Friday, July 03, 2015

DON’T GAMBLE WITH STRANGERS (1946)

On a cruise ship, slick card sharp Mike Sarno (Kane Richmond, pictured) observes a poker game and notices that the supposedly wide-eyed innocent Fay (Bernadene Hayes) keeps winning; he realizes she's fleecing the men, so he gets into the game and fleeces her. Later, she confronts him and asks for a part of her winnings back, and they wind up partnering, posing as brother and sister so they can double their gains. We learn that Sarno has a brother who owed a $4,000 debt to gambler Morelli and is in jail for embezzlement—he stole bank funds to pay the debt and was caught, though he managed to hide the money. Sarno tells his brother that he'll get the money and feed it a little at a time to his wife, but instead he takes the bulk of it for himself. Three more plotlines develop: 1) Sarno and Fay take on a long-term fleecing project on John Randall, eventually running him into near-bankruptcy; 2) Sarno starts romancing Ruth (Gloria Warren), who is dating Randall's son Bob (Peter Cookson) who works in the DA's office, making Fay jealous; 3) Sarno catches Morelli trying to cheat the patrons of his gambling establishment by faking a robbery, so he wrests control of the casino from Morelli. It should come as no surprise that Sarno, having made a few enemies, winds up dead, but who’s the killer?

This plot-heavy Monogram B-movie (not really a noir as some claim) should be more fun than it is, and I think it's that twisty plot that’s the problem. It’s easy to follow, but at 70 minutes, not much gets developed past the bare bones so there's little at stake for the audience in terms of caring about characters or situations. The acting is good, however, especially Richmond (who reminded me of a low-budget Jon Hamm), Philip Van Zandt as Morelli, and Charles Trowbridge as Ruth's guardian. For this to work as a film noir, we'd have to be more invested in the Sarno character; as it is, when he's killed, I didn't really care a bit. OK, but not very compelling. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

BATMAN (1943)

In this serial, the first big screen appearance of the iconic superhero, wealthy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his teenage ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) fight crime in the identities of the mysterious Batman and Robin. Here, they spend fifteen chapters (roughly 15 minutes each) fighting the evil Japanese Prince Daka (J. Carrol Naish, pictured at right with his thugs holding Batman) as he plots to take over the world from his headquarters behind a "Japanese House of Horrors" attraction. Daka has used a machine that can turn people into his unthinking, obeying zombies to trap Dr. Warren into helping him with his radium-powered ray gun. Warren's niece Linda (Shirley Patterson) goes to her friend Bruce Wayne for help, but he's an indolent playboy who always disappoints her. Of course, we see that in his secret identity of Batman, he's on the case. As in all serials of the era, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger of Batman and/or Robin in mortal danger, and each chapter begins showing how they get out of their predicament and continue to search for Dr. Warren.

As serials go, this is not bad, though there are several obstacles to current-day audiences' full enjoyment: Batman's costume is ill-fitting and a little shoddy at times (not to mention the occasional sweat stains); there is no Batmobile, just a plain old sedan; the Batcave is very small and its atmosphere consists mostly of small bats flitting around; being issued during WWII, its treatment of Daka is unapologetically racist. But there are positives for folks who are already serials fans: the cliffhangers are fun, as are the fisticuffs; there's a alligator pit; the "Japanese House of Horrors" is a nifty concoction, though not used as much as it could be; Wilson makes for a particularly shallow Bruce Wayne, much to the irritation of Linda; the thickly wavy-haired Croft makes for an athletic Robin; William Austin plays Alfred the butler as goofy comic relief, which is different from the usual approach; the scuba-head zombie invention (see picture at left with Shirley Patterson becoming zombified) is fun. For a couple of chapters, in an unusual development for a serial, Bruce Wayne takes on the identity of Chuck White, a small-time thug who comes looking for a job with Daka’s men. There’s also a backwoods prospector who enlivens a chapter. Generally, I’d say this is not the serial to start with if you’ve never seen one, but if you’re already a fan, it’s a must-see. In the mid-60s, at the dawn of the camp era and just before the Batman TV show began airing, all 15 chapters were shown theatrically in one showing as "An Evening with Batman and Robin" for audiences to laugh and heckle at. [TCM]

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

SO LONG LETTY (1929)

Letty (Charlotte Greenwood) is a wise-cracking dynamo who works at a Florida resort hotel as a beautician. Her husband Tommy is tired of his wife's constant ebullience and the fact that she's never at home to clean and cook. Their next door neighbors, Grace and Harry, have the opposite problem; Grace is a household homebody and he wants to live it up. One night, the couples decide to swap mates for a week, with the wives hoping it will make their hubbies appreciate them more. Meanwhile, Harry's rich uncle Claude (Claude Gillingwater) arrives for a visit with his two granddaughters who aspire to flapperdom; they first stop at the hotel where Greenwood's antics irritate Claude so much that he leaves and heads straight for Harry's. Complications ensue.

The above is not a chronological summary; the movie actually begins with Claude and his daughters tangling with Letty at the hotel then moves to the stories of the neighbors. Despite Claude's importance at the beginning of the film, he vanishes from the action for a quite a while and the focus is really on the mate-swapping. Although this is an early talkie, it doesn't really feel like one; it rarely feels stagy or awkwardly paced. Your tolerance for this, however, will depend on how you feel about the lanky, raucous Greenwood, who gets to do a couple of her trademark leg lifts—with a nice visual payoff at one point when her husband tries to imitate her and lift his leg over their gate. Patsy Ruth Miller (as Grace) and Gillingwater turn in so-so performances, but Grant Withers (pictured above with Greenwood) is a little better as the restless Harry. There are a handful of awkwardly placed songs, but it's not really a full-fledged musical. The wife-swapping is the most interesting element here, though a brief reference implies that they will not be swapping in the bedroom. A unique relic of the early sound era. [TCM]

Monday, June 29, 2015

I SHOT BILLY THE KID (1950)

It's July, 1878, and Billy the Kid (Don Barry) and his sidekick Charley (Tom Neal) make an escape from what turns out to be the last battle in the infamous Lincoln County War and take up life as outlaws. Later, they run across sheriff Pat Garrett (Robert Lowery), wounded by Indians, and Billy saves his life, which leads Garrett to go to New Mexico governor Lew Wallace and ask him to extend a pardon to Billy, as Wallace did to the other participants in the "war," in exchange for Billy giving up his guns. Billy meets with Wallace but turns down the offer and goes back into hiding, seeing his girlfriend Francesca when he can. Eventually, Billy is captured, escapes, and is hunted down by a reluctant Garrett, and is finally caught and killed at Francesca's house.

This is a drab and generally lifeless retelling of the Billy the Kid story. The biggest problem isn't the production, which seems to have been done on the high end of a B-picture budget, but with Barry, the actor playing Billy. The film claims to be faithful to history—it's framed by an older Garrett visiting Billy's grave—but it's a big mistake to have an actor who is almost 40 playing the under-21 Billy, especially when it's pointed out how young he is. It feels like Barry is trying desperately to channel Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy in his performance, but it's a low-energy attempt that fails, and Billy just seems tired and worn out from first to last. I liked Lowery as Garrett (pictured above), and Tom Neal as the sidekick—actually, Neal could have done a much better Billy even though he was almost as old as Barry. Most of the gunplay scenes are half-hearted at best. In case you couldn't tell, I don’t think there is much here to recommend this film, which is sad because the print I saw was sparklingly clear. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948)

In Los Angeles, an off-duty cop is heading home one night when he stops a man acting suspiciously in front of a radio store. The would-be thief (Richard Basehart) shoots the cop and runs to his car, but the cop lives long enough to ram his car into the thief's car. Basehart escapes on foot, and when the police arrive, they find a small arsenal and some Navy radio equipment in the trunk of the car. Basehart, who lives alone with just a dog, seems to shun people. He has a thriving business selling electronic contraptions to a retail dealer (Whit Bissell), but actually the devices he sells are stolen from others. Soon the cops are onto him and there's a shootout at Bissell's office. The wounded Basehart escapes, removes the bullet, and stitches himself up. He then goes on a crime rampage, holding up stores and making his escapes through the city's storm drain system. He remains an enigma to the police, and the sergeant leading the case (Scott Brady) gets so frustrated that he's ordered to take time off, but when a clue pops up, Brady returns and eventually leads his men on a stakeout of Basehart's apartment which leads to a tense chase through the L.A. storm sewer system.

This is often mentioned as a particularly good example of film noir, and it often has the look and feel of one, but I maintain it's more a particularly good example of the documentary-style police procedural. Robert Porfirio calls it noir because of the "completely alienated noir protagonist," but Basehart's character is not developed at all—although we learn a few facts about him, his personality and motivation remain murky at best. The cop (Brady) is fleshed out a bit more, but except for his frustration, he doesn't seem to fit the conflicted noir hero template. This takes nothing away from the movie, which is well made and tense, with an excellent central performance from Basehart who shifts between coldly calculating and sweatily psycho. The noir look of the film is perfect, with lots of light and shadow, courtesy cinematographer John Alton and uncredited director Anthony Mann who stepped in to help the credited Alfred Werker. Jack Webb has a supporting role and supposedly was inspired by this film to create his TV show Dragnet—this film is narrated but the cops have much more personality than the TV cops had. Recommended. [DVD]

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

SECRET EVIDENCE (1941)

David Harrison is leaving his law office to become assistant prosecuting attorney, and everyone is sad that his faithful secretary Linda isn't going along with him; instead, he proposes to her, and she says yes. But that night, her ex-boyfriend Tony shows up; he's just served four years for robbery and he's come to claim both Linda and the stolen jewels he left with her kid brother Jerry. He's particularly anxious to get the stash because his fellow thug Sniffy (whom we soon figure out is a cocaine addict) is after him to get his share. But Linda made Jerry hand the booty over to the police and put him on the straight and narrow path. That night Linda and Jerry visit Tony to try and put everything behind them, and so does Sniffy, who promptly shoots Tony, seriously but not fatally. Unfortunately, Jerry brought along a gun which winds up getting left behind, and soon Jerry is being sought in connection with the assault. David gets assigned the case and, though he is urged to recuse himself because of his connection with the family, he doesn't. Will he be able to produce proof that the shot didn't come from Jerry's gun—or will he tarnish his reputation before he has a chance to try even one case?

A par-for-the-course Poverty Row crime drama which could have used some beefing up in the story department; everything that happened in the past with Tony and Jerry and Linda is left maddeningly ambiguous, and a little more creativity by the screenwriters might have the made the characters more interesting. Instead, we don't really care much about the outcome of the situation for anyone, especially David (Charles Quigley)—who gets little screen time despite being the ostensible leading man—and Linda. Marjorie Reynolds (HOLIDAY INN) is OK as Linda, but the best acting comes from Ward McTaggert (pictured with Reynolds) as the villainous Tony.  Howard Masters makes a somewhat intriguing kid brother—it's hard to tell if he's giving a nuanced performance or just has no idea how to act. Not a waste of time, but not necessarily one to search out. [YouTube]

Friday, June 19, 2015

FASHION MODEL (1945)

There is trouble at the fashion house of Madame Celeste. One night, the obnoxious but rich Mrs. Van Allen keeps everyone past closing as she chooses a dress while insulting all the models and trying the patience of her milquetoastish husband. Stock boy Jimmy (Robert Lowery) is dating wholesome model Peggy (Marjorie Weaver), but when sluttish model Yvonne makes a pass at him, she and Peggy tangle. Later, when the Van Allens have finally left, Jimmy opens the dumbwaiter and finds Yvonne's dead body. There is no lack of suspects: Yvonne had caused problems for Madame Celeste and her husband Jacques, who is the real designer behind the Madame Celeste name; Yvonne was also dating the older, wealthy Mr. Davis who had given her a very expensive brooch that he now wants back; and because Jimmy was overheard telling Peggy he'd strangle Vvonne to get her off his back, he's the prime suspect. When Madame Celeste's husband is found dead in a delivery truck driven by Jimmy, Jimmy's arrested, but Peggy dresses up as his sweet old granny and springs him; together, they try to find the real killer.

You might not guess from that summary, but this B-thriller is primarily a comedy, and it throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen trying to keep us amused. It works on occasion, especially near the end when Jimmy and Peggy, pretending to be mannequins, are put in a store window and undressed by an addled window dresser (see picture at right), much to the amusement of a growing crowd on the street. Lowery and Weaver make an appealing couple, and Weaver has a little more backbone than the average B-heroine. Tim Ryan is about average as the bumbling cop, and Lorna Gray makes for a nicely nasty Yvonne. I also enjoyed the short appearances of Nell Craig as Mrs. Van Allen. The mystery plot itself is fun with (for me) an unexpected twist in the identity of the culprit. Enjoyable B-fluff. [Netflix streaming]

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

TRIUMPH OF THE SON OF HERCULES (1961)

aka TRIUMPH OF MACISTE

This Italian muscle man movie is very much like all the others. We have a hero named Maciste who is referred to in the American print as a son of Hercules in order to grab the audiences that made the Steve Reeves Hercules films popular here. The actor playing him, Kirk Morris, at left, is appropriately muscled and a little more baby-faced that the average peplum hero, and he is exceptionally good at looking pained and sweaty during his torture scenes. The plot involves a wicked queen who is sacrificing young women to the gods, with muscled hero Maciste helping to lead a revolt.

What's a little unusual about this one is that it takes place not in Italy but in the ancient city of Memphis in Egypt. Prince Iram, the rightful but exiled ruler, sees a series of omens that indicate now may be a good time to try and topple Queen Tenefi (who we know is decadent because she takes milk baths and has doves fluttering around—not to mention the human sacrifices at the Mountain of Thunder) and when Maciste helps save Antea and her villagers from being dragged off to sacrifice, Iram enlists him to head off to Memphis and stop the sacrifices. A silk merchant helps sneak Maciste and his men into the city but then betrays them. Maciste is chained to two horses to be split in half, but after a good lot of sweating and muscle-bulging, the queen lets him go and uses magic to erase his memory and make him her slave (another plotpoint used in other peplum films). There is plotting galore by various factions, but given the title, it's no spoiler to note that eventually, Maciste regains his memory, exerts his muscles a few more times—I counted at least four separate scenes of Morris sweating and straining—and triumphs against Queen Tenefi, with some help from the exploding Mountain of Thunder. Generally predictable and padded-out in places, but no worse than average.  [Streaming]

Monday, June 15, 2015

YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW (1966)

Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner, at right) is 19, a virgin, lives with his well-off parents, and works as a page at the New York Public Library; wearing roller skates, he zips around retrieving material from the basement and sending it upstairs in a dumbwaiter. His buddy Raef (Tony Bill) is much slicker and more sociable, and is always giving Bernard advice about getting out of his rut. Bernard's mom (Geraldine Page) is a rather nightmarish overly-protective type, and his father (Rip Torn), who is a department head at the library, is both stern and also not quite living in the real world. Mom and Dad decide to let him live alone in Manhattan in a boarding house run by the eccentric Miss Thing (Julie Harris), who is instructed by Bernard's mom to keep a close eye on her son's comings and goings. His dad's secretary, the sweet Amy (Karen Black), has a crush on Bernard but he's oblivious; he only has eyes for the mysterious blond waif Barbara Darling (Elizabeth Hartman) whom he keeps seeing around the city. When he finds out she's an actress in a off-Broadway avant-garde play, he sends her a fan letter and she replies, initiating a relationship that, we can tell, won't last long, and it doesn't, culminating in an NYC street chase involving a Gutenberg Bible and a prosthetic leg.

This early Francis Ford Coppola film is mostly delightful, tricked out with some 60s style effects—hand-held camera, surreal subjective touches—that have dated but are not too irritating. At heart, it's a standard coming-of-age story and Kastner is perfect as the geeky bespectacled hero, who, in my eyes, is geekier when he takes his glasses off. Karen Black (at left) was, as far as I know, never again to play such a vanilla, mainstream role; she's young and lovely and totally right as the sweet girl who doesn't give up—though whether Bernard is worth the wait may be debatable as his character is far more acted-upon than active, and though he's likeable, his personality is left rather vague. Torn and Page are a little too caricatured, and Harris is your standard slightly nutty old maid, though I enjoyed the very handsome Tony Bill, and Elizabeth Hartman's take on the heartless breaker-of-hearts is just different enough to be refreshing. Also featured: Dolph Sweet as a cop who is sweet on Harris, Michael Dunn as an actor friend of Hartman's, and some footage from Coppola's earlier DEMENTIA 13 and Roger Corman's THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM.

One area in which the movie falls down a bit is in tone. It begins with lots of vaguely surreal touches, mostly dramatizing Bernard's inner daydreaming state. My favorite scene has him looking at racist graffiti that says, "N-----s go home"; he riffs on where home is, which is the heart, and on where the heart is (according to the Robert Burns poem, my heart's in the highlands) and sees the graffiti as "N-----s go to the Highlands," then imagines a merry band of African-Americans in kilts, dancing in Scotland. Yes, too much of this might have sunk the movie in leaden whimsy, but I could have used a little more. By the end, I suppose the point that is being made is that, in the climactic chase scene, his real life has actually become a bit surreal—though the last sequence of Bernard and Amy in a pretzel factory is just plain puzzling. If you don't have an aversion to 60s shenanigans, this is well worth a look. [TCM]

Friday, June 12, 2015

MYSTERY PLANE (1939)

In the fall of 1923, young Tommy Tompkins goes to see his hero, WWI ace pilot Brandy Rand, in a barnstorming exhibition, and manages to get Rand to visit him afterward and look at his scrapbooks of Rand's exploits. The pilot is clearly touched by the boy's devotion. Fifteen years later, Tommy, known as "Tailspin Tommy" for his daring in the air, is a pilot working at an independent airport run by Paul Smith. They're testing a device they hope to sell to the military that would automatically drop bombs over a target, and when Tommy and his sidekick Skeeter take the plane up, the device works, but when the plane malfunctions, Tommy has to pull it out of a, yep, tailspin to save the device, the plane, and himself. The Army brass is impressed, as is a group of crooks hoping to get their hands on the device to sell to the highest bidder. And they've snagged Rand, now an alcoholic mess, to help them. Tommy and Skeeter are shanghaied by the bad guys, and Tommy is shocked to find his former hero involved. Even worse, when Tommy's best gal Betty Lou is kidnapped, he may be forced to work with the villains.

Tailspin Tommy was a comic book character who was the star of a couple of serials in the early 30s, and who was brought back by B-studio Monogram in four short films, all in 1939.  The later DANGER FLIGHT is straightforward kiddie matinee material, with Tommy the head of a boys' club. This one is a little less aimed at kids, and despite the poor reviews this film has on IMDb, I found it to be fast-paced and enjoyable. John Trent is the all-American straight arrow hero and manages not come off as an insipid drip; Milburn Stone (pictured above to the right of Trent) is a notch above the usual comic sidekick; Marjorie Reynolds is serviceable as Betty Lou; best is George Lynn as Brandy, who makes his character very sympathetic. There are some good ass-whooping fisticuffs at the climax. [DVD]