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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN

THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (1954). Director: Jean Negulesco.

"The prospect of waking up to an unexpected arousal of passion at my age is as disturbing as it is miraculous." -- John Shadwell.

In Rome the unmarried Miss Francis (Dorothy McGuire) is secretary to confirmed bachelor-author John Shadwell (Clifton Webb). Her friend and fellow American Anita (Jean Peters), who also works as a secretary, is leaving for home, ostensibly to get married. Her replacement is the similarly single Maria (Maggie McNamara). While Miss Francis pines for Shadwell, Maria sets her cap on handsome Prince Dino (Louis Jourdan) and Anita dallies with her equally handsome co-worker Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi). There are the usual romantic complications. Frankly there isn't a heck of a lot to this movie except some good performances -- Webb is as marvelous as ever and gets the best lines -- beautiful Italian scenery and very nice photography. Despite that, the picture is smooth and reasonably entertaining. Jean Peters is very attractive and saucy; McNamara is a bit on the bland side; and McGuire is hampered by having to feign a yen for the aging "bachelor" Webb. Cathleen Nesbitt probably makes the best impression among the ladies as Jourdan's lovely old mother. Vincent Padula of The Cyclops plays a doctor and Norma Varden [Witness for the Prosecution] is a party guest who has an amusing exchange with Webb.The title tune is warbled by Frank Sinatra and the score is by Victor Young.

Verdict: At the very least it's a pretty travelogue. ***.

BODY AND SOUL

BODY AND SOUL (1947). Director: Robert Rossen. Screenplay by Abraham Polonsky.

Charley (John Garfield) seeks a way out of his hopeless poverty and decides to become a professional boxer. His mother (Anne Revere) is against the whole notion, and she watches helplessly as his success goes to his head. He has a very supportive girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), but dallies with the more overtly sexy gold digger, Alice (Hazel Brooks). A turning point comes when Charley has a fight with Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee), unaware that the man has a blood clot in his brain. One could argue that the film is at times simplistic and employs the usual boxer cliches, but it's so well done on every level that it scarcely seems to matter. Garfield, Palmer, and Anne Revere [one of her best roles] are simply excellent, and there is also some fine work from Canada Lee, Joseph Pevney (as Charley's friend and manager), James Burke as Ben's manager, William Conrad as fight promoter Quinn, and Lloyd Goff/Gough as Roberts, a much more loathsome version of Quinn. Introduced in this film after having bit parts in several movies, Hazel Brooks is quite arresting, but although she lived for many years afterward, she retired from acting in the mid-fifties after having only a very few credits. James Wong Howe is cinematographer and Hugo Friedhofer provides a very interesting score.

Verdict: Forget Raging Bull -- this is the real deal. ***1/2.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS Marc Eliot

MICHAEL DOUGLAS A Biography. Marc Eliot. Crown Archetype; 2012.

Michael Douglas, son of movie star Kirk Douglas, was under a formidable shadow until he found success as a producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and later even bigger success as a major star of such films as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Wall Street. His father had coveted the role played by Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo and was not thrilled when his own son didn't give it to him [Michael was pressured by others] and the two had a rather distant relationship until a life-changing event had Kirk take stock of his life and come to realize what was truly important. This book provides an overview of Michael's career, his failed first marriage, relationship with son Cameron and his second marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as his battle with throat cancer. Eliot seems to have had trouble getting interviews with true insiders, so this mostly comes off as a well-done cut-and-paste effort, but it's not without interest. Eliot also wrote a book on Cary Grant.

Verdict: Acceptable standard movie star biography. ***.

GREEN MANSIONS

GREEN MANSIONS (1959). Director: Mel Ferrer.

Abel (Anthony Perkins) comes to South American looking for treasure, and learns that a certain forbidden area in the jungle is home to a mysterious bird-girl, Rima (Audrey Hepburn), whom the natives see as a kind of witch and wish to destroy. Abel finds the real woman behind the legend and the two fall in love to face danger and tragedy together. This adaptation of the novel by William Henry Hudson has always had the reputation of being a stinker [by people who have never seen it] primarily due to the miscasting of the leads. Sensitive Tony Perkins as a fortune-hunting adventurer? Sophisticated Audrey Hepburn as a South American native girl? The casting is slightly ridiculous, but both actors manage to rise above it and give not only decent but effective performances, as do Lee J. Cobb (the old man who raised Rima), Nehemiah Persoff, Sessue Hayakawa (king of the natives), and especially Henry Silva, in perhaps his most memorable role, as the rather malevolent Kua-Ko. Joseph Ruttenberg's cinematography is stunning, as is the art direction by E. Preston Ames and William Horning. [Although the credits boast that this was filmed in South America, most of the sequences were shot on colorfully dressed sound stages.] Bronislau Kaper did the score, with some additional music from Heitor Villa-Lobos. Perkins sings "Green Grow the Mansions" not too badly. One particularly memorable scene details the natives' trial-by-insect! Director Mel Ferrer, better known as an actor, was married to Hepburn at the time of filming, and crafted a creditable showcase for his lovely wife.

Verdict: Incurable romantics will probably love the movie; others approach with caution. ***1/2.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (1950). Director: Walter Lang.

Inspired by real events, this film takes a serio-comic (mostly comic) look at the Gilbreth family, which consists of father Frank (Clifton Webb), wife Lillian (Myrna Loy), and eleven children with a twelfth on the way. Ann (Jeanne Crain), the oldest, wants to join her peers in wearing modern fashions and make up, which her father, a bit of an old poop at times, rails against. The film misrepresents Planned Parenthood with a dumb scene in which Mildred Natwick plays a representative of the organization who finds Gilbreth and his brood "disgusting" -- although the sequence when he has all the children (and his own) tonsils removed in the living room is a little strange as well. Webb is fine as the virile husband, but Loy gives an odd, once-removed performance, as if telling the world that this drab, matronly character is definitely not the real Myrna Loy. Crain and Betty Lynn as Deborah are better, but the picture is nearly stolen by talented little Jimmy Hunt as their mischievous brother, Billy. Cheaper by the Dozen is pleasant and entertaining. Steve Martin did a farcical remake many years later. Followed by Belles on Their Toes.

Verdict: Anything with Webb in it ... ***.

HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS
















HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS (12 chapter Republic serial/1938). Directors: John English; William Witney.

Lincoln Rand (Lane Chandler) and his wife and baby set sail in hopes of finding a lost race from which the American Indians may have descended on an island north of the Arctic circle. Land and his wife are lost during a storm while their baby boy is raised on the aforementioned island by a faithful retainer. Decades later Dr. Munro (Tom Chatterton), his daughter Beth (Jill Martin AKA Harley Wood), and others -- including a gang of cutthroat sailors hoping to find treasure -- mount a new voyage to the island wherein they discover that the son of Lincoln Rand is a strapping loin-clothed man named Kioga (Herman Brix AKA Bruce Bennett). The natives on the island aren't too crazy about Kioga or his handsome buddy Kias (Mala), and the sailors prove to be treacherous at every turn as well. As serials go, Hawk of the Wilderness is mediocre, with mostly unexceptional cliffhangers, colorless villains, and a fairly bland cast. Harley Wood is so plain (by Hollywood standards) that when you first see her you think she's the middle-aged Dr. Munro's wife and not his daughter, and her acting isn't so hot, either. Brix is a touch stiff as Kioga; he appeared in a number of serials -- Daredevils of the Red Circle is one of the better ones -- but made more of a mark as "Bruce Bennett" in more prestigious Hollywood productions such as Mildred Pierce. Fred Toones, AKA "Snowflake" is hard to watch as he plays the stereotypical stupid and cowardly "negro" of the past., but "Tuffy" turns in a good performance as Tawnee the courageous dog. The final chapter, set in credible caverns inside the Valley of Skulls, is exciting, but a serial needs more than one good chapter to succeed. 

Verdict: Even Republic studios is allowed an occasional stinker. **.

JENNIFER JONES: THE LIFE AND FILMS

JENNIFER JONES: THE LIFE AND FILMS. Paul Green. McFarland; 2011.

Author Green makes it clear at the outset that this is less a traditional biography of Jones than it is a study of her films. So while you might have to go elsewhere to read more intimate details of, say, her first marriage to Robert Walker, Green nevertheless provides most of the important facts of Jones' life story in a compelling fashion. Green examines all of Jones' movies -- including her early Republic period as Phylis Isley when she appeared in such cliffhangers as Dick Tracy's G-Men and made little impression -- from The Song of Bernadette to Carrie [in which she gave one of her all-time best performances] to The Towering Inferno, providing critical and audience reaction, behind-the-scenes notes, and a discussion of how effective Jones may or may not have been in a particular role. Green also includes chapters on her stage work, TV appearances, and parts that she nearly played but didn't, as well as abortive film projects. This is packed with info, intelligently presented, for the Jones fan. Foreword by Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies.

Verdict: Excellent, very readable book on a somewhat neglected movie star. ***1/2.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE FULLER BRUSH MAN

Red Skelton succumbs to the charms of Adele Jergens
THE FULLER BRUSH MAN (1948). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

Red Jones (Red Skelton), who has trouble holding on to a job, to put it mildly, is told by his girlfriend Ann (Janet Blair) that if he doesn't make good at something they're through. He decides to try for a job at the Fuller Brush company where Ann works, but a romantic rival, Mr. Wallick (Don McGuire), who's a top salesman, makes it his business to screw up Red's chances at every turn. Things take a turn for the worse when Red becomes the suspect in the mysterious murder of Commissioner Trist (Nicholas Joy), who fired him from his last assignment. Skelton is in top form in one of his funniest movies, with an inventive script by Frank Tashlin [and Devery Freeman] that is full of so many great sight-gags that the movie is at times a live-action cartoon [typical of Tashlin's work]. A bit in a garden involving bug spray, pruning shears, and legs in weird positions is nearly classic, as is a hilarious sequence wherein Red tries to sell a shower brush to the man-hungry starlet Miss Sharmley (Adele Jergens), who's "brushed off more men than the porter at the Waldorf." In this brief bit sexy Jergens almost walks off with the movie, but there are also very good performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Hillary Brooke as Trist's wife, Sara Franzen as his protege, and Arthur Space as a police lieutenant. Don McGuire scores as the wolfish cad Wallick and Blair is attractive and capable as Skelton's girl.The ending in a factory is also full of clever physical action, all well-handled by director Simon and a variety of stunt people. Verna Felton and Jimmy Hunt [Invaders from Mars] have a funny scene wherein Red tries to sell the former one of his brushes and her not-so-adorable grandson interferes.

Verdict: One of Skelton's best! ***. 


BLITHE SPIRIT

Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati
BLITHE SPIRIT (1945). Director: David Lean. Based on the play by Noel Coward, who also produced the film.

To do research for his next book, writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) invite well-known psychic Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to dinner and a seance. Everyone at the dinner party thinks the madame is slightly nuts, and definitely a phony, but to Charles and Ruth's surprise she inadvertently manages to call back the spirit of Elvira (Kay Hammond) -- Charles' first wife, leading to expected -- and a few unexpected -- complications! One critic called the source material for the movie, the play of the same title by Noel Coward, "a wearying  exhibition of bad taste" and indeed it is the sort of dark comedy/farce in which tragic situations are milked for laughs and characters sort of suppress natural human emotions for the sake of the story. Many will feel there's a definite streak of [probably benign and possibly unintended] misogyny running through the movie as well. Harrison and Cummings are fine as the husband and his second wife, but Kay Hammond -- although her performance isn't bad -- has so affected and unnatural a voice, with its jutting lower lip and distasteful inflections, that she becomes positively repulsive as Elvira. Margaret Rutherford, on the other hand, is as delightful as ever as the medium and steals the movie from everyone else. Blithe Spirit is not exactly a laugh-riot [although any pathos the situations might have had goes unexplored] but it is amusing and entertaining. A bonus on the remastered DVD of the film is an interview with Coward scholar Barry Day, who provides much interesting information  on the background both of the play and movie, and also explores the many differences between the two -- and Coward's reaction to the film as well; Day is marvelous.

Verdict: Certainly worth a look. ***.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman
















THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012). Director: Christopher Nolan.

"You're not living. You're just waiting -- waiting for things to go bad again."

This is the sequel to The Dark Knight and the third in a trilogy of films made by Christopher Nolan about Batman, and probably the worst of the three. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) has been laying low since the events of The Dark Knight but has to come out of retirement to take on the threat of Bane (Tom Hardy), a grotesque killer that he thinks is the son of old enemy Ras Al Ghul. Bane not only manages to kidnap and imprison Batman in a hole called the Pit, but takes over Manhattan Island -- uh, I mean Gotham -- and holds everyone hostage with a nuclear bomb that is going to go off eventually whether he detonates it or not. [This leads to a mini-revolution that makes Occupy Wall Street look like a walk in the park.] This a perfectly workable plot and this might have amounted to a thrilling movie if Nolan was content to make a satisfying and exciting action film with good characterizations and acting [which this has for the most part]. Instead Nolan drags his meandering movie out for nearly three hours, has lots and lots of talking and brooding, and fails to craft one single memorable set piece throughout the entire movie -- yes, there is not one really memorable sequence. The Dark Knight, which started out very badly, eventually became compelling and entertaining, but The Dark Knight Rises never really amounts to much despite all the busyness and the pretentious stabs at profundity. Even the Batman comic books have had more meaningful stories than this. Worse, The Dark Knight Rises isn't especially well directed, edited or photographed, and at times you get the impression that the music [Hans Zimmer], as is often the case, is doing most of the work [at keeping the audience awake, for one thing], although even the score is nothing special.

There are some good things, however. There is an unexpected development late in the picture regarding one of the characters which I found to be a genuine surprise [and which I should have seen coming]. The acting is quite good, with Bale making an effective caped crusader, and Michael Caine a strong and sympathetic Alfred. I don't know what to make of the weird voice Tom Hardy uses in his turn as Bane [which could be his normal voice, of course] but it doesn't seem to suit the character. Anne Hathaway is good as Selina Kyle [never referred to as the Catwoman, although that's who she is], although her character is pretty unlikable, and Marion Cotillard [Nine] really scores as Miranda, who is involved in Wayne industries and dallies with Brucie Boy in the bedroom. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine as the cop, Blake, who sort of functions as an uncostumed Robin, and there are satisfactory turns from Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, and others.

Verdict: Pick up a good Batman comic book instead. **.

SITTING PRETTY: The Life and Times of CLIFTON WEBB

SITTING PRETTY: The Life and Times of CLIFTON WEBB. Clifton Webb with David L. Smith. University Press of Mississippi; 2011.

Clifton Webb wrote several chapters of his memoirs, but never completed the project. In this excellent book those chapters are published for the first time, with annotations by David L. Smith, who not only fleshes out [and occasionally corrects] Webb's memories but adds the biography that forms the bulk of the book [with comments from Webb's notes included]. Far from being an overnight sensation, Webb had a long career as a dancer and actor before he hit it big in motion pictures and became a most unlikely movie star in middle age after appearing in Laura. He created the character of Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty and its two sequels, was Barbara Stanwyck's husband and gave one of his all-time best performances in Titanic, played an aging silent movie star turned professor in Dreamboat with Ginger Rogers, and did many other movies, some more memorable than others [but he was always excellent]. Whatever his private life [Smith doesn't make any revelations in that regard or uncover a single relationship the man might have had except with his mother, Mabelle], people have always assumed Webb was (stereotypically) gay, and Smith perhaps tries too hard to refute that -- and is, frankly, unconvincing. But for Pete's sake, this is the 21st century -- would Smith think less of Webb if he were gay?! That is the only real flaw in an otherwise noteworthy tome. Whether you're reading Webb's own words, or Smith's, the actor comes across as a combination of a charming, urbane, sophisticated and cultured man and a precious, occasionally snooty "old queen," but in any case makes a witty and welcome companion for a couple of hours of reading pleasure.

Verdict: Gives Webb his due as an actor and entertainer. ***1/2.

SILENT MADNESS

SILENT MADNESS (1984). Director: Simon Nuchtern.

When the wrong man with a similar name is released from an institution, Dr, Joan Gilmore (Belinda Montgomery) realizes that a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic is on the loose -- although the administrators at Cresthaven mental hospital in Manhattan prefer to cover it up rather than deal with it. Meanwhile the deranged man heads back to a campus at the Barrington College for Women in upstate New York where he committed several murders years before with mayhem on his mind, and Gilmore follows, unaware that two sadistic security men from the hospital are following her and hoping to catch up with the maniac, Howard Johns (Solly Marx). Viveca Lindfors plays den mother Mrs. Collins, who turns out to be Johns' mother and who's been keeping some other secrets as well. David Greenan is the reporter Mark McGowan, who bonds with Joan, and Sydney Lassick is the fairly befuddled small town sheriff. The acting in this isn't bad, with professional turns from Montgomery, Lindfors, and others, and Roderick Cook is also notable as Dr. Kruger of the Cresthaven hospital. The film has some creatively ghoulish moments and a fairly exciting climax. Originally released in 3-D, which the film doesn't seem to have taken much advantage of.

Verdict: Creditable mad slasher film holds the attention. ***.

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA Season 2

A giant scientist goes after Seaview in "Leviathan"
VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. Season 2. 1965.

The second season of the popular science fiction-adventure show was shot in living color. The character of Curley -- Henry Kulky had passed away -- was replaced by Chief Sharkey (Terry Becker), and the second episode marked the debut of the flying sub, which was destroyed more than once on subsequent episodes. Cute crewman Riley (Allan Hunt) was given a lot more to do. The show was set in the "future" with episode tags declaring that the date of the story was 1976 or 1978. The first episode had new, inferior theme music, but the original theme was brought back for the very next episode [the new theme -- stately, dark, but less exciting -- was used in the background of some episodes]. While perhaps not as good overall as the first season, the second season still had its share of memorable episodes. The suspenseful "Left-Handed Man" wondered if a potential secretary of state posed a danger, while "Leviathan" -- which introduced a new opening for the show -- featured a fissure that caused gigantism in animals. "The Machines Strike Back" had drones with bombs attacking the U.S. under the direction of an unknown individual. Alfred Ryder was the ghost of a Nazi U-boat captain in "The Phantom Strikes" [wherein the show entered supernatural territory, not really a good fit for it]  and "The Sky's on Fire" was basically a mini-adaptation of Irwin Allen's original motion picture. "Graveyard of Fear" featured Robert Loggia as a scientist with a 200-year-old assistant (Marian Moses) and threw in a giant Man-of-War for good measure. "The Shape of Doom" [directed by Nathan Juran] involves a whale that comes dangerously close to a presidential carrier from which crazy scientist Kevin Hagen hopes to extract important scientific equipment. The three best episodes were the opener, "Jonah and the Whale," with Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) and Gia Scala inside a diving bell that is swallowed by a whale; "The Death Ship," a highly-suspenseful "Ten Little Indians"-type plot that takes place aboard the Seaview with an unknown killer decimating other important passengers; and  "... And Five of Us Are Left," about WW 2 sailors trapped in a cave for 28 years!. Basehart and David Hedison still play their roles with conviction, although sometimes it seems as if their relationship changes to support the contortions of the storyline. The show would occasionally aspire to be a spy series, with generally dismal results, and more stock footage from Allen's The Lost World showed up in "Terror on Dinosaur Island."

Verdict: Slipping, but still a lot of fun. ***.

DARK SHADOWS (2012)

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins













DARK SHADOWS (2012). Director: Tim Burton.

"I don't think people take meetings at the bottom of the ocean."

If you were hoping that Tim Burton's big screen retake of the old horror soap opera Dark Shadows would be another entertaining horror-dark comedy romp like Sleepy Hollow, or just entertaining like Ed Wood, be advised that Dark Shadows, unlike those two films, is a real stinker. A prologue that takes place in 1760 is promising as it details what happens when witch Angelique (Eva Green) puts a curse of vampirism on Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) because he spurned her love. The action then switches to 1971 Collinsport where Barnabas is accidentally disinterred from his grave and rejoins the family, consisting of Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), Dr. Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), the handyman Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), among others, and new arrival Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote), who is governess to little David (Gulliver McGrath) and the spitting image of Barnabas' old love, Josette. Who cares? Even fans of the old show will be disappointed in this very silly updating that consists mostly of empty [if well-done] pyrotechnics. There is the occasional funny line and clever moment -- Barnabas and Angelique have disco sex and a bit with laughing portraits-come-alive -- but all that really holds this together is Bruno Delbonnel's stunning cinematography, which deserves a better script to showcase. Depp also gives a very good performance, as do Pfeiffer, Carter and especially Eva Green [Casino Royale], but they all take a back seat to the formidable Christopher Lee in a cameo as a sea captain. [Some of the original cast members of the TV show supposedly appear in a party scene but they are impossible to spot.] This is a blatant misfire -- too bad.

Verdict: Is this Dark Shadows -- or The Munsters?" **.

NOT YOUNG, STILL RESTLESS Jeanne Cooper

NOT YOUNG, STILL RESTLESS A Memoir. Jeanne Cooper with Lindsay Harrison. Harper Luxe; 2012.

Jeanne Cooper has appeared in films and many television programs [including Highway Patrol, Thriller, Perry Mason, and a very notable turn on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.] but has become most famous for her very long stint on the popular CBS soap The Young and the Restless as matriarch Katherine Chancellor. Naturally, most of her memoir focuses on the show and her cast-mates [as well as her children and grandchildren], so if you're hoping for anecdotes about Cooper working on Black Zoo with Michael Gough you'll be disappointed. [Similarly, while she mentions her friendship with Barbara Hale -- and Raymond Burr -- of Perry Mason, you won't find any notes about her working on The Houston Story with Hale, Gene Barry and William Castle.] However, there is a lot about her upbringing in a liberal household, her lovers and some co-stars, and a lot about her marriage to her handsome but otherwise unsatisfactory husband. Cooper allows herself a few diva moments, and in some of her write ups about her Y&R co-stars seems to be offering as much a slap as a hug, but why not? Cooper is a very talented actress, and in this book emerges as a likable lady as well. Great title!

Verdict: A good read about an interesting woman. ***.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

Garfield and Turner














THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946). Director: Tay Garnett.

Cora Smith (Lana Turner) and her husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway) run a combination gas station and cafe, but their placid lives become unsettled when Nick hires a drifter named Frank (John Garfield) to help around the place. Cora and Frank are attracted to one another, and suddenly she can't see herself spending the rest of her life with her much older and unattractive husband, especially when he abruptly tells her that they're selling the restaurant [for which Cora had a lot of plans], moving in with his sister, and Cora will have to be nursemaid for the paralyzed woman for the rest of her life. [In other words, Nick is almost begging to be killed. His complete disregard for his wife's feelings makes him quite unsympathetic]. What happens next is a black comedy of errors, accusations, recriminations -- and murder. Although Lana Turner gave some good performances in later years, such as in A Life of Her Own, she's a little too unseasoned to make the most of Cora, although she isn't terrible. Garfield and Kellaway come off much better, of course [although they're hardly as pretty!] and they have some solid support from the likes of Leon Ames as a D.A., Hume Cronyn as a lawyer, and Audrey Totter as a gal who briefly dallies with Frank. The Postman Always Rings Twice is a good, entertaining picture -- much better than the dreadful remake with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson -- but somehow it's not quite a classic like the superior Double Indemnity, which was also taken from a James M. Cain novel. This Hollywood version takes a lot of liberties with the plot and characters, the usual case with Cain. For instance, in the novel the lovers were practically kids.

Verdict: Not the best adaptation of a Cain novel, but certainly not without merit. ***.

DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS

Dracula (Christopher Lee) in attack mode













DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966). Director: Terence Fisher.

Two couples are touring Europe -- Helen and Alan (Barbara Shelley, Charles Tingwell) and Alan's brother Charles (Francis Matthews) and his wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) -- when they are warned to stay away from Carlsbad by Father Sandor (Andrew Kier). Naturally, they go directly to Carlsbad despite Helen's sensible misgivings. There they wind up "guests" in Dracula's castle [which is not musty and full of cobwebs but quite beautiful and handsomely appointed] and given every courtesy by the late count's helpful manservant, Klove (Philip Latham). It isn't long before Dracula is no longer dead, however, and a cat and mouse game ensues between him and Klove and the two horrified couples. With top notch photography [Michael Reed], direction and acting -- Christopher Lee makes quite an impression as Dracula despite the fact he hasn't a line of dialogue --  this is one classy horror film, superior to its predecessor Horror of Dracula, good as that was. [Neither Lee nor Dracula actually appeared in the first follow-up, The Brides of Dracula.] Creepy and suspenseful, this one works every step of the way. As usual, James Bernard's music is a bonus. Peter Cushing's brief appearance at the opening is taken from a previous film.

Verdict: One you can really sink your teeth into. ***1/2.

MILDRED PIERCE (2011)

Kate Winslet as Mildred
MILDRED PIERCE (2011 HBO mini-series. Director: Todd Haynes.

"I am never coming back to this hovel as long as I live!" --Veda Pierce.

This mini-series is adapted from the same James M. Cain novel that was the basis of the Joan Crawford movie of the same title. This version is much more faithful to the novel, as the Crawford version added a murder sequence that was not in the book and turned the original Mildred Pierce into a classic piece of film noir, which this version is definitely not. In the mini-series Mildred is played by Kate Winslet, who doesn't have Crawford's presence but gives a good performance, although it lacks spontaneity. The story begins in 1931 California where Mildred splits from her husband and is left to take care of their two daughters. As in the original movie, the proud Mildred gets a job as a waitress, bakes pies, opens her own restaurant -- and has to contend with her haughty older daughter, Veda [first played as a child -- and quite well -- by Morgan Turner, who might even have been able to handle the later sequences]. As in the novel Veda is studying piano, but discovers she lacks distinction. In the book she becomes an opera singer in a rather ludicrous fashion, so the mini-series wisely has her talking about it instead of showing it. The other major character is gigolo Monty Beragon, played by a credible Guy Pearce. Mildred Pierce has some fine performances and memorable sequences, such as a tragic death scene for a young character; an interview for a housekeeping job that Mildred has with rich bitch Mrs. Lenhardt [uncredited but very good]; Mildred's reaction when she first hears Veda's singing voice on the radio; and an explosive climax in a bedroom when Mildred sees her daughter's true colors in the cruelest way possible. The adult Veda is played by Evan Rachel Wood, who isn't bad in the part, but she just can't compare to the vicious brilliance of Ann Blyth in the original version [and Pearce can't quite erase memories of smarmy Zachary Scott as Monty]. Mare Winningham, James LeGros, Melissa Leo, Brian F. O'Byrne, and Quinn McColgan are all notable in important supporting roles. Nice music from Carter Burwell. Veda's gorgeous soprano singing voice is supplied by the very talented Sumi Jo.

Verdict: Pretty classy cable mini-series. ***1/2.

ANTHONY PERKINS: A HAUNTED LIFE

ANTHONY PERKINS: A HAUNTED LIFE. Ronald Bergan. Little, Brown; 1995. UK.

This is a solid biography of the actor who became most famous for the role of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and who regretted it until embracing it and doing three sequels to the film, one of which he directed [Psycho 3]. There are details on Perkin's stage and film career, his recordings [he had a passable if uninspiring singing voice and appeared in more than one Broadway musical], his romantic parts which were nothing like Norman, and his follow-up "twitchy" psychotic roles in such films as Edge of Madness and others. Perkins was actively homosexual but never accepted himself as such, becoming what today we would call an "ex-gay." In middle age he married the apparently clueless Berry Berenson [who tragically died on 9/11 years after her husband's death from AIDS], who was boyishly built, resembled one of Perkin's ex-lovers, and lived with him in the same house with Perkin's boyfriend Grover Dale and Dale's new beard/wife! Still, unlike other "ex-gays," Perkins never made any public negative pronouncements on the gay lifestyle. The author quotes numerous "friends" of Perkins -- possibly closet cases themselves -- who applaud Perkin's sham marriage and homophobically cite it as proof of his new maturity when it may have been the most  immature thing the actor ever did [of course he continued sleeping with men after his marriage, which his wife claimed to know absolutely nothing about]. Two children resulted from the marriage, which was probably more of a loving friendship than anything else. Like the marriage, Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life is not completely satisfying, but it is not without merit.

Verdict: Interesting study of the life and career of a talented if troubled and delusional actor. ***.

BLONDE VENUS

BLONDE VENUS (1932). Director: Joseph von Sternberg.

While on a camping trip in Germany Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) comes across Helen (Marlene Dietrich) swimming with other pretty chorus girls and it's love at first sight. In one of the swiftest transitions I've ever seen in any movie, practically the next second  the two are married, living in the U.S., and have a cute little boy named Johnny (Dickie Moore). [I mean there isn't even a two-second shot of their wedding let alone any scenes of courtship.] It develops early on that Ned has a serious illness and needs a lot of money to travel to get treatment, so Helen goes back to work [billed as the "Blonde Venus" in a campy "African" night club number in which she first appears in a gorilla suit] and gets the money from playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). What follows is a series of misunderstandings and recriminations, with Helen on the run with Johnny and Ned in pursuit and so on. This is neither one of Dietrich's best performances nor one of her better movies, and Grant, Marshall and even little Dickie Moore come off better than Dietrich. Blonde Venus is the kind of dopey movie in which even while on the run and hungry for food Dietrich can somehow manage to afford a maid [the always-wonderful Hattie McDaniel]! The "Hot Voodoo" number, while utterly impossible to take seriously, is a hoot, and Dietrich's flat singing as delightfully awful as ever. Sidney Toler plays a police detective hunting Helen, and Sterling Holloway has a small role as a friend of Ned's in the early scenes in Germany.

Verdict: At least Dietrich looks beautiful no matter what her tribulations. **.

ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNKNOWN

Mrs. Davis (Fran Franklin) hurls a curse
ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNKNOWN  (1973). Director: Harry Thomason.

This picture posits the theory that all paranormal activities center around people who are buried in 23 specific cemeteries. Okay. Then the movie pretty much forgets about that and focuses on three stories of the occult. In the first tale three college men play a prank on a fourth, who accidentally dies, and his mother (Fran Franklin) puts a curse on them after her son's burial; each one dies a horrible death during the next three weeks. The second story takes place in the mountains in 1906, and concerns a man who searches for his son's missing dog in a pit from which issues strange noises and steam, and which drastically transforms him when he descends into it. The third story, "The Girl on the Bridge," is that hoary business of a ghost appearing to travelers and wanting to be taken home, only for the good Samaritans to discover that she died years before. Although Encounter with the Unknown is narrated by Rod Serling, it consists of Twilight Zone rejects. The production values are below television level, but the acting is surprisingly good at times. The ending is padded to extend the running time, and there is lots of stock music that adds little to the movie.

Verdict: Encounters you can do without. **.

THE LUCY SHOW SEASON TWO

Lucy and Viv try to get the "world famous Thunderbolt" to move
THE LUCY SHOW Season 2.1963.

The first season of The Lucy Show had its moments but was certainly no I Love Lucy. The second season also has some laughs, but there isn't a single really outstanding episode. The more memorable ones feature Jay Novello as a safe cracker; Robert Alda and John Carradine as art student and instructor [and a very clever bit involving the Mona Lisa]; Lucy's all-woman fire department putting out a fire at the bank; Lucy and Viv opening a restaurant [though it can't compare to "The Diner" episode on I Love Lucy]; Lucy working with Mr. Mooney [Gale Gordon, who is introduced on the fourth episode of the season] at the same bank; the gals competing in a bake-off; and the frenetic couple organizing kiddie parties [the funniest bit has the gals trying to get a recalcitrant dog, "the world-famous Thunderbolt" -- see photo -- to just get up and move]. The problem with The Lucy Show is that everyone thinks that all Ball needs is a little shtick to be hilarious, but the episode with her conducting an orchestra is just plain bad, and there are other overly silly and unfunny episodes with labored and poor material that even the talents of Ball and Vance can't save. However, the gals get some good support from Gale Gordon, Mary Jane Croft, Kathleen Freeman, and others. Ball's second husband, comic Gary Morton, appears in one episode and is quite good. Season three was slightly better. In the introduction to the show, there are nuermous photos of Lucy, and only one of Vivian Vance, who is still billed only as a "co-star."

Verdict: "Ethel Mertz" is one thing, but you can really miss her teaming up with Ethel Merman. **.  

BROADWAY: GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Al Pacino as Shelly Levene on Broadway
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. David Mamet. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Broadway. New York City. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

When Al Pacino appeared in the film version of David Mamet's play in 1992, he played the role of hot shot Ricky Roma. Twenty years later he's now playing the role of Shelly Levene [played by Jack Lemmon in the movie] in this new Broadway production of the play. Although it won a Pulitzer Prize, the somewhat old-fashioned Glengarry [taking its cue from previous plays and films about competitive salesmen and the like] is basically a play that sinks or swims on its acting. The film succeeded mostly because of a stellar cast giving their all. Shelly, afraid he may be washed up in the real estate business, is desperate for "leads" [the names of prospective buyers] even as younger Ricky Roma (Bobby Cannavale) is sewing up a deal that will put him on top in the office. The next day it develops that all of the leads have been stolen, and there's more than one suspect in the robbery.

Much of the audience I saw this with reacted to every utterance of "mother fucker" and the like with roaring laughter as if they were clever punchlines in a sitcom. People close to the stage may have felt like they were in a private party with the actors and felt they had to laugh at every obscenity. The language isn't the problem, but that much of the play's characterizations and observations are over-familiar and superficial. It probably goes without saying that anyone expecting a theatrical masterpiece like Death of a Salesman or Long Day's Journey Into Night had better look elsewhere. [I admit that I am not a big Mamet admirer.] The movie was relatively cinematic and therefore faster- paced, but the play -- especially the two scenes comprising the first act -- here seems very slow.

Pacino and the other actors [including David Harbour,  John C. McGinley,  Richard Schiff, Jeremy Shamos, and Murphy Guyer] all give good, even very good, performances. Pacino has a problem in that despite the added years he's playing a role that was much better suited to Jack Lemmon [comparisons may be odious, but Lemmon was better], but he has gotten more than respectable reviews, and his basic talent and that certain mesmerizing quality he has, almost always carries him through, as it has done here.

So, is this worth the exorbitant ticket prices this is getting on the strength of Pacino's name? It's not even worth what you'll pay for the mezzanine.

Verdict: Fine actors; mediocre vehicle. Rent the movie instead. **1/2.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

MY DEAR SECRETARY

Mowbray and Douglas confer in interesting restaurant















MY DEAR SECRETARY (1948). Writer/director: Charles Martin.

Just before giving a lecture, author Owen Waterbury (Kirk Douglas) bumps into aspiring writer Stephanie Gaylord (Laraine Day). She applies for the job of his secretary after his old one, Elsie (Helen Walker), quits in a huff. Initially delighted to be hired, Stephanie realizes that what she hoped would be an interesting and intellectual position actually just calls for her to be playmate for her infantile employer, whom she nevertheless develops romantic feelings for. Throughout the movie the two make up and break up several times, but never convincingly. My Dear Secretary probably looked good on paper, and it has many amusing lines and a few genuinely funny sequences, but not enough to make it memorable. Douglas and Day are fine, but not as good as the supporting cast, which includes Walker, Keenan Wynn as Owen's agent, Irene Ryan [of The Beverly Hillbillies] as his feisty housekeeper, Alan Mowbray as a private detective, Grady Sutton as another writer, and especially Florence Bates as the delightful landlady. While not quite on their level Rudy Vallee is also good as Stephanie's original boss and suitor. Virginia Hewitt makes an impression as the sexy Felicia, who dates Owen for a time. When asked which famous actress the slinky and beautiful Felicia resembles, Wynn says "Zazu Pitts!" The movie is basically good-natured, but there are some mean-spirited bits and Douglas' character seems to be too stupid to be capable of producing a novel, however bad. [He is definitely a "movie" writer and not a real one.] A highlight of the film is when the characters convene in a restaurant [see photo] in which some of the booths are surrounded by "frames," making them resemble paintings. In his sixth film, Douglas doesn't grit his teeth quite so much, but then this is not exactly intense material.

Verdict: There are quite a few laughs but the film doesn't quite cut it.**1/2.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932). Director: Erle C. Kenton.

"They are restless tonight."

After begin rescued from a shipwreck, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) winds up marooned on an island whereupon  the corpulent Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) is experimenting on animals and turning them into semi-humans. [These "strange-looking" natives are so grotesque that next to them Laughton almost appears handsome.] Although it's been a while since I've read the source novel, H. G. Wells' excellent "The Island of Dr. Moreau," much of this film seems quite faithful to the book, with the exception of the foolish business with Parker's fiancee, Ruth (Leila Hyams), suddenly showing up on the island. Bela Lugosi is the "Sayer of the Law" and Kathleen Burke plays Lota, the Panther Woman. The performances are good for the most part, and the film is entertaining. There's some borderline bestialism when it comes to that slinky panther woman.

Verdict: Good show! ***

THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS

Marlene Dietrich and Theresa Harris
THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS (1941). Director: Rene Clair.

In old New Orleans lady of leisure Countess Claire (Marlene Dietrich) has set her cap for the wealthy older banker Charles Giraud (Roland Young). But Claire has left behind quite a reputation in St. Petersburg, and to deflect Giraud's suspicion she also pretends to be another notorious woman from Russia, Claire's lookalike and [kind of] cousin, Lily. Complicating matters is a lusty sailor named Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot), who has an eye for Claire (and Lili)  and vice versa. One could say that Flame of New Orleans is Dietrich's Two-Faced Woman [in which Greta Garbo pretended to be two different women] not just because of the plot but because Flame is similarly mediocre. However, the actors, especially a surprising Cabot, all do a good job, and they are backed by such stalwarts as Franklin Pangborn, Mischa Auer, Anne Revere, Laura Hope Crews, Andy Devine, and a host of talented black actors, including Theresa Harris [Baby Face] as Clarie's saucy, sexy maid Clementine. However, the film is predictable and not as much fun as it sounds. Clair also directed It Happened Tomorrow.

Verdict: Pleasant in many ways but minor. **1/2.  

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) faces down "Max" (Redgrave)













MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). Director: Brian De Palma.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is on a special "impossible" mission for the IMF [Impossible Missions Force] in Prague when everything goes south and his teammates are slaughtered all around him.  He is told by Kittridge (Henry Czerny, who plays Conrad Grayson on TV's Revenge) that the whole operation was merely a ruse to flush out a mole in the organization. Since Ethan appears to be the only one of the group who's still alive, he becomes the chief suspect and goes on the run. Trying to track down whoever murdered his comrades, he enters into a phony alliance with an arms dealer known only as "Max" (Vanessa Redgrave) and in the film's most suspenseful sequence must steal a list of important names from a nearly impregnable vault while hanging just inches from the ceiling; there is also a thrilling climax involving a helicopter and a high-speed train. While purists may quibble over the identity of the mastermind behind the dire plot, Mission: Impossible is an excellent update of and tribute to the very popular and long-running TV show, equally absurd at times but always fun. Cruise is well suited to this kind of material and does it well, while Jon Voight is fine as IMF head Jim Phelps. Jean Reno, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ving Rhames, and Emmanuelle Beart also have important roles. For some reason Emilio Estevez is uncredited as Jack, an early casualty of the IMF in Prague, although his performance is solid. Vanessa Redgrave is just splendid in her unusual turn as Max. The movie wisely uses Lalo Schifrin's theme music from the television program. Followed by three sequels.

Verdict: One of the classier television adaptations to hit theaters. ***1/2.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981). Director: J. Lee Thompson.

Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) belongs to a school clique called "The Top Ten" at the Crawford Academy. But as her 18th birthday approaches, someone starts wiping out her friends one by one in gruesome, startling ways [one poor guy is sort of shish ka bobbed to death]. In the way of Italian giallo director Dario Argento, the movie works up considerable suspense as to the identity of the killer and his or her motives, although director Thompson's style is nothing like Argento's. Glenn Ford is the biggest name in the cast and is fine as Virginia's psychiatrist, and there are good performances as well from Anderson, Tracy Bregman as one of her friends, and Lawrence Dane and Sharon Acker as her parents, among others. You may groan at certain aspects of the denouement but at least it's suitably macabre. 

Verdict: One of the better mad slasher-type movies that proliferated in the 80's. ***. 

KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER

KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER (1974 television series).

After the high ratings of the two movies featuring Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, intrepid reporter who uncovers the unusual in The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, Kolchak was given his own series, which lasted one season, and took place in Chicago where he worked for International News Service (INS). Clad always in his rumpled white suit and straw hat, Kolchak would probably not be very likable were he not played by the always-likable McGavin, who is excellent in the show, along with Simon Oakland [Psycho] as his testy, rotund boss, Jack Grinnage as snooty Ron Updyke and the delightful Ruth McDevitt [The Birds] as senior reporter "Miss Emily" [these last two also worked at the paper and were semi-regulars]. The publisher's daughter Monique (Carol Ann Susi, who's now on The Big Bang Theory) also appeared in a couple of episodes before being called back to New York. Often closer to black comedy than out and out horror,  Kolchak could be pretty cheesy and silly, and was only modestly entertaining. Most of the episodes were not memorable, although at least four were better than average: "Chopper" guest stars spirited Sharon Farrell in the tale of a ghostly biker who comes back and beheads the old buddies who were responsible for his accidental death; "Firefall" deals with cases of spontaneous combustion; "The Trevi Collection" (with Nina Foch of The Return of the Vampire, an excellent Lara Parker from Dark Shadows, and Henry Brandon of The Land Unknown) deals with a woman who uses witchcraft to take control of a fashion house; and "The Devil's Platform" features Tom Skerritt of Alien as a politician whose campaign trail is dogged by "accidental" deaths and murders -- this is probably the best episode of the series.

Verdict: Fun, minor, easy to take, if hardly all that it could have been. **1/2.

FALCON CREST SEASON 2

The cast of Falcon Crest
FALCON CREST Season Two. 

Jane Wyman is back as the ruthless matriarch and vineyard owner Angela Channing in the second season of the night-time serial Falcon Crest. This season introduces Richard Channing (David Selby), who is the illegitimate son of Angela's late husband, and who comes to the valley to pretty much get even with everyone, and take over a newspaper. Meanwhile there's some question as to the paternity of the child being carried by Melissa (Ana Alicia), who is married to Angela's grandson, Lance (Lorenzo Lamas), but who slept with Angela's nephew, Cole (Billy Moses). Cole's parents, Chase (Robert Foxworth) and Maggie (Susan Sullivan), develop problems after Cole is accused of murder and Maggie works on a screenplay with a Lothario producer played by Bradford Dillman. Lana Turner makes a few appearances as Chase's continental mother and old foe of Angela's, whose two daughters -- Julie (Abby Dalton) and Emma  (Margaret Ladd ) -- have serious issues of their own, while Chase's daughter, Vicki (Jamie Rose), gets involved with a married man played by Roy Thinnes [The Invaders]. Frankly, the first half of the season isn't as entertaining as season one, but it picks up in the second half when the gang seems to be stalked by a ruthless killer who wants to get rid of anyone who might uncover his or her identity [which does indeed turn out to be a shocking surprise]. Some of the revelations and character reversals during the season finale are kind of suspect and silly, but the cliffhanger is a classic of its kind. Wyman is marvelous, never descending into chewing the scenery [a la Joan Collins on Dynasty, albeit she did it entertainingly], and most of the other cast members are swell. Guest stars include E. G. Marshall in a fine turn as Richard's adopted father, Joanna Cassidy as an older woman who falls for Cole, and Anne Jeffreys as a married girlfriend of Angela's lawyer, Phillip (Mel Ferrer). During their arguments Chase often throws Maggie's turn as a screenwriter in her face -- you wish just once she'd remind him of how the entire family was uprooted so he could pursue his dream of owning a winery, so what's the problem if she wants to pursue her own dream of writing a screenplay? It's amusing the way Richard imagines he'll be accepted by Angela when he's her husband's bastard. Choa Li Chi (who plays the similarly named servant Choa Li-Chi) is given more to do this season.

Verdict: Occasionally ridiculous, but a well-mounted and generally absorbing soaper. ***

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

Peter Parker practices his spider powers



THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012). Director: Marc Webb.

The 4th Spider-Man movie goes back to the beginning with a new actor and retells the origin of the arachnid hero. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) acquires spider-based powers, tries to use them for good, and comes afoul of his girlfriend's father, police captain Stacey (Denis Leary). Worse is that a one-armed scientist named Curt Connors (a scenery-chewing Rhys Ifans), who knew Peter's late father, has transformed into a hulking lizard-man monster that is threatening the city. If there had been no other Spider-Man movies, Amazing Spider-Man would have been fine, but it's all been done before, and done better [Spider-Man 2]. The Lizard was a popular villain in the comic books, but he's been transformed into a rampaging FX creature like the Hulk, somehow making him less interesting. There are some good action scenes -- and excellent photography -- but nothing as eye-popping as the climax of Spider-Man 2. Garfield is on target as the hero, and he gets fine support from Sally Field and Martin Sheen as his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. [The comic book origin has been fiddled with a bit so that Parker isn't quite indirectly responsible for his uncle's death.] Leary is adequate as Stacey, and Emma Stone has some good moments as his daughter, Gwen. Spider-Man's antagonist, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, doesn't appear in the movie at all. Co-creator Stan Lee has a funny cameo, and C. Thomas Howell [Young Toscanini] has a couple of good sequences as the father of a little boy saved by our amazin' hero. Despite its flaws [or over-familiarity], Amazing Spider-Man is by no means a bad picture and fans should still get a kick out of it. Garfield was also in the Robert Redford film Lions for Lambs.

Verdict: Slick if somewhat empty razzle dazzle. ***.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN












THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (1935). Director (and photography): Josef von Sternberg.

Anyone who's interested in examining the famous Dietrich mystique need look no further than this 1935 classic directed by her great admirer [and lover] von Sternberg. At the turn of the century during a carnival in Spain, Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) tells his friend Antonio (Cesar Romero) about his long-time love for the beautiful if cold-hearted Concha (Dietrich) in an attempt to warn him away from her -- or does he have another objective? This interesting and amusing study of unrequited love and love-finally-won is beautifully acted by all three principals, not to mention Alison Skipworth as Concha's mother and Edward Everett Horton as the fluttery governor, who's also smitten with Concha. The movie is unpredictable and highly sophisticated. One could argue that the ending is wish fulfillment on von Sternberg's part [he was only seven years older than Dietrich, but less attractive than Atwill], but it works beautifully. Atwill, who toiled in many B movies and horror items and always delivered fine performances, is given one of his most memorable roles in this picture. Dietrich sings the delightful "Three Sweethearts." This is miles ahead of von Sternberg junk like Macao.

Verdict: Dietrich and a fine cast in top form. ***1/2.

EYES OF LAURA MARS

Laura Mars (foreground) captures bizarre fashion shoot
EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978). Director: Irvin Kershner. Co-written by John Carpenter.


Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is a wealthy, famous photographer who lately has been turning to the morbid and macabre for inspiration. Her fashion shoots feature automobile crashes and models getting into inexplicable cat fights. It develops that some of her photos are nearly exact copies of actual police crime scenes. What's worse, Laura has seemingly developed the psychic ability to see friends and associates of hers as they are being murdered, stabbed in the eyes with an ice pick, by an unseen maniac. Eyes of Laura Mars comes off like a Hollywood attempt to imitate the Italian giallo psycho-shocker type of thriller made famous by such as Dario Argento [Trauma], but Irvin Kershner has none of that director's style [nor Brian De Palma's, if we're speaking of an American equivalent]. The movie has fascinating elements to it and an excellent premise, but it's undone not just by the lack of panache but by many other factors. Dunaway offers a typically affected performance, which may be appropriate for the airy character she's playing, but only makes Laura that much more unbearable; she also looks horrible throughout the movie, as if she's playing a woman exposed to radiation who is slowly mutating into a frog. Tommy Lee Jones [Captain America: The First Avenger] is miscast as a NYPD detective assigned to the case, and his romance with Laura is not only unbelievable but also kind of gross as the actors have no chemistry whatsoever. The scene when the two realize they are hot for each other is just embarrassing. The supporting cast, such as Brad Dourif [the aforementioned Trauma and Exorcist III] as a driver and red herring, and the ever-reliable Rene Auberjonois as Laura's presumably gay best friend, come off much better. Kershner also directed the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again.

Verdict: Great idea but this one misses the boat. **1/2.


LADY OF BURLESQUE

Stanwyck struts her stuff
















LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943). Director: William A. Wellman.

"Grand opera bring crowds like this into the place? Goils! That's what the public wants!"

Stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's novel "The G-String Murders" was the basis for this movie that takes place in a faded opera house that's been turned into a venue for burlesque performers. Dixie (Barbara Stanwyck) is new but has already become a popular draw  [Stanwyck isn't much of a singer but she still sounds better than Dietrich]. She keeps dodging passes by the persistent Biff (Michael O'Shea) because she's had bad experiences with comics. But both of them have other things on their minds when the snooty Lolita La Verne (Victoria Faust) is found murdered in the dressing room. Charles Dingle plays the police detective who comes to the theater to investigate; Iris Adrian, even more vulgar than usual, is Gee Gee; Stephanie Bachelor is the heavily [and phonily] accented "Princess;" and Gloria Dickson is the heart-broken Dolly, whose secret husband, Russell (Frank Fenton), is one of the worst singers I've ever heard. Pinky Lee and Marion Martin are also in the cast as an unlikely couple. Stanwyck is as good as ever, the other actors are all competent and game, but this trifle isn't particularly compelling as a mystery, hasn't very many laughs, and becomes tiresome long before the conclusion. O'Shea later did the TV series It's a Great Life.

Verdict: Stanwyck is always interesting, but this isn't one of her better vehicles. **.

SAFETY IN NUMBERS

The cast of Safety in Numbers
















SAFETY IN NUMBERS  (1930). Director: Victor Schertzinger.

"My uncle says you're well-acquainted with the 400."

"We are. We know all of the husbands and none of the wives."

 20-year-old Bill Reynolds (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) will inherit millions on his next birthday, so his uncle inexplicably sends him to New York to supposedly sow his wild oats, yet hires three chorus girls to look after him and keep him out of trouble and away from predatory females. You would think with a plot like this the movie would at least be some fun, but it's so badly written and paced that it's a real snooze-inducer. The three chorus girls are so amateurish that it's a shock to realize that one of them is actually Carol Lombard, who would of course develop into a talented comedienne and major Hollywood figure -- but you'd never know it from this movie. Geneva Mitchell is slightly saucier in her brief turn as Cleo Carew, who has a hankering for Reynolds. Rogers had some charm and aplomb, but the movie is dull and the songs not very memorable. Louse Beavers, playing a maid as usual, sings a number -- but you can miss it. The movie has a total of one laugh and only one interesting sequence, when we see a bunch of chorus girls in silhouette before a screen showing scenes of New York. Reynolds unaccountably  falls in love with Jacqueline (Kathryn Crawford), the plainest of the trio. Josephine Dunn rounds out the threesome and Virginia Bruce has so small a role that if you blink you miss her.

Verdict: Almost unbearably bad. 1/2 *. 


VAMPIRE CIRCUS

VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972). Director: Robert Young.

Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman), who has been putting the bite on children in a small European village, vows to destroy everyone after the townspeople finally catch up with him and dispatch him. No one is allowed to leave the village because of a quarantine due to the "plague" of vampirism, but years later a gypsy circus troupe makes its way into Stettel, its entertainers putting the bite on everyone to not only avenge the count but bring him back to life. It's hard to get absorbed in this movie because out of its one-dimensional characters it has no real protagonist, the closest being Dr. Kersh (Richard Owens) who believes vampirism is no more than a disease and gets past the guards to go out and find a cure -- but he isn't seen for most of the movie. Similarly his son Anton (John Moulder-Brown of The Boys of Paul Street) only appears sporadically. A bigger problem is that for all the sex and bloodshed Vampire Circus is kind of tedious and uninvolving.Worse, there's a highly unpleasant emphasis on the erotic seduction of children. With some exceptions, the cast seems strangely unattractive as well.

Verdict: Manages the bizarre feat of making a circus of vampires seem as boring as it is repellent. **.

PERRY MASON SEASON 8

Raymond Burr
PERRY MASON Season 8. 1965.

Perry (Raymond Burr) and the gang are back for another season of this highly popular courtroom drama -- one of the best seasons in the series' long history. Phyllis Hill and Robert Brown give outstanding performances in "The Case of the Sleepy Slayer," a clever story in which a woman must live with her hated uncle. "Wooden Nickles" with Will Kuluva features skulduggery over a valuable confederate coin. "Ruinous Road" examines the hoopla over tearing a house down to build a needed thoroughfare. Joyce Meadows [Brain from Planet Arous] and Gary Crosby appear in "Frustrated Folksinger," about a show biz dilettante accused of murdering an exploitative agent. "Thermal Thief," in which a woman tries to honor her late husband despite complications, features fine performances from Joyce Van Patten and Barry Sullivan [Queen Bee]. Jeanne Bal scores as a viciously scheming woman in "Tell Tale Tap." Minerva Urecal [Who's Guilty?] shows up in "Lover's Gamble" about a doctor with romantic issues. "Murderous Mermaid" has an Esther Williams-type dealing with a show biz hopeful and a strange publicity plot. In "Careless Kitten," in which there is no trial or even a courtroom sequence, Perry investigates whether or not a man missing for ten years is still alive, and confronts suspects in a living room; Percy Helton and an excellent Louise Latham [Marnie] are in the cast. In the season's most bizarre moment, Perry faces down a big ape in "Grinning Gorilla" with Victor Buono [Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte] and Lurene Tuttle [The Manitou]. And there were many other memorable episodes.

Verdict: Still one of the most enjoyable and well-acted programs ever made. ***1/2.

CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON

















CURUCU, BEAST OF THE AMAZON (1956). Writer/director: Curt Siodmak.

"Like Nothing Your Eyes Have Ever Seen Before!" -- poster copy.

"She can't get a man so she gets a career!" -- dumb Rock

Egotistical adventurer Rock Dean (John Bromfield) and Dr. Andrea Romar (Beverly Garland), a cancer researcher,  travel down the Amazon, he to investigate reports of a legendary monster scaring the natives, and she to find a drug that natives use to shrink heads in the hopes it can shrink tumors as well. Packaged as a monster movie, Curucu is bound to disappoint fans of creature features, as it's really a romantic adventure film, shot in Brazil, with colorful looks at the waters of the Amazon, filled with crocs and piranha, and surrounding areas. The secret behind Curucu is revealed fifty or so minutes into the film, leaving our protagonists, falling in love, to deal with other dangers, but there's a great final surprise. Bromfield is competent, Garland as zesty as ever, and Tom Payne is fine as the native guide Tupanico. Some great scenery, and a flavorful score by Raoul Kraushaar. The film has its dopey moments, and it's accuracy as to the natives and wild life of Brazil during the fifties is debatable, but it's fun. One native guy feels up Garland to make sure that she's female!  [There are two versions of the film, one in color and one in black and white; this review is for the color version.]

Verdict: The movie isn't as good as its poster but it certainly has its good points. ***.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

THE SAXON CHARM

THE SAXON CHARM (1948). Writer/director: Claude Binyon.

"Yes, my flatulent Florence Nightingale, and close the door on your way out!" -- Charming Matt Saxon to nurse.

Janet (Susan Hayward), the wife of a successful novelist-turned-playwright, Eric Busch (John Payne), is warned by the unfortunately-named  entertainer Alma Wragg (Audrey Totter) that she may well regret it if her husband allows producer Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery), Alma's boyfriend, to produce his play. For Saxon doesn't seem to know or especially care that other people have personal lives and may not want to be at his constant beck and call like a bunch of babies. Saxon even tries to order for everyone in a restaurant and throws a fit when things are not to his liking. However, Saxon not only has charm, but he isn't stupid: "Nothing that's good and has a purpose is old-fashioned," he says. Still he's almost responsible for wrecking the Busch marriage and his need for control goes a little too far when it comes to Alma and her career. While The Saxon Charm hasn't quite got the bite and strong plot of the later backstage drama All About Eve, and the marital difficulties of the Busch's seem a bit contrived, it is nevertheless well-acted by all of the principles and quite entertaining as well. A nice score by Walter Scharf  is a bonus. Harry Morgan, Harry Von Zell, Heather Angel, Chill Wills and Kathleen Freeman all score in smaller roles. Binyon also directed Dreamboat with Clifton Webb and many other movies.

Verdict: It's worth spending some time with this "charm boy," who is all too typical of many theatrical types and others. ***.

GUEST IN THE HOUSE

Ruth Warrick and Anne Baxter
GUEST IN THE HOUSE (1944). Director: John Brahm.

Dr. Dan Butler (Scott McKay) brings his girlfriend and patient Evelyn (Anne Baxter) to his family home for a rest cure, and she manages to bring simmering tensions to the surface. Others in the household include Dan's artist brother Douglas (Ralph Bellamy), his wife Ann (Ruth Warrick), their Aunt Martha (Aline McMahon), their little girl Lee (Connie Laird), the peppery maid Hilda (Margaret Hamilton) and her husband John (Percy Kilbride), as well as Miriam (Marie McDonald), who is Douglas' model and who some suspect is carrying on with the painter. Evelyn sets her cap on Douglas but although she's blamed for the events that transpire they seem precipitated more by the others' suspicions than by her manipulations. The cast makes the movie more interesting than it might have been otherwise, but Leave Her to Heaven the following year made much more of the theme of an emotionally disturbed, selfish woman causing havoc in a household. Baxter gives a typically vivid and appropriate performance, while the others are all on target as well, and there's a pleasant score by Werner Janssen, but this is a half-baked melodrama and little else. Well-directed by Brahm, who also directed The Undying Monster, The Mad Magician, Hangover Square, The Locket, and many episodes of such shows as Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Verdict: At least it isn't predictable. **1/2.