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

Monday, January 28, 2008


THE JOKER IS WILD (1957). Director: Charles Vidor.

Hollywood-style biopic of singer-comedian Joe E. Lewis, who has his throat slashed after he leaves one mob-owned club to go to a better one against his bosses wishes. He manages to continue his career but can't commit to one woman who loves him (Jeanne Crain) and marries another (Mitzi Gaynor), but would rather drink, gamble and carouse. Frank Sinatra generally offers a perfectly good if second tier performance but does have at least two great moments: when he collapses in horror in the hospital after fully realizing what has been done to him, and when he gets drunk while giving his night club act. Sinatra introduced the song “All the Way” in this and gives a great performance of it in the opening minutes of the film. In later sequences, of course, he has to sing without his usual elan to show how Lewis' voice has been adversely affected. Crain and Gaynor are both fine, as is Eddie Albert as his pianist and friend, but Beverly Garland, a long-underrated actress, really scores as Albert's wife. After South Pacific Mitzi Gaynor was seen as kind of “white bread,” but in this she's rather sexy. Not a great movie by any means, but it holds the attention and is certainly a good bet for Sinatra fans. It also gets points for not having a standard happy ending, although some will be annoyed by its inconclusiveness.
Verdict: Worth a look. **1/2.


POPEYE (1980). Director: Robert Altman.

Robert Altman probably wasn't the best choice to helm this live-action adaptation of the classic cartoons, although Popeye is by no means as dreadful as reputed. The trouble is simply that the film isn't well-edited and that the fun peters out long before the conclusion, with silliness and noisiness overtaking humor. Robin Williams isn't bad as Popeye, but Shelley Duvall really steals the show as Olive Oyl, and Wesley Ivan Hurt -- “Swee'pea” -- is one of the cutest babies in the movies. The first half of the picture as Popeye arrives in the fishing village of Sweethaven to find his Pappy is quite charming and entertaining. When Pappy (Ray Walston) shows up, however, we've got one Popeye too many. The climax with Popeye pursuing a captured Olive Oyl isn't well handled by Altman and is boring instead of exciting, although there is a nifty, bad-tempered octopus on hand. Jules Feiffer's screenplay is perfectly workable but gets bogged down in the latter half. However, the scenic design is excellent, and Nillson's songs are memorable, especially “Sweethaven” [despite the closing chords that remind one of Annie's “Tomorrow”] and “Everything is Food.” Paul L. Smith makes a nice Bluto and Roberta Maxwell scores as Nana Oyl. Despite its undeniable imperfections, there are a lot of good things in this movie, including the staging of “Everything is Food,” and it's all quite cute and clever.
Verdict: Fun if you're in a silly mood and don't expect too much. **1/2.


BLACK ZOO (1963) Director: Robert Gordon.

This long-unseen horror thriller is one of three films producer Herman Cohen did with star Michael Gough (the other two are Konga and Horrors of the Black Museum). Like the others, Black Zoo is lurid, somewhat campy fun. Gough is owner of a zoo as well as member of a weird cult of animal worshipers. Threatened with losing the zoo and his beloved tigers and lions -- who lie around his living room like treasured and pampered guests -- Gough sics his pets on anyone who dares to get in his way. His wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper) has a trained chimp act and wishes that hubby were kinder to the handsome mute boy Carl (Rod Lauren) who helps him with the murders. Gough is florid and easily enraged, but as an actor he puts on a lively, energetic show, and Cooper is excellent and equally energetic. The interesting cast also includes Virgina Grey as a booking agent, Jerome Cowan as an entrepreneur, Elisha Cook, Jr. as a zoo worker, and even Ed Platt ("the chief" on Get Smart) as a detective. One of the most interesting scenes is an funeral for the dead tiger Baron that takes place in a misty forest by night. Cooper and Gough have a great, lively dinner scene that ends in an hysterical (in more ways than one) fight. Cooper now plays Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless; one of her co-stars on that show is Jerry Douglas, who plays a police lab man in Black Zoo. [He's not very good at his job, however, as he thinks a gorilla is "a member of the chimp family!"] What's most surprising about this entertaining picture isn't the final revelation as much as how moving it is. Rod Lauren hasn't a word of dialogue but his expressive face says volumes. (Ironically, the actor-singer was accused years later of hiring someone to murder his wife.) Script by Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel.

Verdict: Lions and tigers and apes, oh my! ***.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


THE SISTERS (1938). Director: Anatole Litvak. NOTE: This review contains some important plot points.

Now this is pure soap opera. The movie follows three sisters – Bette Davis, Anita Louise, Jane Bryan -- and their romantic up and downs over the years, and even features (somewhat unnecessarily) the San Francisco earthquake. Louise marries an older man but falls for a much younger one. Bryan finds happiness with her sister's cast-off boyfriend, Dick Foran. Davis falls for failed writer Errol Flynn, who goes off to sea in desperation and leaves her in the lurch. Both Davis and Flynn felt the film should end with Davis rejecting Flynn when he shows up years later and marrying her devoted boss Ian Hunter, but the studio and audiences of the time preferred the “happier” ending of Davis being reunited with Flynn. The picture is well-acted (even Flynn is uplifted by Davis' obvious on and off-screen love for him) and well-produced, but it remains a minor soaper with an unrealistic and unsatisfying conclusion. Flynn's character is not developed that well, and the two other sisters are given short shrift. Another half hour added to the running time might have helped.
Verdict: For Davis fanatics primarily. **1/2.


SIEGFRIED (1924). Directed by Fritz Lang. With Paul Richter, Theodor Loos, Margarete Schon, Hanna Ralph.

This is the first half of Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen, which employs characters from German folklore. Siegfried sets out to win the hand of fair Kriemhild, but first he has to help her brother, King Gunther, win over the completely disinterested queen of Iceland, Brunhilde. Using magical items given to him by the King of the Dwarfs, Siegfried helps Gunther best Brunhilde through trickery. When this comes out, Brunhilde exacts a terrible but understandable revenge. The picture builds in power and interest as it goes along, aided immensely by intense performances from the leads, some elaborate sets, and a splendid sequence wherein Siegfried defeats the colossal dragon Fafnir, played by a highly sophisticated machine. Snatches of Wagnerian opera (from the Ring cycle, also employing some of these characters) played on organ in the background add to the total effect, although they don’t always match with what’s going on in the movie.
Verdict: Interesting silent with some great effects work. ***.


HERE COME THE GIRLS (1953). Director: Claude Binyon.

Bob Hope plays a talentless, irritating, egotistical chorus boy who suddenly finds himself the lead of a Broadway show instead of the handsome star (Tony Martin). It seems that leading lady Arlene Dahl's ex-lover (Robert Strauss) has become a crazed killer who wants to murder anyone Dahl loves, hence she feigns affection for the hapless Hope and pretends to blow off Martin. Rosemary Clooney is the "nice" girl who loves Hope but finds him too easily drawn into Dahl's sinister web as well as a world of money and stardom. While there are only sporadic laugh-out-loud moments, Here Come the Girls has a highly workable storyline and is often quite amusing, with Hope in good form. The suspense is in wondering how the hell it will all work out for Hope. Great ending!

Verdict: Cute picture with a kind of dark premise. **1/2.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


TOPPER TAKES A TRIP (1939) Director: Norman Z. McLeod.

The first sequel to Topper is a charming and amusing film in which Roland Young as the harried banker Topper discovers that lady ghost Constance Bennett is not quite through with him, taking him to the French Riviera to win back the delightfully befuddled Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke, pictured), who has decided to divorce her Cosmo. It seems that Mrs. Topper's “friend,” Mrs. Parkhurst (Verree Teasdale), is part of a group who match young gigolos with wealthy widows and divorcees, and there's a certain baron (Alexander D'arcy) who has his eye on Cosmo Topper's millions by way of his wife. [The baron asks Mrs. Parkhurst if Clara Topper is pretty. “Well, she has scads of money,” Parkhurst replies. “She's pretty,” says the baron.] Franklin Pangborn is his usual riot as the hotel manager who is an associate of the baron's and Teasdale's, and Alan Mowbray is as excellent as ever as the wise, long-suffering Topper butler. Burke, Young, and Bennett are all in top form as well. While the movie isn't full of belly-laughs as such, it is consistently entertaining and funny. The third and final movie in the series, Topper Returns, is also worthwhile and well-acted.
Verdict: Great fun! ***.


THE MEDIUM (1951). Director: Gian-Carlo Menotti, based on his opera. Conductor: Thomas Schippers; Symphony Orchestra of Rome.

A phony medium named Madame Flora or “Baba” (Marie Powers) who lives with her daughter Monica (Anna Maria Alberghetti, who is “introduced” in this film) and a mute boy named Toby (Leo Coleman) feels a “genuine” spectral touch during a séance and wonders if it was real or a practical joke. Obsessing over this, her descent into madness eventually leads to tragedy. The Medium is the flip dark side of Menotti's far superior Amahl and the Night Visitors; the piece is “good theater” but the music, despite some lyrical [“Monica, Monica, dance the waltz”], sensitive, and very effective moments, isn't all that memorable. Menotti directs his opera with a deft hand; this is not a filmed record of an opera production but a genuine film with a moody atmosphere and some striking black and white photography. Alberghetti, who later starred with the late Jerry Orbach in Broadway's Carnival before embarking on a brief Hollywood career (Ten Thousand Bedrooms with Dean Martin), has a beautiful voice and is a good actress. Marie Powers is excellent and dynamic as the crazy, tormented Madame Flora. Leo Coleman is not a boy, but a full-grown black man with a highly expressive face who looks like he can take care of himself; he is also very good. The wind up of the film is moving and pathetic. Menotti composed many different operas, but he never really topped Amahl. Often referred to as an American Puccini, he was never really in that Italian composer's league.
Verdict: Interesting curiosity. **1/2.


A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956). Director: Gerd Oswald. NOTE: Some plot details are discussed in this review.

Okay adaptation of Ira Levin's suspense novel features Robert Wagner as a charming sociopathic killer who shoves his pregnant girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) off of a roof and then zeros in on her equally wealthy sister (Virginia Leith). Mary Astor is pretty much wasted as Wagner's mother; Jeffrey Hunter offers an odd performance as a pipe-smoking junior detective; and George Macready is positively weird – like Igor in one of the Frankenstein movies – as Leith and Woodward's cold-hearted father. The CinemaScope photography is very good, although Oswald often employs very, very long takes [often the fashion in wide-screen movies of the period] which aren't very cinematic. However, the movie is entertaining and suspenseful, and Wagner's performance is smooth if not outstanding. [The bad remake starring Matt Dillon makes little sense, as Dillon already seems like a hoodlum before he commits a single murder.] It's hard to tell which murder is more disturbing: Woodward's high-story plunge, or the shooting death of the disk jockey that Wagner frames for the murder even as the frightened young man (Robert Quarry) pleads for his life. Woodward is as good as ever and Leith is more than adequate.

Verdict: Intriguing, if imperfect, thriller. ***.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


CALL ME MADAM (1953). Director: Walter Lang.

Entertaining if minor adaptation of Irving Berlin musical stars a vibrant Ethel Merman as Sally Adams, who becomes ambassador to the Duchy of “Lichtenbourg” (Adams thinks that “Duchy” means that the people are Dutch!) She falls hard for General Cosmo Constantine, who is very well played by George Sanders. The delightfully irritable Billy DeWolfe is annoyed by Adams' usurping of his power so he causes trouble any way he can, while her young press attaché (Donald O'Connor) finds himself falling for the princess (Vera-Ellen) who is betrothed to a handsome sourpuss (Helmut Dantine). It all works out okay in the end, of course. Merman and Sanders are a rather odd pairing, but they actually play very well together, and the other cast members are all fine. There are times, however, when some of the funny lines aren't given the best delivery. Songs include such standards as “It's a Lovely Day Today” and “I Wonder Why/You're Just in Love” (“I hear music and there's no one there”), and there are other nice tunes as well [“Old-Fashioned Idea;” “International Rag;” “The Best Thing for You”]. By the way, Sanders' singing is not dubbed. He reveals an excellent baritone voice in this. Sanders was signed to replace Ezio Pinza in the Broadway production of South Pacific – and would have been both dramatically and vocally marvelous in it – when he chickened out at the last minute.
Verdict: Not a masterpiece, but tuneful and entertaining. ***.


ADVENTURES OF THE FLYING CADETS (1943). 13 chapter Universal serial. Directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins.

Johnny Downs is a troubled cadet [of the L.A. Air School]. Danny Collins, who, with some buddies, is accused of being responsible for a series of murders actually committed by The Black Hangman. The victims belonged to a group of seven men who traveled to Africa to find a cave which supposedly holds valuable elements coveted by the Germans. We learn early on that the Black Hand is actually Arthur Galt (Robert Armstrong) who feigns friendship with the boys while trying to trip them up or kill them at every turn. Although there are some exciting moments in the serial – such as an aerial descent and near-crash into a flaming crater – Adventures of the Flying Cadets is rather leisurely-paced. It was also a major mishap to reveal the villain's identity so early in the serial.
Verdict: As cliffhanger serials go, this one is pretty minor. **.


MYSTERY HOUSE (1938). Director: Noel Smith. 

When it is determined that a man who supposedly took his own life was actually murdered right on the verge of naming the embezzler on his board of directors, nearly every one of the people in a snowbound hunting lodge becomes a suspect. Dick Purcell stars as a detective to tries to get at the truth at the urging of the victim's daughter (Anne Nagel), and Elspeth Dudgeon is fun as the elderly wheelchair-bound aunt who has her own secrets. William Hopper, son of actress/Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, later played Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV series. Mystery House is a short, fast-moving mystery -- based on a novel by Mignon Eberhart -- that has virtually no real style but somehow manages to hold the attention. The "Oomph" girl, Ann Sheridan, adds some energy as a nurse.

Verdict: Good for a rainy afternoon or just before bed. **1/2. 


CHARLES BOYER: THE RELUCTANT LOVER. Larry Swindell. Doubleday; 1983.

This classic biography of the great French actor is an excellent study of Boyer's life and career, culminating in his tragic final days. With insight and intelligence, Swindell takes us from Boyer's early days in France, his attempts to make it in Hollywood before finally succeeding, and the ups and downs of his career as both romantic leading man and respected character actor. Swindell also illuminates the man's personality and character and analyzes his acting technique in various films. Then there is his work for the French during the war years, and his irritation at being dubbed “the great lover” when he simply saw himself as a serious actor. No, he never said “Come with me to the Casbah!” in Algiers. The tragedy of his final days and what happened to him and his family will leave many readers in tears.

Verdict: A superb biography. ****. 


THREE BAD SISTERS (1956). Director: Gilbert Kay.

A millionaire goes berserk during a plane trip and causes a crash in which he’s killed. His sister blames the pilot, a handsome lug named Jim (John Bromfield) who becomes involved with the dead man’s three daughters. Lorna (Sara Shane) actually isn’t so bad, although even she doesn’t seem so put out by her father’s demise. Vicki (Marla English) is the sexy youngster who comes afoul of her beautiful older sister Valerie (the truly beauteous Kathleen Hughes), as the two have a really nifty, rather sadistic "cat fight" which leads to tragedy. Brett Halsey appears briefly as one of Vicki’s cast-off boyfriends, and Madge Kennedy is fun as the sisters’ gun-totin’ Aunt Martha, who tries to shoot Jim. A hilarious moment occurs afterward when Lorna says to Jim as they prepare to go back into the mansion where Aunt Martha lives: "If Aunt Martha isn’t cordial, please overlook it." Cordial? In the previous scene she tried to murder the guy (nobody calls the police and has her arrested for this, even though it’s clearly a case of attempted homicide)! Okay, this is a dumb, badly acted, silly movie, but it holds the attention and Gerald Drayson Adams’ script has some interesting facets, such as the business with the sisters daring each other to dive off a cliff at just the right second when the tide comes in and the water is deep enough to survive. From Bel-Air, which was not exactly MGM.

Verdict: Amusing trash. **1/2.

Friday, January 18, 2008


STAGE FRIGHT (1950). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

A cute little boy scout walks up to a stage where a glamorous singer is performing and holds out a doll that has a big bloodstain on its white dress -- the singer gasps and looks at the doll in horror. I'd be willing to bet that it was this scene that prompted Hitchcock to film Stage Fright, which is one of his lesser-loved movies but has its moments. Aspiring actress Eve (Jane Wyman) hides out the man she loves, Jonathan (Richard Todd), in her father's house after he tells her that he helped the woman he loves, actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), cover up the supposedly accidental death of her husband. Hoping to ferret out the truth, Eve replaces Charlotte's personal maid and dresser even as she romances and falls for the police inspector on the case, Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding). If you're expecting an edge-of-your-seat Hitchcock thriller, look elsewhere - Stage Fright is more along the lines of a romantic comedy, and it has some very funny dialogue by Whitfield Cook (screenwriter) and Alma Reville (adaptor), among others. The picture is entertaining without quite coming to a full boil, although it does have many interesting segments, the aforementioned boy scout scene chief among them. The performances are also top-notch, not just the four leads but Alastair Sim as Eve's father, Kay Walsh as Charlotte's nasty regular dresser, Joyce Grenfell as the toothy comical gal at the shooting gallery, and Sybil Thorndike as Eve's mother. Pat Hitchcock does her customary good turn as a friend of Eve's, and Hitch himself shows up forty minutes into the movie as a quizzical man who passes by Eve on the sidewalk. Crisply photographed by Wilkie Cooper. One big dramatic flaw in the film is that by the time the revelations come Eve's feelings for the hunted man have done a big about-face.

Verdict: Not one of Hitchcock's thrilling masterpieces but certainly not without interest. ***.


WHISTLING IN THE DARK (1941). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

It's easy to see why this comedy-thriller starring the likable Red Skelton was so popular, engendering a couple of sequels. Skelton plays a radio detective called The Fox, who is kidnapped by the head of a cult (Conrad Veidt) who wants him to help him and his gang come up with a way to bump off a certain individual without the crime being traced back to them. The victim is the nephew of a wealthy woman who left money to the cult, only they can't collect it until the nephew is deceased. Skelton's colleague and fiancee Ann Rutherford (pictured), as well as his boss's daughter (Virginia Grey) – who has a yen for him -- are also kidnapped to put pressure on Skelton. Skelton comes up with a murder plot but tries to outwit his captors and save the life of the nephew, who is due to be poisoned while traveling on an airplane. While the movie is certainly never as nail-biting or cinematic as a Hitchcock picture, it does manage a good mixture of genuine suspense and laughs. The performances are all top-notch – Rutherford is particularly effective – and Mariska Aldridge is a riot as the hatchet-faced Hilda.
Verdict: Lots of fun. ***.


ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957). Director: Roger Corman.

This is it: a group of scientists are trapped on an island with two – count 'em – two giant crabs who are out to rule the world. These crabs are not only big but intelligent, as they have devoured all of the members of the previous expedition and absorbed their conscious minds and brain power. The crabs send out heat waves which cause explosions designed to shrink the size of the island so that their potential victims will have nowhere to run. It ain't Shakespeare, but this creepy movie is well-directed and much more imaginative than the general rampaging giant monster movie. It is also amusing without being campy. The giant crabs are as adorable as they are ugly – they even have big eyes with eyelids that slowly open just when you think the little darlings are asleep. A fast-paced, entertaining gem of a horror flick that never takes itself too seriously. The actors generally play with conviction, although they never seem quite as nervous as you or I would be, wondering if we'll not only wind up as a crab dinner but wind up eating one of our friends for dessert afterward! The cast includes Pamela Duncan, Russell Johnson, Corman regulars Ed Nelson, Beach Dickerson and Leslie Bradley, and others. 

Verdict: Great old monster flick. ***.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


VAL LEWTON: MAN IN THE SHADOWS (2008). Writer/director: Kent Jones. Narrated by Martin Scorcese.

Turner Classic Movies presented this interesting, informative look at the life and work of the producer and writer Val Lewton, who is best-known for a series of moody, low-budget, yet elegant horror films from the 1940's. Lewton published several novels and works of non-fiction before entering the movie business, and he tried to make tasteful films that were often given highly exploitative titles such as I Walked with a Zombie. He tried other genres in later days but these films failed to make much of an impression. Like many documentaries of this nature, the film tries a bit too hard to convince us of Lewton's genuis, and some of the film scholars who talk about him are pretentious to the extreme. They also ignore the fact that if Lewton's films worked it wasn't due to his influence alone -- he worked with highly gifted cinematographers and directors such as Jacques Tourneur. (Tourneur directed one of the finest horror films ever made, Curse of the Demon, in 1958, and Lewton had nothing to do with it, although it could be argued that it was influenced by the Lewton style, which did seem to pervade a film regardless of the director.) Some of Lewton's films still hold up quite well, while others are vastly over-rated, but his work remains interesting and watchable. Talking about him as if he were on a par with Hitchcock, however, is seriously over-stating the matter.

Verdict: Holds the attention. ***.


I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Director: Jacques Tourneur.

One of the better-known horror films produced by Val Lewton, this is typically tasteful, moody and interesting, if it never quite jells. Although Lewton is said to have appropriated the plot of Jane Eyre for the movie -- and there are plot similarities -- this is really nothing like Jane Eyre (the first film version with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, with a score by Bernard Herrmann, is far superior to this, for one thing). Frances Dee comes to Haiti to care for Jessica Holland, who acts as if she's been lobotomized but supposedly suffers from the disastrous effects of a fever. Dee learns that there is bad blood between her husband Paul (Tom Conway) and his half brother Wesley (James Ellison) because Jessica and Wesley had been planning on running away together. Conway is supposed to be such a fine man -- and Jessica a viper -- but we never really get to learn her side of things, and Paul -- although Conway's performance is good -- never seems like that nice a fellow. Dee is fine, but James Ellison is a little too lightweight to convincingly get across Wesley's torment over the sad fate of the woman he illicitly loved. Edith Barrett (one of the wives of Vincent Price) nearly steals the picture as Wesley and Paul's mother. There is some very interesting dialogue in Curt Siodmak's screenplay, such as when Conway tells Dee that most of the inhabitants of St. Sebastian were brought over in slave ships and had miserable lives. Which is why they "weep when a child is born and make merry at a funeral." The atmospheric photography is by J. Roy Hunt. Of the African-American cast members, Theresa Harris as the maid, Alma, and calypso singer Sir Lancelot, make the best impression, while Darby Jones certainly has a memorably eerie look as the purported "zombie" Carrefour. There is much to admire in I Walked with a Zombie, but if you're not tuned into its charms, you're liable to think it's much ado about nothing.

Verdict: Okay, but give Jane Eyre a try, too. **1/2.


THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). Director: Mark Robson. 

Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, who was introduced in this film), searches for her missing older sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) in New York with the help of various friends and associates, and learns that she has gotten involved with a bunch of devil worshipers. This is easily one of producer Val Lewton's best films -- although it is not for every taste -- and he and director Robson make the most of a low budget. Nicholas Musuraca contributed the crisp black and white cinematography. Although there are some moments in the film that stretch the credulity -- the satanists carting off a corpse manage to wind up on the exact same subway car as Mary --there are also sequences that are creepy and very well done, such as a murder in a abandoned office, and a chase through Greenwich Village. The screenplay (by DeWitt Bodeen and Charles O'Neal) has several interesting characters, intriguing aspects, and excellent dialogue. Tom Conway plays a psychiatrist, Louis Judd; Hugh Beaumont (Ward of Leave it to Beaver, who is better than expected) is Jacqueline's husband, Gregory; Erford Gage is the sensitive poet Jason (Gage was to live only two more years, killed in the Philippines in '45); and Lou Lubin is the ill-fated private eye Irving August. [One of the supporting actors is the son of the great opera star Feodor Chaliapin.] The surprising thing about The Seventh Victim isn't that it casts a strange spell, but that it's unexpectedly moving. Isabel Jewell has a powerful moment reacting to Jacqueline's possible death in such a way that it's clear she's in love with her, and the ending -- with a terminally ill woman (Elizabeth Russell) going out for one last fling as Jacqueline makes a fateful final decision -- if contrived, still packs a quiet wallop. 

Verdict: Imperfect, certainly, but there's more here than meets the eye. ***.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


PRINCE OF THE CITY (1981). Director: Sydney Lumet.

Detective Daniel Ciello cooperates with internal affairs to expose corruption in the department, as long as he doesn't have to snitch on his friends -- which is easier said than done. Although Treat Williams gives a solid performance as Ciello, and there are other good performances (from Jerry Orbach and others) this is an overlong, disappointing true crime drama that holds the attention in a minor way but never quite hits the dramatic high notes. There are way too many characters, and Ciello's reasons for contacting internal affairs (after they first contacted him) are never clearly delineated. After awhile you get a little bored with the same theme being played over and over -- the prosecutors warn Ciello not to perjure himself; Ciello gets angry that they expect too much of him etc. etc. This goes on for nearly three hours. The best that can be said for Lumet's direction is that it's unobtrusive.

Verdict: Worth a look if you've got three hours to kill. **1/2.


HOMICIDAL (1961). Director: William Castle. Screenplay by Robb White.

Castle's shameless imitation of Psycho is an entertaining picture in its own right, if decidedly less “artistic.” A cold, rather weird-looking blond named Emily (Jean Arless) pays a handsome bellboy (Richard Rust) to marry her, then immediately after the ceremony, takes out a butcher knife and plunges it into the stomach of the justice of the peace, drawing much blood. Emily is apparently the wife of a slender young fellow named Warren, who lives with his old nurse Helga (Eugenie Leontovitch), who has suffered a stroke and is being taken care of – in more ways than one – by Emily. Then there's Warren's half sister Miriam (Patricia Breslin) and her druggist boyfriend Carl (Glenn Corbett), both of whom come to suspect that there's more to Emily than meets the eye. The whole business is tied into Warren's upcoming inheritance and the macabre truth about his birth. While Homicidal may be rather stupid all told, it is an effective horror comic with fascinating elements and some well-directed murder sequences. Castle obviously didn't take it too seriously – it's often overwrought like a burlesque -- and the picture emerges as a very amusing black comedy once you're clued in to its psycho-sexual dynamics. Castle introduces the picture in an unnecessary prologue, and offered theater patrons a “fright break” so they could leave the theater before the gruesome climax. Critics of the period were either amused or outraged, with some opining that the great Leontovitch was debased by appearing in such a film, and that Jean Arless had the most embarrassing debut of any actress in movies. Actually, Leontovitch offers an excellent, intelligent performance despite the fact that she hasn't a word of dialogue [not to mention her tumbling head in the movie's sickest – or funniest – sequence], and Jean Arless – according to – was better-known as Joan Marshall, who later played an old girlfriend who's prosecuting Captain Kirk on an episode of Star Trek. Marshall also married director Hal Ashby and had a small role in his film Shampoo (1975) with Warren Beatty. Arless is definitely not Leslie Parrish, as some have theorized, who also appeared on Star Trek and was in movies [Li'l Abner/1959] under her own name before Homicidal was made.

Verdict: Watch out for that head! ***.


WICKED AS THEY COME (1956). Director: Ken Hughes.

This pretty much forgotten movie stars Arlene Dahl (pictured) as a woman from a poor Boston suburb who uses her charms to insure she wins a beauty contest, and from then on strings along a series of men, each one older and richer than the one before. She eventually becomes embroiled in a murder trial. Phil Carey plays the less successful – and rather sappy – guy who remains consistently infatuated with her and comes to her defense. Dahl gives a pretty good performance (one suspects she was playing someone not all that different from the real Arlene Dahl), and Herbert Marshall is also fine as one of her married paramours; the supporting performances are also on the money. She gets engaged to her first conquest, runs up a huge bill at shops as his fiancee, then skips town and leaves him with a staggering amount of debt – but he manages to get an ironic revenge at the end. Dahl’s philosophy, as she tells the father-son newspaper team whom she used to become beauty queen, is that men are perfectly willing to exploit women for their pleasure but they don’t like it when the shoe is on the other foot (however, she should by no means be confused with a feminist, although she is certainly quite intelligent). It’s strange that Dahl doesn’t try to make her way to Hollywood but opts for a "career" in business instead, but that may be part of her "smarts." The script comes up with a somewhat dubious (and convenient) psychological motive for her hatred of men as if her wanting a better life and more security isn’t enough to turn her into a gold digger. The picture is not a masterpiece but it holds the attention and is often very funny. "Women like me don't get proposals," says Dahl, "only propositions."
Verdict: Some fun. **1/2.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


A SLIGHT CASE OF LARCENY (1953). Director: Don Weis.

Two old Army buddies -- one of whom (Eddie Bracken) is married with children, the other (Mickey Rooney) single and with ambitions -- hook up to run a gas station that does good business for a while. Then a big competitor opens a competing station right across the highway and nearly drives them out of business. Rooney comes up with the idea of tapping into the pipeline running below the station and stealing gas, which helps them drive out the competition. The word "slight" was invented for movies like this -- the pic could be retitled A Slight Case of Comedy -- and there's very few laughs in Jerry Davis' screenplay. Both Bracken and Roony are good -- as is Elaine Stewart as the sexy gal Rooney falls for -- but the only thing this really has going for it is Rooney's pure, unfiltered charm and enthusiasm. There's a cute scene when Rooney is sounding off pretentiously and in high-falutin' terms to Bracken's little boy. Not much to this time-waster.

Verdict: Too slight to be memorable aside from Rooney. **.


ALL FALL DOWN (1962). Director: John Frankenheimer.

Young Clinton Willart (Brandon De Wilde) idolizes his older brother, the oddly-named Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty), until it finally comes home to him how much the older man mistreats women after a tragedy occurs. This is an interesting picture, the kind of movie that passed for “adult drama” back in the sixties, but it hasn't worn well with time. The characters aren't developed enough and we never really learn the reason for Berry-Berry's torment (although it's fairly easy to guess at, given the film is based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy and the screenplay is by William Inge); the whole business has a rather suspect psychology behind it. Angela Lansbury and Karl Malden play the parents, Annabelle and Ralph, and while both actors are good, neither of them could chalk this up as one of their more memorable performances. Beatty offers an effective performance, however, if hardly a brilliant one, and Brandon De Wilde comes off the best and most sensitive out of the major players. But the acting honors have to go to Barbara Baxley as the unnamed teacher who gives Beatty a ride and gets taken for one herself; she's just terrific. Otherwise, this just doesn't make much of an impression today.

Verdict: Only if you're curious or a real big Beatty fan. **.


WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962). Directed by Henry Levin. Fairy tale sequences directed by George Pal. 

Over-length and the occasional cloying moment are the only deficits to this otherwise excellent fantasy film inspired by the lives of the Brothers Grimm. The biographical sections – which probably have to be taken with a grain of salt – are interrupted by the telling of three classic fairy tales. In the first, Russ Tamblyn is a woodsman who tries to find out why a princess (Yvette Mimieux) wears out her shoes every night, and discovers that she runs out a secret door to dance all night long with a bunch of gypsies. A cloak of invisibility helps him in this task. In the second a weary cobbler's figurines come to life to help him finish up his work in time for Christmas [he spent too much time making toys for the poor children of the neighborhood]. The last story has to do with a knight (Terry-Thomas) and his put-upon servant (Buddy Hackett) who set out to destroy a dragon that has been terrorizing Otto Kruger's kingdom. When Hackett manages to slay the dragon, his master kills him and takes the credit, but the servant manages to have the last laugh. As Wilhelm Grimm attempts to collect fairy tales to preserve for future generations, he and his brother Jacob struggle to finish a family history that they have been hired to write.

You wouldn't think Laurence Harvey would be the right actor for this kind of stuff but he's excellent as Wilhelm Grimm, and also scores as the elderly cobbler in the second tale. Karl (Peeping Tom) Boehm also strikes the right note as Jacob. The many actors in the assorted supporting roles – everyone from Beulah Bondi as an old gypsy woman to Jim Backus as the father of the dancing princess – are all in top form. The settings and cinematography are of a very high order [the film was originally released in Cinerama and MUST be seen in letterbox format.]. The “puppetoon” animation in the second story is charming, expressive and fluid. The dragon with the bejeweled body in the third story is deliberately dopey-looking for comedic effect and the stop-motion animation used to bring it to life isn't bad at all, if not quite on the Ray Harryhausen level. [At one point Hackett interacts with a full-size mock-up of the monster's feet and stomach as the creature tries to crush him.] The dream sequence near the end when Wilhelm is ill and sees visions of Cinderella, the Frog Prince etc. may have been required to remind viewers of all the tales the Grimms made famous, but it becomes tiresome very quickly. Still, this is a very worthwhile picture with many memorable sequences. 

Verdict: Lots of fun. ***. NOTE: This is about a thousand times better than the recent godawful Brothers Grimm with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, which actually has little to do with the brothers or their stories and is a big, tedious, mess with rubbery special effects and little coherency. Skip it!


CORRUPTION (1968). Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis.

Peter Cushing is splendid as usual as a doctor who accidentally causes the disfigurement of his fiancee (Sue Lloyd) when he engages in a fight with a photographer and a big arc lamp topples on top of her. He affects a skin graft, but when it doesn’t last he discovers that using certain glands from young females will enable the skin to stay fresh for a longer period. Unfortunately, he needs to keep killing women to get at the necessary glands and keep his girlfriend beautiful. Lloyd eventually becomes even more ruthless than Cushing, and the two come afoul of a whole gang of cretins who come looking for the couple’s latest young victim, the gang leader’s girlfriend. This delightfully lurid, decidedly unpleasant, but very absorbing thriller is clumsily directed and features a very inappropriate jazz score that only detracts from the suspense. There is a rather effective murder scene and beheading in a train compartment, however, and the finale – with a laser beam running amok and obliterating almost all of the cast – is one of the most grotesque within memory. Definitely an unusual shocker to say the least, and certainly worth a look if you’re game. Cushing may have deserved much better material, but he’s on top of his game throughout.

Verdict: Gross but entertaining. **1/2.


THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) Director: Fritz Lang. NOTE: This review goes into important plot details.

Edward G. Robinson is a married-with-children, middle-aged professor who becomes acquainted with the beautiful model (Joan Bennett) for a painting that he sees in the window of a gallery. At her apartment, he is assaulted by another middle-aged man who has been seeing Bennett, and has to kill him in self-defense in order to keep from being strangled. Fearing publicity and ruination, and sure that no one will believe the truth, Robinson and Bennett try to cover up the crime, with the former dumping the dead man in the woods. Ironically, a friend of Robinson’s winds up investigating the murder, and in an intriguing sequence the "killer" accompanies him to the spot where the body was found. Then a blackmailer (Dan Duryea) shows up and our twosome decide the only way to deal with him is to kill him, perfectly willing to commit murder to cover up an act of self-defense! Woman in the Window holds your attention – Robinson is quite good except for some perfunctory moments – but the movie is strangely flat, uninvolving, and routinely directed by Fritz Lang, who -- despite his reputation in the suspense field -- was never in the league of Hitchcock; Hitch would have milked this for all it was worth. Probably the best scene has Bennett doing a roundelay with the slimy if likable Duryea, who won’t quite drink that glass of poison she’s given him. The "twist" ending is a real groaner. Not a terrible movie, but a terrible disappointment to be sure. The twist pretty much does away with the need to examine the moral implications of the story.

Verdict: Watch it but I warn you you'll groan at the end. **.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957). Director: Joseph Pevney.

The life of the great silent actor Lon Chaney, with a focus on his first failed marriage and his love for, and competition with, his son Creighton [later known as Lon Chaney Jr, a talented actor in his own right.] This is one of the best backstage biopics to come out of Hollywood, with a superb performance by James Cagney in the title role. In recreations of scenes from Chaney's hits, Cagney even gets across the style of acting employed by Chaney in the silent days. Jane Greer offers one of her loveliest performances as Chaney's second wife, Dorothy Malone is vivid and pathetic as wife number one, and even Robert Evans is fine as Irving Thalberg. In addition, Marjorie Rambeau has a nice scene as an extra called the “Duchess” who shows new-in-Hollywood Chaney the ropes. If there is a problem with the film it's that there seems to be too much of an effort made to turn wife number one into a villainess. At first Malone seems to be overacting as her character overreacts to the fact that Chaney's parents are deaf mutes, but it becomes evident later on that the picture wants to paint her as being a mite disturbed. The movie works up some sympathy for Malone in the final quarter. According to the film, wife number one was bored being left home alone with a baby, desired a career for herself as a singer, and when she went out and got one was basically told to stay home where she belongs by her disapproving, chauvinistic husband. Her reunion with her son brings about an estrangement between Lon and Creighton that is movingly resolved before the former's death. Whatever its flaws and dramatic licenses, this is an excellent film that features a dead-on Cagney performance. The CinemaScope photography is not really necessary for a more intimate type of story as this, but Frank Skinner's score for the film is one of his finest.
Verdict: Great biopic. ***1/2.


ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958). Director: Nathan Juran (Nathan Herz).

Blond floozies hanging around hotel bars, a neurotic, dipsomaniac multi-millionairess who clings to an unloving husband, bald giants from space, and the biggest boob fetish of all time combine in a microcosm of 1950's Americana such as has never been seen before or since. Seriously, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a hoot! Rich Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) has a run-in with a giant man (Michael Ross) from outer space who is after her diamond (he uses the gems to power his satellite) and becomes infected, growing to giant-size. As a giantess she tears out of her (rather unimpressive) mansion and takes off for town where her hubby Harry (William Hudson) is hanging out with his honey, a tramp named, well, Honey (Yvette Vickers). The "attack" doesn't last long but it's as much fun as everything else in this highly-entertaining tongue-in-cheek sci-fi flick. You can see through the giant people and the 50 foot woman's prop hand isn't very convincing, but it's all drenched in dramatic, attractive music by Ronald Stein, and the acting of the two ladies is very vivid if a trifle overwrought at times. Very fast-paced. Written by Mark Hanna, who also did the screenplay for the more serious Amazing Colossal Man (which also featured actor William Hudson). That same year director Nathan Herz had a big, technicolor hit with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which he directed under his own name, Nathan Juran; "Nathan Herz" was no more. Otto Waldis and Roy Gordon play Mrs. Archer's doctors. 

Verdict: Not to be missed if you're in a silly mood and love "big people" movies. ***.


ON THE AVENUE (1937). Directed by Roy Del Ruth.

A charming and genuinely amusing musical with some pleasant (if unspectacular) Irving Berlin songs. Gary Blake (Dick Powell) is the star of a hit Broadway revue, and his co-star, Mona Merrick (Alice Faye), seems a bit smitten with him. In one of the show’s most popular sketches, Mona plays a well-known heiress, Mimi Carraway (Madeleine Carroll), and Blake is her very stuffy father, the Commodore (George Barbier). Father and daughter Carraway are outraged by the sketch and Mimi contacts Gary in an attempt to gain revenge. The two wind up falling in love with each other, naturally, and Blake agrees to make the sketch less offensive. However, a jealous Mona decides she’s not going to take all the juice out of the sketch, and ... well, let’s just say it leads to the funniest sequence in the movie. All three leads and the supporting cast are in top form. Especially notable is Cora Witherspoon as Mimi’s free-spirited aunt, who thinks the aforementioned sketch is hilarious and seems to be the only person in the family with a sense of humor. The Ritz Brothers do some funny routines but one of them goes on forever and nearly stops the picture dead. Otherwise, this fast-moving musical comedy is a pip.
Verdict: Lots of fun. ***.


DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934). Director: Mitchell Leisen. NOTE: Some plot points are revealed.

Death decides to find out why mortals fear him so and turns up in the guise of Prince Sirki at an Italian estate. [If Death wanted to find out about Life, he probably shouldn't have hung out with the idle rich.] Unfortunately, Sirki/Death falls in love with the beautiful Grazia (Evelyn Venable), who ultimately decides to, in effect, commit suicide so she can spend eternity with him. The point of the film is that “Love is stronger than Death.” Gladys Lehman and Maxwell Anderson adapted an Italian play but what they've come up with, despite a great premise, is muddled and pretentious, although the picture is well-acted (Fredric March is excellent as Death), well-directed by Leisen, and holds the attention. Much more successful than Between Two Worlds, in other words.
Verdict: Worth a look. **1/2.


Paul Henreid
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (1944). Director Edward A. Blatt.

Long and rather tedious remake of Outward Bound has a couple who committed suicide (Eleanor Parker; Paul Henreid) finding themselves aboard a passenger ship heading toward eternity – only the other passengers don't realize that they themselves are also dead. Thought-provoking premise is given half-baked, overly literal and preachy treatment, and the many stilted performances don't help. Aside from an excellent speech at the very end of the film, John Garfield is in no way showcased to advantage in the film, playing it all in one note and revealing little of his character's inner torment. His girlfriend in the film, Faye Emerson, doesn't even appear to be an actress (although she plays one); she has some nice moments, again at the conclusion, but is otherwise astonishingly inept. However, Edmund Gwenn is splendid as the chief steward, and Sara Allgood scores, as usual, as a kindly older lady. Henreid gives one of his more memorable performances, and Parker is superb. By the time Sydney Greenstreet shows up as the “examiner” to determine exactly which place the passengers go -- Heaven or Hell – the movie just implodes.

Verdict: Have a nice nap instead. *1/2.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


THE CARPETBAGGERS (1964). Director: Edward Dmytryk. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes.

George Peppard gives a surprisingly dynamic performance – his best, ever – as Jonas Cord, a Howard Hughes-type rich boy's son who weds and beds many a wench, starts an international airline, and takes over a movie production company and creates a star out of his own, very sexy former stepmother (Carroll Baker). Based on Harold Robbins' novel, this could easily be dismissed as trash were it not for the fact that it's quite well-acted, well-scripted (for what it is), and moves at a pace that leaves little time to ponder events but much time to be extremely entertained – there isn't a boring moment and much of the film is even striking in its way. Peppard and Baker are both better than you'd expect them to be, although they may not capture whatever nuances other actors might have found in their characters. Alan Ladd scores as Peppard's old companion and surrogate father, who becomes a cowboy hero of the movies and marries Baker. Ladd's climactic fight scene with Peppard is a highlight of the picture. Elizabeth Ashley, who later married Peppard in real life, is excellent as the wife he terribly mistreats, and even Martha Hyer is sexy fun as another blond hooker Peppard decides to turn into a star. Ralph Teager is fine as Peppard's pilot buddy and Bob Cummings is right on the money as a rather slimy Hollywood agent positively dripping with charm. Lew Ayres has one of his best latter-day roles as Peppard's business advisor, who is eventually disgusted by his antics (their parting scene is very well played).
Verdict: Overall, this long, lusty, often amusing and exciting picture isn't bad at all. ***.


HENRY ALDRICH GETS GLAMOR (1943). Director: Hugh Bennett.

The Henry Aldrich series, about a bumbling, girl-crazy teen, was made to cash in on the popularity of the Andy Hardy series. This entry is a charming if mildly amusing time-waster that has Henry winning a date with a glamorous movie star, Hilary Dane, played by Frances Gifford. Hoping to convince her studio that she's innocent enough to play Juliet in a new production of Romeo and Juliet, Gifford decides to string Henry along for a romance and goes to the dance with him. When a photo of him supposedly kissing the star winds up in the paper in Centerville, everyone improbably assumes that Henry has become a big lover boy. Soon he's gotten the reputation of a wolf, and his father's plans to run for office are derailed. His reputation as an unlikely Casanova is cemented when he takes Gifford out to the secluded patio at the dance and walks back in sporting the huge lipstick imprint of a kiss on his face. Jimmy Lydon offers a splendid comic portrayal as Henry Aldrich, and he gets able support from Charles Smith as his loyal buddy “Dizzy” and Diana Lynn as Phyllis, the shy girl who has an unrequited crush on him. John Litel is Aldrich's father; while competent, he's not in the league of Lewis Stone, the “father” of the Hardy series.

Verdict: Mildly amusing and easy to take. **1/2.


WHIRLPOOL (1949). Director: Otto Preminger. NOTE: Plot points are mentioned in this critique.

Gene Tierney, the wife of a prominent psychiatrist (Richard Conte) is caught shoplifting when the ne'erdowell Jose Ferrer comes to her rescue. After using his influence to stifle the incident, Ferrer uses hypnotism to cure Tierney of her insomnia, but his real purpose is to frame her for a murder he plans to commit. His previous girlfriend (Barbara O'Neil) is threatening to go to the D.A. because he helped her embezzle money from her daughter's trust. Tierney is arrested for the crime, but her husband insists that Ferrer is the true murderer – the trouble is that Ferrer was in the hospital after an operation at the time of the murder. This is a very predictable suspense story that runs out of gas long before it's over. Every time Preminger tried one of these thrillers and mysteries (and that includes Laura) he would only show that he lacks the skill of an Alfred Hitchcock when it comes to handling this kind of material. Gene Tierney's performance will hold your attention, but it's also very affected and “actressy” and never real. Jose Ferrer isn't bad in a role that both George Sanders and Vincent Price could have made more of [the least attractive of this trio, it's hard to imagine Ferrer as some kind of lover boy with the ladies]. Richard Conte barely registers as the husband, but Charles Bickford is a bit better as the detective assigned to the case.

Verdict: Not very memorable. **.


MODESTY BLAISE (UK/1966). Director: Josey Losey.

It's hard to figure out what Losey and company were thinking when they cobbled together this adaptation of the novels and comic strip by Peter O'Donnell about a shapely thief who goes on assignment for the British Empire. The movie isn't funny or satirical enough to work as a parody, and it is completely devoid of thrills, suspense, and a sense of danger – and hasn't even that much action – so it certainly hasn't the entertainment level of a Bond film. Blaise (Monica Vitti) employs the aid of cockney lover boy Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) to fight villainous Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde) over some jewels. Bogarde affects such “camp” mannerisms at times that it may be that his character is meant to be stereotypically gay (although a heterosexual Arab has two hunks paint his toenails at one point!), but sometimes Bogarde acts in a more “normal” fashion, so who can tell – or care? Vitti and Bogarde banter well together during a breakfast scene, but the movie boasts not one outstanding sequence. There's an interesting moment when Gabriel's hit-woman Mrs. Fothergill (Rosella Falk) breaks a mime's neck with her knees, but her karate "cat-fight" with Modesty is brief and disappointing. This isn't even as good as an average episode of the British spy parody The Avengers of the 60's. At times it has a Batman TV show (also of the 60's) kind of sensibility but without the amusing aspects. You can miss the moment when Vitti and Stamp break out into song.

Verdict: Nice scenery. *.


JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959). Director: Henry Levin.

"Oh, goose, goose, goose!" Professor Lindenbrook when his daughter impatiently tells him to come to supper.

One could easily quibble and say that Journey is sometimes too silly for its own good, goes on too long, and that we still haven't gotten the ultimate film version of Jules Verne's fascinating novel, and while all this is true, it is also true that Journey is a very entertaining picture. Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason) is accompanied on the title journey by a student Alec (Pat Boone), a big Icelander named Hans (Peter Ronson), and the widow of a rival professor, Carla (Arlene Dahl). The bickering between Mason and Dahl is amusing (courtesy of screenwriters Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett), and the film works up suspense as our team tries to stay ahead of yet another rival scientist, Count Saknussem (Thayer David) who thinks of himself as the King of the Underworld. One of the most exciting scenes has the expedition encountering gigantic and hungry prehistoric dimetrodons (essentially big lizards) that nearly snack on Dahl. They also come across a section of the lost city of Atlantis [there were monsters in Verne's novel, but no Atlantis.] There are some wonderful sets and art direction; the special effects work is uneven but much of it is quite well done. Mason is excellent; Dahl, snappy; Boone, boyish and perky; and David marvelous as the villain of the piece. Leo Tover's cinematography is first-rate and Bernard Herrmann's beautiful and expressive score is nigh onto perfection. Diane Baker is lovely in a small role as Mason's daughter, Jenny. Verne's basic premise is one of the most compelling in fiction. Very handsome production and even a couple of pleasant tunes sung by Boone.

Verdict: Flawed but fascinating fantasy. ***.

Friday, January 11, 2008


CAPTAIN VIDEO, MASTER OF THE STRATOSPHERE (1951). 15 chapter Columbia serial. Directed by Wallace A. Grisell and Spencer Bennet.

Captain Video (Judd Holdren) and his Video ranger (Larry Stewart) are up against Vultura (Gene Roth), the tyrannical ruler of Atoma, who not only wants to conquer the planet Theros but the Earth as well. A renowned earth scientist named Tobor (George Eldredge) is assisting him and trying to thwart or destroy the good Captain at every turn. Our heroes dodge a mass of cosmic debris, are frozen stiff as a board, thrown out of flying platforms (to land delicately on Earth due to a sonic air cushion), defeat a spreading radioactive liquid called planenite, and have to deal with some very fast moving mechanical men. The spaceships are just cartoon animation; the planet Atoma is tinted red while Theros is tinted green (Earth is in the usual sepia). There is no love interest or supporting female character. Holdren and Stewart are adequate as the good guys, but they have little humor and virtually no personality. Stewart and Roth (with his big belly comically clad in a tight uniform) are dull villains – Vultura is certainly no Ming the Merciless – and Roth is a particularly poor actor [at least in this; he was fine in Earth vs. the Spider and other films], not even on the same planet as Ming’s Charles Middleton. Tobor’s cackling sinister assistant is more on the mark.

Verdict: This is not a great serial, but it is fun in a minor fashion. **1/2.


THE GODDESS (1958). Director: John Cromwell.

Uneven but absorbing film written by Paddy Chayefsky is a fictionalization of the Marilyn Monroe story. While an almost-middle-aged Kim Stanley is an odd choice to play the Marilyn part – she isn't photographed particularly well and never creates the sexy, alluring aura of a Monroe – the producers probably figured a little subterfuge was in order [Monroe was still alive when the film was released] and Stanley's performance is generally splendid. Lloyd Bridges is fine as her second husband, an ex-boxer who only wants to go back home where he's still admired, but Steven Hill's off-kilter thesping as husband number one only shows why he never became a major player. Betty Lou Holland almost runs off with the movie as Stanley's mother, who in youth is a pathetic woman desperate for a better life, and in old age becomes a withered withdrawn bible-thumper. While the film has its slack and cliched moments, there are also moments that are trenchant and powerful. Elizabeth Wilson offers her usual finely-honed performance as Stanley's devoted companion in her later years.
Verdict: Worth a look. ***.


GEORGE SANDERS: An Exhausted Life. Richard VanDerBeets. Madison Books; 1990.

An excellent, thorough look at the fascinating life of the fascinating man and actor George Sanders, his four marriages (each of which is a story in itself), his affairs, his attitude toward acting and toward life in general, his films, friends, and troubled final years. Sanders got bored early on with the kind of treacle that Hollywood gave him, and after awhile, took just about any film assignment strictly for the money. He was an excellent actor (an asset to most films) who probably would have done well to take on more challenging work, but had a fear of performing live and appeared to have no interest in being a Shakespearean actor a la Olivier. He didn't die out of boredom, but for more specific reasons which are detailed in the biography. The book is bolstered by major interviews with family members and ex-wife Zsa Zsa Gabor, who remained good friends with Sanders even after their ill-advised marriage was over. You'll also learn about Sander's rather cynical (or realistic) attempts to get his brother Tom Conway started in pictures in London; Conway eventually made it to Hollywood where – with his brother's help -- he achieved much less success than Sanders. The book is peppered by Sander's sardonic comments, quotes, and interviews. A very entertaining and informative read.

Verdict: A fine biography of a fine actor.***1/2.


THE LAST LAUGH (1924/Germany). Director: F. W. Murnau.

The head doorman at a prestigious hotel is demoted to basement wash room attendant on the day of his daughter's wedding, and we watch his despair and disintegration as he tries to cover up the disgrace and is rejected by friends and family when the truth is uncovered. Although slow at times, this is a powerful film, greatly aided by the strong lead performance of Emil Jannings, who can be broad at times but is always effective and moving. The film has to be taken as a fairy tale of sorts, as on some occasions it stretches credulity [that only one person, the night watchman, has any sympathy for Jannings, for instance], and the ending is the purest fantasy. Yet the ending has its own quiet power and charm, and can also be taken as a mere expression of the defeated, desperate Jannings innermost desires. The new orchestral score by Timothy Brock is evocative and excellent and adds immeasurably to the film's modern-day impact. A masterpiece. [Karl Freund, who photographed the film, later worked on I Love Lucy which might be seen as a comedown -- at the very least a big change in tone -- were it not for the fact that he helped revolutionize the way TV series were filmed and became an important part of one of television's most enduring and memorable programs.]
Verdict: A near-masterpiece. ***1/2.


THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH (1962). Director: Maury Dexter. NOTE: One important plot point is revealed in this review.

Ever since I was a kid I'd been hoping to catch a glimpse of this little-seen [it's not even in Bill Warren's Keep Watching the Skies] sci fi movie from the early sixties. Be careful what you wish for ... Apparently somebody had this big empty estate with large rooms and beautiful gardens and long pathways that was just perfect for filming. Unfortunately, instead of making a haunted house film or thriller which would have been more appropriate, they instead made a tacky science fiction film with a minimum of FX work. Kent Taylor is a scientist who has sent a probe to Mars. Back with his family for a long overdue visit, Taylor discovers that Martians have landed on Earth as energy forms and have duplicated the bodies of himself and his family. There's a lot of aimless wide-screen wandering around through this pretty estate as Taylor, his wife (Marie Windsor) and their two children see their doppelgängers in the distance and either chase, or are chased by, them. The very downbeat ending, which packs a small wallop – we see the ashes of the bodies of Taylor and his family being washed away after their duplicates replace them – is the only thing of interest about the movie. Richard La Salle fashioned a full-fledged romantic score of a minor variety for the picture with some suitably eerie passages when required. Harry Spalding's script never really catches fire despite some attempts at characterization. The actors do what they can with insufficiently developed material.

Verdict: Not worth the time to track it down. **.