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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

FIVE FINGER EXERCISE

FIVE FINGER EXERCISE (1962). Director: Daniel Mann. From the stage play by Peter Shaffer.

When Philip Harrington (Richard Beymer) comes home from Harvard, he discovers that his mother, Louise (Rosalind Russell), has hired a German tutor, Walter (Maximilian Schell), for her young daughter, Pamela (Annette Gorman). Louise is pretentious and fancies herself more cultured than she actually is (she shells peas as Walter is giving a piano concert), and finds her husband, Stanley (Jack Hawkins) to be gruff, plodding and unimaginative. Philip is going through his own growing pains, and resists Stanley's attempts to bond with him, even as Stanley continually berates the young man for being too "sensitive" and is angry that his wife seems ungrateful for all he has given her. Louise finds herself becoming romantically and physically drawn to Walter, and it is more than likely that the confused, troubled Philip has developed a crush on Walter as well. Trouble begins when these characters allow their assorted jealousies to get the better of them. Five Finger Exercise was based on a very successful 1958 British play by Peter Shaffer, and the story was transplanted to American shores and watered down, as was usually the case with material too frank for the Hollywood censors. Beymer [Adventures of a Young Man] gives it the old college try and has some good moments, but he's miscast, while an excellent Schell [Return from the Ashes] is more appropriate for his role. Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins [She Played with Fire] go together like oil and water, which is perhaps the point -- both give good performances. Philip has a good speech about how he is more than just an extension of his father, but is his own distinct person. An in-joke shows a poster of Russell in Auntie Mame when she walks into a store.

Verdict: Family Values turned upside down. ***.

THE THIN MAN GOES HOME

Harry Davenport and Myrna Loy
THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1945). Director: Richard Thorpe.

Nick Charles (William Powell), his wife Nora (Myrna Loy), and their little dog Asta (Nick Jr. is away at school) travel to Nick's hometown of Sycamore Springs for his unspecified birthday (Powell was 53 at the time). Nick has always had a difficult relationship with his father, Bertram (Harry Davenport), because he didn't become a doctor like his father did, and Nick aches for his approval. But his mother (Lucile Watson) is a peach. Nick gets to prove his skill at detecting when a dead man practically shows up on the Charles' doorstep. Bertram can't believe that one of his old friends might be the killer ... Powell and Loy are excellent, as usual -- Loy is especially notable in this entry -- and the supporting cast, including Davenport [Son of Fury] and Watson (cast against type, like Fay Holden in the Andy Hardy films, as a small-town housewife), could not be bettered. Special mention must go to Anne Revere [Body and Soul], who plays "Crazy Mary," the town's pathetic loony; Anita Sharp-Bolster as  the hilariously weird maid, Hilda; and Donald Meek as Willie Crump, who sells paintings for a living -- the plot revolves around a painting of a windmill that Nora buys for her husband's birthday. Other suspects and persons of interest are well played by Leon Ames, Donald MacBride, Irving Bacon, Morris Ankrum, Helen Vinson, Minor Watson, Lloyd Corrigan, and Gloria DeHaven as a breathlessly pretentious heiress. One very cute bit has Nick and Nora leaving Asta with the coat check girl as if he were a hat, but the funniest scene has Nora unexpectedly doing a wild, zippy dance with a sailor. This was the next to last Thin Man movie -- this was followed by the disappointing Song of the Thin Man.

Verdict: Very satisfying and amusing Thin Man movie. ***.


INTERMEZZO (1936)

INTERMEZZO (1936). Director: Gustaf Molander.

Holger Brandt (Gosta Ekman), a famous violinist, is married to Margit (Inga Tidblad) and has two children, the self-assured little girl, Ann-Marie (Britt Hagman), and the handsome engineer student, Ake (Hasse Ekman). Into their lives comes the aspiring pianist, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman). Despite a 25-year age difference, Holger and Anita drift into an affair, which the former eventually tells his wife about. Burning his bridges behind him, Holger takes off on a tour with Anita as his accompanist, but when his wife sues for divorce he hesitates in signing the papers. Do those old feelings for his family still linger? Ingrid Bergman had already made a few films in Sweden when she did Intermezzo, the film in which Hollywood took notice of her. Although never a great beauty by conventional standards, she generally looks quite striking and attractive in this picture, and her performance is excellent. The other cast members are equally good, but Intermezzo is rather on the slight and superficial side and becomes too melodramatic at the end. This is chiefly known as the film that started Bergman on her way to major stardom; she appeared in the American remake three years later. Intermezzo's basic story of a man who leaves wife and children for a younger woman had been done many, many, many times before and this would hardly be the last time. The best scene is actually between Holger and his son towards the end.

Verdict: Very good performances almost disguise that this is soap opera. **1/2.

LUCKY ME: MY LIFE WITH -- AND WITHOUT -- MY MOM, SHIRLEY MACLAINE

LUCKY ME: MY LIFE WITH -- AND WITHOUT -- MY MOM, SHIRLEY MACLAINE. Sachi Parker with Frederick Stroppel. Gotham; 2013.

It isn't easy for children of celebrities, especially if they have similar ambitions, to be in the shadow of self-absorbed parents. Of course, some of these children feel entitled to enjoy their parents' connections and money, and this is certainly true of Sachi Parker, who has no problem with nepotism. Still, as the daughter of a wealthy movie star -- if we're to believe this account -- she received only sporadic attention, conditional love, and little support, financial or otherwise. Some driven movie stars become extremely protective of their territory to the point of almost becoming jealous of their talented offspring.

Then we have Sachi's father, an incredible scam artist and borderline child molester. Sachi writes about how her possibly pansexual father would climb in bed with her and act not at all in a fatherly fashion, and would squeeze her buttocks while dancing with her after she was grown. She witnessed him ruthlessly beating his mistress. Yet later in the book she is anxious for this creep to meet his grand-children! Why? You'd think she would keep them as far away from him as possible. It's these inconsistencies that make you realize that much of Lucky Me has to be taken with a grain of salt.

As in her life, Sachi Parker is clearly anxious with this book to establish herself as "somebody." hence I believe many of the anecdotes in this book are highly exaggerated or even fictionalized. If you look at Lucky Me as a semi-autobiographical novel it makes a little more sense. The book begins with Sachi learning that her mother has something to tell her that will finally make it clear why she was raised in Japan far from Shirley MacLaine. (Sachi's mother and father remained married for decades, but lived in separate countries and maintained an open relationship -- husband Steve Parker had a Japanese mistress as well.) Three quarters of the way through the book you learn what the big secret is and it's one of the most hilarious things I've ever read. I've never thought of MacLaine, talented though she may be, as having too much upstairs, but, honestly, she must be as dumb as a bucket of rocks! While the book maintains interest in the final quarter, it loses some steam, recounting Sachi's acting efforts and film/stage appearances.

So what are we to make of this? Did Sachi Parker have the misfortune of having two of the worst parents who ever lived? Did MacLaine have virtually no maternal instincts? Are she and brother Warren Beatty cut from the same cloth of ruthless ambition in which no one else ever really seems to matter? Or is the disinherited Sachi just another Christina Crawford, hating her mother for not handing her a successful career, fame, and riches on a silver platter? You can judge for yourself. But one thing that has to be said is that for much of its length Lucky Me is an absorbing and highly amusing read, and that the book is very well-written by co-auhor Frederick Stroppel. Her long story involving flatulence on a movie set could have been left out, however.

Verdict: Weird, suspect at times, but undeniably fascinating. ***1/2.

INTERMEZZO: A LOVE STORY (1939).

Leslie Howard, Ingrid Bergman
INTERMEZZO; A LOVE STORY (1939). Director: Gregory Ratoff.

"I wonder if one has ever built happiness on the unhappiness of others."

Producer David Selznick, struck by Ingrid Bergman's appearance and performance in the Swedish film Intermezzo -- in which she played the young lover of a married man with children -- signed her to a contract and decided to do an American version of the movie in which Bergman was "introduced." According to most biographies of the actress, Selznick wanted to do Bergman over by Hollywood standards, and she insisted she just wanted to be herself. Oddly, Selznick went to the other extreme, in that Bergman looks much better -- prettier and sexier -- in the Swedish version than in his own -- she doesn't even wear make up in the remake. The violinist in this is played by Leslie Howard, his wife by Edna Best, and the children by Ann E. Todd and Douglas Scott. While the remake follows the original's story closely (and uses virtually the same script most of the time), there are some differences. First, there isn't as big an age difference between Bergman and Howard, giving an added weight to their relationship; in addition the scenes where Howard and Bergman fall in love are longer and more expressive. The story is a bit more moralistic than the Swedish version. A negative change is when the little daughter is hit by a car. In the Swedish version she is immediately taken to a hospital, but in the American version, Howard takes her home and yells "Send a doctor to the house!" To the house? -- this after she is clearly shown being run over! As in the earlier version, the best scene isn't between husband and wife or husband and lover, but the moving confrontation/reconciliation between father and son (well-played by Howard and young Scott). The movie is twenty minutes shorter than the Swedish version, and only clocks in at 70 minutes. Bergman and the other performers are all very good.

Verdict: Despite the business with the accident, this may have a slight edge on the original. ***.  

THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE

Daliah Lavi and Lex Barker 
THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE (aka Im Stahlnetz des Dr. Mabuse/1961). Director: Harald Reinl.

Commissioner Lohmann (Gert Frobe) is alerted to the murder of an operative, an event which might be of major importance, and cancels his vacation. As the mysterious masked Dr. Mabuse slays his enemies second-hand and plots an attack on a power plant, Lohmann is aided by FBI agent Joe Como (Lex Barker), who may actually be a representative of the syndicate from Chicago. The syndicate wants to work with Mabuse, but he needs to show off the efficacy of his will-sapping drug. Como romances photo-journalist Maria (Daliah Lavi), whose father has been imprisoned by Mabuse and has developed the aforementioned gas. Lohmann suspects that Mabuse is operating out of a prison this time, and presumes Warden Wolf (Fausto Tozzi of Constantine and the Cross) is the master criminal, but there are unexpected developments. Other possible suspects include prison employee Bohmler (Werner Peters of Phantom of Soho); Father Briefenstien (Rudolph Fernau); and even Lohmann's assistant, Detective Voss (Joachim Mock). This is sort of a sequel to The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, although Fritz Lang did not work on this film, and Frobe's name has been changed back to Lohmann after "Kras" was his surname in the previous picture. There's an assassin with a wooden leg, and a truck that shoots flames out of its side and roasts to ashes another female Syndicate operative. The score and dubbing are poor, with no one using their own voices, an especial problem for Daliah Lavi [Some Girls Do] who isn't much of a sex bomb without that husky voice and her bosom draped. As usual in these dubbed Mabuse pictures the man's name is pronounced "Ma-booze" when it should be "Ma-boo-suh." This picture repeats the bit with the couple trapped in a room filling with water that was used in Lang's Testament of Dr. Mabuse, but it's not as effective. Wolfgang Preiss again plays Mabuse but he doesn't actually show up until the end, after he removes another character's mask. Mabuse would return more than once.

Verdict: Some interesting stuff but perhaps not enough. **1/2.

ROUND-UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART 2



Here's my second round up of new and recent films with reviews-in-brief:

Don't Look Down (aka Wes Craven Presents Don't Look Down/1998 telefilm.) Director: Larry Shaw. A woman (Megan Ward) whose sister died in a terrible fall joins a group of acrophobes to see if she can get over her terror of heights. One by one members of the group start getting murdered. Don't Look Down has a great premise, lots of suspense, and is well-acted by an interesting supporting cast. Billy Burke is also fine as the heroine's supportive husband. ***.

Dead Tone (2007). Director: Brian Hooks and Dean Taylor. Hardly a cliche goes unrecorded in this late slasher movie where a madman with an ax is on the loose at a party in a mansion where the guests are mostly unpleasant and obnoxious, including a host of black stereotypes and one ludicrously caricatured gay man, who play a cruel phone game as if they were eight years old. The movie is half over before it gets going, and then there's plenty of decently-staged if unexceptional gore and action. There are lots of loose ends but an interesting resolution and a final bit that sort of rips off the ending of Night of the Living Dead. Whatever its flaws -- and there are many -- Dead Tone has some interesting elements to it, and a notable performance by Wil Horneff. **1/2.

1408 (2007). Director Mikael Hafstrom. John Cusack plays a man who debunks the supernatural but comes up squarely against it in a haunted hotel room. Cusack seems to have abandoned his wife after their daughter died. The movie features the usual standard horror conventions, and is well-done and well-acted on that level. But the sappy religiosity of the ending is rather off-putting. Based on a story by Stephen King. **1/2.

Unknown (2011). Director: Jaume Collet-Serra. Liam Neeson stars as a doctor whose identity is seemingly stolen from him. An interesting premise basically turns into a Liam Neeson Action Movie, but is okay on that level. However, the ending is so morally bankrupt as to be appalling. **1/2.

Closed Circuit (2013). Director: John Crowley. In London a pair of former lovers (Eric Bana; Rebecca Hall) work to defend an accused terrorist against much disapproval and opposition, and discover there may be much more to the man than meets the eye. You'd like to be both outraged and moved by this story of a monstrous cover-up, but the movie is so pedestrian on virtually every level, with such over-familiar and cliched elements, that it hardly works at all. **.

Solo (2013). Writer/director: Isaac Cravit. A young woman is hired as a camp counselor and is told that she must spend two days alone on an island as preparation. Even if you buy this premise, the movie doesn't amount to much. Naturally some strange things happen on the island, but nothing you haven't seen many times before. This comes off like a polished student film that probably should have never been released. **. 

Careful What You Wish For (2015). Director: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum. A teenage boy (Nick Jonas) enters into an affair with a married older woman (Isabel Lucas) but when someone turns up dead both the local sheriff (Paul Sorvino) and an insurance investigator (Kandyse McClure) have their suspicions. Chris Frisina's screenplay is an unoriginal mass of cliches, including a somewhat anti-LGBT revelation (however unintended). The final twist has been done before more than once. The film isn't boring, the acting is good, but Rosenbaum's direction betrays no skill at all with the thriller/suspense genre. **.

Harbinger Down (2015). Writer/director: Alec Gillis. Lance Henriksen and the crew of his ship discover the remains of a Soviet moon capsule whose dead passenger has been infected by a strange mutated species. Before you can say The Thing or Alien, the creature bursts out and starts infecting the others. Henriksen gives a good performance, the special effects are excellent, but the movie is staggeringly unoriginal, and there's absolutely no flair to the direction. **.

And Then There Were None (2015). Director: Craig Vivieros. This three-part television adaptation of the venerable Agatha Christie novel -- the most recent of several -- adds some interesting facets to the story, turns one character into a nasty self-hating lesbian, features a tiresome sex scene, and despite its grimness almost becomes comical at times. The pace is slow and the direction unimaginative, but it manages to hold the attention due to the situations if nothing else. Charles Dance is a stand-out in a rather good cast, and it has an excellent finale. ***.

Don't Breathe. (2016). Director: Fede Alvarez. Three amoral young people who break into the home of a blind man hoping he keeps all of his cash in his home (!) get more than they bargained for when they discover he's more formidable than they realized. Entertaining enough, but hardly "the greatest horror movie in fifty years," as one person claimed. **1/2.

Star Trek Beyond (2016). Director: Justin Lin. The third in the alternate timeline Star Trek movies has the Enterprise trying to rescue an alien crew by entering an uncharted Nebula and encountering a bad guy who isn't at all interesting until the film's final minutes. The story is weak, script mediocre, and the action not always well-orchestrated, but it does have a very exciting climax. I had to go back and check out the scene where it is revealed that Sulu has a husband, as it's over so quickly many people missed it. Apparently some viewers, including George Takei, were upset that Sulu was made gay, but if Spock and Lt. Uhura are lovers in this version, why can't Sulu be gay? Anyway, if the movie had been better this aspect may not have gotten so much attention. **1/2.

And special mention to:

Stolen Lives (aka Stolen/2009). Director: Anders Anderson. Detective Tom Adkins (Jon Hamm of Mad Men), still searching for his little boy who disappeared some years before, finds the remains of another child who died decades earlier and investigates. A parallel story told in flashback deals with that dead little boy and his father (Josh Lucas) and the heartbreak and guilt that he has to endure. Both stories come together at the end. Beautifully acted by Hamm, Lucas, James Van Der Beek and the rest of an excellent cast, this is difficult to sit through at times as the pain of the characters is so wrenchingly depicted, but it's still a worthwhile journey through an agonizing landscape. ***1/2.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

THE FILMS OF RODGERS AND HART

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart 
THE FILMS OF RODGERS AND HART.

Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were one of the greatest song-writing duos in history, with one hit show after another, and together they created a host of wonderful songs that have become standards. Unfortunately, in general they were badly treated by Hollywood, who made adaptations of their shows with watered down or completely altered plots and lyrics, and worse, sometimes most of the songs were dropped and even replaced by the work of other songwriters. However, they did do the songs for the film Love Me Tonight -- which introduced 'Isn't It Romantic?," among others -- and other songs they wrote managed to make it to the screen in one way or another.

This week we look at a variety of films that were either loosely based on Rodgers and Hart's Broadway hits, or featured music by the famous duo. Many of the writings about the team go on about how handsome Rodgers was, and how ugly and gnome-like Hart was, but actually Rodgers was not that handsome and Hart was not especially ugly. Rodgers was perhaps more even-featured than Hart, whose face was a little more interesting. In any case, who cares? -- all these decades later both men remain giants of the musical theater and people still admire, sing, and appreciate their work. Their shows include Pal Joey, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, I Married an Angel, Too Many Girls, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, On Your Toes, and many others. NOTE: Reviews of the film versions of Pal Joey and Too Many Girls will be posted in future weeks. 

Rodgers worked with Hart nearly until Hart's death, but Hart lived to congratulate Rodgers on his first collaboration with his new partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma. Rodgers and Hammerstein would etch their own impressive resume after Hart's too-early death.

LOVE ME TONIGHT

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald
LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932). Director: Rouben Mamoulian.

"I don't know what will come tomorrow, but love me tonight."

Tailor Maurice (Maurice Chevalier) is hoping to be paid a large bill for several suits by the deadbeat Viscount Gilbert (Charles Ruggles). To that end Maurice travels to the home of the man's uncle, the Duke d'Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith), whom he is visiting. There Maurice becomes smitten with the Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who finds him rude and brash. Not wanting his uncle to realize he has yet another creditor nipping at his heels, Gilbert tells everyone that Maurice is actually a baron, and then an even greater dignitary traveling incognito. Slowly, Maurice begins to wear the princess down, but what happens when she learns he's just a tailor ..? Love Me Tonight would have to go on the list as one of the best movie musicals ever made. The story is slight, and often zany, but this is cinematic, very well directed by Mamoulian, with superior cinematography (Victor Milner of So Red the Rose) and editing (Mamoulian and William Shea). Chevalier gives an excellent and charming performance, MacDonald is swell, and Smith as effective and fun as ever. Ruggles is fine, but Myrna Loy as a countess and Charles Butterworth as a hopeless suitor for the princess's affections are less memorable. Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies, and Blanche Friderici stand out as a trio of "old biddies" who almost serve as a Greek chorus and are very funny.

And then there's the music. Although this was based on a straight stage play and not a musical, Rodgers and Hart provided several songs that were written just for the movie. The best-known is Isn't It Romantic, a standard. and a classic Rodgers melody. It is first sung (not that well, frankly) by Chevalier, then picked up by a customer in his shop, a cab driver, moving on to several other people throughout the French countryside, until the tune is taken up by marching soldiers and finally McDonald, whose voice is very imperfect but who at least sings the tune better than Chevalier. (He could get across a song without having a great voice). We also have "Lover;" "Apache:" "The Son of a Gun;" the title tune; and "Mimi." Some of Hart's racy lyrics survive intact in this pre-code movie (the production code was formed two years earlier, but not really enforced until 1934 when pictures had to obtain a certificate of approval.) Chevalier sings of how his father and mother "weren't very well acquainted."

Now here's where things get odd. Chevalier sings "Mimi" to MacDonald but the song is never repeated. I could swear that the first time I saw this movie, "Mimi" was intoned by virtually everyone in the movie. Am I confusing it with what happened with "Isn"t it Romantic?" But in the wikipedia entry regarding the song, it says that the song is "later reprised by the entire company." Could this have happened in a later movie? I swear I remember dozens of people singing the tune in Love Me Tonight, and the DVD doesn't say anything about the film being cut. Anyone know what's up?

The movie has other notable scenes, such as a Foxhunt in which Chevalier winds up befriending a frightened stag, and MacDonald's racing on a horse to get ahead of a train. The film begins with all of the sounds of Paris combining to form a kind of music.

Verdict: A lovely and entertaining gem, if a little odd at times. ***1/2.

BABES IN ARMS

BABES IN ARMS (1939). Director: Busby Berkeley.

When some old vaudevillians leave town to go on tour, their children decide to put on their own show.  That's the plot of this okay Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "let's put on a show" musical. This is based on a Rodgers and Hart stage musical, but the only songs by the team that are left are the title tune and "Where or When?," which I believe was from another show. ("The Lady is a Tramp" from Pal Joey plays in the background of one scene.) As usual, some of the "kids" in this are a bit too old, such as Douglas McPhail and real-life wife Betty Jaynes, both of whom have beautiful semi-operatic voices (they do "Where or When?"). Mickey and Judy are in splendid form, of course, and we see footage of Rooney when he was a small boy performing in vaudeville. Of the older cast, which includes Guy Kibbee,  Margaret Hamilton, Henry Hull and Ann Shoemaker, Charles Winninger [Three Smart Girls] is a stand-out as Mickey's father, Joe Moran. Johnny Sheffield of Bomba fame also has a small role. Judy sings "I Cried for You," Mickey does an excellent impression of Gable, and there's a memorable finale in "God's Country." McPhail had hoped to have a career along the lines of Nelson Eddy, but when it didn't materialize and he and Jaynes got divorced, the poor guy took his own life at age thirty.

Verdict: Not the best Mickey-Judy musical but fun enough. **1/2.

ON YOUR TOES

Eddie Albert and (Vera) Zorina
ON YOUR TOES (1939). Director: Ray Enright.

"Russian art is always morbid." -- Vera.

Phil Dolan Jr. (Eddie Albert), a childhood hoofer who had an act with his parents, now wants to be a composer. To this end he hooks up with Ivan (Loenid Kinsky), a Russian composer  who helps him work on his ballet, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." He meets his old friend, Vera (Vera Zorina), now a ballet dancer, and she encourages the mild-mannered man in his work. He winds up dancing in his own ballet, unaware that two Russian hit men have confused him with someone else, and are planning to kill him at the climax. This is a textbook example of how not to make a film out of a hit Broadway musical (which was successfully revived in the 80's). First you hire two leads who can't sing, then cut out each and every one of Rodgers and Hart's tunes (one or two play in the background and that's it), then cobble together a screenplay that makes the movie resemble more a typical dopey musical of the period than anything else. "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" was performed much more successfully nine years later in Words and Music, the Rodgers and Hart biopic. There's some mild suspense involving the hit men, but mostly the movie is more tedious talk than music and comedy, with mostly unfunny shtick from the players. Accomplished ballet dancer Zorina [I was an Adventuress] was getting the build-up from Sam Goldwyn, and the film's credit reads "Zorina in On Your Toes." Talk about making somebody a star before they're a star! That said, Zorina has a pleasing personality and gives a capable performance, but her career was derailed when she was replaced in From Whom the Bell Tolls by Ingrid Bergman. Albert is okay, but James Gleason and Queenie Smith as his parents, as well as Erik Rhodes [Charlie Chan in Paris] as the temperamental ballet star, Konstantin, make a bigger impression, as does a charismatic Donald O'Connor playing Albert as a boy. Gloria Dickson has little to do as a flirtatious patron of the arts, but boisterous Alan Hale is all over the movie as the head of the ballet troupe.

Verdict: Aside from a couple of moments this is basically a waste. *1/2.

I MARRIED AN ANGEL

Sexless? Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald
I MARRIED AN ANGEL (1942). Director: W. S. Van Dyke.

In Budapest the irresponsible playboy and supposed banker, Willy (Nelson Eddy), is about to celebrate his 35th birthday with a masquerade ball. His disapproving associate, whom he calls "Whiskers" (Reginald Owen of The Good Fairy), thinks it's time Willy were married, and arranges for his shy secretary Anna (Jeannette MacDonald) to be invited to the party. His other, sexier secretary Marika (Mona Maris), suggests Anna go dressed as an angel, primarily to make fun of her. Willy doesn't know quite what to make of Anna, but later he dreams of an actual angel named Brigitta, who looks just like Anna, descending from heaven to marry him. But there are complications. I Married an Angel was based on a Rodgers and Hart musical, and it undoubtedly worked much better on the stage where its satirical aspects could be expressed with a degree of sophistication. Reworked as a vehicle for the essentially sexless duo Eddy and MacDonald, it simply comes off as weird and generally unmemorable. The picture picks up in the latter half, especially during a scene when Brigtta makes one tactless remark to her guests after another, assuming honesty is the best policy (but even this has a certain ugliness to it, as the targets are singled out for their age and appearance). MacDonald does become sexy in a nightclub scene, after Brigitta has fallen under the influence of a devilish baron (Douglass Dumbrille) and works her way scintillatingly through the crowd. I've no doubt most of the Rodgers and Hart songs were eliminated, but we still get the lovely title tune, the amusing "Willy Marry Me," and a snappy duet-dance between MacDonald and Binne Barnes [Three Smart Girls] where the latter counsels the former to keep a "Twinkle in Your Eye." Wright and Forrest contributed one or two numbers as well. Unfortunately, both MacDonald [The Cat and the Fiddle] and Eddy [Phantom of the Opera] have a tendency to over-sing everything, clubbing the songs into submission. Their acting is fine, however, with MacDonald (although too old for the role of a virginal secretary) being as adept as the shy young woman warily approaching her boss at the party as she is as the semi-malicious character in the nightclub sequence. Owen, Maris and Barnes are fine, but Edward Everett Horton is wasted. Esther Dale and Gertrude Hoffman make their mark in smaller roles At one point Eddy stands on a balcony and watches scenes of "Brigtta" inexplicably performing in such operas as Carmen -- making one wonder if the actress was hoping to be tapped by the Met. This was the last -- and probably least -- collaboration of the famous duo.

Verdict: Rodgers and Hart deserved better than this. **.

WORDS AND MUSIC

Mickey as Lorenz Hart and Judy as herself
WORDS AND MUSIC (1948). Director: Norman Taurog.

"... strange places with strange people ..."

Richard Rodgers (Tom Drake) and Lorenz Hart (Mickey Rooney) become a highly popular song-writing duo and a theatrical force to be reckoned with. This is a heavily fictionalized biography that completely suppresses Hart's homosexuality and alcoholism, and instead makes the man unlucky in love. The highlights of the film are the musical interludes: Judy Garland, playing herself, singing "I Wish I Were In Love Again" with Mickey; and doing a solo on "Johnny One-Note." Lena Horne scores with "Where or When? " and "The Lady is a Tramp,"  and Mel Torme does "Blue Moon." Then there's the excellent "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from On Your Toes with Gene Kelly at the top of his game. Rooney is as superb as ever, Drake [Betrayed Women] is fine as Rodgers, and Marshall Thompson plays associate Herbert Fields. Perry Como plays a fictional character in the film, and while his acting isn't bad, his singing style (at that time) apes Bing Crosby shamelessly. Janet Leigh has a nice turn as Rodgers' wife, as does Ann Sothern as Joyce, but the best one can say about Betty Garrett is that she's utterly unexciting. The picture is very handsomely produced, but the narration is unnecessary. To cap it all off we've got "With a Song in My Heart," one of Rodgers most beautiful melodies.

Verdict: Not the real story but colorful and entertaining. ***.

JUMBO

JUMBO (aka Billy Roses' Jumbo/1962). Director: Charles Walters.

"Pop" Wonder (Jimmy Durante) is the owner of a circus that is in real financial trouble -- the only real asset is an elephant named Jumbo --  none of which is helped by Pop's gambling. Against her better wishes, his daughter, Kitty (Doris Day), hires a stranger, Sam (Stephen Boyd), who claims to have experience as a trapeze artist. But Sam may have a connection to a man who is trying to take over Pop's circus against his wishes. A developing romance between Kitty and Sam is threatened by these revelations. This circus-themed musical is based on a Rodgers and Hart stage play, and their songs are the highlights of the movie: 'This Can't Be Love;" "My Romance;" "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World;" etc. The elephant Jumbo's act is also quite amazing. Day [Pillow Talk] is perky and efficient if sexless, Boyd [Ben-Hur] is better than you'd expect in this kind of material, Durante [The Great Rupert] as lovable as ever, and Martha Raye as his love interest is ... cute. Her bit pretending to be a lioness is devoid of mirth, but her stint as a human cannonball is a bit funnier. The screenplay was by Sidney Sheldon, and Busby Berkeley was second unit director.

Verdict: Just when you think it's over, it goes on and on and on. **1/2.

RODGERS AND HART: BEWITCHED, BOTHERED AND BEDEVILED

RODGERS AND HART: Bewitched, Bothered, and Bedeviled. Samuel Marx and Jan Clayton. Putman's; 1976.

This duel biography looks at the lives and careers of the great songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Together the two were responsible for numerous great songs, many now standards, in such shows as Babes in Arms, On Your Toes, I Married an Angel, The Boys from Syracuse, I Married an AngelPal Joey, and others, several of which were made into films. The book details how the two men met, their childhoods and early lives, the way they worked together, their sojourns to Hollywood and their work in the film industry, and the eventual discontent that settled in due to Rodger's exasperation with Hart's habit of getting drunk and/or disappearing for days. Written in a post-Stonewall period, Rodgers and Hart doesn't gloss over the probability that, despite his having proposed marriage once to a female friend (actress Vivienne Segal of Pal Joey and The Cat and the Fiddle) whom he'd never even kissed, he was essentially a gay man, although some of his intimates try to deny this. It is typical for people to describe gay men in a pre-Stonewall period as "tormented," but Hart seems to have enjoyed his life to the fullest even if he never found ideal love. (The authors do suggest that Hart would have been much better off if he had taken an insouciant, more positive attitude toward his sexuality a la Noel Coward.) Hart was the lovable prankster while the colder Rodgers was in comparison, a stern, more conventional taskmaster, although he was certainly not any kind of monster and was as kind and forbearing with Hart as he could be. Hart was devastated by being replaced as Rodgers' lyricist by Oscar Hammerstein and the success of Oklahoma, but Dick had not given up on Larry and worked with him on six new tunes for a revival of one of their earlier hits, but he died shortly after, probably due to cirrhosis of the liver. Rodgers and Hart is a good look at the team, but it isn't always well-edited, as instead of inserting comments from those they interviewed throughout the rambling manuscript in a more judicious approach, they simply let certain individuals drone on (often more about themselves than their subjects) for pages with no real context. Samuel Marx [Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern] was a Broadway reporter and Jan Clayton [The Snake Pit] was in the original cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.

Verdict: Not the last word on the team, not always well put together, but a good enough introduction, and the authors' refusal to "straighten out" Hart is admirable. **1/2.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ANASTASIA

Helen Hayes, Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman
ANASTASIA (1956). Director: Anatole Litvak. Screenplay by Arthur Laurents.

In Europe in the 1920's rumors are circulating that Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman), the youngest daughter of the Tsar Nicholas, may have survived the purge that killed the rest of her family. General Bounine (Yul Brynner) finds a woman, fresh out of mental hospitals and contemplating suicide, whom he thinks resembles Anastasia, and guides her -- like Henry Higgins -- to act more like royalty. But as she is about to meet the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes) and seal her fate, she wonders if she could really be who everyone says she is. Anastasia is a wonderful, absorbing film that is not true to historical facts but to their spirit, and works beautifully as a kind of fairy tale. Bergman deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar for this, and she is matched in excellence by a powerful Hayes, and a rather sexy and dynamic Brynner. There is also fine work from Martita Hunt [Becket] as the Empress' peppery lady-in-waiting [to whom the Empress says "to a woman of your age, sex should mean nothing but gender"]; Ivan Desny as her nephew, Paul; Akim Tamiroff [The Vulture] as Boris Chernov, one of the co-conspirators in this matter of the "phony" Anastasia; and Natalie Schafer [The Other Love] as one of the group of Russian exiles who embraces Anastasia as their own; among others. The ending is contrived but effective, and the movie still manages to maintain an air of ambiguity. In real life, the Empress completely rejected "Anastasia's" claim, and the woman lived her life as Ana Anderson, protesting all along that she was the real daughter of the Tsar. Decades later, DNA proved conclusively that Anderson was lying. Filmed in stunning DeLuxe color and with a nice score by Alfred Newman.

Verdict: A true classic with superb performances. ****.

STALAG 17

William Holden and Peter Graves
STALAG 17 (1953). Director: Billy Wilder.

In a WW2 German POW camp, Sefton (William Holden) is a slick, callous wise guy who makes money anyway he can, whether it's from his fellow officers or from the German guards. When two hopeful escapees are discovered and shot, the other men suspect that someone in the barracks is feeding information to the buffoonish Schulz (Sig Ruman). The main suspect is Sefton, his accusers including the Security man, Price (Peter Graves); the barracks chief. Hoffman (Richard Erdman); blustery Duke (Neville Brand); and the two camp clowns, Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and "Animal" (Robert Strauss); among others. When it is clear that the Germans, represented by Commander Sherbach (Otto Preminger), intend to kill newcomer Lt. Dunbar (Don Taylor), who led a successful anti-German bombing raid, the group try to figure out a way to spirit him out of the camp without the quisling's knowledge. But is Sefton really the traitor? Stalag 17 might have made a great picture if there wasn't such insistence on catering to popular tastes and making a "feel good" movie about a Prisoner of War camp. No one expects Italian neo-realistic grimness in a Hollywood movie, but the comedy relief -- especially as it pertains to the bumbling and irritating Shapiro and Animal --  at times threatens to overwhelm everything else, as if it's a sitcom -- in fact, this movie with its cartoon Nazis was undoubtedly the inspiration for the series Hogan's Heroes, which even included a fumbling "Schulz". It's too bad, because the more serious aspects of the film are generally well-done. Holden gives his usual competent once-removed performance, and Graves [Beginning of the End] and Erdman [Cry Danger] and some of the others are fine, but Neville Brand is especially notable and dynamic as Duke. Holden won a Best Actor Oscar that he didn't really deserve, as it was well within his range and nothing at all special. Wilder and Strauss [September Storm] were nominated, but Brand should have been. The men in the camp talk about Betty Grable, but not once does anyone mention or even seem to think of wives and other loved ones back home aside from a brief scene when the POWs receive mail -- including letters from the finance company (!) -- from the States. [Apparently the Red Cross helped ship U.S. mail to Germany via neutral Sweden, but letters from the finance company are doubtful!] The film even tries to milk humor out of a throwaway scene when a prisoner realizes his wife is pregnant by another man but can't face up to it. (Trying not to over-sentimentalize, the movie goes to the other extreme.) There's a charming scene when the men all dance together in the absence of women.

Verdict: German POW camps as filtered through superficial Hollywood. **1/2.

RING OF FEAR

Mickey Spillane falls asleep during the movie
RING OF FEAR (1954). Director: James Edward Grant.

Dublin O'Malley (Sean McClory of Valley of the Dragons), a former ring director for Clyde Beatty's circus, escapes from prison and commits murder while on his way back to the circus. Clyde Beatty (playing himself) decides to rehire O'Malley, who not only has a grudge against Beatty but is still carrying a torch for high-wire performer Valerie (Marian Carr of Indestructible Man), who now has a husband named Armand (John Bromfield). Fearing his circus is jinxed, Beatty asks Mickey Spillane (also playing himself) to investigate, along with an undercover cop named Jack Stang (also playing himself). Two other characters are a stereotypically stupid Latino named Pedro Gonzales (played, believe it or not, by Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and a hand named Twitchy (Emmet Lynn), who is a little too fond of the bottle. Ring of Fear seems to be a 90 minute ad for both Clyde Beatty's circus and Mickey Spillane's novels, as there's no other reason for it to exist. There are some splendid acts in the circus, especially those extremely well-trained elephants, but there isn't much of a plot, little suspense, hardly any excitement, and absolutely no surprises. Nine years later, Spillane played his creation, Mike Hammer, in The Girl Hunters, but he is only passable playing himself. He played a lawyer in Mommy (and its sequel) in 1995. Clyde Beatty played himself years earlier in the serial The Lost Jungle. The best performance is by Emmet Lynn.

Verdict: Almost as bad as Circus of Fear. **.

THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE

Wolfgang Preiss
THE 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE (aka Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse/1960. Director: Fritz Lang.

A series of murders and strange occurrences center around the Hotel Luxor. When a woman, Marion Menil (Dawn Addams of The Vault of Horror), stands out on a ledge threatening to jump, she is coaxed in by American millionaire scientist Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck of The Wages of Fear). As Travers tries to determine the reason for Marion's despair, Commissioner Kras (Gert Frobe) investigates the murder of a reporter who is shot while his car is stopped in traffic -- a murder that reminds Kras of a similar death that the late criminal Dr. Mabuse was responsible for (and which occurred in Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.) Assisting Kras is the blind psychic Peter Cornelius, even as Marion is assisted by her physician, the striking Dr. Jordan (Wolfgang Preiss). Whoever is behind the goings-on has outfitted the Hotel Luxor with television monitors in each room, as well as two-way mirrors. A bomb in the Commissioner's phone nearly ends the case for him.  The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang's final Mabuse filmis an absorbing thriller with lots of twists and turns and a satisfying wind-up. The performances are good, with Wolfgang Preiss [The Terror of Dr. Mabuse] being especially notable.

Verdict: Dr. Mabuse has denied that he had anything to do with the 2016 US presidential election. ***.

HOLMES OF THE MOVIES

HOLMES OF THE MOVIES: The Screen Career of Sherlock Holmes. David Stuart Davis. Bramhall House; 1978. Foreword by Peter Cushing.

This entertaining book on movies featuring the famous character Sherlock Holmes has chapters on silent films such as The Murder On Baker Street;  the stage adaptation Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette; early interpretations of Holmes played by Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, and even Raymond Massey; Arthur Wontner, considered one of the best of the early Holmesian thespians; and, of course, the most famous of actors to play Holmes, Basil Rathbone. Rathbone's many Holmes films are covered, and there are additional chapters on TV series starring Ronald Howard and Peter Cushing; the Hammer film The Hound of the Baskervilles, also starring Cushing; sixties films such as Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace and A Study in Terror; Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; and more recent films that have had anything to do with the character, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. Knowledgeable and engaging, Holmes of the Movies is loaded with great photographs.

Verdict: All you could want to know about Sherlock Holmes on film, on stage, and on TV. ***.

S.O.S. COAST GUARD

Boroff (Bela Lugosi) ponders who to torture next. 
S.O.S. COAST GUARD (12 chapter Republic serial/1937. Directors; William Witney; Alan James.

"You let him get avay. You have blundered." -- Boroff to Thorg.

Lt. Terry Kent (Ralph Byrd) watches in horror as the hated criminal Boroff (Bela Lugosi) shoots down his brother. Kent vows to get even, even as Boroff tries to sell his disintegrating gas to the highest bidder. Kent's friends include reporter Jean Norman (Maxine Doyle); the photographer, Snapper (Lee Ford); and Jean's scientist brother, Dick (Allen Connor), who rushes to create a counter-gas to the vaporizing formula. Boroff's associates including the bulky Thorg (Richard Alexander of Flash Gordon) and henchman Dodds (Carleton Young of Flight to Hong Kong). Chapter one features an exciting sequence when Kent and the gang are trapped on a ship at sea as it sinks. In chapter two Kent is trapped in a glass chamber as Boroff unleashes his disintegrating gas. There are descending freight elevators, falling water towers, and a fiery truck that hurtles over a cliff. Byrd makes a reliable hero, as usual, while Lugosi, treading water, manages his customary authority but has little energy. 5 years later the serial was released as a 61 minute feature version. NOTE; Okay, this is another film I have reviewed after then discovering that I had already reviewed it on this site -- at least I did remember that I had seen the darn thing before!. For the original review, click here. (Last time I caught some things I missed this time around, for shame!)

Verdict: Average serial. **1/2.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016). Director: Stephen Frears.

Florence Foster Jenkins is loosely based on the life of the title character (Meryl Streep), a silly woman in 1944 New York who fancied herself a patron of the arts but may have been more interested in promoting herself despite a complete lack of talent. Was she delusional; was it all a big goof? Does anybody care? Frankly, a movie about a genuine opera star whose life is full of drama would have been a better bet than this mediocre film about the awful-sounding Jenkins. A bigger problem with the movie is that the characters are one-dimensional and in the case of  her "boyfriend" and manager (Hugh Grant of Love, Actually), highly unlikable. Streep, although miscast, isn't bad and Grant is fine, but the picture is stolen by Simon Helberg in his winning portrayal of Jenkins' befuddled accompanist, Cosme McMoon. But despite some funny moments and bits that attempt to be touching, this is not really a movie about people that anyone could give a fig about. Sadly, Streep has made worse, equally superficial movies, but she also appears in good ones such as Doubt. There was a play about Jenkins, as well as a French film based on her life, and a 2016 docudrama entitled The Florence Jenkins Story. Enough! Stephen Frears also directed Philomena.

Verdict: Hardly worth the time to sit through. **.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

JOAN OF ARC

A captive Joan prays: Ingrid Bergman
JOAN OF ARC (1948). Director: Victor Fleming.

"We can win only if we become God's army."

Joan (Ingrid Bergman), a young farm girl in France, claims to hear voices from God, telling her to speak to the Dauphin (Jose Ferrer) -- who would become King of France -- and to rally the French troops to force the British interlopers out of the country. She is on a mission from God to save France. Initially people are skeptical --  she is eventually seen as a witch by some, and a saint by others, and she marches into battle as a kind of unarmed mascot. But Joan's admirers are growing in number, and the French powers-that-be are disturbed ... Joan of Arc was excoriated when it was first released, primarily because it cost more than Gone with the Wind but was a financial bust. It's hard to understand why contemporary critics found the film boring and almost worthless. I am not at all religious, but I was impressed by the film's performances --virtually every well-known character actor working in pictures at the time -- the score (Hugo Friedhofer), and the beautiful color cinematography (Joseph Valentine) which often makes each shot look like a painting. The movie moves quite quickly as well. Bergman gives an Oscar-winning performance, and is wonderful. The only quibble I might have is that in scenes when she is supposed to be utterly exhausted due to no sleep she merely seems mildly fatigued -- even make up would have helped, but one supposes no one wanted to mar her features. Bergman was 33 at the time of filming (Joan was put to the stake at 19) and always wanted to play the role; a younger actress might have lacked the ability and strength the part required. Jose Ferrer, who was introduced in this picture,  also won a Best Actor Oscar, and while he's not on Bergman's level, he is quite good as the rather foppish Dauphin. Of the huge supporting cast there is notable work from Richard Derr as a knight and Joan's first follower; John Emery [Kronos] as the sympathetic Duke d'Alencon; and Jeff Corey [Seconds] as a jailer intent on Joan's rape. There are also appearances by Jimmy Lydon (!) as Joan's brother; Alan Napier (Batman's butler) as the Earl of Warwick; Hurd Hatfield as Father Pasquerel; and brief bits with Henry Brandon, Thomas Brown Henry, George Coulouris, and many others. The worst performance is by Francis L. Sullivan [Hell's Island], who plays Pierre Cauchon, Joan's chief accuser, almost as if he were a villain in a cliffhanger serial. The movie employs a lot of dramatic license, as a great deal is not known about Joan, and the picture simply takes her at face value, with no indication (from the movie's point of view) that she may be either demented, opportunistic or both. Her horrible death is depicted but rather glossed over -- she doesn't even break out into a sweat as the flames supposedly consume her.

Verdict: At times the movie seems to exist in a vacuum, but it is beautiful to look at, well-paced, and features some marvelous performances. ***.

LIBEL

Olivia de Havilland and Dirk Bogarde
LIBEL (1959). Director: Anthony Asquith.

Sir Mark Loddon (Dirk Bogarde), a wealthy baronet who escaped from a POW camp during the war, lives on a huge estate with his wife, Margaret (Olivia de Havilland), and their young son. One afternoon there arrives Jeffrey Buckenham (Paul Massie), who served with Mark and was also in the POW camp. Jeffrey insists to everyone that "Sir Mark" is actually Frank Welney, another man who was also a prisoner in the camp and who looked enough like Mark to be his twin. When Jeffrey writes to the newspapers, Margaret importunes Mark to file a libel suit against the paper, leading to a highly dramatic trial and many revelations. Libel is a highly suspenseful picture that keeps throwing twists and turns at the viewer and keeps one going back and forth as to whether Mark is really Welney or not. Although you would think Bogarde [Doctor at Sea] and de Havilland [The Heiress] would mix together like oil and water, they play nicely together anyway, and both give very good performances in their different styles; Bogarde successfully etches dual roles as well. Robert Morley and Wilfred Hyde-White are also excellent as opposing council, and Massie [The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll] gives one of the most notable performances of his career as Buckenham. One of the most beautifully-played scenes is between Massie and de Havilland when Margaret confronts the compassionate (towards her) Jeffrey outside the courtroom, but their disquieting conversation doesn't quell her fears as she'd hoped. Robert Shaw has a small role as a photographer.

Verdict: Almost perfect on all accounts. ***1/2.

THE LEOPARD

Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon
THE LEOPARD (aka Il gattopardo/1963). Director: Luchino Visconti. Three hour Italian version with sub-titles.

"I've had seven children with her and I've never seen her navel." -- Fabrizio referring to his wife.

During the tumultuous changes in 19th century Italy, the aristocratic Prince Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) lives with his family in a palace with more rooms than he can count. His nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), joins Garibaldi's forces at first but fights for the king later on. The prince's daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), is in love with Tancredi, but the latter prefers the more beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), and not just because her father, Don Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a former peasant, has become wealthy. Sedara is basically treated with contempt by the prince and his family because he represents a new type of Italian citizen, a type that Fabrizio fears will eventually supplant the aristocracy. The Leopard has its most interesting scenes in the first quarter, depicting the ravages of war, and the second half struggles to find strong human drama in its situations. You keep waiting for something to happen, but it never quite does. Will the triangle situation with Concetta, Tancredi, and Angelique cause major difficulties? No. Will Don Sedara stop acting the buffoon and tell off the prince and his relatives? No. Will Fabrizio's children resent how Tancredi is treated more like a son than a nephew? No. There's nothing necessarily wrong in a more low-key approach, but one wishes that there had been more incident and dramatic vitality considering the three hour running time.

Even more problematic is the fact that The Leopard, despite its interesting and often attractive period settings, is not that well-directed. Even the supposedly famous long ballroom sequence near the close of the film lacks the kind of sweep and pageantry, the especially skillful camera work, that one would find in similar scenes in American films. The Leopard simply lacks greatness. The film is much admired in certain quarters -- one imdb. critic certainly overstated things by claiming it might be "the greatest motion picture of all time" [!] -- and there are things to admire (Nino Rota has written a lovely score for the film, for instance) but the characters are mostly unsympathetic and the picture becomes tedious just when you're expecting things to really develop. It's as if some people think The Leopard must be great because it's three hours long and made in Italy.

As for the acting, it's hard to judge Lancaster's performance because it's dubbed -- and judging from the American version, which is about 25 minutes shorter and uses Lancaster's real voice -- it's just as well. In the U.S. version, Lancaster doesn't seem remotely like a 19th century Italian aristocrat; he did much, much better work in The Swimmer. Delon  [Joy House] is more on the mark as his nephew, but Cardinale [Blindfold], who is not photographed that flatteringly, sometimes comes off as if she's mentally deficient. Stoppa, Morlacchi, and Romolo Valli as Father Perrone are more memorable.

Verdict: Watch The Damned or Ludwig instead. **.

CODE 7 VICTIM 5!

Lex Barker
CODE 7 VICTIM 5! ((1964). Director: Robert Lynn.

Private detective Steve Martin (Lex Barker) comes to Capetown at the request of Wexler (Walter Rilla of The Terror of Dr. Mabuse), who owns many copper mines in South Africa. Wexler's butler has been murdered, but Martin has to find out for himself that there have also been other victims. Wexler, who has his own secrets to hide, is sure he is next on the list. While investigating, and exploring the South African scenery, Martin dallies with Wexler's secretary, Helga (Ann Smyrner), and his step-daughter, Gina (Veronique Vendell). He allies himself with Inspector Lean (Ronald Fraser of The Flight of the Phoenix), and meets Wexler's doctor, Paul (Dietmar Schonherr of The Monster of London City), and mine manager, Anderson (Percy Sieff). Barker is okay as the private dick, and the story is not without interest, but this leisurely-paced movie serves chiefly to showcase some interesting Capetown settings, such as during a gun battle inside huge, impressive caverns. A cliff side finale is not as taut as it ought to be, and the wrong person is in danger. However, any movie that features an ostrich stampede (!) can't be all bad. Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer for this travelogue with spurts of action.

Verdict: Movie 5, Audience 0. **.

THE NAVY VS THE NIGHT MONSTERS

Anthony Eisley and Mamie Van Doren
THE NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS (1966). Director: Michael A. Hoey.

A plane carrying scientists and specimens from Antarctica crash lands on an island in the south seas where a Naval base is located. There is nothing inside the plane but the pilot, who is in shock. Lt. Brown (Anthony Eisley) is in conflict with civilian meteorologist Spaulding (the perpetually scowling Edward Faulkner) as the two are both interested in nurse Nora (Mamie Van Doren), while Ensign Chandler (Bobby Van) has a thing for another nurse, Diane (Kaye Elhardt), as CPO Twining (Billy Gray) kibitzes. People begin to disappear and a horribly decomposed corpse is discovered. A scientist named Marie (Pamela Mason) and the base doctor (Phillip Terry), among others, try to figure out what's going on. Apparently some acidic mobile vegetative creature is roaming the island, feeding upon anyone who is luckless enough to get in its path ... Talk about a strange cast: Here is a movie in which we combine a well-known hoofer; the teenage son from Father Knows Best;  James Mason's ex wife, Pamela; Joan Crawford's ex-husband, Terry; the doctor (Russ Bender) from War of the Colossal Beast; Mike Hammer (Biff Elliot as a commander); and the pouty breasts of Mamie Van Doren. Clearly inspired by Day of the Triffids (the poster for Night Monsters looks almost exactly like the one for Triffids) made four years earlier, while also channeling such films as From Hell It Came ( a cursed killer tree) and Voodoo Island (man-eating plants), Night Monsters is watchable and resembles a fifties creature feature. The monstrous trees in this picture remind one of the creature in Womaneater -- who knows? -- it may have been the same prop. The monsters emit eerie noises and the film is undeniably creepy at times. Pamela Mason gets eaten and Billy Gray has his arm torn off in the film's grisliest scene. The movie starts off like a dumb service comedy but quickly picks up. Gerald Zahler's musical score is effective and the acting is mostly competent.

Verdict: Remember to eat your vegetables! **1/2.

WES CRAVEN: THE ART OF HORROR

WES CRAVEN: THE ART OF HORROR. John Kenneth Muir. McFarland; 1998.

Wes Craven burst on the low-budget scene with the controversial Last House on the Left, then hit the big time with Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven had mixed success with the films that followed, but then came the Scream franchise which was extremely successful. Then as a producer, Craven's name was often attached to projects that he did not direct -- "Wes Craven Presents" -- such as Mind Ripper and Wishmaster. Muir follows a biographical/career section with lengthy essays on each of Craven's movies up until 1998. He also covers Craven's telefilms, the movies he produced but did not direct, and his short-lived television series, Nightmare Cafe. Craven tried unsuccessfully to mimic the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street films with the psycho Horace Pinker character of Shocker, but it didn't work. Muir obviously admires Craven's work (much more than this writer does), and while he may not convince anyone of Craven's genius, his analysis of the films is quite good, if a trifle pretentious at times. Illustrated.

Verdict: A must for Wes Craven fans. ***.


THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016). Director: David Yates.

John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), also known as Tarzan, leaves his lush life in London with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), to take a hand in a situation in the Congo in 1890. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), envoy to King Leopold, wants the area's diamonds, and to that end is enslaving many tribespeople, and he kidnaps Jane (as frequently happens in Tarzan books and movies) in order to control the ape man. Naturally things don't go well for Rom ... This attempt to update Edgar Rice Burroughs' durable creation is not quite a complete misfire, but it's not an especially good movie, either. In general Skarsgaard plays the role like a seedy male model with attitude instead of the King of the Jungle -- his long hair does not flatter the actor -- and Robbie, although not inadequate, looks more like she stepped off the cover of Vogue than anything else. Samuel L. Jackson (unlike the old Tarzan films, at least there's a black actor in a major role) plays a mercenary pretty much like Jackson [Oldboy] plays every role, and he just seems much too contemporary. Waltz, also the villain in Spectre, is as weird as ever. Some of the film resembles a video game, and the CGI effects -- mostly of animals -- are hit or miss, although there's a not bad protracted buffalo (?) stampede through a town. There are some beautiful scenic views but the movie mostly seems lifeless. Tarzan's origin is shown in several flashbacks, which only prevent the main story from gaining much momentum until the very end, and if anything, the characters, Tarzan included, are even less dimensional than in the Johnny Weissmuller era. Unlike the books and previous films, Legend of Tarzan has no fantasy or sense of wonder and strips our hero of his mythic stature. One stupid line from Jane seems to refer to pedophile priests in a very 21st century manner and might even be suggesting that Rom is gay. There are some good scenes in the movie, and two of them stand out: the shot of those soulful, sad and wise-weary elephant's eyes; and the confrontation between Tarzan and Chief Mbonga (an effective Djimon Hounsou). Tarzan killed the chief's young son after the boy unknowingly murdered Tarzan's mother, or more accurately the ape who raised him as her own. Frankly, any of the Weissmuller Tarzan films are much more entertaining than this.

Verdict: No charm and not much real adventure or whimsy. **1/2.