Wednesday, May 27, 2020

THE TRAIN (1964)

In August of 1944, as the Allies close in on Paris to declare it an open city, Nazi officer Paul Scofield (pictured at left) is emptying out a museum full of valuable art that he has acquired (i.e., stolen) during the war and shipping it all into Germany on a train. Burt Lancaster, head engineer of the railroad heading out of town, is asked to work with the underground to stop Scofield's plan. Reluctant at first (he thinks there are more important sabotage activities in which to engage), he is eventually brought around to help. The acts of sabotage are small at first, though still risky, and manage to slow down the train's departure. Finally a kind of  'Mission: Impossible' trick is pulled: the train is essentially sent in circles, not leaving France, but signs along the road are changed to make Scofield and his men think that the train is in Germany. The deception works to a point, but when Scofield finds out what's going on, he threatens to kill a truck full of French hostages if Lancaster doesn't give up. At over two hours, the tension here slacks off on occasion, but if you like to see trains running, derailing and crashing, this is the movie for you. The physical production by director John Frankenheimer is quite impressive, and Lancaster and Scofield are excellent as the protagonists who we figure will make this a duel to the death. Jeanne Moreau is underused in the small role of a innkeeper who crosses paths with Lancaster. Despite being a WWII movie, there is no battlefield action here, but chase and train action should satisfy war film buffs. [Blu-ray]

Friday, May 22, 2020


Lord Marshmorton's servants enter a gambling pool run by Keggs, the chief butler, to predict whom his daughter Lady Alyce (Joan Fontaine) will marry. They all pick names out of a hat—with Keggs cheating to pick Reggie, a pleasant but unappealing hanger-on whom Alyce's aunt Caroline is pushing on her—but by the time teenage servant Albert gets to pick, the names are gone, so he picks "Mr. X," any currently unknown man who might enter the picture. So who enters the picture? American musical star Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire). Alyce meets him briefly in London when he lets her share his cab. When Albert hears of the incident, he writes Jerry a letter, signed Lady Alyce, saying she's in love with him and inviting him to swing by the castle sometime. So he does, accompanied by his manager (George Burns playing a character named George Burns) and his scatterbrained secretary (Gracie Allen playing a character named Gracie Allen). Of course, Jerry and Alyce begin to fall in love for real. Because Aunt Caroline continues to push for Reggie, the ornery Lord Marshmorton connives with Jerry to ensure his victory. But complications ensue: for one, Alyce is apparently interested in another American she met in Switzerland. And when George gets a PR piece published implying that Jerry is a playboy and Alyce is just another conquest, Alyce turns Jerry away. But as this is a Hollywood musical comedy, we know the couple will have a happy ending.

This is the first movie Fred Astaire made without Ginger Rogers since hitting the big time with her back in 1933. It's not a bad movie, but, aside from the mistaken identity romance at the center of the plot, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the movies Astaire had been making with Rogers so it was a commercial disappointment. First of all, the splashy art deco trappings of the earlier films are gone; it's still set among the rich and famous, but in an old English mansion. Fontaine is pleasant enough, and she's not a passive insecure ninny as she would be in some of her later movies (REBECCA, SUSPICION), but she's not Ginger Rogers. She and Astaire only share one dance and, though Fontaine is OK, the scene generates none of the romance or humor that a number shared with Rogers would have. What the movie does have is the slightly surreal humor of Gracie Allen and her husband George Burns. In fact, they are the reason for watching. Every time I see Burns and Allen in a movie or a TV clip, I think I won't find them funny anymore, but I always wind up laughing at Gracie's exquisitely daffy timing and George's generous straight-man routine. Not only are they the high point of the film, they even get, with Astaire, the two best dance numbers, a long bit in an amusement park and a shorter one with whisk brooms as props. The wonderful Reginald Gardiner is perfect as the obnoxious Keggs, Montagu Love has a nice light touch as Fontaine's father, and child actor Harry Watson is a fun Albert. At 100 minutes, it's really too long—the last 15 minutes feel like an hour—but even second-rate Astaire is enjoyable. Pictured are Astaire, Allen and Burns. [TCM]

Monday, May 18, 2020


At a military hospital camp in Burma in 1945, the soldiers have just learned that the war is over. Most are excited to be going home, but one group of men is stuck there a while longer while they recover. The group (with men from England, Africa, Australia and New Zealand) is joined by a Scottish soldier, Lachie McLachlen (Richard Todd), complete with bagpipes. But he is a sullen one—in addition to being someone who hates small talk and, by his own admission, has no friends, he is upset that he is being kept in Burma even though his back wound has healed. What the doctors haven't told him is that he lost one kidney, and his other one is defective and will soon give out on him: he only has a few weeks to live. Margaret, the nurse (Patricia Neal, pictured with Todd), knows his situation and tells his roommates, asking them to accept Lachie and help make his last days bright. But Lachie remains unfriendly and combative, ready to get angry over any perceived slight. The Yank (Ronald Reagan), who is the unofficial leader of the group, has to work very hard not to punch Lachie in the face at times, but eventually, the men and the nurse get Lachie, who hasn't had a pleasant life, to accept their friendship. He even enjoys his surprise birthday party at which he receives a kilt, the first one he's ever had. Lachie owns a bit of land in Scotland and he tries, one by one, to talk the men into coming to live with him after they're released. He even stammers out a marriage proposal to Margaret, who has indeed come to feel an attachment to him. But after he collapses and learns the truth about his situation, he turns against everyone, feeling betrayed. Will anything cause Lachie to realize that these people have actually come to care about him?

This is based on a stage play and it shows, though it's been opened up a bit like THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER was, with an opening that sets up some context before settling into the single setting that dominates the rest of the picture. But it never feels static, and even if the general trajectory of the narrative is predictable, the writing and acting make it worth seeing. Todd is excellent as a man you love to hate—and eventually to pity and to warm to; sometimes you want to punch him and sometimes hug him. Though Lachie is in his mid-20s, this is basically an emotional coming-of-age story and Todd expresses Lachie's growth and backsliding very well. Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal are top-billed, but this is Todd's movie all the way, and indeed he was nominated for an Oscar for best leading actor. The other soldiers are pretty much cultural stereotypes—and the African character, who speaks no English except the word "Blossom" which is what the men have named him, is less a real character than a climactic plot point. Ultimately, I found the movie charming and moving, and even humorous, with a running joke about what Scottish men wear under their kilts providing a kind of punch line for the film. Recommended. [TCM]

Saturday, May 16, 2020

CODE 7, VICTIM 5 (1964)

In Cape Town, South Africa, we see a New Year's parade of people in skull-face make-up dancing through the streets. One man wends his way through the crowds, looking a little fearful, and sure enough, we see him duck down an empty street only to be confronted by men in distorted clown masks who stab him to death. The dead man was the butler (and good friend) to a rich copper mining honcho named Wexler (Walter Rilla), and when Wexler decides that solving the crime is beyond the ability of the local police, he hires American private eye Steve Martin (Lex Barker). Martin arrives in Cape Town and is picked up by Wexler's loyal (and lovely) secretary Helga, but they find themselves followed by a car that eventually tries to run them off the road—though ultimately, it's the chaser who winds up careening down a cliff to fiery death.  At Wexler's, we meet Gina, his stepdaughter; Paul, Wexler's doctor who is dating Gina; George, the gruff mines overseer, who seems to have a thing for Helga. We also meet Inspector Lean (Ronald Fraser), a rather homely fellow who somehow has a way with the ladies—honestly, the sexual attraction mapping in the movie is a little unclear, or, a little all over the place, so I was not always sure who was serious about whom. Near the body of the butler, Lean found a photograph of four men, taken years ago in a POW camp; one of them is the butler, who has a large X marked across him, and one of the other men is Wexler. Wexler is reluctant to be helpful, but when another one of the men in the photograph is killed, he starts to open up about what happened in the camp, how it led to his current riches in the copper mines, and who might be stalking him.

This film was marketed as a secret agent movie (the not-very-subtle reference to Agent 007, James Bond, in the title, which was originally VICTIM FIVE) but it's not. It's a detective thriller with some adventure elements and attractive, sometimes bikini-clad, young women. As such, it works well as an example of the faux-spy thriller of the 60s—I don't really know if there are enough movies like this to constitute a genre, but it feels quite familiar. Barker is passable in the lead; he is, in his late 40s, perhaps a shade past his prime, but you don't need too much suspension of disbelief to buy him as a two-fisted hero. The Danish Ann Smyrner (as Helga) and the French Veronique Vendell (as Gina) are attractive, and better actors than they need to be for their rote roles. I didn't like the mild but somewhat silly comic relief of Ronald Fraser in the beginning, but he grew on me. Smaller roles are well played by Dietmar Schonherr as Dr. Paul and Howard Davis as Rawlings. The plot keeps you on your toes, with an unexpected twist involving one of the later victims, but it's easy to follow. The location shooting is nice. The action scenes are a bit underwhelming (a tired-looking lion on the attack, an ostrich stampede) but it was hard to dislike this bit of 60s crime fluff. Pictured are Vendell, Smyrner and Barker. [Blu-Ray]

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


Nature photographer Ted has gotten his rich fiancĂ©e Carole to pay for an expedition to a previously unexplored South Seas island; as a Navy pilot during the war, Ted had snapped a picture of what looked like a living dinosaur on the island, and he's hoping to take better pictures of them. At a bar in Singapore, they meet with the roughneck Captain Tarnowski to charter his boat, used to transport wild animals, to visit the island. Tarnowski brings along John, a former sailor who was trapped on the island during the war and saw giant monsters kill most of his fellow soldiers. No one believed his stories and, traumatized by his experience, he became a broken-down drunk. Once our cozy crew get to the island, they do indeed see dinosaurs and gorilla-type things. Ted gets his pictures, but Tarnowski decides he wants to take a creature back to civilization and get rich with it. Of course, mayhem follows, as creatures kill people, people kill people, Tarnowski assaults Carole, John falls for Carole, Carole falls out of love with Ted, and the natives abscond with the launch so everyone is stuck on the island. 

Anyone who comments on this inevitably compares it to both THE LOST WORLD (dinosaurs) and KING KONG (island with killer gorilla), though as this is strictly B-moviemaking, this will always lose out in direct competition. Coming out as it did in the late 40s, it’s interesting mostly as an odd outlier: too late for the mid-40s monster movie revival, too early for the sci-fi boom of the late 50s. It's in color, but it’s a cheap-looking process. The effects are not exactly terrible considering the era, with a mix of people in costumes, stop-motion models, and puppets; the creatures probably passed muster for younger viewers in the past. The final battle gets a bit gory with the gorilla-thing biting a hole in the dinosaur's chest. Between monster attacks, human melodrama takes center stage and it's difficult to care about any of the humans. Ted (Phillip Reed) is weak but not evil; John (Richard Denning) is a broken-down wreck but gets healthier; Carole (Virginia Grey) is bland, and all of them have murky motivations. That leaves only the brute captain (Barton MacLane) who does provide someone to root against. It's hard to like or dislike this film much, and I kind of enjoyed the dinosaur/monster scenes as I do with Gamera movies. [YouTube]

Saturday, May 09, 2020


In Scotland, plain-looking 26-year-old Maggie Wylie (Helen Hayes) has just been jilted by the minister of Galashiels, and the men of her family—father Alick and brothers David and James—are highly protective of her, though the befuddled James keeps accidentally bringing up the minister by accident. But we see that Maggie is tougher and more clear-eyed than her family thinks. When the Wylies set a trap to catch a late-night burglar, they discover that it's the insolent but handsome student John Shand (Brian Aherne), who has been breaking in to read books in their library to further his education. The men concoct a plan: they will give John money to finish his education and if in five years' time Maggie is still single, he will marry her. Maggie is under no delusion that the serious John—who claims to have never laughed in his entire life—will actually be in love with her, but she goes along with the plan. Five years later, John, a political firebrand who wants to abandon the gold standard, has just won a seat in Parliament and it's time for him to marry. Maggie tears up their contract but he still agrees to the coupling, though we see trouble ahead in the person of Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), a lady of "quality," who flirts with him a bit on election night. Over time, Maggie is a help to him in his career, but eventually John and Sybil begin a secret affair. When Maggie finds out, she seems to accept it, but when Sybil asks her what she's going to do about it, she replies, "That would be telling." Sure enough, Maggie does have a plan which involves encouraging their relationship by sending him off to stay in the country to stay with Sybil's aunt, the Contessa, then getting Sybil out there as well, perhaps hoping that their fling will burn itself out. The Contessa is on Maggie's side, and Maggie busies herself with furthering John's career, even as the potential of divorce would be a scandal that might end it. What will win out: the frippery of a romantic dalliance or the practical concerns of reputation?

Based on a J.M. Barrie play, this romantic comedy is predictable but charming and, due mostly to Helen Hayes, remains interesting throughout. Part of the charm is the character of Maggie, who accepts her lot in life at the beginning of the story (and is made of stronger stuff than her brothers think) but manages to steer her relationship with John where she wants it to go. I'm not sure how "feminist" she would be seen today, as most of her actions are quite calculating and concerned with keeping a man who doesn't really love her. They have a close and respectful daily life, but I found it a bit daring that, by the end (Spoiler!), she wins out over Sybil even as it's still not clear if he loves her (in the final moment, she does finally make him laugh). The ending, which certainly plays out as happy, implies that they will continue their marriage largely for the sake of his career, but we are in the dark as to how deep their feelings for each other run. Hayes is very good at suggesting Maggie's hidden depths while seeming to be a relatively passive figure. Aherne is also fine with a character that could easily have lost our sympathies along the way. The rest of the cast is just as good, in particular Lucile Watson as the Contessa, Donald Crisp as the stern David, and Dudley Digges as the comic relief brother James—it seems strange to refer to "comic relief" in a movie that is a comedy, but the low-key antics of Digges always bring a chuckle. On second thought, maybe this isn't so much a romantic comedy as a "practical" comedy. [TCM]

Thursday, May 07, 2020


In an opening montage of Manhattan's bustling streets, we see a gigantic, shiny-skinned and somewhat demonic looking man in a loincloth striding through Times Square, spilling champagne onto the street below. After more montage shots that slide right and left across the screen, we settle on the Paradise Club, a huge nightclub with a large Art Deco stage area that thrusts out among the patrons' tables. We meet the characters who are present tonight and whose storylines will intertwine. Roy is the club's lead singer and dancer who is backed by a bevy of chorus girls. One of them is Billie, whom Roy is sweet on and is grooming for an act they can take on the road (even though the act is just he and Billie, he tells her, "I can see our names in lights right now—Roy Lane and Company!"). But Billie has been hanging around with Steve, a bootlegger who works with the club's owner to keep the booze flowing. Steve is rich and slick, though his preferred way of addressing Billie is to say, "I love ya, little fella!" This, of course, causes the jealous Roy no end of irritation, to the point where he sends Billie a fake telegram, saying that her mother is sick, to stop her from going to a late night gold-diggers' party with Steve. Another chorus girl, the glum Pearl, has been seeing gangster Scar Edwards, who shows up to confront Steve for muscling in on his territory north of 125th Street. Steve solves the problem by shooting Scar in the back and dumping his body in a truck outside. As the production numbers on stage continue, cop Dan McCorn shows up and announces backstage that Scar's body was found not far from the club. Pearl faints, Steve plays dumb, and Dan hangs around, hoping Pearl will give him a lead in the killing. All these situations get resolved the next night with another murder (that the cop lets happen unpunished), a confession of love, and more stage numbers.

This early talkie musical based on a hit Broadway non-musical is more interesting than compelling. The stage set is fabulous, and the frequent swooping crane shots are impressive. The numbers themselves involve elaborate costumes, but the performances are static and repetitive; curtains open, Roy leads rows of chorus girls onto the stage, they perform perfunctorily and are presented in long shots that obscure the dancing (except for one close-up of Roy's feet as he tap dances), and then they all dance backwards offstage. It's difficult to care about the central couple, Roy (Glenn Tryon) and Billie (Merna Kennedy, both pictured at right). Tryon tries too hard, mostly mugging instead of building a character, and Kennedy comes off unsympathetically. Frankly, the predictable outcome of their story didn't much interest me. Evelyn Brent (Pearl, above left) and Robert Ellis (Steve) are much better. Contemporary critics praised the actor Thomas Jackson, Dan the cop, who played the part on stage a few years earlier, but I find his delivery artificial and portentous. The director, Paul Fejos, known for the somewhat experimental LONESOME, which I'll get around to later this month, saves his flashy moves for the opening montages and the crane shots of the club interior. I chuckled at a few lines of dialogue. Tryon whips the girls up as they head to the stage by saying, "Cut 'em deep and let 'em bleed!" He also notes his sophistication by claiming, "I'm no prude—I'm for white wines and beer." A chorus girl dismisses the yammering Tryon by saying, "Untie your shoe—your tongue's out!" There is some cute comic relief provided by an older chorus girl (she looks at least 50) and her drunk sugar daddy who stumbles around saying, "I think I'm married." The last number was shot in Technicolor, but in the current restored print, the only color visible is red. An important early talkie relic, for film buffs only. [DVD]

Monday, May 04, 2020


The Cyclone Rocket Company launched a test missile which crashed in a schoolyard, killing several children and mothers (we assume, based on a low-budget special effects shot), and now it must move out of its small city headquarters near a military base to a remote area in the desert. Mitch (Brian Keith) is a trucker who recently lost his job but heard through the grapevine that drivers would be needed to transport hazardous rocket fuel cargo. He arrives in town and is dropped off at the rocket company by Carrie, his lovely one-night stand—the two seem to be negotiating for a longer-term relationship but nothing gets settled. George (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), a researcher at the company, agrees to let Mitch get a gang of drivers together to transport the fuel in three trucks across dangerous mountain and desert roads. They will each get $5,000 (over $40,000 in today's money) but he emphasizes that it must be done in two days' time, and that he's coming along (I was expecting a Quint/Brody rivalry like in JAWS but it doesn't happen). The drivers Mitch collects at the local tavern include Frank, a depressed retired officer who wishes to relive his glory days; Ben, a compulsive gambler; Ken, a young hot-shot race car driver; and Manuelo, a Latino mechanic who hopes to use his pay to go to engineering school. They take off, two in each truck, fresh and optimistic, with Ken singing a jaunty little tune about breezing down the road, but problems soon crop up, including a road obstacle, a runaway school bus, and a dangerous leak of rocket fuel. We also get a couple of flashbacks that show us Frank's troubled marriage and explain that George's wife and daughter were killed in the rocket accident.  One of the drivers dies, two sustain hand and arm injuries leaving only three able drivers, and one truck breaks down. The odds don't favor success, but they keep pushing on.

The description of this movie makes it sound like the French classic The Wages of Fear (men transporting nitroglycerine through dangerous South American mountains) though this is strictly B-level movie-making. However, that doesn't mean it should be dismissed; considered as a second-feature, it's fairly entertaining even if the tension and suspense never get ratcheted up very high. For beefcake fans like me, there’s the burly, hairy Brian Keith bossing everyone around (but in a nice-guy way). There's also the fairly young Efrem Zimbalist, looking suburban-dad handsome. Perry Lopez (Escobar in CHINATOWN) is just as handsome as Manuelo. Best of all is 20-year-old blond pup Sean Garrison as Ken—he's sexy (in a kind of bland late 50s way) and his character is the most likable. Joanna Barnes has a small role in flashbacks as Efrem's wife, and starlet Merry Anders is Keith's pick-up who magically turns up at the finale. There are plotholes galore: Why were rockets being tested in a suburban town in the first place?  Why did no one else from the company drive along with the men for safety's sake? Why does Frank's wife turn up out of nowhere at a dramatic moment? Still, there's enough action here to sustain its 90 minute run time. And, another plus, it looks like all the road scenes were shot on location rather than on a backlot which helps (marginally) with the realism of the trip. Pictured are Keith and Zimbalist [DVD]

Saturday, May 02, 2020


In 1942, the British are in retreat in Africa, and Rommel sends two spies to Cairo, on a mission dubbed Operation Condor, to get information on where the Brits will counter-attack. John (Adrian Hoven) has spent time in Cairo and is known as something of a playboy. He's accompanied by Sandy (Neil McCallum), a radio operator who has a short-wave device hidden in a portable phonograph. They cross vast amounts of desert in captured British trucks to get to Cairo unseen, but British spy chief Robertson (John Robertson Justice) is suspicious of reports of the British trucks on the move and is prepared to have his men hunt for the spies. John and Sandy arrive in Cairo and we meet a motley group of people who get involved in this game of espionage, including Amina, a belly dancer who knows John and is much desired by British intelligence officer Wilson; Radek and Yvette, two members of a Jewish underground organization who are willing to help the British; Weber and Aberle, two German radiomen who are hiding in the desert outside of Cairo to pick up Sandy's messages (using a code tied to a copy of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, which the two spies read out loud to pass the time between radio messages). We also check in periodically with Rommel, anxious to get the info that John is trying to get his hands on. Will Robertson's suspicions pay off, or will John and Sandy manage to outwit the rather hapless Wilson, who winds up in possession of the British plans?

I'd never heard of this until it came up as a YouTube suggestion for me. For a wartime spy story, it's not terribly exciting, but it kept my interest as the various characters performed their little dances of deception around and with each other. At times, it has the look and feel of a TV drama, but the sets occasionally conjure up the spirit of CASABLANCA. The acting is spotty, not helped by some weak writing. The burly John Robertson Justice is rather bland and one-note, but that is partly because his character, though at the center of the story, isn't terribly active. Given better chances to shine are Adrian Hoven as John, who probably has the most screen time of anyone here, Robert Urquhart as the weak-willed Wilson, and Fenella Fielding as Yvette. Gloria Mestre (Amina) gets a couple of rather extraneous belly-dancing scenes. For some, this movie will be of interest because it features a young Michael Caine as Weber, one of the radio men, several years before his big break in ALFIE. Pictured are Hoven and McCallum. [YouTube]