Monday, February 28, 2011


A fairly routine WWII thriller about Underground operations in Norway. Merle Oberon is a Norwegian woman who is shunned by the locals for her intimate relationship with a Nazi major (Carl Esmond), but what they don't know is that she is an important informant for the Underground; when Esmond lets slip some secret plans to her, she passes them along to an eye doctor (Fritz Leiber) who passes them along to the Allies. Soon, the Nazis realize there is a security leak somewhere and British spy Brian Aherne sneaks into Norway to pull off a raid and kill Esmond before he can figure out the truth about Oberon. However, when he and his buddy (Erik Rolf) are betrayed by a local, Rolf is killed and a wounded Aherne is captured. After Oberon helps him escape from the hospital, Esmond's superiors become suspicious of her; to allay their fears, Esmond proposes marriage to Oberon. He also, as a test, leaks false information to her, and when it becomes clear that she has indeed passed that info on, Esmond doesn't tell anyone else, but instead makes sinister plans for their wedding night. This isn't a bad movie, but not a very exciting one until the last 15 minutes or so when it becomes a cat-and-mouse game between our three leads. Oberon is lovely but only so-so in the acting department; Aherne is better, though at times it seems like he's shooting for a Cary Grant impersonation. Erville Alderson, Oberon's faithful butler, was Gladys Cooper's butler in THE BISHOP'S WIFE. This was the last film of director Dorothy Arzner (CRAIG'S WIFE). [TCM]

Sunday, February 27, 2011

MIRAGE (1965)

This film begins with a stunning shot of the New York City skyline during the late afternoon as all the lights go out in a skyscraper. Inside, the secretaries and businessmen are planning a groping get-together (what they call a Braille party) in one of the dark offices, but a confused-looking Gregory Peck is just trying to get to ground level. In the stairwell, he helps a young woman (Diane Baker) who claims to know him, but when he doesn't recognize her, she bolts away into the sub-basement. Peck follows but loses her. Out on the streets, there is a commotion: just before the lights went out, an executive (Walter Abel) jumped from the 27th floor, though Peck doesn't know who he was. At Peck's apartment, he is approached at gunpoint by Jack Weston who keeps saying that the Major wants to see him. Peck, not knowing who the Major is, beats him up and throws him out, but soon comes to realize that he seems to have amnesia, and not your garden-variety kind: he can't remember what he's been doing for the last two years. The police won't listen to him, and neither will a psychiatrist, who says such amnesia is impossible. When Peck goes back to work, he finds there is no sub-basement, and the office he assumes he's been using doesn't exist. He hires a somewhat shabby but honest private eye (Walter Matthau), then runs into Baker again, who says she was once his lover. When more thugs (including George Kennedy) wind up on his trail, bits of memory flashes start coming back, including the fact that he may have been in Abel's office moments before he jumped from the window. Could Baker hold the key to this mystery? Or perhaps the key is a strange key ring that says, "The Future Is Now."

This black & white movie is one of the earliest of the "trust nobody" paranoid thrillers (along with NORTH BY NORTHWEST and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE). The plot is tricky but easy to follow and the actors are mostly first-rate, though Baker seems a little out of her league. Peck is more animated than he was usually called upon to be. Matthau provides some mild comic relief for a while, though his exit from the film is dead serious. Kevin McCarthy is Peck's boss, and Leif Erickson is the mysterious Major. I enjoyed seeing the old pro Walter Abel in a handful of flashback scenes. Hari Rhodes, whom I remember as the sidekick on the TV series Daktari, has a good scene as a NYC cop. All the strands come together nicely, though the climax itself is a little weak. The widescreen film looks great on DVD; highly recommended. [DVD]

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Average pre-Code gold-digger melodrama of three girls, only two of whom are really "wise" in any way, and their romantic adventures in the big city. Jean Harlow is a soda jerk in the small town of Chillicothe, Ohio (or so I assume since she works at the Chillicothe Drug Store) who lives with, and even sleeps in the same bed with, her mother; she gets the itch to go to New York City where her friend (Mae Clarke) is having a high old time as a fashion model and kept woman to a rich and unhappily married man whose wife won't give him a divorce. Soon Harlow has a roommate (Marie Prevost as the plain-looking comic-relief gal) and a job modeling with Clarke. She also quickly acquires a rich lover (Walter Byron) who, she is devastated to find out, is married to a wife who won't give him a divorce. By the end, Clarke's lover leaves her high and dry and suicidal, Harlow's lover finally gets a divorce--and follows her back to Chillicothe to make an honest woman out of her, and Prevost settles down with Byron's oafish chauffeur (Andy Devine). These moral lessons for innocent girls trying to make their way in the big city were apparently quite popular back in their day; in plot, acting, and production style, this is no different from any similar movie. Harlow hadn't quite hit her stride--though she would later that year in RED DUST with Clark Gable; here, she's attractive but not compelling, and her performance feels rather tentative. Clarke (the Baron's wife in the Karloff FRANKENSTEIN), though she has less sex appeal, upstages her, partly because she plays a slightly more interesting character. Prevost does the drab roomie bit well, Byron is stodgy and not especially attractive, and there just isn’t anything more to say about this film. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


The title of this movie and its star, May Robson, may have led folks to believe that it was a sequel to Frank Capra's hit LADY FOR A DAY, a cute sentimental comedy based on a Damon Runyon story about a poor and elderly apple seller who is turned into a grand lady by her buddies on the streets in order to impress her visiting daughter. But this movie doesn't have Capra or the wit and charm of the earlier film. Here, the homeless Robson is arrested for bar brawling and "sentenced" to an old ladies home. Weeks later, as a Mother's Day stunt, notorious fan dancer Carole Lombard is prodded by her manager (Arthur Hohl) to adopt a mother for publicity, and she picks Robson. After a tentative start, Robson is soon acting like a real mother for Lombard, getting rid of her manager for swindling her out of money, counseling her to take singing and acting lessons, and sharing her gambling winnings. Soon, however, Lombard, frustrated by her lack of a career future, goes after rich lawyer Roger Pryor, who has been Robson's caretaker. It turns out that Robson was the love of Pryor's father's life. Because Robson assumes Lombard is just being a gold digger, she tries to stop the arrangement, and there are more complications before the predictable happy ending. After a good first half-hour setting up the characters, the movie bogs down in melodrama and acting problems--overacting on the part of the women and lackluster acting on the part of the men, the one exception being Walter Connolly as a judge who keeps running into Robson in his court. This winds up far from Capra and Runyon territory, to its detriment. [TCM]

Sunday, February 20, 2011


This is a small-scale British "Grand Hotel"-type movie which follows the adventures of a handful of people whose paths cross over an August "bank holiday" at a beach resort in Bexborough. The film begins with sidewalk headlines about revolution and war shadows replaced with more joyful news about weather reports for the upcoming holiday. First we meet Catherine, a young nurse who bonds with a man named Stephen when his wife dies in childbirth. She is scheduled to go off to the resort with her boyfriend Geoff--where they may or may not have sex for the first time--but she clearly would rather stay and help Stephen in his grief. Still, she goes off with Geoff (who keeps seeing posters for a play called "Sinners" wherever he goes) though it's obvious she's thinking about Stephen. The second story concerns Doreen, a small-town beauty queen who travels to the resort to compete in a Miss England contest where she and her friend Milly keep running into the more polished and glamorous Miss Mayfair. The third batch of characters is the working-class family of Arthur and May and their three unruly kids; the most stereotypical of the film's characters, May is burdened with the children while Arthur keeps sneaking away for a drink. The first night, the hotels are full up and everyone except Doreen winds up sleeping on the beach. The next day, they all get rooms at the Grand Hotel and the melodramatics kick into high gear when Catherine rebuffs Geoff's attempts at seduction, then leaves the hotel to go back to the city because she's sure that Stephen in at the brink of suicide (which he is--we periodically see Stephen drifting aimlessly through the weekend, having flashbacks to happier days with his late wife). Doreen winds up comforting Geoff, and Catherine gets a ride with a crook who is stopped on suspicion of theft. Will she be in time to save Stephen from himself? Will Doreen win the beauty contest? Will Arthur get his comeuppance from May?

This comedy-drama from director Carol Reed is mostly enjoyable, if predictable. The lovely Margaret Lockwood is fine and gets the most screen time as Catherine, though Rene Ray (as Doreen) and Kathleen Harrison (as May) are just as good, and Mere Tottenham makes the most of her comic-relief sidekick character of Milly. John Lodge, who plays Stephen, gave up acting for politics, was governor of Connecticut and later served as ambassador to Spain and Argentina. Ultimately, Hugh Williams as Geoff (pictured above with Lockwood) may be the most sympathetic character; even though (gasp!) he wants premarital sex, he's not painted as a bad person, although a little more insight into his background would be a plus. The juxtapositioning of the stories works out nicely, and I was amused by the two off-duty soldiers who keep cropping up in scenes; they're not important to the narrative, but they deliver a nice punch line at the end. The nighttime beach scene is particularly effective. American title: THREE ON A WEEKEND. [TCM]

Saturday, February 19, 2011


In this serial set in an unnamed jungle country (probably in South America), the Tiger Woman is a white-goddess figure and benevolent ruler to her tribe, who co-exist peacefully with the "civilized" community of Belleville nearby. The Inter Ocean Oil Company, represented by Allen Saunders, is about to lose its lease on some tribe-controlled land and bad guys from a rival oil company are about to swoop in. They know something that Saunders doesn't: Tiger Woman is actually Rita Arnold, an heiress to millions; she and her father were lost in a plane crash years ago--the father died but the daughter was raised by the tribe, and the proof of her identity is sealed inside a sacred urn kept by the tribe elder. The baddies (led by Morgan and Dagget) want to find the proof, dispose of the Tiger Woman, and have someone pose as Arnold to claim her fortune for them. Over the course of 12 chapters, Saunders, his sidekick Jose, and the Tiger Woman battle numerous efforts by Morgan and Dagget to accomplish their evil schemes.

I concluded a few years ago that, although I love the idea of serial adventure movies, in practice, they just don't hold up today for me. One exception is DRUMS OF FU MANCHU; this is another. The formula here is a bit numbing: each 15-minute chapter involves the heroes getting out of the last cliffhanger, some conversations among the bad guys about what to do next, a sudden shootout or fistfight scene, some more exposition, and another action scene leading to the cliffhanger. They certainly cram lots of action in. Chapter 1 opens with one minute of speedily-delivered exposition followed immediately by an action scene. In Chapter 6 alone (Dungeon of the Doomed), there is an out-of-control mine elevator, an ambush in a bar, the hijacking of a truck, a shootout in a cave, and a roaring oil fire inside said cave. There are lots of other interesting action scenes which play out nicely and help push this serial a notch above most. Early on, we see a tribal ritual in which someone is dangled over a lava pit while a young totsy does a sexy dance before the victim gets dropped to his death. In the Cathedral of the Sky God, some villains are killed by their own weapons: weakened stalactites which fall from a cave ceiling. A speedboat crashes spectacularly into a riverboat. Shacks explode. Many vehicles go barreling over cliffs and waterfalls. One fistfight is set in the back of a speeding truck; yes, the actors are obviously fighting in front of rear-projection footage of the road, but it's still effective. As for acting, the less said the better. Allan Lane, better known as "Rocky" Lane in a series of 40s westerns, makes a good hero and Duncan Renaldo (the Cisco Kid on TV) is the faithful sidekick. The bad guys who parade across the screen are interchangeable and unmemorable (and an unusually large number of them actually get killed in gunfights). Linda Stirling makes for a glamorous Tiger Woman, but she can't really act to save her life. No matter; with all these fights and deaths and cliffhangers (and some fairly good sets and matte painting backgrounds), who needs acting? [DVD]

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I thought for a few minutes that this was a WWII film, but it's actually set in the late 50's during what's known as the Cyprus Emergency (in which the British fought Cypriot guerrillas). Private Potter (Tom Courtenay), part of a nighttime expedition, screams out loud and freezes up, giving away his group's position and leading to the death of a soldier. He is thrown into solitary confinement and threatened with court-martial, and claims he acted the way he did because God appeared to him in a vision and he was startled. No one quite believes him, but no one really seems to be terribly angry with him, either. Based on a TV play, the bulk of the film consists of people debating his situation--Is he mad? Is he a religious visionary? Is he a coward?--and ultimately coming to no solid conclusion. There is a parallel story involving a local who was working against the British and is caught, but it goes nowhere as well. Toward the end, Potter escapes during a rainstorm, goes into a stream, strips naked, and is eventually found and brought back--I assumed a "holy fool" hypothesis was about to be argued, but it isn't. If anything, the evidence of the film, which ends ambiguously, suggests that Potter is indeed a nut case, and by extension, so is everyone who claims visions of God, from St. Francis to Bernadette of Lourdes. But I might be letting my own beliefs (or lack of them) color my view. Courtenay is not compelling, befitting the overall effect of the movie which wants to be profound but is not. Later movies with similar themes, from KING OF HEARTS to BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON to AGNES OF GOD, work much better; maybe this one was trying to be ahead of its time, but it stumbled badly. [TCM]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Reporter Elliot Reid is on a fishing vacation in Minnesota when he's caught in a storm and cuts his head on a rock. He makes it into the small town of Winnoga but is turned away from a gated compound called the Lodge. The town doctor sees to his injury and he learns the story of the town; just after the war, a virus destroyed all the fish in the lake, driving away industry and tourists. Reid takes a room at the local inn and decides to stay and write about the town, but soon discovers he's not welcome, with even the innkeeper (Raymond Burr, pictured with other town toughs) trying to get him to leave. There's a secret at the Lodge and, with the help of the doc's daughter (Carla Balenda), he is determined to discover it. Turns out the ghost town is actually a front for a Commie community; a Nazi scientist (Otto Waldis) who had done work on germ warfare has turned Communist and lives at the Lodge where he and his conspirators (most of the remaining townsfolk) are engaging in inhumane experiments to perfect weapons of terror they plan to unleash in the water systems of major cities.

This B-thriller is a nice variation on the "Body Snatcher" themes of paranoia and dark conspiracy, with the folksy small-towners unmasked as cold-blooded Communists. Here, it turns out that the fish virus was deliberately set loose in the lake by Waldis in order to empty the town and give him free rein. The doctor, like a handful of others, is apparently helping them because he sees no other way out. A grocer who helps Reid get a message out to his newspaper when it becomes clear that Waldis and Burr want to keep him prisoner gets killed, and the climax has Reid and Balenda in mortal danger, though with the Feds alerted, we know nothing too bad will happen to them. [TCM]

Friday, February 11, 2011


In this romantic melodrama set at the height of the Depression, Loretta Young is a starving young woman whom we first meet on a big city park bench. Spencer Tracy, in a tux and feeding pigeons, offers to take her to dinner, which he does, but at the end of the meal, she finds out that he's as broke as she is (he's wearing the tux as part of an advertising gimmick for which he gets paid a few bucks). He talks the restaurant manager into not calling the cops and takes her to the shantytown where he lives, and they quickly shack up together. He's a blustery guy, rather rough around the edges, and she's sweet and innocent, but despite his having a little affair on the side with showgirl Glenda Farrell, they clearly care for each other and make their bumpy relationship work. When she gets pregnant, he gets scared off briefly but returns and has a homeless preacher (Walter Connelly) marry them. However, the urge for going gets strong again, and he gets involved in a robbery scheme so he can leave Young some money. Of course, things don't go smoothly, though, since this is a pre-Code film, the ending is not as predictable as you might think. Tracy and Young are the focus of the film and they're both fine (in other hands, Tracy's character might be quite hard to take as a "good guy"), but equally good are Connelly as the sympathetic Bible-thumper, Arthur Hohl as a nasty little shit, and Marjorie Rambeau as a tough old boozy gal who plays in important role in the climax of the film. A memorable line: a person whips out a gun and says, "This ain't murder, it's housecleaning!" I'm not really a big fan of Tracy's but this is worth seeing. [TCM]

Monday, February 07, 2011


In the village of Salem in 1692, Claudette Colbert is a young woman of marrying age who seems fated to be matched up with the Ichabod Crane-like Sterling Holloway; she is told it is her "duty to marry and have children to the glory of God and the colony." However, she is a free spirit who dances by herself and dares to wear frivolous hats to church and doesn’t think much of the stuffy Holloway. Fred MacMurray (surprisingly scruffy and hunky) is a tax resister who has escaped from jail in Virginia and is hiding out with his uncle; he and Colbert meet, get together on the sly, and fall in love. Meanwhile, bored teenager Bonita Granville hears stories of girls getting the attention of none other than Cotton Mather by claiming to be bewitched, and the slave Tituba attracts an audience with stories of witchcraft and magic potions (even the respected wife and mother Beulah Bondi, in a weak moment, admits she'd like to live a little and attend a Devil's Feast). When someone stirs up the townsfolk with news of witchcraft in a nearby village, Granville starts faking convulsions, claiming she's being attacked by demons conjured up by local witches. Other girls get in on the act and soon the town is in a frenzy of dark accusations, with suspected witches jailed and hanged; as a title card puts it, "Old grudges are paid with the fatal charge of witchcraft." Colbert, accused of consorting with a dark, mysterious man, is left alone to face charges of sorcery when MacMurray is arrested and hauled back to Virginia.

Given the drama (political, religious, personal, and historical) inherent in the subject of the Salem witch trials, it seems odd that Hollywood hasn’t done much with this dark time in our past. Aside from versions of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, no other films come to mind. This one just barely begins to scratch the surface of the topic, but for its time (the Hollywood doldrums of the mid-30's) and style (artificial studio sets, middle-of-the-road stars, journeyman director), this is a fairly good first stab at filming the story. Colbert does a nice job early in the film, seems to lack energy in the middle, but rises to the occasion during her climactic courtroom scene; MacMurray is fine, though the plot contrivance of his arrest leaves him absent for crucial sections near the end (suffice it to say that the studios would never leave Colbert to burn, so through more plot contrivances, she's saved at the end). The supporting cast is uniformly fine, especially Granville and Bondi (at left), who makes the most of her handful of scenes. Madame Sul-Te-Wan doesn't get as much screen time as she should as Tituba, who along with Granville is at the center of the mess. Gale Sondergaard, Harvey Stephens, Virginia Weidler, and Halliwell Hobbes also do good work. [DVD]

Saturday, February 05, 2011


Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper) is a moody young sailor at liberty staying at the Santa Monica boardwalk who goes to a moody beatnik bar called The Blue Lagoon and meets Mora (Linda Lawson), a moody young woman who works as a mermaid at a boardwalk attraction and lives above the carousel. They both seem like lonely, vulnerable people and begin to bond. Then Johnny finds out about her background: her boss and guardian, Captain Murdock, says that she is descended from a race of siren-type sea people; Mora's two previous boyfriends disappeared and were later found drowned; a mysterious woman pops up now and then who seems to have a strange power over Mora; and, oh yeah, Mora thinks she's actually a mermaid and occasionally goes walking in a trance out to the ocean because she's being called from the depths. Of course, their relationship is doomed, but is it doomed because these people are neurotics, or because Mora really is an unearthly creature?

This moody (sorry, but that's the best word) fantasy/melodrama is often compared to the 40s movies of Val Lewton, I'm guessing because of the gloomy look and the brooding characters (I found a couple of synonyms for "moody"). Make no mistake, the director, Curtis Harrington (whose career peaked a few years later with the tricky thriller GAMES), is no Val Lewton; if anything, this movie, perhaps because of its watery setting and feeling of doomed predestination, reminded me more of CARNIVAL OF SOULS than of CAT PEOPLE. If you only know Hopper from Easy Rider or Blue Velvet, you'll be surprised how handsome and almost delicate he is here; he's very good as the nice-guy sailor with just a touch of loner-oddness about him--he is Dennis Hopper, after all. Lawson is weaker, but her role is so strange that her performance almost fits. Cult star Luana Anders has a relatively small part. The score jarringly breaks the mood at times. There is a nice dream sequence involving mermaids and octopuses, and indeed the best sections of the film are the ones that feel dreamy--the more rational parts bring the film down a bit. Worth seeing, especially widescreen. [DVD]

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


During WWI, British Naval officer Michael Rennie, on a five-day leave, meets a young woman (Wendy Hiller) on a train. They hit it off and spend the five days together at a village hotel as man and wife. He proposes marriage, but she tells him that, since they barely know each other and he'll be heading off to sea for an extended time, a marriage would be impractical, so they part. The story picks up in 1940; Rennie is a captain commanding a Navy cruiser which is part of a convoy going after a notoriously deadly German ship called the Essen. Another ship in the convoy, the Amesbury, winds up engaging the enemy; the Essen sinks the Amesbury, and the German ship picks up the only two survivors: a petty officer (Bernard Lee) who has lost a leg and a young signalman (Jeffrey Hunter) who grew up with in Canada with a single mother who trained him from a young age in all things naval. When the ship pulls into an island lagoon for repairs, Hunter arms himself, escapes into the hills of the island, and becomes a sniper, injuring and killing many of the German sailors who are trying to make the repairs. Hunter hopes to keep the ship in the lagoon long enough for another ship from the British convoy to arrive, but the Germans soon catch on and send their own men out to find him.

[Spoilers ahead!] What would be an average wartime thriller is complicated by an interesting plot twist which is telegraphed so subtly, I almost missed it. Hunter is the son of Wendy Hiller, and most likely Rennie is his father. Hunter's sniping trick works and the British capture the entire Essen crew. In the final scene, when both Rennie and Hunter are being rewarded by the Navy for their efforts, the two men meet, though they remain unaware of their actual relationship. In an alternate ending on the DVD, which is apparently truer to the original story by C.S. Forester, Hunter's trick still works, but he dies on the island. Rennie meets Hiller when she arrives to receive her son's posthumous medal and they have a touching reunion. This film feels a bit padded out; it would make a better hour-long TV show. But the acting is good, the sniping sequence is tense and well-played, and best of all, the beautiful Hunter is shirtless (and sweaty in that clean Hollywood way) for much of the last half of the movie. Both endings are interesting and both work well, though to different effects. The meeting with Hiller is underwritten, so I think I prefer the ending in which Hunter survives but Rennie remains in the dark. [DVD]