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

Thursday, January 20, 2022

THE RUNNER STUMBLES

Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan

THE RUNNER STUMBLES    (1979). Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer. Based on the play by Milan Stitt.  

In a small town in the 1920's the brash, young, full-of-life Sister Rita (Kathleen Quinlan of Event Horizon) arrives and meets the somewhat dour Father Rivard (Dick Van Dyke of Bye Bye Birdie) -- who has been banished to the hinterlands because of some of his more controversial views --  the housekeeper Mrs. Shandig (Maureen Stapleton); two grumpy and dyspeptic older nuns; and the children Sister Rita will teach, including mischievous little James (Billy Jayne). Town tongues start to wag when an obvious friendship and closeness develops between the priest and the nun, and even the housekeeper seems a bit scandalized when Sister Rita moves into the rectory with the father after the other nuns develop consumption -- this is against the orders of the Monsignor (Ray Bolger). As romantic feelings between the pair begin to blossom, one knows things will not go well for these star-crossed lovers ... The Runner Stumbles begins with Rivard in jail, arrested for murdering Rita!

Maureen Stapleton and Van Dyke
I admit I had mixed emotions about watching this picture, as I thought it might be overly cute and Catholic in the worst sense of the word. I also questioned the casting of Dick Van Dyke, whose rubbery pickle-faced features hardly qualify him for a career in drama, as a romantic figure no less. But producer-director Kramer also was responsible for the great Judgment at Nuremberg, so I felt it was definitely worth a look. To my surprise I loved the picture, and thought Van Dyke really delivered during his most difficult sequences. Quinlan and Stapleton are also excellent, and Tammy Grimes is quite effective as a friend and parishioner who is devastated by her father's death. 

Kathleen Quinlan and Tammy Grimes
The Runner Stumbles may not be a masterpiece like Judgment at Nuremberg, but it is a lovely, poignant film with well-developed characters -- the incisive screenplay was written by playwright Milan Stitt, whose Broadway play this is based on -- and a sensitive score by Ernest Gold [Unknown World; Exodus), especially the theme that plays over the closing credits (itself derived from a tune, "My Rumble Seat Gal," also composed by Gold). Critics described the film as "old-fashioned" and didn't mean it as a compliment. I think it's old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The courtroom denouement to the mystery, based on real-life events, packs a wallop, and the closing is remarkably touching. The film doesn't let the Catholic church and its often maddening, hypocritical edicts off the hook, and I imagine devout Catholics might have found this offensive. Too bad. This was the last film for Bolger, who is perfect as the monsignor, and for Kramer.

Verdict: This tragic love story is imperfect, perhaps, but it is also altogether admirable.***1/2.

MARS ATTACKS!

The Martian Ambassador
MARS ATTACKS! (1996). Director: Tim Burton. 

"The blew up Congress, ha, ha, ha!" -- Grandma.

President Dale (Jack Nicholson of The Fortune) and his military advisers, including hawkish General Decker (Rod Steiger) and General Casey (Paul Winfield), prepare to welcome Martian visitors, not certain if they are friend or foe. When the Martians open fire, initially it is all blamed on a miscommunication, but when the Martian ambassador and his envoys disintegrate all of Congress, it is clear they are up to no good! 

Jack Nicholson as the president
Mars Attacks!
 is based on a bunch of trading cards that were packaged with sheets of bubble gum, so with source material that looney you know you're not going to get anything that serious, especially not from Tim Burton. My opinion on this film has gone from liking it to hating it and back again -- it would be all too easy to tear it apart, as it is monumentally silly, and I'm not certain that the black comedy approach is the best idea when you're dealing with an alien invasion that will leave thousands dead. But I have to say this is not an unmitigated disaster like Burton's Dark Shadows, and good taste was never the filmmaker's strong point. 

In the Kennedy Room: Martin Short and Lisa Marie
There is a lot of funny stuff in the picture, especially the sexy, buxom alien visitor (Lisa Marie of We Are Still Here) who winds up in the White House in the--get this! -- Kennedy Room for a supposed assignation with the press secretary (Martin Short). Most of the actors -- the cast includes everyone from Glenn Close to singer Tom Jones -- play this stuff just the way it was intended, with the cast stand-outs being Nicholson (who plays two roles) and Steiger. The cinematography and FX work are excellent -- including a homage to Ray Harryhausen's flying saucers in Earth vs the Flying Saucers -- and there's an especially exciting sequence when a giant, Martian-controlled robot chases pell mell after Richie (Lukas Haas). It's nice that his elderly grandma (Sylvia Sidney) survives and even becomes a hero of sorts. There are occasional flashes of humanism, but mostly this is just weird fun. 

Verdict: Unless you're in a peculiar mood, you might prefer to watch The War of the Worlds, either version. **3/4. 

CHARLES BOYER: THE FRENCH LOVER John Baxter

CHARLES BOYER: THE FRENCH LOVER
. John Baxter. University Press of Kentucky; 2021. 

This is an absorbing study of the life and career of Charles Boyer, a balding and stocky man, married to one woman for many years, who nevertheless became a Great Lover on the screen. Boyer's career in Hollywood began with him doing foreign versions of American productions, and he maneuvered as much as he could to become tied to a Hollywood studio. Eventually Boyer starred and gave wonderful performances in such films as Algiers, A Woman's Vengeance, History is Made at NightGaslight, and many, many others. Boyer wasn't always at the top of his game, as shown in Arch of Triumph, but generally he graced every production he was in. Baxter writes that Boyer outwardly accepted but inwardly resented being given supporting parts as he grew older, but his career was kept alive thanks to these roles and to TV appearances, but no matter how small the role he was always a star (witness The Happy Time, for instance). His final years were troubled by the death of his son, his wife's terminal illness, and his own health problems. Also recommended: Charles Boyer: The Reluctant Lover by Larry Swindell. 

Verdict: Absorbing read on the great star and actor. ***. 

MURDER AT THE GALLOP

Margaret Rutherford and Robert Morley
MURDER AT THE GALLOP 
(1963). Director: George Pollock.

Jane Marple (Margaret Rutherford) is up to her old tricks of sticking her nose in police business and exasperating Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell). This time the old lady sleuth is out to find out which of four heirs did away with a wealthy old man found dead in his enormous mansion. Suspects include Michael Shane (James Villiers of Some Girls Do), George Crossfield (Robert Urquhart), and Hector Enderby (Robert Morley of Theater of Blood). Much of the story takes place at Enderby's inn and riding academy. 

Rutherford with Flora Robson
Murder at the Gallop
 is the second of four Miss Marple films starring Rutherford. The original novel, entitled After the Funeral or Funerals are Fatal, actually featured Christie's Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot instead of Marple. The murder methods have also been changed to death by horse and engine. Much of the humor of the film is derived from the comical antics of those two old pros, Rutherford and Morley, but the film does not stint on the suspense, making this a near-perfect blend of laughs and mystery. Rutherford is marvelous as this alternate-Marple, and the other performances from those named -- as well as Stringer Davis as Marple's friend and Flora Robson as Miss Milchrest -- are uniformly excellent. 

Verdict: Good show! More well-done fun with Miss M. ***1/4. 

LAW AND ORDER

Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy
LAW AND ORDER. NBC TV series   1990 - 2010. 

 Jack McCoy: "I don't think he's going to   confess."

 Adam Schiff: "Why should he confess?  You'll probably arrest somebody else tomorrow."

Now that Law and Order is coming back after a ten year absence, it's time to look back at this highly-successful and entertaining series, all twenty years of it. The first executive D.A. was Ben Stone, well-played by Michael Moriarty, who resigned when a terrified witness was shot dead in front of an police escort. Stone was replaced by Jack McCoy, the character most associated with the show (after perhaps the late Jerry Orbach), also well-played by Sam Waterston (although Waterson's perpetual head-shaking got to be annoying after a while). The first D.A. depicted on the show was grumpy Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). His performance couldn't be called great acting perhaps, but he was amusingly effective. 

You had to take Law and Order with a grain of salt. To create suspense, far too many episodes had the police and prosecutors arresting more than one person -- sometimes as many as three members of the same family -- for the same murder, something that in real life would never happen (or the ADA wouldn't last very long). I think the writers even saw the silliness of this, prompting the exchange between McCoy and Schiff you can see above. When cops were dressed down by their higher-ups, the latter always came off like incredibly nasty and suspicious super-villains instead of real people.

Jesse L. Martin and Leslie Hendrix as the M.E.
Although I like Waterson, I can't say I liked the character he played. Too many times McCoy would prosecute people when some of these wrongful deaths should have been adjudicated in civil court -- but it made for a good, if implausible, storyline. McCoy would want to take down defendants for their arrogance, but he could be just as arrogant. And hypocritical. I literally laughed at loud during one episode (the notorious one in which McCoy tries to invalidate gay marriage so that he can successfully convict a gay defendant -- don't ask) when McCoy complains of one person involved in the case that "he was hitting on his subordinate!" What's hilarious about this is that if you listen carefully to the dialogue in many previous episodes, McCoy had affairs with many of his female "subordinates." Even if these women initiated the affairs, it was incredibly inappropriate behavior. Occasionally someone would refer to McCoy's indiscretions, but he was never really called on the carpet for it. He eventually married one of his subordinates, the marriage didn't work, and he had a daughter that he hadn't spoken to in ten years!

Then there's the case of ADA Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Rohm, who appeared on the show for several seasons). In "Ain't No Love" in which a rap star is murdered, Serena is fired for being too passionate about a case and supposedly acting on emotion instead of evidence. She asks D.A. Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson) if he's firing her because she's a lesbian (which comes out of nowhere). He says "of course not," but when you consider that she had every good reason to think the man on trial was innocent she probably was fired for being gay. McCoy, who sometimes gets so overly passionate about things you think he's demented or will have a stroke, doesn't go to bat for her. 

Over twenty years the show had a huge cast, most of whom gave notable performances. Jerry Orbach as Detective Lennie Briscoe; Jesse L. Martin as Ed Green; S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Van Buren; Linus Roache as ADA Mike Cutter (who told Jack off more than once); Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan; Leslie Hendrix as the taciturn medical examiner; Angie Harmon as ADA Carmichael; Carey Lowell as ADA Ross. Paul Sorvino and George Dzunda also played detectives in the early seasons and were swell. Dianne Weist only lasted one season as the D.A.; she added nothing to the show.

Some of the best episodes of the series include: 

"Misconception." There are terrific twists in this story of a pregnant woman who is attacked on the street. Season 2.

"Manhood." Cops let a gay colleague down by not responding to his calls for help. Season 3.

"American Dream" features Zeljko Ivanek as a killer who gets a new trial and goes up against Ben as his own lawyer. Season 4.

"Snatched." A wealthy man's son is kidnapped -- or was he? Season 4.

"Censure." A man terrorizing a woman and her child turns out to be a respected judge (David Groh). Season 4.

"Sanctuary." A superb episode with multiple points of view about racism and anti-Semitism as a Jew runs over a black boy and a a black man beats a white man to death. Season 4.

"Corruption." Lennie's old colleague (Kevin Conway) is accused of being on the take, then turns around and accuses Lennie. Season 7. 

"Showtime." The trial of a director who murdered and dismembered his ex-wife. Season 7.

"Burden." A doctor murders a disabled boy, but he may be a serial killer and not a mercy killer." Season 8.

""DNR." A lady judge (Lindsay Crouse) is shot by a man who hired her husband; she wants to die but won't condemn him. Season 10.

"Marathon" A woman is shot in broad daylight, but Lennie Briscoe's allegedly hearing the confession of the killer is called into question. Good character development, especially concerning Briscoe. Season 10. 

"Sundown." A man (George Martin) with Alzheimer's is accused of murdering his wife. Season 10. 

"Identity." An elderly man's identity is stolen as well as his home; murder results. Season 14.

"Red Ball." Jack McCoy is forced to make a deal with a loathsome man in order to save a child's life. Season 16.

"Charity case." When a movie star adopts an African baby more than one murder results. Season 17.

"Captive." Sad (if somewhat contrived) episode in which McCoy actually prosecutes a boy for the murder of a child even though he had been kidnapped and molested. Season 17.

"Misbegotten." Interesting if imperfect, twisty episode about a bombing, the gay gene, and a brother-in-law accused of murder. Season 18.

"Quit Claim" Fascinating look at an illegal real estate scheme, who the real mastermind behind it is, and the manipulations of a mysterious female suspect. Season 18.

"Rumble." Jack charges a group of men who had a fight in a park -- with the resulting deaths of innocents -- as terrorists. Season 19.

"By Perjury." Mike (Linus Roache) matches wits with a lawyer (Dallas Roberts) who is representing relatives of victims of an airliner disaster.

"Anchors Away." A Bernie Madoff-inspired episode involving murders, a Ponzi scheme, and television reporters. Season 19.

"Shotgun." A storeowner (Elliot Gould) shoots men robbing his store but there are serious complications. Season 20.

"Innocence." Mike challenges the Innocence Project when they claim he wrongfully convicted a gay-basher. Season 20.

The last two episodes of the series beautifully illustrate the two main types of stories that appeared on the show. "Love Eternal" is an amusing, strange tale with a tacky woman arrested for murdering her masochistic, comics-collecting husband. The final episode, "Rubber Room," is a tense and suspenseful story of everyone trying to track down a boy planning to bomb a high school, while Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) waits for the results of her MRI regarding her cancer. 

Verdict: Whatever its flaws, this was a compelling and intriguing series "ripped from the headlines." ***1/2. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

THE HAPPY TIME

Charles Boyer and Bobby Driscoll
THE HAPPY TIME (1952). Director: Richard Fleischer. Produced by Stanley Kramer.

Three brothers -- (Jacques) Charles Boyer, (Desmond) Louis Jourdan, and (Louis) Kurt Kasznar -- interact in 1920's Ottawa, but the focus in this film is more on Jacques' son, Robert or "Bibi" (Bobby Driscoll). Bibi develops quite a crush on the maid, Mignonette (Linda Christian), although Desmond and Mignonette are attracted to each other. Louis is a wastrel and drunk who is married to a seeming shrew, Felice (Jeanette Nolan), who fears her daughter, Yvonne (Ann Faber), will become an old maid. The brothers' father, Grandpere (Marcel Dalio), just wants to have a good time in what time he has remaining. Then Bibi is accused of lying to the principal, Frye (Jack Raine), and the three brothers, united, decide to have a serious talk with the man.  

Louis Jourdan and Linda Christian
The Happy Time settles most of the characters' problems in predictable fashion, but there is a pleasant time in getting there. The performances are uniformly excellent. Based on a Broadway show, the film's two biggest problems are its trivialism of alcoholism and its treatment of some of the female characters. Louis is clearly a hopeless drunk, but no one ever spares any compassion for his wife, whose shrill personality didn't come out of nowhere; her daughter is never developed at all. Marsha Hunt is fine in her brief screen time as Jacques' wife and Bibi's mother, but she also seems under-developed. Mignonette fares a little better, as does the next-door neighbor girl, Peggy (Marlene Cameron), who has an unrequited crush on Bibi and lies to the principal to get even with him.  

Richard Erdman and Kurt Kasznar
Two scenes stand out in the movie. The first is a farcical and funny bit between Louis and Alfred (Richard Erdman), a tight-assed bank clerk who wants to marry Yvonne and accidentally gets drunk on wine that Louis keeps in a cooler. The second is a very well-played scene between Jacques and Bibi which temporarily becomes a little more sophisticated than the rest of the film. Jacques explains to his son that (sexual) desire has caused so many problems in the world that people -- such as the principal -- have come to see desire itself as being evil, but he assures his son that "nothing is wrong with desire." Linda Christian was married to Tyrone Power for a time. Richard Fleischer later directed Fantastic Voyage and many others. 

Verdict: Overly cute at times, but very well-acted, entertaining, and often charmingly sentimental. ***.

MIKE NICHOLS: A LIFE

MIKE NICHOLS: A LIFE. Mark Harris. Penguin Press/Random House; 2021. 

In this first-class biography of the actor-director, who worked in the theater even more than he did in films, we learn how Igor Peschkowsky came from Berlin to America in 1939 as an eight-year-old. Nichols entered show business as a kind of intellectual comedian, eventually partnering with Elaine May, then began directing for the stage. He made the switch to films by helming the cinema adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- he followed this with The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and others -- but continued directing for the theater, occasionally "fixing" shows behind the scenes. Nichols could be distinctly neurotic and unpleasant, and never quite made it to the front rank of movie directors, although he became a significant figure in the arts. With many interviews to bolster Nichols' story, biographer Harris explores Nichols' marriages, relationships, and career in compelling fashion. Harris also had access to Nichols and others when Nichols directed the cable adaptation of Angels in America, which was written by Harris' husband. While Harris doesn't necessarily shy away from detailing Nichols faults both as director and human being, others have noted that he does on occasion come off like a "fan-boy." 

Verdict: Even if you're not a major Nichols admirer, this bio has a whole cast of interesting supporting characters as well as the background stories of important filmic and theatrical productions. ***1/2. 

OKAY NEW MOVIE: BEING THE RICARDOS

On the set of I Love Lucy
BEING THE RICARDOS (2021 Amazon streaming video). Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. 

While preparing an episode of their show I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman of To Die For) and her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem of Skyfall) learn that powerful columnist Walter Winchell is calling Lucy a communist. In addition to that upsetment, Lucille is convinced that Desi is having affairs with other women, even if a photo published in Confidential proves to be several months old. Lucy, a perfectionist, clashes with her director, writers, husband and fellow cast members as to how certain sequences should be handled, while Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) suffers angst over how Ethel is continually seen as unattractive when she is married to her "grandfather," Fred, played by William Frawley (J. K. Simmons of Whiplash). The sole female scriptwriter doesn't want Lucy to be depicted as being stupid, but Ball counters that "Lucy" is clever and almost always gets her way -- true! 

Essentially all of this material, none of which is new to the I Love Lucy fanatic (among which I count myself) has already been covered in the 1991 telefilm Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter. However, Being the Ricardos is still an entertaining, if unnecessary, picture, although if it has people pulling out or buying their complete sets of I love Lucy I'm all for it. Nicole Kidman is better as Lucy than I would have imagined, and while Bardem is not as handsome as Desi was, he is also effective in his portrayal. I wouldn't have necessarily chosen Simmons or Arianda to play Fred and Ethel, but they are also good, especially grumpy Simmons, and the people who play the writers and director are also well-chosen. (Linda Lavin and others play the older versions of these people in mock interviews.) Lucy's children, Lucie and Desi Jr., served as producers. 

Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball
Just as happened with Judy, the recent film about Judy Garland, some viewers won't be satisfied with any actor portrayal of a beloved figure unless the person themselves gets up out of the grave and, impossibly, plays the part. Nicole Kidman has gotten some serious hatred, and she certainly isn't a brilliant comedienne like Lucy, but she doesn't try to be -- she is rarely shown attempting the physical comedy Ball was famous for. But nevertheless she does a very good job approximating Ball. As for the film itself, there is some attempt to flesh out the characters, although the ultimate result is a tad superficial. Apparently Aaron Sorkin is not a fan of I Love Lucy -- while not every episode was a winner, quite a few were classics that are as funny today as when they first aired. 

Verdict: Whether you like this movie or not, get out your box of I Love Lucy and enjoy Ball and the others dealing with operettas, candy factories, William Holden in the Brown Derby, Lucy stomping grapes to soak up local color, selling salad dressing, attending a country club dance, going to charm school, and dozens of other episodes that will bring a great big smile to your face. And these days we sure need one! ***. 

THE FORTUNE

Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson
THE FORTUNE 
(1975). Director: Mike Nichols. 

In the 1920's Nicky Wilson (Warren Beatty) wants to marry heiress Freddie Bigard (Stockard Channing) for her money, but his divorce from his wife hasn't come through. He importunes zany buddy Oscar Sullivan (Jack Nicholson) to marry the lady so he won't get in trouble over the Mann Act, which prohibits moving a woman across a state line for "immoral purposes." The three set up housekeeping in a cottage where Nicky pretends to be Oscar's brother. The two men both vie for the charms of Freddie, but then decide they will have a better chance of getting her money if the woman is dead. The two dim-bulbs then hatch a plot ... 

Our "heroes" with Stockard Channing
Old-time screwball comedies, of which The Fortune is an imitation, often featured "heroes," such as Groucho Marx, who were reprobates and scallawags, decided con artists, but Nicky and Oscar are essentially sociopaths who have no hesitation in deciding to off the woman who loves them. Admittedly, Freddie can be shrill and overbearing, and might be considered an unsympathetic victim. A bigger problem is that director Mike Nichols again uses the long take approach, when comedies like these need expert cutting and pacing. A manic three-way fight sequence doesn't work at all. In spite of that, The Fortune is frequently amusing -- thanks to the performances, with Nicholson taking top honors -- and has at least one hilarious scene set on an airplane. While the film is farcical enough not to be offensive, it perhaps needed to be even more farcical. 

I suppose there are those who will argue that underneath the comical tone The Fortune is about cynical human nature, women who can't accept reality when it comes to their men, how relationships are instantly disposable when things go awry, and so on. But I think The Fortune doesn't really have that much on its mind. I shouldn't like the film at all, but I confess I found it quite entertaining. But, yes, it could have been a lot better. Stockard Channing gives it the Old College Try, but for better or worse this is the boys' show. 

Verdict: For once Nicholson is the character he plays instead of himself. ***. 

LITTLE SISTER: MY INVESTIGATION INTO THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF NATALIE WOOD

LITTLE SISTER: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of NATALIE WOOD. Lana Wood (with Lindsay Harrison). HarperCollins; 2021. 

I admit I didn't expect much from this book, but it is so skillfully put together by co-author Lindsay Harrison, so well-paced and constructed, that it actually makes for a very compelling read. Of course the animosity between Natalie Wood's younger sister and her widower, Robert Wagner, is no secret, so one has to take some of this with a grain of salt.  Lana Wood also doesn't seem to realize how people's behavior can be affected by copious amounts of alcohol. Still there's never been any proof that Natalie, say, surprised her husband and shipmate Christopher Walken having sex and took off in a dinghy in distress -- one of the theories -- and indeed the evidence seems to clearly point in another direction. If we are to believe reports and comments made by the two detectives (as filtered through Lana) who were assigned to Natalie Wood's death after the case was finally reopened, the original investigation was severely botched, either by incompetence or a star-struck attitude toward Robert Wagner, still a TV fixture at the time; and pathologist-to-the-stars Thomas Noguchi made serious errors as well. Clearly something bad happened on that ship and Wagner knows a lot more than he's telling. His account of that evening [Pieces of My Heart] simply doesn't match the facts, but so many years have gone by that he can only be considered a "person of interest" and not a "suspect." Well, judge for yourself. 

Lana and Natalie Wood
Little Sister is interesting for other reasons, as it looks at a highly dysfunctional Hollywood family with a rather odious stage mother, one sister who hit the heights of stardom, while the other struggled, dealing with financial issues and her own daughter's addiction and tragic death. There are juicy if disheartening stories, such as how (according to Lana Wood) Kirk Douglas essentially raped Natalie when she was only fifteen. Lana repeats the story of Natalie divorcing Wagner (she later remarried him) because she found him in a "compromising position" with his butler! (One suspects that Lana was the source for this in other bios of Natalie and this may be why Wagner pretty much hates her.) Lana also claims that a powerful agent told her that Wagner had had her blackballed throughout Hollywood -- surely he didn't have such clout!? While nowhere near as successful as her older sister, Lana Wood amassed quite a few credits, including making an impression as Plenty O'Toole in Diamonds are Forever and appearing in other movies such as The Girls on the Beach

Verdict: Worthwhile, well-written, and absorbing memoir. ***.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Thursday, December 9, 2021

HITCHCOCK AND THE CENSORS

HITCHCOCK AND THE CENSORS. John Billheimer. University Press of Kentucky; 2019. 

This fascinating volume looks at the work of the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock, and focuses on how his films -- and the episodes of his TV shows that he directed -- fared with the censors. The book is divided into sections on his British films; his films with Selznick; the films he did after he ended his association with the producer; his golden period, which included such as Vertigo and North By Northwest; the TV years; and the final period when he regained some lost ground with the critics with Frenzy (but who also did such interesting works as Marnie and Torn Curtain). 

After going into the formation of the production code, the book relates the censors' initial reaction to scripts that Hitch submitted and the changes they recommended, as well as the often clever way that Hitch would get around those changes. Censors were especially worried by the lengthy kisses of Notorious, the depiction of a toilet flushing in Psycho, possible lesbianism in Rebecca, the too-efficient Nazi of Lifeboat, the gay murderers of Rope, a potentially suicidal priest in I Confess, and much more. While examining the censorship of Hitch's films and both its positive and negative effects on the movies, Billheimer takes a fresh and interesting look at the Master's films in general. 

Verdict: Excellent tome for the serious Hitchcock admirer and film enthusiasts in general. ***1/2.  

THE CORRUPT ONES

Anti-hero: Robert Stack
THE CORRUPT ONES (aka Die Holle von Macao/1967). Director: James Hill. 

Photographer Cliff Wilder (Robert Stack of The Last Voyage) escapes from Red China and makes his way by boat to Macao with an adventurer named Danny Mancini (Maurizio Arena), who tells him of a certain "Peking Medallion" that can point the way to a fabulous treasure. Danny has the medallion in his possession, but not for long, as he is brutally murdered. Others interested in the medallion include his widow, Lily (Elke Sommer); a mobster named Brandon (Christian Marquand); a sort of wealthy "Dragon Lady" named Tina (Nancy Kwan); and even the Chief of Police, Pinto (Werner Peters of Phantom of Soho). Dodging enemies right and left and not knowing whom to trust, Wilder tries to retrieve the medallion and lay claim to the treasure. 

Elke Sommer with Stack
There are no actual spies in The Corrupt Ones, but it has a lot of the same elements that you find in international eurospy productions. "Elliott Ness" -- Stack's most famous role -- comes on to every woman he meets within seconds, takes on numerous opponents in assorted fight scenes, is dragged behind a speeding power boat at one point, saves Lily from torture at the hands of Tina, and carries on in many ways like a "super-spy" without actually being one. Stack generally handles this with aplomb, and while Sommer and others in the cast are dubbed, we can hear his real voice throughout. 

Nancy Kwan, Werner Peters, Christian Marquand
The production values in the film are above average, with Tina's gorgeous home being of special distinction, along with the cavern set where the treasure is located. The musical score is effective and appropriate. An amusing sequence has Stack turning down one proffered prostitute after another in a club and telling the startled madam "I'm waiting for a man" -- although he's actually referring to an appointment with Danny. The characters in this are unpleasant and one-dimensional but the picture is quite entertaining. James Hill also directed A Study in Terror.

Verdict: Not exactly The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but fun. ***

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART EIGHT

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART EIGHT


Changing Lanes (2002). Director: Roger Michell. A corporate lawyer (Ben Affleck) and a reformed alcoholic businessman (Samuel L. Jackson) get in a fender bender, and the former, late for court, pretty much blows the other guy off. Then he realizes he's accidentally given the man some important papers. However, Jackson, trying to get his family back, is also late for a court date, and is furious with Affleck. Things between the two men spiral out of control and at one point nearly turn murderous. This is an absorbing, very well-acted movie in which race relations do not take center stage. (With the exception of one sequence, this could have been about two white guys or two black guys.) The movie features two very interesting character studies, although some abrupt character reversals aren't convincing. You have to suspend disbelief for the feel-good ending -- and pretty much gloss over an act of attempted murder (!) -- but the movie is quite entertaining and does end on a high note. ***.  

Serenity
 (2019). Writer/director: Steven Knight. Just when you're getting pleasantly involved with and  invested in this film noirish story of a man (Matthew McConaughey) who is importuned by his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) to murder her distinctly unpleasant husband (Jason Clarke) while on a fishing charter, the picture does an 160 degree turn and becomes a fantasy-science fiction story. I've no doubt some viewers will give Serenity points for being something different, but it's not the most original concept, and it sort of forces you to suddenly stop caring about the characters. There are certainly interesting notions in the basic premise, but I, for one, felt a bit cheated. This would have been a better movie had it remained a late entry in the film noir sweepstakes. McConaughey is excellent, however, and everyone else in the cast is right on target. **1/4. 

The Ides of March
 (2011), which co-stars, was co-written and directed by George Clooney, focuses more on Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a second-in-command for a presidential campaign for Clooney's governor. Stephen finds himself being played by opposing forces and also discovers that his married hero had a one-night-stand with a pretty intern. Ides is generally well-acted and fairly absorbing but its cliche-ridden screenplay puts it in the minor leagues. Gosling has given some very good performances in other films but in this he mostly displays cool attitude, seems bored half the time, and doesn't even seem to be acting; Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others, are better. As political movies go, this one just isn't in the running. **1/4. 

Closer
 (2004) deals with two couples in London. Photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) gets involved with dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) when the strange author Dan (Jude Law) pretends to be a woman online and arranges a date between him and Anna. Meanwhile Dan, who is obsessed with Anna, already has a girlfriend in Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from New York. Anna is torn between the two men and Alice can't seem to live without Dan. Based on a play, this has characters that aren't dimensional enough to help us care about them, although the four solid actors give it their all. There really isn't much of a story to this, which is a problem as the movie is not character-driven so much as plot-driven. The frank language and profligate bed-hopping probably fooled young audiences -- and 73-year-old director Mike Nichols -- into thinking they were seeing something deep -- they weren't. However, the film is undeniably entertaining and absorbing thanks to the performances. **1/2. 

Primary Colors (1998), also directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by Elaine May, deals with a fictionalized version of the Clintons. John Travolta never quite seems like a real person in his portrayal of the amiably piggish "Jack Stanton," but Emma Thompson is absolute perfection as his strong-willed wife, Susan (Hilary). I was not as carried away as others by Kathy Bates as the lesbian Libby Holman, although she is good, but Adrian Lester definitely impressed me with his likable and evocative portrayal of the Stanton's African-American coordinator, Henry. There are also nice turns by Larry Hagman, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Reiner, and others. While hardly perfect, the fast-paced, and entertaining picture is amusing and disturbing in equal measure. ***. 

HEARTBURN

Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep
HEARTBURN   (1986). Director: Mike Nichols. 

Food writer Rachel (Meryl Streep of Postcards from the Edge) and political columnist Mark (Jack Nicholson of Carnal Knowledge) get married, buy a house that needs a great deal of work, and eventually have a cute little daughter (played winningly by Streep's own daughter). Gossip at parties tends to revolve around which spouse is cheating, but Rachel -- who is pregnant again -- is shocked to discover that Mark is fooling around with a notorious Washington hostess. She is importuned to come back to Mark -- but do they really have a chance or should she face the fact that she may have married the wrong person?

Kevin Spacey 
Based on Nora Ephron's autobiographical novel, Heartburn has its amusing and poignant moments, and the acting is adequate -- Nicholson had already entered the familiar "Nicholson mode" by this time -- but director Mike Nichols favors overly long takes that throw off the pacing and actually make the film kind of tedious at times. Because this is based on Ephron's book -- she also wrote the screenplay -- we don't learn that much about husband Mark (the real-life Carl Bernstein) or whatever reasons he may have had for embarking upon affairs (not that some husbands necessarily need reasons). Steven Hill, Maureen Stapleton, and Stockard Channing have solid featured roles, but the supporting cast member who really stands out is a very young Kevin Spacey [Beyond the Sea] as a subway rider who later on robs Rachel's therapy group at gunpoint! 

Verdict: Carly Simon's music may be the best thing about the movie. **1/2. 

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND FIVE

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND FIVE. 

As noted previously, these are not reviews, per se, but notes on films that I watched or suffered through until I just gave up on them for one reason or another. Sometimes I skipped to different sections just to get a sense of what was going on or to see if the film became more entertaining. Not all of these pictures are necessarily bad, they just didn't hold my attention. If you see one on the list that you think deserves another look, let me know.

The Spider's Web (1960) is based on a play by Agatha Christie but I could hardly finish a quarter of it when I turned it off. Glynis Johns is irritating and the whole flick comes off as a witless sitcom. I couldn't care less who murdered the man found in a closet.  

FX-18 (1964) is a poor Eurospy film with Ken Clark of Attack of the Giant Leeches playing a womanizing agent sent to Majorca to smash a spy ring that operates out of a yacht. Clark is okay in the part but the picture's pace is too slow and there is no style whatsoever. 

Secret Agent FX-18 /aka The Exterminators/1965)-- not to be confused with the just plain FX-18 -- stars Richard Wyler as another Eurospy who deals with sinister Egyptian agents, a French rocket, assorted thugs and the like, but the picture never amounts to much in spite of a lot of running around in different locales. 

Fireball 500  (1966) teams Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte as rival race car drivers with songs, giggling gals, romance, and the like thrown into the mix but after awhile you realize there really isn't much to this picture. 

The Spy with Ten Faces (1966) stars Paul Hubschmid ("Paul Christian" in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) as "UpperSeven," a super-spy who wears so many masks that his enemies don't really know what he looks like. This device, borrowed from old pulp stories and serials, might be the only really interesting element of this mediocre eurospy flick, directed by super-hack Alberto De Martino. Although Hubschmid is fine in the lead and there are some good scenes, this is not a contender. 

I gave up on The Man from O.R.G.Y.  (1970) rather quickly, although I did try to stick it out for my customary quarter of the running time. This stars Robert Walker (Jr.) as a weird agent for a sex-based organization called O.R.G.Y. Walker is assigned to find three young heiresses who have a strange tattoo and gets involved in ludicrous, allegedly kinky scenarios. A complete waste of celluloid. 

I had wanted to see the strangely-titled Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me?  (1971) for decades but was sorry when I did. With a poor and silly script by Herb Gardner, and an off-putting style from director Ulu Grosbard, this movie about a singer (Dustin Hoffman) who is supposedly bedeviled by a person saying bad things about him to his friends, never becomes remotely compelling. Leading Lady Barbara Harris shows up very late in the film but although she was inexplicably nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for this stinker, she's hardly enough to save this mess. 

The Sender (1982) is about a strange young man who tries to drown himself and winds up in a mental hospital where a woman tries to treat him despite his odd, almost supernatural, abilities. Despite the presence of Shirley Knight and the talented Zeljko Ivanek in his first starring role, this movie is so slowww and dull that I gave up on it halfway through. 

Fatal Instinct (1993) was meant to be a spoof of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and I must say Armand Assante, Kate Nelligan, and Sean Young are right on-target in their performances, but this is basically a Carol Burnett Show spoof stretched out to over an hour and a half  -- after awhile this Carl Reiner-directed comedy begins to wear very thin. 

The Nurse (1997) stars Lisa Zane as a woman who comes to care for a paralyzed man she feels is responsible for the death of her father. No one in the movie seems to realize how awful the situation is for the patient, who can't move or speak but is able to think constantly about his horrible predicament. Eventually this whole situation becomes irritating, but in any case the movie doesn't grip.

The Woods (2006) has a young lady being sent to an exclusive girls' school where she has to contend with bitchy classmates, weird teachers, and the possibility of witches in the woods. This horror film may have been intended for a teen audience, but it just didn't hold the interest of this adult viewer. 

Triangle (2009) features a young woman with an autistic son who goes on a yachting party with a guy she's dating and his friends. They wind up on a deserted ocean liner where someone appears to be killing them off. Instead of a linear and tense suspense film, which this could easily have been, writer-director Christopher Smith gets metaphysical, silly, and unoriginal -- and creates a mess, The movie is professionally shot, acted, and directed -- quite well made, in fact -- but seeing the same scenes from multiple points of view quickly becomes tedious. The movie attempts to add some depth and poignancy relating to the little boy, but the screenplay is awkward, and all told, poor. After an hour I skipped to the end.

Nerve (2013) concerns a man who learns his wife is having an affair shortly before she is killed in a car crash. He becomes friends with a hooker and visits his psychiatrist regularly after having a nervous breakdown. I gave this alleged thriller more than twenty dull minutes waiting for something of interest to happen, but the placid style and slow pacing was so off-putting that I found myself longing to switch to anything, even an umpteenth rerun of Dr. Phil. I skipped ahead to see what the "alleged" twist was all about and am glad I didn't waste another full hour actually sitting through this.

The Last Days on Mars (2013) has astronauts planning to leave the "red planet" when they come across some kind of dangerous contagion. When the actors began foaming at the mouth and attacking everyone like something out of Night of the Living Dead I figured this was another trip to the well I didn't need and switched it off. 

78/52 Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) is a documentary about Psycho, especially the famous shower murder sequence. Well after about fifteen minutes I gave up on this. I mean, there was some pretentious film journalist babbling on about the movie along with minor celebrities like Elijah Wood and Bret Easton Ellis offering their opinions and whose observations were neither insightful nor interesting  -- who cares? 

Normally I love monster movies but I quit Rampage (2018), despite some good FX work, about a quarter of the way in because it came off like just another "Rock/Duane Johnson" action movie that I felt I had seen once too often. Just had no great desire to see it to the end. 

Although I did like Inglourious Basterds (with reservations), I still don't count myself among the fans of Quentin Tarantino. Nevertheless I checked out Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood  (2019) because people I know and whose opinions I generally trust recommended the film, so I gave this tedious and meandering movie a try. Everyone said that the ending was a knock out, and that may be the case, but I just couldn't stick around until it got there -- there were too many other films I really wanted to look it. I may return to this some day, but for now ... Besides, even if the ending is good that may not justify how long it takes to arrive there. 

Other pictures I stopped watching or skimmed through include: I'm From Arkansas with Bruce Bennett; Carnival Lady (1933); and the "eurospy" pictures Red Dragon with Stewart Granger; Secret Agent Fireball with Ray Danton; Agent OO3: Operation Atlantis with John Ericson; Dick Smart 2.007 with Richard Wyler;The Big Blackout; Kommissar X: Death Trip; and Kommissar X: Operation Pakistan.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Great Old Movies is taking a week off to enjoy some turkey (I eat a lot of turkey).

So there are no turkeys to review this week.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

THE OSCAR

THE OSCAR
(1966). Director: Russell Rouse.

Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) is a low-level garment worker who sort of falls into acting because he "impresses" a lady talent scout named Sophie (Eleanor Parker). Sophie gets him a top agent in "Kappy" Kapstetter (Milton Berle), who manages to convince studio head Kenneth Regan (Joseph Cotten) to sign him to a contract even though Regan senses something off about the guy. Fane becomes a star, but keeps biting the hand that feeds him -- even though some of his remarks to those who helped him have a point. When his career starts slipping badly, he has nightmares of going back to being nobody, and hitches upon a desperate plan to nab an Oscar and put himself back on top. The Oscar does show how undeserving louts can become movie stars simply because somebody has the hots for them -- which has happened more often than anyone imagines. The movie might have had more bite had Fane been someone desperately committed to the art of acting, but this can't be confused with the far superior Career -- it's basically entertaining trash with mostly one-dimensional characters and often hokey dialogue -- and not a few tedious moments. Once Fane begins to slide, however, the pic picks up. The fact is that the narcissistic, ambitious, self-absorbed Fane is all too typical of most Hollywood actors.

Elke Sommer and Boyd
Although miscast as some low-bred tough guy, Boyd is not at all bad as Fane, and has his best moment at the very end of the movie (you almost feel sorry for him). As his pal and procurer, Hymie, Tony Bennett seems amateurish until he has some powerful moments at the climax. Jill St. John gives it a good try, but she hasn't the real acting chops to make the most of her scenes as the girlfriend Fane stole from Hymie. Elke Sommer is okay as Kay Bergdahl, a designer Fane makes a play for and eventually marries, and Berle is at least flavorful as Kappy. Eleanor Parker gives the sauciest performance as Sophie, and makes St. John and Sommer look like a couple of kittens in comparison. But Edie Adams and Ernest Borgnine almost walk off with the movie as a husband and wife who are celebrating their divorce in Mexico when they encounter Fane and Kay and re-enter their lives in an unexpected fashion. Peter Lawford has a small but significant scene where he plays a once-famous actor who is now a headwaiter at a Hollywood restaurant; Lawford is excellent and this is probably the best scene in the movie. There are some celebrity cameos and Hedda Hopper as well. One of the screenwriters was Harlan Elison, who became better known as a science fiction writer.

Verdict: Not exactly Eugene O'Neill but fun. ***.

TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)

Hugh O'Brian and Shirley Eaton
TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965). Director: George Pollock. 

Ten people, including two servants, are given invitations to work or play at an isolated estate located high atop a mountain and accessible only by cable car. They discover the strange nursery rhyme about "ten little Indians" in each of their rooms The mysterious voice (Christopher Lee) of their unseen host declares that they have each gotten away with killing someone, and now it is time to pay the piper. The first to go is singer Mike Raven (Fabian), who ran over two people and barely got a slap on the wrist -- he dies by arsenic -- and then more murders occur, somehow each corresponding to the method of death mentioned in the rhyme. Will anyone be left alive? 

Leon Genn and most of the group
George Pollock had previously directed four Agatha Christie "Miss Marple" adaptations, and he does a good job adapting her "And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians" to the screen. While I might have preferred a little more tension, this is not quite as "cutesy" -- for lack of a better word -- as the forties film And Then There Were None. Hugh O'Brian pretty much smirks his way through the movie, as if he were above it all (which he isn't), but his performance is adequate, although the other cast members are more on target. Stanley Holloway, Shirley Eaton, Dennis Price, Leo Genn, and Mario Adorf (as the houseman) deliver adept performances, while Fabian gets an "A" for effort and Wilfrid Hyde White seems to think he's back in that forties adaptation and can best be described as annoyingly impish. Surprisingly Daliah Lavi has a very good turn as the high-maintenance actress Ilona Bergen, and comes through in her scene when she admits all about her past. As the cook and housekeeper Marianne Hoppe is, perhaps, a bit too hysterical. 

Dennis Price and Wilfrid Hyde White
This version transplants the story from an island to a mountaintop and two of the murders center on falls from great heights, one in a cable car whose cable snaps, and the other while a character attempts a climb down the mountain to get help; these are well-handled, and the film has genuine suspense. O'Brian and Eaton are given a love scene that seems a bit out of place. Malcolm Lockyer's jazzy score does little for the picture, but the lensing is sharp thanks to cinematographer Ernest Stewart. This was George Pollock's last theatrical feature. 

Verdict: Very entertaining Christie picture with some fine performances. ***, 

SPY IN YOUR EYE

Dana Andrews
SPY IN YOUR EYE (aka Berlino appuntamento per le spie/1965). Director: Vittorio Sala.

Colonel Lancaster (Dana Andrews) assigns two of his men --  Bert Morris (Brett Halsey) and Willie (Mario Valdemarin) -- to rescue Paula Krauss (Pier Angeli), the daughter of a deceased scientist who has invented a "super death ray." Both the Russians and Chinese want Paula in the hopes that she knows her father's secret formula. As the woman is shuttled back and forth from spy to spy and country to country, Colonel Lancaster has his missing left eye surgically replaced with a micro-telecamera that looks like a human eye. Lancaster thinks that only he can see out of his mechanical eye and doesn't realize that enemy agents are seeing and hearing everything that he does, and therefore have full knowledge of his agents' plans. 

Brett Halsey
This last aspect of the story is really the only point of interest in the movie, but little is done with it. Because Dana Andrews was still a name, and Brett Halsey a recognizable "B" actor, American filmgoers were fooled by a major ad campaign and saturation bookings into thinking they were seeing some kind of James Bond-type adventure. Instead they got a mediocre eurospy film  Aside from the fake eye, the movie is pretty low-tech, with Bert using special dehydration pills to get two bad guys to talk, and another bad guy employing a supposedly devastating weapon to shoot down a bird. 

Consultation: Halsey and Andrews
There is some mild excitement at the climax, in which the walls of a clinic move back and forth, creating new rooms to fool secret agents, a femme fatale is crushed, and the heroes and villains shoot it out amidst the melee.  The real voices of Halsey [Return of the Fly] and Andrews [Night of the Demon] are used, while the Italian actors are generally dubbed. Both actors had many, many more credits after this film was released, although this was not one of the better films that either performer appeared in. 

Verdict: Better than some eurospy movies but not great. **1/4. 

THE VIOLIN CASE MURDERS

Sylvia Pascal and George Nader
THE VIOLIN CASE MURDERS (aka Schüsse aus dem Geigenkasten/1965). Director: Fritz Umgelter. 

FBI agent Jerry Cotton (George Nader) is called in, along with his partner, Phil Decker (Heinz Weiss), by their boss, Mr. High (Richard Munch) to investigate what becomes known as the "Bowling Gang,' due to the location of their hide-out. The gang seems to be run by Christallo (Hands E. Schons) but he takes his orders from the nasty Dr. Kilborne (Franz Rudnick). These fellows, including a man named Percy (Helmut Fornbacher), carry weapons in violin cases (like something out of the forties) and think nothing of murdering without mercy anyone who gets in their way. Pretending to be a drunk who witnessed the group's activities and wants to join up, Jerry infiltrates the gang and discovers that they plan to blow up a school to create a distraction for their latest caper. 

Jerry and Percy (Helmut Fornbacher) after a fight
"Jerry Cotton" was a character as popular in Germany and Finland as James Bond was in the US or UK. He appeared in a huge series of novels over many decades, written by a variety of authors. When it was decided to make a film of his exploits, an American actor was chosen to play the U.S. agent, and many sequences were filmed on American locations, such as New York City, where that bowling alley HQ is located. George Nader, who had previously played the insurance investigator on the TV show Shannon, is fine as Jerry, and there are a host of excellent German supporting actors. Sylvia Pascal is cast as Christallo's girlfriend, and Heidi Luplot is her ill-fated sister, Mary. Nader uses his real voice in this English version while the other actors are dubbed.

Nader with Heinz Weiss
The Violin Case Murders
 is a treat, a fast-paced, very well-directed, and skillfully edited action-suspense film with some taut and beautifully choreographed fight scenes. There's also a clever bit with the bad guys using rolling oil cans, set on fire, to try and trap Phil Decker. One problem with the movie, however, is the music with its martial Jerry Cotton theme (which Jerry even whistles at one point) and jazzy carnival-like rifts that threaten to dissipate the exciting atmosphere at any moment. One can imagine how good this might have been with a different, more suspenseful score. Nader appeared in several more Jerry Cotton movies. 

Verdict: Despite the music, this plays. ***.