Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE GREAT GATSBY (1949)

For my money, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel, at least of the 20th century. The 1974 film version with Robert Redford looked good but was long and draggy and hollow, and teaches us that actors who might look right for their roles (Redford and Mia Farrow) are sometimes not right at all. The 1949 version was my own little Holy Grail; long unavailable for viewing, it was supposed to be released on DVD a few years back but was withdrawn before it ever saw the light of day. I was finally able to see it on YouTube, not exactly the best way to view a movie, but until Universal (which owns the older Paramount film library) decides to issue it legally, it's the only to go, and it's definitely worth seeing. In the 1920s, young Nick Carraway becomes friends with Jay Gatsby, an impossibly rich and handsome man who gives elaborate Jazz Age parties but whom no one really knows. Nick finds out that Gatsby has amassed his wealth in order to win back his old flame Daisy Buchanan, who is now unhappily married to a cheating brute, and Nick becomes an accomplice in Gatsby's plots to get Daisy to run off with him, with tragic results.

In the book, the source of Gatsby's wealth is ambiguous; here it's blatantly presented that he has built a "dark empire" as a rum runner, but generally as far as plot, this film is fairly faithful to the book. Alan Ladd was never an actor of great depth, but being that Gatsby is mostly a man of surfaces, he's almost exactly right for the part, and certainly embodies the character more satisfyingly than Redford did. Macdonald Carey as Nick comes off as a moralistic prig, the exact opposite of the hero-worshiping Nick of the novel. Betty Field is serviceable as Daisy, nothing more. Same for Ruth Hussey as Jordan, the cheating golfer who flirts with Nick—in this film, they wind up married (!); the entire film is Nick's flashback as he and Jordan visit Gatsby's grave many years later. Barry Sullivan is OK as Daisy's husband. Elisha Cook Jr. is an itinerant pianist who lives in Gatsby’s house and who served with him during WWI. Henry Hull plays Gatsby's mentor in a plotline that has been considerably fleshed out from what's in the book. The best acting comes from Howard Da Silva and Shelley Winters as the Wilsons, a sad couple who are the catalyst for the tragic ending. Though the first big party at Gatsby's is well staged, the movie does not have a strong 20s feel to it. But this version's biggest minus is the lack of poetry and ambiguity that make the novel such a wonderful reading experience; gone is any sense of "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." There is one line I enjoyed that I suspect is not Fitzgerald’s: Nick: “I’d like to take you over my knee”; Jordan: “Any time, any place!” For all its faults, this is the best film version of the book yet produced. [YouTube]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950)

Dana Andrews is a tough cop, a little too tough for his superiors; he has a reputation for acts of what today would be police brutality, and after his latest scuffle, he's knocked down a rank to second grade detective. His latest case involves a Texas oil man (Harry von Zell) who was brought into a crap game by lovely Gene Tierney, doing a favor for her thug husband Craig Stevens. The oil man loses a lot of money, then starts winning. When he decides to leave the game, Stevens' boss (Gary Merrill) isn’t happy. Stevens slaps Tierney around, blaming her for not getting the oil man to stay. When von Zell steps in to be a gentleman, he and Stevens get into a fight. Fade out to next morning when von Zell is found dead. Andrews fingers Stevens and winds up slugging him a bit too hard, killing Stevens. Andrews panics and tries to make it look like Stevens left town, then when his body is found, tries to frame Merrill, but circumstances lead to Tierney's father being arrested for the murder. To make matters stickier, Andrews has started dating Tierney.

This is a nice little film noir that in the wrap-up lets everyone off a little too easily. There is a deep dark psychological reason given eventually for Andrews' problems, in particular his desire to see Merrill fry, but after spending two-thirds of the film painting Andrews as a dark anti-hero, things lighten up a little too much and some of the impact of the first half of the film is lost. Still, Andrews (pictured) is fine as the good cop/bad cop, Merrill does a nice job as the cocky hood, and Karl Malden, in an early featured role, plays Andrews' newly promoted boss. Tierney isn't given a lot to do besides look lovely, which she does. Ruth Donnelly has a nice bit (in a Thelma Ritter mold) as a café owner who dotes on Andrews and tries her best to advance his romance with Tierney. Neville Brand stands out as a creepy little crook. A solid noir melodrama with the right look and, for at least half its running time, the right feel. [FMC]

Monday, December 26, 2011

A KID FOR TWO FARTHINGS (1955)

In a bustling market neighborhood in London, young Joe and his mother Joanna live with a kindly tailor, Mr. Kandinsky, while waiting for Joe's dad to come back from South Africa on a (seemingly desperate) business deal. Joe flits around on the streets, making friends with everyone, chasing pigeons, and mourning his pet chicks who never live very long. While keeping Joe entertained, Kandinsky tells him about the magic of unicorns who can grant wishes, and soon Joe finds a young, sickly one-horned goat at the market and buys it from its owner. Convinced that the "unicorn" is real, he begins making wishes for his friends and relatives that eventually come true.

That summary makes this film sound like a sweet whimsical fantasy, but it's actually a non-whimsical slice-of-life comedy-drama, albeit in a mood of poetic realism. Much of it was filmed on location in Petticoat Lane in London, which looks like the Lower East Side of New York always used to look in movies. Because the setting grounds the film in realism, some touches of whimsy would be welcome, but aside from the first sighting of the unicorn, there just isn't enough magic in this movie. Seven-year-old Jonathan Ashmore (in his only acting credit) does a nice job as Joe; Celia Johnson (of BRIEF ENCOUNTER) is fine as his mother. Too much of the film is given over to a subplot involving a "dumb lug" boxer (the beefy but wooden Joe Robinson) and his sexpot girlfriend (Diana Dors, often called the British Marilyn Monroe); neither the actors nor the characters are particularly interesting. Best is David Kossoff as the tailor who seems to truly be looking out for Johnson and her son. Nice use of color is a plus; length of the film (at least 15 minutes too long) is a minus. The goat is cute, and I wound up caring more about its fate than the fates of any of the humans. Some critics have said that the film leaves it up in the air as to whether or not the goat is magical, but I saw absolutely no evidence of such an interpretation: it's a poor little one-horned goat and the outcomes for the humans don't need magic to explain them. [TCM]

Friday, December 23, 2011

REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940)

A sentimental Christmas romantic comedy with a bit of an edge, written by Preston Sturges. A couple of days before Christmas, snappily dressed looker Barbara Stanwyck is on trial for shoplifting a bracelet. She's a career crook and DA Fred MacMurray knows it, but he also knows that at the holidays, a jury will always sympathize with a woman, so he gets a continuance until after the first of the year. She can't make bail so MacMurray arranges for it. She thinks he did it because he expects something in return, but he's just a nice guy about to head out to Indiana to visit his mom; when she frets that she has no place to go for Christmas and he finds out she's also from Indiana, he suggests she tag along. However, when her cruel mother turns her away, she goes with him and experiences an old-fashioned, totally functional, rural family Christmas; she begins to lose some of her hardness and falls for MacMurray. His big-hearted mother (Beulah Bondi) takes good care of Stanwyck, but is also smart enough to know that she could be bad news to her straight-shooting son, who worked hard to get where he is and might get derailed by a "bad girl," even one who is ready to reform. On the way back to the big city, he encourages her to skip bail in Canada, but she decides to keep her court date and face the music.

This is a movie full of tonal shifts. It starts with comical big-city courtroom shenanigans as a lawyer (Willard Robertson) gives an over-the-top speech to the jury claiming Stanwyck was hypnotized by the jewels and therefore not responsible. The trip to Indiana has some road-trip comedy I could do without, but it leads to an intense, almost noirish scene with the uncaring mother (think Beulah Bondi as the bad Pottersville Ma Bailey in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE). The Christmas sequence is touching without passing into sticky-sweetness, but the last 20 minutes turn a little too melodramatic for my taste. Of course, Bondi is fine, as are Elizabeth Patterson as MacMurray's spinster aunt and Sterling Holloway as the sweetly dopey farmhand (all pictured above with Stanwyck and MacMurray). I like MacMurray mocking Robertson's theatrical delivery to the jury with the line, "Quick, Watson, the needle!" I don't so much like Snowflake Toones' drawling valet stereotype. The first time I saw this film (when I was much younger) I was really pushing for Stanwyck to skip bail and resented what felt like a Code-imposed ending, but now it feels more organic to the story. A lovely Christmas movie and one which hasn’t become the victim of over-exposure (yet). [VHS; available on DVD]

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

STEPPING OUT (1931)

Two married couples, Tom & Eve Martin and Tubby & Sally Smith, are enjoying an evening together at the Martin's Hollywood home. Eve made Tom promise that they’d make a short night of it as she seems ready for some bedroom time with him, but Tom and Tubby have something else in mind: meeting and greeting a couple of would-be starlets whom they have in mind for a movie they’re backing. When the guys say they have to head to the studio for some unfinished work, the gals decide to hoof it to Mexico for a little vacation. After they leave, Tom and Tubby invite the starlets over for a late-night swim, but of course, the wives return and catch them. Thanks to a silly plot point (the men have been advised to put all their money and property in their wives' names so they won't lose everything if the movie flops), the wives head to Mexico prepared to gamble everything away. The men follow, hoping to make amends, but the starlets also follow. Complicating things, a couple of gigolos posing as Spanish waiters flirt with the wives. Naturally, this being a comedy, things work out in the end.

This mild pre-Code romantic farce is watchable but never rises above that. Charlotte Greenwood (Sally), known for her long legs and crazy kicks, is usually someone I like, but here her character is such a braying bitch that I was tired of her in the first 20 minutes. Lelia Hyams (Eve) and Harry Stubbs (Tubby) are lackluster but acceptable. I enjoyed seeing Reginald Denny (pictured), usually given comic relief sidekick parts, getting a starring role as Tom and doing well with it—of the four leads, he's the only one who really seemed at all sympathetic. Cliff Edwards gets a few good moments in as one of the gigolos (he's supposed to be a college student, but looks every bit his 35 years of age); Kane Richmond is younger and better looking as his buddy, a football star, but doesn't get to do much. Greenwood and Edwards sing a cute number, "Just Like Frankie and Johnny." Apparently, some of the exteriors were shot at the homes of Denny, Buster Keaton, and John Gilbert. [TCM]

Sunday, December 18, 2011

MY SON JOHN (1952)

An interesting entry in the string of anti-Communist propaganda films of the early 50's; the commie plot is secondary at times to the dysfunctional family plot which seems lifted from the works of Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, All My Sons). Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger say farewell to two of their sons as they head off to the Korean War. Their third son, Robert Walker, who works in Washington for the government, misses the farewell dinner but shows up a week later and we immediately see tensions between the three: Mom and Dad are old-fashioned, God-fearing, hard-working, middle-class citizens (Dad is running for head of the local American Legion unit); Walker is an effete college-educated liberal who does soft office work and seems to be an atheist to boot. Father and son are constantly at odds--during an argument, Jagger literally thumps Walker with a Bible--though Mom seems just a little too adoring of her little boy. Soon, Van Heflin shows up, a Fed who suspects that Walker is a Communist and is giving state secrets to the Russians through a woman who is eventually arrested for treason. Of course, he is, and of course, eventually, he sees the error of his ways and wants to spill everything to the FBI, but will his fellow travelers let him go that easily?

One problem with the film is the acting. Hayes gives an out-and-out bad performance, jittery, wide-eyed and mannered, like she's on a TV soap opera (except she doesn't keep looking at cue cards). Jagger's a bit better; he goes over-the-top frequently, but he does have a certain nervous chemistry with Walker, like a father might have with a son he felt he didn’t really know. Heflin has nothing substantive to do. Walker is the saving grace; as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, he's playing a gay character but can't really let on that he is (godless commie + academic + mama's boy = light in his loafers). He does a great job balancing the character's conflicting emotions: genuine love for a family from which he's grown away, genuine belief in Communism as a panacea for the world's ills, and an apparently genuine desire to "reform." Sadly, Walker died halfway through filming, and the climactic action had to be completely rewritten in a way that largely dispenses with Walker's character; some footage of Walker from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is incorporated and a climactic speech which was supposed to be delivered by Walker at a college graduation is instead presented on tape in an interesting looking but dramatically inert scene. For an actor who always seemed a bit high-strung, he gives a remarkably natural performance. At two hours, it's too long, but worth seeing for Walker. [TCM]

Friday, December 16, 2011

THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943)

Charles Boyer is a struggling composer living in a boarding house; when his latest dissonant concert music is played to negative reviews in London, he has a big hissy fit leading to him smash his piano, so he heads off to the Swiss chalet of old friend Montagu Love to recover. He basks in the adoration of Love’s daughters, especially bubbly teenager Joan Fontaine (at right with Boyer). Love sympathizes with Boyer, but chastises him, telling him he’s "ashamed of melody," and encourages him to work on one of his short, lovely throwaway tunes which has caught Fontaine's attention. Boyer is also told that he will learn to write truly great music only after he learns to cry. Fontaine, who has a heart condition, clearly has a crush on Boyer, and they spend some idyllic times together in the mountains, but after Love dies, the girls are put in the care of their uncle (Charles Coburn).

Time passes; the girls are taken to England for schooling and Boyer marries Alexis Smith, Coburn’s daughter. Up to this point, the film has played out like a romantic comedy, but things take a melodramatic turn here and we get a series of emotionally charged conversations between Boyer and Fontaine (who is completely in love with him), between Boyer and Smith (who are having marital problems), between Smith and Coburn (he knows she's not happy), and between Fontaine and Smith (she knows Fontaine's in love with her husband). Boyer finally has an emotional breakthrough when he realizes he's in love with Fontaine, cries, and is able to flesh out his throwaway melody into a symphonic "tone poem" which becomes a huge success when it is played in concert. Fontaine, whose heart weakness spells are increasing, listens to the piece over the radio in ecstasy, but…, well, heart conditions being what they are in movies, the ecstasy is short-lived.

This movie had been out of circulation due to copyright problems for over 50 years and had become something of a Holy Grail for classic movie buffs, so inevitably it's a bit disappointing to finally see it and realize it's just an average romantic melodrama, on the order of other such films set in the world of classical music (INTERMEZZO, HUMORESQUE). Fontaine gives a good performance; she never seems as young as she's supposed to be, but that's a good thing because it would be a bit too creepy to have a real 14-year-old be the romantic object of the mid-40s Boyer. I'm not a big fan of Boyer but he's quite good here, with just the right doses of egocentrism and tenderness. There are some fine supporting players, but their plotlines aren't given enough attention for them to shine: in addition to Smith (pictured above with Fontaine) and Coburn, there's Brenda Marshall as the oldest daughter who, because she dates around, has the reputation of having "gone bad"; Peter Lorre as her off-and-on lover; Dame May Whitty as a high society lady; and Eduardo Ciannelli as a family servant. The tone poem "Tomorrow" was written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and has taken on a life of its own outside the film. My favorite line, delivered by Coburn to Smith: "Stop moaning about like a woman in a novel." This film was in fact based on a novel. Better than INTERMEZZO, but nowhere as good as HUMORESQUE. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

THE MAN WITH TWO FACES (1934)

Mary Astor is making a return to the stage after suffering a nervous breakdown when her husband (Louis Calhern) was reported killed in San Francisco—he was a rotten bastard but he had some kind of strange, almost hypnotic, power over her. Now she's healthy and happy and has the lead in a play that's a hit in its out-of-town tryout; she's acting with her famous brother (Edward G. Robinson), she's friendly with the author (John Eldredge), she's dating the producer (Ricardo Cortez), and she's living in her rich aunt’s mansion. Suddenly, on the night they decide to take the play to Broadway, Calhern shows up, alive and as much of a bastard as ever. Astor immediately falls under his power again and plans for the show appear to be scotched until a French investor arrives wanting to buy Calhern's half of the show from him—ideally, this would give him enough money to clear out of Astor's life and let her get back to acting. But after a meeting with the investor, Calhern is found dead. Everyone in Astor's life is happy but the police still want to find out who did it, and they think it's fishy that the French investor has simply vanished. Who else might be involved?

This old-fashioned melodrama is based on a hit play by George S. Kaufman & Alexander Woollcott called The Dark Tower (which is the name given to the play-within-the-movie) and, though the film adaptation is not especially stagy, the impact of the climax of the play is, I would think, dependent upon a theater audience not being able to see everything up close, and of course, movies tend to be dependent on the opposite: clarity and close-ups. I won't give any spoilers, but a good bit of tension is dissipated here because film audiences will know what’s happening long before a play audience would (the trick involves a character in disguise). Still, it is fun to see things play out to an ending which is clear-cut but with an ambiguous shading or two—the Production Code wouldn't allow the killer to get away without punishment, unlike in the original play. All the actors are fine, particularly Louis Calhern who seems to relish playing an out-and-villain who would certainly be twirling his mustache if he had one. The one weak link is Mary Astor; she's fine as the carefree actress, but as soon as she falls under Calhern's power, she's basically playing a zombie. Also of note: Mae Clarke as a bad actress and David Landau as a cop who ends up wishing he didn't have to make the arrest he will after the fadeout. (Pictured above are Cortez, Robinson, Astor and Calhern) [TCM]

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

STRANGE BARGAIN (1949)

This short B-film feels like a cross between a TV show and a movie, specifically Father Knows Best crossed with Double Indemnity. It begins in sit-com land around the suburban breakfast table with Dad (Jeffrey Lynn), Mom (Martha Scott), and the two kids. When the kids go off to school, conversation gets around to the problems the couple is having making ends meet. She talks him into asking his boss (Richard Gaines) for a raise, but as it happens, Gaines tells Lynn that he's about to be let go—the company is in dire financial straits. Over drinks that evening, Gaines makes Lynn a proposition: Gaines plans to kill himself so his family can get his life insurance money, but he asks Lynn to come to the house that night after the fact to shoot a gun through the window to make it look like murder and robbery so the insurance company will pay out. Gaines offers Lynn $10,000 so Lynn reluctantly agrees. The plan goes off alright, but when the police start suspecting Gaines' business partner (Henry O'Neill), who had been arguing with Gaines recently, Lynn doesn't know what to do: if he clears O'Neill, he could be arrested on a felony charge and Gaines's family will be destitute; if he remains silent, an innocent man might be charged with murder. But as the cops keep investigating, it starts to look like it might not have been suicide after all.

Though blandly directed, the plot is compelling enough to keep your attention for 70 minutes. Lynn, typically a supporting actor, is a big zero in the lead role, and Scott's character is underdeveloped, so that I ended up not caring what happened to the two of them, but Gaines (who had a small role in DOUBLE INDEMNITY as the clueless head honcho at the insurance company) is good, and even better is Harry Morgan (pictured above, on the left with Lynn in the back seat) who enters halfway through as the police inspector who solves the case (he's given a limp and a cane, though they serve no plot purpose). Katherine Emery is fine as the widow, and Michael Chapin, who plays Lynn's son, is the real-life brother of Lauren Chapin, who played "Kitten" on, to bring this review full circle, Father Knows Best. [TCM] (Note: Tomorrow, I'm off for the Turner Classic Movie cruise, so there'll no reviews for a week or so.)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

WOLF OF NEW YORK (1940)

There's a crime wave going on and the DA (Jerome Cowan) is being blamed for failing to get convictions; he can't beat powerful lawyer Edmund Lowe, known as the Wolf of New York, who keeps getting crooks off in court. Lowe's former secretary (Rose Hobart), daughter of a police inspector, left his employ and now works in Cowan's office, though she and Lowe are still friendly. One of the biggest crooks of all is James Stephenson (pictured at right), investment banker by day, dealer in stolen bonds by night. When one of Stephenson's men is arrested during a robbery, Lowe is hired to defend him and uses an underhanded trick to get the jury to find the man not guilty. Soon, Hobart's father gets a break in a case against Stephenson, thanks to baby-faced Maurice Murphy, an ex-con gone straight whom Lowe has taken under his wing. When Stephenson has the police inspector killed, he frames Murphy who, though defended by Lowe, is found guilty and executed. Later, thanks to a deathbed confession by another con, Cowan realizes that an innocent man has been put to death and resigns. Upset over his inability to save Murphy, Lowe starts drinking and giving up cases, but soon Hobart gets the governor to appoint Lowe DA, and Lowe gets a chance to get the goods on Stephenson.

This mild B-crime film could have used a rewrite (too much narrative, and too much of it related as background exposition) and better leads, but the supporting cast is fun. The urbane Stephenson, who would have his big breakthrough later that year as Bette Davis' lawyer in THE LETTER, is the main reason to watch, though Cowan is fine in his few scenes. Murphy (at left) makes a convincing patsy, and Ben Weldon provides comic relief as a henchman. In fact, the comic lines are better than average here. I'm not a fan of the wooden Lowe, though he comes off a little better here than usual, but Hobart is deadly dull, and the two have no chemistry at all. [TCM]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

4D MAN (1959)

Young, handsome research scientist Tony Nelson (James Congdon) is working with a force field device that would allow an object, like a pencil, to penetrate a material, like steel, without harming the material—something about molecules bonding and using up years worth of energy in just seconds. In his latest attempt, he gets the pencil through a block of metal, but in the process accidentally burns down the lab and gets fired. His older brother Scott (Robert Lansing) is a head researcher for an important scientific firm, and has just perfected a new, completely impenetrable metal called Cargonite, though the old scientist who runs the firm takes all the credit, leaving Scott a little dispirited. Luckily, he has his lovely assistant Linda (Lee Meriwether) to comfort him, but when Tony arrives asking for a job, Linda and Tony hit it off, leaving poor Scott in the lurch. Tony continues working on his force field after hours and Scott keeps brooding; then one night, after Linda gives the Scott the brushoff, Scott breaks into Tony's work locker and starts messing with the device. Surprise: he manages to push his hand through a solid metal block and pull it back out, leaving no marks. Soon, simply through the strength of his brain waves, he can turn this power on and off without the device. The problem: every time he does this, he ages some 10 or 20 years, and can only get back his youth by reaching into a living person and stealing his or her life force, which leads to the victim's quick aging and death. Scott slowly loses his sanity, going on a binge of theft and murder; can Tony and Linda stop him?

This B-film from the director of THE BLOB is an interesting attempt at a "Thou shalt not meddle in God’s domain" story, but the screenplay has a few too many ideas for the film's budget. For example, the way the device works is vague, and when the idea of human will power affecting it comes into play (first with Tony, who mentions that he "willed" his first experiment to work), I was lost. The love triangle has potential, but Meriwether, though sexy, doesn't have much personality, and Congdon (pictured with Meriwether) is so much better looking and more dynamic than Lansing that there's just no contest. The role that the Cargonite material plays in the plot is mostly theoretical—the impenetrable object to Scott's irresistible force—though I think it's crucial to the downbeat but confusing ending. Still, the effects are quite good for a low budget film of the era, and the movie has a rich palette of blues and flesh tones. Lansing is a little drab but gains strength as his character goes crazy, and Congdon is good-looking and intense. Familiar character actor Robert Strauss plays a fellow researcher who is Lansing's first victim, and 12-year-old Patty Duke has a small role. A shrill jazz score is interesting at first, but overused and unwelcome by the middle. [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1967)

David is a handsome British safari guide who heads into dangerous territory to finish off a leopard that his middle-aged client only wounded. The land, marked by tree carvings of a white rhinoceros, in inhabited by a tribe that is cursed by spirits of the past, and that insists on killing any white men who trespass because it was white folks that brought on all their troubles by killing off the rhinos. Sure enough, after David kills the leopard, he is captured by the tribe who put on a big dance before they sacrifice him in front of a huge statue of a white rhino. However, as soon as David touches the rhino's horn, time freezes, the rocks split, and David finds himself in the past, among a tribe of fierce (as in, they wear false eyelashes and have fabulous hair) Amazon women. The hot brunettes, led by Kari, have enslaved the hot blondes, led by Saria, and the grungy men (no leader) who seem to have wandered in from some other time and place altogether and who were responsible for past enslavement and destruction. One hot blonde gets sacrificed monthly to appease the rhino god, or something. Kari wants to make David her lover and co-ruler, but he's fallen for Saria, and eventually, with David's help, an uprising against Kari is successful.

This is another of Hammer’s mid-60s forays into exotic adventure-fantasy (see SHE) and lovers of the campier aspects of these films will like this one. Beauty queen Martine Beswick is the main reason to watch this; she bites into her role with gusto, and by playing it mostly straight, adds to the camp value of the film. Her best scene has her writhing about, in a skimpy bikini-loincloth, on her throne, trying to entice David into sharing her pleasures. Michael Latimer as David is attractive but not the heroic-hunk type, and he plays most emotions by scowling or looking off-camera, but you get used to him. Hungarian actress Edina Ronay is the very 1960s-looking Saria. There is a credit for choreography, and there are indeed several tribal dances that are actually kind of fun to watch. Actor and playwright Steven Berkoff, known for his villainous roles in films like Octopussy and Beverly Hills Cop, has a one-line bit at the end. Its B-budget means it was filmed on cheap sets, but it all looks pretty good in widescreen format. [TCM]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961)

It's a boring day in 1868 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania when suddenly a mountain, called the Great Eyrie, erupts and a man's booming voice begins intoning apocalyptic warnings. Some members of the Weldon Balloon Society decide to take a balloon up and check things out. The group consists of Henry Hull, a munitions manufacturer; his daughter (Mary Webster); her boyfriend (David Frankham); and Charles Bronson, a government scientist who is strong and silent and therefore by default the romantic hero. Their balloon is shot at by the airship Albatross, and its captain (Vincent Price) takes them on board. It turns out that Price is the one behind the shenanigans at the Eyrie; he has declared war against war, delivering ultimatums to world governments to give up their armies and weapons or be destroyed. The captive group is witness to Price's bombing of British navy ships. They're torn between action and passivity; should they actively try to stop Price or make the best of their imprisonment? There is some infighting between the gentlemanly Frankham and the realistic Bronson, but when Bronson finally takes a stand, it might mean that all four of them will have to sacrifice themselves to stop Price.

This fantasy adventure is based on two novels by Jules Verne featuring the character of Captain Robur (Price). The film has its moments, but the American International budget was just too small to produce effective thrills and the cast is way too mild to bring about much excitement. Bronson, who would become an action hero in the 70s, plays a quiet, composed hero; we like him, but he's not very exciting. Webster is bland, so we never care about the halfhearted romantic triangle; Frankham shows some promise early on as an antagonist, but despite pulling off a very nasty trick against Bronson late in the movie, never really comes off as very threatening. Hull, on the verge of overacting, seems to be in a whole different movie, and the usually reliable Price seems rather tired. The musical score is inappropriately peppy. Vito Scotti provides some mild comic relief as a cook on the airship, and I rather enjoyed the hunky, blond, and often shirtless airship pilot—I think he was played by Richard Harrison. In the last section, when Price tries to stop a desert war, the pace does pick up a bit, but overall this is a disappointment. [DVD]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

SHE (1935)

This earlier version of Haggard’s "She" has a good reputation and does have its moments, but isn't quite as much dumb fun as the later film. It also changes the plot details considerably. In this film, Leo is set on the trail of eternal youth by his dying uncle; it seems that 500 years ago, a relative of theirs named John went off to the great frozen north in search of a mystical Flame of Eternal Life and may have found it, though he never returned. Leo and his friend Horace head off for the Shuko Barrier in the Arctic, and are joined by a gruff trader and his daughter Tanya—she takes the place of the more exotic Ustane from the book. Once they get to the mysterious land past the Barrier, the action is largely the same as in the later film, though here, Leo turns out to look exactly like his ancestor John, whose embalmed body is still intact. Ayehsa's first appearance, from behind a wall of smoke, is genuinely thrilling. There is a long, heavily choreographed ritual dance that looks like it might have inspired a similar number in DeMille's TEN COMMANDMENTS. Unlike Ustane, Tanya survives, but the rest of the story follows the same course as the '65 film.

Randolph Scott is Leo, and you would think he would have all the qualities needed for the perfect adventure hero, but he seems a bit detached, though he gets better near the end as he falls under Ayesha's influence. Helen Gahagan (above, in her only movie role before she entered politics and became a Congresswoman) is dull and monotone, and lookswise can't hold a candle to Andress. Nigel Bruce provides some fun as the stuffy, mildly amusing Horace, and Gustav von Seyffertitz has the Christopher Lee role, but plays it without much gusto. The rather drab Helen Mack (pictured with Scott) is Tanya, and she irritatingly pronounces Leo "Lay-o" throughout. The film is in black and white, but the set design of the Arctic and the city (which looked like it should have been in Maxfield Parrish colors) is nice. The flame effect is better here than in the '65 film. The final scene, with Leo, Tanya and Horace gathered around a cozy fireplace back in England, is sappy and wrong. Both films are worth watching, though if you can only find time for one, I'd pick the Hammer version, and the book is still worth reading. [DVD]

Friday, November 25, 2011

SHE (1965)

H. Rider Haggard’s famous adventure/fantasy novel from 1887 is considered one of the earliest of the "lost world" novels, in which adventurers discover a land that has been hidden from civilization. It has been filmed several times, but two versions (from 1935 and 1965) are the most common. I'll start with the '65 version from Hammer Films, which is by far the most faithful of the two. We meet three British soldiers heading home from WWI in Palestine: the older Horace, the young handsome Leo, and the working-class Job. In a nightclub, the lovely Arab Ustane flirts with Leo, but when they leave the club, she leads him into an ambush. He is taken to see the ravishing Ayesha who shows him his startling resemblance to an amulet with the likeness of the long-dead high priest Killikrates, her former lover. She asks Leo to journey across the desert to the secret city of Kuma which she rules, and if he proves himself worthy, she will take him as her lover and co-ruler. Leo and his friends head off, undergo several trials (the slashing of their water bags, an attack by bandits) and finally arrive near the city where they meet up again with Ustane (who has by now taken a liking to Leo). When the suspicious natives decide to sacrifice Leo, Billali, chief assistant to Ayesha, arrives with his men. They are taken to Kuma, a city entirely inside a mountain, where they learn that Ayesha, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, is hundreds of years old; she has kept her youth by bathing in the Flame of Eternal Life. Convinced that Leo is the reincarnation of Killikrates, she wants him to bathe in the flame as well, though Ustane and Horace aren’t so sure that’s a good idea. Leo begins to fall under Ayesha's spell, and finally does enter the Flame, but bad things happen when Ayesha takes a second dip for herself.

This is adventure done on the cheap, but for a Hammer movie, it doesn’t look bad with some effective use of matte painting effects. The journey drags in spots, but things pick up once they get to Kuma. Swiss bombshell Ursula Andress doesn’t exactly stretch her acting chops (and, to be fair, all her dialogue is dubbed, which never helps) but she looks exactly right as the cold, demanding Queen. John Richardson also looks the part as the hunky blue-eyed, golden-haired hero and is marginally better in the acting department, but is never as commanding as he should be. Old pros Peter Cushing (as Horace) and Christopher Lee (as Billali) steal their scenes easily. Bernard Cribbins as Job has little to do. The nicest touch, and one that I think the filmmakers added, is having Leo actually stand in the Flame and become eternally young, which could have been a nice jumping-off point for a series; there was a sequel, The Vengeance of She, but it has been universally panned. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

THE GOLDEN ARROW (1964)

In order to find a new Sultan of Damascus, a contest is held in which whoever can bend the magical Ebony Bow to shoot the Golden Arrow will not only rule the city but have the hand of Princess Jamila. Several try but only the mysterious Prince of the Isle of Flames can shoot the arrow. When he claims his prize, it turns out that he is actually the handsome thief Hassan who, with his band of merry men, er… ragtag rogues, kidnaps Jamila and holds her for ransom. But then we discover via a magic birthmark that Hassan is actually the "chosen one" who should be Sultan anyway. Hassan and Jamila fall in love and he frees her, but the villainous Baktiar, who wants to be Sultan, jails Hassan. Jamila wishes on the stars for help and Three Stooges, er… three bumbling genies come from the sky to help out. They aid Hassan's escape but soon not only are Baktiar's men after him, so are his former buddies, the thieves who are pissed off about missing out on the ransom money. A variety of adventures follow: people are turned to stone, a cave queen lets loose men made of fire, Hassan astral-projects himself to make mischief with Baktiar, an elixir which can restore life is discovered, and a final battle—involving flying carpets, fiery catapults, and levitating objects—lets Hassan finally claim his rightful place as Sultan and husband to Jamila.

On one level, this is a colorful and delightful Arabian fantasy, done on a budget which is a notch or two above the average Italian import of the time (shot probably in Italy or Spain, with a mostly Italian cast and crew). The sets, both interiors and exteriors, are impressive and though the special effects are inconsistent, they're not bad. Had I seen this as a child when it came out, I would have loved it. But as an adult, I'm bothered by the incoherent plot which is simply stitched together from a bunch of Arabian Nights motifs, augmented by echoes of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Greek mythology. It could have been a rich stew, but the screenwriters can only achieve a watery broth. The acting is about average for this kind of film. Tab Hunter is at his blond, California beach-bum peak, and is a treat for the eye in his silky, body-clinging, pajama-like outfits (white in the first half, brown in the second), but he's not meaty or stoic enough to pull off the heroic "Thief of Bagdad" part effectively—and he's hurt by bad dubbing. Rossana Podesta (pictured above with Hunter) comes off OK as the lovely princess, though she really has little to do. The genies are totally ridiculous, clearly thrown in for the kiddie matinee crowd. The main musical theme keeps threatening to turn into "Misty." Fans of 60s fantasy will enjoy this. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

GOG (1954)

At a secret underground government research center in the middle of the desert, scientists of several varieties are working toward the launching of a space station. We see two scientists running a suspended animation experiment on a monkey, quick-freezing him so his heart rate drops to zero, then successfully quick-thawing him back to life. Unfortunately, one of the scientists gets locked in the chamber and is frozen to death, and when the second one returns, she too winds up dead the same way. This is just the first of a series of bizarre accidents at the center, and soon a federal agent (Richard Egan) is dispatched to investigate. One entire floor of the center is devoted to NOVAC, a super-computer which runs the entire building, and which itself is supervised by a German scientist (John Wengraf) who seems a little too intense for his own good; could he be attempting to sabotage the experiments? Eventually, two powerful robots, Gog and Magog, start to malfunction and Egan and his assistant (Constance Dowling) suspect that some exterior force (Commie spies, perhaps) has gotten control of the center. Can a handful of humans overcome a supercomputer and two rampaging robots?

I'm starting my usual Thanksgiving week of sci-fi and fantasy movie reviews with this film which I actually did see for the first time over a Thanksgiving weekend sometime in the mid-60s. The central issue of the film, basically the hacking of a computer system, is one that is still relevant, and the idea that an artificial intelligence is responsible for some of the mayhem would be explored in more detail in Kubrick's 2001. Though this has a sci-fi atmosphere (and the opening credits are presented against deep space backgrounds), it plays out more like a traditional industrial mystery movie—who's gumming up the works at the factory? On the plus side, the color scheme is bright and shiny; on the minus side, the pacing is faulty: the film opens with a nice burst of mayhem (the monkey and the frozen scientists), then drags with lots of exposition and the half-hearted setting-up of a romance between Egan and Dowling, then suddenly comes to life again in the last 20 minutes with robot mischief and radioactive poisoning. The two leads are deadly dull; Wengraf (pictured above with one of the robots) is OK though a little too passionless to be a truly effective mad scientist; and the puppet-like robots are rather silly looking, looking like the friendly robots of Lost in Space and The Jetsons. William Schallert (the father on The Patty Duke Show) is effective in a small role as Wengraf's assistant. The accidents (including a pair of human subjects who get spun too fast in a gravity experiment) are fun to see, and were probably even more fun during the film's original theatrical run in 3D. [Netflix streaming]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935)

Irene Dunne's husband, a well-known doctor, has just died of a heart attack. She is told he might have been saved, but the boat that could have taken him to medical attention was being used to attend to a drunken playboy (Robert Taylor) who fell into a lake. Taylor, being cared for in the same hospital that the doctor founded, is cocky and obnoxious (and quite handsome) but unaware at first that he is being blamed by some for the doc's death. Not wanting to stay in the hospital, he escapes and has a roadside encounter with Dunne. She doesn't hold him responsible, but he is insensitive enough to flirt with her. After going on another bender, Taylor winds up sleeping it off at the house of sculptor Ralph Morgan, a friend of the doctor's, who tells Taylor about the doc’s "secret": he believed that one could be "in contact with a source of infinite power" and improve one's life by giving generously to others without public acknowledgement. It turns out that the doctor had spent most of his life giving away his wealth to needy individuals, Morgan being one of them who then went on to implement the philosophy in his own life. Taylor gives some money to a beggar and moments later runs into Dunne, which he takes as a cosmic sign, but in the act of resisting his advances, she is hit by a car, winds up blinded, and falls into a deep depression. Later he befriends her, not telling her who he is, eventually bringing her out of her shell, but when he "comes out" to her, she opts to leave him, thinking he's with her out of pity.

So far, a solid romantic melodrama. The incredible soap opera turn occurs when Taylor decides to finish up the medical degree he had been working on when his playboy tendencies took over. A mere six years later, he is a world-famous doctor and a Nobel Prize winner to boot. Dunne has been living in isolation and in decline, due to a "slow clot," and Taylor decides to take on her case in a risky operation. Will he save her life and her sight? Let's just say the playboy didn't get a Nobel Prize for nothing! This is based on a very popular novel of the day, and the colorful and glossy 1956 remake by Douglas Sirk is known as Rock Hudson's first big hit (with Jane Wyman as the blind love interest). This version, which has been out of circulation for some time, is less ostentatious and generally a bit more believable. Taylor and Dunne (pictured) have good chemistry, Morgan is fine, and the supporting cast includes Betty Furness as the doc's daughter, Charles Butterworth as her comic relief "older gentleman" friend, Sara Haden as a supervising nurse, and Arthur Treacher as, of course, a butler, who gets the best line: When asked if someone is "dippy," he replies, "If you mean, is he barmy in the crumpet? Yes!" Available on Criterion DVD as a supplement with the Sirk version. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963)

In the seaside town of Weymouth, England, American McDonald Carey gets beaten up by some "teddy boys," leather-clad hooligans on motorcycles, when he gets friendly with Shirley Ann Field. Turns out her brother (Oliver Reed) is the head of the toughs and they routinely use Field as bait to prey on older tourist types. However this time, Field is tired of the rough games and gets friendly right back with Carey. More or less on the run from Reed, they meet up with a free-spirited sculptress (Viveca Lindfors) who lives on a hilly beach, and scientist Alexander Knox who is conducting some secret research at a nearby compound--I initially assumed that Lindfors was Knox's kept woman, but actually she might be "keeping" him. When Reed catches up with Carey and Field, they all wind up in a cave where they discover a group of cold-blooded children, the subjects of Knox's experiments. They've been exposed to radiation since birth and would theoretically be capable of surviving in a post-nuclear holocaust world, but what Carey and Field don't know is that the children are also radioactive.

One of the reasons this film has a reputation is also one of its faults: it's an odd mix of genres. For the first half-hour or so, it's a gang movie, and a fairly uninteresting one at that. The middle-aged Carey is boring, Field is nothing special, and the creepy incest vibe between Reed and Field is really all it has going for it. But Lindfors and Knox, by far the best actors here, save the day, along with the radioactive kids. The film would have been better if it had spent more time on this story, and perhaps let us get to know a couple of the kids. The film has a downbeat ending, which fits with its generally downbeat mood. Flawed but worth seeing. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

BRAINSTORM (1965)

One night, handsome research scientist Jeffrey Hunter finds lovely trophy wife Anne Francis drunk and passed out in a car parked across some railroad tracks. He tries to rouse her and fails, but when a train comes down the tracks, he breaks into the car and rescues her. He gets her to the home of her husband, Dana Andrews (coincidentally the owner of the company he works for) and discovers that he interrupted a suicide attempt. A few nights later, she tells him it was all a mistake and invites him to a party; it turns out it's a scavenger party and he is one of the hunted objects, a "scientific device." He takes it in relative good humor and later that night, she admits she hates her husband and they embark on an affair. Eventually Andrews finds out about it and, discovering that Hunter had a breakdown some years ago, begins a scheme to make it seem like Hunter is going nuts again: among other things, Hunter's office is vandalized and the janitor claims that Hunter did it one night in a rage. Hunter decides to turn the tables: he'll act like he really is going insane, and then kill Andrews, using the insanity defense to get away with it. Not surprisingly, things don’t go exactly as planned—Hunter must not have seen SHOCK CORRIDOR where a similar idea goes awry.

This is a glossy 60s take on film noir, specifically DOUBLE INDEMNITY, though it's missing a few crucial elements: lovely as Anne Francis is, she winds up in a supporting role; she's not even a real femme fatale, as, unlike Stanwyck in INDEMNITY, she's essentially passive, not actively engineering events in any way. We also don’t get very close to Hunter, so we don't care as much about his fate as we might if we knew more about him. The film is essentially a three-person show, and though Hunter and Francis are OK, neither is terribly compelling, and Andrews doesn't have much to do. Viveca Lindfors does well with her supporting role as Hunter's therapist. Directed with some visual style by William Conrad, TV's Cannon. [TCM]

Friday, November 11, 2011

ONE MORE TOMORROW (1946)

At his surprise birthday party, rich bachelor Dennis Morgan meets two very different women: a sexy gold digger (Alexis Smith, pictured standing) and a photographer (Ann Sheridan, pictured seated) who works part-time for a small left-wing magazine. Morgan takes a liking to Sheridan and her publisher (Reginald Gardiner) and buys their struggling publication, to the dismay of his father who wants him to join the family conglomerate business. Morgan wants to marry Sheridan, but she's uncertain how she'd fit into his life and turns him down, so on the rebound, he hooks up with Smith, much to the chagrin of Morgan's butler (and longtime buddy) Jack Carson who sees through her. When they marry, Smith starts running Morgan's life, starting with getting rid of Carson. By the time Sheridan comes back into the picture, Smith has plunged into a backstabbing plan to get Morgan away from the magazine and back with his father. A tug-of-war ensues between the two women for Morgan's heart and soul.

This enjoyable drama, with romantic comedy touches, is a remake of the 30s film THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, based on a play by Philip Barry. The earlier pre-Code version is sexier, but this one fleshes out the backstory in an interesting way, and the cast is solid, not only the central core of Morgan, Sheridan, Smith and Carson, but also supporting players like Gardiner, Jane Wyman (as Sheridan's sidekick), Thurston Hall (Morgan's father) and John Loder (the family lawyer who encourages Smith to set her cap for Morgan in the first place). This may not stick with you for long, but it's fun while it lasts, especially when Smith's diabolical plan becomes clear. Favorite line, from Alexis Smith: "Stop being bitter and get me a drink!" [TCM]

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL (1953)

In Africa, where, we are told, "death wears a bright mantle—and beauty has fangs," Vargo (Raymond Burr) and his associates are hunting elephants for their ivory which they sell to the exotic Lyra (Monique Van Vooren, pictured) and her husband. Burr makes plans to go after a large but dangerous herd, and he enslaves men from the Laikopos tribe to help him. But Tarzan (Lex Barker) is a friend to the tribe, so when their women come for help, Tarzan rescues them. Vargo sets out to reclaim the natives and kidnap Jane so Tarzan will help them by using his jungle call to get the elephant herd together for easy capture. Jane manages to escape his men, but their treehouse catches fire and is destroyed; Tarzan, assuming Jane is dead, gives up, and is captured and tortured by Vargo's men. Meanwhile, Lyra's husband finds out that Vargo plans to double-cross Lyra. In the end, Jane's reappearance gives Tarzan the strength to fight, and he gets back at everyone by calling the elephants in for a deadly stampede. This was Barker's last Tarzan film and, though it starts out fine, falls apart when Tarzan falls apart. The Ape Man just sits around and sulks, and even the torture scenes aren't mean or fun enough to be distracting. Burr is a good heavy but Van Vooren is on the lackluster side, partly because she isn't given much to do. Joyce McKenzkie makes for a rather plain Jane, though she and Barker get a nice scene of an early morning, pre-coital dip in the river, after which Cheetah brings them a huge ostrich egg for breakfast. Not the worst in the series, but until the exciting climax, there's not much here to recommend. [TCM]

Sunday, November 06, 2011

MYSTERY LINER (1934)

Potentially interesting thriller with sci-fi overtones from B-studio Monogram, tripped up by a slow pace and no background music. Noah Berry, captain of an ocean liner, is suffering from near-psychotic episodes, so he is relieved of his command and replaced by Boothe Howard, a rather slimy fellow who competes with his first officer (Cornelius Keefe) for the affections of on-ship nurse Astrid Allwyn. This particular ocean trip is important because a new device, named S-505, is secretly being tested. If it works, ships can be controlled from hundreds of miles away via radio remote control. But we soon learn that there are two spies on board determined to steal the radio tube and replace it with a device that will scramble the radio signal. When the inventor is strangled, an investigator (Edwin Maxwell) comes on board to help sort things out. Among the suspects: a dotty but lively old lady, her gayish grandson, and a suspicious Germanic fellow. Complicating things is a report that Berry, the crazy captain (whose illness may have been brought on by a voodoo poisoning) escaped from the asylum and might be on board. All this sounds more interesting in summary than it is in action. The movie starts well, and does work up an exciting final sequence, but bogs down in between with lots of scenes of people entering rooms, talking at each other, and exiting rooms, in the usual Monogram fashion. Keefe and Allywn make a passable pair of central characters (to call them "heroes" would overstate their importance to the film's outcome); top-billed Beery has only two short scenes which he essentially sleepwalks through; reliable supporting pros Maxwell, Zeffie Tilbury (as the old lady) and Gustav von Seyffertitz (as the German) provide most of the acting interest. Based on a story by the prolific pulp writer Edgar Wallace. The print shown on TCM was that rare artifact: a pristine copy of a Monogram film. [TCM]

Thursday, November 03, 2011

THE COMEDIANS (1967)

A political/romantic melodrama set in Haiti during the reign of terror of President-for-Life "Papa Doc" Duvalier. As the times get tougher (a bad economy, a murderous secret police known as the Tonton Macoutes), hotel owner Richard Burton is looking to leave Haiti. The only thing he'll miss is his mistress, Elizabeth Taylor, the wife of a South American ambassador (Peter Ustinov). As Burton returns from New York on a failed attempt to sell his hotel, he runs into Alec Guinness, a boastful but rather comical figure who is trying to sell second-hand arms to the regime; unfortunately, his contact in the government has fallen out of favor and has been tossed in jail, so Guinness is, too. Also newly arrived is Paul Ford, a blustery American businessman trying to open a vegetarian health center in a new development called Duvalierville, and his wife (Lillian Gish) who is quiet but shows backbone when she needs to. These six characters interact with each other and with a handful of natives, including surgeon James Earl Jones and poet Georg Stanford Brown, both of whom have ties to a slowly developing resistance group, and who eventually come to think that Guinness, who's been freed from prison and who brags about his military experience in Burma, could lead their ragtag band in attacks on the Tonton Macoutes. Add to this some voodoo, a nighttime public execution to which children are invited, and lots of anguished kissing between Burton and Taylor, and you've got this mixed bag, based on a novel by Graham Greene.

This movie should have been better than it is. Some critics blame Burton and Taylor, who were pretty much at the peak of their allure as a celebrity couple, but the real problem is the preponderance of long, bloodless conversations—sometimes exposition, sometimes philosophy. There are action scenes here and there, and a startling killing during a medical operation, and much of the film (shot in the West African country of Benin) looks great, even though the dry, barren land is not especially inviting. This is really Burton's movie and he does a nice job as a passive, degraded man stuck in a rut who eventually wakes up and tries to change things. At one point, Burton is referred to as being like a defrocked priest, a nice reference to his role in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA; that Burton was all rage and impulse, but here, he's more like a sleepwalker until, like Bogart in CASABLANCA, he wakes up and decides to join the fight. Taylor's role isn’t very big, but she looks good. Ustinov doesn’t have much to do, but his presence is always welcome. Although it's the white characters we're supposed to care about, it's the black actors who make their characters more interesting. In addition to Jones and Brown, there is Roscoe Lee Browne as a reporter who flits through the film acting like a trip to Haiti is as pleasant as a trip to Disneyland. Raymond St. Jacques is effective as an officer in the secret police: he plays opposite Burton in the same way that Claude Rains did with Bogart in CASABLANCA, except he's a nasty piece of work with no redeeming qualities. Not a popcorn flick, but OK for literary types. [DVD]

Monday, October 31, 2011

BLACK NOON (1971)

The Reverend Keyes is a pioneer preacher heading through the old West with his wife on the way to a new post when they wind up stuck, sick and hungry in the middle of the desert after their covered wagon breaks down. Caleb and his beautiful but mute daughter Deliverance, from the nearby town of San Melas, come upon them and take them to town. While his wife recovers, Keyes hears about the town, founded by folks from New England, and their recent troubles: an outlaw named Moon has been extorting gold from the town's mine, and the church burned down, killing the preacher. Keyes delivers a sermon which gives the townspeople hope (and cures a young lame boy), and soon a new gold vein is discovered. Caleb says they will build a new church if Keyes will stay on; he seems willing, but his sickly wife isn't so sure. However, when Moon rides into town and tries to kidnap Deliverance, Keyes shoots the man dead. The townsfolk rejoice and Keyes is more inclined to stay, especially when Deliverance regains her voice and begins flirting with him. But he also has strange visions of a bloody, half-naked man, staring at him from the mirror. And why does his wife keep getting sicker? Could it have to do with the wax doll Deliverance keeps playing with? It seems like an evil force is loose in town—Voodoo? Devil worship?—but it may not be easy for Keyes to find it.

This is from the golden age of the spooky TV-movie (TRILOGY OF TERROR, CROWHAVEN FARM, THE NIGHT STALKER, and THE NORLISS TAPES are all from the early 70s) before Lifetime and Hallmark turned the genre into all sappy or snappy modern romances. I saw this when it first aired and never forgot it, especially the super-creepy jolt of the last scene, set in the present (the climactic shot itself doesn’t make sense, but go with it—it's cool anyway, and what made the movie stick in my head all these years). The cast is interesting: Roy Thinnes (above)is effective as the heroic but flawed and confused preacher; Ray Milland does a nice job as Caleb, the town elder; Yvette Mimeux is all old-West sex-kitten as Deliverance. Lyn Loring is rather drab as the preacher’s wife; Gloria Grahame doesn’t get much to do as her nurse, but it's fun to see her. Hank Worden, a supporting player in many Westerns, gives an eccentric performance as a sidekick of Caleb's, but given the oddness of the town, he fits right in. As far as I know, this film was never released for home video, but I found it posted on YouTube in what seems to be a transfer from video tape. It’s not the best quality, but it’s worth searching out until Sony decides to give it a proper DVD release. (YouTube)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), survivor of a shipwreck, is picked up by the Covena; he wires ahead to his lady friend Ruth that he'll be arriving soon at the ship's next port of call, but he gets on the bad side of the burly, drunken captain and is thrown off the ship at a small island where several crates of wild animals are being delivered. The island is inhabited by a strange looking tribe of natives—brutish and hairy, looking almost like humans that have devolved to an earlier state—and ruled by the rotund Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), a scientist who left England in disgrace over some questionable experiments. It doesn't take long for Parker to figure out that the "natives" are actually Moreau's experiments: animals, such as dogs, pigs, and wolves that have surgically been turned into (almost)-human beings. Moreau makes them abide by a law intended to keep them from reverting back to their animal states: do not kill, do not eat meat, do not run on all fours. He manages to control their behavior, but physically, as Moreau notes, the stubborn beast flesh keeps creeping back. Moreau decides to keep Parker on the island a while, making him part of an experiment, hoping he'll mate with his one female subject, Lota (pictured, presented in the credits as a "panther woman," though it's never said in the film what animal she originated as), but soon Ruth (Leila Hyams) arrives, and instead Moreau hopes that she can be paired up with one of his male subjects.

This film has a strong reputation, and with its themes of bestiality and playing God, was often censored during its initial theatrical runs, but modern viewers probably won't find this especially disturbing. Arlen is a wooden hero, Hyams is colorless, and even the great Laughton often seems uncertain what tone to take: sometimes he's gentlemanly, sometimes he's raving mad, and once, he's downright campy, jumping up on a table and leering at Arlen while he explains his theories. Bela Lugosi does a nice job with his small role as the wolfish lawkeeper—and Lugosi's refrain "Are we not men?" became the refrain of one of Devo's best known songs. The striking photography is a plus, and the make-up used to create the animal men is still quite impressive; the close-ups of these bizarre creatures can still create unease. The effective finale invokes the finale of FREAKS which came out earlier in the year (and also starred Hyams). The Criterion print has a few rough spots in the beginning, but mostly looks fine. [DVD]

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1968)
aka THE DEVIL'S BRIDE

The aristocratic Nicolas, now the Duc de Richleau, is meeting his younger friends Simon and Rex for a reunion, but when Simon doesn't show up, they grow concerned and head off to his house where a party seems to be in progress. Simon rather awkwardly tries to play off the situation, claiming that he's having a meeting of an astronomical society, but Nicolas soon realizes it's actually a coven of Satanists, led by the notorious Mocata, and Simon and the beautiful Tanith are about to be given a demonic baptism. They manage to wrest Simon away and get him to sleep with a crucifix around his neck for protection, though Mocata is able to exercise his will from miles away to have Simon nearly strangle himself with the crucifix. The next night, Nicolas and Rex watch a black mass at which the devil himself, in the form of a goat-man, materializes. Joined by Simon, the men take Tanith away to the home of Nicolas' niece and her husband, but even with a chalk-drawn magical protection ring, Mocata conjures up a gigantic spider to scare them, then spirits away the niece's little girl. The angel of death appears (a skeleton on horseback) and takes Tanith, and for the rest of the film the three men try to find the little girl and bring Tanith back from the land of the almost-dead.

Good devil-worship horror movies are hard to find. The best-known one is probably ROSEMARY’S BABY, which is very good but is more creepy suspense than horror. THE SEVENTH VICTIM, one of Val Lewton's well-regarded B-films, is really a grim and cerebral character study. THE BLACK CAT with Karloff and Lugosi is a good film but the Satanic element is fairly slim, relegated to the last few minutes. Some would count THE WICKER MAN but that's really more a pagan horror film. There is a very good TV-movie, BLACK NOON, which I'll be reviewing on Halloween, leaving this film as probably the best Satanic horror movie to date. It's based on one of the best occult novels ever, The Devil Rides Out by British author Dennis Wheatley. The book, which I read many years ago, is long and full of wild, occult incidents, and the movie necessarily condenses the storyline considerably. The budget for the effects can't do justice to the book, but there are still a number of good setpieces to be had here, including the apparition of a large black demon-djinn in Simon's observatory/ritual room, the attack of the spider, and the black mass/orgy. The acting is good, especially Christopher Lee who takes his role as the Duc de Richleau seriously. Beefy Leon Greene (as Rex) and the handsome Patrick Mower (as Simon, shown above, in a mirror, with Lee) provide good support, and Charles Gray (Rocky Horror's narrator) looks the part of the sinister Mocata, though he doesn't get to do much except glower at people. If you like blood-and-thunder occult melodrama, this is one of the best (and try to find the book). [TCM]

Friday, October 28, 2011

THE BLACK ROOM (1935)

The Berghman family lives under a terrible curse: when the male children are twins, the older one--the one delivered first--will be killed by the younger one in a gloomy onyx-walled place in the mansion known as the Black Room. When Frederick has twins, Gregor and Anton, he tries to defy the prophecy by sending Anton, the younger one, away to be raised elsewhere, and by walling up the Black Room. Forty years later, Gregor has become a hated figure by the townspeople: he is a shaggy, dissolute fellow who is suspected of luring wives and daughters from the village into his castle, from which they are never seen again. When an uprising seems near, Gregor sends for the kindly Anton, crippled from birth by a paralyzed arm, for help. Gregor says he intends to go traveling and hand over the title of Baron and all his lands to Anton. Actually, Gregor has found a secret passageway through a fireplace into the Black Room; a pit in the middle of the room is where he dumps the bodies of his female victims, and after he lures Anton in, Gregor throws him in the pit to his death--so there's no way the prophecy can come true, right? Gregor than impersonates Anton, mild manner, paralyzed arm, and all, and plans to marry the lovely Thea. However, a certain young lieutenant who is sweet on Thea may have something to say about that, as might a certain large hound that belonged to Anton and who can tell that something's not right.

Though packaged in an "Icons of Horror" DVD set, this film isn't really horror as much as a period-piece Gothic melodrama, but it's a little gem anyway for at least two reasons. One is the look of the movie; Columbia, a small B-ish studio at the time, seems to have gone all out on the costumes and sets, though it looks like it might have been shot over at Universal, as the grand sets resemble those used in the 30s Frankenstein films, and the director, Roy William Neill adds some stylish camera moves here and there. The other big plus is Boris Karloff (pictured in both roles) who delivers one of his best performances in the dual role, and as some critics have pointed out, he practically plays a third role, that of the evil brother masquerading as the good brother. Marian Marsh and Robert Allan are adequate as Thea and her protector, but Katherine DeMille (Cecil's daughter) steals a scene as Gregor's saucy gypsy lover who meets a bad end in the Black Room pit. An enjoyable thriller. [DVD]