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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, June 28, 2012

THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK

Spencer Tracy
THE DEVIL AT 4 O'CLOCK (1961). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

"I bet you were a sweet little altar boy." -- Father Doonan [Spencer Tracy].

"Weren't we all?" -- Harry [Frank Sinatra].

Three convicts -- Harry (Frank Sinatra), Marcel (Gregoire Aslan) and Charlie (Bernie Hamilton) -- on their way to a Tahitian prison, have to stop over on the island of Talua so their plane can drop off Father Perreau (Kerwin Mathews). Perreau is there to replace cantankerous, alcoholic Father Doonan (Spencer Tracy), who has angered the islanders by building a hospital for children with Hansen's disease (leprosy) in the mountains. When the island is threatened by earthquakes and an erupting volcano, Doonan takes the convicts with him to rescue the children and the hospital staff. From there they make a perilous journey down the mountain, past thickening lava flows, that not all of them will survive. The characters and situations are so interesting that it doesn't matter that the harrowing action doesn't occur until late in the movie, and the fine performances from most of the cast help as well. Columbia has put together such a first-rate remastered high-def DVD of this film that sometimes the FX seams [process work and matte paintings] show through, but there are still some stunning vistas. Unlike the more realistic hardened convicts you generally find in today's movies, Sinatra and company are men of some convenient strength and sensitivity. The piousness sometimes threatens to become cloying but never overwhelms the movie, and dissenting viewpoints are also presented. Tracy is superb, with fine support from Hamilton [who deserved a much bigger career], Aslan, Alexander Scourby as the governor, and Cathy Lewis as hospital worker Marguerite. Jean-Pierre Aumont and Tom Middleton are fine as the pilots, as is Barbara Luna as a blind girl at the hospital. Even in this, Sinatra, who isn't bad, gets the girl -- or does he? The film isn't entirely predictable in who will make it off the island or not.

Verdict: This movie is not a disaster. ***.

SWAMP WOMEN

SWAMP WOMEN (1956). Director: Roger Corman.

An undercover policewoman, Lt. Lee Hampton (Carole Matthews), poses as a convict in order to find out where the female Nardo gang hid a fortune in diamonds. Put in the same cell as the three tough members of the gang  -- Josie (Marie Windsor), Vera (Beverly Garland), and Billie (Jil Jarmyn) -- Hampton breaks them all out and they head for the diamonds -- secreted in the Louisiana bayou! Along the way the ladies pick up two hostages, spoiled heiress Marie (Susan Cummings) and her supposed boyfriend Bob (Touch Conners, later to be known as Mike Connors). This is actually a fast-paced and very entertaining melodrama bolstered by Corman's brisk direction, some good performances [especially from Beverly Garland as the biggest bitch in the bunch], a few very zesty female-female fight scenes [okay, cat fights!], and lots of swampy atmosphere. A good showcase for "B" movie queens Garland and Windsor, and Jill Jarmyn also makes an impression as the resident sexpot. Matthews isn't bad, but Connors does little else but look good in his rolled-up sleeves. Jonathan Haze of The Little Shop of Horrors has a nice cameo as a pickpocket who pretends to be drunker than he is.

Verdict: This one is a lot of fun and has some suspense to boot. ***. 


JULES VERNE'S JOURNEY INTO THE INTERIOR OF THE EARTH

Verne's inner ocean  from the 1959 movie. 




JOURNEY INTO THE INTERIOR OF THE EARTH. Jules Verne.

Jules Verne's influential 1877 novel about a fantastic journey into the interior of the planet has been filmed, ripped off and bowdlerized a great many times. In Verne's book the German professor Liedenbrock and his nephew Axel, along with an Icelander named Hans, descend into a crater and laboriously make their way into the interior of the planet. Liedenbrock finds a parchment from 16h century alchemist Arne Saknussemm in an old book in which Saknussemm tells of reaching the center of the earth via the extinct crater Snaefell "in the shadow of Scartaris" -- but they must arrive on a certain day so that the correct pathway will be pointed out by the sun's rays. Axel is much less enthused about the undertaking than his somewhat nutty uncle [the whole idea of beginning such an adventure because of old writings that might have been fictional in the first place is a little ridiculous] and the two come into conflict more than once during the journey. Axel's girlfriend Grauben actually encourages him to go on the trip. The two men have a variety of flavorful adventures before they even enter the crater, all bolstered by Verne's well-researched [and often too exhaustive] descriptions.

Once inside the earth, the trio have an often harrowing time of it, nearly turning back due to lack of water, and Axel gets completely lost in the darkness at one point. They eventually come across a gargantuan cavern containing an ocean and which is in a perpetual state of twilight due to a kind of aurora borealis of electrical origin. On the shore they find mushrooms grown to huge size due to the constant warm temperature, as well as other kinds of flora. Setting sail on the inner ocean on a raft they witness a terrifying battle between two prehistoric saurians, a plesiosaurus and an ichthyosaurus, that nearly swamps their raft. Just as terrifying is the appearance of a fireball that hovers and darts about and around the raft and a crackling, stupendous storm that brings them back to the shore they left, although on this point they aren't certain. Here they discover living  mammoths, as well as a 12-foot tall shepherd whom they wisely run from before he can spot them.[Liedenbrock theorizes that in ancient times living people and animals were carried down via earthquakes, and survivors now populate the inner earth.]

They then discover a passage taken by Saknussemm that would lead them further downward, but it is blocked. Using explosives to clear the stone barrier, they create a cataclysm that shoots them and their raft into an adjacent chamber of a live crater and are shot up to the earth [in spurts] in a live volcano.

Journey into the Interior of the Earth is a wonderful fantasy novel bolstered by Verne's research, descriptions and lively imagination, even if it does become a little outlandish. One could argue that the book ends just when it gets really interesting. Liedenbrock and Axel are one-dimensional characters, but it is the adventure, the whole fascinating premise, that carries the story. [Later on Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, would run with the idea and create Pellucidar, an inner world inside a hollow earth populated by monsters and cavemen and different, weird societies.]

Most of the film adaptations are too dreadful to mention. The 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth, despite much foolishness, is so far the best of them. Liedenbrock was turned into a Scottish professor Lindenbrook, and Axel became, Alec, one of his students, but no relation. Lindenbrook was given a daughter who is romanced by Alec. Instead of a parchment, Saknusemm's message is found on a plumb bob. The screenwriters invented all the business involving Arne Saknusemm's descendant, the rival Professor Goteborg and his wife (who goes along on the trip), the duck Gertrude, and the discovery of some ruins of Atlantis in the bowels of the earth. The characters in the film reach the very center of the earth, but in the novel they do not. The 1977 Spanish film Where Time Began was in some ways more faithful to the novel but also took many a liberty in the story and was not memorable. 

Verdict: Fascinating, if flawed, fantasy novel by one of the giants. ***.

WHERE TIME BEGAN aka THE FABULOUS JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH

WHERE TIME BEGAN (aka The Fabulous Journey to the Centre of the Earth/1977). Director: Juan Piquer Simon.

In 1898 Hamburg Professor Otto Lindenbrock (Kenneth More) discovers an old book that details a trip into the interior of the earth by one Arne Saknussemm. With his niece Glauben (Ivonne Sentis), her boyfriend Axel (Pep Munne), and a shepherd named Hans (Frank Brana), he descends into an extinct volcano and discovers giant mushrooms, living sail-back reptiles, mammoth turtles, a giant ape a la King Kong, and an underground sea full of slimy rubber monsters with big teeth This is a low-budget Spanish version of Verne's novel, which makes quite a few changes [the professor has a niece instead of a nephew] but in some ways is more faithful than the vastly superior 1959 Hollywood version. At least the cavern scenes aren't over-lit as in the Hollywood film, and there are some good sets and effective sequences. This version adds another character, Olsen (Jack Taylor), who shows up inside the earth, appears to be some kind of time traveler, and at one point shows his companions a futuristic laboratory in a cavern in which all of the workers look just like him -- this is never explained and adds nothing to the movie but confusion. The special effects throughout are variable, with no process shots combining man with monster. The cast is all right, with Sentis and Munne making an attractive couple. Ultimately, the whole production is somewhat tedious and unmemorable. Simon later directed another Verne adaptation, Mystery on Monster Island, which was somewhat better.

Verdict: A C+ for effort and a C- for execution. **.

GREAT OLD EPISODE: MAN-EATER OF SURREY GREEN / THE AVENGERS

The man-eating plant attacks Steed and companions
"MAN-EATER OF SURREY GREEN". THE AVENGERS. 1965.

The Avengers British TV series [not to be confused with the American super-heroes of the same name]  arrived on U.S. shores with the 1965 season, the first one in which Diana Rigg joined the cast [joining Patrick Macnee as Steed] as the delectable, leather-and-jumpsuit clad Mrs. Peel. In this amusing and creepy episode, a weird plant turns out to have a human-type brain, and is also able to emit mind-control rays that have scientists and others toiling for it. In addition, the creature is a flesh-eater, and one of the essential nutrients it needs is inside human beings. Its tendrils can whip around a person in seconds and pull them away for a tasty snack. Not only do our intrepid duo have to deal with this botanical nightmare -- which threatens to grow to gargantuan size, with its tendrils digging in and popping up everywhere throughout the earth [and it is also capable of sprouting seeds] -- but Steed has to contend with a plant-hypnotized Emma Peel giving him karate chops as he tries to stop her from spilling the only reserves they have of a herbicide that might kill the awful creature.This is utterly absurd, but highly entertaining.

Verdict: Suspenseful, funny, and action-packed, with a great monster. ***.

THE WOMAN WHO WASN'T THERE [BOOK]

THE WOMAN WHO WASN'T THERE: The True Story of an Incredible Deception. Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. Touchstone/Simon and Schuster; 2012.

NOTE: This book is based on the documentary of the same name.

Tania Head, who lost her husband and nearly lost her arm, in the 9//11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, joined a group of survivors who felt isolated after their horrific experiences. The dead were honored, as were their grieving loved ones, but these survivors were suffering terrible emotional and sometimes physical trauma and still felt left out of the loop. They were often afraid to speak up because they were, after all, alive when so many others died, and felt survivor guilt on top of everything else. Tania had a particularly horrifying and poignant story, and when she joined the group she did a lot to make it more of a viable organization. But how come some details in her story didn't add up? Why did she spearhead internecine movements to throw certain people out of the group, stripping them of a desperately needed lifeline? Why did she refuse to answer basic verifiable questions for a reporter from the New York Times? Could it be possible, as inconceivable as it sounded, that she wasn't in the Towers on 9/11? This well-written book [one of the co-authors did a documentary film on Head and the Survivors] pulls one along --  as it illuminates the struggles of traumatized survivors to function in a post-9/11 world, it also tells an incredible story of an elaborate and indefensible hoax. You might wonder if this person is even worth the attention [no] -- although she obviously wants it -- but it's still a compelling true story, and the book does give insight into the terrible things that happened inside the Towers that awful day, and the horrifying things witnessed by survivors who can never forget what they saw and experienced.

Verdict: You'll read it in one sitting. ***.

THE GREEN HORNET (2011)

Seth Rogen and Jay Chou
THE GREEN HORNET (2011). Director: Michel Gondry.

When his newspaper publisher father dies, Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), an irresponsible playboy, not only has to take over his paper, but decides to fight the corruption in the city by taking on the costumed identity of the Green Hornet, with his father's valet, Kato (Jay Chou) by his side. Their main antagonist is a mobster named Chudnosky (Christoph Waltz). An opening scene, in which Danny Crystal Cleer (an uncredited James Franco) has a confrontation with Chudnofsky and makes incredible age discriminatory remarks only to discover that the latter is hardly over the hill as he suggests, is the only good scene in the movie; everything after that is downhill. Seth Rogen, completely unattractive and unappealing as Reid, is a former stand-up comic with a few undistinguished projects to his name; The Green Hornet is his vanity project, as he stars, co-authored the dreadful screenplay, and served as executive producer as well. The movie has nothing but contempt for its source material, and thinks it's so much hipper than what came before, but in reality it's just plain bad. Rogen and his associates certainly should have realized that the campy Batman sitcom approach of the sixties is passe, and that nowadays super-hero movies are generally played straight. This is even worse than the 2008 Spirit. It is also much worse than The Green Hornet TV show [which was played straight] and has none of the entertainment value of the two Green Hornet cliffhanger serials. Aside from the scene described above, there is not one single memorable moment or element to this movie, which is simply tedious; Rogen is irritating and awful in the title role.Director Gondry betrays absolutely no flair with action sequences. Dreadful.

Verdict: The good news is that there will never be another Green Hornet film from the folks who made this one; the bad news is that there will likely never be another Green Hornet movie. Half a star.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

THE WRONG BOX

Peter Sellers as Dr. Pratt
THE WRONG BOX (1966). Director: Bryan Forbes.

"My father was a missionary. He was eaten by his bible class." 

In this highly amusing black comedy, two elderly brothers are all that remain of a bunch of boys who were involved with a financial "tontine:" the surviving member of the group will receive all the money and the interest accrued. The film begins with a scene of these young boys, who seem to have no idea of what it's all about, gathered in a room with their guardians and being told about the tontine. Next follows a sequence showing how these now-grown boys meet their often untimely demises in generally comic and unusual ways. The main story follows the misadventures of Masterman Finsbury (John Mills), who has been in bed dying for decades, and his hated brother Joseph (Sir Ralph Richardson) -- a "boring pedantic old poop" -- as Masterman tries to murder Joseph [in a very funny sequence] and their assorted relatives conspire against each other or wonder what the hell is going on. Michael Caine is Masterman's nephew, and Dudley Moore and Peter Cook are the nephews of Joseph, with Nanette Newman playing Joseph's adopted daughter, who adores Caine and vice versa. There's a mix up with a dead body on a train and a corpse in a box, and while after a bit you may not quite follow everything going on, there are plenty of laughs in both the dialogue and performances. While his part is relatively small, Peter Sellers almost steals the picture in his hilarious, brilliant turn as drunken felonious old quack Dr. Pratt. The entire cast is marvelous, including Wilfrid Lawson, who died that year at sixty-six, as the butler Peacock. [Lawson plays a much older character and is very convincing]. The climax goes on too long, but this is a clever and very funny movie with a top-notch cast. Mills so loses himself in his character that you might not realize that it's him. And Sellers! Sublime!

Verdict: All this and Sellers, too! ***.

THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN

THE GREEN HORNET STRIKES AGAIN (15 chapter Universal serial/1940). Directors: Ford Beebe; John Rawlins.

This sequel to the first Green Hornet cliffhanger uses the same directors, most of the original cast, but has a new Hornet: Britt Reid and his masked alter ego the Hornet are now played by Warren Hull of Mandrake the Magician. Gordon Jones of the first serial might have had the slight edge, but Hull isn't bad. He also tries to affect a different voice when he tries to speak as the Hornet, but is less effective at it than Jones. The Green Hornet Strikes Again is as episodic as its predecessor, but it's also a more entertaining serial. Anne Nagel is back as "Casey," Reid's secretary, as are Wade Boteler as reporter Michael Axford [who always calls our hero the "Hahnet"] and Keye Luke as Kato. Eddie Acuff plays a new character, a reporter named Lowery. Although the Hornet doesn't know his identity until the very end, the audience is clued in to the fact that the head of the syndicate that has its fingers in many illegal pies -- the building business, oil wells, steel mills, heiresses subject to extortion -- is Boss Crogan (Pierre Watkin, who is effective if comparatively colorless). Roy Barcroft, Nestor Paiva, and possibly Grant Williams are also in the cast in small roles. There are exciting cliffhangers involving a moving bridge, the Hornet's plane being shot down, and a great bit with the Hornet and a hood plunging through the top floor when a building collapses. There's a very effective warehouse fire, as well as a lively fight when some hoodlums attack trucks distributing Reid's paper, the Sentinel. One chapter deals with a steel mill that is secretly making bombs for a foreign government. Jay Michael offers a notable turn as a sneering construction racketeer in chapter 14. The classical music on the soundtrack is sometimes disconcerting. This is definitely one of the better Universal serials.

Verdict: This one has a little more sting. ***.

MANHATTAN TOWER

Mary Brian in a pensive moment
MANHATTAN TOWER (1932). Director: Frank R. Strayer.

Inside the high stories of the Manhattan Tower the lives of several people begin to intersect. Mary (Mary Brian) and her boyfriend Jimmy (James Hall) are saving up to get married and buy a home in Kew Gardens. Mary is secretary to the lecherous and all around unpleasant Kenneth Burns (Clay Clement), whose wife, Ann (Irene Rich), has finally had enough and wants her freedom to marry lawyer David Witman (Hale Hamilton) -- whose office is also in the Tower. Whitman has a dizzy secretary who unwittingly causes a run on the bank in the building because of something she overhears. Then there's Marge (Noel Francis), another rather sluttish secretary who is not unwelcoming of Burns' oily advances. Mary asks Burns to invest some money for her, which does not sit well with Jimmy. It all culminates in a horrifying confrontation in Burns' office. The film is well-directed and edited and has an interesting cinematic technique in that the camera turns into film strips that go higher or lower depending on which floor the next scene occurs. There's a morally ambiguous ending in which one brash character pretty much gets away with causing another's death. While the victim may not have been an especially nice person, even he didn't deserve the awful fate he endures [and the other characters are much too blase about it all]. The only familiar faces in this are Wade Boteler as Jimmy's boss and Walter Brennan in a small role as Jimmy's stuttering co-worker. [Ironically, Brennan went on to fame while the others were all forgotten.] The film is full of more than competent actors who never achieved any kind of lasting fame. Mary Brian, who started in silents, had quite a few credits both before and after this film. Hall also started in silents; this was his last film credit and he died 8 years later at age 39.

Verdict: Entertaining trifle with some good actors and interesting developments. **1/2.


FULL SERVICE: MY ADVENTURES IN HOLLYWOOD AND THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF THE STARS

FULL SERVICE: MY ADVENTURES IN HOLLYWOOD AND THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF THE STARS. Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg. Grove Press; 2012.

Every sophisticated person knows that many of the big Hollywood stars were privately gay, just as they know that there are many people living "straight" lives with spouses and children who secretly like their own sex. Therefore, there isn't much that's really new in this memoir by a man who claims to have been a procurer for the stars, as well as a male whore. The book has a tone of dishonesty from the first, as Bowers -- although he admits bedding hundreds of guys [and not always for money] -- claims that he isn't gay [he doesn't label himself bisexual either, although no one would believe he's straight!] but prefers women. Surrrre. Despite a welcome veneer of healthy [and some unhealthy] modern attitudes towards sex in the book, Bowers' sensibility is still old-fashioned and pre-Stonewall, as he spends most of his time in the company of gay men but sets himself above and apart from them while giving lip service to gay rights. He seems to have no problem with being molested more than once when he was as young as nine (and no problem with the molesters as well)! While no doubt much of the stuff he writes about is true, there is also the taint of exaggeration and outright fabrication: Bowers writes as if he was a close personal friend of all of these people he tricked with and arranged bed partners for [without being paid!?] and delivers suspect or rehashed anecdotes -- as if a prostitute would ever have been part of a true Hollywood inner circle regardless of some pillow talk. Yeah, he could have seen and overheard things, but you have to wonder if he personally witnessed or experienced everything he says. The book is sloppily written as well, with Bowers claiming someone is bisexual on one page and then gay on the next, but then Bowers at 88 doesn't seem to know which he is, either. One chapter goes into the female loves of his life, and he has a wife, but no photos of the women or that many details about them are included as compared to the many men in his life. Why write a tell-all book like this and stay more or less in the closet? Which makes it even more fantastic that the book has gotten endorsements from the likes of Gore Vidal and respected gay biography William Mann -- did these guys even read the book? [And did Mann actually use Bowers as a source for some of his books?] For all of the sex mentioned [if not detailed with any particular erotic writing skill], Full Service doesn't hold the attention. I'm all for books that honestly go into gay life in old and new Hollywood, but this book will probably do little to convince people that behind the closet door there was far more gay activity -- in Hollywood and everywhere else -- than anyone suspected.

Verdict: Mostly an un-erotic, superficial and suspect bore written by a self-deluding "old queen." *1/2.

SWING HOSTESS

SWING HOSTESS (1944). Director: Sam Newfield.

"With your repertoire -- and my repartee -- how can we miss?"

Judy (Martha Tilton) is one of several show biz hopefuls living in a boarding house. She goes to audition for bandleader Benny Jackson (Charles Collins) but because of a mix-up her nice voice is pronounced "terrible." Her vocalizing was actually confused with that of the tone-deaf Phoebe (Betty Brodel), who winds up getting a recording contract from fat old fool Fralick (Harry Holman) -- who releases a record with Judy's voice and Phoebe's name on it. Before long everything is straightened out and uppity, lantern-jawed Phoebe is put in her place. There are a couple of amusing moments, but the songs are pretty bad and this PRC release doesn't make much of an impression. Neither does Tilton -- although brassy, vulgar Iris Adrian appears now and then to wake everyone up. A cute idea is wasted. Newfield, AKA Sherman Scott, also directed Lost Continent and many, many others.

Verdict: With that repertoire and repartee, this one easily misses. **.

DANTE

Alan Mowbray and  Howard Duff
DANTE (1960). Created by Blake Edwards.

"You might even find that honesty's fun!"

This TV show with an interesting premise lasted just one season. Willie Dante (Howard Duff) is a gambler who has spent some time in jail. He is now determined to go straight, and with two former confederates, Stewart (Alan Mowbray) and Biff (Tom D'Andrea), goes into the nightclub business, opening a place called Dante's Inferno. Of course many customers and cops think Dante is up to his old tricks and wonder where he's hiding the roulette wheel. People from his past -- old cronies, old crooks and old girlfriends -- keep popping up at Dante's, and he's usually suspected of being involved in whatever crime -- be it jewel robbery, blackmail or murder -- that has embroiled the people who come to him for help. [Dante is a little reminiscent of another show entitled Mr. Lucky, which debuted the year before.] While the show was well-acted and had some interesting stories, it never quite takes off, and that's probably due to star Duff. Duff is actually quite good as Willie Dante, suitably gruff and tough as the man probably would be, but even when he's romancing the ladies Duff lacks charm and that all-important likability, which might have kept more people tuning in each week. [I mean, I've never heard anyone say they were a Howard Duff fan or "loved" Howard Duff.] Mowbray and D'Andrea are fine as, respectively, the maitre'd and bartender, as is Bert Frees as Sgt. Rickard.

Among the better episodes: "One for the Birds" involving blackmail is an excellent and suspenseful story; "Dial D for Dante" has the restaurateur with a $50,000 price on his head; everyone thinks Dante knows the location of some stolen loot in "Dante Rides Again" (with a sterling guest-starring performance from Nita Talbot); Charles MacGraw is excellent as a cop who thinks Dante is responsible for his brother's death in "Hunter with a Badge;" someone else goes gunning for Dante in "Friendly Assassin;" and in "The Sesame Key" the cops think a series of cat burglaries are somehow tied to Dante's Inferno. This episode guest-stars both Joan Marshall (AKA Jean Arless of Homicidal fame) and Nora Hayden of The Angry Red Planet; both are quite good. Other notable guest-stars include Allison Hayes, Carol Ohmart, Mary Jane Croft, Patricia Medina, William Hudson, Andrea King, Ed Platt, Ruta Lee, Dick Foran, and an especially good Marion Ross. Most of the teleplays were written or co-written by Harold Jack Bloom.  

Verdict: An entertaining show that just misses being special. **1/2.

ULTIMATE AVENGERS 2 RISE OF THE BLACK PANTHER


ULTIMATE AVENGERS 2: RISE OF THE BLACK PANTHER (2006/Made for Video). Director: Will Meugniot and others.

Years before the big-screen live-action Avengers movie, there were full-length cartoons featuring the same characters. Ultimate Avengers -- a variation on The Avengers in the "Ultimate" universe [also published by Marvel Comics] -- was followed by this sequel in which the super-hero team travels to Wakanda, home of the heroic Black Panther, to deal with the same aliens who bedeviled them in the first animated movie. Captain America, Giant Man, the Black Widow, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, the Scarlet Witch and the Wasp all appear to battle a variety of techno-monsters. While the foes aren't the most riveting, the artwork is attractive [the animation itself is good if unspectacular] and there are some exciting sequences. Olivia d'Abo does the voice of the Black Widow; otherwise there are no real names in the cast. These super-hero characters have been around since the early 1960's; Captain America first appeared in comics in the forties.

Verdict: For the inner super-hero in you. ***.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

JOURNEY TO ITALY / VOYAGE TO ITALY

Odd pairing: George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman
JOURNEY TO ITALY (aka Viaggio in Italia/1954). Director: Roberto Rossellini.

"I've never seen noise and boredom go so well together." 

Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband Alex (George Sanders) travel to Italy to look at a house she has inherited from a late uncle. This house is in the shadow of Vesuvius, and the same can be said of the Joyce's marriage. As he joins friends in Capri, and she tours Naples, both dwell on the utter barrenness of their lives together. [It's hard to understand why she ever married such a cold fish in the first place.] Once you get past the bizarre sight of such different actors as Bergman and Sanders in the same movie -- both are excellent, however, and play quite well together -- what you're left with is a fair-to-middling travelogue and decidedly minor marital drama. It's like Rossellini cobbled this together to show off his lover Bergman as well as some historic points of Italy. The best scene has the couple in Pompeii where they are excavating the remains of a man and woman who died in the eruption. Moved by the awful fate of the ancient couple, as well as the fate of her marriage, Katherine bursts into tears and runs off. This is a lovely scene, but unfortunately the rest of the movie doesn't measure up. [There is also a nice scene when she remembers a poet who cared for her and who died]. One doesn't expect yowling soap opera, but something perhaps with more of a story, better-developed characters, some dramatic tension. Some may appreciate the understated tone, while others will find this worth only a shrug. Very nice musical score [from various sources] and a good supporting cast.The ending is completely unconvincing, and the film as a whole is superficial, although many consider it quite influential.

Verdict: With a stronger script and better-developed plot this could have been a contender. **.

I COULD GO ON SINGING

Garland sings with the school boys
I COULD GO ON SINGING (1963). Director: Ronald Neame.

"I've held on to every bit of rubbish in life, and thrown all the good bits away."

"Alone. It's an awful word. And I know what it means."

Jenny Bowman (Judy Garland) had a child with lover David Donne (Dirk Bogarde) years before, but wouldn't give up her singing career to marry him or care for their child. Now she's a big success doing a tour in London, Donne is also a successful doctor, and their son is a charming young lad, Matt (Gregory Phillips) in boarding school. Once she meets Matt, Jenny realizes she wants the boy to be part of her life on a permanent basis, but is that the best thing for the boy and is it possible for David to forget -- and forgive -- the past? Garland's final film is clearly fashioned for her talents -- at times you get the distinct impression she's only playing a variation of herself (although playing it well) --  and she comes through with flying colors, and Bogarde is also excellent; the two play marvelously together. They get fine support from Phillips as the boy and Jack Klugman as Jenny's manager. One could quibble that this is primarily a showcase for Garland's singing talents, and that the characters and storyline could use a lot more fleshing out, but the film boasts beautiful widescreen photography and handsome production values to go with the first-rate performances. As for Garland's singing, this film probably illustrates why her fans found her legendary even when she was near the end of her life. Her performances of the title tune, "All By Myself," and especially "It Never Was You" and "Hello, Bluebird, Hello" make it clear that the gal was one hell of a gifted singer with strong interpretive skills to say the least. A very charming scene has Garland at the piano singing along with the British schoolboys, including her son, who have just given a performance of "H.M.S. Pinafore." Some of Garland's dialogue sounds like snippets from her own life.  This film presents the Garland mystique far better than End of the Rainbow. This was Garland's last movie.

Verdict: A fitting filmic swan song for Judy Garland. ***.  


CARNIVAL STORY

Anne Baxter and George Nader
CARNIVAL STORY (1954). Director: Kurt Neumann.

"If you were starving to death, howling for food, I wouldn't throw you a rotten bone."

In this arresting and amusing melodrama, a female pickpocket named "Willie" (Anne Baxter) joins up with an American circus traveling in Germany. She falls hard for her first benefactor, Joe Hammond (Steve Cochran), but winds up doing a high-diving act with Frank Collini (Lyle Bettger). The third man in her life is photographer Bill Vines (George Nader), not to mention the circus owner Charley (Jay C. Flippen) and the mute strong man Groppo (Adi Berber). While hardly a filmic masterpiece, Carnival Story is very entertaining and Baxter gives a riveting performance, be it great acting or not. The supporting cast is also quite good, and there's a nice, evocative score by Willy Schmidt Gentner. Part Italian opera, part E.C. horror story, part masochistic romance, the movie is a lot of fun. Neumann also directed Kronos and Mohawk.

Verdict: Anne chews up the scenery, the dialogue, and everything else -- good for her! ***.

AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS

AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973). Director: Roy Ward Baker.

Charles Fengriffen (Ian Ogilvy) brings his bride Catherine (Stephanie Beacham) to his ancestral home and discovers that rumors of a curse upon the family are quite true. Catherine keeps seeing a severed hand roaming about and encounters a sinister woodsman in a hovel nearby who seems to know more than he's telling. It all goes back to a terrible act performed many years before, but now servants and friends of the Fengriffens are paying the price, not to mention poor Catherine. The performances help put over this so-so horror film, with Beacham in top form, getting fine support from Ogilvy, Peter Cushing as the shrink Dr. Pope, Patrick Magee as the family physician, and Geoffrey Whitehead as Silas, the Woodsman and his ill-fated ancestor. Herbert Lom also appears and is as striking as usual as Charles' ancestor, Henry, whose evil actions began the curse.

Verdict: You may not scream through this but it holds the attention. **1/2.

WALK THE DARK STREET

Chuck Connors and Don Ross
WALK THE DARK STREET (1956). Written, directed and produced by Wyatt Ordung.

Two years after directing and appearing in The Monster from the Ocean Floor, Wyatt Ordung came out with this melodrama with a good performance from lead Chuck Connors. Connors plays Frank Garrick, whose brother Tommy (Eddie Kafafian) is killed in the war, but not before sending Frank a letter in which he says that if he dies it will be the fault of his lieutenant, Dan Lawton (Don Ross). Frank doesn't realize that Tommy was jealous of Lawton because the latter got the promotion he felt he, Tommy, deserved. Garrick decides to play a cat and mouse game with Lawton, telling him he'll give him $10,000 if he can tag him in a competition where the men will use so-called "photo guns" instead of the real things, and shoot each other with film instead of bullets. Fat chance. What happens after that is fairly predictable. Ordung's direction is self-conscious, and the downbeat, moody musical score is a little off-putting. Vonne Godfrey and Regina Gleason are two ladies involved in the storyline. Talented tenor Fred Darien/Darian appears in a nightclub sequence. Don Ross later amassed many credits, especially on television, as did Gleason; this was Godfrey's only credit.

Verdict: Despite interesting things and some good performances, the movie isn't memorable. **.

DR. CHRISTIAN MEETS THE WOMEN

Maude Ebern, Jean Herscholt and nurse
















DR. CHRISTIAN MEETS THE WOMEN (1940). Director: William C. McGann.

You might hope for something provocative with that title, but no such luck. Dr. Christian (Jean Herscholt) is a middle-aged-going-on-elderly physician in a small town who is alarmed when a type of nutritionist, Professor Parker (Rod La Rocque) moves in and claims he can help every woman lose twenty-five pounds in two weeks. Before long all the town porkers are signing up in hopes of looking as good as the professor's shapely nurse, Carol (the ever-hard Veda Ann Borg). Meanwhile Kitty Browning (Marilyn or Lynn Merrick) has fallen hard for the professor's front man, Bill (Frank Albertson), and her dieting is making her weak and seriously ill. And the fat ladies turn on the well-meaning Christian like ungrateful vipers. This comedy-drama is like a sitcom in the days before sitcoms, with the dramatic moments lacking authority and the comedic bits lacking real laughs. Even Maude Ebern as Christian's peppery housekeeper can't do much to make this entertaining. Hersholt appeared in a few of these Dr. Christian movies in the forties before doing the inevitable TV series, Dr. Christian, in 1956. [Think I'll give that a pass.] La Rocque played The Shadow in The Shadow Strikes

Verdict: Leave Dr. Christian to his women. *1/2.

TERRY AND THE PIRATES TV

TERRY AND THE PIRATES TV show. 1952.

This fair-to-middling television show based on Milton Caniff's famous comic strip only lasted for 16 episodes. John Baer is perfect in both good looks and demeanor for Terry Lee, while William Tracy, in an atrocious rug, is also good as his partner, "Hotshot" Charlie. The two fly planes to and from Hong Kong for a shady character named Chopstick Joe (Jack Reitzen). The Dragon Lady, played to perfection by the sexy Gloria Saunders, appeared in almost all of the episodes, and was usually up to some hijinks. Burma (first Mari Blanchard, and then Sandra Spence) appeared with less frequency. The show wasn't terribly riveting -- although cute, appealing Baer and super-slinky Saunders must have had their fans -- but there were a few decent episodes. Pamela Duncan (Attack of the Crab Monsters) appears in "Black Market for Death," in which Terry assumes that the Dragon Lady is behind the theft of an important serum; this one has a good twist at the end. In "Extra Cargo" the boys foil the D L's plot to assassinate a maharajah with a bomb on a plane [Burma is in this episode as well]. The corpse of a wealthy man is held for ransom in "Chinese Coffin" and a boy prince (little Stephen Wong) is kidnapped in "Little Mandarin." "Tea Hee" has an old lady buying a special blend of tea from the Dragon Lady which has valuable jewels hidden inside. Series guest-stars include Tristram Coffin, Lyle Talbot, Phyllis Coates and Victor Sen Yung. Baer also appeared in Night of the Blood Beast. 12 years earlier William Tracy actually played a younger Terry Lee in the Terry and the Pirates serial.

Verdict: Attractive leads certainly don't hurt. **1/2.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)

Joan Collins and a nasty Santa
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972). Director: Freddie Francis.

Long before the HBO series, there was this anthology film from Amicus that adapted several stories from the old 1950's E.C. horror comics, including Tales from the Crypt. Several people wind up in a mysterious crypt presided over by no less than a be-cloaked Sir Ralph Richardson, the crypt keeper [nothing like the cackling puppet on the TV series]. He tells them of their future fates, the inference being that they can avoid them if they change their ways. Joan Collins murders her husband and has to deal with a homicidal Santa in "And All Through the House." [The adaptation on the later series is superior to the version in this film.] Peter Cushing gets "Poetic Justice" after being bedeviled by neighbors. In "Reflection of Death" an unfaithful husband (Ian Hendry) survives a car wreck -- or at least thinks he does. "Wish You Were Here," a variation on "The Monkey's Paw," has a woman wishing for her husband to come back to life after he dies in a car wreck, but discovers that it's all in the phrasing. In "Blind Alleys" the residents of a home for the blind who are outrageously mistreated get a grisly revenge on the head of the institution. The movie is fun, well-acted, but has absolutely no style. Followed by The Vault of Horror.

Verdict: Some intriguing ideas get so-so treatment. **1/2.


PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW

Rock Hudson with co-eds
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971). Director: Roger Vadim.

In a California high school, a horny 17-year-old named Ponce (John David Carson), student manager for the football team, finds the body of a pretty female student in a bathroom. The football coach, and assistant principal "Tiger" McDrew (Rock Hudson), although married, is sleeping with many of the high school girls, and even encourages the new teacher Betty Smith (Angie Dickinson) to make nice with the virginal, always excited Ponce -- the two begin an affair. Soon there are more murders, with Capt Surcher (Telly Savalas) leading the investigation. Roddy McDowall is the principal, weird Susan Tolsky is his secretary, Keenan Wynn is the police chief, and William Campbell (Dementia 13) is another cop. Not being a far-out black comedy or farce, Pretty Maids is just one of those strange, bad movies that seems to exist only in its own unreal universe. There is absolutely no suspense, and the identity of the killer certainly comes as no surprise. Hudson, Dickinson and Carson all give good enough performances, but the movie is superficial and uninspired and not even especially entertaining. Director Vadim could have directed this in his sleep. Carson also appeared in Empire of the Ants.

Verdict: Even a "mad slasher" movie is more fun than this! *1/2.

THE VAULT OF HORROR

Glynis Johns and Terry-Thomas
THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973). Director: Roy Ward Baker.

After the success of their Tales from the Crypt, Amicus decided to release this follow-up featuring more adaptations of 1950's E.C. horror comic stories. The framing device has five men entering an elevator and winding up down in a sub-basement lounge, where they tell each other of horrible dreams -- or prophecies -- that they've had. Rogers (Daniel Massey), who is looking for his sister (played by real-life sister Anna Massey) for nefarious purposes, uncovers a nest of vampires in a small town in "Midnight Mess." Glynis Johns [Personal Affair] has had more than she can stand of her neat freak, belittling husband (Terry-Thomas) and takes action in "A Neat Job," from the gruesomely amusing story from the first issue of ShockSuspense Stories. "This Trick'll Kill You" features Curt Jurgens [The Mephisto Waltz] and Dawn Addams [The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll] as a team of magicians who even resort to murder to steal tricks away from Indian fakirs, with back-firing results. Michael Craig [Doctor in Love] and Edward Judd [First Men in the Moon] make a "Bargain in Death," an insurance scam in which one of them pretends to be dead -- but of course there are horrible complications. "Drawn and Quartered" features an artist (Tom Baker) who uses voodoo and paintings depicting scenes that come true to get even with several people who cheated him out of his rightful acclaim and fortune. Superior to Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror is very entertaining, creepy and, at times, delightfully ghoulish.

Verdict: Good anthology horror film. ***.

HIGH SCHOOL CEASAR

HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR (1960). Director: O'Dale Ireland.

Spoiled and neglected rich boy Matt Stevens (John Ashley) steals the election from Kelly Roberts (Lowell Brown) and becomes the new president of the student body. Meanwhile he's selling papers for cash and beating up students who owe him money. He has his eye on new student Wanda (Judy Nugent) even though he promises her to his buddy "Cricket" (Steve Stevens), none of which fools his girlfriend Lita (Daria Massey) nor impresses Wanda, who only has eyes for Bob (Gary Vinson). Matt has bigger problems when he's driven to murder. Ashley swaggers through the movie with more than a little aplomb and the pic holds the attention. The cast is both attractive and competent. Brown was also in The Day Mars Invaded Earth while Ashley starred in the immortal classic Frankenstein's Daughter. Ireland directed two other similar movies and nothing else.

Verdict: Unconvincing if fast-paced teen melodrama. **1/2.

INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU

Alan Arkin as Inspector Clouseau
INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU (1968). Director: Bud Yorkin.

Commissioner Braithwaite (Patrick Cargill) of Scotland Yard is dismayed to learn that the Prime Minister insists he bring in an outsider, Inspector Clouseau, to track down a gang of thieves who have been quite difficult to apprehend. Another problem is that the members of the gang hit upon the idea of wearing face masks that make them look just like Clouseau. Alan Arkin had the unenviable task of stepping into the very large shoes of Peter Sellers, and while he's a talented actor, and arguably a "sexier" Clouseau, he just can't quite make the role his own. Cargill is another talented actor, but he won't make anyone forget Herbert Lom as Clouseau's favorite foil. Barry Foster of Hitchcock's Frenzy is also in the cast, as are Frank Finlay (The Deadly Bees, Twisted Nerve) as a Superintendent and Beryl Reid, amusing as his wife. Delia Boccardo is the pretty undercover cop who assists Clouseau. Inspector Clouseau isn't terrible, there's a lot of talent on screen, but it's the weakest of the films showcasing the weird French policeman. Steve Martin was somewhat more effective as Clouseau, playing it more farcically. It probably doesn't help that this was directed by Bud Yorkin and not Blake Edwards.

Verdict: Stick with Sellers. **1/2.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. THE FINAL AFFAIR DAVID MCDANIEL

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. THE FINAL AFFAIR. David McDaniel.

When The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  was at the height of its popularity, Ace books published many paperback tie-in novels. Some of the best of these were written by David McDaniel. In "The Dagger Affair" McDaniel revealed something the TV show never did: "Thrush" [UNCLE's main antagonists] stood for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity -- sort of like Nazis -- and gave them a fascinating background [Professor Moriarity anyone?] McDaniel wrote this last book detailing how UNCLE finally took care of their world-wide enemies before 1970, but it was never published, as the TV series had long since been cancelled. In The Final Affair it develops that UNCLE has put a special device in Thrush's San Francisco HQ [headed by Ward Baldwin from "Dagger Affair"] that has basically gained them entry into the group's Ultimate Computer, which contains all their knowledge and makes some decisions for them as well. There is a hypnotized double-agent who doesn't know he's really working for UNCLE, and a new deadly Thrush weapon that shoots out destructive fireballs. In a situation that prefigures the TV show Alias, Napoleon Solo's late wife June shows up unexpectedly, and explains why she faked her death [everyone accepts her into UNCLE ranks much too easily]. Solo, Illya, and June lead a strike on Thrush Island to make sure that the group of evildoers can't regroup very quickly, if at all. [It is explained that there will still be a lot of work for UNCLE mopping up and dealing with outbreaks and infighting among various Thrush satraps.] There is a passing of the torch after a major character is killed. In an amusing sequence Illya tells Napoleon to just trust him and hold his hand so they don't stick out in a gay bar [although one can't imagine the sophisticated Solo not realizing what kind of bar he was in!]

Verdict: A fitting close to the UNCLE saga. ***.


WOMAN ON THE RUN

WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950). Director: Norman Foster.

"I'm not a bad guy when you get to know me. A little obnoxious, but pleasant."

Police contact a bitter woman, Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan), when her husband, Frank (Ross Elliott), witnesses a murder in San Francisco and runs off instead of going into protective custody. Eleanor learns that Frank, who is a painter and sculptor, has a heart condition and needs medicine, and tries to track him down with the help of a reporter, Dan Legget (Dennis O'Keefe) and without alerting the cops, who want to find him. As they search for him in various places, Eleanor begins to realize that maybe her husband still loves her, and she him. But Dan has a secret of his own. Well directed and edited, this is an entertaining, fast-paced little "B" film with snappy performances from Sheridan and O'Keefe, and fine support from Robert Keith as Inspector Ferris. One could argue that it's hard to sympathize with Frank, and by extension Eleanor, when the couple refuse to do their civic duty, although their fear is nevertheless understandable. There's a nice climax at an amusement park. A good scene has Eleanor remarking that Ferris and Legget seem to think they know more about her husband than the woman who was married to him for years. Unusual storyline helps put this over and it's rather well-done all told.

Verdict: Highly interesting film noir that just misses being really special, but is still solid. ***.