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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

GIGI

Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron
GIGI (1958). Director: Vincente Minelli.

Gigi (Leslie Caron) is a young French girl (of about sixteen?) who is being raised by her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold). She is also taught lessons in deportment by her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), as it seems the girl is being groomed to be the courtesan to some wealthy man to avoid a life of comparative poverty. Gigi's mother is not in the picture.


The title tune: "What miracle has made you the way you are?
Gigi and her grandmother have been befriended by wealthy sugar manufacturer and playboy Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan), who thinks Gigi is just a charming child until ... Could Gaston be the man who will wind up keeping Gigi, but will the independent-minded Gigi even go for this arrangement? Gigi first came to life in a 1944 novella by the French writer Colette. It was made into a film in 1949 in France, and then turned into a 1951 Broadway play starring Audrey Hepburn. Lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe turned it into a musical film in 1958 (not bringing it to Broadway until 1973),

"I Remember It Well"
Leslie Caron made the perfect choice to play the lead role. (Hepburn was a little too old at that time and certainly not French.) One could argue that the storyline is slight, an inferior variation on Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, and there are other things you could quibble about, but it has a pleasant score and is extremely well-acted by Caron and everyone else. This, of course, includes Maurice Chevalier [Love Me Tonight], who plays Gaston's uncle, and gets to sing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," as well as the amusing and sentimental number "I Remember It Well," a duet with Gingold. Arguably the two most memorable songs are the bouncy "The Night They Invented Champagne" and the soaring title tune sung by Gaston. Eva Gabor [The Mad Magician] and Jacques Bergerac [Twist of Fate] are fun as Gaston's lover Liane, and her skating instructor, with whom she has the audacity to have a romantic rendezvous.

Despite the satisfying ending are there perhaps undertones of misogyny behind the ever-so-polite and genteel goings-on? One doesn't think too much of the grandmother and aunt who expect Gigi to be, in some ways, little better than a prostitute. And Gaston, a wealthy man in Paris who sings about being eternally bored, is not very sympathetic. Rich and living in Paris -- and bored! What the f--k is his problem?  Like many early CinemaScope movies there is a scarcity of close-ups that might pull the viewer more into the action and the movie is only on occasion cinematic. And what on earth was Minelli thinking in the second scene at Maxim's where he allows an anxious extra -- a lady at the next table -- to repeatedly distract the audience's attention away from Gaston and Gigi? Still Gigi is entertaining and classy, and if you can ignore its hokier aspects you may find it charming. It won the Best Picture Oscar.

Verdict: A sugary confection. ***1/2. 

JULIE

Doris Day and Louis Jourdan 
JULIE (1956). Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone.

Julie Benton (Doris Day) is married to her second husband, Lyle (Louis Jourdan), a famous concert pianist. However, Lyle is not only pathologically jealous, but Julie comes to realize that he may have murdered her first husband, who was supposedly a suicide. Julie seeks help from old friend Cliff Henderson (Barry Sullivan), as well as the police, but their hands are tied. She is convinced that Lyle is going to kill her as he promised ...

Doris Day and Barry Sullivan 
Julie is unusual in that the movie seems to begin in the middle of the story. More often pictures of wives with sinister husbands show the courtship, wedding, and early days of the marriage until it starts going south, but Julie gets off with a bang: our girl rushes off after Lyle has caused an off-screen scene at a gathering. This is followed by a well-done and exciting sequence in which Lyle and Julie drive off and Lyle nearly causes the car they're in to crash as it goes crazily careening down a coastal highway.

Day is in control!
The often under-rated Doris Day gives a very vivid and convincing performance as the tormented and frightened heroine, who finds herself in a terrifying position faced by many women whose husbands and boyfriends refuse to let them go and are psychopathic to boot. Jourdan may underplay too much, but he's effective enough as Lyle, and Sullivan is more than solid as the concerned Henderson. The movie's climax, in which stewardess Day winds up piloting an airliner, may seem absurd (although it actually plays out convincingly), but it's generally tense and very well acted by all. One could argue, however, that it might have been better if the wife vs psychopath scenario had played out in a more intimate manner.

Julie is well-directed by Andrew L. Stone, who keeps things moving so the audience won't ask too many questions, and Leith Stevens' [The Bigamist] score is effective backup to the proceedings. Frank Lovejoy (a cop), Ann Robinson (another stewardess on the plane), Jack Kelly ( a co-pilot) and Barney Phillips (a doctor on the flight), among others, are good in supporting parts. Aline Towne, Pamela Duncan, and Mae Marsh appear in smaller roles. Four years later Day played another terrified spouse in the equally entertaining Midnight Lace. Stone also directed the creditable Steel Trap.

Verdict: Doris in the cockpit! ***.

THE MUSICAL WORLDS OF LERNER AND LOEWE

THE MUSICAL WORLDS OF LERNER AND LOEWE. Gene Lees. University of Nebraska Press; 2005.

Lyricist/librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe combined their talents to come up with such memorable shows and films as Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Gigi, which was written for the screen before becoming a Broadway show many years later. Lerner also did the screenplays for An American in Paris and Royal Wedding (he also contributed lyrics to Burton Lane's music), in addition to his screenplays for the often mediocre film versions of the Broadway shows. Lerner's other collaborators included the aforementioned Lane [On a Clear Day You Can See Forever] and Charles Strouse, resulting in Dance a Little Closer, which, unfortunately, opened and closed on the same night. If you're expecting a dry recitation of the credits of the two gentlemen, you'll be pleasantly surprised. because this book is a dishy, intensely readable, even suspenseful look at the work and often messy private lives of these two musical giants. Loewe had only one marriage and divorce, but after his retirement spent his days with a variety of young women, while Lerner was married and divorced over and over again. Lerner became one of the patients of a Dr. Feelgood who gave him injections that negatively affected his health, work and thought processes. Such composers as Richard Rodgers  had to throw up their hands waiting impatiently for Lerner to deliver material, although Lerner managed to complete one work with Leonard Bernstein, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Frederick "Fritz" Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner
The Musical Worlds of Lerner and Loewe goes behind the scenes, often in great detail, exposing the struggles to get Rex Harrison to deliver -- which he eventually did -- for My Fair Lady, the battles over Camelot, and the disastrous making of the godawful film version of Paint Your Wagon, among other highlights. Lerner's eight marriages are scrutinized, including his union to the only ex-wife he hated and wouldn't even name in his memoirs, Micheline, and his apparently very happy marriage to the much-younger and talented Liz Robertson, who starred in the ill-fated Dance a Little Closer and was with him until his death. (While Lees provides backstage info on that production, I do wish he had spent more time discussing the inclusion of the gay male couple who want to get married -- decades before marriage equality -- making Dance a Little Closer ahead of its time in that regard at least. This situation gets no less than three different song numbers, but Lees dismisses the "homosexual airline employees who want to get married" -- along with all of the other characters it must be noted --  as being unlikable.)  Lees makes the point that Lerner, being born into a wealthy family, had no true understanding of people from the lower classes. He also correctly surmises that, sadly, the days of Lerner and Loewe (the latter with his rich Viennese-influenced scores) are over, with Broadway now given over to pop and rock musicals and Disney movie adaptations, more's the pity. Some of  Lees' opinions can be surprising, especially when he states that Paint Your Wagon has only one memorable song, "They Call the Wind Mariah," (ignoring "Wand'rin Star" and others, although, oddly he does mention the beautiful "Another Autumn" later on in the book).

Verdict: A must-read for Broadway, music, and film fans. ***1/2. 

OLIVIA GOES TO COURT: WHAT A "FEUD!"

Olivia de Havilland is mad as hell over Feud
OLIVIA GOES TO COURT: WHAT A "FEUD!"

If you've wondered why the TV series Feud: Bette and Joan  -- the FX network show about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? -- is not yet on DVD or on Netflix, and why the episodes have been removed from Amazon Instant Video, it's probably because of Olivia de Havilland. You may have heard about how the now 103-year-old actress, living in Paris, feels she was defamed and misrepresented by the program, although I suspect the biggest problem is that they never sought her input and she, therefore, felt left out. Her lawsuits against the program have certainly helped keep her name in the public eye long after Crawford and Davis went to their graves. In any case, the suits were tossed out by the California Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court, so now she is taking her case to the United States Supreme Court. We'll see. An interesting point is that de Havilland was not even in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but she did co-star with Davis in the follow-up, Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, replacing a "sick" Crawford.

I've only seen the first episode of the series -- and thanks to de Havilland I may not see the rest of it for quite a long while -- but I have to admit that Catherine Zeta-Jones did not remind me in any way, shape or form of Olivia de Havilland. And I can't see de Havilland dissing her sister Joan Fontaine in public, no matter what she thought of her privately. Yet nothing I've heard about what happens in the series actually seems to be "defaming" de Havilland, and the problem with her suit is that she is, after all, a public figure. Still, FX and Ryan Murphy, who produced the series, should have gotten her permission or simply not have depicted de Havilland at all, and I've no doubt they wish they had just left her out of the whole show. People are afraid that this lawsuit could have a chilling effect on cinematic and television portrayals of living people (you can't libel the dead), but filmmakers also have to be responsible and accurate in their depictions. However, one could argue that this is much ado about nothing -- that is, nothing but one aging actress' ego. It should be interesting to see how -- and if -- this case develops. 

THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY

Louis Hayward
THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY (1956).  Director: Noel Langley.

Morey Bernstein (Louis Hayward) becomes fascinated by the practice of hypnotism. First he delves into the life and work of alleged "psychic" Edgar Cayce, then practises his hypnotism on a neighbor, Ruth Simmons (Teresa Wright). During one of their sessions, when Morey regresses Ruth back and farther back in time, he apparently discovers that she had a former life as an Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. Morey and his publisher try to find out what the facts are, and if Bridey even existed, while Ruth gives up more details of the woman's life, death, and after-life under hypnosis.

Hayward with Teresa Wright
The Search for Bridey Murphy was based on a popular non-fiction book of the same name, and the author, of course, was Morey Bernstein. After the book's publication it developed that there were all sorts of holes in Ruth's story (Ruth was actually a woman named Virginia Tighe), and eventually it was discovered that Bridey Murphy was actually the name of a woman who lived across from Virginia when she was a child. Having more or less been proven that the whole reincarnation story was so much b.s. -- Cayce was similarly discredited in later years --  the film proceeds almost like a documentary, and ends with Morey/Hayward admitting that reincarnation has not been proven, certainly not in this case. However, Hayward tells the audience that the most important thing they can take with them is that hypnotism is real and that it can offer genuine help to people in need.

Wright with Kenneth Tobey
So while The Search for Bridey Murphy can't be taken as a true tale of past lives, it is still a surprisingly entertaining picture, and the credit has to go almost entirely to the excellent performances of Louis Hayward and Teresa Wright. The scenes when Ruth tells of what the after-life, a kind of purgatory, is like are interesting if for no other reason that it's about time that someone in a movie asks a "dead" person exactly what things are like on the "other side." There is also an excellent and tense scene when a near-panicked Morey has trouble bringing Ruth out of her trance, afraid she may remain as "Murphy" forever. The two leads have good support from Nancy Gates [World Without End] as Morey's wife; Kenneth Tobey as Ruth's husband; and Richard Anderson as Dr. Deering. Other movies with the theme of reincarnation include I've Lived Before and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.

Verdict: Despite the basic phoniness of the whole premise, this is more absorbing than you might imagine. Two talented leads help a lot. ***. 

RACKET SQUAD

Reed Hadley
RACKET SQUAD (1951 - 1953).

"There are people who can slap you on the back with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. And it could happen to you." -- John Braddock.  

Racket Squad was a very popular half hour TV show from the fifties that exposed bunco operations and lasted three seasons and 98 episodes. Reed Hadley [Sunset Murder Case] played Captain John Braddock, who introduced and narrated the episodes, and often took part in the story lines as well, such as one episode when he's nearly blown up in a mine explosion. Racket Squad was a snappy series that educated the public about schemes that are still going on today (imagine what a modern version of the show could make of Internet rackets). The best episodes focused not just on clever and occasionally diabolical schemes but the characters that got embroiled in them, including the criminals and the often gullible and sometimes greedy victims.

Hillary Brooke in Lady Luck
Among the most memorable episodes: "A Place for Grandma," with Mabel Paige as an elderly woman taken advantage of by the nasty woman who runs a boarding house; "The Case of Two Little Country Girls," which details an amazing scheme to rip off a hotel of thousands of dollars;  "The Christmas Caper," in which a kind man (Lloyd Corrigan) is exploited by people running a crooked charity for children; "The Family Tree," with Hugh Beaumont as a phony genealogist trying to scam Frances Bavier; "Miracle Mud," in which a phony health farm scheme is engineered by an unlikely suspect; "Sting of Fate," in which a couple scams a hotel with a fake ankle injury; "The Longshot," featuring a stupid old gambling woman with a fake Irish Sweepstakes ticket; "The Case of the Expensive Tumble," in which a high school boy is victimized by a gang who stage phony accidents and the resulting insurance fraud; "Lady Luck," with Hillary Brooke [Heatwave] as a woman who just can't stop cheating at cards; and "Pick a Number," with Byron Foulger playing a clearinghouse accountant who is innocently pulled into a dangerous scheme plotted by Edgar Barrier.

Garner and Gleason in His Brother's Keeper
Of the episodes I've seen, the most outstanding are "The Soft Touch," in which con artists, thinking the others are pigeons, try to out-con each other at a hotel, proving -- as Hadley puts it -- that anyone can be taken; and the moving "His Brother's Keeper" in which James Gleason [Spring Reunion] expertly plays an old bum who bonds with a boy (Don Garner) when both are forced into a phony begging racket in this grim tale of the exploitation of the homeless.  

Reed Hadley -- tough but compassionate, firm but fair -- makes the perfect lead for the show. After Racket Squad ended its run the unconventionally handsome actor sort of switched sides and became The Public Defender. 

Verdict: Nifty old crime show is worth a watch. ***.

SE7EN


Freeman and Pitt
SE7EN (aka Seven/1995). Director: David Fincher.

An unknown serial killer is choosing victims based on the Seven Deadly Sins -- the first victim is an obese man who symbolizes gluttony -- and a veteran homicide detective, Somerset (Morgan Freeman),  is teamed with a young and immature partner, Mills (Brad Pitt of Troy), to investigate. Se7en, one of the big "serial killer" films of the 90's, still retains its punch. Gritty and well-acted -- Kevin Spacey [House of Cards], whatever you think of him,  is outstanding in a supporting role -- Se7en also has an effective score by Howard Shore. The characters in this are better developed than in the average slasher film, although Gwyneth Paltrow [Iron Man] has a relatively thankless role as Pitt's wife. She does, however, figure in a gut-wrenching finale. Sinister and obsessive serial killers later became the province of such TV shows as CSI and Criminal Minds. David Fincher also directed the excellent Alien 3, although he apparently disavowed it later on.

Verdict: Fast-moving and suspenseful. ***

"B" MOVIE NIGHTMARE IS COMING!


"B" MOVIE NIGHTMARE IS COMING!

WATCH FOR AN ANNOUNCEMENT SOON!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

LOLA MONTES

Martine Carol and Anton Walbrook in the Bavarian Royal palace
LOLA MONTES (1955). Director: Max Ophuls. This is the remastered and completely restored version as it was first made by Max Ophuls.

"When such a woman spends more than five minutes with a man, that's enough to start rumors."

In her later years, the still attractive dancer and notorious lady Lola Montes (Martine Carol), is exhibited as an attraction in a circus, with the various acts presenting tableaus relating to her scandalous life. Now and then she thinks back to things that happened in her past: her affair with Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg); her early marriage to Lt. James (Ivan Desny of Anastasia), who was her late father's adjutant; and her becoming the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook of Gaslight), a situation which nearly drives the whole country into a civil war before she flees in a coach with a handsome young student (Oskar Werner). Her infamous life and behavior have now literally turned her into a sideshow freak.

Martine Carol and Peter Ustinov
Lola Montes was based on a novel which was a fictionalized version of the life story of the real "Lola Montes," the stage name of the Irish-born dancer and entertainer Eliza Gilbert. Frankly Gilbert's fascinating life should have made a much more interesting picture than Max Ophuls has provided. After its release, the picture was trimmed of about half an hour with the narrative being presented in chronological order. Restoring the movie to its original shape hasn't done it much good, as it never builds up any suspense, introduces characters only to have them disappear a moment later, and has too many of those long and rather boring circus sequences. It doesn't help that in the lead role Martine Carol gives a performance that can only be described as adequate. The other actors make a better impression, especially Walbrook as King Ludwig, and Oskar Werner as the student, who catches Lola's eye but is seen on screen all too briefly.

Martine Carol

Lola Montes is dramatically bankrupt, with one-dimensional characters that never really engage the attention or sympathies of the audience. For much of the movie cinematographer Christian Matras seems to have trouble filling the CinemaScope frame with attractive compositions or even covering the action in a compelling or professional fashion. Faces often seem to be photographed through screens or lattices. For some reason there is s big improvement in the scenes that take place in Bavaria, which are striking. However, most of the settings and the lighting schemes throughout the movie are eye-appealing.

Martine Carol and Oskar Werner
One suspects that the main reason for the circus framing device was that it was cheaper to show Lola "carried off by Cossacks" by using clowns and the like in a theatrical setting than to use scores of men on horseback in a real location. Peter Ustinov has the thankless role of the circus' master of ceremonies. Georges Auric's [Dead of Night] score is occasionally powerful but it can't do enough to save the movie. Lola Montes has its admirers, but despite my admiration for many foreign films, I suspect this would have been much better had it been made in Hollywood. (Speaking of Hollywood, Ophul's best film may well be Letter from an Unknown Woman.) Today Martine Carol is pretty much forgotten (except for this film's enthusiasts) but she amassed fifty credits before dying in her forties and her real life had its own share of scandals.

Verdict: The material was certainly there for a great movie, but this is not the film it should have been. **1/4. 

CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Candace Hilligoss
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). Director: Herk Harvey.

Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is one of three young women whose car goes over a bridge and sinks deep into a river, but she is the only one who survives. Mary is a blunt, direct person whose reaction to the tragedy is to have no reaction at all. Traveling to a new town, she gets a room in a boarding house and a new job as church organist. But everywhere she goes Mary is followed by a gaunt, creepy fellow (played by director Harvey), and on other occasions no one can see or hear her, as if she has stepped out of existence. She becomes obsessed by the idea that she will learn the truth about herself at a huge abandoned dance hall near the water. But she may have preferred that she remained in blissful ignorance.

Stan Levitt and Candace Hilligoss
The low-budget but creatively filmed Carnival of Souls was undoubtedly influenced by the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "The Hitch-hiker," or by its source, Lucille Fletcher's famous radio play. But this variation on a theme has its own pleasures, not the least of which is the location filming, especially in that real abandoned dance hall on the beach. The performances are better than you might expect in a 99 cent item, although Hilligoss -- who clearly felt she was superior to the material -- comes off like a talented amateur who needs some seasoning. In fact the film itself seems in many ways like an admirable but amateur movie that might have amounted to much more (especially given those locations) had a more experienced director been at the helm --most of Harvey's films were documentaries -- but for what it is, Carnival of Souls is not bad.

Dance of the Dead
Some of the other cast members make a positive impression. Sidney Berger is excellent as the slimy John Linden, who lives in the boarding house with Mary and has an obvious and vulgar yen for her. Frances Feist, who plays the landlady and appeared on Broadway in Harvey, gets across her general uneasiness when in the presence of Mary, and there is also some good work from Art Ellison as a sympathetic minister and Stan Levitt as a doctor who tries to help Mary deal with her problems. Carnival of Souls has silly aspects -- with the creepy man turning up all over the place for an almost comical effect, and its quasi-religious aspects aren't well-handled --  but it is also undeniably eerie and compelling. The sequences when no one can see or hear Mary and she feels as if she has simply ceased to exist are disturbing, as is the not unexpected denouement. Maurice Prather's cinematography is a decided asset; most of his work was on documentaries. Sidney Berger was an acting coach; his only other film credit was a bit in the 1999 remake.

Verdict: Highly interesting low-budget spook fest. ***. 

MARY MARTIN, BROADWAY LEGEND

MARY MARTIN, BROADWAY LEGEND. Ronald L. Davis. University of Oklahoma Press; 2008.

Biographer Davis was hampered by his obvious contempt for his subject when he wrote a book on Van Johnson, but it could be argued that he almost goes to the opposite extreme with this book on the much-admired Broadway star of South Pacific, Peter Pan, and The Sound of Music, among others. A fan-boy for Martin, Davis got to know her pretty well, and seems loathe to say anything remotely negative about her. So while this is hardly an in-depth look at the woman's life and career, it is still a pleasant and readable examination of her life on stage, and to a lesser extent, in the movies and on television. Martin was married to manager Richard Halliday for many years, and aside from a daughter (son Larry Hagman was from Martin's short-lived first marriage) theirs seems to have been a mostly sexless union. There are indications that, despite her enormous talent, Martin wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and as well simply didn't want to deal with her husband's frequent drunkenness, during which he could be vicious and impossible Generally, this is still a solid bio. A later book on Martin was Some Enchanted Evenings.

Verdict: Decent bio of Martin for appreciative fans. ***. 

THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE

Robert Milli, Candace Hilligoss, and Hugh Franklin 
THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (1964). Produced, written and directed by Del Tenney.

In New England in 1892, old Mr. Sinclair passes away and his family learns that his will has strange provisions, mostly having to do with his terror of being buried alive. If these provisions aren't carried out, there will be dire consequences, with family members dying according to their greatest fears. Oddly, the first person to die is the maid, Letty (Linda Donovan), who is beheaded. You would think knowing that someone is running around cutting the heads off of the staff would be enough to make everyone move out of the old house, but no, these people almost act as if it's, like, no big problem. Then there are more murders, with one person being dragged behind a horse, another burned to death in her bedroom, and so on ... Is old Mr. Sinclair really dead or not?

Helen Waren and Roy Scheider
The Curse of the Living Corpse has an interesting cast, many of whom came from the theater. Robert Milli, who gets right into the 19th century tone of the piece as vain Bruce Sinclair, worked with Richard Burton in Hamlet around the same time.  Roy Scheider [Sorcerer] is acceptable as drunken Philip Sinclair, and later gained fame when he starred in Jaws, although one wouldn't have imagined he was necessarily destined for great things. Margot Hartman, who plays Philip's wife, Vivian, and is quite good, was married to the writer and director of the film, Del Tenney. One of the best performances in the film is given by Helen Waren, who plays the widow Abigail in very convincing fashion. Hugh Franklin is notable as family lawyer Benson, as is Jane Bruce as the cook and housekeeper. George Cotton makes an amusing Constable Winters, and Candace Hilligoss pops in from her more famous feature, Carnival of Souls, to make a modest contribution in a supporting role.

Roy Scheider in a dramatic moment
The Curse of the Living Corpse doesn't suffer from any great logic, but it it is enthusiastically presented and Tenney directs some of the sequences with a small degree of flair. The picture has atmosphere as well, and with all its scenes of a cloaked figure sneaking about reminds one of silent flicks like The Cat and the Canary or later films such as The Bat.  One suspects that no one took the film very seriously, but it manages to be modestly entertaining in spite of it. This was released on a double-bill with Tenney's rock horror "classic," The Horror of Party Beach.

Verdict: Watch out for that head on a platter! **1/2. 

TIGHTROPE

Mike Connors
TIGHTROPE (1959). Half-hour television crime drama. One season. 37 episodes.

In this taut and memorable crime series, Mike Connors [Day the World Ended] stars as a man known only as Nick, an undercover police officer who can have few friends and only furtive romances as he goes from city to city establishing phony identities so he can infiltrate the mob in one dangerous assignment after another. As part of his cover, Nick often has to treat innocent people pretty badly, but I imagine he figures the ends justify the means. These episodes were very tightly-plotted and fast-paced and always put Nick into intriguing and suspenseful situations.

Gangsters Daughter with Leslie Parrish
Among the more memorable episodes: "Cracking Point" features Richard Jaeckel [The Dark] as a man blackmailed into robbing a bank, with Simon Oakland as guest-star; "Two Private Eyes" features two sleazy gumshoes who get the business when they look for a missing wife; "Cold Ice" is a mini-suspense masterpiece about the cutting of a perfect stolen diamond; "The Model and the Mobster" has Nick taking on a monstrous hoodlum very well-played by Bruce Gordon; Mike Mazurki scores in " "Long Odds," wherein Nick tries to find out which mob boss ordered a hit on a cop; Margaret Field and Jimmy Lydon guest-star in "Brave Pigeon," in which a hit is put on an innocent man who is able to identify a certain criminal; "The Gangster's Daughter" presents the cultured daughter (Leslie Parrish of The Money Jungle) of a wealthy mobster (Barton MacLane) with an overly ambitious nephew; "Bullets and Ballet" has Nick investigating why a top hood has come to town, with the excellent Doris Singleton (Carolyn Appleby on I Love Lucy) as a guest-star. Arguably the best episode of the series is "Man in the Middle" with Nick coming between a newly-released mob boss (Marc Lawrence) who's in deadly conflict with a younger rival (Gerald Mohr). Mike Connors went on to greater success with his hit P.I. show Mannix, which lasted several seasons.

Verdict: This show rarely dips below a "B+" level in quality and there are a lot of "A" episodes as well. ***. 

SPECIES

The alien goes after a pitiful victim
SPECIES (1995). Director: Roger Donaldson.

It appears that an intelligent alien species has been found and has been combined with human DNA, resulting in a hybrid that looks like a sweet young lady but is actually a very dangerous animal. Apparently scientists never realized that they were sent the alien DNA as part of the vanguard of an invasion force. The scientists, who have kept the "girl" -- Sil -- imprisoned in a sterile room-like cage for several years, decide to kill her, but she manages to break out. She metamorphoses into a beautiful adult female, then repeatedly tries to mate with -- but usually kills -- adult males and others who get in her way, such as one poor bar patron who has her spine pulled out in a ladies room. A team headed by Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) and which includes black ops agent Preston Lennox (Michael Madsen of Kill Me Again), Dr. Parker (Marg Helgenberger of Mr. Brooks), and Dr. Arden (Alfred Molina), go out to try and find and trap Sil (Natasha Henstridge). In her mutated form Sil appears to be some kind of biomechanical creature a la Alien, which is not surprising as she was also designed by H. R. Giger. Species is fast-paced and entertaining, but it is also illogical and kind of schlocky, with few humanistic touches and acting that is okay but nothing more. One may be surprised by the  presence of Kingsley [A Sound of Thunder] and Molina [The Lodger] in this picture, but they can do little to improve it. Followed by several sequels. Roger Donaldson also directed The Bounty.

Verdict: Fun enough in a limited way, but nothing really special. **1/2.  

COPYCAT

Siigourney Weaver
COPYCAT (1995). Director: Jon Amiel.

Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver), a psychologist who specializes in serial killers, is attacked in a restroom after one of her lectures and nearly killed. Her assailant is Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick, Jr.), who is arrested, but Helen turns into an agoraphobic who is unable to leave her home. In spite of this she assists two detectives -- Monahan (Holly Hunter) and Reuben (Dermot Mulroney) -- in tracking down a new serial killer, Peter (William McNamara), who is copying the crimes of famous monsters such as Son of Son, Jeffrey Dahmer and others. But will Helen survive when the killer comes after her with a plan to fatally reenact her near-death experience in the college restroom?

William McNamara
Copycat could be picked apart for plot holes and illogical moments but it improves as it goes along, building genuine suspense, despite the fact that the killer is revealed early on. Weaver [Prayers for Bobby] is quite good, and although Holly Hunter [The Burning] would hardly be my first choice for playing a homicide detective, she generally acquits herself nicely as well. Mulroney is perfect as her cocky and ill-fated partner; Connick is positively terrific as the slimy and gross Cullum; and McNamara [Dario Argento's Opera] certainly makes a positive impression as the diabolical and sadistic Peter. One of the best sequences in the film has to do with the unexpected death of a major character, and there is an admirable attempt to flesh out these characters as well. This was one of the big 90's films about serial killers that led to such programs as Criminal Minds. However, those programs look into the lives of the victims a lot more than this picture does.

Verdict: Flashy and slick and quite entertaining. ***. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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PULP HEROES IN THE MOVIES

Victor Jory as the Shadow
PULP HEROES IN THE MOVIES.

Pulp magazines were called such because of the cheap paper they were printed on, and these digest-sized publications featured such heroes as The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, The Black Bat, and several others in snappy, fast-paced, and often violent novels. Many of these characters influenced the comic book super-heroes who came later, such as Batman and Superman (for whom Doc Savage was a major influence). The Shadow and the Spider were take-no-prisoners vigilantes, with the Spider, in particular, always leaving behind a very high body count of bad guys with no benefit of trial or council -- still, they were generally trying to kill him at the time, and he ultimately saved many more lives than he took.

The three pulp heroes covered this week on Great Old Movies -- Shadow, Spider, and Doc Savage -- have endured far beyond the life of the pulp magazines whose adventures they graced. Over the decades since the thirties there have been radio shows, TV shows, cliffhanger serials, comic books, and theatrical movies devoted to the characters, and the original pulp novels have all been reprinted in paperback -- from such major publishers as Bantam Books and various smaller presses -- innumerable times. You can still thrill to the adventures of Doc Savage and his band of scientific and heroic assistants; the Spider with his blazing guns and truly fiendish antagonists; and the Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and does his best to stamp it out. Generally the film versions of these stories can't compare to the original books, but some manage to come close.

NOTE: Shadow movies that have already been reviewed on this blog include The Shadow Strikes and The Invisible Avenger

INTERNATIONAL CRIME

Rod La Rocque, supposedly playing the Shadow
INTERNATIONAL CRIME (1938). Director: Charles Lamont.

This is the second of two films, following The Shadow Strikes, in which Rod La Rocque plays the pulp character, Lamont Cranston, aka the Shadow. Or rather he plays a pallid imitation of the Shadow. In this Lamont Cranston is not a costumed adventurer with the power to cloud men's minds, but merely a dull, rather obnoxious criminologist who writes a column and broadcasts a radio show in which he spends much of his time making fun of the alleged ineptitude of Commissioner Weston (Thomas E. Jackson). Instead of Margo Lane, we get the equally obnoxious Phoebe Lane (Astrid Allwyn of Love Takes Flight), a dilettante who got a job as a reporter only because her uncle owns the paper. The scenes of Lamont and Phoebe dickering are meant to be cute, but are merely tedious beyond measure.

Astrid Allwyn and Rod La Roicque
The plot of the film, such as it is, has to do with Phoebe hearing of a robbery that's going to take place at a theater. This turns out to be a subterfuge so that a wealthy man can be murdered by a bomb that explodes when he opens his safe. A notorious safe cracker named "Honest" John (William Pawley) is a suspect, along with the dead man's brother, Roger (John St. Polis of On the Spot). Then there are two shady characters named Flotow (Wilhelm von Brincken) and Starkhov (Tenen Holtz), whom Cranston and Phoebe encounter in a nightclub. By the time the film is over, the average viewer won't give a damn about whoever murdered Roger's poor brother. There are two minor laughs at the end of the film, and absolutely no suspense or excitement. Released by Grand National Pictures.

Verdict: One can only imagine what the millions of Shadow fans thought about this mess. *.  

THE SPIDER'S WEB

Iris Meredith, Warren Hull, Richard Fiske and Kenne Duncan
THE SPIDER'S WEB (15 chapter Columbia serial/1938). Directors: James W. Horne; Ray Taylor.

The Spider was a pulp character, a take-no-prisoners vigilante, who appeared in a great many action-packed, gruesome, and hard-hitting novels in the thirties. The Spider was actually criminologist Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull of The Green Hornet Strikes Again), and he was aided in his work by his fiancee Nita (Iris Meredith of Caught in the Act), and his associates Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), Jackson (Richard Fiske), and even his butler Jenkins (Donald Douglas). Wentworth is good friends with Police Commissioner Kirk (Forbes Murray), who can't help but notice that Wentworth and the Spider are often in the same place at the wrong time. His suspicions of Wentworth often led to some tense sequences in the novels, and this situation develops at least once in this serial.

The Octopus contacts his men
The villain of the piece is a hooded man named the Octopus, who has a group of helpmates who all wear black robes. He is out to attack all transportation in his city and across the United States, not just for money but for power, and he doesn't care who dies when trains derail and terminals collapse. At one point he brings out a ray gun which can be used to bring down planes. Wentworth is planning to retire as the Spider and marry Nita when the Octopus begins his wave of terror, and love and marriage must wait until the threat can be eliminated. The Spider dons his mask and cape with the spider insignia and we're off ...


Lester Dorr and Warren Hull as "Blinky"
The Spider and his associates nearly die on several occasions. A cable lowering Wentworth and Nita from a skyscraper nearly plunges them to their deaths; a room in which several of the cast members are chained to a wall floods with water even as the Spider must contend with a deadly gas in another room; our hero is nearly bashed by a falling arc light and almost cut in two by an electric gate; and so on. Handsome Warren Hull is perfect as the less intense movie version of the Spider, and the other cast members are all quite adept. Hull is especially good when he impersonates "Blinky McQuade," an underworld character, so that he can mingle with other criminals. An amusing moment occurs when Hull has trouble getting his arm into the sleeve of his coat and ad libs "Can't see very well."  Byron Foulger plays a nice guy who is killed off rather early, and Lester Dorr [Hot Rod Gang] and Marc Lawrence are effective as members of the Octopus' gang.

Iris Meredith and Warren Hull
Columbia's The Spider's Web, while perhaps not quite on the level of the best of the Republic serials, is an exciting and worthwhile serial even if you aren't familiar with the pulp novels. One wishes that the climax, the final encounter between the Spider and the Octopus, which the viewer has sat through 15 chapters waiting for, wasn't so abrupt, and that the annoying musical score was much darker, given the subject matter. Otherwise, this is snappy stuff for devotees. Followed by The Spider Returns.

Verdict: Thrilling and action-packed. ***. 

THE SHADOW (1940)

Victor Jory as the Shadow
THE SHADOW (15 chapter Columbia serial/1940). Director: James W. Horne.

Criminologist Lamont Cranston (Victor Jory), who also masquerades as the underworld scourge the Shadow -- as well as Lin Chang, who owns a shop and is acquainted with many criminals -- is in a war with a mysterious figure known as the Black Tiger. Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue), does not suspect Cranston of being the Shadow, but he's convinced that the Shadow and the Tiger are one and the same and is constantly trying to capture the former. The Black Tiger, who can make himself invisible, is one of a group of industrialists who are being targeted by the fiendish villain, who doesn't care how many lives are destroyed to achieve his goals.

Victor Jory as Lamont Cranston
Unlike in the terrible Rod La Rocque Shadow features, the pulp character returns to his roots in this excellent and exciting serial. Although the Shadow does not hypnotize people or display mystical powers as he does in the novels, he does dress up in a cloak and has two helpmates: his driver Harry Vincent (Roger Moore, not the British actor) and his secretary and assistant Margo Lane (Veda Ann Borg of Jungle Raiders). Victor Jory [The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady] adds some solidity to the serial with his strong portrayal of Cranston; Moore and Borg are professional and adept. Some of the more notable supporting performances include Jack Ingram [Terry and the Pirates] as the Tiger's chief lieutenant, Flint; Charles K. French as the nervous Joseph Rand; Constantine Romanoff as Henchman Harvey; and the ever-reliable Philip Ahn as Wu Yung, another of Cranston's helpful associates.

Victor Jory as Lin Chang
The Black Tiger (voiced somewhat over-dramatically by Richard Cramer) uses such weapons as a cigarette lighter with a miniature gun inside it, and a much bigger gun that fires rays that bring down airplanes. As for cliffhangers, there is a box-like trap that nearly shakes itself to pieces, almost dooming the Shadow; a descending freight elevator that nearly squashes Margo (and could not have been comfortable for actress Borg); and a laser-like beam that almost burns the hell out of Margo and Vincent. Interestingly, the Shadow does not manage to escape a number of death traps, but is fortunate to survive them anyway. Lee Zahler's musical score adds to the thrills.

Verdict: Another of Columbia's superior serials. ***1/2.

THE SPIDER RETURNS

The Spider in action! 
THE SPIDER RETURNS (15 chapter Columbia serial/1941). Director: James W. Horne.

When The Spider's Web proved successful for Columbia, a sequel came out with most of the original players reprising their roles. In The Spider Returns, Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull) has pushed aside his plans to retire and settle down with girlfriend Nita (how played by Mary Ainslee), so he can tackle a group of saboteurs out to destroy America's defense structure. The head of this group is a masked, unknown figure known only as the Gargoyle, but it later develops that he is one of the men whose industries are being targeted by the villain. 

The Gargoyle plots 
The Gargoyle has a number of schemes in play, the first of which is to secure some important government plans. Then the villain spends a lot of time sending out men to destroy his enemies, especially the Spider, Wentworth, and Commissioner Kirk (Joseph W. Girard). It is interesting that Kirk objects to the violent vigilantism of the Spider, but doesn't seem to mind that Wentworth, his alter ego (although Kirk is unaware of this), is always playing undercover cop despite his not being a member of the force. At one point in Kirk's office, Wentworth immediately countermands Kirk's orders to two police officers, who obey the former without hesitation! I mean, just who is the commissioner anyway? Of course the fact that Kirk seems to be bordering on senility at times doesn't help.  

O'Brien, Hull and Duncan
Warren Hull is energetic as Wentworth and the Spider, although -- as in the previous serial -- he is way too jaunty at times. In one chapter Wentworth mis-identities the wrong suspect as the Gargoyle, which ultimately results in the innocent man's death, but Wentworth doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed or regretful but as flippant as ever. Nita emerges as her own woman in the serial, not afraid to mock her lover if she thinks he's making a fool of himself, but otherwise being strong and supportive. Associates Jackson (Dave O'Brien), Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), and Jenkins (Stephen Chase) aren't given that much to do, especially Ram, who seems to sit around looking bored most of the time when he isn't driving the car. 

Anthony Warde as "Trigger"
One very notable supporting player is Anthony Warde, who gives a very adept and flavorful performance as "Trigger.," the head man in the Gargoyle's gang. Warde played a similar role in King of the Forest Rangers and other serials and features. Warde has especially good scenes interacting with Wentworth when the later is in disguise as low-life "Blinky" McQuade -- on two occasions he tries to kill Blinky and winds up begging for his life. As for Blinky, although Hull does a great job portraying him, he is seen so often throughout the serial that he begins to wear out his welcome. 70-year-old Joseph W. Girard also gives a vigorous performance as the commissioner, although -- not to be ageist -- you can't overcome the feeling that he goes off to take a nap as soon as he steps out of camera range. 

Girard, Ainslee, and Hull
There are some zesty fisticuffs and terrific cliffhangers in The Spider Returns. The floor of a room suddenly hangs down at an angle to reveal a fiery pit below. Wentworth is tied up and left on top of the tracks as an express train approaches. Testing a new experimental plane, Wentworth crashes, and surprisingly, doesn't manage to bail out but survives nevertheless. The best death trap has Wentworth, Nita and her Uncle (Charles Miller of Phantom of Chinatown) trapped in a room with fire on each end and spiked walls closing in from either side as the Gargoyle cackles. In the final chapters the serial builds up some considerable suspense over the true identity of the Gargoyle and whether or not his various dastardly plans will be stopped in time. 

Verdict: Despite a variety of imperfections, this is one of Columbia's very best and most thrilling serials. ***1/2. 

THE SHADOW RETURNS

Cyril Delevanti as the butler Adams threatened by the Shadow's shadow
THE SHADOW RETURNS (1946). Director: Phil Rosen.

By 1946 pulp stories had been pretty much replaced by comic book heroes, but somebody at Monogram studios apparently figured there was still life in the character, and hired Kane Richmond of Spy Smasher serial fame to play Lamont Cranston in what would be the first of three features. While nowhere nears as dynamic a figure as the Shadow of the serial with Victor Jory, at least the Monogram series actually put Cranston in a costume and made him more than an amateur criminologist. By and large The Shadow Returns, while no world-beater, was an improvement over the two Shadow films with a completely miscast Rod La Rocque. 

Kane Richmond as the Shadow
The Shadow Returns has our hero, along with Margo Lane (Barbara Read of Three Smart Girls) and comedy relief driver Shrevvie (Tom Dugan), having an adventure that mostly takes place in the mansion of gem dealer Michael Hasdon (Frank Reicher of Son of Kong), who apparently commits suicide. There are other murders as Cranston and his pals investigate from one end, while dyspeptic Inspector Cardona (Joseph Crehan) and Commissioner Weston (Pierre Watkin) -- who in this is Cranston's uncle -- investigate from another, and it's no secret who will come up with the solution first. There's a formula for plastic that's worth millions, and a series of men falling off of balconies to their deaths. There are a number of colorless suspects, but there isn't much fun in finding out who the killer is. 

Kane Richmond and Barbara Read
Like the La Rocque movies, there's way too much supposedly comical banter and the whole approach is lightweight and mediocre. Instead of a cape, the Shadow wears a long coat with a belt. Richmond is okay as the flippant hero but he lacks distinction, which is also true of the comparatively plain Barbara Read as Margo. The inevitable Pierre Watkin is as mediocre as ever as the commissioner. Followed by Behind the Mask

Verdict: The Shadow Lite. **.