Friday, April 29, 2011


Sylvestre Bonnard, an old archeologist who still teaches at the University, lives a quiet life, surrounded by his beloved old books and tended to by his cranky but loving housekeeper Therese. His one regret is that he never married his childhood sweetheart, Katharine, now dead. When M. Coccoz, a penniless door-to-door bookseller, arrives, Bonnard helps him out by buying his entire suitcase full of books, and he tells Coccoz of his attempt to find a long-lost book from his youth, "The Golden Legend." He still cherishes a short love note Katharine wrote to him on a torn-off corner from a page of the book, and Coccoz's visit motivates Bonnard to head back to his hometown to find the book. It turns out to be missing from the family library, but he does meet Katharine's teenage daughter, Jeanne, who lives a miserable life feeling oppressed by M. Mouche, her guardian, and Mlle. Prefere, the uptight headmistress at the school where she is being trained to be a teacher. Bonnard sets out to brighten the girl's life, ultimately hoping to adopt her, but he is stymied by Mouche and Prefere. The guardian agrees to sell him the right to raise the girl, but Bonnard will have to sell all of his old books. The sale doesn't go as well as expected, but a return visit from Coccoz, who has found "The Golden Legend" and a secret about Mouche, winds up giving Bonnard the upper hand.

This potentially interesting storyline is let down by slow pacing, a dreary and repetitive musical score, and lack of characterization. As Bonnard, O.P Heggie (the hermit in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) looks like Frank Morgan as Prof. Marvel in THE WIZARD OF OZ, but doesn't have the playful spark that Morgan would have had. Etienne Giradot, as Mouche, also lacks any real presence, so their conflicts play out in lackluster scenes. However, there are some good performances to save the day. Anne Shirley (pictured with Heggie) has personality to burn as Jeanne, Helen Westley is quite amusing as the housekeeper, and Elizabeth Patterson does a nice job as the headmistress, who blooms under Bonnard's attention, thinking briefly that he is romancing her. Also with John Qualen as Coccoz and Trent Durkin as a young man who catches Jeanne's fancy. One of a number of films from the 30s with senior citizens as lead characters (though Heggie was only 59, he looks considerably older and in fact died the next year). [TCM]

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Hollywood movies about Jesus Christ are usually epic films which wind up, perhaps because of too much concern for reverence, being rather slow and dull. This early silent telling of the last days of Jesus Christ, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, is reverent but compelling. It begins, oddly, with a royal banquet at which the courtesan Mary Magdalene is irritated because her current favored lover Judas Iscariot is missing--seems he's been swept off his feet by some carpenter from Nazareth. She saddles up her zebras (I kid you not; they’re gifts from some Nubian prince) and heads out to break up the apostles'meeting. When we first see Jesus, he is curing a little blind boy (the future Gospel writer Mark), and we don't see Jesus' face until the boy does, appearing out of a fog as his eyesight returns. Judas is a would-be kingmaker, interested in Jesus as a political figure; he tells Jesus that he should tend to the rich and mighty to curry favor instead of to the powerless poor. When Mary shows up, Jesus exorcises the Seven Deadly Sins right out of her (each sin personified as a ghostly figure). For his part, Judas thinks that any of Jesus’ followers should be able to perform miracles, but when he tries to cure a “lunatic” boy, he has no luck until Jesus takes over the task. The rest of the film pretty much conforms to the familiar Gospel narratives: Peter finds a fish with a gold coin in its mouth which is used for payment of back taxes; Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead (a scene with a horror-movie feel--pictured below--as a wrapped-up body rises up from a slab and slowly unwraps itself), stops the stoning of Mary Magdalene, and rages against the merchants at the temple; Judas betrays Jesus to the high priests. There is no suspense since we know the rest of the story by heart, and the film builds up to the Crucifixion, with its thunder and lightning and earthquakes, followed by a brief Technicolor sequence of the Resurrection and Jesus' appearance to the apostles.

The movie looks beautiful, in a Sunday-school kind of way, like a bunch of vintage Bible illustrations come to life. There’s a nice scene in which Caiaphas plunks out thirty pieces of silver for Judas, and a beautiful shot after the Last Supper showing a glowing chalice with a soft-focus dove flitting around it. Soft focus is the de facto means for showing Christ’s divinity--he is usually seen with a luminous glow about him. H.B. Warner plays Christ as passive but not a wimp, just someone who is for the most part resigned to his fate. At almost 50, he was too old for the part, especially when we see him with his mother, played by Dorothy Cumming who was not yet 30, but he does look a lot like the Jesus of old Bible cards. Joseph Schildkraut, as Judas (pictured above with Warner), almost steals each scene he's in, a bit like the same character is a scene-stealer in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. The Criterion restoration has a lovely newly-written score which is mostly unobtrusive and appropriate. Though I like the modern KING OF KINGS for its epic feel (and the handsome Jeffrey Hunter), this movie is the one to beat for good old fashioned religious moviemaking, with just enough of the secular (the scantily-clad Mary Magdalene) to keep things interesting. [DVD]

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Four college buddies (2 Korean War vets, played by Guy Madison and Brian Keith, class clown Alvy Moore and studious Kerwin Matthews) take a quick trip to Reno where law student Guy Madison tries out a system for winning which fails, but the four witness a botched robbery attempt. Back on campus, Madison devotes his attentions to his girl friend, nightclub singer Kim Novak, and Keith tries to overcome his hair-trigger temper, exacerbated by his war experiences. But when they get hit by the "mid-semester whim-whams," Matthews, inspired by their Reno visit, comes up with a foolproof system for robbing the casino. He gets Keith and Moore involved, promising to pull it off as a spring break experiment, intending to give the money back. Madison and Novak go along for the ride, unaware at first of the plans for the heist, but by the time they get to Reno, Keith has gone a little bit nuts and insists at gunpoint that they all go along with the plan, and keep the money once they get it. Of course, the heist doesn't quite go as planned. Though released as part of a film noir set from Columbia, this isn't noir at all, it's a straight-ahead crime caper, with the added twist of college kids (albeit very mature looking kids--most of the actors were in their 30s, with Matthews the youngest at 29) and a crazy war vet being the protagonists instead of career criminals looking to pull off a last big job. The heist actually takes second place to characterization, and the planning is more exciting than the actual crime. All the actors are fine, though Madison, meant to be the central character, winds up the least interesting of the four guys--most surprising is Alvy Moore, best remembered as Hank Kimball on Green Acres, who is a solid comic relief sidekick. The very young Novak (pictured) is lovely, though the film might have been leaner without her character, who has little bearing on the film. [DVD]

Thursday, April 21, 2011


[Spoilers included] A train hits a car which we saw being rolled onto the track; the dead man in the driver's seat was a juror in the infamous Wharton murder trial in which a jury found Wharton guilty, but just hours before he was to executed, someone confessed that Wharton had been framed. He is freed but soon has a nervous breakdown, is institutionalized, and kills himself by setting his room on fire. Now, it appears as if someone is avenging Wharton by killing off the jurors; the man in the car is the fourth to wind up dead, with a fifth reported missing. Reporter Joe Keats investigates, and interviews juror Alice Hill, an interior designer, and Jerome Bentley, a foreign gentleman with a fancy beard and heavy accent. Joe develops a thing for Alice, and when another juror is found dead, Joe digs deeper. The mysterious Bentley claims he knows who the killer is, and agrees to arrange a meeting with Joe and the killer in a steam room, but instead Joe winds up trapped in the room and almost boils to death. Of course, [1st Spoiler] the killer is Bentley, but [2nd spoiler] Bentley is actually Wharton, who faked his death in order to pull off this revenge. Meanwhile, Bentley/Wharton is setting a trap for Alice; can Joe get the cops to believe his theory in time to save her?

This B-mystery is generally fun, even though the Bentley/Wharton subterfuge should be crystal clear to any viewer from early on. Part of the problem is that George Macready, who plays the part(s), is too distinctive in looks and accent to be hidden behind a beard and monacle. An early edition of Halliwell's film guide says this is part of Columbia’s "I Love a Mystery" series, but it's not, even though the reporter is played by Jim Bannon, who was the lead in that series (and Macready also appears in the first film). For a B-lead, Bannon suffices--he's breezy and confident--and the whole thing moves at a quick pace. Janis Carter is fine as the femme lead and Jean Rogers steals a scene or two as her assistant, a perky gal from Texas. You may recognize wrestler Mike Mazurki in a small role as a masseur. [TCM]

Saturday, April 16, 2011

VICKI (1953)

This noir melodrama tries hard to conjure up comparisons to the classic film LAURA, and even if it can't quite live up to that, it's still an enjoyable little movie. The stylish opening scene shows billboards featuring the model and singer Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters), who seems to be the rage of New York and, as we learn later, was about to head out to California for an acting job; as a "Laura"-like theme plays, we see the police taking her dead body out of her apartment. Richard Boone is a cop who is determined to find her killer. As in LAURA, we learn Peters' story in flashbacks. There are several suspects including Peters' sister and roommate Jill (Jeanne Crain), an actor she had dated (Alex D'Arcy), and a columnist (Casey Adams) who wrote about her frequently, but Boone is certain that the killer is her PR man (Elliott Reid) who discovered her as a waitress at a late-night diner, worked hard to get her modeling career off the ground, and was about to be left with a broken contract when she decided to leave New York. However, the plot thickens with two developments: 1) the seedy telephone operator at Peters' apartment building (Aaron Spelling) took a powder after the discovery of her body; 2) Reid finds out that Boone had been unnaturally obsessed with Peters, spying on her when she was a waitress and having turned his apartment into a shrine to her. I will admit I was surprised at the final solution.

With all the controversy about what constitutes film noir, I'm inclined to take the view of Justice Potter concerning pornography: I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. This movie, with its focus on sexual obsession, fatalism, conflicted characters, and the night world, feels a lot like noir to me, even if it seems too brightly lit to fit the visual noir mold. The B-ish cast works well, especially Peters and Reid; Crain (pictured above to the left of Peters), playing a good girl, is bland, and Boone wildly overdoes the obsessed cop bit, harshly screaming at people right and left. He almost leers at Reid when he tries to break him and calls him "pretty boy," which gives his character a delightful little sex-kink subtext. I liked Carl Betz, who gained fame as the husband on The Donna Reed Show, as a darkly handsome cop, and it's fun to see Spelling (long before his TV tycoon days) as a geek. Technically this is a remake of the Victor Mature/Betty Grable film I WAKE UP SCREAMING, but clearly it was trying to ride a LAURA vibe at the box office. [FMC]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

HIGH WALL (1947)

Dorothy Patrick works for Herbert Marshall, a publisher of religious books, and is also his mistress, even though she has a husband (Robert Taylor) who hasn't yet returned from the war (an injury required brain surgery and he still isn't fully recovered). However, Taylor comes home unexpectedly and catches Patrick at Marshall's apartment. He goes into a rage, blacks out, and wakes up with his wife's dead body next to him. After he drives himself and her body off the road and into a creek, he confesses to murder, even though he doesn't actually remember what happened. At a psychiatric hospital, his doctor (Audrey Totter) discovers his current problems are due to a blood clot, so he has another operation. Totter takes a personal interest in his case, even temporarily adopting Taylor's son to keep him out of state care. She talks him into undergoing "narcosynthesis," in which he is given sodium pentothol (a "truth serum") to uncover his memories of what happened during his blackout. Soon they discover what we figured out a long time ago: Marshall killed her and framed Taylor. Taylor breaks out of the hospital, with some help from Totter, and goes after Marshall in an archetypal film noir manhunt through rainy night streets.

This is a fairly solid film noir in the tradition of THE BIG CLOCK or PHANTOM LADY in which a man has to clear his own name by hunting down a killer. The noir visuals are nice, especially an atmospheric scene in a church late in the film. The wooden Taylor is the weak link, but luckily the other actors compensate. Marshall (reminiscent of the Charles Laughton character in THE BIG CLOCK) is good as the respectable bad guy who is desperately trying to cover this tracks; the best scene in the movie involves his startlingly sudden murder of a janitor who has figured out the score and is trying to blackmail him. Totter (pictured above), whom I liked so well as a femme fatale in TENSION, is also fine, though she's more fun when she's bad. Some familiar faces in the background include John Ridgely, Warner Anderson, and H. B. Warner. [TCM]

Sunday, April 10, 2011

PARRISH (1961)

Another Troy Donahue/Connie Stevens movie from the Warner Bros. Romance Collection. This one is a family saga with Donahue as the title character, a teenager who moves with his mother (Claudette Colbert) to Connecticut tobacco country so she can take a job as a companion to the daughter of tobacco farmer Dean Jagger. Jagger doesn't trust the good-looking lad around his spoiled girl (Diane McBain), so Donahue finds work in the fields and lodgings with the family of fellow worker Connie Stevens. He and Stevens begin dating, though she continues seeing her steady boyfriend, but soon Donahue is also "dating" McBain. Colbert falls for and marries Karl Malden, a big shot tobacco farmer and something of a rival of Jagger's. Stevens gets pregnant by one of Malden's married sons (Hampton Fancher, pictured), McBain marries another of Malden's sons, and Donahue, after a stint in the Navy, returns to Connecticut and works for Jagger, helping to fight the unscrupulous Malden in his attempt to snatch up all the farming land, with poor Colbert torn between the two. The plot keeps bouncing back and forth between the sex and tobacco plotlines, and there seems to be plenty of material there for a TV series. Donahue, though undeniably handsome, looks puffy and soft and not at all the kind of guy who has the backbone to stand up to everyone around him, though I will say his best scene is a verbal confrontation with Fancher over Stevens' honor. Colbert's heart isn't in this, her final film role (though she appeared in a TV-movie 25 years later); though most of the young men and women playing family members of the warring clans are OK, the best acting is done by Dean Jagger. If you enjoy the glossy, well-produced soap operas of this era, you'll like this, though I think it would have been better with someone other than Donahue as the focus of the story. [DVD]

Thursday, April 07, 2011


A mild-mannered bespectacled man (George Sanders, at right) chats with a librarian in a rare book room at the New York Public Library while admiring a rare copy of Hamlet that's on display. But Sanders isn't as mild as he looks: he guns down the librarian, smashes the glass case, and steals the book. He's a world-class forger who makes copies of stolen rare books and sells them on the black market. The glamorous but aloof Gail Patrick is his fence; she sells one of the Hamlets to the German Sidney Blackmer, who collects rarities for the Nazis, but he finds out it's a fake and wants his money back. Enter square-jawed all-American detective Richard Denning who is hot on Patrick's trail for a different client. She agrees to help him expose Sanders if he'll protect her, but then she double-crosses Denning by telling Blackmer that Denning is the forger and she arranges a confrontation at the library one night just before closing. That night, Denning, Blackmer, and Patrick go to the library, but Sanders has a trick in store: he shows up with a bunch of his cohorts claiming to be policemen, hoping to get rid of both Blackmer and Denning and steal a few more rare books while he's at it. At closing time, a shot rings out, a man is killed, and Sanders and his fake cops keep everyone in the building even as an air raid blackout is called. The rest of the film consists of cat-and-mouse games played in the dark building between Sanders and Denning. We're never quite sure who Patrick feels loyalty to, and the presence of a mute thug, a prissy air-raid warden, and a lovely young librarian with a GI fiancé complicate matters.

This little-known B-mystery is quite interesting and unusual, for its setting and for its psychological discussions. As a library worker myself (at a reference desk and in cataloging), I liked the setting; for a B-movie, the library sets are convincing, though they're not elaborate enough to be stand-ins for the real and very impressive New York Public Library. At one point, the librarian (Lynne Roberts) gives Denning a little lecture explaining the Dewey Decimal System, and near the end, a Dewey call number winds up being a major clue to the whereabouts of the stolen books. But more interesting are the conversations between Sanders and Patrick about their particular kink: sado-masochism. Sanders claims they are both, psychologically speaking, "a couple of horror shows" who find "pleasure in fear and pain," searching out situations which could lead to terrifying results. When Patrick slips up, Sanders insists it's her conscience deliberately putting her in harm's way. In a strange moment near the end, Sanders seems almost sexually excited about the possibility of getting the death penalty. Sanders also says that Blackmer is a sadist, though that plot thread is unexplored; perhaps just his ties to Nazis are supposed to be enough to prove that claim.

Actingwise, the movie belongs to Sanders and Patrick, with Blackmer holding his own. Denning, though a serviceable B-film hero, is out of his league; someone like Bogart or Alan Ladd would have given the movie even more of an edge. The ending has a Maltese Falcon feel, with Denning uncertain about whether or not to give Patrick up. He doesn't, but of course the Production Code steps in and has fate take a punishing hand. The WWII blackout setting is unusual; most air raid scenes in movies are set in London, though U.S. cities did indeed have blackout air raids. At the conclusion, there is a brief propaganda spiel about American soldiers and the girls they've left behind on the homefront. This film is hard to find, but it's worth catching on Fox Movie Channel. [FMC]

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


This psychological thriller opens like a romantic comedy: in Vienna, married lady Gloria Stuart sneaks off to meet her lover, Walter Pidgeon, for a tryst at his fancy home. The mood changes when her husband (Paul Lukas), who has followed her, shoots her dead through a window, then calls the police and confesses to murder. Lukas explains his state of mind to his lawyer and old friend (Frank Morgan) through a flashback: while his wife was dressing to go out, Lukas surprised her at her mirror and could see by the look in her eyes that she was no longer in love with him, and was preparing to meet her lover. Morgan thinks he can get Lukas off by arguing he was in the grip of an intense and understandable psychological compulsion, but when Morgan goes home to his wife (Nancy Carroll), who is primping before a mirror, he sees the same look on her face that Lukas saw on Stuart. Sure enough, Morgan follows Carroll to her tryst. He decides if he can get Lukas off on his planned defense, he'll kill his own wife the same way.

This is an engrossing, well-paced melodrama from James Whale, known better for his Frankenstein movies, and some sequences here are shot in almost horror-movie fashion. Morgan gives a relatively understated performance until his last courtroom scene. Lukas is very good, as is Stuart in what amounts to a cameo role, and Jean Dixon and Charley Grapewin are fine providing some mild comic relief as Morgan’s assistants. Whale did a B-movie remake of this a few years later (WIVES UNDER SUSPICION) which is worth seeing, but this version is a must-see for fans of pre-Code films or courtroom thrillers. [TCM]

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Warner Home Video has issued a 4-movie set of early 60's romance films, all of which star Troy Donahue; his co-star in three of them is Connie Stevens. This one, featured first, is actually the last chronologically. It's a mild teenage romantic comedy, and undoubtedly a comedown for Donahue who had been starring in glossy soap opera melodramas. Donahue is a college basketball player spending spring break with his team (and their coach/chaperone, Jack Weston) at Palm Springs. Andrew Duggan is the local police chief, not looking forward to the annual outbreak of shenanigans, and Stefanie Powers is his daughter, who gets involved with Donahue. Robert Conrad is a rich kid with a chip on his shoulder because Daddy ignores him; he rides around in a snazzy convertible with a life-sized Bugs Bunny blow-up doll which he uses to pick up girls (not that he needs it--he’s the best-looking guy in the movie) and focuses his attentions on glamorous Connie Stevens who passes herself off as a wealthy college socialite but is really an average Hollywood High School girl. Ty Hardin (star of Bronco, an TV western) is a hunky Texan stuntman who also has eyes for Stevens. Filling out the cast are Zeme North as Stevens' plain-looking roommate who gets a makeover, 9-year-old Billy Mumy as an obnoxious kid, and Jerry Van Dyke as a comic-relief sidekick who does the same banjo routine he did when he guested on his big brother’s TV show, The Dick Van Dyke Show. The actors all look a bit old to be playing college students, but they're all energetic and healthy; Hardin and Conrad actually come off the best, acting-wise. Donahue (pictured with Powers) is handsome but is starting to look a little seedy--he had been a drinker since he was a kid--and his Tony Curtis voice doesn't really go with the face and image. He and Powers have zilch chemistry, though for that matter, none of the couples do. It's basically a beach movie with no beaches in sight, but a couple of poolside scenes that allow for some wholesome skin. [DVD]