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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

AND THE ANGELS SING

AND THE ANGELS SING (1944). Director: George Marshall.

Pop Angel (Raymond Walburn) lives with his four daughters and tries to encourage them in a musical career, but only one of them, Bobby (Betty Hutton), has singing aspirations. Forcing her sisters to accompany her on a club date, they meet bandleader Happy Morgan (Fred MacMurray), a heel with a conscience. He promises Bobby a job in New York and takes money she won gambling, which sister Nancy (Dorothy Lamour) is determined to get back. To Manhattan the four gals go. Happy finds himself romancing both sisters to keep them at bay, although he's only in love with one of them. Can true love find a way through this mess...? And the Angels Sing is pleasant and the performances are good. The other two Angel sisters are played by Diana Lynn [Ruthless] and Mimi Chandler. MacMurray sings, but not that well, and Hutton [The Betty Hutton Show] "overacts" her supposedly comedic song numbers to the point where they're hard to take. A subdued Frank Albertson [Psycho] plays Nancy's easily discarded boyfriend, Oliver, and Eddie Foy Jr. is cast as MacMurray's bandmate, Fuzzy. There are a couple of saucy song numbers.

Verdict: Amiable tomfoolery. **1/2.

BLACK WIDOW (1951)

Christine Norden
BLACK WIDOW (1951). Director: Vernon Sewell.

A man is thrown out of a car and onto a highway, but he survives to show up at the home of a woman, Sheila (Jennifer Jayne of The Crawling Eye), and her father (John Longden). Unfortunately the man (Robert Ayres) has amnesia and just wandered into the place. After resting up for a few days with these good Samaritans, he takes off to see if he can find out who he is. The title pretty much tells you that there's a wife in the picture, Christine (Christine Norden), and our man gets home to her just in time to attend his own funeral. Then there's his best friend, Paul (Anthony Forwood), and a certain insincere glint in Christine's eye ... Black Widow is a short, forgotten Hammer non-horror film that plays and looks like a TV episode. There are no twists to the plot, the acting is competent, Norden is reasonably slinky, and the film has nothing much to offer. It is barely an hour long. Not to be confused with the 1954 Nunnally Johnson film Black Widow.

Verdict: Forgettable. **.

ANN DVORAK: HOLLYWOOD'S FORGOTTEN REBEL

ANN DVORAK: HOLLYWOOD'S FORGOTTEN REBEL. Christina Rice. University Press of Kentucky; 2013.

Like many of us, Christina Rice first discovered Ann Dvorak in a videocassette of Three on a Match decades after the film had been released, and became a fan, intrigued by the reasons why this talented actress didn't have a much bigger career. Biographies written by fans can often be superficial love-fests, but Ms. Rice has avoided that trap by not only doing solid research, having access to personal letters, but by recognizing that Dvorak could sometimes be her own worst enemy. Dvorak took on Warner Brothers in court before Bette Davis did; the trouble was, Bette Davis was Bette Davis and Ms. Dvorak was nowhere in that league of fame and clout. She was poised for potential stardom when she got married [to first husband, actor-director Leslie Fenton of The House of Secrets and Pardon My Past] and simply took off for a several months-long honeymoon all over the world and never quite got back in the studio's good graces. She had ambition but it was at war with a certain need for independence which was frequently stymied by her marriages, all three of which had definite difficulties, to put it mildly. Rice not only examines Dvorak's film roles thoroughly, but absorbingly details her personal life, such as when she followed British Fenton overseas during WW2 out of devotion to him, but afterward found she'd outgrown him; her troubled relationship with her mother, who'd appeared in silent pictures but was long forgotten; and her on-again off-again third marriage to Nick Wade which played out in Hawaii and elsewhere; not to mention her austere final days when she worked on various abortive projects to no avail. Dvorak gave some fine performances throughout the years, with a particularly excellent portrayal in A Life of Her Own; she also appeared in such films as Scarface, The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, Gangs of New York, Flame of Barbary Coast, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami and The Walls of Jericho, among many others. The book is enriched with some great personal photos as well.

Verdict: Excellent biography of an actress forgotten by all but old film buffs. ***1/2.

THE KISS (1914)

William Desmond Taylor, Margaret Gibson, Myrtle Gonzalez
THE KISS (1914). Director: Ulysses Davis.

In this silent short, Alice (Margaret Gibson) is a shop girl with a plain boyfriend, a floorwalker named Fred (George Holt). Into the store come dapper society man George Dale (William Desmond Taylor) and his fiancee, Helen (Myrtle Gonzalez); Dale catches Alice's eye. There's also a new shop girl named Mazie (Jane Novak) whose fashionable clothing makes Alice envious. Determined to get George to notice her, Alice buys a new outfit, including one of the most hideous hats imaginable, but George asks her out anyway. When George introduces her to Helen and other friends, Helen gives Alice an affectionate kiss on the cheek. Later when he is having a drink alone with Alice, her tries to kiss her and she says "That's where she kissed me because she loves you!" Exit Alice. Okay. Alice learns it is better to stick with her simple life and floorwalker Fred [and hopefully she'll get rid of that hat!]. Because of the presence of Taylor and Gibson [aka Patricia Palmer] The Kiss is of historical interest, but it is hardly a lost classic. It only lasts about ten minutes and the acting is broad.

Verdict: Not one of the more memorable silent films. *1/2.

OUT OF THE BLUE

Ann Dvorak and Carole Landis
OUT OF THE BLUE (1947). Director: Leigh Jason.

Arthur Earthleigh (George Brent) is a hen-pecked husband in Greenwich Village who meets up with a kooky, tippling gal named Olive (Ann Dvorak) while his wife, Mae (Carole Landis of A Scandal in Paris) is out of town. Taking Olive to his apartment, Arthur is panicked to discover that it's hard to get rid of her -- until she apparently drops dead in his living room. He puts the body on the terrace of his disliked next-door neighbor, artist David Gelleo (Turhan Bey of The Mummy's Tomb), who is trying to entertain fellow dog lover Deborah (Virginia Mayo). David insists that Arthur help him get rid of the body, but is Olive really dead, and what will happen when Mae gets back in town? And could either Arthur or David be the notorious Greenwich Village Murderer who has already amassed several victims? Out of the Blue is as silly as it sounds, although it has some amusing moments, and the performances are more than okay. Brent [The Great Lie] is fine in a much nerdier role than he normally played, and Ann Dvorak is absolutely delightful, although it may not be her fault that eventually the presence of drunken Olive -- dead, not dead, and so on -- becomes rather tiresome. Elizabeth Patterson is cute as a little old lady who keeps seeing corpses and Flame makes an impression as David's dog Rabelais.The light tone of the movie is at odds with the whole business of a fiendish murderer killing young women, albeit his activities are never shown.

Verdict: A little too cute: **1/2.

WHEN THE GIRLS TAKE OVER

James Ellison and Robert Lowery
WHEN THE GIRLS TAKE OVER (1962). Director: Russell Hayden.

On the island of Hondorica, whose chief export is sugar, prime minister Henri Degiere (Marvin Miller) learns that his daughter, Francoise (Ingebord Kjeldsen), has been kidnapped by the Castro-inspired El Maximo Toro ["The Most Bull"] --  who is played by Robert Lowery --  and taken to his island. Francoise, a hellcat, is really Toro's lover, and it's all a plot to get some rifles from Degiere. Texas millionaire Longhorn (James Ellison) brings a bunch of women to Toro's island, and they shave his beard and somehow defeat him. Or something like that. Others trapped in this mess include Jackie Coogan, as Degiere's assistant; Tommy Cook [Missile to the Moon] as native Razmo; and Gabriel Dell [Junior G-Men] as Henderson, Toro's good right arm. Henderson has a pretty girlfriend named Melesa (True Ellison, James Ellison's daughter, who played Snow White in Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm).The music is okay but the attempts at satire are pitiful and the film hasn't got a single laugh.

Verdict: If only the girls had taken over! 1/2 star.

THE RECRUIT

Al Pacino
THE RECRUIT (2003). Director: Roger Donaldson.

Computer genius James Clayton (Colin Farrell of Fright Night), whose father died under mysterious circumstances years before, is recruited by instructor Walter Burke (Al Pacino of Jack and Jill), for the CIA. Clayton joins a group of young hopefuls at the Farm in Langley for training, but seems to strike out after an especially rough exercise in which he thinks he has actually been kidnapped by enemy agents. But Burke tells Clayton that far from being axed  he has been chosen for a covert assignment involving supposed double agent Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan), another member of the class, whom he is told is trying to steal a CIA-engineered computer virus right out of HQ. But as Clayton gets closer to the woman in order to learn her secrets, will this all turn out to be yet another elaborate game -- or something much more sinister? The Recruit is a mild if entertaining entry in the paranoia sweepstakes, with the leads, including lovely Moynahan, giving good performances. Pacino seems practically like a supporting player in Farrell's movie until the picture's climax in which he has a chance to shine.

Verdict: A paycheck for Pacino. **1/2.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

FRENCHMAN'S CREEK

FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (1944). Director: Mitchell Leisen.

Dona St. Columb (Joan Fontaine) is tired of the way her witless husband Harry (Ralph Forbes of Convicts at Large) keeps throwing her at the slimy Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone) -- who keeps making passes -- so she takes off with the children to a summer retreat where she finds the cuddly old servant, William (Cecil Kellaway), waiting for her. She also finds a notorious pirate named Jean Aubrey (Arturo de Cordova) who claims he's really not such a bad guy as pirate's go. It isn't long before Dona is smitten with Jean and vice versa and longing for a romantic and adventurous life at sea. But can she forsake her children to go off with the man who has so aroused her fiery passion ...? Fontaine, as good as ever, has probably never looked more gorgeous and indeed the whole movie is expertly filmed in especially ravishing technicolor by George Barnes. Rathbone sparkles in his scenes as Rockingham, and the film's highlight is a rousing battle he has on a staircase not with Jean but with a desperate Dona. Mexican actor Arturo de Cordova is not terrible, but this part needed a sexier fellow, like maybe Errol Flynn, to make it believable; de Cordova was a major star in Mexico and South America, however. Victor Young's score sounds like ersatz Debussy. Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier.

Verdict: Stick to Rebecca. **.

PLAY MISTY FOR ME

"Play Misty for me," says the lady on the phone
PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971). Director: Clint Eastwood.

Radio DJ Dave (Clint Eastwood) plays easy listening on the night shift, and he consistently gets calls from a woman who says "Play Misty for me." One night Dave meets a woman named Evelyn (Jessica Walter) at a bar and has a one-night stand with her. She not only turns out to be the lady who requests Misty, but she seems to think this one encounter means that she and Dave are in a "relationship." Things get worse when Dave sleeps with her a second time, and she acts as if they're engaged, showing up uninvited, expecting him to act like a significant other when all he wants to do is get away from her. In spite of this, Dave shows compassion after Evelyn's suicide attempt [a doctor friend risks his license by not reporting the incident, even though it would have forced Evelyn to get help], after which Evelyn is even more deeply "attached" to the man. If anything her behavior gets worse ... Play Misty for Me is an entertaining visualization of one man's Casual Sex Nightmare, and features a striking performance from Jessica Walter with an okay Eastwood pretty much along for the ride. Eastwood also directed the film, which is well-shot by Bruce Surtees. There's an exciting, if too brief, climax wherein Evelyn tries to butcher Dave; a sequence where she stabs repeatedly at his poor maid, Birdie (an amusing and sassy Clarice Taylor) is acceptable but hardly has the "Psycho-like editing" one critic attributed to it. Eastwood, as usual, whispers all of his lines [the way a woman would if she wants to sound slinky] in a way he assumes sounds masculine and sexy. Donna Mills [Curse of the Black Widow] plays his on-again/off-again girlfriend, Tobie. In this she is sweet and fresh-scrubbed; she later successfully reinvented herself as a devious sexpot for the show Knot's Landing. John Larch ["It's a Good Life" on Twilight Zone] and Irene Hervey [Honey West] have notable bits as, respectively, a cop who comes afoul of Evelyn, and a radio producer who wants to sign Dave to a great new contract until Evelyn interferes. Duke Everts plays Tobie's gay friend Jay Jay like a stereotype, and Don Siegel has his first acting part as a bartender. A romantic sequence to the strains of Roberta  Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is effective, but a long sequence at a jazz festival just stops the picture dead. Although I haven't seen Fatal Attraction in a long time, I think this is a better picture.

Verdict: A zesty Walter makes this a pleasure. ***.

SOMEBODY: THE RECKLESS LIFE AND REMARKABLE CAREER OF MARLON BRANDO

SOMEBODY: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of MARLON BRANDO. Stefan Kanfer. Knopf; 2008.

After many previous bios of Brando, Kanfer's book sort of serves as an overview of the actor's life and career, as there are few if any fresh interviews in the tome with really major figures in Brando's life. That being said, Somebody is still well-written and engaging. Brando had a difficult childhood, discovered he had a talent for acting, was throughout his life torn between the need to make films for money and his contempt for Hollywood and many of the films he appeared in. He was embarrassed to be a "movie star," took up social causes, but was not immune to wanting the perks he felt he was due as a celebrity. Brando's reputation rests on a surprisingly short list of classic films -- On the Waterfront, The Godfather -- and he made some truly terrible films such as The Island of Dr. Moreau, wherein his "eating disorder" had turned him into an unsightly blimp. Ever on the edge of becoming a has- been, Brando tried to revive his career with the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, a not-bad picture that was a mega-bomb, but had more luck with the controversial Last Tango in Paris, which some critics at the time chose to take very seriously.  On one hand he could choose edgy projects like Reflections in a Golden Eye, playing a married Army major who's lusting for a handsome private, and on the other appear in big budget FX films like Superman for a hefty paycheck, phoning in a performance. Somebody takes the tone that Brando often wasted his talent, and compares him to Marcello Mastroianni, who made important films in Europe while Brando was doing a lot of Hollywood junk. Somebody may not convince you that Brando's life was that tragic, nor will it persuade you that he's the World's Greatest Actor if you feel otherwise, but it is an interesting read. Kanfer mentions gossip that he has gleaned from other books that he names in the text, but as those books have dubious sources, why mention them at all? For balance, he also has lengthy quotes from critics who did not think much of Brando nor his performances along with the raves.

Verdict: Entertaining bio. ***.

TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE

Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler
TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914). Produced and directed by Mack Sennett. Restored version.

Tillie (Marie Dressler) is a hard-working country girl who gets little love and lots of abuse from her father (Mack Swain), who is fond of booting her in the rear. Therefore she is easily duped by a stranger (Charlie Chaplin) into running off with him with her father's stash. Unfortunately for Tillie, the Stranger already has a much prettier girlfriend, Mabel (Mabel Normand), and the two of them run off with Tillie's money. Tillie gets a job as a waitress, but is arrested when she sees the couple and takes after them, but she's released when the cops learn she is the niece of a certain millionaire (Charles Bennett). Tillie's uncle is just as mean to her as her father, but when he falls off a mountain she becomes his heir, a fact that she doesn't know but the Stranger does ... Tillie's Punctured Romance is the film adaptation of Marie Dressler's hit Broadway show Tillie's Nightmare, and it was similarly well-received by the public. The three leads are fine, with Dressler getting the lion's share of the action and most of the laughs. Tillie is so put-upon that you almost can't blame her when she positively runs amok at the end of the picture, although Dressler isn't really given much opportunity to milk her role for pathos in this farcical comedy. She inherits her uncle's millions without benefit of inquest or probate! Some very amusing bits in this, and Dressler, while bordering on the vulgar at times, is ever-delightful [although it perhaps remained for the sound era to unveil her special genius]. This is probably the closest one can come to getting any sense of what Dressler was like in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage.

Verdict: Overlong but quite cute in spots. **1/2.

DADDY O [LOST PILOT]

Lee Phillips and Don DeFore
DADDY-O (unsold pilot/1961). Director/producer: Rod Amateau.

Daddy-O was a situation comedy with a fairly unusual premise. Ben (Don DeFore of Killer Bait) is a carpenter who is working on a house for TV producer Albert Shapian (Lee Phillips). For some reason, never explained, Albert thinks Ben would make a good actor, and the fellow winds up in a show called Daddy-O, produced by Shapian, wherein he plays a hapless family man in slapstick situations. The show-within-the-show is a big hit, but despite all the money Ben is dissatisfied. He thinks his work is frivolous whereas before he was helping to build homes and thereby helping the nation. He wants to quit Daddy-O, but Shapian won't think of it. At a hospital where Ben's wife Polly (Jean Byron) volunteers, he meets an elderly female patient who tells him how much the show means to her and other lonely people of all ages, to whom it has given a family. Ben decides to stay with Daddy O, not realizing that the old lady was an actress paid by Shavian, although she tells the producer that she actually meant every word. Other characters in the show include Ben's two teenaged sons, and Shavian's dumb brunette but sexy secretary. In the opening sequence -- a scene from Daddy O -- Sheila James from Dobie Gillis plays his daughter. Shavian seems to have a bit of a thing for Polly.

This pilot was apparently aired but wasn't turned into a series. The actors are fine -- even bland DeFore -- but perhaps it was too critical of dumb sitcoms for its own good, and without delivering the major laughs that any good sitcom requires. A surprising scene has Shapian and his colleagues adjusting the laugh track on an episode  -- the fact that sitcoms used laugh tracks was generally downplayed in this era. Still Daddy-O is amiable and has a few chuckles in it. Had this gone to series it might have developed into a memorable show. Phillips at least gives the project a little sex appeal, as does his uncredited secretary. Created and written by Max Shulman. DeFore wound up in the long-running Hazel with Shirley Booth.

Verdict: Had possibilities. **1/2.

THE WEREWOLF

THE WEREWOLF (1956). Fred F. Sears.

Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) comes into the town of Mountaincrest with no memory of who he is or what he may have done in the past couple of days. Duncan has apparently been experimented on without permission by two conscienceless mad scientists, Chambers (George Lynn) and Forrest (S. John Launer), and can turn into a murderous wolfman without warning. The werewolf make up is rather good, but it's amazing that no one in Mountaincrest seems especially astonished by a wolfman in their midst, as if this were something that happened every day. Don McGowan is the sheriff, Joyce Holden his fiancee, and Harry Lauter [Trader Tom of the China Seas] is his deputy, while Eleanore Tanin and Kim Charney play Marsh's distraught wife and son. Ritch, who gives a credible performance, wrote the screenplay for City of Fear, in which he also appeared. Decidedly downbeat and overall second-rate despite some good scenes and an effective lead performance. Sears also directed the minor sci fi classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and many, many other low-budget movies.

Verdict: Somber horror film. **.

A SOUND OF THUNDER

T-Rex and time travelers
A SOUND OF THUNDER (2005). Director: Peter Hyams. Loosely based on a short story by Ray Bradbury.

In  the future Travis Ryer (Edward Burns) works for an outfit that sends wealthy clients back in time to hunt dinosaurs, the animals' slayings timed to occur just before they would have died anyway. This is done to prevent anything screwing with the time stream and affecting the future. Travis meets a lady scientist, Sonia Rand (Catherine McCormack), who claims she not only helped create the time machine and was shut out of enjoying its success, but that Ryer and his associates are endangering the world with their time jumps, on one of which something comes back from the past. This happens because boss Charles Hatton (Sir Ben Kingsley) wants to save money by turning off the energy-using screen that would prevent this. Because of this anomaly, the world is affected by time waves that create new "prehistoric" animals and even begin affecting the human race itself. Can Travis and Sonia manage to set things right in a world beset with dangerous monsters, hysterical humans, and weird sweeping changes to the landscape and everyone else at all the wrong moments ...? A Sound of Thunder has a great idea and is entertaining for the most part, and some scenes are rather well-done (a struggle with a hungry underwater creature, for instance) but there's just something off about the movie. By no means as bad as, say, a Syfy Channel Original, there's still something second-rate about the entire enterprise. Edward Burns, who often makes and stars in smaller personal films, seems uncomfortable in the role of action hero, although Kingsley is more on the mark as slimy Hatton [although you still have to wonder what he's doing in this movie]. McCormack and the other cast members are all professional and then some. The effects are uneven, although there are a host of good-looking futuristic baboon-dinosaurs, and most of the other monsters are at least well-designed. Ultimately the movie isn't terrible, just unconvincing. Hyams has directed better movies, such as Outland and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Kingsley has appeared in worse movies, such as Thunderbirds.

Verdict: Interesting disappointment. **1/2.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

VACATION

Great Old Movies is on vacation this week. But we'll see you next week with a new crop of book and movie reviews. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE BEGUILED

Geraldine Page, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Hartman
THE BEGUILED (1971). Director: Don Siegel.

During the civil war a wounded Union soldier, John (Clint Eastwood), winds up at a Southern girls school run by Martha (Geraldine Page) and her assistant, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman). These two women and a couple of the nubile students are mightily intrigued by this Yankee, and agree to keep him hidden in the school until he's recovered, as they are afraid in his condition he might die in a rebel prison. With survival uppermost in his mind, John romances the two ladies, tells them anything they want to hear, and unsuccessfully fends off the advances of sexy student, Carol (Jo Ann Harris). Finally one night he gets an invitation from all three women, but whose bed should he go to, and what will the consequences be if he makes the wrong choice ...? The Beguiled is more about sexual tension than about anything else, and on that level it succeeds, although it could be argued that it's somewhat sexist and even rather silly at times. In spite of that the movie has a certain fascination. Eastwood [Revenge of the Creature] is more than adequate, although he's out-acted by his two powerhouse co-stars, with Page [Sweet Bird of Youth] convincing as the headmistress with her pansexual fantasies, and Hartman excellent as the virginal spinster who's come to see John as her escape. Harris, Pamelyn Ferdyn [The Mephisto Waltz] as 13-year-old Amy, and Mae Mercer as the black servant, Hallie, are also notable. Siegel also directed the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Verdict: Obvious but entertaining and nearly a classic. ***.

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962)

Marlon Brando
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1962). Director: Lewis Milestone.

Sailing to Tahiti in 1787 to get breadfruit, the crew of the Bounty eventually rebel against what they see as the heartless tyranny of their captain. This second film version [of three] of the famous story is also based on the novel whose fictionalized events have sometimes replaced the true story in the mind of the public. For some reason, Marlon Brando chose to portray Fletcher Christian as an affected fop, possibly the only way he could keep up the British accent -- other than that, his performance isn't bad, although it is not as good as Trevor Howard's as the notorious Captain Bligh or Richard Harris' as a sailor named Mills. Hugh Griffith, Richard Hadyn [The Lost World], Percy Herbert and Tim Seely as young midshipman Ned, are also notable, among others. The movie is long and bloated and follows the mutineers onto Pitcairn Island, where they settled, but a framing sequence that takes place on the island with Haydn and Torin Thatcher was excised from the film and can be seen on the DVD. As Maimiti, the king's daughter, who falls for Christian, Tarita strikes the right note [as she obviously did with Brando, who married her]; Frank Silvera is convincing as her father. One problem with the movie is that at times it has a very fortyish tone, becoming awfully "cute." However Milestone keeps things moving and Bronislau Kaper's score is very effective.  Originally shown in ultra-Panavision 70. Ultimately, this is not a bad picture, although it's no better than the other versions, the original Mutiny on the Bounty and The Bounty.

Verdict: If you can't get enough of Christian and Bligh. ***.

MR. LUCKY (TV SERIES)

Ross Martin, Betty Garde, and John Vivyan
 MR. LUCKY television series.1959. Created by  Blake Edwards.

In this series, one of several created by Blake Edwards, Mr. Lucky (John Vivyan) -- with no first name -- operates a legal gambling ship outside the limit with his friend, associate and fellow adventurer Andamo (Ross Martin) -- which could be the fellow's first name or last. The boat is named the Fortuna, which means luck. Halfway through the first and only season of the show, Lucky decides to give up gambling and turn the Fortuna into an exclusive and very expensive private restaurant and night spot; oddly the scripts seemed somewhat better afterward and there was even more action. Pippa Scott was a semi-regular who played Lucky's girlfriend while Andamo played the field. Another character who appeared frequently was Lt. Rovaks, (Tim Brown), whose voice was so squeaky that he sounded like a cartoon character [maybe "Lucky Duck."] Mr. Lucky, frankly, was not one of the classic shows of television, nor was it one of Edwards' better or more successful series, but some of the generally mediocre episodes were somewhat more memorable than usual, with the best single episode being one wherein Lucky gets targeted by a hit woman played by Mari Blanchard. Another memorable episode has Jack Nicholson and Richard Chamberlain robbing the Fortuna and its customers at gunpoint. There were plenty of desperate, kooky or sinister females, as well as gangsters [one of whom is played by Lou Krugman, from the "Lucy Gets in Pictures" episode of I Love Lucy] and other reprobates. Despite the competent and often charming performances of the two leads -- although Vivyan was a borderline stiff -- the characters were shadowy and never quite came alive. Other guest-stars on the show included Betty Garde [that tough maid in a classic Honeymooners episode]; Grant Williams, Barbara Bain, Cyril Delevanti, Eleanor Audley, Lee Van Cleef, Nita Talbot, and Doris Singleton [Carolyn/Lillian Appleby on I Love Lucy] who's striking as an especially ruthless female with murder on her mind. Henry Mancini's music is nothing special. Ross Martin ["Death Ship" on The Twilight Zone] would have much more success with The Wild, Wild West a few years later.

Verdict: Stick with Mike Hammer with Darren McGavin.**

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE

Al Pacino
THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (1997). Director: Taylor Hackford.

Coming to realize that his accused pedophile client is guilty, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) proceeds with his defense [as if he had any other choice] and wins him an acquittal. This brings him to the attention of a certain New York City law firm that is less concerned with ethics than it is with winning. Kevin accepts a large fee to participate in a jury selection, then is offered a position with the firm with lots of perks, including a fabulous Manhattan apartment and a huge salary. But his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron of Prometheus), is soon feeling neglected as he spends all of his time preparing for a case, and she is having very disturbing hallucinations as well. Even Kevin wonders if there's something -- strange -- about his boss, the charismatic John Milton (Al Pacino of The Son of No One), who figures in one of Mary Ann's more unpleasant nightmares. As more and more disturbing evidence piles up, will Kevin look the other way, or face the consequences of dealing with the devil... ? The Devil's Advocate is an entertaining and well-acted horror film that is perhaps at times too influenced by films that came before, but it has its moments, even if it's ultimately a kind of silly picture. It might have been better or at least just as interesting without the supernatural overtones.

Verdict: Pacino is always fun to watch. **1/2.

ON THEIR OWN

Spring Byington and Florence Roberts
ON THEIR OWN (1940). Director: Otto Brower.

In this final installment of Twentieth Century-Fox's Jones Family series, Mr. Jones, who is not seen (Jed Prouty, who played the role, is not in the movie as he wanted more money) has a nervous collapse after a Building and Loan crash and the embezzlement of several board members. While Jones recuperates, his wife, Louise (Spring Byington), and children have to deal with the fact that they're going to lose their home and their business. After this grim development, Mr. Jones is sent to a sanitarium in California to recuperate, and his family follows, but have severe money troubles. In an incredible and gutsy maneuver that borders on the unethical and even criminal, Louise and her oldest sons Jack (Kenneth Howell) and Roger (George Ernest), manage to "buy" a rental court from the owner, but not before he evicts his non-paying relatives. The family transform the court into a place where entertainers are welcome, not to mention people with children and pets, which infuriates the landlord of the property next door, who's afraid his tenants will complain about the noise and commotion, leading to a battle in court. Spring Byington takes center stage in this final Jones Family film, and runs with it, and the other actors, including Florence Roberts as Granny, are all terrific. Marguerite Chapman, Chick Chandler, ever-grumpy Charles Lane, and Irving Bacon are in the supporting cast. Call me a sentimental slob, but the depiction of the very obvious love these characters feel for one another is sometimes touching. NOTE: Your reviewer has seen all of the Jones Family films with the exception of Young as You Feel, Off to the Races, and A Trip to Paris. In the unlikely event that anyone has copies of these, especially Paris, please let me know!

Verdict: Not the best of the series, but some sentiment and humor and wonderful performances, and a more than interesting wind-up to the Jones Family (mis)adventures. **1/2.

NIGHT CREATURES

NIGHT CREATURES (aka Captain Clegg/1962). Director: Peter Graham Scott.

Based on the Dr. Syn novels that first appeared in 1915 [also the basis of Walt Disney's Dr. Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh], this interesting Hammer feature takes place in the village of Dymchurch in 1792. British sailors led by Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) come to town hunting for smugglers who want to bypass the high taxes on liquor and other items. The whole town leads Collier and his men on a merry chase as they do their best to hide the taxable items and outwit the revenue men. The supernatural aspects of the film -- the phantoms of Romney Marsh or the "night creatures" of the American title -- are a bit of a cheat, but the film is suspenseful and entertaining enough in its own right. Peter Cushing is excellent, as usual, as the reverend Dr. Blyss, who may have a secret or two up his sleeve, and Martin Benson [The Cosmic Monsters] and Michael Ripper also offer superior performances as two of his co-conspirators; Allen is also fine as Collier. Oliver Reed [Paranoiac] is as intense as ever as young Harry, who has fallen in love with barmaid Imogene (Yvonne Romain), who is the secret daughter of the supposedly dead and notorious pirate Captain Clegg. Jack MacGowran [The Giant Behemoth] offers another of his flavorful portrayals as a villager who tries to mislead Collier and his band, and Milton Reid is vivid as the "mulatto" who hates Clegg and causes all manner of mischief. Dan Banks' exciting musical score helps keep things percolating.

Verdict: Something different! ***.


POIROT: CARDS ON THE TABLE

David Suchet and the rest of the cast
POIROT: CARDS ON THE TABLE (2006 telefilm). Director: Sarah Harding.

The enigmatic Shaitana (Alexander Siddig) invites three detectives, including Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) and the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker) to dinner along with four individuals -- two men and two women -- whom Shaitana suspects of murder. Later on they divide into two groups to play bridge, and during one of the rubbers the host is quietly murdered. Now Poirot and the other sleuths must investigate the background of the guests to determine who may have killed in the past, and who then presumably killed Shaitana to protect themselves. This adaptation of Agatha Christie's excellent novel suffers because screenwriter Nick Dear thinks he is more clever than the Grand Dame of Mystery, making stupid changes in the story that only weaken the whole project. Like many others, Dear thinks introducing a homoerotic element will make the story seem more "modern" [thankfully it's a period piece, taking place more or less at the same time as the novel], but in this case it only makes it distinctly more dated, even homophobic. Worse, some of Dear's changes make nonsense out of some of the sequences that remain [for instance, without giving too much away, we're supposed to believe that a woman who detests her doctor and wants him brought up on charges will actually go to him to get her inoculations for traveling out of the country! When she probably wouldn't even want to be in the same room with him? Did no one involved in the production ever protest this development?] Dear also makes two of the characters related to one another, as they were not in the novel, in hindsight making their scenes together ridiculous, and also switches the character traits of two other characters for no good purpose. [Changes are fine if they improve a piece or make it more cinematic, but this is sheer arrogant stupidity.] At least the production is smooth and Suchet is as wonderful as ever as Poirot; the rest of the cast is also excellent with Siddig as Shaitana and Alex Jennings as Dr. Roberts especially notable. Zoe Wanamaker seems a little bit closer to Christie's alter ego Ariadne Oliver in this outing, but is still not quite right. Like most of these Poirot episodes this one is entertaining enough but the smarmy changes to the story were certainly ill-advised.

Verdict: Stick with the novel. **.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

BEN-HUR

Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston
BEN-HUR (1959). Director: William Wyler.

In 26 A.D. the Romans have taken over Jerusalem. Jewish Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is reunited with his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), but earns his enmity when he refuses to help him in the Roman cause. When some tumbling masonry accidentally falls onto a Roman dignitary from a spot where Ben-Hur and his family are watching, Messala has all of them arrested, with Ben-Hur becoming a galley slave, and his mother (Martha Scott) and sister (Cathy O'Donnell) put in a dungeon and contracting leprosy. After an epic sea battle, Heston becomes adopted by the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and becomes known as an expert charioteer. Now Ben-Hur is ready to face his most hated enemy in the arena, leading to the chariot race to end them all. Ben-Hur could have been trimmed of an hour without losing any of its entertainment value, and while it has a strong story it survives on the strength of its set-pieces: the galley slave sequence; the sea battle; the crucifixion; and especially the outstanding chariot race which the whole movie leads up to. Heston [Bad for Each Other] is not bad as Ben-Hur, although it could be argued that he doesn't so much become the character as turn Ben-Hur into Charlton Heston. On the other hand, Stephen Boyd [Fantastic Voyage] gives the performance of a lifetime in his ferocious portrait of Messala. [Some, including the late Gore Vidal, have insisted that Messala's anger towards his old friend is caused by a frustrated homosexual attraction as, according to them, there seems no other good reason for his hatred -- as if his Roman pride and ambition, barely-suppressed anti-Semitism, and his unpleasant character couldn't be enough?] Haya Harareet [The Secret Partner] plays Esther, who loves Ben-Hur; she is capable but had few other credits. Ben-Hur is unnecessarily bloated, but it does boast attractive [if sometimes too prettified] settings, excellent matte paintings, generally skillful direction from Wyler, and fine photography by Robert Surtees and others. A scene with some beautiful trained Arabian stallions doesn't advance the story but one can see why it wasn't cut. Yakima Canutt, who co-directed several cliffhanger serials, worked on the chariot sequence (although it may be inaccurate to say that he "directed" it). Oddly enough, Wyler's The Big Country, also starring Charlton Heston, is more entertaining.

Verdict: Misses being a masterpiece, but has many fine moments. ***.

SEPTEMBER AFFAIR

Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine
SEPTEMBER AFFAIR (1950). Director: William Dieterle.

When their plane to New York touches down near Naples for repairs, two strangers -- businessman David (Joseph Cotten) and concert pianist Manina (Joan Fontaine) -- decide to use the time to go sightseeing together, but miss their plane. They decide to continue sightseeing, then learn that the plane they were supposed to be on crashed, killing everyone aboard -- and they are listed in the paper as two of the victims. Unable to get a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Jessica Tandy), David importunes Manina to start a new life with him in Florence, where they rent or buy a villa with the aid of her teacher, Maria (Francoise Rosay). But will this merely be a brief if intense affair, and will the pull of the past prove too much to them?

A major problem with September Affair is the reaction the couple has to the news about the plane crash. They were on the plane, saw the passengers and some of the crew members, yet they never express the slightest pity for these people and their awful deaths, making them seem remarkably callous and self-absorbed. The plane crash and the deaths of over thirty people are simply an "opportunity" for these two losers. The shame of it is that just a brief moment of scripted compassion on their part would have made them more sympathetic and human. A bigger shame is that otherwise September Affair is not a terrible picture, although in the manner of soap operas it ignores certain realities such as remains and making a living. David writes Maria a check so she can cash it for him [considering the size of their palazzo it must have been a mighty sizable check], but he does it two days before the plane crash, making him seem positively prescient [or the check was post-dated].

On the plus side, Cotten and Fontaine, especially the latter, give very good performances, and Jessica Tandy [Adventures of a Young Man] nearly steals the picture as the confused, grieving wife. Robert Arthur also makes a positive impression as David's handsome, sensitive son [David is a selfish and terrible father, however.] The movie is drenched in romantic music, everything from "September Song" from Knickerbocker Holiday [an unofficial theme of the movie] to Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, which Manina plays in a concert. There are some beautiful Italian settings as well. A nice surprise is the appearance of Jimmy Lydon (Henry Aldrich) as a soldier in a restaurant who betrays a very pleasant voice when he sings "September Song" as Manina plays the piano. The frankly absurd ending seems forced by the production code of the period. William Dieterle also directed Love Letters with Joseph Cotten and many other movies.

Verdict: Lush and classy soap opera in many respects, but with a key flaw, confused and superficial script, and characters you sometimes may find it hard to root for. **1/2.

NO BED OF ROSES: JOAN FONTAINE

NO BED OF ROSES: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Joan Fontaine. William Morrow; 1978.

The very talented star of Rebecca, Suspicion, Letter from an Unknown Women, and many others proffered this very well-written and absorbing autobiography in the late seventies. The "feud" between her and her sister Olivia de Havilland seems to be attributed to a fairly childish sibling rivalry that existed since childhood, this despite the fact that both women won Oscars and became acclaimed, highly successful actresses. Fontaine was born in Japan, but she came to the US after her parents' marriage broke up, and had a comparatively privileged if often unhappy childhood. She intimates that both her father and stepfather had an unhealthy sexual interest in her. She married Brian Aherne even though Howard Hughes wanted her for a wife, this despite the fact that Olivia was practically engaged to the man at the same time, another blow to their relationship. Fontaine had other marriages and boyfriends, and along the way made quite a few movies: This Above All with Tyrone Power; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt with Dana Andrews; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands with Burt Lancaster; and The Constant Nymph with Charles Boyer. Fontaine has little to say about some of her films, such as Something to Live For and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, aside from the fact that she thought very little of them. She appeared in The Bigamist only because her husband at the time, Collier Young, produced it; Young had been married to co-star and director Ida Lupino previously. As Fontaine puts it: "After shooting all my scenes, director Ida saw the rushes, didn't like the photography, and changed cameramen before actress Ida began her own scenes!" The book concludes with a moving open letter from Fontaine to her late mother, with whom she had a relationship just as complicated as her relationship with her sister. Despite Fontaine's fame, what comes across to the reader is the damage that parents can inflict on their children, no matter who they might be or what becomes of them.

Verdict: Fascinating look at one lady's life in and out of Hollywood. ***1/2.