Monday, August 31, 2020


Dr. Lee has brought a small expedition to the jungle village of Wingpoo to look for evidence of a legendary lost civilization. His assistant Pat and Lee's young son Terry have arrived bringing "important documents" (as we told at the beginning of every one of the 15 chapters of this serial), but Lee has already gone into the jungle. The local governor is more interested in daydrinking than in helping Pat and Terry find Lee, and we discover that the governor, and seemingly half of the Anglo villagers, work for local warlord Fang (described as a "sinister half-caste"). But with the help of two men—Connie, their faithful Asian assistant, and Big Stoop, an imposing local magician and man of few, if any, words—Pat and Terry persevere. Fang attempts to befriend Lee, whose men were attacked and killed. Fang wants to find the Temple of Dawn, sacred to the followers of the ancient god Mara, enslave the natives by claiming to speak for Mara, and steal the untold riches buried beneath the temple. In doing so, he would set himself up at odds with the Dragon Lady, the rightful ruler of Mara's followers. Lee discovers his agenda and escapes with Fang's men in hot pursuit. Drake, a local plantation owner, and his daughter Normandie join up with Pat and Terry to fight Fang, but the Dragon Lady is skeptical of their motives and for a time has them captured. However, Fang outfits a large statue of Mara with a record player and sound system to make the natives believe that Mara is talking to them. When Mara suggests a revolt against the Dragon Lady, she joins Pat and Terry to fight Fang. Eventually, in grand serial style, all the characters and plot points come together at the Temple when Fang makes one last play for the hidden treasure.

I'd rank this a bit above the average serial, though it can't avoid the doldrums of the middle chapters that affect most of these movies. There is a lot of action throughout with exposition (and narrative logic) kept to a minimum--in fact, the plotline involving Dr. Lee's search for an ancient civilization more or less vanishes by the end with the focus on the treasure which, oddly, seems to consist of a single large diamond. The serial's chief asset is Granville Owen (later in his career known as Jeff York) who plays Pat. He's handsome and athletic and holds his own in the regularly scheduled fisticuffs, but he's also got a bit more personality than usual: he can be cranky and impatient, even manic, and often reacts in irritation to the antics of his young pal Terry. At times, I felt his performance was almost a parody of the traditional serial hero. William Tracy as Terry is often a liability. The actor was 23 playing a teenager, and speaks in a rather shrill, exaggerated way that sometimes seems calculated to be comic relief, but not always. I liked Tracy as the ambitious bicycle messenger in THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (made the same year), but he plays Terry in the exact same way and the mannerisms that worked in that Budapest-set romantic comedy don't travel comfortably to the jungles of Wingpoo. Dick Curtis (Fang) is irritatingly one-note in his villainy and Sheila Darcy (the Dragon Lady) is too colorless for a role that should be mysterious, and even a little femme-fatale-ish. The very tall Victor DeCamp (as Big Stoop) and the very short Allen Jung (as Connie) are fun, though not given enough to do; both are pictured at left. A hulking gorilla named Bombo pops in and out as needed. (Owen and Tracy are pictured at top right.)

Fang's Leopard Men look menacing enough in interior scenes, but their costumes consist of leopard masks and striped bathrobes, and in exterior location shots, they seem more silly than threatening. The record player device is used well (including a twist on it in the final chapter) and the sets are OK. A brief instance of a ritual of human sacrifice seems thrown in just to take up some narrative time. The action, as I've noted, is pretty constant--during one 20-minute chapter, I counted fist fights breaking out an average of every three minutes. The cliffhangers are generally fine, though the oddest thing about this serial is that each chapter ends with a post-cliffhanger preview of the next chapter. Yes, we know that our heroes will always get out of imminent danger, but the added preview negates the tension built up by the crocodile pit or the exploding cabin, or wherever it is Pat and Terry are stuck. My favorite line is delivered by Normandie, the distressed damsel who is given to loud shrieking when in danger. In Chapter 5, when she goes off to find Pat and Terry, she says perkily to her father, "You know I can take care of myself--see you at breakfast!" after which she promptly falls into an animal trap and is menaced by Bombo. Despite being a couple of chapters too long, I'm glad I stuck with this. [TCM/YouTube]

Saturday, August 29, 2020



There have been a number of plague outbreaks in India and secret agent Christopher Lemmon, suspecting the deliberate spread of the disease, has tracked the source down to vaccination serums made by Hogby Laboratories in Bangkok. But before he can act on the information, he is shot to death getting out his car. Enter OSS 117, first name Hubert (Kerwin Mathews, pictured at right); as soon as he arrives in Bangkok, he is chased down and shot at but lives to meet up with his local assistant Sonsak. He also meets the agency's lovely blonde secretary Eva, but he suspects she may be up to no good, possibly providing classified information to whoever the bad guys might be. The most obvious suspect is Dr. Sinn, a physician, healer, and dabbler in metaphysics who has a following in Bangkok, and who is, in fact, behind the poisoning of the vaccines—he heads up a cult called the Elected People who want to depopulate the world to save it from itself and plan on spreading the plague on a global level. As Hubert investigates, he takes a liking to Sinn's sister Lila (Pier Angeli), though it's not clear where she might stand on the good/evil continuum. There are car chases, exploding boats, balcony climbers, and plague-carrying rats. The scene involving a car which has been equipped with a bomb to go off in fifteen minutes is particularly tense, and a good example of Hitchcock's theory of suspense; that is, the audience knowing something that the characters on screen do not. Despite being rather long at a full two hours, this is still fun to watch. The producers had a decent budget and shot largely on location, and Mathews (a lead swashbuckler in 60s fantasy movies like 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer) makes a good hero; he's no Sean Connery, but who is? In the supporting cast, I especially liked Dominique Wilms as the ambiguous Eva. This is my first OSS 117 film, but won't be my last. [DVD]

Monday, August 24, 2020


Bob Westland is six days away from execution for the murder of his wife—she had money which was left to him and he had a mistress to take care of. Westland’s lawyer gets an anonymous  letter saying that the writer knows Westland is innocent, and the lawyer hires private dick Bill Crane (Preston Foster) to investigate. The casual, flippant Crane and his equally flippant associate Williams (Frank Jenks) dig into the circumstances of the murder, in which Mrs. Westland was found shot dead in her locked apartment. Reports of phone calls and visits that evening, and the whereabouts of some keys and guns are all followed up on. Among the other suspects: Emlly Martin, the mistress; two of Westland’s possibly shady business partners and the company accountant; a gangster; and a blonde totsy who is now living in the old Westland apartment. After a number of fairly unlikely incidents (including the realization that the change to daylight savings time on the night of the murder may throw some testimony in doubt), Crane cracks the case mere minutes before the scheduled execution. 

This is the first in a series of eleven Crime Club B-mysteries that Universal released between 1937 and 1939 with a variety of actors playing a variety of sleuths. Earlier this summer, I watched a later film with Foster and Jenks as Crane and Williams (THE LADY IN THE MORGUE), and my review of that one could be repeated here: fun bantering chemistry between Foster and Jenks, decent supporting players (including the sexy Barbara Pepper in both films, as different characters), a convoluted plot, an old-fashioned roomful-of-suspects finale. They are also both short (between 60 and 70 minutes) though this one starts to drag about halfway through. None of the suspects is particularly likeable (and neither is Westland), so I didn’t have much invested in who was or wasn’t the killer. Still, it’s painlessly watchable and the suspects roundup leads to a satisfying ending. Pictured are Preston Foster and Frank Jenks. [YouTube]

Wednesday, August 19, 2020


It's a windswept midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1947, and actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) has just shot and killed her husband Barney (Louis Hayward) in their penthouse apartment. She stumbles out into the crowded streets and runs into her pal, troubled poet William Williams (Richard Basehart), and on their way to get help from her producer John Friday (Tom Conway), Sheila wishes out loud that she could live 1947 over and fix all the problems that led to the murder. When she enters John's apartment, there's a party going on and she soon realizes she's gotten her wish: it's New Year's Eve, 1946. After she's gotten her bearings, she begins trying to alter the future. First, she warns William away from Mrs. Shaw, a rich woman who wants to take him under her wing, so to speak, but who will eventually play a part in having William committed to an asylum; next, she enlists John in an effort to stop Barney from getting to know playwright Paula Costello, which will lead to an affair and Barney's descent into alcoholism. What Sheila finds is that, though she may be able to change some of the small stuff, the bigger things have a way of happening anyway.

This interesting mix of fantasy, melodrama and film noir was considered lost until recently, and it's quite a find. Though the actors and budget indicate a B-film, the story and character interplay keep one engrossed. The opening sequence before time reverses is especially rich in atmosphere, though visually the movie never reaches that height again. The plot, based on a novel by William O'Farrell, works well, even when the production code doesn't allow it to go places where the novel did. For example, the poet William in the book is a somewhat gender-fluid fellow who goes by the joint name of "William and Mary" and his benefactor in the book is an older gay man. But Basehart does a lovely job of giving the character some subtle sexual ambiguity without flouncing or lisping, and he winds up the most sympathetic character of the bunch. The Code also does not allow the ending to be quite as bleak as the book's—though to the filmmakers' credit, it's not exactly sugarcoated, either. Leslie and Hayward are just adequate in the leads (Ann Sheridan and Errol Flynn would have been great), but they don't hurt the movie. Natalie Schafer has a nice bit as Mrs. Shaw. The Broadway background—most of the characters are involved in the theater—is brought to life nicely (albeit on a B-movie level), and the noir theme of feeling trapped by destiny, and the tone of existential dread, are present. The Twilight-Zone feel of the fantasy element isn't overdone. TCM ran this late last year and a DVD release is apparently in store. I would recommend this as a purchase, for its unusual nature if nothing else. Pictured above are Leslie and Basehart. [TCM]

Saturday, August 15, 2020


Dark, handsome Claude (Vince Edwards) is a driven young man with a fairly middle-class dream--he wants to build a house on the Ohio River. But he figures he'll never make enough money at his current job so he branches out, becoming a killer for hire. A man named Brinks puts him in touch with a man named Moon who keeps him waiting for a while as a test of Claude's determination, but soon Moon gives him assignments and he is a success, killing one man by posing as a barber and slicing his throat, killing another by posing as a doctor and cutting off a patient's life support. Claude is calm and cool, and theorizes that he'll never get caught because, as a hired gun (though he doesn't like to use guns), he doesn't know any of his victims and, assuming the job is done cleanly, he can't be tied to any of them. Eventually Brinks calls him to kill Moon, which he does. Then he has to go to Los Angeles for a more high-profile hit: kill Brinks' former mistress who is about to testify against him in a court case. In L.A., he is met by a pair of keepers, Marc and George. Though the three hit if off, Marc and George are kept on their toes when Claude insists on taking it easy, having them chaperone him around town before he gets down to business. Billie, the mistress, is a jazz pianist who has essentially barricaded herself in her suburban home with plenty of police protection. Reluctantly, Claude turns to a plan using guns. He fudges it the first time and, with only a day left before Billie's court date, Marc and George are told to get rid of Claude. But Claude has a different idea. 

This is a taut, straightforward thriller with hints of film noir in its tone (an antihero at the center of the narrative) and look (a low-budget unfussiness about sets and camera style). The first half of the movie is paced briskly with its no-nonsense relating of the plot; though Edwards is on screen for almost the entire film, we never get to know him or learn what makes him tick. But once the story moves to Los Angeles, the pace slackens, just as Claude shifts into what seems to be vacation mode. The tone has been dead serious until now, but Marc (Phillip Pine) and George (Herschel Barnardi) supply some comic relief with their befuddlement over Claude and his leisurely approach toward accomplishing his hit. Edwards is exactly right in his role. Despite his surface calm, we can sense an intensity that bubbles up now and then. As I noted above, Claude remains a psychological blank, though we figure out that he is something of a woman-hater; he’s not happy to learn that his target, Billie, is a woman, saying that women are "not dependable," hence harder to get at. A later scene involving a hooker might lead us to a reading of Claude as closeted homosexual, but that remains only a hint. Pine and Bernardi are fun but are also good at being serious when they have to. A woman named Caprice Toirel is very good as Billie, but surprisingly, she never made another movie. The last half-hour drags just a bit as Claude's plans go awry, but otherwise I recommend this highly. Edwards' career changed gear a couple of years later when he played a doctor on the hit TV show Ben Casey, and when Claude strolls the halls of the hospital in his disguise, I had to laugh because he looks exactly like Ben Casey. [TCM]

Friday, August 07, 2020


We see a well-dressed couple, a British lord and his wife, enter Van Cleef & Arpels, a high-class jewelry shop, pick out 5 million francs worth of jewelry, pay with a check, and leave. No sooner is their car of sight does the writing on the check vanish and the name Fantomas appears. The brilliant crook Fantomas has struck again! Police inspector Juve appeals to the public for calm, but cocky reporter Fandor writes a series of mocking articles, climaxing with a fictitious interview which gets front page placement—along with a faked photograph of Fandor dressed up in a mask and cape—drawing the ire of the real Fantomas who kidnaps Fandor to his lair (very Batcave-ish). Fantomas enters, as dramatic organ music plays (shades of Phantom of the Opera), wearing a skintight blue mask which gives his face a blank, artificial look, and announces his intent to disguise himself as Fandor and commit a daring jewel robbery; as he says to Fandor, “You haven’t heard the last of you!” He later kidnaps Fandor’s girlfriend Helene, intending on seducing her in the guise of Fandor, and then becomes Inspector Juve as he tosses a bomb into a theater showing a movie based on Fantomas’ exploits. Fantomas’ partner in crime, Lady Bentham, becomes jealous when she learns about his plans for Helene and she lets Fandor and Helene escape, but also cuts the brakes on their getaway car, and they go careening down a mountain road. The last half-hour of the movie is basically a long chase scene involving cars, trains and helicopters that lets Fantomas live to wear disguises another day.

The original Fantomas was a criminal mastermind from the pages of French crime fiction, memorably brought to the screen in a series of silent serials and movies between 1910 and the mid 1940s. This version arrived at the height of the popularity of James Bond and partakes of the same spirit of the European comic book movies—such as Danger Diabolik and Modesty Blaise—that came later in the 1960s. This certainly has visual style, humor, and the episodic feel of a serial, and it begins and ends at what feel like random moments in the criminal career of Fantomas. But Jean Marais, a leading man in French cinema since the 1940s (he’s the Beast/Prince in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast from 1946), is a bit too old the part. He was 50 and looks it, though he was still a handsome man, and he is certainly game for the role’s challenges—apparently he did most of his own stunts, including a dazzling bit where he escapes from a rooftop via a dangling ladder from a helicopter. But when he’s not in action, he seems tired and stodgy. John Philip Law (from Diabolik) or Franco Nero (the original Django) would have been more fun. But I love the blue mask make-up; it looks creepily real, like artificial skin. Louis de Funes, a famous French comic, is fine as Juve, as is Mylène Demongeot as Helene.  There are quite a few nice setpieces, though the epic climactic chase goes on a bit too long for my tastes. Enjoyable enough that I’ll probably watch the two sequels. [Blu-ray]

Monday, August 03, 2020

THAT'S MY BOY (1932)

Thomas Jefferson Scott (Richard Cromwell) is off to Thorpe University, intending on working his way through school and becoming a doctor, even though his small-town folks think he's biting off more than he can chew. During a hazing event, the Flag Rush in which the sophomores try to keep the freshmen from taking a pennant off the football field, Tommy displays great skill in broken-field running, and Coach Adams (Douglas Dumbrille) gets him to sign on to the football team. Their plan is to train him in secret this year, and spring him as a surprise next fall. Tommy's reluctant to devote so much time to the training as it stands in the way of his getting a job, but Al, the assistant coach (Leon Ames), gives him a good-paying part-time job which consists of watching the boiler room and turning a dial once a night. He's also given free room and board with Ames and a nice wardrobe. When he finally plays, he's a hit with his game-winning running ways and is given the nickname Snakehips. He begins dating Dorothy (Dorothy Jordan), daughter of a rich businessman, but becomes disillusioned with his college experience when he meets a former college football hero who is now a lowly accountant. Realizing that he now has no time for his medical studies and will likely face a diminished future as an adult, he asks for more money from the coaches. They form a company to sell stocks in Tommy's name and cut him in for 10%. At first, it's a success, but soon Tommy learns that the company has actually lost all the money paid in by the investors, which include his parents and many of their friends. When this becomes public, will Tommy find a way to redeem himself in the eyes of his fans, his girlfriend and himself?

For a movie that's over eighty years old, this has surprising relevance today in this age of big money in college sports. The later plot twists (which I have not discussed above) turn fairly melodramatic in the last half-hour and the climax, during a big football game, is rushed and unrealistic, but nevertheless satisfying. Cromwell, fresh-faced and attractive, does not have an athletic build, but the emphasis on his running talent lets us accept him as a football star. He also remains likable despite the plot developments that threaten to tarnish his character. Leon Ames, in one of his earlier roles, is quite good, and it was odd to see Douglass Dumbrille, known mostly for his terse villains, get to play something as average as a football coach.  Ads for the movie trumpeted the use of actual USC football players, and John Wayne and Buster Crabbe are among the athletes on the field. Despite its still-current topic, the film does feel a little outdated but it's still watchable. Pictured are Ames and Cromwell. [TCM]