Monday, April 30, 2007


This perfectly acceptable B-thriller has become something of a cult item among horror/sf fans for two reasons: 1) the title implies that it's a sequel to the earlier cult film DOCTOR X; 2) it has Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role before he became a superstar. The horror content is actually secondary to the science fiction elements, and even those are used in support of a more traditional crime story. Reporter Wayne Morris is on his way to interview a famous actress (Lya Lys), but when he arrives, she's dead, stabbed in the chest and drained of blood. His paper prints an extra with his sensational story, but when the cops get there, the body has vanished and soon she shows up very much alive, threatening the paper with a lawsuit. Morris's job is on the line so he gets Dennis Morgan, a doctor pal of his, to help investigate this mystery, and when a rare blood type-donor is found murdered and drained in a similar fashion, they ask for help from esteemed surgeon John Litel, who winds up knowing more about both cases than he first lets on. Litel has a rather fey but creepy assistant (Bogart) with deathly pale skin, a buzz cut with a "Bride of Frankenstein" white streak, little round glasses, and cold, cold hands, and he's often seen holding and stroking a white rabbit. Our heroes discover that Bogart is actually a disgraced doctor named Xavier who was executed for killing children during experiments and was brought back to life by Litel using artificial blood. The problem is that Litel then needs fresh blood to keep Bogart alive. (The "living dead" actress is in the same boat.) In a nifty "Re-Animator"-type scene, Litel brings a dead rabbit back to life. The climax involves Morris and Morgan chasing Bogart, who is holding nurse Rosemary Lane hostage. This is likely to disappoint classic horror fans for the same reason that the 1932 DOCTOR X is often disparaged: too much comic relief. I'm a fan of B-thrillers and of Wayne Morris, so I enjoyed the film and Morris's bouncy, light performance, but fans of Bogie and horror films probably will not, despite some nice shadowy sets, impressionistic cinematography, and mad-scientist touches. Morris and Morgan make a nice pair, and if you like this, check them out in FLIGHT ANGELS. Litel is rather bland, though it's nice that he's more civilized than the traditional deranged doctor. Lane has little to do, and though some don't like Bogart's performance, I like it because it verges on camp without losing a menacing edge. John Ridgely has a one-line role as the murdered blood donor. [DVD]

Saturday, April 28, 2007

PHFFFT (1954)

The odd title of this film is really the only noteworthy thing about it. It's largely an updated version of THE AWFUL TRUTH (with little of that movie's zany wit and charm) with a dash of THE ODD COUPLE thrown in. A (very young) Jack Lemmon plays a lawyer and Judy Holliday is his wife, the creator of a successful radio and TV soap opera. One evening, while he's trying to read a mystery novel and she's pacing the floor restlessly, they simultaneously realize that they're bored with each other and decide to divorce. Lemmon moves in with his buddy Jack Carson, who thinks he should immediately get back in the dating game and tries to show him some of the ropes, including setting him up with the sexy Kim Novak (doing her best Marilyn Monroe imitation). Holliday is approached by an actor from her soap opera for what she thinks is a date but is instead a gripe session about his character. She and Lemmon wind up taking dancing lessons at the same Arthur Murray studio, and more or less accidentally end up doing a mambo together at a night club, but just when it looks like the spark has returned, they have a spat while he's doing her taxes. In the end, Carson, sure that Lemmon and Novak are hitting it off, puts the moves on Holliday, which ensures that Lemmon will show up to get rid of Carson and patch things up permanently with Holliday. Holliday is fine, but Lemmon and Novak are sexy and energetic and work up quite a bit of chemistry, and honestly I was sort of hoping that they would wind up together--though that would break all the rules of the screwball "comedy of remarriage" genre to which this film belongs. There is a cute bit involving a statue with glowing electric eyes that Carson puts in his apartment window as a "Don't come a-knockin'" signal. At only 90 minutes, this still feels a bit too long; individual scenes work well (the mambo scene, Lemmon's dates with Novak, a bit with a French teacher), but it just doesn't quite come together. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The Charlie Chan movies have a sticky reputation today, largely based on the fact that the main character, a Chinese detective who works for the Honolulu police, was played by a non-Chinese actor, Swedish born Warner Oland (and after he died, by American Sidney Toler). This would almost certainly not happen today, though Asian roles were still being played by Anglo actors into the 70's (David Carradine as the half-Chinese Buddhist priest Caine in TV’s "Kung Fu"). I can understand the discomfort that some viewers today might feel watching a performance that could be described as "Asian blackface," but it was a Hollywood truism for many years that American audiences would not accept Asian actors in leading roles. If you can get past this problem, the Chan movies are generally quite fun, and even could be seen as "politically correct" in content if not performance, as Chan not only always remains dignified in the face of prejudice, but also always outdoes or outfoxes the Anglo good guys and bad guys. Though there were 8 previous movies in which Chan was either featured or starred, LONDON is apparently the earliest one that still exists intact. Drue Leyton's brother is about to be executed in three days for murder, but she's convinced he's innocent and goes to Chan for help. When the brother's attorney, Ray Milland, who is also Leyton's fiance, confides to Chan that he thinks the brother is guilty, Leyton breaks off their engagement. Chan agrees to help and attends a house party at which are present most of the principals of the case. There is a sinister butler, a drunkard, a horse's groom, and a bumbling country inspector (E.E. Clive) who keeps calling Chan, "Chang." There is also a reenactment of the original murder, an apparent suicide, a secret military invention, a near-fatal horse accident, and some gunplay before Chan cracks the case. The familiar supporting actors include Alan Mowbray, Douglas Walton, and Mona Barrie. (BTW, this is the movie that one of the producers in Robert Altman's GOSFORD PARK is supposedly researching). The next film has Chan arriving, umm.. IN PARIS to investigate bank fraud. He gets a stern warning delivered with a rock thrown through his taxi. He meets up with the son of the bank president (Thomas Beck, who appeared as a major character in several Chan and Mr. Moto films), then goes to see exotic dancer Nardi (Dorothy Appleby) who has some information for Chan but who is murdered at the end of an acrobatic dance number. There is a mysterious beggar, counterfeiters, blackmail, and a chase through the sewers of Paris, but most notably this film marked the first appearance of Chan's westernized son, played here by the handsome Keye Luke who would play the same role in not only six other Chan films, but even in a Mr. Moto film. Erik Rhodes, one of my favorite supporting comic actors, has a more serious role here. I find the plots of the Chan movies, like those of the Thin Man movies, to be interchangeable, but what they lack in narrative originality is made up for by Oland's excellent performances. [DVD]

Sunday, April 22, 2007


The Bulldog Drummond series was not one that was featured on TCM, but I recently got a chance see to the first Drummond talkie, a well-regarded film which is difficult to run across. The title character is Captain Hugh Drummond, retired from the British Army, who, in the novels by H.C. McNeile, drifts into becoming a brawny two-fisted adventurer, though in the movies, he wound up more like a typical movie sleuth. In the 1929 film, the dapper Ronald Colman plays Drummond, who is bored with his quiet post-war life; the first scene, featuring the comic shattering of the total silence of a men's club room, must have been the inspiration for the similar opening scene of the Fred Astaire classic TOP HAT. Colman advertises his services as someone looking for excitement, and he finds some when he gets involved in helping Joan Bennett, whose uncle is being held against his will in a mansion-like sanitarium. It's interesting seeing Colman as a thriller hero, playing against his usual laid-back persona; he even gets to strangle a bad guy to death with his bare hands! Another pleasure is the peculiarly fey but amusing acting style of Claud Allister as Drummond's buddy Algy. The shadowy mansion sets are wonderful, with a Caligarish look now and then (courtesy well known production designer William Cameron Menzies); sometimes the rooms look like they are right out of a Universal mad doctor castle. Lawrence Grant, Lilyan Tashman, and Montagu Love are suitably evil as the chief villains. The director, F. Richard Jones, has some nice "moving camera" touches. This is a solidly entertaining, mostly light-toned thriller, and a good one to see even if you think you don't like early talkies.

Between 1937 and 1939, Paramount made nine Bulldog Drummond B-movies, beginning with BULLDOG DRUMMOND ESCAPES with Ray Milland--and if memory serves me, I believe that one basically recycled the plot of the Colman film, though instead of an uncle, Milland rescues a young woman (Heather Angel) from a similar foreboding mansion filled with baddies. Most of the Paramount films, however, had John Howard in the title role, an actor I know mostly as Katharine Hepburn's loser fiance in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, with Angel continuing as the woman Howard is constantly on the verge of marrying before he is tempted away on the eve of the wedding by some mysterious case or matter of national import. IN AFRICA begins with Howard and his butler (E. E. Clive) stuck at home without guns or trousers so they can't go anywhere before the wedding. However, Scotland Yard inspector H. B. Warner is kidnapped by notorious spy J. Carroll Naish, who spirits him away to Morocco to get the secret of a new British invention, the radio wave disintegrator (sounds like a good enough McGuffin to me!). Angel sees Warner being abducted and frees Howard so they can chase after him, in Howard's own plane, along with Clive and sidekick Reginald Denny, taking over the part of Algy. There are thuggish henchmen (including Anthony Quinn), ferocious lions, and a hidden bomb for our gang to deal with before the predictable but still exciting finale. Except for its exotic setting, this film is typical of the series. Howard is not the most dashing hero, but I grew to like him as Drummond. As the series goes on, the wedding shenanigans become tiresome, but are thankfully kept to a relative minimum here. Film buffs will recognize Fortunio Bonanova as a Moroccan cop. Short (just under an hour), fast-paced, and enjoyable, like most of the Paramount Drummonds. The series was later picked up by other studios in the late 40's with a variety of actors, but those appear to be out of circulation. [DVD]

Thursday, April 19, 2007


The Lone Wolf, like the Saint and Boston Blackie, wasn't a traditional Sam Spade-type private eye with an office and a secretary. Like the others, he's a man of independent means who helps out folks who happen to cross his path, and though he'll work with the police when he has to, he seems to spend just as much time avoiding them. Michael Lanyard (played here by Warren William) is the Lone Wolf, a former jewel thief, and his character's situation underwent a major change between the first William entry in the Columbia series (SPY HUNT) and the third (LADY). The Lanyard we meet in SPY HUNT has a young daughter (Virginia Weidler) who lives with him, and is therefore always a potential "damsel in distress," and the tone of the film veers uneasily toward screwball comedy. The movie opens with William snatched off the street by thugs in order to crack a safe. He refuses, saying he's reformed, and he's let go but not before the gang boss (Ralph Morgan) has swiped a couple of William's cigarettes, a custom brand made for him. Morgan has a past score to settle with William and when his men break into a safe and steal some plans for a new anti-aircraft gun, they plant one of the cigarettes. The next day, William has to answer not only to the cops but also to his high-strung girlfriend (Ida Lupino) for why he stiffed her on a date. When Morgan discovers that his men only got half the plans, he sends sexy Rita Hayworth after William to coerce him to get the rest. He does, but manages to hide the gun plans and substitute pages of baby carriage plans. There are more chases, more alibis, and both young Weidler and William's droll butler (Leonard Carey) get involved before it all gets resolved. The best scene is at a surrealist party, with guests dressed as Dali clocks, alphabet blocks, and bunches of flowers. William is his usual debonair unruffled self, and I enjoyed watching him pull his little double-crosses against practically everyone, but Lupino is miscast, trying but failing to strike the right comic tone in her jealous rages. The familiar character actor Tom Dugan plays one of the cops.

In MEETS A LADY, William has lost the daughter and gotten a different butler, the priceless Eric Blore, who is much more amusing than his predecessor. Jean Muir, about to marry into the rich Penyon family via the son, Warren Hull, has to wear the family's valuable heirloom diamond necklace at a high society party. We see family member Marla Shelton telephone Victor Jory to tell him the necklace's whereabouts. Later that night, Muir's ex-husband (Roger Pryor), thought dead, shows up at her apartment and demands the necklace, but before he can get it, he is shot and killed by an unseen person. On the streets, the William and Blore almost hit Muir with their car and they're all taken downtown by a traffic cop. When William hears her story, he gives her an alibi, but she gets nervous and bolts anyway. William poses as a cop, gathers all the partygoers, and begins to get the bottom of the case, which involves an imitation copy of the necklace being passed off as the real thing. This film, though definitely not aiming at a screwball tone, manages to be breezier and more fun than the first one, largely due to the interplay between William and Blore. Other Lone Wolf entries might be worth watching just for these two actors. Otherwise, the series doesn't seem all that different from the Falcon or the Saint. Still, fans of the short, light detective thriller will probably enjoy these. [TCM]

Monday, April 16, 2007


A B-movie detective series, with a bit of a twist on the gentleman/ex-con sleuth formula. Based on a radio serial, the first film is an "origin" story, telling how Warner Baxter becomes the Crime Doctor. We first see Baxter being dumped unconscious from a speeding car. When he comes to in a hospital, he has amnesia, though otherwise he makes a good recovery, and he's taken in by a kindly doctor (Ray Collins) who inspires Baxter to turn from the temptation of a self-pitying life spent in drunken dissolution to making something of himself by going to medical school. He has a successful career as a psychiatrist, taking the name Ordway, but he occasionally finds himself shadowed by John Litel, a figure from his past whom Baxter does not recognize. We find out that Baxter was a mastermind thief named Morgan who crossed up his own gang, leading to the beating and dumping of the first scene. Baxter hid some money from the gang, and Litel wants it back, though he also realizes that the amnesia is real and not an act, so he bides his time. Because Baxter has a good influence on prisoners (we see him work his wonders on convict Leon Ames), he becomes a member of the local parole board. Eventually, of course, Baxter does confront his past, is put on trial, and makes a speech to the jury saying that if they convict the guilty Morgan, they'll imprison the innocent Ordway. In typical B-film fashion, the ending is rushed but satisfactory. Margaret Lindsay is Baxter's romantic interest.

The second film, STRANGEST CASE, is a straightforward mystery involving a murder in a houseful of suspects. Lloyd Bridges plays an ex-con who was charged with poisoning his employer until Baxter's testimony got him released. Bridges' new job is very much like his previous one, secretary to a rich man, and soon that rich man is found dead from poison. Bridges goes on the run but there are plenty of other suspects for Baxter to hound: Virginia Brissac is an odd, almost otherworldly housekeeper whose surreal dream, which we see depicted on screen, may or may not hold a key to the mystery; Gloria Dickson is a cook who is most assuredly not who she seems to be (and she gets a wonderful unmasking scene); Rose Hobart is the dead man's young wife; Reginald Denny is the dead man's nephew; Jerome Cowan is an eccentric songwriter who is also a firebug (to both serious and comic effect). Baxter, with some help from cop Barton MacLane, discovers an abandoned nightclub which plays a crucial role in bringing up buried secrets from the past. The movie, with its long roster of colorful suspects and intertwined relationships, is a little underwritten, with a rush of information just told rather than developed. But it's still a lot of fun, less like a Boston Blackie cops & thugs crime thriller than an old-fashioned Philo Vance mystery, and the sometimes wooden Baxter is perfectly adequate here, especially with the colorful supporting cast around him.

By the time of WARNING, the fifth in the series, things have gone decidedly downhill in writing and production values. Here, Baxter is trying to help sensitive struggling (and handsome) artist Coulter Irwin with his bouts of memory lapses, especially when Irwin becomes the chief suspect in the murder of two lovely models he had worked with, one of whom he wanted to marry. John Litel, the chief baddie from the first movie, is Baxter's cop buddy in this one, and the suspects, all from the lower echelons of the New York art world, include John Abbott as a silhouette artist, Eduardo Ciannelli as a gruff male model angry that women are getting all the good jobs, Miles Mander as a museum curator, and Alma Kruger as Irwin's smothering mother. There is promise in the set-up but so much information is delivered as tedious exposition that practically nothing actually happens on screen (except for one creepy moment when the second model is killed). The sets look cheap, though William Castle, in an early directorial effort, tries to conjure some mysterious atmosphere to hide that fact. It's fun to see a Hollywood version of a 40's Greenwich Village milieu, with a roomful of artists almost looking like before-their-time beatniks. Most of the acting is fine, but Baxter, though only in his mid-50s, seems old and tired, and a couple of his flubbed lines are left in. Much as I enjoyed the first two, this one left me not anxious to see any others. [TCM]

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Of all the 40's crime fighter movie series I've been watching recently, the Dick Tracy films (based on the long-running comic series created by Chester Gould) are the cheapest looking and the least exciting ones, but if this film is typical of the short-lived series, then there are some simple pleasures for film buffs to enjoy. In two earlier films, Tracy was played by Morgan Conway, but apparently there was popular demand to replace him with Ralph Byrd, who played Tracy in a couple of serials in the 30's (and who also was Tracy in a 50's TV show). I haven't seen Conway and I'm not all that familiar with the comic strip (though I do remember watching the animated series when I was very young) but Byrd seems well cast as the no-nonsense cop. What doesn't translate as well is the colorful milieu of the comic strip, with its fairly graphic violence, exaggerated characters out of Damon Runyon, and bizarrely named villains. One night, a hulking, limping man named the Claw (Jack Lambert) who has a hook for a hand, breaks into a warehouse where he and his cronies steal some furs and kill a night watchman in the process. Tracy and his sidekick Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) are on the case with some help from an old man named Sightless Silas (Jimmy Conlin) who hangs out in front of the Blinking Skull bar pretending to be blind, picking up bits of info to sell to Tracy. Silas overhears the Claw and, in the movie's best scene, is eventually tracked down and disposed of. Tracy suspects that the fur company's recent change of insurance companies may be tied to the theft, and he's right, but is the bad guy Peter Premium, the insurance agent (William B. Davidson) or the fur company boss (Charles Marsh)? Retired (and very hammy) Shakespearean actor Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) gets pressed into service by Tracy, as does Longshot Lilly (Bernadene Hayes). The low budget is obvious in the threadbare sets and costumes, and the film doesn't do justice to the strange world of the comic strip, although a solid noir mood is established in some scenes. I was surprised that Tracy's longtime girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Kay Christopher) had so little to do. The brutish Lambert is quite scary and the pompous Keith is fun. Bryd anchors all in a steadfast fashion. With a one hour running time, the film goes by quickly, which is a plus. [TCM]

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Last year, I reviewed two movies in the Boston Blackie series. These mysteries were done on the cheap and it shows, but I generally enjoy actor Chester Morris and the light touch he brings to the character, so I was pleased to see a batch of Blackies show up on TCM recently. MEET is the first in the series (not counting a handful of silents which seem to be lost). Morris, on a passenger ship returning to the U.S., saves Constance Worth from molestation by Nestor Paiva. When the ship docks and Paiva is found dead, Morris, already under suspicion by inspector Richard Lane for selling stolen jewels overseas, is now under suspicion for murder. Morris and his sidekick The Runt (Charles Wagenheim) follow Worth to Coney Island where she's killed in the Tunnel of Love by a supposed mechanical man. Morris gets away from the scene when he hops a ride with innocent bystander Rochelle Hudson, and she helps him clear his name (despite Lane's insistence to Morris that he's "gonna sizzle like a squab in a pan!") and expose a spy ring at the park. The proceedings remain lively, though the climax is too short--I guess when they got close to an hour, the bosses at Columbia just said, "Cut!" There are a couple of fun running gags, one of which has Morris leaving messages for Lane written in soap on mirrors (nicely counterpointed at the end when Lane leaves one for Morris on his windshield). I like that it's implied that Morris is indeed guilty of the jewel robbery but that Lane lets it slide. Schlitze (real name, Simon Metz), one of the "pinheads" from FREAKS, can be seen here in a freak show scene. One problem with the low budget is that Morris lives in the most under-designed and under-decorated penthouse ever.

By ALIAS, the third in the series, underrated character actor George E. Stone had taken over as The Runt, a happy occurrence, and he appears in most of the rest of the films. Looking back on my earlier reviews, I see that I wasn't all that crazy about Stone, but now I have come to appreciate him more and I think he does fine work here. With my weakness for all things Christmas, I was pleased that this film opens with Morris and Stone decorating a Christmas tree. That's about it for any real holiday spirit, however, as the two head off to take part in a volunteer vaudeville show at the local prison where Morris does a magic act (magic was a real-life interest of the actor). Afterwards, one prisoner (Larry Parks), who claims to have been framed, dresses up as a clown and escapes with the troupe, and to show the Inspector (Lane again) that he wasn't in on it, Morris has to track him down. Of course, Parks has a sister (Adele Mara) who gets Morris to help prove Parks' innocence. Lloyd Corrigan as Morris' rich, eccentric friend Arthur is carried over from CONFESSIONS, and Cy Kendall begins the recurring role of Jumbo Madigan, an underworld contact. There's a fairly exciting climax and a Christmas toast at the end.

A couple of years later, Columbia made a stab at expanding the audience for these films by giving them titles without the Boston Blackie name. ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT doesn't come anywhere near living up to its title; "Inspector Boston Blackie" would. The famous Blue Star of the Nile diamond disappears in broad daylight from a charity exhibition and the Inspector calls on Morris for help, even deputizing him and giving him a badge, then spreading a cover story in the press that Morris is wanted for the theft. Brassy, nosy reporter Janis Carter becomes a pain in the ass for Morris (and oddly, never becomes a romantic interest until the very last minute of the film). William Wright makes a fine thuggish bad guy. Morris and Stone get to don a few disguises (and Morris wears them very well, especially his "old man" outfit). Mark Roberts plays a hotel manager who is implicated in the crimes and Dorothy Malone (at this point in her career still uncredited) is his sister who tries to get him out of trouble. It's about average for a Boston Blackie entry, but there isn't much "mysterious" about it. Generally, I find these films not quite on a par with the George Sanders Saint films but they're a bit more memorable than some of the other B-thriller series of the era. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Recently, Turner Classic Movies devoted an entire month to detective movie series of the 30's and 40's, so I took this opportunity to catch up on some of the series I've missed or haven't seen in a while. I like mystery novels, but I'm not a big follower of series characters; when I've read a couple by any given author (like Martha Grimes or P.D. James, for example), I've usually had my fill, no matter how good they are. Generally I feel the same about these movie series, and the closer they are to formula programmers, the stronger I feel. I admit to getting the Saint and Falcon movies of the 40's mixed up, mostly because George Sanders played both for a time, and the character types are similar: suave, quiet, upper-class gentlemen with a bit of the rogue about them who help folks in distress, sometimes with and sometimes against the police. Sanders is always fun to watch, and STRIKES BACK was his first movie as the Saint, real name Simon Templar, who is explicitly referred to in the film as a Robin Hood type, not above a little larceny for the right reason. This one begins with a bang in a San Francisco nightclub at a New Year's Eve celebration. Wendy Barrie, who has made headlines on a crusade to clear her dead father's reputation as a corrupt cop, is seated with a couple of men. When the lights dim at midnight, one of the men gets up, pulls out a revolver, and takes aim at another man, but Sanders, hidden behind a plant, aims at the gunman first and kills him. In the ensuing uproar, Barrie sneaks out, followed closely by Sanders. The two don't exactly hit it off, but he does find out that Barrie and her boyfriend (Neil Hamilton) have become mixed up with a gang of shady characters who they hope can help them in her crusade. Sanders himself is on a mission to bring down mysterious underworld boss Waldman, and since it was Waldman who framed Barrie's dad, Sanders and Barrie eventually overcome their adversarial relationship to work together. The supporting cast includes Barry Fitzgerald as a safecracker, Jerome Cowan as a criminologist, and Jonathan Hale as the police inspector who gets a goofy hallucination scene when he gets sick from eating lobster. As often happens, the plot strands got a bit difficult to follow, but Sanders' dry delivery makes it worth sitting through. No real romance develops in this one, though my favorite line has Sanders saying to Barrie that he loves her, but that he also loves "fireflies and mockingbirds and pink sunsets."

LONDON also has a memorable opening, with Sanders getting his pocket picked by David Burns, then Sanders returning the favor, and then hiring Burns has his valet. Sanders is on the trail of crook Henry Oscar who is behind a counterfeiting ring. Young socialite Sally Grey, wanting some action, tags along with Sanders as they break into a safe and find a beaten-up man along the road, a foreign count (John Abbot) who was forced to cooperate with Oscar's gang. Sanders hides him at a boarding house, passing him off as police inspector Teal (Gordon McLeod), but the bad guys get him anyway, and the real Teal gets involved. Again, there are some confusing plot strands, and the cast of British supporting players were mostly unknown to me and they all started looking alike, so I had a harder time than usual keeping characters clear in my mind, but with kidnapping, espionage and murder (at least one at the hand of Sanders), and the sometimes bungling attempts of Burns and Grey to help, things stay lively to the predictable end. More sleuth series reviews coming up. [TCM]

Monday, April 09, 2007


I have not seen many films from the "Angry Young Man" era of British cinema, realistic stories of the working-class generation of the late 50's and early 60's. I picture these movies as grimy documents of drab, desperate lives lived in smoky bars and oppressive factories, with characters who are unhappy with their present situations, and rather incoherently angry at their parents, their bosses, and society in general. Well, based on the evidence of this film, the one that brought the young Albert Finney to stardom, I wasn't far wrong. Finney works at a soulless (and occasionally dangerous) factory job in Nottingham and lives with his parents in a crowded little house. His father, also a factory worker, is content to come home and veg in front of the TV, not really paying attention to anything around him. In these domestic scenes, Finney comes off as a more sociable Alex (from CLOCKWORK ORANGE), frustrated but not knowing exactly why or what he wants. He seems to live for his partying Saturday nights, which usually end in fistfights and hangovers--we see one example early on in which he gets into a drinking contest with a sullen sailor (Colin Blakely). Finney is sleeping with a slightly older woman (Rachel Roberts) who is married to a pal of his (Bryan Pringle) at the factory, and flirting with a girl (Shirley Ann Field) he meets in a pub. Soon, Roberts is pregnant and Finney casts about randomly for a solution, notably miscarriage recipes from an aunt (Hylda Baker). Roberts considers an abortion but ultimately decides against it, and in the movie's most memorable sequence, Pringle gets some soldier friends to come after Finney at a street fair and beat him up. In the end, he chooses to marry Field and think about buying a house in a suburban project, though he claims not to want to end up like his folks, who have the basic necessities but are "dead from the neck up." A scene in the middle of the film in which Finney watches a frustrated old man throw a rock through a storefront window is echoed in the movie's last shot in which Finney impotently throws a rock at the newly built projects, suggesting that the amorphous frustrations he feels are not gone, just being displaced. Norman Rossington, best known as the Beatles' manager in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, plays Finney's best friend, in generally the same boat as Finney but a little less hot-headed. Roberts, a fine actress (PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, FOUL PLAY) whose career highlights have been obscured since her untimely death in 1980, is excellent here, completely matching Finney, who with swagger and charisma to spare, turns what could have been an unlikable character into someone with which the audience can empathize, if not take to its heart. He also has some memorable dialogue: early on, he proclaims, "What I'm out for is a good time--all the rest is propaganda," and later in a similar tone, "Whatever people say about me, that's what I'm not!" (recently appropriated as an album title by British indie band Arctic Monkeys). A sidenote: Roberts' journals, published as "No Bells on Sunday," make for fascinating reading. [DVD]

Saturday, April 07, 2007


This nicely mounted historical piece is often classed as a horror film, mostly because it comes from Universal and stars Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price. It does have some Gothic-type trappings (a torture chamber, beheadings, a particularly creative murder) but is otherwise squarely in the costume melodrama mold. I have to admit I don't know a Plantagenet from a pomegranate, but I was able to follow the film of royal intrigues with little trouble. Based on the same events that Shakespeare dramatized in "Richard III," the story is set in England during the late 15th century; Edward (Ian Hunter) has just deposed the senile King Henry (Miles Mander) who wanders the castle in a fog, wearing a paper crown. Rathbone is Edward's devious brother Richard, frequently referred to as "Crookback," though Rathbone doesn't overdo the deformity of the hunchback. Price is the sniveling brother, the duke of Clarence, who winds up, in one of the best scenes in the movie, drowned in a vat of wine. The main narrative thread follows Rathbone on his quest for the throne. He has a little doll's house set up with figures standing in for all those in his path, and each time one is put out of the way, the figure is tossed away, moving Richard's figure closer to the throne. It takes years but he soon gets his wish, after having killed off several folks, including the two rightful child heirs, with the help of Karloff as Mord, his faithful torturer and executioner. Karloff cuts a very creepy figure here with his bald head, club foot, and swinging axe; in some ways, he's almost scarier here than he is as the Frankenstein monster, because the monster has some sympathetic moments but Mord does not. There is a romantic subplot that bubbles up from time to time involving young lord John Sutton and lady Nan Grey, and the exiled Prince of Wales spends most of the movie waiting in France for the right time to lead a revolt, which does indeed come at the end. Other cast members include Barbara O'Neil (as Queen Elizabeth), Leo G. Carroll, Ralph Forbes, and Rathbone's son John Rodion as Lord Devere who gets the axe early on. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


[Spoilers follow!] Glossy 50's soap operas aren't usually my cup of tea, but I enjoyed watching this one and I'm not sure why. It's like a mild VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, or a more serious (and non-musical) HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS. The attitudes about women, business, and morals are dated but not so foreign to us that we can't identify with the situations. The set-up reminded me of THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, as we follow the stories of three roommates in New York City, all of whom work in the secretarial pool at a large publishing company where virtually everyone is having an adulterous affair or two. Hope Lange, fresh out of college with a boyfriend (Brett Halsey) forging a career overseas, is new to the city and has aspirations to work as an editor; Diane Baker is a young secretary, a little ditzy, more in the market for a husband than a career; would-be actress Suzy Parker is temping until she can land a role in a play. Their stories: 1) Ambitious Lange works under and has the occasional run-in with Joan Crawford, a tough-as-nails senior editor. At one point, Lange dares to take home a manuscript that Crawford has rejected as "trash"; she thinks it has potential and bypasses Crawford by giving her notes on the book to big boss Brian Aherne, who apparently likes her spunk and gives her a job upgrade to reader and eventually to editor. When Halsey calls her long distance to tell her he's married someone else, she gets involved with handsome but brooding editor Stephen Boyd, but later, when Halsey comes to town and announces his marriage is falling apart, Lange has to make a choice. 2) Baker falls in with rich but slimy playboy Robert Evans who goes to work right away on, in his words, "storming the citadel"; when she gets pregnant, she assumes he's going to marry her so she gets all decked out in a nice civil wedding outfit, but instead he's decided to take her to get an "underground" abortion, so she leaps out of his moving car in Central Park and winds up having a miscarriage.

3) Parker, who clearly hates her day job, auditions for director Louis Jourdan and doesn't make the cut, but when she's introduced to him socially, they hit it off. She moves in with him and he gives her a part in his play but it soon becomes apparent that she's not very talented and she loses her role as actress and as mistress, which drives her to obsessively hiding outside of his apartment, spying on him and going through his trash. As in most "three on a match"-type stories, there has to be at least one tragic figure and Parker is it here. The acting helps make most of this palatable; Crawford in particular is quite good and is given enough of a separate subplot to be more than just a cardboard bitch. Evans, later a producer at Paramount (best known for CHINATOWN) is the exception, seeming to sleepwalk through a role that could have used more charm and/or grit. The sexual politics are laughable but entertaining, and sometimes not as antique as we might like to think, as early on when Boyd suggests that Lange should "prove what you have to prove" then leave the business world to get married. [FMC]