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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961)

The shipwrecked soldiers vs bad-tempered giant crab
MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961). Director: Cy Endfield.

Jules Verne's Mysterious Island, which was inspired by Robinson Crusoe, was first filmed as a silent in 1929, turned into one of the worst movie serials ever in 1951, and finally became a worthwhile motion picture vehicle ten years later. During the siege of Richmond in 1865, several union soldiers, a war correspondent, a freed slave, Neb, (along with one rebel soldier) escape from prison in a balloon and wind up on an isolated island miles from anywhere. The film makes two major additions to Verne's story: two shipwrecked women appear on the island; and there are also giant monsters for FX stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen to play around with. [Harryhausen claimed the story would not be entertaining without them, but this is nonsense -- actually without the monsters Harryhausen would have had little to do.] Originally the monsters were supposed to be prehistoric creatures, but it was decided to make them products of growth experiments conducted by Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), who has taken refuge in his submarine Nautilus in an underground grotto. British actor Michael Craig may seem an odd choice to play Union soldier Captain Harding, but he does a convincing American accent and is quite good and authoritative, although he seems completely different from the star of Doctor in Love, which he did the previous year. Gary Merrill gives one of his best performances as the reporter Spilitt, and Michael Callan is also notable in his turn as the boyish and frightened but ultimately courageous young Herbert. Joan Greenwood gives her usual affected performance as Lady Fairchild [she thickly stretches out her words to a comical degree], and Beth Rogan is at least decorative as her niece. Percy Herbert and Dan Jackson as the reb and Neb round out the cast and are fine.

But the two greatest contributions are made by composer Bernard Herrmann and Ray Harryhausen. Herrmann's score is excellent, beginning with the rousing opening theme and including the quirkier music for the attack by the giant. funny-looking bird. You might quibble with the quality of some of the process shots, but Harryhausen's animation is excellent. In addition to the big bird, we've got that wonderful giant crab, huge, buzzing bees, and -- perhaps best of all -- that baleful squid who attacks the men in the climax after fixing them with its giant, evil eye. Wilkie Cooper's cinematography employs highly attractive lighting schemes. Director Endfield [Sands of the Kalahari] keeps things moving at a good pace. The underwater sequences are very well-done and we're even treated to shots of the sunken city of Atlantis.

I've always wondered why this film isn't as well-known or well-received [although it was quite successful] as Disney's adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For my money Mysterious Island is a much better picture, and the squid in the former can't compare to Harryhausen's impressive, slithering creation.

Verdict: Exciting and colorful with wonderful effects. ***1/2.

ANNA MAY WONG: IN HER OWN WORDS

Anna May Wong
ANNA MAY WONG: IN HER OWN WORDS (2013). Writer/director/producer: Yunah Hong.

"I never kissed my leading man in Hollywood -- ever."

Anna May Wong [1905 - 1961] managed to become a minor movie star during a period when racism was at its peak and there were few roles for Chinese-Americans in films [the situation probably has not changed all that much today]. Her career began in silent films with small roles in movies like Mr. Wu, although she did eventually get starring parts such as in The Toll of the Sea, a Chinese version of Madama Butterfly, and went to Europe to get more lead roles in movies. Her talent and good looks were obvious from the first, but her refusal to play stereotypical parts led to her losing roles, and when she did play exotic Eurasian villainesses as in Daughter of the Dragon [a Fu Manchu picture] she was excoriated by mainland Chinese. She held her own with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, and a smitten songwriter wrote "These Foolish Things [remind me of you]" for her. She had a good role in Daughter of Shanghai, but by the late forties and fifties she was reduced to very small roles in such films as Impact and on The Barbara Stanwyck Show. While one could say that this brief documentary on the actress is a bit on the superficial side, like TCM's Frosted Yellow Willows which also covered Wong, the emphasis is on the positive aspects of her life and career. Another difference is that a pretty and talented young actress named Doan Ly portrays Wong at different points during the documentary, speaking Wong's "own words" from letters and interviews. There are also quotes from actor BD Wong [Law and Order: Special Victims Unit] and film scholar Pete Feng, among others.

Verdict: Interesting look at the life of a very interesting actress. ***.

HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON

Laura Betti and Stephen Forsyth













HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (aka Il rosso segno della follia/1970). Director: Mario Bava. 

"Another bride dead. How sad. But fortunately she paid for her wedding dress." -- John Harrington

John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) heads a bridal fashion house and is trapped in a loveless marriage to Mildred (Laura Betti), who refuses to give him a divorce. Harrington is haunted by a woman's voice calling his name, and in his twisted mind feels the only way he can uncover who she is and why she's calling him is to murder brides with a gleaming cleaver. As he puts it, "a woman should live only to her wedding night, love once, then die." Inspector Russell (Jesus Puente) seems pretty sure Harrington is the guy he's after, but can't prove it, even though he must have left loads of evidence all through his house. Halfway through the movie Hatchet turns into a ghost story [sort of like an EC comic story or something out of the later Night Gallery] as he is haunted by one of his victims, who can be seen by everyone but him except when she wishes him to see her.  Bava returns to the fashion house for a horror movie after helming Blood and Black Lace six years earlier, but this time the results are less felicitous. Photographed by Bava, the film often looks good, with his usual adept color schemes, but at times it plays like a travesty. There are some good moments, however, such as when the police arrive right after a murder and Harrington is unnerved to realize a corpse on the stairs is dripping blood, which might be spotted at any second. Laura Betti later appeared in Bava's Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve, which is much gorier than this relatively bloodless horror film. Stephen Forsyth was a Canadian actor who appeared in several Italian movies, but left the business after starring in Hatchet. Pretty Dagmar Lassander plays a model named Helen who may or may not be the sister of one of Harrington's victims. The movie is an Italian film that was filmed partly in Spain and appears to take place in France, with the Eiffel Tower clearly seen in one sequence.

Verdict: Not Bava's worst but far from his best. **/2.

SISSI: THE YOUNG EMPRESS

A ball at the palace















SISSI: THE YOUNG EMPRESS (aka Sissi - Die junge Kaiserin/1956). Director: Ernst Marischka. 

This is the second film in the trilogy that began with Sissi. Sissi (Romy Schneider) and Franz Josef (Karl Boehm) are married and living in the beautiful Schonbrunn palace. As Empress of Austria, Sissi is instrumental in creating new understanding between the Austrians and Hungarians when she importunes Franz to offer amnesty to former enemies. Naturally, her termagant mother-in-law, Sophie (Vilma Degischer), a conservative with old, rigid ways, disagrees with Sissi, then goes too far when she decides to simply take over the raising of Sissi's baby daughter without even talking it over with the mother. This causes a brief separation between the emperor and his wife. This is an entertaining movie, even if it gets to be a little cloying at times, and there seem to be more kids [in the scenes when Sissi goes home to her family] than in The Sound of Music, adorable as they may be. Although this has the same cinematographer as Sissi, Bruno Mondi, the film and its glamorous, magnificent settings are photographed and displayed with much more care than in the first film, making this a treat to look at. Anton Profes has contributed a beautiful opening theme as well. The silly bodyguard, Major Bockl (Joseph Meinrad) is back and now in love with Sissi. Schneider, Boehm, Degischer and the other actors all give fine performances. 

Verdict: Not exactly heavy drama, but lovely in many ways, and well-acted. ***. 

THE LADY CONFESSES

Hugh Beaumont
















THE LADY CONFESSES (1945). Director: Sam Newfield.

"I don't know what there is about the guy but he just sends me."

Vicki McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes) is looking forward to her wedding to Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont), when who should show up but Larry's wife, Norma (Barbara Slater), who's been missing for seven years. While this causes a complication, it gets even worse for the couple when Norma is murdered and they become the chief suspects. But there's also nightclub owner Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald), who may have been involved with Norma, and singer Lucille (Claudia Drake), who's carrying a torch for Lucky and may have been jealous of the dead woman. And what about Marge (Carol Andrews), the lady who photographs the customers, or Steve (Dewy Robinson), the bartender? Vicki decides to go undercover at the club to discover who may be keeping secrets, while Captain Brown (Emmett Vogan) conducts an official investigation. Beaumont was best-known for playing the mild-mannered father on Leave It to Beaver, but he could play different kinds of roles when required, such as detective Mike Shayne in several movies also directed by Newfield. In this he first appears doing a convincing drunk act, and has a very different personality from Ward Cleaver. This is a not bad "B" mystery with a good cast and an ending that you may not see coming. Newfield also directed The Lost Continent among many other "B's." Hughes, who also appeared in The Cowboy and the Blonde, was not a bad actress.

Verdict: Ward Cleaver on a bender. **1/2.

KILLER JOE

Matthew McConaughey
KILLER JOE (2011). Director: William Friedkin.

"Who would like to say grace?" -- Joe

This latter-day film from the director of The Exorcist is based on a play by Tracy Letts, who also did the screenplay. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes thousands of dollars to bookies who are threatening him with death and disfigurement, so he hatches a plan -- with the full approval of his father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), virginal sister, Dottie (Juno Temple), and stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) -- to hire a hit man to murder his hated mother. The hired gun they choose is a West Dallas detective known as "Killer Joe" (Matthew McConaughey), who insists on being paid $25,000 up front. When Chris tells him that they can only pay him after they get his mother's insurance money, Joe demands a retainer -- Dottie. No one gives him any argument. Of course, things don't quite work out the way everyone thinks they will. Killer Joe is a well-made and well-acted black -- very black -- comedy that leads up to some disquieting, but hardly unexpected, violence. Ever since the relative success of Pulp Fiction, we've gotten all sorts of movies in which the characters are all complete low lives, and this is just another one, although it holds the attention for the most part and has some riveting sequences. Gershon is excellent, and Smith and Temple do the best they can considering the material. McConaughey seems miscast at first, but he quietly etches a disturbing portrait of simmering and slithering evil. Church seems like just a variation on the idiot "Lowell" that he played on the sitcom Wings; in fact, the whole movie resembles a particularly dark sitcom with violence. An unpleasant aspect of the movie is that at times it seems like little more than an excuse to brutalize women. A fellatio scene involving a piece of chicken seems dragged in for no good reason. This probably worked better on the stage, but Eugene O'Neill it's not. You forget it as soon as it's over. Friedkin and Letts also collaborated on another adaptation of a Letts' play, Bug, but based on this I'm not in such a rush to see that.

Verdict: Has its moments, but not every play needs to be immortalized on film. **1/2.

A TASTE OF EVIL

Barbara Parkins and Barbara Stanwyck
A TASTE OF EVIL (1971 telefilm). Director: John Llewellyn Moxey.

After starring in the mediocre The House that Would Not Die, Barbara Stanwyck appeared in a second ABC "Movie of the Week" for producer Aaron Spelling, and this time the results are more felicitous. Susan (Barbara Parkins) was raped as a child by an unknown assailant on the grounds of her family estate. After years of therapy in Europe she returns home to her mother, Miriam (Barbara Stanwyck), the strange handyman John (Arthur O'Connell), her uncle and now stepfather Howard (William Windom) and sympathetic Dr. Lomas (Roddy McDowall). It isn't long before her shadowy memories of the assault begin to plague her, and she also keeps seeing the corpse of Uncle Howard, whom she suspects of the rape, in various places -- the trouble is that Howard is alive. A Taste of Evil has a tricky screenplay by Jimmy Sangster (The Nanny, Hysteria, Scream of Fear etc.) that contains some surprises, and good performances from the entire cast. Without giving too much away, it is safe to say that Stanwyck offers a chilling portrait of one of the worst mothers who ever existed on celluloid. She doesn't gnash the scenery as lesser actresses would do, but wisely underplays and is that much more memorable and formidable, making this one of her better latter-day assignments. Some people see this as a remake of the Sangster-written Scream of Fear, but despite similarities the movies are quite different.

Verdict: Interesting enough on its own terms but Stanwyck really makes it worth watching. ***.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

Barbara Stanwyck
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (1962). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

"I know what it's like to love someone and not be able to do anything about it."

In the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren, the protagonist, Dove Linkhorn, is a 16-year-old drifter who winds up in the sex business when he's paid to deflower [supposed] virgins for eager voyeurs. In the Hollywood adaptation, Dove is now thirty [played by British Laurence Harvey], a former caregiver for his dying father, and is shocked to discover that his lady love, Hallie (Capucine), has become a prostitute at a famous New Orleans brothel. The story is still set in New Orleans in the 1930's, but everything else is screenwriters John Fante and Edmund Morris' invention and has virtually nothing to do with Nelson Algren. Dove has gone to work for the Italian store owner Teresina (Anne Baxter) while hoping to re-connect with Hallie, a sculptress who is now hooked up with brothel owner Jo Courtney (Barbara Stanwyck), who seems to think Hallie is her personal property. Courtney's husband Dockery, (Don "Red" Barry) has lost his legs, and Jo deludes herself that her feelings for Hallie are not lustful [this latter business is more tacit than explicit]. When Dove does his damnedest to get Hallie back, all Hell breaks loose, resulting in tragedy. The "Doll House" is the least bawdy "bawdy house" that I've ever seen on film, and I've no doubt some viewers at the time had trouble figuring out whether Hallie was a prostitute or not. Jane Fonda has a supporting part as Kitty, another lost gal who winds up at the Doll House, and Richard Rust, who played the bellboy who marries the blond in Homicidal, is vivid as one of Jo's nastier associates. The performances are okay, with Fonda and Stanwyck, especially Stanwyck, taking top honors, although the material is far beneath the latter. It's pretty much beneath everyone, in fact.

Verdict: Vaguely entertaining and well-made but kind of schlocky in spite of it. **

RAY HARRYHAUSEN 1920 - 2013

Ray Harryhausen with one of his models
RAY HARRYHAUSEN 1920 - 2013.

Even with the advent of CGI computer effects, I was still impressed by and often prefer the stop-motion animation work of master FX man Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen did not invent the technique, but he mastered and perfected it. He worked with Willis 0'Brien [King Kong] on Mighty Joe Young, then branched off on his own with such films as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in the fifties, his masterpiece Jason and the Argonauts and the wonderful Valley of Gwangi and Mysterious Island in the sixties, and such films as Clash of the Titans in later years. His work was always excellent, but he resisted making the films he worked on a little more "adult," and the "dynamation" he employed to bring monsters and creatures to life became increasingly expensive [and was always painstakingly slow]. Often his effects were the only reasons to watch the movie; One Million Years B.C. for instance is a bore except when the beautifully animated monsters appear, and some of his latter day Sinbad films were a bit disappointing. Still most of the movies he worked on remain tremendously entertaining today, with Jason and the Argonauts arguably his finest achievement and one of the best fantasy films ever made. Other Harryhausen films include First Men in the Moon, and The Three Worlds of Gulliver.

He was one of the greats, he will be missed, but his work is, thankfully, on view on DVD and will be for generations to come. The amount of joy that I and millions of others have gotten from his films is inestimable.

LADY ON A TRAIN

David Bruce and Deanna Durbin
LADY ON A TRAIN (1945). Director: Charles David.

Nikki Collins (Deanna Durbin) is on a train a few minutes from Grand Central Station when she sees a man being murdered from the window. [Agatha Christie used a similar premise -- on an English train, of course -- 12 years later, and did a lot more with it.] Unable to explain the situation with any intelligence to the police due to her "cute" ditsyness, she decides to take her problem to a well-known mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), but his girlfriend (Patricia Morison) objects to her presence. Learning the identity of the murdered man, she attends the reading of his will, and is mistaken for his paramour as in Something in the Wind. [And this takes place at Christmas time as in Durbin's Christmas Holiday.] The actual paramour is Margo Martin (Maria Palmer), a singer at the Circus nightclub, where some of the action  takes place. And so on. This is a fairly dull comedy-mystery, but at least the identity of the murderer may come as a slight surprise. Edward Everett Horton nearly walks off with the picture as an apoplectic employee of Nikki's father; Elizabeth Patterson gives Durbin a good whack in the face at one point when she thinks she's gotten all of the dead man's money; and William Frawley [Fred Mertz] is funny as a desk sergeant who thinks Nikki is nuts. Otherwise, there are only a couple of chuckles in this. Dan Duryea, Ralph Bellamy and Allan Jenkins are also in the cast, and dour George Coulouris seems to be in another movie entirely. Durbin warbles "Silent Night," "Give Me a Little Kiss" [in the nightclub], and "Night and Day" and does a fine job with all of them. Her acting is only so-so, however. Durbin later married the director.

Verdict: Some nice things but it isn't very good all told. **.

THE FREIDKIN CONNECTION A Memoir by William Friedkin

THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION A Memoir. William Friedkin. HarperCollins; 2013.


Back in the seventies William Friedkin was the well-known bankable director of such highly successful films as The Exorcist and The French Connection. Friedkin admits that he let it all go to his head, made many wrong choices, and often treated people terribly. “When you are immune to the feelings of others,” he asks right at the start, “ can you be a good father, a good husband, a good friend?” Well, why would anyone want to spend a couple of hours reading the memoirs of an admitted self-absorbed jerk who isn't exactly one of the Giants of Cinema despite a couple of well-known movies? Well, there are several reasons. This is a must read for aspiring directors who need to know just how Hollywood works and the business of filmmaking and how it often interferes with the art of cinema. Friedkin lived through it all, and has plenty of info and anecdotes to deliver to those seeking a career in this wonderful and crazy profession. Other readers will appreciate the inside look at Hollywood and the behind-the scenes struggles of making a couple of famous movies, whether or not they are among their personal favorites. You are taken inside the mind of a typical director, understanding his struggles and attitudes, how he agonizes over casting choices, picking just the right cinematographer, and a dozen other things that can severely affect how a movie will work out and how it will be received by critics and public. Friedkin never thought Gene Hackman was really delivering for him while filming The French Connection and relates how the actor just didn't like and couldn't relate to his character. You'll learn how a bit actor in The Exorcist became a murderer whose horrible exploits inspired, in part, Freidkin's excoriated film with Pacino [with whom he did not relate at all], Cruising. [He also directed The Boys in the Band.] Later on Friedkin became a director of operas, despite the fact he had never been to the opera! Friedkin mostly stays away from his personal life, which probably wouldn't interest most readers anyway, but is honest about his reduced standing in the industry and the affect in status of simply growing older. This is well-written and very entertaining.

Verdict: A good bet for film enthusiasts and a must-read for aspiring directors. ***1/2.
 

CURTAINS

Ugly mad slasher on the loose!
CURTAINS (1983). Director: "Jonathan Stryker" [Richard Ciupka].

"I would kill to be an actress."

Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar of The Brood) is an actress who wants to bring total veracity to her role, so she conspires with her director, Johnathan Stryker (John Vernon), to get herself committed to an asylum. But once inside, Stryker refuses to get her released. Not only that, he decides to audition six other women for the lead role that he had promised to Samantha (and for which she had herself committed and even paid for the screen rights)! An understandably furious Samantha breaks out of the institution, and it isn't long before her rivals for the role of troubled "Audra" are being gruesomely dispatched by an unknown assailant wearing a hag mask and fright wig and wielding a razor-sharp scythe. But the movie has some surprises up its sleeve. Aside from Eggar and Vernon, the only other "name" in the cast is Linda Thorson, best-known for replacing Diana Rigg on the British TV series The Avengers as Tara King. The three leads are fine, and so are the lesser-known cast members, especially Lesleh Donaldson as figure-skating Christie and Lynne Griffin as Patti, who has a stand-up comedy routine. Let's be clear that Curtains is not exactly Psycho, but it is one of the better and more interesting slasher films of the period, along with Happy Birthday to Me. The film has undeniable tension and there are a couple of memorable sequences, such as a murderous attack on Christie on a frozen lake with a skating slasher, and a climax in a theatrical storage room in Stryker's isolated mansion. Robert Guza Jr.'s screenplay has some interesting elements but could have used characters with a touch more dimension [some scenes might have been scripted and cut]; Guza later wrote for soap operas and he also scripted the original Prom Night. Some of the scenes go on too long and are slack. Griffin also had a role in the original Black Christmas; she's been a busy actress ever since. The same is true of Donaldson, who was also in Happy Birthday to Me. William Marshall, who starred as Blacula ten years earlier, is supposed to be an attendant in this but I must have missed him. Thorson also appeared in Ken Russell's Valentino. This is another horror film that features a severed head in a toilet bowl a la The House on Sorority Row. The Comeback also featured a crazy crone with a lethal weapon. Paul Zaza's closing credit music is excellent.

Verdict: Watch out for crones on skates! ***.

WHITECHAPEL Series 2

The dour if appealing cast of Whitechapel
WHITECHAPEL Series Two. 2010. British mini-series in three segments.

The first Whitechapel series [or season], also known as The Ripper Returns, was popular enough with British audiences for the cast to return in a second, and then a third, series of episodes about cops in the Whitechapel district of London solving particularly difficult and bizarre crimes. In this a series of especially vicious attacks and murders remind crime historian Buchan (Steve Pemberton) -- the "ripperologist" from the first series -- of the Krays, the two real-life brothers who savagely ran a crime empire decades before. Deputy Investigator Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) thinks Buchan may be on to something while gruff Deputy Sergeant Miles (Phil Davis) warns Chandler not to assume they've got another case with ties to the past. Then they discover that there are two living twin brothers whose mother claims are the sons of one of the Kray men, whose sperm was made available to her when the Kray in question told her he wanted heirs. They hold the Whitechapel underworld in its grip, even try to kill cops, but are they really related to the Krays? The series holds the attention and is quite well-acted by all, including newcomer Sam Stockman as young Kent, with exemplary work from Davis, Pemberton, and the very appealing and baby-faced Penry-Jones. However, the writers often confuse neurotic tendencies with characterization, there's a little too much intrigue in the department, and the show is arresting without being entirely convincing.

Verdict: Never quite believable but entertaining in spite of it. **1/2.

THE SCREAMING WOMAN

THE SCREAMING WOMAN (1972 telefilm). Director: Jack Smight.

Wealthy widow Laura Wynant (Olivia de Havilland) has just returned from a stay in a sanitarium when she encounters a strange little dog while out walking on her property, and then hears a woman calling for help from below the ground. Laura tries to get her family, staff and police to take her seriously, but no one will believe her, thinking she's "nuts," and when they finally go out to investigate, hear nothing. In spite of this Laura is determined to free the poor buried woman before she dies, and when she can't do it herself tries to enlist the aid of some neighbors, one of whom knows more about the situation than she suspects ... The Screaming Woman is based on a short story by Ray Bradbury which was adapted [probably more than once] for the infamous EC comics back in the fifties. [I believe in the original story the protagonist is a child given to tall tales.] This version is intriguing, although it runs out of gas long before the expected finale. Another problem is that the audience knows all along that Laura isn't imagining things because we're shown the woman under the ground at the beginning. Along with de Havilland there are some other familiar faces, including Ed Nelson as a neighbor, Walter Pidgeon as Laura's doctor, Charles Drake as another embittered neighbor, and Lonny Chapman as the police sergeant. Charles Robinson is Laura's son; Laraine Stephens is his hateful wife; and Alexandra Hay is a young woman who is friends with Nelson. This was presented as an ABC "Movie of the Week." Miss de Havilland [spelled DeHavilland in the credits] is adequate but then this is not exactly The Heiress.

Verdict: Acceptable TV thriller. **1/2.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

SISSI

Karl[heinz] Boehm and Romy Schneider



















SISSI (1955). Director: Ernst Marischka.

The Austrian Archduchess Sophie (Vilma Degischer) has decided that her son, Emperor Franz Josef (Karlheinz Boehm) should take a wife, and she has decided upon her Bavarian niece Helene, known as "Nene" (Uta Franz). Unfortunately, while Nene is in town with her mother (Magda Schneider) and sister Elizabeth, nicknamed "Sissi" (Romy Schneider), Sissi accidentally encounters Franz, who doesn't know who she is [not having seen the sisters since childhood] and is almost instantly smitten and vice versa. This causes a serious complication, as the last thing Sissi wants to do is hurt and humiliate her sister, who already thinks of herself as engaged to Franz. That's about all the real drama you get in this nonetheless entertaining and very well-acted Austrian film that makes full use of beautiful Austrian palaces and settings. [Unfortunately, these settings are not photographed with any particular elan; in fact recreations in a Hollywood film might have been more impressive because of it]. A bone-headed alleged bodyguard who mistakes Sissi for an assassin is thrown in for some unfunny comedy relief. The Archduchess describes Sissi as "16, impudent, and ill-mannered," but she doesn't come off that way until after the old lady gets sharp with her. Schneider was 17 when she made this film and is lovely. Her real-life mother plays her mother in the film. Boehm was later known simply as Karl Boehm, wherein he appeared in such films as Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. His most famous movie is probably Peeping Tom, wherein he was billed as "Carl" Boehm. This is the first part of a trilogy about the beautiful young empress which was later dubbed in English, spliced together, and released in the US [especially television] as Forever, My Love. The basic facts about Karl Franz preferring Sissi to Helene are true although much of the rest is fanciful fabrication.

Verdict: Nothing spectacular, easy to take, but lacks that certain Hollywood panache. ***.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN Preview Version

A dramatic moment from "Strangers"
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Guy Haines (Farley Granger from Rope) is a well-known tennis player who is recognized on a train by an alleged fan named Bruno (Robert Walker). During conversation with Guy, weird Bruno suggests they swap murders -- "criss cross" -- so they can each get away with killing the person they most hate in the world. For Guy it's his estranged wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott), while for Bruno it's his wealthy and disgusted father (Jonathan Hale). Guy doesn't take either Bruno nor his suggestion seriously, but that won't stop Guy from carrying out his part of the plan ... and making it clear that if he doesn't kill Bruno's father he will be framed by Bruno for Miriam's murder. Strangers on a Train has an excellent premise [from a novel by Patricia Highsmith], some compelling and imaginative sequences, and a knock-out lead performance by Walker, but somehow ... Strangers on a Train is the type of film that can give you a different impression each time you see it. This is the version that was first shown in previews [also known as the "British" version although it was never really shown anywhere except during previews], and it isn't much different from the release version aside from a few minor cuts. Granger is also quite good, Hitch's daughter Patricia scores as the sister of Guy's new fiancee (Ruth Roman), but Roman's thankless part has her mostly reacting to others and looking perturbed. Marion Lorne, who was later memorable as dithery Aunt Clara on Bewitched, is notable as Bruno's rather pixilated mother, and Leo G. Carroll has yet another good appearance in a Hitchcock film [in between Spellbound and North by Northwest.] Norma Varden of Witness for the Prosecution figures in a highly interesting scene in which Bruno displays his strangulation technique for a party guest and things get a little out of hand [see photo]. The film's highlight is the climax involving a runaway merry-go-round, more on which below. Walker plays in a more epicene fashion than usual, probably to underline Bruno's ambiguous sexuality; while it would be offensive in the 21st century, it works for the movie and is not that overt. Laura Elliott, who is very good as Miriam, who needs attention from men due to her own insecurities [and Guy's falling into an upscale circle without her], also appeared on Bewitched years later playing Louise Tate under the name "Kasey Rogers." She appeared in Two Lost Worlds the same year as Strangers.  

The last time I saw Strangers I thought Hitchcock spent too much time covering Guy's tennis match just before the climax, but this time I was bothered by something else. STOP READING IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN THE FILM. Let's look at the ending. First, one of the cops pursuing [the wrong suspect] Guy, shoots at him and stupidly hits the elderly operator of the merry-go-round. The cop doesn't even look embarrassed. Another old man crawls under the out-of-control merry-go-round to get to the controls, and when he gets there pushes the switch to STOP in one sudden motion instead of doing it slowly so that the merry-go-round will safely grind to a halt. Of course the sudden stop causes a disaster, which suddenly seems a lot more important than the main storyline. [This makes for a bravura bit of excitement but one can only imagine that the old man is an "idjit."] We never learn what happened to him, the operator who was shot, the cute little boy Guy rescues after Bruno tries to throw him off the revolving platform, nor the other children on the merry-go-round. We see rescue workers in the background, but Hitch focuses on the two principals [understandably]. The cop who inadvertently caused the whole tragedy seems to show no concern over the injured and presumably dead people in the background and still doesn't even look embarrassed. By creating this disaster scene, Hitch has over-powered the main storyline! Another problem is that while the merry-go-round scene is very well done, the editing isn't quite as sharp as it could have been. But let's face it. We Hitchcock fans are always ultra-critical because we expect so much of The Master.

Verdict: Just misses being top-drawer Hitchcock, but next time I watch it I may disagree! ***.

SOMETHING IN THE WIND

O'Connor, Durbin and Dall
SOMETHING IN THE WIND (1947). Director: Irving Pichel.

When Donald Read (John Dall of Rope) discovers that his late grandfather was making payments to a certain "Mary Collins," he mistakenly assumes that the lady in question is a pretty young radio singer (Deanna Durbin) and that she was grandpop's mistress. Actually the Mary Collins who received the checks for all those years was the singer's aunt, who had been dumped by the society-conscious old man many years before; the whole check business is more or less innocent. Young Mary is virtually kidnapped by the Read family and brought to their mansion, where she decides to torment them by not revealing the truth. Even though Donald has a fiancee, Clarissa (Helena Carter), he is drawn to Mary even as his brother, Charlie (Donald O'Connor) wants Clarissa for himself. Further muddying the waters is larcenous Uncle Chester (Charles Winninger), who hopes to exploit the situation for his own benefit. Something in the Wind is amiable enough, with Dall and Durbin making a better romantic pairing than expected; the trouble with the movie is that it isn't really that funny, and while Durbin is competent, she isn't exactly a skilled comedienne. Her singing is lovely, however, and she even manages to acquit herself admirably doing a duet from Verdi's Il trovatore with tenor Jan Peerce (who plays a singing cop and is quite good as well as in fine voice). Margaret Wycherly adds a touch of class as the grandmother who wants to size up her late husband's cutie. O'Connor is as adept and exuberant as ever, but his novelty song numbers are not that amusing. Helena Carter later appeared in such films as Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with Cagney and in the sci fi not-so-classic Invaders from Mars.

Verdict: Mostly for Durbin fans but not bad. **1/2.

TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA

Dracula (Christopher Lee) surveys the scene











TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970). Director: Peter Sasdy.

Three gentlemen who are respectable British citizens by day go to the fleshpots at night and crave ever-more excitement. This they certainly get when a dissolute Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) tells them where they can find the remains of the one and only Dracula (Christopher Lee). For this ultimate thrill the three men pay the price -- literally and figuratively -- when they sort of reconstitute the vampire with fresh blood inside an old church and all Hell breaks loose ... Although Dracula's first appearance is perhaps not given the dramatic thrust it requires, Taste the Blood of Dracula is an attention-holder and features a lot of fine British actors giving it their all. Bates is especially good, along with Geoffrey Keene as Hargood, whose daughter, Alice (Linda Hayden) is in love with Paul (Anthony Corlan/Higgins), son of fellow "adventurer," Paxton (Peter Sallis); Higgins and Sallis also give noteworthy performances. Gwen Watford is fine as Hargood's wife, Martha. Roy Kinnear and Michael Ripper are also in the cast, and Lee plays with his customary authority. Sasdy also directed the memorable Hands of the Ripper for Hammer.

Verdict: Satisfying Hammer horror. ***.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION

Gene Hackman in a scene with Eddie Egan, the real "Popeye"












THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Director: William Friedkin.

The book "The French Connection" was a non-fiction account of New York City cops busting a big heroin racket with ties to France, focusing on two of those cops [although many were involved]: Eddie "Popeye" Egan and Sonny Grosso. In this film version of the book the names were changed and Egan was cast as his own boss (Grosso also has a small role). Gene Hackman, who doesn't seem that much like a NYPD officer, got the role of Doyle while Roy Scheider was cast as his partner, Russo. Amazingly Hackman won an Oscar, as did the film and Friedkin for direction. The main problem with the movie is that it has hardly any plot or characters. Neither Doyle nor Russo nor anyone else are that dimensional in Ernest Tidyman's screenplay, so all we're left with is action, and not enough of it. The stand-out scene is a well-executed frantic chase between a hit man on an elevated subway, which he takes control of, and Doyle careening below following him on the street in a car. The movie has no humanistic touches, nor any memorable sequences aside from the chase. It begins well, with another chase sequence, holds the attention, and looks good for the most part as we are taken to beautiful settings in Marseilles and grubby streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan. While The French Connection was never a masterpiece, there have been so many, grittier cop-and-drug themed movies and TV shows since then that whatever edge it once had has been blunted. Considering how little really hard acting is required of the part in this story, Egan -- who became a professional actor although never on the lines of, say, Edward G. Robinson -- might as well have been cast to play himself. Oh, yes, the film has a racist hero who utters the "n" word even though he works with brave black undercover agents. Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco and others are fine in underdeveloped supporting roles. The story was continued in John Frankenheimer's French Connection 2.

Verdict: Popular but over-rated crime thriller. **1/2.

RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE Season 3

RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE Season Three.
1959.

The big change in Richard Diamond for the third season [of 34 black and white half hour episodes] is that Diamond has been transplanted to the west coast. He now lives in a nice house with a swimming pool, operates out of L.A., and has an unseen answering service gal named "Sam" [we only hear her voice] who also functions as a kind of assistant at times. Barbara Bain, who later appeared on Mission: Impossible, plays a girlfriend of Diamond's for a few early episodes and then completely disappears. Regis Toomey is gone, replaced by Russ Conway as Lt. Pete Kile, who is friendly to Diamond but who has a nasty, highly unfriendly associate, Sgt. Alden [?]. Janssen now plays Diamond in a very slick and glib manner. Mary Tyler Moore played Sam for a few episodes, and then was replaced by Roxane Brooks.

Richard Diamond remained an entertaining series even with all the changes. Most of the episodes earn a solid "B+."  Arguably the two best episodes are "Two for Paradise," a study of twisted skulduggery over a ranch and a younger woman; and the clever "Seven Swords," [a magician's assistant is murdered right during the act] which guest-stars Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill) and Jerome Cowan (The Old Maid) and has a fine script by Levinson and Link. Guest stars on other episodes include everyone from Allison Hayes, Nora Hayden and Ingrid Goude to Geraldine Brooks, Frank Albertson and Joey Bishop.

Verdict: Not a bad old show. ***.

URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT

URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT (2000). Director: John Ottman.

"I think we have a lot in common." -- the killer of the first film to the killer of the second. 

In this sequel to Urban Legend, film student Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison) is one of several young directors hoping to win the coveted Hitchcock award given by the film school, which usually means the recipient is on his or her way to a bonafide Hollywood career. Security guard Reese (Loretta Devine), the sole character holdover from the first film, who now works for the film school, tells Amy what happened at her last job, and Amy decides to make a serial killer film tied in to urban legends [this is similar to the way the characters in Scream 2 made a film out of the events of Scream]. Unfortunately, an unknown killer is murdering members of her cast and crew in grisly ways related to urban legends [some of which seem to have been created for this film]. Urban Legends: Final Cut is not as good nor as well-directed as the first film, but it does have its clever moments and funny in-jokes, and a very amusing epilogue. The prologue movie-within-the-movie with a mad slasher on the loose on a plane is interesting, but one can't point to any outstanding sequences. Jennifer Morrison makes a competent but bland leading lady, although she's amassed quite a few credits since this picture. Matt Davis makes an attractive pair of twins, but he made more of an impression in the supernatural submarine film Below. Hart Bochner is fine as a professor of film while Eva Mendes plays a zesty Out and likable lesbian. Director Ottman is better-known as a composer for movies; this is his only full-length directorial credit. Some viewers have noticed homages to Hitchcock films in this movie -- it really shouldn't even invoke the Master's name, frankly -- but if they're in this picture they are so subtle, or more likely mis-applied, as to be invisible. One thing the pic has in its favor is that the killer's motive makes complete sense, has a definite purpose, and it isn't just a nut job wasting people for pure kicks.

Verdict: Not terrible, but nothing special despite amusing bits. **1/2.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

"The Muslim religion allows for few accidents."

Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and his wife, Jo (Doris Day) are vacationing with their little boy Hank (Christopher Olsen) in Morocco when they become enveloped in intrigue. After an acquaintance of his is stabbed, the dying man (Daniel Gelin) imparts information about an upcoming assassination in London to Ben, but before he can do anything about it Hank is kidnapped by the conspirators to prevent McKenna from telling what he knows. Afraid to cooperate too much with police out of fear for Hank's safety, the worried couple go to London and try to find the child themselves. Meanwhile the clock is ticking for a dignitary who doesn't know his life is measured in hours ...  One could quibble about certain aspects of the movie, but for the most part this is a well-acted and suspenseful film with an absolutely knockout climax in Albert Hall. Stewart is fine, and Day -- while she may not be considered perfect casting -- is generally excellent as well; the two have an especially good scene when Ben tells his wife that their boy has been taken. The supporting roles are all very well cast, from Brenda de Banzie and Bernard Miles as a friendly English couple to Alix Talton (Deadly Mantis), Carolyn Jones, Hillary Brooke and Alan Mowbray as friends of the McKenna's who intrude at a delicate moment. Olsen as Hank and Gelin as the murder victim in Morocco are both fine, and Reggie Nalder probably has his best role as a marksman. Richard Wordsworth of The Creeping Unknown and The Revenge of Frankenstein shows up as a taxidermist, and Betty Bascomb makes an impression as weird Edna, one of the conspirators. Bernard Herrmann's dynamic opening credit theme is very memorable, and the film also introduced the popular song "What Will Be, Will Be" [better known as "Que, sera, sera"] as sung by Day. Herrmann didn't compose the songs nor the wonderful "Storm Cloud Cantata" that he conducts during the Albert Hall sequence. The movie has a strong and moving sub-text of the bond between parent and child.

Verdict: Flawed but often exhilarating suspense classic from The Master. ***1/2.


HE'S A COCKEYED WONDER

















HE'S A COCKEYED WONDER (1950). Director: Peter Godfrey.

Freddie Frisby works as a tomato sorter in a plant owned by Caldwell (Charles Arnt) and supervised by the grumpy Bob Sears (William Demarest). Freddie has to date Sears' daughter Judy (Terry Moore) on the sly, because Sears hates him, and would much prefer Caldwell's son Ralph (Ross Ford) as a son-in-law. Frisby figures he has little chance with Judy after he gets fired, but then learns that his uncle, a magician, has left him his entire estate ... He's a Cockeyed Wonder certainly has possibilities, and the movie is fun whenever Rooney, who's fine, is in charge, but it, unfortunately, goes way off in the wrong direction. While a lot of laughs could have been milked out of Freddie's hapless magic act, instead the picture brings in a gang of robbers, has the two main characters kidnapped and threatened with death [!]  -- all of it quite tedious and not especially funny. The performances are good, however, including Douglas Fowley as the nasty head of the gang of thieves, and there are a few genuine laughs along the way. Godfrey also directed Please Murder Me and others and seemed to divide his time between comedies and thrillers. Fowley had a long list of credits and made a strong impression in Desire in the Dust.

Verdict: A little too cockeyed but Rooney fans may enjoy. **.

FIRST LOVE

Stack and Durbin
FIRST LOVE (1939). Director: Henry Koster.

"A flat tire on an $8000 automobile -- that's impossible!" -- Barbara

Connie (Deanna Durbin) is the poor relation of the wealthy Clinton family, with whom she goes to live after she graduates from a girls' school. Her uncle (Eugene Pallette) has as little to do as possible with his wife (Leatrice Joy) and spoiled children Barbara (Helen Parrish) and Walter (Lewis Howard), the latter of whom does nothing all day but sit around looking bored and sleepy. Barbara is a little jealous of Connie, and the film takes a Cinderella twist when she conspires to keep Connie away from a ball held by the family of Ted Drake (Robert Stack of Written on the Wind). However, the servants in the household conspire to make sure Connie gets to the ball while the others are delayed for hours. Durbin is quite good in a film clearly tailored for her particular talents, and she does a creditable job with "One Fine Day" from Madame Butterfly, although she's definitely no Renata Tebaldi. The movie has a strange, almost mean-spirited sequence with Connie's old teacher Mrs. Wiggins (Kathleen Howard, who is also very good) warning her away from the life of an old maid schoolteacher,  a whole bunch of whom weep during Butterfly as Wiggins predicts. This was Robert Stack's first movie, and he looks handsome if a little odd. Jack Mulhall and Mary Treen are also in the cast.

Verdict: Durbin fanatics will enjoy; all others beware. **1/2.

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN

FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967). Director: Terence Fisher.

Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is back to his old tricks in another entertaining Hammer horror film. Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters) brings the baron back from the dead, and Hertz' lab assistant Hans (Robert Morris) is accused of murdering a tavern owner who was actually beaten to death by the bitchy Anton (Peter Blythe) and his nasty, entitled friends. After Hans is wrongly executed, the baron puts his brain into the body of Hans' crippled girlfriend, Christina (Susan Denberg), who committed suicide. Partly controlled by Hans' memories and partly by her own, the pretty "monster" sets out to revenge herself against the ones responsible for the double tragedy. Frankenstein Created Woman begins well but it unfortunately doesn't develop many of its interesting ideas, substituting revenge-murders instead, but is fun enough on that level. The cast is good, however, including Blythe, and Cushing is always adept and watchable.

Verdict: The Baron is back without his monster. **1/2.

ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT

Battling brothers: Taylor and Granger













ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (1953). Director: Richard Thorpe.

"Joel Shore is not afraid of the devil himself -- just don't go lookin' for him, that's all."

In this remake of a silent film with Lon Chaney, Joel Shore (Robert Taylor) sets sail as captain of the whaling ship Nathan Ross with his new bride, Priscilla (Ann Blyth). Both of them assume that Joel's brother, Mark (Stewart Granger) is dead, but when he turns up alive talking of pearls and adventure and narrow escapes, it causes trouble between the brothers. Mark wants to go back for the pearls, but when Joel objects, afraid of how greed will decimate the crew, Mark convinces Priscilla that her husband is a coward. Then the men decide to mutiny ... Frankly this picture would have been better if they went after the pearls or just stuck to whaling. The only good and exciting scene in the entire movie is when they hunt down a whale whose enormous tail capsizes their much smaller boat [not the Nathan Ross but a special whale boat]. If the whole movie had been handled as well it might have amounted to something. The three leads do the best they can, and there are smaller roles for Lewis Stone, James Whitmore, and Keenan Wynn, all of whom are wasted. Director Thorpe does not seem overly enthused by the material, and even the mutiny is awkwardly done and has no dramatic flair. I could swear I spotted a bearded Paul Frees [Space Master X-7] as one of the sailors but he's not listed in the cast.

Verdict: Too bad the silent version is lost; it had to be better than this. **.


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 2

Ice Princess: Cinnamon radiates her usual warmth
















MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season Two. 1967.

"You and I are so used to lying that we seldom know when we're telling the truth."

They kidnap people, frame them, drug them, lie to them, imprison them, and arrange for them to be murdered, without their victims having any trial or counsel whatsoever. And these are the good guys! Yes, the "impossible missions" team is back for a second season of improbable but enjoyable adventures in nasty espionage.

Although there are times when Barbara Bain is called to play a fake character as part of a mission, she mostly goes through the series with one patented expression: a kind of glacial, face-frozen look that one imagines is supposed to be the epitome of "cool" -- after all, you'd have to have nerves of steel to go on some of these missions! Her big fake eyelashes add to the chilly effect. The big change in this season is that the difficult Steven Hill was replaced by the more amiable and professional Peter Graves, who does fine work for the series as new leader James Phelps.

Most of this season's episodes are a solid "B+" in quality and there are a few "A's" as well. Among them: "The Bank," in which a truly loathsome villain takes money from people desperate to escape the country but leads them into a death trap instead of freedom; "The Slave," in which the team stop the slave trade in a small nation by kidnapping the princess and placing her on auction [!]; "Money Machine," in which they save an African nation's economy from ruin by stopping a gang of counterfeiters; "Sweet Charity," with Fritz Weaver and Hazel Court as phony and greedy philanthropists; and "Recovery," in which Bradford Dillman offers a fine portrait of a traitor with a bomb that the team needs to reclaim. The season's worst episode was "The Killing," with the group trying unconvincingly to spook a hood with phony supernatural stuff, but wouldn't you know some fans think this is one of the best stories and it even received a few inexplicable Emmy nominations. "The Seal" features an adorable and literal "cat burglar," a pussy who figures in the episode's most suspenseful sequence. Guest-stars for season two include Edmond O'Brian, Pernell Roberts, Kate Woodville, Wilfrid Hyde-White, John Randolph, and Darren McGavin.

Verdict: A slick and entertaining program. ***.

URBAN LEGEND

Alicia Witt and Jared Leto compare notes
URBAN LEGEND (1998). Director: Jamie Blanks.

Urban Legend was one of the better and more successful films to come in the wake of Scream, which it resembles to a certain degree [as well as I Know What You Did Last Summer]. Natalie Simon (Alicia Witt) is a student at Pendleton University. When another student is killed by a maniac hiding in her back seat, Natalie doesn't at first reveal that she knew the victim and the two shared a dark secret. Things get worse when others in Natalie's circle begin to die in ways that relate to famous urban legends -- the psycho stalking the lovers in the parked car, etc [although at least one killing doesn't seem to fit this pattern] -- only the bodies either disappear or the school wants to dismiss the murders as suicides. Urban Legend is a slick horror film, adroitly directed, with some well-choreographed murder scenes [especially the death of the college president], although the editing just misses being really edge-of-the-seat. Alicia Witt makes an appealing protagonist, and Jared Leto is fine as a reporter who pokes his head into whatever weird stuff is going on. Loretta Devine is fun as the campus security woman, and Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, and Joshua Jackson are also effective. Creepy, amusing, and not sickeningly graphic. Amazingly, this is yet another movie that borrows [however unconsciously] a plot device from Agatha Christie's "The ABC Murders." Followed by Urban Legends: Final Cut. This is actually a bit better than Scream, at least the first one. Well-photographed by James Chressanthis, and Brad Dourif has a memorable cameo in the prologue.

Verdict: Zesty, entertaining and well-acted horror flick. ***.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE

IT HAPPENED ON FIFTH AVENUE (1947). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) is a bum who lives in boarded up mansions while the owners are away for the season. His latest domicile is the Fifth Avenue mansion of Michael O'Connor (Charles Ruggles). A new interloper in the mansion is a homeless soldier, Jim (Don DeFore), and through him a couple of families with children who also need a place to stay. Popping into the mansion for a coat is O'Connor's daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), who doesn't tell anyone who she is, and when her father and divorced mother (Ann Harding) show up, swears them to secrecy as well. So the world's richest man pretends to be a bum while a hobo dines on his food and wears his clothing ... only in Hollywood! It Happened on Fifth Avenue is meant to be a frothy, hilarious social comedy, but it falls utterly flat. First of all, no movie can convince anyone that it's better to be a homeless hobo than to have money and security -- of course O'Connor is the stereotype of the rich man who has lost touch with real values -- and the film is miscast and not very funny. Don DeFore could be fine in certain roles such as in Too Late for Tears, but he's not exactly Cary Grant. Pretty Gale Storm is equally competent, but this was before she developed a real flair for comedy as on My Little Margie. Victor Moore and Charlie Ruggles are old pros, as is Ann Harding [The Unknown Man], who is pretty much wasted as Trudy's mother; all are given sub-standard material. Grant Mitchell of The Man Who Came to Dinner is his customary tight-assed self. Alan Hale Jr. [Advance to the Rear], later of Gilligan's Island, is fine as one of Jim's soldier buddies. Although Gale Storm could sing and even cut some recordings in later years, her singing voice is dubbed in this.

Verdict: Almost like watching paint dry. *1/2.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981). Director: John Glen.

For Your Eyes Only begins with Bond putting flowers on his late wife's grave [see On Her Majesty's Secret Service], a nice nod to 007 history. After that there's a semi-comical prologue with Bond caught in a helicopter remote-controlled by old foe Blofeld. After a credit sequence which almost functions as a music video [we see the singer of the title song, Sheena Easton, something that was never done for Shirley Bassey], the story really begins and it's a convoluted one. An important encryption device has been lost in a shipwreck. When a couple who are searching for it on behalf of the British government are assassinated, their daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) wants vengeance on everyone in the chain of responsibility, to which end she teams up with a hesitant Bond, and uses her crossbow weapon on anyone who gets in her way. Bond winds up at the Olympics where there are a number of chase/battle scenes connected to various sports, including a brief one on a bobsled that doesn't compare well to the bobsled sequence in the aforementioned Majesty. There are no real "Bond girls" -- super sexy beauties -- as such in the movie, although that's not to say the women are not attractive. In addition to Melina, Bond has to fight off the advances of teenage skater Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson, a real-life skater who became an actress), and dallies erotically with Countess Lisl (Cassandra Harris). For Your Eyes Only has a handsome Bond-villain for a change instead of the usual plug-uglies, embodied by Julian Glover [Theatre of Death] in the role of Kristatos, Bibi's sponsor and a man who wants to sell the encryption device to the Russians. Topol is cast as a criminal, Columbo, who becomes one of Bond's allies after Kristatos' henchmen kill the countess [it is never recorded if Columbo knows that Bond slept with his girlfriend the night before!]. Jill Bennett of Hammer studio's The Nanny plays Bibi's guardian and coach.

The underwater photography in For Your Eyes Only is excellent, and figures in two memorable sequences, an eerie one when Bond and Melina dive into the shipwreck with its drowned corpses; and a splendid scene when Kristatos has the couple tied together and towed behind his ship through sharp coral not to mention the sharks attracted by their blood [this sequence actually comes from Ian Fleming's novel Live and Let Die, but was not used in the film version thereof]. However the movie's most outstanding sequence takes place when Bond climbs up to the abandoned monastery at St. Ciro's which Kristatos is using as his headquarters, especially a taut and beautifully-edited passage when Bond tries desperately to get to the top even as a man overhead keeps knocking out the pitons that hold his rope to the rock.

For Your Eyes Only was a deliberate and successful attempt for the popular 007 series to become a little more down to earth after what some saw as the absurd sci fi excesses of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Although it's by no means a perfect Bond outing, and is a bit overlong with a few slack stretches and chase scenes that fall a bit flat, when it is good it is very good, and proof that an entertaining Bond movie could be made without Jaws and high-tech special effects in outer space. Bill Conti's theme song is not bad at all; otherwise this is definitely one of the lesser Bond movie scores.

Verdict: Flawed but often invigorating Bond adventure. ***.

DEMON SEED

Julie Christie at mercy of malevolent computer
DEMON SEED (1977). Director: Donald Cammell.

"We look at the world differently. You find me boring. I find myself ... quite interesting."

Scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) has not only computerized his whole house, but is the inventor of a new super-computer named Proteus 4 [beautifully voiced by Robert Vaughn]. Proteus 4's artificial intelligence has curiosity about humans as well as itself, and to that end it links up with the computer system in Harris' house. Desiring to duplicate itself, it imprisons Harris' wife Susan (Julie Christie), using the system against her, and tells her that she is to help him in his reproductive efforts ... not good. Gerrit Graham plays Walter, Harris' assistant, who figures in a bizarre scene when Proteus 4 unleashes a metallic, unwinding cube against him as he tries to help Susan. Demon Seed made use of the notion of blending the biological with the mechanical two years before the much better-known Alien.  The actors are all good, the film holds the attention, but it becomes increasingly absurd to an almost comical degree. Based on a novel by Dean R. Koontz.

Verdict: Ridiculous but entertaining. **1/2.


THE MIRROR CRACK'D

Novak, Hudson and Taylor
THE MIRROR CRACK'D (1980).  Director: Guy Hamilton.  Based on "The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side" by Agatha Christie.

"Chin up, darling -- both of them!"

Move star Marina Gregg (Elizabeth Taylor) and her director husband Jason Rudd (Rock Hudson) have taken over a British country estate while in England to film Marina's comeback film when during a party a young fan (Maureen Bennett) talking to Marina is given a poisoned drink and dies. It isn't long before it is determined that Marina was the true target of the poison -- or was she?  Miss Marple (Angela Lansbury) asks questions while her nephew, an Inspector (Edward Fox), investigates, but it's sure bet who'll solve the case first. Agatha Christie got the germ of her idea from an actual tragic incident that happened to actress Gene Tierney, although Marina does not seem otherwise based on that particular movie star. Taylor is perfect casting as the difficult, whiny, needy fading actress going to fat, but that is not to say her performance is any more than passable. Kim Novak is better and much more fun as a movie rival of Marina's who trades bitchy remarks with her. Hudson is okay, if a bit dour and superficial, and Tony Curtis is fun enough as a vulgar producer.  Geraldine Chaplin is Rudd's suspicious secretary, and Charles Gray is his butler. This is better than another adaptation done on Masterpiece Mystery in 2010. Lansbury looks more like Miss Marple than Margaret Rutherford did, but she's not as funny nor meant to be.

Verdict: At least it has an interesting cast and Novak looks sensational. ***.

TRILOGY OF TERROR 2

Watch out for those "Graveyard Rats!"
















TRILOGY OF TERROR 2 (1996 made-for-cable film). Director: Dan Curtis.

Another anthology of horror stories from Curtis to follow his 1975 telefilm Trilogy of Terror. "He-Who-Kills" is a sequel to "Amelia" in the first film, and has the fetish doll on the rampage again. Like the original segment, it's lively but pretty silly, too. "Bobby" is a remake of a story that originally appeared in another Curtis anthology, Dead of Night, about a mother who summons her dead son from his grave, but with less effective actors. "The Graveyard Rats," which is loosely based on Henry Kuttner's famous short story, is the best segment, presenting a couple of lovers who murder the woman's husband and then have to open his grave. The nasty rats they encounter are nearly worth the price of admission. Ultimately, this is a fairly minor horror film, however. Screenplays by Curtis, William F. Nolan, and Richard Matheson.

Verdict: Killer rats are always "fun." **1/2.

PETER GUNN Season 2

Peter Gunn asks questions of waitress with obvious assets
PETER GUNN. Season two. 1959. 38 half-hour episodes.

The first episode of the second season of Peter Gunn is very similar to the first episode of the initial season, in that Gunn's hang-out and "office," Mother's waterfront nightclub, is smashed up, only this time the damage is so extensive that Mother has to completely remodel the joint, making it more open and chic. Another change is that Mother is now played by Minerva Urecal instead of Hope Emerson, and she brings a little more flavor to the role. Also back, alas, is Gunn's admittedly decorative girlfriend, Edie (Lola Albright), as bland a singer as ever. Worse, the allegedly romantic scenes between Edie and Gunn (Craig Stevens) always seem forced and tacked on and are generally dull; Peter just isn't a very romantic fellow. [You have to wonder if Stevens' wife, Alexis Smith, who was herself quite luscious, objected to too many smooching scenes between him and Albright, because Gunn never seems all that lusty toward the woman.]

Among the more memorable episodes: "The Game," an especially well-directed (by Boris Sagal)  story of  an insurance racket, with Peter showing up beaten at his surprise party and falling face first into his cake; "See No Evil," in which a hood is after a blind witness, and Peter is attacked by Tor Johnson in a padded cell; "Sing a Song of Murder," in which guest star Diahann Carroll, who gives a first-rate performance, has deadly husband trouble, and when she sings a number blows "Edie" out of the water; "Deadly Proposition," about a dying man and a murder pact; "The Dummy," in which a ventriloquist is murdered and the dummy is a little living man; the amusing "Slight Touch of Homicide," in which a mild-mannered fellow (Howard McNear) literally blows up the mob; "Ways of an Angel," in which Peter escorts a convict to his daughter's wedding and the fellow escapes; "Best Laid Plans" [a plot to assassinate the governor -- or is it?]; "Semi-Private Eye," in which an amateur detective goes after a dangerous wanted felon; "Letter of the Law," in which a prosecutor is accused of murder; and "Crossbow," featuring a series of killings-by-crossbow, another story influenced by Agatha Christie's "ABC Murders" and guest-starring Henry Daniell.

The two best episodes were probably: Jack Arnold's "The Hunt," in which a hired hitman plays cat and mouse with Peter in the desert at an abandoned mine; and especially "Fill the Cup," in which John McIntire gives the performance of a lifetime as a nearly hopeless alcoholic who hires Gunn to keep him sober overnight to meet his daughter the next day, and which features a startling depiction of the D.T.s in the opening segment.

Verdict: Well-written crime show with some excellent stories. ***.