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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937)

Ronald Colman meets Ronald Colman
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937). Director: John Cromwell.

Major Rudolph Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) is vacationing when people keep remarking upon his strong resemblance to Prince Rudolph (also played by Colman). The two men meet and turn out to be cousins. When the prince is given a knock-out potion on the night before his coronation, his aides importune the major to impersonate him or all will be lost. But there are two complications. Will Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), the prince's beloved, be able to see past the deception? And what happens when the real king gets kidnapped? Colman is terrific in both roles, and there is also expert work from the lovely Carroll [My Son, My Son] ; Raymond Massey [Possessed] as his evil brother, who wants the crown for himself; C. Aubrey Smith and David Niven as the king's friends and comrades; Mary Astor as the woman who loves Massey not wisely but too well; and especially Douglas Fairbanks Jr. [Little Caesar] as the haughty, deceptively sinister Rupert. The film is capped by an exciting sword fight between Colman and Fairbanks, but it never quite becomes a classic. Remade at least once.

Verdict: Colman  and Massey are always interesting to watch. **1/2.


FAIL-SAFE

Frank Overton
FAIL-SAFE (1964). Director: Sidney Lumet.

The American president (Henry Fonda) discovers that the U.S. air force accidentally launched a bomber squadron against Moscow. Now his job is two-fold: to convince his Russian counterpart that this strike was indeed accidental and prevent retaliation; and to stop or even shoot down the U.S. planes before they can drop the bombs and start WW3. The tension is thick as various characters react to what is an untenable and horrifying situation. The acting from the entire cast is first-class: Dan O Herlihy  [King of the Roaring 20's] as General Black, who must discharge the most distasteful duty of his career, to put it mildly; Fritz Weaver (who was introduced in this film) as Colonel Cascio, who is nearly driven mad by the situation and has a violent breakdown; Walter Matthau (in one of his early dramatic roles) as Groeteschele, who is coldly pragmatic when it comes to the numbers of projected casualties and the like; and especially Frank Overton [Desire Under the Elms], in the performance of his career, as the conflicted but duty-bound General Bogan. Janet Ward certainly scores in a small but pivotal role as Mrs. Grady, who desperately tries to tell her husband, the lead pilot, to turn back before it's too late. Nancy Berg, Dom DeLuise [Diary of a Bachelor]  and Larry Hagman (as a translator), among others, also do well in some flavorful supporting roles. One of the best scenes has Bogan reacting after the men in the war room cheer the downing of one of the planes -- "this isn't a football game!" I don't know if I find the controversial ending to this to be especially believable, but it certainly packs a wallop. I have no doubt that when this was released people left the theater shivering in shocked silence. This was released the same year as the satirical Dr. Strangelove, which has more or less the same plot, but the more somber Fail-Safe has the edge on it. The movie could have been cut by ten or so minutes and tightened a bit, however.

Verdict: Disturbing, high-impact, and infinitely depressing. ***1/2.

WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT?

Woody Allen is analyzed by Peter Sellers
WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965). Director: Clive Donner. Screenplay by Woody Allen.

Dr. Frtiz Fassbender (Peter Sellers) is a very weird psychoanalyst with a jealous, Wagnerian wife (Eddra Gale). Most of Fassbender's clients are in serious need of help, including Michael James (Peter O'Toole), who has a fiancee, Carol (Romy Schneider of Sissi), but who just can't keep away from admiring women. Fassbender has the hots for another client, Renee (Capucine of The Pink Panther), but she, too, prefers Michael. Then there's Victor (Woody Allen in his film debut), who supposedly has a girlfriend but who winds up in a dalliance with Carol. And we mustn't forget Liz (Paula Prentiss of Follow the Boys), who decides she wants to marry Michael after a one-night-stand and keeps trying to commit suicide. All of these characters and more wind up at a trysting place where there are rooms named after great lovers ("We've put two cheating men in the Don Juan room." says the proprietor.) If What's New, Pussycat? sounds riotous be warned that it's often more frenetic than funny and that the treatment is a bit smarmy and silly instead of sophisticated. Sellers is wonderful and most of the cast are at least enthusiastic. The opening with Fassbender and his wife is rather hilarious, however, and there are amusing moments throughout. The film's frankness was probably refreshing in this period. At one point Sellers/Fassbender analyzes Victor/Allen. Ultimately, Sellers is the more versatile and brilliant comedian; Woody developed his nebbish persona (from his stand-up act) in this movie and has never veered from it one iota.The title tune is warbled by the then-very popular Tom Jones, who used to get panties thrown at him by the ladies in the audience during his live shows.

Verdict: Silly stuff, but very popular in its day -- Allen's first movie and first hit. **1/2.

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN

Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr
THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN  (1969). Director: Joseph McGrath.

Wealthy Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) has no son and heir, so he picks up a tramp he calls Youngman (Ringo Starr) and adopts him. Grand and son enjoy seeing how much people will do for money, and it turns out to be quite a lot. The last third of the film takes place on the title ocean liner, where there are riotous -- but, unfortunately, not very funny -- proceedings on board. The climax has Guy putting cash in a pool of literal crap and watching men dive for the loot while Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" plays over the action. Meant to tackle sacred cows of the period, The Magic Christian is merely awful and tedious, although there are times when you just can't turn your eyes away. The picture has the distinction of being the one Peter Sellers movie in which he clowns around but just isn't funny, and Starr, while adequate, is just along for the ride. There's a lot of homo-eroticism in the picture -- such as two dancing gay bodybuilders, and two boxers who begin making out instead of punching one another (for such a "daring" movie it's strange the way the camera cuts away before they actually kiss) -- and, alas, Leonard Frey of The Boys in the Band is forced to play a character named Laurence Faggot (pronounced Fag- go). What's meant to be shocking and sarcastic is just silly and asinine. Wilfrid Hyde-White [The Browning Version] is fine as the captain of the Magic Christian; Laurence Harvey [Life at the Top] seems to be having fun doing what might be called a Shakespearean striptease; Raquel Welch wields a mean whip in a galley scene; and Patrick Cargill and John Cleese are somewhat amusing as discombobulated employees of Sotheby's. Christopher Lee even shows up wearing his Dracula teeth and threatening to put the bite on a lady passenger. But the best cameo hands-down goes to Yul Brynner [Westworld], who is frankly astonishing as a somewhat odd-looking songstress warbling Noel Coward's "Mad About the Boy" in a cocktail lounge. Otherwise, this is a criminal waste of time! The whole film looks as if everyone involved was completely stoned all during filming.

Verdict: One of the worst movies ever made -- aside from a "fabulous" Brynner. *.

ANYTHING FOR A THRILL

Brothers: Kane Richmond and Frankie Darro
ANYTHING FOR A THRILL (1937). Director: Leslie Goodwins.

"Sometimes I think you're next to an idiot."

Newsreel photographer Cliff Mallory (Kane Richmond) is told by his boss, Collins (Edward Hearn), to get some footage of pretty heiress Betty Kelley (Ann Evers) or else. Apparently Miss Kelley has an aversion to having her picture taken by anyone, including Cliff and his younger brother, Dan (Frankie Darro). Dan has a sort of girlfriend named Jean (June Johnson), and Betty is engaged to a suave lowlife named Albert (Johnstone White), who is only hoping to get money out of her. The crap hits the fan when the Mallory brothers do manage to  get Betty on film, and she retaliates ... Anything for a Thrill is one of a number of cheap movies [such as Tough To Handle] starring Richmond and Darro as brothers, or student and mentor, and this one is about average. The screenplay is not terrible, just minor-league, with characters that are not much developed beyond stereotypes. Darro is as good as usual, while Richmond, a handsome serial star [Haunted Harbor] with a pleasing presence, is more than competent but not exactly a gifted comedian. Ann Evers makes an impression as the heiress, but squeaky-voiced June Johnson is as grating as she is "cute;" neither actress had that many credits. Edward Hearn and Darro also appeared together in The Vanishing Legion serial.

Verdict: Darro is generally superior to his material. **.

ON SONDHEIM: AN OPINIONATED GUIDE

ON SONDHEIM: AN OPINIONATED GUIDE. Ethan Mordden. Oxford University Press; 2016.

Mordden, who has written several informative, engaging, and highly opinionated volumes on musical theater, herein devotes a full book to the work of Stephen Sondheim. In addition to his shows, Mordden also explores the lyricist-composer's film and television work, such as Evening Primrose, Dick Tracy, and Stavisky. Mordden is an unabashed Sondheim admirer, taking a stand against his critics, and explaining what he feels is Sondheim's unqualified genius. Mordden has chapters on Sweeney Todd, Company, Follies, Gypsy, Pacific Overtures, Passions, Anyone Can Whistle, and others, and even looks at the film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Into the Woods. Mordden, as usual, writes with authority and flair, with an obvious passion for his subject. Admittedly, Mordden won't necessarily convince readers who would much prefer to listen to, say, Richard Rodgers' Younger Than Springtime than Sondheim's The Little Things We Do Together and who love The King and I much, much more than Follies or that closet queen show (as I call it), Company. Broadway was being more and more influenced by pop music -- as opposed to European style operetta and opera a la Rodgers and Lowe -- as Sondheim ascended, and nowadays most Broadway scores are pure pop and even rock. Writing strictly in an admiring mode, Mordden never acknowledges that the undeniably gifted Sondheim (Send in the Clowns; Joanna; Agony; Grateful/Sorry; Too Many Mornings; Losing My Mind; many others) can also be quite trite and tiresome at times. Arguably, Sweeney Todd is Sondheim's masterpiece. Sondheim also co-wrote the screenplay for The Last of Sheila and was a script writer for the old Topper TV show with Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper!

Verdict: Solid book on the work and career of Sondheim with a little bit on his personal life. ***.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Kong expresses his opinion of this movie
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
(2017). Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

A prologue set in 1944 shows two soldiers -- one Japanese, one American -- fighting on Skull Island until King Kong (or at least his paws) interrupts. Thirty years later an expedition is going to Skull Island for resources, and it's quite awhile until the title character shows up in all of his glory. Sergeant Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) wants to blow Kong away for destroying many of his men, but others argue that Kong protects the natives on the island from much worse monsters. While the two opposing camps try to persuade the other, they must fight off all manner of hungry and horrible creatures. This reboot of Kong is more successful than the most recent Godzilla, but despite some outstanding special effects -- and an impressive leading man in Kong -- the movie just lacks that certain sense of wonder. Having the trip to Skull Island be a military operation sort of strips it of romance, and Kong: Skull Island is merely another loud, cold-blooded (if not necessarily more cold-blooded than the original King Kong), slick, forgettable, modern-day monster flick with a typically flip, often cutesy approach and a mediocre screenplay. The actors are competent enough, but they are pretty much lost in a sea of FX, and sympathetic characters get dismissed even as they're eaten. Kong is much, much bigger in this than he was in the 1933 film, and his climactic battle with a huge reptilian creature -- not to mention the post-credit epilogue that most people didn't wait around in the theater to see -- suggests there may be a remake of King Kong vs Godzilla in the offing. Despite all the action, the movie has slow stretches, and not just in the first quarter. The two best scenes in the movie have nothing to do with Kong at all: the soldiers are attacked by a humongous and deadly tree spider; and a touching coda involving the surviving WW2 sailor from the prologue as he returns home to his family. As the guide and nominal hero of the piece, Tom Hidddleston makes much less of an impression than he does as the villainous Loki in Thor.

Verdict: The original King Kong is still the best and likely to remain so. **1/2.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

ANNIE HALL

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
ANNIE HALL (1977). Director: Woody Allen. Screenplay by Allen and Marshall Brickman.

:There's too much emphasis on orgasms to make up for the emptiness in life.: -- Alvy.

"Who said that?" -- Annie.

"Leopold and Loeb." -- Alvy.

Comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us of his relationship with, and ultimate bittersweet breakup from, girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in a tale that looks at how people can love one another but may not be right as lifelong partners. Annie Hall is one of Allen's most likable and entertaining movies, a frequently inventive comedy-drama (with emphasis on comedy) in which Allen/Singer talks directly to the audience, and he and other characters observe and comment as they look back at their younger selves with earlier lovers, and so on. Allen [Shadows and Fog] and Keaton [Shoot the Moon] both offer winning performances and there are small roles/cameos from Colleen Dewhurst [You Can't Take It With You], Christopher Walken, Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Janet Margolin, and larger roles for Tony Roberts (whose character of a sitcom actor never seems remotely real) and Paul Simon as a wealthy record producer (he's fine). An odd scene has Annie talking about a tragic, shell-shocked uncle without having any real understanding of what the poor man must have gone through and laughing at it until she realizes "I guess it's not funny." Duh! The film has a sub-text of the differences between a New York and Hollywood lifestyle, not to mention the differences between Manhattan and L.A. You can't say that either Alvy or Annie are people you might actually want to hang out with, but they make an engaging sort of couple for the movie if nothing else. Allen won Oscars for writing (along with Marshall Brickman) and directing and was nominated for his performance; Keaton won the Best Actress Oscar, and the movie won Best Picture.

Verdict: Not really a masterpiece as such, but lots of airy charm and creative fun in this. ***.

THE TALK OF THE TOWN

Ronald Colman and Jean Arthur
THE TALK OF THE TOWN (1942). Producer/director: George Stevens.

Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) has been falsely accused of setting fire to a warehouse and killing the watchman, so he breaks out of jail. He hides out in a house that has just been sold to law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), who shows up a day earlier than expected while Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) is fixing things up. Wanting to be able to feed Dilg while he's hiding in the attic, Nora takes a job as Michael's cook and secretary, while Leopold comes downstairs and introduces himself as the gardener. This strange trio will have to contend with the authorities as they tear the town apart looking for Dilg, who is right under their noses. Meanwhile, which man will Nora ultimately wind up with? You may not find yourself caring all that much, because the script for Talk of the Town is, frankly, beneath the talents of its three wonderful leading players, all of whom are at the top of their game (although one could argue that Grant is a little too insouciant considering the desperate situation he's in).The movie begins with a very cinematic opening depicting Dilg's escape, but then there's an abrupt change in tone as what started out as a melodrama turns into a screwball and borderline slapstick comedy; then there's another shift into melodrama. This might have worked in some of Frank Capra's pictures, but this is an uneasy blend of some genuine laughs with a more serious underlying tone, and the two never quite jell. Glenda Farrell is less obnoxious than usual as the girlfriend of Clyde Bracken, played by Tom Tyler [The Phantom] of serial fame. Edgar Buchanan, Leonid Kinskey, Charles Dingle and Rex Ingram [The Thief if Bagdad] have smaller roles. George Stevens also directed Woman of the Year and many other, much better pictures.

Verdict: Tries to be Capraesque, but fails -- although the leads are all great! **.

PEPE LE MOKO

Jean Gabin as Pepe
PEPE LE MOKO (1937). Director: Julien Duvivier.

Master thief Pele le Moko (Jean Gabin) has taken up residence in the twisted, dangerous byways of the Casbah in Algiers, where he hides out from the authorities even as he feels like he's a prisoner. His girlfriend is Ines (Line Noro), but he develops a romantic yearning for Gaby (Mireille Balin), the kept woman of a rich, corpulent tourist. But will Ines' jealousy interfere with his plans to flee to his beloved Paris with the woman of his dreams? The characters of Pepe le Moko are not that dimensional or bright, but the film's intensity, especially at the climax, partially compensates, and one can certainly feel pity for Ines. There is something quasi-tragic about a man meeting fate because of his feelings for a woman who is, by any standard, a tramp, but this has always been a popular theme in movies from any country. The best scene in the movie has the old and fat Tania (Frehel) beautifully singing a sad song of lost youth and regret as Pepe listens. Fernand Chapin is the informer and turncoat, Regis; Gilbert Gil is young Pierrot, who comes to a bad end; and Lucas Gridoux is Slimane, the friendly police inspector who intends to arrest Pepe as soon as he leaves the protected territory of the Casbah. Pepe le Moko is no different from a Hollywood movie in that it never seems remotely real. Devoid of much sex appeal, Gabin makes an unlikely lover boy, but his performance is fine,and Noro is especially affecting as Ines. Based on a French crime novel, there were at least two American remakes, Aligers with Charles Boyer and Casbah with Tony Martin! Duvivier also directed such interesting American films as Flesh and Fantasy and Lydia. His last film was the unfortunate Diabolically Yours in 1967.

Verdict: Despite its flaws, this has a certain power, especially in the well-played finale. ***.


ALGIERS

Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr
ALGIERS (1938). Director: John Cromwell.

Hiding out in the Casbah, jewel thief Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer) falls for Gaby (Hedy Lamarr), the fiancee of a wealthy tourist. But will the woman who adores him, Ines (Sigrid Gurie), be indirectly responsible for his destruction? Algiers is the first American remake of the French film Pepe le Moko, which had only come out one year earlier. Algiers is virtually a scene for scene remake of Pepe -- sometimes even a shot for shot remake -- but it still has the edge on the French original. For one thing, we have Charles Boyer [Gaslight] in the title role, and he is not only much more "romantic"-looking than the rather potato-faced Jean Gabin, but offers a much more nuanced and emotional performance. Although most of her dialogue is virtually the same as in Pepe, Hedy Lamarr  [Crossroads] gives a much warmer and more human delivery, making her character much more likable. Gurie is fine as Ines, although this version is less compassionate toward her than the original, which cuts her out of the ending and has Slimane, the inspector, telling her off for betraying Pepe. Slimane is portrayed by Joseph Calleia [Five Came Back], and it is one of the actor's most memorable performances. Others in the cast include Johnny Downs as Pierrot, Joan Woodbury as his girlfriend, and Leonid Kinskey as L'Arbi. Boyer sings a song (C'est la vie) as Gabin did in the original, but the sequence where Tania sings has been omitted. Another plus for this version is an effective musical score by Mohamed Ygerbuchen and Vincent Scotto. James Wong Howe was cinematographer. Of course in neither version of the story does the romanticized criminal Moko seem that much like a real person. Incidentally, Boyer never says the line "Come with me to the Casbah; we will make beautiful music together"--  more's the pity! Samuel Goldwyn discovery Sigrid Guris, a "Norwegian" actress born in Flatbush, only made a few movies. Remade as Casbah with Tony Martin.

Verdict: More fun in the Casbah! ***.

CASBAH

Yvonne De Carlo and Tony Martin 
CASBAH (1948). Director: John Berry.

Thief Pepe le Moko (Tony Martin) hides out in the Casbah while the friendly cop Slimane (Peter Lorre) hopes he'll step out of his safe harbor so he can arrest him. Pepe falls for Gaby (Marta Toren), who is the fiancee of the wealthy Claude (Herbert Rudley of Decoy), inspiring jealousy both in Claude and in Inez (Yvonne De Carlo), who thinks of herself as Pepe's one true love. Naturally, nobody's plans work out as they intended. It was only a matter of time before someone got the idea of making a musical out of the Pepe le Moko story -- filmed at least twice before as Pepe le Moko and Algiers -- and this is the closest you'll ever get, as this is what you might call a semi-musical remake with crooner Martin singing a couple of vaguely pleasant tunes by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin (Martin is in splendid voice). Casbah is not nearly as bad as you might expect, with Martin making a sexier and gruffer Pepe, and Peter Lorre spicing up the proceedings with his typically interesting portrayal of Slimane. In this version the Casbah seems less a filthy ghetto and more a mere tourist attraction, but it has at least as much artificial atmosphere as the first two versions. Unlike AlgiersCasbah is not a copy of Pepe le Moko, but eliminates some characters, has different sequences, and makes Gaby even more independent than in the other versions but also less likable. Swedish actress Toren had a few uncredited parts before being "introduced" in this film as the "next Ingrid Bergman." She's adequate and managed to amass a number of credits but she died tragically young at thirty. Yvonne De Carlo is her saucy self as Inez, although she's not always photographed very flatteringly. Other cast members include Douglas Dick [The Accused] in an unsympathetic character part; Hugo Haas as a friend of Pepe's; and the always-interesting Virginia Gregg as a friend of Gaby's. If there's any problem with Casbah, it's that this version tries too hard to make this some kind of tragic love story when the lovers barely know one another, are completely one-dimensional, and Martin and Toren don't even have that much chemistry together. The shot of Martin on the runway while the plane bearing Toren soars overhead is a dramatic composition but it also comes off as a little hokey considering. Interestingly, while the earlier versions only talk about how difficult it would be for the police to get a captured Pepe out of the Casbah, this version actually shows us how difficult it would be, as all of Pepe's cronies come to his rescue after he's been handcuffed, attack the cops, and free him. John Berry also directed Tension.

Verdict: The odd but arresting duo of Martin and Lorre almost make this work. **1/2.


THE STEPMOTHER

John Garfield Jr., and John Anderson
THE STEPMOTHER (1972). Director: Howard Avedis.

In the prologue to The Stepmother, jealous businessman Frank Delgado (Alejandro Rey of Blindfold) comes home early, realizes his friend, Alan (Mike Kulcsar), has slept with his wife, and strangles him. As he's burying the body, a fight breaks out between a couple nearby and the man starts strangling his girlfriend, and this man becomes a suspect in Alan's murder. If you're expecting a riveting, clever suspense film to follow, be forewarned that the script for this movie seems to have been written each day of filming, and there are lots of unanswered questions. The picture is half over before Frank's son, Steve (Rudy Herrera Jr.) shows up and the "stepmother" of the title -- Frank's younger wife, Margo (Katherine Justice) -- who has already caused enough problems, begins to make a play for Steve ... The Stepmother is a cheap exploitation item that has competent acting but needs a tighter script, to say the least. Rey has his moments, but he is put into situations that would test any actor's mettle -- and you can only understand about a third of what he's saying --  and perky Justice, while professional, is a bit insufficient as the resident femme fatale, if that's what you can call her. Larry Linville of Mash plays another friend of Frank's, and Marlene Schmidt is his wife, who develops a yen for Frank. John Anderson [Zane Grey Theater] is as professional as ever as the cop assigned to Alan's murder, and John D. Garfield (aka David Garfield or John David Garfield), son of the famous John Garfield, amiably plays a photographer nicknamed Goof. Young Garfield died at only 51, lasting 12 years longer than his father.

Verdict: From Crown International, so you get what you expect. **.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY AND HORROR FILM SEQUELS, SERIES AND REMAKES

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY AND HORROR FILM SEQUELS, SERIES AND REMAKES: An Illustrated Filmography with Plot Synopses and Critical Commentary. Volume 1. Kim R. Holston and Tom Winchester. McFarland; 1997. Foreword by Ingrid Pitt.

You gotta love a book that has a foreword by the one and only Ingrid Pitt of Hammer horror fame. But there's lots more to enjoy afterward, including synopses of hundreds of movies, along with a brief analysis of each film and interesting quotes from reviews both good and bad. There are also lots of photographs in this very thick volume, which covers everything (in more or less alphabetical order) from The Abominable Dr. Phibes to Zapped Again, with stops along the way to look at multiple versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Halloween and Friday the 13th films, Roger Corman's Poe series, the many, many Frankenstein and Dracula movies, and a whole lot more, covering the classics up to the splatter period and beyond. The book is fun to read whether you go from front to back or pick out movies after you watch them. This is a reference book you will also enjoy reading from cover to cover. Holston also wrote Susan Hayward: Her Life and Films.

Verdict: Worthwhile look at genre films with many illustrations and solid info. ***.