personality shift is especially good; Andra Martin is fine as Linda; Robin Hughes (the writer O'Bannion in AUNTIE MAME) doesn’t have much to do as the head except for one nice moment in a flashback scene at Gideon's execution.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 roasted this movie—I haven't seen their version though I'm sure it’s funny—but generally it's not as bad a film as they usually take on. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

THE GAY DIPLOMAT (1931)

On the Russian front during World War I, Captain Orloff (Ivan Lebedeff) is ordered to retreat but he doesn't; he ends up injured but months later, his bravery gets him picked for a spy mission to Rumania. Ostensibly, he is to deliver a verbal message to a French agent, but his super-secret mission is to find the sexy female spy who keeps leaking their codes. He meets all kinds of suspects: the flirty blond Countess Diana (Genevieve Tobin), the Baroness Alma (Betty Compson), and the chatterbox Madame Blinis (Ilka Chase), and at a party thrown in his honor, all the women fuss and coo over him. A man is shot dead in the garden, someone breaks into Orloff's room, and Orloff finds himself falling for Diana. But could she be the spy? This early talkie has some nice visual touches but is otherwise a disappointment; it has a light tone but isn't quite a comedy, there is little tension and no real action, and the acting is only average all around, with the exception of Tobin (pictured with Lebedeff). Lebedeff is particularly weak as the romantic hero, seeming neither very romantic nor very heroic. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

JUNGLE SIREN (1942)

Buster Crabbe and Paul Bryar are American engineers working with the Free French during World War II on a mission is to do some land surveying near the African village of Carraby in anticipation of the Allies putting in a landing strip there. Their secondary mission is to try and subvert the influence of a native chief who is working with a German couple (Arno Frey and Evelyn Wahl) who are Nazi spies, bribing the natives with worthless trinkets to get them on their side when the armed conflict reaches Carraby. Living with the tribe as a native is an Anglo woman (Ann Corio), raised as an orphan by a doctor. She is initially suspicious of all the outsiders, but soon she and Crabbe are canoodling, even as the female Nazi also begins cozying up to him as well. The chief goes to extremes to get the natives on the Nazi side, poisoning several villagers so that they appear to be dead, blaming it on Crabbe and the doctor, and then bringing the "dead" back with apparently supernatural powers. Can Crabbe and Corio get the natives to see the truth about their leader before the Nazis arrive?

This is a pretty shoddy sub-B film; its main attraction was probably the presence of Buster Crabbe, best known in the 30s first as an Olympic swimming champ and later for playing heroes like Tarzan, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. By this time, he was working for Poverty Row studio PRC, mostly doing cheapie westerns and adventure movies. He must have been considered a success because between 1940 and 1945 alone, he made nearly 40 such films. He's one of the few bright spots here; he treats his role seriously and his beefcake appeal is still obvious. The comic sidekick in movies like this is sometimes dreadful, but Bryar does a decent job; one of the better jokes is a special effects shot of Bryar asleep in bed having nightmares as footage of dangerous animals appears above his head. Corio (pictured with Crabbe) was best known as a stripper; unfortunately, she's a drab, flat actress, and even her buxom charms are, oddly enough, downplayed here. There is very little action until the end. I did enjoy some of the dialogue: the Nazi, aware that his wife is falling for Crabbe and maybe becoming sympathetic to him, says, "The Third Reich is more important that your swinish love affair!" And while Crabbe's sidekick does his morning exercises, he says, "Another ten days of this and I’ll have a physique like Buster Crabbe!" [Amazon Instant]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

DANGER—LOVE AT WORK (1937)

Screwball comedies of any kind are difficult to pull off; the writing, acting and direction have to be top-notch or else it just becomes a shrill, irritating mess. B-level screwball comedies, usually with lesser talent behind and on the screen, rarely work for me. This one has promise but goes off the rails by the halfway point. It starts out as a re-working of the nutty-family classic YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. The eccentric Pemberton family from South Carolina owns property in New York that a country club wants. One lawyer who tried to get signatures from all the family members quit in frustration so Henry MacMarrow (Jack Haley), a junior partner at the law firm, is sent to complete the job. The patriarch is an elderly scientist who has a life-sized teddy bear robot (pictured), son Herbert (John Carradine) fancies himself an abstract artist, Uncle Alan (Walter Catlett) is a stamp collector, genius ten-year-old Junior is already a college graduate, pixilated maiden aunts Pitty and Patty keep a rigged-up loaded shotgun aimed at their door in case of burglary, and Uncle Goliath owns a mansion but lives outside on its grounds dressed like a caveman. The only "normal" person is the young vivacious Toni (Ann Sothern), who falls for Henry—though it takes a while for him to reciprocate.

This has an interesting cast, but no matter how hard they try, by halfway through the almost 90 minute running time, they've all worn out their welcome. The two leads are OK: Jack Haley (OZ's Tin Man) actually does a good job managing to remain relatively unflustered by all the zaniness around him. He's also a kind of anti-romantic leading man, not acting terribly interested in Sothern, which is a nice change of pace for this kind of film. For her part, Sothern mostly remains charming in the middle of the whirlwind of crazy relatives. The two have an awkward musical number out of nowhere. Mary Boland is Sothern's mom, and child actor Benny Bartlett is fun as the obnoxious Junior. Edward Everett Horton plays against type a bit as the villain, Sothern's fiancé and the author of a self-help book on how to be masterful, who is trying to get his hands on the property, and Elisha Cook Jr., looking like a juvenile, has a small role as a chemist. The first half is fun, but the shenanigans get more and more ludicrous and I was chomping at the bit for the end. This may have influenced the makers of the later MURDER HE SAYS. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN (1964)

Aliens plummet to earth from the moon and force the people of Samar to sacrifice groups of young men and women every three months at the Mountain of Death. Gladius, advisor to Samar's Queen Samara, begs her to find a way to stop the sacrifices, but it turns out she's in cahoots with the moon men (or man, as I think we only ever see one of them, usually in the form of a transparent hologram); they have promised her that when they take over the world, she can rule with them. Gladius asks Hercules to help stop the slaughter. Complicating matters is Princess Billis, she of the fabulous 60s hairdo, who is about to be sacrificed—her blood will revive her look-alike, the dead moon queen Selene. Billis's boyfriend Darax fights for her, even taking an arrow in the chest and surviving, as do a band of rebels. Hercules joins in, escaping drowning in a pit, killing a monster, facing a small army of huge stone creatures, and surviving torture in which he is slowly pressed between two large spiked slabs. Then, of course, there's the alien's prediction that a cosmic cataclysm is about to strike the earth.

Of all the 60s peplum musclemen, I think Alan Steel is the most appealing—he's seems happy and excited doing what he's doing (not bored like Reg Park in HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN), has an open and friendly face, is quite well built without being grotesquely bulbous, and does a great job sweating and straining under torture. This film has the added attraction of a science-fiction element spicing up the usual storyline. The special effects are not great, consisting mostly of a sickly green tinting of any scenes on and in the Mountain of Death; the alien is a tall robed figure wearing an owl-face mask, and the final disaster is very disappointing. But the stone men are kinda cool, and the typical sword-and-sandal action scenes are carried off well, especially the spiked torture of Hercules. Many critics (and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang) make fun of the lengthy sandstorm scene near the end, but though it definitely does go on too long—"Deep hurting!!" to quote the MST3K robots—I enjoyed the shifting color washes and the swirling sands. Had I seen this movie when I was fourteen, the long torture scene, with lingering close-ups of Hercules's sweaty arms and chest, would have been like gay porn for me. Not the best of peplums, but not quite as bad as its reputation, though it must be seen in widescreen. [DVD]

Friday, February 13, 2015

MISS ROBIN CRUSOE (1954)

This adaptation of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe changes the sex of the main character (and of his companion Friday) and adds a romantic interest, but retains several details of the original story—which I admit here that I've never read. In 1659, a hurricane hits a ship traveling to Brazil and two survivors are washed up on an isolated island: Robin, the cabin boy who is actually a girl in disguise (Amanda Blake, Miss Kitty from the TV classic Gunsmoke), and an old salt named Sykes. When Sykes assaults Robin, she fights back and he winds up falling off a cliff. In a few months time, after she has built herself a treehouse for shelter, she discovers a cannibal tribe on the island and interrupts a ritual which involves splitting two women in half as sacrifices. Robin manages to save one of them and takes her back to the treehouse, naming her Friday; together, they manage to thrive until, after a huge storm hits, another sailor is washed up on shore. At first, Robin is wary of Jonathan (George Nader) and refuses his help, but soon realizes that the three of them working together is not such a bad thing. She even starts to fall for him, but a major bone of contention remains: he wants to patch up a small 2-person canoe and go out to find help nearer to the shipping lanes, but Robin won't leave Friday behind. When Jonathan sneaks away in the canoe by himself, Robin feels betrayed. Soon, Jonathan returns but so does the cannibal tribe.

This definitely counts as a novelty. In addition to the gender switch, there's the somewhat schizophrenic style: some of it looks like Gilligan's Island, having been filmed on soundstages, but some of it was shot, if not on location in the South Pacific, at least outside on an actual beach. Most sequences end with an very abrupt blackout; I thought at first it was a film splice problem but it happened throughout the movie. The color palate is quite bright which makes it fairly pleasing to the eye. Given the small number of characters, we don't get to know Robin very much at all, and Blake's performance is rather two-note: either suspicious/fearful or arrogant/aloof. Nader is OK but again his character is completely flat. The fact that these two get involved is much more about lust than love; I imagine that after they're rescued, they'll realize they are both boring people with nothing in common. There's a strange scene of Friday (Rosalind Hayes) stroking Robin's arm and hair while she sleeps, but nothing comes of it. An odd little film. [Warner Archive Instant]

Thursday, February 12, 2015

RHAPSODY IN BLUE (1945)

An almost completely fictional biopic about George Gershwin, one of the great composers of the 20th century. Once you've accepted that little in this film is based on fact (despite the presence in the film of several real-life friends of Gershwin), you can settle back and more or less enjoy this as a fictional film with some great music—though considering they had the Gershwin catalog to choose from, the renditions of most of the songs leave much to be desired. We begin with the working-class Gershwin family, and young brothers George and Ira excited to see that a piano is being delivered to their humble Bronx apartment. George (played as an adult by Robert Alda) takes to it immediately and soon works his way up to become a song plugger on Tin Pan Alley. On the side, he begins writing his own songs and taking lessons from Prof. Franck (Albert Bassermann) who feels Gershwin is wasting his talent on creating disposable pop music. Next thing you know, he's writing for singer Julie Adams (a fictitious character played by Joan Leslie) and he becomes the toast of Broadway, turning out songs like "Swanee" and "I Got Rhythm." Still pursuing serious music, his jazz-inflected "Rhapsody in Blue" is a smash success played in a concert hall by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. George and Julie get friendly though remaining chaste, but when George goes to Paris for musical inspiration (and eventually writes another serious piece, "An American in Paris"), he meets Christine (Alexis Smith), a well-connected woman-about-town, and a love triangle is set that ultimately goes nowhere. When he starts fretting about not having enough time to do everything he wants, and then begins getting debilitating headaches, we know the end (a brain tumor) is near.

There's no use pointing out the inaccuracies here because there are so many. Even when they get something right, like the success of "Rhapsody in Blue," not enough attention is given to it; it's just one more step on the ladder to the top. This is largely a missed opportunity for a colorful Gershwin revue; had this been done by Arthur Freed's unit at MGM, it would have been filled with stars performing the songs as splashy production numbers, but here at Warner Bros. we're stuck with lukewarm renditions, mostly by the bland Joan Leslie (voice dubbed by Sally Sweetland). Anne Brown, who actually played Bess in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, sings a bit of "Summertime," and Hazel Scott and Al Jolson sing some songs as themselves.  And very few of the 20+ songs are done in their entirety. Alda is unremarkable in the central role, but a handful of other actors do nice work, including Morris Carnovsky as George's father, Herbert Rudley as Ira (pictured at right with Alda), Albert Bassermann as the music professor, and Alexis Smith as one of the two (totally fictitious) love interests—in real life, Gershwin apparently played the field. Best of all is Oscar Levant playing himself; the hangdog, snarky Levant (pictured top left with Alda) is always welcome in a sidekick role, and he actually knew and worked with Gershwin. In fact, it's Levant’s playing that we hear whenever we see Alda at the piano. The highlight of the film is the playing of the Rhapsody; it's well-played and well-shot, and as it comes about an hour into the movie, you can shut it off when it's over and miss the last draggy 75 minutes. [Warner Archive Instant]

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

THE FLORENTINE DAGGER (1935)

In a nicely atmospheric opening sequence which would not be out of place in a Universal horror film of the era, three men who don't know each other get off a train at the small, largely unvisited Italian town of Rossanu, which is dominated the deserted castle of the Borgias nearby. Two of men seem to vacationing: Victor Ballau (Henry O'Neill), a play producer, and Gerard Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith), a doctor. The third, Juan Cesare (Donald Woods), keeps to himself and seems a bit haunted. It turns out that he is a descendent of the Borgias and is convinced that bad Borgia blood will eventually lead him to murder so he's decided to kill himself. Lytton manages to stop him, and suggests creating art as a way of achieving catharsis. So Juan does just that: he writes a play about Lucretia Borgia and, back in Vienna, Ballau agrees to stage it with his daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay) starring as Lucretia. Juan falls intensely for Florence and even though she seems a bit reticent, he asks her father for her hand. Ballau won't allow them to marry, afraid that Juan's potential homicidal drive may not quite be cured. One night, Florence leaves the theater in the middle of a performance without explanation, and later her father is found dead, stabbed with a Borgia dagger. Was it Florence? Juan? Dr. Lytton? Ballau's strange housekeeper? The police captain (Robert Barrat) is determined to find out, and he uncovers several unsavory secrets before the killer is revealed.

This is one of a short series of Clue Club films that Warner Bros. made in the mid-30s, and it begins very well, with the first few minutes conjuring up the opening the 1931 DRACULA (in fact, one character says that Juan is "something of a Dracula type"), but when the action moves to Vienna, it reverts to something more like an average B-mystery. Woods (pictured with O'Neill) is good, and Barrat is even better, being amusing without resorting to bumbling comic-relief shtick. Florence Fair is the housekeeper and Eily Malyon has a nice brief bit near the end as a mysterious wig and mask maker. The story, with its attempts at psychological depth, is interesting, but there is too much plot crammed into the 70-minute running time. The ending is unusual in that it seems to go against the Production Code, as the killer is basically let go. [TCM]