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Welcome to William Schoell's GREAT OLD MOVIES blog. Feel free to leave a comment regardless of the date the review was posted -- I read 'em all. Or if you prefer -- and especially if you have any questions directly for me -- email me at tawses67424@mypacks.net and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Click on a label link (labels can be found at the bottom of each post) to find other movies from that year, the star, that director or genre and so on. Or enter a title, director, genre, star or supporting player in the small Blogger "search blog" box at the far left up above and click search blog. [NOTE: While this blog mostly reviews films -- and TV shows -- that are at least twenty-five years old, we do cover films up until the present day.] HAVE FUN AND THANKS FOR DROPPING BY. William.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

THE RECKLESS MOMENT


THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949). Director: Max Ophuls.

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) tries to cover up her daughter Bea's (Geraldine Brooks) part in an older man's death, and winds up blackmailed by Martin Donnelly (James Mason), who has a collection of the girl's love letters and doesn't believe Lucia's fiction that she did the dirty deed herself [a really unbelievable moment]. This tedious mess could have been an absorbing film but director Ophuls seems completely uninspired by a poor script that even tries to contrive an unconvincing "romance" between Lucia, who is happily married, and her tormentor. Bennett isn't bad in the picture but she has absolutely no chemistry with Mason, who merely seems bored to distraction by the entire project. The movie goes nowhere slowly.

Verdict: Tedious picture is one of Mason's worst. *1/2.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN


YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). Director: Mel Brooks. Written by Brooks and Gene Wilder.

Teacher Frederick von Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is trying to live down the fact that he's a descendant of the notorious Henry Frankenstein and even pronounces his name FronkenSteen. However he travels to the ancient castle of his ancestor and becomes fascinated by his work, eventually creating his own equally imperfect monster (Peter Boyle), with the usual complications concerning angry villagers and the like. Frankenstein -- the man, that is -- is also involved with two women: Inga (Teri Garr) and his fiancee Elizabeth (Madelyn Kahn). Many, many gags in this essentially good-natured movie are old and "borrowed," the picture doesn't always work, but it's often amusing and clever. The cast is stellar, including Wilder, Kahn, Marty Feldman as the eye-popping Igor, Boyle as a sympathetic monster, Gene Hackman as a blind man, and especially Cloris Leachman in a scene-stealing turn as Frau Blucher [pictured]. "Stay close to the candles," she says, "these stairs can be treacherous:" -- but the candles aren't lit! Kenneth Mars seems to be doing a take on Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove, and Teri Garr, while okay, is not quite in the same league as the others. Nice opening theme music, and excellent scenic design. The funniest scene has to do with the monster and the little girl on the seesaw, although some may prefer the business with "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life!" The pace drags at times. To read more about the making of the film check out a fine new bio on Gene Wilder.

Verdict: It's not Night at the Opera but it has its moments.

THE MASTER KEY


THE MASTER KEY 13 chapter Universal serial (1945). Directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins.

Professor Elwood Henderson (Byron Foulger) is kidnapped by the Master Key, a mysterious character who heads a group of Nazis hoping to cause mischief and keep the U.S. out of the war in 1938. Henderson has invented a device called an oratron that can extract gold from sea water. Among those hoping to find Henderson are agent Tom Brant (Milburn Stone), Detective Lt. Jack Ryan (Dennis Moore), and intrepid reporter Janet Lowe (Jan Wiley), whose half brother Walter Stark (John Eldredge) becomes unwittingly embroiled with the Master Key's gang. There's also an old woman named Aggie (Sarah Padden), who leads a group of boy junior reporters, which includes Dan (Jerry Shane). There are some interesting cliffhangers involving a drawbridge, and a flying boat crashing into the ocean, among others. The cast is game, with Foulger giving the most memorable performance as the professor. The surprise identity of the Master Key seems to come out of nowhere!

Verdict: Not top-notch but has its exciting passages. **1/2.

ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS


ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS (1966). Director: Larry Buchanan.

Larry Buchanan remade a number of cheap sci fi movies for television in the sixties, including Zontar, a remake of the vastly superior It Conquered the World. The film basically uses the exact same script with a few minor line changes and references to "Zontar." Zontar, the Venusian creature who comes to Earth to take over with mind-control, looks a little more organic than in the original film, as do the little flying creatures it uses to enslave the brains of humans. John Agar is in the Peter Graves part and Anthony Houston [aka Tony Huston] takes over for Lee Van Cleef. The acting isn't bad, but the movie is cheap and badly produced.

Verdict: Watch the Corman original instead. *1/2.

MR. AND MRS. NORTH TV SHOW


MR. AND MRS. NORTH 1952 television series.

This comedy-mystery television series ran for two seasons and starred Richard Denning as publisher Gerald North and Barbara Britton as his mystery-sniffing wife, Pamela with Francis De Sales as the cop they called upon for help and vice versa. Guest-stars on the show included Cathy Downs, Edgar Barrier [as a butler lover-boy!], Lee Patrick, Carolyn Jones and Jean Willes. Few of the episodes were especially outstanding but among the more memorable were "Beauty Contest," in which Pamela substitutes for a lookalike contestant who is murdered, and "Unfaithful Wife" [aka "Mask of Hate"], which pits a presumably paralyzed man against his wife and her lover with Pam getting caught in the middle. Denning was center stage in "Target," in which he's mistaken for an Army traitor by the man who wants to kill him, but generally he was along for the ride, and seen to better advantage in his solo turn as Michael Shayne a few years later. Based on the novels by Frances and Richard Lockridge.

Verdict: Pleasant, but over all minor. **.

THIS ISLAND EARTH RAYMOND F. JONES


THIS ISLAND EARTH. Raymond F. Jones. 1952.

This novel which became the basis of the science fiction film of the same title was expanded from a story originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories ["The Alien Machine/1947] and its two sequels. The first half of the novel is quite similar to the film, in which a scientist, Cal Meachum, receives instructions to build an "interociter," which leads him to a secret conclave of people who seem to have some unknown mission. Although the protagonists in the book do eventually wind up on an alien planet, most of the second half of the movie is invented by the screenwriter. There's no decimated husk of a planet or mutated hulking monsters in Jones' novel. Instead Meachum learns that earthlings are simply being used to build interociters to help the aliens in a struggle against a dark intergalactic force which has now set its sights on Earth; Meachum and his lady love convince the aliens not to abandon their world as they intended to and the novel ends on a note of hope. The character of Exeter, played by Jeff Morrow in the movie, is called "Jorgasnovara" in the book.

Verdict: Frankly, the movie is a lot more fun. **1/2.

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS


NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS (2007). Director: Jon Turteltaub.

In this sequel to National Treasure, Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage), his dad (Jon Voight) and associates (Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha) go on another treasure hunt after Mitchell Wilkinson (Ed Harris) claims that Gates' great-grandfather was part of a conspiracy to murder Abraham Lincoln. Somehow this all necessitates the temporary kidnapping of the United States president (Bruce Greenwood of Nowhere Man] because he has a certain secret book, and leads to a City of Gold underneath Mount Rushmore. [At least the film doesn't have the temerity to ape North by Northwest by having a lot of action on Rushmore itself]. Helen Mirren is trapped in this nonsense playing Cage's mother. This is a completely contrived do-over that may satisfy undiscriminating fans of the first film, but it should not be confused with a first-rate suspense or action film. The underground sets are extremely well-done, however, although a bit of business on a huge suspended platform that has to be carefully balanced by the people standing on it, doesn't make much sense [what is it doing there in the first place?] Nicolas Cage isn't really well-suited to this genre when all is said and done. Another unnecessary sequel is in the works.

Verdict: Unconvincing and unmemorable. **.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY


THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF UNCLE HARRY (1945). Director: Robert Siodmak.

Harry Quincey (George Sanders) lives with his two sisters, Hester, a widow (Moyna MacGill) and a supposedly sickly younger woman named Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who doesn't react well when she learns that Harry is going to marry a pretty co-worker named Deborah (Ella Raines), leading to assorted complications. Although the incest theme is extremely overt, the production code necessitated an unbelievably annoying ending to the film. However, the movie is absorbing and generally well-acted. Sanders subdues his naturally rakish personality to play a shyer kind of fellow and Raines and MacGill are excellent, as is the always reliable Sara Allgood as the opinionated maid. Fitzgerald doesn't always quite seem to have a handle on her often repellent character, and some of the revelatory sequences are handled in a perfunctory manner. And that ending ...! Still, the picture is quite entertaining.

Verdict: Rumors that this was remade as Toys in the Attic are untrue. **1/2.

AMERICA, AMERICA


AMERICA, AMERICA (1963). Director: Elia Kazan.

"One of Elia Kazan's most personal films arrives on DVD Feburary 8th from Warner Home Video. Exploring his family's cultural heritage and honoring the dreams that brought European immigrants pouring into America at the turn of the century, Kazan's America, America is a powerful and turbulent story of struggle through the journey to freedom, filled with passion, drama and personal strife. This is the first time the film will be available as a DVD single,"

*Academy Award: "Best Art Direction [Gene Callahan]."
*Academy Award: "Set decoration, black and white."
Also nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.

*Golden Globe: "Best Director."
*Golden Globe: "Most Promising Newcomer Male."

Eliza Kazan is recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar. America, America was inspired by the life of his uncle.

NOTE: A review of this film will be posted shortly. The DVD can be bought here.

STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE


THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE (1963). Director: Harald Reinl. West Germany.

A British nobleman, Lucius Clark (Rudolf Fernau), expecting to be knighted, lives with his niece, Claridge (Karin Dor), a reporter, on the rented estate of a weird Scottish Laird (Hans Nielsen), who is only one of many suspects in a series of murders around and about the estate. A very lively and sadistic maniac, who always wears a hood concealing his identity, strangles numerous victims, in some cases branding their foreheads and generally beheading them in various grisly and creative ways. He also has only nine fingers. Inspectors Mitchell (Harry Riebauer) and Watson (Gerhard Hartig) try to fit the murders in with some stolen diamonds and a nightspot called the Old Scavenger Inn, while Claridge's associate Mike Pierce (Hans Reiser) also tries to figure out what's what. Entertaining mystery-horror pic is no masterpiece but it moves along at a brisk pace and keeps you guessing.

Verdict: Heads will roll! **1/2.

THE BROTHERS BRANNAGAN


THE BROTHERS BRANNAGAN 1960 TV series.

This series about two brothers who are private eyes ran for one season and thirty-nine episodes. Steve Dunne [left] played Mike and Mark Roberts was Bob. Guest-stars on the show included Jackie Coogan, Joan Evans, Ruta Lee, Theodore Marcuse and Gloria Talbott in "Terror in the Afternoon." The girl-chasing brothers [especially Mike] got involved in everything from protection rackets to Chinatown desperadoes to paintings that had maps on the back of them. Arguably the best episode was "Damaged Dolls," a suspenseful story that had entertainers being blackmailed and/or murdered after receiving mutilated dolls in boxes. Perhaps the best thing about the pleasant and mildly entertaining series was the snappy theme music. Dunne and Roberts were excellent in their roles as well.

Verdict: Forgotten P.I.s had some life to them. **1/2.

FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS


FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS (1960 ) Director: Kurt Maetzig.

In the year 1985 an international expedition takes off for Venus after it is discovered that an explosion on Earth was actually the crash landing of a Venusian spaceship many years ago. On Venus they learn that the planet suffered some kind of catastrophe, and while exploring the fascinating Venusian landscape try to figure out if anyone or thing is left alive and how the creatures communicated. The main figures are the scientist Durand (Michail N. Postnikova), Brinkmann, who acts as a scout (Gunther Simon), Dr. Tchen-Yu (Tang Hua-Ta), and the lady doctor, Sumiko (Yoko Tani). There's an R2D2 type of robot years before Star Wars, and a power station that emits a kind of living ooze. Despite the fact that the film ignores the scientific realities of Venus, it has some interesting ideas, is suspenseful and fast-paced, and is fairly intelligent. The crew work well together without the "attitude" that you see among crews in movies made today.

Verdict: Worth a look. **1/2.

NATIONAL TREASURE


NATIONAL TREASURE (2004). Director: Jon Turteltaub.

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is convinced that the key to an ancient treasure can be found on the back of the Declaration of Independence -- even though his father (Jon Voight), who once believed, is now dubious -- and makes up his mind to "borrow" the document, especially when he learns that his former colleague, the evil Ian Howe (Sean Bean) has decided to do the same thing, with much less benevolent motives. Along for the ride are Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), who works with Washington documents, and Gates' younger associate Riley (an appealing Justin Bartha). The action moves from Washington to catacombs under Manhattan, although perhaps not at a swift enough pace, although there are exciting moments and the treasure set is a beaut. One has to wonder why this Disney attempt at an Indiana Jones clone was such a hit at the box office, however.

Verdict: Okay but unexceptional on virtually all levels. **1/2.

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS


THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966). Director: Ishiro Honda.

In this sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World [although "Frankenstein" is edited out of the American print], Dr. Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) is contacted when there are reports of his friendly brown giant or "gangantua" going on rampages and eating people. Stewart and his pretty assistant Akima (Kumi Mizuno) investigate and discover that there are actually two gargantuas, and the new green giant is causing all the trouble. Eventually the two big ugly guys come to blows. At one point the bad gargantua picks up a cleaning women and chews on her, spitting out her clothes, but it is only in the American version that we see a close up of the torn up garments. "Special guest star" Kipp Hamilton, an actress who appeared on many TV shows of the period, shows up to croak out "The Words Get Caught in My Throat" in a rooftop nightclub. When the gargantua shows up you really hope he'll eat her ... Very sloppy process work, although the bad gargantua looks creepy rising from the sea at the opening. It battles a giant octopus before attacking a freighter.

Verdict: Tedious and pretty awful. *1/2.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

IT CONQUERED THE WORLD


IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956). Producer/director: Roger Corman.

"For a few dollars you can have a woman who'll fit all of your fetishes."

"It and some others are the sole survivors of a race born too soon."

Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), who's in charge of a space project, discovers that one of his missiles has been commandeered by a Venusian who is using it to arrive on Earth. Furthermore, Nelson's buddy Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), is in direct contact with the alien. While Anderson insists that the creature has only benevolent purposes, the alien's first action is to suppress all energy so that no machines work. Then it sends out beasties that resemble small flying manta rays that attach themselves to humans and turn them into mind slaves. Anderson doesn't seem to care that this makes people as emotionless as the Venusian visitor, but his wife (Beverly Garland) certainly does. With a good script and dialogue by Lou Rusoff, It Conquered the World is absurd but zesty sci fi/horror, with an amusingly hideous monster created by Paul Blaisdell. It shares some ideas with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a better film which was released the same year. Corman briefly used a similar type of flying creature in Not of This Earth the following year. Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze have small roles as soldiers. Graves and Sally Fraser are acceptable as Nelson and his wife; Van Cleef is fine as Anderson; and the ever-reliable Beverly Garland pretty much steals the show with her dynamic performance as Anderson's desperate and angry spouse. Nice score from Ronald Stein. This was remade -- badly -- as Zontar, The Thing from Venus.

Verdict: One of Corman's liveliest and most "fantastic" films. ***.

THE VIEW FROM POMPEY'S HEAD


THE VIEW FROM POMPEY'S HEAD (1955). Director: Philip Dunne.

"I was only eight when [my father] died but I would have killed him if I could." -- Garvin.

"The past is a thief, it doesn't give us anything but only robs us of the future." -- Dinah.

Lawyer Anson "Sonny" Page (Richard Egan) returns to his home town in the south to investigate a lawsuit filed against a publishing house he represents by the wife (Marjorie Rambeau) of a famous author, Garvin Wales (Sidney Blackmer). While he attempts to discover the truth behind the lawsuit -- which charges a late friend and associate of Wale's with virtual embezzlement -- he meets up with his old flame Dinah (Dana Wynter), and finds himself falling in love with her again -- and vice versa -- despite the fact that both are married. The film concentrates much more on the love story than did the Hamilton Basso novel upon which it was based, but also manages to touch upon racial inequality and class distinctions as well, albeit in a way that may seem dated and limited due to the time period. On the plus side, the film is very romantic, with lush photography of real and very beautiful Southern locations, and a very nice score by Elmer Bernstein. Cameron Mitchell is cast and plays well as Dinah's husband; Egan is quite good as Page; and Dana Wynter -- lovelier than ever -- gives perhaps her finest performance as Dinah. The title refers to an old-fashioned, genteel, oh-so-proper Southern way of life and thinking. There are interesting situations and developments along the way, although most of the melodramatic moments concerning the love triangle seem to have been cooked up by the screenwriter. Beautiful to look at, The View from Pompey's Head might be a good bet for a wide screen digitally-remastered DVD release.

Verdict: Despite its flaws, this is rather sumptuous and Wynter is in her summer. ***.

PERRY MASON SEASON 1


PERRY MASON Season 1. CBS TV series. 1957. Based on the novels/character by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Erle Stanley Gardner's famous fictional lawyer Perry Mason had already appeared in a few theatrical films in the thirties and forties when CBS cast Raymond Burr -- who is excellent in the part -- for their new television series beginning in 1957. The terrific casting continued with Barbara Hale as Mason's efficient secretary Della Street, and William Hopper as private eye Paul Drake, not to mention William Talman as prosecutor/nemesis Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as Lt. Tragg. [These last two appeared in most but not every episode.] Many different actors played judges in the first season, but the ones we saw the most were the wonderful Morris Ankrum and Pierre Watkin from the Superman serials. The series had possibly the best and sexiest theme music of any TV show, as well as plenty of solid scripts. Some of Mason's tricks could have gotten him disbarred. You may remember the guilty party jumping up in the witness stand -- during preliminary hearings always, not trials -- and declaring their guilt, but this hardly happens on every episode. Indeed most of the killers did eventually confess, but they didn't always do so in the courtroom. Guest stars in the first season included Kipp Hamilton, Jeanette Nolan, Marie Windsor, Alix Talton, Ann Doran, Fay Wray, Joan Weldon, Hilary Brooke, Marian Seldes, Arthur Shields, and many others well-known from various fifties and sixties movies. The episodes never dipped below a "B" in quality, and many were "A," such as The Case of the Fiery Fingers [with wonderful performances from Lenore Shanewise and Mary La Roche], Substitute Face, Lazy Lover, and many others. Possibly the best episode was The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde, with extra-special performances from Phyllis Coates and Whitney Blake. In The Case of the Terrified Typist Mason actually loses but there's a very interesting technicality ... In The Case of the Crimson Kiss Mason presents some interesting evidence to catch the real killer.

Verdict: Perry Makes It Happen! ***1/2.

FIRST MAN INTO SPACE


FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959). Director: Robert Day.

"-- The first picture that takes you into space."

Commander Charles Prescott (Marshall Thompson) has a problematic relationship with his test pilot brother Lt. Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards), who resents that he has to follow his more responsible sibling's orders. Dan winds up flying higher than anyone has gone before and is forced to eject, but a bigger problem is that he has been covered with a kind of metallic space dust that causes him to mutate into a blood-drinking monster that terrorizes New Mexico. First Man into Space is pretty much a mediocre rip-off of The Quatermass Xperiment [aka Creeping Unknown] with little to recommend it. The picture is slow, stints on the horror for the most part, and has only adequate acting. Marla Landi plays brother Dan's love interest.

Verdict: Neither space nor Earth should be quite this boring. **.

THE BLACK COIN


THE BLACK COIN (1936). Director: Albert Herman.

Agents Walter Prescott (Ralph Graves) and Dorothy Dale (Ruth Mix) are on the trail of some nefarious folk who are after a series of black coins that are said to carry a curse, and which when put together will lead right to a treasure. While the action in this creaky serial from Stage and Screen Productions -- no Republic Studios were they -- is all over the lot, the music is generally the only exciting thing about it. There's a fairly exciting bit with our hero thrown to the sharks in chapter two, and a rather elaborate ocean liner sinking in chapter four. In chapter eleven the hero stupidly drives right into a train. Despite the occasional glimmer of interest, The Black Coin is mostly flat and dull. Yakima Canutt, who plays a thug, later co-directed Manhunt of Mystery Island.

Verdict: One of the worst serials ever made. *1/2.

ROGER CORMAN'S CULT SCI FI CLASSICS TRIPLE FEATURE


ROGER CORMAN'S CULT CLASSICS TRIPLE FEATURE: SCI FI CLASSICS.

This new DVD set collects three films produced and directed by Roger Corman: Attack of the Crab Monsters, Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites. The first was available only in a very poor commercial DVD a few years ago, the second seems never to have had an official DVD release, and I'm not certain what the story is with the third. Although the set boasts "all new film transfers from the negatives" they certainly haven't been digitally remastered. The prints for the last two films are more than acceptable, however, and Attack of the Crab Monsters looks especially splendid. As for the films themselves, click on the titles to read my reviews: Attack of the Crab Monsters; Not of This Earth; War of the Satellites. Basically horror/sci-fi fans will want this set for Crab -- especially Crab -- and Earth, as Satellites is totally forgettable. The set has a variety of extras, including interviews, a Corman documentary, and lots of Corman film trailers.

Verdict: Recommended for the Corman horror aficionado. ***.

ELSEWHERE


ELSEWHERE (2009). Written and directed by Nathan Hope.

Sarah (Anna Kendrick), a "nice girl" in Goshen, Indiana, is friends with "bad girl" Jillian (Tania Raymonde). When the latter disappears after a leaving a frantic phone message, Sarah is determined to find her with the help of her nerdy friend, Jasper (Chuck Carter). Although there are a couple of good scares in Elsewhere, for the most part it's slow, a bit dull and predictable, and hasn't much style to speak of. The film does boast some good acting, however, from the aforementioned Raymonde and Carter, as well as from Olivia Dawn York as Darla, and Jon Gries as her father, Mr. Tod. The film may hold your attention but it doesn't build to a big enough pay off.

Verdict: Not the nail-biter it should have been. **1/2.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

DESERT FURY


DESERT FURY (1947). Director: Lewis Allen.

"I'd hate to be left alone on a desert road at night."

Fritzie Haller (Mary Astor) is the owner of the Purple Sage gambling den in Nevada. Home from yet another school is her 19-year-old daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott). Mother and daughter's difficult relationship is further put to the test when Paula falls for bad boy Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), but the one who's even more upset by this development is Eddie's right hand and major domo, Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey, in his film debut). Years ago Eddie was essentially picked up by Johnny at an automat at two in the morning, but since then Eddie has been married once to a woman who died in a mysterious accident. This is a "small town with secrets" melodrama with some interesting characters and dialogue. Ryan could be taken merely as the stereotypical tough guy who thinks dames and business don't mix, but the movie seems determined to add a suppressed homoerotic subtext. At times Ryan seems in love with Bendix and at others merely determined to keep a girl away from a scumbag. The psychological underpinnings to the story are intriguing even if they generally don't jell. Burt Lancaster plays a cop that Astor tries to pair off with her daughter. The acting is quite good, especially from Corey and Astor, although Scott and Hodiak are no slouches, and Lancaster is swell. Good score by Miklos Rozsa and an exciting climax.

Verdict: Half-baked and perhaps hollow at the center, and yet ... **1/2.

IT'S A GIFT


IT'S A GIFT (1934). Director: Norman Z. McLeod.

Another delightful W. C. Fields comedy -- with Baby Leroy! -- stars him as Harold Bissonette, who runs a general store and has his problems with a blind man who practically wrecks the place, as well as a flood of molasses -- not to mention his nemesis Baby Dunk (Baby Leroy). Bissonette decides to chuck it all and buy an orange grove in California, although his wife (Kathleen Howard) thinks he's crazy. Fields and Howard are excellent, Baby Leroy is adorable, and the supporting cast are all in fine form. It's a Gift may not be top-notch Fields but it is still very amusing and very well-played by all. The general store sequence is especially memorable.

Verdict: Can't beat that baby! ***.

RAYMOND BURR: HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT


HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: The Secret Life of RAYMOND BURR. Michael Seth Starr. Applause Books; 2008.

Raymond Burr appeared as a burly, often villainous character actor in many crime dramas and such well-known films as Hitchcock's Rear Window. He got his most famous role when he was cast as Earle Stanley Gardner's lawyer Perry Mason for the CBS TV series in the fifties, and he was associated with the role up until his death. Although Burr had one short-lived marriage to a woman, his long-term partner was male, and due to the times and moral clauses and the like he went to some lengths to cover up that side of his life, even going so far as to invent another wife and non-existent son who supposedly died. Still, the book also goes into Burr's generous nature and his trips to entertain servicemen [that he did not publicize as Bob Hope always did] and the fact that he stood by William Talman [his nemesis Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason] when he was let go by the show due to his participation in a wild, nude party. A readable and entertaining bio.

Verdict: Possibly not the last word on Burr, but not bad. ***.

KILLER SHREWS


KILLER SHREWS (1959). Director: Ray Kellogg.

Captain Thorne Sherwood (James Best) comes to make a pick-up at an isolated island and encounters Professor Craigis (Baruch Lumet) and his daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude), as well as her ex-fiance Jerry (Ken Curtis) and the nerdy Dr. Baines (Gordon McLendon). He soon discovers why everyone seems so fidgety -- the island has been overrun by out-sized shrews who not only have a poisonous bite but are running out of food -- and guess who's next on the menu? Despite its low-budget and some highly inadequate amateur "performances," Killer Shrews is a neat little "B" monster flick, adroitly directed and with some lively tricked up creatures to boot. James Best is fine, and the climax is a nail-biter. NOTE: This played on a double-bill with The Giant Gila Monster, which was also directed by Ray Kellogg.

Verdict: Lots of fifties-type fun! ***

MANHUNT OF MYSTERY ISLAND


MANHUNT OF MYSTERY ISLAND (15 chapter Republic serial/1945). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace A. Grissell and Yakima Canutt.

With the aid of criminologist Lance Reardon (Richard Bailey), the quick-on-the-trigger Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling) searches Mystery Island for her father, Professor Forrest (Forrest Taylor), who has been kidnapped by the self-styled modern-day pirate, Captain Mephisto (Roy Barcroft). We learn early on that the villain not only models himself after a long-dead pirate, but alters his appearance to resemble him with the aid of an electronic transformation machine. In reality, Mephisto is one of the four owners of Mystery island, and the serial keeps you guessing throughout as to which of the four it might be. There are cliffhangers involving disruptor guns, gas-filled rooms under trapdoors, a descending wine press, a flooded tunnel, and a collapsing suspension bridge. Most memorable is our hero clinging to a fire hose that Mephisto tries to cut after flinging him out of a skyscraper! Then there's a great, protracted battle between Mephisto and Reardon in chapter eleven, and a bit with an out of control plane in chapter fourteen. Although Barcroft, frankly, doesn't play with as much gusto as you might like, Manhunt of Mystery Island is still entertaining and thrilling stuff.

Verdict: One of the best serials put out by Republic or any other studio. ***1/2.

THE GREEN HORNET TV SERIES


THE GREEN HORNET (ABC TV series/1966).

Due to the success of the TV show Batman, ABC hoped lightning would strike twice with another super-hero show, Green Hornet. It was a good idea to play the show straight [unlike the campy Batman) but a bad idea to showcase a fairly obscure super-hero like the Hornet. The character had actually been around since the forties, appearing in two cliffhanger serials and in some comics. The Hornet was newspaper publisher Britt Reid (Van Williams) and only a few people knew of his secret identity as a costumed crime fighter. One of these was his partner Kato (Bruce Lee), whereas his top reporter Mike Axford (Lloyd Gough) didn't know -- and absolutely hated the Green Hornet, who was seen as a criminal by everyone but the DA (who also knew of Reid's dual identity). Wende Wagner played Reid's secretary-assistant Casey. The Hornet and Kato tooled around in a car they called Black Beauty.

Alas, the show tried too hard to be non-campy, and was far too bland. None of the episodes stand out as being especially exceptional, although there were some sporadically intriguing moments such as when there was a Green Hornet impostor and an alleged invasion from outer space. Williams and Lee were fine in their parts, as was Gough as the eternally exasperated Axford. With some better, more dynamic scripts and antagonists, The Green Hornet might have lasted more than one season. It's interesting that second banana Lee went on to super-stardom while tall dark and handsome Williams simply faded away into comparative obscurity. [Fear not for Williams, however, he did very well as a businessman].

Verdict: Watch Honey West instead. **.

UNTRACEABLE


UNTRACEABLE (2008). Director: Gregory Hoblit.

Interesting premise: Agent Marsh (Diane Lane) and Detective Eric Box (Billy Burke) team up to track down a killer who's behind a very sinister web site: killwithme.com. This unknown person captures people and puts them in death traps: the more people who check out the web site the faster the victim dies. One of Marsh's colleagues winds up in a tub of carbolic acid in the film's most "memorable" sequence. Unfortunately Untraceable simply isn't special enough to overcome that sense that you've seen it all before, reminding one of an episode of Criminal Minds and obviously influenced by the Saw movies. The performances aren't bad although star Lane isn't very distinctive. The killer's motive is intriguing, as are certain aspects of the script, but the movie just doesn't sock it home with any great aplomb.

Verdict: Acceptable horror-crime-thriller. **1/2.