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]

Friday, April 26, 2024


We open at night with a nice zoom shot through the window of a skyscraper apartment belonging to Mavis Marlowe. Her estranged husband, Martin Blair (Dan Duryea, at right), wants to see her to give her the gift of a ruby brooch, perhaps in an attempt to patch things up, but the doorman has instructions not to let him up. As Marty leaves, he sees someone who looks a lot like Peter Lorre ushered up to Mavis' place. Marty goes to a bar to drown his sorrows, drunkenly playing piano, and eventually his buddy Joe (Wallace Ford) takes him to his apartment to sleep it off. Later in the night, her current love Kirk Bennett visits Mavis. He finds her door unlocked, a record (written by Marty) playing on repeat, and her dead body on the floor, the ruby brooch next to her. The next morning, the brooch is missing and when the cops find out that Mavis had been blackmailing the married Bennett over their affair, they arrest him for murder. When he is found guilty and sentenced to death, his desperate wife Catherine (June Vincent) winds up asking Marty for help in clearing her husband. Clues lead them to a club owner named Marko (hey, it's Peter Lorre!). Recognizing Marko as possibly the last man to see Mavis alive, Marty and Catherine go undercover and auditions as a singer/pianist team, getting a job at Marko's place. Catherine cozies up to Marko and discovers that he, too, was being blackmailed by Mavis. Does he also have the missing brooch, which might peg him as the killer? Will the burgeoning romantic feelings between Marty and Catherine affect their search? 

This nifty noir takes a couple of left turns at this point that I can't reveal, but they lead to a true film noir climax. Dan Duryea is probably best remembered for his bad guy roles (The Little Foxes, Scarlet Street) and it's nice to see him playing a fairly sympathetic part here. He has good chemistry with June Vincent in what might be her best movie role, though she went on to a long career in TV character parts. Lorre underplays his part to good effect. John Phillips has the thankless role of Kirk Bennett, Broderick Crawford is the cop who arrests Bennett, and Wallace Ford has little to do as Marty's buddy. Some reviewers aren't sure that this is really noir, but in my eyes, it ends up being practically a textbook version of a film noir, though it may not come clear until near the end. Roy William Neill, director of most of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, does some nice stylistic things here and there, including an interesting flashback sequence near the end. Recommended. [TCM]

Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Jean and Danielle are unhappily married (he has affairs and she feels oppressed by what we nowadays might call his toxic masculinity). In the apartment above theirs, young Nicole has moved in, and the couple can hear Nicole get beaten regularly by her lover Klaus. At some point, he tries to intervene but when he notices that the apartment has a cabinet with whips and knives, he leaves. Eventually, however, the disgruntled Jean and the possibly abused Nicole have an affair, the details of which Danielle can hear from below. Then Nicole tells Jean that Klaus has been paid to kill him. But by whom? And what part does Nicole play in all this? That’s about all I can say without giving away the game in this sexy thriller made in the Diabolique mode. (I don't think saying that is really a spoiler, since to my mind, relating the film to Diabolique only suggests that not everyone, or every murder plot, is what they seem to be.) This is another film directed by Umberto Lenzi and starring Carroll Baker, and though it's perhaps related to the giallo genre, it's not a good fit—not enough sex and blood, for starters. It might be better called a Eurothriller or Eurosleaze, as it looks and feels like any number of other European psychological suspense movies which often include at least a bit of sexy sleaze. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), the sex here is tame; even the sparse hints of S&M and sapphic lust go nowhere. Baker, ever ready to go the distance as a potential damsel in distress in these films, is fine as Nicole, and Jean-Louis Trintignant is equally good as Jean—he has the perfect face and affect for the hero (or antihero) of a Eurothriller. Erica Blank (Danielle) and Horst Frank (Klaus) aren't able to do much with their roles. The final two plot twists are good, if improbably moral. Directorial style is fairly plain but there is nice location shooting. Giallo night, no; thriller night, sure. Pictured are Trintignant and Baker. [Blu-ray]

Monday, April 22, 2024


The publisher of the Morning Chronicle gets a letter from a Cora Williams saying that the suicide of bootlegger Eric Goran many years ago was actually a murder, and she has evidence: $200,000 that she ran across in her house on an island that was owned by Goran. She sends a thousand dollar bill as proof. Years ago, politician Walter Elliott was suspected of having a hand in Goran's death, but was never indicted. Now, the publisher assigns reporter Terry Nichols to head out to talk to Cora, accompanied by his sidekick, photographer Pidge Laurie. Terry tells Elliott what he plans, and soon Elliott, his lawyer Tom McGalvey with his secretary Connie, detective Ken Grady (known as the Irish Charlie Chan), and Elliott's daughter Gay wind up on the island with Terry and Pidge. They find a creaky old house, a black cat roaming the premises, and Cora unconscious in her bed, muttering about money in "the little house." We see Cora, alone in her room as a man's shadow passes over her, and soon she is found dead. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a exotic woman named Kyra appears, dressed in black, claiming to be Goran's daughter and also claiming that Cora's spirit has settled into the black cat. As they all search for the money and try to figure out the meaning of "the little house," a couple more people die before the villain is unmasked.

Despite its title, this B-film (not directly related to the 1930 The Cat Creeps or the work it was based on, The Cat and the Canary) is not really horror, despite the occasional evocation of 'old dark house' atmosphere, but a mystery. At not quite an hour, it's a fairly painless watch with a handful of good moments and some fine cinematography. The story is so-so, and the acting is strictly second-string. The hero, Terry, is played by Frederick Brady who is colorless and passive, though I admit it is a bit of a novelty to have a hero who tends to fade into the background. Noah Beery Jr. is a little better as Pidge, the comic relief sidekick. You’ll recognize Paul Kelly (Grady) and Douglass Dumbrille (McGalvey), neither a standout, but the movie is given a nice jolt of energy when Iris Lancaster (credited as Iris Clive) enters as the otherworldly Kyra. This was the next-to-last movie she made, and it's too bad because she seemed to have promise. The cat doesn't have quite as much to do as you would think based on the title. A nice, mild, run-of-the-mill 40s B-mystery. Pictured are Brady and Beery. [Criterion Channel]

Wednesday, April 17, 2024


Bunker Bean (Owen Davis Jr., pictured) is a lowly office boy at Kent Aircraft. Bunker is proud that Mr. Kent thinks he is his best employee—mostly because Bean is always at his beck and call—but Rose, the secretary, tells him he has an inferiority complex. When Mr. Kent, dictating a letter, says "Action is the soul of progress," the timid Bean is inspired to ask for a raise; Kent ignores him but asks him to spend the weekend at the Kent mansion to do some extra work. At home, he types up a manuscript on reincarnation for Dr. Mayerhouser, who tells him that knowledge of his past lives might help him change his personality for the better. Bean goes to fortune teller Countess Casandra who tells him he was Napoleon in a past life. This goes to Bean's head, to the point where, at Kent's house, he overdresses for dinner and later, spanks Kent's daughter Mary (Louise Latimer) for dating a cad. Kent is shocked, but Mary's grandmother (Jessie Ralph) is pleased to see someone try to show up her obnoxious relatives. Bean goes back to Cassandra and, with the help of her confederate, Prof. Balthazer, they talk him into thinking that he is the reincarnation of Pharaoh Ram Tah, and even giving him Ram Tah's mummy which Bean keeps in his closet and consults with (it's actually a stage prop full of sawdust). When a relative of Bean's dies and leaves him the patent for a gyrostabilizer, he tries to sell it to Kent who only offers $100 for it. Feeling empowered by Ram Tah, Bean then takes the patent to Mr. Jones, Kent's main business rival and soon it looks like Bean will benefit from the warring offerings, but Jones and Kent join forces and try to cheat Bean out of the patent so they both can use it. At the peak of his self-confidence, Bean discovers that the mummy is fake. Can he stand up to Kent and Jones on his own? Maybe with some help from Mary who, recovered from her spanking, has taken an interest in him.

Though fairly obscure now, this romantic comedy was based on a novel from 1913 which became a play and was filmed twice in the silent era. This is thoroughly a second-rate effort, but it's clever and amusing and has a strong central performance from Owen Davis Jr. who mostly took supporting roles and had a brief career as a television producer before his death in a boating accident in 1949. He doesn’t come off as a forceful actor, but that may be because he's playing a mostly passive character. Still, he manages to work up some mild charm, as does Louise Latimer who, like Davis, had a short acting career in B-movies. Jessie Ralph, as usual, is great fun in another dowager role, and Lucille Ball has a small part as Kent's secretary. Hedda Hopper is Bean's mother and Sybil Harris is Countess Cassandra. Mildly enjoyable fluff with mildly talented actors in a mildly amusing story.  [TCM]

Friday, April 12, 2024


Architect Kirk Douglas is dropping his son off at school when he sees the lovely Kim Novak (pictured) also dropping off her son. He is struck by her beauty and is quite taken with her, and is thrilled to run into her later at the grocery store. Though both married, sparks soon fly between them, neighbors just a few houses apart. Douglas' latest job is building a home for bestselling but self-doubting author (Ernie Kovacs), who is afraid that his new manuscript, different from his earlier work, will be a bomb. Frustrated doing what he considers unchallenging work, and stuck in a domestic rut at home, Douglas wants to get creative with Kovacs' home. Kovacs isn't sure he wants his home to be too avant-garde, and the two butt heads with some frequency, but they become friendly. Novak, meanwhile, is frustrated with her impotent husband and when Douglas asks her to accompany him to his work site, she does. Soon the two have embarked on an affair. It has its ups and downs (Douglas accuses Novak of being a tramp when she gets into a tussle with a man from her past), but both feel guilty, largely because of their children. Meanwhile, other concerns arise: a slimy neighbor (Walter Matthau) figures out what's going on and has designs of his own on Douglas' wife; Douglas entertains a job offer to fly off and live in Hawaii for a couple of years while he helps build a city. 

This soapy melodrama is about par for the course. I'm not really a Kirk Douglas fan; I find that he tries too hard and I can often see him "acting" in a way that takes me out of the film. He's not as bad here but I can imagine other actors who would have been better fits, like Rod Taylor or Burt Lancaster. Perhaps thanks to the cinematography, Kim Novak is stunningly beautiful here, even more so than in her other movies of the era, and she does a good job as the mightily conflicted wife and mistress. Matthau and Kovacs, normally known as comic actors, are OK. Kovacs doesn't try to be funny but he has a light, cocky manner; Matthau is less successful in overcoming his persona, and like Douglas, other players might have been better fits: Don Murray, George Peppard, Ralph Meeker. (I don't normally indulge in second-guessing actors like this.) In underwritten parts are Barbara Rush as Douglas's wife and John Bryant as Novak's husband. Classic-era actors Ken Smith and Virginia Bruce are welcome sights, and Nancy Kovack and Sue Ann Langdon are fine as Kovacs' hotsy-totsy lovers. Helen Gallagher, well loved as matriarch Maeve on the 70s soap opera Ryan's Hope, has a small role as Matthau's wife. Other viewers have pointed out that this feels like a second-string version of a Douglas Sirk melodrama of the era—this film, directed by Richard Quine, looks fine but lacks the visual gloss and narrative depth that Sirk would have added. [DVD]

Wednesday, April 10, 2024


Some say wealthy businessman David Golder is a great man, some say he's a scoundrel. We learn that Golder was a penniless Polish Jew who made his fortune in New York and has relocated to Paris with his wife and daughter. We first see him at home, preparing to have dinner and rebuffing his former business partner Marcus who needs money. Golder is involved in a deal between the Soviet government and the Tubingen oil company, and if it goes through, Marcus will be left flat broke. Golder accuses Marcus of betrayal in the past and refuses to help. Marcus leaves and appears to have a heart attack in the street and at the same, Golder also has a heart attack in his home. Marcus shoots himself and dies but Golder survives and, on doctor's advice, he takes his wife Gloria and teenage daughter Joyce to Biarritz for rest. The wife and daughter go through money like water, especially Joyce for whom David would do anything—getting a new car is like child's play for her. The doctor suggests David retire, which does not sit well with Gloria. In an intense scene, the two argue; David tries to strangle her with her jewelry and Gloria tells him that Joyce is not his daughter. Meanwhile, Joyce is having a fling with Alec, a prince, though she may have to marry the older Fishel for financial security. Joyce is still the apple of David's eye and when she complains about her situation, Golder agrees to do one more deal, traveling to Russia to finalize the deal for oil with Tubingin, even though he is told he is not healthy enough. Tragedy ensues.

The director of this French film, Julien Duvivier, best known for PÉPÉ LE MOKO, uses the early sound movie camera as though he's been shooting in sound for years. This is no early talkie shot in static, theatrical scenes. His camera is constantly prowling the sets, following characters back and forth across the screen, and occasionally using the equivalent of a split screen (just a very wide shot with darkness in the middle) to show parallel actions and how they affect the characters. The plot, based on a novel by Irene Nemirovsky (who would die in the Holocaust and return to public consciousness many years later with the discovery of her novel Suite Francaise), is serviceable but predictable; actors like Lionel Barrymore and George Arliss would play similar characters in Hollywood films of the era. Harry Baur embodies the title character, bringing him to life, even if we don’t get much depth to him. The other actors are fine if not standouts. Jackie Monnier has the toughest job: making Joyce not terribly likable but still making us somewhat sympathetic to her. The most remarkable scene in the film is of the two young lovers Joyce and Alec (Jean Bradin) lying on the ground, burbling river rapids in the background. Though back to back, not facing each other, they both express sensuality on their faces in a graphic way, as though they were pleasuring each other. It’s a shocking scene for the time (pictured above), and even to some degree for now, as it relies strictly on faces to tell us about sexual desire. A most interesting find, available as part of a Criterion Eclipse boxed set, Julien Duvivier in The Thirties. [DVD]

Monday, April 08, 2024

F.P. 1 DOESN'T ANSWER (1932)

This begins like a crime thriller: At a fancy party, Major Ellissen sneaks away to make a phone call to a press photographer he calls Sunshine, directing him to the Lennartz shipyard for a big story about a break-in. The Lennartz daughter, Claire, overhears him and, being curious, plays up to him. It turns out that Ellissen is pulling a publicity stunt by hiding some dusty old plans belonging to his friend Capt. Droste and reporting them stolen. When they are found, Ellissen achieves his goal of getting the plans rediscovered to get the attention of the Lennartz brothers so they'll fast track the project in the plans: the building of a gigantic man-made island which would float in the middle of the ocean (F.P. 1 = Floating Platform 1) and serve as a refueling station and rest stop for airplanes, complete with restaurants and a hotel. As F.P 1 is being built, Ellissen and Claire become a couple, but he leaves for an extended test flight around the globe, and Claire is soon canoodling with Droste. When the platform is built, Ellissen returns, worn out from adventuring and realizing that he has lost Claire. He vows never to fly again, but when the mainland loses contact with the platform, Claire suspects that nefarious plans of some shipping magnates have come to fruition and she talks Ellisen into taking her out to F.P. 1. Sure enough, major sabotage has occurred; the platform has lost power and is in danger of sinking.

This is often included in lists of early science-fiction films, though that element has been eclipsed somewhat by the invention of refueling ships and aircraft carriers, so for 21st century viewers, this is mostly an industrial spy story crossed with a romantic triangle. After its thriller-type opening, it settles into a fairly slow-moving melodrama. I had trouble caring about the lovers because none of the three (Conrad Veidt as Ellissen, Jill Esmond as Claire, Leslie Fenton as Droste) seemed terribly invested in their romantic feelings. I also had trouble sticking with it to the end, though the climax is decent enough. Three separate versions of the film—in English, German and French—were made. This is the English version, and I have heard that the German version is better. Good line: "Progress sacrifices the old order of things; progress always has its enemies." Pictured in a tinted shot is Veidt. [Amazon Prime]

Thursday, April 04, 2024


In wartime London, a man and woman chat at an auction of the Rohan family estate. It turns out that she is Clarissa Rohan (Phyllis Calvert), a direct descendent of the family, and he is RAF pilot Peter Rokeby (Stewart Granger) who has a less direct Rohan connection. After looking through several small pieces, they agree to meet again on the second day of the auction. Meanwhile, we flashback to the 1800's to see Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) arrive at Miss Patchett's school for girls. She is poor and standoffish but the perky, popular Clarissa Richmond (Calvert) befriends her. A fortune teller tells Clarissa that she will marry a man in grey but that she should be wary of female friends; the teller glances at Hesther's palm then nervously refuses to tell her fortune. Hesther runs away to elope with an ensign, and when Miss Pratchett bans anyone from ever speaking of her, Clarissa leaves as well. She soon makes a good impression in high society, and when the mother of brooding bachelor Lord Rohan (James Mason) decides he should settle down, she sets him up with Clarissa, mostly because she want a legitimate heir (the implication being that Rohan may have any number of bastards around town). Years later, Clarissa has a son she rarely sees and she and her husband largely lead separate lives. She runs into Hesther who is in a traveling acting troupe with the handsome Swinton Rokeby (Granger) as her leading man. Feeling sorry about Hesther's reduced circumstances, Clarissa offers her a job as a governess, but she should have remembered the fortune teller's advice from years ago. When Rokeby gets involved, a romantic quadrangle develops which goes sour with betrayal, revenge, and eventually murder.

This is sometimes pinpointed as the movie that started a vogue in British cinema for period romantic melodramas. It's a mixed bag that should work better than it does. Calvert is quite good, Lockwood a little less so, mainly because her character remains more a means to a narrative end rather than a fleshed-out person. I'm not usually a fan of Granger, but he's pretty good here, and more handsome than he was as he aged. Mason is a little disappointing, giving a one-note performance as the sinister Rohan who is not as active in the plot as you might expect. Despite him being the title character, it's Granger who is more memorable. Leslie Arliss, son of the actor George Arliss, directs in an unflashy way. The movie's biggest misstep is the casting of a young white boy (Antony Scott) in full blackface as a servant boy who pops up at several points in the story. Scott tries his best, but the makeup is so phony and egregious, a modern viewer is taken out of the story. Every so often, you think this is going to go full gothic but disappointingly, it never does. The film does return briefly to the wartime frame story, but only so it doesn’t feel like it's leaving us hanging. Pictured are Mason and Lockwood. [TCM]

Tuesday, April 02, 2024


This Swedish film by Bo Widerberg cut a swath through pop culture in its day, back when foreign language films were considered standard moviegoing experiences. For a few years in the 60s and 70s, the work of directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Kurosawa and Wertmuller were welcomed not just by critics, but audiences. Often bordering on avant-garde, they may not have been blockbusters, but they got played in cities big and small, and were topics of learned and/or hip conversation. Every so often, an international film broke through with a bigger audience because of controversy (BLOW-UP), or because it had a star like Brigitte Bardot in it, or because of some sexual element. In the case of the French A MAN AND A WOMAN, the theme music became popular. That’s also the case with this film; a movement from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C minor, used throughout the film, became popularly known as the Elvira Madigan concerto. Another thing that helped this movie find a large audience is that it is not avant-garde or cutting edge—it's a beautifully filmed old-fashioned romantic melodrama, basically a Romeo and Juliet story which focuses almost exclusively on the two lovers—we learn very little about their backgrounds, families, or friends. 

In Denmark in 1889, Elvira Madigan (based on a real person of that name), a circus tightrope walker, falls in love with Army officer Sixten Sparre. To be together, she impulsively leaves her circus and he goes AWOL. The film follows them as they live a life that might be described as "on the run" from their previous existences, but it's a fairly slow run. They stay at country inns and spend hours lying in sun-dappled fields, until someone recognizes her or until they need to sell their belongings to pay for room and board. Kristoffer, a former comrade of Sixten's, recognizes him and we learn that Sixten has a family back in the "real world," and that his wife has tried to kill herself (though we're never sure if this is a fact or just something made up by Kristoffer to shame Sixten). We're told in the beginning how this turns out (a murder-suicide carried out at a picnic in the woods) so the finale is no surprise. The surprise, for me, was how little I actually cared about the fate of the lovers. I liked the film—if only for the sheer beauty of the color cinematography and the attractiveness of the actors, Pia Degermark as Elvira, Thommy Bergren as Sixten—but with so little narrative context, I couldn't work up much concern for the two leads. There doesn't seem to be any coherent philosophy expressed here except a rather blinkered romanticism, though Elvira expresses an anti-war sentiment when she tells Sixten, who has not actually been in battle, that "war is not parades, it's the smell of burning flesh." The look of the film has been unfairly compared to lush and hazy shampoo or perfume on TV, but I think the style works well (and I suspect that the ads borrowed the style from this movie and others). It's largely the reason I’d recommend this. [Criterion Channel]