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

Thursday, December 12, 2019

KING AND COUNTRY

Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde
KING AND COUNTRY (1964). Director: Joseph Losey.

During WW1, British private James Hemp (Tom Courtenay of 45 Years) has been accused of desertion despite the fact that he volunteered for service, and has been in the war for longer than some of his accusers. The somewhat stern Captain Hargreaves (Dick Bogarde) is assigned to defend Hemp in a makeshift court, and develops sympathy for the man in spite of himself. In his opinion, Hemp simply walked away to get away from the noise and have some privacy, but was not really attempting to desert. But will the court see it Hargreaves' way, or is the young man doomed?

Tom Courtenay
King and Country is an absorbing and affecting military drama that presents the story simply and clearly and doesn't beg the viewer for compassion that most will undoubtedly feel in any case. The film has more of the atmosphere of WW2 than WW1, although the acting can not be faulted. There is a little too much time spent on some of the soldiers' attempts to rout or kill some rats, and if this is meant to be symbolic, it doesn't work. While many feel this film takes a back seat to the similarly-themed Paths of Glory -- there are similarities to Billy Budd as well --  King and Country is still a good picture on its own terms. James Villiers, Leo McKern, Barry Justice, Vivian Matalon, and Barry Foster, among others, also give notable performances. Joseph Losey also directed Dirk Bogarde in The Sleeping Tiger.

Verdict: Sad and sobering, eventually infuriating, look at victims of war; the very definition of grim. ***. 

MYRNA LOY: THE ONLY GOOD GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD

MYRNA LOY: THE ONLY GOOD GIRL IN HOLLYWOOD. Emily W. Leider. 2011; University of California Press.

This absorbing, well-written and well-researched biography of Loy traces her roots in Montana, her early years doing movie after movie, often cast as "exotic" Orientals [The Mask of Fu Manchu], her indentured servitude working for studios that hardly ever gave her a day off, her eventual emergence as a major star with a wider range than expected who commanded some respect from fellow filmmakers, and her final days when she turned to the theater and became a character actress in a few late movies [Midnight Lace]. Along the way we meet Loy's four husbands, most of whom treated her badly (and most of whom were plug-ugly, although Leider refers to one potato-head as "catnip to women!"). Loy had liberal politics, seemed to care about people other than herself (which alone makes her different from most movie stars) and decided after her fourth divorce that it was not so terrible not to have a husband. The bio also delves into Loy's many friendships with people famous and not so famous, her relationships with various family members, and analyzes most of her films and her approach to her roles, which included co-starring in the Thin Man movies, The Best Years of Our Lives, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Animal Kingdom, and many, many others.

Leider resuscitates this business about Loy possibly having had some kind of relationship with Montgomery Clift while they were making Lonelyhearts and after (first brought up in Patti Bosworth's bio of Clift). Loy denied this vehemently in her own memoir, and also denied it (in my presence) to Lawrence Quirk, who wrote The Films of Myrna Loy. Considering that she was no longer married to her husband at that time years later, it makes little sense to deny it if it were true. Also, Clift was essentially gay, Loy was 15 years older, and as this book makes clear, she was not the type to sleep around indiscriminately or cheat on her husband. (I also knew Jim Kotsilibas-Davis, who worked on Loy's memoirs with her.)

Verdict: Excellent biography and quite possibly the last word on Loy. ***1/2. 

THE BURGLAR

Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea
THE BURGLAR (1957). Director: Paul Wendkos.

Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) leads a small gang of criminals, including Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), the girl he was raised with. They steal a very valuable necklace from a old lady spiritualist, Sister Sarah (Phoebe MacKay), who lives in a sprawling mansion. Now the question is whether to sell the necklace at a great loss or wait until the heat is off, a suggestion that does not sit well with Baylock (Peter Capell of The Fury of the Cocoon), who is desperate to get out of the country. None of them are aware that another person is watching them and scheming ...

Martha Vickers and Dan Duryea
The Burglar is an interesting crime melodrama that just misses being special. Duryea gives a solid performance, although Mansfield comes off like an amateur, and one doesn't buy that she "hungers" for Duryea (the only actor billed above the title). Stewart Bradley, who was "introduced" in this picture (he had had previous TV credits but this was his first movie role) makes a definite impression as the cop, Charlie. Martha Vickers (one of Mickey Rooney's ex-wives and who also appeared in The Big Bluff) also makes an impression as Della, a woman who picks up Nat in a bar and has a few secrets of her own. Mickey Shaughnessy  plays Dohmer, another member of the gang who is a little too trigger-happy. The Burglar features interesting settings in Philly and Atlantic City, such as a shack on the lonely coast and a fun house where the climax takes place. Paul Wendkos also directed the excellent Brotherhood of the Bell.

Verdict: Not quite top-drawer but it does hold the attention. **3/4. 

MA AND PA KETTLE GO TO TOWN

Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
MA AND PA KETTLE GO TO TOWN (1950). Director: Charles Lamont.

Pa Kettle (Percy Kilbride) wins another contest for a soda with the prize being an all-expenses paid trip to New York City! At first Pa and Ma Kettle (Marjorie Main) have trouble coming up with a babysitter for their fifteen rambunctious children, but along comes "Shotgun" Mike (Charles McGraw), a thief hiding out in town. Ma at least has some reservations about leaving the children with a complete stranger (although they prove to be more than he can handle), but she thinks he has a kind face, and off they go to Manhattan. There they encounter more problems with Mike's cronies, and discover some marital woes for son Tom (Richard Long) and daughter-in-law Kim (Meg Randall).

Richard Long and Meg Randall
Ma and Pa Kettle were introduced in The Egg and I and proved so popular that they got their own feature, Ma and Pa Kettle. This led into several sequels, of which this is the first. Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town is not only consistently cute and amusing, with great performances from Main and Kilbride and good work from the rest of the cast, but it avoids the cliche of New Yorkers being portrayed as horrible city slickers taking advantage of the Kettles; in fact, the pair actually like New York and the people who live there (although, of course, they're just as glad to get home). Ma and Pa exhibit sheer delight in seeing Manhattan from a cab as they stand up in a hole in the taxi's ceiling, and there's a great bit with Pa dropping a cup of water from the top of the RCA building and encountering that same water later on.

Verdict: Very cute picture. ***. 

BLACK SPURS

Rory Calhoun and Linda Darnell
BLACK SPURS (1965). Director: R. G. Springsteen.

In Texas in 1885 Santee (Rory Calhoun of Night of the Lepus) is engaged to pretty Anna (Terry Moore) but he wants to wait to marry until he's made his fortune. He bids adieu to Anna and sets off to capture or kill the notorious bandit, El Pescadore (Robert Carricart), something he succeeds at. After this Santee becomes a full-time bounty hunter with many kills to his credit. Many. many months later he returns to his lady love only to learn that she has understandably married another, Sheriff Ralph Elkins (James Best) of Lash, Kansas. An embittered Santee decides to help a certain entrepreneur named Gus Kile (Lon Chaney Jr.) bring gambling and loose ladies to Lash no matter who gets hurt, but does the man have a chance at redemption?

Lon Chaney Jr. and Rory Calhoun
Black Spurs certainly has an interesting cast. Although Calhoun mostly shows the emotion of a rock, his co-players tend to be better, and this includes Linda Darnell in a small role as a madame. Darnell is a bit zaftig but not unattractive. She died in a fire before the film was released. Scott Brady plays, of all things, a priest, Richard Arlen owns the local saloon, and Bruce Cabot is an enforcer who zestily throws people out of town with a sneer or a heave. Patricia Owens and Jerome Courtland [Kiss and Tell] play lovers who aren't really married, and there is a brief appearance by pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelley as another sheriff.  Handsome Joseph Hoover has a rare (if small) speaking role as another one of Arlen's associates. Manuel Padilla Jr. [Tarzan and the Valley of Gold[ is cute as the little boy, Manuel, who loves to sing and eventually becomes disenchanted with his hero, Santee.

Black Spurs is by no means a great western but it features a basically sound storyline (albeit probably one that has been used in different variations many, many times over) and has some flavorful performances. Courtland and Owens each had one more theatrical film before doing some TV work; Courtland became a director. Calhoun and Moore had a great many more credits, and the latter is still acting today. Director R. G. Springsteen amassed nearly 100 film and TV credits, mostly working on westerns.

Verdict: Okay western for devotees. **1/2. 

Thursday, November 28, 2019

THUNDER ON THE HILL

Ann Blyth and Claudette Colbert
THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951). Director: Douglas Sirk.

In Norfolk county, England, Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert) works at a convent hospital under the firm but loving Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper). During a flood which forces the whole town to seek shelter in the convent on higher ground, along comes a strange group of people: Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth) has been convicted of murdering her invalid brother, and she is accompanied by Sgt, Melling (Gavin Muir) and a female assistant known only as Pierce (Norma Varden), who are taking her to be executed. However, Sister Mary becomes convinced that Valerie is innocent, and she risks the wrath of the Mother Superior by not only playing detective, but by bringing Valerie together with the man she loves, Sidney Kingham (Philip Friend), who may not be convinced of her innocence.

Claudette Colbert and Philip Friend
Thunder on the Hill is an absorbing and well-acted picture, with an interesting interplay between Colbert (playing possibly the most sophisticated nun in the history of cinema) and a sympathetic Blyth, proving that Veda in Mildred Pierce was not just a fluke. Gladys Cooper gives her usual authoritative and highly adept performance as the Mother Superior, and there is also nice work from Connie Gilchrist as another nun; Phyllis Stanley as a rather bitter nurse (almost on the verge of overplaying at times); Michael Pate [Hong Kong Confidential] as the slow-witted Willie; and Robert Douglas [This Side of the Law] and Anne Crawford as the convent doctor and his wife, among others.

Verdict: Unusual mystery with a very interesting cast. ***. 

DOLL FACE

Perry Como and Vivian Blaine
DOLL FACE (1945). Director: Lewis Seiler.

"Doll Face" Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a top burlesque performer who tries to go legit, but when one producer, Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley), finds out who she really is he refuses to hire her. Doll Face's manager and boyfriend, Mike (Dennis O'Keefe), comes up with the dubious notion of showing that she has "class" by hiring a ghostwriter, Fred (Stephen Dunne), to pen her memoirs -- as a burlesque queen! As Fred falls for Doll Face, and singer Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to get dancer "Frankie" (Martha Stewart) to warm up to him, Mike decides to turn Doll Face's memoir into a Broadway show. Can Doll Face finally go legit? And will she wind up with Mike or Frank?

Stephen Dunne and Carmen Miranda
This was adapted from a play by Gypsy Rose Lee but Doll Face should certainly not be confused with Gypsy! The script for this is no world-beater, although most of the performers are game. Vivian Blaine had her most famous role in Guys and Dolls, but in this I found her lacking in distinction. O'Keefe is as buoyant as ever, and poor Carmen Miranda is given no romance and only one catchy number, "Chico from Puerto Rico." The songs by McHugh and Adamson [Four Jills in a Jeep] are pleasant, however, with "Here Comes Heaven Again" arguably being the best. Reed Hadley is fine as the producer, who ultimately opts to work with Doll Face, and Perry Como is mildly appealing as Nicky. Handsome Stephen Dunne is billed in this as "Michael" Dunne, the name he used in his earliest appearances. He later starred as "Steve" Dunne on The Brothers Brannagan for TV.

Verdict: Acceptable but rather minor musical. **1/2. 

PRETTY BOY FLOYD

John Ericson
PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960). Director: Herbert J. Leder.

Charles Arthur Floyd (John Ericson) gets some bad breaks due to the poverty of the period, and winds up in jail. Now an ex-con, he has difficulty finding a job. He decides he might as well rob banks, and is always sure of giving some of his booty to his fellow Okies in need. But when he shoots a cop in cold blood, and is also suspected of being one of the hit men in a massacre in Kansas City in which both agents and crooks are murdered, the G-Men make him Public Enemy Number One. You can be certain that it won't end well for "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Joan Harvey and John Ericson
Pretty Boy Floyd should have been a star-making part for John Ericson, who had already been seen to great advantage in such films as Rhapsody, where he was Elizabeth Taylor's leading man. Although Ericson gives an excellent performance in this, the movie is shoddy and cheap jack, poorly directed by Leder. Leder at least manages to get good performances across the board, with an unrecognizably young Barry Newman [Fatal Vision] scoring as Floyd's associate-in-crime, the fictional Al Riccardo. Joan Harvey is also fine as Lily, a married woman who becomes Floyd's gal pal, and Carl York makes an impression as Floyd's old buddy, Curly. Jason Evers (billed as Herb) plays a sheriff, Peter Falk is another gangster, and Al Lewis, "Ol' Grandpa" from The Munsters himself, certainly make his mark as a hoodlum who winds up begging for his life in front of fellow mobsters when he really screws up. Fabian played Floyd ten years later in A Bullet for Pretty Boy, which wasn't any better than this.

Verdict: Good lead performance in a disappointing gangster flick. **. 

HAYWIRE

HAYWIRE. Brooke Hayward. Originally published in 1977; updated 2011. Random House.

Brooke Hayward is the daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and agent-turned-producer Leland Hayward. This memoir looks not so much at those two individuals, but at how their interactions affected Ms. Hayward and her brother and sister. Sullavan and the narcissistic Hayward divorced after the latter had an affair while she was out of town working oversea for months, and it left lasting scars, especially on Sullavan, who felt abandoned by her children when they went to live with their father. Both of the parents remarried.

Instead of a probing look at the parents, two interesting individuals, whatever their flaws, with seriously important careers, we mostly get the ruminations of their daughter, which at times become quite tedious in this lengthy if occasionally absorbing memoir, although, to be fair, she does a fair job of analyzing them at times. Although the author tries very hard to portray her family as some kind of dynasty, and their story as an epic tragedy, this doesn't quite work, and she seems oblivious to the fact that marital problems, suicides, mental health issues etc. also afflict people in tenements. In fact, entitlement screams at you from every page. Oddly, Ms. Hayward barely goes into her marriages to Dennis Hopper or Peter Duchin (son of Eddy Duchin), although that might have been of some interest to the reader. Despite the rave reviews (Ms. Hayward had connections, after all), I imagine many readers got tired of slogging through the book in search of juicy material. Another problem is that the book is poorly organized, jumping around in time when a linear narrative would have worked much better.

Ms. Hayward also ignores her career, although there wasn't much to it. Although she was rather amateurish appearing opposite Jerry Orbach in the film Mad Dog Coll, she displayed real ability in the Twilight Zone episode "The Masks." She only amassed 12 credits, however. She also had a brief modeling career although her looks were average.

If you actually want to read a biography of the great Margaret Sullavan, I recommend Margaret Sullavan, Child by Fate by Lawrence J. Quirk.

Verdict: Well-written but seriously flawed memoir. **1/2. 

STUPID RECENT MOVIE: THE FAVOURITE

Emma Stone as Abigail Hill
THE FAVOURITE (2018). Director: Yorgos Lanthimos.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) supposedly rules England but most of her decisions of state are made by her confidante and lover, Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Into this household comes Sarah's cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone of La La Land), who once was a lady herself, but thanks to her now-dead alcoholic father, has become a mere servant subject to Sarah's patronizing attitude. But Abigail has her own ambitions, and manages to draw the attention and favor of the queen, eventually replacing Rachel in Anne's bed. But Rachel is not about to take that, uh, lying down, and Abigail may have to take drastic steps to remain "The Favourite."

Olivia Coleman as the queen 
The Favourite takes actual historical characters, uses some of the bare facts of their inter-relationships, then pretty much invents everything else -- The Favourite is the very epitome of "dramatic license." Thrown out of the queen's favor, Sarah did intimate that there might have been a sexual relationship between Anne and Abigail, and presented a very negative portrait of  the queen in her memoirs. However, later biographers, who were much more objective, say that Anne was not the dunderhead she was portrayed as in both the memoirs and this movie. While there is no doubt that history has often been subjected to LGBT erasure, there is no real substantiation that a lesbian love triangle existed in the palace in the first place (Anne's husband, Prince George, is never even mentioned let alone depicted, not that would necessarily have meant that she was strictly heterosexual.) But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill
Not that The Favourite necessarily has a good story. Everything is presented in very contemporary terms, vulgarized and dumbed-down, as if the film were a campy black comedy. The acting is professional but not especially memorable (even if Colman managed to net a Best Actress Oscar). The movie seems directed at a young, immature audience who wants their slice of history with lots of sex and a liberal sprinkling of "f" and "c--t" words. Because of the lesbian interplay, I'm also afraid some viewers will see this as some sort of progressive LGBT movie when it is anything but. While I'm not saying the film is homophobic as such, it's hard not to notice that the gay or bisexual ladies in it are pretty much presented as grotesque and not at all sympathetic. The director did not want to really deal with the sexuality of the characters or their attitude towards same, but then the characters are fairly one-dimensional to begin with. (Let me make it clear that I completely disassociate myself from viewers who hated the film simply because it presented LGBT characters.)

Queen Anne's court
Incredibly, The Favourite garnered Oscars and nominations and dozens and dozens of awards (GLAAD even nominated it as "Best Picture," although it didn't win.) What on earth has happened to people's critical faculties these days? The only award the film really deserved was for the cinematography by Robbie Ryan. As with the equally over-rated Moonlight or Call Me By Your Name this is an example of the Academy and Hollywood in general being overly impressed with a film because it is seen as progressive when it really isn't. The historical inaccuracies alone are enough to make this a sham of a production, and I can only imagine that poor Queen Anne, gay or not, is spinning in her grave.

Verdict: This is hardly history -- or herstory. **. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE

Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE  (1971). Director: Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Jules Feiffer.

In college post-WW2, two friends, Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), contemplate getting laid and what type of woman they'd like to wind up with. Sandy begins dating Susan (Candice Bergen), but so does Jonathan, sleeping with Susan behind his friend's back.

Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson
Years go by. Although married, Sandy wants more excitement in the bedroom and hooks up with the more aggressive Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal). while Jonathan shacks up with Bobbie (Ann-Margret of State Fair), who -- a la Rosalind Russell in Picnic -- is almost desperate to get married. Things don't go smoothly with either relationship, but then Jonathan is a complete chauvinistic pig -- his truly disgusting nature becomes even more apparent by the end -- and Sandy, although apparently more "sensitive," isn't much better.

Best friends? Garfunkle and Nicholson
Carnal Knowledge was a popular and admired film in its day, probably due to its frankness, but it doesn't hold up well. It is an absorbing picture nevertheless because of the acting and because there's some suspense over what will happen to the characters. Bergen, Ann-Margret, and Garfunkel (so good you wished he did much more acting) are all excellent, and while Nicholson was already falling into that certain stock "Jack Nicholson" mode, his performance is also good. O'Neal and Rita Moreno are quite effective in smaller roles.

Triangle: Bergen, Garfunkel, with Nicholson in background
But one is left with the sensation that this screenplay was an old and unsatisfactory stage play dusted off by Jules Feiffer and turned into a movie by a compliant Mike Nichols working in a Woody Allen mode. The movie, deliberately paced and with long takes, is expertly shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno [Haunted Summer]. Some scenes, such as when Jonathan shows Sandy and his new girlfriend slides of all of the women he's screwed (Susan gets in there by "mistake"), are quite contrived. Mike Nichols also directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Verdict: Two pigs in a poke. **1/2.

BERNARDINE

Pat Boone and Dick Sargent
BERNARDINE (1957). Director: Henry Levin.

Some high school pals in a club imagine the perfect woman and for unaccountable reasons call her "Bernardine." One afternoon Sanford Wilson (Dick Sargent) meets a beautiful young lady named Jean (Terry Moore of Mighty Joe Young), and he is instantly smitten -- she is his Bernardine. The other guys in the club also think Jean is special, but her relationship with Sanford hits the rocks when she meets Langley (James Drury), the handsome older brother of Sanford's friend, Beau (Pat Boone). With a little help from his friends, Sanford tries to win the hand of fair lady.

Terry Moore and Dick Sargent
Although Pat Boone and Terry Moore are top-billed in Bernardine, the main character and the one who gets the most running time, is Dick Sargent's Sanford. Pat Boone, playing a very unlikable person (although most of the boys in the film are unlikable) does have some screen time and gets to warble three numbers, the okay title tune, the highly sexist "Technique," and the more memorable "Love Letters in the Sand," which I believe was a big hit for Boone, who kind of imitates Der Bingle a bit. Terry Moore actually has very little to do in the film considering she is the leading lady. Bernardine asks us to accept Sargent, Boone, Ronnie Burns, and others as high school students when they have clearly left their teenage years far behind them. This makes their behavior at times seem borderline grotesque. They are particularly obnoxious to a nerd named Kinswood (Hooper Dunbar), although eventually he's somewhat accepted by the others.

Janet Gaynor
Natalie Schafer plays Boone's mother in a couple of brief scenes, but the stand-out in this is Janet Gaynor [Sunrise], who plays Sargent's mom and is given a couple of strong moments. "It's crazy, it's wild, it's improbable -- but don't tell me you passed!" she says to Sanford, who is not a great student. Sargent has some good moments, too, but again he's too old, his character isn't very appealing, and the more serious moments when he's dealing with heartbreak are almost worse than the comedy sequences. Although Sargent subsequently appeared with Boone in Mardi Gras, his film career never really developed and he mostly did television. Walter Abel and Dean Jagger are also in the film. This was Pat Boone's first movie and Janet Gaynor's last; she had two television credits after that.

Verdict: In spite of "Love Letters in the Sand," this is so bad it's depressing. *1/2. 

INDECENT / VANITY FAIR

Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp
INDECENT (aka Vanity Fair/1932). Director: Chester M. Franklin.

"I do hope I'm going to give satisfaction." -- Becky.

Becky Sharp (Myrna Loy), who has beauty and brains but no money, gets a taste of the good life when she is taken in by her wealthy friend, Amelia (Barbara Kent). Amelia's brother Joseph (Billy Bevan) has a yen for Becky, but while she almost tricks him into marriage, he manages to get out of the trap. Becoming a governess for Sir Pitt Crawley (Lionel Belmore), Becky is caught between the lustful advances of Sir Pitt and the more refined passes of Crawley's son, Rawdon (Conway Tearle), whom she marries. But things don't go smoothly for the couple after Rawdon is disinherited by his jealous father. And things get worse after that ...

Billy Bevan and Myrna Loy
Indecent is a credible, updated version of Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" which revises things due to the change in locale and time period -- there are no references to Napoleon or Waterloo in this version -- but remains fairly faithful to the basic events and spirit of the story. Although not as bombastic as Miriam Hopkins in the later Becky Sharp, Loy gives a very good performance in this, and she has a host of talented if lesser-known co-stars. There is some inventive camera work in the film, which is not that slow-moving, and the finale, with Loy facing her older self in the mirror, is quite grim.

Verdict: Entertaining pre-code drama. ***.

WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?

Dina Merrill and Larry Blyden
WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? NBC Sunday Showcase 1959. Director: Delbert Mann.

"You're intelligent but not smart." -- Sammy to Al.

"Just the opposite of you." -- Al to Sammy.

Sammy Glick (Larry Blyden) is a copy boy for a major NYC newspaper where Al Manheim (John Forsythe) is a columnist. Sammy is going places, and at first he seems admirably full of ambition and initiative. Glick manages to get his own column, then takes a screenplay written by Julian Blumberg (Milton Selzer of Blood and Lace) and sells it to Hollywood. Sammy takes both Al and Julian to LA with him, but somehow Julian's name is left off the credits for the movie. Al realizes that Sammy has a dark side, that he treats people like supernumeraries even though they are the ones with the talent. Al watches helplessly as novelist Kit Sargent (Barbara Rush), who is now writing screenplays for Sammy, falls in love with him even though he wants her for himself. But there are surprises in store for all of these characters ...

Barbara Rush and John Forsythe
What Makes Sammy Run?  is a prime example of the "golden age" of television, where there were meaty scripts and fine actors doing exemplary work, and everyone is at their best in this. Blyden, an excellent performer who died much too early at 49, is superb as Sammy, and I don't think I've ever seen John Forsythe, Dynasty be damned, to better advantage. Barbara Rush is also excellent, as is Dina Merrill [Butterfield 8] as Laurette, the amoral daughter of studio boss H. L. Harrington (an equally good Sidney Blackmer); in fact, I don't think I've ever seen Merrill better. David Opatoshu also scores as production chief Sidney Fineman, who is pushed out in favor of Sammy. Monique van Vooren [Tarzan and the She- Devil] credibly plays a movie star who loses her appeal for Sammy once her movies start slipping at the box office. And there are a host of good character actors in supporting parts as well.

Forstyhe, Monique van Vooren, Blyden, Merrill
What Makes Sammy Run? may have lost some of its edge to certain viewers because the basic themes and characters have been used and re-used many times over the years. I can't count all the times I've seen shows about bitter, self-hating associates complaining about an essential heel (in and out of show business), and backstabbing producers and others are commonplace today both on and off the screen. This was based on a novel by Budd Schulberg, who turned it into a musical (starring Steve Lawrence) co-written by Schulberg's brother, Stuart. (This TV version does not include the songs.) Neither the novel nor the musical were ever turned into a movie, mostly because people feared it would be considered anti-Semitic because Sammy was Jewish. Back in the day Schulberg argued that most of the characters, some of whom were decent guys like Al Manheim, were also Jewish; it was a true cross-section. I have never read the novel, so I don't know if Schulberg explained part of Sammy's hunger not just on his poor tenement upbringing but as a reaction to blatant anti-Semitism -- this is not delved into at all in the TV version.

The TV production makes one major change in that it offers Sammy redemption. In the original story, Sammy is all for pushing Fineman out so that he can take his place, but in the TV show he sticks up for Fineman, tells Harrington that he, Sammy, not only owes Fineman a lot but that Fineman is the best man for the job. This doesn't help Fineman but at least Sammy makes a sincere effort. One could argue that this is out of character for Sammy.

Verdict: A classic in every sense of the word. ***1/2. 

GOOD NEWER MOVIE: LA LA LAND

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone 
LA LA LAND (2019). Written and directed by Damien Chazelle.

Mia (Emma Stone of The Amazing Spider-Man) is an aspiring actress going on auditions and working as a barista in L.A. She encounters jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling of All Good Things), who proves quite obnoxious at first. Gradually the two warm up to one another and begin a relationship. But both have ambitions that may interfere with the permanency of their union. And their idea of success may not be the same. Periodically they and others break into song.

Emma Stone
First let me make it clear that La La Land is not on the list of really superb musicals a la Singin' in the Rain. When Stone and Gosling dance you won't in any sense of the word be reminded of Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly, and they both have mediocre voices. But if you take it on its own terms La La Land has its rewards. The two leads, neither of whom is conventionally attractive, give very good performances and the songs they warble are at least pleasant.

Stone and Gosling 
Linus Sandgren's cinematography is first-class, and there's an interesting opening production number on the freeway. La La Land gets high marks for being visually arresting. But the chief thing I liked about the movie is its coda, a long sequence in which Emma encounters Sebastian years later -- and as people will do -- imagines what her life would have been like had she married him instead of her husband. I think it is this finale that resonates with most viewers and has perhaps led many people to over-rate the movie. Still, it's romantic, well-acted, and good to look at. Damien Chazelle also directed Whiplash. Ryan Gosling is not to be confused with Ryan Reynolds [Green Lantern] even though they look alike.

Verdict: Not a classic but entertaining enough. ***. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

HAPPY HALLOWEEN.

We've got a fresh crop of Halloween horrors this week at Great Old Movies: two Brian De Palma shockers; a modern horror film that eschews the supernatural for common sense; a "classic" starring the ever-delightful Chucky; and the colorized version of a very old favorite with Vincent Price.

And check out some more horror films over at my brother blog, B Movie Nightmare!

Have a great night! 

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL -- IN COLOR!

Who's the bigger bitch? Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (colorized/1959). Produced and directed by William Castle.

Annabelle Loring (Carol Ohmart of The Scarlet Hour) has conceived of the idea of holding a party in a supposedly haunted house and having the guests arrive in hearses. Unfortunately, her husband, Frederick (Vincent Price), has his own ideas, and chooses the guests himself, offering all of them $10,000 if they stay locked in the house all night. There's no love lost between Frederick and Annabelle, whom her husband sees as nothing more than an amoral gold-digger. The guests -- test pilot Lance (Richard Long); gambling columnist Ruth (Julie Mitchum); psychiatrist David (Alan Marshal of Lydia); Loring's employee Nora (Carolyn Craig of Giant); and the house's weird owner Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr.)  -- can only wonder what, if anything, the Lorings are up to. Then somebody is found hanging ...

Carolyn Craig and Richard Long
Discovering that House on Haunted Hill had been colorized gave me an excuse to watch this guilty pleasure all over again and despite its lack of logic and its kind of clunkiness, it is a pleasure. Chief among the delights is the interplay between Price and Ohmart, who are wonderful as the combative and sneaky spouses. We mustn't forget the creepy and melodramatic score by Van Alexander which works beautifully with this kind of pseudo-scary and definitely amusing material. A scene late in the picture with a skeleton rising out of a pool of acid in the house's basement  undoubtedly had all the kids in 1959 screaming their heads off with delight. Hokey it may be, but the flick is a lot of fun.

As to the colorization, which is well done, I have to wonder if it really adds anything to the picture. At least the addition of color doesn't strip the film of atmosphere, thank goodness, which it has in abundance despite its often silly but always-macabre tone. Julie Mitchum was the older sister of Robert Mitchum; this was the last of her eight credits.

Verdict: Perfect Halloween viewing. ***. 

CHILD'S PLAY (1988)

Best Buddies? Chucky and little Alex Vincent
CHILD'S PLAY (1988). Director: Tom Holland.

A very nice widow named Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) wants to get her little son Andy (Alex Vincent) a popular "Good Guy" doll but finds it too expensive. However, she manages to acquire one from a street vendor and brings it home to her delighted six-year-old son. Neither of them realize that the doll -- Chucky by name -- has been possessed by the spirit of nasty strangler Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif of Dario Argento's Trauma), who is out to get revenge on certain people, such as cop Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), and anyone else who gets in his way. But both Andy and then his mother will have a tough time convincing anyone that this weird little doll is actually alive ...

Chris Sarandon and Catherine Hicks
Child's Play manages to be both suspenseful and creepy in spite of its absurd premise, thanks to some adroit direction and editing and the casting of Catherine Hicks, who is quite good as the mother, and little Alex Vincent, who is sympathetic and appealing as the innocent and rather resourceful Andy. Chris Sarandon [The Light in the Piazza] plays the cop on the case as the stereotypical blase and gruff detective and is okay on that level. But one might wonder why no one would think Chucky was a pygmy or midget before they would accept a supernatural explanation. It's also a little strange that no one in the subway remarks upon a six-year-old traveling by himself on the subway -- we New Yorkers are not that indifferent to what's going on around us.

Don't make Chucky mad
One of the best sequences has Chucky attacking Norris as he drives in his cop car, desperately trying to keep his body up off the seat when Chucky starts trying to thrust a knife into his private parts. Considering his small size, Chucky manages to inflict a lot of damage on certain individuals, such as Karen's friend, Maggie (played by Lee Grant's daughter, Dinah Manoff), who babysits Alex when Karen has to work and comes afoul of that demonic plastic toddler. An interesting touch is that the spell that put the dying Dourif's spell in the doll will eventually turn him completely human. (Although Dourif tries his damnedest to have his consciousness wind up inside Andy, he might as well stay inside the doll as in either case he'll still be a child.)

Child's Play was so successful that it was followed by several sequels, and also engendered a terrible remake that just came out this year. Tom Holland also directed the memorable Fright Night, which starred Sarandon. Child's Play may have been influenced by a segment of the TV film Trilogy of Terror, which also featured a lively killer doll.

Verdict: Appealing players help put over this pretty exciting horror flick. ***. 

DRESSED TO KILL (1980)

Fateful encounter: Angie Dickinson and Ken Baker
DRESSED TO KILL (1980). Written and directed by Brian De Palma.

Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is a sexually-dissatisfied Manhattan housewife who encounters a dark, pursuing stranger (Ken Baker) at a museum and has an assignation with him. Angie has a son, Peter (Keith Gordon), who is a science genius, and she sees her therapist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) on a regular basis. After Kate is gruesomely murdered in an elevator after her illicit rendezvous, Peter teams up with a witness, the hooker Liz (Nancy Allen). to find out if his mother's killer could be one of the doctor's psychotic patients. Their investigation puts both of them in harm's way.

Michael Caine 
Dressed to Kill is clearly a modern-day take on Psycho, if not quite in that classic's league. (De Palma was already under the Master's influence with Sisters and Obsession.) We have the blond female protagonist who is dispatched fairly early in the film, and a killer who may be a genuine transsexual (and not a sort-of transvestite as in Psycho). Then there's De Palma's heavy but totally appropriate reliance on a Hitchcock-like subjective camera. Indeed, the entire film has a stunning and stylish look due to the superior cinematography of Ralf D. Bode and it is all swathed in an evocative score by Pino Donaggio. 

Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen
In the unrated version of the film, which is more graphic both in terms of nudity and violence, the elevator slashing is even more disturbing than in the original. But the more memorable sequences include the aforementioned museum pick up and the encounter that Liz has with both some punks on one hand, and the slasher on the other, on a subway train. In addition to using Donaggio from his earlier film Carrie, De Palma employs another climactic nightmare sequence that is quite chilling and very well-crafted. Gerald B. Greenburg was the editor.

Angie Dickinson
What the script says about De Palma's attitude toward women I'll hold off on until my review of Body Double. I don't think the director was in any way intending to make a negative statement about transsexuals in Dressed to Kill -- in fact, he includes a clip from a Phil Donahue show where the guest is a happy and well-adjusted trans woman. The performances in this are all good, with Caine a stand-out, and there is also fine work from Dennis Franz as a cynical but likable cop assigned to the case. De Palma's career after this film has been hit or miss, with a couple of notable Al Pacino starrers, Casualties of War and Mission: Impossible being decided highlights. He's had a  number of clunkers in the suspense department, although Body Double has its devotees.

Verdict: Not an out-and-out masterpiece like Psycho, but a very good, very well-directed suspense thriller and high-class slasher. ***1/2. 

BODY DOUBLE

Deborah Shelton and Craig Wasson
BODY DOUBLE (1984). Director/Producer/Co-writer: Brian De Palma.

Jake (Craig Wasson), a struggling actor, gets fired from a vampire movie because of his claustrophobia, and finds out his girlfriend (Barbara Crampton) is cheating on him. A new acquaintance, fellow actor Sam (Gregg Henry), tells him he knows of a sublet he can use for awhile, an obvious sex-pad high over Hollywood. Sam shows Jake a telescope and points it toward a house across the way where the pretty occupant does a nightly naked  and provocative dance. Before long Jake is following this woman (Deborah Shelton), and discovers that someone else much more sinister is after her as well. Then there's a horrible murder ...

Craig Wasson and Gregg Henry
Body Double is another one of De Palma's homages to Hitchcock -- especially Vertigo and Rear Window -- although I don't imagine that the Master would have been satisfied with this convoluted and often senseless screenplay which doesn't add up very well when you give it any thought (and which also cries out for meatier characterizations). One could also argue quite successfully that De Palma's attempts to cover up the true identity of the killer are fairly clumsy. On the other hand, none of that matter's much if you like De Palma's post-Hitchcockian style and are willing to suspend disbelief almost from the first frame to the last, although De Palma really pushes it in at least one sequence.

For instance, there's the ludicrous scene when Wasson and Shelton, after the latter has had her purse snatched on the beach and Wasson has pursued the thief, begin suddenly making out (these two are an improbable couple in the first place) and De Palma apes the revolving-camera kiss of Vertigo. But while Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak might be seen as a somewhat improbable couple themselves, Hitchcock's scene plays beautifully (for one thing, there\s an emotional connection between the two people) and the scene in Body Double is actually laughable. For this and other reasons Body Double was excoriated by the critics, although -- the beach scene aside -- it is very skillfully and smoothly directed by De Palma. At times De Palma seems to be channeling Italian director Dario Argento as well as Hitchcock.

De Palma also came in for heat because of the gory (if not relentlessly graphic) power drill murder of the cringing female victim. It's all well and good for the director to claim that he's only operating on the "damsel in distress" principle, but even then women were not exactly weak and helpless. (At least Dario Argento is more honest in that he simply prefers beautiful, sexy women as victims  -- we'll ignore for now what that says about his psychology.) De Palma found the criticism of this sequence laughable, but he knew it would outrage people and he also knew that the controversy would sell lots of tickets.

Wasson and Melanie Griffith
De Palma not only imitates Hitchcock but his own Dressed to Kill. A main character teams up with a hooker to unmask a killer in Dressed, and in Body Double Jake at least tries to team up with the porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith, whose mother Tippi Hedren starred in two Hitchcock classics). At one point both characters participate in a rock video for the song "Relax" by the group Frankie Goes to Hollywood. This scene seemed sexy and outre in the eighties but now seems just a bit forced and clunky. In any case, you get the impression that De Palma, although he waves away charges of misogyny, is one of those truly old-fashioned fellows who classifies women as either virgins or whores!

Craig Wasson gives a very good performance as the somewhat nerdy, voyeuristic but concerned Jake (even if the shadowy victim in this is pretty much forgotten by story's end). Shelton and Griffith are supposed to be little more than sexy kewpie dolls and are good enough on that level. Busy actor Guy Boyd makes an impression as the distrustful Detective McLean. Pino Donaggio's score is effective and Stephen H. Burum's cinematography is first-rate.

NOTE: De Palma had wanted to use an actual porn star to play Holly Body, but the studio objected too strenuously. De Palma substituted this thriller for Cruising.

Verdict: Your call. I enjoyed it while being aware of its all-too-obvious flaws. ***.

REGRESSION

Ethan Hawke
REGRESSION (2015). Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar.

In 1990 Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke of Sinister) investigates a case wherein a 17-year-old girl, Angela (Emma Watson), has accused her father, John (David Dencik), of raping her. She also tells stories of numerous masked people -- Satanists -- coming into her room and holding unholy rituals. Kenner doesn't believe in Satan, but he does believe that there are cults of Satanists performing rituals involving animal and even child sacrifice. As he investigates further, he becomes more and more paranoid, and is convinced people are following him. He also discovers that at least one police officer, George (Aaron Ashmore of Fear Island), may be one of the Satanists.

Hawke and Aaron Ashmore
One thing I liked about Regression is that it isn't the usual sub-literate Church vs Satan movie. I believe the lack of supernatural and grisly events is what turned many critics against the picture, as it is absorbing, well-acted, and well-made for the most part. Hawke and Watson are fine, and there is also good work from Ashmore, Dencik, David Thewlis [Wonder Woman] as a psychiatrist, Peter MacNeill as the chief of police, Lothaire Bluteau as a creepy Reverend, a dynamic Dale Dickey as Angela's grandmother, and Devon Bostick as her troubled brother, Roy. (If I have one quibble about the film is that it's hard to feel complete sympathy for a character who throws his son out of the house for being gay, although this is not necessarily condoned.) 

Verdict: Nominal horror film has the courage to eschew graphic, nauseating gore and keep the devil out of the equation. ***.