Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Jack the Ripper is loose in London, and who better to go after him than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson? Though there have been other imaginings of this dream-team scenario (most notably 1978's MURDER BY DECREE), this was the first, as far as I know, in book or film. It is also, according to other sources, the first work to posit that the Ripper may have been a highborn aristocrat. Though not really a horror movie, the amount of blood splattered throughout makes this a good segue into my upcoming October reviews (all horror and sci-fi). Things start right off with a brutal murder, a prostitute knifed through the neck, followed fairly quickly by another prostitute knifed and drowned in bloody water. Several "red herring" scenes follow with menacing hands and knives and jolting musical cues before the next murder, and by then, Holmes is on the case, his only clue a box of medical instruments sent anonymously; since the police are convinced that the killer has surgical talents, Holmes assumes the box is a clue and he's right. It belonged to an aristocratic young man who married a whore, vanished, and is now presumed dead. The wife is alive but her whereabouts are unknown. Suffice to say that both will crop up before the climax, set against a raging fire in a bedroom.

John Neville (Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen and The X-Files' Well-Manicured Man) is quite good as Holmes, falling somewhere between Basil Rathbone and TV's Jeremy Brett. Anthony Quayle as a doctor and Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade are good; Donald Houston is an OK Watson, serviceable but not memorable, and the same goes for most of the rest of the cast which includes the handsome John Fraser as the suspect’s aristocratic brother, and a young Judi Dench (pictured above with Fraser and Neville) as one of the few female characters who isn’t a whore and/or doesn't wind up dead. Robert Morley shows up for a blustery cameo as Holmes' brother Mycroft. The color design is garish in that 60's way, and the music is far too loud and shrill. Still, it's worth a viewing, and it makes me sorry that Neville never donned the deerstalker hat again. [DVD]

Monday, September 27, 2010


Psychology professor Ralph Bellamy is hosting a houseful of friends for a weekend at his lake house when escaped killer Chester Morris breaks in and holds them all hostage while he waits for the arrival of an escape boat for him, his moll (Ann Dvorak) and his thugs. We see Morris kill twice in cold blood, so there is a sense of real danger here for the innocent folks, including a child, trapped in the house. While Morris naps, Dvorak asks Bellamy to help Morris get rid of a recurring nightmare which troubles his sleep, involving trying desperately to avoid the rain with an umbrella which holds itself up but has a rip in it; it has actually led Morris to be afraid of rain. Bellamy eventually engages Morris in a brief Freudian analysis session, showing him that the dream is masking a repressed memory that Morris needs to dredge up. He does, but with the cops hot on Morris's trail, he doesn't get much time to enjoy his new peace of mind.

This stagy melodrama must have been one of Hollywood's earliest attempts to deal with psychoanalysis. At just 70 minutes, this B-movie is quite watchable; Bellamy is cast nicely against type as a serious, non-bumbling fellow, and Morris does a fine job as the troubled killer. The dream scene is presented in negative, and the repressed memory is shot in a German expressionistic style. There are two subplots which aren't handled very well: one, involving a grad student protégé of Bellamy's, goes nowhere and can't really even be called a subplot; the other involves a couple (Melville Cooper and Joan Perry) with marital problems, and the passive man (John Eldredge) with whom Perry flirts. This plot feels like it lost something in the editing. Nevertheless, Bellamy and Morris (and the interesting if simplified ideas of dream interpretation) make this worth seeing. It was remade a few years later with William Holden as THE DARK PAST. [TCM]

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Rich guy Prince Cadwallader Jones gets a job in the District Attorney's office through his connections, but he bungles his first case and gets known as the "Socialite DA" in the newspapers. His boss gives him a relatively unimportant cold case to work on: the disappearance years ago of a counterfeiter named Hyde, presumed dead. However, when some of Hyde's bills start turning up in circulation, the DA takes the case away from Jones. Luckily, Jones and his girl reporter pal Terry Parker stumble on an assault case involving showgirl Betty Paradise and bank clerk Herman Winkle which leads them to a concrete lead in the Hyde case. Winkle is found dead, supposedly a suicide, but an autopsy finds it was murder. Jones suspects big shot lawyer Barret, who is after the DA job, is in cahoots with Hyde somehow and Jones plots to frame Barret. We know that Barret is indeed guilty and that Hyde is indeed back among the living, but will Jones and Parker live long enough to prove it?

This movie is based loosely on a popular radio program of the time, and the handsome and likable Dennis O'Keefe, who plays Jones, is the film's main asset. He and Florence Rice (as the reporter), both pictured above, have an easy rapport; she looks and acts like a B-movie Jean Arthur. Peter Lorre has a relatively small role but he makes the most of it in that naturally sinister way of his. Much of the movie is light in tone--the comedy highlight is a scene of brawling Santa Clauses brought before a judge--but three main characters wind up dead before the finale, which is a slapstick car chase with guns. This is included in a VCI DVD set called Forgotten Noir & Crime Collection 4, and it is an enjoyable little film, but don't be fooled--it's definitely not a film noir. It is, however, a product of rough-and-tumble Republic Pictures, though it has the look of a glossier B-film from Warners or RKO. [DVD]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

HEAT WAVE (1954)

A British B-movie DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Alex Nicol (at right) is an American novelist living in England. Rather like Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, he is summering across the bay from a wealthy businessman (Sid James) and his sexy wife (Hilary Brooke) who throw ostentatious parties. Nicol, struggling with writer's block, sits in his lonely bungalow and watches the parties until one night when he is called upon to ferry some guests over when James' launch quits working. Though he takes a liking to the husband, he also becomes smitten with the wife, who is having an affair with a pianist (Paul Carpenter) but soon shows signs that she might like to canoodle with Nicol. When Nicol's latest chapters are rejected by his publisher and his agent drops him, he goes to borrow some money from James but instead has drinks with Brooke and one thing leads to another. After some folderol involving James' weak heart and a will he wants to change, the three of them wind up on a boating excursion in the fog; when James falls and is injured, Brooke tosses him overboard and Nicol agrees to go along with her story that James fell out of the boat and drowned. James' daughter, who never liked her stepmother, thinks that story is fishy and a cop starts to do some snooping. In grand noir fashion, it's all downhill from there for the femme fatale and the misguided anti-hero.

Though the plot elements are right out of noir, the visual style is not, but it still remains worth seeing for fans of the genre. One of the things I liked best is how the two main characters are not prettified: Nicol looks and acts washed-up, and Brooke looks and acts like a restless middle-aged woman. James is the most likable character so his death, though predictable, packs a punch (not so with the unlikable husbands in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and BODY HEAT, for example). All three give solid performances. This is available as part of a Hammer Film Noir boxed set from VCI. [DVD]

Sunday, September 19, 2010


In the old West, Ben Johnson and his young blond sidekick Harry Carey Jr. are horse traders, not above using a little orneriness and chicanery to get by. While biding time in a small frontier town, they decide to accept an offer from a Mormon elder (Ward Bond) to lead a group of Mormon families, who are being run out of town, on a wagon train to Utah. Along the way, they pick up the members of a stranded medicine show (including Joanne Dru, who slowly becomes Johnson's love interest), run across some Navajos (who think they remember being cheated by Johnson some time back), and are forced to help a small band of outlaws whose leader (Charles Kemper) is seriously wounded. This episodic western is predictable and a little light in the plotting department, but has some good acting, especially from Johnson and Bond, and is beautifully shot in Monument Valley in Utah. Good support comes from Alan Mowbray as the stiff-upper-lip Brit who runs the medicine show and Jane Darwell as a likable Mormon matriarch. A somewhat lesser entry in John Ford's career, but enjoyable. (Pictured are, from left to right, Johnson, Bond, and Carey.) [DVD]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

THE SHOUT (1978)

John Hurt, a musician and sound engineer, lives in a small English village with his wife (Susannah York). One day while they are relaxing on a deserted beach, York has an unsettling vision of an Australian aborigine holding a bone in his hand. Later that day, Hurt meets up with Alan Bates (pictured), a scruffy wanderer who hasn't eaten in days. Hurt takes Bates home where the stranger regales the pair with odd stories of his recent past living among the Australian aborigines; he claims to practice a voodoo-ish magic, can kill with a powerful shout, and came home and killed his children according to aboriginal tradition. The couple are both repelled and fascinated by Bates and he winds up staying in their home where he uses his magic to seduce York. It's unclear how seriously we're supposed to take his magic powers (after all, Bates also has intense charm and physicality on his side in his seduction efforts) but when Hurt asks to see a demonstration of his killing shout, Bates obliges in an extremely effective scene which results in the death of seabirds, sheep, and a shepherd (though Hurt, having worn earplugs, collapses in a daze but recovers).

Now here's where things get really tricky. The story has been related as a flashback by Bates, now a resident in the village asylum, to Tim Curry, a scorekeeper at a cricket match between the villagers and the asylum inmates. As Bates' story builds to a climax, with police closing in on Bates to arrest him for the murder of his children, the frame story also climaxes with a thunderstorm which unsettles some of the inmates. Curry, the stand-in for the audience, isn't sure how much of the story is true; Hurt is present at the game, and York is a nurse at the asylum, so is Bates' narrative real or is he a totally unreliable narrator like Kevin Spacey in THE USUAL SUSPECTS or, more appropriately, the narrator of CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI? The last shot manages to have it both ways in an open-ended but still satisfying conclusion. Hurt is fine as a confused man who doesn't know how to fight off the intruder who has stolen his wife, and York is even better (very sexy in an almost oblique way), but Bates steals the show with his memorable (whether magical or just crazy) character. There is good cinematography and an interesting score, sometimes consisting of amplified electronic effects in scenes in which Hurt is experimenting with the distortion of everyday sounds in his studio. The shout scene, which occurs halfway through the film, is in some ways the climax, though it's to the film’s credit that we remain interested in the rest of the plot. [TCM]

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Turhan Bey is a modernized Indian prince and Army officer who sets off on a safari into the heart of the forbidden jungle of Combi with the daughter of the Maharajah (Gail Russell). He wants to capture animals to bring back to civilization and she wants to capture their images in photographs. Once they arrive at the village of Combi, the animals sense the presence of the intruders and become uneasy, as does Sabu, a local prince who does not wear the trappings of royalty and seems to live a Tarzan-like existence among the jungle animals. When his attempt to talk Bey out of his mission fails, Sabu goes on a midnight raid to free all the animals, though his favorite tiger friend is wounded while escaping. Sabu hits it off with Russell and eventually takes her deep into the jungle under the pretext of showing her a bejeweled temple in a lost city, while actually holding her hostage until Bey and his men leave the region. This plan backfires when Bey retaliates by holding the entire village hostage and, in a Nazi-like tactic, threatening to execute every third male unless Sabu brings Russell back alive. Russell slowly comes around to Sabu's ways, but Bey is made of harder stuff, and things build to a fisticuffs climax on the treacherous mountainside of the lost city, where the wounded tiger returns to have the final say.

Though this is a grade-B cross between Tarzan and The Jungle Book, it doesn’t look bad (it would have looked much better in color) and it moves along well with little wasted time, although the jungle chase which makes up the last half-hour could have been tightened up a bit. The backlot jungle scenes, with the usual Hollywood mix of tame animals and stock footage, look better than in the average Tarzan film, and the sequence in the lost city, though obviously shot using matte paintings, is very nicely done, a less effective black & white version of what Michael Powell did in the studio in BLACK NARCISSUS. Sad to say, Sabu, only 25, was losing his looks and presence, and the fact that he spends the entire film dressed in baggy diapers (pictured above) doesn't help. He's playing a variation on his Mowgai character from the 1942 JUNGLE BOOK, but what was charming then becomes rather stiff and tedious here. Still, no one watches these films for the acting, and overall it's a more than tolerable Saturday afternoon adventure movie. [TCM]

Thursday, September 09, 2010


This is virtually a remake (unofficially) of WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, with a slightly different focus. Teenager Jesse lives with his mom and older brother in a ramshackle home. When the brother loses his job, Jesse leaves, going on the road, hoping to make some money. He meets up with a gang of thieving teenage hobos; they beat him up, but he joins up with them anyway. Their leader, Tim, doesn’t quite trust Jesse, thinking he might be a snitch reporting back to the police; he’s not, but still, the cops catch up to them and the boys are sentenced to a labor camp, working at harvesting turpentine from trees. It doesn’t seem so bad at first, and the boys are able to buy things at the company store on credit, but Jesse soon wises up to the fact that they’ll be in debt to the company for years. Things get worse until one of the boys falls out of a tree and has to have an arm amputated. Jesse and Tim try to organize a revolt (Jesse even writes a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt about their conditions), but it fails, their cabin catches fire, and in a truly shocking twist, Jesse is shot dead by a guard. In a rushed ending, similar to that of WILD BOYS, a sympathetic judge sets the boys up in a federal farm camp and sends the head of the turpentine farm to jail.

A couple of things make this interesting. One is the novelty of the camp setting, which allows the boys to be in nature while still penned in by barbed wire fences. The two leads, though they never went on to bigger and better things, give solid performances; Roger Daniel as the somewhat meek but determined Jesse and James McCallion (pictured above) as Tim, the cocky boy with a soft spot inside his rough exterior. Anne Shirley, best known for playing the title role in the first sound version of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, is good as an enslaved girl who works for the camp owners. Charles Lane, recognizable as any number of cranky old men in movies and TV right up into the 1990s, is the villainous camp owner. It’s also interesting that the rationale for the boys being on the road--to help out their struggling families--is the same as it was six years earlier in WILD BOYS. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


When the governor orders a panel to study the problem of girl runaways, his own daughter (Ann Dvorak) decides to find out the facts for herself by sneaking away and going on the road "undercover.” She meets up with a group of girls, including snarky Helen Mack (whose favorite expression is a snarling "Fade!" when she wants someone to go away) who takes a liking to Dvorak, butch-looking Lola Lane, and innocent Marjorie Cooley, who is carting around a box with a wedding dress, claiming she's going to be married on Tuesday but didn't have bus fare to get to the wedding--I was never sure whether she really had a wedding to go to or was just delusional. The girls are camped out under a bridge but get arrested and tossed in jail where they start a rowdy food fight and get hosed down by an officer. The lot of them are put on a train to be shipped out of the county, but Mack gets in a fistfight with a cop; he winds up falling of the train (to his death, I believe, though that's left rather ambiguous) and Mack and Dvorak jump off and go on the run. With the last of her money, Dvorak springs for a square meal and motel room for them, and they get some help from a friendly truck driver who transports them to a female hobo camp in the woods where they run into Lane, who tries to boss everyone around. A sickly Cooley shows up, dying soon after, providing a tender moment when the girls hold an impromptu funeral, and the usually rough-and-tough Lane leads the hymn singing. The ending fizzles out a bit with the governor coming to Dvorak's rescue and proposing a series of "girl's castles" to be built to give homeless young women an alternative to the road.

This social issue B-movie would make a nice second feature to WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. Though this one is set several years after the height of the Depression, the plotline and context are the same: young women are running away from home, usually because of family money problems, and riding the rails just like runaway boys and hobos. Oddly, despite the potential here for sexual exploitation, there are very few men in this movie and virtually no threats of molestation or physical harm, except from the police. The truck driver (Eddie Laughton) looks like he'll be a threat, but he's actually an unrealistically nice guy. Dvorak, Mack (both pictured above with Bruce Bennett as a cop), and Lane all do nice jobs, especially Mack who makes her character interesting and sympathetic even though we know little about her. The happy ending here, as in WILD BOYS, is improbable, but Hollywood had to have some sunlight break through the gloom. [TCM]

Saturday, September 04, 2010


This may well be the archetypal example of a pre-Code social melodrama (from Warner Brothers, the studio that specialized in these films), complete with compelling performances, a fast pace, and some government propaganda spooned out at the end. Frankie Darro is a typical middle-class high-school student--a forerunner of Andy Hardy--but it's the Depression, and his father comes home one day out of a job. Darro pitches in by selling his car, but soon he and his buddy Edwin Phillips, whose family is also in bad straits, come to see themselves as burdens and run away, catching a ride hobo-style on a train. Along the way, they meet up with a girl (Dorothy Coonan) dressed as a boy who is on her way to live with an aunt in Chicago. She takes the boys with her, and the aunt is happy to see them, but her apartment is raided just after they arrive (gambling? prostitution?) and the trio wind up on the road again. As they head east, they become part of a large group of "wild" youth in similar circumstances. They’re not bad kids, and they try using the power of numbers to eke out a commune-like living, but the authorities, treating them as squatters, drive them out of a little shantytown they set up in Cleveland. One kid loses his leg to an oncoming train, and Darro gets unwittingly involved in a crime before all three end up in a courtroom where the nice judge treats them fairly and tells everyone that everything will be fine under Roosevelt’s NRA plan.

This William Wellman film is, despite its phony feel-good ending, a fairly bleak look at a real social problem of the time. Yes, the kids are all a bit too good to be true—they all get along, they all have good hearts, etc.—but the feel of the movie is gritty, and the weights these kids carry seem truly felt. In addition to the harrowing leg accident, there is a rape attempt and a brutal fire-hosing of the kids by the police. Darro (at left, above, with Phillips) gives a remarkable performance, a little on the Mickey Rooney side at first, but gaining in dramatic force as the film progresses. Darro, who was 16 at the time, has been good in everything I've seen him in, and it's a shame his relatively small size hurt his career, sticking him in juvenile and jockey roles into adulthood. His performance alone makes the movie worth seeing, but Phillips (who only made one more film) creates a character just as memorable. Grant Mitchell is Darro's dad, and he and Darro have a very well-acted scene when the boy tells him he's sold his beloved car. You may recognize Sterling Holloway and Sidney Miller among the boys, and Ward Bond plays the rapist. Though not filmed on location, much of it does have an authentic feel. This is part of the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 boxed set, composed entirely of Wellman pictures, though it does crop up on TCM frequently. One of the best pre-Code movies I've seen. [DVD]

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Louise Brooks is remembered today mostly for this much-admired silent film from Germany, and though it is a well-made film, it remains of interest largely due to Brooks' mesmerizing performance. She is Lulu, a vivacious young woman whom we first see kept in a fancy apartment by her lover, Schön (Fritz Kortner). An older man named Schigolch, a figure from her past, visits her just before Schön comes to tell her that he's getting married; her flippant reply is, "You'll have to kill me to get rid of me." Schön's son Alwa (Francis Lederer) hires her for a musical revue he's producing, and she makes a scene backstage, refusing to go on when Schön arrives with his fiancée. Schön tries to console Lola and ends up making out with her in her dressing room. His son and fiancée discover them, and Schön winds up marrying Lola. On their wedding night, realizing that he will always be jealous, he gives her a gun and tells her to kill herself, but in an ambiguously filmed scene, she kills him, apparently by accident. She goes on trial and is found guilty, but manages to escape the courtroom. Alwa has become obsessed with her and, with the help of an old friend, the Countess Geschwitz, the two run off together; he becomes a gambler, losing lots of money, and she is threatened with blackmail by an old acquaintance who recognizes her. In the end, with Lulu, Alwa, and Schigolch in desperate straits, she turns to prostitution and, on what seems to be Christmas Eve, she picks up a john who turns out to be Jack the Ripper.

The melodramatic plot, with its outrageous twists and turns, is based on two famous plays by Frank Wedekind (who also wrote the play on which the recent Broadway hit "Spring Awakening" was based), and the direction by Georg W. Pabst, keeps lots of details offscreen or deliberately vague. Lulu is clearly a woman who, in the first half, knows how to get what she wants, but most of what develops is about her is ambiguous: Was she a prostitute from the beginning, or just a gold-digger? What exactly is Schigolch's relationship to Lola? He seems to have been a mentor or manager for her when she was a dancer, but he might also be a pimp--later, she says he's her father, though that may be a lie. Did she kill Schön on purpose? Is the Countess Geschwitz one of Lulu's lovers? (Clearly the Countess, who dresses in stereotypically mannish clothes, is hot for Lulu, and the two have a remarkably intimate dancing scene.)

Oddly, Jack the Ripper (not named specifically in the movie, though the credits give his name as Jack), who is only in the film for the last 15 minutes, is one of the most interesting and charismatic characters in the film. Played by the handsome Gustav Diessl (at right), he is troubled, even tortured, by his obsession to kill, but for a moment, it seems as if he will make a real connection with Lola; on the stairs outside her apartment, he throws away his knife, and inside, he dangles mistletoe (which he got from the Salvation Army) over her head before kissing her. Unfortunately, the allure of a kitchen knife on a nearby table is too strong for him. It is interesting that both of the murders in the film are shot obliquely--so much of the movie's appeal is in its ambiguity. Lederer, Korner, and Diessl are all excellent, but Brooks wipes everyone else off the screen: she is erotic, playful, mysterious, full of life, drop-dead beautiful, and feels quite modern. Certainly her appearance in this film, with her bob cut and bangs, has become iconic, and must have influenced Liza Minnelli's look as a similar, though less rawly manipulative, figure of Weimer Germany in CABARET. One of the last great films of the silent era. [DVD]