Monday, September 30, 2013


A woman named Diane goes strolling through San Francisco, oblivious to her surroundings. When she's caught in crossfire from bank robbers, she proves indestructible. At a diner, she flirts with handsome Craig Gamble, an agent for Secret Intelligence Command (SIC). But Diane, wearing only a gold bikini under her trench coat, is really a robot, built and controlled by the evil Dr. Goldfoot, who uses a small army of these sexy robots (or as Austin Powers would say decades later, "fembots") to seduce rich men and get them to sign over money, property, and power of attorney to Goldfoot. But it turns out Diane has made a mistake and she was really supposed to go after eligible bachelor Todd Armstrong. The rest of the movie has Gamble (a bumbler who's known as 00½) and Armstrong tracking down Goldfoot and his sidekick Igor—technically a zombie since he was brought back from the dead. This starts out as a James Bond parody, but it becomes a rather lazy mix of jokey references to spy, action, horror, and sci-fi movies. There's a PIT AND THE PENDULUM scene in which Vincent Price (as Goldfoot) dresses as he did in the original film, and a car chase through the hilly roads of San Francisco. Frankie Avalon is Gamble and Dwayne Hickman is Armstrong—both are nice-looking and charming but are a little lacking in the zest needed for a parody. Jack Mullaney (as Igor) and Fred Clark (as the head of SIC and Avalon's uncle) don't quite catch the proper vibe, either. Only Price, having fun as Goldfoot, gives the movie much life. The opening credits, in Claymation, were done by Art Clokey of Gumby fame, and the title song is by The Supremes—and it's rather catchy. Annette Funicello has a cameo (she's pictured in between Hickman at left and Avalon at right) [TCM]

Friday, September 27, 2013


In Paris, kept woman Constance Bennett leaves her older lover (Lew Cody) and sets out to make her own way in the world. Meanwhile, struggling artist Joel McCrea, though set up in a rather nice studio apartment, is being pressured by his rich family through his sister (Hedda Hopper) to give up his pipe dreams and come back to America. Bennett comes to McCrea for a job as a model and he hires her; she's a bit skittish at first when she realizes she's expected to pose in the nude, but her inhibitions quickly drop away with her clothes. When another artist (Paul Ellis) gets interested in Bennett and accuses McCrea of "keeping" her, McCrea gets furious and a fistfight is narrowly avoided. That night, McCrea and Bennett become lovers and all seems well for a time, but when he asks her to marry him and then finds out he is not her first lover, he gets furious again. They soon agree to just live together (hence, the "common law" of the title) but when Cody re-enters her life, tensions flare yet again, aided by Hopper, who thinks she can pry McCrea away from Paris. Can only marriage truly keep them together?

Well, yes, that seems to be the message here, but even though that's a very moral message, this pre-Code film could not have been released under the Production Code because even though marriage is in the offing at the end, no one is punished for their fast and loose ways. Plus, there's a bit of nudity—when Bennett poses, she is seen from afar with a sheet still covering some of her, but later at an Artists Ball, there is brief full nudity in a tableaux performance. While McCrea (pictured) and Bennett do wind up conforming by getting married, the choice not to marry is not presented as an evil or decadent one, just one that society wasn't quite ready to accept. McCrea is quite natural, but Bennett and Hopper are rather artificial and stagy—though both got better later in their careers. The supporting cast is not especially notable, although I liked Robert Williams as Sam, an drunkard friend of McCrea's. [TCM]

Thursday, September 26, 2013


I'm not a baseball fan, but I do like B-mysteries, and this is a good one. The St. Louis Cardinals badly need a winning season or else the manager (David Landau), deep in debt, may lose the franchise. The club is pinning its hopes for the pennant on new hotshot pitcher Robert Young. The team is slow to take to the cocky new guy (who flirts with Landau's daughter (Madge Evans), also the team's secretary), but when bribe money is found in his room—gamblers want him to throw a game—he steps up, tells the press, and proceeds to win the next game in style. Unfortunately, someone won't give up, and soon players are in danger: one is shot to death on the field, one keels over from poisoned mustard on a hot dog, and Young is shot at in his car and can't play for two weeks. Who is out the get the team? The man to whom Landau owes money? The gambler (C. Henry Gordon) who has bet against the Cardinals? The two former players hanging around the clubhouse who were fired last season for gambling? The reporter (Paul Kelly) who seems to be everywhere?

This mystery has a lot going for it. The background is a bit unusual, the team is real, the pace is fast, and the plotting is easy to follow. Young is very good in the lead and the supporting cast is a joy. Paul Kelly (pictured at left) is at his best as the brash reporter, but also fun are Ted Healy as the umpire and Nat Pendleton as the player with whom he is constantly clashing—they're at each others throats but there is affection between them, expressed in a sad scene late in the film. Other familiar faces include Joe Sawyer, Edward Brophy, and in bit parts, Ward Bond, Walter Brennan, and Mickey Rooney. The movie doesn't totally play fair as far as the solution to the mystery; the revelation of the culprit comes more or less out of nowhere (and the circumstances of his capture are a bit far-fetched). But I'm glad I ran across this little-known movie. [TCM]

Monday, September 23, 2013


Steve Cochran is the captain of a banana boat that frequently docks in Nassau. As he strolls through town, he stops a dirty old man from pestering a sweet young thing sitting on a park bench. He finds out she's pregnant and talks her out of a suicide attempt. That night, despite entreaties from his buddies, he goes back out alone. He sees a native boy hit by a car and helps lovely Shary Marshall (pictured below with Cochran) tend to him. Cochran walks her to her place of employment, a strip club. Later, he winds up at her apartment and they spend a chaste night—she in bed, he on the couch. It turns out she has an older admirer (Harry Franklin) who may be "keeping" her—it remains unclear exactly what their relationship is. One night while Cochran and Marshall are making out, he tells her he loves her, and she says, "Wait and tell me in the sunlight" (hence the title of the movie). When he leaves for three weeks, she comes down to see him off but Franklin is with her, leading Cochran to brood the entire time. Upon his return, Marshall plans a private celebration with a Welcome Home cake, but he never shows. When he does stop by (drunk), he throws money at her and forces himself on her. The next morning, things get sorted out between them—she's dumped Franklin and because he quit coming around to the club, she was fired—and at last he tells her he loves her…in the sunlight.

Steve Cochran not only starred in this low-budget film but directed it as well. It's difficult to say how his directing career might have turned out as he died before it was ready for release, just months after the film was shot on location in 1965; I don't know who was in charge of the final cut, but word is that Cochran's version was over two hours and the released film is under 90 minutes. Frankly, the movie has the look and feel of a soft-porn film even though it's not—there is one brief nude shot of Marshall and a couple of tame love-making scenes. The tone actually gives the movie a certain scrappy appeal. Cochran was in his late 40s and looking a little seedy, but still, he manages to come across as world-weary sexy on occasion. The rest of the cast is unexceptional, and the screenplay, co-written by Cochran, needs some help—none of the characters is especially likable or even interesting, and the conclusion is a bit anti-climactic. But the night scenes, actually shot in the streets of Nassau at night, look good in a film noir way, and Cochran occasionally goes for some artsy moments, with mixed results. There was some promise here that sadly went unrealized. As long as you're not expecting more than a rough-around-the-edges B-movie, you might enjoy this. [DVD]

Friday, September 20, 2013


An avalanche strands a group of travelers in the mountains at a hotel built on the ruins of an old abbey. As they begin to exchange spooky stories to pass the time, they hear gunshots outside and a nervous one-handed man named Roland arrives, clutching a package and seeking a room. At dinner, the lights go out and mysterious prankish things happen—doors open and close, a man's nose is tweaked, a woman's ass is pinched. After realizing his package is missing, Roland tells the guests his story. Years ago, he was an aspiring artist with great ideas but little talent. A successful chef offers to sell him a talisman—a human left hand—that will give him success. Roland buys it and the chef's left hand suddenly vanishes; it turns out that the talisman is of Satanic origin, and if the owner of the hand can't sell it before he dies, he loses his soul—if he sells it, he just loses his hand. Roland has artistic success, but is followed around constantly by a strange little man who warns him that now, like the chef, he must sell the hand. Eventually, Roland believes he has found a way out of the bargain, but he must find the body of the monk who began the passing of the talisman, and he thinks it's buried beneath the hotel. And he must reunite the hand with the body—but the hand, which is in the package, is now missing.

I had never heard of this French film before TCM ran it in their Imports slot one Sunday night. It's a unique little gem, with a tone that feels like a cross between a fairy tale and the British supernatural classic DEAD OF NIGHT—a little whimsical, a little dark, and a little "shaggy dog" story. The director, Maurice Tourneur, was the father of Jacques Tourneur, who directed some of the Val Lewton classic horror films of the 40s (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and the 50s classic NIGHT OF THE DEMON, and father and son share a similar style, with nice use of shadows and sets. This film, though shot during the German Occupation and probably on a low budget, looks great with atmosphere to burn. The French title, LA MAIN DU DIABLE (The Devil's Hand) is a better title, but the "Carnival" sequence near the end is reason enough to watch the whole movie: Roland (Pierre Fresnay) meets up with the spirits of all the previous owners of the hand and, in a series of expressionist tableaux-like scenes, he sees what happened to each of them. If this pops up again on TCM, catch it. [TCM]

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Entomologist Margaret Lockwood is sent by British Intelligence to a Communist country to indentify the kinds of insects they are using in what are assumed to be experiments on germ warfare. As she prepares for her trip, she hears a secret agent show on the radio which she relates to her nephew as she puts him to bed, and, as she's doing spy work of a sort, the story sticks in her head. What seems a lark becomes, well, highly dangerous when her contact is murdered and his body left in her hotel room. The chief of police (Marius Goring), who has previously pegged her as a spy, arrests her and injects her with a truth serum, after which she begins relating the plot of the radio show as though she was the fictitious ace agent. Told she will be escorted out of the country in 24 hours, she enlists the aid of an American press agent (Dane Clark) in carrying out an outlandish plan that just might work. Some critics dismiss this British-made film as too unbelievable to be an effective spy story, but noted spy novelist Eric Ambler obviously wrote the screenplay as a near-parody of the thriller genre, and it works nicely as such, largely due to the charm and talent of Lockwood and Clark (both pictured at right). There is good support from Naunton Wayne, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Michael Hordern. [Netflix streaming]

Monday, September 16, 2013


If this film is still remembered today, it's because it is the film that introduced Sabu, the shirtless charming boy from India who became, for a time in the 1940s, a star in British movies playing, well, shirtless charming Indian boys. Here, at the age of 13, he plays a boy named Toomai who takes loving care of Kala Nag, his father's elephant. Supposedly, the wild elephants have headed north for a legendary 100-year herding and British official Petersen (Walter Hudd) puts out a call for elephants to be used in an attempt to find them. Kala Nag is chosen, and Petersen is so charmed by Toomai's antics that he lets him come along. The older men tell Toomai he'll never really be a hunter until he sees elephants dancing, an old wives' tale that no one believes except Toomai. Along the way, a marauding tiger kills Toomai's father, and the man who gets Kala Nag abuses the elephant, which leads Kala Nag to turn violent. The men decide the elephant should be put to death, so Toomai runs away with Kala Nag, finds the wild elephants, and even sees them "dance." Petesen commutes the elephant's death sentence and Toomai is hailed as Toomai of the Elephants. Sabu does come off as a natural actor and is pretty much the only reason to watch this slow-paced movie. The very first scene is Sabu delivering a lengthy monologue to the camera and he is very difficult to understand; luckily, once the action starts, he gets better. Sadly, there isn't very much action; the elephant shenanigans are fun to watch, but too much of the movie consists of long draggy dialogue scenes. The politics of the story, with the British as the worthy masters and the natives as unruly children, is a bit much to take these days. It's fun to see a young Wilfrid Hyde-White as the commissioner. [DVD]

Friday, September 13, 2013


George Raft buys an old house on Park Avenue and turns it into a speakeasy. It becomes so successful, other shady characters try to pressure him into giving it up.  In the meantime, Raft is taking lessons in how to be a gentleman from older schoolteacher Alison Skipworth, partly to deal with his clientele, and partly to impress one specific woman, a socialite (Constance Cummings), who comes to the speakeasy alone every night. When he finally gets up the nerve to talk to her, he finds out that she grew up in that house before her family lost their money. She is currently being kept by the rich Louis Calhern, whom she intends to marry. Also on the scene:  Raft's current mistress (Wynne Gibson) and his former mistress (Mae West), who happens to return to the speakeasy the same night that Raft has arranged to have dinner with Cummings (with Skipworth along as a sort of chaperone). Despite some mixed signals, Cummings eventually falls for Raft, and he ends up getting the girl in a climax that involves other bootleggers shooting up the house in an attempt to get Raft to give up his property.

This movie's reputation is based on the fact that it’s Mae West's first film, though she's strictly in a supporting role. West (pictured with Raft) is quite amusing, giving the movie a needed jolt of energy about halfway through—when she enters the club, the coat check girl says, "Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!" and West delivers her famous line, "Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie!" In most of her later roles, West is languorous, almost lethargic, as though she's acting in slow motion, but here she's brisk and lively, and it's great fun to see her that way. But the film is worth watching even when West isn't on screen. Raft, who is not one of my favorite actors, does a fine job here, much more likeable than usual. Skipworth is great fun, especially in a scene in which West tells her she should become a member of her profession—Skipworth assumes she's a prostitute, but she really operates a beauty salon. Cummings is OK early on, but not terribly believable when her character acquires more depth, though she's good in a scene in which she smashes up Raft's room in a fit of rage. [DVD]

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

THE THIEF (1952)

An apartment in the middle of the night. A phone rings… and rings and rings. Ray Milland wakes up but does not answer it. Instead he gets up and heads out into the streets where he makes contact with Martin Gabel. Gabel drops a package and continues walking while Milland picks it up. It turns out that Milland, a nuclear scientist, is a spy who has been ordered to take microfilm photos of top-secret documents and pass them along though a network of spies. He continues letting his phone ring and making covert contact with the other spies, but eventually, he winds up on an FBI watch list and gets into some big trouble on top of the Empire State Building.

The gimmick of this noir-looking thriller (lots of shadowy city streets well photographed by Sam Leavitt) is that it is a modern-era silent movie; that is, though it has a musical score and various sounds, there is no dialogue, not even title cards, as no one speaks. It's interesting but it gets old fast, and there seems to be no thematic reason for the silence; just, as I noted, a gimmick. Some stretches are compelling (a scene in a library, for example, and most of the nighttime street scenes), some are tedious (the repetitive scenes of the phone ringing). Milland does a nice job, and as a What's My Line fan, I enjoyed seeing Martin Gabel (married to Arlene Francis) in a substantive role. Rita Gam has a brief appearance as a potential femme fatale, but she's really just a tease. There is some interesting camerawork and nice visual compositions within shots, but overall it was a slog to get through. 90 minutes is way too long—at an hour, it might have worked better. The picture is from a dream sequence, featuring Gable at the bottom, superimposed over Milland's face. [DVD]

Saturday, September 07, 2013


1967 was right smack in the middle of a boom time for two movie genres: the anthology movie featuring several related but separate stories in one film (BLACK SABBATH, BOCCACCIO ’70, THE DECAMERON) and the sex farce (KISS ME STUPID, GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN, BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE). This movie, set in and filmed on location in Paris, combines both, with the added gimmick of having one woman, Shirley MacLaine, appear as the sexy star in all seven of the stories. As with most anthology films, this is a mixed bag. The first story plays like a Laugh-In skit as a man (Peter Sellers) flirts with a widow during her husband's funeral.  Next, as "Teresa," MacLaine finds her husband in bed with another woman and gets advice that night from a group of hookers. In the final story, MacLaine is "Jeanne," a married woman flattered to be followed through the streets all day by a handsome young man (Michael Caine) who, we discover, has a different motive for his actions than she thinks.

Most of the individual stories run about 15 minutes, and some feel padded even at that length. One story, "Eve," about female jealousy over clothes, is silly and irritating. As "Edith," MacLaine, whose husband (Lex Barker, above right with MacLaine) is a novelist, becomes jealous of his latest female creation and goes a bit nutty trying to get his attention focused back on her. MacLaine is fun is this bit, but it does go on too long. Even the most interesting (and sexy) story, in which MacLaine plays "Linda," feels too long: Linda is a translator at a scientific conference; though she seems a little stodgy, she attracts the attention of two men, a young Scotsman (Clinton Greyn) and a slightly older Italian (Vittorio Gassman), both of whom she invites back to her apartment that night for drinks and readings from T.S. Eliot—she has a thing about the mind/body split and implies that her current boyfriend, who is out of town, isn't completely satisfactory to her. I assumed this bit would be one long tease to a cop-out ending, but actually, the story ends with her deciding to try a ménage à trois with the men. Greyn and Gassman (pictured with MacLaine) do well with underwritten characters, as does Alan Arkin in a story about a suicide pact gone awry. Other stars include Anita Ekberg, Rosanno Brazzi, and Robert Morley, but aside from MacLaine, no one else gets much of a chance to shine. Still, MacLaine is good and, even though the sex farce aspects date the movie a bit, it's not difficult to sit through. [DVD]

Thursday, September 05, 2013


In 1784, Peter Standish, who took the side of the colonists in the American Revolution, is in London to visit his cousin Kate Pettigrew, to whom he is, more or less, arranged to be engaged. The family needs money, and her younger sister Helen is fighting off the advances of a much older suitor. On a stormy night, Peter heads to her family home in Berkeley Square; he is seen getting out of his carriage but when the front door is opened, no one is there. Exactly 149 years later to the date, in 1933, Peter Standish, a descendent of the 1784 Peter, has taken possession of the Pettigrew house and has been poring over the diaries of his ancestor, becoming obsessed with the past to the point where his fiancée Marjorie is worried about his well-being. A somewhat dazed Peter tells the American ambassador that he is convinced that if he arrives at the house at 5:30 that afternoon, he will walk into the house as it was in 1784 and appear as the 1784 Peter. Sure enough, that's what happens. At first, a comedy of errors plays out as Peter gets used to their unusual customs—they don't shake hands, they take snuff—and occasionally makes a fool of himself when he seems to know things about the future (he mention Kate's birthday present of a shawl before it is given to her, and refers to tanks, which haven't been invented yet). He passes off a series of Oscar Wilde's aphorisms at a party to appear witty, and quotes Abraham Lincoln in conversation. Knowing the diary by heart, he tries to make sure that he doesn't change history in any way, but he falls in love with Helen, even though he knows that Peter is fated to marry Kate. When Peter tells Helen his story, she looks into his eyes and sees a montage of future world events which scares her. Eventually, Peter is acting so strangely that one character approaches him with two candles in the form of a crucifix, to perform an exorcism. Peter decides that since he can't have Helen, he will go back to 1933; she gives him an Egyptian ankh of hers to take back, something he remembers seeing back in the house in the present, and tells him they will meet again "in God’s time." When he returns, he decides not to marry Marjorie, and instead to live alone until death at which point he will be reunited with Helen.

This rarely-seen film, thought lost until the 70s, is a gentle, occasionally whimsical, romantic, melodramatic fantasy (enough adjectives for you?) along the lines of the later PORTRAIT OF JENNIE. No explanation is given for how Peter travels in time—he presents to the ambassador a view that time is like a river and events can be returned to—and the presence of the ankh would seem to indicate that his adventure wasn't just a dream. Peter comes to realize that the past, without modern customs and conveniences, isn't quite as appealing to live in as he thought it would be. But he also essentially gives up on life to await death and a possible though not guaranteed reunion with his would-be love—to be in love with an idea or a memory is easier than with a real person, a philosophy also touched on in JENNIE. The film jolts back and forth between humor and pathos, but the prevailing tone is a kind of amorphous tragic sadness. Leslie Howard is very good as both Peters, and Heather Angel (pictured with Howard) is equally fine as Helen. Valerie Taylor is fine as Kate, and Colin Keith-Johnston is amusing as the obnoxious Pettigrew brother, who tells his sister that "[all you women] are alike in the dark." A must-see for fans of gentle, whimsical, romantic, melodramatic fantasy. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

SLANDER (1957)

Steve Cochran is the publisher of Real Truth magazine, a scandal sheet (obviously modeled on the real-life Confidential magazine of the 1950s). On the surface, he is an elegant, soft-spoken man who dotes on his mother (Marjorie Rambeau) but in business dealings, he doesn't care who he hurts with his stories; he claims the truth never hurts anyone. The magazine is successful but sales figures are falling and they need a big lump sum to pay off some debt, so Cochran wants one big, big story that will sell more magazines than ever. There are rumors about some scandalous dish on a respected stage actress, and Cochran needs kiddie TV puppeteer Van Johnson, who knew her when she was young, to confirm it. Johnson just got a good gig on a national show, and Cochran tells him if he doesn't give up the dirt, he'll run a story that exposes Johnson as an ex-con. Johnson's wife wants him to give in to Cochran, but Johnson wants to stand up to him. The results are tragic for more than one person.

As an attack against the trashy exposé magazines of the time which did use blackmail and innuendo, and did cause damage to more than one entertainer's career, this is mild stuff. And Van Johnson is bland as dishwater as the puppeteer (as is Ann Blyth as his wife). But Steve Cochran (pictured with Blyth) is quite good as the publisher and he makes the movie worth watching, at least until the last 20 minutes when he mostly fades into the background. Cochran acts against his normal gruff, tough-guy type, playing quiet but intense. I would say that he based his performance on that of Burt Lancaster, playing a Walter Winchell-type in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, but this movie came out six months before the Lancaster film. At any rate, it's an unexpectedly good performance, one of Cochran's best. The sinister music that plays behind him seems a bit of overkill. Rambeau is fine as his mother who plays an important if somewhat far-fetched role in the rushed and unsatisfying climax. [TCM]