Friday, May 31, 2002

THE FALCON IN HOLLYWOOD (1944) and THE FALCON'S ALIBI (1946)

This B-movie detective series is OK if you don't expect anything more out of it than you would out of a vintage TV series. Tom Conway is the Falcon, a rich amateur sleuth; Conway was the brother of George Sanders, who played the Falcon in the first couple of films. Conway comes off exactly like a cut-rate Sanders, and he never seems quite as smooth and debonair as his character is supposed to be. HOLLYWOOD takes place on a studio lot (actually, RKO's lot) and has one nicely atmospheric scene where a dead body is discovered on a deserted movie set. Veda Ann Borg adds some much needed life to the film as a spunky taxi driver who becomes Conway's sidekick. In real life, Borg seems to be mostly known as a B-movie actress who had her face completlly rebuilt through plastic surgery after a bad car accident in 1939. ALIBI has a much better developed plot (and was apparently loosely based on the plot of the very first Falcon movie), involving fake pearls, jewel theft, and murderous jealousy. Elisha Cook is quite good as a late-night jazz DJ and Jane Greer is just as good as his wife, a small-time singer who wants to hit the big time. The movie builds nicely to a memorable climax. Based on the evidence of these films, I'd probably watch some more Falcon flicks, but I wouldn't go terribly far out of my way to do so.

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS (1948)

Given my advanced age ;-) and propensity to read movie reference books cover to cover, rarely do I run across a film I've never heard of at all. But I did the other day. Our library had a British film called CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS. The video box indicated it was a horror movie inspired by Cocteau. Actually, it was like a "Twilight Zone" version of VERTIGO. It was shot in a self-consciously arty manner, but the only real Cocteau style I could find was a scene in a long hall of mirrors (hence the title) that was lit and shot like the corridor scene in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.

Eric Portman plays a rich and eccentric art collector living in a huge, gloomy house in the middle of London, surrounded by art, decor, and clothes of the past. He feels that he was born in the wrong time and should have lived hundreds of years ago. He strikes up a friendship with Edana Romney because she closely resembles a woman in a 400-year-old painting. Slowly, as in VERTIGO, he attempts to make her over into that woman. At first, it's something of a lark to her (her character isn't developed very well, so she remains a cipher to us, which hurts the plot a bit), but soon she feels smothered by his attentions. She also comes to believe that she is just the latest in a long line of women he has done this to. There is jealousy, murder, and sacrifice along the way. The atmosphere is the strongest element here, with everything kept on the creepy and fantastic side, though ultimately it's more Hitchcock than ghost story. Portman is good; he occasionally sounds like Claude Rains. I had heard of him but never seen him until this movie; oddly, he's in another movie I have out now from the library, 49TH PARALLEL. Romney isn't a strong actress (she wrote the film and only appeared in two other movies), but she is striking looking. Character development all around could have been better, but it's still worth seeing. It's not Cocteau, but it does have an interesting style.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

THE GAY SISTERS (1942)

No, Stanwyck does not go sapphic here; the title word "gay" refers to the family name of the sisters, Gaylord. It's an odd title; the phrase is never used to describe the three sisters and they are certainly not very happy through most of the film. It's mostly a melodramatic "women's" picture about the three sisters (orphaned as children), their romantic entanglements, and their fight to save their estate from George Brent, a possibly untrustworthy real estate tycoon (though because he becomes the leading man, he can't come off as *too* unscrupulous). It does have a few comic moments, even a little bit of slapstick--one scene involving the sisters, a gang of reporters, and a firehose made me laugh out loud, partly because it was so unexpected.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the oldest sister who was once briefly married to Brent, having tricked him into a quickie marriage as a way of getting some inheritance money. Geraldine Fitzgerald and Nancy Coleman are the other sisters, who wind up battling over a man, Gig Young. This is the movie where Gig Young plays Gig Young (he took his screen name from the character), so I chuckled when one of the sisters said, "I can't help it! I *love* Gig Young!" Young is good, but everyone else feels a bit at sea, perhaps partly due to the odd twists the plot takes. It's difficult to like anyone here. Stanwyck's character mostly comes off as cold and conniving and even when she has our symapthies, we don't whole-heartedly *like* her. Stanwyck is OK in the part, but the role would have fit Bette Davis better--it was first offered to her and it's certainly of a piece with her other late 30's-early 40's Warners films. Brent is mostly just stoic; like Stanwyck, his character has to be seen as unsympathetic at times and sympathetic at other times. That could have made for some interesting character development, but between the writing and the acting, the character never really feels fully developed or consistent. It's a good looking movie, with many scenes taking place in the sisters' fabulous home in Manhattan. And the odd comic touch now and then kept me on my feet (metaphorically).

Sunday, May 26, 2002

THE SEARCHERS (1956)

I'm not a Western fan, but this movie seems to have influenced lots of directors, so I felt compelled to watch it. My first reaction was not especially favorable, but since I've thought more about it and written about it in my movie journal, I'm more impressed by it. John Wayne plays a loner (he had been a Confederate soldier, but vanished after the Civil War) who returns to his brother's home in Texas, seemingly to settle in for a while. Jeffrey Hunter plays a orphan that Wayne found as a baby years ago, but whom Wayne wants nothing to do with because Hunter is part Cherokee and Indians slaughtered Wayne's family. While Wayne & Hunter are away, Comanches slaughter Wayne's brother's family and kidnap the two young sisters. Wayne & Hunter spend the next 5 years tracking down the Indians and the girls, forging a fragile bond along the way. Wayne wants to kill the surviving daughter (Natalie Wood) because she will have been "tainted" through her contact with the Indians, but Hunter vows to save her.

Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, seems to be a prototype for the Clint Eastwood Western characters of the 60's and 70's: alone, restless, enigmatic. But I don't think Wayne quite pulls it off. Eastwood probably could have; in fact, he did play a very similar role in UNFORGIVEN. But Wayne does at least have the weight of his well-established screen persona so his surface performance doesn't really hurt the film that much. Hunter is, in the words of someone on IMDb, "absurdly handsome"; I agree, he is beautiful here, but his performance carries little weight, and he doesn't have the preexisting aura of character that Wayne has. We don't know much about Wayne's character, and what little we know is tantalizingly ambigious, primarily that despite his hatred of Indians, he knows much more about their language and customs than any of the other characters. A scene where he mutilates a corpse in order to violate a sacred Comanche religious belief is chilling. The climax, which I won't give away, is very weakly motivated. The movie is a bit too long, spending too much time on some peripheral plot developments and some lame comic relief. But the film is gorgeous looking, shot mostly in Monument Valley, and definitely worth seeing.

Friday, May 24, 2002

AIR FORCE (1943)

This WWII movie follows the crew of a B-17 bomber heading to Hawaii from San Francsico on the morning of Dec. 6, 1941. The bombing of Pearl Harbor happens en route, and the plane gets diverted to Maui, then sent to Wake Island, Manila, and Australia. For a "soldiers in isolation" movie, the group dynamics are remarkably functional. There is a brief conflict involving one man's sister, who is injured at Pearl Harbor due to what seems at first to be the negligence of another, but that's resolved quickly. The only dysfunctional element on the crew is John Garfield as a man who couldn't cut it as a pilot and has become a disillusioned tail gunner. Early on, he wants to quit the Army and is a pain in the ass to the whole crew but, of course, he has a change of heart not long after witnessing the destruction of Pearl Harbor (a pretty good special effect scene). There's even a dog on board for a while that has been trained to bark menacingly when someone says "Mr. Moto."

John Ridgely, a handsome supporting player in lots of Warners movies (most notably as a bad guy in THE BIG SLEEP), gets his only leading role here as the pilot and does a fine job. I've seen his face in lots of tiny parts in the 30's and 40's--according to IMDb, he was in 23 movies in 1940 alone, mostly in uncredited bits; I remember him specifically in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER and LITTLE MISS THOROUGHBRED. Harry Carey is the old, salty crew chief; Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, George Tobias (Abner Kravitz on "Bewitched"), and Charles Drake (another handsome guy with lots of background bits in Warners movies) are also in the cast. The actors work well together and the latter half has some good action scenes, especially the climactic air battle on the way to Australia, but it's also interesting on a propaganda level as well, as it puts a lot of blame on local Hawaiians as fifth columnists (which is apparently not historically accurate). William Faulkner did an uncredited rewrite on the death scene of one of the crew members--it's a little hokey, but I'm sure it pushed all the right buttons back then. I don't typically go out of my way to see war action movies, although I do like WWII homefront films like MRS. MINIVER and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY. This, however, is definitely worth catching. The 2 hour length goes by quickly.

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

THE BELLS (1926)

I'm not a big fan of silent movies, but every so often, I'll give one a tumble and I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It's a film version of a play that was very loosely inspired by Poe's poem. It winds up feeling like a cross between Poe, "A Christmas Carol," and DR. CALIGARI. Lionel Barrymore plays an innkeeper and millowner in an Alsatian village who is basically a nice guy but is in financial trouble, partly because he extends too much credit to locals in order to curry their favor in hopes of getting appointed burgomaster; he winds up heavily in debt to another man (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and is danger of losing his businesses and not being able to provide for his wife and daughter. At Christmas, a rich Jew (E. Allyn Warren) stops at the inn during a snowstorm and when he leaves that night, Barrymore murders him with an ax to the head (explicit but not gory). As the dying man falls from his sleigh, he grabs a set of sleigh bells and shakes them at Barrymore in his death throes.

Come spring, Barrymore is burgomaster and the Jew's brother (played by the same actor) comes looking to find out why his brother has disappeard (Barrymore burned the body up at his mill). He is aided in his search by a local mesmerist (Boris Karloff, looking like a character out of CALIGARI). Barrymore, stricken by his conscience, keeps having visions of the dead man shaking the sleigh bells at him accusingly. In one especially effective scene, he sits at a table and plays cards with the ghostly figure (a scene reminiscent of the appearance of Marley's ghost in Dickens). The finale is a creepy dream where Barrymore imagines himself engaged a trial in a demonic courtroom. The effects are quite good, as is Barrymore, although Karloff's character seems to serve no particularly compelling purpose except to add an extra touch of creepiness. Quite good as an example of an early horror film. The musical score on the DVD was nice, with the "tintinabulation" of the bells sounding at the appropriate times.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

DODSWORTH (1936)

I saw this for the first time several years ago, before I was truly an old movie fan and I was bored silly. I may not have even watched it all the way to the end. Either that or I fell asleep because I don't remember the ending at all. I watched it again and was pleasantly surprised. Walter Huston is a wealthy, middle-aged businessman who retires, seemingly at the request of his wife, so the two of them can visit Europe and begin a new and exciting life. She (Ruth Chatterton) is feeling old, though she's younger than her husband, and winds up flirting her way around the Continent. At first, it's mostly a joke to her, and when a young man (David Niven) tries to go farther than she's prepared to, she decides to settle back down. But the allure of handsome, rich, wordly men is too much for her. Huston has to deal with his wife's desires and his own more subtle and buried ones for Mary Astor, another American abroad.

This is a truly adult movie--there's no swearing, no nudity, no sex, but instead concerns about middle-aged people, morality, and mortality. It was sort of refreshing. Another interesting point is that, despite being made after the Code clampdown, it's fairly explicit about the fact that everyone is sleeping around. Huston is the best I've ever seen him--I wish he had played some of the more serious Frank Morgan parts where he's an older man romancing a younger woman; he's much more credible than Morgan usually was. Astor is lovely and very good. I wasn't as crazy about Chatterton, but it may have been because she was playing a fairly unsympathetic part. And John Payne (looking beautiful) has a small role, his first ever, I think. Definitely recommended.

Sunday, May 19, 2002

ROAD TO MOROCCO (1942)

The Hope/Crosby "Road" movies conjure up my childhood for me--it seems like they were always running on the late afternoon movie. I know I saw some of them, but I have no memory of specific plotlines. This one seems to be representative of the series. Hope and Crosby, coming off as a cross between the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello, are shipwrecked and wind up in Morocco, romancing a princess (Dorothy Lamour) and getting in trouble with the wicked Kassim (Anthony Quinn). As with the Marxes and Abbott and Costello, the plot is not the thing here. I got up a couple of times to take care of laundry without pausing the film and didn't feel like I'd missed anything. Much of the fun comes from the wildly self-referential humor--references are thrown in to "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and Paramount studios, and the first song even notes the inevitability of Lamour's presence in the film. Dare I say it felt a little postmodern in tone?

There are talking camels, achieved using a primitive version of the same kind of animation used today for talking animals in commercials, and lots of vaudeville bits. The song "Moonlight Becomes You" is sung twice, once more or less for laughs as Hope, Crosby, and Lamour trade voices. There's also a rather startling "reefer" reference that I suspect may have gone over the heads of some the 40's audiences. Hope and Crosby make a good comedy team and I had fun watching it. On the other hand, I don't know that I need to hunt up the other movies--I suspect it's sort of a "seen one,seen 'em all" series. Nevertheless, I have another "Road" movie coming from Netflix.

Friday, May 17, 2002

THEY MADE HER A SPY (1939)

In this RKO B-thriller; Sally Eilers plays the sister of a solider whose death is the latest to be attributed to sabotage. She volunteers to spy for the government and, quite improbably, despite her total lack of experience, is accepted on the spot. She infiltrates a spy ring run out of a Washington restaurant; the leader is Fritz Leiber (father of the famous sf/fantasy writer), but she suspects he is answering to a more powerful boss. Along the way, she meets up with handsome Allan Lane (later known as "Rocky" Lane when he starred in a number of B-westerns, and later provided the voice of Mr. Ed on TV). He seems to be part of the spy ring, but it doesn't take long to figure out from the romantic sparks the two generate that he'll wind up as a good guy. This movie is short and obviously made on a low budget, but nicely acted by Eilers and Lane--although I had never heard of either of them before, they display some good romantic (and, in one scene, comic) chemistry. Eilers manages to add some quirkiness to her otherwise blandly written character. The climax, set at the Washington Monument, is disappointing--it seems to be heading for Hitchcock territory, but with the low budget, that's out of the question, so it ends rather abruptly and unthrillingly. Still, it's worth watching for fans of the simple joys of the B-movie.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

PAYMENT DEFERRED (1932)

A tidy little early sound thriller, with obvious stage roots, in which Charles Laughton plays a weak-willed, middle-aged man in dire financial straits who murders a visiting nephew (a very young Ray Milland) who has just come into a large sum of money. Laughton and his family are able to live comfortably for a while but some obstacles come between Laughton and happiness. For one, he can't move from his modest home to more upscale diggings because Milland's body is buried in the yard. Next, he begins an affair with a tarty French woman (Verree Teasdale) who winds up blackmailing Laughton to get some money for herself. I kept waiting for Laughton to kill someone else (his wife, his mistress) but the plot takes a surprising turn on its way to an ironically fulfilling ending. Maureen O'Sullivan is quite good as Laughton's snobbish daughter. Laughton, as usual, is superb. This doesn't show up very often, so if you're a fan of stage-mysteries turned movies (WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, WAIT UNTIL DARK), catch this one if if comes around.

Monday, May 13, 2002

2 CLEOPATRAS

In a completely unplanned twist of fate, I wound up with the opportunity to see both CLEOPATRA (1963) with Elizabeth Taylor and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1946) with Vivian Leigh in the same day. First, I have to say that the 1934 version with Claudette Colbert remains my favorite. But the Taylor film isn't as bad as its reputation has led me to believe. At four hours, it's way too long, and Taylor is the weak link as fas as acting--I eventually got used to her thin, little-girl voice, and she is undeniably sexy in the part, but she is unable give the character much depth. Richard Burton is good as Marc Antony, and Rex Harrison (Caesar) and Roddy McDowell (Octavian) are even better. The sets, costumes, and photography are astounding, a DeMille wet dream come true. Still, I wound up coming away from it exhausted rather than exhilarated. Character development overall is weak--the writers seem to assume that we will flesh out the characters and situations with our own knowledge of the story (and virtually all of mine comes from the movies).

The plot, in a nutshell: Caesar comes to Egypt to mediate in a battle for the throne between young Ptolmey and his older sister Cleopatra. He installs Cleopatra on the throne, then stays on longer than he should; captivated by her beauty, he becomes a pawn in her plans for Roman power, although she does appear to genuinely love Caesar (an epileptic according to this script, although that plot line goes nowhere). On a return to Rome to declare himself emperor (and Cleopatra queen), a group of Roman Senators assassinate Caesar. Intermission. Next, Marc Antony comes to Egypt and he too is swept away by Cleopatra. More power struggles follow until the inevitable tragic conclusion. Burton and Taylor have the chemistry, Harrison makes a great Caesar, and Martin Landau and Hume Cronyn stand out in a cast of many supporting players. Roddy McDowell is quite good as Antony's rival, Octavian; his performance as his character moves from effete lad to a scheming cad is Oscar-worthy. The letterboxed DVD was beautiful--this is one movie that definitely should not be seen pan-and-scanned.

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, based on Shaw's play, was shorter but far more tedious. Vivien Leigh does a fine job taking Cleopatra from kittenish and naive to mature and conniving, and Claude Rains is good (as he always is) as Caesar, especially in the earlier scenes. Even though it's just a bit over 2 hours, it felt longer than the Taylor version. The film covers the first half of the same story, but nothing much really happens; people just talk, philosophize, pontificate, and try to be witty. Sometimes it works, but mostly it doesn't. The opening scene where Rains and Leigh meet accidently in the moonlight is as good as it gets. At the time, it was the most expensive British production ever, but it's an ugly looking movie. There are lots of extras, but little sense of spectacle. I can't imagine sitting through this one again, but I might be tempted to see the Taylor film once more before I die.

Thursday, May 09, 2002

MOLLY AND ME (1945)

I'm a Monty Woolley fan so I was pleased to stumble across this one in my basement on a tape I had made years ago and forgot I had. It's a predictable but pleasant little movie. Woolley is a stuffy old divorced man with a son (a very young Roddy McDowell) he feels distant from. Gracie Fields (a legendary British music hall star who never really hit it big in the US) is an actress who finagles her way into the household as a maid and eventually brings all of her out-of-work acting friends into the house as servants. Of course, she messes things up but eventually proves her worth by reconciling the father and son.

Reginald Gardiner (who had a small but important part with Wooley in MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER) is wonderful as a fellow actor who is Woolley's butler. I need to see more movies with Gardiner--he steals most of the scenes he's in. Natalie Schafer (better known as Mrs. Howell from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) was also quite good in an important supporting part, doing a Billie Burke-type of role as a rich scatterbrain. The climax, where Fields and her friends play a threatening scene designed to get Woolley out of a potential blackmail situation, feels a bit rushed and underwritten. Otherwise, a nice movie for a lazy afternoon.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002

MATA HARI (1932)

Apparently, I remain immune to the charms of Greta Garbo. In this movie, with her heavy accent and her propensity for overacting, she seems just a couple of notches above Bela Lugosi. The movie, however, was mostly fun. Garbo plays the famous WWI spy, who was also an exotic dancer and the toast of Paris. She is providing top-secret Russian documents to the Germans (Lewis Stone is her "spymaster," and he does a good job of overcoming the Judge Hardy persona I associate with him), seemingly with the assistance of her lover, Lionel Barrymore, a Russian general. I was never clear how much he was implicated in her spying--he knows about it, but he also tries to betray her in the end. I may have missed a plot point somewhere. Ramon Novarro, a Russian pilot who is instrumental in carrying secret documents in and out of Paris, falls head over heels in love with Garbo and eventually she falls for him, which leads to her downfall.

Novarro feels awfully lightweight up against Garbo, but he does convey a certain youthful romanticism and innocence fairly well. He's also handsome and the scenes of the two making love (in the old fashioned sense, although in this pre-Code movie, it's quite clear that they spend at least one long night in carnal embrace) are nicely photographed. There's a memorable but short scene showing fellow spy Karen Morley stalked by a club-footed assassin who later comes after Garbo. As I said, this was fun, but Dietrich and Sternberg made a much more interesting movie with very similar material in DISHONORED the same year.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

THE HATCHET MAN (1932)

Edward G. Robinson stars as a Chinese tong council member in San Francisco's Chinatown. He's sort of an enforcer and executioner for the tong, and his specialty is throwing hatchets at people's heads. The first third of the movie is set 15-20 years in the past with tong wars at their height, and the sets, lighting, and cinematography are all wonderfully atmospheric. Robinson has to execute his closest friend, and winds up inheriting the friend's business and daughter, who is just a child. Many years later, with Chinatown quite modernized and tong wars a thing of the past, the daughter has grown up to be Loretta Young and is herself quite modern and assimilated. Robinson marries her, which I found pretty creepy since their relationship seems so close to father/daughter. Soon, another tong war rears its ugly head and Young is seduced by a young gangster and basically sold into servitude (and, it's implied, prostitution). Robinson allows the young man to take his wife because he had vowed before Buddah to do nothing to cause her sorrow. His fellow tong members don't find his behavior honorable, so he is expelled and is forced to retire, sell his business, and work as a farm laborer. He gets a message from Young, now in China, begging for help, so he polishes up his hatchets and goes to rescue her.

Despite the fact that virtually all the main Chinese parts are played by Caucasian actors, the movie is still quite watchable, even fun. It's a pre-Code film which allows some skirting of the strict moral code (Young leaves Robinson on her own accord but doesn't get a divorce) and the climax involves a hatchet and a human head that must have been pretty strong stuff for 1932. (And maybe even now, since TCM rated the movie TV-14). The opening scene is very effective: as a funeral winds its way through the twisting streets of Chinatown, a gigantic tong war flag is unfurled and gongs are sounded, signaling the beginning of a war and sending the entire populace running and screaming through the streets. Robinson and Young are both quite good. Perhaps because of the non-"PC" nature of the movie, it doesn't show up very much, but it's worth seeing.