Monday, November 30, 2009


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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]