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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

HALLOWEEN SPECIAL!


















HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

In honor of All Hallow's Eve Great Old Movies presents reviews of a crop of international horror films from different periods. We have the 1940's minor classic, House of Horrors with Rondo Hatton; the modern zombie thriller World War Z; the fifties British creature feature The Crawling Eye; the rare Italian psycho-thriller Spasmo; the Spanish shocker The House That Screamed; and the American horror-comedies An American Werewolf in London and Fade to Black. WARNING: Some of these movies are more horrible than horrifying. Have fun!

HOUSE OF HORRORS

Marcel (Martin Kosleck) admires his bust of the Creeper
















HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

Starving artist Marcel De Lange (Great Old Movies' favorite Martin Kosleck) is about to commit suicide in despair when he stumbles across an injured man known only as the Creeper (Rondo Hatton). The Creeper had already committed a series of murders, snapping people's spines, and is presumed dead. Marcel uses the Creeper to get revenge on his enemies, especially the acidic critic Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier), who has no tolerance for the abstract. The main suspect in Harmon's murder, however, is commercial illustrator Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery of the Batman and Robin serial), who was to be the target of his venom in the critic's latest column. Another critic, Joan Medford (Virginia Grey), happens to be Morrow's girlfriend and a champion of De Lange's macabre sculptures. But when she gets too close to figuring out De Lange's deadly secret ... This is a snappy and suspenseful horror thriller, well-directed by Yarbrough, and with an excellent performance from Kosleck, and good back up from Hatton [who thinks his bust is "pretty"], a highly vivacious (perhaps too vivacious considering the goings-on) Grey, and a more than competent Lowery and Napier. Howard Freeman also scores as another art critic, Hal Ormiston, who participates in a scheme to catch the murderer. The beautiful model Stella is played by Joan Shawlee and Lt. Brooks is Bill Goodwin. House of Horrors is an unofficial sequel to the modern-day Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death, in which Hatton also played a Creeper who breaks spines. Oddly the opening credits of Horrors "introduce" Hatton as the Creeper. There were plans to make a series of Creeper films and turn Hatton into a horror star, but the poor fellow, who suffered from acromegaly due to exposure to poison gas in WW1, passed away before House of Horrors opened. Kosleck's most famous part was in The Flesh Eaters. Yarbrough directed She-Wolf of London and many, many others.

Verdict: Highly entertaining horror flick. ***.

THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED

Irene confronts the headmistress about the missing students









THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (aka La residencia/1969). Director: Narcisco Ibanez Serrador.

"None of these girls are any good!"

In this dubbed Spanish movie, Madame Forneau (Lilli Palmer) is headmistress of a school for "difficult" girls that functions more as a reformatory. Forneau's idea of discipline is to have one of the girls whip another when the latter talks back to her. Her son, Luis (John Moulder Brown) is fascinated by the school girls, and carrying on a light romance with one of them, Teresa (Cristina Galbo). One of the more interesting students is Irene (Mary Maude), who functions as Forneau's right-hand, tracking down girls who try to escape, doing the whipping, and hitting on at least one young lady. [The film seems to have a rather antiquated attitude regarding "evil lesbians."] The big problem, however, as Irene points out to the headmistress, is that several students have gone missing in the past few months, and are never heard from again. What neither woman apparently knows is that someone has been killing these "runaways" and hiding their bodies ... The House That Screamed has atmosphere to spare and seems to have been filmed in a wonderfully creepy and somewhat dilapidated old manor that adds immeasurably to its otherwise limited impact. There's not much flair to the murder sequences, but the ending packs a small wallop. Palmer is fine as the cold headmistress, and the girls are at the very least enthusiastic, with Maude making the most of her vivid portrayal of Irene.

Verdict:  So-so thriller with some compelling sequences. **1/2.

THE CRAWLING EYE/THE TROLLENBERG TERROR

Peekaboo!













THE CRAWLING EYE (aka The Trollenberg Terror/1958). Director: Quentin Lawrence. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster.

In 1956 British TV presented a six-part sci-fi thriller entitled The Trollenberg Terror, directed by Quentin Lawrence but with a different cast [apparently this TV production is lost]. Two years later a feature-length film of the same title was released, renamed the juicier Crawling Eye for American distribution. Two young ladies who do a mind-reading act, Sarah (Jennifer Jayne) and Anne (Janet Munro) Pilgrim, are heading for Geneva by train, but get off at the small village of Trollenberg due to Anne's compulsion to do so. Another passenger named Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) also disembarks and they all go to the hotel, where they learn that there have been a series of terrible mountain-climbing tragedies. High on the Trollenberg mountain there is an observatory that is researching cosmic rays, and has observed a radioactive cloud that moves about as if it were being directed ...  Alan remembers similar incidents in the Andes, and that certain people with psychic abilities, like Anne, could be manipulated by whatever beings there are in the cloud. Speaking of which, said cloud starts moving down towards the hotel, blocking off escape, and the creatures inside reveal themselves ... The Crawling Eye is a suspenseful, creepy movie with some interesting notions (such as corpses being reanimated and going after victims with cleavers), headless bodies, and surprisingly convincing monsters that figure in the climax. The actors are all good, with Laurence Payne particularly effective as the reporter Prescott, and Tucker managing to summon up some energy in his portrayal of the hero; Jayne and especially Munro are also convincing, although Warren Mitchell is perhaps a little too weird as Professor Crevett. The movie has its share of illogical and silly moments, but it's still a superior "creature feature."

Verdict: If it blinks, watch out! ***.

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON

Griffin Dunne and David Naughton














AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981). Writer/director: John Landis.

Two Americans, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are on a walking tour through the British countryside when they are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed, but David is bitten, and Jack's increasingly decomposing corpse keeps showing up to warn David that he will turn into a werewolf and kill people, and that his only recourse is to commit suicide. David would prefer to think he's just having crazy hallucinations, particularly as he's just entered into a relationship with his hospital nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter). Then one night when the moon is full David begins to transform and the killings begin ... I thought American Werewolf was greatly over-rated when it first appeared, and my opinion of it hasn't changed over thirty years later. The black comedy approach may have [unfortunately] influenced many subsequent alleged "horror" films, but it was nothing new -- in fact, the whole movie resembles nothing so much as an EC horror comics story of the fifties. Naughton is okay in the lead, but you get the impression he should have stayed with Dr. Pepper commercials. Dunne is much better as Jack, Agutter is competent, and Lila Kaye makes an impression as a barkeeper. The movie is bloodier than it needs to be, which is kind of at odds with the supposedly "light" tone of the piece. The man-into-wolf transformation scene got a lot of press at the time; it's less impressive today, and the scenes showing the monster walking about aren't very credible. An interesting sequence has David meeting his disfigured victims in a porno movie house. In some ways the movie is quite schlocky; even the attack scenes aren't that well handled. Landis had few if any big hits after The Twilight Zone tragedy, which was covered in the book "Outrageous Conduct."

Verdict: Uneven blend of gore and comedy. **.

FADE TO BLACK

Dennis Christopher and Linda Kerridge














FADE TO BLACK (1980). Writer/director: Vernon Zimmerman.

"I can't imagine the creature who would want to marry you. Who is this unlucky girl?"

A frustrated film buff nerd, Eric (Dennis Christopher), who lives with his monster of an aunt (Eve Brent), dresses up as famous movie characters and kills off his alleged enemies in manners relating to the pictures he loves. Fade to Black has a great premise -- if only it hadn't all been left up to undistinguished writer-director Zimmerman, for the movie is painfully slow-paced with a dull, dragged-out climax; 25 minutes of the film's running time should have been cut. The production is also rather cheapjack. That leaves it to the actors to make the film even remotely entertaining, and Christopher does a good job in the lead. Veteran actors James Luisi and Norman Burton make the best impression as, respectively, a police captain and Eric's boss, but there are also good moments from Immortals' Mickey Rourke (in an early film appearance) and Linda Kerridge, as a Monroe lookalike; she was "introduced" in this picture but only made a few more film appearances. Eve Brent (Forty Guns) overacts horribly as Eric's Aunt Stella.  There's at least one good scene -- a mob-style attack in a barber shop on an unethical producer -- and a Psycho shower scene spoof is slightly amusing. Tim Thomerson is a cokehead idiot psychiatrist named Dr. Moriarity; Gwynne Gilford is a cop named Anne; and Peter Horton is a guy on the make for Kerridge.

Verdict: Fade to Black all right. **.

SPASMO

Suzy Kendall and Robert Hoffman
SPASMO (1974). Director: Umberto Lenzi.

A young couple see a woman hanging from a tree but it turns out to be a life-size rubber doll. Then Christian (Robert Hoffman) and a lady friend spot what they think is a woman's corpse on the beach, but she turns out to be the very alive Barbara (Suzy Kendall), who agrees to have a drink and then disappears. Christian next spots her at a boat party he crashes, and winds up in her motel room, where a strange man breaks into the bathroom, threatens him with a gun, and gets shot in self-defense; later the body disappears. Barbara takes Christian to a friend's cliffside tower house, where they encounter an older man named Malcolm (Guido Alberti) and his younger companion, Clorinda (Monica Monet), both of whom seem to be keeping secrets. The trouble with Spasmo is that in trying to keep secrets from the audience, it leave us in the dark for too long, making the whole thing seem pretty nonsensical. [In truth, even after the revelations, the movie still doesn't make a lot of sense.] At one point Barbara, who throughout the movie says things like "I don't understand anything" and "I can't take any more" asks Christian "doesn't it seem terribly absurd to you?" at about the same time all the members of the audience are asking each other the very same question. Meanwhile, someone is leaving "murdered" mannikins all over the place. There's a wealthy man named Alex (Mario Erpichini) who seems obsessed with Barbara, and Christian's brother, Fritz (Ivan Rassimov), who may or may not be involved in what ever's going on. The acting isn't bad, with pretty Kendall, who also appeared in Torso, acquitting herself nicely, and Austrian actor Hoffman -- this Italian production has a truly international cast -- making a more than competent and very attractive leading man. The darn thing holds your attention because it's not only unpredictable for the most part, but you keep watching it for no other reason than to find out what the hell is going on; there's at least one good twist as well.

SPOILER ALERT. Spasmo  has been classified as an Italian giallo film but it's actually more of a suspense film than a horror movie or shocker. However, it does feature two brothers, one of whom is a serial killer of women, and another who stabs and strangles mannikins instead of real people.

Verdict: One of the weirdest movies ever. **1/2.

WORLD WAR Z

Brad Pitt in one of the film's few quiet moments
WORLD WAR Z (2013). Director: Marc Foster.

"You can't make a dead person sick."

Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family suddenly find themselves in the midst of chaos when a plague breaks out in their city -- indeed, around the world --  driving people crazy and making them violently attack others. These people turn out to be zombies, reanimated after death by a virus. UN representative Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) gets Lane out, but he learns that his family can not stay in their safe refuge unless he agrees to accompany a biologist, hoping to create a vaccine, to the spot where the virus originated to look for clues. Lane later winds up in Israel, were the undead pile atop one another in a grotesque exhibition so they can launch themselves over a wall to get at the living people on the other side. [Unlike the dead in Night of the Living Dead, these zombies movie very quickly]. Lane saves the life of a young female Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz), and both wind up on a plane when the passengers become infected. They wind up at a research center in England where Lane thinks he's come up with a novel way of protecting people against the zombies. Despite some arresting passages -- such as the wall sequence in Israel and the outbreak on the plane -- World War Z can't quite overcome the fact that it's just another apocalyptic zombie movie [like 28 Days Later] with over-familiar ideas. Based on a novel, it still owes a lot to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. However, it is generally fast-paced, creepy, well-acted, and often quite exciting. [Gore geeks must have been quite disappointed that despite the gruesome tone the movie does not indulge in much graphic bloodiness.] Humanism is in short supply -- there's little talk of compassion for the dead victims nor scenes where a living person sees a dead one that they loved -- and the ending is kind of flat. Foster also directed one of the worst James Bond movies, Quantum of Solace.

Verdict: More zombies that you can shake a stick at. **1/2.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN

Gene Tierney
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945). Director: John M. Stahl.

"Nothing ever happens to Ellen."

Author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets a beautiful woman on a train, Ellen (Gene Tierney), who's reading one of his novels but doesn't recognize him despite his book jacket picture. (That should have been his first clue.) The two turn out to have the same destination, the home of a mutual friend named Glen (Ray Collins). Ray is also hosting Ellen's adopted sister [actually her cousin], Ruth (Jeanne Crain), and their mother, Mrs. Berent (Mary Philips). Although Ellen is engaged to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she and Richard quickly fall in love, and get married. At first Ellen does everything she can to ingratiate herself with Richard's crippled younger brother, Danny (Darryl Hickman), but when she decides that she wants to be alone with Richard, her actions become much darker, to put it mildly ... Wilde is fine, Tierney just short of excellent, Price is okay, and Crain isn't always up to her more dramatic moments, but Leave Her to Heaven is quite absorbing. If there's any problem with the movie it's that the final courtroom segments drag and are a little too unrealistic [Price, the rejected fiance, is the prosecutor, and keeps badgering witness after witness without anyone objecting], but there's a very well-done drowning murder sequence halfway through the movie. Another memorable sequence has Ellen scattering her father's ashes in the mountains on horseback. Alfred Newman has contributed a strong score as well. Stahl also directed the 1932 Back Street and many others.

Verdict: The Bad Seed's older sister [although it was made earlier]. ***.

PITFALL

Endangered family: Jane Wyatt, Dick Powell and Jimmy Hunt
PITFALL (1948). Director: Andre de Toth.

Insurance man John Forbes (Dick Powell) has a loving wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt) and an adorable little boy (Jimmy Hunt), but he's restless and bored, and feels he's in a rut. He goes to see Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) in hopes of getting back some of the gifts her embezzling boyfriend Bill (Byron Barr) bought her with stolen loot, and the two are attracted to one another. This infuriates the bulky private eye "Mac" (Raymond Burr), who has an unrequited -- and dangerous -- infatuation with Mona, leading to melodramatic complications. The acting from all is fine in the movie -- Raymond Burr pretty much walks off with the picture -- but the trouble is its completely unimaginative presentation. The only really memorable scene is when the menacing Mac comes to the dress shop where Mona is a model and forces her to show off some sexy numbers for him. Speaking of which, this is directed by the numbers. Barr had a supporting role in Double Indemnity and was also in Follow That Woman and others.

Verdict: Good performances but still kind of blah. **1/2.

THE BIG BLUFF

John Bromfield
THE BIG BLUFF (1955). Director: W. Lee Wilder.

Valerie Bancroft (Martha Vickers) doesn't know that her doctor [whom I wouldn't trust to diagnose a dog!]  has told her secretary-companion, Marsha (Eve Miller), that she has a weak heart and only a few months to live. While Marsha bonds with Valerie's new doctor, Peter Kirk (Robert Hutton), Valerie is quite taken with a sexy dark-haired fellow named Ricardo De Villa (John Bromfield), who is already involved with an attractive dancer named Fritzie (Rosemarie Stack). Ric romances the very wealthy widow Valerie even as he keeps time with Fritzie and tries to avoid the latter's jealous husband, Don (Eddie Bee). Then he cooks up a scheme to get his hands on all that loot with a smitten Fritzie's help ... The Big Bluff is not a world-beater but it holds the attention and Bromfield and Stack give flavorful performances. Vickers' performance is mediocre, but Miller and Hutton are better. The ending is ironic if unconvincing. Robert Bice is the original doctor who makes the fatal diagnosis. Handsome Bromfield usually starred in movies like this and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, but he also appeared in The Furies with Barbara Stanwyck and other better-known films in smaller roles. Stack, originally known as Rosemarie Bowe [as she's billed in this picture], married Robert Stack the following year, but she didn't use his last name professionally until the 70's. Vickers was better in Alimony.

Verdict: Like an extended TV mystery but it's fun. **1/2.

BATTLE-AXE: THE MAKING OF "STRAIGHT-JACKET"

An intense Joan Crawford
BATTLE-AXE: THE MAKING OF "STRAIT-JACKET." (2002). Producer/director: Jeffrey Schwarz.

"We have to remember that we can't expect everyone to be perfect." -- Diane Baker.

This is an entertaining, if brief, look behind the scenes of the William Castle production of Strait-Jacket, starring the inimitable Joan Crawford. The title refers to the weapon of choice in the movie -- which "realistically depicts axe murders" -- and not to Crawford, who is basically handled sympathetically and whose performance in the black and white B shocker is deservedly praised. Joan Blondell was supposed to play the lead but she was injured in an accident. The part of Joan's daughter, played by Diane Baker, was originally essayed by a more voluptuous but apparently less talented and unnamed actress whom Crawford wanted replaced. There are interesting observations from film historian David Del Valle, as well as comments from Baker, who tells -- not unkindly -- that Crawford drank a bit and had the ending changed so that it would focus on her and not Baker [well, she was the star, after all]. Baker says at one point that the makers of horror films, such as William Castle, are actually "lovable," but apparently she didn't feel that way about Alfred Psycho Hitchcock, whom she doesn't exactly depict as lovable in Donald Spoto's book Spellbound by Beauty [Baker appeared in Hitchcock's Marnie]. 

Verdict: Interesting featurette on a minor horror classic. ***.

UP IN THE AIR

Darro, Renolds, Moreland, and Coffin have a conference
UP IN THE AIR (1940). Director: Howard Bretherton.

Frankie (Frankie Darro) is a page boy in a radio studio who tries to impress new receptionist Anne (Marjorie Reynolds of The Time of Their Lives) by pretending to be a producer, which doesn't sit well with her or with their boss, Mr. Farrell (Tristram Coffin). Farrell and others at the station are having problems with difficult, bitchy radio singer Rita Wilson (Lorna Gray of The Perils of Nyoka) but those problems abruptly end when she's shot dead by an unknown person during a rehearsal. Will Anne be chosen to go on in her place? Will Frankie and his buddy Jeff (Mantan Moreland) unveil the murderer before the police do? Yes, it's another Darro-Moreland mystery comedy from Monogram studios, full of flavorful actors but without much of a story. Gordon Jones (The Green Hornet) is a lousy cowboy singer; Dennis Moore (The Purple Monster Strikes) is a gag writer; Dick Elliott is Hastings, the station owner; and John Holland (The Girl in Black Stockings) -- also Alice's handsome boss on an episode of The Honeymooners -- is Sam Quigley, another executive. Neither of the "girl" singers really do justice to the snappy number "Conga;" the best scene has Mantan Morelamd doing a soft shoe routine.

Verdict: Very likable leads but where's the decent script? **.

THE DENNIS O'KEEFE SHOW

Dennis O'Keefe
THE DENNIS O'KEEFE SHOW. 1959.

This sitcom starring popular actor Dennis O'Keefe lasted for one season in 1959. The premise had him as a newspaper columnist with one son, Randy (Ricky Kelman), and a housekeeper named "Sarge" (played by Hope Emerson after she was replaced on Peter Gunn). The very lovely Eloise Hardt plays a sometimes girlfriend, Karen. Three episodes from this lost, pretty much forgotten series are available at the Internet Archives, and two more on youtube. In "June Thursday" 42-year-old Hal Towne (O'Keefe, who was actually a somewhat older-looking fifty-one at the time)) tries to make a star out of a talented cigarette girl. In another episode Randy sends a note to a cute little girl, but her grandmother (Zazu Pitts) thinks the note is for her and that it was sent by Hal! In "Counterfeiters" two elderly counterfeiters buy tickets from Randy with phoney bills, leading to complications. In another episode Hal tries to romance his son's teacher, upon whom he has an unrequited crush, while another teacher (Nancy Kulp, who was eternally cast as the homely "other woman) tries to get a date with him. The best and most amusing episode you can find on line [on youtube], "The Regency Club," has Hal romancing a snobbish society lady who's only dating him so she can dump him, but he goes her one better with some help from his son, housekeeper, and Karen [why Hal would want any other woman when the very attractive, classy yet down-to-earth Karen is available is the question]. Judging from these episodes, there have certainly been worse sitcoms than The Dennis O'Keefe Show and much better ones as well. The cast is appealing, O'Keefe is fine, Emerson amusing, Kelman a cute kid, and Jerome Cowan scores, as he generally does, as a rival columnist. O'Keefe was in Hold That Kiss, Weekend for Three, and many, many other movies.

Verdict: No I Love Lucy, but O'Keefe fans may enjoy. **1/2.

SUPERMAN: UNBOUND

Brainiac versus Superman
SUPERMAN: UNBOUND (made for video/2013). Director: James Tucker.

Based on a graphic novel, this full-length animated feature details Superman and Supergirl's battle with the alien villain Brainiac, who shrinks and steals cities from around the galaxy; Supergirl's home town Kandor is now in a bottle on his spaceship, which is actually an extension of himself. [Brainiac first appeared in more human form in Superman comics of the silver age.] Sub-plots have to do with Supergirl's fear over going into combat with the powerful alien. as well as Clark Ken'ts relationship with Lois Lane, which the two are keeping secret [leading one character to suggest that Kent is gay in a stupid bit]. Superman has a fierce, final battle with Brainiac while Supergirl handles a deadly missile. Superman: Unbound has fluid animation and is typically colorful, but there's nothing very impressive about it, either. Certainly this isn't terrible but it doesn't have the quality nor the interesting storyline of Superman vs. The Elite. Matt Bomer is fine as Superman/Clark Kent.

Verdict: Disappointing comic book adaptation. **1/2.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

REBECCA

The unnamed heroine (Fontaine) and Mrs. Danvers (Anderson)















REBECCA (1940). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

"[Rebecca's underwear] was made especially for her by the nuns at the Convent of St. Clair." -- a rhapsodic Mrs. Danvers

An unnamed young lady (Joan Fontaine) is in Monte Carlo as the companion to the horrible dowager Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) when she meets the handsome Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and the two are instantly attracted. The young lady agrees to become the second Mrs. de Winter -- Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, was drowned -- and they set off for his beautiful estate, Manderlay. There the nervous new wife sees evidence of the much more sophisticated Rebecca everywhere, and has to deal with a housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who loved Rebecca and sees the new Mrs. de Winter as a usurper. Eventually a number of secrets about Rebecca and her death are uncovered ... If there's any problem with this smoothly made and entertaining romance it's that the heroine is a bit too mousy -- after one especially cruel trick played on the unsuspecting victim by Mrs. Danvers, most women would have insisted the termagant be fired, for instance, but Fontaine lets it slide [although she does confront the housekeeper]. However, Fontaine is perfect and lovely in the role, although Olivier's performance, while good, is probably not one of his most outstanding. It could be argued that Judith Anderson overplays a bit too much, bristling "evil" at the very first confrontation, and one suspects Cloris Leachman based her portrayal of Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein on Anderson in this. It has been suggested that Danvers was in love with Rebecca, but it's just as likely that, like a lot of old-school servants, she loved her mistress platonically and came to strongly, obsessively identify with her. In any case, Danvers' performance is basically good, which is also true of Florence Bates; George Sanders (as Rebecca's "cousin"); Gladys Cooper as a relative of Max's; Nigel Bruce as her husband; Reginald Denny as Max's associate, Frank; C. Aubrey Smith as a colonel; and Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Baker. The finale leaves you feeling somewhat sympathetic towards the unseen title character, and wondering if she was quite so "evil" and what she might have had to put up with as far as Maxim was concerned.

Verdict: Smooth, memorable picture from Hitchcock and producer David Selznick. ***1/2.

THE BIG KNIFE

Everett Sloane talks to Jack Palance
















THE BIG KNIFE (1955). Producer/director: Robert Aldrich. Screenplay by James Poe from the play by Clifford Odets.

Movie star Charles Castle (Jack Palance) was involved in a hit and run that killed a child, but his p.r. man, Buddy (Paul Langton), took the rap for him. Charles' wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), who is separated from him, swears she'll divorce him if he re-signs with Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), who probably helped engineer the deception. Now there's a new complication: Castle had a woman with him in the car that night, Dixie Evans (Shelly Winters), and she's drunkenly shooting her mouth off everywhere she goes. Now Hoff and his associate Smiley (Wendell Corey), want to take care of Dixie -- permanently ... The Big Knife might have worked on the stage, and the Odets original was undoubtedly better than this half-baked adaptation, but the film sinks almost from the get-go. The chief problem is the epic miscasting of Jack Palance. Charlie might have evoked some sympathy in the viewer if he was played by a man who could get across his essential weakness and confusion, but Palance seems incapable of ever displaying the slightest trace of vulnerability. It gives the actor his presence and strength, but he's just all wrong for this picture. His scenes with Ida Lupino are stagey and over-rehearsed and just don't work at all -- both of them are busy "acting" instead of being. We're constantly being told of how wonderful Castle is and of his supposed integrity, but all we see is a corrupt, self-absorbed individual who allowed another man to take responsibility for his actions, slept with the man's wife, and acts like a dickhead throughout. When he protests at the idea of "silencing" Dixie, it's hard to believe that he would object -- he's the last one to take a high moral stance. It's up to the supporting cast to give the film whatever limited stature it has. Rod Steiger has some ferociously effective scenes as Stanley [some might think he's merely showing off]; Wendell Corey underplays beautifully as the slimy Smily; Everett Sloane is as solid as ever as Charles' agent; and Paul Langton has a beautifully and powerfully delivered speech to Castle at the end of the film that is one of the most memorable bits in the movie. As for the women, Ilka Chase offers a dead-on portrait of an oily, if stereotypical, gossip columnist, Shelley Winters is so-so as Dixie, and Jean Hagen fails to impress as Buddy's sluttish wife, Connie. Wesley Addy has a nice turn as the writer Hank Teagle. Oddly, a confrontation between Dixie and Hoff that might have been quite cinematic and dynamic is mentioned but not shown, but the film isn't "opened" up very much. It's hard to like or enjoy a movie in which virtually every character is either unpleasant or annoying. Robert Aldrich was the wrong director for this, as well. For a worthwhile Odets adaptation, see Clash By Night.

Verdict: A fairly embarrassing mess of Hollywood pseudo-profundity with horribly miscast leads. **.

THE CROOKED WAY

Percy Helton is roughed up by John Payne
















THE CROOKED WAY (1949). Director: Robert Florey.

Ex G.I. Eddie (John Payne) gets out of the hospital with a head full of shrapnel and a case of amnesia that the doctor tells him will never be cured. He goes to his home town and discovers that he turned state's evidence against a friend and associate, Vince (Sonny Tufts), who did a stretch in jail, and who is dying to get even with him. A strange woman named Nina (Ellen Drew) turns out to be his ex-wife, who claims he brutalized her. Vince has Eddie beaten up and tells him to leave town, then enlists Nina's aid in getting him to stay -- he's cooked up a scheme that might send Eddie up the river forever. The Crooked Way -- not to be confused with The Crooked Web  -- is a standard crime thriller with some good performances. It's only "originality" is the amnesia angle, and even that has been done before. Payne is quite credible as the confused, one-dimensional G.I.; Tufts is surprisingly good as the mob boss; Drew [Crime Doctor's Man Hunt] is competent; and Percy Helton nearly steals the picture as another typically weaselly character whom Eddie comes to for help and winds up roughing up at one point, even if he's half his age and twice his size [poor Percy!]. The picture would have us believe that amnesia can turn a criminal, jackal and wife-beater into a decent guy. Sure! One of director Florey's less interesting pictures.

Verdict: Percy helps liven things up, but not enough. **.

THE CROOKED WEB

Lovejoy, Blanchard and Denning on the road
















THE CROOKED WEB (1955). Director: Nathan Juran.

Joanie (Mari Blanchard) works for boyfriend Stanley (Frank Lovejoy) in his drive-in. Along comes her ne'er-do-well brother Frank (Richard Denning) who knows a way they can all make a lot of money if Stanley is willing to kick in. Thus begins a saga that eventually lands the trio in post-war Germany. The best thing about The Crooked Web is the first half hour which has more than one twist that turns bad guys into good guys and vice versa. [Warning: the imdb.com synopsis gives the twist away, as it often does.] The rest is a fairly routine crime melodrama that has a modicum of suspense but is comparatively flat. The three lead performances are all quite good, however, with Blanchard especially zesty as the gal who's looking for "security" any way she can get it. Harry Lauter [Trader Tom of the China Seas] is an Army sergeant, and Roy Gordon [War of the Colossal Beast] plays the father of a murdered M.P.

Verdict: If only the twists had kept coming ... **1/2.

HOT PEPPER

Lowe and McLaglen
HOT PEPPER (1933). Director: John G. Blystone.

In this sequel to the silent What Price, Glory?, friendly enemies Harry Quirt (Edmund Lowe) and Jim Flagg (Victor McLaglen) are out of the Army and still maintaining their rivalry over women and everything else. Harry uses phony badges to get money from Jim and other victims. Jim, who's in the nightclub business during prohibition, discovers that one of his ships has a stowaway, Pepper (Lupe Velez), who has come from South America to be a star in New York. Harry opens his own club and makes Pepper the starring attraction. and the pursuit for her is on. [Alas, the spirited Velez offers energy and little else in her number, and her legs and especially knees are nothing to crow about.] You want to like Hot Pepper, for the performers if nothing else, but it just isn't that funny, even though the trio of lead actors give their all. Velez also arrived from a boat to be a performer in Manhattan in Redhead from Manhattan ten years later. Lowe was also in Honeymoon Deferred, while McLaglen was in The Quiet Man. Blystone also directed the vastly superior Swiss Miss with Laurel and Hardy. Some funny moments, but not enough.

Verdict: Disappointing. comedy with leads who deserve a better script. **.

SHOCKPROOF

Patricia Knight and Cornel Wilde at the movies
SHOCKPROOF (1949). Director: Douglas Sirk.

Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight), after serving five years for murder, reports to her parole officer, Griff Maratt (Cornel Wilde). Griff warns Jenny to stay away from her old boyfriend, gambler Harry Wesson  (John Baragrey) -- she killed someone to save Harry's  life -- because of his bad reputation, and sure enough Jenny is picked up in a raid while out with Harry. Griff deposits Jenny in his own household as an aide for his blind mother [who never needed an aide before] to supposedly keep her away from bad influences, but it isn't long before the two are holding hands at the movies. Things become increasingly melodramatic and unbelievable after that with someone else getting shot and the couple on the run ... Wilde and Knight had been married for twelve years when they made this picture, and were divorced two years later. They certainly make an attractive couple, and their performances aren't bad, either, although neither is especially outstanding. King Donovan has an effective turn as a parolee who throws himself to his death rather than go back to jail. Baragrey mostly did television and theater work and he gives a memorable performance in this. Knight was not untalented, and quite beautiful, but her film career suffered after her divorce from Wilde and she only appeared in two more movies.

Verdict: Sexy leads and a fast pace never hurt. **1/2.

IRON MAN 3

IRON MAN 3 (2013). Director: Shane Black.

Anthony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), whom the world knows is the hero Iron Man, issues a challenge to a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and shortly after Stark's cliffside house is demolished by missiles. Another threat is posed by one Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who has developed Extremis technology that gives human beings explosive and fiery super-powers that can easily get out of control. Are Killian and the Mandarin working together? The Mandarin in this movie is nothing like the character in the comics, but the business with Extremis was taken from relatively recent Iron Man stories. Iron Man 3 is entertaining [although non-comics fans may wonder what the hell is going on] and generally fast-paced, although it can be awfully talky at times. The action scenes are pretty well-orchestrated, and the two best scenes detail the attack on Stark's house and a knock-out sequence when Iron Man rescues eleven people who have been sucked out of an airplane [surely some of them would have died from terror?]. The climax has Iron Man and Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle) -- formerly known as War Machine -- rescuing the president and having a knock-down drag-out with a super-charged Killian. Iron Man 3 has a little too much humor and comes dangerously close to camp at times. Downey gets across the movie Stark's flippancy, but not much else. Guy Pearce steals the picture as Killian, easily giving the most impressive and intense performance. Don Cheadle is miscast, but Gwyneth Paltrow is fine as Stark's girlfriend and associate Pepper, and there are notable turns by Rebecca Hall as Myra Hansen, James Badge Dale as Savin [both associates of Killian's], and Ty Simpkins as little Harley, who helps Tony midway through the picture. Ben Kingsley is also good as the movie's rather weird reinterpretation of Iron Man's arch-enemy, the Mandarin. To read more about the comic book adventures of Iron Man, see The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: Iron Man fans may scratch their heads but otherwise enjoy this. ***.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

DEADLIER THAN THE MALE

Elke Sommer and Richard Johnson
DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967). Director: Ralph Thomas.

"You are -- unnatural!" 

Trying to tap into the spy craze of the sixties, Deadlier Than the Male took the old character of "Bulldog" Drummond and resuscitated him as insurance agent Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson), who investigates a number of murders connected to a large and controversial policy. We see in the very first scene that the murderers are two beautiful and sociopathic hit women named Irma (Elke Sommer) and Penelope (Sylva Koscina), who go about their deadly business with earnest professionalism and not the slightest trace of pity. Drummond has a girl-happy nephew named Robert (Steve Carlson), who in one of the more interesting scenes is put in naked bondage by the sexy ladies and then left alone with a ticking time bomb! Despite all the grimness, the movie is light-hearted and quite entertaining. Johnson is fine as the hero, Carlson is handsome and efficient, and the two ladies are delightfully sinister. Nigel Green [Let's Kill Uncle] plays Carl Petersen, who is also involved in the case. A giant mechanical chess set figures in the finale, and the ending is very satisfying. Drummond returned in Some Girls Do.

Verdict: Not exactly a Bond movie but fun. ***.

HOW TO STEAL A MILLION

Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn
HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966). Director: William Wyler.

Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) lives in a big house in Paris with her father, Bonnet (Hugh Griffith of Craze), who forges paintings and sculptures and sells them to the highest bidder. Now Bonnet has agreed to lend a phony Cellini statue to a museum, which Nicole warns him is a mistake. It sure is -- the statue has to be authenticated for insurance purposes and it is sure to be exposed as a fake, which will also ruin Bonnet's reputation and call into question every sale he ever made. Nicole decides to steal the statue before the inspection can take place, and enlists the aid of a burglar, Simon (Peter O'Toole of The Ruling Class), that she caught apparently trying to steal one of her father's paintings. There's an undeniable attraction between the two, but can they actually steal the sculpture from such a heavily guarded museum ... ? Although director William Wyler [The Heiress, The Letter, Carrie, four star movies all] wasn't exactly a suspense specialist and was an odd choice for this assignment, he had worked with Audrey Hepburn more than once, and the film still has entertainment value, although it's hardly one of Wyler's best. Hepburn gives another terrific performance, matched by O'Toole, Griffith, and Eli Wallach as a suitor and art collector. Charles Boyer is fine in a brief bit as a colleague of Simon's. Bonnet is in many ways a reprehensible character with no true appreciation of art or artists when you get right down to it. Wyler directed Funny Girl after this, another odd choice.

Verdict: Light and fun if minor. ***.

THE LOCKET

Robert Mitchum and Laraine Day
THE LOCKET (1946). Director: John Brahm.

"How could I ever have liked you, Norman? -- you're arrogant, suspicious, neurotic!"

John Willis (Gene Raymond) is just about to marry his fiancee, Nancy (Laraine Day of Foreign Correspondent), when a psychiatrist named Blair (Brian Aherne) bursts in, tells him he was once married to Nancy, and that Willis will be making a terrible mistake if he goes ahead with the wedding. What follows is a long flashback -- interrupted by two flashbacks within the flashback -- in which Blair relates his history with Nancy to Willis, including how an artist named Norman (Robert Mitchum) told him that Nancy had knowledge of a certain crime ... Since all the plot twists are part of the fun of The Locket I won't say any more, only that the movie is certainly psychologically dubious, but nevertheless fascinating, and quite entertaining. Day gives one of her best performances, resisting all chances to chew the scenery, and making it clear how so many men could fall for her despite her, uh, problems. Raymond and Aherne are fine, but a miscast Mitchum really just walks through the role of Norman and gives us absolutely no sign of his emotional torment [which makes one of his actions more surprising but also less believable]. Henry Stephenson and Ricardo Cortez are swell in smaller roles, and Katherine Emery scores as Willis' mother, who knew Nancy as a child in a pivotal flashback sequence. Brahm also directed Hangover Square and many others.

Verdict: Unusual and absorbing melodrama with a fine lead performance. ***.

THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE

Charlton Heston explores the wreck
THE WRECK OF THE MARY DEARE (1959). Director: Michael Anderson.

John Sands (Charlton Heston) of the salvage vessel Sea Witch comes across what he thinks is a derelict ship, the Mary Deare, in the middle of the ocean. There is one person aboard, however, Captain Gideon Patch (Gary Cooper), who insists that he did not give the order to abandon ship. There is also a corpse in the hold that Patch tries to cover up. Exactly what happened on the ship and why it happened unfolds in a courtroom sequence and in the finale back on the ship as the hold is explored for a certain cargo ... Mary Deare is a fast-paced suspense film that features good performances from Heston and Cooper, as well as Virginia McKenna [The Chosen] as the daughter of the original captain who died at sea; Ben Wright as Sands' partner in the salvage operation; Richard Harris as the eternally smirking sailor, Higgins; Michael Redgrave as a lawyer in the court of inquiry; and others. The ending is a touch dragged out, perhaps, but this is an absorbing and well-acted movie.

Verdict: Worth a look. ***.

MURDER IN SPACE

Michael Ironside questions a suspect















MURDER IN SPACE (1985 telefilm). Director: Steven Hilliard Stern.

An international crew is assembled for several months on board a space lab where political intrigue and mixed-up personal relationships are taking a toll. Things get worse when one of the women, Olga, is found murdered -- and she was two months pregnant, meaning her husband back in the USSR couldn't possibly be the father. Suspects include Guy (Timothy Webber), who's having an affair with Domenica (Alberta Watson), and Kurt (Tom Butler), who's having an affair with David (Scot Denton), and even the captain, Neal Braddock (Michael Ironside of Scanners), who's keeping some secrets. More murders follow, with such people on the ground as Dr. MacAllister (Wilford Brimley) and Alexander Rostov (Martin Balsam) worrying about their respective countries' representatives and more. Murder in Space has an intriguing premise and location, but while it holds the attention the solution isn't that satisfying or believable. The cast is quite good for the most part, although the usually intense Ironside seems bored through most of the movie and gives a boring, uninvolved performance, as does Brimley [The China Syndrome], who doesn't really seem to be an actor. Balsam is excellent, as usual, and Nerene Virgin and Wendy Crewson score, respectively, as Dr. Leigh and David's wife, Irene.

Verdict: Comes very close but ultimately misses despite definite entertainment value. **1/2.

SPELLBOUND BY BEAUTY: ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND HIS LEADING LADIES

SPELLBOUND BY BEAUTY: ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND HIS LEADING LADIES. Donald Spoto. Harmony; 2008.

It would be easy to completely dismiss this book as Spoto's attempt to pick once more at the bones of Alfred Hitchcock -- and sometimes it truly comes off like that -- were it not for the fact that the book is entertaining and well-written. Spoto goes through a list of Hitch's leading ladies and describes the great director's relationship with them, giving mini-bios of the women if there isn't any dirt to be dug up. All of this is perfectly readable if not terribly enlightening. The major chapters -- and charges -- concern Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren of The Birds, and much of this isn't new, either, just more detailed. Like many a director before and after, Hitchcock -- according to the book -- became enamored and possessive of a model totally out of his league and cast her in a major role she wasn't ready for. [Like that's never happened before!] According to Hedren, Hitchcock was guilty of multiple abuses of sexual harassment. If we're to believe the various assertions in Spellbound By Beauty, Hitch was a rather childish, sexually and romantically frustrated man who went a little too far as far as Hedren was concerned. [Despite contracts and possible lawsuits and needing to support her daughter, it's difficult to understand how Hedren in any case could have subjected herself to Hitchcock again in Marnie after her experiences in The Birds. You would think she'd fly away and get a waitressing job and a good lawyer!] Hitch loved telling ribald jokes to the women in his films and other things and they either laughed, like saucy Carole Lombard and Karen Black, or were mortally offended like the devout and prim Diane Baker. As for Hedren, she may have been uncomfortable filming the sequence with the birds attacking her in the attic in The Birds, but it's a masterful sequence and surely she didn't suffer any more than a zillion actors in even more demanding physical roles. That's the movies. Spoto's negative comments about the very talented Joan Fontaine seem especially mean-spirited, perhaps because she didn't contribute any negative anecdotes. At least Spoto admits that whatever his failings as a man, Hitchcock was a genius filmmaker, and all these years after his death, that's really all that matters.

Verdict: Hitchcock sacrificed on the fires of political correctness? **1/2. 

THE DISAPPEARED

Harry Treadaway as Matthew












THE DISAPPEARED (2008). Director: Johnny Kevorkian.

Teenager Matthew (Harry Treadaway) has been wracked with guilt ever since he let his little brother Tom (Lewis Lemperuer Palmer) go off by himself and he disappeared and is presumed dead. Matthew's mother left years ago, and there's a story circulating that his father, Jake (Greg Wise), once broke Tom's arm. Now Harry seems to be hearing voices from his brother and seeing visions of him as well. He goes to see a medium to find out what he can, and is befriended by a neighbor named Amy (Ros Leeming), Then his best friend Simon's (Tom Felton) sister, Sophie (Georgie Groome ) goes missing. ... The Disappeared is fairly unusual at first, with an added supernatural slant, but it turns into a standard thriller at the end, and the often confusing continuity doesn't help. However, it has much atmosphere, is quite poignant, and features an outstanding performance by Treadaway, a young actor who really delivers. The other performers, including Alex Jennings as a concerned priest, are also on the money.

Verdict: Sad, supernatural British thriller. ***.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

MIDNIGHT INTRUDER

Louis Hayward
















MIDNIGHT INTRUDER (1938). Director: Arthur Lubin.

"Houses without people, people without houses." -- Barry musing on the inequities of life.

Barry (Louis Hayward) and his older pal Doc (J. C. Nugent) are completely broke after Barry loses all of their money at the track. Seeking shelter in a rainstorm, they enter a big empty house and later are mistaken by servants for wealthy John Reitter Jr. and one of his friends. Learning that the real Reitter won't be coming home, Barry decides to keep impersonating him and enjoying the good food and liquor and high-toned companions, although Doc is increasingly nervous until he meets rich widow Mrs. Randolph (Jan Duggan of The Old-Fashioned Way). Then Barry learns that the real Reitter (Eric Linden) has been jailed for murder under an assumed name and things get complicated. The oddly-titled Midnight Intruder [which makes it sound almost like a horror film] starts out as a light-hearted comedy and turns into a mediocre mystery halfway through, although it is continuously bolstered by the work of most of the cast, especially Hayward in another absolutely winning lead performance. Nugent is also fine, and the supporting actors include Irving Bacon and Pierre Watkin. Duggan is as much fun as ever in her brief turn as the widow and Robert Grieg scores as the butler Willetts.

Verdict: Amiable, even if it goes off course at the midway point. **1/2.

WAIT UNTIL DARK

Alone in the dark with a killer
WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967). Director: Terence Young.

Blind Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) is unaware that some men who have come to her apartment pretending to either be friends of her husband or police officers are actually crooks looking for a drug-filled doll that a woman handed off to Susy's unsuspecting husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). Gradually she realizes that something is wrong, and prepares to fight for her life when the gentlemen come back from a wild goose chase she's sent them on. The main trouble with Wait Until Dark -- which was based on a stage play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) -- is that the suspense is minimal because the audience is clued in to what's going on from the very beginning. Hepburn gives a very good performance and the rest of the surprisingly C List cast are fine, although Alan Arkin seems about as threatening as Boris Badenov. Julie Herrod is excellent as the neighbor child Gloria who is alternately helpful and bratty. Henry Mancini's score does what it can to increase the limited excitement. It's hard to figure why Arkin and Crenna were billed above the title along with Hepburn.

SPOILER ALERT: Susy has been encouraged by her husband to be as independent as possible despite her blindness, which leads to two problematical developments. We already know she can walk by herself to her husband's office, so instead of barricading herself in her apartment, why doesn't she just leave and ask for someone to help her get to the nearest precinct? [St. Luke's Place where this takes place runs right into Seventh Avenue and the men watching her place have gone off on the wild goose chase.] At the very end when Sam sees her bloodied and huddled by the refrigerator, he waits for her to get up and make her way towards him, but surely in a situation like this he would forget his independence edict and go hug the woman he's supposed to be in love with after such an ordeal? Also, in a moment that made some nervous nellies in the audience jump in fright, Alan Arkin leaps out of the darkness at Susy after he's been stabbed and falls to the ground unconscious. Maybe he might have been able to painfully lurch after her, but leap? The moment is ludicrous instead of startling.

Verdict: If you want to see a better Frederick Knott adaptation watch Dial M for Murder instead. **.

THE TOWERING INFERNO















THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). Director: John Guillermin. Action scenes directed by producer Irwin Allen.

Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox each had rights to two separate novels with the same theme: "The Tower" and "The Glass Inferno" both had to do with massive fires in high-rise buildings. The two studios cooperated on one film combining aspects of both stories, thus The Towering Inferno. During an inaugural party in the penthouse of the world's tallest building in San Francisco, a fire breaks out and gets worse and worse as firemen try to cope with the disaster. People are trapped in the Promenade room as other horrible incidents occur on the floors below. As some individuals try to make their way down to the ground far below, the others at the party enact a desperate scheme to save themselves and put out the fire at the same time. Everything is hampered and things made worse by the fact that against the architect's orders a man named Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), the builder's son-in-law, saved money by ignoring the fire codes and safety procedures.

Watching Inferno today with memories of 9/11 in your head makes for a distinctly uncomfortable experience. That being said, Allen has put together a suspenseful and often terrifying movie that grips you for its full length and never lets go. Among the more gut-wrenching scenes are the one where a group tries to get past a shattered, swinging metal staircase, and the horrifying business in the scenic elevator, during which Jennifer Jones' character plunges to a grotesque death. There are a very few moments of pathos in the movie, but most of it is tension and terror. Paul Newman is fine as the architect, an ordinary man, who watches his dream project collapsing and tries to save lives, although Steve McQueen is unemotional throughout as the fire chief. William Holden is the builder, Faye Dunaway is Newman's lover, Fred Astaire is an aging con man, Robert Vaughn is a senator, and Susan Blakely is Holden's daughter, and all are fine. John Williams' score helps sustain the tension. O. J. Simpson is also in the movie,, but that's a disaster of a different kind. Guillermin also directed The Whole Truth and the first terrible remake of King Kong.

Verdict: Not exactly a pleasant experience but certainly well done. ***1/2.

JOHNNY STACCATO

John Cassavetes as Johnny Staccato















 JOHNNY STACCATO 1959 television series.

Johnny Staccato (John Cassavetes) is a "jazz detective" because he's not only a private eye, but plays piano in a jazz combo at Waldo's. There were 27 black and white half hour episodes. Waldo was played by Eduardo Ciannelli. Cassavetes was excellent as a different type of slightly brooding detective. Halfway through the series, the piano playing opening was replaced with a more action-oriented sequence. Among some of the more memorable episodes: "Night of Jeopardy" -- a mob counterfeiter thinks Johnny has possession of a certain package; "Double Feature" -- Johnny's exact double is a deadly hit man; "Swinging Long Hair" -- an Iron Curtain pianist and his wife run from murderous agents; "Nice Little Town" -- a powerful episode in which a soldier who broke under torture is called a communist and murdered; "The Mask of Jason" -- a disfigured man (Bert Remsen) tries to reconnect with his horrible beauty queen ex-wife (Mary Tyler Moore); "Piece of Paradise" -- a jockey (a superb Walter Burke) is accused of strangling a dance hall girl; "Solomon" -- a defense attorney (an overacting Elisha Cook Jr.) wants Johnny to perjure himself for his client (an excellent Cloris Leachman); "The Wild Reed" -- a troubled saxophonist (Harry Guardino) with a drug problem; "List of Death" -- Johnny is hired by a dying mobster with a new face (Paul Stewart); "Murder for Credit" -- who killed a singer making a comeback, with memorable performances by Martin Landau, Charles McGraw and Marilyn Clark. Generally well-scripted and always well-acted, Johnny Staccato was a fine addition to the private eye television genre.

Verdict: Cool, man, cool. ***.

THE SINS OF MADAME BOVARY /PLAY THE GAME OR LEAVE THE BED

An Emma Bovary with Something Extra
THE SINS OF MADAME BOVARY (AKA Play the Game or Leave the Bed and Die Nackte Bovary/1969). Director: Hans Schott-Schobinger.

In this loose adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Emma (Edwige Fenech) is married to a country doctor (Gerhard Riedmann) but has affairs with Rudolf Boulanger (Peter Carsten) and young Leon Dupuis (Gianni Dei) while dodging the admiring creditor Adolphe Lheureus (Franco Ressel). Major changes to the story include Boulanger being willing to pay off Emma's debts [which he never does in any other version, pleading poverty], and Emma having sex with Lheureus in exchange for a batch of IOUs. Fenech seems to have been cast for her body, which is undraped as often as possible, while the male cast members seem not to have been cast for their looks; Fenech's acting seems adequate as does the others'. This is an adaptation of a French novel made by a combined German-Italian production company with a French-born star and dubbed into Italian. Fenech's eye make up is way overdone but her fans won't be looking at her eyes.

Verdict: Watch Jennifer Jones in Madame Bovary instead -- or even Beyond the Forest. **.

IMMATERIAL CULTURE


We all know how many fans there are of old movies, but you may not know that there are also many fans of old-time radio. There are CDs collecting episodes of classic radio shows, and on Amazon.com you can download episodes of Lights Out! and other shows.

Harry Heuser has just come out with a book entitled Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama, and the American Radio Play 1929 - 1954. As the publisher, Peter Land puts it, "Immaterial Culture engages with texts that are now largely unread and dismissed as trivial or dubious: the vast body of plays – thrillers, narrative poetry, comedy sketches, documentaries and adaptations of literature and drama – that aired on American network radio during the medium’s so-called golden age."

Lest one think the book might be dry reading, take a gander at the chapter titles:
Chapter 1
The “time between commercials”: Radio Culture and Criticism 1
Chapter 2
“Barbarians ready! Flash the orchestra!”: Stage and Studio 15
Chapter 3
“Yeah, hit’s jist like a library”: Broadcasting and Print 53
Chapter 4
“Rise up and speak, you voices!”: Medium and Zeitgeist 93
Chapter 5
“It’s going to hurt, but think of this”: Service and Self-Effacement 133
Chapter 6
“Until I know the thing I want to know”: Puzzles and Propaganda 173
Chapter 7
“If I’m alone one more second, I’ll go mad”: Dialogue and Interiority 209
Chapter 8
“This is Norman Corwin”: Voice and Vocabulary 255
Chapter 9
“Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?”: Exits and Recantations 299

You can read more about the book here and order a copy -- print or ebook -- here or from Amazon. 

REC /RED LIGHT

The zombies are coming!












REC (aka Red Light/2007). Directors: Jaume Belaguero; Paco Plaza.

A reporter named Angela (Manuela Velasco) is doing a story on the local fire department with her unseen cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rosso), when an alarm comes in. Inexplicably the fire department is called in simply because an elderly lady in an apartment building is screaming, even though a police officer (Vincente Gil) is already on the scene. The ravenous old lady attacks two men, and authorities on the outside quarantine the building to stop the spread of a possible bacteriological infection. Everyone who's bitten by an infected person becomes violent and crazy. Angela and Pablo struggle to stay alive while everything is recorded solely by the video camera. Rec can make you nauseous not because of the bloodletting, but because of the shaky camera movements. It's one thing to use this approach when the events unfolding are real, but when they're just made up it makes little sense to subject the audience to tedious, documentary-style "camerawork" when a normal approach would work so much better. Although Rec was a hit in Spain and was remade in the U.S. as Quarantine, it has absolutely no new ideas, so you wonder if its fans have ever seen that many horror films. The creepy moments are nearly outnumbered by the stupid ones, and for long stretches the movie is incredibly boring. The film also has little emotional resonance, making it mostly schlock. So far there have been two sequels, with a third on the way, and Quarantine itself has an unrelated sequel as well. I will happily miss all of them. At least the acting is rather good.

Verdict: An occasional taut moment, but mostly over-familiar tedium; you've seen it all before. **.