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

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I WANT TO LIVE!

Sailor Brett Halsey with good-time gal Susan Hayward
I WANT TO LIVE! (1958). Director: Robert Wise.

Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a prostitute and petty criminal, falls into bad company and finds herself arrested for the murder of a 61- year-old woman who supposedly kept cash in her house. One of Barbara's alleged confederates (James Philbrook) turns state's evidence and his testimony helps to convict her. Then it's on to death row ...  I Want to Live! was conceived as a heavily fictionalized anti-death penalty film, so it greatly stacks the deck in favor of Graham's innocence (not that the film suggests she should be executed if she were guilty), suppressing certain details and intimating it's only her reputation and background and her once being very nasty to a witness that have sealed her fate. Graham also makes the mistake of trying to bribe a fake witness who turns out to be a cop. Graham supposedly had a sexual affair with a fellow inmate, Rita (Marion Marshall), and while this is played down, it is pretty clear that Rita has a hankering for Barbara, whom she later betrays. As for Hayward, she comes off as much too well-bred to be a completely convincing "B" girl, so she substitutes toughness and crudity and on that level is quite effective, winning an Oscar (as did Robert Wise, whose direction is on the money). Of the supporting cast, there is notable work from Virginia Vincent as Barbara's lovely friend, Peg; Wesley Lau [Perry Mason] as Barbara's husband, Henry, who can't remember if she was home with him that certain night or not; Gage Clarke as the defense attorney, Tibrow; and Peter Breck as Peter Miranda, who claims he will set up an alibi for Barbara if she pays him but turns out to be a cop. Others in the cast include Brett Halsey [Return of the Fly], Lou Krugman, Theodore Bikel, Simon Oakland, and Joe De Santis [A Cold Wind in August].

The murder of Mabel Monahan is never depicted (in the fifties it would have been considered in poor taste anyway) and the woman herself is given short shrift. We never see any relatives she may have had, and the prosecutors are never developed as characters. In the long run it doesn't matter if Graham pistol whipped and suffocated her victim -- just the fact she was there and participated (if we are to believe this is true) makes her guilty in the eyes of the law. Apparently the prosecutors had very good reasons to think Graham was guilty that had nothing to do with her "morals."  The execution scene is very well-handled but it tries to extract pity for Graham without ever doing the same for her alleged victim, who died horribly in a terror that was probably worse than Graham's.

Verdict: Take with a grain of salt, but well-done for what it is. **1/2 out of 4.

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY

Ol' Blue-eyes sings "Ol' Man River" 
TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946). Director: Richard Whorf.

Till the Clouds Roll By purports to be a biopic of composer Jerome Kern (Robert Walker). It opens with a twenty minute recreation of the opening night of Kern's masterpiece, Show Boat, and then goes downhill -- at least in the dramatic sense -- from there. It would have been better for all concerned to forget the fictionalized "plot" and simply present one number after another. Some of the basic facts of Kern's life are accurate: oversleeping kept him off of the ill-fated Lusitania upon which he was to sail with impresario Charles Frohman; and he did meet his wife, Eva (Dorothy Patrick of House by the River), in England, although under somewhat different circumstances. But the movie invents a completely fictional character, James Hessler (Van Heflin), a widower-arranger, who works with Kern and helps him to become a major success. Equally fictional is Hessler's daughter, Sally, who is played by Joan Wells as a child and Lucille Bremer as an adult (both are very good), and a lot of dumb drama is worked up over show biz aspirant Sally losing her big number to star Marilyn Miller (Judy Garland) and running off to unknown parts because of it. None of it has anything to do with Kern. But while this aspect of the film is dull, there are still some memorable moments in the movie, such as: Lena Horne singing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" from Show Boat and "Why Was I Born?"; Angela Lansbury and chorus cuties on swings for "How'd You Like to Spoon with Me?"; the dancing for the title tune, which features June Allyson and Ray McDonald; Garland as Maxwell interpreting "Look for the Silver Lining;" "I Won't Dance" with Van Johnson and the aforementioned Bremer [Ruthless]; and Tony Martin doing "Make Believe" and "All the Things You Are." You wouldn't think that Frank Sinatra, however wonderful he was, could do much with "Ol' Man River" but he delivers in his own inimitable style. Other performers include Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia in Show Boat; Virginia O'Brien doing her frozen face shtick; and Dinah Shore doing a couple of numbers nicely without quite being on everyone else's level. The absolute low-light of the film is June Allyson croaking out a song about "Cleopatterer." Walker is okay as Kern, but looks nothing like him, while Heflin does more than his best with his character, and Paul Langton [Murder is My Beat] is fine as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Ironically, five years later the same studio, MGM, did a full-length version of Show Boat but instead of Lena Horne hired the completely Caucasian Ava Gardner to play the mulatto character of Julie; Kathryn Grayson, of course, remained as Magnolia. All of the musical numbers in this were expertly staged by Robert Alton except for Garland's numbers, which were handled for her by Vincente Minelli.

Verdict: There's still much to admire in this half-baked supposed biography. **1/2.

THE PLEASURE SEEKERS

Gardner McKay and Carol Lynley
THE PLEASURE SEEKERS (1964). Director: Jean Negulesco.

"Boy is he confused. He gave his wife the mink coat and me the refrigerator!" -- party guest

Three young ladies living and working in Madrid encounter romantic difficulties: entertainer Fran (Ann-Margret) can't seem to get together with handsome doctor Andres (Andre Lawrence); Susie (Pamela Tiffin) becomes betrothed to a heel, Emilio (Anthony Franciosa), who has no intention of actually marrying her; and Maggie (Carol Lynley) is torn between married editor Paul (Brian Keith) and young reporter Pete (Gardner McKay). Jean Negulesco returns to the foreign soap opera genre he examined ten years earlier in the superior Three Coins in the Fountain, with another trio of mostly unconvincing romances set in Spain instead of Italy. The deceptively titled Pleasure Seekers may have some location shots of Madrid, as well as shots of the masterpieces in the Prado, but other than that it never leaves Hollywood. The acting is good enough, with a very attractive Gene Tierney [Whirlpool] getting a grand total of one good scene as Paul's wife as she tells off infatuated Maggie in a ladies room. Isobel Elsom [Ladies in Retirement] also gets one good scene as Emilio's mother. The movie might be called a semi-musical as there are several numbers for Ann-Margret as she sings during "Fran's" performances, but she also warbles a tune at a picnic; you can miss these. With Ann-Margret's singing, everything is subordinate to sex, and she vocalizes as if she's savagely tearing at a big chunk of lobster. TV star Gardner McKay's character is virtually undeveloped -- to his credit he doesn't just come off like "Adam Troy," the character he played on Adventures in Paradise -- and he made one more movie before becoming a playwright, Little is known about Andre Lawrence, who made his debut in this film and appeared in some Canadian and other productions afterward.

Verdict: Fairly terrible. **.

DIABOLICALLY YOURS

Senta Berger and Alain Delon
DIABOLICALLY YOURS  (ala Diaboliquement votre/1967). Director: Julien Duvivier.

An accident victim (Alain Delon) wakes up in the hospital with amnesia and is told he is "Georges Campo." He is confused, but has few complaints as his wife, Christiane (Senta Berger), is beautiful, and they live in a magnificent home on a large estate. His old friend, Freddie (Sergio Fantoni), a doctor, tells him he needs bed rest and shouldn't even make love to his wife until he remembers her. But his dog doesn't recognize him and there are several more accidents that nearly kill him ... Diabolically Yours, a French-Italian-West German co-production. comes off like a poor Movie-of-the-Week, with an unoriginal plot and mostly uninspired performances. Considering the things that have happened to him, Delon [L'eclisse] can only muster up a mildly perturbed air instead of the outrage he would be feeling. Berger [The Spy with My Face] is very pretty but she is only adequate, while Peter Mosbacher steals the show as her odd, devoted servant, Kim. Made ten years earlier with a zestier cast and better direction, this might have come off like a lively if minor film noir such as Strange Awakening, which actually has a similar plot. This was the last film directed by Julien Duvivier, who did both French and American films, such as Flesh and Fantasy and Lydia, both of which were much better than this clap-trap. Duvivier, of course, needed a much better script, but he does very little with what he's been offered.

Verdict: Even Delon's fans will find this a bore. *1/2.

SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF

Bill Cord and Don Durant
SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF (1958). Director: Roger Corman.

Lee Johnston (Don Durant) commits murder during the commission of a robbery, and sails off with his brother, Chris (Bill Cord), on the latter's boat in the hopes he can elude the authorities. The two wind up on an island inhabited only by young women and one old lady, Queen Pua (Jeanne Gerson), who presides and reports to  some unspecified "company." After causing one hula dancer, Mahia (Lisa Montell), to be seen as taboo because the lei she puts on him breaks, Chris develops an affection for the gal, while Lee is more interested in getting off the island and stealing a booty of valuable pearls. Will all of them wind up sacrificed to Dangaraka, the shark god? The ladies in this movie don't really appear to be either "she gods" nor "goddesses," if you prefer, but just slightly slow native gals. Cord and Durant get a chance to show off their pecs, and are not terrible actors. The one shark that kills someone looks like a baby that would do minimal damage to someone's arm let alone their whole body. Gerson was Neely's maid in Valley of the Dolls, Montell was in World Without End, Durant starred as Johnny Ringo on TV, and both he and Colt did more than one episode of Perry Mason -- none of them wound up as Corman regulars, however. Ronald Stein's music makes this a little more palatable, along with some strikingly beautiful Hawaiian scenery (at least the cast members got a nice vacation if nothing else). But what this really needed was one of those giant man-eating crustaceans from Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters, made the year before, or some other carnivorous monster, or at least a really big shark.

Verdict: Pecs and pretties but not a lot happens. **.

BLINK

Aidan Quinn and Madeleine Stowe
BLINK (1994). Director: Michael Apted.

Emma Brody (Madeleine Stowe), a musician who has been blind since she was eight, has an operation to restore most of her sight. Her vision is still a bit fuzzy, and she has "flashbacks" to things that aren't really there. This doesn't make her the most reliable witness to the murder of an woman in an upstairs apartment. She fears that she's being stalked, but can't make a positive identification in a line-up. As the killer murders other women, Detective Hallstrom (Aidan Quinn) fears Emma will be next on the list. Blink is the kind of thriller in which the detective on the case has sex with the chief witness -- again and again and again -- which already stretches credibility, and it isn't helped by the fact that Hallstrom comes off like an incompetent asshole. Quinn [Frankenstein] does his best with this terrible part, but is defeated, while pretty Stowe gives an okay performance but generates all the warmth of a dyspeptic cobra. What a team! (This cold quality of Stowe's served her well when she played a scheming villainess on the TV show Revenge.) There are some clever aspects to the mystery angle of the story, including the killer's motive, but Blink has absolutely no style and little tension aside from a brief scene in an underground parking garage. Laurie Metcalf has virtually nothing to do as Emma's friend, but James Remar, Peter Friedman, and Paul Dillon have more of a chance to make an impression as a cop, doctor, and orderly respectively. This might have amounted to something if it had been helmed by Brian De Palma in his heyday, but the slack direction, dubious plot points, and moments of increasing ridiculousness do not add up to anything that memorable. It also becomes boring, the most unforgivable thing of all. Apted also directed The Triple Echo and The World is Not Enough.

Verdict: Not even nudity can save this one. **.

DON'T BLINK

Zack Ward
DON'T BLINK (2014). Written and directed by Travis Oates.

A group of people head to an isolated lodge for rest and relaxation and discover a situation like on the Marie Celeste: everyone's gone, with uneaten plates of food in the dining room. People's belongings are in their rooms, and their cars are in the parking lot. But where the hell is everyone? As the members of the group try to figure out where everyone has gone, one by one they begin disappearing. Sometimes this happens in a matter of seconds simply when someone's back is turned (there's a great scene involving a refrigerator door). As the group realizes that there's something unnatural and illogical going on, the stress begins to tell and violence breaks out ...  Don't Blink has gotten some serious hatred from viewers who are expecting a mystery film with a clear-cut explanation for the weird events, but if you take this as a Twilight Zone-like suspense film, it is certainly tense, absorbing and entertaining. The young actors really help put this over. As the nominal star Brian Austin Greene is adequate, but the picture is stolen by the dynamic Zack Ward as Alex, who begins to lose it in frightening fashion. It would be easy to suggest that Ward occasionally over-acts, but it's actually the script that makes him seem over-the-top. Joanne Kelly also scores as Claire, showing us the terror that is always just underneath even when she's making jokes to keep her spirits up. The final scene is a hoot!

Verdict: Seriously creepy psychological thriller and the evocation of a nightmare. *** out of 4.    

Thursday, July 14, 2016

JEAN HARLOW

Jean Harlow smokes a stogie in Saratoga
JEAN HARLOW(1911 - 1937).

In her short, ultimately tragic life, Jean Harlow achieved more than most people do in a full lifetime. Initially dismissed as a glamour girl whose success was due entirely to sex appeal, she later emerged as an accomplished actress and comedienne, getting better with each picture and encouraged by her more skillful directors. Jean was the subject of two mediocre film biographies, neither of which fully captured her special quality, and the actresses who played her had little of the Harlow mystique. Harlow was featured to full advantage in such films as Reckless and Dinner at Eight, and while she could be as soft and feminine as any actress, she was always especially delightful when she was telling people off with amusing and righteous indignation. In other words there was no one quite like Harlow.

This week we look at a round up of good and bad Harlow movies, as well as a couple of books that focus on the star.

BOMBSHELL: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JEAN HARLOW

BOMBSHELL: The Life and Death of JEAN HARLOW. David Stenn. Doubleday; 1993.

After a scurrilous supposed biography of Harlow was published by Irving Shulman, there appeared two biopics about the star that were, unfortunately, in the same vein. Before "Bombshell" was published, there was Eve Golden's "Platinum Girl." a well-researched tome that refuted much that had been said and written about Harlow. "Platinum Girl" was published by Abbeville Press, while the more prestigious Doubleday came out with "Bombshell," automatically giving it more attention, although it is probably no better than Golden's tome. As for "Bombshell," it is a compact, well-written and very entertaining look at a talented lady whose screen image was not what she was actually like in real life (although her penchant for going without underwear and stripping un-self-consciously at the drop of  a hat might give one pause). The book explores Harlow's three failed marriages; the death of second husband Paul Bern (was it really necessary to include a crime scene photo of this tormented man's dead body?); her rather twisted relationship with her obsessive mother; and even a bit about her career. Not being a film historian or critic, Stenn doesn't deal that much with Harlow's actual films or her work on-screen. Still, this is a mostly credible look at the tragic life of this star who probably never had that much desire to even be in the movies. Harlow's films include Dinner at Eight and Reckless.

Verdict: Solid movie star bio. ***.

PLATINUM BLONDE

Jean Harlow and Robert Williams
PLATINUM BLONDE (1931). Director: Frank Capra.

Reporter Stewart Smith (Robert Williams) is told to interview a wealthy family over a breach of promise suit involving the son, Michael (Don Dillaway). Smitten with Michael's pretty sister, Ann (Jean Harlow), Smith forgets all about the colleague, Gallagher (Loretta Young), who's carrying a torch for him and he winds up getting married to Ann. Smith wants Ann to live with him, but she prefers the family mansion and dresses him in monkey suits. Will he rebel and find his way back to Gallagher? You needn't see the movie to be able to answer the question, which even for 1931 is utterly cliche-ridden and thoroughly predictable -- not a single thing happens that you don't expect long before. Young and Harlow both offer expert performances, but Robert Williams is a case of an unlikable (at least in this role) actor playing an unlikable part -- his Stewart Smith is a complete, self-serving jackass that Gallagher should have kicked to the curb long before. Jokes about butlers, snobs and society are less funny than creaky. Louise Closser Hale makes an impression as Ann's mother, who is constantly asking for a double-bicarbonate. Robert Williams made no other films after this, as he died the same year it was released at a tragically young 34. Some see him as stealing the show from his female co-stars in this picture, but I confess that I do not agree -- glib Williams is just not my cup of java. Capra's direction of the film is more than okay, but that script ...!

Verdict: Even Frank Capra can make stinkers. *1/2.

RED-HEADED WOMAN

Jean Harlow in one of her best roles
RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932). Director: Jack Conway.

"Don't be so cynical. It's very depressing this time of the night."

Red-headed Lillian Andrews (Jean Harlow) has decided she wants to live on the right side of the tracks and sets her cap for her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), despite the fact that he is married to Irene (Leila Hyams). Both Bill and Irene discover that neither of them are a match for the determined, super-sexy Lillian, who generally gets what she wants when it comes to men. When she discovers after she snares Bill that no one in his crowd or family will accept her, she decides to seek greener pastures. But can she manipulate things to her advantage without everything tumbling down around her? Jean Harlow is simply smashing as Lillian in one of her best roles, making the character kind of likable without ever being sympathetic. "I'm in love and gonna get married," Lil tells her best friend, Sally (Una Merkel) -- but not to the same man! There have been dozens of movies about marital triangles both before and after this picture, but what lifts Red-Headed Woman above the crowd is the acting and Anita Loos' excellent script. Lantern-jawed Chester Morris is fine as the conflicted Bill, with very good support from Hyams [Island of Lost Souls] as his wife; Lewis Stone as his father; Henry Stephenson [Cynara] as a family friend and business associate who develops a hankering for Lillian; May Robson as Irene's down-to-earth Aunt May; and even a very young Charles Boyer [The Constant Nymph] as the chauffeur who dallies with Lillian at inopportune moments. Una Merkel offers her usual adroit performance in her typical role of the heroine's ugly best friend. Harlow gives a rivetingly exciting performance in this, in full command of her considerable gifts and beauty.

Verdict: Sassy and frank pre-code comedy-drama. *** out of 4.

WIFE VS. SECRETARY

A pensive Jean Harlow
WIFE VS. SECRETARY (1936). Director: Clarence Brown.

Linda (Myrna Loy) is happily married to publisher Van (Clark Gable), who has a highly efficient and attractive secretary named Whitey (Jean Harlow). Linda doesn't see the pretty Whitey as a threat until her well-meaning mother-in-law, Mimi (May Robson of Bringing Up Baby), puts the thought in her head. As for Whitey, she has an adoring boyfriend in Dave (James Stewart), but she also realizes that she's developed feelings for Van. When Van and Whitey take an unscheduled trip to Havana for business, Linda jumps to conclusions and walks out, making the conflicted Whitey wonder if she has a future with her boss and if she really wants one. Wife vs Secretary is not a bad movie, but its chief appeal lies in the wonderful performances by the entire cast, especially Harlow in a more serious role of a very likable, appealing and decent woman. Myra Marsh of I Love Lucy fame plays a woman who consults with Van, and Gloria Holden of Dracula's Daughter plays Joan, a friend of Van and Linda's.

Verdict: Watch this one for Harlow and other excellent performances. ***.


SUZY

Jean Harlow and Cary Grant's hand
SUZY (1936). Director: George Fitzmaurice.

"I don't dance much and I don't sing so well, but I can be awful cute when I want to be." -- Suzy

Suzy (Jean Harlow), an American entertainer in London on the eve of WW1, eventually finds herself married to two men at the same time: Factory foreman Terry (Franchot Tone), who at one point gets shot by a spy; and wealthy French playboy and war hero, Andre (Cary Grant) who distinguishes himself as a flier -- and a heel. How this bizarre situation came about and how it is resolved is the stuff of Suzy, a wartime soap opera that mixes dogfights, Mata Hari-types, inadvertent bigamy, adultery, German spies, and music halls -- and it's still a meandering bore. Jean Harlow is delightful in the first half of the film but director Fitzmaurice is unable to get her to properly handle some of the tougher scenes in the second half, although she certainly had the ability to do so. Tone and Grant are both fine -- although Tone is as unconvincing as an Irishman as Grant is as a Frenchman! --  but Lewis Stone walks off with the movie as Grant's stern but loving father, who eventually comes to care very much for the showgirl he at first disapproves of. [The picture eliminates Stone from the finale and shouldn't have.] Inez Courtney [The Reckless Way], Una O'Connor [Stingaree], and Benita Hume are also notable as, respectively, Suzy's pal, landlady, and love rival. Fitzmaurice also directed Mata Hari with Greta Garbo. The most unforgivable thing about Suzy is that it tries to rip off the "I was reading a book" scene from Dinner at Eight!

Verdict: Melodramatic claptrap that seems cobbled together from scenes from better movies. **.

DEADLY ILLUSIONS: JEAN HARLOW AND THE MURDER OF PAUL BERN

DEADLY ILLUSIONS: JEAN HARLOW AND THE MURDER OF PAUL BERN. Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen. Random House; 1990.

Samuel Marx was a friend of Paul Bern's and worked at MGM as a story editor at the time of Bern's death. For years he accepted the story that Bern committed suicide because it turned out there was already another woman in his life and a scandal might have derailed both his career and his wife, Jean Harlow's. Paul Bern was horrendously slandered as a monster, abuser, and so on in a phony biography of Harlow as well as two films inspired by it. This book dispels the notions that Bern was impotent (he is described by one doctor  as being "underdeveloped," but not in an abnormal way)  and beat Harlow out of frustration, or that he had no interest in women to begin with. Marx makes clear that the often negative (for the time) rumors about Bern stubbornly persisted for decades with reporters taking the old bio and films as gospel. Dorothy Millette had been involved with Bern years earlier, when she had to be committed to an institution and Bern provided her continual support (and indeed performed many acts of kindness for others). Then Dorothy was released, however delusional, and made her way to Hollywood, expecting she and Bern would continue their relationship and he would groom her for stardom. Unfortunately  ... Marx and Vanderveen make a convincing case that Louis B. Mayer and underlings covered up the murder of Paul Bern in this interesting bio-crime story.

Verdict: Fast read with interesting information. ***.


SARATOGA

Jean Harlow and Clark Gable
SARATOGA (1937). Director: Jack Conway.

Margaret Hamilton to Frank Morgan: "You have no idea what my face looked like before I used your cream."

Frank Morgan to Margaret Hamilton: "I can imagine."

Race track gambler Duke Bradley (Clark Gable) thinks that Carol Clayton (Jean Harlow), the daughter of his friend, Frank Jonathan Hale), is a bit snooty. Carol is engaged to the rich "sucker" Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon), but she finds herself drawn to the cruder Duke even as she engages in verbal fisticuffs with him. Will Carol and Duke admit their feelings for one another? This is the slight premise of Saratoga, which also has some bits of business about bidding on horses, switching jockeys at the last minute, and betting on the climactic race, most of which is a little confusing and even a bit on the dull side. This is a shame, because each and every cast member is working at the top of his or her game, and that not only includes the already-named, but Una Merkel as Duke's racing pal; Frank Morgan as her befuddled and jealous husband, who markets cold cream as "Harriet Hale;" Hattie McDaniel as Carol's saucy and lovable maid/companion; Frankie Darro as an obnoxious jockey; and George Zucco (doing a rare turn at comedy) as a slightly strange doctor. Margaret Hamilton also scores in a small role as one of Morgan's unsatisfied customers, and Lionel Barrymore is fine, as usual, working in his befuddled, cranky, old-timer mode.The acting in this is just wonderful and there are some memorable scenes, such as a near-silent one in which Duke communicates to Carol that her father has died. There's a very enjoyable train scene with the various principals taking turns at singing a chorus, their acting skills and personality making up for untrained voices. Despite several genuinely amusing moments, the film has an air of sadness because Harlow died tragically young while making this picture, and her scenes had to be finished with a dubbed double seen only from the back or behind binoculars. The film has an amiable nature, even though the Walter Pidgeon character is treated especially shabby, and Carol doesn't come off like the most likable of creatures.

Verdict: So many fine actors and so many good things in it that it's too bad this really isn't all that memorable. **1/2.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

SHOOT THE MOON

Peter Weller and Diane Keaton
SHOOT THE MOON (1982). Director: Alan Parker.

Faith Dunlap (Diane Keaton), a housewife with four young daughters, is married to an acclaimed author named George (Albert Finney), who is having an affair with Sandy (Karen Allen). Faith learns of the affair and divorce papers are filed, and the children try to cope with the painful disintegration of their parents' marriage and their own worries for the future. The oldest daughter, Sherry (Dana Hill) is particularly anguished, and at first wants no relationship with the father whose love she craves. Then a contractor named Frank (Peter Weller) enters the picture and begins his own relationship with Faith, and George's jealousy and paranoia threaten to demolish everything ... Shoot the Moon was a talked-about movie in its day, although it's pretty much forgotten now, and one can see why. While the film is quite good at delineating the emotional upheaval affecting the oldest daughter, and there are some good, near-powerful sequences, the characters are a little too unsympathetic to make us fully root for them. Spouses do tend to have conflicted feelings during divorces, and the film spells that out but never fully engages us. The constant presence of the four daughters, however adorable, sometimes makes this resemble a dark Disney film. The deck is sort of stacked against George because he is a self-absorbed asshole, which the film never quite addresses until the ending; while George had a girlfriend on the side, it is not clear if he actually wanted a divorce. Keaton [Interiors] gives an excellent performance, nearly matched by Finney [Tom Jones], and there is superlative work from the young Dana Hill as their daughter, Sherry  -- one of the best scenes is between Finney and Hill as they have a long talk on a dock. Weller [Star Trek Into Darkness] doesn't get much of a chance to be more than the likable, swaggering hunk with a penchant for his own violence. A scene when Faith and George have a fight in a restaurant is pure sitcom and out of sync with the rest of the movie. George Murdock scores in a brief scene as Faith's dying father. Michael Seresin's cinematography is superb.

Verdict: Something's missing ... **1/2.

PAPILLON

Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen
PAPILLON (1973). Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.

Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), a safecracker known as Papillon (Butterfly) due to a tattoo on his chest, is convicted of murdering a pimp (a crime he insists he did not commit) and sent to a French penal colony. He becomes friends with counterfeiter Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) and the two start planning an escape. After several false starts and others joining the team, they manage to get out -- but their trials and tribulations are by no means over. Papillon, if I recall correctly, was a very big hit and a feel-good movie about the indominability of the human spirit. It is also very much a Hollywood movie that often tries to stay on a "light" level despite the grimness of the proceedings. At first McQueen just seems to be walking through his role -- and Hoffman hardly ever seems anything other than Dustin Hoffman in a prison skit -- but with the aid of effective make up he is more impressive in the later scenes. Papillon has to be taken with a grain of salt, as Charriere's memoirs, upon which the film is based, were later determined to be largely fictional; he was never on Devil's Island for instance. McQueen was forty-three when he did this picture, four years older than Charriere was when he made his final escape, although the actor is made up to look like a senior citizen and emotes that way as well; this is not only highly-fictionalized but on occasion plays like a parody. Victor Jory [Cat-Women of the Moon] plays an old Indian chief who wants his own tattoo; Anthony Zerbe is the leader of a colony of lepers; Bill Mumy ["It's A Good Life"] is a young convict who essentially commits suicide; Don Gordon [The Final Conflict], Woodrow Parfrey and Robert Deman are all other convicts who get involved in the big escape one way or another; they are all good. But Papillon, which holds the attention and has a few harrowing moments without ever being really riveting, gets its power not from the performances but from Fred J. Koenekamp's cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's typically effective musical score.

 Verdict: Not any kind of masterpiece but Papillon's exhaustive efforts to gain his freedom eventually pull you along. ***.

THE MAN IN THE NET

Alan Ladd confronts Carolyn Jones
THE MAN IN THE NET (1959). Director: Michael Curtiz.

John Hamilton (Alan Ladd) is an aspiring painter who's brought his wife, Linda, to the country to work on his art -- and keep dipsomaniac Linda (Carolyn Jones) away from the liquor. Unfortunately, the bored and resentful Linda can't stay away from men, either. When John returns from a business trip to New York, he discovers that Linda is missing. Everything goes awry in the second half of this very poor mystery due to suspect developments and a bad screenplay. Half the town converges on Hamilton's home, denouncing him as a wife-murderer, when the townspeople barely know him and there's no reason for them to act like villagers out to get that evil Baron Frankenstein. Worse, John is befriended by a little girl, Emily (Barbara Beaird), who enlists a whole bunch of her little friends into helping John investigate the mystery. The entire second half of the film is taken up with these children, who are cute and not bad actors, but they make the picture resemble a distinctly forgettable Disney movie. Ladd [The Carpetbaggers], his face puffy and years older due to heavy drinking, barely gives a performance, while Jones [Eaten Alive] pretty much steals the show in her vivid portrayal of the screwed-up Linda. Charles McGraw [Roadblock] is typically vital as the town sheriff, and Diane Brewster and John Lupton are effective as family friend Vicki and her handsome husband, Brad (you might call Lupton a "prettier" version of Marshall Thompson). As Brad's father, John Alexander is so terrible you'd have to assume he was given the part as a favor to someone were it not for the fact that he amassed many theater and movie credits; this is not a highlight of his, or anyone else's, resume. Curtiz is defeated by the material.

Verdict: Even one of the lesser episodes of Perry Mason (not that there were many) is better-scripted and more entertaining than this. *1/2 out of 4.

ZEIGFELD GIRL

HIGH CAMP: Judy Garland on top of poles
ZIEGFELD GIRL (1941). Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

Three young ladies are chosen to join Ziegfeld's Follies (Ziegfeld himself is never seen): Sandra (Hedy Lamarr), who is married to a jealous, out-of-work violinist, Franz (Philip Dorn) but is courted by the handsome singer, Frank (Tony Martin); Sheila (Lana Turner), who has a truck-driving boyfriend, Gil (James Stewart) but who is drawn to the wealthy Geoffrey (Ian Hunter); and Susan (Judy Garland), who has been working for years with her has-been father, "Pop" Gallagher (Charles Winninger), who is afraid he'll be nothing without her. Pop tries to get Susan to sing in a hokey, super-fast, old-fashioned style -- as the director, John (Paul Kelly) puts it "they quit beating a song to death ten years ago" -- but when she delivers "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" as a ballad the whole audience is moved. (Of course, it makes little sense that the diminutive Garland would ever have been hired as a showgirl, and in one scene in fact she is told that she is not a showgirl, so I'm not certain what she was supposed to be doing before her singing talent was discovered.) This is one of probably dozens of films that look at the trials and tribulations of three women hoping for success in show business -- you can even include Valley of the Dolls in the bunch, for that matter -- and while the melodramatics are cliched and not that interesting, the picture is still quite entertaining. Busby Berkeley put together the production numbers, the best of which is Garland's "Minnie from Trinidad," which definitely turns into high-camp when Garland is lifted high above the stage atop poles at the finale! Garland is swell, Lamarr is beautiful and effective, and Turner isn't quite up to her more dramatic scenes, in which she tends to over-act, to put it mildly. Turner is chosen to be the gal who nearly winds up in the gutter, but even when she becomes a drunk she still looks glamorous! Jimmy Stewart is miscast and somewhat perfunctory in this, although he gets plenty of scenes. Eve Arden shows up once or twice doing her usual schtick; Fay Holden appears briefly as Lana's mother ("I didn't raise my boy to be a Ziegfeld girl," she says to Jackie Cooper when he imitates his sister); Paul Kelly orders the show girls around but isn't really given a character to play; and Tony Martin has a handsome face, a beautiful voice, and is charmingly smarmy as Frank. There are notable if quite small, supporting performances from Rose Hobart as Martin's neglected wife, and Renie Riano [Nancy Drew -- Detective]  as Annie, Lana's wise-cracking maid. I've no doubt Ziegfeld gals, especially the more popular ones, were paid comparatively well, but Lana's apartment looks like something a major film star like Joan Crawford might have lived in! But that's the movies! NOTE: Not to be confused with The Great Ziegfeld in which the great Ziegfeld actually appeared.

Verdict: Likable musical with attractive players. *** out of 4.

THE OTHER LOVE

Richard Conte and Barbara Stanwyck
THE OTHER LOVE (1947). Director: Andre De Toth.

"I'm not fooled, doctor. I know death is a guest here. Though he sent me his compliments."

Karen Duncan (Barbara Stanwyck) is a successful concert pianist who comes to a sanitarium for treatment of an unspecified illness. She and her doctor, Anthony Stanton (David Niven), find themselves falling for one another, and he suggests that Karen spend many months just resting. But Karen is restless for life, and goes off with race car driver Paul Clermont (Richard Conte) for a romantic and wearying time in Monte Carlo. Trying to evade her fate, Karen only gets sicker ... The Other Love is based on the story "Beyond" by Erich Maria Remarque. Fourteen years after The Other Love was released, Remarque wrote the novel "Heaven Plays No Favorites," which was filmed as the Al Pacino starrer Bobby Deerfield, which also deals with a dying woman and a race car driver. The Other Love proves no more convincing than Deerfield and Stanwyck's fine performance is wasted in a trite, superficial soap opera. Although Stanwyck is never that good at portraying vulnerability, she easily out-acts her two male co-stars. Gilbert Roland has a nice turn as a croupier who tries to take advantage of Karen, and Joan Lorring [The Corn is Green] is notable as another doomed patient in the sanitarium. Natalie Schafer briefly appears to sparkle in that certain sleazy way of hers as a guest at Monte Carlo. Miklos Rozsa' score doesn't help at all. Roland had a much more memorable appearance with Stanwyck in The Furies. NOTE: For more on Bobby Deerfield see Al Pacino In Films and On Stage.

Verdict: Dark Victory this isn't. **.

STAGE STRUCK (1948)

Kane Richmond and Audrey Long
STAGE STRUCK (1948). Director: William  Nigh.

Benny Nordick (John Gallaudet of Docks of New Orleans) who runs a night club and a acting school racket, murders hopeful Helen Howard (Wanda McKay) because she knows too much about his sleazy operation. Nick Mantee (Kane Richmond) helps Nordick cover up the crime and becomes his partner. Ignoring the advice of Lt. Williams (Conrad Nagel of All That Heaven Allows) and his assistant Sgt. Ramey (Ralph Byrd), Helen's sister Nancy (Audrey Long)  takes it upon herself to go undercover at Nordick's school. Dodging persistent passes from Mantee and suspicious glances from Nordick, she tries to find out what she can. Stage Struck is a passable Monogram entry with an interesting cast, most of whom were down on their luck. Lt. Williams' reason for being tough with Helen after she learns of her sister's murder makes no sense, and his piousness gets a little tiresome as well. The leads are fine in this cheap production, and Anthony Warde, Pamela Drake and Evelyn Brent [Holt of the Secret Service] have smaller roles and are equally effective. I've no doubt that acting and modeling schools that are more interested in taking gullible people's money than helping their careers still exist in every major city. Richmond and Byrd, of course, were major serial heroes. Richmond amassed over 100 credits, but this was his last film; he retired from movies to work in the fashion industry. Byrd did a few more films and died rather young in 1952.

Verdict: Distinctive Nagel, Byrd and Richmond help put this over. **.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION

MEGA-STAR: The Adorable Daffy Duck
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003). Director: Joe Dante.

To his dismay, disbelief, and horror, Daffy Duck, who has always played second fiddle to Bugs Bunny, finds himself fired by the Brothers Warner. Also fired is a security guard named DJ (Brendan Fraser), the son of famous Bond-like actor, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton). It develops that Drake really is a super-spy, and has been kidnapped by the sinister forces of one Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin). DJ becomes unlikely teammates with Daffy and the woman who fired both of them, Kate (Jenna Elfman), to find and rescue Drake even as Bugs Bunny and other weird characters, both live and animated, provide a zany backdrop. On paper it might have seemed like a good idea to combine live action with cartoon animation as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but despite the lovable characters -- underdog Daffy has always been my long-time favorite "funny animal" -- the spy plot is ill-advised and the movie is much, much more silly than any of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Kids will enjoy this the most, while their parents and older viewers may get a kick out of all the in-jokes (surely the children won't get the reference to the Psycho shower murder, although it is funny). Fraser and Elfman do the best they can, while Steve Martin offers a bizarrely notable turn as the definitely weird Mr. Chairman. Others in the cast include an amusing Joan Cusack; a sinister Granny with Tweetie Bird in tow; the Tasmanian Devil; Marc Lawrence; a slithering brain from Fiend Without a Face; Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet; the hulking insectoid creature from This Island Earth;  Jeff Gordon; Peter Graves; a plant from Day of the Triffids; the ape-man in a helmet from Robot Monster; Yosemite Sam; Elmer Fudd; Roger Corman (as a director); Dick Miller (as a studio guard); and Heather Locklear as a showgirl/secret agent. Did I miss anyone? The film's highlights include an amazing battle on top of the Eiffel Tower and a clever scene in the Louvre when Bugs and Daffy jump into different paintings and immediately convert to the style of the specific artist. Considering everything, you really want to love this movie, but at times it gets too frenetic and stupid without being especially funny. Still, there's always the delightful Daffy!

Verdict: Daffy rules -- but this great star needs a better vehicle. **1/2 out of 4.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

CALL NORTHSIDE 777

CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948). Director: Henry Hathaway.

"Did it ever occur to you that everyone might be selling that dead cop short? He might have had a mother who scrubbed floors, too."

Chicago Times reporter P. J. McNeal (James Stewart) is assigned to look into an ad offering a $5000 reward for information about an old murder case. Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), a small-timer, was convicted of shooting a cop and has spent eleven years in jail. His mother, Tillie (Kasia Orzazewski), who scrubs floors for a living, has saved up her money in the hopes someone will come forward with info that may exonerate her son. Initially skeptical, and told by his editor, Kelly (Lee J. Cobb) to keep the human interest story going to sell papers, McNeal eventually comes to believe in Wiecek's innocence and does all he can to overturn his conviction. Call Northside 777, which was based on real-life events, features solid performances from the principals (with especially good work from Orzazewski), as well as Betty Garde [Mr. Lucky] as Wanda Skutnick, the primary witness against Wiecek, and Otto Waldis [Unknown World] as her husband, Boris. Joanne De Bergh has a nice turn as Wiecek's ex-wife, but Helen Walker [Impact] has hardly any screen time as Mrs. McNeal. The picture is briefly stolen by an uncredited actress who certainly delivers in her role as a drunken barfly who gives McNeal much-needed information. The film builds up much suspense as it goes along, has interesting details (even if some are suspect), and a nice score by Alfred Newman. However, you're left with the nagging feeling that this new evidence might well mean Wiecek should get a new trial, but it doesn't absolutely prove his innocence!

Verdict: Real-life suspense story holds the attention. ***1/2.

ROYAL WEDDING

Fred Astaire and Jane Powell
ROYAL WEDDING (1951). Director: Stanley Donen.

"She's quiet, but deep. At least I hope she's deep or she's wasting a lot of her time being quiet." -- James Ashmond on his daughter, Anne.

Tom and Ellen Bowen (Fred Astaire and Jane Powell) are a brother and sister team of entertainers who take their latest show, "Every Night at Seven," to London just in time for the Royal Wedding. Although Ellen has been a bit of a playgirl, and Tom isn't marriage-minded, they both find themselves falling in love: Ellen with Lord Brindale (Peter Lawford); and Tom with pub owner's daughter and dancer, Anne (Sarah Churchill). But will respective marriages break up the act? Royal Wedding is a bit of MGM fluff but well turned out, with very good performances, some nice singing and dancing, and several highlights. For me it's Jane singing the beautiful romantic ballad "Too Late Now," although Astaire's dancing on his room's walls and ceiling is a close second. Then there's Astaire and Powell's rendition of the comical "How Could You Believe Me (When I Said I Love You)?" The songs are by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane, and another memorable tune is "My Love," warbled beautifully by Powell. Sarah Churchill [He Found a Star] received a lot of bashing for her acting in this, but I think she's charmingly effective, and despite the somewhat mannish features that I've noted, quite lovely -- she was the daughter of Winston Churchill. Albert Sharpe scores in the role of Anne's father, James Ashmond, and Keenan Wynn is fine in dual roles of twin brothers, one for each side of the Atlantic. "I Left My Hat in Haiti" is a snappy production number.

NOTE: Beware which DVD firm you buy, rent or borrow this movie from. Westlake Entertainment offers one of the worst video transfers I've ever seen, with washed-out colors, whole scenes that seem cast in shadows, and so on. You expect this for cheap old B movies and TV shows, but a glossy MGM musical? Fortunately, there are other DVDs of this movie.

Verdict: Dancing on the ceiling indeed! *** out of 4.

THE FINAL CONFLICT

Son of Satan: Sam Neill
THE FINAL CONFLICT aka Omen III: The Final Conflict/1981. Director: Graham Baker.

"Most people confuse 'evil' with their their own trivial lusts and perversions." -- Damien Thorn

Damien Thorn (Sam Neill), the anti-Christ, is now grown and still causing bloody mischief after the events of The Omen and Damien: Omen 2. Thorn becomes the new ambassador to Britain, then discovers that the Christ child has been born in London. Even as Thorn has his minions murdering male infants in case one of them is his adversary, Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi) and his monks attempt to kill Thorn with special daggers -- only the little devil outwits them every time. Thorn develops a relationship with reporter Kate Reynolds (Lisa Harrow), but seems more interested in indoctrinating her teenage son, Peter (Barnaby Holm), into the ways of evil and lord only knows what else. But Damian's plans may come to nothing despite his best efforts ... The Final Conflict is a highly-enjoyable, slick and well-made horror film if you don't take it seriously, which is impossible to do for all but the sub-literate. On that mindless level the film boasts an excellent performance from Neill [Daybreakers], and a very notable turn from Don Gordon, who is Damien's executive assistant, and unbeknownst to Thorn, the father of a boy born on the wrong day. Brazzi [Summertime] doesn't seem to take anything that seriously, and probably didn't; Harrow and Holm are fine. The set-pieces in the film -- an assassin gets caught in a fiery trap while trying to kill Damien in a TV studio; the assorted suspenseful murders of the infants -- are well-done although a scene with dogs allegedly tearing a monk apart doesn't quite work because the rather cute doggies don't actually seem to be doing anything. The film is tremendously bolstered by a near-operatic score by Jerry Goldsmith, who has delivered an epic and beautiful theme with demonic undertones, and embellishes every scene with a sweeping and majestic backdrop. When Kate is, to all intents and purposes, raped late in the movie, she has virtually no reaction! But then the filmmakers have no more compassion for the assorted victims than Damien does.

NOTE: This was followed by the TV movie Omen IV, and just this year A and E had a series entitled Damien detailing the further adventures of Damien Thorn; it lasted one season.

Verdict: Comparatively empty but engaging and rather clever horror flick. *** out of 4.