Friday, November 29, 2019



Henri Faust, a scholar and would-be alchemist, is retiring after fifty years of teaching at the university. But he now feels like he gave up the simple joys of life, including love, by devoting his life to scholarship, and he realizes how much knowledge (including the secret of creating gold) he still lacks. The demon Mephistopheles appears in the form of a handsome young man and tries to drive a bargain with Faust: the demon will give him a kind of "do-over" existence as a young man with the ability to find love, power and more knowledge, but if he needs to call on Mephistopheles for help, Faust must sign his soul over in blood. Faust agrees and suddenly, he becomes the young form of the devil, and Mephistopheles takes on the form of the old Faust. The young Faust is in for a wild ride as he is arrested (when he enters his own house to get some money and is taken for a thief), falls in love with a gypsy fortune teller named Marguerite, discovers the secret of alchemy and is able to make gold from sand, and falls in with a powerful prince (and takes the princess as a lover). But ultimately, as we know this is the Faust legend, he is going to have to make a decision about the things of the world vs. his eternal soul.

French director René Clair brings his fizzy whimsy and visual flair to this tale; the narrative gets a bit convoluted at times but the rich look of the film is always a delight, as are the performances. Even though there are several characters, acting-wise it is largely a two-man show. Michel Simon, one of France's most prolific actors, has a field day as the aged, doddering Faust and then as the still-aged but sly Mephistopheles. The remarkably handsome Gérard Philipe (pictured) is perhaps even better as the sly devil and then the confused but ambitious youth. The switching of the actors in their roles is a small stroke of genius, even if it does sometimes lead to some plot confusion—I was uncertain how the world at large was reacting to the devil-as-Faust since he does seem to undergo a change in character. I also like that the demon is not The Devil; we see Mephistopheles ask Lucifer for his help at times. At a little over 90 minutes, the film drags in the middle but you'll be glad to stuck with it by the end. A favorite quote, from the demon to Faust: "Your knowledge only serves to measure your ignorance." BTW, the literal translation of the French title, "The Beauty of the Devil," fits the film better, as the ostensible beauty of the title, Marguerite, actually has little to do here. [Criterion Channel]

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Reporters Ken and Jenny are present at a demonstration being given by the Navy to show off its new homing torpedo. As they watch on a monitor, Jenny has a minor freak-out when she has a premonition of something bad, and moments later the gathered reporters see a strange blurry figure swim past the camera. Commander Brown has his own little freak-out and shuts down the demo, but Ken and Jenny decide to go diving to investigate on their own. She sees a man-sized amphibious creature and snaps a picture of it, but she loses the camera and the Navy men don't believe her, so she and Ken go back underwater to find the camera. Instead, they are captured by silver-skinned monsters (who bear a resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon) and taken to a scientific facility on the ocean floor where they meet the insane Dr. Moore. In an attempt to start a single world government, he has been successfully turning human beings into genderless "water cyborgs," the silver creatures, whom he can control with the flip of a dial. Moore has Prof. Howard kidnapped to come and witness his latest transformation: turning Ken and Jenny into cyborgs. Lucky for them, it's a fairly long process, and in the meantime, Commander Brown and his men take a sub down to save the reporters and the professor (and mankind) from becoming water-breathing eunuchs.

This is quite a little gem. It's a Japanese film made with several American and European actors in lead roles. Ken is played by Japanese actor Sonny Chiba who went on to a long career in martial arts movies. Jenny is played by Peggy Neal, a blond American actress who lived in Japan. I was prepared to give the film points for featuring an interracial romance, but the two seem to be just good friends. But wait, there's more! The silver creatures (face pictured above are creepy from afar, but up close, you can see the bends and folds of their costumes. The transformation scene we see, in stop motion, is effective and surprisingly graphic, if a little too long. The sets are bright and colorful and the miniatures look exactly like miniatures, which frankly is a plus in a movie like this. This transfer seems to be wrong; it looks like a full screen print zoomed in to be widescreen, so the close-ups are super close. But even that is kinda fun; the two Navy men (German actors Franz Gruber and Gunter Braun) frequently have their faces so close it's like they're pressed up against each other, burning with barely disguised lust. (See the picture on the right). The last 20 minutes are padded out with some tedious fights, but for the most part, this is colorful campy fun. [DVD]

Monday, November 25, 2019

THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953)

Young Bart Collins lives in middle-class comfort with his widowed mom Heloise. The bane of his existence is his martinet piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker; the movie opens with Bart asleep at the piano, in the middle of a dream that he is being chased through a surreal landscape by several men with large, colorful nets. Tewilliker wakes him up and chastises him for falling asleep while practicing Terwilliker's "Happy Fingers" exercises. After Dr. T leaves, Bart's mom leaves to go shopping and, like Dr. T, exhorts him to keep playing. The only sympathetic person around is the plumber, August Zabladowski, who is in the kitchen fixing the sink. Once again, Bart nods off at the piano and has an even more surreal dream. Bart is imprisoned in theTerwilliker Institute, forced to practice constantly and soon to take his place in a huge concert involving 500 boys playing a gigantic auditorium-sized piano. His mom, seemingly under hypnosis, works for Dr. T and is soon to be married to him. Bart's only friend is August, who somewhat reluctantly serves as a father figure, even has he has to get all the plumbing in the Institute finished so the civil inspectors will let the place open for the arrival of the other 499 boys. But soon the two are working together and they invent a sound-capturing device to use at the concert that they hope will pull the piano music out the air and ruin the concert.

Often, the books and movies we consume when we are young remain favorites of ours for the rest of our lives; even when, as adults, we can see their weaknesses, we still enjoy them, perhaps out of a sense of nostalgia. I have a very fond memory of seeing this movie on TV when I was 11 or 12 and laid up at home for a week with the flu, and was quite taken with the adventure and fantasy elements. When this was first released on home video in the 90s, I bought a copy and was sorely disappointed. Now, after another 25 years, I've watched it again and this time my feelings have moderated a bit. The film has become a cult classic, largely due to the wild production design by Dr. Seuss, who also co-wrote the screenplay. In terms of production, the movie is certainly more than watchable, with a visual vibe similar to that of the later Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: the giant piano, a huge curved ladder that leads nowhere, two roller-skating men with conjoined beards, dazzling sets, colorful costumes, and a wild dance number held in a dungeon featuring zombie-like musicians (pictured at right) are all worth seeing. Unfortunately, the story is muddled without a coherent theme; is this musical—with mostly unmemorable songs—actually anti-music? Anti-parents? Anti-fascist?

The performances are all over the map. Rettig is fine as the boy and old pro Conried gives it a good shot as Dr. T, though there is still room for him to go further over the top. The best song by far is the campy "Do-Mi-Do Duds," sung by Conried while he's getting dressed by his assistants: "I want my undulating undies with the marabou frills/I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills." But Mary Healy is unmemorable as the mom (slightly better as the fantasy mom who gets to be a little wicked) and her real-life husband Peter Lind Hayes is pretty bad as August; drab and passive, giving us no confidence in his skills as a hero, a father figure, or even as a plumber. I know the character is supposed to grow into his better self but Hayes plays August with the same low-energy level all the way through. August does get the best line: listening to Bart complain about parents, he replies,"If kids had their way, almost no parents would be born at all." Having said all that, I still enjoyed watching the movie—at 90 minutes, it doesn't quite wear out its welcome—though I think to some degree, I'm still experiencing it as the movie that captivated me as a child. I'm a little surprised that, with all the Seuss movies of the last few years, a remake has never been done. [TCM]

Friday, November 22, 2019


Norway has been occupied by the Nazis, and the Germans are hunting down members of the Free Norwegians resistance movement. In England, Capt. Robert Owen (Lyle Talbot) is put in charge of a mission to parachute into Norway to free General Heden whom the Nazis are holding in prison. Owen insists on informality and on being called Bob by his two partners, Eric and Harry, and the three parachute into Norway with the cover story of being friends up in the mountains on a vacation. When they are caught by Gestapo agents in the apartment of a resistance fighter, the three commandos turn the tables, tie up the Nazis, and dress in their uniforms in order to enter the prison and free Heden. They wind up hiding out in the woods before meeting a boat which is to take them to England. However, Heden is injured in the escape and Eric goes back into town to find a doctor. He meets his former fiancée Inga; bitter over the death of her father when Eric escaped before the occupation, she's become a collaborator and contacts the Gestapo. Eric is captured and tortured, and eventually tells the Nazis where their rescue boat will be. How many members of our trio will survive, and will Heden get his freedom?

This is a Poverty Row thriller which means the physical production will remind you of an Ed Wood movie—cheap sets and uninspired camerawork. But the proceedings were intriguing enough for me to stick with it, despite some weaknesses in writing. The script feels like it was being written day by day as the movie was being shot. They never really get a chance to use their mountaineers cover story, and the circumstances of Eric's background with Inga are vague. But things move along at a decent clip, and the actors are competent. Talbot, an old pro, was past his prime but does a good job as the chipper American (his character is supposed to be Canadian, but I never bought that), Nordic-looking George Neise (Eric) is believable as the less-experienced freedom fighter, and Charley Rogers (Harry) is used mostly as comic relief with his Cockney accent. June Duprez is Inga, Victor Varconi is the chief Nazi, and Sven Hugo Bork is Dalberg, a German officer who plays in important role in the climax. The occasional background music is silly or inappropriate (often Beethoven trotted in for no reason) but if you like these cheapies, it's worth a viewing. Pictured from left: Rogers, Neise and Talbot. [YouTube]

Monday, November 18, 2019


In the 1870s, Bat Masterson, the sheriff of Dodge City, is headed for a showdown with the tubercular gunfighter Doc Holliday.  But federal marshal Wyatt Earp, friend to both men, stops it in order to bring Masterson's attention to a more pressing matter: the possibility of an Indian uprising. Amos Merrick, who brought about a treaty with the Indians by giving them a reserve outside of Dodge City, has been accused of the murder of an Army officer, and he has found refuge with the Indians. The cattlemen of Dodge City resent Merrick giving up land they say they need for their cattle—and we eventually learn that one of the cattlemen is the guilty party in the murder. Masterson goes to Chief Yellowhawk and talks him into giving Merrick up to "the white man’s justice," but Yellowhawk also says that if Merrick dies, many white men will as well, including Masterson. Merrick is indeed found guilty based on the testimony of Clay Bennett, though Yellowhawk tells Masterson that Bennett was seen miles away from the site of the murder at the time it happened. Masterson, with help from Merrick’'s daughter Amy and the reluctant Doc Holliday, vows to clear Merrick's name before he is executed.

To me, Masterson, Earp and Holliday are just names out of the mists of American legend; I actually know them more as characters on TV westerns of the 50s and 60s (on separate shows, Gene Barry played Masterson and Hugh O'Brien was Earp—with Doc a regular character on his show). I've also seen GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL which features all three men. I know little of the real history of these people, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying these undoubtedly fanciful renderings of the Wild West. The likeable George Montgomery is fine as Masterson; Bruce Cowling has the small role of Earp, who pops in and out of the story as events warrant; the scene-stealer is James Griffith who makes Holliday a more memorable character than Masterson; he comes off as simultaneously slimy and sympathetic. Nancy Gates has the fairly bland role of Amy, and Jay Silverheels, better known as Tonto in the Lone Ranger show, is Yellowhawk. There's not a lot of action here, though the final showdown, as our legendary trio try to stop the lynching of Merrick, plays out nicely. Directed by William Castle before he took to grade-B horror and exploitation films. A bit sluggish at times but OK for whiling away a Saturday afternoon. Pictured above are Griffith and Montgomery. [TCM]

Friday, November 15, 2019


In an opening that sets a whimsical tone for the proceedings, a White House tour guide sings a patriotic song on his tour, and the portraits of past presidents sing along. We settle in on a backroom meeting of a group of politicians who are promoting the boring, stodgy T.R. Blair (George M. Cohan) as a presidential candidate, but even they admit he lacks flair, personality, and sex appeal (this last criticism comes from a very masculine women clearly coded as a lesbian). In his private life, he wants to propose to Felicia (Claudette Colbert), the former president's daughter, but though she's fond of him, she can't take his proposal seriously. Meanwhile, Doc Varney and his medicine show come through town; Varney (also Cohan, at left) is the spitting image of Blair but with a much more gregarious personality. When Felicia meets up with him, she thinks he's Blair who has somehow become a more magnetic person. The politicians come up with a plan: substitute Varney for Blair in public appearances, and get Blair elected. Blair, jealous of the attraction between Varney and Felicia, plans to get rid of Varney after the election by shipping him off to an island in the Arctic. Some plans come to fruition, some don't.

The plot will be familiar to modern audiences as it's similar to that of DAVE, the Kevin Kline movie. But the importance of this film is historical: it's one of only two sound films that Cohan, famous songwriter and song-and-dance man of the stage, made in his career. Surprisingly (and disappointingly), Cohan is nothing like James Cagney played him in the biopic YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. Of course, he was over 50 when he made this film, and so probably past his peak as a live performer, but he seems rather listless here. The difference between Blair and Varney is actually not all that much—mostly, as Blair, Cohan frowns and looks serious, and as Varney, he smiles and seems lackadaisical rather than truly madcap. Colbert is OK, and Jimmy Durante, as Varney's huckster buddy, is definitely an acquired taste—some love him, some hate him. I can generally tolerate him, and here, he actually has a couple of moments of anarchy that are reminiscent of the Marx Brothers. Some interesting support is given by George Barbier and Sidney Toler as two of the corrupt politicians. There is an odd production number set at a political convention in which delegates from Harlem are told that Blair will move the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue to Lenox Avenue. The various effects used to allow both of Cohan's characters to appear in the same shot are nicely done. The political satire may not be especially sharp but it is, sadly, still relevant. Of interest only to film buffs, I would think. [DVD]

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

JIVARO (1954)

Rio (Fernando Lamas) runs a trading post in a Brazilian village and he pilots a small cargo boat up and down the Amazon River. His friend Jerry (Richard Denning) had big plans to build a rubber plantation and bring his fiancée Alice (Rhonda Fleming) over from the States to live in jungle luxury, but Jerry has become a drunkard, dreaming of finding a legendary lost treasure in the land of the headhunting Jivaro people, and taking Maroa, a native girl (Rita Moreno), as a mistress. He asks Rio to finance a trip into the jungle to the Valley of the Winds where he thinks the treasure lies, but Rio tells him to shape up. While downriver in another village, Rio meets the lovely Alice who has come to visit Jerry, though the letter from Alice telling Jerry this was intercepted and torn up by the jealous Maroa, so her visit is a surprise. Rio agrees to take her back with him on the overnight trip; he gets her drunk on warm beer and the two become friendly. Back in the village, Jerry is nowhere to be found. Alice stays in his hut and discovers evidence of his affair. The next day, a burly prospector named Tony (Brian Keith) offers to take Alice up the river to a mine he's working, saying he can show her Jerry's plantation from there. She goes, only to be stranded with Tony (on purpose), who tries to assault her. He is stopped by the timely intervention of Rio who is clearly establishing himself as her protector. But when they get the news that Jerry has led a small group into dangerous Jivaro territory to find the lost treasure, Rio and Tony join forces to accompany Alice through the jungle to find him.

The exotic jungle melodrama had been an established film genre for years, at least as far back as 1932's RED DUST with Gable and Harlow, and in the 40s it remained alive in many B-films (the Tarzan and Bomba movies) with B-stars (Maria Montez, Sabu). But in the 50s, as movies tried to fight back against the popularity of television, exotica returned in Technicolor, widescreen, and with big budgets. This one is not terribly well-remembered today; it was shot in 3D but by the time of its release, the 3D fad had already faded so it was released in traditional form. But recently, the 3D version was found, restored, successfully shown at a 3D film festival and is now available on home video. I don't have a 3D screen or player so I can only report on the 2D DVD version (which looks clear and colorful), but the 3D gimmicks that were thrown in are obvious: early on, a native thrusts a shrunken head directly at the camera, not once but twice, and later on, fiery arrows are shot right at the audience. In 2D, this is a colorful if sometimes sluggish melodrama, notable for the presence of mostly bare-chested and very sweaty men, and a couple of nifty fisticuffs scenes. Fleming feels out of place here (as did many female stars who were cast as helpless women searching for their unworthy men in the jungles), dolled up in full make-up and well-coiffed hair. Lamas (pictured with Fleming), however, is quite an attraction here; he's masculine but not bombastically so, always wearing a shirt open to the waist (except when he's not wearing a shirt at all), and quite (sweatily) handsome. He and Fleming do work up some good chemistry in the last half of the movie. Keith, in one of his first major roles, does well as the villain—and gets to show off his beefy physique. Moreno mostly skulks around with a guilty face, and Lon Chaney Jr. gets fourth billing even though his "likeable lug" character only has about five minutes of screen time. OK viewing for a lazy weekend afternoon, or for fans of 50s adventure movies. [DVD]

Thursday, November 07, 2019


Sweden, 1654. In a beautiful candle-lit ceremony, Christina (Liv Ullmann), the queen of Sweden, abdicates. As she leaves the castle, her demeanor changes from solemn to joyful; she lets down her hair and laughs, runs through wheat fields and does a little spin reminiscent of Maria bursting into song in opening of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Alas, Christina does not sing, but instead goes striding purposefully from Sweden to the Vatican. She has abdicated in order to convert to Catholicism, and has assumed that she will be given special treatment by the aging pope himself. However, her arrival causes consternation amongst the cardinals who are afraid that her conversion is not sincere, but the equivalent of a 17th century publicity stunt—in the year it took her to get the Vatican, scandal spread about her supposed licentious merry-making, not to mention rumors of a same-sex love affair in which she indulged. Christina is subjected to a lengthy investigation, conducted by Cardinal Azzolino (Peter Finch), and the two play a sort of power game with each other during which we see flashbacks to her earlier life. The two are combative at first, but soon they warm to each other. She admits having had deep feelings for two of her friends, Magnus and Ebba (who eventually become a couple themselves) and claims she has always been disappointed in love and will remain a virgin—unless she gives herself to Azzolino. He seems to be considering such an arrangement (she suggests that she fake her death and the two could live together), but when the pope dies, he rethinks their situation.

This has a reputation as an interesting failure—some ravishing sets and cinematography, but a sluggish pace, an awkwardly fractured narrative, and two mismatched actors. It's based on a two-character play, though one can't complain that it's stagy; its main strengths are its elaborate settings and its visual style. Though I usually love Ullmann, her Christina comes off as unstable and unsympathetic—her two moods are haughty and imperious—and we never get any sense of what has given her such a strong desire to convert. Finch's character, which he embodies more smoothly that Ullmann does hers, is more traditional, but my belief in their desire ebbed and flowed. The theoretically important character of Christina's mute dwarf jester, who accompanies her everywhere, is muted partly due to a tragic off-screen circumstance—Michael Dunn, who plays the dwarf in flashback scenes, died during filming, and was replaced by a far less charismatic actor in the present scenes. The flashback scenes of Christina's escapades with her friends are interesting but not developed very much. This is certainly not a disaster but it does make promises it can't fulfill. Directed by Anthony Harvey, better known for THE LION IN WINTER, and based on this film, one suspects that Harvey had less to do with the brilliance of that earlier film than his leading actors (Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole) did. [TCM]

Monday, November 04, 2019


Trusting nice-guy rancher Joe (Don Castle) keeps a small statue of the Madonna in his modest, out-of-the-way home where he lives with his cranky but good-hearted old-timer associate Pete. Somehow, an article about the statue, which claims that it's actually a valuable antique, appears in an art collecting magazine and is brought to the attention of small-time crook Nick (Sheldon Leonard). He drives out to Joe's ranch to see if he can acquire it (legally or not). When no one answers the door, Nick enters, grabs the Madonna, and starts to leave just as Joe and Pete appear. Nick claims he was just going to step outside and appraise it in the sunlight. Pete is suspicious but Joe seems to buy his story. When Nick asks if he can buy it, Joe tells him it's not for sale—his friends and family believe that the statue brings luck and even, according to some, miracles. But Nick is not so easily dissuaded; back in town, he has a copy of the Madonna made and sends his gal Monica (Lynne Roberts) to switch statues. She connives to have her car break down near his ranch and, being the Good Samaritan type, Joe takes her to his home while Pete fixes the car. But the Madonna is gone—Joe has loaned it to some friends to display on an altar at a wedding ceremony. He takes her there and when she tries to swap the statues, she knocks over a nearby candle which sets both the altar and her on fire, but miraculously, though her clothes are burned, she is not. Monica is invited to stay the night and she begins to have second thoughts about the theft. But a wild card enters the situation: Tony (Don Barry), an ex-con who has no use for Nick. He's heard about the statue and shows up at the ranch, posing as a drifter looking for some work, which nice-guy Joe gives him. The stage is now set for third-act double-crosses and switches and fisticuffs, and perhaps a proclamation of love.

This little-known B-crime melodrama is actually a pretty decent film. The hook, a religious icon that may have miraculous powers, is different, and the characters of Joe and Monica are fleshed out just enough so that we come to care about them. The two actors are also quite good. Neither went far beyond B-movies—though Castle, who was considered a Clark Gable lookalike early in his career, became a producer of the Lassie show in the 1960s—but both are fine here, especially Castle who does a good job balancing nice-guy dumb vs. nice-guy smart. Sheldon Leonard is always an asset, and Paul Hurst, memorable in the small role of the deserter who gets shot in the face by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, makes the cranky Pete feel like a fully formed character. Recommended for B-movie buffs. [YouTube]