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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

PORTRAIT IN BLACK

PORTRAIT IN BLACK (1960). Director: Michael Gordon. Produced by Ross Hunter.

Sheila Cabot (Lana Turner) is a beautiful woman married to a sick and seemingly hateful old man named Matthew (Lloyd Nolan). One day Sheila's lover, David (Anthony Quinn), who happens to be her husband's doctor, tells her how easy it would be to get rid of him. When Matthew conveniently kicks off, Sheila and David think they are above suspicion. But then a certain insinuating letter arrives ... Portrait in Black is an exhilarating suspense film whose chief strength is a superb performance from Quinn and an excellent score by Frank Skinner [Back Street] that helps keep viewers on the edge of their seats as all the various twists and turns of the plot -- and there are many -- skillfully unfold in a screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (based on their stage play). Michael Gordon's direction at least keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and there is some fine photography of San Francisco settings by Russell Metty [Miracle in the Rain]. While Turner and Quinn [Wild is the Wind] may not seem to have that much chemistry, Quinn's passion simply enfolds Turner and helps empower her more than competent performance. As for the rest of the cast: Lloyd Nolan; Sandra Dee as Turner's step-daughter; John Saxon as Dee's boyfriend; Richard Basehart as a scheming associate; Dennis Kohler as young Peter, Dee's step-brother; Virginia Grey as a secretary; and Ray Walston as a chauffeur who may know too much are all quite good, and for extra added measure we get Anna May Wong, of all people, playing the maid. Paul Birch shows up very briefly as a detective. This picture, now forgotten by most, was quite famous in its day, and is certainly worth a look. Producer Ross Hunter insures that the film has that certain Hunter gloss. The ad campaign for the pic seems to summon up images of Lana Turner, her daughter, and Johnny Stompanato which was turned into Where Love Has Gone with Susan Hayward in the Turner part.

Verdict: Very entertaining melodrama that isn't boring for an instant. ***.

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964). Director: Anthony Mann.

A dying Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), great Caesar of the Roman empire, must make a choice of who will replace him, and chooses not his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), but Commodus' friend, the leader of the Roman army, Livius (Stephen Boyd). Obviously this does not sit well with Commodus, and before you can say "Ben-Hur" -- this film's obvious model -- the two men are caught in a lifelong love-hate rivalry. The emperor's daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), who is in love with Livius and vice versa, is also not happy that she is forced to marry another man, Sohamus (an unrecognizable Omar Sharif). Livius hopes to unite the barbarians who are ill-treated by Rome and periodically try to seize the city, while an uncaring Commodus -- who becomes emperor only due to his father's untimely death -- basically wants to turn everyone in the outlying areas into slaves. Whatever historical accuracy this movie does or does not possess, it is well-made and quite entertaining even if nearly three hours long (with an intermission). It lacks the great story of Ben-Hur, but Mann's direction is good, the pace never flags, and the performances are mostly expert, with Guinness, Boyd, and especially Plummer [Dracula 2000] at the top of their game. Loren is also fine, and there is notable work from James Mason (especially during a harrowing torture scene, although, oddly, he seems to recover from the ordeal much too quickly), Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer [Born to be Bad] , and others. Naturally there's a fairly well-done battle between the two major antagonists on the expected chariots, and the climactic duel between the two men in an arena is the film's highlight. There is some stunning scenic design, an excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and some striking widescreen photography by Robert Krasker.

Verdict: Essentially a Roman soap opera, but quite entertaining on that level. ***.

LOGAN'S RUN

Logan-6 (Michael York) makes an appalling discovery
LOGAN'S RUN (1976). Director: Michael Anderson.

In the 23rd century, people live in huge domes by the sea and are only allowed to live until age thirty. At that time there occurs the ritual of the carousel, where people who have reached the deadline are either destroyed or renewed, (apparently a form of reincarnation). People who do not wish to take part in this ritual and hope to reach a ripe old age instead become "Runners" who are tracked down and killed by law officers known as "Sandmen." One of these Sandmen is Logan-5 (Michael York), who is given an assignment to trace over a thousand missing runners to a secret place known only as Sanctuary. He also learns to his horror that no one has ever been renewed, and then is technologically aged to near-death so he can masquerade as a runner. Quite understandably, Logan decides to become a runner himself, and takes off with a young woman named Jessica (Jenny Agutter), who is part of the Sanctuary network helping runners, but it's a question of what they'll find even if they manage to escape ... Logan's Run has an intriguing premise and the first half of the film is quite entertaining, but the second half (in which the story veers from the novel, which was already loosely adapted) becomes increasingly stupid and tedious, with a frankly ridiculous and almost comically simplistic finale. York [Something for Everyone] gives an excellent performance (the film is not really worthy of it) and perhaps demonstrates star charisma in this more than in any other movie. Jenny Agutter [Dominique] is also quite good as Jessica, as is Richard Jordan as another Sandman, and friend of Logan's, named Francis. Unfortunately Peter Ustinov is a little too weird as an old man our intrepid pair encounter, and Farah Fawcett-Majors is simply terrible as a nurse to a cosmetic surgeon. The surgeon, Doc, is played with flair by Michael Anderson, Jr., the son of this movie's director, in an exciting laser surgery-run-amok scene; Anderson Jr. had many credits, perhaps the most famous of which is In Search of the Castaways. The FX in the film are variable, but there are some striking shots of a deserted, half-ruined Washington, D.C.  Jerry Goldsmith has contributed his usual adept musical score. An interesting aspect of the film is that homosexuality seems completely accepted in the futuristic society, however flawed it may be in other respects. Logan's Run was, I believe, very successful, and influenced later films as much as it was influenced by earlier ones. The following year a very short-lived TV series was made from the film. NOTE: In the novel everyone must die at only 21!

Verdict: Semi-literate Hollywood "sci fi" with more than a few lively moments. **1/2.

ANOTHER THIN MAN

Baby Nicky and li'l Asta
ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939). Director: W. S. Van Dyke II.

Back in New York with their new son, Nicky, and little Asta in tow, Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are summoned to the Long Island estate of Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith). MacFay has been receiving weird death threats from an old employee named Church (Sheldon Leonard) and hopes to have Nick's protection. Naturally, as in most of these detective movies, the threatened man is murdered under the disinterested hero's nose, and the rest of the movie is concerned with finding out who done it. Another Thin Man is quite talky, but entertaining, with an intricate script and a denouement that is truly a surprise. Members of the supporting cast (as well as suspects in certain cases) include Virginia Grey [Jeanne Eagels] as MacFay's adopted daughter; Patric Knowles as her secret fiance; Tom Neal [Bruce Gentry] as a man carrying a torch for Grey; Otto Kruger as the detective on the case; Ruth Hussey as a kind of nanny; Muriel Hutchison as Church's paramour, among others, all giving adroit performances. The business with ex-cons being delighted to see Nick even though he sent them up the river gets tiresome, and leads into a party for little Nicky with the hoods each bringing their own baby! (Don't blink or you'll miss Shemp Howard.) Some of the subsequent victims certainly don't deserve to be murdered, but there's never any sympathy for them. However, there's a swell scene with Powell interacting with Marjorie Main [The Law and the Lady] as a landlady, and the ending is a pip! The killer in this is especially conniving and heartless.

Verdict: Things look up for the series with this entry. ***.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE

Kim Myers and Mark Patton
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE (1985). Director: Jack Sholder.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was such a big hit that a sequel was inevitable, and one was quickly cobbled together for maximum profit. Jesse Walsh and his family have moved into the same house once occupied by the protagonist of the first film, and he begins to have weird dreams. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) not only haunts Jesse's nightmares, but tries to take over his mind and torturously enters the real world through Jesse's body. Freddy can affect events in the real world much more than he could in the first film, and he spends more time in the real world, where virtually everyone can see him (such as an attack at a pool party where he is seen by dozens of wide-awake teens) than ever before. To say this kind of shatters the whole mystique of the character as a dream demon is an understatement, but worse, the movie has absolutely no scares and zero atmosphere. There are ludicrous scenes such as an attack on Jesse's family by a crazed parrot, although, to be fair, there are a few effective moments as well, mostly due to the generally well-done FX work. Mark Patton does fairly nice work as the tormented Jesse, and he and Kim Myers as concerned gal pal Lisa make an appealing couple. Hope Lange [That Certain Summer] and Clu Gulager [From a Whisper to a Scream] do the best they can as Jesse's parents, the mother worried and the father clueless. Robert Rusler makes an impression as Jesse's hunky friend, Ron Grady, as does Marshall Bell as Coach Schneider who meets up with Jesse in a kind of S and M bar and gets sliced by Freddy/Jesse in a shower.

You would think that I would have picked up on the supposed gay sub-text of this movie -- which some consider the "gayest horror film of all time" or something like that -- but I think this has more to do with star Mark Patton being openly gay (he and screenwriter David Chaskin later said they conceived of Jesse as a closeted gay man all along). The S and M bar is not a gay bar, as there seem to be as many women in the place as men; Coach Schneider never comes on to Jesse; and when Jesse asks Ron if he can spend the night it is more because he is terrified of being alone (what with Freddy on the loose and all) than any obvious lust on the former's part, Ron's sex appeal notwithstanding. But people can read into it whatever they want. Myers, Rusler and Bell have had numerous credits since this film came out, but Patton's career was derailed for decades due to hypocritical Hollywood homophobia; even today openly gay actors have a tough time of it.

Verdict: Too schlocky, clumsy and contrived by half but fun in a limited way. **1/2.

SKY LINER

Would you want this shifty guy (Michael Whalen) on an airliner?
SKY LINER (1949). Director: William Berke.

A diverse group of people are flying to San Francisco on TWA. Few of them realize that George Eakins (John McGuire of Sea Raiders) of the State Department has been murdered and been replaced by a man known only as Smith (Steve Pendleton). Smith, who is hoping to sell important papers on the flight, is accompanied by Eakin's secretary, Amy (Rochelle Hudson of Meet Boston Blackie). Steven Geray [The Unfaithful] plays Bokejian, a representative of a foreign power who is anxious to buy those government secrets. An added complication is the presence on the flight of one Ben Howard (Michael Whalen), who is a dangerous jewel thief. But when one of those characters is murdered, Federal agent Steve Blair (Richard Travis) teams up with intrepid stewardess Carol (Pamela Blake) to ferret out the murderer and keep the passengers under control. Sky Liner is not quite as interesting as it sounds, but it's a mildly entertaining programmer with a generally competent cast. William F. Leicester is the pilot, Captain Fairchild; George Meeker is a financier; and Jack Mulhall is Colonel Hanson.

Verdict: There have been worse ... **1/2.

BLACK WIDOW (2008)

Randall Batinkoff and Elizabeth Berkley
BLACK WIDOW (2008 telefilm). Director: Armand Mastroianni.

Photojournalist Melanie Dempsey (Alicia Coppola) has always had strong romantic feelings for her best friend, the wealthy Danny Keegan (Randall Batinkoff), but along comes sexier Olivia Whitfield (Elizabeth Berkley of Showgirls) and freckle-faced Melanie finds herself with formidable competition. Melanie's perky assistant, Finn (Adriana DeMeo), suggests that her boss do a search, and then a full-on investigation, into Olivia, and discovers some disturbing facts. Has Olivia been married before to wealthy men who died; does she use different names; and is she embezzling from this alleged charity she runs? Although Melanie gathers strong evidence, dopey Danny falls head over heels, and their mutual friends accuse Melanie of making her accusations out of vile jealousy. Black Widow is a minor TV movie on a popular theme, but it is fast-paced, has some suspense, and is well-acted by all. David Ury makes an impression as Olivia's sinister associate, Bixler, as does Jeremy Howard as the computer specialist, Henry. Alicia Coppola is not related to Francis Ford Coppola. Mastroianni also directed Grave Misconduct.

Verdict: Entertaining enough time-passer. **1/2.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

CAGED

Formidable Hope Emerson towers over the tough Betty Garde
CAGED (1950). Director: John Cromwell.

'If it weren't for men, we wouldn't be in here."

"If you stay in here too long, you don't think of guys at all -- you just get out of the habit."

A 19-year-old named Marie (Eleanor Parker), who may or may not have participated in an armed robbery with her now-dead husband, is sent up the river for one to fifteen. While having her baby, Marie is introduced to a motley crew of pretty tough career criminals of the female gender: Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who wants to get Marie into the rackets; Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), the super-hard queen of vice; June (Olive Deering), who is desperate to get paroled; Georgia (Gertrude Michael), who thinks she comes from society and is losing her mind; elderly Millie (Gertrude Hoffman) a lifer who'll think nothing of taking out a hated matron if she has to; spacey Emma (Ellen Corby) who finally murdered her husband after four previous attempts;  and others. Speaking of matrons, we have the relatively kindly head of the isolation ward, played by Jane Darwell, and the fat, sadistic and highly formidable Harper, played by Hope Emerson. Harper and Kitty are, in particular, major antagonists and sooner or later something will blow ... Caged has been dismissed in some quarters as camp (sometimes because of the not very subtle lesbian inferences), which is completely unfair, as the movie is a powerful, completely absorbing drama with excellent performances and one compelling scene after another: a disappointed inmates' suicide; the jailhouse riot over a kitten; the physical and psychological battles between Harper and Stark; and the compassionate warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), having to deal with the infuriatingly disinterested and misogynous parole board and other dumb-headed politicians. Caged doesn't say that most of these women don't belong where they are, only that their imprisonment is punishment enough and abusive behavior among the matrons should be prohibited. Parker, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and should have won, is superb, as are Hope Emerson (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Kitty Garde; and there is notable work from Moorehead and hard-boiled Patrick, as well as Taylor Holmes as clueless Senator Donnelly. John Cromwell's direction helps give the film a major dramatic punch after 66 years, and Max Steiner's score is subdued but effective. Caged engendered several inferior imitations -- Women's Prison, Blonde Bait, House of Women, a nominal remake with absurd situations not in the original, Betrayed Women -- and practically created a new sub-genre still going today. However realistic Caged may or may not be regarding conditions in women's prisons then or now, the story still packs a wallop.

Verdict: Perhaps Parker's finest hour -- as well as Emerson's and Garde's. ****.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

Heather Langenkamp in Fred Krueger's dream lair
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984). Written and directed by Wes Craven.

"Oh, God, I look twenty years old!" -- teenager Nancy.

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) discovers that some of her friends are experiencing the same nightmare about a disfigured man who wears a glove with knives attached. Fred Krueger (Robert Englund of V -- The Final Battle) was a child murderer who was burned to death by the parents of his victims, but apparently he still lives in a dream state where he can stalk and slay his victims (the other children of the parents who killed him) when they are asleep. The gruesome results of his handiwork are apparent in the real world. Nancy discovers she can bring objects, such as Freddy's hat, out of the dream world into the real one, and determines to drag Krueger into her universe where he can face ultimate justice. A Nightmare on Elm Street certainly has a good premise, but its execution is more problematic, being a trifle cheapjack and schlocky at times and never becoming especially scary. Krueger often comes off as more comical than anything else (later he was turned into a kind of slasher comedian). An "unhappy" ending was tacked onto the movie over Craven's objections, but this led to several sequels. Langenkamp, with her unattractive mouth and big teeth, is an odd casting choice, and she comes off more like a talented amateur than anything else, despite her obvious hard work. Johnny Depp [Dark Shadows], who is introduced in this film and gets the most grisly and flamboyant death scene, exhibits star charisma, as does Jsu Garcia (aka Nick Corri) as Rod. Amanda Wyss is effective as Tina, the first victim, as is John Saxon [Queen of Blood] as Nancy's dad, a cop. Ronee Blakley plays Nancy's mother. Craven's direction makes less of the film than the premise deserves. It is never explained how Krueger can call Nancy on the telephone and even stick his tongue through the receiver when she's awakeRemade in 2010.

Verdict: Great idea, not such a great movie., **1/2.

AFTER THE THIN MAN

Myrna Loy and William Powell
AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

Nick Charles (William Powell) and wife, Nora (Myrna Loy) have returned from New York to California in this first sequel to The Thin Man, but discover that wherever they go murder follows. Nick learns that when it comes to intrigue and craziness, Nora's relatives are not much different from the thugs and ex-cons Nick hangs out with. This time Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi of The Sign of the Cross), is accused of murdering her philandering husband, Robert (Alan Marshall). The suspects include a nightclub owner named Dancer (Joseph Calleia); a dancer named Polly (Penny Singleton); her "brother," Phil (Paul Fix of The Bad Seed); Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), who thinks everyone is nutty: and David Graham (James Stewart), who has long carried a torch for Selma. Somewhat better than The Thin Man, this is arguably not a whole lot better than a typical mystery from a minor studio, but it is served up with relish, some very good acting, and has an effectively comic-dramatic ending. Singleton, who was billed as "Dorothy McNulty" back then, is vivid as Polly, and Jessie Ralph [David Copperfield] simply walks off with the movie as Nora's formidable Aunt Katherine, a harridan force of nature if ever there were one. Sam Levene is fine as Lt. Abrahms, the detective on the case. Asta has a bit more to do then he did in the first film.

Verdict: Nick Charles is no Perry Mason, but this is fun enough. ***.

GREMLINS

Gizmo, the mogwai
GREMLINS (1984). Director: Joe Dante.

Looking for a special present for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan), Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys a strange creature called a mogwai from a Chinatown curiosity shop. Christened "Gizmo,' the adorable creature loves to sing, but certain rules regarding the animal must be followed or disaster will follow. Naturally these rules are inadvertently broken and before long the bucolic town of Kingston Falls is besieged by a horde of nasty, chittering "gremlins" causing utter havoc. Gremlins is a pretty silly movie, but it's also an entertaining and amusing one, with an interesting premise (a take on the dangerous and mythical "gremlins" that allegedly plagued airmen and others), and some superior special effects work, especially in puppetry and make-up effects. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates make a charming romantic couple, and Polly Holliday is fun as the town's heartless old woman who takes a deadly trip on a staircase elevator that goes riotously out of control. Jackie Joseph and Dick Miller [A Bucket of Blood] score as neighbors of the Peltzers, and there's a cameo from Kenneth Tobey as well. Keye Luke, Scott Brady [Mohawk] , and Jonathan Banks [Wiseguy] also have significant roles and are fine. Ditto for Mushroom, who plays the dog, Barry, and nearly steals the picture, no easy feat. There is an uncomfortable aspect to the film, however, and that's that the evil gremlins (as opposed to Gizmo, who in a sense, gives birth to these monsters) are dark in color and there are times when they are clearly modeled on certain black stereotypes -- almost as if the movie is depicting an inner city invasion of a mostly Caucasian town [We see only one black inhabitant, a likable school teacher, who comes afoul of the Gremlins.] None of this may have been intended, but it does seem in bad taste. While there are quite a few inventive ideas in this, the picture needs tightening in both the editing and pacing departments. This was a very, very successful picture and engendered one sequel and a whole slew of imitations. Although several people are apparently killed by the end of the film, the Peltzer family, who essentially created the whole mess, seem completely unaffected by it.

Verdict: Hardly for every taste, but this is an often clever black comedy. ***.

TREASURE OF MONTE CRISTO

Eternal starlet: Adele Jergens
TREASURE OF MONTE CRISTO (1949). Director: William Berke.

Edmund Dantes (Glenn Langan) is a sailor just off a ship in San Francisco who encounters a sexy blonde named Jean Turner (Adele Jurgens). Jean tells Ed that she is an heiress, and she has escaped from a sanitarium where relatives who want control of her fortune are trying to lock her away. She offers Ed $10,000 if he'll agree to marry her -- which will supposedly prevent the bad guys from stealing her inheritance -- and he complies -- after all, Jean isn't exactly bad-looking. But after the marriage takes place Ed winds up accused of murder, and Jean is nowhere to be seen. When she is finally located, Jean Turner turns out to be an different woman entirely ... Treasure of Monte Cristo is an interesting, if minor, bit of film noir with an absorbing plot line (one angle prefigures a sequence in the later Homicidal). Langan [The Amazing Colossal Man] offers a good performance as a man in serious trouble, while Jergens [The Fuller Brush Man] is a cut below him as the femme fatale in question. Steve Brodie is notable as an associate of Jergens'. The title treasure figures in the convoluted story and the finale, although the movie isn't really about a treasure hunt. Albert Glasser contributed a typically brassy and effective score. Langan and Jergens were wed in real life two years after this film came out and had one of Hollywood's rare long-lasting marriages until his death forty years later.

Verdict: Attention-holding minor-league film noir with some good performances. **1/2 out of 4.

The Midnite Drive-In presents The Film Noir Blogathon. [I wouldn't necessarily consider Sunset Boulevard to be film noir, but it does have a handsome hero whose life is turned upside down by a woman, even if she's hardly a "hot" blonde!

OMOO-OMOO THE SHARK GOD

Devera Burton as Julie
OMOO-OMOO THE SHARK GOD (1949). Director: Leon Leonard.

NOTE: First let me make it clear that this is an actual movie and not one of my infamous April Fool's-type concoctions. You would think the producers of this film would have had the sense to call it, say, Terror of the Shark God, Herman Melville notwithstanding (see below), but no such luck.

In 1874 Captain Roger Guy (Trevor Bardette of The Missing Juror) sets sail to Tahiti with his daughter, Julie (Devera Burton), mate Richards (Richard Benedict), Jeff Garland (Ron Randell), drunken Dr. Long (George Meeker of Dead Man's Eyes), a native stowaway named Tempo (Rudy Robles), and another man named Texas (Jack Raymond). Guy has come to reclaim some fabulous black pearls, but the curse of the shark god has been placed upon him, making him seriously ill. Meanwhile Richards and "Chips" (Michael Whalen) are hoping to get the pearls for themselves even as Julie and Jeff carry on an unexciting romance. One suspects this has little to do with Herman Meville's book Oomo, which is the supposed source material for the movie. Benedict gives the most vivid performance as the sinister and opportunistic Richards.  Burton is pretty and a competent actress, but she only did one other film. Ron Randell makes little impression, surprisingly. This would have been a lot more entertaining if there had been an actual shark god, or even just a shark. Don't expect human sacrifices or anything of much interest to happen.

Verdict: Not quite as dull as watching paint dry. *1/2.

ROARING CITY

Hugh Beaumont and Richard Travis
ROARING CITY (1951). Director: William Berke.

"You couldn't find an ingrown toenail if it was on your left foot." -- O'Brien to Bruger.

Hugh Beaumont had played private eye Michael Shayne in several films when he was cast in another, briefer series playing another tough P.I., Dennis O'Brien; Roaring City is the second of the three films. O'Brien is hired by a manager to place bets against his own boxer, who doesn't take a dive as expected and winds up murdered. Suspected of the crime, O'Brien convinces Inspector Bruger (Richard Travis) of the San Francisco police department that someone else is the guilty party. In the second of two stories, Irma Rand (Joan Valerie of Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum) hires O'Brien to pretend to be the husband of a friend, Sylvia (Wanda McKay), whose hood boyfriend, Rafferty (Anthony Warde) is back in town and looking for trouble. In both cases, O'Brien winds up in dutch because his clients are as shifty as any bad guys, and O'Brien seemingly won't say no when there's money concerned. Roaring City comes off like two TV episodes spliced together. The acting is sufficient, with Warde [The Masked Marvel] especially vivid as the nasty Rafferty. Edward Brophy [Romance on the Run] also makes the most of his role as O'Brien's pal and assistant, the professor. There's too much narration. From Lippert pictures.

Verdict: Watchable, but ultimately quite dull. **.

45 YEARS

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay
45 YEARS (2015). Writer/director: Andrew Haigh.

Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay of Dr. Zhivago) are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a big party. In shades of Roald Dahl's "Crystal Trench," Geoff then gets a letter telling him that the body of his old flame, Katya -- who fell into a crevasse decades ago while the two vacationed in Switzerland -- has been discovered perfectly preserved in ice. Now 45 Years could have gone in any of a number of directions. Will the police show up to arrest Geoff for murder? Will Kate wonder about her husband's true actions all those years ago? Since 45 Years is neither a thriller nor a suspense film (not even psychological suspense) what we really get is a very deliberately-paced examination of a marriage in crisis. Is Kate making too much of Geoff's earlier relationship with the long-dead and once very pregnant Katya, or has she come to realize that for the whole 45 years of her marriage she's only been  a substitute for her? [The much talked about final shot makes it pretty clear which is which, or at least what Kate thinks is which.] The film has been wildly overpraised in critical quarters, excoriated elsewhere, but I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Based on a very short story, this probably would have made a much more effective and interesting half hour television drama than a feature film that is three times as long. The performances of the two leads, especially that of former "ice princess" Rampling [The Verdict], are excellent. Rampling also came in for a fair share of criticism from those, remembering her earlier image, who still think she comes off frigid, but I confess that is not at all apparent in her performance. It's a pleasure to see a film about senior citizens, even the elderly, in this day and age (although it's a question if thirty-something film critics can really relate to it) but I just wish this had been a more memorable movie. Strange that 45 Years received an R rating for a couple of four-letter words that every kid has heard and for an aborted bedroom sequence that is much less steamy than anything seen in afternoon soap operas. I mean 45 Years is not a film where breasts are flashed and limbs torn off every other minute! I wonder if some people liked the film more than they might have simply because this is the case?

Verdict: Interesting premise, good performances, but ultimately ... so what? Subtlety can be over-rated. **1/2.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945)

Walter Huston and Barry Fitzgerald
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945). Director: Rene Clair.

Several people receive invitations to the very isolated Indian island, and find themselves accused of murder and of escaping justice. One by one, in accordance with a nursery rhyme on "Ten Little Indians," the members of the party are killed as the diminishing survivors become increasingly paranoid. This somewhat light-hearted version of Agatha Christie's classic novel has perhaps too much humor, and changes the grim and uncompromising ending of the book, but it manages to work up considerable suspense along with atmosphere and a certain tension. The actors are generally good, with Barry Fitzgerald as a judge, Walter Huston as a doctor, Louis Hayward as an adventurer, June Duprez [The Brighton Strangler] as a secretary, and Judith Anderson [Rebecca] as a prim and proper if rather heartless middle-aged woman. Richard Haydn [Dear Wife], C. Aubrey Smith, and Roland Young also have important roles. Most of the actors have been directed to play it rather "cute," but for the large part Clair's direction is quite adroit. Christie created her own little sub-genre with this very influential book, which was filmed several times both as "And Then There Were None" and "Ten Little Indians." Most of these were pretty bad. There was a creditable British mini-series in 2015.

Verdict: The fascinating and macabre situation carries this along. ***.

STATE FAIR (1945)

Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain
STATE FAIR (1945). Director: Walter Lang.

The Frake family head for the Iowa state fair with a variety of goals: Father Abel (Charles Winninger) wants his boar, Blueboy, to win a prize; mother Melissa (Fay Bainter) also wants to win a ribbon for her mincemeat; restless daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) has spring fever and is hoping to meet someone more exciting than her fiance, Harry (Phil Brown of Obsession); and son Wayne (Dick Haymes) just seems to want to have fun. Margy meets a newspaperman named Pat (Dana Andrews), who tells her he'll just disappear if if doesn't work out with her, and Wayne encounters singer Emily (Vivian Blaine), who has a little secret. Frankly, the romantic aspects of the movie are a little lopsided -- who really falls sincerely in love in two days? -- and the siblings blow off their respective beaus with casual, if not heartless, ease, but this is standard stuff for the period and since everything is just a framework for some excellent Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, it doesn't really matter. "Spring Fever," "That's For Me," "I Owe Iowa" are all fine numbers, but the best songs are Haymes [Irish Eyes are Smiling] and Blaine's zesty delivery of "Isn't It Kind of Fun?" and the movie's best song, the beautiful "It's a Grand Night for Singing," a classic Rodgers melody. State Fair was an original film; it was not based on a Broadway show, although Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the screenplay (just as he did the librettos for their stage musicals). The acting in this is uniformly excellent, with Donald Meek nearly stealing the picture as a judge who gets drunk on Melissa's brandy-soaked mincemeat. Percy Kilbride scores as the Frakes' pessimistic neighbor, as do Jane Nigh, Harry Morgan, and William Marshall [The Phantom Planet] in smaller roles. Remade in 1962; both versions are in color.

Verdict: As stories go, this is not exactly The King and I, but the performances are good and the songs are all lilting and memorable. ***.

STATE FAIR (1962)

Pat Boone and Ann-Margret
STATE FAIR (1962). Director: Jose Ferrer.

In this CinemaScope remake of the 1945 State Fair, the Frake family are off not to a fair in Iowa but in Texas. Mom (Alice Faye) and Dad (Tom Ewell) still want ribbons for their mincemeat and boar, respectively, but now the son Wayne (Pat Boone) races cars while sister Margy (Pamela Tiffin), still restless, is bored with her now-handsome fiance, Harry (David Brandon). At the fair Wayne meets up with entertainer Emily (Ann-Margret) and Margy encounters radio interviewer Jerry (Bobby Darin). Now let's see -- Darin  and Boone [Mardi Gras], of course, simply had decades of experience in musical theater (!) but in spite of this they are not as bad singing show tunes as you might expect. In fact, after Tom Ewell, Boone actually gives the best performance in the movie (credit director Jose Ferrer, perhaps). Boone has a nice voice, and puts over such numbers as "That's for Me" and a new song (Rodgers composed several new numbers for this remake), "Willing and Eager." Darin, usually a very different kind of singer, also delivers when he croons "You're Not an Angel." Faye is given a new number that she sings to her daughter, "Never Say No to a Man" and she and Ewell, who obviously can't sing "I Owe Iowa" anymore, perform "The Littlest Things in Texas" instead. The new songs are perfectly pleasant. Unfortunately, "Isn't It Kind of Nice?" is horrendously staged, first as a weird burlesque and then jazzed up with Ann-Margret [Any Given Sunday] tearing at that lobster again while she sings, although she is better when she relaxes a bit doing "Willing and Eager" with Boone. "It's a Grand Night for Singing" doesn't get a big production nearly as good as the one in the original. Unlike Dana Andrews in the first version, Darin plays the character like a cheap and common playboy, making it improbable that Margy would fall for him or vice versa; Wayne's hasty romance with Emily is only slightly more convincing. Wally Cox [The Night Strangler] is funny as the judge who gets inebriated on mincemeat. Alice Faye is okay as the mother, but there are times when you get the impression she'd rather be anywhere else than in this movie. She's given some funny lines -- "[Ewell] won't be happy until that hog shows up in Who's Who" -- but her delivery is always flat. Faye was to play the daughter's role in the 1945 movie but abruptly retired; this was supposedly her comeback. State Fair was finally turned into a Broadway musical in 1996 using songs from both movies and a couple from lesser-known Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.

Verdict: Has some nice moments but decidedly inferior to the original. **1/2.

THE THIN MAN

William Powell prepares to question the suspects
THE THIN MAN (1934). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

Nick Charles (William Powell) retired as a detective when his wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), inherited a fortune from her father. On a trip back to New York, Nick discovers he can't stay away from sleuthing when several people he knows are embroiled in murder. Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) is worried when her father, Clyde (Edward Ellis), disappears, and things get more complicated when Clyde's mistress, Julia (Natalie Moorhead of The Curtain Falls) is found murdered. More deaths follow as the suspects pile up: Wynant's ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell of Babbitt); his weird son, Gilbert (William Henry of Nearly Eighteen); his lawyer, MacCauley (Porter Hall); Mimi's gigolo and second husband, Chris (Cesar Romero); and several other nefarious types. Nick gathers all of the suspects (he pronounces the word with the accent on the second syllable, which is kind of charming in an old-fashioned way) at a dinner party he hosts with an utterly baffled Nora. The Thin Man has good performances from all -- Gertrude Short is snappy in a small role as the shrewish girlfriend of a dead hood -- but one could argue that there's more silliness than humor and it often gets in the way of the not-very-memorable story, although it does manage to build up minor interest and suspense as it goes along. Nobody who watches this will especially care who the killer is. Powell does his usual suave shtick with aplomb; Loy is fine if typically arch; and the little dog Asta almost runs off with the show. There were five sequels to this popular film, most of which, if memory serves me, were superior to this first entry. The title refers to the vanished Wynant, described by police and papers as a "thin man with white hair." Nick, rarely without a drink in his hand, seems half-inebriated throughout the movie. Nat Pendleton is the detective on the case, and Henry Wadsworth is Dorothy's fiance, Tommy.

Verdict: Too self-consciously "cute" by half but not without its moments. **1/2.

THE WIDOW COUDERC

Zero chemistry: Simone Signoret and Alain Delon
THE WIDOW COUDERC aka La veuve Couderc/1971). Director: Pierre Granier-Deferre.

In 1934 France an escaped prisoner, Jean (Alain Delon), encounters a middle-aged widow named Mrs. Couderc (Simone Signoret) and goes to work for her. The widow is hated by her in-laws, who live nearby, and is herself not too found of the young unwed mother, Felicie (Ottavia Piccolo), who runs around with her adorable baby in tow and catches Jean's eye. Jean and the widow begin an improbable relationship that has people in the village gossiping, and the in-laws out to expose the truth about Jean. Since few people wanted to see French sex symbol Delon [Joy House] carrying on with the now matronly and chubby Signoret [Games], the two are only seen in bed together once, when they are merely cuddling. The acting isn't bad, but if the characters had been better developed this might have been more convincing. As a romance it doesn't work at all. This is based on a novel by mystery writer Georges Simenon but it is neither a thriller nor a suspense yarn. The final subtitles providing some more information about Jean are so badly translated that they make absolutely no sense.

Verdict: Another disappointing Delon feature. **.

COUNTERSPY MEETS SCOTLAND YARD

Ron Randell
COUNTERSPY MEETS SCOTLAND YARD (1950). Director: Seymour Friedman.

In the desert town of Croftenay, a group of American counter-intelligence agents join forces with a visitor from Scotland Yard, Simon Langton (Ron Randell). The agents are headed by David Harding (Howard St. John of Strait-Jacket), who uncovers a nest of spies centering on the office of phony Dr. Gilbert, aka Hugo Borin (Everett Glass). After Chief of Section Don Martin (Harry Lauter) is murdered, Langton takes over his job and meets Martin's secretary-assistant and former fiancee, Karen Michelle (Amanda Blake). The spies are after a gyroscopic control on Professor Schuman's (Gregory Gaye) rocket, and hypnotize Karen to get the information. Langton goes undercover as an elderly patient to get the goods on the spies and get the classified Intel away from them. Australian-born Randell [I Am a Camera], always a good actor, is fine as Langton and affects an English accent in this; his last name is pronounced the same as Tony Randell. Other familiar cast members include Rick Vallin, John Dehner [The Chapman Report], and Fred F. Sears (later a prolific director of The Giant Claw and many others) as agents. June Vincent as quite good as the deceptively friendly nurse, Barbara, who is in cahoots with the doctor.

Verdict: Acceptable time-passer with some good performances and scenes, and versatile Randell is always interesting. **1/2.

SINISTER 2

SINISTER 2 (2015). Director: Ciaran Foy.

In this sequel to the creditable horror thriller Sinister, the unnamed deputy (James Ransone) --  now fired from the police force -- who helped out the writer in the first film,  continues his investigation into the horrible murders of several families. He plans to burn down certain houses to prevent people from living in them, but discovers that Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two sons, fleeing a dangerously abusive husband and father, are now living in the targeted house. Young Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) is visited by the ghosts of the families' dead children, who take him to the cellar to watch films detailing the deaths of the the families in what are essentially snuff movies. Dylan's brother, Zach (Dartanian Sloan), also sees the ghosts, but is jealous that they seem to prefer his brother's company. As the ex-deputy looks into the legends of the demon Bughuul, the dead childrens' unhealthy influence ensnares the two boys even as their father makes his presence known and continues his abuse. The former deputy rushes to save Courtney and the boys from a dreadful fate ... Sinister 2 is as compelling a horror film as the original, disturbing and suspenseful, with mostly sympathetic characters, a loathsome father (the oddly named Lea Coco), and some excellent performances. Ransone [Prom Night], Sossasom and Coco are impressive, although they have tough competition from some very talented child actors, including the little Sloan brothers, and Lucas Jade Zumann as Milo, the leader of the ghost-children. Some of the "home movies" border on torture porn, however, and it's interesting that all of the talented youngsters who appear in the film would not be permitted to see the R-rated feature in theaters. There are several scary moments and quite a few repellent ones, including one with alligators and another with rats that reminds one of a classic EC horror story. Don't expect any sympathy for the victims, which is perhaps the most chilling thing of all.

Verdict: Creepy in spades. *** out of 4.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

SAME STORY, NEW SONGS: A LOOK AT MUSICAL REMAKES

The cast of Lost Horizon are given the grosses
SAME STORY, NEW SONGS: A LOOK AT MUSICAL REMAKES.

Adding songs to an old movie does not always result in a better picture. Witness the six films Great Old Movies delves into this week. We have the original Lost Horizon and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, along with Auntie Mame. Each review of the original film is followed by a report on the musical remake (the third of which was simply retitled Mame).

Some of the remakes have their moments, but none are in the league of the original picture, with one qualification. I didn't think much of the 1937 Lost Horizon but I think even less of its remake. On the other hand, Auntie Mame and the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips are genuine examples of classic cinema.

LOST HORIZON (1937)

Jane Wyatt and Ronald Colman
LOST HORIZON (1937). Director: Frank Capra.

Author and foreign secretary Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) winds up shanghaied by plane with his brother, George (John Howard), and several other passengers: fussy paleontologist Lovett (Edward Everett Horton); possible embezzler Barnard (Thomas Mitchell); and a dying, hard-boiled young lady named Gloria (Isabel Jewell of She Had to Choose). The group winds up in the lost city of Shangri-La, which is run by a man named Chang (H. B. Warner of Kidnapped) and ruled by the supposedly wise and benevolent High Lama (Sam Jaffe of The Accused), a 200-year-old priest who discovered and founded the place. The High Lama tells Conway that the most important thing is to "be kind,' but it never occurs to him that it's not exactly "kind" to literally kidnap a bunch of innocents just because the lovely Sondra (Jane Wyatt) has seen Conway's books (and, presumably, his author photo) and developed a yen for him. Understandably, George wants to get back to his own life, while the others find happiness of a sort in Shangri-La. George doesn't believe the High Lama's story, and takes off with a "young" woman, Maria (Margo) in tow with unexpected -- or rather expected -- results. I haven't read James Hilton's novel in a while (I did review certain portions of it after watching the film) but it has to be better than this movie, which takes an interesting premise and dumbs it down to an incredibly superficial level (there are significant differences between the book and the film). Learning that the pilot is dead, the emissaries from Shangri-La -- the guy's own people -- have absolutely no reaction. Presumptuous Sondra has no guilt that her adored one's brother has been dragged along against his will -- after all, why would anyone want to live anywhere besides the rather dull Shangri-La? -- and Robert seems selfishly absorbed in his love for Sondra. The main problem with Lost Horizon isn't that the hypocritical High Lama preaches love and sanity (he also prophecies WW2 and the atom bomb!)  but it never occurs to anyone that running away from the world's problems is hardly the way to solve them -- an influential man like Robert simply wants to drop out! Portraying George as a hot-head, the movie tries its damnedest to strip the character of any dignity or sympathy, and of course Maria has the temerity to lie about her age. [The man who desperately wants to escape from a land that others worship was later borrowed for a plot point in Brigadoon.] The first half of Lost Horizon is quite entertaining, and there are some good adventure scenes in the snowy terrain surrounding Shangri-La, but the movie becomes irritatingly stupid in the second half, so anti-intellectual, in fact, as to be mind-numbing. As in most movies about lost cities, whether in Africa or Tibet, there's a scene when everyone has to walk along a narrow cliff with a mile-high drop inches away -- surely after centuries they would have found a safer way to travel? Capra's direction is swell, but the wrong-headed script ...! The cast, however, is uniformly good. NOTE: This review is of the restored, mostly complete version.

Verdict: Watch the first hour and then turn it off! **.

LOST HORIZON (1973)

Peter Finch seems to be asking: how did I get in this movie?
LOST HORIZON (1973). Director: Charles Jarrott. Produced by Ross Hunter.

A plane carrying several passengers, including peace envoy Richard Conway (Peter Finch) and his brother, George (Michael York), wind up kidnapped to a lamasery called Shangri-La in this musicalized remake of the 1937 Lost Horizon. Larry Kramer [The Normal Heart] seems to have ignored (or never read) the source novel and simply turned in a very slightly modified version of the original screenplay. For instance, in both film versions the two main male characters are brothers, which is not true in the novel. In the book the sole woman on the plane is a prissy missionary, while in both films she's a world-weary gal who's either dying or tired of living; in the color version she tries to commit suicide. This version eliminates a scene when Catherine (Liv Ullmann), who lives in Shangri-La, tells Richard how she wanted him brought to Shangri-La; in fact Ullmann gets few dramatic scenes. Olivia Hussy [Black Christmas] essays Maria (played by Margo in the first version) and is slightly more dimensional than in the original film. George Kennedy's character is very similar to Thomas Mitchell's, but Edward Everett Horton's comedy relief paleontologist has been replaced by an entertainer played by Bobby Van. James Shigeta has a very small role, while John Gielgud and Charles Boyer, of all people, are even better than the actors who played Chang and the High Lama, respectively, in the original film. All of the actors are quite good, in fact. And then there's the music.

Actually aside from a couple of numbers about to be mentioned, Burt Bacharach's score is not bad. His frequently dissonant dramatic music adds much to the picture, and the songs, which might be described as more like lyrical minor arias than show tunes, are generally lilting if on the downbeat side (which may be why so few liked them). Although Liv Ullman [Cries and Whispers] sang on Broadway in Richard Rodgers I Remember Mama, her songs in this --  "The Circle" and a duet with Finch -- appear dubbed, and so is Finch. Sally Kellerman [Reflection of Fear] seems to be doing her own singing, but I'm not sure about Olivia Hussey when they do a creditable duet, "List of Things I Will Not Miss," in which the former tells of how glad she is to be away from civilization and the latter pines for all the places she's never been (if only more had been made of this aspect of the film). "Peaceful Joys" is a nice enough number, but the decided low-lights of the score include Kellerman's forgettable song, "Reflection," sung to George Kennedy, and Bobby Van's terrible "Question Me An Answer," which is not Van's fault but Bacharach's; this is one number that should have stayed inside his piano bench. Hal David contributed the awful lyrics. [One doesn't expect another "Getting to Know You," but this is just too much!]

The snow/adventure scenes in this are actually inferior to the ones in the original movie, although the trip to Shangri-La seems a bit more realistic. Essentially Lost Horizon in any form comes off like a paean to small-town mentalities, and the High Lama, who has people kidnapped to repopulate his dying city, is not much better than Fu Manchu. The biggest trouble with the movie isn't "Question Me an Answer" but the fact that in both movies -- and I daresay Hilton's novel -- none of the often interesting ideas are explored with any depth.

Verdict: The same length as the original film, although both seem twice as long. **.