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

Monday, February 25, 2008

AN UNMARRIED WOMAN


AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978). Writer/Director: Paul Mazursky.

Erica (Jill Clayburgh) seems to have a perfect life and marriage, but suddenly one afternoon her husband (Michael Murphy) begins to sob and blurts out that he's fallen in love with another woman and wants to be with her. What follows is Erica's attempts to deal with being suddenly single and "alone" with a teenage daughter, having to re-enter the dating pool, and so on. This is a very light film that isn't funny enough to be a comedy and certainly hasn't the meat to make it a strong dramatic contender -- yet in its day it was highly acclaimed, perhaps because it supposedly struck a nerve in the fashionable idea of women's independence. Erica winds up with an artistic schlockmeister, Saul (Alan Bates), who throws paint on canvases, although she resists simply turning her whole life over to him as she did with her husband. One problem is that as a rich white Vassar graduate, Erica's post-divorce problems are not nearly as bad as other women's. But the really big problem is that the film is predictable and lacks bite. The scenes between Erica and her therapist seem improvised and are rather dull. The whole movie is well-produced but not exactly riveting.

Verdict: A dated curiosity. **.

INTRUDER IN THE DUST


INTRUDER IN THE DUST (1949). Director: Clarence Brown.

When a white man is shot in the back, a lynch mob wants to string up the black man, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), who was near him at the time, even though the bullet couldn't have come from his gun. A young man, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), importunes his uncle John (David Brian) to represent Lucas, and together they try to ferret out the truth. Elizabeth Patterson has a great scene as the elderly Miss Habersham holding off the angry mob who has come to the jail to grab and string up Lucas. William Faulkner's novel has sort of been reduced to a murder mystery, but the film is effective and holds the attention. Hernandez and young Jarman are very good, but a fairly wooden David Brian is miscast as John. To be fair, John isn't really a kindly type like Gregory Peck in Mockingbird (and his attitude toward Lucas is consistently patronizing), but Brian rattles off his lines without the slightest trace of nuance or even much acting ability. [Brian was better playing a gangster to Joan Crawford's gun moll in a couple of pictures.] One assumes Brian was a contract player and the studio insisted on his use.
Verdict: Okay, but nothing special. **.

THE APE MAN


THE APE MAN (1943). Directed by William Beaudine.

Bela Lugosi manages to give a good performance in this pretty poor horror film about a man who injects himself with – well, I guess you could call it "essence of ape" – for no discernible reason. He becomes ape-like, all covered in fur and with a loping gait. (It never occurs to the man that he could cut most of the hair off of his face and easily achieve a more normal appearance – it’s that kind of picture.) Bela gets the idea that injecting spinal fluid into himself will reverse the effects of his moronic ape experiment and for a while it does, but he keeps having to kill innocent people with the aid of a big gorilla to keep from reverting. The gorilla is funny, especially when he and Lugosi are busy slapping at one another like a crazy comic duo. (It makes absolutely no sense that Bela should have to sleep in the cage with the ape!) To be fair, it’s obvious that this isn’t meant to be taken seriously, especially when the alleged screenwriter shows up on camera at the end to poke fun at his own zany story. Minerva Urecal is great as Lugosi’s sister, who expresses great concern for him and isn’t above pointing a gun at a doctor friend to force him to inject Lugosi with more spinal fluid. Louise Currie is merely annoying as a perky photographer who runs around with a dopey reporter.
Verdict: Watch at your own risk! **.

Friday, February 22, 2008

AFFAIR WITH A STRANGER


AFFAIR WITH A STRANGER (1953). Director: Roy Rowland.

A gossip columnist announces that a well-known playwright is getting divorced from his wife, and a series of flashbacks -- narrated by everyone from causal acquaintances (a cab driver) to very close friends -- detail how they met, fell in love, and the assorted trials and tribulations of their marriage, which include losing a baby and adopting a little boy. Victor Mature and Jean Simmons both give very nice performances as husband and wife, and they are ably supported by Jane Darwell, Dabbs Greer, and many fine players. There are a couple of missteps in the movie, but it's held together by the acting, the rather suspenseful thrust of the story, and a generous portion of sheer charm.

Verdict: Quite entertaining. ***.

A HEART AT FIRE'S CENTER


A HEART AT FIRE'S CENTER: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Steven C. Smith. University of California Press. 2002.

Even when I was a child, the music of Bernard Herrmann that I heard during such films as Mysterious Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Psycho and Vertigo reverberated in my memory. This is a superb, highly-recommended biography of the late, great film and concert/opera composer that is scrupulously researched and highly detailed while always remaining immensely readable. Herrmann, who was actually of Russian descent and not German, is depicted as an essentially decent, very talented composer who became increasingly irrational and bitter as he got older; a difficult person to deal with even if his emotional heart was sound. Smith looks at his early life and compositions; his work on Citizen Kane with Welles; his association with Alfred Hitchcock, which led to some of his greatest scores and an unfortunate break-up; his three somewhat volatile marriages; and his increasing disenchantment as he attempted to get his beautiful opera Wuthering Heights mounted in a venue he felt worthy of it. Smith examines Herrmann's musicianship and style as well as his “comeback” of sorts with Brian de Palma's Sisters and other thrillers, leading to his work on his final score for Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver. Herrmann may not always have been an easy man to take, but he had convictions and he stuck to them, no matter whose feathers got ruffled. A fascinating book of a fascinating figure. Herrmann always felt that film music should work with and bolster the visuals and never call attention to itself; ironically, Herrmann's music riveted the attention because of its sheer excellence.

Verdict: Great Biography. ****

SHADOW OF CHINATOWN


SHADOW OF CHINATOWN (1936). 15 chapter Victory serial. Directed by Bob Hill.

Bela Lugosi plays bitter Eurasian Victor Poten, who is hired by the beautiful Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters) to break up the Chinese tourist trade in San Francisco. But even Rokoff feels that Poten goes too far and is really waging war on all Occidentals. Herman Brix [New Adventures of Tarzan], who was later known as Bruce Bennett, is the hero of the serial, playing a detective writer and amateur sleuth known as Martin Andrews. Jan Barclay is the feisty, independent, but rather shrill and annoying lady reporter Joan Whiting. Maurice Liu is Andrews' houseman and right hand, Willy Fu, a “good' Oriental to balance the bad. Although there are a couple of memorable scenes – the crushing walls, and the needle-in-the-phone bit that nearly kills off BrixShadow of Chinatown is slow and a bit dull. Lugosi gives a good performance, however.
Verdict: This is not one of the better serials. **.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL


THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955). Director: Otto Preminger.

Gary Cooper offers a low-key, occasionally wooden, but overall effective enough performance as the flying officer who deplored the conditions of the United States' military planes in the days after WW1 and before there was an Air Force. Poorly maintained and falling apart, the planes are responsible for the deaths of many military men, including some of Mitchell's colleagues. The problem is that few in the Army or Navy believe that planes will be the key to warfare in the future [despite their use in WW1, oddly enough] and are too short-sighted to see how sophisticated and fast planes will become and how they might be used to attack the U.S. in the future. Mitchell, on the other hand, can describe how easily, for instance, the base at Pearl Harbor could be wiped out by planes [which, of course, happened a few years later]. Statements deliberately made to the press after a friend dies gets Mitchell court-martialed, through which he hopes to get across his point of view to the military and the American people. Charles Bickford is excellent as his lawyer, who fears that Mitchell will be muzzled before he can say a word in his defense, and Rod Steiger plays one of the prosecutors with an oddly epicene oiliness that isn't quite as mesmerizing as he might have intended. This is an interesting if imperfect film, however, with an attention-holding courtroom climax.
Verdict: Worth a look, especially for Cooper fans. **1/2.

THE TUNNEL OF LOVE


THE TUNNEL OF LOVE (1958). Director: Gene Kelly.

Richard Widmark plays a married man who comes to the conclusion that he actually fathered the baby that he and his wife (Doris Day) are to receive from an adoption agency – and that the mother is the woman who came to assess their suitability (Gia Golan)! When the baby arrives, even Day is convinced the tyke looks just like Widmark at that age. This amusing, fast-paced, well-acted comedy keeps you guessing over this bizarre situation until the conclusion. Day is less cloying than usual, although still a bit too perky for my taste. Widmark displays hithero unexplored comic talents as her befuddled husband. Gig Young and Elisabeth Fraser are very good as the next-door neighbors, who have several children; Young tries to offer Widmark points on the fine art of philandering in one scene. Elizabeth Wilson is as sharp and fun as ever as another woman from the adoption agency. A very pleasant comedy with a risque premise that is absurd but certainly gets points for originality. Based on the Broadway show (in which Wilson, but none of the other film principals, appeared).
Verdict: Good fun! ***.

THE BURNING


THE BURNING (1981) Director: Tony Maylam.

Cropsy (Lou David), a cruel camp counselor, becomes the victim of a practical joke which inadvertently burns and disfigures him. Years later he stalks a group of kids and counselors at a summer camp, with the climactic would-be victim (Brian Matthews) being one of the kids (now grown up) responsible for his condition. This reasonably effective stalk-and-slash film is especially disturbing at times because we get to know and like many of the victims, and their deaths have more of a resonance. The gruesome "highlight" of the film has Cropsy jumping up out of a canoe and using huge shears to attack and kill several campers on a raft at once (this sequence stretches credulity, however). Jason Alexander plays one of the counselors and exhibits his usual upbeat personality. Holly Hunter is one of the kids but she doesn't stick out of the crowd. Fisher Stevens is one of the people punctured on the raft. Some of the lesser-known actors actually offer very good performances. There is some genuine suspense of a minor kind, and the climax is somewhat exciting. Producer Harvey Weinstein contributed to the script.

Verdict: For mad slasher addicts only. **1/2.

WINNERS OF THE WEST


WINNERS OF THE WEST (1940). 13 Chapter Universal Serial. Directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor.

If this is one of the best chapter-plays put out by Universal, it is probably because Mssrs. Beebe and Taylor were at the helm. The actors are extremely well-cast as well. Dick Foran is perfect as Jeff Ramsey, who's been hired to build a railroad through Hellgate Pass in the Southwest Territory. King Carter (Harry Woods) doesn't want the railroad (for reasons that are never clearly delineated) and tricks the Indians into aiding his cause. Ramsey's boss Hartford has a daughter named Claire who, as enacted by Anne Nagel, is saucy, attractive and intelligent and as brave as any of the fellows. James Craig is Ramsey's handsome pal Jim Jackson, Tom Fadden is their older buddy Tex, and Charles Stevens is “injun” turncoat Snake Eye. The photography, action, and direction are all first-rate, as is the score, although at times it's a bit too sprightly. If there is any problem with the serial, it is that while it remains busy, it eventually becomes quite monotonous and even a bit boring. There simply isn't enough to the plot, the suspense is minimal, and there isn't any mystery whatsoever. Although we are introduced to a “bad girl” in the saloon owned by King Carter, she makes infrequent appearances, and never even meets Claire, let alone has a “cat fight” with her spunky counterpart, which might have been an eye-opener. Still, there are several memorable scenes in the serial, such as when a train rolls over an overturned wagon, and a great cliffhanger in which a boulder thrown from above demolishes a rope bridge. Western fans will probably rank this higher than other serial enthusiasts.
Verdict: Certainly worth a look for the cliffhanger fan. **1/2.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

WILD IS THE WIND


WILD IS THE WIND (1957). Director: George Cukor.


Widower Gino (Anthony Quinn) decides to marry his sister-in-law Gioia (Anna Magnani, pictured) and flies to Italy to bring her home to his family in America. The movie spends the first hour doing its best to inject drama into the situation -- Gino keeps comparing Gioia to her dead sister; the two argue over killing wild horses -- but the movie doesn't really live up to its "wild" title until Gioia begins an affair with Gino's handsome young ward, Bene (Tony Franciosa). The script by Arnold Schulman may never really rise above a soap opera level, but somehow it doesn't matter much because the direction, cinematography (Charles Lang), and acting are of such a high order that they smooth over all the imperfections of the story. Magnani is as wonderful as ever, but Cukor wrests fine performances from Quinn (one of his best ever), Franciosa, and the entire supporting cast as well. Joseph Calleia and Lila Valenty score as Quinn's brother and sister-in-law, and Delores Hart is lovely in the small role of Quinn's daughter. Once it gets going this is quite absorbing and has a very nice ending.

Verdict: Definitely worth a look. ***1/2.

GREASE 2


GREASE 2 (1982). Director: Patricia Birch.

Okay. I came back from an extended trip out of town and a friend says to me, “Come up to the Ziegfeld theater, there's a picture playing there that I really enjoyed and I want you to see.” I was shocked to find out that the film was Grease 2. “You liked that!” I said. “I didn't even like Grease. It doesn't sound like your cup of tea at all.” Nevertheless we got in a cab and went up to the Ziegfeld, and to my great surprise I liked the damn thing, too! In fact, a few days later when we couldn't find a movie we both wanted to see one of us said to the other, “Hell – let's get in a cab and go up and see Grease 2 again.” And we did.
The way this sequel to Grease was mercilessly excoriated by the critics, you would think that the original movie was Citizen Kane. In truth, Grease 2 is a very entertaining and absolutely charming musical that features an attractive cast, some snappy numbers, and a lot of zesty pop-style choreography. Yes, it's as mindless as your average Archie comic book, and it's “message” [if you can even call it that] – become “cool,” disguise your true intelligence, and everyone will like you – is obnoxious, but no one ever said this stuff was supposed to be taken seriously. Perhaps the problem for some critics was that it was directed by a woman, and a choreographer at that.
The plot is simple. London exchange student Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield) comes to Rydell High and falls for “pink lady” Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is in the midst of breaking up with the leader of the T-Birds, Johnny (Adrian Zmed). Leaning she likes dark and dangerous guys, Michael practices on a motorcycle and develops the secret identity of the “cool rider” she's been looking for. After assorted misadventures, Stephanie learns the truth, she and Michael come together, and Johnny winds up with the plump but pretty Paulette (Lorna Luft). Pfeiffer, in one of her earliest roles, gives a convincing “light” portrait of a pretty if doomed girl of the lower class, and interprets her song numbers well. Caulfield is also good as her handsome leading man – intelligent-looking enough to be convincing as an excellent student and sexy enough to work in the guise of the cool rider. He can't really sing, but he manages to get through his numbers anyway. Lorna Luft almost steals the picture as Paulette, and there are many other flavorful performances, especially Eve Arden as the principal with her priceless facial expressions. [“I'm a little worried. I missed my last two periods,” says one pretty student. To which Arden replies: “That's okay. You can make them up after school.”
The songs were contributed by a number of people, but all of them capture the feel of the period in style, although their lyrics tend to be much more clever than those of actual sixties pop songs. Tab Hunter delivers a number about “Reproduction” to his class, who join in with joyful and vulgar abandon. The dancing, such as in the excellent opening production number “Back to School Again,” sung by the Four Tops, is also sexier than the fancy footwork of the period, but who cares? The sinewy Adrian Zmed shimmies his way through “Score” and “Prowlin'” and Peter Frechette tries to bed a cute colleen even as she thinks he's only going off to war in “Do It for Your Country.” Maureen Teefy, Leif Greene, Alison Price and Christopher McDonald [the quizmaster in Quiz Show] make the most of their smaller roles. Underneath the light touch there are some recognizable character types and the script is full of funny lines and situations. The final number, "We'll Be Together," celebrates enduring friendship and love and is a genuinely nice tune as well.
Verdict: This is really not bad at all. ***.

UNDERSEA KINGDOM


UNDERSEA KINGDOM (1936). 12 Chapter Republic Serial. Directed by B. Reeves Eason and Joseph Kane.

Ray “Crash” Corrigan stars as an adventurer who winds up in the middle of a civil war in an alleged Atlantis under the sea. Although there is supposed to be a roof above, or cavern surrounding, Atlantis, we never see any evidence of it; Atlantis – “10,000 feet below sea level” -- simply appears to be an island with sky and not water above. This is another serial in which the hero has an admiring little pal, Billy (Lee Van Atta), whose real father is an elderly professorial type. The two warring leaders of Atlantis include Unga Khan, who wants to raise his weapons tower to the upper world where he can cause worldwide disasters, and the High Priest Sharad, who is described as “kindly” even after he demands Crash kill an opponent he bested in the arena. Crash winds up as the head of Sharad's army, a bizarre development to be certain. One of the best scenes has Khan's soldier Lon Chaney Jr. tying Crash to the front of his tank and driving right through the gates of Sharad's city. But this is a notorious cheat, as in the next episode the formerly closed gates are now open as the tank goes through! Another suspect development has Crash instruct Billy to climb on his back as he straddles a tightrope and nearly plunges both of them to their doom. Lois Wild is the nominal love interest as Diana.

Verdict: Undersea Kingdom may be watchable, but it isn't very good. **.

PAYMENT DEFERRED


PAYMENT DEFERRED (1932) Director: Lothar Mendes.

In spite of a couple of missteps, Charles Laughton (pictured) gives an excellent performance as a bank clerk struggling with debt who commits a murder to achieve financial relief – only the good fortune brings as many problems as it solves. Dorothy Peterson and Maureen O'Sullivan are also excellent as Laughton's wife and daughter, and there is some fine work from Verree Teasdale as a shady lady Laughton dallies with to his regret, and Ray Milland as the young victim. Mendes adds some Hitchcock-like visual touches to the picture, including the splendid moment when Laughton gives his wealthy nephew (Milland) a drink spiked with poison: the camera remains fixed on Laughton, who is marvelous, as his hand shakes so violently that he spills his own drink all over himself. The film is interesting and absorbing but it does have some problems, including an unnecessary prologue showing a man buying the house where the murder occurred. During a scene that takes place the morning after the murder, Peterson and O'Sullivan seem to have forgotten that they're facing the threat of the poor house [they are unaware of what Daddy has done], and the post-revelation scenes don't really ring true. The victim is completely forgotten without a word expressed even by Peterson as to the tragedy of his early demise. Otherwise, this is a memorable look at a mind tortured by guilt and anxiety.

Verdict: Worth a look. ***.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

SINGAPORE WOMAN


SINGAPORE WOMAN (1941). Director: Jean Negulesco.

A man sits in a café and across the room sees a figure out of his past: the beautiful daughter of a wealthy man who once helped him. He remembers the night he was at her house and she came running out of her bedroom, while behind her a rejected suitor blew his brains out. At the police station, the wife of the dead man tells the woman that she is ultimately responsible for her husband's death and now her own life will be cursed. In rapid succession, her father loses his fortune, her husband falls overboard and drowns, the gal hits rock bottom, and now this former femme fatale winds up a hopeless, pitiful, disheveled drunk in a tacky, rundown saloon in Singapore. Nevertheless, the young man (David Bruce) is mesmerized and decides to approach her ... That's the start of Singapore Woman and you'll either want to switch the channel or settle back and dig in for more. Despite the sudsy promise of the opening, you ultimately may want to choose the former option, because Singapore Woman turns out to be an okay but not very memorable South Asian remake of Bette Davis' Dangerous (itself no masterpiece), which garnered Davis what most consider a “pity” Oscar. In the Davis part, Brenda Marshall is perfectly swell, although not as –shall we say – vivid as Davis. David Bruce [in the Franchot Tone role} and the supporting cast also give it their all, and the programmer is well-directed by Negulesco, containing a certainly zesty bar fight scene. The film has a different ending from Dangerous however. [SPOILER ALERT: she stays with Bruce instead of returning to her not-so-dead husband.]
Verdict: Singapore Woman is a competent curiosity, all right; it just isn't anything special. **.

SONS OF THE DESERT


SONS OF THE DESERT (1933). Director: William A. Seiter.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy want to go off to a convention of the Sons of the Desert in Chicago, but their wives won't have it. They cook up a ridiculous scheme to get out of town, and nearly get away with it – but the fates conspire to reveal their perfidy to their vengeful wives. This is a very funny movie with some great gags and the boys in top form. Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy are also excellent as the wives, with Charley Chase notable as a fellow conventioneer addicted to practical jokes. Full of comic inventiveness and a lot of merriment this movie above all others shows the Laurel and Hardy influence on TV's The Honeymooners. At one point Oliver tells Stan that he is “king of his castle”and his wife has to do what he says. Sound familiar? Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton were even members of the Raccoon Lodge, a Sons of the Desert-type organization. One quibble about the picture: although it turns out that the boys weren't actually on the boat, and the wreck itself is never shown, it was perhaps ill-advised to make a ship wreck with people dying at sea a key point in the plot.
Verdict: Great fun! ***1/2.

THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN


THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957). Director: Bert I. Gordon. Written by Gordon and Mark Hanna.

AIP rushed out Gordon's Amazing Colossal Man to take advantage of the success of the superior Incredible Shrinking Man, but on its own terms, Colossal is a creditable effort. Glenn Langan plays Colonel Glen Manning, who is observing a plutonium bomb test from a safe distance when a small plane crashes in the vicinity. Manning bravely rushes in to see if the pilot is alive, and gets caught in the full force of the blast. [Stan Lee essentially lifted this sequence to create an origin for The Hulk.] This makes his cells go out of whack – he heals with great rapidity but his cells keep on growing, until he becomes a literal giant. Eventually he loses his mind, rampages through downtown Las Vegas, and is (presumably) killed near Boulder Dam. Despite some ludicrous detours, this is an “intelligent” B movie with excellent performances from Langan and Cathy Downs as his heartsick fiancee. Langan had played romantic leads and second-leads in such films as Dragonwyck with Vincent Price and Margie but his career was on the downslide (he didn't make a film for eight years after Colossal and had to go to Italy to do so), and it isn't improbable to wonder if he used his anguish over faded career opportunities to empower his performance as the tormented Manning. [“What sin could a man commit in a single lifetime to bring this upon himself?” Manning wonders.] Unlike those who are crippled or disfigured, Manning couldn't possibly reenter society in any realistic manner. Gordon's low-rent FX work features a see-through colossus, but there is an effective moment involving a giant hypodermic needle.

NOTE: Continued in the review of the sequel, War of the Colossal Beast.

Verdict: Not bad at all. ***.

WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST


WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST (1958). Director Bert I. Gordon. Written by George Worthing Yates.

The Amazing Colossal Man, now played by Dean Parkin (in make up very similar to what he wore for Gordon's Cyclops), reappeared in the sequel War of the Colossal Beast. Manning somehow survived his fall into the damn and floated down to Mexico, where he lifts trucks carrying food off the back roads and hides out in the mountains. His sister (Sally Fraser) convinces an Army Major (Roger Pace) to fly down and search for him. [Considering the number of trucks he's carried off, you would think dozens of people would have seen him by now instead of one frightened boy.] As usual, the effects are very cheap, but Gordon manages some effective bits, especially when another truck containing the major and a local sergeant is pursued by the humongous legs of the giant, as well as his tug of war with a dozen privates, and his rampage through an airport. Now and then there's a very cleverly handled shot. Despite some of the intentional humor of the film, it's rather depressing, especially when Manning, his mind clearing enough to recognize that he's become a danger as well as a freak, commits suicide in front of his horrified sister by clutching some power lines. Albert Glasser's score for both pictures is very good, particularly when it is creating suspense and eeriness in the sequel. Taken separately or together, these are reasonably entertaining flicks for the monster movie devotee.

Mark Hanna, who co-scripted Amazing Colossal Man, also scripted Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). Two actors in that epic, William Hudson and Roy Gordon, also appeared in Bert Gordon's Colossal Man films. Hudson is "Handsome Harry," the unfaithful husband of Alison Hayes, in 50 Foot Woman and Dr. Lindstrom in Amazing Colossal Man. Roy Gordon is the Mayor (uncredited) in Colossal Beast and Doctor Cushing in 50 Foot Woman. These two actors certainly had their hands full with very big people! A remake of The Amazing Colossal Man was announced in the 1990s but it never materialized. [The less said about the television remake of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman the better.]

Verdict: If you dig it, dig it! **1/2.

Monday, February 11, 2008

ALFIE (1966)


ALFIE (1966). Director: Lewis Gilbert.

The big surprise is that this, the original Alfie, isn't half as good as the remake with Jude Law. Michael Caine, a cruder, less charming and much less likable Alfie – not to mention a more immoral one -- never quite comes off entirely real in this, and the movie is at times a bit tedious. Alfie is an unfocused character and the many supporting characters are not well developed. Vivien Merchant makes an impression as the lonely wife who has a cheap affair with Alfie and gets pregnant, but Shelley Winters (as the rich older woman Ruby) and Michael Caine make a very odd pairing. [When Caine asks Winters what her new boyfriend has that he hasn't got and she says “he's younger than you are” they show the guy in her bed; in the remake he remains unseen.] There is a lively, funny – if typically unrealistic bar fight – but not much else to recommend it. Some may feel this early version of the story has more bite and is more faithful to the original play, but it simply isn't as entertaining as the remake, and has its own ill-conceived moments of sentiment. NOTE: To read a review of the Alfie remake with Jude Law, scan down the movie reviews page at HIGH AND LOW NY http://highandlowny.tripod.com/id27.html.
Verdict: Not so great. **.

NATASHA: The Biography of Natalie Wood


NATASHA: The Biography of Natalie Wood. Suzanne Finstad. Harmony Books; 2001.

This is a thorough, readable account of the life of Natasha Gurdin, who became famous in Hollywood as Natalie Wood, Movie Star. The book takes us from her days as a child star to her adult stardom in such films as West Side Story and Love with the Proper Stranger and on to her middle years, where she had fewer film assignments, did television movies, and died much too young one horrible night off the yacht, Splendor [named for her film Splendor in the Grass]. Finstad offers some new insights into what might have happened that night of drunken merriment and unpleasant argument – did somebody get away with manslaughter or, at the very least, depraved indifference to life? Or was everyone, Wood included, just too inebriated to do anything to save Natalie? You can judge for yourself. Finstad also goes into Wood's relationship with Robert Wagner, whom she married twice, divorcing him, according to Finstad's sources, after catching him in a compromising position. Finstad did a lot of research and interviews for this book, although some of her sources aren't as credible in their accounts as others. If I have one problem with this book, it's the slant, which seems to imply that Wood's life was as tragic as her death. Wood may have complained about being a movie star at times – especially when she began to slip at the box office – but she also seemed to take great enjoyment in all of its advantages, not the least of which was financial. Finstad also works too hard to make her stage mother Maria out to be a deep, dark villainess, although, to be fair, she does quote a couple of people who offer opinions to the contrary. Maybe this isn't the last word, but it's still a solid biography.
Verdict: Very readable and informative. ***.

THE VAMPIRE


THE VAMPIRE (1957). Directed by Paul Landres.

A small town doctor (John Beal) with a young daughter accidentally ingests some pills created by a dead scientist and reverts into a strange creature that attacks and kills several neighbors. Although he leaves two bite marks on the neck, he is not a vampire in the usual sense, but causes capillary breakdown or something along those lines which causes the bodies of the victims to eventually disintegrate. With its nice-guy-turns-into-tormented-monster theme, the film is along the lines of Neanderthal Man and Monster on the Campus. There’s a skeleton with eyeballs intact that pre-dates a similar bit in 1959's Caltiki. The make up is a little too comical at times, but otherwise effective. The performances from Kenneth Tobey as a cop and Coleen Gray as a nurse-receptionist are solid, but the stand-out is John Beal, who gives a very good and sensitive performance as the haunted, horrified (and horrifying) doctor. The always reliable Dabbs Greer is also good as a colleague – and late victim – of Beal’s. Pretty standard and without much style or atmosphere, but it holds the attention and has several exciting sequences. Gerald Fried's musical score is a plus.
Verdict: Worth a look. **1/2.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

ZORRO RIDES AGAIN


ZORRO RIDES AGAIN (1937). Republic. Directed by William Witney and John English.

This is an acceptable but pretty standard cliffhanger that is by no means any great classic of the genre. John Carroll is fine as James Vega/Zorro, who comes to the aid of a brother-sister team of railroad owners beset by villains. Marsden (Noah Beery) wants the railroad for himself, and has "El Lobo" do his dirty work for him out in California while he sits behind a desk in Manhattan. El Lobo and Marsden are both colorless, unprepossessing antagonists. Helen Christian plays Joyce Andrews, one of the railroad owners. (Her reaction when she learns that a father and his young son have been killed by El Lobo is "underplayed," to say the least!) Duncan Renaldo is "Renaldo," who assists Zorro at times. Some good cliffhangers involve floods, explosions, and train tunnels, while chapter three features some good fisticuffs on the tracks as a train approaches, with Zorro’s foot getting caught in the rail (it never occurs to Zorro to simply remove his boot)! Zorro Rides Again is not terrible, but considering it comes from Republic studios, it is rather disappointing.
Verdict: Unspectacular. **1/2.

RACHEL AND THE STRANGER


RACHEL AND THE STRANGER (1948). Director: Norman Foster. Screenplay by Howard Fast and Waldo Salt.

After his beloved wife dies, Ohio rancher Dave (William Holden) buys and marries a bond servant named Rachel (Loretta Young) to look after his young son Davey (Gary Gray) and help with the chores. Unfortunately, his grief makes it impossible for him to act like a real husband with the woman. A wandering friend named Jim (Robert Mitchum) sees the problem and decides that Rachel should marry him. This lovely film features one of Holden's best performances as the widower who tries too hard to remain faithful to his dead wife. One might not see Loretta Young in the deglamorized role of Rachel, but she is also excellent. Robert Mitchum fails to get across his character's internal emotions, but is otherwise competent. Gary Gray is quite good as young Davey. The theme of loneliness resonates throughout the movie.
Verdict: This is a “little” picture but a memorable one. ***.

SON OF PALEFACE


SON OF PALEFACE (1952). Director: Frank Tashlin.

One of Bob Hope's best comedy vehicles, the sequel to his equally successful The Paleface, has “Paleface” Potter traveling from Harvard (where he took fourteen years to graduate) to the Wild West in his horseless carriage to claim his late father's fortune. Lying in wait for him are all of his father's creditors, angry Indians, and Jane Russell, a saloon owner who doubles as a highway robber known as “The Torch.” Roy Rogers amiably plays a Federal agent who just happens to act and sing like Roy Rogers. His horse Trigger, truly “the smartest horse in the West,” turns in one of the best performances as a wonder horse who can open doors, climb stairs, outfox Hope, and even steal the covers from him in a classic scene when the two wind up sharing a bed! Busty Russell is as hard and “butch” as ever in her own bizarrely feminine way and Hope is in top form throughout (he seems to go in and out of character at times but in a farce like this it hardly matters). Clever, inventive, and funny, Son of Paleface is full of director Tashlin's trademark cartoon-like humor. At the time of the film's release there were protests from Native Americans at the scenes of the rampaging Indians being shot down like tenpins even though the whole tone throughout is outlandish and not to be taken seriously. Still, you can see how it would bother them that the Indians are barely depicted as being human. NOTE: For a lengthy analysis of this film and of the career and life of Bob Hope, check out Lawrence Quirk's biography Bob Hope: The Road Well Traveled.
Verdict: Funny stuff. ***.

BLUEBEARD


BLUEBEARD (1944). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

John Carradine, always an under-rated actor (largely because of all of the cheap genre productions he appeared in) is excellent in this study of a serial killer/painter who murders women when he's not doing portraits or putting on charming puppet operas such as Faust. The film goes in for a kind of psychological approach, focusing on the killer himself (who is revealed almost from the first) instead of unfolding as a who-done-it. An interesting quality of the picture is its unpredictability – you're never quite certain which potential victims will be saved and which ones won't. While the “facts” of the film may never quite jell with what we now know about serial killers, on certain aspects it's surprisingly on target. Recently the theory was posited that Jack the Ripper was actually the painter Walter Sickert. It could be said that this movie was prescient were it not for the fact that the Ripper/Sickert theory is full of holes.
Verdict: Worth a look. **1/2.

GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN


GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN (1958). Director: Richard Cunha.

Many monster movie fans will be disappointed to know that the “giant” in this movie is not of Bert I. Gordon proportions like The Cyclops or Amazing Colossal Man but is only a very tall, bear-like actor named Buddy Baer. Baer plays a nasty Spanish conquistador who has been in suspended animation for 500 years, but has come back to life to attack people and livestock in the vicinity of Devil's Crag. This conquistador, Vargas by name, was known as “the Diablo Giant” due to his size. Ed Kemmer [of Earth vs. The Spider infamy] plays Wayne Brooks, who hooks up with an archaeologist named Cleveland (Morris Ankrum) and his not-terribly-scientific daughter Janet (Sally Fraser, who appeared in War of the Colossal Beast and other genre films). Fraser is better in this picture than in others, and she and Kemmer play a nice, charming love scene together. While it's become obligatory to snicker at Giant from the Unknown, the fact is that it's not such a bad movie at all. It is fast-paced, professional, continually suspenseful, and not badly directed by Cunha, who handles several sequences quite adroitly. The film is also very well edited. Albert Glasser's score, as usual, adds a lot to the picture as well. There has been some confusion over a scene when it appears that Vargas revives during a lightning storm even though people and animals have already been attacked earlier in the picture. It''s possible that in this scene Vargas is merely awakening after sleeping for awhile, and that he covered himself in leaves and the like so that he wouldn't be attacked while asleep. Unfortunately the dialogue refers to the lightning as a source of resuscitation, further muddying the waters. [Maybe it was the continuity person who was asleep.]
Verdict: Not bad. **1/2.