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

Thursday, March 22, 2018


Sleeping Beauty: Ava Gardner
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (1948). Director: William A. Seiter.

"Debussy. Debussy does something to women." -- Mr. Savory.

"Personally, I go for Buzzy Balou and his Musical Crew." -- Molly.

Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker of My Son John) is a window dresser for Savory's department store. Mr. Savory (Tom Conway) has just acquired a $200,000 statue of Venus which he wishes to unveil and he instructs Eddie to make sure the curtain rises perfectly at the right moment. Eddie impulsively kisses the statue, and the next thing he knows it has come to life. Venus (Ava Gardner), Goddess of Love visiting from Olympus, is charmed by Eddie, and he is smitten with her, although he already has a girlfriend in clerk Gloria (Olga San Juan). Eddie's buddy, Joe (Dick Haymes of St. Benny the Dip) has a secret crush on Gloria, as secretary Molly (Eve Arden) does on her boss, Mr. Savory. Spotting her asleep in a model home on the first floor of the store, Savory determines to drape this goddess in gowns and make her his own. Will all of these lovers get together with the right person, and will Eddie have to go to jail for stealing a very expensive statue? One Touch of Venus, adapted from the Broadway show that starred Mary Martin, takes a while to get its footing (a third of the movie has gone by before anyone sings a song, for one thing), but it develops into a charming and well-performed musical comedy. Gardner [The Night of the Iguana] makes a luscious Venus, and is good in the role, although her singing is dubbed. The other performers are all on the money -- Sara Allgood has a nice turn as an anxious landlady --  and Eve Arden adds just that extra special sparkle that the proceedings require. The movie drops about half of the songs (Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash) -- some are heard in the background -- but retains "Speak Low;" "That's Him;" and "My Foolish Heart." Olga San Juan was in the original Broadway cast of Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon.

Verdict: Romantic tomfoolery perhaps, but it certainly has its delights. ***.

SISTERS (1972)

William Finlay, Margo Kidder, and Jennifer Salt (in back)
SISTERS (1972). Director. Brian De Palma.

"There are interesting things going on right here in Staten Island."

After appearing on a game show Dominique Breton (Margot Kidder of Black Christmas) and Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) go to the former's apartment on Staten Island. A neighbor across the street, reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), sees a brutal stabbing taking place in Dominique's apartment. When the police investigate, the body is gone and even as Dominique's ex-husband, Emil (William Finley), covers up the crime, she puts the blame on her dangerous twin sister, Danielle. Grace hires private detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) to follow the truck carrying the heavy couch that Dominique has had removed from her apartment hoping to find the corpse. Grace's investigation brings her to a certain sanitarium where Emil has brought Dominique, and she learns all about these strange separated Siamese twins ... Heavily influenced by Hitchcock, especially Psycho and Rear Window (although Sisters is not in the league of either of those films), Sisters, while not De Palma's first film, put him on the map. Slick and entertaining, it boasts some fine performances and has one great asset, the score by Bernard Herrmann, whose jangling, dynamic theme music immediately pulls the audience into the movie and fills the theater with tension. Occasionally the pacing of the film is a little slack, and the ending is definitely a bit flat and disappointing. Of the supporting cast, there are notable turns by Bernard Hughes as a reporter; Justine Johnson and Olympia Dukakis as clerks in a bakery; and especially Catherine Gaffigan as Crazy Arlene, a resident in the sanitarium who is convinced that germs can come through a telephone line. Whatever the film's flaws (we never learn much about the victim, or even if anyone is missing him) it is head and shoulders above the slasher films that would proliferate in just in few years, and it is no surprise that De Palma emerged as a definite contender in the psycho-thriller sweepstakes.

Sisters was remade in 2006. Almost excruciatingly dull, slow-paced, and indifferently acted, the film made some minor changes but had not one bit of invention. Cast as a kind of (temporary) romantic lead, Dallas Roberts would have been better off sticking to the creepy sociopaths he plays on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit -- in any case, he's just as creepy in this.

Verdict: (1972)  Despite the Hitchcock influence, on its own terms this is an original. ***
              (2006). Atrocious. *1/2. .


Cate Blanchett with no "e" at the end
Okay, this poor lady won an Oscar and people are still spelling her name wrong.

Okay. I'm spelling her name wrong.

300 lashes with a wet noodle for consistently adding an "e" to the end of talented Cate Blanchett's name.

I have gone back and corrected the three or four reviews on this blog of movies she appeared in. I did get the spelling right with her appearance in Thor: Ragnarok (review to be posted next week).

Feel free to let me know when and if I make a mistake. Thank you! 

P.S. At least I didn't spell her name "Kate."

Famous actors whose names have been misspelled -- though not by me -- include Margaret Sullavan (often misspelled as "Sullivan with an "i") and Katharine Hepburn (occasionally misspelled as Katherine with an "e'").

Let's not even get into today's actors have have very weird names with unbelievable spellings!


HE'S GOT RHYTHM: THE LIFE AND CAREER OF GENE KELLY. Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson. University Press of Kentucky; 2017.

He's Got Rhythm explores the life and work of Gene Kelly, who could act, sing, choreograph, and direct, but always considered himself primarily a dancer. And boy could be dance! This lengthy and fairly exhaustive bio looks at his often contradictory nature; his perfectionism, which occasionally put him at odds with co-workers and frequent collaborators, such as Stanley Donen [Royal Wedding]; his three marriages, to actress Betsy Blair [A Delicate Balance] and others; his friendly "rivalry" with Fred Astaire [Carefree]; and his persistent championing of dance throughout his long life. His marriage to Blair ended in divorce when she fell in love with another man; his second wife, who had formerly worked for him, died of leukemia; and his third wife, who was working with him on his autobiography, was a much younger woman who took over his life and, according to the book, separated him from his close friends and family even as he lay dying. The authors examine every project that Kelly was involved or nearly involved in, including his star turn as Joey in the original Broadway production of Pal Joey; his plans to star in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a movie that was ultimately canceled; his turn behind the camera with Hello Dolly and other movies; his TV specials that celebrated the dance; and his appearances in such classics as Singing in the Rain and On the Town. Kelly's low-budget dramatic films such as The Devil Makes Three, are mentioned only in passing in comparison. But this book is an excellent tribute to Kelly, which makes a strong case for his art and his enduring popularity.

Verdict: First-class bio. ***1/2.


Michele Greene and William Katt

In a story line you probably wouldn't have seen back in the fifties and sixties, Sister Margaret (Michele Greene) is not only suspected of having an affair with Father O'Neal (Timothy Bottoms) but of murdering him! Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) goes undercover at a hospital, pretending to be sick, because O'Neal was investigating possible financial improprieties in the archdiocese, including at St. Martin's hospital. A bogus priest has actually murdered O'Neal, but as in Perry Mason Returns Perry has to ferret out who hired him. Suspects include Dr. Lattimore (Jon Cypher of Cinderella ); his associate and paramour, Ellen Cartwright (Barbara Parkins of Asylum); shifty-eyed Monsignor Kyser (Gerald S. O'Loughlin); and businessmen Jonathan Eastman (Edward Winter) and Thomas Shea (Steven Hill); among others. Barbara Hale returns as Della Street and William Katt as Paul Drake Jr. This is an average "episode" of Perry Mason, below the level of the TV series, but it does boast an excellent performance from Michele Greene as the embattled nun.

Verdict: Fun to watch Perry accuse a Monsignor of wrong-doing! **1/2.


The Thing
THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994). Director: Oley Sassone.

Roger Corman co-produced the first film adaptation of Marvel's Fantastic Four comic book, but whether it was never meant to see the light of day, or if Corman and others were paid off so that this low-budget treatment wouldn't interfere with a big-budget version from Fox (with Marvel in control, which it wasn't with this production), or both, is debatable. Doomed! is a documentary in which various actors and other participants in the production discuss making the film, as well as the disappointment and betrayal they felt when they learned after all their efforts that the film would never be released. Told by Roger Corman that he had received a check for a couple of million dollars, probably not to release the picture, Alex Hyde White (who played Reed Richards and is the son of Wilfrid Hyde-White) remarks in Doomed! that "Everyone did well except us, the people that made the movie." Two brothers even spent their own money putting together an orchestra to play their ambitious score for The Fantastic Four. Apparently, wisely or not, nearly everyone involved with the film was convinced that the movie would be a big, big break for their careers. Unfortunately, that was not the case. This was a Roger Corman film, and the cost of the production was only a million dollars. Hardly enough to make a super-hero blockbuster. Doomed! is an entertaining, well-done documentary bolstered by interviews from personable actors such as Hyde-White and Joseph Culp (who played Dr. Doom and is the son of Robert Culp) and several crew members and creative types.

As for the film itself, it has surfaced in bootleg tapes and is on youtube. The Fantastic Four is not terrible by any means, but it can't compare to the version that eventually emerged ten years later: Fantastic Four. The acting is a mix of solid and professional (Hyde-White, Rebecca Staab as Sue Storm) and the uneven and amateurish (like a high school play) , and one mistake was to include a silly (if well-acted) character named the Jeweler (Ian Trigger) who is sort of an annoying substitute for old FF foe, the Moleman. The FX are uneven, but there is a nifty enough climax with the Human Torch trying to outrun a devastating light beam in order to save New York City. There are confusing elements in the script, and instead of our heroes gaining powers due to cosmic rays, there's something about a space project called "Colossus" that never makes that much sense. There are also odd moments, such as when after the foursome's spaceship crashes on earth, the boys seem to take forever to wonder where Sue is. Joseph Culp's performance as Dr. Doom is problematic -- he has a great voice, but he over-gesticulates and often speaks over-portentously as if he were playing a character in a cartoon. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is an excellent score by David and Eric Wurst with its attractive theme music. Virtually all of the actors in the film went on to have many more credits.

Meanwhile, the big-budget Fantastic Four had a sequel entitled Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and the series was unsuccessfully rebooted with Fantastic Four in 2015.

Verdict: Doomed! ***.
              The Fantastic Four. **1/2.


Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

Traveling on the Orient Express in 1934, famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) learns that a man has been murdered and is asked to investigate by his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), a representative of the train line. As Poirot interviews the other passengers, he slowly discovers that many of them had some connection to the victim, a man named Rachet, who was really the notorious kidnapper, Casetti (Johnny Depp). As Poirot discovers the many secrets of the numerous suspects, he finds himself with a moral dilemma. I was a bit taken aback when I first heard of this film, but I must say that I was pleasantly surprised when I finally saw it. Although he may not be quite as convincing as David Suchet or Albert Finney in the first version, Branagh is much better as the Belgian detective than anticipated. Unlike Christie's creation -- and for better or worse -- Branagh makes a more "virile" Poirot, and has him mooning over the photograph of a lost love as if to prove his heterosexuality (Poirot was never gay in any case). The movie is also superior to the 1974 version, with better performances from the supporting cast and a more serious tone. Michael Green's screenplay intelligently "opens up" the film in small ways, and the plot doesn't seem quite so far-fetched. Depp is excellent as the racketeer, and there are also notable turns from Michelle Pfieffer as Mrs. Hubbard (she is much better than Lauren Bacall in the original); Derek Jacobi as a nervous manservant; Willem Dafoe as a Pinkerton detective; and Judi Dench as the formidable Princess Dragomiroff. Of the younger players, Josh Gad makes an impression as McQueen, the dead man's secretary, as do Daisy Ridley [Star Wars Part VII] as Mary Debenham and Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot. Arbuthnot was not a black character in Christie's novel -- this film is generally faithful to it -- but that does not present a problem, except that at one point the positively drawn character seems to become quite negative. Patrick Doyle's [Thor] score lacks the suspense and tension that a mystery requires, but in the final quarter it does add some depth and somberness to the proceedings. "Never Forget," which we hear over the closing credits, is a pretty song that is very nicely warbled by Michell Pfeiffer, who proved she could sing long ago in Grease 2.

Agatha Christie was still alive when the first version of this story came out. While she admired Finney, she did not admire his mustache, which was nowhere near as "magnificent" (at least in Poirot's opinion)  as it was supposed to be. Love it or hate it, Branagh's mustache would probably have pleased Christie. This movie was absolutely hated by many people -- who thought they fiddled unnecessarily with a "masterpiece" -- but as much as I love Christie's work, I don't consider the novel to be a "masterpiece" nor the first film version, either.

Verdict: Unevenly directed perhaps, but still the best version of this venerable old story. Makes me look forward to Branagh's version of Death on the Nile. ***.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Elg, Kendall and Gaynor
LES GIRLS (1957). Director: George Cukor.

Retired dancer Lady Sybil (Kay Kendall of Wings of Danger) has written a book about her life in which she claims that a former colleague, Angele (Taina Elg), attempted suicide out of her unrequited love for their boss, Barry Nichols (Gene Kelly). Angele is outraged -- and so is her husband, Pierre (Jacques Bergerac of The Hypnotic Eye) -- so a libel suit results. Most of Les Girls consists of flashbacks
"Wild One" Kelly and his Leather Boys
as Sybil tells her story, then Angele tells hers, and finally Barry comes into court to tell his side of things. Les Girls has an interesting hook with the libel suit, but the script becomes increasingly stupid with each section, and even Cole Porter's songs are second or third-rate for this composer. The film's highlight is a sequence when Kelly walks in with a gang of motorcycle toughs and does a splendid dance number with Mitzi Gaynor [The Joker is Wild], but most of the production numbers are disappointing. Kelly and the ladies are all excellent, however. Henry Daniell plays the judge presiding over the case and Patrick Macnee [The Avengers] is one of the lawyers; Leslie Phillips is Kendall's husband. In CinemaScope and Metrocolor. This was Porter's last film score, and Kelly's last MGM musical. 

Verdict: Cute but unremarkable. **1/2. 


Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974). Director: Sidney Lumet.

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney of Tom Jones) takes over the investigation after a man using an assumed name is murdered, and there turns out to be a whole train load of suspects. In her novel, Agatha Christie's starting off point was the murder of the Lindbergh baby, and the victim was involved in the kidnapping of the child, herein named Daisy Armstrong. In both book and movie Poirot perhaps doesn't exhibit quite as much incredulity as he might have when he learns at least two people on the train just happen to have had ties to the victim (as well as others whose deaths were a direct result of little Daisy's murder). And then things get even stranger, but there's a method to Christie's madness ... This was the first of the big-budget, all-star adaptations of the works of Christie, and it's entertaining if unspectacular. Oscar winner for Best Actor, Finney is nothing like Poirot, but if this is a "stunt" performance, I must say it's an excellent one, although he isn't as good as David Suchet, who later made the role his own. Wendy Hiller gives a positively weird, and one assumes, intentionally comic performance as the aged Princess Dragomiroff. Ingrid Bergman is fine but her very small role hardly deserved the supporting Oscar she received. Similarly, Sir John Gielgud is wonderful, but he's on-screen for only a few minutes; he won a BAFTA award. (Surely Oscars should be reserved for actors who are very much outside their comfort zone, which Finney definitely was). In a terrible performance, Anthony Perkins literally twitches all over the place as the secretary to the dead man; Sean Connery has one strong scene explaining himself to Poirot; Rachel Roberts scores as the princess' maid; Richard Widmark is fine as the victim; Vanessa Redgrave [Camelot] is perfect and lovely as Connery's paramour; and Martin Balsam is a delight as a representative of the train line and a personal friend of Poirot's. Richard Rodney Bennett provided the pastiche Porter score, which lacks the suspense this type of picture requires. Many of the cast members, especially Lauren Bacall as the loud American lady, seem self-conscious.

In addition to the 2017 remake, there have been other adaptations of the famous story. Alfred Molina played Poirot in a 2001 television version. David Suchet again essayed Poirot in a 2010 TV movie  which added a prologue, with an adulteress being stoned to death, that was not in the novel, and an epilogue wherein Poirot expresses moral outrage over the murder on the train which he does not express in the book; later he softens his attitude due to the murder of that woman at the opening. Suchet is especially excellent in this and it's amusing to see Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey playing a mere valet. Finally, a Japanese mini-series based on the novel appeared in 2015.

Verdict: Take this train ride or not -- it's up to you. **1/2.



Peter Falk, Robert Goulet and Sally Ann Howes
BRIGADOON (1966 ABC television special). Produced and directed by Fielder Cook. Music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe.

In this television adaptation of the famous Broadway musical, American friends Tommy Albright (Robert Goulet) and Jeff Douglas (Peter Falk) stumble upon an 18th century Scottish village that only appears every hundred years (the logistics of this are impossible to really figure out so don't even try). Jean (Linda Howe) has decided to marry Charlie (Thomas Carlisle) over Harry (Edward Villella), putting him in a funk that leads to tragedy. While milkmaid Meg (Marlyn Mason) pitches woo at Jeff, the also unmarried Fiona (Sally Ann Howes) develops feelings for Tommy and vice versa. But is Tommy willing to make what might seem to any reasonable person an insane sacrifice for love that can never be rescinded? Even this shortened and adapted version of Lerner's libretto gets across the intense romance (in every sense of the word) of the story, as well as both the poetic and nightmarish aspects of Brigadoon and the curse that hangs over it. Peter Falk [Luv] is terrific in this, but thank goodness he doesn't have to do any singing. That's left to Howes [Dead of Night], who has a beautiful voice, and Carlisle, who is also a splendid singer. Goulet has a fine voice as well, but although he appeared in Broadway shows (such as Lerner and Loewe's Camelot), he sings in a typically sixties pop style that doesn't quite ruin such superb numbers as "Almost Like Being in Love" and "There But for You Go I" but doesn't compliment them, either. (The original Broadway cast album has the best versions of these songs.) Marlyn Mason [That Certain Summer] is excellent as Meg, and does a fine rendition of "My Mother's Wedding Day." Interestingly the last two lines of the song -- "It was a mess beyond compare/I ought to know 'cause I was there" -- which were cut from the original cast album were reinstated for this TV special. Ballet dancer Edward Villella does a very nice job as the jilted Harry and dances a sword dance as well. The Lerner and Loewe score is one of their finest, and can almost be described as American opera. The 1957 feature film was a big disappointment.

Verdict: Interesting adaptation of this enduring and beautiful musical. ***.


Bernadette Lafont and Stephane Audran
LES BONNES FEMMES (aka The Good Girls/1960). Director: Claude Chabrol.

Four Parisian shop girls work as clerks, try to have fun when they aren't working, and hope to find love or some fulfillment of their dreams. Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is engaged to the condescending Henri (Sacha Briquet), who thinks she isn't cultured enough for his parents. Jane (Bernadette Lafont) has a soldier boyfriend but dallies with a married man named Marcel (Jean-Louis Maury), who is a bit of a jackass. Ginette (Stephane Audran of Les Biches) secretly sings -- rather badly -- in a revue and is terrified that anyone should find out about it. And Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is obsessed with a man on a motorcycle, Andre (Mario David), who follows her all over Paris. The owner of the shop, Mr. Belin (Pierre Bertin), is a creepy old lech who breathes all over the gals while doling out supposed advice. Les Bonnes Femmes, a prime example of what was called the French New Wave, is almost anti-romantic in the downbeat but fascinating way it puts sentimentality on its head. The cashier in the shop, Madame Louise (Ave Ninchi), has a "fetish" that she shows to Jacqueline and which turns out to be a grotesque memento that foreshadows the very grim ending of the movie. Chabrol keeps the picture, which might seem uneventful and undramatic by Hollywood standards, moving, makes good use of Parisian locations, and fills the film with interesting details and performances. The young ladies are all quite attractive, while the men they get involved with are generally quite average looking, but this is not necessarily unrealistic. Henri Dacae's cinematography is topnotch, and the unusual and effective score is by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki. Chabrol married Stephane Audran four years after this film was released. 

Verdict: Chabrol's masterpiece. ***1/2.


Della (Hale) is comforted by Perry (Burr)
PERRY MASON RETURNS (1985). Director: Ron Satlof.

Twenty years after Perry Mason went off the air, Raymond Burr returned as the character in what would turn out to be the first of many telefilms. Della Street (Barbara Hale) is now a private secretary to a difficult wealthy man named Gordon (Patrick O'Neal). In what would become a typical development in these movies, Gordon is killed by a hit man (dressed as a woman) in order to frame Della, who goes on trial for murder with Perry as her defense lawyer. Mason, who is now a judge, quits the bench to come to Della's rescue. The many suspects include members of the dead man's family as well as assorted business rivals and personal enemies. There are good performances from Kerrie Keane [Incubus], Holland Taylor, Richard Anderson, James Kidnie, and William Katt [Carrie], Barbara Hale's real life son who plays the son of investigator Paul Drake. Frankly, there's a little too much of Drake Jr. running around hither and thither, probably to pad the running time, but this still emerges as an entertaining TV flick.

Verdict: It's good to have Perry back. ***.


THE PERRY MASON TV SHOW BOOK. Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill. St. Martin's; 1987.

This heavily illustrated book looks at the creation of Perry Mason, gives us a history of the character on radio and in films, explains how the show came together, and offers backgrounds of the creative team and chapters on Raymond Burr and all of the major players. Over half of the book is given over to brief synopses and limited credits for each and every episode of the 9 year show, some of which -- for shame -- sort of give away the ending! The book explores how the National Association of County and Prosecuting Attorneys were so upset at Hamilton Burger's (William Talman) depiction, that a scene was included in which Mason praises his opponent in no uncertain terms. There is also a section on some of the early Perry Mason telefilms which also starred Burr.

Verdict: The ultimate Perry Mason TV book has yet to be written, but this tome has some good information and lots of photos. ***.


MONSTROUS NATURE: ENVIRONMENT AND HORROR ON THE BIG SCREEN. Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann. University of Nebraska Press; 2016.

Ah, here we have another university press film book that reads like a term paper. Monstrous Nature purports to analyze and dissect films that deal with nature-gone-wrong, but it has less to do with looking at actual films than in examining different trendy theories. Monstrous Nature is typical of film books in which the authors are not that "film-aware," and not that interested in how movies are put together, nor the different elements that make these films great or poor. The movies mentioned in the book are only a springboard for discussions on such as climate change (giving examples of what they call "Cli-Fi cinema), feminism, and even cannibalism! It's not that these discussions are necessarily without interest, nor that the authors on occasion don't make interesting observations, but the writing is dry and often pretentious. However, the book may alert you to some films you were unaware of and may want to check out.

Verdict: A college thesis masquerading as a book. **.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


Bette Davis is interrogated by Peter Ustinov as David Niven looks on 
DEATH ON THE NILE (1978). Director: John Guillermin.

"It's been my experience that men are least attracted to women who treat them well."

Following the success of the first screen adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, it was decided to do another big-scale, star-studded, somewhat overblown adaptation of a Christie novel with Peter Ustinov taking over the role of the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. This has an interesting hook: Having stolen away her friend Jacqueline's (Mia Farrow) boyfriend, Simon (Simon MacCorkindale of Jaws 3-D), Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) finds herself and her new spouse being followed everywhere by Jackie while on their Egyptian honeymoon. Poirot, also on the same tour, warns Jacqueline that she may be heading for disaster, and indeed there's foul play afoot and more than one murder. In her modest and entertaining novel, Christie was wise enough not to make virtually everyone on board the ship a suspect, but screenwriter Anthony Shaffer makes the mistake of giving almost everyone a motive, as unlikely as that sounds. Death on the Nile is way too long, but it is handsomely produced, well-photographed by Jack Cardiff, and has a very nice score by Nino Rota. Ustinov is not the perfect Poirot, but he is acceptable. Among the very large cast, the stand-outs are Maggie Smith [Clash of the Titans], as Bette Davis' put-upon nurse-servant, and Angela Lansbury as the soused authoress, Salome Otterbourne. Everyone else is competent enough, but unremarkable. Bette Davis doesn't so much give a performance, but play "Grand Lady," one suspects as much for the cast and crew as for the audience. One could argue that Mia Farrow seems to give better performances in Woody Allen movies than in ones she makes with other directors. Christie later used a certain similar plot device in Evil Under the Sun. NOTE: A remake of this film is scheduled for 2019.

Verdict: Quite entertaining mystery is good to look at with a few fun performances and humor. ***.  


Frustrated players: Audran, Sassard and Trintignant
LES BICHES (1968). Director: Claude Chabrol.

Frederique (Stephane Audran) is a wealthy Frenchwoman who collects and discards artists and lovers. She picks up a starving homeless painter named "Why" (Jacqueline Sassard) off the street and the two enter into a casual relationship with Frederique footing the bills and maintaining control. At her vacation home in St. Tropez, Why meets an architect named Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and sleeps with him. Initially afraid of losing control, Frederique then begins her own relationship with Paul, which apparently becomes serious. Why seems content to live with and love both Frederique and Paul, but the couple may have other ideas ... With its frank, yet frankly unexplored (except in the most superficial sense), look at bisexuality and polyamorous relationships, Les Biches may seem ahead of its time, but by the late sixties even American movies were dealing with more outre sexual subjects. Les Biches does get points for being unpredictable and absorbing, avoiding the tiresome trap of setting lesbian against straight man for the love of a bisexual woman, at least for its main plot. Unfortunately, the characters of Les Biches are under-developed and not very sympathetic and it's easy to over-rate the movie. Two other characters are a gay couple who are underground "artists" and who live in Frederique's villa. Although they are not screaming stereotypes, they are irritating almost from the first, pretty much demolishing any positive statements the film may have been making about homosexual relationships, which it seems not to have been doing in any case, having other things on its mind. The acting is quite good and Pierre Jansen's distinctive and unusual scoring is a plus. The melodramatic wind-up is perhaps more silly than anything else.  Audran was director Chabrol's wife. He also directed Merci pour le chocolat and Story of Women, among many others.

Verdict: Interesting, but ultimately unconvincing. **1/2.


Michael Kidd, Dan Dailey and Gene Kelly
IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955). Directors: Stanley Donen; Gene Kelly.

Three men who were buddies in the army have many drinks at the end of the war and vow to meet in ten years' time at their favorite bar in Manhattan. Now, you might wonder, if they were such good friends, they would certainly have stayed in touch for the past decade, but apparently they haven't, so when they each keep the appointment they discover that they have little in common and don't even like each other very much (surely they could have talked about wartime experiences, at least?). Angie (Michael Kidd), who planned on becoming a great chef, is married, has several kids, and runs a hamburger joint in Schenectady. Doug (Dan Dailey of There's No Business Like Show Business), who'd wanted to become a famous artist, does work on TV shows that sell detergent, and is on the verge of divorce. Ted (Gene Kelly), who figured on a legal career, is now an unmarried manager for a boxer who is planning to take a dive. The ladies in the story include Jackie, (the gorgeous, leggy Cyd Charisse), who works on one of Ted's TV shows; and Madeline (Delores Gray), the star of said show. The gals hope to get the former soldiers on the program as a surprise, unaware that they now actively dislike each other. And some hoods who fixed the fight are out to get even with Ted.

Filmed in startling CinemaScope and color and photographed by Robert Bronner, It's Always Fair Weather presents a striking sound stage Manhattan that is prominently featured in two sequences: when the boys dance under the elevated subway, each wearing a garbage can lid on one foot; and when Kelly does an absolutely smashing dance on roller skates, and even winds up tap dancing while still wearing them ("I Like Myself"). Cyd Charisse [The Unfinished Dance] is featured in a production number in which she dances with flat-faced pugilists in a gym, and Delores Gray gets a chance to shine when she sings and dances to "Thanks, But No Thanks" with a dozen chorus boys. The songs were composed by Andre Previn [The Kissing Bandit] -- the lyrics were provided by Comden and Green -- and are pleasant enough, with "Friends Forever" emerging the prettiest number. The performances by the entire cast are excellent. Michael Kidd appeared in a few films, such as Smile, but was primarily a well-regarded choreographer [Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.]

Verdict: A small degree of pathos counteracts the silliness and Kelly's dancing is simply sensational. ***.


Barry Sullivan and Martha Hyer
PYRO (aka Feuge aka Pyro ... The Thing Without a Face/1964). Director: Julio Coli.

"I won't rest until you and all of your family are dead ... my breath on your back will be like a cold wind from Hell." -- Vance.

Vance Pierson (Barry Sullivan of Suspense) travels to Spain with his wife, Verna (Sherry Moreland of Fury of the Congo) and their daughter so he can work on a special project with his associate, Julio (Fernando Hilbeck). Unfortunately, Vance meets up with Laura Blanco (Martha Hyer) when he goes to see a house -- resulting in a very strange and awkward sequence -- and the two begin an affair. Vance admits that he'd marry Laura if only he didn't already have a family. Supposedly wracked with guilt -- although with the cool, disaffected Sullivan it's hard to tell -- Vance breaks off the affair, but Laura is not the type to take no for an answer, leading to more than one tragedy ... Pyro is misnamed, because while there are fires and arxonists aplenty in the movie, there are no genuine pyromaniacs. Pyro has an interesting plot so it holds the attention, but it's not that well-produced or directed, sometimes has the appearance of a travelogue, has a too-weird musical score, and never becomes the fascinating nail-biter it might have been with a master director at the helm and a much better script. As well, certain aspects of the story line defy credibility. Sullivan and Hyer are both competent -- Sullivan is at times better than that -- but Hyer lacks the real acting chops to make her portrayal anything more than another vicious kitten as she was in Picture Mommy Dead. A Spanish film, this was picked up for US release by American International, but it was not a success.

Verdict: This had real possibilities ... **1/2.


Kay Francis and George Brent
THE KEYHOLE (1933). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"The next time you try to kill yourself, let me know -- I'd love to help you!" -- Anne about Maurice.

Anne (Kay Francis of In Name Only) is married to the much-older Schuyler Brooks (Henry Kolker of Meet the Baron). When she learns from her first husband, Maurice (Monroe Owsley), that their divorce wasn't valid, he blackmails her. Anne gets advice from her sister-in-law, the formidable Portia (Helen Ware), and takes off for Cuba to get Maurice out of the country. Meanwhile Brooks, fearing Anne is unfaithful, hires private dick Neil (George Brent of Dark Victory) to follow her and see if he can tempt her into an affair. Neil's partner, Hank (Allen Jenkins), gets involved with con lady Dot (Glenda Farrell), with both thinking that the other one is wealthy. Will Anne keep putting Neil off, or will she succumb to his charms? Who cares? The Keyhole is a minor comedy-drama that never gets very dramatic and isn't especially funny. The leads are fine, but any fun in the movie is provided by Jenkins, and especially Farrell, who gives the most notable performance. Kolker and Ware are also good, but the movie is not memorable.

Verdict: Smooth but not terribly interesting. **.


Gloria Grahame
BLOOD AND LACE (1971). Director: Philip S. Gilbert.

Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) became an orphan when her mother and one of her "clients" were attacked in their bed by someone wielding a claw hammer. Sleazy Dr, Mullins (Milton Selzer) sends Ellie to the Reede Youth Home run by Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame). There Ellie falls for a dude named Walter (Ronald Taft), incurring the wrath of "Bunch" (Terri Messina), a 16-year-old who has her own hankering for Walter. A bigger problem is the dead bodies of "runaways" in the freezer. Before long Ellie finds herself in a life or death struggle against Mrs. Deere and her loutish handyman, Tom (Len Lesser). And who is that Freddy Krueger lookalike with the burned face and sweater who runs around the home with a hammer? Blood and Lace is a somewhat schlocky horror film which truly suffers from its "score," which consists of stock music from very old movies such as cliffhangers and is almost never appropriate. This gives the whole production a low-class tone from the beginning. Patterson, most famous for the sitcom F Troop, is okay as the heroine; Gloria Grahame, who had quite a few credits even after this picture, doesn't offer one of her better performances, although she's suitably sinister. Vic Tayback (of Alice) is better as a cop who comes to Ellie's aid but has a few secrets of his own, as is Lesser as the nasty and corrupt handyman..Dennis Christopher [Fade to Black] appears as one of the young people in the home. The shame of Blood and Lace is that it has some surprising revelations and a neat wind-up, but the lurid movie just doesn't cut it. The resemblance of one character to Freddie Krueger is interesting, as A Nightmare on Elm Street didn't appear until 13 years later. Not to be confused with the far superior Blood and Black Lace.

Verdict: Where's Wilton? **.


Lenny Bruce
DANCE HALL RACKET (1953). Director: Phil Tucker. Screenplay by Lenny Bruce.

An undercover cop hangs out at a certain dance emporium whose owner he suspects of trafficking in shady deals and murder. The owner is Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell of Jail Bait) and his rather psychopathic right hand man is Vincent (Lenny Bruce), who stabs people right and left without hesitation. Scalli's secretary, Rose (Honey Bruce Friedman), is Vincent's chief girlfriend (Friedman was married to Lenny Bruce at the time). The two men are marking time until the arrival of fresh-out-of-the pen Victor Pappas, from whom they hope to learn the whereabouts of his stolen loot. This ultra low-budget, oddball movie, barely clocking in at an hour, was scripted by the controversial comic, and his performance as a sleazy if good-looking hood is personality-driven and competent. Farrell is a professional but uninteresting performer, and the rest of the cast veers from the broadly amateurish to the perfectly capable. The names of many of the cast members have been lost to history, but "Maxine" is noteworthy as Scalli's middle-aged former girlfriend, and she does a mean Charleston, too. The main plot, such as it is, is interrupted by supposedly comic intervals, and there's a terrible Swedish funny man (not!) portrayed by an annoying Bernie Jones. Phil Tucker also directed Robot Monster and Lenny Bruce also scripted Rocket Man.

Verdict: Now this is definitely a curiosity if nothing else. **.

Thursday, March 1, 2018


Norman Alden, Peter Breck, and Vic Morrow
PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER (1961). Director: Joseph Pevney.

The ambitious Arnold Flagenheimer rechristens himself "Dutch Schultz" (Vic Morrow) and goes to work for Legs Diamond (Ray Danton) along with his old pal, Bo (Norman Alden). But Dutch isn't content working for Legs and goes off on his own, taking over rackets right and left and incurring the wrath of other mobsters as well as the police. Dutch goes so far as to romance the daughter, Iris (Leslie Parrish), of one of the men he murdered, but he gets competition from Detective Frank Brennan (Peter Breck). Iris dallies with both men, marries one, and pays a heavy price for it. Portrait of a Mobster is superior to other mob movies of the same period if for no other reason than the casting of a terrific Vic Morrow [Curse of the Black Widow], who unlike Danton and David Janssen gets across a sinister and barely restrained menacing quality that makes him seem genuinely ruthless and psychotic. The picture is also well-directed and fast-paced, with an energetic musical score by Max Steiner who downplays the romance for pure and hectic action. There's plenty of gang warfare scenes and even a bit with a bomb in a coffin at the funeral parlor! Ray Danton reprises his role from The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, but only has a couple of scenes. Both Breck [I Want to Live!] and Parrish [Missile to the Moon] give very good performances, and there's also good work from Norman Alden and Frank DeKova. The only person Dutch seems to care about aside from himself is Bo. Dutch has a habit of getting up in the nightclubs he owns and singing but his voice is flat and fairly awful.

Verdict: Snappy gangster flick with an excellent lead performance. ***.


The maniac advances upon a sleeping victim
SLAUGHTER HOTEL (aka La besta uccide a sangue freddo/1971). Director: Fernando Di Leo.

An institution that treats wealthy women with assorted neuroses plays host to a maniacal killer who runs around in a cloak and mask and employs such weapons as a cross-bow, an axe, a mace, and even an iron maiden. The patients include nymphomaniac Anne (Rosalba Neri), who has secret sex meetings with the hunky gardener (Giangiacomo Elia); and Cheryl (Margaret Lee), who has fallen for her not-so-hunky doctor, Francis Clay (Klaus Kinski of Doctor Zhivago). Then there are patients with incestuous fixations on their brothers, or suicidal tendencies. Nurse Helen (Monica Strebel) begins a steamy affair with patient Mara (Jane Garrett), which provides lots of excuses for "girl on girl" sex scenes. Indeed Slaughter Hotel is semi-pornographic, with both straight and gay action taking up much of the running time as we occasionally see this nut case running around to puncture somebody. It's too bad, because Slaughter Hotel has some decent production values, a creepy score, and good photography, and the picture might have amounted to more than a meandering, often dull, tits-and-ass blood-romp with a better script and direction. Despite the possible inappropriateness of a relationship between a nurse and her patient, the lesbian couple are likable and do a sexy dance together, and their fates are disturbing. This is yet another movie that employs a plot device used in Agatha Christie's famous "ABC Murders." The most tasteless thing about the picture is a climax which shows the killer using his mace to kill several young nurses at once so the ads could talk about "the slaughter of seven student nurses" and invoke the image of that real maniac Richard Speck. A nominal giallo film.

Verdict: A beautiful mansion that should have been used for a much, much better movie. *1/2.


SWING IT! THE ANDREWS SISTER STORY. John Sforza. University Press of Kentucky; 2000.

Petty squabbles, sibling rivalry, bad marriages, lawsuits and counter suits against each other, and even suicide attempts -- this was all part of the Andrews Sisters' story. However, it is just part of the story. True, two of the sisters, Patti and Maxene, did not even speak or look at one another in the last few years of  their lives -- Maxene died some years before Patti did -- but author Sforza suitably spends more time detailing the careers (both together and as individuals) and personal triumphs of the singing group than their trials and tribulations -- but he leaves nothing out. The author looks at other girl groups and explains why the very versatile Andrews Sisters were at the top of the heap and the reasons for their longevity. The gals were of Greek descent, and one could not say they were raving beauties, but they generally looked much more attractive in real life than in their movies. LaVerne, the oldest, looked like a witch in Hold That Ghost, but still shots in this heavily-illustrated tome show her looking much prettier and with a more becoming hairstyle in later years. The sisters did several films with Abbott and Costello, then a series of mediocre films for Universal, who didn't seem to know just what to do with them, and then there was their work for the USO. When Patti and Maxene did their successful Broadway show, Over Here!, it highlighted the sisters' comedic abilities. Their hit songs included "Rum and Coco-Cola;" "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree;" "Boogie Woogie Buigle Boy;" and many, many others. The group split up in the early fifties, then forgave each other and reunited, until there was another, longer split between Patti and Maxene (LaVerne had passed away by then) over Over Here! The Andrews Sisters remain the "best-selling female vocal group: of all time, and had more Top Ten Billboard hits than either the Beatles or Elvia Presley! In addition to many great photos, the book also has a lengthy, annotated discography as well as lists of their film, radio and TV appearances.

Verdict: This is an excellent biography and career study of three talented women who became symbols of WW2 but whose careers spanned many decades. ***1/2.


Maxene, Patti and LaVerne Andrews
PRIVATE BUCKEROO (1942). Director: Edward F. Cline.

When band leader Harry James, playing himself, is drafted, his singer Lon Prentice (Dick Foran), decides to enlist. His sergeant is "Muggsy" Shavel (Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges), who is engaged to Bonnie (Mary Wickes), who finds herself drawn to another singer and comic, Biff (Joe E. Lewis). Lon finds himself on the outs with his fellow soldiers because he requests and (inexplicably) receives special privileges, which doesn't help when he tries to romance Joyce (Jennifer Holt). Meanwhile the top-billed Andrews Sisters perform both in James' nightclub and on the base, wouldn't you know? Private Buckeroo, which is the name of a song warbled by Foran, is modestly entertaining, without much of a plot, but it has its charms, chief among them the Andrews Sisters performing "Tell It to the Marines" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree." There is also a nifty dance number done by a bunch of talented teenagers, and Dick Foran delivers a fine rendition of "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen." Shemp Howard and Mary Wickes make a winning combo; Dick Foran [Violent Road], who started out as a band singer and eventually became an excellent dramatic actor, has a very nice baritone; and Susan Levine makes an adorable "Tagalong," Joyce's little sister. Donald O'Connor, Peggy Ryan, and Huntz Hall have smaller roles. Harry James plays a mean trumpet, but he proves not to be much of an actor. This is a rare opportunity to see the real singer-comedian Joe E. Lewis, who was played by Frank Sinatra (who looked nothing like Lewis) in The Joker is Wild. Lewis is rather amusing in this as he squares off with rival Shemp Howard.

Verdict: More than passable patriotic Universal musical. **1/2.