Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE FIGHTING SEABEES (1944)

In the early days of the Second World War, Wedge Donovan (John Wayne), head of a construction company, has been hired by the Navy to take his men out to islands in the Pacific and build bases and airstrips. They come under fire from the Japanese but because it is illegal to arm civilians, they can't fight back and some of his men come home wounded, and some don't make it home at all. Hot-headed Donovan is understandably upset and Lieutenant Commander Yarrow (Dennis O'Keefe) wants to help, so he takes Donovan to Washington to argue for an official construction brigade before they head out to the Pacific on another job. Reporter Connie Chesley (Susan Hayward), also Yarrow's girlfriend, goes along for the story and starts to fall for Donovan. On the island, the Japanese attack and Donovan tells his men to grab some guns and start shooting. Though the enemy is driven away, Donovan's meddling messes up Yarrow's careful plan of attack, leading to many casualties. Despite this, Yarrow's boss OKs the creation of Construction Brigades (CBs = Seabees) and the workers become full-fledged soldiers with training and weapons. Eventually, while building oil tanks on an island, the men get their first taste of "official" action.

This is an almost completely fictionalized story of the creation of the Seabees, and also a great example of the kind of wartime propaganda movie I enjoy. There is action, with explosions and sacrifice, but there are also relatively rounded characters and humor. Of course, clich├ęs abound: the cocky individual who has to learn his lesson and work as part of a team (Wayne), the more even-tempered buddy who has to help the cocky guy grow (O'Keefe), and the girl in the middle (Hayward). There aren't many surprises but it's well done all around, particularly the battle scene in the middle of the movie. Recognizable supporting players include William Frawley, J.M. Kerrigan and Leonid Kinskey. Wayne even gets a musical number, sort of, when he dances a jitterbug with a hot blonde. [DVD]

Monday, February 24, 2014

THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS (1968)

Gino gets out of jail and immediately wants to pull an armored truck robbery; his younger brother Tony isn't so sure.  But when the job goes wrong and Gino is killed, Tony decides to get revenge against Skorsky, the head of the armored truck company, who claims that his security systems are invulnerable. Tony gets a job as a blackjack dealer at a Las Vegas casino, seduces Ann, Skorsky's personal secretary, so that she'll get him the inside info he needs, and gathers a gang to help him. The plan: hijack the truck, take it to the desert between Vegas and Los Angeles, and drive it into an underground garage beneath the sand where they can take their time breaking it open. But little do they know that Skorsky is being watched by the Feds who suspect him of smuggling gold with his legitimate deliveries, so a couple of Treasury agents happen to be on board the truck. Once they get the truck under the sand, the guys start squabbling among themselves, and eventually some Mafia men also get involved.  The climax involves helicopters, lots of dead bodies, and lots of cash blowing in the sand.

At the start, this movie has the general feel of a carefree 60s caper movie, but generous amounts of bloodspilling and bad feelings take this off in a darker direction--and it's a half-hour too long. The film looks good (see it in widescreen) and the musical score has a nice Euro-60s feel. Considering the conflicting agendas of the various characters, it's easy to follow, and some of the plot mechanics are ingenious. For example, the garage beneath the desert: I don't for a second believe that could have been done, but the shot of the truck vanishing under the sand is pretty cool.  The way they manage to waylay the truck in the first place is also nifty. When the movie sticks to these details, it's fun, but when the characters take center stage, not so much. Gary Lockwood (above) is Tony; as a physical presence, I could watch Lockwood parade around in a snug t-shirt and jeans for the length of an entire movie (which I did while watching MODEL SHOP), but here he mostly wears too many clothes so I had to concentrate on his acting. He's a passive low-key actor, but this part seems to be suited to someone with a little more crazy passion, and I got tired of him having to carry most of the film with his one-note performance. As Ann, Elke Sommer is sexy but just as bland-acting as Lockwood. Jack Palance is OK as the head of the Feds, but Lee J. Cobb is good as Skorsky. Another problem is the moral dynamic. I think we're supposed to sympathize with Tony getting revenge for his brother, but we're not shown enough of their relationship to care, and Tony becomes neurotically focused on breaking open the truck (the fact that he doesn't really care about the money is supposed to make us admire him, but it didn't work for me). Skorsky is a slimeball, leaving us with just the Feds to care about, but we don't really get to know them. This was filmed partly on location, but the desert scenes were shot is Spain, and aside from the lead actors, the rest of the cast is composed of French and Italian actors who are all distractingly dubbed by English-speaking actors. [TCM]

Friday, February 21, 2014

GOOD LUCK, MR. YATES (1943)

Mr. Yates is a respected teacher at a military academy who, feeling pressure to be overseas with the troops and wanting to impress his students, decides to waive his educational deferment to enter the military. The boys, led by Yates' favorite student Jimmy, throw him a big sendoff, but when he goes to sign up, he is declared 4-F on account of a perforated ear drum. His doctor, a German refugee, tells him that they might be able to fix him up enough to pass muster, and, so he doesn't have to go back to school and lose face, his buddy Joe puts him up at a boarding house. Yates gets a job at a defense plant where most of the other boarders work, but writes to his students as though he's at the local boot camp. Complications begin when Ruth, another boarder, gets sweet on Yates, causing tough guy Charlie to get jealous. Then the boys make an unauthorized trip to the boot camp to see Yates, discover he's not there, and get the Bureau of Missing Persons involved. Throw in the boarders' growing suspicion that the doctor is a Nazi and that Yates is a spy, and you have quite a mess to untangle by the fadeout. Predictable but watchable wartime propaganda B-movie. The message here seems to be, even if you can't fight, you can still do important work for your country, though working as a shipyard welder may not feel as important as being a soldier. Jess Barker is OK as Yates but never feels like a consistent character, as though he's just stumbling through his own life with little forethought; Claire Trevor is OK as Ruth and Scotty Beckett does a fine job as Jimmy, but the acting honors belong to pugnacious Tom Neal as Charlie—at times, I was wishing that the movie was about him. (Pictured at left are Barker and Neal.) [TCM]

Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE CHALLENGE (1938)

In 1864, the Matterhorn in the Alps has remained unconquered by climbers. Some villagers think that God wants to keep the mountain's secrets away from human eyes, but that doesn't stop men from trying. British alpinist Edward Whymper (Robert Douglas) tries that summer and asks famous guide Jean Antoine Carrel (Luis Trenker) to accompany him. There is tension between them until Whymper is caught in an avalanche and injured, and Carrel saves him. The two bond and Carrell encourages Whymper to return next year. But by then, problems arise, mostly involving nationalistic pride: Whymper wants to go up the Swiss side, but the Italians tell Carrell that the winning climb should come from the Italian side. When the Italian villagers deliberately thwart communication between Whymper and Carrell, they both lead separate expeditions up the mountain. Whymper gets there first, but tragedy strikes on the way down and four of the British climbers are killed. The villagers assume that Whymper cut their rope, but when Carrell goes looking for evidence, he finds that the rope was not cut but broke on its own. Can he get back to town before a lynch mob forms to punish Whymper?

This film, based on real events, feels like an attempt by the British to make their own "mountain movie," a genre that belonged to the Germans—propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl worked in this genre before she made TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. The scenes on the mountains were directed by Trenker who was in the German HOLY MOUNTAIN with Riefenstahl, and they are fairly good sequences, especially the death fall of the four climbers. The rest of the movie is interesting enough to sit through, though the dramatic tension could use some juicing up. The characters played by Douglas and Trenker (pictured above, Trenker at left), though based on real people, aren't particularly rounded, and their acting is so-so; Trenker especially seems uncomfortable delivering dialogue in English. In fact, much of the story feels like an outline of events rather than a fleshed-out narrative. Favorite line, from one villager to another: "Stir yourself, stir yourself—if you'll pardon the vulgarity." [TCM]

Friday, February 14, 2014

ROMEO AND JULIET (1936)

Oddly, given my love of movies and plays, I had never seen or read this classic Shakespeare work before, unless you count WEST SIDE STORY. People kept telling me I should see the 1968 Zeffirelli version, but this is the one I remember seeing part of on TV way back when I was 9 years old. I only saw the first 15 minutes, but it got me fired up about Shakespeare and I precociously bought a complete plays volume, intending to whip through them all before high school. I didn’t get very far then, though I have since read most of the canonical plays—except this one. I don't think a plot summary is necessary—after all, the phrase "star-crossed lovers" is practically welded to any description of the story. This classy production from MGM followed hot on the heels of Warner Bros. star-studded A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, and it is the sets, costumes and general production values that are most impressive here, particularly in the scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet at a fancy costume ball—I was struck by how much this sequence looked like the "Dance at the Gym" in WEST SIDE STORY. The acting is more hit-and-miss: Norma Shearer (Juliet), in her 30s, and Leslie Howard (Romeo), over 40, are often criticized for being too old to be playing characters that were written to be teenagers, but there are very few lines or situations left that would mark them as that young, so for me, they worked just fine. Shearer occasionally lets the iambic pentameter get the best of her—she feels especially stagy in her big moment when she contemplates going through with her fake suicide—but overall they have nothing to be ashamed of. Edna May Oliver, whom I usually love, goes way overboard hamming up the character of the Nurse, and speaking of hams, John Barrymore as the doomed Mercutio does seem both too old and too showy. I've never liked Andy Devine and he does little to change my mind here as the comic relief servant to the nurse. Basil Rathbone (Tybalt), C. Aubrey Smith (Capulet) and Reginald Denny (Benvolio) are all fine in supporting roles. Low point: in the Mercutio/Tybalt swordfight, Barrymore clearly cannot keep up with the younger, more athletic Rathbone and the scene suffers, even though it looks like a double was used in a few shots. It's fun to hear some of Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet ballet music as part of the score. Perhaps not the best possible screen Shakespeare, but passable. [DVD]

Thursday, February 13, 2014

SUMMER INTERLUDE (1951)

aka ILLICIT INTERLUDE

Early Ingmar Bergman, in a light tone before the heaviness of his subjects (religion, meaning of life, death) turned his films dark and solemn. Not that this one is a comedy. Marie, a young ballerina who has been reminded that she is in the middle of her career, receives a package during a rehearsal for Swan Lake; it's the diary of a young man she had a summer fling with several years ago. She is thrown into a reverie remembering the events of that summer. While staying near the ocean with an uncle who keeps trying to press his attentions on her, Marie meets the handsome young Henrik on a ferry. They go fishing and swimming, pick and eat wild strawberries, and eventually make love. Their idyll is tainted not only by her uncle but also by Henrik's aunt, dressed in black and dying of cancer, though she predicts that she'll outlive Henrik. Near the end of the summer, just after he has jokingly told her that she should marry Superman, he dives into shallow water, hurts his back, and dies as a result of his injuries. In her grieving, she announces that she will hate God until she dies, but back in the present, her art proves to be a tool for transcendence. This seems very much a dry run for later Bergman films; it's shot beautifully and acted well enough, but it’s all fairly surface, which isn’t what we expect from Bergman. Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten are exactly right as the doomed lovers, and the tone is also right: like the look of the film, a mix of clouds and sunshine. It's difficult to know what to make of the uncle—he's not exactly a villain but he's not pleasant to be around, either. Probably not for the casual film fan, but a must for Bergman followers, and a nice respite for me from the crappy winter weather of recent days.  [DVD]

Monday, February 10, 2014

KISMET (1944)


This Arabian Nights story, based on a play from 1911 and remade as a musical in the 50s, has elements in common with the better-known THIEF OF BAGHDAD—including being set in Baghdad—but is not as interesting as that Korda movie. Here, Ronald Colman is the self-proclaimed King of Beggars in Baghdad who is also a magician and a single father, raising a lovely daughter (Joy Page) whom he thinks the world of. At night, Colman disguises himself as a prince and enjoys a dalliance with Marlene Dietrich, who, unknown to him, is married to the cruel, oppressive Grand Vizier (Edward Arnold). There is one more masquerader in the mix: the young and handsome Caliph (James Craig) who wants to be a reformer and strolls the streets at night as the son of the royal gardener. In order to give his daughter a shot at a place in court, Colman pretends to be a visiting prince and makes friends with Arnold, who is about to have Craig assassinated for his meddling; meanwhile, Craig meets and falls for Page. As the plot thickens, narrative coherence plays second fiddle to colorful sets and costumes, comic relief, an occasional song, and the sexy Dietrich doing a writhing dance, her legs painted gold.


This MGM movie looks great and Dietrich is fabulous, but overall it's a sluggish affair, mostly because of leading man Ronald Colman (pictured at right with Dietrich) who sleepwalks through his role, the film's central one, as though it was beneath him. Craig (above) is charming, though Page, his romantic counterpart, is drab—it might have been fun to let Craig and Dietrich pair off and juice up the proceedings with their energy. Much of the dialogue is padded out in Hollywood/Arabian Nights style with long strings of adjectives and flowery description, and this adds to Colman's problem, as in his mouth, that baroque dialogue falls especially flat. Other supporting players include Harry Davenport, Florence Bates, and Hugh Herbert. It's a bit disappointing that there is little fantasy here, unlike in THIEF OF BAGHDAD, though some of Colman's magic tricks are indeed magical and require special effects to carry off. Not a bomb, but not as light and fizzy as it should have been, not as wondrous or adventurous as THIEF. [TCM]

Thursday, February 06, 2014

CONFESSION (1937)

At a Warsaw train station, young Lisa (Jane Bryan), a student at a music conservatory, sees her mother off on a short trip and seems a bit at odds over being alone. A handsome stranger slips her and her friend two tickets to see concert pianist Michael Michailow; they go and discover that the stranger is Michael (Basil Rathbone). It turns out he has seen her perform at school and is impressed by both her talent and her looks. He finagles his way into a private lesson with her and kisses her, and despite their age difference—he looks old enough to be her father—she goes out with him that night. At a nightclub, a sultry blond (Kay Francis, pictured) sings a sad song, "One Hour of Romance," and after the song ends, a spotlight catches Michael kissing Lisa. The singer faints and is led backstage, but moments later returns with a gun and shoots Michael dead. At her trial, she refuses to give any reason for her crime until a suitcase with evidence shows up. In the judge's chamber, she tells the sad story of how a misspent evening with Michael led to her marriage breaking up and her daughter being taken from her—and the topper: Lisa is her daughter though she doesn't know it.

This soap opera story is a little more compelling than average, mostly due to the interesting directorial style, mostly gliding traveling shots and odd angles, of German director Joe May who seems to have been influenced at least slightly by Josef von Sternberg. Kay Francis is no Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg's muse, but she's very good here both as the young wife led astray in the flashback and as the sadder but (theoretically) wiser woman in the present day. Rathbone can do a slimy cad in his sleep and he's fine, as is Jane Bryan even though she really only has two facial expressions: mildly happy and mildly distraught. Ian Hunter is Francis' cuckolded war-hero husband; Donald Crisp is the judge; Veda Ann Borg steals a scene without even speaking as one of Rathbone's bimbos. Apparently this is a scene-by-scene remake of a German film called Mazurka. [TCM]

Monday, February 03, 2014

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN (1972)

In the 1880s there was no law and order in Texas, west of the Pecos River; as we are told, "Only bad men and rattlesnakes lived there." Outlaw Roy Bean arrives at the tiny village of Vinegaroon in the middle of the desert and finds a shabby little shack filled with whores and drunkards. When he sees a book of the laws of Texas in the room, he asks why it's there. "For the whores to piss on," is the reply. The outlaws promptly beat him up, tie him to his horse, set the horse running, and leave him for dead, but a young Mexican woman who lives nearby saves his life, and he goes back and shoots everyone in the whorehouse dead. Bean then decides to be the law west of the Pecos and sets himself up as a judge in the shack. The rest of this episodic movie presents his adventures as he recruits former bad guys to be his deputies, meets up with Grizzly Adams who, preparing to die, gives Bean his beloved pet bear, and sets out to see the famous actress Lily Langtry, with whom he is obsessed—he shoots a drunkard dead who had the gall to deface a poster of her that hangs in his shack. "For Texas and Miss Lily" becomes his battle cry.

This comedy-western, directed by John Huston, has a certain ramshackle, tall-tale, all-over-the-map likability, though at two hours, it goes on a bit too long. There's not much substance to Roy Bean (based on a real person) but Paul Newman holds the screen with authority, making his character charming even when he’s taking his brand of justice too far. The supporting cast is fun, with most members popping up for one or two short scenes: Anthony Perkins (pictured above with Newman) is an itinerant preacher who at one point talks directly to the camera; John Huston, who directed, cameos as Grizzly Adams; Stacy Keach is Bad Bob, a freaky albino killer; also appearing are Tab Hunter, Ned Beatty and Jacqueline Bisset. Roddy McDowell has a more substantive role as a city-slicker lawyer who becomes Bean's primary nemesis, and Ava Gardner gives the movie a touch of class at the end as Langtry. You can see this was aiming to be another BUTCH CASSIDY, especially with the tacked-on-feeling romance between Newman and his Mexican savior (Victoria Principal in a thankless role)—there's even a song, "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey," sung by Andy Williams, played over a pastoral picnic scene with Newman, Principal, and the bear, but it's not a patch on the ass of "Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head." Still, a generally enjoyable example of freewheeling 70s cinema. [DVD]