Friday, July 31, 2015

MACHETE (1958)

Luis (Albert Dekker), middle-aged owner of a sugar cane plantation in Puerto Rico, comes back from a New York City business trip with a bride, the blond, buxom and much younger Jean (Mari Blanchard). He seems besotted with her, but our first hint that it might not be true love on her part comes when she runs into an old acquaintance during their San Juan honeymoon and it becomes clear she had a past as a grifter. At the plantation, she meets the house residents: Bernado, the taciturn house manager; Carlos (Carlos Rivas), the handsome plantation manager whom Luis treats as a son; Rita, the housemaid who clearly has a thing for Carlos; and Miguel (Lee Van Cleef), a misanthropic cousin of Luis's who oversees the workers and who seems to resent Carlos' position. Everyone except Luis catches on to the fact that Jean is basically a gold-digger; a good-natured one, perhaps, but she's clearly not in love. Their wedding night is interrupted when a drunken Miguel picks a machete fight with Carlos. Dekker gets involved and winds up with a machete wound. While he's being treated, Carlos kicks the shit out of Miguel, and Jean, watching from the house, seems to get excited. The next morning, Luis kicks Miguel off the property, but he hides out in an unused sugar mill, hanging around to cause mischief and to try and put himself back in Luis's good graces. Meanwhile, Jean finally puts the moves on a very conflicted Carlos, and when they are caught kissing, everything falls apart, ending with a cane field fire which claims a couple of lives, as does another machete.

This B-melodrama with a lot of plot could have been interesting, but it's done in by poor acting on almost everyone's part. Blanchard is a low-rent Mamie Van Doren (herself a B-budget Marilyn Monroe); she looks the part but gives an artificial performance. That's the same problem the rest of the cast has; they look right but the acting is wrong. This is especially a problem with Rivas who is theoretically the hero but whom I just didn't care about at all since he comes off so cold and stiff. Dekker is an old pro and he's OK, if a bit sluggish, but the reason to watch, if you choose to, is Van Cleef (pictured) who stands tall as the villain. You almost wish for him to get away with his wicked plans just because you appreciate his performance. Largely due to the weak acting, the tension level isn't very high except during the machete fights. This was filmed on a real sugar plantation in Puerto Rico, so every so often, the action stops for some brief documentary-like snippets of real workers in the fields and at the machines. [Amazon Instant]

Thursday, July 30, 2015

COLLEGE HOLIDAY (1936)

College students Leif Erickson and Marsha Hunt meet at a dance (and whatever happens below the waist as they dance makes her slap him), but before he can get very far, she is called away to be with her ailing father who is in the midst of a nervous breakdown because of his failing resort hotel. The holder of the mortgage is the eccentric Mary Boland who, influenced by her beau, a eugenics professor named Hercules who dresses in ancient Greek togas, decides to use the hotel as a sort of lab for experimenting on how to better the human race through selective breeding. (Yes, to us, this concept is forever tainted by the Nazis—among other reasons—but  this was filmed three years before WWII.) PR man Jack Benny crosses the country by train, gathering college students to partake in the experiment, who are told they are heading west to produce a musical revue. Boland has the even more eccentric Gracie Allen use her talent for reading people’s "vibrations" to pair up the students, who promptly ignore their assigned partners to pair up with others they spark with. Leif goes looking for Marsha and finds her, and soon Benny and the kids are pulling strings to put on a minstrel show behind Boland's back to raise money so Marsha's father can save the hotel.

The eugenics subplot may make viewers nervous, but the way it's presented here with a supernatural element minimizes the uncomfortable racial and social elements—and given the era of the movie, the kids are all the same race and class anyway. The blackface in the climactic minstrel show was more problematic for me, but if you can get past those issues, the movie is fairly bubbly, with good performances by Benny, Boland and Allen dominating the almost slapstick proceedings. Martha Raye, a Midwest virgin who keeps belting boys who get close to her—her mother has told her not to put up with any "radikazoo" from boys—is amusing and gets a couple of fun numbers, and the handsome Johnny Downs (pictured to the left of Erickson) has a cute song about finding words that rhyme with "love." Raye's blackface is accomplished by means of a light filter that makes her look alternatingly light and dark. Also with comic Ben Blue, who actually winds up in a liplock with George Burns during one number. [TCM]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

THE MIRACLE OF MARCELINO (1955)

During a time of war in Spain, an orphaned infant is left at the door of a monastery. The monks are charged with finding a permanent home for him, but because they want to keep him, they don't try very hard. Finally they reject the mayor's demand that he be given the boy—even when the mayor threatens to evict the monks—and so they wind up raising him, calling him Marcelino. He grows into a rambunctious but likeable lad who wonders why he doesn't have a mother like his village buddy Manuel. Though he's been forbidden from wandering up to the monastery attic, one day he does; there he finds a life-sized damaged wooden crucifix. At first, Marcelino is scared of it, but soon he begins talking to Jesus, going so far as to bring bread and wine to the figure on the cross because he looks hungry. Suddenly, we see (from a vantage point behind the crucifix) the wooden arm of Jesus become human, taking the food and drink from the boy. The two share meals and chat, and when Marcelino tells Jesus that his fondest wish is to be reunited with his mother, Jesus makes it happen.

[SPOILER] Most reviewers of this film, especially ones of the Catholic persuasion, like it and find it heartwarming. As a former Catholic, I do have a soft spot for mystical religious fantasies (like THE BISHOP’S WIFE) and even the occasional non-mystical non-fantasies (GOING MY WAY). But this one, though well-made, comes off like a creepy Twilight Zone episode: Marcelino gets his wish because he dies. Off the top of my head (and aside from versions of LITTLE WOMEN in which the doomed child is more a supporting than starring role) I can only think of one other classic-era movie in which a central child character dies, the 1939 fantasy ON BORROWED TIME. I have to say that killing off a child whom you assume will live is an effective way to stun a viewer, and it works well in ON BORROWED TIME, but here, it just seems unsavory. The boy in BORROWED seems unhappy with his life on earth, but Marcelino does not—Jesus couldn't think of a better way to handle this kid's wish? I didn't dislike this movie—indeed, I would commend it for being different—but I think the people on IMDb who call it tender-hearted or inspiring or sensible either saw a different movie or need a dictionary. [DVD]

Monday, July 27, 2015

BULLDOG DRUMMOND AT BAY (1937)

A mysterious millionaire named Kalinsky is in London on what is advertised as a peace mission in conjunction with a pacifist group called the Key Club—though in private, we see Kalinsky, secretly a notorious arms merchant, chuckle at the use of the phrase "sacred mission of peace." Meanwhile, Kalinsky's thugs have kidnapped an inventor named Caldwell who is working on a new plane, the plans for which Kalinsky wants. Caldwell manages to escape long enough to throw a rock with a cryptic message through the window of an isolated cottage in the woods. When the thugs stop by, they find a rather doltish farmer who can't tell them anything—but after they leave, we see the dolt is actually Bulldog Drummond (John Lodge), ex-soldier and adventurer, who knows something's afoot. Sure enough the next morning, a lovely young woman named Doris (Dorothy Mackaill) comes to the cottage because her car has broken down, but Drummond catches her trying to drug his tea and search for the cryptic message. Soon Drummond and his sidekick Algy (Claud Allister) are in the thick of it, on the trail of Caldwell's kidnappers and trying to figure out whose side Doris is really on.

The British and American Bulldog Drummond movies are similar in tone—crime/spy stories with a light touch—but very different in specifics, with the British films hewing more closely to the character as embodied in the original novels by H.C. McNeile. Though the lead here is American actor John Lodge (brother of Richard Nixon's running mate in 1960 and a successful politician in his own right after WWII), this is a British production which means Drummond is a little less silly than he gets in the Paramount films of the same era, and the incessant "will he or won't he get married" plotline that runs through the Hollywood films is absent here, making this a tightly-paced B-thriller which is enjoyable even if the viewer has never seen a Drummond movie. Lodge is charming, Mackaill is a formidable match for him, Allister provides fine comic relief, and Victor Jory makes for a menacing villain. A superior entry in the series. Note: this is not to be confused, as my on-screen cable guide did, with a 1947 movie with the same title but a different plot and lead actor. The picture at top left is of Lodge, with his sidekick Allister mostly hidden behind a column; the picture at right is of  Mackaill and Lodge. [TCM]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

THE OCTOBER MAN (1947)

Jim Ackland, a chemical research worker, is on a bus with a friend's young daughter in his lap when the bus crashes; he sustains a major brain injury but the girl dies, and though there was nothing he could have done, he feels guilty and tries to kill himself. Eventually he is released to rebuild his life, gets his old job back, and resides at a quaint boarding house where he is looked upon with both sympathy (by Molly, a young and attractive but penniless model who borrows money from Mr. Peachy, a vaguely unpleasant fellow boarder) and contempt (a nasty gossip named Mrs. Vinton). He even begins dating Jenny, the sister of a co-worker. Trying to get away from Peachy, Molly asks Jim for money and he gives her some. That night, while Jim happens to be taking a leisurely walk through the nearby commons, Molly is found murdered, with Jim's check crumpled up nearby. Suspicion, fanned by the spiteful tongue of Mrs. Vinton, falls on Jim, but what about Mr. Peachy? Not to mention the married man that Molly was seeing on the sly. The police keep a sharp eye on Jim, and soon, despite encouragement from Jenny, Jim begins to wonder if he did indeed kill Molly and blanked it out of his mind.

This is a decent noir-style thriller with a good performance by John Mills (what other kind did he give?) as the lead making it worth watching. The script, based on a novel by Eric Ambler, is a little dicey, with a slackening of tension now and then. The various boarders are interesting—in addition to Kay Walsh as Molly, Edward Chapman as Peachy, and Joyce Carey as the gossip, there's also George Benson as a guy who remains friendly to Jim throughout, and Catherine Lacey as the landlady. Joan Greenwood has the relatively thankless role of the girl friend, and Mills' real daughter Juliet has the small role of the child on the bus. The confrontation scene between Mills and the killer, which comes about 2/3 of the way through, is very good, but there is a distinct falloff from there to the predictable ending. OK, but not a must-see. [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

JOURNEY BENEATH THE DESERT (1961)

This third sound version of Pierre Benoit’s L'Atlantide differs in details from the 1932 and 1949 films, modernizing various plot points, though the overarching story is the same. Instead of Legionnaires, we have three mining engineers on a helicopter trip in the Sahara. They are told to change their flight path to get out of the way of a nuclear bomb test that will be performed in the next few days, but a sandstorm forces them to land near the test zone where they have a run-in with some Bedouins. When one of the engineers saves the life of Tamal (Amedeo Nazzari), he takes the three to Atlantis, the fabled civilization which is buried in the Sahara. They meet Queen Antinea (Haya Harareet, pictured at right with Nazzari), ruler of Atlantis, and Tamal explains that the original queen's spirit inhabits every woman who takes the throne. Antinea is taken with the handsome Robert (Rad Fulton) while the only slightly less handsome Pierre (Jean-Louis Trintignant) hits it off with another outsider, Zinah. Once you find your way or are brought to Atlantis, the queen doesn't want you to leave, and when John, the third engineer (Georges Riviere), tries, he is caught and lowered into a pit which kills him by encasing him in gold. This puts Robert off and he calls the queen a fiend, which leads him to be banished to the mines where he and a fellow prisoner soon lead a rebellion. Meanwhile Pierre tries to warn anyone who'll listen about the coming bomb test which could destroy Atlantis.

This version is in color and the atom-age element gives this fantasy adventure a bit of a jolt, leading to a fairly impressive destruction scene at the end, though the final shot, showing the two survivors laughing as they realize that they just barely crossed over the test zone line in time, doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the film.  The costumes and sets are nice, but despite (or maybe because of) the color, not as mysteriously evocative as in the 1949 film. The Queen's leopard actually attacks someone here, and the slave rebellion scene is handled well, making this version the most exciting of the three. The actors are all fine, with Rad Fulton (known later in his career as Jim Westmoreland) the best-looking of the three movies' boy-toys. Co-directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who took over for the ailing Frank Borzage. The English-language dub available on YouTube is pan-and-scanned, and rather washed out, but there is a very nice full color widescreen print available, though it's in French with no English subtitles. (Pictured at left are Fulton, Riviere and Trintignant.) [YouTube]

Monday, July 20, 2015

L'ATLANTIDE (1932)

aka LOST ATLANTIS / MISTRESS OF ATLANTIS

This is the 1930s adaptation of the fantasy adventure novel by Pierre Benoit (see SIREN OF ATLANTIS for more background). The history of this film is tricky. Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst (PANDORA'S BOX), it was released in three different versions (English, French and German) with different actors in some of the roles, though German actress Brigitte Helm (METROPOLIS) starred in all three; I'm reviewing the English version here. The narrative plays out very much like SIREN OF ATLANTIS, even down to the same character names. Once again, Legionnaire St. Avit (John Stuart) confesses to the killing of his colleague Morhange (Gustav Diessel) and tells in flashback the story of how they were abducted and taken to the remains of the fabled lost land of Atlantis in the middle of the Sahara desert where Queen Antinea (Helm) rules, taking and dropping lovers at her whim.

There are elements from the original novel that are identical in this and the 1949 version: the Queen spends a lot of time playing chess, she somewhat ominously keeps a leopard as a pet (see picture above), she makes gold statues out of her former lovers, the two Legionnaires are pitted against each other by Antinea. In this film, there is a man named Torstenson who has descended into a debilitating addiction to hashish because of his unrequited love for the queen; in the '49 film, it was a drunk named Lindstrom.  Henry Daniell's slight lavender tint as the Antinea's assistant is trumped by Gibb McLaughlin's much campier portrayal of that character here. This version has an odd flashback within the flashback explaining Antinea's background: in Paris, she was a Can-Can dancer spirited away by an Arab admirer (I think that's right—it was a little unclear to me, but there definitely is a can-can dance sequence). But what both films have in common is a dreamy, mystical quality to the story and the visuals.  The '49 version is better looking, but not by much. This film has a huge statue of the Queen's face that makes for a striking backdrop for a couple of scenes (pictured at left). Helm has much less dialogue than Montez did, but she is almost as effective. Next up: the 1961 version. [YouTube]

Friday, July 17, 2015

SIREN OF ATLANTIS (1949)

French Legionnaire Andre St. Avit (Jean-Pierre Aumont) has finally returned to his Sahara desert outpost after being missing for months and confesses to having killed his fellow Legionnaire Jean Morhange (Dennis O'Keefe) while they were on a mission to find a missing archeologist who had an unusual idea: the legendary land of Atlantis was actually under the Sahara desert, the water under which it sunk having receded ages ago. In flashback to the mission, we see St. Avit and Morhange separated from the rest of the search party when a sandstorm hits; the two wind up under attack by armed natives and are taken to the Hoggar Mountains where the land of Atlantis does indeed exist, ruled by Queen Antinea (Maria Montez, pictured at right with Aumont), a beautiful woman with a voracious lust for handsome men. One problem: when she tires of their charms, she has them killed and encased in gold, to stand as statues in a kind of Hall of Former Lovers. St. Avit is picked by the Queen to visit her boudoir and soon he is in love; Morhange, though handsome enough to be future fodder for the Queen, figures out what's going on and plots with Tanit, one the Queen's handmaidens, to escape. When they are caught, Tanit decides to kill herself rather than face the death of the "slow fire" (in which people are lowered into a fiery pit in a manner reminiscent of the same kind of pit in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom). Morhange is kept alive, but when St. Avit assumes that the Queen has now adopted Morhange as her new boy toy, his jealousy leads to tragedy.

I have a lengthy backstory for this one. L'Atlantide is a French adventure novel first published in 1919 which has been adapted for the screen at least four times. The premise of the lost civilization of Atlantis winding up in the desert was a fascinating one to me in my youth, but I was never able to find one of the movies based on this story, and the book was out of print, at least in English. In the 90s, I found a VHS copy of the 1961 movie version, JOURNEY BENEATH THE DESERT, but the quality was so bad, I gave up 10 minutes in. One recent weekend, I happened by chance to come across this version on YouTube, in a beautiful print that I suspect was taken from a British DVD—the movie is not available on a region 1 disc. It's not a big budget film, but the sets are quite impressive, creating an appealing fantasy feeling; the lighting and cinematography help to create an effective mood of both unease and fascination. In fact, what I like best about this movie is its tone, a cross between the fantasy worlds of SHE (an exotic wonderland ruled by a cold woman) and LOST HORIZON (the film ends with St. Avit trying to make his way back to Atlantis despite the possible dangers he faces).

It helps that the acting is, if not stellar, more than adequate. Aumont is very appealing in the lead, O'Keefe (at left) almost as much, and Montez, though not a particularly subtle actress, flaunts her more exotic qualities quite nicely. Among the supporting players, Henry Daniell plays the Court Librarian with just a hint of gayness, Allan Nixon does a nice job as Lindstrom, a man driven to drink by his lust for the Queen, and Alexis Minotis is the embalmer, a former lover of the Queen who has had his tongue ripped out. The print looks complete, but there are some odd editing choices here and there. That same weekend, I found two other film versions of this story which I'll write up soon—and I've also since read the original novel in e-book form—but this is the one I found most enjoyable. [YouTube]

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES (1956)

A fisherman is yanked out of his canoe and into the deeps by a rather silly looking creature, a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Cowardly Lion. When the body is found on the beach, it's covered with radiation burns. This is just the latest in a series of mysterious deaths in the area that folks are blaming on a phantom. Bill Grant is a G-Man sent to investigate; he runs into a suit-and-tie wearing beachcomber who says his name is Ted Baxter (yes, the unintentional laugh is the highlight of the movie) but really he's oceanographer Ted Stevens, undercover for the government. (This strange bit of identity folderol seems put in just to use up a few minutes of screen time.)  Both men want to talk to Professor King, an oceanographer at a local university who is up to something no good, coming home late at night, soaking wet, and hiding things from his nosy secretary, who finds them anyway. Also hanging around are King's promising student George (who skulks around in the dark with a spear gun), Commie spymaster Wanda (for whom George is working), and King's daughter Lois (who has little to do except be worried about her dad and get involved in a deadly dull semi-romance with Stevens).  Overall, this has little to recommend it except to the die-hard B-sci-fi fan.  The monster, seen in the first moments of the film, is ridiculous, and most scenes are made up dumb dialogue lamely delivered by people who seem like they'd rather be anywhere except in front of a camera. The exceptions are Phillip Pine, who isn't half-bad as the student George, the would-be Russian spy, and Vivi Janiss as the secretary; she seems like a community-theater actress, but she at least puts some energy into her role. This was one of the first movies from the company that became American International, home to Roger Corman for many years. [TCM]

Monday, July 13, 2015

END OF THE ROAD (1970)

At his graduate school graduation, Jacob Horner (Stacy Keach) gets his degree, then walks like a zombie through the celebrating throngs, goes to a train station, and stands on the platform in a catatonic state as train after train goes by. A big burly psychiatrist (James Earl Jones) who goes by the name Doctor D notices him and takes him to an asylum for some shock treatment, not with electricity but with startling multi-media (lights, film clips, sounds) one-on-one therapy. Soon he releases Horner who gets a job teaching grammar at a local university. He still goes catatonic at times—at one point, not even able to finish a casual phone conversation—but he slowly begins to fit in by "acting" the role of a "normal" college professor. One faculty couple, Joe and Rennie (Harris Yulin and Dorothy Tristan) takes him under their wing, but Joe turns out to be almost as damaged as Jacob, mistreating his wife and strutting around when he thinks he's alone playing with guns and acting like Hitler. Soon Jacob and Rennie are having an affair, Joe finds out, and when she becomes pregnant, only two options present themselves: Rennie's suicide or an abortion.

This film, based on a John Barth novel, is very much a piece of its time. The story it tells is (mostly) a recognizably human tale but it's told in an artificial, surreal way which keeps our emotional response a bit distant, and which ultimately makes it difficult to sympathize with anyone. Stacy Keach gives a very good performance, doing the best he can with a character we never really get to know—because he's really more a stand-in for the Alienated American of the 1960s. The frequent newsreel-footage sequences which interrupt the film, and which also appear during the Doctor's therapy sessions, make it clear that one of the movie’s theses is that insanity is a proper response to the times (see also KING OF HEARTS, ZABRISKIE POINT, M*A*S*H). But even though Keach is often in an affectless state, he has enough energy and charisma to keep us interested in his character's fate—which is left most unsatisfactorily up in the air at the end. Yulin is good as an unlikable character, and Tristan gives the most emotionally rounded, realistic performance in the movie. Jones (pictured with Keach at right) is problematic; he bravely goes balls-out as the doctor who may be crazier than his patients, but he suffers from Symbolism Syndrome worse than even Keach. Grayson Hall has a one-scene role as a teacher who briefly becomes Keach's lover, and M. Emmett Walsh and James Coco are visible as asylum patients. An interesting movie, worth seeing for Keach and Tristan. [DVD]