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

Thursday, May 28, 2015

A FEVER IN THE BLOOD

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Jack Kelly
A FEVER IN THE BLOOD (1961). Director: Vincent Sherman.

"I'm only allowed a minute so I'm going to change the habit of a lifetime and be brief."

When a woman is suffocated in her home, her estranged husband (Rhodes Reason of Voodoo Island) is arrested and put on trial. He is almost a supernumerary in a three-way battle for governor between Callahan (Jack Kelly), the D.A. prosecuting the case; Hoffman (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), the judge assigned to the trial; and Senator Alex Simon (Don Ameche), who wants to give up his seat for personal reasons. The audience knows who the real killer is from the first, but Callahan seems determined to win this case -- and his chance at a governorship -- no matter who is convicted. Then Senator Simon offers Hoffman a bribe if he'll declare a mistrial, postponing Callahan's chances for a prosecutorial and political victory. A Fever in the Blood features a few Warner Brothers contract players who are sometimes effective and sometimes not. Zimbalist isn't bad, but aside from playing Stu Bailey in 77 Sunset Strip, he's a trifle bland, as usual, and strictly a small screen personality. Jack Kelly [Drive a Crooked Road], also a TV regular, is surprisingly good as Callahan, as is Don Ameche [Guest Wife], who manages to overcome his miscasting. Angie Dickinson scores as Simon's wife, who is really in love with Hoffman (she has a very good scene with Zimbalist early in the film), and there are also notable performances from Herbert Mashall as the defendant's father, Carroll O'Connor as a publisher, Ray Danton as defense counsel, and Robert Colbert as the murdered woman's gardener and lover. If there's any problem with the movie it's that with this excellent plot the movie should have had a lot more tension and excitement, but it merely plays out in standard fashion while managing to hold the attention. Ernest Gold's Herrmann-like score is effective.

Verdict: Not bad, but perhaps its temperature should have been raised. **1/2.

POINT BLANK

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin, Carroll O'Connor
POINT BLANK (1967). Director: John Boorman.

"How'd we get into this mess?"

Walker  (Lee Marvin of The Big Heat) was betrayed by his associate, Reese (John Vernon) and his wife (Sharon Acker of The New Perry Mason) during a heist. Now Walker is on the loose and wants revenge on Reese, who is now trying to make time with his sister-in-law, Chris (Angie Dickinson). As part of his revenge Walker will take on top executives in the mafia-like group called the Organization. Point Blank is based on "The Hunter," the first of Richard Stark/Donald Westlake's Parker novels but it's much more confusing and less entertaining than the novel. In the early sections of the film the direction and editing are pretentious in that certain sixties style that was supposed to pass for being "cinematic" but only looks stupid. Parker/Walker is a stoic no-nonsense character but Lee Marvin still sort of walks through the movie, and Dickinson is badly miscast [the scene with Marvin and Dickinson in bed together has to be seen to be believed]. Vernon strikes a better note, as do Lloyd Bochner [The Night Walker] and Carroll O'Connor as other criminal bigwigs. Keenan Wynn plays an odd role and this is one of the rare times that the actor is unpersuasive. Transplanting the story from New York to L.A. doesn't help, although there are some interesting locations for the action.

Verdict: Some good scenes, but too illogical and silly at times. **1/2.

A SUMMER PLACE

Troy Donahue
 A SUMMER PLACE (1959).  Writer/producer/director: Delmer Daves.

 "You insist on de-sexing her, as if sex were  synonymous with dirt." -- Ken

Lifeguard Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan) went off to make his fortune and got married to Helen (Constance Ford) after his true love, Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), married a man of her class. Her husband Bart (Arthur Kennedy) has fallen on hard times and he and Sylvia now run an inn with their son, Johnny (Troy Donahue), on Pine Island, off the coast of Maine, where Ken and Sylvia first fell in love. Ken returns to the island with his family; feelings between him and Sylvia are rekindled even as Johnny begins an intense romance with Ken's daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee). Then Helen finds out about the affair between her husband and Sylvia ... A Summer Place is distinguished by some very good acting, a frank and positive look at sex, and Max Steiner's lushly romantic score. [This includes the main theme and the younger couple's love theme, which became a hit record; other music is recycled from Steiner's A Stolen Life.] Richard Egan [Wicked Woman] and Dorothy McGuire are excellent, and Arthur Kennedy has an outstanding scene where a drunken Bart confronts his son and Molly when they ask his permission to marry. Egan is especially good in a well-written scene when he's telling off his wife and listing her assorted prejudices. One flaw (among a few) in the film is the characterization of Helen, who is presented strictly as a one-dimension villainess. As such, Constance Ford is fine, but the script and direction (both from Delmer Daves) limit her. Sandre Dee is quite effective as young Molly, and Troy Donahue -- who obviously did his more memorable work with the coaching and encouragement of Delmer Daves -- gives one of his best performances. [Daves used Donahue in four movies, and the actor was always better than he was in such later films as My Blood Runs Cold, in which he was back to being as stiff as a board.] Beulah Bondi has a good role as Sylvia's wise old Aunt, who lives in the inn and tries to give Sylvia sage advice about the affair. A Summer Place borders on the edge of soap opera, and never becomes a great movie -- it's overlong and talky at times --  but it's full of interesting scenes, such as a certain moment between Ken and Sylvia. Sylvia tells Ken that she's sorry she's not as pretty as she used to be. You would expect Ken to immediately tell Sylvia that she's wrong, but instead there's a long pause and he says, "I love you too much to speak." The closeness between the two is so intense that there's no need to tell pretty lies or even to say anything to each other. It's hard to realize that A Summer Place was once extremely controversial, but now it serves as a time capsule detailing the difficulty of sexual and romantic relationships in a less enlightened era. This is another movie that could be filed in the category: How The Rich Suffer!

Verdict: For romantic souls and Troy Donahue fans. ***.

TWO EVIL EYES

Madeleine Potter as Annabel
TWO EVIL EYES (1990). Directors: George Romero and Dario Argento.

Dario Argento and George Romero directed the two sequences of Two Evil Eyes, a film inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe; Argento helmed "The Black Cat" and Romero did "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar." In the Argento segment Harvey Keitel [Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore] plays a crime scene photographer named Rod Usher (the first scene has him photographing a woman who's been cut in half by a pendulum, which is never explained or mentioned again) who has an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Annabel (Madeleine Potter). Usher seems to become increasingly unhinged not so much because she has a handsome young friend named Christian (Holter Graham) but because of her attachment to her beautiful black cat. This leads up to a tragedy and an ironic conclusion. Romero's segment features Adrienne Barbeau as the wife of an aged and dying man of great wealth, whose doctor (Ramy Zada) not only hypnotizes him into compliance but does his best to keep the old man alive until they can claim his considerable fortune. Both segments are suspenseful, very entertaining, well-done and well-acted by the entire cast; "Valdemar" is especially creepy. The supporting cast includes John Amos as a detective, E. G. Marshall as a lawyer, and Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter [The Seventh Victim] as neighbors of Keitel. In an in-joke Balsam approaches the staircase in Usher's house and for a second you think he's going to climb it as he did in Psycho. One could argue that the film doesn't have that much to do with Poe's stories, but the scripts do start with a basic premise [hypnotist keeps dead man alive; man walls up wife with black cat] then head in a somewhat different, if intriguing, direction. [Of course the greedy spouse and lover is not exactly new.] Argento's segment is typically gruesome, and the make up effects in Romero's segment are excellent. Pino Donaggio's score helps a lot.

Verdict: Entertaining horror flick with several nice touches and very good acting. ***.

BORROWED WIVES

Nita Martan
BORROWED WIVES (1930). Director: Frank R. Strayer.

Peter Foley (Rex Lease) has to get married by midnight or he'll forfeit a fortune. Unfortunately, the woman he loves, Alice (Vera Reynolds), is with another man, Joe (Robert Livingstone). Peter owes money to his boss, Parker (Sam Hardy), who insists that his secretary, Julia (Nita Martan), pretend to be Peter's wife. So off they all go to the creaky old home of Peter's Uncle Henry (Charles Sellon) and Aunt Mary (Dorothea Wolbert). Things are complicated when Alice and Joe show up, along with Julia's cop boyfriend, the aptly-named Bull (Paul Hurst). Borrowed Wives was probably meant to be a laugh-riot, but it isn't that funny, and it's an awkward mix of bedroom farce and "old house" movie with secret passages, people who disappear, and even a prowling bobcat  -- none of this does much good. Most of the acting is of the stilted stage variety, with people delivering their lines to the back row of the theater; Dorothea Wolbert is the worst offender.

Verdict: Forgettable creaky old movie. *1/2.

ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE

Chester Morris and Richard Lane
ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE (1942). Director: Lew Landers.

Boston Blackie (Chester Morris) is at a prison putting on a Christmas show for inmates when he encounters Eve (Adele Mara of Back from Eternity), the desperate sister of convict Joe Trilby (Larry Parks.)  Joe insists that he was framed by two men, and contrives a way to escape from prison so he can get his revenge upon them. Boston, in the meantime, tries to catch up with Joe to prevent him from committing murder, even as Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) tries to catch up with both of them. Boston holds a gun on a cop, locks him in a closet, impersonates a police officer, and so on, but somehow when everything is neatly resolved Farraday never presses charges on Boston, a man he's never trusted and always wants to arrest. Morris is fine, but the best performances come from Larry Parks [The Boogie Man Will Get You] and Paul Fix [The Bad Seed] as the cabbie, Cavarone. Cy Kendall gives one of his better performances in this.

Verdict: Ok BB entry. **1/2.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014). Director: Marc Webb.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) tries to balance his private life  -- with his out-of-his-league girlfriend Gwen (Emma Stone) -- with his activities as the high-flying, web-shooting Spider-Man, who has to take on such antagonists as Electro (Jamie Foxx), the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and a metal-suited Rhino. Garfield and DeHaan give good performances, and there's a charming, well-acted scene between Garfield and Stone, but the action scenes are not very well done, and the movie is overlong and kind of dull. Worse, sometimes it's even campy like Batman and Robin. Leisurely-paced and with an abrupt conclusion, although a sequence at a grave with the seasons changing is well-done. Overall this is very disappointing, and not nearly as entertaining as the classic comic book stories. Apparently yet another movie reboot of the character is in the works. This is the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, which was better.

In the meantime, the Spider-Man comic books have become almost unreadable, with cartoonish and unattractive artwork to boot. Like DC Comics did with Batman in the sixties (and is doing again), there are now all sorts of "Spider" characters in Marvel Comics, including a young woman named Silk who was also bitten by a radioactive spider, and the clone of dead Gwen Stacy, now known as "Spider-Gwen," believe it or not, and with her own comic. Compared to the great Spider-Man comics of the silver age and throughout the seventies, eighties and later, these books are rather awful.

Verdict: Watch Spider-Man 2 of the first movie series instead. **.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

ROLAND WINTERS AS CHARLIE CHAN

Roland Winters
ROLAND WINTERS (1904 - 1989).

Roland Winters was the third actor to play great detective Charlie Chan in the sound film series which began with Fox studios and ended with Monogram. Winters was younger than Warner Oland and Sidney Toler (both of whom had passed away) when he took on the role, and Chan seems a touch more virile. In any case, his take on the role is effective if different. Keye Luke, who reprised his role as son Lee Chan in the last two Chan Pictures, The Feathered Serpent and Sky Dragon, was actually the same age as Winters.

Winters had a very long career of film and television credits, playing everyone from Mr. Weatherbee in Life with Archie to a murder suspect in Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Winters had only three minor film credits [his first film was Citizen Kane] before snaring the role of Charlie Chan in The Chinese Ring.

Winters [born Roland Winternitz] was the son of a famous European violinist and was born in Boston, where Winternitz Sr. worked at the Conservatory.

DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS

John Gallaudet and Roland Winters
DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS (1948). Director: Derwin Abrahams.

Simon LaFontanne (Boyd Irwin of The Invisible Killer) comes to Charlie Chan (Roland Winters) for help when he fears for his life. Watch out -- whenever someone comes to Chan or any other Great Fictional Detective afraid they'll be killed, you know their hours are numbered! Sure enough, LaFontanne is killed by poison gas in his own office. Suspects include the bitter chemist Oscar Swenstrom (Harry Hayden); LaFontanne's partners in the chemical syndicate, Von Scherbe (Stanley Andrews) and Castanaro (Emmett Vogan); the officer manager, Thompson (Rory Mallinson); and the mysterious Countess Aguirre (Carol Forman) and her sinister associates, Grock (Douglas Fowler) among them. Chan is assisted in the case by Capt. Pete McNally (John Gallaudet), who is involved with the victim's niece, Rene (Virginia Dale). If there's anything wrong with the film, it's that it's essentially a remake of the first Mr. Wong [!] movie, Mr. Wong, Detective, and even has the same killer [with a minor added twist]. Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung are along for the ride, and we even have Birminghan Brown's cousin, Mobile Jones (Haywood Jones), although their antics are kept to a minimum. Roland Winters seems less Oriental than Toler and Oland, but he's quite effective as Chan. Of the rest of the cast, the best impression is made by Carol Forman of The Black Widow.

Verdict: Okay if it hadn't been recycled. **.

SHANGHAI CHEST

Parsons, Sen Yung, Moreland and Winters
SHANGHAI CHEST (1948). Director: William Beaudine.

Judge Armstrong (Pierre Watkin) is stabbed in his study by a shadowy figure. More murders follow, but what is odd is that the fingerprints of an executed man keep showing up at the crime scenes. Charlie Chan (Roland Winters) is on the case! Suspects and others include the judge's secretary, Phyllis (Deannie Best); the butler, Bates (Olaf Hytten); Armstrong's nephew, Victor (John Alvin); the lawyer Seward (Tristram Coffin); and Walter Somervale (Erville Alderson). Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), Charlie's chauffeur, and his son, Tommy (Victor Sen Yung/Young), get involved in the action [such as it is] along with Lt. Mike Ruark (Tim Ryan of Who's Guilty?). There's also a snarky funeral director played by the ever type-cast Milton Parsons. This is a mediocre mystery, but as usual the darn thing is nevertheless entertaining. Aside from the regulars, the supporting cast in this is especially obscure.

Verdict: Chan soldiering on. **1/2.

THE GOLDEN EYE

Mantan Moreland as Birmingham Brown
THE GOLDEN EYE (1948). Director: Willam Beaudine.

Someone takes a shot at Manning (Forrest Taylor of Manhunt of Mystery Island), an old friend of Charlie Chan's (Roland Winters), and realizes that his life is in deadly danger [uh oh!]. With Birmingham (Mantan Moreland) and Tommy Chan (Victor Sen Yung/Young) in tow, Chan goes out to a ranch and the adjacent Golden Eye mine near Mexico, which is inexplicably producing much more of the golden nuggets than expected. Bandaged like a mummy, Manning, who had an "accident" in the mine, is guarded over by a sinister nun (Evelyn Brent). Lt. Mike Ruark (Tim Ryan) pretends to be a dissipated playboy drunk so he can investigate things in secret. Other suspects and characters include Manning's daughter, Evelyn (Wanda McKay of The Monster Maker); her boyfriend, Talbott (Bruce Kellogg); grave Dr. Graves (Sam Flint); foreman Driscoll (Ralph Dunn of Confessions of Boston Blackie); and his wife, Margaret (Lois Austin). There's a gang with guns who are involved in gold smuggling and a brief cat fight with a "nun," Birminghman and Tommy are still amusing, but this is distinctly minor-league Chan. Tim Ryan really scores in his expert and entertaining drunk act.

Verdict: Only for devotees. **.

THE FEATHERED SERPENT

Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung and Mantan Moreland
THE FEATHERED SERPENT (1948). Director: William Beaudine.

Charlie Chan (Roland Winters) and both of his sons, Lee (Keye Luke of The Green Hornet) and Tommy (Victor Sen Yung) -- their first time together in any Chan movie -- are down in San Pablo, Mexico with chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland). Two professors who were searching for the "ancient Aztec Temple of the Sun" have disappeared, but one of them, Scott (Erville Alderson), staggers out of the desert only to be murdered. This entry starts out well, but soon deteriorates into tedium despite hidden chambers in the temple, another murder, and the like. The biggest problem with The Feathered Serpent is that the identity of the mastermind behind the plot is revealed about halfway through the movie, dissipating all possibility of suspense. [The unmasking of an additional killer at the very end is too little, too late.] Carol Forman of The Black Widow is criminally under-utilized. Nils Asther [The Man in Half Moon Street] and John Livingstone play two younger professors. Beverly Jons is the nominal heroine and makes little impression. Keye Luke as Lee Chan had not been seen in a Charlie Chan picture for eleven years.

Verdict: Not much of a mystery. *1/2.

THE SKY DRAGON

Roland Winters in the final Chan film
THE SKY DRAGON (1949). Director: Lesley Selander.

In the final Charlie Chan picture (of the series that began with Warner Oland), Chan (Roland Winters) is aboard a plane when the pilot (Milburn Stone), co-pilot (Joel Marston), stewardesses and passengers are all knocked out with drugged coffee. So is a security guard named John Anderson (Paul Maxey) while his associate, Ed Davidson (Lyle Latell), is murdered. Fortunately Lee Chan (Keye Luke) can fly the plane but then a satchel with a quarter of a million dollars in it disappears. The suspects include the aforementioned pilots; the stewardesses Jane (Noel Neill of the Superman serial) and Maria (Elena Verdugo of The Lost Tribe); burlesque queen Wanda LaFern (Iris Adrian of Lady of Burlesque); her friend Andrew Barrett (Lyle Talbot); and others. Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) dallies with Wanda's saucy maid, Lena (Louise Franklin) in a couple of cute sequences, and Eddie Parks makes an amusing Justice of the Peace, Tibbetts. Although the killer in this may be fairly obvious to many, The Sky Dragon is entertaining, has a number of clever aspects, and has a very satisfying and exciting wind-up with everyone back on a plane for the climax.

Verdict: A nice wind-up to the Charlie Chan series. ***.

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE MOVIES

CHARLIE CHAN AT THE MOVIES: History, Filmography and Criticism. Ken Hanke. McFarland; 1989.

This exhaustive, well-detailed book looks at the 44 films (1931 - 1949) that make up the Charlie Chan series, films that came from two studios (Fox and Monogram) and employed three actors -- Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters -- in the lead role. Hanke subjects the movies to scrupulous analyses that include plot summaries, critical assessment, background details, and other points of interest. There are also sections on each of the three Chans and the differences between their interpretations. Hanke also notes which of the screenwriters and directors showed the most familiarity with the character and came out with the most memorable entries. Hank agrees with many that Charlie Chan at Treasure Island was one of the best, if not the best, of the Chan pictures, and that City in Darkness was the absolute worst. I like Treasure Island but I think it gets serious competition from Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Charlie Chan at the Opera, The Scarlet Clue, and others. Unlike Hanke, I've never cared for The Black Camel, but to each his own.

Verdict: Solid study of a film series that lasted nearly twenty years. ***.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

LIVING IN A BIG WAY

LIVING IN A BIG WAY (1947). Director: Gregory La Cava.

Leo Gogarty (Gene Kelly) got married to Margo (Maria McDonald) just before he shipped out, but the two never really got to know one another. Now Leo's back with her wealthy family, but she and everyone else feel the rushed marriage was a mistake, and Leo begins to agree. Things begin to change when Margo's peppery Granny (Jean Adair) takes her shuttered old manor house and turns it into apartments for homeless veterans and their families, with both Margo and Leo pitching in. Will these two kids finally realize they really are in love with each other?

It's funny, but for some reason I can't quite explain I've never cared for Gene Kelly. He's not bad-looking, has a fair to middling voice, is an okay actor, and an excellent dancer, but there's just something about him that I've never liked -- perhaps he lacks the genial amiability of a Fred Astaire, coming off more like a prick. This, admittedly, is just a reaction to something in his screen image, as he generally plays good guys. In one scene Kelly tells war widow Peggy (Phyllis Thaxter) that she ought to forget about staying where she met her late husband and go home to her family in the small town where she was born, but Kelly's matter-of-fact delivery of the lines only makes him seem like a rather tactless and unfeeling bastard; Thaxter is excellent, however. As for the rest of the players, Adair is wonderful (even if sometimes Granny's pithy comments are semi-moronic, consisting of badly dated epithets passing for wisdom); Charles Winninger and Spring Byington both score as Margo's parents; that cute little child actor Jimmy Hunt [Pitfall] is as delightful as ever as Thaxter's son; Paul Harvey [Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid] makes a memorably funny judge in a sequence in divorce court; and acerbic Clinton Sundberg makes his mark as the dyspeptic and opinionated butler, Everett, whom anyone but Winninger would have fired. Leading lady McDonald [Guest in the House] is attractive and competent but there's nothing special about her. Living in a Big Way boasts some excellent dancing from Kelly, and some good and amusing moments, but it never develops into anything all that terrific.

As for Kelly, according to imdb.com "he was voted the 42nd greatest movie star of all time by Entertainment Weekly [not that I take EW all that seriously] and named the fifteenth greatest actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends list by the American Film Institute." The question is why? Kelly was admittedly a great dancer, but a great actor, no! He must have been quite popular in his day, but number fifteen! To each his own.

Verdict: Pleasant if forgettable. **1/2.

CLAUDELLE INGLISH

Arthur Kennedy, Diane McBain and Constance Ford
CLAUDELLE INGLISH (1961). Director: Gordon Douglas.

Claudelle (Diane McBain) lives in a rented farmhouse with her father, Clyde (Arthur Kennedy), and her unhappy mother, Jessie (Constance Ford). Jessie is horrified at the thought of her daughter marrying a poor man, Linn (Chad Everett), and living the same kind of deprived life that she has. Claudelle has nothing to worry about on that score, however, as Linn falls in love with somebody else and she is devastated. Determined not to ever marry anyone, Claudelle embarks on a campaign to date very many boys and acquire gifts from all of them in exchange for you-know-what. In this amusingly lurid soaper, Claudelle's sensuality pits fathers against sons, inflames the lust of her father's boss (Claude Akins), and even starts her mother on the pathway to back seat action! Claudelle isnt really "evil," but the production code insures a "sin and suffer approach" to the proceedings. McBain [Parrish] was very appealing in some roles, and perhaps her casting prevents her from being too slatternly, but she doesn't quite throw herself into the difficult part as other actresses might have done; she's simply a bit too lightweight [although one could argue that she underplays]. Arthur Kennedy was always a good actor but sometimes, as in this, he just seems to be going through the motions; Constance Ford is better as his rather desperate wife, and Claude Akins [Tentacles] is just terrific as horny, old Crawford. Claudelle's "suitors" include Will Hutchins, Robert Colbert, Frank Overton, Jan Stine, and an especially charming Robert Logan [77 Sunset Strip]. Claudelle Inglish is trashily entertaining, but it lacks the good dialogue and characterizations that might have lifted it above a soap opera level. Based on the novel by Erskine Caldwell, who also wrote "Tobacco Road." Gordon Douglas also directed the excellent creature feature Them.

Verdict: Lots of fun in spite of itself, but it might as well have been even trashier. ***.

SHE (1935)

Helen Gahagan as "She"
SHE (1935). Directors: Lansing C. Holden; Irving Pichel. Colorized version. Based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard.

John Vincey (Samuel S. Hinds), who is dying of radiation poisoning, tells his nephew, Leo (Randolph Scott), that he can find the secret of immortality by finding the flame in a lost civilization which was first discovered by Leo's lookalike ancestor. Leo, Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce), and Tonya (Helen Mack of Son of Kong), whom they sort of pick up along the way, travel through a frigid wasteland and after an avalanche discover the cavern that leads to this lost land. There they find a bunch of unfriendly savages, but they also find -- "She" (Helen Gahagan), the absolute ruler of this weird little empire. She has lived for centuries, and thinks Leo is his ancestor, John, whom she actually murdered many years before. Now she wants to sacrifice Tonya ... She, superior to the sixties remake, has some striking settings, good special effects (for the period), and is well-acted by the two ladies. Bruce is less effective than he was as Dr. Watson, and Scott [Go West Young Man] is embarrassingly awful as the hero. The best scene depicts a thrilling fight on a high precipice that keeps tottering during the battle. Elaborately produced for its time, She was probably an influence, unconscious or otherwise, on such cruel-queen-in-strange-settings movies as Queen of Outer Space and many others. [At least this society has the Arts, evidenced by the dancing and statuary.] This is an entertaining adventure film, but Max Steiner's excellent score probably makes it seem even better than it is. The big gate from King Kong shows up early in the film. A singer and politician, Gahagan only appeared in this one movie.

Verdict: Interesting adaptation of classic adventure story. ***.

ANDY HARDY'S PRIVATE SECRETARY

ANDY HARDY'S PRIVATE SECRETARY (1941). Director: George B. Seitz.

"I don't care to discuss anything on such a low level of conversation." -- Andy Hardy to Polly Benedict.

Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) is excited about graduating high school and has put together a ceremony based on Greek tragedy; he will play Apollo in a curly blond wig and beard. Apparently having learned nothing from his experiences with snobs in Manhattan in Andy Hardy Meets Debutante, Andy has a high-handed attitude toward two students -- Kathryn  (Kathryn Grayson) and her handsome brother Harry (Todd Karns) -- who are poor because their father (Ian Hunter) is out of work; the judge (Lewis Stone) soon sets Andy straight. [Judge Hardy also rebukes Andy when he says of Kathryn, "does she have to sing grand opera instead of music?"] Wanting to get the two young people involved in the ceremonies, Andy asks Kathryn to be his private secretary, which results in Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) becoming hysterically jealous, as usual. A worse problem arises when it is revealed that old maid Aunt Millie (Sara Haden) is an English teacher and she has had to give Andy a failing grade -- now he won't graduate! Always superb, Mickey Rooney even outdoes himself in this outing, etching a skillful and amusing portrait of a basically decent young man who can be terribly gauche and insensitive -- and dumb -- at times [wanting to cover up a sign put on the stage to advertise the business that loaned the school the sets, Andy asks a fat girl to stand in front of it]. Andy Hardy's Private Secretary is an amusing romp with lots of interesting developments, and Grayson [Rio Rita] sings an aria from Lucia Di Lammermoor as well as a jazzy-type number. Well-acted by all. Todd Karns was the son of Roscoe Karns and later co-starred with his father on a detective program; perhaps his most famous role was in It's a Wonderful Life. Tall, good-looking, and charismatic, it's surprising Karns didn't have an ever bigger career.

Verdict: Another cute Hardy picture. ***.

THE MYSTERY OF MR. WONG

A well-composed cast shot from "Mr. Wong"
THE MYSTERY OF MR. WONG (1939). Director: William Nigh.

"I confess I'm completely at a loss."

James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) is invited to the home of Brendan Edwards (Morgan Wallace), who shows him the fabulous and cursed sapphire known as the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon. Not much later, Edwards participates in a parlor sketch [during a Charades-like game called "Indications"] in which he gets shot by a jealous husband, but in a plot twist used in other films, Edwards is really killed. At first there seem to be real bullets in the gun, but this is just the first of a number of interesting twists in the movie. Suspects include his wife, Valerie (Dorothy Tree of City in Darkness); his secretary Harrison (Craig Reynolds of Romance on the Run); the musician Strogonoff (Ivan Lebedeff); and the maid, Drina (Lotus Long); among others. Wong is assisted by his old associate Professor Janney (Holmes Herbert of Daughter of the Dragon) as well as Captain Street (Grant Withers). Karloff is excellent, as usual, there's a good wind-up, and the picture is quite entertaining.

Verdict: Snappy Mr. Wong mystery. ***.

SHE (1965)

SHE (1965). Director: Robert Day.

In 1918, Leo Vincey (John Richardson), upon discovering that he looks exactly like an ancestor named Killikrates, journeys with his friend Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and pretty Ustane (Rosenda Monteros), to the lost desert city of Kuma in the "Mountains of the Moon." There they encounter the cruel, immortal Ayesha or "She" (Ursula Andress), who wishes Leo to join her in the flame that will give them both life everlasting. Holly and Ustane, however, recognize that Leo has fallen under She's spell, and is not acting the way he should. Who will win the battle for Leo's love, Ayesha or Ustane? Despite the widescreen and color, She is inferior to the 1935 original, although it, too, has some colorful and interesting settings, such as the striking entrance to the city. Andress [Dr. No] gives the weakest performance, but her looks and manner get her by. Cushing, Christopher Lee as a High Priest, and Andre Morell as the leader of a tribe of slaves, are excellent as usual. Like Andress, Richardson [Torso] certainly looks good -- he's like a cross between Troy Donahue and Guy Madison with a little Kerwin Mathews thrown in -- and his acting isn't bad, although Leo is a rather weak hero in this. Rosenda Monteros [The White Orchid] is lovely and very effective as Ustane, as is Bernard Cribbins as Job. The biggest problem with this Hammer remake is its slow pace. In the original film the lost city was in icy terrain but here it's in the desert. The best scene may be the slaves thrown into the fire pit.

Verdict: Not as much fun as The Mole People. **.

THE CAT BURGLAR

Bruno VeSota's belly and June Kenney
THE CAT BURGLAR (1961). Director: William Witney.

"One of those snoopy, well-fed dames?"

Jack (Jack Hogan) burglarizes the apartment of Nan (June Kenney) and, along with other items, steals a briefcase containing important papers. Nan is unaware that the papers contain information on a new secret fuel formula and that they were acquired by her boyfriend, Alan (John Baer of Terry and the Pirates), for a group of spies. Nan and Alan do their best to get the papers back, embroiling the pawnbroker, Pete (Gene Roth), his associate, Muskie (Bruno VeSota), and the cat burglar himself, who does his utmost to get the papers back while struggling to stay alive. The Cat Burglar is a routine, TV-like production which is distinguished solely by some flavorful supporting characters, including Mrs. Prattle (Billie Bird), owner of the Paytell motel, and her son, Willie (Tommy Ivo), not to mention Bruno VeSota [Attack of the Giant Leeches], whose amazing belly is the true star of the picture. Roth and Kenney both appeared in Burt Gordon's Earth vs. the Spider. There are some interesting shots throughout the movie, and the performances are not bad, with Hogan a stand-out.

Verdict: Minor-league crime thriller. **.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

BACK FROM ETERNITY

BACK FROM ETERNITY (1956). Director: John Farrow.

In this widescreen if black and white remake of Five Came Back (which was also directed by John Farrow), a motley group of passengers survive a crash in the South American jungle, only to realize that only a few of them can fly away and there are headhunters right around the corner. Back from Eternity could have been a terrific, gut-wrenching movie if only all of the dumb "Hollywoodisms" had been excised from the script. True, I've watched plenty of silly if entertaining dumb Hollywood movies, but what makes Eternity worse is that it had so much potential. True, the final few minutes are suspenseful, the acting isn't bad, and the conclusion has a certain power, but otherwise it's not a very good movie. Anita Ekberg [Screaming Mimi] got the lion's share of the publicity, and aside from being beautiful and busty, she's not a bad actress, either [by Hollywood standards, at least], although her American career didn't last long. (She appeared in this before her famous role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.) Robert Ryan as the possibly tippling pilot is perhaps less effective in this than in other films, but Rod Steiger offers the best performance as a condemned man being brought back for execution. Phyllis Kirk and Gene Barry are effective enough as an engaged couple who have problems, and Beulah Bondi and Cameron Prud'homme are fine as an elderly professor and his wife. Jesse White is Jesse White.

SPOILER ALERT: Now let's talk about those "Hollywoodisms:" Fred Clark is taking Steiger back for execution, but he uses no handcuffs on a supposedly dangerous felon. Kirk and Ekberg have a completely ridiculous "cat fight" over a man that serves only to show the latter in a wet, clinging outfit. Worse still is the whole business with the lovely stewardess, Maria (Adele Mara of Night Time in Nevada). First let's make it clear that Maria is a friend and co-worker of the pilot and his co-pilot (Keith Andes), and is an attractive and really nice person. Saving a little boy (Jon Prevost) from falling out of the plane when a tank smashes open the door, she herself falls to her death in a horrifying moment. There is no scene when Andes tells Ryan what happened. After the plane lands in the jungle, Ryan says to Andes "everyone all right?" to which Andes replies that the passengers were only a little bruised. There's absolutely no mention of brave Maria and her horrible death throughout the rest of the movie, and these are her co-workers!  [A somewhat similar sequence occurred in another plane crash drama The Crowded Sky.] Admittedly, the passengers are having their own problems, but even during a quiet, contemplative moment much later on, when the pious professor and his wife lead everyone in the Lord's Prayer, nobody offers up a prayer for Maria. It's unbelievable, cold-blooded and illogical scenes like this (or the lack of them) and others that make me classify Back From Eternity less as drama than as schlock. Farrow's direction, although the plane scenes are well-handled, also does little to disguise/detour around some moments of really bad acting.

Verdict: The final quarter has its moments but then there's the rest of it ... **.

FIVE CAME BACK

Patric Knowles and Joseph Calleia
FIVE CAME BACK (1939). Director: John Farrow.

A plane flying over South America crash lands in the jungle, but only five people can fly back when the plane is fixed, and there are headhunters in the area. Will it be the convict who faces execution (Joseph Calleia), or the blowsy brunette (Lucille Ball) who feels she hasn't got much of a future? Professor Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) and his peppery wife (Elisabeth Risdon)? Crimp (John Carradine), who is delivering his prisoner but uses no handcuffs or takes any precautions? Or Pete (Allen Jenkins) who is traveling with his murdered boss's little boy, Tommy? Then there's the eloping couple, Judson (Patric Knowles) and Alice (Wendy Barrie), and the two pilots, played by Chester Morris [The She-Creature] and Kent Taylor [Gangbusters]. Five Came Back certainly features an interesting situation, but it's contrived, and the acting, while professional, is generally of the second-rate Hollywood variety. However, "Lucy" isn't bad as Peggy, and Knowles makes an impression as Jud, while Barrie does her best with the part she's given. At least in this earlier version the horrible death of a steward is remarked upon at some point. Farrow directed the remake Back from Eternity some years later, but it wasn't much of an improvement. This is not one of the great movies of 1939.

Verdict: Maybe more headhunters would have livened this up. **.

DEEP RED

DEEP RED (aka Profundo Rosso/1975. Director: Dario Argento.

A psychic named Helga Ullman (Macha Meril) is attending a conference when she picks up evil thoughts from someone in the audience. "You have killed before, and you will kill again." Helga's prediction is right on the money because Helga is butchered with a meat cleaver by an unknown person that very night. British pianist/teacher Marcus (David Hemmings of Unman, Wittering and Zigo), a neighbor of Helga's, witnesses the murder but only from a distance. Marcus and a brash lady reporter named Gianna (Daria Nicolodi of Phenomena) investigate the killing, making you wonder what the heck the briefly-seen police are doing. As Marcus and Gianni pursue various leads, there are more killings of anyone who has any connection to this case, as well as a long-ago rumored death in a spooky old mansion. Marcus thinks he's uncovered the killer but may be tragically mistaken ... Deep Red, arguably Argento's best picture, is a gruesome shocker which has an emphasis on violent death but also boasts a fascinating and twisty plot line. The main strength of the film is its almost consistent eeriness, with menace threatening in everyday places like someone's supposedly safe home or study as well as more esoteric locations. The murder sequences are always tense and suspenseful and, in their own way, scary, and there's quite a bit of inventive business as well [such as a scene when one victim writes a clue in steam on the bathroom wall only to have the window open and fresh air come in, obliterating the evidence]. A highly sinister children's song that figures in the action is described by one character as "a leitmotif of the crimes." Deep Red is cinematic but occasionally clumsy and sometimes over the top, such as a death scene involving a truck and the truly grotesque finale. Once everything is figured out you might wonder if everything really adds up, but it's such a fun, if disturbing, ride that if you are an Argento fan you probably won't care. Hemmings gives a good performance as Marcus, although Nicolodi's character, while admirably feisty when it comes to misogynous attitudes, is somewhat caricatured in that brave if callous "Lois Lane" fashion. Marcus' friend, Carlo (Gabreiele Lavia), another musician, turns out to be a drunken, self-hating homosexual, and his boyfriend, Massimo Ricci, is not only a laughably outrageous caricature, but is even played by a woman (Geraldine Cooper) with a eyebrow-pencil mustache! Lavia gives a good performance, however, as does Clara Calamai as Carlo's mother, Marta. The settings in the film are of special note, and always chosen for maximum creepiness. Argento has made his share of bad movies since Deep Red, but some of his later films are also effective, such as Sleepless and Trauma.

Verdict: One of the very best Italian giallo films with many outstanding sequences. ***1/2.

ALL ASHORE

ALL ASHORE (1953). Director: Richard Quine.

This is another sailors-on-shore-looking-for-girls movie (like the Quine-directed So This is Paris), and not one of the better ones. Joe (Dick Haymes) and Skip (Ray McDonald) importune "buddy" Moby (Mickey Rooney) to stake them to an outing to Catalina. Joe and Skip behave so badly toward Moby -- at one point Joe even walks off with Moby's date -- that after awhile it becomes more depressing than funny. There are assorted misadventures, with Moby winding up in bed in the girls' apartment, and so on. The "girls" are Peggy Ryan, Barbara Bates, and Jody Lawrance [The Family Secret] and none of them make much of an impression. Haymes [Irish Eyes are Smiling] has a fine voice, McDonald is a swell dancer, the ladies are pretty, Rooney aims for pathos with a number about how he's a loser etc., but this is not very entertaining. Some of the Wells and Karger songs are okay.

Verdict: Even Mickey Rooney can't save this one. *1/2.

TALES FROM DEVELOPMENT HELL

TALES FROM DEVELOPMENT HELL: The Greatest Movies Never Made? David Hughes. Titan; 2011.

Hughes' interesting book looks at how and why some movies, which seem like good bets or even certainties, never make it out of the development stage for one reason or another. Hughes writes about this process with a sense of humor and an understanding of the frustrating process of actually making a full-fledged movie come into being despite a number of pitfalls, including changes in executives, actors bowing out, script problems, lawsuits (and that old favorite of too many cooks spoil the broth), and so on. Some of these films were actually made [after years of delays] by other people, including remakes of Planet of the Apes (terrible) and Total Recall (acceptable), but others never saw the light of day: the remake of Fantastic Voyage; The Hot Zone; The Sandman. Hughes also looks at intriguing alternate versions of existing movies-that-never-were, such as another version of Batman and others. While one could argue that the efforts to mount a remake of Total Recall  are much ado about nothing, Tales from Development Hell is of interest to readers who want to go behind the scenes and discover why some movies get made and others don't.

Verdict: Interesting book on Hollywood behind-the-scenes. ***.

BACK FROM THE DEAD

Otto Reichow and Peggie Castle
BACK FROM THE DEAD (1957). Director: Charles Marquis Warren.

Dick Anthony (Arthur Franz of Monster on the Campus) stupidly decides to bring his new wife, Mandy (Peggie Castle of I, the Jury), to the home he once shared with his first wife, although he claims he was "compelled" to do so. Maybe that's the case, because it isn't long before both Arthur and his sister-in-law Kate (Marsha Hunt) are baffled by Mandy's insistence that she is really Arthur's drowned wife, Felicia. Has Mandy's mind and body been taken over by the consciousness of the dead Felicia, or is something else going on? Almost from the very first it seems clear that this is a genuine case of demonic possession, with Arthur and Kate hoping to free Mandy, and others -- such as Felicia's batty mother, Ada (Helen Wallace) and sinister spiritualist Renault (Otto Reichow) -- trying to keep Felicia on the more or less mortal plane. All of this sounds interesting, and the acting isn't bad, but Back From the Dead is only sporadically entertaining and has very little suspense. James Bell is especially good as Felicia's horrified father. The music by Raoul Kraushaar is (deliberately one hopes) atrocious. Warren also directed Unknown Terror, which was better than this.

Verdict: This one should have stayed dead. **.

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (1999). Director: Oliver Stone.

This is the old chestnut in which an aging man, in this case a football player (Dennis Quaid), has to deal with the intrusion of a brash young newcomer (Jamie Foxx), both of whom interact with the coach, Tony (Al Pacino), who has to argue with the owner (Cameron Diaz) about whom to use for The Big Game. Any Given Sunday is well-done for what it is, all decked out in modern ambiance, but it's incredibly old-fashioned [and just plain creaky] at its heart. There is a very large cast in the movie -- everyone from James Woods to Ann-Margret [Bye Bye Birdie] -- but the movie is consistently stolen by a charismatic Pacino. Quaid [Legion], Diaz [The Box], and especially Foxx are also excellent, however. The frenetic editing of the movie keeps things moving briskly during its nearly three hour running time but it's the sort of thing you forget even as the closing credits are rolling.

Verdict: Even football fans may find this old hat if somewhat entertaining. **1/2.