Saturday, November 30, 2013


In the 11th century B.C. the Persians have conquered the Egyptians; though theoretically still ruled by their pharaoh, Queen Smedes has been installed by the Persians and when she is accused of enslaving the people, she has the pharaoh assassinated and takes over as ruler, and things go from bad to worse for the people. The rightful heir, Kenamon, has been off fighting the Persians; on his way home, Kenamon sees the muscle man Maciste (the "son" of the title, though little is made of that connection) taking a nap on some rocks when a lion attacks. The two save each other and form a bond, and Kenamon asks Maciste to help him save his people from Persian tyranny. Back in the city of Tanis, the evil Queen wants to marry Kenamon but he suspects she had a role in his father's death (and besides, he's already in love with Nofret), so she has the Necklace of Forgetfulness placed on him and he immediately becomes smitten. Meanwhile Maciste comes to town in a fighting mood but Kenamon has forgotten who he is. Maciste runs about saving slaves from death and torture, but can he get Kenamon on his side before the Queen's plans are finalized?

For the peplum genre, the Egyptian setting is a little different, and the fantasy element of the necklace is unusual though not unique; you may recall the Potion of Forgetfullness in GOLIATH AND THE DRAGON. There is a good balance between action and narrative, and some of the battle scenes are fairly graphic for the day: in the climactic battle, one man is axed in the head and dies with a comical look on his face, and another is stabbed in the face with a huge fork-like weapon. Early on is a striking scene showing Egyptians buried in the sand, some head up, some feet up. There is a sequence right out of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS in which Maciste saves some slaves from being crushed during the erection of a giant obelisk. (The less said about the lion-wrestling scene, the better; do any of these sword-and-sandal movies have decent animal-wrestling scenes?) Mark Forest is acceptably built as Maciste (pictured above right with Angelo Zanolli as Kenamon), and a famous Cuban belly dancer named Chelo Alonso (at left) is fine as the queen. The print on Retromedia’s DVD is widescreen, always a plus. [DVD]

Friday, November 29, 2013


Hercules and his son Hylas (in the myths, Hylas was actually his companion—and some say, lover) have a strange vision of red smoke spreading ruin over Greece. The blind seer Tiresias tells Hercules that an evil power from the west threatens, so Androcles talks a reluctant Hercules into heading off to preempt disaster. Herc's wife, however, wants him to stay home, so Androcles essentially kidnaps the strong man—by drugging his wine—and gets him on his ship where Hylas is hiding, wanting to share his dad's adventure. A resentful Hercules is content to be lackadaisical and let others do the work until a huge storm destroys the ship; Hercules is washed up an island and Androcles is swept away. Hercules has a vision that Androcles is still alive, and as he searches the island he finds a woman who is being slowly absorbed by magic into a mountainside. At the mercy of shape-shifting Proteus, she begs to be killed, but Hercules battles Proteus (who turns into, among other things, a lion, a lizard, and a vulture) and bests him, freeing the woman, the princess Ismene from the island of Atlantis. It turns out that her mother, Queen Antinea, sacrificed her to Proteus, partly because of a prophecy that, if her daughter survives her, Atlantis will be destroyed. On the island, a priest of the god Uranus lives in a mountain and stands guard over a pool of Uranus' blood which has evil powers. Soon, Hercules starts seeing Androcles around the palace, but he's wandering in a stupor, having lost his memory, so Herc stays long enough to help his pal, and gets involved in a plan to overthrow the Queen.

As I'm noticing in these reviews, there's an awful lot of plot in these peplum movies, maybe to distract from the low budgets or wildly variable acting, and I'm not always sure my summary details are accurate. But overall, this is fun, full of action, colorful sets, and male and female pulchritude. There are some nice fantasy touches, such as Proteus' shape-shifting and occasional intercession by the gods (we never see them, but Hercules invokes them). The storm sequence is particularly effective, as is the climactic destruction of Atlantis—though that looks cobbled together from other film footage. Reg Park makes for a beefy and not bad looking hero, but, as the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew pointed out when they showed this, he is almost comically passive for chunks of the film. Ettore Manni as Androcles and Fay Spain as the Queen are fine, though both seem a little underused. The widescreen DVD print from Retromedia looks great. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


This is a real whoop-de-doo, kick-ass, sword-and-sandal movie; my advice is to ignore the plot and the sometimes amateurish special effects and just enjoy the piling-up of action sequences. What I could follow of the narrative: Back in the pagan days, muscular hero Emilius the Mighty, nicknamed Goliath (though in the original Italian version, he's Hercules), is a right-hand man to the gods, particularly the God of Revenge. His latest chore was to bring back the Blood Diamond, stolen by the wicked King Eurito, and replace it in the head of the god's statue. But Goliath has other problems. His young-pup brother Illus is love with Thea, but Goliath disapproves because her father was responsible for the death of their parents. Illus is led to believe (by Tindaro, Eurito's wily henchman) that Goliath is jealous and wants Thea for himself (even though he is married to Dejanira), so he is talked into slipping Goliath a Potion of Forgetfulness, but it's actually poison. As if all this isn't enough for Goliath, he is told by an oracle that his brother will cause the death of Dejanira.

But the plot machinations are secondary to the action sequences, and there are plenty of those. Right off the bat, Goliath battles a fire-breathing three-headed dog, followed later by a rather teddy-bear-like bat-creature, then a teddy-bear-like bear. Later he grapples with an elephant that is about to crush Illus, destroys his own house by pulling down its pillars, and battles with Polymorphus, a centaur/satyr creature who is running off with his wife. Near the end of the film, there is a battle with the dragon of the title, and another destruction scene involving tearing apart a house from underground. The creatures are fabulous in an MST3K bad-movie way, mostly looking like Muppets (the dog) or stuntmen in ratty Halloween costumes (the bear). The first glimpses of the dragon, a stop-motion figure, aren't bad, but when Goliath actually fights it, it’s a huge kiddie-matinee puppet, and becomes the most laughable scene of the movie—and that's saying a lot. Mark Forest is muscular and stoic as Goliath, Sandro Moretti is pleasant enough eye candy in the less-hunky sidekick role of Illus, and Broderick Crawford—yes, Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford—looks completely uneasy as the wicked king. The Alpha Video DVD is letterboxed but not anamorphic, and the colors tend toward sickly greens, but I hear that the Something Weird disc is in better shape. All things considered, a fun entry in the peplum genre. [DVD]

Monday, November 25, 2013


Most Novembers, I've written here about the kind of fantasy movies that I recall being broadcast on TV during Thanksgiving week when I was young—what with kids being off school and most regular daytime programming pre-empted. This year I thought I'd focus on the Italian muscleman movies, aka sword-and-sandal movies, or peplum movies (meaning "tunic," or toga, as the genre, popular through the 1960s, has been dubbed) which usually feature a muscled, toga-wearing hero in some historical setting. I've seen quite a few of them, but they tend to run together in my memory, so recently I've made an effort to watch (or re-watch) some of them so I can tell them apart. I'll start with the granddaddy of peplum movies. Though there had been a handful of these epics before (most notably the silent Italian film CABIRIA which introduced the standard peplum hero Maciste), this was the first one to become a big box office hit in America when it was dubbed and released here by American International.

It begins with a bucolic scene of a shepherd gently piping to his sheep until suddenly a woman tears through in a runaway chariot. Luckily Hercules (Steve Reeves) is strolling by and saves her by ripping up a tree to put in her horses' path. As it happens, the woman is Princess Iole (Sylva Koscina), daughter of King Pelius of Iolcus, and that's where Herc is heading, having been asked by the king to train their men in the skills of warfare. She tells Hercules that it's rumored that the previous king was assassinated, and Jason (the rightful heir) and his tutor Chironi vanished that night along with the Golden Fleece which is symbolic of legitimate rule, and which also has the name of the king's killer written on it in blood. Herc discovers Jason (Fabrizio Mioni), now grown, and the king gives them three months to go find the Golden Fleece. They survive a storm at sea, spend some time with a tribe of Amazons, and face down a bunch of dark, bestial men and a dragon before they get the Fleece and return to Iolcus where Jason can take his place as king.

This mish-mash of mythological themes and stories contains more than I've noted above, including a fight with the Cretan Bull (a very sorry-looking sequence) and a lion, run-ins with oracles, some help from Ulysses, the tearing-down of pillars, and the presence of many loinclothed young men engaged in acts of physical prowess. Even though Steve Reeves' name became a codeword for "bad musclebound acting," he’s OK here—some who came after were much worse. Koscina (who had a lengthy career in Italian cinema and Hollywood B-movies) and Mioni (who did not; both pictured above) are both fine in the main support roles. Though it's not a big-budget movie, it looks pretty good, perhaps due to Mario Bava's presence as cinematographer, just before he struck out on his career as a director (BLACK SUNDAY, DANGER: DIABOLIK, and one of the best peplum films HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD). And finally, a widescreen version of this movie is available from Retromedia, so if you've only seen this pan-and-scanned, you haven't really seen it. Certainly one of the best of the peplum films. [DVD]

Friday, November 22, 2013


This silent German film from Ernst Lubitsch may be the oldest film I've reviewed here. It is definitely a relic in terms of acting (either overdone or underdone) but it's been beautifully restored with rich color tinting and is lovely to watch. The title is an exaggeration: the pharaoh, King Amenes (Emil Jannings) only has one love but she causes quite a bit of trouble. Samlak, the king of Ethiopia, arrives wanting to sign a peace pact with the Egyptians and offers his daughter Makeda as a bride. But trouble is in store when Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), an Egyptian architect, rescues Theonis (Dagny Servaes), a Greek slave to Makeda who was being mistreated. The two go necking at an ancient Egyptian version of a moonlit lover's lane, but when they stray onto treasury property, which is strictly forbidden, they are caught and sentenced to death. As Ramphis is about to be crushed beneath a huge stone slab, Theonis agrees to give herself to King Amenes if he will spare Ramphis. The King agrees and frees Ramphis but tells him that Theonis has been executed. Meanwhile, Samlak wants Theonis back as a slave; one thing leads to another and soon the Ethiopians are on the warpath.

There is some fun to be had here in this early example of a historical epic. The sets are spectacular and the battle scenes are impressive. The acting, as I noted, is all over the place. Actually, I prefer the actors like Liedtke who overact occasionally to Jannings who underplays the lead role—pretty much all he does is glower and look askance; his passion for the slave girl barely registers. But the restoration of the film is amazing. No complete print exists so this was pulled together from three different prints, but aside from the fact that a handful of scenes are missing and represented by stills and explanatory titles, it feels all of one piece. This won't convert anyone over to silent film fandom, and it doesn't feel at all like a Lubitsch movie (glossy, whimsical, romantic), but I enjoyed it. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


After an opening crawl warning about the evils of using scavenger journalism to sell newspapers, we meet young Bruce Foster (Tom Brown) who runs the paper in the small town of Cornwall with some help from his girl friend Toni (Adrienne Dore). It seems to be common knowledge that wealthy Mrs. Ferguson is having an affair with banker Judd Brooks, and when Mr. Ferguson arrives home early from a business trip, he almost catches the two of them. That night, Ferguson is shot to death and his wife is found bound and gagged. She claims that robbers broke in and gives police a description of them, but some believe that she and her lover may have committed the crime and made look like robbery. The news, reported by Bruce in the local paper, brings a flock of big-city reporters to town. One batch, led by the slightly seedy Bob Parks (Kenneth Thomson), is out to make as many scandalous headlines as possible, and they wind up railroading the DA into charging Mrs. Ferguson despite virtually no physical evidence. The others, led by Martin Collins (Grant Mitchell), are disgusted by Parks' tactics. In the middle is Maizie Dickson (Joan Blondell), Parks' former lover; she hangs out with Parks and the scandal mongers but her heart is with Collins' group. When Maizie realizes that small-town Toni is falling for Parks, she tries to intervene, but can’t stop their affair. But the real question is, can Bruce, the small-town reporter, find out the truth behind the murder which the big-city pros seem disinclined to find?

This is another Warner Bros. movie, like FIVE STAR FINAL from the year before, that takes a critical view of the newspaper business. That earlier film focused on scandal sheets that dig up old dirt just to sell papers. In this one, the "bad" reporters actually influence the way the case is handled by the state, rushing to judgment for the sake of headlines. This is worth seeing for a number of reasons. It moves along at a nice clip, the plot takes a couple of unexpected detours—especially the thread involving Blondell—and the performances are quite good. Brown (pictured with Blondell above) looks like he's 15, but he does a nice job at seeming both charmingly na├»ve and slyly clever. Thomson, an actor with whom I was not familiar, is good as the world-weary, slightly decadent type—we discover that he doesn't even write his own copy anymore. Leon Ames stands out in the small role of Brooks, the lover. [TCM]

Thursday, November 14, 2013


This is a doozy, folks, in the so-bad-it's-almost-good category. Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch) is a retired movie director; years ago, he was known for a sting of films that made a star out of Lylah Clare (Kim Novak), but on their wedding day, Lylah died under mysterious circumstances—she either fell or was pushed from a flight of stairs in Zarken's mansion, and was either running from an assailant or was engaging in an extramarital fling with another woman. Now some twenty years later, press agent Bart Langer (Milton Seltzer) has discovered a young would-be starlet named Elsa (also Kim Novak) who bears a striking resemblance to Lylah. Dying of cancer, he approaches Zarken about making a movie about Lylah that would star Elsa. At first skeptical, Zarken soon decides not only to make the movie, but also to mold Elsa to be another Lylah.

That plot has promise, but the film is tonally all over the place. It can’t decide if it's campy satire, straightforward melodrama, or a ghost story, so it winds up being a bit of all three, to its detriment. The movies it most conjures up are VERTIGO (instability of identity, male re-creating lost female) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (eccentric old movie personalities), and had director Robert Aldrich shot for one or the other as a model, the movie might have worked. Whenever it's dealing with the movie business, which is often, the script feels like the fever dream of an oversexed 14-year-old who has no idea how Hollywood works. When it's trying to be a relationship drama, the characters are maddeningly vague, particularly Zarken who comes off sometimes as villainous and sometimes as just misunderstood. Fairly soon after Elsa enters Zarken's house, she begins to occasionally slip into the deep Germanic accent and over-the-top vampishness of Lylah, to the point where it feels like she's being possessed by a spirit. Yet few other people seem to notice this or comment on it—is this something that’s only observed by Zarken, or is this really a possession story?

As a whole, the movie is a mess, but many of the parts are enjoyable. The backstory of Zarken and Lylah is clearly based on Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and watching the way Zarken's relationship with Elsa plays out has its moments. Novak is sexy, Finch gives it his all—though honestly, it would have been more fun if he had gone over the top more often—and Seltzer provides solid, quiet support, though his character is no more realistic than the others. Rossella Falk plays Finch's assistant, who apparently had a thing for Lylah (I'm thinking on the order of Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA, but dialed down very low). Ernest Borgnine is good as a studio boss who hires Zarken to make the film, and a young Michael Murphy is his son who becomes a protector of sorts to Elsa. The movie is stolen by Coral Browne (pictured at right) as a crippled gossip columnist who can make or break Elsa's reputation before even one frame of film is shot. She's only in two scenes and her presence is missed throughout. Also with Gabriele Tinti as a hunky but sleazy Italian gardener and eventual bedmate of Elsa's. I can only recommend this movie if you have a healthy tolerance and/or love of bad movies. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Edith (divorced) and her 12-year-old daughter Brenda have come to spend Christmas at a winter resort; arriving at the same time is Stephen (widowed), soon to be joined by his 12-year-old son Tommy. Stephen and Edith had a nasty encounter earlier in their cars, so when the road is blocked temporarily by snow, they are not happy to discover that they are the only two in the entire lodge. A huge dinner is prepared for them and a large band plays while Mr. Snirley, the recreation director, and Miss Peabody, the hostess, work hard trying to get the two together. In order to get away from Snirley and Peabody, Edith and Stephen go for a walk and soon discover that they like each other's company. Unfortunately, Brenda is prejudiced against men and when the roads clear up and Tommy arrives, the two children plot to keep Edith and Stephen apart.

The first half-hour of this romantic comedy trifle is charming. Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas are both working at about half-speed, but that's really all that’s really required at this B-movie level. Dorothy Stickney (who played Mother on Broadway in the big hit Life With Father) is wonderful as Peabody, and Romaine Callender gives a light campy touch to Snirley. Donald Meek is his usual harassed self as the lodge manager. But when the children (Edith Fellows and Jackie Moran, both giving below-average performances) take center stage, the movie changes tone, becoming slapsticky and mean—there's an awful lot of physical violence, albeit mild, against the little girl that doesn't sit well. By the end, when the action has moved to Manhattan, the movie collapses into unbelievable B-movie screwball antics, and I very nearly turned it off with only ten minutes left. 11-year-old Douglas Scott steals his scenes as a mama's boy named Horace, especially in a scene in which he tries to take credit away from Moran for spitting BBs at the guests: "It was I who winged Miss Peabody on her beezer!" Pictured above, from left, are Callender, Stickney, Astor and Douglas. [YouTube streaming]

Monday, November 11, 2013


Between the title, the city streets locale, the shadowy visual style, and the femme fatale at the center of the action, one might expect this to be an average film noir, but it's actually more like a medical drama in disguise. Hard-boiled blonde Evelyn Keyes (pictured) arrives at Grand Central Station, nervous, sweaty, and feeling sick, and trailed by two feds who suspect she's smuggling jewels from Cuba. She is, having already dropped them in the mail to her small-time hood husband (Charles Korvin), who is having an affair with her slutty sister (Lola Albright). But she's also unknowingly carrying smallpox. Anyone who's been vaccinated is safe, but if she has close contact with anyone unprotected, they are susceptible to the disease, which can cause death. Keyes goes to a doctor (William Bishop) who diagnoses her as having the flu, but later when smallpox cases start popping up around the city, Bishop remembers Keyes and soon both the law and the city health department are on her trail. The crime plot is right out of film noir, but it takes a back seat to the smallpox story; the unsavory trio of Keyes, Korvin and Albright deserve more screen time, but generally this is a decent thriller that feels a bit like a TV show, including some over-the-top Dragnet-like narration now and then. The cast is serviceable and there are some recognizable character actors such as Dorothy Malone, Connie Gilchrist, Whit Bissell, and Jim Backus. A little something different. [DVD]

Thursday, November 07, 2013


Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart), convicted of killing his wife, escapes from San Quentin in a barrel and bums a ride from a guy named Baker (Clifton Young), but when the driver hears a radio report about the escape, Parry knocks him out and takes his clothes, and then gets a ride from Irene Jansen, an artist (Lauren Bacall); she knows who he is from the newspaper coverage of his trial but because her father was wrongly convicted of a similar crime, she believes in his innocence and agrees to help him. As it happens, Irene knows Madge (Agnes Moorehead), a woman who testified against Parry, and Irene is dating Bob, Madge's former boyfriend (Bruce Bennett), so Parry winds up getting plastic surgery on his face so he can investigate the murder for himself in the open. Unfortunately, his troubles are just beginning: his buddy George winds up murdered, the cops start trailing him because he seems suspicious, and Baker shows up on his tail. And, of course, there’s troublemaking Madge. This film noir works well despite (or, hell, maybe because of) the many strange plot twists. The great cast is also a plus. Bogart is, of course, the quintessential noir hero, though he doesn't quite seem as natural as he did in THE MALTESE FALCON. The first half is shot subjectively from Parry's point of view, so we never see what the character looks like before he becomes Bogart; it feels like an odd gimmick but probably necessary because of Bogie's distinct face. He and Bacall exhibit good chemistry, and the supporting cast (Bennett, Young, and especially Moorehead) is great. The way the ending plays out is a little surprising given the way it goes a bit against Production Code morality, but also anti-climactic. But there are some very good scenes in the last half that help mitigate the slightly weak ending. [TCM]

Monday, November 04, 2013


In wintry 1930s New York, struggling artist Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) can't sell his paintings. Matthews, an art dealer (Cecil Kellaway), is friendly but rejects his works; however, Matthews' partner Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) agrees to take one piece, and tells him he needs love in his life for his talent to bloom. Later in Central Park, Adams meets a teenage girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) dressed in clothes of a bygone era. He is charmed by her, but disconcerted when she says her parents are entertainers at a theater that Eben knows was torn down many years ago. Over the next few weeks, he sees her in the park frequently; each time, she looks older, and as she tells him stories of her life, it seems as if time is going by more quickly for her than for him. A dramatic painting of a lighthouse spooks her, and it turns that she is indeed from an earlier era. Eben begins a portrait of her which Spinney approves of, but then he discovers that Jennie died young, in a storm off Cape Cod. Can Eben somehow transcend time to save Jennie from her fate?

This romantic fantasy is visually quite beautiful, even if the plot and characters aren't all they might have been. Many of the scenes involving Jennie are shot with what would seem to be a burlap bag filter to look as if they are on canvas. New York in winter looks quite romantic. The climactic storm looks good as well, and the black & white movie switches to color tints in the last reel before changing to full Technicolor for the final shot of the title portrait. Cotten and Jones work well together—though the almost 30-year-old Jones can't really pass as a teenager in the early scenes. Though the visuals and the fantasy plot kept my interest, more fleshing-out of characters, lead and supporting, might have made this a more compelling movie. Barrymore and Kellaway are fine, as is David Wayne as a taxi-driver buddy who helps Cotten get a commission to paint a mural at an Irish pub. Lillian Gish appears briefly as a nun. But the film doesn't have a lived-in feel like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or THE BISHOP’S WIFE do. [TCM]

Friday, November 01, 2013


This re-telling of the familiar Bible story begins with the aged prophet Samuel arriving at the court of King Saul and telling Saul's advisor Abner that the Lord has spoken and said it's time for the corrupt and decadent Saul to be replaced by a new king. Saul seems almost resigned to the news, upset since the Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant, but the scheming Abner is on his guard, worrying about losing his own bit of power. Meanwhile in Bethlehem, we meet the shepherd boy David, son of Jesse, who impresses his girlfriend with his slingshot talents (hint, hint) before she's struck by lightning in a storm and dies. Samuel, told by God that the next king of Israel will be a son of Jesse, comes to town to take David off to his destiny. Right off the bat, David stirs up trouble with some rabble-rousing in the streets, and though Abner is against him, Saul takes him under his wing, hoping to pacify him and win him over. David becomes buddies with Saul's son Jonathan and flirts with Saul's daughter Michel; meanwhile, with the Philistines threatening to attack and Saul wanting to get the Ark back, Abner plans to use David as an emissary to Asrod, king of the Philistines, hoping for David's failure and/or death at the hands of the Philistine giant Goliath. Spoiler alert: remember that slingshot!

This Italian film feels like The Ten Commandments done on a low budget with the cast and crew of a Hercules movie. It comes nowhere near the grandeur of a De Mille film, but in its B-movie scrappiness it has its fun moments. The movie's big draw is Orson Welles as Saul (at left), in the beginning of his "shambling fat man" years (as in THE LONG HOT SUMMER and TOUCH OF EVIL), and as usual when he's on screen—even if he's only going through the motions as here—he's always compelling. Unfortunately all the dialogue was post-dubbed so even though he dubs his own voice, a certain immediacy is lost and the performance feels diminished.  Ivo Payer, the actor playing David, is a cute young guy who might have played a strongman sidekick in a Hercules movie (pictured above right), but doesn't have the gravitas for this role. Few of the other actors make an impression except for Massimo Serato as Abner. A burly, hairy Italian circus giant by the name of Kronos plays Goliath—my recollection is that he has no lines, just grunts. They try to use camera trickery to make him look huge but it doesn't really work. I mean, I wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley, but he never looks quite as menacing as he should. The dialogue is full of "thee"s and "thou dost"s which is fun in an old-fashioned way, and the sets and costumes look good. There's a good battle scene near the end. The only print available is a junky looking pan-and-scan one, but I’d watch this one again if a widescreen version was released. [YouTube]