Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Saturday morning, successful stockbroker Gene Raymond steals a million dollars from his firm's safe, leaves his routine life in San Francisco, and books a flight to Shanghai with a stopover in Honolulu. Meanwhile, Osa Massen leaves her husband's funeral, followed closely by the suspicious-looking Francis Lederer, and heads to the airport to buy a ticket on the same plane. On the flight, Lederer surprises Massen, telling her that he knows that she killed her husband to get a big insurance payoff, and he wants half of it to keep the secret. The upset Massen enlists Raymond to pretend to be an old friend so she can keep Lederer away from her. In Honolulu, all three wind up at the same hotel. Massen and Raymond get to know each other while Lederer, suspecting that Raymond is not what he seems, sneaks into his room and steals his briefcase (which, unknown to Lederer, contains the stolen million dollars). Raymond and Massen, now knowing each other's secrets (Massen accidently pushed her husband off a balcony when he got drunk and tried to assault her) follow Lederer, who has gotten on a plane to San Francisco. Back in the city, Lederer manages to give them both the slip. Raymond vows to get the money back, Massen vows to confess her part in her husband's death, and they agree to meet again in a month in Honolulu if they can rid themselves of their past mistakes.

This is a somewhat convoluted B-noir (sort of; despite the conflicted hero, it lacks the look and feel of a noir), the sole directorial effort of its star, Gene Raymond, an attractive leading man whose heyday was in the 30s, though he was quite active in 50s television as well. It looks low-budget, but it does include some Hawaiian location footage, mostly as background. The biggest problem I had was with character motivations. The backgrounds of the three leads are not filled in very well, a particular problem with Massen. I also have no idea why Lederer steals Raymond's briefcase since he doesn't seem to suspect that it's full of money. The wrap-up (Spoiler: they do meet back in Honolulu at the end) is a little too neat—we see how Raymond gets out of his jam, but not how Massen does, nor what happens to Lederer. Raymond is a little too tired looking to be an effective romantic hero; he was only 40 but looks older. Massen (acting under the name Stephanie Paull for this one picture) is fine. Lederer is sinister, and his thin, creepy voice is used to good effect. There are a couple of musical numbers used in the background, one, "You Are My Destiny" sung by a very handsome young man at a restaurant (couldn't dig up his name on the Internet, but he's pictured at top left), and the Royal Hawaiian Serenaders are given special credit in the cast list. A better script and a more solid noir atmosphere would have helped this immensely. Raymond and Massen are pictured at right. [YouTube]

Monday, February 25, 2019


In Budapest, an American named Anderson has been found guilty of spying and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor—supposedly he admitted it at his trial, but Nick (George Sanders), chief editor at the Paris office of the New York Herald-Tribune, thinks the whole thing is a set-up. He sends reporter Jeanne Moray (Marta Toren), who has connections in Budapest, to the Hungarian embassy to get a comment from the ambassador, but another reporter, the hot-headed American Jimmy Race (Dana Andrews) scoops her. We soon discover that Jeanne is Nick's mistress, taking the place of fashion editor Sandy Tate (Audrey Totter). Sandy's a good sport about it, but Jimmy starts sniffing after Jeanne; will a romantic rectangle develop? (No, these plot points are brought up but never developed, except for the budding romance between Jimmy and Jeanne.) Hungary announces that they will hang the next person guilty of spying, but Jeanne has been involved in her own bit of espionage—while in Budapest, she tried to get her hands on a photo of Odey, the Hungarian prime minister, at a secret meeting with Tito, the head of Yugoslavia, at which plans were being made to break away from the Soviets. Meanwhile, Borvitch, a Hungarian diplomat, is trying to find the underground leader Gabor Czeki, who has escaped to Paris, and he thinks Jeanne knows where he is—she doesn't but she suspects he's close by (and he is). Meanwhile, Barker, the Tribune's Budapest editor, has a heart attack and Jimmy is sent to help him out. While there, he discovers that Anderson is dead and manages to get the information out to Nick in a coded news broadcast. He also discovers the Ordy-Tito photo; naturally, Budapest doesn't want that news to get out and when they find out what Jimmy's been up to, he is arrested as a spy and tortured in an attempt to get him to make a fake confession. Will he escape? Can Jeanne and Nick help him, or is he on his own?

This is interesting primarily for the fact its heroes aren't spies or soldiers, but journalists. However, this also means that it’s a fairly talky movie and action scenes are absent—the somewhat anti-climactic conclusion plays out like the ending of Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies even down to the visuals, but Spielberg was more effective at sustaining tension. The film was publicized as having been shot on location in Europe, but since most film is set in interiors (in a Hollywood studio), skimpy use is made of the real locations. Dana Andrews and Marta Toren (a Swedish actress who was being pushed as the new Ingrid Bergman—which she was not) are OK in the leads, though Andrews' obnoxiously pushy behavior toward Toren, which we are supposed to find charming, dates badly in the #metoo era. Two supporting players outshine the stars and are the reason to watch this. The wonderful noir bad girl Audrey Totter is a good girl here, playing a somewhat cynical, world-weary character who can still summon up the energy to help the heroes fight the Commies. George Sanders is also quite good as the editor who, after spending most of the movie in offices, ordering people around, gets to rescue Andrews, who is more or less incapacitated at the climax. See it for Totter and Sanders. Pictured are Totter and Toren. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


At Torre's Fish Palace on the San Francisco waterfront, waitress Helen Roberts (Margot Grahame) has just resumed her job after being put on probation (for vague involvement in an unspecified crime which we assume couldn't have been too bad because she has that put-upon, innocent, good-girl look). She's trying to avoid trouble, but trouble finds her in the person of Martin Rhodes (Gordon Jones), a handsome schooner captain who used to run bootleg booze but now stays within the law, more or less. He's waiting for a phone call about a job from a man named Rigo. The call comes, but it comes from the man's brother, Mario. Rigo was tortured to death by men trying to find a cargo of smuggled gold, and now Mario is trying to get that information to Martin. Mario says he'll meet Martin at the restaurant some evening, but the evening he arrives, he's too early. When Mario realizes that a couple of thugs have followed him, he draws a crude map on a napkin and asks Helen to give it to Martin. Mario is killed, and Helen is now sought by the crooks. When a thug breaks into Helen's apartment, he gets the napkin but in trying to escape, he falls to his death from the window. Now the cops want Helen as well, so she winds up hiding out with Martin on his schooner and together they try to figure out where the gold is.

This B-film is a little rough around the edges but essentially likable, partly due to the male lead and partly to a good story that's not too simple and not too complicated. The twists and turns of the plot are easy to follow but not always predictable. I like Jones quite a bit, though here, I had to put aside some discomfort with the way his character harasses the waitress—he's not mean or crude, but he is jackassishly aggressive in the first half of the film as he flirts with this woman who is clearly vulnerable and would rather be left alone. But he strips down to his underwear near the end, and he sings a cute novelty song, "The Monkeys Have No Tails in Zamboanga," so all is forgiven. Margot Grahame (pictured with Jones) was a fairly big name in England but never quite made it in Hollywood—here, she's attractive but colorless. The familiar faces of Marc Lawrence, Billy Gilbert and Don Barry show up, as does Anthony Quinn in one of his first film roles as a violent thug. Solid if unremarkable B-crime film. [TCM]

Friday, February 15, 2019


An opening narration tells us that the FBI protects us from a "worldwide conspiracy which seeks, through subversion, to destroy established governments everywhere"—in other words, the Communists. This film, based on a story written for Reader's Digest by J. Edgar Hoover himself, is the story of one FBI operation that broke open a Russian sleeper cell, a group of spies living in the U.S waiting patiently for their signal to begin espionage activities. The case is triggered when the wife of a taxi driver writes an anonymous letter to the FBI office in Boston claiming that a man named Robert Martin has been forcing her husband to pass along messages in a spy ring. Agents tail Martin to a docked Polish freighter but a different man wearing his clothes leaves. Martin, considered not effective enough, is chastised by Laschenkov who has been sent to Boston to take over Martin's duties. His mission is to extort information from Prof. Kafer, a refugee scientist and the leader of a American military project called Falcon, something involving national defense and the possibility of space travel (though since it's a McGuffin, it doesn't really matter what it's about). The Russians make contact with Kafer and tell him they can get his son out of East Berlin in exchange for information on Project Falcon—their instruction to him to "walk east on Beacon Street" gives the movie its title. He turns to the FBI to help him, and they do, though the comings and goings of the spies and the G-men got a little confusing to me.

Most of this is shot documentary style on actual Boston locations which keeps the proceedings fairly low-key, until, of course, the filmmakers decide they need an action scene or two. George Murphy, as the main FBI agent, delivers an appropriately low-key performance, leaving more attention-getting moments to Finlay Currie as the professor and Virginia Gilmore and Karel Stepanek as two of the more important commie spies. It certainly makes it seem as though Boston was absolutely honeycombed with spies, though the screenplay heavily fictionalized the original Hoover story. The film is featured on DVD as part of a film noir set, though it most assuredly is not noir. As a period anti-Communist propaganda piece, however, it's worth seeing. Pictured are Jack Manning and Vilma Kurer as the taxi driver and his wife. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Gene Kelly started shooting this ballet anthology film (think FANTASIA with live-action dancing instead of animation) in the glow of the success of his hit movie SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. It took him the better part of two years to shoot and edit it—while still working on movies like BRIGADOON and IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER—and release was delayed by a year or more while it was tinkered with by Kelly and MGM. Though it was treated with some grudging respect by critics, it was a commercial flop, and could be seen as the beginning of the slow decline of Kelly's career, though his past work never lost its luster. Today, it may still not be seen as a neglected masterpiece, but it does feel ahead of its time, and has weathered the years better than some of Kelly's later directorial efforts (like Tunnel of Love. Gigot or even Hello Dolly!).

Each of the three segments features Kelly and some renowned ballet dancers of the era in wordless stories acted out through dancing, sometimes balletic, sometimes more like Broadway dancing. They each feel a bit like the extended dance numbers he executed for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but without vocals. The first, titled "Circus," features Kelly as a whiteface clown in a circus troupe who has an unrequited crush on a dancer who only has eyes for a handsome tightrope walker. This has a straightforward melodramatic narrative but it unfolds at a pace which I found a bit too leisurely. "Ring Around the Rosy," possibly inspired by the play and movie La Ronde, follows a flashy bracelet handed off from person to person as romantic trysts occur; a husband buys it for his wife who then gives it to a handsome artist who then gives it to a model who then gives it to her boyfriend, etc. until it winds up back in the husband's hands again. This is the most interesting section of the movie, and Kelly is just of one of the many dancers here. The final segment, "Sinbad the Sailor," was probably calculated to be the most commercial part of the film as it features Kelly dancing against and with cartoon backgrounds and characters, but for me it was slow going. Kelly is a modern-day sailor who rubs a lamp and conjures up a genie. The two enter a storybook (as the animation takes over) and they encounter Arabian Nights characters. It's a little weird that the genie is a 12-year-old kid (David Kasday), and their palling-around scenes feel a little unsavory. Though the animation is well done, the whole bit felt tired and ineffective. However, if my initial description of FANTASIA in dance piques your interest, you would enjoy this, as would most classic movie fans, if only for the novelty. [TCM]

Monday, February 11, 2019


Edgar Allan Poe's definition of a short story has remained something of a standard even today: it should be able to be read in one sitting and everything in it should build toward "a single effect." His famous story "The Tell-Tale Heart" fulfills this proclamation well. It's short (usually 5-8 pages) and has no extraneous material (with virtually no character development) to get in the way of its singular effect, to tell a story of a man driven mad by guilt. The bulk of Poe's fiction is of the short form and, because the short film genre never took off commercially in Hollywood, most Poe film adaptations have been fleshed out into full-length films (such as the American International Poe movies of the 60s) using added material—or, in the case of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, combining two stories—or in the cases of adapting Poe’s poetry, using just a title with little or none of the original work's content (see THE CONQUEROR WORM or THE HAUNTED PALACE which was actually based on a Lovecraft story despite the Poe title). I reviewed a full-length British version of this story last year, and it wasn't bad, but this 20-minute film is better at producing and maintaining that famous "single effect."

A young man (Joseph Schildkraut, pictured) lives with an old man (Roman Bohnen) as his general caretaker, but the old man, who has a creepy looking milky eye, is cranky and abusive, and one night, the young man plots the old man's murder. He carries it out, burying the body beneath some floorboards in the living room, but the next day when two policemen come looking for the old man, the young man is suddenly aware of the loud beating of a heart under the floor and can't figure out why the police don't seem to hear it. When I read this story as a kid, I imagined the ending to be quite literal, with [Spoiler] the young man ripping open the floor and tearing a beating heart out of the old man's body. Of course, it's actually the story of a killer caught by his own guilty conscience. This film is practically nothing but atmosphere—there is little dialogue and no character details except the old man's foul personality (which incidentally is the opposite of the story in which the narrator admits that the old man was harmless and claims it was that milky eye than unnerved him so). Close-ups of water dripping, a clock ticking, and footsteps are used to indicate the young man’s sudden sensitivity to sound, and the dead man's heartbeat is accentuated by thumping musical chords that get louder and louder. Because there is no narration, we lose practically all of the young man's motivation, so a deeper psychological reading is impossible to do here, but Schildkraut is quite good as the central character, getting across his madness with his eyes. I saw this on TCM, which shows older short films quite a bit, but it's also available as an extra on the DVD of Shadow of the Thin Man. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 06, 2019


A Chinese woman who refuses to give her name comes to see renowned San Francisco detective James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) at his home, but before he can meet with her, she is shot in the neck by a poisoned dart, dying instantly, leaving only the name "Captain J" scrawled on a piece of paper as a clue. The police arrive, trailed by pesky reporter Bobbi Logan (Marjorie Reynolds) who sneaks in through a window and is eventually handcuffed to a chair by Inspector Street (Grant Withers), her rather half-hearted boyfriend.  The dead woman is identified as Princess Lin Hwa, who recently arrived in the States on board the ship The Maid of the Orient on a secret mission to purchase arms for a rebel group in China. A bank account she had for the purchase has been drained, and Wong and Street try to track down the culprit. The Mr. Wong movies are mostly second-rate rip-offs of the Charlie Chan movies, but that doesn't mean they can’t be fun. This one, however, is a bit of a chore to sit through. As usual, Karloff is fine, and Withers and Reynolds are OK. But the plot becomes a bit convoluted and the pacing is slack. At one point near the end, some wild fisticuffs threaten to break out, but they peter out quickly. In the supporting cast, the only standout is Angelo Rossito (who had a long career in movies from 1932's Freaks to 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) as a mute dwarf who Street keeps calling, "the little fella." With the comic shenanigans of Street and Logan pushing Wong himself into almost a supporting role, this is one of the lesser entries in the series. The plot was reused in a later Charlie Chan film, The Chinese Ring. Pictured are Withers, Reynolds and Karloff. [DVD]

Tuesday, February 05, 2019


A U.N.-backed project headed by scientist Van Ponder (Richard Devon) is attempting to put a manned satellite into orbit, but on the first eight attempts, the satellite has hit something called the Sigma Barrier—shown as a wavy blur in outer space—and exploded, killing the crew. After the ninth flight meets the same fate, the U.N. calls for the project's termination, but when a necking teenage couple sees a small capsule zoom through the sky and crash in the woods, they investigate, find the capsule and take it to the authorities. It contains a message (in Latin!) from aliens warning us to abandon space exploration. As you can imagine, Americans don’t take kindly to that and the American ambassador manages to get the U.N. to support one more flight. This time, Ponder himself decides to go up in the satellite. However, when he is reported killed in a car crash, support wavers until Ponder shows up, claiming that he survived and is still game to go. What's actually happened is that an alien force has taken on his form and plans on sabotaging the flight. When alien intervention causes a series of natural disasters around the world, Ponder says they should stop, but his associate Dave (Dick Miller, pictured) is still gung-ho. Just before the satellite is to take off, Dave discovers Ponder's wrecked car and begins to suspect that something's not right. Still, Ponder and Dave and Sybil Harrington (Susan Cabot) and a small crew head up to try and break though the Sigma Barrier. When Dave sees Ponder split into two people, he's sure something's not right, and it's up to him to try and save the satellite and the crew.

Roger Corman was inspired to make this low-budget quickie by the news of the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite. Supposedly this went from an idea in Corman's head to a released movie in eight weeks, and it shows, not so much in the acting or the sets (both of which are of variable quality as they are in most B-movies) as in the writing. Why would we keep sending up manned satellites that keep getting destroyed, over and over? How would this tenth flight be any different? (We're not made privy to any plans they have to overcome the barrier.) Why does the alien Ponder keep splitting in two for no particular purpose that I could see? Devon is a rather sinister looking fellow with an odd accent from the get-go, which somewhat undermines his transformation to sabotaging alien. Dick Miller, a Corman mainstay, plays it straighter here than I've ever seen him and he's quite good. Corman himself has a cameo as a mission control guy. The spaceship effects and sets, though laughable today (they strap themselves into lounge chairs), are not bad considering, but the U.N. set is ridiculously sparse. On balance, this is still B-movie-fun enough to recommend, especially for fans of Miller, who passed away last week at the age of 90. [DVD]