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

Thursday, September 26, 2013

HOUSE BY THE RIVER

HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1950). Director: Fritz Lang.

"You are a swine, Stephen."

Struggling writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) makes a pass at a pretty maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick), and winds up accidentally killing her, then gets his lame, bookkeeper brother, John (Lee Bowman), to help him cover up the crime and put her body in the river beside his house. Meanwhile the mystery over the disappearing maid provides enough publicity for Stephen to capitalize on for his writing career, but his wife, Marjorie (Jane Wyatt), finds his new success a little ghoulish. Then Emily's body is found and one of the brothers is arrested .,.  With moody, beautiful photography from Edward Cronjager, a fine score by George Antheil, and a memorable lead performance by Hayward, House By the River is one of Lang's best pictures. Wyatt is quite good, Bowman also good [if not on Hayward's level], and we even get Ann Shoemaker as a friendly neighbor and Kathleen Freeman as a party guest. Jody Gilbert also scores as John's housekeeper, Flora. In the Lang canon, this falls somewhere between the awful Secret Beyond the Door ...  and the excellent Clash By Night.

Verdict: Brooding, well-done suspense film that just misses being a real classic. ***.

THE EGG AND I

Colbert can do without MacMurray's attention to Allbritton
















THE EGG AND I (1947). Director: Chester Erskine.

Bob MacDonald (Fred MacMurray), a selfish and inconsiderate husband, buys a farm without even consulting his wife, Betty (Claudette Colbert) -- which alone would be a reason for divorce for some women --   and the two set off for the country to raise chickens and sell eggs. While having assorted misadventures, the couple meet the odd Pa Kettle (Percy Kilbride), his big-hearted wife, Ma (Marjorie Main), and their huge brood, as well as the predatory Harriet (Louise Allbritton), who doesn't seem to care that Bob has a wife. The Egg and I is consistently amusing, has a nice scene when all the neighbors show up to help the MacDonald's after a fire, and boasts some very good performances; Colbert, in particular, is excellent, and her expressions throughout the movie are priceless. There are guest appearances by the likes of Donald MacBride, Elisabeth Risdon [from the "Mexican Spitfire" films], and Esther Dale, and there's even a pig named Cleopatra! Ida Moore shows up late in the film as a somewhat dotty old lady who has a tale of a giant chicken. While there are some fairly foolish marital developments at the end of the movie that make Betty seem like a dope, The Egg and I is still a very funny and entertaining picture. The characters of Ma and Pa Kettle soon got their own feature as well as several sequels.

Verdict: Colbert is a riot! ***.

THE STEEL JUNGLE

Perry Lopez and Kenneth Tobey
THE STEEL JUNGLE (1956). Director: Walter Doniger.

Ed Novak (Perry Lopez) is a cocky hothead and bookie who, after being arrested, is told if he tells all he knows about the operations of Steve Madden (Ted de Corsia) he''ll get a greatly reduced sentence. Loyal to the undeserving Madden, he refuses, much to the heartbreak of his wife, Frances (Beverly Garland), who doesn't care about the fur coats he gives her and hopes he'll get an honest job after serving his time. Madden is also in jail and Ed tries to ingratiate himself with the mob boss, who comes to like him. Ed witnesses the murder of a guard which Madden was responsible for and still refuses to talk, leading to serious complications and an unexpected kidnapping ... Lopez gives a good lead performance in this, which also boasts fine work from Garland, Walter Abel [Mirage] as the no-nonsense warden, and Kenneth Tobey as a sympathetic if somewhat sappy prison shrink. Allison Hayes has a small role  [playing a "Mrs. Archer" as she later would in her classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman] as a neighbor of Novak's who has some information; Joe Flynn [McHale's Navy] is a prisoner; and Malcolm Atterbury plays a chatty mailman. Gregory Walcott of Plan 9 from Outer Space plays the guard, Weaver. The Steel Jungle is an acceptable prison melodrama with some effective performances. Lopez had a long list of credits.

Verdict: Reasonably engaging potboiler. **1/2.

GREAT OLD EPISODE: THE OPERETTA -- I LOVE LUCY

"I am the queen of the gypsies..."
I LOVE LUCY: "The Operetta." Season Two. 1952.

SQUIRE/FRED MERTZ: "There's lots of ale and stout upon the shelf.
  And I take a drop or two myself"

PEASANTS: "A drop, he says! The squire's got the gout.
The stout makes him ail, and the ale makes him stout."

Needing to quickly replenish the treasury of the Ladies Wednesday Fine Arts League (or whatever the heck it's called), Lucy decides to write and put on an operetta entitled "The Pleasant Peasant." Since Ethel can sing much better than Lucy, she is given the lead role of Lily, while Lucy has to be content with Camille, "the snaggle-toothed old queen of the gypsies." To drown out Lucy's awful singing, the cast has been instructed to join in every time she opens her mouth. The costumes and scenery have been rented, everything's going well on opening night, but as always when Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) is in charge, things don't go quite as expected ...

Asked who wrote the songs, Lucy replies "Did you ever hear of Victor Herbert?" Of course, Lucy wrote the songs herself. When I first saw this in reruns as a child, I thought the rather tuneful music really was composed by Victor Herbert -- it's in his melodious style --  but I've never been able to determine who really did the music. [I Love Lucy has credited composers such as Eliot Daniel and Wilbur Hatch but they did general music for many episodes.] In any case, all of the songs are surprisingly memorable, including Ethel/Vivian Vance's delightfully-performed number "Lily of the Valley" ["when other girls go walking on their arm they've got a swell beau; whenever I go walking on my arm is just my elbow"], Ricky's love song to Lily, the drinking song, the Squire/Fred's number, and so on. I assume the clever and amusing lyrics were written by the Lucy writing team, Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr. The episode was directed by Marc Daniels.

Ball, Vance, Desi Arnaz, and William Frawley are all in top form, aided and abetted by Myra Marsh as the club president and the other ladies, especially the woman who interrupts the performance to sing to Lucy about a bounced check, and whose identity I can't determine [she isn't listed on imdb nor even on the I Love Lucy DVD], although I have definitely seen her elsewhere, possibly other Lucy episodes.

UPDATE: Aside from the first number in the operetta, the songs were all composed by Eliot Daniel, who also composed the show's theme song.

Verdict: Classic comedy. ****.

ENCHANTMENT: THE LIFE OF AUDREY HEPBURN Donald Spoto

ENCHANTMENT: THE LIFE OF AUDREY HEPBURN. Donald Spoto. Harmony; 2006.

Spoto doesn't spend too much time detailing the terrible childhood and awful privations Belgium-born Hepburn suffered during the Nazi occupation of Arnhem before we're off exploring her rapid rise to stardom and her many memorable film roles. Originally trained to be a dancer, Hepburn's deportment and good looks earned her the title role in the play Gigi and many accolades from the critics of the day, although Hepburn thought she was still learning how to act throughout the lengthy run. [Whether or not she was disappointed that the role of Gigi went to Leslie Caron in the big-screen musical adaptation, Spoto doesn't say.] She had already had a good role in the British film Secret People, but now found herself working with such famed directors as William Wyler and Billy Wilder and such actors as William Holden, with whom she had a brief affair, and Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire, who were not always easy to work with. She was most often paired with much, much older men, such as Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, and later, Cary Grant in Charade. She won an Oscar, had what she considered her greatest role in The Nun's Story [befriending the real-life nun and the book's author, who apparently were a long-time lesbian couple], and "stole" the role of Eliza Doolittle from Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady where she spent hours on singing lessons only to learn Marni Nixon had already dubbed all of her songs. Although Hepburn wasn't much different from other actresses in that she had affairs even while married to actor Mel Ferrer [who directed her in Green Mansions and appeared in such films as Born to Be Bad and Eaten Alive, not to mention a solid role on Falcon Crest], Spoto treads lightly, as if not wanting to spoil her image; he's very tough on Ferrer, however. Hepburn left films to become a full-time wife and mother, made a few movies of varying quality some years later [Robin and Marian; Bloodline], then had perhaps her most fulfilling role as a hands-on goodwill ambassador for Unicef, flying on military planes to such desperately hungry nations as Ethiopia and witnessing the starvation and its effects first-hand. She had two disappointing marriages, but found some happiness with companion Robert Wolders in her final years before succumbing to cancer. Enchantment is a good read, fast-paced, well-researched, and makes it clear that movie stardom is not always a recipe for lasting happiness.

Verdict: Solid and very readable biography. ***.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season Two

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin -- in color
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Season Two. 1965.

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) came back for a second season of the generally light-hearted spy show, this time in color and "armed" with special pen communicators. There was more humor this season, with some rather stupid episodes, but quite a few were memorable. The two-part "Alexander the Greater Affair" features Rip Torn as a megalomaniac out to rule the world. "The Foxes and Hounds Affair" presents an amusing -- and explosive --  rivalry between two Thrush agents played by Patricia Medina and a wonderful Vincent Price. "The Dippy Blonde Affair" has a Thrush executive falling for the girlfriend (Joyce Jameson) of a colleague he murdered after she's enlisted by UNCLE to play along and find out what she can. Thrush develops a strain of deadly and nearly invisible bees in "The Birds and the Bees Affair," in which Illya and a lovely companion are subjected to torture by sonics. "The Bridge of Lions Affair" features Maurice Evans, Bernard Fox and Vera Miles in a tale of artificial rejuvenation and the power plays surrounding it. The season's best episode, "The Waverly Ring Affair," is a suspenseful business in which the agents must figure out which co-worker, Larry Blyden or Elizabeth Allen, is a traitor working for Thrush. Other good episodes include "The Ultimate Computer;" "Discotheque Affair;" "Re-Collectors;" "Arabian Affair;" "Adriatic Express;" "Project Deephole;" "Minus X Affair" with Eve Arden; and "The Children's Day Affair," in which Jeanne Cooper plays Mother Fear, who runs a boy's school and is training the little fellows to wipe out agents at a special conference. The worst episode is probably "The Deadly Toys Affair," which guest-stars an overbearing Angela Lansbury in one of her least memorable performances; way too much camp. Vaughn and McCallum are perfect and Leo G. Carroll nearly steals the show as their boss, Alexander Waverly. The souped-up theme music is pretty neat. NOTE: The big-screen adaptation of the show due in 2014 will not star Tom Cruise but rather Henry Cavell of The Man of Steel.

Verdict: Cool show if too often on the edges of camp. ***. 



JACK THE GIANT SLAYER

The two-headed giant about to have a snack
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2012). Director: Bryan Singer.

In the long-ago Kingdom of Cloister, young Jack (Nicholas Hoult) meets the princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) about the same time as he acquires some magic beans. The beans sprout huge vines that soar skyward, dragging along both Tom and Isabelle, who discover a land of belligerent, carnivorous giants who hate the human race even as they love the taste of it; the giants' leader has two heads. Roderick (Stanley Tucci of Burlesque) hopes to use the giants to take over Cloister, even as the giants are planning their own attack on the kingdom far below. The climax has many giants plundering the palace as the people try valiantly to fight them off. Jack the Giant Slayer is no classic, but it is an entertaining movie with some spectacular special effects work and impressive scenic design. A highlight is the first, suspenseful appearance of a giant at a stream in the world above. Gruesomeness is more implied than depicted. The actors are more than adequate but take second place to the FX.

Verdict: Not quite magical, but close, due to some talented technicians. ***.

Friday, September 20, 2013

SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR ...

Barbara O'Neil, Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave
SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR ... (1947). Director: Fritz Lang.

Celia (Joan Bennett) meets an attractive stranger, architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), on a vacation, blows off her fiance, marries Mark, and goes home to his mansion where his friendly sister, Caroline (Anne Revere), strange son David (Mark Dennis) and even stranger secretary, Miss Robey (Barbara O'Neil), are waiting. Wouldn't you know that Mark is haunted by something, perhaps the death of his first wife, and has a rather odd hobby. In his house he has recreated rooms where infamous murders took place, and there is one room which is absolutely verboten for anybody to enter. Naturally Celia can't wait to see what's inside. As Mark puts it "under certain conditions a room can influence or even create the actions of the people within it." Well ... maybe. This oddball Gothic movie sounds good, but is tedious and full of pseudo-psychological hogwash, although the bit with the murder rooms is interesting, and the performances are reasonably good for this type of claptrap. Natalie Schafer [Female on the Beach] adds some zest, as she usually does, as a flamboyant friend of Celia's. Redgrave does the best he can with the material but seems uncomfortable throughout. Young Dennis makes an interesting David. The ending is unintentionally hilarious. Not one of Lang's more memorable movies. O'Neil was seen in better advantage in Stella Dallas and All This and Heaven, Too.

Verdict: Too tricky and silly by far. *1/2.

MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S ELEPHANT

A typical day in the life of Lord Epping















MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S ELEPHANT (1942). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

This is the 7th out of 8 "Mexican Spitfire" movies starring Lupe Velez and Leon Errol. Diana (Marion Martin) and Reddy (Lyle Talbot) want to get an onyx figurine of an elephant with a valuable gem hidden inside it into the country, so they give it to the venerable Lord Epping (Errol), then have a hell of a time getting it back. Carmelita (Velez) fights with hubby Dennis (Walter Reed) and runs off to a restaurant to do a dance act with Jose (Arnold Kent); Lord Epping and the jewel thieves like the place, too. Lady Epping (Lydia Bilbrook) and Aunt Della (Elisabeth Risdon) do their bit for the war effort, while Uncle Matt (Errol again), as usual, winds up impersonating Lord Epping, even as Della thinks the real Epping is her husband in disguise and treats him accordingly [see photo]. What does it matter? -- the cast is game, there are some funny scenes, and it's all easy to take if formulaic to the extreme. A bit with a bartender consistently confusing Matt with Epping is quite funny. Reed later starred in Flying Disc Man from Mars.

Verdict: Amiable nonsense. **1/2.

THE REDGRAVES: A FAMILY EPIC Donald Spoto

THE REDGRAVES: A Family Epic. Donald Spoto. Crown; 2012.

This is a solid and highly interesting -- and rather depressing -- look at a famous theatrical family. The first -- and most compelling -- half of the book looks at patriarch Michael Redgrave, who fathered three children but whose main passion was for men, and had boyfriends all during his marriage, some of whom could be considered long-time partners. The second half of the book looks more closely at the lives and careers of Redgrave's daughters Vanessa and Lynn, and son, Corin, all of whom became actors. Redgrave's wife, actress Rachel Kempson, eventually took a lover of her own, but he was also attracted to men, and Vanessa's husband, director Tony Richardson, was also homosexual [these men were "bisexual" in the sense they also had relationships with women, if for no other reason than appearances, but their main interest was men]. All of this old-fashioned shame and guilt from closet cases gets wearying after awhile, even if the time period was pre-Stonewall [the advent of modern day Gay Liberation]. The Redgraves does not ignore the careers and achievements of these individuals, however, and also looks into the lives of Nastasha Richardson [Tony and Vanesssa's daughter, who died tragically young] and Jemma Redgrave, another very talented actress. Spoto weaves an excellent tapestry of changing attitudes toward both actors and gays, with a theatrical and film world background providing added atmosphere.

Verdict: Well-done and a very good read. ***1/2.

THE FAT SPY

Phyllis Diller as Rapunzel/Camille Salamander
THE FAT SPY (1966). Director: Joseph Cates.

"After I saw The Fat Spy I went straight to confession -- and I'm not even Catholic." -- Phyllis Diller

George Wellington (Brian Donlevy), the head of a cosmetics firm, and Camille Salamander (Phyllis Diller) are both hoping to get their hands on a fountain of youth formula and are annoyed that a bunch of singing teenagers have taken up residence on the island where the formula might be found. Or something like that. Rarely have there been such films of stark brilliance, comedic genius, and extreme profundity -- and The Fat Spy is certainly not one of them. The movie is a weird combination of Beach Party-spoof, teen musical, and alleged comedy, although it has only a couple of genuinely amusing sequences. In one of these Camille's boyfriend Herman (Jack E. Leonard) sings a funny number, "You Haven't Changed a Bit" ["a peeping tom pulled down the shade"] to her, and the ending is kind of funny, too. Otherwise ... There are some decent tunes warbled by Johnny Tillotson, Jordan Christopher [who later married Sybil Burton] and the Wild Ones, and even Jayne Mansfield, who sings "I'd Like to Be a Rose in Your Garden, but I'm Just a Thorn in Your Side." Diller isn't bad, Donlevy is an old pro, but Leonard isn't much of an actor yet is given two roles to play. Jayne Mansfield has done better work elsewhere, such as an episode on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The film is padded with long sequences of good-looking young people dancing. Cates also directed Who Killed Teddy Bear? and little else of note.

Verdict: Get ready to hit that fast-forward button -- or "stop!": *1/2.

A YEAR OF HITCHCOCK: 52 WEEKS WITH THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE

A YEAR OF HITCHCOCK: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan. Rowman and Littlefield; 2009.

This volume looks at the films of Alfred Hitchcock with a fresh and often discerning eye, from his very first films up to classics like Vertigo and Psycho, and his later films such as Marnie and Frenzy. The authors make it clear that Hitchcock was often competing with himself, that you expect so much from the "Master," that you're disappointed if you see little imperfections, even though even Hitchcock's lesser films are often much better than those of lesser directors. Some of the authors' assertions are a little surprising, such as "Strangers on a Train is not one of Hitchcock's most well-known movies," but the book seems to be geared less for the serious Hitchcock fan than for newcomers to his work. Long-time fans of the Master may not find too much that is new, but the authors' analyses [while you won't always agree] are good, and they often make interesting points about a particular movie. One unfortunate aspect to the book, and which may make it seem like "Hitchcock Lite" to the casual observer, is the use of trendy sidebars as if this were "Hitchcock for Dummies." Still, the book is a good read whether you're new to Hitchcock or already very familiar with his work.

Verdict: Solid look at the films of Alfred Hitchcock. ***.

HITCHCOCK (2012)

Hitchcock (Hopkins) and Leigh (Johansson) share a ride and a laugh














HITCHCOCK (2012). Director: Sacha Gervasi.

"I was filming all day with John Gavin. Plywood is more expressive!" -- Hitchcock supposedly talking about actor John Gavin

If you take it with a grain of salt, this is an interesting and entertaining look at Alfred Hitchcock during the days when he was making Psycho, detailing the skepticism with which the project was greeted by the studio and others, showing how he cast the film and got along with the people he made it with. Did Hitch really peep at Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) while she was undressing? Probably not, but Hitchcock takes certain, shall we say, dramatic liberties. Anthony Hopkins is really nothing like Hitch, but his performance is still good, and Helen Mirren is excellent as his wife and collaborator, Alma, who seems very drawn to a novelist (Danny Huston) who is working on a screenplay with her. The best scene has Alma telling off Hitchcock in blunt if loving fashion late in the movie. Scarlet Johansson makes an effective and personable Janet Leigh. James D'Arcy gets little to do as Anthony Perkins, but the private lives of the actors in Psycho generally go unexplored and some -- such as Martin Balsam and John Gavin -- barely appear at all. The relationship between Alfred and Alma is depicted primarily as a loving and professional friendship. Hitchcock barely touches on the outrage and disgust that the film engendered in many quarters when it was released. The film is good-looking and well-paced.

Verdict: If you don't take it seriously as biography, this is a nice picture all told. ***.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season Five

The cast of MI including Warren, Nimoy, Lupus and Elliott















MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season Five. 1970.

The big change for season five was to do away with the rotating females and use Lesley Ann Warren as "Dana" on a weekly basis. Another change was that Sam Elliott was brought in to play a doctor named Doug Roberts and replaced Peter Lupus for about half of the episodes. Neither Warren nor Elliott lasted more than one season, and Leonard Nimoy made this his last season as well. Another change was that more unexpected developments occurred during missions, increasing the suspense. The jazzed up theme music was pretty lousy, however. This was still a solid season, with several especially good episodes. Robert Conrad played a hit man in "The Killer" and Anthony Zerbe guest-starred in "The Amateur." The object was to get an important list regarding a heroin outfit from a dying mobster in "Squeeze Play." Barney's brother is killed by criminals in "Cat's Paw" with a memorable performance by Abby Lincoln. Lupus and Elliott both appear in "The Party" with intrigue surrounding a bash at an embassy.  Henry Darrow and Kevin Hagen score in "Blast," about an unknown person trying to raise funds for a revolution. In the unusual "Homecoming," Phelps and the team investigate serial murders in Jim's home town; Loretta Swit guest-stars. The season had other good episodes as well.

Verdict: This team doesn't quit. ***.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

SUSPICION

Lina (Joan Fontaine) suspects her husband wants to kill her
SUSPICION (1941). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Lonely heiress Lina (Joan Fontaine) meets the charming mountebank Johnnie (Cary Grant) and finally falls in love. The two get married and move into a huge house that Johnnie can clearly not afford. Lina discovers that her husband has an aversion to work of any kind, and an addiction to gambling, even selling antique chairs given to her by her father as a wedding present, for money. A friend named Beaky (Nigel Bruce) shows up and lets slip further information that unsettles the discomfited wife. After Lina fears that her husband might be involved in a death that occurred in Paris, she then suspects that he is planning to do away with her. But is she right -- or this time does two and two add up to five? Suspicion is a smooth, beautifully photographed [Harry Stradling] and handsomely produced thriller that features an outstanding performance from Fontaine and also boasts Grant at his best, never quite giving away whether he's a total rotter or not. Other notable players include Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Lina's parents, and Leo. G. Carroll as Johnnie's cousin, from whom he embezzles. It's been said that the ending is tacked on and a bit of a cop-out, but it still works. Unusual scoring by Franz Waxman.

Verdict: Another smooth suspenser from the Master. ***1/2.

MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST

Crazy crew: Mantan Moreland, Leon Errol, and Lupe Velez
MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST (1942). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

This is the sixth in the series of "Mexican Spitfire" films that began with The Girl from Mexico, and it follows the same pattern as most of the others. Lord Epping (Leon Errol) is supposed to meet with clients, Percy Fitzbadden (Donald MacBride) and his sister, Edith (Minna Gombell), who has a crush on Epping, at his American mansion but would rather go moose-hunting. His employee, Dennis Lindsay (Buddy Rogers), decides to play host for the Fitzbaddens at the mansion, hoping Epping will eventually show up. When he doesn't, his Uncle Matt (also Errol) impersonates Epping as he has done before, and then, of course, the real Epping finally shows up, causing the usual complications -- including Dennis' ever-snooty Aunt Della (Elisabeth Risdon) mistaking Epping for her husband and trying to drag him off to bed! One could easily argue that there's little novelty in the script or situations, but Errol is such a comic genius, and the others -- foremost among them the effervescent Velez -- are so adept at this kind of farce, that the movie is consistently amusing. Great Old Movies favorite Mantan Moreland also shows up as a servant named Lightnin', but he's not given nearly enough opportunities to interact with Errol and Velez, although they are a funny trio when he does. There are some criminals in the cellar of the house who pretend to be ghosts at one point. Better than Mexican Spitfire's Baby but arguably not quite as good as Mexican Spitfire at Sea.

Verdict: Often very funny with a very capable cast. ***.

THE SNAKE PIT

Olivia De Havilland as the troubled Virginia
THE SNAKE PIT (1948). Director: Anatole Litvak.

Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) is a troubled woman who has been committed to a psychiatric institution. Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) interviews her confused but loving husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), and tries to figure out what is responsible for Virginia's fragile mental state. Flashbacks show her life with Robert, as well as the earlier years before she met him. It's all rather psychologically dubious, but the film is generally well-acted and entertaining. Fellow patients in the institution, some of whom are crazier than others, include Beulah Bondi as a haughty old lady with delusions, Betsy Blair as the delicate Hester, as well as Lee Patrick, Celia Lovsky, Barbara Pepper, Minerva Urecal, Marie Blake (Blossom Rock), and others, most of whom just have bits. Mary Treen, Glenn Langan, and Ann Doran are on the staff; Helen Craig gives a terribly unsubtle performance as the evil Nurse Davis. Natalie Schafer is cast as Virginia's mother and Lora Lee Michel plays her as a child; both are quite good. While The Snake Pit is an uncertain mixture of sentiment and silly moments, and is a bit on the exploitative side, it does have some undeniably effective scenes, such as the poignant climax when Laura (Jan Clayton, who was Julie Jordan in the original Broadway production of Carousel) sings "Going Home" at the dance. Alfred Newman's score and Leo Tover's cinematography are also assets. Arthur Laurents, among others, worked on the screenplay and disavowed this in his memoirs. Seven years later, The Shrike was a somewhat grittier look at life inside a mental ward. Litvak also directed This Above All and many others.

Verdict: Hardly the final word on the subject but not without its merits. ***.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)

Joe goes into his dance while Jill plays piano
















MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949). Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack.

Hoping to incorporate a wild new theme into his new nightclub, entrepreneur Max O'Hara  (Robert Armstrong) travels to Africa wherein he encounters a huge gorilla who goes by the name of Joe Young. From infancy Joe has been the pet of Jill Young (Terry Moore), the only person who can control the very big ape [not quite of King Kong-proportions, but much large than the normal gorilla]. Smitten with a cowboy named Gregg (Ben Johnson), who works for O'Hara, and starry-eyed at all the thoughts O'Hara puts into her head, Jill agrees to take Joe and fly off to Hollywood. The two do an act that involves a rising piano, and in a great scene Joe plays tug of war with a dozen famous strongmen [leading to a brief and funny fight between him and Primo Carnera], but when patrons start throwing coins -- and then bottles -- at him, Joe gets a little upset. Jill isn't too thrilled by the fact that he can't roam free as he did on her ranch but has to be kept in a cell every night. Before long you know there has to be a disaster and Joe eventually runs riot in the nightclub in a rousing sequence ... Mighty Joe Young taps into the King Kong mystique but never achieves its mythic stature [and probably wasn't meant to] but on its own terms it's a wonderful picture with superb special effects and a certain amount of sentiment. Brought to life via stop-motion by Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and others, Joe is a memorable creation, equally frightening and pitiable, with priceless sensitive facial expressions. The harrowing conclusion, which features a fire in an orphanage and is in color, is notable. Along with Joe, the three human leads all give good performances, and child actress Lora Lee Michel is a charming stand-out playing Jill as a little girl [she was also in The Snake Pit]. Schoedsack co-directed King Kong. Nice score by Rob Webb. Regis Toomey plays Jill's father in the opening sequence, and Nestor Paiva is a drunk in the nightclub who plays a role in the riot that occurs.

Verdict: King Kong "lite" perhaps but very entertaining and well-done. ***1/2.

FATAL VISION

Gary Cole as Jeffrey MacDonald
FATAL VISION (1984 telefilm/mini-series). Director: David Greene. Screenplay by John Gay from Joe McGinniss' book.

"They'll never come to know the beauty and wonder of the world." -- Mildred speaking of her late grandchildren.

In 1970 the Green Beret doctor, Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, made a frantic call to police claiming that four people invaded his home and slaughtered his family -- his wife and two little girls -- and left him with minor injuries. At first his wife's parents, Freddy (Karl Malden) and Mildred (Eva Marie Saint), are supportive of Jeffrey and furious that the Army suspects him of the murders, but later they learn that his story of intruders just doesn't hold up and is indeed contradicted by forensics. Leads about the alleged intruders go nowhere. Freddy sees Jeffrey on television saying things that he knows are not true, such as how he required surgery due to his injuries that night. Eventually Freddy becomes his former son-in-law's greatest nemesis, refusing to let the matter drop and dogging prosecutors until they put MacDonald on trial. Cole is a little too boyish at times, but he gives a fine performance as MacDonald, matched by an excellent Malden and Saint. Also notable are Barry Newman as MacDonald's lawyer, Andy Griffith as a prosecutor, and Mitch Ryan as a forensic pathologist. Gripping throughout its three hour running time. There are still those who insist MacDonald is innocent.

Verdict: Memorable television on a horrific true case. ***1/2.

THE INVISIBLE KILLER

THE INVISIBLE KILLER (1939). Director: Sam Newfield.

Lt. Jerry Brown (Roland Drew) and his partner, Pat (William Newell) are called in when a gambler takes a hit from a bullet -- but the gunshot isn't the cause of death. There are other murders as well, and hot on the trail is gal reporter Sue Walker (Grace Bradley), who happens to be engaged to Brown. Other characters include Cunningham (Boyd Irwin), who hates gambling and is horrified to learn that many of the buildings he owns have become gambling dens without his knowledge; his daughter, Gloria (Jean Brooks), whom Sue helps out of more than one jam; District Attorney Sutton (Crane Whitley); and businessman Arthur Enslee (Alex Callam). As the bickering romantic couple, Drew and Bradley are acceptable, personable leads for this cheap PRC release with a no-name cast. Jean Brooks [herein billed as "Jeanne Kelly"] probably made more of an impression in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim and The Leopard Man but she's fine in this. The Invisible Killer moves fairly fast but works up almost zero suspense as to the identity of the killer or killers.

Verdict: A short programmer you can easily miss. **.

IRON MAN: RISE OF TECHNOVORE

Iron Man prepares for battle














IRON MAN: RISE OF TECHNOVORE (2013 direct-to-video animated feature). Director: Hiroshi Hamazaki.

"Next time I see you I'll buy you the best therapist money can buy."

Anthony Stark, aka Iron Man, prepares to launch a "Howard" [named after his father] satellite that will monitor and presumably safeguard activity on earth, but it is destroyed by a "weird kid" in strange armor that employs a technology unfamiliar to Stark. The kid is Ezekiel Stane, son of the late Obediah Stane, an old adversary of Stark's, and he is certifiable. Eventually Stane transforms into a hulking monster that Iron Man has trouble taking out. Guest-stars in this animated feature include Nick Fury of SHIELD, the Punisher, Hawkeye, and the Black Widow, some of whom, in a contrived bit of business, wind up fighting Stark. The movie has a wide range of styles, as well as that annoying anime influence, and the flat direction doesn't help. Stark is very well voiced by Matthew Mercer.

Verdict: Not very memorable. **.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

THE WAGES OF FEAR

Yves Montand
















THE WAGES OF FEAR aka La salaire de la peur/1953). Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot.

"If I'm going to be a corpse, I want to be presentable."

"Just takes a few months to get to be a hundred."

In a grubby, hopeless town in South America, four desperate men agree to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerin over rough terrain to deliver to a fiery oil well for a great deal of money. The two main characters are Mario (Yves Montand) and his fellow Frenchman, Jo (Charles Vanel), with whom he strikes up an affectionate father/son friendship which is sorely tested and pretty much defeated by their ordeal. In the second truck are Mario's former friend, Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter van Eyck). What sets this movie apart from its Hollywood remake, William Friedkin's Sorcerer, is the intense, more dimensional characterization that has you caring what happens to these not always likable individuals. The Hollywood version is also afflicted with "Indiana Jones" fever in which the situations the drivers and trucks find themselves in are sometimes like something out of a cliffhanger, while Clouzot manages to generate suspense over more reasonable travails. The acting is excellent, with Vanel in particular etching a memorably superb portrait of a tough guy who has to deal with thoughts of age and fear as the taut and terrifying journey continues, but the others are also marvelous. Luis De Lima, Vera Clouzot, and William Tubbs also register as another wannabe driver, Mario's sometime girlfriend, and the supervisor in the oil company who's much more concerned with the nitro getting through than he is about human lives. The Wages of Fear is imperfect and overlong and builds slowly [although there are tense scenes even in the first half hour, such as a confrontation between Jo and Luigi in a tavern] but it is arresting and moving. At one point Mario allows his desperation and exasperatioin with Jo to go too far, but in a very satisfactory conclusion it all comes full circle. Clouzot also directed Le Corbeau.

Verdict: A classic French film well worth the viewing. ***1/2.

JEOPARDY

Ralph Meeker sexily enjoys Stanwyck's discomfiture
JEOPARDY (1953). Director: John Sturges.

Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan), his wife, Helen (Barbara Stanwyck), and their young son, Bobby (Lee Aaker), are vacationing in Mexico at an isolated beach where Doug used to fish with Army buddies. A big piece of timber on a wobbly jetty falls and pins Doug's leg to the ground, and he can't pull it out or wiggle free no matter how hard he tries. There are about four hours before the tide comes in and completely covers his head, so Helen takes off in the car to get help. Unfortunately, she goes from the frying pan to the fire when she enlists the aid of Lawson (Ralph Meeker), a murderer who is wanted by the police... Jeopardy is a harrowing suspense film bolstered by good performances and some frightening situations. Although one could argue that Stanwyck may not always get across the variety of emotions Helen must be feeling as she deals with Lawson and worries about her husband, she adds an interesting sub-text of sexuality to her scenes with Meeker, as if Helen -- despite the inappropriateness of it -- can't help but find virile, sexy bad boy Lawson quite attractive [she doesn't resist all that much when he grabs her and hungrily kisses her]. Sullivan gives one of his best performances, a man understandably close to panic, completely dependent on his wife, and who has to remain strong for the sake of his plucky son. Little Lee Aaker is an especially talented child actor and the perfect complement to the actors playing his parents, and Meeker manages to make his character a little more dimensional than others might have. Jeopardy is a good, suspenseful movie, but it could have used another twenty minutes and even more character development.

Verdict: As unsettling at times as it is entertaining. ***.

CHICAGO SYNDICATE

O'Keefe, Hayes, Lane and Stewart












CHICAGO SYNDICATE (1955). Director: Fred F. Sears.

"First you give me the cold shoulder and now you're romancing me like I'm Liberace."

A man named Kern is gunned down in the street and it develops that he was bookkeeper for a mobster named Arnold Valent (Paul Stewart). Kern's wife commits suicide and her daughter, Joyce (Allison Hayes), becomes a social pariah. Barry Amsterdam (Dennis O'Keefe) is hired to go undercover to get the goods on Valent, and he runs into an angry young woman with a gambling habit who turns out to be Joyce Kern; eventually the two join forces. Joyce's presence is irksome to Connie (Abbe Lane), Valent's girlfriend, who is also a singer and has a lap dog named Benny (Xavier Cugat). Hayes clearly has the leading female role, but she's billed under Lane, who gets co-star status with O'Keefe. Apparently Lane and Cugat (who were married at the time) were a package deal, as Cugat, who can't act [even when he's playing an orchestra leader!], just seems along for the ride. On the other hand, O'Keefe [Hold That Kiss] is fine, Stewart is excellent, while Hayes is a little more problematic. The infamous "fifty foot woman" [a Great Old Movies favorite] has no problem doing her usual shtick -- smouldering, bitter hostility -- but she's less successful in getting across any of her character's other nuances. Still, Hayes is always fun, especially when she's trading barbs with and spilling hot coffee on Lane, who doesn't give a bad performance; Lane could have used a little more seasoning but she managed to amass a few credits after this. Chicago Syndicate is entertaining even if it plays like little more than an expanded TV episode. Sears also directed such fun sci fi as The Giant Claw and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Verdict: O'Keefe and Hayes make an interesting pair. **1/2.

HAUNTED HARBOR

Boo!
HAUNTED HARBOR (aka Pirate's Harbor/15 chapter Republic serial/1944). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet; Wallace Grissell.

Captain Jim Marsden's (Kane Richmond) ship, the Dolphin, is lost at sea with a million dollars of gold bullion in its hold. If that weren't bad enough, Marsden is framed for the murder of a man he owes money to, but he escapes from jail with the help of his buddy, Tommy (Great Old Movies' favorite Marshall Reed). Sailing to another island the two men rescue Patricia Harding (Kay Aldridge) and her father, and they all become embroiled in efforts of bad guy Kane (Roy Barcroft), the real murderer, to take care of them so he can have the gold, which he's found, all to himself. Some of the action takes place in the mysterious "Haunted Harbor," which boasts a Chinese dragon-type stylized sea monster [see photo], which despite its obvious [intended] lack of life has an attractive design and is fun to watch. Memorable cliffhangers include Pat nearly punctured by an air drill; Jim tied to a huge bonfire; and others. The fisticuffs come frequently and are lively in the Republic tradition. Excellent theme music by Joseph Dubin. The actors all give at least serviceable performances. Tom Steele, Fred Cordova, Jay Silverheels (as a native) and Ken Terrell are also in the cast. Re-released as Pirate's Harbor but fun by any name.  Based on a novel by "Dayle Douglas."

Verdict:  Solid, very entertaining Republic serial. ***.

MADAME BOVARY (2000)

Emma gets some action












 MADAME BOVARY (2 part BBC mini-series/2000). Director: Tim Fywell.

"Truly well-bred people don't give a fig about how their domestics behave. If I hadn't been told otherwise, I would swear you were middle-class!" -- Emma Bovary to her mother-in-law

Emma (Frances O'Connor) marries country doctor Charles Bovary (Hugh Bonneville) but discovers that life with him and his termagant mother (Eileen Atkins) is devoid of the romance, excitement and poetry that she finds in the many books she reads, and her dissatisfaction grows in leaps and bounds. She meets a soul mate named Leon (Hugh Dancy), then has a full-fledged affair with wealthy Rodolphe (Greg Wise). Meanwhile her debts mount as she is taken advantage of by slimy salesman Lheureux (Keith Barron). Although longer than the superior Hollywood film, this is a truncated version of the story with graphic softcore sex scenes. The main problem is that Emma is so distinctly unlikable in this that you can hardly summon up any sympathy for her: as played by O'Connor she comes off like a trampy, utterly thoughtless social climber and nothing more. This British television production is also on the cheap side like a studio-bound soap opera; the all-important ball sequence is almost laughably brief and comparative colorless. The actors in this are all good, but none of them give what could be called a great performance.

Verdict: Stick to the novel and the Hollywood version. **.

DIARY OF A MAD PLAYWRIGHT: Perilous Adventures On the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing

DIARY OF A MAD PLAYWRIGHT: Perilous Adventures On the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing. James Kirkwood. Applause Books; 1989.

When playwright James Kirkwood went on the road with Legends, a comedy about two aging and feuding divas, he kept a journal of the goings-on which is reproduced in this compulsory readable book. With what seems complete and often scathing honesty, Kirkwood dissects his stars, supporting players, director, and producers, but in so doing offers much insight into the process that goes on in mounting a production beset with insecure if massive egos, strangely inept and timid directors, producers who want power but don't have any experience, and a million problems that seem petty but interfere in both the creative process and in bringing the public the best possible entertainment. The talented Mary Martin has such terrible trouble remembering her lines that it's a wonder everyone didn't throw up their hands and fire her with regret, and the clown-like, almost grotesque Channing, while cruel and impatient at times, also had difficulty acting with someone who [during the first few months of performances] received all of her lines from a special plug in her ear. Of course the book, as wickedly entertaining as it is, does leave a few questions, such as how did Kirkwood [unless he taped everything or had an encyclopedic memory] manage to reproduce such lengthy conversations, even if he jotted things down a few hours later? He also doesn't seem to get why a black actress might have some problems with the sassy, lovable Hattie McDaniel-type maid she's required to play, seeing that McDaniel's hey-day was forty years earlier, but then Kirkwood refers to his and other's gay lovers as "dear friends" throughout the book, a practice which is both quaint and passe. Whatever its flaws, Diary of a Mad Playwright only confirms what most of us already knew or suspected about the overbearing egos of stars and others in the Theater. And it's a page-turner. One suspects that this book is better than the play that inspired it.

Verdict: No, it's not world peace, but try to put the darn thing down. ***1/2.

DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON ONE

DOWNTON ABBEY Season One. 2010. Seven episodes. Created and [co-] written by Julian Fellowes.

The male heir to the British estate, Downton Abbey, is lost on the Titanic in 1912. Since Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) have no male offspring, and the heir must be male, Cora and her oldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) are faced with the prospect of losing a fortune. Haughty Mary has two sisters, the comparatively plain Edith (Laura Carmichael), who is basically treated like crap by the rest of her condescending family, and budding feminist Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who tries to help one of the ambitious maids get a job as a secretary. The new heir is a cousin named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and everyone hopes that he and Mary will make a love match and solve all of their problems, but things get a little complicated. Matthew has a mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who proves an irritant to Crawley family matriarch, the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), although on occasion they have the same goals. Violet forms an alliance with Cora.

In the meantime, there's drama amongst the servants as well. The new valet, Bates (Brendan Coyle) is not only lame, but has an unsavory history. He has raised the everlasting ire of Thomas (Rob-James Collier), who had hoped to get his job, and who teams with the sour Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) to scheme to get rid of him. [More on Thomas in a bit.] Sarah mistakenly believes Cora plans to replace her as personal maid and wreaks a terrible vengeance. The butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and head maid Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), run the household with the help of cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who is losing her sight; young William (Thomas Howes), who is losing his mother; and Daisy (Sophie McShera), who has a hopeless crush on Thomas. Then there's the "radical" chauffeur Branson (Allen Leech), who talks politics with Sybil. 

Downton Abbey is handsomely produced and well-acted for the most part. Smith sometimes overdoes the cutesyness of her character, and McGovern, while not a bad actress, simply seems miscast and uncertain of how to proceed. The show begins quite reasonably, but in the second episode turns into a slightly absurd soap opera when it introduces a handsome young Turkish character who dies in unexpected circumstances not much later, suddenly turning Downton into Dynasty. Much more problematic is the character of Thomas, who is gay, and while the actor wisely doesn't play him too stereotypically [aside from arched eyebrows and the occasional pursed lips], it's hard not to notice that Thomas is like an old-fashioned nasty "faggot" being fairly horrible to everyone. Gay characters are welcome in programming, but surely Fellowes could have come up with a less odious creature than this, whose inclusion even seems homophobic. [Not that all gay characters have to be perfect, of course, but this man's evil doesn't quite seem divorced from his homosexuality.] Another odd thing is that some of the characters talk "wisely" about Thomas as if it were the 21st century and not 1912! Why the hell would the unsophisticated cook know of his sexual orientation -- in 1912 no less!

Aside from that, let's get real about Downton Abbey. Its main strength is simply that it's entertaining. It's not really great drama, and it will push the envelope of credulity if it will get people watching. Taken with a grain of salt, Downton Abbey is fun if nothing else. And it does have some marvelous and memorable sequences to be fair [such as Violet being selfless regarding her prize roses].

Verdict: Proof that the British can dumb things down just as well as the Americans when they want to, but it does hold the attention. ***.