Tuesday, September 26, 2023


At a street café in Paris, a middle-aged man (Sacha Guitry, at right) is writing his memoirs of being a scoundrel. As a youngster, the son of a grocery store owner, he is caught stealing money from a cash register and is sent to bed without dinner; as it turns out, the mushrooms served at dinner were poisonous and the next morning, he is the only member of his family left alive. A cousin takes him in and embezzles money from Guitry's inheritance, so the boy runs away and becomes a worker at a hotel where Serge, a dishwasher, gets Guitry involved in a plot to assassinate the Czar. The boy (never named, only known as The Cheat) turns him in to the police. In a hotel in Monaco, working as an elevator boy, he dallies with a countess who gives him a gold watch (and in a short break from the flashbacks, we see the countess encounter the Cheat in the present day at the café and, not recognizing him, admitting to having given away 217 gold watches in her time). He winds up at the front in WWI where he spends time at a "semi-brothel" and is wounded in the leg. His later adventures include a brief fling with a female jewel thief, a job as a croupier at a casino, a brief marriage to a gambler, and a possible menage-a-trois before he decides to give up cheating…or does he? This fairly frothy comedy, directed and written by its star, is delightfully amoral in allowing its hero to get away with all manner of illegal behavior and remain a likable character. Most of the film consists of voiceover narration by Guitry with only the occasional character getting any dialogue. Partly due to this, few of the other actors are memorable. Though the narration felt a little gimmicky at first, I got used to it fairly quickly. The opening credits have Guitry's voice introducing each actor by name on the film's set, establishing an amusing, almost surreal, atmosphere. Guitry was a prolific playwright, actor and director, though accusations of collaboration with the Nazis during WWII hurt his reputation. The only other Guitry film I’ve seen is QUADRILLE, a romantic comedy about a love triangle which had a similar atmosphere. I think I’ve got a couple more to watch on my Eclipse/Criterion boxed set, coming up soon. [DVD]

Monday, September 25, 2023

SMILE (1975)

In Santa Rosa, the statewide beauty pageant to choose California's entrant in the national Young American Miss contest is underway. Brenda (Barbara Feldon, at left), who is running the pageant and in charge of taking care of the 25 girls, is perky and positive, always encouraging the girls to smile at all times. But her husband Andy (Nicholas Pryor, below right) is a depressed alcoholic who can't figure out why he's so unhappy—one reason is that he has hit middle age and is expected by the local Jaycees to undergo a ritual involving wearing Ku Klux Klan-type sheets and kissing the ass of a dead chicken. Mobile home dealer Big Bob (Bruce Dern) is the head of the judging committee, a job he loves, but when Andy tries to talk to Bob about his fears, Bob's replies are just soundbite versions of "Think positive!" Little Bob (Andy Shea), Big Bob's tween-age son, is consumed by the task of trying to take Polaroids of the contest girls in various states of undress to sell to his fellow students. The contestants given the most screen time are Robin, a wholesome girl a little out of her depth among the others (Joan Prather), and Doria (Annette O’Toole), who has done the pageant circuit before and gives Robin advice. We follow a number of plot lines through the week of events, to the announcement of the winner and hints of the futures of some characters.

This film from director Michael Ritchie was, despite good early buzz, given short shrift by its distributor and more or less dumped into a handful of theaters, though as the buzz continued, it did get a larger release, including a spot at the New York Film Festival. Marketed as a fairly hard-edged satire (Robert Altman's Nashville, released the same year, has a similar feel), the years have not been kind to it. Strictly speaking, this is not framed as a mockumentary, but it feels like a predecessor of sorts to the Christopher Guest movies, especially Waiting for Guffman, a behind-the-scenes look at a community theater musical production. Unfortunately, after the Guest movies, this barely registers as satire and instead feels like a comic melodrama, with most of the comedy coming from the girls' attempts at performance and the drama from the townspeople. The mocking of the girls is mostly fairly gentle, more good-humored than in some of the Guest movies, but for that reason, the satire comes off rather limply. The contestant who is mocked the most is a Mexican-American named Maria who is too strident in her earnestness at celebrating her heritage and alienates many of the other girls. In 2023, this comes off as fairly mean-spirited (not to mention politically incorrect) especially as the other girls are not treated in a similar fashion, except for Doria who despite some mocking, comes off sympathetically. Prather and O'Toole give good performances, as do Feldon (always underrated, I thought) and Pryor, who manages to make his sad sack character teeter on the edge between comedy and tragedy—he threatens suicide at one point in an oddly modulated scene that isn't quite funny but isn't quite serious. Dern overdoes his rah-rah shtick a bit, and gets a strange moment at the end that I feel is supposed to give us insight into his character, but I'm not sure what it was telling us. Famous MGM dancer and choreographer Michael Kidd appears as a just-this-side-of-washed-up celeb, Melanie Griffith has an early role as a contestant; William Traylor (as a conductor) and Dick McGarvin (as a smarmy emcee) make good impressions in small roles. Almost fifty years on, this is a good example of a movie that has been hurt by time, partly because, it could be argued, it was a bit ahead of its time in 1975. [Blu-ray]

Thursday, September 21, 2023


While attending graduation exercises at the Annapolis Naval Academy, President Stanley is called back to Washington for an emergency: Europe has gone to war, and there is pressure in Congress and from the American people for the United States to get directly involved. However, after the experiences of World War I, Stanley is inclined toward isolationism, as is a large anti-war movement in the country. That night, lobbyist D.L. Voorman holds a secret meeting of powerful men who think war will be good for the country, the economy, the arms industry, and them. Voorman's wife suggests the slogan "Save America's honor" for their propaganda campaign, and they decide to ally themselves with the Grayshirts, a quasi-fascist group led by Lincoln Lee who brutally attack pacifist rallies (and individuals). Meanwhile the President, knowing that Congress is about to override him and declare war, fears that a "Declaration of Independence for industrialists" will come out of this action and assumes that impeachment proceedings will begin against him. The next day, the president fails to show up for an appearance in Congress and evidence suggests that he may have been kidnapped. The attention of Congress and the country turns toward the kidnapping. Val, a grocery boy who was the last person to have had personal contact with the President, and the President's secretary Brownell become people of interest. Secret Serviceman Chick Moffat is in charge of the investigation, reporting to Secretary of War Lewis Wardell. Lee, who is mentally unstable, is the prime suspect, but when Chick's girlfriend Alma finds evidence that might lead to the kidnappers, Chick socks her in the jaw, knocking her out. What goes on?

Most reviews of this movie talk openly about the conclusion, technically a Spoiler, but one that does need to be mentioned to discuss the film. The kidnapping turns out to be a hoax: Chick and Val and Brownell have helped the President vanish in order to create a diversion from the war issue. They basically set up Lee to be the chief suspect, and though he is not behind it, he does wind up threatening the life of the President. I suspect the filmmakers—and Rex Stout, the author of the novel this is based on—assumed that would dismiss any qualms the audience might have about the situation, but (though I don’t intend to start one) I think a lively debate about the morals of the chief characters here would be interesting. Like 1933's GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, I think this would leave current audiences torn about the means used to achieve what some, but not all, would consider good ends. At any rate, this works fairly well as a political thriller, though there’s not much action until the final scenes. 

This is a movie without a real leading actor. Arthur Byron, who plays the President, fades into the background, partly because he, as the title puts it, vanishes for the middle of the movie, but also because Byron doesn't have much personality. Edward Arnold, as the Secretary of War, is a much better actor and has top billing but only a handful of scenes. This leaves Paul Kelly (Chick) as the audience's surrogate; he energizes the movie but even he is often relegated to the background for long stretches. The supporting cast is fairly strong. It’s fun to see a young Rosalind Russell in a brief role as the lobbyist's wife; Sidney Blackmer (Ruth Gordon's husband in Rosemary’s Baby) is the lobbyist; Charley Grapewin is a soft-spoken bad guy; Osgood Perkins (Anthony Perkins' father) is Brownell; Andy Devine does an overgrown kid role as Val. The director, William Wellman, went on to direct over 70 movies. This is more interesting than it is truly entertaining, but I liked it. Pictured are Paul Kelly at top left and Rosalind Russell at right. [YouTube]

Wednesday, September 20, 2023


A master forger (Dean Jagger) is sprung from prison by a Nazi spy. On the road, the spy is killed and Jagger is picked up by cops who turn out to be more Nazi spies; they put the dead guy's body on train tracks so his mangled corpse will be mistaken by the cops for Jagger. The Nazis have sprung Jagger so he'll make counterfeit money that the Nazis hope to use for various reasons, including flooding the country with fake cash to cause economic chaos. A Gestapo agent (John Carrdine) is head of the gang which is headquartered at a boardwalk amusement park, and when Jagger refuses to help, Carradine informs him that his mother is being held in her home by Gestapo agents to ensure he'll play along. As the work gets started, Jagger is shown around the park where he befriends a stray kitten and flirts a bit with a woman (Mary Brian) who runs a recording booth for soldiers to record messages home. Jagger discovers that the Nazis listen to the records for information on troop movement, but he also learns that Brian is not in on the scheme. Jagger develops a plan: he engraves a secret message on the cash that will tell G-men what’s going on and where his mother is being held. A disillusioned Nazi (William Henry) winds up aiding Jagger, but the Nazis have one more card up their sleeves: setting off explosions at a nearby oil refinery.

I assumed from the title that this Monogram B-film would be set in Germany, not California, but that's OK as the boardwalk setting is an interesting one, with a nice chase through the park at the climax. This is definitely a B-movie in look and feel but most of the acting is a notch above the average. Jagger is very good as the anti-hero (by 15 minutes in, it's easy to forget that he's a crook who will probably have to go back to jail if he survives) as is Carradine as his chief tormentor. William Henry, with whom I was not terribly familiar, also does a nice job as the Gestapo agent with a conscience, which Jagger plays on to get his assistance—he calls Henry "Butcher" in reference to his brutal participation in Gestapo activities back in Germany, and Henry, haunted by those memories, switches sides. Sidney Blackmer is good as Jagger's second in command, though poor Mary Brian, as is often the case in these wartime spy films, is given little to do except fall for the (anti-)hero. There are some doldrums in the middle part of the film, but the last 15 minutes are fairly exciting. Not sure why the brief interlude with the stray kitten is in here. Reissue title: NO ESCAPE. Pictured are Henry and Jagger. [TCM]

Monday, September 18, 2023


To set the scene, we begin with what amounts to a tableau of the assassination of Julius Caesar, then travel to Macedonia where the forces of Brutus and Cassius are being defeated by Mark Antony (Raymond Burr), loyal to Rome. On the battlefield, Lucilius (William Lundigan), a captain in the army of Cassius, discovers Cassius dead by suicide and, realizing defeat is near, poses as Brutus to be captured by Antony, allowing Brutus to escape. But Antony recognizes Lucilius and spares his life. When word arrives that Brutus has also killed himself, a disillusioned Lucilius joins up with Antony, becoming a trusted associate. At Tarsus, they meet with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt (Rhonda Fleming) who arrives on a barge complete with exotic dancers and an elaborate feast. Cleopatra recognizes Lucilius from his days serving Julius Caesar (with whom she had a son). An uneasy triumvirate develops, not quite romantic but not just political either. An unsuccessful assassination attempt against Cleopatra is carried out by a man who claims that the people are starving while the rich and mighty take all the food for themselves. Cleopatra says that her arch-enemy sister Arsinoe is behind the discontent and sends Lucilius to capture her and bring her back alive, but she conspires behind his back to have Arsinoe killed. Lucilius is confined to his rooms because he might have freed Arsinoe, but as history buffs know, when the Senate in Rome declares war on Egypt, Antony and Cleopatra aren't much longer for this world, leaving Lucilius alone.

This is a B-movie version of the famous historical story, though it looks pretty good, in bright Technicolor with colorful costumes, and is shot on sets left standing from the bigger-budgeted Rita Hayworth movie SALOME. Some viewers dislike the obvious corner-cutting, with artificial-looking matte paintings and underpopulated battle scenes—near the end, we are told by a narrator that one of the most significant battles of all time is about to occur, but on screen it lasts barely thirty seconds. (The few battle and fight scenes in the movie are all a bit sloppy.)  As far as the script goes, Cleopatra, whom I assume is the title character, is almost a supporting player with Antony and Lucilius getting more screen time. They have a bond which I wish I could describe as 'homoerotic,' but the juice just isn't there, partly due to the writing and partly due to the pedestrian acting. All three leads seem like they're either sleepwalking through their parts or rushing through them to get home for dinner. Despite my disparagement, I enjoyed this, if not quite as camp, as earnest mediocrity. I also have a soft spot for Lundigan (pictured with Fleming), who was always handsome and inoffensively lightweight, as he is here. Julie Newmar appears as a featured bikinied dancer, covered in gold paint, eleven years before Shirley Easton got that treatment in GOLDFINGER. Her dance is actually fairly sexy, and some might consider it the climax of the movie, though it occurs in the first half-hour. [TCM]

Friday, September 15, 2023

21 DAYS (1940)

In London, a successful lawyer (Leslie Banks) is on the verge of being named a judge. His likable but irresponsible brother (Laurence Olivier) is back in town and rekindles his relationship with a former lover (Vivien Leigh) who is married but long separated from her husband. But the husband shows up unexpectedly and demands money to go away. A scuffle ensues and the husband pulls out a knife but Olivier gets the better of him and ends up killing him. Olivier dumps the body in a nearby alleyway but is seen by a passing tramp (Hay Petrie) who ends up stealing from the body—and more importantly picks up a pair of bloody white gloves that Olivier dropped. Oliver goes to his brother for advice; he somewhat surprisingly tells Olivier to leave the country, mostly because the publicity could damage Banks' chances of becoming a judge. When Petrie is arrested for the murder, Banks and Olivier believe that the evidence is not strong enough to convict him. Hoping to get away scot free while Petrie is found not guilty, Olivier stays in town and spends the next 21 days (before the case is decided) living at leisure with Leigh. Banks can't imagine that Petrie will be found guilty, but if he is, Olivier has agreed to give himself up. None of them have counted on Petrie, in a somewhat addled state, assuming that he is guilty and not fighting for himself in court.

This is a twisty little melodrama with a big plothole (the murder was a case of self-defense and Olivier would surely have been exonerated) and a rather audacious twist at the end, like in an O. Henry story or an Alfred Hitchcock TV episode. All we're shown of the couple's 21 days together are scenes at carnivals or amusement parks. Characterization is incredibly flat except for the lawyer (mostly due to Banks' solid performance). This was filmed in 1937, before Olivier and Leigh (pictured) got married and before Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind made them both stars—it seems to have been held from release until Wind opened with the assumption that Leigh would be more marketable by then. Oddly, the two give lightweight performances, and the whole feels a bit stagy, shoddy and rushed through. Graham Greene has a screenwriting credit, and his interest might have been in the moral quandary that Banks initiates, but that aspect of the action is not deeply examined. This doesn't crop up much, so you may want to catch it if it does, but you won't miss much if you don't. Originally released in the States as 21 Days Together. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 12, 2023


Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison), two young people of indeterminate age (high school seniors or college freshmen, perhaps), are spending the summer with their families on Fire Island, whiling away their days on the sunny beaches. They meet a young woman named Sandy (Barbara Hershey) who is trying to help an injured seagull, and the three soon bond over their amateurish attempts at the gull's rehabilitation, at one point trying to get it to fly with string attached to it, like a kite. They drink beer, calling it a truth serum; they have a three-way grope session in a theater while watching a French movie; they complain about their miserable and unloving parents (who, as in a Peanuts cartoon, aren't seen except for one brief faraway shot). In an odd, somewhat slapstick but also sexually charged scene, the three get high and wash each other's hair. Eventually, Sandy kills the seagull after it bites her. Soon, the three come to the attention of Rhoda (Catherine Burns), a lonely and somewhat younger girl. She seems both desperate to become their friend but also desperate to not come off as desperate, so her behavior is a bit off-putting, but eventually, the three bond with her, though she always seems to be in the group but not of the group, like a toy for the three to play with, almost like the seagull. Sandy makes contact through a computer dating service with an older man, and as the others make plans to accompany her on the date, she decides to pass Rhoda off as her. The outcome of the date is that the man, a bit drunk, gets mugged by some local bullies as the four friends run. Peter starts to develop feelings for Rhoda, but she criticizes them for treating people like they're made of plastic. The film ends with a violent confrontation in the woods as Rhoda, still wanting to be with the three, follows them into the woods one afternoon, only to be raped by Dan, with Peter and Sandy both holding her down.

Virtually every review of this movie reveals the ending so I don't think it’s a spoiler to mention it. This scene initially got the movie an X rating, though it was later trimmed to get an R. The acting by all four is fine (Burns got an Oscar nomination), but the film feels a bit glib about its social observations, which can be summed up as: adolescents are horny, irresponsible and violent. Even in the beginning, I didn't find any of them particularly sympathetic. Hershey gives the best performance—with her physical beauty, she wouldn't have had to act much to be the most compelling person on screen, but act she does and she alone gives her character some depth. I suppose it's refreshing that this doesn’t turn into a social message movie that tries to figure out these aimless youths, but I also ended up not sure why I spent an hour and a half in their company. Pictured from left: Davison, Hershey, and Thomas in the hair-washing scene. [TCM]

Friday, September 08, 2023

ELECTRA (1962)

Some context from Greek mythology which is not spelled out clearly in this movie: Agamemnon was a Greek king who fought in the Trojan War, as presented in the Iliad. Leaving for Troy, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods, ensuring a safe voyage, which did not sit well with his wife Clytemnestra. As the movie begins, Agamemnon returns home victorious after some ten years, received by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus who has become the de facto king of the land. In a bathhouse, Clytemnestra ensnares Agamemnon in a net and Aegisthus kills him with a sword. Though the king's two young children, Electra and Orestes, don't witness the murder, Electra has a premonition of doom. Time passes. So that neither child can be a threat to the queen, Orestes is sent away to wander the land, as Aegisthus is sure that on his own, he will not make trouble, and Electra is married off to a peasant farmer, an outcome seen as shameful by the people. But eventually, Orestes, encouraged by his friend Pylades, seeks out Electra and they commit, somewhat waveringly, to exact revenge on the king and queen. If you know anything about Greek tragedy, you know the outcome: there is death but the revenge rings a bit hollow.

This is the first of three films that Michael Cacoyannis made from the plays of Euripides (THE TROJAN WOMEN came a few years later), and if the narrative is bit murky at times, the film is gorgeous to look at, shot in widescreen black & white, mostly outside on Greek locations. The problem I had with THE TROJAN WOMEN, which was stagy acting in natural settings, is avoided here—the acting all around is quite good and though things may tip into the direction of the melodramatic at times (there are lots of close-ups), overall the humanity of the characters is served well by the actors. There is no mention of the gods here, so the psychological underpinnings of the story remain in the forefront. Irene Papas is often called the greatest Greek actress and based on the evidence here, I'd believe it. She is strong without being overpowering, emotional without going over-the-top. Giannis Fertis, as Orestes, can't match her in power, but he doesn't have to, as his story mostly serves as support to hers, and he's fine in his own right. Aleka Katselli (Clytemnestra) is also very good, and since one or another of the three is almost always on screen, we're in good acting hands. I especially like the way Cacoyannis uses the Greek chorus, a band of women dressed in black who circulate around Electra and occasionally comment on the action. They are choreographed beautifully at all times. This 1960s foreign language (Greek) film has suffered from neglect, probably because the sexiness and glamor of the era are absent, but I would recommend this wholeheartedly, in particular as an example of how to open up a stage play. Pictured are Papas and Katselli. [DVD]

Tuesday, September 05, 2023


After the war, displaced persons camps were set up all over Europe for some of the millions who were refugees from the Nazis or otherwise forced from their homes. Karin (Ingrid Bergman), a young Lithuanian woman, is at one of the camps in Italy. At night, local men congregate at the camp fence to flirt with the women, but one young man, a fisherman named Antonio (Mario Vitale), hangs back a bit and serenades Karin specifically. Though they barely know each other, he wants to marry her. When her request for a visa to Argentina is turned down, she somewhat reluctantly agrees to marriage to get out of the camp. He takes her to his home on the island of Stromboli. Any romantic images of a bucolic island life are shattered when she arrives and finds the island is bleak and rocky and has an active volcano at its center. Karin tries to spruce up their dilapidated stone home but can only do so much, as Antonio has no money and fishes in a communal group. She goes to a local woman to have a new dress made, but discovers that the woman is the local prostitute and soon she is seen as a bit suspect herself. She goes to the village priest for guidance but he has little to offer. The lighthouse keeper is sympathetic but also helpless. When she discovers she is pregnant, she is determined to leave the island, but Antonio is just as determined that she stay. One night, when Antonio has locked her into her room, the volcano begins to erupt. The lighthouse keeper helps her escape but as she struggles up the mountain, she seems to realize that she really has no option but to face life as it is, and in the morning, she heads back to the village.

This movie caused a bit of a sensation on its initial release because Ingrid Bergman had left her husband to live with, and make movies with, Italian director Roberto Rossellini, and her 'immoral' behavior caused her to be condemned in Congress. But viewers hoping for a scandalous movie out of this, their first collaboration, would have been disappointed. Despite the aura of immorality around the narrative and its production, any salaciousness would have to come from the viewer's imagination. This is a fairly drab looking film (despite the occasional nicely framed view of the island setting) with a dull, plodding narrative. We get some hints about Karin's background that she's no pure innocent, but she is otherwise just a humbled person looking to live a better (and certainly, a livelier) life. Similarly Antonio seems like a good and simple sort who gets into his marriage over his head, and his response is to behave rather brutally. The ending on the volcano is often assumed to be about a spiritual epiphany that allows Karin to return to the village a happier person, but that conclusion comes off as murky and unearned. Mario Vitale was a fisherman who was discovered by Rossellini; he's fine here, holding his own with Bergman (who herself seems a little tamped down), and went on to a short acting career. The opening was filmed at a real displaced persons camp, and the rest was shot on Stromboli with mostly locals in other speaking roles. Overall, a bland melodrama that feels beneath the talents of Bergman, though she tires hard. [Criterion Channel]