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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

BLACK WIDOW (1987)

Theresa Russell
BLACK WIDOW (1987). Director: Bob Rafelson.

Catharine (Theresa Russell) has made a career of marrying and murdering a number of wealthy men, and has gotten away with it. However, a Justice Department employee named Alexandra (Debra Winger) thinks she has uncovered Catharine's deadly game and bucks her superiors to go after the woman. People think that Alexandra has become obsessed. Catharine takes on various identities as she pursues her victims, and Alexandra eventually does the same, relocating to Hawaii under an assumed name so she can finally meet and even bond with her prey. Now it's a battle of wits and it's hard to tell who will win out in the end. Black Widow is a very entertaining picture with good performances -- Russell is especially effective -- even if Rafelson's direction is pedestrian and the score mediocre. The movie resembles a somewhat more expensive Lifetime crime thriller. Homoerotic undertones in the "relationship" between the two women go unexplored and seem unnecessary anyway. D. W. Moffett, Terry O'Quinn, Rutyana Alda, Dennis Hopper, Lois Smith, Nicole Williamson, Sami Frey, and Diane Ladd all have supporting parts, but the stand-out in the cast is James Hong as the lazy and amusing private eye, Shin. Cher was offered the role of Catharine but turned it down, which is good because Russell was more suited to the role. One wishes that we got to know a bit more about Alexandra, but perhaps the point was that she had no real life outside of her work. Nowadays the two leading ladies of this film, who are in their sixties, do mostly television work. Not to be confused with The Black Widow serial of 1947 (not that it would be!), or the 1954 Black Widow with Ginger Rogers, among others.

Verdict: This lacks real bite and intensity but it has a good plot and some very good acting. ***.

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY

Hedy Lamarr
BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2017). Director: Alexandra Dean.

Austrian-born and Jewish, Hedy Lamarr fled the Nazis and emigrated to America, where she was turned into a star after appearing in the controversial Ecstasy in her homeland. Her first American film was Algiers with Charles Boyer. A look at her films reveal an actress whose work could be uneven, but who could also offer effective, sensual, and warm performances in such films as Crossroads and Zeigfeld Girl. She turned to producing later on and worked on Edgar G. Ulmer's The Strange Woman with George Sanders. Bombshell concentrates less on her film career and more on her scientific work, which -- incredible as it may seem -- led to the wi-fi and blue tooth of today. Apparently Lamarr conceived of the idea of radio-controlled torpedoes during WW 2 (after reading of all the deaths at sea caused by German u-boats). Her main contribution was the idea of "frequency-hopping" to keep the Germans from interfering with the Allies' signals. This same frequency-hopping led to the cell phones and other devices that are commonplace today. The Navy rejected Lamarr's ideas (developed with the help of a friend, the American composer Georges Antheil), although they apparently used her technology anyway but never acknowledged it (or paid her for it) until she was an elderly recluse who had lost her beauty. Bombshell features interviews with her children, biographers and film critics, as well as comments from Lamarr herself from a taped interview she did with a magazine writer. If you're looking for an intensive exploration of her film work and/or comments from fellow actors, you won't find them, giving this otherwise excellent documentary a feeling of incompleteness. However, what we do get is undeniably absorbing, and the filmmakers were undoubtedly not interested in doing just another movie star bio. NOTE: This documentary can be viewed on Netflix and on DVD.

Verdict: Who knew Hedy was a genius? ***.

ZOMBIE

Tisa Farrow encounters zombies but no Woody
ZOMBIE (aka Zombi 2/1979). Director: Lucio Fulci.

In some disquieting opening scenes, a seemingly abandoned yacht floats around New York City harbor, where a Coast Guard officer is attacked by a demonic figure. The owner of the ship has disappeared, and his daughter, Anne (Tisa Farrow), goes off with reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) to find him. They set sail with Brian (Al Cliver) and his girlfriend, Susan (Auretta Gay), to the mysterious island of Matul, where something strange is happening to the natives. Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), who was working with Anne's father, is dealing with a plague of the recently diseased coming back from the dead. He refuses to believe that this has anything to do with voodoo, but it isn't long before ancient corpses are rising from their graves, turned into flesh-eating ghouls. It's a question if anyone will survive to get off the island. Fulci clearly took his cue from Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, but arguably Zombie is a better horror-thriller than any of them. The performances are professional, but the pic's selling point is decidedly the very grisly FX and make ups, with the gross-out factor as prevalent in this as in more recent movies. The film's "highlights" include an underwater battle between a zombie and a shark, the attack on Menard's wife (Olga Karlatos), featuring a sadistic scene when her head is slowly pulled toward a sharp piece of wood which impales her eye -- she is later feasted on by the ghouls -- and the climax when many zombies attack Renard's jungle hospital. Say what you will about Zombie (which I have no doubt is Fulci's best film), it is creepy, fast-paced and even, at times, suspenseful. Tisa Farrow is the sister of Mia Farrow, but her career certainly took a different direction. She has only a few credits and did a number of Italian thrillers. The best-known actor in the cast, Richard Johnson (ex-husband of Kim Novak), starred in The Haunting, and as Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than the Male and its dreadful sequel Some Girls Do.

Verdict: Effective  and very gory Italian horror film. ***.

MADE IN HEAVEN

Sonja Ziemann and Petula Clark 
MADE IN HEAVEN (1952). Director: John Paddy Carstairs.

In a post-war British village, Basil Topham (David Tomlinson) and his wife, Julie (Petula Clark), live with his parents but are hoping to move into a new house -- and get a new cook because grandpa (A. E. Matthews) burns all of their food. They are expecting an elderly maid to arrive, but instead it turns out to be the beautiful Hungarian refugee, Marta (Sonja Ziemann), who sets a lot of hearts and hormones a 'flutter. Julie isn't crazy with this situation and matters aren't helped when she and Basil are chosen to be competitors for a side of bacon if they prove to be the happiest married couple in the village. But then Marta starts coming on to Basil, the bacon is stolen, the Vicar is in an uproar, and Marta's ex-fiance (Ferdy Mayne) shows up with a new marriage proposal. Yes, Made in Heaven has a strange plot, but while it's amiable enough, it has no laugh-out-loud moments. You know a comedy is in trouble when the funniest line is that old gag about "saving your bacon." Watching this, one gets the impression that a memorable film might have been made if MGM had bought the rights, turned this into a musical, hired top stars and some great American character actors, and turned the whole thing into a jolly farce with singing and dancing. The performers are all good, however, including Sophie Stewart and Charles Victor [The Woman in Question] as Basil's parents, Richard Wattis [The Prince and the Showgirl] as the Vicar, and Athene Seyler [I Thank a Fool] as the Vicar's formidable sister, Rosabelle. Most Americans got to know Petula Clark when she had a hit with the record "Downtown" in the sixties, but she'd been performing in England for years, and later appeared in Goodbye, Mr Chips with Peter O'Toole. Ziemann primarily worked in German movies. Tomlinson [War-Gods of the Deep] was a busy actor on both sides of the Atlantic. John Paddy Carstairs also directed He Found a Star with Sarah Churchill.

Verdict: Well, it's certainly different.... **.

GREAT OLD EPISODE: HONEYMOONERS -- KING OF THE CASTLE

Kane, Gleason, Carney and MacRae

The Honeymooners: "KING OF THE CASTLE." The Jackie Gleason Show. January 7th, 1967.

"I always have to sleep in the kitchen. When your mother comes, I sleep in the kitchen. When your Aunt Ethel comes, I sleep in the kitchen. It's a good thing we don't have a cat. Because if we did he'd sleep in the kitchen. And I'd be in a box out in the hall!" -- Ralph Kramden.

In this episode of what has become known as the "Color Honeymooners," Ralph (Jackie Gleason) and Ed (Art Carney) get in trouble with their wives, Alice (Sheila MacRae) and Trixie (Jane Kean) after Ralph tells Ed to ignore a summons from Trixie. Ed should be, like Ralph, "the King of his castle," and the wives are just their subjects, or vassals. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the women, who move upstairs to Ed's apartment while the boys try to make do with beans for dinner on the floor below. The boys try various subterfuges to get the gals to apologize, which they have no intention of doing. Originally this was a black and white sketch in the "Lost Honeymooners" collection, but this version has color and songs in addition to the cast changes. Ralph and Ed warble the tuneful "King of the Castle" and "Alice, Come Home." All four players are terrific, with Gleason being his usual force of nature. Some years later the whole gang did a few Honeymooners Specials.

Verdict: Highly amusing battle of the sexes, but there's no doubt whatsoever who will win. ***.

THE INNER CIRCLE

Warren Douglas, Adele Mara, William Frawley
THE INNER CIRCLE (1946). Director: Phil Ford.

Johnny Strange (Warren Douglas) is head of a one-man private detective agency called Action, Incorporated. He is about to place a newspaper ad for a secretary when in flounces Geraldine Smith (Adele Mara of Back From Eternity), who declares that the position has been filled -- by her. Johnny's next client is a mysterious Spanish woman who wears a veil and wants him to hide the body of her husband -- only this woman turns out to be Geraldine! Johnny narrowly avoids a murder rap but still has to find out the reason for Geraldine's deception, as well as who murdered the dead man, a blackmailing radio gossip host named Fitch. Suspects include Geraldine's sister, Anne (Martha Montgomery); singer Rhoda Roberts (Virginia Christine) and her boss, a nightclub owner cum hoodlum named Duke York (Ricardo Cortez); not to mention Fitch's housekeeper, Emma (Dorothy Adams) and grumpy gardener, Boggs (Will Wright). Johnny unmasks the killer by getting all of the suspects, along with amiable Lt. Webb (William Frawley), to enact a radio drama about the case live on the air. The Inner Circle is a very minor murder mystery, but Warren Douglas would have made a good hero for a P.I. drama a few years later (he produced such a show, The Files of Jeffrey Jones, but did not appear in it.) Douglas did play Peter Duluth in Homicide for Three. The performances are all good, with Virginia Christine [Judgment at Nuremberg] being especially snappy, and a tip of the hat to I Love Lucy's William Frawley, who eschews the stereotypical grumpy, snarling cop for one who is much more pleasant and much more efficient. This was the one and only appearance of "Johnny Strange" in the movies and on TV.  From Republic studios, the picture was well-shot by Reggie Lanning.

Verdict: Handsome Douglas makes a pretty good private eye. **1/2.

THE BLACK PANTHER

THE BLACK PANTHER (2018). Director: Ryan Coogler.

When his father dies, Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) will become the new king of the mysterious African nation of Wakanda, but first he has to face more than one challenger to the throne. M'Baku (Winston Duke) is defeated after a fierce struggle, but T'Challa has a tougher time with Erik "Killmonger" (Michael B. Jordan) -- a mercenary who is also T'Challa's cousin, raised in the states -- and there is a real danger that this peaceful, if isolated nation with its incredibly advanced technology (mostly stemming from its mountain of a metal called vibranium) will try to take over the world under Killmonger's regime. The Black Panther is based on a Marvel Comics character who first appeared in the Fantastic Four comic over fifty years ago. Although the ruler of a nation with its own troubles, he became an on again-off again member of the Avengers, a situation that is repeating itself in these movies. The Black Panther isn't a perfect film by any means, but it is absorbing and fast-paced and very well-acted by the handsome Boseman, Jordan, and Duke, as well as by Letitia Wright as T'Challa's sister Shuri; Angela Bassett as his mother, Ramonda; Lupita Nyong'o as his ex-girlfriend, Nakia, who wants to use her country's advances to help the rest of the world; and Danai Gurira as General Okoye, who leads an army of skin-headed warrior women. Andy Sirkis and Martin Freeman, the only Caucasians in the cast, are also good as the villainous Ulysses Klaue and the CIA agent, Everett Ross, respectively. Some of these characters appeared in the comic books while others are new. The picture has some fairly good action sequences (such as a fight on the edge of a waterfall), and boasts impressive and intriguing settings and costumes. The FX are also top notch, showcasing some remarkable aircraft and other devices. Even the Black Panther's costume is a device.

Of course, we have to contend with the fact that Wakanda is not a democracy, and despite the fact that women have contributed a great deal to this society, they apparently can not challenge the king for the throne, adding a misogynous tone to the proceedings. One also has to wonder how this advanced country can choose who rules the nation by having one challenger beat the crap out of another! Perhaps these very things will be addressed in future movies or at least in the comics!

While I agree that The Black Panther has been over-praised, I was amazed at the sheer hatred it got as well. Some viewers may well have been reacting to the far-fetched concept (Wakanda apparently has an express subway line in the underground), but, sadly, others were undoubtedly bothered because the black characters dared to be intelligent and technologically superior. It's a movie. Get over it!

Verdict: Very good to look at, often exciting, well-acted, and somehow stirring. ***.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

FUNNY FACE

Sexless glamour: Audrey Hepburn (with Fred Astaire)
FUNNY FACE (1957). Director: Stanley Donen.

Fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson of Manhattan Merry-Go-Round) and photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) invade a Greenwich Village bookstore with a dumb model (hoping all the books will make her look intellectual) and a camera crew, overwhelming the bright if pretentious clerk, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). Later they get the idea of turning Jo into a high-fashion model where she will be the cornerstone of a campaign in Paris and help introduce designer Paul Duval's (Robert Flemying of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) new line. Jo has always wanted to see Paris and meet her idol, Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), the founder of "empathacolism," who preaches empathy but would rather make time with Jo. Almost grudgingly, Dick and Jo fall in love while the others hope that she and the new collection will be a hit. Hepburn, who exudes her famous "sexless glamour" throughout the movie (even before she's made over), had starred in several films by this time, and she gives a superior performance, radiating charm, but her singing is for the birds and she was wisely dubbed by the time My Fair Lady came around. Astaire is Astaire, making everything seem effortless. One can only assume that Eve Arden wasn't available to essay the role of Maggie, because the casting of Kay Thompson -- even though the woman could sing and dance -- is perplexing. Thompson is by no means terrible, but she completely lacks the light tough, and hasn't an ounce of charm; indeed she's rather off-putting. Admittedly, you won't find many close ups in most wide screen productions of the era, but the camera wisely stays as far away from Thompson's face as it can. The songs consist of some Ira and George Gershwin classics and new tunes by producer Roger Edens and collaborators."Bonjour Paris" has Astaire, Hepburn and Thompson extolling the virtues of the great city. Hepburn and Thompson clown around for "How to Be Lovely;" and Astaire warbles the title tune, "He Loves and She Loves" and "S'Wonderful." Ray June's cinematography is first-rate and makes the most of Parisian locations, especially a pastoral forest where Hepburn and Astaire have a dance -- the film's highlight. Funny Face is good to look at and generally well-performed, but for some reason it just doesn't emerge as a real classic, and the script is trite and dated. The score is very jazzy, and at one point Astaire and Thompson (who reportedly did not enjoy working with Astaire) team up for a beatnik number that frankly, doesn't add much to the picture.

Verdict: Attractive fluff. **3/4.

DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK

Marilyn Monroe
DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952). Director: Roy Ward Baker. Based on the novel "Mischief" by Charlotte Armstrong.

Eddie Forbes (Elisha Cook Jr.) is an elevator operator at Manhattan's McKinley Hotel who wishes he had never let his niece, Nell (Marilyn Monroe), babysit for the young daughter of guests Peter and Ruth Jones (Jim Backus and Lurene Tuttle of The Manitou). For Nell has been disturbed ever since the man she loved died at sea in a plane crash. It doesn't help that she encounters a pilot named Jed Towers (Richard Widmark), whose girlfriend, Lyn (Anne Bancroft of Gorilla At Large) told him to take a hike because she not only feels they have no future but finds him essentially cold. Confusing Jed with the dead man, Nell becomes increasingly unraveled and things look more and more dangerous for her and the little girl (Donna Corcoran) and possibly Jed as well ... Marilyn Monroe is given a pretty tough assignment to play an emotionally disturbed, indeed mentally ill woman in this, and her performance ranges from some quietly effective moments to the occasionally embarrassing one; but all in all she's good and may even manage to wrangle a tear or two from some viewers. Bancroft and Widmark are excellent, and there is also notable work from young Corcoran, as well as Verna Felton (the stern maid on I Love Lucy) and Don Beddoe, as a nosy hotel guest and her husband. Gloria Blondell is a nightclub photographer, Jeanne Cagney plays a telephone operator, and Michael Ross [Attack of the 50 Foot Woman] is the house dick.  The ending to this is rather moving, and none of the major characters are untouched by the experience. This was released by Twentieth Century Fox with big-name leads, but it's essentially a "B" movie with a short running time. 

Verdict: Sad story of a grieving, neurotic woman disguised as a competent little thriller. ***. 

ARABESQUE

Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck 
ARABESQUE (1966). Produced and directed by Stanley Donen.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this, my dear, but Mr. Pollock is as poor as a church mouse." -- Beshraavi

"He was rather strange, even for an American."

Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is drafted by an Arab Prime Minister, Hasson Jena (Carl Duering) to enter the home of the sinister Beshraavi (Alan Badel of Salome) and decode a cipher on a piece of paper with a Hittite inscription that my reveal the man's plans. The house is apparently owned by Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), Beshraavi's mistress, and to Pollock's befuddlement her role keeps changing even as she seems to switch sides with the drop of a hat. Before long he and Yasmin are on the run, dodging bullets and trying to get back the cipher so they can figure out what is happening. But David is never sure if he can fully trust Yasmin. Arabesque was Stanley Donen's follow-up to the more successful Charade, but the film's first big problem is the miscasting of the two leads. Peck tries to approximate but fails to deliver the light touch of a Cary Grant, and Loren is also a bit too heavy-handed, although she tries. Arabesque has a solid plot but the script has too many silly, indeed stupid, detours, and some of the action scenes are completely muffed by Donen, who is no Hitchcock. On the other hand, there is some exciting business near the end, including an attack on the principals at a construction site, an attempt to stop an assassination, and a race across a bridge while a helicopter is firing live ammunition at the couple. Another problem is that Alan Badel looks too much like Peter Sellers impersonating an Indian (which he did more than once in his career, such as in The Millionairess, which he did with Loren) and you keep expecting -- or hoping -- he will suddenly indulge in some hilarious shtick. No such luck. Henry Mancini's score does little to help. A much better thriller for Peck was Mirage.

Verdict: So so comedy-thriller with a few good sequences, but not nearly enough. **1/2.

FRECKLES COMES HOME

Mantan Moreland and Laurence Criner
FRECKLES COMES HOME (1942). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

Summoned by his old pal Danny (Marvin Stephens of Borrowing Trouble), "Freckles" Winslow (Johnny Downs) comes back to Fairfield, Indiana, accompanied on the bus by a stranger named Muggsy Dolan (Water Sande of Blonde Ice). Muggsy pulled off a bank robbery in which a guard was killed, and has taken it on the lam, figuring quiet, isolated Fairfield is as good a place to hide out as any. He gets it into his head to rob the bank and brings in an associate, Quigley (Bradley Page). Danny lost money that he needed to pay bills for his hotel by buying an alleged gold-finding machine, and wants Freckles' help in using old girlfriend Jane Potter (Gale Storm) to convince her banker father, Hiram Potter (John Ince), to build a new highway into town, increasing business. Freckles is irritated because Jane seems to go for Quigley's oily charm. Meanwhile hotel porter Jeff (Mantan Moreland) has fun trying to convince Quigley's chauffeur, Roxbury (Lawrence Criner), to buy his phony machine. Freckles Comes Home has an amiable cast, including Betty Blythe [The Spanish Cape Mystery] as Hiram's wife and Irving Bacon as the ditsy town constable, but the picture is completely stolen by Moreland and Criner, especially in a very funny sequence when the two argue over which of them is to get the more comfortable bed in their hotel room. These are two great comic actors in their prime. Otherwise this is a typical Monogram quickie. Apparently this has nothing to do with the old Freckles newspaper comic strip.

Verdict: Short Monogram flick is fairly easy to take. **3/4.

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (aka 5 Dolls for an August Moon/5 bambole per la luna d'agosto1970). Director: Mario Bava.

George Stark (Teodoro Corra) has invited several friends and associates to his modish estate on an isolated island. George is married to Jill (Edith Meloni), but she is in love with Trudy (Ira von Furstenberg), who is married to Professor Gerry Farrell (William Berger). George, Nick (Maurice Poli) and Jack (Howard Ross) each offer Farrell a million dollars for a formula he has created, then decide to team up and offer him the whole three million, but Gerry isn't willing to sell. Things take a dark turn when houseboy Charles (Mauro Bosco), who was carrying on with Nick's wife, Marie (Edwige Fenech of Next!), turns up stabbed to death, and more murders follow. Before you can say Ten Little Indians more and more bodies are wrapped in plastic and deposited in the freezer in scenes that seem increasingly comical. Most of the actors only register the mildest of dismay over this appalling situation, and Piero Umiliani's wretched musical score never seems to have any relationship to what's actually occurring on screen. The movie has virtually no atmosphere, although the house it is played out in is at least a bit interesting. The murders are mostly bloodless and have no style whatsoever. On the plus side, just about everything is explained (if not quite satisfactorily) at the end, and the movie manages to build up some suspense over who the killer is in spite of its shortcomings. "Everybody seems to be waiting for something that's not happening," muses one character. You can say that again! Bava followed this up with Twitch of the Death Nerve, which is better and bloodier. Bava's best shocker was Blood and Black Lace.

Verdict: Has intriguing elements but not one of Bava's best. **1/2.

THE PARTY CRASHERS

Bobby Driscoll
THE PARTY CRASHERS (1958). Director: Bernard Girard.

Teenager Barbara (Connie Stevens) is torn between two boys: her nice, quiet steady Josh (Bobby Driscoll) and the sexy bad boy Twig (Mark Damon of Black Sabbath). Twig enjoys crashing parties and causing trouble, and his home life sucks, as his father (Walter Brooke of Conquest of Space) is a drunk and his mother (Doris Dowling) is always going off to "the movies" dressed to the nines. Everything comes to a head when Josh grudgingly agrees to crash a party at a motel lodge because Barbara insists she'll go with someone else, probably Twig, if he doesn't take her. The teens discover that grown-ups can be just as drunk and nasty as anyone. The Party Crashers is an interesting picture with good performances from the leads, as well as Brooke and Dowling. Frances Farmer [Son of Fury] is cast as Josh's sympathetic mother and Denver Pyle as his father, and Onslow Stevens and Cathy Lewis [The Devil at 4 O'Clock] play Barbara's parents; all are effective. Even with some more character development this low-budget Paramount flick might never have been an East of Eden, but it's not as trashy and dumb as some other "Juvenile delinquent" pictures of the era. Bobby Driscoll was a former child star who won a special Oscar and died tragically at age 31. This was the last film for him and Farmer, although both did TV work afterward. Bernard Girard also directed As Young As We Are and The Mad Room.

Verdict: B movie simmers but never quite comes to a boil. **1/2.

EYES WIDE SHUT

Tom Cruise
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Alice (Nicole Kidman of Birth) and Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise of Jack Reacher) are a moderately wealthy couple living in Manhattan (or what barely passes for same). After an argument, a high-on-grass Alice confesses to Bill that she saw a military man while they were on vacation and had such intense sexual fantasies about him  that she felt she could have walked away from Bill, their young daughter, and her whole life to be with this man. Bill can't get this out of his mind, and the next night he has a series of misadventures. Marion (Marie Richardson), the daughter of a dead elderly patient, tells him shes in love with him despite barely knowing him; some morons who think he's gay taunt him with homophobic slurs in Greenwich Village; he nearly sleeps with a hooker named Domino (Vinessa [sic] Shaw); and he re-encounters an old college friend who has become a musician. This friend, Nick (Todd Field), tells him of a mysterious series of parties he goes to where he plays the piano but isn't allowed to take off his mask. Intrigued, Bill rents a costume and goes off by taxi to an isolated estate where he discovers an elegant orgy where (generally) the women are naked, the men are clothed, and everyone wears a mask. Paranoia sets in when his deception is discovered and he is warned that powerful people will enact vengeance if he dares utter a word about what he's seen ...

Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut got a very mixed reception when it was released. I can't argue with all of the criticisms about it -- that it's slow at times, that it seems a bit stodgy for the nineties, that the orgy scenes are almost silly, and that it hardly develops into an intense thriller (which may not have been what Kubrick was after in the first place) -- and there has been pretentious overpraise for a picture that would hardly classify as a masterpiece. It also pretty much pushes aside any moral complexities for a one word quick-joke finale. However, I have seen Eves Wide Shut three or four times by now, and each time I find the nearly three-hour film completely absorbing and suspenseful. Admittedly, the sequence when Bill goes to buy a costume from a creepy man with a nubile daughter goes on too long, and there are others. One critic declared the picture an "old man's movie," probably because the orgies aren't that energetic and have no pounding rock soundtrack -- and Kubrick may have missed a lot of things he could have done with this film --  but this criticism misses the point that these parties are meant to be "classy" and ritualistic. Whether even the rich and famous would be bothered with secret sex societies is besides the point -- no married Senator, for instance, would want it getting out that he belonged to one.

The direction and the performances help a lot, with Cruise being more than adequate, and his then-wife Kidman out-acting him most of the time. Sydney Pollack, who directed Cruise in the mediocre The Firm,  perhaps proves a better actor [Husbands and Wives] than director in his role of Victor Ziegler, a wealthy man who gets help from Bill and provides counsel in return. The other roles are well cast, including Alan Cumming as a helpful hotel clerk who is obviously smitten with Bill. Although this scene got some criticism when the film first came out, Cumming at least makes the character likably goofy. The score consists of classical music along with some really cheap if sinister piano riffs. Filmed on sets, you never get a sense that this is taking place in New York City. The film is based on a novel that took place in Vienna.

Verdict: There are many, many things wrong with this movie, but I still find it visually and dramatically compelling. ***.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Gene Kelly and Nina Foch
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951). Director: Vincente Minnelli.

Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is a struggling American painter working in Paris. His friend, Adam (Oscar Levant) -- "the world's oldest child prodigy" -- is a struggling composer who dreams of conducting his own symphony. Adam is friends with musical star Henri (Georges Guetary), who is engaged to waif-like Lise (Leslie Caron, in her film debut). Lise was taken in and protected from the Nazis by Henri, and she feels that she owes him. The trouble is that Lise falls for Jerry when she meets him, and vice versa, even as his patroness, Milo (Nina Foch), is falling for him. This is all played out in Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay in gorgeous Technicolor, with lots of dancing and some vintage songs by the Gershwins. Highlights include Kelly, Guetary and Levant performing "By Strauss;" Kelly tap-dancing with a group of children to "I Got Rhythm;" Kelly and Caron dancing by the Seine (or what passes for same) to "Our Love is Here to Stay;" Kelly and Guetary singing "S'wonderful," both unaware that they're singing about the same woman; and the long, beautiful climactic ballet with Caron [Valentino] and Kelly as the principals. Guetary, born in Egypt but of Greek heritage, was a handsome and charming entertainer who mostly did films in Europe. His big number in this is "Stairway to Paradise," where he comes off like a French Desi Arnaz -- in other words, he can put over a song but he hasn't got much of a voice, which is much too high and even shrill at times. The role of Henri was supposed to be a much older man, and even putting some gray in Guetary's hair doesn't make him look older than Kelly, who was his senior by a couple of years. Kelly and Caron are excellent; Levant [The Cobweb] is good if typically (and tiresomely?) dsypepetic; Nina Foch [St. Benny the Dip] adds some substance to her thankless role of Milo; and there are brief appearances by Noel Neill and Madge Blake, the latter of whom appears to good advantage in a charming scene in a perfume shop. I don't think it's giving anything away to say that the two lovers get together at the end, but whether their union will actually work in the long run is highly questionable. Others have noted that the other people in love with Caron and Kelly are treated somewhat shabbily. If they withdraw their financial support, the two lovers may indeed find themselves starving on the streets of Paris!

Verdict: Very enjoyable musical with a lot of talent on display. ***.

BODY OF EVIDENCE

Madonna
BODY OF EVIDENCE (1993.) Director: Uli Edel.

Rebecca Carlson (Madonna of Die Another Day) enjoys kinky sex with her elderly lover, Andrew (Michael Forest). When he dies, cocaine is not only found in his system, but in a nasal spray by the bed, and an autopsy confirms that the combination of the coke and his bad heart led to his death. Rebecca is put on trial for first degree murder with Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe of American Psycho) as her lawyer, and Robert Garrett (Joe Mantagna) as the prosecutor. Predictably, Rebecca initiates Frank -- who is married to Sharon (Julianne Moore) -- into some mild "bondage and discipline" sex. Meanwhile other suspects emerge during the trial, including Andrew's ex-lover and secretary, Joanne (Anne Archer), and Rebecca's ex-lovers, Dr. Paley (Jurgen Prochnow) and Jeffrey Roston (Frank Langella). It seems she had a habit of bedding older men with heart conditions and big bank accounts. But did Rebecca murder Andrew or not, and what will the verdict be? It would be easy to pick apart Body of Evidence (which was pretty much excoriated when it first came out), but despite its flaws, I found the movie suspenseful and entertaining. As the very bad girl, Madonna gives a competent performance, but it has no shadings; Mantagna, Dafoe and others are far superior. The protracted sex scenes in the movie will either stimulate or nauseate the viewer depending on whether or not you find Madonna and Dafoe especially attractive (I don't), but they seem to go on forever. One sequence could be described as borderline rape. Rebecca's home and gallery is so large and luxurious that one wonders why she needs anyone else's money (mortgages, perhaps). Michael Forest  [The Money Jungle], the tall, handsome. well-built actor who had numerous film and TV roles in the sixties and who played Adonis on Star Trek, has no lines but simply plays Andrew as a corpse. The film is well-directed by Uli Edel, and looks good as well. Frank Langella again plays an apparently bisexual character as he did in Diary of a Mad Housewife.

Verdict: No Paradine Case, certainly, but on its own terms, a fun junk movie that often resembles softcore porn. ***.

DORIS DAY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

DORIS DAY: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door. David Kaufman. Virgin; 2008.

Doris Day was a celebrated actress, singer and movie star, becoming a top box office attraction in the sixties, but she was also thought of by non-fans as a precious, virginal, saccharine-coated antique, a mere aberration, whose films were sickening. She was funny, but not as funny as Lucille Ball. She could sing well, but she was no Judy Garland. Her very real dramatic talent, however, as evidenced by performances in such films as Love Me or Leave Me and The Man Who Knew Too Much, was ignored or forgotten by her critics and even the general public. Some of this was Day's fault, as she turned down roles in The Graduate and The Children's Hour to make more of her formula sit-com movies such as The Glass Bottom Boat. Her husband, Marty Melcher, was responsible for running her career, and he nearly ran it into the ground. Turning over fiscal responsibilities to a crooked lawyer who was later disbarred due to Melcher's bad advice, Day lost millions. Day was more complicated than her image would suggest, apparently having an affair with an African-American baseball player, as well as at least two affairs with married men (Patrick O'Neal was one), possibly leading one jilted wife to commit suicide. Day did smoke and drink when she wanted to, and didn't believe in organized religion. Day was an absentee mother to her son, Terry, and when she got annoyed with someone for some alleged minor malfeasance, she would cut them off forever without a word. Day claimed that all she ever wanted out of life was a husband and family and a secure home life, and got no real pleasure out of her fame, success and riches. (Poor Doris!) When I first began David Kaufman's very thorough (perhaps too thorough) biography of Day, I was afraid it would be a mere fan boys ruminations, but this is a well-researched, incisive -- and unsparing -- look at Day's life, career, personality, and character, good or bad. As Day got older, disappointed with her married life, career, and her unstated realization that fans who didn't really know her intimately were no substitute for real friends, she turned to numerous pets for comfort. Her three other marriages all failed, and she came to rely more on animals than people. (She gave a homeless man some money only because he had a dog with him!) After reading this excellent bio you can decide for yourself if Day is nice or a nut or somewhere in between. David Kaufman also wrote a notable biography of Mary Martin, Some Enchanted Evenings.

Verdict: More about Doris Day than you may want to know. ***1/2.

DEBRA PAGET, FOR EXAMPLE

DEBRA PAGET, FOR EXAMPLE (2016). Writer/director: Mark Rappaport.

Debra Paget was one of a legion of Hollywood contract players who did star in several movies but never really became stars. This strange documentary looks at her career, and shows clips from her -- and others' -- movies. This short documentary -- if you can call it a documentary -- has no interviews with people who knew or worked with Paget, including Paget herself, who is still living. Instead her alleged thoughts are voiced by an actress throughout the film. Paget's official birth was in 1933, which would have made her only fifteen in her first movie, with the much-older Richard Conte as her love interest (as he would be again in House of Strangers.) Paget looks older in some films, and in others she clearly is a child doing love scenes with older men. Paget was often cast in exotic roles as island princesses and the like, then got to play "bad girls" in B movies such as Most Dangerous Man Alive. She was a good enough actress, and certainly attractive, but not often given the opportunities that might have netted her awards or a bigger career. 

Journey to the Lost City
Debra Paget, For Example says little about  Paget's personal life aside from her marrying a wealthy Asian (after two previous failed marriages) and retiring from films at 29. Not only does this documentary fail to provide titles for some of the movie clips (aside from a list at the end), it doesn't even mention that Paget was the sister of Lisa Gaye, who was a well-known actress herself. Paget's most famous movie is The Ten Commandments, but she was also in such films as Tales of Terror, Les Miserables, Belles on Their Toes, and Fritz Lang's Journey to the Lost City, in which she danced in a remarkably sexy and revealing costume. Paget's leading men included Louis Jourdan, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Wagner, Cornel Wilde, and Elvis Presley, who wanted to date her, and she also worked with Edward G. Robinson, Jeff Chandler, Vincent Price, Michael Rennie, and many others. The documentary is padded with mini bios of other people Paget worked with, such as Lang.

Verdict: Interesting if uneven and incomplete look at Hollywood starlet. **1/2.

MADHOUSE (1981)

MADHOUSE (aka There Was a Little Girl/1981). Director: Ovidio G. Assonitis.

Julia Sullivan (Patricia Mickey working as Trish Everly). who works with deaf children, is about to have a birthday when she learns that her deranged twin sister, Mary (Allison Biggers), who has become deformed due to disease, has escaped from a hospital. While the police search for Mary, Patricia is consoled by her uncle, Father James (Dennis Robertson), her boyfriend, Sam (Michael MacRae), and her gal pal, Helen (Morgan Most). Meanwhile a savage dog attacks and kills a handyman and one of Patricia's students, Sasha (Richard Baker), among others. As her birthday approaches, Patricia is convinced that Mary, who hated her even before she became sick and deformed, will soon catch up with her, but is Mary the person she truly has to fear? This weird horror flick boasts one creepy, compelling and protracted central sequence in which landlady Amantha (Edith Ivey) is stalked by the killer throughout her house, turning up when she least expects it. This is chilling and suspenseful and superior to the rest of the movie, which bears some similarities to Happy Birthday to Me (especially the climax), which came out the same year. The killer's motive is never really made clear. Patricia Mickey gives a good performance in the lead, but some of the other actors are amateurish. Madhouse was shot and takes place in Savannah, Georgia.

Verdict: Strangely depressing horror movie. **1/2.

THE STRANGE MRS. CRANE

Marjorie Lord
THE STRANGE MRS. CRANE (1948), Director: Sherman Scott (Sam Newfield).

Gina Crane (Marjorie Lord of Sherlock Holmes in Washington) is married to Clinton Crane (Pierre Watkin of a zillion movies), a gubernatorial candidate. Clinton is unaware that Gina used to be known as Jenny Hadley, and she was mixed up in shady business with old flame Floyd Durant (Robert Shayne). When Floyd tries to blackmail Gina, she stabs him, but the one who gets arrested for the murder is his girlfriend, Barbara (Ruth Brady). Then Gina winds up as the foreperson on the jury and does her best to get Barbara convicted! Marjorie Lord, who is best known as Danny Thomas' wife on the sitcom Make Room For Daddy, is competent but never really gets across the character's utterly ruthless nature, but the screenplay and the pic's short running time don't exactly help her, either. Poor Pierre Watkin is also competent as her husband but just as utterly undistinguished as ever -- was there ever a more bland if amazingly prolific actor in the movies? Robert Shayne [The Neanderthal Man] doesn't do much to make his unpleasant character come alive, but Ruth Brady is a bit more energetic as Barbara. James Seay [Meet Boston Blackie] is Barbara's lawyer, Mark; Claire Whitney is her employer, Edna; and Mary Gordon is the housekeeper, Nora. The plot is completely absurd, but the flick is entertaining and has a neat wind-up.

Verdict: You never know who you'll get on a jury! **1/2.

THE PACT

THE PACT. William Schoell. Cemetery Dance publishers.

Cemetery Dance publishers has released all of my vintage horror-suspense novels as epubs and The Pact is the last -- and in my humble opinion -- the best of the bunch.

The Pact begins during WW 2 when young Steven Russell is called into service, but decides to do something to protect himself from harm. Alas, things don't quite work out for him, and his body dies -- while he is serving on the U.S.S. Indianapolis during the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- while his mind lives on. Decades later his wife, Marjorie, has nightmares in which Steven calls out to her for help. She and an elderly psychic friend travel to Hawaii where they must wrestle with the ancient and alien demonic force that has possession of Steven, and which endangers the entire population of Hawaii with one alarming and terrifying incident after another.

The Pact is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere. The paperback is currently selling for $510.00 [!!!] so grab this inexpensive epub while you can!

The great cover is by Elderlemon Design, a firm run by author Kealan Patrick Burke, and the digital design is by Dan Hocker.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

MEMORIAL DAY

HAPPY MEMORIAL DAY. 

Great Old Movies is taking a week off.

While you're on holiday, spare a thought for all the soldiers who have died in lonely battlegrounds overseas.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

DANGEROUS WHEN WET

Fernando Lamas and Esther Williams
DANGEROUS WHEN WET (1953). Director: Charles Walters.

Katie Higgins (Esther Williams) belongs to a very healthy Arkansas family whose farm needs a lot of improvement. Along comes Windy Weebe (Jack Carson), who hawks a dubious product known as Liquipep. Katie is able to resist Windy's all-too-obvious advances, but she decides to let Liquipep sponsor her whole family in a race to swim the English Channel. While getting in training both in England and France, Katie meets a wealthy French playboy named Andre (Fernando Lamas of The Lost World), but his pursuit of her may endanger her chances of winning the race. Dangerous When Wet is a very entertaining and amiable pic with a funny script by Dorothy Kingsley and very good performances from Williams and the rest of the cast, which includes William Demarest and Charlotte Greenwood [Up in Mabel's Room] as Katie's parents; Denise Darcel as the very buxom French entry Gigi; and Barbara Whiting [Fresh from Paris] as Katie's younger sister, Suzie, who warbles "I Like Men." The bouncy, pleasant score is by Arthur Schwartz and Johnny Mercer, and also includes "I Got Outa Bed," "My Wildest Dreams;" and "Ain't Nature Great." Williams doesn't have a bad voice, and while Lamas can carry a tune, his tones are not exactly dulcet. The film has two major highlights: Charlotte Greenwood going into her dance with such obvious joy and kicking up her heels like she's double-jointed; and the suspenseful climax when Katie desperately tries to make it across the twenty miles of the channel, which is filmed in harrowing detail. Another bright moment is a sequence when Williams has a dream of being underwater with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, as well as a grabby octopus that is meant to represent Lamas. When the Higgins family first gets to England, the business with all of the fog is funny but causes eye strain after awhile.Williams married Lamas sixteen years after this film was made and they remained together until his death.

Verdict: Possibly Williams' best picture, and an unqualified delight. ***.

THE CONFORMIST

The priest hears Clerici's confession 
THE CONFORMIST (aka Il conformista/1970). Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. From the novel by Alberto Moravia.

In Fascist Italy Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant of Les biches) is engaged to a pretty but vapid woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli of Black Belly of the Tarantula), but making love to her is one of the last things on his mind during his honeymoon in Paris. Marcello has been chosen to do a mission with a colleague named Manganiello (Gastone Moschin)  -- to make contact with an old professor, an anti-fascist named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), and "eliminate" him as a lesson. Marcello believes that he murdered a man, Lino (Pierre Clementi), who nearly molested him when he was a child, and has done his best to quash any "abnormal" sexual impulses or other unconventional thoughts or actions beneath a veil of alleged normalcy. On his honeymoon Marcello develops a seeming passion for Quadri's wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda), even as Anna reveals a certain hankering for Giulia. Although Marcello tries to keep Anna from taking a trip with her husband, tragedy strikes in the woods ... This film brought Bertolucci to international attention, and it is easy to see why, for it has a crisp and arresting style and despite some silly moments and confusing aspects, is suspenseful and very compelling. Bertolucci fiddles a bit with Alberto Moravia's source novel, adding ingredients that are more up his alley, while staying true to the book's themes (although I confess I haven't read the book in decades). If there is a problem with the picture it's that it isn't quite long enough -- things seem to have been left out in the editing room and the final sequence when our anti-hero begins to unravel is much too abrupt, with no real build-up to events that seem more convenient than dramatic. However, the picture not only boasts assured direction, but excellent performances from the entire cast. There are several stand-out sequences, such as the sensual dance between Anna and Giulia, and the tense and disturbing sequence in the woods. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is outstanding, and there's a fine, evocative score by Georges Delerue. As much as I admired the film -- when I first saw it years ago it really knocked me out -- I have the nagging feeling that someone like, say, William Wyler could have told the same story and made it more moving and powerful and perhaps even more erotic. Then there is the fact that it could be argued that the psychology of the film is obvious and of the dime-store variety. Still Bertolucci and his co-workers fill the movie with interesting and often stunning and unusual images. Dig that photo of Laurel and Hardy on the window of the dance club!

NOTE: For those in the Los Angeles area, the Art Directors Guild [ADG] will have a special showing of The Conformist at the Egyptian theater, Sunday May 20th, at 5:30 PM. The work of Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who was the production designer for the film, will be discussed as well.

Verdict: Comes this close to being a masterpiece but doesn't quite get there. ***.

THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT

Doris Day
THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966). Director: Frank Tashlin.

Widow Jennifer Nelson (Doris Day) works as a tour guide at a space research center, where she runs into scientist Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor) only days after he hooks her mermaid suit with a fishing rod. Attracted to Jennifer, Bruce gives her an assignment to get close to her, and pretends he's working on something called Project: Venus. In truth, he has developed a device called Gizmo. Some of Bruce's associates, such as his partner, Zach (Dick Martin) and General Bleecker (Edward Andrews), are convinced Jennifer is a Russian spy who's after the secret plans for Gizmo. This leads into all sorts of complications, some of which are quite funny, and others not so much. Instead of doing The Graduate, which might have led into more mature and serious roles for Day, she did stuff like The Glass Bottom Boat, which made use of her talents as a comic actress (although not on a Lucille Ball level) but little else. Still, she's good in the picture, as is her co-star Rod Taylor, who handles the silliness with aplomb after already appearing with Day in Do Not Disturb. The movie tries to tie into the spy trends of the period with gadgets and the like, and Robert Vaughn of The Man from U.N.C.L.E even shows up for literally a second. Martin, Andrews, and Dom DeLuise [Fail-Safe] adeptly add some fun to the proceedings, although Paul Lynde [Bye Bye Birdie] is given the single funniest moment, which is the priceless expression on his face when he observes Martin and Andrews inadvertently in bed with one another. He also does a comical drag routine, especially when he's interacting with Day in a ladies room. Alice Pearce [The Belle of New York] and George Tobias play Day's neighbors, and essentially essay the same roles as the ones they play on TV's Bewitched, which debuted two years earlier. Arthur Godfrey is cast as Day's father, who owns the titular boat and has his daughter playing mermaid now and then to justify the title; he adds nothing to the picture. The movie is about half an hour too long, and hasn't enough of director Tashlin's trademark cartoon-like humor, although there are some amusing scenes such as a comical encounter between Day, DeLuise, a cake, and a trash can. It's amazing that nobody noticed that the song sung over the opening credits, "The Deep Blue Sea," is basically a knock-off of "Mockingbird." This was the last of Day's films to make money, after which she fled to television.

Verdict: Punctuated with enough laughs to keep you watching, but never a real riot. **1/2.