Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I've been very much enjoying the little-known and rarely seen B-films from Columbia that TCM has been showing recently, but this one tried my patience. Perhaps because it had such a promising beginning, atmosphere to burn, and an interesting central plot device, its eventual downturn into tedious contrivance and too much talkiness bothered me more than it should have. It does begin quite well, with Nina Foch walking on what looks like a San Francisco bridge at midnight in billowing fog. She looks disoriented and a cop who approaches her suspects that she's thinking of jumping, but she assures him she's not. Still, she doesn't seem to be sure what she's doing until she sees a man getting out of a cab, attacked by two other men, one with a knife. She screams, the attackers run, and suddenly, she wakes up in her room at the Rustic Dell Inn. Two men burst in to see if she needs help, and one, William Wright, is the man she saw being attacked. Foch and Wright, both involved in war work and both on employer-ordered vacations, hit it off; when he's called to San Francisco, he asks her to come along. However, he gets orders from his boss (Otto Kruger) to take a top-secret packet to Hong Kong, so they have to cut their tentative courtship short. German spy Konstantin Shayne overhears enough of their conversation to set a trap for Wright. Sure enough, he winds up in a cab with Shayne and another thug, and sure enough, Foch winds up on the foggy bridge just in time to scream and stop Shayne from killing Wright. At this exciting point, we're barely halfway through the movie, but it's all downhill from here. Wright and Foch go looking for the packet, which got tossed off the bridge into either the Bay or onto a ship that may have passed under them, Shayne and his spies come after them, Kruger has to deny knowing Wright, and so on to fill out the last half hour. The locked room climax, with Wright and Foch tied up in a room filling with gas, does have a fairly ingenious solution, but getting there, the plot fills up with ridiculously contrived situations to get all the characters in the various places they need to be. Wright is a handsome and reasonably effective leading man, but he would remain a supporting player in B-movies until his untimely death 4 years later from cancer. Foch, later nominated for an Oscar, is at sea here, possibly because of the wishy-washy script. None of the supporting players register, though Shelly Winters has a very brief bit as a taxi driver. It's interesting that the dream premonition is never explained away. If this one airs again, catch the first half, then nap during the rest. [TCM]

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Richard Boone is a local businessman who is reluctantly about to take his turn as the manager of the local cemetery, a largely ceremonial post, he is assured, which will just take a few hours of his time a month. Theodore Bikel, the old Scottish caretaker (yes, you will immediately think of Groundskeeper Willie!), is about to be forced into retirement, though even with a pension, he doesn't want to leave. He shows Boone a wall map of the cemetery on which white pins designate a plot reserved for someone, and black pins designate a plot with a buried body. A newly married couple show up to buy their plots, but Boone accidentally sticks black pins in the map instead of white pins, and the next day, he hears that the couple were killed in a car accident. Struck by the eerie coincidence, he randomly sticks a black pin in a plot reserved for a Mr. Isham, and soon we see Isham die, apparently of a heart attack. A distraught Boone tells friends, police, and his fiancee (Peggy Maurer) about his weird power over life and death. They encourage him to continue experimenting with the pins in an attempt to show him that he's just imagining things, and a trio of prominent local men, including his own uncle, offer themselves as guinea pigs; when Boone uses black pins in their plots, all three indeed wind up dead. Cooped up alone in the cemetery office, a nearly suicidal Boone wonders what will happen if he takes out the black pins of the recently dead and replaces them with white pins. Sure enough when he does, we see the plots dug open, empty inside. The resolution is predictable, though the "how" aspect is not well explained.

As you can tell by five minutes in, this is Twilight Zone material, and would have worked better as a half-hour show instead of a 76-minute movie. Boone is fairly good, especially when he starts to go a bit nuts. Bikel, an Austrian who was only in his mid-30s, cannot pass for an old Scottish man; his accent is outrageously thick, as is his old-age makeup and his acting. He seemed so fake that I was sure that the character would wind up being someone disguising himself as an old Scottish caretaker, but I was wrong. The plot has intimations of the supernatural, and for a brief moment, you think that you'll get to see some of the undead stalking around the badly-done day-for-night graveyard, but no such luck. What the movie does have in spades is atmosphere; as other viewers have pointed out, this looks more like a film noir than a horror movie, and as in a Twilight Zone show, most of it occurs on just one or two sets. The wall map of the cemetery looks a little weird from the beginning, with the white pins looking practically phosphorescent in the dim lighting. As Boone starts to unravel, the map, seen from his point of view, appears larger and larger until it takes up the entire wall, dwarfing Boone (not a small man). There are other subjective shots of clocks and pins and gravestones that are nicely done. Still, I got restless several times during the middle of the film, so I can't give this a full recommendation. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Even though doctor movies have been part of Hollywood's output since at least the onset of sound, this one, helped along by the popularity of TV dramas like "Ben Casey," probably started the fad for medical soap operas--both "The Doctors" and "General Hospital" started their TV runs the year after this film came out, and this film itself was spun off into a sequel in '64 and a one-season hour-long TV drama in 1970. The movie follows a group of handsome young male interns (and the nurses they chase) through their first year at New North Hospital; to be fair, there *is* one female intern (Haya Harareet), thrown in almost as an afterthought to provide a feminist viewpoint to antagonize a chauvinist pig doctor. James MacArthur (Dan-O on "Hawaii 5-0") is the quiet, sensitive type who is set up with a nurse (Stefanie Powers) whom all the docs assume is loose because she sports a hickey on her neck, but it turns out that the mark came from a child she was watching in the hospital nursery. She's really a nice girl, but conflict arises when she decides she wants to see the world and he wants to settle down. Nick Adams is a loudmouth joker who is tamed when he falls for a terminally ill patient from a poverty-stricken island in Indonesia. Cliff Robertson strikes up a relationship with a fashion model (Suzy Parker); when she asks him for help to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy (this was back when abortions were illegal), he steals the drugs from the nurses' station, an action which proves disastrous to his career. Michael Callan is a high-strung ball of fire who, despite having a long-time high society girlfriend, begins a flirtation with an older nurse as a way of getting an "in" to study with a doctor he admires.

Much of the narrative takes place between Christmas and New Year's, and a big holiday bash at a nurse's apartment is really the centerpiece of the film; its comic highlight is when a Russian nurse (Carroll Harrison) who is typically demure and inhibited comes alive with a few drinks in her and does a striptease, egged on by all. The main medical sideplot involves an older man dying slowly from a disease which will eventually paralyze him while his mind remains intact. His wife becomes a regular visitor among the interns and his situation is the trigger for a discussion of mercy killing; sure enough, he is eventually found dead of poisoning and the interns who were privy to his case are suspended from consideration for residencies until the case is solved. This causes tensions to run high and gives Callan a showy scene in which he has a public breakdown. Often, the movie has a beach party feel, despite the absence of bikinis or an ocean. The acting is all fine, with Callan and Adams standouts. Telly Savalas is the pig doc who almost causes Harareet to throw in the towel and leave the profession; Buddy Ebsen, John Banner (Sgt. Schultz on "Hogan's Heroes"), and Connie Gilchrist are featured, and in a very small role, you may recognize Mary Grace Canfield, who played Ralph the carpenter in "Green Acres." Watchable, if undeniably a dated period piece by now. [TCM]

Sunday, August 19, 2007


This was made before America entered WWII, but while the studios were churning out lots of propagandistic military stories in anticipation of our involvement in the war. Even in 1940, this story of buddies who wind up rivals for the same girl must have seemed awfully cliched, and unfortunately, the B-aspects of the production don’t allow anything about this version to stand out. The leading men, both a bit past their prime, are Richard Dix and Chester Morris. An opening crawl tells us that the story is set in the past, when foreign countries often looked to American armed forces to help shore up law and order in the face of revolution and lawlessness. Dix is a Marine in an unnamed Central American country, part of a force trying to root out a shadowy revolutionary bandit, El Vengador, who, with his band of men, has just pulled off a raid on a cocoa plantation owned by Lucille Ball. Morris is a lieutenant who has just arrived in the country and is bunking with Dix. The two get along well until Ball comes between them. She has been dating Dix, so Morris' initial flirtation falls flat, but after an old flame of Dix's (Steffi Duna) arrives in the area, Ball decides to give Morris a whirl. The romance and adventure plotlines come together rather predictably, though the climactic battle, with a band of Marines trapped in a small town by the bandits, is quite exciting. I especially like the way that Dix, buzzing the area in a plane, gets messages back and forth to the men on the ground, with notes wrapped around wrenches that are delivered ingeniously. In the supporting cast are John Eldredge as Ball's foreman (and given his sinister looks from the get-go, it's not a spoiler to say that he's not what he seems), Dick Hogan and Horace McMahon as Marine buddies, and Kirby Grant (later Sky King on TV) as a lieutenant. Ball is, as usual in this stage of her career, a bit too low-key to be effective (see YOU CAN’T FOOL YOUR WIFE, a B-comedy made the same year); Morris and Hogan come off best, with Dix too old and sluggish to be believable as a man who is romantically entangled with two young women. [TCM]

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Steve McQueen was a dashing anti-hero leading man of the 60's who to this day epitomizes the essence of "cool." I've only seen a couple of his films (the "cool" GREAT ESCAPE and the much later, deliberately "uncool" ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE) so I decided to rent this one which was recently released as part of a boxed DVD set. The story is basically warmed-over Tennessee Williams, set in windy Texas grasslands instead of steamy New Orleans neighborhoods. Lee Remick is a woman with a young daughter taking a bus trip to Columbus, Texas. She's hoping to settle there and wait for her husband (McQueen) who has been in jail since before their daughter was born. She's befriended by a local cop (Don Murray) who helps her get a job and to rent a small house. Remick is surprised to discover that McQueen has been free on parole for some time and didn't send for her. The reason is another woman, not a mistress, but his foster mother, the nasty Miss Kate, who abused him when he was young and now insists that he go to night school instead of singing and playing guitar in a rockabilly "string band," which is what he wants to do, and what he thinks will lead to fame and success. Miss Kate, an invalid whom we only glimpse briefly near the end of the film, threatens to have him jailed in violation of his parole if he doesn't follow her wishes. McQueen is glad to see his family but is still trying to hash out his future and, as one can predict from early on, he makes mostly wrong choices (involving drinking, violence, and dealing with Miss Kate) leading to a sad (though not tragic) ending.

McQueen is good as a man who, thanks to an ultra-masculine exterior, seems strong, but who is actually a wounded neurotic with lots of demons swirling around inside him. Creepy harpsichord music plays in scenes which evoke memories of McQueen's past. I think Miss Kate's house looks a little like Mother Bates' home in PSYCHO, and that may be intentional--though McQueen's not a killer (and probably not a cross-dresser). Murray is very good as an example of the other side of the masculine stereotype: if McQueen is a rowdy and restless misfit, Murray is a quiet, sturdy, settled type (he was much more like McQueen in his debut film role in BUS STOP). I was rooting for Murray to sweep Remick off her feet, but this isn't that kind of movie. Things drag a bit in the middle, but the climactic action, triggered by the death of Miss Kate, is compelling, and a scene toward the end of McQueen running desperately after a speeding truck in a last stab at escape (from his past, from the law, from his obligations) is quite effective. The stark black and white cinematography sets the mood nicely. Remick was always an underrated actor and she's especially fine here. One thing that doesn't work is McQueen's singing; he is obviously lip-synching to someone else's voice, and he does a bad job of it. To make it worse, the director, Robert Mulligan, shoots his songs in close-up which just accentuates the artifice. This is not exactly the "cool" McQueen on display in this film, but he generally does a fine job and this is worth seeing. (IMDb says Glen Campbell plays a band member). The title song is catchy little number. [DVD]

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Pilot "Tailspin" Tommy Tompkins (John Trent) has founded a boy's club, the Scouts of the Air, with the intention of 1) keeping kids out of trouble, 2) getting kids interested in aviation, so that 3) they might become fliers when their country needs them (approximately two years hence, as it will turn out). Tommy befriends tough kid Whitey (Tommy Baker), an orphan whose older brother Mike (Dennis Moore) is a small-time thug and part of a fairly inept gang led by Dawson (Julius Tannen). When the gang tries but fails to hijack Brown's payroll delivery being made by car, Brown hires Tommy to fly the money out. However, in the middle of a bad storm, Tommy is asked instead to fly needed medical supplies to some dam workers. He does, using his only parachute to get the supplies to the ground, then crash lands. Just as searchers, including Tommy's buddy Skeeter (Milburn Stone), are ready to give up, Whitey and his fellow Scouts discover him and save the day. Whitey's heroic deed makes headlines and brother Mike plays on his ego to get him to help in a new scheme to get the ever-elusive payroll, involving a model airplane that can send out smoke signals. The ruse works, and Whitey and Tommy wind up prisoners in a basement until Tommy figures out how to rebuild a busted model plane and send his own message to the cops.

This is a pretty obscure little flick, one of four programmers made by bargain basement studio Monogram in 1939 featuring the comic strip character Tailspin Tommy, who had previously been the focus of two Universal serials. In look and feel, this is no worse, and maybe a smidge better, than any average adventure serial of the day, and the movie does feel like part of a serial, given that the story breaks down into two specific "chapters." The plane scenes, especially the storm, are handled acceptably. Baker and Moore are fine, and it's fun to see Tannen, whom many viewers will recognize as the "talking picture" demonstrator in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. Stone makes a good if underused sidekick, but the weak links are Trent, who is boring, and Marjorie Reynolds as his girl, who is both boring and bad. She is known mostly as the love interest in HOLIDAY INN, and she's absolutely wooden in both films. The Alpha DVD print is in very bad shape, especially during the first reel--the picture quality gets better, but the sound remains spotty. The film seems clearly aimed at the kiddie matinee crowd of the day, but given its limitations, it's fun enough for an hour's entertainment. [DVD]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

ILLICIT (1931)

Interesting pre-Code film which is surprisingly casual in its portrayal of a premarital affair. Barbara Stanwyck and James Rennie maintain separate residences but spend their nights together--the opening scene has them post-coitally lolling about in their "night clothes." He wants to get married but she thinks that marriage will inevitably lead to the death of their relationship, that love can't stand the strain of enforced possessiveness and the expectation to have children. When they are caught "weekending" together at a hotel, his father (Claude Gillingwater) pressures them to marry. "She has theories, Dad," replies Rennie, but she does finally agree. A year later, the strains have begun showing when Rennie wants to party but Stanwyck wants to cuddle up at home. Naturally, two old flames show up: Ricardo Cortez, who tried to stop the marriage earlier by telling Stanwyck that she was just becoming a piece of property, and Natalie Moorhead, whom Rennie starts seeing when he tells Stanwyck he's working late. The married couple separate, then find that their spark of passion returns, but both Cortez and Moorhead keep trying to split them up. Of course, social convention wins in the end and they give their marriage another chance, with Stanwyck saying, "What have theories to do with love?" Stanwyck is a bit out of her element playing a rich girl, but she's fine; Rennie is lackluster but passable. Cortez, a favorite of mine who had a nice range, from romantic lead to dastardly villain, is quite good here in one of his typical roles as the handsome second fiddle who never winds up with the girl. Supporting comic relief standouts are Charles Butterworth as an older playboy friend of the couple's and Joan Blondell as his younger mistress. [TCM]

Monday, August 06, 2007


This trippy 60's riff on the Faust story, directed by Stanley Donen, doesn't really hold together all that well, but it's worth seeing for the great comic chemistry between Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. They were part of a British comedy troupe that took Broadway by storm in a revue called "Beyond the Fringe" in the mid 60's and the two worked as a duo for many years. Based on the evidence of this film, they should have become a legendary comedy team, but though they did stage and TV work together through the 70's, they never took off as a movie team. Moore plays a kind of everyman figure, a cook in a burger diner who feels he has nothing to live for, especially because he’s too shy to get the love of his life, a waitress at the diner (Eleanor Bron), to notice him. He tries to hang himself but when he bungles the job, a tall man in a red cape (Cook) comes to his door, claiming to be the devil and offering him seven wishes in exchange for his soul. Each of the wishes is an attempt to win the love of Bron and is played out like a revue skit, throwing Moore, Cook, and Bron into a different situation each time, with Moore never happy with the outcome of the wish. The devil, whose name is George Spiggot, operates out of a dive of a nightclub, with the Seven Deadly Sins working (rather ineffectually) for him--none of the sins get much screen time, but Raquel Welch manages to make an impression as Lust, and Barry Humphries in his pre-Dame Edna days is a swishy Envy. The movie never quite lives up to its first 20 minutes, but Moore and Cook are always funny. A couple of sequences stand out, including one near the end where Moore and Bron are nuns of the Order of Beryl of Sussex who jump on trampolines, trying to get closer to God. Cook's shining moment is as a pop star singing (in a monotone) an anti-romantic song with lyrics like "You fill me with inertia" and "Just go away." Though Moore is good (and surprisingly attractive in a cuddly kind of way), Cook gets all the best moments. I like that the Devil's idea of being evil is to pull irritating pranks like tearing the last chapter out of Agatha Christie mysteries or having a pigeon shit on a man's head. I also like that the Devil's conjuring phrase to make the wishes happen is, "Julie Andrews!" The colorful style of the movie is a treat for the eyes. Even if it's not exactly a masterpiece, it's consistently amusing. [DVD]

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Another anthology film, this one an American studio production. The connecting element between these stories, written by various screenwriters, is a tuxedo tailcoat which is passed from person to person. It's tailored specifically for Charles Boyer, an actor who is opening in a new show on Broadway. Boyer is told that the coat was cursed by a disgruntled employee; next, we see him in the coat, being shot and killed by a woman, but it turns out we're seeing the finale of his play, which is a great success. At a party that night, he tries to rekindle a relationship with the glamorous Rita Hayworth, who is now married to Thomas Mitchell, and Boyer indeed doesn't have much luck, winding up wounded (literally) but wiser. In the second story, the coat winds up in the possession of Roland Young, butler to playboy Cesar Romero, who, despite a nasty hangover, is due to marry Ginger Rogers that night. When she finds a love letter in his coat pocket, Romero's bachelor buddy (Henry Fonda) claims the coat is his, and Young's coat is Romero's. While this charade seems to save the day, it ends up being the catalyst for a new relationship between Fonda and Rogers. Next the butler pawns the coat and Elsa Lanchester buys it for her husband, Charles Laughton, a tavern pianist who is trying to get a symphony performed. He gets a famous conductor (Victor Francen) to hear him, and Francen immediately wants to perform the piece with Laughton conducing. During the strenuous performance, Laughton's coat begins ripping at the seams, leading to audience mirth and possibly a disaster for Laughton, but all is saved, thanks to quick thinking by Francen.

The coat then winds up in a Bowery mission house run by priest James Gleason, who gives it to down-and-out lawyer Edward G. Robinson to wear to a college reunion dinner. Robinson tries to pull off a demeanor of respectability and tricks everyone for a while until his bluff is called by former colleague George Sanders, who eggs him into telling everyone the sad truth of his downfall. He leaves in what he assumes is disgrace, but there is indeed salvation waiting for him the next morning. The next tale is a short comic bit which was cut from the initial release and therefore doesn't quite fit as snugly as it should, with W.C. Fields as a con man giving a speech at a temperance meeting, selling cocoanut milk as an alternative to alcohol, until the milk winds up spiked with booze, with amusing results. In the final incident, a crook (J. Carroll Naish) uses the coat to pull off a high society robbery; he escapes in a small plane, but later during the flight, the coat catches fire and he dumps it, with its pockets full of the money, overboard. It lands in a small sharecropper community in the South on Christmas morning (yes, this is the biggest stretch in a movie filled with them) and Paul Robeson finds it, thinking it must be a gift from the Lord. The people (including Ethel Waters and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson) wind up splitting the money amongst themselves based on who has been praying for what--an interesting mix of socialism and religion--and the coat's final resting place is on a scarecrow in the fields.

Though the coat is the literal connection between the stories, what really runs through the movie is a strong feeling for irony, expressed, as in QUARTET, with lots of O. Henryish twist endings, not all of which feel quite right; for example, the outcome of Robinson's story, intended to be heartwarming, is too abrupt to be effective. All the stories are clever, though the weakest are the first (which is hurt by a lack of characterization and might have benefited from another 10 minutes or so of plot) and the last (which has a folktale feeling very different from the other stories, and also has almost nothing to do with Manhattan). Performances range widely from very good (Robinson, Rogers, Young, Francen, Gleason) to good (Boyer, Fields, Fonda, 'Rochester') to weak (Hayworth, Mitchell, and, in a rare non-stellar performance, Laughton, who seems to be lazily going through the paces in an underdeveloped role). Some, like Lanchester, Sanders, and Romero, don't get enough to do to register, though it's fun to see Margaret Dumont and Marcel Dalio (the croupier in CASABLANCA) in small roles in the restored Fields sequence. A DVD of this from Fox with commentary would be welcome. [VHS]

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

QUARTET (1948)

An anthology film of four short stories by Somerset Maugham. In its day, this film was seen as something unusual and its success led to two more Maugham films and a handful of other "omnibus" movies, but without a unifying theme or other organizing principal, it plays out like four randomly chosen episodes of a TV show. I've read some Maugham and I don't think of him as an O. Henry-type author whose stories turn on an ironic twist ending, but most of these do just that. In "The Facts of Life," a father (Basil Radford) tells his men's club friends about his son's adventures in Monte Carlo. After being warned by his father against gambling, lending money, and hanging out with strange women, the boy (Jack Watling) proceeds to gamble, lend money, and go home with a strange woman (Mai Zetterling). But instead of it all being the cause of his ruin, things actually go oddly right for the boy, which totally mystifies the old man. The delightful Naunton Wayne, who is frequently coupled with Radford in British movies to good comic effect, has a small role as one of the friends. The second story, "The Alien Corn," stars Dirk Bogarde as a young upper-class man who turns 21 and tells his father that his only ambition is to be become a professional pianist. The father is not happy but is persuaded to give him enough money to study in Paris for two years. When he comes back, he will submit to a "test" from an experienced pianist (Francoise Rosay), and if she says he has what it takes, he'll be allowed to follow his dream. The outcome is not terribly surprising, but it plays out well. Honor Blackman, who entered movie immortality as Pussy Galore in GOLDFINGER, plays his girl friend.

"The Kite" is a silly little story with elements of Mary Poppins and Bartleby. George Cole is a young man, still living with his parents, who is obsessed with kites and is quite proud of one very special kite he made on his own. He falls in love with Susan Shaw, disturbing his family's equilibrium, especially his mother's (Hermione Baddley). The kites become a weapon in a minor war between Shaw and Baddley, with the father (Mervyn Johns, who was Bob Cratchit in the Alastair Sim Christmas Carol) more or less observing from the sidelines. After Shaw smashes Cole's kite, he leaves her and refuses to pay any financial support, so he goes to jail where it seems as if he'll be a Bartleby figure, simply refusing to do anything, but the story is given a somewhat unconvincing happy ending by its narrator (Bernard Lee), a prison social worker. In the last story, "The Colonel's Lady," Cecil Parker is a stuffy country gentleman (a bit like Radford was in the first story) whose rather passive wife (Nora Swinburne) gets a book of poetry published. She gives him a copy to read, but he isn't interested until he realizes that the book is getting quite a bit of attention as a passionate, sexy read about a woman's memories of her dead lover. This last story has a near-perfect mix of humor and seriousness and solid performances from all, including Ernest Thesiger and Felix Aylmer. Each story is fine on its own, but, as I noted above, the lack of a strong tie between the tales leaves one feeling at sea. Maugham himself introduces the film, rather awkwardly. Among anthology films, the American O. HENRY'S FULL HOUSE is a little more fun, and the earlier British DEAD OF NIGHT is a must-see. [TCM]