Monday, October 20, 2014

HAUNTED GOLD (1932)

This early John Wayne film is not only a fine example of the B-western but also of the mystery/horror western, a small but interesting subgenre. One night, a bunch of guys are sitting around in a ghost town saloon waiting for Ed to come back from an abandoned mine which is rumored to have a treasure in gold hidden somewhere. What comes back instead is his horse, riderless, with a note warning others to stay away, signed by The Phantom. One of the men, Joe Ryan, has a half-claim on the land, and arriving that night is the man with the other half-claim, John Mason (Wayne), with his African-American buddy Clarence (Blue Washington). Another person involved is Janet Carter, daughter of one of the co-owners; her father, a former owner of the mine, is in jail, supposedly framed by the Ryans, but she has been summoned mysteriously and is staying with Benedict, once the mine foreman. Also in the house is Benedict's deaf assistant, a creepy housekeeper, and some spooky figure whose eyes we frequently see peering into rooms from behind clocks and paintings. Ryan plots to get Mason's claim away from him, Mason plots to catch Ryan and his men in criminal activity, and someone seems to be trying to keep everyone away from the mine.

The word "horror" is misleading—this is more like an "old dark house" thriller in a western setting—but it does contain a handful of nicely atmospheric moments as it also gets in some hats-and-horses action. The young Wayne makes a nice light-on-his-feet hero, a little different from the slower and more stolid characters he became known for later. Much critical commentary has been made about Washington and his stereotyped comic relief role—at one point, a villain refers to his "watermelon accent"—but despite being eighth billed (far behind Wayne's famous horse Duke), Washington (pictured with Wayne) has almost as much screen time as Wayne, and most of his shenanigans are actually amusing rather than cringe-inducing. It helps that he has a deep, gruff voice, unlike the lazy, high-pitched voices that many black actors were forced to use in their subservient roles. He's also effective in getting Wayne out of some tight spots. Duke the horse gets to pull a couple of good stunts, kicking a man off a cliff and saving Wayne from a long drop into a canyon. Some of the lengthy final action scene is presented speeded-up and I'm not sure why. Interesting tidbit: the prop that became the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 movie can be seen on the heroine's organ. [TCM]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959)

One night in 1890s Paris, we see a man attacked on a foggy street, another victim of Anton Diffring, a sculptor (who creates busts of lovely young women) and a doctor; it turns out that he's over 100 years old, despite looking much younger, thanks to a gland transplant he gets every few years to stay young. Desperately in need of the operation now, he can get by for a while on a bubbling green fluid that he concocts, apparently made from bodily fluids obtained from people he kills, but he's at the point where he will start deteriorating for good unless he gets the procedure done. The older doctor who had always helped him is disabled and can no longer operate, so when Diffring crosses paths with ex-lady friend Hazel Court (pictured with Diffring), he tries to talk her friend, surgeon Christopher Lee, into doing the operation himself, eventually holding Court hostage to force him to help. This Hammer horror movie is based on a play, The Man in Half Moon Street, which was first made into a movie in 1945. The plot is predictable and the horror element here is at low boil as the film seems to retain the staginess of the play. Lee sleepwalks through his relatively unimportant part, but luckily Diffring is fine in the title role. The scenes involving the green youth-giving potion are effectively filmed, saturated in green; there are some moderately interesting philosophical discussions about eternal life; and a suitably horrific ending awaits, but it's a bit of a slog getting there. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE MAD GHOUL (1943)

George Zucco is a chemistry professor teaching a class about his theory that the Mayans had developed a poisonous gas which caused a "life in death/death in life" state in the people who were used as human sacrifices. After class, he asks student David Bruce to help him with his experiments involving that gas. It turns out that he has used the gas to zombify a monkey, and now plans to use herbs and a heart transplant to bring the monkey back, hoping to use the procedure on humans. When Bruce questions the morality of his activities, Zucco replies, "I'm a scientist—there is no good or evil, only true or false." A complicating factor is concert singer Evelyn Ankers; Bruce is in love with her, and though she likes him, she feels she has outgrown his attentions and is setting her sights on her sophisticated, exotic pianist (Turhan Bey). The slightly unhinged Zucco thinks that Ankers is dumping Bruce for him, so to make sure Bruce is no competition, he tricks Bruce into breathing in the zombie gas, then gets him to start digging up graves to gather up fresh hearts for his sinister work. A reporter (Robert Armstrong) figures things out and poses as a corpse to catch the ghouls, but things backfire a bit.

As other critics have pointed out, this B-film, though produced by a major studio (Universal), has the feel of a high-end poverty-row flick from Monogram or PRC, and that's mostly a compliment. The production values are skimpy but not slipshod, and the acting and writing are at least a notch above average. Zucco (pictured above in his creepy protective mask, with Bruce), as he often was in his B-roles, is the best thing in the movie, taking the proceedings as seriously as they should be, not camping around or chewing scenery and not sleepwalking through his part as the mad doctor. The rest of the cast is fine, even Bruce who many critics don't care for. Milburn Stone (Doc on "Gunsmoke") plays a cop. What I liked best about the plot is that, against expectations, there really is no sturdy hero here to save the day; Bruce becomes a zombie, Bey doesn’t get to do much except play the piano, and Zucco is the instrument of his own demise. A little-known solid B-horror flick. [DVD]

Monday, October 13, 2014

DEAR MURDERER (1947)

Eric Portman returns to England from a lengthy business trip to America, looking forward to reuniting with his wife (Greta Gynt) who has not been as faithful a letter-writer as he hoped. When he gets home, it appears as if she may not have been faithful in other ways; she's not there, and he finds love letters addressed to her from another man, the same man (Dennis Price) that he has seen pictures of her with in tabloid papers, out painting the town red. Portman goes to Price's apartment and begins an elaborate plot which ends with Portman killing Price and making it look like suicide. Of course, as these things will, his plot goes off the rails when his wife and yet another lover show up at Price's apartment before Portman can get away. There are more twists and complications that shout not be spoiled here. I don't think this is really noir, as some claim: Portman is never really sympathetic enough for us to think he's a basically good guy caught in a bad circumstances. He's very good in the role, but he's a bad guy. At one point, when Price realizes that Portman plans to kill him, Price lets him know that Gynt has had other affairs and notes wryly, "You can’t kill all of them"; we see Portman think about that and realize that he might well try. So it's not film noir but it is a somewhat Hitchcockian thriller with a good cast, especially Portman and Gynt, and a plot that is easy to follow but not so easy to predict. Jack Warner is a Scotland Yard inspector, and Hazel Court, who would achieve a level of fame starring in some of Roger Corman's 60s horror films, has a small role. (Pictured is Portman seconds away from strangling Price.) [Netflix streaming]

Friday, October 10, 2014

LOVE AND LEARN (1947)

Jack Carson and Robert Hutton are struggling songwriters (I'd say, stop me if you've heard this before, but then this would be a very short review); Hutton is ready to call it quits and head back to his Midwest hometown, but based on a lead, they give it one last shot and go to the Danceland ballroom to try and get an "in" with a big band leader. Martha Vickers is a socialite frustrated with her high-society life in general and her fiancé in particular, and after she decides to leave him, she heads to Danceland to get away from everything. Vickers pretends to be a dance hostess to get in and she hits it off with Hutton; he decides to stay in town and, to keep up the charade, she rents a modest apartment. Vickers pays a music publisher to take one of their songs, but due to a misunderstanding, the boys think that she's a notorious thief. More misunderstandings lead to Hutton leaving for home and Vickers deciding to go back to her fiancé, but thanks to Carson and his girlfriend (Janis Paige), a happy ending is in store. Yes, this is a predictable second-feature comedy with a little bit of music, but there are some pleasures to be had, starting with the women. Vickers, best known as Lauren Bacall's nymphet sister in THE BIG SLEEP, does a nice against-type turn here as a good little rich girl; Paige as the spunky sidekick is even better. Carson is fine, though Hutton (pitured with Vickers) is rather weak, especially when you consider how much better Carson's frequent partner-in-comedy Dennis Morgan would have been. Otto Kruger is good as Vickers' father, and Florence Bates and Craig Stevens are present in small roles. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

RETURN FROM THE ASHES (1965)

During the winter after Germany's defeat in WWII, a sad, emaciated woman (Ingrid Thulin) is traveling on a train to Paris. She seems completely oblivious to her surroundings; when a small child tinkers with the door and falls out to his death, she doesn't react at all. Her fellow passengers assume she's cold and unfeeling, but we see the concentration camp tattoo on her wrist. She's heading to Paris to see her husband (Maximilian Schell, pictured with Thulin), whom she hasn’t seen since she, as a Jew, was rounded up and sent to a camp five years earlier. Their relationship was not one of great passion: he was a penniless but handsome and charming chess player and she, a well-off doctor, was essentially his sugar mama. But now, she discovers that he assumes that she died. When they meet, he notices her resemblance to his wife and asks her to join him and Thulin's stepdaughter (Samantha Eggar) in a plan to claim her money, which neither one can get their hands on since Thulin's remains were never found. This might serve as the entire premise for a thriller, but here, Thulin "comes out" as herself to Schell fairly quickly. She gets back into her practice and claims her money and property; what she doesn't know is that Schell and Eggar are lovers, and might not be above murder to get what they want out of Thulin. This twisty thriller is very well acted by all three main cast members, and it's largely a three-person show, though Herbert Lom, as a friend and admirer of Thulin's, is also good, and his character is crucial to the climax. The concentration camp background is a bit of a cheat, as it ends up not really being important to the story. If you're a movie thriller fan, this will seem fairly predictable, but along the way, there are some interesting turns. At one point, a bathtub scene conjures up DIABOLIQUE, but the echo remains that just that. The glossy black & white cinematography gives the movie a noir feel—as does the fact that much of the action takes place at night. This underrated little mystery is well worth seeing. [TCM/DVD]

Monday, October 06, 2014

THEY CAME TO BLOW UP AMERICA (1943)

This WWII spy film is based on an actual incident, now known as Operation Pastorius, in which eight German spies snuck into the country to commit acts of sabotage but were arrested before they could pull any of them off. At the time the film was made, the details of the case were still considered secret so, as an opening disclaimer states, this is a total fictionalization. Carl Steelman (George Sanders) is a German-American who has disappointed his family by joining the Bund, on the surface a German social club but actually a pro-Nazi organization which seeks to implement Nazi ideology in the US. However, Steelman has actually infiltrated the group as a spy for the FBI. Reiter, one of the Bund leaders, is called back to Germany to attend classes on sabotage, but he is shot and killed in a government raid and Steelman takes his identity and goes to Berlin instead. He is so good at his espionage exercises, he is given command of an important mission: he and his men are taken by submarine to the New York coast to begin their sabotage. But Sanders runs into a few problems involving people trying to rat him out: Reiter's wife shows up in Berlin, and a friend of Steelman's family in the States inadvertently finds out about his status with the FBI. Though fictional, this is a good spy story and works well as wartime propaganda. Sanders is fine and pretty much has the show all to himself—the only other major characters are his FBI contact (Ward Bond, pictured to the left of Sanders), Reiter's wife (Anna Sten), and Dennis Hoey as a Nazi commander. The subplot involving Sten is compelling and it ends in a fairly unpredictable way. Also in the cast are Ludwig Stossel, Sig Ruman and Robert Barrat. [The Bund was a real organization; I just read a recent history of the Bund, Swastika Nation by Arnie Bernstein, and according to the author, Germany actually tried to distance itself from the Bundists, fearing they would do more harm than good to their cause.] [DVD]

Friday, October 03, 2014

MAN MADE MONSTER (1941)

In a very effective opening, a bus traveling at high speed careens off the road and hits a power line, electrocuting everyone inside—except for Dan McCormack (Lon Chaney Jr.), a sideshow performer who goes by the name Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, who is miraculously unharmed. Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), an electrobiologist, theorizes that he may have a built-in immunity to electric shock from his many years performing tricks with electricity, tricks he calls "yokel shockers" that nonetheless involve him subjecting himself to short shocks on a regular basis. Lawrence's assistant Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) sees McCormack as a perfect guinea pig to test his theory that given a series of electrical treatments, a man could be "produced" who would essentially live off of electric power; he would become invulnerable to pain and his will could be controlled by the giver of the electricity.  Unbeknownst to the kindly Lawrence, the Naziish Rigas subjects McCormack to increasing levels of electricity. The family dog, once very friendly to McCormack, starts freaking out in his presence, and soon Rigas has McCormack, whose head glows like a light bulb, in a rubberized suit, shooting electricity from his hands, needing to get his "fixes" of power from Rigas. When Rigas goads McCormack into killing the meddling Lawrence, McCormack is found guilty of murder, but when they try to electrocute him, he becomes superhumanly strong, escapes, and goes on the requisite monster rampage.

For the past twelve years, I have reserved October for reviewing overlooked or rarely-seen horror and sci-fi movies only, but last year I felt like I was hitting the bottom of the barrel, so this year that tradition is over. But for old time's sake, I thought I'd throw a handful of horror flicks into the mix. This is one of the more obscure Universal films of the classic era and it's a pretty good one. At times early on, it seems like a dry run for Chaney before he played the lead in the genuine classic THE WOLF MAN a few months later; like that movie's Larry Talbot, Dynamo Dan is a genial lug of a guy trapped by circumstances he can't control or understand. Talbot's fate seems more tragic, partly because Dan is not especially well developed as a character—he really only has one scene of dialogue before he starts to lose his humanity. He remains sympathetic but at a distance. There's an extraneous romance in the film between a reporter (Frank Albertson) and Lawrence's daughter (Anne Nagel), but they could be lifted out of story with little damage—Albertson is stuck with a couple of comic relief scenes though they are relatively painless. Nagel's there largely as someone to feel sorry for Dan and to be a damsel in distress at the climax. Hinds is fine as the good doc, and Atwill is gloriously mad, especially when he's decked out in his little black goggles as he gives Chaney his jolts. Nowadays, Dan's need for electricity seems to be a perfect metaphor for an addict's need for drugs, and Rigas's hope for a race of supermen needs no annotation. The effect of Chaney's electric glow is pulled off quite well. Chaney played a variation on this character in 1956's INDESTRUCTIBLE MAN but this is by far the better movie. [DVD]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN (1971)

As a maker of indie B-movies, Roger Corman has no peer. But when he made big studio, bigger-budget movies, he tended to stumble.  Like his earlier ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, this film had a million-dollar budget, almost double the budget of most of his American International horror films, but was not a hit at the box office. They're not bad movies by any means, but they lack something—maybe in the writing and acting, maybe the big studio gloss one expects with a bigger budget. This tells the story of Baron Manfred von Richthofen (John Phillip Law), the WWI German flying ace better known as the Red Baron. He begins as a raw recruit who does some hot dogging over a field chasing a horse, then barely pulls up in time to miss some trees; in fact, he lands with branches stuck in his wheels. Still, he catches on quickly and becomes top dog among the German fliers, feared and respected by the British. Meanwhile, Canadian pilot Roy Brown (Don Stroud, pictured) joins the British and gets a bad reputation when he refuses to drink a toast to Richthofen—the other fliers try to keep up the idea that, despite the carnage in the air, they are all gentlemen, not savages. When Richthofen's squadron is ordered to paint the planes to camouflage them, he has his men paint them bright colors so they'll stand out instead of being hidden, with his a bright red—hence, the Red Baron, and the name the men become known by, The Flying Circus. During one dogfight, Richthofen is seriously wounded and when he returns to combat he begins showing troubling signs of memory loss and confusion. After Brown leads the British on a surprise attack and manages to damage several German planes on the ground, German pilot Hermann Goering (yes, that one) retaliates, deliberately strafing British doctors and nurses, for which Richthofen calls him out. Eventually, Brown and Richthofen meet one-on-one in the air, and of course, there can only be one victor.

What this movie has going for it is its aerial battle footage; it is well-shot, exciting and believable (at least to this viewer who has never been in a dogfight). I can't pinpoint anything wrong with the lead actors; both Law and Stroud look their parts, though both also underplay just a bit—it might have been more fun with more energetic performances. Perhaps Corman was wary that the whole thing might slip over into camp, especially given the baby boomers' identification of the Red Baron with Snoopy. The supporting cast includes Barry Primus and Corin Redgrave, and I was surprised to see Robert La Tourneaux in a decent-sized role as a German pilot—he played the hot but dumb hustler in THE BOYS IN THE BAND and I guess I never thought of him as having any other screen credits (in fact, he only did one other film). Ultimately, this is worth seeing; it's the kind of movie that is good enough that one wishes it were better. [TCM]

Monday, September 29, 2014

ENGLISH WITHOUT TEARS (1944)

aka HER MAN GILBEY

In 1939, eccentric rich lady Margaret Rutherford heads off to Geneva for a League of Nations meeting to propose international laws concerning the safety of British birds. While there, a romantic comedy of errors begins: Penelope Ward, Rutherford's niece, realizes she's in love in with their handsome butler (Michael Wilding), but she meets cute with Claude Dauphin, author of a book called Love in Six Lessons. There's also a lovely translator (Lilli Palmer) whom Dauphin and his friend (Albert Lieven) flirt with. When war breaks out and Wilding joins the service, Ward declares her love, but he turns her down flat—largely, we assume, because of class distinctions—and goes off to war. A year later, Wilding, now an officer, stops by to visit his former employers, who have turned their house into a sanctuary for Allied soldiers, and has now decided he loves Ward—but she is no longer so charmed by him. She realizes what she liked about him when he was a butler was how cold and distant he seemed, but now that they're on a more level plain, he's lost his appeal. Also meeting up at the house, by accident, are Palmer and her two devotees. It takes a couple more years, but all the pairings eventually get sorted out. A cute comedy that benefits greatly from the presence of Rutherford playing one of her patented "dotty old lady" parts—though as far as I'm concerned, she doesn’t have enough screen time—and Wilding (pictured with Rutherford) as the unflappable butler who winds up being flappable after all. Ward is the weak link, but the supporting players, also including Roland Culver and Peggy Cummins, shine all the more. There’s a cute joke involving foreign-language speakers learning to pronounce "sesquipedalian" and "phantasmagoric." [TCM]