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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

CARRIE (1952)


CARRIE (1952). Director: William Wyler.

"When you're poor it gets all mixed up; you like the people who are good to you."

Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) says goodbye to her family and takes the train to Chicago, where she hopes to find a better life. What she finds is one man, Charles (Eddie Albert), who takes care of her but is slow to offer marriage, and another man, George (Laurence Olivier), a restaurant manager, who wants to marry her but already has a wife (Miriam Hopkins). Still, he takes steps to have Carrie for his own, leading inexorably to bitter disillusionment and tragedy. This is not a mere soap opera but a fascinating, mesmerizing drama with superb performances from all. Olivier's portrait of the manager who gives up everything for passion is brilliant and haunting. Jones gives one of her all-time best performances, right up there with Olivier from start to finish. David Raksin offers an interesting score, while Wyler's direction is as assured and compelling as ever. From the chilling early scenes showing Carrie at work in a dehumanizing sweatbox to the final devastating, deeply affecting moments, this is pure gold.

Verdict: Powerful adaptation of Drieser's Sister Carrie. ****.

DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME


DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (1947). Director: John Rawlins.

The fourth and last of RKO's Dick Tracy features again stars Ralph Byrd -- who is terrific in the part -- as the intrepid detective, this time involved with a gang who use a paralyzing gas to sort of freeze people so that they can walk into banks unobserved and rob them with little effort. The picture is greatly abetted by the presence of Boris Karloff as the killer -- smarter than the usual one, however -- known as Gruesome. A character named X-Ray (Skelton Knaggs) takes one look at Gruesome and says "he certainly is," even though he's even less attractive. A clever bit has Karloff appearing to be dead and waking up in the morgue to smoke a cigarette as an unsuspecting cop goes about his business. Anne Gwynne is perky as Tess Trueheart, if not as sexy as Anne Jeffreys. Cadaverous Milton Parsons is on hand as the frightened Dr. A. Tomic, who's afraid someone is out to kill him. June Clayworth is his assistant I. (Ida) Learned. Byrd saunters through this stuff without ever losing his dignity. These features, while entertaining enough, were never as much fun as the Dick Tracy serials that also starred Byrd. Others in this series were Dick Tracy, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball and Dick Tracy's Dilemma.

Verdict: No classic, but don't give it the Byrd. **1/2.

DECONSTRUCTING SAMMY-- PAPERBACK EDITION


Deconstructing Sammy, Matt Birbeck's excellent book on Sammy Davis Jr. and the legal entanglements that developed before and after his death, will be released in a paperback edition on September 1st, 2009. To the left is the new cover to look for. [Davis looks kind of sexy in that pose!]

Click here to read my review of this wonderful book.

This book is a fascinating read and is highly recommended!

PRIMETIME: THE OUTSIDERS -- ALIEN ABDUCTEES


PRIMETIME: THE OUTSIDERS -- ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Shown on ABC Television August 18th, 2009.

The very thin line these days between news and entertainment was practically obliterated by this special report on people who say they have not only seen alien spaceships but aliens themselves, and who have also been examined or even had sexual contact with visitors from other worlds. Juju Chang was the hostess for the program, and she wisely remained skeptical, although at times she might have asked some tougher questions of these delusional individuals. Admirably, the program brings in experts to explain about "sleep paralysis," a condition that affects many people, which makes them feel frozen and even have hallucinations, which most sensible people feel is the true explanation for feelings of being observed and experimented on by "aliens." Frankly, the people interviewed for this show all seem to have one thing in common: they don't seem very bright. One family man in particular is a geeky, unemployed guy who is gaining a certain measure of fame (among the stupid) because of his alleged "experiences" with aliens. Meanwhile this jerk is subjecting his kids to ridicule and probably giving them endless nightmares, afraid they'll be "abducted" any minute. [He's probably hoping for a book deal.] Alien abductees tend to be utterly average (or below average) individuals that few people would go out of their way to talk to at a cocktail party. Believing (as in some cases they actually do) that they are being singled out by aliens -- or, as one fellow feels, angels (!) -- makes these utterly mediocre individuals feel special. While Primetime probably shouldn't be giving these losers any attention, at least the program didn't take their stories at face value, and brought in experts to tell us what's really going on. As one Harvard psychologist put it -- and I paraphrase -- there may well be life on other worlds, and aliens may visit Earth someday, but these foolish people have not had any "close encounters."

Verdict: Okay for what it is. **1/2.

MACAO


MACAO (1952). Director: Josef von Sternberg.

Into Macao come three individuals: Julie Benson (Jane Russell), who wants to look for a singing engagement; Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), who lost his wallet and passport and also needs a job; and Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix) who at least seems to be a legitimate businessman. The trouble starts when casino owner Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter) makes up his mind that Cochran is really a New York City police detective who's come to haul him past the three mile limit and back to the states to pay for his crimes. But has Halloran picked the right person? What could have been an intriguing bit of film noir -- and it holds the attention in a limited way -- is done in by a poor script and a meandering pace that doesn't create or sustain any tension. Mitchum and Russell are both in butch mode throughout the movie -- Russell's as hard as nails and about as appealing -- and Bendix is as good as ever. Brad Dexter makes little impression and it's easy to see why he did mostly TV shows in the future as he lacked that certain "big screen" presence. Gloria Grahame is wasted in a small role as one of Halloran's employees.

Verdict: A wasted trip. **.

BLONDE FEVER


BLONDE FEVER (1944). Director: Richard Whorf.

"I've learned the difference between loving someone and wanting someone."

Peter Donay (Philip Dorn) is a successful restaurateur with an attractive wife, Delilah (Mary Astor) who finds himself becoming infatuated with a pretty blond waitress, Sally (Gloria Grahame), who already has a young boyfriend (Marshall Thompson). This is based on a farce by Ferenc Molnar, but Hollywood screenwriter Patricia Coleman has stripped it of all fun and humor -- there is not a single laugh in the picture [and make no mistake, this is supposed to be a comedy, not a drama or even comedy-drama]. Although each had appeared in small, sometimes uncredited roles in previous pictures, Grahame and Thompson were "introduced" in this picture, and both give good performances. Dorn does his best, but the material defeats him, and even the great Mary Astor has a struggle to breath life into a lifeless movie. The actors are all superior to the material, and Astor should never have been put in such junk in the first place. Felix Bressart, as Johnny the bartender, and Elisabeth Risdon as a friend and customer, are also wasted in this picture.

Verdict: Virtually worthless but for some fine actors who all deserve better. *.

INFESTATION


INFESTATION (2009). Director/writer: Kyle Rankin.

Office employees wake up one afternoon and find that they and everyone else in the city have been wrapped in cocoons by very large bugs, some of which skitter across the ground like giant roaches, and some of which soar through the air, occasionally picking up a victim and flying them back to their nest. The main problem with the movie is the typically flippant, let's-not-bother-to-explain-anything approach, which of course means that the main character is an equally flippant (though oddly likable) geek, Cooper (Chris Marquette), who is fired from his job almost as the movie begins. Marquette is an appealing actor, however, and makes Cooper more palatable than he has any right to be. The semi-serious approach means that what could have been an unrelentingly horrifying classic is instead rife with comedy relief [or at least situational humor] that is sometimes on the mark and sometimes not. [In any case, Infestation is nowhere as silly or awful as Eight-Legged Freaks.] The creepiest aspect of the story is the way that humans who have been stung by the monsters eventually turn into human-insect hybrids [see photo]. Ray Wise of Twin Peaks and Savannah is the only familiar face in the cast, but the acting is all very professional (and the characters more or less an interesting bunch), with everyone neatly doing the balancing act between horror and parody, but the film's insistence on not taking anything too seriously means that the dramatic possibilities are often muffed or avoided entirely. The thing that keeps the movie from the scrapheap is the special effects, which are excellent, a big surprise for a Syfy Channel Original. The bugs look disturbingly realistic, making the attack scenes that much more squirm-inducing. The climax in the huge nest of the creatures with the mother of all bugs is excellent.

Verdict: A more serious sequel would be welcome. ***.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

THE COBWEB


THE COBWEB (1955). Director: Vincente Minelli.

"Van Gogh didn't sell a painting in his lifetime, but now they're worth thirty million. They weren't that bad then and they're not that good now, so who's crazy?"

The patients and staff of a Clinic for Nervous Disorders become embroiled in -- believe it or not -- a fight over which drapes to hang in the library. Some want an attractive if standard pattern, while others, such as Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark) want to transfer drawings done by a young patient, Stevie (John Kerr), to silk screenings and hang them instead. The complications of the staff's private lives don't help much. Dr. Devanal (Charles Boyer), the former head of the clinic now in a sort of advisory capacity, is an unregenerate skirt-chaser whose secretary (Adele Jergens) is in love with him. Dr. McIver's wife Karen (Gloria Grahame) feels neglected by her husband, who is slowly being drawn to the widowed Activities Director Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall). Then there's Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the prickly, strong-willed spinster with territorial instincts who objects to anyone she sees as threatening to her authority. This is an interesting if overlong melodrama/soap opera with outstanding performances by Gish [great in a mostly unsympathetic part] and Grahame, and very good performances by most of the rest of the cast. The love story between Stevie and fellow patient Sue (Susan Strasberg) is kind of boring, however. Oscar Levant is quite amateurish as a neurotic patient and his scenes should have been cut as they add nothing to the picture. Fay Wray, Myra Marsh [from the operetta episode of I Love Lucy] and Virginia Christine appear in smaller roles. Christine had much bigger roles in The Mummy's Curse, Three Brave Men, and Nightmare (1956). She later became "Mrs. Olsen" of coffee commercial fame.

Verdict: Over-baked but enjoyable for the most part. ***.

THEY WERE SISTERS


THEY WERE SISTERS (1945). Director: Arthur Crabtree

"The truth is I could never help being a bore."

British drama/soap opera about three sisters, the romantic choices they make, and the way their lives turn out meanders along but builds up steam as it nears a powerful conclusion. Vera (Anne Crawford) is not really in love with her placid husband, so she has an affair with another man. Lucy (Phyllis Calvert) loses a child. The main and most interesting story has to do with Charlotte (Dulcie Gray) , who makes the mistake of marrying the neurotic Geoffrey (James Mason). Geoffrey is such a bitch that at one point he wants to kill his little son's dog! Mason and Gray give an absorbing two-character portrait of a cowered wife dealing with a sadistic husband leading to tragedy and a satisfying conclusion.

Verdict: No Hollywood gloss, but rather compelling just the same. ***.

ONCE UPON A TIME


ONCE UPON A TIME (1944). Director: Alexander Hall.

"Despite all of its grief and turmoil, there are still beautiful things in the world."

Okay. Producer Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant), who is in danger of losing the theater he owns because of one flop after another, runs into a boy, Binky (Ted Donaldson), who has a pet caterpillar, Curly, who can dance -- but only to the strains of "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby." From that premise, you might expect that the film would be a rollicking farce, but instead it's a comedy-drama-fantasy with Grant giving his usual adept performance but he's perhaps more restrained, given the subject matter, than he should have been. Janet Blair is Binky's concerned sister, and James Gleason is Jerry's pal and colleague. Once Upon a Time wants to be a whimsical, meaningful [see quote above] fantasy, but never quite approaches that level, although it does look into adult-child relationships, keeping promises, personal accountability, with some degree of success. The best scene -- which finally reaches the level of loopiness that the premise deserves -- is when a trio of scientists inspect Curly in a laboratory, and are stunned by their findings. ["Maybe a 1000 years ago he was Salome."] The problem with Curly is that it's hard to sympathize with the creature because we never actually see him (until the end, after he's undergone an expected metamorphosis). In any case, this damned picture has an undeniably moving conclusion. Little Donaldson not only gives a terrific performance as Binky, but is right up there with Grant throughout the picture. He went on to appear in a number of "Rusty" dog films, and was also in Phone Call from a Stranger.

Verdict: At least it's different. ***.

FRAMED (1947)


FRAMED (1947). Director: Richard Wallace.

Unemployed mining engineer Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford) encounters a duplicitous female named Paula (Janis Carter), and is unaware -- as we learn almost from the start -- that she hopes to use him in a deadly plot involving her boyfriend, Steve, a married bank executive (Barry Sullivan). Edgar Buchanan plays Jeff, a man who wants to hire Mike for his mine but can't get the capital he needs from Steve (because it will interfere with his dastardly plot). This is an entertaining melodrama with some interesting twists and turns and good performances. Carter is certainly fun as one of the most sociopathic femme fatales you've ever seen. She also had a small role in Miss Grant Takes Richmond and appeared in various "Whistler" movies. A problem with the movie is that all of the characters, even Ford's, are unlikable.

Verdict: Nasty, nasty ... **1/2.

MISS MARPLE: A POCKET FULL OF RYE


MISS MARPLE: A POCKET FULL OF RYE (2008). Director: Charles Palmer. Shown on Masterpiece Mystery/PBS. Teleplay by Kevin Elyot.

Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) investigates when a young lady who once worked for her, Gladys (the unfortunately named Rose Heiney), is found murdered in an uppercrust British household. But Gladys' murder isn't even the first one. Businessman Rex Fortescue is poisoned, found with rye in his pocket, beginning a series of strange and unfortunate events which the police and Miss Marple try to solve (guess who comes up with the solution?) This is a good, pretty faithful adaptation of a very interesting and satisfying Agatha Christie mystery novel. McKenzie plays a somewhat younger and sharper Marple than usual, and is very good in the role. Housekeeper Mrs. Crump is played by Wendy Richard, who once was the "dead common" Shirley in Are You Being Served? The British actors in the cast all know how to play this period piece with the right snap and style.

Verdict: Good show! ***.

GOLD RAIDERS


GOLD RAIDERS (1951). Director: Edward Bernds.

Silent star and cowboy actor George O'Brien plays a character with the same name in this pretty terrible "comedy" supposedly starring the Three Stooges. Moe, Shemp and Larry are out in the wild west in the town of Red Mesa where they interact (minimally) with O'Brien; a pretty gal named Laura (Sheila Ryan); her father, who's an elderly doctor (Clem Bevans of She Couldn't Say No); and a bad guy involved in gold hijacking named Taggert (Lyle Talbot, who seems very out of place in this milieu). The Stooges are strangely subdued in this, and are completely lost in a dull story that is busy without ever being funny. There are literally no laughs in this. The stooges become insurance salesmen, but no great routines result. This is boring even for fans of the stooges. Sheila Ryan also appeared in Great Guns with Laurel and Hardy.

Verdict: Terrible. 1/2*.

CURE


CURE (1997). Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.

Detective Takabe (Koji Yokusho) of the Tokyo police force is not only dealing with an ill wife (Anna Nakagawa), but with a series of gruesome murders that have a couple of things in common. An "X" was carved into the bodies of the victims, and the various murderers all encountered a strange man named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) -- who first shows up as an amnesiac on the beach -- shortly before they went on their killing rampage. No one has any real motive for their slayings so Takabe wonders if Mamiya, who studied the work of Austrian "mesmerist" Mesmer, was somehow able to hypnotize people and force them to commit ghastly crimes. Takabe's friend and colleague Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) tries to help him unravel the mystery. Although it holds the attention for the most part and seems to be well-acted, the problem with Cure is that it's very deliberately-paced, and is, truth told, merely a stretched out Tales from the Crypt episode with, annoyingly, no real resolution. Director Kurosawa, who also wrote the screenplay and the novel it was based on, is no relation to the more famous Akira Kurosawa.

Verdict: Intriguing at first but ... **.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

DECEPTION (1946)


DECEPTION (1946). Director: Irving Rapper.

"It's so painful to be so happy."

The reinvented pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) has been the protege -- and more -- of wealthy and neurotic composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains), when back into her life comes a man she thought was dead and whom she truly loves, cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid). Naturally this doesn't sit well with Hollenius, especially when Christine and Karel get married. Will Holenius spill the beans about the truth of his relationship with Christine? Will Hollenius really let Karel be the lead cellist for his new concerto, or is he playing a sadistic game of cat and mouse with the hopeful man? [Two questions that are never asked: Was Karel himself completely chaste during the four years he was parted from his "Schatzi?" and would he object that much, despite his jealous nature, to Christine's carryings-on when she thought he was dead?] Although Davis' character in this acts maddeningly idiotic, and the foolishly melodramatic developments, while compelling (and leading to a great last line), are unnecessary in what starts out as a strong drama, Deception works due to the great dialogue in John Collier and Joseph Than's screenplay (as well as three-dimensional characters), and to a brilliant performance -- possibly his best -- by Claude Rains. Henreid and Davis are also good, although a notch below Rains, and Davis is terribly affected and mannered throughout [but quite entertaining in spite of it]. One of the best scenes has the three main characters at a restaurant when Hollenius increases Karel's nervousness -- he is to audition for him after dinner -- by taking forever to decide exactly what they should all have for supper. The concerto composed by Hollenius was actually composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who also did the rest of the film's score), and it is beautiful. John Abbott does a superlative job as a rival cellist, Bertram Gribble, that Christine tries to bribe. Although some might dismiss this as a mere soap opera, it has a certain quality that lifts it above the ordinary soaper. At the wedding party, while Christine plays piano, Hollenius shatters a glass in his hand. Christine stops playing and, concerned, rushes to his side, whereupon the great man remarks upon how women get hysterical over a scratch but act all smiling and nurse-like at the sight of a mortal wound. It would have been interesting to see how Deception might have worked with a different actress in the lead. Although director Irving Rapper was able to reign Davis in a bit for Now, Voyager, he was unable to do so with this picture.

Verdict: There's more here than meets the eye. ***1/2.

THE MONSTER AND THE APE


THE MONSTER AND THE APE (1945). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Director: Howard Bretherton.

Professor Franklin Arnold (Ralph Morgan) has made a robot from the material of a meteor which he calls "metaligan." Unfortunately, the evil Ernst (George Macready), who pretends to be a good guy, wants the robot and the meteor and everything else he can get for himself. Fighting against the evil Ernst are Kent Morgan (Robert Lowery of Batman serial fame) and Arnold's decorative daughter, Baba (Carole Mathews). Ernst not only has a passel of gunsels to help him, but a big ape named Thor (played winningly by Roy Corrigan) as well. We learn very early on that Ernst is a bad guy and it's just as well, as Macready's very distinctive voice would have given it away anyway. Caught in the middle of everything is Arnold's lab assistant, Flash (Willie Best of My Little Margie). [While Best is forced by the script to play the stereotypical "nervous negro," at least his gifted comic acting shines through in spite of it.] There are some good cliffhangers, such as a pit with closing walls in chapter eight, and an electro-death in chapter ten. This is not a bad serial, but by no means one of the best. Lee Zahler's score certainly helps. Morgan also appeared in the serial Gangbusters.

Verdict: Perfectly entertaining if unspectacular. **1/2.

MEXICAN SPITFIRE AT SEA


MEXICAN SPITFIRE AT SEA (1942). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

Dennis Lindsay (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) takes his wife Carmelita (Lupe Velez) on a second honeymoon cruise but doesn't tell her that he's combining business with pleasure: once again he has to get Lord Epping (Leon Errol) to sign a contract. Also on board are Uncle Matt (also Leon Errol) and Aunt Della (Elisabeth Risdon), not to mention two characters from the previous film Mexican Spitfire's Baby, Miss Pepper (Zazu Pitts) and Fifi, the sexy French gal (Marion Martin). Oddly neither Miss Pepper nor Fifi recognize any of the other characters even though they've already interacted with them. But logic is the last thing to expect in a Mexican Spitfire movie. That being said, it must also be said that this is probably the funniest of the Spitfire features. A particularly amusing sequence has Pitts pretending to be Lady Epping (Lydia Bilbrook) at a dinner party. The presence of Florence Bates as the hostess Mrs. Baldwin certainly adds to the fun. This comedy of errors is certainly silly, but it's also good-natured and has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Well-acted by all. Errol is simply brilliant.

Verdict: If only you'd meet such people on cruises! ***.

SAND SERPENTS


SAND SERPENTS (2009). Director: Jeff Renfroe. A Syfy Original Movie.

In a rip-off of Tremors, a team of United States army personnel in Afghanistan are saved from agents of the Taliban who are about to behead them when giant, carnivorous worms erupt from the desert and devour the bad guys. Jason Gedrick is the only well-known cast member, and he and the other actors do a nice job. As usual, there's a great deal of talk in the movie with sporadic attacks by the worms (who are never given an origin), who are brought to life with more-than-adequate computer animation. The best scene has one of the monsters suddenly rising up to attack a blackhawk on a rescue mission. Good ending as well. What idiot decided to rename the Sci Fi Channel Syfy?

Verdict: Okay if you don't expect too much. **.

DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA


DICK TRACY'S DILEMMA (1947). Director: John Rawlins.

Ralph Byrd takes over -- or rather takes back -- the role of Tracy from Morgan Conway in this, the third RKO Dick Tracy feature film. The villain of the piece is a murderous crook known as "The Claw" (Jack Lambert), who murders a guard during a robbery of expensive furs. The florid Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith plays him like a combination of John Barrymore and Cyril Ritchard) gets into the action out of guilt for not taking seriously a man who came to relay information to Tracy. [One of the best scenes has that man, a beggar named "Sightless" (Jimmy Conlin), trying to keep from being murdered in an alley by The Claw.] Tess Trueheart is played in this venture by Kay Christopher. Fast-paced and well-acted. Lambert makes a vital villain. This follows Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.

Verdict: Acceptable B movie. **1/2.

SUPERMAN RETURNS


SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006). Director: Bryan Singer.

Hearing reports that astronomers have discovered a planet that may be Krypton, Superman sets out to find it -- and doesn't return for five years. Which is understandably upsetting to Lois Lane, as he has left her with child. We never really find out why it took so long for the faster-than-light Man of Steel to return to Earth after discovering Krypton was -- as we all already new -- a shattered husk, but the real problem with the film is that it's lacklustre, disjointed, and slowwww. There are some good rescue scenes however, such as the business with the space shuttle and a tense scene when Lois, her son, and her boyfriend, Richard (James Marsden) are nearly drowned in a tight compartment. Brandon Routh is excellent as Superman, however, as is Kate Bosworth as Lois and Frank Langella as Perry White. Kevin Spacey sort of plays Luthor in the same quasi-camp mode as Gene Hackman before him -- has no one read the comics or seen the cartoons, where Luthor is a much more imposing presence? Parker Posey is even more irritating as Luthor's bimbo, Kitty. The plot has something to do with Luthor using kryptonian crystal technology to create a new continent, which will bring about the demise of everyone else on Earth. (There is no real sense of impending doom or even urgency to this.) The scene when a tough hood plays Heart and Soul with little Jason (the likable Tristan Lake Leabu) is charming, but in the wrong movie, but it does lead into a startling revelation. In trying to be all mythic, Singer (who did a better job on the X-Men films) forgot to be entertaining.

Verdict: Some magical moments, but overlong. **1/2.

REPTILICUS


REPTILICUS (1961). Director: Sidney Pink.

In Lapland a mining engineer, Svend (Bent Mejding), discovers the remains of some animal on his drill bit. It turns out to be the tail of a prehistoric creature, which is taken to a lab in Copenhagen. It develops that the creature can regenerate itself, like a starfish, and it isn't long before the city has itself a 90 foot long problem. Not only is Reptilicus huge and carnivorous (popping a poor farmer into its mouth at one point) but it spits corrosive acid-slime and has scales that resist bullets and missiles. The script for Reptilicus isn't bad, the early sequences are creepy and suspenseful, but the movie is nearly done in by fairly wretched special effects work. The mostly Danish actors are more than competent with Carl Ottosen making a suitably gruff and grim general in charge of destroying the monster. [Though why he would take Svend the mining engineer with him in his jeep is a little inexplicable.] Singer Birthe Wilke sings "Tivoli Nights" in a nightclub sequence. The monster's front arms are so small that most people think Reptilicus has no limbs at all! The beast is a little nastier-looking than The Giant Claw but almost as silly.

Verdict: Watch out for that acid! **1/2.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH


SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962). Written and directed by Richard Brooks, from Tennessee Williams' play.

"The right doors wouldn't open so he opened the wrong ones."

A struggling actor named Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) comes back to the southern town of his birth with a fading star Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) in tow. He hopes to see the woman he loves, Heavenly (Shirley Knight) whom he, unbeknownst, left with child on his last dash into town. Heavenly's father, Boss Finley (Ed Begley) and his nasty son Tom (Rip Torn) are not keen on having Chance around, but Heavenly's Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) has always been fond of him, and warns him to get out before it's too late. Not a good situation for a fellow to be in. Paul Newman isn't bad as Wayne, but he's not really the right actor for the role; Chance is essentially a male hooker and Newman was always too white bread for that kind of part. [It would have been very interesting to see Elvis Presley, who was first offered the part, in the role. He might have been more on the mark.] Geraldine Page gives a showy performance that occasionally lets us see the human being behind the essential monster that is Alexandra Del Lago. Although this is a sanitized, Hollywoodized version of Williams' play to be sure, some of Williams' genuis comes through, and his depiction of redneck Republicans seems ahead of its time. Madeleine Sherwood has fun as Miss Lucy, Boss Finley's paramour. Doesn't quite work up the sense of dread and terror that the play does, but it comes close.

Verdict: Williams Lite, but not bad for what it is. ***.

THE DEVIL-DOLL


THE DEVIL-DOLL (1936). Director: Tod Browning.

Banker Paul Levond (Lionel Barrymore) and mad scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall) escape from prison and arrive at Marcel's home, where his wife Malita (Rafaela Ottiano) has continued his experiments. They hope to make everybody tiny so they'll need less to eat (it never occurs to them that tiny humans would be preyed upon by suddenly larger animals and insects). Levond was convicted of embezzlement and murder which was actually committed by three associates. Levond goes to Paris to get revenge on the trio, disguising himself as an old lady and using the shrunken animals and people created by Marcel and his wife. He also befriends his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O'Sullivan) who doesn't realize her father's innocence and despises him. This is a very bizarre movie with excellent special effects and good acting. Barrymore is terrific, and Ottiano makes a suitably weird partner-in-peril. This may have been inspired by certain scenes in Bride of Frankenstein made the year before and possibly influenced the later Dr. Cyclops (which had a very different storyline). The problem with the movie is that not enough is done with the basic premise, as if no one had a very clear idea in which direction the movie should proceed. Tod Browning also directed Dracula.

Verdict: Odd. Maybe too odd. **1/2.

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL


HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (1959). Director: David Lowell Rich.

Moe, Larry and Curly Joe are employed as janitors at a scientific lab where a pretty, put-upon lady scientist Dr. Ingrid (Anna-Lisa) is threatened with expulsion by the boss (Jerome Cowan) unless she comes up with a rocket fuel that works. Determined to help her because of her kindness to them (not to mention her figure) the stooges come up with their own rocket fuel and wind up accidentally taking off for planet Venus. Amazingly, they do not encounter sexy space babes but rather a friendly talking unicorn, a giant spider (courtesy of Tarantula and Earth vs. the Spider) that shoots out heat rays, and a nasty super computer that shrinks them and creates robot duplicates. This amiable movie is full of old gags that are still funny because they're delivered by old pros. The sequences on Venus are comparatively lame, but there's funny stuff before and after, especially the party scene that closes the movie. Good sport Cowan, who was in The Old Maid and other classy pictures, is a lot of fun as well.

Verdict: You can't keep a good stooge down. ***.

ROADBLOCK


ROADBLOCK (1951). Director: Harold Daniels.

Insurance investigator Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) meets a bitter dame Diane (Joan Dixon) at an airport, where she tells the clerk he's her husband so she can board the plane for half fare. Diane wants the good life -- minks, diamonds -- and Joe wants her, even though he only makes $350 a week, chickenfeed by her standards (although certainly not bad for 1951!). Still, Diane can't help but be attracted to Joe, inspiring him to add serious complications to his life. A problem with the movie is that the two lead characters are unsympathetic. Despite his character reversal, McGraw plays it all in one, gruff note with no nuances at all. The movie isn't terrible, just over-familiar without being good enough to make it really interesting. Everything is just second or third-rate. Busy actor McGraw appeared in everything from The Narrow Margin to The Birds. Dixon also appeared briefly in Bunco Squad, but otherwise had very few credits; she's not a bad actress, however. Milburn Stone, who plays McGraw's colleague Egan, had a great many credits, including such serials as Great Alaskan Mystery.

Verdict: Minor effort in the film noir genre. **.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE


DIE, MONSTER, DIE (1965). Director: Daniel Haller.

An extremely disappointing adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's creepy novella, The Colour Out of Space, this has to do with a man named Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) coming to call on his girlfriend Susan (Suzan Farmer) at the isolated English country estate of her father Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff). The movie is very handsomely appointed, and not badly acted, but no amount of CinemaScope and attractive sets can cover up the lack of a decent script. A meteorite has landed near the Witley estate [a shot of the burned out area where it hit the earth and withered everything in the surrounding area is quite effective] and its radiation has mutated animals, plants, and even members of the Witley family, some of whom go bonkers at the climax. The movie is very short but it has a meandering quality that makes it seem longer. Too bad.

Verdict: Read Lovecraft's original instead. **.

THE WHOLE TRUTH


THE WHOLE TRUTH (1958). Director: John Guillermin.

Max Poulton (Stewart Granger) is a producer with a temperamental star, Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale), and a loving wife (Donna Reed). One day at a party a man (George Sanders) shows up at his house saying he is with the police, informing him that Gina has been murdered, and suggesting that he has had an affair with his leading lady. But if Gina is dead, who just walked into the party? What's going on? There are a few intriguing twists in this generally unpredictable mystery, and Sanders is always interesting. Stewart Granger is glib and way too cool all through the movie, which is not necessarily the wrong approach for his character, however. But it doesn't make for a riveting performance. Similarly, the lazy, jazzy background score is dull and all wrong for the movie. Therefore the climax is a bit of a fizzle.

Verdict: Easy to take and just as easy to forget. **.

SUPERGATOR


SUPERGATOR (2007). Director: Brian Clyde. Sci Fi Channel Original.

A team of volcanologists, including Scott Kinney (Brad Johnson), are investigating a dormant volcano when they run into a woman (Kelly McGillis) who for some reason created a prehistoric alligator which has escaped into the wild. This supergator comes to life -- if you can call it that -- through poor computer animation that makes it look like something in a video game. As the actors say their dull lines and pretend to be interested in things, the gator shows up sporadically to munch on some perfectly nice, screaming people who die in a welter of blood. Clyde and Frances Doel's terrible script even brings the hoariest of post-Jaws cliches: When the organizer of a resort luau hears about the gator, he refuses to shut down the event (like the beaches of Amity Island). This is worse than schlock, and seems about four hours long. This was produced by Roger Corman, but is much worse than any of the lovable fifties creature features he produced and directed. Clyde betrays little talent as director or writer. McGillis deserves better than to be stuck in junk like this.

Verdict: Watch Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters instead. That was more entertaining, more inventive, and even the plastic monsters were more believable! *.