Monday, December 31, 2012

SHADOW OF A WOMAN (1946)

After caring for her ailing parents then having them both die, Andrea King, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is sent out West for a rest cure and meets the charming Helmut Dantine, a doctor of what would today be called alternative medicine (though, as he is at pains to point out, he is not an M.D.). They hit it off and are married within a week. Soon, King realizes that Dantine may be hiding some unsavory secrets: on their honeymoon, a man tries to shoot him (he blames Dantine's care or lack thereof for his wife's recent death) and two men are following him; then, when they head to his home in San Francisco, she finds out that he lives with his unfriendly sister, her crippled adult son (John Alvin) and Dantine's own sickly young son by a previous marriage. The topper, so she thinks, is that he is caught up in a nasty divorce proceeding—the two men following him are working for the ex-wife's lawyers—but there's actually something even worse: Dantine may be slowly poisoning his little boy. The plot and characters are interesting but the movie's low-budget prevents this from being the Hitchcockian thriller it wants to be. King and Dantine are both wooden—though at least Dantine looks creepy enough when he has to; the best acting is done by Alvin as the sister's son and William Prince as the lawyer. Dantine's health-food regimen is ahead of its time, though here it's shown to do more harm than good. The movie has its moments but by the home stretch, it's a bit of a slog. And the title has nothing to do with the movie, until they try really hard to make it mean something in the fade-out. [TCM]

Thursday, December 27, 2012

WEST OF BROADWAY (1931)

Jerry, a wounded WWI soldier and rich playboy, sneaks away from his hospital boat while it's docked in New York City to rendezvous with his fiancée Anne, but finds out that she's dumped him for someone else. Later (could be days, weeks or months, it's unclear) at a party he's throwing at his Manhattan mansion, he hires Dot, a "party girl," to be his companion for the evening. When they run into Anne, she says that Dot is pretty "in a shoddy way," and the drunken Jerry tells her that he's going to marry Dot. That night, he does; the next morning he tries to pay her off to get a divorce but she says no. Jerry heads off to his Arizona ranch; when Dot finds him, he tells her he only has six months to live. What follows is a see-sawing game of "I want you/I don’t want you" between the two which is finally resolved in a courtroom. 

John Gilbert's talkies have gotten a bad rap, and like many early 30s movies, they haven’t all aged particularly well, but Gilbert himself is just fine here. The script doesn't give the characters much motivation for the silly hoops they have to jump through, and if this had been made a few years later, it might have been turned into an amusing screwball comedy like BRINGING UP BABY or THE PALM BEACH STORY. Gilbert makes for a sympathetic cad; Lois Moran is fine as the confused Dot whose past is unclear—she admits to being a bit of a gold digger, but takes umbrage at hints that she's "easy"; El Brendal gets the thankless comic relief role of Gilbert's Swedish sidekick; Ralph Bellamy is a ranch hand who falls for Dot. The oddest scene involves Brendal and Asian ranch cook Willie Fung trying to communicate with each other through belly-rubbing—get a room, guys! The acting and look of the film are A-level, but the script and direction are strictly from B-movie talent. And speaking of B-movies, the handsome Kane Richmond, later known for his roles in adventure serials, has a small role here. [TCM]

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (1964)

Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is a rich man spending Christmas Eve alone in his big house, listening to old Andrews Sisters records, lost in memories of his son Marley, a soldier who was killed in a Christmas battle during WWII. He's a strict isolationist who blames American idealism for getting us into foreign wars and getting his son killed; he's against the United Nations, and has recently hurt the career of a professor at a local university who had become involved in an exchange program with a university in Poland. His nephew Fred (Ben Gazarra) arrives to try to get him to change his mind about the program. They argue about international affairs; Fred says we need the U.N.'s diplomacy because as long as countries are talking, they're not fighting, but Grudge says that butting in and trying to help what he snarlingly calls "the needy and oppressed" of other countries just gets us into wars, and is instead in favor of the stance of "mutually assured destruction," in which all sides have enough weapons to destroy each other and so theoretically won't use them. After Fred leaves, Grudge has a vision of his dead son seated at the dinner table and suddenly finds himself with the Ghost of Christmas Past, a WWI soldier (Steve Lawrence) on a transport ship full of dead soldiers. Grudge is taken back to his own past as an officer in post-war Hiroshima where he and a nurse (Eva Marie Saint) visit a doctor who is caring for several young women whose eyes and faces were burned away when they looked up at the blast. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) takes him to a camp full of starving displaced persons. In a vision of the future, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Robert Shaw) shows him a post-nuclear civilization which has adopted Grudge's belief against getting involved with others; a madman called the Imperial Me (Peter Sellers) espouses his philosophy of killing off other bands of survivors, followed by killing each other off until only one Me will be left. Of course, if you know your Dickens, you can guess how Grudge's philosophy changes the next morning.

This adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is quite unusual in many respects. It was produced as a TV-movie and aired only once, sponsored by Xerox and blatantly presented as propaganda for the United Nations. Written by Twilight Zone's Rod Serling in his heavily didactic mode, it was the only television work directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (ALL ABOUT EVE, CLEOPATRA). It's stagy but imaginatively shot and well-acted, the biggest surprise being singer Steve Lawrence (pictured above left with Hayden) who does a very nice job with Serling's preachy dialogue. Sellers (pictured) is a bit over-the-top (as is the entire future segment) but that's partly because he's not a character but a stand-in for an idea—isolationism taken to a personal extreme. The Christmas aspect of the plot is relatively minor, and Grudge's transformation at the end is not played with giddy joy—in fact, his change is much more subtle than Ebenezer Scrooge's, and not one that Grudge seems happy about. Perhaps the most you could say is that he becomes more tolerant of both his nephew Fred and the United Nations. I remember seeing ads for this show when I was a child and because of Serling's involvement, wanted to see it but didn't. I’ve been waiting over forty years, and thanks to Turner Classic Movies airing over this holiday season, I can cross this off my need-to-see list. If not exactly a classic, it is interesting and intermittently compelling. [TCM]

Monday, December 24, 2012

MIDNIGHT CLEAR (2006)

Over the past few years (as I'm sure I've said on this blog before), it has been difficult to find good Christmas movies.  The ones in theaters are all either bloated overdone kids movies (some OK, like ELF, some bad, like THE POLAR EXPRESS) or snarky plastic confections (the SANTA CLAUSE movies, CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS). The made-for-cable movies, which I’ve been reviewing on my blog for the past few years, are mostly sappy romances; they're watchable but forgettable. On my shelf of must-watch Christmas DVDs (about twenty), the most recent one is THE REF from 1994. It seems that now I must turn to independent Christian filmmakers for interesting Christmas movies. A few years ago I discovered a religious indie called NOELLE, which I reviewed on my other blog and which I liked very much. This year, I found MIDNIGHT CLEAR. It sat in my Netflix streaming queue for months, having two strikes against it: it was made by Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry B. Jenkins, the fundamentalist Christian co-author of the "Left Behind" series, and it stars a Baldwin brother other than Alec.  But I finally got around to watching it and am pleased to report that it has earned a place on my Christmas DVD shelf.

It takes place on Christmas Eve and focuses on the separate but related stories of five characters in a small Texas town. Lefty (Stephen Baldwin, pictured below)) has hit bottom: he's a divorced homeless alcoholic who has just been fired from a factory job and his ex-wife's lawyers are threatening to ban him from seeing his kids. Eva (K Callan (Clark Kent's mother on Lois & Clark) is an older woman who is alone at Christmas—though she has told people that she has family coming in—and is preparing to commit suicide with an overdose of prescription pills. Mary (Mary Thornton) is a wife and mother whose husband Rick suffered brain damage a year ago in a car accident and is in a long-term nursing facility; she's coping but is angry that so few members of the community have even tried to visit Rick, who is not in a coma but who is essentially non-communicative. Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis) was in the accident with Rick but not hurt badly; still, he misses his buddy's leadership with the church youth group of which he is now in charge, and is not happy that his pastor is making them go caroling, targeting folks who haven't been to church in a while. We don’t find out much about the fifth character Kirk (Kirk B.R. Woller) except that he runs a small gas station & convenience store outside of town and doesn't like his life very much—when folks come in and say "Merry Christmas" to him, his reply is an unenthusiastic "Yup." In the trend of recent indie films, most of the characters cross paths at some point. As Mary and her son are on the way out of town to spend Christmas with her family, her car breaks down in front of Kirk's shop and she tries to get him to help her out.  Mitch and the carolers wind up their unsuccessful evening of trying to get people back to church by calling on Eva. And so on. The stories have upbeat endings, even if they're not the endings that the characters would wish for.

Jenkins based this on a short film he made which itself was based on a short story by his father, and for all the unsubtle messages associated with writers of Rapture fiction, this (or at least this version of the original material) is surprisingly low-key. Though some of the characters are churchgoers, and the film's climax is set at Christmas Eve service, I don't recall Jesus being mentioned once. There are no angels, no fiery epiphanies, and no sermonizing (not even any snow, and very few seasonal decorations); and not all of the characters wind up at church in the end. As one critic noted, this is a very humanist Christmas story, all about making connections with people and the different ways in which a helping hand can be given (and received). Kirk's story has virtually no tie to the church, and Lefty's and Mary's only tangentially. The acting is good all around. That Callen can pluck your heartstrings with just a look and a pause is no surprise. Thornton is also very good; Jarvis (above left) has the least to do but is fine; Woller is, from start to finish, stuck in a very taciturn Gary Cooper-ish mold but he does what he can to hint at his character's inner feelings. The real surprise is how good Baldwin is. It's largely his movie to carry, at least in the first half, and he's excellent at conveying the emptiness and confusion inside Lefty which leads him, like Eva, to a suicide attempt which is the most powerful scene in the movie. We don’t know enough about his character to really sympathize with him—he seems to have brought on all of his problems himself—but we do empathize with his plight. Loneliness and/or loss are at the core of all the stories here, and somewhat predictably, it is someone else reaching out that helps the lonely people begin to heal. Still, despite the predictability of the outcomes, the way they all begin to rebound is sometimes surprising. The movie is not a comedy, but there are occasional light touches; at one point, when a seedy guy is very secretively selling Baldwin a gun in his garage, Baldwin says, "Why so dramatic? Are we on TV?"  I hate to oversell this, but at the least, it's a solid non-romance, non-kiddie Christmas story that should satisfy most fans of the season.  [DVD]

Friday, December 21, 2012

TRADE WINDS (1938)

Rich socialite Joan Bennett is called away from a party to the morgue to ID her sister, who killed herself. She goes to the man she thinks is responsible (Sidney Blackmer) and after being egged on by him, shoots him dead, then drives her car off of a ferryboat, making it look like she committed suicide. But instead, she changes her hair color and identity and goes to Hawaii. When clues crop up that she's alive and well, playboy detective Fredric March is sent along with somewhat bumbling detective Ralph Bellamy to Hawaii to find her and bring her to justice. They go from Hawaii to Saigon to Singapore, and are soon joined by March's secretary (Ann Sothern) who wants to claim the reward for catching Bennett for herself. Meanwhile, March meets up with Bennett and they fall in love; even Sothern, who finagles a job as Bennett's personal assistant, comes to like Bennett. With another cop breathing down their necks, Bennett gives herself up, but back in the States, March works feverishly to try and prove her innocence. This is an overlooked little gem of a romantic comedy/mystery, not manic enough to be a screwball, but with an energetic cast and a witty screenplay—Dorothy Parker and her husband worked on the script. The solution to the mystery feels a bit rushed, but otherwise, this is fun and worth watching. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

DOWN ARGENTINE WAY (1940)

Argentinean horse owner Don Diego (Henry Stephenson) sends his son Ricardo (Don Ameche) to New York to sell some horses, but instructs him not to sell any to Binnie Crawford (Charlotte Greenwood) because of a betrayal he suffered years ago at the hands of her brother. Once there, Ricardo is smitten by the lovely Glenda who wants to buy Don Diego's prize horse Carmelita, but just as he's about to finalize the sale, he discovers that Glenda is Binnie's niece and stops the deal but doesn't tell her why. Perturbed, she, accompanied by Aunt Binnie, follows him back to Argentina where shenanigans, misunderstandings, and musical numbers occur until this Romeo & Juliet couple finally get together. This lightweight musical is the first of the Fox Technicolor musicals of the 40s, the first big-budget movie to feature Betty Grable as a lead, and contains the first appearance of Carmen Miranda, who appears as herself—she has no dialogue, sings two nightclub numbers, and vanishes from the movie. The romance is clearly inspired by the Astaire/Rogers musicals but there are too many odd and unmotivated plot twists, and I never really cared much if Grable and Ameche got together. But Grable (pictured) is lovely and dances well, and Ameche is dashing and nails his accent for which I give him bonus points. Leonid Kinskey is amusing as a gigolo who squires Greenwood around Buenos Aries, and J. Carroll Naish has a small but important role as a horse trainer. I found some of the broken English dialogue amusing: "Allow me to deduce myself"; "He has a memory to forget" (about a forgetful person); a hotel room is described as having "a beautiful look over the city." The Nicholas Brothers provide, as they often did, the real highlight of the movie with their athletic dancing. The colorful DVD print is gorgeous. [DVD]

Friday, December 14, 2012

TRENT'S LAST CASE (1952)

Manderson, a rich American businessman living in England, is found dead in the garden of his estate, an apparent suicide. Crime reporter Philip Trent sneaks into Manderson's mansion and, with the implicit permission of Inspector Murch, begins his own investigation. Manderson's widow Margaret mentions that her late husband had been moody lately; is it because he suspected that she was having an affair with Marlow, one of his trusted private secretaries? Bunner, the other secretary, testifies at the inquest that Manderson was about to fire Marlow, but was it really Bunner he didn't trust? Had there been threatening letters from someone? And what about Cupples, Margaret's seemingly harmless uncle, whom the butler overheard arguing with Manderson the night before his death? Margaret finally tells Trent that her husband caught her and Marlow kissing and that's why he killed himself. But could Marlow have killed Manderson, then gone to great lengths to make it look like suicide? Or could Margaret have done it herself? Eventually, a long flashback scene shows us most of what really happened, though in a clever twist, it turns out that there is one last puzzle piece needed to wrap the case up.

This is based on a 1920s novel famous for being one of the first satires of the detective genre, but this version, though fairly light in tone, is hardly satirical; the screenplay makes it into just another B-mystery, albeit one acted quite good-naturedly with a standout performance by Orson Welles as Manderson, not seen until the lengthy flashback sequence begins an hour into the 90-minute movie. As usual, Welles makes the most of his screen time, pretty much wiping everyone else into the dustbin. Michael Wilding is cheerful but unmemorable as Trent, and the lovely Margaret Lockwood (pictured with Wilding) never gets a handle on her character. John McCallum is a little better as Marlow, but more fun are Hugh McDermott as the possibly unreliable Bunner and Miles Malleson as Cupples who plays a surprisingly crucial role in the case. There is never much at stake here, but the film is mildly enjoyable and gets even better when Welles arrives. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (1961)

In the Lancashire countryside, three siblings (Kathy, Nan and Charles, who live on a farm with their widowed father and his spinsterish sister) follow a farmhand down to the river and save the three kittens he had chucked into a burlap bag for drowning. On their way home, Charles asks a Salvation Army sister if she would like one of the kittens; she says no, but that Jesus will surely take care of it. The kids put the kittens in a box in the barn and when Charles says that Jesus will help, Kathy replies that Jesus can’t because he's dead. But that night when Kathy goes out to check on the kittens, she finds a bearded stranger asleep in the hay. She says, "Who is it?" and he awakens with a start and mutters, "Jesus Christ." Thinking he actually is Jesus, returned to the world, she keeps his existence a secret, afraid he'll be crucified again, and sneaks bread and wine out to him. Charles quits believing early on when he finds his kitten dead ("He’s not Jesus, he's just a fella," he says) but soon the word gets out to other schoolchildren who flock to see him, wanting to hear him tell Bible stories. He's actually an escaped and wounded murderer, and he tells them not to tell the adults about his presence. Eventually, though, word gets out and, in a wonderfully shot final sequence, masses of children race the police to the barn to see what fate this Jesus will meet.

One thing that makes this film worth watching is its tone. Some critics call this an allegory, which I don't think is quite right, but it's also about childhood innocence and it could have run the risk of being too sticky-sweet or sad. As it is, it captures quite nicely the childlike feeling that there might really be magic in the world, and the awareness that adults are all too likely to snuff that magic out. The general mood of the film is a balance between seriousness and whimsy; most of the interactions between the children and adults outside of their family is quietly humorous. The scenes with the stranger always have an undertone of danger; even though he never hurts the kids, he retains a feel of potential menace and never becomes a figure of fun or sentiment. Alan Bates does a nice job in the part, mostly acting with his eyes as he has little dialogue and no chance to build up a character as we learn almost nothing about him except that he killed someone. The other reason to see this film, something which contributes greatly to the film's tone, is the acting of the children. Hayley Mills (pictured with Bates) is very good, if a few years too old, as Kathy, but she occasionally feels a bit artificial next to the very natural performances of the non-pros playing her siblings: Diane Holgate as Nan and especially Alan Barnes as Charles who steals most of his scenes with his delightful performance. [YouTube; the print that has been posted is from a VHS tape and is not the ideal way to see the movie—many tracking problems and yellow and green smears throughout on the black & white picture—but this has not been released on a region 1 DVD as of this writing]

Sunday, December 09, 2012

HIS LORDSHIP (1936)
aka MAN OF AFFAIRS

Just as British subject Bill Howard is about to complain to the Emir of Kazra about the theft of his camel, the ruler is assassinated by two sheiks who are trying to destabilize the region. Howard finds the Emir's body and is accused of the murder. He escapes, disguised in Bedouin garb, and takes refuge with a British man resting in the marketplace.  Howard talks the man, Richard Fraser, into pretending that Howard is his servant. This gets Howard out of the country, but an international incident develops, and the two sheiks come to England demanding satisfaction, threatening an all-out war in Kazra unless certain economic demands are met. They also plan on bringing a Kazran prince who is being schooled in England back and setting him up as a puppet ruler. As it happens, Richard's twin brother Lorimer is the Foreign Secretary in charge of the talks. Lorimer is a tedious stuffed shirt whose public stance makes the situation worse, so with Howard's help, Richard connives to take Lorimer's place at the talks, hoping to expose the sheiks as assassins.

Despite the seriousness of the plotline, this is basically a comedy with the wonderful George Arliss doing double duty as the twin brothers (both pictured above). As Lorimer, Arliss makes a perfect pompous ass, and as Richard, he gets to do his usual shtick of helping folks out of bad situations and even doing a little matchmaking (between Howard and Lorimer's secretary). Romilly Lunge is blandly handsome as Howard, Rene Ray is sweet and cute as the secretary, and a young, exotic looking fellow named John Ford, in his only screen credit, plays the Kazran prince. Arliss is wonderful as always. If you don’t already know his work, this might be a good place to start if you can find it; it's a public domain movie which doesn't seem to be on video, but I saw it on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967)

Harry Palmer, former spy for MI5, is now a disheveled unsuccessful detective, but Ross, his former handler, breaks into his office one night to try and entice him back for a mission, to no avail. Instead, Harry gets a request, via a computerized voice on the phone, to pick up a thermos filled with eggs and deliver it to a Dr. Karnaa in Helsinki. But the delivery is made to a sexy woman (Anya) and her American lover (Leo) who live all alone on an island; Karnaa is dead and the eggs are being taken to a Texas oil millionaire (General Midwinter) who leads a fascist militia group called Crusade for Freedom. Their goal: to lead an armed invasion of Russia, which will be accomplished when Leo's vast army of spies disable the military with deadly viruses (from the eggs) and foment a people's revolt. The eggs were stolen from the British, so Palmer winds up working with Ross from MI5 anyway. Eventually, they end up in Texas where Palmer finds out that Leo has been cheating Midwinter, taking money intended for the army of spies and spending it on himself. Still, the millionaire leads a small band of troops to Russia for an armed invasion, from which, of course, no good will come.

This is the third of three Harry Palmer spy movies, based on books by Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine. Ken Russell directed this, his first major film, without the flamboyant over-the-top features he would bring to THE DEVILS, ALTERED STATES, and LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, but with a keen eye for landscapes, color, and lighting—check out the noir style-drenched opening scene—and the finale, in which the fascists, to a man, die out on the ice against a handful of Russian planes, is spectacular. The plot is easy to follow in the beginning, gets rather convoluted in the middle, but stick with it: all you really need to remember is that the Russians are the good guys this time. The only real plot problem I had involved the French femme fatale Anya (Francoise Dorleac); it's impossible to keep track of whose side she’s really on, and the end revelation that she’s been working for MI5 all along makes absolutely no sense. The location shooting in snowy Finland is lovely. Caine is good as is Karl Malden as Leo; Oscar Homolka is a Russian friend of Palmer's, and Ed Begley Sr. (pictured with Caine) is a real scene-stealer as the loony Midwinter, whose company's logo consists of the letters "MW" stylized into something close to a swastika. This isn't as serious as a LeCarre film would be, not as outré as the Bond movies.  It strikes its own unique tone and is well worth seeing.  [TCM]

Monday, December 03, 2012

KINGS OF THE SUN (1963)

An old-school adventure epic with stars, great locations, lovely use of widescreen, but only so-so writing and acting. A tribe of warriors conquer the Mayans and kill the old king; his son Balam (George Chakiris) leads his people to the coast where, despite being afraid of falling off the edge of the world, they set sail for a new land across the Gulf of Mexico to what is today Texas. An Indian tribe, fearing the Mayans, sends their chief Black Eagle (Yul Brynner) to investigate; he is captured by the Mayans and set to be sacrificed; Balam, who is against human sacrifice, wants to stop it, but Ah Min (Richard Basehart), his second-in-command, argues for continuing the ritual. Complications ensue: both Balam and Black Eagle are in love with Mayan princess Ixchel (Shirley Ann Field), and the warriors who drove out the Mayans land on shore, threatening both the Mayans and the Indians. This film isn't bad but it doesn't stand out from the historical epic crowd. It looks good, shot on location with a huge cast of extras in Mayan costumes. The culture-clash story is interesting, though the individual characters aren't especially compelling. Chakiris is OK in the beginning, but he can't compete with the charismatic, studly Brynner (pictured). I liked Basehart well enough, though his grey bun hairdo is distracting. Field is a rather bland love interest. The final battle scene is nicely handled. If you already have a taste for this kind of epic, this will be right up your alley. [TCM]

Friday, November 30, 2012

THE FIRST OF THE FEW (1942)

This wartime propaganda film and fictionalized biopic of British aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) begins in 1940 with pilots discussing the legendary Mitchell, designer of the famous fighter plane the Spitfire, and wondering whether he's living in Inverness or Canada, or even still alive. Flight commander Crisp (David Niven), a good friend of Mitchell's, tells his men Mitchell's story beginning in 1922 when he was inspired by the flight of birds to build better planes, making the wings fully part of the body and not just attached. Mitchell and Crisp, a test pilot, work together to build and race planes; in 1925, a plane that Crisp flies crashes in the ocean but in 1927, they win a race in Venice despite Mussolini's prediction of Italian victory. In the early 30s, two events affect the course of Mitchell's life: a friendship with Lady Houston, who, in trying to strengthen the British military, puts up a sign that says, "Down with the government! Wake up England!" in flashing lights on her yacht, and a trip to Germany which convinces Mitchell of the need for vigilance. He begins work on the Spitfire, a streamlined fighter plane (to "spit fire and destruction"), working himself into a state of exhaustion.  Despite initial indifference, the government comes around and commissions a fleet of Spitfires to be built. The sickly Mitchell hears the news from Crisp, then dies in his wheelchair while watching one of his planes fly past overhead. Howard and Niven work well together, and despite a full supporting cast, much of the film comes off as a 2-man show. The propaganda elements don't feel overdone, though apparently in real life, Mitchell never went to Germany. Howard (pictured, to the right of Niven) also directed the film—it slows down a bit in the middle but moves along fairly well—but didn't live to see its release; a plane he was in was shot down by German fighters. In America, this was titled SPITFIRE. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948)

Ann Todd is on a ship headed to England; her husband, a missionary, died in Jamaica of malaria. Ray Milland, a man whom we know is on the run from police, is also on board and suffering with the same illness. Todd nurses him during the trip and once both are in England, he searches her out and rents a room from her. She starts to fall for him, thinking he's a starving artist, but we know that he's actually a thief, art forger, and murderer. When his latest heist fails and he runs out of money, he tells Todd he's broke and will have to leave the country. She goes to an old friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) who married well and asks to borrow some cash. Here's where things get a bit tangled.  Fitzgerald is an alcoholic; her husband (Raymond Huntley) is a jerk; Todd gets a job as a companion to Fitzgerald, and, prodded by Milland, considers blackmailing Fitzgerald with some indiscreet letters from her youth. Soon, Todd begins to enjoy the shady life and becomes just as calculating as Milland. There are dueling blackmail attempts—Todd & Milland vs. Huntley, then Huntley vs. Milland—and a poisoning before the return of Milland's mistress brings things to a nasty climax.

This is a subgenre of film noir, the Victorian noir (GASLIGHT, UNCLE SILAS) closely related to the Gothic melodrama. The atmosphere is as dark and grim as any modern urban noir. What I like best about this film is that by the middle of the movie, there is no one to root for—everyone is amoral. Of course, that also means we don't really care what happens to anyone, and since it was made under the Production Code, we know everyone will get punished one way or another. Still, it's fun watching things fall apart. for all concerned. The acting is top-notch across the board, with Todd (pictured, with a blurry Milland behind her) giving the best performance as she goes from relatively innocent widow to scheming lover.  [TCM]

Sunday, November 25, 2012

THE MAZE (1953)

Kitty, her aunt Edith, and Kitty’s fiancé Gerald are vacationing in Cannes when Gerald gets a message to go immediately to Castle Craven, the home of his Uncle Samuel, lord of Craven. Weeks later Gerald sends a cryptic message calling off the marriage. Kitty and Edith read an obituary stating that Lord Samuel has died and they travel to the Scottish castle only to get a frosty welcome from Gerald, who looks like he's aged prematurely. He reluctantly agrees to let them stay while Edith recovers from a cold, but they must follow the rules of the castle to a tee, including letting themselves be locked in their rooms at night—and they hear about a cleaning lady who ignored the rules, was attacked by some kind of creature, and died. Nevertheless, that night when Kitty hears strange shuffling noises, she finds a secret passage that lets her see a strange figure in the garden maze. The next day she sees a wet webbed footprint in the hallway. What exactly is happening and what part does Gerald play in the bizarre goings-on?

This Gothic horror/fantasy film is long on atmosphere but short on horror. I won’t reveal the family secret—though most reviewers do because it is indeed a problematic plot point. It's not really the secret that's the problem, it's the way it's represented visually. If this were made today, CGI would allow a respectably creepy creature to be revealed, but in 1953, all they did was put a man in a ridiculous costume, keep him the shadows as long as they could, then cause a lot of unintended laughter when they had to show him. The film was shot in 3D and there are a number of strange or disorienting shots to highlight that. Richard Carlson (pictured) is OK as Gerald—his character could have been written better—but Veronica Hurst is lackluster as Kitty. This was directed by William Cameron Menzies, an art designer known for the visual style he brought to films like GONE WITH THE WIND and CHANDU THE MAGICIAN, but here he seems to have been stymied by a low budget and a script that promises more than it can deliver. Because I saw this in my youth, I have a soft spot for it despite its letdown of an ending, but I must say, let the viewer beware. [Netflix streaming]

Saturday, November 24, 2012

GOLIATH AND THE SINS OF BABYLON (1963)

The land of Neffer has been conquered by Babylon and a puppet king has been installed by the wicked Morakeet. Every year, Neffer must gather 30 young virgins to be sent to Babylon, never to be seen again. This year, a group of men led by the hunky young Xandros and the hunky slightly older Alceas are supposedly in gladiator training but they're using that as a front to make plans to get their virgins back by force. Regia, daughter of the previous king, should be the ruler but cannot take her place until she marries, and because of some arcane rule, she can only marry the man who beats her in a chariot race—and no man has, yet. The hunky Goliath, strolling through town on a bright sunny day, helps one of the virgins escape and is recruited to help with the full-scale rescue. 

Peplum films are the sword-and-sandal movies cranked out in Italy in the 60s, usually featuring an American actor (or an Italian actor with an American-sounding name) as a musclebound hero such as Hercules or Samson, though often the characters and situations are far divorced from their historical or folkloric contexts. In most of them, including this one, the main hero was actually named Machiste, a popular character going all the way back to Italian silent movies, but they were renamed for the American market—as well as, of course, being awkwardly dubbed into English. These films were generally marketed here as the stuff of kiddie matinees, but there were generous amounts of skin shown by males in loincloths and females in sheer gowns for adults who wandered into the theaters. Most of these movies have only been available lately in faded, full-screen, pan-and-scan versions, but seeing this one as it should be seen, in colorful widescreen gives one a whole new appreciation for the genre.  Mark Forest, our main hero here, has muscles, good looks, and some intelligence glinting in his eyes. Giuliano Gemma looks like an underwear model but is effective as the romantic lead Xandros, who tries to win Regia's hand. Mimmo Palmara is more serious (and more rugged) as Alceas. There’s also a dwarf thrown in mostly for comic relief—I kept thinking of Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones and expected him to start cursing and sleeping around. The skimpily-dressed women are in short supply here, but there’s plenty of beefcake for enthusiasts of such. The action scenes, including a battle between two ships and a finale which involves a city being trashed and set on fire, are good, and even better is a torture scene in which Goliath is tied down and spread-eagled on a table as spears shoot down from the ceiling, one of which is supposed to kill him. If you’ve never appreciated this genre, find the widescreen DVD from Retromedia and give it a shot. [DVD]

Thursday, November 22, 2012

7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964)

In the dying old West town of Abelone, Ed, the newspaper editor, has a thing for the young, lovely and repressed widow Angela, though she resists his come-ons. Ed and his sidekick Tim are fighting a two-man battle against businessman Clint Stark and his cronies who tell the townspeople they have two choices:  spend an inordinate amount of money fixing the water system or sell him their land and move on to greener pastures. What the town doesn't know but Stark does is that the railroad is coming to town and he will wind up making lots of money. Enter Dr. Lao, a mysterious old Chinese sage who brings his circus to town. Within the tents, pitched in the desert just outside of town, are strange folks claiming to be Merlin the magician, the ancient Greek blind seer Apollonius, Pan, and Medusa, and more. The townspeople turn out in droves and the circus performers do seem to be able to work magic:  Medusa turns a cranky old lady to stone, Apollonius becomes a truthteller when he tells the fortune of a gossipy old woman, and Pan appears to Angela, taking the form of a bearded, shirtless Ed, and suddenly she's in heat. Lao's agenda seems to be to get the townsfolk to face up to unpleasant facts about themselves, and also to stop Stark from grabbing their land. If a talking serpent can't straighten out Stark, maybe a tiny fish that Lao claims can transform into the Loch Ness Monster can.

This is a charming fantasy with an adult storyline that has been pitched to kids. When I first saw it at the age of 8, I liked the special effects but was confused by the various plot strands. As an adult, I can appreciate the narrative more, but the special effects scenes feel a bit like intruding gimmicks. Tony Randall plays seven roles, as Lao and all the circus denizens, and he's OK, though I imagine that Peter Sellers, for whom the role was intended, would have been much more interesting. John Ericson (Honey West's hunky sidekick on TV) and Barbara Eden are fine as Ed and Angela, Minerva Urecal (a twin for Marjorie Main) and Lee Patrick are fun as two of the town's women, and Arthur O'Connell is very good as the bad guy Stark, who ultimately isn't so bad after all. There’s a Ray Harryhausen feel to the movie, as some of the best effects (the serpent, the monster) are the results of stop-motion animation. This is a gentle Twilight Zone-ish fantasy that plays out almost as a mood piece, best seen perhaps on a quiet summer evening, though it could also work as a chaser after Thanksgiving dinner. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)

A remake of the influential 1940 special-effects epic of two warring tribes of cave people (existing simultaneously with dinosaurs) and the Romeo & Juliet romance that develops. This later version, naturally, has the edge over the older one as far as the effects, done by the master of stop-motion, Ray Harryhausen. And this one has the gorgeous Raquel Welch and the only somewhat less gorgeous John Richardson in the lead human roles. We're told at the beginning that we are in "a young world—a world early in the morning of time." We see the stark and unforgiving way of life that the Rock People, led by Akhoba (Robert Brown), lead, fighting over dead pigs for food and leaving the weak and elderly to die. Akhoba fights with the younger Tumak (Richardson), who tumbles off a cliff and is presumed dead. But the next morning, Tumak awakens, is chased by a giant lizard, and heads off to the shore where the Shell People live. Women out fish-hunting with spears find him and he helps them fight off a giant tortoise and a rampaging dinosaur. Tumak hits it off with Loana (Welch) and they head back to the land of the Rock People, but there's been some intrigue there: Akhoba, stuck on a ledge while hunting goats, is sent plummeting to this death by his rival Sakana. However, after Nupondi (Martine Beswick) does a sexy dance in honor of Sakana, Akhoba shows up very much alive and pissed off. There are more fights (including one between Welch and Beswick), dinosaurs, and finally a volcano before the end. This remake is more entertaining than the original due mostly the effects and the eye-candy stars. A poster from the movie of Welch in her fur bikini was ubiquitous in the 60s, and for that reason alone, movie buffs should see this. BTW, the version TCM aired includes Beswick's dance which apparently is not included in the current DVD release. [TCM]

Monday, November 19, 2012

LOVE AT THE THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE (2012)

Every year, I review at least one made-for-cable Christmas movie, and after a couple of years of slim pickings, there seem, thanks to the Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, and ABC Family, to be more holiday movies than ever. As usual they fall into one of two categories: fluffy romance or heart-tugging melodrama. This one, a fluffy romance, is a little different—instead of a Christmas romance, it’s a Thanksgiving romance, a variation on MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET—and there’s even a direct reference to the earlier movie, though there are enough Christmas trimmings here to make this appropriate viewing right up through December 25th. Emily (Autumn Reeser) is in charge of Chicago’s traditional Thanksgiving parade—think Macy’s but on State Street in downtown Chicago. This year, she’s worried when Henry, a rather aloof consultant (Antonio Cupo), arrives to potentially overhaul the parade and, in her eyes, ruin it or even halt it completely. Both are having relationship troubles: Emily has been with Brian, a slightly nerdy marine biologist (Ben Cotton; think Richard Dreyfuss in JAWS but less cute and funny) for years and assumes that when he returns from his latest trip that he will propose to her; Henry has drifted apart from his girlfriend Gretchen, accused of not understanding how to work at keeping a relationship alive. Of course, after a rough few days, Emily and Henry hit it off and smooth out each other’s rough spots—but what about Brian and Gretchen?

The movie looks colorful and shiny, and it helps that there is a fair amount of footage shot on location on the streets of Chicago, though I suspect that, with the number of Canadian actors here, most of the interiors were shot in Canada. The two leads are attractive, and after all, that’s what really counts in these cable TV romances, and I was pleased that Cupo’s “bad guy” personality was a bit more rounded than usual. Cotton was fine as the clueless biologist though his character could have used a bit more fleshing out (poor Gretchen gets almost no characterization at all, only present near the end to provide one more speed bump on the way to the happy ending), and Ali Liebert is quite likeable as Reeser’s best friend—more of her would have been welcome. The script could have used another draft; once it gets to the last 15 minutes, things are rushed and plotholes are exposed—I’m still not sure how on earth Cupo wind up in a Santa suit??—but given the genre, it’s fairly satisfying. [Hallmark Channel]

Friday, November 16, 2012

ORCHESTRA WIVES (1942)

At a recording session for a popular big band (played by Glenn Miller and his band), singer Lynn Bari breaks the news to the guys that Miller is about to start another tour. The married guys aren't happy about the disruption to their lives, even though their wives accompany them. Swinging single trumpeter George Montgomery and his buddy, swinging single piano player Cesar Romero, don't mind life on the road, until Montgomery gets all gooey for young fan Ann Rutherford who follows him to his next gig. They impulsively get married at midnight (so she can stay overnight with him) and next thing she knows, she's an orchestra wife, traveling on the train with the other wives. Rutherford is unprepared for the bitchiness and backstabbing that goes on among the womenfolk, and she’s also taken aback when she learns that Montgomery and Bari were an item in the past. Jealousy + gossip lead to major misunderstandings, and not only does Rutherford end up packing her bags and heading back home to her small town, but the band breaks up as well. Can things be set right for all concerned?

This rather routine comedy-drama has a couple of things going for it. It's one of the few times Glenn Miller appeared in a movie, playing someone other than himself—though it's clear that he and his band are playing only slightly fictionalized versions of themselves: aside from the GM monogram (his character's name is Gene Morrison), they play snatches of real-life Glenn Miller hits ("Moonlight Serenade" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo"), and band members such as Tex Beneke and Ray Eberle would have been recognized by the movie audiences of the day. Miller's not much of an actor, but the band members seem to be having fun, and the music, including "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" which became a #1 hit for Miller in real life, is wonderful. Another plus: The wild Nicholas Brothers get a dance number near the end. The acting is par for the course: Montgomery, Bari (both pictured above) and Romero fare the best; Rutherford's OK but on the bland side. There is a mildly naughty vibe throughout, with lots of emphasis on straying husbands and promiscuous boyfriends. Enjoyable, and a must for big band fans, even though I doubt it presents a realistic picture of life on the road. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

NO MAN OF HER OWN (1932)

Clark Gable makes a good living as a gambling con man, swindling rich men with his accomplice (Grant Mitchell) and his girl (Dorothy Mackaill), but when a vice squad cop gets on his tail and won't let go, Gable decides to lay low for a while and takes off for parts unknown. Mackaill wants to go along, but Gable says he's a "hit-and-run" guy and takes a train for the small town of Glendale, chosen at random as a getaway location. In Glendale, lovely young librarian Carole Lombard is chomping at the bit for something to happen, but nothing ever does. That changes when Gable crosses her path; he takes a shine to her, flirting outrageously with her at the library, arriving unannounced to sit with her family at church, and following her to a lakeside cabin. That night, on a coin toss, he agrees to marry her. He does, then takes her back to New York and tries to hide his no-good ways from her, even going so far as to get a stockbroker friend of his to loan him a phone and a desk so she thinks he's gainfully employed. But soon the cop is after him and he has to make a decision: leave Lombard and go on the run again, or stay and try to go straight.  There's also the little problem of Mackaill, who still holds a grudge.

Gable and Lombard eventually got married in real life, but during the making of this film, they remained strictly professional co-stars. However, the onscreen chemistry between them is hot indeed. The library scene, in which he gets her to climb a ladder to grab a book and then takes advantage of the view, so to speak, is great fun. We get to see Lombard in her scanties at the cabin, and later naked in a shower (obscured by fog and a wavy glass door). Gable remains clothed, but is just as sexy as she is, and most of their scenes together are delightful. The ending is a little too pat, but otherwise this pre-Code romantic drama, with a decidedly light touch, is well worth seeing. Also with Elizabeth Patterson and George Barbier as Lombard's folks. [DVD]

Sunday, November 11, 2012

DEVIL AND THE DEEP (1932)

Charles Laughton is a submarine commander stationed at a North African base.  His considerably younger wife (Tallulah Bankhead) has a reputation as a flirt, and the violently jealous Laughton has decided that she's having an affair with his young, handsome first officer (Cary Grant), though we know that he's just a friend. Laughton arranges to eavesdrop on the two, is disappointed in the results, but still arranges for Grant to be re-assigned. After she and her husband fight—and he threatens to kill her—Bankhead goes out into the night city streets alone, is caught up in a large crowd of whirling dervish dancers and becomes disoriented. A handsome stranger (Gary Cooper) comes to her aid; the two wind up at a desert oasis and (we assume based on the fadeout after their kiss) make love. She assumes this is a one-night stand, but come to find out, Cooper is Grant's replacement on Laughton's crew. Laughton, catching on to their intimacy, becomes unhinged when he finds out that Bankhead has gone to his submarine to warn Cooper about Laughton's jealousy.  With his wife on board, Laughton orders the sub to set sail and dive, then plots to send everyone, perhaps to their doom, to the ocean floor.

This movie was Laughton's first Hollywood role and, like he did as Dr. Moreau on ISLAND OF LOST SOULS the same year, he overdoes it a bit, acting like an overfed, mischievous child. This surface exaggeration does hide the depths of his perversity, but it also leads, in both movies, to scenes which make me giggle when I don’t think I should. Bankhead is exotic looking, but too often has a glum, hangdog expression, even when she's being romanced by Cooper. Grant is fine but only has a couple of scenes, leaving Cooper, still in his lush "male ingénue" years, to be the saving grace of the movie. The climax plays out nicely, but two other scenes are even better, stylistically: Bankhead's walk through the dervishes, and the phony-looking but still lovely and romantic nighttime desert scene with Bankhead and Cooper (pictured above). [DVD]

Thursday, November 08, 2012

STRUGGLE ON THE NILE (1959)

In the village of Luxor, Chief Gad, who is growing old and has gone blind, thinks it's time to modernize, so he talks the village elders into contributing money to a fund to buy a barge to replace their boat.  He entrusts his son Muhasab, on the edge of manhood, with the money, and sends him off with a crew led by Gad's right-hand man Mujahad to Cairo to sell the boat and return with the barge.  Muhasab is sad to leave his girlfriend Ward, but excited to be sent out in the world on an important errand.  Indeed, things get exciting quickly when, on their first night out, they stop and visit a rowdy carnival at which an exotic belly dancer named Nargis pays a lot of attention to Muhasab.  Unbeknownst to the men, Nargis is in cahoots with a wicked man from Luxor to steal their money.  Muhasab is robbed of his purse, but Mujahad goes back to the carnival and robs the robbers, so Nargis is sent to finagle her way onto the boat and eventually regain the money. She gets Muhasab to fall for her, but Mujahad has taken custody of the money, so eventually she goes after him as well. Even though Mujahad is more worldly and experienced and knows what she’s up to, he also falls for her charms, and the love triangle leads to near-tragedy.

I've never been exposed to Egyptian cinema before, and I suspect the only reason this film has surfaced on DVD is the presence of the young Omar Sharif as Muhasab. Stunningly handsome and charismatic, Sharif (pictured) is reason enough to watch this film, even though his character is a dunce, both in terms of common sense and morality; at practically every step, he does the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. I have to say that as a movie buff, I was pleased by the unpredictable turns of the traditional quest story; if this were a more conventional coming-of-age plot, we would see him learn from his mistakes, but he doesn’t really seem to, and even the wiser Mujahad gets unhinged by lust for Nargis. In fact, some reviewers liken this to film noir; I wouldn't go that far, but Nargis is certainly a femme fatale, and the scenes at the carnival wouldn't be out of place in an American noir of the 40s. Roshdi Abaza as good and maybe better than Sharif as Mujahad; Hind Rostom, called the Arab Marilyn Monore, is fine as Nargis. There's even a comic-relief sidekick character, a semi-mute who is sad to leave his little white donkey behind to go on the trip—his reunion with the donkey is actually the fade-out shot. At two hours, the film feels awfully long, especially in the last half-hour, but if you're up for something a little different, it makes for interesting viewing.  [DVD]

Monday, November 05, 2012

THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (1942)

As other reviewers have noted, this movie zips through several different genres, with horror, the one genre Universal pushed it as, being the least of them. The film opens on dark streets, like a film noir: Lionel Atwill is a doctor who is experimenting with suspended animation in his office in San Francisco (on Market Street, hence the title). He pays a man who is dire financial straits to be his guinea pig, but when the man dies, the cops come after him. Atwill, in disguise, escapes on an ocean liner headed for New Zealand (genre shift to shipboard mystery) where he kills a detective who was on his trail. When a fire breaks out, the film becomes a shipwreck story as Atwill and a handful of passengers wind up on an island inhabited by natives who don't much like visitors. However, Atwill manages to bring an island matriarch back from the brink of death, so the tribe lets the group live. Atwill is determined to continue his experiments, and the natives revere him, but the rest of the group wants to go back to civilization. Tensions mount, deaths occur, and a happy ending is in store for most everyone but the title character.

This is a movie I have long wanted to see; it used to air quite frequently on our local Chiller Theater, but usually as the second feature at 1 a.m., by which time I would be sound asleep. It's available now as part of the Universal Cult Horror Collection, though as I've noted, it's not really horror--only the "mad doctor" element allows it in, just barely. Atwill plays the part with relish, but the film is hampered by lumbering comic relief (Nat Pendleton and the usually reliable Una Merkel) and dull romance (Richard Davies and the usually reliable Claire Dodd). Ultimately it best belongs in the jungle melodrama category, and as such it has its moments, though the film is most atmospheric before the shipwreck. Also with Hardie Albright and John Eldredge. Mostly for fans of Atwill.  [DVD]

Friday, November 02, 2012

THE PIED PIPER (1972)

In 1349, a troupe of entertainers pick up a wandering pilgrim who sells religious relics guaranteed to keep away the plague, and a piper (Donovan), a man of few words who occasionally sings and strums a vaguely psychedelic-looking guitar. The troupe is planning to put on a show at the wedding of a baron's son (John Hurt) and a burgomeister's adolescent daughter (Cathryn Harrison) in the town of Hamelin, but when they arrive, they are told the town is under quarantine because of the plague and they're not allowed in. However, Donovan's piping outside the city gates causes the feverishly ill Harrison to get better, so the troupe is allowed in. This situation in the town is dire: the Baron (Donald Pleasance) is hoping for a big dowry from Harrison so he can use the funds to finish building a huge cathedral, but the burgomeister (Roy Kinnear) is in debt himself and has run out of ways to tax the people of Hamelin. Both men hope that a visiting papal nuncio will commit money from the Pope, but the nuncio first wants the village to send troops to Italy to join in a crusade. Kinnear, who can't pay his current soldiers, thinks it would be a good idea to send the town's children into battle. Harrison is friendly with a crippled boy (Jack Wild) who is an apprentice to a Jewish doctor and alchemist (Michael Hordern) who is working on a cure for the plague. However, his belief that the plague is carried by rats and therefore of natural causes clashes with the church's belief that the illness is divine punishment and that rats are merely heaven-sent messengers. Oh, and Wild has a crush on Harrison, who isn't really in love with Hurt. When a horde of rats appears in town, Donovan offers to send them away for a relatively small sum; he pipes a tune and the rats march behind him into the river to drown, but the town refuses to pay him, so as we all know from our childhood fairy tales, the piper takes his own reward: the town's children.

I had assumed from the title, the era, and the participation of Donovan that this would be a hippy-dippy, flower child telling of the folktale, but in fact it's a rather dark movie, with a strong anti-corruption, anti-church stance. Anticipating the look of Monty Python & The Holy Grail, the movie, though in color, is grimy and muddy looking, the only real standout colors being the blood red robes and hats worn by the church officials. Donovan has what amounts to a cameo role here; many critics complain about his weak acting, but he isn't called upon to do much--he only has a handful of dialogue scenes, and mostly he sings and pipes and strums, all of which he does well, adding a needed touch of whimsy to the gloomy proceedings. Hordern and Pleasance are two old pros who are in fine shape here. The only real weak link in the cast is Harrison, who is passive, petulant, and unlikable throughout--we never see what the poor crippled boy sees in her except a vaguely pretty face. Lesser names who stand out are Peter Vaughan as an odious bishop, Diana Dors as Harrison's slutty mother, and Keith Buckley as the head of the acting troupe. The most memorable scene involves a wedding cake, in the shape of the cathedral, which has been infested with rats. Not wholly successful, but interesting.  [DVD]

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

THE UNINVITED (1944)

Music critic Ray Milland and his sister (Ruth Hussey) are vacationing in England. While hiking in the Cornish cliffs, their dog chases a squirrel into a big abandoned house overlooking the coast. Following him in, they fall in love with the house—he's looking for a place to write music and a bright, airy studio room in the place inspires him—and they make inquiries. Gail Russell tells them it's not for sale, but her grandfather (Donald Crisp) says it is. The story behind the house: years ago, Russell’s mother fell off a cliff and died; Crisp wants to put it behind them and get rid of the house, but Russell is reluctant to let others live there. Milland and Hussey move in and immediately odd things begin happening: some rooms suddenly turn cold, mysterious crying is heard in the middle of the night, the housekeeper sees strange figures, and the scent of mimosa, Russell's mother's favorite scent, suddenly appears out of nowhere. Milland and Russell start dating, and he and Hussey hold a fake séance to try and put Russell at ease, but it backfires when Russell lapses into a trance and starts speaking Spanish. A woman who worked as Russell's nurse years ago fills in some backstory, and it turns out that there may be two ghosts haunting the house: the dead mother and the gypsy woman who modeled for Russell's father, and at least one of them may be out to harm Russell.

This is widely renowned as one of the best (and first) Hollywood ghost stories. In the first half, we assume that this is a psychological thriller, but it turns out there really are ghosts—who mostly remain unseen, though there are a couple of visual manifestations. The tone of the movie is unusual: though it is definitely spooky, it is also fairly light, almost comic at times, until the fairly intense ending set on the cliffs. It took me a while to remember that Milland and Hussey were related because they sometimes come off a bit like a married couple—Nick and Nora Charles without the cocktails. The actors are all fine, but it's the mood and look that make this movie worth re-watching—the house and cliffs are memorable. Low-key but perfect Halloween viewing. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933)

Heiress Gloria Stuart is turning 21 and her father (Lionel Atwill) has invited three of her admirers over for dinner: young William Janney, journalist Onslow Stevens, and older military man Paul Lukas. Janney mentions stories he's heard about the mysterious Blue Room, and Atwill tells its history: over a few years time, three people were found dead in the room, all under strange circumstances, with death occurring at exactly 1 a.m., and the room has been locked up ever since. Janney, trying to prove his courage to Stuart, announces his intention to stay the night in the room.  Stevens and Lukas immediately agree to do the same the next two nights. Next morning, Janney has vanished from the room, even though it remained locked from inside. Later that day, a strange figure startles Stuart, but disappears before anyone else sees him. The next night, Stevens goes up the room and is heard playing the piano until the stroke of 1, when the playing stops; he is found shot to death at the piano, the room once again still locked. This time, the police are called; inspector Edward Arnold arrives and tries to sort things out before Lukas takes his turn in the Blue Room.

This Universal film from the era of their classic horror films is more mystery than horror, though it has the requisite "old dark house" setting and events (strangers, secret passages)—and they use the same chunk of Tchaikovsk'’s Swan Lake over the credits that they used for Bela Lugosi's DRACULA. I have a bit of history with this film; the first time I saw it was on Halloween evening back in my early teens—I remember eating dinner on a TV tray with the movie playing and my parents attending to trick or treat. It spooked me back then, though now, it seems rather tame and static. The Blue Room itself is atmospheric, and Janney, Lukas, and Arnold give good performances. Stuart (pictured above with Janney), much as I love her, has little to do except look pretty and get scared. There are a ton of red herrings, and though I don't object to their presence, they sometimes give the movie a feeling that it's unfinished—for example, we never do get any explanation about the original Blue Room deaths, and the surprise about the dark figure that Stuart runs into seems to have been imported from a different movie. Still, I was pleased to see this one again on YouTube; it's never come out on DVD and for a time was considered a lost movie. It was remade twice, most notably in 1944 as MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM, apparently with lots more comic relief. [YouTube]

Monday, October 29, 2012

THE VAMPIRE’S GHOST (1945)

In the African village of Bakunda, the latest in a series of murders in which the victims have had their blood drained is causing fear among the superstitious natives. Plantation manager Charles Gordon and his girlfriend (Peggy Stewart) aren't troubled by the rumors of vampires, but the local priest (Grant Withers) is. Gordon goes to John Abbott, owner of the local gin joint, to see if he's heard anything through the grapevine. He notes that there is a witchcraft cult in a nearby village which might be the source of trouble, but while he's having tea with Gordon, a servant notices that Abbott has no reflection; she screams and the mirror shatters, and of course she tells no one what she saw. Sure enough, Abbott eventually confesses to Gordon that he is a 400-year-old vampire. Gordon is laid low with a fever and Abbott makes plans to take Stewart as his unnatural bride. The priest helps Gordon regain his health and willpower, but Abbott has already taken Stewart to the Temple of Death to make her his own. Can they arrive in time to stop him? And if so, how?

This B-horror film is much closer to the low-key feeling of dread of a Val Lewton film than to the blood-and-thunder thrills of a Universal film, and though it doesn't have the creepy, magical touches that make the Lewton films stand out, it is still worth seeing. Partly because of the exotic setting, several shots in the film reminded me specifically of Lewton's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, though this film doesn’t sustain that film's other-worldly atmosphere. Abbott (above right), with his quiet demeanor, dark, bulging eyes, and weary outlook is much closer to the more romantic vampires of recent films than to the bloody monsters of the 40s, and he is very effective. He can walk about in daylight, send mental messages, be rejuvenated by the full moon, and be killed only by a silver spear. In one particularly nice scene, his shadow falls on a sailor and kills him. Gordon is an attractive lead, if a little bloodless (no pun intended), but Stewart (pictured with Gordon) is forgettable. The screenplay is by science-fiction writer Leigh Brackett who wrote THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. This is a goodie for an October night. [Netflix streaming]

Friday, October 26, 2012

THE CATMAN OF PARIS (1946)

Charles Regnier is the author of a controversial novel about a 25-year-old murder trial; his work has rattled the government into doing some new research on the case. One night, Devereaux, a research librarian in possession of some papers from the case, is attacked and killed, clawed to ribbons is if by a cat monster. Regnier falls under suspicion, and indeed he is suffering from a recurrence of a jungle fever which gives him headaches, strange hallucinations, and blackouts. His friend Henry tries to watch out for him. Regnier is engaged to be married to Marguerite, but he has fallen in love with Marie, the daughter of his publisher. One night, after Regnier tries to break it off with Marguerite, she is attacked and killed in the same fashion as Devereaux, and a carriage driver who witnesses the attack is sure it was a "catman" who did it. After an altercation in a night club where Regnier is accused of being the killer, Henry takes him and Marie to a chateau outside of Paris to be safe, but it turns that there really is a catman after all—and Marie looks to be his next victim.

This B-film from Republic wants to be one of those moody Val Lewton horror films of the 40s (CAT PEOPLE being its primary inspiration). It doesn't quite succeed but it's unusual enough to warrant a viewing. The overstuffed plot could have used some ironing out: the murder trial/novel plotline is given a lot of attention in the first 20 minutes but basically goes nowhere. There is a brief explanation at the very end about the catman's transformations but it brings up more questions than it answers. When Lewton's movies had plot problems, there were philosophical and stylistic concerns to appreciate, but here, with less imagination on the part of the filmmakers and a fairly bland visual style, it's as if important plot points had just been trimmed out for time. The acting is nothing special: Austrian actor Carl Esmond, fine in supporting parts, makes an unexciting lead as Regnier; Douglass Dumbrille, as Henry, comes off as a poor man's Lionel Atwill, and everyone else is adequate if unmemorable. Still, it's good enough for an hour's viewing on an October night. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

GANJA & HESS (1973)

This film was marketed as a Blaxploitation-vampire movie but it's really an experimental art film about addiction, art, culture and religion.  It's interesting but with a narrative structure that borders on incoherent, it's hard to stick with, and is almost certainly the freakiest movie ever shown on Turner Classic Movies. Hess Green, a wealthy anthropology professor, has studied the ancient Myrthian culture and has a Myrthian dagger among the artifacts in his home. He hires an unstable artist named George as an assistant, and the first thing George does is climb a tree in his back yard and contemplate hanging himself. That night, George goes nuts, stabs Hess with the ancient dagger, and kills himself. Hess doesn't die—instead he becomes a sort of vampire: immortal, able to live in sunlight, and addicted to drinking blood which he gets by killing prostitutes and stealing blood from a blood bank. When Ganja, George's wife, arrives from Amsterdam looking for him, she moves into Hess's house and the two begin an affair. She discovers George’s body but that doesn't stop her from marrying Hess. He soon turns her into a vampire, but the two aren't happy.  He reads in a Myrthian document that the only way to die—get ready for a lot of prepositions—is to fall beneath the shadow of the symbol of the destruction of a powerful god (in a word, for Christians, a cross). Hess goes to a church where his chauffeur preaches and tries to get salvation, but in the end wants the cross's shadow. Ganja, however, has a different idea.

I must warn you that out of any 5 viewers/critics who write about this movie, you are likely to get 5 different plot summaries. Backstory is almost non-existent, except for the occasional moments when you're hit over the head with it, as in the opening moments when the explanation for Hess's vampirism (the word "vampire" is never used) is spelled out for us. Chronology is also a problem—in the first five minutes, we're told twice that he's a blood addict, but apparently he isn't one yet in the onscreen action until a few more minutes in. In style and tone, this is much closer to a French new wave movie than a Universal horror film. Bill Gunn, the writer and director, seems to be unaware of how human beings interact, and the performances, even down to the lowliest pimp and whore, are strangely mannered, giving the feeling at times like we're watching a filmed play translated from a language no one quite understands. Duane Jones, the hero of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Marlene Clark do the best they can do as Hess and Ganja; Gunn, who plays George (pictured at right), almost ruins the film with his pretentious, seemingly improvised and endless monologues about art and neuroses. His death scene, though, is a good one. A later sex scene between Clark and Richard Harrow as a dinner guest who she eventually kills is very well done. This film has quite a reputation now; I can't join in on the over-the-top praise, but if you want to see BLACULA as directed by Ingmar Bergman, go for it. [TCM; also on DVD]

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

THE ASPHYX (1973)

In Victorian England, a man (Robert Stephens) who belongs to a psychical research group discovers something unusual in pictures he took of mortally ill patients at the moment of their death—a dark smudge in the air near their head. At first, he thinks it's the soul leaving the body, but while he's filming his fiancée and his grown son canoeing on the river, the two have an accident and are killed, and on the film, the smudge is seen moving toward rather than away from the dying. Stephens theorizes that he's seeing the asphyx, a spirit that the Ancient Greeks believed appeared to the dying just moments before death. Stephens and his adopted son (Robert Powell) do some experimenting with a (literal) guinea pig and find out that a certain kind of light emitted through crystals can trap the asphyx and stop the being from dying. Now that they have an immortal guinea pig, Stephens decides to try and capture his own asphyx so he can become immortal, which of course entails putting himself in a state of near-death and having Powell operate the crystal light. What could go wrong?

This feels and looks like an understated Hammer movie and it probably could have done with a little more of the hot-blooded Hammer style. Its recent DVD release touts it as steampunk, which isn't too far off the mark—modern-day scientific gadgetry in the 19th century—though one problem with the movie is the fact that both the scientific and supernatural elements of the plot are barely dealt with in the narrative: the crystal light, the trapping of the spirit in boxes, and the background of the asyphyx itself are all just dropped in our laps, so to speak. A later plot point involving Powell writing down the combination to a safe in which the asphyx is to be put is very sloppily handled. Stephens and Powell are too restrained, like they're in a serious artsy drama, where the gusto of Christopher Lee or Vincent Price might have worked better. Speaking of Price, this plot seems pulled right out of the William Castle thriller THE TINGLER, though in that movie, the title being was a physical embodiment of fear that sprang from the body and could lead to death. The manifestation of the asphyx is a so-so effect but it does look pretty nasty. The movie is interesting at times and is beautifully shot; the Redemption Blu-ray disc makes it look like it was filmed yesterday. [DVD]

Sunday, October 21, 2012

LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971)

In 1830s England, a busty village girl is picked up by a cowled figure in a coach and carted off to the abandoned Karnstein Castle. She is sacrificed and her blood is used by the Count and Countess Karnstein to re-animate the corpse of Carmilla Karnstein, vampire, who laid waste to the village forty years ago. Using the name Mircalla, the young and lovely vampire enrolls at a nearby boarding school for girls—blond, voluptuous girls only, please. Meanwhile, a writer named Lestrange who is doing research on the Karnstein family becomes smitten with Mircalla and gets himself hired as an English teacher. He suspects Mircalla's secret, especially after a couple of strange deaths, as does another professor named Barton who approaches Mircalla begging to be bitten and turned into her acolyte. Lestrange makes love to Mircalla (while a pop song called "Strange Love" plays in the background--most assuredly not the Depeche Mode song) and she, seeming to actually be in love, spares him, but by the end, torch-bearing villagers storm the castle and all the vampires are defeated. This sequel to THE VAMPIRE LOVERS is inspired by the Le Fanu story Carmilla but plays out in a totally different fashion. The idea of two men's interests, especially Barton's, is interesting but not fully explored, though the scene in which Mircalla gives Barton (Ralph Bates) more than he bargained for is the film's best. Danish actress Yutte Stensgaard (pictured) is actually more effective than Ingrid Pitt in the earlier film—she's younger and acts with more gusto—and the same-sex frolicking is a bit more explicit here, but otherwise this is the lesser film, with some good narrative ideas which are left unexplored. Apparently Peter Cushing was supposed to play Barton and Christopher Lee was in mind for the Count (a very small role, just as it was in the earlier film) but it didn’t work out. Bates is fine, and a shot of Lee’s eyes from a previous Dracula film was used for a close-up here. Not an essential film, but fun to see if you’ve seen VAMPIRE LOVERS. [DVD]

Saturday, October 20, 2012

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970)

Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla is a classic of vampire fiction, and perhaps the most influential work of literature, second only to Bram Stoker's Dracula, on the vampire movie genre. This is a fairly direct adaptation of the story. The film's prologue has Baron Hartog defeating the beautiful Karnstein vampire by stealing her shroud, which she needs to return to her grave, and beheading her. Years later, at a ball given by General Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), a visiting countess (Dawn Addams) and her daughter Marcilla (Ingrid Pitt) show up, with Marcilla turning all the young men's heads. When the countess is called away suddenly to attend to a sickly relative, the general agrees to let Marcilla stay in his home for a time. Marcilla and Laura, the general's daughter, get along quite well, but soon Laura is ill, suffering at night from visions of a large cat attacking her and by day from anemia. Within days, Laura is dead with bloody bites marks on her breast, and Marcilla has vanished. A while later, Marcilla shows up again along with the countess in a nearby village using the name Carmilla and uses a similar strategy to insinuate herself into the household of Roger Morton (George Cole); she begins a "sexy best friend" relationship with his daughter Emma. The same stuff starts happening, though this time, it seems like Carmilla may actually have feelings for Emma, and she turns to some village wenches to get her fill of blood even as Emma becomes ill and bedridden just like Laura. The governess and butler start to see through Carmilla's actions, but using her erotic wiles, she gets them both on her side. After talking to the general, Morton realizes what’s going on, and he and Morton and an older Baron Hartog, accompanied by the handsome Carl (Jon Finch), discover the grave of a Mircalla Karnstein, figure out the anagrammed names, and attempt to stop the vampire once and for all.

This film probably started the lesbian vampire genre with its generous amounts of female nudity and one scene that approaches soft-core girl-on-girl action. But the sexual material doesn’t feel superfluous or overdone, and the movie is a very respectable vampire film even without the bare bosoms. Pitt, though sexy, seems a bit old to be cozying up to the young girls—she was in her mid-30s and looked it, while the actresses playing Laura and Emma were both in their early 20s. But Pitt gives a layered performance, especially in the last half when she clearly feels torn between her hunger for blood and her love for Emma. Cushing is good as always, and Finch makes for a solid hero. However, the best performance was from Kate O'Mara as Emma's governess who creates an interesting character in just a handful of scenes--that's Pitt over O'Mara at right. There are two beheadings, both of which are effective and quite graphic for the day. This film did well for Hammer and a sequel came out the next year which I'll cover tomorrow. The poster above is great, but absolutely nothing like that ensues in the film. [DVD]

Friday, October 19, 2012

PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954)

In early 20th century Paris, there has been a string of horrific killings of women; their rooms are broken into and smashed up by someone or something with brute force, the women left dead and bloody, but no belongings are taken. The only link (which we notice long before the police do) is that each woman was wearing a charm bracelet with tinkling bells. At first Inspector Bonnard suspects two young college students, but they have alibis in professors Dupin and Marais. Dupin theorizes that the killer is a sadistic schizophrenic; Marais has a theory about the killer instinct which he has observed in animal rats which are deprived and frustrated. There are more murders, and eventually Dupin, who attempted to chase the killer across the rooftops, is arrested. We know it's not Dupin, but we also know that there is a one-eyed thug who is caretaker to a dangerous ape which is kept in the private zoo of Dr. Marais. Could the respectable doctor be behind the murder spree? And could Dupin's girlfriend Jeanette be the next victim?

This thriller, first released in 3D, is loosely based on Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," generally considered to be the first detective story ever published. A few elements of the story are here, such as the murderous ape, the street name Rue Morgue, and the detail that witnesses to the crimes report hearing someone speaking in a foreign tongue. But the detective aspect of the story is largely neglected for an emphasis on gore and psychology. The murders are all quite brutal with lots of screaming and destruction. There are two standout scenes: one involves an attack on an artist's model in which not blood but red paint is spattered across her portrait just before she is killed; in the other, the killer smashes his way through a shop window and tears apart a mannequin thinking it's a real woman. The movie is very colorful and it looks like the 3D effects would be effective. The acting is not top-notch: Steve Forrest, quirkily handsome with blond hair and a thin mustache (pictured above), is OK as Dupin, Karl Malden is a bit better as Marais, though Patricia Medina is a zero as Jeanette. A very young Merv Griffin (at right) has a small role as one of the student suspects. This ignored thriller is worth a look. [TCM]

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

THE LADY AND THE MONSTER (1944)
DONOVAN’S BRAIN (1953)

Curt Siodmak, writer of many classic-era horror films (THE WOLF MAN, SON OF DRACULA, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) published a novel called Donovan's Brain in 1942. The basic story, about a disembodied brain that takes over a man's will, became a standard horror and sci-fi plot, and the novel was adapted for film twice in ten years. In the 1944 version, which takes several liberties with the novel, mad scientist Franz Muller (Erich von Stroheim, pictured) lives on the edge of an Arizona desert in a large house he calls a castle. With his Czech ward Janice (Vera Hruba Ralston) and a research scientist named Patrick (Richard Arlen), he's experimenting with keeping the brain alive after death. His work with monkeys has proved inconclusive, and when a small plane belonging to a rich financier named Donovan crashes in the desert and Donovan's dead body is brought to the castle, Muller cuts out the brain and manages to keep it alive—he knows it's alive because of the electrical pulses he records from it. Mrs. Donovan (Helen Vinson) and her lawyer/lover Eugene (Sidney Blackmer) find out what's going on, but they leave well enough alone; they know that Donovan's wealth was fake but suspect that he had a fortune stashed away somewhere and they hope that Muller will discover where. Soon Patrick discovers he can receive telepathic communications from the brain, falling into a kind of trance as Donovan's will takes over, and the plot thickens as Donovan's brain takes over Patrick's life.

In the second version, which sticks more closely to Siodmak's plot, Patrick (Lew Ayres) lives in suburbia, Janice (Nancy Davis, pictured with Ayres) is his wife, and Frank (Gene Evans) is an alcoholic but good-natured lug of an assistant. Patrick has managed to keep a monkey brain alive for a time, but when the body of a plane crash victim is brought to his house and he discovers the brain is still alive, he takes it out, puts it in a tank, and begins his experiments. It's all made almost wholesome here—largely due to the sunshiny setting and the bland niceness of all the three central characters. Soon, as in the earlier film, Patrick is doing Donovan's bidding, even to the point of turning into a version of Donovan, dressing, adopting a limp and ordering people around like the rich man did. It takes the combined will of all three characters to win out against the brain.

THE LADY AND THE MONSTER has the edge between the two films. It's more anchored in the Gothic horror tradition, thanks to some wonderfully atmospheric sets, good cinematography, and the presence of Erich von Stroheim as Muller—though actually, the monster of the title is really a reference to Arlen, whose face becomes sinister and deeply creased in shadows when he's being controlled by the brain. The narrative gets a little convoluted in the last half, and occasionally a narrator has to break in to explain things. Arlen is fine, as are Vinson and Blackmer; Ralston, a Czech figure skater, is known for her mediocre performances and she gives one here, rarely striking a believable note. DONOVAN'S BRAIN has a good performance from Ayres—he has fun being obnoxious when he's under the brain's power—and is mostly a sci-fi film, with a bit of a mystery vibe as the motives of Donovan's brain are less clear in this one. The 50s film has a clearer narrative, but the 40s film is more fun and looks better. [Netflix streaming]