Wednesday, July 31, 2013

NIGHT EDITOR (1946)

William Gargan is a world-weary cop with a sweet wife and cute son who is trying break off an affair with spoiled rich sexy blonde Janis Carter, who seems to like things a little rough. One night, while parked near a beach, he tries to tell her goodbye, but she gets into a tussle with him which ends in a torrid kiss. However, at the same time, they see a man beat a woman to death with a tire iron in another parked car. He pulls his gun to shoot at the escaping killer, but Carter warns him about the scandal that would erupt if he got involved. When the police investigate, they find Gargan's tire tracks in the sand. Before they can trace the tracks, the cops arrest a man for the murder. Gargan knows they don't have the right man, so he races against time to find the killer on his own. When it turns out that Carter not only knew the dead woman, but may be engaged in a dalliance with a suspect whose prints were found at the scene, things get even stickier for Gargan.

This unsung little B-film is a very nice example of film noir, complete with a flawed and conflicted hero (more like an anti-hero for most of the film), a sexy femme fatale, and passion and murder in the night. Gargan is fine as the appropriately hangdog lead; in his attempted breakup scene, he actually gets to say lines like, "This is the end of the line," "You’re just no good for me, baby," and "We both add up to zero." Carter (pictured with Gargan), however, burns up the screen, giving one of the best "bad girl" performances in all of noir. She (the character) is smoking hot and knows it, lording her power over poor Gargan for most of the running time. Only at the climax, which involves an icepick in someone's back, does she falter a bit, and I blame that on the writing. Jeff Donnell is colorless as Gargan's wife. The title comes from a radio show from which this was adapted; the main story is framed as a flashback told by the night editor (Charles D. Brown) of the New York Star to his staff, primarily intended as a cautionary tale aimed at a sweaty and despondent young reporter (Coulter Irwin, who definitely has the sweaty part down). A must-see for noir fans, available on the DVD set Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 2. [DVD]

Monday, July 29, 2013

WILDCAT BUS (1940)

This had a lot of potential to be interesting to me: a little-known B-movie which has generated very little comment, a lead actor I'd never heard of, and a left-field focus on the illegal "hired car" business. Things do start off well: it opens "cute" with young layabout playboy heir Charles Lang being kicked out of his penthouse apartment because he’s been judged incompetent. His chauffeur and faithful buddy Paul Guilfoyle goes out job-hunting with him. Cute scene #2: looking for a job at Federated Bus Line, Lang gives a boot in the ass to a mechanic working under a car who turns out to be Fay Wray, who is also the boss's daughter. Based on his experience, Guilfoyle gets a job as a bus driver but Lang is turned away. He winds up with a job as a wildcat driver, someone who charges passengers to ride in his car from one city to another, but who isn't officially licensed as a bus or cab driver. We soon discover that his boss, Don Costello, is using underhanded tricks, like tampering with the buses to cause accidents, to drive Federated out of business. It takes a while, but eventually Lang realizes what's going on, and after Guilfoyle is seriously injured in one of the arranged wrecks, Lang teams up with Wray to put the wildcatters out of business.

I wanted to like this, but after a promising 15 minutes, it peters out due to so-so performances and a disjointed narrative, like someone took every other page out of the script to shorten the running time. To its credit, it does move quickly and the last 10 minutes, involving a bit of vigilante justice, play out well. Lang (pictured at right) looks like a 40s Tab Hunter and does an OK job with his comic bits, but is not a heroic type. He has little chemistry with Wray who does the best she can with an inconsistent character—sometimes cold, sometimes sympathetic. Guilfoyle is fine, as is Leona Roberts as Ma Talbot, the kindly old washwoman who is actually the brains behind the wildcatters. Not a total waste of time, but not the quirky gem I was hoping for. [TCM]

Friday, July 26, 2013

THIS SIDE OF THE LAW (1950)

David Cummins is bedraggled, injured, and stuck at the bottom of an abandoned cistern on the Taylor estate, desperate to escape, and his story plays out in flashback. Just two weeks ago, he was a homeless man sentenced to 30 days in jail for vagrancy when out of the blue a lawyer named Cagle pays his fine and frees him, with one condition: Cagle thinks Cummins is a dead ringer for a rich man named Malcolm Taylor who has been missing for almost seven years, and he wants Cummins to impersonate him with his family. Malcolm is about to be declared dead, and Cagle thinks the wrong people will get the estate if that happens, so Cummins is to show up, claim he's Malcolm, and stick around long enough so Cagle can fix the estate inheritance. At Sans Souci, the Taylor mansion on a cliff, Cummins manages to fool the three relatives there: Malcom's weak-willed brother Calder, Calder’s sexy wife Nadine (with whom Malcolm has had an affair), and Malcolm's wife Evelyn, who seems to have been ignored by Malcolm. He gets a chilly reception as none of them are particularly happy to see him back, but soon Nadine realizes that David is missing a distinctive scar of Malcolm's and she threatens to expose him unless she can get in on the fix. When David tells Cagle, the lawyer arranges a meeting with Nadine and a series of machinations begin which wind up with Cummins in the cistern, one family member dead, and the others threatened by Cagle.

Despite a number of plot holes and a couple of bland performances,  this is a good little B-gothic noir; it takes a little while to get going, but the last 20 minutes are fun. Kent Smith (as David/Malcolm) and Robert Douglas (as Cagle) are on the bland side—the part of the lawyer would have been perfect for someone like George Zucco to sink his teeth into. But Viveca Lindfors is fine as Evelyn, John Alvin is appropriately slimy as Calder, and best of all is Janis Paige who steals the movie as Nadine. One can argue about whether or not she fits the criteria for a noir femme fatale, but she is a strong presence and you wish to see more of her. Smith isn't bad, especially in the last half, but he doesn’t play a conflicted noir hero/anti-hero like John Garfield (FORCE OF EVIL) or even Tom Neal (DETOUR). The atmospheric camerawork helps, and the Warner Archive print is gorgeous. [DVD]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

THE BRASHER DOUBLOON (1947)

As the hot Mojave summer winds blow, detective Philip Marlowe (George Montgomery) is called out to the mansion of rich widow Mrs. Murdock (Florence Bates) to investigate the disappearance of a rare coin, a Brasher doubloon—no need to know what that means, it's just a McGuffin. Marlowe winds up meeting an interesting group of people in the course of the case. Murdock's young secretary Merle Davis (Nancy Guild, pictured at right with Montgomery), wearing Night of Bliss perfume, is flirty with Marlowe, then tells him she has a phobia of being touched, partly due to the harassment that Mrs. Murdock's late husband subjected her to—Marlowe offers to help her with her problem and she seems agreeable. But soon he discovers she has a secret: she accidentally pushed Mr. Murdock to his death from a high window during the Rose Parade. There’s also Murdock's slick but slimy son Leslie (Conrad Janis); coin dealer Elisha Morningstar, whose call about the doubloon alerted Mrs. Murdock to her loss; scarred thug Eddie Prue who tries to ransack Marlowe's office; Prue's boss Vince Blair, a club owner; and the German newsreel photographer Vannier who has been making money on the side through blackmail.  People get beaten up and killed, a counterfeit copy of the coin turns up, and some of Vannier's newsreel footage winds up playing a part in the finale.

Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, this is a veritable encyclopedia of film noir tricks and techniques. There's an unstable, possibly unreliable woman who tells lies when it suits her (like Mary Astor's character in MALTESE FALCON), a man who is invited into the gumshoe's office only to cause trouble (like Peter Lorre's character in FALCON), an attempted beating of the detective (like poor Alan Ladd went through in THE GLASS KEY), and a convoluted plot that may or may not make sense (as in THE BIG SLEEP, with Bogart as Marlowe). This is a B-production and it shows in the fast pace and short length (72 minutes), and in the casting of Montgomery as Marlowe. I like Montgomery but he's no Bogart—he makes a rather lightweight private dick, and there's very little sense of danger (to him or from him). Still, the movie works largely due to the supporting cast: Bates is always fun in the "dragon lady" role, and Janis makes the character of the son more interesting than he should be. Guild is unconvincing as the femme fatale/heroine—the studio wanted her to be another Lauren Bacall though she would seem better suited to light B-comedies. But overall this is worth seeing for fans of noir or detective movies of the era. [DVD]

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

PORTLAND EXPOSÉ (1957)

George Madison owns the Woodland Tavern on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, a nice, friendly town that is in the process of being overrun by a crime syndicate. A couple of thugs named Joe and Larry visit Madison and want him to install their pinball and gambling machines. When he refuses, they send out some phony labor protesters to picket in front of his establishment.  George holds out for a while until they threaten to throw acid in the face of his teenage daughter Ruth. He gives in and soon the Tavern is hopping, although it's been overrun by gamblers and loud jazz music. Ruth's boyfriend Benny assumes that, because of her father's business, she's a girl of loose morals and one night, he tries some hanky-panky with her in the woods. She sends him away but is then cornered by Joe, who has done time for fooling around with underage girls—"Hopheads aren’t nothin' compared to what ails him," another character says—and he assaults her, though George saves her before Joe can get very far. George sends his wife and kids away and gets in contact with some labor union leaders who are also fighting against the mob. He agrees to pretend to cozy up the thugs while wearing a wire to get evidence against them but soon the thugs smell a rat, and when Ruth reconciles with Benny and returns to Portland to attend a dance with him, she winds up in the middle between her dad and the bad guys.

This B-crime thriller isn't really in any way, shape or form film noir, but that’s how it's being sold on DVD. Hard-core noir fans won’t find much here but as a down-and-dirty crime melodrama, it's quite watchable. The setting, in a city but in a rural wooded area, is interesting. Edward Binns, familiar from well over 100 TV supporting roles, is serviceable as the average-Joe hero. Virginia Gregg, another TV face, doesn’t have much to do as his wife; Carolyn Craig is OK as the daughter, and the actor playing Benny is better (but uncredited). It's the villains that make this worth watching: Larry Dobkin (as Larry, at right) makes his character seem like a slow-witted goon but vicious and smarter than he looks, and Frank Gorshin (the original Riddler on TV's Batman, above left) is spectacularly slimy as the child-molesting Joe. Joe Flynn (the captain on McHale's Navy) has a bit part as a good guy. There's a fun scene in the last half involving a sweet old lady who is actually a madam arriving in Portland to start up a business; she wants only good girls, "no dipsos, no hopheads." [DVD]

Friday, July 19, 2013

PRIVILEGE (1967)

I'm not quite sure what to make of this film, a satirical parable of pop culture and politics which has some good ideas but can't follow through on most of them. In the near future, pop singer Paul Jones is the new hot commodity. In his masochistic stage act, he is beaten and jailed, then freed but kept in handcuffs; he attacks his guards who then beat him up some more. All the while, he's singing and the teenage audience is yelling and cheering. We soon discover that Jones's act is actually subsidized by the ruling government in England, who see his show as catharsis for unmoored, violent youth who might otherwise be involved in protest or political agitation. Offstage, Jones is a passive cipher who always looks like he's on the verge of tears, his private life nonexistent, waiting for his handlers to guide his career to its next step. The only people who seem at all close to him are his bodyguard and a model (Jean Shrimpton) who is also his half-hearted girlfriend. When there's an apple glut, Jones does an ad to sell apples. More seriously, when the powers that be decide that the masses need to find God, Jones is set up as a pop messiah. The large open-air concert/crusade is the highlight of the movie, as Jones leads chants like, "We will conform," and does a rock version of the hymn "Jerusalem" while cripples are brought forward for healing. It's done like Leni Reifenstahl shooting a Billy Graham revival and the movie could have used more of this stylistic power throughout. The ending isn't quite as predictable as one might think—there is no explicit martyrdom, just a kind of slow fade as Jones finally rebels against his handlers—but the film really has nowhere to go after the big crusade scene. The ideas floating around about consumerism, pop culture, and politics are interesting, but the script could have used some tightening, and Jones (the original lead singer for Manfred Mann) doesn't make a very charismatic figure. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941)

Shanghai is a bustling city of riches, vice, and decadence for those, we are told, "who wish to live between the lines of laws and customs." The heart of the city is Mother Gin Sling's casino, a magnificent pleasure palace in white, designed like Dante's circles of Hell, with a gaming table in a pit at the center where huge sums of money are won and lost every night. We first meet Dixie, a brassy blonde showgirl from Brooklyn stranded in the city. She is taken in by the dusky, passive Doctor Omar—he says he is a doctor of nothing, and others call him the poet laureate of Shanghai, though all the poetry he spouts is from Omar Khayyam—who gets her a job at the casino, though what exactly she does aside from wearing sexy dresses and making wisecracks is never made clear. Next we meet another newcomer to Shanghai, a dark exotic young woman who gives her name as Poppy Smith; she is more fragile than Dixie, but she's got money and a Russian man squiring her around town. She thinks the casino smells evil but it fascinated by it and by Omar. That night, Mother Gin Sling gets the bad news that she will have to shut down her establishment; it's part of a large lot of land bought by rich speculator Sir Guy Charteris. Realizing she cannot fight the deal, she instead tries digging up dirt on Charteris and discovers two interesting items: Poppy is his daughter (real name Victoria), and Charteris is actually a man named Dawson who was briefly married to Mother Gin Sling in her youth and who treated her badly. Mother plots to reduce Poppy to a shell of her former self by getting her hooked on drinking and gambling, and then on the casino's final night, the eve of Chinese New Year, she'll unveil the spectacle of Victoria's ruin to Charteris at a fancy dinner party. Things go as planned, but Charteris has a little secret of his own which casts everything in a different light for Mother.

Based on a notorious stage play, the Production Code people didn't want this movie made at all. In the play, the casino is a brothel, and the name of the main character is Mother Goddam. Lots of changes were made to get this material through the censors, but a strong atmosphere of decadence and corruption remains, and it doesn't take much reading between the lines to figure out what's what. Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) has clearly been hired as a prostitute; Omar (Victor Mature) is completely amoral and pretty much high all the time, on opium I assume; Poppy (Gene Tierney), after Omar is through with her, is certainly drug-addled as well. This film was the last hurrah of Josef von Sternberg, who would certainly have centered this film around Marlene Dietrich if he had made it a few years earlier. Though its stage origins remain obvious, the movie looks great. Long shots of the casino are stuffed with interesting detail—the main credits include an acknowledgement of the unsung extras, and indeed they are crucial in the building of atmosphere. The print I saw wasn't spectacular, but the rich blacks and overexposed whites come through well enough. 

This was an early lead role for Tierney, and while some critics complain that she overacts, I think she was wise to do so here, since her character is such a melodramatic soap-opera type. For the most part, Power barely registers since he has little to do besides look like he's in an opium haze all the time. The rest of the cast is fine, including Walter Huston as Charteris, Eric Blore as the bookkeeper who is on crutches the whole time (someone says to him, "Stop behaving like a disabled flamingo!"), Albert Basserman as a city official, and Mike Mazurki as a bare-chested sinister rickshaw driver. Best of all is Ona Munson, unrecognizable in Asian makeup as Mother Gin Sling (pictured). Her face is usually frozen in a sickly smile, but her voice (you can hear Belle Watling, her character in GONE WITH THE WIND, loud and clear) and mannerisms give full vent to her desires and frustrations. Things end well for no one (except maybe Omar who probably curls back up with his hookah), but the ending has just enough ambiguity to allow us to imagine that not all the guilty parties will pay for their crimes. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but a must-see for classic-era fans.  [TCM]

Monday, July 15, 2013

THE SIGN OF THE RAM (1948)

Sherida has arrived in Cornwall to take a job as secretary for a writer, Leah, who produces gushy inspirational poetry under the pen name Faith Hope. Leah is confined to a wheelchair; years ago, she saved two of her stepchildren from drowning but her legs were crushed and she's been crippled ever since. Sherida finds the family quite friendly, especially Leah's gentle husband Mallory, but soon Leah begins to suspect that something is going on between Sherida and Mallory. It's not, but once Leah's jealous fuse has been lit, it can't be put out. As two of her stepchildren, Logan and Jane, make plans to marry their sweethearts and leave the house, Leah hatches her own plans to meddle in their affairs to keep them at home, or as one character says, keep her "band of slaves intact." Then she plants a seed in the mind of her youngest, Christine, about the dalliance she imagines between Mallory and Sherida, leading Christine to put an overdose of sleeping powder in Sherida's water. Slowly, Leah's plotting becomes evident to all, but they may not be able to undo all her damage.

A gothic melodrama in the vein of DRAGONWYCK, GUEST IN THE HOUSE, and UNCLE SILAS, this plays out in a lower key than the above films but it still generates some thrills along the way. One big plus is the atmosphere; it's set in a big old mansion on a cliff with crashing waves below (think THE UNINVITED, also set in Cornwall) and the dramatic outdoor settings are used well. The film was crafted specifically for Susan Peters (above left) who plays Leah; she was a starlet whose career was taking off when she was paralyzed in a hunting accident in 1945. This film was to have been her comeback, and she's quite good in the role, underplaying both the character's inner sinister nature and her outer vulnerable appearance. Sadly, she made no other films and died four years later. The other actors are fine, especially Alexander Knox as the husband, the handsome Ross Ford as Logan, Diana Douglas as Catherine (a free-spirited artist and Logan's lover, pictured with Ford), and Ron Randall as Simon (the family doctor and the object of Jane's affections). Sherida (Phyllis Thaxter) and the two daughters don’t make as much of an impact, partly (for me) because they're not as well differentiated as the rest—the three young women look and act alike: dark hair, attractive, and vivacious (except when Leah has them under her thumb). The story takes a while to get going; there's a lot of exposition laid out in long dialogue scenes during the first half-hour before things really get going. But this movie definitely deserves to be better known than it is. [TCM]

Thursday, July 11, 2013

DARLING, HOW COULD YOU? (1951)

In turn-of-the-century New York City, the Grey children (older teenager Amy and 10-year-old Cosmo who hates his name and wants to be called Charles) are dropped off at the wrong theater by their housekeeper Fanny and they see a melodrama about an adulterous wife who is shunned by society for her behavior. Amy is much taken with the play and feels that she now has some acquaintance with the "seamy side" of life. The next day, the children await the return of their parents who have been living and working in Panama for years; Amy and Cosmo barely remember them, and when Amy goes to meet their ship, she's on the lookout for an elderly couple, but in fact they are still young and vibrant people so Amy doesn't notice them. That's just the first of a series of misunderstandings between the kids and their parents (who have their own misconceptions about their children), the biggest of which involves Amy assuming that her mother is having a "seamy side" affair with a young doctor who is actually just a family friend. Afraid that her mom will be "hounded from society," she sets out to fix things, which of course only messes things up more. Since this is a comedy (based on a play by J.M. Barrie), everything works out in the end. This little trifle is mostly fun though it might be more interesting if played at a slightly faster pace, more like farce. Joan Fontaine and John Lund (pictured) are adequate as the parents; Mona Freeman as Amy and Peter Hansen as the family friend come off the best. There’s a nice Barrie reference when Amy, in discussing seeing the melodrama, says, "I wouldn’t have learned half as much from Peter Pan!" [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

BOULDER DAM (1936)

Ross Alexander and Lyle Talbot work as mechanics at a Detroit taxi company. Alexander is cocky and egotistical, though his boss (William Pawley) admits he's the best in the shop. One day when Alexander comes in late yet again, Pawley fires him. They get into a fistfight and Pawley hits his head on the stone floor and dies. Alexander, fearing arrest, hops on a train and heads out west, a hungry, jobless hobo. In the desert, he helps Patricia Ellis fix her broken-down car, and later runs into her again at a nightclub where she sings. Ellis somewhat unaccountably takes a liking to the grungy, unpleasant Alexander; she buys him a meal and takes him home to her family, who give him free room and board. Under Ellis' influence, Alexander begins to straighten up and soon gets a job working construction on Boulder Dam. When a driver loses control of a truck filled with dynamite, Alexander jumps on board and tosses the TNT into the river. For a while, he's a hero, and he even gets engaged to Ellis, but Talbot shows up to work on the dam, recognizes Alexander, and threatens to blackmail him.

Alexander (pictured with Ellis) was being groomed by Warners as a Dick Powell-like performer, but even at his peak, he didn't have the easy, bubbly persona needed to fit that bill. Here, for a while, he's fairly convincing as a kind of anti-hero—despite his overly mannered delivery of dialogue, he does work up some slimy charm—but as the plot developed, I never found him sympathetic or likeable. The main thing this B-movie has to offer is the unusual backdrop of Boulder Dam, now called Hoover Dam, which was built over a five-year period and was officially dedicated just months before this film was released. I doubt there was any location shooting aside from some background footage, but the runaway truck scene and the finale—involving two men left hanging over the dam when a cable snaps—are well done. Ellis is unmemorable and Talbot, as usual, isn't given enough to do. Eddie Acuff does nicely with a small comic relief role as a fellow worker called Alley Oop. [TCM]

Friday, July 05, 2013

THE VIKING (1931)

In snowy, raw Newfoundland, where only the hearty survive, Luke, the new mailman, is overtaken by a snowstorm and found unconscious. Brawny, cocky Jed finds Luke and takes him to the village where Mary Joe nurses him back to health.  Luke, because of his family's past, is considered a jinx (a "jinker") and has taken this lowly job to break the jinx but it didn't quite work. Over time, Mary Joe grows fond of Luke, even though the brutish Jed fancies himself to be her boyfriend. When the men of the village take their annual trek across the snowy wastes to Labrador to go seal hunting, Luke decides to join them. The ship captain discovers that Luke is a jinker and won't take him, but after Jed sees Mary Joe chatting up Luke, Jed gets Luke on board. On the ice, the ship eventually gets stuck in ice a few times and tension mounts between Jed and Luke (with Jed going so far as to take a shot at Luke) until, as the men drag the seals back to the ship, a storm rises which leaves Luke and Jed stranded on the ice.  Can they work together to survive?

This film is basically just another version of the old romantic rivals story, in which a rough-and-tough older man and a younger, better-looking "wet behind the ears" guy fall for the same woman and wind up competing for her. What makes this different is the background; it was shot almost completely outdoors and on location in Newfoundland. The scenes on the ice are spectacular and, despite the creakiness of the narrative conventions, this film is worth seeing just for the setting. The acting is fine if not anything special: Charles Starrett (hunky hero of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU) is Luke, Arthur Vinson is Jed—and since the woman's role is not as important as the showboating men, Louise Huntington, as Mary Joe, doesn’t get to make much of an impression. Real-life ship captain Bob Bartlett, who sailed with Admiral Perry to the North Pole, plays the captain. The young director, Varick Frissel, died in a ship explosion when he went back to Newfoundland to get more location footage. [TCM]

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE (1970)


Middle-aged Kath and her aged father (known as Dadda) live in a once-nice house on the edge of a graveyard, and Kath attends funerals as recreation. Kath's brother Ed (who lives elsewhere) is in business and does well enough that he owns a flashy pink Cadillac. For some reason, Dadda won't speak to Ed, and Ed doesn't come around very often. One day after a funeral, Kath sees a handsome, shirtless young man, Mr. Sloane, doing sit-ups on top of a grave. Apparently homeless and on the run from someone or something, he accepts an offer from the horny Kath to live with her, and soon they're going at it with some energy, though clearly she's enjoying herself more than he is. While Sloane is stretched out in bed resting, wearing just a very skimpy pair of briefs, Ed discovers him and practically begins salivating. What follows is a kind of game in which Kath and Ed compete for Sloane's affections, or at least for his body. Complicating matters is that Dadda believes that Sloane is the man who killed his boss, a porn purveyor, and threatens to turn him in to the police. Sloane thinks that he has the upper hand and can manipulate the whole family, but it may be that he's the one being manipulated.

This once-shocking black comedy, based on a play by Joe Orton, still has the power to unsettle. Partly because none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, the situation they're in never feels very real, and there is little import to anyone’s actions. Still, the film conjures up some queasiness here and there. The emphasis on the physical desirability of Sloane makes the film unusual for its time. Peter McEnery plays Sloane with a smile and a smirk which both get more desperate as he loses control of the game he's playing. As good as he is, it's the fearless performances of Beryl Reid (Kath) and Harry Andrews (Ed) that make this movie still watchable. Reid, who was 50 at the time, traipses about in sheer day-glo outfits with nothing underneath, with no idea how pathetic she seems to those around her. Andrews (pictured above with McEnery), a character actor who will look familiar to you even if you can't place him exactly (THEATER OF BLOOD, DEATH ON THE NILE, THE RULING CLASS), is uncomfortably good as the closeted respectable businessman who drives himself to distraction with his passion for Sloane. There aren't many out-loud laughs in the movie, and the ending which certainly shocked audiences of the 70s won't be shocking at all today—it might even seem a little quaint. Interesting viewing [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

THE CASE OF THE STUTTERING BISHOP (1937)


Perry Mason takes a case from an Australian bishop (yes, the stutterer of the title). It's complicated: years ago, Ida Gilbert, daughter-in-law of the millionaire Brownley, was found guilty of manslaughter in a car accident. She fled to Australia and gave up her daughter to the bishop who placed her in foster care back in America. Now a young woman named Janice has shown up claiming to be the long-missing heiress and Brownley has taken her in. The bishop wants Mason to help Ida and her friend Stella look for the real Janice and convince Brownley that the one living in his house is a fake. Then the bishop vanishes, and Brownley is found dead, shot in his car by a woman in a white raincoat. There's also something a little fishy about Ida's buddy Stella. Can Perry, aided by his secretary Della Street and his assistant Paul Drake, sort out all the loose ends, bring the killer to justice, figure out who the real heiress is, and find out what happened to the bishop?

Of course he can, he's Perry Mason! The Mason movies aren't as placid as the Raymond Burr TV episodes—they're really just another 30s detective B-movie series like Philo Vance or Charlie Chan, and as such, they're enjoyable. As in the show, the climax here occurs in a crowded courtroom with a nice twist exposed in a dramatic fashion. When Warren William played Perry Mason, he was light and charming; here, Donald Woods is fairly drab and stoic but not without some appeal. It has been said that Woods came closest to approximating the original Mason from Erle Stanley Gardner's books, but since I’ve never read one, I can’' say. I liked Ann Dvorak as a sprightly Della, and I enjoyed seeing Craig Reynolds and Frank Faylan is small roles. The bishop's stuttering is simply a red herring. [TCM]