Wednesday, December 30, 2009

MY YEAR IN CLASSIC MOVIES

Another year, another list of the 10 classic movies I saw for the first time this year which were great, enjoyable, or interesting, with the dates of the month in which I reviewed them here:

FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949; rev. 11/09): Creepy police thriller with William Lundigan tracking down a serial killer called The Judge; short and low-budget but with atmosphere to beat the band.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER (1953; rev. 4/09): Intelligent, well-acted adaptation of a Grahame Green novel about an unhappy British policeman in colonial Africa who finds his world coming apart.

THE KILLERS (1964; rev. 11/09): Remake of a classic 1946 film noir; this one is less atmospheric but more brutal and violent, and acted very well by John Cassavetes, Angie Dickinson, and Lee Marvin.

MURDER IN THE RED BARN (1935; rev. 1/09): Old fashioned, over-the-top melodrama with thunder and dark houses and twirling mustaches.

LA RONDE (1950; rev. 9/09): Frothy, sexy, episodic French concoction about a group of people involved in a circular chain of love affairs.

SEARCH FOR BEAUTY (1934; rev. 5/09): Fun, risque pre-Code comedy about a couple of scammers setting up a health spa and getting their comeuppance at the hands of two Olympic athletes; notable for its flashes of near-nudity (both male and female).

SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955; rev. 8/09): Dirty commie spies who use a grungy seaside diner as a place to pass secrets are hunted down by a college professor--or is he one of them? Lee Marvin gives a great B-film performance as the chief bad guy.

TENSION (1949; rev. 12/09): A wonderful low-key noir thriller with all the right elements: an urban setting, nighttime action, a conflicted hero, a femme fatale, moral gray areas, betrayal, and cops. Richard Basehart is good as the hero but Audrey Totter is fabulous as the bad gal.

TWO THOUSAND WOMEN (1944; rev. 3/09): A wartime thriller with a different setting, an old hotel in France being used by the Germans as an interment camp for women; not terribly exciting but engrossing, with a great Hitchcock moment during a concert scene near the climax.

UNCLE SILAS (1947; rev. 10/09): Grand Gothic melodrama of a young girl and her guardian, an uncle who seems at first pleasant if eccentric but soon reveals himself to be a villain who will do anything to get his hands on her inheritance; one of the best film adaptations of a Gothic novel.

I also enjoyed other noir/crime films such as THE BIG HEAT (this was a good Lee Marvin year for me) and THE PHENIX CITY STORY; Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s wonderfully surreal short THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH; the antic British comedy THE WRONG BOX; the near-screwball THE YOUNG IN HEART; the bizarre anti-war musical OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR; the fun B-mystery THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER; and the 60's-influenced re-telling of the life of St. Francis BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON.

Sometimes it seems like they're scraping the bottom of the barrel for DVD sets, but this year, I loved the pre-Code sets from Warners (the 3rd Forbidden Hollywood) and Universal (which contains SEARCH FOR BEAUTY), the Douglas Fairbanks "Modern Musketeer" box, and boxed sets of Hammer films, Joan Crawford films, and B-screwball films. Boxed sets have become the savior of many little movies that ordinarily would never get released on DVD, except they happen to belong to a genre (film noir sets are especially common) or fit a theme (studios, stars).

Monday, December 28, 2009

PIER 5, HAVANA (1959)

This B-film, which tries to conjure up good feelings by referencing Casablanca and The Third Man, is worth watching as a novelty on two fronts: 1) it's one of the last American films shot at least partly on location in Cuba; 2) it's got a pro-Castro plotline. Just after the Cuban revolution, when Castro's forces drove Batista from power, American Cameron Mitchell, who runs a Miami airstrip, goes to Cuba to find his old buddy Hank who's gone missing. Because Hank had become a heavy drinker, no one seems terribly concerned about his disappearance. Even Hank's estranged wife, Allison Hayes, an old flame of Mitchell's, seems to have forgotten all about Hank and is now being romanced by plantation owner Eduardo Noriega. Mitchell works with the local cops but also strikes out on his own, crossing paths with some brutal thugs who work for Otto Waldis, Hank's former boss. Hank's decomposing body is found—it's assumed he got drunk and took a fatal fall in pouring rain—but guess who stumbles into Hayes' apartment? Hank (Logan Field), on the run from the same thugs who are after Mitchell. It turns out that Waldis is smuggling bomb fuses (in boxes marked "chocolate") to pro-Batista forces preparing to bomb Havana. Yes, the folks backing Castro are the good guys here, but who can they trust, and will they be able to stop the bombing?

This is a decent hard-boiled thriller which is helped immensely by the location shooting. Mitchell is par for the course for as the rough-around-the-edges hero, but Hayes (one of those women—like Julie Newmar—who is always described as "statuesque") is fun to watch, even if she's not much of an actor; she looks good standing around and glaring at people. Waldis looks like a disgruntled Edmund Gwenn (Santa in Miracle on 34th Street). Field, as the missing buddy, gets a good scene or two in near the end, and Michael Granger is fine as the cop. At 67 minutes, it doesn't wear out its welcome. [TCM]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

GIVE ME YOUR HEART (1936)

Kay Francis and Patric Knowles are in love, but he’s married to Frieda Inescort, an invalid (though as far as I could see, her only problem is a mild limp) who can’t have children. Francis goes to Italy to get advice from her father, who promptly drops dead. When she returns to England, Roland Young, a family friend, figures out that she is pregnant by Knowles, and it is arranged for Francis to have the child and give it to Knowles and his wife to raise as their own. Afterward, Francis goes to America to start a new life and marries George Brent, whom she meets on the ship over. A couple years later, when a friend of hers has a baby, Francis falls into a funk over her "lost" child but eventually, Young arranges a meeting in which Francis gets to see what a good life her child has and what a good mother Inescort is. This is a routine soap opera, notable only because, in the Production Code era, it allows Knowles and Francis to engage in extramarital sex and both have relatively happy outcomes. In fact, in the end, everyone behaves in a most civilized fashion, even Inescort, who in another film might be a demonized figure. The other interesting point is the setting-up of Young and Helen Flint, as a doctor, as a supporting, asexual, comic relief couple analogous to Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick in an Astaire/Rogers film. Also with Henry Stephenson as Knowles’ titled father and Halliwell Hobbes as Francis’ father. [TCM]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

WILL YOU MERRY ME? (2008)

My annual search for a halfway-decent made-for-TV Christmas movie almost came a cropper this year. Hallmark and Lifetime and ABC Family were full of them this month, but virtually all sounded exactly the same: a couple fall in love at Christmas. I found an interesting variation on DVD in a small indie movie called NOELLE, which I have reviewed elsewhere, but as it wasn't made for TV, it just wouldn't suffice here. There was great promise in a Lifetime movie called 12 MEN OF CHRISTMAS with the ultra-fabulous Kristin Chenoweth and the always-welcome Josh Hopkins (Swingtown, Cougar Town--the fact that this wasn't called Christmastown should have been a warning) but their combined talents could not save this dreadful romantic comedy which had almost nothing to do the holidays. In a small Montana town, city girl Chenoweth gets the hunky men of the local mountain rescue service to pose almost-nude for a fund-raising calendar, and eventually falls for rugged loner Hopkins. Don and I noticed that every time the plot seemed headed for any dramatic tension at all, it veered quickly away. The two actors tried, but the script was dreadful and the direction practically non-existent.

This Christmas Eve morning as I was about to give up, Lifetime gave me a little stocking-stuffer gift, WILL YOU MERRY ME?, a cute culture-clash comedy which actually premiered last year. Rebecca, a Jewish girl from L.A., and Henry, a Protestent boy from Wisconsin, meet cute in New York City while apartment hunting, move in together, and fall in love. On their 6-month "anniversary," he proposes to her, almost on a whim, and she says yes. This means heading off to his small town to spend the holidays with his folks, and having her folks fly in for a day before they go skiing in Aspen to meet the future in-laws. Of course, the culture clash is represented by the tired old Christmas vs. Hanukkah plotline, but it's treated very lightly here. His mom loves Christmas and stuffs the house with decorations and knick-knacks, while his dad turns the home's exterior into one of those ostentatious flashing suburban nightmares. As a nod to her folks, they put a fiddler on the roof (literally) next to Santa, and make half of their Christmas tree into a "Hanukkah Bush." Of course, her parents wind up stranded for a couple of days and they all have to celebrate Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah together, not to mention that Henry has agreed to appear in a Christmas Eve pageant with his childhood sweetheart. Meanwhile, a second clash has emerged: Rebecca and Henry really don't know much about each other; as they realize that, they begin to have second thoughts about getting married. Can the parents band together to save their kids' relationship? Of course they can!

The plot traffics in all kinds of cliches but the movie manages to overcome most of them due to some clever dialogue and decent acting by some old pros (Cynthia Stevenson as Henry's mom, and the wonderful Wendie Malick, above right, as Rebecca's mom). The romantic pair, Tommy Lioutas and Vikki Krinsky (pictured at the top), are Canadian TV actors I'd never heard of, but they generate good chemistry and are mostly believable. There are some bizarre plot twists (a reindeer gets hit by a car, someone falls out of a window) and an amusing but very minor running gag involves Henry's (unseen) brother whom everyone has accepted as gay except the parents. I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would, maybe because it's Christmas Eve morning. It's no timeless gem, but it's harmless and elicits some nice chuckles. (And if you've followed my December thread over the years, yes, Lioutas, at left, is blandly handsome.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

THE WRONG BOX (1966)

This film's prologue shows us a bunch of schoolboys getting enrolled in a tontine, an odd lottery-type arrangement in which they all have money invested for them, and the last one left alive gets all the money. In a quick montage, we see them all as adults, one by one, dropping dead in bizarre accidents, until elderly brothers John Mills and Ralph Richardson are the last survivors. The perpetually ill Mills (who isn’t really quite as sick as everyone assumes) invites his estranged brother to visit him, intending to kill him and make it look like an accident so he will get the money. But during a train wreck, Richardson vanishes, leading his greedy nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) to assume he’s dead, a fact they try to hide, hoping that Mills will drop dead soon and the two of them can claim the money in Richardson’s name. Throw into the mix Mills’ nice-guy grandson (Michael Caine), a comically addled butler (Wilfrid Lawson), a lovely young woman (Nanette Newman, pictured below with Mills) who is so highly-strung, she shrieks at the drop of a hat, and a coffin containing a body that everyone assumes is Richardson's, and a great deal of humor, both verbal and slapstick, ensues, climaxing in a hysterical funeral procession.

This black comedy, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, starts a little slowly but picks up steam and winds up being one fun roller-coaster ride. All the performances are wonderful, including Peter Sellers in what amounts to a cameo as a cat-loving alcoholic doctor, but the gem here is Lawson, an actor I’d never seen before, as the butler. His career was in decline because of a drinking problem (in fact, he would die of a heart attack just months after the release of this film), but he’s quite funny here. One of the best moments is when Cook, a collector of eggs, struts about in his house saying, “Listen to me, all you eggs!” A little-known comedy classic which deserves a DVD release. [TCM]

Monday, December 21, 2009

FORBIDDEN (1932)

Barbara Stanwyck is a small-town librarian who arrives to work late one day, vents about wanting to burn the town down, quits her job, and uses her savings to take a vacation to Cuba (and all this in the first five minutes!). On the ship, she meets a charming drunk (Adolphe Menjou) and they hit it off, but he keeps his past mysterious. Back home, she gets a job as a newspaper clipping librarian and discovers that Menjou is a politician, married to an invalid who was crippled in a car accident for which he was responsible. Stanwyck also soon realizes she’s pregnant. A couple years pass, during which time Menjou and Stanwyck have begun an on-the-sly relationship, but when newspaper editor Ralph Bellamy (who for reasons we never learn is on a vendetta against Menjou) runs across the two of them and their baby on a picnic, they pretend that the baby is Menjou’s adopted baby and that Stanwyck is the governess. Stanwyck agrees to give the baby up for Menjou and his wife to adopt and she gets a job as a lovelorn columnist with Bellamy. Eventually she marries Bellamy, but when he finds out the truth about Stanwyck and Menjou, who is running for governor, the melodramatic shit hits the fan. This is a pre-Code film, so the final payoff is rather unexpected, but still this soapy movie is a little tough to sit through. Bellamy’s character is the most interesting one here, but the fact that we never learn why he hates Menjou so much is a real fault in the storytelling. Menjou and Stanwyck don’t have a lot of chemistry, and there’s not an interesting supporting cast to liven things up. Dorothy Peterson as the crippled wife never seems very sickly—she gets around OK with a cane. This early Frank Capra movie doesn’t have many of the later hallmarks of his style, but for pre-Code buffs, it’s moderately interesting viewing. [TCM]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (1953)

In 19th century Paris, the never-fully-named Madame of the title (Danielle Darrieux) is married to a well-off general (Charles Boyer) but, due to what we assume are gambling debts he doesn’t know about, she sells an expensive set of earrings that he gave her as a wedding present, then tells him that they were lost or stolen at the opera. The jeweler she sold them to, upset at the publicity given the theft, contacts the general who buys them back and gives them to his mistress, who is leaving for Constantinople. She ends up pawning them to pay off *her* gambling debts, and a baron (Vittorio De Sica), heading to Paris, buys them. The baron and Madame meet by accident and fall into a passionate affair, but when the baron gives her the earrings as a gift, events spiral downward and the film changes from a light comedy of manners to a romantic tragedy.

This highly-regarded film by Max Ophuls has long been on my list of must-see films, and I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint. The plot points of the elegantly structured narrative are all triggered by the telling of “white lies” (or lies of omission) or the keeping of secrets, and for a while it’s fun to see how the events snowball, how people (especially Madame) mask their feelings and try to follow or wriggle around the rules of society. It’s all well plotted and well acted, but the film is a classic due to its direction and cinematography. The sets and costumes are lovely, the imagery is rich, and the camerawork is dazzling. The most astonishing sequence is a series of swirling shots which follow Madame and the baron across a number of dance floors as they fall in love. In the last half-hour, the tone goes from playful to tragic, and in a way that I don’t find completely convincing--the novella the film is based on apparently has a somewhat less bleak ending--but it does lead up to a nice final shot of poetic justice. The Criterion DVD is, of course, gorgeous. [DVD]

Monday, December 14, 2009

THE TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961)

In 1910 Hong Kong, the Red Dragon Tong is a group of Chinese gangsters who extort money from merchants, deal in drugs and prostitution, and have the populace living in fear. Their mark is the mutilation of the hands of people who cross them. Even the British tend to overlook their shipping losses to them (as one of the District Commissioners is in the pay of the the Tong). But they go too far when, while searching for an incriminating list of Tong members that was being smuggled to a resistance group called The Liberators, they kill the daughter of a sea captain (Geoffrey Toone) who vows to get revenge against the Tong’s leader. Toone gets help from the leader of The Liberators (who spends most of the movie in disguise as a beggar) and a Eurasian girl who has spent much of her life in bondage to the gangsters. But can they prevail against the small army of opium-addled assassins who are unleashed against the enemies of the Tong?

This is one of Hammer’s B-thrillers (as opposed to the horror films that made them famous), and something of a throwback to the "Yellow Peril" crime movies of the 30's. Most of the Asian characters are played by Anglo actors, including the Tong leader, Christopher Lee, in make-up that looks like a dry run for his Fu Manchu movies a few years later. Actually, Lee doesn’t have much screen time, but his presence dominates the film. Toone (pictured above) makes an effective dime-novel hero, even undergoing a bare-chested "bone-scraping" torture scene, though Yvonne Monlaur as the half-caste sex slave sidekick is fairly wooden. Overall, paced a bit sluggishly but a passable popcorn melodrama. [DVD]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1919)

Another interesting Douglas Fairbanks film from the silent era. In this one, he plays Daniel Boone Brown, a man who, without realizing it, is the subject of an experiment by Dr. Metz, a somewhat deranged psychiatrist: the doc is trying to manipulate Brown's life by instilling fears, superstitions, and bad behaviors in him, apparently hoping to drive him to suicide, just to see if he can. Brown's servant is in on it, and the film begins with the servant encouraging Fairbanks to eat heavy spicy foods (onions, lobster, Welsh rarebit) at midnight just before bed. The movie's tour de force sequence follows: first we see the food (portrayed by people in outfits reminiscent of the old Fruit of the Loom ads) tumbling about in his stomach, and then Brown dreams that the food is chasing him across a landscape; he runs into a house and, like Fred Astaire many years later in ROYAL WEDDING, walks up the walls and along the ceiling, with the food clustered below on the floor trying to grab him (pictured to the left). When he wakes up, he's two hours late for work; his stockbroker uncle has had enough and forces him to take a week off without pay. Brown meets Lucette (Kathleen Clifford), a girl from Oklahoma trying to make it in the big city; she's as superstitious as he and they bond over a Ouija board, eventually becoming engaged. But Brown winds up unwittingly involved in a scheme by his uncle and a hometown boyfriend of Lucette's to cheat her father out of some valuable land. The rest of the melodramatic plot is predictable (Brown and Lucette work out their problems together) with a couple of odd quirks thrown in--particularly the fate of Dr. Metz, which is right out of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, which came out a year later. There is another comically surreal moment, set inside Brown's head, in which personified figures of Reason and Sense of Humor battle Jealousy and Despair, and the wedding scene comes at the end of a climactic storm and flood sequence, which is quite well done for the time, despite some obvious use of miniatures. Basically, this is a romantic comedy with some satire of psychology used as a hook on which to hang some bizarre situations and comic scenes. Fairbanks, who was in his mid-30's here, is quite athletic (and gets to do some fun stunts) but looks at least 40, so it's a bit of a stretch to imagine him as a rudderless young man. Otherwise, this is great fun. [DVD--on the Flicker Alley "Modern Musketeer" boxed set]

Friday, December 11, 2009

THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH (1916)

This notorious silent short (25 minutes) about a cocaine-addled detective is much discussed among film buffs but hard to see, so it was a joy to discover it on a boxed DVD set of Douglas Fairbanks movies, and even better to find that the film is not a disappointment, as so many long-lost cult items are. Fairbanks (Senior, father of the sound-era actor), with weird hair and a shaggy false mustache, is Coke Enneyday, a Sherlock Holmes figure. There is a giant dial on his wall divided into four parts: Eat, Drink, Sleep, Dope. He sits nodding at a desk until he takes out a syringe and shoots cocaine into his hand, then he gets a goofy smile on his face and starts bouncing happily in his chair. Occasionally, he dips his hand into a huge canister (helpfully labeled "Cocaine") and takes gigantic outrageous snorts, tossing white powder everywhere. When he gets up and turns the dial to Drink, his assistant makes him strong cocktails. But mostly, he Dopes, constantly stabbing his hand with a needle and looking slaphappy. He is asked to investigate the case of a stranger in town who seems to have money to burn but no visible means of support. It turns out the guy is the head of a smuggling ring, bringing opium into the country using a beachside flotation-device rental store as a front (the Leaping Fish of the title are the floats). When Fairbanks discovers the opium, he is positively giddy with delight as he samples some. The detective also has to rescue a young woman, identified in an intertitle as "Inane, the little fish-blower of Short Beach"--she inflates the Leaping Fish. Things come to a climax at the Hop Sum laundry in Chinatown where Fairbanks gets the gang members high on opium; they proceed to prance around with Fairbanks before falling to the floor in a stupor. At the end, there's one last very amusing and self-referential surprise.

Some folks have identified this as a pro-drug movie, which is just as ridiculous as saying that W.C. Fields movies in which the main character is frequently drunk are pro-alcoholism. Like a Fields movie, it's a farce, pure and simple, with no socially redeeming message*, and that's the problem for some viewers--we're so used to condemnation of drug use being an automatic part of any story that involves drugs that we don't know how to respond when rampant drug use is used strictly for laughs. I think even nine years into the 21st century, this would be taboo in a mainstream movie. Here, there is something liberating about seeing this likable character so wiped out on every drug he can his hands on, who still gets the girl and takes down the bad guy (and even steals some of the bad guy's dope). Fairbanks is hysterically funny; imagine Chaplin's Tramp totally zoned out and you'll get some picture of the figure he cuts here. With each stab of the syringe, Fairbanks bobbles his head blissfully, plays with his hair, and twirls his mustache. He spends most of the movie in a checkered outfit, riding around in a checkerboard jalopy, and more or less accidentally getting the best of the villains. I quite enjoyed this short film and highly recommend it. Available on the 5-disc Modern Musketeer set from Flicker Alley, and also on a single disc from Kino of a later Fairbanks movie called The Gaucho. [DVD]

* I'm not naive enough to imply that farces or shorts or W.C. Fields movies can't be read as having "messages," or that they don't have social or political worldviews inherent in their narratives (Fields might be seen as Huck Finn, escaping the tyranny of women, work, and laws by lighting out for the territory; i.e., getting good and drunk and staying that way as long as possible). No movie can be completely divorced from worldviews, but that doesn't mean that a coherent social message is always present.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1939)

In 1638, Louis XIII is given an heir by Queen Anne, but moments after his birth the Queen delivers a twin boy. Since there can only be one future Louis XIV, the second boy's existence is kept secret and he is shipped off to Gascony to be raised by the King's loyal and largely retired Musketeers, led by D'Artagnan. The wicked Fouquet raises the heir to be a ruthless bastard, and years later, the Musketeers (including the grown-up twin, named Phillipe) are arrested as tax rebels, an incident which provides the movie's first rousing swashbuckling scene. At Louis' court, the King decides to use Phillipe as his double, not realizing that he is his brother. Phillipe makes nice with Maria Theresa of Spain, Louis' arranged fiancée, and they fall in love, which is nice for Louis who can remain with his mistress. Louis is less happy when Phillipe, as the King, runs into some desperately hungry peasants and promises to help them, and also orders the Musketeers freed. Louis wants to have Phillipe killed, but when the truth about their blood tie is revealed, he instead imprisons Phillipe in the Bastille in an iron mask, so his resemblance to the King will not be known. Will the Musketeers be able to save Phillipe before his beard grows so long that it will strangle him inside his mask?

I found this to be more fun than any "Three Musketeers" film I've seen yet. Directed by James Whale, this was done as an "independent," non-studio film, meaning the budget may have been a bit leaner than the norm for this kind of action film, and indeed the swashbuckling scenes are few and far between, with the political and romantic angles of the King's marriage taking up more screen time, but when they do get around to action, it's done very well. Loius Hayward does a nice job as the twins, giving his two roles two different personalities without going campily overboard. Joseph Schildkraut is appropriately slimy as Fouquet and Joan Bennett is fine as the confused love interest who is alternately repelled by Louis and attracted by Phillipe, not knowing about the ruse. Warren William makes a good aging D'Artagnan though the other Musketeers (including Alan Hale) don't wind up with much to do. Peter Cushing and Dwight Frye have small roles. Good fun, and I might even hunt down the DiCaprio remake. [TCM]

Friday, December 04, 2009

TENSION (1949)

An unsung gem of prime film noir. Richard Basehart is a mild-mannered, glasses-wearing, night-shift pharmacist; Audrey Totter is his icy blonde tramp of a wife who mistreats him and flirts shamelessly with other men. Basehart has been saving money to buy a perfect little suburban house, but when he drives her out to see it, she refuses to get out of the car, and even blows the car horn to drown out his pleading. Soon she's run off with Lloyd Gough, whom she refers to as a "big man"; Basehart goes out to Gough's beach house and gets into fisticuffs with Gough (which Totter watches with a mix of disgust and sexual excitement in her eyes). After getting beaten up, the meek pharmacist concocts a plan: he gets contact lenses, leases an apartment, sets up a new weekend identity, and plots to kill Gough. He tries, but can’t bring himself to go through with it. Somebody does, however, and soon the cops are hot on the trail of his alter ego.

Most of the elements of classic noir are here: an urban setting, lots of nighttime scenes, a conflicted protagonist, a femme fatale, moral gray areas, betrayal, and cops. Basehart, whom I'd never seen in anything aside from his 60's TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is good, quite believable both as the nerdish nice guy and the would-be killer. He's actually kind of nerdy-cute in glasses (Gough calls him a "four-eyed punk"), though how he wound up with Totter in the first place is never explained. Cyd Charisse is a young woman who Basehart meets in his new identity; as usual in a dramatic part—no dancing here—she is adequate and no more. Barry Sullivan is fine as the cop who narrates the story, but the real star here is Totter, looking like a mash-up of the sexiest parts of Carolyn Jones and Gloria Grahame, who glowers and pouts and struts with the best of the noir villainesses. In an interesting twist, it's implied that she and Sullivan have a past: when they first meet, they seem to recognize each other, and he says to her, "I’ve got a file on you that goes back father than you'd like to remember and up to when you wish you could forget." Despite that, they do a little hot canoodling, though mostly he does it because he suspects she might be the killer and he's trying get her to slip up. Outlandishly sexy music plays whenever Totter enters the scene—it's effective the first time around, though it had me chuckling during a second viewing. This movie is not exactly a polished masterpiece, but it is great fun, and is available as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 4 from Warner Bros. [DVD]

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955)

With the collapse of its traditional farming and manufacturing economy, Phenix City, Alabama (pronounced like Phoenix) has been overrun by vice; a song performed in one its nightclubs lauds the city’s "fancy women, slot machines, and booze." Anyone trying to fight the corrupt City Hall is doomed to defeat; nevertheless, a group of concerned citizens keep trying, and this year they want lawyer Albert Patterson to get involved. He won't, for two reasons 1) the reigning czar of the town’s seedier elements, Rhett Tanner, is an old friend of his; 2) he believes the citizens’ group is guilty of vigilantism. Eventually, however, Patterson’s son John, just back home from the Korean War, gets involved on the side of the citizens. When the young daughter of one of the crusaders is kidnapped, killed, and dumped in the street, Albert is motivated to run for Attorney General on an anti-vice platform. He wins, but before he can be sworn in, he is assassinated by Tanner's thugs. Now John Patterson gets serious, calling the state militia in to restore law and order.

This is often labeled as "film noir," but it's really a documentary-style crime drama. Based on a true story (and filmed on location in Phenix City a year after the events portrayed), the film is so anxious to set up its credentials, it opens with an awkward 10-minute newsreel segment in which real-life reporter Clete Roberts sets up the background and interviews a couple of the real people involved in the events. While moderately interesting, this section goes on too long, working against the building of dramatic tension. Luckily, once the movie gets going, it's quite watchable. John McIntire (as the father) and Edward Andrews (as Tanner) are both effectively low-key, with Richard Kiley (as the son, pictured above with McIntire) able to push his performance a bit in the other direction. The dumping of the little girl is a truly brutal and startling moment; James Edwards gives a good performance as the girl's father. Kathryn Grant (later married to Bing Crosby) isn't given much to do as Kiley's wife, though she does have a shrilly hysterical scene after the death of the girl. Not film noir, but still worth a view, largely as a document of its time; nowadays, this would be a TV-movie. [TCM]

Monday, November 30, 2009

CHANDU ON THE MAGIC ISLAND (1934)

Have I mentioned my problem with old-fashioned movie serials? I like the idea of them, but I have a hard time getting through them. I've tried the original way of watching one chapter a week, I've tried watching a bunch at a time, and I even tried watching one all the way through, but I just can't get into the swing of them (though I did finish DRUMS OF FU MANCHU and one of the Superman serials). This movie is made up of the last eight episodes of the serial THE RETURN OF CHANDU, which I tried watching but couldn't get very far in. This feature-length distillation of a serial, which gets rid of the repetition and cuts right to the chase, is the way to go. Bela Lugosi is Chandu the Magician, a student of the mystical way of the Yogi, who is protecting the Princess Nadji (Maria Alba) from the cat worshipping Cult of Ubasti who is out to kidnap her, believing that she can be sacrificed to resurrect their dead priestess. Despite Chandu's best efforts, she is snatched away off of a ship and transported via a Magic Flaming Circle to the island of Lemuria, home of the Ubasti people. Chandu loses his magic powers but, with his young sidekicks Bob (Dean Benton) and Betty (Phyllis Ludwig) and some help from a Master of White Magic and a disembodied Yogi mentor, Chandu manages to save her at the last minute. The cliffhangers work even better here than in the serial since we don't have to sit through minutes of repeated and padded footage. Among the scraps from which our heroes escape are a shipwreck, a pit with a hungry tiger, a "pit and pendulum" device, and a huge stone meant to slowly crush the victim. Though this is clearly a B-level production, the sets (including one that looks a lot like KING KONG's Skull Island gate) and costumes are properly atmospheric. I especially like the huge, fierce statue of Ubasti the Cat God. It's a little disorienting to see Lugosi, who played the villain in the first Chandu movie, playing a good guy, but he's fairly good when you get used to him. He certainly out-acts anyone else here, with Alba being a particularly wooden damsel in distress. The mild-mannered Benton displays a nice physique in his brief shirtless scene. There is a strange drum sound which can be heard whenever the bad guys are around, a device used in the later Fu Manchu serial. The disc from Alpha Video is missing the crucial moment when Chandu is saved from the giant stone but is otherwise in OK shape. [DVD]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)

As the film opens, we are in London, albeit a dangerously hot and dry London (the black & white film is tinted orange for this scene to add to the heat effect), and sweaty reporter Edward Judd is waiting to find out if the "corrective bombs" have worked. We then flashback a few weeks as Judd’s newspaper reports on the strange weather occurrences around the globe: sunspot problems, record high temperatures, floods, and a mysterious fog sweeping through London (though in Hollywood movies, a mysterious fog in London is par for the course). Janet Munro, a worker at the weather service, leaks information to Judd (with whom she begins an affair) that leads the newspaper to theorize that, because the Americans and the Russians set off atomic test blasts simultaneously, the earth has been knocked off its axis and is speeding toward the sun. The news breaks, panics ensue, and the weather gets weirder with droughts, cyclones, and fires galore. Yes, the earth is in fact rushing toward the sun, and the international powers-that-be decide that setting off another big blast in Siberia (the corrective bombs mentioned in the first scene) may set things to right.

For a relatively low-budget sci-fi disaster film, this is well worth seeing. Shot in widescreen black & white, the movie always looks good, with the shots well framed. The use of special effects is fairly limited, with some stock footage, some theatrical effects, and just plain good acting and make-up (the sweaty people in the opening and closing, for example). Judd (who looks like a cross between Richard Burton and Gene Hackman) makes a nicely low-key hero, and both he and Munro have well-rounded characters to work with. The two have an interesting, almost risqué scene involving near-nudity and the fingering of underthings. The wonderful Leo McKern (the first Number Two in the original Prisoner series, and pictured above with Judd and Munro) does a nice job as Judd's editor. I enjoyed the fact that there is a separate credit for "beatnik music" (written by Monty Norman, the composer of the original James Bond theme) though I don't actually remember hearing any. [DVD]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964)

When Astronauts Adam West and Paul Mantee have to pull some fancy maneuvering to escape collision with an asteroid, they wind up stuck in orbit around Mars. They eject in separate capsules and land on the planet; West is killed but Mantee and a monkey named Mona survive. Mantee has limited food and oxygen, but soon discovers a yellow coal-like rock that, when burned, gives off enough oxygen for him to use to get around. The monkey discovers a grotto with water and some edible vegetation and they live comfortably for a while. Soon, Mantee finds a skeleton in a marked grave and when he begins hallucinating (seeing the dead, zombie-like West walking around the cave), he fears for his sanity, but suddenly a "Man Friday" shows up. It turns out that an alien humanoid race is strip mining the planet and one of the slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes and stumbles into Mantee's cave. The two learn to communicate and must eventually go on the run from aliens searching for Lundin. They wind up at the polar ice cap hoping against hope for an escape ship from Earth.

When I was a teenager, I'd read good things about this movie in the monster mags, but when it showed up on network TV, it was, of course, panned and scanned, and my family hadn't moved up to a color set yet. I got bored with it long before the halfway mark and gave up. Now it's on a Criterion DVD, letterboxed and in beautiful color. I still got bored, but not until much later. In its day, the movie was marketed as scientifically accurate, and indeed, the landscape does look quite a bit like the photos from the Mars Rover--it was filmed in Death Valley, with the blue sky replaced by an eerie orange glow. The rest of the science (the lack of weightlessness, the oxygen from the stones) I'm not so sure about. Mantee does a good job in the middle third of the film, with no one but the monkey to play off of, but after Lundin shows up, things bog down a bit. Mantee looks hot in his snug black t-shirt, and we even get a quick nude shot of him jumping into a pond. For me, the movie is more interesting than compelling, more a novelty than a film I'd watch more than once. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

THE H-MAN (1957)

On a rainy night in Tokyo, a drug dealer is trying to stash his haul in the trunk of a getaway car, but when he suddenly looks down at the ground, screams, and falls, the driver guns it. Another car hits the man, but when onlookers gather, all that's left are his clothes and shoes. The police think he's alive and stake out the nightclub where his girlfriend Chikako sings. Masada, a biochemist, also comes to call at the club; he has a theory that radioactive rain from nuclear testing is causing some people to dissolve and he wants to know why. When a fisherman reports seeing someone on a ship dissolve after a luminous blob crawled up his leg, the police start taking Masada seriously. Sure enough, this glowing aquamarine slime (a good effect, by the way) starts showing up all over the place. Everyone persists in shooting at it, even though the bullets never have an effect. The climax, set in the sewers of Tokyo and involving flamethrowers (and reminiscent of THEM!), works well.

What with its thugs, molls, and dark rainy streets, much of this has the feel of a noirish gangster movie rather than a horror/SF flick. The two strands don’t fit together as snugly as one might hope, but aside from a long, slow car chase near the end involving one of the drug dealers whom the cops mistakenly think was a victim of the slime, it's generally fun. The effects are good and the segment set at sea is truly creepy (though the very first shot of the movie, with a nuclear fog enveloping what are clearly little toy boats, gave me a chuckle). I enjoyed the crazy song, "So Deep Is My Love" that Chikako sings, in English: “Like the stars above/Countless is my love [sic]/…Here in the bomb center/Heaven of you/I rest forevermore.” And that's not the English dubbed version, that's as sung in English in the original Japanese film (though both versions are on the disc, available, as is MOTHRA, as part of the Icons of Sc-Fi: Toho Collection). [DVD]

Sunday, November 22, 2009

MOTHRA (1961)

During a typhoon, a ship runs aground on Infant Island, a supposedly uninhabited place on which there is a high level of radioactivity. When the survivors are tested, they are free of radiation, due apparently to some red juice that island natives gave them. When an expedition sets out to investigate the island, an unscrupulous artifacts dealer (Jerry Ito) kidnaps two tiny female natives, not quite a foot high, variously referred to as "fairies" or "tiny beauties," and tours the country with them as performers. Unknown to Ito, the two women frequently sing a song to Mothra, a giant egg back on Infant Island. The egg hears the song and cracks open, and a giant caterpillar emerges; it swims across the ocean (and in the process, causes great damage to ships) and lays waste to Tokyo where it builds a giant cocoon and soon emerges as a giant (wait for it…) moth with glittery eyes and wings that knock down tall buildings. Mothra follows Ito to New Kirk City in the country of Rolisica, intent on rescuing the tiny beauties.

This is the probably the most whimsical and undoubtedly the gayest of the classic Japanese monster movies; it’s also the only one I actually saw in a theater, and even though I was only 8, I wasn't scared by it. Though there are effective scenes of destruction, the whole thing does feel a bit fey. It's a very colorful movie, with lots of pastels, Mothra's discoball eyes, and froofy production numbers with the fairies. I wish I could work up an actual gay reading of the film, but I can't. The country of Rolisica is clearly intended to be America, so there's probably a political reading to be done, but I think the movie is best appreciated on the fantasy level. Overall, it seems much more aimed at children than its predecessors (like GODZILLA),what with a tubby kid in a red cap and a comic relief Lou Costello-type who calls himself Snapping Turtle, though it’s not quite as much of a kiddie movie as the later GAMERA. I'll be watching some more fantasy and sci-fi films this week since I associate the Thanksgiving holiday with those kinds of movies, which I remember watching as a kid while out of school. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SUNDOWN (1941)

I don’t remember why I put this film on my Netflix queue; probably because of keywords like "exotic," "desert," "Nazis," "spies," and "Gene Tierney." As a Nazis-in-the-desert melodrama, it will hold your attention but it's an odd duck, situated uncomfortably between A- and B-movie territories; the production is more than competent but the energy flags a bit more often than one would like. In Kenya, district commissioner Bruce Cabot is not happy that Major George Sanders is sent in to take charge, until he discovers that Sanders is there to nip in the bud a German plan to sell guns to restless native tribes in the area. Gene Tierney, an exotic half-Arab, half-French woman who runs a large trading network, agrees to help the Brits find out how guns are getting smuggled in. Other characters who hang out at the commissioner’s house include Joseph Calleia as an Italian POW who has supposedly “defected” to the Allies side and cooks gourmet meals for Cabot, Reginald Gardiner as a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Carl Esmond as a Dutch scientist, and Harry Carey as a hunter. At least one of these men is not what he seems to be. At a dinner attended by most of the supporting characters, Tierney gets word through the native drummers, who get the word through “Habari,” a kind of native ESP communication, that one of the white men will die, and sure enough, after 45 talky minutes of exposition, Hammud (Marc Lawrence), the suspected gun runner, attacks and one of the men does indeed bite the dust. Tierney figures out who the Nazi spy among them is, but the Nazi also figures out that Tierney knows, and games of cat and mouse take up the last half of the movie. It turns out that Tierney isn’t actually Arab at all, just raised by Arabs, so by the rules of the Production Code, it’s safe for her and Cabot to pair off at the end. The finale also features an odd detour into religious territory as one of the characters, with his dying breath, delivers an out-of-the-blue propaganda speech about good churchgoing people, which is then echoed by a closing speech given in a bombed-out cathedral in London by Bishop Cedric Hardwicke (which perhaps influenced the ending of MRS. MINIVER in 1942). All the actors are fine, although Tierney, who gets star billing, doesn’t get much screen time until the last half-hour, when the pace picks up considerably. There are some nice sets, especially Cabot's circular house and a two-level prison cave in which Cabot and Tierney spend some time. Look for small bits by black actors Woody Strode and Dorothy Dandridge early in their careers. The whole thing might have played better as a down-and-dirty B-flick. [DVD]

Saturday, November 14, 2009

THE GREAT WALTZ (1938)

This biopic about Johann Strauss, the Waltz King, is notorious among classic movie buffs for a sequence which shows Strauss riding through the woods in a carriage, being inspired by the rhythm of the horse clopping along, the chirping of birds, and the piping of nearby shepherds to hum the melody that would become "Tales of the Vienna Woods." This scene does indeed look mighty silly when it's excerpted in That’s Entertainment II, but in the context of the film, it's actually a charming little bit. The story begins in Vienna in 1844 where, as we're told, life was boring, people were conformists, and new ideas were not accepted. That all changes the next year when bank clerk Strauss (Fernand Gravet), fired for composing music on the job, starts an orchestra made up of unemployed musicians. In a very effective scene, the group's first gig takes place in a huge cafe which remains mostly empty until an opera star strolls in and requests a song. Passersby on the street hear the lovely music and soon are flocking in. The rest of the film covers the rise in Strauss's fortunes and his two romances, one with his longtime love and wife (Luise Rainer) and the other with the opera singer who walked into the cafe (Miliza Korjus, who looks like Bette Midler and sounds like Madeline Kahn in BLAZING SADDLES). Rainer gets a good scene in which she goes a little mad with jealousy and takes a gun to the opera house, intending to shoot Korjus, but is so moved by the way the singer has inspired her husband that she decides to let him go off with her. (Of course, this being a Hollywood biography, the mistress turns all noble at the last minute and sends Strauss back to his wife--these relationships appear to bear little connection to Strauss's actual love life). While the narrative bogs down on occasion, the musical sequences always bring the film back to life, and the Blue Danube montage is good kitschy fun. Several of Strauss's melodies are featured with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Also with Lionel Atwill and Hugh Herbert. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE KILLERS (1964)

Well-dressed tough guys Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager come to a school of the blind, knock some blind people around, and carry out the contract killing of teacher John Cassavetes. The older, philosophical Marvin wonders why Cassavetes didn’t even try to escape and accepted his death so passively; the younger, more casually brutal Gulager agrees to pal around with Marvin as he interviews people who knew Cassavetes, a former race car driver, and puts together his story. (Marvin has another motive: he knows that Cassavetes was involved in a million dollar heist in which the money went missing, and hopes to get his hands on some of the booty.) They discover that Cassavetes had been set to marry looker Angie Dickinson; when an accident causes irreparable damage to his eyesight, he leaves his career and her; some time later, the two renew their relationship, even though she's hooked up with gangster Ronald Reagan. Cassavetes joins up with Dickinson, Reagan, and his men for a mail truck heist. Double-crosses occur, leading to Cassavetes's fate, with Marvin and Gulager getting revenge for Cassavetes, though paying a high price for evening the score.

This is the second film inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and you may notice that I was able to use a few sentences from my summary of that movie in this summary, just changing the names. The first was an influential film noir; this one, in color and originally intended as the first made-for-TV movie but found too violent for broadcast, is closer in feel to the starker, more brutal crime films of the late 60's and early 70's. The beginning still comes from Hemingway, though not as recognizably as in the earlier film, and the narrative structure is similar, but this is not so much a remake as a re-working of the basics of the original. In the previous film, the two killers who don't know why their victim has been singled out for death are very minor characters; here, they drive the action, taking the place of the insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien). Marvin, relatively soft-spoken, and Gulager, a hothead (and both fairly dapper and often wearing sunglasses), feel like characters who might have inspired Quentin Tarentino, and Marvin in particular gives a strong performance. Cassavetes and Dickinson are less mysterious than Lancaster and Gardner were, but both are fine. This was Reagan's last movie role and his first bad guy role—he's OK, though much of his performance feels phoned in. The movie is very violent, with poor Dickinson getting slapped around quite a bit; one scene in which Gulager punches her in the face is still startling after all these years. A rougher-edged movie that the 1946 version, and far away from the visual style of film noir, but a solid thriller that stands up well on its own. [DVD]

Sunday, November 08, 2009

THE KILLERS (1946)

This is the movie that some critics point to as the archetypal film noir: a dark, shadowy look to match a dark, fatalistic tone; a flawed anti-hero; a sexy femme fatale; city streets; and, of course, murder. It also has a complex narrative structure with overlapping flashbacks. The first 10 minutes of the movie are drawn directly from the very short story of the same title by Ernest Hemingway: two tough guys come to a small town diner to carry out the contract killing of a fellow known as the Swede (Burt Lancaster). When a friend goes to Lancaster’s apartment to warn him, Lancaster refuses to budge, as if there is no escape, his only explanation being, “I did something wrong once.” Sure enough, the killers barge in and shoot him dead. And that’s all Hemingway wrote; this adaptation continues as an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) starts interviewing people who knew Lancaster, a former small-time boxer who was forced to give up the game due to a hand injury and made some money in the numbers racket. His “good” gal (Virginia Christine) loses him to a “bad” gal (Ava Gardner at her sexiest). Lancaster takes a shoplifting rap for her and goes to jail; when he comes out, she’s hooked up with gangster Albert Dekker, and Lancaster winds up joining up with Gardner, Dekker and his men for a hat factory heist. Double-crosses occur, leading to Lancaster’s fate.

Though this movie is not quite CITIZEN KANE, it seems to have used KANE as its storytelling model: one man delves into the background of a dead man, looking for some meaning to his life and death. O’Brien is far more active here than the reporter in KANE, and though Lancaster steals the show with his smoldering performance, O’Brien is in some ways the main character, not just putting the pieces of Lancaster’s puzzle together, but actually finding the bad guys and getting some form of justice. He’s very good, as is Sam Levene as a cop and former friend of Lancaster’s, but the movie belongs to Lancaster and Gardner, who are impossibly sexy, work together well, and strike me as the 40’s equivalent of a modern silver screen pair like George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The inky blackness of the cinematography and the glossy close-ups of the stars make this a treat for the eye. Following the flashbacks (occasionally out of order) as O’Brien collects testimony is not difficult, but for the most part, the secondary characters are not as compelling as those in KANE, and the middle of the movie, building to the heist, drags a bit. Still, as exemplary a piece of film noir as you’re likely to see. Available as part of a wonderful 2-disc set from Criterion, along with the 1964 version which I'll review soon. [DVD]

Thursday, November 05, 2009

FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949)

This short but effective noir police thriller was directed by Richard Fleischer (who later did 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and FANTASTIC VOYAGE) and was based on a story by noir and Western director Anthony Mann. There's a killer on the loose who calls himself The Judge; thinking he has somehow been "ordained" to judge others, he warns his victims that they deserve to die, then he kills them, usually strangling them from behind, and leaves a note for the police who are stumped and who are facing a public outcry for their failure to stop this guy. Cop William Lundigan and his sidekick Jeff Corey are obsessed with tracking him down. Lundigan develops an antagonistic relationship with Dorothy Patrick, a tabloid reporter who wants to help crack the case. When she boldly sneaks into his apartment one night to get information, he casually changes into his pajamas, pulls down his Murphy bed, and climbs in, leaving her at a loss for words. Eventually, he agrees to feed her info and let her write a story under his name. Lundigan, using what few witness descriptions he has, builds a faceless dummy figure of the Judge, hoping it may help in identifying some suspects. Just as the cop and the reporter seem to be getting along, she pisses him off by running an incomplete story that leads directly to another "Judge" death. Eventually, the dummy pays off when a waitress recognizes the figure, and the climactic chase takes place a la WHITE HEAT up and down the ladders of a large oil refinery.

What's memorable about this film is the gimmick of the faceless dummy; logically, I'm not sure why Lundigan decided to make such a thing since there is really nothing physical about the Judge that stands out from the ordinary, but it does make for a creepy prop. The best scene in the movie involves Lundigan and the dummy alone in a room on a rainy afternoon (see picture above). I like Lundigan and he's fine here as the stolid lead, though Patrick is bland and their romantic subplot is uninteresting after the amusing apartment scene. The film never quite lives up to its opening, a violent scene in which a newspaper editor is attacked by the Judge. This is a fairly straightforward police procedural which would have benefited from at least an attempt at some psychological delving into the Judge character. Worth seeing. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

DANGEROUS BLONDES (1943)

Bland B-comedy-thriller patterned, like many of the era, after the Thin Man series but with little of the charm or wit of those films. Allyn Joslyn, cast in the male lead as a writer of crime fiction who does some real-life detective work now and then, is the main problem here; though perfectly acceptable as comic support in movies like BEDTIME STORY, he is just not leading man material. We first see Joslyn on a radio quiz show competing directly with chief inspector Frank Craven on crime trivia. While Joslyn's wife (Evelyn Keyes) is listening to the show, a friend (Anita Louise) who works at an ad agency bursts in certain that a murder is going to take place that evening during a photo shoot. The principals in the case include the owner of the agency (Edmund Lowe) who is on the verge of bankruptcy, his wife (Ann Savage, the icy blonde in the noir classic DETOUR) who may be involved in an affair, her rich aunt who has agreed to appear in an ad and who may be Lowe's last chance at staving off his business problems, another model who causes a problem when it is discovered that she was once married to the aunt's husband, and a couple of assistants (John Hubbard and Michael Duane), one of whom wears his sunglasses at night, therefore becoming the most suspicious one in the bunch. The plot begins simply and builds nicely with extramarital flings (or at least desires) on the part of seemingly everyone, followed by the deaths of most of the folks who seemed like good suspects, but eventually the complications become, well, a bit too complicated, and the solution felt to me like a last-minute, out-of-the-blue job. Keyes and Louise give the movie its energy; Joslyn isn’t terrible, but he doesn't command the screen like the character should. Mary Forbes, William Demerest and John Abbott also appear. It feels like the studio, Columbia, thought this had potential to be a series, but there was never a follow-up. Diverting, but not a must-see. [TCM]

Saturday, October 31, 2009

COUNTESS DRACULA (1971)

Despite the title, this is not a vampire film, but instead a re-telling of the legend of the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who tortured and killed dozens (some say hundreds) of young women, supposedly because she could bathe in the blood of virgins and stay unnaturally young. Here, Ingrid Pitt is an aging countess who has just been left a widow. The Count's will has left the estate to Pitt and their daughter (Lesley Anne Down), left the horses and stables to a hunky lieutenant (Sandor Eles, pictured), the library and its contents to a historian (Maurice Denham), and some old army uniforms to the castle steward (Nigel Green), who also happens to be Pitt's lover. No one is terribly happy with these arrangements, but an interesting melodrama about class and gender conflict is short-circuited when Pitt discovers, totally by accident, that the blood of virgins makes her look 30 years younger. She has Down kidnapped, poses as her own daughter, and strikes up an affair with Eles, which pisses off Green, even though he agrees to help her procure virgin sacrifices. The problem is that the effect wears off suddenly, with no warning, and her old self looks more and more ravaged each time. Denham gets suspicious, Green gets jealous, and Down eventually gets out of her captivity just as Eles is about to marry Pitt, leading to an ending which is a little too abrupt, but satisfying in a gothic fairy tale way. Pitt is good, and I found her old-age makeup to be quite convincing (though not all critics see it that way). The acting all around is a notch above par for a Hammer B-film, though the lovely Down doesn't get to do much except struggle with her captors, escape, and get caught so she can go through it all over again. The blood and gore is minimal, and the most shocking scene is early one, when Pitt's carriage runs over and kills a peasant begging for work. [DVD]

Friday, October 30, 2009

THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1964)

Undistinguished Hammer Studios potboiler which does incorporate one interesting variation on the traditional Mummy story. In 1900 Egypt, a British expedition, led by Sir Giles and including his daughter Annette and her boyfriend John, finds the tomb of Egyptian prince Ra; rather than give the treasures to a museum, the group's backer, an obnoxious American named King, decides to take it all, including the mummy's sarcophagus, on the road to make money. Of course, there’s a curse on the defilers of the tomb and sure enough, bad things start happening, beginning with a shipboard robbery of important papers and an attack on John. When sturdy Adam Beauchamp comes to their rescue, Annette falls for his charms. Soon, the mummy is missing, off on a killling spree starting with King. We get the backstory of Ra, who had his hand chopped off and was killed by his brother Be, and it turns out that brother Be is still alive, and wants the mummy for his own purposes. This element of the story is the one original thing in the movie, and I won’t spoil it with further discussion (though one look at the cast list at IMDb will do that for you).

There are all kinds of problems here: the acting is weak, the mummy is rather portly, and Annette speaks in a strange dubbed-in German accent. Fred Clark, as King, chews the scenery but winds up being the most colorful character in the movie, and despite his overbearing personality, you're sorry to see him go so early. Terence Howard as Beauchamp is also acceptable in his role as a somewhat mysterious stranger whom we're never quite sure if we should like or dislike. Though the mummy is a disappointment, there are two startling scenes of violence: one, in the very beginning, shows the chopping-off of a hand and is remarkably graphic for its day (I admit I gasped out loud); the other, late in the film, involves the mummy crushing someone's head with his foot, and while not graphic at all, it is still an effective shock. The other point of interest is that the stereotypically sinister Egyptian character of Hashmi Bey (George Pastell) winds up being not sinister at all. Not as bad as some critics claim (with a few calling this the worst Hammer film ever), but not one to go our of your way to see--although the Hammer Icons of Horror DVD set is a good one. [DVD]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

UNCLE SILAS (1947)

This is not exactly a masterpiece, but it is perhaps the best Gothic melodrama I’ve seen to date. 17-year-old Caroline’s father is sick and adds a codicil to his will stating that, in the event of his death, she will be taken care of by her Uncle Silas (Derrick De Marney). Dad thinks Silas is a fine man who has been misunderstood because of a shadowy murder accusation in his past. Sure enough, Dad dies and Caroline (Jean Simmons) goes to Silas’s large, dark, and dilapidated mansion. At first, her uncle seems pleasant and just a little nutty, but we soon find out that, with debtors threatening to take his property, he’s plotting to get his hands on his late brother’s fortune, and with only Caroline in his way, that means she’ll have to die. Based on a book by Sheridan Le Fanu, this is an archetypal full-blooded Victorian-era Gothic tale, complete with an old dark house, a villainous governess, a rogue of a son, a handsome stranger, a locked-up wing in the house, stormy nights, and a scary face at the window. Hitchcock’s REBECCA may be a richer movie, but this one is more fun, partly due to the detailed sets, the shadowy cinematography, the well-worn story, and good performances, primarily from De Marney and Katina Paxinou as the crazy, wicked governess. This film, also known as The Inheritance, is hard to come across, but it deserves to be better known, and though it’s not a horror movie, would be perfect atmospheric viewing for late October. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

BLACK MOON (1934)

This was once considered a lost film, and therefore some hoped that it might be a horror classic. It’s been found, and while it’s not quite a “classic,” it’s a solidly made thriller (with mild horror elements) in the genre of what I call the exotic jungle melodrama. Dorothy Burgess (at left) is a young wife and mother who was born and raised on the Caribbean island of San Christopher where, thanks to her black nurse Ruva, she was immersed in the voodoo culture of the island. Now, away from home for many years, she sits and pounds a drum on the floor with her 6-year-old daughter. Her husband (Jack Holt), in consultation with a doctor, agrees to send her off on a trip back home to see if it will help her occasionally neurotic behavior (aside from the drumming, we never know that consists of). Holt’s secretary (Fay Wray), who secretly harbors a crush on her boss, goes along with Burgess and the daughter as a companion. A family employee from the island tries to stop the trip but winds up dead, killed by a black man skulking about in the shadows. Burgess arrives on the island and is welcomed by the wildly excited islanders; we soon realize that they see her as something of a long-lost voodoo priestess. When Burgess decides to extend her stay long enough to participate in a voodoo moon ceremony (at which there just might be a blood sacrifice), Wray wires the mainland to get help from Holt. The wireless operator is found hanged, but Holt makes it to the island in time for a grand old blood-and-thunder finale which involves most of the white people holed up in a tower while Burgess is about to sacrifice her own daughter.

There is some argument among film buffs as to whether or not this is a real horror film; as far as I’m concerned, if Val Lewton’s well-made but rather mild voodoo film I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE has horror movie status, this one should as well. Granted, the first third of the movie is standard B-movie melodrama stuff, but the shadowy cinematography in the last part of the film adds atmosphere which is missing from the first half, the voodoo sacrifice scenes work up some horrific tension, and there’s a fairly high body count for a movie with a small cast. Fay Wray, the biggest name here, doesn’t have much to do aside from look worried. Holt, whom I’ve found to be somewhat wooden in the past, is quite good here, and Burgess, though third-billed, is the real star, doing a fine job in a tricky part that requires her to change moods and motivations. Clarence Muse is fine in a supporting role as the “good” native; Madame Sul-Te-Wan is wasted as Ruva. This one doesn’t show up a lot, but the print that TCM shows is surprisingly crisp and clean for movie once thought lost. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2 October short takes:

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964)

Lawlessness is rampant in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars--don't know why that’s important, but that’s what we're told. A traveling theatrical troupe is warned about their iffy future, in rhyme, by an old hag (Donald Sutherland in drag, who also has a role as one of the actors). They are invited to stay at the castle of Count Drago (Christopher Lee) who has a room full of stuffed animals—he’s an amateur taxidermist. One by one, members of the troupe are killed off and it looks like the Count will soon have a room of stuffed humans to call his own. This has potential, but once you know where it's going, it takes a long time getting there; despite some atmospheric shots in the castle and a handful of startling deaths (one with an arrow through an eye), my partner remarked halfway through the movie, "My, but life was tedious in the 19th century." Michael Reeves (THE CONQUERER WORM) is credited as a co-writer. [TCM]


THE HORROR OF IT ALL (1963)

This movie plays out like THE OLD DARK HOUSE if the Munsters had been in the lead roles. American Jack Robinson (Pat Boone, believe it or not!) arrives at his girlfriend's family's mansion in England to ask for her hand in marriage. The family, in mourning for cousin Creighton, is an odd lot: Cornwallis is a ham actor, Natalia is a vampiric-looking lady, Muldoon is a crazy brute who has to be kept locked up, Percival is a delusional old man who keeps inventing things that have already been invented, and Grandpa is stuck in bed, reading Playboy. Soon, they start getting bumped off one by one and Jack's sure that someone is after the family's money and estate. This is a loony movie that is fun to watch once, but I can't imagine sitting through it again. One critic compared it to ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, and I think that's the kind of mood the director was going for, but Terence Fisher, despite being an old hand at Hammer horror films, is no Frank Capra, and Boone is definitely no Cary Grant, though he's OK, and he even gets a musical number midway through the movie. [TCM]

Monday, October 26, 2009

DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955)

This comes off as a remake of Arch Oboler's FIVE with less interesting dialogue and more action and cliches. However, it's one of the first "monster movies" I remember seeing in my youth, so I still have a soft spot for it. Opening much like FIVE, just after a nuclear apocalypse (with the words "The End" emblazoned across the screen), a radioactive fog is sweeping the world and retired military man Paul Birch and his daughter (Lori Nelson) have stocked up provisions in their house in an isolated California valley (into which the fog doesn't descend). They have enough for three to live comfortably--Lori's fiancé was expected but doesn't show up--but they take in a larger group of stragglers who were caught near the valley at the time of the blasts. They include slick thug Mike Connors, his stripper girlfriend (Adele Jergens), a grizzled old prospector and his burro, a man who seems to be on the verge of death from radiation poisoning, and a hunky geologist (Richard Denning). Trapped in the house together for weeks, tensions soon develop, mostly between Connors and Denning who both fall for Nelson, though of course she only has eyes for Denning. The dying man doesn't die but instead begins mutating into a creature with scaly amour, fit for surviving in the contaminated environment. It turns out that there is at least one other fully mutated monster hanging around outside the house who is almost as much a threat to our group as the violent and unpleasant Connors.

This Roger Corman film has an ultra-cheap look; the house is ugly, the huge sliding glass door drapes are always shut (probably due to a limited budget, though it does add to the claustrophobic feel), and the monster makeup, quite effective at first glance, is not so effective when given too much exposure. There is a nice plot twist involving the inevitable rain which Birch is sure it will be poisonous, and the identity of the roaming mutant is fairly subtly revealed (I certainly didn't catch it when I was 10 years old). Blond bombshell Jergens gives the best performance here, partly because her character is a little more nuanced than the rest. Denning gives good chest, but is otherwise unremarkable. Connors, better looking than Denning (but not as blond), went on to fame and fortune as Mannix on TV in the 60's. This is available in a decent widescreen DVD, paired with the junky treat THE SHE-CREATURE. [DVD]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

MADHOUSE (1974)

This Vincent Price vehicle is closely modeled after his popular THEATER OF BLOOD from a year earlier, with a dash of flavoring from his Dr. Phibes movies tossed in. Price plays a horror movie actor who announces, at a party honoring his latest movie featuring his popular character Dr. Death, that he's engaged to marry a busty young blonde. Porn producer Robert Quarry tells Price that the woman used to be a porn star. In a fit of anger, Price goes looking for her and finds her decapitated. He's cleared of guilt in her murder, but goes into seclusion for years until screenwriter Peter Cushing talks him into reprising his Dr. Death role for a TV series. Things get complicated when 1) it turns out that Quarry, gone legit, is producing the series, and 2) someone starts killing young actresses on the set in ways that duplicate killings from the Dr. Death films. It's pretty obvious that Price is not the killer, but who is? Cushing? Quarry? A loony disfigured actress (Adrienne Corri) from Price's past who is now married to Cushing? A young network flack (Natasha Pyne) who's always buzzing around? This was the last movie Price made with American International, and it provides a nice send-off, being played rather tongue-in-cheek, though not as campily as the Phibes movies, and it includes clips from several of his AIP Poe films. Cushing is wasted, but Quarry and Corri are fine. Some plot points are rather loosely handled, but there are some nice visual touches, and, though most critics don't care for this movie, I found it almost as fun as PHIBES and BLOOD. [DVD]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE IRON ROSE (1973)

A gloomy Gothic-toned tale of love, sex, and death. It's inspired by a poem by Tristan Corbiere, and some critics note that this movie is best approached as a visual poem; certainly like many poems, short stories, or TV series episodes, it's all about atmosphere over narrative, and it is effective here and there, but at feature-film length, it feels quite padded out. At a wedding party, a guest in black (Hugues Quester, acting here under the name Pierre Dupont) recites a short poem (by Corbiere) about death and flirts with a girl in red (Francoise Pascal) who may be a bit death-obsessed. They spend the next day together romping through a 70's Clairol commercial (except with fog and gloom instead of sunshine and tall grass) and take a picnic into a fenced-in graveyard. Down in a crypt, they get naked and do the deed while weird figures, like a clown, are traipsing about between the graves. After night falls, they try to find their way out but when they discover they are locked in, they get a little hysterical and start bickering. She lies down on a grave, acting like she's communing with the dead, and the pair wind up in a old burial pit, making out against a pile of bones. It's all downhill from here for the pair and for the audience. I do appreciate the attempt at producing a single concentrated effect, as Poe believed should be the goal of the short story, but the length here is a problem. Neither lead is particularly effective and the lack of background music hurts. There is a causal reference to it being November 1st, so maybe this is a Halloween/All Soul's Day story. Directed by French cult filmmaker Jean Rollin who is known for both horror and porn; this film has one completely gratuitous nude scene late in the proceedings, but frankly it's too little, too late. Aka LA ROSE DE FER and THE CRYSTAL ROSE. [DVD]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974)

Kai (Shen Chan), human caretaker for the legendary seven golden vampires of China, arrives in Transylvania to enlist Dracula’s help as one of the seven is dead or sick or something and needs to be mystically revived. Dracula takes Kai’s human form and heads off to the Chinese village where the vampires (who wear large golden bat medallions which apparently give them their power) capture buxom wenches and tie them to a large star-shaped torture device where they lie there bare-breasted, wriggling about to beat the band until the inevitable blood-letting when their blood drains down into a bubbling cauldron. But Dracula’s old nemesis Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is hot on his trail, and he's partnered up with his son (Robin Stewart), a rich young countess (Julie Ege), and members of the Hsi clan, who have fought the vampires for years.

There was potential in this plotline, but the film ends up feeling like a Hammer movie unit was stuck in Hong Kong (where this was filmed) and decided to make a movie to pass the time until the next boat home. There is some lackluster kung-fu fighting, some terribly phony rubber bats, and, as mentioned above, some jiggling bosoms. The Chinese vampires react to icons of Buddah as Western vampires do to the cross. Van Helsing’s son, who has the looks of a second-rate romantic lead, is almost completely ineffectual, as an actor and a character. In a nice multicultural twist, his love interest is not the European Ege but a Hsi sister, and Ege has the hots for the leader of the Hsi clan. There is a fair amount of blood, though the most atmospheric scenes are of hordes of corpses rising from their graves to help the vampires. The best moment is when one man has to kill his beloved because she has been become a vampire, then has to spear himself because she bit him. Worth seeing as a novelty. [DVD]

Monday, October 19, 2009

THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)

The best sequence in this film is the opening, featuring Richard Greene in a coffin, apparently dead but actually alive but in a coma-like state, unable to communicate with the two men who are preparing him for burial. The bulk of the film is a flashback showing how Greene, an English nobleman, got in this predicament. Investigating the strange disappearance of two friends, he is put on the trail of the eye-patched Count Von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Greene, incognito, arrives at McNally's Austrian estate for a hunting vacation. He doesn't find his friends, but he falls for the Countess (Rita Corday) who was forced into a marriage she didn't want. As he vows to help her get away, he must also contend with a brutish mute manservant (Lon Chaney Jr.), an African panther, a pit of crocodiles, some sword-wielding henchmen, a spot of torture, and a doctor (Boris Karloff) who, when Greene and Corday get in a tight spot, agrees to give them a serum that will put them in a death-like state for twelve hours, theoretically allowing them to escape the grounds in their coffins. However, as we saw in the opening, that plan backfires. Will good (Greene) triumph over evil (McNally)? The first scene, set on a windy night in a spooky courtyard, with howling dogs in the background, sets the bar high, but the movie never again reaches this height of horrific atmosphere. In fact, it plays out more like a Gothic-tinged swashbuckling melodrama than a full-blooded horror film. Greene and Karloff (in a particularly small role) are good; McNally is OK but not as dreadfully imposing as he should be. John Hoyt and Michael Pate are the wicked henchmen. Henry Corden, later the voice of Fred Flintstone in the 80's and 90's, is a sympathetic servant. The sets are good, but overall the film is a bit too "off" in most departments to be a truly effective shocker. [DVD]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

THE BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE (1972)

A newly married couple (Simon Andreu and Maribel Martin) go to a hotel for their honeymoon, but she has a scary vision of a man leaping out of a closet and raping her, so she talks her husband into going straight to his family’s estate. She's a virgin, and his deflowering of her is enacted rather like the dream rape; the next morning, they seem happy but she is clearly not up to his 2 or 3-times-a-day appetite. Meanwhile, Martin is disturbed to find that all the portraits of the family's women have been relegated to the basement, particularly one with its face cut out of the notorious Mircalla (the title figure) who stabbed her husband to death on their wedding night because he wanted her to do "unnatural things." A ghostly vision of Mircalla starts appearing to Martin, and she has a dream that Mircalla forces her to stab her husband repeatedly, rip out his heart, and castrate him (though this last act is referred to rather vaguely). The next day, Andreu finds a naked woman buried in the sand on the beach; she’s a dead ringer for the Mircalla figure—and, go figure, her name is Carmilla, an anagram of Mircalla. If you know Sheridan Le Fanu's story "Carmilla," on which this film is loosely based, you know that lesbian vampirism is right around the corner. This winds up being a fairly interesting variation on the Le Fanu story. The film is moody but not terribly gory (though there is some blood-spattering now and again, and the dream-killing of the husband is rather rough) and a little kinky, with an outdoor oral sex scene and a climax involving the two women, naked, inside a coffin, followed soon by the gushing of gallons of blood. Thematically, the movie is misogynistic, though I'd hate to try and cipher out any kind of coherent message about sex and gender, aside from, "If you don’t have sex with your husband whenever he wants it, you’re fated to become an undead lesbian." This Spanish movie appears to have been shot with actors speaking both English and Spanish, with everyone ultimately dubbed in English, probably by different actors, so the acting is difficult to critique. Both Martin and Alexandra Bastedo as Carmilla (both pictured above) are lovely and all three leads are adequate if not much more. [DVD]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964)

This film begins with a striking sequence: Dr. Frankenstein's assistant Hans (Sandor Eles) steals the freshly dead body of a young man; Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) cuts open the chest and rips the heart out, submerges it in a solution, cranks up the electricity, and gets it to start beating--until a priest arrives screaming of blasphemy and destroys the lab. Frankenstein and Hans return to his old village (where we get an extensive flashback of the doc's earlier adventures in restoring life to the dead) and hide in a glacier cave where they find a deaf-mute begger girl; she mumblingly communes with a figure encased in the ice which turns out to be Frankenstein's original monster. They bring him back to life and hire circus hypnotist Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe) to get the brute's brain to work; Zoltan tries to control the monster, sending him on a robbery spree in the village, but when the monster kills, the villagers do their usual thing and try to storm the castle (without torches, since they go in broad daylight), leading to the usual ending of bleak destruction.

The third Hammer Films version of Frankenstein was the first one to use specific elements of the 1931 Universal film with Boris Karloff--Universal released the film in the U.S.--and is not well thought of by critics, but I quite liked it, or parts of it. Cushing cuts a fine, if gaunt, figure as the good/bad doc; Eles (pictured with Cushing) makes an unusual assistant--instead of the usual deformed idiot, he is relatively smart and handsome. Katy Wild as the mute girl is attractive but has little to do, though Woodthorpe adds some spice to the proceedings. As the monster, Kiwi Kingston is buried in thick make-up that looks like a cross between a golem and the Karloff creature, but he's not really very scary. The look of the film is superb; it's probably the best looking Hammer film ever, with excellent cinematography, good sets (Frankenstein's old mansion is especially effective), and fine use of color. Available in the Hammer Horrors Series boxed set. [DVD]