Tuesday, March 31, 2009

FIVE (1951)

After a nuclear apocalypse (the details of which are apparently unimportant, though given the year of this film's production, it was undoubtedly the Russians' fault), we see a young woman (Susan Douglas) wandering down a road and through a small town, encountering only ruins and dead bodies. She arrives at a nice house in the mountains which belonged to a relative, and finds only a squatter, a handsome, bearded English major (William Phipps) who was working as a guide at the top of the Empire State Building when the bombs hit. With the rest of the population dead of radiation poisoning, the two figure they were shielded somehow, he because he was struck unconscious in an empty elevator and she because she was in a hospital X-ray room getting confirmation of her pregnancy. She's a little shellshocked (hoping unrealistically that her husband is still alive somewhere) and he tries to force his attentions on her, but eventually they work out a living arrangement. Soon they're joined by two bank clerks, an old, sick white man (Earl Lee) and a young, healthy black man (Charles Lampkin). Lee, who shows signs of radiation sickness, dies just as a fifth person arrives, an obnoxiously elitist European adventurer (James Anderson) who was on Mt. Everest and escaped the poison. Lampkin and Phipps do the hard work involved in trying to sustain their little commune, but the racist Anderson, who doesn't even like to be in the same room as Lampkin, wants to head out to nearby towns, sure that others must be alive. Douglas, who delivers an apparently healthy baby, wants to go with him to find her husband. After some violent psychodramas play out, the predictable ending is an Adam and Eve/American Gothic tableau, presenting a glimmer of hope in the bleakness.

This was, I think, the first movie made about a post-nuclear war world, and it was written and directed, on a fairly low budget, by Arch Oboler who was better known for his radio plays. In fact, the dialogue is much more striking than the unimaginative visuals--except for the odd wooden house which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and owned by Oboler. Though apocalypse movies would eventually become dominated by special effects, this one works fairly well with only some strategically placed skeletons. Douglas and Lampkin are likeable and complex characters and Phipps truly seemed to be an interesting guy (maybe I felt that way because of my own jaded-English-major background). Anderson is suitably unlikable, but we barely get to know Lee. In fact, the movie should probably be called FOUR, since five adults never share the screen. There are plot holes involving Phipps' journey to the house and the fate of Douglas's husband, and there is very little action, but there's something almost quaintly charming about such a low-key apocalypse movie. BTW, although these actors are not famous, all but Lee had fairly long careers, with Phipps and Douglas having film credits right up to the millennium. [TCM]

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Though routinely treated as a horror film (especially by Dark Sky, the company that has issued this on DVD), this is really a period-piece swashbuckler, and as such it's enjoyable, but horror fans will certainly be disappointed, as will anyone hoping for the naughty decadence that title implies. The Hellfire Club was an underground social group of the 1700's which mocked religion in a rather tame manner but was known for supposedly indulging in black masses and orgies. In the movie's opening scene, two boys spy on a meeting of the club, during which it appears as if a Satanic human sacrifice is occurring, but it turns out to be an elaborate jest leading off a mass orgy. When discovered, one of the boys is whipped by his father, the club's leader, and when he and his mother try to escape, their carriage goes over a hill. Both are presumed dead, but the boy survives. Years later, the boy has become an acrobat in a traveling circus; when he (Keith Michell) finds out his father has died and the estate has passed into the hands of his cousin (Peter Arne), the second boy from the opening scene, Michell decides to go claim what is rightfully his. He poses as a groom, gets a job with Arne, has an affair with Adrienne Corri, Arne's lover, and attempts to find a missing document which will back up his claim on the estate. He is helped out by members of his circus troupe, including his longtime love, the buxom Kai Fischer, and by a lawyer (Peter Cushing, in what amounts to a cameo) who has been trying to get evidence against Arne on charges of espionage. At heart, this is a throwback to an old revenge melodrama, which in the classic movie era might have starred Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. The closest this film comes to that kind of talent is Arne, who does a nice job reveling in his villainy without going into camp. Michell is handsome but colorless, though he's quite good in a brief scene in which he masquerades as a foppish French nobleman. The plotting is satisfactory and the fight scenes are carried off nicely. If only there were a little more blood and a lot more orgies... [DVD]

Friday, March 27, 2009


This Sherlock Holmes adventure, based on "The Valley of Fear," begins with a short scene in which criminal mastermind Prof. Moriarty agrees to help an American thug take out someone. We then jump to Holmes retiring out to the countryside to do some beekeeping; Dr. Watson is soon trying to get him to forget about a mysterious note warning that there will be trouble at Birlstone Castle. The note, however, seems to have come too late, as Inspector Lestrade arrives with news that the squire of the castle, a Mr. Douglas, has been killed, his face blown away with a shotgun. He had a brand on his arm which Holmes recognizes as a mark of the Scowrers, an American secret society centered in Pennsylvania coal country (the "valley of fear" of the novel's title). There's a long flashback sequence in which his American wife Ettie tells Holmes about the group, their terrorizing ways, and why its members may have been looking for Douglas, a man who was living under at least two other names, Murdoch and Edwards. In an unusual move for a Sherlock Holmes film, this flashback, without Holmes or Watson, takes up almost half of the film's running time and makes for an interesting subplot, even more so when we come to suspect that Ettie may be an unreliable narrator. Was Douglas a good guy or a bad guy? Does it matter which name he went under? Why does Holmes obsess about a missing barbell, part of the deceased's daily exercise routine? And how is Moriarty mixed up in all this? The plot is fairly clever and I don't want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that Holmes makes everything clear and justice is served.

I'm a big fan of the American Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone; I've enjoyed other one-offs (Christopher Plummer, Rupert Everett, Reginald Owen) but I still think Rathbone is the one and only Holmes--though to be fair, I have yet to see Jeremy Brett who played Holmes for British television in the 80's and whom many people think is the best Holmes ever. This British film is one of five which stars Arthur Wontner (who resembles Rathbone) as the fabled detective, and it's quite good. It's also apparently much more faithful to the Doyle stories than the Rathbone films were, most of which were based only on the characters and not individual stories. Ian Fleming (not the James Bond author) makes an OK Watson, who doesn't really have much to do except be the butt of a running gag about Holmes forgetting to introduce him to others. Lyn Harding makes an effective Moriarty, reminding me at times of George Zucco who played Moriarty in the first Rathbone film. Ben Welden, a familiar character face from literally hundreds of movies, mostly in the 30's and 40's, is good as the American thug. The print I saw, from a Goodtimes VHS tape, is not in the best shape; for a low-budget film, the sets were good, especially in the finale set at night in the castle tower. I'd be interested in catching another Wontner Holmes someday. [VHS]

Monday, March 23, 2009


A unique film which I enjoyed immensely, but which is certainly not for all tastes. On the surface, it seems to have a lot in common with CHU CHIN CHOW; both are strange musicals based on hit stage shows and both have production numbers about battle and death. The director, Richard Attenborough, has deliberately retained the staginess of the piece, while seemingly paradoxically opening the film up quite a bit. In a large, ornate, white ballroom, various European heads of state gather to discuss the political scene. We soon realize that this is not a literal meeting or conference, but a surreal, symbolic representation of how Europe slid into the First World War. The ballroom is set up on a pier at Brighton, a popular seaside tourist attraction (imagine a cleaner Coney Island), and the entire film takes place there, though some scenes of warfare were shot more naturalistically elsewhere, with the war itself presented as a side attraction (the phrase "World War I" is spelled out in neon on an arch under which the soldiers pass as they go off to battle--pictured below). Once the war has begun, we follow the fate of one family, the Smiths, as all the sons become soldiers and the women volunteer as nurses.

The war itself is shown as a series of sketches and musical numbers, mostly popular songs of the era with the lyrics tweaked a bit for dark humor, satirizing the leaders (political and military) and the rich, who pretty much remain above the literal fray, and sympathizing with the soldiers, mostly poor and working-class men dying by the hundreds of thousands as England settles on a policy of suicidally throwing as many men as possible at the enemy in the hope that sheer numbers will win the day. The Smith family members provide a slim narrative thread, but most of the best bits don't directly involve them. Maggie Smith plays a music-hall tart recruiting boys by singing naughtily about having sex with soldiers and sailors. Jean-Pierre Cassell is at the center of a wonderful number which uses a merry-go-round as the central prop to show the fantasy and reality of warfare. The most effective bit is an open-air church scene which juxtaposes traditional hymns led by a minister with cynical parody hymns sung by the troops. The famous "Silent Night" Christmas truce is one of the few war moments presented fairly realistically and it's also a non-satirical highlight of the movie (though it does include one of the funniest parody songs, "Christmas Day in the Cookhouse"). A slew of stars appear in small parts, most notably Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and her father Michael, Ralph Richardson, and Dirk Bogarde. John Mills has the most substantial role in the film as real-life Field Marshall Douglas Haig who is seen playing leapfrog (literally) with other officers and having soldier casualty numbers put on a giant scoreboard. At nearly 2-1/2 hours, it is a bit long, especially since the anti-war message gives the film a rather one-note feel (though you'll definitely want to stick around for the last stunning shot), but it is worth seeing especially if you are looking for something completely different. [DVD]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Lloyd Nolan has grown on me over time. I knew him mostly from his role as the old doc on Diahann Carroll's 60's sitcom Julia, and later as Mia Farrow's father in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, but he's at his best in the B-movies that were his bread and butter in the 30's and 40's (including playing detective Michael Shayne in a handful of solid B-mysteries) before he became a familiar TV face. Here, he's a cocky reporter who, because he's in hot water with his girlfriend, Nancy Carroll, misses an interview with the D.A., and also misses reporting on the crime of the year when the D.A. is murdered in his office. After he's fired, he is determined to break the case and, with Carroll, gets on a cruise ship to keep an eye on some suspects. We find out that there are three different jewel thief gangs on board, with Carroll herself mistaken for a contact by shady Arthur Hohl. Other possible suspects include a crippled old man (John Wray) and his valet (Dwight Frye). The damsel gets in and out of distress, as do Nolan and his cameraman sidekick Harry Langdon before the murderer is brought to justice and Nolan gets his job back. The plot is solid, Nolan is good, and Carroll is serviceable, but Langdon, a former silent film comic near the end of his career, seems either developmentally disabled or perpetually drunk and just isn't very funny. I love that Frye's character is named Spike Jones, several years before the famous musician of the same name started his recording career. [TCM]

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Here's an oddity: a silent science-fiction romance. Well, maybe not so odd when you consider it was made by Fritz Lang, whose most famous movie, METROPOLIS, could be described the same way. Professor Manfeldt is a scientist who believes that the mountains of the moon are filled with gold and could be profitably mined by us Earthlings; he is considered a fool or swindler by most, but that hasn't stopped him from working for years on a book about his theory. He's become old, frustrated, and eccentric, but his pal Wolf Helius believes in him and arranges a trip to the moon to see if there is gold. Also interested is Walter Turner who, as a representative of a powerful group of five rich capitalists, steals Manfeldt's work and blackmails his way into going along to the moon. His theory: "The moon's riches … ought to be placed in the hands of businessmen and not into those of visionaries and idealists." Also on the trip: Friede, the young woman (named in the credits as a "student of Astronomy") whom Helius is sweet on, and Hans, an engineer who is engaged to Friede. The professor insists on going as well, despite concerns about his age (bringing along his pet mouse Josephine), and a young boy who loves reading science-fiction magazines stows away in secret. Once there, they do indeed discover gold, but the romantic triangle and the greedy villain create problems. One character dies, one is killed, and, when the oxygen supply is depleted, someone has to stay behind when the rocket returns to Earth.

At over 2-1/2 hours, this is way too long to keep the attention of most modern audiences (and even audiences of the time, as the relatively expensive film was a commercial failure). The problem is the set-up for the melodrama; we don't even get to the rocket take-off until 90 minutes in. This is the first film to take the concept of space travel seriously, and critics often comment on the accuracy of much of the science involved in the space shot, though the moon itself has a breathable atmosphere and a earth-like gravity, and the visitors all stroll around in their street clothes. Still, I stuck with this to the end, for several reasons: the model work (the rocket before takeoff, the rocket in space, the lunar landscape), though obvious, is charming; the Turner character--who later in the film sports a Hitler comb-over, is a master of disguise and there is a remarkable shot in which he wipes his hand across his face and his looks change completely (done with an almost imperceptible camera edit); when Manfeldt finds gold up in the mountains, his echoing shout of "GOLD!!!" is visualized and animated as in a comic book; the ending is lushly romantic. The acting is of the typical overdone silent-film style: lots of big gestures and grimaces and pointing, and the worst offender is the guy who plays Hans. My favorite line: after the break-in, Heilus sends his chauffeur to the police station, saying, "Don't bother with long explanations--just bring someone official!" And I love the character name of Wolf Helius. [DVD]

Thursday, March 12, 2009


[aka 2000 WOMEN] The title of this wartime propaganda film refers to British women living in or visiting France who, with the outbreak of World War II, have been stranded there and rounded up in an internment camp in the town of Marville. Though some of the conditions are less than ideal (no heat in the building, communal baths), the camp is set up in a fancy hotel, there are lots of social activities, and there are only two women per huge room, so there are times when I forgot it was essentially a prison and not a summer resort. We follow the fortunes of a handful of women, starting with Patricia Roc, whom we see arrested a few months before the start of the war; she's dressed as a nun but the police suspect she's a German spy and she's thrown in jail; with the German invasion, she's moved to the hotel. We slowly learn more about her as the film progresses and she's essentially the central character, but she's also not terribly interesting. Flora Robson is a rich lady who, when she hears British planes overhead one night, deliberately throws open a window in defiance of the blackout; Muriel Aked is her companion (and possibly her "life partner," though that is only subtly suggested); Jean Kent is a stripper who, as she seems to be romancing a Nazi clerk in order to get favors, may also be an informer. Betty Jardine is officially in charge of making things run smoothly (the Nazis generally allow no men inside except the elderly hotel owner), and Phyllis Calvert is a friendly den-mother figure who takes charge of things when three stranded RAF pilots wind up taking shelter in the hotel.

Where the first half of the film is all about getting to the know the women, their routines, and their relationships, the second half is an extended cat-and-mouse game with the women first hiding the pilots, then plotting their escape. The generally light tone of the film darkens somewhat in the suspenseful last half-hour, with an especially tense scene set at a concert held in the hotel. A whispered message is sent through the female audience that, as the building is being searched, the airmen are hiding in plain sight, in drag, but suddenly we realize that the message will soon be passed on to the one character we know is a Nazi spy. It's a scene worthy of Hitchcock, though unfortunately the later climax, at a talent show with German officers in attendance, is botched with bad timing and underwhelming plotting. The ending is interesting in that, while the women get away with their plot, many of them wind up in a position which will certainly doom them to concentration camps (two characters get sent off to one earlier) or worse. This is where the primary propaganda message, sacrifice for others will be required, is most obvious: the last shot is of all the women singing, "There Will Always Be an England." This rarely-seen film made its TCM debut a few months ago, and I hope it returns soon. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Thomas Mitchell is the editor of a small-town Connecticut newspaper who is in hot water for running a scandalous serialized novel. We soon discover that the author of this best-seller, Carolyn Adams, is actually Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne), an unmarried woman of a certain age who has never really "lived" (in the Auntie Mame sense). She lives with her aunts and has kept her writing career a secret, but after a visit to her New York publisher, an illustrator (Melvyn Douglas) hears her story and, intrigued, follows her back to Connecticut where he decides it's his mission to liberate Dunne from her stifling little world. He takes a job as a gardener for the aunts so he can be close to Dunne and hounds her to death about her double life until finally, having fallen in love with Douglas, Dunne takes a stand and comes out, so to speak, to her aunts and the town ladies. However, after this, Douglas races back to the big city and it turns out he's living his own hypocritical double life: he's been in a loveless marriage for years but can't get a divorce as it might damage his father's political career. Dunne turns the tables on Douglas, moves into his apartment, announces to the press that she is Carolyn Adams, and sets about to liberate Douglas.

This is a well-regarded example of screwball comedy and much of it does work well; Dunne is especially delicious in the scenes in which she is getting her revenge in New York. As in most screwball films, there is a strong supporting cast, including Mitchell, Spring Byington, Thurston Hall, and Robert Greig. But Douglas is the sticking point for me; as in BRINGING UP BABY, this is a screwball comedy that ultimately doesn't work for me because I can't get past the irritating nature of a major character who I'm supposed to see as charming. Still, this is generally a solid production that I'm not sorry to have seen. [TCM]

Saturday, March 07, 2009


A variation on the "old dark house" thriller set during one night at a Welsh lighthouse rumored to be haunted, where a phantom light has lured ships to doom on the rocks. The first 20 minutes or so follow three strangers as they make their way to the lighthouse one fateful night: the newly appointed lighthouse keeper (Gordon Harker), whose predecessor died mysteriously, is the only one to make the trip to the lighthouse legitimately; a reporter (Ian Hunter) and a young woman (Binnie Hale) sneak their way onto the tiny lighthouse island and are allowed to spend the night. It turns out that Hunter's brother is on a ship due to arrive that night, and he's there to make sure that his brother's ship doesn't meet a tragic fate. The rest of the film is confined to the lighthouse as the three main characters eventually begin working together to figure out whether the other folks staying the night have good or bad intentions. This British "quota quickie" directed by Michael Powell is very similar in atmosphere and execution to any number of American B-thrillers along the same lines. This has a light comic touch, mostly due to Harker, and though the outcome is predictable, there is fun to be had along the way, if little evidence of Powell's future talents (BLACK NARCISSUS, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, etc.). On the MPI Classic British Thrillers disc. [DVD]

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Full disclosure: The first job I ever applied for, at the tender age of 16, was at a public library. I didn't get it. But all through my school years (elementary through grad school), I loved libraries and in all my years at OSU, I spent more time in libraries than I did in campus bars. I've always been a reader, I worked for many years in bookstores, and now, in middle years of my life, I'm finally working at a library--though since my degree isn't in library science, I dare not call myself a "librarian" under pain of condescending looks from my colleagues. There aren't many movies about librarians; THE MUSIC MAN, GOOD NEWS, DESK SET, PARTY GIRL, and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (if you count the 3-minute sequence of Mary Bailey as an old-maid in the fantasy Pottersville sequence) are all I could come up with. STORM CENTER used to show up on TV on weekend afternoons in the 60's but it's much harder to come by today, so I was ecstatic when it showed up on TCM's schedule recently. It's a pretty drab affair, but for librarian-movie fans, it's a must-see.

[Spoiler Alert!!] Bette Davis is, yes, a maiden lady librarian in a small town (actually, if I recall correctly, she was married but her husband died young). She loves her job and has a good relationship with the town's kids, especially little Kevin Coughlin who loves books even though his dad isn't so happy about that. One day, the city council finds out that the library has a book on Communism on its shelves and they ask Davis to pull it from the collection. At first, she agrees to, but then realizes that once such censorship starts, who knows where it will end, so she puts it back on the shelves. Council member Brian Keith finds some information showing Davis once belonged to a Communist front group, and he threatens to smear her with it. Little Kevin becomes upset, avoids Davis, and starts having bad dreams about snakes slithering out of book pages. Eventually, things come to a head when Davis is forced to leave her job just as the library is about to break ground on a new children's wing. Some well-meaning friends get Davis to attend the ceremony, but little Kevin winds up causing a big scene, and that night, he sets the library on fire.

The idea of a movie about libraries and the First Amendment is an interesting one, but it's not exactly an inherently exciting topic, and the muddled script doesn't help. For starters, it mixes the issues of censorship and McCarthyist witch-hunting, giving neither issue a full airing. None of the characters here are three-dimensional, especially the boy's hateful father (Joe Mantell). Davis's assistant (Kim Stanley) is sympathetic to her concerns, but is Keith’s girlfriend and has no qualms about continuing to date him even as his actions are ruining Davis' life. Davis is lifeless (perhaps that's what she thought librarians were like); the best performances are from Paul Kelly and Edward C. Platt as friends of Davis' who do their best to stand by her, and by 10-year-old Coughlin. This is by no means a bad movie, but nowadays it comes off like a particularly slow-paced Lifetime TV movie, which is not a plus. [TCM]

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Big city DA Adolphe Menjou tries to get some time away from a current crime wave by taking a vacation with his secretary (Ruthelma Stevens) out in rural small-town New York state (specifically in the town of Gilead, where he hopes to find some balm), only to get embroiled in the happenings of a traveling circus. Star trapeze artist Greta Nissen is on the outs with her husband (Dwight Frye) and having an affair with Donald Cook, her co-featured acrobat (pictured, and not, despite the get up, the queen of the title). Written death threats are being sent to several troupe members, and a group of African cannibals who are part of the side show are making people nervous ever since one of them seemingly vanished between the last town and Gilead. Of course, thanks to the title, we know that Nissen will bite the dust eventually, but it takes until the last 15 minutes for it to happen. Because of an early plot point in which Menjou is seen teaching his secretary how to lip read, we know that skill will come in handy later on. And since neurotic Frye is in the film, we know he's a bad guy, or at least a crazy guy. Most of this hour-long thriller is pretty predictable, but it's still fun to watch, thanks not only to good performances all around--even the ever-smarmy Cook gets to display more range than usual, though the ever-squirrely Frye doesn't--but also to deliberate pacing which allows a decent amount of attention to character. The climactic trapeze show is tense and well-shot. Menjou and Stevens have a good chemistry; they might be on-the-sly lovers, or they might be Perry Mason-Della Street friends; it was never quite clear to me. This is the second film in which they played these characters, and it's a shame more weren't made. [TCM]