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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

DUEL IN THE SUN

Jennifer Jones watches as horse gives Gregory Peck a kiss
















DUEL IN THE SUN (1946). Director: King Vidor.

In post-Civil War Texas, the tempestuous "half-breed" Pearl (Jennifer Jones) comes to live with her aunt Laura (Lillian Gish) after the death of her father (Herbert Marshall), who was convicted of murdering her mother. Laura's husband, Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) is an anti-Indian bigot who refuses to accept Pearl, and whose main occupation is keeping the railroad off of his property [leading to a tense confrontation between cowboys and train men halfway through the movie]. McCanles has two sons, the decent Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the more unsavory Lewt (Gregory Peck). While Pearl falls in love with the kind Jesse, she can't fight her attraction to the sexy "bad boy," Lewt, creating a lot of problems, not to mention a highly perverse climax. Producer David Selznick was hoping for another Gone With the Wind when he made Duel in the Sun, but the film is almost forgotten. The acting in this entertaining "epic" is generally of the second-rate "Hollywood" variety across the board, but on that level it isn't bad. Jones [Love Letters] gives a good performance, although she looks almost ugly in some shots, and a miscast Peck [Mirage] does his best with a role he's really not suited for; neither Peck nor Jones are that good with transitions of mood, which occur frequently in their exchanges. Barrymore, Butterfly McQueen (who is great despite the patronizing attitude held toward her by both the other characters and the filmmakers), Charles Bickford (as one of Pearl's suitors), Otto Kruger, Charles Dingle as a sheriff, and Scott McKay as nasty Syd all make a favorable impression. Some beautiful cinematography from Lee Garmes and others. King Vidor also directed Beyond the Forest and the silent masterpiece The Crowd. Possibly the first of the "sex-westerns," as lust has a lot more to do with it than cow-punching.

Verdict: This could have been a lot better, but it certainly has its moments. ***.


GEORGY GIRL

Big Face meets Big Bones: Alan Bates, Lynn Redgrave
GEORGY GIRL (1966). Director: Silvio Narizzano.

Georgina (Lynn Redgrave) is a homely, big-boned, schlumpy 22-year-old who lives with her ice princess roommate, Meredith (the well-cast Charlotte Rampling of Asylum), who has a nutty boyfriend named Jos (Alan Bates of An Unmarried Woman), Georgina gets a bizarre "business" proposition from James Leamington (James Mason) -- her father is Leamington's major domo -- who wants her to become his official mistress; obviously big bones and messiness turn him on. But Georgy is much more attracted to Jos, who has gotten Meredith pregnant and may marry her ... what's a big-boned girl to do? It's hard to believe that this movie was once popular, because the only thing really memorable about it is the amusing theme song performed by the Seekers. Redgrave and Georgy are irritating to the extreme; Bates seems to think he's acting in a cartoon; Mason, demeaned by his role, doesn't seem to know where the hell he is or what he's doing; and Rampling, of all people, comes off best in her steely portrait of a cold, unrepentant bitch. The "mod" approach of the film severely dates it, and everyone seems horribly miscast. Not a single character is remotely sympathetic. Aside from the theme song, the one thing that stands out is a wonderful shot of a dog standing stock still (for a while) as a funeral procession goes by. Things pick up a bit for the very ending, but by then it's too late. This is not only stupid and unfunny, but tedious. Incredibly, Redgrave [Last of the Mobile Hot Shots], who is not that good, was nominated for a best actress Oscar [Mason was nominated for supporting actor even though this is one of his least memorable roles] and won the Golden Globes.

Verdict: Play the tune and skip the movie. *1/2.

THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS

Jane Greer and Lizabeth Scott












THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS (1951). Director: John Cronwell.

NOTE: Some plot points are revealed in this review. Diane (Jane Greer) is released from prison after passing bad checks and the like, and is assigned to parole officer Joan (Lizabeth Scott). Diane resents kindly Joan from the first, and makes a major play for Joan's boyfriend, Larry (Dennis O'Keefe of Hold That Kiss), which the big lug falls for. Before long Larry and Diane are in love, but they need Joan's approval to marry ... what a weird situation. The problem with The Company She Keeps is that the two lovers are pretty unsympathetic, with Diane returning Joan's friendship by stealing her boyfriend, and Larry betraying the faithful [if eternally busy] Joan, who is too sweet for words -- or reality. Fay Baker [The Star] plays another parolee who works with Diane as a nurse, and Gertrude Hoffman [My Little Margie] has a silent role as a woman on the parole board. Paul Frees is a judge's clerk and Great Old Movies' favorite Kathleen Freeman plays another parolee. Jeff Bridges and his brother Beau supposedly appear as an infant and a small boy. Given Diane's essential nature, it's unlikely that the "happy" ending for this couple is going to last. The acting is generally solid.

Verdict: These two lovers deserve each other. **.

THE BEST FILM YOU'VE NEVER SEEN

THE BEST FILM YOU'VE NEVER SEEN: 25 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love. Robert K. Elder. Chicago Review Press; 2013.

Recently there have been a whole slew of "concept" books about movies -- say, the worst pictures ever made etc. --  as opposed to serious [or not so serious] film criticism. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. Elder's concept isn't a bad one as he asks several directors to talk about a particular film that they love and which either got no attention or got especially negative reviews. [To be clear, they are not talking about their own movies, but someone else's.] Some of the directors picked movies which have actually won Oscars, which makes their choices a little ridiculous. Another problem is that most of the directors are comparatively obscure. The exceptions include Peter Bogdanovich discussing Trouble in Paradise, Arthur Hiller on The Iceman Cometh and a couple of others, but few are heavyweights. There are a couple of films from the golden age, but most are more recent. They include: The Swimmer, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, The Honeymoon Killers, Some Came Running, A Man for All Seasons, 10 Rillington Place, The Chase, Sweet Charity, and Can't Stop the Music, among others. Elder is hampered somewhat by the fact that some of his interviewees are kind of dizzy [for instance, Guy Maddin seems to think The Chase is full of homoerotic material simply because it was based on a novel by possibly closeted writer Cornell Woolrich]! Elder seems to be a good, prepared interviewer.

Verdict: Interesting idea, but not essential. Some interesting interviews mixed with a few that have no value. **1/2.

NIGHTFALL

Brian Keith and Aldo Ray
NIGHTFALL (1957). Director: Jacques Tourneur.

James Vanning (Aldo Ray) and his friend Doc (Frank Albertson of Man-Made Monster) are on a hunting trip when they come to the aid of two men -- John (Brian Keith of The Parent Trap) and Red (Rudy Bond) -- who, unbeknownst to them, have robbed a bank. The ingrates murder doc and try to kill Vanning, who takes off with them in pursuit. The crooks take the wrong bag and assume that Vanning has the bag with the money in it. While on the run, Vanning meets a model named Marie (Anne Bancroft of Gorilla at Large) in a bar and she becomes embroiled in his problems. James Gregory plays an insurance man who is also following Vanning, albeit with less sinister intent. Although well-acted for the most part, and well-photographed by Burnett Guffey, Nightfall is a fairly weak entry in the film noir department, only really coming alive at the climax when thieves fall out and there's a sequence involving a runaway snow plow. Bancroft is good, if miscast as a model, and Ray pretty much walks through the movie, barely getting by on a little bit of charm and showing little emotion. Given a lead role, he pretty much muffs it. He kept acting right up until his death in 1991, however.

Verdict: Not much to this cheapie. **.

LOVE ON A BUDGET

Wise Women: Spring Byington and Florence Roberts
LOVE ON A BUDGET (1938). Director: Herbert I. Leeds.

"Somewhere in that deep, dark breast of yours lies the spirit of Carnivale."

Bonnie Jones (Shirley Deane) and her new husband Herbert (Russell Gleason) are having trouble making ends meet and have little furniture in their attractive new home. Along comes Bonnie's free-loading Uncle Charlie (Alan Dinehart), who has Herbert cashing in his bonds not to buy furniture but to invest in a scheme that ultimately leaves him deeper in debt. Shirley wants to move back in with her parents, or file for divorce, and things aren't helped when Herbert and Charlie go out dancing with the former's employee, Millie (Joyce Compton of Dark Alibi), who looks sensational without her glasses. Love on a Budget is an amusing trifle with Granny Jones (Florence Roberts), in particular, in top form, dispensing wisdom and put-downs to Uncle Charlie in equal measure. The scene when Bonnie prepares her first dinner for the whole family is also quite funny. Mayor Jones (Jed Prouty), Mrs. Jones (Spring Byington), Jack (Kenneth Howell), Roger (George Ernest) and sister Lucy (June Carlson) are also along for the ride, as is a much more subdued Dixie Dunbar as Jack's date, apparently a different character from the crazy gal she played in previous Jones Family movies. Leeds also directed Bunco Squad. Shirley Deane was Princess Aura in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Florence Roberts was the Widow Peep in Babes in Toyland. This is the eighth movie in the series.

Verdict: Pleasant minor comedy. **1/2.

BLUE JASMINE

Cate Blanchette










BLUE JASMINE (2013). Writer/Director: Woody Allen.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchette) once had a successful husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin of The Departed), a great life in New York, plenty of money, and pretty much never let her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), whom she finds declasse, forget it. But now her husband is a jail suicide, her life is in tatters, she's flat broke, and her stepson, Danny (Alden Ehreinreich), won't even talk to her. Who does Jasmine turn to, but Ginger in San Francisco, with whom she moves in, continuing their love/dislike relationship. Flashbacks show Jasmine's former life, and reveal that Ginger's ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), who invested with crooked Hal and lost all of his money, still believes that Jasmine knew everything the man was up to. Ginger has a boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), but enters into an affair with Al (Louis C.K.), who turns out to be married, while Jasmine fights off advances by her dentist employer, and meets a great guy in widower Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard of Green Lantern), only to have ... well, that would be telling. Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's [Shadows and Fog] best movie in years, a totally absorbing comedy-drama with expert thesping, a great cast, and a totally winning lead performance from Blanchette, who manages to make Jasmine sympathetic in spite of everything. The movie examines how we can love people we may not otherwise respect or approve of, and looks at how lives can go completely awry without any warning, especially when it comes to people left behind when their loved one is convicted of  various malfeasances. Blanchette won a completely deserved best actress Oscar, as well as several other best actress awards.

Verdict: Near-perfect with a fantastic Blanchette. ***1/2.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

HOUSE OF STRANGERS

Tense date: Richard Conte and Susan Hayward















HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949). Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson) is the opera-loving head of a bank and has four sons, one of whom, the lawyer Max (Richard Conte of Thieves' Highway), he seems to love unconditionally. The oldest son, Joe (Luthor Adler) is bitter that Gino treats him with disdain and employs him only as a poorly-paid bank teller. Pietro (Paul Valentine of Love Happy) resents the fact that his father thinks he's stupid. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) seems more interested in the ladies than in anything else. Although Max has a pretty fiancee named Maria (Debra Paget), he can't help but be attracted to a zesty, very self-confident lady named Irene (Susan Hayward), who comes to him for legal advice and with whom he enters into a sexy if exasperating love-hate affair. Then Gino discovers that his unorthodox approaches to lending have brought him under the scrutiny of bank officials and he may go to jail. Max has a scheme to get his father out of trouble, but he doesn't reckon with Joe's hatred ... House of Strangers is an absorbing, well-acted drama that just misses being really special, but is still quite worthwhile. Although Robinson is miscast as an Italian, he still gives his customary fine performance, and Conte and Hayward make an arresting couple. Luthor Adler almost walks off with the movie with his quietly ferocious portrayal of deceptively steel-hard Joe. Hope Emerson (Peter Gunn) is fun in a small role as Maria's termagant mother, trading verbal and nearly physical blows with Robinson, whom she towers over.

Verdict: Has quite a few memorable and powerful sequences. ***.

TOGETHER AGAIN

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne
TOGETHER AGAIN (1944). Director: Charles Vidor.

"You're a big shot in the office, and a non-entity at home!"

After making Love Affair in 1939, Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer were "together again" five years later in this slightly screwball comedy. Anne Crandell (Dunne) has been mayor of a small town in Vermont ever since the death of her husband and lives with her father-in-law, Jonathan (Charles Coburn) and neurotic stepdaughter Diana (Mona Freeman of Angel Face). Jonathan wants Anne to have more of a life, to forget his son [oddly] and her attachment to him and to the town they were happy in. When her late husband's statue is beheaded by a bolt of lightning, Jonathan sees this as a sign, but Anne only travels to Manhattan to meet with a prominent sculptor named George Corday (Boyer). After misadventures, including being mistaken for a stripper in a nightclub raid, Anne returns home convinced that George is not the right man for the job. But George follows Anne home and is determined to win her, if only he can get her to unbend ... Together Again basically gets by on the charm and abilities of its leads. A luminescent Dunne offers one of her best comic portrayals and is in absolutely top form throughout, Boyer is sauve and smooth as ever, and Coburn a delight as usual. Unfortunately, the material is second-rate, although there are a few amusing moments. Carl "Alfafa" Switzer has a funny cameo as an elevator boy, and Jerome Courtland [Sunny Side of the Street] scores as a young man who is dating the difficult Diana and often wishes that he weren't. Vidor also directed Rhapsody and many others.

Verdict: Great leads who need stronger material. **1/2.

THE HOUSE OF REDGRAVE: THE LIVES OF A THEATRICAL DYNASTY

THE HOUSE OF REDGRAVE: The Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty. Tim Adler. London: Aurum Press; 2012.

Despite the title, this book is essentially a biography of the late Tony Richardson, the British film director who was married to Vanessa Redgrave and was the father of the late Natasha Richardson, who died when she was married to actor Liam Neeson (The Other Man). Apparently the book's publisher thought that Richardson's name wouldn't sell a book, so this was re-imagined as a book on all of the Redgraves, which it isn't, even though there are sections on Vanesssa, her brother Colin, and her daughters late in the book; most of the text covers the life and career of Tony Richardson (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; Tom Jones), who brought a stark reality to British theater and cinema that had been missing before. Adler looks at the nutty brother and sister duo of Vanessa and Colin (the latter of whom is largely unknown in the U.S.), both of whom devoted more attention to radical politics than to their own children. Lynn Redgrave, despite a highly successful career, gets short shrift except for passages on her discovering that her husband was the actual father of her grandchild and the resulting scandal, and her death from cancer. Richardson is portrayed as a gifted narcissist who could be both generous and loved, nasty and hated, and was decidedly confused and uptight about his sexuality. Adler doesn't seem that comfortable or up-to-date when writing about Redgrave's and Tony Richardson's homosexuality, and some passages might be considered borderline homophobic and decidedly dated. However, the book is a good read and generally well-done if you're looking for a tome on Richardson and his circle. For a book that's actually about Michael Redgrave and his family, see Donald Spoto's The Redgraves: A Family Epic.

Verdict: Quick and entertaining read, albeit flawed. ***.

5 FINGERS

Unholy Alliance: James Mason and Danielle Darrieux















5 FINGERS (1952). Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Based on a true story, 5 Fingers looks at the secret "career" of Ulysses Diello (James Mason) who is valet for the British ambassador in Turkey, a neutral country, during WW2. Diello had originally been valet for the late husband of the Countess Anna Stavisky (Danielle Darrieux of Madame de), who has become friends with the ambassador and is the "impoverished widow of a pro-German count." Diello wants to make a lot of money and doesn't care how he gets it, so he steals top secret papers from the ambassador's safe and sells them to the Germans. He enlists the countess' aid and she agrees -- for a price. Still, the countess may still see Diello as a servant, even if she is attracted to him... Michael Rennie [Phone Call from a Stranger] is a British Intelligence agent who takes over the security for the embassy, but it sure takes a hell of a long time for anyone to change the combination to the safe. In spite of that, 5 Fingers is absorbing and very well acted, with Mason giving another terrific performance; Darrieux is also on the money. Mankiewicz is no Hitchcock, and does little to maximum the story's considerable suspense, but the movie is still effective enough in spite of it; Bernard Herrmann's musical score certainly helps. There are ironic developments and an interesting climax.

Verdict: Mason at his slimiest. ***.

ZARDOZ

Connery, Alderton, and Kestelman
ZARDOZ (1974). Written, produced, and directed by John Boorman.

In the year 2293 Earth has undergone a great many changes. In the "outlands" there are masses of comparatively uncivilized "brutals" who are hunted down and killed by "exterminators," who are given weapons by a great floating stone head that calls itself Zardoz. One of these exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery) climbs into the head and winds up in a supposedly more peaceful enclave called a "vortex," where the people are immortal and sexless and many long to die; there is a mixture of new technology with primitive culture. Scientist May (Sara Kestelman) determines that Zed is a superior, mutated specimen of humanity, while Consuella (Charlotte Rampling of Deception), who may or may not be her lover, thinks he should be destroyed. Half of the community wants to be impregnated by Zed while the other half wants to kill him. Whatever allegory may have been intended, Zardoz (the title comes from "The Wizard of Oz" because Zardoz is just a human male and not any kind of god) is monumentally stupid, and doesn't sustain interest. Connery's performance is more than okay, but you wonder why he took this silly assignment unless he felt a need to boast -- or boost -- his virility. Niall Buggy is Zardoz and John Alderton plays a condescending "Friend" of Zed's. Boorman also directed Exorcist II: The Heretic, which was at least a little more entertaining.

Verdict: Pretentious and rather dull twaddle. *1/2.

LOST TV: COOL AND LAM

Benay Venuta and Billy Pearson
COOL AND LAM. CBS pilot 1958. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

This pilot for a series based on the books about Bertha Cool (Benay Venuta)  and Donald Lam (Billy Pearson), private investigators, aired on CBS in 1958 but never became a series. The books were written by Erle Stanley Gardner (as "A. A. Fair") and he introduces the show as well. Gardner more famously created Perry Mason; this show has the same producer, but lightning didn't strike twice. In this one and only episode, based on "Turn On the Heat," the Cool and Lam team are hired by a man calling himself "Smith" to find out if a certain woman ever remarried. Turns out Smith is a mayoral candidate and may be an accidental bigamist. Then a cocktail hostess named Evaline Dell (Allison Hayes of The Disembodied) who has some knowledge of the situation is found murdered. Lam, the brains behind the outfit while penny-pinching Cool takes care of the finances, eventually unmasks the true murderer. This could have developed into an interesting show, but perhaps the unusual Venuta and Pearson -- not exactly subtle actors -- were seen more as supporting players than stars. Diminutive Pearson had been a thoroughbred jockey who appeared on game shows in the fifties and then became an actor with a short-lived career [no pun intended]. The hefty Venuta appeared sporadically in films and on television and had a small role in Repeat Performance. Tristram Coffin appears briefly in a funny prologue. Margaret Field, Don Megowan, Sheila Bromley, and Maurice Manson also have roles.

Verdict: Not bad, but you can't win 'em all.


FEAR ISLAND

Aaron Ashmore, Benna O'Brien, Haylie Duff, Kyle Schmid
FEAR ISLAND (2009 telefilm). Director: Michael Storey.

A group of friends travel to an island for fun and games, but first discover that they have a stowaway, Megan (Lucy Hale), and then that an unknown person is playing pranks that become increasingly nasty, leading to many murders. The movie is mostly a flashback after Jenna (Haylie Duff) is found on the island in shock. Other characters include cute Mark (Aaaron Ashmore), slick Kyle (Jacob Blair), his brother Tyler (Kyle Schmid), Ashley (Jessica Harmon), and Keith (Jim Thorburn), who has some sort of relationship to the brothers. Trying to find out what really happened are Detective Armory (Martin Cummins) and a shrink named Dr. Chalice (Anne Marie DeLuise). Fear Island is suspenseful and intriguing, boasts a good, talented cast and competent direction, and has some good twists as well. 

Verdict: Enjoyable thriller from Canada. ***.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

THE SWIMMER

Janice Rule and Burt Lancaster
THE SWIMMER (1968). Director: Frank Perry.

"Pool by pool they form a river, all the way to my home."

Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster of Desert Fury) shows up at the home of some friends who haven't seen him in awhile. Clad in a bathing suit, he tells them that he intends to swim from pool to pool on the estates in the area until he makes his way home. The reaction of the couple make it clear that something is off. As Ned makes his way on his journey, he encounters different people from his past, including many vulgar people with too much money, and the viewer slowly learns more and more about the truth behind this man's charming veneer and aura of health and success. The Swimmer is a quirky movie that is not for every taste, and some people might see it as an excuse for Lancaster to show off what good shape he was in, but if you're in tune with its style and content, it's an interesting and absorbing experience. Lancaster gives one of his all-time best performances, and he has wonderful support from such as Janice Rule, who plays a bitter ex-lover; Janet Landgard, who was once his babysitter and now is a nubile beauty; and Michael Kearney as a little boy who has been left alone with the maid by his vacationing parents. Joan Rivers, of all people, has a nice cameo as a lonely party guest who is attracted to Ned, and Jan Miner plays a vicious wife at a public swimming pool. Marvin Hamlisch's score is generally a plus. [Hamlisch also composed "Nobody Does It Better" for The Spy Who Loved Me.] The movie manages to work up sympathy for a man who may not be entirely deserving of it. John Cheever, who wrote the short story that inspired the movie, has a cameo as a party guest. Perry also directed Diary of a Mad Housewife.

Verdict: Don't kick a man when he's down. ***1/2.

ANGEL FACE

Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum















ANGEL FACE (1952). Producer/director: Otto Preminger.

"If you want to play with matches, that's your business, but not in gas-filled rooms."

Ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) goes out on a call to a California estate where Mrs. Tremayne (Barbara O'Neil of Stella Dallas) has had a close call with a gas jet in her room. Frank meets the woman's step-daughter, Diane (Jean Simmons), and the two begin a sort of romance, despite the fact that Frank has a steady and reliable gal in Mary (Mona Freeman). Diane loves her father (Herbert Marshall of Girls' Dormitory), a writer who is down on his luck and living off of his wife, whom Diane loathes. Then there's a horrendous accident in which two deaths occur ... how much did Diane have to do with it? Angel Face is a very entertaining melodrama with very good performances from the entire cast, which includes Leon Ames as a defense lawyer and Kenneth  Tobey as another ambulance driver with an eye for Mary. There are two incredible car crash sequences, a knock-out ending, and a fine score by Dimitri Tiomkin. For my money this is superior to Preminger's Laura. Some people find similarities in this to Leave Her to Heaven, made in 1945, and they probably aren't wrong.

Verdict: Zesty, absorbing film noir with some bite to it. ***1/2.

THEODORA GOES WILD

Irene Dunne
THEODORA GOES WILD (1936). Director: Richard Boleslawski.

Seemingly the whole town of Lynnfield, Connecticut is up in arms because a risque novel by a "Caroline Adams" is being gleefully serialized in the town paper by editor Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell). The most outraged townsfolk are members of the Lynnfield ladies literary circle, who would be astonished to learn that one of their number, Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) is actually the author of the scandalous book! On a trip to New York to see her publisher, Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall), Theodora encounters a man named Michael (Melvyn Douglas), who follows her back to Lynnfield and threatens to expose her secret. Only Michael has secrets of his own ... Theodora Goes Wild still makes a timely statement today about small-town hypocrisy, how people are secretly titillated by what they profess to abhor, and the need to shed off constricting small-mindedness and be true to one's instincts and nature. Even better is that it has some very good performances and a number of laugh-out-loud funny sequences. Unfortunately, the middle section, with Michael coming to Lynnfield where he becomes a gardener for Theodora and her aunts and drives them crazy with his constant whistling (the audience as well!), drags a lot and is rather tiresome, although the movie picks up in the final quarter. Dunne and Douglas are fine, with great support from Mitchell and Hall, Nana Bryant (Possessed) as Hall's jealous wife, and Elisabeth Risdon (The Egg and I) and Margaret McWade as Theodora's prudish but loving aunts. Spring Byington (Walk Softly Stranger) has a great scene when she reads an "offensive" passage from Adams' book with such gusto that you can tell she's privately thrilled with it. Robert Greig also makes an impression as Theo's free-spirited Uncle John, who wants her out from under the influence of his spinster sisters. Jake the dog is rather wonderful, too. This comes so, so close to being a classic but misses by that much.

Verdict: Still good for a laugh or two and a lively message. ***.

OBSESSION aka THE HIDDEN ROOM


Triangle: Newton, Brown and Gray
OBSESSION (aka The Hidden Room/1949). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

Psychiatrist Clive Riordan (Robert Newton of 1952's Les Miserables) discovers that his wife Storm (Sally Gray) is carrying on with a sort of cousin, Bill (Phil Brown of Weird Woman), and decides to take matters in hand. He kidnaps the latter at gunpoint and takes him to an isolated location and chains him up. The two men have most civilized discussions about when and how Clive is going to murder Bill and how he's going to get rid of the body, wanting to experiment on Storm's little doggie at one point, which Bill strenuously objects to. Meanwhile, Storm doesn't go to the police to avoid a scandal -- what a gal! This doesn't stop Superintendent Finsbury (Naunton Wayne) from investigating Bill's disappearance, however. Will the headshrinker be found out before he has a chance to do away with his rival?  Obsession is low-key [like Newton] and unexceptional, but manages to be entertaining in spite of it, with fairly good acting, although most of the time Phil Brown doesn't seem nearly as harried, hungry or upset as he ought to be. Stiff upper lip is one thing, but most people in his situation would be literally crawling the walls. Dmytryk also directed Captive Wild Woman and many, many other films.

Verdict: Okay low-budget British suspense film. **1/2. 

PAULA

Teaching Davey to speak: Rettig, Knox and Young















PAULA (1952). Director: Rudolph Mate.

After a miscarriage Paula Rogers (Loretta Young) is told by her doctor that she can't have any more children, and it is in this distracted mental state that she accidentally hits a young boy, David (Tommy Rettig), while driving home. Although she immediately gets out of her car and rushes to the child, an old man, Bascom (Will Wright)  -- who actually contributed to the accident -- decides unfairly that she is drunk and forbids her to accompany them to the hospital. As Paula's husband, John (Kent Smith) may lose a coveted position if there's any hint of scandal, Paula hides the truth and decides to help the boy behind the scenes. She becomes a kind of nurse's aid, befriends the boy -- who has lost his ability to speak due to the trauma, and is an orphan -- and eventually takes him into her home. But what happens when and if he recognizes her from that night? And there's still that horrible old man who claimed she was inebriated ...  Young gives a good performance and Rettig (Elopement), with his little, expressive face, is just marvelous. Alexander Knox (Son of Dr. Jekyll) plays a doctor who tries to get Davey to speak, and Kathryn Card (I Love Lucy) is cast as a nurse. While this is more of a light drama than a suspense film, it definitely has a lump-in-your-throat finale. Mate also directed the classic D.O.A.

Verdict: Minor but effective enough on its own terms. **1/2.

BORROWING TROUBLE

Tommy (Marvin Stephens) and Roger (George Ernest) make plans
BORROWING TROUBLE (aka The Jones Family in Borrowing Trouble/1937). Director: Frank R. Strayer.

As Bonnie Jones (Shirley Deane) nervously prepares for her wedding to florist Herbert (Russell Gleason), her father, now Mayor Jones (Jed Prouty), becomes a "Big Brother" to a troubled boy from the wrong side of the tracks named Tommy (Marvin Stephens). Mayor Jones is none too thrilled to have the boy among his household, but his wife (Spring Byington) and mother (Florence Roberts) importune him to give Tommy a chance. Part of Tommy's problem is that his older brother, Lester (George Walcott), who works in a pool room, has fallen in with a bad crowd. And then the safe in Mayor Jone's drug store is robbed ... Borrowing Trouble, in which Papa Jones learns not to judge people by their appearance (although his wife's "no bad boys" attitude is quite unrealistic), the seventh entry in the Jones Family series, is, as usual, well-acted with its sentimental aspects never becoming too cloying. Bonnie and Herbert finally get married even if the ceremony is interrupted in riotous fashion. The Jones get a new addition in this installment -- a dog. Oldest son Jack (Kenneth Howell) has little to do in Borrowing Trouble, as he only shows up for the wedding at the end. Roger (George Ernest) gets the lion's share of the footage and gives a very ingratiating performance; Stephens is also notable. His character of Tommy McGuire was carried over to future Jones films, such as The Jones Family in Hollywood, becoming Lucy Jones' (June Carlson) boyfriend. The ever-mediocre Cy Kendall, who plays Chief Kelly in this and other Jones' films, was in a number of serials [Jungle Queen] and "B" movies [The Shadow Strikes].

Verdict: Another amiable evening with the Joneses. **1/2.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR

A few members of the mighty Justice League












JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR (direct-to-video animated feature/2014). Director: Jay Oliva.

In 2012 DC Comics decided to reboot its entire line of comic books, including Superman, Batman, and Justice League of America, basically starting at the beginning and picking and choosing what would stay in continuity and what wouldn't. This animated feature film is based on the first few issues of the new Justice League comic book, and details the birth of the hero Cyborg (Shemar Moore), the first face-to-face meeting of Batman and Superman (not to mention Green Lantern), and the introduction of the new butch warrior Wonder Woman, who is somewhat scary. There's also Captain Marvel, who joins the others to take on the threat of Jack Kirby's creations Darkseid, his lieutenant DeSaad, and a whole slew of monstrous "parademons." The animation is fluid, the direction good, but the parademons don't make the most interesting antagonists, and there seems to be more of them than of Darkseid, although the villain does get his licks in during a big-time battle at the end. Superman and the Justice League's fight with Darkseid in the Superman cartoon program was more entertaining. You can read about the origins of many of these heroes in The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: Colorful and fast-paced, if strictly for Justice League fanatics. **1/2.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

THE THREE FACES OF EVE

Joanne Woodward and Ken Scott
THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957). Director: Nunnally Johnson.

Timid Eve White (Joanne Woodward of A Kiss Before Dying) acts strangely at times, so her husband, Ralph (David Wayne), takes her to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Luthor (Lee J. Cobb of Boomerang). During their interview, a different, sexier personality named Eve Black emerges. While Luthor and a colleague at first suspect that Mrs. White is faking, they come to the conclusion that she has multiple personality disorder. Her husband can't quite buy this, and her already troubled marriage begins to disintegrate. Then a third personality, "Jane," makes its presence known ... The Three Faces of Eve is based on a non-fiction book by a psychiatrist, so it's introduced and narrated by Alistair Cooke (who is himself "introduced" in this picture) to let the audience know this is real and serious. Whatever the reality of Eve and multiple personalities, this is an absorbing picture thanks primarily to the performance of Woodward, who won the best actress Oscar. [The part was originally to go to Judy Garland, who would have been interesting.] Woodward is subtle in her effects, never once over-acting, and is moving at times as well. Cobb is also excellent, but David Wayne is ludicrously miscast as the ignorant, stumbling husband, and his attempts to portray him are "Hollywood" acting at its worst. Ken Scott [Desire in the Dust] makes more of an impression as a man who falls in love with "Jane." Nancy Kulp [Strange Bedfellows] is cast as Eve's mother in a brief flashback. One suspects that the reasons for Eve's trauma and her developing this disorder have been cleaned up for the screen. The best sequence has Eve White talking to the doctor and realizing that she -- that is, her personality -- doesn't have much longer to live, and doesn't care. Which begs the question: when a personality disappears does it also, in essence, die? This is much better than the knock-off Lizzie which came out later the same year. Unlike that movie Eve doesn't equate sexuality with evil.

Verdict: Intelligent look at a weird and troubling problem. ***. 


SOME GIRLS DO

James Villiers co-stars along with Daliah Lavi's cleavage
SOME GIRLS DO (1969). Director: Ralph Thomas.

In this sequel to Deadlier Than the Male, insurance man Hugh Drummond (Richard Johnson) is up against more female assassins, this time a bevy of sociopathic beauties whose brains have been programmed to murder. Drummond dallies with a nasty baroness named Helga (Daliah Lavi of The Whip and The Body) and matches wits with a foppish villain named Petersen (James Villiers of The Nanny) who employs a destructive infra-sound device, and whose main goal seems to be to destroy the prototype of a supersonic airliner. Robert Morley is some kind of cooking instructor known as "Miss Mary," Sydne Rome is an annoying would-be agent who follows Drummond around, and Ronnie Stevens is a nerdy agent named Peregrine Carruthers. There's one fairly good scene when Drummond's parachute fails to open, but Some Girls Do is vastly inferior to the first film, hastily slapped together, with a bad script and production values that are far below the James Bond level. Lavi's smoky, sexy voice has been dubbed for inexplicable reasons. When it develops that many of the female killers have been outfitted with robot brains and surely must have been kidnapped and worse, no one registers any dismay, but then that's how mindless this movie is. Camp is one thing, but Some Girls Do is so stupid and ultimately dull that it's pretty much an effort to sit through.

Verdict: Watch a real Bond movie instead. *1/2.

A TOUCH OF LARCENY

James Mason and George Sanders
A TOUCH OF LARCENY (1959). Director: Guy Hamilton.

Sure, it isn't fair to review a film for what you were hoping for instead of what it is, but let's face it: When James Mason and George Sanders, both fine actors and masters of sardonic repartee, are cast in the same movie as gentlemen interested in the same lady, you expect a battle of wits, something sophisticated and amusing. Instead, we get this ... Commander Max Easton (Mason) runs into an old acquaintance, Charles Holland (Sanders), and is immediately smitten with his fiancee, Virginia (Vera Miles). Easton pursues the lady while Holland is out of town, but decides that she must have a man with money. So he concocts a scheme to make it look like he's been accused of treason, disappearing for awhile, and then coming back to sue the papers for libel, thereby gaining lots of cash. What an idiot -- right? Perhaps with a certain kind of bumbling comedian in the role, or an actor with a very light touch like Cary Grant, the character might have been more palatable, but while Mason is certainly not bad, he is horrendously miscast. Sanders' role practically amounts to a bit, as he's only in a couple of scenes, and while his attitude toward Easton is appropriate, he's merely dismissed as being priggish. The film is morally confused, to say the least. Vera Miles [The Wrong Man] is fine, and looks beautiful, but this is a case of three actors who are all way above their fairly wretched material.

Verdict: Even with this cast you should skip it if you can. *1/2.

HALF ANGEL

Joseph Cotten and Loretta Young
HALF ANGEL (1951). Director: Richard Sale.

"What the night shift has done to what was once irresistible beauty!"  -- Nurse Kay

Now here's a weird one. Nurse Nora Gilpin (Loretta Young) is engaged to her boyfriend Tim (John Ridgely), but at night she enters a trance state and pays lascivious calls on a man she normally hates, a lawyer named John Raymond (Joseph Cotten). John is convinced he knows Nora from somewhere, but when he tries to speak to her during the daytime, she becomes apoplectic, leading to a trial and various complications. Half Angel seems to be using an old screwball script from the 1930's but it just doesn't work twenty years later, even though both Young and Cotten give good performances. Cecil Kellaway is Nora's father, and Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies adds a slight bit of fun as Nurse Kay. Jim Backus also has a supporting role. As usual in movies of this nature, Ridgely's character is treated very badly.

Verdict: Sleepwalking and multiple personalities given the allegedly comedic approach. **1/2.

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE

The cop fights a giant killer klown!
KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988). Director: Stephen Chiodo.

A small town becomes subjected to an invasion by unusual aliens: they look like clowns, set up an HQ in a circus tent, and use special guns to wrap up people in "cotton candy" that liquefies their bodies for a food supply. Say what you will about Killer Klowns, it has an inventive premise and some clever sequences. The plot is driven by a trio of young residents: Mike (Grant Cramer), his girlfriend Deb (Suzanne Snyder), and her ex, a handsome police officer named  Dave (John Allen Nelson), who at first thinks the other two are pulling his leg until he sees Deb trapped in a balloon by one of the clowns. The killer klowns also use balloons twisted together for  bloodhounds, have popcorn that masses together to form other, vicious klowns, and can create shadow puppets that can actually engulf and swallow people. In one scene a klown uses the dead body of nasty Sheriff Mooney (John Vernon) as a dummy, and when two of Mike's horny friends are cornered by female klowns with big lips and big busts, they show up covered with exaggerated lip prints. Then there's the giant King Kong-sized klown that tries to crush Dave. Killer Klowns is amiably silly, features some excellent make ups and costumes, has a snappy title tune, and some better production values than you might imagine, none of which quite disguise its low-budget, kind of schlocky, veneer. Still, the movie has too many interesting moments to dismiss it. Vernon [Curtains] gives an especially good performance, and the other actors are fine. The movie may have been inspired by the evil alien clowns who bedeviled the Metal Men in the silver age comic of the same name.

Verdict: Watch out for those clowns! **1/2.





HONEYMOON WITH A STRANGER

Eric Braeden and Rossano Brazzi
HONEYMOON WITH A STRANGER (1969 telefilm). Director: John Peyser.

Sandra (Janet Leigh of Night of the Lepus) has just traveled to Spain with her new husband, Ernesto (Joseph Lenzi), where they move into a huge castle that he owns. Unfortunately, the next morning Sandra discovers that her husband has disappeared. Worse, when he finally shows up again, it's a completely different man (Cesare Danova), who insists he was the man that Sandra married, confounding both her and a sympathetic police captain (Rossano Brazzi of Summertime). Ah, but Ernesto has a lawyer, Frederico (Eric Braeden of The Young and the Restless) and a sister, Carla (Barbara Steele of Black Sunday), and when they arrive they'll settle the matter once and for all -- or will they only make matters more confusing? Honeymoon with a Stranger is an intriguing suspense film with a couple of good twists and good acting from all, with Leigh, Braeden, and especially a striking Steele especially notable. As she adds class to this production as she did to many others, one can only muse on the criminal under-utilization of Steele in cinema. The direction of this just covers the action, but the script and performers keep you entertained.

Verdict: A not bad Honeymoon. ***.

FRACTURE

Conference: Billy Burke and Ryan Gosling
FRACTURE (2007). Director: Gregory Hoblit.

At the opening of Fracture Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins of Thor) fires a bullet into the brain of his philandering wife. As she lies in the hospital in a coma, prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) is perhaps more preoccupied with leaving the D.A's office for his cushy new job than he is with his last assignment. Crawford decides to represent himself, and things get especially complicated when it is revealed in the courtroom that the arresting officer, Lt. Nunally (Billy Burke), was the man having an affair with Crawford's wife [the audience also knows this from the first]. Beachum realizes that he has to up his game and pay more attention if he's going to put Crawford away for attempted murder. Fracture is one of those tricky suspense films that has some vaguely clever things going on but doesn't really add much to the genre. Hopkins is excellent, but the odd Gosling is exactly the same in the second half as he is in the first, and seems like an actor who should stick to after-school specials. Burke is okay, and Rosamund Pike [Jack Reacher] makes a good impression as Nikki, a pretty lady who works for the firm that Willy hopes to work for. The characters in this are all one-dimensional.

Verdict: Minor-league "thriller" with few thrills. **.