Sunday, July 29, 2012

SKY LINER (1949)

Eakins, a State Department man, is heading from New York to Los Angeles to give an important speech, but before he can get out of his office to board his plane, Amy, his secretary (who is also a dirty spy), calls her contact Smith to tell him that top secret papers have been delivered to him. Moments later, Smith kills him and steals the papers, then boards the plane under Eakins' name and sits with Amy. When the plane lands for a quick stop in Chicago, foreign agent Bokejian gets on, planning to buy the secret info from Smith, but Smith holds out for more money. Bokejian reluctantly gives it to him, but is understandably upset when the papers he paid so much for are blank. He kills Smith in the restroom and when the body is discovered, an FBI man on board takes control, hoping to solve the case before the plane lands.  

A couple of critics have called this a B-movie Grand Hotel in the air—storylines of several people who interact in a confined space—though with very little character development, that comparison is too generous (to be fair, the print I viewed was 12 minutes shorter than its length of record at IMDb, so I may have missed an entire reel). There are a few characters who are peripheral to the main action, including a young newlywed couple, two nervous old ladies, and a jewel thief who becomes important to the plot at its climax, which plays out far too quickly to be exciting. Richard Travis as the FBI man (pictured above, in the middle) is good, far better than he was in his Warner Bros. days (he was dismal as Bette Davis' suitor in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER). Pamela Blake, as the stewardess who helps save the day, doesn't have much to do; more interesting are Rochelle Hudson as Amy and Steve Pendleton as Smith—I was almost wishing they could get away with their swindle.  This low-budget indie film's production values are passable, though process shots of the plane flying through fog are terrible, resulting in what looks like a ghost plane in the sky.  [DVD]

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A NIGHT IN PARADISE (1946)

In 560 B.C., the famed storyteller Aesop, aged and stooped, arrives in the land of Lydia days before the wedding of King Croesus to the lovely Princess Delarai. The king's counselor Leonides warns him that Queen Attosa, whom he was supposed to marry but didn't, and cheated out of a treasure of gold to boot, will use sorcery against him. Attosa has indeed called on the gods for help with her revenge, and she appears as a ghostly vision to pester Croesus. The king asks Aesop for help, but Aesop has his own problems: Attosa is haunting him, trying to get him in on her plans, and he finds himself falling in love with Delarai. It turns out that Aesop's appearance is a disguise—he says, "The world will only accept wisdom in the cloak of age and suffering"—and in reality he is a handsome youth. Without old-age makeup and under the name of Jason, he begins to secretly woo the princess. 

This is a later entry in Universal's series of exotic fantasies, most of which featured B-stars Jon Hall and Maria Montez. The two are missed here—instead we have Turhan Bey (pictured), who is OK but very low-key as Aesop, and Merle Oberon, a former A-list star who seems to have slipped a bit; she looks the part but doesn't put much effort into her acting, perhaps sensing that, with a mediocre script and a drab leading man, the film couldn't be saved. Thomas Gomez is one-note as the King, leaving Ray Collins (Leonides) and Gale Sondergaard (Attosa) to steal the show in their relatively small roles. The Technicolor sets look good (though the print shown on TCM was a bit on the dark and faded side), and there is some fun to be had with the thread of bawdy humor that runs through the film. Early on, when a slave is polishing a huge statue of Aphrodite and is caught in its cleavage, someone remarks, "That's as close to Paradise as he’ll ever get." Later, there are some puns on people being entwined and enmeshed, as in lovemaking. Look fast and you'll see supporting players Jerome Cowan, Ernest Truex, and John Litel, and supposedly the singer Julie London appears in the background as a palace maiden. Finally, there seems to be virtually no reason for the hero being Aesop—his colorless character could be any young fellow looking for romance and adventure.  [TCM]

Monday, July 23, 2012

CRIMINALS WITHIN (1943)

A research scientist working for the Army is shot dead while demonstrating his new explosive; his brother (Eric Linden), an Army officer, falls under a cloud of suspicion when a secret list of people working on the project turns up missing and Linden admits he was the last person to see it. Linden is jailed briefly but breaks out and sneaks around the base trying to clear his name with some help from an enterprising reporter (Ann Doran). They stumble on a spy ring involving the rec hall hostess (Constance Worth) who smuggles secrets (inside a false heel in her high heels shoes!) to a German cobbler. It begins to look like a soldier is helping the spies; could it be Linden's buddy (Ben Alexander), who helped him break out of jail? 

I'm usually in hog heaven with WWII grade-B spy thrillers, though certainly they're not to everyone's taste; this one, from Poverty Row studio PRC, has a particularly weak script full of loopholes and junky looking sets. Still, I found enough pleasures to make the hour-long film worth my time. Linden, a favorite juvenile of mine in the 1930s (AH WILDERNESS!, FLYING DEVILS), makes his final film appearance here. In his early 30s, he was aging well, and he does a fine job in the B-lead role; actually, he's by far the best actor in the movie, though the entire cast tries harder than the slapdash script probably deserves. Two other standouts are the black orderly (Dudley Dickerson) and his girlfriend (Bernice Pilot), who happens to be Doran's maid. They come off less offensively than many other servant figures of the Hollywood 40s. I especially like Dickerson's expletive, "Death and destruction!" which he uses like he's saying, "Holy cow!" This is technically a "war preparedness" film, as it was made in 1941, before the U.S. entered the war; some sources say it wasn't released until '43, but at least one source gives a release date of June 1941. [DVD]

Saturday, July 21, 2012

LA CHAMADE (1968) 
aka HEARTBEAT

The young and beautiful Lucile (Catherine Deneuve) lives a life of leisure as the mistress of the rich, older Charles (Michel Piccoli). She has her admirers but none pose any threat to their domestic situation until Antoine (Roger Van Hool), a young and struggling writer, gets her attention during a croquet game when he sacrifices his play and allows her to cheat so she can win—she announces proudly that she likes winning. Antoine breaks things off with his mistress and Lucile begins a casual affair with him that grows more intense—to the point where she begins practicing how to break the news to Charles that she's leaving him—but she's not sure she can face leaving a life of relative luxury as a kept woman and move into Antoine's small apartment. Charles and Lucile go off to the Riveria and Antoine hears stories that she's begun drinking, so when she returns, he talks her into leaving Charles. He gets her a job at a magazine archives but unbeknownst to him, she quits and begins selling her jewels and gambles in order to get money. Will she be able to resist returning to a loveless but materially comfortable relationship with Charles? Deneuve is lovely and does as much as she can with an unsympathetic character, but this low-key movie never builds any fire or passion. A few scenes between Deneuve and Piccoli have some feeling, and Van Hool gives his character some depth, but this winds up being a love triangle without much at stake. I did like Antoine's cluttered apartment. [Netflix streaming]

Thursday, July 19, 2012

ONE THIRD OF A NATION (1939)

Shopgirl Sylvia Sidney lives with her unemployed father, mother, and teenage brother in an old tenement building that is badly in need of repair. When a fire breaks out one day, her brother (Sidney Lumet) tries to climb out on the fire escape but it snaps and he falls to the ground. A rich man (Leif Erickson) who just happens to be driving past offers to take Lumet to the hospital and pays for his treatment; the boy's life is saved, but he will use crutches for the rest of his life. Erickson falls for Sidney, but things get uncomfortable when he discovers that the damaged building is one he owns. At a hearing, he is found not liable because, despite the sub-standard condition of the building, it was built long enough ago to be exempt from the current building code. However, Erickson vows to make a difference and sets in motion a plan to tear down the old buildings and, with help from the city, build new ones with parks and playgrounds nearby.  Erickson's sister, thinking he is only going on this crusade to impress Sidney, warns that she'll make trouble. Erickson decides to postpone his plans, but Lumet, by now deranged because he's become a neighborhood misfit, sets fire to the building, leading to tragedy, but also to Erickson's renewed effort to rebuild.

This is based on a Federal Theater "Living Newspaper" play, one of a series that told headline stories of the day and usually took a political stand on the issues. The film is stuck between romantic melodrama and propaganda, and though it never quite finds its footing, it's an interesting period piece. Erickson is a handsome and hearty leading man, but remains a stick figure without a real personality; Sidney (pictured above with Erickson) fares a bit better simply because her character is a bit more believable. The supporting cast helps carry the day. The 15-year-old Lumet (at right) is excellent as the bitter lad who winds up at the center of the narrative. He even manages to make a strange gimmick work: one night, while out on the street, he vows revenge against the building, then imagines the tenement talking back to him, telling him that it's always been bad news for its inhabitants and things will never change. Myron McCormick plays Sam, a leftist friend of Sidney's who is supposedly in love with her but who seems mostly to be a mouthpiece for the playwright. The tone is mostly serious, even grim at times; there are two startling scenes: dead bodies laid out on the sidewalk after the first fire, and a burning man leaping to his death from the roof in the second fire. Despite this, there are some tonal problems: an odd screwball scene when Sidney goes out to Erickson's mansion to have a showdown with him, a final reconciliation scene between Erickson and McCormick which doesn't ring true, and a rushed and completely unrealistic happy-ish ending that doesn’t work at all.  But it's well made for a low budget film, and worth seeing as an example of earnest social commentary of the era.  [Netflix streaming]

Monday, July 16, 2012

ADVENTURE IN SAHARA (1938)

This forgettable B-movie is on DVD only because cult figure Samuel Fuller wrote the screenplay (years before he would begin his directing career which would culminate—as far as I'm concerned—with 2 wonderful arty B-movies of the 60s, THE NAKED KISS and SHOCK CORRIDOR). Pilot Paul Kelly gets word that his brother, a French Foreign Legionnaire, has died; he immediately quits his job, even ignoring the pleas of his girlfriend (Lorna Gray), and flies out to the Sahara to join the Legion in order to get revenge on the sadistic captain (C. Henry Gordon) who was responsible for the brother's death. Sure enough, at Fort Agadez, smack in the middle of the desert and known as "The Last Outpost," Kelly finds Gordon is a strutting disciplinarian who is hated by his men. After Gordon drives several men to their deaths by exacting brutal punishments for seemingly minor offenses, Kelly gets the men to mutiny, and Gordon and the officers are sent out into the desert with few supplies and one bullet per man so they can finish themselves off. However, after a gang of Arabs attack the men, Gordon manages to survive and, dressed in Arab clothing, makes it to civilization to report the mutiny. Back at Agadez, the men are getting restless when needed food doesn't arrive—what does arrive is a huge battalion of men, led by Gordon, come to take back the fort.  What neither Gordon nor Kelly know is that over the next dune is a bunch of Arabs with guns, waiting to attack everyone.

At just under one hour, this winds up feeling more like a sketch of a movie with no character development and a rushed action climax. In a better movie, Kelly would be a more interesting character; his turning-out of Gordon and the men to certain death is nothing short of murder, though because Kelly is the hero and this was made during the Production Code era, we have to see that all the men die, not because of what Kelly did, but at the hands of the warring natives. There's a ridiculous subplot which involves Gray flying to the fort (and crashing into the sand) to find out what happened to Kelly. Kelly (pictured) is fine, though the usually reliably villainous Gordon seems a bit sluggish here. In smaller roles, you'll notice Dwight Frye as a snitch for Gordon, noir stalwart Marc Lawrence as one of the men loyal to Kelly, and Stanley Browne and Raphael Bennett as two of the poor saps who fall victim to Gordon's cruelty. [DVD]

Friday, July 13, 2012

THE MUDLARK (1950)

In 1875 London, a boy named Wheeler is a mudlark, someone who spends his days picking through trash along the Thames. One night he comes across a cameo of Queen Victoria and imagines it's the image of his late mother, whom he never knew. When he finds out it's the Queen and she's been in seclusion at Windsor Castle for fifteen years since the death of her husband, he heads out to meet her. At the Castle, Prime Minister Disraeli is trying to convince the Queen to make a public appearance as she might be able to calm the unrest of the people who think the Queen is out of touch and doesn't care about them. Also at the Castle, Lady Emily, a maid of honor, is in love with a guard but the Queen forbids them to marry. All three plotlines come together when Wheeler sneaks into the Castle, makes friends with John Brown, Scottish confidant of the Queen, and generally throws the entire household into an uproar. This low-key comedy-drama is based on a legend about a boy who snuck in to see the Queen. Irene Dunne is completely unrecognizable as Queen Victoria, though she's buried under so much makeup, she gives a rather lifeless, stilted performance. Much better is Alec Guinness as the sly Disraeli, and Finlay Currie as a full-blooded Brown.  11-year-old Anthony Ray (pictured) is fine as the boy. Best line: When the earthy Brown says that the Queen is stubborn as an old mule, Disraeli replies, "What power of expression there is in a limited vocabulary." [FMC]

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

MERRY WIVES OF RENO (1934)

On the occasion of their first anniversary, Donald Woods buys his wife (Margaret Lindsay) a new fur, and she buys him a new overcoat. They get a chuckle out of listening to their neighbors (Guy Kibbee and Ruth Donnelly) in the apartment next door argue, but Lindsay becomes upset when her husband can't go out for a special anniversary dinner because he's making a house call on a client, the slightly addled Hugh Herbert (pictured with a sheep; don't ask). As it turns out, Herbert's not home but his flirtatious wife (Glenda Farrell) is. She does her best to seduce Woods but is interrupted by someone at the door. Assuming it's her husband, she shoos Woods out the window to the fire escape, and he leaves his new coat behind. Actually, the visitor is Kibbee, with whom she's been having a fling for some time. Another interruption and Kibbee's out the widow, his coat left on top of Woods'; this time, it really is Herbert who notices the two coats and doesn't quite believe they're his even though Farrell insists. When Woods gets home, Lindsay notices he's missing his overcoat and he tells her some cockamamie story about giving it to a beggar, but the next day at the beauty salon, Lindsay overhears Farrell telling a beautician about the coats and she decides to take a train to Reno for a divorce. On the same train is Donnelly, also getting a divorce. Ultimately all three couples wind up in Reno where a series of misadventures lead to divorce cancellations, then reinstatements, until Woods and Kibbee plot with bellboy Frank McHugh to turn the tables on the wives by swiping their furs and showing them how easy it is to come to false assumptions. Relatively happy endings await all.

This mildly bawdy B-comedy is not particularly distinguished but is worth notice for two reasons; 1) it was one of the last films released before the Production Code wiped out most racy humor, double-entendres, and unpunished immoral behavior in Hollywood films—and as far as I can tell, Herbert and Donnelly don't get punished for their affair; 2) it features several Warner Bros. supporting players in larger roles than they usually got in A-movies.  Lindsay and Woods, the nominal leads, are lackluster, but the rest of the sextet shine, as does McHugh and famous stutterer Roscoe Ates.  Louise Beavers, usually consigned to maid parts (IMITATION OF LIFE, HOLIDAY INN), has only a couple of lines, but they're memorable: explaining to a lawyer why she wants a divorce, she says she's had 12 kids:  "Some call that love but I call it madness!"  A few film historians have compared this to the notorious long-lost pre-Code film CONVENTION CITY, with much of the same cast and similar shenanigans, so this may be as close as we can get to seeing that film.  [TCM]

Monday, July 09, 2012

CRIMINAL INVESTIGATOR (1942)

Bob Martin gets a job as a cub reporter—his main credential is that he's the police commissioner's son, though when he tells his boss that he flunked journalism school, the editor says, "That’s one thing in your favor." Martin is assigned the task of getting an interview out of Black, a guy accused of a politically-motivated shooting who hasn't talked to anyone. It turns out that Black is a deaf-mute, but luckily Martin knows sign language so he gets his scoop. He also gets a coded message to deliver to Judson, Black's slimy lawyer. Next, Martin goes to interview Joyce Greeley, who is being released from prison, but Joyce is really Joan, whose kid sister Ellen, not realizing Joan's been in jail for two years, was going to pick her up the bus station.   Joyce/Joan is killed by two of Judson's thugs who are after a set of keys to a safe deposit box.  Ellen just happens to have the keys, which her sister had given her before she was sent to jail. We get some backstory about Joyce's past (a burlesque dancer who fell in with a bad crowd when her sugar daddy died) and the rest plays out unexcitingly—Martin helps Ellen evade the bad guys—until the climax, a chase set in a theater. If you like Monogram poverty row thrillers, this one isn't bad.  The lead, Robert Lowery (pictured; best known as the original Batman in the 1949 serial) is a bland but pleasant enough hero; the only other actor of note present is John Miljan (as Judson) who had a busy career—almost 200 movie credits—as a B-movie villain throughout the 30s and 40s.  There's even a completely extraneous song performed in the theater scene.  [Netflix streaming]


Friday, July 06, 2012

WOMAN OBSESSED (1959)

This rather mild romantic drama tries to trade on the aura of Douglas Sirk's glossy melodramas of the 50's such as MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (which, with its plotline about class conflict, this does resemble a bit). Susan Hayward lives on a farm in the woods in Saskatchewan with her husband and young son. When her husband dies in a forest fire, she struggles to keep the farm going. A young and hunky guy (Stephen Boyd) who knew her husband ambles on by, offers to help, and winds up staying as a handyman.  He's rather moody and temperamental; it turns out his wife died in a fire as well. During a snowstorm, Hayward's horse bolts while she and her son are returning home and the two of them collapse in the snow. Boyd heroically heads out in the storm to save them and soon he and Hayward fall in love. They marry and, though the boy (Dennis Holmes) is jealous of Boyd at first, they seem to be bonding until they run across a deer that had been mauled by a mountain lion. Boyd shoots it to put it out of its pain and tries to make the boy help him skin it, but Holmes becomes so upset, he faints. Boyd is determined to make a man out of him, and of course his efforts just alienate Holmes, and soon Hayward as well. Things deteriorate; Boyd slaps her and rapes her, tries to apologize the next day, and gets into a brawl in town. Hayward winds up pregnant and, during the event-filled climax, has a miscarriage during a torrential rainstorm, and winds up in the hospital while her son goes missing and Boyd tries to find him. Believe it or not, everything works out in the end. It feels like everybody, from the scriptwriter to the stars, was working on half-energy here. It’s a watchable movie but it's very predictable and never compelling.  Boyd and Hayward are fine, though Boyd's character becomes a real pain in the ass by the end, even though we know eventually he'll redeem himself (as will the boy). Also with Barbara Nichols as a hot blond who has an eye for Boyd, and Theodore Bikel as the town doc. Early on, there's a shot of a quicksand bog, so we know that will be important in the third act somehow. [FMC]

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY (1968)

A geologist and his young son are on a river in Africa when their canoe is overturned in some rapids. The father drowns and the son, Erik, is presumed dead, but a few years later, a blurry photograph is taken of a lad in a loincloth, alone in the middle of Tzekunda country, and Myrna and Ken, two National Geographic journalists, come to Tarzan hoping he'll help them find the boy. Tarzan is reluctant because it is forbidden for outsiders to trespass on Tzekunda land, but when the tribe holds a contest of skills to choose a new leader, Tarzan approaches them.  Two brothers, Buhara (the good guy) and Nagambi (the bad guy), compete for the title; Buhara wins and promises to look for the boy, but soon the sore loser Nagambi attacks his brother and leaves him bound and bleeding, to be eaten by lions. Erik, the jungle boy, finds Buhara and tries to nurse him back to health.  Tarzan goes ahead into Tzekunda land to find the boy, and Myrna and Ken eventually follow, leading to fisticuffs, animal attacks, and spear and gun fights before Erik is talked into heading back to civilization. 

This film, late in the officially sanctioned series, has the plus of location shooting (in Brazil) but the minuses of a draggy story, lackluster acting, and a TV-movie look.  Mike Henry, a pro football player turned actor, certainly looks the part; physique-wise, he's by far the best movie Tarzan ever. But his lackadaisical delivery of dialogue and flat American accent take away any pomp or mystery from the character, leaving him just another comic book superhero in a loincloth. Aliza Gur, a minor Bond girl in From Russia With Love, is remarkably irritating as Myrna, and when the spears started flying, I kept hoping one would find its way straight through her (Spoiler: no such luck). Rafer Johnson (an Olympic decathalon champ) and Edward Johnson provide some sparks as the brothers.  Despite the location filming, most of the animal shots (elephants, giraffes, etc.) are clearly from stock footage.  Only watch this if you want to admire Mike Henry's body—and I've sat through worse movies for less. [DVD]

Sunday, July 01, 2012

L√ČON MORIN, PRIEST (1961)

Barny (Emannuelle Riva) is a young widow with a half-Jewish daughter, living in a French town occupied first by the Italians, then by the Nazis. She and her friends, mostly Communists, atheists or Jews, live in fear of their oppressors and some send their children off to be baptized as a safety measure. Adding to Barny's unsettled life, she finds herself entertaining sexual thoughts about Sabine, a female co-worker. In frustration, she goes into a church, intending to basically prank a priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in the confessional, but the two wind up in serious conversation. He gives her books to read and soon she is going to his rooms for extended philosophical discussions. Soon she has transferred her lustful feelings from her co-worker to the priest—joining several other women who think he's hot (and he is, because he's Jean-Paul Belmondo). Most of the rest of the film, which ends with the eventual liberation of the town, is carried by the ambiguous tension between the two. Is she after salvation (at one point, she converts to Catholicism) or sex? And what does he get out of the relationship? This leisurely but never boring film from director Jean-Pierre Melville does a nice job of setting up the atmosphere of the town and the circumstances of Barny's life before it plunges her into the emotional chaos of forbidden passion (of more than one kind). Riva is fine but Belmondo is even better—the priest clearly knows he's physically attractive to the women of the village but he never seems to trade on it, or even become tempted to respond, though we never really get to know him well.  Despite the title, the movie is really about Barny, not him. [DVD]