Saturday, July 30, 2005


Political movies (that is, movies explicitly about some aspect of the American political scene) had a heyday of sorts in the early 60's--think of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, THE BEST MAN, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, and FAIL SAFE. This one is often touted as the most realistic one of the bunch, and as much of it was filmed at actual Washington settings, it certainly looks real. The atmosphere put me in mind of a Senate version of "The West Wing." Apparently many of the situations and characters are based on real events and people (despite a big disclaimer at the end of the opening credits), although except for certain similarities to the McCarthy debacle, I couldn't make any one-on-one connections. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), I found the movie to be mostly compelling, if a little tough to parse on occasion. Ailing president Franchot Tone has picked Henry Fonda to be his new Secretary of State. During confirmation hearings in the Senate, it comes out that Fonda may have dabbled in Communism in his youth and powerful Southern senator Charles Laughton leads an effort to block Fonda's appointment. Young hotshot George Grizzard, pissed that he was passed over as chairman of the hearings committee (for young coolheaded Don Murray) makes an aggressive attempt to push Fonda's nomination ahead, and he gets so desperate that he tries to blackmail Murray over a homosexual affair he had in the Navy during the war. That, in a nutshell, is the plot, largely presented as two separate stories which intertwine briefly.

The movie is filled with solid performances: in addition to Laughton (who, in his last movie, chews the scenery in a mostly fun way) and Murray (whose quiet but powerful performance is the polar opposite of Laughton's), there's Burgess Meredith as a neurotic ex-commie called to testify against Fonda, Lew Ayres as the ambitious but realistic vice-president, and Inga Swenson as Murray's in-the-dark wife. Walter Pidgeon, as the Majority Leader, anchors the movie with the best performance I've seen from him, and it's also fun to see people like Paul Ford and Edward Andrews get to stretch a bit. What I liked best about it is that there aren't really good guys and bad guys; even the men who come off the worst are more assholes than evil. Fonda (who, despite being top-billed, practically vanishes for the last hour of the film) is used to great advantage: the audience knows that his persona is that of an good and admirable man, so it's a wonderful shock to realize halfway through that he's not so very admirable after all, though he may still actually be the best man for the job. The gay angle is handled in a way that was quite sensationalistic in its time, but seems tame and quaint now--the glimpse we get of a New York gay bar makes it look quite preppy and not at all decadent and shameful as one might have expected. Otto Preminger's widescreen style is not splashy but it is quietly effective. The movie is a bit long, but it's worth sitting through, especially since the unpretty picture it presents of political wheeling and dealing still seems quite relevant today. [DVD]

Thursday, July 28, 2005


The title of this movie refers to the tense, noir-like opening scene in which a key witness in a corruption trial is murdered at his home, despite being under police surveillance. After this promising opening, the tone lightens up considerably as we focus on crusading reporter Wayne Morris, who blows his muck-racking story on mobster Bruce Bennett; the mobster threatens the paper with a libel suit and Morris is re-assigned to the lovelorn column. Coincidentally, it is through a visit from a lovelorn letter writer (Barbara Bates) that Morris gets on the right track and is able to find real evidence to bring Bennett down. This is based on a 30's movie (HI, NELLIE) which Warners remade in the late 30's as LOVE IS ON THE AIR with Ronald Reagan, and again in the early 40's as YOU CAN'T ESCAPE FOREVER (reviewed 2/1/05). I'm not sure the material is strong enough to warrant a fourth version, but it's a pleasant little film. Morris does a nice job with one of his rare leading roles, Janis Paige is good as his gal, and there are good performances from Alan Hale as the newspaper owner, James Mitchell as a goon for the mobster, and James Holden as Bates's boyfriend who winds up breaking the case for Morris. I think the '42 version with George Brent and Brenda Marshall is more fun. [TCM]

Sunday, July 24, 2005


I'm not a Carole Lombard fan, and this movie didn't convert me, but watching it was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday morning. It's basically a screwball comedy played at a relatively slow pace. Lombard is an American movie actress who is in Paris in disguise for the weekend with her boyfriend, insurance agent Ralph Bellamy (playing another in a long line of patsy stooges who exist as easy targets for the *real* romantic hero to knock down). She meets cute with down-on-his-luck French nobleman Fernand Gravet--maybe I missed something, but I never did figure out why he was so poor when all of Paris seemed to know him, and he was apparently a hell of a chef. They go through the usual on-again, off-again romantic shenanigans of this kind of movie until they wind up together at the end. Gravet was good, though he had an odd accent for a Frenchman: a little French, a little New York. At times, he sounded like Cary Grant. Allen Jenkins does his usual fine job as comic sidekick, and Marie Wilson is just as good, though in a role too small for her to shine. There's a big Noah's Ark costume ball where all the participants wear animal masks, and this leads to a cute payoff scene later when, with dozens of reporters camped out in Lombard's bedroom, Gravet serves her breakfast with a pig mask on. The scene toward the end where the lovers finally sort out their feelings goes on too long, but the very last shot, of the couple kissing onstage in the middle of an opera performance, was nice. There's a musical number in a nightclub called "Petit Harlem," and Lombard and Gravet do a little sing-songy thing halfway through that's like a musical number which no one had the heart to finish. Recommended, if not enthusiastically. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

SENSO (1954)

This early Luchino Visconti movie is renowned for its beautiful Technicolor look, but the print shown on Turner Classic Movies was washed out, dirty, and in need of restoration. Host Robert Osborne did helpfully set up the historical context for the narrative, set in the 1860's. Austria has occupied Venice and tensions between the Austrian soldiers and the occupied citizens are brewing. Alida Valli is an Italian countess whose cousin is an agitator in an underground movement to get rid of the Austrians. During a political demonstration which breaks out at an opera house during a performance of Il Travatore, she falls for an Austrian soldier (Farley Granger). Even though he is the enemy, and she is married, she pursues him and they have a passionate affair. As the possibility of war increases, Valli gives Granger money so he can bribe his way out of the army, but he then uses some of the money to shack up with a whore. Valli finds out and, already on the verge of a nervous breakdown, snaps and betrays him to his commander. He is killed by firing squad and she wanders the streets, distraught. This material has potential, but for the first hour or so, it's sluggishly paced and drawn out, without really bringing the characters to life. In the last half, things get more interesting as Visconti goes into an almost operatic mode of melodrama and the pace picks up nicely. Granger is OK, although the fact that his Italian dialogue is dubbed by someone else is a little distracting. Valli is excellent as the woman who loses her stability in a lusty affair. Toward the end, when she
catches a dissipated Granger cheating on her, she is superb, and the whole thing was worth watching for that scene. I really wish they had been able to show a restored version, because I'm sure the original color print was lovely. [TCM]

Saturday, July 16, 2005


If Hitchcock rather than Josef van Sternberg had directed the Marlene Dietrich melodrama SHANGHAI EXPRESS, this might have been the result. There is a lot of attention to camerawork, shadows, and close-ups of faces in the directing style of Lewis Milestone, but there is also a Hitchcockian atmosphere (as in THE LADY VANISHES and THE 39 STEPS) in the tale of a man and woman falling in love as they get in and out of spy troubles. Gary Cooper is an American mercenary in China who is trying to help Mr. Wu (Dudley Digges) buy weapons to give to a peasant army to fight heinous warlord Yang (Akim Tamiroff). Cooper takes a train to Shanghai with a belt full of money intended for Digges, but sickly American Porter Hall and his lovely daughter, the incongruously British Madeleine Carroll (a Hitchcock heroine in 39 STEPS), working for Tamiroff, betray Cooper. Hall goes to Shanghai with the money to complete a deal for Tamiroff with drunken arms dealer William Frawley but Cooper manages to throw some monkey wrenches into the warlord's plans, sometimes with and sometimes without the help of Carroll. The narrative is plot-heavy, and some loopholes emerge (Did Cooper and Carroll know each other before their China days? Why did Tamiroff send the clearly ineffective Hall to finish the financial transaction for the weapons?), but the twists and turns keep things moving quickly to a very atmospheric finale involving a scene of mass suicide, quite explicit for a 30's Code movie.

There is much romance and humor amongst the spy-thriller trappings. Cooper and Carroll make a great couple; he was at the height of his comeliness and we get to see him bare-chested, displaying his lithe physique, twice (Carroll remains fully clothed, though her close-ups are fetching). Tamiroff got an Oscar nomination and he is good at giving a new twist to the Hollywood stereotype of the inscrutable and sinister Oriental. Whenever he appears, he always makes a grand entrance, with his own little musical theme bursting out of the soundtrack--this becomes a nice bit of black comedy as the movie goes along. Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, known much later as Master Kan in the TV show "Kung Fu," shows up in a small role as Tamiroff's second-in-command. Hall, usually known for his comic portrayals of cowards or bureaucrats, stands out in this more serious part. Frawley, who will always be first and foremost Fred Mertz, is practically a revelation as the constantly drunken "ugly American," always seeming on the verge of passing out as he sings, "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you" to no one in particular; at first, he seems just a comic relief character, but he plays a crucial and violent role in the climax. Irish character actor J.M. Kerrigan has a nice turn as an amoral agent whose loyalty seems to be constantly shifting--his ultimate reward is quite satisfying. Also in the film are Leonid Kinskey (CASABLANCA'S bartender) and writer John O'Hara in what I assume is an in-joke cameo as an opportunistic reporter. A fun movie, which has been rendered excellently on DVD in Universal's wonderful Gary Cooper collection (5 great films, none previously available on DVD) on 2 discs for a very reasonable price. [DVD]

Thursday, July 14, 2005


This has a reputation as one of the best war movies of its era. Though it's not as gritty as THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (an earlier film from the same director, William Wellman), it is compelling both in its first hour as a character-driven narrative about tense soldiers waiting for action, and in its second hour as a full-out battle film. Based on an actual event, the episodic narrative is centered on a division of American soldiers stuck near the village of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. (The credit sequence ends by referring to the film as the story of the "Battered Bastards of Bastogne.") As the film opens, in early December, 1944, the men of the 101st Airborne Division are looking forward to some R&R in Paris, but instead are sent to Bastogne to help fight a German offensive. Among the men are smiling everyman Van Johnson, farmboy Jerome Courtland (who always takes off his boots to sleep and is constantly uttering the phrase, "That's for sure, that's for dang sure!"), an older guy nicknamed "Pops" (George Murphy) who is anxiously waiting for his discharge, and other "types" (Latino Ricardo Montalban, intellectual journalist John Hodiak, easy-going Don Taylor). The story unfolds more or less through the viewpoint of a new replacement (Marshall Thompson) who goes from sensitive guy upset at being separated from his buddy to battle-hardened soldier (symbolized largely by him taking up smoking). Most of their time early on is spent in "hurry up and wait" mode, and there is a nice interlude in the village involving Johnson flirting with a young woman (Denise Darcel). Once they get to the Ardennes woods, there is a lovely moment as they wake up in their foxholes covered with snow, but from there on, the situation turns tense after they let a group of Germans disguised as American soldiers past them and soon realized they are surrounded with little hope for reinforcements. The action scenes in the last 45 minutes are well done and surprisingly do not suffer for being studio-bound (the snowy forest is done so well, I was sure they must have filmed in some northern locale, but the entire movie was shot at the MGM studio, with occasional newsreel bits spliced in here and there). Some characters die (not always the ones you assume will), but most make it through, if a little sadder and tougher. The movie may not seem especially realistic compared to some of the war films that came in the 50's, but because the makers didn't have to worry about highlighting flagwaving propaganda messages, the focus on character and the everyday details of the WWII soldier make this stand out head and shoulders above most other war films of the 40's. [DVD]

Sunday, July 10, 2005


I suspect the well was running dry for Shirley Temple vehicles by this time--this was her 18th starring role in four years. Temple is fine, as are most of the other actors, but the plot is rather threadbare. Temple plays an 8-year-old in the custody of her stepfather, a washed-up vaudevillian (William Demerest). He makes her audition for a radio contest search for Little Miss America and she wins the title, but Demerest, thinking that she lost, leaves the station and, giving up on Temple's potential as a meal ticket, takes her out to her Aunt Miranda's place in the country and leaves her with the stern old lady (Helen Westley). As it happens, the radio executive responsible for the contest (Randolph Scott) has a country place right next to Westley's. It also happens that Westley has a lovely young niece (Gloria Stuart) living with her who soon grows smitten with Scott. Furthermore, Scott's assistant (Jack Haley), who auditioned Temple, just happens to hear the little girl singing one day, puts two and two together, and the next thing you know, everyone's in cahoots plotting to get Temple to sing for the radio show behind the back of the disapproving aunt. Then, after the aunt rather suddenly thaws and lets Temple sing, Demerest comes around with a court order letting him take custody of Temple. How on earth will it all work out? The actors are all fine, especially Westley. Phyllis Brooks plays a singer who becomes a rival for Stuart; Franklin Pangborn has a funny bit as an "emergency organist" at the radio station who faints when he finally gets a chance to fill in on the air; Bill Robinson has a thankless role as a house servant who ends up dancing on stage with Temple in the underdone finale. In a bizarre self-referential twist, Temple, who is supposed to be a complete unknown, sings a medley of songs that she supposedly introduced to the radio public--of course, it's a medley of Temple hits such as "Good Ship Lollipop" and "Animal Crackers in My Soup." Best line: Haley, flirting with Brooks: "Couldn't you go for a guy like me?"; Brooks: "Yeah, with an axe!" [FMC]

Thursday, July 07, 2005


This is an MGM B-movie remake of a 1930 Joan Crawford vehicle, PAID, and even though I haven't seen the original, this still felt like a rehash of familiar material. However, an interesting cast makes it worth watching. Ruth Hussey is a shopgirl who is accused of shoplifting jewels from the store she works for. We know that the person who did it was about to be caught and dumped the jewels in Hussey's locker. But big boss Samuel S. Hinds is tired of being soft on shoplifters so he prosecutes Hussey to the fullest extent of the law, despite her claims of innocence. She gets thrown in jail and spends her time studying the law, planning to get her revenge in a legal fashion when she gets out. Three years later, she meets up with Rita Johnson, a blackmailer she had become friends with in prison, and winds up being the legal brains of a petty crime gang headed up by Paul Kelly. They set Hinds' department store up to arrest Johnson on charges that they can't make stick, and that's just the beginning of Hussey's revenge, which includes marrying the boss's son (Tom Neal) under false pretenses. However, after a double cross and a declaration of genuine love, Hussey redeems herself, Hinds apologizes for his errors, and even Johnson gets a happy ending. Hussey is fine, but she's upstaged by the sexy, spunky Johnson, perhaps best known as the murdering wife in HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (the role that Dyan Cannon made her own in the 70's remake HEAVEN CAN WAIT). Neal is something of a plastic-looking pretty boy here and isn't terribly effective. The studio may have been grooming him for a persona for which he wasn't suited--he was much better as the tough guy loser in the B-classic DETOUR a few years later. Also notable are William Gargan as a cop and Paul Cavanagh as a double crossing gangster. There is a joking reference to MGM star Myrna Loy and *two* references to their hot property of the same year, GONE WITH THE WIND. [TCM]

Sunday, July 03, 2005


This British film from the late silent era is, plotwise, a run-of-the-mill romantic melodrama; it is notable today for two things: the inventive style of German director E.A. Dupont and the performance of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. This may have been a career peak for them both: Dupont went on to do mostly B-movies in Hollywood, and Wong's career started on a downward slide three years later after her memorable co-starring role with Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Wong is third-billed here, but she has the most interesting role. The stars are ostensibly Jameson Thomas, as the owner of the Piccadilly Club, and Gilda Gray, as his dancing star Mabel. The two are carrying on a affair, unbeknownst to her dancing partner, Cyril Ritchard, who has been trying unsuccessfully to woo her. When Ritchard's attentions become overbearing, Thomas fires him, even though he is the stronger draw, and sure enough, business drops. One night, after an irate customer (Charles Laughton in a cameo) complains about a dirty plate, Thomas discovers Wong, a dishwasher, dancing on a table instead of working. He fires her, but finds himself attracted to her, and after a secret "late night audition," he re-hires her to supplement Gray in the floor show. This doesn't sit well with Gray, particularly when she discovers that the two are carrying on behind her back. Another person disturbed by the affair is Jim (King Ho Chang), Wong's lover (she refers to him as her cousin, but it's never made clear if he really is). Things come to a head one night when Gray goes to Wong's apartment with a revolver in her purse. Wong indeed winds up dead, but was the killer Gray? Or Chang? Or maybe Ritchard has come back in the picture?

The opening credits are presented as posters on the sides of double-decker buses, and the movie is filled with creative, fluid cinematography; the camera is constantly winding through the crowds at the club, swinging up and back from the dancers, and surprising us with shots from interesting angles. Wong gives the best performance, though her dancing leaves something to be desired. The relationship between Wong and Chang is unusual; at first, I thought he was coded as gay because, when Thomas and Wong go to a costume shop to find a dancing outfit for the show, Wong makes Chang put it on. We are told they are cousins, though later we assume they are lovers, although even that is not made crystal clear. I enjoyed seeing stage actor Ritchard in one of his rare movie appearances--he is best known for playing Captain Hook in the Mary Martin "Peter Pan." The DVD from Milestone has been restored fairly well, but the new score is irritating; it doesn't sound contemporary to the time of the film, and though it has some nice melodies, they are used too often and sometimes with little regard for the mood of a scene. There is also a strange, static little prologue, shot in sound and presented as an extra, which adds nothing to the story. An interesting if predictable film which should be seen for its unique style. [DVD]