Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE (1951). Director: King Vidor.

"You're not in love with him, you're in love with the smell of murder."

Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is a struggling actress who has somehow saved up enough money to go west for her health. There she encounters Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), a man who was acquitted of murdering his unfaithful spouse. Shelley stays at a ranch with Liza (Mercedes McCambridge) a friend who is in love with Richard and who inexplicably wound up on the jury that acquitted him [!], and her weird younger brother, "String" (Darryl Hickman). Shelley is also befriended by Richard's father figure, J. D. (Frank Conroy) and his wife, Myra (Kathryn Givney), as well as their friend, Harvey (Zachary Scott), not to mention the family priest, Father Paul (Rhys Williams). As Shelley begins to fall in love with Richard, she must determine if he is guilty or not -- did one of the aforementioned actually murder his wife? The previous year's Stage Fright also starred Richard Todd as a man mixed up in murder, making Lightning Strikes Twice a significant title for this mostly tiresome retread of sorts, albeit it has a different plot. King Vidor manages to keep things moving, but that's about all, and the suspense is minimal. The actors all acquit themselves nicely, however. The most interesting scene has McCambridge [Giant] going on to Roman about women who, in essence, develop a "thing" for convicts and murderers, even wanting to marry men locked up in jail. The storyline in this actually isn't bad, but there are some jaw-dropping moments of illogic and the whole thing just doesn't hold together. The ads for this film virtually ignored Todd in favor of Roman. Max Steiner's music, which is somewhat recycled, is surprisingly unmemorable. King Vidor also directed the much zestier melodrama Beyond the Forest, which also had a better Steiner score.

Verdict: Half-baked melodrama. **.

LIFE AT THE TOP

Laurence Harvey and Jean Simmons
LIFE AT THE TOP (1965). Director: Ted Kotcheff.

"You say you want a better life, but when you do step up a peg or two you hate yourself for it."

"He was smart enough to knock up the boss's daughter in days gone by, and that, mate, is real social security."

In this sequel to Room at the Top, some years have passed since Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) married the boss's daughter, Susan (now played by Jean Simmons). He works for his father-in-law, Abe Brown's (Donald Wolfit) firm, and is finishing up a report that he feels will be important to the company. Abe wants Joe to run for the council, but Joe's more liberal attitudes toward the working poor are at odds with the attitudes of his father-in-law. When Susan enters into an adulterous relationship with one of Joe's best friends, Joe finds himself increasingly drawn to TV commentator Norah Hauxley (Honor Blackman of Goldfinger). But will he find that he can achieve new success so quickly on his own, or did everything simply come too easily due to his connections? Life at the Top is not the masterpiece of the original film, but the performances are uniformly excellent, with Harvey, Simmons, and Wolfit [Blood of the Vampire] in splendid form. Michael Craig is fine as Joe's insouciant friend, Mark, although Margaret Johnstone [The Psychopath] as his wife, Sybil, seems a little unreal. An interesting early scene has Joe inviting the paper boy into the house for a warm cup of tea while he and his own son, Harry (Paul A, Martin), look at each other warily due to the class differences.

Verdict: Absorbing drama with differing points of view and outstanding performances. ***.

HOUSE OF SECRETS (1956)

Michael Craig and Barbara Bates
HOUSE OF SECRETS (aka Triple Deception/1956). Director: Guy Green.

"He's too smug to live."

Sailor Larry Ellis (Michael Craig) is drafted by the Criminal Investigation Association (CIA)  -- "international cops," as Larry puts it -- when it develops that he bears a striking resemblance to a deceased criminal named Steve Chancellor. Coached by his superiors, he infiltrates a gang who plan to release scads of counterfeit cash into the world's economy. Ellis' job is to find out who the real ringleader is and stop the plot. Chancellor's girlfriend, Judy (Barbara Bates), is actually an undercover agent, and there's another woman in Chancellor's life, Diane (Julia Arnell) who is the niece of the dragon lady conspirator, Madame Ballu (Brenda de Banzie of The Man Who Knew Too Much). Julius (Gerard Oury) and Anton (Anton Diffring) round out the gang, but there's an unknown traitor in the CIA who is Ellis' most dangerous adversary. This pre-Bond film comes off more like a spy thriller than a crime drama, and is not badly done. Craig, who is swaggering, rakish and sexy throughout, would actually not have made a bad 007, as he loves up the women and engages in fisticuffs with equal aplomb. There's a lively dressing room knife-fight, some decent slug-fests, and an exciting climax on a plane with a bomb on it. I had always thought that Craig suppressed his British accent in certain films, such as Mysterious Island, but his North American voice is his true one (having been raised in Canada) and he affects a British accent for such pictures as Doctor in Love. He and the other cast members are all quite good -- Anton Diffring [The Man Who Could Cheat Death] is rather wasted, however --  and the picture is fast-paced and entertaining.

Verdict: Craig would have made a fine Bond. ***.

SLITHER (1973)

SLITHER (1973). Director: Howard Zieff.

Dick Kanipsia (James Caan) is fresh out of prison and goes home with his jail buddy, Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull), who is promptly murdered. This leads Dick to go on a hunt for the man who knows where Moss left some considerable cash, leading him to Barry (Peter Boyle) and his wife, Mary, (Louise Lasser), who team up with him to find the man with the money. Added to the mix is Kitty (Sally Kellerman), a crazy lady who holds up a diner not long after she first meets Dick. But who is in that sinister black van that keeps following the quartet ... ? I have a feeling that Slither was originally meant to be a serious crime drama that was turned instead into a half-serious light-hearted quasi-caper movie without the caper. There's a touch of whimsy (not to mention immorality) to the movie, and it holds your attention, but it never really amounts to much. Caan [Games] is excellent, however, playing in just the right note; Boyle [Outland], Lasser, and Alan Garfield as a lawyer are also good, but Kellerman was still in that weird, off-putting mode she was in early in her career. There are a couple of laughs and some suspense of a minor kind. An ugly moment occurs when Kitty refers to a black character as "some dumb spade," an unnecessary slur even given the craziness of her character. Surely Kellerman, one of the stars of the movie, had enough clout at the time to insist on a change?

Verdict: Rather pointless when all is said and done. **1/2.

YOU'RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR NEXT ONE Mike Medavoy

YOU'RE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR NEXT ONE: 100 Great films, 100 Good films, and 100 For Which I Should Be Shot. Mike Medavoy with Josh Young. Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster; 2002.

Once upon a time only major movie stars got to write books about themselves, but now anyone connected to the glamorous industry of Hollywood feels they have a book in them. One thing this book proves is that even comparatively dull behind-the-scenes types can be as self-absorbed as any movie star. Mike Medavoy started out as an agent, moved over to United Artists, became Executive VP in charge of production at Orion, then worked at Tristar, ultimately becoming a producer with -- and CEO of -- a smaller firm called Phoenix. Along the way he settles some scores and there are stories -- some good, some bad -- about Kevin Costner, Robert Redford, Rodney Dangerfield, Francis Ford Coppola and the making of such films as Apocalypse Now; Warren Beatty and Bugsy; Woody Allen and assorted movies. All the while Medavoy insists that he was less concerned with the bottom line than others in the business, and was chiefly concerned with making good pictures (many that he mentions really haven't held up all that well over the years). You're Only As Good still manages to make more interesting reading than you might imagine, mostly because "co-writer" Josh Young has done a smooth job of translating Medavoy's thoughts to paper. The most shocking thing about the book is that Medavoy includes a photo of his trophy wife but makes absolutely no mention of his son, Brian, who is also a producer.

Verdict: Okay for some behind-the-scenes details, but not essential reading. **1/2.

MURDER IS MY BEAT

Barbara Payton and Paul Langton
MURDER IS MY BEAT (1955). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

"I hate the blunt destruction of human life. I'd seen enough killing in the South Pacific. "

Detective Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) investigates when a man is found dead with his head burning in the fireplace. The most obvious suspect is a blonde named Eden Lane (Barbara Payton), who has run off to parts unknown. Patrick finds her in an isolated cabin, brings her back to justice, but on the train she swears that she just saw the alleged murder victim on the platform. Falling in love with Eden, Patrick risks his job and freedom by getting off with the woman and pursuing this lead just in case she is actually innocent. But is she? Murder is My Beat is a minor but engaging crime thriller with a good performance from Langton [The Big Knife]. Payton [Bad Blonde] is not bad, but she seems so subdued at times that she almost appears to be drugged. Tracey Roberts is vivid as a friend of Eden's; Roy Gordon has a bigger role than usual as a businessman who was acquainted with Eden; and Robert Shayne [Cage of Evil] is okay as the police captain who looks for Patrick, as is Selena Royle as Gordon's wife. The perfect evocation of a cheap paperback thriller that keeps you turning pages nonetheless.

Verdict: Langton is a large part of why this works. ***.

DEEP RISING

The monster tries to make a treat out of Treat Williams
DEEP RISING (1998). Writer/director: Stephen Sommers.

John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his crew have been hired to take a group of men out to an unknown spot in the South Pacific. What Finnegan doesn't know is that they are heading for the huge cruise ship, the Argonautica, to loot it on its maiden voyage. But when these pirates arrive, they find that hardly anyone is left alive on the ship, discovering mostly bloody skeletons. Apparently a gargantuan, voracious sea creature with a zillion tentacles (with maws on the end of them) has devoured just about everyone -- hundreds of passengers -- and now wants to make dessert out of the pirates; Finnegan and his crew; a pretty thief named Trillian (Famke Janssen), who was locked in the hold; and the duplicitous, slimy owner Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), who wanted to blow up the ship for the insurance. Deep Rising has some excellent and very gruesome special effects, but its tone is too flippant by half, at times turning it into more of a black comedy than a horror film and dissipating the considerable tension. However, the movie is generally fast-paced, slick, creepy and exciting -- more of an action-disaster-creature flick than a horror film -- and features a highly dangerous and rather engaging monster. One scene wherein the survivors discover an abattoir filled with skeletons is especially macabre. Williams [Prince of the City] strikes the right note; Jannsen is competent; Heald is way over the top. Jason Flemyng makes an impression as Mulligan, the handsomest of the pirates; and Kevin J. O'Connor, despite how irritating this actor can be in certain roles (including this one), is good and strangely appealing as Finnegan's engineer, Joey. The few moments of humanism don't quite come off in a movie this callous. The ending left room for a sequel that never materialized. Sommers also wrote and directed the dreadful -- and dreadfully campy -- Van Helsing.

Verdict: Well, it's not It Came from Beneath the Sea, but what is? *** out of 4.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

MARA MARU

MARA MARU (1952). Director: Gordon Douglas.

In the Philippines Andy Callahan (Richard Webb of The Invisible Monster) tells his partner, Gregory Mason (Errol Flynn), that he's found a big score and will likely make a million dollars. Not much later, Andy is murdered, and a man named Benedict (Raymond Burr) wants to hire Mason to help him find a batch of diamonds lost in a shipwreck. After some minor misadventures, Mason, Benedict, Andy's widow Stella (Ruth Roman), who was once involved with Gregory, a shady character named Ranier (Paul Picerni), and some others set sail on Benedict's boat, the Mara Maru, in hopes of finding the treasure. Any hope that there might be some excitement or suspense in the movie itself goes pretty much unrealized in this distinctly minor adventure that suffers from undeveloped characters, a weak script, dull direction from Gordon Douglas, and an ending that is so sanctimonious you could choke on it. The acting is okay, with Picerni [The Brothers Rico] and Burr [Pitfall] making the best impression. An unintentionally comical scene has Gregory and Stella practically making out when husband Andy's body is still warm. The best thing about Mara Maru is the score by Max Steiner, who gives the picture a lot more than it deserves. Bar Owner "Big China" is well-played by Michael Ross, who later was the alien giant and the bartender in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Verdict: Manages to make love triangles, murder, undersea exploration, and sunken treasure pretty boring. *1/2.

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE

Sean Connery and Lana Turner as lovers
ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (1958). Director: Lewis Allen.

"Odd, how the presence of someone you love can make a whole place beautiful."

In 1945 London reporter Sara Scott (Lana Turner) falls in love with BBC journalist Mark Trevor (Sean Connery). Unfortunately, Mark tells Sara that he is already married. Sara will never find out if Mark would have stayed with Sara or gone back to his wife, Kay (Glynis Johns), because he's killed in a plane crash shortly after his disclosure. After some time recuperating from her grief in a sanitarium, Sara travels to Cornwall where Mark lived and in a rather contrived development winds up meeting, and then living with, Mark's widow and his young son, Brian (Martin Stephens). The plot is pure soap opera, but it does present an intriguing situation, if only the characters were more dimensional (especially Sara) and if the script rose above its fairly trite level. Turner is okay, but she only indicates whatever her character is feeling without really exploring it, but Glynis Johns [The Vault of Horror] is excellent as Mark's widow. Although Sean Connery [Marnie] was "introduced"in this film, he'd appeared in several movies before this, and gives a more than satisfactory performance as Mark, convincingly making love to Turner, who was ten years or so older at the time. Barry Sullivan [Night Gallery] has the thankless role of Sara's boss, who has been in love with Sara for some time, and was even engaged to her before she met and fell in love with Mark. Sullivan is meant to be a stoic type who keeps his emotions to himself, but he adds no nuances or complexities to his performance, albeit his part is also underwritten. Johns and Connery come off the best, with a nod to little Martin Stephens, who is very good and charming as Brian.

Verdict: "Another Movie" -- or script --  might have helped, but this has its moments. **1/2.

THE STEEL TRAP

THE STEEL TRAP (1952). Director: Andrew L. Stone.

A bank officer named Jim Osborne (Joseph Cotten), with a wife, Laurie (Teresa Wright), and a small daughter, hits upon a scheme of stealing a million dollars and taking his family to Brazil, where no extradition treaty exists. But getting out of the country with the loot proves no easy feat, as there's one complication after another involving passports in locked offices, missed flights, curious customs men, and the like. The Steel Trap is extremely suspenseful, especially at the nail-biting climax, and the two leads give superlative performances; Cotten is particularly effective. What perhaps prevents this from being a masterpiece is that the characterization is comparatively minimal. Johnathan Hale is fine as Osborne's boss, Mr. Bowers, and there are short appearances by two of the cast members of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman: William Hudson is a bank teller, and Michael Ross, who played the alien giant and the bartender in that film, is a building guard in this one. Wright and Cotten were most famously teamed in the earlier Shadow of a Doubt while Hale was in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train

Verdict: Quite memorable and tense thriller. ***.

LEE GRANT: I SAID YES TO EVERYTHING

I SAID YES TO EVERYTHING. Lee Grant. Blue Rider Press/Penguin; 2014.

Actress Lee Grant was blacklisted early in her career, but as she says, was young enough to bounce back when her name was finally removed from the list. Grant managed to get work in the theater, but she was fired from Search for Tomorrow when they found out she was a "red." Grant makes the point that people shouldn't have been persecuted for their beliefs, even if they were communists. She made her film debut in Detective Story (she had played the same role in the stage production), then went on to many more movies and TV shows until reinventing herself as a respected documentarian. Along the way she had two husbands and a daughter, actress Dinah Manoff, and Grant can be forgiven for dropping a few names now and then, such as that of the difficult Shelley Winters. Grant doesn't mention every movie or episode she appeared in, but unlike other actors, she doesn't shy away from talking about a few of the stink bombs she was cast in, such as The Swarm. [She makes no mention of The Mafu Cage, however.] Despite some dated comments now and then, Grant's book is often painfully honest about her vanity as she grows older, relationships with stepchildren (one of whom's life ended tragically), and other aspects of her life and career.

Verdict: Absorbing and quite well done. ***1/2.

COLLEGE HOLIDAY

Jack Benny and Jed Prouty
COLLEGE HOLIDAY (1936). Director: Frank Tuttle.

J. Davis Bowster (Jack Benny) somehow winds up in business with Mr. Smith (Harry Hayden), whose daughter Sylvia (Marsha Hunt), has just encountered a young man, Dick (Lief Erickson), whose name she doesn't know. In the meantime, Carola B. Gaye (Mary Boland) and Professor Hercules Dove (Etienne Girardot) are looking for perfect physical specimens for their eugenics experiments at Cornucopia college and the hotel co-owned by Smith. However, the boys and girls must be kept apart. After appearances by the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, Johnny Downs [Trocadero], and Jed Prouty (of The Jones Family films), as well as a host of male and female dancers, there is a climactic show to save the hotel which involves putting half of the cast in a freezer. Could this movie get any worse? Well, there are blackface numbers as well. For the most part, this is just plain awful. Benny [George Washington Slept Here] seems lost and somewhat disinterested throughout the movie. Marsha Hunt and Lief Erickson make an unlikely musical comedy team.

Verdict: A mish mosh with just a few funny moments. *1/2.

THE FLYING SAUCER

Pat Garrison and Mikel Conrad
THE FLYING SAUCER (1950). Producer, writer, director: Mikel Conrad.

Playboy-reporter-agent Mike Trent (Mikel Conrad) is sent to Alaska to investigate stories of a flying saucer. His boss, Thorn (Russell Hicks of Charlie Chan in Shanghai), fears that saucers could be used to drop atomic bombs on American cities. To complete his cover story, Mike takes along a nurse-agent named Vee Langley (Pat Garrison). The two spend days in a cabin with the manservant Hans (Hantz von Teuffen) until finally something rushes overhead. There are Russian agents in the area who also hope to get their hands on the saucer. Wanting to jump-start his career, talented actor Mikel Conrad wrote the story for this movie, then produced, directed, and starred in it himself. Normally vanity productions like this are atrocious, but the strange and sad thing is that The Flying Saucer is not terrible, just low-budget and lacking that certain panache. One major problem with the film is that it was marketed as a kind of sci fi or even alien invasion movie, when in reality it's more of a spy film. What Saucer has going for it are great Alaskan locations, some good acting, a suspenseful battle between Mike and a villain who tries to throw him into a propeller, and an underground climax that features an avalanche. Mike doesn't appear to do much investigating in Alaska, just goes picnicking and smooching with his "nurse." Frank Darien makes an impression as the old sot, Matt, as does Virginia Hewitt [My Dear Secretary] as the bad bar girl, Nanette.

Verdict: An interesting oddity. **1/2.

IT FOLLOWS

Jake Weary and Maika Monroe
IT FOLLOWS (2014). Director/writer: David Robert Mitchell.

After a young lady named Jay Height (Maika Monroe of The Guest) has sex with her new friend, Jeff (Jake Weary), he tells her that the act of intercourse passed on a sexual demon who will kill her unless she has sex with someone else. But if that person is killed, she will also die. Therefore Jeff has good reason for Jay to get busy in the bedroom. The demon can look like anyone, friend or foe, and while it moves slowly, if it wants to get you it will. Jay and her friends try to come up with a scheme that will destroy this (unexplained) demon for good. It Follows certainly has an intriguing premise, and there are one or two creepy moments, but the script hardly makes the most of the interesting situations or the heroine's dilemma, the pace is so deliberate that eventually tedium sets in, and the climax hardly amounts to anything. In spite of that the film has gotten surprisingly good reviews, with some claiming it's the "best horror films in years." One can only imagine these raving twenty-somethings haven't seen that many horror films. Even You're Next was a lot better and more entertaining than this. The pretentious analysis I've read of the movie on the Internet is downright comical. On the plus side, the acting isn't bad -- Keir Gilchrist especially makes an impression as Paul -- and Mike Gioulaki's cinematography is first-class.

Verdict: This had possibilities which are just frittered away. **.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

CRY U.N.C.L.E.

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum
CRY U.N.C.L.E.

As of this writing, tomorrow unveils the new big-screen adaptation of the sixties spy show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Frankly, the previews I've seen of the new movie don't seem that promising, but I'll reserve judgment until I see it. In the meantime, this week we've got a round-up of UNCLE-related posts, including a look at seasons three and four (the final season) of Man from UNCLE (click for reviews of seasons one and two, already posted); a round-up of UNCLE paperback novels; a look at the reunion movie made in the early eighties; and two or three more "eurospy" flicks. (No spy movies next week, I promise. Well, maybe just one.)

The Man from UNCLE started out as an exciting spy series that was essentially told straight even if it had its humorous aspects and was never quite totally "serious." The second season the show began turning into a bit of a spoof, with more and more camp, but was still quite entertaining. The third season had some memorably zany episodes, but by this time it had become a full-on spoof as in Get Smart, and the ratings plummeted -- why watch UNCLE when Get Smart was better and funnier? [The less said about the abysmal The Girl from UNCLE, the better.] The fourth excellent season returned to the kind of episodes they had in the first season, but it was too late, and UNCLE was canceled after only about half the episodes were completed.

I freely confess that I loved The Man from UNCLE with its gadgets and colorful villains, and eagerly devoured each new paperback as it came out. I won't go so far as to say that I wanted to sign up with THRUSH, although I sort of found that organization more fascinating than UNCLE. But UNCLE was always one of my all-time favorite programs. [Needless to say, I loved James Bond novels and movies as well.]

It was hoped that the reunion movie The Return of the Man from UNCLE would lead into a new series, but despite high ratings, it was not picked up. We'll soon learn if the big-screen adaptation is a success or not.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season 3

Reta Shaw as a sinister THRUSH agent
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season Three.  1966.

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kurakin (David McCallum), as well as Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), are back for a third season of Uncle. Fans of the show generally consider this the worst of the four seasons, as there were times the program began to resemble an out and out comedy a la Get Smart. In spite of this, some of the more absurd episodes were fun. The first two episodes concerned homicidal females: "Her Master's Voice" had the mesmerized staff at a girls' school taking after the agents; and the memorably batty "The Sort of Do-It-Yourself Dreadful Affair" featured killer robots modeled on beautiful women. The entertaining two-part "Concrete Overcoat Affair" was turned into the theatrical feature The Spy with the Green Hat. A silly but zesty episode had the wonderful Reta Shaw [Sanctuary] as a THRUSH operative trying to find a scientist (Victor Borge) with a dangerous formula in his head in "The Suburbia Affair." A ray that could put people into instant suspended animation figured in "Deadly Smorgasbord." "Off-Broadway Affair" starred Shari Lewis in a tale of THRUSH using a theater to gain access to computer info. At least two of the season's episodes were not campy. "Galatea Affair" starred Joan Collins [Tales that Witness Madness] as a woman trained to take the place of a lookalike, a baroness working for you-know-who. "The Candidate's Wife" also featured a double substituted for the wife (Diana Hyland of Jigsaw) of a presidential nominee. Understandably, these were two of the season's best episodes.

Fans generally consider the worst episode to be "The Super Colossal Affair" in which the mob drops a bomb on Los Angeles which turns out to be -- unfortunately for poor Illya -- a ten ton stink bomb! Okay, this is a far cry from what the fans were hoping for, but I have to say this episode is absolutely hilarious, which was generally not true for many of its campy, would-be comical episodes -- yes, "Super Colossal" was not the worst episode of season three. J. Carrol Naish is very funny in this story as well.

Verdict: A comedown from seasons one and two, but still entertaining. **1/2.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season 4

The Fiery Angel: Madylyn Rhue
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season Four. 1967.

  
Seventh Wonder: Eleanor Parker
Toning down some of the more absurd situations and comedy of season three episodes, Uncle's truncated fourth and final season was a big improvement. Virtually every episode was well-worth watching and a few were outstanding. "J for Judas" featured Broderick Crawford and Chad Everett in a tale of THRUSH wanting to take over a business run by a combative father and son. The episode was serious, well-acted and well-done. "Test Tube Killer" starred Christopher Jones as a top THRUSH specimen sent to wipe out an entire Greek village. Jack Lord and Nehemiah Persoff try to outwit one another in a THRUSH battle of power in "Master's Touch." Michael Rennie tries to brainwash and/or murder people in his exclusive, private casino in the "THRUSH Roulette Affair." In "The Fiery Angel" an excellent Madlyn Rhue plays a besieged but feisty and independent Democratic lady president of Querida. A THRUSH double agent causes mayhem at the UNCLE "Survival School" with Richard Beymer and Charles McGraw. Will Kuluva and George Macready guest-star in a story in which THRUSH wants to work with two old Nazis. THRUSH wants a deadly molecular gun invented by scientist William Marshall in the clever "Maze Affair." In the two-part "Seven Wonders of the World" -- the series' final episode -- Barry  Sullivan plays a scientist who hopes to create peace with a docility gas, but doesn't realize that his faithless wife (Eleanor Parker) is working with THRUSH.

    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  again became a very worthwhile show in its forth year, but alas, the damage had been done and it was canceled halfway through the season. It was followed by the telefilm The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.and the new theatrical film many years later.

Verdict: Highly entertaining spy series. ***.

THE RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

David McCallum and Robert Vaughn
THE RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair (1983 telefilm). Director: Ray Austin.

"THRUSH is now a nuclear power."

"Bed bugs. Bed bugs in every hotel in New York." -- Illya

Fifteen years have gone by and both Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) have left UNCLE. Solo now works in computers and Illya runs a fashion house called Vanya's. Alexander Waverly has passed on and been replaced by Sir John Raleigh (Patrick Macnee of The Avengers.) THRUSH is also back in business, and has acquired a nuclear device with which it can wipe out a large part of the country. Justine Seraphin (Anthony Zerbe), who is working for THRUSH, wants $350 million dollars to be delivered by Napoleon Solo -- or else. Can Solo importune Illya, who quit UNCLE after an assignment went bad and a young lady died, into coming out of retirement one last time? Both Vaughn and McCallum were in their early fifties but time was much kinder to McCallum, who still seems lithe and attractive. Vaughn, however, plays with his customary authority and panache, and both men give excellent performances. Gayle Hunnicutt is on the mark as a Russian woman who needs Solo's help, as are Simon Williams as the son of the man who built the bomb, John Harkins as the nasty Alexi Kemp, and Jan Triska as the gambling, icy Vaselievich. Zerbe and Geoffrey Lewis make acceptable villains, and Susan Woollen has a nice turn as Raleigh's gal Friday, who happens to be named Janice Friday. George Lazenby of On Her Majesty's Secret Service has a cameo playing "J.B." and even George Sanders [A Scandal in Paris], who appeared in more than one UNCLE episode, shows up briefly at the end as Hunnicutt's father. Tom Mason is effective enough as a comparatively crude UNCLE agent. [Amazing that no other operatives are in the league of Solo and Kuryakin!] The souped-up version of the theme music really sucks. This is basically a fair-to-middling longer episode of the UNCLE show with a suspenseful climax, and some well-done sequences. Stupid moments have Raleigh asking Solo to report to duty but not bothering to tell him that UNCLE HQ has moved!

Verdict: Seeing Napoleon Solo and John Steed playing together is not as much fun as you might imagine. **1/2.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. paperback novels

# 1: The Thousand Coffins Affair. Michael Avallone. Napoleon Solo is sent to recover the body of a chemist and UNCLE agent and uncovers a dastardly Thrush plot that could wipe out millions. Very well-written by Avallone, this is suspenseful and exciting in equal measure, with an interesting supporting cast and situations and a strong plot. A+

#2: The Doomsday Affair. Harry Whittington. UNCLE learns that a THRUSH operative known as "Exit Only" is planning an exit for tens of thousands of people in a diabolical plot centered on a nursing home and a megaton bomb. Su Yan is a memorably sinister associate of the mysterious main villain. Builds to a very suspenseful climax. A+

#3: The Copenhagen Affair. John Oram. The UNCLE boys travel to Denmark to investigate a THRUSH plot to use flying saucers in their world takeover attempts. The climax is in a fake maternity home where a female agent named Karen is tortured by the sadistic Sister Ingrid, who once did her "work" in concentration camps. This isn't bad, but a relatively minor entry in the series. B -

#4: The Dagger Affair. David McDaniel. This is the book in which McDaniel reveals that THRUSH stands for the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity, which was never carried over to the series itself. THRUSH and UNCLE join forces against another organization, DAGGER, which has a weapon that can steal away all energy. Introduces Ward Baldwin, head of THRUSH San Francisco, and his wife, Irene. B+

#5: The Mad Scientist Affair. John T. Phillifent. The boys deal with an Irish biochemist, famous for his beer, who has discovered a formula that can make everyone even more reckless than when they're drunk. Worse, if this special "hops" is unleashed into the seas, it could soak up all the oceans and turn them into soggy goo. The scientist has two beautiful twin nieces, one good, one bad. Not a bad UNCLE book with good interplay between the characters, but gets a little "bogged" down. Some good scenes. C+/B-

#6: The Vampire Affair. David McDaniel. The boys investigate when an agent is found dead in Transylvania with his body drained of blood. They meet a descendant of the real Dracula, who is not a vampire, and look into possible THRUSH activities inside his abandoned Gothic castle. Meanwhile, is there a real vampire on the loose? Some atmospheric and interesting scenes, but perhaps a bit too much humor. B-. 

#8: The Monster Wheel Affair. David McDaniel. On an isolated island, THRUSH seems to have launched a space satellite from which they can fire missiles anywhere on earth that they want to. But is the satellite for real? While dodging attacks from enemy agents, Illya and Napoleon try to find out the truth. Absorbing opening chapters, but the second half is a little disappointing. Still, it's entertaining. B-. 

#11: The Invisibility Affair. Thomas Stratton. Illya and Solo investigate when Thrush kidnaps a scientist who is working on an invisibility machine, at one point making a whole house and part of a highway disappear. Thrush agents attach the device to a dirigible and plan to aid a revolution with it. The premise is fine, but the developments are fairly uninteresting. A little too much unfunny humor, and not one of the better books in the series. C-

#12: The Mind Twisters Affair. Thomas Stratton. A scientist who had worked with UNCLE in the past suddenly refuses to aid them and claims they are an evil outfit, as do others in the small college town in which he resides. Illya and Napoleon investigate, discover a THRUSH plot that involves mind control, and meet a man named Whateley, who goes on about the "old ones" like something out of H.P. Lovecraft. The book begins well and gets even better, even if it's a touch predictable. Good read. B+

#13: The Rainbow Affair. David McDaniel. The boys go to London to stop a famous criminal, Johnny Rainbow, from joining forces with THRUSH, even though New Scotland Yard insists that Rainbow is just a legend. Although they are not named, there are guest appearances by Fu Manchu, Steed and Emma Peel of The Avengers, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, and even Sherlock Holmes, among others! Entertaining read. B+

# 15: The Utopia Affair. David McDaniel. In one of the best books in the series, Waverly is sent off to an exclusive resort called Utopia to get a good rest, and Napoleon Solo takes over command of UNCLE in his place. While Solo struggles to deal with a variety of agents and situations around the globe, including increased activities from THRUSH, who hope to drive him bananas, a disguised Illya steals around Utopia trying to protect Waverly from two very deadly master assassins. Excellent. A. 
  
# 16: The Splintered Sunglasses Affair. Peter Leslie. Napoleon is kidnapped practically under the noses of UNCLE and held captive in an estate, but isn't certain why he was snatched, and if his captors are THRUSH or not. The book's first half is suspenseful and features an exciting escape sequence, but the rest is only so-so. B-.

# 17: The Hollow Crown Affair. David McDaniel. Ward Baldwin (from The Dagger Affair), head of THRUSH's San Francisco office, is on the run with his wife Irene from rival THRUSH assassins. He wants UNCLE's help, if for no other reason than that the person who wants to replace him -- formerly a presumed dead UNCLE scientist who invented a deadly gun and faked his own demise -- will be an even more formidable adversary. With the characters and premise this should have been terrific, but it's kind of blah, with too much humor, and fails to engage. C

# 20. The Corfu Affair. John T. Phillifent. The UNCLE boys are up against one of their most formidable adversaries, the Countess Anne-Marie Louise de St.-Denis, who runs her own beauty empire, has a palatial HQ on the isle of Corfu, grows her own clones [referred to as "androids" in the book] which are her servants and which she offers to the highest bidder, and uses special army communication modules to turn Solo and others into her personal slaves. The countess has allied herself with THRUSH, or so they think, as she's just as much a threat to them as she is to UNCLE. Fascinating, crazy, and suspenseful. Great fun! A+

# 21 The Finger in the Sky Affair. Peter Leslie. THRUSH engages in one of its most horrendous, murderous, and twisted plots when it causes airliner disasters as part of a sick power play. Solo and Kuryakin wind up on a doomed plane trying to find the answers to what is happening. The book is a darker UNCLE adventure than usual, and while it is by no means perfect, it makes for an absorbing read. B+

A new series of paperbacks under "The Man from U.N.C.L.E. continued" label are available on ebay. I have read only one of them: 

The Deadly Deception Affair. A Morrisett and L. Lazarus. Napoleon can't ignore evidence that seems to indicate that Illya is cooperating with Thrush, and may have turned. But perhaps Illya is merely playing a dangerous game. This book is professionally written and packaged, it's just kind of bleh, with a colorless villain and somewhat un-intriguing situations. The fact that almost the entire novel takes place in one uninteresting setting doesn't help either. Deadly Deception isn't bad, but it doesn't make me want to read the other "continued" books, either, especially when they cost $26 including shipping. C-

CODE NAME: JAGUAR

Ray Danton and Pascale Petit
CODE NAME: JAGUAR (aka Corrida our un espion/1965). Director: Maurice Labro.

Slick agent Jeff Larson (Ray Danton) is told to find the Russian spy operating out of an Army base in San Juan. Given the code name "Jaguar," Larson talks into his special ring and looks a bit silly doing so. Larson is not above using a cigarette to torture information out of an enemy agent, especially as it pertains to a strange weapon inside the hold of a Russian freighter. When Larson is captured and imprisoned on the ship, he discovers there's a mine aboard that could go off any second. In spite of this, Code Name: Jaguar has little real suspense and the constant banter between Larson and lady agent Pilar (Pascale Petit) quickly becomes tiresome. Helga Sommerfeld plays Lina Calderon, another lady with her eyes and lips on Larson. Danton [Too Much, Too Soon] is perfect for the role of the spy, punching the bad guys and lovin' the ladies with equal aplomb -- and his great voice isn't dubbed --  but this movie never quite takes off. A Spanish-French-West German co-production. Danton appeared in at least two other "eurospy" movies.

Verdict: Danton makes a good lead but needs a much better vehicle. **.

KOMMISSAR X: SO DARLING, SO DEADLY

Tony Kendall and Brad Harris
KOMMISSAR X: SO DARLING, SO DEADLY (aka Kommisar X -- In den Klauen des goldenen Drachen aka Agent Joe Walker: Operation Far East/1966). Director: Frank Kramer/Gianfranco Parolini.

"You're just like a man -- cynical, cold, heartless." -- Sybil.

"That's true." -- Joe.

In the third of several movies teaming Joe Walker, aka "Kommissar X" (Tony Kendall), with New York police captain Tom Rowland (Brad Harris), the boys are sent to Singapore to report to a man named Apollo. Apollo turns out to be elderly Professor Akron (E. F. Furbringer), who is working on a deadly laser that uses an "eradica filter." An organization called the Golden Dragon, run by a mysterious man in a red mask with eye holes, has his operatives do their best to acquire the filter, even going so far as to kidnap the professor's daughter, Sybil (Barbara Frey). There are several female assassins in the Golden Dragon, including busty blond Stella (Gisela Hahn), her sister Serena (Margaret Rose Kiel), and nasty brunette Shabana (Luisa Rivelli). So Darling, So Deadly features some excellent Singapore location work, a couple of exciting chase sequences, and two suspenseful death traps: one involving an elevator shaft and a descending car with spikes on the bottom of it; and the other involving a cage wherein spears keep descending on a captive Walker. The English voices chosen for our heroes are not appropriate, the musical score is terrible (a different score would have vastly improved the movie), and the whole production is second-rate, but the movie is not altogether awful and has several quite entertaining moments. The women in the cast are attractive, but hardly the raving, super-sexy beauties of some of the Bond films. Harris, who does a mean frug at one point, also supervised the stunt work in the film. Italian-German co-production.

Verdict: Acceptable europsy feature with two efficient leads. **1/2.

THE VISCOUNT

Kerwin Mathews roughs up a bad guy
THE VISCOUNT aka Les viscomte regle ses comptes aka The Viscount Settles a Score/1967.) Director: Maurice Cloche.

A bank hold-up which employs special equipment such as a vaporizer begins this adventure in which agent Clint de la Roche, known popularly as the Viscount (Kerwin Mathews of Maniac), gets caught in a war between two hoodlums, Barone (Falco Lulli) and Demoygne (Fernando Rey of The French Connection). Clint meets a sexy stripper named Lili (Sylvia Sorrente) after the latter's roommate is blown up by Barone in her car; and also encounters an agent with the Bureau of Narcotics named Steve Heller (Luis Davila). Mathews does this spy stuff as well as anyone, but it's a shame that his very nice voice has been dubbed. There are the usual gun battles, scenes of capture and torture, but none of it amounts to very much.[NOTE: On imdb.com Edmund O'Brien is listed as playing "Ricco Barone" but this distinctive actor does not appear to be in the film; he may have been slated to play the part, then dropped out.] A France-Italy-Spain co-production.

Verdict: Standard Eurospy saga. **.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE

GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE (1942). Director: William Keighley. Based on the stage play by Kaufman and Hart.

Bill Fuller (Jack Benny) is a harried husband whose wife, Connie (Ann Sheridan), wants to move to the country, a situation which does not sit well with Bill and even less with the opinionated maid, Hester (Hattie McDaniel), who threatens to resign at any second. The house Connie buys on the sly is a dilapidated wreck that is falling down around them, but Connie is impressed with the story that George Washington may have once stayed there. Unfortunately, Mr. Kimber (Percy Kilbride, playing a role similar to his "Pa Kettle" in The Egg and I  five years later), can't seem to find water in the well; neighbor Mr. Prescott (Charles Dingle) gets them into a legal hassle involving property lines; and unwelcome visitors include scamp nephew Raymond (Douglas Croft of Batman), free-loading Uncle William (Charles Coburn). and a cow who walks in through a hole in the wall of the kitchen. And wait'll you get a load of the seventy-year-locusts! In addition to these great cast members , we have John Emery and Lee Patrick as a couple who stop by during a storm, and the ever-delightful Franklin Pangborn as the manager of the Fuller's apartment house. Joyce Reynolds plays Connie's younger sister, Madge; Harvey Stephens is a helpful neighbor; and William Tracy is Madge's beau. Kaufman and Hart also wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner and You Can't Take It With You.

Verdict: A very, very funny movie. ***1/2.

FASHION MODEL

Robert Lowery, Tim Ryan, Marjorie Weaver
FASHION MODEL (1945). Director: William Beaudine.

Not long after model Peggy Rooney (Marjorie Weaver of Great Alaskan Mystery) gets into a fight with rival Yvonne (Lorna Gray of The Perils of Nyoka), the latter is found strangled inside the fashion house where they work. Peggy is the first major suspect in the murder, but as more deaths occur, her boyfriend Jimmy (Robert Lowery) catches the eye of dogged Police Inspector O'Hara (Tim Ryan). There's also a missing broach that was given to the dead woman by her rather disinterested fiance, Davis (John Valentine), which engenders a frantic search for the expensive item by Duval (Edward Keane), head of the fashion house, and his employee, Madame Celeste (Dorothy Christy). Fashion Model is a comedy-mystery with a few chuckles, some cold-blooded characters, and an interesting if lower case cast. Tim Ryan could probably have played the role of the inspector in his sleep by now. Robert Lowery registers his usual suave charm, and Marjorie Weaver proves she's definitely no Lucille Ball. Nell Craig and Harry Depp [Black Magic] are fun as a bickering couple who are in the fashion house during the first murder, and Jack Norton nearly steals the picture as the tippling window dresser, Herbert. The most amusing sequence has Herbert trying to undress two mannequins who are actually Peggy and Jimmy in disguise. The ending is kind of nifty and well-done. Dorothy Christy was the evil queen in The Phantom Empire and also appeared in Sons of the Desert with Laurel and Hardy.

Verdict: It's not Blood and Black Lace but it has its moments. **.

FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE

FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1956). Director: Charles Lamont.

"You've been in politics twenty years and you've never heard of a talking jackass?"

After several "Francis, the Talking Mule" movies with Donald O'Connor, Mickey Rooney took over -- as another character -- for the final entry in the series. In this David Prescott (Rooney) is somehow seeing a lovely heiress named Lorna McLeod (Virginia Welles) when he gets a phone call from a "man" named Francis. Miss Welles is represented by a law firm whose partners are being murdered one by one, with Prescott as the chief suspect. Naturally no one believes him that Francis (Paul Frees of The Star) is a witness who can alibi him and can actually talk. Rooney is fine (as is Frees as the voice of Francis) but this is one dip in the well too often, and despite a couple of chuckles and a surprise ending (to the mystery plot), this is more frenetic than funny. David Janssen [Moon of the Wolf] has a supporting role as a cop. The "haunted house" of the title is McLeod Castle, where supposedly a ghost roams at night atop a horse.

Verdict: Francis should have kept his mouth shut. **.