Thursday, March 31, 2011


Average B-mystery set in a fog-bound studio version of London. Reporter George Murphy is ready to go on a Paris vacation, but gets tangled up in a strange case in which men are being threatened with blackmail, violently kidnapped, and apparently murdered, though their bodies are never found. The villain, who is a master of disguises, is dubbed "The Umbrella Man" by the press, and a couple of folks who do manage to see his real face wind up dead. Of course, the killer must be someone we know: is it Sir Arthur (Montagu Love), the man whose house seems to be the center for all the nefarious activity? Or his lovely daughter (Rita Johnson), whom Murphy falls for? Or Sir Arthur's butler, who seems to always have an umbrella? Or Sir Arthur's sickly secretary (Leo G. Carroll)? Or the mysterious man they call "Mr. Rabbit"? If you know your character actors well, and pay attention to the cast list, you'll figure out fairly early on who the bad guy is, but that doesn't spoil the mild fun to had along the way. Murphy is a bland leading man (and he's constantly slipping in and out of an Irish accent) and Johnson is even blander, but the rest of the cast is fine, especially Eddie Quillan and Virginia Field as a squabbling pair of lovers who wind up playing important roles in the case, and the always excellent George Zucco as the police inspector. [TCM]

Monday, March 28, 2011


This is probably one of the first antiwar movies of the sound era, along with 1930's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, though perhaps because this is a French film, it has not gotten nearly the acclaim that the earlier Hollywood film has. Set in WWI, it follows Gilbert, a young soldier (Pierre Blanchar), as he becomes a member of a war-weary squadron; he is introduced to the men in a casual, almost light-hearted sequence, though their partying stops cold when a string of dead soldiers is carried by. The beautifully and creatively shot film alternates between showing the tedious waiting around for something to happen, the short skirmishes that can occur suddenly, and the longer battles that always result in the death of one or more of the men. The narrative arc isn't as important as the individual episodes (worrying about the Germans digging and planting mines right underneath the French encampments, awareness of the irony of defending a graveyard, and making it through a ten-day siege) or even individual moments: the singing of the Ave Maria over the moaning of injured and dying men in a church being used as a makeshift hospital; a mortally wounded man cursing his philandering wife, then changing his mind with his final breaths; a dying man in the middle of a battleground no-man's-land pitifully screaming for water. In the end, there is only the promise of death and ever more wooden crosses sprouting from the ground. The director, Raymond Bernard, only made a handful of sound films, but this one deserves its rediscovery as a classic (available as part of a set from Criterion's Eclipse label). Some of the battle scenes were used in John Ford's THE WORLD MOVES ON. [DVD]

Friday, March 25, 2011


As D-Day approaches, British Intelligence is trying to find a way to throw the Germans off the scent of the real plan--to invade along the northern coast of France--or to at least confuse them. One night, Major Harvey (John Mills) sees an Australian actor, M.E Clifton-James, impersonate Field Marshall Montgomery and gets a brilliant idea: hire the actor to impersonate Montgomery for real and have him take a tour of the British troops in North Africa, make sure the German spies know he’s there, and hope they’ll get the Nazis thinking that the invasion might come from the south instead. Harvey and his commanding officer (Cecil Parker) take the mild-mannered Clifton-James, try to toughen him up a bit, and have him spend some time observing Montgomery. Despite a few bumpy moments, the German spy (Marius Goring) bites and the ruse works; in fact, it works so well that the Nazis try to kidnap the actor, thinking he’s Montgomery.

This is mostly based on fact. Clifton-James, the actor who pulled it off, plays himself here (albeit almost fifteen years older) and gives a nicely understated performance. The first half lacks action but is nevertheless compelling as we see the plan hatched, developed, and put into place. The movie should end with the actor’s final major speech to the troops, but the filmmakers, apparently thinking some further tension was needed, added a totally fictional component, the kidnapping attempt, and it doesn’t really fit, playing out like an anti-climactic epilogue tacked on to flesh out the running time. Mills (pictured above, with Clifton-James on the left) actually bears the brunt of the acting burden and he’s quite good, as is Parker. The only other actor to make an impression, besides Goring (giving a nicely slimy performance, practically a cameo, as the spy), is Michael Hordern as the Governor of Gibraltar; he had a long career as a character actor, and may be most recognized as Marley in the Alistair Sim CHRISTMAS CAROL. It comes off almost as a TV movie, but it’s mostly quite enjoyable. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Lola Montès, the infamous dancer and courtesan (Martine Carol), has been reduced to performing in a circus, albeit as the star attraction; the entire show is built around her life, as narrated partly by herself but mostly by a ubiquitous ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) and acted out in dance and tableaux vivants by the circus company. We see one evening's performance, from on stage and off, alternating with the details of her life presented through Lola's own flashbacks. As a young girl, she is pimped by her own mother, though she ends up marrying a handsome young soldier--whom, if I'm not mistaken, her mother had been sleeping with. He (Ivan Desny) turns out to be a lout and she leaves him, becoming a ballerina. Dancing across Europe, she creates scandals: smoking cigars in public, taking lovers everywhere (including Franz Liszt), and being unafraid to make a scene when she feels wronged--as when she jumps off the stage and dresses down her married lover, in front of his wife. She settles down as mistress to King Ludwig of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook) but when she begins ostentatiously throwing her influence around, revolutionaries whip up some outrage against her and she is expelled from the country, winding up in this traveling circus. Throughout the movie, we have seen that, though she is still relatively young, she is in ill health, and her doctor warns her not to take her final high dive during her climactic trapeze act. Will she go through with it anyway? Will she live to meet her adoring public after the show?

Rarely do I watch a movie without having a pretty good idea of what I'm getting into. I've usually heard of the film and know something about its reputation or its cast or director, and often I read some reviews beforehand; at the very least, I look at the capsule reviews of Halliwell and Maltin. This one I came too with very little knowledge. I've seen a couple of movies by its director Max Ophüls but I have read very little about him, and all I knew to expect was a lush look and a restless camera. Though in its day, this was considered a disappointment (largely due to the disjointed narrative and what is perceived as a lackluster performance by Martine Carol), I enjoyed it quite a bit. The phrase "visually ravishing" was made to describe a film like this; Ophüls' use of rich colors, finely detailed sets and costumes, elaborate camera movements, and the widescreen make this a visual delight. Carol is not the most expressive actor here, but I suspect Ophüls intended that to be the case; though we see most of her story through her own eyes, we never really get to know her or what motivates her. Indeed, the film really seems to be about not Lola, but the media "circus" that surrounds her, and the ways in which public lives are "narrated" by and within the larger culture. I was frequently reminded, by theme or camera shot or use of fractured narrative, of later films like CABARET, ALL THAT JAZZ, CHICAGO, and MOULIN ROUGE--even though this film is not a musical. Ustinov, who like the rest of the international cast, speaks French, and Walbrook are excellent. The Criterion disc, which restores the original uncut version, is sparklingly clear and gorgeous. Highly recommended. [DVD]

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Nurse Margaret Lockwood is on the verge of leaving her employer, a spiteful invalid (Irene Handl), but when the old lady promises to reform, Lockwood agrees to stay. Handl then promptly swipes the key to the medicine cabinet, takes too many sleeping pills, and dies of an accidental overdose. Lockwood is charged with murder and lawyer Barry K. Barnes gets her off, since all the evidence against her is circumstantial, but even he isn’t sure that she was really innocent. Lockwood has a hard time getting another nursing job, but when she is sent, anonymously, a help wanted ad for a nurse for another invalid, she changes her name and gets the job. Unfortunately, the same thing happens to her new patient, and Barnes, who by now believes in her innocence, agrees to defend her again. The acting and plotting here are fine, but there is almost no suspense; the film begins as though it's going to be a mystery, but it turns into a courtroom drama, and a slowly-paced, predictable one at that. Because we know that Lockwood is in fact innocent of both crimes, and we know who's behind the death of the second invalid, it's just a matter of waiting to see how Barnes will get her off in court; when he does, it's with a clever trick that was set up early--watch for the short seemingly unimportant scene in the barber shop. Barnes, who had a very short career in the movies, makes a perfectly pleasant leading man, reminding me a bit of Griffin Jones. Familiar faces who turn up in include Roger Livesay (as Barnes' roommate), Emlyn Williams, Basil Radford, Mervyn Johns, and Kathleen Harrison. On DVD as part of VCI’s British Cinema: Classic "B" Film Collection, Volume 1. [DVD]

Friday, March 18, 2011


Ricardo Cortez is a Shakespearean actor living in an apartment building in Vienna. He is talented and famous, but also has a reputation as quite a ladies man, and when he flirts with the rich (and married) Verree Teasdale who lives upstairs, she asks the landlord to kick him out of the building. The landlord cannot oblige, so Teasdale, her husband (Lionel Atwill) and her daughter (Anita Louise) make plans to move. Before they can leave, however, someone murders Cortez. Was it Teasdale, who, despite her supposed antipathy toward Cortez, may have been visiting him regularly? Was it Atwill, defending his wife’s honor? Maybe Louise, a sweet young thing who might have been tempted by Cortez playing a recording of Stravinsky’s hot-blooded “Firebird,” music that Teasdale calls “savage”? The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, though the ending is predictable. Dorothy Tree has a couple of nice scenes as Cortez’s ex-wife, a red herring suspect. The movie was shot in the round, so to speak; all four corners of the screen are rounded off. A must-see for Cortez fans. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The Grahames are a middle-class couple trying to hang on to their status which is beginning to slip: even though they have a nanny for their young son, and have just hired a live-in handyman (John Mills), the mother (Valerie Hobson) has been spending beyond her means and the father (Hugh Sinclair) has been losing at gambling. Hobson's brother (Ronald Squire) covers a bad check written by Sinclair, but soon Sinclair loses his job and the couple are in danger of losing their home. Their ignored son (John Howard Davies) bonds with Mills, who likes to place an occasional bet at the horse races. Davies is aware of the family's money troubles--he is haunted by the house itself when he keeps hearing echoes of his mother’s cry, "There must be more money!"--and soon discovers that, if he rides his nursery-room rocking horse hard and fast enough, the names of race horses come to him, and the next day, they always win. He and Mills start betting and winning, with Davies saving up his take to give to his mother, thinking that will win back her loving attentions. Soon, Squire gets in on the plan and Hobson is rolling in dough again, having been told that it's money from an inheritance. But of course, her spendthrift ways don't stop, Davies doesn't get the love he craves, and the horse names stop coming, despite the fact that the boy takes to riding the horse so often and so single-mindedly that he becomes haggard and weak. One last prediction finally comes through, but at a high cost for the family.

This is based on a short story by D.H. Lawrence, and though it's very well done, it does sometimes feel like it would have worked better as a shorter Twilight Zone episode. Davies, who was 11 years old at the time, does a good job carrying the movie, looking appropriately obsessed and drained during his riding bouts. Hobson is fine, though I think she underplays her part when perhaps a bit more melodrama might be called for. Best of all is John Mills as the handyman--he's really the only fleshed-out sympathetic character and he pulls off his part in a strong but not flashy way; he's become one of my favorite character actors. Much has been made of the Oedipal undertones here; really, "undertones" isn't quite the right word, what with the almost shockingly clear masturbatory qualities of the boy’s sweaty, intense, almost half-naked riding scenes. The atmospheric cinematography adds greatly to the mood of growing unease. BTW, Davies went on to produce and direct episodes of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. [TCM; available on DVD]

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Egypt, 1249. The town of Halwan, supposedly ruled by Prince Salim, is actually being run by a shadow ruler, the Shaman, who keeps Salim drugged and is in cahoots with the warlord Rama Kahn (Michael Rennie) who arrives theoretically to protect Salim but really to plunder the town with his troops. Also new in town, fresh from a victory against invading hordes, is the handsome Prince Haidi (Jeffrey Hunter), son of the Caliph of Bagdad. When the people rebel against Kahn's parading troops, Haidi's friend Hussein is killed as a scapegoat and Haidi stays in town to catch the guilty party, Kahn himself. Also in the mix are two beautiful women: the dancing girl Taura who shakes her moneymaker at an Arabian-Nights equivalent of a nightclub, and the Princess Shalimar who is kept a virtual prisoner in the castle by the Shaman. However, it turns out that the two are one (Debra Paget): Shalimar leaves the castle each night by a secret passage and becomes Taura, not only a sexy dancer but also a resistance fighter against Kahn. There is more plot and incident, including the threat of a forced marriage between Shalimar and Kahn in order to save the town, but the reasons for watching this film are the Technicolor, the elaborate sets, the fisticuffs--including a well-staged swordfight between Haidi and Kahn's men--and the lovely leads Chandler and Paget. They're not called upon to do great acting, but they fit the bill for solid B-adventure-movie performers. Rennie makes a fine villain, Michael Ansara plays his second-in-command, and Wally Cassell is comic relief as Haidi's sidekick. Enjoyable for a simplistic exotic adventure movie of its era. [FMC]

Friday, March 11, 2011


The story of jazz drummer Gene Krupa, known for his wild, unhinged drummer style, with most of the rough edges sanded down for mainstream consumption. The film begins with the teenage Krupa (Sal Mineo) bringing home a drum set, only to have it smashed up by his father. His parents don't like that he plays in a jazz band with Eddie Sirota (James Darren). At a pool party, a trampy girl (Yvonne Craig of Batgirl fame) comes on to Krupa, but Gene only has eyes for Ethel, an innocent girl-next-door type (Susan Kohner) who wants to write a symphony. When his father dies, Krupa goes into a seminary to fulfill his family's wish that he become a priest, but he rather quickly realizes that's not the road for him, and soon he's off to New York City with Eddie and Ethel, who is now engaged to Eddie but still loves Gene. After months of struggling, Gene gets a big break as a drummer thanks in part to jazz singer Dorissa Dinell (Susan Oliver), though her first reaction to his overheated drumming style is to yell, "I'm not a cooch dancer and we're not doing the zombie's mating call!" His rise is covered mostly in montages of headlines until he joins the Benny Goodman band, leaves his old friends in the dust, and gets himself a fancy penthouse apartment. He becomes a drinker and a womanizer, and one night after Eddie and Ethel both tell him off, Dorissa introduces him to marijuana, telling him pot will help him "be somebody." He has a reefer-madness moment in his apartment, but next thing you know, he's fronting his own band.

The rest of the movie follows the now-familiar story of fall and redemption: he's arrested for possession (even though we know he's a user, he swears it's a frame-up), Dorissa refuses to be a character witness for him, and on his lawyer's advice, he pleads guilty, winding up with no jail time but with a washed-up career. With some help from Eddie and Ethel, he works his way back up through the ranks and the film ends with his triumphant return to drumming with Tommy Dorsey. What's good about this film is Sal Mineo. He gives a believable performance, though his dark pretty-boy looks prevent him from ever looking as debauched as he ought to be, and he is outstanding in his drumming scenes. According to some sources, Mineo spent a year working with the real Krupa to be able to sync his drumming to Krupa's recorded drum tracks. Darren and Kohner do fairly well with what are types rather than fully rounded characters. Oliver is very good as the unlikable Dorissa, who, if I'm reading between the lines correctly, may be behind his dope arrest. You can see the real Krupa performing "Drum Boogie" with Barbara Stanwyck in the opening scene of BALL OF FIRE. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Another film from the nearly forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey—for background, see my review of HIPS HIPS HOORAY. This title conjures up the Marx Brothers THE COCOANUTS, which came out the year before; though I am fond of Wheeler & Woolsey, they’re not Groucho and Chico, and the Marx Brothers will win hands-down in any direct comparison. This film is set along the Mexican border. Bespectacled Woolsey (the Professor), and romantic lead Wheeler (his sidekick Sparrow) are driven out of town for posing as fortune tellers and they get involved with a band of gypsies camped out near a casino resort. American June Clyde has been brought down to the resort by her aunt to keep her away from dashing pilot Hugh Trevor; a rich baron falls for her but when Trevor flies down, there's no contest. Wheeler is in love with Dorothy Lee, an American who has grown up with the gypsies, but so is tough-guy gypsy Mitchell Lewis. There’s a kidnapping, some fisticuffs, and several musical numbers before the happy ending. The songs, while not classics, aren’t bad: "I'll Find You Wherever You Are" begins as a romantic duo and ends up as a big production number; there's also the catchy "I Love You So Much, It's a Wonder You Don’t Feel It" (is that supposed to be a bawdy suggestion?), and the finale, in faded Technicolor, "Dancing the Devil Away." As in Marx Brothers movies, plot bits keep getting set up but left behind for chunks of stand-alone comedy routines. A couple of funny lines: "You kill me"/"Not a bad idea"; "Will you love me until I die?"/"That depends on how long you live." The funniest scene involves Wheeler & Woolsey in a hotel room bed with lots of people running into the room, spouting non-sequiturs. [TCM]

Saturday, March 05, 2011


Let me get some confusion out of the way right now: this movie has a character named Ruggles, played by Charles Laughton, and an actor named (Charlie) Ruggles playing a character named Floud. While Floud and his wife (Mary Boland), rich but uncouth Americans, are vacationing in Europe, they win a butler, Maramduke Ruggles, from the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young). Ruggles is upset about going to such an uncivilized country, "a country with slavery"; the Earl replies, "That's all finished--some fellow named Pocahontas or something did something about it." Back in the relative wilds of Washington state, it takes a while for Ruggles to adjust to the less-strict class structure here, and eventually he decides to open a restaurant, falls in love, and even teaches the Americans some history (in a famous scene in which he recites the Gettysburg Address from memory when none of the Americans can even say what the Address is about).

What makes this movie so enjoyable, in addition to a good script, are first-rate performances all around. Laughton, usually best in roles in which he can ham it up, is wonderfully dry and tamped-down here and completely believable as the mild-mannered butler who breaks out of his shell--especially funny is a drunk scene with Laughton and Ruggles. Ruggles holds his own, though he doesn’t have much to do in the last half. Boland is very funny as the obnoxious wife, Young is absolutely right as the droll Earl, and Maude Eburne gets some laughs in the relatively small role of Boland's mother. Zasu Pitts (pictured above with Laughton) doesn't get much to do as Laughton's love interest, but she's the only weak spot. Otherwise, a witty and charming comedy. [TCM]

Thursday, March 03, 2011


In post-war London, a scientist working on atomic weaponry vanishes one day with an experimental bomb and sends a message to the Prime Minister saying that he will set the bomb off at "the seat of government" at noon next Sunday unless England abandons its atomic program. Scotland Yard begins a secret city-wide search for the professor with the help of his daughter. It isn't until a half-hour into the film that we see the professor (Barry Jones), a plain-looking, mild-mannered fellow, praying in a bombed-out church. When wanted posters go up with his face on them, he shaves off his mustache and takes a room in a boarding house until the landlady, suspecting he might be a killer on the loose, goes to the police. An aging actress (Olive Sloane) who has fallen on hard times takes him in, thinking he's just a lonely eccentric. As the days pass, the city begins making plans for a mass evacuation (which eventually goes off unrealistically smoothly, aside from a few people who want to take their pets on the buses and one loony "end-of-days" sign-carrier who won’t part with his signs). On Saturday night, with the middle of the city nearly empty, Jones holds Sloane hostage and waits in hiding for Sunday noon, when he heads back to the damaged church to finish what he started.

This low-key film is shot largely in a documentary style, though the nighttime scenes, especially early in the search, have a film noir look about them. Jones, also generally low-key, is excellent and always believable as a man who has gone mad because he cannot deal with the potential horrors of his work. He doesn't rant and rave, and the movie doesn't delve deeply into character so he never has to explain how he came to his decision--though we see he is clearly obsessed with Bible verses about Babylon and Milton's line, "Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon." We see most of the search unfold through the sober eyes of a Scotland Yard man (Andre Morell) and Jones' research assistant (Hugh Cross), though somewhat surprisingly, there is a fair amount of light comic relief from several supporting characters, and though I don't want to spoil the suspense for anyone, the very last shot of the film will elicit a chuckle. A little-known but solid entry in the "fears of the atomic age" genre. [TCM]