Monday, April 27, 2015

NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1946)

Nick (John Garfield) has just been discharged from an Army hospital in New York City and goes to see his pre-war girlfriend Toni (Faye Emerson), a nightclub singer; he left her $50,000 but she gave it to her new boyfriend Chet to bankroll his club where she's the main attraction. Understandably pissed, Nick threatens Chet with physical violence, gets the money back, and takes off for Los Angeles where he renews contact with old Pop Gruber (Walter Brennan), a veteran con man who hooks him up with slimy crook Doc Ganson (George Coulouris) and his gang who want Nick to bankroll their "project": fleecing rich widow Gladys (Geraldine Fitzgerald) out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by getting her to invest in a phony salvage business. Nick agrees, but also takes control of the plan by romancing the widow and getting in good with Manning, her business advisor. But soon complications arise: 1) Nick finds himself falling for Gladys; 2) Doc Ganson gets itchy and wants to take control of the plan back from Nick; 3) Toni shows up in L.A.

This film noir is impressive primarily for its acting; basically every actor but one is firing on all cylinders. Garfield is fine as always as the little tough guy with the soft heart who desperately wants to redeem himself—I like that we can see him slowly change over the course of the film; Brennan (pictured with Garfield) is excellent playing against type as a formerly sly con-man who is now over the hill and getting by the best he can; Coulouris, always underrated, is sweaty and twitchy and thoroughly unlikable—which in this case is a compliment. Emerson is good in what would usually be the femme fatale part, though here she's mostly a minor nuisance. Even Doc's thugs (James Flavin and Ralph Peters) make good impressions. The lone problem is Geraldine Fitzgerald who is too passive and ethereal to seem attractive to Garfield, but even she's basically OK. Not terribly noir in look or style, more so in its themes. [Warner Archive streaming]

Thursday, April 23, 2015

SIEGE OF THE SAXONS (1963)

After a jousting competition in which Edmund of Cornwall unseats Roderick, the reigning champ of the rebellious Saxons, King Arthur falls ill with heart troubles and his daughter Katherine suggests that he recuperate away from prying eyes at Edmund's estate. On the way, they have a brief scuffle with the outlaw Robert Marshall, a kind of Robin Hood figure, but Marshall ends up joining them and is sent ahead to prepare the estate for the King's arrival. Marshall finds a mysteriously empty castle and a limping man who knocks him unconscious; when the royal entourage arrives, the strange man wounds Arthur with an arrow to the chest and gets away. Marshall is blamed and run out of the castle, but he hangs around in order to clear his name. Unknown to our entourage, Edmund is in league with the Saxons and is plotting to assassinate the King and take over the throne. A second assassination attempt by a marauding gang of Saxons succeeds and, with Katherine on the run with Marshall, Edmund claims the throne. Will Marshall and Katherine be able to find Merlin to help them oust the wicked pretender?

This film tries something interesting by giving the legends of both King Arthur and Robin Hood twists—I'd certainly never heard of a daughter named Katherine—but when the novelty has worn off, this is just another B-budget swashbuckler. The battle scenes are pulled off fairly well, and the sets are good, but the acting leaves something to be desired. Janette Scott, a B-actress made immortal by being name-checked in the Rocky Horror theme, is adequate as Katherine as is Ronald Howard as the villain. Only Ronald Lewis as the outlaw Marshall (pictured above to the left of Howard) makes much of an impression. The movie is generally fun; I wish there were a more magical air about it; the brief appearance of the enchanted sword Excalibur at the end is the only fantasy element here. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937 (1936)

For a few years in the 1930s, Paramount produced a series of Big Broadcast films, intended to introduce radio stars to movie audiences. Like the 1938 version I've reviewed previously, this is basically a revue of musical, comedy and novelty acts tied together by a featherweight romantic comedy plot. Jack Benny, boss at National Network Radio, is creating a new show for eccentric husband-and-wife sponsors George Burns and Gracie Allen, who manufacture golf balls. Allen wants the vaguely exotic singer Frank Forest to be her star, but when Benny hears a suburban lady DJ (Shirley Ross) make fun of Forest's singing style on her late night show, he hires her away for the express purpose of being silenced. But agent Ray Milland falls for Ross and soon a fake romance is whipped up between Ross and Forest. How all this plays out is rather uninteresting and, unfortunately, takes up most of the last half of the movie. But the first half, with its almost surreal tone—largely provided by Gracie Allen's humor—and meandering non-narrative, is more interesting. The parade of acts include Bob Burns as a hillbilly comic, Benny Goodman with drummer Gene Krupa, Martha Raye (whose energetic number "Vote for Mr. Rhythm" is a highlight), and, adding to the odd tone of the film, Leopold Stokowski conducting Bach's Fugue in G Minor. The way Stokowski's sequence is shot—lots of shadows and big gestures—seems to have inspired the makers of FANTASIA a few years later. Much of the directing style of Mitchell Leisen, at least during the first half, feels very modern, but by the 80 minute point, the film mostly gives way to its tedious plot and a far more standard visual style. Pictured are George Burns, Martha Raye and Gracie Allen. [TCM]

Monday, April 20, 2015

HE KNEW WOMEN (1930)

Lowell Sherman is a second-rate poet and writer who has lived the philandering playboy life for quite a while, but now he finds it prudent to marry—the first scene in the movie is of Sherman giving a speech at a bachelor party for himself at which the guests are a dozen or so of his former lovers. Neither he nor his wealthy fiancée (Alice Joyce), who has been keeping him, has any illusions about this being a love match, but young Frances Dade is upset because she's in love with Sherman and can't abide the thought that he's settling for less. However, Dade is being pursued a wealthy young chemist (David Manners) who has, until now, been a good friend to Sherman. Manners discovers that Dade has been sneaking around with Sherman, and hoping to get Manners off her back, Dade lies and says she's pregnant by Sherman. But instead of losing interest, Manners arrives at Sherman's home with a gun.

Every so often, I get hooked on a classic-era actor, usually a supporting player (Eric Blore, Edna May Oliver) or a B-movie actor (Tom Neal) or someone who was a big name in their day but who is largely overlooked now (Kay Francis), and I try to see as many of their movies as I can. Usually this leads to more appreciation of the actor on my part, but sometimes things take a different turn. Back in the early days of my immersion in classic movies—about the time that Turner Classic Movies got started in 1994—I glommed on to David Manners, a handsome fellow whom I knew primarily for his roles in two of my favorite 30s horror movies, DRACULA and THE MUMMY. His career was relatively short, from 1930 to 1936; he retired young and went on to paint and write (fiction and philosophy), and the fact that he came out late in life as gay was interesting to me. Though he was only onscreen for six years, he made almost 40 movies in that time, usually as a romantic second lead, but few of those movies were well-regarded enough to be on home video, so I had my work cut out for me. Thanks to TCM and YouTube, I’ve now seen over 20 of his films, and this is the one that made me stop and wonder why. Manners (pictured below to the right of Joyce and Sherman) is hardly a terrible actor, but his comfort zone is slim; he's best as a passive playboy type and when he tries something more challenging, he usually just comes off as weak and whiny. As I look back, I see he's actually a weak link among the casts of his Universal horror films (in DRACULA, it's mostly because his character, Jonathan Harker, was gutted to the point where he has very little to do except wring his hands over Dracula's attempt to possess Mina). Manners' best acting is done opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra's THE MIRACLE WOMAN, so maybe he just needed a good director to get him out of his mild-mannered shell.

Sorry for the digression, but the first 20 minutes or so of this film were so bad, I considered not finishing it, unheard of for me for a movie that features one of my favorite actors. I had to re-consider Manners’ standing in my classic movie pantheon. Ultimately, the movie got better, but it's basically a filmed stage play, most of which takes place on one set, Sherman's apartment. The direction is (mostly) static with awkward staging and melodramatic dialogue delivered almost over-the-top but not enough to be campy. (Dade: "Please don’t make love to me…"; long pause; Manners: "I can't help making love to you.") In particular, Sherman's artificial acting style takes some time to get used to. Oddly, however, it all started to come together in the last half, and though I could not really recommend this movie strongly, I wound up not sorry to have seen it. Despite the serious nature of my summary above—and the dramatic bent of the acting—this is basically a romantic comedy, and it ends satisfyingly. I never believed that these people were really in love, except for Manners who did seem sincere if not passionate, and maybe his sincerity is what makes him worth watching. In fact, the most positive feelings of affection are expressed between Sherman and Manners. The general picture of the battle of the sexes that emerges here is best embodied in this exchange when Dade expresses her disillusionment with Sherman: "I saw you—mercenary and unadventurous—I saw your soul!" Sherman replies, after a beat, "Why do women always talk about souls?" You know, maybe I enjoyed this movie after all. I do know that I'll keep digging up movies with David Manners. [TCM]

Sunday, April 12, 2015

IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944)

In 1890, Larry Stevens (Dick Powell) is a rookie newspaper man on the verge of getting promoted from obituaries to full-fledged city reporter. When he whimsically expresses the wish that he could read tomorrow's papers so he could get a head start on getting scoops, old-timer Pops Benson tells him that he would find he really didn't want that power. Late that night, as Larry passes by the newspaper office, Pops appears out of the darkness and gives Larry what he wanted: tomorrow's newspaper. The next morning as he reads a story about an unseasonable spring snowfall, it starts to snow. When he reads about a robbery at an opera house that afternoon, he takes off to be there when it happens—and it does—but he winds up becoming a suspect himself. Larry keeps getting midnight deliveries of tomorrow's paper from Pops, and though they do help him in his career, they are decidedly mixed blessings to him personally. Finally, he reads a story that stops him in his tracks: he’s going to be shot dead at the St. George Hotel. Can he use this knowledge to change the future, or is fate inescapable?

This fantasy has the mix of creepiness and whimsy that Twilight Zone episodes often had. It's generally very light in tone, with just enough slightly dark unease around the corners to make things interesting. The main narrative is told as an extended flashback from fifty years later, so there is little suspense about Powell's fate at the hotel, but the story holds your interest anyway. The cast, however, feels a little second-string. This film came out when Powell was in his difficult years, casting-wise; he was no longer a wholesome juvenile but hadn't found his adult niche yet. He would do so later in 1944 when his noir detective film MURDER MY SWEET was a hit, but here, Powell, at the age of 40, seems a little too experienced to be playing a naïve junior reporter. Linda Darnell is his bland romantic interest, a phony mind reader, who ultimately plays only a small part in the plot. Jack Oakie is fine as Darnell's uncle, a cohort in the mind reading act. Some good supporting actors (George Chandler, Sig Ruman, Edward Brophy) are mostly wasted in nondescript roles. The director, René Clair, made some fine films in France in the early 30s but his Hollywood output was less distinguished. If you don’t ask too much from this film, you’ll enjoy it. [TCM]

Friday, April 10, 2015

WILD, WILD PLANET (1965)

On the space station Gamma 1, Dr. Nurmi (Massimo Serato) is conducting bizarre experiments with human tissue grafts. Commander Halstead (Tony Russel) is opposed to Nurmi's work which is being done for a large corporation, and when Halstead goes back to Earth to investigate the disappearance of several citizens, he discovers that they are being miniaturized and taken to another planet as guinea pigs for Nurmi's corporation which is out to create a biologically transformed human race, a "designer race." Halstead's efforts to stop this are complicated by his love interest Connie (Lisa Gastoni) who cozies up to Nurmi just to make Halstead jealous. Along the way we encounter a small army of thug clones (all bald, wearing sunglasses and trenchcoats), a band of sexy female robots (Fembot, anyone?), a miniature man with four arms, a futuristic ballet performed by dancers in colorful tights and capes, and the delicious Franco Nero playing a buddy of Halstead's.

Italian director Antonio Margheriti (anglicized as Anthony M. Dawson) covered several genres in the 60s: horror (CASTLE OF BLOOD), fantasy (THE GOLDEN ARROW), and adventure (GIANTS OF ROME), but he's mostly remembered today for his low-budget but colorful science fiction films. This was the first of several set on Gamma 1 (see THE SNOW DEVILS) and while they're not great art, they are fun, mostly because of their colorful costumes, crazy sets—including many miniature models which are fake-looking but charming, and some goofy futuristic cars—and a go-for-broke directorial ethos which seems to be, throw it at the wall and see if it sticks. Russel (an Italian-American born Antonio Russo) comes off as a fairly wooden B-movie George Clooney; Serarto is marginally more interesting as the villain, reminding me of a cross between Rex Harrison and Lost in Space's Dr. Smith (see him at left), but the young and handsome Franco Nero (pictured above right, to the left of Russel) is good enough as eye candy that I'd watch this again. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

THE CHASE (1946)

In Miami, down-on-his-luck Chuck (Robert Cummings) finds a wallet stuffed with money on the sidewalk right in front of a diner, so he takes out a couple of bucks, buys a meal, then goes to the owner's house to return it. The owner is rich underworld figure Edward Roman (Steve Cochran, pictured) who takes a shine to this honest bum—Chuck fesses up to taking the money out—and hires him as a chauffeur for himself and for his restless wife Lorna (Michele Morgan). The car is a bit crazy: Edward can switch control of the gas and brakes to the back seat if he wants to, and he gives Chuck a scare the first time out by doing this without telling him. [Why, I wondered, is this gimmick in the film at all? All I could imagine is that it was going to be pulled out again in the third act for some important use, and it is, but it remains quite a silly device.] Lorna wants to leave her husband, and most days she has Chuck drive her down to the coast to gaze longingly at Cuba where she wants to escape. Soon the two hatch a plan: he'll make arrangements for the two to them to take a ship to Havana and they'll sneak away under cover of night. But things don't quite go as scheduled and from here on, the movie gets pretty weird. We find out that Chuck is a victim of shellshock and sometimes slips into blackouts. Chuck and Lorna get to Havana but are hunted down by Roman's slimy henchman (Peter Lorre) and she is knifed in the street and killed. Or is she?

All is worked out by the end but it's a bit of a slog getting there. I must admit that part of my problem was that the public domain print on the DVD I was watching, from St. Clair Vision, was in terrible shape with lots of splices and murky darkness with little visible detail. The DVD is shorter by four minutes than the running time indicated at IMDb and I think an important plot point or two got scrambled because of that. Still, this has some good film noir elements including the conflicted and wounded hero, the potential femme fatale, and the role of fate in the proceedings. The ambitious visual style of director Arthur Ripley is hampered by the extremely low budget of the film, but some sequences, including the knifing of Lorna and the death of another character in a wine cellar, still pack some power. One quirk that doesn't work is when a take, usually involving just one actor looking intense or confused, is held for a long time as though the film editor fell asleep. The acting is all over the map and some of these problems can be chalked up to the direction: Cummings is OK but a little lightweight for a noir hero, never coming off as tortured as his character should be; Morgan's range goes from catatonic to bored; Lorre sounds like he's just rehearsing his lines. The only actor who emerges unscathed is Steve Cochran who is very good and believably menacing as the villain. An interesting experiment in noir atmosphere which I'd like to watch again if it ever gets a restoration. [DVD]

Monday, April 06, 2015

THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939)

In 1899 England, widower Ian Hunter is off to fight in the Boer War and leaves his young daughter (Shirley Temple) at a well-regarded boarding school run by somewhat stand-offish Mary Nash and her more engaging brother (Arthur Treacher), a former music hall entertainer. Because Temple has been a bit spoiled, she is referred to as a "princess," but she's very pleasant and she soon makes some friends: an ill-treated servant girl (Sybil Jason), a teacher (Anita Louise), and a riding instructor (Richard Greene) who happens to be sweet on the teacher. On the day of Temple's birthday party, news arrives that Hunter has been reported dead and the enemy has taken all his money. Nash, who has just barely tolerated Temple all along, turns on her, taking her clothes and making her live in the attic and work as a servant. She bonds more strongly with her friends, including an Indian gentleman (Cesar Romero) who lives next door and who secretly provides her with nice furnishings for her shabby room. Meanwhile Temple refuses to believe that her father is actually dead and goes searching the nearby military hospital constantly to see if he's shown up, Sure enough, he's there in a shell-shocked daze though none of the doctors know his name and she keeps just missing him. The climax involves a chase through the streets and a visit to the hospital by Queen Victoria.

This is one of the last of Shirley Temple's little girl roles before she became an adolescent. Her movies aren't generally to my taste, but this one is certainly watchable, even as the plot grows predictably and tediously melodramatic. It's based on a classic story by Francis Hodgson Burnett, and I kept getting the story mixed up with Burnett's other big book which was also turned into a movie, The Secret Garden. Temple is good, and Treacher, who gets to do a dance routine with her, is fun. The rest of the cast mostly downplays the drama, which is actually a bit of a problem when it comes to Mary Nash, the mean headmistress; I could have stood for her to be a little more wicked. Greene and Louise make a rather bland couple, but Jason does well as the downtrodden servant and Romero is memorable in a small role. [TCM]

Thursday, April 02, 2015

CARNEGIE HALL (1947)

Carnegie Hall cleaning lady Nora Ryan (Marsha Hunt) sees pianist Tony Salerno get in an argument with a conductor over how to play Tchaikovsky. Salerno is fired but Nora befriends him that night and tells him how, as a child, she was present at the opening of the Hall to see Tchaikovsky himself conduct his own symphony. Nora and Salerno fall in love, get married, and raise a child, Tony Jr., but one night, the alcoholic Salerno falls down the stairs and dies. Over the years, Nora works her way up to become a concert supervisor at Carnegie Hall and becomes dismayed when Tony Jr. (William Prince), trained in the classics, takes a liking to jazz, hooks up with a big band singer, and strikes out on his own playing in what his mom sees as disreputable clubs. Of course, by the end, jazz and classical meet up as Tony successfully debuts his jazz concerto (with Harry James) at, you guessed it, Carnegie Hall, with Nora in attendance.

The plot takes up probably less than half of this film's two and a half hour running time; much of the movie consists of performances of classical pieces by famous musicians of the day, performed (I assume) in Carnegie Hall. This was a project close to B-movie director Edgar G. Ulmer's heart, and though it may not quite rise to A-grade filmmaking, it is nicely shot in a striking, almost film-noir style. The acting is so-so, and Hunt (pictured at right with Prince) isn't helped by her rather poor old-age make-up. Among the real-life musicians appearing in the film are conductors Walter Damrosch and Bruno Walter, singers Rise Stevens, Ezio Pinza and Vaughn Monroe, pianist Artur Rubinstein, and violinist Jascha Heifetz. In the middle of the movie, I thought, man, these musical interludes are so long that they hurt the momentum of the narrative, but then I realized that Ulmer probably wished he could have discarded the plot altogether and done a Fantasia-style movie. Interesting if not essential viewing, except for Ulmer fans. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

MYSTERY IN MEXICO (1948)

In the shadows, a handsome young man getting into a safe is shot at and manages to escape into the night. And though the DVD cover claims this as a film noir, that's about all the noir there is. The man, we discover later, is Glenn Ames (Walter Reed), an insurance investigator sent to Mexico City to check on a claim concerning a stolen necklace. When Glenn stops communicating with his bosses, they assign fellow detective Steve Hastings (William Lundigan) to follow Victoria Ames (Jacqueline White), Glenn's sister, down to Mexico City; they're worried that Glenn has found the necklace and will use her to abscond with it. Steve flirts with Victoria, a lounge singer who gets a gig at the Versailles nightclub, and when she realizes her brother is missing, they joins forces to find him, helped by a gregarious cab driver named Carlos (Tony Barrett). Others who are soon involved: the charming owner of the Versailles (Ricardo Cortez), a Versailles bartender who knew Glenn but is afraid of saying too much, the local police, and a peasant family with a secret.

This is a perfectly acceptable B-thriller, competent and reasonably entertaining, though showing few signs of the talents that its director, Robert Wise, would show years later (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE HAUNTING, WEST SIDE STORY). I have a thing for Lundigan and his blond, lackadaisical doofiness so I quite enjoyed seeing him in his element—his character is smart but has to act a bit dumb for a while until he knows who to trust. White (pictured above with Lundigan) is totally average—fine but not memorable. I like Cortez but he is criminally underused here. Barrett makes a good impression in a small but important role; he went on to write for TV (Honey West, The Mod Squad). Shot on location in Mexico, though honestly it could have been California soundstages for all the difference it made. [DVD]