Tuesday, December 06, 2022

WALPURGIS NIGHT (1935)

In the office of the Morning Post, the managing editor, Gustav, and the news editor, Fredrik, are arguing about how the paper should take on the issue of Sweden's plunging birth rate. Gustav says the problems are rich bachelors and a housing shortage; Fredrik thinks it's a general lack of love. Fredrik's daughter Lena (Ingrid Bergman) is suffering in silence over her love for her married boss Johan (Lars Hansen), while Johan is suffering over the state of his marriage. He thinks having a child would help keep him and his wife Clary together, but she still feels too young and carefree to be burdened with children. Walpurgis Night rolls around, a time of spring celebrations. Lena, who has said nothing to Johan about her feelings, decides to quit her job, and when Clary tells Johan she doesn't want to spend the evening on the town with him, he asks Lena to join him and the two fall in love. Meanwhile, Clary discovers she is pregnant and goes to her doctor for an abortion, but instead he lectures her on the dignity that motherhood would bring to her, so she has it done illegally. This leads to a melodramatic turn of events: the abortionist is arrested, but the only record that Clary has of the abortion goes missing, and the small-time crook who stole it tries to blackmail Clary. As the story makes headlines in the Morning Post, Fredrik comes to believe that it was his daughter who had the abortion, and when the blackmailer is shot dead, Johan is the chief suspect. Can happiness possibly be in the cards for Lena and Johan?

This Swedish love triangle melodrama is notable for two things: the presence of the young Ingrid Bergman and the anti-abortion slant. Despite the overall serious tone of the narrative, the newspaper scenes, especially the discussions of birth rate, play out humorously. However, the first doctor's proclamation of the dignity of childbirth is clearly meant to be taken as the philosophy of the filmmakers. Though the proceedings are rather soapy (as in soap opera), the acting is solid. Bergman is actually the weakest of the leads, largely because her role is underwritten. Lars Hanson, who had a solid career in Hollywood silent movies but returned to Sweden with the advent of talkies, is quite good as Johan, and Victor Sjostrom is equally good as the father. Sjostrom is better known as the director of the silent classic THE WIND and as the lead in Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES. Sture Lagerwell is also good in the small but important role of a newspaper tipster. Pictured are Bergman and Hansen. [TCM; Criterion Channel]

Friday, December 02, 2022

SNOWBOUND (1948)

On stage 5 at Gaumont film studios, actor Neil Blair (Dennis Price), an extra in historical garb, is recognized by director Derek Engles (Robert Newton) who was Blair's commanding officer in the war. Engles pulls Blair aside and asks him to take on what seems to be relatively safe espionage activity: in the guise of a screenwriter (and accompanied by Wesson, a cameraman), he's to head off to a small ski resort cottage in the Italian Alps and watch the comings and goings of the small number of guests. Blair is not told what he's looking for, only that Engles will eventually show up and ask for a report. When Blair and Wesson arrive, they are told adamantly by the proprietor Aldo that there are no rooms for them, but one of the other guests, Valdini, who seems to have some clout with Aldo, manages to get the situation cleared up though Aldo remains antagonistic. Soon, Blair meets the other guests, all of whom seem to know each other but are reluctant to admit it. In addition to Valdini, there's a contessa whom Blair thinks he recognizes from his past; Mayne, an ex-army officer; and the German Keramikos (Herbert Lom) who, we eventually discover, was in the Gestapo. There are mysterious meetings by moonlight, an arranged injury on a ski slope, and plots of betrayal before we discover what's at stake: a treasure in Italian gold stolen by Nazis that is supposedly buried near the cottage.

Despite its inclusion in a DVD set called British Noir, this is in no way a film noir. Enjoy it for what it is: a mid-budget British post-war spy thriller with an interesting setting and some fun characters who are not quite what they seem at first. As one might expect, Herbert Lom (pictured) takes top acting honors as a man whom we like, then dislike, then we're not sure about—he keeps us on our toes. Price is OK if a little low-energy for a spy movie lead. French actress Mila Parely is better known for her work in French films (Beauty and the Beast, Rules of the Game) but she's fine here as a character who keeps her secrets close to her chest (though her final secret, revealed, sort of, in the last scene, is disappointing). Stanley Holloway (Eliza's father in My Fair Lady) is fun as the cameraman, and I also liked Guy Middleton as Mayne and Marcel Dalio as Valdini. The first half is a little slow-going as it sets its characters up, but the last half picks up considerably on the ski slopes and with the arrival of a blizzard that leaves them all, yes, snowbound. The tense ending is a little reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

THE BUBBLE (1966)

Mark (Michael Cole, pictured) and his pregnant wife Catherine (Deborah Walley) are vacationing at a mountain cabin when Catherine goes into premature labor. They charter a small plane from Tony (Johnny Desmond) to get her to a hospital but they're caught in a storm and make an emergency landing near a small village that resembles an Old West town. They get Catherine to a hospital where a doctor (Warner Anderson) delivers her healthy baby, but Mark and Tony are concerned by the odd appearance of the town, which seems to be made up of movie set buildings and props, and the strange behavior of the townspeople who act like automatons, repeating actions and stock phrases ("Taxi, Mister?" is all the taxi driver says) as though they have no will—though Tony manages to find some comfort that night with a show girl he meets in a saloon. When the three try to leave, they realize that the town is encircled by an invulnerable transparent bubble, and that periodically, a gigantic and presumably extraterrestrial being reaches down from the sky to carry a person off. As the three look for ways to escape, they must be careful not to become victims of the aliens.

This was originally released in 3D, in a format called Space-Vision, and watching the film flat as I did, you can see lots of gimmicky shots that would stand out in 3D: a Can-Can dancer; a tray of drinks (with very visible wires attached) that, with no explanation, rises up and floats in the air; umbrellas opening and closing, and more. The standard critical take on this movie is that it's an overlong Twilight Zone episode, and indeed that's what comes to mind while watching it, even some very specific stories that involve people plunked down in mysterious and artificial landscapes ("Where Is Everybody?," "Elegy," and one of my favorites, "Stopover in a Quiet Town"). At 90 minutes (cut down from an earlier version at nearly two hours), this feels too long, with lots of padding in the way of people whining and wandering around to no purpose. The special effects, such as they are, are cut-rate and unimpressive—for example, we never see the giant aliens, only their shadows as they grab people out of the bubble. The story is intriguing but don't expect a solid resolution to the story; it feels like the screenwriter, Arch Oboler (also the director), either just got tired and gave up or cared more about creating 3D ballyhoo. The acting is all over the map. Michael Cole (a teen idol of mine from his Mod Squad days) occasionally slips into sleepwalking mode, probably needing more direction than he was given, but generally is fine as a kind of average-guy figure caught in circumstances he can't fathom. Deborah Walley is pretty bad, but mostly because of what she's given to do, which is to hover on the edge of hysteria and act helpless. Johnny Desmond, best known as a big band singer in the 40s, is quite good as Tony, but he is underused. Warner Anderson, who despite a solid career as a character actor is unbilled, is fine as the doctor, the only townsperson to develop a personality. Despite this film's bad reputation, it does have a cult following, and it remains watchable. If I had the chance to see it in 3D, I'd watch it again. Rereleased later as Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. [Streaming]

Monday, November 28, 2022

GHOSTS ITALIAN STYLE (1969)

In Rome, the lovely Maria (Sophia Loren) and the handsome Pasquale (Vittorio Gassman) meet cute one morning when both are drinking their morning coffee across the street from each other. A singer by trade, he bursts into an aria and asks her to marry him. She does. Months later, he has lost his job and they are struggling to get by. Maria revisits the Holy Souls in Purgatory orphanage where she grew up and visits Alfredo (Mario Adorf), the director of the orphanage, which he has made rich by setting up a saint statues factory. She tells him her problems, unaware that Alfredo has had a crush on her since she lived there. Meanwhile, Pasquale discovers an offer almost too good to be  true: he can rent a 17th century palace in the middle of the city for free, as long as he agrees to keep the place clean for the absentee owner. The one drawback is that the place is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a duke, but that doesn't bother Pasquale. Soon, Alfredo sneaks his way into the house, hiding in an attic room, hoping to seduce Maria into an affair. When Pasquale sees him in the house, he thinks Alfredo is the Duke's ghost. Farce ensues. For the most part, this is a cute and effective comedy, though it relies on a far-fetched solution to everyone's problems at the end. I've not seen much of Loren and she's good at farcical comedy, and Gassman and Adorf are even better. The scene in which Pasquale first sees Alfredo and thinks he's a ghost is perhaps the highlight of the movie, and a simple procession of nuns near the end provides another big laugh. When the sales agent is insisting there's a ghost in the house, Pasquale says, "Don't sound like Dracula all the time!" But the name of the orphanage provides the biggest laugh in the film. Worth seeing. Picture are Loren and Gassman. [TCM]

Thursday, November 24, 2022

THE SNOW QUEEN (1959)

This animated adaptation of a story by Hans Christian Andersen was made in Russia in 1957 and was an inspiration to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyaziki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle). The version I saw was the 1959 American release through Universal with new voices and a new musical score. The opening sequence has the feel of a Bing Crosby family Christmas special, with a somewhat uncomfortable looking Art Linkletter (a TV host known for his "Kids Say the Darndest Things" segments on his show House Party) handing out presents to children as a lead-in to the movie. We see a Mr. Magoo-ish character named Old Dreamy climb out of a book of Hans Christian Andersen stories. Accompanied by his magic "slumberella"—which induces dreams in Andersen's sleep that he can then write out in the daytime—he tells of a young boy and girl, Kay and Gerda, who are best friends. One snowy winter night, Gerda's grandmother tells them that snowflakes are actually "snow bees" controlled by the cold, unfeeling Snow Queen. Later, the children see the Snow Queen's face at the window, and she comes sweeping into the room and shoots ice splinters at Kay, turning him into a cold, uncaring person. The next day, when Kay has been mean to Gerda, the Snow Queen returns and kidnaps Kay to live with her in her ice castle up north. Gerda decides to search for Kay with some help and hindrance from a sorceress, a raven, and a young bandit girl who keeps her pets cruelly locked up and loves to threaten people and animals with her knife. 

I believe I've read the original Andersen story (and I know that Disney's Frozen is loosely based on it) but it hasn't stuck in my mind, so I don’t know how faithful this film is, though it certainly has a strong fairy tale 'quest' feel with a dreamy, sometimes illogical flow to the adventures. The bandit girl is one example; she's mean and bitter until suddenly when she changes personality for no particular reason. The animation is quite nice, with an icy blue palette predominating. I suspect that 21st century children would not be likely to take to its old-fashioned non-CGI style, and it's dated even further by its occasional resemblance to the 1930s Max Fleischer movies (HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN). The English dub features the voices of teen stars Sandra Dee (Gerda), Tommy Kirk (Kay) and Patty McCormack (the robber girl) in addition to old voice pros Paul Frees and June Foray. It's not quite a musical though there are a couple of so-so songs. Overall, the production seems ambitious but uninspired; perhaps the original Russian version would prove more interesting. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (1951)

I am not a fan of opera or ballet but I am a fan of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and this is one of the few of their films I had avoided over the years because it's an opera made up of linked stories with balletic elements. But on a fine fall afternoon, I girded my loins and popped this DVD in the player. In the opening, the prima ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer) is performing in a ballet about a dragonfly. The poet Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) waits for a note from Stella suggesting a meeting place after the show, but the note is waylaid by his rival Lindorf (Robert Helpmann, who plays all the villainous characters in all the stories). At intermission, Hoffmann goes to a nearby student tavern and regales the drinking lads with stories of three of his past romances gone wrong. The first involves Olympia (Shearer), an automaton built by the inventor Spalanzani (Helpmann); as long as Hoffman is wearing the magic glasses of Coppelius (also Helpmann), he sees her as fully human. In a disturbing but effective scene, Olympia is pulled apart, limb by limb, leaving just her head on the floor. The second, set in Venice, is centered on the courtesan Giulietta (dancer and choreographer Ludmilla Tcherina) whose Satanic-looking master wants her to steal Hoffmann's reflection. In the last story, Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a singer suffering from a debilitating illness (it seems like consumption) who has been forbidden to sing lest the attempt kill her, though the vampiric-looking villain Dr. Miracle encourages her to sing, perhaps just so Hoffmann can't have her. In the end, Stella shows up at the tavern just as Hoffmann passes out from drink and storytelling exertion.

I don't know what to make of this all in terms of plot, though having read some of Hoffmann's somewhat Gothic fairy tales, I feel like the tone of the proceedings is faithful to his work. But as a work of cinema art, this is a sumptuous feast of color, with beautiful sets and costumes. Though most assuredly not simply a filmed opera, it does remain deliberately artificial and theatrical throughout, a sign perhaps that narrative is not its main concern. My attention would occasionally drift, but beautiful visuals or interesting special effects brought me back into the movie. Rounseville and Helpmann give fairly strong actorly performances, and though I'm not the best judge of the opera and ballet arts, the singing and dancing seemed fine. For a modern audience, one casting choice stands out. Pamela Brown plays Hoffmann's buddy Nicklaus. Dressed in men's clothing and wearing a short haircut, she doesn't sing but she is visible frequently, his/her face shown reacting to various actions of Hoffmann's, and once or twice, even seeming to look with longing at Hoffmann. I don't know how deliberate this was—apparently it was common onstage for the singing part in the opera to be played by a woman—but it added a nice extra frisson for my viewing enjoyment. Quite gorgeous, if a little empty in terms of plot and emotion. There were times when I felt like I was watching a movie-length version of the Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse "Broadway Rhythm" number from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. [DVD]

Sunday, November 20, 2022

GREEN MANSIONS (1959)

In late 1800s Venezuela, Abel (Anthony Perkins) is trying to escape the revolutionary street fighting in Caracas; with men and dogs following him, he grabs a ride with a priest on a boat going down the Amazon. His father was killed by rebels and Abel plans to eventually make his way back and seek revenge after finding gold rumored to be in the interior lands. The priest warns him about the natives who have a habit of practicing their headshrinking skills on strangers, advising him the natives admire bravery and the ability to talk non-stop for long periods of time. On his first day in the jungle, he is almost attacked by a jaguar but saved by natives. Brought before Chief Runi, he undergoes a day standing in the hot sunshine, talking non-stop, before Runi decides to free him. Runi's son Kua-Ko (Henry Silva), having spent time with missionaries, can speak English and warns him away from the forbidden forest where there lives a mysterious woman, a bird spirit, who was responsible for the death of Kua-Ko's brother. Abel goes exploring anyway, is bit by a snake and passes out. He awakens two days later having been cared for by an old man named Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb) and the bird girl, Rima (Audrey Hepburn), who is not a spirit but a girl who was saved from a village massacre by Nuflo, whom she thinks of as her grandfather. Romantic feelings develop between Abel and Rima, and when Abel discovers that Kua-Ko is about to journey into the forbidden land to kill Rima, he figures out that it was actually Kua-Ko who killed his brother. And Rima soon realizes that her 'grandfather' may have been culpable in the destruction of her village. Bad things ensue all around.

Words like "mystical" and "romantic" are used to describe the original novel by W.H. Hudson from 1904 (and still in print) and the movie is often labeled as fantasy or magical realism. The film is romantic, the visuals do suggest fantasy, and there is a touch of the mystical, especially in the final moments, but overall it's too earthbound to qualify as fantasy. Comparisons to Lost Horizon make a little more sense, as an amorphous spirituality does crop up here and there, but at heart, it's mostly a jungle melodrama, not too far from the Tarzan movies. Hepburn does a nice job incarnating the slightly otherworldly Rima. Perkins (pictured above) does not exactly fit the bill of an revenge-seeking adventurer—in the original novel, the character is a poet and including that in the movie would have made Perkins more believable—but still, he's OK here. Henry Silva makes a good (and hunky) villain you love to hate, Cobb is fine, and Sessue Hayakawa, as Runi, doesn't have much to do but looks appropriately 'jungle regal.' Most of the film was shot on lush-looking studio sets which look quite good, and there is a little background footage that was filmed on location, but there are some jarring cuts between the gorgeous green jungles and some California exteriors that look nothing like Venezuela. The primary element of mysticism has to do with the afterlife—Rima shows Abel the hatha flower which, according to her, dies after it blooms but always blooms again elsewhere, a point that is crucial to the ending which is not necessarily coherent but is beautifully shot. [TCM]

Friday, November 18, 2022

FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS (1950 serial)

Dr. Bryant is working on a radar gun that can shoot an atomic ray to destroy aircraft from the ground. Bryant goes to Kent Fowler, who runs an airplane-based security service, to get protection from possible spies, in particular a mysterious UFO that occasionally appears over Bryant's lab. One night, Fowler manages to shoot it down but before Fowler can get to the wreckage, the UFO's occupant. Mota, a man from Mars, has escaped. Mota finds Bryant, a Nazi sympathizer, and tells him that Hitler failed in his quest for world domination only because he lacked the right weaponry. Mota can help Bryant perfect his ray, and Bryant can then help the Martians to rule the Earth. Bryant agrees, and plays both sides by continuing to ask for Fowler's protection even as he hires a couple of henchmen to help him steal enough uranium to power the new and improved weapons. Mora sets up a headquarters in an active volcano (foreshadowing, anyone?) using equipment that was left there by a previous Martian mission, and builds a new "flying disc" ship like the one that brought him to Earth. Over 12 chapters, Fowler, with his associate Steve and secretary Helen, try to keep the bad guys away from the uranium and to stop the blackmailing of major corporations as Mora and Bryant threaten destruction unless they get cooperation. 

The 1950's serials were made on lower budgets than the ones from the genre’s heyday in the 40s (which were themselves usually low-budget affairs), and this one, made in about three weeks, is no exception. It's filled with recycled footage from earlier serials and repeated shots, mostly of the disc plane taking off and landing. The villain, Mora (Russian actor Gregory Gaye), spends most of his time making proclamations, sometimes wearing a business suit and sometimes in a sparkly spacesuit, as pictured at left. The two henchmen (Harry Lauter and Richard Irving) have more personality than Mora. The hero, Walter Reed as Fowler, is passable but not especially charismatic. Helen (Lois Collier) is, as is typical for the female serial lead, left with not much to do aside from passing along messages and getting caught once or twice in a cliffhanger, but she does at least get to shoot someone dead. Sandy Sanders, as Steve, is bland, which leaves Harry Lauter (as Drake, one of the henchmen) by default as the only standout because he manages to work up some enthusiasm for his nefarious, if constantly foiled, deeds. Among the better cliffhangers: Fowler is tossed from a plane and manages to make a soft landing in a haystack; Fowler lies unconscious beneath a heavy metal door sliding down toward him; Fowler appears to suicidally fly his plane into a missile to stop it from destroying a bridge. Most of the fisticuffs scenes are quite effective, with some wild swings and tosses. Not one of the better serials but the fact that I stuck with it says something in its favor. [Blu-ray]

Wednesday, November 09, 2022

LORD EDGWARE DIES (1934)

At a fancy charity ball, the hostess sings a song perfectly imitating the old performing style of Lady Edgware (Jane Carr), a former American chorus girl who married into wealth and a title and is present at the ball with Martin, her companion. She tells a friend she would like nothing better than to get rid of her husband, jokingly (we assume) saying that in Chicago, she could have him bumped off. Her friend's reply: "We feel human beings have a right to live—even husbands." Lady Edgware approaches the famous detective Hercule Poirot (Austin Trevor, at right) and his associate Capt. Hastings (Richard Cooper), and asks them to persuade Lord Edgware to give her a divorce. When Poirot calls, Edgware insists that he has already agreed to the divorce and had sent his wife a letter to that effect when he was visiting America a while back. The next morning, Edgware is found dead at his home, and two people positively identify his wife as the last person to see him alive, but as Poirot investigates, he discovers that Lady Edgware was at a party when she was supposedly at Edgware's house. The obvious suspect is the singer who imitated Lady Edgware at the ball, but she also winds up dead, and Poirot and Hastings are soon on the hunt, finding more people with motives for wanting Edgware dead, including the Duke of Merton (whom Lady Edgware wanted to marry) and Edward Marsh, a nephew who would come into money and a title on Lord Edgware's death.

The complaint most often voiced about this film, the earliest Agatha Christie film adaptation still in existence, is that Poirot is nothing like the way Christie presents him in her stories. Even those who've never read Christie are likely to have seen Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov or David Suchet play the Belgian sleuth, and it's true that Austin Trevor does not look or act or talk like the other Poirots—he is relatively tall and has no mustache, though the Belgian accent remains. Even more surprising is the portrayal of Hastings—Cooper plays him as a comic relief bumbler, a bit like Nigel Bruce would play Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. But unless you’re an obstinate purist, I think most fans of classic-era mysteries would enjoy this. It's well-paced and, though I was not familiar with any of the actors here, well-acted, and the mystery plays out nicely. [YouTube]

Monday, November 07, 2022

HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951)

In 1929, movie director Franklin Ferrara is murdered in a bungalow on the grounds of National Artists studio. Silent stars Amanda Rousseau and Roland Paul and Ferrara's assistant Charles Rodeo (rumored to have been Ferrara's brother) all visited the bungalow the night of the murder and are caught up in the scandal, but the murder is never solved. Charles disappears and the careers of the actors are ended. Some twenty years later, Broadway producer Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) and his agent Mitch Davis make a deal to reopen the studio where O'Brien intends to make a movie based on the murder. O'Brien’s financial partner (Fred Clark) is against it, and a cop (Richard Egan) advises O'Brien about the dangers of stirring up the past, but he forges ahead. He hires some silent movie stars to play in the film, and when he discovers Ferrara's screenwriter Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull), living penniless as a beach bum, O'Brien hires him to write the script. Amanda's daughter Sally (Julie Adams) shows up, saying that Amanda was Ferrara's lover and that, though most people suspected Roland Paul of being the murderer, she doesn't think he was, and she wants him to give up the film for the sake of those concerned who are still alive. When someone takes a shot at O'Brien, he becomes more determined not just to make the movie but to solve the twenty-year old murder.

The idea behind this is interesting: it's based on the still-unsolved murder of silent film director William Desmond Taylor which involved a starlet he may have had an affair with—or was he gay?. (I highly recommend a 1986 nonfiction book called Cast of Killers by Sidney Kirkpatrick, largely based on research on the murder done by film director King Vidor.) This starts out well as the pieces all get put in place, but as the tension should grow, it slacks off. Richard Conte, a reliable B-lead, is only so-so here, lacking leading man energy. The other actors are serviceable. Especially good are Jim Backus, in a small role as Mitch the agent, and Henry Hull as the broken-down screenwriter. A handful of silent stars, including Francis X. Bushman, appear as themselves in a very short scene inspired by Sunset Boulevard, and Joel McCrea has a cameo as himself. William Castle, before the 60s horror films that made his name, directs in a journeyman fashion. An OK time passer, but a little frustrating given the potentials of the plot. Pictured are Adams and Conte. [DVD]