Friday, November 28, 2014

VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961)

In 19th century Algeria, two men (Cesare Danova and Sean McClory) are about to engage in a duel over a woman when what seems to be a huge storm comes rolling in with lots of thunder and wind and ground upheaval. When things calm down, they realize that a comet swept past the earth and somehow they wound up on the comet's surface. (Yeah, that's a big "What?" and if you can't get past that, quit reading now.) It is inhabited by menacing Neanderthals and dinosaurs and some scary folks who look like Morlocks from The Time Machine movie (pictured at left), and it's not long before the two men find they must make peace and work together to survive. Soon they find tribes of slightly more civilized cave people, and they theorize that the comet somehow snatched up humans, animals, and a bit of atmosphere from a previous close brush with Earth. Both men wind up with sweethearts (Joan Staley and Danielle De Metz), endure a volcano, escape from marauding dinosaurs and giant spiders, and get the two tribes to get along together. This film seems to be notorious for men of a certain age because during an underwater swimming scene, you see quite a bit of Joan Staley's breasts as they threaten to pop right out of her cavegirl bikini. The volcano effects are pretty good, but there's little else here to recommend. Danova tries hard, but McClory lets him down, and the two have no chemistry. Most of the dinosaur effects are film clips borrowed from ONE MILLION B.C.—the lizards with fins taped to their back. Based loosely on Jules Verne's novel Off on a Comet. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THE MYSTERIOUS HOUSE OF DR. C (1966/1976)

In a fairy-tale European village, the kindly but strange Doctor Coppelius spends his days alone in his mansion, creating life-size mechanical dolls that look so real, they can pass as human beings. He keeps nosy villagers away by setting off explosions from time to time, but he also likes some attention, so one day he creates a doll of a young woman (which he names Coppelia) and puts her out on his balcony, passing her off as flesh and blood. Sure enough, the young Franz sees her and is swept off his feet, which makes his girlfriend Swanhilda jealous. Soon, Swanhilda and her friends have snuck into the house and discovered the dolls; Franz comes after her and is rendered unconscious by Dr. Coppelius so he can use the young man in an experiment to transfer a human soul into the doll of Coppelia. Swanhilda poses as Coppelia and tricks the doctor into thinking the experiment has worked. Despite all this trickery, the story comes to a good-natured ending, with Franz and Swanhilda married, and even a love interest for the doctor.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this is all performed as a ballet, with no dialogue (though there is voice-over narration and some occasional voice-over thoughts from the characters). Based on two stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the ballet, with music by Leo Delibes, was first performed in 1870 and has remained popular. As for this film, it was originally made in 1966 as a straight-forward ballet film with no voiceover and released as DOCTOR COPPELIUS. It got good reviews but was pulled from distribution when its releasing company got into financial trouble. In the mid-70s, the director, Ted Kneeland, re-edited the film with narration and two completely extraneous animated sequences involving the doctor's strange dreams, and released it under the current title, but it failed to get much attention and disappeared again, until now when Turner Classic Movies has resurrected it on cable. 

At over 90 minutes, this remains mostly of interest to ballet fans.  Had it been trimmed down to an hour or so and had some of the non-plot motivated dancing scenes removed, it might have become a TV standard for family holiday viewing. The movie looks fantastic with a bright and varied palette of colors used throughout. The sets are stagy but quite elaborate, and the whole thing has the feel of a beautiful childhood dream. The choreography is fine and no one is really called upon to stretch their acting muscles much, though Claudia Corday is quite convincing as Swanhilda and non-dancer Walter Slezak is in fine comic form as Doctor C. The animated sequence, with a voice by Terry-Thomas, features an angelic singing doll, a talking bull, and some space aliens, and is dreadful, but I found the rest of the movie to be a delightful curiosity. The Turner Classic widescreen print is almost pristine. One amusing line: Swanhilda, pretending to be Coppelia, dances with the doctor and thinks to herself, "Nureyev, he's not!" [TCM]

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (1936)

Three cosmic beings are discussing humanity and one, the Power Giver, decides to give unlimited power to one human chosen at random. Down on Earth, mild-mannered Roland Young is involved in a pub discussion about miracles, which he says are acts of will whose outcomes are "contrary to nature." He tries to turn an oil lamp upside down with the power of his mind and is as surprised as anyone when he can (pictured at left). The next day, at the store where he works, he heals a co-worker's sprained arm and cleans up the place like Mary Poppins cleaned up Jane and Michael's bedroom. On the street, he tells a cop to "go to blazes" and the cop winds up in hell—though when Young realizes what's happened, he send him to San Francisco instead. But when he tries to get a woman to love him, he finds out that he his powers do not affect the human heart. Instead, he sets out to revamp the entire world into his idea of a peaceful utopia. He clashes with a colonel (Ralph Richardson) when he literally turns his weapons into ploughshares. When Richardson asks what will happen without war, Young replies, "We'd just go about loving one another," to which an astonished Richardson says, "Are you mad? Have you no sense of decency?" Of course, Young's utopia is a mess and he has to use his powers one last time to straighten things out.

This fantasy, with a screenplay by H. G. Wells based on one of his stories, is unusual in its feel and tone. It’s far from a big budget Hollywood film, being a middle-budget British film, yet it manages to do a decent job with special effects and sets and such. It begins on the intimate scale of one man and his small world of acquaintances, then expands to include the entire world, then shrinks back at the end. Young, an actor who is always fun to see, does a nice job in the lead, and in addition to Richardson (also always welcome) the cast includes Ernest Thesiger and Edward Chapman, and George Sanders has a small role as one of the cosmic beings. The film walks a fine line between sweet and cynical, but it keeps its balance most of the time. [TCM]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Shadow series from Monogram (1946)

In pulp fiction stories and radio shows of the 1930s and 40s, The Shadow was a wealthy crimefighter who went by several names, one of which was Lamont Cranston. As the Shadow, he wore a mask and used hypnotism to "cloud men's minds" and usually was seen only as a shadow. Before WWII, he was featured in a handful of B-films and one serial, but under review here are three films made at Monogram in 1946, all starring Kane Richmond as the title character. In these movies, the focus is on Lamont Cranston, playboy nephew of the police commissioner; he rarely appears in his Shadow guise, and though he makes surprise appearances designed to scare his foes, he never even attempts to cloud any minds.  The character has been tamed to be just another variation on the "unofficial" detective, like Bulldog Drummond or Boston Blackie.

In the first film, THE SHADOW RETURNS—he was returning to the screen for the first time since the 1940 serial—Cranston has promised his longtime gal Margo (Barbara Read, credited as "Reed") that he'll marry her, settle down, and quit his crimefighting ways, but suddenly a case crops up: a man named Yomans digs up a grave, takes a bag of jewels out of it, and enters the Hasdon mansion, where a number of people have gathered to buy the gems. But after Yomans enters the house, he vanishes along with the gems, and Cranston helps the police figure out what happened. Every time someone is about to be nabbed, they fall from a balcony and die. Suicide? No, a trick with a whip, Cranston discovers as he collects the suspects in a room to announce the killer's identity. Cranston slips on his Shadow mask a couple of times, and the "old dark house" atmosphere is occasionally effective, but the film mostly tries to set up Lamont and Margo as Thin Man-type screwball romantic detectives, helped and/or hindered by dumb cops and by the Shadow's sidekick Shrewy (Tom Dugan) who spouts way too much tortured punning wordplay. [YouTube]

BEHIND THE MASK is by far the least of the three films, more a comedy than a mystery. Jeff, a newspaper reporter (James Cardwell, who comes off like a B-movie John Garfield), is murdered in his office, and since all the onlookers see a Shadow-like shadow against his glass wall, Cranston has to take on the case to clear his own name. It turns out that Jeff was involved in a bookie operation in which people place their bets by talking into a nightclub jukebox. The best moment occurs when three people dressed like the Shadow are in a room together. There is also a nicely done fisticuffs scene in a back room gymnasium. In this film, Shrewy is played by George Chandler (pictured above right with Richmond in his mask) who does a better job than Dugan, but he's also saddled with his own dumb blonde sidekick/girlfriend (Dorothea Kent). Richmond is called upon to act more goofy than mysterious.  There's not much to recommend in this one. [Netflix streaming]

But the third one is the charm: THE MISSING LADY is a nifty little thriller with a distinct film noir air. A crook known as the Ox bumps off a man named Douglas and steals a precious figurine called the Jade Lady, but the Ox in turn gets it taken from him. The cops hear Cranston talk about finding a missing Lady and think he means an actual person, but there are plenty of other people looking for that Lady, including a curio dealer named Kester, an artist named Field, and a mysterious figure named Blake (James Cardwell) who hires a brassy blonde named Rose to help him track it down. The presence of a couple of femmes fatales and lots of shadowy nighttime scenes give this a noir feel and a slightly more serious tone that puts it a notch above the other two films in the series. There is still too much comic folderol, and this time there are also two batty old ladies who operate the elevators in Cranston's apartment building (where much of the film takes place) and race each other up and down between floors. None of these movies really conjure up the atmosphere that one would expect from a Shadow story—and in MISSING LADY, Crantson only dons the Shadow gear for two very short scenes—but if you're in the mood for some harmless B-mysteries, they'll do.  [Netflix streaming]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

THE HEROES OF TELEMARK (1965)

In Nazi-occupied Norway, Richard Harris is leading a group of fighters in resistance efforts, including the ambushing of Nazi vehicles—we see them use a huge boulder to knock a tank down a slope. When it is discovered that the Germans are using a local hydroelectric plant, isolated in a deep valley, to develop heavy water for use in atomic weapons, Harris heads off to Oslo to enlist physics professor Kirk Douglas to help Harris and his men stop the experiments. They manage to get in and blow up the machinery, but discover later that the Germans have more prefab parts coming, so they make the tough decision to bomb the factory and, more crucially, a ferryboat which is carrying both innocent travelers, including the widow of one of the resistance fighters and her children, and a shipment of the heavy water. This big budget mid-60s war adventure film isn't typically the kind of thing I search out, but the Norwegian resistance aspect intrigued me and I wound up enjoying it. The attempts at fleshing out the characters are about par for the course: Douglas has an ex-wife about whom he is still conflicted—but we don't really care that much—and Harris' character isn’t fleshed out at all. Still, the two actors are good (Harris, pictured at right, was quite a handsome young man) as is Michael Redgrave as the ex-wife's uncle. The action scenes are handled well by director Anthony Mann, and it helps that much of it was filmed on location. Good example of the Resistance action thriller. [TCM]

Thursday, November 13, 2014

THE SOLITAIRE MAN (1933)

Dowager May Robson and her niece (Elizabeth Allan) are staying in a hotel on the Riviera; Robson is newly widowed—and newly poor—and she needs money for her room, so she agrees to sell the famous Nell Gwyn necklace to an American named Peabody. At least, that's the story she tells Peabody; in reality, she and Allan and thieves, working with the gentlemanly jewel thief Herbert Marshall and his sidekick Ralph Forbes. Marshall, known in the press as the Solitaire Man, has bought a house in Devonshire and is ready to make this his last caper and settle down with Allan—he's even booked a flight back to England—but Forbes, who became a drug addict during the war, steals the Brewster jewels from the British embassy. Because they are too hot to sell, Marshall sneaks them back into the Embassy, but another thief, hidden in the dark, is there to try and take them, killing a policeman to boot. Marshall keeps the jewels and the gang gets away on the plane. The only other passengers are mouthy American Mary Boland and quiet but suspicious Lionel Atwill. The last half of the movie, set entirely on the plane, consists of what appear to be crosses and double-crosses and various shenanigans (including one lights-out moment and one passenger jumping from the plane) and since they're fun, I won’t spoil them. Suffice to say that because this is a pre-Code film, the ending may not quite go the way you expect.

The studio, MGM, probably tried to sell this as another TROUBLE IN PARADISE, a sophisticated jewel-thief comedy from 1932 with Herbert Marshall. This is not nearly as witty or fun as that film, but it does have its own more minor-league charms. It's based on a play and is fairly stagy, especially in the long sequence in the plane, but it is fun to watch it all play out. Some of the twists are predictable, some less so. The plane scene is made fun by the trio of Marshall, Atwill, and especially Boland; her character was so irritating at first that I nearly stopped watching, but she quickly became great fun. (That's Boland between Marshall and Atwill pictured above.) Forbes is OK and Allan is unmemorable, but they don't spoil things. [TCM]

Monday, November 10, 2014

WINTER MEETING (1948)

Slick Novak (Jim Davis) is a soldier who has been acclaimed in the press as a war hero for saving the lives of several men at sea, but he wears his new-found fame uncomfortably. Poet Susan Grieve (Bette Davis) lives in Manhattan; unmarried, she is the very picture of the dignified artistic "spinster." Her unmarried friend Stacy Grant (John Hoyt—picture a somewhat less waspish Clifton Webb from LAURA) asks her to be his date as he sets Novak up with his sexy secretary (Janis Paige), but in the event, Slick winds up more interested in Susan, which catches her off guard. That night, Slick goes home with Susan and after some awkward banter, they kiss—and possibly more, but that remains off-screen. The next day, she takes him to her country house where eventually, the inner turmoil in both of them comes out. He's struggling with two problems: a long-held desire to be a priest and guilt over the fact that the men he saved ended up dying in another bombing days later; she still obsesses over the fact that her clergyman father went mad and killed himself, in a chair in the country house, over his wife leaving him. As they open up to each other, Susan notes, "It's dangerous to be a human being." Indeed, as once they have shared their souls, they wind up pulled apart by forces both human and mystical.

This is more an interesting movie than a truly compelling one. Some find the usually fiery Bette Davis to be miscast, but she's basically playing a variation on her more passive roles in NOW VOYAGER and OLD ACQUAINTANCE, and I think she's fine. More problematic is the male lead, Jim Davis, better known years later as Jock on TV's Dallas.  Again, "interesting" is the best word for him; he does a nice job conveying the idea that his character has deep and profound problems under the surface, but I ended up not really caring much about him, whether because of the acting or the writing, I'm not sure. Hoyt is surprisingly good in the prissy gay-best-friend role, and Janis Paige is fine in a thankless part. The conversations in this dialogue-heavy movie don't always ring true, and at 100 minutes, it's at least 20 minutes too long, but it's fun for Bette Davis fans, especially since it doesn't seem to crop up all that often. [Warner Archive streaming]

Thursday, November 06, 2014

LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951)

Chorus girl Doris Day has spent many years in Europe and is ready to come back to the States to see her mother (Gladys George), a musical star in her own right. The problem is that George has lost her career due to drinking and has been reduced to singing in small clubs down in the Village, but she's kept that from her daughter. The mansion that Day thinks is her mom's actually belongs to beer tycoon S. Z. Sakall, but the butler (Billy De Wolfe) and maid (Anne Triola), who know George, conspire to keep Day in the dark about her mom's current state so they tell her that Mom is on the road and is renting the house out to Sakall. Complicating matters is professional dancer Gene Nelson who met Day on the ship and has a hankering to date her, or at least work with her, and Sakall might agree to back a show, but will the sodden George ruin everything? This was clearly inspired by Frank Capra's 1933 LADY FOR A DAY (itself based on a Damon Runyon story and remade by Capra years later as POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES), but Capra's film focuses on the mom, whereas here Day has the spotlight, with George vanishing completely from the middle of the movie; when she returns, it feels like an afterthought. I've always seen George as a weak and ineffective actor and this didn't make me change my mind. But there are other pleasures to be had: Day looks, sings and dances just fine; Nelson is a pleasant if slightly quirky leading man, looking like he's always about to let us in on some inside joke; Sakall does his befuddled grandpa thing to a tee; Florence Bates is fine as Sakall's wife who winds up thinking that he and Day are having an affair; best of all is De Wolfe who often was used in prissy, coded-as-gay roles but is very good here in a more-or-less"straight" role. The songs are the highlights: Nelson does an athletic Gene Kelly-type dance turn to "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart" and Day hits the mark in every number, especially the finale which looks like it came right out of a 30s Busby Berkeley musical. Musical fans will like this pleasant piece of Technicolor fluff. [TCM]

Monday, November 03, 2014

THE MAN FROM CAIRO (1951)

A French military intelligence man is found dead on a beach in Algiers. He was part of an operation trying to find 100 million dollars of gold which was stolen from the French government; during the war, they shipped their gold to several locations in North Africa for safe keeping, but one transport was hijacked and never found. A spy discovers that the French have hired an American to help out, and when Mike Canelli (George Raft) stops in Algiers on his back home from Cairo, he is mistaken by all parties for the real spy, Charles Stark. It turns out that Mike has a connection to the affair: he was stationed in North Africa during the war. Everyone is looking for Emil Duchard, a man with only four fingers on his right hand, the only survivor of the heist gang. Duchard, hunted by good guys and bad guys both, manages to make a sound recording in which he names the man who has the gold; he gets the record delivered to a woman named Yvonne, who is in Emil's hotel room, but is killed immediately after; later that night, Yvonne is murdered in her bathtub. Her friend Lorraine and her buddy, handsome nightclub owner Basil, get hold of the record, so everyone goes after them, including Mike, who falls for her big time.

That about as much of the plot as I could follow in this convoluted, slow-moving, low-budget crime thriller which, with its exotic nightclub setting, was trying desperately to grab a little bit of CASABLANCA cachet. I don't typically care for Raft and he's particularly tired and wooden here. Despite the fact that most of the characters are French, most of the actors are Italian and are all dubbed by English-speaking actors. Gianna Maria Canale is fine as Lorraine, though when she says she loves Mike, she is so unconvincing, I laughed out loud; Italian matinee idol Messimo Serato is memorable in his limited role as the club owner. The great stage actress Irene Papas has the small role of Yvonne. It's a little comical how hard the actor who plays the four-fingered gent keeps trying to hide his thumb. The sets look good, but the narrative lacks drive; people keep talking about everything that's going on, but little of it occurs on screen. I fell asleep during this one three times, and each time I dutifully backed the film up to catch what I missed, but I think my sleeping instincts were right. The print on the VCI DVD is very good, but no matter what the DVD cover says, this is not a film noir, and unless you're a Raft fan, I can't recommend it. [DVD]