Monday, April 15, 2019

THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE (1947)

At a meeting of the Old Ghosts Society (a banquet hall filled with ghosts having a fancy dinner which is being covered by BBC radio), two army officers (Robert Morley and Felix Aylmer) relate the story of how they became ghosts. In 1708, the two men—who live together in a rather nice home—are awaiting a visit from the Queen at the same time that they are hatching a plan to prevent a new war. They decide to invite a warmongering duke over, then, via a trap door, hold him prisoner in their basement until the threat of war ends. But in testing the trap door, the two go plunging down themselves and wind up dead. The Queen is annoyed at not being able to have her tea, and in the afterlife, they are sentenced to be stuck haunting that house until another royal ruler visits. What follows is a string of episodes set over the next 250 years as the two rather sad-sack ghosts comically haunt the various inhabitants of the house (the ladies of a French brothel, members of a traveling circus, an Indian rajah) while trying to attract royalty—apparently the rajah doesn't count. This very British comic fantasy is fun in fits and starts, but it feels like a series of variety show sketches that go on too long. Any appeal it has after its first half-hour is due to Morley and Aylmer who are game to try anything here—there's even a little slapstick here and there. No attempt is made to explain why these two grown men live together—are they lovers or just an "odd couple" pair? It's based on a novel, but the narrative frame is the weakest element of the movie—their ghostly imprisonment due to the Queen made no sense to me. Many things made little sense, and the movie, to its credit I guess, doesn't dwell on trying to make sense. But without narrative logic and with its repetitive comic episodes, it all grows wearying by the halfway point (45 minutes in). Ernest Thesiger has a small role as a psychic investigator. As a novelty, this is interesting, but it did try my patience. Memorable nonsensical line from the circus owner: "It’s not enough to be Hungarian, you’ve got to be clever!" [YouTube]

Thursday, April 11, 2019

STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR (1950)

The rich, older industrialist Enrico has been married to his considerably younger wife Paola for seven years, but has just discovered a cache of photos of her from before he knew her, and he hires a private investigator to find out if there's anything in her past she might be hiding. In her hometown of Ferrara, the detective hears an odd story: years ago, Paola's friend Giovanna was set to marry Guido, but Paola also had a crush on Guido, and just before the wedding, Giovanna fell into an elevator shaft, in the presence of Paola and Guido, and died. The death was deemed a tragic accident, though some had their doubts (as do we), and Paola and Guido parted. In the present day, Guido finds out that the detective has been sniffing around and he gets in touch with Paola. So in a roundabout way, the husband's own actions wind up setting the stage for a rekindled affair between his wife and Guido, to the point where, like any good film noir femme fatale, she suggests that they murder Enrico. And, just like in the typical film noir, nothing good comes of this.

Despite the plot which pulls in elements of classic noir (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice), this early film from Antonioni (his first feature-length fiction film) doesn't quite look or feel like a film noir, but rather a traditional European romantic melodrama. It's not grimy and the characters don't feel so much obsessed as they do bored with their situations. But that observation is not meant to be a criticism, just a description—on its own terms, it's an effective melodrama of alienation and fate with good performances from Lucia Bosé as Paolo and Massimo Girotti as Guido. There is some very nice use of urban locations, and some off-kilter backgrounds, such as a scene in a park with a whistling guitarist wandering about, and a conversation shot while the characters are walking up a long flight of spiral stairs. If you're not a fan of Antonioni's later more abstract films (Blow-Up, L’Avventura), you might still enjoy this. [Streaming]

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

THE SPIDER WOMAN (1943)

aka SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SPIDER WOMAN

A series of deaths, labeled "pyjama suicides" by the press, has London on edge. In the middle of the night, well-to-do men are throwing themselves out of their bedroom windows to their seemingly self-inflicted deaths, though none leave suicide notes. Meanwhile, the public wonders why super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes isn't working on this case. Actually, Holmes, in ill health and thinking he's had enough of the detective business, is on a fishing trip with Dr. Watson. As the two discuss the suicides, Holmes suddenly feels faint and falls into the river rapids, apparently to his death. But, of course, as this is Sherlock Holmes, we know he won’t be down for long, and he's not. A few days later, as a mourning Watson is making arrangements for the British Museum to take Holmes' archives, an eccentric postman pops in who eventually reveals himself to Watson and Inspector Lestrade as Holmes. To my recollection, it’s not made clear why Holmes pulled off such an elaborate charade, but he has decided that the suicides are indeed murders, pulled off in a way so subtle that a woman must be behind them. And one is—Adrea Spedding is pulling a deadly scam in which she visits gambling houses and loans desperate men money in exchange for their life insurance policies. Soon, these men all wind up dead on the street while she collects on their policies, and Holmes dons another disguise in an attempt to figure out how the men wind up driven to their deaths.

Though I was initially disappointed that this didn’t have a creepier horror atmosphere (given the title), I ended up liking this; rather than creepy, it's rather baroque, what with Holmes's disguises and the cat-and-mouse games that Holmes and Spedding play. There are (eventually) spiders and a mute child who hops on one foot every so often, and a sideshow pygmy. The climax involves Holmes being gagged and tied up behind a Hitler figure in a shooting gallery, with Watson himself taking aim at Hitler. Basil Rathbone is his usual fine Holmes, and Nigel Bruce is his usual befuddled Watson. Gale Sondergaard, who was a victim of the 50s blacklist, makes a memorable Spider Woman, her civilized and mannered exterior hiding a sinister and manipulative villain. She went on to play a (theoretically) similar character in THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, which, despite its title has no connection with this film. Dennis Hoey is fine as Lestrade, and Angelo Rossito, one of Hollywood's busier dwarf actors, is done up in blackface as the pygmy in a small (no pun intended) role. A solid entry in the 1940s Sherlock series. Pictured are Rathbone (in brownface disguise) and Sondergaard. [DVD]

Friday, April 05, 2019

RHYTHM IN THE CLOUDS (1937)

Judy Walker is a struggling songwriter who has submitted some songs to well-known composer Phil Hale. He sends her a nice rejection letter, but promises to look at her stuff again when he comes back to town. When her landlady gets ready to evict her, Judy alters his letter to make it read as though she is his niece and he is letting her stay at his fancy apartment while he's gone. She also slaps Phil's name on a song of hers and gets it accepted on a radio show sponsored by the Dutchess de Lovely's cosmetic company. Her noisy habits immediately irk her neighbor Bob McKay, also a songwriter, and they get into a wall-hammering argument without even seeing each other's faces. Of course, we all know that soon enough, they will meet cute, and that happens when he supplies lyrics to some her melodies for the radio show. They hit it off until they both head home to the same building and realize they hate each other. More complications arise: singer Dorothy Day is approached to sing the new songs but Bob is her ex, and she is not inclined to be of help to him. Then, inevitably, Phil returns to his apartment, unaware of Judy's presence and the shenanigans being pulled involving his name.

This B-musical isn't even really a musical—only a couple of songs are performed, though Judy's breakout song, "Don't Ever Change," is actually quite catchy. It's best enjoyed as a mild screwball forerunner. The B-level actors are tolerable (Patricia Ellis as Judy, Warren Hull as Bob, Robert Paige as Phil, Zeffie Tilbury as the Countess), though you can see who the models are for the performers: Ellis is a cut-rate Carole Lombard, Hull is a cut-rate James Craig, Tilbury a lesser Mary Boland, sidekick William Newell is aiming for Franklin Pangborn. The comic writing is weak and the comic timing is sometimes off by quite a bit. I kept pulling for this to get better; if it never quite takes, neither is it a clunky disaster. It didn't get bad enough for me to stop watching—I guess that's the definition of "damning with faint praise." [YouTube]

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

MANFISH (1956)

The Swede (Lon Chaney Jr.) is a beefy, slow-witted turtle hunter who works on a boat called The Manfish which operates out of Montego Bay. He likes his work but he loves the ship, and can't imagine life without it. Brannigan, his boss (John Bromfield), is a shady character who is always one step ahead of losing the boat because he owes people money (which he gets but then gambles away). One night, Brannigan flirts with an exotic woman named Alita, but her sugar daddy, an eccentric older man known as The Professor (Victor Jory, pictured to the right of Chaney and Bromfield), takes exception to this and the two men tussle, with the Professor threatening to kill Brannigan. The next day, the turtle hunters come across a human skeleton underwater holding a bottle (a nicely creepy image). Inside the bottle, Brannigan discovers half of a treasure map in French and a ring, and he remembers seeing a similar ring on the Professor's hand. The Professor fesses up that he knows about the lost treasure of the pirate Jean Lefitte, and soon all of them, along with Brannigan's girl Mimi, wind up on the Manfish in search of the treasure.

Though the title promises sci-fi horror a la Creature from the Black Lagoon, this is just a so-so B-adventure thriller. It's a fairly cheap production, but the location shooting in Jamaica helps. With the exception of the Swede (Chaney in Of Mice and Men mode) and the two native turtle hunters on the Manfish—and all those two do is complain that they haven't gotten paid—no character is likeable. At first, I saw this as a debit, since I didn’t really care if the asshole Brannigan or the dissolute Professor got the treasure. But midway through, when they decide to join forces, I realized the film was heading into ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ territory, and it got a little more interesting. To protect himself against the younger and stronger Brannigan, the Professor burns the map and memorizes it, so the two men really do need each other. But greed causes things to move inexorably toward a downbeat ending with a couple of interesting plot twists along the way. The credits claim that the screenplay is based on two Poe stories, The Gold Bug (following secret codes to find a treasure) and The Tell-Tale Heart (murder followed by guilt), but these are minor plot points. Sierra Madre is clearly the strongest influence on the story. Bromfield is hunky but can't quite throw himself into despicable bad-guy mode in a part that calls for an over-the-top performance. Jory comes closer, but I've never taken to him—maybe because I remember him mostly as Tara's slimy overseer in Gone With the Wind—so that leaves Chaney by default as the best actor here, though his (deliberately) halting delivery gets repetitious. Rough going for a while but worth sticking with if you have 90 minutes to fill. [Streaming]

Monday, April 01, 2019

IDIOT'S DELIGHT (1939)

After returning from World War I, small-potatoes entertainer Harry Van (Clark Gable) tries to restart his career and eventually gets a gig as an assistant to mind reader Madame Zuleika. One night in Omaha, when Zukeika, a bit soused on gin, messes up the act, acrobat Irene (Norma Shearer) tries to help out by prompting her from offstage but ends up making things worse, and Harry and Zuleika are run from the stage. Later, Irene apologizes to Harry and we discover two things: she makes up most of the details of her life—among other things, she claims to have grown up in Russia despite having no trace of an accent—and she thinks she's destined for greatness. He calls her a "beautiful phony" and the two have a one-night stand before parting for other towns. Ten years later, in 1938 as wartime jitters have taken hold of Europe, Harry, now a traveling song-and-dance man, is stranded at a hotel in the Alps with his band of six young women called Les Blondes. The border into Switzerland has been closed, at least temporarily, and just below the hotel is an air base out of which threatening military maneuvers have been occurring.  Also stranded are a German doctor, an agitated pacifist, and a young and innocent newlywed couple. A little later, who should show up but Irene, now calling herself Irina and sporting platinum blonde hair, a thick Russian accent, and a important lover, the arms dealer Achille Weber (Edward Arnold) who stands to make a lot of money if war breaks out. In addition to the rapidly growing international tensions, the guests get on each other's nerves, and Harry is determined to make Irina admit to him that she is Irene from Omaha.

This is an odd duck of a movie. Despite the straightforward narrative summarized above, it's difficult to say what this movie is about. Its stars, Gable and Shearer, are in romantic comedy mode, and if this had been made a few years later, the pace might have been quickened, turning it into a screwball comedy. But the overwhelming tone is one of pessimism about the state of the world—this was released in January of 1938, before the start of World War II but after the first acts of German aggression—and most of the other characters function more as symbols than as people we come to care about. This is especially true of the pacifist (Burgess Meredith, struggling with his character's lack of, well, character) and the Army officer (Joseph Schildkraut, very good in what ends up being a muddled and unimportant role). It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1936 which wound up predicting the European war situation, but the movie, for practical reasons concerning the possibility of getting banned in Europe, is less specific about the who and where—in the play the hotel is in Italy, which would make Italy the attacking country, but here, the hotel is just on a border in the mountains, and the only foreign language we hear is Esperanto.

Despite the general fogginess of the narrative and character motivations, this is quite watchable, due partly to fine acting all around. Norma Shearer seems to having a ball hamming it up in her countess persona, and Gable also has fun with his roguish character. He even gets to sing and dance with Les Blondes to "Puttin' on the Ritz." The first 20 minutes or so, with Gable and Shearer in Omaha, is not in the play, but it certainly helps flesh out the characters and does not feel like an artificial addition. Arnold (in the kind of pompous, posturing role he could do in his sleep,) Meredith and Schildkraut give good support, as do Skeets Gallagher and Charles Coburn. Honestly, however, what I like most about this movie is the fabulous set: the modern hotel lobby with huge windows giving a panoramic view of the mountains. The action is a little stagy in the lobby, but that didn't bother me. The apocalyptic ending of the play, with bombs falling all around the hotel, is tempered a bit too much here, leading to a happy ending (of sorts) that works for the chemistry that Shearer and Gable have concocted, but works against the philosophical themes of the film. "Muddled" is a good word to describe this movie, but it's still fun and interesting to watch. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

SCREAM OF THE WOLF (1974)

One night a guy runs out of gas on a deserted stretch of highway and is attacked and killed by some kind of beast (we don't see it but we hear it, and see its claws rip through the convertible roof). After other similar attacks, the police assume the culprit is a wolf or some other wild animal, but the weird thing is that the tracks in the dirt at each attack are those of a four-legged wolf, but then become two-legged human, then vanish. The sheriff calls in Peter Graves, a writer and outdoorsy kind of guy, to help investigate. He, in turn, goes to his old friend Clint Walker, a retired big-game hunter, for added help. Their relationship is odd—they used to be good friends, but somewhere along the line, Walker became a kind of wild nature fanatic loner, thinking that society had softened up men too much. For him, hunting is like a religion, though he makes a rather creepy spokesperson for that argument with his unchanging unfriendly grimace and his absolutely humorless stance. Graves still thinks he'd be a helpful ally, but Walker turns him down, even though Graves continues to chat him up on the subject. Graves' girlfriend (Jo Ann Pflug, pictured with Graves) suspects Walker is the killer, and soon she nearly becomes the next victim. It's pretty clear early on that the werewolf aspect of the plot is a red herring, and given the paucity of characters, at least ones that don't get killed off right away, it's too easy to finger the killer. The only pleasure in this film from the classic TV-movie era is Walker's eccentric performance. His character is so weird, you can't imagine that he could really be the killer, but who else is there? I enjoyed seeing Pflug, a 70s B-actress best known as Lt. Dish in the MASH movie, who is surprisingly good here. Otherwise, this is a fairly drab production which builds to a decent if predictable ending. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, March 25, 2019

GLAMOUR FOR SALE (1940)

Anita Louise is the new girl at the Lady Middleton Escort Club—get your mind out of the gutter; this is a clean-cut place with clean-cut girls (looking like the cast of STAGE DOOR) who simply accompany men out for a night on the town and have to be back at the club, where they live, by 1 a.m. sharp. Roger Pryor is a vice squad cop investigating these clubs. He enlists a salesman friend (Arthur Loft) to help him. Roger calls Lady Middleton and gets wholesome Anita; Arthur calls the Companion Club and gets June MacCloy, less wholesome and, as it turns out, a blackmailer, something her club specializes in. His picture gets snapped in a compromising position with June, and her boss (Paul Fix) threatens to publish the photo—even showing Arthur a mock-up of what the front page will look like—unless Arthur pays up. Instead, Arthur kills himself, so Roger gets Anita involved in an elaborate plan to infiltrate the Companion Club to get the goods on these bad guys who are giving escort services a bad name. The production values on this B-movie aren't bad but the overall production feels a bit shoddy. Part of the problem is a patched-together plot (perhaps necessitated by censorship problems). Though one might assume that an escort club would be a cover for a prostitution service, the movie is at pains to convince us that this is not the case, at least for the Lady Middleton Club.  Also, there is suicide, always frowned upon by the censors, and Anita steals property from her club, though that is done in the service of helping Roger get the goods on the bad guys. The performances are only fair-to-middling all around. Louise is attractive but bland and low-key; Pryor isn't even attractive. Loft and MacCloy are at least energetic. The ubiquitous Veda Ann Borg, a minor cult personality just for the sheer number of movies she appeared in—nearly 100 in a 20-year period—may be a draw for some viewers. Others can skip this drab low-energy crime film. Pictured from left are Louise, Loft, MacCloy and Pryor. [TCM]

Thursday, March 21, 2019

THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946)

Jean (Brenda Joyce) arrives in the small western town of Domingo to begin a new job as a companion to Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard), a blind, wealthy and seemingly mild-mannered woman who can't seem to keep good companions—her last one, Betty, left abruptly to go back east. Jean is surprised to find that her ex-boyfriend Hal (Kirby Grant) lives in town, and still has hopes that the two of them will get back together, even though he gets only surface friendliness and no encouragement out of her. Living at the Dollard mansion with only Zenobia and a hulking mute servant named Mario (Rondo Hatton) is a little unsettling to Jean, especially when Zenoiba keeps gently forcing her to drink her nightly milk. We soon discover that the milk has a sleeping drug in it, and in the middle of the night, Zenobia, who is not really blind, comes to Jean's room, draws some of her blood, and feeds it to some poisonous plants in her greenhouse. What's up with that? Could it have something to do with cattle in the area which are dying off mysteriously? When Jean tries to correspond with Betty but has her letters returned at undeliverable, she becomes suspicious. Sure enough, Zenobia's blood-drawing weakens her victims; she killed Betty and will certainly have to take care of Jean soon, unless poor, unloved Hal can save the day.

This is a fairly mild late entry in the Universal horror cycle of the 1940s. The title is a total fake-out; though there are spiders involved somehow in the poisoning, they aren't crucial to the plot, or I never figured out how. Rather, the title refers to the fact that, a few years before, Sondergaard played the title villain in a Sherlock Holmes movie called THE SPIDER WOMAN. But this has nothing to do with that movie, and darned little to do with spiders. I'm not even sure that it should be called a horror movie; it's more a variation on the mystery genre with a damsel in distress in a spooky house. Sondergaard does her best to bring some sense of mystery and menace to the movie, but the low budget and the other actors defeat her. Brenda Joyce (Jane in some of the late 1940s Tarzan movie) and Kirby Grant (better known to me as TV's Sky King) are fairly bland, and are kept apart for the most of the film by their uncomfortable relationship. Actually, more examination of the two of them might have added some interest. A so-so film at best, recommended mostly for fans of Sondergaard. [YouTube]

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

STATE DEPARTMENT FILE 649 (1949)

The U.S. State Department is having trouble at a consulate in Mingu in Northern China, referred to as a "listening post" since its main function is to collect news and information about any goings-on that might be of interest to our government. Marshal Yun Usu, an exiled Mongolian warlord who, yes, eventually gets compared to Genghis Khan, is stirring up trouble, and when a fur trader who had been a good source of info is found dead with his tongue cut out, the State Department decides to send former Marine Ken Seely (William Lundigan, pictured) in as a deputy for the beleaguered chief counsel. During training, he meets up with old friend Marge Walden (Virginia Bruce), also in the foreign service. We find out that Ken was born in Mongolia of missionaries who were murdered by bandits and he welcomes the chance to go back there and help fight the current bandits. The two go on a date, parking at the Washington Monument, but their love chat consists mostly of patriotic propaganda pronouncements—perhaps due to the intimidating symbolism of that big monolith. Ken runs into some trouble on his way to Mingu, barely escaping a midnight knife attack, but when he arrives, he is pleased to find that Marge has also been assigned to Mingu. Eventually, Yun Usu and his men also arrive (in a large and fancy trailer). When local radio operator Johnny Han tries to sneak a message out to Peking, Yun Usu's men kill him, cutting off his arm first. A battle of wits begins between Ken and the warlord, who is essentially holding the foreign service folks hostage. Ken is able to plant a bomb in the trailer, but plans may backfire when Yun Usu decides to escape and take Ken with him.

The genre we think of today as "docudrama," a fiction film based on real events and filmed at least partially in a documentary or newsreel style, started (as far as I can tell) with Henry Hathaway's THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), which purports to be based on an actual FBI case involving the infiltration of a Nazi spy ring. It was shot largely on location, incorporated a short snippet of real FBI surveillance footage, and apparently used some real FBI employees. It was also something of a propaganda film, both anti-Nazi (though it actually opened after the war had ended) and pro-FBI. This B-film goes for a similar vibe. It's based on a Reader’s Digest article written by J. Edgar Hoover, and the first part of the movie has a mild documentary feel, but that is jettisoned by the time of the Washington Monument date (pictured at right) and it becomes a traditional B-thriller. Its main problems are a drab feel, poor direction (lots of awkward fadeouts), a rushed-through narrative and a lack of tension. Lundigan and Bruce are favorites of mine, but Lundigan is not at his best as an action hero and Bruce feels tamped down by the more-or-less realistic tone of the proceedings. Victor Sen Yung, Jimmy Chan in several Charlie Chan films, is good as the sacrificial lamb Johnny. Richard Loo is adequate as the villainous warlord. Other familiar faces include Philip Ahn (Carol Channing's trusted servant in Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Jonathan Hale. There are two propaganda elements here: hurrah for the unsung Foreign Service—also referred to as the "silent service"—and, though the historical context is no longer obvious to viewers, boo, hiss for the bandits who are stand-ins for the Communists. The finale does finally work up some excitement, but it’s really too little, too late. [YouTube]