Saturday, January 31, 2009


This film of the early life of St. Francis of Assisi begins with young Francis (Graham Faulkner) coming home from the Crusades; the rumor is that he has turned coward, but he arrives in a state of near-total collapse with a dangerous fever. While his mother (Valentina Cortese) tends to him, we get some fractured flashbacks of his days before the wars as a son of privilege in the village of Assisi. When he finally recovers, he seems to have had a major personality change, made plain in a scene in which he scampers across a roof chasing after a bird. He catches it, holds it, and lets it go, and then teeters on the edge of the roof while a flock of birds swarms around him. He decides to give up all his possessions and live in poverty as a beggar. His father hopes taking him to church will help, but Francis has a meltdown, screaming "No!" at the giant crucifix and eventually stripping himself naked in the public square in the presence of the Bishop, saying that he has been "born again." The Bishop tells him that he is subverting "the established order," though he does seems to have at least a bit of sympathy for Francis' innocent idealism. Francis goes off to live in a ruined chapel and, with the help of a small band of followers, mostly poor and crippled, rebuilds it. That winter, his three closest friends return from the Crusades and, one by one, they decide to join him. Also joining him is Clare (Judi Bowker), a young woman he fancied in his pre-war days. When the bishop has their church set on fire, Francis and his friends go to Rome to see the Pope (Alec Guinness) to find out why the Church opposes them so violently. In the film's climax, the muddy, barefoot Francis enters the outlandishly ornate cathedral and lectures the Holy Fathers on the Gospels (the lilies of the field neither toiling nor spinning, etc.). He is run out of the church, but the Pope has second thoughts, calls him back in, and gives him his blessing by kissing Francis' feet

This film is derided by many as a "hippy-dippy," flower-child film, and the fact that songs by Donovan, the archetypal hippie troubadour, crop up occasionally only reinforces that label. There is a very 60's vibe to Francis's philosophy, presented as a rebellion against "the establishment"--the church, the state, the family. But I found the movie to be quite enjoyable, and much less dated than I was expecting it to be--no day-glow colors, no light show visuals, no druggy hazes, and fairly standard cinematography (though most of the men do have hippieish hair and/or beards), and even Donovan's songs sound more ancient folkie than hippie. Faulkner is very handsome and gives a solid, charismatic performance despite the fuzziness of Francis' character as written. Bowker, wispily lovely, has almost nothing to do, and is in fact absent from the film for long stretches. Supporting players Leigh Lawson and Kenneth Cranham as Francis' buddies have much more screen time. Guinness gives one of the oddest performances of his career as the Pope--I can't tell if the Pope indeed has had some kind of spiritual epiphany, or if he's crazy like a fox (it's suggested that the Pope's actions have a practical, political basis in that Francis may be able to bring the poor back into the faithful fold), or just a somewhat bug-eyed loony. The movie, shot on location in Italy, is almost always lovely to look at. I find this a much more interesting film than the early 60's Hollywood version of Francis' life with Bradford Dillman. This one is much better than its reputation suggests. [DVD]

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

MIRANDA (1948)

I've never been particularly fascinated by mermaids (though I was fascinated by the hunky blond Aquaman in my comic-book-reading youth), and though I remember SPLASH being OK, I also remember that MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID was a terrible movie, despite the presence of the wonderful William Powell. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this British comic fantasy about a man who finds a mermaid and takes her back to civilization. It turns out to be a fairly delightful film, much more interesting than the above two mermaid movies. Middle-class doctor Griffith Jones takes a solo fishing vacation in Cornwall and snags a mermaid named Miranda (Glynis Johns) on his line. When he falls in the water, she takes him to her cave and he awakes to hear her singing her siren song. She begs him to take her back to London with him so she can spend a few weeks seeing the sights she's read about in snippets of newspapers left behind in the water. He agrees, having her pose as a patient confined to a wheelchair. When they get to London, the men she meets are all enchanted with her, especially Jones' butler (David Tomlinson) and his painter friend, John McCallum. The women are another story. Jones's wife (Googie Withers) isn't terribly happy to see such a lovely young woman staying with them indefinitely and being carried everywhere by her husband. Tomlinson's wife, the family maid, and McCallum's fiancée are similarly upset to see the effect she has on their men.

Jones hires a famously eccentric nurse (Margaret Rutherford) to take on the mermaid's personal care; when Rutherford finds out the truth about Johns, she's fascinated and keeps the secret. The rest of the film consists of Johns seducing all three men (though it's unclear exactly how far any hanky-panky could actually go) between visits with Jones to the opera (where one night, she heaves herself up on the edge of her box seat and belts out an aria as good as the one just heard on stage) and the playing-out of lots of fish puns and jokes about the mermaid's cold skin and Tomlinson's big ears. Just when it seems like the mermaid has wrecked all their love lives, the men find out that she's juggling them all and they lose interest. Johns dives out into the Thames and heads out to open sea, leaving the men and women to mend their relationships. A tidy and predictable ending, yes, but with a hilarious shocker of a last shot that will make you go back to contemplating the mechanics of human/mermaid sex. The movie is frothy and sexy and all the acting is top-notch, with especially high marks going to Withers, who generally manages to avoid the brittle clichés of the jealous wife, and the very handsome Jones (pictured) and McCallum. It's based on a play, but it never feels stagy. Brian Oulton has a small role as a flamingly gay dress designer. I love the fact that there is a separate credit for the tail: "Tail by Dunlop." [TCM]

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Wow, am I on a bad movie kick! This one is so bad, I'm tempted not to bother anyone with news of its existence, but I sat through the whole thing so I'm gonna forge ahead. Besides, that cool title is what suckered me into watching this, so maybe my review will save others who might be equally tempted. This begins with a good scene that was duplicated in a later (and much better) Ronald Reagan B-movie, SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR, in which a pilot, smuggling a Chinese family of illegal aliens, dumps them out in mid-air to their deaths when he's attacked by another plane. The pilot, pissed when his boss won't pay him for the aborted delivery, calls the Feds and offers to give them the goods on the smuggling ring, but is shot to death just before the agents raid the Chinese restaurant which is the front for the gang. The leader, Sidney Blackmer, gets away, but agent Regis Toomey, his older sidekick (J. Farrell McDonald), and a prominent judge's daughter (Esther Ralston) try to infiltrate the gang. Many static, tedious scenes later, a climax of sorts occurs when Blackmer forces Ralston into smuggling another Chinese family, with Toomey on her tail, not realizing she's in the pilot's seat. The 70-minute movie is filled with inept photography, bad sets, and flubbed lines left in, and the lack of any background music at all only accentuates the sheer boredom of the proceedings. Even the promise of a moderately exciting air chase at the end goes nowhere. The actors, all pros who have done good B-film work elsewhere, are left at sea by bad direction and zero production values. Blackmer gets one nicely slimy, almost campy line, when he says, "Orientals have a peculiar irresistible fascination for me," but despite the promise of the melodramatic title, this one will hold no one's interest. [DVD]

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


This Poverty Row detective film, from little-known outfit Screen Guild Productions, is dreadful, but for a B-movie buff like me, still has moments of interest. While struggling detective Tom Neal is out of his office, his secretary/fiancée Pamela Blake takes on a case for him; a mysterious man (Leonard Penn) with an obviously fake goatee says he wants her to get photographic evidence of his wife's adulterous activities. He tells Blake where to take the picture and even gives her a hat box with a hidden camera to use. However, when Blake goes to take the photo, it turns out that the box is rigged with a gun, and she shoots the wife. The DA takes her into custody, but Neal talks him into letting her go and letting him try to snare the real killer. With equal parts help and hindrance from bumbling sidekick Allen Jenkins, Neal does eventually clear Blake and the cops get Penn.

The plot is serviceable but with a weak script and a 45 minute running time, this ends up feeling more like a summary of a movie with most of the action and explanatory detail left out; other weaknesses include the cardboard sets and the grating background music. I like both Neal and Jenkins (pictured), though their best days were behind them. Jenkins was a reliable supporting comic relief figure in dozens of Warner Brothers films of the 30's (42ND STREET, MAYOR OF HELL, SH! THE OCTOPUS) whose career was revitalized later in TV. Neal, a handsome tough-guy actor who never made it out of B-films (DETOUR, FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO), was only in his mid-30s here but he's looking rather seedy already--his career was essentially over a few years later thanks to some real-life bad behavior. Blake is totally forgettable, though comic actress Virginia Sale tries hard for some laughs as a burger slinger and Jenkins' long-suffering gal. The most notable part of the film is at the very beginning, when the four leads introduce themselves directly to the camera, first in character, then with Neal giving their real names. [DVD]

Saturday, January 17, 2009


A competently made WWII propaganda film which falls somewhere between a B- and an A-film. John Sutton is a British spy who is snuck across the English Channel in order to find a munitions plant and mark it so the RAF can bomb it a few nights later. On his way to finding his contact, Marcel Dalio, he takes refuge in the farmhouse of Lee J. Cobb, whose son has just been reported dead in a battle against the British. Cobb is willing to help out, passing Sutton off as his son returned from the front, but Cobb's daughter, Annabella, blames the British for the death of her brother and resents Sutton almost as much as she resents the Nazis. With the help of Dalio and Cobb, Sutton finds the plant and gets local farmers in the area to set bonfires encircling it on the night of the raid, but local Nazi Howard da Silva, by threatening Annabella's family, finds out about the plot from her. When he kills her family anyway, she sees the light and commits herself to helping Sutton accomplish his goal. The production is stagy but effective, and Sutton, mostly a B-actor, acquits himself well, though I was not as impressed by Annabella, a French actress, married at the time to Tyrone Power, who did not have a long Hollywood career. Beulah Bondi is Cobb's wife, who gets tricked by Da Silva into giving away an important secret near the climax. The most striking aspect of the plot is the active role of the women; at the climax, it's the farmer's wives who have to bond together and take care of setting the fires with Sutton. Also with John Banner (Schulz on "Hogan's Heroes") and Blanche Yurka. Directed by John Brahm with some nice but unobtrusive stylistic touches here and there. [DVD]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Fictional British detective Sexton Blake is a Sherlock Holmes rip-off, right down to the bumbling sidekick, the matronly housekeeper, and a Baker Street address. He was not nearly as universally popular in the movies as Holmes, but he remained a hero in books, comic strips, and British television through the 70's. This film, which plays out more like a Saturday matinee serial than a Holmes mystery, begins in Shanghai with an attempt on the life of Granite Grant (great character name, played by David Farrar, though he only has a couple minutes of screen time) by an evil organization called the Black Quorum, led by arch-villain The Snake. Grant's friend Duvall goes to London to pass along important information about the group, but he is killed via poisoned blowpipe in Blake's apartment. With help from a French agent (Greta Gynt), Blake (George Curzon) and his roommate Tinker, who is in fact an inept tinkerer in scientific experiments, get on the trail of the Snake, actually a wealthy stamp collector (Tod Slaughter). There are many trappings of the adventure serial: the blowpipe, invisible ink messages, spying TV cameras, a creepy casino which is a front for the bad guys' headquarters, and a death chamber with snakes slithering out of the walls. Best of all is the Black Quorum who, despite knowing each other’s identities, sit around at their meetings wearing hoods (see picture). The relatively fast pace of the proceedings is a big plus here, as most of the actors are just adequate, with Slaughter doing nicely as the baddie. The Snake gets away at the end, but since Blake was only "unofficially" on the case, he doesn’t care (!). Farrar went on to low-level stardom as the male lead in Michael Powell's BLACK NARCISSUS. Good print from the British Cinema Classic B-Film set from VCI. [DVD]

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Another British B-thriller with Tod Slaughter twirling his mustache and threatening to feed a man's entrails to the pigs. This one is a loose adaptation of Wilkie Collins's classic Gothic novel The Woman in White which was brought to the screen more faithfully (with Hollywood stars and a bigger budget) but with less rough flair in 1948. Here, Sir Percival Glyde, prospecting in Australia, gets word that he is to take over his family's estate in England; fellow prospector Slaughter, thinking Glyde is rich, murders him (driving a railroad spike through his head), goes to England and assumes his identity, only to discover that the estate is almost bankrupt. His only hope is to go through with a long-arranged marriage with the wealthy (and considerably younger) Laura. However, as she is in love with her tutor Paul, she is not happy with the arrangement--the brief wedding night scene is shot like a scene of torture from a Hammer horror movie--and she brings her sister Marion to live with her.

Meanwhile, the counterfeit Glyde has other problems piling up: 1) the saucy maid he's banging on the side is pregnant; 2) he discovers that Glyde had been secretly married and has a secret daughter, Anne, locked up in an asylum; 3) legally, he can’t get his hands on enough of Laura's money to satisfy his needs, and his lawyer tells him he'd be better off if his wife was dead. So, 1) when the maid wants him to do the right thing, he kills her, and gets to re-use his infamous line from MURDER IN THE RED BARN, "You shall be a bride--a bride of death!"; 2) when Anne's mother becomes a problem, she winds up dead as well; 3) when Glyde finds out that Anne, escaped from the asylum and haunting the property, is the spitting image of Laura, he kills her, claims his wife is dead, and sends Laura to the asylum. Luckily, Paul and Marion figure things out and come to Laura’s rescue. Though it only uses the names and bare bones of Collins's original plot, it's great near-campy B-movie fun. Slaughter goes delightfully over the top, leering and licking his lips whenever he can. No one else in the cast has a chance against him, though Hay Petrie has a bit of fun as the dastardly Dr. Fosco, who knows all of Glyde's secrets and keeps hoping for a big financial payoff instead of the promised loss of his intestines (which sadly does not happen, though Petrie's end is imaginative). Not for everyone's taste, but trashy fun if you're in the mood. The print from VCI's British Cinema: Classic B Film Collection Vol. 1 is in very good shape. [DVD]

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


In 16th century France, a young gypsy boy named Joseph sees his mother brutally executed for having the power of "second sight': he bites the hand of the man responsible, Montagne (Stephen Bekassy), leaving a scar, and as he is being tortured, he is rescued by gypsies. Years later, Joseph (Orson Welles) discovers, with some help from the famous Dr. Mesmer, that he has a powerful talent for hypnosis. He goes on the road as Count Cagliostro, becomes famous as a mystical healer, and soon runs into Montagne, who, not recognizing him, asks for his help in a complicated plot to bring down Marie Antoinette involving Lorenza (Nancy Guild), a woman who is her double. He agrees to help, but once they reach the royal court, the plots multiply and it is soon each man and woman out for his or her own interests. Though this film is thick with the trappings of French history (Cagliostro was real, and he was arrested for being involved in the infamous affair of the necklace that was instrumental in bringing down Marie Antoinette), it is apparently mostly fiction, based on a story by Alexandre Dumas (who, in the movie's framing device, is telling the entire narrative to his son, played by Raymond Burr). It's a bit slow moving but it's enjoyable to watch the tricky, complex plots play out, and the sets (many of which look like actual on-location spots) are magnificent. Welles is excellent as always, and is rumored to have co-directed with credited director Gregory Ratoff. The rest of the acting is inconsistent; Guild is just OK as the French queen but terrible as Lorenza, and is especially bad when she's acting with Welles; Frank Latimore, as her gallant lover, is rather wooden. The only other standout is Akim Tamiroff as Cagliostro's loyal associate who has pangs of conscience near the climax when he's convinced that his boss has gone off the deep end. Not screened very often, but worth catching. [TCM]

Monday, January 05, 2009


In the 20's and 30's, Tod Slaughter was well known in England as a hammy star of stage and screen melodramas, most associated with the role of the killer barber Sweeney Todd (long before the Sondheim musical). As far as I can tell, the B-movie thrillers he made through the 30's and 40's didn't take off here in the States, but with the availability of the public-domain films on cheap DVDs, he has something of a cult following these days, and I was pleased to catch up with him over the holidays. The movies are stilted and low-budget but fun if you're not expecting too much. My problem with Slaughter (pictured below) is that he looks too much like Paul Ford, the jolly actor who played Mayor Shinn in THE MUSIC MAN, so it's difficult to take him seriously as a villian at first.

MARIA MARTEN, OR MURDER IN THE RED BARN, Slaughter's first film, is based on a play which was part of his regular repertory. He plays Corder, a well-liked village squire who throws dances for all the townsfolk, even the outcast gypsies, in his big red barn. He dances and flirts with lovely young Maria Marten (Sophie Stewart) but she is loved by Carlos, a hot-blooded gypsy boy (Eric Portman). An old gypsy fortune teller sees a hangman's noose in Slaughter's future, which rather puts a damper on the proceedings, but a few nights later, Maria sneaks away to be with Corder—it's unclear what the attraction is, as she looks sweet, virginal, and about 20 years old, while he looks a bit plumb and every bit his 50 years—but their rendezvous that night results in her pregnancy. By the time she tells Corder, he's on the verge of marrying a rich woman in order to pay off some gambling debts. When she threatens to expose him, he lures her to the barn and kills her (great line, delivered with blood and thunder by Slaughter: "You shall be a bride--a bride of DEATH!") and buries her there. Carlos helps the police figure out what's what, and Slaughter gets a good gone-round-the-bend climax. Gerard Tyrell is memorable as the comic relief village idiot who keeps getting cheated out of loose change by Slaughter.

THE FACE AT THE WINDOW is set in 1880 France, where the police are stymied by a series of murders and robberies supposedly committed by a wolfman, whose horrible face appears at the window just before the murder occurs (a good special effect for the day). When a bank is robbed by the monster, the rich Chevalier (Slaughter) agrees to make a large deposit to help save the bank, but in return he asks the bank manager for his daughter's hand in marriage. However, the young lady is in love with a lowly bank clerk (John Warwick), so Slaughter incriminates Warwick in the robbery. Meanwhile, Warwick knows a doctor who is experimenting with re-animating dead beings; this plot thread comes into play in the main narrative when Warwick proposes bringing back a recently dead victim of the "wolfman" so they can identify the killer and clear his name. It's no spoiler to note that Slaughter is behind the "wolfman" racket, though the secret of the face at the window and the way in which Slaughter is unmasked are both worth sticking around for. Neither of these are exactly horror movies; they're more Gothic-tinged crime thrillers, but they're fun discoveries, especially the first one, and I may delve further into Slaughter's work in the future. [DVD]

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Fred Allen's traveling band gets stuck on a rainy night in a small town and happens upon a political rally for windbag politician Raymond Walburn, who is running for governor. His tiresome speech has the audience members trickling out in boredom, but when singer Dick Powell gets up and does a song, the reaction is electric. Allen agrees to have the band peform at all of Walburn's rallies, but Powell soon gets fired for being too good--the crowds start to leave after he's done, not sticking around for the often-inebriated candidate. Party boss Alan Dinehart sees a good thing when it's in front of him and asks Powell to run for governor instead, as a figurehead for the party. He agrees to do it, assuming he'll lose but hoping to get some good exposure for his singing, but soon he's ahead in the polls. Powell and the band enjoy the ride, but when the party tries to make his sign a contract promising specific state office appointments as favors, he rebels.

First of all, I must cry "Yikes!" at the fortuitous arrival of this film on Fox Movie Channel so close to the time that Illinois's Blagojevich scandal broke. It's always fun when a little-known classic-era flick becomes relevant to our 21st-century affairs. I had never heard of this film, but it's a little gem; the political satire, though broad, is fun, the songs are decent, and I enjoyed seeing hunorist Fred Allen, who I mostly know from reruns of early-50's episodes of What's My Line on Game Show Network, in a rare acting role; he's quite good, and I'm sorry he didn't do more sidekick roles like this. Dick Powell is at an interesting place in his career here: he'd just pushed past the "lead juvenile" part he could do in his sleep (the early 30's Gold Diggers films), but hadn't yet found his tough-guy niche (1944's MURDER MY SWEET). I found him quite handsome and charming here; his leading lady, Ann Dvorak, is fine in a less substantive role, and Walburn is very funny as the popeyed drunken politician. Also with Patsy Kelly and Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. A romantic stumbling-block plotline involving the party boss's wife fliriting with Powell is too half-hearted to work, but the rest of the film is quite enjoyable. [FMC]