Thursday, December 31, 2015

IT! (1967) / THE FROZEN DEAD (1966)

These two films were shot in England by producer and director Herbert J. Leder and released in the United States together on a double bill. Both are variations on standard horror movie tropes. In IT! (which is basically the Frankenstein monster meets Psycho), Roddy McDowall is an assistant to a museum curator who goes with his boss to inspect the ruins of a warehouse fire. In the smoldering ashes, they find a large stone statue in humanoid from with a spooky-looking pointed head. The curator puts his umbrella in the outstretched arms of the statue and next thing you know, he's dead at the feet of the statue, and McDowall notices that the statue's arms are in a different position. It's taken to the museum and is determined to be the legendary Golem of Prague, a creature who could be activated through mystical means to protect the Jews of the city. McDowall, who incidentally keeps his dead mother at home in a rocking chair, learns to control the indestructible Golem and wrecks havoc around London until the military drops a small atomic bomb in hopes of destroying the creature.

This movie has many faults, the biggest of which is the weak script; they bother to identify the creature as the Golem but then do absolutely nothing with that potentially interesting plotline, turning "It" into just another shambling super-strong monster. Same goes for McDowall's character who seems to be a slightly better-adjusted Norman Bates; he has a crush on the curator's daughter (Jill Haworth) and has the Golem destroy a bridge just to impress her, but she falls for a manlier American (Paul Maxwell) and so winds up a damsel in distress in the climax. But the dead mom is just a weird plot detail from which nothing comes. McDowall does what he can but generally the acting is lackluster. What stops this film from crossing over into camp is the Golem itself, which is treated seriously for the most part. Unfortunately the atom bomb finale is very silly.

THE FROZEN DEAD is a forerunner of the Nazi zombie mini-genre that has sprung up lately (as in 2009's DEAD SNOW). Dana Andrews is a German scientist living in an English mansion who has been working for 20 years on the project of thawing out a handful of important Nazis, including his brother (Edward Fox), who were frozen at the end of the war. Despite getting funding from some surviving Nazi bigwigs, he has not yet had complete success: the bodies can be brought back—as can body parts; Andrews has a wall full of human arms hung like decorations a la Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST—but the brains don't function. The same day that Andrews' niece (Anna Palk) and her friend (Kathleen Breck) arrive for a visit, Andrews learns from his superior (Karel Stepanek) that there are 1500 more Nazis on ice waiting for revival and Stepanek is getting impatient, so Andrews' creepy assistant (Alan Tilvern) kills Breck but keeps her head alive for experimentation purposes. What they don’t count on is Breck's brain establishing a telepathic bond with Palk, who gets visiting American scientist Philip Gilbert to help her search for the missing girl. Though fairly low-key, this is a better movie than IT!, partly due to Dana Andrews who is quite good, and to the production design—the lab is atmospheric, the frozen Nazis are creepy, and the disembodied head looks properly distraught. There is very little gore here for modern viewers, but the tone is properly creepy. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

THE COUCH (1962)

From behind his shoulder, we watch blandly handsome and seemingly mild-mannered Charles Campbell (Grant Williams) call the police from a pay phone and tell them he will murder someone in five minutes. Sure enough, as he walks down the street, he stops at a small crowd watching a toy vendor's street demonstration, pulls out an ice pick, stabs a man from behind, and escapes unnoticed. He goes immediately to his scheduled appointment with his psychiatrist, Dr. Janz. We learn that Charles was in jail for some reason and his appointments are court-ordered as part of his release arrangement. Now he has quit his job because a secretary alleged that he made a violent pass at her—he tells Janz that she made the pass—and the doc tells him that he will never get better until he faces up to his resentment against authority figures. The one bright spot in Charles's life seems to be his growing relationship with Janz's receptionist Terry (Shirley Knight); though she's breaking the rules about fraternizing with clients, she slowly falls for him, especially after he tells her about his past—he says he was in jail after his beloved sister died in a car accident for which he was held accountable. But after he calls the cops and commits a second random killing, we find out even more disturbing things about him.

Co-written by Robert Bloch, this plays out like a less-interesting version of Bloch's story for PSYCHO. Charles is very much like Norman Bates: a handsome, high-strung young man with some mildly effeminate shadings and a very troubled background. Instead of a mother fixation, Charles has daddy issues (hence his problem with authority) and, we learn by the end, buried incestuous feelings for his sister, who it turns out is not dead after all. The movie has an effective noir look—I can recall very few daytime scenes in the movie—and the acting is good, especially from Williams and Knight. Unfortunately, things are never quite as tense as they should be, maybe because of the randomness of the killings, or the plain backgrounds which look like TV show sets (though there are a few location shots), or the unexplored plotlines. Williams' backstory is parceled out in small bits but it's all told rather plainly instead of shown—I guess the same thing happens in PSYCHO, but Hitchcock was a master of suspense, and director Owen Crump is not. A potentially interesting situation involving the sexpot young daughter of the keeper of the boarding house where Charles lives goes nowhere—except to provide a bizarre punchline at the very end. Generally this movie deserves its relative obscurity, but fans of Williams (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) will want to see it as he had very few leading roles in his short career. [DVD]

Monday, December 28, 2015

THE FIGHTING GUARDSMAN (1946)

In 1789 France, a group called the Companions of Jehu, led by the mysterious masked Roland, fights the corruption of the court of Louis XVI and of complacent French aristocrats by stealing from the rich in a series of coach robberies and giving the proceeds to the poor. Roland is actually an aristocratic baron (Willard Parker), and one day his band happens to rob a coach containing the King himself, traveling incognito, his unpleasant assistant Gaston (George Macready), and Englishman Sir John Tanley (John Loder), a banking representative who is in the country to arrange a possible loan to the King, with France itself as collateral. At Roland's headquarters in an abandoned abbey assumed to be haunted by the villagers, a plan is hatched: the King, staying in a nearby inn, has been flirting with Christine, a chambermaid (Janis Carter) who is actually one of Roland's Companions, so when the King asks Christine to visit him at his summer place in Charenton, she does, serving as a spy for Roland so his men wind up knowing (and then avoiding) all of Gaston's plots to capture them. But personal problems provide turmoil: Christine, who has a crush on Roland, is jealous of his lover Amelie (Anita Louise) and plots to have the King marry her off to Sir John; the troublemaking Gaston is Amelie's brother, and the Companions begin to feel as if Roland is treating him with kid gloves. By the end, the first wave of the French Revolution solves our hero's problems.

This mild B-swashbuckler is based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas, though it feels more like a lukewarm version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. The low budget leaves most of the big scenes (not just action sequences but also a royal dinner scene) feeling under-populated and under-decorated, but the acting and narrative keep things fairly interesting. The leads are a little on the colorless side, but Macready, Loder, and especially Janis Carter are fun. Carter (pictured above at far right) feels too modern, but she adds a nice jolt of energy missing from Parker and Louise, and I looked forward to her appearances. Lloyd Corrigan is a bland Louis, but Edgar Buchanan adds some spice as Parker's right-hand man. Not one to search out, but not a total waste of time. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

AN ANGEL COMES TO BROOKLYN (1945)

Up in Actor's Heaven, a theater proscenium arch on a puffy white cloud, former entertainers turned angels sing about their primary chore: to guide struggling actors down on Earth. A somewhat bumbling angel/magician named Phineas botched his last job: as a publicity stunt, he had Terwilliger bury himself alive, but then forgot where he was buried. As a way to redeem himself, Phineas begs to be sent down on another mission, to help aspiring stage actress Karen, currently living in a boarding house fancifully named the Chateau d'Artistes. Karen has been living on a trust fund, but she's soon to turn 21 and the money will come to an end. She's involved in a rather loose romantic triangle with two men living in the same building: her official boyfriend, playwright Paul, though handsome and pleasant, wants her to give up her dream of acting and marry him; her admirer, artist David, who wears glasses and is a little whimsical, encourages Karen to keep trying. Phineas heads down to Brooklyn posing as a producer who wants to put on a show with all of the unemployed actors at the boarding house. He tries to convince a real producer to audition the kids, but of course there are complications, the most important of which is that Paul overhears Phineas in his room talking about "minting" money and assumes that Phineas is a forger—when actually, he is creating the money by magic. Paul calls the police and chaos ensues.

I couldn't come up with a Christmas movie to review this year, but this delightful little gem from the B-studio Republic is close in feeling to a holiday story. It's a fantasy/musical which feels like a cross between two movies which came a couple of years later, THE BISHOP'S WIFE and DOWN TO EARTH. Though the low budget does interfere with total fulfillment of the project, everyone on screen seems so full of cheer and good nature that it seems petty to carp about its production failings. The songs are actually as good as those in any average big-studio musical, even if the actual filmed numbers are a bit lacking. One song, "When You’re In Love," is particularly memorable ("When you’re in love/You're a hero, a Nero, the Wizard of Oz"—though I'm not sure the wicked Nero or the phony Wizard are really good examples of romantic role models.) I like that the rather passive plain-looking David (Robert Duke, who only made two more movies) turns out to be the romantic hero. The boarding house atmosphere is effective. I'd heard of virtually none of the actors except Jay Presson Allen who has a small role as the producer's secretary—she went on to become a screenwriter of some note (CABARET, THE VERDICT). Charles Kemper (Phineas) was a character actor with several credits—in his delivery he reminds me of comic actor Victor Moore. Very fun, and worth hunting down. [Streaming]

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959)

During an atomic experiment gone wrong, Dr. Noymann (John Carradine) is killed and Dr. Penner (Philip Tonge) wants to stop the program, warning that, in the American/Soviet race for atomic supremacy, radioactivity may be leaking into space and might come back to haunt us. At Noymann's funeral, we see—though no one else does—an invisible presence pushing apart tree branches and making tracks on the ground. Later Noymann's corpse is re-animated, possessed by an invisible alien from the moon. Soon more fresh corpses are being re-animated and they warn Penner that Earth has 24 hours to surrender before the moon creatures begin total destruction of the planet. Penner's assistant, Dr. Lamont (Robert Hutton), tries to warn Washington about this attempted "dictatorship of the universe," but to no avail, and eventually more of the dead are shambling about, wrecking a reign of terror across the globe. Penner, Lamont, and Penner's daughter Phyllis (Jean Byron) are driven to an underground bunker by army major Bruce Jay (John Agar) to do intensive work on how to fight the aliens. But tensions within the group—at least partly romantic, as the major falls for Phyllis even though Lamont seems moderately interested in her—threaten their task just as much as the radioactive "zombies" outside.

This B-science fiction film is notable in at least one aspect: it seems like it might have inspired George Romero to create the zombie walk (or stalk, or stumble, or shamble) for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the same walk which has become iconic. Of course, this movie wasn't the first to depict slow zombies—they go back at least as far as 1932's WHITE ZOMBIE—but the walking dead here, in their dirty and disheveled suits and ties and their hollow eyes look exactly like Romero's creatures, all the creepier for looking almost normal. The narrative doesn't bear close examination, the invisibility part of the plot means nothing, and there's a lot of unconvincing stock footage standing in for world destruction. Still, the atmosphere is occasionally effective—especially in the bunker, a setting that reminded me of Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD—and the acting is as good as it needs to be: Byron and Hutton are colorless, but Tonge (Maureen O’Hara's Macy’s buddy in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) is authoritative, and Agar (pictured with Byron) is stoic and good-looking, exactly what is required here. Carradine only appears briefly. Worth a watch for fans of 50s SF. [Streaming]

Monday, December 21, 2015

A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949)

Up-and-coming singer Gloria Grahame returns home from a radio appearance and argues with her discoverer and mentor (Maureen O'Hara); Grahame, who sings under the name Estrellita, wants to quit the business and O'Hara, who had to retire when she lost her voice, is angry. After the bedroom door closes, a shot rings out; when the police arrive, they find a wounded Grahame, and an all-too-willing confessor to the crime in O'Hara. Melvyn Douglas, O'Hara’s former lover, doesn't believe that she shot Grahame, and an extended flashback tells how O'Hara and Douglas found Grahame—Douglas says she has "a voice with hormones"—and trained her as an entertainer. Along the way, Grahame gets tired of being just a puppet for O'Hara and starts getting ideas, including dating two men, a lawyer (Victor Jory) and an ex-GI (Bill Williams). So we have plenty of characters who might be suspects, and detective Jay C. Flippen tries to sort things out.

This is a moderately interesting mix of soap opera and film noir, but ultimately things work out in a milquetoastish way leading to a disappointing ending. The acting is good, especially from O'Hara who gets a character with a little more depth than usual—we want to like her, but we also know that her losing her singing voice has twisted her a bit. I was tempted to read a same-sex attraction between her and her protégé, but I’m not sure that reading would fly—though people's motives remain ambiguous throughout. Grahame and Douglas are fine, and Jory has a rare sympathetic role. Comic relief is provided by Flippen and his wife (Mary Philips) who becomes like a Watson to his Holmes—I liked their banter at first, but it got a little tiresome and distracting. Directed by Nicholas Ray who married Grahame not long after filming was complete. [TCM]

Friday, December 18, 2015

BAY OF ANGELS (1963)

Claude Mann is a low-paid bank worker, still living with his strict father, who is a little jealous of his colleague (Paul Guers) who manages to live the high life even though his is married and makes the same salary as Claude. Paul's secret, which he is happy to share with Claude, is gambling. With some recent winnings, Paul buys a car in which he gives Claude a spin, and he talks Claude into going to a casino with him. First time out, Claude wins big at the roulette table and catches the fever, though he is startled when he sees a lovely blonde woman being forcibly escorted from the casino for cheating. Claude decides, against his father’s wishes, to skip the upcoming family vacation and instead go the Riviera to gamble. While there, he meets the blonde (Jeanne Moreau) who he finds out is addicted to gambling, and the two set off on a multi-day roulette table spree in which their fortunes rise and fall spectacularly.

In terms of character and narrative, there's not a lot happening here. Aside from some lightly-sketched character traits, we don't find out much about these two people, and the plot amounts to boy meets girl, boy & girl gamble, boy wins—girl loses, girl wins—boy loses, they decide to leave then change their minds, etc. The ending is particularly disappointing [SPOILER: it's unrealistically happy]. But it's worth watching for the gorgeous black & white cinematography and the glimpses inside real French Riviera casinos. The director, Jacques Demy, later worked with composer Michel Legrand on the classic New Wave musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, but Legrand's music for this movie just as effective; it's used sparingly but thrillingly. Moreau is fine, though Mann seems a bit out of his depth with her—she steals the spotlight in every scene she's in.  [DVD]

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

SADIE THOMPSON (1928)

Though I've never reviewed a Sadie Thompson movie on this blog, this is the third version of the story I've seen, after 1932's RAIN with Joan Crawford and 1953's MISS SADIE THOMPSON with Rita Hayworth. The pre-Code RAIN, with a strong and sexy performance by the young Crawford, is the one to beat. This silent version isn't quite as good as the ’32 film, but it is a solid effort with a strong central performance from Gloria Swanson as the title character who first appeared in a short story by Somerset Maugham. This version begins as a ship filled with restless Marines dressed in their ass-hugging white uniforms arrives in Pago Pago—where the natives are said to be "not lazy, just born tired." Also off the ship are the Davidsons, a secular reformist missionary couple who have come to clean up the islands morality-wise; their friends, the McPhails, a more tolerant couple; and Sadie Thompson, a "good-time girl" (i.e., hooker) who, so she claims, is waiting for a departing ship to come out of quarantine so she can head off for a new job on the island of Samoa. Sadie makes friends with the Marines, in particular Sgt. O'Hara (Raoul Walsh) who falls big time for her, but she quickly makes an enemy of the mirthless and cruel Mr. Davidson (Lionel Barrymore) who tries to have her sent back to San Francisco where he knows she faces jail time. Sadie tries both tirades and sweetness to get Davidson to relent, but to no avail. Finally Davidson seems to convert her—she throws away her make-up and accepts the fact that she'll have to face justice in the States. O'Hara even offers to step in, but she rebuffs him. But one rainy night, Davidson, who's been having unsettling dreams about Sadie, comes to her room with more than praying on his mind. The next morning [SPOILER], Davidson has drowned himself in the ocean and Sadie is hot to trot, wearing make-up again and ready to follow O'Hara to Australia.

I've never quite figured out what transpires between Sadie and Davidson on their fateful night together. Does he force himself on her? Does she seduce him? Has her conversion been fake all along? Did she always have the upper hand? The movies are ambiguous partly because the original story is just as ambiguous, but also because it's more interesting this way. After all, the ways of the human psyche are not always (and maybe almost never) explicable. Swanson is fine; in her hands, Sadie's conversion does seem to be real, whereas I've assumed in the past that it was not. Lionel Barrymore is OK here, but Walter Huston in RAIN remains the best Davidson to my mind. Walsh (pictured above with Swanson), known primarily as a director of crime and war films (HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT, OBJECTIVE BURMA) is fine in the director's chair and as Sadie's sweet-natured love interest. Most fun scene: when Davidson first barges into Sadie's room while she's entertaining, he calls her a "scarlet woman," and she replies, "So's your Aunt Abby" and the Marines toss him out. The last reel of the film is missing and the ending is re-created here by stills and title cards. While it is disappointing not to see the climactic action, the film is still worth seeing, especially for silent movie fans. [TCM]

Monday, December 14, 2015

CROSS COUNTRY CRUISE (1934)

It's GRAND HOTEL meets IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT as we follow a group of passengers traveling by bus from New York to San Francisco. Steve is riding with his wife Nita, much to the disgruntlement of his mistress Sue who sits by herself. Norman is the playboy son of a logging company owner—his father is having him brought out to his camp in Seattle to make a man out of him. He and Sue meet cute in the first minutes of the film when, as they arrive at the bus station, her suitcase full of lingerie falls open from the top of a double-decker bus and into Norman's open car below. Murphy has been hired by Norman's father to keep him out of trouble on the bus trip which makes it difficult when he starts to fall for Sue. May is a sweet gold-digger who flirts with the bus driver to get her seat, but later when they change drivers, she has to hit up male passengers for her fare. We find out that Steve and Nita have a racket going where they scan the local obituaries to find relatives of the recently deceased and try to squeeze some money out of them by claiming they're delivering a Bible that the dead relative ordered. There's also Willy, a talkative man who prattles non-stop about all the cities they pass through. In Denver, when Nita keeps making trouble, Steve kills her (with a bow and arrow!) in a department store and props her body up like a mannequin in a store display. The police eventually stop the bus to sort things out, and Steve tries to blame the murder on Sue. Can Norman figure out a way to entrap Steve and clear Sue's name?

This is an enjoyable, fast-paced film, mostly comedic, which will interest pre-Code fans because of the brazenness of the affair between Sue and Steve, and the fact the Sue gets off with a happy ending. The plot keep moving, often into unexpected places, and the acting is quite good: among the actors I knew were Lew Ayres as Norman, Alice White as May, Eugene Pallette as Willy (he makes an especially obnoxious but somehow still likable blowhard), and Alan Dinehart and Minna Gombell as the Steve and Nita. Craig Reynolds has a small role as the first bus driver, June Knight (with whom I am not familiar) is fine as Sue, and the eagle-eyed will catch Walter Brennan and Jane Darwell. White and Ayers are pictured above. [YouTube]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

THE SHOW (1927)

A shepherd and his daughter have brought their sheep to the big city (Budapest) to sell them. Lena, the inexperienced girl (Gertrude Short), flirts with handsome Cock Robin (John Gilbert), a "ballyhoo" man for the Palace of Illusions, a combination carnival and freak show. One of his jobs is to play John the Baptist in a short stage show where he gets his head cut off by an executioner, by order of Salome (Renée Adorée), who, offstage, is in love with Gilbert, though a burly thug known as the Greek (Lionel Barrymore) harbors an unsavory desire for her and is jealous of Cock Robin. The shepherd gives his money to Lena for safe keeping while he goes out on the town, then is killed by the Greek in an attempted robbery. The next day, a grieving Lena, assuming that Cock Robin wants to marry her, gives him the money to keep while the police investigate the murder, but Cock is tempted to keep the money for himself.

There is a lot more going on in the narrative of this silent film, including a plotline in which the tough-skinned Salome shows a sentimental side by reading letters to an blind and elderly neighbor from his solider son; he thinks the son is on the battlefield, but he's actually a prisoner condemned to death and she composes fake letters to make him proud of his son. There's also a creepy spider woman named Arachnida, a huge poisonous lizard—remember, if you show us a poisonous lizard in the first act, it's gonna have to bite someone before the end—and a few nice lines, including Salome's warning to her fellow performers about making eyes at Cock Robin: "Keep away from him—you're freaks, not vampires!" There’s a nicely tense scene in which the Greek replaces the fake executioner's sword with a real sword in the John the Baptist beheading, and the finale is fairly thrilling, with a fun last shot. Tod Browning directed—he had flair and a sense of the macabre (DRACULA, FREAKS) but his films sometimes feel a little shaky in plotting and production, though this suffers less from that than his Dracula. The silent acting is solid, with Adorée and Gilbert especially good. [DVD]

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

SECRET OF THE INCAS (1954)

The Sunburst is a fabled jeweled golden disc stolen from the Incas hundreds of years ago, and Harry Steele (Charlton Heston), a tour guide in Peru who is not above using his studly charms to snag female tourists, thinks he can piece together a map that will lead him to the Sunburst. But grizzled rival Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell) wants the disc as well, and tries to scare Steele off the search. Steele meets up with Elena (Nicole Maurey), a Rumanian refugee looking to get to the States but being trailed by a diplomat who wants to bring her back. Steele appears to give her up to the diplomat, but he only does this in order to get his hands on the diplomat's private plane; when he does, he and Elena take off for Machu Picchu to find the Sunburst. They become friends with Stanley (Robert Young), leader of an archeological dig, and Elena finds herself with feelings for both Steele and Stanley. When Morgan shows up with a gun, events build to a predictable climax.

The reason I watched this was because I heard that Steven Spielberg based the look of Indiana Jones on Heston's character in this movie. Jones might also have a bit of Steele's personality, though Steele also resembles any number of other pulp fiction adventurers. Heston is particularly good here, looking rough and tough and like he might just fuck anything that moves. Mitchell is very effective as a slimy villain—you can almost smell the ripe sweat on him. I was less impressed with Maurey but it's fun to see 30s star Glenda Farrell in a supporting role. Exotic singer Yma Sumac who had a five octave range, and who actually was Peruvian, has what amounts to a cameo as, yes, a Peruvian singer. The color movie looks good, with some actual location shooting, but ultimately very much a B-level adventure film, lacking that spark of acting, writing or directing that would make it stand out. [Streaming]

Friday, December 04, 2015

SWING SHIFT MAISIE (1943)

Test pilot Breezy McLaughlin (James Craig) is looking forward to joining the Air Force, but when he finds out that his boss has told the government that Breezy is too important to let go, he has a fit; that night at the Propeller Club, he disrupts a performing dog act, led by Horatio and featuring chorus girl Maisie Ravier (Ann Sothern), leading to them being fired. Breezy gets Horatio a job at the aircraft plant, and Maisie tries as well, though since she doesn't have a birth certificate, she gets Horatio to lie and swear that he's known her all his life. Once she's settled in, sparks continue to fly between Breezy and Maisie, but Maisie's roommate Iris (Jean Rogers) soon snags him. Iris is a nasty piece of work—at one point, she fakes a suicide attempt to get attention—but Maisie keeps out of it until Breezy finally gets the military orders he's wanted. Breezy and Iris decide on a quickie wedding before he heads to his base, but Maisie discovers that Iris is a cheating gold digger and sets out to squelch Iris's plans. But it may not be easy: Iris has told the factory bosses that Maisie got Horatio to lie for her—and why was Maisie seen entertaining three young German men who were "Heil Hiltering" all over the place?

This was the seventh movie in the Maisie series and Ann Sothern was still doing a fine job in the title role. Most of the movies end with Maisie about to settle down with some handsome fella, but the next one always starts with Maisie being free and easy again. Tying her down to one guy would have been a mistake, so I forgive them these contradictions. Between CONGO MAISIE and this one, she's been softened a bit—her Congo self could not have had her own TV sitcom, but this one could (and it seems there was a TV pilot done in 1960). As usual, she has a B-size leading man, and Craig (pictured with Sothern above) is perfect for the part, just as John Carroll was in CONGO MAISIE, both coming off as low-budget Clark Gable-types. (I don't mean to damn those actors with faint praise, but as good as they are in B-movie leads, neither one had a prayer of actually replacing Gable.) Rogers is a somewhat bland bad girl, but supporting actors John Qualen and Connie Gilchrist are fine, and the novelty comedy act the Wiere Brothers are amusing in their short bit in which their mocking of Hitler is mistaken (briefly) for genuine Nazi fervor. Second-feature fun, with the added bonus of wartime propaganda. [TCM]

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

THE NINTH GUEST (1934)

Five years before Agatha Christie published Ten Little Indians came this B-thriller which uses the same set-up. Eight people get telegrams inviting each one to a penthouse cocktail party supposedly in their honor. The guests include Hardie Albright (a radical college professor who has just been fired from his job), Samuel S. Hinds (the college administrator who fired Albright), Edward Ellis (the city's district attorney), Edwin Maxwell (a shady but important figure in city politics), Donald Cook (a reporter) and Genevieve Tobin (a singer who flirts with both Albright and Cook). At some point, a voice comes out of the radio; it's their unseen host who proclaims that they'll be playing a game of death, even predicting the times that people will start croaking. Sure enough, people do start dying and they all begin to realize that, not only do they have unsavory connections with each other, but they've all offended the mysterious host in some way. It also becomes clear that the host can see and hear the guests, so they begin to suspect each other. The front gates of the apartment are electrified and so they are all trapped, letting the host toy with his victims until, we assume, by daybreak there will be none.

Since we all know Ten Little Indians so well, this film, based on a novel and play called The Invisible Host, pales a bit in comparison, but it kept my attention throughout. Though no one actor shines, all of them come off well without an obvious weak link. I especially like Maxwell, who looks like a B-movie Edward Arnold, and Albright. There are some plot problems but nothing major. Admirably, the comic relief is kept to a minimum (an addled butler who pops in and out briefly)—though there is also a lack of wit in the writing, which is one of the things that makes Christie's novel and play more interesting. The sets are very nice for a B-budget film, and the effect of the electrified gates, which is used more than once, is spectacular. Worth digging up. (Pictured above are Cook and Albright) [YouTube]

Monday, November 30, 2015

THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968)

In Victorian England, a rash of what seem to be wild animal attacks has been occurring near the stately home of entomologist Carl Mallinger (Robert Flyming) and his lovely daughter Clare. The latest victim, bloody but still clinging to life, is brought to Mallinger's house where he is finished off before he can tell the police anything incriminating. It turns out that there is a giant monster (with huge red eyes and big wings) roaming the countryside. And it's a human-sized Death's-head moth monster. And the monster is his daughter. Or maybe she's not really his daughter but his Frankenstein monster-like creation. We're pushed toward the creation option because 1) we see a skit that Mallinger's (handsome male) students put on which is a play on the Frankenstein story, and 2) Mallinger is in the midst of creating a mate for her, hence the deaths of several of his handsome male students—and one hunky but dim gardener—though the mate creature winds up being a failure. When Clare realizes that Dad is giving up on the project, his days are numbered, but so are hers because Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) is on the case.

I have rarely seen a movie that looks so good on the anamorphic TV screen but is so lazily mediocre. The first half-hour seems to heading in the right direction, what with good color, fine sets, decent acting by the leads, and a monster that we only see from a distance or in quick choppy bits. But things drop off quickly, as though the screenwriter and director both lost interest, as does the audience. Things I noticed as I lost interest: virtually all the male students are quite good looking (did I already say that?); the play-within-the-movie stops the film dead in its tracks and goes on far too long, so instead of being a quirky sidenote, it's a tedious slog; the monster, when finally seen in its entirety, is laughably amateurish; the short opening scene, set along a jungle river, seems to have absolutely no connection to the rest of the movie; there is comic relief in the form of a morgue assistant who is prone to eating his lunch on the same slab occupied by the body he's working on; the sexpot who plays the moth woman (Wanda Ventham) is the mother of Benedict Cumberbatch. I stuck with this to the bitter and incompetent end, so I must have gotten some enjoyment out of it. Like I said, the print looks spectacular. [Netflix streaming]

Friday, November 27, 2015

JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962)

The sorcerer Pendragon (Torin Thatcher) was exiled from Cornwall years ago but is now scheming to regain his power. At Princess Elaine's birthday party, Pendragon arrives in the guise of a foreign prince and brings an unusual present for her: a music box out of which pops a tiny jester who dances about then goes back in the box. Everyone is quite taken with it until, that night while Elaine sleeps, the jester emerges and magically grows to become a giant who smashes up her room and abducts her. He takes her to the shore where Pendragon's dwarf underling Garna is waiting with a ship to take her to Pendragon's castle, but the simple farmer Jack (Kerwin Mathews) comes to her rescue, not realizing she is royalty. Jack kills the giant, Garna has to leave empty-handed, and Princess Elaine's father, the king, knights Jack and gives him the task of keeping Elaine safe as he sends her off to the safety of a faraway convent—which you can tell bums Elaine out as she's fallen for her brave hero. But the royal Lady Constance (Anna Lee) has been placed under the control of Pendragon and lets him know about the King’s plan. En route, glowing witches fly down from a purple sky and attack the ship carrying Elaine and snatch her away where Pendragon turns her into an evil version of herself. It's up to Jack and his buddies—the Viking Sigrud, the young lad Peter, and a little leprechaun-type imp in a bottle—to track her down and save her from what would undoubtedly be a fate worse than death.

Even though this gets roundly criticized as a sub-par Ray Harryhousen steal (not just in its use of stop-motion creatures but also for certain plot elements), I have great affection for it. I had a comic book of it when I flew alone from Arizona to Ohio at the age of 10 and I read it over and over on the flight. I didn't see the movie until a few years later, but still, I saw it before I saw JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS so this didn’t feel like a rip-off. As an adult, I can see that the special effects are indeed lacking—though that first battle between Jack and a two-horned giant is carried off pretty well—and the plotline is rudimentary at best, though plots are never the selling point of 50s and 60s fantasy movies. Some effects that come off as cheap to adult viewers (colored rays beaming from Pendragon's eyes, magic sprinkles from the imp) looked cool to a child, and they still look cool to me (see also similar effects in the duel of the magicians in Roger Corman's THE RAVEN). So since I still see this movie through the rose-colored glasses of my youth, I may not be the most objective critic. I can see that Matthews, the handsome hero of Harryhausen's SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, was in his mid-30s and starting to look a little old—especially around the eyes—to be playing an innocent farmboy, but he still has a heroic physical presence and can do the necessary swashbuckling. Judi Meredith is competent but not much more as the princess, though she does a nice job playing the evil princess (in the picture at left, the good princess looks at the evil princess in a mirror), and Torin Thatcher isn't giving 100% as the villain. The leprechaun and his constant rhyming speech get a bit tiresome, and the wonderful Anna Lee (Sister Margaretta in THE SOUND OF MUSIC) is underused. In the 70s, this was reedited into a musical, of all things, but it is to be avoided. Otherwise, this remains one of my favorite fantasy films and I recommend it to the young at heart who can overlook its flaws and find snatches of magic in it. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

DUEL OF THE TITANS (1961)

In the kingdom of Alba Longa, Rea Silvia has been made a vestal virgin but she's pregnant by the god Mars and delivers twins. To avoid being found out, she sets the infant boys adrift in the Tiber River. They are found and cared for by a wolf until a shepherd kills the wolf and takes the boys in. Some twenty years later, they have grown into Romulus (Steve Reeves) and the more headstrong Remus (Gordon Scott), sturdy, handsome musclemen shepherds, and they are part of a group of outlaws who steal horses and such to get back at the King for taking the people's money and resources. At the festival of Pan, also being used to celebrate the marriage of the King of Alba Longa to Princess Julia (Virna Lisi) of the Sabines, Romulus helps Princess Julia get away from the crowd during a strange ritual involving ecstatic whipping of the crowds with the skins of sacrificed lambs, and he winds up spiriting her away to be with his men who are now contemplating a full-scale shepherd's revolt. Now the King of Alba Long and the King of the Sabines are after them. The brothers discover that it was prophesized that they would found a new city, but Remus wants to go in a different direction from Romulus, so they split up, leading, in the end, to a (rather short) duel of the titans over where they will build their city, which winds up being Rome.

This is an unusual entry in the Italian sword-and-sandal genre; instead of centering on a mythical superhero like Hercules, this is about mythical average (more or less) guys who just happen to be really strong. Though I'd heard of Romulus and Remus, I was not familiar with the specifics of their myth, but based on this movie, it's interesting to see the parallels with Moses: tossed in a river as a baby, unaware of his background while growing up, leading his people on an exodus to a promised land. In this film's telling, Remus is pretty much a jackass who does everything wrong, right up to the last scene, the "duel" of the title which is quite disappointing. But the rest of the movie is definitely a notch or two above the typical peplum film—strong production values, a script that is a smidge more complex than normal, and good acting from both Reeves and Scott (pictured above right). Scott is usually worth seeing, especially in his Tarzan movies, but this is certainly Reeves' best performance and he carries the bulk of the movie. Virna Lisi, who went on to become a major movie star, is fine. Lots of attractive men and women fill out the backgrounds. Standout scenes include the torture of Reeves on a spinning cross and a rockslide/volcano sequence. [Streaming]

Monday, November 23, 2015

TERROR IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN (1959)

aka INVASION OF THE ANIMAL PEOPLE

In northern Sweden, a large glowing orb flies across the sky, skims over the ground leaving skid marks in the snow, and crashes into a hill. Onlookers assume it's a meteor, but because it flew horizontally rather than dropped from the sky, some scientists from the Royal Academy, led by Dr. Wilson and young playboy geologist Erik Engstrom, set out to investigate. At the hotel, Erik falls for a lovely girl putting on an ice skating exhibition; she turns out to be Diane Wilson, Dr. Wilson's daughter and an Olympic skater who can hold her own with the flirtatious Erik—when they go skiing together, he deliberately knocks her down, so she grabs his skis and takes off, forcing him to walk back to the lodge. But I digress (because the movie does). That night, a number of animals are found slaughtered in the snow, with a gigantic footprint nearby. The next day, they find the orb, actually a spaceship, embedded in the hillside, and they eventually run into the beast that killed the animals, a shambling, furry 20-foot tall monster with tusks. Erik and Diane ski off to get help but when she is injured, they wind up at an isolated rescue cabin, and that night the beast shows up, causing an avalanche and abducting Diane, leaving her in a cave with a couple of normal-sized but cone-headed aliens. Can Erik and Dr. Wilson save her and find a way to battle the destructive creature?

There is something almost charming about this sci-fi monster movie. It's no great shakes, and if I'd seen this as a kid on Chiller Theater, I would have been impatient for the monster stuff to start—too much time is spent getting Erik and Diane together. But the beast is effective, in a Godzilla kind of way; it's clearly a man in a hairy suit, walking around among miniature sets or being shot using forced perspective, but mostly it works. Even the pointy-headed guys don't look half bad, even though they're wearing full-length robes, the cheapest costumes possible. Too much time is devoted to the romance and to skiing, and no explanation is even attempted as to what the aliens are up to or how the monster is related to the coneheads, but it's just a little over an hour so it's bearable. For the record, the main trio are Barbara Wilson (Diane), Sten Gester (Erik), and Robert Burton—who actually had a lengthy career as a character actor on TV—(Wilson). The American version released under the "Animal People" title apparently has a little more footage and narration by John Carradine. [Streaming/DVD]

Friday, November 20, 2015

DILLINGER (1945)

Poverty Row studio Monogram hit the big time with this crime movie, modeled after the scrappy little Warner Bros. gangster movies of the 30s. Not only was it a hit at the box office, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. It undoubtedly plays fast and loose with the biographical facts, but it gets in as much as it can in 70 minutes. The movie is framed as a public lecture by Dillinger's father telling his son's story as a cautionary tale. Farm boy Dillinger (Lawrence Tierney) has gone to Indianapolis to seek his fortune. He runs out of money while trying to impress a floozy in a bar, so he holds up a drug store for more cash, is promptly caught, and sent to jail. His cellmate Specs Green (Edmund Lowe) seems quiet and mild-mannered but is actually an experienced bank robber and he mentors Dillinger. Unfortunately, when Dillinger is released, the first thing he does is rob a movie theater after flirting with Helen, the girl at the box office (Anne Jeffreys) who then identifies him to the police. But at the line-up, she balks, and when he is freed, she becomes his mistress. He breaks Specs and his gang (who include Marc Lawrence and Elisha Cook Jr.) out of jail and they commit a string of bank robberies, leading to Dillinger eventually becoming the big man in the gang instead of Specs, who resents the new arrangement and soon gives Dillinger up to the cops. But Dillinger breaks out of jail using a wooden gun whittled for him by a fellow prisoner and kills Specs. The gang soon falls apart and Dillinger and Helen wind up hiding out in Chicago. She gets antsy and finally agrees to give him up to FBI agents who kill him as he comes out of a theater.

Tierney gives a breakout performance; he never quite became a top-rank star, but he was a go-to man for B-movie tough guys in the 40s (and was quite the toughguy in real life, if the stories are to be believed), and had a career renaissance in the 80s and 90s, peaking with a role in Quentin Tarentino's RESERVOIR DOGS. Here, he is typical Tierney: cold, gruff, intimidating. He is very good, though the screenplay lets his down, rushing as it does through a series of high and low points in Dillinger's life and giving us little sense of the person behind the headlines. The production values are better than the typical Monogram film, though it lacks the casual gloss that Warner Bros. would have given this. It does move quickly, and a couple of scenes stand out: one is the killing of Specs—Lowe gives one of his better performances in this film—and another is when Dillinger smashes a broken beer glass into a waiter's face. A must-see for B-movie fans. [TCM]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

365 NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD (1934)

James Dunn is a big-time movie director who has fallen on hard times and taken a job at the Delmar Acting Academy, run by Grant Mitchell who is in it for the money. Also working for Mitchell is John Bradford, a handsome movie star who lets Mitchell use his name in advertising for a cut of the dough. Enter pretty young Alice Faye—looking just like Jean Harlow—fresh off the bus and delivered to the entrance of the academy by two gregarious icemen (Frank Mitchell and Jack Durant, at right), and all three sign up for acting lessons. The cynical Dunn is surprised when it turns out that Faye actually has talent. A rich, young but naïve Texas oil man donates $75,000 to the academy, so Mitchell and Bradford decide to sink half of the money into the making of a musical that they assume will flop, and run off with the rest. Dunn directs and Faye stars, and complications arise when Mitchell and Bradford try to frame Dunn for embezzlement. But in the end, the movie gets finished—climaxed by the filming of a real-life fistfight between Bradford and Dunn—and Faye and Dunn realize they're meant for each other.

There is some mild fun to be had in this B-musical, and one number, "I'd Like to Say Yes to You," is quite fun indeed with Bradford being chased around the world by multiple Alice Fayes. The second number isn't as good but it does have a cute bit with stand-ins for Tarzan and Mae West. Faye is fine though Dunn isn't really romantic leading man material even though he tries hard—he's best in the early scenes when he's depressed and snarly. But the supporting cast is good, especially the comedy duo of Mitchell and Durant who bring some welcome slapstick bits to the proceedings. Durant also gets a good scene in when he starts striking Clark Gable poses in front of a mirror. I'm not familiar with John Bradford (pictured at left with Faye) but he does nicely as the slimy actor. I have no idea where the title comes from. The whole thing feels a little scruffy but that rather suits the characters, who are all a little scruffy around the edges. Familiar character actor John Qualen has a small role. Cute but not essential, and the DVD print from Wade Williams is fairly poor. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

THE CROOKED CIRCLE (1932)

The robed and hooded members of the criminal group the Crooked Circle meet (at a round table with a skull in the middle) to decide who will take on a mission of revenge against the Sphinx Club, a gang of amateur criminologists who recently took down one of their members. Their verdict: death to Walters, the head of the Sphinx Club, who has just moved into an old mansion nicknamed Melody Manor—it's supposedly haunted by a ghost that plays a violin from an upper-story window, the very idea of which freaks out Walters' skittish housekeeper Nora (Zasu Pitts). Meanwhile, within the Sphinx Club, Brand Osborne (Ben Lyon) is retiring to marry his sweetie Thelma (Irene Purcell), and his replacement is an Indian swami named Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon). At a gathering at Melody Manor one night, strange things start happening and Walters winds up dead. We discover that Yoganda and Thelma are actually members of the Crooked Circle, but can they escape discovery once Detective Crimmer (James Gleason) arrives? And what about that violin playing we hear from upstairs?

Though this movie has its flaws, it is generically an almost perfect example of the "old dark house" thriller. There are secret passages, hidden nooks and crannies, an on-site family graveyard, a murder, a clock that strikes 13, rumors of a ghost, a chair that drops people down a slide into a basement, and even, in a forerunner to a famous scene in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a skeleton that goes skittering across a room. It's also a great deal of fun because it keeps you a little off-guard as to what's coming next—not least because not everyone is who or what they seem. James Gleason and Zasu Pitts are top-billed but they do not have the most screen time, and what time they do have is largely devoted to mild comic relief (Pitts in particular is an acquired taste whom I generally like, but here she comes close to being a bit too much). The real acting work is done by Purcell, Gordon and Lyon who are all fine. Familiar faces in support include Roscoe Karns and Tom Kennedy. The idea of the competing crime clubs is intriguing, but after it's introduced, not much is really done with it. A fun little movie only available in poor to fair public domain prints, but well worth seeing. [YouTube]

Monday, November 16, 2015

SNOW TRAIL (1947)

Three bank robbers—Nojiro, the leader; Tagasuki, an older man; Ejimi, a cocky young guy—are on the run in the Japanese Alps. They stop at a mountain resort but when news reports note that Nojiro is missing two fingers on one hand, he is spotted by guests wearing a glove even in a spa bath and suspicions are raised. The three force a group of male guests to strip naked and stay in the outdoor hot springs bath while they make their escape. An avalanche causes the death of Tagasuki, and the other two take refuge at a much smaller ski lodge higher in the mountains. The only occupants are an old man, his young granddaughter, and Honda, a visiting mountaineer, all more or less trapped there by a recent blizzard. They have heard nothing about the robberies so the two men are secure for a time, posing as stranded travelers, but soon the gruff Nojiro finds himself becoming fond of young Haruko, who reminds him of his own daughter who died at an early age. Nojiro becomes enamored of the song "My Old Kentucky Home," a recording of which Haruko plays frequently. Ejimi sees how Nojiro is softening and the resulting tension between Ejimi and Nojiro eventually causes Ejimi to take control, forcing Honda to escort them down the mountain before the police clear a path in the snow. Of course, out in the elements, things don't go like Ejimi planned.

The fact that this movie is available on Criterion's streaming channel on Hulu is probably due to the fact that 1) Akira Kurosawa co-wrote the screenplay, and 2) Toshiro Mifune is in it—his very first film role—and he is very good in the rather flat role of the tough guy crook Ejimi, but it's certainly worth seeing for other reasons as well. It was filmed on location, and the snow and the mountains certainly add to the feel of the movie. The central performance by Takashi Shimura as Nojiro is excellent, fairly subtle until sentimentality breaks through at the very end. But just as good are Akitake Kono as the pleasant, handsome Honda and Setsuko Wakayama (pictured with Mifune) as the little girl. The film, directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, manages to be both a crime movie and a character study. There is humor, excitement and ultimately redemption for Nojiro. [Criterion streaming]

Friday, November 13, 2015

BROADWAY LIMITED (1941)

Big Hollywood director Ivan Ivanski (Leonid Kinskey) gets on the Broadway Limited, an express train heading to New York from Chicago, with a small entourage:  his assistant Patsy (Patsy Kelly), his leading actress April (Marjorie Woodworth), and Myra (ZaSu Pitts), the spinsterish head of April's fan club. As a publicity stunt, Ivan decides that April should get on the train with a baby that they'll tell the press she's adopting. Patsy gets her boyfriend Mike (Victor McLaglen), an engineer on the train, to find a baby they can borrow. He gets one, but unknown to them, it's the kidnapped Pierson baby whose picture is on all the front pages. On the train, April runs into Harvey (Dennis O'Keefe), an old boyfriend who is now a doctor, and they renew their relationship, though the baby causes some confusion. When McLaglen realizes that April's baby in the kidnapped baby, they all panic and try in various ways to get rid of it, none successful. And then there's a shady-looking guy named Lefty (George E. Stone) who seems very interested in our gang's shenanigans.

This is trainbound farce played a little too slowly but a good cast helps put it across. Once you get past the ridiculous idea of the baby stunt, it's enjoyable. Woodward (pictured with O'Keefe) is the weak link; she's not bad, she's just run-of-the-mill. Everyone else is fine. In a rare major role (even though he's sixth-billed), Kinskey—best known as Sasha the bartender in CASABLANCA, is good, though he might have been more fun if he'd been encouraged to play it a bit closer to over-the-top. I'm used to seeing McLaglen in more serious roles but he does comedy quite well. Pitts is an acquired taste, but I enjoyed her and her running gag involving her love of a radio serial called Renfrew of the Rockies. For me, the discovery was Patsy Kelly, whom I haven't seen much of. She was delightful here. The gags are plentiful, and if one doesn't work, the next one probably will. As I noted, the pace is just a smidge too slow—if it had been cranked up a notch, this might have been a memorable screwball comedy—but it's still fun. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THUNDER IN THE CITY (1937)

Edward G. Robinson is a PR man known for overdosing on "ballyhoo," but when his latest stunt for the Snyderling Company goes too far (with acrobats swinging from blimps high over the city), he's sent to England to see how the sedate and dignified British do it. He stays with some relatives who, though upper class on the surface, are in financial trouble and hope that Robinson will buy their castle from them. Luli Deste, the young heiress, is set to marry the smarmy family lawyer (Ralph Richardson), but she admits to Robinson that it's strictly for money. The family owns a magnalite mine in South Africa which Richardson wants to get his hands on, but Robinson talks the Duke (Nigel Bruce) into selling it to him—and he gets to use his PR talents to scare up investors. However, Richardson goes to France to purchase the patent to the refining process, stymieing Robinson's plans.  This is an unusual little film, an independent British production with a major American star used against type as a romantic comedy leading man, though the romantic elements are downplayed throughout to the point where you forget that Robinson has fallen for Deste. It's just as well because they are an ill-suited match: he seems more like her father than a suitor, and Deste, an Austrian, is weak in the acting department (she only made a handful of films before retiring in 1941)—her character's thick accent is explained away by her having lived in Vienna for many years. It would seem that a touch of screwball comedy was being tried for with the appearance of two street musicians Robinson befriends, to no particular plot purpose. Richardson and Bruce are both worth seeing, and the whole thing has a pleasant feel, so it's difficult to dislike it, and there is one standout scene with Robinson trapping Bruce on a merry-go-round for seemingly hours until he agrees to the sale (pictured at right). [TCM]

Monday, November 09, 2015

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE (1951)

Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd) is on death row for murdering his wife, but gets a last-minute reprieve for a new trail. When it ends in a hung jury (one lone holdout for innocence gets five other jurors on her side), he is freed and heads out west to stay at an isolated ranch. Meanwhile, actress Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) has been sent to a dude ranch called the Tumble Moon for her delicate health; on her way, she gets stuck in the mud during a storm and stays the night at Richard's house—she recognizes him and he's standoffish and asks her not to tell anyone that she's seen him. The next day when she arrives at the Tumble Moon, she is told by its owner Liza (Mercedes McCambridge) that the place is closed, but Liza takes pity on her and lets her stay a while; the only other person around is Liza's crippled teenage brother String (Darryl Hickman). It turns out that Liza is an old friend of Richard's and was the lone holdout on the jury. Shelley, who has fallen in love with Richard, wants to try and prove his innocence, but he wants to let well enough alone. Also involved are Myra Nolan, owner of a nearby hotel, and her husband J.D. who have a possibly mysterious connection to Liza and Richard, and slick operator Harvey Turner (Zachary Scott) who is friends with Richard but may have his own agenda. And did I mention that: 1) Richard's wife had been unfaithful; 2) both Liza and String seem just a touch high-strung (no pun intended)? Shelley and Richard marry in secret, but on her wedding night, Shelly has reason to wonder, will she wind up just like wife #1?

This is a solid mystery/thriller with a lot of backstory, some interesting characters, and good acting. The focus is on Roman (the same year, she was Farley Granger's lover in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) and she's fine, but the real reasons to watch the movie are McCambridge and Hickman (both pictured above); they give fine performances that are a bit showy but compelling and their characters are the most interesting in the story. Todd is rather bland; Scott's quite good but not in it enough, essentially winding up as a red herring (though he does play a crucial role in the climax). A couple of good lines: a reporter discussing Richard's wife's murder says, "It's always the good-lookers that get into trouble—nobody ever bothers to kill the dogs." Later, McCambridge, a little jealous of Roman, tells her, "You're fascinated by the smell of murder!" [TCM]

Sunday, November 08, 2015

THE GREAT COMMANDMENT (1941)

In 30 A.D. Judea, the Jewish populace is oppressed by the Romans who keep raising taxes and imprisoning or enslaving those who cannot pay, and a small underground band of rebels called the Zealots are trying to gain support to fight back. Joel (John Beal) is the head of the Zealots, counseling patience and restraint, but his headstrong brother Zadok (Warren McCollum) is more restless. News of the itinerant preacher Jesus sparks hopes that he might be the prophesied king who will lead his people to freedom.  On the home front, Joel is in love with Tamar (Marjorie Cooley), but Joel's father Lamach makes a deal with Tamar's father to give her to Zadok in marriage instead of Joel. This causes tension between father and son, which is stretched to the breaking point when Joel sets out to look for Jesus. He takes a ceremonial sword and along the way, stops in villages and has rebels pledge their allegiance so Jesus will be able to call on a small army when he agrees to lead the rebellion. But when Joel encounters Jesus, he is disappointed that Jesus refuses his army because of his philosophy of "love thy neighbor." Judas, a disaffected apostle, buddies up with Joel for a time, and Joel hatches a plan to trap Jesus and "force him to become a man of action."  But before that can happen, the Romans, led by the centurion Longinus (Albert Dekker), attack the Zealots and kill Zadok. Longinus himself is wounded and just as Joel is about to deliver a death blow, the words of Jesus about love and mercy come to him.

I'd have to do more research to say this definitely, but this would seem to be the first mainstream Hollywood movie to tell a Biblical story in a non-epic fashion (there were silent epics like KING OF KINGS and QUO VADIS). In the sense that it tells a story of Jesus in which Jesus is only a peripheral character, it feels modern. We hear the voice of Jesus, but his face is seen only briefly, in a reflection in a pond when Joel first finds him. What might cause problems today among some Christians is the emphasis on non-violence and loving all "neighbors," even enemies. I've read conflicting reports about this film's production history, but it seems to have been made independently in 1939 and distributed in 1941 by 20th Century Fox. The director, Irving Pichel, worked primarily at Fox but also did films for smaller studios like Republic. The leads, John Beal (pictured) and Albert Dekker, had long Hollywood careers, mostly in B-movie or in character roles. Maurice Moscovitch, a well-known actor in Yiddish theatre, is just right as Joel's father. The production, mostly shot on outdoor sets, is solid. I went into this film thinking it would be a shoddy, preachy Sunday school flick, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The way the film treats the political aspect of rebellion—and the participation of Judas—reminded me of the 1961 KING OF KINGS. Overall, a pleasant surprise; even the way the low-budget film treats the crucifixion at the end works well. [YouTube]

Friday, October 30, 2015

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1949) / HOUSE OF USHER (1960)

Edgar Allan Poe's original tale about the decaying house of the Usher family and its equally decaying inhabitants is considered a small masterpiece of psychological horror. Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline, both sickly individuals, live in the house, which is crumbling physically as the Ushers are crumbling mentally, supposedly due to a family curse. Roderick has an intense sensitivity to tastes, sights and sounds and can barely stand to be around anyone; Madeline has no energy, is wasting away, and is prone to falling into trance-like states. A young man, a friend of Roderick's, visits and witnesses their final days as Madeline dies and is buried in a basement vault, but turns out to have been buried alive. The story, roughly twenty pages, is wonderfully creepy and tantalizingly ambiguous as concerns the decay of the family; it is stated that too much intermarriage had weakened the line, and some readers believe that Roderick and Madeline are an incestuous couple. Both of these attempts to put the story on film miss the mark, but both have their moments as films of bleakness and mystery.

The 1949 British version is a low-budget affair which interpolates a fair amount of background material into Poe's story to give the film more traditional horror elements. The visitor, Jonathan, vanishes for long stretches of time and ultimately does not have a large role in the proceedings. We're given the backstory about the family: Mom was having an affair with a secret lover out in a small temple on the Usher property. Dad found out and used the temple as a torture room for the two of them. Before he died, the lover put a curse of the Usher children. Now, Mom is still alive and insane, living in the temple. A family friend tells Roderick that burning the head of the lover would lift the curse, but Mom keeps the head under close watch and might just kill to protect it. The scenes in the temple are indeed horrific but, as I knew the Poe story, these elements felt shoehorned in to pad the movie out to 70 minutes. Still, on its own as a creepy little B-film, with the usual B-level acting and production values, it works fairly well. There is particularly nice use of candlelight and shadow in many of the interior scenes. The picture above left is of Gwen Watford as Madeline. [TCM]

The most well-known film version is Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER with Vincent Price as Roderick. It's historically significant as the first of the Corman Poe movies, and was probably the movie that solidified Price as the leading horror star of the baby-boomer generation.  In this version, Philip, the young and handsome visitor (Mark Damon, pictured with Price), is not a friend of Roderick's but a suitor of Madeline's (Myrna Fahey). Apparently they became close in Boston but she mysteriously retreated to her isolated family manse and he is visiting in hopes of marriage. Roderick is not happy to see him and tells him that marriage is impossible as she is very sick. Still, Philip manages to see Madeline, who is indeed thin and pale, and Roderick allows him to stay in the house overnight. The rest of the story follows the basics of Poe: Roderick's sensitivities, a family curse, Madeline's apparent death and her live burial. This film, having a bigger budget—though still in the B-movie range—has a more spectacular finale involving fire and destruction (which, for the record, is not how the house falls in the Poe story). Price is very good as the gentlemanly but batty neurasthenic, and because I saw the movie before I had read the story, I've always pictured Roderick as an older man, but in Poe, he's about the same age as the young visitor. Both movies are worth seeing, though the Corman one is the more entertaining one, and the colorful and detailed sets in this version really help build the Gothic atmosphere. [DVD]

PS: I'm taking off for a week on the Turner Classic Movies cruise, where Roger Corman will be a guest, answering questions and introducing a showing of X: Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Reviews will return the week of November 9th.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

BULLDOG DRUMMOND’S SECRET POLICE (1939)

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the differences between the British and American Bulldog Drummond movies. This is an example of an American series entry. These are more frivolous, with less ambitious criminals, a slightly higher quotient of comic relief, and a silly running subplot about the constant thwarting of Drummond's wedding plans. In fact, this one begins on the night before Drummond's planned nuptials with his eternal fiancée Phyllis. They're opening up the family castle in preparation for the event when an absent-minded researcher arrives, asking about the existence of secret tunnels under the castle where a long-hidden treasure chest might be buried. Drummond (John Howard) sees no problem letting the man stay the night to go over his maps and charts and figure out where the loot might be, but just as the visitor discovers where it is, he's murdered, and an adventure again threatens to derail the wedding. But this time, Phyllis (Heather Angel) is all for it, and she and Drummond and his buffoonish sidekick Algy (Reginald Denny) and faithful butler Tenny (E. E. Clive) and Scotland Yard Inspector Neilson (H. B Warner) are soon on the trail of the mysterious figure who is willing to murder to get his hands on the treasure.

This is basically an old-dark-house movie; the entire film takes place in the castle and its subterranean passages, though there are no supernatural elements involved. The "whodunit" aspect is dispelled quickly—it's the new butler (Leo G. Carroll) who turns out to be an ex-con—so the film can focus on the shadowy chases and the gunplay and the hostage-taking.  Howard is fine as the hero—second only to Ronald Colman in the 1929 version—and Angel is just as good. Comic relief figures are sometimes major irritants, but Reginald Denny (pictured, with Howard beneath) is always a delight with his slapstickish antics, and he is aided here by Elizabeth Patterson as Phyllis's old-maid aunt. The final sequence, a long chase through the tunnels, has an exciting scene in a chamber of spikes that wouldn't be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie, or at least in one of the B-movie serials that helped inspire the Indy films. Another highlight is a bizarre dream sequence which consists of clips from previous Drummond films which starred Howard. Highly recommended. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

THE CASE OF THE FRIGHTENED LADY (1940)

We see, as the title promises, a frightened lady, screaming in the night at the bottom of a staircase in an old dark house. She is Isla (Penelope Dudley Ward, at left), secretary to Lady Lebanon, and her scream was caused by the sight of two figures in the shadows who turn out to be Lady Lebanon's two somewhat mysterious footmen, Brooks and Gilder. Isla calms down, but is upset to discover that a bolt has been put on the outside of her bedroom door to keep her locked in at night. The house is also inhabited by Lady Lebanon's effete son, Lord Lebanon (Marius Goring) who spends all day playing the piano and seeming distracted. A Dr. Amersham is a frequent visitor; we suspect that either he has an unwholesome hold over Lady Lebanon or vice versa. Lady Lebanon (Helen Haye) is pressuring Isla, a distant cousin, into marrying Lord Lebanon, though Isla is sweet on visiting architect Richard Ferraby. At a costume ball, Studd, the chauffeur, dances with the wife of groundskeeper Tilling, creating a brief scene, and when Studd is found dead, strangled with an Indian scarf, suspicion falls on Tilling until Detective Tanner finds a drawerful of scarves in Dr. Amersham's room. But when Amersham himself is found dead, the hunt for suspects is back on. Why did Lady Lebanon burn the only bit of evidence in Amersham's death? And why is she so adamant that no one enter the room of her late husband, kept locked since his death? And is Lord Lebanon being poisoned as he suspects?

This little-seen British thriller is a nice treat, full of atmosphere, good plotting—based on a novel by prolific British author Edgar Wallace—decent acting, and some tricky twists, even though any mystery fan will know exactly who the killer is from fairly early on. There is a lot of plot but the threads always remain clear. Goring is especially good as Lord Lebanon—is he just an eccentric or is he a little batty? His relationship with Isla is especially well played—they truly seem like they are fond of each other but neither has romantic feelings. I'd never heard of Helen Haye, but she's quite good as Lady Lebanon who has more screen time than anyone else here. John Warwick as Studd and Torin Thatcher as Tilling are standouts in the supporting cast. Nicely done all around. [YouTube]

Friday, October 23, 2015

TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1958)

Sheila (Cathy O'Donnell) has spent a few years in a Swiss sanitarium as a TB patient, but she's healthy and ready to move back to the States with her new husband Philip (Gerald Mohr) whom she married after a whirlwind courtship. The only problem: she's obsessing about a recurring dream in which walks into a house, goes up the stairs, sees a creepy-looking door, and freaks out. Her analyst tells her it's probably a sign of some buried memory from her past and basically says, don't worry. In Florida, Sheila is understandably upset when Philip pulls up to the house he's rented for them and it's the exact same house from her dream, right down to the creepy door. There's a strange caretaker named Jonah (John Qualen) who isn't expecting them and really wants them to leave, which Sheila is happy to do, but Philip insists they must stay if she is to overcome her fear of the dream. That night when she sees a hideous face peering in her window, she insists on leaving, but Philip can't get the car started—he tells her that Jonah must have disabled it. But why would he do that when he wanted them to get out in the first place? Then she finds the car’s distributor cap in Philip's bag. Then Mark (William Ching), the property owner, shows up. He knows Philip from the past, but their connection is vague. Clearly everyone is keeping some secrets from Sheila, but who is friend and who is foe?

I've had a vivid memory of this movie in my head for years—I saw it on Chiller Theater when I was 8 or 9—but could never come up with the title. So I was pleased to finally find the right movie. Then I made the mistake of watching it. After the moderately atmospheric opening ten minutes, the whole thing goes downhill fast. Among the problems: indifferent acting by the leads—O'Donnell is flat-out terrible, Mohr (pictured with O'Donnell) is boring; a confusing script which artificially and unnaturally omits and then reveals information as needed to keep some sense of tension; dreadful lighting and cheap sets devoid of atmosphere—the old dark house is really a brightly-lit, cozy house of fairly recent vintage, despite everyone saying how old it is (it looks like a 60s sit-com house); truly awful day-for-night shooting. The only pluses: William Ching gives a decent performance in an "is he good or is he evil?" role, and the plot swerves from GASLIGHT territory into something different. If only the scripting had been tighter, or the acting better, or the direction more inspired. There is a germ of a good idea here, but the movie crashes and burns long before the finale. [YouTube]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

FINGER OF GUILT (1956)

aka THE INTIMATE STRANGER

Reggie Wilson (Richard Basehart) is a film director who left Hollywood in the wake of a scandalous affair with a studio boss's wife. He winds up in England, trying to turn over a new leaf, making movies at Commonwealth Pictures where his boss, Ben Case (Roger Livesey), has become a kind of father figure, and he soon marries Ben's daughter Lesley. Reggie and Ben are in the middle of difficult negotiations over making "Eclipse," a picture close to Reggie's heart—made more difficult by Ben's assistant Ernie (Mervyn Johns) who just doesn't like Reggie. Suddenly, Reggie starts getting strange letters from a woman named Evelyn (Mary Murphy). They're not quite blackmail letters, but they strongly imply that a recent affair between them has gone cold and she wants him to pay more attention to her. Reggie dismisses them as cruel pranks, but eventually he meets her and her story is so convincing, he begins to question his own sanity: Could he have a split personality? Could part of him be living an adulterous life without his other self knowing it? As his life begins to unravel, he turns for help to Ben, who eventually becomes disinclined to help, and to an old friend, actress Kay Wallace (Constance Cummings) who is somewhat reluctantly starring in "Eclipse." She is more willing to help, but soon Ben cancels the movie altogether and Lesley leaves him, making Reggie think he might actually be losing his mind.

This psychological thriller takes a while to get going, partly because it begins with Reggie seeing a doctor about his "split personality" theory and the first half of the movie is told in flashback. But once it hits its stride, it's a fun, tricky ride. Basehart, whom I usually like, gives an oddly mannered performance, using a strange speaking cadence in which he drags out the last syllables of words; I eventually got used to it, but it still felt odd. Still, he does a good job of embodying a confused anti-hero, a heel who may well be getting what he deserves. Murphy and Cummings are both fine; Livesey seems in the beginning to be a minor character but he grows in importance and does a nice job of keeping us on our toes—is he really as sympathetic to Basehart as he seems, or is he the mastermind behind the scheme? Mervyn Johns is best known to me as Bob Cratchit in the Alistair Sim Christmas Carol, so though his role is fairly small, it's interesting to see him play an unlikable character. The finale, on a dark soundstage (pictured above) where sound effects are being looped into a crime film scene, is worth staying around for. Memorable line, and kind of the moral of the story, delivered by Cummings: "Sometimes it's the things we didn't do that pay us back for the things we did do." [TCM]

Monday, October 19, 2015

NIGHT OF TERROR (1933)

This October, almost by accident, I've been reviewing mostly mysteries and old-dark-house movies, which are themselves mysteries with a few horror elements thrown in. Partly this is because I've just recently discovered a couple of YouTube channels that focus on public domain thrillers of the 30s, and the old-dark-house genre was at its peak then. It lent itself to low-budget filmmaking—in front of the camera, all you needed were sets that could pass as rooms in a big house and, of course, darkness, which helps hide the cheapness of the sets. The screenplays all came from an easy template—usually involving the death of a family elder, the reading of his or her will (which brought together varied characters), and the desire (or at least perceived desire) of some greedy family members to kill off the heir. There were stock character types as well: the innocent young woman, the handsome reporter/cousin/policeman anxious to protect the woman, the sinister-seeming housekeeper and servants, the wild card friend or relative. And, of course, the secret passages, hidden panels, and dark nooks and crannies of the house all of which could hide bodies, animals, bad guys—and sometimes a good guy. The same conventions and storylines were used over and over, but that's part of the pleaure of genres; whether mystery, science-fiction, romance or spy story, we enjoy seeing how each new example will both conform with and deviate (to some small degree) from the expected outline.

In this example, a shaggy-looking fellow known as the Maniac has been stabbing people to death in the vicinity of the Rinehart estate, leaving a newspaper headline about the Maniac pinned to each victim. A professor (George Meeker) is staying at the house, ready to unveil his new concoction, a serum that will leave a person in suspended animation with no need to breathe for several hours, and he plans on having himself buried alive on the estate to show that it works. Meeker has been ignoring his fiancée (Sally Blane), a Rinehart family member, so she flirts with a reporter (Wallace Ford) working on the Maniac story. We see the Maniac prowling around the property and soon he kills the Rinehart patriarch. His will states that all household members, including faithful if somewhat mysterious servants Bela Lugosi (in a turban) and Mary Frey (pictured top right), share in the money, though if any of them die, their share is split among the rest. Sure enough, people start getting killed. Could it be the Maniac? Or a greedy maniacal heir?

There is some fun to be had here, mostly enjoying Lugosi's ripe performance as an exotic figure who may or may not be evilly inclined. There is a séance, the aforementioned live burial, a tricky secret passageway, and a stabbing from behind right through a chair. There are several plot twists in this hour-long film, though that doesn't mean that things don't bog down occasionally. Ford and Blane have fine chemistry here, Ford (pictured with Lugosi at left) being both romantic lead and comic relief. We never find out the identity of the Maniac—he's real but he's basically a red herring—and he provides a strange ending to the film when, after apparently being killed, he gets up and warns the audience not to reveal the identity of the real villain. Among the fun moments: Lugosi gives a cop an "Oriental cigarette" to put him briefly out of commission, and Ford's crack when he sees four hats in the entryway (belonging to the men who have come to witness the live burial): "Who's here, the four Marx Brothers?" Not the best in the genre, but not the worst, and the almost science-fiction element of the serum makes a nice addition to the well-worn story. [GetTV]

Friday, October 16, 2015

THE FAKE (1953)

Tepid, run-of-the-mill crime drama with a weak screenplay and phoned-in acting, made palatable only by some film noir visual style, though thematically this is not noir. A staged fight breaks out in the Tate Gallery in London, diverting attention from the men who are stealing the Da Vinci painting Madonna and Child as it's being delivered. But, ah ha! American insurance investigator Dennis O'Keefe has been on the case; the real painting is safe and the crooks just got an empty crate. But O'Keefe is still puzzled over the identity of the big shot who was behind this attempt, who had already stolen two other Da Vincis in Florence and New York. Later, someone sneaks into the Tate after hours and takes Madonna and Child, replacing it with an almost perfect forgery, and O'Keefe is back on the case. Among the suspects: an aging, impoverished and embittered artist (John Laurie) who can in fact do nearly perfect copies of masterworks; his daughter (Coleen Gray, pictured with O'Keefe) who works for the gallery; a high-class private collector (Hugh Williams); and even the gallery director. The film moves rather sluggishly until the final third when it becomes a relatively tense cat-and-mouse game. I generally like O'Keefe but he and Gray are bland here, leaving Laurie and Williams to take acting honors. The gallery interiors were actually shot in the Tate, adding some novelty value. The background score is taken from Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition." [TCM]

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

ARSÈNE LUPIN RETURNS (1938)

Special agent Steve Emerson (Warren William) is riding a wave of good publicity for his crimebusting activities, but his boss has decided that his high profile has become a liability, so he's let go, but he steps immediately into a new gig as an insurance investigator. His first case is a doozy—the Count de Grissac (John Halliday), his niece Lorraine (Virginia Bruce) and his cousin M. Bouchet (Monty Wooley) are found tied up in their Manhattan hotel, their valuable family necklace stolen. But it turns out that it was only a paste substitute which was taken; the real one was in a hotel safe. Still, Emerson discovers the calling card of the notorious jewel thief Arsène Lupin at the scene of the crime. Lupin is presumed dead, but Emerson decides that whoever the thief is will come back when he realizes the jewels are fake, so he accompanies the de Grissac clan back to Paris where Lorraine's lover René Ferrand (Melvyn Douglas, pictured with Bruce) joins them. We soon discover that Ferrand is actually Arsène Lupin, alive and no longer thieving, and a bit irritated that someone is besmirching his name. When the real jewels are stolen and a well-known underworld fence is found dead, and signs point to Lupin as the culprit, Ferrand begins his own investigation to help Emerson. But what if Emerson himself is the guilty party?

An unoffical sequel to a 1932 film with John Barrymore, this is a fairly interesting variation on the trope of the criminal-gone-good who helps the cops (see also The Saint, Boston Blackie, etc.), enlivened considerably by the charming central trio of Douglas, Williams and Bruce, and by the ambiguity, kept going until the final scene, of whether Emerson is really the thief, or at least working for him. A scene near the end when the police search everyone in the room for the jewels, and those who have the jewels find clever ways of passing them along and away from the cops, is quite fun. Woolley and Halliday don't have a lot to do, but it's nice seeing them. Fine support is given by Nat Pendleton as a former crook buddy of Lupin's and George Zucco as the inspector. Prolific character actor Ian Wolfe has a small role credited as Ien Wulf. Overall, a nice light-hearted mystery. [TCM]

Monday, October 12, 2015

COSMOS: WAR OF THE PLANETS (1977)

I'll tell you right off the bat that this Italian B-movie, released to ride the Star Wars wave and full of allusions to 2001, is one of those films that is so bad, it's almost good. But tastes vary wildly with this kind of film, so viewer beware. Astronaut Alex Hamiton (John Richardson) is on an expedition, headed up by an old military guy and a supercomputer named Wiz, to an uncharted planet from where a strange signal—which sounds exactly like Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (also used in ROLLERBALL two years earlier)—has been emanating. Along the way, one man is sent on a spacewalk to repair a part and nearly dies (see 2001). On the planet, Hamilton and his crew find a sort of Stonehenge structure (a little like the monolith in 2001) which is a portal to another place (see STARGATE, which of course was made many years after this film), and are menaced by a giant killer robot. They find a race of sliver-green men dressed in very skimpy loincloths who are now being controlled by the very robots they built. One of them, Etor, hooks up with Hamilton's crew. The robot wants the earthlings to fix something (you can tell I was nodding off and not caring enough to backtrack) and they do, after which they destroy the robot and take off back to Earth with Etor. But the robot may not have had its last word yet.

That's as much plot as I could figure out from this scraggly, poorly edited, disjointed movie which is nevertheless fun to watch. The good things: John Richardson is handsome and generally stoic as the hero—though sometimes seeming as confused by plot twists as we are; Etor (Aldo Canti, pictured above) is studly though sadly we see very little of him or the rest of his nearly-naked, pointy-eared pals; there's a scene of a couple rather chastely using an Orgasmatron-like machine (see SLEEPER); the chintzy but charming sets, with lots of colored lights and big buttons, which look like a couple of sci-fi geeks built in their basement. The bad things: the roaming plot; the terrible editing; people constantly screaming; listless acting from everyone except Richardson. It's in the public domain, and the Alpha Video print I saw was badly pan-and-scanned and in dreadful shape. If it ever turned up in a clean widescreen print, I'd watch it again, but that seems unlikely. A good "bad movie night" pick. [DVD]