Monday, April 29, 2013


This is one of those darkly comic satires of the 1960s that probably felt wild and crazy at the time but now feels forced and weird. High school senior Roddy MacDowell (who was in his mid-30s at the time of filming) is a loner and a misfit who calls himself "Mollymauk," after an extinct bird, and who, when excited, starts squawking like a bird. On the day before classes begin, he befriends fellow senior Tuesday Weld (22 at the time) and commits himself to helping her make her dreams of stardom come true. (Is he straight and in love with her, or gay and fascinated by her? I was never sure.) He helps her get the twelve cashmere sweaters she needs to own to join an exclusive girls' club, pushes her into marriage to a young and handsome marriage counselor (Martin West) who works with a minister at a drive-in church, and arranges for her to meet a beach movie producer who has never actually been on a beach (his latest movie: "I Married a Teenage Vampire") so she can get a part in his next flick. When West proves to be an obstacle to her plans, McDowell goes after him, eventually with a bulldozer, and the movie falls apart.

This is all over the map, satirizing everything it can, but never striking very deeply—or coherently. Everyone—kids, adults, free spirits, squares, parents, educators, the church—is made to look silly, leaving no real moral center. For a while, it seems like MacDowell might be a "holy innocent" or perhaps a devil, but I could find no evidence that he's anything more than just an unhinged guy who is good at hypnotism which he uses on a few people. MacDowell and Weld (pictured above) are too old to be playing high school students. I could buy them as college students, which is a compliment to MacDowell who didn't look 18 but also didn’t look over 30, and there seems to be no good reason why they're supposed to be teenagers rather than 20-somethings. Having said that, the actors give themselves whole-heartedly to this mess, with Weld in particular doing a nice job—and looking quite beautiful. Martin West, apparently best known for playing a popular doc on General Hospital, is wholesomely handsome and does a nice job as Weld's clueless husband; Lola Albright is good as Weld's mom; Harvey Korman plays the principal. Good old Ruth Gordon (pictured at right) steals her scenes as West's feisty mother. The craziest (and most uncomfortable) scene has Weld picking out 16 colorful sweaters with her father (Max Showalter), both in states of nearly orgasmic bliss. My favorite line: Weld's major is "adolescent ethics and commercial relationships." Very strange indeed; a must-see only for hardcore fans of 60s movies, or fans of Weld. [TCM]

Friday, April 26, 2013


Around the year 300, the emperor Maximium, in the midst of a crackdown on Christians, surrounds himself with African protectors rather than the traditional Praetorian guards, who might be too sympathetic to the Christians to trust completely.  The slave Vibio attacks one of the Africans in the streets after witnessing an escaped slave get his hands cut off as punishment. Before Vibio can be harmed, he is bought by Claudius, a Roman patrician. He has a daughter, the saucy Fabiola, and a niece, the more demure Agnes. Agnes is "dating" Valerio but seems to be sweet on Sebastian, so the jealous Valerio has Corvino, head of the Emperor's secret police, spy on her. One night, posing as a cripple, Corvino follows her to a mass meeting at a villa and finds out that she and Sebastian are secret Christians, as is Vibio. Against her better judgment, Fabiola helps Agnes and the others hide, and begins to fall for Vibio. Soon, however, most of the Christians are exposed and rounded up to be slaughtered in the arena, forced to run across the arena to provide practice for gladiators with spears. Vibio leads some men in an attempt to break into the arena from the catacombs beneath, but will they make it time?

Though marketed as a sword-and-sandal beefcake epic, this Italian film is actually an unofficial remake of DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS—officially it's a version of a novel called Fabiola—and not a bad one at that. It's well filmed and has spectacular sets, good use of color, and a compelling (if familiar) narrative. The only name star here is Rhonda Fleming (as Fabiola) and, though she's a smidge too old for the part, she still shows some star power. Though the film is definitely not in the Hercules/Goliath/Machiste mold of Italian action movies of the era, there is still a fair amount of male pulchritude on display, especially from the handsome Lang Jeffries (pictured at right, at the time married to Fleming) as Vibio and Burt Nelson as the muscled Christian Catulo. There is also whipping and torture and some bloody spearing. Serge Gainsbourg, better known in Europe as a singer, songwriter, and father of Charlotte Gainsbourg, is fine as Corvino. The events of the movie are based loosely on actual events during the reign of Diocletian—the African guards, the martyrdoms of Sebastian (with arrows) and Agnes—and I'm not sure why they used a fictitious name for the Emperor. Overall, I quite liked this, despite 1) the fact that everyone's dialogue is post-dubbed; and 2) the occasional bizarre line, as when Fleming, upon seeing her father's new mechanical clock, says, "This is the limit!" See it in widescreen. [Netflix streaming]

Monday, April 22, 2013


This 13-part serial was the first visual representation of the radio crimefighter whose place in the superhero pantheon would be solidified by the short-lived 1960s TV series. Britt Reid (Gordon Jones) has just inherited his late father’s newspaper, the Sentinel. The police miss his father’s habit of running hard-hitting editorials which took on the local rackets, and his secretary Casey (Anne Nagel) doesn’t think much of Britt's playboy-type hours. But soon ace reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent) is on to a story about a dam being built with inferior materials, and sure enough, the dam fails and kills several people, and Reid does an about-face, deciding to expose shady dealings. The police commissioner tells Reid that the city needs a Robin Hood, not knowing that they're about to get one in the figure of the Green Hornet, a shadowy vigilante who wears a mask and drives around in a car called the Black Beauty that makes a hornet-buzz noise.

Yes, Britt is the Hornet, helped by his Korean manservant Kato (Keye Luke), and for the next 12 chapters, the two of them try to find out who is the chief mastermind behind various city rackets, most of which involve forcing companies (trucking companies, airlines, dry cleaners, zoos) to pay protection money or risk becoming the victims of sabotage. Crime boss Monroe (Cy Kendall) orchestrates the threats and mayhem, guided by a mysterious voice that calls in to Monroe’s office every so often and gives instructions to the gang members. The Hornet and Kato track down the bad guys, using a gas gun that emits a puff of smoke that knocks people out, allowing the Hornet to tie them up and leave them for the cops. But the police (along with the newspapers and the public) aren't sure if the Hornet is a good guy or a bad guy, so Britt and Kato usually wind up being chased by police and crooks alike. In a couple of scenes, even Axford, Britt's tough Irish bodyguard (Wade Boteler), tries to give the Green Hornet an ass-whupping, not realizing it's his boss beneath the mask.

The narrative structure gets a bit monotonous: a company is hit by the bad guys, life-threatening sabotage happens, Green Hornet and Kato come to the rescue, the Sentinel exposes the racket, and the crooks try another angle. But that comes with the territory of the serial genre. Production values here are fairly cheap, with some occasionally effective use of stock footage. Perhaps the most surprising moment comes at the very end when the bad guys wind up shooting each other to death. Gordon Jones (pictured) makes for a good hero, though apparently his voice when he has the Hornet mask on is dubbed in by the actor who played the Hornet on the radio. Luke, in the role that helped make a star of Bruce Lee, doesn't have much to do except drive the Black Beauty and save Reid's neck once in a while (though he does get at least one karate chop in). Poor Anne Nagel has even less to do, just sitting at a typewriter or passing along phone messages. Worth seeing for serials fans. [TCM]

Friday, April 19, 2013

THE SCAR (1948)

John Muller spent a couple of years in medical school before becoming a con man—his tricks included selling stock in non-existent oil wells and scamming people by posing as a psychiatrist. He was caught, sent to prison, and upon his release, he goes right back to his cronies. Upset that they haven’t been more ambitious, Muller gets them to join him in robbing a gambling joint run by a thug named Rocky. Things don't go well; two of them are killed and two escape, including Muller.  On the run from Rocky's men, Muller leaves town and gets a 9-5 job as a clerk, but when he's mistaken on the street for a psychiatrist named Bartok, he investigates and discovers that he is a dead ringer for the doctor, except for a scar the doc has on one side of his face. Evelyn, Bartok's long-time secretary and lover, gives him a passionate kiss before realizing he's not Bartok. Muller gets news that the third thug is dead, and soon finds himself hunted by two gunmen, so he takes drastic action: using a photograph of the doctor as a model, he gives himself a deep cut on his face to match Bartok's scar, then kills Bartok and takes his identity.  But a couple of dark ironies set in. First, he scars the wrong side of his face—the photo had been accidentally flipped when printed. To his amazement, most people don't notice, only the lowly cleaning lady; it even takes Evelyn a while to figure it out. Next, as he's settled into Bartok's life, he discovers that the doctor is also being hunted down for having big gambling debts. Evelyn decides to leave the whole situation behind and go to Hawaii, and Muller asks to come along, but with two parties wanting him dead, what are the odds that he'll make it to the steamship?

This is a low-budget but beautifully shot (by Oscar-winner John Alton) film noir that perhaps tries to cram a little too much story into its 80-minute running time. But that is one of its few faults. Paul Henreid, not one of my favorite actors, does a nice job in the lead, playing two fairly unlikeable people. Joan Bennett (pictured with Henreid) is very good as Evelyn, enough so that I'm sorry she doesn’t get more screen time. Henry Brandon is uncredited but memorable as one of Muller's crooks. Eduard Franz has a small role as Muller's brother, and old reliables John Qualen and George Chandler also pop up. The noir aspect is present in the look (lots of darkness, skewed angles, and occasional distortions in close-ups) and in the ironic plot twists. This was originally released as HOLLOW TRIUMPH, but is currently available on DVD as THE SCAR on a film noir double feature set from VCI.  A little-known film, but worth finding for noir fans.  [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Sexy upper-class blonde Frederique (Stephane Audran) sees a waifish sidewalk painter named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) at work and tosses a 500 franc note down in front of her. They stroll and chat a bit, then Frederique takes Why home, gives a her bath, and one thing leads to another. The two head off to Frederique's summer place at St. Tropez where they share a house with two gay guys (it took me a while to figure this out; they seemed like just fun-loving whimsical friends at first) who alternate between being charming and being irritating. One night, an attractive man named Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) makes eyes at Why and takes her home. The jealous Frederique then sets her cap for Paul, playing a flirtatious game with him which causes him to miss a date with Why. The game-playing gets to be too much for Why who begins to snap, making herself up to look like Frederique and talking to herself in the mirror. One drunken night, Paul is flirting with both women, calling them his "does" (hence the title, which has nothing to do with "bitches"), but it's Frederique he takes to bed, leaving Why outside the bedroom door, her obsessive thoughts building as she plans her revenge against Frederique. This is a sexy Hitchcockian thriller that deals with issues of sexual obsession, jealousy and identity, though in far more ambiguous ways that Hitch ever did; it's a little like Bergman's PERSONA done French new-wave style. The characters are mostly ciphers, with Paul being the one who comes off the most straightforward, and a little more background for the two women (pictured, Audran in front) would have helped humanize the characters—as it is, they all come off as game pieces being moved around by the director, Claude Chabrol. It's all very cold and brittle (the one exception being Dominique Zardi who seems to be having fun as one of the gay men), but the acting is good, particularly by Audran, and fans of psychological thrillers will find enough to enjoy here. [DVD]

Friday, April 12, 2013

THE SEA BAT (1930)

Our story takes place on Portuga Island in the West Indies where there is, we are told, "the weird chant of voodoo worship" by night and "the weird industry of sponge fishing" by day. We meet a motley group of rough-edged men who work in the boats and live together in a large barracks. The banes of their existence are the "sea bats," the shark-sized manta rays that frequent the waters. Lovely Nina gives her handsome brother Carlo a charm to ward off the ray, but instead he winds up wearing a cross given to him by a priest, and when Carlo is killed in a ray attack, Nina blames his embrace of Christian symbolism; she turns to voodoo ritual and offers a reward to any man who will catch and kill the sea bat. What she doesn't know (but we do) is that the real reason Carlo died is because the slimy Juan, who resented Carlo for standing in the way of him wooing Nina, put a rock on his line so he couldn't make it up to the ship when the ray attacked. Meanwhile, a new priest, the Reverend Sims, arrives on the island, and Nina expresses her resentment of his faith. What she doesn't know (but again, we do) is that Sims is actually a criminal on the run from Devil's Island. Slowly, Sims and Nina fall in love, and Sims wants to take off with her to start over, but Juan (and the sea bat) may put a kink in their plans.

This early talkie is interesting for a few reasons: 1) Boris Karloff (pre-FRANKENSTEIN) has a small role; 2) the heroine (Raquel Torres, pictured above) spends a chunk of the movie wearing only a very wet and sheer blouse—this was in the pre-Code era when hints of nudity weren't unheard of; 3) the ray attack early in the movie feels a lot like the shark attack at sea in JAWS. Charles Bickford is only OK as Sims, Torres a little bit better, but John Miljan is fine as the slimy Juan, and Nils Asther is very good as Carlo, though he's killed off fairly early. Many reviews of this film refer to Asther and Torres and lovers, but, though their scenes together do have a strange intensity, I'm fairly certain that it is made clear that they are brother and sister. Memorable line: Bickford, seeing Torres dancing in a voodoo ritual: "What kind of white girl are you?" [TCM]

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


This interesting but flawed adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel based loosely on the life of artist Paul Gauguin opens with a scene of the writer Geoffrey Wolfe (Herbert Marshall, playing a thinly disguised Maugham as he did a few years later in THE RAZOR'S EDGE) wandering about his apartment, washing and getting dressed and talking to us (as his butler picks up after Wolfe) about a famous artist named Charles Strickland. In flashback, we see that Strickland (George Sanders) is a quiet, unassuming stockbroker until one day when he picks up out of the blue, leaves his wife and children, and goes to Paris.  His wife Amy assumes the cause is another woman, but when Wolfe goes to Paris to talk to Strickland, he discovers that Strickland has left to become a painter. He has no qualms about leaving everything and everyone behind—when Wolfe asks if he doesn't care for his wife anymore, Strickland replies, "Not a bit." Strickland paints but winds up on the edge of starvation until a good-natured painter named Dirk (Steven Geray), who sees the potential in his work, takes him in; Strickland repays him by taking Dirk's wife from him. When Strickland tires of her, she kills herself. Eventually the restless, penniless Strickland heads off for Tahiti where he finally finds some measure of happiness, married to an undemanding native woman and painting to his heart's content until he contracts leprosy. After he dies, his wife, obeying his wishes, burns the hut that contained his final paintings.

I know nothing about Gauguin and I have not read Maugham's novel, but this film adaptation is striking in at least one respect: it is the rare Hollywood film in which the lead character is a nasty, unrepentant shit who isn't really redeemed by the end. There is a final title card, inserted certainly to get around the Production Code, which calls him out for ignoring his wife and children and notes that all of his talent couldn't "hide the ugliness of his life, an ugliness which finally destroyed him." (The real Gauguin died of syphilis, which would have been a more punishing ending for the movie, but that would most certainly have been a Code no-no.) George Sanders is always good playing cads (MAN HUNT, CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, and most fabulously and perfectly in ALL ABOUT EVE) and he doesn't disappoint here—he's the main reason for watching. The character of Strickland remains unexamined so we get little depth in the portrayal, but that's a problem with the writing—and I'm not even sure it’s a problem, as I imagine that's how the passive, recording eye of Maugham rendered Strickland in the novel. Marshall (pictured above to the right of Sanders) plays Maugham with a little more zest than he did in THE RAZOR'S EDGE. Geray is believable and heartbreaking as the man willing to be stepped on and betrayed by someone he saw as an artistic genius. The restored print I saw on TCM was in a mild sepia tone, which shifted to a bright yellow in the Tahiti scenes (though everyone looked like they had jaundice) and full color for just a moment when we see Strickland's final paintings, full of bare-breasted women but without anything approaching Gauguin’s style. [TCM]

Monday, April 08, 2013


It’s Christmastime in California.  Joan Bennett, a middle-class wife and mother who lives in Balboa and whose husband is overseas on business, heads in to Los Angeles one day to confront Shepperd Strudwick, the lover of her teenage daughter (Geraldine Brooks), a first-year student in art school. Strudwick is a slimy thuggish guy, considerably older than the daughter and he tells Bennett he'll leave Brooks alone in exchange for money. Bennett refuses and tells Brooks what happened; she doesn't believe her mother and arranges to meet Strudwick that night in their boathouse. He admits to asking for a pay-off, she hits him and storms off. He loses his balance and falls to the beach below, impaled on an anchor. The next morning Bennett finds the body and, thinking that her daughter killed him, takes it out and disposes of it in the sea. Strudwick's body is found but there appears to be no connection to Bennett's family until a blackmailer (James Mason, pictured with Bennett) arrives with love letters written by Brooks to Strudwick. Mason and his boss (Roy Roberts) want $5,000 for them, but Bennett has a hard time getting that amount of money. The lower-class Mason falls for Bennett and tries to get Roberts to lay off, but to no avail. How far will Mason go to protect Bennett, the love object he can never possess?

This Max Ophuls film noir has nighttime scenes and a few of his trademark long-take camera moves (with occasional snatches of overheard dialogue here and there) and is generally a good-looking film with good performances all around. The tentative relationship that grows between Bennett and Mason actually seems real, which gives the ending some tragic weight. Strudwick is especially good in a relatively small role. Henry O'Neill is Bennett's well-meaning father-in-law. There's a strange running joke about Bennett's teenaged son (David Bair) never having enough clothes on—no shirt, bare feet, shorts at night. Brooks is a weak link, but that’s partly due to the underwritten role. This, based on a short story, was remade a few years ago as THE DEEP END with Tilda Swinton; the updated twist is that the child she's trying to protect is her gay son. Both versions are worth seeing. [TCM]

Saturday, April 06, 2013


In post-war London, John Graham heads up a code-breaking unit still working on deciphering enemy messages for use in war crimes trials. We learn that he is a Canadian veteran, has a wife named Carol who is pregnant with her first child, and has a photographic memory. John and Carol take her sister Peggy to the train station one rainy night and on the way home, she is killed, the victim of a thuggish hit-and-run driver and his girlfriend. John is devastated and when the police seem unable to find the killers, he uses his memory for details and his connections with old wartime friends to track them down. But rather than take what he knows to the police, he decides to take revenge himself and plots to kill them both. This was an early release from Hammer, the studio best known for their horror films of the 60s; this isn't horror but it is awfully close to film noir, and may be one the earliest uses of a likeable anti-hero in film (with the possible exception of some of Cagney's leads in the Warner gangster movies of the 30s). Robert Preston does a nice job as Graham, an admirable man whose sense of morality is twisted by his wife's death—it doesn't help that Carol (Elizabeth Sellars) had a limp which happened when she was tortured while working with the resistance, and her stoicism in that situation helped save John's life. His tracking down of the guilty parties (Harold Lang—pictured above to the right of Preston—and Sheila Burrell) is shot in classic noir style and the film works up some good tension as we actually root for John to get his revenge even as we realize he's going to have to pay somehow. An added complicating element is a coded message he accidentally drops at the scene of a murder he commits and which is brought to his code-breaking unit by the police. The message itself has nothing to do with the murder, but it remains a conscience-poking plot element in the background, as John's people can't figure out the code but John knows he's going to have to break it himself eventually. Highly recommended. [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, April 02, 2013


Shown as part of a Turner Classic Movies tribute to William Gargan, this sad-sack comedy confirms my theory that some actors just weren't meant to be leading types. Gargan is fine as a sidekick (in movies like THE SPORT PARADE) but as a lead, even in a short B-film like this, he generally just doesn't have the stuff--though I did enjoy him in the earlier HEADLINE SHOOTER.  Of course, it doesn't help that the movie is badly written and directed. Gargan is a hotel PR man who is desperate to create some buzz for his new employer, the Ritz. To impress a young lady he's sweet on (Patricia Ellis), he hires as head chef her brother (Erik Rhodes), who claims enthusiastically to be a great cook. What Gargan doesn't know (and what his sidekick Allen Jenkins finds out) is that Rhodes' cooking actually makes people nauseous; it's the Old-Country mother (Bodil Rosing) who makes the delicious meals. There is a great deal of frantic movement and shouting, but little of it makes any real impression. The plot could have worked, but the weak acting of the romantic leads and the bland direction sink it without a chance. Jenkins does what he can to liven things up, but it's really a lost cause. The only reason to sit through this is Erik Rhodes (pictured; the guy who can't quite remember the phrase "Chance in the fool's name for fate" in THE GAY DIVORCEE), who is excellent as the clueless but good-hearted numbskull chef. [TCM]