Monday, April 23, 2018

ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST (1948)

The dysfunctional Hubbard family lives in a small town in Alabama. In the summer of 1880, the patriarch Marcus (Fredric March) demands that none of his children attend the Confederate Day ceremonies in town, marking the anniversary of the deadly betrayal of a band of local Confederate soldiers. The Hubbards have been looked down on since the Civil War because Marcus was accused of war profiteering (pricing badly-needed salt supplies sky high), but he resents any implication of wrong-doing. His cold, conniving oldest son Ben (Edmond O'Brien) is trying to close a business deal, but he needs his father's money, which so far Marcus has been unwilling to lend. Younger son Oscar (Dan Duryea) is weak and pitiful—he attends the Confederate Day events behind his father's back and is ordered to leave by the townsfolk—and is treated badly by both Marcus and Ben. Young wily daughter Regina (Ann Blyth) has her dad wrapped around her finger (he refers to her as his only son) and thinks she can control most any man. All three want control of Dad's fortune, which he is loath to give up. Then there’s Marcus' wife Lavinia (Florence Eldridge) who is like a whipped puppy, passive and cringing, and perhaps a bit lost in wishes for better times and a more likable family.  On her birthday, she hopes that Marcus will finally deliver the money he's promised her for the building of a local hospital, but once again he puts her off.

The Hubbards are tied up tangentially with the Bagtrys, a formerly well-off family fallen on hard times. Regina is secretly seeing the Bagtry son John (John Dall) but he doesn't seem nearly sharp enough to keep up with her. A northern carpetbagger named Taylor is in town and intends to loan the Bagtrys money to hang on to their estate Lyonette, but Marcus wants the estate for himself, so Oscar stirs up the local KKK band to run Taylor out of town, hoping to get money from Marcus to marry the local tart, Laurette. John's somewhat flighty sister Birdy (Betsy Blair) then asks Ben if Marcus would loan them the money. All the Hubbards want some share in money or power, and all seem on the verge of getting some, but one night at a party, everything starts to unravel most spectacularly.

This is the prequel to Lillian Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES, and you will get more out of this if you know that film, set twenty years later, in which Bette Davis plays the middle-aged Regina, but this works as a stand-alone drama as well. Both are morality tales in which we take pleasure in both the corrupt shenanigans of the family members and in the melodramatic comeuppance they eventually get. Women are at the center of FOXES, but the men take center stage here, and all three male leads get to do some solid scenery-chewing. Fredric March gives a performance all the more powerful for being mostly low-key as the corrupt Marcus—and just how corrupt he is, we don't find out until the conclusion; Edmond O'Brien reminded me of one of the conniving sons in THE LION IN WINTER, trying to hide his corruption while reveling in the power he imagines is within reach. Duryea, who plays Oscar's son Leo in LITTLE FOXES, is nicely slimy, though his tone and mannerisms here don't really separate him from the earlier (well, later) Leo; I did chuckle every time he exclaimed what sounded to my ears like, "Squeee!" Blyth has the thankless job of being an early Bette Davis but she's up to the task. Eldridge, March's real-life wife, is fine as the passive Lavinia who gets a little revenge of her own in the end. There's an interesting scene in which physical violence (the beating of the carpetbagger) is juxtaposed with can-can dancers, very much like a scene in Bob Fosse's CABARET. Hard to find, as it apparently has not been licensed to TV very often, but available now on DVD as part of Universal's Vault series. Pictured at top right are March, O'Brien and Blyth; at left are O'Brien and Duryea. [DVD]

Thursday, April 19, 2018

ELLERY QUEEN’S PENTHOUSE MYSTERY (1941)

Ventriloquist Ventro the Great has something of a secret identity—he's Gordon Cobb, a mysterious, well-connected, behind-the-scenes man (maybe a diplomat or a spy or just a playboy, we're never quite sure). In China, he's been hired by Tran Yan Sum to take a cache of jewels to the United States and sell it for money to be returned to China to buy food and supplies for refugees from the war with Japan. But we notice that some shadowy figures follow him across the ocean. When he arrives in New York City, the first thing he does is call a Miss Ling from his penthouse hotel room. Two days later, Sheila, his daughter, goes to detective Ellery Queen and his secretary (and girlfriend and would-be assistant sleuth) Nikki and asks for help as she knows her father arrived but she has not heard from him yet. Queen reluctantly agrees to investigate (he's apparently rented an office just to do work on a manuscript and resents it when Nikki accepts cases for him), and when he arrives at Cobb's hotel room, two porters are about to remove a trunk, but when Cobb's dead body tumbles from the trunk, Queen is definitely on the case. Others involved are Sanders, a bellboy who is actually a reporter; Count Brett, a passenger on the same ship which brought Cobb to the States; Walsh, overseer of Cobb's business affairs; Ritter, a gambler; and the exotic Miss Ling. This B-mystery starts off OK, but soon falls into the same trap as many other low-budget thrillers of the era: the urge to complicate matters in order to make up for cheap sets, lackluster acting and direction, and no musical score. I got so lost that by the climax, I didn't really care who killed Cobb. Ralph Bellamy, the fifth actor I've seen in the role, counting TV’s Jim Hutton, barely registers on screen; the best is Donald Cook; Charley Grapewin is his even blander father, Margaret Lindsay has little to do as Nikki. Frank Albertson does OK as Sanders and Anna May Wong is Miss Ling, a red herring role. Also with Mantan Moreland.  I can't even really recommend this to B-mystery fans. The picture is a publicity shot of Lindsay, Bellamy and Wong. [YouTube]

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

KAPO (1960)

During the Nazi occupation of Paris, Edith, a Jewish teenager, is walking home from a piano lesson when she sees her parents being rounded up by the authorities. A neighbor warns her to be silent, but she runs after them and is taken with them to a concentration camp. Separated from her parents, she is told that children and old people are the first to be killed, so she escapes from her holding room and is helped by a sympathetic doctor. He gives her the clothing and identity of a young woman named Nicole who has just died—he takes the girl's jacket off the corpse and gives it directly to Edith to put on. Nicole was a criminal and her jacket bears a black triangle which gives Edith a slight advantage over having the yellow star of the Jewish prisoners, and when she sees her parents as they are marched off to the gas chambers, she vows to survive; as the doctor says to her, "Live…and think of nothing else." Over time, she becomes a hardened survivor: first she becomes a prostitute for the SS men, and then rises in their esteem enough to be named "kapo," a camp inmate who is given official duties keeping the other inmates in line, even as she begins to lose the respect of the prisoners. She has a friendly relationship with an officer named Karl, but when a batch of Russian soldiers is brought to the camp, she falls in love with Sascha, their leader, and is slowly brought into the Russians' plan to stage an escape, with tragic consequences.

This was perhaps the first fiction film to deal with life in a concentration camp and may have seemed grim and realistic to audiences of the era, but now it feels melodramatic and predictable. It certainly remains watchable, but viewers may need to cut it some slack. Appropriately, it does have a fairly gritty look (in black & white) and camp life isn't exactly prettified; actually, everyday camp life is largely ignored here except for the scenes of the prisoners at hard labor. These women, though grimy and tired, don't look starved or unhealthy, even though the threat of sick inmates being sent off to be killed is mentioned more than once. There are some moments that still retain power, including the hanging of one inmate and the suicide of another, and the climactic escape scene is very effective. The acting all around is fine. Some critics think that Susan Strasberg (who was 22 playing 14, looking much more like 22) gives an affectless performance, but I think that fits a character who comes to disassociate herself from her former life in order to survive at any cost, a strategy that the movie would seem not to endorse. Gianni Garko (pictured with Strasberg) is ridiculously handsome, like a young Robert Redford, as Karl, the humanized Nazi; Laurent Terzieff, almost as handsome, makes a good Sascha. Emmanuelle Riva and Didi Perego are excellent as two of the female inmates with whom Edith bonds, to some degree. As this is an Italian film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, most of the dialogue is in Italian, not French, despite the nationalities of the inmates. This felt off to me until I remembered that I think nothing of French or Italian character speaking English in a Hollywood film. [TCM]

Friday, April 13, 2018

THE LADY IN SCARLET (1935)

Dr. Boyer goes to an antique shop owned by Mr. Sayre and purchases a clock from Sayre's personable young assistant Pennyward. Sayre, convinced that his wife is having an affair with Boyer, has hired Quigley to skulk about keeping an eye on them. He's also called his lawyer, Shelby, to set up a time to change his will because he's upset that his daughter Alice plans to marry Pennyward. Meanwhile, Sayre's wife Julia, accompanied by Boyer, runs across her old friend Oliver Keith, a private detective, in a bar with his secretary (and, it would seem, girlfriend and/or mistress) Ella. Julia, whom Oliver knew when she was a stage actress (The Lady in Scarlet was one of her hit shows), tells Oliver about her husband's strange behavior and her knowledge that she's being followed. The whole group goes back to the Sayres' home where Sayre is found dead, with a dagger plunged into his hand. Suspects are plentiful. It's revealed that Alice and Pennyward are already secretly married, and Alice may have killed him to stop from being disinherited. Alice thinks that Julia killed him so she could be with Boyer. It's theorized that the stabbing of the right hand was done by the dying Sayre as a clue that the killer was his "right hand man" Pennyward. Soon added to the bunch is Dyker, a man who was involved in forging antiques, whose fingerprints are found on the door of Sayre's office. Soon, in rapid succession, some government bonds that had been set aside for Alice are found missing, Quigley (the skulking spy) is discovered doped up with truth serum in Dr. Boyer's office, and later that day, Dr. Boyer is found dead in his car. Oliver and Ella have their hands full trying to sort this case out, but they do, with a climax involving the traditional gathering of suspects.

I think that many B-mystery movies fill their running time with unnecessarily complex plots, perhaps to draw attention away from cheap sets, so-so acting, and a lack of credible atmosphere. Even some of the Charlie Chan films are guilty of this. Though I took lots of notes while watching this to keep track of the proceedings, I might have enjoyed it more had I just relaxed and let the sometimes absurd plotpoints wash over me. In any case, the real appeal here is supposed to be in the central detective characters, and in that aspect it's a bit of a washout. Reginald Denny, an old pro at solid supporting parts (and who does a great job as Algy, the comic relief sidekick in several Bulldog Drummond movies), is OK as Oliver, though he's surprisingly laid-back in a role that might have benefited from a bit more spark. His one quirk is that he whistles a little tune when he's hit upon a clue. Patricia Farr, as Ella, his love interest and sparring partner, is not OK—she seems to be trying hard, but she's too bland to give her snarky dialogue any bite. They were clearly going for a Nick and Nora Charles vibe here, but they miss by a mile—and I must admit, during the current #MeToo moment, that I cringed whenever Oliver called Ella by his pet name for her, "Stupid," which, of course, she is not. The only other actors to stand out are Claudia Dell as Alice and James Bush as Pennyward (his only problem is that he is just too wholesome looking to be a credible suspect). The lack of background music that would help to build tension is problematic, especially in a scene in which the camera pans over several people while waiting for a safe to be opened: no music, no tension, just uncomfortable-looking faces in a row. The suspect roundup is handled awkwardly and the solution is rather ho-hum, a phase that applies to the movie as a whole: not terrible but nothing special. In the colorized publicity still at top, Denny is at far right. [YouTube]

Thursday, April 12, 2018

THE FLYING FLEET (1929)

Six buddies are set to graduate from Annapolis together and are looking forward to becoming Navy pilots after selection in San Diego. Our focus is on handsome nice guy Tommy (Ramon Novarro) and his best friend Steve (Ralph Graves), a cocky so-and-so always looking to make trouble. On a drunken night before commencement, Steve and Dizzy come sneaking in after hours; Steve eludes discovery but Dizzy is caught and dismissed, leaving five. In San Diego, the glasses-wearing Specs (Gardner James) is cut for his eyesight but becomes a navigator. Meanwhile, Tommy and Steve enter into a rivalry for the lovely Anita (Anita Page) that will last for the rest of the movie, with each one playing tricks on the other trying to make time with her. During pilot training in Pensacola, Florida, Kewpie (Sumner Getchell) freaks out during his trial flight and is sent off to become a radio operator, and later Tex (Carroll Nye) crashes in the water on his first solo flight—I assume he is killed though it's not made clear. What is clear is that Tommy and Steve, who make the grade, still indulge in juvenile pranks, in the air and on the ground, and both still date Anita, and when a storm comes out of nowhere on a trans-Pacific flight to Honolulu, they are both put to the test with lives at risk.

I don't know how old this plot (of buddies in the military having problems over a woman) is—it certainly gets used by Hollywood quite a bit just before and during WWII—but I suspect it was familiar before this silent film (with background music and sound effects) adapted it. As Ben Mankiewicz said when he introduced the film on TCM, it's a bit like a 1920s Top Gun: guys in planes, girls in sexy outfits, and the possibility of tragedy just around the corner. Novarro and Graves are absolutely right for their roles, as are the other buddies. Anita Page has little to do except bounce back and forth between Tommy and Steve, though if you've seen any other movie like this before, there's no surprise about whom she ends up with. I was especially interested to see Carroll Nye, mostly known as the thick-sideburned Frank Kennedy, post-war husband to Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, looking so young and handsome here as one of the friends. The line that made me go, huh?: after seeing girls out waterskiing, Steve says, "That’s what I call seafood!" The top picture is of Novarro and James; at right is Novarro being saved at sea by Graves. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

ISLE OF FURY (1936)

On the isolated South Seas island of Tankara, Humphrey Bogart and Margaret Lindsay are getting married during a hellacious storm when news arrives that a ship is foundering near the shore. As soon as he says "I do," Bogart goes racing out to rescue the sailors, an unsavory sea captain (Paul Graetz) and a young, handsome and somewhat mysterious fellow (Donald Woods). The island doctor (E.E. Clive) is suspicious, noting that only men trying to escape from something wind up on the islands. But Bogart, a fair-minded fellow, takes Woods in and, while he recovers, shows him the ropes of his pearl diving business. When superstitious native fishermen refuse to dive off a certain spot because some men vanished near there, Bogart goes down himself and winds up face to face with a huge killer octopus; Woods bravely dives in after him and kills the octopus. Now each man has saved the other's life and Bogart offers Woods a job in the business. Two things are going on that we know but that Bogart doesn't : 1) Bogart's chief native associates are not to be trusted; 2) Woods and Lindsay are fighting a physical attraction that's developing. Lindsay, who has lived on the island all her life, tells Woods that Bogart is a good man of whom she is fond, but she only married him because she promised her late mother that she would. When Woods seems not in a rush to leave the island, Bogart offers him a job as an assistant. As Woods contemplates this, Graetz, who had left the island, returns with news that threatens the established equilibrium of our cozy triangle.

Based on Somerset Maugham's The Narrow Corner (and made into a film just four years earlier with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), this programmer is more enjoyable than it usually gets credit for. Critical commentary centers on two things: Bogart's weak performance (and disconcerting pencil-thin mustache) and the ridiculously fake octopus battle. I won't defend the latter episode—the grappling with a smiling rubber octopus is indeed worthy of Ed Wood, and exciting music in the background just makes it worse—but Bogart is actually fine here; I think viewers are disgruntled that he's not playing the hard-boiled Bogart persona we know so well but that wasn't fully crafted until a few years later. But if your expectations remain on a par with the average Warners B-film of the era, I don't think you'll be disappointed. It's short (barely an hour), moves fairly well, and even better has a nice plot twist near the end, and a conclusion that defies the Production Code. Most reviews of the film on IMDb give away the spoiler twist as though it was clear from the start, but it's not so I won't divulge it here. Bogart's character is likeable but with a bit of an edge that always makes you think he might do something out of left field. I always like Woods, mostly a featured player in dozens of B-films in the 30s and 40s, and he's fine here. I'm not so much a fan of Lindsay who I find bland and forgettable, but even she's not bad in this role. Recommended, unless you can't stand to see Bogart play something besides a detective or a gangster. The book, BTW, is quite good but very different in its focus and the way it plays out. Pictured are, from left, Woods, Bogart and Lindsay. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

THE SECRET INVASION (1964)

Cairo, 1943. Five prisoners from varying locations are brought to Major Stewart Granger, all in handcuffs: an art thief (William Campbell); an IRA demolitions expert (Mickey Rooney); a forger (Edd Byrnes); a man with multiple academic degrees who became an international crime figure (Raf Vallone, pictured); and an assassin for hire (Henry Silva) who was convicted of killing his mistress. All are offered pardons if they will take on a dangerous military mission: sneak into a prison fortress in Dubrovnik and rescue General Quadri, an Italian thought to be in sympathy with the Allies who could get his Fascist troops to turn against the Nazis. They all agree, though early on, Byrnes tries to mastermind an escape at sea which fails. Once in Yugoslavia, they get help from a band of local partisans, including young Spela Rozin (credited as Mia Massini), who uses her newborn child as a way to take suspicion away from her as she assists the men. Just as they're about to tunnel into the fortress from a nearby crypt, they are caught, put in the same prison as Quadri, and interrogated and tortured by the commandant. However, they work out a plan to escape with Quadri, using a system of keeping time by snapping or tapping their fingers once a second to keep track of time. The bust-out works, though on their way to the Italian troops, a couple of the men are killed. Once the survivors reach the Italian troops, they discover that Quadri is already dead, and the man they have is a Nazi. Will their plan be foiled, or can they figure out another way to rally the troops to the Allies?

Roger Corman directed this well-paced, nicely photographed war film; though Corman had a much bigger budget than he'd ever had before, it's still decidedly a B-film but it looks pretty darned good and the motley group of actors works well together. Granger, as usual, seems a bit above it all, and Rooney uses an Irish accent that comes and goes—it feels like in the scenes he had to overdub, he had a stronger brogue than the scenes recorded live. But those are minor quibbles. Strongest is Vallone as the most grounded of the men; Silva's wooden-faced stoicism is an asset here as the assassin described has having "dead eyes" and he getsa good scene in the last half with Rozin that changes the arc of his character. The script, despite a couple of plotholes, is solid, though Vallone is burdened with a notoriously bad line: discussing the freeing of Dubrovnik, he says, "Who will free it from us? And who will free us from ourselves?" There are apparently several similarities between this and The Dirty Dozen, which came out a couple of years later, though I haven't seen that film yet. An enjoyable wartime thriller with a couple of well done battle setpieces, and the location shooting is a plus. [DVD]

Monday, April 02, 2018

THE BLIND GODDESS (1948)

In Prague, Count Mikla is found dead, a presumed suicide, though we know better, having seen his valet shoot him. Back in England, Mikla's friend Derek, who works for Lord Brasted, is suspicious, as Mikla had been feeding Derek information that Brasted, head of a commission raising money to aid displaced people after the war, was embezzling much of that money. Derek tells Brasted that he's going to the Prime Minister with his charges, which he does. Brasted then tells his wife Helen (who, BTW, is a former lover of Derek's) that Derek tried to blackmail him, using a conversation that, if overheard, could be interpreted that way. Brasted sues Derek for libel with the formidable Sir John Dearing as his barrister. Dearing, taking the word of Brasted, works his legal wonders in the courtroom, basing much of his case on a letter written by Derek—but as we know, forged by Brasted. Eventually, another letter comes into play, one Derek wrote to his girlfriend Mary (incidentally, Sir John's daughter) but which is passed off an illicit love letter to Brasted's wife. How far will Brasted go to punish Derek? And when evidence finally appears to suggest that Brasted is in fact guilty, will Sir John do the honorable thing in court?

Some sources call this a noir thriller, but it's actually just a slow-burning courtroom drama without a speck of noir atmosphere that I could pick up on. Ultimately, Sir John does serve as a conflicted central character—and the actor playing him, Eric Portman (pictured), is top-billed—but that alone does not a noir film make. At 90 minutes, this feels a smidge on the long side, but it never gets boring, and the various plot twists and contrivances don't feel artificial or convoluted. The acting is fine all around; Portman is excellent as usual, and Hugh Williams (Brasted), Michael Denison (Derek) and Anne Crawford (Helen) are quite good. I didn't realize until after the fact that the young woman playing Sir John's daughter was Claire Bloom in her first movie role. Not a well-known film but worth your time if you're a fan of legal drama. [YouTube]

Thursday, March 29, 2018

THE WITNESS CHAIR (1936)

One night, we see Paula (Ann Harding), secretary to Stanley Whittaker, leaving his office and trying to avoid being seen by the elevator operator. Later, Connie Trent shows up at Paula's with packed suitcases—she and Stanley were supposed to be running away together but he never showed up at the pier. The cops soon find Stanley's body in his office, with a suicide note saying he embezzled $75,000, exonerating Connie's father Jim (Walter Abel) who was under suspicion, but given some odd circumstances and the fact that gun found was Jim's, Jim is arrested. In court, there are conflicting reports of the embezzlement facts, and a case is built that Jim killed Stanley not only to get clear of financial wrongdoing, but to get Stanley away from his daughter. However, we soon find out that the company accountant was in on the theft of the money, and we also begin to wonder what role Paula played in all of this. Eventually, the truth comes out during the dramatic trial. As a B-level courtroom drama, this is acceptable though hardly distinguished in any way. It's nice to see Walter Abel (Danny the agent in HOLIDAY INN) in something of a lead role, and Ann Harding is fine in a fairly thankless part. Recognizable supporting players include Margaret Hamilton as a fainting bookkeeper, Moroni Olsen as a cop, Billy Benedict (Whitey in some of the Bowery Boys movies) as an office boy, and Frank Jenks. It's talky and somewhat static, but a pleasant if unexciting way to pass an hour for classic movie fans. Pictured are Abel and Harding. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5000 (1958)

In 1947, the narrator tell us, man broke the sound barrier; in 1958, the space barrier; now, someone on an isolated island in Florida is trying to break the time barrier, but in doing so, will unleash a Terror! From the Year! 5000! In this Florida laboratory, Prof. Earling (Frederic Downs) and his assistant Victor (John Stratton) put an item in a large chamber with a glass window, fire up the electrical power—so much that they had to move to this island to avoid messing with the community's power grid—and when all the bells and whistles have stopped, they find a different object in the chamber. They believe they have just made an exchange with someone from the future—and Victor has even seen the hazy face of a woman appear briefly. Earling's daughter Claire (Joyce Holden), unknown to her father and Victor, sends one of these objects, a statuette, to Earling's former student Robert Hedges (Ward Costello) for carbon dating. Robert can scarcely believe the result: it's from the year 5200 A.D. It's also dangerously radioactive. Robert heads for Florida to consult with Earling and hits it off with Claire, which makes Victor jealous since he is supposedly her fiancĂ©. The experiments continue for a time, and when Robert sends his Phi Beta Kappa key, the object returned is a bracelet with the phrase "Save us" etched on it in Greek, so Robert is convinced that Earling is on to something.

One night, Victor sneaks a couple of suitcases out of the house and throws them in a pond. Robert sees this, and the next day, he dives in and opens one of them to find a dead, mutant, three-eyed cat. It would appear that Victor has been running his own experiments without Earling's knowledge, and when radiation burns are found on Victor's skin, they take him to a mainland hospital for testing. But that night, Victor leaves the hospital, gets drunk, and heads back to the island where he pulls off one last experiment: bringing back the mysterious woman he saw earlier. It turns out that the people of the future have become mutated, radioactive freaks and she wants to mate with someone in order to save the human blood line. But who will want to mate with a scarred up woman dressed in dark leotards dotted with big sparkly doodads? Well, lucky for her, she can hypnotize folks with her sparkly fingernails. And Victor is her first victim.

This low-budget sci-fi film was mocked on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but it's actually a little better than that accomplishment would indicate. If nothing else, the plot points were original in its day. Certainly the idea of exchanging items through time was new, and some critics say that this was the first American movie to show an operating time machine—MGM's adaptation of THE TIME MACHINE was made two years later. In most ways, it looks and feels like your average late 50s B-film, and one might wish that the effect of the woman from the future (Salome Jens) was better—she truly does look laughable in her sequined tights, though the scene in which she takes the face off of a visiting nurse to disguise herself is effective. The acting is passable, with John Stratton (pictured as the Terror's sparkly fingers cast reflections behind him) the standout as the mentally disintegrating Victor (though IMDb says that Stratton never made another movie). Of course, there are some bad movie moments just made for MST3K: the actress in the small role of Miss Blake, Robert's assistant, is awful—or maybe the person dubbing her is awful, or maybe both; there's a silly looking slapdown battle in the water between Robert and Victor; icky comic relief and creepiness are combined in the completely disposable character of Angelo. Interesting and watchable, though perhaps only for sci-fi fans. [YouTube]