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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/ MR. ARKADIN

Orson Welles and Robert Arden 
MR. ARKADIN (aka Confidential Report/1955). Written and directed by Orson Welles.

"You imagine it's pleasant to be ashamed of something you can't remember?" -- Arkadin.

A dying murdered man named Bracco (Gregoire Aslan) tells Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his girlfriend, Mily (Patricia Medina), that he can make a lot of money by looking into a mysterious millionaire named Gregory Arkadin (Orson Welles). As Mily tries to ingratiate herself into Arkadin's social set so that she can get to know him, Guy makes the acquaintance of -- and falls for -- Arkadin's daughter, Raina (Paola Mori). Just when he's expecting Arkadin -- " a cipher of an age of dissolution and crises," as one man puts it -- to buy him off to keep him away from his daughter, Guy is surprised to discover that Arkadin wants to pay him to investigate his past origins, which he says have been lost due to amnesia. But as Guy runs around Europe interviewing people who once knew or were somehow involved with Arkadin, these same individuals start dying ... Mr Arkadin was never properly finished by Welles, so it's impossible to tell what might have emerged had he not been locked out of the editing room. What finally came out is not a great movie, but it is an interesting one featuring some excellent performances. As the Machiavellian Arkadin, Welles is effective and sinister, although he doesn't quite exude a strong sense of menace, this despite the fact that the photography (Jean Bourgoin) often makes him appear to be a giant. Robert Arden's work in the film was criticized at the time of the film's release, but I think he gives a very good and convincing performance as an essentially decent man who is horrified by what is happening around him and fears for his own life as well. Paola Mori, who married Welles the same year the film came out, is fine, although her voice was entirely dubbed by British actress Billie Whitelaw. Small roles are essayed by everyone from Peter van Eyck to Mischa Auer (who runs a flea circus and is dubbed by Welles), but the stand-out character roles are played by Katina Paxinou [Uncle Silas] as Arkadin's shady ex-lover, Sophie; Suzanne Flon as the equally shady Baroness Nagel; Michael Redgrave [The Browning Version] in a bizarre, nearly unrecognizable turn as shop owner Burgomil Trebitsch; and especially Akim Tamiroff [After the Fox] as Jakob Zouk, who has been marked for death but only wants Guy to bring him a goose liver dinner as if it were his last meal. The film has more than its share of humor, both in the character of Zouk, and an odd scene between Arkadin and Mily on the former's boat as the latter gets increasingly drunk, the see-sawing photography mirroring both the motion of the water as well as the unsteadiness of her inebriation. The under-rated Patricia Medina also scores (in an under-written role) as the ill-fated Mily. There is a lot of obvious over-dubbing in the film because Welles rewrote the script even after some scenes had been shot, and one scene when Guy and Raina are talking about her father is abruptly cut off in mid-sentence.

Verdict: Unconventionally handsome Arden makes a compelling lead and there are some other excellent performances in this unusual if imperfect film of intrigue. ***. 

LULLABY OF BROADWAY

Doris Day
LULLABY OF BROADWAY (1951). Director: David Butler.

Melinda Howard (Doris Day) is a struggling show girl waiting for a big break who has just come back from Europe to see her mother, a big Broadway star named Jessica Howard (Gladys George) who lives in a mansion. Apparently Melinda has been away for quite some time, because she is completely unaware that her mother, far from being a Broadway star, has descended into alcoholism and near-oblivion and is now croaking out songs in a not-so-posh supper club. The mansion is now owned by theatrical producer Adolph Hubbell (S. Z. Sakall), who lives there with his formidable wife, Anna (Florence Bates). Taking pity on Melinda, dance man turned butler Lefty (Billy De Wolfe of Dear Wife), importunes Hubbell to let her stay in her "mother's" mansion, and to try to get her a job in a new Broadway show. However, Hubbell's relationship to the much younger woman is misinterpreted, especially by Mrs. Hubbell ... Lullaby of Broadway is one of Day's best vehicles, an amusing and charming trifle with some classic old tunes and excellent performances all around. Sakall, who can be cloying in some movies, is well-cast and wonderful as Hubbell, and Bates is his equal as his jealous and over-sized wife. De Wolfe also gives a winning performance, although I thought much less of Anne Triola as his girlfriend and the maid; she had very few credits. As the male lead, Gene Nelson [So This is Paris] is perfect, dances quite well, and does an astounding jump from the floor onto the top of a piano! Gladys George [Flamingo Road] is also memorable as the dissipated if plucky Jessica.

Verdict: Day struts her stuff in an entertaining musical. Watch for the sequence with Day's floating head! ***. 

KANOPY VIDEO

The Watch List on Kanopy
KANOPY VIDEO.

There's a new free streaming video service available, and all you need is a library card (U.S.) and to belong to a library that is linked to the Kanopy service. Kanopy has literally thousands of films available for watching on line, and it includes everything from gory grind house zombie movies to classy and well-known foreign films by famous international directors and everything in between. Movies I've recently watched on Kanopy include Mario Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moonthe Israeli LGBT short Summer Vacation, a documentary on Debra Paget and Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford, among others. The service is free, but you are only allowed to look at ten movies per month

The next time you go to your library's web site, or go there in person, you can either look for or ask about the link to Kanopy. When you search for a movie, you may also see "e-video" and an arrow, which generally indicates that you can watch the movie online.

So check and see if your library offers Kanopy. If it does, all you need do is enter your card number and start an account with your email and password. And then you can watch Purple Noon, The 400 Blows, Ashes and Diamonds and The Bicycle Thieves, not to mention Italian giallo films, weird exploitation movies, Hollywood star documentaries, and much, more more. 

ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP

Linda Stirling and George J. Lewis
ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP (12 chapter Republic serial/1944). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet; Wallace Grissell.

Newspaper editor and publisher Randy Meredith (Jay Kirby of Rockin' in the Rockies) not only rails against the lawlessness of 1889 Idaho in his paper, but dresses up as the Black Whip to fight the bad guys. When he is murdered, his sister Barbara (Linda Stirling) takes over the role, and she proves to be mighty handy with a whip. The evil banker Hammond (Francis McDonald) is secretly leading a group of criminals who desperately want to prevent Idaho from becoming a state, which would interfere with their plans to enrich their own coffers. Barbara is helped by a secret government agent, Vic Gordon (George J. Lewis), who disguises himself as the Black Whip at one point to fool the crumb bums when they have almost figured out Barbara's secret identity. The one thing that's missing in this exciting serial is the character of Zorro, whose name is used for marquee value but who does not appear, although one could argue that the Black Whip is a variation on that character (along with many others, of course). Cliffhanger highlights include a wagon rolling over the edge of a cliff; Barbara being locked in a bank vault with a bomb that's about to go off; the bad guys ordering Barbara to "take off that mask!" or else they'll shoot Gordon; and especially the sequence when a whole mountain seems to come down on the cabin they're in, as well as a terrific bit when Barbara and Gordon are trapped in a mine with burning oil flooding towards them. Stirling was never a great actress, but she's more than competent for this type of material; Lewis has a certain degree of charm and ability; McDonald [Burn 'Em Up Barnes] makes an effective and oily two-faced villain, and Hal Taliaferro (who looks a bit and sounds a lot like Ben Johnson) is also good as his bad right hand, Baxter. Lucien Littlefield [Reducing] makes his mark as "Ten Point," the nervous little guy who works in the newspaper office. John Hamilton is one of the townspeople dedicated to ridding the town of the criminal element; Marshall Reed and Ken Terrell also have smaller roles. Zorro's Black Whip has a great climax with the gang attacking the town in an attempt to alter the election results, and loathsome Hammond is given a satisfying death scene. Zorro's Black Whip may not be a top-notch Republic serial -- and is quite short as serials go -- but it is exciting and entertaining. George J. Lewis played a villain in Federal Operator 99, and Taliaferro was his henchman. Stirling appeared in The Purple Monster Strikes and many other serials.

Verdict: This gal wields a mean whip! ***. 

CAVALCADE OF STARS

Original Honeymooners: Jackie Gleason and Pert Kelton
CAVALCADE OF STARS (1949 - 1952). Featuring "The Honeymooners."

The great Jackie Gleason was the primary star of the classic variety series, Cavalcade of Stars, which ran for four years. He replaced Jerry Lester as the host of the show in 1950. The greatest contribution of this classic series was "The Honeymooners," which began as an approximately six minute sketch with Gleason as dyspeptic bus driver Ralph Kramden and Pert Kelton [Meet the Boyfriend] as his long-suffering wife, Alice. Art Carney showed up in the first sketch as a cop, but he appeared as Ed Norton for the first time in the sketch entitled "The New TV Set." Trixie was played for the first time by none other than Elaine Stritch, but she was never to repeat the role, being replaced by Joyce Randolph in "The Ring" sketch (meaning Randolph actually appeared in The Honeymooners before Audrey Meadows did). Meadows first appeared in "The New Bowling Ball," which may be the first time Ralph says "Pow. Zoom. Right on the kisser!" (Ralph's earliest catch-phrase was "Don't steam me, Alice, I'm steamed!") Apparently the blacklist, which primarily affected Pert Kelton's husband, Ralph Bell (who later appeared in Zelig) forced her out of the series when it metamorphosed into The Jackie Gleason Show, and she was replaced by Meadows, who was a more than creditable Alice but who was a less realistic partner for Ralph/Gleason. These early Gleason/Kelton sketches were certainly well-acted and funny, but they also had an undertone of pathos to them  that were arguably missing from later episodes. Ralph's mantra "baby, you're the greatest!" replaced scenes of genuine love and affection between him and Alice. As good as Meadows and Sheila MacRae were playing Alice Kramden, for my money Kelton made the best Alice, and her performances have all been preserved on DVDs of the "Lost Honeymooners" episodes.

Verdict: Pert Kelton as Alice is simply terrific. ***. 

MISBEHAVING HUSBANDS

Ralph Byrd and Harry Langdon
MISBEHAVING HUSBANDS (1940). Director: William Beaudine.

Department store owner Henry Butler (Harry Langdon) has forgotten that it is the 20th anniversary of his marriage to Effie (Betty Blythe). Nevertheless she invites guests to celebrate and waits for him to get home, but a misadventure with a mannequin -- which is mistaken for a real woman by police -- means he gets home very late with a woman's shoe in his pocket. Encouraged by recent divorcee Grace (Esther Muir), Effie hires a sleazy lawyer, Gilbert Wayne (Gayne Whitman), who goes so far as to have his gal pal, Nan (Florence Wright), pretend to be Henry's inamorata so he can get a hefty percentage of the divorce settlement. Meanwhile Henry's niece, Jane (Luana Walters of Drums of Fu Manchu), and Bob Grant (Ralph Byrd of S.O.S. Coast Guard) are instructed to act as chaperons as the divorce proceeds since neither Henry nor Effie will move out of their home; the younger couple try to bring the older pair together even as they fall in love themselves. Misbehaving Husbands is not as provocative nor as funny as the title might suggest, but this cheap PRC production has some spirited players, even if Langdon was far past the days of his successful silent pictures; Betty Blythe [Freckles Comes Home] is terrific as Effie. Some amusing moments but very minor indeed. Billy Mitchell nearly steals the picture as the butler, Memphis.

Verdict: Anything with Byrd in it is always worth a look. **. 

WALLY'S WORLD

WALLY'S WORLD: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World's Second-Best Comic Book Artist. Steve Starger and J. David Spurlock. Vanguard; 2006.

This book examines the life, death, and career of Wally Wood, who was considered one of the best pencillers, and especially, inkers, in the comic book business, contributing to the classic E.C. horror line and doing exemplary work for Marvel's Daredevil (creating the sleek red costume in the sixties that was later worn by Ben Affleck in the film version) and other series; he also wrote, drew and edited T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for Tower comics and did much other illustrative work. Wood had a problematic relationship with his father, as well as with his wives, with his alcoholism and other issues especially creating tension in the latter case. Wally's World is full of testimonials from people who greatly admired his work, as well as co-workers and other artists, looks at his influence on both comics and films, and offers illustrations of some of his most interesting and effective drawings in various genres. Beset by demons and serious health problems that affected his work, as well as bitter at certain aspects of the comic book industry, Wood took his own life at age 54.

Verdict: Interesting look at the life and work of a talented illustrator. ***. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

THE FUNNIES: MOVIE ADAPTATIONS OF FAMOUS COMIC STRIPS

Prince Valiant by Hal Foster
THE FUNNIES: MOVIE ADAPTATIONS OF FAMOUS COMIC STRIPS

This week Great Old Movies looks at films and serials that were based on famous newspaper comic strips (as opposed to characters who first appeared in comic books, such as Superman). These characters -- Prince Valiant, The Phantom, Dick Tracy, Terry Lee (of Terry and the Pirates) and Smilin' Jack -- may all have wound up in comic books later on, but they first appeared in daily and/or Sunday newspaper comic strips. To my knowledge, Prince Valiant, the Phantom and perhaps Dick Tracy are still being published today in certain newspapers.

Anyway, this week we examine two Dick Tracy serials; the cliffhanger adventures of Terry and the Pirates and Smilin' Jack Martin; Robert Wagner in the stunningly-produced Prince Valiant with James Mason as the bad guy; and the equally well-produced The Phantom of 1996 with Billy Zane in the title role. 

DICK TRACY SERIAL (1937)

Fred Hamilton, Ralph Byrd and Kay Hughes
DICK TRACY (15 chapter Republic serial/1937). Directors: Alan James; Ray Taylor.

The famous cartoon strip character first appeared on the big screen in this Republic serial starring Ralph Byrd, who would be forever after identified with the character (although at least two other actors also played the role). In this cliffhanger Tracy matches wits with an unknown club-footed figure known alternately as the Lame One or The Spider, since he heads a so-called "Spider Ring" of criminals. With the help of the Lame One's twisted scientist ally Moloch (John Picorri), the Lame One operates on Tracy's brother, Gordon (Richard Beach), and turns him evil, as well as changing his features (he is then played by Carleton Young of Double Deal) so that even his own brother doesn't recognize him. Gordon and his associates fly about in a wide, stylish aircraft known as the Wing, and each week come up with another sinister scheme that Tracy manages to smash after nearly being killed. Tracy is a Federal agent in this and his main assistants are handsome Steve Lockwood (Fred Hamilton) and secretary Gwen Andrews (Kay Hughes of Radio Patrol), who is much more than a secretary and is a scientist who provides her boss with important information. We also have Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) and Junior (Lee Van Atta of Undersea Kingdom), who are meant to be comic relief but are more often merely tiresome. Byron Foulger makes an impression as a brave if terrified guy who goes up against the Spider to his regret. The Spider uses a ring to burn an insignia into the forehead of his victims, an idea also used by the famous pulp magazine character, also known as the Spider. Highlights of the serial include the Bay Bridge nearly being destroyed by sonic waves in chapter one; Dick's small boat nearly crushed between two huge ships in chapter three; Dick dropping from the bottom of one plane to land neatly into another far below in chapter four; and Dick being pulled underwater by a submarine because a rope has been tied around his ankle. By the time we learn the true identity of the Lame One, you'll probably have forgotten who the guy is! Dick Tracy is a long but entertaining serial, but the best was yet to come. It was followed by Dick Tracy Returns, Dick Tracy's G-Men, and the best of all, Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc.

Verdict: Nice intro to Dick Tracy on the big screen. **3/4.

DICK TRACY RETURNS

Charles Middleton as Pa Stark 
DICK TRACY RETURNS (15 chapter Republic serial/1938). Directors: John English; William Witney.

This follow-up to Dick Tracy has our hero (Ralph Byrd), an FBI agent instead of a cop, battling the vile villainy of Pa Stark (Charles Middleton of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) and his five evil sons, each of whom has a criminal specialty. Over the course of fifteen chapters, Stark and his gang pull off a bank job (in which new agent, Ron Merton -- played by David Sharpe -- is murdered on his first case); try to grab an important lens from an observatory; steal special government planes; get their hands on a dangerous torpedo boat; and work with a foreign agent named Boris Zarkov (Walter Mills). Tracy is joined by agent Steve Lockwood (Michael Kent), and gets help and sometimes interference from comedy relief Mike McGurk (Lee Ford) and young Junior (Jerry Tucker); Lynne Roberts is cast as Tracy's efficient secretary, Gwen. The highlights of this exciting serial include an unconscious Tracy being put in a car that's sent hurtling down the levels of a parking garage; Tracy being thrown out of a plane with a sabotaged parachute; a huge tower falling on a rooftop where Tracy and an enemy are in heated combat; and especially the thrilling sequence when two trains rush towards each other on the same track even as Lockwood is handcuffed to the top of one of the cars. Byrd is perfection as Tracy and Middleton is great as Stark. His "boys" don't get much of a chance to make an impression, with the exception of Ned Glass, who plays the trigger-happy "Kid Stark." Followed by Dick Tracy's G-Men and the superior Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.

Verdict: Byrd vs Middleton is a winning combination. ***. 

TERRY AND THE PIRATES SERIAL

Jeff York (aka Granville Owen) and William Tracy

The art of Milton Caniff
TERRY AND THE PIRATES (15 chapter Columbia serial/1940). Director. James W. Horne.

In this cliffhanger version of the famous newspaper comic strip, young Terry Lee (William Tracy) goes off to find his father, Dr. Herbert Lee (John Paul Jones), with the aid of his buddy and his father's assistant, Pat Ryan (Jeff York, aka Granville Owen, of Li'l Abner). As they search for Dr. Lee, the two men find themselves embroiled in a conflict between an evil half-caste named Fang (Dick Curtis) and his followers, and the mysterious Dragon Lady (Sheila Darcy of Drums of Africa), who presides over her subjects in a cavern headquarters. Fang seeks to control all of the natives in the area, as well as the white settlers, and is after a treasure that he thinks Dr. Lee can lead him to. Lee is only interested in the scientific achievement of locating a lost race. Other characters include Forrest Taylor as Allen Drake, and Joyce Bryant as his daughter, Normandie -- both actors also appeared in The Iron Claw serial --  while Fang's despicable henchman, Stanton, is played by Jack Ingram. Connie, a diminutive Asian fellow, is charmingly played by Allen Jung -- and looks much less like a caricature than he did in the strip -- and the unfortunately-named Big Stoop is essayed by Victor DeCamp. During the fifteen chapters, Terry, Pat and the other good guys must contend with Fang's army of leopard men -- who wear hoods and striped robes -- as well as an agitated and nasty gorilla named Bobo (Jack Leonard). Pat is nearly beheaded by a High Priest (John Ince), Terry nearly eaten by gators, and both are endangered by walls that slowly move in to push them into a pit full of spikes. One of the best cliffhangers has the boys trapped in another pit that is rapidly filling with water.

Terry and the Pirates is a consistently lively, amusing, and exciting serial, but it is far below the level of the comic strip and much less serious. In the comic strip, the Dragon Lady is a beautiful Eurasian who heads a group of modern-day pirates, but in the serial she has been reduced to a fairly pretty white lady who rules a standard lost sect. At 23, William Tracy is far too old to play the boy Terry -- Jeff York was only five years older -- and has to compensate with some "gee willikers" expressions and a high-pitched screech when they are in trouble. Years later he played another recurring role in the Terry and the Pirates TV series. Dick Curtis is actually good as Fang, but unfortunately he is saddled with a voice characterization that makes him sound like an Oriental parody in a bad sitcom, Asian by way of the Borscht Belt. Jeff York is suitably handsome and heroic and more than competent as Pat. Lee Zahler has contributed a very effective score.

In the strip, writer-artist Milton Caniff -- who eventually left the comic to do Steve Canyon, for which he controlled the rights -- aged Terry until he became an adult and Pat Ryan's role was diminished and possibly eliminated. I don't know if Pat was actually Dr. Lee's assistant in the comic, and believe it is more likely that Terry was an orphan, with Ryan acting as his mentor.

Verdict: Frankly ridiculous at times, but also fun and fast-paced. ***. 

THE ADVENTURES OF SMILIN' JACK

Jay Novello, Tom Brown, Marjorie Lord, Rose Hobart



 THE ADVENTURES OF SMILIN' JACK (13 chapter Columbia serial/ 1943). Directed by Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor. 

Columbia turned the popular aviation comic strip The Adventures of Smilin' Jack into a serial in 1943. In this exciting and action-packed cliffhanger,  Jack Martin (Tom Brown) is working in China just before the U.S. entry into WW2.  Mah Ling (Cyril Delevanti of The Night of the Iguana), the governor of Handan, a province of China in the Himalayas, knows the secret route of a passage into India which would be helpful to the allies. The Japanese group, the Black Samurais, a division of Axis Espionage, is anxious to get this secret as well. The Samurais are under the uneasy control of a German agent, Fraulein Von Teufel (Rose Hobart of Conflict), who is better-known to the allies as "Trudi Miller," a war correspondent. We learn early on in the serial that Trudi is a ruthless double agent, but neither Jack, his friend, Tommy (Edgar Barrier), nor his sister, Janet (Marjorie Lord), are aware of this. It seems that in every other episode the evil Fraulein is reminding Kageyama (Turhan Bey) that she is in charge of the Samurais despite the fact that she is German. Philip Ahn is Wu Tan, the loving aide to the elderly Mah Ling; Keye Luke is Captain Wing; and Sidney Toler is cast as the Chinese general, Kai Ling. The ever-versatile Jay Novello is a cast stand-out as the Japanese saboteur Kushimi, and David Hoffman [The Creeper] also scores as the weasel-like Blenker.  With his pudgy face and kind of geeky voice, Tom Brown is hardly perfect casting as the sleek, handsome Smilin' Jack, but his performance is okay, while Lord and Barrier are adept enough in somewhat pointless secondary roles. Rose Hobart, on the other hand, while lacking the viciousness and sensuality of Carol Forman of Black Widow, is quietly effective and quite venomous as the steel-hearted Fraulein, and pretty much walks off with the serial (even if she is saddled with a highly unflattering headpiece). At one point the Fraulein suspends Jack in a net in the water below a trap door, even as the tide comes in and sharp floating spikes rise up higher and higher toward his back. Tom also plunges out of a plane to find that his parachute won't open, and is locked into a leaky box that is thrown into the river. In two of the best cliffhangers, a clipper ship holding our hero and friends crashes into the ocean, letting in gallons of rushing water; and a Japanese sub with Jack and the others aboard is rammed by a huge ship that is also controlled by Jap agents. An amusing aspect of the serial is that Mah Ling seems to take forever to make up his mind to give up the secret of the Mandan route and comes up with one obstacle after another to prevent him from divulging it. With the participation of such actors as Hobart, Luke, Toler, Bey and others, Similin' Jack has a better and better-known cast for a serial than usual. 

Verdict: Decidedly one of the better Universal serials. ***. 

PRINCE VALIANT

Robert Wagner
PRINCE VALIANT (1954). Director: Henry Hathaway.

Hal Foster's newspaper comic strip Prince Valiant  -- which debuted in the late 1930's and is still published today -- was given lavish treatment by 20th Century-Fox with Technicolor and CinemaScope. Valiant (Robert Wagner of Titanic) is the Viking son of the exiled King Aguar (Donald Crisp). Hoping to restore his father to his throne, Val travels to the court of King Arthur, where he hopes to become a knight. Arthur (Brian Aherne) tells him that he must be a squire first, and he is   assigned to Sir Gawain (Sterling Hayden of The Star). Valiant falls in love at first sight with the beautiful Princess Aleta (Janet Leigh of Psycho), but, alas, Gawain falls instantly in love with her himself even as her sister, Ilene  (Debra Paget) pines for him. An added complication is a sinister and mysterious Black Knight, who has men who are loyal to him and wishes Arthur's throne for himself. Prince Valiant is a beautifully-produced movie which boasts one of Franz Waxman's richest and most  elaborate scores, as well as exquisite cinematography from Lucien Ballard. The performances are fine, and James Mason -- although this is arguably not one of his more memorable roles -- adds a nice touch as Sir Brack, who may have a few secrets (none of which will be surprising to the audience). In its early years the Prince Valiant strip had fantastic elements such as sorcery and monstrous giant beasts, but by the fifties the strip was more realistic and the film adaptation follows suit. There is, however, a well-choreographed and fiery battle scene, and a splendid and protracted sword fight between Val and Sir Brack. Ultimately, how much you enjoy the movie depends on how much you like the time period and the comic strip. Prince Valiant was never my cup of java, but the movie is still impressive in many ways.

Verdict:  Beautiful production values and not a bad story. ***.

THE PHANTOM (1996)

An exciting moment from The Phantom
Lee Falk's comic strip

THE PHANTOM (1996). Director: Simon Wincer.

The Phantom, whose real identity is Kit Walker (Billy Zane), is the 21st in a long line of masked and costumed white heroes in the African island nation of Bengalla. Now that his father (Patrick McGoohan) has been murdered, Walker has taken on the mantle, which means he must temporarily walk out of the life of his lady love, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson) -- until she is kidnapped. The Phantom's main adversary is Xander Drax (Treat Williams), who employs a beautiful mercenary and pilot named Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who in turn leads a whole gang of lady pilots. In addition to Drax, and his nasty  henchman Quill (James Remar of Blink), the Phantom must also contend with Kabai Sengh (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa), who runs an infamous and long-lived Brotherhood that operates out of an elaborate hideout in a cave on a mysterious island. Both Drax and Sengh are after three metallic skulls which will create a tremendous energy force when joined together, but both men need to be careful what they wish for ... The Phantom is based on Lee Falk's long-running comic strip (still published today), and is a highly entertaining and well-produced adventure film, although some of the plot points -- especially those concerning the skulls -- are over-familiar and never quite work. But there are some outstanding and thrilling action scenes in the movie, especially one in which The Phantom tries to save the life of plucky little Zak (Chatpong "Jim" Petchlor) as they dangle from a rope bridge that is falling to pieces after the heavy truck they are riding in crashes through it -- this is as good as anything in any classic cliffhanger. Billy Zane is fine as the Phantom, while Treat Williams [Deep Rising] tries to play in a jaunty style that doesn't really work that well, although Zeta-Jones scores as the sexy good girl/bad girl, Sala. Kristy Swanson [Deadly Friend] is pretty and competent but makes much less of an impression in this; she's primarily a television actress. Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner only appears as a ghost.

I originally saw this movie in theaters and pretty much forgot about it, although it is certainly a worthwhile picture, with striking settings (from Africa to Manhattan to the Bermuda Triangle), a rich score by David Newman, and superb cinematography by David Burr. Perhaps my ho-hum reaction at the time was due to my comparative disinterest in the main character, and the fact that the plot could have used a little work. Still, this is a notable comic strip movie, well-directed by Simon Wincer.

Verdict: Believe it or not, this is better than the cliffhanger serial, The Phantom, ***. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

Great Old Movies is taking a week off to celebrate 4th of July, but we'll be back with a fresh crop of film and book reviews next week.

Have a great 4th of July weekend!

Don't eat too much!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS

Jane Powell rules the roost: 7 brothers instead of dwarves
SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). Director: Stanley Donen.

In the Oregon territory of 1850 rugged farmer Adam (Howard Keel) comes to town and is instantly smitten with a busy waitress named Milly (Jane Powell), and vice versa. The two get hitched and Milly discovers that she now has six brothers-in-law that she has to attend to. The crude brothers, who are taught manners by Milly, go a-courtin', but when things don't proceed as fast as they want, they resort to kidnapping potential brides upon the advice of Adam. Milly is outraged and orders the men into the barn while Adam goes off to a cabin to wait out the winter, unaware that Milly is pregnant ... Seven Brides has been denounced as misogynous in some quarters, but while some of the characters may be misogynous, I don't really think the film is. Sure, it's handy that the brothers all turn out to be gentlemen who never molest the ladies, and even handier that all of the women fall in love with the boys (it might have added some dramatic conflict if one or two of the gals had preferred their old boyfriends or just found none of the brothers appealing), but I don't believe any of this is meant to be taken seriously. In any case, the main thing about the vastly entertaining Seven Brides is not the plot but its sheer enthusiasm, its embrace of life, its excellent performances, and the wonderful singing and dancing throughout. Powell and Keel are perfection and they're nearly matched by the other players, including Ian Wolfe [Dressed to Kill] as Reverend Elcott; and Russ Tamblyn, Jeff Richards [Born Reckless] and the other brothers as well. (Ruta Lee -- billed as Ruta Kilmonis -- and Julie Newmar -- billed as Julie Newmeyer -- are two of the wives.) Seven Brides is also distinguished by the fact that it has one of the best scores for a movie musical that is not based on a Broadway show (although decades later Seven Brides was turned into a musical for the London stage). Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul provided genuinely memorable tunes such as"Lonesome Polecat" "Sobbin' Women;" "Bless Your Beautiful Hide;" "When You're in Love;" and especially the beautiful "Wonderful Day" and infectious "Spring, Spring, Spring."  Wonderfully photographed in CinemaScope and Technicolor by George Folsey. The choreography is by Michael Kidd, who was also an actor [It's Always Fair Weather].

Verdict: Whatever its peculiarities, this is a top-flight musical. ***1/2. 

THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS

Robots -- or humanoids? 
THE CREATION OF THE HUMANOIDS (1962). Director: Wesley Barry.

"Mankind is a state of mind."

"Your sister is in rapport."

In what purports to be a post-apocalyptic time period, many humans can't reproduce and robots are doing most of the work. Captain Kenneth Cragis (Don Megowan of The Werewolf) is distrustful of the "clickers," who have humanoid faces and bodies but are mere mechanical men, according to him. Cragis belongs to the Order of Flesh and Blood, a society which fears that robots may spell the end of mankind. Then he learns that his sister, Esme (Frances McCann), is "in rapport" with her clicker servant, Pax (David Cross) -- who, presumably, is anatomically correct -- a situation that Kenneth finds repugnant. Meanwhile a secret organization of clickers has been able to create robots that are 96% human by transferring memories and consciousness from recently deceased people and putting them in mechanical bodies that resemble them. The only thing left is to create "robots" who can reproduce. Kenneth falls in love with Esme's friend, Maxine (Erica Elliott), and vice versa, but the two are harboring a secret that neither of them is even aware of ... Creation of the Humanoids is talky science fiction with "science" that may be on the level of an old comic book, but the talk is always interesting and there are plenty of fascinating notions in Jay Simms' screenplay. This is an extremely low-budget production but the use of shadows disguises the fact that there are few real sets, although Esme's apartment is strikingly designed. The actors put over the material quite well, and the picture has a fast enough pace, although there's a scarcity of action. The "twist" ending shocked me when I was a little kid, but nowadays I can tell it doesn't make much sense. The weird musical score doesn't hurt.

Verdict: Thought-provoking science fiction if you take it with a very large grain of salt. ***. 

THE PRICE OF VALOR: THE LIFE OF AUDIE MURPHY

THE PRICE OF VALOR: The Life of Audie Murphy, America's Most Decorated Hero of World War II. David A. Smith. Regnery; 2015.

Audie Murphy, a poor farm boy who became the most decorated hero of WW2, beat the odds in combat and then also beat the Hollywood odds by becoming a movie star.  Murphy was never considered any kind of Laurence Olivier, but he gave convincing performances in films that employed his limited range and made good use of his pleasant but often angry and bitter demeanor. Murphy suffered from what today we would call PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), which made it tough on his two wives, the first of which was actress Wanda Hendrix [The Admiral Was a Lady].; he also had a fling with actress Jean Peters [Vicki]. The first half of the book recounts Murphy's adventures as a soldier overseas, the campaigns he was part of, and the bravery he showed which led to him taking, and saving, many lives. At first he was contemptuous of other soldiers who broke down or cried in sheer terror, but he eventually developed some compassion for them. Never anxious to be seen as a "hero," his survivor guilt insured that he thought the real heroes were the men who died overseas.  As an actor Murphy appeared in the film version of his self-effacing memoir To Hell and Back, starred in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, and in addition to a variety of western films, appeared in everything from Bad Boy to The Unforgiven. Forever seeking the excitement of his early years, he developed a gambling addiction, suffered from perpetual nightmares, and always carried a gun. As he got older, Murphy found that times had changed to such an extent that he was seen as a a mere World War 2 relic; even his beloved westerns had undergone a psychological change. Ironically, after surviving so much during the war, he died in a plane crash at the age of 45. The Price of a Valor is probably not the last word on Murphy, but it is a readable, fast-paced book that gives the reader most of the facts. Not a film historian, author Smith briefly covers the films but the book can't really be considered a career study.

Verdict: Informative look at the life of Audie Murphy. ***.

AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE HONEYMOONERS IN BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR

Jackie Gleason and Art Carney
AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE HONEYMOONERS. IN BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR. The Jackie Gleason Show. The Color Honeymooners. Collection 1. Directed by Frank Bunetta. 1966. Also The Jackie Gleason Show 1956.

"The Honeymooners" began as a series of sketches on Cavalcade of Stars, then on Jackie Gleason's own program. In 1955 the sketches metamorphosed into a half hour series, The Honeymooners, that lasted one season and 39 episodes. Gleason decided to go back to a variety format, The Jackie Gleason Show, and returned again to the Honeymooners. Several of the episodes were turned into a musical story in which Ralph, Alice, Ed and Trixie win a trip around the world. In these Audrey Meadows revealed that she had a lovely singing voice, and Joyce Randolph could carry a tune as well.

About a decade later Gleason revived The Jackie Gleason Show complete with all of his old characters and the June Taylor Dancers, and also decided to do color remakes of the musical trip around the world. While Art Carney came back as Norton, Alice and Trixie were now played by Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean. These remakes essentially used the same scripts and the same songs. When these episodes proved successful, Gleason took a variety of old non-musical scripts (from the "Lost Honeymooners" episodes) and added new tunes to make additional episodes.

This story line has Ralph (Jackie Gleason), Ed (Art Carney), and their wives (Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean) going on an around-the-world tour after the boys win a slogan contest for the Flakey Wakey cereal company. As usual, the boys treat their much smarter wives abominably (you have to wonder why either woman would stay with them, but that's show biz!) Gleason and Carney could do no wrong for the Miami Beach audience, who ate up every double-take, fat joke, and put-down with delight, and much of the material was genuinely funny, although much was also routine. Gleason and Carney make an unbeatable team, and there's good support from the gals, although one misses Audrey Meadows' acerbic delivery in her performance as Alice in the original series. The first episode, as well as the second -- which has the group traveling on a cruise ship when the boys fall overboard -- are excellent, and the rest are hit or miss. There's a very funny segment with Robert Coote [Theater of Blood] in London where the gang do a television commercial (shades of the "Happy Housewife's Handy Helper," or whatever it was called) and the Jackie Gleason show is itself spoofed; and amusing moments when they encounter counterfeiters in France; blackmailers in Spain; a huge gorilla in Africa; a conniving "ghost" in an Irish castle (an especially silly episode); and when Ralph thinks Alice has an Italian lover who turns out to be a little boy (Jomar Cidoni). The songs are by Lyn Dudddy and Jerry Bresler, and they are at least serviceable, and often much better than that. (MacCrae and little Cidoni have a very charming and pretty number in the Italian episode, a new version of the same song from the black and white episode with Audrey Meadows and another talented young boy.) One could easily quibble about some of the things in these shows, but they are undeniably charming and well-acted and often very, very amusing.

All of the black and white musical shows were redone in color except for the episode in Berlin, where Ralph and Ed wander into Russian-controlled territory and wind up in prison. This is not one of the better episodes, but as usual it does have some pleasant tunes and funny material, such as when Ralph does a Russian dance for the assemblage. Overall, the color versions are somewhat better than the black and white originals; all are available on DVD.

Verdict: The Great One, his equally great sidekick, and lots of funny stuff. ***.

TEENAGE CAVEMAN

Robert Vaughn and Jonathan Haze
TEENAGE CAVEMAN (aka Teenage Cave Man/1958). Produced and directed by Roger Corman.

In what seems to be a prehistoric society, the young son (Robert Vaughn) of the symbol maker (Leslie Bradley) questions the laws of the society as embodied by the crusty "Black-Bearded One" (Frank DeKova). No one is permitted to cross the river into the forbidden territory, but Vaughn's curiosity gets the better of him and he discovers dinosaur-like creatures (courtesy of One Million B.C. and others) and a strange "god" in a kind of bear suit who has a death touch. Pursued by the others of his tribe, Vaughn learns the truth of the world that lies beyond his tiny village ... Anyone who has read Steven Vincent Benet's classic 1937 story "By the Waters of Babylon" will figure out the twist in this rip-off/variation of the tale, but on its own terms Teenage Caveman is more entertaining than it has any right to be. Vaughn gives a good, solid, dramatic performance and DeKova nearly steals the show in his turn as the dyspeptic guy who thinks anyone who breaks the law should be killed. The film casts Roger Corman's usual troupe of actors, including Jonathan Haze [The Little Shop of Horrors] as the "Curly-Haired Boy" and a spear-wielding Ed Nelson [Attack of the Crab Monsters]. Albert Glasser's typically brassy and effective score may be better than the picture deserves but it ably punctuates each scene in the film's short running time. Robert Vaughn went on to major success on TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Teenage Caveman is similar to Creation of the Humanoids in that both films appear to be post-apocalyptic -- and they are -- but both turn out to take place in the distant past as well. A real film version of "By the Waters of Babylon" might have made a strikingly powerful film, but its ideas have been "borrowed" so often since its publication that it's unlikely it will ever receive an official filming, although a movie with just that title is listed as "in development" on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) website. Who knows?

Verdict: Vaughn and dinosaurs. **1/2. 

STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO.

STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO. Blake Bell. 2008; Fantagraphics.

Steve Ditko is the comic book artist and writer who is most famous for the co-creation of Spider-Man, as well as Dr. Strange, with Stan Lee. Ditko became obsessed with writer Ayn Rand -- especially her novel The Fountainhead -- and its principles, and it had a profound effect on his life and work. Like the architect hero of Fountainhead, Ditko felt he had to remain true to his principles, and was loathe to make money doing what he saw as crap -- anything that didn't smack of Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, most readers did not have the same interest in Rand, and Ditko rejected suggestions to make his stories more readable even as his art suffered, everything becoming subordinate to his "messages." Occasionally Ditko would try more or less mainstream work, such as Marvel's short-lived Speedball comic, as well as Hawk and Dove and Shade, the Changing Man for DC, but these did not necessarily sell in large numbers. Ditko could have made a fortune sticking to Spider-Man, but he wanted to take the strip in a direction that understandably did not sit well with the powers-that-be at Marvel, and he was also proven to be out of touch with the youthful readers of the time. Ditko is nevertheless a talented artist, and much of his work graces this beautifully-produced coffee table book with excellent text by Blake Bell, covering all aspects of his life and art.  Frankly, Ditko was never my favorite comic book artist while I was growing up, but I came to appreciate his work as an adult, and Strange and Stranger explains in detail the man's artistic achievements and innovations. There is also a lot of backstage business about the comics industry. NOTE: Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay for the terrible Love Letters.

Verdict: Not just for obsessive Ditko fans, but they will appreciate this the most. ***1/2. 

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART FOUR

Dr. Strange 
Here are some mini-reviews of films that are less than twenty-five years old:

Deadly Whispers (1995). Director: Bill Norton. An investigation ensues when young Kathy Acton (Heather Tom) goes missing, and suspicion falls upon her father (Tony Danza). There are several good performances in this fact-inspired telefilm, especially from Pamela Reed as the missing girl's mother -- she is outstanding. **1/2.

Lonely Hearts (2006). Writer/Director: Todd Robinson. This is the third version of a true story already told in The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson, only the focus in this version is on two homicide detectives (well-played by John Travolta and James Gandolfino, especially the former) with their own issues who track down the  exploiters and killers of lonely women, Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) and Martha Beck (Salma Hayek). Leto and Hayek make a sexy and deadly duo of sociopaths,but making them share attention with the cops harms the movie. **1/2. .

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). Writer/director: Woody Allen. When Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) walks out on his ding-bat wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), and marries a hooker, his daughter develops her own marital problems with her writer-husband (Josh Brolin). Meanwhile an alleged psychic, Cristal (Pauline Collins), is telling Helena how everyone should live their lives (past and future). This is a very entertaining and very well-acted comedy-drama that just misses being really special. It's typical Woody Allen, with lots of infidelity and screwed-up relationships. One plot point, in which a character steals a dead man's manuscript and presents it to a publisher as his own, has been much better handled elsewhere. **1/2.

Margin Call (2011). Director: J. C. Chandor. In 2008, after the head of their risk department is fired, an investment firm discovers that they are heading for a financial disaster; arguments ensue as to exactly which path the company will take to survive. Top-notch acting from such players as Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Simon Baker, among others, helps keep this suspenseful and riveting, although some may be disappointed at the lack of highly dramatic fireworks. ***.

Honeymoon (2014). Director: Leigh Janiak. A couple (Harry Treadaway of Penny Dreadful and Rose Leslie) go to a cabin on their honeymoon and strange things begin to happen. Are one of both of them having a psychotic breakdown; is another couple nearby causing problems; or is there something odd going on in the woods? The movie is very well-acted and suspenseful but much too slow, and the wind-up borders on the ludicrous because it ultimately makes little sense. Too bad, because it holds the attention for quite awhile. **.

Home Sweet Hell (2015). Director: Anthony Burns. The acting is splendid in a very black comedy in which a man (Patrick Wilson) with a domineering and sociopathic wife (Katherine Heigl) is importuned by her to murder his avaricious and dishonest mistress (Jordana Brewster). Jim Belushi also scores as Wilson's friend and employee, but the movie becomes increasingly over the top and rather ridiculous. **1/2.

The Accountant (2016). Director: Gavin O'Connor. Two Treasury agents try to track down a mysterious CPA (Ben Affleck) with a strange family history who runs his own business but seems to have a number of dangerous sidelines. The picture has interesting twists and turns but ultimately it becomes a little silly. The acting is good, with J. K. Simmons a stand-out. This probably would have worked better as a novel. **1/2.

Dr. Strange (2016). Director: Scott Derrickson. Marvel's "Sorcerer Supreme" reinvented for the movies retains the idea of an arrogant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) who searches for meaning after he loses the medical use of his hands. Tilda Swinton makes her mark as "The Ancient One" (given a sex-change from the comics), Cumberbatch [Star Trek Into Darkness] is okay, and there are some fine special effects, especially a sequence in which Manhattan is seemingly turned topsy turvey during a battle. The depictions of other-dimensions are interesting but there's nothing as bizarre as what artist Steve Ditko came up with in the comic book. The whole project is just kind of blah. Stan Lee's cutesy cameos in these things are getting tiresome. **1/2.

Logan (2017). Director: James Mangold. This tremendously over-rated movie takes a last look at the character of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) -- James Logan of the X-Men -- and his mentor, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), while adding a little girl, possibly Logan's daughter, who runs around beheading people with her claws. Meant to be moving, Logan is instead kind of silly and so restricted by dumb popular tastes that even a certified X-Men fan like myself found it stupid and tedious. The actors, however, are excellent and deserve a better vehicle. **.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017). Director: David France. This documentary follows Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project as she tries to investigate the death of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. Was she murdered, or did she simply fall through the literal cracks in the pier near where her body was found? The movie has no real answers. It also looks at the life of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera, who became good friends with Marsha after their initial rivalry. There was criticism of the film because it was made by a white, gay, non-transgender (cisgender) man, but the real problem is that it borders on the superficial. One suspects that despite the very real challenges and discrimination Johnson and Rivera had to face, they had self-destructive streaks that only added to their problems. Johnson and Rivera get points for helping homeless transgender youths of color, but their work as LGBT political activists has been somewhat exaggerated. **1/2.

The Beguiled (2017), Director: Sofia Coppola. This remake of the near-classic Clint Eastwood film mixes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Kirsten Dunst but comes up short. The simple truth is that while Farrell is arguably a better actor than Eastwood -- and he's quite good in the film -- Kidman is no match for Geraldine Page nor Dunst for Elizabeth Hartman from the original. Both of those actresses provided neurotic emotional fireworks that the new ladies lack. Still, it's an entertaining picture but not nearly as good as the earlier version. **1/2.

Batman and Harley Quinn (2017). Director: Sam Liu. Batman and Nightwing team up with reformed villainess Harley Quinn to stop a plot by her old friend Poison Ivy and the Floronic Man. This is the nadir of DC comics animated features, a disgracefully awful, self-indulgent mess that even includes jokes about flatulence. The worst Batman project ever, everyone involved in this should hang their heads in shame. Written by Bruce Timm and Jim Krieg. Why does DC keep foisting the irritating and obnoxious Harley Quinn on everyone? 1/2*.

Bad Match (2017). Written and directed by David Chirchirillo. An Internet stud hits the sheets with the wrong woman, who turns out to have a screw loose, acting like she's his fiancee when they've only had a couple of "dates." Before long he winds up fired from his job and accused of downloading kiddie porn onto his computer. Most men in this situation would stay far, far away from this "psycho bitch" who could easily accuse him of rape if he were ever alone with her, but our hero is so stupid that he goes to her apartment twice -- and worse. The film is not badly acted and has some suspense and a couple of twists, but it lacks the strong characterization and impact that might have made it more memorable. This is a good illustration of the old adage "it isn't what happens to us but how we react to it." **1/2.

Batman vs. Two-Face (2017), Director: Rick Morales. This is another animated film that is inspired by the sixties Batman TV show and which employs the voices of Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin) and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). The dynamic duo's main adversary is Two-Face, who also works with Hugo Strange and at one point auctions off Batman's secret identity to such villains as Bookworm, Joker, Riddler, and Penguin. King Tut also appears. The film is "cute," but the highlight is the closing credits in which the entire cast dance the "Batusi." Aunt Harriet can really shake it! The well-animated picture is dedicated to the late Adam West.**1/2.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Director: Jon Watts. Marvel has rebooted the Spider-Man franchise by turning him back into a high school kid (in the comics he didn't have much to do with the Avengers until he was an adult). This makes the movie with its 15-year-old hero (an enthusiastic Tom Holland) seem even more like a Disney movie for kids. Scenes of the boy's high school life rapidly become tedious in this very overlong movie which is distinguished strictly by two scenes: a battle on the Staten Island ferry, and a climactic mid-air fight involving a plane and a crash landing at Coney Island. These sequences are fairly spectacular, but there aren't enough of them, and the film goes on for fifteen minutes after the climax! The new supposedly high-tech versions of Spider-foes The Vulture (Michael Keaton) and Shocker aren't half as striking as the originals. In this The Vulture is the father of Spider-Man's crush Liz, and is using stolen alien technology to make weapons. Jacob Batalon makes an impression as Spider-Man's friend, Ned. **.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

GAY PRIDE SPECIAL: GAY-THEMED MOTION PICTURES

Dirk Bogarde in Victim
SEVERAL GAY-THEMED MOVIES FOR GAY PRIDE WEEK.

New York City celebrates Gay/LGBT pride this coming weekend, and in honor of that, Great Old Movies looks at several gay-themed movies and documentaries from different time periods and countries. First we have Victim, the classic 1961 drama about a British lawyer victimized by a blackmail ring (back when it was a crime just to be gay); the more recent film, Jonathan, a German drama in which a young man deals with the fact that his dying father once had a loving relationship with another man; the Israeli short Summer Vacation, in which a closeted man with a wife and children is confronted with his gay past at the beach; the 1974 Butley, with Alan Bates as a teacher who learns that both his estranged wife and boyfriend are moving on to other men; and the documentaries A Bit of Scarlet (gay depictions in British film), Uncle Bob (about the gay activist who streaked the Oscars), and Do I Sound Gay?, which kind of deals with gay stereotyping.

For more gay-themed films just type "gay" or "LGBT" into the search bar on the upper left hand corner of the blog. Thanks for reading!


VICTIM

"Are you sure you weren't feeling too fond of him?"
VICTIM (1961). Director: Basil Dearden.

"I'm not a life bell for you to cling to." -- Laura.

A young man named Jack (Peter McEnery of Tales That Witness Madness) is wanted by the police for embezzlement, but won't tell them what he needed the money for. Jack refuses to admit that he is being blackmailed for being homosexual -- which was still a criminal offense in those days. Although he has tried to get in touch with a friend, the well-known lawyer Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), Farr -- who is married to Laura (Sylvia Sims) -- refuses to talk to him. Laura learns of Jack's suicide and confronts her husband about him. Apparently she knew about a gay fling he had in the past and had hoped that he could change. Melville admits that he had sexual feelings for Jack but rejected him before anything could happen. He knows this may destroy his career and even his life, but decides to go after the blackmailers who, in essence, murdered Jack and are destroying others ... Victim was ahead of its time, and it remains a powerful and completely absorbing movie, with excellent performances from the entire cast. It is by no means a perfect movie, however, and one could not expect it to have nothing but 21st century attitudes when the film was made over fifty years ago. Still it's surprising how much sophisticated stuff managed to get into the picture. When Sgt. Bridie (John Cairney) suggests that Farr can't be homosexual because he has a wife, his superior, the more sympathetic Inspector Harris (John Barrie), immediately says "Famous last words." The notion is put forth more than once that homosexuals can't be converted, as well as the idea that there is nothing wrong in homosexuality and the laws against it are unfair and antiquated.

However, I do have a problem with the ending. The implication is that Melville and Laura may ultimately stay together, which seems unrealistic, although others have seen the ending more as an acknowledgment of deep friendship -- and Jack will certainly need friends when the blackmail trial is over -- along with his career and future. More problematic is the way Melville burns the photograph of himself and Jack in the fireplace. This was used as blackmail evidence, but it can't be used to harm either himself or Jack anymore, and it seems cold that Melville would burn what is probably the only photo of a man who loved him enough to sacrifice himself to save him. True, one can't expect Melville to walk off into the sunset arm and arm with another man (which Dirk Bogarde did in real life) -- this was 1961 after all and it's lucky the film was even made -- but some more self-acceptance on Melville's part would have been welcome. The ending was possibly meant to suggest that Melville would go on suppressing his "unfortunate urges" and retain a semblance of a marriage, supposedly "triumphing" over his homosexuality like one of those delusional "ex-gays" -- a notion that undercuts the more positive statements of the picture.

In fact, one might wonder why this "self-hating homo" would destroy his career and marriage when he doesn't exactly have an activist's bent. Why not just forget it, breath a sigh of relief and move on? It makes his burning of the photo even more senseless. Victim may be trying to show how a glib, dishonest man can summon up inner strength and resolve -- indeed that's surely what the film is suggesting -- but the ending needed to be much stronger. It is also unfortunate that it is the married closet case who takes on the blackmailers, when all the other gay men -- who seem far more accepting of themselves -- all just want to pay them off. (This is completely unfair to the many activists who existed on both sides of the Atlantic even during the sixties.) I also wish more had been made of the confrontation between Melville and the bookseller Harold Doe (Norman Bird), who was previously involved with Jack and blames Melville for his death. Melville's reaction is rather cold, but one could argue that there's a coldness, or at least a coolness, not only to Melville but to the whole movie.

Bogarde was an understandably closeted gay man in real life, and it was brave of him to take on this role, which could have destroyed his own career. As he later noted, it did serve to get him away from the superficial "pretty boy" roles and led to much meatier parts, for which he was grateful. As for his performance in Victim, it's good, but not as great as in other films, perhaps because he was confused as exactly how to play the part, and because of the improbability of his character doing what he does in the first place. Sylvia Sims is first-rate as his loving but disillusioned and heartbroken wife, and there are notable turns from McEnery as Jack; Charles Lloyd Pack [The 3 Worlds of Gulliver] as the tragic barber, Henry; Dennis Price [Dear Murderer] as the actor Calloway; Donald Churchill as Jack's friend, Eddy Stone; Margaret Diamond as the hateful Miss Benham; and others previously mentioned or not. An interesting aspect of the picture is that Victim unfolds as a thriller or suspense film, with much information -- such as the reasons for the blackmail -- being withheld from the audience for quite some time.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws -- and that ending! -- Victim is a memorable film and a landmark in gay cinema. ***.

BUTLEY

Michael Byrne, Richard O Callaghan, Alan Bates
BUTLEY (1974). Director: Harold Pinter. Screenplay by Simon Gray, based on his stage play.  American Film Theater.

"Is there a sub-text to that or can I take it as straight abuse?" -- Joey to Butley.

Ben Butley (Alan Bates of An Unmarried Woman) is a university professor and T. S. Eliot scholar who shares an office, an apartment, and -- until recently -- his life with a young assistant and former student, Joey (Richard O Callaghan). Apparently Butley left Joey at one point to marry Anne (Susan Engel) -- their marriage lasted only a year and resulted in one child. They are now separated and Ben is back with Joey, but the latter wants to move in with gay friend, Reg (Michael Byrne), if only to get away from Butley. For Butley is truly an obnoxious character, a bitter heavy drinker who seems to care little about his students, resents that a colleague, Edna (Jessica Tandy), will have a book published, and plays nasty mind games with everyone, Reg, Joey, and Anne included. Ben discovers that Anne wants a divorce because she wants to marry a man that he thinks is the dullest fellow in England. Neither Anne nor Joey seem to be truly in love with their prospective partners, but both want to get away from Butley ... Butley was a success for playwright Simon Gray and for Alan Bates, who played the role in London and on Broadway, but the play itself is problematic. Not only is Butley completely odious on all levels, but Bates plays him in such a shrill, off-putting style -- strictly in the key of arch -- that he gets on one's nerves almost from the start. You can't understand what any man or woman would see in him! The other performers are fine, however, with especially good work from a likable and sympathetic O'Callaghan. Byrne and Tandy are also notable, and there are nice bits from Georgina Hale and Simon Rouse as students. Gray leaves a lot to the imagination,  however, so we never really learn (although we can guess) how Joey feels about Butley leaving him for Anne, and how Anne feels about his homosexuality (she thinks Joey is creepy, however, which may be jealousy and homophobia on her part), or if the marriage was due to internalized homophobia on Butley's part of if he was genuinely bisexual (the term is never used). A scene between Butley and Reg illustrates how "queers" who have relationships with women can act superior to men who are strictly gay in their behavior. One suspects Gray based much of this on characters he encountered in the halls of academia, as there have certainly been plenty of professors who have both wives and boyfriends. Butley has some very good and funny dialogue but you can't quite call it a comedy, although I imagine when Nathan Lane played the role in 2006 he brought out all the humor in the loathsome character.

Verdict: Interesting enough, but it doesn't quite grip or move you. **1/2.