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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

THE BIG SHAKEDOWN

Charles Farrell and Bette Davis




















THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934). Director: John Francis Dillon.

Jimmy Morrell (Charles Farrell) owns a neighborhood drug store and employs his sweetheart Norma (Bette Davis) behind the counter. Along comes smooth operator and racketeer Dutch Barnes (Ricardo Cortez), who discovers that Jimmy can make toothpaste just the same and just as good as the best-selling brand. Jimmy agrees to go to work making duplicate toothpaste and other stuff for Barnes, but he assumes they'll be marketed under a new brand name. Instead Barnes simply puts the bogus stuff into tubes with the label of the original brand on them and distributes them as the real thing. Jimmy is nervous about this development, but he keeps making fake toiletries and cosmetics for Barnes to distribute, until one day Barnes decides to duplicate a famous antiseptic -- only without the specific ingredient that makes it antiseptic -- and there are worse things to come. The Big Shakedown has a good premise and there are some dramatic developments, but the picture doesn't present them with any flair or intensity. Farrell is fine, but while Cortez plays the very suave and polished villain with his usual aplomb, it's also a distinctly superficial portrait. This was one of the thankless roles that Bette Davis -- top-billed with Farrell although she hasn't much to do -- was handed in the early days. She looks cute and is quite adept; Glenda Farrell has a somewhat larger role as a girlfriend of Barnes' who gets into a zesty hair-pulling match with Renee Whitney as her rival Mae LaRue. Perhaps the best thing in the picture is Barnes' flamboyant death scene, even if it doesn't make too much sense. Many years later Charles Farrell was Gale Storm's father on My Little Margie; he was not related to Glenda Farrell.

Verdict: This had possibilities but it's nearly a snooze. *1/2.

MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S BLESSED EVENT

Leon Errol, Lupe Velez, and Walter Reed















MEXICAN SPITFIRE'S BLESSED EVENT (1943). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

"First let me have some other particulars and then we'll discuss sex."

This is the eighth and final entry in the "Mexican Spitfire" films and Dennis (Walter Reed) is still  trying to get Lord Epping (Leon Errol) to sign that contract! It's amazing that while Blessed Event doesn't depart in many ways from the usual formula -- you know that at one point Uncle Matt (Leon Errol  again) will dress up like Lord Epping and confusion will run riot -- it still manages to be pretty hilarious in spite of it. In this installment Dennis and company get the mistaken notion that his wife, Carmelita (Lupe Velez), has somehow given birth to a baby -- without, so far as anybody knows, being pregnant --  but the "blessed event" she refers to is actually her cat having kittens. Since Lord Epping will not sign that ever-demanding contract until he sees the baby, this presents quite a problem for the Lindsays, including the always reliable Uncle Matt. Then there's Dennis' business rival, George Sharp (Hugh Beaumont), who does his level best to prove Carmelita is putting on a diabolical baby act. Velez and Errol are in their usual top form, as are Elisabeth Risdon as Dennis' formidable aunt; Lydia Bilbrook as the deadpan Lady Epping; and Reed as the charming if discombobulated "father," Dennis. Hugh Beaumont is also excellent as the conniving Sharp and has a great scene with Errol in the bar (where else?). There's some inventive business in this, a few risque lines, and amusingly bizarre situations, and the laughs keep coming at a rapid pace.These are fine comic actors at the top of their game.

Verdict: Arguably the best and funniest of the Mexican Spitfire films. ***.

ONE HEAVENLY NIGHT

Evelyn lays a big egg in "One Heavenly Night"













ONE HEAVENLY NIGHT (1931). Director: George Fitzmaurice.

Flower girl/usherette Lilli (the amusingly named Evelyn Laye) aspires to be just like the notorious man-hungry chanteuse Fritzi (Lilyan Tashman), and she gets her chance when Fritzi asks Lilli to impersonate her on a trip to the tiny kingdom of Zuppa. There Lilli meets the handsome Count Tibor (John Boles), and the two fall in love after an initial unpleasant encounter. One Heavenly Night is, alas, not an example of one of your more memorable operettas, having an uninteresting story, tedious comic relief, and songs that are only vaguely pleasant at best. Playing a young ladies man, Boles is sexier than in such dramas as Back Street and Stella Dallas, in which he was convincingly middle-aged only a year later. Neither Laye nor Tashman are terribly attractive by Hollywood standards; although Laye isn't a bad actress, she lacks distinction. One problem with Laye in this movie is that she's rather affected even before she begins her impersonation of the haughty Fritzi. Leon Errol is on hand as Lilli's vocal coach and loving buddy, but even the great comedian isn't able to do anything to save the picture. Laye made a few more films in the thirties, and then wasn't seen again for twenty years. That same year Fitzmaurice directed Greta Garbo in Mata Hari and he guided Barbara Stanwyck in her second film and first sound picture, The Locked Door.

Verdict: A not-so-heavenly hour and a half. *1/2.

THE HONEYMOONERS SPECIALS

Ralph and Ed Norton do drag!




















 THE HONEYMOONERS SPECIALS

"Just what I always suspected! I'm calling Anita Bryant in the morning!" -- Alice's mother after seeing Ralph rubbing Ed's back. 

"The Honeymooners: Second Honeymoon" (1976). Director: Jackie Gleason.
"The Honeymooners Christmas Special" (1978). Director: Jackie Gleason.
"The Honeymooners Valentine Special" (1978). Director: Jackie Gleason. 

Jackie Gleason brought back most of the cast of the original Honeymooners  -- Jane Kean of the Color Honeymooners replaced Joyce Randolph -- for four reunion specials in the late seventies, three of which are available on DVD. In "Second Honeymoon" Ralph (Jackie Gleason) and Alice (Audrey Meadows) are going to renew their vows at the raccoon lodge when Ralph gets the mistaken impression that Alice is pregnant. In the Christmas special, Ralph gets another hare-brained idea and uses his savings, his mother-in-law's social security check, and Norton's Xmas bonus to buy hundreds of lottery tickets. In the Valentine special, the funniest of the three, Ralph is convinced that Alice is plotting to murder him due to a gigolo she's met, and he and Ed (Art Carney) dress in drag to trap this other man. Some of the routines in these are over-familiar, the apartment looks especially stark on a large stage and in color, and Ralph and Alice still don't have a phone or most modern conveniences, but the cast's timing is still impeccable and there are a lot of laughs. Eileen Heckart [The Bad Seed; Miracle in the Rain] plays Ralph's mother-in-law in the Valentine special, and while she's a fine actress, she's not really suitable for the role. Templeton Fox is a little more on the mark, but neither of them can compare to Ethel Owen, who really nailed the role in the original series in the fifties. The fourth special had Ralph putting on "A Christmas Carol" for the Raccoon lodge, but this has not yet been released on DVD. Jane Kean was in the right time and place when these reunions were announced and got the part of Trixie again, but in all fairness it should have gone to Joyce Randolph, the original Trixie, as these were "reunions."

Verdict: Everyone's a little grayer, but the magic is still there. ***.

PRIVATE HELL 36

Steve Cochran and Ida Lupino have plans
PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954), Director: Don Siegel.

Detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) are trying to find some stolen loot and the guys who snatched it. When a marked $50 bill is given to chanteuse Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino) as a tip, they interview her to find out what she remembers about the generous club patron; Cal and Lilli are drawn to one another. Things take a dark turn when one of the two cops decides to pocket some of the aforementioned stolen loot ... Private Hell 36 is a minor crime drama with some good acting from all of the principals; Lupino is especially appealing as the slightly hard-bitten but likable saloon singer. Dean Jagger scores as the wise older boss of the two detectives, and Dorothy Malone is fine in the brief, thankless role of Farnham's wife [although Lupino and Duff were married at the time they are not paired with each other]. The script is credited to Lupino and her ex-husband, Collier Young. Borderline film noir. Director Siegel's best-known film is arguably Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Verdict: Interesting idea that's not developed all that well. **.

MOTIVE FOR REVENGE

Irene Hervey and Donald Cook on the run
MOTIVE FOR REVENGE (1935). Director: Burt P. Lynwood.

Muriel (Irene Hervey) is a wealthy woman married to a comparably poor bank teller named Barry (Donald Cook) who apparently prefers that they live on his salary. Muriel's mother (Doris Lloyd) resents the hell out of this and nags him to make something more out of himself and for Muriel to get rid of him. The weak, stupid Barry robs a bank and is captured after a high-speed chase with police. Although Muriel promises to wait for him until he gets out of jail, she quite sensibly divorces him at the urging of her mother and marries the odious and insanely jealous older man, Bill (Edwin Maxwell). And then things get even more melodramatic when Barry gets out of jail ... There's a murder, a robbery plot, a chase on the river, all of it told in mostly unexceptional fashion, but the weird thing is that seven years in jail seems to have made Barry suave. The acting isn't bad, and the movie isn't terrible, just not very memorable. Although Muriel's mother is unpleasant and snobbish, some of her attitudes toward Barry are completely justified. Irene Hervey was in Manhandled in a very different sort of role years later, and appeared sporadically as Aunt Meg on Honey West. Cook was in Frisco Jenny and Lloyd was in the 1931 Waterloo Bridge.

Verdict: Women who love not wisely but well. **.

IDENTITY THIEF

"A repulsive and obnoxious fat woman"









IDENTITY THIEF (2012). Director: Seth Gordon.

A businessman named Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) doesn't realize that his identity has been stolen by a repulsive and obnoxious fat woman (Melissa McCarthy) who supposedly has the same name but is actually Diana or something else. When his new boss threatens to fire him, Sandy decides to track down Diana, who's been running riot with his credit cards, so he can keep his job and bring her to justice. This alleged "comedy " is scripted by the supremely untalented Craig Mazin. I mean, I didn't expect Bringing Up Baby but I thought the film might have a chuckle or two. The first problem is that anyone who's ever had their identity stolen, or is afraid it might happen to them, is not going to find much amusement in the premise, nor in the fact that Patterson bonds and becomes friends with the woman who screwed up his life, who, of course, blames it all on a difficult childhood. The movie tries too hard and unconvincingly to create sympathy for someone who, until the unreal and sentimental conclusion, has no sympathy for anyone but herself. In one amazingly moronic moment, an imprisoned Diana talks about "dykes" trying to get at her "sweet stuff" in front of the hero's wife and children, both of whom seem more bothered by her vulgarity than her homophobia [the character also seems racist, although she never utters the "n" word that, at least, still being more or less verboten]. Sitcom star Bateman is okay but has little big-screen charisma, while McCarthy's character is so utterly repellent that it's hard to judge her acting skill. Adding insult to injury, the movie is more boring than anything else and is nearly two hours long! Two hours with one of the most odious and unattractive characters in the movies. The best scene has the chunky anti-heroine hit by a car, but, unfortunately, she survives.

Verdict: Why fast forward buttons were invented. Dreadful. 0 stars.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

COMMUNION

Linda Miller and Paula Sheppard
COMMUNION (aka Alice, Sweet Alice and Holy Terror/1976). Director: Alfred Sole.

On the day of her first communion, little Karen Spages (Brook Shields) is murdered and her body set on fire in the back of the Catholic church. The main suspect is her jealous older sister, Alice (Paula Sheppard), who is identified as the assailant when her aunt Annie (Jame Lowry) is attacked on the staircase with a butcher knife -- a very good scene -- even though the perpetrator wears a mask. Her mother, Catherine (Linda Miller) and father, Dom (Niles McMaster), who is divorced from Catherine, can't believe their daughter could be capable of such acts despite her troubles, and they may be right. But who is the maniac in the mask and yellow slicker who is turning all of their lives into a nightmare? Communion is a tasty little thriller that triumphs over some amateurish moments and one weak key performance and emerges as one of the most entertaining and unusual psycho-shockers of the period or after. Although none of the principal actors seem able to quite get across the shock and numbness their characters would be feeling after Karen's horrible murder, on other levels they are more than capable, with Sheppard quite good as the feisty, disturbed Alice, Miller effective as her mother, and Mildred Clinton positively walking off with the movie in the significant role of Mrs. Tredoni, the housekeeper for the rectory. Rudolph Willrich is also good as Father Tom, the parish priest, and a very young Brooke Shields scores as the tragic Karen; Niles McMaster is barely adequate as Karen's father, however. The worst performance, though, comes from Jane Lowry, who overacts as the Aunt as if she thought she were cast in a black comedy, badly throwing off the tone of certain sequences. An unusual cast member, even if she only appears for a minute or so, is former songstress Lillian Roth, whose life was chronicled in I'll Cry Tomorrow with Susan Hayward. Then there's the amazing Alphonso DeNoble, who plays the morbidly obese, pedophile landlord with a pee stain on his gigantic trousers. Of all the actors Willrich amassed the most credits. Filmed in dreary Paterson, New Jersey, where the story takes place, Communion has decided atmosphere, and undertones of the perverse pathology of Catholicism are pervasive. Stephen Lawrence contributed the haunting theme. Unfortunately, Alfred Sole never followed up on his promise as director, having only a couple of other directorial credits; most of his work since has been in production design. The movie was also released in theaters as Alice, Sweet Alice and re-released as Holy Terror after Brooke Shields became famous.

Verdict: Imperfect, perhaps, but fascinating and memorable. ***.

SCANDAL SHEET

Broderick Crawford
















SCANDAL SHEET (1952). Director: Phil Karlson.

"You're a neurotic screwball!"

The stockholders of the New York Express are up in arms because new editor-in-chief Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) has decided to increase profits and circulation by turning the paper into a vulgar tabloid. Chapman has been promised a significant bonus if he can really turn the paper around, and he's determined to publish hard-hitting stories no matter who he upsets. His protege, Steve (John Derek), wants to be just like Chapman, while Steve's girlfriend, Julie (Donna Reed), wishes he'd emulate just about anybody else. Things become complicated when a woman at a lonely hearts gathering sponsored by the Express recognizes Chapman as the husband who deserted her twenty years before, only now he has a different name ... Before long Steve is tracking down a story that Chapman wishes he could bury twenty miles deep. Scandal Sheet has an interesting premise and characters, is quite well-acted by the entire cast, but somehow it just misses the boat, perhaps because you're always one step ahead of most of the characters -- it just lacks sizzle and tension. Crawford is fine, and Henry O'Neill makes a notable impression as the alcoholic ex-reporter, Charlie, as does Rosemary DeCamp [Nora Prentiss] as Chapman's wife. Others in the cast include Kathryn Card and Ida Moore [The Egg and I], both of whom appeared on I Love Lucy. This was based on a novel by Samuel Fuller.

Verdict: Comes so close but misses. **1/2.  

SHOPWORN

Barbara Stanwyck and Regis Toomey
SHOPWORN (1932). Director: Nicholas Grinde.

Kitty Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, winds up as a waitress in a literally greasy spoon where she meets David Livingstone (Regis Toomey). David wants to marry Kitty, but his termagant, selfish mother (Clara Blandick) refuses to countenance the idea of her son, who's studying to be a doctor, marrying a common waitress, and trumps up charges against her with the aid of an odious judge friend [it's quite satisfying watching Toomey give this creep a knock-out punch]. Years later Kitty has become a famous Broadway star, of course, and David comes calling ... can this love be rekindled and will mama allow it to happen? Stanwyck is fine in a Joan Crawford rags-to-riches role, and Toomey is very adept and appealing. The developments are unlikely, the script mediocre, but the stars manage to put it over if nothing else. Zazu Pitts plays yet another dithery friend of the heroine's. Blandick is fine as the mother from Hell. Toomey later did such TV shows as Shannon and Grinde directed a great many movies, including a few Boris Karloff thrillers such as The Man They Could Not Hang.

Verdict: Stanwyck is almost always watchable in anything and she's made worse. **.

JOHNNY DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE

William Terry, Simone Simon and James Ellison














JOHNNY DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1944). Director: Joe May.

In this very weird movie a young lady named Kathie (Simone Simon of Girls' Dormitory) takes a train to Washington D.C. and becomes the victim of a tiny bad luck gremlin named Rumplestilzken (voiced by Bugs Bunny's Mel Blanc). She winds up taking the apartment of a departing marine named Johnny (William Terry), but learns too late that he has given out keys to friends, soldiers, lady friends, and other apartment dwellers who need to use the bathroom. [Kathie makes all sorts of repairs to the apartment, but it never occurs to her to have the lock changed!] A sailor named Mike (James Ellison of Next Time I Marry) is one of the interlopers, along with his pal Jack (Chick Chandler of Lost Continent), and he finds himself vying with a returning Johnny, on leave, for Kathie's affections. The first thing you think while watching the beginning of this movie is that it could be either cute or stupid, and unfortunately it's much more of the latter than the former. The cast is appealing, especially a winsome Simon and sensitive Terry, and there are a couple of chuckles, but mostly it's more irritating than amusing. The ending is interesting, however, as you wait to find out which man Kathie is going to agree to marry and there's a surprise or two. Poor Rondo Hatton [House of Horrors] has a bit where he plays an undertaker who frightens Kathie. Grady Sutton and Robert Mitchum have smaller roles and are swell.

Verdict:  Seems different at first but is really the same old silly stuff. **.

SO EVIL MY LOVE

Ray Milland as rotter Mark
















SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948). Director: Lewis Allen.

A missionary's widow named Olivia (Ann Todd of The Seventh Veil) nurses a sick man named Mark (Ray Milland of A Life of Her Own) on a voyage returning to 19th century London and he later comes to board in her house. Mark is a thorough rotter and criminal with a cheap girlfriend, but he brings out Olivia's hidden desires and passions and she falls hard for him. Eventually the two work out a scheme for money that involves Olivia's old school chum, Susan (Geraldine Fitzgerald of Nobody Lives Forever), and her tiresome, tight-assed husband, Henry (Raymond Huntley). Much later an untenable situation develops that casts Susan into a nightmare and Olivia into a pit of torment and confusion. As for Mark, he is developing certain feelings that surprise even him. The best thing about this fascinating study of obsession is that it's completely unpredictable, throwing twists and turns at the viewer from start to finish. Although Milland may not be the best casting, he gives a good performance, Fitzgerald is fine, and Ann Todd is perfect and wonderful as the decent woman given in to love, lust and immorality. It all builds to a terrific and ironic conclusion. The score is by William Alwyn and Victor Young. Leo G. Carroll is the most notable of the supporting cast. Lewis Allen also directed Desert Fury and many others. Supposedly inspired by a true story.

Verdict: Absorbing romantic suspense film. ***1/2.

PACIFIC RIM

Indistinct baby monster pursues scientist
PACIFIC RIM (2013). Director: Guillermo del Toro.

In the future a breach in the floor of the Pacific Ocean lets loose gargantuan monsters, called Kaiju [Japanese for monster],  that begin to decimate civilization. To combat them huge robots called Jeagers are built, which require two pilots, whose minds meld with each other and with the robot, as they go after the Kaiju. One pilot, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) lost his brother during a battle, and now is teamed with pretty young Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Then there's the father/son team of Herc (Max Martini) and his obnoxious son, Chuck (Robert Kazinsky). Overseeing them all -- including two nerdy scientists named Newt (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) -- is Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The scientists attempt a mind-meld with one of the Kaiju's brains so they can pick up important information, but this nearly backfires on them. Of course the mostly one-dimensional human characters hardly matter in this kind of FX movie, although the overly weird-looking monsters are never as impressive as even the lesser efforts of Ray Harryhausen, and many sequences simply look cluttered, messy, and indistinct. Meant as a homage to Japanese movies about monsters and giant robots, Pacific Rim is a macho militaristic monster movie along the lines of Starship Troopers but without the extreme gore of that picture. There are a couple of somewhat memorable scenes: one of the monsters breaks into an underground shelter after the terrified people hear it thumping just above them; and a dead but pregnant Kaiju unleashes a smaller but still hungry baby monster. Otherwise the movie sort of holds the attention without ever really knocking you out on any level. The acting in this isn't bad, with a charismatic Elba [Prometheus] and intense Martini taking top honors; Martini, in particular, has some very good moments. Ron Perlman also gives a flavorful performance as a man who makes money selling various parts of deceased kaiju. Most of the sentimental scenes in the movie fall flat because the movie has no depth at all. Chiefly for nerds who grew up adoring Godzilla movies. I mean, I normally love creature features but I could hardly wait for this rather long movie to finally end. For my money there's nothing in this as eye-popping as, say,  the tentacles of the huge octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea jutting out of San Francisco Bay and wiggling over the docks and freeway. Director del Toro's big bug movie Mimic is a much, much better, scarier, and more entertaining picture. He also directed Hellboy. Giant robots with human pilots inside were also the stars of Robot Jox [aka Robojox] in 1989.

Verdict: It Came from Beneath the Sea is more fun, has better effects, and is only half as long. **.

THE SEA FIEND/ DEVIL MONSTER

Barry Norton as Robert
















THE SEA FIEND/ DEVIL MONSTER (1936/1946). Director: S. Edwin Graham.

For inexplicable reasons, somebody decided it might be a good idea to take an unmemorable film entitled The Sea Fiend and ten years later fiddle with it a bit, overdub all the dialogue with new actors -- retaining the same basic plot -- and re-release it as Devil Monster. No matter what you call it, it's hard to sit through despite some interesting aspects. Jose (Jack Del Rio) and his crew went missing while sailing the south seas, and Jose's mother (Mary Carr) importunes Robert (Barry Norton) to go look for him, as does Jose's gal, Louise (Blanche Mehaffey). Robert is no sailor, but he goes along on his father's tuna boat so he can convince his old man to search for Jose. Along the way there are seals, a fight between a moray eel and an octopus, and native girls with naked breasts making dinner, not to mention a chubby ship's cook named Tiny. The heavy musical score does all the work, doing its darnedest to make the movie seem exciting even though it rarely is. Late the in the film a "devil fish" or manta ray shows up -- a real manta inter-cut with a prop -- but it seems ridiculous that this thing could have scuttled a ship and killed an entire crew. There's a lot of narration and stock footage. Some of the acting is decent. Barry Norton, who was born in Argentina as Alfredo Biraben, played the David Manners role of Jonathan [Juan] Harker in the Spanish-language version of Dracula. He had many credits, but was mostly in bit parts.

Verdict: Don't watch it and say that you did. *.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS

Bogart and Stanwyck in their only film together
















THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947). Director: Peter Godfrey.

"Would you like something, officers? A glass of milk perhaps?

Sally (Barbara Stanwyck) meets and falls in love with troubled artist Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart), then learns he has a wife. Said wife conveniently dies, and Sally and Geoff are married, the two of them residing in Sally's palatial estate along with Geoff's very self-assured little girl, Beatrice (Ann Carter). Then along comes super-sexy Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith), who wants Geoff to paint her portrait and won't take no for an answer. Before long Sally is getting suspicious, especially when she learns that Geoff's first wife wasn't an invalid as he claimed, and that she's developing similar symptoms to what the first Mrs. Carroll had before she died ... Based on a stage play, The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a poor man's Suspicion, which was released six years earlier. There's even some business with a glass of milk. At least this is somewhat superior to the next thriller Stanwyck did with director Peter Godfrey, Cry Wolf with Errol Flynn, and the acting is quite good. Stanwyck is better at getting across the vulnerability and terror of the heroine than you might expect [although she does seem to summon up her bravery at the climax rather suddenly], Bogart is fine in all but his most challenging scenes, little Ann Carter proves a superlative child actress in her portrayal of the highly interesting and mature Beatrice, and gorgeous Smith has wicked fun as the slinky and self-absorbed Cecily, with Isobel Elsom scoring as her mother and Nigel Bruce as -- what else? -- a doctor. Anita Bolster is a riot as the saturnine housekeeper, Christine. Crackling good dialogue from Thomas Job [from Martin Vale's play] and a fine Franz Waxman score help a great deal. The last line provides a little wink at the audience. Bogart and Stanwyck play quite well together.

Verdict: No Suspicion, but fun nevertheless. **1/2.

MACABRE

MACABRE (1958). Director: William Castle.

The whole town seems mad at Dr. Rod Barrett (William Prince) because there was nothing he could do to save the life of blind Nancy Tyloe (Christine White), who was married to the Police Chief (Jim Backus) and was the second daughter of Jode Wetherby (Philip Tonge). Barrett had been married to Wetherby's other daughter, Alice (Dorothy Morris), who died in childbirth, but he is now engaged to Sylvia (Susan Morrow). One afternoon Barrett's nurse, Polly (Jacqueline Scott), receives a phone call: an unknown person tells her that Barrett's daughter, Marge (Linda Guderman) has been kidnapped and buried alive -- and is running out of air. This sets Barrett and Polly on a frantic search to find the girl while others around them offer assistance or interference. Macabre is a neat little thriller, generally well-directed by Castle [although there's at least one directorial gaffe at a funeral scene], and well-played by the cast, although some of them seem just a little, shall we say, overwrought. The movie has some good twists along the way as well. Ellen Corby plays Barrett's housekeeper, and she -- like virtually everyone else in the movie -- seems kindly but suspicious. Robb White [Homicidal] did the script from Anthony Boucher's novel "The Marble Forest." Castle manages to sustain a creepy atmosphere throughout.

Verdict: Another treat from William Castle. ***.

CHICAGO CALLING

Dan Duryea on the phone while Gordon Gebert listens
















CHICAGO CALLING (1951). Director: John Reinhardt.

In this undeservedly forgotten and unusual drama, Dan Duryea [Too Late for Tears] plays Bill Cannon, an unemployed husband and father in L.A. who at times drinks a little too much. His wife takes their little girl and leaves for Chicago, after which he gets a telegram saying that the child was injured in a car accident, and that his wife, Mary (Mary Anderson) will call with news the next day. There are two problems, however: a man (Ross Elliott) has come from the phone company to remove the phone due to an overdue bill; and Cannon has no idea which hospital his daughter is in or how to reach his wife. What follows are his attempts to get money to pay the phone company, eventually putting him in contact with a fatherless boy, Bobby (Gordon Gebert), who hits Cannon's dog with his bicycle and wants to give him his savings to pay the phone company. [Cannon's interactions with the boy would raise eyebrows today, but in this film it's all very innocent, although some might argue that even in 1951 Cannon's hanging around with Bobby, entering his bedroom at night, and so on would be questionable behavior.] Things spiral down inexorably to a very moving conclusion. Director Reinhardt isn't able to sustain the tension all the way through, however, and while Duryea's performance is quite good, at times he seems a little too calm considering the feelings his character is going through; he is wonderful in the final quarter, though, when he has to pull out all the stops. Gebert is one of the most talented child actors I've ever seen, and Anderson [Lifeboat], Elliott [Tarantula], and the rest of the supporting cast are all notable. Gritty location filming adds to the film's impact as well.

Verdict: It this had been made in Italy it would probably be considered a classic. ***.

DOCTOR AT SEA

Bardot and Bogarde
DOCTOR AT SEA (1955). Director: Ralph Thomas.

Dr. Simon Sparrow (Dirk Bogarde) becomes a ship's doctor chiefly to get away from an encumbrance with the plain daughter of his medical partner. Instead of a grumpy chief surgeon played by James Robertson Justice, he gets a grumpy Captain Hogg, also played by James Robertson Justice, and who's not much different from the surgeon. Hogg hates the idea of women on board ship, but he gets two female passengers, French chanteuse Helene Colbert (Brigitte Bardot), and Muriel Mallet (Brenda de Banzie), who is fascinated by the captain's beard and happens to be the daughter of the head of the line. There's some funny stuff in here, but more often the picture strains for hardy laughs. The cast is quite good, however, with an always-solid Bogarde, although a more demure, brunette Bardot, while attractive and capable, doesn't resemble the blonde sex bomb she was most frequently seen as. Justice played Sir Lancelot Spratt in one previous Doctor film, and in three later ones, including Doctor in Love, in which Michael Craig briefly took over from Dirk Bogarde in the lead, although not in the same role. Brenda de Banzie also had an important role in Hitchcock's 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much, and is somewhat wasted in this piffle. George Coulouris plays a drunken sailor and plays it well.

Verdict: Fans of Bardot and/or Bogarde will enjoy this more than others. **.

THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON

THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON (1973). Writer/director: Milton Moses Ginsberg.

Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) is a Washington D.C. reporter on assignment in Budapest when he is bitten by a werewolf. Back home he becomes the buffoonish president's (Biff McGuire) press agent, turns into a shaggy wolfman periodically, and murders mostly women. He sees the mark of the pentagram in the palms of his future victims, and a running "joke" has people he talks to confusing pentagram with pentagon. One suspects this was meant to be a hilarious satire, but it's more pitiful than funny. Thayer David and Michael Dunn [Dr. Loveless of The Wild, Wild West] have small roles, and were probably grateful they weren't on-screen in this mess for too long. Stockwell manages to escape unscathed, although he probably hoped few people would actually see the movie. It looks like it cost about 56 cents. Poorly done and dull to boot. Ads for the video say this is in the "tradition" of An American Werewolf in London, which was actually made nearly a decade later. While I don't think much of American Werewolf, it's an Oscar-contender compared to Washington.

Verdict: Atrocious! 1/2 *.

PERRY MASON SEASON 9

Raymond Burr
PERRY MASON. Season 9. 1965.

"This is no longer a simple murder case. It's turning into a comic opera!" -- Hamilton Burger. 

"I've been on the bench twenty years and this is the longest preliminary hearing I can ever recall." -- judge

The ninth season was the final season of one of television's most memorable series. Ray Collins (Lt. Tragg) had passed away after being ill for quite some time, and his name was finally removed from the credits. Wesley Lau was replaced by Richard Anderson as Lt. Drumm. The high quality of the show was maintained until the very end. Among the most notable episodes are" "Laughing Lady," with John Dall, Constance Towers, and Allison Hayes in the story of a woman who insists another lady murdered her ex-lover; "Carefree Coronary," an unusual story in which Perry investigates possible insurance fraud involving coronary patients; "Hasty Honeymooner," in a which a man is accused of murdering the wife he found in a lonely hearts club; and "Wrathful Wraith," which begins with the charges against Perry's client being dismissed. Also: "The Silent Six," loosely inspired by the Kitty Genovese case and with a fine performance from David Macklin, has a woman beaten while her neighbors just listen. "The Fugitive Fraulein" is another unusual episode in which Perry defends a grandmother accused of murder -- in East Berlin! Perry starts out as a witness for the prosecution in "Midnight Howler" then defends the person he's testifying against. "Baffling Bug" is a suspenseful story regarding industrial espionage guest-starring Grant Williams. Other memorable episodes include "Avenging Angel:" " Tsarina's Tiara;" "Fanciful Frail;" "Bogus Buccaneers;" "Vanishing Victim;" "Positive Negative;" "Fatal Fortune;" "Candy Queen;" and "Crafty Kidnapper." "Twice-Told Twist" is worthy of mention because it's the only color episode of the series.

And those fine episodes weren't even the best of the season. The three best stories were "Dead Ringer," in which Raymond Burr plays a dual role, including a seedy limey sailor who impersonates him for cash; Burr, who is terrific, winds up cross-examining himself! "Misguided Model" is another excellent episode about a boxer accused of murder that has no trial or courtroom scenes yet still is riveting. The final episode, "Final Fadeout," has a nasty actor (James Stacy) murdered and the suspects are numerous; an excellent Estelle Winwood is also in the cast. DA Burger becomes really apoplectic in this episode and William Talman gives an especially fine performance.

And that was it. Of course Burr played Mason in several telefilms of varying quality and Monte Markham tackled the role in The New Perry Mason, which didn't last long. Now Robert Downey Jr. is set to play Perry in a theatrical film. Perry Mason was played by more than one actor in the golden age of movies, but Raymond Burr, who found the part of a lifetime and ran with it, will always be the thespian most closely associated with the role. Hats off to the many actors, fine writers, and gifted directors who together kept this show so entertaining for so many seasons.

Verdict: Simply a sublime series. ****.

THE CONJURING

Lily Taylor finds something worth investigating

















THE CONJURING (2013). Director: James Wan.

When Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor; Ron Livingston) and their several children are subjected to frightening supernatural events in a new house they've moved into, they call on [real-life] psychic researchers and demonologists Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson). That's the plot of this rather dull horror flick that purports to be "based on the true story." Yeah, right. The Warrens also "investigated" the now thoroughly debunked Amityville Horror hoax, and this movie is little more than a retread of that film -- you get the little girl with the imaginary friend, doors that open by themselves, hidden rooms and a spooky basement; no cliche is left unturned -- and The Exorcist. How this completely unoriginal and rather tedious movie -- even when it gets "exciting" near the end it's still a bore -- got good reviews from some critics [or got some people to proclaim it was the "scariest" film they ever saw] is beyond me. The actors are all okay, but they'd be advised to be choosier about their projects in the future. The Conjuring, like the equally sub-literate Amityville Horror, made enough money for a sequel [and I suppose a remake in about twenty years], but it's not the kind of movie that exactly enhances anybody's career. It's not even that well directed. The only funny moment is at the very end when the Warrens take off to meet a priest who wants to talk to them "about a house on Long Island."

Verdict: Schlock feeding off schlock. *.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

COMING HOME

Jon Voight and Jane Fonda
COMING HOME (1978). Director: Hal Ashby.

Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda of Joy House) is married to Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern of Family Plot), who is fighting in Vietnam. During his absence she decides to volunteer at a military hospital where injured soldiers are being treated and recuperating. One of those soldiers, Luke (Jon Voight of National Treasure) is an angry fellow with paralyzed legs, and someone Sally used to go to school with. The two are drawn into a friendship, and then a physical and emotional love affair, and then Bob comes home ... Although Coming Home couldn't have been made during Hollywood's Golden Age for obvious reasons [and very differing attitudes], one still suspects that this could have been a truly great film had it been crafted by, say, William Wyler. Hal Ashby [Shampoo] isn't quite up to the task, and some important scenes have less dramatic heft because of it. Still Coming Home does examine the varying attitudes of the country during the Vietnam conflict, the experiences of some soldiers when they come home bent and broken, the changing role of women and housewives, and adds a poignant romantic dilemma to all of it as well. The script sort of lets you down just when it most needs to be working, unfortunately. Jane Fonda and Jon Voight are okay -- Voight has a particularly good scene when he's talking to college students -- but Dern, in the least sympathetic role [until the end] pretty much walks off with the picture. Penelope Milford makes an impression as Sally's new friend, Vi, and Robert Carradine does the best he can with the under-written role of her mentally disturbed veteran brother, Billy. The soundtrack consists of some evocative seventies rock music, often used quite adroitly. A sub-plot in which Sally tries to get the women who run the hospital newspaper to run articles that may actually be helpful to the recovering vets and is rebuffed is important but dropped too quickly. Dern was also the murder victim in Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Ashby also directed Being There with Peter Sellers.

Verdict: Just misses being a great movie. ***.

KISS OF DEATH

Victor Mature and Richard Widmark
KISS OF DEATH (1947). Director: Henry Hathaway.

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) has already served one term in prison, when in desperation he participates in another robbery and is caught. The D.A. (Brian Donlevy) offers him a deal if he names names, but Bianco refuses to squeal. But when he finds out that his wife is dead and his two adorable little girls are in an orphanage, he wants to see them and changes his tune. Unfortunately, this brings him into deadly conflict with the gleefully sociopathic Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), who thinks nothing of pushing an old lady in a wheelchair (Mildred Dunnock) to her death in the film's most famous scene. Mature gives one of his best performances in this, and Widmark is also swell, although at times he seems like Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and at other times like Leo Gorcey of the Eastside Kids. Donlevy is also solid, as is lovely Coleen Gray [The Leech Woman] as Nettie, who loves Nick. Taylor Holmes registers as Nick's deceptively pleasant defense attorney. There are tense scenes that work without music but could have used some. Best shot: a sneering Tommy Udo through the slit in a curtain. This picture almost qualifies as film noir except there's no femme fatale, just a brief appearance by one of Udo's girlfriends. This was Coleen Gray's first major role and she delivers.

Verdict: Well-done and well-acted crime film. ***.



THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD

Michael Sarrazin as Peter Proud
















THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD (1975). Director: J. Lee Thompson. Screenplay by Max Erlich, from his novel.

College professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) keeps having weird dreams of being murdered with a paddle by a woman in a boat, so he seeks help from everyone from shrinks to a sleep researcher named Sam (Paul Hecht). Of course, the title of the movie clues the viewer in early on that what Peter thinks are dreams are actually memories of his former life as Jeff Curtis (Tony Stephano), a war hero who played around a little too much on his wife, Marcia (Margot Kidder). Determined to find out what happened, Peter searches for the town he/Jeff grew up in, and encounters his former wife and daughter (Jennifer O'Neill of Scanners), with whom he ... well, let's just say it isn't incest if the two aren't biologically related. The acting in the film is perfectly okay [although Kidder is not especially convincing as a woman in her fifties], but the movie is just kind of blah. The best, very moving scene has Jeff's almost hopelessly senile mother seeing Peter in a nursing home and recognizing him as her son. Very downbeat ending and a somewhat strange score by Jerry Goldsmith.The picture came out at a time when the subject of reincarnation had once again become very trendy, as it does every few years or so. Stephano was a handsome male model who appeared in only one other film, Tron, seven years later. Hecht has had a busy career, mostly on television. Thompson also directed Happy Birthday to Me and many other movies.

Verdict: As this is currently being remade, maybe it will come back as a much better movie. **1/2.

THE LAST OF THE MOBILE HOT SHOTS

Robert Hooks and Lynn Redgrave
THE LAST OF THE MOBILE HOT SHOTS (1970). Director: Sidney Lumet.

"Go home with you? -- but I don't even know you." -- Myrtle

Myrtle Kane (Lynn Redgrave), who once belonged to a group called the "Mobile Hot Shots," gets a stranger, Jeb Thornton (James Coburn), to pretend he's engaged to her so they can win some prizes on a local game show. Unfortunately, the host also wants to marry them on the program. Jeb takes Myrtle back to his dilapidated plantation, Waverly, where he lives with his black half-brother, "Chicken" (Robert Hooks). The dying Jeb agreed that Chicken would have the plantation after his death if he helped him work it, and signed a paper to that effect, but now he sends Myrtle out to get back the paper by any means possible. But Chicken knows something that may make all of Jeb's manipulations unnecessary. Loosely based on Tennessee Williams' play "The Seven Descents of Myrtle," it's a wonder why anyone thought Mobile Hot Shots would make a good movie. Everyone is miscast, and Lumet is certainly the wrong director. The movie can't seem to make up its mind if it's a comedy or not -- there are a couple of chuckles, but that's it, and the final revelation is a pip  -- but its biggest failing is that with all that's going on it's still a bore [even a climactic flood doesn't help much]. Redgrave seems to be channeling Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (although her character is completely different), but she makes one of the the least convincing Williams' heroines ever. Coburn makes some effort but gets nowhere, and Hooks comes off best, but in this movie that's not saying much. Still it's hard to play Williams just right, and mediocre Williams is even harder. Gore Vidal's screenplay at one point seems to hint at homosexual incest, but as it comes out of nowhere and is unconvincing anyway, it was probably just to set up a quick, dumb gag late in the movie. The premise of the picture is intriguing but the development is just dismal. With Hooks playing a character who denies his being black, one would have to say Hot Shots is horribly dated as well. [If one wonders why anyone would want to own a property like Waverly in the first place, all I can say is real estate!]

Verdict: This should just be washed away with the flood. *1/2.

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933). Director: Kurt Neumann.

"It must be terrible to be a man and have to pretend to be brave."

At a birthday party for his beautiful daughter, Irene (Gloria Stuart), Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) tells his guests -- Walter (Paul Lukas), Frank (Onslow Stevens) and Thomas (William Janney) -- the story of the blue room in the old castle in which he resides: over the years more than one person has been found dead in the locked room, including his own sister. Thomas suggests that each man (all of whom are in love with the quite lovely Irene) spend the night in the room to prove their bravery. Of course it's no surprise when the first of them turns up missing in the morning, the room still locked. [Without giving anything away, everyone assumes he's gone out the window into the moat twenty feet below, yet he had a key which worked on either side of the door and could easily have exited the room and locked the door behind him.] Then another of the suitors spends the night in the room and ... A police commissioner (Edward Arnold) is called in to find out what's up, and the suspects include the butler, Paul (Robert Barrat of Lily Turner), the maid, Betty (Muriel Kirkland), the chauffeur, Max (Russell Hopton), and the very nervous cook, Mary (Elizabeth Patterson). There's also a weird stranger on the loose scaring the wits out of Irene. The secret of the Blue Room doesn't come as that big of a surprise, but the climactic chase in long-forgotten tunnels beneath the castle is exciting. Secret of the Blue Room is entertaining, atmospheric, and reasonably well-acted by all. Neumann also directed Kronos and many others.

Verdict: A bit creaky but fun. **1/2.

THE BRUTE MAN

THE BRUTE MAN (1946). Director: Jean Yarbrough.

In this unofficial sequel to House of Horrors, the Creeper (Rondo Hatton) is back creeping about and periodically snapping people's spines. This time the character is given a name, Hal Moffet, and back story. Moffet was a cocky college football hero whose face was disfigured in a chemistry explosion [Hatton's disfigurement was due to acromegaly due to exposure to poison gas during WW1]. Unlike House of Horrors, which has a few interesting characters and flavorful performances, The Brute Man is comparatively dull and slow-paced. Aside from Hatton, who is fine if limited in the role of the Creeper [Fred Coby actually plays Moffet as a college student], the main character is Jane (Helen Paige), a blind piano teacher who hides Moffet and is befriended by him in turn. Tom Neal is one of Hal's old classmates, and Jan Wiley [Secret Agent X-9], in an especially weak performance, plays Neal's wife. Donald MacBride is the police inspector on the case. Hatton's Creeper character, or at least a variation thereof, also appeared in the modern-day Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death.

Verdict: Not the best of the Creeper. **.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

Kirk and Spock witness the wrath of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch)











STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013). Director: J. J. Abrams.

Violating the prime directive to save Spock's life on a primitive world, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself demoted. But when a terrorist named Harrison, who turns out to be super-being Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), attacks the Federation, Kirk finds himself in command once again, and heading toward the Klingon home world, Kronos, to kill him. But what's inside those photon torpedoes that have been put on board the Enterprise? And whose side is Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) really on? It all leads to deadly battles both on Kronos, in warp space, and on Earth. Whatever its flaws, Star Trek Into Darkness is a big improvement over Abrams' initial reboot of the Star Trek franchise, with a better storyline and more exciting action sequences. The actors seem a little more comfortable in their roles, although Pine will never seem like James Kirk the way William Shatner did. Zachary Quinto is fine as Spock; Zoe Saldana is given more to do as his lover, Lt. Uhura; Karl Urban is an okay Bones; and Simon Pegg [Mission Impossible -- Ghost Protocol] seems to be channeling his inner Pee Wee Herman as Scotty. Weller and the unlikely-named Cumberbatch give the most dynamic performances. Alice Eve is a new character, Carol, a science officer and daughter of Admiral Marcus. Leonard Nimoy shows up briefly as the older Spock.

Verdict: Entertaining, fast-paced and frequently exciting. ***.