Friday, March 28, 2014


The day before an atomic blast test is scheduled to take place in the Yucca Basin in Nevada, Stephen McNally and Paul Kelly break out of a Carson City prison. With Kelly wounded, the two pick up another convict and wind up at a gas station where McNally pistol whips and eventually kills the owner, taking Alexis Smith and her boyfriend hostage. Meanwhile, reporter Keith Andes, who has been assigned to cover the breakout, is on the road having picked up Jan Sterling, a showgirl heading for Reno. Their path soon crosses that of the crooks, and when Smith's car runs out of gas, McNally forces everyone into Andes' car. Even though Smith is estranged from her husband, McNally finds out that he's a doctor so he forces Smith to send for him to patch up Kelly; the whole group holes up in a ghost town waiting for him, unaware that they are at ground zero for the atomic blast which will take place at sunrise. This is a solid, tense thriller that briefly makes you think they might actually blow everyone up, good guys and bad. Aside from the novelty of the setting, the cast of B-actors is the most interesting thing here. Kelly always provides reliable support, especially as a villain; I'm always happy to see the handsome Andes (pictured with Sterling) pop up, and Alexis Smith is one of my favorite B-level leading ladies of the classic era. McNally is serviceable, though as he is the lead baddie, I wish he and Kelly had switched roles. Richard Egan shows up briefly as the doctor and Robert Paige is fine as Smith's lover. My favorite line—socialite Smith to chorus girl Sterling: "You must run into a lot of men in your line of work"; Sterling to Smith: "I run into a lot of men when I’m just loafing." Dick Powell directed; even though the tension comes and goes, it's worth sticking around for the ending. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Lawyer Ricardo Cortez is in a department store shopping for a new coat; he runs into his estranged wife (Barbara Robbins) who is shopping for a hat; another shopper, buying gloves, is John Beal, a struggling young artist and Robbins' lover. They're all very civilized even though Cortez is still hoping for a reconciliation. She invites Cortez to dinner at her place that evening, but when Beal calls from his Greenwich Village apartment, she leaves to spend the night with him. The next day, Cortez goes to Beal's place, hoping to talk things through, but instead he finds Dorothy Burgess, a former lover of Beal's, who has just faked a suicide attempt in an effort to win Beal back and is in the middle of getting very drunk. At some point, Burgess picks up a gun, Cortez tries to take it away from her, and she winds up shot and killed. Cortez leaves, Beal is arrested, and Robbins (who doesn't know that Cortez was involved) asks Cortez to defend her lover in court, agreeing to return to Cortez after the trial, no matter what the verdict. When the hat, coat and glove of the title come into play in the courtroom, can Cortez keep his cool and save Beal without incriminating himself?

This is a short, fun, fast-moving melodrama which must have sneaked in at the tail end of the pre-Code days—the ending is unpredictable only because under the Production Code, it could never have happened. Of course, the frank bedroom arrangements could also not have been made quite so explicit under the Code. Cortez (pictured to the right of Beal) is one of my favorite 30s actors, never a big star, but always welcome as a slick leading man, lover, or crook, and he's very good here. Robbins is colorless, but Beal and Burgess make the most of their roles, and Margaret Hamilton has a fun scene as a dressmaker who calls herself Madame Du Barry. Favorite line, concerning Beal's choice of gloves: Robbins: "That glove spells quiet dignity"; Cortez: "In fact, it shrieks quiet dignity." [TCM]

Monday, March 24, 2014

VERBOTEN! (1959)

In the German village of Rothbach during the last days of World War II, David, an American soldier (James Best) is trying to draw out a sniper. When he's wounded, a young German girl named Helga (Susan Cummings) tends to him; he's wary but she insists she's not a Nazi, though they debate the complicity of the German people in Hitler's reign of terror. She and her young brother Franz (Harold Daye) hide him until the Americans come through to finish cleaning out the town. He falls in love with Helga but any relationship with her would be "verboten," or forbidden under military rules. After Germany's surrender, David returns to Rothbach, a civilian now, working for the Army with refugees and no longer forbidden to woo Helga. But Helga is surrounded by people, led by a neighbor named Bruno (Tom Pittman), who belong to a group called the Werewolves; emboldened by rumors that Hitler isn't really dead, they believe that they can rally the people and fight off the occupiers. When Franz begins falling under the spell of the other Nazi youths, she takes him to Nuremberg to witness the war crime trials. He begins to see the light, but can any of them stop Bruno's gang of terrorists?

We're in director Samuel Fuller's territory here, meaning things get sloppy but intense. It's a scrappy little black & white movie, partly scored to Beethoven and Wagner—one effective segment has Wagner playing over scenes of terrorist activities by the Werewolves, who are dismissed by the Army as merely juvenile delinquents. The forbidden romance between Best and Cummings never really heats up, and in fact is shunted off to the back burner when the focus switches to her brother and his torn allegiances; it feels like he wants to believe his sister but also feels peer pressure to run with the Bruno and his buddies. The actors are fine, especially Best, and Pittman is very good—sadly he died at the age of 26 before this film was released, from injuries sustained in a car accident. Best, handsome in an almost teen-idol way, went on to a long career in TV, probably known best as Sheriff Roscoe in The Dukes of Hazzard. Actual footage of Berlin and Nuremberg is used to good effect, as is a brief shot of concentration camp atrocities at the trials. There is one major misstep, and it's right at the beginning: a lush theme song with the refrain, "Our love is verboten," sung by the young Paul Anka. Get past that and you'll enjoy the rest. [TCM]

Thursday, March 20, 2014


FBI agent Chester Morris grabs a female bystander (Frances Mercer) and pushes her to safety while he and his fellow agents nab some dangerous crooks. At first, she's upset but he thaws her out a bit and they go on their separate ways. The DA gets Morris to leave the FBI and take a high-profile job in his office, but Morris soon realizes that it's basically a do-nothing position; he's just there to make the DA's office look good. Frustrated, he almost quits but decides to take on the slot machine racket, which is headed by crooked lawyer Bruce Cabot. In doing so, he runs into Mercer again; her younger sister (Rita Johnson) is dating Cabot. After a child is accidentally killed in a roughing-up that the thugs give a shop owner who doesn't want slots in his store, Morris manages to put an end the racket (though Cabot's nose remains clean), is made a special prosecutor, and then doubles down on efforts to stop Cabot, even if that means trouble for Johnson.

This routine B-crime movie is enlivened by a couple of interesting scenes: in the first, Morris and his associates torture a thug in order to get the thug's buddy to talk; in the second, Morris subjects a gathering of young women (it's unclear if they are waitresses or hookers, but their testimony is crucial to Morris's case) to a viewing of a dead woman pulled out of the river, killed by Cabot's thugs. Neither scene winds up being exactly what it seems, but it's still startling to see them in a movie of this era. Morris (pictured) is fine, but Cabot is better, and it's never a good idea to have the bad guy outdo the good guy. Cecil Kellaway has a small uncredited role, and Libby Taylor gets to play an African-American woman who isn't a maid. [TCM]

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Valerie (Martha Vickers) is a rich widow, still fairly young and attractive, with a heart condition that could kill her. Peter, her doctor (Robert Hutton), advises total rest and sends her off for a California vacation with her secretary and companion Marsha (Eve Miller). Marsha gets Peter to agree not to tell Valerie how sick she is, but once they're out West, Valerie finds herself attracted to Rick (John Bromfield, pictured); she thinks he's a hot-blooded stud but we know he's a rather slimy gigolo who is involved with Fritzie, a married nightclub singer whose jealous husband is constantly on the verge of finding out about their affair. It all seems harmless for a time, but soon Valerie is wearing herself out keeping late hours with Rick, and when she collapses one night, Peter and Valerie tell Rick the truth about her condition. He then plots to marry her, hoping that she'll die soon after and he'll inherit her money and live with Fritzie. Against Marsha's advice, Valerie does marry Rick, but instead of getting sicker, she gets healthier; Peter says her newfound will to live is strengthening her. Of course, this doesn't go over well with Rick who begins to substitute sugar pills for her medicine. When this has no effect, he decides to murder her using an elaborate scheme that gives him a foolproof alibi—all signs will point to him having been miles away at a motel with Fritzie. But this being a film noir, things don’t quite go as planned.

This is an underrated little gem, cheaply made and only available in murky public domain prints, but B-movie fans will love it. The situation and characters are stock film noir, though it's difficult to ever see Rick as much of an anti-hero, partly because we never get to know him. Interestingly, there really is no hero here—maybe we're supposed to see Marsha as one, as she always has Valerie's interests at heart, but the way she's played by Eve Miller, she's not especially likeable—and I kinda like that. Even Valerie isn't particularly sympathetic, which may be an acting problem (and I'll get back to that later). The sets and direction are adequate and the acting is all over the map. Some of the performances seem quite bad, but it's possible that the director, W. Lee Wilder (brother of Billy) got what he wanted. Bromfield is right on that edge between charming and seedy and given slightly stronger direction, he could have pulled off a classic noir performance; as it is, he's still the best thing in the movie. Vickers, memorable as the sultry little sister in THE BIG SLEEP, is a big zero here which may or may not be intended. Miller is bossy and unlikeable as the companion, though Hutton is energetic and believable as the doctor. I sound like I'm trashing the actors, but I must admit that the off-kilter acting may be what makes this movie interesting. That and the fun textbook-noir climax. [DVD]

Friday, March 14, 2014


A musician on his way to a recital gets a flat tire (we saw an unknown figure puncture the tire); he grabs his violin case and starts to walk, but is viciously rammed against a wall by a car and killed, and a small doll made in his likeness is left by his body. It turns out his is one of four men in town who were part of a post-war commission which accused a German industrialist named Von Strum of collaboration with the Nazis. Von Strum killed himself and, oddly enough, his widow and her son Mark both live in town; she collects dolls, and the two of them seem quite isolated in their creepy house. There are more deaths including a poisoning and a blowtorch to the face, and other suspects turn up; Louise, the daughter of one of the four men, works in a doll store, and her boyfriend, who is interested in helping the police crack the case, is a medical intern who has access to poison. This thriller by Robert Bloch bears some slight resemblance to PSYCHO (which he wrote) and PEEEPING TOM, but it's nowhere near being in their league. The plotting is plain and obvious, the detective (Patrick Wymark) is bland, and the characters are almost all unlikeable. The best acting comes from John Standing, with white-blond hair and a goatee, as the creepy Mark, and Alexander Knox giving the proceedings some class as Louise's father. Margaret Johnston (pictured with Standing) is inconsistent as the widow Von Strum, going over-the-top sometimes and underplaying at other times. There are some nice visual touches here and there from veteran Hammer horror director Freddie Francis, but this is overall too drab to recommend. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


During the Depression, we are introduced to a wealthy Brooklyn family, the Rimplegars, on the day when they find out that their fortune is gone due to bad investments. There's Nellie (Mary Boland), the slightly ditzy but well-meaning widowed matriarch; Elizabeth (Claudette Colbert) is the charming, more level-headed daughter, though she seems unable to see what a drain and a drip her boyfriend Ronald (Hardie Albright) is—a struggling would-be writer, he's being kept by her, and at one point contemplates suicide but gets distracted by a head cold; Kenneth (Wallace Ford) is a low-paid law clerk casually working on passing the bar; Douglas (William Bakewell) is an actor (with an affected accent) who only gets single-line parts with an amateur "little theater"; and Eddie (Tom Brown) is a college student who seems to be majoring in playboyism. When Nellie gets the bad news, the family has no idea what to do, but Alan Stevens (Richard Arlen), the family doctor, helps inspire them to dust themselves off and face reality. He rents a room from them to help give them some immediate cash; Eddie gets work as a lifeguard, working so hard that he drives himself almost to collapse; Liz lies about her experience and gets a job at a shoe factory; Douglas gets a real acting job—only one line, but he gets paid; and Kenneth buckles down on his law studying. Even their maid Jenny, who speaks and understands almost no English, stays on without pay. As they slowly get back on their feet, the only suspense is, will Elizabeth stick with the useless Ronald, or finally see that Dr. Stevens is perfect for her?

This is essentially a screwball comedy before the genre existed: rich eccentric characters, some broad physical comedy mixed with witty dialogue, and a romance between two disparate types. One difference from many later screwballs is that it is fairly well rooted in a (somewhat) realistic context—the Depression. Most main characters in movies like BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY don’t really have to worry about money, but this group does, and they rise to the occasion. There are also some slightly darker tones to the proceedings occasionally, as when Eddie collapses and the family thinks he's dying. The acting is good all around. Boland does a nice job playing scatterbrained without too much exaggeration. Arlen underplays a bit too much, perhaps, but the others are fine, the standouts being Bakewell and Brown. Favorite line: when Colbert, in an existential funk, sighs, "What’s it all about?" Boland replies, "It's that cheese you ate last night!"  [TCM]; photo, featuring Tom Brown at far right, from

Monday, March 10, 2014


There is quite a tangle of characters and situations set out at the beginning of this film noir. In Quebec City, a famous actress lies dying in a hospital after a car accident. She tells reporter Mary Anderson that the death of her fiancĂ© years ago in an accident was actually murder. Anderson looks up a lawyer (Paul Lukas) who knew the actress to get more background. Lukas has his own problems: he is acting as a patron to pianist Helmut Dantine who is struggling to finish a concerto—and on occasion drinks too much and passes out. Dantine is estranged from his shrew of a wife (Joy Lafleur), who records a disc saying that if she's found dead, it will be Dantine's fault. Lukas asks Anderson's editor not to pursue the story on the actress (is he hiding something?), but Anderson keeps digging. Meanwhile, Lukas goes off to murder Lafluer, but discovers she's killed herself. Lukas takes the suicide note and tries to make it look as if Dantine killed her during an alcoholic blackout, then blackmails Dantine by telling him he will clear his name if he "eliminates" the nosy reporter (ah, Lukas is hiding something). And so on… This Canadian indie production is a pretty solid noir, even if the plotting becomes a bit labyrinthine. One interesting point is that Dantine, the noir hero, doesn't really take center stage until halfway through the movie; until then, he seems more like a sideline character. The plot takes some nice twists and turns in the last half, though the climax itself is ineptly staged. Anderson is on the bland side, but Dantine and Lukas (pictured at right) pick up the slack. [DVD]

Thursday, March 06, 2014


Cleo Moore works at a dive waterfront diner for her father's old friend (Leonid Snegoff); he tells her he keeps her on as a favor to her late father, but Moore knows that Snegoff cheated her dad out of money and one night, she steals $25,000 dollars from him and buries in the woods. She is arrested and confesses but won't say what she did with the money so she's sent to jail. As a model prisoner, she gets an early release and returns to the waterfront to find that Snegoff has left and sold the diner to Hugo Haas, who seems somewhat slimy but who, once Moore proves that she's got gumption, takes a fatherly interest in her. Meanwhile, Moore bides her time before going off to get the buried money because she knows she's being watched by detectives. She begins a flirtation with handsome fisherman Glenn Langan and even considers offering him some of her cash to buy new equipment for his business. When Haas loses his savings and his business to gambling debts, Moore sends him to get the money. He returns empty-handed claiming it wasn't there, but she's sure he’s cheating her, so she plots a deadly revenge.

To say more about the last 20 minutes or so would spoil a good movie. It’s a B-film with second-level talent, but generally the best noir films benefit from a less glossy treatment. Haas wrote and directed as well as acted, and the script could use a rewrite to get rid of some plotholes, but the movie gets by on a good grungy look, a couple of nice plot twists, and strong performances. Moore, a Marilyn Monroe-ish blonde bombshell (pictured above with Langan) has a reputation as a Queen of the B's; this is the first time I’ve seen her in a starring role and, while she's a bit one-note, she fits the part well. This movie is in a DVD set called Bad Girls of Film Noir, and though she isn't truly "bad" here, she is a little rough around the edges. Haas and Langan are as good as they need to be, and Haas' character winds up being the most interesting of the batch, partly because we're not always clear on his motivation from one scene to the next. Haas also directed and wrote the film. No other cast members stand out, though baby-boomers will recognize Burt Mustin in a small role—he appeared at least once in practically every 60s and early 70s TV show (I'm not kidding—check IMDb!). I think I'm now a Cleo Moore fan. [DVD]

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


In England, a group of scientists is studying the changes in matter when exposed to powerful magnetic fields. For example, a chunk of copper has its molecules realigned so it becomes flexible. An accident, however, injures one of the researchers and causes strange disturbances in the village, where people are already wary of the experiments. An army brigadier wants to shut things down but agrees to observe the scientists, including American Forrest Tucker and his French assistant Gaby Andre. During one experiment, everything in the lab becomes magnetized and a freak accident creates havoc. In the village, there is strange weather, and a tramp sleeping outside gets his face burned; soon, he's become a monster thanks to a hole being ripped in the "heavyside layer" of the ionosphere. Insects begin mutating (like the giant spider pictured above) and attacking people; in the best scene, a giant beetle eats a person's face off. A stranger named Smith (Martin Benson), who is an alien, helps the earthlings deal with their self-inflicted problem. Basically, this is a giant-bug movie with elements of DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (the benign alien) and the British Quatermass films. The effects are so-so, as is the acting (Tucker doesn't look happy) with the exception being Benson as the alien. One scene of a teacher trapped in her schoolroom builds up some tension, but otherwise this is a run-of-the-mill sci-fi melodrama.  Also released as THE STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X and COSMIC MONSTERS.  [TCM]

Monday, March 03, 2014


Here come the storylines: 1) In ancient Crete, young women (mostly lovely and virginal) are regularly sacrificed to the Minotaur, a legendary half-man, half-bull beast that lives in a labyrinth. When the Queen becomes deathly ill, King Minos steps up the sacrifices. 2) Years ago, when the king's daughter Phaedra was born, a twin sister, Ariadne, was also delivered, and because twins were to be sent to the Minotaur, she was spirited away to the village of Attica. Phaedra finds out about her existence and sends Chryone off to Attica to kill her before she can threaten her own ascendency to the throne. 3) Great hero Theseus of Athens and his sidekick Demetrius of Crete are on their respective ways home from grand journeys when they hear about the pillage of Attica. They manage to save Ariadne but this is just the beginning of their adventures which climax with Theseus going into the Minotaur's maze to save Ariadne.

This is another peplum film based loosely on mythology, mostly played fast and loose (see also HERCULES, HERCULES AND THE CAPTIVE WOMEN, well, pretty much any Herc movie), though the basics are here—most famously, Ariadne's thread which she spins out so she and Theseus can find their way out. There are a number of well-done battle scenes here, and the sets and costumes are effective. Unfortunately, Olympic champ Bob Mathias as Theseus is lightweight in acting skill and in physical presence; his sidekick (Rick Battaglia, pictured to the right of Mathias) is only slightly better. Rosanna Schiaffino is good in the dual role of the sisters and Alberto Lupo as Chryone (pictured above left) makes for a nicely slimy villain. The action stops at least three times for dancing girl scenes. There's a interesting segment in which the sea goddess Amphitrite is dragged in to deliver exposition and, in her magical way, allow many years to pass in just a few minutes. The minotaur itself is quite disappointing, looking nothing (to me at least) like a man/bull, but more like a miniature King Kong. The print I saw was not widescreen, much to the film's detriment. [Netflix streaming]