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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

HAPPY HALLOWEEN


HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

This week some reviews of horror and horror-type movies to celebrate the season!

Get a slice of pumpkin pie [with real whipped cream on top, of course] and watch a scary movie or two over the weekend!

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE


BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964). Director: Mario Bava. [NOTE: End credit says that the English version was produced, written and directed by Lou Moss. The Italian title is Sei donne per l'assassino.]

An especially brutal murderer is slaying the beautiful models of the Christiane Fashion House in Rome. The establishment is owned by Contessa Como (Eva Bartok), a widow who is keeping company with one Max Morlan (Cameron Mitchell). Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) locks up all the male suspects but the murders continue. This entertaining, well-made and suspenseful film was highly influential on the many Italian horror thrillers by Dario Argento and others that came afterward [while it itself was influenced by Hitchcock's Psycho, especially in regard to a intense focus on and depiction of murder.] There are illogical moments -- why does one frightened woman drag a corpse into her house and even leave the door wide open? -- and a disregard for forensics, but the movie works on a visceral level and is generally well-acted. Bartok and Mary Arden as model/victim Peggy come off best. Thomas Reiner is the Great Stone Face as the cop assigned to the case. Not badly dubbed [Paul Frees did some of the dubbing, apparently for more than one character.] Credit may have been given to someone else for supposedly directing this "English" version, but any way you slice it the film is pure Bava. Carlo Rustichelli's music is a plus, both the eerie music and the lazy, sensual jazz theme that opens the movie and plays on occasion throughout. Some of the atmospherically-lit sequences were considered quite sadistic in their day and still pack a punch. Bava also directed Twitch of the Death Nerve [AKA Bay of Blood].

Verdict: A creepy treat for those who love multiple murders in movies. ***.

TALES OF TERROR


TALES OF TERROR (1962). Director: Roger Corman.

There really isn't much terror in this light adaptation of several stories by Edgar Allan Poe starring Vincent Price. The dead "Morella" (Leona Gage) blames her infant daughter for causing her death, and when the grown woman, Lenora (Maggie Pierce), shows up to see her father (Price) after many years, Morella seizes the opportunity to take over her body. In "The Black Cat," which also incorporates elements from "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor (Peter Lorre) walls up his wife (Joyce Jameson) and her lover, Fortunato (Price), but is seemingly haunted by their spirits. "The Case of M. Valdemar" has a dying man (Price again) agreeing to allow mesmerist Carmichael (Basil Rathbone) to hypnotize him at the moment of his death, keeping his soul tormented and imprisoned in his dead flesh. Debra Paget and David Frankham play Valdemar's wife and doctor, respectively. It's great fun to watch old pros Price and Lorre (see photo) sparring with each other, especially during a delightful wine-tasting contest between the two, but the movie itself is mediocre and lacks chills.

Verdict: Watch this, but then read Poe's original stories for the real spirit of the Master. **1/2.

THE INVADERS (1967)



THE INVADERS (ABC Television 1967.)

One night driving while he's tired, architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) stops for a moment and sees a spaceship in the distance. From that moment forward his life is never the same, as he learns that an alien race from a dying world has secretly come to Earth and is working to take it over and change the environment to make it more favorable for them. The aliens have changed into human form (without our internal organs, however) and some of them have a "mutated" fourth finger that makes their pinkie stick out. Otherwise they are indistinguishable from us. They even have special academies that train them in being able to mimic human emotions. Whenever an invader dies, his body disintegrates, making it even more difficult for Vincent to convince others of the invasion. [The aliens die very easily. Wounds that might merely put a human being into a hospital kill them instantly.] Vincent devotes his life to tracking down every lead he can to the aliens' presence, and manages to outwit several of their dastardly schemes. [One episode acknowledged that Vincent still had a living to make and had him take on an architectural assignment. Fans probably wondered if he were independently wealthy!] Eventually Vincent gained some important allies in his fight, and there was a group of alien-hunters actively working against the inhuman antagonists. [Kent Smith became a regular in the second season.] An early episode suggested that any alien with emotions or a heart was a mutation, but later episodes suggested some aliens had almost "human" feelings, or at least were learning to understand the human viewpoint and could even be sympathetic – to a point.

Out of 43 episodes, only two or three were mediocre. Most were quite good and a few were outstanding, including: “Quantity Unknown,” in which James Whitmore gives an excellent performance as a victim of the aliens; “The Innocent,” in which Michael Rennie, equally good, plays an alien who takes Vincent into one of their spaceships; “The Betrayed,” in which Ed Begley hires Vincent to design a plant and Vincent’s girlfriend, Susan (Laura Devon), is killed off; “Moonshot,” which features the substitution of a lookalike alien for an astronaut (Peter Graves); “Wall of Crystal,” which features Vincent’s brother and sister-in-law; and “The Condemned,” with Ralph Bellamy.

Season two also had its share of memorable episodes: “The Saucer," with a couple on the run coming across an abandoned saucer; “The Watchers,” with Shirley Knight as the blind niece of a wealthy man (Kevin McCarthy of Invasion of the Body Snatchers); “The Trial,” focusing on the alleged murder of an alien; “The Prophet,’ with Pat Hingle as a phony alien evangelist; the very suspenseful “Labryinth,” with quirky Sally Kellerman in a story of a struggle to hold onto alien X-rays; “The Believers,” in which Vincent has a whole group to work with; “Task Force,” with Linden Chiles and Nancy Kovack; “Counter-Attack,” in which things get very tough for Vincent; “The Pit,” with Joanne Linville; “The Organization,” with hoodlums working for and against the aliens; “Light Seekers,” which features friendly aliens who are working against the invasion scheme; and “The Pursued,” with Suzanne Pleshette as an alien who can’t control homicidal impulses.

In addition to the aforementioned guest stars, other actors who appeared on the series included: Diane Baker; Roddy McDowell; Zena Bethune; Virginia Christine; Fritz Weaver; Dana Wynter; Gene Hackman; Carol Lynley, Karen Black; Phyllis Thaxter; Barbara Hershey; Ed Asner; Arthur Franz; Burgess Meredith; Anne Francis; Dabney Coleman; Jason Evers; Charles Drake; Jack Warden; Roscoe Lee Brown; Barbara Luna; Robert Walker; John Ericson; Susan Oliver: Anthony Eisley; and many others.

The Invaders was created by Larry Cohen and was highly influential on The X-Files, V and other programs. Domimic Frontiere’s theme music was suitably ominous and memorable. The science was not always consistent or well thought out, but in many ways The Invaders was more of a drama than a science fiction series. Star Roy Thinnes was perfect for the role of Vincent, getting across the character’s haunted, intense, obsessed state-of-mind in virtually every episode. The acting of the guest-stars was generally of a high order as well. The show engendered a series of paperback books and a TV mini-series many years later.

Verdict: The ultimate paranoia program.***½.

THE EVIL DEAD


THE EVIL DEAD (1981). Written and directed by Sam Raimi.

Ashley (Bruce Campbell) and four friends travel to an isolated cabin in the woods where they discover and play a tape recording of incantations from the "Book of the Dead" which can resurrect demons. Which is exactly what happens. Before long -- and after one woman has apparently been raped by malevolent, moving roots -- the women in the party are possessed one by one by demonic forces that transform them and turn them into murderous, cackling hags that only dismemberment can kill. This is another in a long line of Exorcist-inspired films, and in its own way was also a bit influential, though it's much less impressive now than it seemed nearly thirty years ago. The movie, full of comic book gruesomeness, is like a nightmare come to life, and is sometimes effective and sometimes clumsy, often employing shock techniques that were old-fashioned even in 1981. Some feel the direction and camera work of the film are "masterful." Well ... not quite. Raimi's screenplay fails to provide three-dimensional characters. The true stars of the film are the FX people and the make up artists, whose work is excellent. Some of the acting is awkward, although Campbell isn't bad. The best scene has a paranoid Ash all alone in the cabin wondering what on earth is going to happen next. Raimi would go on to direct much better films.

Verdict: Lively, once it gets going, but perhaps not lively enough. **1/2.

BLACK MOON


BLACK MOON (1934). Director: Roy William Neill.

"The natives are restless."

A wife and mother, Juanita Lane (Dorothy Burgess), becomes a little too involved with the voodoo culture on the island of San Christopher to the point where she's prepared to sacrifice her own child. People around her, such as a telegraph operator and the child's nurse, Anna (Eleanor Wesselhoeft) are murdered. There are interesting elements to the movie to be sure, but despite all the activity and running around, it generates more tedium than thrills or horror. Fay Wray is secretary Gail Hamilton, and Jack Holt is Juanita's husband. The movie is inherently racist, but at least Clarence Muse portrays "Lunch" McClaren, a sympathetic and likable black character. Ruva, the sinister voodoo lady, is portrayed by Madame Sul-Te-Wan.

Verdict: A possible cure for insomnia. * 1/2.

SCARED TO DEATH


SCARED TO DEATH (1947). Director: Christy Cabanne.

"My dear Josef, if I allowed myself to be announced, I doubt I would be received anywhere."

Well, this movie has something in common with the later Sunset Boulevard, in that it's sort of narrated by a corpse, but that's as far as it goes. {The original idea for Sunset was for it to begin in the morgue, which this picture actually does.] As the pathologists prepare to perform an autopsy on a woman, we hear her voice, and flashbacks tell us how she wound up dead. Laura (Molly Lamont) lives in a strange household. She thinks her husband Ward (Roland Varno) and father-in-law Dr. Josef (George Zucco) are trying to kill her. Then we have Josef's cousin, Professor Leonide (Bela Lugosi), a once-famous magician, who arrives unexpectedly with a deaf mute dwarf, Indigo (Angelo Rossitto) and hates Josef. Rounding out the cast of characters are the maid Lilly Beth (Gladys Blake), a private dick Bill "Bull" Raymond (Nat Pendleton), a reporter Terry Lee (Douglas Fowley). and his date Joyce (Jane Cornell). And we mustn't forget the odd green face that periodically seems to be peeping through some curtains.

Scared to Death seems to have been conceived as a black comedy, but it isn't remotely funny but for one or two moments, and it hasn't got a single chill. The "Natural Color" it was filmed in doesn't help a bit. Even with all the odd characters and weird goings-on, the movie is slow and dull. But the most criminal thing about it is that it wastes the talents -- and the confrontation between -- those two fine actors George Zucco and Bela Lugosi, both of whom are much better than the picture deserves. Roland Varno also appeared in My Name is Julia Ross and The Return of the Vampire. Douglas Fowley was in Flaxy Martin and many, many other movies.

Verdict: Tough to take even for Lugosi fans. *1/2.

13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS


13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS (1963). Director: William Castle.

Candace Hull (Kathy Dunn) is an American diplomat's daughter who attends Miss Pittford's Academy for Young Ladies along with many other diplomats' daughters. Her best friend is Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon), whose father is Red Chinese. Candy has a big crush on Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton of Jaws fame), who works for the state department and may soon be out of a job. When a murder occurs while Candy is visiting Mai-Ling in the Chinese embassy, Candy decides to become a spy code-named "Kitten" so that she can help Wally out of his career problems. If it all sounds pretty awful, believe me it is -- but not bad enough to be good. This is one of the few William Castle films that has virtually no entertainment value. Kathy Dunn is so shrill and whiny at times that you want to slap her. Lynne Sue Moon is cute and charming, however. Candy's obsession with Wally is inexplicable when there are handsome guys closer to her own age in the movie, with whom she flirts -- but only as part of her spy activities. Hugh Marlowe of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers plays Candy's dad. Joyce Taylor of Atlantis, the Lost Continent and who also [badly] played "Rappaccini's Daughter" in Twice-Told Tales, plays Wally's fiancee. Alexandra Bastedo and Judy Pace are two of the girls who became somewhat better known years later. Khigh Dhiegh plays Kang, Mei-Ling's uncle. 90 minutes of your life you can never get back.

Verdict: Read a Nancy Drew book instead. *.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940)


THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940). Director: Rouben Mamoulian.

Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) returns to Los Angeles from Madrid and discovers that in his absence his elderly father (Montagu Love) has been unseated and a petty tyrant, Don Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), is taxing the people to death and brutalizing the rebellious with the aid of nasty Captain Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). Diego's father is appalled by what his predecessor is doing but can't see himself fighting against the government, no matter how corrupt. Therefore Diego dons the mask of Zorro to fight his people's oppressor, and begins to act as a carefree, callous fop to avoid suspicion focusing upon him. This very good movie about one of the first masked "super-heroes" of sorts is fine entertainment, with smashing performances from all -- this is one of Power's best -- and an excellent sword fight between Power and Rathbone, who is also at his snarling best. Linda Darnell is lovely as the romantic interest and Gale Sondergaard splendid as Quintero's catty and unfaithful wife. Eugene Palette scores as the Padre, and there's a good scene when Power reveals his secret identity to the priest. Bromberg and Love are also in top form. Not as thrilling as the serial Zorro's Fighting Legion but much superior to Zorro Rides Again.

Verdict: Very entertaining classic. ***.

THE GOOD WIFE


THE GOOD WIFE 2009 CBS-TV series.

After politician Peter Florrick (Chris Noth, who appears sporadically) is arrested for abusing his office, his wife Alicia (Julianna Margulies) has to go back to work as a lawyer to pay the bills for herself and their two children. Peter insists that he told lies only to keep his wife from finding out about his numerous sexcapades, not to cover up any other malfeasances, and his lawyer is hoping for an appeal. Alicia winds up with some clients who seem to have hopeless causes, but she's quick-witted enough to figure out how to help them in court. [In her first case, she also receives important info from Peter.] The Good Wife is a snappy, entertaining show with an appealing heroine and a good supporting cast, including Christine Baranski as one of the top lawyers at the firm. Good scripts and good acting help put this one over.

Verdict: The Good Wife is a good bet.

BATMAN AND ROBIN


BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997). Director: Joel Shumacher.

Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) have their hands full with the crazy Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), when he teams up with the equally crazy Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and her silent confederate, Bane (Jeep Swenson). They hope to flash-freeze the entire planet so that the world can start anew, and Ivy's mutant plant-animals can overrun the globe. Alfred's niece Barbara (Alicia Silverstone) becomes Batgirl so she can help the boys overcome the threat. Absurd but colorful Batman feature is too silly, too campy, illogical, and way, way too long, but it has its exciting and amusing moments. The stand-out bit is a thrilling moment near the opening when the boys are aboard Mr. Freeze's runaway rocket; the climax also has its share of exciting stunts and last-second saves. George Clooney isn't bad as an ultra-cool, reign-in-the-emotions Batman, O'Donnell is perky, Silverstone is adequate, and Michael Gough is excellent, as usual. Schwarzenegger walks off with the picture, however. As the fragile Dr. Isley AKA sexy Poison Ivy, the attractively homely Thurman acts as if she's seen one too many Mae West movies and sometimes seems to be in a different movie from everyone else, but she's acceptable as a camp-villainess. The true stars of the picture are those responsible for the special effects (especially Arnold's amazing freeze gun) and for the stunning art direction and scenic design (the observatory building is something to behold). Script-wise, the movie sort of seems thrown together, and despite all the action, it seems three hours long. Former super-model Elle Macpherson makes little impression as Bruce Wayne's girlfriend, Julie Madison. Batman and Robin resembles the comic book from different time periods, with a bit of the TV show and cliffhanger serials thrown in for good measure. Very different from The Dark Knight.

Verdict: Kind of exhausting but fun if you're game. **1/2.

THE MISSING JUROR


THE MISSING JUROR (1944). Director: Budd Boetticher.

"A man named 'Apple?' Funny name, Apple. Bet he's a peach!"

Reporter Joe Keats (Jim Bannon) gets on the trail of a mad killer when he discovers that several jurors on a notorious murder trial have been killed in mysterious "accidents." Harry Wharton (George Macready) was convicted of murdering a woman he loved, but it was discovered that he'd been framed. Although the truth came out before Wharton could be executed, the experience unhinges him and he commits suicide in a sanitarium. Now someone is executing all the jurors. Keats tries to protect the other jurists, and especially bonds with a pretty gal named Alice (Janis Carter). Jean Stevens is Alice's sexy gal pal, Tex Tuttle; Mike Mazurki is Cullie, the masseur; and Trevor Bardette certainly scores as Pierson, who confesses to the murders at one point. The Missing Juror is a snappy, well-acted, and entertaining programmer, but the main problem is that the solution is apparent almost from the first. Macready gives a terrific performance as the haunted Wharton in flashbacks. Joseph Crehan is Willard Apple, editor of the Record-Herald that Keats works for. Macready had one of the most distinctive voices in Hollywood. Jim Bannon was also in Unknown World. Trevor Bardette appeared in about a thousand movies.

Verdict: Another reason to get out of jury duty. **1/2.

OBSESSION


OBSESSION (1976). Director: Brian De Palma.

Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) loses his wife (Genevieve Bujold) and daughter when a kidnapping/ransom goes awry and they apparently die in a burning vehicle. Many years later Courtland meets a young woman, Sandra (also played by Bujold) in Europe who is the spitting image of his wife and falls in love with her, bringing her back to the states. But who is Sandra really? While this is nowhere in the league of its obvious model, Hitchcock's Vertigo, on its own terms it's a credible thriller. Paul Schrader's screenplay is weak on characterization, however. Also, the fact that Courtland has no suspicions concerning Sandra minimizes the film's suspense and mystery factor. The best performances come from Bujold and John Lithgow as an associate of Courtland's; Robertson is comparatively somnambulistic and passionless. Handsomely produced. Outstanding cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond. Great score by Bernard Herrmann, even if it's a little "too much" at times. Very well directed by De Palma.

Verdict: No Vertigo, but not without interest. ***.

THE WILD PARTY (1956)


THE WILD PARTY (1956). Director: Harry Horner.

Anthony Quinn, Carol Ohmart (Vincent Price's bitchy wife in House on Haunted Hill), Arthur Franz of Atomic Submarine and The Sniper, Nestor Paiva of Tarantula, Kathryn Grant of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Paul Stewart and Nehemiah Persoff all in the same movie -- too bad it's a nearly unwatchable stinker. It's even more of a shame that virtually everyone in the cast gives a good performance, especially Carol Ohmart, who mostly did TV work. She plays Erica, who is seeing boyfriend Franz on his last night before going overseas, and is kidnapped by a crazy, desperate Quinn. Jay Robinson plays an even crazier pal of Quinn's, Gage. Persoff's hippie character, "Kicks," is incredibly annoying, although Persoff plays him well (too well). A lot of bad dialogue and under-developed characters.

Verdict: Fairly pitiful, with a cast that deserves better. *.

GIRLS OF THE ROAD


GIRLS OF THE ROAD (1940). Director: Nick Grinde.

"The debutramps have just arrived!"

Governor's daughter Kay Warren (Ann Dvorak) is disturbed to learn of the plight of so many homeless girls who wind up criss-crossing the country, murdered, or in jail, so she decides to take to the road (with fancy suitcase and plenty of money) to find out first-hand what these girls are up against. She runs into tough Mickie (Helen Mack) and Jerry (Ann Doran) and others, gets arrested, jumps off a train, and tries to calm a wolf pack of itchy, angry gals. While this short film is certainly fast-paced, none of it is nearly as interesting as it sounds, so you're basically left with a lot of dullness. Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett shows up as a cop. Its level of grittiness and reality is about the same as that of a Bowery Boys feature. A brief slap-fast between gals livens things up for a couple of seconds. The acting is very good, however.

Verdict: Watch Caged instead. *1/2.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

IN NAME ONLY


IN NAME ONLY (1939). Director: John Cromwell.

Alec Walker (Cary Grant) is trapped in a loveless marriage with his wife Maida (Kay Francis), who freely admits she was in love with another man at the time of their wedding and only married Alec for his money. Alec meets a free-spirited widow, Julie Eden (Carole Lombard) with a small girl, and he and Julie, instantly smitten, fall in love. But will Maida graciously step aside -- or cause them all manner of trouble? What do you think? The stars are all in top form in this -- it's one of Francis' best performances -- and the picture is warm, humorous, dramatic, and absorbing, the only deficit a climactic bout with pneumonia that's a bit of a bore. Otherwise, this is very entertaining. Supporting players include Helen Vinson as the bitchy, man-hungry Suzanne, supposedly Maida's best friend; Katharine Alexander as Laura, Julie's bitter sister; and Charles Coburn as Grant's father, who doesn't have nearly enough to do. Grant and Lombard are really terrific in this. A lost film from that great year for movies, 1939.

Verdict: Kay, Carole and Cary! Oh my! ***1/2.

THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS


THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS (1940). Director: Norman Lee.

June Lansdowne (Lilli Palmer) gets involved with a private dick (Romilly Lunge) after she encounters a puzzling mystery in a sanitarium: a man she's speaking to is murdered and then his body disappears. It all has to do with a shadowy estate, a vault, and a door with seven locks -- and seven keys, one of which June possesses. Leslie Banks of (the far superior) The Most Dangerous Game plays Dr. Manetta, who lives on the estate, has a gallery of ancient torture instruments, and says he is a descendant of the notorious leader of the Spanish Inquisition. There's also a monkey named Beppo roaming about. Although this mystery (which isn't hard to solve) from an Edgar Wallace novel shows promise at the opening, it's slow, boring and mostly uneventful. The torture devices, including a variation on an iron maiden, don't figure in the plot until very briefly at the end. You keep hoping this will get better but it never does.

Verdict: Dull skulduggery. *1/2.

THE MAN FROM PLANET X


THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951). Edgar G. Ulmer.

John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) travels to an isolated village in England where he has been told a new planet will most closely approach the Earth. Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) is observing the planet from this vantage point, along with a disgruntled former colleague Mears (William Schallert). One night on the very foggy moors, the professor's daughter Enid (Margaret Field, mother of Sally Field) comes across a small spaceship and sees a face looking out of a porthole at her ... This eerie and compact little movie is well-acted, has a surprisingly ambitious storyline about planetary invasion, and is well-directed by Ulmer. The little alien is both scary and cute. Atmosphere -- and fog -- to spare!

Verdict: No world-beater maybe, but it holds the attention. ***.

THE UNSUSPECTED


THE UNSUSPECTED (1947). Director: Michael Curtiz.

"I detest scenes not of my own making."

Roslyn, the secretary of radio star Victor Grandison (Claude Rains), who narrates tales of mystery and the macabre, is found hanging in the study, apparently the victim of a suicide. Meanwhile, Grandison's niece, Matilda (Joan Caulfield), who was supposedly lost at sea, shows up alive and well, as does Steven Howard (Michael/Ted North), a man she doesn't remember who claims he's her husband. Other members of this strange household include another viperish niece, Althea (Audrey Totter), her husband Oliver (Hurd Hatfield), whom she stole away from Matilda, and snappy assistant Jane (Constance Bennett), not to mention Press (Jack Lambert) a hooligan employed by Grandison. Based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong, this seems an odd fit for director Curtiz (despite his work on such films as Mildred Pierce) and while it holds the attention and has a fairly exciting finale, otherwise it never quite comes alive. Nice work by Claude Rains (although he seems less inspired by this material than he was in, say, Deception). Audrey Totter is vivid, as usual, as is Constance Bennett. Caulfield is just okay, mo more.

Verdict: Okay suspenser. **1/2.

PARK ROW


PARK ROW (1952). Director/Writer/Producer: Samuel Fuller.

This labor of love for Samuel Fuller about the newspaper business takes a while to get started, but eventually becomes quite interesting and dramatic, although it's nowhere in the league of, say, Citizen Kane, which also, in part, dealt with newspapers. Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans), fired from the Star in 1880's New York, lunges at the opportunity to start his own newspaper the Globe, which he intends to make a real newspaper, not a shoddy imitation like the Star, whose publisher Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) hasn't got newsprint in her blood. His first big story is his pal Steve Brodie (George O'Hanlon) jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Hackett is attracted to Mitchell, and instructs underlings to begin a war on the paper, even though its circulation is not nearly as big as her major competitors. The war escalates into violence and tragedy, with bombs, mobs and destruction. Fuller even works in the invention of Linotype and the gift of the Statue of Liberty. Although this is supposed to be the "true" story of newspaper publishing, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Fuller's script could have used some punching up and there are character reversals that make no sense. Mary Welch gives the most interesting performance in the film. (Welch died in childbirth six years after the movie was released and had only three other television credits.) Evans of Giant Behemoth fame certainly has his moments and is by no means a bad actor, but you can't help comparing him to the dynamic Orson Welles. Evans doesn't really have that kind of big screen presence that would help him dominate a movie.

Verdict: An interesting curiosity. **1/2.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959)


THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959). Director: Terence Fisher.

Very creditable, atmospheric adaptation from Hammer films of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes story. With impeccable diction and a beautiful air of superiority, Peter Cushing is marvelous as a somewhat bitchy Holmes. Andre Morell, of The Giant Behemoth and many other films, tries a more dignified approach as Watson than Nigel Bruce and it works, even if he's less "lovable" (and a lot less bumbling). Christopher Lee is impressive, as always, as the endangered Sir Henry Baskerville, although he seems a bit wasted. Marla Landi scores as the hot-tempered Cecile Stapleton and Ewen Solon is effective as her father. Miles Malleson as the slightly vague bishop and entomologist nearly steals the picture. Handsome production values, although you may recognize some of the sets from other Hammer films. Seems to be fairly faithful to the story as well.

Verdict: Good show, Watson. ***.

THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER


THE RETURN OF THE WHISTLER (1948). Director: D. Ross Lederman.

Ted Nichols (Michael Duane) leaves his fiancee Alice (Lenore Aubert) in a hotel, then learns that she ran out during the night and disappeared. There's a private eye named Gaylord Traynor (Richard Lane) and Olin Howlin/Howland of The Blob and Them plays the hotel desk clerk. The story is initially suspenseful, but once you learn what's really going on about halfway through, it just peters out. This might have made an effective half hour mystery program, but it's certainly no great shakes as a movie -- or a mystery. Ann Shoemaker plays a sinister older woman, and Ann Doran of It! The Terror from Beyond Space has a brief bit as a bad girl. Aubert was also in I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as the evil Dr. Aubrey, who gets thrown through a castle window by the Monster. Narrated, sort of, by the shadowy "Whistler" of radio fame.

Verdict: Just passable. **.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

TUGBOAT ANNIE


TUGBOAT ANNIE (1933). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

Annie Brennan (Marie Dressler) lives and works for a living on her tugboat, along with her often-drunk and lazy husband, Terry (Wallace Beery), whom she dearly loves. The only thing that comes between them is their son Alec (Robert Young), a successful captain of a luxury liner, who is disgraced by his father's behavior and wants his mother to leave him. This causes an estrangement between son and parents that is painful for all. Tugboat Annie features that swell team Dressler and Beery in top form. (Although Young is okay, he's rather one-note and out-classed in this company). Maureen O'Sullivan is excellent as Alec's girlfriend, and Frankie Darro is fine as Alec as a boy in the earlier scenes. Tugboat Annie and its leads never let you forget the pathos underneath the comedy. The only debit is that the climactic storm-at-sea sequence goes on a little too long, and is a bit confusing as well.

Verdict: Dressler and Beery at their best. ***.

PAUL NEWMAN: A LIFE



PAUL NEWMAN: A LIFE. Lawrence J. Quirk. Taylor Trade Publishing, New York. 2009.

Brand new, updated biography of the famous actor by the well-known biographer, Lawrence J. Quirk.

"This biography takes a comprehensive approach to this great actor/director's life, examining all aspects of his character, fair or foul, both on and off the screen. . . . A superb biography."
Midwest Book Review

"Recommended." Library Journal.

Now available at your better bookstalls or direct from the publisher.

TENSION


TENSION (1949). Director: John Berry.

When pharmacist Warren Quimby's (Richard Basehart) skank wife Claire (Audrey Totter) leaves him for another man (Lloyd Gough), he cooks up a plan to take on another identity and get revenge. Of course, things don't work out exactly as planed. Barry Sullivan and William Conrad are two homicide detectives who at first don't even realize that Quimby and his alter ego are the same person even though all he's done is exchange his glasses for contacts! Cyd Charisse plays the loyal woman who falls in love with Quimby's new identity. For much of its length Tension is absorbing, but when all is said and done it doesn't create enough suspects in its murder mystery and everyone's actions seem a trifle inexplicable. In the long run, there isn't much tension in this or much else, although it's decently acted, and Totter is certainly vivid.

Verdict: Mediocre suspenser. **1/2.

JUBILEE TRAIL


JUBILEE TRAIL (1954). Director: Joseph Kane.

A dance hall gal who calls herself Florinda (Vera Ralston) and a "nice" gal named Garnet (Joan Leslie), recently married, develop an unexpected friendship that lasts from 1845 New Orleans to California in the days just before and after it became a state and on the verge of the Gold Rush. The main story of this meandering "epic" from Republic pictures has to do with Garnet's brother-in-law trying to kidnap her young son after her husband's death, and the chaos that results. Along the way there are Indians on the warpath and assorted romantic complications. Richard Webb, Forrest Tucker, Buddy Bear, Barton MacLane and Jim Davis are also in the cast. Pat O'Brien has a notable turn as "Texas," a kind-hearted drunk with a secret. Leslie is okay as Garnet; Vera Ralston is oddly appealing as Florinda. Jubilee Trail isn't awful but it isn't memorable, either.

Verdict: A trail you may not want to wander along. **1/2.

SHIELD FOR MURDER


SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954). Directors: Howard W. Koch; Edmond O'Brien.

Cop Barney Nolan (Edmond O'Brien, who co-directed) has been on the straight and narrow for most of his career, but when an opportunity comes he takes it, shooting a crook and hiding away the cash that the dead man had on him. He claims the killing was in the line of duty, but a deaf-mute witness says otherwise. Nolan's girlfriend, Patty (Marla English) and Mark Brewster (John Agar), the cop he mentored, have faith in Nolan's innocence but as evidence piles up against him even that faith is tested. Okay crime thriller is kind of weak on characterization, and while the acting is okay, it's not exactly on the subtle side. O'Brien comes off best, as expected, Agar is Agar (although even he has his moments), English makes very little impression, and Emile Meyer as the police captain is so busy chewing the scenery that it hurts just to look at him. Carolyn Jones appears briefly as a slightly drunk gal that Nolan meets in a bar and completely takes over the movie for five minutes. A fast-pace doesn't hurt, but you've seen this all before. Marla English was also in Three Bad Sisters and The She-Creature.

Verdict: Watch D.O.A. instead. **.

SEX AND THE CITY -- THE MOVIE


SEX AND THE CITY -- THE MOVIE (2008). Director/writer: Michael Patrick King.

Five years have gone by since the series ended and all four of the women are either married or in relationships. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Big (Chris Noth) decide to get married, but Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) discovers her husband has been unfaithful, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is antsy keeping it monogamous with her hunky boyfriend, and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is afraid something dreadful will happen when she discovers that against all odds she's pregnant. Then something devastating happens on her wedding day, and Carrie needs her friends more than ever. The plot itself may be slight, but the movie is certainly not uneventful, and despite its length it's never boring. The film has warmth, honest sentiment, wit, humor and its trademark frankness in equal measure, and if it has a theme it's assuredly the importance of friendship. Of course, some of the movie -- as with the series -- must be taken with a grain of salt. Carrie calls for a cab from the third step of her brownstone stoop and one immediately comes to a halt right in front of her. Sure -- that always happens in New York! And Samatha, while still a hot babe on her 50th birthday [the great-looking Cattrall was actually 52 when she made the movie], gives up a relationship with a handsome younger man who loves her at a age when many women fear [rightfully or not] that they'll have trouble attracting men at all.
Still, the movie is a lot of fun.

NOTE: To read a write-up on the series itself, click here and scroll down a bit.

Verdict: This modern take on an old-fashioned "women's picture" really works for the most part. ***1/2.

DEAD MAN'S FOLLY


DEAD MAN'S FOLLY (1986 telefilm). Director: Clive Donner.

"Hattie is a completely self-absorbed person. She wouldn't think of sending cough drops to Camille."

Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is invited by mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Jean Stapleton) to a fete with a murder game at the estate of Sir George Stubbs (Tim Pigott-Smith) and his dumb, decorative wife Hattie (Nicolette Sheridan), plus a variety of suspicious guests and staff. When the "victim" of the murder game is actually murdered, Inspector Bland (Kenneth Cranham) is called in -- but of course he's no match for Poirot when it comes to solving homicides. Cherubic Ustinov is not as perfect for the role as is David Suchet, but he's still quite good and very entertaining as the Belgian detective. About to get into a boat, he tells Arthur Hastings (Jonathan Cecil) to "Get in first -- Tell me if it's dangerous!" Jean Stapleton is also fine as Oliver, who is turned into an American author ("Ariadne Oliver" was actually an in-joke by Christie meant to be very British Agatha Christie herself). Constance Cummings scores as Mrs. Folliat, who used to own the estate and now lives in (a pretty luxurious) guest cottage. The rest of the large cast is more than competent. This adaptation of one of Christie's best mysteries is at times much too comic in tone, but it is absorbing and generally well-made. In the novel Christie withheld the solution practically until the last paragraph; there was no scene with Poirot gathering together all the suspects, which this telefilm includes for dramatic purposes. Good score by John Addison.

Verdict: The book is better but this is creditable. ***.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT


SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946). Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Screenplay by Howard Dimsdale and Mankiewicz.

"Time doesn't change. it goes on and on but it doesn't change. I know because I've watched it. Nights. Days. Nights. Always the same. Nights are always gray. Days can have different colors, but the nights are dark and empty. Only people change. They grow old and ugly -- and pitiful. I've made believe so much for so long. That I was alive. That I had friends. That I wasn't dead. I wanted so much to make believe that somebody loved me."

An amnesiac WW 2 veteran named George Taylor (John Hodiak) learns that someone named "Larry Cravat" has put $5000 for him in a bank account but can't remember why or even who the man is. So he begins a search for the elusive Cravat, encountering a pretty singer named Christy (Nancy Guild) who takes a shine to him and vice versa. During his search Taylor encounters assorted thugs, a villain named Anzelmo (Fritz Kortner) and a hard-boiled dame named Phyllis (Margo Woode). After she kisses an unresponsive Taylor, Phyllis says "I've had more fun drinking a bromo seltzer." [Sheldon Leonard has a notable turn as Phyllis' husband.] Lloyd Nolan is a police officer who's also looking for Cravat -- and George Taylor. This interesting mystery has an intriguing plot and good dialogue, and is well-acted by Hodiak and everyone else. Woode is snappy as Phyllis, and Guild very appealing as Christy. [Guild gets to lip sync to a very nice torch song entitled "I'm in the Middle of Nowhere."] The cast stand-out, however, is Josephine Hutchinson as desperately lonely Elizabeth, who is very affecting in her brief scene wherein she speaks the dialogue quoted above. Somewhere in the Night is a snappy, absorbing picture, even if its wind-up is a little predictable and disappointing, but it has well-realized characters and memorable performances. Mankiewicz's direction is only routine for this type of material, however. This was Guild's first film; she also appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. She makes a much better impression in this film.

Verdict: Suspenseful and different. ***.

THE CYCLOPS


THE CYCLOPS (1957). Director: Bert I. Gordon.

"The secret of continuous, limitless multiplication of living cells in ordinary animals."

Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) travels to Mexico with a motley group in search of her fiance who crashed in an isolated jungle. Her companions include friend and scientist Russ (James Craig), pilot Lee (Tom Drake), and uranium-seeker Marty (Lon Chaney Jr.). Inside the "jungle" the little band discovers that radioactive properties of the soil have turned all of the animals and insects into huge monstrosities -- and what about that thirty foot giant who's wandering around? Could it be ...? Don't expect anything Oscar-worthy with The Cyclops, but it is very entertaining for those who are in a "BIG" [Bert I. Gordon] and monstrous mood. Despite it's cheapness, the film is done with a certain low-budget and economical flair. Albert Glasser's music is a plus, as usual, and the performances, especially by Chaney, are more than adequate. Gordon also directed The Amazing Colossal Man and War of the Colossal Beast, among many others. NOTE: For more on this film and others like it, see Creature Features.

Verdict: Great fun for fans of creature features. ***.

UNCLE SILAS


UNCLE SILAS (1947). Director: Charles Frank.

Caroline Ruthyn (Jean Simmons, pictured) finds herself at the mercy of her rather batty Uncle Silas (Derrick De Marney) and his psychotic son after her father dies and she becomes the ward of Silas -- who has serious debts. But even more threatening is the very weird governess Madame de la Rouggiere (Katina Paxinou), who is positively monstrous. This adaptation of a Sheridan Le Fanu gothic novel tries very hard to be atmospheric and sinister and classy, and it nearly succeeds some of the time, but it also has a decided second-rate quality to it that nothing can disguise. The acting is very good, however, with Jean Simmons perfect as the [rather slow] heroine and Paxinou marvelous as the evil Madame, who shows up again at an unexpected moment. Marjorie Rhodes has a small role and there isn't enough of her. The ultimate effect is one of tedium.

Verdict: Strange, rather dull movie despite all the goings-on. **.

HILDA CRANE


HILDA CRANE (1956). Director: Philip Dunne.

After two disastrous marriages and what she considers "failure" in New York City, Hilda Crane (Jean Simmons) returns to her home town and her mother and ponders her future. Her unaffectionate mother, Stella (Judith Evelyn), thinks she should forget all about romantic notions of "love" and settle for appearances, a marriage that is settled and stabled (and, perhaps, without passion). Should Hilda marry small-town guy Russell Burns? [The fact that Burns is not only rich and nice, but is played by handsome Guy Madison, must have made Hilda's indecision over the matter seem a little comical to some ladies in the audience.] Or should she settle for a more passionate relationship with her former teacher Jacques (Jean-Pierre Aumont) whom she apparently finds more exciting? Evelyn Varden almost steals the picture as Russell's termagant of a mother, who thinks Hilda is nothing but a tramp and isn't afraid to say so. Peggy Knudsen adds some bite as Hilda's blunt friend, Nell, and Jeannette MacDonald's sister Blossom Rock (AKA Marie Blake) is cast as Mrs. Crane's housekeeper. [Years later she played Grandmama on The Addams Family TV show.]. The usually reliable Judith Evelyn doesn't quite seem to get a handle on how she should play her character. Hilda Crane is watchable and generally well-acted, but despite the occasional crisp or intelligent line, it's just comes off as a forgettable soap opera.

Verdict: Peyton Place Lite. **.

JEEPERS CREEPERS 2


JEEPERS CREEPERS 2 (2003). Writer/director: Victor Salva.

This is a continuation of the story originally told in Jeepers Creepers. The Creeper still has a few hours to go before his 23 year hibernation, so he looks for victims among the teenagers on a stranded bus carrying high school athletes. In the meantime, farmer Jack Taggert (Ray Wise) is determined to hunt the creature who flew off with his youngest son. Jeepers Creepers 2 presents another nightmarish scenario, but the movie doesn't quite have the "dreamy" quality of the original. The acting is good, with cast stand-outs including Wise, Eric Nenninger as the nasty Scotty, Garikayi Mutambirwa as his teammate "Double D," and Billy Aaron Brown as manager Andy. The movie is tense and entertaining for the most part, but it's also overlong and has too many climaxes. Don't expect to learn anything more about the Creeper (Jonathan Breck), because you don't.

Verdict: More Creeper mayhem. **1/2.

THREE GIRLS ABOUT TOWN


THREE GIRLS ABOUT TOWN (1941). Director: Leigh Jason.

Hope (Joan Blondell) and Faith Banner (Binnie Barnes) are hostesses at a hotel that caters to male conventioneers out for a good time. The more upstanding ladies of the city want to close the hotel down and essentially accuse the two women of being hookers. When a dead body (Walter Soderling) is discovered in one of the rooms, the girls panic, afraid that a murder will surely get the place shut down for good. In the meantime Hope's boyfriend, reporter Tommy Hopkins (John Howard), realizes the dead man is the negotiator who has come to mediate a labor dispute, and wants to scoop other papers with the story of his death. There begins a supposedly comical moving about of the corpse that reminds one of later films The Trouble with Harry and Weekend with Bernie. Added complications include the fact that hotel manager Wilberforce Puddle (Robert Benchley) wants to marry Faith, and the arrival of third sister Charity (Janet Blair) who makes a play for Tommy and is always kissing him. And we musn't forget the drunk conventioneer (Eric Blore) who is always asking for "Charlie." Nobody ever expresses the slightest sympathy for the dead man (although there's a twist where that's concerned). Blore nearly walks off with the picture, not that that's such a great feat in a movie that has only exactly two laughs. Even the scene when Tommy brings the corpse to a poker game falls flat. [Of course someone refers to the dead man, who's won at poker, as a "lucky stiff." Ha, ha.) The actors give it their best, but this is a monumentally stupid "comedy" that lacks the light touch it needs and becomes a positive effort to sit through.

Verdict: Atrocious. *.

GRAVE MISCONDUCT


GRAVE MISCONDUCT (2008 telefilm). Director. Armand Mastroianni.

This made-for-TV thriller has an interesting (if not entirely original) premise. Writer Julia London (Crystal Bernard) has a big contract for a novel with a major publisher, but she's gotten writer's block and hasn't come up with a word. Now the publisher is threatening to cancel her contract and demand that the large advance be repaid, When a friend of Julia's is murdered, Julia decides to pass off the deceased woman's brilliant manuscript as her own, calling it Grave Misconduct. Julia becomes the toast of New York's literary society, but then everyone around her starts being murdered. Roxanne Hart is the editor, Margo Lawrence; Dorian Harewood is the cop assigned to the case; and Vincent Spano is publisher's assistant Trent Dodson. Joanna Miles is cast as "Catherine Hallow," a character clearly inspired by real-life mystery writer and murderess Anne Perry, who took a brick to the mother of her girlfriend. [Later the stupid woman implied she hated having people think she was a lesbian more than their knowing she was a convicted murderer!] Diane Robin plays Miranda Darkling, another bitchy writer possibly inspired by Anne Rice. Grave Misconduct is well-acted, well-plotted, and suspenseful, with intriguing twists and situations, and has fun with the pretensions and occasional stupidities of the "literary" scene.

Verdict: Entertaining suspenser. ***.