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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). Writer/director: Orson Welles.

Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane was based on Booth Tarkington's brilliant novel, which was not only a trenchant small-town family drama but a look at the changes wrought in American society after the turn of the century and its effects on several citizens. Welles' film was cut by the studio, stripped down to bare basics, but still emerges as a creditable movie with some fine performances. Tim Holt probably never did anything better than his performance as spoiled young George Minafer, whom the whole town is hoping will eventually get his comeuppance. Eugene (Joseph Cotten) had been in love with George's mother, Isabel (Delores Costello,) but she married another man. Now she is a widow, and Eugene is a widower with a grown daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). A complication is that George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) has always been carrying a torch for Eugene. "Just being an aunt isn't really the great career it may seem to be," she tells George. A bigger complication is that George is vehemently opposed to any romantic union between his mother and Eugene. [George and Fanny have a number of scenes together which Welles almost always films in long takes.] Eugene is also planning on manufacturing motor cars, which upsets the more genteel members of the Minafer family. As the film progresses there are dramatic developments and the fortunes of the Minafers take a turn for the worse, leading to a situation wherein George has to really prove what kind of person he is. The cast, including Ray Collins [Lt. Tragg on Perry Mason] as Uncle Jack, is excellent, although I fear that Agnes Moorehead is perhaps a bit more odd and semi-hysterical than she needed to be as the desperate and lonely Fanny [she received a supporting Oscar nomination, however]. The movie is handsomely produced and looks great [the art direction and Stanley Cortez' cinematography were also nominated].

Verdict: Nearly a masterpiece. ***1/2.

TWO OF A KIND

TWO OF A KIND (1951). Director: Henry Levin.

Brandy Kirby (Lizabeth Scott) hunts down bad boy "Lefty" Farrell (Edmond O'Brien) because she needs him for a certain project, but only if he'll agree to snip off the end of one of his fingers. Seems there's this long-lost missing heir whom Lefty resembles ... There's some minor suspense to Two of a Kind as you wonder if Lefty will get away with his impersonation, or if thieves will fall out and completely shatter their chances. Terry Moore plays a niece of the wealthy old man the conspirators are hoping to fleece, but while her performance is good her character is so improbably naive and stupid that the movie takes a real reality dive when she appears. With his homely mug O'Brien is miscast as a lover boy who supposedly gets all the ladies hot, but he's a good enough actor to get his character across convincingly in spite of it; Scott merely seems disinterested in the material [or in O'Brien] and it's not one of her more memorable performances.

Verdict: Film noir of a minor kind. **1/2.

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur
HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937). Director: Frank Borzage.

Ship builder Bruce Vail (Colin Clive) is pathologically jealous of his innocent wife Irene (Jean Arthur) until finally she's had enough and wants out. Vail will do anything to prevent the divorce, to that end paying Irene's chauffeur in Paris to pose as her lover. Interceding in this phony scenario is head waiter Paul Dumond (Charles Boyer), whose good intentions pave the way for all sorts of problems when Vail decides that he must be Irene's lover and frames him for murder. Believe it or not, it all builds up to a [post] Titanic-type shipwreck. Because of its rather ridiculous plot -- Dumond quits his job to follow Irene to America after knowing her one day, and even drags along the chef Cesare (Leo Carrillo)-- History almost becomes a shipwreck were it not for its romantic intensity and, most importantly, the wonderful performances of the leads. You wouldn't think that Arthur and Boyer would make a good pair, but they play marvelously together and are completely convincing no matter what the story line throws at them -- and it throws a lot. The bit with the ship hitting an iceberg is well-handled on the technical side and the wind-up is moving as well. It's also fun to watch the sharp Boyer taking over an American restaurant and getting everyone to snap to it in record time. Carrillo and especially Clive also offer sterling performances.

Verdict: Quite absurd but also quite entertaining due to the two stars. [It also helps to be an incurable romantic.] ***.

THE GALLOPING GHOST

THE GALLOPING GHOST (12 chapter Mascot serial/1931). Director: [B.] Reeves Eason.

This cliffhanger serial was built around the "talents" of famous football player, Harold "Red" Grange, who sort of plays himself, and that not very well. His off-screen nickname was -- you guessed it -- "Galloping Ghost." Red is a college football player [Grange was 28-years-old but looks in his forties or older] who is framed by crooked gamblers and tossed off the team of Clary University. His buddy, eh, "Buddy" (Francis X. Bushman Jr AKA Ralph Bushman) is secretly married to bad girl Irene (Gwen Lee) when players are supposed to be single, so he's an easy target of blackmail and is later hypnotized so he doesn't even know who he is. Red is eventually accused of murdering another player on the team. Buddy's sister Barbara (Dorothy Gulliver) has a yen for Red. Since we know who the chief bad guy is from the first there's little suspense, but there is a surprise concerning a sinister "cripple" who rather energetically weaves his way through the action and cackles maniacally at the end of each episode. The action is often cranked up like a silent movie. It's interesting that the cliffhanger at the end of the first chapter -- Red lets go of a parachute he's sharing with a gal and manages to land safely on top of another plane -- was later used more or less in more than one James Bond movie. Other good cliffhangers include a bit with a boat that's crushed between moving piers and a car in a garage that crushes downward on top of Red's prone body. This is a busy, not-terrible serial that suffers a bit from a primitive style and some pretty bad acting, although serial fanatics may enjoy it. Theodore Lorch as Dr. Blake and Tom Dugan as a stuttering cabbie are the most memorable members of the cast, and Gwen Lee isn't too bad, either. Lively theme music.

Verdict: Has its moments but mostly for serial completists. **.


PETER GUNN Season 1

Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn
PETER GUNN Season 1. 1958.

"I hear when she wants to look at pictures of her friends, she just drops into the post office." -- Mother

The action of this private eye series, which was created by Blake Edwards, takes place in an unnamed coastal city. The first season consists of 38 half hour black and white episodes. The central location is a waterfront night club called Mother's [after the owner, "Mother," played by hefty Hope Emerson], which Gunn uses as an office, despite the fact that he is highly successful at his trade -- judging from the way he throws fifty dollar bills around to various sources on virtually every episode. Gunn (Craig Stevens) is not a comparative "lout" like Mike Hammer, but is cut from the same urban cloth as Richard Diamond, albeit west coast style. The other regulars on the show, besides Emerson, are Herschel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby, who practically seems like Gunn's unofficial partner [stretching credulity], and Lola Albright as his girlfriend and a singer at Mother's. [Although Albright is very pretty and a competent actress, and has a pleasant singing voice, as a vocalist she is hopelessly bland, singing every song with the same inflection and lack of panache.] Albright's character, Edie, seems a bit childish at times, when she gets jealous over practically every female client of Gunn's. Although no one could ever accuse Stevens of being a "great" actor, he's fine as the "cool" [i.e. rather unemotional] Gunn [or is Gunn unemotional because he's played by Stevens?], but when he's given a chance to show some versatility, such as an episode in which he pretends to be a naive country boy, he delivers the goods.  Bernardi is quite good as the cop; other semi-regulars include Billy Barty as stool pigeon Babby, and Morris D. Erby, who shows up late in the season as the likable and highly positive black police officer Sgt. Davis. Like most fifties detective programs, Peter Gunn could be fairly violent at times, and there are some wonderful fist fights and well-choreographed action sequences.  

While Peter Gunn is not quite as good as the aforementioned Mike Hammer, most of the episodes are at least of a "B" quality and some much better. Among the more memorable episodes are "The Frog," in which an old lady (Jean Inness) wants revenge for the killing of her friend and companion (Whit Bissell scores as a mobster); "Death House Testament," in which an inmate tells Gunn about some money; the borderline homoerotic "The Jockey," with an excellent Frankie Darro and Robert Gist; "The Lederer Story" involving skulduggery on a yacht with a family headed by a notable Otto Waldis [who was in everything from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman to Judgment at Nuremberg]. An especially delectable Mara Corday is featured in "Keep Smiling;" "Skin Deep" involves a missing sister and a gigolo; "Family Affair" features a death plot against a wealthy old man (John Hoyt); "Killer from Nowhere" spotlights Wesley Lau from Perry Mason; and "The Painting" concerns a plot to "embarrass" a senator via his philandering and desperate wife. The three best first-season episodes, arguably, are ""Pay Now, Kill Later," with Torin Thatcher as a man wrongly convicted of the murder of a business partner who's actually still alive; "Vendetta," in which Edie is shot by a man bent on vengeance against Gunn; and especially "Love Me to Death," a twisted tale with Jeannette Dolan as a wealthy spinster and Robert H. Harris as a fortune hunter. Directors for the series include Boris Sagal [Mike Hammer], Lamont Johnson, the aforementioned Robert Gist, and even Jack Arnold [Tarantula].

And then there's that sensational, sexy theme music by Henry Mancini, which seems to be fondly remembered by people who can barely remember the show or have never even seen it!

Verdict: Okay, maybe not a great show like Perry Mason, but often very entertaining and well-done. ***.

THE UNHOLY FOUR

William Sylvester  and Paulette Goddard
THE UNHOLY FOUR (1954). Director: Terence Fisher.

"I don't like people very much -- not even the people I like."

Philip Vickers (William Sylvester), who has been missing for four years, shows up unexpectedly at a party being thrown by his wife, Angie (Paulette Goddard). Philip claims that years ago in Portugal a blow on his head from one of his alleged friends, possibly working at his wife's request, gave him amnesia, and now he is back to discover who it was who tried to kill him: Harry (David King-Wood), Job (Patrick Holt), or Bill (Paul Carpenter)? Also in the household is Angie's friend Jennie (Kay Callard), who feels Philip is up to no good and possibly out to harm his wife. When one of the aforementioned suspects is murdered, Inspector Treherne (Russell Napier) is called in, and soon everyone is sniping at everyone else and accusing each other of assorted malfeasances. While Terence Fischer's direction is solid, the talky screenplay is the problem with this half-baked melodrama, in which the characters, none of whom are likable or even that interesting, are one-dimensional, and the plot confusing. This was Goddard's last movie but one -- she also did several TV assignments in her later years --   and even at 44 she looks a bit haggard. Her performance is okay although, like Fisher, she isn't given very much to work with. Cast against type as an arch, suave, borderline villain, Sylvester at least gets an A for effort. Russell Napier is the British version of Lloyd Nolan. The supporting cast is good, with particularly good work from Carpenter and Callard. Leonard Salzedo's score does a lot of the work to keep this even mildly interesting. Another Hammer studio mystery released in the US by Lippert.

Verdict: One you can easily miss. **.

ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY SEASON 1

A malevolent doll from the 5th episode
















ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY Season 1. 1968.

After the telefilm proved a success, Rod Serling was given the go to turn Night Gallery into a weekly series, but apparently the network wasn't confident enough to order too many episodes, so the first season is pretty short [It was rotated with two other series on Wednesday night]. The series features macabre stories in the genres of horror, fantasy, suspense, and science fiction. Each of the six episodes features two or more stories. First, the good: "The Dead Man" is a Poe-esque tale about a young fellow whose body can instantly develop any illness or condition, including death. The trouble is that he has a yen for his doctor's wife...  Carl Betz, Jeff Corey and Lousie Sorel give very good performances in this. "Make Me Laugh" is an amusing black comedy about a mediocre stand up comic who only wants to make people laugh, to his ultimate regret; Godfrey Cambridge is excellent as the comic. "Clean Kills and Other Trophies" features an outstanding performance by Raymond Massey as a truly hateful, racist hunter who goads his more sensitive son (Barry Brown) into hunting deer with him. The wind-up is predictable but satisfying. "Paula's Voice," about a man haunted by his dead wife's shrill voice, is really just a quick gag of an idea, but Phyllis Diller proves surprisingly wonderful as the awful, nagging spouse.

Other segments are well-acted but merely mediocre or worse, stories about sinister dolls (with a fine John Williams performance), a Titanic survivor who is a flying Dutchman (an outstanding John Colicos), and a doctor's black bag from the future, among others [There are no black bags today let alone in the future!]. "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," which boasts a fine performance by William Windom (and great support from Diane Baker, Burt Convy and John Randolph), is meant to be a poignant study of a man's mid-life crisis, but some of his actions make him unsympathetic and the whole thing just doesn't work. And what to make of "The Nature of the Enemy" in which a lunar expedition is attacked by -- get this! -- giant white mice. There's no point wondering how the mice can breath on the airless moon, as the story, while played straight, is another quick gag [the moon is made of green cheese, remember?] but it certainly is a tale that's not worth the time it takes to present it, as well as one of Serling's all-time most disappointing scripts.

This truncated season was followed by two more full seasons.

Verdict: Truly a mixed bag. **1/2.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED
















VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED (1976). Director: Stuart Rosenberg.

In 1939 Nazi Germany allowed about one thousand Jews to depart the country on a ship bound for Cuba, the SS St. Louis. This alleged "humanitarian" gesture was strictly a propaganda act, a smokescreen, as one character puts it, as it was never intended for the passengers to disembark in Cuba or anywhere else. Turned away by several nations, including, shamefully, the U.S., some of the passengers wold prefer death or mutiny to returning to Hamburg and certain execution in concentration camps. You would imagine that a movie on this subject would be very powerful -- and you can't help but be moved by the passengers' plight and the horrendous persecution and emotional devastation they were undergoing -- but Voyage of the Damned, unfortunately, plays like a lesser Movie of the Week with an almost-all-star, international, Movie of the Week-type cast [with some exceptions], "acting" up a storm at times but nonetheless seeming once-removed throughout it all -- in other words, the acting and direction are fairly perfunctory. Sequences that should have had great impact are pretty much frittered away by Rosenberg, and the movie is about 45 minutes too long, slack and lacking in needed tension. I mean, when you consider the situation these people were in! Some of the lesser known actors, such as Victor Spinetti as Dr. Strauss, who works in Cuba and desperately wants to get his small children off the ship, are more effective than the bigger names, although James Mason and Nehemiah Persoff are solid as usual. Sadly, Voyage of the Damned is blah when it should have been a masterpiece.The very large cast includes everyone from Lee Grant, Faye Dunaway and Ben Gazzara to Max von Sydow [as the captain], Wendy Hiller, Malcolm McDowell and even Orson Welles. Although they all have their moments, these could not be considered one of the better performances of any of them.

Verdict: Watch Judgment at Nuremberg instead. **1/2.

THE WICKER MAN

Christopher Lee














THE WICKER MAN (1973). Director: Robin Hardy. Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer.

"You'll simply never understand the nature of sacrifice."

Sergeant Hardy (Edward Woodward) travels to a Scottish village on a remote island in answer to a letter claiming that a woman's young daughter has disappeared. The townspeople, including the woman who allegedly wrote the letter, claim that no one is missing and they never heard of the little girl in question. Seeing the free-spirited natures of the pagan villagers and their unashamed attitudes towards sexuality brings out the prig in the Catholic police officer, who is outraged by the licentiousness and confused by the weird rituals he sees all around him. On the other hand, Hardy is truly concerned with the welfare of the child he is searching for. Which makes his ultimate fate all the more troubling ... The Wicker Man, although conventional enough in its thinking at its core [substituting Paganists for Satanists], is an unusual horror suspense film. At times it plays like a weird musical with the villagers breaking out in song at the drop of a hat -- these sequences don't really work and were wisely cut in some versions -- and a scene with a naked Britt Ekland dancing and singing around her bedroom seems like nothing so much as a rock video [she even sings into the camera like a rock star!]. Ekland is the nubile daughter of the tavern keeper; Ingrid Pitt is a librarian; Diane Cilento is a teacher; and Christopher Lee is Lord Summerisle, leader of the Pagan cult. In general the cast is very good and Edward Woodward gives the performance of a lifetime. The version on the DVD is still not complete, as a documentary on the movie shows clips from scenes that are not included and were supposedly "lost." It's too bad that some fairly serious directorial missteps prevent this from being a true classic, although it certainly has many admirers, and once you get past the foolish moments it's actually quite good, with a chilling wind-up. Remade in 2006 with Nicolas Cage in the Woodward role.

Verdict: You just can't trust those Pagans -- and Edward Woodward's finest hour and a half. ***.

BAD BLONDE

The two beautiful blonds of "Bad Blonde"
BAD BLONDE (aka The Flanagan Boy/1953). Director: Reginald Le Borg.

Handsome amateur boxer Johnny Flanagan (Tony Wright) gets a shot at the big time when he's taken under the wing of promoter Giuseppe Vecchi (Frederick Valk). Unfortunately, Johnny is greatly disturbed by the presence of Vecchi's sexy and much younger wife, Lorna (Barbara Payton of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye), and after initial animosity she can't help but notice the hunky boxer. This leads to expected complications, none of which are especially entertaining. This is the kind of old-fashioned, even sexist movie where the deplorable actions of a "nice guy" are blamed exclusively on the influence of an "evil" woman [attitudes which are still prevalent in some quarters even today]. Although Payton was better known for the scandals she got embroiled in than for her movies, she was not a bad actress and is fine in this, although not given a very dimensional role to play. Wright's inexperience is obvious, but he has his moments as well and Valk is good as the cuckolded Italian. Movies like this should at least be fun to watch but this is just tedious, and even the sexy leads can't save it. Le Borg, whose direction on this is quite stodgy,  also directed Voodoo Island and many other B movies. This was another Hammer studio crime drama released in the U.S. by Lippert.

Verdict: A far cry from The Postman Always Ring Twice. *

OUTRAGEOUS CONDUCT: ART, EGO AND THE TWILIGHT ZONE CASE

OUTRAGEOUS CONDUCT: ART, EGO AND THE TWILIGHT ZONE CASE. Stephen Farber and Marc Green. Arbor House/Morrow; 1988.

Hard to believe that it's been over thirty years since the awful tragedy on the set of Twilight Zone -- The Movie and since director John Landis decided to circumvent child labor laws and bring two children, Renee Chen and Myca Le [along with actor Vic Morrow, who was desperate for a mid-life career break], onto a set late at night in close proximity to a low-flying helicopter and explosives, with the result that all three died horrible deaths. Landis and his cohorts [five men were put on trial while others who were clearly culpable in some way, such as producer Frank Marshall, managed to escape prosecution] were never charged with breaking the child labor laws, supposedly because the sentence would have been only a few days in jail -- but surely the fact that the children died would have made a big difference? In any case, there were severe prosecutorial blunders [the first prosecutor was let go, and he and his replacement seemed to have a private war going on], and the members of the jury, while not necessarily thinking Landis and the others were "innocent," felt the prosecution didn't prove its case. [However, prosecutor Lea D'Agostino and others seemed to think the jury consisted of twelve of the dumbest people on the planet.] Outrageous Conduct looks at all sides of the issue, assessing guilt and innocence [the title pretty much sums up the books' point-of-view], bolstered with interviews from many involved in the case, as well as court transcripts. The large cast of characters includes several self-important defense lawyers, as well as has-been Ralph Bellamy, who publicly and foolishly supported Landis because he gave the actor a job in Trading Places. The book looks at the varying opinions of directors of note in regards to Landis' actions and behavior. Any way you look at it, these three deaths should not have happened. While Landis basically got away with "outrageous conduct," it's also a fact that his career since the tragedy has been low-profile, mostly TV work, and his later films were not well-received; by major Hollywood standards he himself is a has-been. How much this has to do with Twilight Zone is debatable, as Landis was never really a major talent. Outrageous Conduct also examines the general subject of safety on Hollywood movie sets for added balance. Ultimately this is the story of two innocent children, all excited about being on a movie set, who were let down by so many of the adults they counted on, including associate producer George Folsey Jr. [one of the defendants] who told them and their parents that everything was "safe."

Verdict: A brilliant and sobering book that doesn't pull any punches. ****.

DUEL

A nervous Dennis Weaver with the truck in pursuit















DUEL (1971 telefilm). Director: Steven Spielberg.

Tired businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is driving for an appointment when he inadvertently pisses off the psychotic driver of a tractor-trailer who first plays a cat-and-mouse game with him, then relentlessly pursues him with the former's death in mind. In this pre-Jaws telefilm which was deemed so good that it was slightly expanded and released theatrically in Europe, Spielberg skillfully fills everyday, sun-lit scenes and objects with terror [interestingly, the film takes place entirely in daylight]. In addition to Spielberg's very adroit and compelling direction, the film is bolstered by some superior editing by Frank Morriss, Jack A. Marta's crisp cinematography, and Billy Goldenberg's simple but effective scoring. And then there's the centerpiece, which is an outstanding performance by Weaver as the alternately brave and timid, frightened and outraged put-upon driver of the car; he's on top of every scene and pulls us into the whole experience from the start. Stunt driver Carey Loftin plays the barely seen driver of the truck, and Jacqueline Scott appears briefly as Weaver's wife. Lucille Benson plays the owner of a "snakerama" in one of the movie's most exciting scenes.That same year Weaver appeared in What's the Matter with Helen?

Verdict: Watch this on a double bill with The Car. ***1/2.

NIGHT EDITOR

William Gargan [second from left] confronts a suspect
NIGHT EDITOR (1946). Director: Henry Levin.

"You're like me -- there's a meanness inside you that has to hurt or be hurt!"

A veteran editor of the New York Star tells a cautionary tale to a troubled young reporter (Coulter Irwin) which is illustrated in the long flashback scenes that comprise most of the movie. During prohibition days, married cop Tony Cochrane (William Gargan) is having an affair with a cold-hearted, married blonde named Jill (Janis Carter). While the two are parked on the outskirts of town, they witness a woman being brutally murdered. Afraid of losing his wife and son, Cochrane doesn't report the murder, leading to the expected complications. While Hitchcock might have done a lot with this very workable premise, Night Editor does little more than hold the attention, although Gargan's performance is quite good. The oddly-named Jeff Donnell is also good as his wife, Martha, while the supporting cast is at the very least competent. This was based on a radio series that later became a television program. Gargan also played a cop in Who Done It? and many other movies. Janis Carter also played a nasty lady in Framed when her leading man was Glenn Ford.

Verdict: Standard crime drama probably churned out in two days. **1/2.

NIGHT GALLERY (1969)

Joan Crawford in a dramatic moment
NIGHT GALLERY (1969 telefilm). Hosted and scripted by Rod Serling. Directors: Boris Sagal; Steven Spielberg; Barry Shear.

Rod Serling's follow-up to The Twilight Zone was a new fantasy-horror series in which Serling introduced each episode from a gallery of paintings, each painting tied in to one of the night's stories. This telefilm was the pilot for the show, and featured three tales of the bizarre. In the first, "The Cemetery," Roddy McDowall murders his decrepit wealthy uncle (George Macready), then freaks out as he sees the old man apparently breaking out of his grave in stages in a painting that hangs on the wall -- is the corpse coming after him with murder on its mind? The manservant, Portifoy (Ossie Davis), figures in an amusing climax. In the second story, "Eyes," filthy rich Miss Menlo (Joan Crawford), who has been blind since birth, pays a poor fool (Tom Bosley) to give her his eyes for money even as her doctor (Barry Sullivan) tells her she'll only have sight for about eleven hours. The story is deliciously ironic if quite improbable. [This was one of Steven Spielberg's earliest assignments; Crawford thought he was the coffee boy!] The third tale, "The Escape Route," is a highly satisfying tale in which a Nazi war criminal (Richard Kiley) in South America dreams of finding peace from "persecution" [!] in a pastoral painting hanging in the local museum, but winds up in a much more fitting scenario. Serling has scripted some fine dialogue for the stories, and gotten some top-flight actors to give their all for the all-important pilot. Roddy McDowall and Ossie Davis both deliver the goods in the first segment; Crawford and Sullivan are terrific in the second [with solid support from Bosley]; and Kiley, in an unusual turn for him, is splendid as the Nazi Strobe, with Norma Crane making quite a positive impression as the contemptuous prostitute, Gretchen. Serling is as adept a host as ever and the three directors are on top of things.

Verdict: Easy to see why this went to series. ***.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

THE DAY OF THE LOCUST

The movie premiere that climaxes Locust













THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975). Director: John Schlesinger.

"I could only let a fabulously rich man love me. I could only love a man criminally handsome. Please try to understand."

In Hollywood of the 1930's, artist Tod Hackett (William Atherton) lives in the same complex with aspiring star Faye Greener (Karen Black) and her father, an old-time performer named Harry (Burgess Meredith). Although Tod is very drawn to Faye, she wants a man with money, and winds up sexlessly cohabiting with the somewhat strange but wealthy Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland). There is a nasty-minded midget (Billy Barty) and a bratty Shirley Temple clone (actually played by the male Jackie Earle Haley), as well as two guys who run cockfights out of Homer's garage. After two hours of meandering, the film arrives at a climax at a movie premiere that seems intended to wake the benumbed audience out of their lethargy but is too little, too late. When The Day of the Locust was released, it was overpraised in some quarters because of the admittedly vivid climactic riot and a "daring" scene of a child being stomped to death, which fooled people into thinking this piece of treacle was more adult and "meaningful" than it really was. Time has, unfortunately, not made the movie any better. Karen Black probably gives her all-time worst performance, so irritating is she that she almost sinks the movie right from the first, and Burgess Meredith isn't that much better. Atherton isn't bad at all, but Sutherland gives the best performance as Homer. Barty can do nothing to make his character less of a caricature, but Haley in drag is certainly vivid and memorable. Still, the movie presents unpleasant, and worse, uninteresting characters that you simply don't care about. Natalie Schafer, Nita Talbot, and William Castle [as a director] have small roles, as does Geraldine Page as an evangelist. A scene when a set collapses is well done from a technical standpoint. This was based on a novel by Nathaniel West; I don't know how faithful Waldo Salt's screenplay is to the source material, but it's pretty bad. The absolutely most disgusting scene shows poor Billy Barty kissing a rooster on its bloody beak. Dick Powell Jr., plays his father at the premiere-within-the-movie, which explains why he looks so much like the actor. Although Schlesinger was considered a "serious" director as, say, compared to Robert Aldrich, this movie is in reality little better than Aldrich's atrocious Legend of Lylah Clare! This is almost as bad as Schlesinger's Darling.

Verdict: Just a mess -- and boring to boot! **.

THE CREEPING FLESH

Peter Cushing













THE CREEPING FLESH (1973). Director: Freddie Francis.

Okay, this is a weird one. Emmanuel Hildern (Peter Cushing) returns from New Guinea with the skeleton of a giant man whose race existed in pre-history. When water touches the bones of the skeleton, new flesh forms over them; the blood of this flesh contains certain strange cells that are supposedly the cause of the "disease" we know as evil. When Hildern's lovely daughter Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) is injected with this blood -- which Hildren has doctored so that it will now protect the individual from evil, or so he thinks -- she turns into a sexy, raving looney who attacks people. Adding to the turmoil is the fact that Hildern's nasty half-brother James (Christopher Lee), who has always been jealous of him, is conducting his own experiments and steals the skeleton -- in the middle of a rainstorm no less ... uh oh! It would be all too easy to pick apart the "science" and theories of evil put forth by Hildern in this movie, but what's the point -- this is an absorbing, amusing and creepy horror flick with a lot of unusual aspects and an unpredictable plot. Some viewers may be put off by the way the movie throws together several horror sub-genres -- mad scientists, insane asylums, rampaging slashers, escaped madmen, monsters and so on -- but for those who have no problem with the commingling Flesh is quite entertaining. Cushing is outstanding, and as the strange little professor with bizarre theories gives one of the best performances of his career. Lee is also excellent, and Lorna Heilbron maneuvers the transitions from sweet young thing to hot-gal-out-on-the-town to crazed she-slasher with aplomb. Francis' direction is also better than usual. While the movie employs a number of Hammer studio regulars, it is not a Hammer production.

Verdict: Zesty and unusual period horror piece. ***.

BLACKOUT (1954)

BLACKOUT (aka Murder By Proxy/1954). Director: Terence Fisher.

Casey Morrow (Dane Clark) is moping around getting drunk in a bar when an attractive blond named Phyllis (Belinda Lee) pays him 500 dollars to marry her. He later learns that her father was murdered later that night, that she is already engaged to another man, and seeks the help of a painter, Maggie (Eleanor Summerfield), who is doing a portrait of the mysterious Phyllis. Blackout meanders along from scene to scene without much suspense or tension and director Terence Fisher seems as disinterested with the material as the viewer probably will be. There is a very good scene when Casey sees his mother (Nora Gordon/Gorden) for the first time in several years wherein the actress beautifully expresses both her joy at seeing her boy and her suppressed rage at his being out of touch for so long. Clark and the other cast members all give good performances, but the movie is more tedious than anything else. Betty Ann Davies shows some bite as Phyllis' unlovely mother. Another Hammer studio crime drama released in the US by Lippert. The later film Homicidal also had a blond paying a man to marry her but was much, much more entertaining. Lee was in the far superior Footsteps in the Fog the following year, and Summerfield made Man Bait the year before.

Verdict: Watch this during a blackout. **.   

RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE Season 1

Janssen as the urbane Richard Diamond
RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE Season 1. 1957.

In this popular series which lasted four seasons, David Janssen plays a New York City private detective, a former cop, who's a lot more polished and urbane [if somewhat less interesting]  than Mike Hammer. While one can't imagine Hammer fitting in at a society party, that's not the case with Diamond. The first season only had twelve episodes, but they were interesting enough to make the public want more. The best of these episodes were "The Peter Rocco Case" [with Charles Bronson], in which a woman wants Diamond to find her son, an escaped convict who is gunning for Diamond; and "The Venus of Park Avenue," in which a young woman claims that a valuable ancient statue is actually of more recent vintage. The first had very good twists, and the second was very suspenseful. Most of the other episodes, while not as good, were at least a "B' in quality. Regis Toomey plays a police detective in most of the episodes. Diamond was created by Blake Edwards. The theme music is notable, especially the music that plays over the closing credits. Janssen's rather large ears are sometimes a distraction, but he's good in the role.

Verdict: This has possibilities. **1/2.

OVER-EXPOSED

OVER-EXPOSED (1956). Director: Lewis Seiler.

"You'd use your grandmother's bones to pry open a cash register!"

The ads for this picture made it seem as if it was a behind-the-scenes story of scandal sheets such as Confidential that were popular at the time, but it's really just another lousy Cleo Moore movie. In this Moore plays Lily Krenshka, who is nearly run out of town before being befriended by an elderly photographer named Max (Raymond Greenleaf) who teaches her all the tricks of the trade. Before long she's been rechristened Lila Crane and is off to Manhattan where she shrewdly and ruthlessly rises to the top of her profession, moving from a "flash" girl snapping photos in night clubs to fashion photographer, as well as being offered photo-journalistic assignments by her boyfriend, newspaper reporter Russell Bassett (Richard Crenna). Bassett fears that all Lila is interested in is making money, and his fears are confirmed when he assumes she sold a photo of a sweet dowager (Isobel Elsom of Ladies in Retirement) having a fatal heart attack to a scandal sheet. With its one-dimensional characters and busy if dull story line, Over-Exposed just doesn't grip. It also suffers from not having a more mesmeric lead actress, although Moore certainly isn't bad, although the scene when she argues with a jealous co-worker played by a vivid and excellent Jeanne Cooper illustrates the difference between acting and merely expressing personality; Moore's chief note is one of petulance. With only a couple of minutes screen time Cooper steals the movie away from the star. Over-Exposed would certainly have been more palatable with a gripping actress like Stanwyck or Crawford in it -- or Cooper in the lead --  but even then it wouldn't have been one of their more memorable movies. Crenna is competent but uninteresting as the boyfriend so its no wonder he only became a leading man on television. Constance Towers is supposed to be in this movie as Shirley but her role is too small to make an impression. The occasional sharp bit of dialogue isn't enough to save this.

Verdict: At 79 minutes it's 77 minutes too long. *1/2.

FLYING THROUGH HOLLYWOOD BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS: SAM ARKOFF

FLYING THROUGH HOLLYWOOD BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS. Sam Arkoff with Richard Trubo. Birch Lane Press; 1992.

Sam Arkoff of American International Pictures tells how the company was formed, relates behind-the-scenes details of some of its more famous movies [including I Was a Teenage Werewolf and the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe pictures], and looks at some of the famous actors and directors who got their start at AIP, such as Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola. AIP tapped into a huge audience that the majors were ignoring -- teenagers -- and [when that ran its course and even before] developed new genres, such as beach, hot rod and "blaxploitation" movies, that the major studios eventually copied. Like a wise old owl, Arkoff laments how the movie industry needlessly spends millions on [often terrible] movies and how stars' salaries have become hopelessly inflated, along with other cogent criticisms. Arkoff regrets AIP's merging with Filmways, and later quit that group to form Arkoff International Pictures. Author Trubo skillfully allows Arkoff's personality to come through, with the result that the book is not only informative and entertaining, but a darn good read as well.

Verdict: An insider's view of filmmaking, Hollywood and exploitation pictures. ***1/2.

WHITECHAPEL: THE RIPPER RETURNS

Davis, Penry-Jones and Pemberton
WHITECHAPEL: THE RIPPER RETURNS (2009). Director: S. J. Clarkson.

"He's like a wife who wants to change all your bad habits."

Whitechapel is a British television series, with each of three seasons consisting of three or four episodes. The premise has modern-day London police officers investigating crimes that have ties to the past. The first season focused on a series of murders in Whitechapel in which the unknown killer is recreating the ghastly crimes of Jack the Ripper. Heading the investigation is the comparatively young and inexperienced DI [Deputy Investigator] David Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), who gets the men under his command to clean up their act and clothing [making them stupidly assume that he must be gay], and his chief assistant is grizzled Deputy Sergeant Ray Miles (Philip Davis). Both helping and hindering the investigation is one Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton), a "ripperologist" who first comes to the police with his theory that recent murders are copycat crimes of the original Ripper. Chandler has quite a time convincing his superiors -- let alone his men -- that a new Jack the Ripper is at work in Whitechapel, but before long there's plenty of horrific evidence that his theory is correct. [Hint: don't watch this while you're eating.] Each episode of The Ripper Returns is only 45 minutes long making the full mini-series only two hours and a quarter, so it can be watched on DVD in one sitting. While the story lacks that certain gritty veracity and takes certain liberties, the series is entertaining, creepy, and has good performances, with Penry-Jones making an appealing and attractive protagonist.

Verdict: Watch out for that Ripper! ***.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

STATE OF THE UNION

STATE OF THE UNION (1948). Director: Frank Capra.

"We even had a democrat in that bed one night!" -- housekeeper Margaret Hamilton.

"If I've got to listen to speeches, you'd better make me another sazerac right away!" -- Lulubelle Alexander

Newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) and long-time politico Jim Conover (Adolph Menjou) work together to get plane manufacturer Grant Matthews( Spencer Tracy) to toss his hat in the Republican ring. Although she has reservations -- particularly regarding the participation of Kay, who is carrying a torch for Grant -- Matthews' wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) agrees to go along on the campaign trail, hoping her husband will win the party's nomination. But as the weeks go by she watches in horror as Grant succumbs to the manipulations of Kay and Jim, compromising to the point where he's turning his back on what he really believes in just so he has a chance at the white house. Something's gotta give, and boy does it! This wonderful, still topical movie features top-notch performances from the actors named, as well as from Van Johnson as a snappy reporter named Spike. Margaret Hamilton has an amusing supporting part as a housekeeper who has a yen for Spike, and Maidel Turner is a riot as Lulubelle Alexander, a judge's wife who loves her sazerac cocktails; Charles Dingle, Raymond Walburn, Howard Smith and Irving Bacon also score. Hepburn's first name is misspelled in the opening credits, there are a couple of stupid moments, but everything else is just about perfect!

Verdict: Another Capra winner! ***1/2.



IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME

Van Johnson and Judy Garland












IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949). Director: Robert Z. Leonard.

"I have hardly any voice at all." -- Judy Garland

This venerable story was originally filmed as The Shop Around the Corner. This [first] semi-musical remake casts Van Johnson and Judy Garland in the roles originally essayed by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and both are fine. The two are clerks in a shop [in this version a perfumery has been turned into a music store] who can't stand each other, but unknowingly have been sending romantic letters to one another via mailbox. [The third version of the story, You've Got Mail, turned the letters into email.] Johnson and Garland, both at their most charming, play very well together whether they're antagonists or falling in love. "Cuddles" Sakall is swell as the old man who owns the shop, with Spring Byington her usual adept self as the clerk who has unofficially been engaged to him for decades. The only cast mate who doesn't really deliver the goods is silent star Buster Keaton, who seems completely out of place as the boss' nephew, although he tries. This version drops some sub-plots relating to the other employees, and adds a completely unnecessary one involving Johnson's fellow boarder, Louise (Marcia Van Dyke), who plays the violin and is in love with him; Van Dyke is fine but had very few credits. Of course, Garland is given ample opportunities to sing [and for a mere music ship clerk she sure sings like a trouper!], and she delivers, especially on the "Barbershop Chord" production number, although some may feel the quivering lips bit during other numbers is a little too much. The sequence when Johnson and Garland first bump into each other, literally, is very funny, as is their encounter in a restaurant. The same story was the basis for the Broadway musical "She Loves Me."

Verdict: A Technicolor treat with music and romance. ***1/2.

HE RAN ALL THE WAY: THE LIFE OF JOHN GARFIELD

HE RAN ALL THE WAY: THE LIFE OF JOHN GARFIELD. Robert Nott. Limelight; 2003.

This excellent biography of Julie [John] Garfield examines the actor's early life, his stage work, his important and less important film roles, and his early death, no doubt aggravated by the stress caused by his being considered a communist. The author argues convincingly that Garfield was the movie's first true anti-hero, and discusses how he got typecast early on but managed to deliver some fine performances in spite of it. The studios didn't always know how to make the most of Garfield's talent. Nott looks at Garfield's work in such films as The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Breaking Point, and Body and Soul, providing lots of behind-the scenes details and interviews. He also looks at Garfield's long marriage, his many extra-marital affairs, and his relationships with such as playwright Clifford Odets, who wrote Golden Boy for the actor [who, unfortunately, didn't get to play it on Broadway or in the movies]. Nott is clearly admiring of Garfield but is also scrupulously honest, admitting that his work in certain pictures, say the stinker Between Two Worlds, might have been a bit below-par. So is it true that John Garfield had an affair with actress Maria Ouspenskaya? Apparently not, or this book would undoubtedly have uncovered it. [Garfield did study with the gyspy woman from The Wolfman, however.]

Verdict: Excellent, scrupulously researched biography. ****. 

WOMEN'S PRISON

WOMEN'S PRISON (1955). Director: Lewis Seiler.

"They never get things right in prison pictures."

Convicted of vehicular manslaughter after accidentally killing a child, neurotic Helene (Phyllis Thaxter of The Sign of the Ram) is sent to a women's prison adjacent to a men's penitentiary. Her fellow inmates include Joan (Audrey Totter of The Saxon Charm), whose husband manages to cross over to see [and impregnate] her, returnee Brenda (Jan Sterling of Johnny Belinda), Mae (Cleo Moore of One Girl's Confession), and Dottie (Vivian Marshall) who does pretty bad impressions of Bette Davis and others but does a fairly good job of imitating Ida Lupino, who just happens to play the neurotic and slightly evil Amelia van Zandt, a prison official who lords it over the women's compound. All hell breaks loose when van Zandt is told she better find out how Joan's husband, Glen (Warren Stevens) managed to get in to see her [we never find out] and she begins slapping around the pregnant woman, raising the inmates' ire and leading to a fairly exciting climax. Women's Prison is the kind of junk movie that pretends to have some kind of social conscience while parading superficial platitudes and one-dimensional characters who have little basis in reality. Ida Lupino, with her mostly arch overplaying, does the best she can with terrible material; her real-life husband, Howard Duff (Dante), comes off much better and is quite good as the compassionate prison psychiatrist who thinks van Zandt is a psychopath. Thaxter is fine, but except for scenes when she's victimized gets little chance to etch a real character, and Ross Elliott is also good in his brief turn as her husband. Sterling and Totter aren't bad and Cleo Moore is Cleo Moore. The big trouble with this picture is that it isn't even very entertaining.

Verdict: A pretty bad "Bad Girls" picture. **.

MIKE HAMMER Season 1 (1958)

Hammer (Darren McGavin) watches a zesty cat-fight
MIKE HAMMER Season 1 (1958).

I don't know what purists might think but to me Darren McGavin (Kolchak, the Night Stalker) seems like perfect casting as Mickey Spillane's New York private eye, Mike Hammer. There were forty half-hour episodes in the first season of this show, and they rarely dipped below a "B" level in quality and some were much better. In addition to McGavin, the only other regular on the show was Bart Burns [a real-life WW2 hero] as Captain Pat Chambers, and in his low-key way he's also quite good. Among the more memorable episodes, "The Broken Frame" with Dick Van Patten asks if an executed man was really innocent; "Look at the Old Man Go" with Angie Dickinson starts out as the tale of an old father smitten with a young babe but turns out to be something a bit different; the sick family drama "My Son and Heir" with Douglas Dick, Barbara Turner and Virginia Gregg deals with the death of a rich son's girlfriend and twisted relationships; and the very suspenseful "Old Folks at Home Blues" has Hammer helping a bewildered Ruta Lee find her missing husband in the Bowery and discovering a startling plot. Other interesting guest-stars on the show, many of whom made more than one appearance, include Doris Dowling, Doris Singleton (Carolyn Appleby of I Love Lucy), Kipp Hamilton (War of the Gargantuas), Gloria Talbott, Nita Talbot, Joan Taylor, Robert Clarke, Jeanne Cooper, Grace Whitney (Star Trek), Terry Becker (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), Barbara Bain, Yvette Vickers, Robert Vaughn, Paula Raymond, and Joan Marshall/Jean Arless of Homicidal fame. Boris Sagal directed the show adroitly and certainly kept things moving. The show could be quite violent at times, and the girl-happy Hammer could be a bully, even with witnesses, but that's one of the things that makes his tough character interesting. The show had plenty of good, well-orchestrated fist fights and at least one zesty cat-fight (between Doris Dowling and Doris Singleton) in "Lead Ache."

NOTE: Two years before this series aired, a Mike Hammer pilot was filmed with Brian Keith in the title role. Keith [who was the son of actor Robert Keith and the stepson of Peggy Entwhistle, who jumped off the Hollywood sign] did other TV series, but he didn't play Hammer, possibly because of other commitments. Keith is very good in the role, not necessarily better than McGavin, but different, and perhaps a bit gruffer. The pilot's story has Hammer pursuing a mobster after a newsboy and several other people are shot and killed outside a nightclub.

Verdict: Very entertaining crime drama with a solid lead performance. ***.

PAID TO KILL

Dane Clark
















PAID TO KILL (1954). Director: Montgomery Tully.

In a variation of the old plot about a man hiring someone to kill him and then wanting to call it off, James Neville (Dane Clark) is convinced that a business deal gone south will not only ruin him but the company he heads, so he blackmails an associate, Paul (Paul Kirby) into killing him so his wife can collect the insurance money. But then the deal is back on again, and Neville is saved, only someone is still trying to kill him -- and it doesn't appear to be Paul. Suspects include his apparently loving secretary, Joan (Cecile Chevreau), his wife, Andrea (Thea Gregory), and his friend, Peter (Anthony Forwood), among others. Paid to Kill is well-acted and suspenseful, and with a little more care might have really amounted to something; as it is it's entertaining. Clark gives a very good performance as the not terribly likable Neville, and the others in the cast are good as well.

Verdict: Not bad Hammer mystery film. ***.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: DOOM

Vandal Savage explains his plan













JUSTICE LEAGUE: DOOM (2012). Director: Lauren Montgomery.

In this direct-to-video animated feature, the members of the Justice League -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash etc. -- engage the Royal Flush Gang in a fight and wonder where the criminals got their rather high-tech weaponry. Turns out the JL's real enemy is Vandal Savage [a character first introduced way back in the golden age of comics], a former caveman who has lived a thousand lifetimes, accumulated vast knowledge, and naturally wants to control the earth, planning to destroy half of it first with a solar flame. Headquartered in his Hall of Doom, Savage has gathered together a group of the League's arch enemies into a group he calls the Legion of Doom: Bane, The Cheetah, Metallo, Star Sapphire, and others. A sub-plot has the league members discovering that Batman secretly had contingency plans for stopping each member should they ever go rogue, which doesn't sit well with most of them. With good music and good [if not great] animation, and an exciting climax, Justice League: Doom has lots of super-hero vs super-villain action and is a good bet for comic book fans, and Justice League fans in particular. Voice actors include Kevin Controy (Batman) and Tim Daly (Superman). NOTE: You can read more about the Justice League in The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: Until that much-announced live-action Justice League movie comes along ... ***.