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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

TARZAN AND HIS PALS

Cheetah and girlfriend -- or is it the other way around? 
TARZAN AND HIS PALS.

This week we look at some more movies featuring not just Tarzan, but other jungle adventurers such as Bomba and Jungle Jim. We've got several Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, as well as some with Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, and Mike Henry playing the role. When Johnny Weissmuller andd Johnny Sheffield, who played Boy, got too old for their roles, they each got their own series, Jungle Jim (with Weissmuller) for Columbia and Bomba, the Jungle Boy (with Sheffield) for Monogram. These comparatively cheap series ran concurrently with the Lex Barker and Jock Mahoney Tarzan's, and there were quite a few entries in each series.

Weissmuller's interpretation of the role did not especially match the character as originally described in Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes. Gradually, the character began to display the intelligence and sophistication that went along with Tarzan's undeniable savagery. After awhile, the more savage aspects of the character were pretty much dropped altogether.

As for the Tarzan series, which had a great many installments, it wasn't long before Cheetah (or Cheeta or Cheta), whose sex kept changing, became the true star of the series, especially in the later Weissmuller features.

NOTE: As I've done a double-load of posts this week, Great Old Movies may take a vacation along with me next week.

TARZAN AND HIS MATE

Cheeta gives Tarzan a kiss
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934). Director: Cedric Gibbons.

In  this first sequel to Tarzan the Ape Man, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), who is still in love with Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) returns to Africa to try to get her back, as well as to get some ivory. His slimy friend, Martin (Paul Cavanagh), is broke and after ivory as well, and has no moral values whatsoever. Harry wants Jane to importune Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) to take the men to the elephants' graveyard -- which Holt was trying to find in Tarzan the Ape Man - but Tarzan won't allow the place to be desecrated -- besides, Jane's father is also buried there. Then there is an angry tribe of nasty natives who go after the party and kill many of their number after first murdering two rival ivory hunters, whose corpses are left to rot, hanging from trees and covered with crawling insects. Tarzan and His Mate is essentially a retread of the first, more interesting picture, but it is also intense and violent, and has several good scenes: Tarzan battling a truly humongous crocodile; Jane taking a sensual nude swim with Tarzan (in his loincloth); and a climactic attack by a pride of hungry lions. The original Cheeta, who appears almost man-sized, dies in the film and is replaced by a new, smaller Cheeta, who at one point, in the movie's funniest scene, rides on the back of an ostrich! Considering some of his actions, Martin's death isn't nearly horrible enough. The performances are adequate, with Cavanagh [Son of Dr. Jekyll] having the edge. Cedric Gibbons was originally an Oscar-winning art director [Mad Love] and reportedly Jack Conway and others worked on this film uncredited. Gibbons only directed this one film.

Verdict: For heaven's sake -- stay away from the elephant's graveyard. Nothing good ever comes of it! **1/2.

TARZAN ESCAPES

Love story: Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan
TARZAN ESCAPES (1936). Director: Richard Thorpe.

Rita Parker (Benita Hume of Suzy) and her brother, Eric (William Henry of The Thin Man), come to Africa to see if they can importune their cousin, Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), to come back with them to London, citing a complicated will that needs her attention. Rita and Eric hire Captain Fry (John Buckler) to take them into the dangerous territory where Jane resides with Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), but he turns out to be an evil character who has sinister ulterior motives. Warned to watch out for the tribe of Bogonis, the group discover that an even more savage tribe is intent on killing everyone. For much of its length Tarzan Escapes is more of a cuddly domestic romance detailing Jane's idyllic life with her lover, Tarzan, but in the final quarter there is plenty of action. Reportedly Tarzan Escapes was considered too gruesome in its original form to be released and there was lots of re-shooting. When Jane and Tarzan take a swim as they did in Tarzan and His Mate, Jane now wears clothing. Although some bat monsters have been edited out of the film, there is a disturbing scene when one poor native is tied to two trees and then drawn and quartered, which is made clear if not graphically depicted (which makes one wonder what the 1936 censors thought of as "gruesome.") Late in the picture the group must escape through a cave that is filled with lakes of lava and gator-sized lizard monsters. One of the most interesting characters is Rawlins (Herbert Mundin of Charlie Chan's Secret),  whose first sight of Tarzan has him falling in a faint, although the two eventually become buddies. Rawlins later shows his bravery in trying to save the Ape Man's life, and pays a sad price for it. Of course, all of the victims, black or white, are forgotten by the end of the movie. O'Sullivan and Weissmuller make the most of their rather sensual romantic sequences, which are quite well-acted, and the other performances are all adroit. A scene with Tarzan killing a giant crocodile is lifted almost entirely from Tarzan and His Mate. In this picture, our favorite chimp -- now spelled "Cheetah" -- is female. Cheetah mischievously -- or bitchily -- places a little doe on a log and sets the animal adrift, necessitating Tarzan's rescuing the deer from said crocodile.

I wondered why I wasn't more familiar with John Buckler, who is quite good as the nasty Captain Fry, and discovered -- as is, sadly, often the case -- that Buckler died at age thirty after finishing this picture. He and his father, Hugh Buckler, also an actor, were in a car that skidded into the water in Malibu Lake, CA. Both drowned.

Verdict: Absorbing Tarzan epic. ***.

TARZAN FINDS A SON!

John Sheffield and Johnny Weissmuller
TARZAN FINDS A SON! (1939). Director: Richard Thorpe.

A young couple (Laraine Day; Morton Lowry) are killed in a plane crash in Africa but their infant son survives, and is in essence adopted by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), who simply call him "Boy" (John/Johnny Sheffield). Greedy relatives August Lancing (Ian Hunter of The Sisters) and his wife (Freida Inescort), along with their Uncle Thomas (Henry Stephenson of Red-Headed Woman), and guide Sande (Henry Wilcoxon of Cleopatra), come to the Dark Continent to see if they can find any trace of the family, with the Lancings, of course, hoping they don't, for reasons to do with inheritances. Meeting Boy, Thomas suspects the truth, and Jane and Tarzan argue about whether or not to let Boy go back to claim his heritage. But August Lancing's duplicitous and evil mind, as well as a deadly native tribe called the Zembeles, may make it all moot. Tarzan Finds a Son! is a very entertaining Tarzan adventure, with very good performances from all, including a charming Sheffield, and many exciting scenes. There are more wild life shots than usual, as well as some excellent underwater sequences, especially one in which Tarzan and Boy go swimming with a baby elephant. Tarzan has a struggle with a kind of boar-hippo creature that nearly tramples Boy at one point. The Zembeles, who figure in the climax, don't just shrink heads, but entire bodies, in a process that isn't clearly delineated but seems rather frightful. Jane refers to Tarzan as her husband for, I believe, the first time. The movie has hardly any music, which would have added to its already considerable appeal.

Verdict: One of the better Tarzan adventures. ***.

TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE

Weissmuller and O'Sullivan
TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE (1941). Director: Richard Thorpe.

Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) are leading an idyllic life above their escarpment in Africa, when along comes Professor Elliott (Reginald Owen of The Letter) and party. Elliott is a scientist looking for the Van-Usi tribe, and he is accompanied by photographer O'Doul (Barry Fitzgerald of And Then There Were None), and the guides Medford (Tom Conway) and Vandemeer (Philip Dorn of Underground). Unfortunately, the latter two prove up to no good as Boy shows them a piece of gold and tells the others that Tarzan knows where there is a rich vein of it. After some melodramatic moments, everyone comes afoul of some natives intent on murder. Tarzan's Secret Treasure is a kind of schizoid movie, beginning with the silly if charming antics of Cheeta and her "friend," Buli, the elephant, as well as the childish if cute scamperings of Boy, but it veers off into something much darker in the second half. The scene when a native is torn in half in Tarzan Escapes is repeated -- one way of getting around the censors as well as of saving money -- and when a second native is similarly killed in new footage, we aren't shown the trunks heading in separate directions, possibly another sop to the censors. There are several shots of natives being chewed on by crocodiles, and the sequence wherein Tarzan battles a giant croc underwater is repeated for a second time. There isn't much that is original in the picture, aside from a little native boy named Tumbo (Cordell Hickman) who has lost his mother and becomes friends with Boy in the film's most charming sequence. Jane was to have been killed off at the end of Tarzan Finds a Son! because she was tiring of the series -- we do see her being speared in the back at the end of that film -- but the public outcry necessitated her return. Although O'Sullivan was never a great beauty per se, she has never looked more attractive than she does in this movie. She gives a very good performance, as do the others in the cast, including little Hickman.

Verdict: Still some life left in the series. **1/2.

TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN

TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN (1946). Director: Kurt Neumann.

Sworn to bring back Tarzan's body for fiendish jungle ritual! -- ad copy.

If only Tarzan and the Leopard Woman had delivered on the promise of its advertising tagline, even if it does, in a way, sum up the plot. High Priestess Lea (Acquanetta of Jungle Woman) of the Bogandis is working in cahoots with native-born Dr. Ameer Lazar (Edgart Barrier). The doctor feigns friendliness with the townspeople of Zambeza but is really out for vengeance. Lea and Lazar lead a group of cultists who wear leopard skins and claws to make it look as if real leopards are tearing apart their victims. Lea's young brother, Kimba (Tommy Cook), hopes to prove his manhood by stealing away someone's heart, and shows up at Tarzan's enclave pretending to be homeless and hungry. Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is suspicious about Kimba and the two have a fight, with Cheeta entering the fray. Lazar has several nubile schoolgirls kidnapped to be sacrifices, and also plans on killing Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), Boy, and Jane (Brenda Joyce). The best performance is delivered by little Tommy Cook, who previously appeared as the native boy Kimbu  in the excellent serial Jungle Girl, then grew up to amass 100 credits in such films as Missile to the Moon. Although the Tarzan series had become more kid-friendly by this time, Kimba's ultimate fate is rather grim. The other performances are pretty much what you would expect; Edgar Barrier is Edgar Barrier.

Verdict: Acceptable Tarzan flick with a not-bad finale. **1/2.

TARZAN'S MAGIC FOUNTAIN

Lex Baker took over the role of Tarzan
TARZAN'S MAGIC FOUNTAIN (1949). Director: Lee Sholem.

Aviatrix Gloria James (Evelyn Ankers of The Pearl of Death) disappeared twenty years before but her plane and diary are found by Tarzan. Since James' testimony is required to free a jailed man, Tarzan goes to a hidden city -- full of what could best be described as white Aztec-Romans -- to bring Gloria back, and discovers she hasn't aged a day in all those years. Naturally there are unscrupulous people who hope to discover the Fountain of Youth, such as Trask (Albert Dekker) and Dodd (Charles Drake). In a development that borrows from Lost Horizon, Gloria ages as soon as she gets home, and returns to Africa with her husband, Douglas (Alan Napier), where the two hope that Tarzan will guide them back to the Blue Valley where she lived all of those years. But Tarzan is opposed to the plan, and some nasty residents of the hidden city -- against the orders of their leader, the High One (David Bond) -- do their best to kill him and anyone else who knows of the pathway to their valley. Tarzan's Magic Fountain was Lex Barker's first appearance as Tarzan, and he's fine, playing it in the nearly monosyllabic mode popularized by Johnny Weissmuller. Brenda Joyce, who replaced Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane in the last Weissmuller movies, returns as Barker's Jane, but this was her last appearance in the role -- and her last picture, as she promptly retired from the movie business. Johnny Sheffield as Boy had already left the series and turned into Bomba, and he was not replaced in the role. Tarzan's Magic Fountain has an interesting premise, but not a lot is done with it, and the screenplay is mediocre, as is the direction; Lee Sholem mostly directed TV episodes. The ever-versatile Henry Brandon plays one of the Blue Valley natives who wants to kill Tarzan for allegedly giving away the secret location of their city; Rick Vallin is another one of those natives. Elmo Lincoln, one of the first Tarzan's, supposedly plays a fisherman, but he is not credited. Cheetah's cutest scene of many is her encounter with bubble gum. When she regains her youth at the end of the movie, she turns into a different species of ape! Albert Dekker and Charles Drake also appeared together in The Pretender.

Verdict: Barker is fine, but it's an inauspicious debut for him. **1/2.

PYGMY ISLAND

Billy Barty and Johnny Weissmuller
PYGMY ISLAND (1950). Director: William Berke.

Army Captain Kingsley (Ann Savage of Dangerous Blondes) disappears when she leads an expedition into territory where she hopes to find a certain plant. This plant has unusual properties and will provide "strategic war materials." Major Bolton (David Bruce of Lady on a Train) arrives in Africa to search for Kingsley and confers with the famous Jungle Jim (Johnny Weismuller), who tells him that this plant grows primarily in pygmy territory. Some nasty foreigners led by Leon Marko (Steven Geray)  and his confederate Novak (Tristram Coffin) try to exploit the pygmies, who are led by Makuba (Billy Curtis). Billy Barty [The Day of the Locust] plays the likable pygmy, Kimba; in fact all of the pygmies seem to be played by Caucasian little people. Elephants go on a mini-stampede at one point, crushing a jeep and a truck, and Jungle Jim has an exciting battle with a crazed gorilla that tries to throw him off of a rope bridge into a watery chasm; the picture's best scene. Tamba the chimp gets in on the action as well. While this looks like an ultra-cheap Monogram production, the early Jungle Jim features were released by Columbia.

Verdict: Kind of dull for the most part. **.

ELEPHANT STAMPEDE

Johnny Sheffield as Bomba and Donna Martell as Lola
ELEPHANT STAMPEDE (1951). Writer/director: Ford Beebe.

"If I was thinking of myself, I wouldn't have come to Africa." -- Miss Banks

Some evil men have come to Africa to, naturally, get some ivory, and, also naturally, don't care who gets hurt as they take after some tusks. Bob Warren (John Kellogg) and Joe Collins (Myron Healey of Varan the Unbelievable) murder Deputy Commissioner Mark Phillips (Guy Kingsford), with Warren pretending to be the dead man so he can ingratiate himself with some villagers and their white teacher, Miss Banks (Edith Evanson of Life with Henry). The villagers know of a secret cache of ivory that can pay for their continued schooling, but the bad guys have other plans. Enter the almost mythical Bomba (Johnny Sheffield), who routs the villains, saves the ivory, and breaks the heart of pretty little native girl, Lola (Donna Martell of Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff), who teachers Bomba how to read but gets swimming lessons in return instead of kisses. Dumb Bomba! Leonard Mudie is back as the official, Andy Barnes, and Martin Wilkins plays Chief Nagala. The elephants create a minor ruckus at the end of the film,. but it can't really be called a "stampede" -- the budget for this Monogram cheapie was too low. The film has a kind of bittersweet coda involving the non-lovers.

Verdict: Sheffield and Martell make an appealing almost-couple. **1/2.

FURY OF THE CONGO

Johnny Weissmuller as Jungle Jim
FURY OF THE CONGO (1951). Director: William Berke.

Ronald Cameron (William Henry of Nearly Eighteen) asks Jungle Jim's (Johnny Weissmuller) help in tracking down the missing Professor Dunham (Joel Friedkin). Dunham is working on extracting a narcotic from the glands of a strange zebra-like animal called the Okango. Jim doesn't know that Cameron's men have already found the professor and are keeping him captive, and have also rounded up the men of a native village to help them capture the animals. The remaining females importune Jim for help, and he sets out with Cameron and Leta (Sherry Moreland) to find both the men and the professor. Lyle Talbot [The Vigilante] is another of the bad guys, along with George Eldredge [Shadows Over Chinatown] and Rusty Westcoatte. Among the livelier scenes in this standard Jungle Jim adventure are a fight with a lion, an attack on Jim by a giant "death-spider," and the climactic fight during a sand storm. It's fun to see the ladies of the village taking off after the men to free them. Timba the chimp stupidly knocks Jim right into quicksand at one point and there's a great deal of running around. The film is heavily scored (by a very wide variety of composers) to make the low-budget Columbia flick seem faster and more exciting. The natives are all white in this.

Verdict: The spider steals the picture. **1/2.

TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL

Tom Conway, Monique van Vooren, Raymond Burr
TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL (1953). Director: Kurt Neumann.

Three characters named Vargo (Raymond Burr), Fidel (Tom Conway) and Lyra (Monique van Vooren) -- who I believe is never referred to as a "she-devil" in the film -- conspire to round up a herd of elephants for their ivory. Since they are entering dangerous territory and the beasts may be difficult to handle, the trio decide to get Tarzan's (Lex Barker) help by kidnapping Jane (Joyce Mackenzie). When the villains think Jane has been killed in a fire, a despondent Tarzan barely has the strength to fight back when he is made captive. Tarzan and the She-Devil certainly has an interesting cast: Barker makes a fine Tarzan; Mackenzie [Destination Murder] is more than adequate as his mate; Burr [Pitfall] is very good in a villainous role; and Tom Conway [A Night of Adventure] saunters through with as little energy as possible. A big problem with the film is that while van Vooren is pretty (she somewhat resembles Hedy Lamarr), and is an adequate in her role, she lacks that certain something that would really make her a "she-devil." If only Mari Blanchard or Marie Windsor had been cast in the part! There's a fairly exciting elephant stampede at the end in which the bad guys get a fitting comeuppance. Still, this is not one of the better Tarzan movies. This was Lex Barker's last appearance as Tarzan. All of the natives in the movie are white!

Verdict: Jane never even gives Lyra a whack in the face! **.

KILLER LEOPARD

Donald Murphy, Johnny Sheffield, Beverly Garland
KILLER LEOPARD (1954). Written, produced, and directed by Ford Beebe.

Fred Winters (Donald Murphy) makes a deal with Charlie Pulham (Barry Bernard of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service) to guide him to a certain diamond mine overseen by Superintendent Saunders (Harry Cording). Fred is unaware that his wife, movie star Linda Winters (Beverly Garland), is on his trail and hoping to catch up with him before he gets in serious trouble due to events back in the states. Rather than enjoying the fact that his wife is famous and wealthy, he is bitter that he's only a $100 a week bookmaker. Bomba (Johnny Sheffield) agrees to help Linda track down Fred, even as a lithe black leopard, that has already killed people, is running loose in the background where it periodically comes forward to attack. Killer Leopard has a more interesting story and cast than the usual Bomba movie, and the presence of talented Garland [The Steel Jungle], although her material is limiting, dresses up the picture. Donald Murphy [Frankenstein's Daughter] is typically nasty and effective. Sheffield can by no stretch of the imagination be called a boy any longer, and he had only one more Bomba movie to go. "You'd be something of a sensation in Hollywood yourself," Linda says to Bomba, rather ironically, as Sheffield's next picture was his last.

Verdict: One of the better Bomba programmers even without a Venusian carrot monster. **1/2.

TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE

Cute but tough: Gordon Scott
TARZAN'S HIDDEN JUNGLE (1955). Director: Harold Schuster.

Dr. Celliers (Peter van Eyck of The Wages of Fear) is bringing medicine to members of a certain lost tribe across the river who "fanatically worship animals" and who kill anyone who harms one. Burger (Jack Elam of Lure of the Swamp), DeGroot (Charles Fredericks) and Reeves (Richard Reeves) are hunters masquerading as movie photographers. The doctor's nurse, Jill (Vera Miles), importunes him to allow the "photographers" to travel with them so as to spread the message of his work, but she is unaware that Tarzan (Gordon Scott) already knows that these men have injured a baby elephant in an attempt to kill the pachyderm. Jill gets caught in quicksand, with a boa constrictor sliding down a tree towards her for added measure, and she and the doctor are nearly fed to a pride of lions when the natives blame the couple for the hunters' intrusion. There's the usual elephant stampede with the bad guys' heads falling conveniently under some mighty big feet at the climax. As Tarzan, Scott is strong, mostly silent, and cute; and a pre-Psycho Miles is fine as Jill, with adept supporting performances from the others, but the script is so weak that it reminds one of a lesser Bomba or Jungle Jim programmer instead of a true Tarzan movie. "Cheta" -- yet another spelling of the chimp's name -- is played by a talented fellow named Zippy, and seems to have an even more adorable girlfriend with whom he smooches at the end. Speaking of romance, Tarzan seems to give Jill some lingering looks throughout the movie which may be why Scott and Miles got married soon after. This was Scott's first appearance as Tarzan.

Verdict: Essentially unmemorable Tarzan movie but it led into a four year marriage for Gordon Scott and Vera Miles. **.

TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY

Steve Bond and Mike Henry
TARZAN AND THE JUNGLE BOY (1968). Director: Robert Gordon.

Aggressive photojournalist Myrna (Aliza Gur) and her associate Ken (Ron Gans) approach Tarzan (Mike Henry) and tell him that a young boy disappeared seven years ago (making him approximately 13) and that while his geologist father was found dead, he may still be alive. Tarzan agrees to accompany the duo and makes it clear that it is to find the boy -- he couldn't care less about any photo spread. Tarzan and the others encounter a tribe whose leader has ordered a contest for his two sons to compete against each other, with the winner taking over the tribe. After a series of struggles and no clear victor, Nagambi (Rafer Johnson) tires to poison brother Buhara (Edward Johnson). When Tarzan comes to his rescue, Nagambi vows to kill not only his brother and Tarzan, but even the missing boy, Erik (Steve Bond), who has taken on the role of a Bomba-like character. Worse, Buhara tells Tarzan that despite his saving his life, tribal law dictates that any stranger who remains in their land will have to be put to death. That's gratitude for you! Tarzan and the Jungle Boy -- which is not an imitation or remake of Tarzan Finds a Son! despite claims to the contrary -- has an interesting premise (more concerning the brothers than the boy) as well as beautiful settings and widescreen color photography. Unfortunately it lacks suspense and tension, a feeling that something must be accomplished or else. Cheetah in this is obviously male and not especially cute, but Erik has a pet chimp named Hilda who is more on the mark. The best scene has Tarzan struggling to get his foot out of a giant clam, the only semi-fantastic element in the movie. Henry makes a more than competent Tarzan and certainly looks the part. Although Rafer and Edward Johnson play brothers in the movie, they were apparently not brothers in real life; Rafer was an Olympic champion. Steve Bond later became a soap star.

Verdict: Good-looking if minor Tarzan entry. **1/2.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

PORTRAIT IN BLACK

PORTRAIT IN BLACK (1960). Director: Michael Gordon. Produced by Ross Hunter.

Sheila Cabot (Lana Turner) is a beautiful woman married to a sick and seemingly hateful old man named Matthew (Lloyd Nolan). One day Sheila's lover, David (Anthony Quinn), who happens to be her husband's doctor, tells her how easy it would be to get rid of him. When Matthew conveniently kicks off, Sheila and David think they are above suspicion. But then a certain insinuating letter arrives ... Portrait in Black is an exhilarating suspense film whose chief strength is a superb performance from Quinn and an excellent score by Frank Skinner [Back Street] that helps keep viewers on the edge of their seats as all the various twists and turns of the plot -- and there are many -- skillfully unfold in a screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (based on their stage play). Michael Gordon's direction at least keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and there is some fine photography of San Francisco settings by Russell Metty [Miracle in the Rain]. While Turner and Quinn [Wild is the Wind] may not seem to have that much chemistry, Quinn's passion simply enfolds Turner and helps empower her more than competent performance. As for the rest of the cast: Lloyd Nolan; Sandra Dee as Turner's step-daughter; John Saxon as Dee's boyfriend; Richard Basehart as a scheming associate; Dennis Kohler as young Peter, Dee's step-brother; Virginia Grey as a secretary; and Ray Walston as a chauffeur who may know too much are all quite good, and for extra added measure we get Anna May Wong, of all people, playing the maid. Paul Birch shows up very briefly as a detective. This picture, now forgotten by most, was quite famous in its day, and is certainly worth a look. Producer Ross Hunter insures that the film has that certain Hunter gloss. The ad campaign for the pic seems to summon up images of Lana Turner, her daughter, and Johnny Stompanato which was turned into Where Love Has Gone with Susan Hayward in the Turner part.

Verdict: Very entertaining melodrama that isn't boring for an instant. ***.

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964). Director: Anthony Mann.

A dying Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), great Caesar of the Roman empire, must make a choice of who will replace him, and chooses not his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), but Commodus' friend, the leader of the Roman army, Livius (Stephen Boyd). Obviously this does not sit well with Commodus, and before you can say "Ben-Hur" -- this film's obvious model -- the two men are caught in a lifelong love-hate rivalry. The emperor's daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), who is in love with Livius and vice versa, is also not happy that she is forced to marry another man, Sohamus (an unrecognizable Omar Sharif). Livius hopes to unite the barbarians who are ill-treated by Rome and periodically try to seize the city, while an uncaring Commodus -- who becomes emperor only due to his father's untimely death -- basically wants to turn everyone in the outlying areas into slaves. Whatever historical accuracy this movie does or does not possess, it is well-made and quite entertaining even if nearly three hours long (with an intermission). It lacks the great story of Ben-Hur, but Mann's direction is good, the pace never flags, and the performances are mostly expert, with Guinness, Boyd, and especially Plummer [Dracula 2000] at the top of their game. Loren is also fine, and there is notable work from James Mason (especially during a harrowing torture scene, although, oddly, he seems to recover from the ordeal much too quickly), Anthony Quayle, Mel Ferrer [Born to be Bad] , and others. Naturally there's a fairly well-done battle between the two major antagonists on the expected chariots, and the climactic duel between the two men in an arena is the film's highlight. There is some stunning scenic design, an excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin, and some striking widescreen photography by Robert Krasker.

Verdict: Essentially a Roman soap opera, but quite entertaining on that level. ***.

LOGAN'S RUN

Logan-6 (Michael York) makes an appalling discovery
LOGAN'S RUN (1976). Director: Michael Anderson.

In the 23rd century, people live in huge domes by the sea and are only allowed to live until age thirty. At that time there occurs the ritual of the carousel, where people who have reached the deadline are either destroyed or renewed, (apparently a form of reincarnation). People who do not wish to take part in this ritual and hope to reach a ripe old age instead become "Runners" who are tracked down and killed by law officers known as "Sandmen." One of these Sandmen is Logan-5 (Michael York), who is given an assignment to trace over a thousand missing runners to a secret place known only as Sanctuary. He also learns to his horror that no one has ever been renewed, and then is technologically aged to near-death so he can masquerade as a runner. Quite understandably, Logan decides to become a runner himself, and takes off with a young woman named Jessica (Jenny Agutter), who is part of the Sanctuary network helping runners, but it's a question of what they'll find even if they manage to escape ... Logan's Run has an intriguing premise and the first half of the film is quite entertaining, but the second half (in which the story veers from the novel, which was already loosely adapted) becomes increasingly stupid and tedious, with a frankly ridiculous and almost comically simplistic finale. York [Something for Everyone] gives an excellent performance (the film is not really worthy of it) and perhaps demonstrates star charisma in this more than in any other movie. Jenny Agutter [Dominique] is also quite good as Jessica, as is Richard Jordan as another Sandman, and friend of Logan's, named Francis. Unfortunately Peter Ustinov is a little too weird as an old man our intrepid pair encounter, and Farah Fawcett-Majors is simply terrible as a nurse to a cosmetic surgeon. The surgeon, Doc, is played with flair by Michael Anderson, Jr., the son of this movie's director, in an exciting laser surgery-run-amok scene; Anderson Jr. had many credits, perhaps the most famous of which is In Search of the Castaways. The FX in the film are variable, but there are some striking shots of a deserted, half-ruined Washington, D.C.  Jerry Goldsmith has contributed his usual adept musical score. An interesting aspect of the film is that homosexuality seems completely accepted in the futuristic society, however flawed it may be in other respects. Logan's Run was, I believe, very successful, and influenced later films as much as it was influenced by earlier ones. The following year a very short-lived TV series was made from the film. NOTE: In the novel everyone must die at only 21!

Verdict: Semi-literate Hollywood "sci fi" with more than a few lively moments. **1/2.

ANOTHER THIN MAN

Baby Nicky and li'l Asta
ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939). Director: W. S. Van Dyke II.

Back in New York with their new son, Nicky, and little Asta in tow, Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are summoned to the Long Island estate of Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith). MacFay has been receiving weird death threats from an old employee named Church (Sheldon Leonard) and hopes to have Nick's protection. Naturally, as in most of these detective movies, the threatened man is murdered under the disinterested hero's nose, and the rest of the movie is concerned with finding out who done it. Another Thin Man is quite talky, but entertaining, with an intricate script and a denouement that is truly a surprise. Members of the supporting cast (as well as suspects in certain cases) include Virginia Grey [Jeanne Eagels] as MacFay's adopted daughter; Patric Knowles as her secret fiance; Tom Neal [Bruce Gentry] as a man carrying a torch for Grey; Otto Kruger as the detective on the case; Ruth Hussey as a kind of nanny; Muriel Hutchison as Church's paramour, among others, all giving adroit performances. The business with ex-cons being delighted to see Nick even though he sent them up the river gets tiresome, and leads into a party for little Nicky with the hoods each bringing their own baby! (Don't blink or you'll miss Shemp Howard.) Some of the subsequent victims certainly don't deserve to be murdered, but there's never any sympathy for them. However, there's a swell scene with Powell interacting with Marjorie Main [The Law and the Lady] as a landlady, and the ending is a pip! The killer in this is especially conniving and heartless.

Verdict: Things look up for the series with this entry. ***.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE

Kim Myers and Mark Patton
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE (1985). Director: Jack Sholder.

A Nightmare on Elm Street was such a big hit that a sequel was inevitable, and one was quickly cobbled together for maximum profit. Jesse Walsh and his family have moved into the same house once occupied by the protagonist of the first film, and he begins to have weird dreams. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) not only haunts Jesse's nightmares, but tries to take over his mind and torturously enters the real world through Jesse's body. Freddy can affect events in the real world much more than he could in the first film, and he spends more time in the real world, where virtually everyone can see him (such as an attack at a pool party where he is seen by dozens of wide-awake teens) than ever before. To say this kind of shatters the whole mystique of the character as a dream demon is an understatement, but worse, the movie has absolutely no scares and zero atmosphere. There are ludicrous scenes such as an attack on Jesse's family by a crazed parrot, although, to be fair, there are a few effective moments as well, mostly due to the generally well-done FX work. Mark Patton does fairly nice work as the tormented Jesse, and he and Kim Myers as concerned gal pal Lisa make an appealing couple. Hope Lange [That Certain Summer] and Clu Gulager [From a Whisper to a Scream] do the best they can as Jesse's parents, the mother worried and the father clueless. Robert Rusler makes an impression as Jesse's hunky friend, Ron Grady, as does Marshall Bell as Coach Schneider who meets up with Jesse in a kind of S and M bar and gets sliced by Freddy/Jesse in a shower.

You would think that I would have picked up on the supposed gay sub-text of this movie -- which some consider the "gayest horror film of all time" or something like that -- but I think this has more to do with star Mark Patton being openly gay (he and screenwriter David Chaskin later said they conceived of Jesse as a closeted gay man all along). The S and M bar is not a gay bar, as there seem to be as many women in the place as men; Coach Schneider never comes on to Jesse; and when Jesse asks Ron if he can spend the night it is more because he is terrified of being alone (what with Freddy on the loose and all) than any obvious lust on the former's part, Ron's sex appeal notwithstanding. But people can read into it whatever they want. Myers, Rusler and Bell have had numerous credits since this film came out, but Patton's career was derailed for decades due to hypocritical Hollywood homophobia; even today openly gay actors have a tough time of it.

Verdict: Too schlocky, clumsy and contrived by half but fun in a limited way. **1/2.

SKY LINER

Would you want this shifty guy (Greg McClure) on an airliner?
SKY LINER (1949). Director: William Berke.

A diverse group of people are flying to San Francisco on TWA. Few of them realize that George Eakins (John McGuire of Sea Raiders) of the State Department has been murdered and been replaced by a man known only as Smith (Steve Pendleton). Smith, who is hoping to sell important papers on the flight, is accompanied by Eakin's secretary, Amy (Rochelle Hudson of Meet Boston Blackie). Steven Geray [The Unfaithful] plays Bokejian, a representative of a foreign power who is anxious to buy those government secrets. An added complication is the presence on the flight of one J. S. Konigsby (Greg McClure), who is a dangerous jewel thief. But when one of those characters is murdered, Federal agent Steve Blair (Richard Travis) teams up with intrepid stewardess Carol (Pamela Blake) to ferret out the murderer and keep the passengers under control. Sky Liner is not quite as interesting as it sounds, but it's a mildly entertaining programmer with a generally competent cast. William F. Leicester is the pilot, Captain Fairchild; George Meeker is a financier; and Jack Mulhall is Colonel Hanson.

Verdict: There have been worse ... **1/2.

BLACK WIDOW (2008)

Randall Batinkoff and Elizabeth Berkley
BLACK WIDOW (2008 telefilm). Director: Armand Mastroianni.

Photojournalist Melanie Dempsey (Alicia Coppola) has always had strong romantic feelings for her best friend, the wealthy Danny Keegan (Randall Batinkoff), but along comes sexier Olivia Whitfield (Elizabeth Berkley of Showgirls) and freckle-faced Melanie finds herself with formidable competition. Melanie's perky assistant, Finn (Adriana DeMeo), suggests that her boss do a search, and then a full-on investigation, into Olivia, and discovers some disturbing facts. Has Olivia been married before to wealthy men who died; does she use different names; and is she embezzling from this alleged charity she runs? Although Melanie gathers strong evidence, dopey Danny falls head over heels, and their mutual friends accuse Melanie of making her accusations out of vile jealousy. Black Widow is a minor TV movie on a popular theme, but it is fast-paced, has some suspense, and is well-acted by all. David Ury makes an impression as Olivia's sinister associate, Bixler, as does Jeremy Howard as the computer specialist, Henry. Alicia Coppola is not related to Francis Ford Coppola. Mastroianni also directed Grave Misconduct.

Verdict: Entertaining enough time-passer. **1/2.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

CAGED

Formidable Hope Emerson towers over the tough Betty Garde
CAGED (1950). Director: John Cromwell.

'If it weren't for men, we wouldn't be in here."

"If you stay in here too long, you don't think of guys at all -- you just get out of the habit."

A 19-year-old named Marie (Eleanor Parker), who may or may not have participated in an armed robbery with her now-dead husband, is sent up the river for one to fifteen. While having her baby, Marie is introduced to a motley crew of pretty tough career criminals of the female gender: Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who wants to get Marie into the rackets; Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), the super-hard queen of vice; June (Olive Deering), who is desperate to get paroled; Georgia (Gertrude Michael), who thinks she comes from society and is losing her mind; elderly Millie (Gertrude Hoffman) a lifer who'll think nothing of taking out a hated matron if she has to; spacey Emma (Ellen Corby) who finally murdered her husband after four previous attempts;  and others. Speaking of matrons, we have the relatively kindly head of the isolation ward, played by Jane Darwell, and the fat, sadistic and highly formidable Harper, played by Hope Emerson. Harper and Kitty are, in particular, major antagonists and sooner or later something will blow ... Caged has been dismissed in some quarters as camp (sometimes because of the not very subtle lesbian inferences), which is completely unfair, as the movie is a powerful, completely absorbing drama with excellent performances and one compelling scene after another: a disappointed inmates' suicide; the jailhouse riot over a kitten; the physical and psychological battles between Harper and Stark; and the compassionate warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), having to deal with the infuriatingly disinterested and misogynous parole board and other dumb-headed politicians. Caged doesn't say that most of these women don't belong where they are, only that their imprisonment is punishment enough and abusive behavior among the matrons should be prohibited. Parker, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and should have won, is superb, as are Hope Emerson (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Kitty Garde; and there is notable work from Moorehead and hard-boiled Patrick, as well as Taylor Holmes as clueless Senator Donnelly. John Cromwell's direction helps give the film a major dramatic punch after 66 years, and Max Steiner's score is subdued but effective. Caged engendered several inferior imitations -- Women's Prison, Blonde Bait, House of Women, a nominal remake with absurd situations not in the original, Betrayed Women -- and practically created a new sub-genre still going today. However realistic Caged may or may not be regarding conditions in women's prisons then or now, the story still packs a wallop.

Verdict: Perhaps Parker's finest hour -- as well as Emerson's and Garde's. ****.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

Heather Langenkamp in Fred Krueger's dream lair
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984). Written and directed by Wes Craven.

"Oh, God, I look twenty years old!" -- teenager Nancy.

Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) discovers that some of her friends are experiencing the same nightmare about a disfigured man who wears a glove with knives attached. Fred Krueger (Robert Englund of V -- The Final Battle) was a child murderer who was burned to death by the parents of his victims, but apparently he still lives in a dream state where he can stalk and slay his victims (the other children of the parents who killed him) when they are asleep. The gruesome results of his handiwork are apparent in the real world. Nancy discovers she can bring objects, such as Freddy's hat, out of the dream world into the real one, and determines to drag Krueger into her universe where he can face ultimate justice. A Nightmare on Elm Street certainly has a good premise, but its execution is more problematic, being a trifle cheapjack and schlocky at times and never becoming especially scary. Krueger often comes off as more comical than anything else (later he was turned into a kind of slasher comedian). An "unhappy" ending was tacked onto the movie over Craven's objections, but this led to several sequels. Langenkamp, with her unattractive mouth and big teeth, is an odd casting choice, and she comes off more like a talented amateur than anything else, despite her obvious hard work. Johnny Depp [Dark Shadows], who is introduced in this film and gets the most grisly and flamboyant death scene, exhibits star charisma, as does Jsu Garcia (aka Nick Corri) as Rod. Amanda Wyss is effective as Tina, the first victim, as is John Saxon [Queen of Blood] as Nancy's dad, a cop. Ronee Blakley plays Nancy's mother. Craven's direction makes less of the film than the premise deserves. It is never explained how Krueger can call Nancy on the telephone and even stick his tongue through the receiver when she's awakeRemade in 2010.

Verdict: Great idea, not such a great movie., **1/2.

AFTER THE THIN MAN

Myrna Loy and William Powell
AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

Nick Charles (William Powell) and wife, Nora (Myrna Loy) have returned from New York to California in this first sequel to The Thin Man, but discover that wherever they go murder follows. Nick learns that when it comes to intrigue and craziness, Nora's relatives are not much different from the thugs and ex-cons Nick hangs out with. This time Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi of The Sign of the Cross), is accused of murdering her philandering husband, Robert (Alan Marshall). The suspects include a nightclub owner named Dancer (Joseph Calleia); a dancer named Polly (Penny Singleton); her "brother," Phil (Paul Fix of The Bad Seed); Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), who thinks everyone is nutty: and David Graham (James Stewart), who has long carried a torch for Selma. Somewhat better than The Thin Man, this is arguably not a whole lot better than a typical mystery from a minor studio, but it is served up with relish, some very good acting, and has an effectively comic-dramatic ending. Singleton, who was billed as "Dorothy McNulty" back then, is vivid as Polly, and Jessie Ralph [David Copperfield] simply walks off with the movie as Nora's formidable Aunt Katherine, a harridan force of nature if ever there were one. Sam Levene is fine as Lt. Abrahms, the detective on the case. Asta has a bit more to do then he did in the first film.

Verdict: Nick Charles is no Perry Mason, but this is fun enough. ***.

GREMLINS

Gizmo, the mogwai
GREMLINS (1984). Director: Joe Dante.

Looking for a special present for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan), Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys a strange creature called a mogwai from a Chinatown curiosity shop. Christened "Gizmo,' the adorable creature loves to sing, but certain rules regarding the animal must be followed or disaster will follow. Naturally these rules are inadvertently broken and before long the bucolic town of Kingston Falls is besieged by a horde of nasty, chittering "gremlins" causing utter havoc. Gremlins is a pretty silly movie, but it's also an entertaining and amusing one, with an interesting premise (a take on the dangerous and mythical "gremlins" that allegedly plagued airmen and others), and some superior special effects work, especially in puppetry and make-up effects. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates make a charming romantic couple, and Polly Holliday is fun as the town's heartless old woman who takes a deadly trip on a staircase elevator that goes riotously out of control. Jackie Joseph and Dick Miller [A Bucket of Blood] score as neighbors of the Peltzers, and there's a cameo from Kenneth Tobey as well. Keye Luke, Scott Brady [Mohawk] , and Jonathan Banks [Wiseguy] also have significant roles and are fine. Ditto for Mushroom, who plays the dog, Barry, and nearly steals the picture, no easy feat. There is an uncomfortable aspect to the film, however, and that's that the evil gremlins (as opposed to Gizmo, who in a sense, gives birth to these monsters) are dark in color and there are times when they are clearly modeled on certain black stereotypes -- almost as if the movie is depicting an inner city invasion of a mostly Caucasian town [We see only one black inhabitant, a likable school teacher, who comes afoul of the Gremlins.] None of this may have been intended, but it does seem in bad taste. While there are quite a few inventive ideas in this, the picture needs tightening in both the editing and pacing departments. This was a very, very successful picture and engendered one sequel and a whole slew of imitations. Although several people are apparently killed by the end of the film, the Peltzer family, who essentially created the whole mess, seem completely unaffected by it.

Verdict: Hardly for every taste, but this is an often clever black comedy. ***.

TREASURE OF MONTE CRISTO

Eternal starlet: Adele Jergens
TREASURE OF MONTE CRISTO (1949). Director: William Berke.

Edmund Dantes (Glenn Langan) is a sailor just off a ship in San Francisco who encounters a sexy blonde named Jean Turner (Adele Jurgens). Jean tells Ed that she is an heiress, and she has escaped from a sanitarium where relatives who want control of her fortune are trying to lock her away. She offers Ed $10,000 if he'll agree to marry her -- which will supposedly prevent the bad guys from stealing her inheritance -- and he complies -- after all, Jean isn't exactly bad-looking. But after the marriage takes place Ed winds up accused of murder, and Jean is nowhere to be seen. When she is finally located, Jean Turner turns out to be an different woman entirely ... Treasure of Monte Cristo is an interesting, if minor, bit of film noir with an absorbing plot line (one angle prefigures a sequence in the later Homicidal). Langan [The Amazing Colossal Man] offers a good performance as a man in serious trouble, while Jergens [The Fuller Brush Man] is a cut below him as the femme fatale in question. Steve Brodie is notable as an associate of Jergens'. The title treasure figures in the convoluted story and the finale, although the movie isn't really about a treasure hunt. Albert Glasser contributed a typically brassy and effective score. Langan and Jergens were wed in real life two years after this film came out and had one of Hollywood's rare long-lasting marriages until his death forty years later.

Verdict: Attention-holding minor-league film noir with some good performances. **1/2 out of 4.

The Midnite Drive-In presents The Film Noir Blogathon. [I wouldn't necessarily consider Sunset Boulevard to be film noir, but it does have a handsome hero whose life is turned upside down by a woman, even if she's hardly a "hot" blonde!

OMOO-OMOO THE SHARK GOD

Devera Burton as Julie
OMOO-OMOO THE SHARK GOD (1949). Director: Leon Leonard.

NOTE: First let me make it clear that this is an actual movie and not one of my infamous April Fool's-type concoctions. You would think the producers of this film would have had the sense to call it, say, Terror of the Shark God, Herman Melville notwithstanding (see below), but no such luck.

In 1874 Captain Roger Guy (Trevor Bardette of The Missing Juror) sets sail to Tahiti with his daughter, Julie (Devera Burton), mate Richards (Richard Benedict), Jeff Garland (Ron Randell), drunken Dr. Long (George Meeker of Dead Man's Eyes), a native stowaway named Tempo (Rudy Robles), and another man named Texas (Jack Raymond). Guy has come to reclaim some fabulous black pearls, but the curse of the shark god has been placed upon him, making him seriously ill. Meanwhile Richards and "Chips" (Michael Whalen) are hoping to get the pearls for themselves even as Julie and Jeff carry on an unexciting romance. One suspects this has little to do with Herman Meville's book Oomo, which is the supposed source material for the movie. Benedict gives the most vivid performance as the sinister and opportunistic Richards.  Burton is pretty and a competent actress, but she only did one other film. Ron Randell makes little impression, surprisingly. This would have been a lot more entertaining if there had been an actual shark god, or even just a shark. Don't expect human sacrifices or anything of much interest to happen.

Verdict: Not quite as dull as watching paint dry. *1/2.

ROARING CITY

Hugh Beaumont and Richard Travis
ROARING CITY (1951). Director: William Berke.

"You couldn't find an ingrown toenail if it was on your left foot." -- O'Brien to Bruger.

Hugh Beaumont had played private eye Michael Shayne in several films when he was cast in another, briefer series playing another tough P.I., Dennis O'Brien; Roaring City is the second of the three films. O'Brien is hired by a manager to place bets against his own boxer, who doesn't take a dive as expected and winds up murdered. Suspected of the crime, O'Brien convinces Inspector Bruger (Richard Travis) of the San Francisco police department that someone else is the guilty party. In the second of two stories, Irma Rand (Joan Valerie of Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum) hires O'Brien to pretend to be the husband of a friend, Sylvia (Wanda McKay), whose hood boyfriend, Rafferty (Anthony Warde) is back in town and looking for trouble. In both cases, O'Brien winds up in dutch because his clients are as shifty as any bad guys, and O'Brien seemingly won't say no when there's money concerned. Roaring City comes off like two TV episodes spliced together. The acting is sufficient, with Warde [The Masked Marvel] especially vivid as the nasty Rafferty. Edward Brophy [Romance on the Run] also makes the most of his role as O'Brien's pal and assistant, the professor. There's too much narration. From Lippert pictures.

Verdict: Watchable, but ultimately quite dull. **.

45 YEARS

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay
45 YEARS (2015). Writer/director: Andrew Haigh.

Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay of Dr. Zhivago) are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a big party. In shades of Roald Dahl's "Crystal Trench," Geoff then gets a letter telling him that the body of his old flame, Katya -- who fell into a crevasse decades ago while the two vacationed in Switzerland -- has been discovered perfectly preserved in ice. Now 45 Years could have gone in any of a number of directions. Will the police show up to arrest Geoff for murder? Will Kate wonder about her husband's true actions all those years ago? Since 45 Years is neither a thriller nor a suspense film (not even psychological suspense) what we really get is a very deliberately-paced examination of a marriage in crisis. Is Kate making too much of Geoff's earlier relationship with the long-dead and once very pregnant Katya, or has she come to realize that for the whole 45 years of her marriage she's only been  a substitute for her? [The much talked about final shot makes it pretty clear which is which, or at least what Kate thinks is which.] The film has been wildly overpraised in critical quarters, excoriated elsewhere, but I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Based on a very short story, this probably would have made a much more effective and interesting half hour television drama than a feature film that is three times as long. The performances of the two leads, especially that of former "ice princess" Rampling [The Verdict], are excellent. Rampling also came in for a fair share of criticism from those, remembering her earlier image, who still think she comes off frigid, but I confess that is not at all apparent in her performance. It's a pleasure to see a film about senior citizens, even the elderly, in this day and age (although it's a question if thirty-something film critics can really relate to it) but I just wish this had been a more memorable movie. Strange that 45 Years received an R rating for a couple of four-letter words that every kid has heard and for an aborted bedroom sequence that is much less steamy than anything seen in afternoon soap operas. I mean 45 Years is not a film where breasts are flashed and limbs torn off every other minute! I wonder if some people liked the film more than they might have simply because this is the case?

Verdict: Interesting premise, good performances, but ultimately ... so what? Subtlety can be over-rated. **1/2.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945)

Walter Huston and Barry Fitzgerald
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945). Director: Rene Clair.

Several people receive invitations to the very isolated Indian island, and find themselves accused of murder and of escaping justice. One by one, in accordance with a nursery rhyme on "Ten Little Indians," the members of the party are killed as the diminishing survivors become increasingly paranoid. This somewhat light-hearted version of Agatha Christie's classic novel has perhaps too much humor, and changes the grim and uncompromising ending of the book, but it manages to work up considerable suspense along with atmosphere and a certain tension. The actors are generally good, with Barry Fitzgerald as a judge, Walter Huston as a doctor, Louis Hayward as an adventurer, June Duprez [The Brighton Strangler] as a secretary, and Judith Anderson [Rebecca] as a prim and proper if rather heartless middle-aged woman. Richard Haydn [Dear Wife], C. Aubrey Smith, and Roland Young also have important roles. Most of the actors have been directed to play it rather "cute," but for the large part Clair's direction is quite adroit. Christie created her own little sub-genre with this very influential book, which was filmed several times both as "And Then There Were None" and "Ten Little Indians." Most of these were pretty bad. There was a creditable British mini-series in 2015.

Verdict: The fascinating and macabre situation carries this along. ***.

STATE FAIR (1945)

Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain
STATE FAIR (1945). Director: Walter Lang.

The Frake family head for the Iowa state fair with a variety of goals: Father Abel (Charles Winninger) wants his boar, Blueboy, to win a prize; mother Melissa (Fay Bainter) also wants to win a ribbon for her mincemeat; restless daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) has spring fever and is hoping to meet someone more exciting than her fiance, Harry (Phil Brown of Obsession); and son Wayne (Dick Haymes) just seems to want to have fun. Margy meets a newspaperman named Pat (Dana Andrews), who tells her he'll just disappear if if doesn't work out with her, and Wayne encounters singer Emily (Vivian Blaine), who has a little secret. Frankly, the romantic aspects of the movie are a little lopsided -- who really falls sincerely in love in two days? -- and the siblings blow off their respective beaus with casual, if not heartless, ease, but this is standard stuff for the period and since everything is just a framework for some excellent Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, it doesn't really matter. "Spring Fever," "That's For Me," "I Owe Iowa" are all fine numbers, but the best songs are Haymes [Irish Eyes are Smiling] and Blaine's zesty delivery of "Isn't It Kind of Fun?" and the movie's best song, the beautiful "It's a Grand Night for Singing," a classic Rodgers melody. State Fair was not based on a Broadway show but on the first State Fair film, a non-musical starring Will Rogers made in 1933, although Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the screenplay for this remake (just as he did the librettos for their stage musicals). The acting in this is uniformly excellent, with Donald Meek nearly stealing the picture as a judge who gets drunk on Melissa's brandy-soaked mincemeat. Percy Kilbride scores as the Frakes' pessimistic neighbor, as do Jane Nigh, Harry Morgan, and William Marshall [The Phantom Planet] in smaller roles. Remade in 1962; both versions are in color.

Verdict: As stories go, this is not exactly The King and I, but the performances are good and the songs are all lilting and memorable. ***.

STATE FAIR (1962)

Pat Boone and Ann-Margret
STATE FAIR (1962). Director: Jose Ferrer.

In this CinemaScope remake of the 1945 State Fair, the Frake family are off not to a fair in Iowa but in Texas. Mom (Alice Faye) and Dad (Tom Ewell) still want ribbons for their mincemeat and boar, respectively, but now the son Wayne (Pat Boone) races cars while sister Margy (Pamela Tiffin), still restless, is bored with her now-handsome fiance, Harry (David Brandon). At the fair Wayne meets up with entertainer Emily (Ann-Margret) and Margy encounters radio interviewer Jerry (Bobby Darin). Now let's see -- Darin  and Boone [Mardi Gras], of course, simply had decades of experience in musical theater (!) but in spite of this they are not as bad singing show tunes as you might expect. In fact, after Tom Ewell, Boone actually gives the best performance in the movie (credit director Jose Ferrer, perhaps). Boone has a nice voice, and puts over such numbers as "That's for Me" and a new song (Rodgers composed several new numbers for this remake), "Willing and Eager." Darin, usually a very different kind of singer, also delivers when he croons "You're Not an Angel." Faye is given a new number that she sings to her daughter, "Never Say No to a Man" and she and Ewell, who obviously can't sing "I Owe Iowa" anymore, perform "The Littlest Things in Texas" instead. The new songs are perfectly pleasant. Unfortunately, "Isn't It Kind of Nice?" is horrendously staged, first as a weird burlesque and then jazzed up with Ann-Margret [Any Given Sunday] tearing at that lobster again while she sings, although she is better when she relaxes a bit doing "Willing and Eager" with Boone. "It's a Grand Night for Singing" doesn't get a big production nearly as good as the one in the original. Unlike Dana Andrews in the first version, Darin plays the character like a cheap and common playboy, making it improbable that Margy would fall for him or vice versa; Wayne's hasty romance with Emily is only slightly more convincing. Wally Cox [The Night Strangler] is funny as the judge who gets inebriated on mincemeat. Alice Faye is okay as the mother, but there are times when you get the impression she'd rather be anywhere else than in this movie. She's given some funny lines -- "[Ewell] won't be happy until that hog shows up in Who's Who" -- but her delivery is always flat. Faye was to play the daughter's role in the 1945 movie but abruptly retired; this was supposedly her comeback. State Fair was finally turned into a Broadway musical in 1996 using songs from both movies and a couple from lesser-known Rodgers and Hammerstein shows.

Verdict: Has some nice moments but decidedly inferior to the original. **1/2.

THE THIN MAN

William Powell prepares to question the suspects
THE THIN MAN (1934). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

Nick Charles (William Powell) retired as a detective when his wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), inherited a fortune from her father. On a trip back to New York, Nick discovers he can't stay away from sleuthing when several people he knows are embroiled in murder. Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) is worried when her father, Clyde (Edward Ellis), disappears, and things get more complicated when Clyde's mistress, Julia (Natalie Moorhead of The Curtain Falls) is found murdered. More deaths follow as the suspects pile up: Wynant's ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell of Babbitt); his weird son, Gilbert (William Henry of Nearly Eighteen); his lawyer, MacCauley (Porter Hall); Mimi's gigolo and second husband, Chris (Cesar Romero); and several other nefarious types. Nick gathers all of the suspects (he pronounces the word with the accent on the second syllable, which is kind of charming in an old-fashioned way) at a dinner party he hosts with an utterly baffled Nora. The Thin Man has good performances from all -- Gertrude Short is snappy in a small role as the shrewish girlfriend of a dead hood -- but one could argue that there's more silliness than humor and it often gets in the way of the not-very-memorable story, although it does manage to build up minor interest and suspense as it goes along. Nobody who watches this will especially care who the killer is. Powell does his usual suave shtick with aplomb; Loy is fine if typically arch; and the little dog Asta almost runs off with the show. There were five sequels to this popular film, most of which, if memory serves me, were superior to this first entry. The title refers to the vanished Wynant, described by police and papers as a "thin man with white hair." Nick, rarely without a drink in his hand, seems half-inebriated throughout the movie. Nat Pendleton is the detective on the case, and Henry Wadsworth is Dorothy's fiance, Tommy.

Verdict: Too self-consciously "cute" by half but not without its moments. **1/2.

THE WIDOW COUDERC

Zero chemistry: Simone Signoret and Alain Delon
THE WIDOW COUDERC aka La veuve Couderc/1971). Director: Pierre Granier-Deferre.

In 1934 France an escaped prisoner, Jean (Alain Delon), encounters a middle-aged widow named Mrs. Couderc (Simone Signoret) and goes to work for her. The widow is hated by her in-laws, who live nearby, and is herself not too found of the young unwed mother, Felicie (Ottavia Piccolo), who runs around with her adorable baby in tow and catches Jean's eye. Jean and the widow begin an improbable relationship that has people in the village gossiping, and the in-laws out to expose the truth about Jean. Since few people wanted to see French sex symbol Delon [Joy House] carrying on with the now matronly and chubby Signoret [Games], the two are only seen in bed together once, when they are merely cuddling. The acting isn't bad, but if the characters had been better developed this might have been more convincing. As a romance it doesn't work at all. This is based on a novel by mystery writer Georges Simenon but it is neither a thriller nor a suspense yarn. The final subtitles providing some more information about Jean are so badly translated that they make absolutely no sense.

Verdict: Another disappointing Delon feature. **.

COUNTERSPY MEETS SCOTLAND YARD

Ron Randell
COUNTERSPY MEETS SCOTLAND YARD (1950). Director: Seymour Friedman.

In the desert town of Croftenay, a group of American counter-intelligence agents join forces with a visitor from Scotland Yard, Simon Langton (Ron Randell). The agents are headed by David Harding (Howard St. John of Strait-Jacket), who uncovers a nest of spies centering on the office of phony Dr. Gilbert, aka Hugo Borin (Everett Glass). After Chief of Section Don Martin (Harry Lauter) is murdered, Langton takes over his job and meets Martin's secretary-assistant and former fiancee, Karen Michelle (Amanda Blake). The spies are after a gyroscopic control on Professor Schuman's (Gregory Gaye) rocket, and hypnotize Karen to get the information. Langton goes undercover as an elderly patient to get the goods on the spies and get the classified Intel away from them. Australian-born Randell [I Am a Camera], always a good actor, is fine as Langton and affects an English accent in this; his last name is pronounced the same as Tony Randell. Other familiar cast members include Rick Vallin, John Dehner [The Chapman Report], and Fred F. Sears (later a prolific director of The Giant Claw and many others) as agents. June Vincent as quite good as the deceptively friendly nurse, Barbara, who is in cahoots with the doctor.

Verdict: Acceptable time-passer with some good performances and scenes, and versatile Randell is always interesting. **1/2.