Saturday, June 27, 2009


A prime example of the pre-WWII propaganda movie, produced before America was officially involved in the war, and there was pressure on the studios not to take sides in the European conflict. Still, some films critical of the Nazis got made (i.e., CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, FOUR SONS). This one, about the tensions within a German family, plays out like a B-version of MGM’s THE MORTAL STORM from the year before. Philip Dorn is the leader of an underground Resistance cell whose specialty is disseminating anti-Nazi propaganda via pirate radio broadcasts. His brother, Jeffrey Lynn, a soldier, returns from the war minus an arm but still a firm believer in the cause of National Socialism. Dorn has to hide his activities from Lynn, which becomes difficult when Lynn falls for Kaaren Verne, a violinist at a local cafe who is also a member of Dorn’s group. Martin Kosleck, Hollywood’s go-to guy for nasty Nazis, is the Gestapo official in charge of stopping the broadcasts, and there is a nicely done chase scene early in the film which cuts between Dorn giving his radio speech from a moving van and the Nazis chasing him down. Kosleck, who doesn’t realize that his secretary (Mona Maris) is a Resistance spy, gives the order that any traitors caught will be guillotined facing the blade, but this doesn’t stop Dorn’s cell from their work. As Dorn finds it harder to keep his secret from his brother, a tense subplot develops about a long-imprisoned Underground member who is released, but only after he agrees to betray his friends. Soon enough, despite precautions, the group gets tripped up and Verne is arrested. Lynn finds out about their actions and despite his initial disgust with them, does eventually come around to their side. The ending strains credibility a bit here and there, but is emotionally effective. Kosleck comes close to going over-the-top, but that was certainly intended, and as is often the case, the bad guy gets some of the best lines. While his men are torturing Verne, he makes them stop short of killing her, saying, “She’s no good to me as a corpse—not yet…” Later, when asked about his ethics, he responds, “If I concerned myself with ethics, I’d soon be out of a job.” Maris, as the spy inside the Gestapo, has a couple of nice scenes, and the acting overall is fine. [DVD]

Thursday, June 25, 2009


This B-movie is difficult to classify; because it stars Peter Lorre, it is often lumped into the horror category, but its only horrific element is the main character's fire-scarred face which we see for only a split-second. It has some stylistic features of the film noir, but it's really more a crime melodrama with an antihero at its center. Lorre is an immigrant come to make an honest living in America. He becomes friends with a neighborhood cop (Don Beddoe) who loans him some money and gives him a lead on a cheap apartment. Unfortunately, that night, there's a fire in the room next to his and Lorre is trapped in the building. He survives but his face is horribly maimed and he can't get a job, despite his skills with watch repair, because of his looks. One night he meets up with two-bit crook Dinky (George E. Stone) and they develop a symbiotic relationship like that of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy; when Stone gets sick, Lorre takes care of him and resorts to robbery to make money for the two of them. Stone tells him that he could get plastic surgery, so Lorre decides to keep up his string of daring "phantom robberies" (as the press dubs them), and he even becomes the leader of Stone's small gang, formerly led by James Seay (Kris Kringle's doctor in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET). When Seay gets out of jail, he tries to muscle his way back in, but Lorre keeps the upper hand and Seay remains in the group as a member, obviously biding his time until he can exact his revenge. A doctor tells Lorre that surgery won’t help, so he gets a latex mask (making him look like a wax figure of Peter Lorre). On the verge of pulling a big diamond job, Lorre meets a young blind woman (Evelyn Keyes) and their budding relationship causes him to re-think his crime career. Seay, thinking Lorre is about to betray the gang, sees a chance to get back at Lorre by planting a car bomb, but it's Keyes (in a scene echoed years later in THE BIG HEAT and THE GODFATHER) who gets in the car instead. The grief-stricken Lorre gets his revenge in a well-planned and chilling finale.

Lorre is very good and Beddoe is good in his few scenes as the friendly cop (who returns to play an important part in the ending), but for me it's Stone who really stands out in an excellent and underrated performance; he appeared in some 150 movies between the late 20's and the early 60's, usually playing a colorful underworld character (or, as in the Boston Blackie series, a comic sidekick) and he's usually fun to watch, but here he actually makes us feel something for his character, and he gets more screen time than usual, as he is really more important to the narrative than any of the other secondary characters (even Keyes, who is rather bland here). Not a scary movie, but a compelling one which I suspect will benefit from repeat viewings--and should get a DVD release one of these days. [TCM]

Monday, June 22, 2009


Aline MacMahon and her younger sister Ann Dvorak run a motor inn/diner out in the California desert, and they keep pretty busy what with pumping gas, repairing cars, flipping burgers, and renting overnight rooms. First we see Jane Darwell and Edgar Kennedy pushing their out-of-gas car in for a fill-up, followed by two girls hitchhiking to find fame in Hollywood. Then a chauffeur (Frank McHugh) arrives with two carefree playgirl types (Glenda Farrell and Ruth Donnelly); his car needs a minor repair, but he talks MacMahon into taking her time so they'll have to spend the night--and he can get a break from their demands. Most importantly, two well-dressed men (Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot) stop by; we find out they are bank robbers on the run after having accidentally killed a cashier, and coincidentally, Foster is an ex-boyfriend of MacMahon's—turns out she had a wild past before settling down, which is why she's discouraging Dvorak from stepping out with a local no-goodnik (Theordore Newton). Foster seduces MacMahon, Dvorak sneaks out with Newton, and Talbot tries to break into a safe containing the rich women's gems. The various outcomes, some quite surprising, are only possible because this is a pre-Code movie.

The unexpected ending is one pleasure of this movie, but the primary one is in seeing members of the Warner Brothers B-movie repertory company do what they're good at. MacMahon (pictured) does her usual starchy but wise bit, which makes her momentary heat with Foster all the more surprising. Talbot is handsome, Dvorak is innocent, McHugh is a wiseacre, Farrell is sexy, and Donnelly is funny. Foster, who I'm used to seeing in more heroic roles, is good as the slick bad guy who isn't quite as slick as he thinks. Short and quite watchable in the 30's Warners style. [TCM]

Saturday, June 20, 2009

FATHOM (1967)

Raquel Welch is a skydiver named Fathom Harvill--the story behind her first name becomes a running gag--who after a successful jump with a team of parachutists, is recruited by two British secret agents (Ronald Fraser and Richard Briers) from an outfit called HADES to help them plant a radio transmitter in the island villa of playboy Anthony Franciosa, suspected of having stolen a gadget called the Fire Dragon which can trigger an H-bomb. She parachutes onto his terrace, pretending to have missed her target, but as she's prowling around the house, she runs across a dead body which she assumes is that of another HADES agent. Franciosa plays dumb about the body but seems to buy her cover story, and helps her get back to the mainland. Next, Fraser sends her out to the yacht of Sergi Serapkin (Clive Revill), a colorful character who wouldn't have been out of place on an episode of The Wild, Wild West. After she sets off a bomb on the yacht and gets involved in a motorboat chase, she runs into Franciosa again, who tells her that the Fire Dragon is actually a priceless Ming Dynasty relic and he's a private eye trying to retrieve it for the Chinese government, and that Revill knows where to get hold of it. Who's telling the truth? More complications include Welch trapped in an arena with a raging bull, a car chase, shenanigans on a train, and a hunky bed & breakfast owner named Senor Mike (Tom Adams) who might be good, bad, or just an innocent bystander.

When I was a teenager, a poster of Raquel Welch coming out of the surf in a dripping-wet bikini shared wall space in my bedroom with The Beatles, Peter Max, and Elton John. But truth be told, I've seen few of her movies. This spy spoof with a light touch was a pleasant surprise; Welch doesn't exactly *act* here (one problem is that many of her lines have that awkward post-dubbed sound), but she looks good in her body-hugging wardrobe which includes, yes, a dripping-wet bikini. The twists and turns of the plot are clever, if eventually predictable, and the colorful settings (on location in Spain) are gorgeous. Briers, as the second-in-command Brit, is likable, and Franciosa is handsome and charming, though I was also quite taken by Tom Adams in his supporting role (pictured). This is no classic for the ages, but a solid 60's action flick that you won't feel guilty about having watched the next morning. [FMC]

Thursday, June 18, 2009


There is a lot of potential in this story, based on the life of a real person, Joaquin Murietta, and the folklore that grew up around him, but weak writing and acting don’t allow the film to come to life like it should, and it winds up being a routine B-western. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, an uneasy relationship exists between the local Mexican population and the ruling Anglos. Farmer Murietta (Warner Baxter, pictured below) is getting married to Rosita (Margo), and at the wedding feast, old friend Tomas expresses his hatred of the Anglos by throwing a knife at an American, but Baxter takes the blame to defuse the situation. Later, Tomas pulls the same stunt, this time firing at a wagon with two Americans (Bruce Cabot and Eric Linden), but Baxter can’t save him and he is shot and killed by Cabot. Baxter takes the wounded Cabot home for mending and the two become friendly. When Cabot finds out that some Gold Rush scoundrels are trying to force Baxter off his land, he agrees to get some legal help, but that night, the scoundrels come back to Baxter's home, beat him unconscious, and rape his wife, leaving her to die in Baxter's arms. He leaves his home to hunt down the men responsible and succeeds, at the same time attracting the attention of the law who put his name on wanted posters. Baxter winds up involved with the notorious outlaw Three-Fingered Jack (J. Carroll Naish), terrorizing all of California, even his own people, with robbery and cattle rustling. Cabot winds up leading the posse that finally catches up to Baxter, who, mortally wounded, still manages to drag himself to his wife’s grave to die.

Among the problems here: 1) the grim narrative has too many jarring moments of humor and merrymaking; 2) Baxter, at 50, is way too old for the part of a man who in real life was only in his mid-20s when he died; 3) if there's a Robin Hood aspect to this, with any of the ill-gotten gains going to the poor, it's not shown here; on a related note, the element of Baxter exploiting his own people is ripe for dramatic exploration, but remains a surface element; 4) the somewhat odd-couplish friendship between Baxter and Cabot, also potentially interesting, is never developed. Cabot, looking and even sounding like a young Harrison Ford, is the best actor in the movie, and might well have been a better match for the title role. Naish is OK but is unable to make his character stand out from the average B-western baddie. Despite the compelling storyline, I can't recommend this one. [TCM]

Saturday, June 13, 2009


This melodrama, another film from the Lionsgate Alain Delon boxed set, takes place in the French countryside in the mid-1930s. Delon is a drifter who meets up with the title character (Simone Signoret) one day while she's toting a heavy load to her home, across a river accessible only by a bridge that is brought up and down by her nasty sister-in-law. He helps her home, explains that he's jobless because he's just gotten out prison, and she hires him as a handyman. Soon, they have begun a May-December romance--it's unclear how invested he is in it, as he's also seducing a neighbor girl, but the widow is quite swept off her feet by his attentions. He soon admits that he's an escaped murderer and, thanks to the meddling relatives whose main motivation seems to be sheer spite over the widow's happiness, a huge police comes combing the countryside for Delon. An unhappy ending is in store. Delon and Signoret are both well worth seeing here, but the whole thing feels more like a draft of a movie: its 90 minutes are sluggishly paced and nothing much happens in terms of action or character development--unless I missed something, the motivations of the relatives and villagers are never made very clear, and Delon (perhaps on purpose) remains a cipher: is he using Signoret or does he have real affection for her? Is he a criminal to be despised or a good person at heart? Even the widow is mostly a blank to us. But of course, any Delon film of the 60's and early 70's is worth seeing for his handsome visage and sexy demeanor. [DVD]

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Alain Delon wakes up in a hospital after a serious car accident; he has amnesia and remembers neither his name nor the woman who says she's his wife (Senta Berger). She takes him home to recover; it seems he is a wealthy man who owns a construction company and has just moved to France from Hong Kong. He has a vague recollection of nightclubbing with family friend Sergio Fantone, but nothing else is familiar to him. Delon has a near-fatal accident in the barn, just misses being crushed by a falling chandelier, and starts hearing voices in the night telling him he's going mad. At this point, if not earlier, viewers who know the earlier (and similarly titled) French film DIABOLIQUE will figure out that Delon is indeed not really Berger's husband, but is the victim of a sort of "gaslighting" scheme being carried out by Berger, Fantone, and an odd man named Kim (Peter Mosbacher) who appears to be Berger's personal assistant, but is actually involved in some kind of sadomasochistic relationship with her. When Delon finds a dead body on the grounds, he begins to catch on, and the rest of the film plays out rather predictably. The plotting is creaky but generally it's fun following the twists and turns right up to an ending which throws one last twist into the mix. Part of the five-film Alain Delon set from Lionsgate. [DVD]

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Alain Delon and Romy Schneider (pictured) are a beautiful young couple summering at a St. Tropez villa; we don't know too much about them except that he's feeling a bit vulnerable because a slowdown in his writing career. After some scenes of the two sunbaked beauties lolling around the pool and making love now and then, a visitor arrives: an older friend of Delon's (Maurice Ronet) and his waifish teenage daughter (Jane Birkin). They are welcomed somewhat reluctantly as houseguests (Delon suspects that Ronet and Schneider were lovers many years ago), and the tension level rises when Birkin lets slip to Delon that her dad said he could get Schneider back anytime he wants. Delon plans his revenge, first by having sex with Birkin, and then by plotting Ronet's murder. This has Hitchcockian thriller elements, but it plays out too slowly to really be a thriller. In its focus on male competition and jealousy, it reminded me of Roman Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER, another film about a younger man competing with an older man for a woman's attentions, with potentially deadly consequences. This is far too long at 2 hours to really hold its tension; it would play much better edited down to a tight 80 minutes or so, but Delon, as always, is sexy as hell, as is Schneider, who, years earlier, was Delon's real-life lover. The turning point of the film, a scene in the pool between Delon and Ronet, is excellent, but it takes too long to get there. This is part of a recent boxed set of Alain Delon films from Lionsgate, and I'll get around to a couple more of the films soon. [DVD]

Saturday, June 06, 2009


As someone who has actually read a couple of Fu Manchu books and is a fan of Boris Karloff's MASK OF FU MANCHU, I've been anxious to see more of Fu onscreen. I did see one of Christopher Lee's 60's films which was terrible, and I've also seen the 40's serial DRUMS OF FU MANCHU which is fine as an adventure serial but not very evocative of Sax Rohmer's novels. This is the first Fu Manchu movie and, though it has many of the problems of most early sound films, such as static camerawork and garbled sound, it has great atmosphere and probably comes the closest to actually bringing the stories to movie life. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, while the British are fighting off "the Oriental hordes" in Peking, the mild and scholarly Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) is taking care of the young daughter of a British soldier. The British are victorious, but when the last of the rebels take refuge in Fu's garden, a gunfight breaks out and Fu's wife and son are killed. He rages against the white barbarians and vows to wipe out those responsible for his tragedy. Years later, in London, Inspector Nayland Smith (O.P. Heggie) warns Sir Petrie (Claude King) that someone is poisoning the soldiers who were in involved in fighting the rebellion and, sure enough, that very evening, Petrie is done in by poison gas. His son (Neil Hamilton) joins Smith in going after the killers, along with Lia (Jean Arthur), a young waif Petire has befriended. The family goes into hiding at a mansion on the coast of England, but Fu's reach is wide; it turns out that Lia is Fu's adopted daughter; he has her under his hypnotic power and is using her to track the Petries. Though there are sluggish moments here and there, the final confrontation is well played. Fu tells a bound Petrie that they are not characters in a "gigantic melodrama" in which a last-minute rescue will provide a happy ending, but of course, they actually *are* in such a melodrama, and Fu gets one of the last lines as, in his death throes, he tells us that the story is going to end "in the usual way." As much as I like Karloff’s over-the-top portrayal in MASK, Oland does a better job at bringing the character as written by Rohmer to life. Hamilton does a nice job as the stolid hero, though Arthur is rather bland and Heggie (best known as the blind hermit in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) doesn't make much of an impression. William Austin has an excruciating turn as the mincing comic-relief butler who explains that he doesn't wear glasses because they make him look "slightly effeminate." The total lack of background music really hurts the film, and makes you realize how much we rely on such music to set mood and convey tension. The print of this Paramount film I saw, on a grey-market DVD, is a bad copy of an old TV print, but the movie is interesting enough to deserve a decent release, if better materials can be found. DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, a sequel with Oland and Anna May Wong, is also worth seeing. [DVD]

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


A primitive early talkie, shot like an especially static stage play, with a predictable family melodrama plotline. It features three acting brothers, Matt, Tom, and Owen Moore, fairly well known in silent pictures, in their only film together. I'm not sure that's reason enough for the average film buff to search this one out, but if you accept its limitations, it's just on the right side of watchable. The three boys are Irish-American brothers: Matt is a doctor whose career is on the rise, Tom is a traffic cop, and Owen, as far as his family knows, is a successful businessman who is usually too busy to visit, but we find out that he's actually a notorious bootlegger who operates under an assumed name (Barney). Tom is sweet on nice Irish girl Katherine Perry, who happens to meet "Barney" at a party, unaware at the time of his double identity. However, in the aftermath of the party, Matt arrives to care for a thug who was injured in a mini-brawl and he recognizes his brother. He agrees to keep quiet, but eventually Tom is promoted to detective and is assigned to track down "Barney." Things start to unravel at the family Thanksgiving dinner when Perry recognizes Owen as "Barney" and Owen puts out a hit on the cop who's after him, not knowing it's his own brother. The climax is fairly strong but loses some power due to incoherent overlapping dialogue delivered over the mortally wounded body of one of the characters. Most of the film takes place in Ma (Emma Dunn) and Pa's (Frank Sheridan) homey apartment during dinners and family gatherings, and the apartment set looks like it's on an actual theater stage. The Moores are all fine, with Tom the most expressive and Matt a little wooden. There is no background music at all, which I'm used to in movies from the early sound era, but it was a bit startling that there wasn't even any music during the opening credits. There is, however, a short musical number performed at Barney's party which features an uncredited George Raft. (Picture is of Matt, Owen, and Tom Moore, from [TCM]