Tuesday, July 26, 2016

THE SNAKE WOMAN (1961)

We open with a bucolic scene in 1890 Northumberland of a piping shepherd. But elsewhere in the same village, a woman is writhing in discomfort while her husband, Dr. Adderson, milks snake venom in order to give her injections he is convinced will cure her "sick mind." Unfortunately, she is pregnant and goes through a very painful delivery just after she has gotten another injection. The mother dies and Aggie, the eccentric midwife, thinks the infant girl is dead as well, as she is born cold, but soon the child begins breathing and when the midwife sees that she has no eyelids, she proclaims her the devil's offspring and tries to kill her. Adderson saves the child and gives her to Dr. Murton who leaves it with the piping shepherd we saw earlier. Aggie goes to round up some torch-wielding villagers to destroy Adderson's house and Adderson dies at the hands, er, teeth, of his snakes. Twenty years later, Murton returns to the village and learns the strange girl, named Atheris (oddly, also the name of a genus of poisonous snake) by the shepherd, has vanished and villagers are being found dead of snakebites; they specifically appear to be from a cobra which is not native to Northumberland. When Prentice, a Scotland Yard man, comes to investigate, he meets the mysterious Atheris wandering the moors, and finds it strange that she seems attracted to a snake-chamer's flute he happens to be playing. Could this wild child be the cause of the recent snakebite deaths?

This feels like a Hammer movie but without the style or atmosphere. It’s not a bad movie (one critic called it totally inept which it certainly is not—though it is, considering its short 70 minute running time, a bit of a slog at times), but it will disappoint viewers drawn in by the lurid promise of the title. Yes, Atheris can turn into a snake, but we figure that out very early on. This is not a special effects movie, but given its title, it's a letdown that we don’t see at least some graphic scenes of transformation or blood. Elsie Wagstaff steals the movie as the crazy midwife who is into voodoo and who's shown to be not so crazy after all. Susan Travers is attractive and spooky as Atheris, and John McCarthy (pictured with Travers) is so-so as the Scotland Yard hero. This is stronger on mood than action or character development, and even the mood is sustained only off-and-on. [Amazon]

Monday, July 25, 2016

ASSIGNMENT OUTER SPACE (1960)

It's the year 2116 and Ray Peterson, star reporter for the Interplanetary Chronicle of New York, has been assigned to get a story about Space Station ZX34. On the transport ship taking him to ZX34, he bonds with the pilot, Al, who nicknames the young man "Leech" and lets him know that he will be seen as a "parasite" by the cosmonauts (called this though everyone seems to be American, or at least English speaking). Sure enough, Ray immediately pisses off Commander George with his cocky attitude. On a refueling spacewalk, Ray saves the life of Cosmonaut Y13, but also causes the loss of a large amount of the precious fuel (hydrazine), so he's in Dutch even more. Turns out Y13 is a lovely young woman named Lucy, but she's also George’s girlfriend—love triangle, anyone? George is also acting a little strange, and soon we find out why; their mission has changed. Rocketship A2 has malfunctioned: communications are down, the crew is dead, it's out of control and speeding towards Earth, and its photonic energy source will cause it to blow up our planet.

This fairly obscure film is hailed by some critics as the forerunner of the 60s Italian sci-fi movie craze, led by director Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony Dawson) who made this film and the later, better known WILD, WILD PLANET among others. This is harder to slog through than his mid-60s movies, partly because this is less stylish and a lot less campy fun. It takes itself seriously but would have aged better if it had been a little silly. Actually, there are a couple of nicely campy moments. When Lucy has a heart-to-heart talk with George, moments before the possible space apocalypse, about her love for Ray, she says, "I love him, George. But love has no meaning now, George." There's something about her flat delivery and the repetition of George's name that made me crack up, but I don't think I was supposed to. Another fun scene is when Ray reminds Lucy that, yes, the date is officially Earth Day 359 but it's also Christmas—and then "Deck the Halls" plays on the soundtrack.  Of course, these are the kinds of things that make a movie an unintentional camp classic, but there's not enough of these scenes to go round, though some may find the terrible special effects worth a laugh or two.

Rik Van Nutter is fairly unlikable as the hero Ray, David Montresor is one-note as George, and Gaby Farinon is bland as Lucy. That leaves the actor with the unlikely name Archie Savage as Al—perhaps the first black character in Movieland outer space—as the saving grace of the cast. There are some plot loopholes that left me mystified, the biggest being that, in the beginning, it is stated that Ray is heading to Galaxy M-12, but they actually appear to have never left our solar system. Or maybe I was confused by the bad dubbing. The print I saw on Amazon streaming was in terrible shape; worst of all was the badly faded color, leaving the movie in shades of green and purple. This is a little fun, but I can only recommend it to die-hard 60s SF fans. Aka SPACE MEN. [Amazon]

Friday, July 22, 2016

THE BRONZE BUCKAROO (1939)

Bob Blake (Herb Jeffries), singing "I’m a Happy Cowboy," and his band of merry cowboys head to the Joe Jackson ranch. Joe and his dad have been pressured to sell their ranch to Buck Thorn, but they've refused. Joe's dad disappeared and was later found dead; now Joe has vanished as well, and his sister Betty is worried. At Joe's ranch, the slightly ditzy Dusty is befuddled by a talking mule that ranch hand Slim owns—what Dusty doesn't know, but eventually figures out, is that Slim is using ventriloquism to make the mule talk. Dusty and another of Bob's buddies mosey into town and stop at the saloon, hoping to get some information about Joe. After the entire bar of poker players sings "Almost Time for Roundup," the thuggish Pete shoots a cheating player dead and then proceeds to humiliate poor old Dusty by making him smoke four cigars at once. Bob comes to his rescue, and that sets the pace for the rest of the plot: people get in trouble and Bob saves the day. At one point, poor Dusty loses all his clothes in a poker game and even Bob can't help him out. It turns out that Buck knows there's gold on Joe's land and he has kidnapped Joe in order to get his land. At the climactic showdown, Slim's ventriloquism trick comes in handy for the good guys.

This B-western starring a singing cowboy is very much like any other of the era except it's got an all-black cast and, as a "race film," was produced on a much lower budget than even the mainstream Hollywood B-movies of the era. But it's certainly watchable for western fans. Herb Jeffries (called Herbert Jeffrey in the credits), also a singer for Duke Ellington's band, is fine in the lead role—this is the second of three Bob Blake movies he made. The rest of the acting is par for the course, with F. E Miller as the devious Slim deserving mention. Singing group the Four Tones provide the backing voices as the rest of Bob’s men. The movie’s chief downfall is in the staging of the fight scenes; the bar fisticuffs come off as amateurish, not just in the ineffective punches thrown but in the decidedly weak and muffled sound effects of the fists hitting flesh (which we can clearly see them not doing). Pictured above are Jeffries (in the middle) and Lucius Brooks as Dusty (at left). [TCM]

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951)

Nick (John Garfield) is a small-time crook still living with his mother who still pesters him about getting out of the apartment and finding a job. He and his buddy Al (Norman Lloyd) rob a payroll truck, a job which should be easy but which they mess up, resulting in Al getting wounded, a security guard getting killed, and Nick running away with a satchel full of money. He winds up hiding out at a public pool where, to look less suspicious, he chats up Peg (Shelley Winters). She is clearly taken with him, though he sees her more as a convenient way out of trouble. He escorts her home where she lives with her mother, father, and little brother, and winds up staying with Peg while the rest of the family goes to the movies. Later that evening, when he discovers that Al has ratted him out, a paranoid Nick holds the family at gunpoint, insisting on holing up with them indefinitely until he can think of a way out. This noir is known mainly as John Garfield's last movie; he died the year after its release at the age of 39 of heart disease, though many believe that the hounding of the House Un-American Activities Committee hastened his death. This is not his best movie, though he is excellent in it, as he almost always was. Despite a title that promises action, the bulk of the film after the first 15 minutes is set in Peg's family's apartment. Although the possibility of claustrophobic tension exists, I felt the movie went slack too often. But the interplay between the thuggish but not evil Garfield and the innocent but not naïve Winters saves the day. She clearly falls for him, and he's clearly using her for protection, but their feelings do change over the two nights he spends in the apartment. Wallace Ford is very good as Winters' father who desperately wants to keep his family safe. Gladys George has a nice couple of scenes as Garfield's unsympathetic mother. Not essential viewing, but interesting. [DVD]

Friday, July 15, 2016

WAY BACK HOME (1931)

This rarely-seen oddity was based on a popular radio character, and is of interest today primarily because it was one of Bette Davis' first movies. In the 1920s, Philips Lord created a radio show called Seth Parker's Singing School featuring himself as Parker, a old down-home New Englander who waxed philosophic and held sing-alongs—sounds like a non-ironic forerunner of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. The show was so popular that in 1931 this film was made featuring Lord (who was only in his late 20s) under heavy (and not terribly convincing) makeup as Seth Parker, a man at least in his 50s. What plays out is a soap-operaish tale of small town life in Jonesport, Maine.

Farmer Parker and his wife are well-liked figures in town, frequently holding barn parties and cozy parlor sing-alongs. In between these functions, we are witness to goings-on both comical and melodramatic. The Parkers have a young foster son named Robbie (Frankie Darro) who is happy and well loved, but, in a plotline out of Huck Finn, his blood father, a no-good scoundrel, decides he wants Robbie back, and when asking doesn’t get results, he resorts to kidnapping. Meanwhile, David (Frank Albertson), a seemingly wholesome young man, is in love with Mary Lucy (Bette Davis), but her father objects because David's mother (Dorothy Peterson) bore him out of wedlock. The two have to sneak around behind her dad's back to find time and places for some canoodling. And there's young Lizzie (Sophia M. Lord, wife of Philips Lord), a shrill-voiced spinster who has her cap set for a retired sea captain. Before it's all through, there's a wild buggy chase with Parker using his huge family Bible to thump a bad guy on the head, a taffy pull, the aforementioned barn dance and sing-along, and tolerance and redemption for almost everyone, brought about through the influence of the good-hearted Seth.

Today's viewers are likely to find this slow and rough going. I almost quit at the 15 minute mark myself, as the first 5 minutes are taken up with a long, obvious comedy routine that brings to mind Abbot & Costello's classic "Who’s on First?" bit. Later there's some more effective humor when a young man refers to Albertson's mother as being "like that Mary Mandolin in the Bible." But I was eventually sucked in to these people's lives, even though all the outcomes are predictable. Lord is not especially effective as Seth Parker—he's just too young to play old. His real-life wife, however, is very amusing as the not-so-old maid; I laughed every time she spoke as her voice sounds like that of a young Margaret Hamilton. Albertson is quite good as the most likeable and sympathetic character; Davis isn't bad but it feels like she may have thought she was better than the material—which she was. I always like Darro and he's excellent here. If you don't like soap opera, or don't appreciate these period artifacts, you’ll want to skip this, but I enjoyed it. Pictured are Albertson and Davis (above right) and Albertson and Peterson (above left). [TCM]

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

TIMETABLE (1956)

This buried gem of film noir begins on a nighttime train trip through Arizona when a doctor (Wesley Addy) is roused from his sleep to attend to a sick man. Determining that he needs to be in a hospital, the doc arranges for the train to make an emergency stop at the small town of Winston. Then he gets someone to let him into the baggage car so he can get his medical bag. Once he's back there, he pulls a gun on the guards, gives them an injection to knock them out, and blows up the safe to steal half a million dollars. As the doctor, the patient, and the patient's wife get off the train, we realize that this operation has been planned meticulously. When the theft is discovered, insurance investigator Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens, at right) is put on the case—even though it means he'll have to postpone the vacation to Mexico City that he and his wife were looking forward to. He's paired up with veteran cop Joe Armstrong (King Calder), a friend of his, and together they being the search for clues that will lead them to the perpetrators.

At this point, about 20 minutes in, a major twist occurs which, though technically a SPOILER, must be mentioned in order to talk about the film: the mastermind behind the robbery is actually Charlie, the insurance man. The plan was that his accomplices would get away to Mexico and Charlie would join them, escaping his humdrum life. But after the near-perfect execution of the crime, things start to fall apart, Charlie has to resort to murder, and suffice to say that the climax occurs in Tijuana where Charlie's hopes of getting away to Argentina with the doctor's sexy wife (Felicia Farr) are dashed for good. This is a very good B-movie which deserves a wider audience. Mark Stevens is great as the worn-down anti-hero (he also directs in a no-nonsense fashion)—the character is at the end of his rope and Stevens shows his increasing anxiety by the way he fiddles with his hands. Wesley Addy handles very nicely the bulk of the heavy lifting in the first section as the duplicitous doctor who, we discover, has been disgraced in the past. All the acting is solid, with special mention deserved for Alan Reed (the voice of Fred Flintstone) as the poor slob who winds up dead. You'll recognize Jack Klugman in a small role. Highly recommended. Aka TIME TABLE. [TCM]

Monday, July 11, 2016

CRACK-UP (1936)

At Fleming-Grant Airways, the new plane known as the Wild Goose is about to make its first trans-Atlantic flight, piloted by cocky Ace Martin (Brian Donlevy) and his young buddy Joe (Thomas Beck). They're present at the plane's christening ceremony along with Mr. Fleming, founder of the airplane company, Joe's girlfriend Ruth, and an eccentric fellow with a limp who is called Colonel Gimpy (Peter Lorre) and considered something of a mascot, and everyone is excited about the upcoming flight. But soon we learn of all the tensions seething under the surface: Fleming's wife is preparing to run off with Grant, the company's co-owner; Gimpy's not a harmless kook but a German baron and the head of a spy ring wanting to get their hands on plans for a new bomber plane, the DOX; the person who we think is our hero, Ace Martin, is the spy set to deliver the plans—though he is unaware of Gimpy's identity as the master spy—and he manages to trick the young and innocent Joe into helping him commit espionage.

[Spoilers follow:] This pre-WWII spy film is interesting for at least one reason—there isn't really a central heroic figure among the characters. Like other viewers have noted, I assumed that Ace Martin would be unmasked as a double agent for the U.S., but he's not. That leaves Joe as the moral center of the movie and he's a fairly minor character, corrupted by Martin but still salvageable as a man of good conscience if not a full-fledged hero. So even though Brian Donlevy is fairly charismatic as Ace, his character is not fleshed out very well and that leaves Peter Lorre—who is in fact first billed—as the star of the show. Lorre is almost always an asset to a movie and he is fun here; he does a nice job as the simple-minded Gimpy and an even better one as the cold-blooded spy. The last stretch of the film features Ace, Joe, Fleming and the Baron together in the Wild Goose, which eventually crashes in the sea during a storm, and the ending, which leaves three of the four alone in the disabled plane, is surprisingly downbeat—to its credit. Pictured left to right are Beck, Lorre, Ralph Morgan (as Fleming) and Donlevy. [DVD]

Thursday, July 07, 2016

ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene… well, you probably know the rest. Shakespeare's classic tale of star-crossed love is brought quite magnificently to life by director Franco Zeffirelli. This is renowned as being the first screen version to have age-appropriate actors (teenagers) in the lead roles—unless you count the musical WEST SIDE STORY with leads in their early 20s). The only other film version I've seen is the 1936 movie with Norma Shearer (in her 30s as the 13-year old Juliet) and the over-40 Leslie Howard as her lover Romeo. Shearer and Howard are fine, but with actors of that age, the impact of the story is different. The tragedy of young people in the blush of first love, stymied by their elders and their social structure, is blunted with full-fledged adults as the central figures. Here, youth fairly glistens on the skin of Olivia Hussey (at 15 playing Juliet) and Leonard Whiting (17 playing Romeo), and it certainly doesn't hurt that both are quite beautiful. Considering they were unknowns at the time with few screen credits, they are remarkably good both at filling out their characters and at handling the Shakespearean speech rhythms. The rest of the cast is not exactly star-filled—aside from Michael York as Tybalt, Robert Stephens as the prince, and Milo O'Shea as the friar (all three very good), I was not familiar with anyone else, though Pat Heywood does a very nice job balancing comedy and drama as Juliet's nurse. York plays against type as a villain with his face made up so much—mostly with eyeliner, I think—that I didn't recognize him at first.

For all the differences in casting, this plays out very much like the 1936 version, and even the sets look similar. The Montagues and the Capulets are feuding families in Verona; when the young bucks go traipsing through town and meet up with each other, fights ensue, even though the Prince has decreed they must end their public enmity. Restless Romeo, a Montague who tends to keep to himself, sees Juliet from afar at the Capulets' ball and is immediately smitten. So is she, and the famous balcony scene cements their attraction. But Juliet is getting on in years—she is described as being a fortnight away from 14—so she is promised in marriage to Paris. Instead, she and Romeo sneak away and get married by the sympathetic Friar Laurence. Unfortunately, there is further strife in the streets between the families and during a brawl, Romeo's buddy Mercutio is killed by the hot-headed Capulet Tybalt; Romeo kills Tybalt, then flees. With Romeo being hunted down and Juliet about to marry Paris, a happy ending is not in store for our young lovers.

The movie, well done as it is, is aided immeasurably by a great score by Nino Rota who later did a similarly great score for THE GODFATHER. The main theme became a pop hit in an instrumental arrangement by Henry Mancini under the title "A Time for Us" and was also sung by Andy Williams with lyrics that turned it into a West Side Story-type song ("A time for us/Someday there'll be/When chains are torn/By courage born/Of a love that’s free"). In the movie, it's heard instrumentally throughout, but is sung at the ball where Romeo and Juliet first meet by Italian pop singer Bruno Filippini (pictured at left) as "What is a Youth" with lyrics that resonate more strongly with the theme of youth and age: "What is a youth?/Impetuous fire/What is a maid?/Ice and desire/The world wags on/A rose will bloom/It then will fade/So does a youth." I found this scene quite effective: the lyrics, the handsomeness and glowing youth of the singer, and of course, the shy flirting of Romeo and Juliet during the dance. Though I've been told I should see the Leonardo DiCaprio version, I can't imagine anyone else getting this as right as Zeffirelli and his cast did. [DVD]

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

REMOTE CONTROL (1930)

William Judd Brennan (William Haines) is a wisecracking fellow who works at a music store and has dreams of becoming a radio host. Brennan flirts obnoxiously with Marion (Mary Doran), a customer, and winds up following her to her place of business which happens to be radio station WPN where the big boss is her brother Sam (Robert King), who just happens to be an old friend of William's. The station is losing ratings and Sam hires William to help come up with some new programming. How cozy—except Marion still can't stand the perpetually insufferable William. One of the people William hires for his new show is clairvoyant Dr. Kruger (John Miljan) who is actually the head of a group of small-time crooks known as the Ghost Gang; as he performs readings for people over the air, he is actually sending coded messages to his gang to aid in pulling off their robberies. Kruger also starts dating Marion, which causes William no end of irritation. When the gang hits a group of socialites gathered at the radio station, William figures out that Kruger is behind it, so Kruger kidnaps him and makes it look like William is actually the criminal mastermind. Can William escape before the crooks launch another crime during which they plan to eliminate him for good?

I’ve reviewed other William Haines movies before; he was a popular silent comic actor who had the persona of the eternal juvenile, always joking, always assuming he could win anyone over with his charm. But in sound films, his "charm" comes across more often as unpleasant arrogance. Today's viewer may also note a touch of camp in his over-the-top jesting, though his characters were apparently to be read as 100% heterosexual. Here, he has absolutely zero chemistry with Mary Doran—to be fair, part of the problem is Doran who gives a frowning, low-energy performance opposite Haines' grinning, bouncing off the walls style. In terms of plot, I don't think it's ever explained why the gang has to rely on radio messages—why couldn't Kruger just deliver his orders in person? As with some early sound films, there are a handful of dialogue flubs left in, but otherwise the technical aspects of the film are satisfactory. The stuttering comedian Roscoe Ates has a couple of bits that are the high points of the film. If stutterers and prancing ninnies aren't your cup of tea, you may want to skip this. [TCM]

Friday, July 01, 2016

MOZAMBIQUE (1964)

A cocky but blacklisted pilot (Steve Cochran) gets in a barfight in Madrid. Instead of being jailed, however, police detective Paul Hubschmid arranges for him to get a job in Mozambique for a businessman named Valdez. By the time Cochran gets there, Valdez is dead and Cochran has to deal with Valdez's widow (Hildegarde Knef) and two of his underlings (Martin Benson and Dietmar Schonherr) who all seem engaged in a power struggle. Valdez had a lot of money in Swiss bank accounts, but the paperwork is missing so everything is up in the air. Cochran isn't sure who he can trust, but he winds up piloting a small plane that he soon discovers is involved in drug smuggling. He also gets close to the lovely Vivi Bach, a singer at Valdez's nightclub, and helps her out when she discovers part of her job is to be a sex slave to a wealthy Arab sheik. Cochran, along with Schonherr, rather improbably flies in and helps Bach escape, but while Cochran and Bach get in a little skinny-dipping and canoodling in a river in the middle of nowhere, Schonherr is murdered in the plane. When Hubschmid, the Madrid cop, shows up in Mozambique, Cochran realizes that there is more at stake here than he's known.

Steve Cochran was a solid B-lead antihero in noir and crime movies of the 50s (PRIVATE HELL 36, HIGHWAY 301, but by the 60s he was moving toward the world-weary good-guy end of the spectrum (OF LOVE AND DESIRE). Cochran died at 48 less than a year after filming this movie, and it's hard to say where his career would have gone—he was doing more television than film at this point but he surely still had some good years left. In this film, he showed he could be tough, sensitive, grungily sexy and morally conflicted, even if he might never again have been in an A-movie. This film occasionally has the feel of a low-budget European spy film, what with the exotic settings, the eye-candy women, and the fairly exciting climax, set at Victoria Falls. Cochran (pictured above with Bach) carries the film over some loose plot points, and he gets help from a decent supporting cast, especially Knef, Hubschmid and Schonherr. Even Bach, who doesn't have much to do (even though she's on screen more than Knef) is OK—and she married Schonherr the next year. The movie could do with a little more humor or wit, and there is a bizarre "killer dwarf" plot twist that comes out of nowhere, and goes right back there again. But overall, watchable, especially as a relic of the international intrigue genre of the 1960s. [DVD]