Friday, November 16, 2018

DUNKIRK (1958)

In 1940, the state of war that exists between England and Germany is called by some a "phony war"; a newsreel we see proclaims boldly that Germany will never try to challenge the Royal Navy. But when Germany invades Belgium, British and French soldiers are forced to evacuate. Without enough British ships to help, citizens are called upon to use their private boats to help out, and over a week's time, over 300,000 soldiers are rescued. This film follows two narrative threads to bring the battle to life. One is focused on the home front: a garage owner (Richard Attenborough) does what is considered essential war work and seems to enjoy a special status even as he belittles the war effort, and his friends resent him on both counts. His friend (Bernard Lee), a reporter, is angry at the apathy of the British, and particularly at Attenborough when he tries to get out of loaning his boat to the Dunkirk rescue effort. The other plotline follows a small group of soldiers separated from their unit; led by Binns (John Mills), universally known by his nickname 'Tubby,' they make their way to the beach at Dunkirk hoping to be rescued. The two stories converge near the end. Obviously, this is not as spectacular in its action effects as Christopher Nolan's recent film of the same title, but I found the characters and their situations here to be more interesting than those in the 2017 movie. Though the action scenes, such as they are, are OK, the standout moment in the movie for me involves a mother holding a gas mask she may have to use for her infant. The acting is good all around, with Sean Barrett a standout as a teenage worker whom Attenborough brings along when he finally comes around to participating in the rescue. Pictured are Barrett, Lee and Attenborough. [Steaming]

Monday, November 12, 2018

THE NIGHT DIGGER (1971)

aka THE ROAD BUILDER

Maura (Patricia Neal) is an unmarried middle-aged woman who lives in a small English town with her domineering adoptive mother Edith (Pamela Browne). The relationship is stifling and dysfunctional: Edith is blind and keeps a tight leash on Maura as a caretaker, partly using guilt over the fact that Edith nursed Maura back to health after a stroke several years ago. Maura works part-time at a nearby hospital performing therapy with stroke victims; the doctors want her to work more hours, but Edith won't allow her to be away from home that long. Into this atmosphere comes Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay), a scruffy but attractive young drifter in need of work. After some initial hesitation, Maura hires him as a live-in gardener and handyman after Edith talks herself into thinking that he is a blood relation (there are Jarvises somewhere in the family line). Billy seems to think of Maura as a surrogate mother, though Maura slowly becomes romantically attracted to him. We can tell right off the bat that, despite his looks and rough charm, something's not right with Billy, and sure enough, we soon discover that Billy is responsible for a series of assaults and murders of young women, triggered by his memories of women taunting him for his impotence. (Both of the film's titles come from his post-murder activity in which he digs graves for his victims in a road that is under construction.)

For about two-thirds of its running time, this feels like a horror movie, or at least a creepy thriller. Though the deaths of the women are not graphically presented, we do see them happen, and we are led to believe that Edith and Maura could become Billy's next victims. But the film takes a potentially interesting turn when Maura and Billy become lovers (apparently his impotence comes and goes, no pun intended). Unfortunately much of the tense mood of the movie evaporates; the fact that the two women seem to be out of physical danger, though a left-field twist, leads to an anti-climactic final section. This is really a character-driven psychological melodrama, but oddly, the backgrounds of the characters aren't explored fully enough for the plot twists to be effective. Though based on a novel, Roald Dahl, Neal's husband at the time, wrote the screenplay for her as part of her comeback after her strokes—though she seems quite healthy here. Neal is good, as is Clay who hits an odd note of frailty and aggression combined. There's no denying that Billy, as a killer, is the villain of the movie, but Edith and her gossipy neighbors are unpleasant at best. The conclusion is often commented on for its ambiguity on at least one major plot point, but it's a satisfying ending to a movie that is not completely satisfying as a whole. Pictured are Neal and Clay. [TCM]

Thursday, November 08, 2018

THE SQUAW MAN (1931)

Henry, Earl of Kerhill, is in charge of some substantial funds belonging to an orphans' fund, but he has used them in a business speculation deal. The deal failed, his partner killed himself, and now that the money is to be presented to the charity at a house party, Henry also opts for suicide. But James (Warner Baxter), who is love with Henry's wife Diana, agrees to take the fall for him. When it's announced that the money is missing, Henry leaves in a hurry, as though he is guilty of the embezzlement, and flees to America, though Diana knows the real story. He acquires a patch of land in Buzzard's Pass, Arizona, but the thuggish Cash Hawkins, who is engaged in black market dealings in dope and booze, tries to muscle him off his homestead. A young Indian woman named Naturich (Lupe Velez) is one of the few people in the area who will stand up to Hawkins, and she also pines away for Jim, who himself is pining away for Diana. When Hawkins finally comes around to get rid of Jim for good, Naturich shoots him dead from outside but isn't discovered. Soon, after sitting outside Jim's cabin during a sleet storm, she is taken in by Jim. Seven years later, the two have a son and are happy together, despite the sheriff continuing to investigate Hawkins' murder. Then Diana shows up in Buzzard's Pass; on his deathbed, Henry confessed to his crime and Diana wants Jim to come home with her. He refuses but does agree to send his son to England for a proper education, something that doesn't sit well with Naturich. The final straw comes when the sheriff finds evidence that implicates Naturich in the death of Hawkins. Tragedy ensuses.

This is the third version of the 1905 stage melodrama that Cecil B. DeMille made, and one of his earliest sound films. I haven't seen the silent versions but I'm not sure what drove DeMille to want to make three versions of this rather obvious frontier melodrama. The procession of events is predictable, the characters flat, and the actors don't seem challenged by their roles. Baxter is good as the hero, Velez is OK but doesn't exactly shine as the "squaw," and Eleanor Boardman and Paul Cavanagh are fine as Diana and Henry. A young Charles Bickford makes an effective bad guy (Hawkins) but he's not in the story long enough to make much of an impression. The "miscegenation" aspect of the plot (Anglo man, Native American woman) is no longer a viable exploitation device as it would have been in 1931. Roland Young steals his scenes as a titled friend of Jim and Diana's, and little Dickie Moore (best known as the deaf teenager on OUT OF THE PAST) appears as Jim's son. Interesting as a period piece, but not a particularly powerful part of DeMille's oeuvre. Pictured are Baxter and Velez. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

THE MAN I MARRIED (1940)

In the summer of 1938, Carol (Joan Bennett) and her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) decide to head to Germany for a bit of a working vacation—his aging father needs help selling his factory. When Dr. Gerhardt finds out they're going, he gives them a bundle of cash to pass along his brother who is in a concentration camp in Dachau. Carol, Eric and their young son Ricky arrive in Bremerhaven, met by the lovely Frieda, a friend of the family. While Carol sees how bad things are—the concentration camps for political prisoners, the stifling of criticism of the government, the constant spying on friends and neighbors and the mistrust that breeds—Eric begins to express admiration for the Nazis, something that bothers both Carol and Eric's father Heinrich. When Carol tries to deliver the money to their doctor's brother, she is told he died in the camp of appendicitis—even though Carol is told by the the man's mother that he'd had his appendix out years ago. Despite the darkening state of affairs in the country, Eric decides he wants to keep the family in Germany and take over his father's business, a decision which does not sit well with Carol. Things go from bad to worse when Carol makes a joke about Hitler and Eric tells her that is grounds for divorce in Germany.  That's a threat he may follow through on when she finds out that he is having an affair with Nazi apologist Frieda, and that, though he's willing to let Carol go back to the States, he wants to keep Ricky with him.

This feels like a WWII variation on the post-WWI melodrama EVER IN MY HEART which similarly involves problems between a German man and his American wife whose political views begin to differ. Bennett and Lederer are fine, though Bennett seems like a bit of a lightweight—despite the increasing tension, I never really felt like she considered herself in peril, so Lederer (pictured) takes the focus of the movie by default. The film is fast-paced but a little too episodic so it becomes predictable that every 10 minutes or so, a new obstacle will arise or a new secret will be revealed—there's a whopper of a secret saved for the end that I won't spoil here. Lloyd Nolan is good in the limited role of an American reporter, Anna Sten is Freida, and Otto Kruger (as Eric's father) and Maria Ouspenskaya (as Gerhardt's mother) give good support. This was one of the earliest Hollywood films to take a serious and explicit anti-Hitler stance and is well worth watching if this era interests you. [TCM]

Friday, November 02, 2018

TALL STORY (1960)

We are introduced to Custer College though the eyes of a new—though not young—physics professor (Marc Connelly) who is befriended by his neighbors, a stuffy ethics professor (Ray Walson) and his much less stuffy wife (Anne Jackson). The big story on campus is the arrival of a tall and lovely co-ed (Jane Fonda) who admits she came to Custer to snag a tall husband, in particular the reigning basketball star (Anthony Perkins). And that is the entire plot of this weightless but generally inoffensive comedy which borders on being a sex farce—but, of course, a sex farce in 1960 under the Production Code was very different from what it would be just a few years later, so this is actually pretty squeaky clean. It’s not a musical but it kept reminding me of BYE BYE BIRDIE, partly perhaps because of a passing resemblance between Fonda and Ann-Margaret, and because of a plot wrinkle in the last half involving visiting Russians, not a ballet company as in BIRDIE, but a basketball team. The first half of the movie is all about Fonda chasing the na├»ve and clueless Perkins, even enlisting the help of her professors; at one point, a frustrated Walston says, "I am a professor of ethics, NOT a madam!" Once she snags him, the plot turns toward their future; they decide to buy a motor home from a fellow student (Tom Laughlin) but can't afford it until a stranger offers Perkins a big chunk of money to throw the upcoming game to the Russians. Perkins agrees and deliberately flunks his ethics exam so he'll be disqualified from the game. But just as the game begins, Perkins has second thoughts, and the only way for him to play is if Walston will give Perkins a make-up quiz on the spot; the professor of ethics isn't likely to stoop so low… or is he?

As I said above, this is mostly weightless fluff; it has its bright moments, most belonging to the young and energetic Jane Fonda, but it does get bogged down in the second half which, compared to the first half, feels like it's playing out in slow motion. Perkins (pictured above with Fonda) is surprisingly good (and cute) in the kind of frivolous role that he wouldn't be called on to do very often after playing Norman Bates in PSYCHO later in the year. Walston and Jackson are good as the academic couple, and Connelly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, holds his own as the more empathic professor. It's fun to see a youthful, fresh-faced Laughlin, later famous as Billy Jack, in his supporting role. Throughout, individual scenes work OK but they don't mesh well into a satisfying whole. As other viewers have noted, the whole bribing storyline is illogical at best and completely unbelievable if you think about it too long. Watch for quick bits by Gary Lockwood as the main Russian player and Van Williams (TV’s Surfside 6 and The Green Hornet, pictured at right) as a hunky guy in the showers. Robert Redford is listed on IMDb has a basketball player but I didn't see him. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971)

Myles Clarkson (Alan Alda) is a classical music journalist who has snagged an interview with the great but cantankerous pianist Duncan Ely (Curt Jurgens). Duncan is dismissive of Myles until it comes out that Myles had studied for years to be a concert pianist, but gave it up when he received scathing reviews for his first recital. Duncan seems obsessed with Myles's hands and encourages him to take up the piano again. Myles's wife Paula (Jacqueline Bisset) isn't terribly happy when Myles begins spending lots of time in the company of Duncan and his beautiful daughter Roxanne (Barbara Parkins), the two of whom seem almost incestuously close. But Duncan is dying of leukemia and Myles volunteers to give blood for a transfusion. Afterwards, Myles lapses into unconsciousness and Roxanne carries out a Satanic rite involving plaster masks, Myles's blood, and a gooey blue liquid dabbed on Myles’s forehead. Next thing you know, Duncan is dead and soon Myles is acting very differently and playing the piano with a new fervor, so much so that Roxanne arranges for Myles to replace Duncan at a concert. The audience reaction is rapturous, and with good reason: as we discover, the Satanic rite has replaced Myles's soul with that of Duncan's. At first, Paula doesn't really notice, though she is happy that Myles's lovemaking has become more satisfying, and it doesn't hurt when Duncan's will is read and Myles is the recipient of $100,000 and ownership of Duncan's beloved pianos. But when Paula's daughter dies of an mysterious illness, Paula does some digging into Duncan and Roxanne's past and begins to suspect that supernatural forces at play.

This stylish horror film has a bad reputation, but seen today in a lovely widescreen transfer, it comes off much better than you might anticipate. Yes, it owes a debt to Rosemary's Baby—though later movies like The Exorcist and The Omen may have been influenced, at least in small ways, by this film—and the narrative arc is predictable.  But good devil worship movies are few and far between, and if nothing else, this looks great, with bright colors and disorienting visual effects. It takes a little getting used to Alan Alda as the not-exactly likeable male lead, because his very likeable Hawkeye Pierce character from the TV show MASH keeps getting in the way (he filmed this the year before MASH started). But if you can get past that, he does give a decent performance, especially early on as the passive and colorless reporter, though later Alda isn't quite capable of going full-out evil. Bisset is good, though Parkins is a little wooden; it might have been more effective if she had switched roles with Bisset. The movie isn't exactly scary, but it is creepy, and the creepiest thing is the incest vibe between Parkins and the considerably older Jurgens, which, to their credits, the actors approach full-on. Alda (pictured above left) more or less vanishes for a good chunk of the ending which gives Bisset time to shine. Bradford Dillman is good in a small role as Roxanne's former husband. The cinematography is full of odd angles and distorting shots, and the colors are rich, so when the acting is so-so, or when a plot weakness pops up (as they do here and there), the visuals can distract you. Recommended for Halloween night viewing. [Amazon Prime]

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

KILL BABY KILL (1966)

Rarely has a title been so inappropriate for its movie.  It suggests a titillating exploitation flick, which this is not. None of the other alternate titles this has been released as (CURSE OF THE LIVING DEAD, OPERATION FEAR) fit either. Maybe it should just be called A MARIO BAVA PICTURE, and fans of Bava's films like BLACK SUNDAY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE will know they should see it for, if nothing else, its lurid colors and stylish visuals. The movie begins with a startling sequence of a woman running from something and then falling (or jumping) out of a window to wind up impaled on spikes. Coroner Paul Eswai is called in to conduct an autopsy, and, though some villagers try to stop him, he finds that a gold coin has been embedded in her heart. Ruth, the local witch, says she did it to ease the girl's spirit into the afterlife. Soon Paul and Monica, a former villager who is visiting her parents' graves, are enmeshed in the mystery of the Villa Graps. It seems that years ago, seven-year-old Melissa Graps died due to some drunken revelers, and ever since, the ghost of Melissa has haunted the village. People have disturbing visions of the little girl (and a creepy bald doll--pictured above) and it's rumored that the ghost forces people who see her to kill themselves. It's also rumored that anyone who visits the Baroness and the Villa Graps never returns. Can Paul, Monica and Ruth get to the truth and break the spell that the evil house has over the village?

Much of this feels like a Hammer horror film, though the striking visual style is quite unlike the average Hammer movie. Saturated reds, greens, oranges and blues are effective in building an eerie atmosphere. Shots of the little girl recall the appearances of vampires in windows and doorways in classic-era horror movies. I could do without the gratuitous use of zoom shots, but mostly, this is gorgeous to look at. There's a sequence of Paul chasing (apparently) himself through the same series of rooms that has a David Lynch feel to it. The acting, as usual, is not the important element here, but if there are few standouts (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart does solid work as Paul), there are no real weak links. Viewers drawn in by that awful title may be disappointed with the lack of sex and gore, but the spooky Gothic atmosphere should make up for that. [TCM]

Monday, October 29, 2018

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

One day, a boy sweeping the church in a small Transylvanian village discovers blood on the belltower rope, and the priest finds a dead woman hanging upside down in the bell, two gruesome bite marks on her neck. Though Dracula (Christopher Lee) had been vanquished, frozen in the ice of a mountain river, the townsfolk take this as a sign that the church, occasionally touched by the shadow of Dracula's castle, is not a safe place and parishioners quit going to mass. A visiting monsignor (Rupert Davies) sends the local priest up to the castle to perform an exorcism which involves wedging a huge golden crucifix in the door of the castle, but being scared and a bit drunk, in the process he falls and cuts himself; his blood trickles down through the ice and re-animates the Count who breaks free and turns the priest into his Renfield-type slave. Meanwhile, the monsignor's niece Maria (Veronica Carlson) is sweet on the poor but handsome pastry cook Paul (Barry Andrews, with Roger Daltry-ish looks), who is an outspoken atheist which causes tensions with the monsignor, and to get revenge against the meddling cleric, Dracula puts the bite on a busty barmaid who is supposed to help him get to Maria. This fourth entry in the Hammer Dracula series was intended as a direct sequel to DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (which ends with Dracula sinking into the ice), though the movies never really feel very connected, with Lee the only actor to appear in more than one of the movies. The Hammer look (fairly artificial but atmospheric) works well here, especially the scenes in front of the castle with the huge cross. The acting is fairly colorless, though Andrews has a nice scene arguing about his atheism with the monsignor, and Lee is his usual stoic, steely-eyed vampire self, given little dialogue and even less motivation. The odd use of color filters to indicate Dracula's presence is distracting, but overall this is a slightly better-than-average film in the series. [DVD]

Friday, October 26, 2018

CRYPT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1973)

aka HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES

One night on an isolated European island, an archeologist named Bolton goes snooping around in a deserted church where he discovers the bleeding hanging carcass of a sheep, obviously a sacrifice of some sort. He is set upon by a more-or-less one-eyed hulk (named in the credits as The Wild Man), is strangled by a handsome fellow hiding in the shadows, and then placed under a huge stone sarcophagus; the two men break the coffin's legs and it falls, crushing Bolton to death. Days later, Bolton's son Chris (Andrew Prine) arrives to find that his dad's body is still under the enormously heavy sarcophagus, and freeing it will require equipment, men, and a couple days' time. But he is welcomed warmly by Peter (Mark Damon)—whom, despite his smiling friendliness, we recognize as the handsome strangler—and his attractive sister Mary (Patty Sheppard). The stone coffin supposedly contains the remains of the 13th century Queen Hannah who, according to legend, was marooned on the island, succumbed to vampirism and turned the entire island's population into vampires. Peter says he is researching a historical novel based on these events, but as we soon find out, he is actually attempting to raise the dead queen through demonic means. Mary, who knows nothing about her brother's plans, hits it off with Chris. We meet a few villagers, including a wise old blind sailor, all of whom are wary of plans to open the coffin. When they do, they find the perfectly preserved body of Hannah—lovely, blond, and wearing a sparkling tiara. Soon, she is fairly active around the island, occasionally turning into a wolf and threatening one and all, including a couple of children. At the climax, Peter is holding a black mass of sorts in hopes that he will become Queen Hannah's favored acolyte while Chris and Mary lead other villagers in trying to stop Hannah before she spreads her evil.

Despite the cheesy titles, this is a solid piece of classic-era Euro-horror. The colorful restored print looks great, showing the atmospheric sets and shadowy locales—except for a particularly bad day-for-night sequence late in the film. Prine is too reminiscent of a wasted hippie wanderer to be truly effective as a hero—plus, as other critics have noted, with his 70s mustache, he looks a lot like the unsavory porn star John Holmes—and I never really warmed to him. But the good-looking B-lead Damon, best known as the romantic hero of Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER, carries the film. The fact that we clearly see his face in the opening scene makes hash of any attempt to make his role as vampire-worshiper a surprise, but that's the director’s mistake, not Damon's. Sheppard is pleasant looking as Mary but doesn't have a lot to do. While she's half-alive in the coffin, awaiting resurrection, Teresa Gimpera as Hannah (above left) looks way too modern (the shiny ash-blonde hair, the mascara), but once she's revived, she plays the role nicely, acting mostly with her eyes since she has no dialogue. Once only available in murky public domain prints, this looks great on Blu-Ray and Amazon Prime. Pictured at right are Damon and Prine. [Streaming]

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

CARRY ON SCREAMING! (1966)

The CARRY ON movies were made in England from the late 50s into the 70s. Aside from a kind of repertory cast of actors, the films had nothing in common except they were slapstick, slapdash comedies inspired by the British music hall tradition, and though Monty Python went off in a totally different direction, inspired more directly by the radio comedy The Goon Show, you can see some of the Carry On tradition kept alive in Python skits (bawdiness, a focus on breasts, coherent situations that go rapidly askew). In the sense that many of the Carry On films satirized specific film genres (Carry On Spying, Carry On Cowboy, Carry On Cleo—as in Cleopatra), you could say that this series influenced Mel Brooks (BLAZING SADDLES, etc.) and the Zucker brothers (AIRPLANE!). This is the only Carry On movie I've seen, and from what I've read, it seems to be a fairly typical example of the series.

One night, Albert and Doris are making out in the woods when Doris is freaked out by a strange noise. While Albert goes to investigate, a monster carts Doris off, but one of his fingers (more like a claw) breaks off. Albert finds it and takes it to the police. Sgt Bung and Detective Slobotham—pronounced "slowbottom"—tell him about a series of female abductions, and soon they are hot on the trail of some strange goings-on at the Bide-A-Wee Rest Home, in a huge spooky-looking mansion, run by the voluptuous Valeria Watt and her cadaverous associate Dr. Orlando Watt. We soon discover that Dr. Watt (yes, there's a Dr. Who reference made as part of a "Who's on first" routine) is literally a corpse who Valeria revives electrically now and then. The two kidnap women and turn them into mannequins which they sell to fashion shops.

In the beginning, this farce, which in part is parodying Hammer horror films (the sets look exactly like Hammer sets), is fun and energetic; they throw so many gags at you that some are bound to make you laugh. For example: Cop: "I warn you I'll take down anything that you say!" Suspect: "Alright then, trousers." When the monster, Oddbod, is discovered missing an ear, Dr. Watt says, "Oh well, ear today, gone tomorrow." I admit I was laughing or at least chuckling at a fairly high percentage of the jokes, puns and sight gags. But after half an hour or so, it gets a bit wearing as the pace increases but the quality of the humor does not. At 100 minutes, this should have been about 30 minutes shorter. There are lots of mildly smarmy sex gags and, being British comedy, a man in drag eventually crops up. In a cast where everyone is camping it up to one degree or another, standouts include Harry H. Corbett who provides a solid center as Sgt. Bung, Jim Dale as Albert, Fenella Fielding (above right) as Valeria, and Charles Hawtrey who has a funny bit as a men's room attendant. Kenneth Williams (above left with the monster) is a bit too much as Dr. Watt, but he's bearable. I don't know how many more Carry On movies I'd care to see, but I'm glad to have finally gotten one under my belt. [TCM]