Friday, February 23, 2018

THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER (1963)

A man (in thick obvious make-up) rigs an elevator to so that the rider, John Devitt, will be killed, then he crosses Devitt's name off of a list, leaving only one name, Adrian Messenger. Next, we see retired MI5 agent Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott, pictured) at a fox hunt at the estate of the Marquis of Gleneyre where he is approached by his old friend, Adrian Messenger, and given a copy of the list with his name on it that we've already seen. Messenger asks Gethryn to track down these people while he takes a trip to Canada. Gethryn agrees, but at the airport, Messenger takes a kindly vicar's overflow luggage with him on the plane. We then see the vicar enter an airport restroom and remove his facial make-up and the next thing we know, the plane has exploded thanks to a bomb in the vicar's luggage. A surviving passenger named Le Borg hears Messenger's dying words, and he is visited in the hospital by both Gethryn and Messenger's cousin Lady Jocelyn (Dana Wynter). After some sleuthing and tracking down of men and information, Gethryn realizes that all the men on the list were POWs in Burma and the killer, George Brougham (Kirk Douglas), has been using elaborate disguises to kill of these men to hide the secret that he was an informer during the war which might stymie his claim to the Marquis's estate. But he needs to get rid of one more person to inherit an estate and live easy: the Marquis' young grandson.

I remember seeing this overly tricky and somewhat fussy mystery thriller at the age of 9 and realizing that it felt different from the average Hollywood movie. Back then, I couldn't put my finger on why, but now I see that: 1) it has the feel of what would today be an indie movie—and indeed, director John Huston frequently made his films outside the studio system, even if a studio did step in to distribute them; 2) it was made in Ireland; 3) chunks of dialogue are rather badly overdubbed. At the time of release, the big draw for the film was the presence of several big name actors (Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster) playing cameos in heavy disguise, though this ends up being more distracting than fun, and certainly not essential to the storyline, except for the disguises of Kirk Douglas, whose role is much bigger than a cameo. The mystery is not terribly involving, though Scott makes the movie worth watching. I suspect Huston's heart was more into filming in Ireland and going on fox hunts rather than in making a coherent movie. Also with Herbert Marshall and Gladys Cooper in their twilight years. Interesting more as a curio than anything else. [TCM]

Thursday, February 22, 2018

CHINA PASSAGE (1937)

Adventurers Baldwin and Dugan are hired to deliver the valuable Soo diamond to a man named Chang in Shanghai. But that's the easy part: at Chang's house of Chang as they hand over the diamond, shooting breaks out in the streets. Soldiers set off gas bombs to subdue the unruly crowd and in the middle of the fuss, a figure in a gas mask makes off with the diamond. The police round up some civilian stragglers in the street and coincidentally, all of them wind up on the SS Asiatic, headed to San Francisco. Baldwin and Dugan are warned that they must retrieve the diamond or pay with their lives, so the two book passage on the Asiatic as well. The suspects include Mrs. Collins, a flighty Southern lady; Barton, who is constantly drunk and who thinks the ship is headed to Sydney—or is that befuddlement all an act?; Durand, a British mystery novelist; the possibly sinister Dr. Fang Tu; and attractive American Jane Dunn, who, we find out, is actually a secret U.S. customs agent. Baldwin flirts with Dunn who is slow to respond, but after she discovers her box of chocolates has been poisoned, and as other suspects begin winding up dead, the two work together to find the culprit.

This B-movie starts out well but becomes a bit of a slog halfway through when [Spoiler!] its most charismatic actor is killed off. The main character, Baldwin, is played by the rather low-energy Vinton Hayworth. He went on to have a lengthy career playing uncredited bits in films and supporting roles on television (he had a recurring role as General Schaeffer on I Dream of Jeannie) but as a B-leading man, he lacked that indefinable something that would have made audiences want to spend time with him—no twinkle in the eye, no bluster, no intensity, no comic touch. In a smaller role he might have fared better, but he stands out in no way at all here. His sidekick, Dugan, is played by the very appealing and energetic Gordon Jones (who later played the Green Hornet in a 40s serial and he keeps things fairly lively until he's bumped off around the 30-minute mark. Unfortunately, there's no one else in the cast to keep us invested in the proceedings; it's a shame that the two actors didn’t switch roles. Philip Ahn is appropriately mysterious as Fang Tu but he has little to do until the climax; Dick Elliott (the man on the porch who says "Youth is wasted on the wrong people" in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) rather overdoes the drunken bit; Constance Worth, as Jane Dunn, is only slightly more animated than her leading man. I kept watching due to the (rather mild) momentum of the whodunit plot and there is a satisfying conclusion, but I can't whole-heartedly recommend this except to fans of Gordon Jones (pictured to the right of Hayworth). [TCM]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE SNAKE PEOPLE (1971)

aka ISLE OF THE SNAKE PEOPLE

A college freshman from a remedial writing class apparently wrote the opening narration to this movie: "During many centuries in various parts of the world, various diabolical rites and ceremonies have been practiced in homage to various sinister gods who were believed to have many supernatural powers." This is a repetitious and long-winded way of saying, "This movie is about voodoo." On Korbai, an isolated Caribbean island, we witness one of the above ceremonies: a tall figure in black wearing dark goggles, a dwarf in a top hat and dark glasses, and a dissolute-looking man in a dingy white jacket preside over a ritual to bring a recently-buried young woman back from the dead by killing a chicken and spreading its blood over her opened grave. Of course, there is some sexy dancing courtesy Kalea (Tongolele, pictured) and native writhing going on as well, and sure enough, the dead woman soon brushes off the dirt and rises from the ground, ready to be a zombie worker in the cane fields of the elderly Von Molder (Boris Karloff). In Wicker Man fashion, the zealous police captain Labesch has arrived on the island to put a stop to the rumored voodoo activity, and he finds the current head of the police force, Lt. Wilhelm, a bit on the lazy playboy side, ignoring the rumors and suggesting that Labesch should just live and let live. Another island newcomer is Annabella, niece to Von Molder, who has come to get her uncle's help in establishing her "Anti-Saloon League." What no one knows is that, not only does the respectable Von Molder use zombie labor, but he also serves as the feared voodoo priest Damballah (the creepy guy in the goggles). Technically, this should be a spoiler since he's not unmasked until the end, but it's obvious from the get-go—and all the film credit sites on the Internet list Karloff in both roles. There’s also (get ready) a gang of cannibal women roaming the night, dances during which women put the heads of live snakes in their mouths, an erotic and somewhat necrophiliac dream in which a woman is about to make love to herself (I think…), a human sacrifice in order to conjure up the dreaded voodoo lord Baron Samedi, and experiments in telekinesis which seem to have no connection at all to the main plot.

This movie is a mess—it's one of a notorious bunch of low-budget Mexican horror films that Boris Karloff filmed during the last year of his life. The films were made by a Mexican company and filmed in Mexico, but because Karloff was ailing, he apparently shot his scenes in California. But though Karloff may not have been in prime physical shape, he's still the best thing in the movie. Actually, the film could have been interesting—the story and characters have potential, but the slapdash production values make it hard to sit through. Mexican actress Julissa is bland as the niece and Rafael Bertrand is acceptable as the new cop (though like most everyone else, he is badly dubbed). Carlos East (pictured at left) as Wilhelm has an appealing lackadaisical near-decadent feel to him, but not so decadent so that he can't change and eventually be a love interest to the tee-totaling niece. Single-named actor SantanĂ³n is appropriately creepy as the dwarf who appears to actually behead a chicken on camera; Quinton Bulnes is fine as Klinsor, the guy in the white jacket who tries, against orders, to bed the zombie woman; best of all is exotic dancer Tongolele (pictured at top) as the sexy voodoo priestess who doubles as Karloff's sexy housekeeper. She takes her part seriously, and, as Eve Harrington says about the Marilyn Monroe character in ALL ABOUT EVE, "She looks like she might burn down a plantation." Actually, it's not fire but explosives that lead to the destructive climax. Despite spending much of the first half-hour thinking about bailing, I enjoyed this in a bad-movie way, though I don't think I'd recommend it to all. I've been afraid to see the other Mexican films he was in, but after getting through this one, I might try to track the others down. [DVD]

Friday, February 16, 2018

THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950)

We see two men dispose of a body in the desert at night. When the cops investigate the death of the man, a known gambler and gangster, they find home movies which feature Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford), a rich socialite who has gone missing from her home in Desert Springs. We then see her show up at her parents' home near an oil field in Texas where they live in reduced circumstances. Lorna is actually their daughter, Ethel Whitehead, and the rest of the movie is her story in flashback. Married to a gruff man she doesn't really like, she leaves him when their young son is killed in a car accident while the two adults were arguing about whether they could afford to buy him a new bike. She goes to New York City and gets a lowly retail job but is soon discovered by a dressmaker and becomes an in-demand model. From there, it's a quick climb into better society thanks to gambling house manager Grady. She meets the shy accountant Martin Blankford (Kent Smith) and while casually dating him, gets him a job with Grady. She soon comes to the attention of George Castleman (David Brian), the head of the national crime syndicate and, wanting the good things in life while she can appreciate them, becomes his mistress and brings Martin along to work for him. George hooks her up with a legit socialite who remakes Ethel as an oil heiress named Lorna and soon she's showing up on the society pages. When George suspects Nick, an underling of his, is trying to break out on his own, he sends Lorna to California to get the goods on him; he's handsome and charming and soon Lorna is torn between the two men (and don't forget Martin who complicates things). In the end, a desert shootout (the results of which we've already seen) is inevitable.

This is one of the best of Joan Crawford's post-Mildred Pierce films, before she insisted on leading men who were too young and shoulder pads that were too big. She is spot on here as a determined woman who goes looking for happiness before it's too late, but instead finds mostly misery. The movie is dripping in film noir atmosphere and themes (a conflicted central figure, murder, an underworld milieu) and is well acted all around. Crawford is quite good, and in her early scenes as Ethel, wears less make-up than I think she ever has, looking believable as a worn-out housewife—but don't worry, she makes up for that lack later as socialite Lorna. David Brian is a bit colorless, but Smith rounds his character out well, and Steve Cochran (pictured with Crawford) is, as usual, quite convincing as a charming but dangerous fellow. Richard Egan has a small but effective role as Ethel's husband. Even though I am generally a Crawford fan, this film was not on my radar, but I'm glad I stumbled across it. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

ZORRO VS. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1963)

Sometime in the 1600s, France and Spain are engaged in a lengthy border dispute focusing on the fortress of Vandremond in the Pyrenees. The royal lady Dona Isabella is taken prisoner by the French and held at the castle of St. Dennis under a plan masterminded by Cardinal Richelieu. The masked Spanish hero Zorro (Gordon Scott), who, under his mask is the somewhat foppish Count Teruel, vows to free her. He also has to deal with the Three Musketeers (actually four, since D'Artagnan is a full-fledged member now) who are first against him and later fight on his side. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about as much of the plot of this mess that I could follow. To be fair, the plot is not the point—the point is swordfights, damsels in distress, and handsome heroes. All those are delivered, though in conspicuously low-budget versions, but the overriding tone here is comedy. Instead of comic relief, the action scenes function as relief for the rather mild comic antics.  This is really a costume version of the Italian muscleman movies, with elaborate period garb instead of bare chests and loincloths. The history is, as near as I can tell, totally bogus—the narrator is deliberately vague about the year and says that history has ignored this little war, but I still had problems keeping the sides separate and figuring out just what Richelieu had in mind with his kidnapping plot. Gordon Scott is nicely heroic. Tony Zamperla makes a handsome D'Artagnan, but unfortunately the Musketeers are not developed at all as individual characters, being mostly just a lump of swashbucklers. Franco Fantasia is a solid villain. The dubbing is terrible, not so much in terms of matching mouth movements, but the voices themselves are often unpleasant. The print I saw on Amazon Prime steaming is presented widescreen but is distorted, with the picture squeezed, so I had to adjust my TV set to get an undistorted widescreen image, albeit one with the sides cut off. A so-so novelty which might help you pass a boring Saturday afternoon. [Amazon]

Thursday, February 08, 2018

THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO (1935)

A space is reserved for a M. Gallard at a bacarrat table in a Monte Carlo gambling house. We assume Gallard must be a VIP, and when he (Ronald Colman) arrives, he looks the part. He sits down and proceeds to have a 15-game winning streak, winning millions of francs and forcing the club to shut the game down. By that time, he has attracted much attention and he tells the press that this was a once-in-a-lifetime bit of luck, says he's never coming back, and suggests that others not fall for the game. Of course, the club is not happy about this and they try to get him to stay, to no avail. On the train back to Paris, Gallard's eye is caught by the lovely Helen (Joan Bennett), traveling with her brother (Colin Clive). We discover that Gallard is a former Russian aristocrat living the low life, driving a cab in an expatriate community, and with his winnings, he decides to follow (some might say "stalk") Helen on a train trip to Switzerland. Eventually, she thaws a bit and he finds out that she about to enter into a loveless marriage with an elderly banker just for financial security, and when she finds out about his winnings, she asks him to take her away for a last fling at Monte Carlo. Well, it's not too difficult to figure out that she's not what she seems—she's been hired by the casino to lure Gallard back so he'll bet and lose his previous winnings.

This romantic comedy has the feel of several other films about love and money and disguise, from MIDNIGHT to THE LADY EVE, but this is a rather limp take on the genre. I assume this was produced as a B-movie second feature—a running time of only 70 minutes, a weak script, generally indifferent acting. The pace, while not exactly dreadfully slow, is not especially snappy and the very presence of the somewhat wooden Ronald Colman ensures that this will never be mistaken for a screwball comedy. There is little chemistry between Colman and leading lady Bennett (who, like Colman, lacks the verve that these proceedings call for). The film is choppily episodic, feeling like chunks of backstory have been removed. On the other hand, because it's short, it’s not hard to sit through, and there is some pleasure in watching everything fall into place for the film's predictable but satisfying ending. Nigel Bruce doesn't get enough screen time as Colman's valet, another Russian expatriate. Inspired by a popular British ditty of the late 19th century which can be heard under the opening credits. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950)

In Africa, adventurer Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger) hires himself out as a guide for hunters, though we can see that he is often disgusted with the amateurs that he works for. A widower, he misses his son in England and is thinking of leaving Africa to go home when he is approached by Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother Jack (Richard Carlson) to help them find her husband who came to Africa to find the rumored treasures of King Solomon’s mines but hasn't been heard from in years. Allan is inclined to say no until they offer him 5000 pounds, which he reckons he could send to his son. He believes the mines are a myth, but when he sees that they have a map that Curtis sent showing the mines across a desert in unexplored territory, Allan decides to help them. Of course, the trip is no picnic: first, Allan has to get Elizabeth, a proper British lady, to wear fewer clothes in the heat. Along the way, there are threats from spiders and snakes and stampeding zebras, and halfway through the trip, most of the natives accompanying them flee when they recognize a spear belong to a hostile tribe. They run across a lone white man (Hugo Haas) who offers to help them, but Allan recognizes him as a wanted murderer, and figures he plans to keep all of them as food for the locals, so they get away. The one loyal native left is a deposed Watusi king, and after they cross the desert, they realize that the mines are in Watusi territory, so he may be of more help then they imagined. When they finally find the mines (and the treasure, and Curtis's skeleton), they find themselves trapped by the rebel king and his forces. If they can get out, can the real king help them get back home unmolested?

The 1885 book this is based on, by H. Rider Haggard, seems to be the template for most of the pulp fiction tales of fabulous lost worlds in unexplored lands. I don't know if this might have influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs when he created Tarzan in 1912, but it certainly seems to have been a template for the many Tarzan movies (and other African adventures) what with its white hunter, maiden in distress, dangerous animals, treacherous creep in disguise, mysterious map, and lost treasure. There have been other film versions of this story, but this one has the advantage of Technicolor and location shooting in Africa, so when the story bogs down or becomes too predictable, you can still enjoy the backgrounds. Because this was an "A" production, the acting is a notch or two above most of the Tarzan films. Granger is not of my favorite actors—it always seems to me that he thinks he is a little too good for the movies he's in—but he is adequate here though he lacks in the heroic physique area; Kerr, who is too good for this, is a good trooper and shines; Carlson does the best he can with a part that recedes into the background as sparks fly between Granger and Kerr. Not exactly a must-see—at 100 minutes, it could stand to be 15 minutes shorter—but mildly interesting, especially as an example of the kind of movie Hollywood doesn't (for better or worse) make any more. BTW, Haggard spelled the character's name "Quatermain," but MGM stuck an "R" in there, to make it easier for Americans to say, perhaps.[TCM]

Thursday, February 01, 2018

BENGAZI (1955)

Scottish police inspector Richard Carlson, stationed in postwar Bengazi, is after a ring of thieves whose latest accomplishment is stealing a British government jeep. The ring is headed by a shady American (Richard Conte) and a beefy bar owner (Victor McLaglen) and they intend to use the jeep to go out in the desert and find a deserted mosque in which fleeing Nazis may have buried some stolen Arab gold. Complicating their plan is McLaglen's daughter (Mala Powers) who shows up unannounced after many years away. All of them wind up at the mosque in the desert where they find themselves surrounded by Arabs with guns who, understandably, also want the gold. The first half has a B-level CASABLANCA feel, but the last half becomes THE LOST PATROL with a small band of people getting slowly picked off by unseen snipers. The added element is romance: Carlson and Conte both want Powers, though she doesn't seem terribly impressed with either of them. It owuild seem that the last men standing will be the winner (stay alive and get the girl), though that's not quite how it works out. This is a drab adventure movie with uncharismatic actors, tired situations and virtually no action. Carlson tries the hardest but being saddled with a flamboyant Scottish accent hampers him. McLaglen still has some spark left in him from his days as a rough & tumble character actor in the 30s and 40s, but Conte and Powers are bland enough as to practically vanish from the screen, and the only supporting player to stand out is Hillary Brooke as Conte's favorite hooker, and she doesn't get much screen time. If you can get through the first half (like watching paint dry), you might get some mild enjoyment out of the desert sequences, but even those are mostly talk. Pictured are Carlson and McLaglen. [TCM]

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

AGAINST THE WIND (1948)

In London during World War II, Father Elliott (Robert Beatty) is recruited to join a group of people trained to parachute behind enemy lines and assigned to collect information and perform acts of sabotage. We see Elliott go through training and meet his fellow agents to be assigned work in Belgium: the lovely young Belgian radio operator Michele (Simone Signoret); Scotty, the explosives expert (Gordon Jackson); the crusty old pro Max; Jacques, who is given the false identity of a British fascist who wants to work with the Nazis; and Emile, who has spent time in a concentration camp. There’s also Andrew, a master spy who warns them what to expect: don't panic, don't express emotion even if you see a fellow agent carted off by the Gestapo, keep your suicide pill handy even if you think you'd never use it. Like Chekhov's rule about a gun (if you show it in the first act, someone had better use it in the third act), these things will all crop up for our agents. One batch of spies goes over and blows up a records office, and when Andrew is captured by the Gestapo, the second batch is sent to get him out of prison, not realizing that one of their number is a traitor.

The first half of this is occasionally difficult to get through as it mostly functions as background and exposition with very little tension and no espionage. A number of characters are introduced rather quickly, and though the priest is our access point to this group, he ultimately is not a terribly important character. The film works best when it concentrates on Michele and Scotty—he develops a crush on her and she has to let him down easy, though later she may regret that. Both are quite attractive people; it was a surprise to see Jackson looking so young as I know him mostly as the butler Hudson in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs. The acting all around is fairly low-key as befits the film's quasi-documentary style—which is largely abandoned about a half-hour in. The only other actor who was familiar to me was James Robertson Justice as one of the spy recruiters. Some scenes are carried off very well. Emile (John Slater) has his face changed through plastic surgery and is hurt when he tries to sneak off to see his wife and she doesn't recognize him. Signoret has a very effective scene when she gets the news about the traitor. Eventually, tension builds nicely as the plan for freeing Andrew goes awry and new plans must be made. If you make it through the first half—which is not bad, just slow—you'll be rewarded with a strong second half. Pictured are Jackson, Andrew Blackett, and Signoret. [TCM]

Monday, January 29, 2018

IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937)

In 1928, Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is one of the hot Hollywood cowboy stars, with a strong fan base among kids. When his latest movie is released, he arranges a showing at a children's hospital and announces that he'll soon be opening a Hollywood ranch resort for kids. One boy in particular, Billy, bonds with Tim and looks forward to the day when he can visit. But then the talkies arrive and suddenly Westerns are out of fashion. Tim and his leading lady Gloria (Fay Wray) get screen tests for a sophisticated high-society melodrama; the studio heads like Gloria but not Tim. Then someone gets the idea to try Tim in a gangster movie but he's afraid playing a bad guy will disillusion his following of kids. With no income, the property he wanted to turn into the kids' ranch is taken by the bank. Contemplating leaving Hollywood for good, Tim changes his mind when Billy, still not quite recovered, shows up at his door. Tim manages to sneak back onto the ranch and throws a big party for Billy, hiring celebrity look-alikes to appear to impress the kid—folks who look like W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Harold Lloyd and Bing Crosby (among others) show up. The party is a success, but when Billy collapses and Gloria confesses that she is also washed up, Tim is driven to desperate measures and decides to rob a bank. Could our cowboy hero end up in the pokey? Say it isn't so!

This cute B-film is one of Samuel Fuller's first screenwriting credits, though he would become better known as a director (THE NAKED KISS, THE CRIMSON KIMONO). There are some plot problems; the main sticking point for me was that Westerns most certainly did not vanish from the screens with the arrival of sound films. Dix is his usual "big lug" self and Wray is colorless, but the Hollywood party scene pretty much redeems the movie and that alone makes this a film that classic movies buffs will want to catch. Pictured are Wray and Dix. [DVD—part of a boxed Sam Fuller set]