Monday, August 18, 2014

THE STORY OF RUTH (1960)

Frankly, most of my knowledge of the Bible comes from popular culture; my only direct exposure to the Old Testament (except for plowing my way through Genesis on a summer vacation) was when I took a Jewish history class in college. So this story was new to me—if I get the details wrong, blame it on the filmmakers. The film breaks the tale into three parts. We begin in the land of Moab, where the people worship the bug-eyed god Chemosh and once a year pick a worthy young girl to sacrifice to him. In the opening scene, the 5-year-old Ruth is picked for the "honor," but a rash appears mysteriously on her arm and she is declared unfit. Then the narrative jumps ahead some years to focus on Mahlon (Tom Tryon), a Judean from Bethlehem whose family moved to Moab to escape famine and poverty. He is hired to make a glittering crown for the next sacrifice and winds up hitting it off with the grown-up Ruth (Elana Eden), now a temple priestess, who is charmed by the stories of his "invisible" god who is everywhere and who does not demand human sacrifice. Soon Ruth rebels against her elders (Thayer David and Viveca Lindfords), and Tryon is held responsible and sentenced to life in slavery. She helps him escape but he is fatally wounded, and in his last dying moments, he "marries" Ruth. In the third part of the film, Mahlon's mother Naomi (Peggy Wood, pictured with Eden) resettles in Bethlehem and takes Ruth with her. They have a rough way to go: the Judeans don't trust the Moabite Ruth, and Mahlon's oldest brother Tob, a surly brute of a fellow, tries to claim Ruth as his wife based on Hebrew law, even though it's the younger brother Boaz (Stuart Whitman) who slowly falls for her.

This is a Biblical epic that, at just a little over two hours, doesn't wear out its welcome. Oddly, there are no big action scenes, but that's mostly made up for by sequences of much pomp (the sacrifices, the big feast at the end). The sets and costumes are also grand, and the narrative remains clear throughout. The acting is above average for the genre: Tryon (pictured at left) is quite good as Mahlon and his presence is missed in the second half. Whitman, his replacement as leading man, is good but not as personable. Israeli actress Eden is lovely but not the most expressive person—Ruth is at the center of the film but doesn't have much of a personality. I enjoyed seeing two actors I know from other indelible roles: Wood (the Reverend Mother in THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and David (Ben Stokes and his descendent the Professor on Dark Shadows). The widescreen print I saw was clean and crisp; it's also out on DVD. [Fox]

Monday, August 11, 2014

SHERLOCK HOLMES’ FATAL HOUR (1931)

aka THE SLEEPING CARDINAL

Our story begins with two plot threads that will obviously come together: 1) Someone is breaking into London bank vaults, injuring or killing the night watchmen, but no money is ever missing, and Inspector Lestrade asks for Holmes' help; 2) Ronald Adair, a British diplomat, has been cheating at cards and winning big, trying to keep up appearances after his inheritance went bust. His concerned sister, afraid he'll get in trouble if he's exposed, goes to Dr. Watson to see if Holmes can help her. We eventually see the connection: Adair is taken to a room where he is blackmailed by an underworld figure who speaks from behind a painting called The Sleeping Cardinal. The bank break-ins have involved stealing money and replacing it with counterfeit bills, then taking the real money overseas where it won't be traced. Adair, traveling with a diplomatic passport, doesn't have his luggage searched so the Voice wants him to smuggle the money out; if he refuses, he is told that his cheating ways will be exposed and he will be ruined. As Holmes delves into these cases he beings to suspect that the culprit is his old nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Arthur Wontner played Holmes is a series of 30s British B-films (I reviewed a previous film here) and is considered by some to the best movie Holmes. Wontner is fine, probably playing the character more like Doyle wrote him than most, but I still like Basil Rathbone best. One problem is that Wontner is very low-key, as is Ian Fleming as Watson. This leaves Lastrade (Phillip Hewland) to provide much of the energy. Leslie Perrins as Adair is fine, but no one else leaves much of an impression. Based loosely on two Doyle stories, "The Empty House" and "The Final Problem," this is one of the most strongly plotted of any Holmes film, and the cinematography gives the movie some atmosphere; the opening scene of the bank robbery is shot in almost total darkness with just enough glossy white light that we're confused about what's happening. Similarly, the spooky scene with the Sleeping Cardinal painting seems to have come right out of a Saturday matinee serial. Because Wontner's films are mostly in the public domain, available prints are often in poor condition, but the one I saw on Hulu Plus was in good shape. [Hulu Plus streaming]

Friday, August 08, 2014

SIMBA (1955)

This social issue/romance melodrama starts off with a bang: In rural Nairobi, an African man on a bicycle rides down the road and sees a white Englishman lying on the ground, beaten, bloodied, and moaning; we think the bicyclist will help him, but instead he kills the wounded man with a machete and rides away. We are in Kenya during the period of the Mau-Mau uprising, as loosely organized rebels against imperialism were committing acts of terror against the Europeans, and forcing other natives to either join their group or keep quiet about their plans. Alan (Dirk Bogarde) arrives in Kenya to visit his brother's farm and possibly reunite with old flame Mary (Virginia McKenna), but his brother is the man we saw killed in the opening, so Alan decides to stay and run the farm. There is little explanation of the Mau-Mau agenda; the British can't understand why even whites who are "nice" to the natives are being targeted, and they decide that even asking why would be fruitless since the Africans are basically backward children. (Of course, no one seems to realize that that very formulation is part of the problem—even the most sympathetic white characters think of their native servants as children.) Mary seems to grasp at least some of the complexities of the issues, but Alan is openly hostile to the natives, as played out in his relationship with Peter Karanja (Earl Cameron), an African doctor tortured by his being stuck in the middle, not completely trusted by his fellow natives or by many of the British. Peter's story winds up being much more compelling than the Alan/Mary romance, partly because his character is more fleshed out; he has a secret that leads to tragedy at the end. The murder scenes are surprisingly brutal for the time. Bogarde doesn't seem to be fully engaged; McKenna is OK, though occasionally she looked like Julie Andrews and I expected her to break out in song and fix everything with her drape-made wardrobe or her parrot-handle umbrella. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

CAPTAIN THUNDER (1930)

In El Paramo, a "sleepy oasis" in the middle of the Mexican badlands, a charming bandit known as El Capitan Thunder (Victor Varconi, pictured) is upset at the small reward being offered for his arrest, so he makes a promise to rob the next stagecoach—and the one thing everyone knows about Captain Thunder is that he always keeps his promises. Commandante Ruiz (Charles Judels) insists he is prepared and will stop Thunder, but when the stagecoach arrives, it has indeed been burglarized and all its passengers, including the lovely young Ynez (Fay Wray), are clad only in their underwear, having had their clothes stolen. Thunder, quite taken by Ynez, gallantly returns her clothes and discovers that she is in love with the handsome but poor Juan, although her father wants her to marry the older, nasty American rancher Morgan. Thunder winds up in a spot because of his ethics: he promises to help Ynez marry Juan—which he does by letting Juan capture him and get the reward money (which has gone up considerably since the beginning of the movie), but he has also promised Morgan a favor, and that favor winds up being to stop Ynez's marriage to Juan. Thunder's solution is ingenious (and could never have happened if this had been made a few years later under the strictures of the Production Code)—SPOILER! Immediately after Morgan and Ynez are married, while all the guests are still present, Thunder takes Morgan offscreen and shoots him dead. Now Ynez inherits his land AND gets the cute Juan. And Thunder gets away scot free.

Most critical commentary on this movie focuses on the bad sound and the performance of Varconi, a Hungarian actor who played a wide range of exotic roles. The dialogue is indeed difficult to follow at times, between the dicey recording and the exaggerated accents of several of the actors. And Varconi is not the ideal hero: at almost 40, he's a smidge old for the adventurous lead, showing signs of going to seed, and at times he seems like he's playing a supporting role. But he's game and his light touch is just right for the tone of the film—which makes the climax all the more surprising. Wray, the year before KING KONG, doesn't really stand out, thought Judels is good as the buffoonish Ruiz. Don Alverado, as Juan, was kind of a B-movie Valentino, though he never got past supporting parts. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

IF IT’S TUESDAY, THIS MUST BE BELGIUM (1969)

A World-Wind Tour bus leaves London for a 2-week trip through Europe with a bunch of American tourists. Of course, most of them are comic variations on the "Ugly American" stereotypes: Murray Hamilton is a grouser who constantly complains that things aren't like they are back home; his teenage daughter (Hilary Thompson) is looking for a cute boy to spend time with; Norman Fell's wife (Reva Rose) accidentally winds up on a different tour and he spends all his time trying to contact her; Marty Ingels takes pictures of sexy native women, intending to tell his buddies back home that he slept with all of them; Michael Constantine is a war vet revisiting old sites; Sandy Baron is looking forward to visiting relatives in Italy, unaware that they're ready to marry him off to a cousin. The main plotline involves Suzanne Pleshette, a lovely young single woman who seems vaguely dissatisfied with her fiancé; the handsome English tour guide (Ian McShane) wants to add her to his long list of erotic conquests, but through a series of comic misadventures, she remains mostly aloof until they begin to develop real feelings for each other. Then who should show up but her well-meaning but whitebread fiancé.

Having been released in 1969, this comedy is awkwardly situated between old and new; the stereotypes are obvious, much of the humor is dated, and few of the characters or situations are surprising, but with the swinging single tour guide, the movie tries to be hip, and the plotline involving the teenage daughter is totally 60s: she and the moderately cute political agitator she hooks up with (Luke Halpin, star of TV's Flipper) travel about and visit a youth hostel—in which 60s icon Donovan strums guitar and sings the gloomy, folky "Lord of the Reedy River." (He also wrote the cute title song but does not sing it.) Though the film was shot on location—Rome, Brussels, Amsterdam, Venice—it mostly has a drab TV-movie look. Some of the performances are pitched in a one-note TV way; particularly irritating are Fell, Constantine and Ingels. But the young McShane (pictured with Pleshette) is a nice surprise, and Pleshette and Baron are very good as well. Also with Peggy Cass and Mildred Natwick, both underused. Aubrey Morris, who I know as Alex's counselor in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, has a small, almost completely silent role as a man who brings an empty piece of luggage into which he puts stolen objects from each stop. Watch all the way to the credits for a final fun scene involving Morris. There are also very brief cameos from John Cassavettes, Robert Vaughan, Vittorio De Sica, and Virna Lisi, among others. Mild fun for fans of the era. [TCM]

Friday, August 01, 2014

SUMMER WITH MONIKA (1953)

Despite the "beach party" title and the brief nudity that made this a sensation in the early career of Ingmar Bergman, this is mostly a drab and downbeat study of love and lust among the young. 19-year-old Harry (Lars Ekborg) lives with his ailing father and has an unfulfilling job at a glassworks shop. At a café, he meets Monika (Harriet Andersson); they make a date to see a movie (called Song of Love) and later she announces that he may kiss her, even as she pauses to check herself out in her compact mirror. As they begin an affair, it's clear that what she knows of love she has learned from movies and songs. To escape their boring lives in Stockholm, they take Harry's father's small boat and head off to live on a lake for the summer. For a time, they live idyllically, but soon reality barges in: a jealous ex-boyfriend of Monika's shows up to make trouble, they run out of money and try to steal food, and eventually she discovers she's pregnant. In a reversal of the usual cultural narrative, it's Monika who rejects responsibility (and her relationship with Harry) and Harry who winds up taking the baby in. Considering this film's sexy reputation, this is in some ways an anti-erotic story. It manages to make romance—and sex—seem like a lot of work. Both lead actors are good—and Andersson in particular is quite attractive—and they carry the film through its ups and downs. There's about 10 seconds of female nudity, but generally an average television drama has more sexual content that this film has. Ultimately, this is a sad little movie that seems to say that we should hang onto the memories of our carefree summers while we can because they're ephemeral, and maybe bogus even while we're living them. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

THE DEMI-PARADISE (1943)

aka ADVENTURE FOR TWO

A rather weak stab at wartime propaganda, the sole purpose of this British film is to make the Russians, who were their allies at the time the film was made, seem likable. Unfortunately, the movie is too long and has a lead performance (by the normally reliable Lawrence Olivier) that belongs in a different movie. Olivier plays a Russian engineer who is sent to England in 1939 (pre-war) to oversee production of his new ice-breaker ship propeller. His first impression is that the British are a bland, depressing people. He stays with the shipbuilder's family and his harsh edges are worn off a little, largely through the development of his relationship with the shipbuilder's daughter (Penelope Ward) who falls for him. The middle third of the film is a comedy of manners as Olivier stumbles through an assortment of awkward social situations and begins charming people almost despite himself. Things peak at a historical pageant that Olivier finds to be evidence that the British are living in the past. Ward calls him out as priggish and conceited, he calls her out as hypocritical and heartless, and he goes back to Russia to keep working on the propeller, leaving things unsettled.  Two years later, with war raging and the Russians and British as allies, Olivier returns with new propeller plans and is impressed with British resolve in the face of German aggression. This time, the pageant (pictured at left) is given to raise money for Olivier's home village. Olivier changes his mind about the Brits and about Ward, though at the end of the film, he returns to Russia with their romance still up in the air.

Olivier is entertaining, but he’s a showboater here, using a comically overdone Russian accent, keeping his character at a distance from the audience, whereas the other actors are more naturalistic. Ward is vivacious but doesn’t bring much else to the role, so the romance remains tepid. In a large supporting cast, old pro character actors Margaret Rutherford and Felix Aylmer stand out, and I also liked Jack Watling as a handsome worker, comedian Leslie Hanson playing himself, and Edie Martin as an old lady who, suspicious of Olivier, gives Ward a copy of Crime and Punishment to read—during the war, she comes around to liking him (of course). Parts of this film are fun, even some of Olivier's performance, but the main problem is that, at almost two hours, it’s just too long. [TCM]

Monday, July 28, 2014

THE ANGEL LEVINE (1970)

Tailor Morris Mishkin (Zero Mostel) is at the end of his rope. An observant Jew, he thinks God has abandoned him: he's applied for welfare because of a fire at his store, his sickly wife Fanny (Ida Kaminska) has been practically on her deathbed for ages and shows no signs of getting better—or worse—and one afternoon, he witnesses a black man who has just snitched a woman's fur coat run into traffic, get hit by a car, and die. After his wife has another one of her attacks and Morris has called the doctor, he discovers the dead thief, Alexander Levine (Harry Belefonte), in his kitchen (Harry Belefonte) claiming to be an angel who is on probation and has until the next morning to help Morris regain his faith. As Levine and Morris engage in philosophical and theological debates (it turns out that Levine is a Jew), Levine also tries to re-connect with his girlfriend Sally (Gloria Foster) to show that there will be something good he's left behind before he has to leave Earth for the last time.

Though not as whimsical as THE BISHOP'S WIFE or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, this is still in the tradition of fantasy movies about angels and faith, though ultimately it has a much more ambiguous ending and a cutting edge to its philosophizing. If we see Morris as a George Bailey figure, he doesn’t get much satisfaction in the end: his wife, who rallies in the presence of Levine, has a setback after Levine leaves; his money and faith situations are not resolved, and Levine himself can't get Sally to believe that he's got a new outlook on life. The big question for most viewers will be, is Levine an angel or a con man? Many critics are unhappy about the ending, in which [spoiler] Morris looks for Levine the next morning and is startled by a single black feather which dances about in the air just above his head. My initial interpretation: Morris had earlier commented that Levine didn't have wings, and in this moment, one could assume that he did indeed earn them. But I'll admit that the logic, if you will, behind accepting that ending is unclear. Unless I missed something, Levine never transcends his thuggish earthly outlook and never really brings Morris back to his faith, though it can be argued that Morris has never completely lost it, as he wears a yarmulke and kisses the mezuzah when entering his apartment. But of course, he could be simply going through the surface motions of his religion. I embrace the ambiguity even as I share the frustration that the film violates the conventions of its genre.

This is a very stagy film, based not on a play but a short story by Bernard Malamud; most of it is set in Morris' apartment with an occasional detour outside. The direction and cinematography don't let things get too closed-in; in fact, it's in the exterior sequences where things go awry—especially in a strange scene in which Morris watches from outside a drugstore window while Levine creates a scene so he can swipe a prescription drug for Fanny that Morris can't afford. It's an important scene, showing that Levine can't seem to come up with a miracle outside of his earthly criminal ways, but it's irritating, played out in silence except for an overblown musical score. The acting, however, makes this worth seeing. Mostel downplays for perhaps the only time he ever did on screen and he creates a character we care about. Belafonte, who I don't think I’ve ever seen as an actor, does even better with the angel, a flawed, human and rather sexy angel—or an idealistic, unhappy and sexy con man. Kaminksa, so good in the Holocaust drama THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET (directed by Jan Kadar who directed this as well), is fine, as is Milo O'Shea—who usually plays Irishmen—as a Jewish doctor. Certainly not for all tastes, but a nice change of pace in the fantasy/religion realm. [TCM]

Friday, July 25, 2014

LIANE, JUNGLE GODDESS (1956)

The members of a German expedition in Africa (it's unclear what they're actually doing there) are sorry that Jacqueline, their doctor, is set to go back to Hamburg, mostly because she's the only female in the group. She has a bit of a crush on handsome, blond Thoren, but it's nasty old Keller who tries groping her. Meanwhile, Thoren is attacked by a native tribe and about to be killed when a nubile (and mostly naked) white teenage girl stops them. She seems to be the ruler of the tribe, and the next day Thoren runs into her when she swings, Tarzan-style, over a lake and drops in to bathe. Two of the other men in the expedition trap her in a net and bring her back to camp where the tribe attacks them but are driven off. She speaks no English, but when it's discovered that she is wearing a necklace with the letter "L" on it, it is eventually thought that she might be the heiress to a German shipping magnate named Amelongen—as a 2-year-old, the girl, named Liane, was lost and presumed dead in a shipwreck—so Thoren and Jacqueline take her with them to meet her grandfather and try to establish her lineage. In their way: Amelongen's slimy secretary Schöninck who is currently the heir and who tries his best to discredit Liane's claims.

This is presented as a jungle adventure, but only about the first half (or less) is set in Africa; once it gets to Hamburg, it becomes a typical "clashing heirs" melodrama, so if you're looking for a female Tarzan movie, this will disappoint you. On its initial release, this was advertised as "Adults only" material because Liane (Marion Michael) is topless for most of the African scenes. Michael is certainly attractive but it's a little disconcerting to realize that she was only 16 at the time. In most of the shots, her long hair covers her breasts, but not always. Aside from the few seconds of bare skin, and some shots of topless natives dancing, there is nothing else graphic or particularly adult about the movie. Hardy Kruger (pictured with Michael) is good as Thoren, and the only other cast member to stand out is Reggie Nalder as Schöninck, probably best known as the vampire in the TV-movie of Salem's Lot; his face, disfigured by burns, makes him perfect for the role of the almost Nazi-like sinister secretary. This was actually made and released in Germany in 1956, but wasn't issued in the States until 1959. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS (1935)

One night as the well-off Lamberts and their friends are indulging in some postprandial relaxation, a series of explosions rock the house, but it's just the experiments of eccentric uncle Hunter Hawk (Alan Mowbray, at right). Most of his relatives can barely put up with him, though his young niece Daphne, whom he lovingly calls Daffy (Peggy Shannon), admires him. As it happens, Hunter has finally finished his latest invention: a ring that can turn people to stone, and can bring stone statues to life. He proceeds to turn the whole obnoxious family to stone, except for Daphne and Meg (Florine McKinney), the gardener's flighty daughter who insists that she’s 900 years old and has a crush on Hunter. Hunter and Meg head off to the Metropolitan Museum and bring to life the statues of several Roman gods, including Bacchus, Neptune, Mercury, and the Venus de Milo, and they all head out to experience, as the title says, the night life. Of course, the gods are rambunctious and cause much trouble before order is restored (via a trick ending).

This strange little fantasy is based on a novel by Thorne Smith who wrote a series of bawdy adult fantasies in the 30s; if he's remembered today, it's because of the movie adaptation of his novel Topper with Cary Grant. This is not another TOPPER, but it is fun, and about as bawdy as the Code would allow—both Mercury and Venus are brought to life naked or nearly so, though they are both immediately covered up. I must admit that it's difficult to judge the look and style of the film because the print I saw on YouTube was very murky—supposedly the film has been restored by UCLA but it hasn't been released commercially yet—and it ran at least ten minutes shorter than the IMDb running time. For a high-B production, probably intended as a second feature, the effects were OK, though the acting was nothing special; Mowbray is usually a welcome presence in a movie's supporting cast but he makes for a drab leading man, especially when he's supposed to be the love interest of a sexy woman almost 15 years younger than him. But many of the lines are amusing, especially when delivered drily by Mowbray's butler (Gilbert Emery). When Mowbray announces that his family has turned to stone, Emery says, unflappably, "So I see, sir." The next morning, he asks, "The family—should I give them breakfast or dust them?" When a woman sees the bunch of half-clad gods entering a nightclub, she says, "That's what we get for bringing liquor back." I'd love to get a chance to see a clean print of this. Even in this print's diminished state, it's cute, clever fun. [YouTube]