Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Not long after Ray Milland and his family have left their suburban Los Angeles home for a fishing vacation at a cabin in the woods, the Commies drop bombs on L.A., New York, and other freedom-loving cities around the world. After deciding not to turn around and fight the traffic heading out of the city to check on Grandma, the family heads to the woods; along the way, they witness small incidents indicating the unraveling of civilized behavior (theft and thuggish mayhem). While trying to horde supplies, Milland himself winds up stealing from a hardware store, though he insists he’ll pay the owner back—good intentions make it OK? They get to the campground, tear down a bridge so others can’t follow, and set up house in a cave. Soon, the hardware store guy shows up, as do the thugs they saw on the road, who have more mayhem on their minds.

This Cold War-era sci-fi-ish thriller has potential, but its low budget gets in the way. There are practically no special effects, though the first shot of the sky brightening when the bomb drops is effective. A post-apocalypse vibe is clearly intended, but it all feels a bit like a Gilligan's Island kind of apocalypse, partly due to the presence of Frankie Avalon, just before he hit pay dirt with the American International "Beach" movies, as Milland’s son. Don’t get me wrong, Avalon is actually surprisingly good in the part, but along with mom Jean Hagan (who spent years playing the mom on Make Room for Danny), the ho-hum black & white cinematography, and the suburban woods setting, it all feels very bland and made-for-TV. Most of the budget seems to have been spent on one trashed suburban street set used briefly late in the film. The teenage daughter, Mary Mitchel, is very wooden and didn’t have much of a career after the 60s. Even the actors playing the thugs don’t feel very threatening (though they do kidnap and rape). The loud, jazzy score gives the drab proceedings a jumped-up feeling for a while, but the music gets wearisome. Love the title, though. Milland directed, with little distinction. Michael Bay should re-make this one with blood, sex, and CGI galore. [TCM]

Saturday, June 25, 2011


An early WWII propaganda film disguised as a romance, or maybe vice versa. Ray Milland, after fighting as a soldier of fortune for the losing side in the Spanish Civil War, is waiting to be executed when an American woman (Claudette Colbert) claiming to be his wife shows up to plead for his release. We know that Milland has never seen this woman before, but the prison warden (George Zucco) is taken in and agrees to let him go. Moments later, Zucco discovers the deception and sends out an alarm, but the two manage to escape, just barely, in a plane. It turns out she's a reporter trying to land a name-making scoop, which she does. Some ridiculously coy romantic escapades occur in Paris, then they fall in love on a train to Berlin where she has a job as a war correspondent. They spend a few nice days in the French countryside until Hitler invades Poland. When Americans are warned to leave Europe, they book passage on the S.S. Athenia and feel guilty about leaving until their ship is sunk by the Nazis (an actual historic incident), at which point they decide to stay and do what they can in Europe. After France falls and Milland is injured in air combat, they go to America to spread the word and fight the isolationists.

This was one of the earliest films to actively support intervention in the European war, a rather controversial point at the time--it was released in the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor. The mix of political argument and romantic comedy is awkward (as with the later ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON) and I wish it had been weighted more one way or the other. Milland was as handsome and charming as he ever was and he works well with Colbert. Zucco is a delightful surprise in a mostly comic role, though he's only in the first 15 minutes of the film. The film lacks strong supporting characters; Dennis O'Keefe and Dick Purcell do what they can with the small roles of pilot buddies of Milland's who crop up a couple of times as voices of conscience, and Walter Abel is amusing as Colbert's often flustered boss, but no one aside from the leads has much screen time. The title comes from a line in the Song of Solomon which is quoted a couple of times. Co-scripted by Billy Wilder. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


A pale, overlong and overly complicated CASABLANCA retread. In 1938 Paris, just before the outbreak of World War II, a refugee doctor (Charles Boyer) prowls the streets trying to stay a step ahead of the authorities and at the same time, planning to get revenge against the Nazi officer (Charles Laughton) who tortured a girlfriend of his to death. One night, he sees a young woman (Ingrid Bergman) wandering the streets, on the verge of collapse after her lover dropped dead in her hotel room. He takes care of her and introduces her to his friend, a former Russian officer (Louis Calhern) now reduced to working as a doorman. Eventually Boyer is caught and deported, and Bergman is taken in by an old lover (Stephen Bekassy). Act II picks up several months later, in the summer of '39, when Boyer works his way back to Paris where Bergman insists she doesn't love her sugar daddy, though the bitter Boyer isn't sure he believes her—and Bekassy seems loath to let her go. Boyer also meets up with Laughton, who doesn’t recognize him, and the plotlines of Boyer's revenge and Bergman's predicament cross at the climax.

The film is based on a long novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and the original cut was apparently almost as long as GONE WITH THE WIND. The existing print is a little over two hours, which is both too short and too long: too long for the Boyer/Bergman affair, which has a leisurely pace that grows tedious, and too short to give an interesting supporting cast much to do. Laughton's part has been cut down so he has almost nothing to do until the last 15 minutes. Calhern's character is colorful and interesting, and I wish he had seen more of him. Also with Curt Bois, Ruth Warrick, and in a cameo, Michael Romanoff, a famous Hollywood restauranteur of the time. The DVD is murky, but that could be because of the shadowy noir-like look of the film. [DVD]

Monday, June 20, 2011


I hesitate to be too enthusiastic about this film, for fear of overselling what is essentially a solidly made, minor-key melodrama, but for what was probably intended as a classy B-film to highlight a couple of up-and-coming stars, this is good stuff. One night on the docksides, John Garfield, a small-time racketeer, comes skulking out of the fog, having just set fire to a small fishing boat. His racket is "insurance," and the fire is intended as a warning for tailor Thomas Mitchell and cook John Qualen; Garfield is trying to force them into paying him a weekly sum not to torch their boat. Mitchell's daughter (Ida Lupino) is dating Eddie Albert, a sweet but unambitious guy, but when Garfield starts paying attention to her, her frustration with her boring dockside life bubbles over and she begins making plans to run off to Cuba with him (not realizing how he's treating her father). When Garfield finds out that Mitchell has saved up some money as a down payment on a new boat, he tries to get the money from him, but this time Mitchell and Qualen decide not to be pushed around.

There are lots of things I like about this movie. Though the sets are a bit stagy, they are effective and atmospheric. Oddly, the outdoor scenes, usually thick with fog, feel more claustrophobic than the indoor scenes; the two main interiors, the tailor shop and a restaurant called Caroline's Fish Grotto, are spacious, far more than real dockside storefronts would be. The acting is solid all around. Garfield is tops playing a real shit, but for a few minutes, when he’s talking to Lupino about Cuba and possibly getting married, you feel he might actually have a heart. Lupino seems a bit too wordly for her character and Albert’s character is the only one that feels cardboard (the only one who doesn’t seem to change). Mitchell and Qualen are strong, and there's good support from George Tobias as a fellow merchant, Aline MacMahon as Mitchell’s whiny, sickly wife, Leo Gorcey (of the Bowery Boys) as a bartender, and Jerome Cowan as a D.A.

Based on a play by Irwin Shaw, the movie winds up being a celebration of ordinary folks (the play was called "The Gentle People"). When Mitchell tries to warn Lupino about Garfield, she replies, with a wisdom beyond her years, "That’s the way the world’s made--the strong take from the weak," clearly understanding that people like her father are among the weak, but here the weak manage to come out on top, at least briefly. As one character says, the ordinary can still love each other "just like millionaires and poets." The film's ending (reminiscent of a central plot twist in Dreiser's "An American Tragedy") is different from the play's, due mostly to the Production Code, but I was still surprised at how much the film gets away with in terms of not punishing certain behavior that could be argued to be immoral; in the last scene, even the neighborhood cop has to look the other way. It would be nice if this little film made it onto DVD someday (maybe as part of a John Garfield boxed set), but until then, watch the TCM schedule for a rerun. [TCM]

Saturday, June 18, 2011


One stormy night, police inspector Ralph Bellamy is called to the mansion of millionaire William Jeffery. There is a family superstition that the appearance of a pool of blood on the fireplace hearth means the patriarch of the family will soon die, and this evening the blood has appeared. Just before midnight, lightning strikes, the lights go out, and the windows in the study fly open. Jeffrey indeed drops dead in a roomful of people, apparently of fright, but an autopsy shows that he was poisoned via hypodermic. The suspects include his faithful secretary (Claude Gillingwater), with whom Jeffrey had spent that past several years in China collecting curios, the secretary's somewhat mysterious-acting wife, and the lawyer who is caught breaking into Jeffrey's safe. Jeffrey had a young ward (June Collyer) whom he dearly loved but who was hoping to marry the family doctor, against Jeffrey's wishes. Eventually, another murder is committed and a couple of people are revealed to be not who they say they are before Bellamy and his sidekick (George Cooper) eventually solve the murder. This is a nicely atmospheric little thriller, not quite spooky enough to be considered an "old dark house" movie but still quite fun. Bellamy, before he found his niche as the dopey best friend in romantic comedies, is fine as the detective, and Cooper and Gillingwater are standouts in the supporting cast. [TCM]

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Sexy redhead Dorothy has just gotten out of jail after serving time for theft; she is released into the custody of her only slightly less attractive sister June, who works for Ralph Jensen, a lawyer running for mayor, trying to oust the current crooked crowd who run the city according to the orders they get from mob boss Solly Caspar, who is getting Ben, one of his slick henchmen, to dig up dirt on June to hurt her boss. Of course, that dirt involves Dorothy, who in addition to being a kleptomaniac is also a bit of a tramp. What follows includes Solly throwing someone out of a window, Dorothy throwing herself at Ben—and shooting a harpoon at him, and June trying to take a shoplifting rap for Dorothy and falling for Ben, who is also falling for June. Based on a James Cain novel, this has the trappings of film noir, although it’s in glossy color. It takes a while for the plot to get into gear, but once it does, it moves along nicely. Arlene Dahl fares the best as the sexpot Dorothy; Rhonda Fleming is adequate in the relatively thankless role of the good sister; John Payne is lackluster as Ben, the bad guy turned hero. The well-shot blood-spattered climax is worth waiting for, though overall the movie feels a bit sluggish, and the DVD print from VCI is occasionally murky. [DVD]

Sunday, June 12, 2011


This complex Cold War spy thriller begins with Navy officer Patrick O'Neal getting pulled from duty to "volunteer" to finish up an important spy mission in the Soviet Union which is on the verge of failure. He meets his handlers, the renowned Highwayman (Dean Jagger) and his associate (Richard Boone), at the funeral of his predecessor and is sent to gather up a team including a retired spy named The Whore, a gay spy (George Sanders) whom we first see in drag in a gay bar, and a female safecracker (Barbara Parkins). The mission: retrieve a letter stating that the Americans will help the Russians if they decide to go to war with China—the perfect Hitchcockian MacGuffin, as it’s important enough to drive the plot, but is almost completely beside the point. Once in the USSR, the Americans blackmail a Russian spy (by threatening his wife and daughter in the US) to get his apartment to use as a clearinghouse for the information they glean, all of which is collected by and filtered through O'Neal who reports to Boone. Up to about the halfway point, the plot was fairly easy to follow, but at some point, I lost the thread of the comings, goings, and dealings; still, the film remained compelling as characters die, secrets are revealed, and things build to a nice knife-twist of an ending.

This is worth watching if only to see a bunch of actors having fun in a movie that is not fun, that is in fact a dark and cynical take on the more popular James Bond spy story. O'Neal isn't bad but considering he is in most of the scenes, his lack of charisma leaves the film with a bit of hole in its center. Much more fun to watch is Richard Boone, best known for his TV work, especially as Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel, playing a good-guy spy you love to hate as an all-powerful, amoral good-old Texas boy. Part of the blackmail against the Russian spy involves Boone, in his thick drawl, saying that they will convert his daughter into "the most per-verted human being the human mind can imagine": i.e., a lesbian. Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson and Orson Welles are fine as various Russian characters. Sanders does a decent job playing old and gay, though he seems visibly uncomfortable in his short drag scene (see picture above). This is out on a limited edition DVD, but Fox Movie Channel runs it sometimes, and it looks like it's scheduled for airing on TCM in August. [FMC]

Friday, June 10, 2011


We first meet well-heeled married couple James Mason and Barbara Stanwyck having dinner with Stanwyck's widowed mother, Gale Sondergaard, a retired actress. The two seem happy although past troubles are hinted at--Mason was a philanderer but has apparently reformed. Mason is called away for a business meeting, and afterward, he goes out to a nightclub where he dances with sexy Cyd Charisse before he runs into the incendiary Ava Gardner, an ex-mistress of his. She's back in town and available, and Mason is like a recovering alcoholic who has had a drink placed in his hand. Mason gets into an altercation with Gardner's date and, with tabloid photographers all around, gets punched out. Charisse takes him to her apartment to recover. The next morning, Stanwyck sees the headlines and seeks out Charisse, who explains what happened (leaving out any mention of Gardner). The two women become friendly, and run into each other again at a book party for former cop Van Heflin, who is an old flame of Charisse's. The set-up is now complete: Gardner tries to steal Mason away from Stanwyck, who finds herself attracted to Heflin, and he to her. Suddenly, Gardner is found dead in her apartment and, Stanwyck, who had argued with her that afternoon, is a potential suspect.

At heart, this is a romantic melodrama, and a fairly adult one for its era, with people acting in relatively realistic ways. The murder mystery aspect feels tacked on for a little extra sensationalism, which the movie doesn't really need, since Gardner (pictured above with Mason) gives the movie plenty of sensation. She's a knockout and she gives a very good performance as a wicked femme fatale. The acting is first-rate all around: Stanwyck holds her own against Gardner, and Mason and Heflin are fine. Sondergaard doesn't have much to do, but she’s crucial to the plot at the end and has a nice confrontation scene with Mason. The real surprise is how good Cyd Charisse is--I know she was a hell of a dancer, but I was never impressed with the little bits of acting she got to do in her MGM musicals. She pulls out a solid performance here, even though her character is not terribly important to the overall story. Nancy Davis (better known as First Lady Nancy Reagan) has a small role as Stanwyck's friend, and William Frawley appears as a bartender. Recommended for fans of glossy melodramas and Ava Gardner. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

THE RIVER (1929)

Charles Farrell, a strapping but innocent young man who has never known a woman in any way, shape, or form (even his mother died when he was a baby) builds himself a barge and goes sailing down the river to get a look at life. At a dam construction site, he puts in for the winter, just missing a big fuss in which the foreman (Alverdo Sabato) has been sent to jail for the murder of a man who was paying too much attention to Sabato's mistress (Mary Duncan). Left behind are Duncan, living alone with a pet crow which she takes care of but also sees as the eyes of Sabato still watching her, and big burly deaf-mute Ivan Linow, a buddy of the dead man who has vowed to get revenge. Farrell and Duncan meet cute-sexy while he's swimming naked in the river (and exposing, briefly, much more flesh than usual for the average male movie star) and take a liking to each other, engaging in some awkward but sensuous flirtation which causes him to miss his train to the big city. After a number of missed trains, he decides to stay for the winter and they set up housing together, but when he proposes marriage, she tosses him out in a snowstorm, telling him he's not man enough yet. He decides to show her by going on a tree-chopping marathon in the storm, but after the fourth tree, he collapses. Linow finds him unconscious and almost frozen to death, and he and Duncan try desperately to save his life (pictured below).

Added as an extra on the SEVENTH HEAVEN disc in the Frank Borzage boxed set from Fox, this silent film is a reconstruction of a 75 minute movie of which only about 45 minutes remains extant. Missing are the beginning (which sets up the backstory about Duncan, Sabato, and Linow), a couple of scenes in the middle, and the climax, in which Sabato escapes jail and comes to the river to kill Farrell. The disc includes on-screen text summarizing what's missing along with a handful of stills to illustrate the action. Still, what's left is remarkable, and really does tell a clear stand-alone narrative. The pre-Code story is very sexy, with an unusual focus on the hunky Farrell in what would typically be the role of the female: the virginal innocent (whose semi-clad body is often on display) being wooed by a more experienced lover. He's actually quite good at coming off as innocent but also sexy and confident, and Duncan is equally good at being a woman of the world without seeming trampy. The sets, of her cabin, the construction camp, and the ravine with the train track running over it are nicely detailed and almost expressionistic. One perfect scene summarizes the plot, the tensions, and the visual style: one night in her cabin, he sets a checkerboard up on the bed, ready for a good game; she clearly just wants to screw. She throws the board off the bed and lights a candle, but the light causes a huge shadow of the crow and its cage to be cast over the bed, stopping her in her tracks. It's a shame the entire film doesn't exist, but what's left is still quite wonderful. [DVD]

Friday, June 03, 2011


In the 1840s, a band of Mormons who have slowly moved westward to escape persecution are now feeling the heat in Illinois. During a huge celebration, a vigilante mob attacks with torches and guns. They set the house on fire, whip a couple of older men to death, and even shoot one of the few non-Mormons present. When Mormon leader Joseph Smith (Vincent Price) suggests that the Mormons arm themselves for protection, he is arrested for treason, found guilty despite a heartfelt courtroom speech from Smith's friend Brigham Young (Dean Jagger), and killed by a mob. Soon the Mormons are split between staying to compromise with the town businessmen, a position advocated by Angus Duncan (Brian Donlevy), and following Brigham Young on an exodus to Mexico. They wind up leaving, crossing an iced-over river as a mob follows, burning all the Mormon homes. Even Duncan comes along, though tensions remain between the two men--it seems to come down to a question of who is getting the "real" messages from God. The strong implication here is that Young doesn't feel like God is speaking through him, but he has to say so to lead his people. The rest of the film follows their trek west; many of them, including Duncan, want to go on to California and the Gold Rush, but Young is determined to settle in valley they find near a salt lake. Most of the families stay and endure a very hard winter, only to face a horde of crickets who are about to destroy their crops. Just as Young is about to admit his failings, flocks of seagulls appear and eat the crickets. Next thing you know, Salt Lake City is a going concern.

Almost everything I know about Mormons comes from Angels in America or South Park--I had a Mormon friend in high school, but he blended right in with us Catholics and Protestants. I'm sure this film is just as fictionalized as any other slice of Hollywood history, but you can't prove it by me. The historical aspect is very interesting; Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both come across as utopian socialists, advocating living by the laws of nature, not buying or selling land, and working together for the common good so that no one accumulates too much money. Most of the actors are quite good, including Jagger, Mary Astor as Young's wife, Jane Darwell as a Mormon matriarch, and John Carradine as a cornrowed Mormon cowboy, but too much time is spent on a romance subplot between Jonathan Kent (Tyrone Power, pictured in the background, with Jagger) and the non-Mormon Zina (Linda Darnell), who, after her father is killed in the raid, joins up with the Mormons, though she never joins the faith, and spends the rest of the movie dating Kent. Power and Darnell are two lovely people, but they don't work up many sparks, and there's no compelling reason to root for them to marry. Actually, the whole polygamy issue is mostly skirted here--a joke is made early on about multiple wives, and Darnell's chief objection to marrying Power is that she's afraid of becoming just one of many objects of his affection. The movie was, for a time, retitled Brigham Young--Frontiersman in an attempt to bring in Western fans. [FCM]