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

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.

SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR

Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn
SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR (1978). Director: Robert Mulligan. Screenplay by Bernard Slade, based on his play.

Doris (Ellen Burstyn) and George (Alan Alda) are dining alone in a restaurant at a country inn, when they decide to have dinner together, leading into a one-night stand. Both of them are happily married with children, but decide to meet again at the same inn the following year. In five year increments, the movie shows them meeting up each year for a romantic weekend, telling each other both good and bad stories about their spouses, and changing with the times and as they grow older, suffering losses but remaining in love. Same Time, Next Year is entertaining but it never quite recovers from its highly contrived and theatrical premise, which probably worked much better on the stage. The performances are okay -- sitcom star Alda [The Mephisto Waltz] seems perfect for what is, in effect, a two hour sitcom, but Burstyn [The Wicker Man] completely lacks a finely-honed comedic gift, tossing off lines that might have been funnier had her timing and delivery been better. One foolish sequence has Doris showing up for one rendezvous when she's eight months pregnant. Some nice moments, but it probably should have been done as a TV special and not a theatrical movie. A basic problem with the whole concept is that it would be hard for two people to grow that close when they only see each other one weekend out of the year. Robert Mulligan also directed To Kill a Mockingbird and many others.

Verdict: Pleasant enough but very small-scale. **1/2.

THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU

Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre
THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942). Director: Lew Landers.

In this black comedy that seems influenced by the Broadway show Arsenic and Old Lace  (which itself was filmed two years later) Boris Karloff plays a crazy scientist in a crumbling old inn and Peter Lorre is the sheriff and just about every other official in the area. Winnie Slade (the oddly named Miss Jeff Donell of Night Editor) is a kooky gal who decides to buy the inn even though it's off the beaten track, an idea which her ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) thinks is nutty. Professor Billing (Karloff) seems to think he can imbue a man with the ability to fly by putting traveling salesmen into a machine he's invented, but they all wind up dead -- apparently. "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom plays a powderpuff salesman, Maude Eburne is a homicidal housekeeper, Frank Puglia [20 Million Miles to Earth] is "Jo Jo," an escaped lunatic, and Don Beddoe [The Face Behind the Mask] is a choreographer who takes a room at the inn. The cast is interesting, to say the least, with Parks and Puglia coming off best, but the material is far, far below the talents of the actors, and both Karloff and Lorre seem a mite uncomfortable, although everyone tries their best to make this funny and spirited, which it ain't. The movie has only a couple of titters and is mostly tedious.

Verdict: Makes a Bowery Boys film look intellectual. *1/2.

DANCING CO-ED

Lana Turner and Richard Carlson
DANCING CO-ED (1939). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

"She stinks!"

Just when the Dancing Tobins are to begin a new film, Toddy Tobin (a barely-seen Mary Beth Hughes) gets pregnant, and the search is on for someone to co-star with her husband, Freddy (Lee Bowman sans mustache). Learning that the studio is to conduct a talent search on college campuses, Freddy protests that he needs a professional, so it is decided to fix the contest, send talented Patty Marlowe (Lana Turner) to one of the institutions, and make damn certain that she is the winner. Patty gets involved with the editor of the school paper, "Pug" Braddock (Richard Carlson), who figures there has to be a "plant" and decides to ferret out who she is even as Patty assists him as a way of hiding the truth. Will Patty go to Hollywood, or will her scheme come undone? The movie begins well, but the fun peters out halfway through or earlier, and you'll find that you couldn't care less how it comes out. The script lets down the players, who are game and enthusiastic throughout, with Turner [Love Has Many Faces] and Carlson [All I Desire] swell in the leads, Ann Rutherford perky as a secretary who helps Patty, Leon Errol his usual fun self as Patty's father, and Thurston Hall and Monty Woolley also briefly on hand as well. I think I spotted drummer Buddy Rich a couple of times. Band leader Artie Shaw, playing himself, is third-billed but only gets one line of dialogue! He must have impressed Lana Turner, however, because she married him the following year [he also married Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes, among others]. Hal Le Sueur, Joan Crawford's brother, plays a handsome college student but has no lines. S. Sylvan Simon also directed the far superior The Fuller Brush Man.

Verdict: Picture could have been cute but it turns into a stink bomb.**

AMERICAN HORROR STORY Season One

Connie Britton , Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga
AMERICAN HORROR STORY Season One. 2011.

In this oddball series a family moves to Los Angeles and winds up living in a haunted house which is so notorious it is known as "Murder House" on a guided tour. Anyone who dies in the house -- and there have been a lot of murders there down through the years -- can't move on but must stay inside the house [except for Halloween when the spirits can travel wherever they want]. These ghosts are not misty, insubstantial visions -- they have substance, physicality, and sentience, and interact with the living people in the house, who often don't even realize the individual is dead. [Some of the surprises in the series are discovering that a character you thought was alive is actually a ghost, and someone you thought was a ghost is still alive.] The premise for this first season of American Horror Story is a good enough one, but the execution is decidedly uneven. One thing that can't be faulted (with a couple of exceptions) is the acting, with Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Taissa Farmiga turning in fine performances as the members of the highly dysfunctional family, and Evan Peters nearly walking off with the show in his star-making turn as the deeply troubled Tate Langdon. If Jessica Lange was hoping to turn into an acclaimed character actress with her turn as the weird neighbor, Constance, she's got a bit of a problem in that the role is possibly too strange and unreal for anyone to play altogether convincingly. Zachary Quinto [Star Trek Into Darkness] plays a gay character like such a swishy stereotype that it's hard to believe that his masculine, philandering partner would ever have been attracted to him. Frances Conroy scores as a maid who was murdered but still does the  housekeeping (perhaps the series' only moving moment has to do with her and her dying mother), as does Kate Mara [House of Cards] as a woman who's had an affair with shrink McDermott; there are other notable performances as well from a very large cast. The show, like most "horror" today, is really more of a very black comedy than anything else, even though the ultimate effect is kind of depressing and at times schlocky. But for the most part it holds the attention even as you're wondering why you're bothering to watch it; it could have been so much better. The use of Bernard Herrmann's music from Psycho and Vertigo is really quite annoying and fortunately they stopped lifting it after the first couple of episodes.

Verdict: Not exactly Downton Abbey -- and its internal logic is often screwy -- but it has its moments. **1/2.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)

Heather Sears and Herbert Lom
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). Director: Terence Fisher.

The second color remake of the silent classic stars Herbert Lom [Mark of the Devil] as a presumed dead music professor and composer whose work was stolen by a loathsome publisher named d'Arcy (Michael Gough of Black Zoo), and who haunts the Paris opera, kidnapping new singer Christine (Heather Sears of Room at the Top) so he can coach her in her role. The appropriated opera is based on the life of Joan of Arc, but it sounds more like a 20th century work than something from a previous century. An early scene when a corpse suddenly flies across the stage from a rope during a performance makes you think this might be the old story reworked as a nifty Hammer horror film, but aside from some rats and stabs to the eyeball, this version is not much more horrific than the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, and has a less effective chandelier sequence as well. Lom is not as interesting as the disfigured composer as you might expect, Sears is competent but forgettable, and Gough steals the picture with his utterly vicious and slimy portrayal of d'Arcy. Some of the developments of the script give one pause: a producer (Edward de Souza) learns the truth about who actually composed the opera, but does nothing about it, despite d'Arcy's wretched character and his need for comeuppance. In another scene a landlady somehow knows that Lom is still alive even when the police don't. The movie is entertaining, but somehow disjointed.

Verdict: Disappointing thriller with some good moments. **1/2.

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD

Fanny Brice almost steals the picture
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936). Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

Florenz Ziegfield (William Powell) has a lot of great ideas and enthusiasm for the theater but is generally low on money. He finally hits it big with his Follies, with its beautiful show girls and elaborate production numbers, which had a new edition for 24 years. Powell married the French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer) -- today it's still not clear if they actually tied the knot or were common-law -- but fell in love with actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy; Burke herself was 52 at the time of filming). Just when everyone thinks Ziegfeld is washed up, he rebounds with such hits as Show Boat, but then there's the stock market crash to deal with and his own fading health... This biopic of the famous showman is almost as long as Ben-Hur, with an intermission and an entr'acte, and is composed of facts, myths and invention in equal measure. Despite Powell's good performance, Ziegfeld never seems entirely dimensional because he's defined by his shows and libido more than anything else. Luise Rainer won an Oscar, which has generally been attributed to her scene on the telephone when she congratulates Flo on his marriage to Burke even though her heart is clearly breaking; in general Rainer is quite good. Loy doesn't make the mistake of imitating the flighty, downright weird Burke, and also gives a very good performance. Wisely the producers chose to cast the real Fanny Brice as herself, and she almost walks away with the movie. The production numbers, like the movie itself, go on too long, but there are some highlights, such as one number that combines all kinds of different musical styles from jazz to opera in a surprisingly tuneful blend; and a bit with some cute dogs who nearly manage to stay stock still as dancers cavort among them on the stage. Frank Morgan [The Good Fairy] plays a friendly business rival of Ziegfeld's and Virginia Bruce [Pardon My Sarong] is a calculating dancer-turned-star.  Will Rogers is played by A. A. Trimble, while an unimpressive Ray Bolger plays himself. Dennis Morgan [River's End] sings one number but appears to have been dubbed by Allan Jones.

Verdict: Goes on and on and on and on but is often entertaining ... **1/2.

MARIE DRESSLER Matthew Kennedy

MARIE DRESSLER: A Biography; with a Listing of Major Stage Performances, a Filmography and a Discography. Matthew Kennedy. McFarland; 1999.

The wonderful Marie Dressler had a long stage career in everything from opera to vaudeville, and just when she felt she was unemployable and washed up, she embarked upon a Hollywood career that brought her even more fame and money, turning her in her sixties into a major box office attraction -- this despite her abject lack of youth and beauty. Along the way she had one marriage, one long relationship with a man she only thought she was married to, and a possibly romantic relationship with a younger actress with whom she broke up some years before her death. In Hollywood Dressler made a few comedy-dramas teaming her with Polly Moran, such as Reducing; won an Oscar for her work in Min and Bill; and appeared in the wonderful Dinner at Eight, wherein she has one especially classic sequence with Jean Harlow. Dressler kept working even when she was dying of cancer and other ailments [indeed she had an exhausting life]. Don't be fooled by the sub-title -- this is a major biography and not just a reference work -- although there is a ton of scrupulous research in the exhaustive tome. Not only has Kennedy managed to put together an excellent and rich biography of this very gifted and unusual lady -- despite the fact that most of her contemporaries are dead --  but his writing is never dry and academic but always lively and interesting. Highly recommended not just to Dressler fans but to anyone interested in the theater, films, moviemaking, and just good biographies. Kennedy also wrote a fine book on director Edmund Goulding.

Verdict: In a word, superb! ****.

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA (1965)

Stuart Damon and Lesley Ann Warren
RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN'S CINDERELLA (aka Cinderella/1965). Director: Charles S. Dubin.

This is an entertaining color version of the musical, written for television, which first appeared in 1957 with Julie Andrews in the lead. While Lesley Ann Warren [The Happiest Millionaire] may not be in Andrews' league as a singer, she is still quite effective and charming as our heroine, and Stuart Damon makes a convincing Prince Charming. Pat Carroll makes an impression as one of the wicked step-sisters, with Jo Van Fleet [Wild River] suitably nasty and ugly as her mother and Barbara Ruick just fine as her sister. Celeste Holm [Everybody Does It] makes an excellent fairy godmother, but Ginger Rogers is fairly ho hum as the queen and Walter Pidgeon looks like he's about to nod off any moment as the king; they can't compare to Dorothy Stickney and Howard Lindsay in the original. The memorable songs include "A Lovely Night;" "Ten Minutes Ago;" "Whats the Matter with the Man?"; "The Loneliness of Evening;" and "Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)."

Verdict: Not bad, but the original has the edge. ***.

THE GIRL IN LOVERS LANE

THE GIRL IN LOVERS LANE (1960). Director: Charles R. Rondeau.

Bix Dugan (Brett Halsey of Return of the Fly), riding the rails from town to town, encounters a young runaway named Danny (Lowell Brown) who has just been mugged by a gang. The two disembark in a small town where they run into waitress Carrie (Joyce Meadows of The Brain from Planet Arous), her friend Peggie (Selette Cole), and the truly creepy Jesse (Jack Elam), who has a crush on Carrie, a situation that develops into tragedy. There's an interesting scene in a whorehouse, and Bix and Carrie become quite attracted to one another. This has very underwritten characters and a mediocre script, and the acting is merely serviceable, although an uncredited actress makes a slight impression as the hooker, Sadie. Del Monroe, "Kowalski" on the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV show, plays one of the muggers.

Verdict: Skip this and go to Lover's Lane instead. *1/2.

PIRATE TREASURE

PIRATE TREASURE (12 chapter Universal serial/1934). Director: Ray Taylor.

Achieving the world's record for a solo flight, Dick Moreland (Richard Talmadge) decides to use the prize money to organize a voyage to search for his pirate ancestor's gold. Unfortunately, others get wind of his notion and try to snatch away the charts that he needs to reach the island in the south seas where the treasure is. Dick has a girlfriend, Dorothy (Lucille Lund), who takes the journey with him along with her father, and there is a nasty female who works with the bad guys named Marge (Beulah Hutton). Pirate Treasure is primitive but occasionally lively, such as a fight on top of a speeding train, a boat that smashes into a buoy, some gators in a lagoon, and an especially suspenseful sequence involving a falling crate in chapter seven. The fisticuffs are far below the Republic level -- everyone just flails their arms like children smacking each other and there is no nifty choreography. The island is full of angry natives. Talmadge's voice is kind of comical, like a German comedian, and hardly heroic-sounding.

Verdict: One of the serials you can probably miss. **.

DEADFALL

Hunnam, Wilde, Bana and Kristofferson
DEADFALL (2012). Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky.

Addison (Eric Bana) and sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) have participated in the robbery of a casino and are on the run during a blizzard. When they decide to split up and meet later, Liza encounters an ex-boxer/jailbird named Jay (Charlie Hunnam), who is also on the run from police. Jay takes Liza home to his parents' place, where Addison shows up to reconnect with Liza -- and finds a whole family of hostages. But will the sheriff's daughter, Hannah (Kate Mara), manage to save the day?  Bana, Wilde, Hunnam and Mara [House of Cards] all give very good performances in this and there's an interesting supporting cast, with Treat Williams as the sheriff, and Kris Kristofferson [Blade] and Sissy Spacek [Carrie] as Jay's parents. The movie has a kind of old-fashioned script with abrupt character reversals but also a certain degree of suspense. Bana makes a dynamic lead.

Verdict: Passable crime drama. **1/2.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

MCLINTOCK!

Stefanie Powers, Patrick Wayne, and John Wayne
MCLINTOCK! (1963). Director: Andrew V. McLaglen.

G. W. McLintock (John Wayne) is a wealthy cattle baron in a homestead awaiting statehood. His snooty estranged wife, Katherine (Maureen O'Hara), comes back into his life when their daughter, Becky (Stefanie Powers), comes home from college and Katherine is horrified to think that she may live with her hard-drinking father and his cronies. Katherine also isn't too crazy about the fact that G.W. has hired a pretty new live-in cook, Louise (Yvonne De Carlo), the mother of handsome new employee Dev (Patrick Wayne), who likes Becky but finds her a little spoiled like her mother. Meanwhile Becky dallies with nerdy Matt (Jerry Van Dyke) while Dev simmers. Will the situation with the battling McLintocks finally boil over or will true love win out in the end? McLintock! is way too long, but it has some funny sequences -- a mud slide and a drunken bit with a staircase -- although the gags are repeated too much and nothing is exactly on the level of the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. Still McLintock!  is basically amiable and entertaining, even if it has a very sixties sensibility and a subtext of sissies threatening to ruin the world [as opposed to big, tough John Wayne]. Wayne, already starting his trend toward ossification, is okay, Powers is quite good, O'Hara is very strong as the insufferable but uncompromising Katherine and gives one of her more memorable performances, De Carlo is fun, and Patrick Wayne proves no great actor but is acceptable. An interesting aspect of the picture -- when you consider that Wayne starred in several cliffhanger serials early in his career -- is that two of Wayne's enemies are played by other serial stars, Gordon Jones (The Green Hornet) and Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin). A sub-plot has to do with a contingent of Comanche Indians who are to be taken to a fort for what they see as charity when they only want the freedom to live and die as men. Although the movie seems to be pro-Indian, the social statements don't really fit comfortably into the piece as a whole. Mari Blanchard has a small role as a saloon  gal/hooker who comes afoul of Katherine.

Verdict: Not exactly a classic but one of Wayne's more palatable latter-day movies. **1/2.

PARANOIAC

Oliver Reed, Alexander Davion and Sheila Burrell
PARANOIAC (1963). Director: Freddie Francis.

"Money doesn't matter as long as we have each other." -- Francoise

"You're more stupid than I gave you credit for." -- Simon

A wealthy couple, the Ashbys, were killed in a plane crash eleven years ago. Three years later, one of their children, Tony, committed suicide at 15. Now eight years have gone by since then and the survivors include emotionally disturbed Eleanor (Janette Scott), who hears her dead brother singing in the night; her brother Simon (Oliver Reed), who drinks copiously and is primarily concerned with the inheritance that will come his way in a couple of weeks; and their strange and stern Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) whose face is an inscrutable mask. Another member of the household is Francoise (Liliane Brousse of Maniac), who is Eleanor's nurse.  Out of nowhere there's suddenly a new/old arrival, a handsome man (Alexander Davion) who claims that he's Tony and that he only faked his death by drowning years ago [the body was never recovered]. Is this man for real, or is he an impostor after the family fortune? And who is that masked figure who goes about attacking people with a meat hook? Paranoiac is another post-Psycho British thriller with an unusual plot and absorbing script by Jimmy Sangster that, unfortunately, offers up some rather absurd developments as things proceed. [One amusing aspect is how more than one person notes how the adult Tony refuses a drink and remembers that "yes, Tony never drank." At 15 one would hope so!] There is one excellent sequence in which Eleanor nearly goes over a cliff in her car when the brakes fail, and in general Francis' direction is quite good. Paranoiac boasts good performances from the entire cast, although Reed does go a little over the top in a couple of sequences. Alexander Davion makes an extremely appealing leading man. The film also has an effective score by Elisabeth Lutyens [The Psychopath] and attractive photography by Arthur Grant [The Terror of the Tongs].

Verdict: Silly at times but entertaining. **1/2.

SEA RAIDERS

SEA RAIDERS (12 chapter Universal serial/1941). Directors: Ford Beebe; John Rawlins.

The Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys join forces in this serial to take on a group called the Sea Raiders, who destroy Allied ships. Billy Adams (Billy Halop) and his buddies, including Toby (Huntz Hall) and Bilge (Gabriel Dell), are shanghaied by crooks, encounter the Raiders, and are eventually taken to their island headquarters. Billy has an older brother, square-jawed Tom (John McGuire), who's invented a new kind of torpedo, the plans for which are coveted by Tonjes (Reed Hadley), the leader of the Raiders. There are two women running around, the pretty Leah (Marcia Ralston, who resembles Merle Oberon), and the homely Aggie (Mary Field). One decent cliffhanger has one of the boys caught on a rope that is attached to a whale that's about to dive deep into the ocean, although another sequence features an octopus that doesn't appear to be in the same movie. [The same stock footage of a fight between a shark and an octopus later turned up in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.] The serial is hampered by the unfunny and irritating antics of the "kids," and the classical music on the soundtrack, such as The Barber of Seville, is always inappropriate. John McGuire had the lead in Stranger on the Third Floor.

Verdict: One of your lesser cliffhanger serials. **.

GUILTY BYSTANDER

Zachary Scott
GUILTY BYSTANDER (1950). Director: Joseph Lerner.

Max Thursday (Zachary Scott) is a divorced ex-cop who spends his time drinking in a rundown boarding house. But he is galvanized to action - sort of -- when his ex-wife, Georgia (Faye Emerson), comes to tell him that their little boy has been kidnapped. Max goes to see Dr. Elder (Jed Prouty of the Jones Family movies), who may have some information, but the man winds up murdered. And there are other complications. Frankly, Guilty Bystander is a bit confusing as we follow Max's convoluted path from person to person, although there are some interesting characters and actors along the way: Mary Boland has a very different role to play than usual as the tough, tippling landlady, but she does it well. Sam Levene is Max's former boss on the force, Captain Tonetti, and perhaps the biggest surprise is a young Kay Medford as a sexy moll with whom Max dallies in his quest for answers. Scott [The Unfaithful] gives a very good performance, with Boland, Prouty and Medford [Two Tickets to Paris] not far behind him, but the movie is very minor film noir, although there are a couple of surprises before the conclusion.

Verdict: Perhaps too murky for its own good. **1/2.