Friday, November 27, 2020

SPY SMASHER (1942 serial)

Before Pearl Harbor, when the United States is, in theory, neutral in the European war, a freelance agent is operating in Paris as the costumed figure Spy Smasher. He is caught by some Nazis as he looks for secret documents, is tortured, and set to be executed by firing squad. But the head of the squad is a resistance member and the squad is ordered to deliberately miss Spy Smasher so he is able to escape back to the States. On a train to Lakeside Junction, there is an incident with a Gestapo agent who thinks he recognizes Spy Smasher; the upshot is that we find out that Alan Armstrong, a journalist who was reported dead months ago, is Spy Smasher, but in Lakeside Junction he has a twin brother named Jack who decides to join him in his attempt to thwart Nazi sabotage in the U.S. Admiral Corby, whose daughter is engaged to Jack, is working in secret with Spy Smasher, not aware of his real identity. Their chief nemesis is known as The Mask and, as it happens, his henchmen are operating nearby, plotting to flood America with counterfeit money--the first of several nefarious plots to be attempted and then thwarted by the Armstrong brothers. 

This 12-episode serial from Republic is considered one of the best of the adventure serial era, and it really is. Kane Richmond, a handsome and sturdy star of B-movies, is perfect as both brothers—an effect accomplished mostly through use of a look-alike stand-in shot from the back or side. Though Richmond bragged about doing some of his own stunts, it's obvious here that he was doubled sometimes by ace stuntman David Sharpe (DAREDEVILS OF THE RED CIRCLE) who is occasionally recognizable. Some chapters are practically non-stop brawling and the fights are pulled off with gusto--you can hear real grunts and groans as men are punched and tossed about. Even the old admiral gets a few punches in. Among the more effective cliffhangers: a flooding submarine torpedo room, a plunging elevator, a brick-cutting machine, a roaring fire, and a boat chase. In one of the best stunts of all time (mostly for its unexpectedness) Spy Smasher, in a free-for-all set in a garage, grabs a mechanic's sliding board and shoots himself under a car to emerge on the other side. He also uses a whip like Indiana Jones would do 40 years later. The baddies use a triangle-shaped "Bat Plane" which can take off and land more or less vertically. Spy Smasher is not shy about killing Nazis; this serial has more deaths than usual, including a rather shocking one at the end of chapter 11. Aside from Richmond, the rest of the cast is unmemorable, including Marguerite Chapman (the daughter), Sam Flint (the admiral), and Hans Schumm (the Mask, a particularly weak villain). But overall this is great fun and a must-see for serials fans. [DVD]

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


In San Francisco, the World Peace Foundation is concerned that known gunrunning warmonger Eric Hazarias (Lionel Atwill) is on the trail of a mysterious element, Meteorium 245, that can be used as a defense against atomic bombs and would be worth a lot of money on the illegal weapons market. It would seem that Hazarias has recently died in a car accident, but we discover that Hazarias had a double of himself killed so he could take on the persona of a scientist named Geoffrey London and provide the backing for an expedition to the Himalayan city of Pendrang in the country of Zalabar. An archeologist named Elmore and his daughter Marjorie are working with London to find the mysterious Glowing Goddess, which is actually a chunk of Meteorium, in a hidden temple in the jungle outside of Pendrang. The Peace Foundation sends agent Rod Stanton and his associate Tal Shan to investigate. They discover several things. First, they realize that London is indeed Hazarias, and that Elmore and Marjorie are in the dark about Hazarias and his real reason for wanting to find the temple. The jungle tribes may be difficult to negotiate with in order to gain access to the temple, and London has gone to Indra, owner of the Light of Asia Casino—like Rick's in CASABLANCA, everybody comes to the Light of Asia—for help. Eventually, Stanton also approaches Indra, but she (like Bogart's Rick) is reluctant to take a moral stand and won't commit to not helping Hazarias. Through the thirteen chapters of this serial, a lake is blown up, an earthquake is caused by radio transmissions, people are threatened by a fire pit and a guillotine, and finally, when the Glowing Goddess is found, it might be too dangerous for either the good guys or the bad guys to handle.

This Thanksgiving week, I'm reviewing a couple of the best of the classic-era serials. The budget for this one seems higher than the norm, or at least the budget for the sets is—the Light of Asia comes off as a low-rent but still respectable double of Rick’s CafĂ©. Instead of numbingly repetitious action scenes leading to cliffhangers leading to more action scenes, this movie actually develops a story along the way, while still keeping the cliffhanger tradition alive. Most notably, instead of a text crawl at the beginning of each chapter to keep audiences up to date on the plot, we get scenes at the World Peace Foundation in which the executive members discuss what they know based on communications from Stanton and Tal Shan. Yes, this becomes predictable but at least it's a shot at something different. Unfortunately, chunks of dialogue that provide exposition are still laced throughout the chapters, slowing the action down. But that's an occupational hazard of making movie serials.

The acting is, for the most part, nothing special. Russell Hayden (Stanton) is a bit lacking in the rough and tough hero qualities—he's mostly known for B-westerns, particularly for playing the sidekick in a couple dozen Hopalong Cassidy films, and he would have come off better here as a sidekick. As usual, the heroine, played acceptably  by Jane Adams as Marjorie, has little to do except get in trouble and help get the hero out of trouble. The case of Lionel Atwill is unusual. During filming, he became ill with cancer and had to bow out (and died just a day before the serial premiered). His climactic scenes in the last chapters had been filmed, but a character named Malborn was written in—ostensibly an underling of Hazarias's, he is revealed to be the actual mastermind of the search. Plotwise, this makes hash of the story, but it doesn't really ruin anything. Keye Luke as Tal Shan (pictured with Hayden) is the best actor; Helen Bennett as Indra is the worst. She gives an artificial performance full of whiny petulance, on top of which her character is often saddled with delivering exposition with the same petulant tone in her voice. There are lots of secondary characters, too many to really keep track of, but knowing them isn't necessary to following the plot. I'd recommend this for serials fans, and maybe even for newcomers to the genre. Viewed in chunks of 3 or 4 episodes at a time, this was quite enjoyable. And Zalabar is my new favorite fictitious country name. [TCM; available on DVD]

Sunday, November 22, 2020


We see a group of businessmen meeting at the home of Dr. Saunders, discussing what seem to be business matters. But we soon realize that this is a group of fifth columnists, Americans who are secretly in league with the Japanese and are behind a string of events (explosions, strikes) designed to hurt America if it enters the war against the Axis. Later in the evening, a mysterious man named Columb (Bela Lugosi) arrives, claiming to be very ill and needing to see Dr. Saunders. After a quick consultation, Saunders, almost as if in a trance, dismisses his friends and implies that Columb will be staying at the house for a while. One of the men, Kearney, gets in a cab and is surprised by the presence of Columb, who calls him by a Japanese name. The next time we see Kearney, he is dead on the steps of the Japanese embassy with a Japanese dagger clutched in his hand. Detective Dick Martin (Clayton Moore) traces Kearney back to Saunders' home and meets his visiting niece Alice (Joan Barclay) who has been away for several years. Both are concerned when Columb tells them that the doctor has fallen ill and can see no one, though he communicates with them through his bedroom door--where we can see that Columb is controlling him. One by one, each of the businessmen at that meeting is killed by Columb, found with the same kind of dagger. When only one, Hanlin, is left, he gets a note saying, "The others are expecting you before midnight." The cops, who have no reason to suspect Columb, use Hanlin as bait at Saunders' home. Will Columb get caught? Will we find out his motive?

This B-movie from Monogram is one of the first films put into production after Pearl Harbor, and it's an uncomfortable mix of thriller and wartime propaganda. The idea has promise but the script is a mess. It wasn't clear to me when the film takes place. An opening headline refers to the Japanese bombing of Honolulu during peace talks, an event that, as far as I know, never took place. But the Japanese are definitely the villains here, so I just settled into assuming this was a post-Pearl Harbor narrative. (Actually, I suspect that the original script was not tied to the war, but changes were made along the way that weren't fully thought through.) There are mystery elements in the film, but we know from the beginning that Lugosi is the killer, so the mystery isn't who but why. The far-fetched solution is kept from us until the last fifteen minutes and when it comes, it isn’t very logical--most reviews give away the ending, partly because it is so bizarre, but I won't here. The cheap production values keep everything happening on just a couple of claustrophobic-feeling sets, though the acting is a notch above Ed Wood's repertory company--though to be fair, not much is demanded of the actors. Even Lugosi, usually all-in for even the cheapest affairs, seems a little low-energy here. Clayton Moore, later TV's Lone Ranger, is a lead with little to do, and a romance that seems to be simmering with Joan Barclay goes nowhere. (Oddly, there are hints that Joan is flirting with Bela, something that is sort of explained near the end.)

But for all those negatives, I still had some fun watching this. Suspense is built well regarding Lugosi's motive, and when it's revealed, it’s jaw-droppingly weird, especially since many narrative details remain murky. I can imagine some critic trying to make the case, as has been done for Edgar G. Ulmer's Poverty Row classic Detour, that its lapses in logic and story are deliberately ambiguous, but that's a stretch. It was shot in January 1942 and released in March in an effort to seem timely, so the sloppiness is certainly par for the course for a B-studio rushing its product out. Still, the movie's very oddness and tacked-together feel are pluses for us B-movie fans. The phrase "No one is who they seem" applies in spades to this, and there is fun to be had in finding out who everyone actually is. Pictured are Barclay, Moore and Lugosi. [Amazon Prime]

Monday, November 16, 2020


On his honeymoon, British race car driver Alan Colby (Ronald Lewis) gets into a accident; his wife Denise (Diane Cilento) is injured, the other driver dies, and Alan gets a concussion and is forced to spend months recuperating. When they eventually take their delayed honeymoon in the South of France, Alan is still moody and tentative, and when he and Denise start making out, he is compelled to try to strangle her. This, of course, is quite a problem on a honeymoon. At a party held by eminent psychiatrist Dr. Prade (Claude Dauphin), Alan is quite obnoxious (Prade humorously calls him "unconventionally rude") and Alan eventually punches Prade in the face when it is suggested that he might have still have emotional problems related to the accident. Back in London, after another strangulation attempt, Denise gets Alan to see Dr. Prade professionally. Prade, suspecting that Alan's unclear memories of the auto accident are causing his problems, gets him to relive the crash and in theory, begin to recover, but the next morning, Denise is missing from their apartment and evidence points to her having been murdered—by Alan. The film bogs down a bit in the middle, then takes a couple of nifty twists in its last 20 minutes that I won't spoil—even if the main one is a bit predictable—and the conclusion is satisfying, despite some remaining plot holes. Overall, a watchable thriller with two good central performances by Lewis and Dauphin, and a weak one from Cilento, whose French accent is irritatingly overdone. Lewis's character is almost always rude and unlikeable, mostly due to the crash and its aftermath, which occasionally makes it difficult to be sympathetic to him, but the actor (pictured at right) gives a committed performance nonetheless. Dauphin's character has the patience of Job as he tries to help Alan, and Francoise Rosay has a small but interesting role as the psychiatrist's mother. A Hammer film but suspense, not horror. Aka, THE FULL TREATMENT. [DVD]

Thursday, November 12, 2020


After the death of her husband, Governor Dick Crawford, his widow Edith visits her brother, district attorney John Grant, with a stack of love letters she found from her husband's mistress. For some reason, Edith wants to make a public fuss in hopes of ruining the woman, but John reveals that he knows who she is, or was: convicted murderess Nora Moran. We get a flashback to the hours before her execution during which time she is told that she could be spared if she told her motive for the murder. She refuses, and as she drifts in and out of consciousness due to a sedative she's been given, we learn her story through more flashbacks. After her parents are killed in a car accident, she manages to get through dance school, and takes a job with a traveling circus as assistant to lion wrestler Paulino. One night he drunkenly rapes her and she leaves, finding a job dancing in a club where she meets Dick Crawford, a (married) man being groomed to run for governor. They begin an affair and he puts her up in a nice house where he spends Mondays and Fridays with her. John finds out about the affair and, as one of Dick's political cronies, goes to Nora and asks her to break it off. Nora agrees but, as it happens, her old circus is in town that night and she gets a visit from Paulino who says he's going to blackmail Dick to keep their affair out of the news. Next thing we know, Paulino is dead, Nora having apparently struck him in the head with a whip handle, and John is helping her to get rid of the body, but Nora is caught, tried, and found guilty. As governor, Dick could issue a pardon and he is tormented over doing so, especially because, as we eventually discover, it was actually Dick who struck the fatal blow. But she doesn't want a pardon so she goes to her death with the story of their affair still secret. But back in the present, we find out that Dick had killed himself just moments after Nora was executed.

This fairly straightforward plot is told in an elliptical fashion that made my viewing of this film a bit confusing—I'm not even certain that my summary is completely accurate. In addition to nested flashbacks and an occasional flash-forward, there are a couple of possible supernatural occurrences—including a wonderfully creepy moment when Paul and Dick are standing over her candlelit coffin before she's been executed—not to mention the fragmented timeline; my chronological summary does not necessarily reflect the order in which we see the story unfold. Some critics claim that Orson Welles was influenced by this movie in putting together CITIZEN KANE, but a high-profile film from the same year, THE POWER AND THE GLORY, is more likely Welles' inspiration. As a product of Majestic Pictures, a Poverty Row studio, this is pretty amazing, though a bigger budget might have led to a less messy screenplay. Zita Johann (Karloff's reincarnated lover in THE MUMMY) is excellent as the tragic Nora, and Alan Dinehart is impressive as John, a part that grows in importance as the movie goes on. Paul Cavanagh as Dick and John Miljan as Paulino are OK but both characters are a bit underwritten. This hits several pre-Code tropes: rape, adultery, and a surprisingly explicit suicide scene, and the dark shadowy look of the film would be more common later in the 1940s when film noir blossoms. The director, Phil Goldstone, uses some interesting transitional devices, like wipes and dissolves and a darkening of the frame as we move between places and time frames, giving much of the movie a dream-like feeling. Very interesting indeed, and ripe for re-watching, if only to try and iron out the story wrinkles. Pictured are Johann and Cavanagh. [TCM]

Monday, November 09, 2020


China in 1926 is a land of turmoil. Communists, nationalists and local warlords are in conflict (a British observer calls the country "a patchwork quilt of bandits, warlords, mobs, rape, loot and chaos") and American gunboats have been patrolling the waterways for years as "peacekeepers." But now Captain Collins of the U.S.S. San Pablo has been ordered to stay out of local conflicts and to use military force only to protect direct American interests, including a group of missionaries led by Rev. Jameson and his young assistant, teacher Shirley Eckert. The men of the San Pablo, nicknamed "sand pebbles" (a local mangling of the name of the ship) are both bored and tense, and there are simmering problems with the Chinese coolies who run things below deck. Into this situation comes Jake Holman, a newly assigned engineer. Jake's innocent enthusiasm for his job is greeted with cynicism by most of the sailors. He makes some enemies fairly quickly, but also a couple of friends, including a sailor named Frenchy--who has a Chinese mistress onshore--and a coolie named Po-Han who Jake quickly promotes to an important position to replace a troublesome supervisor. As the local situation deteriorates, the San Pablo finds itself stranded not just in terms of its duty but literally in low river water; despite some threats from the Chinese, the captain insists they stick to their neutral stance. It's obvious from the start that this film can be read as a metaphor for America's involvement in Vietnam, so it's clear that things will not turn out well for the Sand Pebbles.

This Robert Wise epic (three hours long, shot on location, and presented in theaters as a reserved-seat roadshow with an intermission) is alternately boring and engrossing. Though the political context may not always be clear if you're not already aware of Chinese history of the 20s, the main plot lines are character-driven and hold the viewer's interest. I've never been a fan of Steve McQueen (though I liked him the underrated Ibsen adaptation AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE) but he is excellent here as the loner with simmering internal conflicts who takes heroic stands when needed. Richard Attenborough is just as good as the likable Frenchy. Both men try and but are unable to save their friends--Jake's buddy Po-Han and Frenchy's mistress both meet tragic ends (Po-Han's last scene is almost unbearable to watch). The final conflict, with Jake helping the missionaries escape the local mayhem, is satisfying, and McQueen's famous last line ("What happened? What the hell happened?") serves as a final comment on the Vietnam parallels. All the acting is solid, including Mako as Po-Han, Richard Crenna as the conflicted captain, Charles Robinson as the captain’s right hand man, Candice Bergen as the mission teacher, and Simon Oakland and Joe Turkel as sailors. For a three-hour movie, a lot happens, but there are also some long stretches of philosophizing and exposition--the movie might have been more effective if it came in a half an hour shorter. A good movie for a long Saturday afternoon, as long as a downbeat ending won't spoil your weekend. Pictured are McQueen and Bergen. [DVD]

Thursday, November 05, 2020


It's the future and much of Europe—including Amsterdam, Vatican City, and parts of London—are in ruins due to some unspecified wars. We meet Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch), a wealthy Nobel Prize-winning scientist who looks, dresses and acts like a swinging 1960s playboy, at the Viking-style funeral of his father, also an important scientist. His Indian mentor, Prof. Hira, tells Jerry that mankind's "long dark age" (which began around 3000 BC) is about to end, though that doesn't sound especially positive, given the state of the world. Jerry's dealing with some folks, led by Miss Brunner (Jenny Runacre), who are desperate to get their hands on some microfilm left in his father's belongings. They refer to it as "the final programme" and it apparently involves the creation of an immortal self-replicating human being who would inherit the earth when we all kill ourselves off. To get into the family mansion, which has been taken over by Jerry's crazy brother Frank, Jerry enlists the aid of the faithful butler (Harry Andrews). In addition to the microfilm, Jerry is also trying to save his sister Catherine who is being held as a drug-addled prisoner in the house. There's a strong incest vibe going on here, but it’s ignored narratively—and speaking of narrative, after Jerry breaks into the house, any straightforward plot is more or less tossed out the window. Some things that happen: we see a life-sized pinball machine with people rolling around in large transparent balls (pictured at left); we see that Miss Brunner is pansexual in her tastes, and apparently literally absorbs her lovers physically after sex; we see what looks like a washing machine but is actually the world's most complex computer ("Does she do spin-dry as well?" someone asks); and we see an occasional needle-gun fight break out. 

If you can get through the middle of this strange, muddled, dystopian, satiric sci-fi comedy/drama, the storyline is clarified somewhat in the last 20 minutes, though I must warn you that the ambiguous ending does not give the closure you might want—I actually quite liked it though some viewers feel it's kind of a throwaway punch line. The movie is probably best enjoyed as a series of 60s setpieces (it was filmed in 1973 but feels much more like a relic of the 1960s). Sterling Hayden has a cameo as an American military advisor, and he's clearly riffing on his role as the dangerously paranoid General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. The intense Patrick Magee (the writer whose wife is raped in A Clockwork Orange) has an enjoyably nutty cameo. Renowned character actor Hugh Griffith has two brief scenes as Hira, and the reliable George Coulouris (Thatcher in Citizen Kane) is one of the scientists trying to get the microfilm. For me, Finch is a weak link, though that may be due to his character, a creation of writer Michael Moorcock who appeared in several novels. Here, he is passive, unsympathetic, and isn't as smart or sexy as the role would seem to demand. One wishes that the filmmakers had a bigger budget for their sets and effects, though occasionally, as with the pinball room or the psychedelic sex scene at the climax (no pun intended), the director, Robert Fuest of the Dr. Phibes movies, gets it right. [Blu-ray]

Monday, November 02, 2020


Annie Oakley (Barbara Stanwyck, pictured) is a backwoods gal known locally as quite a sharpshooter, and when she sees an ad for contestants to shoot against the famous Toby Walker (Preston Foster), a star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she goes to Cincinnati to compete. When she arrives, everyone is surprised to see a woman, as they all assumed Annie was Andy. She gives Toby a run for his money, but ultimately she's dazzled by him (her mother suggests that "he was just too pretty" to lose) and she throws the competition to let him win. However, she is noticed by talent scout Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas) who hires her to tour with the Wild West Show, basically a recreation of Old West life which features rodeo performers and a reenactment of Indian battles. Annie's skills with a gun are beyond reproach, but her showmanship needs some polish, so Toby volunteers to teach her how to present herself more appealingly. Soon, she's a hit, and both Toby and Jeff fall for her. Chief Sitting Bull is so impressed by her that he joins up with the show. One day, a crazy man with a grudge against Indians tries to shoot Sitting Bull. Toby saves him, but the gun blast goes off close to his face and his eyesight is damaged, affecting his performance. Because of his eyesight, Toby accidentally wounds Annie in the hand during a performance. People think he did it on purpose because he was jealous of her acclaim, and he is fired from the show. Toby drifts into obscurity and Annie's star rises. The movie veers into "Star is Born" territory here, but this ending is happier, if a bit far-fetched.

As in many of my reviews of historical and biographical movies, I must admit I know little about Oakley except that she was married to sharpshooter Frank Butler and both were part of the Buffalo Bill show. Most of the rest of the narrative here is fictional, and even though it's not real, it is compelling enough. Stanwyck plays Oakley as innocent but not stupid and though she doesn't get much chance to really shine acting-wise, she holds the viewer's attention well. Foster is handsome but a bit wooden as Toby; Douglas is more effective as the third point of the romantic triangle, to the point where you start to root for him to get Annie. Pert Kelton has a nice turn as Toby's hotsy-totsy ex (imagine a slightly tamped-down Mae West). A Native American actor who went by Chief Thunderbird is fine as Sitting Bull. At some point, someone uses the phrase, "Well, dog my cats!" which I learned as a youngster and still use when appropriate--and, well, it’s always appropriate. [TCM]