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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

NIAGARA

NIAGARA (1953). Director: Henry Hathaway.

"For a dress like [Monroe's], you better start making plans at about 13." -- Polly.

A young couple on their honeymoon, Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray (Max Showalter aka Casey Adams), become entwined with another couple staying at the same cabins near the falls. George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) is unaware that his wife, Rose (Marilyn Monroe), has taken a darkly handsome lover, Ted (Richard Allen), and that Rose wants this younger man to murder George. However, the best laid plans ... The actions of some of the characters in this are pretty dumb, but the movie is not boring. Monroe [Love Happy] looks sensational, although she's given better performances elsewhere. Cotten [September Affair] and Peters are fine, but Showalter's golly-gee-whiz attitude quickly grows tiresome, and he's not very good. The picture has an exciting, if somewhat abrupt, climax on the falls. Don Wilson and Lurene Tuttle are fine as Ray's associate and his wife. Very good use of Niagara locations. Peters and Showalter were both in Vicki.

Verdict: Monroe sizzles sexily while those waters keep rushing! ***.

HELL'S ISLAND

HELL'S ISLAND (1955). Director: Phil Karlson.

Mike Cormack (John Payne) is a former D.A. now working as a security guard. He is hired by a man named Barzland (Francis L. Sullivan) to get back a ruby that he believes to be in the possession of Cormack's ex-wife, Janet (Mary Murphy). Janet divorced Mike so she could marry a wealthy man named Eduardo (Paul Picerni), who is now in jail for the murder of his partner. In Puerto Rosario Cormack tracks down the beautiful Janet and finds himself inveigled into helping her get her supposedly innocent husband out of a penal colony on an island. But there are other factions who still want that ruby ... Hell's Island is a brisk and absorbing crime thriller that features good performances from the cast as well as some interesting twists. Payne makes a good hero, Murphy [The Mad Magician] is delightfully duplicitous, Arnold Moss scores as her friend, Paul, who is also in love with her, and there are nice turns by Eduardo Noriega as Captain Pena and Picerni as the hapless husband. It's obvious that the hefty Sullivan [Plunder of the Sun] and skinny Walter Reed (as Lawrence) are supposed to be a variation on Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, a nice in-joke. Pepe Hern also makes an impression as the bellboy, Lalo, as does Robert Cabal as the ill-fated houseboy, Miguel. Walter Reed played Lupe Velez' husband in two "Mexican Spitfire" movies [replacing Donald Woods] and was also in Flying Disc Man from Mars.

Verdict: Zesty "B" movie with good performances -- and gators! *** out of 4.

DEAR WIFE

DEAR WIFE (1949). Director: Richard Haydn.

In this sequel to Dear Ruth, Bill Seacroft (William Holden) is happily married to Ruth (Joan Caulfield) and living with his in-laws in their big house in New York. Bill's young, naive, but politically active sister-in-law, Miriam (Mona Freeman), doesn't like the current administration in her town and rallies against it before she discovers that her father, Judge Wilkins (Edward Arnold), is going to run for state Senate. Worse, Miriam has started a petition nominating Bill for the same seat! At first Bill, a bank clerk, has no interest in running, but when he learns that a new airport will leave many people homeless, he decides to challenge the judge, a situation which becomes increasingly awkward and threatens his marriage. Dear Wife is predicated on an amusing and interesting situation and builds upon it with its funny script and some fine acting. Holden [Executive Suite] makes the perfect leading man in this, Caulfield [The Unsuspected] is fine, and Arnold and Mary Philips as her parents are wonderful. Mona Freeman plays her part with perhaps too much self-conscious cuteness, but Billy De Wolfe positively walks off with the movie with his irresistible portrayal of Bill's boss and love rival, Albert. There are also memorable bits from Irving Bacon, Harry von Zell, amiable and adept William Murphy, Arleen Whelan, Raymond Roe, and Ida Moore [The Egg and I] as a drunken old lady in court. The best cameo is a sleepy neighbor played by Richard Haydn, who also directed the film.

Verdict: Cute and funny picture with some great performances. ***.

THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN

THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN. J. R. Jones. Wesleyan University Press; 2015.

Robert Ryan was never quite in the front rank of iconic movie stars such as Newman or Redford, but he was definitely a movie star and left a long body of work behind him. This excellent biography takes a discerning eye to the actor and his films, and uncovers some difficulties in his long-time, mostly happy marriage. Although some critics unfairly saw him as "wooden," he could be extremely effective in such films as Clash By NightBorn to Be Bad with Joan Fontaine, About Mrs. Leslie with Shirley Booth, and especially On Dangerous Ground with Ida Lupino, although he could be defeated by bad material such as Back from Eternity with Anita Ekberg. As he got older, Ryan offered fine character parts in such films as The Outfit and Executive Action, and was often the only good thing about the movie. Despite his gruff appearance and the conservative roles he often played, Ryan was a liberal, taking a stance against the blacklist when it wasn't quite safe to do so, and espousing liberal causes throughout his life. Always wanting to be seen as a serious actor and not just a movie star, Ryan even appeared in Shakespeare and many good theater pieces. Ryan had occasional affairs, most famously with Merle Oberon.

Verdict: Highly interesting and readable book on a very interesting actor. ***1/2.

WALL STREET COWBOY

WALL STREET COWBOY (1939). Director: Joseph Kane.

Roy Rogers, playing himself in this "modern" western, never actually gets to Wall Street, so banish those images of the cowboy walking into the boardroom and busting ass. Instead Roy learns that there's gold on his property, and there are nefarious forces who want to acquire the land and cheat him out of it. Gabby Hayes -- as "Gabby," naturally -- is along for the ride as Rogers' pal, and we've got the perennial Pierre Watkin as the no-nonsense, blustering John Hammond, who always seems ready to be furious with Roy and his pals until his daughter, Peggy (Ann Baldwin), intercedes. Craig Reynolds [The Perils of Pauline] plays a lawyer-type helping the bad guys who gets socked by Roy, Adrian Morris [Fighting Marines] is another creep, and Louisiana Lou, a singer in a bar, is played by, well, Louisiana Lou. Roy [Son of Paleface] substitutes for a downed jockey at one point and rides in a steeple race.

Verdict: About standard Roy Rogers movie. **.


THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD

Laurie Lapinski in a deserted dorm
THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (aka Pranks and Death Dorm/1982). Directors: Stephen Carpenter; Jeffrey Obrow.

While Joanne (Laurie Lipinski) and her friends Patti (Pamela Holland), Craig (Stephen Sachs), and Brian (David Snow) prepare to completely clean up the dorm at the start of Christmas vacation, some unknown person is stalking them. Early victims are Debbie (Daphne Zuniga) and her parents, whose bodies are hidden by the maniac. Could the killer be that crazy drifter John (Woody Roll), the handyman Bill (Jake Jones), the repairman Bobby (Dennis Ely), Officer Lewis (Jimmy Betz), or somebody else? Likable characters die especially horrible deaths in this, with one guy getting a drill through the head, and another being boiled in a kind of cooker! The acting isn't bad, with Lipinski and Sachs taking top honors. Zuniga [The Fly 2] later appeared on Melrose Place. The music by Christopher Young is ersatz Herrmann at times but overall rather effective. The main problem with the movie is that the ending is dragged out for far too long; some of it should have been left on the cutting room floor. Lapinski is quite good as the heroine but she never appeared in another movie.

Verdict: Reasonably creepy slasher film has its moments. ***.

TRUE STORY

Jonah Hill and James Franco
TRUE STORY (2015). Director: Rupert Goold.

Disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is fired after making up details in a story, but he gets a second chance when he learns that accused family-killer Christian Longo (James Franco) has been assuming his identity. Could there be a book in this? Of course there is, so Finkel not only gets a $250,000 book contract, but sells the rights to Hollywood -- hence this film. Who says life isn't fair? Finkel meets repeatedly with Longo in prison before, during, and after his trial, where the film suggests his conscience may be bothering him by withholding evidence (letters written by Longo, for instance) -- although one doubts it. True Story is well-acted by Hill, although Franco oozes charm and little else. Felicity Jones has a great scene as Finkel's wife Jill, telling off the repellent Longo in no uncertain terms, and Gretchen Mol scores in her brief scene as Finkel's co-worker, Karen. Ultimately, however, this doesn't amount to much. The film tries too hard to justify Finkel's actions and never delves deep enough into much of anything. The victims, as usual, are given short shrift.

Verdict: Holds the attention, but rather pointless. **1/2.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967). Director: Mark Robson.

Three young women either in, or on the fringes of, show business endure heartbreak of varying kinds and turn to pills for comfort. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) has a complicated relationship with her boss, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke). Neely O'Hara (Patty Duke) gains success but turns into a drug-addicted monster. Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) falls in love with a singer, Tony (Tony Scotti), who must be institutionalized due to a rare illness; then she develops breast cancer. I remember that Jacqueline Susann's novel was a very entertaining potboiler, but the film version is not so successful. There is certainly enough drama and tragedy in the story to make an effective movie, but the direction and editing, and some of the third-rate acting, really sink the production. The sense of time passing is never clearly delineated, and it seems apparent that a lot has been left on the cutting room floor. Barbara Parkins' [Asylum] blandness seems to work for the role of the "good girl;" ill-fated Sharon Tate is not much of an actress; and as for Patty Duke ...? Let's say that the character Duke is playing is horrible, and that she is miscast to begin with, but even with that in mind Duke's performance is pretty much an embarrassment. Duke self-consciously "acts" all through the movie, and acts badly for the most part; she simply can't do a convincing drunk and when she sings with a dubbed voice she looks spastic. Paul Burke [The Disembodied] is not bad but Martin Milner sinks to Duke's level as O'Hara's husband. Charles Drake doesn't appear long enough to make much of an impression, but he's fine. The cast members who come off best are Susan Hayward as a Broadway star; Lee Grant as the afflicted Tony's sister; and Robert H. Harris as Burke's business partner. Tony Scotti is barely acceptable as Jennifer's husband -- this was his only film appearance -- and Richard Dreyfuss of Jaws appears briefly as a stagehand. A scene when Neely O'Hara, who is drying out in the same sanitarium where Tony must live, encounters him in the lounge and they sing together, comes off more treacly than moving. The scene most people remember is a bitchy encounter between Duke and Hayward in the ladies room. The screenplay betrays decidedly sixties attitudes towards homosexuality, and the whole business of referring to pills as "dolls" is ridiculous. The theme song by Andre and Dory Previn isn't memorable, and there are other really lousy numbers as well. This was remade as a mini-series in 1981 -- I recall it being better than this film -- and to my surprise it was also a TV series with 65 episodes in 1994. Robson also directed the film version of Peyton Place, which is superior to this.

Verdict: Not very many redeeming qualities. **.

CAPTAIN AMERICA (1944)

The Scarab (Lionel Atwill) vs Captain America (Dick Purcell)
 CAPTAIN AMERICA (15 chapter Republic serial/1944). Directors: Elmer Clifton; John English.

"A shocking exhibition of barbarism!" -- Cyrus Maldor.

District Attorney Grant Gardner (Dick Purcell) is secretly -- actually, not so secretly -- the famous costumed hero Captain America. His adversary, as we know from the first, is the Scarab, who is -- very secretly, except to the audience -- Cyrus Maldor (Lionel Atwill). Maldor first kills off members of an expedition who know too much via a poison known as the Purple Death. He has his men steal a destructive device that brings down a building; uses a scientist's secret of perpetual life to bring one of his henchmen back from the dead; and employs a "Singari blow-gun" to kill off another of his enemies. Later he tries to get a portion of a map that will lead him to a secret city and its treasures. Highlights of this exciting serial include the aforementioned building collapse in chapter one; a bit with a guillotine in chapter five; and a sequence when our hero is nearly crushed by a mine car hurtling down a shaft in chapter six, Another interesting scene has the Scarab brutally whipping John Hamilton, the "chief" from Adventures of Superman. Purcell [Brides are Like That] is quite suitable as Captain America/Grant Gardner; pretty Lorna Gray makes less impression in this than she did in The Perils of Nyoka; and Atwill [The Devil is a Woman], in his classy, elegant and utterly evil performance as Maldor, positively walks off with the picture; his underplaying makes him that much more effective. Jay Novello also registers in his brief turn as a thug. The fight scenes in this are furious and frenetic and very well-done. In the comic books Captain America was a soldier named Steve Rogers, not a D.A. I find this serial a lot more entertaining than the recent movies about this character such as Captain America The First Avenger.

Verdict: Delightful Republic cliffhanger. ***1/2.

WOMAN OF STRAW

Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida
WOMAN OF STRAW (1964). Director: Basil Dearden.

"You can  be such a nice man, Mr. Richmond, why do you choose to act like a pig?"

Tony Richmond (Sean Connery) is the nephew of the fabulously wealthy Charles Richmond (Ralph Richardson), who adores Beethoven and has estates in Majorca and England. Tony brings in a nurse, Maria (Gina Lollobrigida), to care for Charles, but she finds him difficult, obnoxious, and cruel, especially to the two young black men he abuses and calls "boys." Nevertheless, Tony importunes Maria to stay on as nurse, hoping his uncle will become so smitten he'll marry her and she'll gain a fortune -- which, of course, she'll share with Tony. But will Tony's plan unfold as easily as he expects? Woman of Straw is a very entertaining suspense film with interesting twists and turns and a great ending. The characters, especially Maria and Charles, are more dimensional than in similar films, and the acting is fine, with an on-the-money Connery, and even better performances from Lollobrigida [Strange Bedfellows] and the outstanding Richardson [The Heiress]. Alexander Knox is also good as a police official, and Laurence Hardy and Johnny Sekka [Young and Willing] are effective as the black servants. Andre Morrell plays a judge as he did in The Great Train Robbery, also starring Connery.

Verdict: Smooth, intriguing, and well-played. ***.

INVASION U.S.A.

INVASION U.S.A. (1952). Director: Alfred E. Green.

A group of people in a bar, including Vince Potter (Gerald Mohr of Redhead from Manhattan), Carla Sanford (Peggie Castle), and George Sylvester (Robert Bice of The Big Bluff), are horrified to learn on television that a foreign power has invaded the United States. There's talk of an A bomb hurtling towards Manhattan! Via hypnotism, a mysterious man named "Mr. Ohman" (Daniel O'Herlihy)-- get it? -- offers the patrons a cautionary tale of what might happen if the U.S. should succumb ... Red-Baiter Hedda Hopper loved this film (see poster) because it was anti-communist, but that's about all anybody could love about this very minor and routine picture. O'Herlihy offers the best performance, although Castle isn't bad, and Mohr is his usual lounge-lizard self. Interesting cast members in small roles include both "Lois Lanes" -- Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill -- and Edward G. Robinson, Jr. Green also directed Housewife with Bette Davis, among others.

Verdict: Worth sleeping through. *1/2.

SEAN CONNERY Christopher Bray

SEAN CONNERY A Biography. Christopher Bray. Pegasus; 2011.

Less a biography than a career study -- Bray had virtually no access to either Connery or any close associates -- this book looks at how Connery became a star as 007, came to hate his close association with the role, then reinvented himself as a leading man and character actor as he got older. Connery played Lana Turner's love interest in Another Time, Another Place, the male lead in Hichcock's excellent Marnie, and did a few more Bond movies such as Never Say, Never Again before taking off his wig and playing several characters who were actually older than he was in real life. Bray is critical of Connery's acting in the early years, and doesn't seem to think much of James Bond movies, and there are times when he seems to be playing curmudgeon more than he is honest film critic, but the book is very readable. The book could be dismissed as one man's ruminations on his "man crush," but Bray does provide interesting and often cogent analysis of Connery's movies and performances in everything from Goldfinger to Outland to the awful Zardoz. Bray looks at Connery's unsuccessful first marriage to actress Diane Cilento, but there's almost nothing abut his relationship with his younger brother, Neil, who tried to make it in spy movies like Operation Kid Brother.

Verdict: Not the last word, perhaps, but an entertaining look at a highly intriguing actor and sex symbol. ***.

GIRLS NITE OUT

Hal Holbrook slumming
GIRLS NITE OUT (1982). Director: Robert Deubel.

At Dewitt University the sorority is holding a costume dance one night, and has a scavenger hunt the next. Naturally there are going to be murders, and there are the usual hints that someone may have escaped from an asylum. Security chief Jim MacVey (Hal Holbrook of That Certain Summer) lost his daughter to a killer years ago, and is afraid this guy may be on the loose again. There is one male victim, and then women are systematically slaughtered. The killer takes the bear suit from the male victim, dresses up in it, and stalks the others during the scavenger hunt. The acting in this isn't bad -- James Carroll makes an impression as the nominal hero -- with top honors going to Hal Holbook and Rutyana Alda as the waitress, Barney. Girls Nite Out is a standard stalk-and-slash film whose chief distinction is that the identity of the maniac comes as a major surprise. Ms. Alda is no relation to Alan Alda and has had a very busy career. David Holbrook, who plays Mike Pryor, a guy who gets jilted, is the son of Hal Holbrook and isn't bad; he was "introduced" in this film. The various gals in the movie are pretty and competent, with Suzanne Barnes effective as the gold digger Dawn.

Verdict: There have been worse -- and the climax is good. **1/2.

THE LOFT

The male leads -- or pigs -- of The Loft
THE LOFT (2014). Director: Erik Van Looy.

Vincent (Karl Urban of Star Trek Into Darkness) gives keys to a luxury condo to his married male friends so they can all have a place where they can screw around without their wives knowing. Unfortunately, one day a woman's dead body is discovered in the bed. It isn't long before the five men realize that one of them must be the killer. But is it Vince, Chris (James Marsden), Luke (Wentworth Miller), chubby Marty (Eric Stonestreet), or Chris' messed-up brother, Philip (Matthias Schoenaerts)? You probably won't care because the unsympathetic male characters are pigs. Understandably the female characters have little to do in the movie (except play dead) but Rhona Mitra and Kali Rocha, among others, still manage to make a minor impression. Of the guys, Miller and Marsden [X-Men] come off the best. The Loft holds the attention and has some suspense, but the script is tricky and ultimately not that compelling, although it does have some interesting moments. NOTE: This is a remake of a Belgian version that was also directed by Van Looy and starred Schoenaerts (who does a convincing American accent in this) six years earlier.

Verdict: Pigs be damned! **1/2.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY

Sean Connery looking diabolical
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (aka The First Great Train Robbery/1978). Director: Michael Crichton.

In days gone by a man named Pierce (Sean Connery) puts together a crew that plans to steal gold off of a moving train. First he has to manage to make copies of four golden keys that will provide access to the booty, no mean feat. There are many assorted complications embroiling the likes of associates Agar (Donald Sutherland of The Day of the Locust) and Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down of The Pink Panther Strikes Again), as well as others. But even if Pierce succeeds in robbing the train, will he get away with it completely or did he overlook one particular detail? Novelist Michael Crichton ["Micro"] adapted and directed his own novel and doesn't do a bad job with it. The picture is intriguing and has several very suspenseful sequences, especially when Pierce has to climb over the tops of the railway cars ducking low bridges [one amazing shot has Connery nearly getting it in the head]. There's also an excellent sequence when one of the conspirators engineers an escape from Newgate prison while a hanging is occurring in the courtyard. As usual with Crichton, there are no real characters in this, just types, but the acting is more than adequate.

Verdict: Entertaining Victorian caper flick. ***.

THE LATE EDWINA BLACK

Geraldine Fitzgerald and David Farrar
THE LATE EDWINA BLACK aka The Obsessed/1952. Director: Maurice Elvey.

"There's not much of a world for penniless young girls like you. Or lonely old women like me."

Gregory Black (David Farrar) lives beyond his means in a huge home because his wife, Edwina, is wealthy. Gregory's secretary is Elizabeth Grahame (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and the two have fallen in love. When the never-seen Edwina, who is a bedridden invalid, is found dead, Inspector Martin (Roland Culver) tells them that they found arsenic in the dead woman's system. It isn't long before both Gregory and Elizabeth are freaking out, each accusing the other of murder while Edwina's spirit seems to hover over the household. The Late Edwina Black is well-acted, especially by Fitzgerald [So Evil My Love] and Jean Cadell as the housekeeper, Ellen, and the film has genuine suspense. The problem with the picture is that the two main characters are completely unsympathetic, never registering the slightest compassion or understanding for Edwina. We're led to believe that she may be a harridan, but the events that could have led to her becoming that way are glossed over. This is based on a play that was filmed or made for television more than once. Well-photographed by Stephen Dade. Elvey also directed The Tunnel. David Farrar played Sexton Blake in The Echo Murders.

Verdict: Not bad mystery film with a good plot but unlikable characters. **1/2.

FLASH GORDON

The "lobster-clawed dragon" has Flash in its clutches
FLASH GORDON (13 chapter Universal serial/1936). Director: Frederick Stephani.

In this serial based on the Alex Raymond "cartoon strip," the earth is threatened by another planet rushing toward it on a path to destruction. Flying to this planet, Mongo, with Professor Zarkov (Frank Shannon) and lovely Dale Arden (Jean Rogers of The Second Woman), Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) encounters Emperor Ming (Charles Middleton of The Town Went Wild) and his horny daughter, Aura (Priscilla Lawson). The original menace of two planets colliding is solved right off the bat, but now Flash and his friends have to deal with a variety of friendly and not-so-friendly Mongo inhabitants, as well as giant, man-eating lizards and a terrible fire dragon with lobster-like claws. Ming is also determined to make Dale his bride, while Aura is equally smitten with Flash and hates Dale, whom he prefers. Prince Thun (James Pierce) is king of the lion men while the obese King Vultan (Jack "Tiny" Lipson) rules the winged Hawkmen. (One can't imagine how Vultan would ever be able to get off the ground!) Flabby-armed and pot-bellied Prince Barin (Richard Alexander) claims to be the rightful ruler of Mongo. An "octosac" is merely an octopus that battles a shark (in footage later used in The Beast from 20,00 Fathoms and probably dozens of other films). There are some exciting scenes and death traps in the serial, such as a electric torture device in chapter six, a tank that fills with water and then an octosac; and a splendid, lengthy sword fight between Flash and Barin in chapter eight. The dragon does double-duty, first appearing in chapter two before becoming a fire-breathing variation in a later chapter. It's interesting that the flying ships of Mongo greatly resemble the design of Arkov's own spaceship, but why on earth does the scientist wear hot pants throughout the serial! The acting is more than acceptable, with Crabbe quite good in fact, and Middleton wisely underplaying instead of chewing the scenery as a lesser actor might do. There are interesting sets and some creative art direction, but some of the supporting players may have you scratching your head All told, however, Flash Gordon, despite its variable pleasures, is not that great a serial.

Verdict: A generally fast pace helps put the absurd material over and much of it is fun. **1/2.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH Michael Wood

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: The Man Who Knew Too Much. Michael Wood. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin; 2015.

This slender volume from the ICONS series is not a biography, but more of a rumination on Alfred Hitchcock and his career. There isn't much new to say about the director, but Wood says it well enough, although some of his opinions are surprising, such as that Family Plot -- admittedly a good film -- "is almost in the same league as North By Northwest." He doesn't think much of
Foreign Correspondent or Marnie -- two excellent films -- but argues for others that he admires. Wood is a good enough writer to keep the Hitchcock fan intrigued, and much of what he has to say is interesting -- albeit often over-familiar to the true Hitchcock enthusiast. He recycles reports about Tippi Hedren and Hitchcock without further research.

Verdict: Not essential reading by any means, but a pleasant enough hour or so with the Master. ***.

THE CAMPUS VAMP

Sally Eilers and Matty Kemp
THE CAMPUS VAMP (1928). Director: Harry Edwards.

"If that blonde vamp takes Matty from Sally, I'll put garlic in her listerine!" -- Dora

Co-ed Sally (Sally Eilers of Reducing) has a big crush on handsome lug Matty (Matty Kemp), but she has competition from blonde cutie, Carole (an unrecognizable Carole Lombard). Dora (Daphne Pollard), a short, plain frumpy girl who is nevertheless loaded with personality and seems to do all the cleaning in the dorm, gives Sally advice. Dora has a boyfriend named Barney (Johnny Burke). Will Sally get Matty away from Carole's clutches, or is this just a failed romance? The Campus Vamp is a short, silent comedy which seems put together chiefly to show off the comedic skills of Daphne Pollard [Our Relations], who easily walks off with the movie. By the way the mouthwash Listerine (see quote above) has been around forever, was promoted as curing colds (which it was eventually prohibited from doing) and was practically seen as a magic elixir back in the day. This was produced by Mack Sennett [Tillie's Punctured Romance].

Verdict: Kind of cute if decidedly minor. **1/2.

GUNN

GUNN (1967). Director: Blake Edwards. Screenplay by Edwards and William Peter Blatty.

"My theory is that the human race is just a temporary experiment on the earth, and the experiment is failing" -- Lt. Jacoby

The TV series Peter Gunn had been off the air for seven years -- it ran three seasons from 1958 - 1960 -- when this big-screen adaptation played in theaters. Craig Stevens [Where the Sidewalk Ends] was forty-nine when he reprised the character in spite of the fact that private eyes in the movies were quickly being replaced by super-spies like James Bond. [The poster art for the movie tried to make it seem like an 007-type adventure, which it isn't.] The supporting players on the TV show were replaced in the movie, with Laura Devon filling in for Lola Albright as singer/sometime girlfriend, Edie; Ed Asner substituting for Herschel Bernardi as Lt. Jacoby; and -- of all people -- Wagnerian opera diva Helen Traubel taking over from Hope Emerson and Minerva Urekal as Mother, who owns the nightclub where Edie sings and Peter kibitzes. Gunn, despite being in color with slightly more elaborate production values, plays like an extra-long episode of the series. When a mobster named Scarlatti is murdered, the chief suspect is another criminal character named Fusco (Albert Paulsen). A shady lady named Daisy Jane (Marion Marshall) hires Peter to prove that Fusco was the killer. Along the way there are a couple more dead bodies for Gunn to trip over. To make the whole thing more contemporary, Mother's nightspot is turned into a rock club (after it is, once again, blown up, as it was at least once in the series), and one of the characters turns out to be a transvestite/transsexual a la Mickey Spillane [see the Mike Hammer novel, Vengeance is Mine.] There are a couple of twists and a fairly vicious final fight scene. Stevens plays Gunn in the same [one] note as before, and the other actors are fine, with Jean Carson making an impression as a flippant waitress in a diner.

Verdict: Perhaps this "gunn" was fired once too often. **.

SINISTER

SINISTER (2012). Writer/director: Scott Derrickson.

"I'd rather cut my hands off than write a book for fame or money."

Ambitious true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke of Taking Lives and Daybreakers) desperately wants another bestseller, and puts his wife and two children at risk by moving them into a house where an entire family was hung in the backyard. Ellison finds a box full of old super-8 movies and discovers that each reel contains footage of another family being slaughtered (over time in different locations). A deputy (James Ransone) offers to help him in exchange for credit, and puts him in touch with Professor Jonas (Vincent D'Onofrio), who tells him that symbols found at the crime scenes point to a demon named Bughuul, an "eater of children." Then ghosts begin to appear in the house ... Sinister has an excellent premise and is undeniably creepy, although it drags the ending out too much and one wishes it had eschewed the supernatural altogether, but it is what it is. Hawke, Juliet Rylance as his wife, and Fred Dalton Thompson as the sheriff, give very good performances. Much better, and much more disquieting, than the over-rated It Follows.

Verdict: Suspenseful and eerie horror film. ***.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

THE WALLS OF JERICHO

Cornel Wilde
THE WALLS OF JERICHO (1948). Director: John M. Stahl.

"Whatever possessed him to marry such a creature?"

"You don't go living with somebody forever just because you feel sorry for them."

In 19th century Kansas, Dave Connors (Cornel Wilde) lives in the town of Jericho with his unhappy, tippling wife, Belle (Ann Dvorak). His old friend, Tucker Wedge (Kirk Douglas), who owns the town newspaper, is pressured into going into politics by his ambitious wife, Algeria (Linda Darnell), when she discovers Connors has similar ambitions and that she is attracted to him. An added complication is that childhood acquaintance, Julia (Anne Baxter), is now a grown lady lawyer who has developed a passion for Dave and vice versa. It all comes to a head when Dave and Tucker run for the same Senatorial seat, and a young lady named Marjorie (Colleen Townsend) is arrested for murder ... With this cast you might wonder why you've probably never heard of The Walls of Jericho and the answer is that the movie just isn't very good. It holds the attention, there's some decent acting and then some, but despite a couple of climaxes and anti-climaxes, it never quite comes to a full boil or distinguishes itself. Handsome Wilde [The Naked Prey] is as appealing and professional as ever; Baxter is overwrought but effective; Darnell [Day-Time Wife] makes an impression as a simmering small-town Lady MacBeth; and Kirk Douglas is most impressive of all in his fine turn as an essentially decent man overruled by his man-eating wife. Dvorak has one big scene but is otherwise criminally under-utilized in the picture. Barton MacLane, Henry Hull and Marjorie Rambeau have smaller roles and all acquit themselves nicely. Colleen Townsend [When Willie Comes Marching Home] had only a few credits but is fine.

Verdict: Small scale small-town melodrama with a highly interesting and often adept cast. **1/2.

THE PAINTED LADY

Blanche Sweet and Charles Hill Mailes
THE PAINTED LADY (1912). Director: D. W. Griffith.

In this short silent film the older of two sisters (Blanche Sweet) is plain and retiring in contrast to her younger and more vivacious sibling (Madge Kirby). Sweet summons the courage to go to a fair, and there encounters a nice-looking stranger (Joseph Graybill). Sweet is smitten, but the stranger is less interested in romance than he is in robbing her father (Charles Hill Mailes). Sweet becomes completely unhinged when she shoots the burglar and unmasks him as the man she's fallen for and hoped to have a future with. This is a decidedly downbeat melodrama which has an interesting premise but isn't long enough to develop it satisfactorily. Nevertheless, Sweet gives a good and sensitive performance and the movie is strangely compelling. One of D. W. Griffith's better silent films was Battle of the Sexes.

Verdict: Sweet memories. **1/2.

THE DARK

William Devane and Cathy Lee Crosby
THE DARK (1979). Director: John "Bud" Cardos.

Los Angeles is beset with a series of horrific murders in which random victims are beheaded. The killer is dubbed "the Mangler," and ex-con turned novelist Steve Dupree (William Devane) is the father of the first victim. A psychic named De Renzy (Jacqueline Hyde) has visions of a young actor who may be the next victim, but detectives Mooney (Richard Jaeckel of The Drowning Pool) and Bresler (Biff Elliot of I, the Jury) are dubious. An ambitious reporter named Zoe Owens (Cathy Lee Crosby) teams up with Dupree in order to expose the killer, who is not quite what everyone expects. Most of the actors in this just seem to be going through the motions, and Devane's [Family Plot] performance is especially poor and irritating. Vivian Blaine has a couple of minor scenes as a wealthy hostess, Keenan Wynn is Zoe's boss, and dj Casey Kasem plays a pathologist. [Dick Clark was co-producer.] There are some creepy scenes, but the suspense is not maintained and there's no real explanation for the Mangler's actions.

Verdict: This had possibilities that mostly go unrealized. **1/2.

THE MAN WITH MY FACE

Barry Nelson confronts Barry Nelson with John Harvey 
THE MAN WITH MY FACE (1951). Director: Edward Montagne.

Charles Graham comes home from his office in Puerto Rico one day and discovers another man with his wife who looks exactly like him. His wife, Cora (Lynn Ainley), and his brother-in-law and business partner, Buster (John Harvey) insist to the police that this lookalike is the real Charles Graham. The Man With My Face clues the viewer in as to what's really going on very quickly, minimizing the suspense, although the scheme in which Graham finds himself embroiled is diabolical and there's a very exciting climax that makes good use of very effective Puerto Rican locations. The acting is generally good, with Nelson ["Stopover in a Small Town" on The Twilight Zone] successfully limning two distinctive personalities. Carole Mathews [The Monster and the Ape] is another woman who was once involved with Charles, and Jack Warden [Being There] is her protective brother. Chinita (Marin) makes an impression as the impostor's old girlfriend, Juanita, and Jim Boles makes for a sinister dog trainer with a handsome killer rottweiler. Robert McBride's score isn't bad at all.

Verdict: Fast-paced if illogical mystery with some good acting. **1/2.

LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE, CRYING ON THE INSIDE Judy Carne

LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE, CRYING ON THE INSIDE: The Bittersweet Saga of the Sock-It-To-Me Girl. Judy Carne with Bob Merrill. Rawson Associates; 1985.

Judy Carne had appeared in sitcoms before hitting it "big" -- if that's the word -- in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In as the "Sock It To Me" girl who was always being doused with water or some other eventually humiliating stunt. Leaving the show, she did theater, hoped to star on a sitcom that didn't pan out, had two very bad marriages, two lesbian relationships that were comparatively wonderful [in fact, it's tempting to suggest that Carne's tragedy was in being bisexual instead of a committed lesbian, because her relationships with women were much better than the ones she had with men. She discarded one woman because the powers-that-be were telling her it would adversely affect her career, which in essence went nowhere anyway.]

Carne was trained to be a ballerina in childhood, but then the ballet is never mentioned again.  Her first marriage was to Burt Reynolds, who began to slap her around on a regular basis when her career was doing better than his. At one point, according to Carne, Reynolds knocked her unconscious when her head hit the mantel and he just ran out and left her there with a concussion. Yet she calls Reynolds the great love of her life -- sick! Carne's second husband was a young gigolo who stole from her, got her arrested because of his drug and other bad habits, and cracked up a car she was in due to his drunk driving, breaking her neck and putting her head in a metal contraption for months. There were problems with Carne's Las Vegas appearances, her tour (which lost money), and despite some good reviews for her show in New York, she got more publicity when a brawl broke out at the tony Persian Room. Burt Reynolds actually had her on as a guest the first time he hosted the Tonight Show  -- she even mentioned the fireplace mantel incident -- and when she desperately needed some money he gave her a grand total of five hundred dollars. Carne became addicted to heroin but was arrested more than once on drug charges after she became clean and sober; these charges were eventually dropped when "heroin" proved to be something else. One disaster and complication after another, with little real work.

Sadly, Carne's story of Show Biz Gone Sour makes for a compelling read. [The book is very well-written by Bob Merrill, whom she doesn't mention in the acknowledgments]. Bad marriages, drug addiction, financial woes, battered wife syndrome -- at times the whole thing borders on grotesque black comedy, but it keeps the pages turning. Laughing on the Outside would probably make a terrific movie if it were done with care.

A note on Laugh-In. Even when I was a kid I thought the show was stupid and unfunny and couldn't understand how it became so successful for a time. The painted, bony Carne looked ridiculous, Jo Anne Worley was gross and overbearing, I couldn't stand Alan Sues, and I didn't think much of Henry Gibson's poetry, although I must say the poem he wrote as his introduction to this book is excellent.

Verdict: Often horrifying and harrowing account of one woman's descent into drug and show business purgatory. ***1/2.

UPDATE: Ms. Carne passed away at age seventy-six the very day this review was posted.

VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE

VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE aka Daikaiju Baran Japanese version/1958. Director: Ishiro Honda.

Two scholarly students looking for a rare species of butterfly in the "Tibet of Japan," are found dead after coming upon a monstrous something. Yuriko (Ayumi Sonoda), the journalist sister of one of the scholars, goes to investigate the region with handsome Kenji (Kozo Nomura) and a buddy. The natives fear a god named Baradgi, but their problems are actually caused by a species of prehistoric creature known as varanpodi that rises out of a bucolic lake to cause death and destruction. Varan has a more interesting design than Godzilla, and is a fairly lively "suitmation" creature. The opening scenes are creepy, and the photography is moody and atmospheric. All told, this is no world-beater but it isn't totally terrible, either. Four years later footage was added with Myron Healey as an Army officer with a sub-plot involving both U.S. and Japanese forces experimenting on salt water. Oddly this version is five minutes shorter than the original. Ishiro Honda also directed Gojira (Godzilla) and Rodan, both of which were better than this.

Verdict: One of the better Japanese monster movies, which may not be saying too much. **1/2.

PARKER

Jason Statham as Parker
PARKER (2013). Director: Taylor Hackford.

Back in the sixties author Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) wrote a whole series of novels starring ruthless career criminal, Parker. The series stopped, and Parker disappeared for quite a few years, until he came back in, eh, "Comeback." Two books later there was "Flashfire," of which Parker is an adaptation. Parker is not a total sociopath -- he doesn't blow away his partners-in-crime so he can steal their share of the take -- and he doesn't kill unless he absolutely has to. Still ... The Parker novels are well-written and entertaining -- "Flashfire" is one of the best -- but there are critics who badly overrate them. One critic suggested that the Parker novels are "not just masterpieces of the genre, but masterpieces period." Well -- the books are fun but you sort of forget them the minute you're through, and it's hard to think a novel is a "masterpiece" when it has so little resonance. I think this is an example of fans over-praising something that they pretty much know is pure pop culture and a guilty pleasure.

As for Parker, Jason Statham, who has appeared in many movies that wouldn't especially interest me, makes a perfect lead but for the fact of his English accent (Parker is very, very American). There have been some changes from the novel, but for the most part it sticks to the main story. Parker feels he has been cheated out of his share of a robbery, and takes after the other men, who are now planning a big heist in tony Palm Beach. He is aided by a realtor named Leslie (Jennifer Lopez of Gigli), who lives with her mother (Patti Lupone) and hates her life. Michael Chiklis [Fantastic Four] is vivid as the head of the gang that Parker's after; Bobby Cannavale has a couple of brief scenes as a cop who likes Leslie; and Nick Nolte, playing a character who is not in the novel, sounds like Daffy Duck and looks like the wreck of the Hesperus. Emma Booth plays Claire, Nolte's daughter, who appears in the Parker novels but doesn't have much to do in this installment. The best scene details a vicious hotel room fight between Parker and a hit man.

Parker doesn't seem to have gotten much publicity. Other films made from Parker novels include The Split, The Outfit, and Point Blank. The best of these is The Split.

Verdict: Holds the attention but nothing special. The book is better. **1/2.