Friday, December 19, 2014

ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS (1966)

Scientist Anthony Huston warns John Agar away from launching a laser satellite, saying that a previous attempt was destroyed by unknown forces, but the launch goes off without a hitch. Months later, over dinner at Huston's (very cheap Ed-Woodish) house, Huston tells Agar that he's been getting strange transmissions through his stereo unit that he insists are from an intelligent being from Venus, though he can't quite understand what they say. That evening, the satellite leaves its orbit and apparently crashes to earth, though no one knows where. The next day, all power (cars, lawn mowers, etc.) in the area dies, except at Huston's house. Huston tells Agar that Zontar, the Venusian life form he was listening to, rode the satellite down, is hiding in a nearby cave, and is responsible for the power outage. Huston is convinced that Zontar will bring a utopian age to Earth, but Agar thinks otherwise, and sure enough, soon Zontar has sent injectapods, bat-like, lobster-shaped flying creatures, out to attack people in the neck and control them.  Can Agar talk Huston into stopping Zontar before he goes too far?

This micro-budgeted film was produced to pad out a package of films that American International sold to television in the mid-60s. Based on—actually a scene-by-scene remake of—Roger Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, with Peter Graves in the hero role, this adds nothing to the original, except perhaps a slightly better looking title monster: a big, gooey, three-eyed standing-up bat creature (pictured). The injectapods are laughable (on wires as plain as the daylight that they fly in), as are most of the performances. There's a cheap attempt at humor when we see two military policemen getting their jollies looking at View Master slides of scantily-clothed women. Despite the promise of the campy-fun title, this is not fun at all. [DVD]

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

MY BLOOD RUNS COLD (1965)

This thriller has a plot right out of Dark Shadows, and the short pre-credit sequence of a woman in colonial-era garb running away from a house while thunderclouds collect just heightens that comparison—though the movie was made a year before Dark Shadows, so it's probably just intended to conjure up a Gothic tone. The movie proper begins with young sexy Julie Merriday (Joey Heatherton) recklessly speeding along in her fancy sports car with her boyfriend Harry (Nicolas Coster) warning her to be more careful. As she passes a truck, she accidentally runs motorcyclist Ben Gunther (Troy Donahue) off the road. They stop to attend to him and take him back to her fathe'’s mansion. Ben seems OK, but he calls Julie "Barbara" and insists he knows her, believing that she is the reincarnation of her great-grandmother and he, in a past life, was her lover. Julie's Aunt Sarah (Jeanette Nolan) confirms that Barbara did have an affair with a Ben Gunther, resulting in an illegitimate child. Julie starts to believe Ben's story and the two begin a dalliance, leaving Harry out in the cold. But there is more to Ben than meets the eye…

William Conrad, of TV's Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, directed three thrillers for Warner Bros. in 1965: BRAINSTORM, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE and this one. All are workmanlike and watchable, but they are also predictable and very much of their era, generally feature stars and supporting players from television, and though they generally look glossy enough, they were probably made on a relatively low budget. The surprise here for me was how good Heatherton was; granted, I kept thinking she was Connie Stevens—who is the star of GUILLOTINE—but still, she did a fine job as the sexy damsel who may or may not be in distress. Donahue is, as usual, attractive but wooden, though that element serves him well playing a character who may or may not be evil and/or insane. Coster, mostly known as a soap opera actor, is good and his quirky smile/sneer serves him well. Barry Sullivan barely registers as the rich father, and Howard McNear (Floyd the barber on Andy Griffith) has a cameo. Bland but watchable. I've got TWO ON A GUILLOTINE on the shelf for a future viewing. [Warner Archive Instant]

Monday, December 15, 2014

NIGHT SPOT (1938)

This seemingly routine B-movie, a comic crime story, has a big plus in the chemistry of its leading men. Marge (Joan Woodbury) works at an insurance company but has come to the Royale nightclub to audition for a singing job. She's mistaken for a shady dame who had an appointment with the boss, Marty Davis, and is shown into his office. Seated and hidden from view, she witnesses a crook named Buzz break in and shoot Davis. Davis survives but Buzz is found dead shortly after. Thinking that Marge is not as innocent as she claims, and suspecting that Davis is running a jewel theft ring, the police chief assigns two members of the police department band, Cooper (Allan Lane) and Riley (Gordon Jones), to infiltrate the Royale's house band. The situation: many of the elites who come to the club have wound up getting their valuables stolen. It turns out that the tables in the club are bugged, and Davis listens in on conversations to learn when the jewels will be unguarded. In the meantime, Davis, afraid that his enemies will get to Marge, his alibi in the murder of Buzz, has his bumbling Greek henchman Gashouse (Harry Parke aka Parkyakarkus) guard her. Further, both Cooper and Riley start to fall for Marge.

For a one-hour movie, a lot of things happen here, so the pace is relatively frantic, which is fine as the tone is light. Parkyakarkus, father of Albert Brooks, is first billed and he's basically a dialect comic who keeps messing up the language, as in, "I resemble that remark." In the beginning, his comic relief is a pain in the ass since I found the plot and other actors fairly interesting, but in the last half, his role diminishes greatly. Lee Patrick plays Marge's roommate, and Jack Carson and Cecil Kellaway have small roles. B-starlet Woodbury is serviceable, but Jones and Lane (pictured above) work very well together, and make the film worth seeing. They have an easy camaraderie and never fall into straight man/funny man roles—they can both be both. A breezy little gem; it's a shame that Lane (who had a long career as Ricky Lane in B-westerns) and Jones (who went on to play the Green Hornet in a 1940 serial) weren't paired up for more of these. [TCM]

Friday, December 12, 2014

GOLD FOR THE CAESARS (1964)

Part of the charm of the sword-and-sandal epics of the 60s is the low budget of most of them; granted, they did often look cheap and didn't have the best actors, but they often made up for that with a scrappy energy and an anything-goes tone. This one was partially backed by MGM; it has a bigger budget, a stronger screenplay, a name star, and glossy sets & costumes, but it's rather lackluster and not all that fun. In Spain at the end of the first century, the occupying Romans, under Maximus, are building a bridge and holding off the barbarian Celts of the north. Centurion Rufus (Ron Randell) is the overseer, and Lacer (Jeffrey Hunter), a former slave, is the architect. Word reaches Maximus (Massimo Girotti) that the emperor is dying, and if Maximus can head north and mine gold from Celt territory to send to fill up Rome's empty coffers, he would be named Emperor. An uneasy truce is reached with the Celts and Lacer is sent with some slaves to get the gold, but Maximus gets restless, breaks the truce, and enters Celt territory with his army, leading to an all-out battle. This isn't a complete slog: the young and beautiful Jeffrey Hunter (pictured) is effective as the slave hero—and even when he's just standing around, there enough close-ups of that face to make a fan swoon; Randell is suitable as Hunter's chief antagonist; the final battle—which involves the destruction of a dam—and an earlier earthquake sequence are pulled off fairly well; I also liked Giulio Bosetti as Scipio. But Hunter's love interest, Mylene Demongeot, is bland, and Girotti as Maximus seems to be holding back a bit. Much of the film was shot on natural locations, but parts of the final battle were shot on sets with very obvious painted backdrops—maybe they were running out of money by the end. [DVD]

Thursday, December 11, 2014

REDEMPTION (1930)

On the road to Moscow, Lisa (Eleanor Boardman) stops and has her fortune read by gypsies; she is told she will marry a dark man, but oddly, her fiancé Victor (Conrad Nagel) is light. When handsome Fedya (John Gilbert), a casual acquaintance of Victor's, arrives on the scene, he is struck by Boardman's beauty. She calls him a barbarian, and he replies that trying to change people is foolish, but if anyone could change him, it would be her. The two begin meeting on the sly and eventually get married, but it turns out that Lisa can't change his ways after all; even though they have a son, Fedya gets bored and loses all his money gambling. He goes bankrupt, Victor buys his estate at auction, and Fedya leaves Lisa. In Samarkand, Fedya lives with gypsies and falls in love with the sexy singing girl Masha (Renée Adoré). In order to free Lisa to marry her old flame Victor, Fedya sends a suicide note to her, so he can be declared legally dead, then runs off with Masha. After Lisa marries Victor, Fedya's plot is threatened with exposure by a blackmailer, leaving Fedya thinking: do I let my existence come to light and ruin Lisa and Victor's lives, or do I actually kill myself?

This is one of silent star John Gilbert's first talkies and it was a notorious bomb. It's often claimed that Gilbert's voice was his downfall, being too high and squeaky for his dark, masculine looks, but in this case, the problem is his silly, overly melodramatic dialogue and the schizophrenic style of the movie; the direction and acting are both stuck in a limbo between silent (florid visual style, exaggerated gestures) and early sound (static camerawork, subtle acting). Sadly, for much of the movie, Gilbert is on the verge of being laughable, though by the end, when Fedya is constantly drunk and sick, Gilbert's performance becomes more naturalistic and achieves some power. To be fair, no one else is particularly good in this, either, except perhaps Adoré. It’s not exactly a terrible movie—it's certainly worth seeing for fans of the actors or the era—but it won’t win Gilbert any converts. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

MALTA STORY (1953)

In 1942, the Mediterranean island of Malta, of great strategic importance to the British, is under constant attack by the Germans. Peter (Alec Guinness), an aerial photographer pilot for the RAF on his way to Cairo, is waylaid on Malta and is asked to stay on under Commander Frank (Jack Hawkins). On his first photo mission, he ends up going 90 miles off course because he thinks he can get some important pictures, but he gets in trouble for using up fuel which is in short supply because the Germans have been attacking Allied ships, causing problems not only for the military but also food shortages for the locals. Soon Peter hits it off with a local woman named Maria (Muriel Pavlow). Her mother (Flora Robson) is upset because her son (Nigel Stock) is suspected of espionage for the Axis. There's another boy/girl plot involving a British officer (Anthony Steel, pictured at left with Guinness) and his fiancée (Renee Asherson), but the focus generally remains on the attempts to keep the Germans away and on the sacrifices that the local populace has to make.

This is the kind of WWII flag-waving propaganda film that was popular during wartime—except it was made eight years after the war. My untested theory is that most WWII movies made in the 50s were either star vehicles (John Wayne), big-budget affairs (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI), or scrappy little action B-films (THE TANKS ARE COMING). This British film doesn't fit any of those categories, instead feeling like the kind of movie made during the war specifically to keep up the homefront spirit (THE IMMORTAL BATTALION, THE LION HAS WINGS). The characters are not particularly well-developed and the budget is low, with little compelling action presented, so I'm not sure why this was made except to bring to light a part of the war that the British perhaps hadn't heard much about. Guinness is very low-key which may have been an acting or directing choice, but I wound up not caring much about his character, and the fact that he vanishes from the narrative for a good chunk of time in the middle doesn't help. Hawkins and Steel are much better, as is Robson in just a couple of short scenes. Nigel Stock (pictured at right) is quietly effective as Robson's traitorous son. It was interesting to learn (in that fictionalized movie way) about the siege of Malta, but somewhere a better movie is waiting to be made about it. [Netflix streaming]

Friday, December 05, 2014

THE FLIGHT THAT DISAPPEARED (1961)

A plane takes off on a direct flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC. One of the stewardesses is engaged to the co-pilot; the pilot is upset that he's still flying a prop plane, but he's been promised that his next plane will be a jet. On board is Dr. Morris (Dayton Lummis), a nuclear scientist and inventor of a bomb that will be able to destroy an entire country at once. With him is his assistant Marcia Paxton (Paula Raymond), a math genius, and Tom Endicott (Craig Hill), a rocket expert. All three have been summoned to Washington for a secret meeting about the new bomb. At one point, a nervous man named Walter approaches Morris and encourages him to use his bomb to wipe out our enemies (by which he presumably means Russia). Halfway through the flight, the plane suddenly begins ascending as though caught in an updraft, and the pilots can't stop it. They lose radio contact and vanish from ground radar, and soon the oxygen is so thin, everyone passes out—except for Walter who leaps from the plane in panic. Eventually, Morris, Tom and Paula (pictured at right) awaken, realize the plane has stopped, and discover they are in a foggy realm beyond their reality. A figure called the Examiner tells them they are on trial, being judged by future generations whose existence is threatened by this new bomb.

By this time, I flashed on the notoriously bad movie THE STORY OF MANKIND, the entirety of which is such a trial involving mankind and a new bomb, with the whole history of humanity playing out over the course of the film. Here, the trial just takes a few minutes. I won't spoil the ending, which, if you've seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, you'll figure out anyway, but it manages to be both mishandled and satisfying. Actually, like many a B-movie from the 40s and 50s, this is best approached as a TV episode. The film is widescreen but has a bland TV aesthetic and very little in the way of thrills or special effects; still, at 70 minutes, it's watchable. The acting is 50s TV-style, though leading man Craig Hill comes through with a solid performance that is neither as bland as one might expect nor as intense as one might fear. The odd thing about the Examiner's argument is that the blame is placed here not so much on politicians or the military, but on the idea people, the scientists. More imagination could have helped the fantasy segment near the end, but the Examiner and the jury are informally dressed as average earthlings, and the set is just rocks and fog. The Examiner is played by Gregory Morton, whom I recognized as the Russian conductor in BYE BYE BIRDIE. Overall, a predictable novelty. [Netflix streaming]

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (1947)

Oscar Wilde's gift was his wit: his funny, sarcastic, ironic comments on life by which he practically invented the sensibility known as camp. However, I've always found his plays, with their somewhat tortured plots, difficult to sit through. Mainly they seem to be excuses for him to provide his humorous asides. I saw a production of Lady Windermere's Fan at the Shaw Festival a couple of summers ago and, though there was some fun to be had following the domestic melodrama plot machinations, mostly the audience seemed to be waiting for the biting bon mots, which were sprinkled liberally throughout. In this Wilde adaptation, politician Hugh Williams is about to go before Parliament and put a stop to an Argentinean canal project that he knows is a boondoggle. But the night before his appearance, a shady woman from his past (Paulette Goddard) shows up at a grand party to blackmail him: she has a financial interest in the scheme and she has evidence that, early in his career, he engaged in questionable practices to get ahead, so she threatens to go public with the information unless he agrees to back the canal. His wife (Diana Wynyard) is upset but wants him to do the right thing. Meanwhile, a young man-about-town (Michael Wilding) tries to intercede for Williams—he knows a nasty little secret about Goddard that he tries to use to stop her plans. But will Goddard wind up getting the best of both men?

The main reason to watch this is for its look—beautiful Technicolor explodes across the screen in every scene. The women wear gauzy rainbows of pastel colors and the backgrounds are full of beautiful appointments, paintings, and furniture. The plot is drudgery and the acting is weak, especially from Goddard who sticks out like a sore, overacting thumb against the dull underacting of Williams and Wynyard as his wife. The bright spots are Wilding, handsome and charming as the chief spouter of witty epigrams (along with Goddard), and a very young Glynis Johns (pictured) as the looker who is chasing after Wilding and who jokingly spars with Wilding's father, C. Aubrey Smith, over Wilding's playboy nature. Very nice to look at, less pleasant to pay attention to. [TCM]

Monday, December 01, 2014

THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN (1957)

This version of the old folktale is a musical done for 50s television, but don't let that scare you away. It has its faults, including a couple too many songs and a happy ending that takes some of the wind out of what has come before, but mostly it works surprisingly well, and is worth at least one viewing if only as a novelty. The town of Hamelin is run with an iron fist by the Mayor (Claude Rains) and his board of counselors. Their current project is the building of a large clocktower in order to win a competition for Royal Clockmaker to the King; the mayor is not only making everyone work long hours on the tower, he's even enlisting the children to help, telling them there is no time for schooling or fun. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, a little lame boy named Paul sees something very strange: a piper dressed in multicolored garb (Van Johnson, pictured) comes slithering down a tree like a snake, performs magic, like making flowers grow out of mud and conjuring a rainbow in the air, then spins like a dervish and vanishes.

The Mayor is happy to hear that their rival town in the clock competition, Hamelout, has been flooded. The people ask for help, especially for the care of their children, but the Mayor refuses. However, a side effect of the flooding is that Hamelin becomes infested with rats escaping Hamelout. The townsfolk demand the Mayor do something, and who should show up but the Pied Piper (whose merry music can be heard by the children but not the adults), offering his services to get rid of the rats and asking in return 50,000 guilders, which is the town's entire treasury. Since the Mayor wants to melt most of that down to make gold chimes for the clock, he promises the Piper the money but has no intention of paying him. That night, the Piper plays a sinister-sounding tune—which in this case can be heard by the adults but not the children—and the rats follow him to the river where they drown. When the Mayor refuses to pay (amusingly citing labyrinthe legal language from a long, long scroll of a contract), the Piper plays a tune that only the children can hear, and they follow him out of town into a mountain cliff which splits open to reveal a magical land. The townspeople try to get the kids back but cannot open the cliff. Most versions of the tale end here, but in this one, the Mayor is taught a valuable lesson about hospitality and the Piper brings the children back when the Mayor agrees to help the town of Hamelout.

There is more to the story, including a major plotline that features Van Johnson as the friendly schoolteacher Truson (who, because of his sympathy with the children, can hear the same music they hear) and Lori Nelson as Mara, the Mayor's daughter who loves Truson against her father's wishes. Jim Backus appears as the King's emissary, in town to judge the clock contest, and 50s singing star Kay Starr has a cameo as a sorrowful mother looking in vain for her son on the night of their disappearance. Johnson also plays the Piper, and does a fine job in both parts. Doodles Weaver and Stanley Adams (pictured with Rains) provide comic relief as two of the Mayor's counselors. I haven't yet mentioned that: 1) all the songs use music by Edward Grieg, mostly from Peer Gynt, with "In the Hall of the Mountain King" used effectively as the song that catches the rats, and 2) all the dialogue is in rhyme. I thought that would bother me, but I got used to it fairly quickly. I was particularly impressed with Rains, who could have easily done his role in his sleep, but who really gives his all, even when has to sing—and he and his counselors have one of the best numbers, "Prestige." At 90 minutes, it feels a little padded in places, especially the numbers concerned with the romance between Truson and Mara. But it's colorful and though a bit stagy, has a more theatrical than TV-movie feel. Good holiday viewing, though I don't know how today's kids would take to it. [YouTube/DVD]

Friday, November 28, 2014

VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961)

In 19th century Algeria, two men (Cesare Danova and Sean McClory) are about to engage in a duel over a woman when what seems to be a huge storm comes rolling in with lots of thunder and wind and ground upheaval. When things calm down, they realize that a comet swept past the earth and somehow they wound up on the comet's surface. (Yeah, that's a big "What?" and if you can't get past that, quit reading now.) It is inhabited by menacing Neanderthals and dinosaurs and some scary folks who look like Morlocks from The Time Machine movie (pictured at left), and it's not long before the two men find they must make peace and work together to survive. Soon they find tribes of slightly more civilized cave people, and they theorize that the comet somehow snatched up humans, animals, and a bit of atmosphere from a previous close brush with Earth. Both men wind up with sweethearts (Joan Staley and Danielle De Metz), endure a volcano, escape from marauding dinosaurs and giant spiders, and get the two tribes to get along together. This film seems to be notorious for men of a certain age because during an underwater swimming scene, you see quite a bit of Joan Staley's breasts as they threaten to pop right out of her cavegirl bikini. The volcano effects are pretty good, but there's little else here to recommend. Danova tries hard, but McClory lets him down, and the two have no chemistry. Most of the dinosaur effects are film clips borrowed from ONE MILLION B.C.—the lizards with fins taped to their back. Based loosely on Jules Verne's novel Off on a Comet. [TCM]