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

Thursday, June 25, 2009


THE BAD SEED (1956). Director: Mervyn LeRoy. 

Horrifying and fascinating study of a woman, Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly), who slowly begins to realize that her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack, pictured) is what today we would call a sociopath, someone born without a conscience, and that she may have been responsible for the deaths of more than one person, including a little boy whose penmanship medal she coveted. Although at first the film (based on a play, which itself was based on William March's novel) is a bit stagy and the acting a little too broad, eventually it becomes more and more intense, the acting fitting the out-sized emotions of the characters. Patty McCormack is wonderful as the loathsome Rhoda, and Nancy Kelly has some very strong moments as she etches a portrait of a woman facing a prospect so unthinkable that it is enough to drive her insane -- which it nearly does. Eileen Heckart almost walks off with the movie in two shattering scenes as the heartbroken and drunken mother of the dead little boy -- her performance is so strong and true that it's almost hard to watch. The ever-weird Henry Jones gives one of his best performances as the doomed handyman Leroy Jessup. There are also notable performances from Evelyn Varden as Christine's landlady and Paul Fix as her writer-father. William Hopper is certainly out-classed in this company but he has only a couple of appearances as Rhoda's father. While the link of "madness" with heredity is compelling, it's also the most dated aspect of the production. LeRoy's direction of the piece is competent, but it's the acting and script that put this over. One can only imagine what this might have been like with Alfred Hitchcock at the helm! McCormack continued acting well into adulthood, appearing in such films as Mommy and Shallow Ground. The film's comic postscript is regrettable. 

Verdict: Surprisingly powerful stuff. ***1/2.


CRY OF THE WEREWOLF (1944). Director: Henry Levin. 

This starts out as a promising horror film, but it never works up enough atmosphere, despite the fact that the settings include a museum of the supernatural with hidden tunnels, corridors beneath a mortuary, and a gypsy camp. Nina Foch plays Celeste, the High Priestess of a gypsy cult, who inherited the curse -- or gift? -- of lycanthropy from her mother, who was named Marie Latour. When she learns that Dr, Morris (Fritz Lieber) is planning to write a book about her mother's disappearance and all it entails, she takes decisive and aggressive action. An interesting aspect of the cult is that it is a matriarchal society, with power passing from mother to daughter. Osa Massen works in the aforementioned museum, and is romantically involved with the son (Stephen Crane) of the late doctor. Blanche Yurka is an old gypsy woman and confidante of Marie's. A big problem with the film is that the sinister werewolf just looks like a cute and cuddly Siberian husky. Barton MacLane seems a bit out of place as the police lieutenant assigned to the case. Cry of the Werewolf holds the attention and has some decent acting -- Crane is pleasant but a bit of a stiff -- but it's strictly a minor werewolf movie. Milton Parsons, the actor who most resembled a living cadaver, is cast as undertaker Adamson, of course. Levin directed a number of Pat Boone movies, including Journey to the Center of the Earth

Verdict: Where is the Wolfman when you need him? **1/2.


THE 30 FOOT BRIDE OF CANDY ROCK (1959). Director: Sidney Miller.

So somebody got the idea of doing a spoof of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (which came out over a year before this film did), a movie which was already amusing and in fact has a lot more laughs than this atrocious "comedy." It may have seemed a good idea to put Lou Costello in it (appearing without his usual partner, Bud Abbott), but the little guy has such poor material that there's nothing he can do to save it. Costello plays Artie Pinsetter, a small-town junk man and part-time inventor. After an argument, his girlfriend Emily (Dorothy Provine) runs into a cavern and the next thing she's grown into a giant. (After taking a shower she grows even larger, about fifty feet or more.) The Army thinks she's a giantess from Mars and her uncle (Gale Gordon), who's running for governor, just wants her to disappear. [He insists that she and Artie get married because he misunderstood what Artie meant when he said his niece had gotten "bigger."] Although Provine could play the blond bimbo with the best of them, in this she sort of plays it straight, which doesn't work at all. The movie has approximately five mild chuckles, although the expected gag at the end is funny. To make matters worse, the perennially unfunny Gale Gordon stinks up the production even more. This is an effort to sit through. 

Verdict: Paging Bud Abbott. *.


SHALLOW GROUND (2004). Written and directed by Sheldon Wilson.

A boy covered in blood comes into an isolated police station setting in motion a series of macabre events that seem to center on the disappearance in the woods of a woman who was the girlfriend of one of the cops, Jack (Timothy V. Murphy). It isn't long before it's made clear that this isn't a murder mystery, but something freaky is really happening. Although Shallow Ground is well-produced and photographed -- and the actors are all professional -- it suffers from the lack of a strong narrative drive. The movie is weird and disquieting at times (the music helps) but it's never really scary or involving (in fact it seems rather silly at times), maybe because the film seems to distance us too much from its characters. It's one thing to be mysterious; another to be obtuse. Plenty of gruesome moments for the gore buff. Patty McCormack, who starred in The Bad Seed as sociopathic Rhoda as a child actress and who played another nut years later in Mommy, plays Helen Reedy, who may or may not have a few secrets to share. McCormack has actually been a very busy actress her entire life.

Verdict: An interesting failure. **.


IRON MAN (2008). Director: Jon Favreau.

This big screen version of the long-time [since about 1963) Marvel comic book character comes very close to being an opulent bore, but at least it has a fairly exciting climax. The movie tells how munitions manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is injured by one of his own weapons in Afghanistan, has to wear a special device over his heart, and develops a super-suit with many devices to not only escape, but later to save lives and battle his adversary, former friend Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who objects when Stark decides to get the family company out of the weapons business. The movie takes forever to get going, is slow and tedious for a good hour, until finally the revamped model of Iron Man makes its appearance and things finally pick up. The climax is a battle between Iron Man and Stane in an even bigger mechanical suit. The FX are fine, the acting isn't bad [Bridges absolutely walks away with the movie as the loathsome Stane], but one has to hope that the sequel will be a whole lot better. Terrence Howard is Rhodey; Gwyneth Paltrow is Petter Potts. Downey plays Stark like an overgrown frat boy. Stan Lee, who created Iron Man, has a cameo as Hugh Hefner! The film is not very well directed for the most part.

Verdict: Read the comic books instead. **1/2.


HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971). Director: Peter Sasdy. 

An irresponsible psychoanalyst and admirer of Freud, Dr, Pritchard (Eric Porter) takes in a young lady, Anna (Angharad Rees), he suspects of murder and hopes to get to the bottom of her condition and cure her. Unfortunately, as he comes to understand, her problem is not so much psychosis but that she's possessed at times by her father -- who was Jack the Ripper! This is a literate, well-made, and well-acted horror story with some spurts of gruesome violence [beware edited TV prints -- this should be watched without commercials.] There's a memorable climax in St. Paul's whispering gallery. The film is generally fast-paced and suspenseful as well. Marjorie Rhodes, who plays the housekeeper, was Emma Hornett in Watch It, Sailor! Rees went on to become a busy actress, mostly in British television. Versatile Porter also starred in The Lost Continent (1968). 

Verdict: One of the best Hammer horror pictures. ***.


BIRTH (2004). Director: Jonathan Glazer.

"I thought you were my dead husband, but you're just a little boy in my bathtub."

Anna (Nicole Kidman) is about to remarry near the tenth anniversary of the death of her first husband, Sean. Along comes a ten-year-old boy, whose name is also Sean, who tells Anna that she must not remarry because he is her late husband. Is this an actual reincarnation at work, or is there something wrong with the child? It really doesn't matter -- and the characters don't wonder about it as much as they might -- because it becomes clear long before Anna and young Sean sit in a bathtub together in the nude that whatever its "romantic" pretensions this film is merely contrived to create a situation in which there is sexual tension between an adult and a child. [Anna takes an awfully long time to tell Sean that she doesn't want him in the tub.] In other words ---yuck! What we have here is a film like Tadpole, pseudo-intellectual pedophile chic -- or rather shit. You have to wonder why many critics don't see through this stuff, and why actors like Nicole Kidman and Lauren Bacall lend their names to what is really just a more "acceptable" variation of kiddie porn. [Although one wonders how acceptable this would have seemed had the adult been male and the child female, or both male?] The film also suffers from disjointed continuity, and is at times quite laughable. I'll spare the name of the intense boy actor who appears in this, but what on earth were his parents thinking? You don't have to be open-minded to like this, just stupid.

Verdict: If you want to think this is "artistic," be my guest, but I think it's crap. 0 stars.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954). Director: Robert Wise.

Avery Bullard, the head of Tredway Furniture Corporation, drops dead on a city street and a war begins over which of the executive directors will take charge of the company. The most interesting aspect of this picture is the opening, in which we see everything from Bullard's point of view (we never actually see Bullard). Then the picture just about talks itself to death, coming to life only sporadically whenever Barbara Stanwyck comes on as Julia Tredwell, wringing her hands, and yelling at one or two of the other characters. What this picture needs is a lot more of Stanwyck and a lot less of June Allyson, who is at her most perfectly cloying as William Holden's drippy wife. Fredric March, Nina Foch, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, and especially Louis Calhern all give good performances, however, with Stanwyck being the zippiest. Holden is adequate, and Walter Pidgeon is a bit better than usual in more of a character part. The funniest sections of the film -- which hasn't many laughs, just talk -- have to do with Calhern and his pretty, ever-hungry mistress. Allyson was a lot better in Woman's World, which came out the same year, had a similar premise, and was a much more entertaining movie.

Verdict: Given how little the women have to do in this film, it's a man's world after all. *1/2.


THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957). Director: John Sherwood. 

Sheriff Dave Miller (Grant Williams) has a serious problem. There are these silicon-based black rocks scattered all over his town, and anyone who comes into contact with them is headed for trouble. His deputy is found dead, in a petrified state, and another family suffers the same fate after their house is crushed. The one survivor, a little girl, has an arm that is slowly turning to stone. What's worse, Miller learns that these weird "rocks" have the power to expand, multiply, and grow to staggering heights whenever they touch water, falling over and crushing everything underfoot when they grow too large. And a rainstorm is on the way ... While big rocks are obviously not as compelling as giant insects or dinosaurs on the rampage, The Monolith Monsters holds the attention and works up some minor suspense. It doesn't hurt that the dramatic score from Deadly Mantis embellishes each scene. Grant Williams is the low-key star; it's easy to see why this handsome actor never jumped into the big leagues (perhaps with the exception of The Incredible Shrinking Man) although he's competent enough. Lola Albright is an appealing leading lady, and Les Tremayne is fine as the dissatisfied newspaper man. Richard H. Cutting, who plays Dr. Reynolds, had a small role in Monster on the Campus and was also in Attack of the Crab Monsters

Verdict: You don't have to have rocks in your head to watch this. **1/2.


THE FEARMAKERS (1958). Director: Jacques Tourneur.

Alan Eaton (Dana Andrews) comes back from a POW camp in Korea to find out that the partner in his polling firm has been killed and that he apparently sold out to a man, Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran), who uses shady methods and who seems to have a communist agenda. Although it's not the main point of the film, The Fearmakers examines how polls can be influenced by loaded questions, poor research, etc. to say whatever the pollster wants them to say -- an "unamerican" practice that has, sadly, been going on in America for decades now. Eaton agrees to join the firm only to investigate it for a concerned Senator friend, and winds up threatened and victimized by McGinnis and his cronies just as he was by the Koreans. The film has interesting casting, especially singer Mel Torme who plays an employee of the firm -- the "velvet fog" is quite good as the man who turns against his bosses out of love for a pretty secretary (Marileee Earle) whose life is endangered. Veda Ann Borg and Kelly Thordson are vivid as a battling married couple with whom Eaton boards for a hectic night. Senator Walder is played by Roy Gordon, who was the doctor in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. When Eaton sees the Senator's picture on the cover of Time, you almost expect Eaton to open the magazine to find pictures of a giant Allison Hayes in her underwear with Gordon pontificating on her in a sidebar. Dennis Moore, who plays an Army doctor, also appeared in serials The Mysterious Mr. M and The Purple Monster Strikes, not to mention The Mummy's Curse. The main problem with this movie is that it has few thrills.

Verdict: Not fearful enough. **.


VOODOO ISLAND (1957). Director: Reginald Le Borg.

TV host Phillip Knight (Boris Karloff) who debunks the supernatural, is asked to travel to a certain island where a group of people who were planning to build a hotel resort disappeared. Only one man came back, Mitchell (Glenn Dixon, pictured), and he's been in a trance-like state of shock ever since. Knight agrees to go to the island, along with Barney Finch (Murvyn Vye) who works for the hotel concern; Sarah Adams (Beverly Tyler), Knight's gal Friday; and Claire Winter (Jean Engstrom), a designer who seems to have a yen for Adams. [There are a few heavy-handed hints to her being a lesbian.] Also traveling to the island are Martin Schulyer (the inimitable Elisha Cook), who owns a boat, and Matthew Gunn (Rhodes Reason), his pilot. On the island the group encounters one foot-long spider-crab, but the main problem appears to be carnivorous plants. There are rubber fronds that wrap themselves (quite unconvincingly) around their victims, as well as club-like plants that try to thwaaap down and knock out their unwilling human meals. One scene has a small native girl being swallowed up and consumed by another killer plant that ensnares anyone who steps upon it. There are also voodoo dolls, witch doctors, and the like. Richard H. Landau's script makes a real attempt at presenting interesting characters with back stories, although those stories tend to the cliched. Karloff gives a game performance; the others are at least adequate. Rhodes Reason is the brother of Rex Reason, who starred in This Island Earth; Rhodes is not a bad actor. Adam West of Batman fame has a small part as a weather station radio operator. The main problem with Voodoo Island is that it makes no real attempt to create a scary atmosphere or sense of fear and wonder over its sinister setting.

Verdict: A perfect triple bill with Womaneater and From Hell It Came. **1/2.


THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949). Director: Jules Dassin.

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) comes home from the war and discovers that his father, a trucker, was crippled in a horrible accident caused by a corrupt man named Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick enters the trucking business himself by hauling apples with a partner named Ed (Millard Mitchell) and gets involved with two women, a "good" girl named Polly (Barbara Lawrence), and a hooker named Rica (Valentina Cortese). Conte gives a terrific lead performance but the drama is kind of weak; relationships are not well-delineated. It's no surprise that the most memorable scenes have to do with action: the suspenseful business when Nick is nearly crushed under his truck when he tries to change a blown out tire; and the harrowing moments with Ed's runaway truck when his brakes fail. There's way too much talk about apples early in the picture. Cobb is as good as ever in a typical role for him, but Millard Mitchell nearly walks off with the movie as Ed. The two ladies would have made more of an impression had their roles not been so under-written. Jack Oakie, of all people, makes a strong impression in a serious role as a trucker named "Slob."

Verdict: On the Waterfront it ain't. **.


THE NEANDERTHAL MAN (1953). Director: E. A. Dupont. 

A sabretooth tiger is on the loose in the High Sierras, but Professor Clifford Groves (Robert Shane aka Shayne/pictured) scoffs violently at the very idea. Or doth he protest too much? One old hunter takes the cast he made of the beast’s footprint to Dr. Harkness (Richard Crane) who has a similarly hostile reaction – but his curiosity is ignited and he heads for the High Sierras to investigate. But what’s this? – who is that awful ape-like creature stalking the mountains and tearing up hunters? The make up for the neanderthal man is a bit comical but otherwise not bad. For a cheapie creepy this has rather good acting. Both Doris Merrick and Joyce Terry play with conviction as, respectively, the professor’s fiancee and daughter. Shane spits out his venomous, condescending remarks to his fellow scientists with decided flair, and etches a convincing portrait of a scientist who’s rapidly going cukoo. Richard Crane isn’t much of an actor, however. Beverly Garland turns in her usual professional job as a waitress who is traumatized by the monster. Albert Glasser’s intense score is a big plus. Undoutedly this influenced the later Monster on the Campus which also had creatures and people reverting to prehistoric forms. 

Verdict: Late night time-passer. ***.


THE LONE RANGER (1938) 15-Chapter Republic serial. 

Directed by John English and William Witney. 

"Hi Yo Silver -- Away!

A massacre of Texas Rangers has only one survivor, the "lone ranger" who's rescued by Tonto (Chief Thundercloud). Now the evil Captain Smith, posing as Colonel Jeffries (Stanley Andrews) is behind many nefarious acts in the district -- he hopes to become the "dictator of Texas" -- and is out to get his adversary, The Lone Ranger -- if he can figure out who he is. There are five rangers, any one of which could be the masked man. Let's not forget pretty Joan Blanchard (Lynn Roberts) and the little kid who hero-worships LR (and is not a bad actor to boot). Frankly, I didn't find The Lone Ranger to be quite the classic I was hoping for, although Lone Ranger and western fans might give this serial higher marks. There are some exciting moments, however, such as a thrilling chase after a stagecoach in chapter 12, culminating in a harrowing dive off a cliff. And yes, Giacomo Rossini's wonderful overture from his final opera William Tell makes exciting -- if bizarre -- background music. Stirring conclusion, too, as the true Lone Ranger is finally revealed. 

Verdict: Didn't every kid want to ride Silver? **1/2.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


VERTIGO (1958). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

"Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) has to leave the police force because his fear of heights kicks in at an inopportune moment, resulting in a colleague's death. He is hired by an old friend to tail the friend's wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is apparently under the spell of an ancestor named Carlotta Valdez who committed suicide. Scotty saves Madeleine from one possible disaster, but he is unable to save her from another -- and then months later he sees another woman, Judy Barton (also Kim Novak), who looks just like Madeleine. Scottie is irresistibly drawn to this woman -- and pulled right along into another, even worse, nightmare.

One could quibble that there is a far-fetched element to Vertigo [and it's a good thing he never looked at the obits, photos and all] but if you're in tune with this wonderful, dream-like movie it really doesn't matter. James Stewart gives one of his best performances, and while Novak may not be on his level she has some very strong moments, especially as the tormented Judy. Barbara Bel Geddes gives another sensitive performance as the lady friend of Scottie's who's hopelessly in love with him -- the moment when she slowly walks down the hall after seeing an unaware Scottie in the sanitarium stays with one. Scottie, an essentially decent man who loves not wisely but too well, as the saying goes, is a very sympathetic -- indeed, pathetic -- figure, and the uncompromising but inevitable, deeply moving denouement certainly packs a wallop. There are small moments in the movie that may not work as well as intended, but that's quibbling. This is a certified masterpiece. And the contributions by cinematographer Robert Burks and composer Bernard Herrmann can not be underestimated.

Verdict: Arguably Hitchcock's greatest achivement. ****.


THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955). Director: Joseph M. Newman. 

"Ruth, don't tell me that, as a woman, you're not curious about our destination?" 

Scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is sent instructions on how to build an "interocitor," an amazing machine through which he is contacted by an odd, white-haired man named Exeter (Jeff Morrow). Apparently Meacham has passed a test just by being able to build the machine, and before long he's being flown through fog to an isolated mansion where he finds other scientists working on behalf of Exeter, including Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Exeter is from another planet, Metaluna, in fact, where the climax of the film takes place [as well as in outer space]. While the movie never rises above a comic book level in all matters, on that level it is very entertaining and fast-moving. The scenic design of Metaluna is still quite effective, and it's a neat touch that the planet's cities are located beneath a layer of upper crust. The big insectoid mutants with their grappling hook hands are also neat. Reason is competent, Domergue is lively and sexy as usual, and Morrow, although one could call him hammy at times, plays the material with just the right note. A fifties sensibility to be sure, but colorful and fun. Newman's direction is serviceable but little more. 

Verdict: All systems go! ***.


HUMAN DESIRE (1954). Director: Fritz Lang. 

Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame) is married to the rather bestial and jealous Carl (Broderick Crawford) who forces her to accompany him when he plans to murder one of her alleged lovers. Into this unpleasant mix comes railroad engineer Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), who falls for Vicki and whom she hopes will help her get out of the trap that her marriage has become. The opening with the train zooming along is excellent, and everything that follows certainly holds the attention, but a big problem with the picture is that it has no real climax. Brockerick is terrific; Ford gives one of his better performances; and Grahame has her moments as the femme fatale but she's uneven and never altogether convincing. Well-directed by Lang and beautifully photographed by Burnett Guffey. Despite her somewhat cold nature, it's hard not to see Vicki in part as a victim, but the film doesn't encourage the audience to feel much sympathy for her. Kathleen Case as the "good girl" in the story is just as sexy as the bad girl, if not more so. Her first appearance, filling out her sweater, makes you wonder why Warren even bothered with Vicki. Inspired by a novel by Emile Zola. 

Verdict: Compelling if imperfect. ***.


THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT (1952). Director: Joseph M. Newman.

The film begins with a tense, well-executed bank robbery in the town of Poker Flats, but then goes downhill from there. This is the third of several film versions of Bret Harte's famous short story, and is a very loose adaptation. After the robbery the town decides to turn loose certain immoral elements and several people are told to get out or be hanged. A gambler, John Oakhurst (Dale Robertson) suggests they go to a cabin he knows of; they are joined by a young couple about to have a baby. Not only is there a storm on the way and no food, but along comes bank robber Ryker (Cameron Mitchell) looking for his wife Cal (Anne Baxter), who's developed a tender feeling for Oakhurst. Miriam Hopkins is apparently the town's madam. What might have been developed as a strong drama turns into a mediocre melodrama that wastes most of its cast. The main problem is that the characters aren't developed enough for us to give a hoot about them. Generally well-acted, although Robertson is a bit of a lightweight compared to the others.

Verdict: Lost in a snow storm all right. **.


WOMANEATER (1958). Director: Charles Saunders. NOTE: U.S. title was The Woman Eater

"What are these worthless lives compared to what I'm giving to the world?" 

Dr. Moran (George Coulouris, light years from Citizen Kane) travels to the amazon in search of a formula that can revive the dead, and somehow manages to come back with a full-grown native man, Tanga (Jimmy Vaughn), and a big limbed plant that likes to snack on full-grown females. Moran is of the opinion that after the creature snacks on a woman, he can use the sap for his formula to bring back the dead. Sally Norton (Vera Day) is a pretty ex-carnival worker who finds new employment at the doctor's, much to his housekeeper, Margaret's (Joyce Gregg), displeasure. Moran, who considers himself a genius, supposedly falls in love with Sally, who seems to have the brains of a mouse. Tanga practically writhes in orgasm each time the plant-monster feeds. The tree is covered with hair or fur and has many wriggling arms or trunks. This movie should be fun, and it's watchable, but somehow it lacks that certain sensationalistic aura that might have made it memorable, and the "feeding" scenes aren't very well done. The performances are good for the most part and there's an undeniable amusement value to the film. Jimmy Vaughn is quite vivid as Tanga but he never made another movie. 

Verdict: A good double-bill with the equally mediocre From Hell It Came. **.


THE WINSLOW BOY (1948). Director: Anthony Asquith. Screenplay by Terence Rattigan, from his play.

Retired for health reasons, Arthur Winslow (Cedric Hardwicke) is disturbed to learn that his 12-year-old son Ronnie (Neil North) has been thrown out of the Royal Naval Cadets on a charge of stealing. Ronnie insists that he is innocent, and his father believes him -- and becomes increasingly angry at the fact that his son was never given a real chance to defend himself in a trial. Enter solicitor Sir Robert Morton (Robert Donat) a heavyweight who decides to take the case-- after grilling the boy intensely, almost savagely -- but the first hurdle will be to get past the fact that it is unheard of to, in effect, sue the Queen. We see the effect all the publicity has on the rest of the family, especially sister Catherine (Margaret Leighton) who may lose her fiance over the brouhaha. Even Ronnie's mother wonders if it's worth the financial cost and everything else to pursue the matter. The film works up quite a bit of suspense in wondering what will happen and what the outcome of the trial -- if there is one -- will be.

The Winslow Boy is the real deal. The characters are real, living, breathing, three-dimensional human beings, not stereotypes (even Morton, who at first does come off as a "type"). The acting by the entire cast is uniformly excellent, with Donat and Hardwicke neck and neck in the competition for most superb performance. And the movie rivets your attention from start to finish. Composer William Alwyn has contributed an almost [Richard] Straussian score. If I have any quibble with the film it's that I wish we were shown more details of the trial, considering the circumstances. NOTE: There was a creditable remake in 1999 as well as at least two television versions.

Verdict: Pounce! ****.


MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958). Director: Jack Arnold. 

Professor: "Don't open the door! It might escape!" Girl student: "Who cares!?" 

The trouble all starts for Professor Donald Blake (Arthur Franz) when he orders a dead coelcanth for his college science lab. The blood of the prehistoric fish has properties that inexplicably turn back the clock on any species that comes into contact with it. A dog becomes an ancient wolf, a dragonfly grows to giant size, and Professor Blake ... ? Well, somebody has to be the monster on the campus and it might as well be him. Franz gives a good -- not great -- performance in the film, but he's certainly better than the wooden Troy Donahue, who's one of his students. Joanna Moore plays Blake's fiancee Madeline, and Helen Westcott is a colleague and his first pitiful victim. Although the pace drags a bit at the end, the film is generally fast-moving and entertaining. Ross Elliot, who appeared in many genre films, is a police sergeant; Whit Bissell plays a doctor. The make-up and the dragonfly are creditable. Some creepy and suspenseful scenes; ably directed by Arnold. It doesn't hurt that the film seems to use the same score as Arnold's Tarantula. Westcott was also in The Invisible Avenger and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Franz's best performance was in The Sniper

Verdict: Could have been called The Astounding Fish-Monster! ***

Thursday, June 4, 2009


WOMAN'S WORLD (1954). Director: Jean Negulesco.

"New York is the most fabulous, exciting, thrilling city in the world!"

This is a very entertaining, handsomely produced comedy-drama with a simple premise. Ernest Gifford (Clifton Webb), the President of Gifford Motors, needs a new general manager after the man in that position dies. He calls three district managers and their wives to New York so he and his sister can look them over. Gifford knows that the man who gets the job will need to have a wife who can also do her part on the social end, and who will understand that the job might have to come first. Katie and Bill Baxter (June Allyson; Cornel Wilde) are small-towners and the wife wants to keep it that way. Liz and Sid Burns (Lauren Bacall; Fred MacMurray) are actually in the midst of a marriage crisis, with the wife already thinking that the business has taken her husband away from her and given him an ulcer. When it comes to third couple Carol and Jerry Talbot (Arlene Dahl; Van Heflin), the wife has fallen in love with the city and all it offers while the husband fears he's too frank to be given the job. The picture works up some nice suspense as to who will be offered the position while offering serio-comic vignettes about each marriage and how each wife sees her position in it. Director Negulesco has gotten fine performances from the entire cast, with Webb his usual superb self, and especially nice work from MacMurray. Dahl is sexy and zesty as the slightly amoral Carol; one of her better performances. Allyson and Wilde make the Baxters a very appealing couple. [No mean feat, as this writer generally can't stomach June Allyson.]

Verdict: It ain't Shakespeare, but it's fun! ***.


MURDER BY PHONE (1982). Director: Michael Anderson. 

When the daughter of friends is found dead in the subway under highly mysterious circumstances, Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain in a great beard) investigates and discovers that the pay phone the girl was talking on was damaged by some kind of fiery or electrical disturbance. Before long various people taking phone calls are having their brains fried by weird sounds and impulses coming from their phones, impulses so strong that one poor man is sent hurtling out of his chair and through the window of a skyscraper! Is the phone company trying to cover up that some maniac is using new technology to send lethal electrical waves across phone lines? What do you think? Bridger joins forces with an artist (Sara Botsford) who tries to help him get inside information. This is a fairly effective thriller with a novel idea, even if the killer's exact motives are never quite clarified. John Houseman appears as another friend of Bridger's who has a connection to the phone company. The eerie, jangling score was done by John Barry of Out of Africa and James Bond fame; an unusual assignment for him that hardly makes use of his romantic sensibility. Busy actress Botsford also appeared in Deadly Eyes, Tremors 4 and the remake of The Fog. 

Verdict: It may not keep you off the phone but it should hold your attention. **1/2.

TITANIC (1953)

TITANIC (1953). Director: Jean Negulesco.

NOTE: This review reveals various plot turns in the film.

The original Titanic of 1953 has always been considered inferior to the British A Night to Remember, but a fresh look at videos of both features -- plus the new 1997 Hollywood version -- proves it actually to be the best and most emotionally wrenching of all three versions. The main characters are played -- and played superbly -- by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb (in what has to be one of his finest performances). They are a married couple on the verge of divorcing, who rediscover their love for each other, unfortunately, when it's far too late. Stanwyck has revealed that Webb is not the biological father of his son, and he shuns the boy, until the moving conclusion reunites them on the deck of the ship. "I have been proud of you since the moment you were born," Webb tells the young man and holds him close just before the ship goes down. Devastated, Stanwyck watches the sinking from one of the lifeboats. The victims are allowed their dignity; it's left to the imagination what their final moments are like. Stanwyck's daughter (a lovely Audrey Dalton) is also in the lifeboat, but the boyfriend she's met on the ship (Robert Wagner) doesn't make it. (This secondary love story between an upper crust girl and more rough-hewn boy became the main story line of the 1997 remake.) Because we have come to know and like these people, their deaths -- and the crushing loss their survivors feel -- make the film's conclusion almost unbearably moving. The screenplay won a well-deserved Oscar, and Jean Negulesco's direction is assured and solid.

Verdict: Strong and poignant. ***1/2.


A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958). Roy Ward Baker.

A Night to Remember takes a more detached, clinical view of the Titanic tragedy than other cinematic versions, and while there are vignettes of various characters, we never get to know any of them very well. There is much more detail concerning the final fates of the people left aboard the ship -- scrabbling frantically as the ship begins to tilt, jumping into the frigid water, and so on -- and we see the squabbling on some of the lifeboats as people argue as to whether or not they should go back to pick up survivors. Certain moments are unsparing, such as when a pair of newlyweds are apparently crushed by the falling smokestack. But while the final scenes in Remember are harrowing and horrifying -- and you can't help but be moved by them -- they lack the human drama, and therefore, the emotional intensity, of the Webb/Stanwyck Titanic. Furthermore, the actor who plays the ship's designer essays it in a stoic, completely unreal manner, and certain scenes, such as Isadore Strauss and his wife deciding to stay on the ship together, lack the impact of their counterparts in the original.

Verdict: Enough to make you take a plane. **1/2.

TITANIC (1997)

TITANIC (1997). Director: James Cameron.

James Cameron's Titanic sort of combines the first two films about the disaster (Titanic; A Night to Remember), but doesn't add a blessed thing to them except even more harrowing detail of the final moments, and eye-popping special effects work. There is little suspense or atmosphere and the long love story is never that compelling because these are not people whose relationship has a lengthy, interesting history (as is the case with Webb and Stanwyck in the original), and -- let's face it -- Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are not in the same talent league as the first picture's stars. (And, to be honest, Gloria Stuart is no Katharine Hepburn.) In the final moments they never register the kind of terror they would have been feeling, only the alarm they probably experienced being hung up on whatever wobbly device the FX department cobbled together for the sequence. The effects are marvelous, but a picture about the Titanic tragedy is not supposed to be The Poseidon Adventure -- "Wow! Watch The Ship Flip Over And People Die!" -- but a moving human document. The problem isn't just the screenplay, but that director Cameron, a very capable action/FX helmsman, is not the kind of filmic genius who could have turned this picture into a masterpiece. He muffs a lot of sequences, such as when the ship's officer shoots at the crowd and then commits suicide -- imagine what Jean Negulesco could have done with that! And why did he allow Winslet and other actors to wade around through supposedly frigid water without reacting to it (until DiCaprio finally says something about it in a later scene.) Titanic certainly isn't a bad film, and it does hold the attention for more than three hours, but considering that forty years have gone by since the last Titanic movie, you would think we'd have something that improves upon its predecessors in more than just special effects (which were actually perfectly good in the earlier pictures). On that horrible night in 1912, 1500 people died terrifying deaths in what must have seemed to them like Hell on Earth. It's doubly awful that they seem to have died just so James Cameron could declare himself "King of the World" and an utterly mediocre singer like Celine Dion could have herself a hit record.

Verdict: One can only imagine what the victims would think of all this "Titanic" exploitation. **1/2.


JUNGLE JIM (1948). Director: William Berke.

A middle-aged Johnny Weissmuller (pictured) trades in the loincloth of Tarzan for the safari suit of Jungle Jim, which was based on an Alex Raymond comic strip. The snappy Virginia Grey plays Dr. Hilary Parker, who is hoping to get a cure for polio from a witch doctor -- while others are just hoping to find treasure. George Reeves gives a lively performance as a creepy photographer and Rick Vallin plays, of all things, a native chieftain. Lita Baron is the bitchy native girl who tells Parker that she's "like a man." There are elephant stampedes, falling boulders, an attack by alligators, an odd crocodile with a tail that's more like a tentacle, and a trained crow that pecks at typewriter keys. The best scene has Jim dangling from the side of a cliff; his wrestling with a lion isn't bad, either. This may be mostly stock footage, but it plays. Reeves is more interesting as a bad guy than as a hero. Grey also appeared in Black Zoo.

Verdict: Fast-paced jungle fun. **1/2.


COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL (1988). Director: Ron Mann.

In one sense this documentary does provide a kind of overview of the comic book industry, noting all the trends and high spots, but it also has such a bias in favor of counter-culture "comix" that it seems not only unbalanced but a bit boring. The graphics that are meant to make the film visually interesting only seem to get in the way -- you just want to hear what people have to say. There are interviews with rather unknown modern-day comics artists/writers, but don't expect any mention of giants such as Carmine Infantino or Gil Kane. On the other hand, there are interviews (however brief in some cases) with Jack "King" Kirby, Will Eisner (of Spirit fame) and William Gaines (Mad magazine; E.C. Comics), but Stan Lee is only allowed one quote! Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar are given more extensive interviews, as is Frank Miller. Many of the "comix" creators look like refugees from the sixties. Some good stuff in here, but hardly the last word on the comic book industry and certainly not on the industry's mainstay, super-heroes.

Verdict: Read a comic book instead. **.