Friday, June 29, 2012


This is the first talkie made about the Titanic disaster, but because of legal threats from the White Star Line, the filmmakers used the name Atlantic instead of Titanic, and used fictitious characters instead of real people. The movie begins at 11 p.m. on Sunday night with a vaguely ominous scene in which the ship's captain tells his crew not to say anything that might unduly alarm the passengers. There's a rumor that the ship is entering an area of water filled with ice bergs and floes and such—one of the officers, Lanchester (John Longden), says, "I wonder who sets these rumors afloat," one of the few bits of humor, intentional or otherwise, in the film. We spend most of the movie in the company of a handful of upper-class passengers who are drinking and playing poker (we see no one from steerage and only a few crew members). Chief among them are the elderly Mr. Rool (Franklin Dyall) who is confined to a wheelchair, and his wife, son, and pregnant daughter-in law; a minister whom everyone calls Padre; the tipsy, carefree Dandy (Monty Banks); and a bounder named Tate-Hughes who is cheating on his wife with a saucy young lady. About 20 minutes into the film, the ship hits an iceberg though no one takes the bump seriously until alarm bells start going off. Lanchester tells Rool, in his most melodramatic delivery, "The ship has three hours to live!" As women and children are called first, most of the pathos of the next hour involves decisions about whether or not to go (Mrs. Rool refuses to leave without her husband). The ship's band continues playing upbeat tunes trying to keep everyone calm, but the loading of the lifeboats becomes a helter-skelter affair; in one brief scene, two men get into a fistfight trying to get in a lifeboat until a crew member shoots them both. Dandy has a moment of hysteria, then calms down and joins the other men in the lounge to keep up their civilized drinking until the end. After the barful of men sing a drinking song ("Drunk last night, drunk the night before, gonna get drunk tonight like I've never been drunk before"), they hear the band launch into "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and we know the end is near.  

This British-made film has the usual weaknesses of an early talkie: overdone acting, awkwardly delivered dialogue, and no background score, but the scenes of panic at the lifeboats are well donejust don't expect anything like what James Cameron gave us in the 1997 TITANIC, or even what 20th Century Fox did in the 1953 TITANIC. A handful of the actors might be recognized: Madeline Carroll, as the pregnant wife, was the heroine of Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS; John Stuart, as Rool's son, had a long career with supporting roles in over 100 movies;  Longden, the officer (pictured at left in uniform), was a detective in Hitchcock's early thriller BLACKMAIL; Banks was married to comic actress Gracie Fields. Rather than attempt a spectacular special effect as the ship finally sinks, the screen instead goes to black and we hear the awful roar of hundreds of people facing their doom—it's quite effective. It's a bit strange to realize that this was made less than 20 years after the real disaster, so most of the survivors would still have been alive. [YouTube]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Mystery writer Bette Davis lives in a large house on the outskirts of an English village. Her husband has lived apart from her for some time, though he's returned recently and stranger Gary Merrill has come looking for him. Surprise #1: hubby and Merrill were partners in crime, and Merrill has come looking to get his half of the stash from a recent bank robbery. Surprise #2: Davis has just killed hubby because he was an abusive blackmailer. When the nosy village animal doctor (Emlyn Williams) drops in, Merrill poses as the husband, since few of the locals had actually met him. Meanwhile, Davis is carrying on an affair with the handsome and considerably younger Anthony Steel (pictured), the boyfriend of her secretary. Oh, and Davis has a horse named Fury. All these plot strands eventually collide, leading to full-blooded melodramatics, a couple of outlandish plot contrivances, and a poisoning (hence the title). This isn't a great movie, but it's fun, mostly due to Davis' over-the-top performance, puffing on cigarettes, tossing her hair around, and braying at anyone in earshot. She gets to toss off a few fun lines now and then. When Steel and Murray arrive not long after Merrill, she announces, sounding like Margo Channing, "The night air teems with unexpected guests." Later she says to Steel, "For a man, you have disgracefully long eyelashes." No one else can keep up with her, though Merrill, her real-life husband at the time, is fine, and the sly Williams almost steals a couple of scenes. It's based on a play and, despite a few scenes shot in the great outdoors, is stagy throughout, though with the house being so dark and gloomy, it feels like a film noir that might turn into a horror movie at any moment. [TCM]

Sunday, June 24, 2012


After a star-making whirlwind tour, singer and dancer June Haver decides to settle down for a while and buys a home in Scarsdale.  She thinks she's moving to a rustic place "out in the country," but she's actually got a huge, ultra-modern suburban house, complete with charming next-door neighbors, widowed comic-strip artist Dan Dailey and his young son, Billy Gray.  They meet cute during her huge house-warming bash when a flock of pigeons and some barbecue smoke from his yard almost squelch the fun in her yard, but soon they’re quite the cuddly item—until Gray, feeling the father-son bond threatened, expresses his disapproval of his dad’s new beau.  This leads to the usual hurt feelings and misunderstandings that crop up in Hollywood domestic comedies until the pre-ordained happy ending in which the three of them work it all out.

For a time, this is a breezy, colorful, well-paced musical comedy.  Haver and Dailey have good chemistry and create characters that keep threatening to be interesting, and they get good support from Dennis Day, as her agent (pictured between Haver and Dailey), and Cara Williams, as her close friend.  Their characters are flat but their mismatched romance provides some humor.  Billy Gray, best known as Bud on Father Knows Best, is fine, and Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell on Gilligan's Island) appears briefly as a buzz-kill babysitter.  There are quite a few songs, most memorably the opener "We Girls of the Chorus" which plays out under the credits, and Dailey and Haver get some good dances.  There are also a couple of cute animated sequences in which the human characters are presented in the form of Dailey's comic strip characters.  But when the relationship story between Haver and Dailey gets derailed by Gray's jealousy, it all slows down and becomes too predictable.  Still, I enjoyed this little-known film and would recommend it to fans of the small-scale 50s musicals. [FMC]

Friday, June 22, 2012

MORE (1969)

Handsome Stefan, a recent college graduate from Germany, decides to take some time to travel through Europe to find himself (it was the 60s, after all) before settling down. In Paris, he loses all his money gambling, but he makes friends with the scruffy Charlie who helps him out. Soon he meets up with American girl Estelle. Charlie warns him about her but he falls for her anyway; they get high, have sex, and make plans to meet in Ibezia where she lives at a hotel run by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Wolf who is rumored to be an ex-Nazi. When Stefan gets there, she proves hard to find, and when he does find her, she's a little weird and distant, and shacking up with a woman named Cathy with whom she is obviously on intimate terms.  It's also possible that she's boffing Dr. Wolf. Eventually, Stefan gets Estelle to go away with him to a deserted part of the island and they romp about uninhibitedly, sunbathing in the nude, getting high and having more sex (it was the 60s, after all). Paradise is lost, however, when Cathy stops by, looking for some heroin—apparently Dr. Wolf supplies it to some of the locals.  Soon Stefan finds Estelle passed out on the rocks and decides he wants to try some of this stuff.  Things go downhill from here as the two go through cycles of addiction which they try to break by taking acid.  Ultimately, Estelle is left to an unknown fate and Stefan, hunting for her, shoots up in an alleyway and dies with a mangy dog sniffing around his body and only Charlie there to mourn him.

Like THE VALLEY, which was made three years later, this is an early Barbet Schroeder film with a Pink Floyd soundtrack and a druggy 60s vibe.  However, despite the era and the trappings, this is neither a psychedelic trip movie nor a "just say no" message film.  The various instances of folks getting high are shot objectively with no colors or effects or frills. There is much more Pink Floyd music here than in THE VALLEY, but there is less plot and, if possible, less characterization.  It's difficult to sympathize with either lead character because they are both zeros, in personality and in backstory. The actors, Klaus Grunberg and Mimsy Farmer, are pretty and their acting is adequate, but Schroeder hasn't given them much to work with.  Michael Chanderli as Charlie actually has more personality than either lead. At one point, Grunberg relates a story about a cult of sun-worshippers in India who sit in the sun hoping for sensation or enlightenment until they shrivel up and die, and I think that's supposed to illuminate the narrative (there is a lot of sun and searching for sensation), but really, I think everything this movie has to offer is on its surface. I liked one of Grunberg's pronouncements about his Germanic personality: "Where's pleasure without tragedy?" That could also illuminate things, but the pleasure presented here is pretty sparse. [DVD]

Monday, June 18, 2012


A man (John Miljan) wakes up in a mansion, confused, unsure of his whereabouts, apparently a victim of amnesia.  He questions his butler who tells him he is the wealthy Jerry Werrenden.  But Miljan isn't quite as confused as he seems; he punches the butler in the face, knocking him out, then interrogates him again, getting him to admit he's an actor hired to play a butler.  Miljan does remember who he is: a gentleman thief known as the Sparrow.  Soon he finds out what's going on. Werrenden's wife Chloe (Shirley Grey) has conspired with Colton (Monroe Owsley), her husband's business partner, to swindle hubby out of $200,000 of bonds, supposedly the last of the estate that Werrenden has frittered away.  Miljan is a dead ringer for the husband, so the two drugged him (in circumstances not made clear) and kidnapped him in hopes that he would help them out.  He agrees to pose as Warrenden, meet the family banker, known as the Colonel (Hale Hamilton), and accept the bonds.  That meeting seems to go well, but on the receipt for the bonds, the Colonel has penned in $300,000 instead of $200,000.  Who's conning who?  And where's the husband during these shenanigans?

The plot twists and turns continue, but it wouldn't be fair to spoil the rest of the surprises in this interesting pre-Code film.  The story is quite clever, but because it's from a Poverty Row studio (Invincible Pictures), the production isn't quite up to par, so much of the plot is unveiled through dialogue and exposition rather than action.  Suffice to say that by the end of the movie, practically every character has been shown to be guilty of something either illegal or immoral and yet only one gets punished in any sense of the word, and even that one manages to elude the law.  All the actors are fine; Miljan is a bit bland in a role that William Powell could have done better in his sleep, but he's alright.  Grey, who never broke out of B films, has a bit of a Myrna Loy thing going on, and Owsley (in my eyes a dead ringer for Paul Reubens--pictured above with Grey) makes a nicely slimy character.  Available on DVD from Alpha, and though it's a dicey print, it's definitely worth watching.  [DVD]

Thursday, June 14, 2012


This little-known movie was marketed as a horror film along the lines of the period shockers which came out from Hammer and American International in the 60's, and the recent DVD is similarly pitched, but I suspect horror fans would be disappointed.  The deceptive ads are a shame because this is a well-made Gothic melodrama, rather like a PBS adaptation of a Bronte novel.  John Turner is an English lord who returns to his estate with a new wife (Heather Sears).  His homecoming is not happy: first, villagers think that Turner is responsible for the brutal murder of a young woman in the woods a few days earlier, though he insists he was far away with Sears.  Second, the ghost of his first wife, who killed herself a few years earlier, has been seen around the house.  Turner's father (Raymond Huntley) is mute and wheelchair-bound due to a stroke, and relies on Ann Lynn, the sister of Turner's first wife, as his caretaker--she's the only one who can interpret his sign language.  Other characters include an accountant (Peter Arne) who seems suspicious from the word go, a butler, a burly blacksmith, and a local slattern who you know will wind up dead.  The solution is not supernatural at all, and is in fact easy to figure out, especially if you are at all familiar with Gothic novel conventions, but the movie is still quite watchable.  It actually seems better made and acted than the average Hammer/AIP shocker of the era (and it looks OK, although the widescreen movie should have been letterboxed by Image for their DVD).  Turner makes a good hero (or is he a villain?) and Arne is fine as well.  Worth catching as long as you're not expecting blood and monsters.  [DVD]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


On a cruise ship docked in Istanbul, American Richard Denning is given the brush-off by the French Lisa Ferraday, who leaves the cruise and is given a job by the shady Donald Randolph:  impersonate an exotic dancer named Marie, the Flame of Stamboul, go to Cairo, seduce a rich Egyptian, and steal some jewels from his collection.  In Cairo, a very drunk Denning gets off the cruise ship and goes to the club where Ferraday is performing, making a scene and getting slipped a mickey by the bartender (Nestor Paiva).  However, the next morning, we discover that Denning is a spy and Paiva is his local contact.  Their assignment, which in good Mission: Impossible style will be disavowed by the U.S. consulate if they are caught, is to find out the identity of a powerful spy known only as the Voice.  Of course, it turns out that 1) Randolph is working for the Voice; 2) Ferraday doesn't realize that she will be, too, when the assignment changes from stealing jewels to stealing top secret defense documents; 3) Denning figures out that Ferraday is the Flame but doesn't know how much she knows about her criminal friends.  Norman Lloyd appears as an American crook who has a past with Denning; he works for the Voice, but is willing to switch his allegiance to Denning for enough money.  George Zucco, who mostly only appears in deep shadow, is the mastermind Voice, and after some fisticuffs, torture, murder, and some apparent double-crossing, the climax occurs at his dark den.  

What this 50's Columbia B-spy thriller has going for it: an atmosphere like that of a 40's Warners B-spy thriller, a solid 20 minutes or so in the beginning, and good supporting performances: from Lloyd (who in his relatively small role, steals every scene he's in), from the handsome Randolph (who comes off as more exotic than the leading lady) and Zucco (pictured above, to the left of Lloyd), in one of his last roles before he had to retire due to ill health--which probably explains his lack of physical activity in this movie; he is mostly seen sitting down.  Denning is a B-movie hunk (meaning in good shape with a comic-book hero jawline, but generally colorless) who strikes no sparks with the bland Ferraday, who doesn't even dance very well.  Still, the plot had just enough twists and turns to keep me interested.  [TCM]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)

In the future, possession of books is forbidden—imagination leads to unrest with reality and feelings of inequality—and since all buildings have been fireproofed, firemen are now enforcers, setting fires, burning caches of books that some poor souls have kept, and sometimes burning the houses in which they are found. Montag is a fireman who is unhappy with his family life; his wife Linda, like most people in this society, are perfectly happy not to read, and just to watch TV shows which present constant soap opera narratives in which the viewers themselves can sometimes play a part.  This has also led to him becoming curious about the content of these books (everything from Lolita to Dickens to Mein Kampf), and he has begun sneaking home a book or two from each fire he helps set. Just as he's about to get a promotion at work, he becomes involved with Clarisse, a young neighbor girl who, he soon discovers, belongs to a secret society of book-readers.  After his wife overdoses on sleeping pills—a common event in this society which is treated as a minor medical call by two technicians who pump her stomach and replace her blood—Montag participates in a book burning at which the woman caught with the books kills herself by dropping a match on the kerosene-soaked books. This shakes him to his core and when Clarisse's house is raided and she vanishes, he becomes a rogue fireman, on the run to find Clarisse and the book people.

When Ray Bradbury died last week, I was truly sad.  The first "adult" books I read were Bradbury short story collections, and his atmospheric fantasy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes remains one of my most-loved books. Oddly, I had never read Fahrenheit 451, maybe because I saw the movie when it came out—I would have been 10 or 11—so I re-watched this film, directed by Francois Truffaut, in anticipation of finally reading the book. Even when I was young, this struck me as an odd movie. For starters, it's set in England, not in Bradbury's beloved Midwest. It was Truffaut's first English-language film and has a very European feel that makes it feel even more distant from Bradbury. The futuristic visual elements are sparse—widescreen TVs, furniture—though the book burnings are shot nicely, and the powerful scene of the Book Lady starting her own fire (pictured above) is in many ways the climax of the movie, even though it comes about 30 minutes before the end. Oskar Werner (below) is fine as the closed-up, confused Montag, and Cyril Cusack is equally good as his boss, who always refers to Montag in the third person. Both Linda and Clarisse are played by Julie Christie, to neither the betterment nor detriment of the film, though Christie herself is fine in both parts.

The film (and the book, which I've just finished) remains relevant today for several reasons, one of which is the creepy way in which Bradbury "foretold" the coming of reality TV. The book is even more specific about the lack of imagination which has led to people wanting to be entertained in short bursts and only by "real-life" stories. It's not hard to imagine that today's viewers of Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Ice Road Truckers have no interest at all in reading at length about things and people and philosophies that are outside their own immediate sphere of interest.  In later years, Bradbury was quoted as saying that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship as much as lack of imagination, and indeed, both movie and book are vague about the politics and history of the loss of books; in the novel, he says that official censorship wasn’t necessary—the people banned books themselves. Still, images of burning books will always conjure up battles of censorship, from Nazi Germany to Harry Potter, so I think on this one, Bradbury got it wrong: whatever he intended, it is about loss of imagination and censorship. A movie worth seeing, but don't be like me and wait 40 more years to read the book, which, of course, is better. [DVD]

Friday, June 08, 2012


The fifth movie in the Whistler series, a string of B-thrillers related only by a narrating character known as the Whistler whom we only see in shadow.  In this one, Richard Dix is an aging and somewhat shady private eye who agrees to help an old man who runs a phonograph store who is desperate to find a young girl from his past named Elora Lund.  A couple days later, someone claiming to be Lund shows up and the old man tells her he has some valuable property that once belonged to her mother, but before he can get it, a thug named Pontos breaks in, kills the old man, and kidnaps the girl.  It turns out the girl was just an accomplice of Dix's named Freda so she's freed, but soon the real Lund shows up, having read a newspaper story about the incident.  The treasure is a small stash of rare wax cylinder recordings made by famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind.  Pontos winds up killed by the cops, and Freda, who's not been on the up-and-up about her role in all this, isn't long for the world, either.  Who is Dix going to work for, himself or Lund?  And who is the mysterious person willing to kill to get the recordings?  The mystery story is fairly well worked-out, and there's a good supporting cast here, including Mike Mazurki as Pontos, Regis Toomey as Freda's landlord, and Barton MacLane and Charles Lane as the cops.  Dix is the weak link; playing a second-rate Sam Spade (of more ambiguous morality than Bogart's detective), he's drab and sluggish, and MacLane and Lane outshine him, though a cardinal rule of this kind of movie is that the detective, whether he's good or bad or conflicted, should always be more interesting than the cops.  This is not a total failure, but despite its short running time (60 minutes), it drags more often than it should.  [TCM]

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


This historical melodramatic comedy of manners (based on the life of a real person, or at least the book he wrote about himself) should have been more fun than it is; everyone seems to be working at half-energy. George Sanders is Eugene Francois Vidocq, born in a prison in 1775, raised in the gutter, and when we pick up his story—told by himself in flashback—having just escaped prison with his pal Emil (Akim Tamiroff). On the way to Paris, the shabby twosome stop in a village where they are recruited by an artist to pose for a painting of St. George (the presentable looking Vidocq, pictured) on a horse fighting the Dragon (the scruffy Emil). When the painting is finished, they steal the horse and more disreputable adventures begin. Vidocq takes his name from a gravestone while he's being charming to a rich lady (Alma Kruger) so he can get his hands on her jewels, though he's also being charming to Kruger’s sweet, wholesome daughter and to a cabaret singer (who happens to be "dating" the chief of police ). He steals the jewels while the police chief (Gene Lockhart) is an overnight guest at the house, then to show him up, pretends to do some sleuthing to find the jewels before the police can. Lockhart is demoted and Sanders winds up being given the position of Chief. He installs Emil and a bunch of cronies as employees in the Bank of Paris, intending to pull off a huge robbery, but soon love (not to mention his earlier stint at St. George which comes back to haunt him) has him contemplating turning over a new leaf.

This being made under the Production Code, Sanders can have lots on larceny in his heart, but can't get away with too much of it if he's to wind up the hero. Most of the film has a light satirical tone, though the plot takes some dark turns near the end with the murder and suicide of two major characters. Sanders is fine in the last half, but I think the part could have been carried off better by someone with more verve, an Errol Flynn type, perhaps. Carole Landis is the singer and Alan Napier is Kruger's husband. This was directed by Douglas Sirk, before his turn toward glossy Technicolor melodrama in the 50's (MAGNIFCENT OBSESSION, WRITTEN ON THE WIND). The whole thing seems a little too calculated and distant to be fun. I did enjoy Sanders' droll observation about adultery: "Sometimes the chains of matrimony are so heavy, they must be carried by three." [DVD]

Sunday, June 03, 2012


Young punk Keir Dullea gets out of prison and his buddy (Don Joslyn) takes him to see a guy (Don Murray); it seems like they're planning a heist, but Murray is actually a Catholic priest and teacher who feels his mission is to tend to street people and the down-and-out who already have two strikes against them.  Instead of going to a parent/teacher conference meeting, Murray spends the night at a seedy jazz club tending to members of his flock, which gets him in trouble with his superiors. After Dullea gets involved in a fistfight, Murray finds a high-powered lawyer (Larry Gates) to represent the boy; he also gets Dullea a job at a food-packing plant, though the boss' brother resents Dullea's presence.  Dullea also strikes up a relationship with a rich girl, but things go south quickly when Dullea is accused (wrongfully) of stealing from his place of work and is fired; Dullea and Joslyn pull a robbery at the plant and accidentally kill the brother. Murray and Gates, who are trying to build a halfway house for young wayward men, keep fighting for Dullea, but ultimately they cannot stop the state from executing him. In the last scene, just before the halfway house is set to open, Joslyn, in a fit of rage over Dullea's death, breaks in, trashes a room, and passes out before Murray gently puts him to bed.

Based on the true story of Father Charles Dismas Clark who actually did start such a halfway house in St. Louis called Dismas House (named after one of the thieves who was promised heaven when he was crucified with Christ) which is still in operation. Though the film is meant to be inspirational, it doesn't avoid the grimness of its subject, nor does it make Clark into a saint; as is pointed out by other characters, not all of his moves, well intentioned as he is, are kosher (so to speak). The handsome and stalwart Murray (pictured to the left of Dullea) is good, especially in a climactic scene where he tries to talk Dullea into giving himself up while the police are trying to smoke him out of an abandoned slum building. I especially liked Larry Gates, best known for a long-running role on The Guiding Light, who made his character's concern with and for the priest seem real. The opening sequence, before we know what's going on, feels like the tense prelude to a gay 3-way. The look of the film alternates between artsiness and cinema vérité and generally works nicely to accentuate the mood.   [TCM]