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]