Sunday, March 31, 2024


In 1921 Greece, we see Father Fotis lead a group of villagers as they leave their small town, after it is destroyed by marauding Turkish troops, to find a new place to live. In another village a few miles away, the townspeople live in peace with the occupying Turks led by the Agha, a somewhat intimidating but not unfriendly man who enjoys good food for consumption and young boys as companions. Patriarcheas, the town's mayor and chief landowner, has talked the Agha into letting the town put on the Passion Play that they do every seven years—this would be the first play since the end of WWI. Father Grigoris calls a town meeting at the church to assign roles in the play. Katerina (Melina Mercouri) is a young widow who makes ends meet as a prostitute (and also gives massages to the Agha). The townswomen don't take well to her, but Grigoris insists on giving her the role of Mary Magdalene. Michelis, the handsome son of the mayor, and Yannakos, the nosy postman, are assigned the roles of apostles. The beefy butcher Panagiotaros, a frequent customer of Katerina's, is Judas. Finally, Manolios, the handsome blond shepherd (Pierre Vaneck) is cast as Jesus, a somewhat inexplicable choice as the shepherd is illiterate and can barely get through a sentence without stammering. Just after the roles are assigned, the refugees from the burnt-out village arrive seeking food and shelter. The townspeople at first are sympathetic, but the mayor seizes on the death of a pale woman to claim that the refugees are carrying cholera (though she actually died of starvation) and to send them away. Fotis leads the ragged group of villagers up into the dry and dusty hills overlooking the town where they make a primitive camp but are still barely staying alive. 

When Yannakos is told that he can make some money by taking them food and supplies in exchange for their jewelry and wedding rings, he does, only to feel compassion for them, and he decides to give them the food for free. Similarly, Katerina leads a sheep up in the hills so the people can have milk. The other apostle players wind up helping the refugees, but when Manolios reports to the mayor and Father Grigoris that the people do not have cholera, they order him not to tell the other townspeople—the priest tells Manolios that he has the "cholera of heresy, the cholera of rebellion." It's made clear that the mayor and the priest fear anarchy if they accept the refugees. We can see where this is going: the Passion Play actors are acting in a truly Christian manner that goes against the hypocrisy of the town leaders (and the Judas character, jealous of the attention that Katarina pays to Manolios, will soon embody his role more concretely). Will Biblical history repeat itself?

I'd never heard of this French-language film but I'm certainly glad I ran across it when doing an IMDb search on the actor Maurice Ronet (who plays Michelis). This 60-some year old movie, with its themes of Christian hypocrisy (today's evangelicals) and brutal treatment of refugees (today's Republicans), is sadly still relevant. The director Jules Dassin created a unique Easter treat for classic film fans (though the seriousness of the film may make the word 'treat' not quite right). Filmed in the village of Kritsa on Crete with actual townspeople as both groups of villagers, this is not only thought-provoking but also entertaining, with very good performances from everyone, especially Vaneck as the Christ figure, Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) as the mayor, and Ronet as Michelis. The symbolism can be a bit heavy at times, making the narrative predictable (although the ending manages the trick of being a bit unpredictable as well as both ambiguous and satisfying) but watching all the parts and people slipping into place kept me fully engaged. Mercouri is good but a bit too intense at times; her eyes make her look alternately aroused or angry, sometimes both. Other actors of note include Jean Servais as Father Fotis and Carl Mohner as an assistant to the Agha. The IMDb summary says the plot concerns Greek villagers rebelling against their Turkish occupiers, but this doesn't happen until the last few minutes, and then only because the Agha, who has tried to remain neutral, is forced into backing Father Grigoris. The ultimate message is delivered by Michelis who says if Christ returned, he would be crucified again, and the priests would be driving in the nails. (The film is based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel Christ Recrucified.) I'm so glad I saw this in time for Holy Week viewing this year. I can see this becoming part of my Easter film-watching canon. As far as the commentary, like most on Kino Lorber discs, it's awful; don't bother. I listened to one hour of it and the commentator spends all his time talking about the director and his friends, and says next to nothing about the movie we're watching. Pictured at top are Ronet, Mercouri, and Vaneck; at right is Roger Hanin as the Judas figure. [Blu-ray]

Thursday, March 28, 2024


According to Wikipedia, this is the first sound film to focus on the life of Jesus—the last one made in Hollywood had been DeMille's silent 1927 movie KING OF KINGS. Though no masterpiece, its approach to the story of the crucifixion is closer to that found in the 1961 KING OF KINGS: we largely see the story through the eyes of Judas and in a strongly political context. Zadok is the leader of the Zealots, a Jewish group wanting to break free from Rome's shackles. Judas suggests to Zadok that Jesus, an itinerant preacher thought by some to be the messiah whose way John the Baptist foretold, could be a strong ally for their cause. We see Jesus gather his apostles, perform miracles (including the resurrection of Lazarus), and accept the attentions of the repentant courtesan Mary Magdalene. Zadok isn't sure that the mix of spirituality and politics will work, but he remains interested in this man's followers. After Jesus enters Jerusalem on an ass (as foretold), the rest of the story plays out familiarly: Judas sells Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver, Caiaphas arrests Jesus for sedition, Herod refuses to hear his case, and Pontias Pilate is stuck with determining his fate.

This is clearly a B-movie, and today it comes off looking like something that was made for cable TV. The physical production isn’t bad, with the crucifixion scene being especially effective, but the acting is rather bland. Robert Wilson is about the right age for Jesus (he was about 35) but he looks much older, and he's colorless and uninspiring. It could be that the filmmakers were afraid of being considered irreverent if they gave the character too much personality. Lee J. Cobb is top-billed as Zadok and he's OK if also rather colorless. Joanne Dru, a pretty big name at the time, is given only two short scenes as Mary Magdalene, and this is the first time I remember seeing the character portrayed as wealthy. By default, that leaves James Griffith (Judas) as the acting bright spot. IMDb shows him as having over 200 roles, some uncredited, in movies and TV, and his thin build and arched eyebrows do look familiar. His melodramatic turn at the end when he regrets his actions is a bit much but he is otherwise fine. Overall, the whole thing feels like it was made to shown in church basements for fundraisers, though it did get a decent theatrical release and garnered solid reviews. I'm not sure it holds up today, but it’s not exactly painful to sit through. Seek this out if you're tired of the same old Easter movie canon. [YouTube]

Tuesday, March 26, 2024


Helen (Carroll Baker) is a race car driver who is badly injured in a crash. She is invited to rest and recuperate with her ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel) at his seaside villa. Being out of commission and in debt thanks to the crash, she accepts his offer, but when she arrives, she is surprised to find that Maurice has a second wife, Constance (Anna Proclemer). Helen is even more surprised to learn that Constance is the one who invited her, and also made sure that Helen's outstanding debts have been paid. But there is a catch: Constance wants Helen to help her kill Maurice, mostly, it seems, because he's a serial philanderer (both women agree he's very good in bed) and she suspects he's about to leave her. In the past, Helen did try half-heartedly to kill Maurice, which we see in flashback, so she's got a leg up on Constance. The three go for an outing on a boat and the plan is for Helen to kill Maurice with a spear gun, but things go awry, partly because Helen slept with Maurice the night before. When the time comes, she hesitates and Constance tries to get ahold of the spear gun. In a three-way struggle, Constance winds up dead and Maurice and Helen tie her body up with weights and throw her in the lake, then tell the police that she fell in during a windy squall. However, two things complicate their plan: a friend was filming them from up in the hills, and Constance's daughter Susan arrives from boarding school and becomes immediately suspicious of things. Twists and tricks follow.

This is usually considered an early entry in the giallo genre (a murder mystery with lots of sex and blood), though it's got less sex and blood than most giallo fans would expect. But it is a nifty psychological thriller which is well acted, nicely shot in vivid color largely on location, and has fun twists, some predictable, some a little less so. Carroll Baker was a Hollywood starlet of the 50s and early 60s (BABY DOLL, THE CARPETBAGGERS, HARLOW) who went to Europe in search of better work. The rest of her career was mostly in B-films and television, but she made four of these giallo-ish thrillers in Italy with director Umberto Lenzi in quick succession and they have become cult favorites. (The other three are available as a Blu-ray boxed set and I'll be covering others eventually.) She is not the most demonstrative actor, but her somewhat distancing tone works here. Jean Sorel (pictured with Baker) is very nice-guy handsome, and even as he plays a not-so-nice guy, we're kept in his corner at least sometimes. He is boyishly good looking with hints of decadence creeping in. Anna Proclemer (Constance) and Marina Coffa (Susan) and fine. All the main actors do good jobs at keeping us on our toes about motives and character backgrounds, which is part of what makes this movie work so well. The color-solarized opening is quite trippy but is not indicative of the movie's overall visual style which focuses on the natural outdoor backgrounds and the interiors with their attention to money and possessions. Quite good. Originally released in Italy as PARANOIA. [Blu-ray; also on Amazon Prime]

Friday, March 22, 2024


Jim (Gordon Jones) is an ace candid camera photographer for the Daily Mail who uses a pet carrier pigeon named Emily to deliver his photos to the paper. He has been missing for a couple of days (barhopping, we assume), and as punishment, his editor assigns him to get some candid shots of the notoriously camera-shy millionaire William Hunter, whose daughter Helen is getting married at the family mansion. His buddy Roger, who has been after Jim to take a position at his ad agency, has an invitation to the wedding but will be out of town so he lets Jim use the invite (and his fancy apartment) while he's gone. Jim crashes the wedding and snaps some pics, and when he sneaks into an upstairs bedroom to send his pigeon off with his film, he has a meet-cute moment with Helen's sister Sheila (Betty Furness)—he thinks she's in a state of undress when she enters the room and he closes his eyes out of propriety. But Sheila is much less uptight than the rest of her family and she winds up skipping out on the rest of the party, going with Jim to Roger's apartment, which he passes off as his own. When the two are caught trying to use Roger's identity to get room service, they're thrown in jail. Dad pays her bail, but upset that one of Jim's wedding photos of him has been published, he orders Sheila to stay away from Jim. Sheila has other plans: she becomes Jim's assistant. There are more shenanigans, more candid photos of Hunter, more jail time, and, of course, a miscommunication kink that strains Jim and Sheila's romantic relationship before the requisite happy ending. This B-romantic comedy, verging on screwball, is pleasant, and its one hour length is just right. Gordon Jones, who was in one hundred movies between 1930 and 1963, is one of my favorite B-actors (THE GREEN HORNET, NIGHT SPOT) and I quite enjoyed his performance here. His easy charm helped make a role that might have turned obnoxious remain appealing. He and Betty Furness (best known as a spokesperson for Westinghouse on 1950s TV and later as a consumer affairs advocate) work well together. Perennial stuffy butler E.E. Clive is amusing, though the actor he supposedly replaced, Eric Blore, would have been more fun. Henry Kolker is Sheila's father, and Franklin Pangborn has a small standout part as the hotel manager whose toupee keeps flipping up during various scuffles. Pictured are Jones and Furness. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 20, 2024


Archeologist David Redfern (Trevor Howard) is driving on a Tunisian mountain pass through a blinding storm when he is forced off the road by a landslide. As he begins to walk to town, he sees a truck, hit by the slide, and sees two men scooping up guns from the truck. Redfern manages to grab a gun without being seen. At the CafĂ© des Amis, he gets a room and meets the lackadaisical piano player Agno (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and a French woman named Anna (Anouk Aimee) who came to town with her brother Max while on the run from Nazis a few years earlier. Redfern is in town to catalog and oversee the shipment of valuable artifacts in the possession of the wealthy Serafis (Walter Rilla), but it's not long before he sees the two men from the landslide, the older Rankl (Herbert Lom) and the younger Max (Jacques Sernas, pictured to the left of Howard), and realizes they are engaged in illegal gunrunning. Redfern becomes good friends with Anna and Max, and when Anna expresses concern over Max’s relationship with the shady Rankl, Redfern offers to write a letter of introduction for Max, an aspiring artist, to use in Paris to extricate himself from the gunrunners. As Redfern continues his work for Serafis, he falls in love with Anna, and soon comes to see that the gunrunning outfit reaches farther and wider than he suspected. One of the artifacts has an effect on Redfern: a golden salamander with the engraving, "Not by ignoring evil does one overcome it, but by going to meet it." Soon, seeing that Anna and Max may be at the mercy of the bad guys, Redfern has to decide whether he will follow the wisdom of the salamander.

The rule persists: for the past ten years, if a movie on the home video market is called a film noir, it almost certainly is not. This, part of a set called British Noir, is no exception. But it is a solid thriller combining adventure, danger, romance and morality in a way that suggests a cross between Casablanca and a Graham Greene novel. Redfern is not a particularly heroic lead, but the film is in part about his moral journey. Actually, many of the characters spend at least some time in morally gray areas before they make the decision of how to act. The romance between Howard and Aimee, who are twenty years apart in age, is a little far-fetched. One of Howard's strengths is playing a fairly colorless everyman character, which he does here; one can see his attraction to her, but hers to him must be taken on faith (honestly, I kept waiting for her to either leave or betray him but it never happens). But both actors do well in their parts. Lom is always a welcome presence—as soon as you see his face in a movie of this era, you can feel the slimy sweat that will probably break out on him soon. Sernas is handsome, Rilla is commanding, Peter Copely has a nice moment or two as the chief native assistant to Redfern. But maybe the best role here is that of Agno, who we want to like but who is happiest working the middle. Hyde-White very much looks like singer and composer Hoagy Carmichael, whose most famous film role is as the laconic piano player in To Have and Have Not. Hyde-White seems almost to be channeling him and his importance to the plot grows. Ultimately, this may work better as a character study, as the suspense and tension are largely saved for the final scenes which include a boar hunt (a boar is actually shot dead on camera). Not a classic, perhaps, but quite watchable and interesting in its twists and turns. [DVD]

Monday, March 18, 2024


Marie (Bebe Daniels) is the maid to a wealthy family, but she's actually Gertie, a known criminal who, one night, plans to steal some jewels from the family's safe. Beating her to it, however, is safecracker Jimmy (Ben Lyon). They recognize each other from their reputations, and he agrees to split the booty with her, but cops arrive and Jimmie gallantly takes the rap, going to jail for a year. When he gets out, Gertie is waiting for him and he assumes they will continue their larcenous ways. But when he suggests that she steal from the widow Barton, a neighbor of Gertie's, Gertie balks as she has grown to like the old lady. Detective Kelcey (Robert Emmett O'Connor) likes the two of them and, realizing how easy it would be for them to fall back into old habits, keeps a close eye on them. Eventually, Jimmy goes into legit business with a stockbroker named Matson and gives him his life savings, but it turns out that Matson is a crook and makes off with all of Jimmy's money. When Jimmy wants to go back to their old ways, Gertie resists. Officer Kelcey may hold the key to their future in his hands. A minor pre-Code melodrama with a light tone and a thin veneer of romantic comedy, this is nothing special, though what appeal it does have is due to the two leads who got married not long after this film's release. They make a nice couple (pictured at left), and in real life, their marriage lasted forty years until Daniel's death in 1971. In the 1950s, they had a popular radio show in England which led to a couple of movies and a TV show in which they played themselves (like, I assume, Ozzie and Harriet). The ending, though fairly predictable, does have a surprise which I won’t spoil. [TCM]

Thursday, March 14, 2024


There is an explosion at the Groundstar space agency and a badly injured man named John David Welles (Michael Sarrazin) runs from the facility with a computer tape he has apparently stolen. He ends up at the nearby apartment of Nicole Devon (Christine Belford) who doesn't know him but calls an ambulance. Tuxan (George Peppard, at right), head of Groundstar security, has him sent to a military hospital where he is given plastic surgery to restore his damaged face. Though Tuxan interrogates him mercilessly, he claims to have no memory of what happened, or even who he is, but he does occasionally have dreams of a young Greek woman named Anika. Tuxan arranges for John to escape, assuming he'll head for Nicole’s which he does. Tuxan has had her phones tapped (and spy cameras installed even in the bedroom), hoping to get some information about a plot to steal Groundstar secrets which they assume he is in on. Nicole takes him in out of sympathy, and he seems to truly not know anything about the plot, but soon a third party shows interest in John. Gunplay, kidnapping and torture soon ensue, along with a couple of tricky plot twists that I won't divulge. Though the movie has a sci-fi-ish vibe, it’s really a spy adventure whose twists unfold throughout the story. It does a decent job of keeping us in the dark about many points: Does John really have amnesia? If he's not John, who is he? What's his tie to Greece? Despite his seemingly sinister behavior, is Tuxan actually a good guy? When it becomes clear that there are others looking for Groundstar secrets—a government PR guy (Cliff Potts), a senator (James Olson), other government workers—what's their motivation?  And is Nicole being manipulated or is she a manipulator? All questions are answered, though issues of morality remain murky. Sarrazin is good as the average man on the run, like a Hitchcock hero who is the victim of a case of mistaken identity (but is he?) and Peppard is appropriately nasty as the chief who doesn't care what he does to get information. At one point, he admits his own phone is tapped and says, "If I had my way, every room in the country would be bugged." The ending is satisfying and I liked the movie, but everyone except Sarrazin seems to be working at half-speed. It reminded me a lot some mid-60s thrillers with mild sci-fi elements (THE POWER, THE SATAN BUG), middling production values and actors on automatic. That sounds kind of harsh, but I'd recommended this anyway. [DVD]

Monday, March 11, 2024


Eadie (Jean Harlow) works at a cheap dance hall with her abusive stepfather as her boss. She and her friend Kitty take off one day for New York City where Eadie becomes something of a virtuous gold digger, vowing to remain a "good girl," but planning on marrying for money. The two become chorus girls and one night when they are hired to entertain at a party at the mansion of Frank Cousins, Eadie sets her sights on Frank. We learn that he needs money and he begs fellow businessman Thomas Paige (Lionel Barrymore) to loan him some, but Paige (whom Eadie initially mistakes for a butler) refuses. Fatalistically, Cousins gives Eadie a pair of expensive cufflinks and says he'll marry her. But instead he shoots himself at his desk. (The next day, when she tells Kitty what happened, Kitty asks, "Did someone ask you to sniff a little white powder?") Eadie is under suspicion for stealing the cufflinks, but Paige helps her out and soon, she has followed him down to Palm Beach, hoping to snag him. Kitty is not so much looking for a lasting relationship as a man in uniform—she flirts with butlers, doormen and bellboys—and says, "I’m just an old-fashioned home girl like Mae West!" When Eadie meets Tom Paige Jr. (Franchot Tone), she becomes a pawn in a father-son power game. Tom assumes that her high ideals are just for show and locks her in a bedroom with him; they kiss and she admits that he could make her "cheap and common," but begs him not, and he lets her go. The rest of the film is a screwball-style battle between Eadie and Tom in which a blackmail attempt rears its ugly head, but is defeated by what appears to be true love.

Jean Harlow, along with Mae West, was a pre-Code screen queen, and this was the first of her films to be released after the Production Code began to be enforced in mid-1934. West's career took a strong downward turn, as her persona couldn't really be sanitized or contained, but Harlow stayed in the saddle, perhaps because of her wider acting range, and because MGM was in control of her career in a way that I don’t think Paramount ever was with West. This film feels a bit schizophrenic and even though Eadie gets to keep her honor and land a husband, it doesn't feel like the right ending—I'm not convinced that the two are truly romantically compatible and will stay together. Nothing against the actors, with Harlow and Tone (pictured above) in fine form as they work up some legit chemistry. But the transactional nature of their relationship (she stays a virgin and he rewards her with marriage) never fully disappears. Patsy Kelly is delightful as the brassy sidekick—I almost think this could have worked even if Harlow and Kelly had switched roles. Barrymore is, as always, Barrymore, but he can't make his character likable. Lewis Stone (who is pretty much always Lewis Stone) plays Cousins in what amounts to a glorified cameo, and in some ways, the movie never recovers from his suicide scene. It doesn't feel as frothy as I think it wants to. See this one for Harlow and Kelly. [TCM]

Wednesday, March 06, 2024


Did Russian dictator Joseph Stalin die in 1953? In the world of this movie, the answer is no. Instead, someone else is buried while Stalin, during his own funeral, undergoes plastic surgery and leaves for parts unknown with his nurse Greta. But first we see a scene in which he pulls a young and lovely girl out of a lineup and has her hair shorn in front of him (and much to the actress' credit, it's done for real). The tension in the scene makes this feel like a punishment, but many viewers believe it’s a sexual fetish. Maybe it's a bit of both? In Berlin, after Greta disappears, her twin sister Lili (both played by Zsa Zsa Gabor) hires American detective Steve Anderson (Lex Barker) to find her. The two, with Steve’s one-armed buddy Mischa (Jeffrey Stone), are on the chase, and have to put up with killers and kidnappers, and most fortuitously, Stalin's son Jacob (William Schallert) who hates his father. Eventually, they trace Stalin to a Greek mountain village where he might be in hiding in an abandoned monastery. Fisticuffs ensue, most notably between Lili and Greta; in other words, between Zsa Zsa and Zsa Zsa.

The home video presentation of this indulges in one my most hated strategies: calling something film noir when it's not. What it is is a crime melodrama with virtually no noir tropes present. The startling opening leads you to expect more startling moments, but in some ways, the movie never recovers from that scene, with only one more "bald lady" moment in store, again done just for shock value (by which time, it's gotten stale). Like Barker and Gabor (pictured) in the leads, the movie couldn't be more B if it tried, and it does, with cheap sets and an occasionally confusing narrative. When you get used to Barker and Gabor, they're OK. Schallert is better as Stalin's son. Maurice Manson, as Stalin and his later identity is disappointing. Natalia Daryll has her moment in the sun as the girl with the shaved head and looks genuinely afraid of the shaving. After reading the back of the Blu-ray box (and seeing the cover headline "Is Stalin Alive?") I was hoping for a camp classic. That was not to be, but as I get older, I realize that if I stick with a movie to the end, it must have something to recommend it. Here, it’s Zsa Zsa, who is, somewhat surprisingly, better than you might expect. [Blu-ray]

Monday, March 04, 2024

PICK A STAR (1937)

In Waterloo, Kansas, Joe (Jack Haley) is the local manager of a Hollywood beauty contest, with the prize being a trip to Hollywood and a role in a picture for Excel Studios. Cecilia (Rosina Lawrence) wins, but the organizer absconds with all the funds that were raised, and as Joe feels responsible, he decides to sell his garage, move to Hollywood, and send for her to try her luck. Joe winds up working as a busboy at the Colonial Club, but back in Kansas, a plane has to make an emergency landing, and one of the passengers is movie star Rinaldo Lopez (Mischa Auer). Two other passengers decide not to finish the flight and they give Cecila their tickets. She and her roommate Nellie (Patsy Kelly), accompanied by Lopez, head on to Hollywood. Lopez takes them to the Colonial Club where they run into Joe, who tries to pretend that he's part of the entertainment. His ruse fails, and when Joe tries to go after the girls to explain, he is glancingly hit the car of a studio head honcho who gives him a menial job at Excel. Rinaldo begins romancing Cecilia but jealous Joe will have none of it, and eventually, he gets her a legitimate audition.

We're obviously in B-romantic comedy territory here, so if your tolerance for sloppy plotting and enthusiastic but second-level actors is high, you might enjoy this. Haley is a likable enough comic lead and Lawrence, with whom I was not familiar, is his equal. But in the movie's credits, it's Patsy Kelly who gets first billing, and indeed, though technically she has a supporting role, she's got almost as much screen time as Haley or Lawrence, and she steals many of her scenes. The one unique aspect of this comedy is that some of it takes place on the studio sets, so we see Laurel and Hardy working on a couple of comedy bits. More amusing is Lydia Roberti as a temperamental star named Dagmar. It's not a musical, but there are a couple of songs, and in the final audition scene, we see Cecilia's number played out in her imagination as a Busby Berkeley production number (pictured at left). Unless you're a fan of Haley or Kelly, or a Laurel & Hardy completist, you can probably skip this one. [TCM]