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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY

Kirk Douglas, Martin Balsam and Fredric March















SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964). Director: John Frankenheimer. Screenplay by Rod Serling, from a novel by Fletcher Knebel.

U.S. President Lyman (Fredric March) has pushed through a nuclear disarmament pact with the U.S.S.R. that most of the people and military disagree with, not trusting the Russians. Colonel "Jiggs" Casey (Kirk Douglas) thinks he may have uncovered a plot by General Scott (Burt Lancaster) to capture Lyman and have a military take-over of the United States. Some people think Casey is paranoid and has no real proof -- although he has also uncovered a top-secret military base that the president has never heard of -- but as the time approaches, the evidence, and the suspicious death of at least one investigator, indicates that he may be right. Seven Days in May is a crackling good suspense thriller bolstered by excellent performances from the entire cast, including those already named, as well as Martin Balsam, Edmond O'Brien, George Macready, and Ava Gardner (as an old girlfriend of the general's). John Houseman plays an admiral, Andrew Duggan an Army man, and Hugh Marlowe, Whit Bissell, Richard Anderson, and Malcolm Atterbury have smaller roles. Fredric March is especially outstanding.

Verdict: Taut, fast-paced and terrific. ***1/2.

UNFAITHFULLY YOURS

Linda Darnell and Rex Harrison
UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948). Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges.

Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison of Blithe Spirit) is a world-famous conductor married to a younger woman, Daphne (Linda Darnell). Through the manipulations of his unpleasant brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee of My Dear Secretary), Alfred becomes convinced that Daphne is carrying on with his secretary, Tony (Kurt Kreuger). As he conducts classical and operatic pieces by Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner, he imagines different ways in which he can get even with the two, then finally tries to hatch one of the plots, which doesn't work out as well as it does in his fantasy. The "hero" in this actually contrives to murder his wife, but a bigger problem is the classical music background is totally at odds with what's happening on screen, which in turn has little to do with the music. The whole thing just doesn't work, and worse, is rather boring for long stretches. The cast -- including Barbara Lawrence of The Star as Vallee's sneering, belittling wife -- is quite good, but not enough to save the movie.

Verdict: Go to the opera instead. **.

CARRIE (2013)

Last and least: Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie White












CARRIE (2013). Director: Kimberly Peirce.

In another unnecessary remake of Brian De Palma's classic Carrie -- this time a theatrical release -- our telekinetic teen is played by Chloe Grace Moretz. If I recall correctly, Carrie White in King's novel was plain and dumpy. Sissy Spacek in the first screen adaptation was more attractive and Moretz is practically a certified "babe" even before her makeover, so her casting is problematic. Her performance isn't bad -- though not on the level of Spacek's [nor of Angela Bettis' in the 2002 television version] -- even if on occasion she's all twitches and ticks to get across Carrie's shyness and level of anxiety. This version (along with the telefilm) offers another reason for why the students dislike Carrie, that she "goes about saying everyone but her and her mother are going to hell," but this is never demonstrated. Julianne Moore doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to play Carrie's mother; she just completely de-glamorizes herself and hopes that that will work, but it doesn't. The younger actors and the gym coach are satisfactory. Some sequences are well-staged, and Carrie's dispatching of Chris and Billy, her chief tormentors at the prom, is more elaborate. The biggest problem with this version is at the climax -- instead of being numb, her powers growing outward almost accidentally in an explosion she can hardly contain, Carrie's murders of classmates, guilty or innocent, are demonic, conscious, and deliberate. This is definitely a dumbed-down Carrie. Again Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay for the original is used as the template, with tinkering by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Verdict: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. **1/2.

CITY WITHOUT MEN

CITY WITHOUT MEN (1943). Director: Sidney Salkow.

Tom Adams (Michael Duane of Redhead from Manhattan) is framed for  picking up Japanese in a boat, and wrongly convicted of collaborating with the enemy or something and sent to jail for several years. His fiancee, Nancy (Linda Darnell) not only vows to wait for him, but moves into a woman's residence right next to the prison where other wives and girlfriends wait patiently for their men to be released. The husband of the owner of the house, Maria (Sara Allgood) is in jail for life, and in the film's best scene, another wife, Mrs. Slade (Rosemary DeCamp), nearly collapses when her husband is executed at midnight. Other residents of the house include brassy Billie (Glenda Farrell), Winnie (Doris Dudley), Dora (Margaret Hamilton), and high-hattin' Gwen (Leslie Brooks of The Secret of the Whistler), who is dating Mr. Peters (Don DeFore) and hopes to learn where her husband (Sheldon Leonard) hid some money. Edgar Buchanan plays a shady lawyer who is ostensibly trying to help Nancy, but spends most of her money on booze. This is a "concept" movie that seems to have been cobbled together from cliches from other movies, and it's never convincing, becoming fairly ridiculous towards the end. Darnell is fine -- odd that she was cast in this bad "B" movie -- and Allgood, Farrell, DeCamp, and DeFore give very good performances as well.Years later Salkow directed Vincent Price in Twice-Told Tales.

Verdict: Not utterly terrible but not worth the time it takes to tell. **.

LIZZIE

Eleanor Parker and Richard Boone
LIZZIE (1957). Director: Hugo Haas.

Elizabeth (Eleanor Parker of Home for the Holidays) is a timid soul who works in a museum and receives threatening notes from someone named "Lizzie." Then Elizabeth begins hitting the bars at night, wearing sexy clothing and make-up, and affecting a lascivious attitude. A helpful neighbor, Walter (Haas), who is friends with Elizabeth's slatternly Aunt Morgan (Jane Blondell of Advance to the Rear), with whom she lives, suggests she see a psychiatrist named Neal (Richard Boone). Neal is able to determine that Elizabeth has three distinct personalities, but which one will emerge as the dominant one? I'm not certain how Eleanor Parker wound up in this B movie knock-off of The Three Faces of Eve (also released in 1957), but she gives a good performance, and the rest of the cast are all solid. Lizzie equates sexuality with "evil" in some ways, and Parker's least convincing moments are when she turns into a nostril-flaring decadent "Lizzie," eschewing a less subtle way of making each personality distinct. But it works for this movie, which is professionally done but kind of cheap and depressing. Marion Ross and John Reach each make an impression as, respectively, Elizabeth's co-worker and a man she dates as Lizzie. Johnny Mathis also makes an impression playing a pianist/singer in a saloon; he has no dialogue. As an actor, Haas also appeared in Summer Storm and others.

Verdict: Entertaining enough but lurid and unpleasant. **1/2.

HOT WATER

Jed Prouty and Spring Byington as Mr. and Mrs. Jones
HOT WATER (1937). Director: Frank R. Strayer.

Mr. Jones (Jed Prouty) is up in arms over a place called the Red Mill, which has illegal gambling in its back parlor and sells liquor to the under-aged. But will the mayor shut it down, or does he have an interest in the place himself? Jones is importuned to run for mayor himself, with son Ralph (George Ernest) both helping and hindering him by putting out his own newspaper and promoting his dad. Oldest son Jack (Kenneth Howell) is waylaid by a pretty singer who works at the Red Mill in a frame up which has him accused of paralyzing a pedestrian, but Ralph comes to the rescue with a bunch of bees. Bonnie (Shirley Deane) and Herbert (Russell Gleason), who seemed to get engaged at the end of the last Jones Family film, Big Business, still aren't married. The acting is as good as ever. Spring Byington and Florence Roberts play Jones' wife and mother respectively.

Verdict: Amiable and entertaining if minor. **1/2. 


SHATTERED (1991)

Tom Berenger
SHATTERED (1991). Director: Wolfgang Petersen.

Dan Merrick (Tom Berenger) and his wife Judy (Greta Scacchi) are in a terrible car accident that leaves his face, mind and body shattered and her with hardly a scratch. After a year of operations and therapy the two return to their home in San Francisco, where amnesiac Dan learns some disturbing things about himself and about his relationship with Judy. He hires a private eye named Gus (Bob Hoskins) to find out about a man that Judy was apparently having an affair with, and who may be back in her life. Was the accident really an accident, and who was actually driving the car? The more that is unveiled, the more sinister things become ... Shattered is absorbing, well-acted and well-done for the most part, but some viewers may find it ultimately a little too far-fetched. Corbin Bernsen, Joanne Whalley  and Debi A. Monahan offer some flavorful supporting performances.

Verdict: Certainly holds the attention but the pay-off will either startle or annoy. ***.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE

Confused triangle: Vallone, Sorel and Lawrence
















A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (aka Vu du pont/1962). Director: Sidney Lumet.

NOTE: This review discusses important plot points. Eddie Carbone (Raf Vallone of The Other Side of Midnight), his wife Beatrice (Maureen Stapleton of Interiors), and their niece Catherine (Carol Lawrence) live together near the shipyards in Brooklyn. They take into their home two illegal immigrants, Marco (Raymond Pellegrin), who is older and married, and handsome young Rodolpho (Jean Sorel), who is immediately attracted to Catherine and vice versa. This doesn't sit well with Eddie, who has not slept with his wife in months, and who seems to be obsessed with his pretty niece. Eddie never misses an opportunity to cast doubt on Rodolpho's sexuality because he sings, has blond hair, and other ludicrous reasons, but primarily because he sees him as his rival -- or perhaps is attracted to him and must belittle him in classic closet case fashion. It all culminates in a scene when Eddie first kisses Catherine full on the lips, and then does the same to Rodolpho in a supposed attempt to expose his homosexuality [talk about doing things backwards!] And things become even more melodramatic after that... The main strength of this adaptation of Arthur Miller's play is the acting, which is excellent across the board, especially the performances of a passionate Vallone, sympathetic Stapleton, and lovely, confused Lawrence. Unfortunately, it's all a trifle over-baked and coy at the same time, a combination that doesn't work. The double-kiss probably played on the stage, but it's much more of a dramatic device than anything you can take seriously, almost the stuff of soap opera. Since it's hard to believe that this "macho" guy would want to give a hard smack to Rodolpho's lips if he were really straight, critics ever since have speculated on the possibility that Eddie is a repressed homosexual [and indeed with his homophobia and other acts one can see how it could be interpreted that way]. Was Miller afraid to tackle the subject head on when he wrote the play in the fifties, leaving that sort of thing to Tennessee Williams (who probably would have made a better play out of View) and using Catherine as a "beard?" The ambiguity gives the whole movie a dated air, although it does have some powerful moments.

Verdict: Interesting, with a wonderful lead performance, but just misses being really special. ***.

THE THIRD SECRET

Pamela Franklin and Stephen Boyd
THE THIRD SECRET (1964). Director: Charles Crichton.

"Look around the world, doctor. What's so special about madness? What's so special about murder?" 

Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd of Fantastic Voyage), an American TV personality working in London, refuses to believe that his friend and psychiatrist Leo Whitset (Peter Copley) committed suicide. Whitset had helped Alex get over the death of his young daughter, and the latter feels that suicide would go against everything the man believed in. Stedman's belief that Whitset's death had to be homicide is shared by the latter's daughter, Catherine (Pamela Franklin), who reminds Alex of his own daughter and helps him to bond with her. Alex thinks the killer must be one of Whitset's patients, and he goes to see each of them: neurotic art dealer and artist Alfred (an unrecognizable and excellent Richard Attenborough of 10 Rillington Place); lonely Ann (Diane Cilento), with whom he sleeps; and Sir Frederick (Jack Hawkins), who has a secret buried in his past. The "third secret" -- the real truth -- is unveiled at the climax. Boyd gives an excellent performance in this, as does Pamela Franklin [The Nanny], Cilento [The Wicker Man], and Hawkins [She Played with Fire], but the movie never really catches fire, and the solution seems fairly obvious from the first. Judi Dench has a small role as Attenborough's assistant.

Verdict: Somewhat intriguing, but a little too gloomy and flaccid. **1/2.

CARRIE (2002)

Angela Bettis as Carrie White













CARRIE (2002 telefilm). Director: David Carson.

This unnecessary TV remake of Brian De Palma's excellent Carrie tells the same story of a tormented telekinetic teen who wreaks havoc after she's humiliated at the prom, but takes half an hour longer to do so. It could be argued that this is somewhat more faithful to the documentary-type approach of the novel, but the scenes with a cop (David Keith) interviewing different people about the prom disaster that are interspersed throughout the telefilm add nothing to the movie, and only pad the running time so this could air in a three hour time slot (with lots of commercials naturally). Angelis Bettis is quite good as Carrie White, looking a bit more neurotic and freakish than Sissy Spacek, but Patricia Clarkson is completely unimpressive as her mother. Perhaps trying not to imitate the flamboyant Piper Laurie in the original, Clarkson underplays too much and is simply dull; she's more natural than Laurie but much less interesting. Rena Sofer is fine as the gym teacher, and the other young people playing assorted high-schoolers are all okay. This includes some other sequences from the book, such as a meteor shower hitting Carrie's house, and a scene when bitchy Chris Hargensen's father threatens the school with a law suit. Otherwise, it pretty much follows Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay for the original version, using much of the same dialogue, although, incredibly, only Bryan Fuller is credited. The ending was supposed to make room for a weekly television series about the exploits of Carrie White, but low ratings put paid to that lousy idea. The funniest line has someone remarking that mean girl Chris Hargensen has an IQ of 140 -- sure! The original film was actually moving at times, but this one is not.

Verdict: Some good things in this, including Bettis' performance, but far below the level of the De Palma classic. **1/2.

JUDGE HARDY AND SON

Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone
JUDGE HARDY AND SON (1939). Director: George B. Seitz.

When Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) discovers that an elderly couple may lose their home, he enlists son Andy (Mickey Rooney) in a search for their daughter, who might be able to help. Andy enjoys looking for the lady as it brings him into contact with several nubile schoolgirls: eternally giggling Euphrasia (June Preisser): the oh-so-Southern Clarabelle Lee (Margaret Early); and the attractive, unhappy  Elvie (Martha O'Driscoll of Li'l Abner), who pretends to be 14-years-old but is actually much older. In a sub-plot Mrs. Hardy (Fay Holden) develops pneumonia and is placed in an oxygen tank by interne Jack Mulhall. One of the film's highlights is Andy's well-written and well-acted talk with his sister, Marian (Cecelia Parker). Judge Hardy and Son is a very entertaining comedy-drama that boasts an interesting story with some novel twists, fine acting and an outstanding performance from Rooney. The religiosity of the piece never quite gets out of hand. Marie Blake/Blossom Rock plays housekeeper Augusta, and Maria Ouspenskaya is one half of the elderly couple. Ann Rutherford is on hand as Andy's ever- jealous girlfriend, outraged as usual when she sees other girls' lipstick on his pan.

Verdict: One of the better Hardy Family entries from MGM. ***.

THE ECHO MURDERS

David Farrar as Sexton Blake
















THE ECHO MURDERS (1945). Director: John Harlow.

Stella Duncan (Pamela Stirling) is unaware that her "father," James (Julien Mitchell), actually killed her real father years ago and raised her as his own. His secretary, Rainsford (Dennis Arundell), has discovered the truth and is blackmailing him. Into this unfriendly situation comes the other private eye from Baker Street, Sexton Blake [The Hooded Terror], this time played by David Farrar in a somewhat gruffer, more "American" style. When the expected murders occur, suspects include the geeky Beales (Kynaston Reeves of Fiend without a Face), who lives in a house on a cliff; crook Dacier (Ferdy Mayne); and Dr. Grey (Patric Curwen); among others. There's a mine occupied by plotting Nazis as well. This is modestly entertaining but distinctly minor. Farrar had a supporting role in a previous Sexton Blake film, The Hooded Terror and starred in Meet Sexton Blake just before making Echo Murders.

Verdict: Reasonably fast-moving but never fully engaging. **.

BIG BUSINESS

Jack (Kenneth Howell) races to town to save the day

















BIG BUSINESS (1937). Director: Frank R. Strayer. 


In this very entertaining installment of the Jones Family series, oldest daughter Bonnie (Shirley Deane) is a little disgusted with her fiance, Herbert (Russell Gleason), because he's dragging his feet regarding marriage until he thinks he's saved up enough money. Bonnie thinks she's come up with the answer when former football hero Ted Hewett (Allan Lane of King of the Mounties) shows up in town selling stock in the Eureka oil well. Hewett importunes Father Jones (Jed Prouty) and many other townspeople to buy stock  -- Herbert drags his feet on this as well --  and gets Jones to invest money he really can't afford in a new oil well. But will the Eureka well gush oil or just mud and water? In the meantime oldest son Jack (Kenneth Howell) has invented a super-charger that will make cars go super-fast. As usual, Granny Jones (Florence Roberts) has a lot to say, and at one point even manages so steal a kiss from young Herbert. Well-acted by all, Big Business has some genuine suspense and zips along under Strayer's brisk direction. Strayer also directed Manhattan Tower and Lane starred in King of the Mounties

Verdict: Fun and charming. ***.

KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER: SEASON ONE

Nina Foch and Katherine Crawford in "End of the World, Baby"

















KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE aka Suspense Theatre. Season 1. 1963.

Kraft Suspense Theatre was the anthology series that began each week with stylized, Dali-esque drawings of running, furtive figures while intense, dramatic music blared in the background. The first two episodes, "The Case Against Paul Ryker," were quite good and were later spliced together and presented in movie houses as Sergeant Ryker. The third episode, "End of the World, Baby," had a mother and daughter (Nina Foch and Katherine Crawford) both involved with the same gigolo (Gig Young), and was mediocre if well-acted. I've seen most but not all of the first season episodes and generally the series was not in the league of, say, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but there were some episodes that were quite memorable. In "One Step Down" Ida Lupino wants to find out who her dead husband's lover was, unaware that it's somebody she already knows (Gena Rowlands). Tourists Julie Harris, Julie Adams and Virginia Gregg get involved with a Latin hustler (Robert Loggia) in "The Robrioz Ring." "Are There Any More Out There Like You?" stars Robert Ryan and features Katherine Ross and Great Old Movies' favorite Jay Novello in a powerful story of a man whose disaffected daughter and friends are involved in a deadly hit and run. "The Threatening Eye," directed by Ida Lupino, is a truly excellent tale of a businessman (Jack Klugman) whose life is turned upside down by a sociopathic fellow employee (Annie Farge) whose motives at first seem hidden. "A Hero for Our Times" stars Lloyd Bridges as a philandering husband who witnesses a murder during an assignation and wonders how he can tell what he knows without compromising himself or his lover. While many other episodes were all but ruined by really stupid endings, they were almost always extremely well-acted.

Verdict: Some gems among the junk. **1/2.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

CARRIE (1976)

William Katt and Sissy Spacek
CARRIE (1976). Director: Brian De Palma.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy, tormented high school student in a small town who has a child-abusing, religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie). Her telekinetic abilities start to reveal themselves along with her awakening womanhood. As penance for her role in making fun of Carrie in a cruel fashion, Sue Snell (Amy Irving of Hide and Seek) importunes her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom in her place. Unfortunately Sue's bitchy friend Chris (Nancy Allen) -- the ultimate "mean girl" --  and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) have diabolical plans for Carrie, who responds in a powerful fashion of her own ... Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay improves upon Stephen King's potboiler novel, and the film is extremely well-directed by De Palma [The Black Dahlia], one of the very few directors who can make effective use of slow-motion and split screens. Adding to the strength of the movie are the performances, especially by Spacek, who creates deep sympathy for her character without ever becoming cloying. It could be argued that Laurie [Trauma] is a little over-the-top. but she's effective and interesting (which is more than you can say for the actresses who tackled the role in the two remakes). Katt, Irving, Allen and Travolta are all perfect, as is Betty Buckley as the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Collins. The contribution played by Pino Donaggio's excellent score can not be underestimated (he employs Psycho strings on occasion but can he forgiven for that). The songs at the prom are memorable and evocative as well.

Verdict: A classic and by far the best version of this compelling story. ***1/2.

WHIPLASH

Unlikely couple: Dane Clark and Alexis Smith
WHIPLASH (1948). Director: Lewis Seiler.

In this chopped suey of a movie, artist Michael Gordon (Dane Clark of Paid to Kill) falls for a woman, Laurie (Alexis Smith of The Constant Nymph), who buys one of his paintings. In spite of the fact that Laurie is completely out of his league in every way possible, Michael tells her he's in love with her after knowing her for six hours. Unfortunately, Laurie has a wheel-chair bound husband, an ex-fighter named Rex (Zachary Scott of Ruthless), who convinces Michael that he could be a sensation in the ring. Then there's Laurie's brother, a doctor (Jeffrey Lynn), whom Rex somehow blames for his condition. Whiplash is less a boxing movie than an unconvincing and utterly unexceptional soap opera-melodrama with superficial characters and equally superficial performances. All of the lead actors have been seen to much better advantage in other pictures, although Lynn is generally creditable. Eve Arden adds some slight fun in her inimitable way as a friend of Michael's who wishes she were something more and S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall is as cuddly and monotonous as ever. This is another in a long line of obnoxious Dane Clark portrayals. Clark and Smith generate no fireworks and are completely unbelievable as a romantic couple. The only good scene is when Zachary Scott gets what's coming to him. Director Lewis Seiler does nothing to help the actors or the picture.

Verdict: A "romance" with two lovers who seem to come from different planets. **.

OFF-LIMITS

Maxwell, Hope and Rooney
OFF-LIMITS (aka Military Police/1953). Director: George Marshall.

Wally Hogan (Bob Hope) is a fight manager who loses his only client, the champ, when his associates trick him into joining the Army. Hogan meets a fellow named Herbert Tuttle (Mickey Rooney), who hopes to become a boxer and gets Hogan to take him on. This puts a crimp in Hogan's romance with club owner and singer Connie (Marilyn Maxwell of The Show-Off), who is Herbert's aunt and doesn't want him to fight. It all leads to mostly forgettable complications. The picture was originally titled Military Police because the boys become MP's. As was the case with most of his movies, especially the later ones like this, Hope doesn't so much act as saunter jovially through the movie. Rooney, who actually does give a performance, is more subdued than usual. Hope's character has a bevy of marriage-minded women -- all of them hot babes, natch, who would normally be out of his league -- chasing after him while Rooney isn't even given a girlfriend. This is Hope's picture, and one suspects Rooney was never allowed to forget it, even though he's more appealing than ol' ski-nose. Maxwell is Maxwell. Eddie Mayehoff is the uptight but likable commanding officer. The best scene is a riotous and very well-choreographed free-for-all in Connie's club with virtually everyone swinging at somebody else. There's also a cat-fight between Carolyn Jones and another one of the ladies positively panting for Hope.

Verdict: Neither Hope nor Rooney's best but it has its moments, however few. **.

FREDRIC MARCH: A CONSUMMATE ACTOR Charles Tranberg

FREDRIC MARCH: A CONSUMMATE ACTOR. Charles Tranberg. BearManor; 2013.

Tranberg, who has also written books on Fred MacMurray, and an especially outstanding tome on Agnes Moorehead, now looks at the life and career of Fredric March. Tranberg makes the point that March, strangely, seems forgotten when he won and was nominated for several Academy Awards, and appeared in several famous motion pictures, such as the original A Star is Born. Tranberg looks at March's early life, his stage career, his brief first marriage, and his long-lasting union with actress Florence Eldridge. Unfortunately, nowadays March would be seen as a bit of a pig and sexual harasser when it came to women, at least according to several accounts in the book, but this, of course, doesn't negate his considerable acting ability and his many achievements. Two of March's greatest performances were in Inherit the Wind and Middle of the Night, his last romantic lead role.

Verdict: Solid bio of a fine and unjustly neglected actor. ***.

ISLAND CLAWS

One Might Big Crab! Note two men at lower right.
ISLAND CLAWS (1980). Director: Herman Cardenas.

Pete Adams (Steve Hanks) is a teaching assistant and researcher working with Dr. McNeal (Barry Nelson), who hopes to increase the size of crabs as, presumably, a food source. Pete is attracted to a woman, Jan (Jo McDonnell), who is doing a story on McNeal's work, but, implausibly, is unaware that her father was driving the car in which his parents died years ago. Pete's surrogate parents are Moody (Robert Lansing) and Rosie (Nita Talbot), the former of whom owns the tavern where Rosie works as barmaid. Meanwhile, an accident at a nearby reactor unleashes radioactive waste into the water. The combination of growth hormones and radioactivity engenders bizarre behavior in ordinary crabs, as well as creates a crab of especially humongous stature. Island Claws combines a "nature turned nasty" plot about killer animals running amok with a giant monster on the loose. The scenes with the small crabs moving en masse toward potential victims are creepy, with the crustaceans being good little actors, but they never really seem to be "attacking." The big crab -- yes, there's only one [at least Attack of the Crab Monsters had two crabs] -- appears to be a full-size mechanical model that lacks great mobility but is efficient enough and is generally masked in darkness. A sub-plot involves a family of Haitians who sneak ashore and are at first blamed for some of the strange deaths in the area. There is some attempt at creating three-dimensional characters, and the acting is generally good. Bill Justis' eerie music is a plus. Island Claws holds the attention and isn't badly done, but ultimately there's not enough of the monster. Ricou Browning, who played the Gill Man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels, was co-scripter along with Jack Cowden.

Verdict: Has its moments, but can't beat Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters. **1/2.

[SEXTON BLAKE AND] THE HOODED TERROR

Greta Gynt and George Curzon












SEXTON BLAKE AND THE HOODED TERROR (aka The Hooded Terror/1938). Director: George King.

"Bombs going off. Men falling dead. What kind of place is this? A gentleman's house or a chamber of horrors?' -- Mrs. Bardell

While almost completely unknown in the United States, private eye Sexton Blake, who began life as a Sherlock Holmes clone (who even had an office on Baker Street and a Mrs. Hudson-type housekeeper) before metamorphosing into different types of action heroes over the decades, was once very big stuff in England. In this film our hero (George Curzon) is up against a secret group known as the Black Quorum, which is led by a man known as the Snake. The members of the Quorum wear masks at their meetings, but take them off to look at closed-circuit television, making one wonder why they bother with the masks in the first place. Greta Gynt plays a special agent named Julie, whom Blake is always condescending to because she's a woman, but who saves his bacon on at least one occasion. [Brave Julie is the most "modern" thing about the movie.] Blake has an assistant named Tinker (Tony Sympson) and a housekeeper named Mrs. Bardell (Marie Wright). Tod Slaughter plays a deceptively jovial figure named Michael Larron. The most interesting scene features a death chamber full of slithering snakes. This isn't terrible, just not very memorable. Curzon, Gynt and the others are fine, with Gynt especially vivacious, adept and notable.

Verdict: Stick with Sherlock Holmes. **.

HOUSE OF CARDS (2013) Season 1

Kevin Spacey as Congressman Francis Underwood














HOUSE OF CARDS (2013 Internet series). Season One. Various directors.

In this re-imagining of the British mini-series, House of Cards (and its two sequels), Francis Urquhart, who becomes prime minister, is replaced by Francis (Frank) Underwood, a Washington congressman who hopes to become vice president and who plots, schemes and murders to achieve his goals. His wife, Claire (Robin Wright of Message in a Bottle), is similarly ruthless in her dealings and is not afraid to go up against her husband when she needs to. The biggest problem with this American version is that the British series' main thrust -- that Urquhart applies the murderous ruthlessness of olde English politics to modern times -- is completely lost, and what you're left with is a fairly typical look at Washington wheeling and dealing with a rather sociopathic lead character. House of Cards takes thirteen episodes to wrap up its first story arc, whereas the original took four, and therefore was more concise, tense and to the point. Whereas Urquhart, as portrayed by the magnificent Ian Richardson, was an almost mythic force of evil, Underwood is more human; Kevin Spacey (Swmming with Sharks) is quite good, but he can't compare to Richardson. A lot of changes have been made due to the change of country and locale, but some things remain: the young female reporter (Kate Mara) who enters into a professional and sexual relationship with Underwood; and the coke and booze-guzzling fellow (Corey Stoll) who is cruelly used by Underwood when the latter backs the former's attempts to become governor [this character was actually a publicity man in the original]. Urquhart's wife didn't appear much or have much to do until the final episodes of the British series, but in this she's front and center from the first. Initially Claire seems like a much warmer person than her husband, but when she has a colleague fire eighteen employees, and then fires her immediately afterward [instead of firing all nineteen of them herself[ you get the sense that something's rotten in this gal as well. The acting is first-rate throughout, and I was particularly impressed by Al Sapienza as a union leader, Constance Zimmer as a reporter, and Gerald McRaney as a billionaire nuclear power plant guy. The sex scenes between Spacey and Kate Mara are kind of gross because Mara generally looks like she's twelve years old. Episode 8 [scripted by Beau Willimon] hints at some homoerotic hanky panky engaged in by Underwood in military school, but it seems dragged in, and somewhat homophobic, as if homosexuality is something you grow out of. If the character is gay or bisexual it isn't explored in the first season.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, this is undeniably compelling and very well acted. ***.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

SUMMER STORM

George Sanders and Linda Darnell
SUMMER STORM (1944). Director: Douglas Sirk.

Based on Anton Chekhov's novel "The Shooting Party" this features George Sanders as a Russian judge and Linda Darnell as a Russian peasant! Despite this miscasting, the two actors play well together in the story of Fedor Petroff (Sanders), who neglects his fiancee, Nadena (Anna Lee), after he meets the beautiful Olga (Darnell), whom he knows is "beneath" him but whom he must possess come hell or highwater. An added complication is Olga's unhappy marriage to Anton (Hugo Haas), whose tragedy this chiefly becomes. Darnell is fine, and Sanders offers his usual good performance, but this is an actor whose forte is coolness, not passion, so he never really gets across his passionate feelings for Olga nor anything else. Haas, who also directed such "B" movies as One Girl's Confession, arguably offers the best performance as the likable but tormented Anton. Edward Everett Horton [Lady on a Train] is as good and as much fun as ever, although he, too, seems highly miscast as a womanizing nobleman of ill repute. Anna Lee [The Crimson Kimono] and Laurie Lane as the maid Clara both make a good impression. The whole sordid business comes to a very satisfactory conclusion, although the ultimate fate of one unhappy character is never disclosed.

Verdict: Intriguing romantic drama with interesting cast. ***.

ELOPEMENT

Clifton Webb takes charge of little Tommy Rettig
ELOPEMENT (1951). Director: Henry Koster.

"What does she see in that creature?"

"I'd sooner be related to a ring-tailed baboon."

"Jake" (Anne Francis of Forbidden Planet and Honey West) plans to study abroad after graduating college, but instead she decides to elope with one of her professors, Matt Reagan (William Lundigan) -- this despite the fact that the two have never actually been out on a date! Naturally their parents (Clifton Webb, Margalo Gillmore, Charles Bickford and Evelyn Varden) take off in pursuit to try to stop them before they can get hitched. But considering all the misunderstandings that are cropping up between Jake and Matt, the parents may find that their interference is unnecessary ... Elopement must be taken with a grain of salt. First, the idea of a professor having the hots for one of his students (granted, she's an adult), while hardly without precedent, is still a little creepy. Second, there's no good reason for the couple not to wait and have a "normal" wedding. Third -- they hardly know one another! That being said, Elopement still has its amusing moments and situations, and the performances are all very good, with Webb simply outstanding. Although Webb never married, was deeply attached to his mother, and may or may not have been gay, he can play husbands and fathers with absolute conviction and aplomb, as he does here. Whether Webb is dealing with his friend Roger (Reginald Gardner) or little Daniel (Tommy Rettig), Matt's youngest brother, he is very sharp and funny. Webb and Francis also teamed up for Dreamboat the following year.

Verdict: Cute picture despite obvious flaws. ***.

















































































































THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI

Erich von Stroheim as Dr. Crespi
THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI (1935). Director: John H. Auer.

Supposedly based on Poe's "Premature Burial," this film is only vaguely inspired by that story. Dr. Andre Crespi (Erich von Stroheim, the butler in Sunset Boulevard) is importuned to step in when his former protege, Stephen (John Bohn), is severely injured in a car accident. Stephen, now married to the lovely Estelle (Harriet Russell), was unaware that Andre was carrying a torch for her. Crespi manages to save Stephen's life, but only to save him for a diabolical plot as he's never forgiven him for taking Estelle away from him [it never occurs to Crespi that Estelle would probably not have wanted him even if Stephen hadn't entered the picture]. Crespi gives Stephen a drug which allows him to see, hear and feel everything, but won't allow him to "move an eyelash," then plans for him to be buried alive ... In his performance Stroheim alternates a bombastic delivery with lines that are casually whispered; he rarely even seems to be acting. Although it's not quite a terrible performance, he does much less with the role than actors such as Lionel Atwell or George Zucco could have. [Stroheim could give some good performances however, such as in I Was an Adventuress.] Harriet Russell is an excellent actress with a very expressive face, but she apparently only made this one movie. Dwight Frye of Dracula appears in a supporting role as a staff doctor and is as eye-poppingly intense as ever.

Verdict: Acceptable horror-melodrama. **1/2.

PETER GUNN Season 3

Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn
PETER GUNN Season Three. 1960.

The third and final season of the popular private eye program was unexceptional but entertaining. "Mother" is gone, and Peter's girlfriend, Edie (Lola Albright) opens her own restaurant-club, and hires a maitre'd, Leslie (James Lanphier), after the man's own restaurant is bombed. Although well-played by Lanphier, the character did little more than interrupt Edie and Peter (Craig Stevens) to tell the latter that he had a phone call. Edie herself only appeared sporadically [giving Gunn a girlfriend never made much sense, as it would have been more fun to have him involved with a different "dame" each week, which only happened on occasion]. Hershel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby appeared in virtually every episode, again functioning practically as Gunn's partner. Late in the season four episodes in a row took place in Acapulco, to which Peter flew for one case and remained for several more. It seems clear that Gunn must have been a wealthy man slumming as a private dick because he rarely makes a lot of money and is always giving away very large bills to his informants. The most memorable episodes this season include: "A Kill and a Half," in which a midget hit man pretends to be a trick or treater; "A Matter of Policy" involving an insurance scheme and a bomb on an airliner; and "Than a Serpent's Tooth," in which Pamela Britton  [DOA] is notable as a woman who is carrying a secret in regards to her husband's death. The final episode -- although it has a standard plot of a millionaire wanting Peter to deal with a blackmailing female -- is very entertaining and features Peter Gunn director (and actor) Robert Gist and the show's executive producer Gordon Oliver in main roles, and both are excellent. Guest-stars for the third season include John Fieldler, Tommy Rettig, Jack Lalanne (who proves to be a terrible actor although he looks fit), Regis Toomey (in a very good turn as a desperate, aging P.I.), Ann Robinson, Kent Taylor [The Day Mars Invaded Earth], Hayden Rourke, Virginia Grey, and Patric Knowles. Robert Altman [That Cold Day in the Park] directed a couple of energetic episodes.

Verdict: Not a true classic, perhaps, but it has its moments. **1/2.

HARRIET CRAIG

Joan Crawford as Harriet Craig
HARRIET CRAIG (1950). Director: Vincent Sherman.

"I don't like trains. I don't like the feeling of being rushed along in the darkness. Having no control. Having my life completely in someone else's hands" -- Harriet Craig.

This remake of Craig's Wife is actually the third film version of George Kelly's play, which was first made as a silent. In this loose adaptation, Joan Crawford plays Harriet Craig, who likes order and neatness and everything in its place, including her husband, Walter (Wendell Corey of The Big Knife). She and her mother were abandoned by her father, and she needs to be in total control of her life and everyone else's, including her niece, Clare's (K. T. Stevens), who has lived with her and Walter for many years, and whose relationship with Wes (William Bishop of It's a Great Life) she tries to destroy. This version eliminates the character of Walter's aunt, and provides an even stronger motive for Walter's walking out on his wife. Crawford and Corey give very good performances, and the supporting cast, including Lucile Watson, Stevens, Ellen Corby, and Viola Roache, is notable.

Verdict: Crawford in dragon lady mode. ***.

BACK TO NATURE

Kenneth Howell and George Ernest as Jack and Roger
















BACK TO NATURE (1936). Director: James Tinling.

A third Jones Family programmer was rushed out in 1936 and proved a touch funnier than the previous installments. In this Father Jones (Jed Prouty) goes to a convention and is pressured into bringing the whole family along [a premise that was used again in The Jones Family in Hollywood and probably others]. He buys an $800 trailer and most of the family foolishly ride inside it during the trip. There's a scene involving the trailer and a cliff that prefigures The Long, Long Trailer, but is less elaborate. At Crystal Lake, Jack (Kenneth Howell) dates a loopy gal named Mabel (Dixie Dunbar, carried over from the previous film, Educating Father, but playing a supposedly different character), and the two are involved in a near-disastrous boat ride just as they were nearly in a plane crash in the last installment. Tony Martin [Here Come the Girls] plays a romantic interest for Bonnie (Shirley Deane) -- and plays it very well, with suave flair and assurance -- but the romance decidedly hits a snag. Excellent performances help put this over, although Dunbar and her character are rather irritating. You keep hoping she'll run into Jason Vorhees from that other Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th!

Verdict: Palatable hijinks with the Joneses. **1/2. 

YOU'RE NEXT

YOU'RE NEXT (2013). Director: Adam Wingard. Made in 2011; widely released in 2013.

"Would you just die already? This is hard enough for me!" -- killer to victim. 

Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings his Aussie girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) to a family reunion where she meets his mother Aubrey (Barbara Crampton of Re-animator), father Paul (Rob Moran), and assorted siblings and their spouses. Certain members of the family have their resentment issues (this aspect threatens to turn the movie into a parody at times) but a bigger problem is that one of the guests, a filmmaker named Tariq (Ti West), becomes the first victim of a trio of home invaders wearing animal masks. Raised by a survivalist father, Erin takes charge and tries to keep the members of the family focused on surviving and fighting off the vicious interlopers. As more murders occur, it becomes apparent that this is not a random attack but the family has been targeted and it may even be an inside job ... You're Next may not be any kind of cinematic masterpiece, but it is taut and suspenseful and some of the gruesome killings have a bit of imagination in Simon Barrett's screenplay [Barrett plays one of the masked killers as well]. The performances by a largely unknown cast are on the money as well. The plot may not hold up under close scrutiny, and that modern tendency to layer in black comedy is in evidence (though not that prevalent), but You're Next certainly has more than its share of exciting moments. The ending is satisfying but the filmmakers can't resist one last nasty bit of business.

Verdict: Tense and bloody thriller holds the attention. ***.