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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

SYLVIA

SYLVIA (1965). Director: Gordon Douglas.

"Before you can save the soul, you gotta feed the body."

Frederic Summers (Peter Lawford) hires private eye Alan "Mack" Macklin (George Maharis) to investigate the background of his fiancee, Sylvia (Carroll Baker). As Mack tracks down the woman's past, he learns about how she was raped by her stepfather, became a prostitute, then a poet, and has favorably impressed many of the people she met along her journey. This includes the librarian, Irma (Viveca Lindfors) and a former "hostess" named Jane (Joanne Dru), whose hospital bills were paid by Sylvia. Mack finally catches up with Sylvia herself, and is drawn to her -- but what will happen when she discovers the truth about him? At first Sylvia seems that it might have serious possibilities, and doesn't just seem like a tawdry exercise despite the subject matter, but as the film proceeds it's clear that it's pretty much junk that isn't lurid enough. The two leads are okay, but small-scale, and hardly give great performances. There is better acting from Lindfors (whose character has often been considered a lesbian although there's nothing in this to indicate it); Dru; and especially Ann Sothern [A Letter to Three Wives] as a slatternly former co-worker of Sylvia's. There are also nice turns by Nancy Kovack as a stripper, Jay Novello as a priest, Edmond O'Brian [Backfire] as a former client of Sylvia's, Connie Gilchrist as a madame, and especially Paul Gilbert [So This is Paris] as a drag queen entertainer/club owner known as "Lola." Lawford is actually quite good and there are appearances by Aldo Ray, Lloyd Bochner, and Majel Barrett, among other familiar faces, as well. Although the story bounces around from Mexico to New York and other places, there is never any sense of time or location, as if everything exists in that certain soap opera void that only Hollywood could produce.

Verdict: There's a reason why certain movies are completely forgotten. **.

POLTERGEIST (1982)

Robbie (Oliver Robins) and his malevolent clown
POLTERGEIST (1982). Director: Tobe Hooper. Produced by Steven Spielberg.

"It's not another tribal burial ground. It's just people."

A very nice family living in a development in Cueste Verde are subjected to all manner of strange phenomenon in their home, culminating in their little girl, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) disappearing into a closet. Now most parents would at least try the police first -- after all a predator could have run off with the child during all the excitement (a tree with a hungry maw; a tornado etc.) -- but Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams) reach out to parapsychologists instead (if for no other reason than to get the plot moving). This is just as well, as the little psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) discovers there's an evil presence inside the house. Just when you think things have calmed down and the child has been returned, there's a bravura climax in which the Freelings discover just why so many crazy things have been going on with a vengeance. Poltergeist is in its way rather silly and even schlocky at times -- it's much more of a black comedy than a true horror film, but works on that level -- but it has some well-done FX and creepy sequences. On the debit side, Poltergeist takes a while to get going -- the day to day details of the Freelings lives are simply not that interesting -- and sometimes the pacing is off. The movie does do a very good job of getting across childhood fears, however.The acting is fine -- the children are especially noteworthy -- but the actors take a back seat to the special effects. Jerry Goldsmith's score helps a great deal in key action sequences. One quick and disgusting gore sequence doesn't quite fit the tone of the movie, even though it turns out to be an hallucination. In the thankless role of another parapsychologist, Beatrice Straight does little but flap her lips together. Followed by two sequels and a remake. Tobe Hopper also directed the terrible Eaten Alive.

Verdict: No masterpiece, but fun. ***.

POLTERGEIST (2015)

POLTERGEIST (2015). Director: Gil Kenan.

In this remake of the 1982 Poltergeist a family moves into a house that was built over a cemetery. It isn't long (less time than in the original) that strange things begin to happen, and then the little girl, Madison (Kennedi Clements), disappears into a closet and a dimension of lost souls. This version comes up with some new angles to the original film. In the 1982 version the kitchen chairs get stacked up on the table in seconds, while in this version the boy, Griffin's (Kyle Catlett), comic books get stacked up in the hallway. We get more of a view of the other-dimensional world of the dead, and there are striking images of corpses trying to force their way into our world from the child's closet. Oddly, however, the climax in this is rather abrupt and simply can't compare to the original's. The performances are okay -- Sam Rockwell [Iron Man 2] is the father, Rosemarie DeWitt is the mother, with Jared Harris as TV ghost hunter Carrigan Burke, among others -- but the picture is pretty much stolen by little Catlett, who gives a winning performance as the frightened little boy, Griffin. Ghosts or no ghosts, the parents seem even more irresponsible in not going to the police than in the 1982 version. One sequence with a drill and a terrified ghosthunter, Boyd (Nicholas Braun), nearly turns into torture porn but wisely shows restraint. Jane Adams and Susan Heyward play other psychic investigators.

Verdict: Okay, but a cut below the original. **1/2.

FIASCO: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD'S ICONIC FLOPS

FIASCO: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops. James Robert Parish. Wiley; 2006.

This fascinating book looks at the back stories of some of Hollywood's most infamous flops, movies which were not only artistic disasters but in general lost literally millions of dollars for their respective studios. The movies covered include Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton; Ishtar and Town and Country, both of which starred Warren Beatty; Kevin Costner's two mega-bombs, Waterworld and The Postman; Showgirls; Cutthroat Island; and others. Parish explains in engaging and authoritative fashion why some of these movies were disasters-in-the-making, with bad decisions made by ego-driven movie executives who wanted to be the instigator of the Next Big Blockbuster but wound up with egg on their faces, dismal reviews and returns, and careers in tatters. What's amazing is how the green light was often given to projects in spite of the fact that similar films were turkeys of major proportions. Given the out-of-control egomania of both stars, directors, and executives, the vast number of people who tinker with each screenplay, the very bad casting decisions, and the who-gives-a-shit-let's-just-spend-and-spend attitude, it's a wonder that anything decent ever gets made. Part of the problem is the unbelievable salary demands of today's movie stars, who jack up the budget of every film to incredible proportions, sometimes sinking a property right from the start.

Verdict: Compulsory reading for every film enthusiast who wants to know more about the inner workings of Hollywood. ****.

THE MONEY JUNGLE

John Ericson and Leslie Parrish
THE MONEY JUNGLE (1967). Director: Francis D. Lyon.

Four geologists are killed in suspicious "accidents" and it all seems tied in to whether or not a certain field contains oil. The board of directors of the Jumbo Oil Co. hire private investigator Blake Heller (John Ericson) to look into the murders and other matters. As he proceeds with his investigation the murders continue, until an unexpected assailant is revealed. The Money Jungle pulls you along without ever developing into a good movie. On the production level it resembles a failed TV pilot, but apparently that is not the case, and there's not a trace of style or panache to be found. Luke Heller is not your typical private eye with a seedy office, many bills, and hordes of panting women (although there are a couple). Heller lives in a large, expensive house, obviously makes big bucks dealing with corporate espionage and the like, and generally kisses women on the cheek or forehead. Frankly, this might have actually made a good series, it it had been well-handled. Ericson [Honey West] is okay as Heller, and the interesting cast includes Nehemiah Persoff [The Wild Party], Don Rickles, Lola Albright [Peter Gunn] and Leslie Parrish. Persoff and Rickles are fine, while Parrish offers an oddly subdued and relatively ineffective performance. Lola Albright is a lousy singer, but she's quite vivid in her turn as one of Heller's acquaintances. Charles Drake, Kent Smith and Michael Forest have smaller roles and are all good.

Verdict: Done with a bit of flair this might have amounted to something. **.

MONEY MADNESS

Frances Rafferty
MONEY MADNESS (1948). Director: Sam Newfield.

Julie Saunders (Frances Rafferty) has a dull life caring for her difficult Aunt Cora (Cecil Weston), when along comes a handsome and charismatic man named Steve Clark (Hugh Beaumont). Julie has no idea that Clark has stolen a great deal of money  -- this is revealed at the opening -- and needs a way to launder it. What if it turned out that the aunt had kept a fortune hidden in the attic, he surmises. Now all that remains is for Steve to marry Julie, get rid of her aunt, and claim the fortune. But how much will Julie go along with once she discovers the truth? Money Madness is a snappy bit of film noir whose main character is increasingly ensnared by evil and her own hidden desires until she's caught in a web that she can't cleanly get out of. Rafferty [Abbott and Costello in Hollywood] gives an excellent performance, as does Beaumont [The Lady Confesses], who is convincingly sociopathic. Harlan Warde plays the lawyer who advises Julie and tries to help her.

Verdict: Absorbing suspense film with fine lead performances. ***.

THE OTHER WOMAN

Hugo Haas and Cleo Moore
THE OTHER WOMAN (1954). Producer/ director/writer: Hugo Haas.

Film director Walter Darman (Hugo Haas) quickly needs a gal, any gal, to say three lines in a scene he's currently shooting. Ambitious Sherry Stewart (Cleo Moore), a member of the crew, is drafted, but does a pretty bad job and is replaced in the scene. Not tightly wrapped, Sherry's anger toward Darman and her allegedly lost opportunity for stardom is blown out of all proportion; she inveigles her boyfriend, Ronnie (Lance Fuller of The She-Creature) to help her get even with the man. It all leads to scheming, blackmail, and ultimately, murder. Yes, this is yet another Haas-Moore collaboration, and while it holds the attention, it never really sizzles as it should. Haas is fine, as always, and Moore is vivid but somehow second-rate. Darman and his father-in-law, movie producer Jack Macy (Charles Lester) have conversations about what constitutes a good movie, although Haas seems to have left out good characterization and dialogue. The movie has a very, very early use of the world "sexist." One character's attempt to come up with an alibi is laughably inept.

Verdict: Low level film noir. **.

DARK PLACES

DARK PLACES (2015). Director/writer: Gilles Paquet-Brenner.

Libby Day (Charlize Theron) was a child when her brother, Ben, murdered his mother and his two other siblings; she was the only survivor. Years later she is contacted by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), head of an organization called the Kill Club, one division of which tries to solve crimes. Wirth and his colleagues feel that Ben (Corey Stoll of Ant-Man) might have been innocent. Could it have been their drunk, nasty father, Runner (Sean Bridgers) who did the deed, or some of young Ben's (Tye Sheridan) associates? Based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote Gone Girl, this has intriguing aspects to it and a solution that is far-fetched, to say the least. The movie is also a bit slow, and lacks the taut suspense that it needs (except for the climax). Charlize Theron [Prometheus] is okay in the lead, but no more than that, although there is some vivid acting from Chloe Grace Moretz [Carrie] and Andrea Roth, who plays Ben's girlfriend Diondra at different points in her life. Bridgers is quite effective as Runner, and Hoult [Jack the Giant Slayer] is fine as Lyle even though his part is very under-written. Tye Sheridan is very good as young Ben. Few of the characters in this are especially sympathetic or likable.

Verdict: Minor-league suspenser when all is said and done. **1/2.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

THREE INTO TWO WON'T GO

Rod Steiger: lover boy?
THREE INTO TWO WON'T GO (1969). Director: Peter Hall.

43-year-old serial cheater Steve Howard (Rod Steiger) works in sales and goes off on frequent business trips. On one of these he picks up 19-year-old Ella (Judy Geeson of Berserk), a free-living, promiscuous, borderline hooker, installs her in a nearby hotel, and sleeps with her. Steve wants to keep seeing Ella -- no wonder! -- but then she shows up at his house when he's away and becomes friends with his wife, Frances (Claire Bloom). Frances buys Ella's story, takes pity on her, and invites her to stay in the guestroom. Then Ella announces to all that she is pregnant -- with Steve's child! Three Into Two Won't Go is halfway between a trashy exploitation picture and a serious marital drama and doesn't quite work as either, although the acting by all three leads helps put it over. Bloom [The Chapman Report] and Steiger [The Sergeant] were a real-life married couple at the time of filming although they were divorced this very year (after ten years), which may be why they don't quite come off as a realistic match in the picture. Or maybe it was Steiger's unappealing semi-nude scenes! Peggy Ashcroft certainly scores as France's mother, Belle, whom Frances brings home from a retirement village. One gets the feeling that the more interesting parts of the story happened after the end of the picture, and a lot is left unsaid.

Verdict: Several excellent performances help create a fairly interesting and not bad picture. ***.

SHADOWS ON THE STAIRS

Frieda Inescort and Mary Field have a heated confrontation
SHADOWS ON THE STAIRS (1941). Director: D. Ross Lederman.

In a boarding house run by a retired actress, Stella Armitage (Frieda Inescort) and her husband, Tom (Miles Mander), odd things are going on which seem to concern the Indian student Ram Singh (Turban Bey) and import-exporter Joseph Reynolds (Paul Cavanagh). Joseph is beloved by Stella, even as he is fooling around with the maid, Lucy (Phyllis Barry of Cynara). When a dead body turns up, the suspects are numerous, including all of the above-named, as well as spinster Miss Snell (Mary Field of Sea Raiders), writer Hugh Bromilow (Bruce Lester), and Stella's daughter, Sylvia (Heather Angel), who is involved with Hugh. Then a second dead body is discovered in a closet, and things really get heated, with accusations flying ... This is a suspenseful and intriguing mystery, although the "twist" at the end may either seem clever to viewers or make them groan. In any case, it's a good, well-acted mystery, with Inescort [Foxfire] really turning in an excellent performance as an understandably emotional woman. Another cast stand-out is Lumsden Hare as the inspector on the case, but everyone is really quite good.

Verdict: Short and snappy little "B" mystery. ***.

DUKE BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE

Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Laurence 
DUKE BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE (1988). Director: Leslie Megahey.

The Bluebeard theme has been used in dozens of books, plays, and movies [Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons, for instance] but it also was the subject of an opera by Bela Bartok, the 20th century masterpiece Duke Bluebeard's Castle. In this film adaptation, Judith (Elizabeth Laurence) comes to Bluebeard's (Robert Lloyd) castle and wants to learn all of his and the castle's secrets. Although Bluebeard warns her not to, Judith goes poking about (like a heroine in a Roger Corman Poe film) opening doors, and discovers things she's rather not have seen until the ultimate secret, and her final fate, are revealed. This film not only offers wonderful music and singing, but is quite visually impressive: white tiles dripping blood; a pool and glittering jewels, the floor of the castle opening to dramatically reveal Bluebeard's whole kingdom beneath Judith's feet; and the bodies of Bluebeard's former wives on display like silent statues in a hidden chamber. This is a very striking, well-sung, and effective film version of Bartok's opera.

Verdict: Very arresting. ***.

THE EVIL

Richard Crenna
THE EVIL (1978 aka House of Evil). Director: Gus Trikonis.

C. J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) and his doctor wife, Carolyn (Joanna Pettet of Casino Royale), decide to renovate a brooding, half-dilapidated old mansion with the help of some friends and colleagues. These include teacher Raymond Guy (Andrew Prine), his student-girlfriend, Laurie (Mary Louise Weller), young Pete (George O. Hanlon Jr.), who plays dumb practical jokes, Felicia (Lynn Moody), and Mary (Cassie Yates), who brings her German shepherd along. Unfortunately, there's some sort of presence in the house that C. J. inadvertently lets loose when he opens up a pit in the basement. It isn't long before the group finds itself trapped in the mansion, with the doors and windows literally sealed by some force that won't let them break through no matter what. Needless to say, the members of the group die in various awful ways, often related to electrocution. The Evil is not a terrible picture -- it has some atmosphere and suspense as well as some creepy situations -- but in making its evil Satanic force so literal at the end it's almost comical. Some of the actors are on occasion defeated by the melodramatic sequences they find themselves in, although Victor Buono [The Strangler] proves effective (despite the absurdity of his role) in the film's finale. Somewhat reminiscent of The Legend of Hell House, which came out five years earlier.

Verdict: Not much subtlety to this! **1/2.

DEAD MAN'S EYES

DEAD MAN'S EYES (1944). Director: Reginald Le Borg.

This "Inner Sanctum" mystery stars, as usual, Lon Chaney Jr., as artist David Stuart. David has a girlfriend named Heather (Jean Parker of Beyond Tomorrow), whose father, Stanley (Edward Fielding) is a good friend of his. David is working on a painting of his model, Tanya (Acquanetta), when she accidentally switches a bottle of eye wash with acid, resulting in David's blindness. Tanya, who is in love with David, wants to take care of him, out of guilt, while David's buddy, Alan (Paul Kelly of The File on Thelma Jordan) wants to take care of Tanya. Stanley arranges for David to get a corneal transplant when the time comes, and ironically winds up the donor when he is murdered. Suspects include everyone from David to Tanya to Nick (George Meeker), who is hoping to marry Heather. With a very suspenseful story and some adept playing, this is one of the best in the short-lived Inner Sanctum series. Acquanetta [Captive Wild Woman] is especially effective as Tanya.

Verdict: Credible and absorbing minor mystery. ***.

HIT AND RUN

Vince Edwards
HIT AND RUN (1957). Producer/ director/writer: Hugo Haas.

Gus Hilmer (Hugo Haas) owns a gas station and employs his younger friend Frankie (Vince Edwards) as his helper. One night they meet a vaudeville dancer named Julie (Cleo Moore), who is determined to find a job or a life where she won't always be on the road. Before long, Gus and Julie are married while Frankie, hot for Julie, simmers on the sidelines. Frankie is sure that Julie loves him instead of Gus, and cooks up a devious scheme ... Hit and Run is a highly-entertaining bit of film noir with some very good performances. Haas is outstanding, and Edwards swaggers around in a way that is both sexy and effective. Moore is also vivid in her portrayal, although Beverly Michaels, who also worked with Haas, might have been even better. Haas and Moore, who were not married in real life, made several films together, and this is one of the best. While it could be, and probably was, dismissed as a low-rent Postman Always Rings Twice (as was Haas' Pickup, which has several similarities to this picture), Hit and Run has its own interest, and the actual "hit and run" murder sequence is very well handled. Edwards [City of Fear], who became famous as TV's Ben Casey, was always at his best playing bad boys like this.

Verdict: Entertaining minor film noir with two sexy lovers in search of a victim. ***.

WE ARE STILL HERE

A demon from We Are Still Here
WE ARE STILL HERE (2015). Writer/director: Ted Geoghegan.

Anne Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton) and her husband Paul (Andrew Sensenig) lost their college-age son two months ago due to a car crash. The Sacchettis have bought a house in the small town of Aylesburg, where Anne can feel the young man's presence despite the fact he neither lived nor died in the house. Anne importunes her supposedly psychic friends, Jacob and May Lewis (Larry Fessenden; Lisa Marie) to come to the house and see if they can contact the deceased son. Unfortunately, May is convinced that there is something else, something evil, inside the place. In the meantime old Dave McCabe (Monte Markham) tells the Sacchettis about the weird history of the house and its owner, Dagmar. Then the killings start ... We Are Still Here is a fairly inept, highly unoriginal (and overly-familiar) combination of ghost-demon story with the "old-town-with-a-dread-secret" genre, and doesn't work as either. A large part of the trouble is that Ted Geoghegan is even worse as a director than he is as a writer, showing no panache at all and utterly failing to give the film its required atmosphere. The script has no internal logic and seems to plod from scene to scene with (often unaccountable) spurts of violence just to keep the audience awake. It all ends with a gory bloodbath (at least these gruesome effects are well done, for what it's worth), but there's something almost comical in how a very bloody head-gooshing scene is followed by a sappy and unconvincing mock-sentimental conclusion. The movie is a figurative and literal mess. Neither Crampton [You're Next] nor Sensenig manage to get across (except for some of Crampton's early scenes) that these are people who lost their son only two months ago. The only actor who comes across unscathed is Monte Markham [The New Perry Mason] as the elderly neighbor who is not as benign as he seems. Vaguely reminiscent in some regards of the vastly superior Burnt Offerings, but this picture borrows liberally from dozens of better movies.

One has to ask: why did this bad movie get so many positively rave reviews? Perhaps these particular critics are very young people who haven't seen enough horror movies, or haven't the critical facilities to recognize schlock when they see it. Apparently audiences weren't quite as enamored of the film as some critics were.

Verdict: A badly-directed home movie. *1/2.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

CHILD'S PLAY (1972)

James Mason and Robert Preston
CHILD'S PLAY (1972). Director: Sydney Lumet. Based on the stage play by Robert Marasco.

Odd things, including outbreaks of violence and secretive behavior, have been happening at a Catholic boys school. While Frank the headmaster (Ron Weyand) tries to figure out what's going on, a conflict arises between stern, old-style professor Malley (James Mason) and the younger, more beloved coach, Dobbs (Robert Preston of The Lady Gambles). There are rumors going around about Malley, and certain magazines have been sent to his home, along with other harassment; Malley is convinced that Dobbs is behind it all. But whatever Malley's peculiarities, is Dobbs quite the good guy that he pretends to be, and who is actually behind the sinister events at the school which threaten to close it down? Child's Play is very suspenseful and boasts an absolutely superb performance by James Mason. A particularly good scene has him reacting to news of his mother's death. Robert Preston is also good, although a cut below Mason. Beau Bridges is not bad as a student who has returned to the school as a teacher, although he is occasionally on the amateurish side. There are some sharp performances by the younger actors who play the besieged students. Threatening to turn into Children of the Damned at times, Child's Play is a bit far-fetched and theatrical, even maddening, but it is also quite absorbing, suspenseful and fascinating. And that Mason! Robert Marasco, who wrote the stage play upon which this is based, also wrote the novel, Burnt Offerings, the film version of which starred Bette Davis. Sidney Lumet directed a number of stage to screen adaptations, of which The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots was undoubtedly the worst.

Verdict: Much, much better than that "Child's Play" about the killer doll. ***.

DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE

DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE (1965). Director: Norman Taurog.

Dr. Goldfoot (Vincent Price) uses robot versions of beautiful women to seduce and marry wealthy men so that the not-so-good doctor can enrich his coffers. His best robot, no. 11 or Diane (Susan Hart), mistakenly pursues agent 001/4 Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) of SIC (Secret Intelligence Committee, or something like that), until she realizes she's really after the rich Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman). Craig has trouble convincing his boss and uncle, D. J. (Fred Clark of Hollywood Story), about the despicable plot even as Diane gets Todd to sign over virtually all of his assets. This spy spoof is bolstered by a fine and amusing performance by Vincent Price, as well as a smart and sexy one by Susan Hart [War-Gods of the Deep] -- Fred Clark is also good and Avalon and Hickman aren't bad, either. However, despite a few good laughs -- a funny bit involving a piece of ice and a woman's panties in a restaurant; a cameo by Annette Funicello -- the movie is way too silly and has a lengthy and tedious chase sequence at the end. Shots and sets from Price's Pit and the Pendulum are used for a sequence in which Goldfoot tries to kill Todd. The Supremes (!) sing a snappy title tune, but it's unlikely it ever turned up on a "best of" CD.

Verdict: Five laugh-out-loud moments but that's not nearly enough. **.

A VILLAGE ROMEO AND JULIET

Michal Dlouhy and Dana Moravkova
A VILLAGE ROMEO AND JULIET (1992). Director: Petr Weigl.

In this filmed adaptation of Frederick Delius' opera of the same name, Sali (Michal Dlouhy) and Vreli (Dana Moravkova) are childhood sweethearts whose fathers become bitter enemies over a lawsuit over property. Later on Sali accidentally kills Vreli's father, Marti (Pavel Mikulik), and he and the woman he loves go off together despite her mixed emotions. There they wind up with a group of bohemians and outlaws among which the couple do not really feel comfortable. The two make a sad decision ... A Village Romeo and Juliet is beautifully filmed, well-acted, and marvelously sung. Dlouhy and Moravkova, both very attractive actors, do expert pantomiming while Arthur Davies and Helen Field do the outstanding vocalizing. Star baritone Thomas Hampson both sings and acts the role of the "Dark Fiddler" and is excellent on both counts. Delius' music is intensely romantic and there are moments of real beauty in the score.

Verdict: Good things to look at and beautiful music to hear. ***1/2.

PILLOW OF DEATH

PILLOW OF DEATH (1945). Director: Wallace Fox.

Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce of Tarzan and the Amazons) lives with her mostly stern and unpleasant relatives in a creeky old house. Her Aunt Belle (Clara Blandick) heartily disapproves of Donna's relationship with her boss, Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.), because he already has a wife. This becomes moot when Mrs. Fletcher is found murdered in her bed. Things get complicated when the murders continue, with the victims always found suffocated (hence the "pillow"). In addition to the already named, the suspects include the medium, Julian (J. Edward Bromberg of The Mark of Zorro); the poor relation and servant Amelia (Rosalind Ivan of The Corn is Green); old Uncle Sam (George Cleveland); and creepy next-door neighbor Bruce (Bernard Thomas), who has a thing for Donna and is always puttering surreptitiously around the estate. Pillow of Death is decidedly one of the better "Inner Sanctum" mysteries, with an entertaining story, interesting characters, and a lot of plot twists, not to mention its quota of stupid moments along with a generous amount of suspense. The acting in general is quite good as well, with the character actors being somewhat more effective than the leads.

Verdict: Good "Inner Sanctum" mystery. ***.

DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY

Jean Parker and Peter Cookson
DETECTIVE KITTY O'DAY (1944). Director: William Beaudine.

Kitty O' Day (Jean Parker) works for Oliver Wentworth (Oliver Earle), who has also hired her boyfriend, Johnny Jones (Peter Cookson), to deliver some important papers. Wentworth is murdered and the papers are missing, and Kitty determines to find out what's what and clear both her and Johnny's names. Suspects include Veda Ann Borg as Wentworth's much-younger widow; Douglas Fowley as her possible love interest; Herbert Heyes as another attorney; and Olaf Hytten [Shanghai Chest] as the butler, Charles. Blowsy Kitty keeps tripping over bodies as she investigates, and winds up balancing on a ledge with Johnny in a scary-funny sequence set in an apartment building. Parker [Flying Deuces] isn't bad, Cookson is as good (and wasted) as ever, Tim Ryan (who co-wrote the screenplay) is fine as typically harried Inspector Clancy, and Edward Gargan scores as Clancy's befuddled and put-upon assistant, Mike. Followed by a sequel.

Verdict: A monogram picture that actually has a few real laughs in it to go with some good acting. **1/2.

PIER 5 HAVANA

Allison Hayes
PIER 5 HAVANA (1959). Director: Edward L. Cahn.

Steve Daggett (Cameron Mitchell) comes to Havana -- right after Castro has taken over -- to look for his missing friend, Hank Miller (Logan Field). Hank is married to an ex-girlfriend of Steve's named Monica (Allison Hayes), who is now keeping company with a character named Fernando Ricardo (Eduardo Noriega of The Beast of Hollow Mountain). Steve's trail leads to Schluss (Otti Waldis of Unknown World), whose warehouse is inexplicably stocking guns. Steve contacts Lt. Garcia (Michael Granger of Creature with the Atom Brain), but he has nothing to pin on Schluss. Then Garcia tells Steve they have found Hank Miller's body -- or have they? Steve discovers that there's a plot afoot to put Batista back in power, and to bomb Havana. The performances are all solid in this cheap melodrama, which is more like an expanded television episode than a movie. Vincent Padula, Rick Vallin, and Ken Terrell all have small roles.

Verdict: It's always fun to see the 50 Foot Woman herself, Allison Hayes. **.

THE GIFT

Writer, director and star: Joel Edgerton
THE GIFT (2015). Writer/director: Joel Edgerton.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), have just moved into a new home when they encounter Simon's old high school acquaintance, Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the picture). Gordo, who gives the couple gifts, seems pleasant enough, but he makes Simon nervous, especially when some of his actions seem a little odd. Apparently something happened in the past between Simon and Gordo, and Robyn is determined to find out what it was ... The main strength of The Gift, after the excellent performances of the three leads, is the film's undeniable suspense as it switches your allegiance back and forth from Simon to Gordo and you try to figure out which man is the true villain. The movie also explores how much accountability a person should be held to due to cruel pranks in youth; how some people can never move beyond a certain significant moment in their lives; and if revenge is ever warranted, especially if it victimizes innocents as well. Bateman [This is Where I Leave You], always glib and smug, is perfect as Simon; Hall [Iron Man 3]is simply wonderful and very appealing as Robyn; and Edgerton maintains an air of what one might call sympathetic mystery around Gordo until the very end. On the other hand, I'm not certain that the film really stands up to close scrutiny, nor that it has the kind of impact that it could have had. Some viewers may be frustrated because Edgerton doesn't spell out everything -- this also means you may feel at a distance from the characters -- although most of it can be figured out.

Verdict: Flawed but highly intriguing suspense film with on-the-money performances. ***.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON

Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper
LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (1957). Director: Billy Wilder.

Ariane (Audrey Hepburn), the daughter of a private detective, Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier), saves a playboy, Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), that her father has been tracking, from a jealous husband (John McGiver). Ariane and Frank eventually begin seeing each other, and she tries to make him jealous by reciting all of the mythical men she has been with before (even though she's hardly old enough to have had so many affairs). Wanting to know the truth about Ariane, and not knowing her true identity, he hires her own father to find out more about her. Said to be Wilder's tribute to Ernst Lubitsch, this lacks the "Lubitsch Touch" and is rather slow at times. If it was meant to be a screwball comedy it doesn't work on that level, and the characters are too one-dimensional to make them really interesting. The whole bit with the aging playboy who finally finds the right girl is as old as "The Affairs of Anatol" and then some, and the whole movie has a distinctly old-fashioned quality even for the fifties. A big problem is that Hepburn [The Children's Hour] was 28 but looks ten years younger, and Cooper was 56 but (due to illness) looks ten years older -- Cooper is given only two closeups and they are not good --  so it looks as if Ariane is in love with a man old enough to be her grandfather. Exploring the sexuality of senior citizens is a perfectly worthwhile project, but Flannagan is not supposed to be as old as he looks, and he would come off much better with a more age-appropriate female on his arm. A bigger problem is not the age difference, but that Flannagan is a bit of a pig, even a vulgarian, making the allegedly "happy" ending more tragic than anything else. He is also an uncultured nincompoop (a la Donald Trump) who acts like an eight-year-old during the gorgeous overture of Tristan and Isolde in the opera house, another example of someone who has lots of money but absolutely no taste. The film never explores the reality that Flannagan's millions and ostentatious lifestyle would certainly influence Ariane's feelings toward the man. Hepburn may be bony, but she's wonderful in the movie, as are Chevalier and McGiver. Cooper does his familiar "cutesy" act but it's especially off-putting by this time; he basically just walks through the movie. Wilder directed some great movies, such as Double Indemnity and Witness for the Prosecution, but this picture hasn't aged at all well.

Verdict: Given the talent involved, this is a major disappointment. **.

SHORT CUT TO HELL

Robert Ivers and Georgann Johnson
SHORT CUT TO HELL (1957). Director: James Cagney.

This is the only film ever directed by James Cagney. Kyle Niles (Robert Ivers) is a hit man hired to kill a builder and his secretary. His contact, Bahrwell (Jacques Aubuchon of Twenty Plus Two), makes the mistake of giving Niles marked money in the hopes he'll be arrested. As Ivers makes his way to Bahrwell and his employer, a man known only as A.T. (Richard Hale), he encounters Glory Hamilton (Georgann Johnson), whose boyfriend, Stan, is a cop (William Bishop of Harriet Craig). Glory winds up as Niles' not necessarily unwilling hostage, although her supposed motives are to save Stan's life. The acting is solid in this picture, which is distinguished only in the fact that Cagney directed it -- it is not an auspicious directorial debut. Both Ivers and Johnson were trumpeted as bright new stars in Cagney's introduction to the film, although both, especially Johnson, had several previous credits. They were talented actors but neither became a star. Johnson's rather pudgy face lacked true beauty, but she wound up a well-recognized character actress with many credits. Ivers did mostly television work; he looked like a cross between Jack Kelly and Richard Widmark. The character of Bahrwell is obviously meant to be homosexual, with snide references throughout the film. Hale offers his usual portrait of an absolutely hateful old man; he had a great many credits. Yvette Vickers [What's the Matter with Helen?] offers her typically vivid portrayal of the landlord's daughter in Niles' apartment house. The script has some stupid and psychologically dubious moments given what we know about sociopaths, and Glory's behavior is often ridiculous.

Verdict: Cagney wisely stuck to acting after this. **1/2.

THE GOLDEN ARROW

Bette Davis and George Brent
THE GOLDEN ARROW (1936). Director: Alfred E. Green.

When reporter Johnny Jones (George Brent) shows up on a yacht belonging to wealthy heiress Daisy Appleby (Bette Davis) hoping for a story, she mistakes him for a member of Society and begins to fall for him. But it turns out that Johnny isn't the only one who's playing a role. Daisy wants to keep unwanted suitors and fortune hunters away from her, so she importunes Johnny to wed her for a marriage of sheerest convenience. But when he learns that truth about Daisy, will everything blow up in her face? The Golden Arrow begins with possibilities but never recovers from its contrivances or the fact that it is never very funny. Davis and Brent give very good performances, as expected, and there is wonderful support from Catherine Doucet [These Three] as Miss Pommesby, who looks after Daisy, and Eugene Pallette [First Love] as Mr. Meyers. Dick Foran and Carol Hughes are also in the cast and are fine.

Verdict: One of those lousy movies Davis was always railing against early in her career. **.