Sunday, August 29, 2010


Frank Lovejoy works at a Pittsburgh steel factory and is a card-carrying Communist who uses his clout to get his comrades hired there. It seems to be common knowledge that he is a Party member--his brothers despise him for it--but his high school-age son (Ron Hagerthy, pictured with Lovejoy) only hears rumors from other schoolboys, whom he then beats up. When Lovejoy admits to his son that it's true, the boy is properly horrified. The truth about Lovejoy's situation, as the title of the film makes clear, is that Lovejoy has worked as a "mole" for the FBI for nine years. He has tried to be stoic about the whole thing, but after his mother dies and his brother (Paul Pircini) tries to beat him up at her funeral, Lovejoy asks the FBI to be released and cleared publicly. They convince him to stay on to wrap up one last case involving a strike at his factory, a Russian bigwig, and some goons who have been shipped in from New York to "break some skulls" to give the official union a bad name. On top of all this, his son's teacher (Dorothy Hart) "comes out" to Lovejoy as a fellow Communist; they start dating until she soon finds evidence that he's an FBI spy. Rather than turn him, however, she confides in him that she is upset at the direction in which the Party is going (using blacks and Jews as fall guys). She tries to "defect," so to speak, and Lovejoy protects her, leading to a couple of exciting chase scenes, some murders, and a climax at a HUAC hearing where Lovejoy hopes to clear his name.

This movie is considered a film noir by many critics, but a noir style is evident only in the last half hour, mostly in the nighttime chase scenes, one of which, along a railroad track, is quite well done. Based on a series of articles written by a real FBI agent, the movie is more indebted to the documentary-style crime thrillers of the era, with some off-screen narration and attempts at real-looking location shots (in this case, newsreel footage of riots). Lovejoy gives a subtle but single-note performance; his face when he's anguished over what his son thinks of him is no different than his face when he's casually talking over the facts of his case with his FBI handlers. The supporting cast provides a bit more color, including Richard Webb and Phillip Carey as Feds, and James Millicam and Edward Norris as Commies, though at times I must admit I got all the tall white men in suits and hats confused. The finale is perhaps the only movie scene ever in which House Un-American Activities Committee congressmen are seen as the good guys. [TCM]

Friday, August 27, 2010


A pre-Code romantic melodrama which plays out like Reefer Madness, except about the dangers of gossip. There are four central characters: Nancy Carroll is an average small-town girl who works as a bank secretary and still lives with her parents; Cary Grant is a playboy known for carrying on a string of affairs; Edward Woods is a bank clerk with the hots for Carroll; and Randolph Scott is a geologist and friend of the Carroll family who comes to visit for a few days. One Saturday, Carroll's gang gets invited to Grant's place for a party; when Grant and Carroll vanish together for the afternoon, Woods gets jealous. That night, when the party has moved to a lakeside nightclub, Woods takes Carroll out for a motorboat ride which ends badly when he tries to "press his advantage," as they say. She leaves the boat on the other side of the lake and trudges to Grant's place. Woods drives around to pick her up but she refuses to go with him, instead having Grant's driver take her home at 2 in the morning. The next day, gossip spreads about her until half the town hears that she spent the night at Grant's, leading to her getting fired for her loose morals. In the meantime, the shy Scott starts wooing Carroll, eventually proposing to her, but next Saturday, at another "hot" party, he hears the gossip about her and when he sees her dancing with Grant, assumes the gossip is true.

The plot here is nothing special, except for the ending [SPOILER!] in which Carroll, rejected by Scott, runs off with Grant (theoretically to be married, though given his reputation, which we have seen to be true, we wonder...), not caring what her parents or friends or Scott think. Grant and Scott, both handsome and full of charisma, steal every scene they're in--this was the first time Grant had lead billing, though he would not become a bankable star for another few years. Scott is particularly appealing: hunky and youthful, he does a nice job playing a guy who is supposedly shy around women but doesn't come off as a yokel or a doofus (that part is taken by the cubby Grady Sutton who, though a doofus and a little on the femme side, still manages to get his share of make-out action). Carroll is OK, though it's difficult to see why the men make such a fuss about her; her friend Eva (Lilian Bond) and younger sister (Rose Coghlan) are both more attractive and have at least as much personality as she. No kissing or petting is shown, but there are a couple of racy moments: at Grant's party, a chanteuse runs her hands up and down her body while she sings "I’m Burning for You"; sample lyrics: "Call the fire engine/And the whole darn crew/Tell 'em all to hurry/'Cause I’m burning for you" and "When you say no, I'm a volcano." In one bizarre scene played for laughs, Carroll yanks her sister's underwear off of her. On the Universal Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. (Image above from [DVD]

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Don Ameche, an American correspondent in London during the Blitz, flirts in the dark (during a blackout) with Joan Bennett, a teletype operator for the government; though she says she's married, that doesn't deter him. When an air raid is called, they spend the night together, platonically but cutely, in a crowded subway station. Next morning, when he finds out that his Consolidated Press building was destroyed in the bombing, he sets up a temporary HQ in a hotel basement and gets the government to loan Bennett to his company. From here, there are two plotlines related to Ameche’s belief that Germany is on the verge of invading England: 1) he tries to lease radio wire in Penzance so he'll be among the first to get the news out; 2) he's also trying to sneak word of the possible invasion into his news reports in defiance of the military censor (John Loder). Other characters of interest include a young lad (Roddy McDowall) who stays behind at the old press building to watch for incoming messenger pigeons for news of the invasion, an older blind typist (Arthur Shields), the hotel manager (Eric Blore), and Ameche's boss in New York (Raymond Walburn). But the romance between Bennett (who isn't actually married) and Ameche carries the movie to its climax, with the two trapped in the hotel basement by rubble, with a ticking bomb in the room.

This unsung and largely unseen film, shot and released before America entered the war, is actually a very good wartime drama. The romance is intertwined nicely with the dramatic stories, which eventually lead to a dramatization of issues of journalistic ethics in wartime. Ameche is successful at sneaking his news past the censor, but a tragic occurrence changes his mind about doing so. Ameche's character is an interesting departure from the usual Hollywood idea of a reporter; for a change, he's not a cardboard obnoxious lout but a fleshed-out likable guy; even his early aggressive flirting doesn't come off as offensive, and his performance is solid. He and Bennett have good chemistry, McDowell is fine in what turns out to be a crucial role, and Eric Blore gets to stretch a bit beyond his usual crisp sarcastic fussbudget-type, though his role is fairly small. Though the film is a drama, a light touch abounds until the climax. Watch for this one; maybe soon Fox will give Don Ameche his own boxed set. [FMC]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

HITLER (1962)

When I saw that top billing in this movie was given to Richard Basehart (Admiral Nelson on TV's "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea") as Hitler followed by two German starlets playing the women in his life, I figured it was ludicrous over-the-top B-movie junk. Well, it is a B-movie (from Allied Artists, mostly known for sci-fi flicks), but surprisingly, it's not quite junk. Instead, it's a movie that's torn between wanting to be exploitation and wanting to be taken a little more seriously. A more appropriate title (and a more marketable one) might be The Private Life of Adolph Hitler, since the film focuses on his sex life--or lack thereof--and how it affected his personality and his drive for power, almost completely ignoring his political beliefs and his genocidal state machinery. The film begins in 1924 with Hitler writing "Mein Kampf" while in prison, and this short scene is all we get of his hateful philosophizing, except for a line later when he declares, "One is either a German or a Christian." The story then jumps ahead to show him falling in love with his niece Geli at his mountain retreat. Nothing physical transpires between them; apparently he is rendered impotent because Geli reminds him of his late mother, so he loves her but cannot make love to her. The appearance of incest bothers Hitler's followers (such as Goebbels and Strasser), but Hitler rants that their "petty-bourgeois morality" means nothing to him. Nevertheless, when Geli insults him by calling him "less than a man," Hitler has his thugs murder her and report her death as a suicide. He seeks help from a therapist, even though he considers psychiatry "Jew science." Soon he is attracted to Eva Braun, who looks like Geli, and hence, like his mother. It does seem as if, at some point, he is able to function sexually with Braun, although at the end, when they get married in the bunker and she calls herself "Frau Hitler," he screams that no one has the right to use that name except his mother. The Final Solution and the war itself are glossed over, though we do see low-budget recreations of events such as the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives (in which Ernst Rohm and his SA men are slaughtered), and the bungled assassination attempt. Some newsreel footage is used here and there but the movie can't overcome its cheap look. Still, Basehart is surprisingly good, mostly underplaying the role, and Cordula Trantow is excellent (and beautiful) as Geli. Martin Kosleck, who had been playing evil Nazis since the early 40's--is fine as Goebbles, and John Banner (later to find fame as Sgt. Schulz in Hogan's Heroes) is equally good as Strasser. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

JOAN OF ARC (1948)

In the 15th century, during the Hundred Years' War between England and France, Joan, a rural French teenager, is tormented by the voices of saints who tell her she should lead French armies into battle against the English. She cuts her hair, dresses like a boy, and makes her way to see the Dauphin, heir to the throne of France whose claim is cast in doubt when his own mother insists he is a bastard. As a prank, an impostor presents himself to Joan as the Dauphin, but she, apparently guided by her voices, finds the real Dauphin in the crowd. Despite having no military experience, Joan is allowed to lead the armies as a kind of figurehead; at the besieged town of Orleans, Joan is wounded but the army is successful. After more victories, Joan is present at the coronation of the Dauphin as King Charles VI, but he seems visibly upset by the kind of adoration Joan receives from the crowds. Joan wants to continue fighting to free Paris from the Burgundians, but feels betrayed when the King signs a treaty instead. She is captured by the English, and Charles refuses to ransom her. She is put on trial by an ecclesiastical court for heresy and ex-communicated, but refuses to accept the judgment, and is eventually burned at the stake.

I’ve never completely understood the appeal of the story of Joan of Arc. Though she is credited as a staunch nationalist, and she was obviously a victim of political chicanery, she was also pretty clearly a nutcase, and whenever I see a version of her story, I find it hard to be completely sympathetic to her. This film, the last one directed by Victor Fleming (GONE WITH THE WIND, WIZARD OF OZ), was a box-office flop, partly due to Bergman being on the outs with the American public because of her adulterous behavior. The movie, in Technicolor, looks ravishing, but its attempt at being a big epic adventure is hurt by very stagy sets, some ponderous dialogue, skimpy-looking battle scenes, and, of course, the fact that this is largely a personal story of religious faith (or delusion). Bergman (in her 30s playing 18) is actually quite good, and the large supporting cast is fun for a game of "spot the character actor": Ward Bond, J. Carroll Naish, Gene Lockhart, Shepperd Strudwick, Cecil Kellaway, and Robert Barrat among others. Unfortunately, at 145 minutes, the pace is too leisurely and the narrative too unfocused to be very compelling. [DVD]

Friday, August 13, 2010


Years ago, I tried reading Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" without the benefit of a teacher or a classroom of students to give me the impetus to finish--I didn't finish it. I imagine that this relatively short Hollywood film doesn't really do the huge book justice; nevertheless, on its own terms, this is a well-done B-thriller with strong performances and good atmosphere courtesy director Josef von Sternberg. Peter Lorre is Raskolnikov, a student who graduates with honors; months later, he has a promising article on criminology published, though anonymously at the insistence of his editor, and lives in dirt poor conditions. The contents of the article are never made clear, but Roskolnikov believes that actions of superior people should be above the law, and he puts this theory into practice when he kills a nasty pawnbroker who is, in his eyes, the scum of the earth, for doing dirt not just to him but to lovely young Sonya (Marian Marsh), a whore with a heart of gold. There is a plotline involving his mother and sister, both of whom he believes are at the mercy of an obnoxious man (Gene Lockhart), but the focus here is on the cat-and-mouse game that develops between Roskolnikov and Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold). Lorre and Arnold play off each other very well, and Marsh is beautiful and almost believable in the stock role of the bad girl who is actually too good to be true. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a legendary stage actress, has one of her very few film roles as the horrid pawnbroker, who does indeed seem to deserve a bad fate, if not perhaps death. Douglass Dumbrille has a small but important role as a figure from Roskolnikov's sister's past who shows up near the end. Discussions of the nature of mankind, religion, atheism, and crime, which most likely take up many pages in the novel, frequently seem on the verge of breaking out here, but never really happen. Still, a much better movie, in acting and in visual style, than I would have expected. [TCM]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Herbert Marshall, head honcho at an auto company, is about to marry a woman of good breeding who only wants him for his money. Frustrated with his board of directors who don’t like his new car designs, he leaves a meeting in a huff and winds up sitting on a park bench with Jean Arthur who is down on her luck. They look through the want-ads together and she, thinking he's also out of work, suggests the two of them pose as a married couple and apply for a butler/maid position. He agrees to meet her the next day to do so, leading to an amusing scene in with Marshall gets some career tips from his butler. They're hired by Leo Carrillo, a cultured gangster; he winds up loving Arthur's cooking and, when he suspects something’s up because Marshall sleeps on the balcony rather than with his "wife," he starts flirting with her. There are rather tortured plot complications involving Marshall stealing his own car designs out of the company’s safe, he and Arthur "breaking up" even though they've developed feelings for each other, and Carrillo's thugs showing up at Marshall's wedding to rub him out, though they actually wind up getting Marshall and Arthur together.

Though this film is part of Columbia’s Icons of Screwball Comedy DVD set, it's a weak example of the genre. It's amusing and moves quickly, but one of the keys to a truly successful screwball comedy is that you can use adjectives like "fizzy" and "sparkling" to describe them, and I can’t with this one. The main obstacle to fizziness is the lack of chemistry between Marshall and Arthur, almost all of it due to the drab, tired Marshall, who looks he should be on his third marriage, not his first. He's fine in his comedic scenes, but falls flat in portraying any romantic interest in Arthur. That said, Arthur and the supporting players, including Carillo, Lionel Stander, and Frieda Inescourt, make the film enjoyable enough. Good line: Marshall, to his butler, "Do you think I’m out of my mind?" Butler: "I’m hoping for the best, sir." [DVD]

Friday, August 06, 2010


Set in the futuristic 1940's after the building of a tunnel under the English Channel (which in reality took another 50 years to come to fruition), the film is the story of an engineer (Richard Dix) who is obsessed with building an undersea tunnel from England to America. This dream is viewed with skepticism by many, but others believe it would somehow contribute to a lasting world peace--though how is never explained. Dix gets a team of engineers and workers going on the project, but the funding remains a constant problem; some of his backers have their own agendas and don't care much about Dix's dreams or world peace. Dix's obsession causes family problems; his neglected wife (Madge Evans) takes a job as a tunnel nurse but gets infected with "tunnel sickness" and goes blind. Without telling him what's happened, she leaves him, letting him think it's because of his neglect, rather than have him feel guilty over her illness. Dix eventually comes to think that his best friend and co-leader of the project (Leslie Banks) is having an affair with her, causing a temporary rupture between the two. Years later, as the British workers are about to complete the tunnel by connecting up with the Americans, Dix's grown son (Jimmy Hanley) joins the workers just in time to get caught in a tunnel cave-in caused by an undersea volcano, a tragedy which threatens to bring the whole project to a halt.

There's a lot going on here: explosions, crowds, a love triangle, a murder (by poisoned cigarette, I think), videophones, and the cool special effect of a huge "Radium Drill" the men use under the sea floor, but still the movie manages to be more interesting than engrossing. The narrative is an uneasy mix of SF speculation, romance, and melodrama, all in the service of expressing a kind of Ayn Randian philosophy of monomaniacal obsession. A huge chunk of Dix's life winds up being devoted to this goal which he never gives up on, even though we're given only nebulous reasons as to why it's worth doing. Dix, often a stodgy, wooden actor, is good here, as is Banks, whom I'm more familiar with as a villain (THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). Evans can't do much with the pining wife role, though Helen Vinson is her usual interesting self as the American heiress who falls in love with Dix and isn't above literally selling herself to a slimy financier in order to assure continued support for the tunnel. The effects are fine given the era, but the make-up winds up being a problem; none of the adults age a bit over the 15-20 year span of the narrative. Walter Huston and George Arliss have very small cameos as the American President and the British Prime Minster. [TCM]

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Viviane is the upper-class wife of a French diplomat who is in New Guinea looking for some rare bird-of-paradise feathers to sell at Paris boutiques. She's obnoxious, self-centered, and used to getting her own way. At a trading post, she runs into Olivier, a relatively handsome thin blond hippie-type who is traveling with a group of other relatively good-looking hippie-types in search of an unexplored valley in the middle of the island (the most recent map of the area is simply blank with the words "obscured by clouds"), hoping to find a literal paradise; they believe that other explorers who have gone in but never returned have stayed by choice because it's such a wonderful place. She decides to go with them hoping to find more feathers. Her inhibitions soon begin dropping away, first when she sleeps with Olivier, and later when she is influenced by the attitudes of her companions, especially Gaetan, the leader, who is involved with the other two women in the group (there's also a young boy who might be Gaetan's son, though his character is almost completely ignored). More sexual escapades and drug experiences follow until the group meets up with a tribe who live near the valley. They are welcomed as guests at a huge festival at which some of the group "go native," applying face paint and realizing that the trappings of civilization as they knew it have fallen away. Viviane tells Olivier that they have found "the truth," but he tells her that the opposite has happened, that they remain merely tourists; as they try to tear down social restrictions, the tribe understands the importance of strict rules and taboos. Even the natives won't head over the hills to the valley, so our group continues, despite having little food or water. Eventually, in the final shot, they do reach the "heart of darkness," so to speak, or maybe "heart of lightness," depending on your viewpoint.

This little-seen film from director Barbet Schroeder has a reputation as a hippie-dippie psychedelic flick, largely because the soundtrack was by Pink Floyd, but this is anything but trippy. There are no light-show visual effects, and the music is limited to instrumental backgrounds at the beginning and ending (and a handful of Floyd songs which play over the radio in a couple of scenes); frankly I think the movie would have benefited from more use of Pink Floyd's ominous theme. If the movie is like anything, it's like Apocalypse Now (hence my "heart of darkness" reference), and like that movie, the cinematography and the settings are its main strengths--the film was shot on location, and though I know nothing about the circumstances of the filming, it feels like it was an arduous experience, so much so that I was occasionally taken out of the film by thinking about how they got certain shots. The most startling moment involves the natives beating to death some pigs who will be served as food at the festival. The killings are obviously real and for that reason, you stop thinking about the film and start thinking about the filming. The movie lags at times, partly due to thoroughly average acting and writing. It’s essentially a three-actor movie, with Bulle Ogier as Vivien, Michael Gothard as Olivier, and Jean-Pierre Kalfon as Gaetan, and only Kalfon really makes an impression. Best quote, even if it is a tad on the pretentious side: "Paradise is a place with many exits but no entrance," meaning I assume that you can be born into a paradise, but you can never really find one. [DVD]