Monday, February 26, 2024

THE NIGHT HAS EYES (1942)

Doris (sociable and flirty) and Marian (a bit schoolmarmish), two teachers at a girls' school, go on holiday to the Yorkshire moors hoping to find a clue to the whereabouts of Evelyn, a teacher who vanished while hiking. On the train, Doris fakes a fainting spell to get the attention of Barry, a handsome doctor, but he has eyes for the reticent Marian. He offers to drop them off at their destination, a spot near where the missing teacher was last seen, but they insist on trekking through the misty, gloomy moors on their own. Doris steps into a small bog, Marian helps her out, and the two struggle on through a storm to a small house where pianist Stephen Deremid lives in gloomy isolation after suffering shellshock in the Spanish Civil War. He reluctantly lets them stay but asks that they lock themselves in their room, where Marian says she feels the missing teacher's presence. Next morning, floodwaters prevent them from leaving and a series of Gothic elements build in the narrative: a secret room, physical evidence that Evelyn had been in the house, Stephen having uncontrollable fits during the full moon, etc. There's also a kindly housekeeper and an eccentric handyman who has a pet capuchin monkey. It all builds to a satisfying climax (don't forget about the bogs!). As should be obvious, this is basically an "old dark house" thriller with elements of mystery, romance and horror—could Stephen be a werewolf? There’s even a skeleton in a chair as is in the later Psycho. The young James Mason (Stephen) has the brooding antihero persona down pat—he's definitely a Rochester (from Jane Eyre) figure. Joyce Howard (Marian) and Tucker McGuire (Doris) are fine as the lead women, though I was sorry when Doris left for an extended period in the middle. Also fine are Mary Clare as the housekeeper, Wilfrid Lawson as the handyman, and John Fernald as the doctor, who I wish had more to do. The ending, not quite a trick one, is satisfying. Pictured are Mason and Howard. [DVD]

Friday, February 23, 2024

THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)

On a train, we see Radcliffe, a well-regarded British scientist, kidnapped and his security man killed. British intelligence is concerned about a recent "brain drain" in which several top scientists have vanished or left their jobs, and Radcliffe seems to be the latest. He also may have had some top secret information with him when he was taken. Ross, head of military intelligence, pulls cocky agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine, pictured) off of routine surveillance duty to work under Major Dalby (Nigel Green). The pressure is on as Dalby's unit might be shut down if they can't crack this case. There's a suspect known as Bluejay who deals in state secrets, and during a raid on a warehouse where Radcliffe has been kept, Palmer finds an audio tape with scratchy, unintelligible noises marked “IPCRESS.” Eventually, Bluejay agrees to hand Radcliffe over for a cash ransom, but Radcliffe is obviously damaged in some way, and when he starts to give a lecture, we hear the noises from the tape and he collapses. It's not quite a spoiler to note that IPCRESS stands for "Induction of Psychoneurosis by Conditioned Reflex under Stress," and soon Palmer himself is caught and, in a psychedelically-shot scene not too different looking from the 2001 Stargate sequence, tortured using the IPCRESS system. Like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, Palmer is made to react subconsciously to a signal when he will be triggered to become an assassin.

This is a solid entry in the 1960s spy genre, not as serious as LeCarre’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and not as silly as some of the James Bond movies could get. The overall tone is light and Palmer is witty but not a clown. Caine is perfect in the role (he played two more times in FUNERAL IN BERLIN and BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN) as is Nigel Green as Dalby (who knows more than he tells). Gordon Jackson as a fellow agent of Palmer's is also quite good. Sue Lloyd is the underused love interest, and Guy Doleman nicely underplays the role of Ross, Palmer's old boss, who pops up again near the end. Director Sidney Furie uses lots of off-kilter and disorienting camera angles—some viewers find this distracting, but I thought it gave a nice flavor to what would otherwise have been fairly bland visual set-ups. For example, there is a fisticuffs scene shot through the glass in a phone booth, obscuring much of the action. There is some dry humor that enlivens the proceedings; when the stiff, business-like Ross sends Palmer to Dalby, he says in a deadpan fashion that Dalby "doesn’t have my sense of humor." There is apparently a recent TV series based on this book, which I haven’t seen, but I can recommend this version to spy movie fans. [TCM]

Sunday, February 18, 2024

SHOCKPROOF (1949)

Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight, pictured) has just been released from prison on parole for murder, having killed someone to protect her no-good thug boyfriend Harry (John Baragrey). Her parole officer is Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde), an upstanding straight arrow who lives with his blind mother and kid brother, and lets Jenny know that she'll have to toe the line under his supervision or risk getting sent back to prison. At first, the two don't get along. Griff has a pleasant demeanor but lets her know he means business, and that any associating with Harry would be a violation of her parole rules. The somewhat hardened Jenny wants to stay out of prison but she's also determined to get back together with Harry. First chance she gets, she contacts Harry and right away, she's caught in a raid at a bookie joint. Griff, who finds himself softening, keeps her out of jail and arranges for her to become his mother's live-in caretaker. Harry, who is still meeting her on the sly, tells Jenny to get Griff to marry her, which is against the rules for Jenny to do while she's on parole, and they'll have Griff in their power. Jenny does, but she also legitimately falls for Griff, and when Harry threatens to give Griff the love letters she has written to him, the two struggle with a gun and she winds up shooting him. From here on, the movie becomes a lovers-on-the-run story as Griff finds work at an oil well and the two live anonymously until the pressures of such a life build to the breaking point.

This is a decent film noir, if never quite as hard-boiled as some noir fans might like. It’s a bit notorious for its weak cop-out ending but that doesn't ruin the film. I've never been very interested in the work of Cornel Wilde; his facial features don't fit together very pleasingly and his acting is so-so. Here, he plays a lightweight average guy who, in honored noir fashion, gets into a situation over his head because of a woman, but he plays everything on the surface, leaving us with very little sense of psychological turmoil underneath. John Baragrey is fine as the baddie, but the real reason to watch this is Patricia Knight, who was Wilde’s wife in real life. She's beautiful with a wholesomely sexy look that you just know is hiding true femme-fatale-hood. She gets to be both blond and brunette in the course of the film, and she looks good both ways. Her performance is so good, you wonder why her career didn't last—this is the third of only five movies she made before she left the business. Douglas Sirk, later known for his glossy color melodramas of the 50s, directs in a straightforward way. The original script, by Samuel Fuller, had a more violent and downbeat ending, and would have rung more true to the story, but the studio wanted a happy ending, no matter how unlikely. The word is that Sirk refused to shoot the last scene, so someone else did it. This is not a masterpiece but for most of its run time, it's a perfectly respectable noir melodrama. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

QUICK BEFORE IT MELTS (1965)

Oliver (Robert Morse) is a reporter for Sage Magazine, whose slogan is The Magazine that Thinks for You. He's dating Sharon, the boss’s daughter. When his boss sends him to Antarctica to embed himself with the workers at a research station, he tries to get Sharon to sleep with him, but she steadfastly refuses to have sex before marriage. His companion on the trip is photographer Pete (George Maharis) who is a gregarious playboy whom we first see being tossed out of a car by an angry woman fed up with his behavior. Despite their different personalities, they bond quickly when they meet before heading to New Zealand, both promising to forget about women for the duration, which is just as well as the admiral in charge of the South Pole operations (James Gregory) hates women. But the plan falls apart when Oliver falls for a half-Maori woman named Tiare (Anjanette Comer) and Pete falls for Diana Grenville-Wells (Janine Grey), the first woman with a hyphen in her name that he's ever met. At the South Pole, they soon acclimate to their surroundings: -50 degrees temperatures, a penguin who delivers messages round the camp, a seal who needs to have its temperature taken. They meet Mickey (Michael Constantine), a friendly Russian scientist, and our boys agree that getting him to defect could be the story that would make them well known. Meanwhile, starved for female attention, Oliver and Pete talk the admiral into bringing in a planeload of women as a publicity stunt, and of course, they make sure that Tiare and Diana are on that plane. Complications, some of a slapstick sort, ensue.

Though this is based on a novel, the whole thing feels like the creators just dumped a bunch of comedic and/or satiric situations together in a blender and hoped for the best. At times it's entertaining, mostly due to the actors, but the narrative is loose and baggy, and I just couldn't bring myself to care much about the characters and their outcomes. Maharis is top-billed and he's handsome and, depending how you feel about playboy types, charming, but Morse is more central to the story—this was a couple of years before HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS would make him (briefly) a leading man, so Maharis has slightly more cachet, thus first billing, and also seems more comfortable on screen. They work surprisingly well together and are fun to watch. The other performances that work well come from James Gregory (Inspector Luger on Barney Miller) as the hard-assed military man, Bernard Fox as a friendlier military man, Michael Constantine as the Russian, and Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig as Sharon. Comer, who went on to a long if undistinguished career, doesn’t really make much of an impression as the exotic Tiare. Norman Fell plays a rival reporter and the craggy-faced Howard St. John is amusing as Morse's boss. There is some second-unit location shooting involved here, but the actors almost certainly never left the studio, which is OK. There's an absurd but amusing bar fight scene, and of course, the penguin (who the men call Milton Fox because, well, that's his name!) steals all his scenes. Best line: when the boss calls his daughter and Morse answers, the boss asks what he’s doing there. Morse replies, "Trying to seduce your daughter," to which the boss wishes him luck. Mildly funny, but not recommended to folks who aren't already fans of 1960s sex farces. Pictured are Morse and Maharis. [DVD]

Thursday, February 08, 2024

BROKEN LULLABY (1932)

At a church ceremony in Paris on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the WWI armistice, the crowd is told that it's time to forget the past and look toward tomorrow. But afterward, French soldier Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes, pictured at left) confesses to a priest that he is still struggling to get past a traumatic memory of having killed a German soldier in the trenches. The boy dies with a book about Beethoven on his person and Paul finds letters inside giving his name, Walter, and the address of his parents. The priest tells Paul he has not sinned and should not feel guilty, but Paul decides to go to Germany and meet Walter's family, not quite knowing what his goal is. In Germany, there is still much anti-French sentiment and when Paul visits Walter's father, Dr. Holderin (Lionel Barrymore), and introduces himself as a Frenchman, the doctor angrily orders him out of the house. But Elsa (Nancy Carroll), the doctor's nurse and former fiancée of Walter's, says that she saw Paul putting flowers on Walter's grave and the family believes that Paul and Walter were friends in Paris, so they accept his presence, letting him stay in the house and soon treating him as if he was an adopted son. Paul's guilt, however, is not assuaged, even as he and Elsa begin to fall in love. Will Paul eventually confess and risk losing this new family?

This is a rare drama from Ernst Lubitsch, who is better known for his sophisticated comedies. I associate him so much with frothy romance that it's difficult to recognize this as a Lubitsch work, but there is interesting camerawork throughout. The anti-war sentiments are not subtle, and some of the performances get a bit overwrought, especially by Holmes and Carroll—Holmes almost always looks distraught and ready to cry—but Barrymore actually underplays and Louise Carter as Walter's mother is fine. The opening, showing Walter's death, is effective, and the final sequence is powerful, in part because Lubitsch sort of lets the camera do the acting. Despite their occasional overacting, Holmes and Carroll work together well. With Zasu Pitts and Emma Dunn in small roles. IMDb says Marjorie Main is in it, but I didn't see her. Recommended if for no other reason than to see a thematic anomaly in Lubitsch’s career. [Criterion Channel]

Monday, February 05, 2024

COVER UP (1949)

On a bus to a small town, insurance investigator Sam (Dennis O'Keefe, pictured) chats up town native Anita (Barbara Britton). Sam is investigating the suicide of Roger Phillips, which Sam thinks looks more like murder—no gun found, no burn marks on the body. Sheriff Best (William Bendeix), though amiable on the surface, isn't much help, though when Sam threatens to get a court order to exhume the body, Best comes up with a couple of bullets which were fired from a Luger, a gun that the sheriff happens to own. Anita takes Sam to her folks' home for dinner and it comes out that her banker father Stu owns a Luger, or used to, as he claims he gave to Dr. Garrow who is currently out of town. Sam, while sparking with Anita, comes to realize that Phillips was not a well-liked man. Complicating things further, Phillips' niece Margaret had, the night of the murder, eloped with a man that Phillips didn’t like, and Margaret stands to inherit more money if Sam can prove that the suicide was actually murder (thanks to that pesky double indemnity clause). Then Anita discovers her father's Luger is actually hidden in the house. Finally, Sam plants a fake story in the local paper saying that a chemist is coming to town to test the carpet the body was found on, hoping to draw out the killer. This is a bit of an oddity in the noir canon, if it even belongs there. It's set at Christmas, leading TCM to describe it as It's a Wonderful Life brushed with noir dust, though the holiday trappings are fairly subtle. But aside from the small town and the dark streets, there's little here that is truly reminiscent of Wonderful Life or of film noir. It's a fairly straightforward mystery that is fun to watch, both for the story and the performances, but the ending, though satisfying, winds up being a bit anti-climactic which takes some of the edge off the proceedings. Bendix gets top billing despite being a supporting character (an important one but still supporting) and he's fine. O'Keefe and Britton work well together, and Virginia Christine and Russell Arms make a mark as the eloping couple. The director, Alfred E. Green, was a prolific journeyman filmmaker even if he never really got around to making a classic. This will certainly not be on my list of mandatory December viewing, but as a crime film with romantic elements, it’s worth a viewing. [TCM]

Friday, February 02, 2024

THE OUTRAGE (1964)

During a nighttime storm, three people are standing at a train station somewhere in Old West: a disillusioned preacher (William Shatner), an old prospector (Howard Da Silva), and a traveling lightning rod salesman (Edward G. Robinson) who used to sell a healing herbal elixir until three people died from using it. They talk about what happened earlier in the day when a Mexican outlaw (Paul Newman, pictured at left) had been tried and executed for murder in a nearby town, and three witnesses told three conflicting stories about what happened. What doesn't seem to be in question is that a man with money (Laurence Harvey) and his wife (Claire Bloom) were on the road in a horse and buggy when Newman stopped them in the road and offered to sell Harvey a valuable Aztec knife. The two go off together in a wooded area and when Harvey doesn't return, Bloom goes looking for him. She finds her husband tied and gagged against a tree. She gets hold of the knife and threatens Newman, who responds by pulling a gun and raping her. Eventually, Harvey winds up dead, a knife in his chest. At the trial, Newman and Bloom tell different stories of how Harvey wound up dead. Then an old Indian shaman tells a third version from the dead husband's point of view. Finally at the train station, Da Silva has yet another account which he didn't tell at the trial because he stole the Aztec knife. Each version says something different about people's personalities and motives. Do we accept Da Silva's version? Or is there some truth in all of the accounts?

It's been many years since I saw Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON, the Japanese classic that this Hollywood remake is based on. The title Rashomon itself has become pop culture shorthand for a story told in different ways by different people, in which the truth is either hidden or remains ambiguous. Here, the unsolved question is, who killed Harvey, and why? Did Newman stab Harvey in a fair fight? Did Bloom do it in anger because he felt she was to blame for being raped and perhaps didn't fight back hard enough? Did Harvey kill himself because his wife was planning on leaving with Newman? Or was Harvey's death an accident? All the accounts can be seen as being slanted to make one or another person look good or bad, and at the end, we're left in uncertainty, which is both delicious and frustrating. The movie, directed by Martin Ritt, is beautifully shot in black & white by the masterful James Wong Howe on limited sets: the train station, the wooded area of the attacks, and a town square where the trial takes place. The acting is a mixed bag. Newman certainly looks the part of the scroungy outlaw, with a little bit of the Newman charm seeping through now and then, but his Mexican accent is ridiculously overdone (it may have felt like realism in 1964, but now it feels borderline offensive). I'm not a fan of Laurence Harvey—I find him wooden and unappealing—and this movie does nothing to change my mind. The rest are fine, especially Bloom who goes through a range of emotions, and Edward G. Robinson who provides a good audience for the tales told. William Shatner's acting abilities are sometimes denigrated, but he fits quite well the role of the preacher whose faith has been shaken. This may be the first use of the charming phrase, "Don’t get your bowels in an uproar" in mass media. Not essential viewing perhaps, but worth your time. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES (1963)

Tarzan (Jock Mahoney) parachutes out of a plane over a field in an Asian country. He's there in response to a call for help from Tarim, the leader of his people who is on his deathbed and is preparing the way for his successor, the pre-teen Prince Kashi—the country is not named, and although the film was shot in Thailand, the rules of succession seem more Tibetan. Tarim fears that his ruthless brother Khan (Woody Strode) will harm Kashi and install his own son as the heir. On his way to the leader's monastery, Tarzan's entourage is attacked on the river with loss of life, though Tarzan escapes. Accompanied by his guide Hani (who, unbeknownst to Tarzan is actually a spy for Khan), Tarzan arrives at the monastery where he must undergo three challenges testing skill, strength and wisdom to prove himself worthy of the mission. One is an archery test, one is a Zen word problem to solve. The most grueling challenge is when Tarzan is tied between two posts and the ropes are attached to two buffalos who pull in opposite directions (pictued at right). He endures and is accepted by Tarim. Accompanied by Hani, a monk, and a nursemaid, Tarzan sets out to bring Kashi to the monastery, a trip that Kahn's men are trying to sabotage. But Tarzan is up to the task, and when he brings Kashi back, after the death of Tarim, there are more challenges to face, including a climactic one-on-one fight with Khan on netting stretched over barrels of boiling oil that will have to be a fight to the death.

Mahoney only played Tarzan twice (the first time being in TARZAN GOES TO INDIA) but he looms fairly large in Tarzan trivia. He played a villain in the earlier TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, he was the oldest actor to be cast as a new Tarzan (he was 44 in INDIA), and he became deathly ill during the making of this movie, getting dysentery from swimming in a polluted river, even after his co-star Woody Strode warned him not to. Many viewers report how ill and weak he looks in the latter scenes of this film which was mostly shot in chronological order—it supposedly took him over a year to fully recuperate—but he was always more lithe than muscular, and I didn't think he looked much different by the end than he did at the beginning, though maybe I couldn't see beyond the oil and sweat that he's frequently covered in. I think it's a little ironic that the one of the best Tarzan torture scenes in the whole canon is here where he's not being worked over by bad guys, but by good guys. The stretching scene, the oil barrel fight, and an earlier scene of a major jungle fire are three of the best action sequences in any Tarzan movie, so for those alone, I'd rate this fairly high in Tarzan movie rankings. As I noted in my review of INDIA, Mahoney is a literate and laid-back Tarzan and part of me is sorry Mahoney didn't continue in the role (though if you squint, I think you can see a bit of Mahoney in Ron Ely's TV Tarzan), but then again, because he didn't return, we got the hottest Tarzan of all, Mike Henry. But that's another review. Woody Strode deserves mention for embodying one of the most threatening bad guys in the Tarzan films, and he also plays, briefly, a second role as the dying brother. Ricky Der (Kashi), who couldn't have been more than 9 or 10, is notable for his ability to look profoundly serious all the time. More pluses: almost no comic relief, almost no cute animal antics (though Kashi does bond with a baby elephant that they call Hungry). Definitely among the 4-star Tarzan movies. Best line: "Pride is the evil shadow of greatness." [DVD]

Friday, January 26, 2024

ANY WEDNESDAY (1966)

Businessman Jason Robards lives in New Jersey and works in Manhattan, but every Wednesday, he stays overnight to enjoy some extramarital pleasures, and fakes a long-distance phone call to his wife who thinks he's out of town on a business trip. One Wednesday night, at a cocktail party, he ropes lovely young Jane Fonda into helping him by calling his wife and posing as a long-distance operator, so his check-in call will seem as if it's coming from Chicago. They flirt but she resists becoming his mistress, and when he offers to send her flowers, she says she hates watching flowers die and wishes someone would send her balloons instead. When Fonda winds up in the hospital with hepatitis, Robards sends her balloons, and she finally relents. Two years later, the two are still meeting every Wednesday at her apartment, which Robards has had his company buy as an overnight executive suite, which only Robards uses. But this Wednesday, Dean Jones, the owner of a company that Robards has bought, has been sent by Robards' secretary to use the suite. Arriving that afternoon, Jones is surprised to find Fonda there and assumes that she is a prostitute present for his use. As the two argue, Robards' wife (Rosemary Murphy) arrives, also sent by the unwitting secretary. Assuming Jones and Fonda to be a couple, Murphy insists they join her and Robards for dinner. Complications ensue.

This is a fairly entertaining sex farce, from an era filled with such films, and it's largely Jane Fonda's delightfully light performance that makes it work so well. She pulls off a kind of naughty innocence that is central in keeping the audience on her side. The underrated Dean Jones (who got stuck playing fairly flat characters in Disney movies) goes for a kind of sexy Jimmy Stewart thing and it mostly works. Robards is the weak link; he's a little too crusty to be effective, and he doesn't make the character very sympathetic. Rosemary Murphy is much better as the wife who rolls quite well with the punches. Based on a stage play, there's only one other character of note, the secretary, played by Ann Prentiss, the look-alike (and act-alike) sister of Paula Prentiss. Jack Fletcher has a brief scene (that some today might find offensive) as a shriekingly gay interior designer. Though the film is largely stagebound, the director (Robert Ellis Miller) occasionally uses split-screen to good effect, even comically splitting the split screens. Fun line, from Murphy about the possibility of an affair with her gardener: "No woman has had any luck with gardeners since Lady Chatterley." This is fun, but at 110 minutes, it feels about 20 minutes too long. Pictured are Fonda, Jones and Robards. [TCM]

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

HUNT THE MAN DOWN (1950)

After the bar Happy's Place closes for the night, two employees, Bill and Sally, are cleaning up and counting money. She seems sweet on him but he is reluctant to open up too much to her. A thief known as the Paper Bag Bandit sneaks in to steal the day's earnings and Bill manages to shoot him dead. He's declared a hero in the newspapers until his past comes to light: he's actually Richard Kincaid (James Anderson), a fugitive who vanished twelve years ago when he was found guilty of murder, a crime he swears he didn't commit. He is held and appointed a public defender, Paul Bennett (Gig Young), and we see his story in flashback: Richard meets a friendly group of folks out on the town who invite him back to a house for further merrymaking where they all have a few too many. Joan, one of the women, is alone and dances with Richard, but her jealous husband Dan arrives at the house and pulls a gun on Kincaid. Richard disarms him but says he'd kill him if he could. The next morning, Dan is dead and Richard is arrested. Largely on the somewhat uncertain testimony of the partyers, Richard is about to be found guilty when he takes off. Paul thinks he has a fighting chance of helping Richard and enlists the help of his father, a retired cop, to track down the other partygoers to get them to testify at a new trial. As Paul and his father dig further, secrets turn up and lives are threatened before a final courtroom climax.

This noir film is perhaps best enjoyed as a kind of character study. Most of the partyers are now, twelve years later, living shabbier lives than they might have expected and there is some genuine pathos in seeing these people in reduced circumstances: the football hero was blinded in the war and works as a bookbinder, one is an associate at a small marionette theater, one is a drunken bum, and one has had a nervous breakdown. Only one couple has moved up in the world, to a mansion with a pool, but they don't seem particularly happy. When Eddie Muller introduced this on TCM's Noir Alley, he noted that the sheer number of supporting characters and backstories would make this ideal for a current-day streaming miniseries. While I understand his point, I would not encourage such an idea, as these series are always at least 2 hours too long. Here, at just 70 minutes, the characters remain mostly surface sketches, but there's little wasted time or energy. Top billed Gig Young is a bit colorless as the lawyer, and among the actors playing the witnesses and suspects, only Cleo Moore stands out. But James Anderson (pictured) is quite good as the hapless Richard, who in giving a low-key performance, manages to outshine Gig Young. [TCM]