Monday, January 30, 2017


I generally love B-movies and Poverty Row films of the 30s and 40s, but even my patience was tested by this one. I did get to the ending, so for the record, here's a summary. Cop Dan Burke tells police chief Sullivan that he intends to marry Sullivan’s daughter, Diana, though the chief wishes she would marry noted criminologist David Graham. Later, Dan's half-brother is killed during a bank robbery attempt and Sullivan decides that it would not be proper for Diana to marry Dan; his specific words to Dan are, "You'll never marry her as long as I’m alive!" That night, at midnight, Graham conducts a "line-up show" for the cops in which he shows how he can tell the specific criminal pasts of convicts just by looking at them. After the event, Sullivan is assumed to have fallen asleep, but he's actually dead, killed by a poison dart. There are several suspects, as Sullivan had alienated his officers with his recent attempts at cleaning up the department, but Dan is the most obvious suspect. Can Graham crack the case and clear his romantic rival—or does he really want to?

This is only 63 minutes, but it's one of the longest hours I've spent watching a movie. The plot is OK, and there is a nicely tricky ending, but the acting is blah and the dialogue is silly; when Dan is understandably upset over the death of his brother, Diana says woodenly, "Shake off the blues!" I expected her to go into a clunky rendition of Irving Berlin’s "Shakin' the Blues Away" but sadly it never happened. Most of the cast members are relative unknowns (Lloyd Hughes as Dan [pictured], Claudia Dell as Diana, Jim Farley as Sullivan) and I can tell from this movie why. But the usually reliable Reginald Denny doesn't fare much better as Graham, so maybe the poor acting is the fault of the director, Bernard B. Ray, who is also unknown to me—and is likely to stay that way. Things do pick up in the last ten minutes, but not enough for me to recommend this to anyone. [YouTube]

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


This early giallo film (an Italian genre which typically mixes elements from mysteries and crime thrillers with sex, gore and an elaborate visual style) is also considered the starting point for what became the slasher movie. Technically, it's an old-fashioned mystery or police drama at heart. A masked killer is stalking a fashion house, killing attractive female models. The police are called in and it's discovered that the first woman killed, Isabella, was keeping a diary filled with salacious secrets about the fashion house, but the diary is now missing. The owners of the house (Cameron Mitchell and Eva Bartok) seem a little lackadaisical about the other models' concerns for their wellbeing and the murders continue, with the killer apparently searching for the diary. The chief inspector (Thomas Reiner) puts all the men in and around the house, including Mitchell, in jail overnight but a murder occurs anyway. How many more will die before justice is served?

Well, if you paid attention to the Italian title (which is usually translated as "Six Women for the Murderer") you'll know. You'll also probably figure out at least part of the solution. But the entertainment value here isn't in the mystery, but in the creepy but gorgeous stalking and murder setpieces. Director Mario Bava indulges his talent for use of color both visually and symbolically. Whatever you may think of the portrayal of the murders (unsettling but not as graphic as would become common after 1978's HALLOWEEN), the film is, between use of color and use of the camera, stunning looking. I find most giallo movies to be claustrophobic—I'm not sure if it's camera angles or airless plotting or the artificial dubbing—and this one is as well, perhaps mostly because it all takes place in the fashion house or in the models' homes. Despite the large size of the rooms and the widescreen format of the film, the atmosphere still feels stifling, and that may well add to the overall tone of unease. Mitchell, Bartok and Reiner are fine, and not much in the way of emoting is asked of anyone else. You could probably turn the sound down on this and still enjoy it as visual art: the red mannequins with jet black hair, the deep shadows, the rich reds and purples, the use of mirrors and curtains. This is a cult classic that deserves to be given credit for launching a genre of horror film that lives on. [TCM]

Monday, January 23, 2017


To avoid further war, Napoleon renounces the throne and goes into exile at Elba; his men, led by Ramon Novarro, send him off with a rousing song, but a group of Royalists, led by John Miljan, arrest Novarro and his men. Novarro is put in front of a firing squad but, in a clever, almost slapstick scene, confounds the soldiers and escapes. He tries hiding in the bedroom of a young woman (Dorothy Jordan) with whom he flirts, but when she finds out he is a follower of Napoloen, she gives him up to a soldier. But the resourceful Novarro thrashes the man, dresses in his uniform, and makes good another escape—this time to a chateau in southern France where his cousin, a countess (Marion Harris), lets him stay disguised as a footman. But guess who shows up? Jordan, a cousin of the countess, whom we discover holds a grudge against all thing Napoleonic because of relatives killed by Napoleon's men. Navarro falls in love with her and the overwhelming question becomes, can Novarro break down her prejudices and warm her up to his charms before he is called off to help Napoleon return from exile?

I know very little about Napoleon—pretty much, just what Woody Allen says about him in LOVE AND DEATH—but the history and politics aren't important here. This is an early sound musical based on an 1851 French play, and taking that into account, it's mostly fun going until the last half-hour or so when Novarro's drawn-out romantic agonies get a little hard to sit through. However, Novarro is one of my favorite 30s actors and he acquits himself nicely here with his pleasant singing voice and his easy-on-the-eyes looks. Jordan and Harris are acceptable if not much more, and the same goes for the villainous Miljan. The song "How Can You Be So Charming" is cute the first time, tiresome by the fourth time. As a novelty, there is a brief scene of dancers at a festival shot in color—though now it's faded to mostly orange. Even if I got a little antsy near the end, it's still generally a pleasant diversion. [TCM]

Thursday, January 19, 2017


In 1917, a German submarine carrying gold bullion is sunk. Captain Von Boulting (Fredrick Vogeding) and a lieutenant make it to a small island and the captain draws a map showing where the sub is. As soon as they see a rescue ship, Von Boulting pushes his officer over a cliff so he won't have to share the booty if and when he ever manages to come back and get it. Twelve years later, the captain has been declared dead but has actually reinvented himself as a sailor named Schlemmer. In San Francisco, he has talked Lily, a brothel owner (Esther Howard) into backing his trip to get the gold by promising her half; he hires a deep-sea diver named Steve (Ralph Bellamy) to go along, but when Steve figures out what their goal is, he demands a third of the gold. Watching his share get smaller, Schlemmer leaves Lily behind and heads out with Steve and a small crew, but a huge storm winds up scotching their plans. In a lifeboat, Steve tears the treasure map in half so Schlemmer can't take another trip out without him. Three more years pass and this time, the two men are on an expedition sponsored by the wealthy Diana Templeton (Fay Wray), who proves to be a bit of a complication when she starts to fall for the gruff, perpetually smirking Steve; his demeanor slowly softens and the two seem on the verge of becoming an item. Another complication: Lily, who has stowed away, wanting her fair share of the gold. Soon, there is yet a third problem: a giant octopus!

This early action talkie will not be to all tastes, but given the time in which it was produced, it manages to be a fairly exciting film. It's odd to see Bellamy playing an unsavory character, but it's almost odder to have him reform his ways so relatively quickly. Aside from that, the rest of the story plays out well, with the two females, Wray and Howard, getting the acting honors. There's a cute scene in which Wray asks if she can get into Bellamy's diving suit—she wants to have her picture taken in it, not do any canoodling. The storm scenes are effective and even the octopus attack manages to work well. [TCM]

Monday, January 16, 2017


When a Chilean mine company is taken over by American industrialist Frederick Keller, the workers are concerned about their future, and one American worker in particular (Lloyd Nolan) seems agitated when he recognizes Keller from his picture. In New York, Keller is preparing for a trip to Africa when he is found dead by gunshot in his bedroom. His disgraced former accountant is arrested for the crime, but in the middle of the trial, Nolan walks into the courtroom, gives the fake name of Joe Monday, and confesses to the murder, and even his court-appointed lawyer can't get him to give up his real name. Monday won't even try to put up a defense. In the meantime, Alice Stetson (Jean Rogers) reads about the case in the papers and has reason to believe that Monday is actually her brother Frank, reported as missing in action in WWI. She arranges a meeting with him, but he insists he isn't Frank, though he admits that Frank was in his company in the war, as was Keller, the murder victim. The key to all this might lie with the only other surviving member of the company, if he can be found in time. This melodrama is more interesting than compelling. It's very low-key and a little slow going in the middle, but Nolan gives a good performance against type, tamping down his usual high energy to play a stone-faced man of mystery, albeit a rather bland man. The end result is predictable even if not all of the narrative details are. No one else in the cast stands out, though you'll recognize Eric Blore and Onslow Stevens. Nowadays this would be an episode of TV crime show. Primarily recommended for fans of B-movies and/or of Nolan, who is pictured at left. [TCM]

Friday, January 13, 2017


This seemingly faithful adaptation of an Anton Chekhov play is set at a country house by a lake, where the famous actress Arkadina (Simone Signoret) has gathered family and friends for a visit. Her son Konstantin (David Warner) is trying his hand at writing plays but his work is ignored by his mother and by her lover, the successful but midbrow writer Trigorin (James Mason). When Konstantin stages a scene from the play, a monologue performed by aspiring actress Nina (Vanessa Redgrave), his mother is clearly bored by it and he throws a fit. Konstantin is in love with Nina but she gravitates toward Trigorin. There are other entanglements as well: a schoolteacher is in love with Masha, the daughter of the estate bailiff, but she (Kathleen Widdoes) holds an unrequited torch for Konstantin. Arkadina's brother (Harry Andrews) is retired but chronically ill and feels that he has never really lived. The bailiff's wife is also frustrated with her lot in life and holds a torch for Dorn, the local doctor (Denholm Elliott), who actually seems to the most well-adjusted person in attendance. A few days later, Konstantin kills a seagull and thrusts the bloody bird at Nina, surely intending some symbolic commentary on life, art, love and death.

Two years later, the same people meet at the house again. Konstantin is now a successful writer, though his mother admits to not having read any of his stories. Nina had a fling with Trigorin which produced a child that didn't live long. She's eking out a living as an actress and, though not a part of the group, is in a nearby town with an acting troupe, and has been fitfully corresponding with Konstantin, signing her notes "The Seagull." Masha is unhappily married to the teacher but still pines for Konstantin. The gathering of everyone is placid enough on the surface but when Nina sneaks onto the property, a tragic ending is in store for at least one character.

Full disclosure: despite my academic background and personal interest in drama, I've never read a Chekhov play. I've also never seen one performed, though I have seen two different TV productions of The Cherry Orchard. But having seen Woody Allen's wonderful parody of Russina literature, LOVE AND DEATH, this work feels quite familiar to me. This film looks beautiful, with the first half shot almost entirely outdoors, lakeside (in Sweden) with greens and yellows predominating, and the second half taking place inside a lovely wood-paneled home, all browns and golds. The acting is mostly first-rate; Redgrave and Warner take center stage in the showiest roles, but most everyone else is fine, with Elliott and Widdoes shining in relatively small parts. Some critics don't care for Signoret, mostly because of her accent—with most of the Russians played by Britsh actors, why carp over a French accent—but I thought she was very good. For me, James Mason is the one weak link; I have no clue from his low-energy performance why the role of Trigorin is considered to be such a plum for an actor. He's not bad but bland, and he doesn;t ruin the strength of the ensemble. It's slow moving at times, but the acting is always interesting and gets you over the rough spots. Pictured above left are Signoret, Mason, Redgrave and Warner [TCM]

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Callie and her husband hold a fancy party to announce their divorce—apparently they're going to continue to live in the same house but will be free to follow their own yearnings. Helen would like to be so bold—married to the drab Joe (who seems to be something of a hypochondriac), she's been having an affair with playboy Tony, but that has gone a bit cold as Tony pursues Connie, wife of Jack. Connie remains faithful to her husband, but she hasn't yet heard the rumors that Jack has been having a fling with a chorus girl. And so the stage is set for further affairs, threats of affairs, and (being a Hollywood film) reconciliations. This kind of comedy of romantic misadventure was common in the pre-Code era, and this one is about par for the course. None of the characters is particularly likeable, though as actors, I liked Norman Foster as Jack and Leila Hyams as Connie, the central couple (pictured). I'm not always a fan of Menjou, but as the playboy Tony, he's not bad here—though in a way, he's the villain of the piece, he's nicely ambiguous in his intentions. Mary Duncan, who retired from the screen two years later, is Helen, and Hedda Hopper has a small role as Callie, who could be seen as the catalyst for all the disgruntlement among the couples. The moral messages here are mixed: ultimately, marriage wins out, but the concept of quiet adultery on the side is given a relatively fair hearing. I enjoyed a moment when Foster hums "Singin’ in the Rain." I also enjoyed an upset Connie telling Tony to drive faster as they head to a rendezvous: "I crave speed! You don't know how I crave speed!" [TCM]

Monday, January 09, 2017


Jim (Ricardo Cortez, pictured) arrives at the Hotel Navarre on a windswept coast in France. The Lovscheims, the hotelkeepers, seem like they're trying to talk him out of staying as they warn him about the wind, the chilly weather, and a pet white cockatoo that keeps flying about, but he's expecting to meet a friend there in a few days so he stays. Another guest is Sue Talley (Jean Muir), also waiting for someone: her brother, whom she has not seen since childhood, so she can prove her claim to part of the family fortune by presenting her half of a bible page that was split between the children years ago. Also arriving at the hotel: the stand-offish Dr. Roberts and a lawyer named Lorn who represents Sue's brother. On Jim's first night there, Sue is menaced by a mysterious Russian who is found dead, apparently killed with a small dagger from Jim's room. Jim is detained by the police but released when it is found the dead man was actually killed by poison. The next victim is Marcel, the bellboy, who is killed just as he is about to reveal the name of the person he suspects of murder. Then Sue's brother Frank (John Eldredge) shows up, things get pilfered from rooms, a mysterious figure is seen through a window in a room that has been unoccupied for years, and the police won't let anyone leave the hotel. Soon it's clear than almost no one is quite what they seem, except maybe Jim who tries to help Sue (if she really is Sue) claim her inheritance and find the killer.

This really is a little gem of a mystery. It's a B-movie from Warner Brothers (which means it's two or three notches above other B-films) and the acting is all over the map, but it's worth watching for the tricky plot and the wonderful feel of the settings. The hotel lobby and rooms are nicely atmospheric, and the constant blowing of the winds gives a nice added touch of unease. Cortez, one of my favorite 30s actors, is very good, though few others here match him. Muir in particular is a bland heroine and I didn't really care about her predicament. Minna Gommbel as Mrs. Lovscheim and Ruth Donnelly as another American guest are both fine. The fairly light tone throughout is similar to that of an old-dark-house film, though this hotel is rarely dark. Fun and thrilling in the classic era style. [TCM]

Friday, January 06, 2017


Susan (Gloria Talbott) defies local officials and hires a small group of men to fly out over a Mexican desert to look for Bruce, her missing fiancĂ©. With her are Marty (Lon Chaney Jr.), a prospector who is sure there's uranium to be had in the mountains; Bruce’s buddy Russ (James Craig); and Lee (Tom Drake), a broken-down alcoholic pilot. As they near the site where Bruce was last known to have been, they run into dangerous downdrafts, and fisticuffs break out among the men. After they land, Marty discovers uranium and wants to fly back right away to make a claim, so the rest of the group worry that he may try to take the plane himself. Soon they come upon freakish giant animals including lizards, a spider, a rat, and a bird. Russ discovers that radioactivity has caused the mutations. Later, Susan becomes hysterical when she and Russ are trapped in a cave by a 30-foot tall man with a horribly disfigured face—and, as the title hints, only one eye. Yes, it's Bruce, also mutated due to radioactivity.

I think this must have made quite an impact on me when I first saw it at the tender age of 10, as the awful Cyclops face is burned into my consciousness. Or maybe it's because the cyclops face was featured on the cover of an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, just about my favorite magazine of all time. At any rate, my recent second viewing was not nearly so traumatic, though for a low-budget monster movie from Burt I. Gordon, this is fairly effective. As a kid, Lon Chaney Jr. would have been the only actor in the film I was familiar with. Now, it's an added bonus to see James Craig (the 40s B-equivalent of Clark Gable) and an older Tom Drake (the "Boy Next Door" from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) in the cast. Apparently, famous voice-over actor Paul Frees did uncredited work as the snarling grunts of the monster. There is a surprisingly graphic (for the time) shot near the end of the beast getting a huge stick of wood plunged in his eye. This is not a great film, but it's difficult to be entirely objective about a movie that has stayed with me for almost fifty years. [TCM]

Monday, January 02, 2017


Philip (Leslie Howard) is a young Englishman—sensitive, passive, afflicted with a club foot—living in Paris and studying to be a painter, but his mentor tells him he's wasting his time, saying his work doesn't show talent, "just industry and intelligence." He goes back to London for medical school where he is treated like a freak, with teachers making him show his foot to the other students. He makes some friends, including good-natured Harry (Reginald Denny), and most of them assume that Philip is quite sophisticated because he painted nudes in Paris. But he's actually rather shy, so it's a surprise when he takes out Mildred (Bette Davis), a snippy Cockney barmaid who treats him like dirt—when he's upset that she doesn't seem excited about the prospect of a second date, she snaps back, "If you don’t take me out, someone else will!" He becomes masochistically obsessed with her even though she treats him like dirt, and when he proposes to her, she informs him she's going to be marrying his friend Emil. Eventually Philip starts dating Norah, a romance writer who is good to him, but when Mildred shows up on his doorstep one night, pregnant and unmarried, he leaves Norah to devote himself to Mildred. Well, guess what? Mildred starts seeing his friend Harry, and when that goes south, she tries to get back in Philip's good graces again until she explodes in fury one night ("It made me sick when I had to let you kiss me! And after you kissed me, I always wiped my mouth!!") and burns up the bonds that Philip was relying on for school tuition. Finally, Philip has his fill of her, and she leaves, becoming a street tramp with a sick baby. You can foresee her sad ending from a mile away. But can Philip ever shake his obsession and find happiness with someone else?

This is the movie that made Bette Davis a name to contend with, and also the movie that was probably responsible for her first Oscar, won a year later for DANGEROUS, largely seen as a consolation prize for not even being nominated for BONDAGE. She gives a fierce performance, coming off as one of the harshest harridans in Hollywood history. Her role is important but rather surprisingly she doesn't get a lot of screen time. Still, it's her you'll remember about this film, otherwise an average pre-Code melodrama, based on a Somerset Maugham novel. Howard is fine in another somewhat mealy-mouthed role like Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind, but he practically vanishes when Davis shares the screen with him. There is solid support from Reginald Denny, Reginald Owen, and Alan Hale; unfortunately, Frances Dee and Kay Johnson, as Philip's other romantic interests, don’t fare well against Davis. In the last half-hour or so, it's difficult to tell how much time is passing, and too much plot is crammed into too little time. The movie is in the public domain so it's easy to find, but most of the prints are in poor shape, so stick with TCM showings for this one. [TCM]