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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

LE NOTTI BIANCHI

Schell and Mastroianni
LE NOTTI BIANCHI (1957). Director: Luchino Visconti.

Mario (Marcello Mastroianni). a lonely man in Livorno, meets Natalia (Maria Schell), who tells him that she is waiting patiently any day now for a lover (Jean Marais of Fantomas) who swore he would return to her in one year. Mario can't believe Natalia can actually think that her lover will come back, and he pursues a romance with her even as she ponders her future with her lover and finds herself drawn to Mario in spite of herself. Mario promises to deliver a letter to the man in question to see if he still feels the same about Natalia, but will he actually follow through?  ... Le notti bianchi is a little gem of a movie, beginning with an exquisite theme by Nino Rota, and taking place on beautifully designed sound stages in Cinecitta. The camera roams all over these impressive sets even as a sad older woman (Clara Calamai of Deep Red), an aging prostitute who has a yen for Mario herself, roams through the city. Despite the fact that Mastroianni is miscast -- his actions and dialogue are those of a younger man, and he is much more sophisticated in appearance than his character -- he is still superb, delineating all of Mario's passion, yearning, and inner torment with great skill. Schell is also quite good, as are Marais and Calamai and the actors who play Natalia's nearly-blind grandmother  (Marcella Rovena) and her tenants. Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography is marvelous, as is Rota's sensitive scoring. The film, based on a short story by Dostoevsky, has an uncompromising and moving finale. A strange scene has Mario and Natalia encountering an entire family, including a small child, apparently living under a bridge in the middle of winter, but neither of them remark upon it. There is a fairly long sequence in a club with Mario and Natalia joining in when everyone, including a snappy dancer named Dirk Sanders, begins gyrating to Bill Haley and the Comets' "Thirteen Women." This is an abrupt change in tone, but it works. Visconti also directed the notable Bellissima and many others.

Verdict: Exactingly-made, dream-like and hauntingly beautiful. ***1/2.

SALOME, WHERE SHE DANCED

SALOME, WHERE SHE DANCED (1945). Charles Lamont.

At the end of the Civil War, where he first meets a soldier named Cleve (David Bruce),.a reporter named Jim (Rod Cameron) travels abroad to cover the Prussian-Austrian war. There Jim falls in love, as many men have, with a Viennese dancer (Yvonne De Carlo) who becomes known as "Salome" due to her specialty dance number. Accused of spying, Salome must flee Austria with Jim, and the two head for the wild west with an angry and betrayed suitor, Von Bohlen (Albert Dekker) in pursuit. In San Francisco, Jim once again encounters Cleve, who has become a bandit and bears a striking resemblance to a handsome Austrian officer that Salome loved in Europe and who was killed in battle. Salome is torn between Cleve and Jim -- while also being wooed by entrepreneur Dimitrioff (Walter Slezak) -- as Von Bohlen corners her in Frisco ... The very, very entertaining Salome, Where She Danced made a major star out of De Carlo, who is not quite convincing as an Austrian ballet dancer (!) but who gives a vivid and more-than-competent performance. The picture has what I call an old-style operetta plot, with bandits returning stolen loot to the townspeople out of admiration for Salome, and this same town (outside Frisco) being renamed "Salome, Where She Danced" in gratitude (to explain the title). In other words, the whole movie is utterly absurd but also charming and well-acted, with the exception of alleged leading man Cameron [Coronado 9], who is wooden and unappealing to say the least. As De Carlo's real love interest, David Bruce nearly steals the picture as the conflicted and almost beautiful bandit, Cleve. Walter Slezak makes an impression as the San Francisco lover of art and lovely ladies, as does Dekker [Suspense] as Von Bohlen; and Marjorie Rambeau [Bad for Each Other] is fine as an old-time actress and boarding house owner named "Madame Europe." De Carlo and Bruce both look gorgeous in Technicolor.

Verdict: Only in the movies ... ***.

LOLITA

Sue Lyon and James Mason
LOLITA (1962). Director: Stanley Kubrick.

"Shut your mouth, you horrible little psychopath!"


Professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) takes a room with widowed landlady Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters of The Chapman Report) because he's smitten with Charlotte's teenage daughter, the "nymphet" Lolita (Sue Lyon of The Night of the Iguana). Marrying Charlotte seems like the only way for Humbert to get to the true object of his affection, but he has more than one rival: television personality Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers); and young Dick (Gary Cockrell). Will Humbert's obsession with Lolita be his undoing? I haven't read Vladimir Nabokov's novel since college, but it seems to me that this is a very watered-down version of the book -- Lolita was much younger for one thing -- while basically staying more or less true to its intentions (Nabokov himself wrote the screenplay). Mason, as usual, offers another excellent performance, and in fact is superior to the rather cheesy material. 16-year-old Sue Lyon. who was introduced in this picture, is fine and never seems intimidated by the great Mason. Shelley Winters does a nice job as Charlotte, whom we're clearly not meant to feel much sympathy for. The novel was entertaining and very well-written, but not every book should be filmed. This just comes off as lurid and trashy and its entertainment value runs out early on. Peter Sellers plays a strange character but plays it well.  Sue Lyon was a talented actress but aside from her first two credits her career was relatively undistinguished [The Astral Factor], although she did have several interesting if short-lived marriages. Remade in 1997 with Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert.

Verdict: Mason saves the picture but probably should have turned it down, although it did get a lot of attention upon its release. **.

NOTORIOUS: THE LIFE OF INGRID BERGMAN

NOTORIOUS: THE LIFE OF INGRID BERGMAN. Donald Spoto. HarperCollins; 1997.

Donald Spoto gives Bergman the bio treatment and it's largely a sympathetic look at her life and career. As usual, Spoto claims some sort of friendship with his subject, beginning with his interviewing her for a book on Hitchcock. Spoto covers all of her films made in Sweden, Hollywood, and Italy; her first marriage to Petter Lindstrom (whom apparently came to see her as rather self-absorbed and negative even after he was happily re-married); her affair, marriage and collaborations with Roberto Rossellini; her third marriage to a theatrical producer which ended up as a loving friendship but a failed romantic union; her assorted relationships with a variety of men; her comeback in Anastasia; and her emergence as a star and talent of the first rank even as she eventually battled cancer. Spoto perhaps tries too hard at times to cover up for his subject's obvious flaws as a person, and some of the things he writes are a little inexplicable, such as how the gay/bi Tony Perkins was "frozen in terror at the touch of a woman" [!] when he appeared with Bergman in Goodbye Again. This is ridiculous, considering Perkins did numerous love scenes with women during his career, and eventually married and had two children. Spoto, like most biographers, talks over and over and over again about Bergman's "beauty," but she was actually rather average-looking and certainly no sex symbol, although she apparently had no trouble making herself available and attracting men.

Verdict: Solid, engaging, and very well-written, if imperfect, bio of Bergman. ***1/2.

THE WOMAN CONDEMNED

Claudia Dell and Richard Hemingway
THE WOMAN CONDEMNED (1934). Director: Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport).

Mediocre radio singer Jane Merrick (Lola Lane) confuses everyone, especially her boss and lover Jim (Jason Robards Sr. of Desperate), by taking off for unknown reasons and refusing to come out of her apartment. She gives instructions to her maid, Sally (Louise Beavers), that she is to tell everyone she is not at home. Then a woman named Barbara (Claudia Dell of The Lost City) is arrested when she is found sneaking around the tony apartment house where a woman is later found murdered. Reporter Jerry Beall (Richard Hemingway) goes to bat for Barbara when she's accused of the crime, and even winds up being married to her in court when he falsely tells one judge she is his fiancee. Confused? The Woman Condemned is suspenseful all right, primarily because you're wondering what the hell is going on and how these different people fit together. The solution is somewhat ridiculous, but what is especially mind-boggling is the silly reason for why Jane feels she needs to disappear. Director Dorothy Davenport, who had been married to the late Wallace Reid, an actor, was also an actress and she dabbled in writing and directing.She proves as adept as most of her male colleagues of the time. The cast in this is also adept, with Mischa Auer playing against type as a doctor. Richard Hemingway was a pleasing leading man -- despite his mild-mannered demeanor he was a boxing champion in real life -- but he had very few credits. Lola Lane [Deadline at Dawn] was one of the Lane sisters, Priscilla being the most successful.

Verdict: This holds the attention but there isn't much pay-off. **1/2.

SNOW WHITE AND THE THREE STOOGES

Stooges
SNOW WHITE AND THE THREE STOOGES (1961). Director: Walter Lang.

The evil queen (Patricia Medina) imprisons her stepdaughter, Snow White (Carol Heiss), because the queen's mirror tells her she is the more beautiful of the two. Meanwhile Prince Charming (Edson Stroll) was banished as a boy and is now a traveling player with his adoptive fathers, the Three Stooges (Joe DeRita, Larry Fine, Moe Howard), who also sell the tonic "Yuk.". When the prince discovers who he is, he determines to rescue the princess and gain back his kingdom, but the queen and Count Oga (Guy Rolfe) may put a crimp in his plans. Snow White and the Three Stooges is a very odd Stooges feature, in that there's not much of their trademark shtick, and the movie is more or less played straight! True, there have been plenty of comedies where the comedians mug while the other cast members play it seriously, but the Stooges normally made farcical films and in a lot of this picture there is not even an attempt to garner laughs. Carol Heiss was an Olympic-class figure skater -- a skating sequence is the highlight of the movie -- but while she's perfectly competent in this she only made one movie. Edson Stroll [The Three Stooges in Orbit] makes an excellent Prince Charming; Medina [The Magic Carpet] is nastily effective (as the queen), as is Rolfe [Mr. Sardonicus]; and there are also roles for Marie Blake as a nursemaid; Buddy Baer as a soldier; Edgar Barrier as the briefly-seen king; and Mel Blanc as the voice of the puppet, Quinto. The Stooges aren't given enough to do and the film is less of a parody than a rather dark fantasy film. The stooges have no problem capably handling the more "dramatic" scenes. Kids were probably bored long before the halfway mark; I was. The songs by Harry Barris  are vaguely pleasant but undistinguished. This is one of several sixties films the Stooges made when their careers were revived by television showings of their older short comedies.

Verdict: Not awful, but not the best of the Stooges, either. **1/2.

LOVE AND BETRAYAL: THE MIA FARROW STORY

Patsy Kensit as Mia Farrow
LOVE AND BETRAYAL: THE MIA FARROW STORY (1995 telefilm/mini-series). Director: Karen Arthur.

"If this scandal breaks, the media will put your corpse in an envelope and mail it to Roman Polanski."

Based on two biographies of Mia Farrow (Patsy Kensit), but not on her own memoirs, this telefilm looks at the life of the actress with particular emphasis on her scandalous relationship with long-time partner and artistic associate Woody Allen (Dennis Boutsikaris). Flashbacks reveal Farrow's relationships with Frank Sinatra (Richard Muenz) and Andre Previn (Robert LuPone), both of whom married her whereas Allen did not. The shit hits the fan when Farrow discovers that Allen has been having an affair with her own adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (Grace Una), under her nose, which is betrayal from two people she loves. Soon-Yi is an adult, but later Mia charges that Allen molested a much younger daughter, Dylan (who maintains that to this day). Cynthia A. Cherbak has written an excellent script which intelligently examines this business from both sides, but whatever Farrow's faults (and she has many) it's hard not to see Allen as a sleaze-bucket who showed no restraint but rather slept with his long-time girlfriend's daughter, who was also the sister of his own children (Allen was not the father, adoptive or otherwise, of Soon-Yi). The telefilm is extremely well-acted by a cast that is invariably more attractive than the characters they portray, and along the way we're treated to glimpses of versions of Maureen O'Sullivan (Frances Helm); Dory Previn, Andre's cast-off wife (Lynne Cormack); Roman Polanski (Bruce McCarty); and other personages well-known or not. Kensit actually played Mia Farrow's daughter in The Great Gatsby, and has had many credits, and Boutsikaris has had even more.

Verdict: An entertaining and very well-acted three hours. ***.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949)

Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, John Ireland
ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949). Director: Robert Rossen.

All the King's Men traces the parallel rise and fall of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford of Scandal Sheet) and a reporter, Jack Burden (John Ireland), who's covering his story as he goes up against seemingly impossible odds to become governor. Just as Stark wants to prove himself to the public and his cronies, Jack needs to prove himself to his fiancee, Anne (Joanne Dru), who has been raised by her presumably incorruptible uncle, Judge Stanton (Raymond Greenleaf of Over-Exposed). Stark, however, is certainly not incorruptible, as power goes to his head and his path leads inexorably to tragedy. Others in his orbit include his wife (Anne Seymour); his mistress-associate, Sadie (Mercedes McCambridge); his son, Tom (John Derek); and Anne's brother, Adam (Shepperd Strudwick of Three Husbands). All the King's Men is an absorbing and well-acted film, although none of the players. including Crawford, are especially outstanding (although Crawford and McCambridge won Oscars, along with the picture itself). Ralph Dumke and Walter Burke have smaller roles. The score is by Louis Gruenberg, and Burnett Guffey is director of photography. A similar plot was used for the later A Lion is in the Streets, in which James Cagney also played a Willie Stark-type. Remade in 2006.

Verdict: Solid drama with an interesting cast. ***.

HUSBANDS AND WIVES

Mia Farrow
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"You use sex to express every emotion except love."

Jack (Sydney Pollack) and his wife. Sally (Judy Davis of My Brilliant Career), are long-time friends of Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) and his wife, Judy (Mia Farrow). The Roths are startled and dismayed when Jack and Sally announce that they're splitting up, but they assure them that "it's perfectly okay." However, it turns out to be not so okay when Sally discovers that Jack has been having an affair with the much-younger Samantha (Lysette Anthony of the reboot of Dark Shadows). Sally starts seeing Judy's co-worker Michael (Liam Neeson of The Other Man) while Gabe finds himself drawn to his young, admiring student, Rain (Juliette Lewis), and Judy has her own attraction to Michael. Can any of these people ever find happiness? Husbands and Wives begins quite well but suffers from a more contrived second half, which may have been influenced by the true-life events of the highly publicized Woody-Mia break up at the time. Otherwise, as usual, the picture is entertaining, very well-acted by all (with high marks to Davis, Anthony, and Lewis, in particular), and has some interesting observations and intelligent dialogue. Once again we have Allen showing off almost in fetishistic fashion his alleged appeal to younger and much more attractive females (Soon-Yi Previn notwithstanding); yes, sometimes the "yuck" factor gets in the way. However, one of the best scenes has Rain telling Gabe what she thinks of his new unpublished novel, and what it says about his attitude toward women, in a taxi. The shaky hand-held camera shots can be distracting.

Verdict: Not bad, not great, but never uninteresting. **12.  

UN FLIC / DIRTY MONEY

Alain Delon
UN FLIC (aka Dirty Money/1972). Director: Jean-Pierre Melville.

Simon (Richard Crenna of The Evil) owns a nightclub in Paris but is secretly head of a gang that robs banks and steals a load of heroin off of a train. Simon's girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), is shared by Simon's friend, Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), who happens to be a cop investigating these very crimes ... Un Flic (which means "a cop" in French) certainly has an intriguing premise, but the approach -- which is either minimalist or merely indicative of too much being left on the cutting room floor --  strips it of real intensity, as the characters are all stick figures. We never learn how Simon and the other gang members fit together, how he got to become friends with Edouard, the true relationship between Cathy and either man etc. and all we're left with is some modestly well-crafted "caper" scenes, one of which features some unfortunate and unconvincing miniatures of a train and helicopter. Delon [The Yellow Rolls Royce] is terrific, in spite of the fact that we don't learn too much about him except that he's quite tough and rigorously unsentimental. Deneuve is given so little to do it's a wonder why she even bothered showing up on the set. Michael Conrad, who appeared with Joan Crawford on The Virginian,  plays one of the gang members, and there's nice work from an unknown actress (?) who plays a transvestite who provides Eduoard with information. One expects a final revelation or twist that never comes, and some moments are simply inexplicable.This was Melville's last film.

Verdict: This example of French film noir holds the attention but you keep hoping for more. **1/2.

HIT THE DECK

HIT THE DECK (1955). Director: Roy Rowland.

Young sailor Danny (Russ Tamblyn of Follow the Boys) is the son of rear admiral Smith (Walter Pidgeon). When Danny thinks that his sister, Susan (Jane Powell), a show business aspirant, may be taken advantage of by theater star Wendell Craig (Gene Raymond), he and his Navy buddies Rico (Vic Damone of Athena) and Bill (Tony Martin) break into his apartment where he sits with Susan and assault him. Their stupid actions result in the sailors being chased all over Manhattan by the shore patrol (including Alan King in an early role). Meanwhile Danny falls for Carol (Debbie Reynolds), who appears in Craig's show, and Ginger (Ann Miller) despairs that long-time fiance Bill will ever marry her. Rico's mother (Kay Armen of Hey Let's Twist) finds that her fiance, Peroni (J, Carrol Naish), may find her too old when he sees she's got a grown son. The "plot" is just an excuse to hang some songs and dance numbers on, so we've got Powell doing the snappy "Sometimes I Love You," Armen and the cast doing "Sing, Hallelujah!" and other numbers. Miller is typically saucy, Martin and Powell can sing, but Naish, Armen, and especially Gene Raymond make the best impressions. The silly  picture aspires to funniness but never quite gets there.

Verdict: More widescreen Technicolor twaddle. **.

SWANN IN LOVE

Two couples of very different sorts: Irons, Muni, Delon, Baby
SWANN IN LOVE (1984). Director: Volker Schlondorff.

Charles Swann (Jeremy Irons of The Pink Panther 2) develops an all-consuming passion for a former courtesan named Odette (Ornella Muti of Flash Gordon), and is warned by friends that it could ruin his sterling reputation if he ever marries her. Meanwhile his close friend, the Baron de Charlus (Alain Delon of The Leopard) conducts (fairly) discreet affairs with a variety of men. Charles becomes obsessed with the idea that Odette has been with women (an experience for her that he would be cut off from), as he's obviously nothing like the 21st century men who might find it a turn-on if their girlfriends fooled around with other women. Swann in Love is taken from sections of Marcel Proust's many-volumed novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) , especially part of the first volume (Swann's Way) and jumbles things around while still dealing with many of Proust's fascinating themes. As for Odette's possible lesbian past, Swann's search for the truth almost unfolds as a mystery, but then is dropped as Swann temporarily comes to the conclusion that Odette is not really his type. Other characters include the Duchesse de Geurmantes (Fanny Ardent), who hopes to snare Charles for herself, and Madame Verdurin (Marie-Christine Barrault), an alleged patroness of the arts whom Charles thinks is practically a procuress for Odette. We also briefly meet a young Jewish man (Nicolas Baby) who angers the baron when he rejects his pass in a coach. The performances are all good, the Parisian settings and atmosphere are impeccable, and the movie is reasonably entertaining, but ultimately it just adds up to a collection of scenes instead of a really good movie. One of the best of these scenes has the Baron mounting a staircase, staring at and flirting with all of the male attendants along the way, while Charles seems clueless. Although Delon is a bit foppish as the baron, at least he doesn't mince it up too much.

Verdict: Others have said that it would be nearly impossible to capture Proust's prose for the screen and they're probably right. **1/2.

GIRL GANG

Timothy Farrell, Lou Monson, and the Girl Gang
GIRL GANG (1954). Director: Robert C. Dertano.

Joe (Timothy Farrell) runs a gang whose members induce others to join so they can get hooked on weed and stronger stuff and participate in crimes to raise drug money. Sexy June (Joanne Arnold|) entices Wanda (Mary Lou O'Connor) and her boyfriend, Bill (uncredited), into the gang, where Mary is told she must have sex with five boys as part of her initiation. Joe's chief assistant is Jack (Lou Monson), and his girl pal is Daisy (Mildred Kilke). When Wanda is shot during a gas station robbery, Doc Bradford (Harry Keaton) operates on her as the cops close in ... Had Girl Gang been better directed it might have amounted to s snappy B movie as it has all the ingredients of a successful exploitation film. Unfortunately, the pic isn't well-produced (to put it mildly), some scenes have obvious over-dubbing because something went wrong with the soundtrack, the acting is often amateurish, and one dance sequence -- all in one long continuous shot -- goes on at such length while the story stops dead that it's positively comical. Farrell and Arnold are at least vivid in their portrayals, and Norman Stanley is professional as June's horny boss, Mr. Brown. There's a not bad cat-fight for those who stick around until the end. Keaton and Farrell were both in Gun Girls, which was also directed by Dertano.

Verdict: Just misses being a sleazy camp classic. *1/2.

ALL THE KING'S MEN (2006)

Sean Penn
ALL THE KING'S MEN (2006). Director: Steven Zaillian.

Willie Stark (Sean Penn) rises up from the Louisianan swamps to the governor's mansion, accompanied by reporter and associate Jack Burden (Jude Law). Jack has a father figure in Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), and has long carried a torch for Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), whose brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is wooed by Stark for an important medical position. But then Jack helps Willie get information that the latter uses to blackmail the judge ... This remake of the 1949 All the King's Men is inferior in every way. Sean Penn [Mystic River] plays with his customary dynamism, but his gesticulating in certain sequences borders on the ludicrous and his southern accent is so thick that there are times you can hardly understand him. While Jude Law [Black Sea]  has his moments, through most of the movie you get the impression that he just wants to go off somewhere and get a good night's sleep. The father-son dynamic between the two men is lost because Penn and Law look around the same age, although Penn is the older by twelve years. Events that are played up in the original movie are so downplayed in the remake that it's as if they never happened. We hardly see Stark's wife, his son has been written out of the movie altogether (eliminating a development that was a key plot point in the original) , and Mercedes McCambridge's character in the original, now played by Patricia Clarkson [Far From Heaven], is practically reduced to a walk-on. Jackie Earle Haley is scary in every sense of the word. Badly directed (despite some pseudo-artistic touches), and with a poor script, as well as a cast that has done much better work in other films, All the King's Men is a tedious misfire.

Verdict: Stick with the original. **.

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. ***.