Wednesday, March 31, 2010


This pre-Code film has a cult following; I'm happy to have seen it, and the truly perverse leading lady character is fun, but I can't get enthused enough to join the cult. Bail bondsman George Bancroft (whose character name is Bill Bailey) is a slimeball, using gifts to judges, lawyers, and cops to wield influence. Frances Dee is a socialite with a masochistic taste for danger; when she's arrested for thrill-shoplifting, Bancroft gets her off. Her father says she has an absolute "underworld mania," but we also discover she gets quite excited watching the scantily clad Hawaiian dancers at a party ("Pagan, almost savage!" she moans to Bancroft). Judith Anderson, a night club owner and Bancroft's buddy/mistress (kind of like Belle Watling is to Rhett Butler), is not happy to see him get involved with Dee. Anderson's kid brother (Chick Chandler) is arrested for being involved in a daring bank robbery; Bancroft puts up bail, but when Dee meets Chandler, she's fascinated with him. When the case against Chandler looks like it's going to be airtight, Bancroft encourages Chandler to skip bail. Chandler does, and asks Dee to give Chandler a lump payment while getting rid of some worthless bonds. She double-crosses both men, giving Bancroft the bonds and keeping the money for herself. This leads to distrust among all the main characters, attempts at revenge, and an assassination attempt against Bancroft via an explosive billiard ball. The film is fast paced throughout, and gets even faster in the last 20 minutes or so. Bancroft makes for a colorless lead, though Anderson (in her first film) and Chandler are fine, and Dee is excellent as the perverse rich girl; my only complaint about her is that she doesn't get more screen time. In the last scene, Dee crosses paths with a beat-up woman who has just left an apartment where she had answered an ad for a model, but was assaulted instead; Dee gets a wild gleam in her eyes and heads off to the apartment, in search of more thrills. Also with Blossom Seeley as a nightclub singer and Lucille Ball in a one-line role as a racetrack floozy. [FMC]

Monday, March 29, 2010


A Gothic feeling pervades this stagy but generally compelling psychological thriller. Anne Baxter is the title character, a young woman who has been in a hospital for an unspecified heart ailment. She has fallen in love with her doctor (Scott McKay) and he's brought her to his family's lovely New England seacoast house for an extended period of recuperation. From the get-go, she seems quiet but a little neurotic (she has a manic fear of birds) and she sends McKay back to his practice while she lives with the family and slowly comes out of her shell. However, it turns out that Baxter is a conniving little monster--she struck me as a cross between an older version of the little girl in THE BAD SEED and a younger, much less polished version of Baxter's own Eve Harrington in ALL ABOUT EVE. Soon she's making a play for the doc's older brother (Ralph Bellamy), an artist who makes his money with commercial art but who yearns to do serious work. However, since Bellamy is married (to Ruth Warrick), Baxter has to do some finagling, eventually getting the whole house, including the young daughter, the hired help, and the maiden aunt, to believe that Bellamy is having an affair with his live-in model. Bellamy gives up his commercial work to paint a donated mural at the local church with Baxter posing as St. Cecila, which means in addition to Warrick feeling more and more jealous, there is much less money coming in. The daughter, feeling neglected, starts adopting Baxter's traits (such as staying in bed all day and constantly playing a recording of Liszt's mournful "Liebestraum"). Bellamy develops a drinking problem, Warrick and the kid decide to move out, and the whole thing gets a "Fatal Attraction" vibe before an effective stormy night climax and satisfying denouement.

My plot description may have some loose ends and even errors, as the print I saw on the Alpha DVD ran 96 minutes, but most references sources say the movie was originally 121 minutes. The print was a bit choppy, and based on some plot summaries I've read, I suspect that most of the opening reel, which sets up Baxter's illness and her relationship with her doctor, is gone from this print; perhaps it's a print which was trimmed to fit in a TV slot. It's based on a play and it shows, as practically every scene takes place in the house, but the staginess doesn’t hurt the film, and may even add to its occasionally exaggerated melodramatic feel. Baxter (pictured above with Warrick) is very good and carries the show effectively; Bellamy tries hard, but never comes across as commandingly as he should; Warrick is fine, as is Aline MacMahon as the aunt who figures out what's going on and takes an active part in the climactic action. Also with Margaret Hamilton and Percy Kilbride as the maid and butler who are the first to buy into Baxter's shenanigans, and Jerome Cowan in a thankless role as a family friend. Some critics call this "noir," I guess based on its dark look, but it's really a straightforward Gothic. I'd like someday to see a complete print, but even this shortened one is worth seeing. [DVD]

Saturday, March 27, 2010


This little-seen British thriller may not be a top rank film noir, but the current noir craze on DVD has allowed its rediscovery and it's worth seeing. It's a bit slow going for a while, as it takes over half of its running time to set up a variety of characters, many of whom wind up being red herrings. Luigi (Cesar Romero) runs a popular saloon with arcade games in London; Danny is his crippled assistant who lets himself be called Limpy by those he chooses. Through a mildly convoluted set of circumstances, Luigi winds up involved with Barbara Gale, a woman married to Gerald, a miserable cheater and overall shady guy. She seems to be having an affair of her own with the handsome lug Nigel, but soon falls for the cultivated Luigi. Enter Angele, a trampy French girl who knew Luigi in the past; she pisses off a drunken sailor (whom Luigi punches out when he gets too fresh with her) and pisses off Limpy (by flirting with him then denying him entrance to her apartment). However, when she winds up dead in Luigi's place, he becomes the chief suspect and goes on the run. When a woman's glove is found nearby, Barbara becomes a suspect, too. There's also Starry (an old fortune-telling woman), Konki the Clown (an old fortune-telling machine in Luigi's arcade), and Poppa (a shady jeweler).

This isn't really a whodunit--though we don't see the murder, it's crystal clear who did it--as much as a psychological thriller with strong noir elements. The inky black shadows, present in practically every scene, are nicely atmospheric; it feels like the entire movie takes place at night, even though there are a few daytime scenes. Most of the British cast was unfamiliar to me, except for Kay Kendall (attractive but with little to do as Barbara) and Bill Travers (attractive but with even less to do as Nigel). The standout actors are Romero, Victor Maddern as Limpy, and Edward Underdown as the inspector who wraps the case up. The noir theme of fate crops up in several references to fortune tellers. To be honest, the slow but careful set-up of all the characters in the first 45 minutes is interesting, and it's a bit of a letdown when few of those people wind up being important to the murder plot. The print on the VCI disc (in Forgotten Noir Vol. 3) is crisp and clean. [DVD]

Thursday, March 25, 2010


All I ever knew about "Wrong Way" Corrigan was that he was a pilot who flew the wrong way and somehow got famous for it. This biopic, released less than a year after the actual flight, stars the real Douglas Corrigan as himself, and his story is moderately interesting (though as an actor, Corrigan is a total amateur). When Corrigan was a young boy, his dad promised to buy him his own airplane, but dad left the family one day and never returned--three mildly rowdy kids were too much for his nerves, apparently. Years later, working as an aviation mechanic and a traveling barnstormer, Corrigan dreams of becoming a airline pilot, and though he tries, the qualifications for the job keep changing (number of hours in the air, college degree). His buddy (Paul Kelly), a shell-shocked WWI pilot with a weak ticker, helps him out, though is sometimes more of a hindrance, as when he gets them both fired when they take two girls on a prop plane joyride that ends with a crash landing. Corrigan perseveres in the face of tremendous obstacles and soon has his own ramshackle plane that he hopes to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland. But because he has extra gas tanks installed, blocking his line of vision, the federal aviation folks (embodied by Robert Armstrong) won't clear him for his flight. To show he can do it, he flies from Los Angeles to New York non-stop, but Armstrong insists he return to California. Instead, Corrigan takes off and "mistakenly" goes the wrong way, over the Atlantic; despite stormy weather and a gas leak, he makes it to Ireland, and when he returns to New York, he gets a hero's ticker-tape parade.

This is a B-movie and it shows, not just in Corrigan's wooden performance (though Corrigan is boyish enough to carry off playing himself as a younger man) but in the lack of any exciting aerial footage--the take-offs and landings look like they're most done with miniature models. Kelly and Armstrong share the screen with a steady stream of character actors in small roles, including J.M. Kerrigan as his dad, Dorothy Peterson as his mom (who dies just before Corrigan can fulfill her request to see him dressed up in a nice suit), Eddie Quillian as his brother, Gene Reynolds (later a director of TV shows like My Three Sons and MASH) as the teenaged Douglas, and Donald McBride as one of Corrigan's bosses. You may also recognize Grady Sutton, George Chandler, Frank Faylen and Louis Jean Heydt in single-line parts. Interesting as a novelty. [TCM]

Monday, March 22, 2010


John Gilbert is the title character, a playboy swashbuckler in the court of King Louis XIII; we first see him dueling with the husband of one of his mistresses, and later we get a sequence showing him passing out locks of his hair to his female admirers as though they were on an assembly line. Roy D'Arcy, another playboy, bets Gilbert that he won't be able to conquer the lovely Eleanor Boardman--specifically, he must get her to agree to marry him. He takes the bet, but then the King won't let Gilbert leave the court, so he sneaks out and, with the King's man after him, disguises himself as a rebel on the run. As it happens, Boardman's family is in sympathy with the rebels and when Gilbert falls from Boardman's balcony during his first seduction attempt, he is nursed back to health and sheltered by the family. Slowly, he also wins her heart, and she his. They go through a spiritual marriage ceremony in the woods (she says they are married "in her heart") but when he starts to explain that he is not who she thinks he is, she turns him in as a traitor. During the trial, D'Arcy recognizes him but refuses to speak up. No matter: Gilbert is able to escape the gallows at the last minute, fights D'Arcy in a duel, and finally wins Boardman.

This is certainly Gilbert at the peak of his career: handsome, dashing, sexy, athletic, and just as grand a swashbuckler as Douglas Fairbanks was. This film was considered lost for over 70 years until a nearly complete print was found just a few years ago. A missing reel has been reconstructed and the whole thing plays quite well, and looks good considering its age. There's an interesting love scene played out in a canoe on the water passing under a row of willow trees, and the climactic escape is superb. A fun adventure, but one that makes me sad at the loss of a talent like John Gilbert at the age of 38. [DVD]

Sunday, March 21, 2010


British heiress Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) grew up with two boys in love with her: the safe, bland David (Johnny Mack Brown) and the darkly handsome Neville (John Gilbert). Her younger brother Jeff (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who has become a dissolute sot, has always had a bit a hero-worship thing for David (sort of a man-crush), but Diana prefers Neville. However, Neville's father doesn't approve of Diana and doesn't want her supporting his working-class son, so he packs Neville off to Egypt to work for a few years. Diana begs Neville to marry her before he leaves, but he doesn't, so seemingly out of spite, she marries David instead. On their honeymoon, two men come to the door of their room holding handcuffs; David then leaps to his death. When questioned, Diana says he "died for decency."

Diana goes on to a string of well-publicized affairs, and seven years later she returns to England to see her dying brother on the eve of Neville's marriage to the wholesome Constance. Though they try to fight their attraction, Diana and Neville have sex at the very moment that poor Jeff dies (rather calmly and beautifully like Ali McGraw in Love Story). Still, Neville marries Constance and now it's Diana's turn at dissolution, winding up months later in a sanitarium. Neville comes to comfort her, and as the tragic climax approaches, we finally learn the scandalous truth behind David's death and discover that Diana has been much more noble than anyone knows.

I'm on a bit of a John Gilbert kick after having read the bio Dark Star by his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. In this one, he doesn't have much to do except shoot smoldering looks at Garbo and get pushed around by his priss of a father. He certainly smolders well; he always seems to be undressing, with his eyes, every woman he looks at. Garbo is the typical silent Garbo, alternating between being stone-faced and being melodramatically expressive. More interesting here is Fairbanks (at right), who is a stunningly handsome teenager (he was only 18 when he made this) and gives the best performance in the film. Lewis Stone is also fine as an older friend of the Merricks, sort of a father surrogate. There is some interesting camerawork, including nice use of long takes, long shots, and zooms. It feels a bit too long in its last half-hour, but it's still quite watchable. [TCM]

Friday, March 19, 2010


This romantic comedy may have been inspired by the Gold Digger films, and its plot was certainly recycled later in other Fox movies (MOON OVER MIAMI, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE). Three working women share a fancy apartment in Budapest (though they can't quite afford to get it furnished properly) and set out to find romance. Constance Bennett works as a model; she has some money, pays half the rent, and has a long-term arrangement with the slightly older Paul Lukas. This is complicated when a very young girl (Simone Simon) who calls herself a "cousin" even though she is just a family acquaintance, comes barging in on Lukas, flirting like crazy and demanding a place to stay; of course, her not-so-hidden gold digging agenda is to replace Bennett. Actress Loretta Young falls for a dashing count (Tyrone Power, pictured) who takes their relationship less seriously than she does, especially as it turns out that he is already engaged. Janet Gaynor, who works odd jobs, is sweet on young doctor Don Ameche, who is too preoccupied with his work to notice her--one of her jobs is feeding the rabbits he uses in his research--but eventually she takes a job as valet for a somewhat over-the-hill stage magician (Alan Mowbray) and as they say, complications ensue, including a suicide attempt. The movie works fine for 45 minutes as it sets its narratives in motion, but then it slows down and stays slow until the end. I do like the fact that only one of the three storylines (Gaynor's) ends predictably. Bennett and Gaynor got on my nerves with their mannered performances, and Ameche hadn't quite hit his stride yet, but Young is good, as are Lukas and Power (in a relatively small role--and he's credited as Tyrone Power Jr.). Monty Woolley, in his first movie, can be spotted basically as an extra in a theater scene. [FMC]

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Sometimes I "discover" actors by serendipity because I just happen to watch two or more movies in which they have featured roles in just a few days time. That happened recently with Bruce Cabot, whom I mostly know as Fay Wray's romantic partner (that is, the human one) in KING KONG. Not long after I’d seen him in SUNDOWN, TCM showed this relatively rare movie with Cabot putting in a solid B-film action lead performance, looking a little bit like an Indiana Jones-era Harrison Ford. Big blazing headlines tell us that there's a crime wave and a gang war going in town, and cop Cabot is pissed that the people won't let the police indiscriminately whoop some ass; "No violations of Constitutional rights," he sneers. Thug Marc Lawrence kills a man in a pool hall and there appears to be an open and shut case against him, but when new crime lab boss Rita Hayworth (looking almost nothing like Rita Hayworth) can't get the physical evidence to match up, Cabot realizes they’ve been "stung" by Lawrence and his cohorts, who have messed with the weapon and the getaway car. Further investigation shows that Lawrence is working for the local Junk Dealers' Trade Association, headed up by Norman Willis, which is actually a front for what is essentially a spy ring selling valuable scrap metal to "foreign war lords"--with the U.S. still officially neutral, the filmmakers didn't dare name Japan or Germany as the obvious destinations for the metal. Cabot roughs up Lawrence, and the crook winds up seriously injured when he falls out of a window; the press trumpets police brutality charges and Cabot is taken off the case, though he continues doing what work he can surreptitiously. One junk dealer who agrees to talk to Cabot is killed by Willis's goons. There's a fairly exciting chase climax that ends on board the ship that is about to haul the metal off to Axisland. The supporting cast doesn't have a lot of familiar faces, but Cabot held my attention, though it is unfortunate that Hayworth's role as a 30's CSI-type is so small. An entertaining B-thriller, which had a great publicity tagline on its initial release: "There's lots of law… in a right to the jaw!" [TCM]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Wacky 60's satire on advertising, social customs, and race relations; it's fun to see as a novelty, but it hasn't aged all that well. In the boardroom of a high-powered Manhattan ad agency, an old tattooed geezer who is a sought-after motivational speaker tells the assembled ad men that the consumer's desire for beer is all about masculine insecurity, or "pee-pee-dickey," as he succinctly puts it. The men start tossing out slogans like, "Make it big with Harvey's Beer" and "Have a big proud head." Putney Swope, the token black ad guy, argues that they should drop their war toy accounts, but the others argue that without toy guns, little boys will have to suppress their destructive urges and they'll all become gay. (Later, there's mention of a Junior Miss Firethrower made by the Audie Murphy Toy Co.) The elderly boss drops dead during a meeting and they vote in Swope as the new boss, each assuming that no one else would vote for him. He fires the white guys (except for one token), hires all African-Americans (men and women), changes the name of the agency to Truth and Soul, and sets all the old-fashioned ad campaigns on their ears. (The most amusing parts of black and white film are the TV ads, presented in color and often quite R-rated.)

From here, coherent plotting is mostly tossed out the window and the movie becomes an episodic series of satiric setpieces; some work, some don't. The President of the United States is a Germanic-sounding dwarf who gets Swope into bed with him and his wife for a 3-way. Swope berates and demeans his clients and makes them pay in huge bags of cash, but they stick with him. The agency forces all delivery people and messengers to use the freight elevator, leading to a big meltdown on the part of one fed-up guy. There is a climax of sorts involving millions of dollars in cash going up in flames, but it feels like the filmmaker, Robert Downey Sr., just ran out of steam. There are no likable characters; we even lose any empathy for the increasingly erratic Swope after a while—and it doesn’t help that the actor, Arnold Johnson, is dubbed by Downey in a forced-sounding gravelly voice. Out of a huge cast, few actors get more than a handful of lines. Allen Garfield (the crazy country-singer's husband in NASHVILLE) is one of the ad guys in the opening scene; Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch) is a crazy security guy named The Arab; I also liked George Morgan as the white token, called Mr. Token in the credits (pictured above with Johnson). This is OK as a period piece, but too scattershot and incoherent to be effective as satire. [TCM]

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Robert Ryan is the somewhat seedy patriarch of a down-and-out Southern family, the Waldens, and he is largely responsible for their downfall: rather than grow cotton, as he used to, Ryan has spent the last several years digging up his land, looking for a treasure in gold that his father insisted was buried somewhere, and two of his sons (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow) are just unambitious enough to join him in his folly, though Morrow, the younger boy, is itching to get out and experience life. Lord is married to the voluptuous Tina Louise, but is jealous of her old boyfriend (Aldo Ray) who is married but still clearly holds a torch for Louise (and she for him). Old man Ryan is also besotted with lust for his daughter-in-law, though he never goes past leering. Buddy Hackett, a dim-witted small-time politico who is running for sheriff, has the hots for Ryan's youngest daughter (Fay Spain); when Ryan says she's too young for courting, Hackett replies, "I don't wanna court her, I wanna marry her"--he says this with unwholesome intensity while chowing messily on a dripping watermelon. On Hackett's advice, Ryan kidnaps a local albino teenager (Michael Landon) who is supposed to have the gift of using a divining rod to find gold, but the horny little guy gets all hot and bothered for Spain, and she for him, and soon he's a man, if you know what I mean.

The second half of the movie gets more serious, and center stage is taken by a side plot about the town cotton mill which has closed down leaving the townsmen out of work. Ray vows to break in and power the mill back up, which he does one drunken night in the climax of the movie, with tragic results. But until then, this is a lot of fun. I'm not sure there are enough movies out there like this one to constitute an entire genre of white-trash melodrama (the only other one I've seen is TOBACCO ROAD, like this based on a book by Erskine Caldwell), but if there are, this is the CITIZEN KANE of the genre. First of all, it's beautifully shot in black & white, though if you can't opt for the widescreen version, don't bother to see it at all. Second, the actors hit a perfect pitch somewhere between high camp and high drama, with very few false steps. Spain, in her mid-20's, doesn’t look nearly young enough to be "too young for courting," and doesn't convey much of a personality, but Louise (and her ample bosom, pictured above with Ray) is spectacular, giving a surprisingly full-blooded performance, the kind you’d never guess she could give from seeing her on Gilligan's Island. I didn't recognize Lord, younger and far more handsome than in his Hawaii Five-O days, though he's also very good, as is Ray, starting to look a little puffy but seeming just right of the role of a man just past his prime and frustrated with the way his life has turned out. Ryan is front and center for most of the film and does a nice job with a thoroughly unlikable character. I'm a little shocked that I even watched this movie, let alone am recommending it, but it's pleasant surprises like this that keep me on my movie-watching toes. [TCM]

Friday, March 12, 2010


One lovely day in Central Park, Jack Lemmon is shooting film for a documentary when he runs across cute but ditzy Judy Holliday feeding peanuts to the birds and pestering a man who's trying to relax. He films their confrontation, then chats her up. She's an out-of-work girdle model who's depressed because she isn't famous yet. Later, she sees an empty billboard on Columbus Square and imagines her name emblazoned on it; inspired by her talk with Lemmon, she takes her life savings and rents the space for six months, and has just her name (Gladys Glover) put up in huge letters. Meanwhile, two plot strands develop: 1) Lemmon falls in love with her, finds out where she lives, and moves into the same building, and 2) a soap company which traditionally uses the Columbus Square spot gives her six other ad sites to use so they can have the Columbus Square spot back. The soap executive (Peter Lawford) wines and dines her, she gets recognized while shopping at Macy's, and soon she is a whirlwind media starlet (even doing ads for the soap company), though Lemmon is upset at the way fame changes her. So do ya think she'll wind up with the rich exec or the average guy? The idea of someone becoming famous simply for being seen was probably new back then, but this satire seems all the more timely in this era of the Kardashians and Jon & Kate. It's cute all around and Lemmon, in his first starring role, is particularly good (though I'm not crazy about his character, especially in the last half); Michael O'Shea and Connie Gilchrist are in the supporting cast, and 30's star Constance Bennett has a cameo as herself. Fluffy 50's fun, a satire with no real teeth but some chuckles. [TCM]

Monday, March 08, 2010


Few well-regarded actors can bore me quite like Paul Muni. Aside from I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, I have not enjoyed any picture of his. Here, the problem isn't just Muni (though he is still a major bore), but also the stagy screenplay, based on a play, which has not been expanded well enough to sustain a 90 minute movie. In 1942, the Russians are in the middle of a secret project involving the underwater building, at night, of a bridge in order to carry troops across the river to engage the Germans. A partisan group, including Muni and Marguerite Chapman, parachute across the German lines to prepare for the invasion and during fierce battling, the two wind up trapped beneath rubble in a basement with a group of Nazi soldiers. As German troops slowly begin cleaning up the village, the rest of the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Muni and Chapman (the only ones with guns) and the Nazis (including George Macready, Ludwig Donath, and Rudolph Anders) as each group tries to get information out of the other, mostly using psychological tactics. The rest of the film takes place in the basement, with occasional short peeks outside to see the progress of the bridge, and the progress of fellow Russian Larry Parks who, with the help of a very smart dog, is trying to reach Muni before the Nazis do. As the hours stretch into a couple of days (I assume—I don't recall knowing exactly how much time is passing), hunger, fatigue, pride, and frustration all take their toll on the group, and eventually Anders is convinced by Muni that he should join up with the Russians; then Muni spills the beans about the bridge to the Nazis, so everything depends on who will reach the basement first, the Russians or the Germans. The film does have its tense moments, and Muni does a good job conveying bone-deep tiredness near the end of the film, but it's still a fairly unexciting stage play, with interesting roles for only a handful of the actors. Chapman and Parks in particular have thankless parts. Years later, the movie's pro-Russian stance would be instrumental in getting the writer (John Howard Lawson) and actor Parks blacklisted. [TCM]

Sunday, March 07, 2010

PILOT X (1936)

Airplanes are mysteriously crashing, particularly planes that were built by one company headed by Henry Hall, and the Feds want to know why. One man who briefly survives one of the crashes is able to tell authorities that he saw a plane come out of nowhere with an "X" painted its wing, and an explosion followed. A theory is quickly floated that a WWI fighter pilot, used to killing, is having what we might today call post-traumatic flashbacks and is compelled to go up in the air and kill. A group of suspects are brought together under the pretext of helping the feds to find out what's behind the crashes, with ace pilot John Carroll (pictured) heading the investigation. One by one, the pilots start getting killed off; will Carroll find out who’s behind it before he becomes the next victim? Despite a promising story and a decent opening, this is a rather drab affair made by a Poverty Row indie company. Carroll, who had a very respectable career as a B-lead, is good, as is Leon Ames, early in his career, as Hall's son and a rival with Carroll for the affections of Hall's ward, Lona Andre. Weak direction (flubbed lines, awkward camera shots held too long) and improbable plotting allow whatever excitement gets worked up to dissipate quickly—the aerial scenes are OK, though most of them are obviously taken from other films or stock footage. Near the end, it seems like we're going to get a creepy, stormy-night climax, but that gets pissed away as well. Even worse, you'll figure out who Pilot X is very quickly. The Alpha Video DVD contains a very splicey print. In other words, despite the intriguing title and interesting premise, you may want to pass on this one. aka Death in the Air and Murder in the Sky. [DVD]

Thursday, March 04, 2010


James Dean made three big movies before his untimely death. I was not impressed with him in GIANT—he seemed in over his head, and part of the problem may have been with the handful of scenes in which his dialogue had to be dubbed in by another actor after his death. I have no desire to see REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE because it's become such an iconic film, I feel like have seen it and didn't like it (though since I rarely say "never," I might be talked into seeing it someday). That leaves this film, based on a John Steinbeck novel, itself seemingly based on the Cain and Abel story. Adam Trask (Raymond Massey) has two sons: Cal (James Dean) is the bad son--though he's not so much bad as ornery and misunderstood--and the polar opposite of his "good" twin brother Aron (Richard Davalos). The old man led the sons to believe that their mother died, but actually she lives in a nearby town as the prosperous madam of a brothel, a fact that Cal eventually uncovers, leading to an uncomfortable reunion. Adam sinks all of his money into an icehouse business, but it fails; Cal, trying to win his father’s favor, borrows money from Mom to start his own business (a bean farm); he prospers due to war shortages and is soon able to give his father his money back, but Adam proclaims it blood money and won’t take it. This incident triggers a vengeful act by Cal against both Adam and Aron.

The plot is pure soap opera but compelling enough—apparently, the film only uses the last third of the sprawling novel—and the acting all around is solid, with Massey taking the honors. Dean is good, though he truly seems to be in a completely different movie, with his Method-acting twitches, grimaces, and mumbles. These tricks certainly make Cal stand out against the more conventional characters, but the disconnect works against the romantic subplot, in which Cal woos Aron's girlfriend (Julie Harris); Harris is fine, but it's unclear what she sees in Cal—aside, of course, from his smoldering good looks. Jo Van Fleet won a Supporting Actress Oscar as the mother (good, but underused), and Burl Ives is fine as the sheriff. Even though he's a bit showoffy, I like Dean here and am sorry his career was cut so short. [TCM]

Monday, March 01, 2010


Bill is an American in Paris who hangs out at the famous café Les Deux Magots; he's waiting for his rich aunt to kick the bucket so he can come into some money to pay his wife to divorce him so he can marry his mistress. A Hitchcockian premise kicks in when a stranger who has overheard him talking of his problems writes him a letter, offering to help him out of his situation. Sure enough, that night, the aunt is murdered in her room, and Joseph, a near-sighted peddler (Burgess Meredith) who had tried to rob the aunt, is arrested. However, Inspector Maigret (Charles Laughton, at right) soon realizes that a manic-depressive odd duck named Johann Radek (Franchot Tone) who hangs out at the café is probably the mastermind behind the whole scheme. The rest of the film consists of the cat-and-mouse games the two play, with Maigret and the police following Radek all over Paris with two superb chase scenes: one over the rooftops of Paris and the climactic chase up the Eiffel Tower.

Georges Simenon wrote a number of novels featuring Inspector Maigret. Since I've read none of them, I can't tell if Laughton does justice to the character; he's good as usual, though he's also notably a bit low-key. Tone gives a very good performance as the mad but wily villain, alternating between mania and passivity. The rest of the actors, including Robert Hutton as Bill, and Patricia Roc and Jean Wallace as his wife and mistress, are not especially good, though there may be a reason for that: the film was shot entirely on location in Paris, and much of the dialogue has that echoey, distant quality of post-dubbed speech, which always affects performances negatively. Wilfrid Hyde-White has fun with his small role as a former teacher of Radek's. It's nice to see the real Paris, though the print on the DVD I saw (from Alpha) was terrible: faded color, murky dark tones, and lots of splices, scratches and cuts. This was directed by Burgess Meredith; supposedly he took over from the producer Irving Allen, with Laughton himself helping out. Interesting as a novelty, but I wouldn't suggest buying it until someone puts out a better copy--Kino Video announced a restored release some time ago but it's been delayed. [DVD]