Tuesday, July 16, 2024

HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968)

In the middle of the afternoon, it appears that Grif (James Garner) has snuck into the bedroom of Jenny (Debbie Reynolds) and the two are having a matinee while her husband's out. Suddenly they hear someone enter the house and head upstairs. Surprise! Grif and Jenny are a married couple getting frisky in broad daylight, and it's their teenage son Davey who has interrupted things. He has teenager problems: his girlfriend Bootsie is going to spend the summer in Europe with a student group, and Davey wants to tag along. Jenny manages to get Grif, a photographer by trade, assigned to accompany the group to document the trip, and she decides to go along, renting a villa in France to stay at and provide a home base for Grif and Davey, and perhaps to get some canoodling time in with her husband. Unfortunately, on the ship over, they wind up in separate cabins, and when they sneak out at night to do some necking on the dark dock, they find out that many of the teenagers had the same plan. Grif and Davey head out with the tour group while Jenny heads to the villa only to find that her real estate agent cheated her and the rental is actually a private house belonging to a rich playboy named Phillipe (Maurice Ronet). They have their own meet-cute moment when she mistakes him for a servant. He tries to clear things up by letting her have the home for a few weeks since he says he won't be there for long. She accepts, then finds that he is in no hurry to leave the house. Meanwhile, Grif seems to be flirting a bit with a travel guide named Nancy. Misunderstandings pile up and things come to a farcical head one night when most of the characters descend on a brothel (with Jenny and her son winding up in a room together!). A happy return to America is in store for Grif and Jenny.

This is an interesting stab at making a vanilla sex comedy, titillating but not immoral. Garner and Reynolds are game as the leads, though I must admit I kept forgetting that the wife was Reynolds and not Doris Day. Though the film leads you to believe that Davey, a teen hippie in the making (or Hollywood's idea of one), will be a main character, he (Donald Losby) and his girlfriend are largely pushed aside once we get to Europe. Most of the fun is provided by supporting players. The quirkily handsome Maurice Ronet approaches the playboy role with a light touch. Marcel Dalio makes the most of his limited screen time as Ronet's Communist butler. Terry-Thomas has a cameo as the shady real estate agent. I quite enjoyed Paul Lynde popping up throughout as an officer on the ship who expresses shock at the sexy goings-on but is then caught in his own shenanigans at the brothel. Jerry Paris, who played Rob Petrie's neighbor on the Dick Van Dyke Show, directed and has a cameo, and the woman who played his wife Millie on the show, Ann Morgan Guilbert, has a small role as an ocean liner passenger. Ultimately, there are too many balls in the air here to make this totally successful, but it's good naughty Saturday afternoon fun. Pictured are Lynde and Guilbert.[TCM] 

Thursday, July 11, 2024

THE PARENT TRAP (1961)

Two teenage girls, Sharon and Susan (both played by Hayley Mills), who look exactly alike, meet at a summer camp. Sharon is a bit snobby and Susan a bit of a tomboy. Their clashes lead them to be punished by eating and rooming together, and as they break the ice, they discover that they are twins separated by divorce. Sharon lives with her mother (Maureen O'Hara) in Boston and Susan with her father (Brian Keith) in California, Once they figure out their relationship (their parents never told them about each other), they decide to switch places to get a taste of how they each live, and to get their parents back together. It's fun and games for a while until Sharon discovers that Brian Keith is in a serious relationship with gold digger Joanna Barnes that may lead to marriage and they have to kick their plan into high gear. When I think of classic-era live-action Walt Disney movies, MARY POPPINS is always the first that comes to mind. But POPPINS is something of an outlier. It’s a fantasy/musical with a good-sized budget, a great score, a couple of wonderful production numbers, and a newly-minted star in Julie Andrews. When you compare it to other Disney films of its time, it barely feels like a Disney movie. This film from three years before is more typical of the live-action (non-musical) template that ruled for the next several years: brightly lit stagy-looking sets, lots of TV actors, OK special effects, and a major bog-down in the middle which makes it feel about 15 minutes too long. At two hours, this is definitely too long, but not in that deadly way that today's superhero movies and streaming TV shows are. The story is cute, and the adult actors are all fine, including Una Mekel, Charlie Ruggles, Leo G. Carroll and Nancy Kulp, and I always love seeing Joanna Barnes of Auntie Mame fame who could play mean like nobody's business, but let's face it, it all rests on Mills' shoulders and she carries the film quite nicely (helped by the occasional split-screen effect). Directed in a fairly pedestrian manner by David Swift (How to Succeed in Business). There have been sequels but I don't know that I need to see them. (The accompanying picture, with the girls being punished at camp, has a Covid lockdown feel to it.) [Disney+]

Monday, July 08, 2024

ESCAPE FROM THE IRON CURTAIN (1956)

In a small London nightclub, we see Theodore Bikel (pictured at right) strumming a guitar and singing a Spanish folk tune. An onlooker declares him to be "the real thing," but another patron notes that he's actually Hungarian. The rest of the film is a flashback telling us how Bikel got to England. A security officer for the Communist government in Hungary, Bikel was a good party man but when his immediate boss was purged, the disillusioned Bikel feared that he might be next, so he managed to escape to Vienna, leaving his wife behind. He is approached on the street by possibly shady people offering to help him, but finally makes contact with John Bentley, a British officer who recognizes him from the war years (in a scene that plays out a bit like a gay pickup). Bikel is seeking political asylum; at first, Bentley waffles on giving it to him, then gives him an assignment to prove his worth: go back to Budapest and help a scientist named Okofsky escape. Bikel takes on the job, intending also to bring his wife back, despite being threatened by a blackmailer. Though I didn’t especially like this movie, I celebrate the fact that Turner Classic Movies still shows oddities like this that would otherwise be lost to time. Its length (just under an hour) and its production values mark it as a B-movie second feature, but the term B-movie is almost too good for this. Grade Z, however, would mark this as a super cheap exploitation film and it's not that. It needs a new label, something to indicate its seriousness in tone but also its almost amateurish production. See CARNIVAL OF SOULS or BLAST OF SILENCE for films similar in feel and look but more successful as finished productions. The two main actors, Bikel and Bentley, do their best with what little they have, and it's not their fault that seemingly the entire movie has been post-dubbed, so the dialogue has an unnaturally harsh tone to it, like it was recorded sloppily in a small studio. Ultimately, this movie feels more like a rough draft for a movie than a finished film with fleshed-out characters and a coherent narrative. At times it put me in mind, at least visually, of one of those Coronet educational films of the 50s and 60s that Rifftrax frequently mocks. It's difficult to recommend this except as a historical oddity, taking place just months before the 1956 attempt at a Hungarian revolution, though fans of the underrated Theodore Bikel will want to see it—he may not be at his best, but he's the best thing in it. And again, thank you TCM for your commitment to not just classics but to lesser-known films and to strange one-offs like this. First released in England as FLIGHT FROM VIENNA. [TCM]

Friday, July 05, 2024

SHORT TAKES (7/5/24)

FLY-AWAY BABY (1937)
The marriage of reporter Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) to policeman Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) is delayed when a jeweler named Deveraux is shot and killed at his place of business and $250,000 worth of gems are stolen. Torchy gets mad when competing reporter Lucien Croy (Gordon Oliver), son of her newspaper's editor, is allowed into the crime scene before she is. It turns out that Croy was one of the last people to see Deveraux alive. Croy, deep in debt, wanted to borrow money from Deveraux; the two argued and Deverauz not only wouldn't give him money but threatened to tell Croy's father about his situation. Croy has alibis for the time of the murder, but when he announces that he is leaving on a round-the-world air trip, racing another reporter, Torchy decides to get in on the race action, thinking that Croy might be considering selling the stolen gems overseas. This is the second in a series of B-movies featuring Torchy Blane. It moves quickly, privileging pace over plotting—my biggest problem was, if this was a race around the world, why were the three reporters on the same vehicle so often? The last part of the race is set on a zeppelin and works up some thrills. Farrell is fun, though I find MacLane too stodgy to be much fun as her romantic partner (to be fair, there isn't much romance in the movie). I always like Gordon Oliver, a solid B-movie secondary player, and here he plays against type a bit as an unlikable character. There's a silly subplot about McBride's somewhat dim comic-relief associate, played by Tom Kennedy, quitting his job but constantly showing up anyway. A-movie character actor Harry Davenport has a small role near the end. If you're already a fan of Torchy or of Farrell, you'll like this, but others should probably steer clear. [TCM]

WOMAN IN THE DARK (1934)
Ralph Bellamy has just been released from prison after accidentally killing a man in a bar fight while defending the honor of his girlfriend (Nell O'Day). He has returned to his hometown to live in a cabin in relative isolation, though the sheriff, O'Day’s father, is not happy he's back. O'Day, however, is, and she goes to visit him one night to rekindle old sparks. Unfortunately, fancily attired Fay Wray shows up a bit worse for the wear and on the run from playboy gangster Melvyn Douglas, who has been her "keeper." When Douglas arrives, all hell breaks loose: Douglas calls the sheriff to tell him where his daughter is, Douglas' associate Brown shoots Bellamy's dog, and Bellamy punches Brown who falls and winds up with a life-threatening skull fracture. Certain to be wanted by the police, Bellamy takes Wray and heads to the big city even as Douglas tells the police that Wray has stolen jewels from him. When it looks like Brown may recover, Douglas plots to kill him to hang another murder charge on Bellamy. At 68 minutes, there is an awful lot of plot here (based on a short story by Dashiell Hammett) presented at a pretty good clip, but things never get too confusing. Though it missed being a pre-Code movie by a few months, it remains clear that Wray is Douglas' mistress, and her character is not punished at the end. Bellamy is not the most dynamic lead, though Wray and Nell O'Day are fine. Roscoe Ates does his usual comic relief part as the ex-con in the city. The reason to watch this is to see Melvyn Douglas as a bad guy. He's charming on the surface but pretty rough underneath, and it's a very good performance. [DVD]

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

NEW MOON (1931)

Sailing on the Caspian Sea, the ocean liner New Moon is headed for Krasnov. Cocky Russian soldier Michael Petrov (Lawrence Tibbett) flirts with Princess Tanya (Grace Moore) while she plays cards. When he feels dismissed by her, he goes out on deck and sings a vulgar song about a farmer's daughter to the delight of the peasants. Tanya follows him then asks him to translate the song for her. In doing so, he censors some of the rougher language, but then she reveals that she is well aware of the song's content by singing it in its original language. They do a bit of canoodling back in her stateroom—her father (Roland Young) spies through her keyhole and when his wife asks him if their daughter is in bed, he replies slyly, "Not yet." In Krasnov, Michael is upset to see Tanya heading off to the home of the governor, Boris Bursiloff (Adolpne Menjou), the stuffy but rich man she is to marry. She admits she's marrying for money, and tells him that he was just a shipboard fling. When he insults her, Boris assigns Michael to Fort Darvaz, a dangerous outpost where the ragtag soldiers are inclined to shoot any leader they don't like. However, Michael shoots first, showing the men he means business and gets them on his side. Tanya and her father visit, and the first thing she does is smack Michael several times in the face—Dad: "Is the customary horse-whipping over?" But when the fort comes under siege, the men are not so willing to fight until Michael rouses them with the song "Stouthearted Men" (have I mentioned this is based on an operetta?). Boris arrives, certain that Michael is marching to his death, but is he?

This is in theory based on a 1927 operetta by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II, but except for a handful of songs and the basic melodramatic romance plot, this is nothing like the original, which was set in New Orleans and more faithfully adapted in 1940 with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. But this is still pre-Code fun: it's silly and a bit campy and not at all to be taken seriously. The two leads are a little problematic. Tibbett and Moore (pictured) were both Metropolitan Opera stars and when they're singing, they're fine. But as screen actors, neither one had a long career. They're not awful but they don’t really inhabit their characters. Tibbett has a kind of goofy boyishness that eventually grew on me (he looks a little like Jack Black), but Moore is unappealing in almost every movie star way; she comes off more as the heroine's best friend rather than the romantic lead. The script doesn't help—we don't see their relationship develop into love, and we have to take it on faith that they're really attracted to each other. Menjou does a cold fish martinet type well, and the secret weapon of the movie is Roland Young, contributing welcome comic relief here and there. I liked it OK but couldn't help wishing that a different actress had played the princess. [TCM]

Monday, July 01, 2024

TRY AND GET ME! (1950)

Shots of a blind street preacher (which will get a callback at the end of the film) are followed by the credits rolling over a scene of Frank Lovejoy hitching a ride with a trucker. Lovejoy, with a pregnant and son at home, has been traveling around looking for a job and is headed back to the town of Santa Sierra, still jobless. At a bowling alley, Lovejoy chats with a brash young man (Lloyd Bridges) who offers him a job; unfortunately, that job is as a driver to help Bridges pull off small-scale robberies. Meanwhile, gung-ho reporter Richard Carlson, whom we also meet at that bowling alley, is writing exaggerated stories about a crime wave in the town, despite his socialist friend telling him that sensationalism in journalism is a social problem just like crime. Lovejoy and Bridges have a successful run of small robberies, and Lovejoy's wife thinks he's working at a legit job, but eventually Lovejoy decides to leave crime behind. Bridges talks him into one last job—kidnapping the son of a wealthy businessman—but it all goes rather brutally wrong. The son winds up dead and it's only a matter of time before Lovejoy and Bridges are arrested. With Carlson stoking the town's flames with his articles about their "crime wave," eventually a mob seeking their own brand of justice forms at the jailhouse with tragic results.

For most of its running time, this is a fairly average noir melodrama about a good guy whose moral compass quits working, leading him to get in over his head in a bad situation with a villainous psycho. In the last fifteen minutes, it takes a sharp violent turn that is fairly shocking for a 1950 movie. No spoiler here, but Bridges gives a balls-out performance that verges on over-the-top, like he's been waiting for the whole movie for this chance to show off. The furor of the townspeople is also presented well. Lovejoy, an underrated actor, is good, and his fairly placid exterior makes a good balance with Bridges' twitchy antics. He makes a solid, archetypal film noir lead, a good man led astray (though there is no femme fatale) through desperation. The attempt to target yellow journalism is not as strong as it could be, partly because they make the reporter (Richard Carlson) too nice, though perhaps it's appropriate for a film noir that, with a misguided anti-hero in the person of Lovejoy, there is a sort of misguided anti-villain in Carlson. Kathleen Ryan is low-key as the wife, and Katherine Locke is OK as a would-be femme fatale, though too vanilla to really be a bad girl, who sets her sights on Lovejoy. Renzo Cesana is the socialist friend who expresses the film's (somewhat grandiose) message: understanding, not hate, will lead us to the moral center of the universe. The story is based loosely on a real event. A rare film marketed as noir that actually is. Its original title, THE SOUND OF FURY is a better match than the current title. Pictured are Bridges and Lovejoy. [Criterion Channel]

Friday, June 28, 2024

TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD (1966)

A suited-up Tarzan (Mike Henry) is dropped off by helicopter, gets on a plane, and lands in Mexico where a driver shows up to take him to see an old friend who has summoned him to help search for a kidnapped boy. But we've seen the real driver killed and a bad guy substitutes for him, taking Tarzan to an empty soccer stadium. The driver tries to kill him but Tarzan quickly gets the best of him. A sniper pops up in the upper reaches of the stadium and, in a scene that has to be one of the top 5 moments in any Tarzan movie, Tarzan kills him by using a gigantic Coca Cola bottle used as advertising in the stadium. By the twenty-minute mark, Tarzan finally jettisons the suit and puts his loincloth back on and enlists a leopard, a lion and a chimp to track down Ramel, the boy who has been taken by the evil Augustus Vinero (David Opatoshu), who actually isn't too far from a Goldfinger type of villain. The details remained a bit vague to me, but apparently Ramel got lost and wandered out of his hidden village, rumored to be an ancient Aztec city with a fortune in gold (hence the Valley of Gold of the title). Vinero kidnapped the boy to get him to lead the way to the valley to get the gold. Tarzan manages to get Ramel (and Vinero's mistress Sophia) and the film becomes a race between Tarzan and Vinero to get the valley. When they do, Tarzan is disappointed that the pacifist Aztecs won't fight back against Vinero, and in fact, they imprison Tarzan so he won't use violence either. But this is, after all, a Tarzan movie so eventually he comes out on top and Vinero faces an ironic defeat he brings on himself.

In the Tarzan movie canon (1930s to the late 60s), Johnny Weissmuller, with twelve films to his credit, is the most famous Tarzan. Jock Mahoney, Gordon Scott and Lex Barker, most having gone beyond Weissmuller's grunts in terms of dialogue, are fine, but for my money, Mike Henry is the platonic Tarzan thanks to his muscled body and his dark looks. Long before I saw any of his movies, photos of Henry in all his loinclothed glory fed my teenage fantasies for years. Luckily, his movies are among the better ones, certainly heads and shoulders above the later Weissmuller ones. Most reviewers note how this one begins like a 60s spy movie, and it does. But that element is fun and things eventually revert back to the classic tropes. There is no Jane figure here—Nancy Kovack, as Sophia, is along for the ride but there are no hints of romance between them. There is also no "Boy," though there is a young lad in peril, a plotline in several of the 60s Tarzan movies that I find tiresome. I suppose that element is there to give the young male audience members someone to identify with. There is also no Cheetah, and the animals that are present are mostly used well, not as comic relief. Opatoshu is a good villain who, as befitting the era, has a spy movie gimmick of giving people exploding jewelry; he tries to kill his mistress by locking explosives around her neck. I like that Tarzan uses a machine gun in a cave to shoot stalactites so they'll fall and kill some of the bad guys. The pacifist angle of the Aztecs makes for an interesting plot development. This is the best of the three Mike Henry Tarzan films, though the earlier Mahoney and Scott movies deserve to be seen. [DVD]

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH (1968)

We see 17-year-old Jamie (Barry Evans, at right), a grocery store delivery boy, biking around a London suburb, speaking an interior monologue out loud, all about the "carnal fancying" that is plaguing him. He wants to lose his virginity, but despite being attractive and relatively charming, he's having a hard time doing so. (Pun intended, inspired by a line in the movie from when he bumps into a girl on his bike. She says, "No hard feelings" and his interior reply is, "That’s what you think.") He's in love with Mary whom he sees as unobtainable, but he thinks Linda might be a more realistic target, though he frequently refers to her as "runny old Linda," apparently a reference to her class. He takes up briefly with Paula who ropes him into helping put on a church bazaar and dressing up as the King of the Fairies for a skit. Next up is Caroline (whose response to everything is a softly-drawled "super…") who invites Jamie to spend the weekend at the family home where her eccentric wine-drunk dad is sneaking around the house having an affair with the maid, though Caroline herself passes out before Jamie can make a move. At a giant make-out party, Jamie gets in some time with Audrey but is tempted away when Mary seems interested. The two go skinny-dipping and finally consummate their brief relationship (after an intrusive dog butts in), but when Jamie finds out that Mary is sexually experienced, he is turned off. We're left with Jamie, a sadder but wiser non-virgin who looks forward to further adventures at college.

This is very much a period piece, and is sometimes compared to ALFIE (Michael Caine's 1966 breakout film), another movie about a British man hung up on sex. Both celebrate the openness with which one could deal with sex in movies at the time. But this is less serious, and Jamie ends up in a better place than Alfie. With none of the female characters getting any kind of real development (and the few male characters getting even less), your enjoyment of this will depend on how you take to Barry Evans, who was in his mid-20s but easily passes for a teenager with his spritely almost impish good looks and energy. I liked Evans quite a bit (I remember him as a cast member in the British sitcom Doctor in the House) and found he made the more unlikable aspects of his character—he's a bit of a chauvinistic user—easier to take. Denholm Elliott is wasted in the small role of Caroline's drunken father. The women, who are mostly on and off the screen in a few minutes, are a bit of a blur, with only Judy Geeson (Mary) and Angela Scouler (Caroline) standing out. We seem to be left with a lesson that it's OK for men to sow their wild oats but women should not. Of course, most of the comedy is in the idea that Jamie never gets to do much sowing, and I honestly was sometimes confused as to whether or not his sexual adventures were successful. I had assumed that he was no longer virgin by the time he finally got to Mary, but based on the narrative's drive, he apparently was. There are songs by the Spencer Davis Group, and Traffic sings the title song. (Trivia note: Steve Winwood was in the Spencer Davis Group before he joined Traffic.) A bit of a novelty for fans of 60s cinema, but not a must-see. [TCM]

Monday, June 24, 2024

THIRD MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN (1959)

We first see young Rudi (James MacArthur, pictured) at the top of the Citadel, a formidable mountain in the Alps, planting a red flag, an old shirt of his father's, to memorialize his father's death on the mountain years ago. Then we realize that this scene is just a daydream—Rudi is looking out the windows at the mountains while washing dishes in a hotel kitchen which is run by Teo, a former climbing guide. Rudi wants to be the first man to climb to the top of the Citadel, and while Teo sympathizes with him, he tries to keep the boy grounded to his circumstances. But Rudi sneaks out to go climbing anyway, and while on a glacier, runs across a man stuck in a deep crevasse. He helps the man out and discovers he has just saved famed climber Captain Winter (Michael Rennie) who is visiting the village. He wants to climb the Citadel with Rudi's uncle Franz as his guide, and with Rudi as a porter, but Franz wants no part of the climb, and forbids Rudi to go as well. Eventually, Winter gets Emil (Herbert Lom), a guide from a nearby city, to go up with him. Rudi's town has a long history of rivalry with Emil's town, so Rudi sees this as a chance to be his town's man on the mountain so he lies to Winter and says that his uncle has given him permission to go up the Citadel. Of course, he hasn't, and there's trouble when the townsfolk see the climbers heading up. There are weather problems and near the top, both Winter and Emil are injured. When it’s clear that Emil shouldn't be left alone, Rudi must decide if he will stay and help the unfriendly rival Emil or head up with Winter and plant his father's red shirt as he did in his daydreams.

This Disney film was shot largely on location in the Swiss Alps, on the Matterhorn (which later became a ride at Disneyland) and in the village of Zermatt. It's claimed that the cast had to take weeks of mountain climbing training, and though there are definitely some shots of the cast members on real mountains, there are also several process shots done in a studio. But those shots are mostly worked in without a loss of believability and as an adventure film, this works fairly well. MacArthur, son of Helen Hayes, was only 21 at the time of shooting and, though his performance is toned down a bit by Disneyfication, he makes a fine hero and even manages to shine next to the more experienced Rennie and Lom. The requisite romance with Lizbeth (Janet Munro from THE CRAWLING EYE and DARBY O'GILL) is bland, though supporting actors like Lawrence Naismith as Teo, Lee Patterson as a rival of Rudi's for Lizbeth’s attentions, and James Donald as Franz bring some nice background color (as, of course, do the locations). The understanding Lizabeth has to deliver a line that kinda reeks of toxic masculinity: "A man must do what he feels he must or he isn't a man." However, Rudi does step up and do the right thing at the end, even if it's not exactly what he wants to do. At two hours, it's a smidge long but it's an enjoyable film overall. [Disney+]

Thursday, June 20, 2024

ROADBLOCK (1951)

We see insurance investigators Joe (Charles McGraw) and Harry (Louis Jean Heydt) wrap up a case in a Cincinnati hotel. At the airport, as Joe waits for his flight, a young woman named Diane tells the clerk that she’s Joe's wife so she can get half off on her fare. Next to him on the plane she confesses her plan and Joe lets it slide. When the plane has to make an overnight emergency landing, they are booked into one hotel suite. He flirts with her but she says she has ambitions beyond someone like him. (Can you catch the film noir femme fatale scent yet?) Later, in Los Angeles at Christmas, Joe and Harry are assigned to investigate Kendall Webb, a wealthy but shady man who is thought to be the mastermind behind a big fur robbery. Webb’s mistress turns out to be Diane who, despite having been given two furs by him recently, is sure that Webb is not who they're looking for. Thrown back together, sparks fly between Joe and Diane, so much so that he goes crooked. He lets Webb know about a big cash delivery that his company is protecting, and helps him to get the cash in exchange for a part of the booty so he can treat Diane in the manner to which she has become accustomed. The robbery is a success but a postal clerk is killed so the heat is on. Joe and Harry are called on to investigate, and thanks to Double Indemnity, we know how it all will turn out.

Shown as part of the Criterion Channel's Holiday Noir series, the holiday scenes are minimal, but the noir content is solid. Joe is a likable nice guy, led astray by a greedy woman, and has to hide his double life from his partner Harry who is ultimately instrumental in bringing Joe down. Peopled with lesser-known B-actors, the cast is still quite strong. McGraw had a lengthy career, often playing a gangster, and here his gruff quality works well in keeping us on our toes about his behavior: he's a good guy but it seems obvious from early on that he will let lust blind him to his morality. Joan Dixon (Diane) excels as a golddigger who is a bit gruff herself, but seems genuine later when she tries to stop Joe from helping to pull the job. This is the most screen time I've ever seen given to Louis Jean Heydt, who is recognizable in Gone With the Wind, The Big Sleep, Commandos Strike at Dawn, and The Great McGinty, among dozens of other small roles. Milburn Stone is a detective tracking Joe. The last car chase is a good one, shot in the Los Angeles river culvert which is familiar from Grease, Cleopatra Jones and Them! It’s nice to see a movie marketed as a film noir that actually is. Pictured are Dixon and McGraw. [Criterion Channel]

Monday, June 17, 2024

VICTOR AND VICTORIA (1933)

Suzanne is an aspiring singer who can't get a job. At her last failed audition, she meets up with Victor, a hammy comic actor who is always underemployed, though he shows Suzanne many pictures of himself in famous roles. Currently, he does a drag act under the name Victoria, but he's suffering mightily from a head cold, so he convinces Suzanne to go on in his place—a woman pretending to be a man dressing up and performing as a woman. Suzanne does a comic number as Victoria, then pulls off her wig and drops her voice to a low growl to show that she's a man. An agent signs her to a contract and a success montage follows as she performs and splits her take with Victor. In London, Suzanne (as Victor/Victoria) impresses three friends at a nightclub: handsome playboy Robert, the older Lord Douglas, and Elinor, the woman both men flirt with, though technically she's with Lord Douglas. Robert is taken with Victoria and overhears a private conversation in which it becomes clear that Victor/Suzanne is actually a woman, but he decides to play along with the charade for a while. Meanwhile Elinor seeks out Victor/Suzanne for a date. There is a bar brawl, a proposal for a duel (which is resolved in song), and the threat of Suzanne's trick being discovered, but all is righted in the end.

This German film was the inspiration for 1983's Victor/Victoria with Julie Andrews as the cross-cross dressing title character. As that is one of my favorite comedies, it's difficult not to compare the two versions. Not only are the plots similar, but both feature a song by Victoria about a Spanish lady (from Seville in 1983, from Madrid in 1933) and both end with an incident in which the female barely avoids discovery of her trickery. The later film is far queerer in feel than this one. In 1983, the male mentor (played by Robert Preston) is openly gay and his relationships with men are part of the narrative arc. Also, for a brief time, Victoria's male pursuer (James Garner) is a bit unsettled when he thinks he is attracted to a man. Here, the male mentor (Hermann Thimig) is straight, though he is a drag performer, and the male pursuer (Anton Walbrook) finds out quickly that Victor is a woman so there's no real ambiguity about his feelings. Renate Muller (Suzanne) passes as a man much more realistically than Julie Andrews did, but Andrews is, of course, more fabulous than Muller. This film is more of a traditional musical in that characters pop out in song, and often in rhyming dialogue, during the action of the film, whereas in the 1983 film, all the songs are sung as stage performances. This will never eclipse the Julie Andrews film, and it's got less to think about thematically, but it’s a fun watch. Aka VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA. There is also a British version from 1935, FIRST A GIRL, which is worth seeing. Pictured are Muller and Walbrook. [Criterion Channel; also on Kino Lorber DVD]

Friday, June 14, 2024

MY SON IS GUILTY (1939)

This film opens with a dedication to those who manage to escape their "Hell’s kitchen" neighborhoods. Harry Carey is a good-natured cop who is on hand for the release of his son (Bruce Cabot) from prison. Carey is friendly and sympathetic but also determined to keep Cabot on the straight and narrow, but Cabot has a chip on his shoulder against society. His former girlfriend (Julie Bishop) connects with him and they attend a dance together, but afterwards, a shady character approaches Cabot and gets him to join up with a gang run by a Ma Barker-type (Wynne Gibson). She asks him to get a job through his father in the police radio room, so that when her gang pulls off their next robbery, he can short circuit the radio transmitters and delay by two minutes the call for police to arrive at the scene, enough time for the crooks to get away. Cabot agrees to do it, and the crooks get away, but not before Carey is wounded. When the heat gets too much for Gibson, she leaves Cabot on his own when suspicion falls on him, and when he kills the mother of an old friend who could rat him out, we know he's not redeemable. An average B-crime movie of the era, enlivened a bit by Carey, playing a bit against type as kindly instead of gruff. The young Glenn Ford, in one of his first movies, is good; his role as the old friend of Cabot's whose mom is killed is fairly small but important. Cabot is fine, Bishop (credited as Jacqueline Wells) is unmemorable; Edgar Buchanan is a bartender and Bruce Bennet has a small part as a crook. The scene of Ford's mother getting killed isn't shown, just mentioned, which dissipates the strength of that plot point. At one hour, it's well paced and doesn't wear out its welcome. Pictured are Cabot and Ford. [TCM]

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

WHAT A WAY TO GO! (1964)

Rich widow Shirley MacLaine wants to give her entire fortune, 211 million dollars, to the government and the government thinks she's crazy, so we see her tell her story in flashback to psychiatrist Bob Cummings. It turns out she's been widowed four times in her life, and all four husbands wound up with huge fortunes that were left to her. As a young girl in the small town of Crawleyville, her mother encourages her to marry a member of the rich Crawley family (Dean Martin) but instead she marries simple and unambitious merchant Dick Van Dyke, who soon builds his rustic little store into a booming business. He becomes a workaholic and drops dead of exhaustion. Next, while visiting Paris, MacLaine falls for cab driver and struggling artist Paul Newman. After they marry, he invents a huge mechanical device that automatically paints abstract images on large canvases, becomes famous, and winds up dead at the hands of his malfunctioning machine. When she misses a flight back to the States, business tycoon Robert Mitchum takes her back in his private jet—they marry and she convinces him to retire to a quiet life on a farm, but when he tries to milk a bull, he dies from getting kicked in the head by the bull. Finally, she meets small-time entertainer Gene Kelly who works at a local steakhouse. He wears clown makeup and uses goofy novelties and is generally ignored by patrons, but when MacLaine suggests he pare his act down to his real talent for singing and dancing, he becomes massively popular, buys a mansion and has it all painted pink. He too dies an early death. Will our poor rich widow ever find lasting happiness?

The goofy opening sets the tone for this farcical comedy: Shirley MacLaine, in her widow’s weeds, leaves her pink mansion as pallbearers drop the coffin containing Kelly which careens out of control. There isn't much of a story here, or even any real lessons to be learned, but as a revue-type entertainment, it's fun. During the flashbacks, each relationship is portrayed briefly in a fantasy sequence like a Hollywood movie: with Van Dyke, it's a slapstick silent film; with Newman, a French art film; with Mitchum, a glossy melodrama during which MacLaine changes into elaborate gowns with each new scene; and with Kelly, a musical (of course). These are fantasy scenes set in a movie that is all glossy Technicolor fantasy, so the risk of overload is always present, but mostly the viewer remains engaged, if only to see how each marriage will go sideways—MacLaine is often unhappy with her husbands' changes but the marriages themselves never really fracture until the husbands die. Of course, the death aspect would lead one to believe that this is mostly dark comedy, but the surface performances and cotton-candy visuals steer us away from too much gloomy contemplation of the various widowhoods. You can't really judge acting here, just the ability of the performers to entertain without going too far over the top or woodenly missing the mark. MacLaine is perfect, and Van Dyke and Newman both come close to matching her. Mitchum is a bit on the wooden side, and Kelly seems lost, like he didn't quite get the joke (though of course his dancing with MacLaine is very nice indeed). It's fun to see Margaret Dumont, grand straight woman to the Marx Brothers, in a small role as MacLaine's mother. When MacLaine is disappointed that Van Dyke has put off their vacation to Rome, he tells her, "Get yourself a couple of art books and a box of spaghetti." In the Hollywood epic scene, Robert Mitchum asks, "What are you doing after the orgy?" one of a few jokey references to Fox's Cleopatra from the year before. I liked this one, and even when it started feeling a bit long, the costumes and visuals were always a treat. Pictured are Mitchum and MacLaine in a gigantic glass of champagne. [TCM]

Monday, June 10, 2024

WOMAN IN HIDING (1950)

Deborah Clark (Ida Lupino, at right), looking scared, is driving recklessly at night when her car goes off the road and lands in the river. Emergency workers search for her body to no avail. That's because she's alive up in a wooded area, watching all the fuss. We learn that Deborah was on her honeymoon with Selden Clark (Stephen McNally), but feared that he was plotting to kill her. In an extended flashback, we learn that Deborah's father John Chandler (John Litel) owns a mill which is managed by Selden, a handsome but brutish young man who has his eyes on Deborah, mostly because she's the boss’s daughter. They date but not seriously until one day when Deborah's father falls to his death at the mill in what seems to be a tragic accident. On the day of the funeral, Selden proposes and Deborah accepts. When they arrive at a honeymoon cabin in the woods, who should greet them but Selden's out of town ex-mistress Patricia, who lives in Raleigh and implies that, in the past, she has spent canoodling time with Selden in the cabin. She also plants a seed suggesting that Selden had a hand in the death of Chandler. Deborah decides to leave him and have their marriage annulled, but Selden warns her that he married her to get ahold of the mill and will do anything to do so. That night, in a tense well-done scene, Deborah sneaks out of the cabin and into the car, then discovers on the road that the brakes have been cut. Which brings us back to the start of the film, with Deborah assumed dead but on the run, and Selden suspicious that she is still alive.

The second half of the film centers on Deborah trying to get to Raleigh to find Patricia whom she hopes will tell her story to the authorities. While on the road, Deborah meets up with ex-soldier Keith Ramsey (Howard Duff) who wants to help this clearly distraught woman. Meanwhile, Selden, after Deborah's body was never found, puts ads in newspapers asking for help to find her. The well-meaning Keith contacts Selden who comes to Raleigh determined to have her sent off to an asylum. Deborah does find Patricia, and the climax is a chase scene at the mill involving all four principals, with Selden wanting to kill Deborah like he killed her father. Advertised as noir, this is more a crime melodrama with little visual style (from journeyman Michael Gordon) but good plot twists and performances. The tension is effectively sustained throughout. Lupino is fine as the damsel in constant distress, and Duff is quite effective as her would-be rescuer; they have good chemistry and the two were married in real life a couple years later. Peggy Dow is fine in the small but important role of Patricia. Unexceptional but solid entertainment. [Criterion Channel]

Friday, June 07, 2024

THE STRANGLER (1970)

One night, young Emile is left sulking when he is sent to his bedroom so he puts on his white scarf and sneaks out his window, winding up at a nearby train station. A man befriends him and as they walk down a sidewalk, the man notices a sad looking woman walking toward them. He takes Emile's scarf and casually strangles her. Years later, a grown-up Emile (Jacques Perrin, pictured) has taken up murdering lonely women (or women he thinks are lonely) with his white scarf. Inspector Dangret, posing as a reporter, goes on TV to appeal to the killer to come forward and talk to him. Anna, a young woman who has just gone through a breakup, volunteers herself as bait for Dangret. Finally, a young ruffian follows Emile about and, after the murders, robs the victim. Often referred to as a giallo, this does have that look and feel, but it has very little sex or explicit violence. It's not horror and it's not a whodunnit. I think the director, Paul Vecchiali, thinks it's a psychological thriller (a whydunnit), though there is very little insight into why any of the characters do what they do here. The movie reminds me of PEEPING TOM which also has the central character of a man who kills women because of a childhood trauma. But TOM has an intensity, with scenes of almost unbearable tension, that this film completely lacks. Some viewers have given this film a queer reading as Emile's killings don't give him a sexual thrill, and his relationship with the cop is the strongest bond in the movie, but I have yet to see a truly coherent theory of its queerness put forward. It may be there but it doesn't have much impact on the narrative or on audience reception unless we want to buy the 'homosexual as villain' trope. For the record, Julien Guiomar is Dangret, Eva Simonet is Anna, and Paul Barge is the thief. The visual style is probably the most appealing thing about the movie. I also must mention a strange scene in a beatnik club where a bad singer (deliberately bad, I have to assume) sings a bad song while chorus girls drape themselves over the club tables. It makes quite a tableau. [Criterion Channel]

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

THREE WHO LOVED (1931)

At work in a big city bank, we see two tellers: John Hanson, who is also studying law and playing the stock market, and his friend Phil Wilson, a bit of a flirt and probably a cad. At the dock, Hanson meets his Swedish girlfriend, Helga Larson, arriving in America for the first time. He has arranged for her to rent a room in the same boarding house where he lives. John and Helga seem happy as they wait for John to pass the bar exam before they marry, but soon Helga gets tired of sitting around doing nothing while John studies, so Phil starts to take her out to social events, with John's blessing. The landlady sees no good coming from this, but John insists that Phil is his friend and would not take advantage of his time with Helga. Wrong. Phil and Helga begin some serious canoodling while poor John, desperate to make a down payment on a house, embezzles some money from the bank, specifically from Wilson's drawer. Wilson is arrested and tried for embezzlement, while Hanson keeps his mouth shut and Helga reluctantly marries him. How long will it take for Hanson's conscience to prod him into confessing? As it happens, quite a while, and that's the story twist that turns this movie into an unsatisfying downer. Frankly, none of the three is admirable, but also none of the three is particularly interesting, or evil, or even sociopathic. The ending feels like it might have been concocted by committee, but it's also mostly predictable if you know films of this era. The acting is serviceable; Conrad Nagel as John, Betty Compson as Helga, Robert Ames as Phil, Robert Emmett O’Connor as a cop. No one stands out, though Compson might be the weak link as she never truly seems all that engaged by either of the men. Pictured is Conrad Nagel. [TCM]

Friday, May 31, 2024

ATLAS IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS (1961)

Years ago, Odysseus outwitted Circe and blinded the cyclops Polyphemus, and ever since, the descendants of both have been saddled with the task of seeking revenge against members of Odysseus' bloodline. Generations later, Queen Capys of Sadok, who has a cyclops descendent of Polyphemus locked up on an island, has sent soldiers in search of the last male heir of Odysseus, a mere infant. They raze a village (a very small low-budget village not worthy of the name of "village"), kill the King and capture the townswomen, looking for Queen Penope and her child. Capys plans to sacrifice the baby to the cyclops but Penope manages to deliver her child to a shepherd for safe keeping before she is rounded up with the other women. Unaware of the queen's identity, Capys has all the women thrown into a dungeon until the queen is outed, so to speak. Meanwhile, a hunky muscleman awakens on a beach; his name is Maciste (we are told it means "from the rocks"), and though his background is not fully explained, it seems he is a Herculean demigod sort of fellow, and when he saves the baby from a lion, he takes on the task of saving Penope and the child. But on his way to Sadok, he comes across Queen Capys, pleading with an oracle in a cave to be delivered from Circe's curse. The oracle's answer is to cause the cave to collapse and Maciste saves her, taking her back to Sadok. Eventually, we get the plot whittled down to the basics: muscleman gets cozy with the villainous queen (who doesn't really want to be a villain) while he tries to help the good queen and stop the sacrifice of the baby to the cyclops.

The first thing you may have noticed is that, despite the title, there is no character named Atlas. Many of the peplum films from this era were made in Italy about a character named Maciste, but when they were brought to the United States, the title character's name was changed, in the title and in the dubbing, to something assumed to be more marketable, like Hercules, Samson, or Atlas. Here, however, no one told the dubbers about the title change, and Maciste retains his real name throughout the film, which for me is a plus. Two other pluses are Gordon Mitchell (pictured) as Maciste and Chelo Alonso as Queen Capys. Mitchell's physique is almost perfect for a sword-and-sandal hero, not too bulbous like Steve Reeves could get, but more impressive than, say, Michael Forest who played another Atlas the same year. Alonso, from Cuba, is a bit more exotic than the average peplum queen, with a nice figure and decent acting ability, and her character is a bit unusual in that she changes from evil to not-so-evil over the course of the story. The film has a noticeably small budget which hurts when it comes to spectacle (there is very little) but the director, Antonio Leonviola, manages to give us a couple of good muscle hero setpieces. In one, Maciste takes over the rowing of a huge boat that usually requires a dozen or more rowers. In the other, Maciste is placed on thin wooden planks over a pit of lions, then is pulled from both sides by many men apparently hoping to make him fall into the pit or be pulled apart. He survives both incidents, of course. The cyclops is kept offscreen until the last ten minutes, probably because he's not that impressive. The worst scene is an early one in which Maciste wrestles a lion, or, I should say, a big stuffed lion. Mitchell's name in the opening credits is presented as Mitchell Gordon. Peplum fans will enjoy this, but avoid any pan-and-scan versions out there. AKA Atlas Against the Cyclops. [YouTube]

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965)

At Brooksley College, a talent show with male students in drag, with live music from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, is interrupted by a bevy of real women decked out in sexy showgirl outfits, courtesy mischievous rich student Danny (Harve Presnell) and his buddy Sam (Joby Baker). After the show, they take the girls to the men's dorm and a newspaper photo results in negative publicity. Then a showgirl named Tess (Sue Ane Langdon) threatens to sue Danny for breach of promise—a common ploy in those days to make a man live up to a proposal of marriage—so Danny and Sam head out to the Cody College of Mining and Engineering in Nevada to hide out while these storms blow over. The first student they meet is Peter Noone, lead singer of Herman’s Hermits (playing himself). Not long after, they're treated to performances by not just the Hermits but by jazz great Louis Armstrong and later by Liberace. Danny is soon interested in Ginger (Connie Francis), whose father Phin (Frank Faylen) is about to lose the family ranch to gambling debts. Danny gets the idea to give the ranch a makeover, with the help of the Cody College student body, into a dude ranch for divorcées. Then Tess shows up with a couple of shady types who may be trying to collect the money Phin owes. As you can guess, a happy ending is in store for all.

This teen-oriented musical (though the lead actors are all in their 20s or 30s) is based directly on the 1930 Gershwin stage musical Girl Crazy, made into movies with Wheeler and Woolsey (1932) and Garland and Rooney (1943), and a few of the Gershwin songs, including "But Not for Me" and "Embraceable You," remain. In addition to the Hermits' hit "Listen Children," Peter Noone also sings a respectable version of "Bidin' My Time." Of course, Armstrong is great, and even Liberace is fun, doing a novelty number called "Aruba Liberace" which contains snatches of Liszt. Presnell, a leading man in the rather wooden mold of Gordon MacRae and Howard Keel, is unappealing here though he eventually came into his own in stage musicals, and for years he played Daddy Warbucks in productions of Annie and its sequel. Francis is similarly unappealing and this film killed off her short film career. Also, she is quite short and Presnell is quite tall and they look silly next to each other. Baker, whom I liked in the short-lived 60s sitcom Good Morning World, comes off the best of the main actors—oddly, despite being the third lead, he is billed ninth in the credits. Sue Ane Langdon is a scene-stealer even though she's only in the beginning and ending sections of the movie. There's a nice climactic car chase (including a trippy fantasy effect featuring the cars not colliding when they should). The songs are generally OK, and the best production number is the seven minute outdoor dance (reminiscent of a similar number in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) set to "I Got Rhythm"—it starts out slowly but builds nicely into an impressively choreographed dance. Generally, this is hard to recommend to a general audience, but fans of musicals might like to see this under-the-radar film. Pictured are Baker and Presnell. [TCM]

Thursday, May 23, 2024

CYBORG 2087 (1966)

In the year 2087, mankind has been enslaved under one illegitimate government (think 1984's Big Brother) using computer tools that were made possible by the inventions, back in 1966, of Prof. Marx who produced the means of radio telepathy which the future government uses to control the populace. We see a small team of scientists attempt to send a cyborg back in time to 1966 to stop Marx from giving a presentation of his machine in order to change the future. Garth, the cyborg, in what is literally a physical time capsule, winds up in an Western ghost town on the outskirts of Desert City, the home of Dr. Marx's research company, Future Industries. We see Marx and his assistant Dr. Sharon Mason finalize an experiment in which Marx can play chess with a chimpanzee through the computerized telepathy device. In the future, people have a telepathy device implanted in their bodies so they are controlled from birth, and even cyborg Garth has one. The next day, Marx will give a demonstration of his device to some important government people, and it's Garth’s mission to stop that from happening. After using a stun gun to knock out some folks in his way, he arrives at the lab just after Marx has left to give a lecture, so he explains to Mason and another assistant named Zellner (Warren Stevens) what they must help him do. First on the list is to surgically remove his telepathy device so he can hide from the trackers coming from the future. Zellner does it, but the trackers are already in 1966 to stop Garth's mission however they can.

This is one of a series of B-level movies made by United Pictures Corporation in the mid-60s intended as TV movies that were given brief theatrical releases (DIMENSION 5 is another). It has the look and feel (and music) of a TV movie, shot quickly and with a budget too low for impressive sets or effects—the opening scene of Garth being sent to the past looks like it was shot in someone's basement. The plot, which to some degree prefigures that of the Terminator movies, isn't fleshed out much and most of the exposition is given in drab dialogue. Michael Rennie is Garth and he looks and sounds a bit like Klaatu, his alien character from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. He also seems like he just wants to get through two weeks of filming and go back to England. The always boring Wendell Corey plays the town sheriff who gets involved in a search for Garth. For the record, Warren Stevens (Zellner), Karen Steele (Mason) and Eduard Franz (Marx) complete the main cast. A couple of teenagers get involved briefly. One is the elfin-looking James Hibbard who I recognized as an uncredited dancer in Bye Bye Birdie and Thoroughly Modern Millie (pictured between Stevens and Steele); the other is ubiquitous 70s actor John Beck who had major supporting roles later in Sleeper and Rollerball. This is a movie of which I imagine none of its participants is proud. I will grudgingly admit that it's watchable for a Saturday afternoon, but it won’t stick with you, even though the final plot point is interesting. [YouTube]

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

MUSIC IN MY HEART (1940)

Englishman Bob Gregory (Tony Martin) has been an understudy to the actor playing the Gay Guardsman in a hit Broadway musical. He's never had the chance to play the role, and with his work visa expiring, he's about to be sent back home. The lead actor, taking pity on Bob, fakes an illness, allowing Bob to go on and enjoy a moment of glory. Afterward, on the way to the ship set to take to England, his taxi collides with another taxi containing Pat (Rita Hayworth), fiancée of the wealthy but stuffy Charles Spencer Gardner III. She was supposed to meet Gardner on the same ship Bob was heading for, but the accident makes them both miss the ship. Of course, romantic sparks fly and when she finds out that the feds may come after Bob, she encourages him to go into hiding in her ethnically diverse working-class neighborhood, with relatives and friends of hers, including Luigi (an Italian uncle), Sascha (a Russian restaurant owner), and Pat’s younger sister Mary. Not only are immigration agents coming, but so is Gardner, accompanied by his valet Griggs (Eric Blore). Gardner sends Griggs to Sascha's restaurant in an attempt to win her back. Griggs fails, but also recognizes Bob from his photo in the paper, and soon Bob may not be able to keep hidden much longer. 

This mild B-musical is enjoyable enough, though not really anything special, even though a song from it, “It’s a Blue World,” was nominated for a Best Song Oscar. Singer Tony Martin, whom I have not always liked as an actor, acquits himself well enough here, maybe because he's working with Rita Hayworth in one of her last B-leads before she became a full-fledged star in 1941 opposite Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich. Alan Mowbray is his usual stuffy self as Gardner, and Eric Blore is his usual delightful self as Griggs, who at one point says, "Cherchez l'homme" in his plummy, drawn-out way to hint that Gardner should turn Bob into the police. Other good lines: Mowbray turns down an offer of bicarbonate, saying it "interferes with the brandy." Blore on the subject of women: "All I know is what I see in the movies; you know, oomph and all that sort of thing." Also this bit of philosophy from George Tobias as Sascha: "What is life? You’re born, you die." True enough. Pictured are Edith Fellows, Martin (in disguise), and Hayworth. [DVD]

Thursday, May 16, 2024

MARCO THE MAGNIFICENT (1966)

In 1271, Pope Gregory wants to establish peace and trade agreements with Mongol leader Kublai Khan and sends a small group of diplomats led by merchant Niccolo Polo and his brother Matteo. The pope sends Niccolo's young son Marco along, opining that "youth and beauty" may accomplish more than wisdom. Their long route takes them through the Crusades in the Holy Lands after which they split up on two separate routes. Marco goes into the Gobi Desert where he and his Templar guards are captured by a warlord known as the Old Man of the Mountain who wears a gold mask and only reveals his face to people he is going to execute. One of the Templars is tortured to death inside a huge glass bell lowered over him. Emir Alaou intercedes to free Marco, and later Marco has a run-in with some bandits and is saved by a woman known only as The Woman with the Whip. Once in China, Marco discovers that the peace-leaning Khan is at war with his aggressive son and rebel, Prince Nayam, and Marco sees gunpowder being used for the first time. Ultimately, Marco sends his father back home but decides to stay with Khan as his trusted advisor. This is certainly just as fanciful as the 1938 film with Gary Cooper, and that version, which is only so-so, is more entertaining than this one. The major problem seems to have been the relatively low budget and muddled script. Rather than the grandeur of other epics of the era like SPARTACUS or CLEOPATRA, this looks, feels and sounds like a B-level Hercules film. The handsome Horst Buchholz (pictured) is OK as Marco, but he never feels like a three-dimensional character. In fact, the only character who does is Kublai Khan, played with some gravitas mixed with charm by Anthony Quinn. Omar Sharif, as the emir, shot this before he made Zhivago, though it was released in the States after that film so it could benefit from his name. Orson Wells has what amounts to a cameo in the first scene as Marco’s mentor. I don’t really have much to say about this. The print I saw on YouTube (under the title The Adventures of Marco Polo) was widescreen but not in great shape, so a restoration might benefit the film. [YouTube]

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

THE RULES OF THE GAME (1939)

Years ago in an online film discussion group, one member (the moderator, of all people) accused anyone who said they actually liked CITIZEN KANE, as I had just proclaimed a couple of days earlier, of simply buying into the high critical hype. In other words, I was brainwashed by the critics into thinking KANE was a great movie. I replied that I had first seen the movie in college in the mid-70s and, though I was conscious of the film's reputation, I was absolutely mesmerized by it during that film society showing. Its script, performances, cinematography and direction are all of the highest order, and it's historically important for ushering in a lot of interesting stylistic devices, but I genuinely loved watching the movie because above and beyond its "importance," it's a very entertaining movie. This French film made by Jean Renoir just two years before KANE was a flop on its initial release—and eventually banned in France for potential to incite immoral behavior (it's all about unpunished adulterous carryings-on). It has gained a sterling reputation in recent years and has been cited in some critics polls as second only to KANE in its greatness. I watched this movie three times over the years and, while I can appreciate Renoir's visual style and the construction of the narrative, I'm left feeling rather cold toward it, which may partly be Renoir's intention. At heart, it's a brittle comedy of manners which occasionally put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT. But the lack of sympathetic characters and the chill that permeates it all keeps me at a distance from it. I'd never accuse people who like this of liking it only because it's critically acclaimed, but I'm guessing how I feel about this is like how my online friend felt about KANE.

André is a renowned pilot who has just landed in France to much acclaim after having crossed the Atlantic in 23 hours. Despite the brouhaha, he is depressed because his mistress Christine, the woman who inspired his flight, isn't there to greet him, and he tells his radio audience so. We soon see that she is at home with her husband Robert who is aware of her past relationship with the pilot, and forgiving, perhaps because he is having an affair with Genevieve. Octave, a buddy of André's, loves Christine like a sister and is tired of hearing André go on about her. Robert and Christine throw a weekend party at La Colinière, their country estate and through some finagling, André, Octave and Genevieve are all invited. Also present are Lisette, Christine's maid who is devoted to Christine, and Lisette's husband Edouard, gamekeeper at La Colinière. Because they rarely see each other, Lisette wants him to leave his job, but he thinks she's the one who should give up her job. Though a rabbit hunt is a major part of the weekend, Robert gets irritated over the amount of surplus rabbits on the grounds, and he winds up hiring Marceau, a poacher, as a servant, who decides to flirt with Lisette. With a masked ball and staged entertainment being held on Sunday night, the stage is set for a weekend of food, gossip, hunting, and romantic escapades which eventually turns tragic.

Some viewers notice that GOSFORD PARK bears a certain surface resemblance to this film. Both use their stories to examine the morality of the upper class and the servant class, in this case as the tensions that caused WWII were building. As you might guess, no one of either class comes out looking very good, though the lengthy and explicit rabbit and pheasant hunting scene, with real animals killed and left twitching on the ground, is surely a particular indictment of the upper class hunters (who, however, would not be able to do their killing without the assistance of the servant class). The movie's tone is not tragic, even at the climax when someone is killed, but neither is it very funny, though witticisms fly. A party guest says that love in society "is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins." Octave, played by the director, philosophizes that the awful thing about life is that “everyone has their reasons.” The chef, complaining about a guest's very specific need for sea salt only, says "Diets I can accept but not obsessions." Christine, about André while clearing the air with Robert: "Sincere people are such bores." I enjoyed the film but can't join its more fervent fans. I think it's important for its style: lots of long shots and tracking shots and deep focus. The acting is fine (Marcel Dalio (pictured), with weirdly artificial eyebrows, as Robert, and Renoir himself are standouts) and I love the use of the Danse Macabre in the party scene. But for me it never felt compelling, either in terms of story or characters. [TCM]

Friday, May 10, 2024

THE EMPEROR JONES (1933)

Brutus Jones (Paul Robeson, pictured) is given a sendoff by the congregation of his Baptist church on the occasion of him getting a job as a cross-country train porter. His girlfriend is worried that he'll slide into bad ways, and fairly quickly, he does, led by his pal Jeff into gambling and consorting with loose women. When Brutus is upgraded to working on the car which contains the president, he overhears a sensitive conversation and blackmails a businessman. He also takes Jeff's mistress Undine from him, but later drops her for another, leading to the two women engaging in a brawl on a dance floor. In a different brawl, over the use of crooked dice in a craps game, Brutus accidentally kills Jeff and is sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. When he refuses an order to beat an unconscious prisoner, he smacks a guard on the back of the head with a shovel and manages to escape. In short order, he leaves the country and works on a steamer ship, and when he hears reports of an all-Black island in the Caribbean, he jumps ship to investigate. The island has a dictatorial king, but when Brutus is bought by Smithers (Dudley Digges), a white trader who does a lucrative business on the island, he gets Smithers on his side, makes the islanders believe that he is invulnerable to anything but a silver bullet, and deposes the ruler to become the Emperor Jones. He raises taxes, sends the money offshore, and plans to leave soon as a rich man. But what if the people get fed up before he can make his escape?

Eugene O'Neill’s play probably works better symbolically than as realism, and this movie strives to combine the two styles with mixed results. The melodramatic first half-hour seems to be just getting backstory out the way to get to the fireworks on the island. Even here, however, a sense of real danger and tragic consequences is never fully developed. The play is largely a one-man show and Robeson, who played the role on stage, is up to the task of carrying the film. Though there are other characters here, he only really gets help from Dudley Digges who strikes the right note as a man who realizes quickly that he'll do better as a sniveling assistant to Jones rather than as his "owner." The last section, with Jones on the run through the jungle from his abused people, is well-paced and atmospheric, and Robeson is excellent as a haunted man falling apart. Fredi Washington, best known as the daughter who passes for white in the 1934 Imitation of Life, is fine as Undine, but no one else really gets to make an acting mark here. The film was an independent production, and looks and feels like one, so the chief draw here is seeing Robeson do O'Neill, and that’s enough to make it worth a viewing. [TCM]

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

SON OF DRACULA (1974)

When Count Dracula is killed by a stake through his heart, his vampire bride is pregnant with his child, half-human and half-vampire. One hundred years later, Count Downe, the son, is ready to be installed as the King of the Netherworld, reigning over other creatures of the night (werewolves, monsters, witches, mummies). But he's reluctant to take on his inheritance because 1) he wants to devote his life to making music, and 2) he falls in love with Amber, assistant to Van Helsing, the famous vampire hunter. As the time nears for Downe's coronation at a museum of the occult, overseen by the wizard Merlin, Downe convinces Van Helsing to help him become human. But his path to this goal is blocked by the evil Baron Frankenstein who wants the Netherworld crown for his own. This summary sounds like it could be a decent old-fashioned horror film or a crazy parody of horror films. Unfortunately, this is neither. Despite having Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Hammer director Freddie Francis, and some respectable British actors (Dennis Price, Freddie Jones) attached, this comes off as an amateurish home movie made by the stars on a drunken weekend. 

Who’s to blame? It's easy to point the finger at Nilsson (pictured), who was on a hot streak on the pop charts led by “Without You” and “Coconut.” Starr, who also plays Merlin, produced the film and got his friend Nilsson to star. On record, Nilsson had the persona of an antic anarchist, but he almost never performed in public so doesn't have a 'live' persona and he can't carry this movie. His problem is his complete lack of affect—he comes off like he's always rehearsing. He isn't funny or scary or able to give a line reading in character. Of course, he doesn't have much of a character to play, the fault of the script by Jennifer Jayne (one of the lead women in THE CRAWLING EYE). The main ideas may be sound, but they don't come together at all. Among the plotholes: Why did the denizens of the Netherworld not have a ruler for a century? Why do they need one now? Since Downe doesn't want the crown, why wouldn’t Frankenstein just help him achieve his goal and become the ruler? What is a radioactive transfusion machine? Freddie Francis was an old hand at helming Hammer horror films but rumor has it that he quit halfway through, which couldn't have helped. However, there is one reason to watch this mess: Harry Nilsson’s music, which is used throughout. I loved Nilsson in the early to mid 70s and bought all his albums even through the 80s when they became as messy as this movie. Nilsson was a studio artist and this movie is your only chance to see him perform as he lip syncs to songs like "Jump Into the Fire" and the lovely ballad "Remember (Christmas”)." Other songs like "Without You," "Down," and "The Moonbeam Song" are played behind scenes, and a new song, "Daybreak," is quite fun. You also get to see drummer Keith Moon, sax player Bobby Keys, and guitarist Peter Frampton in the background as his stage band. But really, unless you love Nilsson, there’s no reason to see this depressing, cheap-looking film; your primary emotion is likely to be embarrassment for all involved. [YouTube]

Monday, May 06, 2024

ACCORDING TO MRS. HOYLE (1951)

Mrs. Hoyle (Spring Byington), a much loved teacher, has just retired and looks forward to a quiet life in the room she has rented for years at a run-down hotel, where her neighbors follow her example of giving to the poor. However, Morganti (Anthony Caruso), a reformed gangster, has just bought the building and has plans to boot out all the long-term renters and refurbish the place. Seeing Mrs. Hoyle as a kindly old soul, Morganti lets her stay, and she talks him into letting a young chorus girl named Angela Brown stay as well. Eddie, an associate of Morganti's, realizes that Hoyle is his mother; his father took him years ago when the two split up. He doesn't tell her but he starts to fall for Angela. Soon, under Mrs. Hoyle's influence, all of Morganti's thug buddies start to reform, even following her example of giving to charity, except for Rogan who ropes a reluctant Eddie into helping him pull off a payroll robbery on the night of the grand reopening of the hotel. After some gunplay, Rogan hides the money in Mrs. Hoyle's fur coat which is hanging in her closet (she is down at the reopening). When the cops close in on the two, Rogan is shot and killed, and Eddie is seriously wounded and falls into a coma. When a police search reveals the money in Mrs. Hoyle's coat, she is arrested and painted by the prosecutors as a kind of Ma Barker figure. Her protestations of innocence are hurt by the fact that the cops also find stolen jewels in her jewel box and she can't explain how they got there.

This is a fairly bland crime drama with some interesting plot points. First of all, Morganti, the former crime boss, actually does reform, something that lots of crooks claim to want to do in movies but rarely follow through on. Second, Mrs. Hoyle actually does wind up on trial—I assumed that, as in other movies like this, things would get straightened out before the sweet and obviously innocent old lady has to face a judge. I like Byington and she's the main reason to watch, but some of the relatively unknown B-actors in support are also fine: Caruso, Brett King as Eddie (who does a nice job teetering between the lure of the straight life and loyalty to Rogan who saved his life in the past), Robert Karnes as Rogan, and Harry Lauter as Mrs. Hoyle's attorney. As for title, it comes from a once-common phrase that referred to Edward Hoyle who, in the 1700s, was one of the first people to publish books on the rules of card games. "According to Hoyle" means you’re doing something exactly by the rules or established standards. Pictured are Byington and Lauter. [TCM]

Thursday, May 02, 2024

THE BEST HOUSE IN LONDON (1969)

In Victorian London, the issue of prostitution is a hot topic. Merchants are complaining that the sheer number of  "princesses of the pavement" strolling the streets are hurting their business. Josephine (Joanna Pettet) leads street demonstrations by the League of Social Purity, a group of "fallen women" who want to become upstanding citizens through education and job opportunities. But the government has a different solution: open a secret but official brothel that would house these women. Sir Francis Leybourne sells an old girls' school building to the government for that use. Francis goes to India, leaving his son Walter (David Hemmings) in charge of brothelizing the place, along with the buxom Babette (Dany Robin) who has been sleeping with both father and son. Meanwhile, we discover that Francis's niece is Josephine, who has joined up with reporter Ben Oakes (also Hemmings) to publicize her organization. Ben is illegitimate (Josephine reacts to the news by saying, "I’ve never met a bastard socially"), but we find out that he is actually half-brother to Walter—they have matching batwing birthmarks on their wrists. Soon, the Social Purity girls are secretly getting jobs as the government whorehouse. As though there weren't enough plotlines, a Chinese embassy worker enters the picture. He's upset that Indian opium plantations are smuggling opium into China, and Josephine wants to use money from the plantations, which belong to Sir Francis, to support her cause. Oh, yeah, I forgot the airship, being built by eccentric Count Pandolfo, which after being a minor background detail, suddenly becomes important at the climax.

This is a smutty British sex farce with very little sex, though lots of sex talk and some nude bosoms and butts on occasion. It was rated X on its initial release, for its overall feel more than for any visuals. Packed with incident, it rarely slows down, though character development is pretty much nil. The biggest problem with it is its neanderthal sexual politics. One of the running jokes is that the Social Purity women can hardly wait to get back to being fallen women. Another has to do with a teenage virgin who is theoretically sold into prostitution  but winds up working on the building of the airship. "You promised my mum I'd be ruined," she says petulantly. The subject of rape is treated cavalierly. It never happens on screen, and when Ben is trying to work up some sympathy for fallen women who had been raped, they all insist that it's never happened to them. All of this gives the movie a grimy feel, but oddly enough, I stuck with it. The production values are strong, with lots of deep red and purples in the sets. You can feel the actors trying hard, none more so than Hemmings who does make Ben and Walter full separate characters, with the help of differing make-up. Pettet (pictured with Hemmings) is very good in a thankless role, and George Sanders seems to be having fun in what amounts to a glorified cameo (and he even gets a nude scene, sort of). I'm not sure I can recommend this to others, and the humor was way too uncomfortable in today's context, but I'm not sorry to have seen it. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

ATLAS (1961)

In ancient Greece, Proximedes (Frank Woolf) is known as a tyrant—we know the definition of the word as any leader who seizes power in a non-democratic way, but here it seems to be his official title. He and his men have been trying to take over the walled city of Thenis, ruled by King Telektos, for months and the battle has come to a standstill. Proximedes agrees to a two-man combat to the death to settle the war. Whichever group's champion loses will give up the fight. The tyrant, his philosopher Garnis, and his lover Candia (Barboura Morris) head to the Olympics and talk a wrestler named Atlas (Michael Forest, at left) into being their man. He agrees to fight but says if he wins, he won't kill his opponent, Indros. Atlas wins and indeed spares Indros. Telektos lets Proximedes' men into the city, and the first thing they do is show up at a royal banquet and turn it into a bit of an orgy. The next thing some of them do is, following Proximedes' orders, put on disguises and start a fake revolt, giving Proximedes a reason to attack, slaughtering most of the town's army and executing Telektos. Candia, who has fallen in love with Atlas, tries to leave with him for Egypt; they are caught by soldiers but freed by real rebels, led by Proximedes' former champion Indros, and they join forces to expel the tyrant.

This is an outlier for producer and director Roger Corman. He was known for horror, sci-fi, and teen angst, but for this sword-and-sandal peplum movie, he kept his usual strategy of low budgets and quick production times. It's not a bad movie, exactly, but it can’t really stand up to the better films in the genre. For starters, Atlas is not the Atlas of mythology, just a moderately buff guy with that name. And he isn't even especially buff; he's lithe and a little hairy but he's no one’s idea of the average peplum muscleman. Ultimately this is less a traditional Italian muscle movie and more a drama of political intrigue, sort of. The plot is a little easier to follow than some of the Italian hero films (this was apparently actually filmed in Greece) and the character development, especially of Atlas, is a bit stronger, but the adventure thrills are mostly missing. Using only 50 extras, the crowd and battle scenes are shot mostly in claustrophobic close-up (with occasional repetition of footage) that is not especially effective. In the lead, Forest underacts; as the antagonist, Woolf overacts, not exactly chewing scenery but still feeling like he's trying really hard to be evil. Barboura Morris is out of place with her modern look and her perky demeanor, but honestly she gives the movie a needed jolt from time to time, and it's almost worth watching just for her. The swords and shields that the armies and rebels use look like props from a community theater storage room, and the extras sometimes seem fairly inept—I think you have to be very poorly directed to be an extra and seem inept. Still, there are mild thrills and pleasures to be had now and then. [TCM]