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

Monday, March 31, 2008


THE RIVER'S EDGE (1957). Director: Allan Dwan.

Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn) is having a lousy day. His wife Meg (Debra Paget) has decided to leave him, runs off with her old boyfriend Nardo (Ray Milland), and now he's forced to help the pair of them escape over the border because Nardo, who's carrying a suitcase of ill-gotten loot, has committed murder. Well-photographed by Harold Lipstein, the film is enlivened by several startling moments of violence, although it never quite comes to a full boil. Quinn and Milland offer reasonably vivid performances, while Paget, in skin-tight chinos, is mostly decorative. Still it's worth sitting through just to see the nifty way in which evil Milland gets his comeuppance, although most of you will be shouting "Get the money, damn it!"

Verdict: Fast-paced fun, if you don't expect too much. **1/2.


ADAM AND EVALYN (1949/British). Director: Harold French. NOTE: Original British title was Adam and Evelyne.

When his friend dies, a British bachelor named Adam (Stewart Granger) goes to tell the man's young daughter, Evalyn (Jean Simmons), who lives in an orphanage, what has happened, and discovers that she thinks he, Granger, is her father. (It is never made clear why her biological father, who never met her, sent her Granger's photograph.) Eventually Adam's gal pal tells the girl -- who becomes Adam's ward -- the truth, and she's sent off to finishing school, coming back a bit more polished and much more grown up. Granger has a girlfriend of sorts, Moira (Helen Cherry) and Evalyn dates Granger's no-account brother Roddy (Raymond Young), but the real crisis comes when Evalyn, who feels gambling destroyed her real father's life, discovers that Adam is a professional gambler. This slight romance isn't really worth much, although Simmons gives a very nice performance. Wilfrid Hyde-White has a small role as a colonel.

Verdict: A bit on the dull side. *1/2.


THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971). Director: Piers Haggard.

After the claw of an inhuman creature is ploughed up in a field, the teens of a 17th century British village engage in rapes, orgies, murders and the like, while innocent women are nearly drowned as witches. Back in the seventies, the sex, violence and nudity may have made this seem more interesting, but today it's a big bore, very slow-moving, and directed with absolutely no panache by Piers Haggard. Linda Hayden plays Angel, the young beauty around whom most of the trouble is centered. Patrick Wymark is the Judge who decides to put an end to all the nonsense. Very poor horror film that even genre fans will find a snooze. Marc Wilkinson's opening theme music is quirkily memorable, however. Haggard also directed the far superior A Summer Story in 1988, for which he was much more suited.

Verdict: Watch at your own risk. *.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Maureen O'Hara
A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949) Director: Nicholas Ray.

Flashbacks relate what led up to the shooting of young singer, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame), nicknamed Estrellita, who is the protege of Marian Washburn (Maureen O'Hara, pictured), who took over Susan's career when she lost her own singing voice just as she was on the verge of making it. This sounds like it might make for a very juicy soap opera at the very least, but what results is a pretty boring, minor-league account, with Marians' boyfriend Luke (Melvyn Douglas) talking the whole business over with police inspector Jim Fowler (Jay C. Flippen); Mary Philips is fun as Fowler's take-charge wife. Flashbacks are not very riveting or compelling. Victor Jory is fine as an impresario who is smitten with Susan, and Bill Williams turns up as a man from her past. Gloria Grahame is excellent as Susan, but the movie that surrounds her is a comparatively dull disappointment.

Verdict: Not even worth wasting a rainy day for. *1/2.


THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971). Director. Bernard McEveety.

Ben (Charles Bateman), his girlfriend Nicky (Ahna Capri), and his daughter K.T. (Geri Reischl), get lost while traveling to grandma's and wind up in the town of Hillsboro, which is experiencing a chilling supernatural experience. Children are disappearing, people are being gruesomely butchered, and no one -- except for Ben and his group -- can get in or out of the town. The priest (Charles Robinson) thinks a witches coven may be responsible, but his notion is breezily dismissed by Doc Duncan (Strother Martin), who knows more than he's telling. Absorbing, disturbing and strange horror film grabs you from the first -- a non-graphic but gruesome scene when a car with people inside is crushed by a toy tank that somehow becomes the real thing -- and in its own weird way never lets go (although there is a boring nightmare sequence that goes on way too long and seems inserted just to pad the running time). Screenplay by L. Q. Jones, who plays the sheriff, and also co-produced the film with Alvy Moore (best known as "Hank Kimball" from Green Acres), who plays his assistant Tobey. Helene Winston scores as Dame Alice, one of the witches who's pissed off Satan and pays the ultimate price, attacked by a mass of elderly murderers. With a little more effort, better direction, and avoidance of some unfortunate casting choices, this might have been a classic.

Verdict: Creepy little terror film with some memorable scenes and images. ***.


SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937). Director: William C. McGann.
Allen Jenkins (pictured) has a rare lead role as a cop, Dempsey, teamed with irritating Hugh Herbert, who plays Kelly. The two find themselves investigating an alleged murder at a spooky lighthouse. (The body dangling from way high overhead in the tower, dripping blood onto Herbert, is a startlingly macabre touch). This has something to do with a mysterious crime leader, the scourge of the area, who is known as the Octopus. There is also a real octopus hanging around the lighthouse whose well-articulated tentacles float in now and then to close doors, turn off lights, and snatch people out of windows and into the ocean. John Eldredge plays the new owner of the lighthouse, and Marcia Ralston is a pretty lady, Vesta Vernoff, who is certain that her stepfather is the body dangling over everybody's heads. Despite (or because of) all these macabre, spooky touches, the movie -- based on that chest nut The Gorilla -- is never as funny as it's supposed to be, and hasn't got a strong enough story to hold one's interest. Elspeth Dudgeon is a riot as Vesta's old nanny, but you keep hoping that Abbott and Costello will show up to create some real laughs.
Verdict: Not a total stinker, but close. **.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


VALENTINO (1951). Director: Lewis Allen.

Mostly fictionalized biography of the great silent star Rudolph Valentino, played here by Anthony Dexter, who looks quite a bit like Rudy and gives an excellent performance as well. Valentino meets famous actress Joan Carlisle (Eleanor Parker) and through her and her director Bill King (Richard Carlson) finds himself in the movies. [Carlisle and King are supposed to be director Rex Ingram and his actress wife Alice Terry, who appeared on-screen with Valentino.] Valentino romances several ladies, including Joan, who's reluctant to get involved with the Latin lover boy because he has serious commitment problems. Instead Joan marries King, and finds herself in an uncomfortable position when she's teamed with Rudy, whom she's still attracted to, in a movie. By focusing on this triangle, the movie completely avoids all the true drama of the essentially homosexual Valentino's life and career and becomes a little tedious. The production isn't first-rate, either. The capable supporting cast includes Lloyd Gough as a nosy reporter Eddie, Otto Kruger as a producer, Patricia Medina as an actress Valentino nearly marries, and Dona Drake in another fiery role as Valentino's dance partner, boss, and lover early in the picture. [Drake was memorable as Bette Davis' slovenly maid in Beyond the Forest.]
Because Valentino wasn't successful despite his fine performance, Anthony Dexter later wound up in such films as Fire Maidens of Outer Space.

Verdict: A bit colorful but not enough. **.
For the real story of Valentino's life, click here to read an article by Lawrence J. Quirk and to see many photos of Valentino and his films.


THE TUNNEL (1935/British). Also released in shortened version as Transatlantic Tunnel. Director: Maurice Elvey.

Absurd sci-fi feature has Richard Dix as a visionary who neglects wife and child as he leads an engineering team determined to build an underground tunnel between London and New York! The project is seen only in idealistic terms -- never practical ones-- and for some reason everyone believes the completion of the tunnel will mean the beginning of world peace! The film takes place in a vague future time period, but nobody ever explains why there's a need for an undersea tunnel when planes would get everyone across the ocean much faster, and boats, while more leisurely, would allow everyone to enjoy the open air and sunshine. [There is a theory that with modern-day technology a train might be able to speed through such a tunnel in less than an hour, but it is only a theory.] This futuristic society has gyrocopters and "televisors" (video phones). and a huge radium drill is employed to dig out the tunnel. The most effective -- and horrifying -- sequence has Dix struggling over whether or not to close huge metal doors on a crowd of screaming men -- including his own son -- because if he doesn't poisonous gas may get loose and possibly kill thousands of other workers in the tunnel. There are also sub-plots with Dix's wife going blind, and another woman falling in love with him, but the drama of the piece seems highly contrived. Leslie Banks, the sinister count of The Most Dangerous Game, plays a sympathetic character, a friend to Dix and his wife (Madge Evans), in this film. The performances are generally quite credible even if the movie isn't.

Verdict: Fairly fast-paced but not especially memorable. *1/2.


A RAGE TO LIVE (1965). Director: Walter Grauman.

Grace Caldwell (Suzanne Pleshette) has a strong sexual drive and won't apologize for it. She gets a bad reputation in the neighborhood and worries her mother and brother. Grace marries dignified Sidney Tate (Bradford Dillman), but when Roger Bannon (Ben Gazzara), an old acquaintance who's working on their barn, tells her how much he's longed for her for years, well Grace just can't help herself and she and hunky Bannon embark on an electric affair. This all leads to a lot of melodramatic but highly entertaining developments and confrontations, especially when one frustrated wife (Bethel Leslie) believes that Grace is carrying on with her husband (Peter Graves). The movie, constricted by the weakening production code, is, alas, of the "sin and suffer" variety, and Grace must pay for actions that many husbands indulge in without guilt or punishment. Still, the movie sort of thumbs its nose at the censors as well. Pleshette and Gazzara make a very sexy pair in and out of the sack. The performances are all good and the picture moves at a brisk pace. Far, far more entertaining than the British study of amorality, Darling, which was released the same year and won a few Oscars. Loosely based on a novel by John O'Hara.

Verdict: Great popcorn movie. ***.

Friday, March 28, 2008


THE DARK ANGEL (1935). Director: Sidney Franklin.

Kitty (Merle Oberon) adores the two boys who live nearby, Gerald (Herbert Marshall) and his cousin (who was adopted by Gerald's mother), Alan (Fredric March, pictured). During a brief return home from World War One, Oberon agrees to marry March but they can't find anyone to marry them -- they spend the night together anyway. Gerald thinks Alan has been with another woman and this leads to tragic misunderstandings that affect everyone's lives. The storyline is good, but the script (co-written by Lillian Hellman), acting, and direction conspire to make this a tedious failure with only a nice ending to redeem it. Although the lead actors all have some good moments, for the most part the acting is artificial and stilted. Oberon and March have zero chemistry as a couple, and sometimes March acts as if he still thinks he's in a silent movie. Franklin's insensitive direction muffs scenes that should have had more emphasis, and strips them of all dramatic value. There isn't enough music -- Alfred Newman did the score -- and what there is of it is mediocre. The best performances come not from the leads but from Cora Sue Collins, the adorable little girl who winningly plays Kitty as a child, and the uncredited actor who plays the agitated blind man that March tells to shut up.

Verdict: Disappointing and a bit tedious. **.

MANIAC (1963)

MANIAC (1963). Director: Michael Carreras.

Jeff Farrell (Kerwin Mathews, of 7th Voyage of Sinbad fame), is vacationing in France when he comes across an inn run by a pretty young woman, Annette (Liliane Brousse), and her stepmother, Eve (Nadia Gray). Jeff romances both but winds up falling for Eve, who tells him how her husband Georges (Donald Houston) was institutionalized after taking a blow torch to the man who raped his daughter four years before (this is detailed in the prologue). Eve has fallen in love with Jeff and hopes to free the hopefully cured Georges so he can get his life and daughter back, at least, while she goes off with her new love, Jeff. Jeff agrees to help Eve break her husband out of prison, but things go awry when Georges apparently murders the asylum employee who aids him in his escape. Now what do they do? Maniac holds the attention but it has absolutely no style or atmosphere and veteran cinematographer Wilkie Cooper's work is unimpressive. Just about everything about the movie is unconvincing, including the mostly flat acting (especially from Mathews and Gray, who generate little heat) and especially the twist ending, which comes as a surprise but seems to make everything a bit pointless. Jimmy Sangster's typically convoluted screenplay is not one of his better ones. Like other films, the title was supposed to create an identification with Psycho, but this is nowhere in the same league as Hitchcock's thriller.

Verdict: Worth seeing once but expect little. **.


ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. William Goldman. Warner Books; 1983.

Although this was first published over twenty years ago, it still makes fascinating reading for anyone interested – literally – in the “back story” of how motion pictures are put together, beginning with the screenplay. And this is true whether you're a great admirer of Goldman's work or think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the worst movies ever made. The book is rich with anecdotes about stars and directors that Goldman has worked with, and you learn how Hollywood really works from the inside-out. You won't agree with all of Goldman's opinions, of course (while I understand Goldman's take on auteurism, I have a much higher regard for Hitchcock's post-Psycho pictures than he does). Goldman's advice to aspiring screenwriters on how to make their scripts star-proof and what to expect from producers and directors is undoubtedly still of value. One refreshing aspect to this part-memoir is that Goldman is rather humble throughout; he doesn't crow about his genius or greatness, or let others do so, on every page. One of the most interesting sections of the book is a reprint of a rather charming short story, "Da Vinci," which he published in his youth. Goldman adapts it into a screenplay, then asks for reactions from an editor, composer, director, etc. (both the screenplay and the reactions are printed in the book.) Goldman doesn't shy away from including George Roy Hill's “withering” (as Goldman puts it) assessment of both story and adaptation (which is actually rather moving).

Verdict: A highly recommended tome for anyone interested in what goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood. ***.


GANGBUSTERS (1942). Directed by Ray Taylor and Noel Smith.

Based on the radio show of the same name, this is one of the very best Universal serials, with a fast-pace, rapid editing, an effective musical score, and plenty of two-fisted action throughout. Ralph Morgan plays Professor Mortis (his I.D. is revealed in the first chapter), who is out for revenge against the city authorities (this is supposed to be New York but looks more like the typical Hollywood back lot). He is the head of the League of Murdered Men, allegedly bringing various gunsels back to life and keeping them alive with pills that enforce their loyalty. Kent Taylor is the stalwart detective Bill Bannister, and Robert Armstrong is his associate Tim Nolan (as usual Armstrong pretty much just plays himself). Irene Hervey is the intrepid girl reporter. There’s some good character actors in supporting roles but William Haade makes the biggest impression as Mike Taboni, a hood who murders Bannister’s kid brother, commits "suicide," and is revivified by Professor Mortis.

Although pretty much a dim bulb, Taboni is smart enough to ask Mortis who brought him, Mortis, another "suicide," back to life. "An intelligent question," says Mortis, "One best left unanswered." Understandably. I believe we never learn who’s sending Mortis all those notes delivered by the newsboy, either. There are some good cliffhangers in this serial, including one in which a car plunges several stories down a shaft, and a bit involving Hervey switching from the running board of one car to another. The pace never flags. An amusing aspect of the serial is that the secret entrance to the gang’s underground HQ is a trapdoor located right in the middle of the subway tracks. Of course, placing the trapdoor off to the side of the tracks would eliminate the danger as well as the ending that you know is coming. It’s interesting that instead of doing brief recaps at the start of each episode, the serial instead inserts brief new sequences that help the audience catch up with what’s going on – a nice touch. This may not quite be in the "classic" league, but it’s certainly a pretty good serial. And from Universal, no less.

Verdict: Good show! ***.


ROCKIN' IN THE ROCKIES (1945). Director: Vernon Keays.

Shorty Williams (Moe Howard) takes over his cousin's ranch when he's out of town and creates a shambles with his pals Larry (Larry Fine) and Curly (Curly Howard) -- yes, it's The Three Stooges -- two aspiring singers named June (Mary Beth Hughes) and Betty (Gladys Blake), and the four Hoosier Hotshots, who also want a shot in show biz. Jay Kirby plays cousin Rusty, who's mighty perturbed to find a whole house-load of uninvited guests at his ranch. A few snappy musical numbers -- including the catchy title tune -- are interspersed with the Stooges' amusing hijinks. No world beater, perhaps, but in its own limited way it's certainly good-natured fun.

Verdict: A must for Stooge fanatics. **1/2.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


STORM AT DAYBREAK (1933). Director: Richard Boleslawski.

The assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand exacerbates tensions in Austria between the Serbs and Hungarians. But make no mistake, politics are only a backdrop in this movie that is really about the "eternal triangle." Dushan Radovic, the Serbian mayor of the town, is friends with the Hungarian Captain Geza Petery (Nils Asther), who is really in charge of the area. Unfortunately, Petery and Radovic's wife Irina (Kay Francis) find themselves falling in love. Dushan mistakes Irina's strange attitude when she's around Petery with anti-Hungarian hatred, when actually she's becoming more and more obsessed with the man ... Handsome production values, an intelligent script (by Bertram Millhauser, taken from Sandor Hunyady's play), and fine performances from the leads make this a compelling and interesting romantic drama. One bizarre aspect is that the extras always seem to be singing! Some powerful scenes in this and a satisfyingly tragic wind-up.

Verdict: Intriguing lost drama. ***.


ALICE'S RESTAURANT (1969). Director: Arthur Penn.

Arthur Penn thought it would be a good idea to make a movie out of Arlo Guthrie's 18 minute song "Alice's Restaurant," which detailed how a littering charge supposedly kept him out of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, even an 18 minute song isn't enough to base a whole movie on, and there is no real story, or even interesting characters, in Venable Herndon's screenplay to hold your attention. Alice Brock, the owner of the actual restaurant, is brought into the story (played by Pat Quinn), along with Ray Brock (James Broderick, father of Matthew), but they have little dimension. Peter Seeger briefly plays himself but we never really get to know him. Arlo Guthrie isn't a bad actor, although some might say he's only playing himself as well and trading on a likable personality. Surely the events of this troubled era in United States history had more drama to it than this picture, which is sometimes as boring as any dull home movie, would suggest? William Obanhein, the actual police officer who arrested Guthrie for littering, also plays himself, but the movie doesn't bother to develop him as a character, either. The suddenly downbeat ending is pretentious; the movie tries to say something but doesn't. Nevertheless, it made money and Arthur Penn was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar that he didn't win. The song itself is moderately catchy but hardly a classic.

Verdict: Perfect tedium. *1/2.


20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). Director: Nathan Juran.

A rocket ship returning from Venus carrying a specimen of a native life form crash lands off Sicily and a young boy (Bart Bradley/Braverman) who finds the little creature brings it to a local professor (Frank Puglia) . Soon the little animal is growing rapidly, until it escapes its cage and has to be recaptured. Now as big as King Kong and then some, it breaks out of a lab in Rome after an accident and terrorizes the city, taking a last stand at the Coliseum. Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation of the Ymir (the name by which the creature became known, although it is never referred to as such in the film itself) is lively and fluid and the FX make the film watchable and entertaining. William Hopper is stalwart and essentially wooden as the hero, but Joan Taylor is better as the professor's grand-daughter, who is studying to be a doctor. Thomas Browne Henry plays yet another military man, giving his usual crisp delivery.

Verdict: Great fun! ***.


MOVIE CRAZY (1932.) Director: Clyde Bruckman. NOTE: Some sources lists Harold Lloyd as the director. Bruckman and Lloyd were not the same person.

Although this was silent comedian Lloyd's most successful sound picture, it isn't very good. Lloyd plays an aspiring actor who winds up getting a disastrous screen test only because he inadvertently sent the wrong photo to a movie studio. While this is going on, he runs into a pretty actress, Mary (Constance Cummings) who also romances him in alleged disguise as a Spanish senorita, becoming jealous of herself. Although there are amusing situations and a few mild laughs in the film, the pacing is slow and most of the picture falls flat. The only exception to this is a very funny party sequence during which Lloyd accidentally puts on a magician's jacket instead of his own and causes all kinds of havoc with the rabbits, eggs, toys and mice that come flying out of his pockets. Alas, this isn't enough to save the picture. Lloyd is okay, but Cummings, although she's appealing and certainly has presence, has no real skill as a comedienne. The big elaborate studio tank fight scene that ends the picture is quite well done action-wise, but simply isn't that funny.

Verdict: Stick to the silents. **.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

Universal attempted a new sort of monster in this, the first of three films to deal with Paula Dupree, the Ape Woman. Borrowing a concept from H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, the film has a mad scientist, Dr. Sigmund Walters (the always-reliable John Carradine), manipulating glands and using his nurse's brain to turn a female gorilla, Cheela, into a human female whom he names Paula (Acquanetta, who has no lines). Paula has an uncanny power over wild animals, and is hired by the circus to work with lion tamer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone); most of the scenes of Mason working with lions and tigers are inserts of Stone in stock footage taken from Clyde Beatty features. Unfortunately, Paula develops a lust for Stone -- which brings out her animal instincts -- and tries to get rid of his girlfriend Beth (Evelyn Ankers); Cheela/Paula is able to cut through a person's spinal cord with her fingernails. This weird but oddly likable horror flick could have used twenty more minutes' running time, some more scenes showing Carradine working with the gorilla-turned-girl, and better character development. Still, it's quite entertaining. Ray "Crash" Corrigan plays Cheela the ape, Fay Helm is the ill-fated Nurse Strand, and Lloyd Corrigan is John Whipple, who owns the circus. Followed by Jungle Woman.

Verdict: A hoot! **1/2.


JUNGLE WOMAN (1944). Director: Reginald LeBorg.

Paula the Ape Woman is back! Apparently there was a spark of life left in her at the end of Captive Wild Woman, and the kindly Dr. Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish) was able to resuscitate her. The gorilla-girl sort of spontaneously turns back into the beautiful Acquanetta and, now human, becomes a patient in Fletcher's sanitarium. The story is told mostly in flashback during a session of coroner's court; there are also flashbacks taken from the first picture. For the first time ever, Paula opens her mouth and speaks -- excitedly -- when she spots Bob (Richard David), the boyfriend of Fletcher's daughter, Joan (Lois Collier). Sure enough, her hormones have kicked in gear again and she'll kill off anyone who gets between her and her chosen mate! Uh oh! Milburn Stone and Evelyn Ankers appear in the court scene, but have nothing to do with the new storyline. According to Stone's testimony, Cheela the gorilla was rumored to be a human being who had been turned into an ape via experiments, an intriguing notion (the opposite of what occurred in Captive Wild Woman) that isn't examined any further. Acquanetta effectively lopes around with a kind of gorilla's gait, and the other performances are competent; Naish is as wonderful as ever. A night time underwater attack on a canoe is well-handled, and the picture, while utterly illogical at times, has a certain amount of suspense. Followed by The Jungle Captive.

Verdict: Fun! Paula would want you to watch it. **1/2.


THE JUNGLE CAPTIVE (1945). Director: Harold Young.

The second sequel to Captive Wild Woman follows Jungle Woman. This time the scientist who brings Paula the Ape Woman back to life is Mr. Stendahl (Otto Kruger), an evil son-of-a-gun who even uses his pretty assistant Ann's (Amelita Ward) blood to help revive the hairy Paula Dupree. Rondo Hatton, with his sad, sensitive face, plays a brutal assistant of Stendahl's, Moloch, who develops a soft spot for Ann. Vicky Lane replaces Acquanetta as Paula Dupree (Lane appeared in one TV episode after this and then left show biz). In her Ape Woman make up Lane looks more like a wolf woman. The script gives her very little to do. Jerome Cowan plays Inspector Harrigan, who is investigating the theft of the Ape Woman's body from the morgue and the murder of one of the attendants, while Phil Brown is Ann's co-worker and fiance. This is the last and least of the Ape Woman films, only proving that Universal had no clue as to how to handle the character, completely failing to exploit any of the Ape Woman's distinct possibilities. The actors do their best with fifth-rate material.

Verdict: Disappointing even for this series. *1/2.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


THE GREAT WHITE HOPE (1970). Director: Martin Ritt.

Although inspired by the life of black boxer Jack Johnson, this movie -- based on the play by Howard Sackler -- is not really a biography as such. James Earl Jones actually plays "Jack Jefferson," a black heavyweight champion a few years after the turn of the century. White boxing promoters talk a Caucasian boxer out of retirement and tell him that he's the "Great White Hope" to knock Jefferson off his perch. Jefferson is not just hated because he's black and a champion, but because he's living with a white woman, Eleanor Backman (Jane Alexander), and this not only infuriates many whites but some blacks as well. As it examines their tragic relationship, it presents varying points of view from both black and white communities, and looks at the tensions that ultimately drive the couple apart. This is a good movie with some excellent scenes, but it isn't as great as it could have been and it's hard to figure out why. The actors are all very expert -- although they seem to be acting more than actually living their roles -- and perhaps Ritt's direction is too low-key for such dynamic material. Whatever the case, Jones undeniably registers a great deal of charisma and star presence.

Verdict: Worth a look. ***.


CIRCUS OF FEAR (1967/British). Director: John Moxey. AKA Psycho-Circus.

The American title of Psycho-Circus tried to make this sound like a horror film even more than the original British title, but this is actually a big top mystery based on a story by the prolific Edgar Wallace. Police trace a member of a gang that robbed an armored car to Barberini's circus, but it turns out there are already a number of other suspicious characters there, including a lion tamer named Gregor (Christopher Lee) who is supposedly disfigured and constantly wears a black hood over his head. There are a couple of mostly off-screen murders, assorted histrionics, and a fair amount of tedium. Aside from Lee, Klaus Kinski and Suzy Kendall (Torso) are the best-known names in the cast. Like a low-grade TV production for the most part.

Verdict: You can skip this one. *1/2.


DIPLOMATIC COURIER (1952). Director: Henry Hathaway.

With his customary assurance and suaveness, Tyrone Power plays a diplomatic courier who winds up mired in intrigue in Trieste and caught between two fascinating women, Joan (a very sexy Patricia Neal) and Janine (Hildegard Knef/Neff), both of whom have their secrets. A friend and associate of Power's is killed on a train, and various Cold War factions are after a list of secret info that, if acquired by the Americans, might save thousands of lives. Stephen McNally and Karl Malden are, respectively, a Colonel and Captain who seem ready and willing to throw Power and everyone else to the wolves. The finale has Power going against orders and attempting to save the life of one of the aforementioned ladies. This is an interesting, well-acted, fairly suspenseful spy story with great settings and a fast pace. Neal is sassy; Knef proves a fine actress and she deserved a bigger career.

Verdict: Entertaining, well-acted and unpredictable. ***.

Monday, March 24, 2008


CRIES AND WHISPERS (Viskningar och rop/1972). Director Ingmar Bergman.

Two sisters and a personal maid attend their sister's agonizing death at their family estate, ruminate about the tribulations of the past, and give vent to repressed passions and resentments. Dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who has apparently had a loving physical relationship with her maid Anna (Kari Sylwan), stayed on the childhood estate while her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) married -- unhappily it seems -- and went off. It would be easy to dismiss Cries and Whispers as a weird movie about screwed-up sisters were it not for its powerful moments, acting, and images. Bergman's screenplay seems at times more like a collection of unformed ideas -- often with childish shock value -- than a fully realized work of art; there are stupid sequences that border on black comedy. The movie is famous for such scenes as when Karin mutilates herself sexually with a piece of glass (that's one way to get out of having sex with your wizened husband) and the pieta-like display with Anna holding Agnes in her arms (pictured). There has been much debate about the relationship between Agnes and Anna, but when the latter kisses and gets in bed with the former earlier in the film, it is clear that this is something she is used to; the two are definitely lovers. Karin and Maria's feelings for each other are a bit more ambiguous (at one point Maria seems to come on to her sister. One suspects Bergman was more intrigued/turned on by the idea or sensuality of lesbianism than with seriously exploring the subject.) The acting is so raw that at times the film is difficult to watch. Harriet Andersson has such an expressive face that she seems to sum up the character's whole life in one awakening close-up. While Bergman eschews the Hollywood-style sentimental, underscored treatment, it might have made this film more moving and meaningful, especially as it concerns Anna, the one who loved Agnes the best, being summarily dismissed by the family at the end with barely a keepsake. Very well-photographed by Sven Nykvist.

Verdict: Slow-moving and not for everyone but not without its rewards. ***.


PRETTY POISON (1968). Director: Noel Black.

A twisted romance develops between a disturbed young man named Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) and an even more disturbed young woman named Sue Ann Stepanek (Tuesday Weld). Pitt, who was institutionalized for a time, draws Sue Ann into games in which he pretends he's a CIA agent involving her in his dangerous assignments. This leads to more than one murder and a plot by Pitt to get even with the man who fired him. Reasonably entertaining film holds the attention and features some good performances -- especially from Beverly Garland as Sue Ann's unpleasant mother -- and is very well photographed by David Quaid. Good supporting performances from John Randolph and Dick O'Neill. Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Verdict: Some good moments but nothing really special. **1/2.


GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER (1959). Director: Motoyoshi Oda.

This is the dubbed American version of Godzilla Raids Again (1955), the sequel to Godzilla. In this we learn that the Godzilla destroyed at the end of the first movie was not the only member of the "Gigantis" species alive in the world. A new Gigantis emerges from the sea to battle another prehistoric beastie, the Anguirus, who walks on all fours. Gigantis tears across Osaka, virtually destroying the city. The hero is a young officer Hiroshi, who hopes to prove his bravery by fighting the colossal creature. There is a dull love story between him and his girlfriend. Supposedly the original Japanese version of this film is a much better movie -- it would have to be as this idiotic "epic" of silly puppet monsters is a virtual snooze-fest with nothing to recommend it. Even the effects are fifth-rate.

Verdict: Terrible. *.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


RAGING BULL (1980). Director: Martin Scorsese.

The unapologetic story of boxer Jake La Motta, who became middle-weight champion of the world for a time but also beat his wife out of almost pathological jealousy and all around was his own worst enemy, winding up doing stale routines in nightclubs in an effort to hold on to his celebrity and make some money. While the film is well-made and well-acted for the most part, Scorsese too often confuses violence with drama, and the film never quite overcomes the fact that its lead character is utterly repellent. Robert De Niro is fine as La Motta, but often he seems more like De Niro than La Motta. Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci are also quite good as, respectively, La Motta's wife and brother, whom he accuses of having an affair together. Sometimes Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin's screenplay strains to find serious drama in this story of a moronic lug. Still, while the film isn't really great despite its reputation, it does hold the attention and has some good scenes. Much of the film's atmosphere and power is actually derived from the background music, taken from the work of Italian opera composer Pietro Mascagni (the music comes from Cavalleria rusticana, Silvano and Guglielmo Ratcliff). This really doesn't compare favorably to other films that also deal with brutal environments and characters, such as On the Waterfront.

Verdict: Acclaimed but not for all tastes. ***.


LEGEND OF THE LOST (1957). Director: Henry Hathaway.

The strange trio of Joe January (John Wayne), Paul Bonnard (Rosanno Brazzi) and Dita (Sophia Loren) trek from Timbuktu into the Sahara desert in search of a lost city and treasure that Bonnard's father went to look for -- although he never returned. There's a sand storm, a big spider that crawls over Loren's body, and not a hell of a lot of action in a dull, leisurely "adventure" film that never catches fire. There's some good art direction when it comes to the lost city itself, but it makes no sense that it wasn't spotted from the air long before! Wayne looks tired and bored. At one point Dita shouts out the hilariously cliched line: "I'm no good -- everything I touch turns rotten!" [The weak script is by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell Jr.] Hathaway directs as if he was half asleep throughout filming. Sexy Loren's hair cut makes her sort of look like a plucked chicken, not an image you normally associate with the busty Italian actress. Her acting is fine, as is Brazzi's and Kurt Kasznar's in a small role as a policeman. All in all, however, the whole enterprise is just a waste of time.

Verdict: For insomniacs only. *.


STRANGE JUSTICE (1932). Director: Victor Schertzinger.

The lives of two very different men -- Henry Judson (Reginald Denny) and Wally Baker (Norman Foster, pictured) -- intersect in an unexpected way after Baker gives Judson a sock for trying to make time with his girl, Rose (Marian Marsh), at a party. Judson has been embezzling from his bank and finds himself in dire straits while Baker has trouble with money until he wins a lottery, then out of the blue winds up arrested for murder. This plea against capitol punishment is an okay time passer but little more. The predictable race-against-time climax generates few thrills. The acting isn't bad, however, and the film moves at a fast clip.

Verdict: One you can easily miss. **.


THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936). Universal. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Screenplay by John Colton.

For some reason this picture – although I've always wanted to see it – has eluded me for decades until I came across something called the “Bela Lugosi Collection” on DVD. The movie is hardly a great showcase for Bela, however, because – even though he's billed above the title with [Boris] Karloff – he isn't given much to do in the film, which is pretty much a stinker despite some interesting elements. In an early sequence Janos Rukh (Karloff) demonstrates an invention that can offer glimpses into the distant past by bringing back light waves from Andromeda. This alone would make for an interesting feature – think of the possibilities – but instead the movie inexplicably veers into a completely different direction. Rukh has somehow come to the conclusion that a unknown element -- Radium X – has fallen to Earth from a meteorite and can be found in Africa [sure]. He joins an expedition to find this element, and from it eventually fashions a ray that can both heal and cure. As a side effect, he also winds up with a poisonous touch which drives him mad [actually madder] and he sets out to kill virtually all of his associates, including his wife, who's fallen for a younger, if duller, man. There are some arresting scenes – Karloff using the ray to give his mother back her sight, for instance – but generally the picture is tedious and predictable. Although Karloff isn't bad in the film, Lugosi – who plays another, sympathetic scientist – would have given the role more bite and vigor. Lugosi tries to imbue his characterization with a sinister quality for the sake of his fans, but it's a losing battle. The script completely fails to develop the story's many sub-texts. Violet Kemble Cooper adds a note of grace as Karloff's dignified mother, and it's always a pleasure to see Beulah Bondi [a friend of Lugosi's], although her reaction after her husband is found dead is a bit too muted.

Verdict: Forgettable. *1/2.


ELIZABETH. J Randy Taraborrelli. Warner Books. 2006.

A straight-forward, sympathetic look at the life of Elizabeth Taylor, detailing her relationships with the mother who pushed her toward stardom, her several husbands, her friends (from Montgomery Clift to Michael Jackson) , and looking into her life as an AIDS activist literally knocking on Hollywood's doors until celebrities agreed to attend fundraisers for research into the disease. What emerges is a credible, readable portrait of a complex individual who's probably led enough life for ten people. Taraborrelli doesn't gloss over Taylor's many flaws and excesses, but rather does his best to explain them. (Some may feel he goes overboard in this regard). It would not be fair to call the book superficial, but there are times when a bit more delving might have been called for, such as during discussion of Taylor's manic relationship with Richard Burton, and the possible reasons why Burton nearly drank himself to death, among other things. Dismissing many of Taylor's films as forgettable, including Rhapsody (in which Taylor actually gave one of her best performances) Taraborrelli simply ignores them; you get the impression he simply hasn't seen a lot of his subject's pictures. Still, flaws aside, this is a good read packed with solid information.

Verdict: Probably more about Liz than anyone wanted to know. ***.

Friday, March 21, 2008


MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (1972). Director: Charles Jarrott.

Handsomely produced version of the story of the 16th century rivalry between Queen Elizabeth of England (Glenda Jackson) and Mary Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave). John Hale's screenplay employs some dramatic license in the two scenes when the two women, who actually never met, confront each other, as well as in the relationship between Mary's friend, Italian musician David Rizzio (Ian Holm) and her husband Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton), who are both made bisexual. [Trying to be "modern," this aspect actually has a dated quality to it.] Christopher Challis' photography is excellent, and there are many fine performances. Timothy Dalton practically steals the picture with his alternately ferocious and mewling portrait of Darnley. Nigel Davenport and Patrick MaGoohan are also solid as, respectively, the Earl of Bothwell and Mary's brother James. As good as Redgrave and Jackson are as the Queens, they don't quite work up the dramatic fireworks that certain actresses of the golden age (say Davis and Hopkins) would have.
Verdict: Flawed but fascinating. ***.


HAIR (1979). Director: Milos Forman.

By the time this film version of the sixties "hippie" musical was released in 1979 it was already dated, and today it comes off less as a document of its time than as mind-numbing rot. A storyline was fashioned in which Claude (John Savage), a farm boy heading for Vietnam, runs into the hairy crew in Manhattan and becomes involved in their pretty stupid adventures, such as crashing a wedding reception and turning up on an Army base. The production numbers aren't very impressive and while some of the songs are snappy, only one -- "Easy to Be Hard" -- is really memorable. Sung with real panache by a young woman (Cheryl Barnes) who discovers that the father of her little boy may have made somebody else pregnant, the song not only looks at the underside of free love but deals with the interesting fact that there are people who care more about strangers -- the "bleeding" masses -- than they do about the people in their lives that they may have hurt. Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, and Nell Carter are some of the others in the cast. Based on the musical by Gerome Ragni and James Rado.

Verdict: Forgettable but for the "Easy to be Hard" number. *1/2.


EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956). Director: Fred F. Sears.

"People of earth, attention. People of Earth, attention. Look to your sun for a warning. Look to your sun, for a warning."

The last survivors of an alien race come to earth in flying saucers and eventually make it clear that their intention is to take over the planet. The first person they contact is scientist Russ Marvin (Hugh Marlowe), who nearly dies, along with his wife/secretary Carol (Joan Taylor), when they completely obliterate the base where he's been launching rockets. In addition to their saucers and disintegration beams, the aliens also have an "infinitely indexed memory bank" that gets info from earthlings' brains. Marvin invents a device that can bring down their saucers, and employs several of them in the exciting finale in Washington. This very entertaining picture features some marvelous stop-motion saucers created by FX wiz Ray Harryhausen. Hugh Marlowe is stolid but stiff as the hero, but Joan Taylor is much more animated as his wife. Morris Ankrum appears as a general, and another old stand-by, Tom Browne Henry, is the vice admiral who says "When an armed and threatening power lands in our capital, we don't meet them with tea and cookies!" Donald Curtis, who plays a major, also appeared in It Came from Beneath the Sea, from which some of the music was taken. The editing and direction are not of a high level, but the effects and some of the enthusiastic acting help make up for it.

Verdict: Lots of fun! ***.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). Director: Elia Kazan.

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a once-promising boxer, is (somewhat) innocently involved in the death of a young man who dared to speak out against mob control of the waterfront union. Confused and guilty, he begins a relationship with the man's grieving sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Wanting to do the right thing but not wanting to go up against the brother he loves (Rod Steiger), Terry struggles to decide whether or not to testify against crooked boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), knowing it may destroy his brother (who in a sense destroyed Terry's life) and himself in the process. This is a trenchant study of good versus evil -- with shades of gray -- and features many excellent performances. Brando may not be to everyone's taste, but he gives an undeniably expert performance in this. Eve Marie Saint, who was introduced in this film, is lovely and affecting and totally believable as Edie. The other cast members are also very effective, especially Pat Henning as "Kayo" Dugan. Strong, unsentimental script by Budd Schulberg (one possible flaw -- we never get to know much about the man whose death precipitates the story. Also Karl Malden's priest character, while well-played, is perhaps too stereotypically saintly to be believed.) Strikingly photographed by Boris Kaufman and expertly directed by Kazan. Interesting score by Leonard Bernstein. Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech to his brother remains one of the best sequences in the movie. Highly influential on many subsequent movies, including Raging Bull, which is nowhere near as good.

Verdict: A masterpiece. ***1/2.


GREAT ALASKAN MYSTERY (1944). 13 chapter Universal serial. Directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins.

This serial focuses on attempts to steal and use a “Peraton” ray gun that uses a new energized mineral as a power source. At the beginning an evil captain maroons the inventor and party on an iceberg, but they manage to survive for several more chapters of highly moderate and essentially mediocre “excitement.” Yep, Great Alaskan Mystery is more evidence of why Universal was never considered one of the better studios for cliffhanger serials. Milburn Stone is too low-key and dull to make a memorable serial hero. There are a few good scenes, however: a polar bear swims after and attacks a man in the water off the iceberg; and a terrific cliffhanger when a mine car plunges into a pit with the added danger in the fact that it's carrying explosives! The theme music is excellent, and the ever-versatile Jay Novello plays an Eskimo chief. With Marjorie Weaver as Ruth Miller and the always-sinister Martin Kosleck as a nasty turncoat scientist.

Verdict: Okay if you're in the mood for nothing special. **.



Jerry (Cash Flagg aka Ray Dennis Steckler) goes to the midway with his friends and encounters a fortune teller (Brett O'Hara) with a huge wart who hypnotizes him as she has others and forces him to commit fiendish knife murders, which are quickly cut, shakily shot, and not exactly on the Psycho level. Eventually all of her "zombies" break out and go on a not-terribly-exciting rampage. All of this is interspersed with many sequences of musical and dancing acts as if it were a beach party movie or one of those variety photoplays of the 40's. (At least half of the picture's running time consists of these acts.) Huntz Hall-lookalike Steckler is not a bad actor, and the film is professional enough in its low-budget way, but it still isn't very good. Steckler seems to have used up every act he could find that was anxious to be in "the movies." There's a sexy "girlie show" dance number at the carnival with a strikingly attractive lead dancer, and handsome young crooner Don Snyder showed promise. But when you appear in a picture like this ...

Verdict: You can live without seeing it. *1/2.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979). Director: Gillian Armstrong.

Judy Davis is Sybylla, a young woman from the Outback who is sent by her poor parents to live with her wealthier relatives where she meets a handsome neighbor, Harry Beecham (Sam Neill), but is determined to preserve her feisty independence. This is a well-made, well-acted, and entertaining picture, but while it was trumpeted as some kind of feminist manifesto and is based on a true story, it comes off more like a typical "Bette Davis" movie. [Remember, Davis and other actresses of the golden age often played feisty and independent women.] Having the guy who is tall, dark and handsome improbably fall for the "homely" Sybylla taps into the same wish-fulfillment fantasy of many another movie starring Davis and others and is pure "Hollywood" (even if this was made in Australia). The scene when Sybylla snubs Harry at a ritzy party and then dashes out to the barn to dance with the poor ranch employees, snatching one guy away from his girlfriend, is pure [Bette] Davis. Yet fans of the film seemed to see it as something new and original. Still, Judy Davis gives a solid performance and Neill is quite good as well and the film does present an interesting lead character.

Verdict: Not so original but otherwise not bad at all. ***


BABBITT (1934). Director: William Keighley.

Loose adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel Babbitt features Guy Kibbee (pictured) in the title role of a family man and real estate entrepreneur who sees a chance to move up in the world by helping out in a shady deal that has to do with acquiring property for a new airport which will not only enrich his coffers but put him in good with his social betters. He also comes afoul of a viperish young lady named Tanis Judique (Claire Dodd) who is not above resorting to blackmail. Babbitt is also ostricized because he sticks up for an old pal (Minor Watson) who is so verbally flagellated by his wife (Minna Gombell) that he winds up shooting her. But Babbitt is fortunate enough to have a very wise and loving wife himself (Aline MacMahon) who not only puts up with his nonsense but bails him out of his problems. Frankly, the movie glosses over all kinds of borderline behavior on Babbitt's part and is certainly morally confused, but on the plus side it's a very entertaining, very well-acted, fast-paced comedy-drama that holds the attention throughout.

Verdict: An entertaining curiosity with great performances . ***.


THE MAD GENIUS (1931). Director: Michael Curtiz.

In a variation on Svengali, in which he also starred, John Barrymore (pictured) plays a puppeteer whom fate brings into contact with a boy through which he can live out his frustrated dreams of becoming a dancer. Years later Barrymore is an impresario with a German ballet company and the lad, Fedor (Donald Cook), is its principal male dancer. Ivan Tsarakov (Barrymore) is an old lech who thinks women are strictly for lovin' and leavin', and he's angry when Fedor falls for Nana (Marian Marsh), a pretty, talented dancer in the company, because he's afraid she'll somehow prevent him from fulfilling his genius. When Tsarakov cruelly tries to break the two up, Fedor strikes out on his own -- but Tsarakov does his best to stymie his ambitions. This is a handsome, well-photographed production with interesting aspects and some uneven acting -- even from the great Barrymore -- but ultimately it's a very minor effort. Charles Butterworth offers some comedy relief as Ivan's put-upon assistant (his idea for a ballet is hilarious). Marsh proves an able and expressive actress. Luis Alberni is also quite effective as Sergei, the drug-addicted ballet director who figures in a somewhat bravura and grotesque finale.

Verdict: Intriguing but disappointing. **1/2.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I WAS AN ADVENTURESS (1940). Director: Gregory Ratoff.

Peter Lorre and Erich von Stroheim are con artists who work with a pretty phony countess named Tanya (Vera Zorina, pictured) to fleece the gullible of money and jewelry. But Tanya falls for her latest target, Paul Vernay (Richard Greene), marries him, and runs off, hoping to avoid the grasping, greedy fingers of von Stroheim and his lovable "kleptomaniac" buddy Lorre. Of course the two catch up with her, causing the expected complications. The acting is good -- especially von Stroheim and Lorre -- but the movie isn't memorable. Fritz Feld plays one of the early victims of the trio. Tanya is a ballet dancer as well as a thief so we see her dancing in Swan Lake (Zorina was herself a ballet dancer). This tries hard to be a frothy, light-hearted concoction, but it doesn't quite work. Zorina is pretty and competent but a bit too bland. Even more vivid actresses such as Crawford or Stanwyck might have had trouble making this third-rate material come alive, however.

Verdict: Read a book instead. *1/2.


THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE (1957). Director: Leslie Kardos.

Flat, uninspired direction is the main problem of this otherwise intriguing horror film set in a girls’ reformatory. A couple of female administrators can’t help but notice how many of the young women are dying of heart failure, and that the deaths occur the day after screams are heard in the night. William Hudson of Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman and Amazing Colossal Man fame plays a psychiatrist who’s called in and winds up spearheading an investigation into the problem. SPOILER ALERT: The people who run the school are all over two hundred years old, and use an electrical process to take life energy from one person (it works best with nubile women – don’t ask) and give it to another. The shame of it is that Victory Jory and some of the other actors give excellent performances, with Paul Cavanaugh a stand-out, especially during a scene when he’s told by the others that he is not going to receive another "treatment" but will be allowed to die. One of the sinister group is a hulking mute who grabs the girls in the night but is beginning to be more trouble than he’s worth. Some interesting notions in this film, but the pace is too slow and everything is presented in a dull matter-of-fact way that doesn’t exactly pull you into the story, which needed a lot of fine-tuning in the first place. Ann Doran (It, The Terror from Beyond Space) plays a bitchy headmistress (and one of the 200 + club) but she really isn’t very good. The title refers to the fact that the skin of the "old folk" starts to turn rock hard just before they need another treatment.

Verdict: Interesting ideas, mediocre execution. **.


EDMUND GOULDING'S DARK VICTORY: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy. Matthew Kennedy. University of Wisconsin Press; 2004.
This is an excellent biography of a director who has been almost forgotten and under-valued simply because he was seen as a “woman's director” i.e. good at fashioning top performances from actresses and specializing in films that would, supposedly, be more appreciated by the ladies in the audience. Goulding practically invented the three-gals-try-to-make-it-in-showbiz genre with his story for The Broadway Melody, and did superlative jobs with such films as The Old Maid and Grand Hotel. Kennedy not only analyzes and goes behind the scenes of these films, but also looks at lesser-known but memorable works such as the beautiful We're Not Alone and the second version of Of Human Bondage with Eleanor Parker. Kennedy also examines the bisexual director's interesting private life, in which allegedly wild parties nearly got him in dutch with the studio bosses. A long overdue look at the achievements and importance of this highly interesting man and filmmaker.
Verdict: Excellent biography. ***1/2.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


DEATH OF A CYCLIST (Muerte de un cyclista/1955/Spanish). Director: Juan Antonio Bardem.

After the war Juan (Alberto Closas) comes back to discover that his lover Lucia (Maria Jose de Castro) has married a wealthy man, but the two continue their relationship anyway. While out driving with Juan, Lucia hits a bicyclist, but the two run off for fear of exposure instead of taking the badly injured man to a hospital. Even after the bicyclist dies, they seem more concerned about themselves. Eventually Juan develops a conscience, recognizing how his actions have affected people (although Closas' basically wooden performance --though not without some charm --is no help at all.) The movie holds your attention, but the performances are too cool to really pull you into the story. The photography (Alfredo Fraile) is stark and crisp, however, and there is a good scene as the lovers watch blackmailing gossip Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) whispering and whispering to the husband Miquel (Otello Toso) while flamenco dancers flail about in the background. This came in for some acclaim at the time of its release but it's really nothing special. A Hollywood version actually might have had more bite to it (picture Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan in the leads).

Verdict: Okay time passer if little else. **1/2.


BLAKE OF SCOTLAND YARD (1937). 15 chapter Victory Serial. Director: Bob Hill.

Sir James Blake (Herbert Rawlinson) has invented a “death ray” that can change the course of history, and a masked villain known only as The Scorpion wants to get his hands on it, which he does, more than once [the machine doesn't look like it could successfully send out a radio signal let alone a vaporizer beam]. Ralph Byrd is actually the lead of this serial, cast as Jerry Sheehan, an associate of Blake's. Providing occasionally unwanted assistance are Blake's niece Hope (Joan Barclay) and her little brother Bobby (Dickie Jones). While it is understood that one often has to suspend disbelief while watching a cliffhanger serial, Blake of Scotland Yard asks a little too much of the viewer. Blake has come up with the greatest scientific achievement in decades, but there are no guards watching the death ray [except for one undercover man]? The Scorpion and his henchmen wander in and out and underneath Blake's estate, Mallow Hall, as if they own the place, but Blake still doesn't call in dozens of extra men. The Scorpion plants dynamite under the house and nearly blows it up; although his plot is foiled, Blake leaves the dynamite in the cellar where The Scorpion almost uses it again. How did Blake ever come to prominence in Scotland Yard? Connections? It certainly wasn't due to his intelligence!

Furthermore, no one in the serial – not even the title character – even bothers to attempt a British accent. The Scorpion is meant to be scary but only engenders titters as he wanders about all hunched over with a fake claw that is meant to resemble a scorpion's but looks more like a lobster's. His identity certainly proves to be no surprise. The little boy, Bobby, is cute enough, but he's also a little too precious and affected, overly earnest, and he's allowed to become part of the action way to often. The adults worry about him at times, but do little to protect him; while feisty and intelligent, he's still just a child. The main trouble with Blake of Scotland Yard is that under Hill's stodgy direction, it moves at a pace just slow enough to give the viewer time to be irritated by all these matters. There's no attempt to create atmosphere through lighting and shadows and even the underground scenes are over-lit. On the other hand, there's a lively fight scene wherein the heroes battle their way past some dangerous Apache dancers in the Parisian Cafe by furiously flinging circular serving trays at them. And Byrd and Barclay show their versatility [which the former was rarely if ever allowed to do] by impersonating a drunken older middle-class couple in a bar. There's also a startling shot of a man falling through a skylight and onto a bed, photographed from high above. Blake of Scotland Yard is not a great serial, but it does have a few exciting scenes and a fair amount of suspense at times. Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett has a small role as a Scorpion associate with an eye patch.

Verdict: Not great, but it has its moments. **1/2.