Saturday, December 30, 2006


I've gotten to the point, as I noted earlier this month, where I sometimes feel like I've seen everything worth seeing and there's nothing out there to surprise me in the realm of classic movies, but luckily I keep finding gems here and there, or I revisit a movie I've seen before and find new details or depths. I keep meaning to write up more of my "revisitings" here and with the increasing number of older films seeing the light of day on DVD (and the number of boxed sets I got for Christmas), that may be more likely to happen in '07. Below are my favorite discoveries of 2006:

BOSTON BLACKIE'S RENDEZVOUS (1945): One in a series of B-detective films featuring Chester Morris; this one has a fairly intense, modern feel to it, concerning a psycho serial killer, well played by Steve Cochran. I'm glad to see that TCM will be showing a few of these in January. (reviewed 6/06)

CHINA GIRL (1942): It sure ain't CASABLANCA but it is a lively B-variation on its plot, with a nice cast (George Montgomery, Gene Tierney, Lynn Bari). (8/06)

THE DESERT OF THE TARTARS (1976): great Kafkaesque fable about the military mindset and war (or the lack thereof); I'd never heard of the director, Valerio Zulini, but I will be searching out more films by him. (12/06)

FOUR SONS (1940): How the lives of a family in Czechoslovakia change when the Nazis take over. Formulaic and studio-bound, but compelling with an interesting cast of actors who, aside from Don Ameche, never made the big time. (3/06)

THE OUTLAW (1943): I can't believe I'm actually including this on my year-end list. No one can possibly think this campy western starring Jane Russell's breasts is a good movie, but damn, it's weird and fun, and Jack Buetel, the leading man whose career went nowhere, is mannered and strange and almost as sexy as Russell. (2/06)

SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937): This B-comedy/thriller gets no respect but I enjoyed it as much as any "old dark house" comedy I've ever seen. It's silly with an ending that's a letdown, but it has energy, some good spooky effects, and a particularly effective performance from Elspeth Dudgeon. (11/06)

A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) & THE WORKING MAN (1933): Two delightful domestic comedies with George Arliss, not among his more important films, but fun, with solid supporting casts. (7/06)

SUNDAY PUNCH (1942): Unpretentious B-boxing movie with a charming cast (William Lundigan, Dan Dailey, Jean Rogers, and Sam Levene). (5/06)

WHITE CARGO (1942): One of the best examples of the tropical melodrama genre. The stiff Walter Pidgeon is a drag, but sweaty Richard Carlson and slinky Hedy Lamarr make this worth seeing, not to mention the humor, both intentional and not. (11/06)

THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU (1929): A silent German film about people stuck on a mountain during a storm. Exciting and beautifully filmed, with an OK performance by infamous director Leni Riefenstahl. (4/06)

YOU'LL FIND OUT (1940): My favorite Kay Kyser movie, made even more fun by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and tons of spooky atmosphere. (10/06)

I also liked the desert noir INFERNO (5/06), the British war film WENT THE DAY WELL? (9/06), the colorful soap opera WRITTEN ON THE WIND (12/06), and THE FAN (7/06), a version of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan." I enjoyed discovering that Tyrone Power could do romantic comedy (CAFE METROPOLE and DAY-TIME WIFE, both 4/06), I loved seeing more films with George Arliss (7/06), William Lundigan (5/06) and Kay Kyser (9/06), and I got guilty pleasure from Roger Corman's CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA (10/06) and from finally seeing an uncut, non-MST3K version of THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (10/06). There were some great boxed sets at my birthday party and under my Christmas tree (Preston Sturges, Forbidden Hollywood, Boris Karloff, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Frank Capra, Astaire & Rogers). As far as my favorite TV network, Turner Classic Movies, I liked TCM Underground and the fact that they are showing more smaller gems from the Columbia library; I hope for even more in the new year (the presence of Boston Blackie films on the January schedule is a good sign).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


One reason I avoid reviewing most of the more well-known classic films is because, if they are among my favorites, I have usually seen them over and over, and I find it difficult to judge them dispassionately. However, two recent articles, one about THE BISHOP'S WIFE (1947) on the New York Times Op/Ed page and one about THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) online in Slate, have nudged me into commenting on two of my favorite Christmas movies. My comments, however, have little to do with the holiday and more to do with a minor epiphany about why I like the movies I like: the supporting casts. So much depends on a strong bunch of interesting secondary characters and a strong cast of actors to play them, and both of these movies have such characters and actors. Of course, the stars and the stories of both films are quite wonderful. THE BISHOP'S WIFE concerns a bishop (David Niven) who, in using all his energy to raise money to build a multi-million dollar cathedral. has lost sight of several things that are more important in life, including his relationships with his wife (Loretta Young), child, and old friends, and his connection to the Biblical command of charity. When he prays for help to raise more funds, an angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) comes down at Christmas to guide him back toward the intangibles he has been neglecting (rather like John Payne and Edmund Gwenn do for Maureen O'Hara in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET). While the central trio of stars are excellent, especially Niven, it is the supporting cast that makes this film so special: Gladys Cooper as a rich old biddy who is withholding her crucial support until Niven agrees to build the church exactly as she wants it; James Gleason as a taxi driver who takes a shine to Grant and Young, whom he assumes are engaged to be married; and especially Monty Woolley as a retired history professor (forced out before his time, we are led to believe, because of his atheism). All three take relatively small roles and make them all feel central, at one time or another, to the narrative. Woolley's character is one of the few atheists I can remember in a major film, and though in the next to last scene, he finds that Grant's influence is pushing him into the church's doors on Christmas Eve, we're also left, largely due to Woolley's playing, unsure as to how deep his conversion will go. Elsa Lanchester, Sara Haden, and Regis Toomey are all fine in smaller roles. The film is sweet, yes, but also quirky enough that it doesn't become sappy. This is a Christmas movie I can watch all year around.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER has James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as clerks in a leather goods store in Budapest who have been falling in love with each other via a pen-pal relationship, not realizing that they work together (and don't exactly get along). Of course, it's no surprise when things work out by the last scene, on Christmas Eve, and the two make a nice somewhat prickly pair of lovers, but the real surprise is a major subplot which involves the owner of the store (Frank Morgan) who suspects his wife of infidelity. When he finds out that his suspicions are correct, he attempts suicide (like the element of atheism in BISHOP'S WIFE, not a plot twist you find in the average romantic comedy). Morgan gives perhaps his greatest performance here, mostly free of his usual tics and mannerisms, and the rest of the shop's employees (primarily Felix Bressart, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and William Tracy) are all fleshed out to one degree or another, especially the delightful Bressart. Like BISHOP'S WIFE, the potential for sappiness is held down by the subplots and the acting; Stewart and Sullavan are fine, but the rest of the cast all get chances to shine as well, and help make this another holiday film that shouldn't just be watched in December. In fact, I find myself far more moved by Morgan's touching last scene than by the wrap-up of the central romance. While I would never want to give up my "starwatching" (I can't imagine Hollywood movies without Grant and Stewart and Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), I also like being reminded how much a subtle turn by a character actor (in a well-written role) can add to the magic of moviewatching, and these two films are top-notch examples of that magic.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Damon Runyon was a popular writer in the first half of the 20th century whose stories romanticized members of the New York City underclass: gangsters, bookies, gamblers, chorus girls, panhandlers, and assorted Broadway hangers-on. Even if you've never read him, you know his characters from movies like GUYS AND DOLLS and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES. They're all scam artists but most of them are also at heart nice guys (and dolls), and they speak in a colorful style that uses slang, unusual phrasing, precise grammar, and long sentences, as in this line from GUYS AND DOLLS: "For two weeks I gambled in green pastures; the dice were my cousins and the dolls were agreeable with nice teeth and no last names." I find most of the Runyon movies a bit too precious, though they all have their moments of charm--I like POCKETFUL best, though most movie buffs prefer its original source, the 1933 LADY FOR A DAY. This one is better known as a Christmas movie as it takes place during the holidays and introduced the song, "Silver Bells," one of my very favorite modern carols, but overall it doesn't have a strong Christmas flavor. Bob Hope is the title character, an affable con man who we first see at a racetrack in Florida, running a touting scheme and scamming folks into thinking that he can talk to the horses. He cheats well-heeled mobster Fred Clark out of $10,000, and Clark gives him until Christmas to pay him back. Hope is sure he can raise the money back in New York (where Clark will be by the 25th , trying to sell an old casino of his) but his hoped-for backer, low-level racketeer and nightclub owner Lloyd Nolan, doesn't come through. Hope starts a charity scam, dressing as Santa Claus and raising money to use Clark's empty casino for a home for "Old Dolls" who are no longer able to make ends meet on the streets. He gets a bunch of street pals to dress as Santas and help collect funds, and he takes a group of old ladies in at the casino, but he plans to abscond with the money on Christmas Day to pay off Clark. Nolan gets wind of the plan and tires to muscle in, going so far as to kidnap the dolls. Naturally, this being Damon Runyon's world, Hope has a change of heart and manages to cross up both Clark and Nolan in the process. Marilyn Maxwell plays Hope's main squeeze, who (like Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) has been trying to get her man to marry her for years. Jane Darwell is Nellie Thursday, the "old doll" who inspires Hope; Andrea King is Clark's gal; William Frawley, Jay C. Flippen, and Sid Melton are also in the cast. An early scene of Hope, dressed for Florida but arriving in New York during a snowstorm, is very funny, and when Hope and Maxwell sing "Silver Bells" while strolling along the city streets, it becomes a full-fledged production number, and one of the best Christmas moments in any Hollywood film. Hope doesn't try to build a character; he really only has a line or two of dialogue that sounds authentically Runyonesque, and it might have been better if he hadn't tired at all. Amusing, if not quite a timeless classic. [VHS]

Friday, December 22, 2006


Each year at this time I watch at least one made-for-TV Christmas movie (usually on a cable channel like Lifetime or ABC Family) which stars a blandly handsome leading man (and they all do, which leaves me a big choice). This year's pickings, though plentiful, felt slim in terms of theme: they all were romances. I realize that holiday romance stories are nothing new, but most of the classic Christmas movies (WONDERFUL LIFE, CHRISTMAS CAROL, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, THE BISHOP'S WIFE, etc.) put romance on a back burner or make the romance just one element of a larger, more general "miraculous" redemption. Until recently, even the TV movies were often versions of these stories, but now they all seem to be average love stories set almost at random during the Christmas holidays. This one in particular, despite the presence of a climactic snowstorm, really has almost nothing to do thematically with Christmas. Our couple consists of Eric Mabius, a mellow advertising guy who yearns to be a serious (as in magazine features) writer, and Sarah Paulson, a driven real estate agent. They meet cute while skating on Christmas Day; he proposes to her a year later and they set their wedding for next Christmas. At Thanksgiving, Paulson's boss (Dean Cain) calls her away on an extended trip to sell a major resort to some Japanese investors, but she's confident that all the plans are in place and she'll be back in plenty of time for the wedding. Of course, as soon as she leaves, things start falling apart (the organist cancels, the reception hall can't accommodate them), leaving a frazzled Mabius to pull things together. Cain talks Paulson into staying a few extra days by promising her a vice-presidency, and when she finally does get headed home, a couple of storms snarl her travel plans; as the hour of the wedding nears, she is stranded several miles from the church, so things look grim, but since this is a Lifetime movie, there's a happy if implausible ending (hint: pay close attention to the throwaway line early in the movie about a group of Vietnam vets that Mabius is writing about). I like Paulson on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," but she's nothing special here, and Mabius is on the low end of the "blandly handsome" continuum. Cain almost saves the show with his high-powered shtick. At first, I was glad that the writers resisted the urge to have Cain become a romantic rival, but later I wishing they would have done anything to give him more screen time. No one in the supporting cast registers, due more to weak writing than to their performances. The plot is contrived and the weather disaster scenes (involving both rain and snow) are poorly done. I hope this is the only piece of coal I get for Christmas this year. [Lifetime]

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


A fluffy pre-Code comedy about a wallflower who blossoms when men think that she has a "dangerous" past. Constance Bennett is a rich girl who is known as a drab bore. Indeed, though she is not unattractive, and upper-crust young men do occasionally approach her at parties, her posture is awkward and she gets nervous and starts talking about books, and the men wind up walking away while she begins mumbling to herself. One night at a party, Bennett is especially frustrated because the woman getting everyone's attention is a suspected murderess (Merna Kennedy). The hostess, Astrid Allwyn, asks her friend, David Manners, to spend some time with Bennett, but he remains more fascinated with Kennedy until Allwyn convinces him that Bennett has an equally mysterious past. At the end of the evening, drunk and rebuffed by Kennedy, Manners proposes to Bennett and asks her to sail with him to Europe. The next morning, however, he's patched things up with the murderess so Bennett sails alone. In Paris, she meets up with penniless charmer Ben Lyon and hires him as a "kind of gigolo" to take her around the town and show her how to become a fascinating woman. Naturally, in no time flat, Bennett is a hot commodity, sought after by many, including a count (Albert Conti) who commits suicide when she spurns him. She soon meets up with Manners who is quite taken with her new persona, but who can't get a moment alone with her. Though the plotline is predictable, I admit I wasn't sure whether she would wind up with Lyon or Manners, and I was a bit surprised at the outcome. There is a somewhat startling scene of physical danger that winds up being a dream--an early example perhaps of a comic dream sequence. A fairly enjoyable film with good performances by all. [TCM]

Monday, December 18, 2006


An early sound musical with a romantic farce plot, but without the farcical timing. The whole thing takes place among the rich set who are vacationing at the Breakers Beach Club. Pretty, young June Clyde is being pursued by goofy, boyish Arthur Lake (later to play Dagwood in the 40's Blondie movie series), but she's more concerned with her family members' affairs: her mother, trying to live like a flapper, is flirting with a younger playboy; her father, yearning for his Romeo days, is flirting with a society woman (Dorothy Revier); her sister (Sally Blane) is ending an affair with the possibly sinister Edmund Burns and trying to retrieve some compromising love letters from him. It turns out that Burns and Revier are professional crooks in cahoots trying to fleece the family. There are indiscreet room entrances and exits, a fake hold-up, a real shootout, and a happy ending. There are also occasional musical numbers which occur during rehearsals for the annual Orphan's Benefit being held at the club. The songs, co-authored by Oscar Levant, have fairly catchy, Gershwin-lite melodies. I didn't recognize many of the actors except Lake, but it's all light fun fairly well played. I was charmed by the use of the slang phrase "cake eater" here, though Wikipedia classifies it as an "ethnic slur" against people of an "affluent background" (since when is wealth an ethnicity?) [TCM]

Saturday, December 16, 2006


This film reunites director Douglas Sirk with three of the stars of his WRITTEN ON THE WIND (see below), though things are not nearly as much fun this time around. Based on an early novel by William Faulkner, this has something of the feel of one of those fast-paced films that Warner Brothers churned out in the 30's, with James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Like those, this one is in black and white (a strange choice for a director known for his stunning use of color); unlike those, it has a slow pace and a downbeat ending. Set in the 30's, it features Robert Stack as a WWI fighter pilot who works in a traveling airplane show with his wife (Dorothy Malone) who also does parachute stunts, and their young son Jack (Christopher Olsen, real-life brother to Susan Olsen, best known as Cindy on "The Brady Bunch"). Traveling with them is Stack's engineer Jack Carson, who has long harbored a crush on Malone and, according to rumor, may be the young boy's father. In New Orleans for a multi-day show, the group winds up taken under the wing of reporter Rock Hudson, who thinks he's onto a good human interest story and lets the four of them stay in his small apartment. However, the paper's editor doesn't agree and fires Hudson, who finds himself drawn into the melodramatic problems of the quartet (and, of course, finds himself falling for Malone). During a pylon race in which two pilots race in figure eights around two towers, Stack's plane crashes and a young hotshot pilot (Troy Donahue) is killed. Stack, not injured, wants to get his hands on Donahue's plane, which just needs some repairs, and he sends Malone to the plane's owner (Robert Middleton), pimping her to get what he wants. Hudson, sickened by Stack's attitude, talks Middleton into the deal without Malone having to hawk her favors, but the next day, another crash has a lasting effect on all the central characters. The pylon races and ensuing crashes are exciting and well-filmed, but the chemistry that worked well in WIND is missing here. Hudson's character is more an interested observer and therefore comes off as more passive than we're used to Hudson being. One of the most memorable scenes is heavy-handed but effective: when Hudson and Malone kiss, a Mardi Gras partygoer wearing a death mask bursts into the room. William Schallert plays a fellow reporter. [TCM]

Friday, December 15, 2006


Great-looking Douglas Sirk melodrama, painted as usual in fall colors and highlighted with occasional over-the-top acting. I watched this on TCM with introductory commentary by Robert Osborne and Molly Haskell; Osborne was inclined to dismiss it as "kitsch," but Haskell treated it as high art. I'm somewhere in the middle: it is kitschy but involving, with good performances all around. The memorable opening, set on a blustery fall evening, has Robert Stack, drunk as a lord, peeling up in front of a mansion with a gun, ready to shoot someone. We then see, one by one, the house's occupants (Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, and Dorothy Malone) as they await Stack's arrival. A gun goes off but before we know the outcome, we flash back one year. Bacall is the new executive secretary at the Manhattan office of Hadley Oil. Hudson, a Hadley geologist and close friend of the founding family, finds her interesting but before he can sweep her off her feet, the headstrong, alcoholic Hadley heir (Stack) does it, and the two are married overnight. (I'm not the world's biggest Rock Hudson fan, but I must admit that the fact that she chooses the shambling weakling Stack over the solid, charming Hudson is, to me, one of the biggest unexplained mysteries of 50's cinema.) Meanwhile, the Hadley sister (Malone) has become a raging slut, hanging around dives, picking up working class men to help assuage the hurt she feels that Hudson, on whom she's had a lifelong crush, thinks of her like a kid sister. Stack and Hudson are used to being called out to the bars to break up her little affairs; at one point, we see them pay off horny pump jockey Grant Williams, whom Malone has tried to drag off to her bedroom.

A year later, Stack has become a good husband to Bacall, but when he finds out that he may be sterile, he sees himself as weak and starts falling off the wagon. Then the Hadley patriarch (Robert Keith), when confronted by evidence of Malone's promiscuity, goes upstairs to her room to confront her while she dances up a sexually frenzied storm, but has a fatal heart attack on the staircase. Then Bacall discovers she's pregnant, and Stack, egged on by Malone, decides that Hudson is the father (he isn't but the two are finding themselves attracted to each other), which leads to the confrontation we saw part of at the beginning of the film. Someone winds up dead, someone else winds up on trial for murder, and a courtroom confession provides the climax of the film. This, along with GIANT (also with Hudson) seems to have provided inspiration for the creators of those 80's TV soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. The lush, sexy, exaggerated hothouse atmosphere is fun, and Malone and Stack strike the right tone, going close to over the top with straight faces. Hudson is a strong anchor, and only Bacall seems a bit at sea, largely because her character is underwritten. The most famous scene, aside from the opening, is the death of Keith on the stairs, intercut with Malone's wild dance. Though she's unaware that he's on his way up (and out), the scene still feels a lot like the one in THE LITTLE FOXES in which Bette Davis lets her husband collapse on the stairs. The musical score is dramatic but absolutely fitting for the beautifully photographed action. Very enjoyable soapy drama. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


A story of the Norwegian resistance during WWII which is lacking in the excitement that its title and DVD cover seem to promise. Set in a seaside village, the story begins in 1939 during a wedding at which we meet the main characters: salt-of-the-earth widowed fisherman Paul Muni, visiting British admiral Cedric Hardwicke, and his son (Robert Coote) and daughter (Anna Lee). Muni and Lee are clearly sweet on each other, but the Brits head home and soon the Germans invade, despite Norway's official neutrality. Muni and his fellow villagers remain fairly passive in the face of the occupation, but after the Nazis burn books, confiscate radios, shoot people for curfew violations, and start teaching race hatred in the schools, Muni calls a meeting to form a resistance group, to change themselves, in his words, "from murdered Norwegians to murdering Norwegians." Muni discovers that the Gemans are building a secret air strip, most likely to widen their invasion plans, and he and a small group of men make a desperate attempt to escape across the sea to England to get help. Even though it turns out that one of the men on the boat has turned informer (and is dealt with harshly), they make it to England where Muni meets up with his old friends, and rekindles his would-be romance with Lee. In an unrealistic finale, Muni leads a group of British soldiers back to Norway to destroy the airstrip and, in a last-minute detour, return to the village to bring back his little daughter. Most of this is accomplished, but of course, someone will have to be sacrificed. The brief commando battle is fairly well staged, but only occupies a few minutes of screen time. Like a lot of other movies of the era, this feels a lot more like a Hollywood screenwriter's idea of the war rather than what was actually happening. That's not always a bad thing (see the Errol Flynn/Ronald Reagan DESPERATE JOURNEY), but unfortunately this movie has to compete directly against the much more interesting and seemingly more realistic Norwegian underground film EDGE OF DARKNESS (also with Flynn). Muni's not bad, especially early in the film, but he doesn't make a particularly striking action hero. Strong support is offered by Alexander Knox as a Nazi, Louis Jean Heydt as the informer, Rosemary DeCamp as Heydt's wife who must decide whether or not to betray him, and Ray Collins as one of the town's first victims of Nazi torture. Silent film superstar Lillian Gish, in her first film in almost 10 years, is wasted in the small role of Collins' wife. The movie is worth seeing for fans of the genre, but missing it wouldn't be a crime. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


This entertaining legal melodrama is based on a play, "The Mouthpiece," which was made into a movie in the 30's, but even if you haven't seen that film (and I have not), the plot will still seem familiar--it has echoes of a 1933 William Powell film called LAWYER MAN. George Brent is a district attorney who has just won a case which sends a young man (David Bruce) to the electric chair. Bruce continues to proclaim his innocence, and, moments before his scheduled execution, another man, a star witness for the prosecution, confesses to the murder. Brent tries to get word to the prison but it arrives too late to save the boy. Devastated by the mistake, Brent resigns his post and becomes a defense lawyer. At first, apparently out of a need for redemption, he barely scrapes by taking on cases for indigent clients, but soon gets wrapped up in the affairs of a gangland tough (Richard Barthelmess) and winds up making good money working for racketeers. His loyal secretary (Virginia Bruce) goes along with him but is ambivalent about his new career direction, and things come to a head when Brent's kid brother (William Lundigan) arrives fresh out of law school to intern with Brent. When Lundigan finds out that Brent is helping Barthelmess out of tax evasion charges, he steals some incriminating papers and gives them to the feds. The thugs, of course, don't take kindly to this and they kill one of their own (Marc Lawrence) in order to frame Lundigan for murder. Brent defends his brother in court, but he's found guilty and put on death row and Brent has to race against time to get the evidence that will clear Lundigan. This is a better than average second feature; it's paced well and has a cast stuffed with some of the great Warners B-movie regulars: Lundigan, Lawrence, Virginia Bruce, Brenda Marshall (as a secretary who falls for Lundigan, though that promising plotline leads nowhere), Alan Baxter (as a particularly slimy thug), John Litel, George Tobias, Louis Jean Heydt, John Ridgely, and William Hopper. Brent has a couple of nice trick scenes, one in which he drinks from a vial of poison to prove that his client couldn't be guilty of murder, and another in which he uses a planted newspaper story to get a confession out of someone. Lots of fun. [TCM]

Saturday, December 09, 2006


Sometimes I feel like a fairly jaded movie buff, in the sense that I know all the big names and all the big movies and there's nothing out there in left field to surprise me anymore. So when I do get surprised, I'm all the more ecstatic, but then I fear I'll risk making too much out of my discovery. I read about this film in the New York Times earlier this year on the occasion of its release on DVD. I'd never heard of the film or the director (Valerio Zurlini) but the review piqued my interest and I rented the disc from Netflix. It's turned out to be my favorite film of the year so far. Based on a well-known Italian novel, it's an almost Kafkaesque story about war and the military mindset which I would think still has relevance today. Jacques Perrin, newly graduated from military school, is gung ho about his appointment to the exotic outpost of Bastiano, but when he gets there, he finds an odd group of enervated officers and stoic soldiers who have nothing to do but watch the wasteland around them, in case of an invasion from the North Kingdom. The large, ruined battlements, as big as a small city, and the bleak, chilly surroundings (a windswept desert with snowy mountains in the distance) are lovely in an almost surreal way, but one can see how such isolation and inactivity would have a negative effect on the men. Everyone goes through the motions of military drills and secret passwords and ritualized dinners and some almost thrive in the atmosphere, but most of the men wind up slowly dispirited. Perrin is told by officer Max von Sydow that years ago, he had an almost mystical sighting of a Tartar rider on a white horse; it turned out to be a false alarm, but we spend the rest of the film waiting to see a white horse, and we're not disappointed. Perrin's enthusiasm wears out and the post doctor (Jean-Louis Trintignant) offers to get him a medical transfer, but Perrin decides not to use it--later, this becomes the basis for a Catch-22 plot twist when Perrin actually does become sick, and even though the troop force is being reduced, he can't get the transfer because he didn't use his previous one (and this is, of course, not the only darkly ironic twist the film takes). Some viewers might complain that this is one of those long foreign-language films in which nothing happens, but it's an episodic film in which lots of things happen, just not the kinds of things we expect in a war movie. The narrative covers many years, ending with Perrin as a sick old man, old before his time, perhaps, since we get no objective sense of how many years have passed. The ending is a bit predictable but still quite effective. Members of the fine cast include Helmut Griem (the decadent Baron from CABARET), Vittorio Gassman, Francisco Rabal, and Fernando Rey. The film was shot in a deserted town in Iran; I never figured out if the film's locale was supposed to be real or not, but given the almost allegorical tone, it doesn't matter. At the risk of sounding overly enthusiastic, I strongly suggest this gem to anyone looking for something a little challenging. A memorable line: when Perrin says he's sure he's at Bastiano by mistake, he is told, "We're all somewhere by mistake." [DVD]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


This is probably Robert Bresson's most well-known and accessible film, but I found it rather slow going, filled with characters I couldn't care about one way or another, and that's a problem in a movie that seems to be about empathy. The movie spans the lifetime of a donkey in and around a village in France. As a "child," the donkey is a favorite of three children on a farm who give it a baptism and name it Balthazar. Over time, the donkey is bought by or traded between various people, sometimes treated with care and sometimes abused, and as he is passed back and forth, we see episodes in the lives of the various townspeople. Primary to the narrative is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who is present as a child at Balthazar's baptism. Years later, she falls in with a rough young lad named Gerard (Francois Lafarge) who uses the donkey to deliver bread; the boy mistreats both her and Balthazar. Worn down by years of work and abuse, the donkey lies down one day and seems ready to give up the ghost, but the town bum takes the animal and gives him a new career in a circus, tapping out the answers to math problems with his hooves. He seems happy or at least content here (to Bresson's credit, there are very few "Disney moments" in the movie where we called upon to interpret the animal's feelings), but eventually he winds up with Gerard again, being used in a smuggling ring. In the midst of one such operation, the gang is shot at by customs officers and Balthazar is wounded. In the movie's most memorable scene, the donkey wanders into a large open field and settles down to die as a flock of sheep move in to surround him in his last moments. It's a touching scene, but it does not spill over into sentimentality and it serves as a lovely ending.

My problem with the film is that I didn't care about any of the human characters. Marie is a sulky creature; granted, her options are limited (her only other romantic suitor is a friendly but rather passive childhood friend whom she rejects), but I still found it difficult to whip up much empathy for her. Gerard is a jerk who might well pass for sleazily charming in a small French village, but he's not really evil, or even very interesting, just a jerk. It's even stretching things to say that I cared much about Balthazar, and I'm someone who's too often a sucker for animals in a movie--I avoided this film for a long time because I was afraid it would be too manipulative. There are some very nice moments here, especially one in the circus where Bresson shows the various caged animals, including a tiger and a monkey, staring at Balthazar. Despite the possibility for a prime Disney moment here, it's not played for easy emotional interpretation, i.e., "Oh, how sad for these animals all penned up," or, "Oh, how happy for Balthazar to be among other animals now." I realize as I write this that I'm being contradictory: I like the lack of an easy empathetic response in this scene, but I am bothered by the lack of an easy empathetic response to the human characters. I guess I'm reacting positively to the fact the Bresson resists sloppy anthropomorphizing. It's a movie worth watching (especially the lovely print on the Criterion DVD) but I can't rate it as highly as the other Bressons I've enjoyed. [DVD]

Sunday, December 03, 2006


In the genre of wartime musical extravaganza, this film is both like and unlike its brethren. Like STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM and THOUSANDS CHEER, its main narrative thrust involves the putting together of an Army-related variety show. Unlike those films, it's not a star-driven spectacle; based on an actual Broadway revue with music by Irving Berlin, most of the performers in the variety show are real soldiers. There is a fictional framework, but most of the last third of the movie consists of songs and comedy bits featuring the GIs who appeared in the show on Broadway. The film begins during WWI, with dancer George Murphy (along with his buddies George Tobias and Charles Butterworth) putting on a soldier show, "Yip Yip Yaphank" (an actual Irving Berlin show from that era). The show's a hit, but the men are called overseas at the end of its first performance; Murphy and his friends survive the war, but Murphy gets a leg injury which leaves him with a permanent limp and ends his career as a dancer. Flash forward to the beginning of WWII and Murphy, now a theatrical producer, decides to put on another soldier show, with the assistance of Tobias, Butterworth, and his own son (Ronald Reagan) who's a lieutenant in the Army. What little dramatic tension there is comes from a subplot which has Reagan refusing to marry his girlfriend, Butterworth's daughter (Joan Leslie), until after the war; she decides this is weak reasoning and breaks off their engagement; will these cute kids get back together by the end of the film, when, almost certainly, Reagan will be sent overseas just like his father was? Otherwise, the rest of the movie consists of the plans to mount the show in New York, the successful premiere, and the national tour. The two most famous songs are "God Bless America" sung by Kate Smith herself, and "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" performed by Irving Berlin. Alan Hale is Murphy's commanding officer in WWI, who, despite his advanced age, is back in active duty for WWII and winds up in drag for "Ladies of the Chorus," Una Merkel is Butterworth's wife, and boxer (and Army volunteer) Joe Louis appears as himself. There are some fun numbers including "This is the Army, Mr. Jones" and "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." The comedy skits don't translate too well today, and part of the problem is that, although they are supposedly being performed in front of a live audience, there is no laughter or audience reaction of any kind, which throws off the performers' timing. One bit that was still funny to me involved GIs doing impressions of Lynn Fontanne, Charles Boyer, and other stars. There is a long, tedious section that amounts to a roll call of most of the soldiers who are called to New York to participate in the show, but otherwise, the movie moves along at a nice clip. The Warner Brothers film is apparently in the public domain and the disc I saw, from Delta, is in particularly bad shape, with faded colors and several splices. [DVD]

Saturday, December 02, 2006


An amusing show-biz comedy based on a Rodgers & Hart musical; virtually all the songs were jettisoned for this film version, so it's not really a musical, but it does have two elaborate dance/ballet sequences, one of which, the famous "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," clearly seems to have been an inspiration for the "Broadway Rhythm" number in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN several years later. The film opens in the 1920's as we meet the Dancing Dolans, a family vaudeville act, consisting of Dad (James Gleason), Mom (Queenie Smith), and our hero Phil (played as a youngster by Donald O'Connor), who has a crush on Vera, a Russian child dancer. One night, Little Phil accidentally takes his curtain call with his pants down around his feet and the audience loves it so much, they keep it in the act. Vera goes on to bigger and better things and years later, the adult Phil (Eddie Albert), tired of still dropping his trousers onstage, leaves vaudeville for "serious" music. He winds up collaborating with a down-and-out Russian composer (Leonid Kinskey) working with a struggling ballet company (headed by Alan Hale) which happens to include the grown-up Vera (Vera Zorina). Hale takes an instant dislike to Albert, and when an under-rehearsed Albert subs for a dancer during a ballet number called "Princess Zenobia," he completely fouls up the dance. The audience, thinking it was an intended burlesque, loves it and the number is a hit. Against his will, Hale is forced by his chief backer (Gloria Dickson) to put on an original ballet of Albert's (the abovementioned "Slaughter"), but he engineers a "hit" on Albert to be carried out by two gangsters during the climactic moment of the dance at the same moment that Albert's character shoots himself. This being a comedy, the killing is thwarted, the show is a success, and Albert and Zorina wind up happy together. Even though fans of the original show have every right to be disgruntled about the disemboweling of the score, this is still a clever and witty comedy with several one-liners that made me laugh out loud, such as Kinskey, after dispensing several nonsensical proverbs from the Old Country, admitting to Albert, "Sometimes I don't understand Russian proverbs myself." Zorina is a fine dancer (choreographed here by the great George Balanchine) though a little light in the acting department, but the rest of the cast is delightful, especially the charming Albert and the blustery Hale. Kinskey does a nice job with a somewhat larger than usual role, and other standouts include Frank McHugh as a stage manager, Berton Churchill as the hotel manager who threatens the troupe with eviction, and the always funny Erik Rhodes as a tempermental dancer. The atmospheric "Slaughter" number is tarnished a bit by a slapsticky ending, but overall this movie is a winner. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


A minor effort in the wartime genre of musical morale booster and armed services recruitment propaganda. The musical numbers are worth seeing, but the film largely winds up being a rehash Abbott & Costello's BUCK PRIVATES without Abbott & Costello. It does, however, retain the Andrews Sisters who provide many musical highlights, including a jammin' jitterbug version of "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." The opening sequence, in a nightclub where Henry James and Helen Forrest perform "You Made Me Love You," has some fine comedy work from the unlikely team of Mary Wickes and Shemp Howard, best known as one of the Three Stooges. The main plot thread involves the Henry James band getting drafted. Singer Dick Foran is turned down at first due to flat feet, but when he does get accepted, he winds up being a pain in the ass, thinking that he's better than everyone else and deserves a cushy job. Of course, he learns his patriotic lesson by the end. Joe E. Lewis plays a rival for Wickes' charms, Ernest Truex is an eccentric who lives near the Army base and Jennifer Holt is his niece, who winds up sweet on Foran. A very young Donald O'Connor plays an underage soldier who gets to do a dance number with the James Band. There's a cute running joke about trumpeter James not being able to play "Taps" in the morning. Most of music is fun, and the oddest number hands down has the whitebread Foran singing the gospel song "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." [DVD]

Monday, November 27, 2006


This comical "detectives in an old dark house" flick is a B-movie with mostly B-talent, and does not have much of a reputation, but something about it hit me the right way. Instead of a haunted mansion, the dark and sinister setting is an abandoned lighthouse which is, one rainy night, being visited by new owner John Eldredge. Though he expects the place to be empty, he finds a dead body hanging from the middle of the tower. In short order, the place fills up with all kinds of folks: cops Allen Jenkins and Hugh Herbert, a hysterical woman (Marcia Ralston) who claims that the dead man is her stepfather, a old sea captain named Hook (George Rosener) who, yep, has a hook and freaks out when he hear clocks ticking, an old lady (Elspeth Dudgeon) who was Ralston's nanny, and assorted other hangers-on. Somehow, all this is tied up with a mysterious crime figure called The Octopus (and maybe with a real octopus, whose tentacles keep slithering out from around corners and secret panels) and a radium death ray invented by the dead man. Oops, I forgot that Herbert's wife, whom we never see, is in labor, which turns out to be one of the most important points of all. Things quit making sense pretty quickly, and almost no one is whom he or she seems to be. If you've seen similar movies, like THE GORILLA or SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, it won't take long to figure out where the story is heading, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the trip--the movie is supposedly based directly on the same play that THE GORILLA was, though it plays out much more like BALDPATE. I can't make any claims for this as a classic, but frankly I had more fun watching this than watching the more famous THE OLD DARK HOUSE. There are a couple of genuinely creepy moments, including one spectacular facial transformation special effect, achieved in real time with make-up and lighting filters. The trick ending will seem like a cop-out to some, but if you're expecting it, it's fun to see how they get there. Jenkins and Herbert play off each other nicely, and Herbert has a fun slapstick scene involving turtles, frogs, and a seal. Eldredge is a rather colorless hero; Dudgeon (who had a small but important role in THE OLD DARK HOUSE) is the most effective supporting player, aside from that rubbery (and mostly offscreen) octopus. At under an hour, this is a good way to pass some time on a rainy night. [TCM]

Friday, November 24, 2006


This fantasy adventure (which intelligent design advocates would boycott today) feels like a missing link between the 50's and 60's stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen and the elaborate CGI worlds of Spielberg's JURASSIC PARK and Peter Jackson's KING KONG. The dinosaurs here seem to be mostly miniatures or full-size models, and while they're not as effective as the digital creations of today, they move in a more realistic fashion than the mythological creations of Harryhausen. The plot is taken from a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs and involves the discovery of an island where evolution has run rampant. Set during WWI, the film begins at sea in a dense fog with a German submarine sinking a British supply ship; a handful of survivors (including husky American Doug McClure and British scientist Susan Penhaligon) take refuge on top of the sub when it surfaces and wrest control from German officer John McEnery. They decide to head for a neutral coast but McEnery sabotages the compass and seesawing power games ensue, the upshot being that the sub winds up in uncharted waters. Lost and worried about dwindling fuel and food supplies, the motley group comes upon an island that McEnery assumes is the mythical continent of Caprona, inhabited by dinosaurs and cavemen at varying degrees of biological advancement, with more evolved creatures present as they head north. They kill and cook a plesiosaurus, manage to communicate with a relatively friendly caveman, and discover oil which they hope to use to get back to civilization, but external dangers and internal strife cause our group problems, leading to an exciting climax. The acting is decent, with McEnery and Anthony Ainley (as an untrustworthy German lieutenant) standouts. Penhaligon has a nothing role and can't do much with it. McClure plays the hero with stolid conviction. The effects and sets might not pass muster for today's viewers, but I found the film, the kind I associate with the long Thanksgiving weekends of my childhood, to be more fun than I expected. [TCM]

Thursday, November 23, 2006


By sheer coincidence, I saw these two archetypal pirate movies, made in the same year, on the same day. I had ordered CRIMSON PIRATE from Netflix after reading some very positive comments about it, and the day it came, BLACKBEARD popped up on Turner Classic Movies, so I thought they would make a nice pairing. Instead, viewing the two just strengthened my resolve to avoid pirate movies (I may be the only person in America who found PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN to be a total bore, though I will admit that Johnny Depp does a good Keith Richards). CRIMSON has some plusses, mostly rich Technicolor, the physique of its star Burt Lancaster, and a tongue-in-cheek tone, but I was a little weary of all the capital-F fun by the end. The plot has pirate Lancaster and his crew hijacking a ship belonging to a baron who is on his way to put down an island revolt led by El Libre, but when they find that the ship has more arms than riches, Lancaster works out a scheme in which the pirates will sell the arms to the rebels, then, for a fee, betray the rebels and El Libre to the baron. Once on the island, Lancaster falls in love with El Libre's daughter (Eva Bartok), faces up to his band of pirates who are tired of playing politics and just want to get back to plundering, and decides to double-cross the baron. The swashbuckling antics are well executed by the athletic star and his mute sidekick, Nick Cravat, who in real life had worked with Lancaster in the circus, and the opening scene, in which the pirates have splayed themselves across the ship pretending to be dead plague victims, is excellent. But the rest is just too much sound and fury to too little purpose. Torin Thatcher and Christopher Lee are standouts in the supporting cast. [DVD]

Oddly, Thatcher, whom I know best as the villain in the 60's fantasy JACK THE GIANT KILLER, is also in BLACKBEARD. This movie isn't as colorful and doesn't have as much "fun" action going on, but it has a stronger plot and a sense of real danger, with more actual death and dismemberment going on. Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in a 1950 version of TREASURE ISLAND, is the title character, scourge of the shipping lanes, and much sought after by the former pirate Sir Henry Morgan (Thatcher) who has renounced pirating and vowed to capture Newton for the King. Meanwhile, Keith Andes is a doctor who believes that Thatcher hasn't really left his wicked ways behind and is out to get evidence against him. Andes winds up a prisoner of Newton's (and a useful one since he's a doctor), along with the lovely Linda Darnell, adopted daughter of Thatcher, who may have some hidden treasure with her. Indeed, she does, and Newton tries to spirit it away so as not to have to split it with his men. After some fierce fighting, Newton pulls off a deception by killing a look-alike to make it seem as if he's dead (with his head hanging in the public square), but he doesn't get the last laugh after all, with a grimly comic finale, particularly dark for a 50's film. Andes makes for a fairly dashing good guy (though not as studly as Lancaster), but Newton is always front and center and doesn't let a single scene get stolen from him. His performance is wildly over the top, and it seems as if he single-handedly created the "Arrrrrrggh..." stereotype which has been milked so often since--he starts practically every line of dialogue with that sound, and though it's fun in the beginning, it gets a bit tiring. Irene Ryan (later Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies) gets some mild laughs as Darnell's companion, and William Bendix is OK as Newton's sidekick. I believe I've had me fill of pirate movies for a while. [TCM]

Monday, November 20, 2006


Technically, this Hal Roach comedy is classified as a short subject, though at 45 minutes, it's a only a few minutes shy of a B-movie second feature of the era, and it apparently played some theaters as the first half of a double bill. It has been charged over the years with being offensive, but I don't think it's any worse than TO BE OR NOT TO BE or THE PRODUCERS--though, obviously done on the cheap, it's not nearly as well made or creative as those films. The Board of Directors of Hell has decided that Hitler would make a better Devil than the Devil himself (Alan Mowbray), but the Devil asks for the chance to go to earth and trick Hitler (Bobby Watson) into committing one good deed, rendering him unfit for the job. The Devil appears on Earth as Hitler's valet and joins Mussolini (Joe Devlin) and a Japanese dignitary named Sukiyaki (George E. Stone) as they try to outwit, double-cross and even kill Hitler. The good deed that Satan tries to arrange comes by way of freeing a young couple (Douglas Fowley and Marjorie Woodworth) from a concentration camp sentence. There's lots of slapstick and prancing and ethnic slurs and witless humor, and perhaps the first instance of a Hitler character saying some version of the phrase, "Heil myself!" Mowbray is a very colorless Satan; Watson, who made a living in the 40's playing Hitler in comedies and drama, is OK; Devlin and Stone, both experienced character actors, fare the best here, though Stone's over-the-top Japanese portrayal hasn't aged well. Not really a very good movie, but interesting from a cultural and historical perspective. [TCM]

Thursday, November 16, 2006


A historically important landmark as the first openly anti-Nazi Hollywood film; it was produced before the war when the Nazis were largely reviled in America, but the country was still officially neutral and Germany had not yet invaded Poland. Hollywood studios didn't want to risk losing the lucrative foreign markets so, though there had been movies with vaguely Middle European enemies, none had gone so far as to name the Nazis as villains. This film was based on a series of newspaper articles written by FBI man Leon Turrou which detailed the breaking of a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., and though it doesn't actually name real names, it does follow the real-life outlines of the case quite closely. The film was so controversial that Jack and Harry Warner were accused by Congress of warmongering. While it's certainly no stylistic masterpiece for the ages, it is a fast-moving spy movie for at least half of its length, and, while lacking much in the way of thrills or action, it is mostly compelling, interesting, and contains a handful of good performances.

The film begins in a documentary newsreel fashion by swiftly introducing us to most of the characters we'll be following for the next 100 minutes. In a Scottish village, we see Mrs. McLaughlin (Eily Malyon) receiving and resending mail for a Nazi spy ring. Next we visit a German-American social group meeting at which Dr. Kassel (Paul Lukas) is whipping up support for Germans who want to "save" America, who want to make America "our America." Lukas uses the overexcited style of Hitler in his speechifying, and is not above encouraging heavy-handed tactics to quash dissent, as we see in a scene in which Ward Bond gets roughed up after he speaks out at a meeting, saying "We don't want any --isms in this country except Americanism." Lukas is soon made head of American spy operations and told to wrap his fascist messages "in the American flag," and to incite race and class hatred. Next, on a German ocean liner on its way to America, we meet Schlager (George Sanders), his mistress Hilda (Dorothy Tree) and two Gestapo agents, who intimidate the captain of the ship into following Nazi orders. Finally, there's unemployed Kurt Schneider (Frances Lederer); his wife objects to his "sitting around and thinking" all day, but he's biding his time as a minor spy until his friend (Joe Sawyer) agrees to get him military information to pass on to his contact, Sanders. Lederer hopes to prove his worth to the Nazis and to make good money, but Sanders gives him chump change and little respect, so Lederer tries to go over Sanders' head and sends some spy info directly to Malyon in Scotland. Unfortunately, a clever mailman has alerted authorities to the wide array of foreign mail she receives and she's busted, which leads to the FBI being called in on the trail of the spy ring.

The energy flags a bit during the second half of the film, which focuses on Edward G. Robinson as the FBI man tracking down the ring members. Lederer is busted when he naively poses as the "Under-Secretary of State" in an attempt to smuggle passports, and Robinson uses some basic psychology to make the poor schmuck feel more important than he really is to get him to talk. Sanders escapes and Lukas, who is betrayed by his wife, talks to the feds and later gets on a ship for Germany, certain to face the music from his superiors. Lederer and some of his associates are put on trial, and the film ends anti-climactically with an odd little conversation in which Robinson and U.S. attorney Henry O'Neill express the surreal absurdity of their adventure. Though the documentary style of the film works against any real depth of characterization, the central trio of Lukas, Sanders, and Lederer are always quite watchable. Sanders, in particular, is striking; he has a modified Prussian buzz cut, and I'd swear that his nose or chin have been altered to give him an even more sinister look; his voice never drips with his usual patina of sarcasm and irony and he completely disappears into his role. German actress Lya Lys has a small role as Lukas' mistress, and John Ridgely, one of my favorite Warners supporting players, has a line or two as an Army hospital clerk. This runs on Turner Classic Movies quite a bit, but it would be nice to have this on a DVD, with a commentary track, given how much has been written about the film. [TCM]

Monday, November 13, 2006


I know nothing about the famed Dutch painter Rembrandt, played here by Charles Laughton, but a quick perusal of an encyclopedia entry tells me that this film is more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, this is a well-acted and nicely shot film, directed by Alexander Korda, who also directed Laughton in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. The episodic film begins with Rembrandt, well known and respected, at the peak of his career and in the midst of working on a portrait of his wife, who is ailing (and whom we never see). As he delivers a long, adoring ode to his wife to his friends in a tavern, he is summoned to her deathbed. At the funeral meal, he continues the painting as though she's still posing. What follows is a series of narrative snapshots from the rest of his life. His long-awaited, gigantic, and expensive painting of the Civic Guard of Amsterdam ("Night Watch") is reviled by the Guard members for making them look undignified. His loyal housekeeper (Gertrude Lawrence) becomes his lover, but they cannot marry until his young son comes of age because of a clause in the will of his wife that would leave him bankrupt if he did. He has a beggar (Roger Livesey) pose for a portrait of the biblical Saul. Afraid he's going to lose his house to creditors, he goes back to live in his provincial hometown but feels like a misfit. On his return to Amsterdam, he is struck by the sight of a kitchen maid (Elsa Lanchester), paints her, and ultimately takes her as a lover, igniting Lawrence's wrath. Lanchester figures out a way for him to get around his creditors, who try to claim any new work of his for themselves, by setting up her own gallery of his work which he has given freely to her. By the end of the film, he is aged and alone except for a benefactor who gives him money for food (which he promptly spends on art supplies). The penultimate scene, with Laughton proclaiming, "All is vanity" to a table of carousing youths who have included him in their drinking, is Laughton at his best. The look of the film is painterly, with lots of bright light and vivid textures, apparently meant to conjure up Rembrandt's own technique with light. My favorite moment is Laughton, in a reverie, talking not entirely happily, about the burden of living "in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist." The movie is also worth seeing for Gertrude Lawrence, the actress played by Julie Andrews in STAR! and parodied by Ann Sheridan in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, giving a rare screen performance. [DVD]

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Mild romantic comedy which for me is more irritating than funny for two reasons: its fake feminist plot trappings and the performance of Robert Montgomery. He's a struggling shipbuilder married to a successful theatrical agent (Virginia Bruce). He snags a dream job that involves moving from New York City to New Bedford, and he assumes that his wife will give up her job and move with him. She, however, actually likes her job and wants to keep it, which leads to strife and separation. Her boss (Warren William) tries to help her and a battle of lawyers follows with some standard-issue trickery ensuing between the two sides. The sticking point winds up being a suggestion that she pay him alimony since she's making more money. When an ailing but beloved uncle (Harry Davenport) comes to visit, Montgomery agrees to spend the night to make the uncle think everything's fine, but Bruce's lawyer (Alan Dinehart) uses the occasion to snare him in a legal trap (sort of the opposite of the "Gay Divorcee" trap, using his presence at her place to imply that he's living with her and therefore not eligible to get alimony). I was disposed to like the film because Bruce is so appealing and her character clearly likes her career, but then things get resolved by biology: she finds out she's pregnant and decides to follow Montgomery away from the city to be a wife and mother. The moral of this tale can be encapsulated in one line of dialogue at the end: "Nature--that monkey wrench in the machinery of women's independence." Binnie Barnes and Lee Bowman do fine as friends who try to swoop in on Montgomery and Bruce. Montgomery is at his most doltish and irritating, but I do like Virginia Bruce, so I guess I'm glad to have seen this. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2006


Nifty little B-thriller, the first in an 8-film series based on a popular radio show. Despite the title, this was not a superhero or detective series, but a suspense anthology (think Twilight Zone atmosphere but without the fantasy elements) which told crime stories with ironic twists. The title character was the narrator (think Rod Serling never showing his face) who would also sometimes comment on the action; once in a while we'd see him from a distance, strolling along and whistling mournfully. In this one, Richard Dix (who starred in most of the films, always playing different characters) is a man who, depressed over the apparent death of his wife at sea in a Japanese attack, hires someone to kill him. The middleman (George Lloyd) farms the job out to seasoned hitman J. Carroll Naish who begins staking out his prey. When Dix gets a telegram telling him that his wife is alive in a Japanese prison camp and is being shipped home soon, he's ecstatic and sets out to cancel the hit. Unfortunately, Lloyd was a cop killer who was himself killed by cops just after setting up Dix's hit. Dix thinks Lloyd's girl (Joan Woodbury) can help him stop the hitman, but she thinks that Dix set Lloyd up, so she's not much help, and in fact endangers his life by involving him in a log mountain road chase with police. When Dix drops out of sight to escape Naish, the newspapers say that he has amnesia and Dix's loyal secretary (the always wonderful Gloria Stuart) tries to find him. The hour-long film moves along nicely, though the climax, as in many B-films, is rushed and choppy and the production values are about average for a second-feature. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


If you're only going to watch one "tropical melodrama" in your life, it should probably be THE LETTER, but if you decide to watch a second one, make it this one. I have a weakness for this kind of movie in which Americans, stuck in the Equatorial climes working at a rubber plantation (as in this film) or searching for riches or cruising on a ship, come to some kind of grief, usually involving romance or guns or both. This one, based on a 20's play, is a lot of fun; it's not quite campy, like the the Jon Hall/Maria Montez jungle films, because its humor is usually deliberate and the acting is restrained. Set in 1910 Africa, the film begins with Walter Pidgeon, the local magistrate, waiting to welcome the new plantation manager, young and energetic Richard Carlson, who is replacing Bramwell Fletcher, a burned out alcoholic. The cynical, tightly wound Pidgeon predicts that Carlson will soon wind up just like Fletcher, destroyed by "damp rot." (There is a running gag involving Pidgeon's violent reaction to Fletcher constantly saying "Blasted hot today," and later Carlson irritates him in the same way saying, "When I get acclimated...") Carlson is warned about the notorious exotic half-breed Tondelayo (Hedy Lamarr), but when she comes slinking into his shack, he goes slack-jawed with lust. Eventually, Carlson marries Lamarr (there appear to be virtually no other women in the area), but she soon gets restless and starts flirting with Pidgeon. When nothing comes of that, she sets about slowly poisoning Carlson. Some reviewers claim that there is a love triangle among the three leads, but I didn't see much evidence that Pidgeon actually wanted Lamarr, though he may be jealous that Carlson has a wife in their godforsaken corner of the world, and it seems clear that Lamarr has no real affection for either of the men, above and beyond any money and trinkets she can get. The film is rather stagy, with most of the action taking place in just a few interior rooms, but it all does feel effectively hot and grungy, especially with all the sweating flesh (mostly Carlson's). The role of Tondelayo is usually cited as the one that Lamarr is best known for, and she certainly looks striking with her dusky makeup (she's supposed to be half-Arabian, raised by African natives); it also helps that she is always shot in shadow or with a shadow across her face, making her look mysterious. Her acting talents, such as they were, don't get much of a workout. The youthful and sexy Carlson is fine, as is Frank Morgan as a well-meaning but frequently drunken doctor, Henry O'Neill as the local Reverend, and Reginald Owen as a skipper. Pidgeon is the weak link as far as I'm concerned; he is wooden and unappealing, and substitutes volume of voice for expression of emotion. But the movie is still great fun, though not for a second to be taken seriously. [TCM]

Saturday, November 04, 2006


My partner and I have been having a lot of fun watching reruns of the 50's detective series "77 Sunset Strip" on the American Life cable network. The show follows the adventures of two private eyes, Stu Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith, quite the hottie, one year after he played Mame's nephew in AUNTIE MAME) who operate out of an L.A. office next to a nightclub called Dino's, which practically serves as their waiting room. The two are swinging bachelors who are always finding some innocent girl or femme fatale to flirt with. The show is probably better remembered these days for the character of Kookie (Edward Byrnes), the flip, hip young guy who was always combing his hair while he parked cars at Dino's, called everyone "Dad," and often helped out on cases. This film was apparently the 90-minute pilot for the show; according to online episode guides, it was aired as the first episode in October '58 and as far as I can tell, never received a theatrical release, but despite the presence of Zimbalist and Byrnes, it bears only a tangential relationship to the series that followed. Zimbalist gets involved in the case of a young singer (Erin O'Brien) who has fled Seattle after seeing the murder of a star witness in a major criminal case. She winds up in L.A. under an assumed name and Zimbalist tracks her down for a man (Shepperd Strudwick) who claims to be her boyfriend. He's not, however; he's the DA on the Seattle case who has a nasty secret or two of his own. Byrnes plays, not Kookie, but Kenneth Smiley, a cold-blooded killer who nevertheless has an amusing scene in which he remains behind in a theater long enough to finish watching a Daffy Duck cartoon. Also in the cast is Barton MacLane (one of the cops who made trouble for Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON). It's a little slow getting started, and I missed Roger Smith, who never shows up, but there are some good fisticuffs and chases, and the show does set up the Zimbalist character as a scholar of Sanskrit, a plot detail that crops up during the run of the show a couple of times. It's also nice to see Byrnes get a chance to stretch a little beyond his insolent hipster persona. [TV]

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Though made after WWII, this is the kind of movie that Hollywood pumped out in the years before America was officially engaged in the war: a quick history of a particular branch of the military or of a military breakthrough. Here, Gary Cooper serves as the focus for a story about the development of the aircraft carrier as a practical addition to the forces of the United States Navy. The film begins with Cooper retiring and then flashes back to 25 years earlier when pilots were just learning to land on the first carrier of its kind, the Langley. Some Navy brass and Congressmen are against developing a carrier fleet, and Commander Walter Brennan enlists Cooper to go to Washington to do some sweet talking; instead he gets into a spat with a powerful lawmaker (Stanley Ridges) when he speculates that Japan might have sinister intentions and a carrier fleet would be a perfect defense. We follow Cooper over the years as he gets demoted to a desk job, put back into a flying job, suffers through a crash, marries Jane Wyatt (widow of a fellow Navy pilot), and continues promoting aircraft carriers (and continues to antagonize Ridges). Of course, Cooper's predictions about a sea war with Japan come true and his career comes to its peak when he winds up on the Enterprise, the last carrier left in action. The bulk of the film is in black & white, with the last reel (about 20 minutes worth) in color, for no apparent reason. Cooper was entering what I think of as his "old man" phase and he's not particularly convincing as a young man. There's a decent supporting cast which includes Wayne Morris, Bruce Bennett, and John Ridgely as fellow pilots, and singer Julie London as Morris's gal. It's predictable (you just know that some tangential character is gonna die at Pearl Harbor so that "this time, it's personal") and a fair amount of newsreel footage is worked in toward the end. Not a bad movie, but at two hours, not one I'd care to sit through again. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


This Hammer thriller has elements of PSYCHO and DIABOLIQUE and works well enough for most of its length. The film has a great opening sequence of a young girl (Jennie Linden) being led through shadowy hallways by the voice of her mother, who traps her in an asylum cell. This turns out to be a recurring nightmare of Linden's, who years ago witnessed her insane mother stab her father to death. Her boarding school decides to send her home to her guardian (David Knight) for treatment to ease the dreams. Once there, however, she is haunted by a ghostly vision of a woman in white that no one else seems to see, and also by a tableau reminiscent of her father's death. When Knight's new wife arrives, she looks just like the creepy ghost, and Linden promptly stabs her to death and is sent off to an asylum, just as her dreams seemed to foretell. Of course, this is just the first half of the proceedings, and we soon learn that things and people aren't what they seem. When Linden escapes and heads for home, matters build to a fairly effective climax. Even if the plot does become predictable, it is fun to figure out who wants to help Linden and who wishes her harm. Chief among these folks is Brenda Bruce as a guardian from the boarding school, and Moira Redmond as Linden's companion and nurse. Linden has a few too many repetitious scenes of hysteria in the first half, though generally the acting is OK. The moody black and white cinematography is a plus. [DVD]


Routine Italian gothic thriller with the queen of 60's horror, Barbara Steele, in a dual role. This isn't exactly a bad movie, but it has nothing to make it stand out of the pack. Paul Muller is your average mad scientist married to your average dark-haired knockout (Steele), and engaging in your average arcane experiments involving reversing the human aging process. When he discovers that his wife is having an affair with the hired help (Rik Battaglia), he tortures them, kills them, and pulls out and preserves their hearts. He uses their blood to turn his aging assistant (Helga Line) young, and then, I think, takes her as his lover, but discovers that his wife's will leaves the castle to her nutty twin sister (also Steele, in a bad blonde wig). When she arrives, he seduces her and plans to drive her completely over the edge, but it turns out that the strange ghostly figures she reports seeing are actually the ghosts of the dead lovers. The acting is indifferent, the sets are cheap, and the atmosphere is so-so, but if you stick with it, the pace does pick up in the last half-hour and things build to a decent climax. Mostly for Barbara Steele fans. [DVD]

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Another pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (see THE CREEPING FLESH below), though in separate episodes of a horror anthology film. As a short-story lover (Ray Bradbury's collections were the first "adult" books I read), I like the idea of an anthology film, but in practice it doesn't come off all that well, with rare exceptions like the 1945 DEAD OF NIGHT, and this film is not one of the exceptions. The four tales all take place in a mysterious house which, despite the title, never comes close to dripping blood. The wraparound story involves a Scotland Yard inspector (John Bennett) looking into the disappearance of a horror film star (Jon Pertwee, best known as the 1970's Doctor Who) who had been living in the spooky old house. We then see the stories of three previous residents. The first tale features Denholm Elliot as a horror writer renting the house with his wife (Joanna Dunham); he's trying to finish a novel about a strangler but his efforts get derailed when the ficitonal killer seems to be coming to life and popping up all around the house. The secret here is easy to figure out, but it's still a fun story and the underrated Elliot is fun to watch. In the second tale, two old friends (Cushing and Joss Ackland) become obsessed with visiting a wax museum which has a model of Salome that resembles an old flame from their past. Lee stars in the next episode as a widower who hires a nanny to keep an eye on his young daughter, who may or may not be practicing voodoo. Finally, we go back to the frame story about an actor who buys a second-hand cloak to inspire him in his current role as a vampire; he finds out that clothes do make the man, or in this case, the vampire. Overall, about average for this kind of film--the screenplay by Robert Bloch is fine, but the production values could be better, and the direction by Peter Duffell is quite made-for-Tvish. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


This Victorian horror/sf film which co-stars Hammer favorites Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee has a few too many subplots going for its own good, and its horrors are more subtle than some fans of the genre like, but it's worth watching for good performances and interesting (if not always successful) narrative threads. In a rather surreal opening, Cushing is painting horrific Dali-like portraits on the wall of his laboratory and telling a visitor that he has made the startling discovery that evil exists as a bacteria and he has it under his microscope. The main story then unfolds in flashback as Cushing returns to England from New Guinea with a skeleton of a primitive humanoid, and based on his readings in the local folklore, he believes it belongs to a race of creatures of pure evil. While washing off one of its hands, Cushing discovers that when water drips on it, its flesh re-composes, and he cuts off one of the fleshy fingers for further study. At the same time, he has to deal with dysfunctional family matters: his long-institutionalized wife has died (in an asylum run by Lee, his brother), and he is concerned that her illness will be passed down to his innocent daughter (Lorna Heilbron), who has just been told about her mother's secret illness. He makes a serum out of the cells of the skeleton that he thinks will serve as an antidote against evil and injects Heilbron with it. For one reason or another (the serum, or heredity, or the realization that such a huge secret had been kept from her), she snaps, runs away, and heads to town to act like a slattern. In a third plot line, Lee, who plans to steal the skeleton from his brother, has to deal with an escaped maniac, who winds up crossing paths with Heibron and setting up the climax of the film which ties all the plot threads together in a more or less satisfactory way, including a scene inspired by Val Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER in which the skeleton winds up out in the rain and, of course, reconstituted and ready to find its missing finger. Cushing is really the star of this one and he acquits himself nicely with a nuanced portrayal of a man who thinks he's doing the right thing, for both his own flesh and blood, and for mankind, but who makes a monkey's breakfast out of everything (and, come to think of it, there actually is a monkey running around in the movie). Some critics take exception to the film's equating sex with evil (the sheltered daughter's slutty behavior is certainly seen as her first step toward total evil), but I saw the movie saying that the real problem was Cushing's well-intentioned sheltering. At any rate, the film's soup of repression, inherited insanity, sexual desire, and primal evil makes it difficult to assign meaning here, and indeed the movie is best viewed as an archetypal Cushing/Lee mad scientist movie. [DVD]

Monday, October 23, 2006


Monster movie fan that I am, I had never heard of this Japanese import until I saw it on Turner Classic Movies' schedule last month. I figured, what the hell, and watched it expecting at best a sublimely bad movie, but instead it turned out to be a creepy and fairly compelling film, though in essence, it's just a long Twilight Zone episode. The film is set on a passenger jet where the mixed bag of travelers (psychiatrist, politician, arms dealer, space scientist, etc) are discussing the sad state of the world--wars, assassination, suicide terrorists--while the plane is flying through an increasingly apocalyptic-looking blood-red sky, and birds begin suicidally smashing themselves against the plane windows. Suddenly, even more hell breaks loose: just as the pilot gets a message that a bomb may be hidden on board, a man with a gun (Hideo Ko) storms the cabin, and a UFO zooms over the plane, sending it crashing to the ground. And all this happens before the credits! The survivors are left with little food or water, not knowing where they are. The gunman escapes, finds the glowing UFO, and in a trance, walks into it, to be confronted by a pulsing silver-blue blob. In one of the coolest effects ever, the man's face splits in two and the blob slithers in, taking control of him. Eventually, others get taken over in an old-fashioned vampirish fashion, tensions mount in the plane as the civilized surface of the passengers is worn down, and a creepy apocalyptic scene provides a satisfying ending. There is a strong anti-war theme running throughout the film, with newsreel footage of Hiroshima and Vietnam spliced in here and there during heated discussions. A young blond American woman takes pity on the split-faced guy because his face reminds her of the fatal wounds of her soldier-husband, who died in Vietnam. The politician gets on everyone's bad side, especially when it is revealed that the arms dealer has pimped his wife to him. According to Robert Osborne, this film inspired a scene in Quentin Tarentino's KILL BILL. Overall, a nice surprise, well worth searching out. It's on a Region 2 DVD, which may bode well for an American release someday. [TCM]

Saturday, October 21, 2006


I lived in Tucson, Arizona for a few years in the mid-60's and our local Saturday night Chiller Theater would occasionally throw some Mexican horror films into the mix. I have vivid memories of only one of those, this atmospheric film which betrays a number of horror film thefts, influences or homages, depending on how generous the viewer is feeling toward the filmmakers. Off the top of my head, I count references, in plot or visuals, to Dracula, The Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, The Wolf Man, Fall of the House of Usher, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday, and the film has the general feel of the American International B-movies of the era. All that makes the movie a nice thick Gothic soup, watered down a bit by a low budget and a sub-par English dubbing (though apparently there is a recent DVD release in Spanish with English subtitles). In a prologue, we see two men and a young woman riding in a coach through a foggy woods, stopped by a hideous wailing woman dressed in black with either jet-black blind eyes or empty eye sockets (I was never sure which). Her brutish companion unleashes some killer dogs and all three passengers are murdered. Cut to a nearby isolated hacienda, lived in by Selma (Rita Macedo) and her crippled manservant, the two killers from the previous scene, though the woman's eyes are now normal. Selma's niece Emily (Rosita Arenas) and her new husband Herbert (Abel Salazar, also the film's producer) arrive for a visit, summoned by Selma and brought by a coachman reluctant to approach what he calls the "Witch House."

The various plotlines, perhaps due to the vagaries of the dubbing, were sometimes difficult for me to follow, but here's what I was able to glean: 1) Selma is the descendent of a witch, killed hundreds of years ago by a lance through the heart; she keeps the witch's skeleton in the basement; 2) According to legend, on the eve of Emily's 23rd birthday, the long silent bells in the hacienda tower will toll and Emily will be able to resurrect the dead witch; 3) Selma's husband has fallen under the family curse which turns all the males into wolfish beasts, and he's imprisoned upstairs. Emily is told that Herbert will suffer the same fate; 4) Selma periodically transforms into the black-eyed witch figure and kills, needing human blood to thrive. Even if the plot remained disconnected, the individual sequences are all well staged, with shadows and shrieking and a good Gothic air to the proceedings, though the hacienda sets are a bit spare. A backstory flashback scene, which uses brief clips from earlier Salazar films presented in negative, is quite effective, conjuring up similar flashback scenes from the Universal Mummy series. One shot of Selma walking through a giant cobweb is cribbed directly from the Lugosi DRACULA. The music veers between effective and overdone, and the acting is no better than the genre calls for. Worthwhile viewing. [A note on the film's date: IMDb credits it as a 1963 release, but other sources say '60 or '61.] [VHS]

Thursday, October 19, 2006


This is the first of a series of SF films featuring the character of Prof. Quatermass, the head of a secret group of British scientists who are conducting experiments in outer space. The film opens with a young rural couple whose outdoor make-out session is interrupted by a huge crash-landing missile. Quatermass (Brian Donleavy, playing him as an mean and arrogant man who is used to getting his way) and his group arrive on the scene and we find out that they have sent up the rocket with three men on board without any kind of official approval. Only one of the men survives; the other two appear to have been reduced to small blobs of jelly. The survivor (Richard Wordsworth), who never speaks, experiences some weird skin and bone changes, is cold to the touch, and doesn't seem to be able to react to people. His wife smuggles him out of the hospital without realizing that he has essentially been taken over by an alien life force, and is able to drain the life out of plants, animals, and people. He escapes and winds up on the loose as he transforms into a gigantic jelly blob. The climax takes place in Westminster Abbey where the blob is perched, like a faceless Jabba the Hutt, on some scaffolding not far from where a TV news crew is broadcasting a special on the Abbey. I suspect that this film was a bit ahead of its time, with its theme of alien organisms infecting and changing human beings (the influential INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS came out the same year). Its dank, bare bones, black-and-white look keeps the film admirably low-key. Quatermass is unlikable and unsympathetic, which was most likely intended by the filmmakers (at one point, he says, "There's no room for personal feelings in science") though Donleavy's gruff, one-note performance certainly adds to that. Jack Warner plays a mostly sympathetic police inspector, Margia Dean is the astronaut's wife, 10-year-old Jane Asher appears as a young girl menaced by the alien, and Gordon Jackson (later the beloved butler Hudson on "Upstairs, Downstairs") has a small role in the climax as a BBC-TV producer. I liked the tension between the restraints of society and the law, and the unbridled impulses of the scientists, and I also liked the ending, in which, despite the "meddling in God's domain" message of the narrative, Quatermass vows to keep exploring the great unknown. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Despite this movie's title and the pedigree of its production company (Hammer Films), this is just barely a horror movie. It's more a Gothic Freudian Dickens tale with a wolfman instead of a pickpocket at its center. A long opening sequence focuses first on a beggar (Richard Wordsworth) who arrives in a Spanish town during a holiday which has been called to mark the wedding feast of the Marquis's daughter. The Marquis at first appears inclined to be generous, but soon the beggar is thrown into jail and left for years to rot, totally forgotten. The story then shifts to the jailer's mute daughter (Yvonne Romain) who winds up in his cell and is raped by the beggar, who has become completely deranged. She goes off to live in the woods, but dies while giving birth on Christmas Day, which is considered a cursed day for childbirth. The boy grows up into a werewolf, but the love and compassion of his guardians stop his evil transformations. However, as an adult (Oliver Reed), he discovers that feelings of lust trigger his lycanthropy. He falls in love with Christina (Catherine Feller) and the two have an affair, despite her betrothal to someone else, but when things don’t go his way, Reed's transformations cause trouble for all. The film is slow-going, especially if you're only watching it for blood and horror; most of the werewolfery is saved for the last 10 minutes of the film. Reed is excellent--I agree with one IMDb reviewer who says that Reed may be the best actor ever to play a werewolf--and the makeup is quite good. The rest of the acting and the general production values are about par for a Hammer film. Overall, an interesting variation on the usual Hollywood werewolf story, but not totally successful. [DVD]

Monday, October 16, 2006


A Roger Corman quickie, and as such, sorta fun. Given the title and posters, one might expect this to be a traditional low-budget monster movie, but actually it's a comedy with a monster roaming in and out of the proceedings (mostly out until the last 10 minutes). It clearly had a sub-B picture budget and the dialogue is all dubbed in (a pet peeve of mine), but surprisingly, this was fun to watch once--I don't know that I would want to sit through the whole thing again. Several online critics have noted that the movie plays out like a spy movie spoof, although it was made at the very beginning of the spy movie boom, and the movie is best appreciated in that spirit. Secret agent XK 150 (Robert Towne) narrates this misadventure concerning a gangster (Antony Carbone) who is hired to help take a big chunk of stolen gold out of Cuba in the aftermath of Castro's revolution. On board Carbone's boat is a small crew, the group of thieves, Agent XK 150, and a sexpot femme fatale (Betsy Jones-Moreland). Carbone gets the bright idea to keep the gold for himself by killing off the Cubans one at a time and claiming that a sea monster is to blame. Little does he know that a real sea monster is following the boat, leading to a climax in which the real monster kills just about everyone except the secret agent. The monster is ludicrously bad, like a swimmer covered with a big carpet, with ping-pong balls stuck on for eyes, and it's clear that we're not meant to take any of the menace seriously. The single funniest scene is when the sexpot croons a lounge song, which just happens to be called, "The Creature from the Haunted Sea," and she keeps singing it even while a group of would-be pirates are slaughtered right behind her. I also loved the narration that introduces the crew: we're told that Carbone once tried to nominate Mussolini for president on the Republican ticket, that Jones-Moreland was caught pushing heroin at Boy's Town, and that young Happy Jack (Robert Bean) got his facial tic from watching too many Bogart movies. My favorite character is Pete Peterson Jr. (Beach Dickerson), the son of a vaudeville-era bird mimic, who communicates mostly via animal noises; it's a one-joke bit that remains funny throughout. There are many good one-liners, such as the agent (who emphasizes to us that XK 150 is not his real name) telling us that "it was dusk--I could tell because the sun was going down," or one character telling us that he found his new girlfriend in Puerto Rico "living in a sort of sorority house by the docks." Though the special effects are mostly ineffective, shots of the monster underwater attacking some swimmers look like they may have influenced Spielberg in JAWS. The Robert Towne who plays the agent is the same Robert Towne who wrote some of Corman's films and later went on to write CHINATOWN and SHAMPOO. Good for a few laughs, but not for chills or thrills. [DVD]

Saturday, October 14, 2006


This classic 50's science fiction film seems, on the surface, to be another traditional warning about meddling in God's domain, though ultimately the film's message is both more cosmic and more personal than that, with an interesting spiritual tone toward the end. Typical 50's couple Scott and Louise Carey (Grant Williams and Randy Stuart) are lying about in their swimsuits, vacationing on their boat, in an almost flirtatious mood; when Stuart goes down to get some more beer, the boat goes through a large cloud of mist that leaves glitter on Williams' chest (I'm resisting a 70's disco joke here). They don't give the incident much thought, but a few months later, Williams complains that the dry cleaner gave him the wrong clothes because they're too big; later he notices that his wife no longer has to stand on tiptoes to kiss him, and after a trip to the doctor, he realizes that he's slowly shrinking. Modern medicine is helpless--they call his condition "anti-cancer" but don't know how to reverse it--and after news of his condition leaks out, he's viewed as a freak by a nosy public (there's an interlude in which he finds work at a carnival). The doctors try a serum on him which seems to stop the shrinking for a time, but soon even that quits working. Of course, his condition wrecks havoc with his relationship with his wife, who still vows to stick with him. Soon he's reduced to living in a doll house and when their pet cat attacks him, he winds up trapped in the basement. He's so small that he can't get his wife's attention and she assumes he's been killed by the cat. The last section of the film takes place entirely in the basement as he scavenges for food, tries to work around a mousetrap, and finally does battle with a spider. Not all the "big sets" special effects to make Williams look small work, but the action scenes are still surprisingly effective. In the quiet and haunting ending, he stands looking outside into the night sky, no longer hungry, no longer afraid, and, in a Samuel Beckett mood, speculates about going on in the face of the infinitesimal and the infinite. It's interesting that the cause of the shrinking, which is loosely tied to radioactivity and insecticides, isn't dealt with more, especially given the number of 50's SF movies that focused on atom-age fears. The movie clearly had a B-budget, and most of that money went to the special effects, so the sets are threadbare and the acting is modest at best. The blandly handsome, almost hunky Williams isn't the best actor (he wasn't even that good in the detective show "Hawaiian Eye" which seems to have been the peak of his career), but his detached demeanor works in the context of the movie. William Schallert (Patty Duke's TV dad) and Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale on "The Beverly Hillbillies") play doctors. Hey, Universal, why isn't this classic out on DVD with commentary? [TCM]

Thursday, October 12, 2006

THE HEAD (1959)

I ran across this budget DVD with a trashy, lurid cover at the library and chose it for a "low expectations" viewing night, but the movie turned out to be better than its title and cover would indicate, and much more interesting than the more well-known B-movie THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (made the same year as this movie but not released until '62). That one was rightfully skewered on MST3K, but this German film, despite having a few low-budget rough edges, isn't a bad movie at all. Prof. Abel (well-regarded French character actor Michel Simon) lives in an odd house, not quite art deco, but reminiscent of other sinister mad doctor houses (specifically from THE BLACK CAT and EYES WITOUT A FACE), surrounded by an ominous Grimm Brothers forest. Attended by Dr. Burke (Kurt Muller-Graf) and a strapping, somewhat slow-witted assistant named Burt (Helmut Schmid), Abel has been working on Serum X, a formula to keep dead tissue alive, and he's used it successfully on a dog's head. Irene, a young and lovely but hunchbacked nurse (Karen Kernke) visits often and seems to have a thing for Dr. Burke. The creepy Dr. Ood (Horst Frank) arrives one night, having applied to be an assistant to Abel, who is sick and is planning on having his doctors perform a heart transplant on him, but Ood has more grandiose ambitions, wanting to perfect Serum X for his own purposes. When Burke catches on to Ood's plans, Ood kills him, decapitates Abel, and keeps his head alive, resting in a tub of the serum, with wires attached all over the place. Ood's ultimate plan is to cut off Irene's head and attach it to the voluptuous body of Lilly (Christiane Maybach), a stripper at the Tam-Tam Club, on whom, years ago, Ood performed plastic surgery to help her beat a murder rap. The operation goes well and at first, all Irene knows is that her hunched back has been cured, but soon she suspects that something isn't quite right, and when she discovers that she has Lilly's purse, she winds up at the Tam-Tam Club where the stripper's boyfriend recognizes a beauty mark on Irene's back as belonging to Lilly. A somewhat rushed climax follows, resulting in death and destruction back at the Abel house.

The German title of this film is "Die Nackte und der Satan," which translates as "The Nude and the Devil," and indeed the print I saw shows much evidence of censoring snips. We see Lilly start her strip tease, but then there's an abrupt cut to another scene. Later, when Ood plies Lilly with liquor to get her into his lab, she starts writhing, fully clothed, on a couch, then after a jagged cut, she is seen passed out in just her underwear. I assume both scenes had some nudity or near-nudity removed for American audiences, and it would be nice to see a clean and restored version of the movie. It's not a timeless classic, but for God's sake, if Criterion can do a special edition disc of the B-flick FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, it wouldn't hurt for some company to at least dig around for a complete cut of this film. The sets, not quite expressionistic, are quite atmospheric, and even the bare-bones strip club has a weird, "Blue Velvet"-ish feel. The movie's biggest strength is Horst Frank, who looks and acts appropriately strange without going over the top. As far as I know, the only version of this available in the states is from Alpha Video, and though the print is far from perfect, the dubbing is surprisingly good and I was pleased to discover this little gem in any condition. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Poverty Row thriller with a unique twist, though one that some find to be tasteless. Ralph Morgan is a concert pianist and Wanda McKay is his daughter. At a concert, creepy scientist J. Carroll Naish sees McKay, who resembles his dead wife Lenore (a Poe-ish touch), and becomes fixated on the idea that McKay is her reincarnation. Naish pesters the girl, who already has a fellow (Terry Frost). Morgan threatens to go to the police if Naish keeps it up, so Naish knocks Morgan out and injects him with the virus which causes acromegaly, a disorder that causes hideous deformity of the head, hands, and feet and will leave Morgan looking like a cousin of the Elephant Man. His hands are affected first and, since he is unable to play the piano, he cancels all of his bookings and retreats to his study. Morgan's doctor knows the name of a good endocrinologist, who of course turns out to be Naish, who is working on a cure and willing to let Morgan be his guinea pig if Morgan will "give" him McKay. There is a mildly complicated backstory involving Naish's dead wife, who killed herself when he gave her the same disease to punish her for leaving him, but that's not crucial to the climactic action, which involves guns, an ape, and Naish's loyal assistant (Tala Birell) who is eventually moved to help Morgan in his fight against Naish. Morgan's makeup is good for a sub-B film, though other production values are poor. Morgan and Naish are good, and the movie is short, which is a plus here. Glenn Strange, who later played the Frankenstein monster and spent years on Gunsmoke as the bartender, plays Naish's muscle thug. [DVD]

Monday, October 09, 2006


When I was a prepubescent horror movie fan, I not only sought out monster flicks but also any literature about monster flicks--at the age of 8, I had a subscription to "Famous Monsters of Filmland" and bought "Castle of Frankenstein" on the newsstands whenever I could find it. I was also a big comic book buff, and occasionally these two interests met, as in a series of photo-comic books based on horror films. The only two of these artifacts I remember vividly were for THE MOLE PEOPLE and THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH. I saw the first film when I was a teenager, but never got a chance to see the second until sometime in the 90's when I saw a cut print of it bludgeoned to death on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Now, thanks to Dark Sky Films, I own an incredibly pristine copy of the film forever on DVD. Is it really worth having forever? No, since it's basically a Frankie & Annette beach movie as if made by Ed Wood. But having had the chance to see this film which inspired lots of chills in me as a child is, to quote the MasterCard ads, priceless.

The film opens with a garbage boat dumping radioactive waste in the ocean. The canisters leak onto skeletons (Why are they there? Who knows?) which in no time flat transform into chintzy looking "Black Lagoon"-type creatures which come trolling along the beach and nearby community looking for young nubile women to slash up. The main characters are introduced at a beach party (duh!) where hunky John Scott is breaking up with slutty Marilyn Clarke, who wants more out of life than clean-cut, whitebread Scott. The movie flirts with "West Side Story" territory when Clarke starts dancing with sexy, swarthy biker Agustin Mayor and a rumble breaks out. Scott finds solace with the equally whitebread Alice Lyon (who looks closer to 40 than 20, though to be fair, Scott is also considerably older than the Party Beach regulars) and Clarke goes for a swim, only to become the first victim of the monsters. The rest of the movie is a series of vignettes of young women getting killed by the shambling creatures, alternating with vignettes of Scott working with Lyon's scientist father (Allen Laurel) at finding a way to stop the bloodshed. Laurel's maid (Eulabelle Moore), who insists that a voodoo curse is the problem, accidentally discovers that sodium is lethal to the monsters, leading to an incoherently staged finale as Scott and the cops try to destroy the beasts just as they're about to do in Lyon. The black and white film is surprisingly gory, especially in an early sequence where the monsters shred a bunch of girls at a slumber party, but unimaginative camerawork, awkward direction, and shoddy post-dubbing drain the last half of the film of any real energy. A band called the Del-Aires provides occasional rock & roll songs, unmemorable except for "The Zombie Stomp." Online critic Bradley Harding of Monsters at Play defends the film as a "send-up" of the American International beach films, but I don't think it was intended as a parody, and if it was, it's not nearly smart or funny enough to be successful on that level. Still, the movie is enjoyable in its sub-B-level way, and I can imagine watching it again when I'm in a nostalgic mood for the trappings of my childhood. [DVD]