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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

DETECTIVE STORY

Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker
DETECTIVE STORY (1951). Director: William Wyler.

24 hours in a police precinct focusing on Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas) and his efforts to bring down Karl Schneider (George Macready), who helps bring unwanted babies into the world so he can sell them [in the play, Schneider was a simple abortionist]. McLeod seems so crazy to get this guy that his superior, Lt. Monaghan (Horace McMahon), wonders if there's some personal connection to the case, and in an ironic development, discovers that there is -- and it concerns McLeod's wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker). Will these revelations bring about the too-rigid McLeod's ruination? Detective Story is an absorbing and often powerful movie and features some fine performances from Douglas, Macready, McMahon [Quick Millions], and especially the wonderful William Bendix as McLeod's colleague, Brody. Lee Grant [Damian: Omen 2], in her first film, is fine as a likable if bewildered shoplifter; Craig Hill scores as an embezzler in love with the wrong woman; and Cathy O'Donnell offers a sensitive portrayal of another woman who's in love with Hill. There are also some flavorful short appearances by Gladys George [Flamingo Road] and Gerald Mohr; Joseph Wiseman, only in his second film, is perhaps less effective. Eleanor Parker, possibly miscast to begin with, is a bit too showy and mannered at times, although she has her moments. In general, Wyler's assured direction gets the most out of the story and characters and the film holds the attention throughout. O'Donnell and Mohr appeared together in Terror in the Haunted House.

Verdict: Another very fine Wyler feature. ***1/2.

THE MEANEST MAN IN THE WORLD

Jack Benny and Priscilla Lane
THE MEANEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1943). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

Richard Clark (Jack Benny) is a struggling small-town lawyer with a fiancee, Janie (Priscilla Lane), who wants him to make good. Janie's father, Arthur (Matt Briggs), suggests that Richard go to New York where there is real opportunity, so he packs up his employee-confidante Shufro (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson) and heads to Manhattan. When business proves just as dismal as it was back home, Richard somehow rents a Park Avenue apartment to impress Janie and her dad, but Shufro advises him that only by becoming "mean" and ruthless can he ever hope to achieve success. Richard is somewhat dubious, but takes Shufro's advice, leading to him taking a lollipop away from a small boy on the sidewalk. Literally taking candy from a baby, Clark becomes known as the Meanest Man in Town. When Janie discovers that he helped toss an old woman into the street, she wants to call off the wedding -- and things get worse from there! -- but maybe the poor sap isn't quite as mean as she and everybody think ... The Meanest Man in the World is a very funny movie, with Benny, Anderson, Lane, and the supporting cast all in fine fettle. Anne Revere [Fallen Angel] is amusing as Clark's slightly acerbic secretary; Edmund Gwenn is great in a surprisingly nasty role as one of his clients; and we've got bits by Nick Stewart as the wide-eyed elevator operator and Ralph Byrd as a reporter. Tor Johnson [The Black Sleep] of Plan Nine from Outer Space infamy even shows up in a long black wig as the Russian wrestler and wannabe bodyguard Vladimir Pulaski! Anderson [Honolulu] is up there with Benny all the while, playing an employee who is never truly subservient, thank goodness, but who displays an inoffensive wise and sassy quality. This is a remake of a silent movie made twenty years earlier.

Verdict: Lots of big laughs in this amiable and often zany movie. ***.

PICKUP

Beverly Michaels
PICKUP (1951). Director: Hugo Haas.

"Is that where you're living? In that shack? Oh boy -- when does the floor show start?" -- Betty

"Never fails. Young. Handsome ... Broke." -- ditto

Lonely train station master Jan Horak (Hugo Haas) meets an attractive if immoral woman named Betty (Beverly Michaels) at a carnival, and she manipulates him into marriage when she's about to be thrown out on the street. Complicating matters is the presence of an assistant, Steve (Allan Nixon), who arrives as the station after Jan loses his hearing. But as he and Betty become increasingly attracted to each other -- and Betty begins plotting -- is it possible that her husband hears a lot more than she thinks ...? Obviously influenced by The Postman Always Rings Twice, this low-rent version is nevertheless entertaining, even if the vivid Michaels overacts on occasion. Haas, who appeared to advantage in such films as Summer Storm -- he was quite a good actor, actually -- directed a number of B film noirs such as One Girl's Confession and also helmed Lizzie with Eleanor Parker. Michaels is best-known for her saucy adept playing in the memorable Wicked Woman, made two years later. Allan Nixon was a sexy leading man and credible actor who might have developed leading man status if he had gotten a few good breaks and hadn't gotten in a few too many drunken brawls; cave women fought over him in Prehistoric WomenPickup isn't entirely predictable, and there are some interesting deviations from the usual formula.

Verdict: Entertaining melodrama with some good performances. **1/2 out of 4.

BORN RECKLESS

Mamie Van Doren, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jeff Richards
BORN RECKLESS (1958). Director: Howard W. Koch.

Trick rodeo rider and singer Jackie Adams (Mamie Van Doren) meets up with cowboy Kelly Cobb (Jeff Richards) when the latter pulls a masher off of her and gets into a fight. Kelly is buddies with the older "Cool Man" (Arthur Hunnicutt), a former rodeo rider who seems to serve as his manager, right hand or surrogate father (anything else the movie does not explore). As they travel around appearing in different rodeos, a romance between Jackie and Kelly doesn't quite develop, but this doesn't stop Jackie from developing a proprietary attitude toward the man when he dallies too long with wealthy sophisticate, Liz (Carol Ohmart). Will Kelly ever realize that Jackie is the girl of his dreams? Hardly anyone who sits through this generally tedious film will give a damn about the outcome, as the under-written and under-acted characters are of little interest to anyone despite the actors' sex appeal. Van Doren and Richards are okay and look good, but neither exactly set the screen on fire, and seem uninterested in each other almost throughout the entire movie, although Jackie eventually displays a hankering for Kelly. Hunnicutt makes the best impression in the film after Ohmart, who exhibits the same smoky sensuality that radiates from her in such films as House on Haunted Hill and others; when she appears you instantly forget about Van Doren, just as Kelly does. Van Doren [High School Confidential] sings several songs throughout the movie, including a nice unrequited love ballad entitled "It Takes a Little Longer" and a band does a good job with "Lovable You." If that's Van Doren's real voice, she isn't a bad singer. Richards was a good-looking actor whose most famous role was as "Buck Winston," the only male to appear in The Opposite Sex, the musical remake of The Women. He also did a lot of television work, was in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and starred as Jefferson Drum in that series. Koch also directed Van Doren in The Girl in Black Stockings. A prospective "cat fight" between Van Doren and Ohmart doesn't really amount to much, for shame.

Verdict: A Mamie Van Doren musical? *1/2.

CALYPSO HEAT WAVE

Alan Arkin (left) as a young calypso singer
CALYPSO HEAT WAVE (1957). Director: Fred F. Sears. Produced by Sam Katzman.

Mack Adams (Paul Langton of The Big Knife) is head of a record company whose primary artist is Johnny Conroy (Johnny Desmond). Sleazy Barney Pearl (Michael Granger) tries to insert himself into Adams' business even as Pearl's girlfriend, Mona (Meg Myles) gets herself a hit record thanks to Adams' assistant, Alex (Joel Grey). Meanwhile Johnny walks out on this new hybrid company and takes off to the West Indies -- can Mack and his secretary Marti (Merry Anders of The Hypnotic Eye) convince him to come back and save the company? Calypso Heat Wave has a slender plot that employs the talents of Columbia recording artists, including Maya Angelou in her pre-poetess days, an all-black group called the Treniers, and a romantic trio known (confusingly) as the Tarriers, for whom a young Alan Arkin is the lead singer -- and he's not bad. If that weren't enough we have Pierre Watkin as the lawyer Thornwall, and Darla Hood (of The Bat and "Our Gang" comedies fame) singing a duet with Johnny but having no real role or dialogue. Desmond is a charismatic performer who manages in some numbers to crediby do the Calypso with a Caucasian twist, although in other numbers he comes off a little hokey. Angelou, known as "Miss Calypso," gets two numbers and is effective, while Meg Myles does a nice job with the catchy "Treat Me Like a Lady." Of the actors, Langton, Grey [Cabaret] and Myles make the best impression. That same year director Sears came out with the zesty The Giant Claw.

Verdict: Some genuine and Hollywoodized Calypso music and that's about it. **.

SPACEWAYS

Eva Bartok and Howard Duff
SPACEWAYS (1953). Director: Terence Fisher.

Dr. Stephen Mitchell (Howard Duff) is an American scientist working on a top-secret British rocket base. One day his wife Vanessa (Cecile Chevreau) disappears with her lover, Dr. Philip Crenshaw (Andrew Osborn). A repellent investigator named Dr. Smith (Alan Wheatley) suggests that Mitchell killed wife and lover, drained some fuel from a rocket, and put their dead bodies inside it to create the perfect murder -- it has been determined that the rocket may not fall back to earth for many decades. Now Mitchell decides the only thing he can do is risk life and limb by taking a manned rocket into space and bringing back the other rocket to prove there are no corpses on board ... Spaceways has an interesting and unusual plot, and it's well-acted and suspenseful enough to be reasonably entertaining. Director Fisher, responsible for several zesty Hammer horror flicks, does a briskly-paced job, and the beginning of the picture really pulls you in, even if the rest is somewhat disappointing. Duff [Dante] is more than okay as the leading man; Bartok, who is better as the leading lady, also gives a good performance. Michael Medwin plays another scientist named Toby, and Philip Leaver is the fatherly Professor Koepler. Bartok makes a very different impression in this movie than she does in Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace.

Verdict: Good story line with so-so execution. **1/2.

THE GIFT

Cate Blanchette
THE GIFT (2000). Director: Sam Raimi.

Annie Wilson (Cate Blachette) is a widow with three young sons who makes extra money doing readings for people. One of her clients is Valerie (Hilary Swank), whose husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), is a wife beater. Meanwhile her friend Wayne (Greg Kinnear) is dating a young woman named Jessica (Katie Holmes) who goes missing. Is Donnie responsible for her disappearance as everyone thinks, or does Annie's "gift" tell her that someone else is responsible? By the end of this mediocre film with its insufficient and sometimes obvious script I couldn't care less. This is one of those movies that purports to look into the lives of borderline Hillbilly types -- poor white trash, in other words -- but what we've really got are slick Hollywood types putting on phony Southern accents and hoping for the best. Lead Blanchette is one of the worst offenders, all actressy and unconvincing, and Hilary Swank [The Black Dahlia] isn't much better. Kinnear scores as Wayne, as do Reeves as the nasty Donnie and Gary Cole as the prosecutor on the case. I'm not certain what to make of Giovanni Ribisi [I Love Your Work] as a sad neighbor who may or may not have been molested by his father. There are moments in the movie that make no sense, and the ending is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. Co-written by Billy Bob Thorton, who must have dreamed this up over a sixpack. Blanchette deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine six years later, but then she was working with Woody Allen and not Raimi of Evil Dead fame. [Raimi did knock one out of the ballpark with Spider-Man 2, however.]

Verdict: Hard to understand what anyone saw in this script. ** out of 4.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

SIZE IS RELATIVE

Marvel's Ant-Man
SIZE IS RELATIVE.

This week we've got a round up of movies dealing with differences in sizes. While I hesitate to say this is in honor of the opening of Marvel's Ant-Man movie tomorrow -- the movie might be too awful to "honor" -- it has got me thinking about the size of things in movies and on television shows, especially the size of people. This blog has already posted on such films as The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, The Cyclops, Dr. Cyclops, Fantastic Voyage, and Attack of the Puppet People and this week we look at The Devil-Doll*, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and TV shows World of Giants and Land of the Giants. There's also a look at classic Twilight Zone episodes that deal with the relativity of size.

As for Ant-Man, the original character from the sixties, Henry Pym, is being played by Michael Douglas in the movie. The younger Ant-Man is "Scott Lang," who is sort of Pym's protege. The old comic book stories from Tales to Astonish were ridiculous but charming. [For more info see The Silver Age of Comics.] Michael Crichton and Richard Preston wrote Micro, an interesting novel about miniaturization, but it has yet to be made into a movie.

* I actually watched this movie last night and wrote a review, only to discover I had already reviewed it on this blog some years ago. My opinion of it has gone down half a star. Both reviews are available on Great Old Movies.

THE DEVIL-DOLL -- SECOND VIEW

Frank Lawton and Maureen O'Sullivan
THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936). Director: Tod Browning.

"Eight hours ago it was a full-grown St. Bernard -- you think I'm mad?"

Wrongly-convicted Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) escapes from prison with his cellmate, Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), who takes him to a hide-out in the swamp. Marcel and his creepy wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano of She Done Him Wrong), are nut cases who think the world will benefit by having everything and everyone shrunk down to one sixth of their normal size. But Marcel is unable to come up with anything but tiny dogs who only hop to life at his mental commands. The same thing applies to little Lachna (Grace Ford), who gets the shrink treatment and is used as a pint-sized assassin and thief by Lavond when he goes to Paris, where he hopes to get revenge on the three bank officers who framed him. There Lavond masquerades as an elderly woman who makes dolls, and hopes to be reunited with his daughter, Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan). The Devil-Doll is a little too weird for its own good, but the effects and outsize props are serviceable, even if Lachna seems a little transparent at times. Dr. Cyclops, made four years later, at least made some attempt to explain the shrinking process with the use of pseudo-science, but this movie doesn't even bother with an explanation. O'Sullivan [Payment Deferred] gives the best performance in the movie, and is sensitive and appealing, while Barrymore is at least lots of fun as the  grizzled granny. As cabbie and Lorraine's love interest, Toto, Frank Lawton is also a little strange. The film never quite comes to grips with the horrible fate reserved for Lachna.

Verdict: Somehow engaging but pretty silly. **.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN

















THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). Director: Jack Arnold.

"So close -- the infinitesimal and the infinite."

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is on a boat with his wife when he passes through a strange mist and discovers days later that he's losing height and mass. After many tests it is determined that a series of freak events have made him start to shrink. Before long he's the size of a circus midget, and the second half of the film details his struggles to survive alone in his cellar [his wife mistakenly believes him to be dead] when he's only a couple of inches high. Although some of the process shots are slightly quivery, the FX and props are still outstanding, and the picture has many excellent sequences: Carey on the run from a house cat; caught in a basement flood and hanging on to a pencil for dear life; and especially his climactic battle on a ledge with a large black spider that wants to have him for dinner. The music was cobbled together from several composers but the spider seems to have its own theme. Grant Williams, generally a bland leading man, doesn't do a bad job as Carey, and Randy Stuart successfully etches a warm, loving portrait of Louise, Carey's concerned and horrified wife; she was primarily a television actress. The ending is sentimental, to say the least, but effective on its own terms. Based on "The Shrinking Man," by Richard Matheson, who also did the screenplay. While I believe the novel went back and forth somewhat clumsily between Carey's predicament in the cellar and flashbacks telling his story, the movie wisely tells the story in chronological order.

Verdict: A certified classic. ***1/2.

WORLD OF GIANTS

Marshall Thompson tries to phone home
WORLD OF GIANTS (1959 television series; 13 episodes.)

In this series, also known as WOG, Mel Hunter (Marshall Thompson), exposed to an unknown ingredient in rocket fuel, shrinks down to six inches and becomes a special agent. Hunter, who reports to Bill Winters (Arthur Franz), travels in a "specially constructed attache case" that has a little door on the side so Hunter can come and go as he pleases. There are only two episodes of the show, the first and last, available on youtube. The first, "Special Agent," has Hunter investigating spies inside a warehouse, encountering a hungry cat, and struggling to make a phone call on a rotary phone that seems gigantic to him. The last episode, "Off the Beat," has little Hunter trapped inside a piano during a case tying art treasure thefts to a jazz musician who may be an impostor. Obviously inspired by The Incredible Shrinking Man, these two episodes reveal a minor but nevertheless engaging show with an interesting premise. It's fun to see those genre specialists Thompson [Fiend Without a Face] and Franz [Atomic Submarine] appearing on the same program. Unlike the hero of Shrinking Man, Hunter doesn't seem the least bit depressed by his grotesque situation. Pretty Marcia Henderson [Deadly Duo] makes an appearance as Winters' associate in the final episode, and it would be great to see the likes of Peggie Castle, Douglas Dick, Pamela Duncan, Allison Hayes, and Edgar Barrier in other episodes.

Verdict: It's fun watching Thompson dodging those giant piano keys! ***.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: SIZE IS RELATIVE

"Stopover in a Quiet Town"
"The Fear" with Mark Richman
Agnes Moorehead in "The Invaders"
"The Little People"
The classic "To Serve Man"
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Size is Relative.

During its several years on the air, The Twilight Zone broadcast several stories that had to do with the size of human beings or other things. Some were memorable, and others were not.

The Invaders. Season 2, episode 15. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Douglas Heyes. Agnes Moorehead plays a farm woman who comes across a tiny spaceship filled with equally small astronauts. At the end we learn that this ship is actually a "U.S. Air Force Space Probe" that the old lady has smashed. This is mostly a silly burlesque. C+

The Fear. Season 5, episode 35. Written by Rod Serling and directed by Ted Post. Police officer Mark Richman and resident Hazel Court encounter what appears to be a humongous space man in an isolated area. This has some suspense, even if it could be dismissed as silly "comic book" stuff. B-/C+.

The Little People. Season 3, episode 28. Written by Rod Serling and directed by William Claxton. Two astronauts come across microscopic people on a planet and one of them plays God, until he realizes to his horror that he's not the only one who's out of proportion. This is a bit hokey, like an old comic, but it boasts fine performances by Claude Akins and particularly Joe Maross. B-.

Stopover in a Quiet Town. Season 5, episode 30. Written by Earl Hamner Jr. and directed by Ron Winston. A couple who partied a bit too much wake up in a strange house and find themselves in a deserted town, then board a train that goes absolutely nowhere. A little girl's giggling voice can be heard everywhere. Although the episode is treated a bit lightly at the end (often the case with Serling's black comedy narration), it's actually quite horrifying, with this couple, whatever their flaws (including drunk driving), suffering a supremely and grotesquely horrifying fate. Possibly the influence for the show Land of the Giants. Barry Nelson and Nancy Malone give excellent performances. A.

To Serve Man. Season 3, episode 24. Written by Rod Serling (from a story by Damon Knight) and directed by Richard L. Bare. This episode qualifies if for no other reason than the alien who visits earth is 9 feet tall and weighs 350 lbs. This alien claims that he wants to help mankind and even gives scientists a book entitled "To Serve Man." Unfortunately one scientist has the book translated too late to save all of the people who are traveling to the giant's planet for supposed edification. Another supremely horrifying episode whose tension is almost dissipated by Serling's jokey narration. Lloyd Bochner, Susan Cummings, and Richard Kiel give good performances. I've always thought a great movie sequel could be made showing the earth people in the ship, slowly realizing what's about to happen to them, and fighting back. Probably one of the most fondly-remembered episodes of the series. A-.

THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER

Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) spots some Lilliputians
















THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960). Director: Jack Sher.

Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) wants to marry his feisty fiancee, Elizabeth (June Thorburn), but is making hardly any money. He decides to seek his fortune at sea, but when he argues with stowaway Elizabeth, he winds up falling overboard. First Gulliver winds up in the land of Lilliput, where he is a giant among little people who argue about which end of an egg to break open. The Lilliputians want Gulliver to kill everyone in the rival nation of Blefusco because they break open their eggs at the wrong end. Later Gulliver winds up in the land of Brobdingnab, where he discovers that he is like a Lilliputian among giants. His fiancee has also washed ashore, and the two are kept as pets by the royal family, who prove as dumb, stubborn and superstitious as the Lilliputians, albeit much bigger. Although this is primarily a family feature, it does get across some of the points in Jonathan Swift's satiric novel about the hypocrisies and idiocies of politics and shallow human nature, and the evils of ignorance, and there's some suggestive dialogue as well relating to horny Gulliver as he impatiently waits to be married by the giant king. Ray Harryhausen has provided a wide variety of effects in addition to his usual stop-motion, and they are excellent. The animated creatures include a squirrel and a gator that tries to make a snack out of Gulliver. Mathews is perfect as Gulliver, and he has a good supporting cast, especially Charles Lloyd Pack as outsized sorcerer Makovan, and Waveney Lee as his evil daughter, Shrike [she also had a small role in Konga and Pack has a long list of credits]. June Thorburn was also in tom thumb. The film was photographed by Wilkie Cooper and features an excellent score from Bernard Herrmann; both men worked on Mysterious Island and other Harryhausen features.

Verdict: Superior fantasy film with fine effects work and spirited performances. ***1/2

LAND OF THE GIANTS Season 1

Steven Burton (Gary Conway) vs a giant gopher
LAND OF THE GIANTS Season One (1968). 26 hour-long color episodes. Produced by Irwin Allen.

In the future a spacecraft [these have replaced airliners] called Spindrift bursts through some sort of warp and winds up landing on a planet where everything -- people and animals alike -- are of gigantic stature. The country they landed in also happens to be in a totalitarian state; the government has encountered "little people" before and wants to capture them as spies. The giants also are afraid of Earth's technological superiority. The earthlings forge some alliances, mostly with those who hate the oppressive regime, and try to survive against attacks of both humans and beasts, snares of anxious hunters, as well as assorted plans to trap and cage them. Gary Conway [Burke's Law] stars as Captain Steve Burton and Kurt Kasznar is Fitzhugh, who has a suitcase full of money with him [although this sub-plot is eventually dropped] and is a good guy or a bad one depending on the requirements of the storyline.

Land of the Giants seems to have been formulated strictly as a fairly mindless kiddie show. During the entire first season not one of the stranded humans ever talks about their life or loved ones back on earth, nor expresses anything more than a momentary irksomeness instead of abject horror and despair. While it is hardly classic television, there were some superior episodes, especially the exciting pilot. Other notable episodes include "Ghost Town," in which the little gang are trapped in a toy-size town presided over by Percy Helton and his mean, obnoxious granddaughter; "Manhunt" a suspenseful piece in which a convict runs off with the Spindrift and winds up trapped in quicksand; "The Creed," in which a giant doctor helps the gang when Barry (Stefan Arngrim), the little boy in the group, gets appendicitis and needs to be operated on; "Weird World," in which Glenn Corbett plays a major who's been stranded on the planet for years and warns of a hideous trap inside a tunnel [Fitzhugh is so odious in this episode that it might have been meant for earlier broadcast]; "The Lost Ones," another suspenseful story with Zalman King as an earthling leader of some motorcycle punks who also crash-landed on the planet; and "Brainwash," with Warren Stevens, in a story of a normal-sized communications center found inside of a drain pipe. Also, "Deadly Lodestone," which introduces Kevin Hagen as Inspector Kobick; and "Rescue," in which the little people help out when two giant children are trapped in a deep well, and which has especially good sets, props and convincing special effects. Besides the pilot, the best episode is probably "Target: Earth," in which Arthur Franz [who had starred in World of Giants] plays a scientist with a Lady Macbeth-type wife who hopes to make a deal with the earthlings so they can help him with his space travel research.

John Williams contributed a fairly catchy theme, although the rest of the music for the series wasn't very helpful. Neither was the often slow direction of many episodes, almost as if a half hour's worth of story was padded out to an hour. Other regular cast members include Don Matheson [passenger], Don Marshall [co-pilot], Deanna Lund [passenger], and Heather Young [stewardess], all of whom are more than adequate. The show returned for a second season.

Verdict: Taken with a large grain of salt, this has an intriguing premise and moderate entertainment value. **1/2.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925)

Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur
BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925). Director: Fred Niblo.

Long before the 1959 remake of this story there was this commendable silent version starring Ramon Navarro [Mata Hari] as Judah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as his hated nemesis, Messala. Ben-Hur has spectacular battle-at-sea scenes, a cast of what seems to be thousands, a very elaborate and expensive production, and a thrilling chariot race (even if it ends a little abruptly). The story is basically the same as the Charlton Heston version, although the boyishly vulnerable Navarro, despite some hammy moments, is more sympathetic as Ben-Hur. There is a long prologue depicting the birth of Christ and the journey of the Three Wise Men. While some viewers see silent films as being slow and boring, that is hardly the case with Ben-Hur. May McAvoy as Esther and Frank Currier as Quintus Arrias are also notable, while Bushman [The Phantom Planet], grimacing with the best of them, radiates intolerance and menace. This version of the film features an excellent new symphonic score composed by Carl Davis and beautifully orchestrated by Colin and David Mathews. While the score is sometimes derivative, it expertly embellishes each scene and adds a new dimension to an already memorable movie. Certain sequences were filmed in TechniColor.

Verdict: Exciting large scale silent film. ***.


THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU

Shirley Eaton as the evil Sumuru
 THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU (1967).  Director: Lindsay Shonteff.

 Back in the 1950s Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu   Manchu, decided to start another series about a  mysterious master villainess named Sumuru.  There were five books in this series. I've only  read two of the five books so far, and they are  fun, if below the fiendish and suspenseful level  of the Fu Manchu novels. But they are all  masterpieces compared to this woeful film  adaptation. In this Sumuru (Shirley Eaton), like  in the books, wants to create a new golden world  via her female helpmates and doesn't care who  she has to kill to get it. Tommy Carter (Frankie  Avalon) and Nick West (George Nader) are  some kind of agents out to stop Sumuru from various plots and assassinations. Million Eyes is cheap and cheap-looking, but the worst problem is the approach, which is meant to be light, even tongue-in-cheek, like a sixties spy film, but instead comes off as stupid. The shame of it is that Eaton [Your Past is Showing] not only looks beautiful in her dark wig but gives an excellent performance, perfectly embodying Sumuru in a way that would probably have pleased Sax Rohmer. The less said about Frankie Avalon, who wandered in from a beach party movie, and  George Nader [Shannon] the better. Nader was capable of some excellent performances, such as in a sixth season episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but he doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to play his role in a mish mosh like this. As in the novels, Sumuru has a habit of turning her enemies into stone. Wilfred Hyde-White adds a touch of class as Colonel Baisbrook and Klaus Kinski [Circus of Fear] is sort of fun as President Boong and his double. That same year James Coburn starred in In Like Flint, which was also about an all-female organization trying to take over the world. Maybe the screenwriter was a Sumuru fan.

Verdict: Both Sumuru and Sax Rohmer deserve better. Hell, even Frankie Avalon does! *1/2.

MORTAL THOUGHTS

Glenne Headly, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis
MORTAL THOUGHTS (1991). Director: Alan Rudolph.

"All these years you haven't been married to me, you've been married to each other. -- Arthur Kellogg.

Cynthia Kellogg (Demi Moore) has been best friends with Joyce Urbanski (Glenne Headly) -- a couple of Bayonne, Jersey Girls -- for years, but their friendship is put to the test when Joyce's bullying pig of a husband (Bruce Willis) is found dead and both women are involved. Cynthia tells Detective Woods (Harvey Keitel of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) her side of the story, but things may be even more complicated than he imagines. Mortal Thoughts holds the attention, and it provides an interesting (some might say stereotypical) look at the lives of lower-class Italian-Americans -- whatever their intended ethnicity these people come off like Italians --  but something's just a little off with the picture, which at times borders on a black comedy (which actually might have made it a better movie). Headly and Moore give good, but somehow unmemorable, performances -- Headly has the edge on Moore -- and the film just doesn't have the strong dramatic impact it requires. It doesn't help that just about everyone in the film is unlikable. Willis [Surrogates] does okay as the slobbering Jimmy, and John Pankow offers some very nice work as Cynthia's husband, Arthur. There are some good character performances sprinkled throughout the movie as well. There's another murder by the end of the film, but many viewers won't be sure who the perpetrator is. This just becomes a little too contrived and unconvincing. Moore [Mr. Brooks] once made such high-profile movies as Ghost, Indecent Proposal, and For a Few Good Men, but her best years remain the 90s.

Verdict: Low impact pre-CSI thriller. **1/2.

WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD

Frankie Darro and Edwin Phillips
WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (1933). Director: William A. Wellman.

During the depression, two friends, Eddie (Frankie Darro of No Greater Glory) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips), decide to leave town and look for work when it is clear that their desperate parents haven't enough money to provide for them. On the rails the fellows meet a young lady named Sally (Dorothy Coonan) who is hoping to hook up with her aunt. Things don't quite work out as planned for any of them ... Wild Boys of the Road, a rather heavy-handed message film, purports to be a study of the situation of homeless youth in the thirties, but unfortunately it has too much of an Eastside Kids sensibility to be the masterpiece it might have been. The light touch throughout most of the film is at odds with the very grim subject matter, and once the ever-weird Sterling Holloway [Cheers for Miss Bishop] shows up the picture almost loses it completely. On the other hand, the acting is quite good (even if Darro is a little too "gosh darn" at times) and the close relationship between the young men is often touching. A scene when one of the boys is hit by a train is horrifying and very well done. Grant Mitchell makes an impression as Eddie's desperate father, middle-aged and out of work and facing eviction from his home, and there are other able supporting performances. The picture resolves many things a bit too neatly (although there is no assurance of happiness for any of the characters), but this has many very lovely things in it, especially a moving scene between Eddie and his dad when the former sells his beloved old car for needed money. Edwin Phillips was a very talented and attractive actor but he only appeared in three films; he lived until 1981. After appearing in just a few movies Dorothy Coonan married director Wellman the following year, retired from films (aside from one bit credit years later), and had seven children with Wellman. Wellman also directed the original A Star is Born and many, many others.

NOTE: In 1932 William Wyler and John Huston were planning to collaborate on a film about just this situation entitled The Forgotten Boys, but it was shelved when reforestation camps opened to employ these youths that same year and the situation changed. It would have been interesting to see Wyler's version of the story, which probably would have been more powerful.

Verdict: The flaws pale besides the honest sentiment. ***.

IN LIKE FLINT

James Coburn, Thomas Hasson, Lee J. Cobb
IN LIKE FLINT (1967). Director: Gordon Douglas.

"By this time tomorrow, women will be ruling the world."

"Brain and hair-washing at the same time!"

"An actor as President?"

In this sequel to Our Man Flint, super-adventurer Derek Flint (James Coburn) is contacted by Lloyd Cramden (Lee J. Cobb) of Z.O.W.I. E. when he realizes that he was blanked out for three minutes during a golf game with President Trent (Andrew Duggan). During that time Trent was replaced by a double, a plot engineered by a group of women who plan to sabotage missiles -- Project Damocles -- to gain their ends. The main representative of this women's group is Lisa Norton (Jean Hale), who runs a cosmetic outfit called Fabulous Face that has its headquarters in the Virgin Islands, adjacent to the missile base. Unfortunately for the ladies, General Carter (Steve Ihnat), is only pretending to be an ally and turns on them, forcing the women to engage in Operation Smooch ... In Like Flint is sillier than the worst episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., slow-paced, unfunny for the most part, and with a climax that seems to go on for four hours. Coburn isn't bad in the part, although both Duggan and Cobb make more of an impression. Anna Lee is fine as Elisabeth, one of the older women in the group, but Jean Hale, while very pretty, isn't much of an actress. Searching for two missing lady cosmonauts, Flint winds up in Moscow, where he gets a standing ovation after dancing in a ballet! Yvonne Craig of Batman fame plays a Russian gal who offers Flint a doped cigarette. That same year saw the release of The Thousand Eyes of Sumuru, which was also about a group of women plotters and which was even worse than In Like Flint. The ladies in Flint never seem very menacing, probably due to typical sixties sexism.

Verdict: This could have killed the parody spy genre altogether. **.

THE MYSTERY OF THE 13TH GUEST

THE MYSTERY OF THE 13TH GUEST (1943). Director: William Beaudine.

"Your soul must look like the inside of a vinegar bottle."

Marie Morgan (Helen Parrish of First Love) enters her dead uncle's creepy old house where years ago he talked about his will to the gathered relatives, and there she finds an old letter giving the strange stipulations of her inheritance. Not much later Marie is found dead in the house -- until she turns up alive, despite the lookalike body in the morgue. Private eye Speed Dugan (Frank Faylen) and Lt. Burke (Tim Ryan) try to find out who killed whom. Suspects include lawyer Barksdale (Cyril Ring); Marie's brother, Harold (John Duncan of Batman and Robin); Uncle Adam (Paul McVey); and the high-spirited cousin Marjory (Jacqueline Dalya). Faylen is fine, but Ryan offers an especially obnoxious portrayal as the cop. Dalya [Charlie Chan in Rio] is the sauciest thing in the movie and gives the picture most of its limited fun. The old house contains a sinister masked figure as well as a deadly electrified telephone. Full of foolish alleged humor.

Verdict: The very embodiment of the word mediocre. **.

THE GUEST

Dan Stevens
THE GUEST (2014). Director: Adam Wingard.

Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelly) is delighted to play host to a young man, David (Dan Stevens), who was an Army buddy of her late son. Initially wary, her husband Spenser (Leland Orser) is also welcoming, and their son Luke (Brendan Meyer) hero-worships David when he emphatically deals with some bullies. Luke's sister, Anna (Maika Monroe), however, is not so charmed by David and even suspicious of him. Since The Guest is a thriller, after all, it will be no surprise that the complicated David is not exactly on the side of the angels, although his history and reasons for his behavior may or may not be revelatory. Dan Stevens [Dracula], playing a very different role than his "Matthew" on Downtown Abbey, convincingly suppresses his British accent and gives a very good performance, and he has fine support from the rest of the cast. The problem with The Guest is that it degenerates into a "mad slasher" movie when it could have been so much more, although the ending is ironic and satisfying in its way. But despite some entertainingly dramatic sequences the overall effect is still blah. Adam Wingard also directed You're Next, which was much livelier than this; his mistake was in overlaying that movie over The Guest.

Verdict: Beware of handsome strangers. **1/2.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

DARIO ARGENTO AND THE ITALIAN GIALLO FILM

Dario Argento
DARIO ARGENTO.

Why do I like many of the films of Italian horrormeister Dario Argento, and dislike others just as much? Part of this is Argento's over-reliance on gore (although this can be very effective in some movies) and his acceptance of screenplays that, to be charitable, need a lot of polishing that they don't always get.

On the other hand, if you study Argento's films, especially his great ones, you can easily see that the Italian giallo filmmaker is miles ahead of the hack (no pun intended) directors of "mad slasher" schlock like, say, most of the Friday the 13th films and their ilk. His films generally have plenty of style, and his best movies are undeniably creepy and suspenseful and have some kind of (slightly demented) mind behind them, as well as some bravura sequences.

Argento never got mainstream respectability, like Hitchcock, but Argento is not in Hitchcock's league as a filmmaker. Some of his fans are simply interested in the gory shock scenes (Argento tends to cater to them too much) even though there are those of us who also enjoy the twisting plots and tense moments that are virtually in all of his movies. As Argento got older, he perhaps tried too hard to capture the young American mad slasher/splatter movie crowd even though he was capable of far greater things. Argento has never quite fulfilled his potential despite such memorable films as Deep Red and Trauma. (Argento's first film was the creditable The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970).

Argento's other films are of varying quality. Great: Sleepless. Good: Phenomena; The Card Player; Cat O'Nine Tails. Mediocre: Four Flies on Grey VelvetBad: Do You Like Hitchcock?; Giallo. And there are others.

Argento's films were clearly influential on such diverse movies as The Eyes of Laura Mars and 88 Minutes, among others. Argento, who is now seventy-five, last directed Dracula 3D, and his next film will be the serial killer thriller The Sandman.

Below you will find reviews of some of Argento's other movies, as well as a write-up on a book about the director and his work.

SUSPIRIA

An example of the colorful art direction of Suspiria
SUSPIRIA (1977). Director: Dario Argento.

When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives at the exclusive Tam dance academy in Germany, a series of odd events occur. First a young woman who was expelled from the school, and her friend, are savagely murdered in town. Suzy's roommate Sara (Stefania Casini) is convinced that the unseen, heavy-breathing directress is still living in the building and that none of the teachers ever go home at night -- what are they up to? More murders occur, some of them apparently due to supernatural means, such as the death of blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) at the teeth of his once-friendly dog. Suzy learns that the school was founded decades before by the late Helena Marcos, the "Black Queen," who was rumored to be a witch, but after her death all activities of witchcraft in the academy were eradicated -- or were they? Suspiria is a creepy and suspenseful film that is certainly not without its flaws but is very entertaining. Jessica Harper is fine as the heroine, as is Alida Valli [The Paradine Case] as the stern Miss Tanner, and Joan Bennett [Secret Beyond the Door] as nominal headmistress Madame Blanc. The colorful art deco art direction is another plus, but the music by Goblin [which was used rather effectively in Deep Red] is too often just a lot of noisy pounding and vocal screaming that does nothing for the picture. This is the first of what became known as Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy. Like most of Argento's films, this is not for all tastes.

Verdict: Watch out for those maggots! ***.

INFERNO (1980)

The sinister Manhattan apartment house of Inferno
INFERNO (1980). Director: Dario Argento.

In the second of his supernatural "three mothers" films -- a sequel to Suspiria -- it develops that an architect named Varelli built three dwellings for each of these three sinister and powerful witches: the Mothers of Tears, Sighs, and Darkness. One of those dwellings is an apartment house in Manhattan [another dwelling is the German dance academy featured in Suspiria], wherein a young lady, Rose (Irene Miracle), becomes fascinated by a book about the mothers written many years ago by Varelli. Her investigations prove her undoing, and after she disappears, her brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, returns to New York to find out what happened to her. Inferno proceeds like a nightmare, which may have been the intention, meaning that the film has little internal logic, and a poor narrative structure, and which also makes it off-putting to certain viewers. Like Suspiria, Inferno betrays a slasher sensibility even if the films are quite different from Deep Red. Murders occur both in New York and in Rome, where Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), one of Mark's fellow students, opens a letter from Rose, learns about the Three Mothers, and is butchered along with a friendly male neighbor, Carlos (Gabriele Lavia from Deep Red), to the strains of Verdi's "Va pensiero" chorus from Nabucco. [Nabucco just happens to be on Carlos' record player after Sara listens to it in class!] One assumes Rose and Mark are independently wealthy considering he's a student, she's a poet, and the apartment Rose lives in is positively gigantic. There are more murders, an attack by rats on a bookseller drowning cats, and appearances by Alida Valli (this time as the apartment building's caretaker), Daria Nicolodi as a wealthy neighbor, and Feodor Chaliapin Jr., the son of the famous operatic bass, as Varelli/Professor Arnold. There's an odd variation of different musical styles throughout the picture, and it features Mario Bava-like lighting effects. All in all, Inferno holds the attention, has several creepy scenes (such as Rose exploring a flooded basement under the building), but it's perhaps too weird and confusing for its own good.

Verdict: Argento treading water. **1/2.

TENEBRAE

TENEBRAE (aka Tenebre/1982). Director: Dario Argento.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), an American who writes bestselling crime thrillers, is in Rome on a tour when murders occur which seem to have something to do with his latest book. After several bloody killing of women, Neal gets the idea that he's figured out who the maniac is and pursues this lead, but things don't quite work out the way he intended. Tenebrae is another twisty psycho-shocker from Argento, with a clever plot and interesting ending, and even more gore than usual. Franciosa [Wild is the Wind] gives a good performance, as do John Saxon [Queen of Blood] as his agent, and Daria Nicolodi as Neal's secretary. Unlike Deep Red, Tenebrae is not especially stylish, and the murder sequences have little elan, but the picture is genuinely suspenseful. The murders seem to be of women who have somehow "sinned" in the eye of the conservative psycho, his targets being a shoplifter, a prostitute, gay/bi ladies, and so on. After awhile the killer starts targeting men as well as women, until near the climax there seems no one left who could be the murderer! But there's one final trick in store.

Verdict: Far-fetched and grisly fun. ***.