Thursday, May 29, 2014


In the mid-1800s, the western United States was still largely unexplored, and trappers often served as guides for pioneers seeking a route to California. When we meet trapper Kit Carson (Jon Hall, pictured), he is on the road with his buddies Ape (Ward Bond) and Lopez (Harold Huber); they'd be happy to settle in one place for a while, but as Ape puts it, Carson has "horizon fever," always wanting to see what's on the other side of the hill. The three run into an ambush by Shoshone Indians with rifles—Carson suspects that someone has armed them and put them up to mischief—but they escape. When they arrive at Fort Bridger in Wyoming, the last outpost of civilization before the long trek to California, and just when it seems like Carson might agree to stay a spell, he gets talked into guiding a wagon train of settlers led by Paul Terry (Clayton Moore) to California. For a while, they're accompanied by a group of cavalry led by Captain Fremont (Dana Andrews). Both Carson and Fremont wind up smitten with young and lovely settler Dolores Murphy (Lynn Bari); she seems to favor Carson at first, but soon comes to find him a bit too "savage" for her taste, a judgment triggered primarily by the way he and his men torture a captured Indian to get information—though as it turns out, the Indian is actually a Mexican, and Carson realizes that the Mexican General Castro is the mastermind behind the attacking Shoshones, trying to scare away settlers. Fremont and his men take their leave of Carson and Terry's wagon train, but further attacks drive them back together, and soon Carson and Fremont have put aside their differences to plan their move against Castro.

This indie western/adventure is quite fun, more compelling than many of the big studio westerns of the era. Part of it, somewhat surprisingly, is the solid acting. I don't typically associate Jon Hall, beefcakey star of mid-40s exotic adventure tales like ARABIAN NIGHTS, with good acting, but he makes a fine laid-back hero here, and Andrews is a good foil for him. Bari is just as good, and I like the fact that at the end, even though she settles for Andrews, she still seems torn between the two. Ward Bond makes a perfect sidekick to Hall, and distinctive-looking character actress Renie Riano does the same for Bari. Clayton Moore is surprisingly handsome as Terry—I'm more used to seeing Moore as the masked Lone Ranger—though he's not around very long. Good old C. Henry Gordon is quite villainous as Castro. The film also looks good—it helps that some of this was shot on locations in Utah and Arizona rather than just on Hollywood sets. I suspect that this strays pretty far from historical truth, but what 40s historical film doesn't? Good fun. [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


This film noir has a beautiful nighttime opening shot, traveling from above the glittering Hollywood Hills down to a house in the hills, gracefully swooping through the open glass doors to focus on a man playing a piano, composing a nocturne and giving a girlfriend, sitting off in the shadows behind him, the kiss-off. As he begins to write the last notes, he is shot in the head.  The cops think it was suicide, since only his fingerprints are found on the gun and there is a power burn on his head, but the lieutenant (George Raft) thinks the set-up is fishy and suspects murder. Vincent, the philandering pianist, has portraits of all the ex-loves of his life on the wall, and the unfinished nocturne is inscribed, "To Dolores," but it turns out that he called all his girlfriends Dolores. Among the Doloreses: Vincent's busty blonde housekeeper (Myrna Dell) who insists she wasn't one of his conquests—"He was a ladykiller, but I’m no lady"; a bit-part actress (Lynn Bari); and her younger sister who sings in a nightclub (Virginia Huston). There's also a world-weary pianist named Fingers (Joseph Pevney) who had worked with Vincent on a song, and his assistant, a big lug named Torp who seems like he might have a vicious streak. Raft roughs some people up and gets in trouble with his bosses, and is on the verge of getting suspended when his mother (with whom he lives), in acting out a possible scenario for the killing, gives Raft a clue that might break the case wide open.

This is a nifty little noir that misses classic status due to its leading man; Raft, who peaked in the mid-30s, gives a listless performance that might pass muster in a B-movie second feature or series entry like The Falcon or Boston Blackie but is a big letdown here. His character is supposed to be obsessed with finding the killer to the point where it affects his life, but Raft just floats through the movie with a constipated half-smile on his face, connecting with no one else, not even Bari, with whom (I think) he's supposed to develop romantic feelings—they kiss at one point, but unconvincingly. (Frankly, between the way he plays the role and the fact that he still lives with his mother—and has more chemistry with his mom than with Bari—the character should probably have been played gay.)

But most everything else about this movie works well. The stylish cinematography is by Harry J. Wild, who did noirs, westerns, and even a couple of Tarzan movies. The director, Edwin L. Marin, though not especially distinguished, also had a wide range of genres under his belt. The best acting comes from Bari, a B-heroine stalwart (pictured above with Raft), and Pevney (pictured at right) who went on to be a very busy movie and TV director (best known for several episodes of the original Star Trek series). But even most of the supporting actors down to the smaller roles are good: Myrna Dell as the tarty Susan, Mabel Paige as Raft's mother, Bern Hoffman as the chunky Torp, John Banner as a gayish photographer. Even Edward Ashley as Vincent, whom we only see for two minutes, makes an impression. There’s a great windy night scene and a cute moment in which Raft visits Bari on the RKO lot and we see actual sets from SINBAD THE SAILOR. Despite the lackluster central performance, this is a solid noir that is worth seeing. [TCM]

Friday, May 23, 2014


In 1917, German submarine commander Hardt is looking forward to some rest and relaxation after 16 days underwater, but he is quickly called up for a secret mission—to travel to the Orkney Islands off of Scotland and make contact with an agent who will give him further instructions. Meanwhile, Anne Burnett is headed to the Islands to become a schoolmistress and get married to the island's minister, Rev. John Harris. An old lady offers to give her a ride to the train station, but once on the road, the lady uses a knockout drug on Anne, and another young woman takes her place. On the island of Hoy in the Orkneys, Hardt is dropped off and contacts Anne who gives him his assignment: with the help of Ashington, a British turncoat, Hardt will contact his submarine and have them attack a fleet of British ships. There's a slight hiccup when the Reverend shows up to meet Anne and, of course, doesn’t recognize her, though he does recognize Hardt's German uniform and says, "You must be a prisoner of war," to which Hardt replies, "No, you are." Soon, there are tender feelings between Hardt and Anne, but we learn that both Anne and Ashington are actually British agents out to befuddle the Germans. What will happen when Hardt finds out?

This WWI spy thriller was released just months before WWII broke out, and indeed watching it now, it’s easy to see it as a WWII story as there seems to have been little effort at giving the sets and costumes a period look. It also plays out like the average WWII spy story, though the setting on an isolated island is unusual. The lead actors are all very good: Conrad Veidt, best known as CASABLANCA's Major Strasser, is Hardt, a humanized German whom we actually like, even if we don't want his mission to succeed; Valerie Hobson as Anne (or, technically the spy who takes Anne's place, pictured above with Veidt) and Sebastian Stan as Ashington are fine, as is Marius Goring as a German officer. Torin Thatcher, who I know as the villain in JACK THE GIANT KILLER, one of my favorite movies as a kid, plays a German soldier. The first half plays out at leisure, allowing character development; the last section becomes more suspenseful but also a bit cluttered in terms of plot points. The print I saw on TCM was murky and scratchy, and had a few dead audio spots. [TCM]

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Thymian lives with her father above his drug store. On the day that she is being confirmed, the housekeeper is sacked for being pregnant and later kills herself, even as Dad hires a new one named Meta who quickly becomes his mistress. That night, Thymian is raped by her father's sales partner and becomes pregnant; her child is given away and she is sent to a home for wayward girls (when a few of those girls flirt with her) run by a sadistic lesbian disciplinarian. She escapes and meets up with the dissolute and penniless Count Osdorff who installs her in a brothel (as a dance instructor, in theory). Eventually, Osdorff marries Thymian, not out of love but convenience, and when her father dies, she gives her inheritance to Meta who, with her kids, has been left in bad straits. Osdorff, who was counting on that money, jumps out their window to his death. And et cetera until Thymian winds up more or less on an even keel thanks to the Count's uncle becoming her sugar daddy.

This German silent movie crams in enough plot for an entire season of a nighttime soap opera, and not always very skillfully, but there are at least two reasons to see it: the stylish direction of G.W. Pabst (PANDORA'S BOX, THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU) and the lead performance of Louise Brooks as Thymian. She is riveting, even if she doesn't quite get to shine as she did as Lulu in PANDORA'S BOX. Her character here, like Lulu, is knocked around by life but Thymian doesn't have the same tragic ending as Lulu; she may wind up unfulfilled and relatively unhappy but she's respectable. At one point, she is referred to as "lost, as we all are" and the last message of the film, delivered by the sugar daddy, is "With a little more love, no one on this earth would ever be lost." Maybe, but the moral hypocrisy of the middle class is seen as the primary source of the "lost girl's" misery. At any rate, this is enjoyable on three levels: as a sensationalistic tract, as a exercise in visual style, and for a rare chance to see Brooks before her too-short career ended. [DVD]

Monday, May 19, 2014


As mounted warriors slaughter all those around her, young Myra goes into shock, desperately exhorting the dead to wake up. The wandering prophet Zoroaster finds her and prays to the Sun God to bring her back to sanity then takes her with him to Nineveh as he preaches in the town square. He is promptly arrested by King Sardanapolos for treason but when young Prince Samos, the king's younger brother, takes a liking to Myra, she becomes his mistress and Zoroaster is freed but sent in exile to the mountains. Samos is about to be made king of Babylon, which was conquered by Nineveh, but jealousy over Myra causes the brothers to clash, and the wicked Arbaces of Babylon plays on that to get Samos to lead Babylonian warriors against Nineveh. An oracle tells Arbaces that as long as the Tigris River stays within its course, his victory is certain, and nothing could possibly cause the river to move, right?  As Shakespeare’s Macbeth has taught us, however, oracles are tricky, and when a huge storm causes flooding and the river overflows its banks, all bets are off.

There aren't enough shirtless studs here for this to qualify as a muscleman movie (hell, there aren't any as far as I could see), but as low-budget Italian action epic, it works very well. The narrative is clear and has just enough intrigue to make it fun to follow. I have no idea if any of this is grounded in history; Nineveh and Babylon are both in the Bible, there was an Iranian priest named Zoroaster, and one secondary character is named Hammurabi which is the name of a Babylonian king—but does it really matter? American actor Howard Duff brings some understated gravitas to the role of Sardanapolos, and Luciano Marini (pictured) is a handsome-enough Samos. The battle scenes are so-so, but the climactic flood destruction is quite impressive, even though much of it was clearly done with miniatures. Interestingly, one major character gets killed off earlier than you would expect. Recommend for the 60s epic fan. [DVD]

Thursday, May 15, 2014


On a beach, an old oracle named Jona tells Karin that her Viking husband Arald, missing at sea for years, will return soon, but she also tells Karin that she is in danger and should take her son Moki and leave. Slowly, the backstory is revealed: two Viking tribes, one ruled by Rurik and one by Arald's father, were enemies for some time, but they agreed to a peace pact. But on the wedding day of Arald and Karin, Hagen, a rough and brutish warrior who had been hired as a protector of Aarld's people, rides in with the heads of Rurik's wife and son, apparently not realizing that peace had been reached. Arald's father exiles Hagen, but later that day, Rurik and his men ride in, killing the king and razing their village. Rurik himself, his face hidden by a helmet, rapes Karin. Back to the present, where Karin and her son, suspicious of everyone, turn away a hungry blond begger; just as he leaves, a gang of Hagen's brutes attack Karin and the blond man comes back to kick ass, axing the lead attacker right in the chest. Karin gratefully takes him in, and we soon find out that the blond protector is Rurik, and, though he does not reveal his identity to Karin, he suspects that Karin's son is the fruit of his rape. Rurik has turned over a new leaf, but what will happen when: 1) Arald does in fact return, and 2) Hagen also returns with intent to kill Karin and Moki?

This Italian action melodrama from Mario Bava, better known for his horror and fantasy films (BLACK SUNDAY, DANGER DIABOLIK) was a very pleasant discovery. Bava’s visual sense is always interesting—though you need to see it widescreen—and the plot and characters are fairly complex for the genre; it combines elements of the western SHANE and the epic tale The Odyssey. The American star who anchors the film is Cameron Mitchell (with his hair dyed radioactive yellow) and he's not bad, even though he doesn’t have the physique one might expect for this Viking hero. Better is Fausto Tozzi (Americanized as Frank Ross) as the vicious Hagen; I never exactly sympathized with him, but he does come off much more rounded than most such stock villains. Both Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (aka Jack Stuart, pictured to the left of Mitchell) as Arald and Elissa Pichelli as Karin are fine. There is a lot of violence but very little gore, and the long one-on-one knife fight between Rurik and Hagen conjures up memories of the big fight in THE QUIET MAN. The theme music is quite catchy. Overall, a little gem. [DVD]

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Q PLANES (1939)


Released just before the outbreak of World War II, this is a delightful little anomaly: a cross between spy thriller and screwball comedy. Ralph Richardson is a slightly eccentric Scotland Yard secret agent who is investigating the problem of why experimental test planes are taking off and disappearing, never to be found. Though his superiors aren't convinced that there's a problem, Richardson gets word that there may be a spy working at Barrett and Ward, the aviation company producing the planes. When a plane carrying something called a Supercharger takes off, we see what's behind the disappearances: men on board a salvage ship called the Viking use a secret new ray to disable the plane and cut off its communications; they pull the plane out of the water, put the pilots in the hold, and steal the apparatus. Except this time, Richardson had the Supercharger taken off at the last minute. Meanwhile, a hotshot pilot (Laurence Olivier) also suspects sabotage at the plant, and he's suspicious of Valerie Hobson, a young woman who works at the plant diner. But it turns out that Hobson is a reporter, and also Richardson's sister. Soon, the three of them are working together to catch the saboteurs.

"Delightful" is the perfect word for this. The breezy tone reminds me of the wonderful NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH; the characters are likeable, the actors seem to be having fun, and despite the dangers the characters face, we know they'll come out unscathed—which might not have been the case if the film had been made a couple of years later after the war had taken its toll on Europe. Richardson, who had a penchant for a wee bit of overacting later in his career, is absolutely right as the almost whimsical agent; Olivier (pictured behind Richardson), who also did his share of going over the top, seems to realize there's no competing with Richardson so he plays it fairly straight; Hobson keeps up with them both, doing a nice job with some rapid-fire dialogue. I don't want to push the "screwball" comparison too much, but if an American version had been made, William Powell and Myrna Loy would have been great in the Olivier and Hobson roles, though no one comes to mind to replace Richardson—maybe a young Edmund Gwenn? Very fun and highly recommended. [Criterion streaming]

Thursday, May 08, 2014


Cary Grant is a British earl who has fallen on hard times; he and his wife (Deborah Kerr) have turned their mansion into a tourist attraction and have a butler just for show—the butler complains that he has nothing to do; he's trying to write a novel but doesn't have enough insecurity or despair to succeed. When a rich American oilman (Robert Mitchum) arrives, he begins a flirtation with Kerr that leads to a full-fledged affair when she trots off to London for a few days to be with him. Jean Simmons, the friend that Kerr is supposed to be staying with, goes to Grant with stories of Kerr's infidelity. At a house party weekend, Grant plans to get Kerr back, and sarcastic jabs turn into a duel between Grant and Mitchum. And since this is a comedy, things get righted in the end, and the butler winds up with some juicy plotlines for his novel. This was directed by Stanley Donen, and much as I love SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, I have not really liked any other Donen films; his non-Gene Kelly musicals aren't very fizzy and his comedies and caper films fall flat for me. This has potential in the farcical plot and the more than competent actors, but the farce flops and the actors feel at sea. Simmons in particular seems out of place, not so much her as her character who feels wedged in for plotpoint reasons only. There is a very amusing split-screen scene as Grant (with Simmons) talks to Mitchum (with Kerr) on the telephone. Moray Watson (pictured to the left of Mitchum and Grant) does well with the role of the butler. Not terrible but disappointing. [TCM]

Tuesday, May 06, 2014


Big multi-generational family saga of two feuding Irish families: the lower-class Donovans and the wealthy Brodricks. Copper John Brodrick starts up a copper mine on land once held by the Donovans, and old Morty Donovan curses them, saying the hill will destroy them. Copper John has four sons, and two of them, Henry and Greyhound John, vie for the affections of the saucy Miss Fanny. When a theft occurs at the mine, the Brodricks accuse the Donovans of being behind it. There follows death, fire and destruction (an especially well-shot scene) and Henry is killed in an explosion. John goes away to become a lawyer, eventually returns  and weds Fanny; they raise the next generation of Brodricks (including Wild Johnnie who is, per his name, wild and ill-mannered) who will continue to clash with the Donovans, though Johnnie becomes smitten with a Donovan girl, young Kate. Copper John dies of typhoid, contracted through a Donovan, and Fanny winds up alone, gambling desperately in London, and winding up with the means to end the long feud. There are some nice setpieces, including the above-mentioned fire at the mine and a rare light-hearted moment involving a fiddle player at a fancy party who takes the guests from a slow stately dance to a wild jig. This is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier; I have not read it, but I suspect that the movie has to drop a lot of plotlines and move quickly through others because of time constraints. What's left is engrossing enough with some decent acting all around: Cecil Parker as Copper John, Dennis Price as Greyhound John, Dermot Walsh as Wild Johnnie, Michael Denison as Henry, Margaret Lockwood as Fanny, and, in other roles, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, and Siobhan McKenna.  [TCM]

Friday, May 02, 2014


In Cupertino Italy in 1623, a young man named Joseph (Maximillian Schell) is growing up, well on the road to becoming the "village idiot"—at 20, he still attends school but the teachers finally tire of him and "graduate" him, leaving him at home with his industrious but impatient mother and his lazy drunken father. Mom convinces her brother, Father Giovanni, to take Joseph in at the local monastery, but he even has a rough time there—sent out on the streets to beg with other novices (to counteract "the poison of vanity"), he is set upon by rowdy youths who steal his robe. The monks make him a stable boy to keep him out of trouble but when a visiting bishop arrives, Joseph makes an impression by explaining the mystery of the Trinity better than a boringly serious monk does, so Father Raspi (Ricardo Montalban) is ordered to have Joseph study for the priesthood. You already know where this is going, don't you? Joseph is a "holy fool" figure, a bit like Saint Francis, and every time it seems like he's going to trip himself up, he is somehow saved; eventually, he does become a priest. But a supernatural aspect soon enters the picture: when Joseph accidently smashes a statue of the Virgin Mary, he takes the head of the statue and prays to it, and while he prays, he levitates. This isn't just in his head; he is seen by others who don't know what to make of it.

This is based on the legend of Joseph of Cupertino who is the patron saint of air travelers, pilots, and poor students, and in outline this is a gentle religious fantasy with the requisite amount of sweetness, humor, and moral lessons, but a mistake in casting makes this somewhat uncomfortable viewing: Maximillian Schell is far too intense (and, over 30 at the time, too mature) to play the holy fool. His brooding intensity doesn't strike the right note, and the intelligence behind Schell's eyes is too obvious for him to be effective even though he tries hard. The plot twists, especially those involved in his attaining of the priesthood, are fun, and Montalban (pictured at left, to the right of Schell) is very good as the skeptical priest who is torn between a genuine fondness for Joseph and worry that the boy's journey will scar him—and belittle the genuine students of the priesthood. The first episode of levitation is pulled off nicely, but by the end, one wishes they had spent some money on special effects or at least some more creative visual approaches. The last shot of Schell floating and Montalban grabbing his robe so he doesn’t take off like a Macy's Day balloon is cute but is badly staged. An odd little movie. [DVD]