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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT

John Beck and Marie-France Pisier












THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT (1977). Director: Charles Jarrott.

Although it was not his first published novel, Sydney Sheldon had his first big bestseller with The Other Side of Midnight, a very entertaining "beach" read that was the first to employ his standard formula: Sheldon would take plots from old romantic movies and then add some intrigue and thriller elements to them. Generally it worked, although -- as one critic put it -- no matter how entertaining it was you forgot the book the minute you were finished with it. Oddly, the film version of Midnight was not a success, either financially or critically. Not so odd, maybe.

In 1939 Marseilles Noelle Page (Marie-France Pisier) discovers that her own father has basically sold her to her employer. Disgusted, Noelle sets off to Paris and heartbreak, where she meets a soldier, Larry Douglas (John Beck), who leaves her with child, and promises to return and marry her. Determined to get revenge on the man who never comes back to her, Noelle becomes a wealthy film star. In the meantime Larry meets and marries an American publicist, Catherine (Susan Sarandon of Twilight), even as Noelle moves from lover to lover to become the mistress of the world's wealthiest man, Greek shipping magnate Constantin Demeris (Raf Vallone of Therese Raquin). But she and Larry Douglas are fated to meet again, with dramatic consequences for all the parties already named ...

In the novel Noelle and Larry are described as gorgeous specimens of female and male pulchritude. Pisier is certainly a strikingly attractive woman, but every time you see lantern-jawed Beck making love to her you can't help but see chin-happy Jay Leno. Beck's performance is competent but not so great that you can understand his casting, but then the producers obviously wanted to save money by using relative unknowns. Sarandon and Pisier certainly earn their paychecks with well-crafted performances -- in addition Pisier is forced into bedroom scenes with one [comparatively speaking] ugly old man after another, making the flesh crawl, and even Larry isn't so great! These sex scenes go on for an excruciatingly long time. The producers wanted to provide long glimpses of Pisier's lovely body, obviously, but forgot that we had to look at her unlovely bed mates as well! 

If you approach the film without ever having read the book, you may find it reasonably entertaining if quite long. [In fact, it takes longer to watch the movie, which is nearly three hours long, than it does to read the book!] The trouble is that Jarrott directs with absolutely no panache, stripping the film of most of its suspense. Though the movie has pretty settings and attractive scenic design, the cinematography is flat and uninspired -- it all looks like a matter-of-fact hastily done TV movie. Jarrott had more success with Mary, Queen of Scots; with Midnight he seems utterly bored with the material.

Despite the film's length, some of the novel's most interesting sequences have been left out. Midnight may not have been a literary masterpiece, but a better film could have been made of it with a little more care and inspiration.

Verdict: Even Sheldon deserves better. **1/2.

BARBARY COAST

Robinson and Hopkins

















BARBARY COAST (1935) Director: Howard Hawks.

Mary Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins), known as "Swan," arrives in San Francisco during the gold rush, fully expecting to find a fiancee and a million bucks waiting for her. Instead she winds up at a crooked roulette wheel in a casino-saloon owned by Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson). Chamalis is a racketeer who runs the town with the aid of killer Knuckles (Brian Donlevy), who's fond of shooting people in the back. Swan becomes rather hardened by her life and Chamalis' persistent and unwelcome wooing of her, but she's softened a bit by an attractive and kindly young prospector, Jim (Joel McCrae), but their next encounter is quite unpleasant ... Hopkins and Robinson make an interesting team -- more interesting than Hopkins and McCrea -- but that's not enough to save this picture, whose basically light tone is at odds with the grim subject matter. Despite some good performances from the leads and the supporting cast -- Frank Craven (In This Our Life) as a colonel who starts a newspaper is especially noteworthy -- the movie is a mediocre mish mash, and not one of Robinson's better pictures. Walter Brennan offers another of his bizarre portraits as the cackling "Old Atrocity."

Verdict: Begins promisingly but goes in too many dull directions. **1/2.

SLEEP, MY LOVE

SLEEP,  MY LOVE (1948). Director: Douglas Sirk.

Sutton Place heiress Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up on a train to Boston with no idea how she got there. Turns out this is not the first time that this has happened. She also has weird nightmares and swears she keeps seeing a strange man in horn-rimmed glasses who claims to be a Dr. Rhinehart (Ralph Morgan) but looks nothing like the real one. We can also see this man, whose name is Charles (George Coulouris) and are let in early on that he's involved in some scheme with Alison's faithless husband Richard (Don Ameche), who has fallen for the slinky Daphne (Hazel Brooks) and has unpleasant plans for Alison. Bruce Elcott (Bob Cummings) is a man Alison met on the train and has become friends with; he's the only one who really believes she keeps seeing creepy Charles. The Gaslight -like plot of Sleep, My Love may not hold a lot of surprises, but the film is very entertaining in spite of it, thanks to Sirk's smooth direction and fine performances from the entire cast who make the most of the material. Raymond Burr appears briefly as a cop; Rita Johnson is Alison's muddle-headed friend Barby; and Keye Luke is Bruce's honorary brother, whose honeymoon is interrupted by sinister events. Hazel Brooks is as sexy and compelling in this as she was in Body and Soul with Garfield.

Verdict: Fun if minor suspense item with a creditable cast. ***.


BEST FRIENDS (1975)

BEST FRIENDS (1975). Director: Noel Nosseck. Screenplay by Arnold Somkin.

"There's gonna be so many girls. This one ya got is just not that special."

Jesse (Richard Hatch) and Pat (Doug Chapin) have been best buddies since childhood. After a hitch in the Army, they decide to take one last road trip in a rented van with their girlfriends/fiancees, Kathy (Susanne Benton) and Jo Ella (Ann Noland). Pat, the eternal adolescent, wants Jesse to forget about marriage plans and just bum around the country on a motorbike with him, but Jesse is in love with Kathy and has a good job waiting for him. During the trip Pat does his best to break up the relationship between Jesse and Kathy, each attempt getting more desperate and crazy, until, ultimately, tragedy results.  This interesting picture can be analyzed in a number of ways. For one thing it illustrates the fact that for some [heterosexual] men, their friendships with their buddies are much more meaningful than those with wives or girlfriends, whom they primarily use for sex. On the other hand, some viewers see a homoerotic component to the movie, with Pat the dysfunctional closet case who is in love with his best friend [this possible aspect of the story is never made explicit, however, although Pat's attempts to break up the relationship between Jesse and Kathy are provocative to say the least and there may be other hints]. Best Friends looks at four people who are unsophisticated and not terribly intelligent but shows that this does not stop them from being complicated and having emotions that are often difficult for them to deal with. All four lead actors are excellent, with Chapin's sensitive, tortured, outwardly happy-go-lucky performance a stand-out,  and the film is well directed by Nosseck. Crown International, which released the film, didn't quite know what to do with something that wasn't typical drive-in fare, so their ad campaign made it seem as if it was something about vacationers encountering vengeful natives! Best Friends was the last acting role for Chapin, who became a producer instead. Hatch has had a long list of mostly TV credits.  The two women appeared in a few other films in the seventies and eighties. Rick Cunha contributed some snappy country-western type song numbers.

Verdict: Absorbing drama with interesting undertones. ***.

DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)

DEAD OF NIGHT (1977 telefilm). Director: Dan Curtis.

Curtis followed up his ratings-successful telefilm Trilogy of Terror with this second anthology of horror stories, which was also the pilot for a projected series. In "Second Chance," scripted by Richard Matheson from a Jack Finney story, a man (Ed Begley Jr. of Eating Raoul) restores a car in which a couple was killed years ago, and discovers that it can drive him all the way to the past to prevent their deaths. Ann Doran from It, The Terror from Beyond Space has a supporting role.  "No Such Thing as a Vampire," which Matheson scripted from his own short story, features a fake vampire murder plot, and boasts some very good performances from Patrick Macnee and Horst Buchholz. "Bobby," written by Matheson, also has fine performances from Joan Hackett and Lee H. Montgomery in a story about a grieving mother who thinks she's called her drowned son back from the grave. The story has a good ending, but it is neither frightening nor moving, which you can pretty much say about the movie in general. Curtis remade "Bobby" even less effectively in Trilogy of Terror II. Robert Cobert's score is mediocre and does nothing to help the telefilm.

Verdict: Reasonably entertaining if very minor horror anthology. **1/2.

RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE Season 2

David Janssen on his car phone
RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE Season 2. 1958.

David Janssen was back as urbane P.I. Richard Diamond for the second season out of four, consisting of 21 half-hour episodes. Diamond narrates the stories a la Mike Hammer, whose show began the same year, and even roughs up people the way Hammer does on occasion, even though he's otherwise a very different sort of fellow. Most of the episodes are a solid "B" or "B+," making the show entertaining but not outstanding. Among the more memorable episodes are: "The Dark Horse," in which a lady politician rejects the notion of a bodyguard; "Pension Plan," about a unique retirement scheme involving stolen jewelry; "Another Man's Poison," in which Rick, as everyone calls him, wonders if he was the real target when a man nearby gets shot; "Last Testament" (was the will of an electrocuted man altered?); "Percentage Takers," in which Rick protects an obnoxious Broadway star played by Jack Cassidy; "The Bungalow Murder," in which a studio head is found dead; "One Foot in the Grave" [an old cop is shot]; and "Snow Queen," in which an art store covers up a brisk trade in heroin. Guest-stars include Gordon Jones, Doris Dowling, Jay Novello, Keye Luke, Gloria Talbott, Nick Adams, Lee Van Cleef, Kipp Hamilton, and many others.

Verdict: Janssen is fine and the show quite entertaining. ***.

FEAR CHAMBER

Karloff in his Fear Chamber













FEAR CHAMBER (aka The Torture Zone/1968). Directors: Juan Ibanez; Jack Hill.

Dr. Karl Mantell (Boris Karloff) is convinced a life form, a kind of "primordial plasma," has not only taken up residence in the earth's core but is the "source of all the untapped knowledge of the universe." [How he has arrived at these bizarre conclusions is never made clear.] Mantell's daughter Corinne (Julissa) and her friend Mark (Carlos East) descend into the earth and discover one of these creatures, bringing it back to the lab. They discover the creature feeds on hormones created by terror, so to that end these wonderful people imprison women in a "fear chamber" in which they are subjected to skeletons, spiders, snakes, pools of blood, and think they are going to be sacrificed on an altar. [A startling moment has Karloff in his priest's robes stripping them off for medical whites and going directly into his modern laboratory, which is directly adjacent to the "fear chamber."] The life form, which resembles a steaming rug, communicates with the humans via computer and kills people by sucking out their life energy as well as their terror, leaving them aged corpses. Mantell has a psychologist, Helga (Isela Vega), who spies on female applicants as they change into medical robes and seems to get a thrill out of whipping women, possibly under the influence of the monster. Brutish Roland (Yerye Beirute) is only interested in the monster because it's promised to deliver him many diamonds. Helga and Roland are apparently being played by the life form, which hopes to transmit information to others of its kind within the earth. Supposedly inspired by the writings of Poe [don't you believe it!] Fear Chamber actually has some interesting ideas and elements, but it's disjointed, badly edited and confusing [signs of post-production tampering], with highly unlikable protagonists. At times it simply seems thrown together. A scene when a woman unknowingly does a sexy dance for the monster hits a high camp note if nothing else. There are some other arresting moments amid the often amateurish absurdity. Karloff is fine, and luckily his distinctive voice isn't dubbed. This was made in Mexico the year before his death and released a couple of years later. A frustrating aspect to the picture is that these "scientists," who terrorize women and seem like complete nuts, never really get their comeuppance.

Verdict: Zestily absurd at times but not very good. **.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (1944). Director: Robert Siodmak.

Now here's a weird one. Someone got the idea of taking a serious novel by Somerset Maugham (The Razor's Edge and many others) and casting Gene Kelly and, of all people, Deanna Durbin in the leads -- talk about epic miscasting. True, neither of these actors exactly disgrace themselves, it's just that you can imagine what a wholly different picture this would have been with different leads. But in any case, it wouldn't have been much good. Lt Mason (an effective Dean Harens) has just been jilted by his fiancee when he meets up with a singer named "Jackie" (Durbin), whose real name is Abigail but who changed it after her husband, Robert (Kelly) was convicted of murder. Most of Christmas Holiday consists of flashbacks as Jackie pours out her story [seemingly at the drop of a hat] to the kind lieutenant. Robert remains a shadowy character, however, and we never really learn the details of his crime nor anything about his victim. We do get to know his strange mother (Gale Sondergaard), who does the best she can with another underwritten role. Richard Whorf, who later became a director, plays a reporter named Simon, and Gladys George is cast as Valerie, who runs the club that Jackie sings at. Kelly does no singing or dancing, but Durbin gets to warble "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" and "Always," the film's signature tune. There's an interesting segue from a Beethoven concert to a dance club, but Christmas Holiday has the gall to use Wagner's liebestod from "Tristan and Isolde" to try to add dramatic heft to this kitsch. It doesn't work, although, ironically, the best scene in the movie has Kelly and Durbin listening to the music and being, quite understandably, moved by it. Durbin did seven more films before retiring four years later. Harens did two more films and then had a long list of credits in television.

Verdict: With these leads the fare should be much lighter. **.

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE

The not so happy couple arrive at a party
















DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (1970). Director: Frank Perry.

"Do you realize our party is only nine days away?" -- Jonathan

"Can't you do something about that godawful hair of yours?" -- ditto.

"I came here to get help with my very real and troubling problems. She has a husband, a lover, and an eight-room apartment on the park. Why does she need help?" -- woman at encounter group.

Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress) is an unassertive Upper East Side housewife whose self-absorbed husband Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) treats her more like a child or servant than a beloved spouse. He is fixated more on social climbing than in fulfilling her needs. But Tina goes from the frying pan into the fire when she begins a supposedly for-sex-only affair with author George Prager (Frank Langella), who is condescending, epicene, and sexually ambiguous to boot. Tina's other problems include a horribly chauvinistic psychiatrist and her two little girls, one of whom, Sylvie (Lorraine Cullen), is rude and obnoxious beyond words. Snodgress gives an imperfect but mostly effective performance (albeit Oscar-nominated); Langella, who is quite good, seems to be channeling his inner Bette Davis at times; and Benjamin nearly walks off with the movie with his excellent, three-dimensional portrait of the not entirely unlikable Jonathan. Tina starts off as a drip but becomes more empowered as the movie progresses. As George, Langella radiates such a negative aura that it's a wonder Tina is attracted to him, but he is a famous writer and more sophisticated than her husband. Based on a novel by Sue Kaufman [with a screenplay by the director's then-wife, Eleanor Perry], Diary of a Mad Housewife is one of the few topical late sixties/early seventies films that still holds up today. It was also one of the first "modern-day" movies to present the problems of the comparatively wealthy, and there were many movies to follow about the sufferings of neglected upper east side and Hampton wives. The final scene set at an encounter group that Tina attends is hilarious. A party scene at the Balsers is also very funny. Well-directed by Perry.

Verdict: Very amusing and very entertaining. ***1/2.

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD

The alien advances upon the earthlings

















THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951). Director: Christian Nyby. Produced by Howard Hawks.

"An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles."

Scientists and military men at an Arctic research station discover a spaceship buried under the ice, but when their attempts to free it only cause its destruction, they find that one of its occupants was thrown clear and is frozen. The alien accidentally defrosts and causes havoc ... The first film version of John W. Campbell's classic short story "Who Goes There?" isn't especially faithful but was very influential on science fiction films to come. Why have I never been carried away by the movie, despite the fact that it isn't half-bad and has some interesting elements? The big problem for me is that everyone is so casual -- there's no sense of fear or terror; the Army is in flippant control [even when they're not] and that's that, perhaps making this more of an action film (without that much action) than a horror flick. There are a couple of quick eerie shots of James Arness as the creepy alien monster, but the movie is never very scary. The shape-shifting alien of the story has been replaced by an interesting enough vegetable being that subsists on blood, and grows others of its kind from seeds beneath its fingernails. [The gruesome moments, such as the Thing hanging up victims in the greenhouse to use their blood to feed the seedlings, are described but never seen; too bad.]

In one of his very few leading roles, Kenneth Tobey is perfectly okay as the stalwart Captain Pat Hendry, although it's interesting that Crew Chief Bob (Dewey Martin) seems more intelligent. Margaret Sheridan is likewise okay if nothing special as "Nikki," a secretary who dallies with Pat; she had few credits. Robert Cornthwaite does the best he can with the rather silly role of Dr. Carrington, whose theories about the alien seem poorly thought out and who is the stereotype of the cold scientific moronic "intellectual," another serious flaw in the film. Douglas Spencer as "Scotty," the reporter, is simply irritating. George Fenneman and Paul Frees are cast as other scientists, and Robert Nichols is pudgy Lt. MacPherson. Dimitri Tiomkin's music is a plus, although there are times it gets a little hokey.

The movie was remade twice as The Thing (1982) and again as The Thing in 2011, which served as a prequel to the 1982 version. Both were more faithful to the original story, although not without flaws.

Verdict: Okay, but something's missing ... **1/2.

RUTHLESS

















RUTHLESS (1948). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

"You're the only friend I have." -- Horace

"And I hate your insides." -- Vic

Horace Woodruff Vendig (Zachary Scott) makes an announcement of the formation of a sort of charitable trust and tries to convince a gathering of victims that he's changed his self-centered tune, but his "best friend" Vic (Louis Hayward) isn't convinced, as flashbacks show their history since boyhood. Raised by a fairly wealthy small-town family after saving the daughter from drowning, Horace is determined to gain riches and power at any cost, going so far as to drop even those who helped him when he no longer requires their assistance. Victims include said daughter (Diana Lynn), who is desperately in love with him and is even affianced to him for a time; second fiancee Susan (Martha Vickers); wife Christa (Lucille Bremer); her ex-husband Buck (Sydney Greenstreet); and worst of all Bruce McDonald (Charles Evans), who helped Horace get his start in a profitable stock business but is turned down when he goes to him for help. Other cast members include Edith Barrett as Lynn's mother, Raymond Burr as Horace's father, and Bob Anderson in a fine turn as Horace as a boy [Arthur Stone as the young Vic is also notable]. Ruthless could have used twenty or so minutes more of character development, but it's a very interesting picture, the entire cast is excellent, and Werner Janssen has contributed an evocative score.

Verdict: One of director Ulmer's best movies. ***.

TRILOGY OF TERROR

Karen Black and He-Who-Kills
















TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975 telefilm). Director: Dan Curtis.

This made-for-TV horror anthology features Karen Black in three stories and several different roles. In "Julie," scripted by William F. Nolan from a Richard Matheson story, a student turns a teacher into a sex slave via blackmail, but which of them is really evil? "Millicent and Therese," (also Nolan from Matheson) deals with prim Millicent and her sexy sister; one woman with a dual personality. "Amelia," which Matheson scripted from his story "Prey," presents a woman with both boyfriend and mother troubles whose life gets worse when she gets a fetish doll that comes to life and attacks her. While this is the best -- and best remembered -- of the episodes, it almost plays like a parody, and the noises made by the doll are rather comical. In other words: lively but silly. Karen Black is quite good in all of the segments. Trilogy of Terror II was made for cable 21 years later.

Verdict: Okay, but where's the terror? **1/2.

CHECKMATE Season 1

McClure, Cabot and George of Checkmate, Inc.


















CHECKMATE Season One. 1960. Created by Eric Ambler.

This detective/suspense program aired for two seasons in the early sixties and took place in San Francisco. The premise was that Checkmate Inc., an agency, did its best to stop crimes before they occurred, thus in quite a few episodes they were hired to find out who was trying to kill a particular individual. Don Corey (Anthony George) was the head of the outfit, with able assistance from girl-happy Jed Sills (Doug McClure) as well as from consultant criminologist Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot). Late in the first season Donna Douglas [The Beverly Hillbillies] became their secretary, but she was given little to do and eventually just disappeared.The three leads all had a different style, played well together, and were very well-cast.

The show was respected enough to sign up some pretty hefty guest stars, including Anne Baxter, Jane Wyman, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre and even the inestimable Charles Laughton! [Betty Garde, who played the tough maid on a classic episode of The Honeymooners, has a good dramatic turn in "Hot Wind in a Cold Town."] Most of the episodes were solidly in the "B+" category but there were a number of "A"s as well: In "Face in the Window" Joseph Cotten cancels his engagement to Julie Adams after he sees a man whom he presumed dead looking in at him through a shop window. In "Deadly Shadow" a grown-up Margaret O'Brien is a marine's widow plagued by a shadowy assailant. Barbara Rush plays a troubled woman with two distinct personalities in "The Dark Divide." In "Mask of Vengeance," with Janice Rule and Cloris Leachman, the Chinese community is outraged after a diplomat's daughter claims immunity after running over a child. In "The Murder Game" a dying defense attorney, beautifully-played by John Williams, plans to kill the one guilty client that he got off. In "Terror from the East" Charles Laughton superbly plays a missionary who's come to San Francisco to warn a man who has been targeted for death. [This episode also marks the first appearance of Hyatt's adorable daschund, Bismark, who figures in an especially cute prologue in "Tight as a Drum."] "Melody for Murder" has pop singer Jimmie Rodgers threatened by an unknown female out for revenge. "Voyage into Fear" guest stars Joan Fontaine as a neurotic woman who is convinced her husband has sent a hit man after her on a cruise ship, but is she right or is she nuts?

Verdict: Memorable crime drama with fine performances and an especially interesting guest cast. ***.

THE COMEBACK

THE COMEBACK (aka The Day the Screaming Stopped/1978). Director/producer: Pete Walker.

Nick Cooper (Jack Jones) is a former teen idol who dropped his career when he married his now ex-wife Gail (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack Palance) and is attempting a comeback after six years out of the public eye. His manager, Webster (David Doyle) rents him an old mansion to rest and work in, and the place comes with a strange old couple as well as ghostly screaming voices in the night. What Nick doesn't know is that a person dressed as a witch and carrying a scythe is hacking up assorted people in his circle. The Comeback is a fair-to-middling horror thriller that suffers from an utterly prosaic approach, with no style to speak of, and no elan whatsoever to the murder sequences. Jones proves a competent, pleasant actor; although much better-known as a singer (and the son of Allan Jones), he appeared in a couple of films [Juke Box Rhythm] and several television programs. Pamela Stephenson plays Webster's assistant, who dallies with Nick, and Peter Turner is vivid as Harry, Nick's long-time sound person. Bill Owen, and especially Sheila Keith, make an impression as the couple who come with the old house. The story is not bad, but the execution is, unfortunately, mediocre.

Verdict: This one had possibilities ... **1/2.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK

THE KILLER THAT STALKED NEW YORK (1950). Director Earl McAvoy.

Sheila Bennett (Evelyn Keyes) is not having a good day. Her faithless boyfriend Matt (Charles Korvin) plans to dump her as soon as she delivers gems that she stole, and is in fact carrying on with her younger sister, Francie (Lola Albright). Even worse is that Sheila has smallpox, is deathly ill, and is infecting nearly everyone she comes into contact with. Sheila's need to get even with Matt overrides everything else in this absorbing and well-acted suspense film. Keyes is excellent, and she's well supported by those already named and others in an interesting cast, which includes everyone from Richard Egan (treasury agent) and William Bishop (doctor)  to Dorothy Malone (nurse), Arthur Space (another doctor) and even Jim Backus as a bartender. Keyes also made a positive impression in a very different role with Peter Lorre in The Face Behind the Mask. Well-directed by McAvoy, who only helmed two other pictures.

Verdict: Zesty film noir with a sterling lead performance. ***.

THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946)

Tyrone Power at the height of his good looks
THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946). Director: Edmund Goulding.

Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) is engaged to wealthy Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), who wants Larry to get a good job and make money. But Larry is seeking something other than mere materialism in his life, so instead of marrying Isabel he goes off to find himself in India. Observing, commenting and interacting with the others is Somerset Maugham himself (Herbert Marshall), who wrote the novel upon which the film is based. Other major characters include Isabel's uncle, Elliot Templeton (Clifton Webb) -- of Larry he says, "my feeling is he's living in the Latin Quarter with some 'bint' who's no better than she ought to be" -- and Sophie MacDonald (Anne Baxter), whose life becomes embroiled in tragedy upon tragedy. As a fairly obvious Christ figure (although in some ways Larry comes off more like an unambitious schmo), Power is adequate, but his insufficiency shows up in such scenes as when he reacts [or doesn't] to sad news about Sophie; he's hardly ever looked more handsome, however. The best performances come from a poignant Anne Baxter and from an especially superb Webb, who etches a fascinating portrait in his personification of the snobbish but likable Templeton, but Tierney and Marshall are also effective, along with Lucile Watson [Templeton's sister] and Elsa Lanchester in smaller roles. John  Payne has a fairly good part and is fine, although out-classed by the rest of the cast. At one point Maugham remarks that Templeton is "sitting pretty" -- Webb would appear in the famous film of that title two years later -- to which Templeton replies: "that is an American colloquialism, which you British seem to use, but which describes my state accurately." In addition to its over-length, The Razor's Edge has underdeveloped supporting characters whose fates never have the impact they're supposed to, and the movie never seems to get anywhere. Still, Webb and Baxter make it worth watching.

Verdict: Entertaining, in spite of itself. ***.

BURN, WITCH, BURN

Janet Blair indulges in witchcraft as Peter Wyngarde sleeps













BURN, WITCH, BURN (aka Night of the Eagle/1962). Director: Sidney Hayers.

Professor of sociology Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) is disturbed to discover that his wife, Tansy (Janet Blair) is using fetishes and other talismans of witchcraft to increase his good fortune and protect him from his enemies at university. This goes against everything the rational man believes in (or doesn't), so Norman destroys all of Tansy's little items, and things go from bad to much, much worse ... Fritz Leiber's novel "Conjure Wife" was first filmed in 1944 as Weird Woman; this version is also very creditable. The two leads are quite effective and there is also solid support from Margaret Johnston (The Psychopath) as Flora, a sinister background figure. One of the best sequences has to do with a huge stone eagle that comes to life and pursues Norman through passages and corridors at the college.The story was filmed a third time as the comedic Witch's Brew. The versatile Blair was Red Skelton's leading lady in The Fuller Brush Man while Wyngarde was Peter Quint in The Innocents and did a lot of television work as well. Hayers also directed the British chiller Circus of Horrors.

Verdict: Zesty supernatural item. ***.

GALS, INCORPORATED

Leon Errol in a pensive mood
GALS, INCORPORATED (aka Gals, Inc./1943). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

The club "Gals, Incorporated" and the ladies who toil there are basically supported by zipper heir Cornelius Rensington III (Leon Errol) -- "he loves the girls and the girls love his money" -- but the arrangement is jeopardized when his sister Jennifer (Minna Phillips) arrives in town threatening to cut him off unless he gets married. Without money, Cornelius will have to go to work! He pretends to be married to singer Molly (Grace McDonald), but another complication arrives in the form of Bill (David Bacon), Corny''s son and a marine who falls for Molly even as man-hunting Gwen (Harriet Hilliard) tries to get Bill to the altar. This should be a cute picture, but the material is sub-standard, there aren't nearly enough good lines or physical gags, and with the exception of Errol the cast is pretty third-rate. Hilliard [Harriet of Ozzie and Harriet fame] isn't well-cast as a femme fatale; McDonald and Bacon are merely bland; and loose-limbed Betty Kean seems to be trying to be a poor woman's Joan Davis and failing miserably. This is one of the few films in which you can see Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers, although their numbers are mediocre. The best number, performed by another female vocalist, is "Brazil." Bacon made only a few films, including the cliffhanger serial The Masked Marvel. Errol had better roles in Mexican Spitfire at Sea (also directed by Goodwins) and The Invisible Man's Revenge, among many others.

Verdict: Not quite an hour but it seems much longer. **.

THE LAST OF SHEILA

THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973). Director: Herbert Ross. Screenplay by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim.

Producer Clinton Green (James Coburn) gathers together a group of people on his yacht for a party of games and murder, as he believes one member of the collection was responsible for the death of his wife, Sheila, in a hit and run. The suspects include writer Tom (Richard Benjamin) and his wife, Lee (Joan Hackett); director Philip (James Mason); actresses Christine (Dyan Cannon) and Alice (Raquel Welch); and Anthony (Ian McShane) to round out the group. These self-absorbed show biz folk are given cards assigning them a particular "vice" as well as clues telling them where to look for more information in the mystery game Clinton insists they all play. But then someone gets murdered for real ... The movie holds the attention and the actors are all good, with James Mason taking top honors, but screenwriters Perkins and Sondheim don't provide fully dimensional characters and are too clever for their own good. As one character says: it "doesn't quite add up -- it leaves you with too many questions." The sexual ambiguity of more than one character only adds to a generally dated quality, with sexual orientations seemingly [and improbably] changing at the drop of a hat [not surprising, considering Tony Perkins worked on the script!]. There's some amusing dialogue and interesting observations at times.

Verdict: Reasonably entertaining, but in the end it adds up to very little. **1/2.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 1

The original cast minus Peter Lupus
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 1.1966. CBS. 28 color episodes.

Daniel Briggs (Steven Hill) returns from somewhere [it is never revealed] to again head up a covert "Impossible Missions" task force that tackles dangerous undercover operations apparently assigned by the "secretary" [of state?] in the U.S. government, although why the CIA wouldn't handle these assignments is never made clear. Briggs has a large number of agents but he always seems to pick the same group: Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), strongman Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), electronics expert Barney Collier (Greg Morris), and master of disguise Rollin Hand ("guest star" Martin Landau). While Mission: Impossible was a bit more "serious" than, say, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., there were times when the show should have been called "Mission: Highly Improbable." Suspension of disbelief is required on the vast majority of episodes. A supposedly impregnable prison that has no security cameras? No one ever recognizes famous former model Cinnamon Carter or actor/celebrity Rollin Hand? And in one episode without any explanation a gangster is not only familiar with the Impossible Missions team, but knows Briggs is the head of it and where Briggs lives! And you have to wonder what is the point of those super-secret openings where Briggs gets general info about the mission when somewhere and somehow he'll have to get the details before he can assemble his team or come up with a plan. But what the hell, the fans of this very popular program didn't care as long as the show was entertaining, which it was. The pilot episode, with its cheap wobbling sets, seemed a little unreal, but it held the attention and that's what mattered.

Most of the first season episodes were "B+" in quality, and there were a few "A"s as well. "A Spool There Was" has Cinnamon and Rollin working alone in a hostile country to find a wire that has information about bacteriological warfare on it. The team pretends to have a machine that can perfectly duplicate diamonds in "The Diamond," which features a very suspenseful sequence concerning an exchange of gems. A fascinating fake train ride figures in "The Train," in which the team must eliminate a prime minister's dangerous successor. "The Traitor" concerns a U.S. defector with an important cryptic message. Other memorable episodes concerned a training center for foreign spies, a race to acquire Nazi gold, and the rescue of an imprisoned cardinal in a jail located across from a carnival. The actors are all competent, if unspectacular, with the exception of Martin Landau, who easily walks off with the acting honors.

In one episode Cinnamon gets the assignment info at the opening, because apparently it was decided that a difficult Steven Hill would have to be replaced, which he was in the second season. Lalo Schifrin's sexy and exciting theme music is just wonderful. NOTE: The remastered DVDs of this series looks stunning.

Verdict: Far-fetched but intriguing and entertaining suspense show. ***.

THE REAL STORY: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR














THE REAL STORY: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. Smithsonian Network. 2009. Producer/director: Virginia Quinn.

This episode of the non-fiction series The Real Story looks at the facts behind "The Amityville Horror," which was a best-selling book supposedly based on a true story that later became a box office hit on the screen; there were remakes and sequels as well. Although it takes its time getting to this conclusion by first looking at the claims and the people who believe them, The Real Story pretty  much makes it clear that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. For instance, the infamous "red room" was merely a toy closet. Investigators tried to exorcise the house but discovered no sinister influences, although an eerie little boy allegedly showed up in a photograph which could have been faked. Among those interviewed are "investigative reporter" Laura Didio [it is never revealed which paper or supermarket tabloid she may have written for], and a childhood friend of the family whose members were tragically slaughtered in the house and who, unlike Didio, has significant and intelligent things to say. It is theorized that the Lutz family, who moved into the house after the massacre and claimed the house was haunted, may have mistaken explainable events for supernatural phenomena -- or maybe they were just lying.

Verdict: Pulls the lid off a hoax that fooled the dumb and the gullible. ***. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931)

Kent Douglass (Douglass Montgomery) and Mae Clarke

















WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931). Director: James Whale.

"You don't stay boyish very long in this war."

During an air raid by German zeppelins in London during WW 1 a prostitute, Myra (Mae Clarke) meets a soldier, Roy (Kent Douglass), home on leave and realizes somewhat to her dismay that this inexperienced 19-year-old is falling in love with her and has no idea of what or who she really is. This first film version of Robert E. Sherwood's play -- it was remade in 1940 -- is a very affecting and well-acted drama with well-drawn characters. Although it betrays its stage origins in many stage bound sequences, there are also successful attempts at "opening up" the story and the outdoor scenes are well-handled. Douglass, who later changed his name to "Douglass Montgomery," gives a natural, charming, completely convincing and sincere performance as the smitten, sensitive young soldier, and while Clarke is a little less natural, she is also excellent. The supporting cast includes Doris Lloyd as an older friend of Myra's; a snappy Ethel Griffies as her landlady; Frederic Kerr as Roy's father, the major; Enid Bennett as Roy's mother; and even Bette Davis in the small role of Roy's sister, Janet. [Davis is winning, although you wouldn't have imagined she'd become such a big star.] The uncompromising ending packs a wallop and is quite moving.

Verdict: Simply heart-breaking. ***1/2.

FEAR STRIKES OUT

FEAR STRIKES OUT (1957). Director: Robert Mulligan.

In Fear Strikes Out Anthony Perkins acts more "psycho" than in Psycho at times, but it's understandable, as he's playing a very troubled man in this drama based on a true story. Baseball player Jim Piersall (Perkins), who goes from the minors to the Boston Red Sox,  is saddled with a "sports dad" instead of a stage mother --  for his well-meaning father, John (Karl Malden), almost seems to act as if everything is happening to him. All of the stress and tension leads to neurotic episodes and a trip to a sympathetic psychiatrist (Adam Williams), although one senses Piersall's mental problems can't all be blamed on his father. Fear Strikes Out is absorbing, and Perkins gives one of his all-time best performances. Malden is also notable, as is Norma Moore as Jim's wife, Mary. Elmer Bernstein contributed a good score, although the music is somewhat overdone at times.

Verdict: Proof positive that there was more to Perkins than Psycho. ***.

SEVENTEEN (1940)

SEVENTEEN  (1940). Director: Louis King.

Based on Booth Tarkington's novel, albeit very loosely I imagine, this is the story of one Willy or William Baxter (Jackie Cooper), who is nearly 18 and wants his family and friends to treat him like a man. He tells everyone he hasn't got time for girls, as he has too much studying to do for his future, but his attitude changes when he meets a supposedly sophisticated young lady from Chicago named Lola (Betty Field). Before long his whole life centers around this spoiled, silly creature, and his future doesn't matter half as much as having proper clothing for a swank night club and the right car to take his girl out for a spin in. In some ways this slight film seems modeled more on the Andy Hardy or Henry Aldrich series than on Booth Tarkington. [The Hardy series began in 1937, while Cooper starred in what would turn out to be the first of the Henry Aldrich films, What a Life, in 1939.] But as easy as it would be to dismiss Seventeen, it's so well-acted by Cooper, as well as Ann Shoemaker and Otto Kruger as his parents, that they help the film's sentimental charm come through; Cooper is really excellent as the young, proud sap who gets his first taste of heart break. Betty Field affects a strange irritating voice and makes much less of an impression as Lola. Peter Lind Hayes plays George, a rival for Lola's affections, and "Snowflake" Toones is cast as Genesis, the likable handyman.

Verdict: Good-natured, with a winning Cooper. ***.

LES MISERABLES (1952)

LES MISERABLES (1952). Director: Lewis Milestone.

Victor Hugo's famous novel had already been filmed with Fredric March and Charles Laughton in 1935 when this remake appeared 17 years later. In this version Michael Rennie stars as Jean Valjean, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, and later coming afoul of policeman Javert (Robert Newton). This version shows us much more of how ex-convict Valjean transformed himself into the eminently respectable Mssr. Madeleine, but it completely cuts out the innkeepers, as well as the business with Javert getting suspicious when he sees Madeleine lift a carriage off of a man, The chase sequence from the first picture has also been eliminated. What this version substitutes is much more of a romance between Marius (Cameron Mitchell) and Cosette (Debra Paget), and unfortunately it's dull; it also intimates that Valjean might be in love with Cosette. The scene in the sewers has been expanded and is rather well-done. Rennie is just as perfunctory in the opening courtroom scenes as March was, but in general he's competent if unexciting. Edmund Gwenn and Sylvia Sidney both make positive impressions as, respectively, Bishop Courbet and Fantine; Elsa Lanchester and James Robertson Justice are also in the cast and are fine. As Javert, Newton is much more low-key than Laughton was, and about one fifth as memorable. Well-directed by Milestone, and with a memorable theme by Alex North.

Verdict: Interesting, but a cut below the 1935 version. **1/2.

THE FINAL CUT (1995)

Urquhart dresses down parliament
THE FINAL CUT (1995). Director: Mike Vardy.

In the last of three mini-series dedicated to the rogue-ish activities of prime minister Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), the king is nowhere to be seen but there are discussions in Parliament about a conflict in Cypress, leading to the PM having flashbacks to an incident years ago involving the deaths of two young Greek men. Urquhart gets a new chief assistant, Claire (Ilsa Blair), who seems to be spreading her time, affections, and loyalties between the PM and his chief political rival, Tom Makepeace (Paul Freeman). Urquhart's wife, Elizabeth (Diane Fletcher), a kind of Lady MacBeth, makes more appearances and seems to have her own agenda. The Final Cut is crackling good fun, with Richardson in superb form, fine performances from the rest of the cast (although we probably see more of Blair's breasts than we need to), some devious plotting and inter-plotting, and many memorably dramatic sequences -- although it ends on a mildly confusing note. [One quibble is that a clearly sociopathic personality like Urquhart would in no way be haunted or have any kind of regrets over past misdeeds. True, he might worry if his past would catch up with him, but not in any way that would indicate a conscience.] This follows House of Cards and To Play the King.

Verdict: British television at its best. ***1/2.

ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY: AN AFTER-HOURS TOUR

ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY: AN AFTER-HOURS TOUR. Scott Skelton and Jim Benson. Foreword by John Astin. Syracuse University Press; 1999.

Now that this series has been released on DVD, it is much easier to re-evaluate, although fourteen years ago authors Skelton and Benson did an estimable job of doing so with this scrupulously researched volume. Let me say at the outset that, having watched all the episodes in their original form, I am not as carried away with the program as the authors -- in fact, in some ways I found the book to be more entertaining than the series -- but whether you have fond memories of Rod Serling's Night Gallery or thought it personified the expression "boob tube," you might still enjoy this book. In addition to supplying plot synopses and critiques of each episode and segment, the authors bolster the manuscript with dozens of fresh interviews with the show's cast members and creative personnel. They write with intelligence and authority on the behind-the-scenes battles between Rod Serling, who discovered he was just the host and figurehead and had little creative input, and producer Jack Laird, who seemed to fancy that he was more talented a writer than Serling (and was not). The authors rightly point out that even Twilight Zone had its share of stinkers, and they assess each Night Gallery segment by dissecting what worked and what didn't when it came to script, direction, acting, and even special effects and musical score. One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with what happened to the series in syndication, when longer segments were chopped down [including the acclaimed episode "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," which perhaps everyone overpraised] and shorter segments were padded out with stock footage that made some of them even more incomprehensible. Worse, episodes from another spooky series were enlisted to create a more attractive syndication package. A bizarre side feature of After-Hours Tour is all the praise garnered for director Jeannot Swarc, whose theatrical career [Somewhere in Time; Jaws 2] was completely undistinguished and who quickly fled back to television. Skelton and Benson admit that some of the Night Gallery episodes, especially the black-outs, were pretty awful, but they do make a case for some of the segments that they found much more memorable [even if you ultimately disagree]. Whether they convince you or not, An After-Hours Tour is an admirable and very well-written work of scholarship, well-produced by Syracuse University's publishing division.

Verdict: Informative, authoritative, and entertaining. ***1/2.

SKYFALL

"Skyfall:" Bond's family estate in Scotland
SKYFALL (2012). Director: Sam Mendes.

MI-5 is on high alert: a computer drive with a list of undercover agents in terrorist groups has been stolen, but while attempting to get it back James Bond (Daniel Craig) is accidentally shot by a fellow agent. Bond takes his time reporting back for duty, only to discover that the info on the drive is being used to kill many other agents; even headquarters comes under attack. The mastermind behind this is a highly disgruntled former agent, Silva (Javier Bardem), who is out to take down the whole network and especially M (Judi Dench) whom he chiefly [pun intended] blames for his troubles. Skyfall is somewhere between the excellent Casino Royale and disappointing Quantum of Solace in quality. There is not nearly enough plot for a movie that is almost two and a half hours long, and Bond has been turned into a very callous and unemotional creature. At one point he does nothing to stop an assassination [we never even learn who the victim was], and seems unperturbed by the death of a woman who helped him [admittedly he takes down the bad guys immediately thereafter]; even Roger Moore would have shown more emotion during such scenes. Most incredibly, Bond simply shows up in the shower of a woman that he knows has been manhandled by men since the age of 12 [Ian Fleming's Bond may have been a lover boy but he showed women more respect.] In fact the film has a general streak of misogyny through it, and M seems especially inept; at one point the villain breaks out of confinement with such ease that it's almost laughable.

Skyfall is the name of Bond's estate in Scotland, where he takes M for a final stand against Silva and his allies. As Silva, Javier Bardem is pretty awful; he seems to be channeling his inner Joker. A scene when he questions Bond and tries to make him uncomfortable by sort of coming on to him is meant to be homoerotically hip, but instead it seems dated, a throwback to the nasty gay villain. [For the record Silva's sexual orientation is never really established.] Silva tells Bond, "there's a first time for everything," to which Bond replies "what makes you think this is my first time?" which some have interpreted as Bond being bisexual when such is not the case. In any case, the scene doesn't really work.

The film has some striking cinematography by Roger Deakens [another reason why the movie has been vastly over-praised], some exciting action sequences involving high-speed trains and the like, and has recaptured some of the romantic atmosphere and elegance of earlier Bond films. Thomas Newman's music is generally helpful. Craig and Dench are competent, and newcomers Naomie Harris [the agent, Eve, who becomes the new Miss Moneypenny], Berenice Marlohe [as the seductive Severine] make a favorable impression. Ralph Fiennes is in the running for M's job, and a nearly unrecognizable Albert Finney plays the Bond family gameskeeper and figures in the finale. Director Mendes at least keeps things moving.

Verdict: Despite its many good points, this is far from being a great 007 outing. **1/2.