Sunday, April 26, 2020


During the Gold Rush days in California, grizzled prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) witnesses two men fall down a hill from a wagon train of settlers. One of the two, a young boy, dies, but his older brother (Clint Eastwood) survives. As Rumson helps attend to the man, he finds gold in the dirt and stakes a claim, and insists on sharing it with the man whom he calls Pardner (Clint Eastwood). Ben and Pardner become good friends, sharing money and a cabin, and soon a little town has been built, called No Name City, with an all-male occupancy of prospectors. One day, a Mormon man comes through with his two wives; the townspeople, telling him that "plural marriage" isn't legal in California, get him to auction off one of his wives, the young and lovely Elizabeth (Jean Seberg). A drunken Ben bids enough to claim her, also getting "all her mineral resources," in the words of the auctioneer. Once Elizabeth shows that she's no passive pushover, she and Ben forge a decent marriage until she finds herself attracted to Pardner, and he to her. When Ben figures this out, Elizabeth suggests that the three live together, in a Mormon-like arrangement, and Ben and Pardner agree. When the men of the town hear that a group of "French bawds" is nearby, they hijack the stagecoach and get them to establish a whorehouse for the lonely men. Soon the town is booming, with many cathouses and saloons, and Ben gets the bright idea of digging tunnels under the establishments to collect the substantial amount of gold dust that gets scattered by paying customers. Trouble between Ben and Elizabeth leads to Ben leaving the friendly menage, but more trouble comes when the structural integrity of the secret tunnels threatens the very existence of the town.

This is one of the notorious big movie musical flops of the late 1960s and early 70s (Camelot, Mame, Star!, Doctor Dolittle) that led to the temporary end of the musical as a going concern and gutted the finances of a few studios. But as the excellent book Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s by Matthew Kennedy points out, some of these movies drew respectable crowds. Paint Your Wagon was actually among the top 10 moneymakers of its year, but it still didn't make enough money to cover its huge budget. The real problem wasn’t so much people didn’t go to see these movies, but that the studios spent way too much money trying to come up with another Sound of Music. I'd avoided seeing this, lumping it in with those other bombs, but actually this isn't bad. It would have worked much better as a non-musical, I think, as none of the songs were memorable except perhaps "They Call the Wind Maria," and the songs don't really move the plot along. (What amounts to the title song, actually called "I'm On My Way" is also catchy.) The leads can't sing, which is probably why "Maria" is given to Harve Presnell; his character is minor but he was an actual singer/actor. The menage a trois arrangement works surprisingly well, as a plot device and between the characters, and was a selling point for the times—the film was advertised as bawdy and rebellious. Eastwood, Marvin and Seberg are, singing aside, fine, and Presnell and Ray Walston stand out in support. Largely filmed on location, an entire town was built, mostly so it could be destroyed at the end, and the climax, as the town's buildings all collapse, is impressive. It's not quite a traditional western, and doesn't really work as a traditional musical, but it's worth a viewing. [DVD]

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


On New Year's Eve, we see a man named Edward Grey strangle a woman to death only to discover that we're watching the last scene of a play. Grey is a character being played by Reginald Parker in a hit play written by his fiancée Dorothy Kent. But after a year, he's tired of playing the part and this December 23rd performance is the last. Parker is heading to Victoria Station to take a train to be with Dorothy to marry her over the holidays. But he's caught in a bombing raid, gets a concussion and loses his memory. Wandering in a daze to the station, he overhears a woman named April ask for a ticket to Brighton which sparks a memory of some dialogue in his play and he too goes to Brighton under the name Edward Grey. He becomes friendly with April, who has secretly married a pilot named Bob but hasn't yet told her family for fear that they will worry unduly about him. As he helps her carry out her subterfuge, allowing April to spend time with Bob, Dorothy gets the news that Reginald was a casualty of the London raid, so no one is looking for Reginald as he, thinking he's Edward, begins a murder spree based on incidents from the play. Bob, seeing a poster of Reginald in a bar, puts two and two together, but as it's now New Year's Eve, will he be able to stop Grey from acting out the climax for real—with April?

The device of having an actor get carried away by a murderous role was used a couple of years later in Ronald Colman's A Double Life. This B-movie second feature runs just a bit over an hour, so it doesn't have time to explore the gimmick with any real psychological depth, but its length keeps it focused and moving at a good clip. B-lead John Loder (pictured) is quite good as the actor turned killer, and despite his crimes, we remain sympathetic to him to the end. June Duprez (as April) and Rose Hobart (as Dorothy) are adequate. Michael St. Angel, an American actor I'd never heard of, is good in the limited role of Bob the pilot. It's mostly thanks to Loder and some atmospheric cinematography that the movie works as well as it does. A nice little B-movie gem. [YouTube]

Saturday, April 18, 2020


In 1754, England and France are tangling over American land around the Great Lakes, and there is bad blood between two Indian tribes: the Mohicans who have sided with Britain, and the more militant Mingos who are with France. The Mingos attack a Mohican village, killing everyone except a child named Uncas. Chingachgook, a Mohican brave, is spared because he was off with his friend, the white man called Pathfinder, who was raised by the Mohicans. War is declared (which came to be known as the French and Indian War) and the British ask Pathfinder to serve as a spy with the French-speaking Welcome Alison as interpreter. At the French camp, Pathfinder and Chingachgook offer their services to the French as scouts, and Welcome uses her feminine wiles to find out some important information about a coming supply train that Pathfinder plans to stop before it gets to camp. But who should show up to join the French than Capt. Bradford, Welcome’s former fiancé who went off with an Indian maiden. When he threatens to blow Pathfinder's cover, a new plan must be put in place.

Everything I know about the books of James Fenimore Cooper comes from the movie THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS in which Uncas and Chingachgook are characters. I also know that Pathfinder is named Natty Bumpo but he is never called that here. I can't speak to the movie's fidelity to Cooper—or to its portrayal of the French and Indian War—but I can say that this is a generally enjoyable time-passing adventure of Colonial America. George Montgomery (pictured), a pleasing B-lead actor, is fine as Pathfinder, and Helena Carter (no relation to Helena Bonham Carter), who had a fairly short career in B-films, is fine as Welcome. Jay Silverheels (Tonto on the Lone Ranger TV show) has little to do as Chingachgook, and Bruce Lester is appropriately slimy as Bradford. This is one of those little movies that has almost completely fallen between the cracks, having apparently left very little impression on anyone at the time of its release. I watched it because I'm a fan of Montgomery, but otherwise this is probably best viewed on a couch, with your feet on the coffee table, on a lazy Saturday afternoon. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


Egyptologist Edward Grant Wilson has died and left a $77 million inheritance to his next of kin. Dot Clark (Ethel Merman), a music store plugger—someone who sings songs for customers in order to sell sheet music—figures she's in store for the money, as she'd had an affair with him, and her gangster boyfriend Louie says she can claim to be Wilson's common-law wife. But Larrabee, head of a museum foundation that Wilson worked with, figures the money should go to the museum. Wilson's lawyers, however, track down Wilson's son Eddie (Eddie Cantor) who has lived in obscurity on a barge with his bullying stepbrothers. All three parties wind up on a ship headed for Egypt. Dot, accompanied by Louie, tells Eddie she is his mother—even though she says she's 19 and he's 25—and Louie thinks of ways to kill Eddie. Larrabee is traveling with his attractive young niece Joan (Ann Sothern) who engages in some flirting with Eddie even though her long-suffering boyfriend Jerry (George Murphy) is also on board. In Egypt, they all have adventures involving a sheik, his daughter (who falls for Eddie), a lost treasure, and a roomful of talking mummies. Not to mention all the songs and production numbers.

Eddie Cantor, a huge star of vaudeville, radio and Broadway, is now, like many other performers with such roots in the 20s and 30s, something of an acquired taste, though he's not as overbearing as others like Al Jolson, Joe E. Brown, or Bert Lahr. Based on this and ROMAN SCANDALS, his persona seems to be that of a likable but naïve guy who nevertheless manages to come out on top. Here, he does indeed wind up with the money (which he uses to build a huge ice cream factory) and even more or less becomes pals with his rivals. Merman almost steals the show from Cantor, and Sothern and Murphy are pleasant. There is a huge minstrel show number on the ship which highlights the fabulous dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. Warren Hymer has a few nice moments as Louie, and Doris Davenport has the small role of Eddie's love interest back home. The lovely and often scantily-clad Goldwyn Girls appear in dance numbers (supposedly a young Lucille Ball is present among them). The finale, in early Technicolor, is set in a huge ice cream factory and plays out much more like a dream than reality. The talking mummy scene is cute, and there's a fun line in the song "When My Ship Comes In" when Cantor sings about having "Walter Disney paintings on the wall." The pace never flags, although at 90 minutes, I was ready for it to end. But overall, it's enjoyable enough, especially now as pandemic distraction. Pictured are Cantor and Davenport. [DVD]

Saturday, April 11, 2020

PSYCHE 59 (1964)

Five years ago (I'm guessing in 1959, based on the movie's title, since it's set in the present, i.e. 1964), Alison Crawford (Patricia Neal), while pregnant, fell down the stairs. She recovered and went on to deliver a healthy baby, but she suffers from hysterical blindness. The doctors can find no physical reason why she can't see and the general suspicion is that something traumatic happened before her fall that she has suppressed—what’s referred to as a "hole" in her memory. Now, Alison and her husband Eric (Curt Jurgens) are welcoming Alison's younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) back into their home after her marriage fell apart. Eric is not comfortable with the arrangement, though we don't know why. When Robin returns, she is not having much luck on the dating scene, complaining, "All the men I used to know have either gotten married or gone queer." Family friend Paul (Ian Bannen) serves as a platonic companion to Alison but clearly has designs on Robin (Paul seems to be neither married nor ‘queer’). When the quartet head out to a country house for a vacation, simmering tensions begin rising, and we discover that Eric and Robin were engaged in an affair five years ago, so it becomes obvious that Alison's repressed trauma has to do with the two of them, which it not really a spoiler since this has been pretty clear from about 15 minutes into the movie. So the score card stands at: Eric has been avoiding rekindling this relationship with Robin; Robin is pressing him to do so; Robin is also teasing Paul; at times, Paul seems like he might have an "older woman" thing for Alison; Eric's aged mother may know than she is letting on; and poor Alison is stumbling (physically and emotionally) around in the dark. When Alison experiences another fall, her sight slowly returns—will her memory of five years ago return?

This is a rather gloomy-looking psychological melodrama filled with close-ups of people's faces and hands. As such, it drags on a bit, though the performances are uniformly fine. Jurgens is a bit too old for the part, but he and Neal do have an interesting chemistry, more of familiarity and respect than of love. Eggar, looking young and beautiful and very much of the 60s, steals most of her scenes if only because she is so radiant and energetic when no one else around her is. Bannen is fine in a somewhat limited role—his character seems largely extraneous to the plot. Beatrix Lehmann is quite good in the similarly limited role of Eric's mother. Neal's performance gets a bit repetitious, but I think that has more to do with the way her character is written than with her acting. For most of the film, she's a rather passive presence, reminding me a bit of Audrey Hepburn in WAIT UNTIL DARK (another blind woman, though in much more physical peril than Neal is). Today, the idea of a memory "hole" due to repressed trauma is fairly common, and therefore the trajectory of the narrative will be more predictable for us than it might have been in 1964. So this winds up more interesting as a period piece than truly compelling. Pictured are Bannen and Eggar. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 07, 2020


British intelligence is sent an anonymous letter accusing an agent named Fennan of being a Communist sympathizer. Charlie Dobbs (James Mason) has the unpleasant duty of asking Fennan if there's any truth to the claim. The two have a relatively friendly chat in a London park and Dobbs is certain that there is no substance to the accusation. Nevertheless, the next morning, Fennan is found dead in his home, an apparent suicide. Dobbs has another unpleasant duty which is to go talk to Elsa, the widow (Simone Signoret), a concentration camp survivor. He soon suspects that Fennan's death may be murder, but his bosses aren't interested, so he resigns temporarily and gets some help from a policeman friend (Harry Andrews) to keep probing the situation. In his private life, Dobbs has more drama on his hands: his young wife Anne (Harriet Andersson) is openly carrying on any number of affairs with younger men. Soon, another young man is on the scene: Dieter Frey (Maximillian Schell), an old friend of Charlie's, was a former agent who had been under Charlie's command and is now a chocolate company executive. He shows up from Switzerland on a business trip. Their reunion is a happy one, but eventually Charlie begins to suspect that Dieter and Anne are having an affair. Eventually, Charlie realizes that there is more to Elsa than the grieving widow she appears to be, and as he uncovers a web of deceit that touches him personally, he may wish he had let well enough alone.

This low-key spy thriller is based on John Le Carré's first novel "Call for the Dead" and if you know Le Carré, you'll know to expect gloom, betrayal and introspection rather than the action and sex that filled most spy movies of the 60s. Still, this is a tense and compelling movie with no false moves, a complex but comprehensible plot, and great acting all around. Mason is perhaps a smidge too old for the lead role, in relation to his wife who looks a good 25 years younger than Dobbs—in the book, his character is named George Smiley, who was featured in many more Le Carré books and films—Otherwise, Mason gives a fine performance. Virtually everyone else is good, especially Signoret, whose character is the most complex. I also liked Harry Andrews as the cop friend and Kenneth Haigh as a fellow agent of Charlie's who helps him out. There’s not much humor except in one scene that feels like an elaborate in-joke with cameos by Lynn Redgrave (as a clumsy stage manager) and her brother Corin (as a director of a low-rent production of Macbeth). This one seems to have fallen between the cracks of the 60s spy movie canon but it's well worth a viewing. Pictured are Schell and Mason. [Criterion Channel]

Friday, April 03, 2020


In Kurdistan in World War I, British soldier Michael Andrews (Cary Grant) has been captured and is set to be executed by the Kurds, but a Turkish officer (Claude Rains) frees him and they escape together. The officer, who only gives his name as Smith, is actually a British spy and he and Andrews head out across the desert to warn the Bakhtiari tribes that the Kurds are on an exterminating binge and they need to leave the area. As the tribes migrate, a fellow British officer named Cullen tries to plant doubts about Smith's allegiance in Andrews' mind; when Smith discovers Cullen signaling the enemy, he kills him, which causes Andrews to attack Smith, but Andrews injures his leg badly and Smith, who explains the situation, gets Andrews taken to a hospital in Cairo. While recuperating, Andrews falls for his nurse, Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael), and she for him. Rosemary soon admits to Andrews that she is actually married to a man named Stevenson, but she has been hiding her marital status in order to keep her nursing job. The two had only been married for a week before Stevenson left for the East, and she hasn't heard from him in three years. Movie buffs know the next development: Smith is given leave, shows up in Cairo, and it turns out he is actually Stevenson. When he discovers that Andrews and his wife are in love, and that Andrews has been sent into action in the Sudan, Stevenson follows, determined to exact revenge.

Grant is fine if undistinguished in one of his pre-stardom lead roles at Paramount—though I think he looks mighty fine with a thin mustache (see photo at left). The always reliable Rains tamps down his usual showiness and wisely underplays, for the most part, the role of the jealous husband. Michael gets rather lost between the two stars, and her character remains just a love triangle cliché. Jameson Thomas is fine as Cullen, and no one else gets much to do except an uncredited Akim Tamiroff in a small role as another prisoner of the Kurds. As most critics point out, lots of stock footage is used, apparently largely from the silent documentary Grass about an actual migration of a Bakhtiari tribe, and it's obvious by its graininess and silent-movie speediness. There is also some footage at the end of various animals (zebras, elephants, monkeys) stampeding. A decent little colonial-era adventure-melodrama, worth seeing mostly for Grant and Rains. [DVD]

Wednesday, April 01, 2020


It's 1943, in the midst of World War II, and rationing has taken its toll on a small Scottish island in the Hebrides—the whisky is all gone, and no one knows when more will arrive. The men of the island hope that Winston Churchill will attend to the problem soon; since the island has no cinema or dance hall, what else is there to do but drink? The villagers are morose, with one elderly man even taking to his deathbed, until the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a cargo ship carrying 50,000 bottles of whisky, founders on the rocks on a foggy Saturday night. When word spreads that all that whisky might wind up at the bottom of the sea, a group of men take it upon themselves to "save" the cargo and distribute it around the village. Of course, it being the Sabbath, they have to wait until midnight Monday morning to act. Meanwhile, the self-important Captain Waggett, head of the Home Guard, suspecting that the locals will be attracted to the stuff, has young volunteer Sammy stand guard at the cliff near the wreck. When three locals creep up behind Sammy that night, doing the stealthy "panther crawl," they're not really so stealthy, but Sammy helps them tie him up so the plundering of the whisky can be carried out. The islanders are ecstatic with their haul—even the dying man is suddenly healthy again—but Waggett is, of course, upset, and when his superior officer arrives, the two set out to reclaim the whisky. Can the islanders outwit the military and hang on to their liquid treasure?

This is a delightful Ealing Studios comedy, though the plot summary above doesn't do the movie justice. The narrative is fun, but the bulk of the comedy comes from character—and solid acting. Basil Radford is the hapless villain, Captain Waggett, though it's difficult to dislike him too much. Joan Greenwood and Gabrielle Blunt are the storekeeper's daughters, both of whom are to be married—though one of the pairings depends on holding an island ritual that requires the drinking of whisky. The handsome John Gregson (the fiancé in THE HOLLY AND THE IVY) is the helpful Sammy, James Robertson Justice is the town doctor, and the standout is the young Gordon Jackson (pictured) as George, one of the soon-to-be husbands, if he can ever stand up to his domineering mother (Jean Cadell) who locks him in his room when he sasses her back. Do you think a little whisky will give him some backbone? Much of the film is predictable, but it's fun to watch it all play out, and location shooting is lovely and atmospheric. A joy. [TCM]