Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Even though today's viewers will chuckle at the science promulgated here, and despite some pretty bad FX, this is generally a rather charming relic from fairly early in Hollywood's Space Age era when movies were being made that tried to take a realistic look at space travel, rather than recycle the Flash Gordon antics of the 30's and 40's. American scientists (led by Herbert Marshall) are trying to figure out why meteorites resist the gamma rays that would destroy their spacecraft. A computerized nationwide hunt is conducted (seemingly only among white men) for possible astronauts and most of the first half of the film shows how a group of twelve gets winnowed down, through a series of physical and psychological tests, to three, including electronics researcher William Lundigan (who happens to be Marshall's son) and science professor Richard Carlson. The point is made that the men chosen can't be married, though Carlson is dating a model (Dawn Addams) and Lundigan flirts with one of the space scientists (Martha Hyer). All three men are launched in separate rockets and each one is supposed to snare a meteorite to be studied back on earth. Robert Karnes is the first to die, in a particularly gruesome scene--fried by cosmic rays into a skeleton inside his space suit. Of the other two, one freaks out and one returns to earth with a meteorite, to the arms of his loving woman. The film's middle section is a little slow moving, but it builds to a tense climax that is quite good, given the era and the low budget (though the shots of the meteorites flying at the rockets seem painfully amateurish now). The two leading men are fine, though I think they should have switched roles; Lundigan is a little too laid back and the more dynamic Carlson feels restrained here (though since Carlson also directed, I'm guessing he got the effect he wanted). James Best, known primarily as Sheriff Roscoe in "The Dukes of Hazzard," makes a handsome would-be astronaut. The print shown on Turner Classic had a few ragged spots but strong color. I've save the best for last: though the film's serious tone still holds up, the title song is a fabulous camp moment (and I wish I could find it on iTunes). The lush cocktail-lounge theme music recurs here and there and always took me out of the action for a giggly moment. Sample lyric: "Riders to the stars / That is what we are / Every time we kiss in the night / Jupiter and Mars / Aren't very far / Any time you're holding me tight / Your embrace / Changed time and place / Hurled in space are we..." Once again, I love you, Turner Classic Movies!! [TCM]

Sunday, February 25, 2007


George White was, like Florenz Ziegfeld, a well-known producer of vaudeville shows and Broadway revues. He produced and appeared in three movies, all titled George White's Scandals, all apparently run-of-the-mill backstage musicals with several production numbers. In this one, White wraps up the successful 1934 show and takes a train to Florida for a vacation, but during a stop in Georgia, he sees a poster for a local show called Elmer White's Scandals and, for kicks, decides to stay and check it out. Ned Sparks does a nice turn as Elmer, dour, deadpan jack of all trades--not only is he the producer, he's also the ticket seller, ticket taker, usher, stage door keeper, and MC. White is impressed with the lead singer, Alice Faye, and offers her a job on Broadway. She goes, bringing along James Dunn, her boyfriend and songwriter, ukulele player Cliff Edwards, and even Sparks. They all find success in the next edition of the Scandals, but romantic problems intrude; Faye steps out with rival producer Walter Johnson, and Dunn retaliates by flirting with star dancer Eleanor Powell. Their personal conflicts begin to take a toll on their performances and White fires Faye and Dunn who are forced to scrounge for any showbiz jobs they can get. When Faye's dear old Aunt Jane (Emma Dunn) visits the Big Apple to see them on stage, White shows he has a heart of gold as big as a hooker's when he tries to find the couple and get them back in the Scandals just for Aunt Jane. Despite a wildly implausible ending, the show is fun thanks to the numbers and to Sparks and Edwards strong support. Songs include "The Hunkadola," "It's an Old Southern Custom," and "According to the Moonlight," which was so catchy I found myself humming it for a few days (probably because it's performed several times in the course of the film). Also featured are Lyda Roberti, Arline Judge, and Benny Rubin. Fun to see once, but I probably don't need to search out the other two "Scandals" movies. [FMC]

Friday, February 23, 2007


The set-up of this early sound Poverty Row thriller seemed very familiar to me, and I realized later it's because the same story was adapted several years later for another Poverty Row film featuring Boris Karloff as Chinese sleuth Mr. Wong (THE MYSTERY OF MR. WONG). In the atmospheric opening, we see a butler enter a darkened room and turn a clock's hands ahead to midnight. Next, we see a man arrive to have a rendezvous with a married woman (Aileen Pringle), but the wronged husband (Kenneth Thompson) discovers them and shoots the intruder dead. Then the camera pans back and we see that the entire thing has been an elaborate charade performed at a party. However, it turns out that the gun had real bullets, and the "intruder" is dead. A noted criminologist (Hale Hamilton, who looks a bit like Robert Benchley) is present, which helps sooth nervous Aunt Julia (Clara Blandick) and when police inspector Robert Elliott arrives, there's quite a large suspect pool, not to mention a second murder victim, the husband. Among the characters: a lawyer who reveals that Thompson had written a new will in which he disinherited his wife, a snoopy maid (Alice White) who surely knows more than she lets on, the widow, her brother (Leslie Fenton) who lives off an allowance from her, and of course, the omnipresent butler. The rewritten will and an important letter go missing and several more people wind up dead, some by way of a rigged telephone which jabs the caller in the base of the neck with a poisoned needle. The identity of the killer came as a surprise to me, and the conclusion, in which the police inspector allows the killer to commit suicide, is effective (and, I think, right out of a Philo Vance novel, "The Bishop Murder Case"). As is par for the course at the time, most of the shots are long static ones, but there are some nice creative set-ups, including one shot looking up from the floor near a body and another showing a murder from the killer's point of view. Not bad B-movie entertainment for a stormy (or snowy) night. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

PETULIA (1968)

Although on the surface this seems like a 60's period piece, with hippies and violence and mod clothes and critiques of materialism and alienation, not to mention a fractured narrative style with flashbacks and flash-forwards, it's really barely dated at all. The psychedelic trappings of the era which might might most obviously date the film remain in the background; the main characters here mostly look and act like people living in the 21st century. This was my second viewing of the film, and it's a movie I appreciate more than like. It begins like a surreal screwball comedy with oddly mannered dialogue, as if someone like Edward Albee had re-written BRINGING UP BABY or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S. At a high society charity function (with Janis Joplin performing), respected surgeon George C. Scott, attending stag due to his impending divorce, is set upon by desperately whimsical beauty Julie Christie, the title character, who is unhappily married to ship architect Richard Chamberlain. Christie goes after Scott rather like Hepburn goes after Grant in BABY, but Scott is a little more able to keep his equilibrium. After the ball, he does wind up going off into the night with her but despite going to a hotel, they don't quite finish their one-night stand--she, as he puts her in a cab: "I'm going to marry you, Archie"; he, resignedly, "It's the Pepsi generation." After this bumpy start, they do begin an affair in which, we assume, she will loosen him up a bit and he will perhaps normalize her a bit (at one point, he says he's tired of her "I Love Lucy" antics), but things take a turn for the near-tragic as we learn more about their backgrounds. His ex-wife (Shirley Knight) has custody of their two sons and she's about to remarry a dorky post-grad student majoring in hydraulics; Chamberlain, Christie's husband, apparently impotent, beats her on occasion and has a rich father (Joseph Cotton) who enables the son's behavior. When Chamberlain discovers Christie's affair, he beats her savagely while she's alone in Scott's apartment. She survives and Scott tries to pry her out of the family's grasp, but she ends up staying. In the last scene, set a year later, she has gotten pregnant and comes to Scott's hospital to have the baby. They meet and contemplate running off together, but don't.

In addition to exploring the mysteries of love and lust and intimate violence, the film also has running riffs on both the bourgeois culture and the counterculture of the time. For the middle and upper classes, artifice trumps reality: a worker installing a miniature greenhouse in Scott's apartment tells him that it's important that the flowers get no sunlight at all, just artificial light; in a very funny scene, Austin Pendleton plays a doctor who has to explain to a hospital patient that the TV set in her room is just a "dummy" one, there to encourage her to pay to rent a real one. On the other hand, the counterculture doesn't come off all that well: when the battered and bloody Christie is taken out of Scott's apartment, the hippies (among them Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead) make disparaging remarks like, "Call if you get work." There's an odd subplot about a Mexican boy who hops a ride to California with Christie and Chamberlain which becomes an important plot point, but its telling is the most fractured narrative strand of the whole movie, frustratingly so, and to no specific purpose that I could see. The time jumps and editing jolts seem to be devices to distance the viewers, and they do take some getting used to. Christie is very good, as is Scott, though it is a little disorienting at first to see him playing a tender, understanding man, the opposite of his usual loud, brusque, sometimes brutish roles. Beautifully photographed on location in San Francisco. Worth seeing, but be prepared to pay attention. [DVD]

Sunday, February 18, 2007


This early talkie has an amusing plotline which is derailed a bit by an artificial, over-the-top performance from William Haines, getting just a bit too old at 30 to still be effective playing his youthful wisecracker roles. In this one, he plays a cocky carnival barker for a dancing girls act; one night after the show in Deep Gulch, he cheats a bunch of ranch hands with a rigged roulette wheel and plans to abscond to Chicago with the chunk of ill-gotten cash. His plans go awry when 1) one of the girls steals his money, and 2) the angry cowboys realize they've been cheated and try to lynch him when he can't give back their dough. However, the ranch owner (Charles Middleton) talks the boys into making him stay on the ranch and work off his debt. They give him a hard time but he manages to stay mostly one step ahead of them until he falls for the owner's sister (Leila Hyams) and she for him, much against Middleton's wishes. The funniest single line may be when Hyams, expecting the maid Pansy (Polly Moran), tells him to come in, sees him, and says, "You're not Pansy"; his reply, in full camp mode: "I'm the wildest pansy you ever picked!" In the end, Haines redeems himself by braving a sandstorm to get Hyams medical help for a dangerous snakebite. Haines is rather grating, and he has very little chemistry with Hyams. Cliff Edwards is fun, as usual, as one of the less ornery cowpokes, and Francis X. Bushman Jr. (son of the famous silent star) plays a more obnoxious but hunky cowboy whose plans for marrying Hyams wind up dashed. Moderately interesting, but mostly as a museum piece or for fans of Haines. [TCM]

Saturday, February 17, 2007


A gray-area WWII movie, made while America was still technically neutral. An opening title card tells us this is the story of "people without passports," specifically refugees from Germany and Nazi occupation in the late 30's. The narrative begins in Vienna in 1937; several refugees are sharing a flophouse hotel room, among them Fredric March, a German Aryan who despises Nazi ideology and is an escapee from a concentration camp, but is trying to get back to Germany to see his sick wife, and Glenn Ford, a young half-Jewish man new to the game of staying one step ahead of the police. March and Ford get some jail time and become friends before being released at the Czech border. Ford, in Prague, falls in love with Margaret Sullavan, a Jewish chemistry student who has to resort to subterfuge to continue her studies. Thinking she is hurting Ford's chances at a free life, she leaves him to go to Zurich, but he follows her. March, back in Vienna as a carnival mind reader, becomes a hunted man when the Nazis invade Austria, and the trio wind up together in France. Sullavan's professor suggests that she marry a Frenchman to get legitimate ID papers, but she's fallen in love with Ford. There are more journeys, entrapments, and escapes before March, held by Nazi officer Erich von Stroheim, agrees to betray resistance leaders if he is allowed to visit his dying wife (Frances Dee). Of course, he's Fredric March so instead of betrayal, he performs a heroic act of self-sacrifice which allows Ford and Sullavan to have a better shot at a happy life together. All three leads are fine, with Ford taking acting honors here (Sullavan seems a bit at sea, perhaps because of her underwritten character). Leonid Kinskey and Anna Sten are standouts in the supporting cast. The movie is directed by John Cromwell, but owes its effective, moody atmosphere to production designer William Cameron Menzies. Though not the first Hollywood movie to depict the plight of Nazi victims in Europe, it was apparently the first one to show that Jews were being singled out. This interesting film is only available on DVD from VCI in a print which leaves much to be desired, especially in its soundtrack which has a tinny, electronic echo from time to time. [DVD]

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

BOOM (1968)

Like THE DAY THE FISH CAME OUT, this is one of my Holy Grails from the '60s, a notoriously bad movie I'd heard a lot about but thought I might never get to see; it's not on DVD but the Sundance Channel, bless its independent little heart, showed it in January. It has the reputation of being a camp classic, helped no doubt by the fact that it's John Waters' favorite movie, but while I did find some of it laughable, it never really rose to camp levels. I can't say it's a very good movie, but it's not as bad as its reputation would have it. Based on a Tennessee Williams play ("The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore") from the beginning of his declining years, the story concerns Sissy Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor), a monumentally rich woman, much married (and divorced), who is aging quite gracefully but also dying (of an unspecified illness, probably a kin to that infamous Fatal Cinematic Disease that allowed Ali McGraw to die so beautifully in LOVE STORY). She is spending what is likely to be her last summer on earth on an island that she owns, in a fabulous bone-white villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Her days (and sometimes the middle of her nights) are spent dictating her memoirs into any one of a vast network of tape recorders, to be transcribed by her long-suffering assistant (Joanna Shimkus), and bossing around her small army of servants, including security man Michael Dunn (Dr. Loveless from Wild Wild West) who has his own small army of slathering hounds at his beck and call. One day, dissolute poet Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) hitches a boat ride to the island, rising up out the surf and climbing a cliff to be attacked by Dunn's dogs. Taylor allows him to stay in a guest room to recover from his mostly superficial wounds, but otherwise pays little attention to him until her gossip buddy, nicknamed the Witch of Capri (Noel Coward), tells her that Burton is known in high society circles as the Angel of Death for his knack of being a sponging houseguest whose aging hosts often wind up dead just after he leaves. Taylor invites Burton to dine with her and most of the rest of the film consists of conversations between the two which play out like a less intimate, dumbed-down version of their classic rants in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

At first, the whole thing feels heavily symbolic, like a Twilight Zone episode without either horror or whimsy (and thanks to a Yahoo Groups friend who pointed out the film's similarity to a specific Zone show with Gladys Cooper as a dying old lady and Robert Redford as the handsome death figure). But we find out near the end that it's all too literal: Burton's character really is just a dissolute poet who believes he has a gift for helping dying people accept their death. The real problem here is the casting. Taylor is too young and healthy to be effective as an aging, dying woman--her way of showing pain is to moan a bit and shriek, "Pain!! Injections!!" into the house intercom. Burton, though by no means old or unattractive, is also not nearly beautiful or ethereal enough to be an angelic stud--Tab Hunter played the role on stage opposite Tallulah Bankhead, and while the staging was not a success, certainly the two were more appropriate for the roles than Taylor and Burton. While overall the movie doesn't work, there are pleasures to be had: Taylor's force-of-nature delivery is fun to watch, as is Coward's serious feyness. Almost every frame of the film looks gorgeous, thanks to director Joseph Losey and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (credited oddly as "lighting cameraman"), the lovely seaside locations in Sardinia, and the stunning house, which is probably a combination of a real house and built sets. The music, which alternates between sitar music and a more conventional score, is very nice as well. The title refers to the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks, as explained by Burton, sounding like "the shock of each moment, of still being alive," a thought I rather like, and which is complemented by Taylor's complaint that "life is all memory except for each present moment which goes by so quickly you can hardly catch it." My favorite scene is the dinner between Coward and Taylor, with the grande dame dressed outrageously in a fabulous white Kabuki outfit with a huge, shiny Aztecy headdress. It is almost worth catching this film just to see Taylor in the outfit; she's probably the only actress ever who could get away with it, except maybe Divine. (Everything comes back to John Waters eventually...) [TCM]

Sunday, February 11, 2007


An odd little western, based on a novel by Pulitzer Prize winner MacKinlay Kantor; the plot shows potential, but full development of characterization is lacking, and I'm guessing that the Production Code may have hampered things a bit. Set in 1901, the story follows a U.S. Marshal (James Craig) who is sent to Oklahoma in disguise as a hobo to investigate a train robbery in which a load of federal money was stolen. Rumors and clues point to the Goss boys (Henry Morgan and Paul Langton), seemingly friendly guys who live with their loving mother (Marjorie Main). Craig is befriended by the family when he gets in trouble with the local sherrif (Barton MacLane), a nasty and corrupt man whom the boys believe is responsible for their father's death. Donna Reed, a new girl in town working as a waitress until she can raise money to head home for Missouri, also winds up staying with the Gosses; it turns out that Main herself is trying to raise money to move back there after her Confederate husband's death left her with no resources. We know from the beginning that the boys were indeed responsible for the robbery, which they pulled to get money to give Main, and they don't feel they did anything wrong because their Pa's philosophy was, "Anything anyone can get from a Northerner is fair and square." We eventually find out that Main knows what they did, though it's not completely clear how she feels about it--some critics refer to her character as an outlaw, and she certainly agrees with her husband's thoughts about Northerners, but she also does not seem to actively encourage her boys' banditry. Craig finds solid evidence against the boys, but when they invite him to join them in another robbery, he's conflicted about what to do. His duty wins out and he arrests the boys, but they get the upper hand on him until they all discover that MacLane has shot Main. Craig and the boys work out a deal to take care of MacLane and then give themselves up. Things don't quite work out so smoothly, although ultimately Production Code justice is served, and Craig and Reed go off in the sunset together. In a somewhat modern touch, the movie's tone changes from warmhearted and comic at the beginning (scenes of Main talking to herself while she makes breakfast, and she and the boys greeting a portrait of the father as though they were saying hello to a person) to serious and grim by the end (deaths of major characters and a climactic shoot-'em-up). I would have liked more fleshing out of the characters, especially Main and Reed. Some of the names in the movie are a little strange: one of the boys (Langton) is named Violet because Main wanted a girl so badly, and the boys call Main "Mud" and "Muddie." [TCM]

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Cult movie which, while interesting, seems a little overrated to me, worth watching mostly for its historical significance as a bridge between films like IN COLD BLOOD and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, and for excellent performances by its leads, Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler. The narrative is based on a true story and apparently sticks pretty close to the facts. Stoler plays a mean, lonely, overweight nurse who lives with her senile mother. When her friend (a very young Doris Roberts) enters Stoler in a lonely hearts correspondence club, she's pissed off until she hits it off with Lo Bianco, a sexy but clearly low-rent guy who flirts with her and charms her mother. When he wheedles a little cash out of Stoler and leaves, she calls him and threatens suicide (though we know that she's faking it). It turns out that he makes his living by glomming onto lonely single women who have some cash saved up and romancing them just enough to get his hands on the money before he splits. Far from being shocked, Stoler falls right into the scam with him, posing as his sister as he continues making contact with lonely women ripe for the picking. Things work for a while so long as Stoler believes that Lo Bianco isn't falling for or having sex with any of the women. Eventually, he marries a woman who is already pregnant and the three, cramped together in a tiny hotel room, get on each other's nerves; Stoler's solution is to feed the woman an overdose of pills and dump her on a bus, where she is found later dead. It's not clear to me if Stoler actually intended to kill her, but murder soon becomes the default solution to any problem. They bilk an older woman (Mary Jane Higby) when they claim to be investing her money by opening a hat shop for her; Higby gets suspicious of Stoler and his "sister" spending too much time alone in the cellar, so in a startling scene, the couple kill her with a hammer, and with the body still warm, Lo Biano strips off his clothes to have sex with Stoler. The last murders, also disturbing, occur when the woman being conned, the mother of a young daughter, tells Stoler she's become pregnant by Lo Bianco--they wind up shooting her and drowning the little girl. Finally feeling resigned to the fact that she'll never be able to keep Lo Bianco for herself, she calls the police and turns them both in. Stoler is fearless playing an unattractive character, in both looks and personality. Similarly, Lo Bianco is great as a guy with just enough looks and surface charm to get away with the scams he does. Because the focus of the film is on Stoler (she is in almost every scene), Lo Bianco remains a bit of a cipher; I was never sure if he really was in love with Stoler, or had just come to rely on her as a helpmate and confidante. Nevertheless, the two both give fine performances, even if, in retrospect, it seems as if Stoler may have served as a template for the persona of Divine in the movies of John Waters. The stark black and white semi-documentary look of the film gives it an unsettling matter-of-fact tone. Written and directed by Leonard Kastle, who sadly never did another film. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


This adventure film feels like a recycling of ideas, characters, and elements from lots of other films in the Gunga Din/Beau Geste genre: stories of a gallant group of men fighting against the odds (and rebellious natives) in an exotic setting. GUNGA DIN is more "romplike" than this one, with some of the stars not surviving to the final fadeout. Based very loosely, I presume, on historical events, this is set in the Phillipines in 1906, as U.S. Army troops, left in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, are set to go home. A handful of men are being left behind to make sure that the native troops can handle the Moro terrorists living in the jungles just outside the village. The head of the Moros, Alipang, is an almost legendary figure who strikes fear in the hearts of the natives; his men are fanatic suicidal assassins who wield their machetes with the promise of heaven waiting (shades of present day terrorists). Getting the troops to get beyond their fear and to realize that Alipang and his men are only human and can be fought like any other enemy is the main chore of our ragtag band of heroes: soldiers David Niven and Broderick Crawford, who train the troops under the supervision of Reginald Owen, and doctor Gary Cooper. As in all these "boy's adventure" movies, there is a half-hearted romance (involving Andrea Leeds, Owen's headstrong daughter) and a non-military crisis (a cholera epidemic) that allows people to show their mettle. Alipang (Tetsu Komai) keeps trying to get the troops to come to him in the jungle where he has the advantage, and tension grows between Owen, slowly going blind, who wants to wait out the Moros, and Cooper, who is instrumental in inspiring the troops and is certain that they are ready to fight. Eventually, the Moros dam up a river crucial to the village and the ailing Owen has no choice but to essentially let Cooper take over on his terms. The final battle is a doozy, with machetes swinging, guns firing, and Moros catapulting themselves over the walls of the village. Supporting players include Henry Kolker as the general who is behind the initial troop withdrawal, Russell Hicks as a doomed captain, Kay Johnson as Hicks' wife, and Vladimir Sokoloff as a "good" Moro who may not be so good after all. Overall, the movie is fine, though I wish that Niven had more to do; I don't think it's a spoiler to note that when we hear Niven pining away for an island of his own to retire on, it's a sure sign that he's a goner. The doldrums of the middle of the movie (as all such movies are prey to) are overcome by the action of the last twenty minutes. A must for Cooper fans, though he comes off better in the same year's BEAU GESTE. [TCM]

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The first two MR. MOTO movies

It's probably not politically correct to say so, but I do enjoy the Asian detective movies that came out of Hollywood in the '30s and '40s (to wit, the Messrs. Chan, Moto, and Wong) even if the actors who played these main roles were not Asian. The Japanese Mr. Moto was originally featured in a series of novels by John P. Marquand, and was not exactly an unambiguous "good guy"; usually, he was a secondary character looking our for Japanese interests who wound up helping the American hero out of a tough spot. Though I have reviewed Moto movies before, most of them were very hard to find until Fox released a boxed set of four of the films last year (with the remaining four coming out this month). These first two of the series (both from 1937), like the rest, star Peter Lorre as Kentaro Moto, who is not a detective but a kind of independent adventurer who gets involved in cases of espionage and winds up working with police or government agents. He is much more down and dirty than the more cerebral Chan, quicker with his fists than with his quips. The poster art of Lorre on the cover of the first DVD verges on the offensive, with horribly exaggerated buck teeth, but his actual appearance in the films is not quite so stereotyped.

THINK FAST, MR. MOTO opens quickly but confusingly with Moto, in disguise in a San Francisco curio shop, getting into fisticuffs and witnessing a murder. He books passage to Singapore on an ocean liner owned by the Hitchings company, and becomes friendly with the son of the line's owner (Thomas Beck) who has been a wastrel but is being given another chance at the business by his dad; we soon learn that Moto is on the trail of diamond smugglers who have been using the Hitchings line for their dastardly doings. Virginia Field is Beck's love interest, who may actually be one of the bad guys. Reliable villain Sig Ruman is present, as are J. Carroll Naish and Philip Ahn. The plotline takes a while to develop, but the film is paced well and Lorre makes a solid hero figure, involved in a fair amount of physical action. One scene in which he almost casually tosses a man out of ship porthole to his death is quite startling. THANK YOU, MR. MOTO begins in the Gobi desert as a group of travelers set up camp during a sandstorm and a man is killed trying to steal a scroll painting. Then, as in THINK FAST, we see Lorre in disguise, being held for suspicion of art smuggling, but actually he is, once again, on the trail of people trying to get their hands on a set of scrolls which, when put together, shows the location of the tomb of Genghis Kahn (shades of Fu Manchu!). Ruman is again the chief baddie, Beck is again the handsome Anglo lead (who romances the forgettable Jayne Regan), and John Carradine is a lesser baddie. The most interesting characters here are Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick) who hold most of the Kahn scrolls. There is much skullduggery over the scrolls, ending in tragedy for some. These are both quite fun, and though B-films, never look cheap. [I've previously reviewed MR. MOTO'S LAST WARNING and a longer review of THINK FAST appears here. [DVD]

Friday, February 02, 2007


Briskly paced and very enjoyable murder-on-a-train thriller which was considered lost for many years. The opening sequence, startling for an early 30's movie, shows a killer's-eye view of a murder in a train's sleeping compartment, then we flashback to the beginning of the train's journey in Los Angeles (to San Francisco) as we get a glimpse of each of the passengers as they arrive at the station. Jeweler Kenneth Thompson (the man who is murdered) says goodbye to his wife as he flirts with sexy Ethel Kenyon, who is clearly out to pull some kind of con on him. Ben Lyon, a wisecracking crime reporter who has just written a story about the escape of wanted killer Nat Pendleton, shows up because of reports that the killer is near the station; when the cops can't find him, Lyon decides on impulse to ride the train so he can follow Barbara Weeks, a total stranger from whom he accidentally gets a kiss. Also on the train: a crotchety old man (William V. Mong), a blonde widow (Helene Millard) traveling with her dead husband's body, a honeymooning couple who just want to get to some canoodling, and a drunk (Tom Dugan) who latches onto Lyon (and even at one point calls him his boyfriend). Finally, there's Dwight Frye, a crook who turned state's evidence against Pendleton and is now traveling in handcuffs under federal protection. Not to give anything away, but suffice to say that, after Thompson is found dead that night, we discover that not everyone is who he or she seems. The cops get involved (as does Pendleton, who springs out of a most unexpected place--I should have seen it coming, but I didn't), but it's Lyon who is most instrumental in wrapping things up. For a pre-Code film, it's not terribly racy (except for smirking references to the honeymooners), though a marijuana cigarette plays a crucial role in the proceedings. There's one scene that implies that Dugan isn't as drunk as he appears, but nothing is done with that--it's as if the writers couldn't decide what do with that character; if it's a deliberate red herring, it should have been developed a bit more. Lyon and Weeks are fine as the romantic leads; Frye is surprisingly laid back, playing yet another slimy type, but at least not a neurotic mess like he usually got stuck with. This is one of those movies from the Columbia vaults that's been rescued by Sony and Turner Classic Movies; the print was in great shape, and I highly recommend it for mystery fans. [TCM]