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

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

D.O.A.


D.O.A. (1950). Director: Rudolph Mate.

Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) is on vacation in San Francisco when an unknown person slips him a drink with luminous toxin in it, giving him only a few days to live. Distraught, angry, and confused, Bigelow sets out to find out who killed him and why. This is a completely absorbing, extremely well-acted, suspenseful, twisting, and ultimately heartbreaking movie, perfect on nearly every level. Mate keeps things moving at a fast and snappy pace, but you're always aware that an essentially decent man is facing an undeserved date, as is Paula, the woman back home (Pamela Britton) who loves him and whom he finally realizes he also loves. Billed as "Beverly Campbell," Beverly Garland certainly scores as the anxious Miss Foster, as does Laurette Luez as the malicious Marla and Lynn Baggett as the Widow Philips. Neville Brand is chilling as the psychotic Chester, and the scene with him taking Frank "for a drive" is extremely tense. The film is bolstered by superior work from composer Dimitri Tiomkin and cinmatographer Ernest Laszlo. Remarkable, unusual, and uncompromising.

Verdict: Superb! ****.

RIDERS TO THE STARS


RIDERS TO THE STARS (1954). Director: Richard Carlson.
"Gordon's d-d-disintegrated!"
We're a far cry from Queen of Outer Space with this picture. A scientific team which includes Dr. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) and Dr. Flynn (Martha Hyer) assembles a group of bachelors for physical and psychological tests. Turns out they are looking for men who can fly a spaceship in order to see if man can survive in space; their assignment will be to catch a meteor in flight. James Best of Killer Shrews is one of the candidates, and Michael Fox (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox), who appeared in everything from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to The Bold and the Beautiful, is the psychiatrist. Three men played by Richard Carlson (who also directed), pretty-boy William Lundigan, and busy actor Robert Karnes are chosen for the mission. For the most part Riders to the Stars is dry but reasonably interesting, although even such a "serious" sci fi flick is not above some exploitation elements. After one spaceship disintegrates, Carlson sees the corpse of the pilot floating by, only a skeleton (inexplicably) inside the space suit; an early "shock" scene to be sure. Carlson is very good, and the rest of the cast, Hyer included, are more than efficient.
Verdict: A somewhat interesting curiosity. **1/2.

SECOND FEATURE: THE BEST OF THE 'B' FILMS


SECOND FEATURE: The Best of the 'B' Films. John Cocchi. Citadel Press;1991.

A big over-sized paperback from Citadel Press, John Cocchi's Second Feature is a very entertaining look at some of the best -- and a few of the worst -- "B" movies ever made. While I faithfully look at the schedule for Turner Classic Movies (and even look at many of the movies), a lot of the pics in this volume escaped me; even film buffs will find a lot that is new to them in Second Feature. The book is dedicated to The Cooperative Film Society at Joe's Place (1967 - 1982) -- as well as to Joe Judice and Chris Steinbrunner - and an interesting aspect of the book is that Cocchi occasionally relates how members of the society reacted (both positively and negatively) to some of the films he writes about in his book. Second Feature is divided into sections by film genre, and lists many different films with a pithy write-up on each with background details. There are loads and loads of great photographs, many full-page. An obvious labor of love and lots of fun for B movie enthusiasts!

Verdict: Great! ***1/2.

Friday, July 25, 2008

THE SECOND WOMAN


THE SECOND WOMAN (1950). Director: James V. Kern.

Ellen Foster (Betsy Drake) is visiting her Aunt Amelia (Florence Bates) when she meets and falls in love with Jeff Cohalan ( Robert Young) whose fiancee died in a car accident about a year previously. Jeff seems to have had a steady stream of bad luck ever since, especially since he's met Ellen -- his dog is poisoned, his horse breaks its leg in its stall, his house burns down -- and Ellen wonders if someone is out to get him while Amelia's doctor simply thinks Jeff is nuts and doing everything to himself. The film is well-produced, moodily photographed, and suspenseful as it proceeds to the final revelation. (More on which in a moment.) Drake is very good and makes an appealing, sympathetic heroine. Drake was married to Cary Grant for about 12 years, having met him while co-starring with him in Every Girl Should Be Married. Young is quite good at times as Jeff, even if he doesn't quite have the presence and authority of a Grant and at the climax he's painfully perfunctory when he should be passionate and dismayed. While The Second Woman is never in the league of such films as Rebecca and Suspicion, which it tries to emulate, what really sinks it is the utterly ludicrous denouement, which stretches credulity to the breaking point, asking us to believe that someone would cover up something without at the same time giving the individual a strong and believable enough motivation to do so. John Sutton and Jean Rogers add some spice as a once-married, happily divorced couple who pass in and out of the proceedings. Rogers was in several cliffhanger serials including Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars in which she played Dale Arden. The Second Woman was her final credit.

Verdict: Absorbing, but what a wacky wind-up! **.

THE HYPNOTIC EYE


THE HYPNOTIC EYE (1960). Director: George Blair.

In this sick but entertaining movie, a series of women are horribly disfiguring themselves and then claiming they were completely unaware they were doing so. Could these terrible accidents have something to do with hypnotism? Naturally a detective on the case (Joe Patridge) takes his spunky girlfriend Marcia (Marcia Henderson) to see the act of the sensational Desmond (Jacques Bergerac), who hypnotizes, among others, Marcia's friend, Dodie (Merry Anders), who winds up washing her face in acid later that evening. Brave Marcia decides to find out exactly what happened between Dodie and Desmond, and does a lot more to solve the mystery than her boyfriend. Desmond's assistant is zestily played by Allison Hayes of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, although her portrayal here makes her giantess seem positively benign. Ghoulish and a bit ugly at times, but an undeniably effective shocker. See if you can spot Henry Aldrich himself, Jimmy Lydon, in the role of an emergency room doctor; I completely missed him.

Verdict: Twisted but fascinating. ***.

CRIME AGAINST JOE


CRIME AGAINST JOE (1956). Director: Lee Sholem. A Bel-Air Production.
Joe Manning (John Bromfield, pictured) is an unsuccessful painter who's basically supported by his understanding mother, Nora (Frances Morris). One night he goes off on a drunk and encounters a sleepwalking beauty and her father, who refuses to alibi him when a woman is found dead with Joe's school pin at her side. The main suspect, Manning, and Frances (Julie London) a pretty car hop who's in love with him, set about to figure out which guy who's missing the same class pin could be the real culprit. There are some interesting elements in this, but it's given a typically Grade C TV-type Bel-Air treatment. In fact, it's less entertaining than other Bel-Air productions. Bromfield was also in Manfish and Three Bad Sisters, another Bel-Air "mess"terpiece. Bromfield is adequate if unspectacular, and London just doesn't have enough oomph. It's easy to see why she did much more television work than film. Nothing much here, all told.
Verdict: Slight murder mystery. **.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL


DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL (1946). Director: Gordon Douglas.
Although Ralph Byrd played the famous cartoon strip detective in several cliffhanger serials, when they began making feature-length Tracy movies they first hired Morgan Conway to play the part. Conway isn't bad, but he's not as perfect for the role as Byrd is. In this very fast-paced thriller, Tracy is up against a bald, nasty criminal named Cueball (Dick Wessel, who is very effective) who is after some diamonds or their cash equivalent and strangles anyone who gets in his way (director Douglas includes lots of vivid close ups of people about to be dispatched by Cueball). There are a lot of colorful characters in this, not the least of which is "Filthy" Flora (Esther Howard), proprietress of the Dripping Dagger bar, who mistakenly thinks she can outwit the malevolent Cueball. Anne Jeffreys is Tess Trueheart and Ian Keith is the florid "Vitamin."
Verdict: Minor but fun. **1/2.

THE BLACK DAHLIA


THE BLACK DAHLIA (2006). Directed by Brian De Palma.

“I think you'd rather f--k me than kill me,” says Hilary Swank to detective Josh Hartnett in this adaptation of James Ellroy's novel, which pretty much sums up the tone of this rather silly movie. Brian De Palma once made some very well-crafted and entertaining pictures, but despite some elaborate scenic design and the duplication of the forties era, this is not one of his more memorable projects. The picture begins with a long, unnecessary prologue showing us how the detective team of Harnett and Aaron Eckhardt were originally boxers and how they square off against each other in the ring. Before long the two are not only partners but best buddies, forming a loose menage a trois with Eckhardt's girlfriend Scarlet Johansson. [Miss Johansson is either a mediocre actress or to be charitable is simply struggling with an impossible part.] Hilary Swank is much more on the mark as the stereotypical sexy, amoral rich gal, Madelaine, who dallies with Hartnett when he investigates her family in connection with the murder of [the real life] Elizabeth Short. One gets the impression that neither De Palma or anyone else connected to the movie cares that much about Short, The Black Dahlia, or anything else. The script by Josh Friedman is terribly confused and disjointed and the movie takes forever to sustain some interest. There is a hilarious scene in an alleged lesbian nightclub that could only be in a Hollywood movie, with stages and stairs out of Busby Berkeley and k.d. lang making a guest-appearance on the landing as a vocalist surrounded by chorus cuties. The movie has its compelling moments and entertaining scenes but by and large it just doesn't convince. Hartnett and Eckhardt are fine, however, and the picture is nearly stolen by Swank's mother (Fioria Shaw), who gets drunk and bitchy at dinner, to say the least. De Palma doesn't seem to care anymore about camera movements and angles and stylishness, and Black Dahlia can certainly not be seen as a memorial to the dead fifteen-year-old child, Elizabeth Short. The filmmaker doesn't seem to get that she was a minor being exploited by adults, a cycle which, frankly, this movie seems to be continuing.
Verdict: Overbaked and clumsy. **.

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET


SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET (1951). Director: Richard Quine.

Frankie Laine plays himself, a singer with a TV show whose sponsor, a peanut brittle company, is represented by Gloria Pelley (Audrey Long). Gloria's old boyfriend, "Stretch" or Ted (Jerome Courtland) is hoping to make it in show business, and he has a pretty agent Betty (Terry Moore of Mighty Joe Young fame, pictured with Laine) who has a big crush on him. Naturally she's jealous of the attentions of Gloria, who wants to sign Ted up for the Frankie Laine show. Moore and Courtland are cute and competent, Pelley has a little more spice, and Frankie Laine was simply not cut out for success in the movies. Lynn Bari plays Betty's older roommate Mary and is given all the sardonic lines, but she's not in the class of Eve Arden when it comes to delivering them. One singer does an hysterically overwrought version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" -- awful! Very minor musical is as insubstantial and gooey as cotton candy.

Verdict: Try and miss it. *1/2.

Friday, July 18, 2008

MAN-PROOF


MAN-PROOF (1938). Director: Richard Thorpe.
Mimi (Myrna Loy, pictured) is heartbroken when Alan Wythe (Walter Pidgeon), the man she loves, marries Elizabeth (Rosalind Russell) instead, and she swears that she'll never stop wanting him or hoping to land him, even though her wise mother Meg (Nana Bryant) tells her to spend her energies elsewhere, as does her mother's friend -- and Mimi's "dutch uncle" -- Jimmy (Franchot Tone). Mimi does go to work for a newspaper as a commercial artist, and eventually tells Elizabeth that she is over Alan and the two of them can just be friends. Unfortunately, things are not as easy as all that. A familiar, but nonetheless provocative, situation isn't developed with any particular skill, even though some of the dialogue is snappy and the performances good. The whole result may hold your attention but it's ultimately just blah. And very predictable.
Verdict: Not quite a waste of 75 minutes but almost. **.

GREAT OLD CHARACTER ACTORS: JAY NOVELLO


JAY NOVELLO. 1904 - 1982.
When I was a kid I saw Irwin Allen's production of The Lost World and the classic seance episode of I Love Lucy many times, but I never made the connection between the simpering South American "Costa" of the former and the nerdy but lovable "Mr. Merriweather" of the latter ["We're all odd, aren't we?" he says to Lucy and Ricky.] Novello, who has 187 credits to his name, also appeared on two other I Love Lucy episodes, playing Mario from Italy and a nervous trial witness who only wants some peace and quiet which, of course, he doesn't get from Lucy. He was in dozens of films, appeared in virtually every famous TV show, had parts in cliffhanger serials, and was always first-rate in everything he did. Why did it take me so long to recognize that Costa and Mr. Merriweather were played by the same actor? Because Novello was one of those rare birds, a very gifted, genuinely versatile performer who could lose himself in every role he played, convincingly portraying any kind of person and affecting whatever accent was required by the role. (In The Mad Magician with Vincent Price you'd have thought he was actually a British actor. And he played an Eskimo chief in The Great Alaskan Mystery!) Jay Novello left behind more than his share of very memorable portrayals and was one of those really great character actors who was a boon to every production he took part in.

MYSTIC RIVER


MYSTIC RIVER (2004). Director: Clint Eastwood.

Since he's always been perceived as a Hollywood conservative it's amusing that Eastwood teamed up with two famous Hollywood liberals, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, to make this acclaimed but disappointing feature. Three little boys playing in the street are interrupted by an intense fellow whom they imagine is a cop. He takes one of the three into his car and the boy isn't seen until he escapes from the creep three days later. Flash forward to when all three men are grown and the daughter of one of them – Sean Penn's character – is found murdered in a park. That same night Tim Robbins – he was the boy who was kidnapped and molested years earlier -- comes home to his wife covered in blood. Much of what happens next is quite predictable, and the script offers few real surprises to a wide-awake viewer. Eastwood directs with professional assurance if not a lot of inspiration; mostly he just lets the actors do the work. Tim Robbins is simply superb, completely losing himself in his tormented character, but Sean Penn, generally one of our best actors, is getting sloppy. Penn never seems to get a handle on his character and falls back into a standard bag of tricks that are highly unsatisfying. Kevin Bacon is okay as the third grown-up kid, now a homicide investigator. Mystic River is an awkward blend of mystery with mobster drama and doesn't quite work as either despite some interesting moments and performances from Robbins and a generally fine supporting cast. The ending of this film should horrify, sadden and appall, but it does none of those. Apparently Eastwood is another one of these directors who wrongly fears that emotional intensity reduces a film to a mere soap opera.
Verdict: Mystic River isn't much of anything. **.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

BLACK MAGIC (1949)


BLACK MAGIC (1949). Director: Gregory Ratoff.
Alexander Dumas Sr. is working on a book about Cagliostro and trying to get a handle on him when he relates the story that forms this film to his son. Black Magic is a mix of fiction and history, and can best be described as a somewhat entertaining potboiler. Young Joseph Balsamo is whipped and forced to watch his gypsy parents being hanged upon the orders of the cruel Viscount DeMontagne (Stephen Bekassy) -- fiction. When he grows up, Balsamo has turned into the famed mysticist Count Cagliostro (fact), and eventually marries a young woman named Lorenza (fact) who is the spitting image of Marie Antoinette (fiction). The two of them get mixed up in a plot to turn the French public against Antoinette involving a piece of jewelry (part fiction, part fact). Then, of course, Cagliostro must get his revenge against DeMontagne, although this aspect of the story doesn't get nearly enough dramatic attention. Orson Welles gives another wonderful performance as Cagliostro, although the movie is certainly no Citizen Kane. Nancy Guild makes the most of her dual role as the sweet and innocent Lorenza and a rather bitchy Marie Antoinette, and Margot Grahame scores as Mme. DuBarry. Akim Tamiroff is fine, as always, as a friend of Cagliostro's. After awhile the muddled proceedings begin to grow wearisome, however, although there's an eye-opening sword fight high above on the roofs of Paris at the end that is quite striking and cinematic. Another memorable sequence has a crowd of supposed cripples and sick people gathering in front of the King, who orders Cagliostro to cure them en masse -- with amusing results.
Verdict: Has its moments, but you can also see why it's been forgotten. **1/2.

QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE


QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958). Director: Edward Bernds.

Now classified as a "camp classic," Queen of Outer Space is simply a really awful movie. Being decked out in CinemaScope and Technicolor only makes its flaws more apparent. A spaceship in 1985 is hurled off course and lands on Venus, which is nothing like the way it's been described by scientists (no explanation is offered for this). Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell) has taken over the planet and banished the men whose war-mongering caused so much trouble, but she's just as bad. Zsa Zsa Gabor plays a scientist (yeah -- sure!) who is part of an underground conspiracy against the evil queen, and she and others help the earthmen to save their planet from a destructive blast from the queen's beta disintegrator. With costumes from Forbidden Planet (what an insult!), a plastic spider-prop from World Without End, and almost zero entertainment value, Queen of Outer Space isn't "so bad it's good"-- it's just bad. Slow pacing, a dumb script, and mediocre direction don't help. Some of the actors do the best they can -- Laurie Mitchell isn't bad -- but Zsa Zsa gives one of the worst performances by an actress in a professional (more or less) motion picture. Even Missile to the Moon (1959) and Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1955) were better than this! The bit with a deadly beam destroying a space station has some suspense to it even though the beam seems to come from a dozen different directions. A hilarious sequence has Gabor trying to imitate the queen as if none of the queen's guards would notice her accent!

Verdict: Not even the cheesecake and beefcake can save it. *.

INTERIORS


INTERIORS (1978). Director/writer: Woody Allen.
63-year-old Arthur (E. G. Marshall) tells his wife and three daughters that he wants to move out and be by himself for awhile. His wife Eve (Geraldine Page) foolishly imagines that he'll come back to her, and in this is humored by one of her daughters while another tries to make her see reality. Renata, a poetess (Diane Keaton) is married to a novelist (Richard Jordan) whose work fails to impress the critics. Her sister Flynn (Kristin Griffith) is an actress with an undistinguished career, and the third daughter, Joey (Marybeth Hurt), is still struggling to find herself. Renata says of Joey: "She has all the anguish and anxiety of the artistic personality without any of the talent." The situation leads inexorably to tragedy after Arthur gets a new woman, Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), in his life. Interiors is interesting and well-acted, but while Allen may not have wanted to just spell everything out, the film still needs more detail and character development. Dramatic things happen but the film doesn't always give us a chance to see the characters reacting to them. Well-photographed by Gordon Willis. Interiors is Allen working in an Ingmar Bergman mode, although the film is not as deliberately- paced as anything by Bergman. Sam Waterston has a small role as Joey's better half.
Verdict: Good enough to make you wish it were better. ***.

Monday, July 14, 2008

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION


WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) Director: Billy Wilder.

Just out of the hospital, defense lawyer Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) is told to take it easy, but he can't resist taking on the almost hopeless case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), who has been charged with murdering the wealthy and lonely old woman Emily French (Norma Varden) who has fallen for him. Robarts isn't certain if Vole's supposed wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) will be a help or a hindrance, but she has a few surprises up her sleeves. This movie is perfect on virtually every level, from Wilder's adroit direction to the canny, suspenseful script with its flavorful characters, and the performances of a large and splendid cast. Laughton may not have been an especially photogenic person, but his acting is so splendid that you just can't take your eyes off of him. In their scenes together, Dietrich is nearly his match. Elsa Lanchester and Una O'Connor are excellent and amusing as, respectively, Robart's scolding nurse and the murder victim's housekeeper/companion. Torin Thatcher, the villain from 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jack the Giant Killer is riveting as the prosecutor, and Ruta Lee has a nice bit as a girl caught up in the proceedings. Tyrone Power was only 43 when he made the film -- he died the following year -- but he looks in his fifties or sixties even with the make up on. While Power may not have been in Laughton's league as an actor, he's actually a perfect choice for Vole. Henry Daniell and John Williams also score as associates of Robarts'. Norma Varden makes the most of her flashback scenes as the kind and likable Emily. Darkly amusing and absorbing, Witness for the Prosecution is a winner all the way!

Verdict: Superb! ****.

WHO'S GUILTY?


WHO'S GUILTY? (1945). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Directors: Howard Bretherton and Wallace Grissell.
Henry Calvert is murdered and there are numerous suspects, including the creepy housekeeper Mrs. Gill (Minerva Urecal), his sister Sarah (Belle Mitchell), his lawyer Horace Black (Sam Flint) and even the butler Patton (Charles Middleton, famous as "Ming the Merciless"), among others. Meanwhile there's a hunt for family treasure in a mine, and eventually a hooded figure shows up to cause more mischief. Bob Stewart (Robert Kent) from the State Board of Investigation, "aided" by comedy relief reporter Duke Ellis (Tim Ryan), tries to ferret out the guilty party while bickering with pretty and mysterious Ruth Allen (Amelita Ward), who won't tell exactly what she has to do with the Calverts. Who's Guilty?, alas, is not one of the more memorable chapterplays, and after awhile you won't really care who's guilty or much of anything else. Ryan gives a good performance, and Urecal is fun as the mouthiest and most disagreeable housekeeper on record. The versatile Charles Middleton is fine but wasted in the small role of the butler, even if Patton isn't exactly a typical domestic.
Verdict: Guilty of being just a bit boring. **.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA


THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006). Director: David Frankel.
A young woman who wants to become a serious journalist inexplicably goes to work for a slick fashion magazine run by the nearly inhuman Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), whose personal assistant she becomes. Priestly emerges as so unpleasant that you can't understand it when the young lady develops any sympathy for her, but Miranda saves her worst loathsomeness for afterward, selling out a supposed friend to save herself. This movie holds the attention in a limited way, but is distinctly minor and not especially funny. Streep isn't bad, Anne Hathaway offers a winning performance as her assistant, and Stanley Tucci plays the stereotypical gay-guy-in-fashion as well as anyone could. [In a sadly hilarious moment, Tucci's character seems to compare fashion designers with the likes of great artists such as Shakespeare or Wagner -- although he doesn't mention those particular names.] A big problem with the picture is that in the first half everyone snickers at Hathaway's un-chic fashion sense, but absolutely nobody notices how good-looking she is, which makes little sense. Since most of the characters are superficial and a bit dumb, this forgettable trifle does little to stimulate the mind or anything else.
Verdict: Instantly disposable. **.

Friday, July 11, 2008

ALFIE (2004)


ALFIE (2004). Director: Charles Shyer.
Jude Law is superb as happy-go-lucky, love 'em and leave 'em Alfie, who has come to New York City to make his fortune and bed lots of women. He even winds up going to bed with the woman his best friend loves and hopes to marry. As he puts it, he doesn't mean to hurt anyone, and in truth Alfie is not devoid of a conscience or compassion. One of the best, most touching scenes has him encountering an elderly widower in the men's room of a doctor's office (the doc found a lump on Alfie's penis) who tells him (of his wife) “we weren't all that fond of each other, but we were very close.” New York is certainly full of callow men who use and disrespect women, but Alfie isn't really of the heartless or completely insensitive variety. He's typical of young men who want to sow their oats, avoiding encumbrances, afraid to commit to women who love them because there may be someone even better or more beautiful around the bend – not to mention all those flavors of ice cream that await them. Then of course, the one person who loves them the most and upon whom they can generally depend gets tired of waiting and moves on with someone else – to their regret. Marisa Tomei plays Julie, a young mother who functions as Alfie's “old shoe” but to whom he can't fully commit because she's not quite pretty enough (although he comes to realize how much she really means to him). The script by Shyer and Elaine Pope seems a bit contrived at times to teach the young man a lesson (especially in a scene with spunky Susan Sarandon) and also descends on occasion to suspect sentimentality (Alfie's improbable walk on the beach with the aforementioned widower), but is generally strong. Although there are plenty of love scenes, the movie isn't so much sexy as poignant, with a strong undercurrent of loneliness radiating from many different characters. Mick Jagger has contributed some sassy background songs. Better than the rather boring original film with Michael Caine.
Verdict: A pleasant surprise. ***.

KING OF THE ROCKET MEN


KING OF THE ROCKET MEN (1949). 12 chapter Republic serial. Director: Fred C. Brannon.
Attention! New York City must be evacuated immediately!Proceed in an orderly fashion. [Yeah, right!]
Okay serial lovers, dig in: Jeff King (Tristram Coffin) is the director of security of Science Associates, whose members are being killed off one by one by a sinister fellow known only as "Dr. Vulcan." King eventually realizes that Vulcan has to be one of the remaining board members, but which one is it? Battling the henchmen of the evil doctor, King dons a helmet and jet pack, flies through the air with the greatest of ease, and is christened "Rocket Man" by the newspapers. (No one wonders how he manages to fly without burning off his derriere!). Glenda Thomas (Mae Clarke) is a reporter who gets involved in the action, which includes Vulcan turning a "decimator" upon New York City in an extortion attempt and causing a tidal wave to engulf most of Manhattan (undoubtedly footage from an earlier film or serial. Our hero doesn't quite manage to save the city.) There is a good cliffhanger involving a cave and a river of molten lava, and the usual sloppiness, such as one character being able to drive a car under the remote control of Vulcan when nobody has ever been able to do it before. The colorfully named Tristram (with an "m" and extra "r," not an "n" as in Tristan and Isolde) Coffin makes a somewhat colorless lead, although he does play with the requisite authority. 18 years earlier heroine Mae Clarke had a grapefruit thrust in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy; in this she's more than professional. Tom Steele of The Masked Marvel also plays a supporting role.
Verdict: More fun than it has any right to be! ***.

KATE: The Woman Who Was Hepburn


KATE: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William J. Mann. Henry Holt; 2006.

A monumental, scrupulously researched look into the life of Katharine Hepburn. If you're looking for an analysis of her films or acting technique or a great many behind-the-scenes-on-the-film-set anecdotes, look elsewhere, because Mann says upfront that that's not the kind of book he's written. This is a frank, detailed look at Hepburn's single-minded drive to reach stardom, as well as a no-holds-barred examination of her sexuality and romantic life. Always an unconventional person in many ways, like many movie stars with secrets Hepburn became more conservative in her attitudes as she got older. Her contradictory nature is what makes the book so fascinating. Mann shows how Hepburn herself helped to turn a close platonic friendship with the equally ambiguous Spencer Tracy into one of the great "love stories" of the century -- but it was more about image than anything else. Mann seems to think Hepburn's relationships with men (many of whom were closeted homosexuals) indicate a bisexual nature, but it could just as easily have been internalized homophobia that had her desiring a "normal" relationship with a man, but Mann, surprisingly, never delves into this. Mann's book is not at all disrespectful to Hepburn, but he does tear away all the Hollywood publicist bulls--t and get at the truth behind the myths. (The passages about Hepburn's work on the Broadway musical Coco are alone worth the price of admission.)

Verdict: Fascinating! ***1/2.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN


HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944). Director: Erle C. Kenton.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man teamed the two title characters. This sequel (sixth in the Frankenstein series and third in the Wolf Man series) brings those two back and throws Dracula into the mix. Boris Karloff plays not the monster, but mad scientist Dr. Niemann, who escapes from jail with his hunchback servant, Daniel (J. Carroll Naish), eager to get revenge on the men who spoke out against him at his trial. Along the way the twosome encounter Lampini (George Zucco), a traveling showman who has acquired the bones of Dracula (John Carradine). In a relatively brief episode, Niemann inadvertently brings Dracula back to life (the vampire never meets the monster or the Wolf Man). Although the climax to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man took place in Visaria, the locale for that is conveniently switched to the village of Frankenstein, where Niemann and Daniel uncover Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) and the monster. A romantic triangle develops between Daniel, Talbot and Ilonka, (Elena Verdugo), a cute little gypsy girl. Although Niemann hopes to revivify the monster, cure Talbot of his curse, and even give Daniel a hunky new body, the best laid plans ... The monster (Glenn Strange) doesn't really come to life until the final moments of the film. Nevertheless this is a fast-paced, dramatic, well-directed, generally well-acted, and highly entertaining monster fest. Karloff is fine, Chaney uneven, Carradine okay (if nothing special), but Naish pretty much steals the picture with his half evil/half pathetic portrait of Daniel. Ever-reliable Lionel Atwill is again on hand as Arnz. Followed by House of Dracula.

Verdict: Hang on for a fun ride! ***.

HOUSE OF DRACULA


HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). Director: Erle C. Kenton.

Sequel to House of Frankenstein ignores the fact that both Dracula and The Wolf Man seemingly died at the end of that film and has both Larry Talbot(Lon Chaney Jr.) and Count Dracula (improbably) asking decent Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens) to cure them of their respective curses. Conveniently, Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange) is found in the caverns below Edelman's sanitarium, along with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann from House of Frankenstein. Before long Dracula (John Carradine) is up to his old tricks, infecting Edelman (who becomes a sort of vampire without dying) with his evil -- Talked out of reviving the monster by his kindly hunchbacked assistant Nina (Jane Adams), he now decides to bring the creature back to life in the climax. Strangely compelling horror film plays fast and loose with supernatural legends, but offers a kind of scientific explanation for both vampirism (parasites in the blood) and lycanthropy (something to do with self-hypnosis, overactive hormones, and pressure in the cranial cavity). Lionel Atwill is back as another police inspector. The Wolf Man and Dracula are in the same room only for a few seconds. They would interact more -- and Dracula would actually meet The Monster -- in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Verdict: Great fun! ***.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN


ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Director: Charles Barton.

Costello (to pretty Lenore Aubert): How can you look me in the face and say that?

Abbott (to Aubert): How can you look him in the face?


Abbott and Costello's greatest movie pits them against Dracula (played by Bela Lugosi for only the second time), who wants to transplant Lou's brain into the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) so he'll have a more controllable ally. Lon Chaney plays Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, for the fifth time, and is better in this film than he was in the "serious" ones. Talbot knows what Dracula's up to, and wants the boys to help him stop the evil count. Aiding the count is Dr. Sandra Aubrey (Lenore Aubert), who pretends she's smitten with Lou to keep him -- or rather his simple brain -- at the ready. Charles Bradstreet plays an out-of-the-loop doctor-associate of Aubert's, and Jane Randolph is an insurance investigator who attaches herself to the boys in the hopes of finding out what happened to the contents of two coffins the boys delivered to a House of Horrors. (Frank Ferguson is very good as the angry, exasperated owner of the House of Horrors.) Glenn Strange is effective and even has a couple of lines as The Monster (who only spoke in Bride of Frankenstein and in Ghost of Frankenstein after Igor/Lugosi's brain was transplanted into his head). Vincent Price has a very funny cameo.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is not a parody a la Young Frankenstein so much as it's a Universal horror film into which the boys have been inserted. The guys do their amusing routines, while everyone else mostly plays it straight -- and it works! Funny, atmospheric, and creepy in equal measure, it has some genuinely suspenseful sequences and is bolstered by a terrific score by Frank Skinner. Bud and Lou are in top form and Bela Lugosi is simply splendid!

Verdict: Terrific horror comedy! ***1/2.

Monday, July 7, 2008

JUBAL


JUBAL (1956). Director: Delmer Daves.

Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) is a kindly if clueless rancher who gives a drifter named Jubal (Glenn Ford) a job, but trouble takes the form of another hand, Pinky (Rod Steiger), who takes an instant dislike to Jubal. Matters aren't helped when Horgan's overheated wife Mae (Valerie French) takes a shine to Jubal, even though she's already dallied with Pinky. This all leads to melodramatic but not very interesting complications. This silly sex-western has okay performances but the soap opera plot is predictable and the ultimate effect is tedium. A sub-plot with a group of religious wanderers and a pretty gal that Jabal falls for (played by Felicia Farr) doesn't help much. Charles Lawton Jr.'s cinematography is wonderful, however. Charles Bronson has a small role. Valerie French later wound up in The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.

Verdict: No jubilation in Jubal. **.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY


ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955). Director: Charles Lamont.

Silly but amusing trifle has Bud and Lou dealing with a sinister cult in Egypt, as well as a tough dame named Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) and a walking mummy named "Klaris." Lou has accidentally swallowed an important medallion and the madame is perfectly willing to cut it out of him if need be. Richard Deacon plays a cult leader and Peggy King is the delectable vocalist who delivers a number in a saucy style in a nightclub sequence. As the sexy if hard-bitten bad girl, Windsor plays the material with just the right touch. Inside the tombs Lou briefly encounters a giant lizard that looks as if it wandered in from One Million B.C. Zany but cute.

Verdict: Fun for the boys' many fans. **1/2.

BEYOND THE SEA


BEYOND THE SEA (2004). Director/Co-Writer: Kevin Spacey.
This biopic of singer-actor Bobby Darin was clearly a labor of love for Kevin Spacey, who not only co-wrote (with Lewis Colick), directed, and starred in the film, but also does all his own singing – and is excellent at it. For much of its length this is a fairly standard show biz biography, although it has a stylized framework of Darin starring in a movie about himself and discussing with the other actors/characters how to proceed [There is even one outdoor production number like something out of a movie musical]. The movie skirts much of his younger life and brings him to Hollywood and the arms of wife Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) pretty quickly. It gets even more interesting when we see how he temporarily “dropped out” and then decided to reinvent himself as a folk singer [although one has to wonder if his singing anti-Viet Nam protest songs reflected his true feelings or was only an attempt to generate a new, younger audience for himself]. This could be dismissed as a “vanity production” for Spacey were it not for the fact that he pulls it off, despite being older than Darin was when he died. Bob Hoskins also gives a wonderful performance, as does Caroline Aaron as his mother, Nina [who pretended to be his sister for most of his life] and William Ullrich as Darin as a boy. The songs are well chosen and whatever its deficiencies the film works beautifully on an emotional level.
Verdict: Ol' Maggie's back in town! ***.

Friday, July 4, 2008

THE DEPARTED


THE DEPARTED (2006). Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Whatever strings were pulled behind the scenes, Martin Scorsese managed to pull off a real con on both the critics and public, for this picture – almost universally, if sometimes reservedly, acclaimed – is decidedly mediocre despite an excellent premise [borrowed from a foreign film] and some exciting sequences. Basically the mobster Frank Costello – more on that name later – plants an admiring young man whom he helped early in life (Matt Damon) in the Boston police department while the latter follow suit by depositing a young undercover officer (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the Costello camp. Late in the picture – when at last the suspense kicks in to a degree – these two men try to ferret out the identity of the other, with the expected violent results. The main trouble with the film is that this is supposed to be a thriller but the eternally over-rated Scorsese has never been in the same league as Alfred Hitchcock. There is only one stand-out sequence involving the bad guys closing in on a building wherein superior officer Martin Sheen is meeting with his Man On the Inside and a somewhat startling, well-handled homicide ensues. Otherwise the film isn't really awful, just a bit dull and predictable and certainly devoid of the tense and brilliant touches that a Hitchcock could have delivered.

Another problem is the screenplay and its utterly one-dimensional characters. Some older viewers may be confused in the beginning, remembering the real-life mobster Frank Costello who reigned in the fifties and sixties and wondering why the characters use cell phones throughout the movie and even refer to recent events. Jack Nicholson's “Frank Costello” may have been inspired by the real Costello, but clearly he is a different and fictional person of the 21st century. The “good guys” of the film casually use such terms as “nigger” and “faggot” but the superficial screenplay never explores the inferiority complexes that make people use such discriminatory words in the first place. [Unlike television, this movie basically depicts police officers as all being the desensitized bigots of earlier decades.] Jack Nicholson gives a showy, entertaining performance, but it is essentially another variation of The Joker. The younger actors, yelling out curse words and throwing tantrums, give good performances, but all the tiresome macho posturing is the easiest kind of acting to do. Since there are no real nuances to their characters, the actors aren't able to add subtleties to their performances, assuming this is something they're even capable of. That being said, Mark Wahlberg is very effective as an especially obnoxious police officer and Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin are as solid as ever. In the lead roles DiCaprio and Damon are impressive enough in their swagger but never quite overwhelmingly excellent.

Because of the rave reviews-- and then four Oscar wins -- people flocked to see The Departed. But I have no doubt many of them left the theater thinking that the latest episode of say, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit had a better story, more dimensional characters, and moved at a swifter and more slickly edited pace. Far from being “cutting edge,” Scorsese – and his adoring critics – are slightly out of date.

Verdict: They really don't make 'em like they used to. **.

THE TINGLER


THE TINGLER (1959). Director: William Castle.

Robb White's screenplay contains some very interesting elements and certainly features a very unique monster. Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) discovers that inside each human being is a microscopic organism at the base of the spine that grows and grows as we experience terror. The creature's growth is halted by a scream, the simple release of tension. However, if someone is unable to scream (such as a deaf mute, played by Judith Evelyn, who is terrorized to death) the creature will grow several feet long. Chapin removes "the tingler" from the spine of the dead woman, but it escapes ...

This is silly but clever stuff, put over by an enthusiastic cast. Price is fine, with only a few hammy moments. Patricia Cutts is very sexy and saucy as his unfaithful wife, Isabel. Darryl Hickman (brother of Dwayne "Dobie Gillis" Hickman) is Chapin's lab assistant, David, who's dating Isabel's "nice" sister Lucy, (Pamela Lincoln, daughter of Verna Hillie of Mystery Mountain). Philip Coolidge is Evelyn's deceptively gentle husband.

Verdict: SCREAM if you see The Tingler! ***.

DEVIL MAY CARE -- NEW JAMES BOND NOVEL


DEVIL MAY CARE. Sebastian Faulks (writing as Ian Fleming). 2008. Doubleday.
Published to celebrate the centenary of James Bond creator Ian Fleming's birth, Devil May Care is a disappointing 007 adventure. The best of the Bond novels -- be they written by Fleming, John Gardner, or even Raymond Benson -- sort of grab hold of you and never let go, giving you that certain irresistible pleasure no Bond fan can do without, but Devil May Care -- while not without merit -- is not in the same league. It lacks the rich, descriptive prose and that certain insight of Fleming, and it doesn't quite have the edge-of-your-seat, fast-paced thrill quotient of Gardner's best books, such as Scorpius. Neither is it as detailed or workmanlike as anything by Benson. It comes off like an okay pastiche with some good scenes -- none of which are developed that well -- and nothing more.
An interesting aspect is that the book takes place during the Cold War, right after the last Fleming novel, The Man with the Golden Gun (infinitely more entertaining than this). Some of its attitudes are strictly 21st century (female double-O agents), however, while others are mired back in the sixties (traitorous, blackmailed homosexuals). Bond's antagonist in this is Dr. Julius Gorner, who has one deformed hand and despises the English, and has come up with a plot to destroy Bond's homeland. Of course there's a beautiful woman in the mix with the unlikely moniker of Scarlett Papava. Gorner is not a memorable villain like Goldfinger or some of the Gardner or Benson antagonists, and the book's climax -- incredibly -- takes place a few chapters before it should. It'll make you want to reread the Fleming and Gardner books just to get a real feel of Bond.
Verdict: Borrow it from the library if you must. **.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

HERE'S TO CHEETA!


Last April, the lovable and talented chimpanzee who graced so many Tarzan movies turned 76! Yes Cheeta (whose name has also been spelled Cheta and Cheetah) is still alive and in retirement in Palm Springs, the oldest living non-human primate (seen here in a still from one of the Tarzan movies). Incredibly, although a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was assigned to the fictional character of Tinkerbelle, Cheeta has no star -- and he isn't getting any younger. Let's hope that this miscarriage of justice will be corrected in the near future! Cheeta also appeared in Doctor Doolittle, Bedtime for Bonzo with Ronald Reagan, and played Ramona the chimp ( a daring sex-switch) in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, never giving less than stellar performances. Read all about the adventures and misadventures of our favorite chimpanzee at his website.

Let's face it -- Tarzan and Jane were fun, but didn't we all watch the Tarzan flicks just to get a look at the lovable Cheeta! Yes!

Verdict: Give Cheeta his star! He's a heck of a lot more talented than a lot of human "actors" like, say, Pamela Anderson and many, many others.

THE IRON CLAW


THE IRON CLAW (1941). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: James W. Horne.
Set mostly in a creepy house and an abandoned mine, this has to do with a mysterious figure with an iron claw who stalks the members of the Benson family. There is no love lost between Anton Benson (Forrest Taylor) and his other brothers, and Anton's daughter Millie (Edythe Elliott) can do without most of the rest of her relatives as well. Anton's niece Pat (Joyce Bryant) can't believe that either he nor chief suspect -- and petty crook -- Roy Benson (Norman Willis) can be up to any mischief, but there's also Gyves the butler (John Beck), and hood Silk Langdon (Charles King) to contend with. Bob Lane (Charles Quigley) is a reporter on the case and Jack Strong (Walter Sande) is his photographer; there's also casey the Cop (James C. Morton) on the side of the angels.
This is an extremely entertaining, very fast-paced, skillfully done serial with a lot of exciting sequences. The flavorful, constantly bickering characters and the old house with all its secret panels add to the fun. Joyce Bryant is a great screamer, which is probably why they had her haul off and screech so often during the movie, as frankly Pat seems too feisty a gal to be screaming all the time. Pat gets into a tussle with tough customer Annie, who works for Silk and tries to hold her captive, at one point. One of the best cliffhangers has the good guys trapped in a tunnel in the mine by explosions and fire. The acting is more than adequate, but Forrest Taylor is really quite good as Anton, who knows a lot more than he's saying. Lee Zahler's score, with its ominous theme for the Claw, creates atmosphere and suspense.
Verdict: Whirlwind serial is a delight! ***.

HAUNTED GOLD


HAUNTED GOLD (1932). Director: Mack V. Wright.

John Mason (John Wayne) and Janet Carter (Sheila Terry) become involved in some skulduggery surrounding an old mansion and lost gold in a mine that belonged to their fathers. A mysterious figure called The Phantom is running around (rather aimlessly, it seems) wearing a black cloak and hood. There are actually some exciting chase scenes, fisticuffs, and a well-handled battle between Wayne and a villain as they hover high in the air in a dangling mining car. Running less than an hour, this is like some kind of extremely short serial. Mason's clever horse Duke plays himself. Arguably the most talented cast member is Blue Washington, who plays Mason's black chum Clarence. Although forced by the script to play the stereotypical, scared, wide-eyed "negro," Clarence is actually smart and manages to save Mason at one point, and Washington is a very good actor. Wayne appeared in a number of legitimate cliffhanger serials, including The Three Musketeers.

Verdict: More entertaining than it has any right to be.

THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE


THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE (1944). Director: Ford Beebe.

Although it employs concepts and character names from previous Universal Invisible Man flicks, The Invisible Man's Revenge goes off in a new direction. In this John Carradine plays Dr. Peter Drury, and it is he who has invented an invisibility formula. The lead character, played by Jon Hall (of The Invisible Agent) is named Robert Griffin -- the same as the original Invisible Man -- but only happens upon the professor and his formula by accident. However, he is just as miserable a person as the Griffin of the novel and the first film. Griffin has been left for dead by partners in an African mine (Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard, who has little to do), and use his invisibility to try to get revenge on them. The wonderful Leon Errol plays a mischievous old man who assists Griffin -- the scene when Griffin helps him win at darts and confounds everyone in the pub is memorable. This is the only Invisible Man film that plays up the horror aspects of the material, as Griffin must drain people's bodies entirely of blood in order to regain visibility. Unpredictable, fast-paced, and well-acted by all, this is the best of the Invisible Man series. Alan Curtis and Evelyn Ankers play young lovers. Grey Shadow, a beautiful German shepherd, also makes an impression as Carradine's invisible dog, Brutus, who becomes visible later in the picture. Good show!

Verdict: Well worth a viewing. ***.