Saturday, December 30, 2023


During the last week of each year, I usually try to review a classic-era Christmas movie but I think after 22 years of blogging, I've run out of them. But TCM showed these two rarely-shown films during December. They're not traditional holiday films with Santa and magic and angels; actually, one is a film noir and the other is noir-adjacent, but they were both interesting discoveries.. MIRACLE is a low-key melodrama which starts by introducing two couples. Wealthy suburbanite Walter Abel marries Jean Brooks on Christmas Eve. We leave them behind to follow Margo, a cooch dancer at a carnival attraction called the Streets of Cairo, and her husband (Lyle Talbot), who runs the show. When Talbot gets busted for selling a cop liquor, he punches out the cop and goes on the run. Margo is stuck with trying to pay rent for their apartment. Her kindly landlady (Jane Darwell), lets her slide a bit, but lets her know she'll need to find a legit job. At church on Christmas Eve, Margo finds an abandoned baby in the church creche and takes it home, uncertain of her future. Some time passes. Margo is barely getting by with some sewing jobs, and goes out to Pepito's restaurant go ask for a job as a dancer. She doesn't get it, but she meets Abel, drinking alone because his wife has left him. Sparks start to fly and soon he gets her a job designing clothes and wants her to move in with him. With Talbot still on the loose, she can’t entertain the idea of divorcing him. Eventually, Talbot does return and wants Margo to ask Abel for $500 to flee to South America. Complications ensue. This is practically an archetypal B-picture: cheap sets, second-class actors, a script with plotholes. But it’s classed up with some interesting visual flare (an early shot at the carnival travels from the outside through the interior and backstage in one shot). Margo is fine and Abel gives an understated performance which is miles away from his hyper role as the agent in HOLIDAY INN. Two Christmases bookend the narrative (and the ending is a bit rushed) though the holiday is still a fairly minor part of the story. Jane Darwell is fine as the landlady, and Wynne Gibson and Veda Ann Borg provide comic relief as two other dancing girls. Pictured are Abel and Margo.

I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES takes place in more solidly noir territory. Don Castle (pictured at left) and Elyse Knox are married dancers just getting by. One night, a frustrated Castle throws a tap shoe of his out the window to silence a yowling cat. The next morning, an old miserly neighbor is found dead outside, with Castle's shoe print in the mud next to him. Castle, not knowing about the murder, finds a wallet stuffed with cash and he and Knox decide to spend some of it. Unfortunately, the cash is all old bills that can easily be traced to the old man, and Castle is picked up for murder. Regis Toomey is a cop assigned to the case who has a bit of a crush on Knox—she calls him Santa Claus for all the little gifts he's brought her at the dance club. Castle is found guilty and has an execution date set. Desperate to clear Castle, Knox impulsively tells Toomey that she'll marry him if he can find evidence that will get Castle released. That's all I can say without spoilers. Christmas is a fairly small part of this movie, but if airing it on TCM's Noir Alley in December helps get it attention, that's fine with me. Don Castle was a busy B-lead in the 40s (LIGHTHOUSE, MADONNA OF THE DESERT) and he's very good here, even if he has little to do in the last half. Knox (leading lady of THE MUMMY'S TOMB) does a good job with what is mostly a one-note role as a desperate wife. Toomey, a very busy character actor, is surprisingly good as the cop who we come to realize is a little too obsessed with Knox for his own good. It's short and moves quickly and is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich who wrote the story Rear Window was based on. It's too late to watch these for this holiday, but if TCM runs them again next year, you should give them both a shot. [TCM]

Friday, December 29, 2023


In London (which looks a lot like Bucharest where this was filmed), Haley Lloyd is the daughter of wealthy businesswoman Leona Lloyd, but she likes to stay out of the spotlight by running a charity organization called the Hope Chest which sells used and donated items. Meanwhile, Don, the head of the start-up ad agency Blue Skies, and his two best buddies/assistants, Claude and Ben, have snuck into a Lloyd Company event and managed to schedule an appointment to pitch a campaign for a perfume to Leona. This is a make-or-break deal for them and they're certain they've got a winner, but the obnoxious but handsome and more polished Niles is angling for the campaign, too. Haley is volunteering at the event and meets Claude (more shaggy/cute than handsome). She is charmed by him and, as she's manning a hot chocolate stand, she doesn't tell him her real identity, calling herself Haley Logan; she's tired of guys coming onto her because she comes from money and wants to see how things go with a guy who doesn't know her family baggage. Well, things go very well—he particularly likes how honest she is—until he snaps a cute candid shot of her sitting in the snow and adds it to an ad for the perfume campaign. When Leona sees it, she blows up thinking he was deliberately using her daughter to get the account; for his part, Claude feels used, and thinks of Haley as dishonest. Leona turns Blue Skies down, Claude breaks up with Haley, and the ad agency may not survive the debacle. But it’s Christmas, a time for miracles, especially in made-to-TV movies!

The publicity for this Great American Family movie promotes its connection to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing to give this fairly average Christmas romance some cultural cachet. As in the play, there are mistaken assumptions causing problems. The names of the protagonists, Claude and Haley, are based on Claudio and Hero. A more direct tie to the play is the comic relief secondary romance between Ben (Benedict) and Haley's friend Beatrice (Beatrice). But you don't need to know Shakespeare to get what's going on here, which is just another variation on the crossed signals Christmas romance. Susie Abromeit as Haley is fine at first, but her alternating of smiles and grimaces got weary after a while; conversely, I didn't care for floppy-haired Torrance Coombs (Claude) at first, but he grew on me. Even better are James Rottger as Ben and Sakura Sykes as Beatrice. I would like to have seen their stories fleshed out more; it's implied that they had a past romance that fell apart, but it's not delved into. The Bucharest exteriors are gorgeous—it's nice to see a non-Canadian setting for a change. The Christmas trappings were also among the best I've seen in a holiday TV-move. The ad agency is called Blue Skies in the dialogue, but their in-office signage just says Blue Sky. Aside from the visual style, this was mostly just about average. [GAF]

Wednesday, December 27, 2023


Mark (Brant Daugherty) is a star reporter, known as Moody Mark by his colleagues for his seriousness about his profession. Lea (Jaicy Elliot) is a copyeditor at the same paper who yearns to write her own feature story. She soon gets her chance (and I'm a little fuzzy on the details here, as this is a slightly more elaborate background story than usual for Hallmark, so bear with me). She is intrigued by an old painting in a local museum done by an anonymous French painter only known by "F," of a woman in the snow walking through a French Christmas market. At an antique store, Lea buys a music box which contains a sketch done in the same style as the painting, and pages from a journal by someone named Francois. The journal seems to tell a magical love story of F and a woman named Ana who met at a Christmas market in Rouen, France in the mid 50s. The painting is of Ana, but the last pages of the journal are missing, so Lea proposes to her editor, who is desperately searching for a lead holiday story, that she go to France to try and find out what happened to this couple. The editor says yes, but makes her pair up with Mark, who sees the story as beneath his talent. The two don't exactly hit it off—she's powered by instinct, whereas he privileges fact-gathering; she's green and he, as has been established, is moody. At their hotel, a charming little girl named Sophie starts to soften up Mark by telling him stories about magical Christmas gnomes, and Lea begins to see the advantages of using hard research to get her story. There is a legend that the Christmas market brings lovers together, and Lea hopes her story will bear that out. But as they track the movements of Francois and Ana through the village, their story becomes less magical. The trail leads to a church where the two were supposed to meet and elope, but Mark finds evidence that Ana stood Francois up, so Lea's big story winds up with an unhappy ending. At first, Mark hides this from Lea so as not to disappoint her, but when she finds out the truth, she feels angry and disrespected. Can any good come of this situation?

Hypocritical confession time. I often complain that Hallmark Christmas movies are all the same. This one is, as others I've reviewed recently, different (if not necessarily original) and my first reaction to it was negative. I am a big fan of the handsome Brant Daugherty who is unfailingly appealing and charming, but his romantic opposite, Jaicy Elliot, breaks the mold of the Christmas female lead: she is plump and short and plain-looking, and I'm a bit embarrassed to say that her physical qualities put me off at first. She seems more like the best friend than the heroine; her dialogue delivery is drab and monotone, and there is little chemistry between the two leads. But eventually, I came to realize that this might be part of the point of the movie. Romantic sparks, which usually start flying by the 15-minute mark, never really happened. Until the last 10 minutes, there is no real indication that these two will or should get together. When they do get together, it seems more like a lazy way to meet the genre expectations. If you approach it as a story not of romance but of mutual education (she learns about reporting, he learns that intuition can be useful), it works better. I found their eventual last-minute kiss to be unrealistic, in part because the requisite sparks never flew. Having said all that, I'd still recommend this. Daugherty is always welcome in my home; there is a minor random Black gay character (Michael Obiora) who is fun for the 2 minutes of screen time he has; the bulk of the film's exteriors appear to have been shot on location in France which adds to the atmosphere; the music box magically plays a nice role in the conclusion. Brant and his wife Kimberly wrote the script, which I think is better than the overall execution it gets, though as I noted above, the backstory, which is basically the McGuffin, is a little convoluted. Give it a chance—the parts start working together pretty well by the halfway point. [Hallmark]

Sunday, December 24, 2023


In 1947, Harold Balaban's studio made a Christmas movie called "His Merry Wife!" In 2023, the studio, now run by Harold's grandson Michael, is about to remake it, but Lucy, the screenwriter (Bethany Joy Lenz), has given the new version a downbeat ending and Michael does not approve. Since the original movie was shot at the famous Biltmore estate in North Carolina, the boss decides to send Lucy there for a few days to soak up the atmosphere and get inspired. While on a tour of the main house, Lucy is enamored with a large hourglass that was used as a prop in the movie. At one point when Lucy is in the room by herself, the hourglass gets knocked over and Lucy finds herself transported to 1947 as the film is being shot. Pretending to be an extra, Lucy gets to know the stars: the debonair Claude Lancaster, the lovely Ava Hayward, and the handsome newcomer, Jack Huston (Kristoffer Polaha). Ava is hoping this will be a comeback for her after being declared box-office poison (Lucy knows it will) and Jack is hoping for a career boost (Lucy knows he gets good reviews but dies on Christmas of 1948). Lucy stays in the past for only one hour, and when the sands have run through the glass, she returns to 2023. With the help of an enthusiastic "Merry Wife" fan also staying at the Biltmore, Lucy decides to go back and forth in time (even appearing in a scene as an extra) and soon discovers that there was an alternate ending. While trying to find it, she accidentally breaks the hourglass and is stuck in the past until the propmaster can fix it. Finding herself falling in love with Jack, she starts to wonder if she really wants to go back.

This is one of the best Hallmark Christmas movies of the past few years, mostly because it's a little bit different from the model: there's a fantasy element, location shooting at the Biltmore, a bunch of clever movie references, and of course the presence of Polaha, one of the best members of the Hallmark repertory company. Fans of the classic Christmas movie The Bishop's Wife will love this as His Merry Wife, which we see black & white clips of, is based closely on that, with Polaha in the Cary Grant role of an angel—though he channels equal parts Grant and James Stewart, as there is at least one plot echo of It's a Wonderful Life. Polaha and Lenz are great together, and there's a strong supporting cast: Colton Little as Lancaster, Annabelle Borke as Hayward, Jonathan Frakes (Riker from the Star Trek universe) as the Biltmore manager, and Robert Picardo (the holographic doctor from the Star Trek universe) as Harold Balaban. There is a fun reference to Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel. When Lucy's friend is worried that Lucy won't fit in in 1947, she replies, "I've seen His Girl Friday—I'll just throw around a lot of "busters" and "fellas." When Lucy poses in the past as an extra named Sandra, she says her last name is Bullock. The plot is perhaps a bit overstuffed with incident, leading to some minor plotholes (for example, I was a little confused by the rules of time travel via hourglass), but overall, this is quite enjoyable. Yay to Hallmark for their breaks from the norm (even the opening is different—no drone shot of a city, and the title doesn't appear until after the first scene). [Hallmark]

Thursday, December 21, 2023

#XMAS (2022)

In a small town in Oregon, Jen runs Jen.uine, a design business specializing in clothing restoration. Needing some publicity and encouraged by her sister and business partner Ali, Jen enters a social media contest on the Hygge at Home podcast to find a hot new design influencer. With help from her incredibly handsome platonic best friend Max, a photographer, Jen and Ali make a video featuring a fake persona, claiming to have a husband (Max) and a new baby (Ali's new baby). The contest's judges, married couple Charlie and Zoe, choose her as one of the finalists and spring a surprise on her: they're coming to Oregon to spend a couple of days with her. Panicked, Jen gets Max and Ali to play along to present a picture of domestic bliss. Of course, things start to snowball from there: she gets thousands of new followers who want to see her life unfold; her mother, ecstatic that Jen has married her best friend, comes to spend Christmas with her; and long-buried feelings between Jen and Max, who briefly dated many years ago, come to the surface. But we soon learn that Jen isn't the only faker: Charlie and Zoe are secretly separated and contemplating a divorce. Will Christmas day bring happy endings for all? As Hallmark Christmas movies go, this is about par for the course. The pluses: it’s a fairly clever reworking of the classic film Christmas in Connecticut (with social media standing in for a magazine), right down to the borrowed baby; Brant Daugherty (Max, pictured) always improves a movie; the actress playing Ali, Anna Van Hooft, is a breath of fresh air and needs her own Christmas movie to shine in; the Hygge couple's plotline is good. The minuses: Clare Bowen (Jen) is a little disappointing, partly because she's too whiny and teary; the Christmas element is not highlighted enough—this could have been set at any time of year; the ending feels a bit rushed. This has a rating of 6 out of 10 on IMDb and that feels right. But Brant makes it worth watching. [Hallmark]

Wednesday, December 20, 2023


If you can get past the dumb title, you’ll find a Hallmark Christmas movie that is somewhat original and a bit more ambitious than the average holiday romance. Its main premise, that Santa Claus is real and his handsome son is taking over the business, is not especially new, but it's carried off with more style than one might predict. Avery (Italia Ricci) is about to get her first chance at doing the weekend morning news at the Dayton channel where she works—the movie opens with a shot her apparently reading the local news on TV, but we discover really she's just practicing. When she gets home that night, she finds a hunky man who has apparently broken into her house. She thinks he's the 'Santa thief' who's been in the news lately, but he insists that he is Chris (Luke Macfarlane), the son of Santa, on his first solo Christmas Eve flight. She ties him up with surprisingly strong strings of Christmas lights (see picture at left) but slowly she comes to believe him and the two go off hunting for the real thief who has absconded with a jump drive that belongs to—well, it's just the MacGuffin that gives them an excuse to bond, and for her to break a big story about local political corruption that might lead to her getting a permanent spot on the news. The writing here is a notch above average, and the director (Bradley Walsh) even gets to show off some visual flair now and again. The supporting cast includes a helpful elf named Dylan, a villainous mayor, a best friend, an acting troupe having a midnight celebration in Dickens garb (with a 7-foot guy as Tiny Tim), and Chris' dad, and there is clever use of a light therapy mask (I didn’t know such a thing actually existed). I liked that there is no jealous conflict that rears its head at the 90 minute mark as is the norm for these films. Ricci and Macfarlane are good together, though Macfarlane is so hot, I'd forgive him anything—he seems to have kept the muscles he displayed last year in the feature film BROS. It’s all very cute and Hallmark should be rewarded for trying something a little different. [Hallmark]

Tuesday, December 19, 2023


Addy works for a tech company and spends all her time creating Christmas content, the latest example of which is a Christmas Wish app with a ho-ho-ho-ing Santa who pops up on her phone daily. Ironically, her one time of year to get away from the holiday spirit is at Christmas which she spends in the Maldives. This year, however, her brother Connor asks her to come home for Christmas because he's going to propose to his longtime girlfriend Sienna in front of the whole family, so she agrees to postpone the tropical trip until the 26th. (Is that really a thing, proposing in front of the whole family??) She is upset by pressure from her mom to come home more often, and by her father's distant manner (he feels shut out of her life), and even some pressure after a sorta meet-cute with Hunter, an auto repair guy. She makes a wish by her Christmas wish app that there was no such thing as Christmas. Moments later, she's in a minor car accident and when Hunter stops to help her, she discovers that the whole world has gone black & white. She thinks it's a visual injury, but when she gets home, she realizes that her wish has come true: Christmas and all its trimmings are gone. Her mission now is to get people to remember Christmas by sparking holiday memories in them, at which point they turn back to color.

To its credit, Hallmark keeps trying slightly different things. The film is a cross between Pleasantville (mix of black & white and color) and It's a Wonderful Life, with some of the short story Christmas Every Day (or its opposite) sprinkled in. The mix of color with black & white is technically handled quite well and makes for enchanting moments when color comes seeping back into people and backgrounds. The characters, however, are plucked from the same templates as always: Addy (Lyndsy Fonesca) is the woman with big city business pressures, Hunter (Michael Rady) is the grounded small-town guy who works with his hands, and the parents are there to provide both conflict and support. Fonesca is fine though Rady seems to be a little burned out on holiday movies. The handsome Andrew David Bridges shines as the brother, and should get his own Hallmark lead role soon. My favorite moment is a meta-moment that is rare in Hallmark films: in the black & white town, Addy prods her mother to remember the Christmas movie marathons they used to sit through, and Mom replies that, no, it's New Year's movies that are all the rage, and they even start running them in June! [Hallmark]

Monday, December 18, 2023


Ally (Jessica Lowndes) is an ER doctor who has just gotten a big promotion to hospital administration, to start just after Christmas. Much loved by all in the ER, she is given a big farewell party, but she just can't quite let go, telling her best friend Dawn that she's looking to get an ER shift on Christmas Eve. Ally's not really a Christmas fan, but she's also forgotten that she told her longtime boyfriend Josh (David Reale), an ad man, that she'd spend the holiday with him and his parents. During a dinner at which Josh planned to ask her to marry him, their tensions spill out. He wishes she could see that there's more life than a job, and she wishes he could see that sometimes a job is more than just a job. They split up, but not before their respective wishes trigger magical auras around two angel decorations in the restaurant. Next thing we know, we meet Maureen (Jane Luk) and Gabe (Chad Michael Murray, pictured), two angels sent to help folks during the holiday season. Gabe is working as a barista at a coffee shop Ally frequents and soon the two are hitting it off like best buds as Gabe softens her heart toward the holiday. Similarly, Maureen gets a temp job with Josh's company and she gets him to see that maybe jobs can be fulfilling—the ad job pays well but he's always wanted to be a teacher. Soon, however, Gabe starts to fall for Ally and gives some thought to sticking around on earth, even though, as Maureen warns him, he'll lose his powers (the only supernatural power we see him exhibit is to stop the snow from falling to accommodate a wish of Ally's). But have no fear; everything turns out for the best by Christmas Eve.

Not all TV Christmas romance movies are created equal. Hallmark is still the gold standard, with Lifetime and Netflix sharing second place—what sets their movies apart from Hallmark's is a bit more diversity in casting (though Hallmark is catching up) and some occasional stretching beyond the norm in plotting. This movie was made for Great American Family, a cable network that has only recently entered the Christmas movie field, and based on this film, they are still struggling to find their niche. "Faith and family" is their slogan, which is coded language for, among other things, no premarital sex and no same-sex couples. This is an uncredited remake of the Cary Grant classic The Bishop's Wife (an angel comes to earth at Christmas to help someone through a crisis and is tempted by romantic feelings to give up his angel status). I have to start with Chad Michael Murray, because many of the reviewers on IMDb dislike his performance, calling it cold and robotic. He does indeed give an unusual performance, though it's not really robotic. He's playing a character who hasn’t felt human emotions in years and he's a little blindsided when he starts to fall in love. But I get why some viewers missed this—the character is underwritten and we get virtually no backstory for either of the angels. I liked Murray in this (though I think even he would admit that he's no Cary Grant) and Lowndes is fine as well, even if no real chemistry develops between them. The problem with Josh is also weak characterization and lack of chemistry with the leading lady. Honestly, I had a hard time caring who Ally wound up with, and I blame that more on the writers than the actors. There are some odd editing glitches that indicate a rush job in finishing things up. At one point, Ally orders a latte at a cash register and suddenly there’s almost a smash cut to her sitting down and being served. That’s shoddy work to me. Even the holiday set decorations feel second-rate. I give it points for trying something a little different plotwise, but ultimately it seems to have been beyond the reach of the filmmakers. [GAF]

Thursday, December 14, 2023


At an Army hospital, Gordon MacRae (pictured) is undergoing a series of back surgeries. His buddy Edmond O'Brien comes to visit and talk about their plans to buy and run a ranch, but MacRae's nurse (Virginia Mayo) warns O'Brien that MacRae may not be up for physical labor for a long time. Later, around Christmas, MacRae undergoes his last surgery and expresses concern that he hasn't heard from O'Brien in a while. On Christmas Eve, a mysterious woman with a foreign accent enters his room, telling him that O'Brien is in bad shape and needs his help. Groggy from his pain meds, MacRae agrees to visit him, but the next day, the doctor, trying to calm MacRae down, suggests that the woman was a hallucination. He gets a telegram from O'Brien, saying he’s OK, but when he's released, MacRae discovers that O'Brien is the chief suspect in a murder case. The victim was a big-time gambler, and the two were supposedly fighting over $40,000. MacRae starts investigating in earnest, moving into a hotel room that O'Brien had been using and getting help from Mayo, now his girlfriend. Following a lead, MacRae winds up at a mortuary which is run by Dane Clark, an old Army buddy of both men who knew O'Brien as a washed-up boxer. As he keeps investigating, MacRae soon realizes that he may not have really known O'Brien all that well, but he keeps digging and soon places a mysterious gambler named Lou at the center of the circumstances that have O'Brien either in hiding or in captivity. Finally he meets up with his mysterious midnight visitor (Viveca Lindfors) and more of the puzzle pieces start to fall in place.

This unsung film noir, if not a masterpiece, is solidly entertaining. It pulls an interesting narrative trick as it seems in the beginning to be setting up O'Brien as the main character, until his vanishing act makes MacRae our focus. Much of the backstory is filled in via flashbacks as MacRae and Mayo investigate. I've never really been a big fan of MacRae’s (best known for musicals like Oklahoma! and Carousel) as he always seems a bit plastic, but he's good here, as are Mayo, O’Brien and Lindfors, and Ed Begley is fine as the police inspector on the case. But stealing the show, in a relatively small role, is Dane Clark (whose screen persona makes me think of him a B-movie or supporting-part John Garfield) who went on to a very busy TV career in the 60s and 70s. He is frequently the bright spot in an otherwise so-so film. This is better than so-so, but Clark is still a bright spot. I saw this as part of the Criterion Channel’s Holiday Noir lineup, and though I'm not sure this has enough holiday oomph for me to classify it as a Christmas movie, it does take place over the holidays. Recommended. [Criterion Channel]

Tuesday, December 12, 2023


Flint Dawson (Lionel Atwill), one of the head honchos of a steel company, tries to put the kibosh on a merger with another steel company that the board of directors wants to go through. He fears that the workers, most of whom own stock, will be harmed. Even though Flint is a manager, he still has lunch with the men on the construction sites and is a much beloved figure. One night, when Flint shows up to help the night shift workers, Joe, a crane operator who has just been reprimanded for drinking on the job, spills molten steel on Flint, who ends up losing both his legs. (Jim, Flint's associate, who is pro-merger, had subtly put the idea of revenge in Joe's mind, and after the accident, Joe falls to his death from the crane.) From his hospital bed, Flint gives his wife Vivian power of attorney and instructs her to vote against the merger. What he doesn't know is that Vivian is having an affair with Jim, so she sides with Jim in the vote, then takes off for England with Jim and her young daughter. The wheelchair-bound Flint winds up on the streets, selling business pamphlets, but when he meets Marchant, a blind beggar who plays the accordion for money, Flint gets an idea. The two start a movement to sort of unionize the city's beggars, trading their ability to spy on underworld figures for legit peddler's licenses, and getting the beggars to donate to a common pot to help each other out. Years later, Flint, who has been presumed missing or dead, returns to public life when Jim begins acting to cheat the workers out of their stock. 

By the last half-hour, this has become a very Capraesque story, looking forward to the plots and tones of movies like Meet John Doe and You Can't Take It With You, though to my mind, it doesn't match those movies in style (though it also mostly avoids the sappiness that some viewers associate with Frank Capra). Flint and his beggar buddies take action to stop Jim's devious plan, leading to a David vs. Goliath showdown and a moment that would probably not have gotten past the Production Code folks a few months later. There is a side plot romance between Flint's daughter (Betty Furness) and Jim's son (James Bush) but not a lot of screenwriting effort was put into that. Also, lest the specter of socialism raise its ugly head, it's made clear that all the down-and-out in Atwill's union are disabled—if you are of sound mind and body, you can't join up. The best thing about the movie is Lionel Atwill. Normally, he would play someone like the character of Jim here who may be respectable on the outside but villainous inside. Atwill is quite good in the role, and it's a bit of a shame that he rarely got to play a similar role. Recommended as something a little different, unless you are allergic to Capracorn. Pictured are Bush, Atwill and Furness. [TCM]

Friday, December 08, 2023


An Egyptologist named Ragheeb is getting his eyes examined by a substitute doctor named Sloan. Ragheeb is nervous, understandably, as it turns out that Sloan is no eye doctor—he kills Ragheeb, takes off the man's glasses, and finds a bit of microfilm hidden in the frame with a message in hieroglyphics. Sloan then approaches Prof. David Pollock (Gregory Peck), a hieroglyphics expert, asks him to meet with his boss, Arab shipping magnate Beshraavi. David declines, but is later shanghaied into a car by Arabian prime minister Hassan who asks him to go through with the meeting to find out what dastardly plan Beshraavi is up to. Beshraavi, living in a mansion owned by his mistress Yasmin (Sophia Loren), wants David to translate the hieroglyphic message. But Yasmin meets with David in secret and tells him she is sure the message is a deadly one, so David takes the message and 'abducts' Yasmin (who is appears to be being held a prisoner in her own home), beginning a wild chase involving assassination and betrayal and ambiguous identity. Many critics deride this film, a mid-career effort from Stanley Donen, as convoluted (I agree) and poorly acted (I disagree). It actually added to my enjoyment of the film to hear in the TCM introduction that the movie was written with Cary Grant in mind, and that Gregory Peck had doubts that he could pull off the mix of charming humor and deadly action. There are times when you can tell that a particular line would have been perfect for Grant ("If I could find my head, I'd go get it examined!") but Peck generally pulls it off well. The lovely Loren is also quite good as the woman who may or may not be a femme fatale. The supporting actors tend to get overshadowed by the heat of the leads; for the record, Alan Badel and John Merivale are fine as the chief villains. The movie is stylishly shot, like a lesser Hitchcock effort (though frankly, I'd rather sit through this again than the slogfest of the master's North By Northwest). My favorite exchange: Peck, to a cab driver: "Follow that car!"; the driver: "All my life I've been waiting for someone to say that." [TCM]

Wednesday, December 06, 2023


Notorious criminal Bull Weed pulls off a bank robbery with the aid of explosives. A falling-down drunk is a witness and Bull takes him back to his hideout. It turns out the guy is a failed lawyer, and when Bull rescues him from being humiliated by Bull's rival, Buck Mulligan, he nicknames him Rolls Royce and brings him into his gang as a sort of valet. At the Dreamland Café, Rolls meets Feathers, Bull's moll. Rolls claims not to be interested in women, but a slow-burn attraction develops anyway. Rolls is soon taking an active part in planning Bull's activities, and one night, at the underworld's annual armistice ball (where all the crooks get along for a few hours), Buck tries to assault Feathers and Bull kills him. When Bull is sentenced to death, Rolls plans a breakout attempt, but Feathers thinks that Bull's death will give her and Rolls a new start together. In the meantime, on the eve of his scheduled hanging, Bull breaks out of prison, fueled by rumors he has heard about Rolls and Feathers, and is determined to get revenge. This silent crime melodrama is directed by Josef von Sternberg and is every bit as visually stunning as his 1930s sound films with Marlene Dietrich (THE SCARLET EMPRESS, MOROCCO. If it wasn't silent, it would feel like the first modern sound crime film, looking ahead to movies like SCARFACE and LITTLE CAESAR and beyond to film noir. The script was apparently based on the life of a real gangster. George Bancroft (Bull) and Clive Brook (Rolls) carry the movie with strong performances as what would become cliché characters—the tough guy gangster and the former straight-and-narrow fellow who gets sucked into the criminal world. Evelyn Brent is OK as Feathers. As other viewers have noted, the narrative is more about the romantic triangle relationship than crime, though you can't really call it a romance, and there is a certain psychological interest presented primarily in the character of Rolls, who is truly torn between his passion for Feathers and his loyalty to Bull. Memorable line, not of dialogue but of title-card narration during the gangsters' ball: "The brutal din of cheap music, booze, hate, lust, made a devil’s carnival." Pictured are Brent and Brook. [DVD]

Friday, December 01, 2023


Barton MacLane and Ann Sheridan are old racetrack gambling buddies. When his losses pile up, Sheridan offers to take him out for dinner—she seems to have a thing for him though he is oblivious to it. But he feels like he's hit bottom and he hops a train for the small town of Barrowville to make a new start. He befriends Dick Purcell, another down-on-his-luck gambler and helps Purcell make his rent, so Purcell talks his family into taking MacLane in as a boarder. Even though Purcell's sister (Peggy Bates) is against gambling, she falls for MacLane and turns aside her longtime boyfriend (Walter Cassell) to marry MacLane, who gets a legitimate but boring job as a night clerk at a fleabag hotel. Soon, bored with the job, he starts gambling again, and gets a job taking care of horses at a new racetrack in California. When he promises to stay away from betting, Peggy agrees to move out west with him, but temptation is too great (as is the lure of becoming friendly with Sheridan again) and when MacLane starts gambling, Peggy, newly pregnant, moves back to Barrowville. Eighteen months pass and MacLane, down on his luck again, passes through Barrowville. He discovers that Peggy's baby has died and, though she's never gotten a divorce, she's hooked back up with Cassell. MacLane sticks around, discovers that Purcell is indulging in illegal off-track gambling, and brings home an injured racehorse to nurse back to health. By this time, I had no idea what would constitute a happy ending here. I just knew that second-billed Ann Sheridan (though not as big a star as she would become in a couple of years) would show up again, though who MacLane would wind up was a toss-up. This B-melodrama has tragic-ish overtones but stays fairly light. Constant outlandish plot twists aside, the weakest thing about this is Barton MacLane. I can tolerate him in supporting roles as a cop or a gangster, but he doesn't have the looks or charisma for a lead role, especially opposite someone as lively as Ann Sheridan. Dick Purcell is more interesting here, but even he has a hard time holding interest. Despite the plot machinations, this winds up being pretty rough to get through. Pictured are MacLane and Sheridan. [TCM]

Tuesday, November 28, 2023


In a small border town in the 1920s, town drunk Bryan Talbot (Earl Holliman) is accused of killing his adulterous wife. At the crime scene, their bedroom, she was found dead with Talbot collapsed, drunk and incoherent. Talbot insists he's not guilty, though the narrative being passed around town is that Talbot's wife had syphilis (which she'd gotten from him) rendering her unable to have children, which made her become promiscuous. The whole town knew about her behavior (though if they all thought she had syphilis, why would they procure her services?) and Talbot's guilt seems like a logical conclusion. Indeed, Talbot is found guilty and Judge Hockstatder sentences him to hang. In the meantime, we have gotten to know the recently appointed judge Ben Lewis (George Maharis, pictured), a young man of Mexican/Welsh descent who has a teasing but loving relationship with his Mexican mother and who, because he can pass for Anglo, has to put up with any number of snide comments about Mexican villagers. Just after the verdict, the older judge takes off for a vacation and Lewis has to preside over Talbot's hanging. As the hangman slips the noose around Talbot's neck, Talbot becomes hysterical and shoves the hangman off the scaffold to his death. While another hangman is sent for, a neighbor of Talbot's, driven crazy with guilt, writes a confession to the murder and then kills himself. A quandary falls into young judge Lewis's lap: though Talbot is now no longer guilty of the murder of his wife, should Talbot be put to death for the accidental murder of the hangman?

This is an odd film to judge. As a feature film, it's bland and toothless with mostly lackluster performances, but in look and feel, it comes off more like a TV movie or pilot, and judged that way, it's fairly interesting. Time is spent fleshing out the characters of Ben Lewis and his mother (Katy Jurado), and their place in the village. Ben is torn between dating two women, one Swedish and one Mexican, but little is done with that except as fodder for the mother-son conflicts, most of which are portrayed as not terribly serious. The villagers themselves seem to feel vaguely uneasy about Ben's presence, but again nothing is done with this—I think it's presented as a conflict that can be fixed when Ben eventually makes a pronouncement about the ultimate fate of Talbot. That ending, as reviewer Michael E. Grost has pointed out, comes off more as a gimmick than a thoughtful engagement with the moral issue, though maybe that' would be asking too much of a 60s studio movie. For all those reasons, this comes off more as a pilot for a TV show that would center on the young judge's circumstances and relationships. Viewers don't seem to think too much of George Maharis, but I think he's fine here. True, he's a bit reserved, but that seems to be reflecting the character, who is just coming into his own in the small town. (Also, I cut him a lot of slack because he's nice eye candy.) Holliman is a bit one-note as the accused killer, Gene Hackman and Whit Bissell have small and thankless roles. Katy Jurado gives the movie's best performance as Ben's mother. Part of me really wishes this had been a pilot, because I'd have watched a show with George Maharis as a small-town judge. [TCM]

Friday, November 24, 2023


The grandchildren of D.L. Mulrooney (Walter Brennan), millionaire CEO of a lumber company, are spending part of their summer vacation with him in California. In his antique Rolls-Royce, they head out for a picnic in a redwood forest and discover two gnomes: the young and handsome Jasper (Tom Lowell) and the cranky 900-year-old Knobby (also Walter Brennan). Partly due to deforestation by companies like Mulrooney’s, Knobby fears that they are the last of their kind, and he's desperate to find other gnomes—especially female ones—to insure the future of gnomekind. They all take off in the Rolls-Royce, redubbed the Gnome-Mobile, to find other gnomes in other forests. Along the way, the gnomes are kidnapped by freak-show owner Horatio Quaxton, and D.L. is put into an asylum by Yarby, D.L.'s assistant who fears that the old man has gone nuts. But all is put right by the end, including, in a nod to Al Capp's invention of Sadie Hawkins Day for the L'il Abner comic strip, a contest among a number of young female gnomes for the right to marry Jasper.

This Disney film was one of the last that originated under Uncle Walt himself. The studio was cranking out live-action movies like crazy in the 60s; a few of them (Mary Poppins, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Parent Trap, The Love Bug) were big hits and are still remembered, but as many if not more (Monkeys Go Home, Those Calloways, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin) were received mildly at best and have largely been forgotten today. This one is somewhere in the middle—it's not available on Disney+ but though it’s not quite a cult film, it does seem to have a devoted coterie of fans. I enjoyed it when I saw it in 1967 during its initial release when Disney must have been hoping for a cross between the 1959 film Darby O’Gill and the Little People (with gnomes instead of leprechauns) and Mary Poppins (the two kids, Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber played the Banks children). But it falls quite short of both films. It's watchable with some OK special effects, but the Disney magic is in short supply. Brennan, in his 70s, is game and still quite energetic, but Mulrooney never came across to me as an interesting character and his Knobby is all cranky bluster and not especially likable. The kids are fine and Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show) is good as Yarby. Sean McClory overdoes it a bit as the villainous Quaxton, Ed Wynn plays another gnome, and it's fun to see supporting stalwarts Jerome Cowan and Charles Lane in small parts. There is a title song by the Sherman brothers (Mary Poppins) that is catchy but sung once too often. Pictured are Karen Dotrice and Tom Lowell. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, November 23, 2023


During Thanksgiving week, I try to review some movies that remind me of the movies I grew up watching on TV on Thanksgiving, when local stations and networks would preempt soap operas and show cartoons and fantasy movies. Though I don't remember seeing this one, it did apparently get regular airings during the holiday season in the 1960s. This is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) it's not just a version of a classic fairy tale, it’s an adaptation of a 19th century opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, and 2) it's the first feature-length stop motion animation movie. The familiar story is given some twists here and there. Hansel and Gretel are the children of a broom maker and his wife who live in a forest. While the father is trying to sell his wares in a nearby village, the mother has left the children alone to attend to their chores. But when she comes home, she finds them dancing and singing, and she scolds them, sending them into the woods to pick wild strawberries. When Father comes home, having sold all his brooms, he is worried about the children getting lost in the same woods where a "child-gobbling" witch lives, and he and Mother set out to find them. But night falls and Hansel and Gretel sleep in the woods, visited (at least in their dreams) by the Sandman and some protecting angels. In the morning, they find the witch's home, transformed by magic into a gingerbread house, and when they try to snack on it, the witch appears and ties up Hansel, intending to fatten him up and cook him up in the stove. ("I love little boys full of almonds and raisins—succulent!" says the witch.) where he will come out as a gingerbread boy. Of course, the children turn the tables on the witch and are happily reunited with their parents.

This was advertised on release as being enacted by "electronic" puppets, but the only "electro-" thing about them is that the figures were electromagnetically attached to the bottom of the set, and the animators came up from trap doors to move them. PR for the movie at the time claimed that the puppets were capable of hundreds of facial expressions, though the faces of the children are pretty much stuck into smiles, no matter what awful things are happening. The film seems to have done well at the box office. The 3-D sets are more impressive than the puppets, though one has to remember that this was a pioneering film in the genre, and the opera aspects feel more dated now than the look of the film does. Much-loved opera comedian Anna Russell is in fine form as the witch (here named Rosina Rubylips); actress Mildred Dunnock does the non-singing role of the mother, and singer Constance Brigham does the voices of both Hansel (too gruff) and Gretel (a bit too childish).  The children are accompanied by a goose and a very small bear, though they don't add much to the story. Even the angels don't seem relevant to the story. There is a fun moment when the children are dancing at home and two large wooden benches also dance, looking like prototypes of the Gumby character who would become a TV star just a year later. Enjoyable as a throwback to simpler times when kids' movies didn’t have to bear the brunt of being tentpole attractions. [YouTube; the print is good but the colors are washed out.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2023


Both of these films are based on the hit play Outward Bound, and while the basic plots are the same, the details, the acting, and the directorial styles are quite different. The 1930 version begins at night as a young couple, Henry and Ann, facing overwhelming problems, decide to commit suicide by filling their apartment with gas, though they worry about what will happen to his dog, whom they leave outside on the fire escape. Next thing we know, the two are on an ocean liner with no idea where they are bound. They soon discover that the huge liner has only a handful of other passengers, including Tom, a drunkard; Lingley, his former boss; Mrs. Midget, a sweet old lady who takes a particular interest in Tom; Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, an obnoxious rich widow who was unkind to her husband; and a clergyman. None of them have any idea how they got on the ship or where they're going. The only visible staff member is Scrubby, the steward, who eventually tells the group that they have all died and are in passage to the afterlife. A man known as the Examiner appears and talks to each person, drawing out their life stories and passing judgment as to their final destination, heaven or hell. We follow each person as they are examined and dispatched, but Henry and Ann are unusual cases of "halfways" because of their suicide. Is there any way they can be redeemed? (Hint: the dog survives.) I first saw this fantasy when I was very young and it made a strong impression on me. Though I don’t really believe in an afterlife, I still occasionally imagine winding up on a liner like this, in foggy waters with a big glowing city in the distance, waiting to be judged. The narrative and somewhat creepy setting are reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, and the acting is first rate, including Douglas Fairbanks and Helen Chandler as the suicides, Leslie Howard as Tom (giving a much more passionate performance then he is typically known for), Beryl Mercer as Mrs. Midget, Alec B. Francis as Scrubby, Dudley Digges as the Examiner, and Alison Skipworth doing her best snooty lady imitation as Mrs. Cliveden-Banks. At just under 90 minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and the ending is a bit contrived but satisfying.

The film was remade in 1944 with a wartime background and a slightly higher budget with mostly the same characters, though the rich lady's husband is added to the group, as is a failed actress (Faye Emerson). It's a slightly glossier affair but at nearly two hours, it also feels a bit bloated. John Garfield, whom I usually like, chews the scenery as Tom; Paul Henreid as Henry is blander than Fairbanks; Eleanor Parker is fine as Ann. Sara Allgood (Mrs. Midget) and Isobel Elsom (Cliveden-Banks) are pretty much exact replicas of Mercer and Skipworth. Edmund Gwenn (Scrubby) and Sydney Greenstreet (the Examiner) are improvements on the originals. Also present are George Tobias and George Coulouris. In this version, a car delivering a group of people to a liner is bombed in an air raid, they all wind up on the ship, and we learn much earlier that they are all dead (it takes about a third of the earlier film to get to that reveal), so some of the initial tension is dissipated. Henreid's reason for killing himself is tied to his lack of an exit visa (shades of Casablanca). In general, the melodramatics are amped up quite a bit here. I prefer the 1930 film but it's harder to find, though it pops up on TCM occasionally; the 1944 version is available on DVD, and both are worth watching. Pictured are Lionel Watts, Fairbanks and Howard from the 1930 film.

Friday, November 17, 2023


After a brief text crawl about the lonely life of lighthouse keepers, we meet one such keeper, Hank (John Litel), who has just given his younger assistant Sam (Don Castle, at right) the day off to go to the mainland to take care of a toothache. But Sam is actually trying to cure a different ache—he's having an affair with Connie (June Lang), who has been led to believe that Sam is the boss at the lighthouse. When Hank visits, Connie tells him that she was just fired for slapping her boss when he tried to come on to her, and she wants to get married. Sam wants to wait until he gets a better job, but what he really needs to do, unbeknownst to Connie, is get untangled from his current wife. When Connie visits the lighthouse island, she discovers that Hank is the boss and finds that Sam is off visiting his wife. For revenge, she sets out to woo Hank. They quickly marry, but when Sam returns, she finds out that Sam was actually trying to divorce his wife. Hank is unaware of the festering passion and jealousy that is being enacted behind his back, and soon Connie's friend JoJo tells her that Sam is back to catting around when he makes it to the mainland. Meanwhile, Hank has proven to be a good man so Connie commits to him, angering Sam who sets a trap in hopes that Hank will fall to his death on the rocks of the shore. Things don't go quite as planned. This B-film has a noir atmosphere, and its plot resembles movies like DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, but this is ultimately more interested in character than in violence (though tension and the threat of violence are always present). The low-budget sets are acceptable, given that most of the movie takes place in a couple of rooms in the lighthouse, with an occasional foray outside. The acting is on the lightweight side. June Lang is fine as the femme fatale, but John Litel is too old and stodgy for his part, and Don Castle, who was clearly being groomed as a kind of second-string Clark Gable, is OK but doesn’t have the heat or menace needed for his role. Still, the ending was a little unexpected and generally I enjoyed the film as a nice discovery during TCM’s B-movie festival from earlier this year. [TCM]

Wednesday, November 15, 2023


This is technically a sequel to HAWAII in that it is based on material from the same James Michner novel that the first movie was, but it has little to do directly with that movie so it works as a stand-alone. Charlton Heston plays Whip Hoxworth (that would be a great soap opera name), grandson of Rafer, the merchant played by Richard Harris in the first film. Whip brings a boatload of Chinese slaves to Hawaii and learns that his cousin Micah has inherited the bulk of Rafer's estate, including a shipping business. Whip is left a small, barren plantation with little promise for the future, but his overseer talks him into drilling for water, and when they find it, the land is suddenly worth something. Over the years, with the help of Chinese laborers, including the indispensable Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen), he builds a successful pineapple plantation. After the birth of their son, Whip's wife Purity loses interest in a sex life and leaves him in order to raise their child as a native. Meanwhile, Mun Ki (Mako), the man who claimed to be Nuyk Tsin's husband in order to save her from sexual assault on the slave ship, decides to go back to China to be with his legal wife, leaving Nyuk Tsin to be stripped of spousal status and given the title "Auntie." Years pass. Mun Ki gets leprosy and returns to Hawaii to live at the leper colony on Molokai, and Nyuk Tsin goes to care for him. Whip's grown son Noel (John Phillip Law) falls in love with Nyuk Tsin's daughter Mei Li, much to the dismay of both parents. The climax occurs when the plague sweeps through the Chinese section of the village, leading to the burning and destruction of all the property of the Chinese.

I saw HAWAII over two years ago and still retain some strong memories of scenes and characters. I saw this movie just a couple of months ago, yet it's already dim in my memory. Part of the reason may be Heston. Though he can be a commanding performer, here he more or less bulldozes through his part, unable to make his character come to nuanced life in the way that Max von Sydow did in HAWAII. Geraldine Chaplin's character, Purity, seems almost to be an afterthought of the screenwriter and she makes little impression. Tina Chen has a good amount of screen time and creates the fullest and most interesting character in the movie. Like its predecessor, the narrative is episodic and spreads out over decades, but whatever magic held the first film together, this one is mostly missing it. Still, this will appeal to fans of those big family sagas that Hollywood used to churn out with regularity. Pictured are Chaplin and Heston. [TCM]

Friday, November 10, 2023


In a fairly brutal opening scene, we see Mary (Diana Dors), a statuesque blonde, walk down a London street and shoot a woman to death as she gets out of her car. Mary shoots several times, then just stands there as a small crowd congregates. Through flashbacks, we catch up on her story. While working as a beauty shop cashier, she sold a bottle of Christmas Rose perfume to Jim (Michael Craig), who bought it for his girlfriend Lucy. They flirt, he calls her 'Christmas Rose,' and soon they're lovers. She leaves her husband, but is not happy when he seems disinclined to stop seeing Lucy. Eventually, he chooses Lucy, but she continues seeing other people, and a drunk and suicidal Jim visits Mary one night. He passes out, but on New Year's Eve, he gasses himself to death in his apartment. Mary, blaming Lucy, hunts her down and shoots her, as we've already seen. On trial, Mary is found guilty and sentenced to death. She bonds with one of her wardens, Pat (Yvonne Mitchell) who has been through her own trauma and develops feelings for Mary even as the date of Mary's execution draws near. Despite my summary, the bulk of this film takes place in Mary's prison cell where we are privy to the conversation of various wardens who attend to Mary. Mary and Pat do have a special relationship that comes off as quite intense on Pat's part, though she's never open about her feelings. The flashbacks are sprinkled through the account of the days before her execution date. Mary holds out some hope for a reprieve, but that doesn't feel realistic. The staggered chronology is probably used to alleviate some of the gloom and monotony of the prison cell, but it doesn't quite work—I still found the last half-hour to be a bit of a slog as Mary largely seems resigned to her fate and is much less interesting than in the flashbacks. Diana Dors, known mostly at the time as a sexpot starlet, gives a very good performance as Mary, and she's the main reason to see this. Yvonne Mitchell and Michael Craig are fine, though their characters remain fairly surface. This has a noir feel visually (lots of interesting camerawork and shots through doors and windows) but the gloomy tone of the prison scenes is mostly what you're left with by the end. Also released as Blonde Sinner. Pictured are Dors and Craig. [Criterion Channel]

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

IMPACT (1949)

Walter Wiliams (Brian Donlevy) is a successful, happily married businessman; he has just won an argument with his board over the purchase of some factories and wants his wife Irene (Helen Walker) to join him on a short business trip with a layover vacation in Lake Tahoe. She stays behind with a toothache, and we soon discover that she's stayed behind to plot with her lover Jim to murder Walter on the road, then meet Jim at a nearby motel. Irene phones Walter and asks him to pick up Jim (claiming he's her cousin), who is stranded with car trouble. Walter does, and Jim manages to knock him out with a wrench and toss his body down a hill. Unluckily, Jim takes off on the mountain road and collides head-on into a truck, dying in a fiery explosion. Meanwhile, Walter comes to, in a rather woozy state, and hitches a ride on a moving van. When the wreck is discovered, the police assume that the charred remains in the car are Walter's. Walter, eventually realizing what the plan was, wanders about and winds up in Larkspur, Idaho where he meets Marsha (Ella Raines), an attractive female car mechanic, gets hired as an assistant, and even moves into her family's home as a boarder. He tells no one about his past but collects newspaper stories about his supposed death, and eventually about the arrest of Irene for his murder. When he tells Marsha the truth, she encourages him to resurface to save his wife, but when he does, his wife finds a way to put the blame on him for Jim's death, and for plotting to kill her as well. Only one person can clear him: Irene's maid Sui Lin (Anna May Wong), who has seemingly vanished. 

This film noir plays out like a variation on the mistaken identity trope, with a couple of plotholes. It's unclear how long, if at all, the traumatized Walter might have actually had amnesia right after the accident, a claim he makes to the cop but which might just be a story to buy him more time. It's also never explained what Irene thinks when Jim doesn't show up for their rendezvous after the attempt on Walter's life. Otherwise, this is a moderately engrossing noir, though Donlevy is a bit on the stodgy, boring side which rather dissipates some of the tension. Raines and Walker are both fine, and Charles Coburn (pictured with Walker) effectively plays against type as the chief cop trying to figure out if Walter is guilty or not. Wong is her usual stiff, artificial self but that kind of works with her character. There is some nice, if limited, location shooting on the streets of San Francisco. I suspect in six months, little about this movie will remain vivid in my memory, but I don't feel bad for having seen it. [TCM]

Friday, November 03, 2023


It is generally acknowledged that the first UFO sighting of the postwar era was on June 24, 1947 when pilot Kenneth Arnold saw several shiny discs shooting through the skies above Mount Rainier. The press called them "flying saucers," though the less sensational term UFO (unidentified flying object) was used by the Air Force when they began investigating these sightings, which continued well into the mid 1950s (and still happen today). This movie prefigures the History Channel quasi-documentary programs of recent years in which interviews and actual documentary footage are mixed with dramatic recreations of events featuring actors. Narrator Marvin Miller lets us know at the beginning that this film is "not fiction," and the throughline narrative follows a real man named Albert Chop (played by Tom Towers, not an actor but a Los Angeles reporter), a former reporter who got a job as a PR man for the Air Force's Air Materiel Command in Dayton, Ohio during the initial UFO fuss and later did PR for the Pentagon. The film begins at a Pentagon press conference in July of 1952 as Maj. Gen. John Samford (a real person) addresses the issue of UFOs. We then backtrack to the initial sighting in 1947 and move ahead to a sighting by Kentucky police in 1948, a Life Magazine cover story on UFOs in 1952, and the sighting of multiple UFOs over Washington DC in July of  '52. Along the way, the Air Force sets up the secret Project Sign to investigate. They shut it down when the press finds out about it but then reactivate it as Project Grudge. Chop is often stuck between reporters seeking information and government contacts who seem reluctant to share any findings. Along the way, we see genuine footage of two UFO sightings, repeated at the end of the film, before we return to Gen. Samford whose money quote is that there are "credible observers of relatively incredible things."

Though I noted above this movie’s similarities to current day recreated documentaries, this one is not a slickly made product with CGI and dramatic scenes. It very much follows the traditional non-sensationalistic documentary format with constant narration, interviews and proclamations interspersed with recreated scenes involving Albert Chop; these are resolutely presented in a realistic fashion to the point where, except for one scene set in Chop's home, the viewer tends to forget that these are fictional scenes. The closest the film comes to anything dramatic is when Chop is called away at night during the DC sightings: he says blandly to his wife, "Radar is picking up unknowns over the Capitol—don't wait up!" For all of its set-up as being real, the filmmakers don't tell us that we’re seeing actors in the scenes involving Chop, and there are no credits at the end identifying the actors. IMDb has a cast list of about 20 people, with less than half noted as playing themselves (or appearing in documentary footage). I guess I appreciate the low-key tone of the film, but more transparency about recreated scenes would have been welcome. Still, the key draw here was and remains the few minutes of actual UFO footage. The longer film was taken in Utah and unfortunately looks to me like reflections of lights superimposed over footage of the sky. Probably best appreciated as a historical novelty. The film’s subtitle on screen is, "The True Story of Flying Saucers." Pictured is Tom Towers to the right of a shadowy government guy. [YouTube]

Thursday, November 02, 2023


The Marquesas Islands, we are told in intertitles, are an "earthly" paradise reminiscent of the "morning of Creation, fresh from the touch of God," until white men cast their "withering shadows" as they began bringing civilization there. On an island where "civilization" has meant the natives working for white Europeans as pearl divers, the work is hard and often dangerous. We see a young diver get his foot caught in a giant clam. He gets to the surface but comes up too quickly and his lungs collapse. Matthew, the friendly but occasionally drunken doctor, tries to save him but is too late. As the boy dies, the white workers dance and drink nearby. After Matthew complains about the overseer's behavior, Sebastian, one of the chief traders, decides to get rid of Matthew. When a ship filled with bubonic plague victims comes into view, Matthew is sent to help, but instead he finds a ship of dead people. Sebastian has him tied to the wheel and the ship is sent out into a typhoon. Somehow, Matthew survives and is washed up on the shore of a small island that white men haven't discovered. He is attended to by the natives who remain a bit distant, especially when he starts paying attention to Fayaway, daughter of the tribe chief and "virgin bride" of the temple. But when Matthew uses his medical skills to save Fayaway's brother from drowning, the chief allows him to "look with love" upon her. Matthew's new existence is soon threatened when Sebastian and his men show up, looking to despoil yet another paradise with, as Matthew puts it, the "instincts of a ruthless race."

This was advertised as MGM's first sound picture; note that the word used is "sound," not "talking." The dialogue scenes are silent with intertitles, but music, sound effects, and background noises are dubbed in, along with one moment when a man calls out, "Hello," and we hear it. There's a lot of backstory to the production but it boils down to a clash between two directors, Robert Flaherty (mostly known for documentaries) and 'Woody' Van Dyke (known as One-Take Woody for his fast and cheap style). Flaherty was the director of record as filming started in Fiji, but he became frustrated with the attitude of the crew and quit, leaving Van Dyke to finish up. The movie doesn’t suffer for the conflicts, though the theme of wicked civilization versus untouched Eden is a bit heavy-handed. Monte Blue (pictured) is not terribly appealing in the lead role; he's fine when he's a dissolute drinker, but he's not quite up to the attempted heroics of the last half. Raquel Torres, maybe best known as the exotic femme fatale opposite Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, is fine as Fayaway. Fiji natives make up much of the supporting cast. Interesting viewing for silent movie fans. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

SPECTRE (1977)

Dr. Hamilton (Gig Young) arrives at the home of his former criminology partner William Sebastian (Robert Culp) in answer to a desperate plea for help. Hamilton is in trouble with his hospital for his alcoholism and too fervent attention to young nurses; Sebastian has become a student of the occult and is trying to help Anitra Cyon who believes that her family back in England is involved in black magic. Hamilton is reluctant to help until Anitra, a very seductive young woman, visits. She tells Sebastian that she no longer wants his help, but Sebastian thinks there is deception afoot, and sure enough, when he opens the mystical Book of Tobit and presses it against her, she shrieks and falls writhing to the floor, emitting smoke and eventually disintegrating. It turns out she was not Anitra but a succubus in disguise. Though Hamilton still doesn't quite believe in the supernatural, He accompanies Sebastian to England to visit the Cyons and on the way, visit the home of Qualus, a fellow occultist whom they find dead in a room in flames with a pentagram on the floor. Standing in the pentagram for protection, they glimpse what appears to be an actual demon. Hamilton begins to believe and the next day, they meet the Cyons : the real Anitra, decidedly more plain than her demonic double, her younger brother Mitri and her older brother Sir Geoffrey, seemingly stuffy but actually rather decadent. Geoffrey has the house staffed with sexy young women, a couple of whom visit Hamilton in his room after hours with some whips and chains, assuming he might be in need of a booty call. After some investigation, Sebastian learns that when a Druid ring on the estate called the Fire Pit was excavated some time ago, the workmen all died, the imprisoned demon Asmodeus escaped, and may be controlling Geoffrey. But is Mitri also up to no good? And can Anitra really be trusted?

This film, co-written by Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, gets away with a surprising amount of nasty occult doings considering it was a TV-movie (and probably a pilot). It conjures up the work of British author Dennis Wheatley (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT) and builds to a blood-and-thunder climax involving skimpily-clad chanting Satanists and an attempt at a human sacrifice to Asmodeus. (A couple of brief shots of bare breasts appear to have been spliced into European theatrical prints, which is the version available on YouTube). It can't quite overcome its TV-movie budget and style, but all things considered, it works pretty well. Culp and Young (pictured above) make a good team, though Young, whose career was hurt by his alcoholism, seems at times a bit fragile; he died in a murder/suicide event the next year. Their rapport seems to prefigure that of Mulder and Scully in The X-Files with Sebastian as a true believer and Hamilton as the skeptic. The young John Hurt is Mitir, Ann Bell is Anitra, and James Villiers is Geoffrey, and all do well enacting characters who are mostly unsympathetic but remain engaging enough to keep us interested. Gordon Jackson (Upstairs Downstairs) is a British cop who is looking for less occult evidence to track down the killer of Qualus. There are many incidents and subplots. One involves a voodoo curse on Sebastian which has left him with a weak heart. Sebastian is cured of his alcoholism thanks to a spell worked by Sebastian's housekeeper (played by Majel Barrett, Rodenberry’s wife, who would certainly have been a cast regular had the show been picked up). There is also a mummy, a Black Cathedral, a gold bullet, and the gory death of a dog. It was unwise of the filmmakers to show us glimpses of the demons (Asmodeus in particular looks like a man in a Halloween costume), but in general, this is good demonic fun for Halloween. [YouTube; the print is a bit murky but watchable.]

Monday, October 30, 2023


In a monastery, a rite is being performed to "banish the devil from the house of God." Brother Javier, recently arrived, is sickly and suffering from fits and the monks assume he is possessed by evil spirits. Brother Juan is sent to his cell to perform an exorcism, but when they see each other, there is a spark of recognition, and Javier grabs a huge crucifix and batters Juan with it. Later Javier makes a confession to the head monk, the Prior, leading to the flashback that takes up the rest of the film. As a young man suffering from consumption, Javier would play love songs at the piano for Anita, the lovely young woman who lived next door and sat in her window listening to him. One day, he sees her boyfriend assaulting her; she scratches his face and is then turned out of her house by her parents. Javier and his mother take her in and soon they become quite close. Eventually, Javier's old friend Juan returns from adventuring and vows to help Javier build a career with his music, but for some reason, Juan begins avoiding Javier. After a while, Juan decides to go adventuring again, but the night before he leaves, Javier catches him in a compromising position with Anita. Javier attacks Juan who pulls a gun and fires at Javier, accidentally hitting Anita who dies. Juan leaves and Javier vows revenge. Then the Prior hears Juan's story and discovers a different truth: Juan and Anita had been lovers before she met Javier, and he was leaving to avoid any further involvement with her. Juan's story casts the conflict between the two in a different light. Can there be a reconciliation before Javier succumbs to his consumption?

Juan Bustillo Oro, who directed this, co-wrote PHANTOM OF THE MONASTERY which came out the same year. This is often lumped in with Phantom as a prime example of early Mexican horror films, but this isn't really a horror film, though it often conjures up the look and feel of 30s Hollywood films like DRACULA or THE BLACK CAT, especially in the intense concluding sequence in which Javier has a nightmarish vision of his fellow monks as a small army of grotesque living crucifixes. It's actually a fairly straightforward melodrama with two interesting techniques: the early use of the "Rashomon" story twist featuring multiple character takes on one story, and a visual look inspired by German expressionism, especially THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Most of the sets are patently artificial, a bit askew, and even a little spooky, especially in the monastery. When we first see Javier playing the piano for Anita, it looks like a stage set with Anita upstage in a window frame and Javier downstage. The acting is also fairly mannered, though Victor Urruchua (Juan) and Carlos Villatoro (Javier) are fine. The artificial staginess of this may put some viewers off, but I quite enjoyed it, and whether or not it's really 'horror,' it would make fine Halloween viewing. [Criterion Channel]

Sunday, October 29, 2023


This is often described as Ingmar Bergman's only horror movie. That, I think, is overstating the influence of the atmosphere. More to the point, it's a psychological thriller—not a Bergman rarity—with some horror imagery. The story of the disappearance of the troubled artist Johan Borg (Max von Sydow) is told in flashback directly to the camera by his pregnant wife Alma (Liv Ullmann). The two came to a small Swedish island to spend the summer in an isolated rustic cabin. Johan is moody but still finds artistic inspiration from the seaside landscapes. But he begins to tell Alma about his strange encounters with villagers, including a birdman and a woman who takes off her face when she takes off her hat. As Johan's behavior becomes odder, an older woman in a hat visits and tell Alma to read Johan's diary which is filled with not only his fantastic characters (who may or may not be real) but also with guilty references to his former lover, an actress named Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin). A baron who owns land on the island invites Johan and Alma to a dinner party which becomes a rather gloomy and Gothic affair. We see a puppet theater presentation which seems to feature an actual miniature person, and one discussion topic is the "hour of the wolf," between 3 and 5 a.m. when according to folklore, the most deaths and most births occur. The climax of the evening is when the baron shows Johan that he has the painting that Johan did of Veronica, his former lover, hanging in his bedroom. The next day, Johan shows Alma claw marks on his neck, and relates the story of how a prepubescent boy showed up on the rocky shore while Johan was painting. In what might be real or might be fantasy, we see the boy bite Johan, after which Johan kills him by smashing his head in with a rock. From here, Johan plummets into possibly psychotic behavior, shooting and wounding his wife, and returning to the castle where horrors, including the naked (and possibly dead) Veronica, await. In the end, as we've known from the beginning, Johan runs off into the woods, never to be seen again. 

I feel like if you asked an AI program to produce a script for a Bergman horror movie, this is what it would present to you. The horror is mostly in the nightmare-like imagery (a man walks up a wall, then across a ceiling; that old woman in the hat does eventually take off her hat and her face) done to show the falling apart of Johan, and it's on the level of the visual that the movie works best. In terms of narrative, however, the pickings are slim. Aside from finding out about Johan's former mistress, we know practically nothing about him or Alma, and we have to take for granted that they were a relatively settled couple before they arrived on the island. Searching for meaning here is ultimately fruitless, unless one looks on this as a personal search by Bergman—apparently much of the imagery came from his own dreams. Sydow and Ullman are, of course, quite good, and hold the screen even when the narrative does not. In the end, you can decide one of two things: either there is a lot to process here, or there's not much at all to process except the visuals. [DVD]

Thursday, October 26, 2023


Like 1973's THE VAULT OF HORROR, this is another horror anthology film from Britain's Amicus Productions. But instead of being based on EC Comics stories like the previous movie, these narratives are all drawn from the work of one author, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, a British author not terribly well known in the States, though he won a Bram Stoker award for lifetime achievement in horror writing. Each of the four stories (each with Twilight Zone vibes) is triggered by a visit to an antique shop called Temptations Limited, with Peter Cushing as the proprietor; the visitor then either steals from or cheats Cushing, but winds up getting a supernatural comeuppance. In "The Gatecrasher," David Warner buys an ancient mirror which, he discovers after holding a séance, is inhabited by a demon who commands Warner to make human sacrifices in order to strengthen the demon so he may soon leave the mirror in human form. In "An Act of Kindness," Ian Bannen (pictured below), stuck in a loveless marriage (to Diana Dors), befriends a lonely veteran (Donald Pleasance). Bannen steals a military medal from Cushing in order to bond further with, and get respect from, Pleasance. He falls for the vet's daughter (Angela Pleasance, Donald's real-life daughter) and she uses voodoo to kill off Dors. It looks like Bannen and Pleasance may have a happy life together until voodoo enters the picture again.

"The Elemental" begins with Ian Carmichael in Cushing's store, switching price tags in order to get a good deal on a snuff box. On a train, Carmichael finds himself seated opposite a flighty, eccentric woman (Margaret Leighton, pictured above with Carmichael) who tells him he has an elemental on his shoulder, an invisible imp-like creature, and offers her help to get rid of it. He ignores her at first, but once he gets home, he finds reason to contact Leighton for an exorcism which works, sort of. Finally, in "The Door," Ian Ogilvy buys an elaborate antique door (and swipes a bit of cash from Cushing's register) to install in front of a small vanity closet, but soon finds that behind the door is a creepy blue room which, as in the first story, is inhabited by a demon looking for a human host. In a brief coda, a burglar tries to rob Cushing, much to his regret. Like most anthology films, this is a mixed bag, though all of them are watchable. The first one feels the most padded out, and only The Elemental stands out because Leighton plays the medium in a comic fashion, reminding me of Margaret Rutherford in the film of Noel Coward's BLITHE SPIRIT. Frankly, the quality of acting in these anthologies is not necessarily indicative of how enjoyable they are. Here, the honors go to Warner, Carmichael, and Leighton. Lesley-Anne Down is fine as Ogilvy's wife in the final story. Cushing doesn't have much to do except seem creepy and he manages that just fine. I closed out my review of THE VAULT OF HORROR by saying the production looked cheap and felt rushed, but it made for fine October viewing. The same can be said for this. [TCM]