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

Friday, June 23, 2017

ANNUAL LGBT ROUND UP

Something rotten's in this "Lake"
ANNUAL LGBT ROUND-UP.

Well, in honor of Gay Pride, here is Great Old Movies' annual round-up of LGBT films. There's not as many this year, because I spent too much time on my B Movie Series and Round Up of Movie Bad Guys  -- even I  have only so much time to watch movies -- but I may have a fresh crop of gay flicks later in the year.

Anyway, we've got The Christine Jorgensen Story from 1970, and more recent flicks such as Robin Williams in Boulevard; the kind of sleazy crime drama King Cobra; the disappointing and rather regressive Stranger By the Lake from France; and the excellent Jeffrey Schwarz-directed documentary, Vito, about gay writer and activist Vito Russo.

THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY

John Hansen 
THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY (1970). Director: Irving Rapper.

From his early childhood on, George Jorgensen (John Hansen) has felt like he was different, and identified much more as a girl than as a boy. Mistaken for being gay, he decides to discover more on his "condition" and is told that he has an excess of estrogen. George travels to Denmark where he is given permission to have what today we would call sexual realignment surgery. His story makes headlines in the New York Daily News ("Ex-GI Becomes Beautiful Blonde") and both he and his family have to deal with the fall-out of the disclosure. Christine Jorgensen was a true pioneer, and this fictionalized version of her story is interesting, but not all that well done, with a cheap look and tedious exposition. John Hansen is an effective lead, portraying both George and Christine equally well, although at times he's somewhat amateurish. Quinn K. Redeker (of The Young and the Restless) plays a reporter who falls for Christine and gives her her first kiss (which is actually a male-male kiss since Hansen was only playing a woman); Pamelyn Ferdin [The Beguiled] is George's sympathetic sister as a child; Elaine Joyce is a bitchy, homophobic model; Joyce Meadows [The Girl in Lovers Lane] is another, friendlier model; Joan Tompkins is George's ahead-of-her time Aunt Thora; and Will Kuluva [To Trap a Spy] is Professor Estabrook, who sets George on the correct path.

Another character is George's boss, Jess (Rod McCary), who turns out to be gay and gets angry when George denies his homosexuality. Jess nearly winds up assaulting George. A scene that could have been positive, showing a bond between two sexual minorities (however different), is instead thrown away for a bit of ugly, almost homophobic sensationalism. It's especially egregious because Jess is a likable character who tells George of many well-known gay men throughout history.

Irving Rapper also directed another famous movie about an amazing transformation: Bette Davis' Now, Voyager.

NOTE: Chistine Jorgensen's operation was not the first of its kind, but the first that was heavily publicized. There were some differences from earlier operations, and I've no doubt attitudes towards transsexualism and its origins have changed since this film was made nearly fifty years ago.

Verdict: Compelling at first, with a sensitive lead performance, but it drags a bit and, surprisingly, lacks dramatic intensity. **1/2.

VITO

Vito Russo
VITO (2011). Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.

This superb documentary looks at the life, activism and career of Vito Russo [1946 - 1990], who fought for gay rights for years and also wrote the book The Celluloid Closet, which looked at gay images in films. Vito also worked for the AIDS organization, ACT UP, and co-founded GLAAD, the organization that monitors LGBT images in the media. The film also looks into Vito's personal life, his relationships with his family,and his boyfriend, Jeffrey Sevcik, who died of AIDS,

Vito watched the action the night of the Stonewall riots, but just thought "it was a bunch of crazy queens." He didn't become political until sometime later, but he never suffered from Catholic guilt over his homosexuality nor thought there was anything wrong in being gay. Vito eventually got his own cable TV show, and became friends with Lily Tomlin, and was instrumental in getting her to appear at a Gay Pride rally. Tomlin and various activists, friends and relatives are all interviewed, and there are loads of clips of Vito himself, who seems like an intelligent and sensitive man.

Although I chaired the media committee of the Gay Activists Alliance for several years (in a later period) I did not get to work with Vito, although I met him, and it's a shame we never had a chance to become good friends or co-workers as our interests certainly coincided.

Verdict: Moving, beautifully-done portrait of a gay activist who deserves to be remembered, ****.

STRANGER BY THE LAKE

Pierre Deladonchamps
STRANGER BY THE LAKE (aka L'inconnu du lac/2013). Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie.

At a gay cruising spot on a bucolic lake in France, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) strikes up an odd friendship with a portly, middle-aged and lonely man named Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao). But the target of his lust is Michel (Christophe Paou). Franck and Michel get together in the woods, and afterward Franck clearly sees Michel drowning his ex-lover, Pascal (Francois-Renaud Lebarthe). But does Franck chose to do anything about it, or say anything to Inspector Damroder (Jerome Chappatte)? No he doesn't -- and therein lies the problem. Stranger By the Lake is less a story of sexual or romantic obsession than it is a study of gay self-hatred, with everyone in the movie seeming to have a death wish, and a hero who can be best described as a wimpy loser. Although he makes some minor noises of sympathy over Pascal, Franck seems to embody the callous and negative attitude that Inspector Damroder wrongly ascribes to the entire gay community -- or at least the guys at the lake -- as if the Inspector is meant to be openly gay writer/director Guiraudie's surrogate. Ridiculously over-praised (but only in some quarters), Stranger By the Lake has been called "Hitchcockian," which is an insult to the Master, who would never have allowed such one-dimensional characters as well as such a minimal degree of suspense. The picture is so sexually explicit that it often borders on porn, making it seem as if the gay characters exist solely to have sex with strangers, and that Franck, who wants a relationship, is an aberration. It's very strange -- and a little sad -- that such a regressive movie would be made by a gay filmmaker in the 21st century -- and in France no less.

Verdict: Despite the somewhat pretty men and settings, this is pure schlock. *1/2.

BOULEVARD

Roberto Aguire and Robin Williams
BOULEVARD (2014). Director: Dito Montiel.

In an early scene in this study of a closeted married man, the main character, banker Nolan Mack (Robin Williams), talks pleasantly to two clients who have just taken out a loan: a gay male couple who have just bought a house and are looking forward to a future together. Nolan has much less to look forward to; he realized he was gay at 12 -- he is now 60 -- and has repressed it, marrying his wife, Joy (Kathy Baker), whom he sincerely loves but feels no true passion for. Driving along the boulevard one night he nearly runs over Leo (Roberto Aguire), a hustler who expects sex for cash but finds himself in the odd position of having a new friend who tries hard to help him. Meanwhile, Nolan's growing feelings for Leo begin to jeopardize not only his relationship with his wife, but his job and promotion at the bank. Boulevard is far from a perfect film -- we learn too little about Leo, and don't get enough of Joy's side of things -- but it is an absorbing look at the lives of homosexual men who make one choice in life and live to regret it with each new day and the ever-changing attitudes toward gay relationships. The performances are wonderful, not only from the three leads, but also from Henry Haggard as Nolan's boss; Bob Odenkirk as Nolan's understanding best friend; and Giles Matthey in an almost over-the-top turn as Leo's nasty and violent pimp. The film gets points for not having an unrealistic or cop-out ending, and it is also good that the hustler is a pleasant-looking individual but not a super-hot Hollywood-style hunk.

Verdict: Interesting look at the lives of older gay men who are nearly left behind. ***.

KING COBRA

Christian Slater
KING COBRA (2016). Written and directed by Justin Kelly.

Sean (Garrett Clayton) reinvents himself as Cobra films' gay porn star "Brent Corrigan" and becomes a name in the industry. His live-in boss is Stephen (Christian Slater), who seems to have feelings for Sean that go beyond their professional relationship. When Sean falls for a younger guy, he starts wondering if he's getting enough of the profits, and decides to go out on his own. Unfortunately, Stephen has trademarked the "Brent Corrigan" name and Sean finds doors closing in his face now that he can't use that popular identity. When Sean comes up against this problem with two producer-lovers, Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen), they tell him that they will "take care" of the problem. Unfortunately, they do just that ... Based on a true story, King Cobra is the second of two ill-advised gay-themed films James Franco made in 2017 (the other being the biopic I am Michael). King Cobra moves fast and is somewhat entertaining, but the characters are almost all one-dimensional and unpleasant, most of the actors make the characters more "faggy" than they need to be, and the whole project seems thrown together to take advantage of the exploitative value of the material. The performances are okay, but one doubts this will be mentioned in anybody's resume. Franco co-produced the film, no surprise there. Molly Ringwald plays Slater's sister and Alicia Silverstone is Sean's mother. The real "Sean" -- Sean Paul Lockhart -- has disavowed this movie. He has also appeared in the non-porn film Judas Kiss.

Verdict: More entertaining than Stranger By the Lake at any rate. **1/2.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

THAT NIGHT IN RIO

Carmen does her thing!
THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941). Director: Irving Cummings.

"If I can't be happy with another man's wife, how can I be happy with my own?" -- Pierre.

Larry Martin (Don Ameche) is an entertainer with a jealous and tempestuous girlfriend, Carmen (Carmen Miranda of Copacabana). Larry puts on an act in which he impersonates the wealthy Baron Duarte (also played by Ameche), who has a rather cold marriage to his wife, the baroness (Alice Faye). Due to a business foul-up, the baron has to leave town, and his advisers (S. Z. Sakall and Curt Bois) importune Larry to impersonate the baron -- which causes numerous complications but may save a marriage as well as Larry's relationship with Carmen. That Night in Rio is a big, kitschy, Technicolor musical with spirited performances and fun songs (by Gordon and Warren), including Miranda's "Chicki Chicki Boom" and "Ai Yi Yi." The three lead performers are all terrific, and there's excellent support from J. Carrol Naish [The Kissing Bandit] as rival businessman Machado and Frank Puglia [20 Million Miles to Earth] as manservant, Pedro. Maria Montez plays one of the young ladies but hasn't any lines that I recall. Leonid Kinskey plays Pierre, who is hopelessly in love with the baroness. A similar plot was used for a Maurice Chevalier starrer, as well as for On the Rivera with Danny Kaye.

Verdict: It's hard not to like this amiable nonsense. ***.

THE NINTH GUEST

Genevieve Tobin and Hardie Albright
THE NINTH GUEST (1934). Director: Roy William Neill.

A group of people who know and who often vehemently dislike one another receive telegrams inviting them to a party in a penthouse. Once there, they wait to find out who the host is, but -- before you can say *Ten Little Indians or And Then There Were None -- they hear a strange voice on a recording telling of past misdeeds and warning that they are all going to die. The phone lines are cut, and the gate leading to the elevator is wired for electricity. The frantic arguing guests include Jean (Genevieve Tobin), who once was the lover of newspaper man, Jim (Donald Cook); Sylvia (Helen Flint), who has marital secrets; disgraced Mayoral candidate Burke (Charles C. Wilson); Henry Abbott (Hardie Albright), who was thrown out of school by Dr. Reid (Samuel S. Hinds); and several others. What's especially remarkable about The Ninth Guest is that it actually *pre-dates the publication  of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians by five years. The Ninth Guest boasts a very fast pace, not too much comedy relief to spoil the tense atmosphere, a very generous amount of suspense, some interesting psychological aspects, and good acting, especially from Flint [Give Me Your Heart] and Albright [The Crash]. Roy William Neill also directed a whole host of wonderful Sherlock Holmes films. NOTE: You can find this movie at Free Classic Movies.

Verdict: Worthwhile and quite entertaining suspense film -- possibly an influence on Christie -- with some "shocking" sequences. ***.

HOT ROD GANG

John Ashley
HOT ROD GANG (1958). Director: Lew Landers.

John Abernathy III (John Ashley) lives with his two dotty aunts, Abigail (Helen Spring) and Anastasia (Dorothy Neumann). According to the dictates of a will, John must stick to the straight and narrow in his behavior, so he has to hide his interest in hot rods  -- especially when he splashes mud on an old prune, Dryden Philpott (Lester Dorr) --  and rock and roll. Wearing a false beard, John becomes a singer called "Jackson Dalrymple." Meanwhile John carries on a mild romance with new girl Lois (Jody Fair of Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow), whom he at first mistakes for a square. Bandleader Gene Vincent plays himself. Ashley is nice-looking, professional, and manlier than the usual boys in these movies, but he radiates a kind of negative aura, and it's perhaps understandable why he never amounted to much as an actor (he later turned producer). Russ Bender is on hand as a cop, Dub Taylor is Al, and Claire Du Brey [Everybody's Baby], Marie Dressler's companion, plays Agatha, the peppery maid. There are several songs -- you can  have a full life without hearing any of them.

Verdict: Not much about hot rods in this flick. *1/2.

THE MAN IN BLACK

Anthony Forwood and Betty Ann Davies
THE MAN IN BLACK (1949). Director: Francis Searle.

A fellow who calls himself "The Man in Black" (Valentine Dyall) narrates this humdrum story based on a radio program. Henry Clavering (Sidney James of Heatwave) is a wealthy man in an old mansion with an unloving second wife, Bertha (Betty Ann Davies of Blackout) and stepdaughter, Janice (Sheila Burrell of Paranoiac), both of whom are just waiting for him to die. Henry expires during an experiment with yoga, and along come two visitors: Henry's strange daughter, Joan (Hazel Penwarden); and the handsome gigolo, Victor (Anthony Forwood, Dirk Bogarde's significant other). Now the plot is on to drive Joan mad so that Bertha and Janice can take control of the significant estate. The acting isn't bad -- Forwood, more interesting as a bad guy, makes an impression -- and Sidney James plays the dual role of Henry and his inebriated manservant, Hudson. But this is not memorable, just another stinky British mystery released by the cartload during this period. An early production from Hammer studios. Hazel Penwarden makes little impression in this and retired to television.

Verdict: Not worth the time it takes to tell it. *1/2.

NOW THIS IS RICH!

I recently got a warning from Google ads about alleged pornographic and inappropriate content on this blog!

The only thing I can think of that might have offended anyone was a photo that accompanied my review of the Greek thriller The Wife Killer. The photo depicted a man and woman in a quiet moment in bed -- they were not having sex -- but the woman's breast was exposed. I thought this was so mild -- I mean, we've all seen naked breasts in regular, non-pornographic movies since the sixties and certainly thereafter -- that I was surprised anyone could object, but object they obviously did.

I replaced the photo with the one you see now, a poster for the movie showing a woman being murdered!

Isn't it kind of sad that an image of brutality is considered by some to be less offensive than one that's mildly erotic?

HAUNTED HOUSE

Jackie Moran
HAUNTED HOUSE (1940). Director: Robert F. McGowan.

In a small town a handyman named Olaf (Christian Rub) is on trial for murder. A young aspiring reporter named Jimmy (Jackie Moran) believes in Olaf's innocence but has absolutely no evidence to back this up. Into town comes Mildred Henshaw (Marcia Mae Jones), who is the daughter of Albert Henshaw (George Cleveland of Pillow of Death), the editor of the paper. Jimmy and Millie are immediately attracted to one another, and set out to find out who actually murdered Olaf's elderly employer. The two young people prove to be very lousy detectives, but they sort of stumble into a solution. There is no actual Haunted House in Haunted House, only the now-deserted domicile of the murdered woman. Moran [Let's Go Collegiate] is charming, full of that breathless boyishness so typical of the period, and Jones is fine, with some good supporting actors helping things along. Clarence Wilson and Mary Carr [The Sea Fiend] are notable as, respectively, the gas station owner named Eph, and the old lady everyone calls "Grandma."

Verdict: Minor if smooth Monogram filler. **1/2.

DEVIL GODDESS

Billy Griffith
DEVIL  GODDESS (1955). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennett.

In the last of the "Jungle Jim" movies -- or the last non-JJ movie, since star Johnny Weissmuller plays himself and not Jungle Jim, more or less -- our hero encounters Nora (Angela Stevens) who is accompanying her father, Professor Carl Blakely (Selmer Jackson) on a search for the missing Professor Dixon (Billy Griffith). Turns out Dixon has gone a little crazy and become the strange Fire God of the Mountain, but he is actually on a mission to get a tribe to give up the practice of human sacrifice. Sarabina (Vera Francis) is to be one of the sacrifices, and her lover Teinusi (Abel Fernandez) gets Johnny to help him save the gal. The natives are especially restless and the mountain is about to blow its top. Naturally there are bad white guys looking for treasure. One sequence is lifted straight from Savage Mutiny, the Jungle Jim feature which also starred Angela Stevens. The exciting fight between Weissmuller and a gorilla on a rope bridge was taken from Pygmy Island. The best scene in this has chimp Kimba and his simian buddies getting drunk! After this Weissmuller did Jungle Jim, the TV series, which lasted one season and twenty-six episodes. There is no actual "Devil Goddess" in the picture.

Verdict: Barely acceptable jungle adventure with familiar elements. **.


FALLGUY

George Mitchell as the syndicate chief
FALLGUY (1962). Director: Donn Harling.

Young Sonny Martin (Ed Dugan) is driving along the highway one night when he witnesses a car being forced off the road. He comes to the other driver's aid and finds himself at gunpoint, forced to drive to the home of mob doctor Sam Johnson (Don Alderette). The doctor and the would-be victim get into a gun battle, and Sonny flees, eventually telling his story to the police chief (Louis Gartner), who, unfortunately for Sonny, is in the secret employ of newspaper man Carl Tamin (George Mitchell), the syndicate head who ordered the hit in the first place. Sam, Carl, and the cop -- with the aid of a hit man named the Indian -- contrive of a way to not only have Sonny accused of the murder, but be bumped off to boot. Although Ed Dugan has his name above the title, the true star of the film is co-screenwriter George Mitchell, who is fun as the reptilian mob chief who surrounds himself with gals, two of whom have a brief and silly cat fight. There's something vaguely compelling about the movie, which moves fairly briskly for the most part, and has an interesting jazz score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava which actually works well for the film, not always the case with melodramas of this sort. Ed Dugan is introduced with a long dolly shot and initially has a bad boy air that makes him seem interesting and dangerous, but his character turns out to be a bit of a wimp and at times he over-acts. This was his only film appearance. Madeline Frances plays Dr. Johnson's feisty daughter. Most of the people involved in this production did not have careers in movies, Mitchell, Mendoza-Nava, and co-writer Richard DeLong Adams being exceptions.

Verdict: Odd crime drama. **1/2.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

BRING ON THE BAD GUYS!

Magneto
BRING ON THE BAD GUYS! [Top to bottom: Magneto; Fu Manchu; Dr. Mabuse; Fantomas. Not pictured: Diabolik].

This week we look at the wonderful villains who make movies so much fun: the bad guys who make life miserable for our heroes and so many others, but who certainly enliven the film-going experience for all of us. Interestingly, all of these bad guys come from literary sources -- novels, pulps, and comics.

Dr. Fu Manchu
Fantomas first appeared in the novel of that title in 1911. A diabolical criminal mastermind and master of disguise, he starred in many novels, several silent films, and a few ersatz spy-type movies in the sixties. This week you can read a review of the first book, the first silent film, and the first, I believe, of the sixties big-screen adaptations.

Dr. Mabuse
Dr. Fu Manchu first appeared in Sax Rohmer's novel The Mystery of Fu Manchu (aka The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu) in 1913. This was followed by many more books in the series, the Hollywood film The Mask of Fu Manchu, a Republic movie serial, an American TV show that lasted half a season, and a British movie series starring Christopher Lee. The character's nadir, aside from the last Lee film, was the parody The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, Peter Sellers' last movie. You can also read about The Blood of Fu Manchu, the fourth of the Fu-Lee movies.

Dr. Mabuse first appeared in the 1921 novel, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler by Norbert Jacques and became a bestseller. The silent and sound films made by German director Fritz Lang made the character even more popular. Mabuse was turned into a Dr. No-type villain in several sixties films, including The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse, and in 2013 there was a terrible film about him, Doctor Mabuse, which starred several original Dark Shadows cast members.

Diabolik was an Italian comic book/graphic novel character who first appeared in 1962, and was in the tradition of Fantomas and Mabuse, especially the former. Danger: Diabolik was, to my knowledge, the only film featuring the character.

Fantomas
Magneto first appeared in the Marvel comic X-Men 1 in 1963. First presented as a one-dimensional villain out to conquer the world for mutantkind (but more for himself) he was made more dimensional in the comics and then in several big-budget feature films made beginning in 1980. Played originally by Sir Ian McKellan, a younger version of the character was later essayed by Michael Fassbender in such films as X-Men: First Class; X-Men: Days of Future Past; and X-Men: Apocalypse.

I had planned on including a recent movie about Sumuru, Sax Rohmer's villainess, so the ladies would have equal time, but ran out of time, although what I've seen so far of the movie did not make me want to rush to see the rest.



FANTOMAS Marvel Allain and Pierre Souvestre

FANTOMAS. Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Introduction by John Ashbery. First published 1911. Penguin Classics.

This is the first in a series of many, many novels concerning the French master criminal and master of disguise, Fantomas. As the novel begins, there is some question as to whether Fantomas actually exists, but police inspector Juve is convinced that he not only exists but is behind several diabolical crimes. The first of these is the ghastly and brutal murder of the Marquise de Langruen in her locked bedroom, then the murder of Lord Beltham, who is found locked in a trunk. Major characters include Etienne Rambert, who is convinced that his son, Charles, who was so fascinated by Fantomas, is the killer of the Marquise. Then there's the man, Gurn, who may have been the lover of Lady Beltham and may be involved in her husband's death. Juve is eventually able to unmask Fantomas and tell exactly which people the criminal genius was impersonating, but Fantomas has the last laugh and escapes the guillotine via truly despicable means. He "himself was shaken by the horror of the plot he contrived" -- although it's hard to believe the cruel and sociopathic Fantomas would be shaken by any deviltry. Altthough Fantomas and its sequels have been dismissed as mere entertaining pulp stories, this first book in the series, besides being clever and suspenseful, reveals an interesting knowledge of human nature, and the book is quite well-written. The novels were made into several silent serials as well as several sound pictures.

Verdict: Watch out for Fantomas -- he could be anyone! ***.

FANTOMAS: IN THE SHADOW OF THE GUILLOTINE

Rene Navarro and Renee Carl
FANTOMAS: IN THE SHADOW OF THE GUILLOTINE (aka À l'ombre de la guillotine/1913). Director: Louis Feuillade.

The evil genius Fantomas (Rene Navarre) has stolen gems from one terrified woman, Princesse Danidoff (Jane Faber), in a hotel, and is now responsible for the murder of Lord Beltham. Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) is determined to bring the master criminal to justice. Juve determines that Fantomas is actually Mr. Gurn, the love of Lady Beltham (Renee Carl), and Gurn is arrested and set to be executed. But with the help of Lady Beltham, and the unknowing complicity of the actor Valgrand (Andre Volbert), who plays Fantomas on the stage, Gurn will outwit both Juve and the guillotine. This is the first in a series of short silent films based on the novel Fantomas and subsequent volumes. This film eliminates the grisly murder of the Marquise, as well as the dismaying fate of Valgrand. Beautifully remastered, Fantomas is essentially a curio, well done if basically static, and enlivened by a pastiche musical score. Back in the day, it was probably great fun for French audiences to see scenes from such a popular work of fiction enacted on the screen. Less so today.

Verdict: Interesting curio. **1/2.

DRUMS OF FU MANCHU

Henry Brandon as the Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (15 chapter Republic serial/1940). Directors: William Witney; John English.

Taking its cue from the feature-length film starring Boris Karloff, The Mask of Fu Manchu, this serial is also loosely based not on Sax Rohmer's "Drums of Fu Manchu" but rather his "Mask of Fu Manchu." In both film and serial Fu Manchu (Henry Brandon) is out to get certain artifacts from the tomb of Genghis Kahn that will give him the power to conquer all Asia -- in the serial's case it is a sacred scepter. To that end there is a lot of back and forth dallying over not only the scepter, but the "kardac segment," a piece of a tile that will lead to the location of the tomb. Fu's chief adversary, as in the books, is Sir Dennis Nayland Smith (William Royle), with assistance from Dr. Petrie (Olaf Hytten of Detective Kitty O'Day) and young Allan Parker (Robert Kellard of Escort Girl), whose father was murdered by Fu. Other characters include Professor Randolph (Tom Chatterton); his daughter Mary (Luana Walters); Fu Manchu's loyal assistant, Loki (John Merton of Radar Patrol vs Spy King), who actually has fangs; and Fu's daughter, Fah Lo Suee (Gloria Franklin). One carry over from the novel "Drums of Fu Manchu" is the way one hears the nerve-wracking sound of beating, steadily louder drums whenever someone's doom is approaching. Fu, who is more sadistic than in the novels, employs gelatinous darts; a cage with rats inside of it (known as "the gates to paradise"); a fire-branch trap that threatens to snap Allan in two; and a deadly gas in Kahn's tomb. Especially memorable cliffhangers include two trains about to collide in chapter one; the attack of a kind of octo-squid in a watery chamber below Fu's HQ in chapter two; a pendulum that nearly cleaves Allan in twain in chapter four; a jeep that sails over a cliff during a fight with Arabs in chapter eight; a deadly heat device from the sun's rays that nearly frizzles Mary in chapter nine; and a whole ceiling of stalactites that comes crashing down on the good guys in chapter ten. There's a little too much running about the desert in the final chapters, and the score is mediocre. This is not necessarily top-drawer Fu or a top-drawer serial, but it is good and entertaining. Once you get used to the odd voice Henry Brandon affects for Fu, he is quite effective.

Verdict: Great fun to watch Fu Manchu carry out his diabolical manipulations -- always with class. ***.

FANTOMAS (1964)

FANTOMAS (1964). Director: Andre Hunebelle.

"I have committed most of most of my crimes wearing the faces of my victims."

Inspector Juve (Louis de Funes) is determined to catch the master criminal and murderer, Fantomas (Jean Marais). Reporter Fandor (also played by Marais) thinks that Famtomas doesn't really exist and writes a phony interview with the man. This angers the real Fantomas, who not only kidnaps Fandor, but uses a life-like mask of his face to commit his crimes, such as an incredible jewel robbery where there are dozens of guards and guests all over the place. Then he uses the mask (made of something resembling real skin, which Fantomas has created) of Inspector Juve, who is arrested as Fantomas! This all leads to a merry chase with both Juve and Fandor frantically pursuing the arch-fiend as he tries to make it to his waiting submarine. Fantomas is inspired by French novels of the sociopathic criminal, Fantomas, but the tone of this movie, following the cue of the James Bond movies, is much lighter, and eventually approaches parody (unlike the Bond films). Inspector Juve's antics make him begin to resemble Inspector Clouseau, but Funes is good in the role (although not as good as Herbert Lom as Clouseau's nemesis in the films with Peter Sellers) and there are a few genuinely amusing sequences, such as when a whole room of witnesses puts together an identikit photo of "Fantomas" and it looks just like Juve, to his horror. In his true guise, Fantomas wears a blue mask that disguises his features, and his underground headquarters is full of arches and macabre touches (just like a Bond villain). Mylene Demongeot is cast as Fandor's fiancee, Helene, a photographer who gets into the action on more than one occasion but who is still mostly decorative. as is Marie-Helene Arnaud as Lady Beltham, an associate and lover of Fantomas'. The action scenes that comprise the last quarter of the film are never on the same thrilling level as the best of the Bonds, and a scene when Fandor's brakes fail seems to go on forever. More Fantomas features followed.

Verdict: Passable sixties version of durable French villain. **1/2.

THE DEATH RAY MIRROR OF DR. MABUSE

Dead or only resting? Dr. Mabuse
THE DEATH RAY MIRROR OF DR. MABUSE (aka Die Todesstrahlen des Dr. Mabuse/The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse/1964). Director: Hugo Fregonese.

Following the events of Dr. Mabuse vs. Scotland Yard, Professor Pohland (Walter Rilla) claims that he was forced to do his evil deeds detailed in the last film by the spirit of Dr. Mabuse. There seems to be a new Dr. Mabuse in town, and his adversary this time is Major Bob Anders (Peter van Eyck, who played a different character in the previous film but is basically in the same role as agent). Anders is sent to Malta to protect Professor Larsen (O. E. Hasse), who has invented a deadly "death ray mirror" that is coveted by Mabuse. Anders brings along an old, rather dumb girlfriend named Judy (Rika Dialyna) for cover, and also dallies with Larsen's daughter, Gilda (Yvonne Furneaux), and the Oriental beauty, Mercedes (Yoko Tanio). Other characters are Director Botani (Claudio Gora), the eye-patched Admiral Quency (Leo Genn of Personal Affair), and Gilda's boyfriend, Mario (Gustavo Rojo of Tarzan and the Mermaids), one of whom may be the evil Mabuse. While Death Ray Mirror is better than Scotland Yard, it's still a far cry from a good movie. Like the other sixties Mabuse films, this one is an ersatz Eurospy movie, with all of the usual elements but without the budget and elan to make them come alive in any really entertaining fashion. The "death ray mirror" never really comes into play and has little to do with anything. Peter van Eyck handles the derring do as well as anyone. This is the last of the sixties German Mabuse series, but not the last outing for the bad German doctor.

Verdict: Mabuse deserves better. **.

THE FACE OF FU MANCHU

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu: check out those nails!
THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965). Director: Don Sharp.

A number of bodies turn up dead in the Thames, and Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) of Scotland Yard figures his old adversary, Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee), is responsible.  Fu has developed a poison from the Black Hill poppy, a holy flower in Tibet, and uses it to kill off the entire population of a town. (This has an effective scene when two likable soldiers in the town suddenly drop dead.) This is just a demonstration of what he is capable of. In his HQ near the Thames Fu has a "drowning chamber" where he places people he wishes to kill or extract information from. His daughter, now called Lin Tang (she was Fah Lo Suee in the novels) and played by Tsai Chin, is arguably nastier than he is, and seems anxious to whip any employee who disobeys her or her father's orders. Other characters include Professor Muller (Walter Rilla of the Dr. Mabuse films) who works on the poppy formula; his daughter, Maria (Karin Dor of You Only Live Twice); her boyfriend Carl Janssen (Joachim Fuchsberger of Dead Eyes of London); Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford); and a museum director (James Robertson Justice, less irritating than usual), who insists that his establishment is impregnable, even to Fu Manchu; of course he's wrong. As usual, Sax Rohmer's famous character is less dimensional than in the novels, and Christopher Lee, oddly, makes absolutely no attempt to play him as an actual Oriental. At the very beginning of the film, Fu Manchu escapes justice by substituting someone else to be beheaded, a notion carried over from Fantomas. Whatever its flaws, The Face of Fu Manchu is fast-paced and entertaining, and has the correct period setting. Lee is suitably creepy, and the versatile Nigel Green makes an excellent Nayland Smith. The movie doesn't quite capture that certain fiendish atmosphere of the books. This was the first of five Fu Manchu/Lee films produced by Harry Alan Towers. Followed by The Brides of Fu Manchu.

Verdict: Reasonably suspenseful fun. ***.

DANGER: DIABOLIK

Dead or only resting? John Phillip Law as Diabolik
DANGER: DIABOLIK (aka Diabolik/1968). Director: Mario Bava.

Diabolik (John Phillip Law) is a ruthless master criminal who dresses in a black leather outfit that only exposes his eyes. He lives in an elaborate HQ with pools, caverns, equipment, and a humongous revolving bed, and shares his life and crimes with his girlfriend, Eva (Marisa Mell). His chief opponent is Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli), who is determined to bring him to justice. To that end Ginko forces hoodlum Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi of Thunderball) to arrange to kidnap Eve and ensnare Diabolik in a trap. "It takes a thief to catch a thief," intones Ginko. Danger: Diabolik is based on an Italian comic book which in turn was inspired by the adventures of French criminal Fantomas. The movie is very sixties in its pop-style sensibility, and at least one scene reminds one of the Batman TV series, but for the most part the pic is played more or less straight. Diabolik's schemes, especially as they pertain to some stolen emeralds and faking his own death, are extremely clever, and there's a neat sequence when Valmont and Diabolik are fighting each other even after they've fallen out of an airplane. The movie boasts some interesting settings and scenic design but Ennio Morricone's score is just horrible. Law [The Sergeant] makes a splendid Diabolik; Mell [One On Top of the Other] is effective as Eve; Celi and Piccoli are each fine as crook and inspector; and Terry-Thomas is wonderful as a dignitary trying to hold on to his dignity. This is much better than the sixties Fantomas movie, and much, much better than horror-specialist Bava's other "spy" pic, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.

Verdict: Highly entertaining comic book flick with a completely amoral "hero." ***.

THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu
THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (aka Kiss and Kill/1968). Director: Jess Franco. Produced by Harry Alan Towers.

From the South American jungles and a hidden city, Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) sends forth ten kidnapped and mind-controlled women on a mission to murder ten of his most hated enemies. Fu Manchu uses special Incan black cobras to spread poison through the women, who can then deliver a "kiss of death" to their chosen victims. Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Richard Greene of Island of the Lost) is one of these victims, but he doesn't die immediately but goes blind instead. Smith insists that his friend Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford of The Hasty Heart) take him to South America where he can meet up with his agent, Carl Jansen (Gotz George), and get an antidote from Fu Manchu. Tsai Chin is again cast as Fu's nasty daughter, Lin Tang, and Maria Rohm plays Ursula, the daughter of a murdered professor who had been traveling with Carl. The movie is nearly over before Shirley Eaton, who played Sax Rohmer's villainess Sumuru in two movies, shows up as one of the kissing assassins in scenes that could almost be outtakes from her second Sumuru flick, The Girl from Rio (which was also produced by Harry Alan Towers). Ricardo Palacios plays the irritating bandit chief Sancho Lopez, but he plays it well and his death is satisfying. Despite an amusing and workable premise and some interesting settings, The Blood of Fu Manchu has low production values and doesn't have much suspense or excitement. Lee plays Fu strictly for the paycheck. Greene is actually quite good as Smith and George makes an attractive secondary hero. This is the fourth of five Fu Manchu/Chris Lee movies.

Verdict: Sadly, there were worse Fu Manchu movies to come. **.

THE FIENDISH PLOT OF FU MANCHU

Peter Sellers and Helen Mirren
THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR. FU MANCHU (1980). Director: Piers Haggard.

On Dr. Fu Manchu's (Peter Sellers) 168th birthday, his life-sustaining elixir vitae is spilled, and he orders his loyal men to run about stealing the necessary ingredients. Naturally this alerts his longtime adversary, Nayland Smith (also played by Peter Sellers), who has become a little strange after being tortured by the Si-Fan, the group of which Fu is leader. Suspecting that the queen may be a target, Smith has her impersonated by policewoman Alice Rage (Helen Mirren), who is kidnapped by Fu -- and falls in love with him! If you're looking for an inventive laugh riot, look elsewhere, for Fiendish Plot is a mediocre film despite the genius of Peter Sellers, the film's chief saving grace. Helen Mirren [Phil Spector] shows why she became so famous with her excellent portrayal of the kind of schizoid Alice, and David Tomlinson scores as Sir Roger Avery with Scotland Yard. Sid Ceasar does what he can as an FBI agent who, unfortunately, keeps referring to Chinese people as "chinks" throughout the movie, another black mark against the production. Clement Harari as dietitian Dr. Wretch and John Le Mesurier as Smith's valet Perkins are more suitably cast. Fiendish Plot does have a small share of chuckles, and one laugh-out-loud moment involving a mechanical spider. but it lacks pacing and suspense, which is required even for a parody. Fu also employs a big plant that emits a sleeping gas, while Smith's country cottage contains a balloon through which he and his associates fly off in the cottage to the Himalayas to confront Fu, who becomes a rock star with a "Rock a Fu" production number. This was executive produced by Hugh Hefner when Playboy wanted to get into the movie game, which everyone probably regretted. (Hefner was also exec. producer for Kim Novak's TV vehicle The Third Girl from the Left.)  Piers Haggard also directed one of my favorite movies, A Summer Story, which is about a zillion times better than this; genre movies were not his forte. Sadly, this was Peter Sellers' last movie.

Verdict: Not Fu's -- or Sellers'-- finest hour. **

DOCTOR MABUSE

Jerry Lacy as Doctor Mabuse
DOCTOR MABUSE (2013). Written, directed and produced by Ansel Faraj.

Doctor Mabuse (Jerry Lacy) has returned and is determined that the world will once more know his name. Opposing him is young Inspector Lohemann (Nathan Wilson). Lohemann reports to Inspector Von Wenk (Linden Chiles). and goes to two sisters, Madame Carrozza (Lara Parker) and Madame Von Harbau (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the former of whom is a medium, for information. Then nothing much of interest happens. The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse may not have been any great shakes, but it wasn't as much of an effort to sit through as this embarrassing and pretentious mess. Ansel Faraj's approach may seem creative, but he's no Orson Welles, and the movie plods along with limited entertainment value. You might think it's fun to see some of the cast members of the original Dark Shadows TV show appearing in this movie, but the movie is too bad to do much of anything for them. Of Lacy, Parker, and Scott, the last-named gives the best performance, with Parker being typically overwrought and Lacy not having a clue as to how to play the diabolical doctor, and who can blame him? The movie at least seems colorful, although there's way too much use of blue screens in lieu of sets, and Bill Wendel's score works overtime to try to drum up some suspense and excitement, of which their isn't any. Like the film itself, the younger cast members are amateurish, but I would like to see Wilson, who is not unappealing, and Bahia Garrigan, who plays the sexy Christina, in something else. Hopefully something much, much better. There was actually a sequel to this, which I have no intention if sitting through. Like in the earlier films, Mabuse takes over another character at the end of this flick.

Verdict: Oy vey! Enough to make Mabuse come out of his grave. *1/2.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

Michael Fassbender as Eric Lensheer aka Magneto
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014). Director: Bryan Singer.

"So, you were always an asshole?" -- Logan referring to Erik.

Around 2027 mutants and their human supporters are besieged by robots known as Sentinels and the world is in a terrible state. To prevent this scenario from ever coming about, Logan (Hugh Jackman), is sent back in time -- or rather his mind is -- to inhabit his body in 1973. The plan is for Logan, with his knowledge of the future, to help Charles Xavier (James McAvoy of Victor Frankenstein) and Erik Lensherr (formerly known as Magneto, although he is not referred to as such in this movie) prevent shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence of American Hustle) from murdering the creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Logan's first task is to break Erik (Michael Fassbender) out of prison, where he has been shut away after allegedly murdering JFK (he claims he was actually trying to save him). But can these three men prevent an angry Mystique from bringing about the very future they fear? This movie is very loosely based on a classic storyline in the X-Men comic book, but it eliminates the Brotherhood (of Evil Mutants) and adds a tense climax wherein Magneto lifts up an entire stadium and places it around the White House. The movie makes other changes as well. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is Russian in the comics, but in this he's American and can run as fast as DC Comic's Flash. Another big change is that in the comics Trask is of "normal" size whereas in the movie he's a "little person" -- what that's supposed to mean except perhaps for the indication that people who are different can still discriminate against other people who are different?  -- but the movie never explores his feelings in that regard. The performances throughout the film are excellent, with Fassbender taking top honors as Erik. Ian McKellan appears briefly as the older Magneto, a role he created on film, and he's fine, as is Patrick Stewart as the older Charles Xavier (although one can't quite see James McAvoy turning into Patrick Stewart no matter how many years have gone by). Nicholas Hoult [Jack the Giant Slayer] scores as Hank McCoy, better-known as the Beast, and there are what almost amount to cameos from Halle Berry (Storm) and other characters/actors from the earlier films. This has an interesting and moving conclusion, and a good score by John Ottman.

Verdict: Those X-Men just keep on comin'! ***.

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

A Really Bad Guy: Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac)
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016). Director: Bryan Singer.

In 1983 Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), also known as Magneto, a mutant terrorist, has been leading a quiet life with his wife and daughter when his true identity is discovered and a confrontation with police leads to their deaths. Now his mind is in the perfect place for him to team up with En Sabur Nur (Oscar Isaac of Star Wars Part VII), the world's first mutant, born in 2500 A.D., and better-known as Apocalypse. Nur wants to remake the world over by demolishing human society, and Magneto -- at first -- is only too willing to help him. His former friend, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and even fellow terrorist Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) are out to stop the two men and their mutant allies. The trouble with X-Men: Apocalypse -- the sixth X-Men movie (the 8th if you count the two Wolverine films released before this one) -- is that it suffers from over-familiarity and despite a somewhat impressive main villain, lacks a really strong story or sense of desperation. This is another prequel, with younger actors completely taking over from those cast in the first X-Men -- Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are nowhere to be found. The X-Men comic and its many spin-offs (Apocalypse actually first appeared in X-Factor) have been published for so many decades now that the movies have their own interpretation of the characters, hence Peter (Pietro) Maximoff --  apparently Magneto's son -- is no longer a brooding, unpleasant Russian but a hip teenage American, who (as in the last film) has been reinvented to be more like The Flash. The movie's most striking sequence has Flash -- I mean, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) -- rescuing all of the students from Xavier's mansion when it explodes. I don't recall Professor Xavier ever being able to stop time in its tracks the way he does in this movie. X-Men: Apocalypse isn't bad, but it does take a long time to get started, and despite some decent effects, the pace isn't great and the action scenes not that well delineated. Fassbender, who is quite good as the conflicted Erik, has emerged as the dynamic star of the X-Men movies. Hugh Jackman only appears briefly as Logan and was given three of his own films.

Verdict: Perhaps one trip to the well too many? **1/2.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

GILDA

Rita Hayworth
GILDA (1946). Director: Charles Vidor.

"Hate can be an exciting emotion. Very exciting. Hate is the only thing that can ever warm me." -- Ballin Mundson.

"If I'd been a ranch, they'd have named me the bar nothing." -- Gilda.

Down Argentine way just at the end of WW2, a hustler and crooked gambler named Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is nearly robbed when a stranger on the docks with a spear in his cane comes to his rescue. The stranger is casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who hires Johnny to look after his interests. Some time later Ballin introduces Johnny to his beautiful wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), and both feign ignorance of the fact that they were once involved. Johnny and Gilda have a real love-hate relationship to add to the stew, and Ballin has a consortium with a bunch of Germans to add to the confusion. After a man is murdered in the casino, Ballin seems to commit suicide in his plane ... What to make of the modestly entertaining and often silly Gilda? Artificial and Hollywoodish as all get-out, with one-dimensional characters and one of the shortest climaxes in the history of the movies, Gilda has a few interesting twists and turns and is distinguished by the sex appeal and fine, constantly insinuating performance of Rita Hayworth, who makes the most of a standard role of the good-bad girl who is kept by wealthy men while loving the poor fellow she truly adores. Ford is not bad, if miscast, as the grubby borderline lowlife who winds up a kind of bodyguard/ersatz gunsel to Ballin (the narration he's given is unnecessary). Macready gives a good performance -- probably the longest and most famous of his career -- although some of his line readings are a little too matter-of-fact; one can think of other actors who might have played it in a somewhat more colorful and poetically sinister fashion. Steven Geray, Gerald Mohr, and Joseph Calleia all score as, respectively, a lowly casino employee who knows where the bodies are buried; a slimy guy with a hankering for Rita; and the police inspector who is concerned with the doings of the German consortium (even if no one in the audience is).

Some people* have had a different reading on Gilda, claiming that Johnny Farrell is a literal hustler on the bisexual side, Ballin's boyfriend, in fact, and that Johnny's self-hatred forced him to walk away from Hayworth before the story begins. This theory has it that Ballin needs to have power over attractive people of both sexes (one is reminded of Clifton Webb's character in Laura). Unfortunately, this take on the film makes it seem like a bad, regressive gay novel of the forties -- the tormented "queer" pulls away from the guy he's with and walks off into the sunset with a woman -- and while some advocates of this theory can point out certain lines and situations in scene after scene (and they may even have a point), they forget that many, many movies featured bad (and good) guys with live-in bodyguards and buddies, and this was never necessarily considered homoerotic. The proponents of this theory would have a lot to make of the Gilda imitation, Forbidden and many others as well.

Rudolph Mate has contributed some fine cinematography, but you would never know that the story takes place in Buenos Aires, as it has little Argentinian atmosphere. Gilda might be considered film noir except for the fact that its crime aspects are comparatively minimal. The pseudo-clever dialogue is often amusing.

* such as film noir specialist Eddie Muller on the Gilda DVD.

Verdict: Anyway, it's fun watching Hayworth do her "Put the Blame On Mame" number. **1/2.

THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL

Phyllis Calvert
THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL (1947). Director: Brock Williams.

Jackie (Phyllis Calvert) is one of two daughters of a struggling farmer named Farnish (Brefni O'Rorke of The Upturned Glass). She is engaged to a pleasant fellow named Albert (Hubert Gregg), whose unpleasant father, George Grice (Arthur Young), talks the weak man into marrying someone else. Grice also refuses to loan Jackie money for her father, so they have to auction off the farm (including the family dog!). Devastated, Jackie makes up her mind to get money and power and get her revenge on Grice. She is torn between two men, Joe, (John McCallum of The Woman in Question), an honest farm worker who loves her; and Charles (Michael Rennie), who goes into business with her. But will her rise into a world of wealth and power only lead to tragedy? The Root of All Evil, a standard rags to riches/revenge story, would have been a lot more entertaining had it starred, say, Joan Crawford, who could have really slapped home those bitter, angry lines with aplomb. Phyllis Calvert [They Were Sisters] is a good, but less interesting actress, at least in this type of role. The other performers are fine, including Hazel Court as her sister; Moore Marriott as Scholes, a landowner with a grudge; and especially Arthur Young as the venal if ultimately pathetic Grice. There's an exciting climax with a fire and some redemption for at least one character.

Verdict: Routine in all departments. **.

CAGNEY BY CAGNEY

CAGNEY BY CAGNEY. James Cagney. Doubleday; 1976.

James Cagney had no particular interest in writing his memoirs, but he was tired of authors getting the facts wrong and decided he had better tell his own story. The first section of the book features a lot of tales detailing just how tough Cagney was growing up in a bad neighborhood where you had to prove yourself with your fists. Cagney wouldn't be the first song and dance man who felt a need to affect a super-macho image. (Ironically, one of his first jobs had him dancing in drag!) The book is more interesting when Cagney gets into his career, and he makes it clear that he considers himself, first and foremost, a dancer. Cagney felt that making movies was a grind, and he wasn't thrilled with some of the by-the-numbers assignments he was thrown into, nor with the fact that real bullets were originally used in scenes with machine guns! (Oddly, he doesn't acknowledge that he was making much, much more money than the average person.) He writes pleasantly of his fellow actors, with two exceptions: an unnamed leading lady whom he finds condescending: and Horst Buchholz, with whom he appeared in One Two Three. When Buchholz tried one of his "scene-stealing didoes," Cagney was going to "knock him on his ass." Cagey was a rarity in that he wasn't that interested in a typical Hollywood lifestyle, preferring to live in the east, and he was happily married to the same woman, a former actress, for a great many years. Liberal in his youth, Cagney became more conservative as he got older, and also became a conservationist. The book is full of ruminations on how the picture business has changed, as well as the country, and includes many samples of his poetry, which is much better than Jimmy Stewart's. Cagney comes off as a moderately cultured man with some good horse sense, who didn't allow his movie stardom to completely define him. He writes bluntly of movie colleagues who just can't accept the fact that their careers are over and no one is interested in them anymore, a fate that did not ensnare Cagney, as he became an icon instead of a has-been.

Verdict: Probably not the last word, but an interesting look at a very interesting and talented actor. ***.

WESTWORLD

Mr. Intense: Yul Brynner
WESTWORLD (1973). Written and directed by Michael Crichton.

The amusement park Delos, primarily for the very wealthy, offers something that even Disneyworld can't provide: incredibly lifelike robots who can interact -- and even have intercourse -- with the guests. Delos is divided into sections where guests can live out their fantasies: Westworld, Roman World, and Medieval World. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin of The Car) check into the wild west and tangle with an intense, unfriendly gunslinger (Yul Brynner), who has little to say and seems to die quite easily -- at first. Things start going wrong at Delos and suddenly the robots aren't so compliant ... Westworld has a terrific (if probably not very original) idea, but its execution is hit or miss. There isn't much internal logic for one thing: why do the robots' guns have real bullets in them, and since you generally can't tell a human from a robot, can't a guest accidentally wind up injuring or killing another guest? There is some mild suspense at the climax, but this never really develops into much of anything. It certainly could have used a better script and a bigger budget. Yul Brynner has little dialogue but he easily walks off with the movie with his trademark intensity; Brolin is satisfactory; but Benjamin -- admittedly this material is not exactly Diary of a Mad Housewife -- mostly walks through the movie, but in the wrong way.  Jared Martin is a technician; Dick Van Patten a horny guest; and Majel Barrett [As Young As We Are] a madame. Followed by the film Futureworld, the TV series Beyond Westworld, and a 2016 HBO series.

Verdict: Somewhat entertaining but basically disappointing. **.

FUTUREWORLD

Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner
FUTUREWORLD (1976). Director: Richard T. Heffron.

Some years after a disaster in the amusement world of Delos (detailed in Westworld), the park reopens with a new attraction: Futureworld, where you can take a simulated flight into space. Newspaper reporter Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and TV journalist Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), who have a more or less friendly rivalry, are invited to be the first to visit the reopened Delos and file stories about it. Tracy thinks it's all marvelous, but Chuck got reports of something rotten going on from a former employee who was later murdered. As the two experience all the wonders of Delos, things happen that make them wonder if something much more sinister is going on. Then the reporters discover that they have been duplicated ... Futureworld is superior to Westworld, with a better plot that goes in interesting directions, and a certain degree of suspense. Fonda [Ghost Rider] and Danner are odd choices to play the main characters, but both do a good job, and Danner, an excellent actress, adds some heft to the proceedings -- she is particularly good in a scene where she is dangerously confronted by the Tracy-clone. Arthur Hill [The Andromeda Strain] is solid as the executive in charge of Delos, and John Ryan [It's Alive] is suitably grim as the head technician in the conspiracy. Stuart Margolin scores in the smaller role of Harry Kroft, a tech worker who helps Chuck and Tracy get into a certain room where there are secrets to be revealed. Yul Brynner appears as the gunslinger from Westworld, but only in a very bad dream sequence that is the worst thing in the movie, although Danner may have been happy that she got to make out with "the King." Futureworld is "soft" science fiction in that it doesn't explore its premise with any special depth. Fred Karlin's score is effective.

Verdict: For once, a superior sequel. ***.

THE WIFE KILLER


THE WIFE KILLER (aka Eglima sto Kavouri/The Rape Killer/Death Kiss/1976). Director: Kostas Karagiannis.

Jim (Lakis Komninos) is married to the wealthy Elena (Dorothy Moore), but he is much more interested in his younger mistress, Laoura (Jane Paterson). Jim has an old acquaintance named Mike (Vagelis Seilinos), who -- we learn at the very beginning -- has been committing a series of violent rape-murders. Jim offers to pay Mike a large sum if he will make Elena his latest victim. Things seem to be proceeding nicely for greedy Jim, but Mike, as well as a doctor who is in love with Elena, may throw a hitch in his plans ... The Wife Killer is an absorbing Greek thriller, modeled on Italian giallo films, that certainly has an interesting premise with some good (if perplexing) twists, but then leaves way too many loose ends to make sense. The acting is good, and Seilinos offers a striking portrait of a conscienceless sociopath who is more clever than his partner-in-crime would imagine. This was loosely inspired on the real-life murder of Ann Chapman, who at first seemed a victim of a sex murderer until others determined that she was possibly killed by corrupt policemen.

Verdict: Colorful and macabre if ultimately unsatisfying. **1/2.

I SAILED TO TAHITI WITH AN ALL GIRL CREW

Gardner McKay
I SAILED TO TAHITI WITH AN ALL GIRL CREW (1968). Written, produced, and directed by Richard L. Bare.

When he's drunk, Terry O'Brien (Gardner McKay of Adventures in Paradise) makes a bet that he can sail to Tahiti with an all-girl crew and arrive before his opponent, Josh (Fred Clark). If he loses, he has to give Josh his boat, the Samaran. His international crew consists of Liz (Diane McBain); sexy ex-stripper Marilyn (Edy Williams of The Naked Kiss); Monique (Jeanne Rainer); the cook and aspiring dancer Tamaya (Bebe Louie); and Janet (Arlene James). One of these women has viciously stabbed a man and is on the run, and there's a stowaway named Jimsy (Mary O'Brien), a tomboy who wants to join the crew and has a crush on Terry. If the movie weren't bad enough, we also have irritating Pat Buttram as a lawman on the hunt for the aforementioned stabber. Richard Denning [The Black Scorpion] plays a commodore who decides to choose the winner with a photo finish. The gals are pretty; glib if charming McKay is as handsome as ever; there are some nice yachts and pretty blue water; and one clever bit, when Tamaya keeps eggs from rolling off the counter by putting them in her bra cups. There's maybe one other laugh in what seems like a not-very-expensive home movie. I guess McKay beat Elvis to the punch because you can just see Presley warbling tunes and romancing women on the way to Tahiti -- I mean, this was an irresistible plot for the "Pelvis." I Sailed to Tahiti has no songs, but there is an Hawaiian dance number.

Verdict: I kept expecting Sonny and Cher to show up any minute and do the frug. *1/2.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

FORBIDDEN

FORBIDDEN (1953). Director: Rudolph Mate.

"There isn't one thing about you that I've ever forgotten."

In post-WW2 Macao, Eddie Darrow (Tony Curtis) comes looking for his lost lady love, Christine (Joanna Dru). A bitter Darrow is being paid money to bring Christine, who is the widow of a notorious gangster, back to the United States to help with a deal for one of her late husband's associates, but the truth is that she knows too much. Darrow comes to the aid of nightclub-casino owner Justin Keit (Lyle Bettger), who is assaulted in the street, and winds up staying in his home, ultimately learning that Christine is Keit's fiance. With Keit and his men on one side, and her husband's associates on the other, will Eddie and Christine live long enough to enjoy their rekindled romance? Forbidden takes all of the stock elements from much better pictures, tosses them around, and comes up with a brisk, entertaining, but forgettable romantic adventure. The performances are all good, with Curtis' dead-commonness not getting in the way of his characterization (such as it is); Dru attractive if a bit tame as the femme fatale; and Bettger [The Sea Chase] walking off with the movie as her dangerous fiance. Victor Sen Yung [Charlie Chan in Honolulu] gets to play two stereotypes: the inscrutable Oriental coming out with pithy sayings, and the philosophizing piano player. Arguably Curtis' best performance was in Sweet Smell of Success. Not to be confused with Macao.

Verdict: Call this Gilda once over lightly. **1/2.

THE LAST HURRAH

Spencer Tracy
THE LAST HURRAH (1958). Director: John Ford.

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) runs for one last term, and is up against a younger family man (Charles B. Fitzsimons) who seems the pawn of more experienced politicians. Frank's son, Junior (Arthur Walsh), is a fifties-type jazz baby who has little interest in politics or much else. Frank is closer to his nephew, Adam (Jeffrey Hunter), whose boss at a newspaper, Amos Force (John Carradine), and father-in-law Roger Sugure (Willis Bouchey), both detest Frank. Frank is an old-fashioned Irish-American politician who has survived decades due to his old cronies who love him, but it's a new world out there and Frank may get a surprise on election night ... The Last Hurrah could be picked apart on certain levels -- the characterization is quite superficial at times --  but it works because of its acting and Ford's smooth, professional direction. Tracy is excellent, and he gets fine support from Hunter, Walsh, Carradine, and especially Basil Rathbone in a scene-stealing turn as a banker who comes afoul of Frank and vice versa. (The whole sequence with Rathbone's lisping, clearly mentally-deficient son, who is cruelly used to blackmail Rathbone, is in questionable taste, to say the least.) Other cast stand-outs include Ricardo Cortez as Sam, the campaign manager; Donald Crisp as the cardinal; Basil Ruysdael as Bishop Gardner; and Jane Darwell as Delia Boylan, whose chief occupation seems to be to go to funerals and cackle. Edward Brophy [Romance on the Run] is also notable as "Ditto," Frank's old pal, a rather sad figure (whom we learn little about) who's given the last appearance in the picture. Anna Lee [Summer Storm] scores as Gert, a widow, in one of the film's most interesting sequences. Gert keeps repeating "he was a good man, Frank, a good man," when it's clear that her husband didn't even bother to see how she would get along after his death and left no insurance. Bob Sweeney is fine as a funeral director, as are Ken Curtis [Don Daredevil Rides Again] as Monsignor Killian, Dianne Foster as Adam's conflicted wife, and Frank Albertson as the opponent's manager, Jack Mangan. O. Z. Whitehead is quite good in the thankless role of Rathbone's son, Norman Jr. Harry Lauter, Edmund Lowe, Tom Neal; William Hudson all have smaller, generally non-speaking roles. Spencer Tracy was only 58 when  he did this picture, but looks years older, and his character was actually 72 in Edward O'Connor's source novel. Sure, make up could have been used to make Tracy look older, but I think years of heavy drinking had taken their toll.

Verdict: An excellent lead performance and a smooth production make this worthwhile. ***.