Saturday, December 29, 2007


Below are my favorite films which I saw and reviewed on my blog for the first time this year, in alphabetical order:

ALL NIGHT LONG (1962): OTHELLO retooled for jazz musicians in swinging London. I like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, but he's at his best here as the Iago character. (reviewed 11/07)

BY WHOSE HAND? (1932): Minor but fun thriller involving murder on a train. Fast paced, and an opportunity to see Dwight Frye play something other than a neurotic toady. (2/07)

A CANTERBURY TALE (1944): An eccentric and fairly minor work in the Powell & Pressburger canon, but nevertheless charming; during WWII, three folks are thrown together by chance and wind up making a pilgrimage of sorts to Canterbury, just like Chaucer's pilgrims. (1/07)

THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955): Graham Greene's religious melodrama, and a better movie than the 90's version; Van Johnson can't touch Ralph Finnes, but he's not bad, and this might be Deborah Kerr's finest moment. (5/07)

HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1950): A Fritz Lang gothic B-thriller with Louis Hayward as a killer with a guilty conscience; low budget, but atmospheric as hell. (3/07)

The I LOVE A MYSTERY series (1945-46): Three very fun B-mysteries, all with some supernatural flavor, based on a popular radio show of the day. THE UNKNOWN is the best, but the others are certainly worth seeing. (12/07)

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936): Others may love the Daniel Day-Lewis version, but give me this one which is shorter and less self-important, and has two hunky men to ogle: Randolph Scott and Bruce Cabot. (5/07)

THE STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP (1946): Low-budget horror film about a ghostly killer who haunts a small swamp community. Like HOUSE BY THE RIVER, it gets by on style, rather grim with an intentionally murky look.

T-MEN (1947): Rough and tough film noir from Anthony Mann about two treasury agents who track down some counterfeiters. Good acting, good cinematography, and one of the great noir death scenes, in a steambath. (1/07)

TURNABOUT (1940): Comic fantasy about a husband and wife who mystically switch bodies; this gimmick has become old hat, but this was the first treatment of it I'm aware of, and though it's not terribly deep, it's fun and has a great supporting cast. (1/07)

I had a much harder time than usual narrowing my list down to 10, so it's folly to try and give a short list of runners-up, except to mention the harrowing war film NONE SHALL ESCAPE (3/07) and my rediscovery of one of Edward G. Robinson's greatest performances in ALL MY SONS (6/07). I'm really thankful to Turner Classic Movies for digging into the vaults of Columbia Pictures all year long; their library is wonderful, but many of the Columbia movies have not been seen in many years, and I loved being able to see them--three of my top 10 are Columbia films seen on TCM, and several more just missed my list.

Friday, December 28, 2007


Though I saw CONTEMPT first, this is the earlier film that made Jean-Luc Godard's name as the godfather of the French New Wave. Almost 50 years later, even though the plot twists and stylistic frills (mostly the frequent use of jarring jump cuts) are no longer new, it retains its power to hold an audience's attention, and it doesn't feel "old" at all. It's dedicated to Monogram Pictures, the Poverty Row studio known for its quickie crime and western movies. Jean-Paul Belmondo is a small-time thug, charming but amoral, not conventionally handsome but sexy, who consciously models himself on Humphrey Bogart. When he's chased through the French countryside for speeding in a stolen car, he kills a policeman and flees on foot. In Paris, he meets up with an American girl (Jean Seberg) with whom he had a casual sexual relationship in the recent past (and who is pregnant by him, though neither he nor we know that yet); her means of support seems to be hawking copies of the Herald Tribune on the street, though she's also trying to get a start as a free-lance journalist. The rest of the film follows Belmondo as he drifts about over the next 24 hours, stealing cars, trying to get money owed him by a friend, and trying to bed Seberg. As in CONTEMPT, there is a long and drifting conversational interlude in the middle of the film; the shirtless Belmondo chats with Seberg about everything but sex; at one point, she quotes Faulkner: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." He responds by asking to see her toes, then says he would take "nothing" because grief is a stupid compromise. I think they have sex, but we certainly never see it. By the time he leaves her apartment, his picture is on the front page of the newspapers as the "Highway Killer." When he admits his crime to Seberg, she seems unconcerned; when the cops talk to her, knowing she was seen with him, she protects him, but later, for no discernible reason except to see if she really loved him, she calls the police and tells them where he can be found. As far as I know, we never find out if she loved him or not, but he does meet his fate like a Monogram version of Bogart, shot in the streets, making a "cute" face at Seberg, and pulling his own eyelids shut with his last breath. I didn't feel anything for any of the characters, except maybe a bit of lust for both of the sexy leads, Belmondo, all twitches and snarls, and Seberg, cool and composed. The film doesn't feel improvised but it does feel casual, like the moments of Belmondo's day that we're shown were chosen largely at random. What I've read about Godard's later films doesn't make me think I would like to see much more of his work, but I did enjoy this one. I'm torn about seeing the Richard Gere remake from the 80's--on the one hand, it couldn't possibly be one-tenth as interesting as the original, on the other hand, I hear the Gere character has a thing for the Silver Surfer, and so do I. [Sundance]

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


This big-budget spy/adventure flick was originally shown in the ballyhooed Cinerama format (as was 2001 the year before), so it must have looked especially good to theater audiences of the day. Unfortunately, though it's hardly a disaster, it's not nearly as compelling as it needs to be. A British weather station in the Arctic, code named Ice Station Zebra, has been sending out distress signals. Rock Hudson, a Navy commander, has been assigned by his boss, Lloyd Nolan, to take a team of men up there in a submarine to help out. Nolan lets Hudson know that his official mission is a cover-up for some more important top-secret doings, but he's left in the dark as to what those might be. Though technically in charge of the sub, Hudson has to play second fiddle to British agent Patrick McGoohan who knows exactly what the mission is: a Russian spy satellite (made from stolen British plans) has crashed near the weather station, and the Brits and Americans want to get to it before the Russians do. Also along for the ride: Ernest Borgnine as a Russian who has apparently turned into a spy for the Brits (or has he?) and Jim Brown as a tough Marine captain with a mysterious background. Because of bad weather, the sub has to go up under the ice pack, leading to some damage due to sabotage. Once they break through the ice, they find the station filled with mostly dead men and have to contend with an unknown spy (Could McGoohan be a traitor? Maybe even Hudson?) and a fleet of Soviet paratroopers before all the mysteries are solved. Though not a traditional spy thriller (no trenchcoats, no shadowy alleys, no sexy Bond girls), it is an almost archetypal Cold War drama, especially at its climax, and that kind of "period-drama" appeal makes it worth watching. Hudson is suitably stoic, Borgnine does the Russian shtick to the hilt, but it's McGoohan who is the most fun to watch, partly because he is such a slippery character. Jim Brown is surprisingly good in a role that, you realize after the fact, is pretty small, and handsome Tony Bill is the only other supporting actor to make an impression as an easy-going Marine who is resented by the tough-guy Brown. The sub must certainly be the biggest, roomiest one ever in a Hollywood movie (no claustrophobic atmosphere here). The Arctic sets are colorful and remarkably phony-looking, yet there is still an Old Hollywood charm to them. At 2-1/2 hours, it's way too long, which makes the DVR or a DVD the perfect way to watch it, so you can spread it out over an entire lazy Sunday afternoon. [TCM]

Monday, December 24, 2007

SCROOGE (1970)

I recently wrote a blog post on my Mixed Media site about the various movie versions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." I omitted this big-budget studio musical with Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge because I hadn't seen it in many years and, though my memory was that I didn't care for it, I wanted to be fair to it so I dug it up and watched it again. It was actually worse than I remembered it, though that might be because I had just written my post on the other Scrooges (Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Reginald Owen) and perhaps they were shining so brightly in my mind that Finney couldn't compete. At any rate, though this version does have its online fans (see its IMDb entry), it has been largely overlooked by the Pop Culture Christmas Machine, not often heralded in seasonal articles or rerun on cable. Finney was probably a little too young (at 34) to take on the role. Physically, the make-up is fine, but he seems uncomfortable as the old Scrooge and only slightly more comfortable as the younger one. This was made at the end of the big studio musical era in the wake of the success of OLIVER! so they probably figured another Dickens musical would be a sure-fire hit--as far as I know, it was not. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse (probably best known for the original DOCTOR DOLITTLE), are unmemorable and worse, with the sole exception of "Thank You Very Much," which despite a dreadfully banal lyric, has a catchy melody and is the basis of the movie's best production number, a happy funeral march in the streets celebrating the death of Scrooge during his Christmas Future vision. Finney's not a singer so he mostly does a Rex Harrison talk/croak which is not terribly appealing, and he plays the old Scrooge as though he were a stroke victim. The movie is ugly and listless, with only the final musical numbers having the energy and flow which the rest of the film lacks. The look of the film is OK but nothing special. The only other cast members worth mentioning are Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Alec Guinness as Marley's Ghost. There is a bizarre little sequence showing Scrooge falling into his grave and plummeting into Hell, met by Marley and a bunch of beefy demons dragging a massive chain for Scrooge. It's inventive, but it doesn't really fit. Not a terrible movie, but not a success, and if you can only make time for one version of Christmas Carol this season, choose from the Sim, Scott, or Owen, all on DVD. [Laserdisc] (Sorry, I never got around to my annual ritual of watching one made-for-TV holiday movie with a blandly handsome leading man; ABC Family seemed to have a lock on Christmas films this year, but none of them sounded appealing to me.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007


These are the other two "I Love a Mystery" films. In the first one, a shrunken head, which may have been illegally smuggled into the country, is found in the wreckage of a plane. The local museum, which owns a collection of such heads, disavows any knowledge of it, but our detectives, Jack (Jim Bannon) and Doc (Barton Yarborough), get involved with a missing person/love triangle case: the director of the museum went missing while on an expedition in South America, and now his wife (Mona Barrie) thinks someone is trying to kill her. It might be her step-daughter (Anita Louise) who thinks that Barrie is having an affair with Frank Wilcox, a family friend who was along on the expedition. Indeed, Louise has asked her boyfriend, Michael Duane, to keep an eye on Barrie. There's also a taxidermist who keeps a black panther around, a shadowy figure who kills a butler with a poisoned dart from a blow gun, and a headless body. A quote from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" winds up being a clue. Like the first film, this is an entertaining, fast-paced little thriller with a rather convoluted plot filled with fun details.

THE UNKNOWN is a cross between a Faulkner novel and an "old dark house" horror film. It begins with a flashback about a tragic family history, told to us by a woman (Helen Freeman) whose funeral has just been held. She tells us she's to blame for the fact that her three adult children are messed up: one is an unsuccessful sculptor, one is a bitter alcoholic, and the daughter (Karen Morley) is mad, lost in a fantasy world, imagining she is caring for a nonexistent baby. Years before, when she announced to her parents that she secretly wed Robert Wilcox, her father went a little nuts and threatened Wilcox with a gun; Wilcox accidentally killed him then went into hiding; Morley gave birth nine months later, and as she was considered incompetent, the baby was given away. Now, several years later as Freeman's will is about to be read, the grown-up daughter (Jeff Donnell) shows up with Jack and Doc and a lawyer (Robert E. Scott), ready to straighten out her twisted heritage. The will goes missing, one of the brothers winds up dead, and there are various shenanigans involving a secret passage, a family crypt, and a mysterious crying baby before everything gets sorted out. This one is the most fun of the three, partly because the crazy family takes center stage, making the wooden Jack and Doc secondary characters in their own adventure. The Gothic atmosphere is nicely done, though the film can't quite live up to its creepy opening narration by an apparently dead character. These films are above-average for their genre (B-thrillers); it's a shame more weren't made. [TCM]

Friday, December 21, 2007


This B-thriller from Columbia is the first of three films based on a popular radio show from the 40's, also called I Love a Mystery. The show was about three war buddies who run a detective agency in Hollywood, and the stories, according to Thrilling, often delved into Indiana Jones-adventure territory. The films, however, are more like traditional detective tales which involve some bizarre story elements verging on the supernatural (but always explained away by the end), and there are only two detectives, Jack Packard, the more traditional heroic private eye (Jim Bannon), and Doc Long, a drawling Southerner (Barton Yarborough--imagine a slightly less whimsical Kay Kyser).

This one begins with headlines telling about the decapitation, in a car accident, of rich man Jefferson Monk (George Macready). In a flashback, we see Monk get into an altercation at the Silver Samovar, the restaurant which Jack and Doc call their home base. He's being followed by a creepy man with a steel leg, carrying a valise big enough, as Monk puts it, for his head. Monk hires our heroes for protection, and we learn that he is on the run from an ancient secret society that has offered him thousands of dollars for his head; he's apparently a dead ringer for the preserved but deteriorating corpse of the group's founder and they want to replace the corpse's rotting head with his. The living leader of the group, known only as Mr. G, predicts that Monk has one year to live. Understandably, Monk doesn't want to part with his head and doesn't believe G's prediction, but later G predicts that Monk's wife (Nina Foch) will wind up paralyzed, and by gosh, she does. At any rate, Jack and Doc take the case and there are some wild plot twists (some predictable, some not) before the ending. This film has a crammed-full, convoluted plot, but it's handled well enough that it never becomes seriously hard to follow. I can see why the two leads never really made it out of B-movies--they're both awfully wooden--but they don't ruin the movie (and Foch and Macready are both very good). It's quite atmospheric and enjoyable. I'll report on the other two films in the series tomorrow. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Better known in the States as SIDEWALKS OF LONDON, this is a rather bland edge-of-showbiz story set in the world of buskers, street entertainers in England who make their money through "donations" from the public who are waiting in line to see "legitimate" entertainers in theaters and music halls. Charles Laughton plays Charles, a long-time busker who does a little song and dance with his partners Arthur and Gentry, but who specializes in dramatic readings of bad poetry, or maybe bad readings of dramatic poetry. In any case, he's nearing 40 and feeling like he's overdue for a big break. One night, he catches a young dancing girl (Vivien Leigh) who calls herself Liberty, for the statue, trying to steal a coin from his cap. He chases after her, sees her steal a cigarette case from well-to-do songwriter Rex Harrison, and keeps up the chase, cornering her in an empty house. They wind up hitting it off and he lets her stay (platonically) in his shabby little boarding house room. He considers her talented and gets her to join his little group of buskers, but he also falls in love with her, though he never tells her. Leigh winds up invited to a party of Harrison's and he offers her a small part in his show. When she goes back to tell Laughton her good news, he realizes he's going to lose her, so in a pathetic and desperate act, he proposes to her. She humiliates him and runs out for good. In tried and true showbiz melodrama fashion, she eventually becomes a big star (and seems to be living with Harrison, though that’s a bit ambiguous), while Laughton slides downward, giving up busking and becoming a homeless wanderer. While posing as a blind beggar, he has a chance encounter with Leigh which leads to an audition for a show. Laughton shines in this scene, as we see it dawn on him that he just doesn't have what it takes to hit the big time, and the pat ending is neither happy nor sad. Leigh is just OK in an underwritten role, and Harrison barely registers at all. The supporting cast contains two people who didn’t appear in many movies: the renowned British stage director Tyrone Guthrie plays one of Laughton's busking buddies, and Larry Adler, a famous harmonica player and composer of film scores, can be seen as a friend of Harrison's, playing harmonica, of course. [TCM]

Monday, December 17, 2007


I've sampled the "singing cowboy" genre once before (LAND BEYOND THE LAW) and had no truly compelling reason for another trip to that well, but I'd never seen Gene Autry in a movie (I really only know him for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") so I thought I'd give this a whirl. Autry plays himself, kind of, not an actor but a singing cowboy named Gene Autry. The British owner of the ranch Autry works on has died and his young son (Ronald Sinclair), a Little Lord Fauntleroy-type, has arrived in the States with a guardian to sell the land to cranky Bill Elliott. Of course, Autry and his doofus sidekick (Smiley Burnette) had promised the father they would turn the boy into a Real Westerner and they do, rather quickly, nicknaming him "Little Spud." With that plot point out of the way, Autry has to deal with an angry Elliott who is not only mad about losing the ranch, but also mad that he is still owed money by the father's estate, and mad that Autry decides that he and the boy should get into Elliott's business, selling horses to the Army camp nearby. Autry and Elliott both put in identical bids to the Army, so the colonel (Guy Usher) sets up a race to determine the winner--and believe it or not, Autry's men wear white hats and Elliott's wear black! Elliott tries to sabotage the outcome by setting fire to a barn, Autry has a flirtation with the colonel's daughter (Judith Allen), who is pretending she's a maid, and Burnette raises multiple instances of havoc at the Army camp. There is an irritating running gag in which Autry is always shouting at the colonel because he thinks the old man is deaf. There are a few songs, one of which, "Ridin' the Range," is a rather gloomy song about how miserable a cowboy's life is. The Army camp is called Fort Wayne, perhaps in tribute to John Wayne (this film and Wayne's early westerns were made by Republic Pictures). Autry is OK though he doesn't have much of a personality--mostly he displays a mellow sturdiness. A decent little B-western. [DVD]

Friday, December 14, 2007

SALOME (1953)

In Biblical lore, Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod, performed a sexy dance for Herod and, when told he would give her anything she wanted, she asked, at the request of her mother Herodias, for the head of John the Baptist on a platter--apparently because John had been badmouthing the Herod/Herodias marriage as illegitimate. Though Herod was "struck sad," he complied with the request. The story is mentioned in Matthew and Mark (though she is not named) and in the writings of the historian Josephus. In the popular imagination, Salome is usually portrayed as wicked, but when Hollywood went to work on her story as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth, they softened her, almost turning her into a Christian martyr. When we first see John the Baptist (Alan Badel), he is indeed telling the crowds that Herod (Charles Laughton) is living in sin with Herodias (Judith Anderson)--I was never sure what about their relationship made it sinful; perhaps because she is happy to have Herod seek sex outside of their marriage. In Rome, Tiberius Caesar (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, looking a lot like he does as Sethi in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) is bothered by the ruckus that John is kicking up, claiming that a Messiah is coming to overthrow Rome, so he sends Commander Claudius (Stewart Granger) to Galilee to give aid to Herod and Pontius Pilate (Basil Sydney). Caesar also banishes Salome back to Galilee because she's a bad influence (i.e., she's got a reputation as a slut) on his nephew Marcellus (the hunky Rex Reason).

When Salome and Claudius meet on a ship, they engage in a battle of wills but soon are striking romantic sparks. Meanwhile, Herod clearly has a thing for his stepdaughter, and Herodias is plotting the demise of John the Baptist. Claudius, it turns out, is a secret convert to John's teachings and after John is captured, he tries to talk Pilate into freeing John and letting history remember him as having been instrumental in establishing a new religion. Salome, who at first hated John, is brought over to Claudius' side and offers to dance for Herod in public; it will mean that she will become his possession, but it will also mean that he will offer her a favor. She intends the favor to be the freeing of John, but Herodias jumps in with the infamous request for John's head, and the rest is a strange expansion of the lore, with Claudius and Salome escaping the court; the last we see of them, they're listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. The end title: "This was The Beginning." The acting is bland except for Laughton and Alan Badel, both of whom needed some time to get going. Hayworth's Dance of the Seven Veils is effective except for her overly-toothy, Las Vegas-chorus girl grin. Sets and costumes, always important elements in a Biblical epic, are good. Hayworth is lovely, but this is not her finest moment. [TCM]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

HEAD (1968)

When I was done watching this, the Monkees' only feature film, I had no idea how I was going to approach this review. But then it hit me: it's not really a movie, but a long, long episode of the their TV show, or maybe a TV special consisting of unrelated songs and sketches, but instead of being something like "The Monkees' Christmas Special," it's "The Monkees Kiss Their Career Goodbye Special: With Guest Stars and Acid Flashbacks!" It's been quite a while since I've seen a Monkees show, but I remember it as aspiring to (but not reaching) a kind of Marx Brothers quality: vaguely surreal slapstick bits pasted together with paper-thin excuses for narratives. The movie is more of the same, but without any attempt at a narrative thread. (If I were feeling generous, I might say the film also prefigures the comedy of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, but I think I'd have to be higher than the filmmakers to be that generous.) Here are my notes, more or less chronologically, I think:

The film begins with the promise of a storyline as we see Mickey Dolenz, being chased by a small crowd of people including the other Monkees, leaping off of a bridge in the middle of some kind of dedication ceremony. Solarized mermaids swim with him to the tune "The Porpoise Song." Suddenly, the Monkees are about to perform onstage; there's a self-deprecating song/chant that foregrounds the band's manufactured origin and the fragmented nature of the very film we're seeing. Concert footage is mixed with war footage, including the famous clip of the brutal execution, by a pistol to the head, of a Vietnamese man. There's a clip from the 30's horror classic THE BLACK CAT of Bela Lugosi saying, "Supernatural, perhaps; baloney, perhaps not!" Mickey is suddenly in a desert, trying to get a Coke out of an empty Coke machine while a Coke jingle plays, and eventually blasting it to pieces with a tank (a Lawrence of Arabia/Dr. Strangelove reference?). In a war setting, Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke keeps trying to tackle Peter Tork. There follows a scene out of a Western which winds up breaking the fourth wall, a la BLAZING SADDLES, with the cast spilling out into a studio cafeteria (with a cashier who talks like Bette Davis). Davy Jones boxes with Sonny Liston and chats with Annette Funicello about wanting to give up boxing for the violin (a GOLDEN BOY reference?). The Monkees wind up trapped in a huge black box and then realize they are bits of dandruff in the hair of Victor Mature. Peter whistles "Strawberry Fields Forever" while popping a zit. Davy performs Harry Nilsson's "Daddy's Song" (quite badly and purposely, I think) as a soft-shoe. Frank Zappa tells him the song was "pretty white"; Davy's reply: "So am I." Mike Nesmith has a surprise birthday party thrown for him, which upsets him. Peter, repeating what he's been taught by a guru, lectures the others about the "reality of now" and the way we are constantly bombarded with "vividly imagined experiences." Victor Mature returns, as does the desert, and they all wind up back at the beginning of the film, running from a crowd and jumping off a bridge into the ocean. The end.

Individual bits are amusing, and the psychedelica is fun, but the constant riffing on the theme of the Monkees as both lamely artificial and sadly put-upon by their celebrity gets old. Some critics have said that this film was intended to deal a death blow to the Monkee image, and it did, at least until the nostalgia boom of the late 80's brought them back together. On the surface, the film seems like a satire, but too often, it's just referencing pop culture (admittedly a few years before everyone else started doing it as mainstream entertainment) rather than satirizing. Going through the paces of referencing a sequence from DUCK SOUP is not the same as actually commenting on the folly of war. The worst thing of all is that the music isn't very good. I like Monkees music but nothing in the movie is catchy or fun or interesting, with the possible exception of "The Porpoise Song." And Davy Jones sounds bad. I can't say I'm sorry to have seen it (I tried watching a pan-and-scan version of the film years ago on TV and didn't make it past the mermaid scene), but I don't think I'll be returning to it anytime soon. Jack Nicholson co-wrote this and has a cameo. [TCM]

Monday, December 10, 2007


A generally delightful British wartime mystery, a cross between a "cozy" (except the detective isn't a little old lady but a tall middle-aged police inspector) and an "old dark house" thriller (except it's set in a mansion which has been turned by the military into an emergency makeshift hospital). One night, during a bombing raid from German V-1's, aka "doodlebug bombs," a postman who also serves as an air raid rescue worker is injured and brought to the hospital. The man, whose injury is not life-threatening, dies as he is put under anesthetic and the head doctor (Ronald Adam) is concerned about an inquest. Later at a dance, the chief Sister (Judy Campbell) announces that the death was a murder and she knows who was responsible; she is found dead that night. When inspector Alastair Sim arrives to investigate, he considers everyone who was present for the operation a suspect, not just the anesthesiologist (Trevor Howard) who was involved in a similar inquest in the past, but also surgeon Leo Genn, a nurse (Rosamund John) who seems on the verge of a breakdown after the death of her mother in a bombing, and young and pretty Sally Gray, who may be in the middle of a romantic triangle. There are clues and red herrings and fisticuffs, followed by a re-creation of the original operation which leads to a somewhat convoluted solution and a neat last twist involving the fate of the killer. Sim, whom I'm used to seeing in parts that require some dithering, is a solid non-ditherer here, even though his character does mess up one major point near the end. The characters seem real and the wartime setting adds a nice extra touch of atmosphere. The sets are a little stagy but just right. There is some very nice camerawork throughout, especially during the scene that leads up to Campbell's death. The title is actually half-clue, half-spoiler, though its relevance to the proceedings is not made clear until near the end. The Criterion DVD is, as usual, crisp and clear, with a commentary track that sometimes wanders off into repetition. A movie that deserves to be better known, especially to mystery fans. [DVD]

Thursday, December 06, 2007


This is one crazy piece of filmmaking--it has surfaced on Turner Classic during its Oscar month because, against all logic, it was actually up for two awards, best song and best score. It's only about 50 minutes in length, an attempt by producer Hal Roach at making a new kind of movie called a "Streamliner" which was intended to be longer than a short subject and shorter than a feature film. Perhaps for this reason, its plot suffers something fierce, as though it were written as a full-lengther and then chopped down for release; very little of it makes any narrative sense, leaving only the low-budget musical numbers and the bemusing performances to enjoy. And, despite this, it is enjoyable, though not something I'd care to sit through too many more times. The film opens with a drag number performed by the manly boys of the Zeta Fraternity at Quinceton--and just to prove how manly these frat boys are, we see a page of the program which features a picture of lead drag star Johnny Downs in a rough-and-tough boxing pose. Suddenly, we're at Mar Brynn, an all-girl agricultural school. President Esther Dale has cooked up a scheme to boost enrollment by offering a scholarship contest to state fair beauty queens and calling them the "Most Likely to Succeed," and at the same time, taking the opportunity to get more publicity by bashing the Zeta men as "least likely to succeed." Naturally, the Zeta men get furious, and their answer is to send Downs to Mar Brynn, in drag, under the name Bobbie DeWolf, to win one of the scholarships. In a scene on the train to Mar Brynn that feels like it came out of SOME LIKE IT HOT, Downs struggles in his small upper berth to change into full drag while the girls prance around the train singing "Up at the Crack of Dawn." At the school, Downs lives a double life as Bobbie and as himself, more or less (he claims to be Bobbie's music teacher) and winds up helping the contestants put on their talent show and falling in love with co-ed Frances Langford (who looks just a tad long in the tooth to be a co-ed).

The plot gets fairly complicated with some truly dumb plot twists, and it doesn't bear continued relating except to say that Downs and Langford wind up together in the end. The highlights of the film are the musical numbers, notably "Out of the Silence" (the Oscar nominee) and the wacky "The Poor Farmer's Daughter" which has girls dressed up as watermelons, carrots, and corn! Downs is energetic and attractive (he bears a passing resemblance to Jim Hutton) and was in several "Our Gang" shorts in the late 20's; almost equally cute is Kent Rogers, a Zeta man who does impressions of Gary Cooper and James Cagney--Rogers seemed full of talent and promise, but sadly only made a handful of movies before dying in a plane accident during WWII. Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) has a small role as a hayseed frat boy, playing straight man to Noah Berry Jr. Also with Marie Windsor (as a carrot), Allan Lane (later known as Rocky Lane in a series of B-westerns), and Lillian Randolph. Directed by LeRoy Prinz, better known as an Oscar-nominated choreographer. See this loony novelty if you get a chance, but don't worry about putting it too high on your list. [TCM]

Monday, December 03, 2007


Aside from having seen the 1933 and 1994 film versions of "Little Women," I am not particularly well versed in the literature of Louisa May Alcott. Still, I'm guessing that this B-budget version of her sequel to "Little Women" does not stick very closely to the novel. Jo March (Katharine Hepburn in the '33 film, grown up into Kay Francis here) and her immigrant professor husband (Carl Esmond) run Plumfield, a boys boarding school which is in danger of being closed down by the landlord, to whom they owe back rent. The film actually begins with George Bancroft, a ne'er-do-well who runs mail-order scams and sells phony elixirs, being left with an orphan infant via a late operative of his. His first instinct is to dump the kid at an orphanage, but he takes a shine to the baby and raises him as his son. Grown into adolescence, Danny (Jimmy Lydon) is well educated in the ways of gambling and hustling, but the state insists that Bancroft, who is always on the road, put him in school, so Lydon is taken to Plumfield. When Bancroft finds out about the school's troubles, he tells Francis that he can invest what little money the school has in order to get the $5000 they need; Bancroft is sincere, but the bank he puts the money in fails. When we find out that his escaped con sidekick, Jack Oakie, has a $5000 reward on him, it's not hard to predict the outcome. Until we get to that ending, the rest of the story concerns Lydon and his slow assimilation to the mannered ways of Plumfield. The most interesting scene involves an unusual punishment meted out to Lydon; instead of getting smacked, he has to smack Francis across the hand with a switch, several times. Of course, he can't bear to beat an innocent, and this is the first step in his reformation from snotty troublemaker to upright young man. A few other minor tragedies occur, primarily the forced selling the boys' prize dairy cow Buttercup ("played" by the original Elsie the Cow of Borden fame), and a fierce whooping that Lydon gives one of the boys (Jimmy Zahner) for claiming that Bancroft cheated the school out of money. The only other character who stands out is Silas, the handyman (Johnny Burke) who entertains the boys with his oft-told tales of past glories. In the original novel and film, the professor was German, but here, he's been made Swiss, probably due to our troubles with Germany at the time. The movie, originally released by RKO but made by an independent company called The Play's The Thing, has slipped into the public domain and the print I saw on TCM was murky and scratchy, so it’s difficult to say how it looked to audiences of the time, but it all felt very low-budget to me, despite the presence of Kay Francis (whose star was slipping) and director Norman Z. Macleod (TOPPER, HORSE FEATHERS). Oakie is fairly funny and Lydon (who was the oldest son in LIFE WITH FATHER) is fine as the delinquent turned saint. [TCM]

Saturday, December 01, 2007


Until yesterday, all I knew about the Cisco Kid, courtesy the War hit from 1973, was that he drank whisky and Pancho drank the wine. Now I've seen one of his movies and I know him a little bit better. The character originally appeared in an O. Henry story which was adapted for the movies as IN OLD ARIZONA in 1929 with Warner Baxter playing the Kid, a Mexican Robin Hood figure (and winning the Oscar for best actor that year). Cisco appeared in a couple other films before Fox started this B-Western series with Cesar Romero playing the lead. The film begins with a montage, set to the tune of "La Cucaracha," of reports of a string of robberies attributed to the Cisco Kid; all the "Wanted" posters have different faces on them, letting us know that Romero couldn't possibly have committed them all, but the extent of his real criminal activities remain ambiguous. Romero and his sidekick Gordito (Chris-Pin Martin) come upon a man, traveling with a baby and shot by bandits; with his dying breath, he gives a map of his gold mine to Romero, Martin, and fellow good Samaritan Robert Barratt and asks them to make sure his child is taken care of. They decide to split the map in three parts so no one of them can make a land grab, but it turns out that Barratt is the killer bandit; when his gang arrives to try and get the map parts from Romero and Martin, the two burn up and swallow their pieces after memorizing them, so Barratt has to keep them alive if he has any hope of finding the mine. When the new schoolmarm (Marjorie Weaver) arrives in town, she agrees to take care of the baby, though she has some explaining to do when her beau (George Montgomery) arrives from Kansas City. Of course, thanks to Romero, they wind up together and married, and with the gold mine to boot, and Barratt winds up dead, assumed by bystanders to have been the Cisco Kid. The balance here is heavily weighted toward humor and romance, with an occasional action scene now and then. Virginia Field is the hooker with the heart of gold who has a nice dance scene with Romero. Ward Bond has a small part as a drunk. Romero is very good, though I think I've seen all of the Cisco Kid that I need. [FMC]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


During the waning days of WWII, David Niven, a British RAF pilot, is about to bail out of his burning plane. The rest of his crew has already jumped (except for his buddy, Robert Coote, who is lying dead in the plane), and though Niven doesn't have a parachute, he'd rather die from the jump than wait to be burnt up. In his last moments, he makes contact with American radio operator Kim Hunter, who is working in England. Niven starts quoting poetry and giving a farewell message to his mother, and in those few moments, they make an emotional connection which would seem to end when he jumps, but somehow he winds up washed up on a beach. He first assumes he's in heaven, but a young (and naked) shepherd boy tending his flock tells him he's not. By coincidence, the next person he meets up with is Hunter, bicycling home after a long shift at the radio. Luckily, they're both very good looking people, so their love grows. Meanwhile, up in Heaven, the Powers That Be are upset because Niven should be up there with his friend Coote. The flamboyant French angel who was supposed to retrieve him (Marius Goring) is sent after him, but Niven, thoroughly in love, isn't anxious to leave. When Niven tells other people about his visitations, it is assumed that he has some kind of brain malfunction (he reports having suffered from headaches for several months before his fateful jump) and he is put in the care of village doctor Roger Livesey, who sure enough finds evidence of brain lesions. The Heavenly Powers agree to have a trial to see whether or not he should be allowed to remain; Livesey is convinced that an operation will cure him, but he's also concerned that if Niven should lose his "imaginary" trial, he will die. The narrative continues on two levels: one on earth in the operating room, and one in Heaven where rabidly anti-British Raymond Massey is arguing against him.

This is a beautiful film all around: great Technicolor, fine acting, and clever plotting, and the fact that it can be read as either fantasy or not just adds to its luster. One plotting trick in the last half-hour involving Livesey's character doesn't sit so well with me, but aside from that, the movie is nearly perfection. This has similarities to the earlier HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, which was officially remade as HEAVEN CAN WAIT, including its picture of Heaven as a well-run cosmic bureaucracy (interestingly, almost all of Heaven's workers are women). The operating room/afterlife scenes here must have influenced Bob Fosse in ALL THAT JAZZ. The scenes on earth are in lush color; Heaven is in glowing black and white. The Heaven sets are great, and particularly impressive is a pan-out shot of the huge cosmic courtroom, undoubtedly a matte painting but almost as effective as any CGI shot of today would be. Not only are Niven and Hunter attractive, but Livesey is quite handsome as well. Also with Abraham Soafer as the Heavenly Judge and Richard Attenborough in a small role as a dead flier. I like that the American soldiers arriving in Heaven are overjoyed to find a Coke machine. The only propaganda aspect of this film, which was shot just after the war ended, is an odd turn taken during the trial into an argument for British and American cooperation--it seems weirdly out of place, but doesn't hurt the movie. It's a crime that this Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger masterpiece is not on a Region 1 DVD yet. Thank you yet again, Turner Classic, for showing this. (I think of this as a Christmas movie only because the first time I saw it, when I was 12, staying up and watching a late showing of it on our local Public TV station, it was the night before Christmas Eve.) [TCM]

Monday, November 26, 2007


Arabian Nights flicks were all the escapist rage in the war years; this one, produced in Technicolor, comes close to being a parody except it's not quite funny or sharp enough. In fact, the only consistent element of humor here is the character played by Phil Silvers; the rest is taken a bit too seriously to be making fun of the genre, but not seriously enough to be a solid adventure fantasy. Cornel Wilde is Aladdin, a singer of love ballads who has the ladies swooning, but his object of love is a princess (Adele Jergens) to whom access by commoners is forbidden. Still, he risks life and limb to woo her. Just as she warms to him, he and his goofy pal, petty thief Silvers, are thrown in jail. They escape and find the magic cave of the sorcerer Kofir (Richard Hale). He conjures up visions of Jergens in a large crystal and tells them that they can save the Princess from a villainous plot if they can retrieve a magic lamp guarded by a giant (Rex Ingram, the giant genie from the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD, in what amounts to a wordless cameo). Of course, Hale assumes they will fail, but Wilde escapes the giant, finds the lamp, and discovers it houses a lovely genie named Babs (Evelyn Keyes) who has to do his bidding. She pimps his ride, so to speak, by turning him into a wealthy prince with an entourage so he can more properly romance Jergens and save her from the evil Dennis Hoey, who has a dual role as Jergens' father, the Sultan, and his nasty look-alike, who has the Sultan imprisoned and takes over his identity. Keyes can do wonders for Wilde, but she's also jealous of Jergens, and when the lamp winds up in Hale's hands, it proves to be Wilde's undoing, at least temporarily until the obligatory happy ending. Clearly, the plot's not the point here. The points are: 1) Jergens’s knockout figure; 2) the spectacular color--and there are some striking colors here, most notably Jergens' hazy purple gown; and 3) the clowning of Phil Silvers. I don't like Silvers at all, but his anachronistic jokes and puns are fun here, as he references everything from hipster slang of the era ("groovy," "slip me some skin") to Lana Turner to The Man Who Came to Dinner to Serutan (a laxative widely advertised as being "natures" spelled backward). In the last scene, he even gets a wish from the genie and finds himself able to sing like Frank Sinatra. A lovely actress named Dusty Anderson steals a couple of scenes as Jergens' handmaiden. The film was nominated for two Oscars, color art direction and special effects. [TCM]

Saturday, November 24, 2007


This, from the same studio, same director (Ishiro Honda), and some of the same actors that gave us GODZILLA, is a letdown. At a folk festival, an astrophysicist named Shiraishi acts mysteriously, ready to call off his upcoming marriage. When a huge forest fire breaks out, with the trees mysteriously burning from the roots up, he is last seen by his friends running toward the fire. A little later, in the same vicinity, there's a huge landslide which swallows up lots of people and results in dead fish in streams and erratic radioactivity readings. Soon, a giant robot monster with an anteater snout and glowing eyes which shoot destructive rays rises out of the earth and stomps a village before getting destroyed by the Army. Then UFOs come zooming out of the sky (from the dark side of the moon, we are told by scientists) and a huge dome rises out of the dirt, calling the names of five prominent men. These men meet the aliens, the Mysterians of the title, who appear to be very human-like creatures dressed in candy-colored spacesuits, helmets, and capes (and they helpfully instruct the earthlings to "please wear a cape" as they enter the cold dome). The aliens are from the lost planet of Mysteriod, which was literally split apart in a war, and have been living on Mars. They want a small patch of land in Japan to call their own, and a few women to "marry" (a euphemism for "use for breeding purposes"). We find out that Shiraishi has been working with the Mysterians, and some folks think that maybe giving the aliens, who claim to be pacifists, what they want would be OK, but when we're too slow to deliver the land and women, the Mysterians get violent and it takes some Americans to save the day by developing a giant reflecting lens to send the heat rays right back at the aliens. I like the Mysterians' colorful outfits and most of the special effects are fine, especially the landslide scene, but the robot is laughable as is the "Mars needs women!" subplot. I also like that when the traitorous astrophysicist broadcasts his propaganda over the television, the screens go from black & white to pink. The main characters threaten to be interesting, but are never very well developed. This was much more fun when I was 12. I guess some movies like this just aren't meant to be rediscovered by adult viewers. [DVD]

Thursday, November 22, 2007

GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA—1954/56)

A few years ago, I tried to start a tradition of reviewing fantasy/adventure movies around Thanksgiving since those were the kinds of movies I remember airing on TV over the holiday. That fell by the wayside, but I'll take up the cause again this year. As GOJIRA begins, Japanese sailors lolling about on a freighter are disturbed by a huge blast in the middle of the sea. The ship explodes and sinks. This is just the beginning of a series of such incidents, the origins of which remain mysterious until one survivor, washed up on Odo Island, mutters, "He did it!" The islanders believe the old legend of a monster named Gojira who lives in the sea and that night they perform an exorcism dance rite. It doesn't help, for soon after, something spreads a path of destruction in the night during a storm. Prof. Yamane and his research group discover what look like gigantic footprints along the beach and soon the beast is sighted over a hilltop; it's huge and looks like a monstrous dinosaur that walks on two feet. Yamane speculates that it is indeed a throwback to the Jurassic age which has somehow survived on the ocean floor and has been freed by atomic bomb testing being carried out in the sea. The creature begins showing up on the mainland, laying waste to Tokyo; attempts to stop it are stymied by its radioactive-wind breath. Meanwhile, Yamane's daughter is caught in a romantic triangle between Serizawa, a scientist who wears an eye patch (due, I think, to a radiation injury) and the younger, more handsome Ogata who works for a ship salvage company. Because Serizawa has been acting strange and reclusive, she gravitates toward Ogata, but discovers that Serizawa has invented an oxygen-destroying element which can kill marine life in a matter of seconds. She wants him to use his invention to kill Gojira, but he is afraid to make the discovery public for fear that it will be misused; Yamane is also against killing the beast, wanting somehow to study it to see how it survived such intense radiation poisoning. Gojira, caring not a whit about human relationships, continues his destructive ways until Serizawa gives in and sacrifices both his discovery and himself to kill the monster.

It was a little startling to experience this, the original Japanese version of the film better known to Americans as GODZILLA; based on the sequels I've seen over the years, I was expecting a chintzy, campy, kiddie-matinee B-flick, but this is instead a scary, grim, totally straight-faced monster movie. References, both symbolic and literal, to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII, are everywhere (Ogata flat out says that Gojira is the product of the bomb "which still haunts the Japanese") and lend the film a gravity that the later ones lack. During a lively debate concerning how to deal with the monster, one group wants to hide the atomic bomb connection as another group (led by a woman) fervently argues that the public should be told the truth. The four main characters are not just cardboard figures used to convey exposition, but are fairly well-rounded and conflicted people we come to care about. The monster rampage scenes are easy to pick apart (lots of miniatures and matte work) but they are still effective and tinged with human tragedy, as in the scene of the mother surrounded by flaming debris, desperately grasping her children to her, crying, "Soon we'll be with your daddy in Heaven!" The American version, released two years later in 1956, has Raymond Burr as a reporter in Japan during the monster's reign of terror. Most of the death and destruction remains, but the subtler references to the bomb are mostly gone. The new 2-disc DVD has both versions; the Japanese print is definitely the way to go (with an excellent audio commentary), but the Burr cut is sort of fun as well. Not much real restoration work seems to have gone into this presentation, with lots of scratches and cuts, but it's still a package worth having, as the film rewards multiple viewings. [DVD]

Monday, November 19, 2007


Everyone seems to love this big, bright, colorful musical which marked Doris Day's screen debut. While I do like Day here, in a brassy role very different from the kind for which she became famous, I could barely stick with the movie until the end, and I even spread the viewing out over two days. Janis Page is upset because her rich businessman husband (Don DeFore) keeps canceling their anniversary vacation cruises. When DeFore backs out of another one but insists that Paige go on without him, she suspects him of cheating and hires nightclub singer Doris Day to take her ticket and pose as her, while she stays in town to check up on him. Meanwhile, DeFore has suspicions of his own and hires private eye Jack Carson to go on the cruise and report back about his wife's activities. Carson follows Day, thinking she's Paige; Day, at Paige's instructions, remains above reproach the whole trip, but Carson falls for her and feels plenty guilty about it. Eventually, all four wind up in Rio and everything gets sorted out the way you knew it would from the beginning. This plays out like an attempt at an updated Astaire/Rogers musical romance, and Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn, cast regulars in the Astaire pictures, make welcome cameos here, but otherwise this movie is evidence that the studios could not wring much new out of the old formula, and bright colors and costumes can't make up for the absence of two great talents at the helm. Day, in a role intended for Betty Hutton, is quite good and gets to do several songs (including the Oscar-nominated "It's Magic"), but she's let down by the rather drab trio around her. Carson and Paige occasionally hit their marks, but just as often misfire, and DeFore is a clunky disaster. Oscar Levant spices things up as Day's cynical pianist. S. Z. Sakall does his usual shtick as a befuddled uncle--I love Sakall in CASABLANCA and CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, but frankly I don't care if I ever see him again. A high point of the movie for me was a bit with Grady Sutton as the ship's radio operator who flirts with Carson when he misunderstands the contents of Carson's telegram. But generally, I'd say skip this unless you're a Doris Day fan. [DVD]

Saturday, November 17, 2007


In the Ottoman Empire in 1908, the ruthless sultan Abdul Hamid II (Fritz Kortner) is in danger of being overthrown by the Young Turk movement, agitating for civil rights and a new constitution. The Sultan lives under such fear of assassination that all of his food is tasted for poison and most of his public appearances are done by a look-alike actor named Kelar (also Kortner). Abdul plots with the head of his police (Nils Ashter) to assassinate Hassan Bey, the leader of the Old Turks, and make it look as if it were the work of the Young Turks. Meanwhile, a Viennese singer and dancer (the very American Adrienne Ames) gives a command performance for the Sultan; infatuated with her, Abdul orders her to join his harem. She refuses until Ashter tells her that her boyfriend (John Stuart), an Army captain, will be in danger if she doesn't relent. The political intrigue seesaws back and forth until it gets out that the Sultan was behind the death of Hassan Bey. Abdul becomes more paranoid than ever and starts to go mad, seeking escape in watching a huge private floor show (which looks like a lot of choppy outtakes from a Busby Berkeley number). In the end, the Young Turks are victorious and allow Abdul to abdicate and leave in peace.

I know nothing about Turkish history, but I can only assume that, as is usual with Hollywood efforts at historical drama, the movie's narrative has little to do with what really happened, though the title character was a real person who actually was deposed by a coalition called the Young Turks. This movie is interesting but muddled--to be fair, the print I saw was a bit splicy and ran about three minutes short of the running time given by IMDb, which might have led to the omission of a few plot points. Just when I was getting the political plotting sorted out in my head, the focus would shift to the rather bland romantic subplot, made worse by the terrible acting of Ames, a third-rate Dietrich. The opening credits trumpet Kortner's dual role, but that device winds up not being terribly important in the film, though one of the best scenes involves a trick shot showing the Sultan and the actor in the same frame, looking at themselves in two mirrors set up diagonally in the background. Ashter is very good as the villain behind the villain, and Esme Percy does a nice job as an oily, obsequious eunuch. Patrick Knowles has a small role (though I did not recognize him here). Some of the sets are quite fabulous. I wouldn't necessarily want to sit through this again, but a restored print would be nice. (Also, the VCI disc I watched locked up for a few seconds at the beginning of every chapter) [DVD]

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Colorful, romanticized versions of the lives of the notorious outlaw Jesse James and his brother Frank, filmed by different directors, but both made by 20th Century Fox. The opening crawl of the first film tells us that the conquest of the American West was symbolized by the expansion of the railroads, though here the railroad barons are the bad guys. Brian Donlevy, a representative of the Midland Railroad, is traveling through Missouri, cheating salt-of-the-earth folks by strong-arming them to sell their land cheaply to the railroad. When he tries threatening crusty Jane Darwell, her sons (Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank James) send him and his goons running, but they return later and set the James farmhouse on fire. Darwell dies in the fire, Power kills Donlevy, and the brothers and their gang of friends set off on a spree of robberies aimed solely at the Midland Railroad. Sheriff Randolph Scott brokers a plan that will allow Power to turn himself in and serve five years, but Midland boss Donald Meek rigs things to get Power threatened with hanging, so Fonda, helped by a sympathetic Scott, breaks Power out. He and his wife (Nancy Kelly) live on the run, but after she has a child, she goes back to Liberty and is taken care of by Scott (I couldn't tell if their relationship went any deeper). Power decides to pull one last job and retire with Kelly, but when an amnesty is announced for any gang member who gets rid of Power, the film ends with Robert Ford's (John Carradine) infamous shot-in-the-back which kills Power. While certainly not historically accurate in making the James Gang into frontier Robin Hoods, this is lively and filled with a strong supporting cast, most notably Henry Hull as a hell-raising editor who is constantly burnishing Jesse's legend, in between writing editorials against whomever he's pissed off with at the time (lawyers, the railroad, dentists) which always include the phrase "Shoot 'em like dogs!" Power is fine, and beautifully, darkly handsome to boot; the camera just loves him here. Kelly has little chemistry with him, and Scott doesn't have much to do (it feels like his role shrunk in the editing). Fonda is OK, though spitting tobacco doesn't come naturally to him. Nicely directed in Technicolor by Fox warhorse Henry King.

Fonda takes center stage in the sequel, which is less involving and far less exciting, despite being directed by Fritz Lang. After Jesse's death, Fonda has been living under an assumed name with a loyal farmhand (Ernest Whitman) and the teenage son of a former gang member (Jackie Cooper). When Fonda hears that Carradine and his brother were pardoned for killing Power, he decides to exact his own revenge, beginning with robbing a railroad express office, but when Cooper trails after to help, things get botched up, a man dies, and the two go on the run. Fonda tells a would-be reporter from Denver (Gene Tierney) that he saw Frank James killed in a shootout, hoping that the news will bring the Ford brothers out in the open, and indeed Fonda finds them touring in a traveling show in which they stage the death of Jesse James. There's a chase and a shootout but Carradine gets away. When Fonda finds out that Whitman is about to be hung for the express office death, he gives himself up and goes on trial. Carradine makes the mistake of showing up for the verdict; Fonda is found innocent, but before he can make a move, Cooper shoots Carradine, who shoots him back, and they both wind up dead. Hull and Meek reprise their parts from the first film, and with Fonda not quite able to carry the movie, sometimes it feels like it's Hull's character (the editor) who is at the center of the film. Tierney, like Fonda, wasn't quite ready for a starring role, though she got much better by the time of LAURA, four years later; Cooper is fine but he doesn't get a lot of screen time. Carradine, as usual, is good at being slimy. This, like JESSE JAMES, is in color, but with a lack of action scenes and no one at the center with Power's charisma, it can't live up to the original. [FMC]

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


A fictionalized biography of the kind that the studios used to crank out regularly. This one has Cary Grant and Edward Arnold, so naturally it's entertaining, but it didn't stick to my ribs. Arnold, usually a supporting character actor, is the star here, playing Jim Fisk, a well known Wall Street player of the mid-19th century. The film starts in 1861, with Arnold as a scamming traveling salesman in the South with his buddies Cary Grant and Jack Oakie. When the Civil War breaks out, they're run out of town, but they start a lucrative business smuggling cotton from the South to the North; sadly, Oakie, their man in New York City, puts all the profits in Confederate bonds, so after the war, they're flat broke. Through more creative finagling, they start up a steamboat line with the unwilling help of infamous robber baron Daniel Drew (Donald Meek) and millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt (Clarence Kolb). The rest of the movie follows the interlocking relationships and changing fortunes of the men; usually when one is up, the others are down. There is a romantic subplot involving Frances Farmer, a maid who catches the eye of both Arnold and Grant; though she winds up with Arnold (who, in Charles Foster Kane fashion, tries to buy an acting career for her), Grant still holds a torch for her, and she for him. In the climax, Arnold single-handedly manipulates the stock market by artificially inflating gold prices, causing the historical Black Friday (September 24, 1869) when the federal government had to step in to save investors from losing everything and banks from failing. In the last scene, Fisk is shot to death by a disgruntled investor; in real life, he was indeed shot, but it happened three years later, and it was done by a lover of the Farmer character. The film moves along nicely, with much of it played in a light comic tone, especially by Oakie. Farmer has little to do, and Grant seems rather constrained as neither the lead nor the comic. [TCM]

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Though this rarely-seen British film falls short of classic status, it is a one-of-a-kind oddity which is very entertaining and well worth seeking out. Essentially, it's a re-tooling of Shakespeare's Othello in a jazz setting. The entire film takes place on a single set, the gorgeous multi-tiered loft apartment of rich jazz enthusiast Richard Attenborough, in almost real time, during a anniversary party being thrown for bandleader Paul Harris (the Othello character) and his wife Marti Stevens, who has given up her singing career at Harris's request. The two seem happy, but Harris's drummer, Patrick McGoohan (the Iago character), wants to break out in a band of his own and, by claiming he'll have Stevens as his singer, has gotten the promise of financial backing from Attenborough and career backing from a powerful agent. The problem is that Stevens doesn't really want to commit, so, assuming that she will commit if Harris is out the way, McGoohan spends the evening manipulating events so that Harris will think that Stevens is having an affair with Harris's good friend and road manager Keith Michell (Cass/Cassio). If you know Othello, you know what's coming, and half the fun is seeing how the predictable plot plays out--marijuana cigarettes and a strategically placed tape recorder are two crucial elements--though things don't end quite as tragically here as in Shakespeare.

The black and white film is beautifully shot (directed by Basil Dearden): the set is fabulous, creating a unique atmosphere in much the way that Rick's Cafe does in CASABLANCA, light and shadow are used very well, and the camera keeps moving, though not distractingly so. Jazz musicians Charlie Mingus, Dave Brubeck, and John Dankworth have cameo roles, and get a chance to play a couple of full numbers. Actingwise, McGoohan and Attenborough are excellent (and if McGoohan doesn't do his own drumming, he does a damn fine job of faking it), but the rest of the cast leaves something to be desired. Harris is mostly quiet and inscrutable, which is fine, but he never really engages the viewer. Likewise, Stevens, who sounds a lot like Marlene Dietrich (and according to IMDb was a Dietrich protege) doesn't have much appeal. Betsy Blair is OK as McGoohan's mousy wife (Emily/Emilia) who has little to do until the climax. The film aired on the Encore Love Stories channel, and I never would have thought to watch it except for a write-up in Tivoplex, a weekly online column at Boxoffice Prophets which alerts readers to interesting films coming up during the week on cable. It should have been letterboxed and wasn't (I'd watch the Encore channels a lot more if they did show widescreen movies in a widescreen format), but the shots are composed such that the trimming of the image didn't hurt too much. There is a region 2 DVD, but a region 1 disc would be most welcome and might help this film reach the wider audience it deserves.

Friday, November 02, 2007


Some critics say this was the closest that French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard got to making a mainstream movie. It is beautifully shot, in widescreen and Technicolor, stars the international sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, and has a fairly accessible story, about the making of a movie, but its style is quirky, and its characters and their motivations remain elusive throughout. A basic summary might make it sound rather fun: a writer (Michel Piccoli) is in the midst of deciding whether or not to work on the screenplay of a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey currently being shot by legendary director Fritz Lang (playing himself). However, the producer is an "ugly American" jackass (Jack Palance), and Piccoli's wife (Bardot) is unhappy with their relationship and begins a flirtation with Palance; she doesn't respect or even like Palance, but seems to be testing her husband, though what she ultimately wants remains unclear. None of this winds up being fun, but much of it is compelling and almost always lovely to watch. The narrative breaks up into thirds. The first part begins at a (bizarrely empty) film studio in Rome where dailies from the Odyssey movie are being screened, and sets up the characters and their conflicts. Lang is going for an arty approach, but Palance only seems happy with the shots of naked mermaids. Palance invites the group to meet at his villa, taking Bardot in his car--one of the best running "jokes," if you will, is that Palance only knows English and Bardot only French, so throughout their odd flirtation, neither quite knows what the other is saying.

Piccoli stands by passively, which seems to be what triggers the second part of the film, a long domestic argument between Piccoli and Bardot, set in their modern apartment, the subject matter of which is never clearly expressed. She holds him in contempt, maybe for deigning to waste his talent on the movie (he admits he really wants to write plays), maybe for not being more "possessive" of her around Palance. He slaps her and insists he's considering taking the job *for her, to get the money to pay off the recent refurnishing of their place. The final section is the aftermath, in which Piccoli decides not to take the job (with little dramatic result) and Bardot leaves him to go off with Palance (with a startling dramatic result that I won't spoil here; the ending seems like it must be loaded with meaning, but I suspect it means nothing at all in that French existential way). The pace of the movie is a bit off-putting, with the long, slow domestic argument stopping the movie dead, but the performances are all solid, though Palance is just a bit too over-the-top as the obnoxious producer/villain, supposedly modeled on Joseph E. Levine, one of the producers of CONTEMPT. There are lots and lots of movie references for fans, ranging from Nicholas Ray to PSYCHO to Dean Martin to Samuel Goldwyn's famous quote, "Include me out." I love Fritz Lang's line that Cinemascope is "only good for snakes and funerals," and Palance's "When I hear 'culture,' I reach for my checkbook." I quite enjoyed this, though I'm still not sure I'm going to search out any other Godard. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

THE BAT (1959)

"The Bat" was a Broadway hit in 1920, based on the 1908 novel "The Circular Staircase" by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It's been officially made into a movie three times, and has unofficially been an influence on any number of "old dark house" comedy-thrillers in which bad guys are trying to scare good guys away from a mansion for some nefarious purpose. Roland West's 1930 version, a remake of his own earlier silent version, was one of the first films shot in a widescreen process (65mm "Magnifilm"). The movie, which I reviewed once here back in 2002, and have re-watched, is very interesting visually but dramatically it bogs down rather quickly. The basic thrust of the plot as noted above (bad guy scaring good guys out of a house) is simple, but this film confuses the issue with two separate narratives that always seem a bit out of sync with each other.

First we see a visually breathtaking sequence in which master criminal The Bat steals a valuable necklace from a well-guarded safe. He then announces he's going to the country for a rest. Then, in another remarkable looking scene, we see a bank robbery which is being witnessed from above by the Bat, though he doesn't actually take part in it. In plot thread #3, a rich lady (Grayce Hampton), her nervous maid (Maude Eburne), and lovely niece (Una Merkel), have rented a large and supposedly haunted house in the country from banker Fleming, whose bank we saw robbed. It's the house that ties the other plots together: the bank crooks have hidden their stash in a secret room in the mansion, and the Bat infiltrates the household in order to get his hands on it. So actually there are at least two different people trying to get Hampton and friends out of the house, but on the stormy night on which the rest of the movie takes place (in almost real time), the mansion winds up hosting quite a crowd, including Merkel's boyfriend, a banker who has been accused of stealing the money; a possibly sinister doctor, well played by Gustav von Seyffertitz ; an inept private investigator; a slick if intense police inspector (top-billed Chester Morris); along with the son of the banker, a caretaker, a butler, and a couple of other cops. There are secret passages, creepy shadows, and a spooky bat costume (which was an influence on Bob Kane's original conception of Batman), as well as good use of a speedily moving camera, a few nifty overhead shots, and nice miniature sets. Unfortunately, most of the dialogue scenes get bogged down because the camera stops and shoots everything in medium shot with very few close-ups (which, along with murkily-lit sets, made it occasionally difficult for me to tell some actors apart). I found the mix of thrills and humor to be awkward, with Eburne's comic-relief maid especially irritating. Nevertheless, it is worth sitting through, as the climax, which involves a fire and a bear trap, is pulled off nicely, and there's a cute "don't give away the surprises" epilogue, which happens in front of a theater curtain, highlighting the staginess of much of the film. Actually, the film's main liability may be its total lack of background music, not unusual for the era. [VHS]

The 1959 remake, a B-production from start to end, does at least streamline the narrative, dispensing with the initial necklace robbery, though keeping the two separate bad guys who are still after loot hidden in a secret room in a mansion. Agnes Moorehead is the rich lady, here a famous mystery writer, Lenita Lane is a somewhat less irritating maid, Gavin Gordon is the police inspector, and Vincent Price is the doctor. As in the earlier film, The Bat's identity isn't given away until the end, but in this version, the identity of the other villain and the backstory to the bank robbery are both made clear from the get-go, which helps narrative coherence. The action takes place over the period of several days rather than one incredibly eventful night, and is framed as the after-the-fact writing-up of the story by Moorehead, perhaps for publication as her next bestseller. Except for one brief shot of the house which is clearly a miniature and possibly done in homage to the earlier film, this one lacks any real atmosphere. The sets are all a little bit overlit, so the place rarely feels like very dark (or even old). It helps to think of this film as a play shot for television, even though it was a theatrical movie. Price is fine, though this is one of his rare films in which he doesn't survive to the end. Surprisingly, Moorehead is disappointing here; she is often taken to task for chewing the scenery, but for my taste, she doesn't chew enough here--it seems like she felt this was beneath her, and her tone is wobbly throughout, with a couple of flubbed lines left in. Neither of these is a great movie, and the biggest problem for viewers today may be that the set-up has been overused. However, you could do worse, and either version could make for a decent Halloween movie night choice. [DVD]

Monday, October 29, 2007


U.S. government agent John Archer, his valet (Mantan Moreland), and his pilot (Dick Purcell), who are looking for a missing American admiral, are forced to crash land in a jungle on a Caribbean island. They are taken in by a Viennese doctor (Henry Victor) who tells them he has no radio and that they'll have to hang around a few days to catch a boat. The household is a strange one: Victor's wife (Patricia Stacey) is in some kind of mysterious trance state, his cook (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) is a voodoo practitioner, his butler Momba (Leigh Whipper) is a rather creepy fellow, and his flirtatious maid (Marguerite Whitten) convinces Moreland that the island is crawling with zombies. Victor and his niece (Joan Woodbury) are trying to bring Stacey out of her own zombie-like state; we discover later that she was the unfortunate victim of a "soul transmigration" ritual. We also discover that Victor is a Nazi spy (not a big surprise given his heavy accent and evil look) who has the missing admiral in his torture chamber. A "ghost lady" pops in and out of a room, two of our heroes get temporarily zombified, and another transmigration experiment is attempted before things get straightened out.

It's amazing how much a good, clean print can do for a Poverty Row B-film, and the print of this Monogram film shown on TCM is excellent. No one will mistake this for a classic, but once you realize that, despite the creepy sounding plot summary above, this is really an "old dark house" comedy along the lines of Bob Hope's GHOST BREAKERS, it's rather entertaining. Moreland, one the foremost black comic actors of the era, does a variation on the usual "scared underling" role he was stuck in, but here, despite getting third billing, he is basically the star and he is mostly very funny. Victor, the wicked strongman in FREAKS, is good in a role intended for Bela Lugosi. The rest of the actors are adequate to the occasion, except for Whitten who, despite being alluring, gives a very wooden performance, though she does get the funniest line: when Moreland scarfs down several pieces of pie, she calls him the "most pious man I ever met." John Archer is the father of Anne Archer. Oddly, this film actually got an Oscar nomination for its score, which, while marginally better than the usual B-movie score, is hardly memorable. [TCM]

Sunday, October 28, 2007


This was the first film based on Richard Matheson's classic apocalyptic sf novel "I Am Legend," but not the last; it was remade as THE OMEGA MAN in the 70's with Charlton Heston, and a third version starring Will Smith is due out at the end of this year. It was also, I imagine, a direct influence on George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and therefore almost every zombie movie that came after. The '07 version will undoubtedly be superior to this low-budget, black and white film in terms of special effects, but this is still worth seeing. There's a nice opening sequence of stark, deserted cityscapes (shot in and around Rome) before we meet Vincent Price, waking up alone to trudge through another day, hanging garlic and mirrors around his dilapidated house, then roaming the neighborhood, collecting dead bodies to burn. We learn through flashbacks that a plague of unknown origin (perhaps natural, though there is a hint that it could have been something man-made that got out of control) has swept through the world, killing people off and bringing them back as vampires who roam at night and are inactive in the day. Price, a scientist who was working on a cure, seems to have acquired a natural immunity to the plague and is, as far as he knows, the only non-undead human left on the planet. At night, alone in his house, he is surrounded by the vampires banging on his doors and windows, though so far he has been successful in keeping them out. One day, while out collecting corpses, he meets up with a woman who is one of a slowly growing group of infected people who have been able to stop the plague's progress even though they remain infected, and Price has become a legendary (hence the book's title) vampire fighter in their eyes, but not necessarily in a good way, since he's responsible for killing off several of their number. The last confrontation is grim, but there is an inkling of hope held out in the final moments. This film isn't particularly gory, but the images of scattered dead bodies on the roads and shots of grasping hands ripping through doors and windows are still a bit unsettling. There is an especially creepy scene of Price dumping bodies into a flaming pit at night. At times, I was reminded (visually and thematically) of recent films such as 28 DAYS LATER, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and CHILDREN OF MEN. Price is low-key and effective, though the score is infuriatingly loud and overripe. The film is in the public domain, and should be letterboxed, so beware shoddy DVD prints; the MGM release in the Midnite Movies series is apparently the best print out there. [TCM]

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Dr. Mazali, head of a small, isolated insane asylum, and his friend Dr. Almada make a pact that whoever dies first will come back with news of the afterlife. Almada goes first, then materializes during a seance with a somewhat cryptic message for Mazali, who wants to somehow experience death without actually dying, that he will come back in three months and open the door to the beyond. Then Almada's ghost appears to his daughter Patricia, whom he had never met, tells her that a locket she's had all her life has a key in it, and that she should visit Dr. M. to learn more about her background. She arrives at the same time as Eduardo, Mazali's handsome new intern, and an attraction develops. In what seems like an unrelated plot thread, Dr. M decides that a violent female patient can be calmed down and taken out of restraints when a music box is played for her; unfortunately, when the music stops, she goes batshit again, and tosses acid in the face of an orderly. Later the scarred-for-life orderly kills her, but the police think Dr. M is responsible. I followed everything up to here, but in the end things get a little complicated. Suffice to say that there are a couple more deaths, some apparent "soul transference," and a very creepy scene of a corpse digging its way out of the ground. Despite the rather baroque plot twists, this is at heart a traditional warning story about tampering in God's domain. The whole thing is taken very seriously by all (no camp, no Hammer or AIP flourishes of overacting or supervelvet costuming), and the film has a dark tone, creepy atmosphere, and mostly solid performances. I hear that Casa Negra, the company which has been issuing Mexican horror films on DVD (in mostly spectacular prints), has gone under, which is a shame. This is definitely worth at least a rental. [DVD]

Thursday, October 25, 2007


After I rented CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN from Netflix, this one popped up as a recommendation; it's another little gem from the golden era of Mexican horror. Elena and Eduardo live in a creepy old house with Elena's godmother, Sara, who is also their housekeeper and a practicing witch. As in a fairy tale, the witch's mirror foretells the death of Elena at the hands of her husband, who is in love with another woman. When Sara prays to her Dark Lord, she is told that she cannot prevent the death, and sure enough, Eduardo poisons Sara's milk and she dies. Eduardo marries Deborah (Rosita Arenas) and brings her home to discover that the house is haunted by Elena's ghost. When Eduardo sees Elena in the witch's mirror, he throws a lantern at it, which smashes the mirror but also causes a fire which disfigures Deborah and leads to an "Eyes Without a Face" twist: with Deborah wrapped in bandages, Eduardo steals corpses to use skin and body parts to restore Deborah's looks. There are some grisly goings-on with a pair of severed hands, and there's a nifty plot device of the witch being able to see through the eyes of an owl which just happens to be in an operating room (not very sanitary, I would think). By the end, the plot loses coherence, or to put it a nicer way, I guess you could say that a dream-like logic takes over; my plot notations concerning the end are rather vague. This is another low-budget horror film that gets by on atmosphere. The acting is about par for the course; the only cast member I've heard of is Rosita Arenas, who played another put-upon bride in CRYING WOMAN. There are some striking shots now and then, and the print from Casa Negra is in pretty good shape. A good October evening's entertainment. [DVD]

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


This much-maligned horror flick is famous among B-film aficionados for a few reasons: 1) it was filmed mostly because Boris Karloff owed director Roger Corman a few more days of work after finishing up THE RAVEN; 2) scenes from it are used during the drive-in shoot-up climax of Peter Bogdanovich's TARGETS; 3) it has an incoherent plot. All things considered, however, it isn't bad. It's true that not everything about the narrative adds up, but as in many B-films, the atmosphere helps make up for a lot of other weaknesses. In 1802 (or 1806, depending on which reference you catch), a soldier (Jack Nicholson) who has strayed from his regiment collapses on a rocky beach and is helped by a mysterious woman named Helene (Sandra Knight). They frolic a bit until she vanishes in the raging surf and a large bird attacks Nicholson (at first, I thought she had turned into the bird, but I think I'm wrong about that, even though we learn later that the bird is also named Helene--you see how point #3 above came about). He is tended to by an old woman (Dorothy Neumann), the owner of the bird and something of a witch figure who herself is tended to by the mute servant Gustav (Jonathan Haze)--but he's not really so mute; it turns out he can whisper, which is how some important plot points get communicated. Nicholson runs into the girl again that night and just as she's about to lead him into a quicksand pit, Haze pops up to save him. He whispers gruffly to Nicholson that Knight is possessed, lives in a nearby castle, and needs Nicholson's help.

The next day, Nicholson goes to the castle to ask for lodgings and is greeted by Karloff, who has a portrait on his wall of his late wife Ilsa, who looks just like Knight. Karloff admits that he killed her twenty years ago when he caught her with another man. I'm not sure it's worth recounting the rest of the plot in detail, as all the major elements are in place at this point, and narrative consistency is not this film's strong suit. At any rate, the whole thing resembles something out of Poe, specifically "Fall of the House of Usher," even including a final destruction scene, by flood rather than earthquake. One character is struck by lightning, one is not who he seems to be (or thinks he is), and, in the great final shot, one turns into a bloody, goopy mess. Karloff is fine in his somewhat limited role, disappearing for large chunks of time, which leaves Nicholson to carry the movie; he's OK but he's not the Jack we all know and love. Dick Miller, a Corman regular (see BUCKET OF BLOOD), is present as Karloff's servant. As I noted earlier, the mood is nicely established and the colors, even on the public domain print I saw, are rich, especially the electric blues which saturate many of the scenes. Despite its reputation, this makes an OK choice for Chiller Theater night.

I saw this print on a DVD from Alpha whose main attraction was listed as TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, a half-hour 1958 British TV pilot which was never picked up as a series. I'd read about this show many years ago in Famous Monsters and was glad to finally see it. Its production values are on a par with Dark Shadows, but the acting and writing are solid. Anton Diffring is Dr. Frankenstein, whom we first see sending his servants out of his castle one rainy night as he attempts to bring his monster (Don McGowan) to electric life. Alas, the monster attacks the doc and has to be subdued. Assuming the problem is that the beast has the brain of a dead killer, Diffring decides to find a normal brain. Enter a dying man (Richard Bull) whose wife (Helen Westcott) has brought him to the village to seek help from the doctor. Instead, the doctor decides to help himself to Bull's brain, putting it in the monster's head, leading to the usual consequences. The narrative appropriates elements from the Universal FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and in the opening, there's a shot of the vampire brides from the original Lugosi DRACULA. Diffring is good, though the gist of the series seems to have been to tell a new story each week of Dr. Frankenstein's experiments, so that might have gotten a bit old. Worth seeing as a novelty. [DVD]

Saturday, October 20, 2007


This remarkable thriller, set in the early 1900's, begins with a panning shot down a London street and into a second-floor shop window where we see an antiques dealer knifed to death by the hulking Laird Cregar, who then sets fire to the room and leaves. As he walks down the street, he calms down and we soon realize that he has committed this act during a mental blackout; when he is especially tense and/or angry, discordant sounds trigger the blackout and when he returns to "normal" he has no recollection of what he has done, except for a nagging awareness that he has lost time. Cregar is a rather tightly-wound composer working on a concerto; Faye Marlow, his lovely friend (not quite girlfriend), has gotten her father, Alan Napier, a famous conductor, interested in his work and Napier promises that if the finished product lives up to its potential, he'll premiere the piece himself. When Cregar realizes that he came out of his blackout near the scene of the murder, he goes to Scotland Yard inspector George Sanders for help. Because the physical evidence is inconclusive, Sanders clears Cregar but keeps an eye on him, especially when Sanders himself gets interested in Marlow. While visiting a tavern, Cregar falls for Linda Darnell, a lovely but somewhat slatternly singer. He agrees to write some songs for her and he does indeed help her in her career, but at the expense of his own work on his concerto. When Marlow criticizes Cregar for wasting his talents, he suffers another blackout and tries to kill her, but is unsuccessful, though she is unaware that he was her attacker. Later, Cregar proposes to Darnell and she sneeringly turns him down; one blackout later, he hunts her down, strangles her, and disposes of the body on a large Guy Fawkes Day bonfire. As Cregar finishes his concerto, Sanders starts putting two and two together and he goes to bring Cregar in on the night he's to play his concerto. The climax occurs in the concert hall, with Cregar going mad as he plays his music to a packed house, with Sanders and police waiting at the exits.

This film is newly available on DVD in the Fox Horror Classics set, which contains three films directed by John Brahm including the better-known Jack the Ripper-thriller THE LODGER, also with Cregar. I'd seen this movie years ago, taped off cable, but the DVD print is a revelation: though it still has a bit of damage present, it is crisp and dark, unlike the muddy, grayish TV print, and sounds quite good, a added bonus in a movie in which music, written by Bernard Herrmann, plays a large role--the final concerto is actually a grand piece of music. Cregar, who died at the age of 28 not long after this film wrapped (of complications from abdominal surgery done in order to lose weight), is excellent here; occasionally his cultured voice reminded me of Vincent Price, but Price didn't have the imposing size needed for the role. The other actors, including Glenn Langan as Darnell's fiance and Michael Dyne as her pianist, are not particularly memorable, and even Sanders fades into the background whenever he shares a scene with Cregar. Brahm makes the movie a treat for the eyes: the camera moves a lot, but not ostentatiously so; each blackout scene is shot well, and the final scene [SPOILER] with Cregar playing the climax of his piece as the concert hall burns down around him, is spectacular, one of the most satisfying endings to any classic-era horror film. And speaking of horror, though this is usually described as a horror film, it's really more a rudimentary psychological thriller, though practically no attempt made at explaining Cregar's state of mind or background. In any case, this is a movie that classic movie (horror and otherwise) buffs should see. [DVD]

Friday, October 19, 2007


Though released by Columbia Pictures, this begins like a classic-era Universal horror film, with a foggy graveyard meeting in 1919 between a werewolf (Matt Willis) and a vampire (Bela Lugosi, though we never see his face in this opening sequence). Lugosi has been feeding on the young daughter of Dr. Gilbert Emery, head of a sanitarium. He and colleague Frieda Inescort read an article by long-dead occult expert Armand Tesla about vampirism and know what they have to do. They find Lugosi's grave and drive a long metal stake through his heart. This kills him and frees the werewolf from his curse. Inescort takes Willis under her wing and makes him a trusted assistant. We flash ahead to the present day, during WWII; Inescort is now in charge of the asylum and her son is soon to be married to Emery's grown daughter (Nina Foch). During a German air raid, Lugosi's body is unearthed and two comic-relief air raid workers find him and pull the stake out, bringing Lugosi back to life. Surprise! The vampire is actually Armand Tesla, who calls Willis back under his command and, taking the identity of a visiting professor, ingratiates himself with Inescort, the better to get access to Foch. When it becomes clear that a vampire is back at work, Inescort gets Scotland Yard inspector Miles Mander to help her flush him out.

This is essentially an unofficial sequel to Lugosi's 1931 DRACULA. Lugosi looks the same, sounds the same, wears the same outfit, has an underling in his mystical control, and once again haunts the grounds of a London sanitarium biting the neck of a lovely young woman who is soon to be wed. Though there is nothing here as wonderfully creepy as DRACULA's first 15 minutes, there are some nicely atmospheric touches, mostly having to do with omnipresent fog. Inescort makes an interesting Van Helsing character, and Foch is good, though her husband-to-be (Roland Varno) barely makes an impression at all. I like that Willis's Renfield character is a werewolf, but little is done with that idea; in fact, the sight of the wolfman always fully dressed makes for an unintentionally funny moment or two. Similarly, the wartime setting works nicely for Lugosi's unearthing, but not much else is done with it. The movie is not exactly a classic, but it's a must-see for vampire movie fans, and it's also notable as one of Lugosi's last big-studio movies. [TCM]

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Autumn Russell returns to her African homestead after ten years away to visit her grandmother (Marjorie Eaton). Before she even gets to her house (which looks more like a rundown Southern plantation than an Africa manor), her driver hits a man in the road and drives away, not stopping to help; he believes he hit an undead zombie, and Russell is upset that such beliefs are still held amongst the villagers. At the same time, a trashy group of folks arrive at the coastal property to go diving for a 60-year-old sunken treasure chest full of diamonds. The leader of the pack is jackass businessman Joel Ashley; his slutty wife (Allison Hayes) is along for the ride, as is studly diver Gregg Palmer, whom Hayes smooches up right in front of her husband. Old lady Eaton (think Aunt Eller in OKLAHOMA!) isn't too perturbed by these unwanted visitors; she's even good enough to show them the graves of the various treasure-hunting parties which have arrived over the years and always not only failed to get the diamonds, but wound up dead to the last man. Eaton believes that the members of the original crew, from 60 years ago, have become zombies who protect the treasure. Sure enough, zombies begin attacking the newbies, both underwater and above ground. It seems that the zombies can also turn their victims into zombies, as they do with Hayes. The only thing that stops them is fire, which is of course difficult to produce underwater, though thanks to the resourceful Palmer, not impossible. The bad people get their comeuppance, Palmer gets Russell, and the old lady gets to give the zombies a little rest.

Who knew that John Carpenter's THE FOG was basically a remake of this little-seen, low-budget horror flick? I guess that's overstating the case a bit, but the premise of Carpenter's film is similar. The sets here are cheap and the direction unimaginative, but for the most part, the actors throw themselves into their parts with relish, especially Hayes (the cult star of ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN), Palmer (a grade-B Rock Hudson), and Eaton. Two scenes in particular are pulled off nicely: a genuinely creepy moment in a mausoleum hidden in the woods where a dozen of the zombies rise up out of their coffins, and later when the zombiefied Hayes is surrounded by a ring of candles. The underwater scenes don't seem to have been actually shot under any water at all, but what the hell, they're still fun to watch. I liked this one more than I expected to. [TCM]

Monday, October 15, 2007


Like HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, this is a movie that I first "experienced" by way of a photo comic book which used movie stills with dialogue balloons. When I finally got around to seeing HORROR, I enjoyed it more than the comic. I can't say the same about this one, although it does have its (campy) pleasures, among which is the amusing opening, as Dr. Frank Baxter, a professor of English at USC, gives us a short, eccentric lecture about Hollow Earth theories over the centuries, even namechecking Gilgamesh in the process. Then we follow the adventures of a group of archeologists, including the beefy and sometimes obnoxious John Agar, the father-figure-ish Hugh Beaumont, and the fade-into-the-background Nestor Paiva. They are camped out somewhere in Asia (as a title card tells us) digging in the mountains. After an earthquake, they discover an oil lamp inscribed with a Sumerian version of the Noah's Ark story. We endure several minutes of rock climbing (shades of MST3K) before the men find some temple ruins. Paiva falls through a crevice into the apparently hollow mountain and when Agar and Beaumont go to rescue him, they all wind up trapped in a huge underground city inhabited by a race of remnant Sumerians who have mostly turned albino from lack of exposure to the sun. In a plot point out of H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine," it turns out that there are other survivors who have evolved (or devolved) into brutish Morlock-type creatures, the Mole People of the title, who live underground and do the Sumerians' dirty work. Because the scientists have a flashlight, the King of the albinos thinks they are gods, but the wily high priest (Alan Napier, Alfred on TV’s "Batman") thinks differently. Agar develops the hots for a non-Albino Sumerian woman (Cynthia Patrick, looking like she spends a lot of time in an above-ground beauty salon), and there's some torturing of the mole people, a human sacrifice ritual, and a last twist right out of "Lost Horizon." The background matte paintings look nice but the sets are fairly cheap. Agar is supposed to be the hero, but he's irritating, and frankly it's hard to care much about the fate of anyone, even the abused Mole People, who are basically background characters in the movie named after them. The premise is fun, but the short movie runs out of steam before the climax. [DVD]

Friday, October 12, 2007


A ludicrous title for a rather ho-hum horror film based loosely on the H. P. Lovecraft story, "The Colour Out of Space" (among other liberties, it moves Lovecraft's New England town of Arkham to England), though it works better if you imagine that it's a Poe movie. American Nick Adams has arrived to visit the Witleys, particularly the lovely young daughter (Suzan Farmer) whom he knew in college. Their property is a blasted landscape right out of Poe's "Usher" (though, to be fair, it's also described as a "blasted heath" in the original story) and the villagers shun the family. It turns out that Adams was sent for by Farmer's mother (Freda Jackson) who has become a virtual recluse due to some unknown illness; she wants Adams to take Farmer away, but her father (Boris Karloff) resents his interference. Adams and Farmer discover a greenhouse with mutant vegetation and animals caused by a glowing green meteorite which Karloff has locked up in the cellar. He believes it came from the sky as a "gift" from his devil-worshipping ancestor, but he willfully ignores the damage the rock is doing to his land, his wife, and his butler, who drops dead during dinner one night. There is an Usher-like apocalyptic climax with a burning house and Karloff gone nuts, transformed by the meteorite into a glowing, shiny-headed, putrefying monster, I suppose the very one that the title of the film wishes were dead. The cinematography (especially the use of widescreen) and color design are a bit artier than in the typical American International Poe film of the era, but little else here kept my attention. Karloff, confined to a wheelchair for most of the film, is fine; the blunt talking Adams is a nice change of pace from the usual bland hero. There are plot loopholes galore, as though the writers just gave up halfway through. One character, Helga the maid, is set up as a meteorite-poisoned madwoman who roams around the grounds, but she vanishes from the story with no explanation. Jackson's scarred features are hidden for most of the movie, but when we see them, the make-up is a big letdown. The mutant animals, in what Adams calls a "zoo from Hell," are a low-budget disappointment. Only Karloff's last transformation is at all effective (and I doubt that it's actually Karloff beneath the mask). Lovecraft fans are thrown a bone when Adams finds a book on the "Cult of the Outer Ones," though that just becomes another plot thread that leads nowhere. [DVD]