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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

SUSAN HAYWARD

SUSAN HAYWARD (1917 - 1975).

This week we look at some of the films of Susan Hayward, as well as a biography and a career study. Hayward was always one of my favorite actresses because she was snappy, vital, strong, and charismatic -- no simpering or whimpering from her (except when it was absolutely called for). She came on like she didn't take any crap from anyone, and apparently that's just the way she was in real life. Hayward started out as a glamour queen, then won plaudits for her work, becoming an Oscar-winning actress [I Want to Live!]. She could be indifferent or disinterested in some mediocre projects, but when she was really in tune with a role her performances sizzled. She graced great and good films, and generally was the best thing in such terrible movies as Valley of the Dolls. Hayward had that certain something extra right from the start as exhibited in early movies like Change of Heart. She later gave very strong and even outstanding performances in Smash Up, I'll Cry Tomorrow, Deadline at Dawn, and many, many others. She died much too soon at age 57.

AND NOW TOMORROW

Susan Hayward and Loretta Young
AND NOW TOMORROW (1944). Director: Irving Pichel.

Socialite Emily Blair (Loretta Young) has become deaf due to meningitis, and pursues different doctors to find a cure. Family friend Dr. Weeks (Cecil Kellaway) gets Emily together with Merek Vance (Alan Ladd), who is working on a serum that may cure Emily, but who has a chip on his shoulder regarding her wealth and privilege. Adding to the complications is the fact that Emily's fiance, Jeff (Barry Sullivan), has fallen in love with her somewhat selfish sister, Janice (Susan Hayward), and vice versa. If she gets her hearing back, Emily may be in for a big surprise ... And Now Tomorrow is an entertaining soap opera that probably has little to do with the realities of hearing loss, and might even be considered a heartless fantasy for the deaf. On the other hand, it's very well-acted, with Young, Hayward, and Kellaway [Love Letters] taking the top honors, although Ladd [Boy on a Dolphin] and Sullivan [Jeopardy] also acquit themselves nicely. Beulah Bondi, Grant Mitchell and Helen Mack have smaller roles, and all are fine. The movie borders on the absurd at times but never quite goes overboard. and is well-paced and entertaining. Young is excellent, but Hayward comes close at times to stealing the movie from her.

Verdict: Having a handsome doctor is half of it. ***.

THE LOST MOMENT

Robert Cummings and Susan Hayward
THE LOST MOMENT (1947). Director: Martin Gabel.

"It's only being with people that makes one lonely."

Publisher Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings) comes to Venice hoping to obtain letters written by the late poet Jeffrey Ashton to the now-aged Julianna Borderau (Agnes Moorehead). Lewis pretends to be an author seeking an atmospheric place to write his novel, and pays an exorbitant fee for rooms in the manor owned by Julianna, who lives with her niece, Tina (Susan Hayward). Both women seem to be keeping secrets regarding Ashton, who simply disappeared many years ago. The Lost Moment sort of uses the basic framework for Henry James' novella "The Ashton Papers," but is turned into an unconvincing psychological mystery with an expected resolution. Cummings [Saboteur] is okay, but not well-cast, and Hayward [I'll Cry Tomorrow] is better as a woman undergoing an identity crisis, while an unrecognizable Moorehead [Dark Passage] certainly scores as the crone-like Julianna. Joan Lorring, Minerva Urecal and Eduardo Ciannelli offer flavorful supporting performances.

Verdict: This dies a slow death long before the conclusion. **.

THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME

THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (1947). Director: Irving Pichel.

A man named Larry (Robert Young), on trial for murder, takes to the stand and tells his sordid story to the jury in an effort to save his life. Married to the lovely but somewhat controlling Greta (Rita Johnson of The Second Face), Larry enters into an affair with Janice (Jane Greer). Later he finds himself falling for yet another woman, Verna (Susan Hayward), and plans to run away with her. But fate intervenes, two of those women wind up dead, and Larry's in deep trouble. The absorbing picture is uncompromising not just for its anti-hero and other unsympathetic characters, but for its knock-out of an ironic ending. Johnson, Hayward and Greer all deliver, and Young, who did play bad guys in the days before Father Knows Best, is nonetheless cast against type as Larry  -- that just makes his performance more effective. Most of the characters in this are distinctly unlikable for one reason or another, but that doesn't affect one's enjoyment of the movie. Jane Greer [Run for the Sun] looks especially luscious in this. Johnson and Young also appeared together in Honolulu.

Verdict: Very satisfying and well-done film noir.

DAVID AND BATHSHEBA

Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward
DAVID AND BATHSHEBA (1951). Director: Henry King.

King David (Gregory Peck) of Bethlehem is married to Michal (Jayne Meadows) but spots Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) taking a shower on a rooftop across the way. As Bathsheba hoped, David spies her and asks her over, where the two reveal an immediate attraction to one another. But what to do about Uriah, the Hittite (Kieron Moore), a soldier who happens to be married to Bathsheba? It seems David will do just about anything to keep his lover from being stoned to death as an adulteress ... Gregory Peck is not bad as David, but this is an actor who has always had trouble summoning up any kind of passion, even in his scenes with Hayward; he projects strength and nobility but little else. Hayward is more effective as Bathsheba, as is Moore [Satellite in the Sky] as the unwitting Uriah. Meadows [ Enchantment] is oddly cast but okay enough as the jealous, cast-off wife. Raymond Massey [Possessed] is fine as the pious prophet, Nathan, and young Gilbert Barnett makes an impression as David's sinister son, Absolom. James Robertson Justice looks and acts as if he wandered into the movie by mistake; George Zucco makes a better impression as an Egyptian messenger from Pharaoh. The best scene in David and Bathsheba is a flashback which details the well-staged battle between a young David and the hulking Goliath. The contributions of Leon Shamroy (cinematography) and Alfred Newman (score) are also of note. Peck first refers to his lover as Bathsheba than starts calling her Bathsheba; the other characters can't seem to make up their minds as to which pronunciation is correct!

Verdict: A biblical soap opera. **1/2.

GARDEN OF EVIL

Gary Cooper contemplates eternity
GARDEN OF EVIL (1954). Director: Henry Hathaway.

"Age before beauty." -- Richard Widmark to Gary Cooper.

Down in Mexico, a desperate woman, Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward), importunes a group of strangers to take a long trip through Apache country to rescue her husband, John (Hugh Marlowe), who is trapped in a mine. The strangers consist of Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), Luke (Cameron Mitchell), and Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza). As they effect this rescue, the restless Apaches are keeping watch ... That's the slight storyline to this mediocre picture that does boast some stunning CinemaScope photography (Krasner and Stahl), beautiful location settings, and a score by Bernard Herrmann that is much, much better than the movie deserves. As for the acting, Cooper is listless, Mendoza is fine, Marlowe [Elmer Gantry] is relatively terrible, Hayward is just okay, Widmark [The Tunnel of Love] has a bit more vitality, and Mitchell [Man-eater of Hydra] comes off best as the deceptively friendly Luke. In its attitude towards Native Americans, this is not a progressive western, but then in this pretentious and weak screenplay all of the characters are paper thin. Rita Moreno shows up very briefly as a saloon singer.

Verdict: Great to look at and listen to, but that's it! **.

I THANK A FOOL

Susan Hayward hurls angry accusations
I THANK A FOOL (1962). Director: Robert Stevens.

"It belongs to the genre in which the plot never stops thickening and significant entrances are made through French windows." -- London Times review.

Dr. Christine Allison (Susan Hayward) is put on trial for the alleged mercy killing of her dying lover and is prosecuted by Stephen Dane (Peter Finch). Christine is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in jail, then is contacted by a mysterious employer who wishes to hire her services. The employer turns out to be Stephen Dane  -- of course, as Finch is Hayward's co-star --  who wants Christine to look after his emotionally-disturbed wife, Liane (Diane Cilento of The Wicker Man). But Christine senses there are other things wrong in this strange household. Were it not for its upper-class cast, I Thank a Fool would come off like one of those twisty Jimmy Sangster Hammer psycho-thrillers, and frankly, it might have worked better if that's what it had been. The three leads are all excellent, and there's nice work from Kieron Moore [Crack in the World] as the stable keeper, Cyril Cusack as Liane's father, and Athene Seyler as Aunt Heather. The main problem with the movie, which holds the attention without being terribly suspenseful and has some interesting if suspect plot elements, is that it tries to be too clever for its own good. There is -- I think -- a murder finally committed in the final quarter of the film, but the solution to the alleged mystery is completely inexplicable. The sequence (and scenery) when Christine takes Liane on a trip back home to her village in Ireland is quite good. Robert Stevens also directed Finch in In the Cool of the Day.

Verdict: Hayward gives her all but it's not really a worthy project for her -- or Finch. **1/2.

RED: THE TEMPESTUOUS LIFE OF SUSAN HAYWARD

RED: THE TEMPESTUOUS LIFE OF SUSAN HAYWARD. Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri. Macmillan; 1985.

Reading this book I was reminded of how grateful I am never to have been continually in the orbit of any self-absorbed and difficult movie star, as Susan Hayward is not someone I would have liked to have known personally. Hayward was a good actress who could be excellent in some roles and merely indifferent in others. According to this very readable biography, Hayward never got over the fact that her family, her mother especially, favored her sister Florence and thought she would become the star. When it didn't work out that way, Florence virtually starved while Hayward made millions and cut off all contact with her. Hayward cast off first husband, actor Jess Barker, when his career didn't reach the same level hers did, but seemed to love second husband Eaton Chalkley, who ran her career (some would suggest right into the ground) and is depicted as a racist, obsessive quasi-Catholic, heavy drinker, and possible closet queen. Hayward was nominated for Oscars several times, and finally won one for I Want to Live! As she got older, she often regretted her film choices, although she did get attention for appearing in Back Street, Where Love Has Gone, and Valley of the Dolls, among others. A funny incident has Hayward being very bitchy with Celeste Holm when the latter was going to replace her in Mame, and Hayward is generally described as being cold and distant with her co-workers. There were people who were devoted to her, however, and she made some friends without ever growing terribly close to anyone. She admitted more than once that she "wasn't a nice person." The authors include many interviews and anecdotes, and describe Hayward's final days -- an awful death due to multiple brain tumors -- in nearly excruciating detail. Hayward will be remembered as a feisty star with charisma, personality, and genuine talent, which the authors clearly have an appreciation of.

Verdict: Graphic, uncompromising look at Susan Hayward. ***1/2.

SUSAN HAYWARD: HER FILMS AND LIFE

SUSAN HAYWARD: Her Films and Life. Kim R. Holston. McFarland; 2002.

This is essentially a well-done, illustrated career study of Susan Hayward, with biographical notes and an essay for each of her films, including Oscar-earning turns in I Want to Live!, and appearances in everything from "A" (Ada) to "Z" (Young and Willing) -- the filmography in the back of the book is alphabetical, which may at first confuse some readers. There are extensive notes, lots of black and white photographs, and synopses and critical reactions to each movie, with the author offering his own cogent opinions. The obvious affection for and appreciation of Hayward comes through on every page.

Verdict: Solid book on Susan Hayward and her career. ***.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

LOVING YOU

Elvis!
LOVING YOU (1957). Director: Hal Kanter.

"He's the one -- the one with jumping beans in his jeans!"

Press agent Glenda Markle (Lizabeth Scott of Dark City) and her sort of boyfriend "Tex" Warner (Wendell Corey), hope to improve their situation and get lots of publicity by bringing young Deke Williams (Elvis Presley) into their band. Deke's hip-swinging antics incur the wrath of old biddies and the town council, but even the biddies are eventually won over by Deke's obvious likability and sex appeal. Jailhouse Rock, the next Presley film after Loving You, also juxtaposed an older has-been singer with an up and coming youngster but made a little more of the older man's angst, although Loving You has a slightly more serious script than Jailhouse. Elvis is fine, Scott and Corey are excellent, Delores Hart [Wild is the Wind] makes little impression as another band member and Presley's love interest. The title tune and "Teddy Bear" are the best numbers, and Presley betrays a not-terrible baritone when he warbles a ballad. One of the best scenes has Glenda reminding a disapproving council that years ago there was an outcry against jazz, and even against Debussy and Stravinsky decades before. Whatever you think of his acting and singing, Presley had presence in spades.

Verdict: Appealing performances help put this over. **1/2.

HAUNTED SUMMER

Alice Krige, Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern, Philip Anglim
HAUNTED SUMMER (1986). Director: Ivan Passer.

In Geneva in 1815 Mary Godwin (Alice Krige), her lover Percy Shelley (Eric Stoltz of Fly II), and Mary's sister-in-law Claire (Laura Dern of Dr. T and the Women) encounter Lord Byron (Philip Anglim) and his doctor/companion/lover Joseph Polidori (Alex Winter). One would think that a better movie could have been made of the interaction between these characters, who, sadly, come off like pretentious twits half of the time. Byron is portrayed mostly as a languid, unpleasant, neurotic, misogynous bitch who pretty much mistreats everyone while professing to love them. Percy has three-way-sex with both Mary and Claire, who nevertheless winds up pregnant by the bisexual Lord Byron. And they talk and talk. The only English actor in the cast is Winter, so the rest sometimes come off like college dramatics students impersonating the British, although, to be fair, the accents with their over-enunciations aren't badly done and the acting isn't half bad, with Anglim making the best impression. For a film made in the 80's it's oddly coy, with an unintentionally hilarious scene when Byron and Polidori are shown kissing through curtains -- their relationship is never really explored, and while biographers have made clear that Byron did have sex with men, it's not certain if Polidori was one of them. Most of the characters were doomed to early deaths except for Mary Shelley who, of course, wrote Frankenstein. Polidori is credited with writing the first modern vampire tale, The Vampyr. The movie has a nice score by Christopher Young and lovely photography by Giuseppe Rotunno, but it becomes tedious before it's half over.

Verdict: Read Frankenstein instead. **.

MUSIC IN MY HEART

Tony Martin and Rita Hayworth
MUSIC IN MY HEART (1940). Director: Joseph Santley.

"The bicarbonate interferes with the brandy."

Wealthy Charles Gardner (Alan Mowbray of Dante) considers himself engaged to the beautiful Patricia O'Malley (Rita Hayworth), but despite Gardner's kindness she might have other plans, especially when she runs into handsome Robert Gregory (Tony Martin), who ingratiates himself with her family. To break up the budding romance between those two, Gardner's butler, Griggs (Eric Blore of Swiss Miss), comes up with a nasty scheme to separate them by employing a fake newspaper article. Will true love find a way? The cast is game, the plot is thin, the songs by Wright and Forrest are unmemorable, but there are some bizarre developments at the very end. Tony Martin [Here Come the Girls] looks great, is not a bad actor, and has a very, very good voice; he should have had a much bigger career in pictures.

Verdict: Easy to take Columbia musical that you'll forget five seconds after it's over. **1/2.

THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP

Bob Cummings with the three smart girls.
THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP (1939). Director: Henry Koster.

In this inferior sequel to Three Smart Girls, the "girls" are now young ladies with romantic problems. Their parents (Charles Winninger; Nella Walker) are back together and Joan (Nan Grey) is happily affianced to Richard (William Lundigan of Andy Hardy's Double Life). Unfortunately sister Kay (Helen Parrish) has fallen in love with Richard herself, a rather interesting situation that, unfortunately, never becomes entertainingly melodramatic. Sister Penny (Deanna Durbin) keeps throwing Harry Loren (Robert Cummings) in Kay's direction, to take her mind off Richard, but Harry rather rudely makes it clear that his interest is strictly in Penny. Durbin [It Started with Eve], the sole name to appear above the title, showing how her status had grown, gives a good performance, as does Winninger, and the rest are all more than competent.

Verdict: Pleasant if forgettable. **1/2.

HOMICIDE FOR THREE

Audrey Long and Warren Douglas
HOMICIDE FOR THREE (1948). Director: George Blair.

Lt. Peter Duluth (Warren Douglas) and his wife Iris (Audrey Long) haven't seen each other in a year and have yet to have a honeymoon. Unfortunately, after they check into a hotel hoping for a night of bliss, they are constantly interrupted by a series of strangers -- and murder. Based on a novel by Patrick Quentin, this has a fairly engaging plot concerning a series of slayings, some of which Peter tries to prevent without success. Long [Desperate] and Douglas are attractive and charming, and Lloyd Corrigan makes an impression as the mostly inebriated Emmanuel Catt. A Great Dane who shows up late in the film nearly steals the picture. Strange Awakening was also based on a Patrick Quentin "Peter and Iris Duluth Mystery," although the hero in that film was rechristened Peter Chance. Douglas had a small supporting role in Cry Vengeance, and amassed 63 credits; Long did about half as many films.

Verdict: Amiable minor mystery with some suspense. ***.

HOME TOWN STORY

Alan Hale Jr. with the Adorable One
HOME TOWN STORY (1951). Writer/director: Arthur Pierson.

When Blake Washburn (Jeffrey Lynn of The Law of the Tropics) fails in his reelection bid for his senatorial seat, he returns to his home town in Illinois where he is editor of the local paper. He is accused of using the paper to mount a campaign to get himself back into the Senate by attacking the winner, Bob McFarland (Hugh Beaumont of Money Madness). Will Blake allow his political ambition to get the better of him, and will anybody care? Home Town Story is a fairly dull, slight drama that plays more like a TV pilot than a theatrical movie. Lynn is not bad in the lead, and Alan  Hale Jr. [The Cruel Tower] scores as his associate on the newspaper, as do Donald Crisp as McFarland's father and Barbara Brown as Blake's mother, but the movie's chief interest is in the brief appearances by the "Adorable One," Marilyn Monroe, as a secretary. Marjorie Reynolds, Richard Crane, and Byron  Foulger are also in the cast.

Verdict: An early glimpse of the Adorable One, who had presence from the first. **.


AND SOON THE DARKNESS

Karl Urban in a tense moment
AND SOON THE DARKNESS (2010). Director: Marcos Efron.

"You think a 'relationship' is when you get the guy's last name."

In this remake of 1970's And Soon the Darkness, two young American women go on a bicycle trip through Argentina and encounter death and danger. Blond Stephanie (Amber Heard) and brunette Ellie (Odette Annabel) run into the wrong people when they go to a bar and the latter encourages the interest of a sleek would-be lover boy. They are rescued by Michael (Karl Urban of The Loft), who claims that he is searching for his missing girlfriend, but whose behavior can be considered odd. When Ellie disappears from an isolated spot where she wants to sunbathe, Stephanie desperately contacts a strangely disinterested police officer, Calvo (Cesar Vianco). And Soon the Darkness goes in its own direction from the original film, has some interesting twists, and basically changes into a chase film for the final quarter. The performances are good, with Heard and Vianco being especially notable. Pretty theme music.

Verdict: So-so remake of superior British thriller. **1/2.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

CAN'T HELP SINGING

Deanna Durbin and some spectacular scenery
CAN'T HELP SINGING (1944). Director: Frank Ryan.

When Caroline (Deanna Durbin),  a senator's daughter, learns that he disapproves of the man she loves and hopes to marry -- the opportunistic Lt. Robert Latham (David Bruce) -- she runs off into the wild west after him. Along the way she runs into some colorful characters, as well as a new romantic interest in the form of Lawlor (Robert Paige). Can't Help Singing has some pleasant tunes by composer Jerome Kern (especially the title tune), and Durbin and Paige [Fired Wife] make a very good team. Durbin, whose voice seemed to get even better as she got older, also became a bit double-chinned and puffy, but was still attractive. The handsome production boasts beautiful photography [Elwood Bredell and W. Howard Greene], and some good performances from the leads, along with Ray Collins [Hideout] as Durbin's father; Akim  Tamiroff (out west!) and Olin Howlin/Howland as two likable scoundrels; Bruce as the lieutenant; and Jay Novello [Atlantis, the Lost Continent] as a "sucker."

Verdict: One of the better Deanna Durbin musicals. ***.

JAILHOUSE ROCK

Judy Tyler and Elvis!
JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957). Director: Richard Thorpe.

"Without money you might as well be dead."

Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) delivers one punch too many to an obnoxious guy in a bar, and winds up in stir for a year for manslaughter. There he meets aging country singer "Hunk" Houghton (Mickey Shaugnessy of King of the Roaring 20's), who gives him musical advice and signs him to a contract. Vince has a massive chip on his shoulder that puts up barriers between himself and the people he meets, including a woman, Peggy (Judy Tyler), who is in the recording industry and helps him get started. Becoming successful, insolent Vince plays around on Peggy. Then Hunk, newly out of jail, arrives and reminds him of that contract ... Jailhouse Rock is an entertaining flick that features a pretty good performance from Presley, whose hip-shaking movements remind one, oddly, of Rita Hayworth! Shaughnessy and Tyler are excellent, and we also have a bizarre scene between Presley and Percy Helton -- "bizarre" because of the juxtaposition of these two very different individuals --  with the latter playing a bar owner. Dean Jones has a brief appearance as a friendly DJ who dates Peggy. Movies like Jailhouse Rock aren't to be taken seriously, but the movie so glosses over details about the recording industry that it seems like a fantasy at times! S. John Launer, who plays the judge who sentences Vince, often played a judge on Perry Mason. Judy Tyler was an attractive and talented woman who starred on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Pipe Dream the year before this picture. She was killed at age 24 in a car accident before Jailhouse was even released. Whatever you think of Presley, there is no denying the man had presence in spades!

Verdict: The "Jailhouse Rock" production number is a hoot! *** out of 4.

AL PACINO IN FILM AND ON STAGE

AL PACINO IN FILMS AND ON STAGE is your humble blog-owner's new tome on Al Pacino. This book from McFarland has been greatly expanded, revised, and updated, with twenty more years of Pacino's life, loves, movies, directorial assignments, and stage appearances.

One of our most passionate and gifted actors, Al Pacino has been riveting audiences for decades with performances in everything from The Godfather to Angels in America to Danny Collins. He has also appeared on the stage, tackling such difficult roles as Richard III, King Herod and Shylock, along with parts in contemporary dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross. Pacino has also directed two documentaries and two feature films.

Aspects of Pacino’s private life and film choices can be controversial. Often accused of a lack of subtlety or of “chewing the scenery,” his mesmeric intensity galvanizes fans and divides critics, as do his Shakespearean interpretations. In its second edition, this book critically reevaluates his many onscreen and onstage roles. Pacino is an actor who cannot be ignored.

Verdict: If you like Pacino, Buy this book!

HOWARD THE DUCK

The "Dark Overlord" about to strike
HOWARD THE DUCK (1986). Director: Willard Huyck.

Due to experiments involving a "laser spectroscope" conducted by Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), an innocent fellow named Howard (Ed Gale, Chip Zien and others), who lives on a world where ducks are intelligent and capable of speech, is sucked out of his universe and into ours. There he tries to find his way in a strange new world of "hairless apes" while befriended by rock singer Beverly (Lea Thompson) and observed by wannabee scientist Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins of Mystic River). Unfortunately Jenning tells them all that his laser beam has also swept up a horrible creature called a Dark Overlord of the Universe, who takes over Jenning's mind even as it hopes to take over the world. Will anyone survive? Well ... Howard the Duck is based on a satirical Marvel comic book and it could easily be dismissed, as it was, as utter schlock were it not for the fact that it has some genuinely amusing moments, good FX, and some good acting from the principals, especially Jones in a funny turn as the possessed, hostile Jenning. The first half of the film, once you get used to the main character being a little guy in a duck outfit, has some minor whimsy to it (as well as a cute scene when a job counselor tells Howard she'll get him a job no matter how weird he tries to look), there's a fairly exciting sequence with Howard and Phil trying to fly off in an odd homemade contraption with wings, and the stop-motion effects [Phil Tippett of Starship Troopers 2] of the giant, slithering, creepy, scorpion-like Dark Overlord are excellent. Unfortunately, this just doesn't add up to a very good movie, and it's often more loud and busy than entertaining. Jorli McLain has a nice bit as a waitress in a diner. John Barry's [Goldfinger] score, including a memorable heroic theme, is better than the movie deserves. Howard was created for the comics by writer Steve Gerber.

Verdict: You want to like it but ...  **.

AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970)

Pamela Franklin and Clare Kelly
AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970). Director: Robert Fuest.

Two young British women, Jane (Pamela Franklin of The Third Secret) and Kathy (Michele Doutrice) are on a bicycle trip through the countryside of France. Kathy is intrigued by a handsome stranger at one cafe, and refuses to go any further with the less-free-spirited Jane; the two have a fight and go their separate ways. Still, when Kathy disappears Jane tries to surmount the language barrier and find out what happened to her friend. To make matters worse, she learns that a young woman was murdered in this town two years earlier and her killer was never caught. Suspects for her disappearance and the earlier murder include the aforementioned stranger, Paul (Sandor Eles of The Evil of Frankenstein), who claims to be working for the Surete; a couple, the Lassals (Hana Maria Pravda and Claude Bertrand) who run an inn; a mentally-disturbed veteran; a British schoolteacher (Clare Kelley); and others. John Nettleton appears as a sympathetic Gendarme. And Soon the Darkness is not without flaws -- to create suspicion in the audience's mind over anyone and everyone, some of the characters behave much more weirdly than they might have -- but it is a very creepy and intensely suspenseful film that has good performances (although Franklin underplays too much), an effective score by Laurie Johnson (with the exception of the awful opening theme), and excellent widescreen photography of lonely, sinister vistas by Ian Wilson. There's a wonderfully macabre sequence involving a closet and a corpse late in the picture. Jane never asks Paul for his I.D. Very well directed by Robert Fuest [Dr. Phibes Rises Again]. Remade in 2010.

Verdict: Handsome and disturbing thriller. ***.

HE FOUND A STAR

Not a man in drag: Sarah Churchill
HE FOUND A STAR (1941). Director: John Paddy Carstairs.

With the help of his secretary, Ruth (Sarah Churchill),  Lucky Lyndon (Vic Oliver) opens his own talent agency and hopes for the best. He decides to take clients who are going nowhere fast, exploit their often minimal assets, and turn them into winners, such as an old baritone who is turned into a novelty act called the One-Man Band. Meanwhile Ruth is carrying an inexplicable torch for Lucky, who seems to have a thing for an utterly mediocre singer named Suzanne (Evelyn Dall), supposedly a big star. Sarah Churchill is a very adept and charming performer, but she's photographed so badly in this that her somewhat masculine features may make you think at first that she's Rex Harrison with heavy make up and dressed as a woman! Oliver is quite good as Lucky, and there are good turns from Robert Sansom as Hargreaves, Robert Atkins as Frank Forrester, and especially Jamaican singer-actor Uriel Porter, as George Washington Brown, who does a wonderful rendition of "I'm Gonna Walk All Over God's Heaven."

Verdict: British version of a Republic musical with somewhat higher production values. ***.

ALIEN RESURRECTION

Isn't she pretty: an alien-human hybrid
ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997). Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

"I used to be afraid to dream, but no more. No matter how bad the dream gets, when I wake up it's worse."

"I should have known -- no human being is that humane."

Hundreds of years after the events of Alien and Alien 3, a crew of rather rambunctious technicians bring a certain sinister cargo to a humongous U.S. military medical research vessel, where the Army has taken over research into the strange alien species that so bedeviled Ripley. The "cargo" turns out to be kidnapped humans who are deliberately exposed to the alien parasite in an attempt to create more monsters that the military can control. But they make one big mistake: when some of the aliens turn against one of their number, tearing it apart, its acid-blood burns through the floor and releases the aliens! Now it's a fight for survival for the cloned Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who turns out to be part-alien; General Perez (Dan Hedaya); and the technicians, including Call (Winona Ryder); Johner (Ron Perlman of Pacific Rim); Elgyn (Michael Wincott), among others; the nasty Dr. Wren (J. E. Freeman); and the terrified Purvis (Leland Orser of The Guest), who is one of the poor souls with an alien egg implanted within him. Now the ship is about to crash land on earth with all those nasty critters on board! There is not much attempt to create any kind of realistic "future," with the characters using twentieth century slang, and there are other borderline campy moments and dumb dialogue that work against the movie -- no wonder, the screenplay was written by Joss Whedon [Marvel's The Avengers], who did the silly Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- and the pic is terribly cold-blooded to put it mildly, but it is also suspenseful and exciting. The acting is very good from all concerned. Relentlessly downbeat even to the infinitely bleak conclusion. Attempts to create erotic tension between Ripley and the alien queen don't really work.

Verdict: Can't keep those aliens down! ***.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

THE ROBE

The stunning scenic design of The Robe
THE ROBE (1953). Director: Henry Koster.

After angering Caligula (Jay Robinson), tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), son of a senator (Torin Thatcher), is sent off to Jerusalem with his proud slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature). Marcellus is one of several men ordered to crucify Christ by Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone). Marcellus wins the robe of dead Christ in a game of dice but finds he is unable to wear it, then Demetrius runs off with it. Ordered to get it back by Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger), so the "bewitched" item can be destroyed, Marcellus encounters a group of devout Christians and begins to see things their way ... The Robe, the first film shot in CinemaScope, is often rather spectacular to look at, thanks to Leon Shamroy's superb cinematography and the splendid scenic design, but it can hardly be called a "great" movie. It's a given that the film's religiosity might seem oppressive to some viewers, but the film begins to lull about halfway through and never quite recovers -- it's when the quite pious Justus (Dean Jagger) shows up, along with the crippled and beatific singer Miriam (Betta St. John). However, the film does boast several good performances, especially Burton as Marcellus, with good (if unexceptional) turns from Jean Simmons as our hero's lady love, Diana; Thatcher as Marcellus' father; Robinson as a screechingly effective Caligula; Thesiger as the elderly emperor; and Michael Rennie as Peter. Three actors worthy of special mention are Victor Mature [Kiss of Death], who is excellent as Demetrius, even if his performance consists mostly of expressive pantomiming; Michael Ansara [Dear Dead Delilah] in a striking turn as Judas; and Jeff Morrow [The Giant Claw] who certainly scores as the centurion, Paulus, and who figures in an exciting sword fight with Marcellus. Jay Novello, Percy Helton and Thomas Browne Henry are also good in bits as a slave trader, wine merchant, and physician, respectively. Alfred Newman's score washes the whole movie in dramatic overtones. Followed by Demetrius and the Gladiators.

Verdict: Certainly well turned out for what it is. **1/2.

ALIEN 3

Alien checks out Sigourney Weaver
ALIEN 3 (1992). Director: David Fincher. NOTE; This review is of the special expanded edition/assembly cut.

After the end of Aliens, Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) escaped from LV-426 with the child, Newt, and Corporal Hicks. Unfortunately, it turns out that there was an alien on board, and the ship crash lands on Fury 161, a closed prison planetoid whose inhabitants have chosen to remain on this dismal world. As if she hadn't enough heartbreak, Ripley learns that Newt and Hicks have died, and discovers something even more horrifying about her medical condition. The company is still after a specimen of that dreadful alien species, and nothing else seems to matter, leading Ripley to make a moving sacrifice to save the lives of millions. Not overly loved at the time of its release, and with undeniable flaws, Alien 3 is actually a very good horror sci-fi flick with some excellent performances, interesting psychological elements, and adroit characterizations in the screenplay by Giler, Hill and Ferguson. The supporting characters include the medical officer, Clemens (Charles Dance), who has his own secrets; Dillon (Charles S. Dutton), who has turned the other cons into religious converts; the crazy Golic (Paul McGann), who sort of "bonds" with the alien; Aaron (Ralph Brown), a kind of warden who only wants to get back to his wife and kids; and others, who are vividly brought to life both by the script and the performances. Some creepy and suspenseful sequences as well. Elliot Goldenthal contributed an effective score; a nice touch is the way the 20th Century Fox fanfare at the opening ends on an ominous, sinister and sustained down-note. Followed by Alien: Resurrection.  Fincher also directed Gone Girl and Zodiac.

Verdict: A highly interesting mix of genres and characters with some fine performances. ***1/2.