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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

HOT SPELL

Shirley MacLaine and Shirley Booth
HOT SPELL (1958). Director: Daniel Mann.

Housewife Alma Duval (Shirley Booth) is hoping that the 45th birthday celebration for her beloved husband, John (Anthony Quinn), will be a memorable occasion, but things are brewing that may make that impossible. John is very unhappy with his life and has taken on a lover who is decades younger than he is. Oldest son Buddy (Earl Holliman) feels that his dad doesn't take him seriously and is always putting him down. Daughter Virginia (Shirley MacLaine) is in love with aspiring doctor, Wyatt (Warren Stevens), but is only headed for heartbreak. And youngest son Billy (Clint Kimbrough) is uncertain about himself and unable to understand his father's unhappiness. Based on a play, Hot Spell is a thoughtful and beautifully-acted drama that looks at the ins and outs of marriage and family life with compassion and perception. Heading a terrific cast is a splendid Booth [About Mrs. Leslie], who must contend with her children's problems even as her own marriage, and her dreams of a happier future (tied to a home they lived in many years before), begin to crumble. Quinn is also superb, adding dimension and sympathy to what could have been an odious character in some ways, with fine work from Holliman [The Big Combo] and MacLaine (especially the latter). Kimbrough was an attractive and sensitive young actor who should have had many more credits than the twenty he amassed. Eileen Heckart [The Bad Seed] also appears as Alma's friend, Fran, and is also very good, as expected. One could argue that the movie is resolved a little too neatly, but it is generally quite effective and at times very poignant.

Verdict: A lost gem. ***1/2.

THE FRONT

Zero Mostel with Woody Allen in background
THE FRONT (1976). Produced and directed by Martin Ritt. Written by Walter Bernstein.

Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy), a blacklisted writer, asks his friend Howard Prince (Woody Allen) if he will "front" for him, submitting teleplays under his own name and giving him the money minus a 10% commission. Howard decides to do this for other blacklisted writers as well and before long he has become one of the top names in the industry, with plenty of money, a beautiful apartment, and a girlfriend in Florence Barrett (Andrea Marcovicci), who works for the live anthology show to which he sells most of his teleplays. But then the star of the show, comic Hecky Brown (Zero Mostel) is let go because of alleged communist ties, and told that he just might get his career back if he learns all he can about Howard Prince ... The Front is an absorbing picture with a deceptively light tone at first but it leads to a shocking suicide and a dramatic resolution. Mostel gives a knock-out performance as Hecky, bottling up rage and despair until it comes violently loose, and he pretty much wipes the top-billed Allen off of the screen. Allen's casting is problematic. After some early negative experiences when he was not in charge, he has mostly only appeared in his own films, and The Front is a very rare exception. Obviously he respected and trusted director Martin Ritt [Hud], but while his name might have brought more people into the theaters, it's obvious that he's still playing "Woody Allen" (if playing it well) and one can only wonder what another performer might have brought to the role. Still, he doesn't ruin the film and may have helped get its message across. Ritt, writer Bernstein, and several actors in the production were themselves blacklisted in the fifties, including Mostel, Hershel Bernardi [Peter Gunn], and Lloyd Gough [The Green Hornet].  The movie has humor and heart but never forgets the seriousness and tragedy of the fifties witch hunts.

Verdict: Mostel's finest hour and a half. ***.

EASY TO LOVE

EASY TO LOVE (1953). Director: Charles Walters.

In Cypress Gardens, Julie Hallerton (Esther Williams of Raw Wind in Eden) works for Ray Lloyd (Van Johnson) as a highly successful swimming spokes model for various products and he's not about to let her go. Julie keeps hoping that Ray, a slave driver who rarely lets her have any time off, will propose to her, but just in case she has a handsome boyfriend, also a model, named Hank (John Bromfield of Crime Against Joe). "I bet you've never even seen him with his clothes on," Ray tells Julie. If that weren't enough, Julie meets crooner Barry Gordon (Tony Martin of Casbah) while on assignment in New York and dares to stay up late the night before a gig to have a wonderful romantic date with him. Back in Florida, Julie finds herself pursued by Hank and Barry even as she keeps pursuing Ray in her own way. The question is why? Most sensible women would quickly throw off the unpleasant, recalcitrant Ray (whose unlikable character isn't even redeemed by his being played by the likable Johnson) and take up with one of the two hunks who are dying for her hand in marriage. But Johnson was the bigger star so he gets the girl. Easy to Love is easy to take and just as easy to forget, although the performances are fine (Bromfield in particular makes a nice impression) and there are some pleasant song numbers, a smashing ballet on water skis, a romantic swim between Williams and Bromfield, a charming number with Tony Martin and some elderly ladies, and for good measure a brief appearance by pre-stardom Carroll Baker as one of Ray's jealous girlfriends.

Verdict: Can't stop that Esther when she's wet! **1/2.

TIP OFF GIRLS

The cast of "Tip Off Girls"
TIP OFF GIRLS (1938). Director: Louis King. 

Joseph Valkus (J. Carrol Naish) is head of a criminal outfit that hijacks trucks. He uses a hard-boiled gal named Rena (Evelyn Brent of Holt of the Secret Service) to snare drivers on the road and in coffee shops, then -- boom! Valkus' secretary, Marjorie (Mary Carlisle), is at first unaware of what's going on, but later works with undercover agent Bob Anders (Lloyd Nolan) to trip up the gang. Working for Valkus are Red Deegan (Buster Crabbe of King of the Congo), Tom Benson (Roscoe Karns) and chief enforcer, Marty (Anthony Quinn). Tip Off Girls certainly has an interesting and adept cast and is fast-paced and reasonably snappy. The plot seems strictly poverty row, but this was actually released by Paramount. Or course Pierre Watkin is in the cast -- as he seems to be in every other movie ever made -- and is as utterly forgettable as ever. Anthony Quinn makes an effective tough guy but you wouldn't necessarily have suspected that much bigger things were in store for him in only a few years.

Verdict: Not bad little melodrama. **12/

JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER

Narda Onyx, John Lupton and Cal Bolder
JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1966). Director: William Beaudine.

"My, you're a humanitarian. You should have stayed in Europe and given pink pills to sweet old ladies." -- Maria to Rudolph.

Dr, Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx), daughter of Victor, and her befuddled brother, Rudolph (Steven Geray of Gilda), transplanted from Vienna, are experimenting on men in the old west, inexplicably trying to create a strong monster to do their bidding. Her latest victim is Hank Tracy (Cal Bolder), who is a friend of the infamous Jesse James (John Lupton). Juanita (Estrelita Rodriguez), a villager, believes that Maria murdered her brother, and in the process of helping Jesse and Hank, falls in love with the former. Meanwhile Marshall MacPhee (Jim Davis of Monster from Green Hell) is on the look-out for Jesse with the help of James' former associate, Lonny (Rayford Barnes). The surprising thing about this absurd but entertaining movie is how creditable the acting is, with Onyx doing her best to make her ridiculous character come alive, the talented Geray making an impression despite the fact that at times he appears to have wandered into the wrong movie, and baby-faced Lupton [The Man in the Net], outfitted with a mustache, coming off more like the title outlaw that one would have imagined. Rayford Barnes makes his mark as Lonny as well, but it's Estrelita who really makes an impression as Juanita, playing the whole bizarre scenario with conviction. William Fawcett and Nestor Paiva also have good supporting roles. Onyx mostly did television work; this was her last credit. This was also the last credit for "Estralita," who had appeared in Rio Bravo. Bolder frequently appeared as a heavy on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Barnes had nearly 300 credits. As "The Wild Bunch" is mentioned in this movie it's interesting that Barnes was later cast in Sam Peckinpah's movie The Wild Bunch. Veteran director Beaudine keeps things moving.

Verdict: Strangely absorbing if not terribly wonderful. **1/2.

SAURIAN

SAURIAN, William Schoell. Cemetery Dance; 2017.

Cemetery Dance publishers has released a new epub version of my vintage horror novel Saurian. The book's antagonists are Thomas Bartlett, whose family and entire town were destroyed by a monstrous creature when he was just a boy, and Gareth Bronmore, a real estate developer who seems to prosper as certain properties are ravaged by an unknown and gigantic animal ... an animal that has strangely human eyes.

I admit that Saurian was influenced by such movies as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Giant Behemoth, but whereas those movies had one-dimensional characters and fairly basic storylines, as wonderful as they were, I tried to create living, breathing characters for the novel and add some unique elements to the story.

This edition has a spanking new cover by Elder Lemon Design.

Saurian is available on Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (Nook) and can also be read on computers and other devices.

DALLAS REDUX

Jon Ross (Josh Henderson) faces his father J. R. (Larry Hagman)
DALLAS (2012).

After Dallas wrapped up its fourteen year run, it turned out that there was still life left in those enduring characters. First there were two telefilms, J. R. Returns (1996) and War of the Ewings (1998), both of which had continuity problems and both of which were forgettable, below the level of the best episodes of the series. There was also a prequel telefilm I have not yet seen and  a reunion special which brought together several of the cast members to reminisce, with host Larry Hagman amusingly referring to the show's thirteen years when the series actually lasted fourteen seasons. Then came the reboot in 2012, which was a whole different story. The show wisely focused -- at least at first -- on the younger generation, which included J. R.'s son Jon Ross (Josh Henderson) and Bobby's adopted son, Christopher (Jesse Metcalf of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt), who were each billed first in the credits on alternating episodes. The show was also smart enough to retain Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy), Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), and especially J. R. (Larry Hagman). We first see J,. R. despondent in a nursing home, but he gets out of his funk, shows up at the Oil Baron's Ball on a walker, then throws that walker away and gets back into the action, which includes a whole love-hate thing with Jon Ross.

It's terrific that the show has several vital cast members who are now seniors, but annoying that Duffy, Gray and Hagman -- despite their very large parts -- are not listed as bonafide stars of the show but only listed under "with." Hagman wheeled and dealed for the first two seasons, but then passed away, as did his character. Frankly I had always thought that Gray and Duffy, while competent, were lightweights, but in their senior years these two actors really stepped up their game. Gray has a superb scene when she is hungover at J. R.'s grave site, and Duffy, out of J. R.'s long shadow, not only delivers an impassioned knock-out performance, but becomes the true star of the show and its most important and pivotal character. That's saying a lot when there are so many younger, good-looking and talented co-stars, especially Josh Henderson as Jon Ross, a devilishly charismatic "bad boy" who has a lot more sex appeal than his father ever did (if they ever remake Hud, Henderson would make you forget Paul Newman). Brenda Strong (who was mostly unseen in Desperate Housewives, although her deceased character was the narrator), Mitch Pileggi [Shocker], who was also in the final seasons of the original show, and especially the wonderful Judith Light [Save Me] as a mother from Hell also make a strong impression. Watch her getting turned on as she insists a drug dealer do a body search on her for hidden wires!

Ken Kercheval, who managed to appear in every season of the original show, as well as the two telefilms, is back as Cliff Barnes. Cliff always seemed vaguely demented, and in this reboot, he is clearly demented, his actions those of a lunatic, such as allowing his own daughter to be nearly blown up and killing his unborn grandchildren because he still wants to strike back at those damn Ewings. Kercheval seems to be having fun playing a man who has been turned, a bit improbably, into a hateful villain.

Dallas only lasted three abbreviated seasons (ten episodes for the first season, and fifteen apiece for the last two) and ended on a cliffhanger that will never be resolved. I think there was way too much of those Mexican drug dealers in the final season, and they were simply not that interesting. The writers, who managed to make the characters more dimensional than in many soap operas, certainly had enough material to work with without dragging in an ever-present drug cartel, and that may have hastened the series' abrupt cancellation. Still, Dallas was a fun ride while it lasted.

Verdict: Some fine acting, interesting developments, and good scripting help put this over. ***.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

PETER SELLERS (1925 - 1980)

Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau
PETER SELLERS (1925 - 1980).

Peter Sellers -- terrible to think that this genius died at only 55 years of age when there was so much else that he could have done. Sellers started out as a radio and TV comedy star, and appeared in early pictures as a kind of portly schnook. Losing weight, he was transformed into a leading man with the likes of no less than Sophia Loren and others. He became known as a brilliant comic actor, but he was just as good in his rare dramatic roles, and the height of his fame came when he played Inspector Clouseau in a number of Pink Panther movies. Sellers could be difficult in his private life, having mercurial relationships with his wives and children, although he was also said to be a loyal friend and often committed acts of extreme generosity.  In any case, the most important thing about the man is his talent, which is on display in so many movies, including some of which we examine this week. For a large number of Sellers' films that have already been reviewed on this blog, type his name in the search bar on the upper left hand corner. Thank you!


ORDERS ARE ORDERS

Peter Sellers before diet
ORDERS ARE ORDERS (1955), Director: David Paltenghi.

Producer Ed Waggemyer (Sidney James) takes over an Army barracks so he can shoot what appears to be a perfectly dreadful sci fi epic on the grounds. To avoid his displeasure, actress Wanda Sinclair (Margot Grahame of Black Magic) flirts with Colonel Bellamy (Raymond Huntley) and has Ed give him a part in the film. The colonel's daughter, Veronica (June Thorburn of Escort for Hire) is an aspiring actress and for a time she seems to be the girlfriend of Captain Harper (Brian Reece), who is actually in love with professional actress Joanne Delamere (Maureen Swnnson of The Deadly Game). Despite all the busyness, absolutely nothing very amusing ever occurs throughout the 75 minute running time in this extremely dull service comedy.  Chief among the supporting cast is Peter Sellers, about forty pounds heavier than he was in his starring days, playing Private Goffin. Sellers and the rest of the cast offer good performances but it's a very minor service "comedy" that slips out of your mind even as you're watching it.

Verdict: When you can't even get a laugh out of Peter Sellers you know a movie is in trouble! *.

THE LADYKILLERS

Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom
THE LADYKILLERS (1955). Director: Alexander Mac|kendrick.

Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness of The Swan) heads a group of motley individuals who are planning a heist. Without her knowledge, his temporary landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), who thinks Marcus and his friends are musicians, is made a pivotal part of the plot. When she discovers the truth, the gang may have a bit of a problem on their hands, but which among them wants to "take care" of an old lady? The Ladykillers is an arresting and very strange movie that could easily have been played perfectly straight, but instead is a very black comedy that illustrates the theme of Thieves Falling Out. Johnson is wonderful as the sometimes dithery, annoying but strong-willed Mrs. Wilberforce, and there are fine performances from Guinness; Herbert Lom [Mark of the Devil] as Louie, the nastiest of the bunch; Peter Sellers as Harry; Cecil Parker as Major Courtney; and Danny Green as the hulking "One-Round." It's amazing how the film is able to take murderous threats and actual killings and make everything so oddly amusing. Sellers, who one would not necessarily take for a budding major movie star, later appeared with Herbert Lom in a whole slew of Pink Panther movies.

Verdict: Decidedly unusual caper film. ***.


NEVER LET GO

Peter Sellers
NEVER LET GO (1960). Director: John Guillermin.

John Cummings (Richard Todd) is a cosmetics salesman with a wife and children who thinks he might have a chance to really make good now that he owns a car. Unfortunately, his new automobile is stolen by a gang headed by crooked car dealer Lionel Meadows (Peter Sellers). Inspector Thomas (Noel Willman of The Kiss of the Vampire) admits that he couldn't care less about John's car but is out for bigger fish -- bringing down Meadows once and for all will be a cap in his feather. Desperate for his car, and refusing to back down after so many miserable things have happened, including being fired, John infuriates his wife, Anne (Elizabeth Sellars), by going after Meadows and his dangerous gang on his own. Todd [The Hasty Heart] gives a tremendously good performance in this and he is matched by Peter Sellers in a straight dramatic role, playing a nasty character who crushes one underling's fingers and slaps around his girlfriend, Jackie (Carol White). Sellers only chews the scenery in a couple of spots, but is otherwise marvelous. Adam Faith plays Tommy, the unfortunate boy with the damaged hand., and Mervyn Johns [Edward, My Son] has a nice bit as the ill-fated old man, Alfie. It all leads to an exciting climactic battle between the two adversaries.

Verdict: Proof that great actors can do drama as well as comedy. ***.




THE MILLIONAIRESS

Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers
THE MILLIONAIRESS (1960). Director: Anthony Asquith.

Ephifania Pererga (Sophia Loren), the daughter of a late magnate, is a spoiled, haughty heiress who has already had one bad marriage. For her next husband she hopes to land Ahmed el Kabir (Peter Sellers), a selfless doctor who ministers to the poor. Ahmed seems more confused and amazed by the strange woman than especially interested in her, but Ephifania tries to win him over by making something of herself with only a small pittance to start with, and by hoping he'll win her hand by doing the same. Can these two people on such different wavelengths ever get together? Based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, one can only assume that this is a gross bowdlerization and extreme vulgarization of Shaw's original concept, as neither Ephifania or Kabir come off like real people, which is especially true in the former's case. Loren [Boy on a Dolphin] manages to do a nice job even though she's playing an impossible role, and Sellers also acquits himself nicely, with an excellent Indian accent, but it's a wonder that the two actors manage to play so well together in spite of everything. Alistair Sim [The Ruling Class] nearly steals the picture as Ephifania's lawyer, while Gary Raymond, as her first husband, has little to do but run away from the lady while sher's throwing everything she can get her hands on at him. Vittorio De Sica, who later directed Sellers in After the Fox, has a supporting part as Joe, a sweatshop owner, and he's quite good, and Pauline Jameson is also notable as Sim's secretary, Muriel. In addition to a lousy script, the film suffers from the fact that the heroine, if that's what you can call her, despite some admirable qualities, is never a nice person. Judging from the outfits Loren is caparisoned in, one imagines the clothes budget for the picture was roughly equal to her salary.

Verdict: Sellers is far superior to the material in this. **.

AFTER THE FOX

Peter Sellers
AFTER THE FOX (1966). Director: Vittorio De Sica.

Aldo Vanucci, a notorious criminal known as the Fox, escapes from jail to participate in the theft of a fortune in bullion known as the "Gold of Cairo." Working with a mysterious man named Okra (Akim Tamiroff), who only speaks through his beautiful companion, Aldo decides to make a movie about the theft and only pretend to be carrying off the gold. He inveigles aging American star Tony Powell (Victor Mature) to play the lead, and casts his aspiring actress sister, Gina (Britt Ekland) as his leading lady. The entire town turns out to participate in "Federico Fabrizi's" movie, but the best-laid plans ... Based on a play by Neil Simon (who also wrote the screenplay) this seems more like an attempt to cash in on the success of The Pink Panther and its sequels, but there's a reason why this never had any sequels. There are amusing and clever ideas and moments in the script, but they never quite jell, and the logistics of the crime are so hazy that the audience can't follow along, which is essential even in a comic caper treatment. De Sica may not have been the right director for this project -- he plays himself in a cameo -- but while star Sellers is good, he's simply not as farcical and as funny as he should have been; possibly he found the weak material uninspiring. Mature [Kiss of Death] is terrific as the vain actor whose dyed hair leaves streaks on Gina's face; Tamiroff [The Vulture] is as adept as ever; and Ekland [The Wicker Man], who was married to Sellers at the time, is also good and fetching. Martin Balsam has some funny moments as Tony's handler, and Lando Buzzanca makes an impression as a chief of police. This is one of those movies that probably looked hilarious on paper but just doesn't work out in actuality. The final gag is especially lame.

Verdict: Not one of Sellers' better movies nor performances. **.

I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS

Peter Sellers turns on, drops out, and takes a bath
I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS (1968). Director: Hy Averback.

Harold (Peter Sellers) is a successful lawyer with a hippie brother, Herbie (David Arkin), an anxious fiancee, Joyce (Joyce Van Patten of Perry Mason), and an even more anxious mother (Jo Van Fleet). After being introduced to Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), a sort of girlfriend of his brother's, Harold finds himself attracted to her. It isn't long before he says goodbye to Joyce, "drops out" of his regular life, and adopts the hippie lifestyle with Nancy (while staying in his fabulous apartment). Will he ever come to his senses? The title refers to some hash brownies made by Nancy (the recipe apparently comes from a cookbook written by Toklas, Gertrude Stein's companion), and which are eaten by Harold, his father (Salem Ludwig) and his mother, who says the title line with a happy glaze on her eyes. Many sixties comedies with drug and hippie references don't date at all well, but I Love You is still a very, very funny movie (even if it has fun with things that really aren't funny, such as a funeral for a beloved husband and being literally left at the altar). with excellent performances from the entire cast. Sellers, of course, is just wonderful, and he is matched by a terrific Van Fleet in a great comic performance to compare with  her wonderful dramatic work in such films as Wild River. Apparently, no one really knew how to end the film, so the finale to this is rather stupid. Taylor-Young was introduced in this film and later wound up on Dallas in a nice role. David Arkin was an attractive and appealing actor who had a few credits, mostly in Robert Altman's films, and committed suicide at 49.

Verdict: You won't even need some Alice B. Toklas brownies to enjoy this movie. ***.

THE PARTY

Sellers distracts audience from Longet's singing
THE PARTY (1968). Director: Blake Edwards.

"That was a short career, wasn't it?"

Hrundi V.Bakshi (Peter Sellers) is a transplanted-to-Hollywood Indian actor who completely messes up a film produced by Fred Clutterbuck (J. Edward McKinley), with the result that Clutterbuck wants the hapless thespian blacklisted. However, instead of being put on a blacklist, Bakshi winds up on the guest list to the Clutterbuck's latest A list party. While it's not quite true that Bakshi "destroys" the party -- he has help from a drunk waiter (Steve Franken), a group of teens who are friends of the Clutterbuck daughter, and a baby elephant -- Baksi does do his share of damage. The Party doesn't have nearly enough laugh-out-loud moments, but there's something amiable and pleasant about the picture, much like the lead character, well-played by Sellers, himself. Sellers' leading lady is Claudine Longet, who is also ... pleasant ... but the film's lowlight is her "singing" a song in her usual whispery non-musical style, pronouncing "dream" as "dWeam" and so on -- she's just awful, the Florence Foster Jenkins of pop. Once married to Andy Williams, who somehow managed to get her a singing career, Longet is most famous for shooting her lover, a ski champion!  Besides Franken, who is quite amusing as the half-shot waiter, there are notable turns from  Gavin MacLeod as a horny director, Fay McKenzie as Clutterbuck's wife, and Denny Miller as a handsome actor who gets a kick out of Bakshi's adoration. Carol Wayne is a party guest but has little to do.

Verdict: Basically a Blake Edwards home movie but not without its charms. ***.

MR. STRANGELOVE: A BIOGRAPHY OF PETER SELLERS

MR. STRANGELOVE: A BIOGRAPHY OF PETER SELLERS. Ed Sikov. Hyperion; 2002.

"He was amoral, dangerous, vindictive, totally selfish, and yet had the charm of the devil." -- Sellers' first wife.

Mr. Strangelove adeptly traces the career and personal life of one of the cinema's funniest men, the brilliant Peter Sellers. There is his early association with Spike Milligan, with whom he did radio and TV programs; his relationship with his ever-loving if too controlling mother, Peg, as well as his several wives (including actress Britt Ekland) and children; and of course the many, many movies he appeared in. Sellers was like many powerful, successful film figures -- a man who could be monstrous one minute, even with his own children, and then turn around and be remarkably generous. Doted on by his mother, Sellers became self-absorbed at an early age, but many of his companions make clear that he could also be a very good friend. His career took precedence over everything else, as it does with so many driven film stars. Mr.. Strangelove also goes behind the scenes of Sellers' movies, both famous and obscure, such as The Pink Panther films, Dr. Strangelove, The Magic  Christian, Being There, Murder By Death, The Wrong Box, and many, many more. Sikov perhaps spends too much time on Milligan and the Goons (a comedic group/program of which Sellers was a part early in his career); otherwise this is a solid bio.

Verdict: Interesting look at a comic genius. ***.