Wednesday, March 30, 2022

HIT AND RUN (1957)

Gus (Hugo Haas) is a slovenly middle-aged man who owns a service station and junkyard, and by the standards of his small town, is fairly well off. His chief mechanic, the young and handsome Frank (Vince Edwards) lives above the garage and occasionally serves as a kind of bodyguard, keeping unwanted attention at bay. One night, the lonely Gus spies Julie (Cleo Moore), an attractive chorus girl sitting at a bar and being depressed about her situation. Gus comes on to her, promising to give her an overhauled jalopy if she'll visit him. Frank is not happy about her presence; he partly sees her as a golddigger, and he partly has the hots for her himself. Much to Frank's consternation, Julie marries Gus and moves in, causing Frank to say that he's quitting as soon as Gus can find a replacement. But soon, Frank is flirting with Julie who responds listlessly, finding Frank attractive but not as attractive as Gus' money. Unknown to them, an ex-con buddy of Gus' who has just gotten out of San Quentin, is coming for a visit. One night, Frank takes Julie for a ride in a rehabbed junker, and when he sees Gus strolling down the road, perhaps drunkenly, Guts hits and kills him, leaving the body as a hit and run victim. Julie's not happy with this turn of events, and she's even less happy when, at Gus' funeral, she sees someone who looks like Gus watching from afar. It turns out that the visiting ex-con is Gus' twin brother Dave who hangs around and catches on quickly that Julie and Frank are lovers. But Julie freaks herself out by thinking that perhaps Frank killed the wrong man, and that the guy calling himself Dave is actually Gus.

A nicely grungy B-movie revamp of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, though here, Julie is a much more passive figure than Cora (Lana Turner). Haas (who also wrote and directed the movie) made several B-noirs with Cleo Moore, this being the last before she retired from movies at the age of 33. Moore isn't A-level talent, but she anchors her B-films well (see ONE GIRLS’ CONFESSION) and I'm sorry she never matured into more interesting roles. Haas is adequate as the small-town big-shot sad sack and as the less sad-sacky brother. As long as Vince Edwards has his eyes set to "smolder," he can do no wrong in my book, and he's the best thing in the movie. It takes a while for the somewhat choppy plot to take hold but eventually it’s solid B-noir entertainment. A song by Ella Mae Morse, "What Good Will It Do Me," is reminiscent of “In the Mood” which I found myself humming all day long. Pictured are Edwards, Moore and Haas. [YouTube]

Monday, March 28, 2022


In the Pacific during World War II, the submarine Seahawk comes upon a Japanese warship; their first two torpedoes go astray but the third strikes the target. They are then ordered back to Pearl Harbor to get a new assignment and a new skipper as Stoker, the current commander, is kicked upstairs to an office job. Stoker turns in a negative report on Lt. Turner (he's a cold fish, too academic, and not especially well liked by the crew) and he recommends the friendlier Hallohan, but Capt. Boardman decides to put Turner in charge anyway, partly because their new mission involves intelligence gathered by Turner. It seems that some thirty Japanese warships have just disappeared from action and the Navy believes that they're in hiding near the Mariana Islands for some nefarious plan. Boardman wants the Seahawk to go out on a reconnaissance mission to find the ships so the Navy can attack. Among the sailors under the taciturn Turner: Bellis, a naïve farm boy; Flowers, who's making it his mission to get the lad interested in girls; a radio operator; a "bearded sonar man" (which is how he listed in the credits); a new man named Shore who is on his first assignment and a little fragile; and Hallohan who, despite being overlooked for command, puts on a brave face and does his duty. The crew doesn't know that Turner was ordered not to risk engaging the enemy, so when the ship comes near a Japanese ship, the men resent Turner's order not to fire. Eventually, as the sub navigates mined waters in pursuit of a ship, Shore, the new guy, has a breakdown, threatening the men and their mission.

Until they found their niche with movies aimed at the teen market, American International dabbled in war films, distinctly B-movie affairs as all their films were. The director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, was at the end of a long career doing B-westerns and serials, and this film starts out badly, with awkward group scenes and stagy dialogue delivery. Submarine movies need to make us feel a bit claustrophobic, and this one is a little less effective at that than others. But things pick up a bit when the ship goes back out on its main mission and the actors, most of whom I was unfamiliar with, are all adequate and in some cases a bit more. John Bentley (CALLING PAUL TURNER) is a solid lead as Turner, the unemotional leader whom we can sense has some anxiety beneath his quiet surface. Paul Maxwell is even better as the reliable Hallohan. Wayne Heffley (Stoker) and Frank Gerstle (Boardman) are fine in scenes showing them keeping track of things back at HQ. Predictable comic relief comes from Henry McCann as the farm boy and Steve Mitchell as his friendly tormentor. Brett Halsey gives a one-note performance as the neurotic Shore, but to be fair, the role is pretty much one-note. The most exciting moments in the movie are made effective with footage from other bigger-budgeted movies–I recognized some scenes from the 1943 Cary Grant film Destination Tokyo. A worthy choice for a B-movie Saturday afternoon. Pictured are Maxwell and Halsey. [Streaming]

Friday, March 25, 2022


A recent Blu-ray set from Kino Lorber, The Jewish Soul, features a number of Yiddish films made before World War II (including THE DYBBUK), most of which have had little exposure since their initial release. This one is considered by most critics to be the worst of the bunch, and while in terms of technical movie-making, that's true, it's still interesting viewing, especially if you approach it as a filmed stage production, which it is. Successful businessman David, his wife Hannah, and their three daughters (two with husbands) have gathered for Purim. During the meal, David announces that he intends to leave Vilna to go to the Holy Land to pray and study and do holy work. He divides his estate among his daughters (Etele, Gitele and Taybele), leaving control of his business to Etele's husband Avrum. Etele and Gitele express their thanks ostentatiously but Taybele, the youngest, who is not orthodox and not yet married, is uncomfortable with the situation, as she just wants to be free to go off to St. Petersburg with Joffe, her mentor (and, it seems, boyfriend-to-be) and study to be a doctor. David disowns her and Joffe points out that he is acting just like Shakespeare's King Lear and is bound to be sorry for his actions. David softens enough to instruct Avrum to give Taybele some money, but in David's absence, Avrum keeps the money, and also takes over David's properties. David does indeed live long enough to regret his actions (he goes blind and becomes a beggar), but the ending here is one of redemption: Taybele becomes a doctor, Avrum gets his just desserts, a "small" operation will restore David's sight, and there is reconciliation at the wedding of Taybele and Joffe.

The Lear parallels will be clear to anyone who knows the original play. In addition to Lear and his daughters, and Lear's reduced state and period of wandering, there is a Fool-type truth teller character who sticks with David. As noted above, this is largely a filmed stage production without an audience. Quite often, there are strange shaky cutaways to people's faces, not always congruent with what's happening in the scene. The acting is a little stagy and melodramatic (Maurice Krohner as David/Lear, for example), with the standouts being the lower-key performances of Miriam Grossman and Jacob Bergreen as Taybele and Joffe (all three pictured above). This won't be to everyone's taste, but given its limitations, I was engrossed enough to stick with it. In Yiddish (obviously) with English subtitles. [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, March 22, 2022


Arlo Guthrie, son of famous folk singer Woody Guthrie, came to fame in 1967 with "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," a 20 minute shaggy-dog story-song which occupied an entire side of the album Alice's Restaurant. The song, even when edited down to 5 minutes, never made the top 40 but it became an underground sensation, getting lots of airplay on album rock stations, and the album went gold. In 1969, Arthur Penn made a full-length movie based on the song with Guthrie playing himself and performing chunks of the original song as narration. The film retains the main narrative of the song at its center (a Thanksgiving celebration which ends with Arlo getting thrown in jail for littering—actually, dumping quite a bit of trash on public land), but builds a somewhat autobiographical plot around that. Arlo, trying to jumpstart a folk music career, becomes eligible for the draft. He starts college (mostly in order to get an exemption), gets in an altercation with hippie baiters, quits school, plays gigs in small clubs, and winds up spending some time with his old friends Alice (Patricia Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) in a small town in Massachusetts. Alice, who runs a restaurant, has bought, with Ray, a deconsecrated church where they live with a rotating group of hippie youngsters. After a big Thanksgiving celebration, Arlo and a friend cart all the leftovers and trash to the city dump, only to find it closed for the holiday. They find a small cliff over which others have dumped some trash so they follow suit, but the local cop Officer Obie arrests them for littering, cuffing them and throwing them in jail until Alice pays their bail. After they're found not guilty, Arlo is called up by the military only to find that his arrest record makes him ineligible for the draft.

This comic story has been drawn out to feature film length and made more serious by fleshing out the characters. We see Arlo visit his dying father in the hospital and fending off the advances of an underage groupie (Shelley Plimpton, original cast member of Hair and mother of Martha Plimpton). Tensions between Alice and Ray, mom and dad figures to the hippie kids, grow when Ray starts spending too much time hanging out with a young man named Shelly (Michael McClanathan) who has just come out of heroin rehab, as if Ray is trying to escape "adulting" (as we might say today). There's also the intimation that Alice and Arlo are attracted to each other, though they don't seem to become intimate. The song's happy ending is undercut by the tragic death of Shelly and, despite the hippie wedding of Alice and Ray, the famous ambiguous ending shot of Alice, standing outside the church looking utterly lost as the kids leave and Ray seems to retreat into himself. (In real life, the two had divorced before the movie was made.)

This is sometimes considered one of those movies that was heralding the end of the peace & love generation, but it seems as if every movie that was ever made about the 60s was doing that—is there a mainstream movie that actually celebrated the hippie generation? Though it might not bother all viewers, this film has a tone problem: the events of the song, which take up less than half the running time, are presented mostly in an antic mood, and the rest in a downbeat, elegiac mood, and the two halves, while occasionally effective, generally work against each other. Guthrie is no actor, so Quinn and Broderick (Matthew Broderick's dad), both very good, win acting honors. McClanathan, a young man from Ohio, is quite good as Shelly, but after only a couple more roles, he left movie acting behind. William Obanhein, the real Officer Obie, plays himself, somewhat uncomfortably. M. Emmet Walsh has a wonderful double-talk moment at the Army induction office. Pete Seeger has a short scene as himself in Woody Guthrie's hospital room. Not a bad movie, exactly, but one that can only be viewed as a period novelty. Pictured at top right are Seeger and Guthrie; at left is Michael McClanathan). [DVD]

Friday, March 18, 2022


A woman in a train compartment is found dead with the word "Rex" written on the window blind. This is the third Rex murder and Scotland Yard official Sir Graham Forbes calls on former detective and current mystery novelist Paul Temple for help. While Temple and Forbes are chatting in a nightclub, Norma, the featured singer, sends them a note that she has some knowledge about the Rex killer, but we see a woman in gray sneak into Norma's dressing room, and later Norma collapses and dies in the middle of a song. Paul's wife Steve discovers an Egyptian lipstick container in the dressing room and soon the two are playing detective. Among the suspects: an Egyptologist named Kohima, his secretary Mrs. Trevellyan (who sometimes dresses in gray), a teapot salesman named Davies (who was present on the train when the third victim was discovered), and Edward Lathom who may have the key to the crimes—he claims he's being blackmailed by Rex. Things come to a climax in an old monastery in Canterbury where our heroes are stuck in a room that is quickly filling with water. 

I'd never even heard of Paul Temple before watching this movie; I came to it after seeing the lead actor, John Bentley, in another movie. Temple was a character created for a BBC radio serial who went on to appear in movies, novels, and a daily comic strip. The B-mystery has a bit of a 'Nick and Nora' vibe going on between Paul and Steve, and the chemistry between Bentley and Dinah Sheridan (Steve) is solid. The plot is not as convoluted as some of the Charlie Chan movies got, and though things slow down a bit in the middle, the Canterbury setting in the last part of the film is interesting. The scene of the singer dropping dead in the middle of a song is startling, and her earlier song "Lady on the Loose" is fun, with the line, "All I want is a honey who'll be true to the end / Till the end of tonight." There is a surprising death of a likable character. None of the actors were familiar to me, though Margaretta Scott, who plays Trevellyan, went on to a continuing role in the original All Creatures Great and Small series. Nothing much out of the ordinary, but I may seek out other Paul Temple movies. Pictured are Sheridan and Bentley. [Streaming]

Tuesday, March 15, 2022


A British spy named Rosser vanishes in Beirut and MI6 needs to send someone to find him. MacGillivray, the big boss, learns of a medical conference being held there and tries to recruit a real doctor who would not seem suspicious. He approaches Jason Love (David Niven), who had done some intelligence gathering in the past. Love is reluctant, but when MacGillivray offers him an expensive, antique LeBaron car, he agrees. He is given a handful of spy gadgets which don't seem particularly useful to Love, and in fact he is told that they are more for psychological comfort than practical use. At a Paris stopover to switch planes, he fumbles his initial attempt at using a password to contact an agent, but finally meets up with Vikki (Françoise Dorleac), a lovely fashion model. As they seem to strike a spark, he dawdles at her apartment and misses his plane which promptly blows up in the air at takeoff. Vikki stays in Paris while Love makes it to Beirut where he proves himself a decent hand-to-hand fighter with an intruder in his hotel room who turns out to be Parkington (Nigel Davenport), another British agent. They discover that Rosser is dead (which we've known from the beginning) and that he knew details about a Russian assassination plot against an Arabian ruler. Suddenly instead of just being a contact, Love is in the dangerous thick of things. When Vikki shows up in Beirut, we wonder exactly whose side she's on. We find out.

Most review sources call this a spy spoof or a comedy-adventure. Though there is overall a light tone to the proceedings, I wouldn't quite call it a spoof or a comedy. It's more like the early James Bond movies, played mostly straight with a jokey reference here and there. This is no brooding Le Carre story but it's not a Dean Martin 'Matt Helm' movie either. The fact that Niven's character is an amateur is the occasion for some humor but it's fairly restrained. Niven, in his mid-50s at the time, is fine but maybe a bit too old for Dorleac, his leading lady, who was half his age (both pictured at left). At least it's not as creepy as Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Doreleac is good, as is Davenport (though he drops out halfway through). Cyril Cusack has what amounts to a cameo in the beginning as Rosser, and John Le Mesurier is fine as MacGillivray. There's a nifty helicopter rescue scene, and at 110 minutes, it does start to wear out its welcome by the climax. [TCM]

Thursday, March 10, 2022


Walter Dinsmore lives in Manhattan with his mother, whom he also sleeps with—she later says to the camera, "I know it's robbing the cradle but at least it's my own." His voiceover narration tells us that he's in the middle of his November breakdown. Told he's pregnant, a doctor performs a cesarean through his hip and delivers 189 ten-dollar bills, probably because he swallowed a nickel when he was a kid. On the street, a man walks up to him and spray paints his initials on Walter's overcoat, then tells him that he is now a living artwork ("You'll be sold right away because you're very pretentious"). In the middle of Walter's January breakdown, a director named Neo Realism casts him in an underground movie because he "radiates emptiness, despair, futility." He visits his cousin Levitica Zoho who is such a committed vegetarian, she won't even eat animal crackers. When she says she's pregnant, he throws her out her window. He faces murder charges, and is himself murdered, but Heaven (with a neophiliac God who hates dwarves) tosses him back to earth as the Virgin Mary says, "You tell Charlton Heston I'm waitin’ for him!" Walter records a pop song which rhymes "Hey, hey, hey!" with "Black leather negligee," and finally batters his mom to death with a root beer bottle, but she comes back to life, saying, "You can't kill real love," and they get married.

I was tempted to just post that summary with no critical remarks, because really, this is pretty much critic-proof. Written and directed by Robert Downey Sr., this film is one of the earliest to break out of the "underground" niche, or more precisely, to make the underground movies commercial successes. It became a midnight movie staple, and enjoyed runs in legitimate theaters. Nowadays its appeal is primarily historical as an example of a dead genre. It's not so much non-narrative as anti-narrative; you can follow the plot, as it were, but don't expect it to make sense. The most interesting part is its style: a mix of still images and live action sequences. But what makes it still somewhat watchable are the outrageous jokes, some verbal ("It's a universal feeling—or is it Warner Brothers?"), some visual (Walter's mother turns toward the camera to show a huge snaggle-toothed smile, which put me in mind of Edith Massey, the egg lady of John Waters' Pink Flamingos), some situational (a man tries to sell Walter a photo of Margaret Rutherford's ass). Downey is trying to offend people and he succeeds; Walter's brother wants to open an amusement park for white people that will feature Black people being oppressed (to put it delicately), and though you get the satirical intent (the workers will have job security), it's still a little shocking to hear even today. The quality of acting isn't really an issue, any more than in early John Waters movies, but for the record, George Morgan (pictured) makes for a generally appealing lead character, and Downey's wife Elsie good-naturedly plays all the female roles. As an example of 60s underground movies, this can't be beat. [TCM]

Monday, March 07, 2022

THE DOLL (1919)

The Baron von Chauterelle, eager to marry off his nephew Lancelot so he will be assured of an heir, invites all the village maidens to the town square for Lancelot to pick a suitable bride, who will then get a generous dowry from the Baron. But Lancelot bursts into tears when told this, and winds up running from the women right into a monastery. The monks, who eat well but plead scarcity to Lancelot ("We like to share, but not too much"), convince him to go to the famous dollmaker Hilarius who has advertised female automatons ("for bachelors, widowers and misogynists"). Their plan is for Lancelot to marry a life-sized doll and give the dowry money to the monks. As it happens, the doll that Hilarius has made, of his daughter Ossi, is accidentally broken by the dollmaker's apprentice. The real Ossi agrees to take the doll's place until the apprentice can fix the doll, but then Lancelot shows up, takes the doll, and marries her. Ossi is now stuck pretending to be artificial while at the same time, getting the upper hand on him and any other misogynistic men who cross paths with her. 

This German silent movie is a consistently funny satire with enough commentary on gender roles to feel fresh today–though it never conks you over the head with its lessons. In addition to the situations, there are other pleasures here. The lead performances are across-the-board excellent. Ossi Oswalda does a great job trying to move like a doll for the other cast members even as she lets us know what she’s doing and thinking. Hermann Thimig walks a nice tightrope as Lancelot; we never quite know what he has against women, and he often comes right to the edge of effeminacy without quite crossing over. Indeed, he comes off more as a just a man who can't quite accept adult emotional intimacy rather than being gay or a genuine misogynist. Perhaps best of all is 15-year-old Gerhard Ritterband as the apprentice. After he breaks the doll, he has a series of scenes in which he contemplates suicide–trust me, he's funny. He also gets to break the fourth wall once by talking directly to the audience. The sets are resolutely artificial, looking like a sunny, happy precursor to the expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released the next year)—there are paper cut-outs and two pantomime horses, among other delights. Director Ernst Lubitsch keeps things fluffy throughout, even opening the film with a scene of him building a small-scale version of the setting. Quite fun. Pictured are Oswalda and Thimig. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 02, 2022


This "based on a true story" film begins in the 1870s as a team of railroad workers, led by General Palmer (Dean Jagger) and his chief engineer Jim Vesser (Edmond O'Brien), is surveying a route for the Denver & Rio Grande railroad to lay a track through the Royal Gorge in Colorado. Vesser discovers that a rival team led by the unscrupulous McCabe (Sterling Hayden), working for the Canon City Railroad, is butting in on their territory. (At various points in the story, one or the other has official status to build, and the legalities of this situation were never clear to me.) Fisticuffs between Vesser and McCabe lead to the death of McCabe's associate Nelson, who was also an old friend of Vesser's. It's McCabe who accidentally shoots Nelson, but he puts the blame on Vesser. Vesser is cleared legally of charges, but Nelson's sister Linda (Laura Elliott) is bent on revenge. She also happens to be General Palmer's secretary, and she unwittingly plays into the hands of McCabe and his men by feeding them information about the whereabouts and plans of the Denver & Rio Grande men. Clashes between the teams continue, and Linda finds herself slowly warming toward Vesser even as she still holds him responsible for Nelson's death. But eventually, she will have to choose a side when the conflict becomes potentially deadly as McCabe goes all out to stop Vesser.

In most ways, this is an absolutely average Western, maybe even a little below average. It’s indifferently acted, lazily scripted (see my note about the legalities), predictable, has fairly bland physical settings, and is directed with no stylistic flair. On the other hand, it's watchable and generally avoids too much narrative dead time. There are two main reasons to see this. One is to see Sterling Hayden in his youth—he was a very comely man who resembles a current-day ginger bear (pictured; a much-admired type in the gay world), and his performance is the best in the film, along with that of the always reliable Dean Jagger. The other reason is to see the spectacular train collision at the climax of the movie. No CGI or other visual effects are used—the filmmakers actually sent two trains crashing into each other on railroad tracks, and the outcome is something to see, though younger viewers who grew up on computer effects may be less impressed. Also with J. Carroll Naish, and some mild and inoffensive comic relief from Zasu Pitts and Paul Fix. [Criterion Channel]