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

Thursday, February 15, 2024

THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY

Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon
THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY (1962). Director: Richard Quine. 

Newly arrived in London, Bill Gridley (Jack Lemmon) of the U.S. Embassy, looks for a flat to rent and winds up in the beautiful townhouse of Carly Hardwicke (Kim Novak). His boss, Ambruster (Fred Astaire) thinks the name of his employee's new landlady sounds familiar, and he is horrified when someone in the research department reminds him of just who Mrs. Hardwicke really is. It seems that her husband vanished without a trace several months ago, and now everyone is convinced that the "notorious" woman murdered the missing man! Before Ambruster can order Bill to find new quarters, Inspector Oliphant (Lionel Jeffries) importunes him to stay where he is and find out whatever he can about the supposed black widow. 

Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire
The first half of The Notorious Landlady is delightful, full of suspense, and bolstered by fine performances from the entire cast. Astaire makes his character more likable than he might have been had he been played by another actor. There are also good turns from Estelle Winwood [The Magic Sword], Maxwell Reed [Daughter of Darkness], Henry Daniell [Siren of Atlantis], and Phillipa Bevans. The second half of the film, after certain revelations have been made, goes a bit awry, with perhaps too much running around and the hasty unveiling of tricky plot points, but it recovers at the end with an amusing and exciting chase sequence backed up by the strains of Gilbert and Sullivan. Good show!

Verdict: The picture and the cast have a lot of charm! ***

FOREVER DARLING

Desi Arnaz, James Mason, Lucille Ball
FOREVER DARLING (1956). Director: Alexander Hall. 

Lorenzo or Larry Vega (Desi Arnaz), a chemist working on a new bug killer, is married to Susan (Lucille Ball), who is much influenced by her snobbish cousin, Millie (Natalie Schafer of Female on the Beach), whom Larry can't stand. Larry also feels that he and his wife are drifting apart after several years of marriage. He is hoping to rekindle things by taking her with him on a work-related trip, an idea that doesn't sit well with Susan. Then who should appear in her bedroom one night but James Mason (James Mason), who is actually Susan's guardian angel wearing the face of someone she admires. "James" gives Susan some sage advice, and convinces her to go off on a short trip with Larry so he can test his new insecticide, but things may not go exactly as planned ...  

Arnaz and Lucy
Made at the height of the popularity of I Love Lucy, the main strength of Forever Darling is its cast. Not exactly playing the Ricardos, Arnaz and Ball are as wonderful as ever, James Mason -- who probably wondered how he ever wound up in this film -- is classy and excellent, and the ever-adept Louis Calhern [The Asphalt Jungle] nearly steals the movie -- no easy feat -- as Susan's highly amusing father. Then we've also got Natalie Schafer, Nancy Kulp as the maid, John Hoyt and Willis Bouchey as Larry's associates, Mabel Albertson in a brief turn as a reporter, and John Emery in a very funny bit as a psychiatrist who tries to explain to Susan why she's seeing strange men in her bedroom. 

Forever Darling, alas, is not as good as the other film the Desi-Lucy combo did, the very funny The Long, Long Trailer, but it has its moments. What starts out almost as a somewhat sophisticated drawing room comedy turns into an episode of I Love Lucy as the couple have misadventures while camping, with their plastic boat springing a leak and so forth. It was probably decided that that was what the couple's fans wanted, but it makes the flick a bit lopsided. Nothing much really happens with the whole "guardian angel" idea, making the movie -- but for the delightful performances and a few laughs -- almost seem pointless. Still, it's Lucy! The theme song by composer Bronislau Kaper is pleasant, sung by the Ames brothers over the credits and by Desi late in the picture. He also sang the tune on an episode of Lucy. Marilyn Maxwell appears in a move-within-a-movie sequence with Mason. 

Verdict: Has a certain degree of charm and amusing performances, but the script -- an old one dusted off for Lucy and Desi -- could have used some work. **3/4. 

UNDER COLORADO SKIES

UNDER COLORADO SKIES (1947). Director: R. G. Springsteen. in TruColor

Bank teller and medical student Monte Hale (Monte Hale) is in the bank when it's robbed, and becomes the chief suspect not only in the robbery but the murder of the bank president. One of the real perpetrators is Jeff Collins (John Alvin of This Side of the Law), who happens to be the brother of Monte's fiancee Julia Collins (Lorna Gray of Daughter of Don Q). In a foolish attempt to protect the woman he loves from the truth, Monte runs off and then encounters a group in a runaway wagon, whom he rescues. These men turn out to be members of the Riders of the Purple Sage singing group (actually the Foy Willing band), who sign him  up without even hearing him sing. Hotel and saloon owner Lucky (Paul Hurst) hires the band, and proves generally helpful to Monte and Julia after she is shot during a stage coach robbery perpetrated by the Marlowe gang. After cutting a bullet out of Julia, Monte is forced to do the same thing for Marlowe (William Haade), the head of the gang, who takes a liking to him. For his part, Monte manages to convince Marlowe that he's really on his side. But will Monte be able to pull off this deception? And what will happen when Julia learns the truth about her miserable polecat of a brother?

Monte Hale
Although forgotten by all but classic B western fans, Monte Hale was another popular Republic studios singing cowboy who had quite a following in his day. His comic book lasted eight years. A big attractive lug, if not quite as handsome as Roy Rogers, Hale was not a bad singer in his own right, had a very deep speaking voice, and more of a kind of "macho" presence than Rogers. His acting can best be described as adequate but ingratiating. Showing her versatility, Lorna Gray is quite different in this than she is in the occasionally villainous roles she would play in serials. This was the very first film for Gene Evans [The Giant Behemoth], who adeptly plays one of the gang members. Busy actor Hank Patterson is also in the cast as Slim, and he has an amusing drunk scene. R. G. Springsteen also directed Black Spurs and many others. The best song number -- there are several -- is Holiday for the Blues.

Verdict: Well-turned-out western musical fare with an appealingly gauche Hale in the lead. **3/4. 

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1964)

"I'm SHY:" Carol Burnet as Winifred the Woebegone
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1964 television presentation from the Broadway show.)  Directed by Joe Layton and Dave Geisel. Music by Mary Rodgers. Lyrics by Marshall Barer. 

Recently I saw a revival of the old Broadway hit Once Upon a Mattress --which made Carol Burnett (of Eunice) a major star -- at City Center in Manhattan with Sutton Foster in the lead. I remember seeing the TV adaptation of the show when I was a kid and decided to look for it on youtube -- and there it was (along with a 1973 color version also starring Burnett). Now I have to say Sutton Who? Burnett with her comic genius owns this role -- Princess Winifred the Woebegone -- no matter who else plays it in the future. She is marvelous and very funny. 

Joseph Bova with Burnett
Burnett is backed up by a very talented cast. As the queen, Jane White is bitchy perfection. (White was actually African-American, the daughter of the founder of the NAACP, and it's wonderful that the TV network didn't insist on hiring someone Caucasian to replace her.) Also transferred from the Broadway production was Joseph Bova as Prince Dauntless the Drab. I'm not certain if the others were on Broadway, but they consist of Shani Wallis as Lady Larken, Bill Hayes in fine voice as the Minstrel, Jack Gilford [A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum] as the mostly silent king, Jack Fletcher as the wizard, and Elliott Gould [Stolen: One Husband]  -- yes the man can sing and dance, too -- as the court jester. 

Jack Gilford and Elliott Gould
The only real quibble I have is that this version drops three of the best songs, two love duets for the minstrel and Lady Larken, and the show-stopping "Happily Ever After" number. Fortunately we've got Hayes and Wallis singing "Normandy," Burnett exuberantly performing the knock-out number "Shy," the queen planning Winifred's defeat in "Sensitivity," and Gould doing a splendid turn with "Soft Shoes." There is also a brief duet for the prince and Winifred that is not on the cast album and which I found on an additional youtube clip. Another change from Broadway is that the young lovers are secretly married in this, whereas in the stage show they are not -- and Larken is pregnant. That's a no-no for TV in the sixties!

Verdict: All in all this is delightful with a simply wonderful Burnett. ***1/4.

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1972)

Carol Burnett sings "Shy"
ONCE UPON A MATTRESS (1972 TV adaptation). Directed by Ron Field and Dave Powers. Music by Mary Rodgers. Lyrics by Marshall Barer.

Having done a black and white TV adaptation of her Broadway triumph, Carol Burnett decided to do it again -- this time in color -- about a decade later. Jack Gilford and Jane White reprise their roles as the king and queen, Bernadette Peters and Ron Husmann play the young lovers, Wally Cox is the jester, Ken Berry is Prince Dauntless, and Lyle Waggoner is the wizard, Sir Studley. At first you might think that Burnett is a little off her game, having lost that sort of gauche quality that she had before she became so famous, but then she digs into her showstopper "Happily Ever After" (left out of the earlier version) and brings the house down. She's sensational. 

Jane White and Ken Berry
However, she almost has to take a back seat to Jane White, who is even better than she was in the first version, and who is given a little more to do, such as being flirtatious with Sir Studley. One of the love duets, "In a Little While," arguably the best song in the show, has been reinstated, and the lovers -- the gal is pregnant -- are once again unmarried, this being the swingin' seventies. Ken Berry reveals a pleasant singing voice and while not quite as good as Joseph Bova in the original telecast, works well with Burnett. Ron Husmann was a busy Broadway performer. 

Verdict: Another charming and tuneful adaptation. ***.                    

Thursday, February 1, 2024

NO DOWN PAYMENT

Patricia Owens and Jeffrey Hunter

NO DOWN PAYMENT (1957). Director: Martin Ritt. Colorized

David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter of Brainstorm and Patricia Owens of The Fly) move into a lovely post-war housing community called Sunrise Hill. Their neighbors include Jerry and Isabelle Flagg (Tony Randall and Sheree North); Troy and Leola Boone (Cameron Mitchell of Garden of Evil and Joanne Woodward); and Herman and Betty Kreitzer (Pat Hingle and Barbara Rush). The last couple seem to have the most stable and successful lives and marriage. Jerry cheats on Isabelle and puts on a bluff as a supposedly successful car salesman. Troy hopes to become the chief of police but is brutal to his wife when he is upset. Both men drink too  much. When Troy doesn't get the job he wants, he takes out his anger in horrible fashion on poor Jean Martin, who fears what her husband's retaliation might be ... 

Cameron Mitchell and Joanne Woodward
No Down Payment is an absorbing drama which looks at a variety of situations and marriages and does so with a degree of sensitivity and intelligence -- as well as some fine acting. Although she's playing in her over-familiar "poor dumb Southern waif" mode, Woodward gives one of the best performances, along with the always-underrated Mitchell. Tony Randall is a bit miscast as the sleazy lover boy and doesn't quite pull it off. Sheree North successfully subdues the "sex kitten" aspect of her persona. Robert H. Harris is given a couple of good scenes as Randall's boss. There's a very interesting sub-plot with Kreitzer's store employee, the Japanese-American Iko (Aki Aleong), hoping his boss will help him get a house in Sunrise Hill. At the time he appeared in this film, Hunter had been divorced from co-star Barbara Rush for two years. 

Verdict: Notable fifties drama with a fine cast. ***. 

APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW

George Nader
APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW (1957). Director: Richard Carlson. 

Paul Baxter (George Nader) once had a reputation as an outstanding reporter, but that reputation has been demolished by his alcoholism. His girlfriend, Penny (Joanna Moore), wants to stand by him -- despite the attitude of her highly disapproving brother, Lt. Spencer (Brian Keith) -- but she's reaching the end of her limit. Paul begs her for one last chance, and then fate intervenes. Paul almost literally runs into a gangster, Dutch Hayden (Frank DeKova), after he has supposedly just been shot down in the street by cops a moment before. Now there are two questions: will anyone believe that a notorious drunk like Paul actually saw Hayden, and will the real Hayden arrange to have Paul knocked off before anyone takes him seriously? 

George Nader and Frank DeKova
George Nader was a better actor than people gave him credit for, but the problem in this film is that he never quite comes off like a dissipated drunk -- he should look much, much worse for one thing. Moore makes a sympathetic girlfriend, Keith is on target as usual, and DeKova nearly walks off with the movie. Another important player is Virginia Field, who plays Hayden's girlfriend, the lady who fingered him without the cops being aware that it was actually Hayden's lookalike brother (talk about brotherly love). Nader and DeKova have a good confrontation scene near the end. The script doesn't really make the most of an interesting situation, but it's a fair to middling melodrama. Actor Richard Carlson directed several other films besides this one, as well as episodic television. 

Verdict: **1/2.  

DO YOU LOVE ME?

Dick Haymes and Maureen O'Hara
DO YOU LOVE ME? (1946). Director: Gregory Ratoff. 

Katherine Hilliard (Maureen O'Hara) is a rather plain college professor, dean of the School of Music, who loves classical music and is engaged to fellow professor Ralph Wainwright (Richard Gaines). Traveling to New York by train she is insulted by a trumpeter, Barry Clayton (Harry James), after she tells him she doesn't care for his music. Stung by his criticism and glamorizing herself, Katherine is soon getting wolf whistles from Barry, singer Jimmy Hale (Dick Haymes), and others. But true love never runs smoothly, so it may be a while before "Kitty," as she is called, and Jimmy can get together. 

Harry James with O'Hara
Do You Love Me? is another film that focuses somewhat on the battle between classical and swing music, although there seems to be a truce by the end of the film. The movie tries to make out classical music lovers as being stuffy, but doesn't quite succeed in this, in large part because the classical pieces that are chosen are so rousing and exciting that no one but an idiot could find them dull. As for the "modern"  tunes, they are all sung quite well by Haymes: "I Didn't Mean a Word I Said," is especially nice, as is "The More I See You," which has become a standard. Haymes has a very good voice. His acting is also swell, O'Hara is luminescent and gorgeous, and even James gives a professional enough performance, though his trumpet-playing is better. Betty Grable, who was married to James at the time, has an amusing cameo. If you blink you might miss Lex Barker as a party guest. As an associate of Katherine's Reginald Gardiner is Reginald Gardiner, although he is quite convincing when he takes up the baton. James isn't as convincing conducting what sounds like a version of Gershwin's "Summertime."

Verdict: Amiable if minor Technicolor musical with some nice tunes. **1/2. 

BLIND CORNER

Alexander Davion and Barbara Shelley
BLIND CORNER (aka Man in the Dark/1964). Director: Lance Comfort.  

Although he's been totally blind for a number of years, Paul (William Sylvester of The Unholy Four) has a successful career as a composer of popular songs and commercial jingles; he also hopes to complete a concerto. His wife, Anne (Barbara Shelley of The Gorgon), a former actress who wanted security, has grown tired of looking after Paul and leaves that to his secretary, Joan (Elizabeth Shepherd of Damian: Omen 2), who happens to be in love with him. Anne has taken up with a starving artist named Ricky (Alexander Davion of Paranoiac), who has no problems sleeping with Paul's wife, but draws the line at murder. Or does he? Anne needs money which she can get from her late husband's estate, but if Ricky won't help her ... Then Paul's manager, Mike (Mark Eden), whom Anne can't stand, tells Paul that her saw her having a romantic dinner with Ricky. 

Triangle: Shelley, Davion, Sylvester
Blind Corner
 is a minor but absorbing British suspense story that is well-acted by all, although it could be argued that lead Sylvester seems a little too in control when his world is falling apart; still he is good, and the picture works well even if it might come off like a television episode. There's an effective climax and a very good twist that took me by surprise. Singer Ronnie Carroll plays himself and gets to warble a couple of tunes. Neither Shelley nor Davion are photographed that flatteringly, although both are certainly attractive individuals. 

Verdict: Worthwhile British suspenser with good performances. ***. 

VERY GOOD NEW MOVIE -- MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING Part One

Tommy Cruise
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING Part One (2023). Director: Christopher McQuarrie. 

Action movies either work, keeping you on the edge of your seat, or they're as flat as a wet pancake, and this flick works every step of the way. It doesn't really matter that the "Macguffin" -- the thing that everyone's fighting for -- in this might be something called a "Cruciform Key" which has to do with Artificial Intelligence and could take over the minds of everyone on the planet. What matters is the fun ride as the forces of good and evil do their level best to keep the key out of the other side's hands -- just like in an old-time cliffhanger serial, which this kind of resembles despite the high-tech -- and that the pace is fast and the stunt work absolutely thrilling.  

Esai Morales and Hayley Atwell
In this Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) teams up with a pretty thief named Grace (Hayley Atwell) who is an on again/off again ally. Some of his old colleagues are also around for another set-to. Highlights include a vicious fight scene in an alley, a business with a train speeding through a tunnel with combatants on the roof, and a climactic sequence with a collapsing train trestle that is positively eye-popping. It is all so well-done that it's quite spectacular. It doesn't hurt that the film has a rousing score (Lorne Balfe), great cinematography (Fraser Taggart), and some effective performances, with my favorites being Esai Morales as Gabriel and Cary Elwes as Denlinger, the director of National Intelligence. 

Verdict: Trust No One -- and wait anxiously for Part Two. ***1/4.  

Thursday, November 23, 2023

A STAR IS BORN (1954)

Judy Garland and James Mason
A STAR IS BORN (1954). Director: George Cukor.

Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) ignites the interest of movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) when he drunkenly stumbles upon the stage where she is performing a number for a Hollywood "Night of Stars" benefit. Esther is by no means a star, but rather a vocalist with a popular band. Norman is so impressed by Esther that he arranges a screen test for her and is instrumental in her taking over the lead role of a new musical production. Eventually Esther -- rechristened "Vicki Lester" by the studio -- and Norman marry, but as her career hits the heights and she does become a certified star, Norman's heavy drinking and bad behavior pay a toll ... 

The Man That Got Away
I've seen this version of the venerable story more than once in the past few years and my opinion of it waxes and wanes. I have now come to the conclusion that it is a very good and very entertaining classic motion picture, and the best version ever of this bit of Hollywood folklore. In previous years I may have been reacting negatively to the obsessive, near-hysterical reaction among some Garland fans who may have ruined many a screening of the picture. I first saw the film on television decades ago, chopped up by commercial interruptions and missing scenes that had even made the final theatrical cut. Color and cinemascope were lost. Now the film can be seen in its original three hour length in widescreen technicolor and stereophonic sound -- boy what a difference!

Born in a Trunk
There are times when you do get the impression that this is strictly A Judy Garland Extravaganza with the woman taking centerstage in one musical number after another and to hell with the story. But in the final quarter the film does get back to the central romantic relationship between Esther and Norman, and as for all of the musical numbers -- well, A Star is Born is a musical, after all, and the production numbers, featuring a luminescent and ultra-talented Garland at the top of her form, are extremely well-done and give the film its vitality. The long Born in a Trunk sequence is also quite stylish and memorable. 

Norman Maine overhears that he's washed up forever
Garland gives a terrific performance, and those who claim the Oscar was stolen from her may be correct. This time around I didn't find her overly mannered or too neurotic but pretty much on-target in her portrayal. Let's not forget James Mason, who is near-superb as the charming, dissipated Norman, who can be a pretty mean drunk when he wants to be. There is a lot we don't learn about Norman, unfortunately, which might have made him a bit more sympathetic, although when we see Mason as Maine in his bed listening to the studio boss tell Esther how washed up her husband is, you can't help but feel a stab of pity. 

Garland with Charles Bickford
Charles Bickford makes his mark as the studio boss, and he has two wonderful scenes with Mason in the Maine home and at the sanitorium where Norman is hopefully drying out. Bickford also figures in a especially well-written dressing room sequence when Esther tells of how helpless she feels trying to succor Norman and how there are times when she actually hates him due to his failure to control his drinking and all of his broken promises. Jack Carson also scores as the long-suffering publicity man who has had to put up with Norman's drunken antics for too long a time. Tommy Noonan is fine as Esther's friend, the band leader Danny, who gives her a needed pep talk, and there are bits from Irving Bacon as Norman's butler, Percy Helton as a drunk, Arthur Space as a court clerk, Frank Ferguson as a judge, Tristram Coffin as an assistant director, Grady Sutton as a reporter, and Richard Webb as a winner at the Oscar ceremony, and many, many other familiar names who show up only briefly. 

Get That Long Face Lost
In addition to Born in a Trunk, which includes a rendition of Swanee, the other song numbers include It's a New World, What am I here for? and Get That Long Face Lost which features two cute black children. Arguably the best number is The Man That Got Away, superbly delivered by Garland. One might wonder why she smiles during this torchiest of torch songs, but it may reflect a sheer joy in singing, and in this excellent Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin song. (Arlen and Gershwin did the other numbers, aside from Born in a Trunk and Swanee). I confess that I've always found the number Garland does for Norman in her living room to be a little tiresome, but you can't win 'em all. In any case, Sam Leavitt's cinematography is first-class, as is Cukor's direction. 

Norman accidentally smacks Esther at the Oscar ceremony
Some things you just have to take with a grain of salt. Why would Norman Maine insist that Esther have a screen test when he's never actually seen her act, just sing? Sure her interpretive singing skills are impressive, but that doesn't mean she can act. Still, this is Hollywood. Based on the initial reviews and audience reaction, everyone expected A Star is Born to be a tremendous hit, but the studio cut forty minutes out of it so there could be more showings. I'm not certain if that really would have hurt the box office, but in any case the movie lost money and Garland only made two more pictures. Her big comeback was both a triumph and a failure. 

Verdict: A hell of a lot of work went into this picture and it shows! ***1/2.  

THE CEREMONY

Laurence Harvey
THE CEREMONY (1963). Produced and directed by Laurence Harvey. NOTE: Some plot points are revealed in this review.

In Tangier Sean McKenna (Laurence Harvey of Butterfield 8) is being held in prison and and is being prepped for execution. McKenna participated in a bank robbery in which a guard was killed, although he did not fire the shot and apparently tried to stop it. The warden (John Ireland of No Place to Land) and prosecutor (Ross Martin) want McKenna to tell them where the money is, but he refuses. Meanwhile his brother, Dominic (Robert Walker Jr.),  hatches a plot to spring Sean from prison by replacing Father O'Brien (Jack MacGowran) when he comes to give Sean the last rites. But Sean doesn't realize that he must pay a price for his brother's assistance, a price that concerns Sean's girlfriend, Catherine (Sarah Miles).

Sarah Miles and Laurence Harvey
Produced and directed by and starring Laurence Harvey, The Ceremony is, sadly, a mess. What might have been a thrilling picture -- and it does have a couple of exciting sequences -- has been turned into a pretentious allegory, a painfully obvious anti-capital punishment tract whose one-dimensional characters fail to get a grip on the audience. We learn so little about Sean that it's hard to have any sympathy for a bank robber, and since -- whoever fired the shot -- the guard was killed during the commission of a robbery, it's hard to understand why one of the prison staff is so upset at the thought of his demise -- in a completely ridiculous scene all the members of the firing squad refuse to shoot him (or at least the person they think it is). 

John Ireland and Ross Martin
Harvey gives a decent but not great performance. Poor Ross Martin, generally a fine actor, is forced to play the cliche of the "evil" prosecutor who takes extreme pleasure in someone being executed -- he never even comes off as a real person. John Ireland does what he can with another underwritten role, that of the prison warden. Jack MacGowran is incredibly irritating as the fussy and dithering priest who seems half-senile and who continuously talks to himself while saying nothing remotely interesting. Sarah Miles does her best but is unable to bring Catherine, torn between two brothers, to believable life. Lee Patterson [Spin a Dark Web], who appears briefly as a friend of Sean's and Dominick's who helps the former escape, is relatively unscathed. The sensitive, uncredited young actor who plays the prison guard disturbed at the thought of Sean being executed probably comes off best, although his character is also undeveloped. 

Verdict: Interesting cast in rather dull movie sunk by its own pretensions. **.  

DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS (1948)

Denis Goacher and Siobhan McKenna
DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS (1948). Director: Lance Comfort. 

Emily (Siobhan McKenna) is a servant girl in a small-town parish in Ireland. When the ladies of the church object to how the men seem drawn to Emmie, they importune the priest to send her away. She winds up on an English farm run by the Tallent family: Julie (Honor Blackman) and her boyfriend Saul (Denis Goacher); Julie's sister, Bess (Anne Crawford of They Were Sisters) and her husband Bob (Barry Morse of Asylum); and their brother, Larry (Grant Tyler), among others. Julie remains friendly with Emily even after Saul makes a pass at her, but Bess simply can't warm up to the young woman. Things take a sinister turn when a man named Dan (Maxwell Reed of Daybreak), whom Emmie met at a fair in Ireland, turns up murdered ... 

Barry Morse and Anne Crawford
An unusual aspect of this unusual suspense film is the casting of Siobhan McKenna as the "femme fatale," Hardly possessed of great beauty -- in some shots she is positively homely -- her performance is so good that you sort of forget how she looks and appreciate the fact that some women can cast a spell over certain men even without possessing enormous pulchritude. If this had been remade for American audiences, it not only would have been more lurid and explicit, but Emily would have been played by a much sexier female. In any case, McKenna's innocent appearance works to the film's advantage.

David Greene and Siobhan McKenna
Daughter of Darkness
 never spells out exactly how various men are killed, adding to the film's obtuseness. The notion that she only kills men who try and have their way with her is jettisoned when one innocent youth is also found dead. Does Emily entice men and then react negatively when they give in to her enticement? Is she an evil, even sociopathic creature? We learn so little of her background -- and indeed all of the characters could have used more development -- that it's hard to figure out. In any case the film is moody and absorbing, and well-acted by all, making this a worthwhile watch despite its flaws. Others in the cast include David Greene as a man who disappears after meeting with Emily; Liam Redmond as the priest; and George Thorpe as the head of the Tallent family. Adding to the dark atmosphere is a dog, its owner dead, who wanders about howling and growling, and the bit with the church organ playing mysteriously in the middle of the night. Lance Comfort also directed Hatter's Castle

Verdict: Strange but compelling. ***.   

A STAR IS BORN: JUDY GARLAND AND THE FILM THAT GOT AWAY

A STAR IS BORN: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away. Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance. Running Press; 2018. 

"Every song was attenuated to such a length that I thought I was going mad ... after we had endured montage after montage and repetition after repetition, I found myself wishing that dear enchanting Judy was at the bottom of the sea." -- Noel Coward.

This generously illustrated coffee table tome, co-written by Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft, takes an exhaustive look at A Star is Born and especially examines why a film that won much critical acclaim and should have had boffo box office, died on the vine after the studio cut the running time in order to fit in more screenings. This was to be Garland's big comeback film, and while she did do a couple of movies afterward, her days as a major film star were over. The book looks into the previous versions of the story, as well as the Barbra Streisand version (which was a commercial success), and recounts Garland's career and personal life both before, during, and after the making of A Star is Born. Luft is blunt about her father, Sid Luft, and his abilities (or lack thereof) as a producer. The final sections of the book delve into the reconstruction of the film, which is now available on DVD so the reader/viewer can judge for themselves if the film -- and Garland -- are overpraised or not. The section on Garland's gay fans is somewhat unintentionally comical and a bit dated all told. But this is a very good bet for Garland fans! And while I quite understand where Noel Coward was coming from (see quote above) I can't say that I agree. Some of the other individuals involved in the film, such as James Mason, might have come in for a little more praise. 

Verdict: Attractive, well-written volume on a classic motion picture and its tormented star. ***.

CUBAN PETE

Beverly Simmons and Desi Arnaz
CUBAN PETE (1946). Director: Jean Yarbrough. 

Society woman Mrs. Lindsay (Jacqueline deWit of The Damned Don't Cry), who fancies that she has a voice, wants to hire Desi Arnaz (playing himself) and his band for her radio show. Desi is caring for his little orphaned niece, Brownie (Beverly Simmons), in Cuba and has no desire to go to New York. Ad man Roberts (Don Porter of Youngblood Hawke) has his associate, Ann (Joan Shawlee), fly to Havana to importune Desi to return with her. With the help of his niece, Ann eventually gets her objective, only to learn that Mrs. Lindsay, who has a terrible voice, intends to sing on the radio with his band! Can Ann convince Desi not to return to Cuba on the first plane, and can they prevent Mrs. Lindsay from ever opening her mouth?

Don Porter and Ann Shawlee
Cuban Pete
 is strictly a showcase for Desi Arnaz, who is spirited and charming in the film, demonstrating that he had ability and charisma long before I Love Lucy. He does a fine rendition of the title tune (which he also sang on Lucy) and a couple of other numbers. Desi has a girl group called the King Sisters, one of whom, Consuela, sets her cap for Roberts. Brownie has a talking parrot which, in an unfunny sequence, causes foolish havoc in a doctor's office. With its weak script, Cuban Pete did nothing to establish Arnaz as a film star. Shawlee had a wide variety of credits as did Porter; both did much TV work later in their careers. Pianist Ethel Smith, playing herself, does a nifty number on the organ. From Universal Pictures. 

Verdict: A likable energetic Desi is about all that saves this. **1/4. 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE

Maggie Smith as the airy Miss Brodie
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969). Director: Ronald Neame. 

In 1930's Scotland Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a tenured teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Jean is free-spirited, putting her at odds with the relatively new headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter), who keeps reminding her that this is a conservative school. Jean is one of those teachers who is convinced she can leave a lasting impression on her students and always supposedly knows what's best for them, even though she can be naive, dismissive, and rather stupid at times. She does her best to stay out of the clutches of the art teacher, Teddy Lloyd (Smith's real life husband at the time, Robert Stephens), her former lover, who is married and has six children. Jean encourages one of her charges, Mary (Jane Carr of Something for Everyone) to go off to Spain to fight alongside her brother, something which does not end at all well. Jean may have met her match in young Sandy (Pamela Franklin of The Food of the Gods), who replaces her in Teddy's bed and ultimately helps bring about her downfall.

Smith gets a dressing down from Pamela Franklin
The prime joy of Miss Jean Brodie is the performance of Maggie Smith, which netted her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar. She fully brings to life all of the different, often maddening facets of Brodie's character and engages your full attention from start to finish. She is surrounded by other wonderful actors: Stephens as the utter pig of an art teacher; Gordon Jackson as the more gentlemanly music teacher with whom Jean dallies; Pamela Franklin, who is ferociously good as Sandy and especially excels in her climactic scene when she really tells off her irresponsible teacher, Jean; Celia Johnson as the long-suffering Miss MacKay, who tries various methods to send her nemesis packing; Jane Carr as the stammering, ill-fated Mary; and others. 

Smith with Robert Stephens
Miss Jean Brodie
 is by no means perfect. A comedy-drama, there are sequences in the girls' school that , unfortunately, remind one of antics in St. Trinian's! There is something a bit artificial and unreal about the film at times. However, what's amazing is that the particular school girls who form Jean's closest circle all look convincingly like children, despite their real ages, who age gracefully (or otherwise) into adulthood -- Franklin's transformation is especially astonishing. Rod McKuen composed a pretty song for the picture, but he should have been convinced not to sing it, as he has no voice. He had a certain run as a sappy poet and composer. 

Verdict: Smith's Academy Award-winning performance makes this film fully engaging whatever its flaws. ***. 

MAN AFRAID

George Nader

MAN AFRAID (1957). Director: Harry Keller.

A man sneaks into a child's bedroom window and runs into the boy's mother, hitting her in the face and temporarily blinding her. When her husband, minister David Collins (George Nader), comes to her rescue he winds up inadvertently killing the intruder. Although not charged with any crime, Collins learns that the dead man's father, Carl Simmons (Eduard Franz), is following his little boy, Michael (Tim Hovey), around town in a threatening manner. Collins' wife, Lisa (Phyllis Thaxter), feels helpless because her eyes are bandaged. As Simmons becomes more and more bold, going so far as to invade Collins' very home, the minister tries to get Lt Marlin (Harold J. Stone) to take some kind of preventative action. But will it all come too late?

Nader with feisty Mabel Albertson
Man Afraid is a solid suspense film with very good performances. Nader has always been under-rated because of his participation in such films as Robot Monster, but he's fine in this, as are Thaxter and little Tim Hovey, an appealing and talented child actor. Reta Shaw offers a little spice as a nurse hired to look after Lisa, and Mabel Albertson certainly makes her mark as Simmons' tippling and fairly obnoxious landlady. Stone also makes the policeman more obnoxious than he needs to be. Tom Nolan is also notable as Michael's friend, "Skunky," who is neglected by his father (Judson Pratt), an aggressive newsman. He tells the sympathetic Collins that his father claims he makes too much noise "but when I'm dead they'll wish I was able to make any kind of noise." Franz is effective in a near-silent role.

Nader with Phyllis Thaxter
Man Afraid is well-photographed in CinemaScope by Russell Metty, and has a very good score by Henry Mancini. Keller's direction is adroit, and the climax is tense and exciting. One odd sequence concerns a boxing match between little boys in an actual arena, a match that Michael participates in! Considering that the "burglar" entered the Collins' house when the couple was home, and immediately snuck into the boy's bedroom, one has to wonder exactly what the man was after, but this aspect goes unexplored. Harry Keller also directed Nader in The Female Animal and The Unguarded Moment

Verdict: Absorbing suspense film with good performances and a satisfying conclusion. ***. 

BOND VS. BOND: THE MANY FACES OF 007

BOND VS. BOND: The Many Faces of 007. Paul Simpson. Race Point Publishing; 2015.

This huge coffee table book is divided into several informative sections. First we meet James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, and look into his background and his various 007 novels. Simpson also examines other authors who have written James Bond adventures, including John Gardner and Raymond Benson, as well as writers, such as Jeffery Deaver, who contributed only one novel. Then each actor who played Bond in the major movies -- from Sean Connery of Dr. No to Daniel Craig of Casino Royale -- gets his own chapter, and there is an additional section of other Bond portrayals, such as Barry Nelson on Climax!. There are sidebars on cars, gadgets, villains and "Bond girls." Aside from a comment here and there, the book offers no critical analysis of the books or films, but it does offer a wealth of behind-the-scenes details and is generously illustrated throughout. Major Bond fans will enjoy this enormously. 

Verdict: Beautiful tome on the most famous film series of all and then some! ***. 

THE CANDIDATE (1964)

Ted Knight as the candidate
THE CANDIDATE (1964), Director: Robert Angus. 

Frank Carlton (Ted Knight) is running for the senate but he has some concerns over the morality of his new campaign manager, Buddy Barker (Ernesto Macias using the name Eric Mason), who is a Hugh Hefner-type with many girlfriends. As Buddy makes a former hotel employee, Christine Ashley (Mamie Van Doren), his secretary-assistant and starts a relationship with her, Frank starts falling for Angela (June Wilkinson), a formerly kept woman who finds herself without a "sponsor." An added complication is that one of Buddy's one-night-stands, Mona (Rachel Romen), turns up pregnant and in tears even as Buddy tries to convince Frank that he's making a big mistake with Angela. 

Mamie Van Doren and Ernesto Macias
The Candidate is an oddball if compelling movie with an interesting cast. Although playing the title character, Ted Knight is really in a supporting part, but acquits himself nicely, especially in a bedroom sequence with Wilkinson. Macias, who was more often billed as Eric Mason, is excellent as Buddy, a man who on occasion tries to do the right thing even if his instincts are telling him to do otherwise. Rachel Romen has several strong scenes as Mona, Wilkinson is good, but Van Doren proves once again that she isn't really much of an actress and just can't get out of sex kitten mode. Steve Karmen, who once had an act with Bobby Darin and wrote a book about him, contributed a fine score with jazzy interludes and romantic and poignant passages. "Buddy Barker" was probably based on Washington D.C.-based pimp Bobby Baker. 

Verdict: Enough good acting and interesting sequences in this to keep you watching. **1/2. 

GOOD NEW MOVIE: A HAUNTING IN VENICE

A HAUNTING IN VENICE (2023). Director: Kenneth Branagh.

Tina Fey and Kenneth Branagh
Now living in Venice after WW2, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is importuned by old friend, the writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), to attend a seance in a supposedly haunted palazzo. Ariadne dares Hercule to expose the medium, a woman named Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). The resident of the palazzo is a famous opera soprano, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly), whose grown daughter apparently committed suicide by throwing herself into the canal. Poirot is a bit disoriented by strange sights and sounds, but absolutely does not believe in the supernatural. More than one murder occurs, and Poirot himself is nearly drowned bobbing for apples (although it is highly unlikely that the fastidious and germ-phobic Poirot would ever dunk his noggin in a tub where other people have already done the same). Suspects include Dr.  Ferrier (Jamie Donan); the housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin); the dead daughter's former fiance Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen); and several others, even Ariadne. Eventually, Poirot will figure out the solution and ferret out the murderer. 

Agatha Christie purists may have a problem with A Haunting in Venice -- which is very loosely based on Hallowe'en Party, (the only real similarity is that a Halloween party does indeed take place) -- but I found the movie quite enjoyable. While Branagh, who does a good job directing the picture, can't compare to David Suchet (or even Peter Ustinov) as Poirot, the movie is handsomely produced, well-photographed, and generally well-acted. Tina Fey is good as the novelist, although she doesn't even attempt a British accent. One cast member I was impressed by was little Jude Hill as the precocious Leopold, son of the good doctor. Michelle Yeoh also scores as the medium, who talks right up to the great Poirot in their absorbing scenes together. I think people who disliked this movie were put off by its old-fashioned tone -- just right for this kind of story -- but I found the mystery to be compelling and the solution quite clever. 

Verdict: So far the best of the Branagh-Poirot movies. ***.