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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

HOLLYWOOD STORY

HOLLYWOOD STORY (1951). Director: William Castle.

Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) is a producer who becomes fascinated by an old Hollywood mystery, the still-unsolved 1929 murder of silent film director Franklin Farrara. Larry decides to make a film about the murder, and hires an old screenwriter named Vincent St. Clair (Henry Hull of Werewolf of London), who once worked with the victim.  When someone takes a shot at Larry, he realizes the killer is still alive and doesn't want even a chance of the truth coming out. Richard Egan is cast as a police lieutenant, and Jim Backus is Larry's agent, Mitch. An uncredited Paul Cavanaugh [he's not even listed in the cast on imdb.com] plays aging actor Roland Paul, who was always one of the suspects, along with Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). William Farnum, Francis X. Bushman [The Phantom Planet], and Joel McCrea play themselves in cameos. The best performance is given by Julia/Julie Adams, who apparently knows more than she's saying and may have some unknown connection to the crime. This movie is of interest primarily because it was directed by William Castle [Strait-Jacket], but even with that distinction it has still been forgotten. The trouble is that it has very little suspense, a dull mystery, and plays like nothing so much as a TV pilot. However, the cast may hold your attention.

Verdict: One mystery that doesn't need solving. **.

EDWARD, MY SON

Marital discord: Deborah Kerr and Spencer Tracy
EDWARD, MY SON (1949). Director: George Cukor.

"The trouble with drink is it makes it just a little bit uncouth."

Arnold Boult (Spencer Tracy) is determined to make sure that his son, Edward [who is never seen] has the greatest life possible, and commits all manner of crimes to insure this, his ruthlessness even driving people to suicide. His wife Evelyn (Deborah Kerr) watches in horror, tries to interfere, and turns to drink, only inspiring more contempt from her husband. Boult has an affair with his secretary, Miss Perrin (Leueen MacGrath), but finds her as disposable as most of the people in his life, including his partner Harry (Mervyn Johns). This absorbing, adult portrait of a supreme narcissist and his spoiled son packs a wallop, due to an excellent script by Donald Ogden Stewart [Keeper of the Flame]  and superb playing by Tracy [State of the Union] and Kerr [The End of the Affair]. MacGrath, Johns, Ian Hunter [Tower of London] as a doctor who is sympathetic to Evelyn, and Tilsa Page as Miss Foxley, are also excellent. 

Verdict: Powerful marital drama. ***1/2.

THE HORROR COMICS:

THE HORROR COMICS: Fiends, Freaks and Fantastic Creatures, 1940s - 1980s. William Schoell. McFarland publishing; 2014.

Another shameless plug for my latest book, which covers about forty-five years of horror stories told in comic books. Many of these were influenced by films and radio, and sometimes the stories in horror comic books were turned into movies -- without crediting the comic book. Fans of the controversial and vivid EC horror comics will enjoy reading about the stories that were adapted for such series as Tales from the Crypt as well as for the theatrical films Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Then there were long-running comics based on The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff's Thriller. Giant bugs, bloodsucking vampires, flesh-eating fiends, giant voracious man-eating crabs, psychotic wives with axes, deals with the devil, adulterous husbands with murder on their minds, flesh-tearing werewolves, giant spiders with human heads and fangs, dinosaurs out-of-time and on the rampage, Frankenstein and Dracula -- The Horror Comics has it all. You'll read about such stories as "Airboy vs the Rats;" gory classics like "Foul Play;" weird ones like Simon and Kirby's "Head of the Family;" chilling heart-breakers like "Mr. Reilly, the Derelict" and "The Kid's Night Out;" adaptations of Poe, Lovecraft, Stevenson and Ray Bradbury -- and much more, such as the classic terror tale from Dell's Ghost Stories: "The Horror of Dread End," which gave many a kid nightmares back in the day. You can order direct from the publisher's website or from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

THE BIG FOUR

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
THE BIG FOUR (2014 telefilm/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery -- Poirot.) Director: Peter Lydon.

Agatha Christie's "The Big Four," published in 1927, was an unusual Hercule Poirot novel in that -- while there were elements of classic detective fiction in it -- it was seemingly inspired by pulp fiction. Poirot was up against four powerful and well-known individuals -- one of whom was a former actor and supreme master of disguise -- who had banded together to achieve world domination. While Christie's prose lacked the rich atmosphere and descriptive power of, say, Sax Rohmer (who wrote the Fu Manchu novels), the novel moved at breakneck speed, was suspenseful and exciting, and had Poirot solving intricate cases (which always had to do with the Big Four)  in his usual adept and clever manner. After many skirmishes with the enemy, Poirot triumphs in the literally explosive conclusion.

In this adaptation of the novel, script writer Mark Gatiss has taken the basic premise of the book and turned it on its end. [The teleplay takes place much closer to WW2 than the novel does.] Along the way it at times becomes just as absurd as one could accuse the book of being, although the producers of the series probably think they are being more reasonable. There is a reporter (Tom Brooke) who believes rumors of a Big Four; an American millionaire, Ryland (James Carroll Jordan); and a French lady scientist of distinction, Madame Olivier (Patricia Hodge). One man is murdered while playing chess, while another meets his end with his head in a fireplace. Two other individuals embroiled in the events are actress Flossie Munro (Sarah Parish) and Dr. Quentin (Simon Lowe); the latter in particular is a cast stand-out. Assistant Commissioner Japp (Philip Jackson), secretary Miss Lemon (Pauline Moran), and dear old friend Hastings (Hugh Fraser) are along for the ride, albeit briefly. David Suchet [Dracula] is, as ever, superb as Poirot. This is vastly inferior to the novel, but not bad for what it is.

Verdict: Entertaining and well-acted. **1/2.

THE ASTRAL FACTOR / INVISIBLE STRANGLER

THE ASTRAL FACTOR (aka Invisible Strangler/1978). Director: John Florea.

Roger Sands (Frank Ashmore) is a psychotic who murdered his unloving, self-absorbed mother and while in prison has developed the ability to enter the astral plane, become invisible, and escape. Once out, he runs about strangling women who remind him of his mother and/or who testified against him. Lt. Charles Barrett (Robert Foxworth of Prophecy) is the chief detective on the case, assisted by Holt (Mark Slade); both do a fairly miserable job of protecting the victims, but the killer is highly unusual. The Astral Factor isn't a very good movie, its chief interest being its bizarre C-list cast: Stefanie Powers is Barrett's nutty girlfriend; Elke Sommer is one of the potential victims; Sue Lyon is Sands' mother; Leslie Parrish [Missile to the Moon] and Marianna Hill are two other victims; and Cesare Danova and  Percy Rodrigues also have small roles.  Elke Sommer [Deadlier Than the Male] actually gives a pretty good account of herself as a nervous lady all alone in a big mansion waiting for Roger to show while the cops stand by. The film meanders terribly but there is some suspense at the end. The scientific/paranormal aspects of the script are pretty much muddled.

Verdict: The poster is much better than the movie. **.

TOO BUSY TO WORK

Florence Roberts, Spring Byington, and Joan Davis
TOO BUSY TO WORK (1939). Director: Otto Brower.

"If you sent her to Ripley I bet he wouldn't believe it!" -- Granny Jones on Lolly.

Mayor Jones (Jed Prouty) is alarming his wife (Spring Byington) and mother (Florence Roberts) because he's volunteering for too many duties as mayor and neglecting his drug store business to the point where he may lose it. Mrs. Jones decides to wake him up by neglecting her own duties and starring in a little theater production supervised by her old friend, Marge (Marjorie Gateson of Lily Turner). Added complications are the arrival of a niece, Lolly (Joan Davis of Around the World), who becomes the maid in exchange for food and board. Lolly has an eye on policeman Gilligan (Irving Bacon, Ethel's father on I Love Lucy) who loves her cooking but is preoccupied with the capture of safe cracker "Cracker" McGurk (Chick Chandler of Spy Train). Then the mayor discovers that his fellow board members have been behaving unethically and some money turns up missing ... Too Busy to Work is probably the funniest of the Jones Family films, with a good script and many amusing lines and situations to keep it consistently entertaining. Granny is especially acerbic in this entry. The entire cast, including Ken Howell and George Ernest, is top-notch, and Spring Byington certainly gets her chance to shine.

Verdict: Delightful! ***.

ONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL'S

ONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL'S (2001). Director: Harald Zwart.

Bartender Randy (Matt Dillon) rescues a young lady, Jewel (Liv Tyler of The Incredible Hulk), from an abusive man outside the bar where he works, and soon finds himself entangled up in her life as she moves in with him. Jewel has an immediate mesmeric and sensual effect on most of the men she encounters, which includes Randy's married, S & M-loving cousin, Carl (Paul Reiser) and the portly, potato-faced Detective Dehling (John Goodman of Speed Racer), both of whom are instantly smitten. The three men tell their stories to people they know: Randy sounds off to Burmeister (Michael Douglas, who also produced) in a bingo hall; Carl tells his troubles to his shrink, Dr. Green (Reba McIntire); and Dehling confesses to an associate that Jewel reminds him of a lost love . The performances are okay, with Douglas [Behind the Candelabra]  -- with a puffed up mullet hairdo -- having the most fun. The trouble with this black comedy is that it's frenetic but not all that funny. The most interesting thing about it is some of the casting.

Verdict: Not so cool -- and not so hot, either. *1/2.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE NAKED PREY

A half-naked Cornel Wilde
THE NAKED PREY (1965). Director/producer: Cornel Wilde.

An unnamed guide (Cornel Wilde) is leading a safari to hunt elephants for ivory, but an arrogant member of the group refuses to give trinkets to the natives. In what seems to be the midst of tribal wars, the members of the safari are captured and put to death in torturous and horrifying ways as men, women and children look on with glee and even participate. The guide is to be the subject of a hunt, and tries to survive attack after attack as he makes his way across Africa. The Naked Prey is absorbing, although at times Wilde seems like some kind of latter-day Tarzan the way he handily defeats each and every black warrior who comes after him. On the other hand, there's a charming scene when a little native boy saves his life in gratitude for Wilde's saving his and showing him compassion earlier. There are no translations for the natives, unfortunately. Wilde [Shockproof], in great shape at fifty-three, gives a very good, mostly silent performance -- he also does a very good job as director --  and the actors playing natives are also quite effective. The photography by H.A. R. Thomson is excellent, and the movie, in addition to being suspenseful, illustrates the diversity of the people, wild life and topography of Africa.

Verdict: Imperfect, but something different. ***.

THE SHOPWORN ANGEL

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart
THE SHOPWORN ANGEL (1938). Director: H. C. Potter.

At the start of WW 1 Daisy Heath (Margaret Sullavan) is a sophisticated, world-weary Broadway star who is engaged to Sam Bailey (Walter Pidgeon of Forbidden Planet). Both Daisy and Sam are rather cynical about the war and soldiers, until Daisy meets a young Army man named Bill (Jimmy Stewart). Having no girlfriend, Bill has told his pals that Daisy is his gal, and she goes along with it out of compassion. Daisy begins to see Bill on a regular basis, telling herself and Sam that she's just being kind, but real feelings between both begin to develop. And then Daisy learns that Bill's unit is going overseas ... The Shopworn Angel is a lovely movie that features a superb performance from Sullavan [Only Yesterday] and excellent work from her two leading men; Hattie McDonald [Everybody's Baby] also scores, as usual, as Martha. If the film has any flaw it's that some may consider the ending more ridiculous than moving.

Verdict: Another luminescent Sullavan performance. ***.

A LIFE AT STAKE

Keith Andes and Angela Lansbury
A LIFE AT STAKE (1954). Director: Paul Guilfoyle.

An out-of-work architect named Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) is given an attractive business proposal by wealthy Doris Hillman (Angela Lansbury) and her older husband, Gus (Douglass Dumbrille). The catch is that Shaw will have to be insured for a very large sum of money, with Gus being the beneficiary. Shaw's paranoia over this aspect of the alliance only increases when he is drawn into a romance with Doris, and can't tell if she really loves him or is just waiting for hubby to collect on the insurance. Then there are the suspicious "accidents" ...  Andes [Clash By Night] makes a compelling, if understandably grumpy, leading man, and Dumbrille [Mr. Deeds Goes to Town] is typically excellent. Lansbury [Please Murder Me] gives a good performance as well, but while attractive, she is not quite convincing as the sexy, femme fatale type. [Ironically, a less talented "B" actress probably could have filled the bill better.] Jane Darwell is fine if a bit wasted as a landlady. A Life at Stake holds the attention and is not entirely predictable.

Verdict: Watch out for spiked coffee! **1/2.

A FIG LEAF FOR EVE aka DESIRABLE LADY

Jan Wiley goes into her dance
A FIG LEAF FOR EVE (aka Desirable Lady/1944). Director: Donald Brodie.

 A dancer named Eve (Jan Wiley) is arrested for non-existent "lewdness" but it turns out to be her agent, Dan's (Phil Warren), publicity stunt. But she meets a shady bail bondsman named Hoffman (Eddie Dunn) who tells her she might just be the heir to a hair oil fortune; her life story corresponds to that of an "Eve Westland." Meeting her relatives, the members of the Sardum family, she discovers she has an ally in Uncle Horace (Edward Keane) and his sweet old sister Sarah (Janet Scott), but antagonists in the form of Horace's termagant wife, Lavinia (Betty Blythe), and her daughter, Millicent (Marilyn McConnell), who find her utterly declasse. Will our gal get her fair share of the estate and find true love with Dan? This could have made a cute and funny picture, but it opts for unconvincing melodrama instead. It doesn't even have a decisive wind-up. The acting is okay from a pretty unknown cast, but you can see why Wiley never became a big star; even her dancing isn't that great, and she looked a lot sexier in the serial Secret Agent X-9 made the following year.

Verdict: This is yet another stinky public domain movie retitled for the DVD market.  *1/2.

                                                                                         

JASON PRIESTLEY: A MEMOIR

JASON PRIESTLEY: A MEMOIR. Jason Priestley with Julie McCarron. HarperCollins; 2014.

Jason Priestley became well-known when he appeared on the long-running television series Beverly Hills 90210 -- he has been a busy actor ever since. In this memoir Priestley, who started working as a model and actor at a very early age, writes about the effects of fame, his colleagues on the show, his film projects, occasional stage appearances, early girlfriends, a racing accident that nearly killed him, and his wife and children. Along the way he documents some truly stupid behavior, and on more than one occasion writes about how he needed to grow up, that being a celebrity did not prepare one for a normal life. Priestley is typical of some celebrities who bemoan the fact that they lose their privacy and all that goes with it, but forgets that this loss came about because of success, not because of a personal tragedy or some disaster -- would he rather have been an unknown waiter desperate for an acting career? McCarron insures that the book reads well, and it will probably be of interest to young, aspiring actors as it does describe how the business of acting, and making a career at it, works. Priestley writes hardly a word about his film with John Hurt, Love and Death on Long Island. For some reason Priestley uses a comparatively crappy photo of himself on the cover.

Verdict: Strictly for fans and aspiring actors. **1/2.

SHE HAD TO CHOOSE

Isabel Jewell and Regis Toomey
SHE HAD TO CHOOSE (1934). Director: Ralph Ceder.

Sally Bates (Isabel Jewell) makes her way to Hollywood and a hopefully better life, but would have wound up sleeping in her car were it not for the kindness of Bill Cutler (Buster Crabbe), who runs a food stand with his mother (Maidel Turner of State of the Union). Bill develops feelings for Sally, although he already has a girlfriend in wealthy, snooty Clara (Sally Blane). However he has a rival for Sally's affections in Jack Berry (Regis Toomey of Shopworn), who loves to drink and party. In the meantime, Bill's mother turns out not to be quite as nice as she at first seems. Jewell [The Seventh Victim] is an appealing performer, the other cast members are fine, but She Had to Choose becomes increasingly ridiculous and melodramatic. The funniest scene -- intended to be dramatic -- is when Sally rips off a dress she is wearing [unbeknownst to her it belongs to Clara] after an altercation and runs out of a nightclub in her slip. And things get more ridiculous after that! One assumes the title has to do with which man Sally will choose, as she really isn't given any other "choices" in the movie.

Verdict: Don't choose this movie. *1/2.

INSOMNIA (1997/Norwegian)

Stellan Skarsgard
INSOMNIA (1997). Director: Erik Skjoldbjaerg.

"I have to acknowledge you really lived up to your reputation."

Two Swedish detectives are sent to a Norwegian city where the sun never sets to investigate the murder of a young woman, Tanja (Maria Mathiesen). Sleep-deprived and disoriented, Detective Engstrom (Stellan Skarsgaard) accidentally shoots his own partner, Erik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) during a chase, then covers it up; later he even plants evidence to try and frame the dead woman's boyfriend for her murder. Will the real killer take advantage of Engstrom's actions? Insomnia holds the attention and has its ironic moments, but it never quite grips the way it should -- the American version of the same name with Al Pacino in the lead is more effective. Enigmatic Skarsgard is strangely compelling in the lead. At least he's a lot better in this than he is in Thor: The Dark World.

Verdict: You may not sleep through it. **1/2.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LAST TANGO IN PARIS

Unlikely coupling: Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972). Director: Bernardo Bertolucci.

"I'll be smirking and giggling all the way to eternity."

Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a young woman whose boyfriend, Tom, is filming a documentary about her life as it happens, enters into a "no names," no frills affair with an older man, Paul (Marlon Brando of On the Waterfront), whose wife has just committed suicide. Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is unaware of Paul and his girlfriend's sexual obsession with the man. Will the two lovers manage to keep things casual, or will one of the participants want something more than just the eroticism? Last Tango in Paris was heavily promoted as an "art film" -- an Italian director and set in Paris! -- with screenings only in certain New York theaters and with tickets sold in advance with assigned seats. Without the frank sexual activity  -- a sodomy scene with butter was especially notorious -- it's unlikely anyone but Bertolucci's most fervent admirers would have cared about this fairly dull movie. The film is pretentious and all over the lot, as if Bertolucci had cobbled a screenplay around Brando and Paris and hoped for the best -- a series of tableau's that never really jell, although there are some interesting bits and pieces along the way, and the film does get at certain truths in some relationships where there is a distinct age difference between the parties. Some scenes seem thrown in because they might seem unique -- Paul has a talk with his dead wife's lover, Marcel (Massimo Girotti) for instance -- but they don't convince, just as it's hard to ever take seriously the "relationship" between Jeanne and Paul. [After passing on the street, they meet when both look at an apartment for rent, but there is nothing to suggest an attraction between the two. Yet Paul simply picks Jeanne up and begins having sex with her without her protesting.] Another senseless scene has Paul chasing after a potential client of a hooker who has changed his mind and calling him a "faggot." There is some humor on the sophomoric side -- Paul moons an older woman at a Tango palace --  and the performances aren't bad, but the actors have no fully dimensional characters to play, and Paul is essentially an asshole. Ultimately what Tango seems to be about is an aging, bitter man objectifying and debasing a younger woman even as she exposes how pathetic he is. Scheider appeared in quite a few movies both before and after Tango.  

Verdict: Like La Luna this is another Bertolucci movie that may make you want to say yuck! **.

UP IN MABEL'S ROOM

Mischa Auer, Dennis O'Keefe and baby
UP IN MABEL'S ROOM (1944). Director: Allan Dwan.

Gary (Dennis O'Keefe) is married to the easily excitable and almost neurotically jealous Geraldine (Marjorie Reynolds). Years ago Gary had a drunken fling in Mexico City with Mabel (Gail Patrick), and gave her some intimate lingerie with a love message embroidered on it with his name. Mabel, who is engaged to Gary's prospective business partner, Arthur (Lee Bowman), thinks Gary should be honest about it and they can all laugh about it and forget it -- very sensible -- but not-so-sensible, nervous Gary wants to get the notorious slip out of Mabel's hands and destroy it. To that end he hires Boris (Mischa Auer) to help him get it when the two couples and others converge at a house party. Somehow, after much hiding under beds and marital misunderstandings, the rumor gets around that Gary and Mabel's big secret isn't a mere slip, but a "slip" of a baby! Up in Mabel's Room is based on a creaky old farce that might have been hilarious in its day, but this attempt to turn it into a wartime screwball comedy just doesn't come off. There are some talented players in this -- O'Keefe certainly tries hard, Patrick is quite likable as the sophisticated Mabel, and Mischa Auer gets the film's only laughs (and there are far too few of them) -- but Marjorie Reynolds [Bring On the Girls] and most of the others show no gift for farce. If the picture were really funny you might overlook that most of the characters are quite stupid. John Hubbard [The Mummy's Tomb] and Binnie Barnes play another couple, and Charlotte Greenwood is an older woman who thinks Boris is a burglar and tries to shoot him. Allan Dwan also directed the terrible Brewster's Millions with O'Keefe.

Verdict: Pick any Mexican Spitfire movie and it will be a lot funnier -- this is leaden. *1/2

PIECES OF MY HEART: ROBERT WAGNER

PIECES OF MY HEART: A LIFE. Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman. 2008; HarperCollins.

Robert Wagner appeared in a number of high-profile movies, such as A Kiss Before Dying, before becoming even more successful as a TV star in middle-age, with such programs as It Takes a Thief, Switch, and Hart to Hart. Wagner -- via Scott Eyman -- writes about his early life and his lousy relationship with his father, his desire to be nothing but a movie star from his youngest days, his marriages to Natalie Wood and Jill St. John, and the tragic night that Natalie drowned. There are some surprises in the book, such as (a very few) details about his four-year affair with the older Barbara Stanwyck, which may have been highly exaggerated. Wagner has a sense of humor, but comes off as a rather superficial third-tier celebrity bashing a few enemies -- such as Natalie's less successful sister, Lana, whom he skewers, and co-star Stefanie Powers, whom he felt betrayed him  -- and justifying some of his bad actions as well. Wagner outs numerous people as gay or bisexual, but remains mum on the rumors surrounding his own sexuality. Although Wagner has pleasant things to say about some gay men he knew, he's not above the occasional stereotypical whack; he comes off as an old-fashioned guy trying to affect a liberal posture. If the book has any value, it is as an insider's look at old Hollywood, the dying (and now dead) studio system, and some of the characters who inhabited that long-ago world, about which much has already been written. The book is entertaining enough but overlong.

Verdict: Hardly essential reading, but Wagner's fans may eat it up. **1/2. 

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

Arthur Vinton and Chick Chandler
CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE (1935). Director: Charles Lamont.

Reporter Jim Baldwin (Chick Chandler) is covering a trial where the evidence is strictly circumstantial, and is appalled when the defendant is not only convicted but given the death penalty. Baldwin feels that in cases wherein the evidence is all circumstantial, the defendant should be given a life sentence instead. Meanwhile Fred Stevens (Arthur Vinton), although having an affair with a certain married lady, asks Shirley (Adrienne Grey) to marry him, but she turns him down, accepting Jim's proposal instead. Jim decides to use this awkward situation to  prove that circumstantial cases are unreliable, and gets Fred to go along with his scheme. They will fake an argument over Shirley in front of others, and then Fred will disappear after Jim makes it look like he murdered him. Fred is to come out of hiding at the last minute -- the trouble is that somebody else really murders him! Now Jim is in a pretty pickle. Circumstantial Evidence worked much better when the same plot more or less was used in the far superior Beyond a Reasonable Doubt twenty years later. Chandler [Lost Continent], more of a light comedian than a dramatic type, is okay but tends to overact at times.

Verdict: Predictable, trite, and tedious. *1/2.

A MILLIONAIRE FOR CHRISTY

Fred MacMurray
A MILLIONAIRE FOR CHRISTY (1951). Director: George Marshall.

Lawyer J. C. Thompson (Douglass Dumbrille) dispatches his secretary, Christy (Eleanor Parker) to tell radio personality Peter Lockwood (Fred MacMurray) that he's inherited two million dollars, but not before she's importuned by Patsy (Una Merkle) to go after the guy and get herself a wealthy husband. The trouble is that Peter is just about to get married to fiancee June (Kay Buckley), and neither he nor anyone else believes Christy about the money. Peter's rival, Dr. Roland Cook (Richard Carlson of All I Desire) thinks Christy is a mental case who needs his help -- and so on. A Millionaire for Christy is frenetic but absolutely and completely laughless -- you sit there and watch this, utterly stupefied, helplessly observing McMurray and Parker [Lizzie] struggling to bring life to an utterly hopeless script. Dumbrille [Alimony] is completely wasted. Nestor Paiva has a small role.

Verdict: Not even Fred can save this one. Atrocious. *.

SUNSET MURDER CASE

SUNSET MURDER CASE (aka Sunset Strip Case/1938). Director: Louis J. Gasnier.

Dancer Kathy O'Connor (Sally Rand) is determined to get the man who ordered her cop father's death, and comes up with a rather implausible plan. She will go to Europe, develop a reputation as the Toast of the Continent under the name "Valerie," and come back to the US to work in a night club owned by bad guy Stephani (Paul Sutton), whereupon she will get the goods on him. Two men are vying for her favors: Detective Helton (Reed Hadley), who had worked with her father; and reporter Lou Fleming (Dennis Moore), who has feelings for Kathy but may have to make do with the slightly pixelated singer, Penny Nichols (Kathryn "Sugar" Kane). Sally Rand made quite a few movies before this, including many silents, but Sunset was her last picture. She became more famous as a burlesque performer with a famous fan dance than as an actress. There's a funny scene when Helton registers his disapproval of dancer Kathy without realizing she's the daughter of his partner. Rand is cute and likable, but Dennis Moore [The Fearmakers] makes the biggest impression as Lou, giving a fine performance of charm and humor. Orchestra leader Henry King plays himself. Handsome Hadley made more of an impression as the lead in the classic serial Zorro's Fighting Legion.

Verdict: Easygoing vehicle for Rand with a potpourri of a script. **.

AMERICAN HUSTLE

The cast of American Hustle
AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). Director: David O. Russell.

"Sometimes all you have in life are fucked-up, poisonous choices."

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a married con artist/loan shark with a really elaborate comb-over who works with his lover, Sydney (Amy Adams), in conning desperate and larcenous people out of their money. They get caught by arrogant, ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who tells them they can stay out of jail if they help him in a sting operation. The target for entrapment is Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner of Mission Impossible -- Ghost Protocol), who needs money to bring gambling to AC [this takes place in the late seventies]. When Polito begins making deals with gambling experts who happen to be mobsters, such as Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), Richie, who begins an affair with Sydney, figures he can bring down even bigger fish than Polito. Realizing they are the ones the gangsters will go after when the whole thing blows up, Irving and Sydney come up with a secret counter-scheme, but will Irving's jealous wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), cause more problems than they can handle? American Hustle is an okay movie with some clever moments and a fairly satisfying ending, but it's incredible that it won an Oscar as Best Picture -- all four lead actors won Oscars as well --  proving that studio backing and aggressiveness can and often is more responsible for the garnering of awards than genuine quality. The acting is okay [but never outstanding] for the most part -- one could single out Bale [American Psycho] for his character role -- but the cast members all seem to be exuding personality in a naturalistic manner rather than acting [a common occurrence in modern-day movies]. Also the movie is played as a black comedy, which is also typical of many new movies, and has not a single likable character. It also has senseless scenes, such as a girl-on-girl kiss between wife and startled mistress in a ladies room, that seem thrown in for titillation and nothing else. American Hustle also tells an 80 minute story in two and a half hours! It in no way compares to great con man/film noir classics of the past such as Too Late for Tears/Killer Bait.

Verdict: This isn't terrible, but a masterpiece with truly great acting it is not. **1/2.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. M

THE MYSTERIOUS MR. M. 13 chapter Universal serial/1946). Directed by Lewis D. Collins and Vernon Keays. 

Anthony Waldron (Edmund MacDonald of Great Guns), who is presumed dead by the police, is holed up in his wealthy grandmother's estate with an evil brother and sister team who are helping him with his plans. Calling himself "the mysterious Mr. M," Waldron uses a drug called hypnotreme to keep the old lady (Virginia Brissac of The Scarlet Clue) compliant and get many others to do his bidding even while he piles up corpses in the river from his experiments. He is particularly interested in getting the plans for a device that will enable submarines to be as large as ocean liners and do more than forty knots an hour. But Waldron and his cronies get a surprise when somebody else calling himself "Mr. M" sends them recordings giving them orders and threatening to tell the cops Waldron is alive if they don't comply with his wishes. As the gang wonders who this new "Mr. M" could be, agent Grant Farrell (Dennis Moore) is on the case, especially after his brother, Jim (William Brooks/Ching), is hypnotized and killed; Farrell is aided by Detective-Lt. Kirby Walsh (Richard Martin) and insurance investigator Shirley Clinton (Pamela Blake of Ghost of Zorro). 

The Mysterious Mr. M is an entertaining and suspenseful serial with Moore in good form as the hero, Waldron suitably gruff, and Jane Randolph [Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein] and Danny Morton [The Royal Mounted Rides Again] effective as the nasty brother and sister team. Byron Foulger [The Master Key] scores as Grandmother Waldron's lawyer, who nearly becomes a victim of Mr. M more than once. Memorable sequences include the fight between the Farrell brothers as electricity discharges all around them; a bit with a cigarette lighter that has a dart inside it; a cliffhanger concerning falling high-tension wires; and another in which Grant's car goes hurtling down a high shaft in a parking garage. The best cliffhanger -- one of the best ever, in fact -- has Waldron and Grant struggling on one parachute after they fall out of a plane even as a train races towards them on the ground below, with Grant eventually falling off the chute right into the path of the express!The serial also keeps you guessing as to the true identity of "Mr. M."

Verdict: Universal's very last serial is one of its best. ***.

HIS PRIVATE SECRETARY

HIS PRIVATE SECRETARY (1933). Director: Philip Whitman.

Dick Wallace (John Wayne) is a good-natured, girl-happy playboy addicted to gals, parties and late nights. His grumpy father (Reginald Barlow) takes him into his firm but fires him on the first day when he fails to collect money owed by a minister. It seems the cleric uses his funds to help the poor -- and he happens to have a pretty daughter, Marion (Evalyn Knapp). Dick and Marion get married, but the elder Wallace wants nothing to do with them. Marion gets a job as the old man's private secretary and uses it to ingratiate herself with him, but a bigger problem may be Dick's old girlfriend, the slinky and conniving Polly (Natalie Kingston). His Private Secretary isn't as interesting as it sounds, but the likable characters and players help a lot. There's a nice scene when kindly Marion intercedes when Wallace fires dyspeptic employee, Mr. Little (Arthur Hoyt), even though he wasn't all that nice to her. Wayne [Legend of the Lost], Knapp and the others all give very good performances. Knapp starred in the sound-remake of the serial The Perils of Pauline the same year.

Verdict: Minor comedy-drama with very pleasant cast. **.

THE VELVET TOUCH

Sydney Greenstreet and Rosalind Russell
THE VELVET TOUCH (1948). Director: John Gage (Jack Gage).

"You've produced so many bad plays you're beginning to believe them."

Broadway actress Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell) wants to break away from her usual producer, Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) and the treacle he has her appear in, and try "Hedda Gabler," but he only laughs at her. Dunning, who refuses to let her go and is carrying a torch for her as well,  threatens her, and during a struggle Valerie bops him on the head and kills him. This is followed by a long flashback during which Valerie meets new love Michael Morrell (Leo Genn of Personal Affair), who is not only unimpressed by her status but is positively condescending -- and unattractive to boot; nevertheless Valerie falls for him. The third part of the film brings in Sydney Greenstreet as the corpulent Captain Danbury, who is a fan of Val's and is investigating the murder. The front runner in suspects is not Val but Marian Webster (Claire Trevor), who has been pining for Dunning for years, hates Val, and is incredibly bitter. Will Valerie come clean about what happened, or let Marian take the rap? The Velvet Touch is no All About Eve -- made two years later -- but it is a very entertaining backstage drama with an outstanding performance by Russell and fine support from Trevor [The High and the Mighty], Ames, and Greenstreet. Irving Bacon scores as a chatty waiter at Sardi's, and Lex Barker is also in the cast as a young actor.

Verdict: Strangely compelling. ***.

THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY

Guy Rolfe [foreground] and David Spenser [behind him]
THE STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY (1959). Director: Terence Fisher.

Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe) of the East India Co. has been amassing details about the great many disappearances of people and caravans in Bombay. After heated complaints from merchants about the situation, Colonel Henderson (Andrew Cruickshank), decides a man must be appointed to head an investigation. Although he considers Lewis an expert, he nevertheless assigns the arrogant, insufferable. newly-arrived Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) to the job. Meanwhile the stranglers of the cult of Kali continue robbing and murdering with impunity. The severed hand of Lewis' houseman, Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow), who went to get his younger brother, Gopali (David Spenser), away from the cult, winds up on his dining room table to horrify his wife, Mary (Jan Holden). Will Lewis survive to strike down the cult, or are his days numbered? The Stranglers of Bombay is a zesty, absorbing Hammer production with an excellent cast, especially Rolfe [Mr. Sardonicus]; George Pastell as the High Priest of Kali; Cuthbertson as the snooty, hateful Connaught-Smith; Paul Stassino as Lt. Silver, a colleague of Lewis' who secretly belongs to the cult; and Marne Maitland [The Terror of the Tongs] as Patel Shari, who may or may not be an ally. One of the most interesting scenes is a battle between a mongoose and a snake that is on its way to strike at Lewis. Terence Fisher directed a great many films for Hammer studios and others.

Verdict: Hammer hits another home run. ***.