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

Thursday, February 16, 2017

DAYS OF DARK SHADOWS

Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hakk
DAYS OF DARK SHADOWS.

This week we look at that venerable old Gothic,/horror soap opera, Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971), which kept many kids glued to their TV screens each weekday afternoon to watch the adventures of vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), the witch Angelique (Lara Parker), the weird Dr. Hoffman (Grayson Hall), those good gals Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), the nice guys Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers) and Jeff Clark(Roger Davis), the ever-emotional Willie Loomis (John  Karlen), Professor Stokes (Thayer David), the Frankenstein-like Adam (Robert Rodan), werewolf Quentin (David Selby), and a host of others.

Dark Shadows, to be charitable, was pretty low-brow, and even schlocky at times. The series borrowed from everything from Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to all the old Universal horror films starring Franky, Dracula, and the Wolfman. Not that there's anything wrong with that, for Dark Shadows often came up with intriguing variations on a theme, such as having a handsome Frankenstein monster instead of an ugly one. The 1790 storyline which told how Barnabas became a vampire certainly had fascinating elements, and there were other gripping adventures during the series' run.

And then there's the acting. With little rehearsal time, and difficultly memorizing lines, some actors relied too much on the TelePrompTer, with the result that all they could do was "indicate" a performance -- when you're too involved in just getting the right lines out, it's difficult to create convincing emotion in a character. Only when the cast really knew their lines was the acting more than adequate. Grayson Hall had her good moments, but she was more often awful on the show, splitting up her sentences ["there must -- be something -- we can do"] in ways that made little sense, or suggesting that she either was stalling to remember her lines or had breathing issues. Frid was quite effective when he clearly knew what the scene was about and what he was saying.

Joel Crothers
Humbert Allen Astredo, who played Nicholas and other characters, was one of the best and most professional actors on the show. Robert Rodan scored as Adam. And there were many others equally memorable. Kathryn Leigh Scott was always professional, as was Louis Edmonds. Alexandra Moltke did have the innocent quality that producer Dan Curtis was looking for, even if she wasn't necessarily a great actress. Handsome Don Briscoe was quite good in the roles of twin brothers, and was especially effective as the bad boy who turns into a werewolf. John Karlen handled everything the writers and Barnabas Collins threw at Willie and he always rose to the occasion. Joel Crothers was solid as stalwart Joe Haskell, who was Maggie's boyfriend until Angelique got her hooks -- and fangs -- into him.

This week we look at one of the most interesting story arcs on the show, "The Creation of Adam and Eve;" as well as the 1990 revival of the show; the film Night of Dark Shadows; a book on the series; and some special extras, Last, but not least, we look at season two of the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, because if it wasn't at least partially influenced by Dark Shadows, I'll eat my hat.

You can also click here to read about House of Dark Shadows and Tim Burton's dreadful big-screen adaptation of Dark Shadows.

DARK SHADOWS: THE CREATION OF ADAM AND EVE

Marie Wallace, Robert Rodan, Humbert Allen Astredo
DARK SHADOWS: ADAM AND EVE ARC (1968).

When I was a kid I loved Dark Shadows, but as I got older I only caught part of some of the story arcs. One of these was the arc involving Adam and Eve, which for much of its length also included that interminable business with the "dream-curse." Now that I've caught up with this arc, here are my impressions:

Wanting to finally lose his curse of vampirism, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) works with Dr. Lang and Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) to cobble together a creature that can house Barnabas' consciousness. The idea is that when his mind occupies a new body, he will no longer be a vampire. However, things don't go quite as planned. Barnabas indeed loses his curse, but the creation, "Adam," develops his own distinct consciousness. The two are linked together so that if Adam dies, Barnabas will revert to being a vampire. To say that none of this has any kind of scientific basis is an understatement! Eventually, Adam insists that Barnabas and Julia make him a mate or all Hell will break loose.

Robert Rodan was an unusual choice to play Dark Shadows' variation on the Frankenstein Monster, for Rodan was tall, dark, and handsome and probably made the best-looking "Frankenstein" ever. They put scars and stitches on his face, which made Adam feel he was "ugly," but none of that really disguised the actor's good looks -- why not give the housewives something to look at? Even better was the fact that Rodan was a very good actor, doing his early silent scenes of pantomime in such a fashion that made it convincing instead of comical. As Adam developed the ability to speak and acquired knowledge (much of that thanks to the efforts of Professor Stokes, played by Thayer David), Rodan successfully etched a portrait of a bitter, confused, sexually -- and even romantically -- aroused man-child who, while incredibly dangerous, was searching for love.

To that end, the show created Eve (Marie Wallace), who (as in Bride of Frankenstein) has absolutely no interest in Adam. This part of the story arc also employed the considerable talents of the smooth, urbane Humbert Allen Astredo as Nicholas Blair, a demonic figure who hoped to use Adam and Eve to create a new dark race. Eve's body, also put together from corpses, was imbued with the spirit of a long-dead murderess who was supposed to be one of the most evil women who had ever lived. That certainly gave the viewers some frightful situations to contemplate.

Unfortunately, little of much interest was done with Eve. She did not really become this demoness stalking the Collins family, and didn't even murder a single person. Instead she focused on Jeff Clark (Roger Davis), who was actually a displaced person she had known in a previous century and whom she wanted for her own. If they were going to turn Eve into a mere love-smitten kitten, one has to wonder why they gave her the spirit of a thoroughly degenerate and remorseless female in the first place. (In one of the series funnier moments, Angelique the witch, has the gall to say of Eve: "She is evil!" Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.) In retrospect there seemed little purpose in even introducing the character, but at least the actress playing her was cast in other roles on the series later on.

I thought the writers missed the boat on another potential development: someone recognizing Adam's face, now being worn by a body of spare parts. What if the man that face belonged to had had a wife, family, parents, people who would recognize him even though he was dead? Not only did this never happen, there was never any interest in determining whom Adam may have been in his past life, nor did we even know if the brain currently residing in his cranium was the same one that had originally been inside his head. Who was "Adam?" Adam seemed to not only have a completely separate personality but no recollection of past events.

In the end, Adam goes off to Europe with the professor, who tells him there are things they can do about his scars. Professor Stokes eventually shows up again sans Adam, so one can assume the two did not live happily ever after. The policeman that Adam killed during a shoot out is never mentioned, and Adam -- whoever the hell he was -- is never seen again. Now that Frankenstein was gone, the Wolfman was next!

Verdict: Essentially a low-brow "borrowing" from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, but fun, and with some good actors to boot. ***.

NOTE: It's interesting to note that in season two of the Showtime horror series Penny Dreadful, the notion comes up that the dead woman, Lily, revived by Henry Frankenstein, will mate with his male experiment, John, and create a new dark race. Sound familiar? Later, however, she decides to mate with Dorian Gray instead, creating an even darker new race? .

NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS

Kate Jackson and David Selby
NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971). Produced and directed by Dan Curtis.

"Mrs. Collins, did you ever stop to think that perhaps you don't belong here?" -- Carlotta.

Painter Quentin Collins (David Selby) and his wife Tracy (Kate Jackson) move into Collinwood with their spooky housekeeper Carlotta (Grayson Hall). Quentin is fascinated by a portrait of long-dead Angelique (Lara Parker), who was hung as a witch. But her spirit still haunts the place, and Quentin finds himself possessed by his lookalike ancestor, Charles Collins, who was Angelique's lover even though she was married to his brother, Gabriel (Christopher Pennock). Quentin imagines that Tracy is Charles' wife Laura (Diana Millay) and tries to kill her. John Karlen and Nancy Barrett, who played Willie and Carolyn on the TV show, herein are cast as writer-couple Alex and Claire Jenkins, friends of Quentin and Tracy. Thayer David has a small role as a witch-hunting reverend, and Jim Storm is the unpleasant handyman, Gerard. Night of Dark Shadows was hastily cobbled together to cash in on the success of the previous big-screen version of the show, House of Dark Shadows, but it is in no way in the same league. The story is weak, the production (despite the grand house that stands in for Collinwood) cheapjack, the direction equally slipshod, badly scored (with what sounds like tin cans on occasion) and poorly photographed. The actors do the best they can, with Selby [Falcon Crest] and Jackson [Making Love], who was "introduced" in this picture (first appearing on the TV show), doing reasonably well, although John Karlen gives the liveliest performance. Millay is also good but hasn't enough to do, which is also the case with Parker. Grayson Hall is, well, Grayson Hall.

Verdict: Simply terrible. *.

DARK SHADOWS: BLOOPERS AND TREASURES

Louis Edmonds without the fly
DARK SHADOWS: BLOOPERS AND TREASURES.

Dark Shadows was presented "live on tape"-- it didn't go out live over the air, but it was shot through without stopping, mistakes and all. This is a compilation of many of those mistakes. Most of these have people stumbling over a word, saying the wrong character's name, forgetting a line, and so on, but since people do make mistakes like this in real life, most of the actors could cover pretty well. Other mistakes include boom mikes being included in the shot, crew men walking into or across the set, startling Willie Loomis or Angelique, and cameras accidentally rolling into the action. The funniest bits have to do with a persistent fly that buzzes around various cast members and finally lands right on Louis Edmonds' nose! Since Edmonds' character of "Roger" was always so imperious and dignified, this just makes it funnier. The collection also includes promos for the show, spoofs on TV shows, game show appearances by the cast, and so on.

Verdict: For Dark Shadows fanatics and completists only! **.

DARK SHADOWS TRIBUTE

Jonathan Frid
DARK SHADOWS TRIBUTE. James Van Hise and Edward Gross. Pioneer; 1990.

"I think (the continued interest in Dark Shadows) is wonderful for the little darlings, only I can't share their enthusiasm at all." --Louis Edmonds.

This fan tribute to the TV show Dark Shadows was compiled some years after the series went off the air, and came out around the time of the remake's premiere. Producer Dan Curtis, who only had the bare bones of an idea, insisted on claiming that he "created" the show, when its premise was really developed by Art Wallace, who provided all of the details. Wallace' credit read: "Story created and developed by Art Wallace." Dark Shadows Tribute, which is packed with behind-the-scenes photos, has sections on all of the people behind the show, the main actors such as Jonathan Frid, Louis Edmonds, and Grayson Hall, who reveals that it was her idea to have Julia Hoffman be in love with Barnabas Collins (which certainly explains some of the woman's actions). Half of the book is devoted to brief synopses of virtually every episode of the series, for those who want to find out what happened without necessarily watching all of the episodes.

Verdict: A must for Dark Shadows fans. ***. 

DARK SHADOWS (1990)

Ben Cross and Barbara Steele
DARK SHADOWS (1991).

In this "revival" of the sixties TV show, Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross), turned into a vampire two hundred years before, is freed from his coffin and becomes a "new" member of the Collins family. In the original series, waitress Maggie Collins (Ely Pouget) was the spitting image of his old love, Josette, but in this version it is Victoria Winters (Joanna Going) who excites Barnabas' romantic interest. Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele) tries to cure Barnabas of his vampirism, but is angered when she realizes his affection is reserved not for her but for Victoria. Victoria winds up going back to 1790 during a seance, and from then on the show follows both the modern and 18th century storylines, as Victoria is denounced as a witch despite the fact that the real perpetrator is Josette's handmaiden. Angelique (an effective Lysette Anthony). Most of the cast play dual roles. For instance, Roy Thinnes is fine as Roger Collins, who is having an affair with psychic Maggie, but he is really splendid as the grotesque Reverend Trask, who torments Victoria mercilessly.

Jean Simmons was cast as Elizabeth Collins, taking over from Joan Bennett, but while she's good, she isn't given that much to do. Joanna Going makes an impression as the beautiful Victoria. Two cast stand-outs are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as little David Collins, a really superb child actor who graduated into adult roles, and Jim Fyfe as Willie Loomis, who at times seems to be channeling Dwight Frye from Dracula. Over the top on occasion, he still gives a mesmerizing performance. Michael T. Weiss is also notable as Joe Haskell and Peter Bradford. Barbara Blackburn is okay as a somewhat sexier version of Carolyn Stoddard. Most of these actors amassed many credits after Dark Shadows went off the air.

And then there's the glue that holds the whole thing together: Ben Cross [Star Trek]. Aside from the rare perfunctory moment, Cross is superb as Barnabas, expertly delineating both the character's kind and vicious aspects, and managing to be genuinely frightening at times, something Jonathan Frid never quite accomplished. Cross is a fine actor and he makes the most of this opportunity. At the time he told an interviewer that this was his last chance to break out into major stardom, but while that may not have happened, he's still had a busy career ever since.

It was probably seen as another casting coup to hire Barbara Steele [Black Sunday] to play Julia Hoffman, but frankly, taken out of her Italian movie context she's just not a lot of fun, and her performance (as both Julia and a French character in 1790) is only adequate.

The town of Collinsport seems to learn much more about the existence of vampires than in the original series, but I admit it's been a while since I've seen those episodes. Some scenes were shot day for night, but they don't quite work, making it look as if Barnabas is walking about in broad daylight. Despite its higher production values, this version sometimes doesn't seem to escape its somewhat schlocky origins, but it starts to gather speed with the third episode, and hits high gear with the eleventh. Unfortunately, there was only one more episode left, making this more of a mini-series than a series. It does manage to tell the whole story of Barnabas' introduction and his and Victoria's 1790 adventures in twelve hour-long episodes, and generally does it well. A highlight is when a supposedly dead Angelique walks into the courtroom where Victoria has just branded her the true witch.

Dan Curtis directed many of the episodes, which were also helmed by Armand Mastroianni, Paul Lynch, and Rob Bowman.

Verdict: Gets an "A" for effort and is often entertaining. ***.

DARK SHADOWS ANNIVERSARY SPECIALS

John Karlen and Jonathan Frid
DARK SHADOWS ANNIVERSARY SPECIALS.

Both the 25th and 30th Dark Shadows anniversary specials are available on DVD, but they are strictly for DS fanatics. The specials consist of footage shot at the question and answer segments at Dark Shadows conventions, along with many clips from the show and comments from some of the actors. There are also cast appearances on such talk shows as AM Los Angeles and others. The actors seem genuinely impressed and gladdened that so many people remember the show even though it went off the air so many years before, and thanks to cable it has gotten a whole new generation of fans. There's a charming moment when a seven-year-old boy asks David Selby (Quentin Collins) a question about the werewolf to Selby's obvious pleasure. One of the definite highlights is when Louis Edmonds (Roger Collins) sings a jazz number and reveals a fine voice and a lot of Broadway-style charisma. Less memorable is Marie Wallace (Eve) telling off Roger Davis, whom she clearly doesn't like, for allegedly bumping her out of camera range on a regular basis. Davis attributes it all to intense emotion to hide the fact that he'd forgotten some of his lines. Who knows?

Verdict: For Dark Shadows completists. **1/2.

PENNY DREADFUL SEASON 2

Harry Treadaway, Patti LuPone, Reeve Carney
PENNY DREADFUL. Season 2. 2015. Showtime.

During the first season of Penny Dreadful, the group of weird individuals banded together to fight a horde of vampires. In this season, their antagonists are a coven of really nasty witches. Alternately fascinating and a little bit silly (without being campy), the show still manages to be quite entertaining and watchable. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway of The Disappeared) has been importuned, to put it mildly, by his creation, "John Clare" (Rory Kinnear), to create a mate for him, and he chooses to revive the dead woman (now called Lily) whom once was the lover of Ethan Chandler/Lawrence Talbot (Josh Hartnett). Alas, Lily (Billie Piper), has little interest in John, but she does have a hankering for Victor, although even he is dismissed when her evil side becomes ascendant and she hooks up with Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), whose transsexual lover, Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp of Stonewall), comes to a sad end, no thanks to Dorian. Meanwhile Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) nearly pays for his sins thanks to the manipulations of head witch, Mrs. Poole (Helen McCrory of the BBC's Frankenstein). Vanessa Ives (Eve Green), who has become like a daughter to Malcolm, deals with her own inner demons and relates how she became a witch herself at the tutoring of a "cut-wife" played superbly by a highly-deglamorized Patti Lupone [Parker].

This was a fine season for the show, but there were some disappointments. Ethan never runs into Broma/Lily, which certainly would have been an interesting interlude as she's supposed to be dead, and he also never encounters Dorian Gray, with whom he had a sexual encounter in season one, either. While the character of Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) is admittedly likable and Beale's performance is excellent, one wishes they didn't make him such a relentlessly stereotypical homosexual; he even pronounces his "r"s like "w"s as if he were a little girl! Lyle and Ethan have a lot of semi-amusing banter, but one wonders what the self-described "old queen" would think if he knew about Ethan and Dorian! The LGBT aspects of the show seem added more for spice than veracity or open-mindedness. Penny Dreadful is influenced by everything from Mary Shelley to Dark Shadows.

Verdict: Imperfect, but very well-acted by a great cast, and highly entertaining. ***.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

THE ANIMAL KINGDOM

Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy
THE ANIMAL KINGDOM (1932). Director: Edward H. Griffith. Based on the play by Philip Barry.

"A foolish virgin, me. Well, foolish anyway." -- Daisy.

Tom Collier (Leslie Howard), scion of the very wealthy Rufus Collier (Henry Stephenson), has had a casual if intimate relationship with aspiring artist Daisy Sage (Ann Harding) for years, a relationship of which his father does not approve. Tom seems to think that he and Daisy are, first and foremost, best friends and nothing more, but he discovers that Daisy is actually in love with him and wants to marry him just at the moment that he comes to tell her he's gotten engaged to the more "respectable" Cecelia (Myrna Loy). Tom just doesn't get that Daisy needs to be apart from him to mend her broken heart, but his feelings for her just won't recede even as he realizes he may have made the wrong choice. The Animal Kingdom begins quite well but it's mostly the wonderful acting from the three leads and supporting players alike that put this over, as its contrivances and false theatricality eventually do it in. Played sympathetically by Loy [Lonelyhearts], Daisy is treated especially horribly by both Tom and the film, which contrasts her unfavorably with a prostitute. As usual in these triangle dramas, one wonders if the utterly weak man in the middle is really worth all the hand-wringing from the ladies, as Tom seems a superficial sort content to churn out bestselling potboilers even as Daisy and others seem to think he can and should be writing "literature." Stephenson [Tarzan Finds a Son] scores as the father; William Gargan is the comedy relief prizefighter turned butler; and Neil Hamilton is as bland and puffy as ever as a friend who is in love with Cecelia. Ilka Chase, Leni Stengel and Don Dillaway [Platinum Blonde] have smaller roles and are effective. The character of Cecelia is, I believe, intended to be the unloving, social climbing wife who cares little for what her husband wants as long as she's well-dressed, but Loy's playing gives the character much more dignity and subtlety than that, and in an early scene she admirably defends Tom against all the negative remarks made by his father. But these attempts to make things a little less black and white don't quite succeed.

Verdict: Interesting in spots, and very well-acted, but also pretentious and dated. **1/2.

GOOD GIRLS GO TO PARIS

Rivals: Melvyn Douglas and Alan Curtis
GOOD GIRLS GO TO PARIS (1939). Director: Alexander Hall.

British teacher Ronald Brooke (Melvyn Douglas of A Woman's Face), is an "exchange teacher" with an American university, where he meets a vivacious waitress named Jenny (Joan Blondell). Jenny wants to get rich quick, and tries to get cash for a breach of promise suit against the scion of a wealthy family. When that fails, Jenny goes to New York, and winds up ensconced with the very family that Brooke is about to marry into. With two suitors and Brooke harboring secret feelings for the audacious Jenny, exactly which man will she wind up marrying? Good Girls Go to Paris has a promising and pleasant first quarter, and things really pick up with the introduction of Walter Connolly [So Red the Rose], who is the grandfather of the handsome hunk, Tom (Alan Curtis), that Jenny has set her cap for. Connolly is even more amusing than usual in his portrayal of the dyspeptic, hysterical and neurotic Olaf Brand, the grumpy head of the household. Unfortunately, after a very amusing middle section, the picture gets bogged down with too many suitors and sub-plots and developments that probably confused the audience as much as it does the characters. It just stops being fun, with only Connolly supplying any relief. The other performers, including Joan Perry, Isabel Jeans, Alexander D'Arcy [Vicki], and Clarence Kolb, are fine. Douglas and Blondell make a better team that one might suppose, but while Blondell is a good actress, she can't quite get across some of her lines with that certain skill of, say, a Lucille Ball.

Verdict: Half a good picture. **1/2.

SANDRA

Michael Craig and Claudia Cardinale
SANDRA (aka Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa/1965). Director: Luchino Visconti.

"Your book could be a weapon in the hands of our enemies." -- Sandra to Gianni.

Jean Sorel
Sandra (Claudia Cardinale of The Pink Panther) and her husband, Andrew (Michael Craig of Doctor in Love), travel to her hometown and rundown palatial estate where they encounter her brother, the budding novelist Gianni (Jean Sorel of A View From the Bridge), from whom she has been separated for some years. Their father was a Jew who was executed by the Nazis, and their mother is a now-demented concert pianist who has remarried Mr. Gilardini (Renzo Ricci), who does not get along with his stepchildren. Everything comes to a boil as the day approaches for a ceremony to honor  their father, and Gianni reveals the controversial storyline of his novel. He can no longer control his romantic and sexual obsession for his own sister. Obviously, things aren't going to end well. Sandra has all the elements that might add up to a penetrating and outre erotic drama, but somehow it never quite gets off the ground despite the emotionalism of the last ten minutes or so. This is a well-done English-dubbed version (Cardinale did her own dubbing), but the performances, while hard to judge because of the dubbing, seem more than adequate, with Sorel especially passionate if not quite as pitiable as he might have been. The soundtrack is heavy with classical music that only adds to the general lugubriousness, and the occasional pop tune is grating.

Verdict: Intriguing but insufficient. **1/2.

ALL-AMERICAN MURDER

Charlie Schlatter and Joanna Cassidy
ALL-AMERICAN MURDER (1991). Director: Anson Williams.

Artie Logan (Charlie Schlatter) is a misfit and fuck-up whose last chance for college is Fairfield where the motto is "Reform -- and Conform." Artie meets and falls for a pretty and very friendly young lady named Tally (Josie Bissett of Melrose Place), but it isn't long before someone sets her on fire. Cop P. J. Decker (Christopher Walken) suspects Artie, but is willing to go along with him as the young man does his own investigation (just one of the unbelievable developments in this story). Other suspects include the horny and hypocritical Dean Darby (Craig Stout); his equally horny wife (Joanna Cassidy), who beds Artie on his first day in school; creepy Harry Forbes (J. C. Quinn), who may have been obsessed with Tally; and Doug Sawyer (Mitchell Anderson), who engaged in numerous threesomes with Tally and others. Tally turns out to be quite different from how Artie imagined, even as others who knew her are killed by various means. I could have sworn that this was a lame imitation of the Scream movies were it not for the fact that the first Scream didn't come out until five years later. It's hard to know what to make of this oddball combination of semi-slasher film with sitcom style dialogue, and situations that never remotely ring true. Schlatter has charm, but he gives a one-note performance for the most part (and is hampered by the script, to be fair) and Christopher Walken [Mousehunt] walks though the movie with his typical dead fish expression, probably wishing he were on any set but this one. Joanna Cassidy [The Outfit], on the other hand, is fun as the dean's witty wife. The denouement is pretty much apparent from the moment we learn of the condition of the corpse. Did anyone really think the identity of the killer would be a surprise? The gore in the movie is minimal but the shot of the dean's dead body delivers a quick shock. Director Williams played "Potsie" on Happy Days -- it's as if the character directed the movie instead of the actor!

Verdict: You have to see the ludicrous snake death to believe it. **.

THE INVISIBLE DR. MABUSE

Evil Clown (Werner Peters)
THE INVISIBLE DR. MABUSE (aka Die unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse/1962. Director: Harald Reinl.

Director Harald Reinl of The Return of Dr. Mabuse brings back Lex Barker [Tarzan's Magic Foutain] as FBI agent Joe Como, and replaces Gert Frobe's Inspector Lohmann with Inspector Brahm (Siegfried Lowitz). Como feels that Dr. Mabuse (again Wolfgang Preiss) is still alive and that his evil force has something to do with a theater presenting a bizarre ballet/operetta, while Brahm is just as sure that Mabuse is dead. An invisible man seems to be stalking the star, Liane Martin (Karin Dor of You Only Live Twice), but he may not be Dr. Mabuse. In the meantime, there is skulduggery afoot on a project known as "Operation X," which monitors satellites. The head of the project, Professor Erasmus (Rudolph Fernau), never comes out of his vault and has his own secrets. As usual, everyone who knows too much is conveniently knocked off by assorted henchman, including an evil clown (Werner Peters) who also appears in the theater's production. By this time the Mabuse movies were beginning to resemble Eurospy features, but then the villains in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels were always in the tradition of older characters like Mabuse (The first Bond movie, Dr. No, actually came out the same year). The Invisible Dr. Mabuse has atmosphere and interesting settings, and a few lively sequences, and the acting is generally good, with Preiss playing a dual role and actually killing "himself" at one point.

Verdict: Nothing stops that Mabuse. **1/2.

PHILO VANCE'S GAMBLE

Alan Curtis and Vivian (Terry) Austin
PHILO VANCE'S GAMBLE (1947). Director: Basil Wrangell.

"Looks like I just got here in the nicotine." -- Ernie.

Private eye Philo Vance is asked by aspiring actress Laurian March (Vivian Austin) to intercede on her behalf with a con man named Connor (Dan Seymour), who winds up murdered. The suspects include Connor's jilted girlfriend, Gigi (Toni Todd); Laurian's angel, Oliver (Gavin Gordon), who is in love with her; the stylish Tina Cromwell (Tala Birell); and others. When more murders occur, Philo must not only catch the killer, but figure out what to do with an emerald he discovers in the dead man's possessions and which has a lot to do with the case. Philo Vance's Gamble could easily be dismissed as a dull, cliche-ridden mess but it does have an interesting denouement, and some clever touches. Curtis [The Invisible Man's Revenge] makes an acceptable if minor Philo Vance, and Vivian Austin is wildly uneven as Laurian but she does have her moments. Frank Jenks [The Houston Story] scores as Vance's assistant, Ernie, and James Burke is fine as a cop named Burke. Gavin Gordon makes a quirky Oliver, but Tala Birell [The Frozen Ghost] has little to do as Tina. Lovable Grady Sutton appears briefly as an office clerk, and Francis Pierlot is great as Roberts the butler. If this picture does nothing else it shows that chapstick, or something along those lines, was around in the 1940's. The Philo Vance movies once starred William Powell but by the forties they had degenerated into a mostly unmemorable and very brief B movie series with lesser actors.

Verdict: Comes together neatly but takes a long time to get there -- and the pic is only an hour. **.

TEENAGE WOLFPACK

Christian Doermer and Horst Buchholz
TEENAGE WOLFPACK (aka Die Halbstarken/1956). Director: Georg Tressler.

Freddy (Horst Buchholz, herein billed as "Henry Bookholt") is a handsome, callous, criminally-inclined young man with a 15-year-old girlfriend, Sissi (Karin Baal), who may be worse than he is. His brother, John (Christian Doermer), is a much more decent lad who, unfortunately, looks up to his brother, who has left home. Freddy enlists some of his friends in an armed robbery that doesn't quite go as he intended, and disaster strikes when Freddy and Sissi break into a restaurant owner's home and John goes after them. Teenage Wolfpack is a dubbed American version of a German film that was clearly influenced by U.S. juvenile delinquent movies, and is hardly any better than most of those. Buchholz [That Man in Istanbul] struts around in tight leather pants, dances a blue streak in a jukebox sequence (probably influenced by Elvis), and exhibits the charisma that turned him, briefly, into an international star. Baal and Doermer are also effective, but the movie's dramatics are unconvincing, and despite the action the film becomes tedious. Nevertheless, some people see this as a West German classic. Not me.

Verdict: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein is more entertaining. **.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

SALOME

Rita Hayworth as Salome
SALOME (1953). Director: William Dieterle.

Salome (Rita Hayworth) falls in love with Roman soldier Marcellus Fabius (Rex Reason), but his uncle Tiberius Caesar (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) not only forbids the union, but banishes Salome from Rome. Sailing to Galilee where her mother, Herodias (Judtih Anderson), awaits, Salome encounters another Roman soldier, Claudius (Stewart Granger). The two fall in love, but there are complications. Claudius is secretly a Christian and a friend to John the Baptist (Alan Badel), who preaches compassion versus Roman tyranny. Herodias is furious that her husband, King Herod (Charles Laughton) allows John to live after his attacks on her morals, but he is afraid that if he kills John it will result in his own death due to a prophecy. Salome takes her mother's side ... at first. It seems incredible that with those characters and storyline Salome is a big technicolor bore for much of its length, but, sadly, this is not based on Oscar Wilde's controversial play. Instead it was cobbled together by Hollywood scriptwriters anxious to turn this into just another pious biblical spectacle to impress the rubes, even though the movie's main selling point is not religion but the sex appeal of Rita Hayworth. As usual in films of this type, the Roman hero is turned into a "good guy." At least we have the performances. Hayworth is really quite good as the heroine, and she does a very sexy "dance of the seven veils" near the end. Granger [Blanche Fury] is fine, although it might have been better had his part gone to Rex Reason [This Island Earth], who isn't even credited in the film. Laughton, Anderson, Hardwicke, Badel (who was "introduced" in this film), Arnold Moss [Hell's Island] as Micah, and Basil Syndey as Pontius Pilate, are all excellent. The film perks up in the final minutes with the sudden appearance of a severed head. In this version it is Herodius who calls for the beheading of John, not Salome. Al Pacino starred in and directed a very creditable version of Wilde's Salome many years later.

Verdict: Despite fine actors and some good scenes, this is a distinctly minor biblical "epic." **.

THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE

Alain Delon and Shirley MacLaine
THE YELLOW ROLLS ROYCE (1964). Director: Anthony Asquith. Screenplay by Terence Rattigan

"Oh, God. How I'm going to hate living from now on."

This is a trio of tales loosely tied to the same beautiful title automobile -- copulation occurs in the back seat of the rolls in each story, but even that doesn't make this picture entertaining. Surely a movie built around such a premise could have turned out better than this, but it's as if playwright Rattigan [The Browning Version] decided to throw together scrips and scraps from his discarded idea book to come up with this mess. The first story, starring Rex Harrison [My Fair Lady] as a member of the Foreign Office, is easily the best, and even manages to be somewhat moving in its tale of Harrison being cuckolded by his wife (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover (Edmund Purdom), who works with Harrison, on the day he should be happiest. The second and worst story has to do with a gangster (George C. Scott) traveling in Italy with his moll (Shirley MacLaine) who encounter a handsome man (Alain Delon) who makes tips selling photos to tourists; you can guess what happens. This exercise in tedium can't even be saved by the actors (including Art Carney as Scott's Man Friday) and has a flat wind up to boot. Delon and MacLaine have little chemistry. The third and last story is a contrived bit of business in which a fussy and wealthy woman (Ingrid Bergman) agrees to take a Yugoslav (Omar Sharif) across the border to aid his king and country just as the Germans are attacking. This termagant has more intestinal fortitude than anyone would ever have imagined, but her romance with Sharif is unconvincing, to say the least. (It would have been even less convincing had the more appropriate Katharine Hepburn been cast, as one critic suggested). Bergman is miscast, Scott [The Exorcist III] is excellent as the mobster, Delon succeeds at being charming, Moreau is creditable, and Harrison, with that stiff British upper lip, underplays quite satisfactorily. The best performance, however, is given by a winning and credible Sharif.

Verdict: The first episode is good, but the last two make two hours seem like ten. *1/2.

BRING YOUR SMILE ALONG

William Leslie and Constance Towers
BRING YOUR SMILE ALONG (1955). Director: Blake Edwards.

School teacher Nancy Willows (Constance Towers) leaves her job to go to New York and find work as a lyricist. Before you can say "are you kidding me?" Nancy just happens to discover that a composer named Marty (Keefe Brasselle) lives across the hall with his roommate, Jerry (Frankie Laine), an aspiring singer. Before long Nancy and Marty are writing successful tunes while Nancy worries about her fiance, David (William Leslie) back home and her developing feelings for Marty. Meanwhile Jerry becomes a big singing star. Bring Your Smile Along was a vehicle for Frankie Laine, who was very popular at the time. Aside from appearances in TV episodes, and one other movie besides this one, Laine generally played himself in pictures. He has a nice voice (despite occasionally irritating vocal tics), an appealing presence, and is not a bad actor for this kind of stuff; he makes a much better impression in this than he did playing himself in the earlier Sunny Side of the Street. Towers was introduced in this picture (this was also the first film for director Blake Edwards, who would make one more film with Laine) and is as lovely and adept as ever. Considering her fine singing voice -- she appeared on Broadway with Yul Brynner in a revival of The King and I -- you would think "Nancy" would have pursued a singing career instead of work as a lyricist. Brasselle and Leslie [Andy Hardy Comes Home], as the two men in her life, are both good, and both Lucy Marlow and Bobby Clark make an impression as, respectively, the ssecretary Marge, who falls for Laine, and the cute little.neighborhood kid, Waldo. Some memorable songs include the title tune, "If Spring Never Comes," and "Mamma Mia." Towers remains married to John Gavin of Psycho fame.

Verdict: Strangely appealing if minor musical. **1/2.

THE QUEENS

Raquel Welch and Jean Sorel
THE QUEENS (aka Le fate/1966.) Various directors.

This Italian anthology film dealing with comedic relationships between men and women has a large cast and different directors and features such weak screenplays it's a wonder it was even made. The first story is a silly concoction in which a man saves a strange woman (Monica Vitti of Modesty Blaise) from assault. The second is a weird, confusing trifle with a police officer dealing with an even stranger woman (Claudia Cardinale), who has an adorable baby, and lives in a very odd apartment overhanging a gallery thronging with people -- only there doesn't appear to be any wall, just a big open space over the gallery. The third story stars Jean Sorel [A View from the Bridge] and Raquel Welch [One Million Years B.C.] as neighbors who are married to others. Sorel wonders if his wife is carrying on with another man the way he is carrying on with Welch. This segment is the shortest and leads to nowhere, completely wasting the two sexy leads. The fourth story, which had possibilities, deals with a waiter, Giovanni (Alberto Sordi), who is importuned to sleep with a guest, a countess (Capucine), during a party. When he is hired as a chauffeur, his new employer's wife turns out to be ... the countess. She only recognizes and lusts after him when she's drunk. This segment has an especially flat ending. Vitti and Sordi give the most memorable performances.

Verdict: An intriguing idea betrayed by very poor and ill-conceived screenplays. *1/2.

SLIGHTLY FRENCH

Don Ameche and Dorothy Lamour
SLIGHTLY FRENCH (1949). Director: Douglas Sirk.

"Goodbye, John. It's been weird knowing you." -- Mary.

French star Yvonne La Tour (Adele Jergens) proves difficult to handle and there seems to be no way to salvage her film after she's been dismissed, a major problem for borderline has-been director John Gayle (Don Ameche) and his boss Douglas Hyde (Willard Parker of What a Woman). But along comes carnival performer Mary (Dorothy Lamour), who can do a fairly convincing French accent. Mary moves in with John and his sister, Louisa (Janis Carter) and is given lessons in being French by Nicolette (Jeanne Manet). Will she be able to pull it off and star in the movie, saving the careers of John and Douglas, and which man will she ultimately fall for? Slightly French is a trifle with decent performances, but it's ironic that Adele Jergens -- as one fan put it, she was the eternal starlet -- is so much prettier and sexier than Lamour, and does her few scenes with that certain scintillating oomph. Jergens [The Fuller Brush Man] was never really given a chance at genuine stardom. The other cast stand-out is Janis Carter [I Love Trouble], who is very snappy and attractive as Louisa. At one point she says, "the only way I'd be happily married is if I were a widow." I believe the song "Let's Fall in Love" was introduced in this picture. This seems an unusual assignment for Douglas Sirk.

Verdict: Pleasant enough. **1/2.

THE GIRL HUNTERS

Mickey Spillane and Scott Peters
THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963). Director: Roy Rowland.

"Tough guys I got all the time. Old tough guys I don't need." -- bar owner.

Mike Hammer (Mickey Spillane) has given up his practice and gone on a months-long bender after his secretary, Velda, supposedly ran off with another man and may be either missing or dead. His once-friendly antagonist, Captain Pat Chambers (Scott Peters), was also in love with Velda and is furious with Mike for putting her in danger. Sobered up, Hammer helps investigate the murder of a government agent, all the while hoping to find Velda, with the help of G-Man Rickerby (Lloyd Nolan) and a beautiful widow, Laura (Shirley Eaton), whose husband's murder may also have something to do with the case; a communist plot. Then there's the "red" hit man known only as the "Dragon" (Larry Taylor). Frankly, it's hard to follow the convoluted Girl Hunters at times, although the movie has a fast enough pace and is entertaining and well-acted. Spillane may not have been impressive playing himself in Ring of Fear, but in this he's actually quite good as his creation Mike Hammer. Spillane may not have been an Olivier or had great range, but he could have been developed as a tough guy hero or gangster in future films, but he was probably making enough money as a novelist. Scott Peters scores as Pat; he mostly had television credits. Nolan [Portrait in Black] is excellent, as is Charles Farrell as Grissi, who also assists Mike in the adventure. [This is not the Charles Farrell who appeared on My Little Margie.] Shirley Eaton, who had previously appeared in some of the British "Carry On" movies, appeared the following year in Goldfinger and became especially famous. Although Eaton gives a fine and sharp performance in Girl Hunters, she retired to raise a family after appearing in a few more mostly mediocre movies. Girl Hunters is quite gruesome and hard-edged (if not graphic) at times with a particularly nasty coda, but its central mystery is never quite resolved. Kenneth Talbot offers some superior black and white Panavision cinematography, and the film is well-directed and well-produced.

Verdict: Despite many imperfections, this is pretty good film noir. ***.

VOODOO TIGER

VOODOO TIGER (1952). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet.

Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller) comes across a tribe of cannibals who sacrifice people to their tiger god. Phyllis Bruce (Jean Byron of Daddy-O) has come to Africa to study tigers, and meets up with Sgt. Bono (Rick Vallin) and Major Green (Robert Bray of Never Love a Stranger), the latter of whom is attracted to Phyllis and vice versa. Into their midst literally drops a plane load of chorus girls led by Shalimar (Jean Dean), whose act includes a tiger (that is also on the plane), and the ex-Nazi, Professor Schultz (Michael Fox of The Lost Planet). Then there is a gang of crooks who are hoping to find a cache of stolen paintings. But can any of them hope to get away from the hungry cannibals? Voodoo Tiger at least seems a little more involved and eventful than the average Jungle Jim entry, and this one is rather entertaining. Shalimar does a rather good and sexy dance to briefly appease the natives. Tamba the chimp has a lot to do and is wonderful.

Verdict: Fun with Jungle Jim  and Shalimar! **1/2.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

FIVE FINGER EXERCISE

FIVE FINGER EXERCISE (1962). Director: Daniel Mann. From the stage play by Peter Shaffer.

When Philip Harrington (Richard Beymer) comes home from Harvard, he discovers that his mother, Louise (Rosalind Russell), has hired a German tutor, Walter (Maximilian Schell), for her young daughter, Pamela (Annette Gorman). Louise is pretentious and fancies herself more cultured than she actually is (she shells peas as Walter is giving a piano concert), and finds her husband, Stanley (Jack Hawkins) to be gruff, plodding and unimaginative. Philip is going through his own growing pains, and resists Stanley's attempts to bond with him, even as Stanley continually berates the young man for being too "sensitive" and is angry that his wife seems ungrateful for all he has given her. Louise finds herself becoming romantically and physically drawn to Walter, and it is more than likely that the confused, troubled Philip has developed a crush on Walter as well. Trouble begins when these characters allow their assorted jealousies to get the better of them. Five Finger Exercise was based on a very successful 1958 British play by Peter Shaffer, and the story was transplanted to American shores and watered down, as was usually the case with material too frank for the Hollywood censors. Beymer [Adventures of a Young Man] gives it the old college try and has some good moments, but he's miscast, while an excellent Schell [Return from the Ashes] is more appropriate for his role. Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins [She Played with Fire] go together like oil and water, which is perhaps the point -- both give good performances. Philip has a good speech about how he is more than just an extension of his father, but is his own distinct person. An in-joke shows a poster of Russell in Auntie Mame when she walks into a store.

Verdict: Family Values turned upside down. ***.

THE THIN MAN GOES HOME

Harry Davenport and Myrna Loy
THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1945). Director: Richard Thorpe.

Nick Charles (William Powell), his wife Nora (Myrna Loy), and their little dog Asta (Nick Jr. is away at school) travel to Nick's hometown of Sycamore Springs for his unspecified birthday (Powell was 53 at the time). Nick has always had a difficult relationship with his father, Bertram (Harry Davenport), because he didn't become a doctor like his father did, and Nick aches for his approval. But his mother (Lucile Watson) is a peach. Nick gets to prove his skill at detecting when a dead man practically shows up on the Charles' doorstep. Bertram can't believe that one of his old friends might be the killer ... Powell and Loy are excellent, as usual -- Loy is especially notable in this entry -- and the supporting cast, including Davenport [Son of Fury] and Watson (cast against type, like Fay Holden in the Andy Hardy films, as a small-town housewife), could not be bettered. Special mention must go to Anne Revere [Body and Soul], who plays "Crazy Mary," the town's pathetic loony; Anita Sharp-Bolster as  the hilariously weird maid, Hilda; and Donald Meek as Willie Crump, who sells paintings for a living -- the plot revolves around a painting of a windmill that Nora buys for her husband's birthday. Other suspects and persons of interest are well played by Leon Ames, Donald MacBride, Irving Bacon, Morris Ankrum, Helen Vinson, Minor Watson, Lloyd Corrigan, and Gloria DeHaven as a breathlessly pretentious heiress. One very cute bit has Nick and Nora leaving Asta with the coat check girl as if he were a hat, but the funniest scene has Nora unexpectedly doing a wild, zippy dance with a sailor. This was the next to last Thin Man movie -- this was followed by the disappointing Song of the Thin Man.

Verdict: Very satisfying and amusing Thin Man movie. ***.


INTERMEZZO (1936)

INTERMEZZO (1936). Director: Gustaf Molander.

Holger Brandt (Gosta Ekman), a famous violinist, is married to Margit (Inga Tidblad) and has two children, the self-assured little girl, Ann-Marie (Britt Hagman), and the handsome engineer student, Ake (Hasse Ekman). Into their lives comes the aspiring pianist, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman). Despite a 25-year age difference, Holger and Anita drift into an affair, which the former eventually tells his wife about. Burning his bridges behind him, Holger takes off on a tour with Anita as his accompanist, but when his wife sues for divorce he hesitates in signing the papers. Do those old feelings for his family still linger? Ingrid Bergman had already made a few films in Sweden when she did Intermezzo, the film in which Hollywood took notice of her. Although never a great beauty by conventional standards, she generally looks quite striking and attractive in this picture, and her performance is excellent. The other cast members are equally good, but Intermezzo is rather on the slight and superficial side and becomes too melodramatic at the end. This is chiefly known as the film that started Bergman on her way to major stardom; she appeared in the American remake three years later. Intermezzo's basic story of a man who leaves wife and children for a younger woman had been done many, many, many times before and this would hardly be the last time. The best scene is actually between Holger and his son towards the end.

Verdict: Very good performances almost disguise that this is soap opera. **1/2.