Wednesday, November 25, 2015


In the kingdom of Alba Longa, Rea Silvia has been made a vestal virgin but she's pregnant by the god Mars and delivers twins. To avoid being found out, she sets the infant boys adrift in the Tiber River. They are found and cared for by a wolf until a shepherd kills the wolf and takes the boys in. Some twenty years later, they have grown into Romulus (Steve Reeves) and the more headstrong Remus (Gordon Scott), sturdy, handsome musclemen shepherds, and they are part of a group of outlaws who steal horses and such to get back at the King for taking the people's money and resources. At the festival of Pan, also being used to celebrate the marriage of the King of Alba Longa to Princess Julia (Virna Lisi) of the Sabines, Romulus helps Princess Julia get away from the crowd during a strange ritual involving ecstatic whipping of the crowds with the skins of sacrificed lambs, and he winds up spiriting her away to be with his men who are now contemplating a full-scale shepherd's revolt. Now the King of Alba Long and the King of the Sabines are after them. The brothers discover that it was prophesized that they would found a new city, but Remus wants to go in a different direction from Romulus, so they split up, leading, in the end, to a (rather short) duel of the titans over where they will build their city, which winds up being Rome.

This is an unusual entry in the Italian sword-and-sandal genre; instead of centering on a mythical superhero like Hercules, this is about mythical average (more or less) guys who just happen to be really strong. Though I'd heard of Romulus and Remus, I was not familiar with the specifics of their myth, but based on this movie, it's interesting to see the parallels with Moses: tossed in a river as a baby, unaware of his background while growing up, leading his people on an exodus to a promised land. In this film's telling, Remus is pretty much a jackass who does everything wrong, right up to the last scene, the "duel" of the title which is quite disappointing. But the rest of the movie is definitely a notch or two above the typical peplum film—strong production values, a script that is a smidge more complex than normal, and good acting from both Reeves and Scott (pictured above right). Scott is usually worth seeing, especially in his Tarzan movies, but this is certainly Reeves' best performance and he carries the bulk of the movie. Virna Lisi, who went on to become a major movie star, is fine. Lots of attractive men and women fill out the backgrounds. Standout scenes include the torture of Reeves on a spinning cross and a rockslide/volcano sequence. [Streaming]

Monday, November 23, 2015



In northern Sweden, a large glowing orb flies across the sky, skims over the ground leaving skid marks in the snow, and crashes into a hill. Onlookers assume it's a meteor, but because it flew horizontally rather than dropped from the sky, some scientists from the Royal Academy, led by Dr. Wilson and young playboy geologist Erik Engstrom, set out to investigate. At the hotel, Erik falls for a lovely girl putting on an ice skating exhibition; she turns out to be Diane Wilson, Dr. Wilson's daughter and an Olympic skater who can hold her own with the flirtatious Erik—when they go skiing together, he deliberately knocks her down, so she grabs his skis and takes off, forcing him to walk back to the lodge. But I digress (because the movie does). That night, a number of animals are found slaughtered in the snow, with a gigantic footprint nearby. The next day, they find the orb, actually a spaceship, embedded in the hillside, and they eventually run into the beast that killed the animals, a shambling, furry 20-foot tall monster with tusks. Erik and Diane ski off to get help but when she is injured, they wind up at an isolated rescue cabin, and that night the beast shows up, causing an avalanche and abducting Diane, leaving her in a cave with a couple of normal-sized but cone-headed aliens. Can Erik and Dr. Wilson save her and find a way to battle the destructive creature?

There is something almost charming about this sci-fi monster movie. It's no great shakes, and if I'd seen this as a kid on Chiller Theater, I would have been impatient for the monster stuff to start—too much time is spent getting Erik and Diane together. But the beast is effective, in a Godzilla kind of way; it's clearly a man in a hairy suit, walking around among miniature sets or being shot using forced perspective, but mostly it works. Even the pointy-headed guys don't look half bad, even though they're wearing full-length robes, the cheapest costumes possible. Too much time is devoted to the romance and to skiing, and no explanation is even attempted as to what the aliens are up to or how the monster is related to the coneheads, but it's just a little over an hour so it's bearable. For the record, the main trio are Barbara Wilson (Diane), Sten Gester (Erik), and Robert Burton—who actually had a lengthy career as a character actor on TV—(Wilson). The American version released under the "Animal People" title apparently has a little more footage and narration by John Carradine. [Streaming/DVD]

Friday, November 20, 2015


Poverty Row studio Monogram hit the big time with this crime movie, modeled after the scrappy little Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 30s. Not only was it a hit at the box office, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. It undoubtedly plays fast and loose with the biographical facts, but it gets in as much as it can in 70 minutes. The movie is framed as a public lecture by Dillinger's father telling his son's story as a cautionary tale. Farm boy Dillinger (Lawrence Tierney) has gone to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. He runs out of money while trying to impress a floozy in a bar, so he holds up a drug store for more cash, is promptly caught, and sent to jail. His cellmate Specs Green (Edmund Lowe) seems quiet and mild-mannered but is actually an experienced bank robber and he mentors Dillinger. Unfortunately, when Dillinger is released, the first thing he does is rob a movie theater after flirting with Helen, the girl at the box office (Anne Jeffreys) who then identifies him to the police. But at the line-up, she balks, and when he is freed, she becomes his mistress. He breaks Specs and his gang (who include Marc Lawrence and Elisha Cook Jr.) out of jail and they commit a string of bank robberies, leading to Dillinger eventually becoming the big man in the gang instead of Specs, who resents the new arrangement and soon gives Dillinger up to the cops. But Dillinger breaks out of jail using a wooden gun whittled for him by a fellow prisoner and kills Specs. The gang soon falls apart and Dillinger and Helen wind up hiding out in Chicago. She gets antsy and finally agrees to give him up to FBI agents who kill him as he comes out of a theater.

Tierney gives a breakout performance; he never quite became a top-rank star, but he was a go-to man for B-movie tough guys in the 40s (and was quite the toughguy in real life, if the stories are to be believed), and had a career renaissance in the 80s and 90s, peaking with a role in Quentin Tarentino's RESERVOIR DOGS. Here, he is typical Tierney: cold, gruff, intimidating. He is very good, though the screenplay lets his down, rushing as it does through a series of high and low points in Dillinger's life and giving us little sense of the person behind the headlines. The production values are better than the typical Monogram film, though it lacks the casual gloss that Warner Bros. would have given this. It does move quickly, and a couple of scenes stand out: one is the killing of Specs—Lowe gives one of his better performances in this film—and another is when Dillinger smashes a broken beer glass into a waiter's face. A must-see for B-movie fans. [TCM]

Thursday, November 19, 2015


James Dunn is a big-time movie director who has fallen on hard times and taken a job at the Delmar Acting Academy, run by Grant Mitchell who is in it for the money. Also working for Mitchell is John Bradford, a handsome movie star who lets Mitchell use his name in advertising for a cut of the dough. Enter pretty young Alice Faye—looking just like Jean Harlow—fresh off the bus and delivered to the entrance of the academy by two gregarious icemen (Frank Mitchell and Jack Durant, at right), and all three sign up for acting lessons. The cynical Dunn is surprised when it turns out that Faye actually has talent. A rich, young but na├»ve Texas oil man donates $75,000 to the academy, so Mitchell and Bradford decide to sink half of the money into the making of a musical that they assume will flop, and run off with the rest. Dunn directs and Faye stars, and complications arise when Mitchell and Bradford try to frame Dunn for embezzlement. But in the end, the movie gets finished—climaxed by the filming of a real-life fistfight between Bradford and Dunn—and Faye and Dunn realize they're meant for each other.

There is some mild fun to be had in this B-musical, and one number, "I'd Like to Say Yes to You," is quite fun indeed with Bradford being chased around the world by multiple Alice Fayes. The second number isn't as good but it does have a cute bit with stand-ins for Tarzan and Mae West. Faye is fine though Dunn isn't really romantic leading man material even though he tries hard—he's best in the early scenes when he's depressed and snarly. But the supporting cast is good, especially the comedy duo of Mitchell and Durant who bring some welcome slapstick bits to the proceedings. Durant also gets a good scene in when he starts striking Clark Gable poses in front of a mirror. I'm not familiar with John Bradford (pictured at left with Faye) but he does nicely as the slimy actor. I have no idea where the title comes from. The whole thing feels a little scruffy but that rather suits the characters, who are all a little scruffy around the edges. Familiar character actor John Qualen has a small role. Cute but not essential, and the DVD print from Wade Williams is fairly poor. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


The robed and hooded members of the criminal group the Crooked Circle meet (at a round table with a skull in the middle) to decide who will take on a mission of revenge against the Sphinx Club, a gang of amateur criminologists who recently took down one of their members. Their verdict: death to Walters, the head of the Sphinx Club, who has just moved into an old mansion nicknamed Melody Manor—it's supposedly haunted by a ghost that plays a violin from an upper-story window, the very idea of which freaks out Walters' skittish housekeeper Nora (Zasu Pitts). Meanwhile, within the Sphinx Club, Brand Osborne (Ben Lyon) is retiring to marry his sweetie Thelma (Irene Purcell), and his replacement is an Indian swami named Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon). At a gathering at Melody Manor one night, strange things start happening and Walters winds up dead. We discover that Yoganda and Thelma are actually members of the Crooked Circle, but can they escape discovery once Detective Crimmer (James Gleason) arrives? And what about that violin playing we hear from upstairs?

Though this movie has its flaws, it is generically an almost perfect example of the "old dark house" thriller. There are secret passages, hidden nooks and crannies, an on-site family graveyard, a murder, a clock that strikes 13, rumors of a ghost, a chair that drops people down a slide into a basement, and even, in a forerunner to a famous scene in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a skeleton that goes skittering across a room. It's also a great deal of fun because it keeps you a little off-guard as to what's coming next—not least because not everyone is who or what they seem. James Gleason and Zasu Pitts are top-billed but they do not have the most screen time, and what time they do have is largely devoted to mild comic relief (Pitts in particular is an acquired taste whom I generally like, but here she comes close to being a bit too much). The real acting work is done by Purcell, Gordon and Lyon who are all fine. Familiar faces in support include Roscoe Karns and Tom Kennedy. The idea of the competing crime clubs is intriguing, but after it's introduced, not much is really done with it. A fun little movie only available in poor to fair public domain prints, but well worth seeing. [YouTube]

Monday, November 16, 2015


Three bank robbers—Nojiro, the leader; Tagasuki, an older man; Ejimi, a cocky young guy—are on the run in the Japanese Alps. They stop at a mountain resort but when news reports note that Nojiro is missing two fingers on one hand, he is spotted by guests wearing a glove even in a spa bath and suspicions are raised. The three force a group of male guests to strip naked and stay in the outdoor hot springs bath while they make their escape. An avalanche causes the death of Tagasuki, and the other two take refuge at a much smaller ski lodge higher in the mountains. The only occupants are an old man, his young granddaughter, and Honda, a visiting mountaineer, all more or less trapped there by a recent blizzard. They have heard nothing about the robberies so the two men are secure for a time, posing as stranded travelers, but soon the gruff Nojiro finds himself becoming fond of young Haruko, who reminds him of his own daughter who died at an early age. Nojiro becomes enamored of the song "My Old Kentucky Home," a recording of which Haruko plays frequently. Ejimi sees how Nojiro is softening and the resulting tension between Ejimi and Nojiro eventually causes Ejimi to take control, forcing Honda to escort them down the mountain before the police clear a path in the snow. Of course, out in the elements, things don't go like Ejimi planned.

The fact that this movie is available on Criterion's streaming channel on Hulu is probably due to the fact that 1) Akira Kurosawa co-wrote the screenplay, and 2) Toshiro Mifune is in it—his very first film role—and he is very good in the rather flat role of the tough guy crook Ejimi, but it's certainly worth seeing for other reasons as well. It was filmed on location, and the snow and the mountains certainly add to the feel of the movie. The central performance by Takashi Shimura as Nojiro is excellent, fairly subtle until sentimentality breaks through at the very end. But just as good are Akitake Kono as the pleasant, handsome Honda and Setsuko Wakayama (pictured with Mifune) as the little girl. The film, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, manages to be both a crime movie and a character study. There is humor, excitement and ultimately redemption for Nojiro. [Criterion streaming]

Friday, November 13, 2015


Big Hollywood director Ivan Ivanski (Leonid Kinskey) gets on the Broadway Limited, an express train heading to New York from Chicago, with a small entourage:  his assistant Patsy (Patsy Kelly), his leading actress April (Marjorie Woodworth), and Myra (ZaSu Pitts), the spinsterish head of April's fan club. As a publicity stunt, Ivan decides that April should get on the train with a baby that they'll tell the press she's adopting. Patsy gets her boyfriend Mike (Victor McLaglen), an engineer on the train, to find a baby they can borrow. He gets one, but unknown to them, it's the kidnapped Pierson baby whose picture is on all the front pages. On the train, April runs into Harvey (Dennis O'Keefe), an old boyfriend who is now a doctor, and they renew their relationship, though the baby causes some confusion. When McLaglen realizes that April's baby in the kidnapped baby, they all panic and try in various ways to get rid of it, none successful. And then there's a shady-looking guy named Lefty (George E. Stone) who seems very interested in our gang's shenanigans.

This is trainbound farce played a little too slowly but a good cast helps put it across. Once you get past the ridiculous idea of the baby stunt, it's enjoyable. Woodward (pictured with O'Keefe) is the weak link; she's not bad, she's just run-of-the-mill. Everyone else is fine. In a rare major role (even though he's sixth-billed), Kinskey—best known as Sasha the bartender in CASABLANCA, is good, though he might have been more fun if he'd been encouraged to play it a bit closer to over-the-top. I'm used to seeing McLaglen in more serious roles but he does comedy quite well. Pitts is an acquired taste, but I enjoyed her and her running gag involving her love of a radio serial called Renfrew of the Rockies. For me, the discovery was Patsy Kelly, whom I haven't seen much of. She was delightful here. The gags are plentiful, and if one doesn't work, the next one probably will. As I noted, the pace is just a smidge too slow—if it had been cranked up a notch, this might have been a memorable screwball comedy—but it's still fun. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Edward G. Robinson is a PR man known for overdosing on "ballyhoo," but when his latest stunt for the Snyderling Company goes too far (with acrobats swinging from blimps high over the city), he's sent to England to see how the sedate and dignified British do it. He stays with some relatives who, though upper class on the surface, are in financial trouble and hope that Robinson will buy their castle from them. Luli Deste, the young heiress, is set to marry the smarmy family lawyer (Ralph Richardson), but she admits to Robinson that it's strictly for money. The family owns a magnalite mine in South Africa which Richardson wants to get his hands on, but Robinson talks the Duke (Nigel Bruce) into selling it to him—and he gets to use his PR talents to scare up investors. However, Richardson goes to France to purchase the patent to the refining process, stymieing Robinson's plans.  This is an unusual little film, an independent British production with a major American star used against type as a romantic comedy leading man, though the romantic elements are downplayed throughout to the point where you forget that Robinson has fallen for Deste. It's just as well because they are an ill-suited match: he seems more like her father than a suitor, and Deste, an Austrian, is weak in the acting department (she only made a handful of films before retiring in 1941)—her character's thick accent is explained away by her having lived in Vienna for many years. It would seem that a touch of screwball comedy was being tried for with the appearance of two street musicians Robinson befriends, to no particular plot purpose. Richardson and Bruce are both worth seeing, and the whole thing has a pleasant feel, so it's difficult to dislike it, and there is one standout scene with Robinson trapping Bruce on a merry-go-round for seemingly hours until he agrees to the sale (pictured at right). [TCM]

Monday, November 09, 2015


Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd) is on death row for murdering his wife, but gets a last-minute reprieve for a new trail. When it ends in a hung jury (one lone holdout for innocence gets five other jurors on her side), he is freed and heads out west to stay at an isolated ranch. Meanwhile, actress Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) has been sent to a dude ranch called the Tumble Moon for her delicate health; on her way, she gets stuck in the mud during a storm and stays the night at Richard's house—she recognizes him and he's standoffish and asks her not to tell anyone that she's seen him. The next day when she arrives at the Tumble Moon, she is told by its owner Liza (Mercedes McCambridge) that the place is closed, but Liza takes pity on her and lets her stay a while; the only other person around is Liza's crippled teenage brother String (Darryl Hickman). It turns out that Liza is an old friend of Richard's and was the lone holdout on the jury. Shelley, who has fallen in love with Richard, wants to try and prove his innocence, but he wants to let well enough alone. Also involved are Myra Nolan, owner of a nearby hotel, and her husband J.D. who have a possibly mysterious connection to Liza and Richard, and slick operator Harvey Turner (Zachary Scott) who is friends with Richard but may have his own agenda. And did I mention that: 1) Richard's wife had been unfaithful; 2) both Liza and String seem just a touch high-strung (no pun intended)? Shelley and Richard marry in secret, but on her wedding night, Shelly has reason to wonder, will she wind up just like wife #1?

This is a solid mystery/thriller with a lot of backstory, some interesting characters, and good acting. The focus is on Roman (the same year, she was Farley Granger's lover in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) and she's fine, but the real reasons to watch the movie are McCambridge and Hickman (both pictured above); they give fine performances that are a bit showy but compelling and their characters are the most interesting in the story. Todd is rather bland; Scott's quite good but not in it enough, essentially winding up as a red herring (though he does play a crucial role in the climax). A couple of good lines: a reporter discussing Richard's wife's murder says, "It's always the good-lookers that get into trouble—nobody ever bothers to kill the dogs." Later, McCambridge, a little jealous of Roman, tells her, "You're fascinated by the smell of murder!" [TCM]

Sunday, November 08, 2015


In 30 A.D. Judea, the Jewish populace is oppressed by the Romans who keep raising taxes and imprisoning or enslaving those who cannot pay, and a small underground band of rebels called the Zealots are trying to gain support to fight back. Joel (John Beal) is the head of the Zealots, counseling patience and restraint, but his headstrong brother Zadok (Warren McCollum) is more restless. News of the itinerant preacher Jesus sparks hopes that he might be the prophesied king who will lead his people to freedom.  On the home front, Joel is in love with Tamar (Marjorie Cooley), but Joel's father Lamach makes a deal with Tamar's father to give her to Zadok in marriage instead of Joel. This causes tension between father and son, which is stretched to the breaking point when Joel sets out to look for Jesus. He takes a ceremonial sword and along the way, stops in villages and has rebels pledge their allegiance so Jesus will be able to call on a small army when he agrees to lead the rebellion. But when Joel encounters Jesus, he is disappointed that Jesus refuses his army because of his philosophy of "love thy neighbor." Judas, a disaffected apostle, buddies up with Joel for a time, and Joel hatches a plan to trap Jesus and "force him to become a man of action."  But before that can happen, the Romans, led by the centurion Longinus (Albert Dekker), attack the Zealots and kill Zadok. Longinus himself is wounded and just as Joel is about to deliver a death blow, the words of Jesus about love and mercy come to him.

I'd have to do more research to say this definitely, but this would seem to be the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tell a Biblical story in a non-epic fashion (there were silent epics like KING OF KINGS and QUO VADIS). In the sense that it tells a story of Jesus in which Jesus is only a peripheral character, it feels modern. We hear the voice of Jesus, but his face is seen only briefly, in a reflection in a pond when Joel first finds him. What might cause problems today among some Christians is the emphasis on non-violence and loving all "neighbors," even enemies. I've read conflicting reports about this film's production history, but it seems to have been made independently in 1939 and distributed in 1941 by 20th Century Fox. The director, Irving Pichel, worked primarily at Fox but also did films for smaller studios like Republic. The leads, John Beal (pictured) and Albert Dekker, had long Hollywood careers, mostly in B-movie or in character roles. Maurice Moscovitch, a well-known actor in Yiddish theatre, is just right as Joel's father. The production, mostly shot on outdoor sets, is solid. I went into this film thinking it would be a shoddy, preachy Sunday school flick, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The way the film treats the political aspect of rebellion—and the participation of Judas—reminded me of the 1961 KING OF KINGS. Overall, a pleasant surprise; even the way the low-budget film treats the crucifixion at the end works well. [YouTube]