Sunday, February 27, 2022


The Man from UNCLE was a spy series that ran on network television for four seasons in the mid-1960s at the height of the spymania occasioned by the James Bond movies. It still has some currency in popular culture, having been made into a big-budget film in 2015. During its initial run, eight feature films were released, each combining two episodes of the show with some added footage. Though a few were released as drive-in double features in the US, most were intended for European audiences. In the past I have avoided watching these, assuming they wouldn't be up to snuff as movies, but this one proved to be quite fun. At an amusement park pier, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum), secret agents for the spy organization UNCLE, chase agents from the evil organization THRUSH and wind up bruised and battered from a car chase. Their boss Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) sends them to Italy to infiltrate a winery owned by Louis Strago that is being used as a cover for a plan by Von Kronen, a Nazi scientist who has invented a way to alter the Gulf Stream which would turn Greenland into a tropical home for remaining Nazis and at the same time would bring crippling blizzards all year round to much of the United States. During a street festival, Solo and Ilya wind up in a gunfight with THRUSH men; Ilya escapes but Solo is wounded and is cared for by the lovely young Pia and her mother. Solo leaves but winds up back in Pia's bedroom, hiding under her bed for a night. Pia's mother considers this a disgrace and insists the two get married. Solo manages to leave, and he and Ilya follow Von Kronen and Strago back to the States where they have to deal with Pia's three elderly uncles, all former gangsters, who plan a literal shotgun wedding for Solo and Pia. Eventually the action moves to Strago's private island with Pia kidnapped and the gangsters joining the UNCLE agents to get her back, and to stop the Gulf Stream device from being set off.

Like most spy franchises of the era, the UNCLE show wound up being played mostly for campy laughs. This film, while often amusing, isn't quite campy, exactly. The closest it comes is the performance of Jack Palance as Strago; he plays the character as an outwardly butch but tightly wound and inwardly nervous villain, and perhaps sexually repressed as well—his comically negative reactions to the sexiness of Janet Leigh, playing his THRUSH assistant, suggest the 60s idea of a gay man burying his sexuality. Some viewers don't like him but I think he gives the movie a nice jolt, not quite serious but not quite campy. Leigh is also very good as the sexy agent who carries a knife under her miniskirt and turns against Strago when he threatens her future employment, telling her boss (the green-hatted man of the title) that she's no longer an asset. Watch for her mildly orgasmic reactions after she kills people. Vaughn, McCallum (both pictured) and Carroll, old hats at their characters, are fine. Classic movie fans will enjoy the presence of Eduardo Ciannelli, Allen Jenkins and Jack LaRue as the uncles, along with Maxie Rosenbloom, Joan Blondell, Elisha Cook, and Ludwig Donath. Much more entertaining than I had assumed it would be. [TCM]

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

PROJECT X (1968)

In the year 2118, an American spy (Christopher George) discovers the Sino-Asians have a plan to destroy the West in just fourteen days, but as a safeguard when he was about to be captured, he took a drug that gave him amnesia so he couldn't give up secrets under pressure. He made it back to the States and survived a plane crash to be put in suspended animation while scientists (led by Henry Jones and Phillip Pine) figure out how to make him remember. Their solution: install him in what they call a "matrix" by implanting a new identity in his brain, then have him live out this new existence in an elaborate ruse, "Mission Impossible" style until eventually his real memories surface. The world they create is a gangster's rural hideout in the 1960s, with the scientists playing the roles of other gangsters. They only have a few days to pull this off, but complications arise, primarily due to a female factory worker (Greta Baldwin) who is not in on the ruse, and a fellow spy (Monte Markham) who seems to want to help George but may actually have a sinister agenda.

The plot in summary sounds OK, but it's pulled off with all the panache of a cheap TV-movie—watching this, I kept having to remind myself that this was not a TV movie and had actually been released in (mostly empty, I imagine) theaters. William Castle, known mostly for B-horror and exploitation movies, directed, but was clearly past his prime here. The narrative is needlessly muddled and, as I imagine none of the actors know quite what was going on, the acting is uninspired at best. Christopher George (from the 60s TV show The Rat Patrol) is gruff and has the looks of an action hero, but he doesn't get to engage much in fisticuffs or heroics. Henry Jones (who had over 150 parts in TV shows from the 1950 to the early 90s, but is perhaps best known as the handyman in THE BAD SEED) sleepwalks through his role; Harold Gould (Rhoda’s father on TV) is given almost nothing to do except stroll through scenes glowering at people; Monte Markham is a cipher, and everyone else has thankless roles. The sets are cheesy looking and overly lit in a TV-movie way. The highlights, some viewers think, are the psychedelic scenes where George's brain is probed and we see flashbacks that fill in his story against pulsing animation courtesy Hanna-Barbera, the creators of the Jetsons, the Flintstones, and Scooby-Doo. I like Christopher George and would recommend this only to die-hard George fans, or fans of low-budget 60s sci-fi, though it rarely looks or feels like sci-fi. [DVD]

Monday, February 21, 2022


Eve, a light-skinned Black woman from Alabama, inherits a plot of land in the Northwest city of Oristown from her grandfather. When she goes to claim it, she is forced to sleep in a barn by Jefferson Driscoll, a Black hotel owner who passes for white and has a pathological hatred of Blacks—we see him throttle his poor mother and push her to the ground when she stops by his house. The next morning, lost and a little dazed, Eve runs into Hugh, a Black prospector who owns land near hers. He helps her find her home and the two become friendly, though Hugh, thinking Eve is white, doesn't attempt a romantic connection. We are introduced to a rogue's gallery of townsfolk including August, a former preacher turned swindler; Tugi, an Indian fakir who is an associate of August's; Phil and Bill, a couple of horse rustlers; and the relatively innocent Peter, brother of August's wife Mary who is forced into helping with August's cons. Jefferson joins up with the bad guys, selling Hugh two stolen horses that he claims are fine-bred Arabians. When Hugh finds out the truth, he proceeds to kick Jefferson's ass in an (overlong) bar fight. When news arrives that Hugh's land has oil beneath it, Jefferson sends anonymous notes to Hugh, warning him to sell his land, or else. Hugh ignores the notes, so August's men and the local Ku Klux Klan ride out one night to terrorize him. 

This is one of only three silent films that still exist out of over twenty that Oscar Micheaux directed, and this print, which was found in a film archive in Belgium, is missing what might be a full reel of footage at the climax. We see some very effective shots of Klansmen riding at night with their torches held high, then we see the epilogue, set a couple of years later when Hugh, a wealthy oil tycoon, meets up again with Eve. Now, honest about her real racial background, the two wind up together. Micheaux is an important historical figure, as the first African-American filmmaker, but because he always worked with a limited budget, modern audiences may find his films difficult to enjoy, and his sound films, such as SWING, fare even worse than the average Hollywood Poverty Row films. But because fiction films with Black talent in front and especially behind the camera were so rare in the classic era, I try to take the opportunity to see his films when I can. His sound films can feel very awkward in staging and dialogue, but here, not worrying about sound engineering, Micheaux crafts a fairly compelling film. The acting is about average for the silent era, with Iris Hall and Walker Thompson (both pictured) fine in the lead roles. The bad guys, especially Lawrence Chenault as Jefferson, tend to go overboard in their villainy, but that was not unusual in the silent era. The scene in which Jefferson beats up his mom is still shocking. Though this could be seen as a propaganda movie about race, it doesn't feel didactic at all. I never figured out what the title refers to. Beware: the musical score that has been attached to this restored print is all percussion by famous jazz drummer Max Roach, and I found it quite irritating, rarely applying to what's happening on screen. [TCM]

Thursday, February 17, 2022


Music hall singer Jenny Lamour is married to her piano player Maurice who is hang-doggedly jealous of all the male attention she gets—Jenny's director calls him Othello. Dora is an old friend of Maurice's and a professional photographer who has her name embroidered in huge letters on all her blouses; she seems to harbor an unrequited crush on Jenny. Dora does work for the sleazy hunchbacked producer Brignon who brings a stream of pretty female hopefuls in to be photographed, mostly for his pleasure we assume. When Jenny meets Brignon for dinner, in theory to discuss a career opportunity, Maurice barges into the restaurant and makes a scene, threatening to kill Brignon. We're not sure if Jenny would resort to trading sex for career favors, but she does make plans behind Maurice's back to visit Brignon in his apartment, telling Maurice she is making an overnight visit to her sick grandmother. At the apartment, Brignon makes aggressive advances and Jenny conks him over the head with a champagne bottle, apparently killing him. She goes to Dora, tells her the whole story, and realizes she has left her fur coat behind, so Dora volunteers to go get it. Unknown to them, Maurice, who doesn’t believe Jenny's story about her grandma, heads over to Brignon's place, being careful to be seen by people at Jenny's theater so he will have an alibi. When he gets there, he finds Brignon already dead, and a shadowy figure steals Maurice's car. The next day, Inspector Antoine is on the case, suspecting everyone and realizing that all of them are hiding something.

This French film noir, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique), works best in its first half as it sets up the characters, the conflicts and the ensuing dramas. Once the cops get involved, much of the tension dissipates and it becomes a fairly traditional police melodrama. I'm in the minority of viewers here, most of whom seem to like this half, and the actor who plays Antoine, Louis Jouvet. He is a distinctive character, an unambitious detective who seems irritated to be on the case. He's also given a mixed-race adoptive son to round out his character and provide a nice final scene. But it's the other characters I found interesting. Suzy Delair, Clouzot's lover at the time, is Jenny; Simone Renant is Dora; Bernard Blier (pictured, who looks a bit like Bob Newhart) is Maurice. At various times, all three in the quasi-love triangle are likable or sympathetic, and at other times, less so, especially Jenny who, a day or two after Brignon's death, no longer seems to have a guilty conscience. (I like the scene in which she blithely announces after her number that she has to change her underwear due to "stage fright sweat.") Though set at Christmas, the holiday trappings are not obvious until the end. For all its seriousness in terms of murder and motives, the film has a surprisingly light feel. Recommended. BTW, the title refers to the address of the police station, comparable to a British crime movie being titled SCOTLAND YARD. [TCM]

Monday, February 14, 2022


We are in Shanghai which is, we are told, "gateway to the land of the lotus and the poppy—the secret of the East which attracts white men like the yellow flame of a lamp attracts moths." Meeting at the Café de Paris, where anything can be bought and sold, are Cassie and Jules, rival opium dealers who have been forced to team up in hard times. The cops are on Cassie's trail and on top of that, because a big shipment of opium has been delayed, she owes people money, so she sells a bunch of new dresses she'd recently bought to some of Madame Polly Voo's "cabaret girls" (i.e., hookers). Another reason Molly is desperate for the opium is that she hopes to raise enough money from it to send her friend Molly, a barely-functioning addict, back to the United States. Hoping to accompany her, Cassie decides to make this her one last sale, and so goes off to Hangchow, a village near the poppy fields, to find out what’s going on. What's going on is that an American named Jarvis has arrived, ostensibly in charge of re-opening some mines, but actually he's an undercover agent trying to bust the opium ring. Cassie pretends to be a visiting novelist researching a book, and as she investigates, local girl Rose Li (whose father is running the dope enterprise), who has fallen in love with Jarvis, sees Cassie nosing around suspiciously. Cassie herself begins to feel warmly about Jarvis. There's also a potential native uprising brewing. When Jules shows up to see what Cassie has learned, all the elements are in place for an explosive climax.

There are two reasons this exotic silent melodrama still retains some interest among movie buffs: it's directed by Tod Browning (FREAKS and the Lugosi DRACULA) and it features Chinese-American actor Anna May Wong in the supporting role of Rose Li. Though I think excavating Wong's films is important cultural work, I have never been terribly impressed by her acting—she always seems stiff and unconvincing (except when she was paired with Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS). She's the same here, though her role is fairly limited. Priscilla Dean, a very prolific silent actor who quit the business not long after the advent of sound, is very good as Cassie, though Matt Moore makes for a rather weak hero as Jarvis. Jules is played by a relatively young (just under 40) Wallace Beery, who almost looks handsome, though he limits himself to two expressions: disinterested and irritated. The climax, involving a village on fire and a cavalry rescue, is quite exciting. The drug-addled character of Molly disappears from the movie by the halfway point, and her relationship with Cassie is never explained. The audio commentary on the Blu-ray by Anthony Slide is poor—I guess to get hired as a commentator today, all you have to do is be able to skim IMDb for information. I could have shed as much light on this movie after one viewing as Slide did. I appreciate that smaller companies like Kino Lorber are still including these extras, but they need to up their game to keep people like me buying their products. Pictured are Dean and Beery. [Blu-ray]

Friday, February 11, 2022

MALAYA (1949)

In January 1942, the U.S. is fighting World War II on two fronts, and one major problem is a shortage of much needed rubber for tanks and trucks. Manchester, editor of the L.A. Record, is heading a rubber scrap drive, and reporter John Royer (James Stewart) says he can get massive amounts of excess rubber from plantations in Malaya, despite a current blockade, with "the right kind of money and the wrong kind of man." The U.S. government provides the money to bribe the plantation owners, and provide Royer with a partner, Carnahan (Spencer Tracy), a smuggler whom they extract from Alcatraz for the job. Once in Malaya, they get help from a shady saloon keeper known as the Dutchman (Sydney Greenstreet) who gives them their required twelve men ("good honest riff-raff") to help move the rubber. They encounter other characters including a singer and old flame of Carnahan's (Valentina Cortese), a Japanese officer who becomes suspicious, and a German plantation owner who betrays the Americans at a crucial point. 

I found this to be an odd duck of a movie. It seems to have been an A-picture with two big stars (Tracy and Stewart), a popular character actor (Greenstreet), and an Italian actress at the beginning of a decent career in Hollywood (Cortese). But the script is mostly B-movie stuff that I think would have come off better with B-movie leads (Tom Neal, John Carroll, Lynn Bari, etc.). A B-movie length, maybe 75 minutes instead of 100, would have paid off, too, getting rid of the occasional doldrums. Stewart and Tracy both seem like they knew this and have tried to hide their star wattage, but not always successfully. Still, they're OK, especially Tracy. I like that the Cortese character is lively and attractive, not beaten down and world-weary as so many femmes of the exotic melodrama are. There is notable support from John Hodiak as a government man and the always reliable Gilbert Roland as one of the "riff-raff." The pop standard "Blue Moon" is used throughout. Not a waste of time, but not as enjoyably scruffy as it should have been. Pictured are Stewart, Tracy and Greenstreet. [TCM]

Monday, February 07, 2022


At a crowded dance party, hot-headed low-level crook Reese (John Vernon) wrestles his buddy Walker (Lee Marvin) to the ground, then climbs on top of him, practically dry-humping him, and begs him to help out with one last heist in which they will make off with a big bag of money being delivered by helicopter to the abandoned Alcatraz prison. On the island, Reese kills the couriers then double crosses Walker by shooting him and leaving him for dead, taking off with Walker's wife Lynne. But a year later, Walker shows up in San Francisco, intent on getting his share of the stolen money. A man named Yost (Keenan Wynn), who seems to be a government agent anxious to get his hands on Reese, gives Walker the address of his ex-wife who is living with Reese; when Walker gets there, he shoots up their bedroom before realizing that Reese is long gone, and Lynne is almost comatose with depression. Walker eventually makes contact with a series of folks with connections to Reese (and with Reese's bosses who are not traditional gangsters but supposedly respectable wealthy businessmen); most importantly, he winds sleeping with Chris (Angie Dickinson, pictured with Marvin), his sister-in-law, though no emotional connection can stop him from going after the money he's owed.

In its day, the neo-noir directed by John Boorman (Deliverance, Excalibur) had a reputation as hip and new-wavish, mostly for its fractured timeline and its postmodern approach to narrative and visuals. At its heart, it's a straightforward story of betrayal and revenge, based on a traditional crime novel by prolific author Donald Westlake who wrote several more books with Walker as the main character. But as was happening in the late 60s, style was becoming more important than substance, and this has style to burn. Scenes of people getting shot or attacked (or dry-humped) are jaggedly repeated, often in slow-motion. Quick flashbacks of previous scenes pop up throughout. A shot of spilled perfumes and tonics in a bathroom sink is downright psychedelic. A physical fight between Marvin and Dickinson suddenly turns into a shot of them making love. Marvin walks into a kitchen in which every appliance is running at full tilt. But the story is another matter. There are gigantic plot holes and gaps in logic; in some reviewers' minds, the biggest plot problem is whether or not Walker is actually alive or perhaps a ghost. One viewer posits an "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" explanation for narrative problems: the whole movie is just a moment-of-death dream that Walker has. For myself, I had no problem believing that Walker was not fatally shot--the shooting, though it does take place at close to point-blank range, is not shown clearly and we see no obvious sign of a fatal wound. My bigger problem is that plotpoint connections are blurred or erased, so the movie is a series of episodes, almost in the style of a graphic novel. Marvin and Dickinson are good, as are John Vernon, Michael Strong (as a car salesman), and Carroll O'Connor (as a high-level bad guy). Worth seeing for sure, if only as a mid-60s period piece, or as a signpost to a new Hollywood style that didn't last long. [TCM]

Saturday, February 05, 2022


This is a classic-era B-movie exotic melodrama, so we know right off the bat that the Lady of the title is going to be a lady of the evening, in Production Code disguise as a down-on-her-luck chorus girl stranded in the Tropics somewhere. Sure enough chorus girl Lucy (Lucille Ball) is working in a dive in Panama when her boss Lenore has to let all the girls go. She pushes for marriage to her no-good boyfriend Roy but says he's too busy right now, and immediately takes off in his plane for business. She stows away and finds out he's actually involved in a smuggling ring, and he has her sent back to the city. Lenore gives Lucy a job as a hostess and when a charming roughneck oilman named McTeague refuses to pay his tab, Lucy and Lenore get him drunk and steal a wad of cash from him. When he's sobered up, he blames Lucy for his loss and takes her away to South America to be his housekeeper (or under the Production Code layer, mistress). She leaves a note for Roy to come and get her, but soon she develops some feelings for McTeague, although she has to deal with the jealousy of his other housekeeper (mistress) Cheema. Soon Roy arrives, assuming that Lucy ratted out his smuggling business and wanting revenge against her, but he also decides he might be able to steal McTeague's claim on some oil land, and the tensions between Lucy, McTeague, Roy and Cheema come to a boil. This is a B-movie remake of an early 30s B-movie, PANAMA FLO and it follows that film's plot slavishly. This is an improvement only in the casting. Lucille Ball does a nice job of fleshing out the main character, making her a little more lively than Helen Twelvetrees does in the original. We know Allan Lane (McTeague) will ultimately be a good guy, but he is good at keeping us a little off-balance about his intentions. I like Lane in his B-leads (see NIGHT SPOT made the year before and one of fourteen movies he made in 1938 and 1939) and he went on to achieve some fame in westerns under the name Rocky Lane. An actor named Donald Briggs, with whom I am not familiar, is fine as Roy. Steffi Duna is a little stiff as Cheema. I'd say this is mostly for fans of exotic melodrama (me) or fans of Lucille Ball. Pictured are Ball and Lane [TCM]

Tuesday, February 01, 2022


It's the last days of World War II, after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the dropping of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. In a Shanghai hospital which has been converted into a Japanese officers club, Nazi colonel Von Meyer leads a small group of Germans working with the Japanese on a "cosmic death ray" more powerful than the A-bomb. He is waiting for the arrival of Professor Kunioshi and Colonel Noyama to hand over to them the plans for the death ray, but with Japan's defeat all but final, Von Meyer is ordered to withhold the plans. He brings a group of female prisoners to the building to use them as "entertainment" for the officers, German and Japanese. Among the women: the French Yvette (who is only too glad to flirt with anyone and is resented by the others), the American reporter Claire, the Australian Sheila, the Chinese Li Ling (who is secretly a member of the underground, as is her boyfriend, a delivery boy who smuggles things in for the women), the shy religious virgin Helen (whose mother works as a laundress at the club), and the mysterious Eurasian Maya. Over the course of the next few nights, the women are dolled up and paraded and pimped before the officers. Some oblige, some use their wiles to engage in subversion, and one would rather die than engage in forced sex. One of the officers, Von Arnheim, is actually an American OSS agent (and husband of Claire's) and helps oversee a plan to blow the club and its officers up. But will their secret plans be betrayed? 

This B-film is introduced explicitly as a postwar propaganda tale, to raise outrage against the treatment of female prisoners--treated as prostitutes--and to propose that such acts be considered war crimes. But that element of  the film is ultimately downplayed in favor of war melodrama, and as such, it works fairly well. There are perhaps a few too many characters and plotlines crammed in, though its running time of 100 minutes is unusually generous for a B-movie of the era, and I was unsure of some details--the character of Maya (Jean Brooks) was an enigma to me the whole time. The film is not really gritty enough for its subject matter, but it’s well paced and interesting. Performances are par for the B-film course. Best are Brooks, Virginia Christine (Claire), Philip Ahn (Kunioshi), Richard Loo (Noyama) and William Henry (Arnheim). Occupying an unusual place in wartime films, I recommend this. Pictured are Virginia Christine as Claire and Gordon Richards as the chief Nazi. [YouTube]