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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ANASTASIA

Helen Hayes, Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman
ANASTASIA (1956). Director: Anatole Litvak. Screenplay by Arthur Laurents.

In Europe in the 1920's rumors are circulating that Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman), the youngest daughter of the Tsar Nicholas, may have survived the purge that killed the rest of her family. General Bounine (Yul Brynner) finds a woman, fresh out of mental hospitals and contemplating suicide, whom he thinks resembles Anastasia, and guides her -- like Henry Higgins -- to act more like royalty. But as she is about to meet the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes) and seal her fate, she wonders if she could really be who everyone says she is. Anastasia is a wonderful, absorbing film that is not true to historical facts but to their spirit, and works beautifully as a kind of fairy tale. Bergman deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for this, and she is matched in excellence by a powerful Hayes, and a rather sexy and dynamic Brynner. There is also fine work from Martita Hunt [Becket] as the Empress' peppery lady-in-waiting [to whom the Empress says "to a woman of your age, sex should mean nothing but gender"]; Ivan Desny as her nephew, Paul; Akim Tamiroff [The Vulture] as Boris Chernov, one of the co-conspirators in this matter of the "phony" Anastasia; and Natalie Schafer [The Other Love] as one of the group of Russian exiles who embraces Anastasia as their own; among others. The ending is contrived but effective, and the movie still manages to maintain an air of ambiguity. In real life, the Empress completely rejected "Anastasia's" claim, and the woman lived her life as Ana Anderson, protesting all along that she was the real daughter of the Tsar. Decades later, DNA proved conclusively that Anderson was lying. Filmed in stunning DeLuxe color and with a nice score by Alfred Newman.

Verdict: A true classic with superb performances. ****.

STALAG 17

William Holden and Peter Graves
STALAG 17 (1953). Director: Billy Wilder.

In a WW2 German POW camp, Sefton (William Holden) is a slick, callous wise guy who makes money anyway he can, whether it's from his fellow officers or from the German guards. When two hopeful escapees are discovered and shot, the other men suspect that someone in the barracks is feeding information to the buffoonish Schulz (Sig Ruman). The main suspect is Sefton, his accusers including the Security man, Price (Peter Graves); the barracks chief. Hoffman (Richard Erdman); blustery Duke (Neville Brand); and the two camp clowns, Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and "Animal" (Robert Strauss); among others. When it is clear that the Germans, represented by Commander Sherbach (Otto Preminger), intend to kill newcomer Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor), who led a successful anti-German bombing raid, the group try to figure out a way to spirit him out of the camp without the quisling's knowledge. But is Sefton really the traitor? Stalag 17 might have made a great picture if there wasn't such insistence on catering to popular tastes and making a "feel good" movie about a Prisoner of War camp. No one expects Italian neo-realistic grimness in a Hollywood movie, but the comedy relief -- especially as it pertains to the bumbling and irritating Shapiro and Animal --  at times threatens to overwhelm everything else, as if it's a sitcom -- in fact, this movie with its cartoon Nazis was undoubtedly the inspiration for the series Hogan's Heroes, which even included a fumbling "Schulz". It's too bad, because the more serious aspects of the film are generally well-done. Holden gives his usual competent once-removed performance, and Graves [Beginning of the End] and Erdman [Cry Danger] and some of the others are fine, but Neville Brand is especially notable and dynamic as Duke. Holden won a Best Actor Oscar that he didn't really deserve, as it was well within his range and nothing at all special. Wilder and Strauss [September Storm] were nominated, but Brand should have been. The men in the camp talk about Betty Grable, but not once does anyone mention or even seem to think of wives and other loved ones back home aside from a brief scene when the POWs receive mail -- including letters from the finance company (!) -- from the States. [Apparently the Red Cross helped ship U.S. mail to Germany via neutral Sweden, but letters from the finance company are doubtful!] The film even tries to milk humor out of a throwaway scene when a prisoner realizes his wife is pregnant by another man but can't face up to it. (Trying not to over-sentimentalize, the movie goes to the other extreme.) There's a charming scene when the men all dance together in the absence of women.

Verdict: German POW camps as filtered through superficial Hollywood. **1/2.

RING OF FEAR

Mickey Spillane falls asleep during the movie
RING OF FEAR (1954). Director: James Edward Grant.

Dublin O'Malley (Sean McClory of Valley of the Dragons), a former ring director for Clyde Beatty's circus, escapes from prison and commits murder while on his way back to the circus. Clyde Beatty (playing himself) decides to rehire O'Malley, who not only has a grudge against Beatty but is still carrying a torch for high-wire performer Valerie (Marian Carr of Indestructible Man), who now has a husband named Armand (John Bromfield). Fearing his circus is jinxed, Beatty asks Mickey Spillane (also playing himself) to investigate, along with an undercover cop named Jack Stang (also playing himself). Two other characters are a stereotypically stupid Latino named Pedro Gonzales (played, believe it or not, by Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and a hand named Twitchy (Emmet Lynn), who is a little too fond of the bottle. Ring of Fear seems to be a 90 minute ad for both Clyde Beatty's circus and Mickey Spillane's novels, as there's no other reason for it to exist. There are some splendid acts in the circus, especially those extremely well-trained elephants, but there isn't much of a plot, little suspense, hardly any excitement, and absolutely no surprises. Nine years later, Spillane played his creation, Mike Hammer, in The Girl Hunters, but he is only passable playing himself. He played a lawyer in Mommy (and its sequel) in 1995. Clyde Beatty played himself years earlier in the serial The Lost Jungle. The best performance is by Emmet Lynn.

Verdict: Almost as bad as Circus of Fear. **.

THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE

Wolfgang Preiss
THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (aka Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse/1960. Director: Fritz Lang.

A series of murders and strange occurrences center around the Hotel Luxor. When a woman, Marion Menil (Dawn Addams of The Vault of Horror), stands out on a ledge threatening to jump, she is coaxed in by American millionaire scientist Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck of The Wages of Fear). As Travers tries to determine the reason for Marion's despair, Commissioner Kras (Gert Frobe) investigates the murder of a reporter who is shot while his car is stopped in traffic -- a murder that reminds Kras of a similar death that the late criminal Dr. Mabuse was responsible for (and which occurred in Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.) Assisting Kras is the blind psychic Peter Cornelius, even as Marion is assisted by her physician, the striking Dr. Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss). Whoever is behind the goings-on has outfitted the Hotel Luxor with television monitors in each room, as well as two-way mirrors. A bomb in the Commissioner's phone nearly ends the case for him.  The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang's final Mabuse filmis an absorbing thriller with lots of twists and turns and a satisfying wind-up. The performances are good, with Wolfgang Preiss [The Terror of Dr. Mabuse] being especially notable.

Verdict: Dr. Mabuse has denied that he had anything to do with the 2016 US presidential election. ***.

HOLMES OF THE MOVIES

HOLMES OF THE MOVIES: The Screen Career of Sherlock Holmes. David Stuart Davis. Bramhall House; 1978. Foreword by Peter Cushing.

This entertaining book on movies featuring the famous character Sherlock Holmes has chapters on silent films such as The Murder On Baker Street;  the stage adaptation Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette; early interpretations of Holmes played by Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, and even Raymond Massey; Arthur Wontner, considered one of the best of the early Holmesian thespians; and, of course, the most famous of actors to play Holmes, Basil Rathbone. Rathbone's many Holmes films are covered, and there are additional chapters on TV series starring Ronald Howard and Peter Cushing; the Hammer film The Hound of the Baskervilles, also starring Cushing; sixties films such as Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace and A Study in Terror; Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; and more recent films that have had anything to do with the character, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. Knowledgeable and engaging, Holmes of the Movies is loaded with great photographs.

Verdict: All you could want to know about Sherlock Holmes on film, on stage, and on TV. ***.

S.O.S. COAST GUARD

Boroff (Bela Lugosi) ponders who to torture next. 
S.O.S. COAST GUARD (12 chapter Republic serial/1937. Directors; William Witney; Alan James.

"You let him get avay. You have blundered." -- Boroff to Thorg.

Lt. Terry Kent (Ralph Byrd) watches in horror as the hated criminal Boroff (Bela Lugosi) shoots down his brother. Kent vows to get even, even as Boroff tries to sell his disintegrating gas to the highest bidder. Kent's friends include reporter Jean Norman (Maxine Doyle); the photographer, Snapper (Lee Ford); and Jean's scientist brother, Dick (Allen Connor), who rushes to create a counter-gas to the vaporizing formula. Boroff's associates including the bulky Thorg (Richard Alexander of Flash Gordon) and henchman Dodds (Carleton Young of Flight to Hong Kong). Chapter one features an exciting sequence when Kent and the gang are trapped on a ship at sea as it sinks. In chapter two Kent is trapped in a glass chamber as Boroff unleashes his disintegrating gas. There are descending freight elevators, falling water towers, and a fiery truck that hurtles over a cliff. Byrd makes a reliable hero, as usual, while Lugosi, treading water, manages his customary authority but has little energy. 5 years later the serial was released as a 61 minute feature version. NOTE; Okay, this is another film I have reviewed after then discovering that I had already reviewed it on this site -- at least I did remember that I had seen the darn thing before!. For the original review, click here. (Last time I caught some things I missed this time around, for shame!)

Verdict: Average serial. **1/2.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016). Director: Stephen Frears.

Florence Foster Jenkins is loosely based on the life of the title character (Meryl Streep), a silly woman in 1944 New York who fancied herself a patron of the arts but may have been more interested in promoting herself despite a complete lack of talent. Was she delusional; was it all a big goof? Does anybody care? Frankly, a movie about a genuine opera star whose life is full of drama would have been a better bet than this mediocre film about the awful-sounding Jenkins. A bigger problem with the movie is that the characters are one-dimensional and in the case of  her "boyfriend" and manager (Hugh Grant of Love, Actually), highly unlikable. Streep, although miscast, isn't bad and Grant is fine, but the picture is stolen by Simon Helberg in his winning portrayal of Jenkins' befuddled accompanist, Cosme McMoon. But despite some funny moments and bits that attempt to be touching, this is not really a movie about people that anyone could give a fig about. Sadly, Streep has made worse, equally superficial movies, but she also appears in good ones such as Doubt. There was a play about Jenkins, as well as a French film based on her life, and a 2016 docudrama entitled The Florence Jenkins Story. Enough! Stephen Frears also directed Philomena.

Verdict: Hardly worth the time to sit through. **.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

JOAN OF ARC

A captive Joan prays: Ingrid Bergman
JOAN OF ARC (1948). Director: Victor Fleming.

"We can win only if we become God's army."

Joan (Ingrid Bergman), a young farm girl in France, claims to hear voices from God, telling her to speak to the Dauphin (Jose Ferrer) -- who would become King of France -- and to rally the French troops to force the British interlopers out of the country. She is on a mission from God to save France. Initially people are skeptical --  she is eventually seen as a witch by some, and a saint by others, and she marches into battle as a kind of unarmed mascot. But Joan's admirers are growing in number, and the French powers-that-be are disturbed ... Joan of Arc was excoriated when it was first released, primarily because it cost more than Gone with the Wind but was a financial bust. It's hard to understand why contemporary critics found the film boring and almost worthless. I am not at all religious, but I was impressed by the film's performances --virtually every well-known character actor working in pictures at the time -- the score (Hugo Friedhofer), and the beautiful color cinematography (Joseph Valentine) which often makes each shot look like a painting. The movie moves quite quickly as well. Bergman gives an Oscar-winning performance, and is wonderful. The only quibble I might have is that in scenes when she is supposed to be utterly exhausted due to no sleep she merely seems mildly fatigued -- even make up would have helped, but one supposes no one wanted to mar her features. Bergman was 33 at the time of filming (Joan was put to the stake at 19) and always wanted to play the role; a younger actress might have lacked the ability and strength the part required. Jose Ferrer, who was introduced in this picture,  also won a Best Actor Oscar, and while he's not on Bergman's level, he is quite good as the rather foppish Dauphin. Of the huge supporting cast there is notable work from Richard Derr as a knight and Joan's first follower; John Emery [Kronos] as the sympathetic Duke d'Alencon; and Jeff Corey [Seconds] as a jailer intent on Joan's rape. There are also appearances by Jimmy Lydon (!) as Joan's brother; Alan Napier (Batman's butler) as the Earl of Warwick; Hurd Hatfield as Father Pasquerel; and brief bits with Henry Brandon, Thomas Brown Henry, George Coulouris, and many others. The worst performance is by Francis L. Sullivan [Hell's Island], who plays Pierre Cauchon, Joan's chief accuser, almost as if he were a villain in a cliffhanger serial. The movie employs a lot of dramatic license, as a great deal is not known about Joan, and the picture simply takes her at face value, with no indication (from the movie's point of view) that she may be either demented, opportunistic or both. Her horrible death is depicted but rather glossed over -- she doesn't even break out into a sweat as the flames supposedly consume her.

Verdict: At times the movie seems to exist in a vacuum, but it is beautiful to look at, well-paced, and features some marvelous performances. ***.

LIBEL

Olivia de Havilland and Dirk Bogarde
LIBEL (1959). Director: Anthony Asquith.

Sir Mark Loddon (Dirk Bogarde), a wealthy baronet who escaped from a POW camp during the war, lives on a huge estate with his wife, Margaret (Olivia de Havilland), and their young son. One afternoon there arrives Jeffrey Buckenham (Paul Massie), who served with Mark and was also in the POW camp. Jeffrey insists to everyone that "Sir Mark" is actually Frank Welney, another man who was also a prisoner in the camp and who looked enough like Mark to be his twin. When Jeffrey writes to the newspapers, Margaret importunes Mark to file a libel suit against the paper, leading to a highly dramatic trial and many revelations. Libel is a highly suspenseful picture that keeps throwing twists and turns at the viewer and keeps one going back and forth as to whether Mark is really Welney or not. Although you would think Bogarde [Doctor at Sea] and de Havilland [The Heiress] would mix together like oil and water, they play nicely together anyway, and both give very good performances in their different styles; Bogarde successfully etches dual roles as well. Robert Morley and Wilfred Hyde-White are also excellent as opposing council, and Massie [The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll] gives one of the most notable performances of his career as Buckenham. One of the most beautifully-played scenes is between Massie and de Havilland when Margaret confronts the compassionate (towards her) Jeffrey outside the courtroom, but their disquieting conversation doesn't quell her fears as she'd hoped. Robert Shaw has a small role as a photographer.

Verdict: Almost perfect on all accounts. ***1/2.

THE LEOPARD

Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon
THE LEOPARD (aka Il gattopardo/1963). Director: Luchino Visconti. Three hour Italian version with sub-titles.

"I've had seven children with her and I've never seen her navel." -- Fabrizio referring to his wife.

During the tumultuous changes in 19th century Italy, the aristocratic Prince Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) lives with his family in a palace with more rooms than he can count. His nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), joins Garibaldi's forces at first but fights for the king later on. The prince's daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), is in love with Tancredi, but the latter prefers the more beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), and not just because her father, Don Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a former peasant, has become wealthy. Sedara is basically treated with contempt by the prince and his family because he represents a new type of Italian citizen, a type that Fabrizio fears will eventually supplant the aristocracy. The Leopard has its most interesting scenes in the first quarter, depicting the ravages of war, and the second half struggles to find strong human drama in its situations. You keep waiting for something to happen, but it never quite does. Will the triangle situation with Concetta, Tancredi, and Angelique cause major difficulties? No. Will Don Sedara stop acting the buffoon and tell off the prince and his relatives? No. Will Fabrizio's children resent how Tancredi is treated more like a son than a nephew? No. There's nothing necessarily wrong in a more low-key approach, but one wishes that there had been more incident and dramatic vitality considering the three hour running time.

Even more problematic is the fact that The Leopard, despite its interesting and often attractive period settings, is not that well-directed. Even the supposedly famous long ballroom sequence near the close of the film lacks the kind of sweep and pageantry, the especially skillful camera work, that one would find in similar scenes in American films. The Leopard simply lacks greatness. The film is much admired in certain quarters -- one imdb. critic certainly overstated things by claiming it might be "the greatest motion picture of all time" [!] -- and there are things to admire (Nino Rota has written a lovely score for the film, for instance) but the characters are mostly unsympathetic and the picture becomes tedious just when you're expecting things to really develop. It's as if some people think The Leopard must be great because it's three hours long and made in Italy.

As for the acting, it's hard to judge Lancaster's performance because it's dubbed -- and judging from the American version, which is about 25 minutes shorter and uses Lancaster's real voice -- it's just as well. In the U.S. version, Lancaster doesn't seem remotely like a 19th century Italian aristocrat; he did much, much better work in The Swimmer. Delon  [Joy House] is more on the mark as his nephew, but Cardinale [Blindfold], who is not photographed that flatteringly, sometimes comes off as if she's mentally deficient. Stoppa, Morlacchi, and Romolo Valli as Father Perrone are more memorable.

Verdict: Watch The Damned or Ludwig instead. **.

CODE 7 VICTIM 5!

Lex Barker
CODE 7 VICTIM 5! ((1964). Director: Robert Lynn.

Private detective Steve Martin (Lex Barker) comes to Capetown at the request of Wexler (Walter Rilla of The Terror of Dr. Mabuse), who owns many copper mines in South Africa. Wexler's butler has been murdered, but Martin has to find out for himself that there have also been other victims. Wexler, who has his own secrets to hide, is sure he is next on the list. While investigating, and exploring the South African scenery, Martin dallies with Wexler's secretary, Helga (Ann Smyrner), and his step-daughter, Gina (Veronique Vendell). He allies himself with Inspector Lean (Ronald Fraser of The Flight of the Phoenix), and meets Wexler's doctor, Paul (Dietmar Schonherr of The Monster of London City), and mine manager, Anderson (Percy Sieff). Barker is okay as the private dick, and the story is not without interest, but this leisurely-paced movie serves chiefly to showcase some interesting Capetown settings, such as during a gun battle inside huge, impressive caverns. A cliff side finale is not as taut as it ought to be, and the wrong person is in danger. However, any movie that features an ostrich stampede (!) can't be all bad. Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer for this travelogue with spurts of action.

Verdict: Movie 5, Audience 0. **.

THE NAVY VS THE NIGHT MONSTERS

Anthony Eisley and Mamie Van Doren
THE NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS (1966). Director: Michael A. Hoey.

A plane carrying scientists and specimens from Antarctica crash lands on an island in the south seas where a Naval base is located. There is nothing inside the plane but the pilot, who is in shock. Lt. Brown (Anthony Eisley) is in conflict with civilian meteorologist Spaulding (the perpetually scowling Edward Faulkner) as the two are both interested in nurse Nora (Mamie Van Doren), while Ensign Chandler (Bobby Van) has a thing for another nurse, Diane (Kaye Elhardt), as CPO Twining (Billy Gray) kibitzes. People begin to disappear and a horribly decomposed corpse is discovered. A scientist named Marie (Pamela Mason) and the base doctor (Phillip Terry), among others, try to figure out what's going on. Apparently some acidic mobile vegetative creature is roaming the island, feeding upon anyone who is luckless enough to get in its path ... Talk about a strange cast: Here is a movie in which we combine a well-known hoofer; the teenage son from Father Knows Best;  James Mason's ex wife, Pamela; Joan Crawford's ex-husband, Terry; the doctor (Russ Bender) from War of the Colossal Beast; Mike Hammer (Biff Elliot as a commander); and the pouty breasts of Mamie Van Doren. Clearly inspired by Day of the Triffids (the poster for Night Monsters looks almost exactly like the one for Triffids) made four years earlier, while also channeling such film as From Hell It Came ( a cursed killer tree) and Voodoo Island (man-eating plants), Night Monsters is watchable and resembles a fifties creature feature. The monstrous trees in this picture remind one of the creature in Womaneater -- who knows? -- it may have been the same prop. The monsters emit eerie noises and the film is undeniably creepy at times. Pamela Mason gets eaten and Billy Gray has his arm torn off in the film's grisliest scene. The movie starts off like a dumb service comedy but quickly picks up. Gerald Zahler's musical score is effective and the acting is mostly competent.

Verdict: Remember to eat your vegetables! **1/2.

WES CRAVEN: THE ART OF HORROR

WES CRAVEN: THE ART OF HORROR. John Kenneth Muir. McFarland; 1998.

Wes Craven burst on the low-budget scene with the controversial Last House on the Left, then hit the big time with Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven had mixed success with the films that followed, but then came the Scream franchise which was extremely successful. Then as a producer, Craven's name was often attached to projects that he did not direct -- "Wes Craven Presents" -- such as Mind Ripper and Wishmaster. Muir follows a biographical/career section with lengthy essays on each of Craven's movies up until 1998. He also covers Craven's telefilms, the movies he produced but did not direct, and his short-lived television series, Nightmare Cafe. Craven tried unsuccessfully to mimic the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street films with the psycho Horace Pinker character of Shocker, but it didn't work. Muir obviously admires Craven's work (much more than this writer does), and while he may not convince anyone of Craven's genius, his analysis of the films is quite good, if a trifle pretentious at times. Illustrated.

Verdict: A must for Wes Craven fans. ***.


THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016). Director: David Yates.

John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), also known as Tarzan, leaves his lush life in London with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), to take a hand in a situation in the Congo in 1890. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), envoy to King Leopold, wants the area's diamonds, and to that end is enslaving many tribespeople, and he kidnaps Jane (as frequently happens in Tarzan books and movies) in order to control the ape man. Naturally things don't go well for Rom ... This attempt to update Edgar Rice Burroughs' durable creation is not quite a complete misfire, but it's not an especially good movie, either. In general Skarsgaard plays the role like a seedy male model with attitude instead of the King of the Jungle -- his long hair does not flatter the actor -- and Robbie, although not inadequate, looks more like she stepped off the cover of Vogue than anything else. Samuel L. Jackson (unlike the old Tarzan films, at least there's a black actor in a major role) plays a mercenary pretty much like Jackson [Oldboy] plays every role, and he just seems much too contemporary. Waltz, also the villain in Spectre, is as weird as ever. Some of the film resembles a video game, and the CGI effects -- mostly of animals -- are hit or miss, although there's a not bad protracted buffalo (?) stampede through a town. There are some beautiful scenic views but the movie mostly seems lifeless. Tarzan's origin is shown in several flashbacks, which only prevent the main story from gaining much momentum until the very end, and if anything, the characters, Tarzan included, are even less dimensional than in the Johnny Weissmuller era. Unlike the books and previous films, Legend of Tarzan has no fantasy or sense of wonder and strips our hero of his mythic stature. One stupid line from Jane seems to refer to pedophile priests in a very 21st century manner and might even be suggesting that Rom is gay. There are some good scenes in the movie, and two of them stand out: the shot of those soulful, sad and wise-weary elephant's eyes; and the confrontation between Tarzan and Chief Mbonga (an effective Djimon Hounsou). Tarzan killed the chief's young son after the boy unknowingly murdered Tarzan's mother, or more accurately the ape who raised him as her own. Frankly, any of the Weissmuller Tarzan films are much more entertaining than this.

Verdict: No charm and not much real adventure or whimsy. **1/2.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

ARCH OF TRIUMPH

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman
ARCH OF TRIUMPH (1948). Director: Lewis Milestone.

"A refugee without a passport has lost his membership in the human race."

In pre-WW2 Paris two strangers meet and become unhappily involved. One is Ravic (Charles Boyer), who was tortured in Austria by the Nazi Haake (Charles Laughton), and has taken illegal asylum in France. Joan (Ingrid Bergman) is a woman of "easy virtue" whose latest lover has just died. The couple seem to fall in love, but Ravic's illegal status and very real fear of jail and deportation, means he cannot get married. Then there's the added complication of Alex (Stephan Bekassy), with whom Joan gets engaged during a period when she is alone, and who is very possessive of her. Arch of Triumph, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, should have been a powerful film, and it does have its moments, but it never emerges as the dramatic triumph that it could have been. A big problem -- besides the fact that everything is too prettified -- is that Boyer and Bergman have absolutely no chemistry, and even if one might acknowledge that Ravic might be a rather dour character, Boyer's emotionless and often perfunctory performance -- one of his worst -- doesn't help. Bergman is much, much better, and the picture is nearly stolen by Louis Calhern [Athena] as a friend of Ravic's who works as doorman at a Russian nightclub. Charles Laughton [They Knew What They Wanted] is excellent, as usual, as the repulsive Haake, but much more should have been made of his very final confrontation with Ravic. The fake "prince" Michael Romanoff, who opened his own Hollywood restaurant, plays the captain of the aforementioned club, and is rather unprepossessing. Ruth Warrick comes and goes too quickly to make any impression. William Conrad [East Side, West Side] , who later starred in TV's Jake and the Fat Man, has a terrific bit as a police man who corners Ravic and questions him after the former tends to an injured woman on the street. This is, I believe, the one and only picture made by Enterprise studios.

Verdict: Not terrible by any means, but not at all what it should have been. **1/2.

BELLISSIMA

Anna Magnani and Walter Chiari
BELLISSIMA (1951). Director: Luchino Visconti.

Maddalena (Anna Magnani) is a visiting nurse with a husband, Spartaco (Gastone Renzelli), and a cute little daughter named Maria (Tina Apicella). Hoping her daughter will have a better life, she takes her to Cinecitta where they are having auditions for little girls for a movie entitled "Today, Tomorrow, and Never." Maddalena encounters a man, Alberto (Walter Chiari), who has a minor job with the production company, and offers his help -- for a price. She manages to get a screen test for Maria, but has she pinned all her hopes on the child in an unrealistic fashion? Bellissima is a notable comedy-drama that boasts an absolutely superb performance from Magnani [Wild is the Wind]. Chiari is charming and amassed a great many film credits, also starring as an Austrian playboy on Broadway in The Gay Life with Barbara Cook some years later. Handsome Renzelli is excellent as the husband, but he did very little film work. The little girl in the film doesn't so much act as react. Visconti's direction isn't quite of the nail-the-camera-to-the-floor variety, but it is a bit stodgy at times. The film is full of interesting touches and flavorful character actors, as well as a few inside jokes (including the name of the film the child auditions for). Outside the couple's apartment there is an outdoor cinema, and Maddalena remarks to her husband how nice she finds Burt Lancaster, making Spartaco a bit jealous. "I have a sense of humor, you know," she tells him. Ironically, Magnani and Lancaster would work together in the film adaptation of The Rose Tattoo four years later.

Verdict: Amusing, touching, and very well performed. ***.

SONG OF THE THIN MAN

William Bishop, Myrna Loy, William Powell
SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947). Director: Edward Buzzell.

The gambling ship, S. S. Fortune, is the sight of the murder of band leader Tommy Drake (Phillip Reed). Suspects include songstress Fran (Gloria Grahame); her ex-boyfriend Buddy (Don Taylor of The Girls of Pleasure Island); gangster Al Amboy (William Bishop); Mr. and Mrs. Talbin (Leon Ames; Patricia Morison); and Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), whom the police are after for the crime. His fiancee, Janet (Jayne Meadows of Enchantment), comes to Nick Charles (William Powell) for help, and he digs into the case with his usual jaunty style. Nora (Myrna Loy) tags along to no great purpose, while their cute little boy Nick Jr. (Dean Stockwell of The Werewolf of Washington) is left in the charge of Asta and the housekeeper, Bertha (Connie Gilchrist). Song of the Thin Man is not one of the better entries in the series -- in fact it was the last --  although it does have a lively and quite amusing finale. Gloria Grahame is completely wasted in her very small role as Fran, as is Marie Windsor, playing the gangster's wife in just one sequence. This has one of the dumbest murderers ever. The catchy song "You're not so easy to forget" is pleasantly warbled by whoever is dubbing Grahame. Ralph Morgan is Janet's grumpy father, and Morris Ankrum is the police inspector.

Verdict: Talky and dull with few bright spots. **.

SHOCKER

Mitch Pileggi
SHOCKER (1989). Director: Wes Craven.

Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) discovers to his horror that his family has been the latest in a series of families slaughtered in their homes by the maniacal Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi). Jonathan has some sort of psychic connection with Pinker that lets the police, including his foster father, Lt. Parker (Michael Murphy of An Unmarried Woman), zero in on the killer. But even after Pinker is tied into an electric chair and fried, he manages to stay alive by transferring from person to person with an electric charge. Jonathan determines to use every method he can to finally destroy the monster. Shocker was an obvious -- too obvious -- attempt for Wes Craven to repeat the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but although Pileggi gives an excellent, chilling and dynamic performance, Pinker is just not as interesting as Freddy Krueger. The attempts to imitate the Nightmare series include frequent dream sequences, a pack of youths banding together to take down Pinker, and so on. Shocker is too long and a bit slow, rather confusing at times, and not very well directed by Craven. It starts getting boring when it should be at its most exciting. Its sole saving grace is the climactic sequence in which Jonathan and Horace enter a television screen and jump from program to program, interacting with everyone from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to Leave it to Beaver to WW2 soldiers in documentaries; unfortunately the humor in this sequence completely dissipates the tension. (Timothy Leary plays a televangelist!) The other performances, like the score, are mediocre, although the vaguely intense Berg gives it the old college try. Shocker didn't do well enough to engender sequels. The opening sequence depicting a football game reminds one more of Porky's than a horror film. This is not the first or last film to employ the premise of an evil presence jumping from one person to another but one wishes more had been done with it. Four years later Ghost in the Machine had a similar plot of a serial killer changing into electricity.

Verdict: Some interesting elements but by and large a failure. **1/2.

HOT CARS

John Bromfield and Joi Lansing
HOT CARS (1956). Director: Donald McDougall.

Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) is a used car salesman with a wife, Jane (Carol Shannon), and a young son. When he learns that his new boss, Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton), is dealing in stolen cars, Nick decides he wants out -- until his son gets sick and he wonders how to pay the hospital bills. Nick goes back to Markel, but a cop named Davenport (Dabbs Greer) comes in one afternoon and wants to buy -- a hot car. Hot Cars is a typically cheap Bel-Air production but it benefits from location filming, some good performances, and a climactic battle inside a rushing roller coaster car. Mark Dana also makes an impression as the dangerous hood, Smiley Ward, while Joi Lansing [The Atomic Submarine], as the "niece" of Markel, is primarily decorative but certainly fills out her evening gown. Bromfield and Greer [Young and Dangerous] give solid performances. Bromfield [Crime Against Joe], who usually played sexy bad boys, doesn't get much lovin' in this, although Lansing gives him a hot smooch or two.

Verdict: Minor meller but fast-paced and well-acted. **1/2.

THE AVENGER (1960)

Heinz Drach
THE AVENGER (aka Der Racher/1960). Director: Karl Anton.

An unknown person who calls himself the "Executioner," has been running about decapitating criminals and the terminally ill and leaving their heads in boxes. Special agent Michael Brixan (Heinz Drach) follows a lead at a film set where he finds a clue in an old script. He is convinced that someone connected to the film company may be either the Executioner or an ally. Suspects and other characters include the director, Jackson (Friedrich Schoenfelder); his temperamental star, Stella Mendoza (Ingrid van Bergen); the elderly Henry Longvale (Ludwig Linkmann); the perverse Sir Gregory (Benno Sterzenbach); Bhag (Al Hoosmann), Gregory's brutish native manservant; the scriptwriter Voss (Klaus Kinski); and Ruth Sanders (Ina Duscha), the niece of the latest victim and an aspiring actress. Based on another novel by the prolific Edgar Wallace, The Avenger is not as horrific or gory as the plot may suggest, but there are some creepy final scenes taking place in old tunnels and caverns beneath an estate. Lots of red herrings in this but the wind-up is satisfying. Many more West German Wallace adaptations would follow.

Verdict: Another convoluted but entertaining Wallace story. **1/2.

DARK SHADOWS: RETURN TO COLLINWOOD

DARK SHADOWS: RETURN TO COLLINGWOOD. Pomegranate Press; 2012.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans on Dark Shadows, came out with this new photo book on the eve of the release of Tim Burton's quite dreadful big-budget film adaptation. Scott writes of how the members of the old cast, especially Jonathan "Barnabas" Frid, were disappointed that they were given no actual characters to play but were condescendingly cast as "party guests" (whom I never even spotted). Helena Bonham Carter, cast as Dr. Hoffman, was pleasant to their faces but later announced that the old series was "awful." (Apparently she said this before she saw the movie!) The rest of the book is full of notes and photographs pertaining not just to the original series, but the 12 episode remake starring Ben Cross as Barnabas. Then there are such anecdotes as the time Gale Sondergaard showed up on the set of the sixties series, and apparently auditioned for a role she either didn't get or didn't want. Scott also writes of what went on behind the scenes of the two Dark Shadows movies, such as House of Dark Shadows, that were made immediately after the cancellation of the TV show. The main focus of the book, of course, is on Scott, but there are interesting observations of the other actors as well.

Verdict: Primarily for Dark Shadows fanatics but packed with good photos. ***.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN

James Stewart
DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939). Director: George Marshall.

Kent (Brian Donlevy) who runs the saloon and the town in the old west, conspires with singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) to cheat Lem Claggert (Tom Fadden of Winners of the West)  out of his ranch during a crooked card game. When Sheriff Keogh (Joe King) objects, he is dispatched with, as is anyone who gets in the way of Kent. Into this situation comes Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart), the son of the legendary Sheriff Destry and now the deputy for inept and half-drunken Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). Destry doesn't carry a gun, although he's a crack shot (wouldn't you know?)  It's now his job to enforce the law, clean up the town, and find Keogh's body, while dealing with the hooker-hard Frenchy, who eventually warms up to him and vice  versa. Destry Rides Again is an odd movie, a sometimes uncomfortable combination of grim situations and unpleasant characters with moments of out and out farce, and the characters never seem remotely real. On the other hand, the movie is entertaining and certain sequences are quite well-staged by Marshall, including Frenchy's post cat-fight meltdown in the bar, and the sequence with the angry townswomen going on the march. As for the acting. it's top of the line all the way, with Dietrich giving an outstanding portrayal that almost manages to make her rather heartless character sympathetic. Jack Carson scores as a cattleman, a less genial role than he usually plays, Una Merkel is fine as the gal who tries to give French a good thrashing, Dickie Jones [Blake of Scotland Yard] is charming as young Claggett, Brian Donlevy [Juke Box Rhythm] is brisk and commanding as the evil Kent, and Charles Winninger gives a typically winning performance as the "new" sheriff, Wash. Dietrich's voice, with every other note sung flat, is wretched, but she still manages to put over such songs as "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" with her emoting. It's interesting that while Frenchy is somewhat redeemed, she is still punished for her actions as she would probably not be today. This was remade with Audie Murphy as Destry, and seven years earlier Tom Mix starred in a very different version of Destry Rides Again. Andy Griffith starred in the Broadway musical version with songs by Harold Rome, and John Gavin starred in the short-lived television series. These all originated in a book by Max Brand.

Verdict: Peculiar in some ways but Dietrich knocks it out of the ball park. ***.

FORTUNATE SON: THE LIFE OF ELVIS PRESLEY

FORTUNATE SON: THE LIFE OF ELVIS PRESLEY. Charles L. Ponce de Leon. Hill and Wang; 2006.

This slender biography of Elvis Presley provides an overview of the life and career of the singer/actor, surveying his early life, first recordings, romances, movie roles and so on. Presley first sang "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" on the Ed Sullivan show, although he was introduced by Charles Laughton. who was filling in for Sullivan (talk about two very different kinds of artists being juxtaposed). As he got more famous and wealthier, Presley was surrounded by a group of friends who jockeyed for position as Number One Yes-Man. Then there was his stint in the Army and his marriage to wife Priscilla, and his reliance on drugs as he got older, the Beatles emerged, and he struggled to stay relevant during the British invasion and the release of many if-you've-seen-one-you've-seen-'em-all movies. Elvis had his meeting with Richard Nixon as he turned into a paranoid monster who didn't trust anyone around him. Fortunate Son is a quick, entertaining read for those who may not want to plow through a more in-depth volume that has dozens of interviews. There's a lot more to say about Elvis, however, as this almost never goes behind the scenes of his movies.

Verdict: The basic facts and spirit of Elvis Presley's life. ***.

DEADLY FRIEND

Kristy Swanson and Matthew Labyorteaux
DEADLY FRIEND (1986). Director: Wes Craven.

A brilliant student named Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux) moves to a new town with his mother, Jeanne (Anne Twomey), and a talking robot he built called "BB." Paul makes two friends: a pretty next-door neighbor named Samantha (Kristy Swanson) and a good buddy named Tom (Michael Sharrett). When Sam is killed by her abusive father, Paul decides to bring her back to life by using circuits from BB implanted in her brain. Needless to say, the experiment doesn't go well, and Sam loses her sweet disposition ... Deadly Friend has an excellent, if absurd, premise, but it seems determined to schlock it down as much as possible, with foolish "gross out" scenes substituting for pseudo-scientific drama. It's especially a shame because the movie sets up interesting situations and is well-acted by the entire cast. Swanson and Labyorteaux (billed without the "y" in this film) make a good couple, Sharrett is adept and appealing, and Anne Ramsey, with a face like a baked potato, nearly walks off with the movie as the hateful old woman with a shotgun, Elvira Parker. At one point The Bad Seed -- a much, much better movie -- is playing on television, and another in-joke has a man who resembles Freddy Krueger popping up from Paul's mattress in a nightmare. Reportedly the film was messed with against Craven's objections, because it certainly looks as if the powers-that-be didn't trust that a movie with a weird plot like this could play without adding gratuitous gore and so on. It may also be that Craven was simply the wrong director for the film.

Verdict: Just misses being a really interesting outre thriller. **1/2.

AUTUMN SONATA

Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman
AUTUMN SONATA (1978). Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is a successful, middle-aged concert pianist. After the death of her close friend, Leonardo (Georg Lokkeberg), she is invited to the home of her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), who lives with her husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork), and her sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), who is both mentally and physically disabled. One night, full of wine, Eva tells her mother what living with -- and without -- her was like, excoriating her and even blaming her for her sister's illness, causing a rupture that may never be mended. Autumn Sonata is an interesting, if typically talky, character study/soap opera that never quite comes to grips with its central problems. Charlotte is a career-driven woman, and certainly no mother of the year, but her daughter in her own way seems just as self-absorbed, blaming Charlotte for basically acting like a typical mother when she was fourteen -- she even complains about her getting braces even though they straightened her teeth. Generally people grow out of their parent- hatred, recognizing they are only human, as they themselves reach adulthood, but Eva is apparently too neurotic and perhaps jealous of her mother's comparatively glamorous life to acknowledge this. If anything, more people would object to Charlotte's almost complete neglect of Helena over her alleged monstrousness toward the very whiny Eva. "Not a shred of the real me could be loved or accepted," Eva tells her mother, but isn't this the way most boys and girls feel at fourteen? Autumn Sonata is very well-acted, and there's some good dialogue, but there is a dramatic weakness at its core that even Ingrid Bergman noticed. Bergman was also uncomfortable playing in a movie that somewhat mirrored the sometimes difficult relationship between herself and her daughter, Pia Lindstrom. This is the only time both Bergmans worked together. Bergman has made much better pictures, such as Sawdust and Tinsel and Cries and Whispers.

Verdict: Critics raved, and Ingrid is terrific, but this is not one of Bergman's best. **1/2.