Wednesday, September 30, 2020


In a London traffic jam, American playboy gambler Warren Beatty (at right) meets cute with sexy young fashion designer Susannah York, though their date ends with them going their own ways. For Beatty, this means a trip to Geneva where he executes a well-planned scheme: breaking into the Kaleidoscope playing card factory, marking the card engraving plates with a code so he can read each card from the back, then making note of which casinos the cards will be shipped to. His plan is to play once in each casino, win a lot of money, and not go back so no one catches on to his ploy. In Monte Carlo, the plan works well, and as an added bonus, he meets up with York who becomes intrigued with him. Though he insists that she is his "lucky rabbit’s foot," she's pretty sure he's got something underhanded going on. As it happens, her father (Clive Revill) is a Scotland Yard inspector who is trying to bring down Eric Porter, a casino owner and big-time drug dealer (he got his start with morphine stolen from the British army at the end of WWII). York brings Beatty to her father's attention, but instead of arresting him, Revill blackmails him into helping out the Yard. Porter is in potentially ruinous debt, and Revill's plan is to get Beatty to play high-stakes poker with him and get him to lose everything. Eventually, Beatty works his way into one of Porter's big games and, thanks to the marked cards, wins big--until, by sheer accident, a new deck is introduced which is not a Kaleidoscope pack. Can Beatty still prevail? And, in any case, can he and York escape the vengeance of Porter if he loses everything?

This very Sixties caper movie was the last film Beatty made before the seismic shock of Bonnie and Clyde changed Hollywood and Beatty's career. He's a natural here as a charming romantic lead, and the sexy York is pretty much his equal, though her character, after some development in the first half, is pretty much just around for the ride. The plot is fairly outlandish as it takes Beatty from swinger to cat burglar to successful casino cheater to improbably good poker player--and, by the by, he's also independently wealthy and pulls the card cheat just for the challenge. The introduction of Eric Porter's character pushes the last half of the movie into James Bond territory; he's a somewhat campy bad guy who is practically a Goldfinger-esque supervillain by the end (he lives in a castle and he has a traitor in his group killed by flamethrower). But the improbable concluding sequence does give the film a nice action jolt, similar to the early scene of Beatty's break-in at the card factory. Clive Revill is fun as York's father--sometimes, he resembles Jerry Van Dyke. Murray Melvin plays Revill's assistant; a bit on the effeminate side, he is mostly a comic relief figure, though he's instrumental in saving Beatty and York from certain death near the end. I also thought I detected a playful, almost sexual, chemistry between Melvin and Revill. The film's visual style is understated psychedelica with lots of color and kaleidoscopic scene transitions. Despite plotholes, a pleasant time-passer. Best dialogue: on the run from Porter and his men, York petulantly announces, "I hate guns and I don't like fighting!" Beatty replies, "How does living grab ya?" [TCM]

Saturday, September 26, 2020


The story of Oscar Wilde's undoing, largely at his own hands, is told in a straightforward but rather boring way, though the performance by Robert Morley as Wilde is quite good, perhaps still the best screen Wilde. Filmed at a time when homosexuality was still a taboo issue in films, the movie largely pussyfoots around the topic, though the word "sodomite" does crop up, and though no sex or even lovey-dovey behavior is seen, it's pretty clear what’s going on. At a performance of his play Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde makes eyes at young Lord Alfred Douglas (John Neville) and, in a moment that would be right at home in Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the besotted Douglas tells Wilde that the play has been the greatest experience of his life. Douglas is being blackmailed because of some incriminating love (or lust) letters he wrote to a boy who later killed himself. Wilde (who is married with children) helps him, and he and Douglas then become "involved." Though Wilde's friends counsel him to be careful about the affair, he and Douglas aren't, and soon Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensbury, sends Wilde a note in public accusing him of "posing as a sodomite," and Wilde recklessly sues him for libel. The courtroom scenes, near the end of the movie, grow repetitious, though Morley and Ralph Richardson, as the Marquis' lawyer, spar well together. Morley is especially good as he begins certain that his wit will win the court over, then slowly realizing that he no longer has the upper hand. The unrepentant Wilde ended up going to prison, and the film ends with Wilde in Paris a few years later, reading from the Bible. A rather colorless film, even if it does hit the high points historically. The same year, another movie, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, was released covering the same ground with Peter Finch as Wilde. The critics seem to have found it a better movie than the Morley version, though it's been so long since I've seen it that I can't say how I felt about it. Pictured are Morley and Neville. [TCM]

Saturday, September 19, 2020


In an Old West town, two Army officers have been shot dead while guarding a gold shipment, just the latest in a series of such robberies. Dick Powell comes strolling into town and gets a room at the hotel run by Burl Ives, who spends most of his time singing ballads about strangers coming to town. Powell heads to the saloon where he watches Jane Greer sing and takes a shine to her, then picks a fight with a young soldier, but later we find out that the fight was planned; the soldier was waiting for Powell, who has been sent from back East by the Army to investigate the gold robberies. Powell is taken to meet Tom Powers, the commander of an army post, and his mistress (Agnes Moorehead), a gold mine owner, who both seem skeptical that he'll be able to accomplish much. But Powell soon gets the lay of the land: Greer is actually the owner of the saloon and casino, and the de facto head of the community; Gordon Oliver is her right-hand man; Guinn Williams is a tough bouncer; Raymond Burr is a lawyer who is in over his head with gambling debts owed to Greer. Powell gets into an intense fistfight with Williams which he barely wins. Greer warms up to him and gets him a job working security for a stagecoach, and on one nighttime run with a gold shipment of Moorehead's, Powell's coach is attacked. His assistant is killed and he is knocked unconscious. Getting to the bottom of the mystery may be difficult until Powell can figure out who is friend and who is foe.

This is often considered a Western noir, but it's really an average Western crime story with a femme fatale figure (Greer) who might be at home in a real film noir--as she was a year earlier in the classic OUT OF THE PAST. The presence of Powell, who does his tough guy turn as he did in the 1944 MURDER MY SWEET, may also seem like a noir element. The existing print of this film runs about 80 minutes, but a running time of 97 minutes is reported on IMDb. The trimming of nearly 20 minutes would explain some odd plotholes near the end. An Army uniform button seems to be an important clue to something, but I never figured out what. Even more puzzling, Moorehead pulls a stunt with the gold that seems out of character and it's never explained. Greer is not as effective here as in PAST, but there's a strong supporting cast (Moorehead, Oliver, Burr, Regis Toomey) that keeps things moving. The fight between Powell and Williams goes on for a while, but is choreographed rather sloppily. Watchable but don't expect a genuine film noir. Pictured are Greer and Powell. [Criterion Channel]

Tuesday, September 15, 2020


In 1938 Brooklyn, young David Kolowitz (Reni Santoni) works as an assistant to a machinist. He dreams of being an actor even though he lives with his parents who want to send him to pharmacy school. His idol is Ronald Colman and we see David doing an interior monologue in Colman's tones in front of a mirror, and, misquoting from Lost Horizon, dreaming of a Shangri-La "with naked ladies." He answers an ad looking for acting apprentices for a somewhat shabby acting company run by Harrison Marlowe (Jose Ferrer), an actor whose prime is long past. His audition for the play, an old-fashioned drawing room melodrama, doesn't go well (he speaks stage directions as if they were lines of dialogue and overacts wildly), but Marlowe's daughter Angela (Elaine May), the star of the show, takes a shine to the handsome boy and talks her father into giving him the part, though instead of getting paid, he has to pay Marlowe for learning on the job. In the two days before he is to go on, his life gets very complicated as he deals with his disapproving mother, his girlfriend who is feeling neglected, and his boss who is worried that he’s becoming undependable. David's mother tries to guilt him into quitting the play just before opening night, but after more complications, he gets his moment in the spotlight, with friends and parents in the audience. 

This is Carl Reiner's first film as a director; it's based on a play that was based on Reiner's semi-autobiographical novel. Though it has a few problems, I found it to be a very likeable coming-of-age comedy. Despite an opening card that reads "1938," it feels much more like the 1950s, despite references to actors of the era (Colman, Paul Muni, Jean Harlow). In fact one character, the sexy Miss B. (Nancy Kovack) has a decidedly 60s hairdo. Santoni is good-looking and personable, and does a nice job by underacting slightly (except when his character is overacting, most memorably in his audition scene when he goes through a very funny repertoire of overblown laughs for his "enter laughing" scene). Shelley Winters is fine as the Jewish mother--she resists exaggeration--and Elaine May (pictured with Santoni) is just as good, though the character sort of vanishes for much of the last half-hour when it seems like she should be front and center. Ferrer is OK in a role that could have used a smidge more energy, though he gets one of the best lines; while watching David act, he mumbles, "Thank God I'm an alcoholic." Michael J. Pollard, Don Rickles, Richard Deacon and Jack Gilford provide solid support. David Opatoshu practically sleepwalks through his role as David's father, and Janet Margolin does what she can with the underwritten part of the girlfriend. Santoni has had a long career as a character actor on TV, but I'm sorry that his comic gifts weren't put to better use in the movies--he’s just right here. Despite a few pacing problems that bog down the middle, this is a sweet movie. (Not long before I watched this, Carl Reiner passed away, and a month later, Santoni did as well.) [TCM]

Friday, September 11, 2020

LUV (1967)

On a New York City bridge, the bedraggled and despairing Harry (Jack Lemmon) is about to jump to his death when he is saved, more or less accidentally, by a wandering well-dressed fellow named Milt (Peter Falk). It turns out that the two were good friends in college, but fifteen years have gone by. Milt is married, makes decent money at an office job and has a side business selling junk. Harry, on the other hand, who was ambitious in college, is alone, neurotic, and suicidal, partly because he's never been in love. Milt decides take Harry under his wing. Milt's wife Ellen (Elaine May) is lovely but unhappy, particularly with the downturn of their sex life (the frequency of which, or lack thereof, she plots on a large chart). For his part, Milt has fallen for Linda (Nina Wayne), a young sexy exercise instructor. Milt comes up with a plan: get Harry to woo Ellen so she will divorce him and he can marry Linda. It works but soon Ellen gets tired of Harry's bizarre behavior--he has spells of hysterical blindness and deafness--and Milt gets tired of Linda's lack of ambition (one morning, she won't get out of bed, claiming to be "tired… from all those years of calisthenics!"). Milt and Ellen realize they are still in love and Milt initiates another plan: get Harry interested in Linda. When that backfires, there's one more solution: get Harry back on the bridge and push him to his death.

From that summary, you may not have figured out that this is a comedy. It's based on a hit 1964 play which had just three characters (Harry, Milt and Ellen) and one physical setting (the bridge), and was apparently theater of the absurd crossed with mainstream slapstick. The movie opens the setting up into the real world of New York City (though a Coney Island amusement park scene was shot in California) and heightens the slapstick, and that's where it gets in trouble. The opening ten minutes on the bridge with just Lemmon and Falk is delightful, but once they wander off into the streets and bars and houses, the proceedings begin to feel heavy and fussy. The manic, existential mood of some of the humor falls flat or feels sour in realistic settings. Falk (looking truly handsome for perhaps the only time in his career) and May (sexy and funny) are very good, and their scenes together often overcome the stylistic bumps, but sadly, the talented Jack Lemmon is just not right here, painfully overacting and making the slapsticky moments drag. There are two exceptions: a scene in which the central trio try to outdo each other with painful memories of their awful childhoods (Monty Python would riff on this a few years later--"There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road!"), and a later scene involving elevator mayhem in a department store, in which Lemmon just basically stands still and lets things happen around him. Lemmon's best moment is a quiet one: Ellen tries to convince Harry that he's actually a latent homosexual and is love with Milt--you can see Lemmon give it some thought, cock his eyes oddly, then dismiss it. More subtlety overall might have made this work, but the few truly fun moments--the ending, which goes back to the bridge, is good--aren't quite worth sitting through 90 minutes of irritating schtick. Pictured are May and Lemmon. [DVD]

Monday, September 07, 2020

SHIP AHOY (1942)

Tommy Dorsey and his band play their last date in New York before setting sail for a gig in Puerto Rico. After the show, band singer Tallulah Winters (Eleanor Powell) is whisked away by some government agents and asked to perform a patriotic duty: take a small prototype of a magnetic mine, an American military secret, and deliver it to a contact in Puerto Rico. After she is given the mine (small but with a very powerful charge) and sent to the ship, we discover that the agents are actually foreign spies, led by Dr. Farno, who are using her like a drug mule might be used today. Farno got the idea from a pulp fiction adventure story written by Merton Kibble (Red Skelton), whom we meet as he's dictating three different pulp stories—one involving his popular superhero Wonder Lad—to three secretaries at the same time. Merton's assistant Skip (Bert Lahr) is sweet on Fran (Virginia O'Brien), a chorus girl with Dorsey's band, and he convinces Merton, who is ready to collapse from stress, to join him on the ship to Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, real government agents are also on board, having learned that the mine is being transported. On the ship, Merton and Tallulah begin a tentative romantic relationship. Once in Puerto Rico, Tallulah delivers the mine, but when she realizes that Farno is a spy and that the bad guys want to dispose of her and Merton, she taps out an SOS with her feet, while doing a spectacular tap number, to notify the genuine American agents that she's in trouble. All is made right by the fadeout.

Despite seeming like a plot-heavy movie, this is actually a fairly frothy musical—I'd estimate that at least half of the movie's 90 minute running time is devoted to songs and production numbers. However, this isn't a musical where people burst into song on the streets; all the music is presented in a performing context. In addition to Dorsey, Powell, and O'Brien, we are entertained by the legendary drummer Buddy Rich and by an up-and-coming crooner named Frank Sinatra (who isn't actually given screen credit). Though the narrative has some clever turns, the musical performances are the reasons to watch. Rich gets a couple of energetic solos, Sinatra sings nicely, and Powell burns up the screen, especially in a number in which she is tossed across the half-length of a pool and caught by a man on a large floating platform. Her Morse Code tap number at the end, to "On Moonlight Bay," is a fitting climax. I'm not a fan of Skelton's rather manic manner, but Lahr is fun in his vaudeville shtick way, and I love the deadpan Virginia O'Brien. For me, it was worth watching the whole movie to see her turn to the camera in the middle of singing a comic number to Lahr, who's been pestering her constantly, and exclaim, "Murder, Jack!" Skelton's highlight is struggling with a small suitcase that contains the magnetic mine. I was startled to hear Tommy Dorsey use the slang term "Groovy!"—I had assumed that was strictly a 60s thing. John Emery is Farno and William Post Jr. has a nice moment or two as one of the agents. Fun, but only essential for fans of Powell and O’Brien. Pictured are Lahr and O'Brien. [TCM]