Tuesday, February 25, 2020

MURDER IS MY BUSINESS (1946)

The rich Mrs. Eleanor Ramsey is stuck in an unhappy marriage with two grown stepchildren who don't like her; her lover Carl has left her for young Dorothy, one of the stepchildren, but is willing to leave the girl alone if Eleanor will pay him off. Now she's getting threatening letters which she suspects are from Carl, but she doesn't want to go to the police for fear of public scandal, so she calls private eye Michael Shayne to investigate. Shayne is smarting from a public spanking (verbal) from police chief Rafferty who uses him as a prime example of the unscrupulous detective, but he takes the job, with some help from his secretary Phyllis. Shayne immediately gets thrown a curve when Mr. Ramsey, in deep financial trouble, asks for Shayne's help to stage a robbery of his wife's jewels so he can get the insurance money on them. Joe, an ex-con pal of Shayne's, gets wind of the plan and, against Shayne's wishes, heads to the Ramsey mansion to pull off the fake robbery. Next morning, both Joe and Eleanor are dead; Mr. Ramsey shot Joe when it appeared he was attacking Eleanor. Rafferty assumes that Joe was working with Shayne and threatens to pin something on Shayne. Meanwhile, two sideline characters, ex-con Duell Renslow, now a night club manager, and Mona, a hostess at the club, become suspects (Duell is revealed as Eleanor's brother) as do the nasty stepkids, Dorothy and Ernest. When Phyllis insists on helping out more directly by working her way into the affections of the slimy playboy Carl (still a suspect), all hell breaks loose until Shayne gathers the suspects in one room for the unmasking of the killer.

Michael Shayne had been played in a series of B-mysteries by stalwart supporting actor Lloyd Nolan. When the series went to Poverty Row studio PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation, not Poverty Row Company, though that name would fit, too), Hugh Beaumont, who had been appearing in mostly uncredited roles in films since 1940, took over for a short run in the role and, though it didn’t raise his profile much in movies, he did go on to fame as the dad in TV's Leave It to Beaver. He doesn't really set Shayne apart from other B-movie detectives, but he is breezy and pleasant, and knows how to take a beating—he gets his ass kicked about four times in the movie but never gives up. The overall tone is light, not noir, and the one hour running time keeps things moving. The supporting cast is undistinguished but not without its high points. Cheryl Walker, who had only a few credited roles in 40s B-movies, retired not long after this, though she's fine as the buttinsky secretary. Well-established character actor Lyle Talbot isn't given enough to do in the red herring role of Eleanor's brother. George Meeker makes Carl nicely slimy, and Julia McMilan and David Reed are promising as the stepchildren but don't get enough screen time to develop their characters beyond their initial impression as unlikeable. Not exactly a buried gem, but I'll probably watch more of these now that they are available on DVD as a set from Classic Flix. [DVD]

Thursday, February 20, 2020

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW (1950)

The Earl is returning to his home after several years away, having been stationed in the tropics as governor of the Coconut Islands. The servants, happy to have him back, have put up a big "Welcome Home" banner, but stuffy Lady Mary, the Earl's sister, and the even stuffier Gerald, the Earl\'s grandson, think it’s just too vulgar and make them take it down. When the Earl arrives, with his faithful butler Bembridge, he is sad that there is no banner. Right off the bat, we know how the alliances will go here: the relatively down-to-earth Earl and his butler will stand opposed to the sister and the grandson, with Elaine, the pleasant granddaughter, trying to bridge the gap. The Earl tells the family stories of his adventures which they are quite bored by, but one of them involves a native girl named Lapis, daughter of a tribal king, who fell in love with the butler. That night, Bembridge discovers that Lapis packed herself in one of the Earl's trunks and has accompanied them home. He tries to keep her scantily-clad presence secret, but when she is caught taking a bath in the kitchen sink, the secret is out. That night, at a welcome home party, Lapis is introduced to the guests, but she enters the room stark naked, scandalizing and pleasing people in equal measure. When reports reach the Earl that Lapis' father thinks she’s been kidnapped and has started a local war, he realizes something must be done.

This British B-comedy from the pre-horror Hammer studios is fun enough, though the acting and direction are just about par for this kind of lower-budget film. Edward Rigby as the Earl is fine if colorless; Henry Mollison as the butler is a bit better, keeping a stoic face while hinting at hidden depths that might attract the uninhibited Lapis; the most fun seems to be had by the actors playing the villains—Eleanor Hallam as Lady Mary and, especially, Michael Ward as Gerald, whose strained and high-pitched voice is hilariously obnoxious. Mercy Haystead as Lapis is sexy and whimsical but not very exotic, looking looking as pale as the Earl's family. Good support is offered by Peter Burton as a reporter who falls for Elaine, and Tonie MacMillan as Mrs. Thimble, the cook. The dialogue is amusing without really being witty, so its effectiveness is mostly due to the delivery (the strengths of Hallam and Ward). The ending is particularly satisfying. Pictured are Haystead and Mollison. [YouTube]

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

STORM WARNING (1951)

Model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) has taken a detour on her way to her latest job to the small town of Rock Point to visit her sister Lucy (Doris Day) whom she hasn't seen since Lucy got married more than a year ago. She arrives in the evening and finds it unusual that most of the town near the bus depot has already shut down; even the taxi driver claims he can't take another fare. As Marsha walks to Lucy's house, she witnesses a gang of men dressed in robes and hoods bring a tied-up prisoner out of the courthouse and beat him. As the prisoner runs away, one of the hooded men shoots him dead. He pulls off his hood and Marsha, hiding in the shadows, gets a good look at him. In a daze, Marsha walks to Lucy's home where their happy reunion is short-circuited when Lucy's husband Hank (Steve Cochran) comes home and Marsha recognizes him as the killer. She can't hide her knowledge and Hank breaks down and admits it, claiming it was a terrible accident—the reporter had been snooping around writing an exposé of the town as a center of Ku Klux Klan activity, and the Klansmen had just wanted to scare him away, but things got out of hand. Marsha buys his story—though we see that Cochran actually feels no remorse—and plans to leave the next morning, but when prosecutor Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) finds out she was a witness, he tries to convince her to stay and speak out at the inquest. Marsha is put under pressure and pulled in different directions by the law, the KKK, and Lucy and Hank; with the very real danger of revenge weighing on her mind, she feels trapped.

This is a somewhat unusual social issue movie in that we are never shown exactly why the Klansmen are bad people. Of course, an audience in 1951 would know (as would an audience of today), but the viewer has to make assumptions about the Klan to imagine that they aren't just some small-fry bullying hooligans—no activity against African-Americans or Jews is shown here, and the biggest worry of the Klan leader (played by Hugh Sanders), aside from the murder charge, is that a reporter might find out that he has been funneling dues money from Klan members into his own pocket, and could be brought up on charges of income tax evasion. The leads, Rogers and Reagan, both seem unwilling to commit fully to their parts: Reagan more or less sleepwalks through the movie, and Rogers usually looks more irritated than scared or outraged. Cochran and Day, however, are quite good as they enact a "Streetcar Named Desire" dynamic, with Cochran as the sexy but brutal animalistic husband and Day as the peppy new wife who blissfully ignores any problems. Day is especially good playing against type—this was her first non-musical comedy role. The movie has a noir feel to it, right through to the downbeat ending, and fans of film noir will enjoy this. Pictured are Day, Rogers and Cochran. [DVD]

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE (1963)

At a fancy dinner party at Blackmoor Castle, Lucius Clark announces that he is soon to be knighted by the Queen. Outside the castle, the dogs are barking up a storm, unnoticed by the partygoers but raising an alarm among the groundskeepers and the (possibly sinister) butler, Anthony. Tom, the handsome gardener, is attacked and killed by a masked figure who leaves the letter "M" branded on his forehead, though his body isn't found until the next morning. After the guests leave, the killer enters the house and confronts Clark, saying, "A thief and a murderer shall never be a knight of the realm"; he claims he will avenge the death of Clark's old friend Charles Manning and demands that Clark give up six million pounds worth of diamonds that (he says) Clark stole from Manning. Clark very coolly refuses to give in, even at gunpoint, so the masked man warns he will make Clark's life a living hell until he gives in. We are soon introduced to the other characters: Clark's niece Claridge who is trying to make a name for herself as a local reporter; Mike, a fellow reporter and friend who agrees to work with Claridge on the story of the Blackmoor killer; Inspector Mitchell and his assistant Watson who keep finding more castle staff strangled; the lavishly mustachioed Edgar (a Scot in a kilt) who actually owns the castle but rents it to Clark; and a young boy named Flip who knows his way around the various caves and secret passages underneath the Blackmoor estate. We soon discover that Clark is trying surreptitiously to sell the diamonds to Tavish, the owner of the Old Homestead Inn; a lawyer named Tromby is in some partnership with him; and Judy, a sexy blond barmaid at the inn, may be a key to the mysteries that pile up, along with the bodies—more than one of which is killed not by strangulation but by decapitation.

This German movie is based on a book by Bryan Edgar Wallace, son of the famous thriller writer Edgar Wallace (who was a co-creator of King Kong). Nearly 200 movies have been made based on books by Wallace the father—most of them, for some reason, made by German film companies—and Bryan himself has twenty film credits for film writing or adaptations. A lot of plot is crammed into this, and I got a bit lost in the twists and turns of the story—there's a character who is decapitated while riding a motorcycle and I had no idea who he was—but things mostly get sorted out in the end. The explanation of the revenge plot is interesting and I must admit that the identity of the killer came as a complete surprise to me. It's always difficult for me to judge acting in movies which are dubbed into English, but the German actors all do their jobs well. Karin Dor (Claridge) made a number of German Edgar Wallace thrillers but is probably better known by cult movie fans for her appearance in The Face of Fu Manchu and as a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice. Harry Riebauer (Mitchell) and Walter Giller (Edgar) had long careers in German movies and TV. The print of this I saw on YouTube is rather murky, but that goes along with its "old dark house" atmosphere. Not really a horror movie, but good spooky-evening viewing. [YouTube]

Monday, February 10, 2020

PHANTOM PATROL (1936)

There's a nationwide manhunt going on for killer "Dapper Dan" Geary who is hiding out in a hotel room doing crossword puzzles. His underling Jojo tells him he's "hotter than jailhouse coffee," and suggests they take it on the lam. Geary sees a picture of famous crime writer Stephen Morris in the paper and realizes he's a dead ringer for Morris except for the author's goatee, so the two take off for the backwoods of Manitoba, Canada, where Morris is vacationing. Geary, with a goatee, ties Morris up and hides him away, and takes on Morris' identity. Meanwhile, handsome Mountie Jim McGregor (Kermit Maynard) is on the trail of the Frenchie Le Farge gang. He captures two of them, but Frenchie and the others get away and take refuge at Morris's isolated cabin. They recognize Geary in disguise and he lets them stay. As Morris, Geary goes into town and becomes friendly with Jim, Inspector McCloud, and McCloud's daughter Doris, who is Jim's girlfriend. When Geary is talked into hiring Doris to be his secretary, he improvises by dictating a story by famous French author Guy de Maupassant as though it were his own. Doris doesn’t catch on, but later, Jim does. Eventually, when lumberjack payroll money and jewels flaunted at a masked ball become targets for Geary and the Le Farge gang, can Jim and the Mounties foil their nefarious plans?

I know of no earthly reason this is called PHANTOM PATROL. Those words are never used in the movie, and no one even acts in a phantomly fashion. Still, this is good fun: an hour-long Canadian Western with a handsome hero, a lovely lady who eventually becomes a damsel in distress, fisticuffs and shootouts, and even a song which Jim and his Mountie buddies sing in their undershirts! (See the picture at right.) Kermit Maynard has a classic all-American athletic hero look (even though Jim is apparently Canadian) and is quite good here. He appeared in 300 movies, mostly in small uncredited roles in westerns, and was never as big a star as his brother Ken who headlined several B-westerns in the 30s and 40s, though on the evidence of this film, Kermit should have been just as big a star. Joan Barclay (Doris) also had a steady career in B-westerns. Paul Fix, another western stalwart, is amusing as Jojo, and British actor Harry Worth does a nice job in the dual role of bad guy Geary and hostage Morris. One of the charms of this film is its sense of humor—it manages to be light and amusing without turning slapstick or using heavy-handed comic relief. Some IMDb viewers call it "goofy" (I'm assuming they are mostly referring to the undershirt song) but to me, it all seemed charming. I'd like to search out more Kermit Maynard movies. The print on YouTube is awfully choppy and splicy but the image quality is clear and sharp. [YouTube]

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

THE BRIDGE (1959)


This is less a narrative-driven movie than an impressionistic slice-of-life story that plays out over a couple of days in April 1945, during the last days of the Second World War. In a small German village, several teenage boys are excited about being called up to serve in the army (since by this time, the military was decimated, and younger recruits were being sought after). We get to know them on their last day of school before they head off for training. Karl has a crush on his dad's housekeeper, but he is devastated to discover that she is sleeping with his father; Hans is a handsome romantic; Walter has conflicts with his father, who, despite being a Nazi party representative, is likely to clear out of town when the Allies get too close; Sigi, the youngest, has an overprotective mother; Jurgen comes from a military family and his mother gives him his late father's pistol to take with him to war. After we follow them through their last day in town, we see them next in basic training. But the troops are disorganized, with many ready to retreat, and the boys get assigned the task of guarding a bridge, which, as it happens is just outside of their village. That night, the boys do their duty, unaware that the bridge is going to be blown up by the German army when the Allies approach.

Though not strong in narrative, this is an emotionally powerful anti-war film. We know the boys have been given a useless task because their former schoolteacher wants to keep them away from the deteriorating front, hoping to spare their lives, but the boys are proud of having what seems an important mission and their enthusiasm blinds them to the real situation around them. As the night goes on, the film takes on a kind of Twilight Zone atmosphere with fog all around and a slow parade of wounded and deserters passing by. We are used to movies which promulgate a message of the terrible waste of war, so the ending is fairly predictable, but the director, Bernard Wikci, keeps the atmosphere tense. The actors, most not much older than their characters, are uniformly excellent. The only actor I’m familiar with is Fritz Wepper who went on to play Michael York’s German buddy Fritz in CABARET. But all of them are fine, not overdoing either bravado or fear. I'd never heard of this but TCM aired it recently and it’s available on a Criterion DVD. It definitely deserves a bigger audience. [TCM]

Friday, January 31, 2020

IS MY FACE RED? (1932)

Bill Poster (Ricardo Cortez) writes a popular Manhattan gossip column, Keyhole to the City, and he's made a lot of enemies by reporting private scandals (think Walter Winchell, who is mentioned in the movie as one of Poster's rivals). He's got Bee, his trusty secretary; Peggy, his long-suffering girlfriend; Horatio, his in-office valet; and a water cooler full of gin. He's also in a relatively friendly rivalry with reporter Ed Maloney. When Peggy gives him a tip that notorious socialite (and pickle heiress) Mildred Huntington has broken her engagement and is boarding an ocean liner at midnight for Europe, Bill gets on the ship and, hoping for an exclusive story, talks her into leaving the ship with him for a madcap tour of the seedier side of the city. She does, they do, and they do some more as well, and soon they're lovers which doesn't sit well with Peggy. Nor, eventually, does Bill's plan to spill the beans about Mildred's high-class friends sit well with Mildred. Meanwhile, while Bill is in a dive bar one night, he witnesses the bartender Tony accidentally kill a mobster. Bill publishes the story before the police find out about the killing, leaving out Tony's name but making it clear who was responsible. So eventually, everyone (Peggy, Mildred, Tony and the police) is angry with Bill. Even his secretary is a little irritated. Will there be anyone to stand by him when it all falls apart and he comes face to face with the business end of a pistol?

This a sprightly-paced pre-Code film with a light tone and some witty writing. Backstage at the Follies, we see a sign that says, "Through these doors pass the most beautiful girls in the world"; then we see two slovenly washerwomen enter. A man uses a "Positively No Smoking" sign to strike a match to light his cigarette. When Mildred decides she's had enough of Bill, she tells him, "You amused me—like going to the flea circus" (and he totally deserves that). Cortez does a nice job making an essentially unlikable character at least somewhat sympathetic. Helen Twelvetrees makes little impression as Peggy; she is outshone by Jill Esmond, who was married to Laurence Olivier at the time, as Mildred. Arline Judge is her usual low-key, passive presence as the secretary and ZaSu Pitts is amusing as a telephone operator at the newspaper. Robert Armstrong is Ed, Clarence Muse is Horatio, and Sidney Toler is quite good as the killer Tony. It's all fairly predictable, but at just a smidge over an hour, it doesn't outlast its welcome and it's enjoyable for pre-Code buffs. And I loved the gin water cooler. Pictured are Cortez and Esmond. [TCM]

Thursday, January 30, 2020

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. RX (1942)

At a high-class gentlemen's club, a man is found dead in his room, tied to a bedpost with a piece of paper pinned to him that says "Rx 5." He is the fifth victim of the mysterious killer known in the press as Dr. Rx. All the victims are men who have been defendants in high-profile court cases and all were found not guilty, despite much evidence that they were guilty. A lawyer named Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who defended all these men, is naturally upset, so he hires playboy detective Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) to track down the killer. Church is planning on moving to Boston and becoming a bond salesman, but he is present when Crispin's next freed defendant is killed right in the courtroom, possibly by poison or strangulation, or both. So Church, with some unwanted help from his brand new wife and mystery writer Kit (Anne Gwynne), his valet Fitz (Mantan Moreland), and a couple of relatively inept cops, takes the case. There aren't many obvious suspects, though something odd seems to be going on between Crispin's wife (Mona Barrie) and his brother (Paul Cavanagh). And what’s with the sinister looking Dr. Fish (Lionel Atwill in Coke-bottle glasses) who keeps popping up on Church's trail?

Despite getting frequent airings on Chiller Theater throughout the 60s, and despite its presence in a DVD boxed set of Universal Cult Horror films, this is not a horror movie, and will inevitably disappoint anyone hoping for a creepy little B-movie chiller. But if you'd like a fun, well-paced mystery in the vein of the Thin Man movies, this will be more than satisfying. I'm always up for seeing the handsome, personable Patric Knowles (pictured) and he is in almost every scene of this movie looking alternately smooth and befuddled—and even sweaty and scared in the odd climax involving the threat of him having his brain transplanted into a gorilla (the only scene that comes close to a horror movie feel). Mantan Moreland, stuck in the stereotypical black servant role, is actually pretty funny, especially in an early scene in which he banters with a telegram boy. I was left cold by the unfunny antics of Shemp Howard (yes, that Shemp from the Three Stooges) as a cop, though I liked Edmund MacDonald as his boss. Supposedly much of the movie was written (or improvised) as they filmed which would explain the number of plotholes and loose ends—the storyline with Crispin's brother never takes off, and the explanation for the menacing gorilla is particularly goofy. Favorite line: Church to Lily, a woman he's never met: "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage." Lily, smiling sexily: "That's the way to have any man!" It’s not a chiller, but it is amusing and kinda gonzo in a 40s B-movie way. [DVD]

Monday, January 27, 2020

DAUGHTER OF THE TONG (1939)

After an off-screen narrator tells us about the important and sometimes deadly work of the FBI, we see an old Chinese man watching some crates being unloaded. He also watches an FBI agent getting nosy and discovering that the crates contain Chinese people being smuggled in to the United States. In an awkwardly staged scene, the agent is shot and killed, and when word gets back to Washington, FBI agent Dickson (Grant Withers) is asked to impersonate a captured thug named Gallagher and infiltrate the gang; Dickson happens to be a dead ringer for Gallagher and all that's needed is a fake scar on his face. His main job is to find Carney, the ringleader of the gang, though no one knows what he looks like. But Dickson takes on a secondary job when he meets perky young Marion (Dorothy Short) who asks him to help her brother Jerry (Dave O'Brien) get out of the Carney gang. We rather anti-climactically discover that Carney is actually a lovely but sinister-looking Chinese woman known as The Illustrious One (Evelyn Brent). After some captures and escapes and poorly-staged fisticuffs, the FBI wins the day.

This B-thriller has very few thrills and little else to recommend it. I generally like Grant Withers as a B-movie tough guy but he's hemmed in by a rote script and lazy direction. Evelyn Brent (pictured) is sexy but doesn't appear to have a drop of Chinese blood in her—I suppose one might argue that it's a positive thing that she's not made up in yellowface like so many actors were in the classic era to play Asian characters, but it's a little distracting to see her looking so very Anglo—she is much more effective with a similar sinister look in Val Lewton's THE SEVENTH VICTIM. The use of the Tong in the title is misleading; virtually no one else in the gang is Chinese except for a hotel clerk, played by Chinese actor Richard Loo, who spends most of his time standing at the front desk and warning Carney when someone suspicious crops up. I always enjoy seeing Dave O'Brien (best known now as the cackling pot smoker in REEFER MADNESS) and he's fine here in a thankless role. His real-life wife, Dorothy Short, is OK but unmemorable as Withers' love interest. The fight scenes really are awful—in a fight near the end, they don't even bother to dub in the sounds of a fist hitting a chin, so what you get is men throwing these wild punches that are clearly not connecting with flesh. It's fairly laughable. A climactic car chase with Withers and O'Brien being chased along twisty roads shows promise put peters out. This one can be skipped unless you're a fan of Withers or O'Brien. [YouTube]

Friday, January 24, 2020

THE HOUR BEFORE THE DAWN (1944)

In 1923, young Jim Hetherton is target shooting when he accidentally shoots his dog. The event is so traumatic that even as an adult, Jim (Franchot Tone) remains adamantly against killing, so in 1938, when war comes to England, Jim registers as a conscientious objector to avoid being forced to take a life. His grandfather respects his decision, though he warns Jim that he may have a tough time of it, and indeed, he is forced to stop teaching and must find work helping out on local farms, replacing the young men who are off at war. Jim's brother Roger and his wife May have brought a young Austrian refugee named Dora (Veronica Lake) to live at the Hetherton country estate, and Jim has fallen in love with her. What none of them know is that she is actually a Nazi spy who travels to town periodically to pass information on to her handlers. When, as a German, she is threatened with detention in an internment camp for the duration of the war, Jim marries her. Eventually, Dora discovers that there is a small hidden airfield near the Hethertons and she attempts to light a fire one night in order to draw German planes to the area, but her plans are foiled. Before long, she gets another chance; this time, she plans on setting a fire in the house, but when May's young son discovers her, will she resort to murder to accomplish her mission? The other question: if Jim discovers her sabotage, will he give up his pacifism and become an executioner?

For some reason, this Paramount film (not quite glossy enough—or long enough—to be an A-film, but a little too classy to be a B-film) never seems to have gotten a home video release so I watched a less-than-ideal YouTube print. When I first realized that sultry Veronica Lake was playing the villain, I thought she'd give a laughable performance, but she's really quite good, as good as anyone else in the cast. Her hair is up and braided so she no longer has the peek-a-boo style that made her famous, and it took me a few minutes to recognize her. I've always found Tone to be a fairly bland actor, and he remains so here, but I suppose that fits the stereotype of the wartime pacifist. Binnie Barnes has a couple of good moments as the big city sister-in-law. She gets my favorite line: "Give me a whisky—and don’t drown in it in soda or I’ll murder you!" John Sutton is fine as Roger (I sort of wish he and Tone had switched roles), as is Henry Stephenson as the grandfather. Nils Asther has a small role as one of Dora's handlers. Coming out in 1944, it was a bit late in the game to be an effective propaganda piece, but it works well enough as a spy thriller, with a satisfying, if predictable, ending. Pictured is Lake in a studio publicity shot. [YouTube]