Wednesday, January 31, 2018

AGAINST THE WIND (1948)

In London during World War II, Father Elliott (Robert Beatty) is recruited to join a group of people trained to parachute behind enemy lines and assigned to collect information and perform acts of sabotage. We see Elliott go through training and meet his fellow agents to be assigned work in Belgium: the lovely young Belgian radio operator Michele (Simone Signoret); Scotty, the explosives expert (Gordon Jackson); the crusty old pro Max; Jacques, who is given the false identity of a British fascist who wants to work with the Nazis; and Emile, who has spent time in a concentration camp. There’s also Andrew, a master spy who warns them what to expect: don't panic, don't express emotion even if you see a fellow agent carted off by the Gestapo, keep your suicide pill handy even if you think you'd never use it. Like Chekhov's rule about a gun (if you show it in the first act, someone had better use it in the third act), these things will all crop up for our agents. One batch of spies goes over and blows up a records office, and when Andrew is captured by the Gestapo, the second batch is sent to get him out of prison, not realizing that one of their number is a traitor.

The first half of this is occasionally difficult to get through as it mostly functions as background and exposition with very little tension and no espionage. A number of characters are introduced rather quickly, and though the priest is our access point to this group, he ultimately is not a terribly important character. The film works best when it concentrates on Michele and Scotty—he develops a crush on her and she has to let him down easy, though later she may regret that. Both are quite attractive people; it was a surprise to see Jackson looking so young as I know him mostly as the butler Hudson in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs. The acting all around is fairly low-key as befits the film's quasi-documentary style—which is largely abandoned about a half-hour in. The only other actor who was familiar to me was James Robertson Justice as one of the spy recruiters. Some scenes are carried off very well. Emile (John Slater) has his face changed through plastic surgery and is hurt when he tries to sneak off to see his wife and she doesn't recognize him. Signoret has a very effective scene when she gets the news about the traitor. Eventually, tension builds nicely as the plan for freeing Andrew goes awry and new plans must be made. If you make it through the first half—which is not bad, just slow—you'll be rewarded with a strong second half. Pictured are Jackson, Andrew Blackett, and Signoret. [TCM]

Monday, January 29, 2018

IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD (1937)

In 1928, Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is one of the hot Hollywood cowboy stars, with a strong fan base among kids. When his latest movie is released, he arranges a showing at a children's hospital and announces that he'll soon be opening a Hollywood ranch resort for kids. One boy in particular, Billy, bonds with Tim and looks forward to the day when he can visit. But then the talkies arrive and suddenly Westerns are out of fashion. Tim and his leading lady Gloria (Fay Wray) get screen tests for a sophisticated high-society melodrama; the studio heads like Gloria but not Tim. Then someone gets the idea to try Tim in a gangster movie but he's afraid playing a bad guy will disillusion his following of kids. With no income, the property he wanted to turn into the kids' ranch is taken by the bank. Contemplating leaving Hollywood for good, Tim changes his mind when Billy, still not quite recovered, shows up at his door. Tim manages to sneak back onto the ranch and throws a big party for Billy, hiring celebrity look-alikes to appear to impress the kid—folks who look like W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Harold Lloyd and Bing Crosby (among others) show up. The party is a success, but when Billy collapses and Gloria confesses that she is also washed up, Tim is driven to desperate measures and decides to rob a bank. Could our cowboy hero end up in the pokey? Say it isn't so!

This cute B-film is one of Samuel Fuller's first screenwriting credits, though he would become better known as a director (THE NAKED KISS, THE CRIMSON KIMONO). There are some plot problems; the main sticking point for me was that Westerns most certainly did not vanish from the screens with the arrival of sound films. Dix is his usual "big lug" self and Wray is colorless, but the Hollywood party scene pretty much redeems the movie and that alone makes this a film that classic movies buffs will want to catch. Pictured are Wray and Dix. [DVD—part of a boxed Sam Fuller set]

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A YANK AT OXFORD (1938)

Robert Taylor is an American college athlete who gets a scholarship at Oxford. Of course, he's a bombastic, bragging ugly American and he gets an early comeuppance at the hands of some Oxford boys on a train before he even makes to the university. Once there, he is subjected to a public de-pantsing (led by Griffin Jones, the ringleader of the train lads). Slowly, Taylor learns how to fit in though he still stays on the bad side of the Dean (Edmund Gwenn). He dates Jones's sister (Maureen O'Sullivan), and later takes the blame when Jones gets in trouble for seeing Vivien Leigh, the wife of a local bookstore owner. He risks getting "sent down" but Taylor's father (Lionel Barrymore) visits to watch a rowing match and helps set things right. After a rocky start in Taylor's hometown, the movie picks up with the Oxford setting definitely a plus. Taylor is not one of my favorites but he's adequate here; in his late 20s, he looks a little too mature for the part, but that's not a fatal error. Jones comes off best—though as always, Gwenn is a treat—and the cast also includes C. V. France as a dean who always calls Taylor by the wrong name, Peter Croft as a fellow student, and Edward Rigby as Scatters, Taylor's attendant. Some amusing rituals (which may or may not be based on fact) include the burning of the victory canoe, and a "funeral march" as a way to lay blame for a loss of face. There is also a reference to the novel Gone With the Wind—the movie version of which would prove to be Leigh's big breakthrough just a year later. Pictured from left are Taylor, Jones and Leigh. [TCM]

Monday, January 22, 2018

THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS (1967)

Chris (Anthony Perkins) is a former gigolo now married to Christine (Yvonne Furneaux), the owner of a French champagne company whose business partner, Paul Wagner (Maurice Ronet), is Chris' best friend. Jacqueline (St├ęphane Audran) is Christine's mousy secretary who pops in and out of the story often enough for us to feel badly for the offhanded way she is treated. One night, Paul and Chris are out driving, with Chris basically acting as a procurer for Paul. As Paul and a prostitute make out in the car, they are set upon by thugs and Paul has to spend some time recuperating from a brain injury. Though released from the hospital, Paul suffers from depression and occasional blackouts, and is counseled to throw himself into his work. Unfortunately, things at the vineyard are stressful: Christine wants to sell out to a couple of American investors, but even though she makes the product, the brand name belongs to Paul and he refuses to sell the name, without which the deal will probably fall through. On a business trip to Hamburg, Chris and Paul wind up consorting with whores again, but the next morning, Paul wakes up with no memory of the night before and the girl he was with is found dead on a nearby riverbank. Christine gets an anonymous letter tying Paul to the murder and she decides to use this as blackmail to get Paul to sell his brand, but soon after a raucous party, Paul once again passes out only to wake up and find the dead body of his hostess near him. Feeling defeated, Paul agrees to sign over his name in exchange for Christine providing him with an alibi for that night. But wait: who's that mysterious blonde that Christopher slept with in Hamburg, and why is she back in Paris?

This mystery from French director Claude Chabrol plays out like Hitchcock in a 60s mod mood. Some critics find this disappointing as a thriller due to the ambiguous ending, but I find the climax thrilling; we get the solution to the murder, but we are left completely up in the air as to the resolution of the final conflict between characters, and I'm OK with that. Perkins gets to stretch a bit beyond Norman Bates, though not too far—the audience has to believe that he might be a least a little psycho if he's behind the murders. French star Ronet (pictured to the right of Perkins), best known for ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS and PURPLE NOON, is excellent in the central role, being on screen for almost the entire film. Busy American character actor Henry Jones (if you watched any TV in the 60s or 70s, you’ll recognize him) has a small role as one of the investors. The film looks gorgeous and has some nice stylistic flourishes. Recommended.

Friday, January 19, 2018

BUS RILEY’S BACK IN TOWN (1965)

Handsome young Bus Riley (Michael Parks) returns to his small hometown after a three-year stint in the Navy. His mom is happy to see him, as is his little sister Gussie (who hero-worships Bus to the uncomfortable point of bordering on a physical crush) and his neighbor Judy (whose single mom is a closet alcoholic). Bus seems a little tense at first, not quite knowing what to do with the rest of his life. Spence, an old friend who works as an undertaker, offers to give Bus a job and pay for him to take undertaking classes, but the desperately lonely Spence seems to want a closer relationship (perhaps physical) than Bus wants. His old job as an auto mechanic is offered to him but he thinks that's beneath him. He winds up becoming a door-to-door salesman for an "atomic cleaner" (think, fancy vacuum cleaner) and discovers that lonely housewives find him quite charming. But his biggest problem is discovering that his old flame Laurel (Ann-Margret) his not only broken up with him, but married a rich older man. Unhappy, Laurel tries to start a fling with Bus. He resists at first, but one night while her husband is out of town, the two have a private little pool party and they become secret lovers. Of course, nothing good can come of all this, and something is going to have to snap to get Bus to take his future seriously.

Playwright William Inge wrote the screenplay but used a pseudonym when the studio made major alterations in the story to suit the up-and-coming Ann-Margret. You can still, however, feel the Inge influence as exemplified by PICNIC and BUS STOP: a young studly hero, occasionally shirtless, driving women crazy and exposing some unsavory doings. The tone is less strident than in PICNIC (a movie I have found to be practically unwatchable after a first viewing)—mostly light but with some tragedy-leaning melodrama. Parks holds the screen well in his first movie role. Like some other 60s male leads (Gary Lockwood in MODEL SHOP, Peter Kastner in YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW, George Peppard in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S), his character is mostly passive and reacts rather than initiates action. I think he's a little too rough looking to be called handsome, but he has a sly, cornfed sexual appeal here, and he and the very sexy Ann-Margret have good chemistry. Janet Margolin is the possibly troubled Judy with whom Bus almost has a fling; 70s cult actress Mimsy Farmer has the small role of a casual friend who is critical of Bus; Kim Darby is the little sister who is way too physical with her older brother; Jocelyn Brando (Marlon's older sister) is the mom; most fun of all is Match Game contestant Brett Somers who has the small but noticeable role of a spinster schoolteacher, a boarder at the Riley home, who has a hard time putting up with Bus's rowdiness (and occasional near-nudity). Though the film has its moments, it's episodic and slowly-paced, and I could only recommend it for fans of quirky 60s cinema.TCM showed this on their late-night Underground series, but I have no idea why—it's not avant-garde or naughty or trippy. I’d call its style mainstream-indie. [TCM]

Monday, January 15, 2018

CHICAGO (1927)

Amos Hart (Victor Varconi) wakes up one morning to go to work and lovingly looks at his sleeping wife Roxie (Phyllis Haver, pictured below); he doesn't even mind the slovenly appearance of her half of the room, picking up her scattered underthings with an almost paternal smile on his face. But we soon find out that Roxie is not as satisfied with married life as he is; she wants money, easy and lots of it. Katie, the young cleaning woman in their apartment building, is clearly sweet on Amos, and he takes notice of her, giving her coupons to use at the drugstore he owns. While Amos is at work, a man named Casley (Eugene Pallette) stops by, chattering about wanting to cut his sweetie loose—Amos will have cause to remember this exchange. It turns out that the sweetie Casley's talking about is Roxie; he drops by to see her and, exasperated by the lingerie bills she's running up and giving to him, he tells her he's through. They argue and, as he steps out of the apartment, she pulls out a gun and shoots him dead. She calls Amos and tries to say that the man was a burglar, but Amos recognizes him from the store and puts two and two together.

When the cops come, Amos tries to say he shot Casley, but they figure it out and arrest Roxie for murder—though she claims self-defense. The notorious lawyer Billy Flynn is called in, but his fee is $5,000—he tells Amos, you can pay the money or Roxie will hang. Amos can only raise half, so in desperation, he breaks into Flynn's house and steals the money that he will use the next day to pay Flynn. Meanwhile down at the jailhouse, Roxie is the latest sensation in a small group of "beautiful murderesses" making front page news. The headlines brand Roxie "The Jazz Slayer: because her player piano was going full blast during the shooting. She seems to enjoy the attention and wants to look sexy on the stand, but Flynn warns her, "You can't tell a jury you shot a man for your honor—in a skirt up to your hips!" In the courtroom, she plays her part to the hilt, looking both sexy (the men of the jury are noticeably hot and bothered by her) and noble, but can she win acquittal? And whether she does or not, will Amos stand by her?

This is the silent version of the stage play that went on to spawn a 40s talkie (ROXIE HART), a blockbuster stage musical by Bob Fosse, and an Oscar-winning film. The plot points and the satire concerning sensational journalism are present in all versions, though the 40s film makes Roxie innocent which dulls the sharpness of the story's outcome. This version, directed mostly by an uncredited Cecil B. DeMille, may be one of the best silent films to show someone who thinks he or she doesn't like silents—it's fast paced, well acted, has a very modern feel in terms of ironic humor, and has some great stylistic touches. Charleston Lou, who knifed her sweetie in a dance hall, is seen reading an etiquette book chapter called, "When is it correct to use a knife?" Roxie’s claim that "we both grabbed for the gun" is echoed in a song in the Fosse show. When Amos has finally had enough of Roxie's two-facedness, he says, "I'd see my soul burn in hellfire before I'd touch you again!" The shooting is staged quite well, as are the courtroom scenes. This movie was thought lost for many years, but an intact copy was found recently in DeMille's archives. A hugely enjoyable experience. [DVD]

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

NIGHT OF THE QUARTER MOON (1959)

The Nelson brothers, Chuck and Lex, members of a wealthy San Francisco family, are on a fishing vacation in Mexico. Lex (Dean Jones) is a frequent visitor and he has brought Chuck (John Drew Barrymore), a post-traumatic stress sufferer from his time as a POW during the Korean War. While there, Chuck meets and snuggles up with Ginny (Julie London), a knockout who, after they begin dating, tells him she is one-quarter black African (Portuguese-Angolan, to be precise). He doesn't care, he's just glad to have found someone to love and help him recuperate from his war experiences.  Chuck proposes to Ginny, she accepts—though she also warns him about potential problems her race may cause. Back in San Francisco, Cornelia, the family matriarch (Agnes Moorehead) is happy for Chuck at first, but when reporters get wind of Ginny's background, it's splashed all over the front pages: "Bride Revealed as Quadroon!" The two move into a nice suburban house, but the neighbors let their disgust be known with unfriendly words (chants of "Back to Mexico!") and rocks thrown through windows. When the police respond, Chuck has a flashback to Korea and Cornelia, claiming he is sick, takes him to her home, refusing to let Ginny see him. She keeps him in a mentally weakened state and starts annulment proceedings, based on the idea that Ginny kept her racial background a secret from Chuck—we know the truth, but the traumatized Chuck is essentially brainwashed by his mother and brother to follow the family line, and in the end, the case winds up in the courtroom where Ginny's lawyer (James Edwards) resorts to stripping Ginny to show that her skin is dark enough that Chuck had to have known the truth.

Hugo Haas, the director of this movie, has a cult following for his B-melodramas featuring bad and buxom female leads. Here, Julie London's character is the good girl, but she plays the role of the put-upon wife with passivity and glumness, and a spark of bad girl "oomph" would have been welcome. The other actors, with the occasional exception of Agnes Moorehead, also register drably, so while it's difficult to be critical of the movie's anti-racist intentions, one wishes that there was more energy in the performances. Barrymore (son of John and father of Drew), like London, is more or less left at sea by what I take to be listless direction by Haas. I suppose it's a good thing that Barrymore doesn't go off the deep end in his portrayal of the damaged rich boy, but his character is one-note all the way through. Dean Jones is better, but he's hampered by the inconsistencies of his character who seems to be on Barrymore's side in the beginning but soon plants himself in Moorehead's camp for no compelling reason. Nat King Cole is fine in a thankless role as a nightclub perfomer—he gets to sing, but oddly, Julie London, known for her sultry vocal stylings, does not. Of course, the biggest problem here is that London is, as others have said, one of the whitest women around, so even though she is darkened a bit with makeup, she really wasn't the best choice for the role. The best scene, and the one that almost tips it into camp classic territory, is the courtroom scene at the end in which Edwards (giving a fine performance) literally rips her dress off to show the judge her skin. This film is a real curiosity piece—not a classic, but interesting.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

THE RIVERSIDE MURDER (1935)

Banker Robert Norman is in his library talking to his canary when he is shot to death. The family assumes it's suicide, but Inspector Winton and his associate McKay realize it's murder. There are plenty of suspects, including a housekeeper, a mysterious woman who visited Norman just before he was killed, and two old acquaintances of Norman's who were houseguests. We soon find out that Norman was the central figure in an unusual pact: years ago, bad financial advice he gave to four friends led to them all losing money. They put their remaining money in a trust and five years later, they would share equally in the money they all had made since then. The two houseguests, Perrin and Sanders, were there because the pact was ending at midnight of the next evening. The other two men are scheduled to arrive the next day. Gregg, who shows up next, has been a failure and has been bugging Norman for an advance on his share of the money. The fourth, Jerome, arrives rattled after claiming he'd been shot at. The mystery woman is reporter Claire Haines who has come back to the house hoping to get a headline story on Norman's death. Just as Jerome is about to confide who he thinks the killer is, he is shot from the window and drops dead. With the money from the pact about to be distributed, Winton can't figure out why any of the beneficiaries would want to have killed Norman, but it turns out that Norman had a son who fell into disgrace in China and has been imprisoned, but now is apparently free—and maybe behind the murders.

This is a serviceable B-mystery with decent performances and a plot that isn't overly complex. What it mainly lacks is atmosphere—taken in a different direction, this might have made a dandy little "old dark house" thriller, as it's pretty much set entirely in Norman's large house which has its own name (River House—not very imaginative but still a proper name). Scenes that take place in the dark aren't shot to take advantage of that aspect of the setting. At heart, it's a Charlie Chan mystery with a fairly colorless lead detective. Basil Sydney is OK as Winton but he’s not really a go-getter. The rest of the cast is nondescript except for Alastair Sim (the 1950 SCROOGE); this was his first movie and he does stand out a bit, showing a flair for some mild comic relief without making his character ridiculous. A generally enjoyable hour of mild mystery. Pictured are Sim and Sydney. [YouTube]

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

CANDLELIGHT IN ALGERIA (1944)

This British B-film is another poor man's CASABLANCA with wartime intrigue and romantic entanglements playing out in French North Africa, just before the Allies invaded, so the complicated morality of Vichy France, theoretically not under German command, plays a part in the proceedings. American artist Susanne Foster (Carla Lehmann) is alone in the home of relatives in Algiers when British agent Alan Thurston (James Mason) breaks in, on the run from the Germans. She allows him to hide while Dr. Mueller and his men search for him. After they leave, Alan reveals the movie's MacGuffin: a dead comrade's camera with a picture on it of something that the Germans want. He knows who has it, a movie starlet named Maritza, but he thinks she's waiting  to sell it to the highest bidder, so Susanne agrees to visit Maritza, on the pretext of wanting her to model, and steal the camera. This, of course, gets Susanne entangled in Alan's espionage; she is leered at by a German officer, briefly held captive by Mueller, and eventually runs into Henri, an old flame.  All the time, she keeps up with Alan and mocks his wispy mustache while he deals with his mistress, a waitress named Yvette who is desperate to hold on to Alan even as she senses that he is falling for Susanne. The MacGuffin leads to a secret meeting of Allied commanders at what is constantly described as a "lonely house" on the coastline; can our heroes stop the Nazis from disrupting the coming invasion of North Africa?

Despite the constant promise of action, the movie is slow going, mostly episodic build-up with little payoff—even an escape from the Casbah and a climactic car chase are underdone. But the characters and actors kept me interested. The young James Mason is quite dashing and light on his feet, and I didn't even mind the much-mocked mustache (which he eventually shaves off); Canadian actor Carla Lehmann only made a handful of movies in the 1940s and apparently went on to stage and TV, but she holds down the fort nicely here with a combination of wide-eyed excitement and calming gravity. Among the supporting players, standouts are Pamela Stirling as Yvette, Leslie Bradley as Henri, and Walter Rilla as Mueller. I would have been happy with any of them having their roles expanded. Definitely not a film noir, despite its presence on some noir lists (I guess because most of it takes place at night), but a fairly decent B-spy thriller. [Streaming]