Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Sam and his faithful Indian guide Billy, who seem to work at a Florida animal compound, head deep into the Everglades to prepare the way for a group who are on a field trip to study the Everglades ecology. But when they reach an area that is rumored to contain the tomb of Tartu, an ancient Seminole witch doctor, Billy won't go any further, afraid of conjuring up a curse in which Tartu returns to life to punish any defilers. Sam forges ahead and is sorry he did; the spirit of the mummified Tartu, lying in a coffin in a cave, takes the form of an anaconda and strangles Sam to death. The group arrives, consisting of archeology professor Ed, his wife Julie, and four students—Johnny, Cindy, Tommy and Joann—and Billy is surprised that Sam hasn't returned. Nevertheless, being broad daylight, the group heads into the swamp without a guide. After some make-out sessions and mild, jerky dancing, Tommy and Joann go frolicking the water where Tartu, apparently considering himself defiled, appears in the shape of a shark and kills them both. Ed, who has found a stone with warnings about Tartu carved in it, realizes (since sharks aren't found in the Everglades) what's happening. Johnny tries to head out to get help, but he's killed when a snake leaps up in the air and bites him in the face. Cindy gets chased by Tartu as an alligator, and in the final confrontation, Ed faces Tartu himself, incarnated as a young and healthy man.

The Everglades location shooting makes this Z-grade horror film a little more interesting than the average, and the skull-face make-up on Tartu is good. But aside from the anaconda attack, in which the actor actually has a constricting snake wrapped around him, the other animals aren't especially scary—and the biting snake, so obviously a plastic prop being held by someone just off-camera, is laughable. Few of the actors remained in the business; Cuban actor Fred Pinero is pretty good as the professor, though the actress playing his wife is terrible. Some of the students' delivery is irritating and shrill, and none of them can dance—though they certainly can kiss. There are a number of mismatched shots, and some scenes fade to black as though this was made for TV ad placement, and the tedious 15-minute sequence of Sam trekking into the Everglades almost kills the movie off before it gets a chance to be scary. (A brief pre-credit scene of an earlier explorer finding Tartu's coffin is amusing; after Tartu kills the guy, he unrolls some scrolls the man was holding, and they contain the credits.) The cinematography does not make the Everglades look particularly appealing. Frank Weed, who plays Sam, is also the animal handler, which may be why his scene with the snake works so well. [TCM]

Friday, November 23, 2018


Mozart's opera is filmed by Ingmar Bergman as a staged performance in a theater, with occasional glimpses of an audience and, during the intermission, backstage activities. Young handsome Tamino is chased by a dragon (a big, furry, non-threatening puppet). Three ladies, sent by the Queen of the Night, slay the beast (though happy-go-lucky passerby Papageno tries to claim credit) and ask Tamino to rescue the Queen's daughter Pamina from the clutches of the evil Sarastro, promising Tamino that he can claim Pamina for his own. Tamino, accompanied by the sweet-natured but simple Papageno, accepts the quest, but they soon discover the truth: Sarastro, the head of a brotherhood that follows rationality, is actually Pamina's father, and he is trying to save her from her mother's dark irrationality—and desire for power.

I'm not a fan of opera, and had only seen one opera on film before this—the 1982 La Traviata with Placido Domingo, which I enjoyed. But whereas that film was opened up for the camera, shot on large sets and exteriors, Bergman chooses to shoot this as though it was being performed in an opera house, with costumes and sets that highlight the artificiality of the proceedings. Mostly, it works, though there are more close-ups than one might wish for, and the combination of the borders of the stage and the square (non-widescreen) aspect ratio give a claustrophobic air to many of the scenes. The camera cuts frequently to the face of a young girl in the audience who is pretty but static—with her big eyes and half-smile, she reminded me of the 2001 Starchild. But generally, the staginess of the production feels right given the amorphous feel of the fairy-tale narrative. I'm no judge of opera, but the singing sounds fine to me (it was pre-recorded and lip-synched by the actors), and the acting is, appropriately, more naturalistic than you would typically find on an opera stage. Josef Kostlinger is sturdy and coldly handsome as Tamino, Irma Urrila is OK as Pamina—not as magically beautiful as I would have imagined the character. My favorite performer is Hakan Hagegard (pictured) who is perfectly suited for the cuddly comic relief of Papageno—and ultimately, it feels he has almost as much screen time as Tamino, and we have as much if not more invested in his storyline (he is looking a true love as well) as in the main narrative. A lovely film with a unique fantasy feel to it. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 21, 2018



In Bergen, Norway in the early days of WWII, the ukulele player for the Mark Mendes big band is shot to death by an unseen assassin during a nightclub performance. The British government is concerned because the man was a British spy trying to figure out if Mendes was actually a German agent who was somehow passing along information about British ship movements, leading to an increase of successful attacks by German U-boats. The Brits prepare to send a replacement agent, but during a blackout, hapless George Hepplewhite, a ukulele player for a small band called the Dinky-Doos, is mistaken for the agent and put on a ship to Bergen by accident. When Mary Wilson, a hotel receptionist who is actually a contact for British agents, discovers the mistake, the two work together and soon discover that Mendes is literally sending his messages in the music that his band broadcasts. George gets his hand on the code, but Mendes soon realizes what he's done, and plots to get rid of George the same way he got rid of the first ukulele player.

The plot sounds serious, but this is a comedy anchored by leading man George Formby, a very popular musician and comedian in England—he was for several years in the 1930s the highest paid entertainer in British films. He never broke out here; his persona, that of the naïve but lovable bumbler, is familiar (a little like a less manic Jerry Lewis) but his style is strictly British music hall, akin to American vaudeville which had gone out of favor in Hollywood films by the mid-30s. Formby mugs and tells mildly bawdy jokes and spends a big chunk of film time singing music-hall sing-along ballads which I couldn't always understand. One I did figure out is "Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now" about a Chinese man who gives up his laundry business. Sample lyric: "He had his eyesight tested, a most important matter / Through a bathroom window, a lady he peeps at her / His eyesight's getting better but his nose is getting flatter / Cause Mr. Wu's a window cleaner now." The alternate title, To Hell with Hitler, comes from a dream sequence in which Formby drops into a Nazi rally and punches Hitler out. Otherwise, there is little real wartime content here, except for the threat to shipping which is the MacGuffin that drives the plot. Like many classic-era comics, Formby doesn't so much act as perform and he's generally tolerable—I admit I laughed every time someone asked who he was and he replied excitedly, "I'm a Dinky-Doo!" Phyllis Calvert is fine as the heroine, and it was fun to see a young Coral Browne (Vera Charles in Auntie Mame) as a sexy villain. I enjoyed this film but I admit I'm not in a big hurry to see more for Formby. BTW, the ukulele strumming you hear at the end of the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" is by Formby. [TCM]

Friday, November 16, 2018

DUNKIRK (1958)

In 1940, the state of war that exists between England and Germany is called by some a "phony war"; a newsreel we see proclaims boldly that Germany will never try to challenge the Royal Navy. But when Germany invades Belgium, British and French soldiers are forced to evacuate. Without enough British ships to help, citizens are called upon to use their private boats to help out, and over a week's time, over 300,000 soldiers are rescued. This film follows two narrative threads to bring the battle to life. One is focused on the home front: a garage owner (Richard Attenborough) does what is considered essential war work and seems to enjoy a special status even as he belittles the war effort, and his friends resent him on both counts. His friend (Bernard Lee), a reporter, is angry at the apathy of the British, and particularly at Attenborough when he tries to get out of loaning his boat to the Dunkirk rescue effort. The other plotline follows a small group of soldiers separated from their unit; led by Binns (John Mills), universally known by his nickname 'Tubby,' they make their way to the beach at Dunkirk hoping to be rescued. The two stories converge near the end. Obviously, this is not as spectacular in its action effects as Christopher Nolan's recent film of the same title, but I found the characters and their situations here to be more interesting than those in the 2017 movie. Though the action scenes, such as they are, are OK, the standout moment in the movie for me involves a mother holding a gas mask she may have to use for her infant. The acting is good all around, with Sean Barrett a standout as a teenage worker whom Attenborough brings along when he finally comes around to participating in the rescue. Pictured are Barrett, Lee and Attenborough. [Steaming]

Monday, November 12, 2018



Maura (Patricia Neal) is an unmarried middle-aged woman who lives in a small English town with her domineering adoptive mother Edith (Pamela Browne). The relationship is stifling and dysfunctional: Edith is blind and keeps a tight leash on Maura as a caretaker, partly using guilt over the fact that Edith nursed Maura back to health after a stroke several years ago. Maura works part-time at a nearby hospital performing therapy with stroke victims; the doctors want her to work more hours, but Edith won't allow her to be away from home that long. Into this atmosphere comes Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay), a scruffy but attractive young drifter in need of work. After some initial hesitation, Maura hires him as a live-in gardener and handyman after Edith talks herself into thinking that he is a blood relation (there are Jarvises somewhere in the family line). Billy seems to think of Maura as a surrogate mother, though Maura slowly becomes romantically attracted to him. We can tell right off the bat that, despite his looks and rough charm, something's not right with Billy, and sure enough, we soon discover that Billy is responsible for a series of assaults and murders of young women, triggered by his memories of women taunting him for his impotence. (Both of the film's titles come from his post-murder activity in which he digs graves for his victims in a road that is under construction.)

For about two-thirds of its running time, this feels like a horror movie, or at least a creepy thriller. Though the deaths of the women are not graphically presented, we do see them happen, and we are led to believe that Edith and Maura could become Billy's next victims. But the film takes a potentially interesting turn when Maura and Billy become lovers (apparently his impotence comes and goes, no pun intended). Unfortunately much of the tense mood of the movie evaporates; the fact that the two women seem to be out of physical danger, though a left-field twist, leads to an anti-climactic final section. This is really a character-driven psychological melodrama, but oddly, the backgrounds of the characters aren't explored fully enough for the plot twists to be effective. Though based on a novel, Roald Dahl, Neal's husband at the time, wrote the screenplay for her as part of her comeback after her strokes—though she seems quite healthy here. Neal is good, as is Clay who hits an odd note of frailty and aggression combined. There's no denying that Billy, as a killer, is the villain of the movie, but Edith and her gossipy neighbors are unpleasant at best. The conclusion is often commented on for its ambiguity on at least one major plot point, but it's a satisfying ending to a movie that is not completely satisfying as a whole. Pictured are Neal and Clay. [TCM]

Thursday, November 08, 2018


Henry, Earl of Kerhill, is in charge of some substantial funds belonging to an orphans' fund, but he has used them in a business speculation deal. The deal failed, his partner killed himself, and now that the money is to be presented to the charity at a house party, Henry also opts for suicide. But James (Warner Baxter), who is love with Henry's wife Diana, agrees to take the fall for him. When it's announced that the money is missing, Henry leaves in a hurry, as though he is guilty of the embezzlement, and flees to America, though Diana knows the real story. He acquires a patch of land in Buzzard's Pass, Arizona, but the thuggish Cash Hawkins, who is engaged in black market dealings in dope and booze, tries to muscle him off his homestead. A young Indian woman named Naturich (Lupe Velez) is one of the few people in the area who will stand up to Hawkins, and she also pines away for Jim, who himself is pining away for Diana. When Hawkins finally comes around to get rid of Jim for good, Naturich shoots him dead from outside but isn't discovered. Soon, after sitting outside Jim's cabin during a sleet storm, she is taken in by Jim. Seven years later, the two have a son and are happy together, despite the sheriff continuing to investigate Hawkins' murder. Then Diana shows up in Buzzard's Pass; on his deathbed, Henry confessed to his crime and Diana wants Jim to come home with her. He refuses but does agree to send his son to England for a proper education, something that doesn't sit well with Naturich. The final straw comes when the sheriff finds evidence that implicates Naturich in the death of Hawkins. Tragedy ensuses.

This is the third version of the 1905 stage melodrama that Cecil B. DeMille made, and one of his earliest sound films. I haven't seen the silent versions but I'm not sure what drove DeMille to want to make three versions of this rather obvious frontier melodrama. The procession of events is predictable, the characters flat, and the actors don't seem challenged by their roles. Baxter is good as the hero, Velez is OK but doesn't exactly shine as the "squaw," and Eleanor Boardman and Paul Cavanagh are fine as Diana and Henry. A young Charles Bickford makes an effective bad guy (Hawkins) but he's not in the story long enough to make much of an impression. The "miscegenation" aspect of the plot (Anglo man, Native American woman) is no longer a viable exploitation device as it would have been in 1931. Roland Young steals his scenes as a titled friend of Jim and Diana's, and little Dickie Moore (best known as the deaf teenager on OUT OF THE PAST) appears as Jim's son. Interesting as a period piece, but not a particularly powerful part of DeMille's oeuvre. Pictured are Baxter and Velez. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 06, 2018


In the summer of 1938, Carol (Joan Bennett) and her German husband Eric (Francis Lederer) decide to head to Germany for a bit of a working vacation—his aging father needs help selling his factory. When Dr. Gerhardt finds out they're going, he gives them a bundle of cash to pass along his brother who is in a concentration camp in Dachau. Carol, Eric and their young son Ricky arrive in Bremerhaven, met by the lovely Frieda, a friend of the family. While Carol sees how bad things are—the concentration camps for political prisoners, the stifling of criticism of the government, the constant spying on friends and neighbors and the mistrust that breeds—Eric begins to express admiration for the Nazis, something that bothers both Carol and Eric's father Heinrich. When Carol tries to deliver the money to their doctor's brother, she is told he died in the camp of appendicitis—even though Carol is told by the the man's mother that he'd had his appendix out years ago. Despite the darkening state of affairs in the country, Eric decides he wants to keep the family in Germany and take over his father's business, a decision which does not sit well with Carol. Things go from bad to worse when Carol makes a joke about Hitler and Eric tells her that is grounds for divorce in Germany.  That's a threat he may follow through on when she finds out that he is having an affair with Nazi apologist Frieda, and that, though he's willing to let Carol go back to the States, he wants to keep Ricky with him.

This feels like a WWII variation on the post-WWI melodrama EVER IN MY HEART which similarly involves problems between a German man and his American wife whose political views begin to differ. Bennett and Lederer are fine, though Bennett seems like a bit of a lightweight—despite the increasing tension, I never really felt like she considered herself in peril, so Lederer (pictured) takes the focus of the movie by default. The film is fast-paced but a little too episodic so it becomes predictable that every 10 minutes or so, a new obstacle will arise or a new secret will be revealed—there's a whopper of a secret saved for the end that I won't spoil here. Lloyd Nolan is good in the limited role of an American reporter, Anna Sten is Freida, and Otto Kruger (as Eric's father) and Maria Ouspenskaya (as Gerhardt's mother) give good support. This was one of the earliest Hollywood films to take a serious and explicit anti-Hitler stance and is well worth watching if this era interests you. [TCM]

Friday, November 02, 2018


We are introduced to Custer College though the eyes of a new—though not young—physics professor (Marc Connelly) who is befriended by his neighbors, a stuffy ethics professor (Ray Walson) and his much less stuffy wife (Anne Jackson). The big story on campus is the arrival of a tall and lovely co-ed (Jane Fonda) who admits she came to Custer to snag a tall husband, in particular the reigning basketball star (Anthony Perkins). And that is the entire plot of this weightless but generally inoffensive comedy which borders on being a sex farce—but, of course, a sex farce in 1960 under the Production Code was very different from what it would be just a few years later, so this is actually pretty squeaky clean. It’s not a musical but it kept reminding me of BYE BYE BIRDIE, partly perhaps because of a passing resemblance between Fonda and Ann-Margaret, and because of a plot wrinkle in the last half involving visiting Russians, not a ballet company as in BIRDIE, but a basketball team. The first half of the movie is all about Fonda chasing the naïve and clueless Perkins, even enlisting the help of her professors; at one point, a frustrated Walston says, "I am a professor of ethics, NOT a madam!" Once she snags him, the plot turns toward their future; they decide to buy a motor home from a fellow student (Tom Laughlin) but can't afford it until a stranger offers Perkins a big chunk of money to throw the upcoming game to the Russians. Perkins agrees and deliberately flunks his ethics exam so he'll be disqualified from the game. But just as the game begins, Perkins has second thoughts, and the only way for him to play is if Walston will give Perkins a make-up quiz on the spot; the professor of ethics isn't likely to stoop so low… or is he?

As I said above, this is mostly weightless fluff; it has its bright moments, most belonging to the young and energetic Jane Fonda, but it does get bogged down in the second half which, compared to the first half, feels like it's playing out in slow motion. Perkins (pictured above with Fonda) is surprisingly good (and cute) in the kind of frivolous role that he wouldn't be called on to do very often after playing Norman Bates in PSYCHO later in the year. Walston and Jackson are good as the academic couple, and Connelly, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, holds his own as the more empathic professor. It's fun to see a youthful, fresh-faced Laughlin, later famous as Billy Jack, in his supporting role. Throughout, individual scenes work OK but they don't mesh well into a satisfying whole. As other viewers have noted, the whole bribing storyline is illogical at best and completely unbelievable if you think about it too long. Watch for quick bits by Gary Lockwood as the main Russian player and Van Williams (TV’s Surfside 6 and The Green Hornet, pictured at right) as a hunky guy in the showers. Robert Redford is listed on IMDb has a basketball player but I didn't see him. [TCM]