Friday, August 26, 2016

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937)

Bruce Vail (Colin Clive) is a shipping magnate whose company is working on a new passenger liner named after his wife Irene (Jean Arthur). But their married life is on the rocks, to say the least: he is constantly jealous, thinking she's having affairs, and she—who is unhappily faithful to him—finally decides she wants a divorce and moves out into a hotel room. Bruce tries to put a hitch in her plans by hiring his chauffeur to go to her room and be "caught" in the act of seduction, which would pressure her to drop the divorce, but in the midst of this, a man (Charles Boyer), apparently a thief hiding on the balcony, enters the room, knocks out the chauffeur and locks Bruce in a closet. But Paul Dumond is not a thief; he was putting a passed-out friend to bed in the next room and overheard the ruckus in Irene's room, so broke in to save a damsel in distress. Paul takes Irene to the Chateau Bleu just as it's closing and sweet-talks the chef Cesare (Leo Carillo) and the band into staying open just for the two of them. It's a lovely meet-cute situation and the two fall for each other, but back in the hotel room, Bruce, thinking that Paul was Irene's lover, kills the chauffeur to put the blame on Paul, a and forces Irene to travel to New York City with him. Sure enough, she does, disappointing Paul who is actually the headwaiter at the Chateau Bleu. So what does Paul do? Of course, he and Cesare head to New York City hoping to break into the restaurant business to impress Irene who he hopes will come running back to him. However, Paul has heard nothing about the murder so is unaware that she left to save him from scrutiny. The unhappy Irene does eventually wander into Paul's restaurant, but because her husband is with her, Paul is upset. Will these two kids ever get together? Will Paul go on trial for murder?

Did I mention the Titanic-like climax, as the liner named for Irene, with Paul and Irene on board, hits an iceberg? That makes for one of the strangest scenes ever in what is essentially a romantic comedy. And this is one of the more unusual movies of its era. The plot, full of incident and unusual turns, feels fairly contemporary, as do its tonal shifts from comedy to romance to drama. The sequence of Boyer and Arthur getting to know each other is quite charming, but at various points along the way, you're not sure that the two will wind up together and/or alive, and that's unusual for a 30s romance. They make a very good screen couple, and this may be my favorite Boyer performance—I looked back at my reviews of other Boyer films and I nearly always say, "I’m not really a Boyer fan, but I liked him here," so maybe I'm actually a Boyer fan. Carillo functions as a comic relief wingman most of the time and he does a good job. Colin Clive's character is basically a one-note sociopath and it's difficult to care at all about him, or to understand the lengths he goes to in order to keep a wife who hates him. A different actor may have been able to flesh out Vail a bit, but he's really just a cardboard villain. Also with Ivan Lebedeff as the ill-fated chauffeur. [Criterion streaming]

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

DREAMBOAT (1952)

Thornton Sayre (Clifton Webb) is a mild-mannered and respected professor of English at Underhill College. However, he has a secret in his past that he has kept from his students and colleagues: years ago, he was a famous silent movie star named Bruce Blair, aka Dreamboat. But now the movies he made with his famous co-star Gloria Marlowe (Ginger Rogers) are being broadcast on television in prime time on the Exotic Perfume Hour, hosted by none other than Marlowe. His daughter Carol (Anne Francis) discovers the connection and is horrified, as is Sayre, as are his colleagues—though Dr. Coffey, the college president (Elsa Lanchester), admits privately that she's always had a crush on Dreamboat. To save his reputation, Sayre takes off to New York with his daughter to stop the show from being aired. Marlowe claims she needs the show because she's broke, but when Sayre finds out that's a lie, he files an injunction to stop his movies from airing. Meanwhile, young and handsome TV executive Bill Ainslee (Jeffrey Hunter) squires Carol around town while her dad is occupied and soon they're dating. Then Dr. Coffey shows up and puts the moves on Sayre, and when he rejects her, she fires him. In court, Sayre claims the movies have been re-edited to make him look ridiculous—which they have—and he wins the suit. But Marlowe has one last plan to set in motion…

This is a cute comedy, and especially interesting for being an early indictment of television as a conduit of idiocy, but as far as I'm concerned, there's a big obstacle to total enjoyment: Webb (who was over 60) plays his younger self in the silent movie clips, and he can't really pull off the romantic swashbuckler type. Rogers (only 40 at the time) is more believable. It's not a fatal flaw, but given that Webb actually was in a handful of silent films, it's too bad they couldn't have used actual footage of him from that era. Otherwise, Webb is very good, as is Rogers. The Francis/Hunter storyline feels tacked on, but it's pleasant to watch these two beautiful people (pictured above) go through their romantic comedy paces, mild as they are—Hunter thinks Francis is a small-town "museum" type, and she has to show him that she's not. Harmless fun. [FMC]

Thursday, August 18, 2016

THIS IS NOT A TEST (1962)

One night along a California highway, Deputy Colter is ordered to put up a roadblock. Several travelers who are stopped get annoyed until Colter tells them what's happening: martial law has been declared because nuclear missiles are headed toward the States and they happen to be in a prime target area (military technology and oil reserves). Among the inconvenienced citizens: Jacob, an old farmer, and his daughter Juney; businessman Sam and his mildly disgruntled wife Karen; young speeder Cheryl and her playboy boyfriend Joe who has finally landed some big money but now realizes he has no use for it; trucker Al and Clint, the handsome but strange guy he picked up on the road; and cleancut young Pete. Tensions ebb and flow in the group, particularly when Colter takes charge and makes Al clean out his truck so they all get inside and wait out the blast and the ensuing radioactivity. Not everyone thinks that's such a good idea so a few wind up striking out on their own. Other problems: Clint is a psychotic killer on the run and, though Colter scares him away, he hangs around in the hills near the group; Al flirts with Karen which threatens to unhinge her husband; Pete gets sweet on innocent Juney. Then there's the gang of looters who arrive just moments before the bombs are due to fall. And don't forget Karen's pet Chihuahua.

Though a micro-budget, no-star affair, this still manages to be mostly effective, as long as you're not looking for apocalyptic special effects. It's primarily a character drama and, appropriately, it proceeds on limited sets like a TV episode or, as another critic has noted, a play (it has a bit of the feel of The Petrified Forest  but set outside). The writing is good enough that I wish the acting had been better; the actors are OK but bigger talents would have added another layer of appeal to the film. Seamon Glass (at right) has the burly build and steely gaze of a highway cop, but he mostly seems to be reciting lines he just learned, though when his character stars showing signs of falling apart near the end, Glass gets a chance to shine, especially in a scene with the dog. No one in the cast was familiar to me, but mention should be made of Ron Starr (pictured above left), who makes a very effective psycho—the script hints at a Norman Bates-type of personality but he's the least developed of all the characters; Norman Winston, who gives the wronged husband a nice touch of gravitas; and Don Spurance and Aubrey Martin as the coupled-up Pete and Juney. I like the fact that several boxes of Christmas ornaments are taken out of the truck and spread about in a fatalistic stab at humor and irony. Not a bad little film, best approached as a period piece from the middle of the Cold War—though interestingly, there is absolutely no political discussion or mention of where the bombs are coming from; audiences of the time would have known there were Russian. [YouTube]

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

PLANET OF DINOSAURS (1977)

A spaceship in trouble crash lands in an ocean on a planet very much like Earth. The crew manages to swim to shore with some supplies before the ship sinks, and they discover a seemingly hospitable environment. But when Cindy tries to go swim back to the ship, she is eaten by a sea creature (as JAWS-like music plays). The remaining eight crew members hike inland to find a place to set up camp until they are rescued—which may or may not be a realistic hope as they have no way to communicate with their home base. Among the eight are: Lee, the nominal but indecisive leader; Chuck, the hunky navigator who spends almost the entire movie shirtless; Jim, the bearded lumberjackish fellow who becomes a more reliable decision-maker; and Derna, a sexy secretary. There are personal tensions, but given the title, what we really want to see are the dinosaurs. When they eventually arrive, after much tedious conversation and lots of walking and rock climbing, they are sort of worth the wait. And sort of not, depending on your tolerance for bad acting and terrible dialogue.

This movie is of a much later vintage than I usually include on this blog, but it seems part and parcel of the rash of low-budget 60s and early 70s sci-fi movies I've been watching this summer. It's very low-budget, and what money there was went to the special effects (including some nice Harryhausen-like stop-motion effects) by some men who later worked on better movies such as GREMLINS 2 and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I especially liked the little pet-sized dinosaurs, though all the effects are of higher quality than the surrounding movie. There is a great death scene involving one especially unlikable character getting speared in the chest by the horn of a Centrosaurus. Lucky for me, the undistinguished acting and bad screenplay were made tolerable by the cheesy costumes (men in jumpsuits open to the navel), porn mustaches sported by a couple of the guys (see Mike at right), and the bared chest of Chuck Pennington (as Chuck, pictured above killing one of the petlike dinos). Generally, it felt like the cast and crew were just out for a week of hiking in the hills around Los Angeles in sporty 70s duds and decided to shoot an unfinished script that the director just happened to have in his pocket. Weirdly, the whole thing has a 70s porn movie vibe to it, even though nothing remotely sexy happens—unless you count Chuck's chest, which I guess I do. I was even pleasantly distracted by Michael Thayer (as Mike) and James Whitworth (as Jim). Even Derna was played by a woman named Derna! (Whitworth went on to gain notoriety as the cannibal dad in the original THE HILLS HAVE EYES.) [Streaming]

Monday, August 15, 2016

SUSAN AND GOD (1940)

Barrie Trexel (Fredric March) is a rich but depressed alcoholic whose wife Susan (Joan Crawford) has left him for an extended tour of Europe. Her return gives him hope that she will come back to him—and their young daughter Blossom—but instead she returns full of religion, that of a specific movement headed by Millicent Wigstaff, which requires only love, and confession of sins and shortcomings. Her high society friends welcome her back and are torn between obeying her wish to be kept away from her husband, and Barrie's wish to see her. Meanwhile, Susan, filled with missionary zeal, tries to convert her friends and in the process of getting them to face up to their failings, meddles in their lives to the point of breaking up relationships. However, when it comes to facing up to her own problems, Susan is less enthusiastic and problems erupt all around.

This is an odd duck of a movie. Despite the title and the time taken up with the Wigstaff Movement, the religious content, satirical or otherwise, is minimal. The first half is built like a screwball comedy, and indeed at times the movie has the feel of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY—rich people, big houses, fancy clothes, sophisticated love lives, alcoholism, etc. Joan Crawford even seems to be imitating Katherine Hepburn for a while, though apparently she was actually channeling Gertrude Lawrence who played Susan on stage. But Susan's friends mostly vanish in the last half as the focus becomes family melodrama, and I lost interest. I don't typically find March a good comedy player and nothing he does here changes my mind. Crawford gives a busy, shrill performance, swanning about in lovely clothes but getting on my nerves—of course, her character is supposed to be unlikable, but I also found her unpleasant, and wondered why the hell her husband wanted to get her back. The supporting cast is good: Nigel Bruce is a wealthy middle-aged man recently married to aspiring actress Rita Hayworth, who is carrying on an affair with handsome actor John Carroll; Rose Hobart and Bruce Cabot are a couple whom Crawford insists are wrong for each other; Ruth Hussey is especially good as a family friend who has nursed a long-time crush on March. At two hours, this goes on far too long to a predictable, if unlikely, happy-ish ending. Pictured from left: Crawfored, Carroll, Cabot and Hayworth. [TCM]

Friday, August 12, 2016

MISS JULIE (1951)

On the night of a Swedish Midsummer's Eve festival, Count Carl's servant Jean (Alf Palme) returns to the estate after dropping the Count off at another party. Julie (Anita Bjork), the Count's restless daughter, who has just told off her supposed fiancé, is slumming with the common folk at the party and flirtatiously tries to get Jean to dance with her, despite knowing that he is engaged to Kristin, the cook. As the two parry back and forth for the rest of the night, we get several flashbacks showing aspects of their relationship over the years. Jean, as a young boy, sneaks into the house to see her, then winds up literally in shit when he hides in an outhouse. Years later, Julie asks her fiancé to wade out in a pond and get her a water lily; when he refuses, Jean does it instead. We also get some insight into Julie's upbringing: her mother, Berta, was the Count's mistress and rebelled against traditional gender roles, but eventually went mad and, on a past Midsummer's Eve, burned the house down. Julie promised her mother not to let men enslave her, and tells Jean, "I'd like to see your whole sex awash in blood." Nevertheless, Jean has plans to leave and run a hotel, and Julie steals money from her father so she can run away with him. Still, master and servant mindsets are hard to change, and the best laid plans of mice and men and unstable women…

This beautifully shot and acted film is based on a well-known play by August Strindberg, but you'd never guess it from the inventive, fluid opening-up the material has received from director Alf Sjoberg and cinematographer Goran Strindberg; visually, this movie kept reminding me of CITIZEN KANE which is a high compliment. The action, as in the play, takes place over an evening and a morning, but the constant flashbacks never allow the narrative to bog down and the camera never lets the pace flag. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Ingmar Bergman was influenced by Sjoberg, and this film in particular. Bjork seems just a tad too old for the part, but she's very good, and Palme (picuted with Bjork) is even better, though his character is a bit perplexing in terms of intention and motivation. The young Max von Sydow has a small role as a mostly mute observer. Highly recommended. [TCM]

Thursday, August 11, 2016

SHE'S BACK ON BROADWAY (1953)

Virginia Mayo is a movie star who feels washed up in Hollywood. Her agent (Larry Keating) talks her into heading back to Broadway to star in a new musical. The catch: she would be working with director Steve Cochran, the man who directed her breakout show years ago; the two were lovers and he never forgave her for leaving both him and the hit show for a movie contract. Cochran resists using Mayo until his producer (Frank Lovejoy) tells him that with her name attached to the project, financing for the show has come pouring in. Cochran reluctantly agrees to give her the role and for a while, things run smoothly, but when he discovers that her agent is the main backer, he assumes the whole thing is a set-up for Mayo to make a big splash, then leave the show like she did before. He starts treating her harshly at rehearsals; she storms off stage and he quits. Cochran soon realizes that he's getting bad publicity, and he and Mayo reconcile professionally and go on with the show. Though there still seems to be an attraction between them, Cochran has a lover (Patrice Wymore), a dancer in the show—their relationship is made quite clear, somewhat surprisingly for a Production Code movie—and that triangle combined with, sure enough, a Hollywood offer after the New Haven previews, may wind up scuttling both the show and the re-warmed affair.

Despite the title and the presence of the fairly lightweight actress Virginia Mayo, this isn't a musical comedy. There are some songs, all in the context of the show being rehearsed, and most of the numbers are in fact seen in rehearsal form rather than as staged songs—oddly, the full-blown production number "Breakfast in Bed" isn't as fun as the rehearsal numbers. As far as tone, it's basically a fairly serious melodrama done with a light but not comic touch. The film begins with Mayo feeling depressed over the suicide of an actress very much like her. The scenes between Mayo and Cochran are well-played and serious. There isn't real comic relief, except for the presence of one poor untalented schmoe who keeps auditioning for a part and is finally given a job as a stage assistant. The problem is that it never feels like there's much at stake here. The movie feels uneasily stuck between being a show-biz comedy like THE BAND WAGON and being a show-biz drama like THE COUNTRY GIRL. For me, Cochran (pictured at right) can do no wrong, and his solid performance is like a stepping stone to Roy Scheider's portrayal of a fictionalized Bob Fosse in ALL THAT JAZZ. Speaking of which, Fosse may have seen the audition scene early in this film, as his great "On Broadway" number in JAZZ seems to have been inspired by it. Also with the always fun Gene Nelson as Mayo’s leading man (Nelson and Mayo are pictured above), and a spectacular two-man dance team of Steve Condos and Jerry Brandow whose tap routine is the musical highlight of the film. Worth seeing if you don't expect a frothy comedy. [TCM]

Monday, August 08, 2016

ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973)

John Wintergreen (Robert Blake, at left) is an Arizona motorcycle cop, assigned to a deep desert area, who desperately wants to become a homicide detective. He gets his chance when an old man is found dead in his isolated shack; it looks like an elaborate suicide but John picks up on a couple of clues that would indicate it was actually murder, so Detective Poole (Mitchell Ryan) lets him assist on the case. As it's the early 70s, a member of a nearby hippie commune comes under suspicion, and Poole uses unnecessarily brutal questioning tactics to get information, but Wintergreen sees himself as an unfailingly fair and moral man—when he stops someone for speeding and it turns out to be a Tucson cop, he gives the guy a ticket anyway—and he's upset with Poole's ways. Eventually, Wintergreen figures out who the real killer is, though his discomfort in trying to fit in with the detectives puts him back out on his motorcycle, with a tragic result.

This cult film is the only movie directed by James William Guercio, better known as the producer of most of Chicago's big hits in the 70s. On release, some critics labeled this film "fascist," I'm guessing because it was telling a policeman's story sympathetically—and also because of the visual fetishization of the hyper-masculine leather uniforms and motorcycles. In an early scene, John and his fellow cop Zipper (Billy Green Bush, pictured at right) use an Easy Rider poster for target practice, which could indicate anti-counterculture feelings, to say the least. However, whatever his politics, John wants to be fair and do the right thing. Both cops and hippies come in for criticism in this film, and today it doesn't seem quite as politically charged as it did then. Blake is excellent, making Wintergreen a round character and resisting the temptation to play his as a naïf or baboon. Ryan is fine, as is Elisha Cook as the nutty old guy who stumbles on the death scene. Jeannine Riley, best known for roles on TVs Petticoat Junction and Hee-Haw, is good in the small but important role of John's occasional lover. However, Billy Green Bush practically steals the movie with his tragicomic antics as John's tightly wound cop buddy—he's not comic relief but he does bring an interesting sense of tension (sometimes light, sometime dark) to the film. Pay attention to the hippie commune scene and you'll see some members of Chicago who each have a couple lines of dialogue, and a quick glimpse of Nick Nolte who has no lines. The exteriors, shot in Arizona and Utah by Conrad Hall, are gorgeous, and the interiors bring to mind film noir. An interesting film which deserves a wider audience. [DVD]

Friday, August 05, 2016

THE DAMNED (1947)

aka LES MAUDITS
With the end of the war in sight, a group of Nazis and collaborators leave Norway in a submarine headed for South America. Among the passengers: a Nazi general, an Italian industrialist, his wife Hilde (who is also, fairly obviously the general's mistress), an academic, his teenage daughter, and a reporter. Barely out of port, the ship is hit by depth charges and Hilde is knocked unconscious. A Nazi named Forster, who still holds out hope for "victory" in a larger sense, wants to get rid of her as dead weight, but the general instead threatens to get rid of Willy, Forster's thug buddy—or is he more than that to Forster? With tensions established, the sub stops at a port town in France and a doctor named Guilbert is shanghaied to attend to Hilde. As the trip continues, word comes that Hitler has committed suicide—not good news for most on the sub—and Guilbert does what he can to sow dissent among the Nazis and enlists the help of the radio operator to try and figure out a way to escape. Something of a forerunner to DAS BOOT, at least in terms of look and feel, this is a small gem of claustrophobic tension, well acted and involving, leading to an exciting climactic encounter with a cargo ship. Most of the actors weren't familiar to me (except Marcel Dalio in a cameo as a South American agent) but they’re all fine, though the standout is Henri Vidal (pictured) as the doctor. [DVD]

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

THE ROADHOUSE MURDER (1932)

Eric Linden is a cub reporter at the New York Star who is desperate to make a name for himself. He thinks he has a line on some diamond smugglers and gets the police to break into an apartment, but the occupant is a young naked woman in a bathtub; the jewels she has are legitimately hers—and they were a gift from the Star's publisher. Frustrated and close to getting fired, Linden takes his girl (Dorothy Jordan), the police commissioner’s daughter, on a moonlight drive in his convertible to vent. When it starts pouring down rain, they take refuge at a small roadside inn run by an unfriendly clerk. In the middle of the night, Bruce Cabot and Phyllis Clare break in to steal jewels from another guest. They kill the guest and the clerk, but Linden and Jordan see them escape, and Clare even leaves behind her purse.

Up to now, this has been a decent B-movie crime story. But then it all goes to hell; instead of calling the police, telling their story and giving them the purse, Linden gets the bright idea of leaving fake evidence to make it look like he committed the murders. He figures he'll go on the run, get caught, write a series of articles about his ordeal, than have Clare bring the purse forward before he gets in too deep. Yeah, what the hell could go wrong with that? He does make headlines with a series of articles called "Diary of a Hunted Man," but once he gets caught and put on trial, we know the purse is going to go missing and his life will be in danger. I've always liked Linden in his 30s young pup roles (BIG CITY BLUES, FLYING DEVILS) but even he can’t quite make his character credible. Jordan is OK and there is a good supporting cast including Cabot, Roscoe Karns (pictured to the left of Linden) as Linden's boss, and Gustav von Seyffertitz as the innkeeper. [TCM]