Saturday, March 01, 2003

When Bad Movies Happen to Good People

THE MASK OF DIIJON (1946): Erich von Stroheim was perhaps more important to the history of movies as a director, but he didn't do badly as an actor, appearing in some 70 movies and embodying the archetype of the stiff, ruthless, but honorable Prussian (GRAND ILLUSION and SUNSET BOULEVARD). Between those two great films, he was in some good movies, like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, and some bad ones, like this Poverty Row thriller about a down-on-his-luck stage magician who dabbles in hypnosis (theoretically as a way to get "in touch with the infinite," a phrase which made me think of Professor Marvel in THE WIZARD OF OZ). He manages to stop a robbery using the reflected light off of his lighter, but when he tries to use hypnosis in his stage act with his wife (Jeanne Bates), it fails. Thinking his wife is in cahoots with another man (William Wright) to sabotage his career, he winds up using his power for evil, getting someone to commit suicide and trying to force his wife to kill. Aside from a very effective opening that looks like a French Revolution beheading but turns out to be a stage trick, the whole thing is plodding and silly and would be totally forgettable except for von Stroheim. I can't believe that this junky little sub-B film is available on DVD but ALL THAT JAZZ and TOP HAT aren't!

LADY SCARFACE (1941): Dame Judith Anderson's niche in Hollywood was playing supporting roles as tough, often sinister women. Her best and most indelible role was one of her first, as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA. It's hard to believe that she got stuck in this trashy film the very next year. I suppose her name and the interesting title led me to expect too much--it's basically a shoddy B-crime story with Dennis O'Keefe and Frances Neal as a cop and his gal who try to track down the members of a crime gang. The only trick the movie has is that the cops don't know the boss is a woman (Anderson). Despite her title billing, Anderson has little to do and the "star" couple are bland beyond belief. Arthur Shields (brother of Barry Fitzgerald) has a small bit and Eric Blore, who usually livens up any movie, doesn't really get a chance. Don't bother.

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