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

Thursday, March 25, 2010


THE LETTER (1940). Director: William Wyler.

"Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years and still not know the first thing about her."

In Singapore, while her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) is away, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) shoots a man in cold blood, but claims he tried to have his way with her and she had no choice. Her story seems to hold together until her lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) learns from his assistant Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) that the dead man's widow, Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), has in her possession a certain compromising letter that was written by Mrs. Crosbie to her husband ..... This is a superb picture on every level, one of Davis' more artistic vehicles [Davis herself is affected but effective], with director Wyler working at the peak of his form, and splendid performances from Marshall, Sondergaard, Sen Yung, and especially Stephenson [who was nominated for an Oscar and tragically had only one more year to live]. A fine score by Max Steiner and expert cinematography by Tony Gaudio as well. Cecil Kellaway is listed in the cast but his dialogue scenes appear to have been cut. Henry Koch's great script was taken from a short story and play by W. Somerset Maugham.

Verdict: A classic. ****.


THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956). Director: Virgil Vogel. 

Explorers and scientists Roger Bentley (John Agar), Jud Bellamin (Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver) and Etienne LaFarge (Nestor Paiva) wind up in giant caverns which hold the lost civilization of Sumeria. At first they are considered gods by the high priest (Alan Napier of Batman fame), who worships Ishtar, but eventually he realizes the truth and there's trouble. The Sumerians use ugly-looking mole creatures [see photo] as their brutalized slaves, who can dig through the layers of the cavern and who eventually rebel. This is Saturday matinee fare hokum, but it's also entertaining, with atmospheric underground sequences and fine matte paintings. There's no evil queen, but a few babes, including Cynthia Patrick as the sympathetic Adad. Dr. Frank Baxter introduces the movie and is a bore. Agar isn't bad, Paiva is better, and Napier is just swell. Effective musical score [cobbled together from different sources] as well. 

Verdict: More fun that you might expect. ***.


THE TRIPLE ECHO (1972). Director: Michael Apted.

Alice (Glenda Jackson) is running a farm in WW2 England while her husband is held in a Japanese POW camp. She becomes friends with a young soldier, Barton (Brian Deacon), whom she finds trespassing upon her property. Barton comes around to help on the farm and get some home-cooked meals and the two eventually become lovers. When Barton decides to go AWOL so that he can stay with Alice, she gets the idea of dressing him in drag as her sister, "Katie," so that nobody will suspect. Then a certain Sergeant (Oliver Reed) from the nearby Army base comes a calling, and takes a shine to "Katie" -- and maybe vice versa? At least "Katie" agrees to go to a dance at the base with the sergeant ... No, this isn't a comedy, but a decidedly unusual drama that has its interesting moments but somehow never quite hits the mark. Jackson and Deacon are fine, but Reed plays the sergeant as if he thinks he's appearing in a comic opera. Triple Echo never quite comes to grips in a frank or satisfying fashion with all of the psycho-sexual elements that are at its core. The movie also lifts a major plot device, including its ending, from the far superior Of Mice and Men. You want to be moved by the picture and Barton's plight but it comes off more as a dirty joke. Nice score by Marc Wilkinson.

Verdict: Be careful who you go to the prom with. **1/2.


TORMENTED (1960). Director: Bert I. Gordon. 

Jazz pianist Tom Stewart's (Richard Carlson) girlfriend, singer Vi Mason (Juli Reding) understandably has a bad reaction when he tells her he's getting married to the wealthy Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders). When the lighthouse railing she's leaning against gives way, Stewart doesn't make a move to save her, and rationalizes that he was not responsible for her death. Vi comes back at inopportune moments to haunt him, making his behavior baffle Meg and her little sister Sandy (Susan Gordon, daughter of the director). The basic plot of Tormented is workable, but this is one of low-budget director Gordon's few boring pictures, and is on occasion unintentionally humorous. Composer and frequent Gordon collaborator Albert Glasser turns in what is probably his worst score ever. Carlson is okay if a bit perfunctory. The best performances come from generally dependable Gene Roth [fine in Earth vs the Spider; awful in Captain Video] as a lunch stand operator, and Joe Turkel as a guy who tries to blackmail Stewart; Turkel mostly worked on television. A scene when Vi's ghost interrupts the wedding falls flat. Photographed by Ernest Laszlo! 

Verdict: Stick to The Cyclops instead. **.


VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1965). Writer/director: John Sebastian. (Direction of added American scenes by Curtis Harrington). 

AIP took a Russian science fiction movie and made two new movies out of it by adding scenes with American actors: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet was the first of the two. As astronauts in 2020 explore the planet Venus, Basil Rathbone [yes, Sherlock Holmes!] and Faith Domergue [of It Came from Beneath the Sea fame] communicate with them from HQ and another ship. [Rathbone and Domergue have no scenes together. Rathbone is filmed with two young actors, while Domergue -- with an unflattering beehive hairdo -- is all by her lonesome.] The astronauts encounter a tentacled killer plant, funny hopping rubber lizards [men in costumes], a mechanical brontosaurus, and a phony flying reptile. [There's also a quick shot of a squiggling underwater creature]. One of the astronauts hears a woman's voice as well as music, and they find a statue, shaped like a reptile, that proves Venus had once had a flourishing civilization -- and, the strangely poetic ending would indicate, still does. There's also a big robot -- and a hilarious scene with reel to reel tape [in 2020]! Composer Ronald Stein effectively reuses his music from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. Rathbone and Domergue actually give good performances in their added sequences. However, they can't disguise the fact that the original movie, while not entirely terrible, was probably no world-beater. Followed by Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. 

Verdict: Rathbone and Domergue deserved better. **.


SHERLOCK HOLMES (1954 TV series). 

Directors: Steve Previn; Jack Gage. Based on the these two representative episodes -- "The Case of the Haunted Gainsborough"and "The Case of the Winthrop Legend" -- this fifties TV series about the great detective was entertaining and rather well done. Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford [pictured] are excellent as, respectively, Holmes and Dr. Watson. Crawford plays Watson more like he was in the stories, and Howard -- son of Leslie Howard -- makes a handsomer Holmes than usual. In the first story, Holmes investigates when a Scottish Laird in fear of losing his castle complains that a ghost of a young woman is haunting the place. In the second episode Holmes and Watson travel to an estate that hasn't been opened in thirty years where legend says that John Winthrop will die as his father did -- and he does. Holmes unearths the culprit in each case. The stories are pastiches of Doyle's tales, but they are compact, atmospheric, and directed in dramatic fashion. Fine theme music by Paul Durand. Produced by Sheldon Reynolds. 

Verdict: Creditable old TV series about the venerable sleuth. ***.


THE INVASION (2007). Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel.

"My husband is not my husband!"

This is the fourth film version of Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers, famously filmed in the fifties as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which remains the best version of the story). Washington D.C. psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) has patients who insist that their loved ones aren't really their loved ones, and there seems to be an epidemic of this sort of thing going on. A friend, Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig of James Bond fame), learns that spores picked up by a space shuttle that crash landed are infecting people, turning them into emotionless drones that only resemble their former selves and have their memories. Before long Carol is on the run, desperate to save her little boy, Ollie (Jackson Bond), from her ex-husband (Jeremy Northam) and others who have been infected. [The presence of the child, as well as switching the sexes of the two main characters and eliminating the pods from the first two film versions, are the major changes to the story.] Although not a classic like the first film, this version is still disquieting and thought-provoking. An interesting aspect is that the point is made that there are some positive aspects to the invasion, such as a drop in hostility and greed, all caused by human emotions. [But there's also no joy or love.] Unfortunately, director Hirschbiegel seems too interested in providing action scenes and car chases that spoil the film's mood, and some sequences -- such as when a lone woman in a crowd reacts to a double-suicide, proving that she is still human -- aren't handled with the dramatic intensity they require. The entire cast gives good performances, however (Kidman has never looked better), including Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in the 70's remake, as a patient. This was excoriated by many critics but it isn't that bad.

Verdict: In any version this story is still unsettling. ***.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


 WHERE LOVE HAS GONE (1964). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

"What's a honeymoon? Two weeks of people telling each other lies ... they'll never live up to."

"When you're dying of thirst you'll drink from a mudhole!"

War hero Luke Miller (Michael Connors) marries wealthy sculptress Valerie Hayden (Susan Hayward), and things fall apart pretty quickly -- with help from Miller's mother-in-law, Mrs. Hayden (Bette Davis). After their divorce, the Miller's troubled daughter, Danny (Joey Heatherton), is accused of stabbing her mother's lover to death. This roman a clef regarding the Lana Turner-Johnny Stompanato case, based on Harold Robbin's best-selling novel, is well-acted, absorbing, and very entertaining. Davis and Hayward have at least one sizzling confrontation, and Joey Heatherton is simply terrific -- she should have had a much bigger career. Jane Greer and Anne Seymour are fine as, respectively, a social worker and psychiatrist, and Anthony Caruso scores in a brief bit as a horny blackmailer. In bit parts are Ann Doran (It, the Terror from Beyond Space; The Man Who Turned to Stone) and Walter Woolf King (Swiss Miss; A Night at the Opera). DeForest Kelley of Star Trek fame is very memorable as Valerie's agent, and George Macready as adept as ever as her mother's lawyer. As for Davis, good, bad or indifferent, Bette Davis is always Bette Davis. In this film she's already starting to split up her sentences in a way that indicates her constant smoking gave her such breathing problems that she could rarely complete a line without taking a breath somewhere. [Eventually she would have to take two breaths per sentence.] Jack Jones sings the pants off the title tune. John Michael Hayes' script was undoubtedly superior to the book.

Verdict: Definitely a guilty pleasure. ***1/2.


THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968). Director: Vernon Sewell. 

In this interesting period horror piece, Peter Cushing plays a detective inspector, Quennell, who is assigned to a case in which bodies keep turning up drained of blood. There are reports of a huge, winged creature. Quennell encounters an entomologist, Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng), and his pretty daughter, Claire (Wanda Ventham), both of whom seem to be keeping secrets. Going undercover with his daughter, Meg (Vanessa Howard), Quennell pursues the pair to another county, unknowingly putting his own daughter in danger. Although this has a fairly absurd premise, it is reasonably creepy and absorbing. The creature itself isn't too impressive at first, but it is suitably grotesque when required. Cushing is as good as ever and the other cast members are all quite professional and adept. Sewell's direction is mostly lacklustre, however. 

Verdict: An unusual entry in the (sort of) big bug sweepstakes. **1/2.


KILLERS FROM SPACE (1954). Director: W. Lee Wilder. 

"Ah ha ha! Ah ha ha! So -- you have discovered our menagerie!

Dr. Doug Martin (Peter Graves), who is working on nuclear fission experiments, crashes in the desert, is presumed dead, and comes back to the base an amnesiac. Then he recalls seeing strange men with ping pong eyes who experimented on him and showed him caverns full of monsters. Is he nuts -- or is Earth really on the verge of an alien invasion? John Merrick is the lead alien from dying planet Astron-Delta, and Barbara Bestar is Martin's wife, Ellen. The cavern scene, where Martin comes across giant-sized bugs and lizards which the aliens plan to unleash to consume Earth's populace, is both creepy and amusing. Pretty cheap and uninventive sci fi, but it is fun enough in its limited way. Director Wilder was the brother of the better-known Billy Wilder. To read more about this film see Creature Features

Verdict: Watch out for that yucky "menagerie." **1/2.


LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (2009). Director: F. Gary Gray.

A Philadelphia prosecutor, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), has to give a deal to a loathsome creature, Clarence Darby (the wonderfully creepy Christian Stolter), who murdered a man's wife and daughter. Naturally this doesn't sit well with the man, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), who turns out not to be an ordinary citizen exactly. Ten years later, Rice is DA and Shelton is not only diabolically getting even with Darby (in a gruesome but satisfying sequence) but declaring war on Rice, the legal system, and virtually the entire city -- even after he's locked up in jail. This is one movie that has to be taken with a grain of salt. There's some dumb business with Rice bringing silver serving trays into prison to satisfy one of Shelton's demands [couldn't they put the food in bags, so as not to incite the jealous fury of the other inmates?], and the police hardly seem to be involved at all, a highly unlikely scenario. We won't even talk about the revelations at the end, fascinating as they are. Despite all that, Law Abiding Citizen becomes quite suspenseful and exciting as it nears its conclusion. There are clever moments -- inter-cutting a child's violin concert with a execution that goes awry -- and the ending is splendid. A big problem, however, is that the characters are one-dimensional, and it doesn't help that the two lead actors, although certainly not bad, give performances with insufficient intensity [given what's going on]. This is not a film in which an actor should underplay! Viola Davis is vivid in her brief scenes as the mayor, and Bruce McGill [Jonas] and other supporting players are on the money.

Verdict: Absurd but absorbing. ***.


PURSUIT TO ALGIERS (1945). Director: Roy William Neill. 

"My dear Watson, musical talent is no proof of innocence. The late Professor Moriarty was a virtuoso on the bassoon.

Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), along with Watson (Nigel Bruce), is importuned to help scurry Prince Nikolas (Leslie Vincent) out of England before he can be assassinated after his father the king dies in an "accident." With the prince in tow, Holmes and Watson travel by boat, wondering which of the seemingly innocent -- and not so innocent -- passengers may be assassins. Of course, the minute Martin Kosleck shows up you know he's not on the side of the angels, but the film still holds quite a few surprises. At a dinner party Watson makes reference to Holmes' adventure with "The Giant Rat of Sumatra," which Doyle referred to in his stories but which was never revealed in one of his original tales. Marjorie Riordan plays Sheila Woodbury, whom the prince admires and who has a very lovely voice; she sings a couple of charming numbers. The huge mute Gubek is played by an actor billed as "Wee Willie Davis" and Morton Lowry, who played Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), is the helpful ship's steward. Very suspenseful, entertaining, and well-acted to boot. Rathbone is as marvelous as ever. Although Riordan was attractive and competent she had few credits, preferring other pursuits to acting. Despite his good looks, Leslie Vincent was uncredited in most of his film appearances. Twenty-four years after his last film credit he appeared on TV's Hawaii Five-O in 1972. 

Verdict: Great fun! ***.


WAR-GODS OF THE DEEP (aka The City Under the Sea/1965). 

Director: Jacques Torneur. Very, very loosely inspired by a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, this is a weird, half-successful fantasy/sci fi flick with many interesting elements. Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart) is snatched out of her ancestral manor on the coast by gill men who somewhat resemble the Creature from the Black Lagoon. A hidden door behind a bookcase leads into a cavern that leads down into the depths below the house. Hoping to find and rescue Jill, Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) and Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson) descend into the caverns and find a kind of water-gate that drops them into the sea. Somehow [as in The Incredible Petrified World the logistics for this are never made clear] they wind up in an underwater city, abandoned by its original occupants, which has been taken over by a band of smugglers who came down there to flee the law a hundred years ago in 1803. Their leader, Captain Hugh, is played by Vincent Price, giving one of his better latter-day performances. Hunter and Tomlinson also get into the light-hearted spirit of the piece. There's even a chicken named Herbert who was probably modeled on the duck Gertrude in Journey to the Center of the Earth [which definitely influenced parts of this movie]; Gertrude was a better actor although Herbert has his moments. An undersea volcano is now threatening the ancient city with destruction, and Hugh and his men don't dare return to the surface or they'll age and die in an instant. Frank White's art direction, such as a drowning chamber with huge statues, is often striking, and Stanley Black's theme music is effective, although the rest of his score is a very mixed bag. The movie is quite entertaining for half its length, but then gets water-logged with a confusing and dull underwater battle. The continuity of the film is absolutely wacky, with the characters escaping from the city only to inexplicably wind up back where they started from. 

Verdict: Despite many flaws, it has its moments. **1/2.


DIE, DIE MY DARLING (aka Fanatic/1965). Director: Silvio Narizzano.

Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers, the Girl from Uncle) is in England with her new fiance, Alan (Maurice Kaufmann) when she decides to pay a courtesy call on the mother, Mrs. Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead), of her former fiance, Steven, who died in an accident. Unfortunately, the initially welcoming Mrs. Trefoile isn't right in the head, and is such a religious fanatic that she considers Pat to be Steven's wife. When she discovers that Pat is planning to marry someone else, Mrs. Trefoile keeps Pat a prisoner with the aid of a married couple, Harry and Anna (Peter Vaughn, Yootha Joyce), who work for her. This is Bankhead's entry in the "aging actress" horror film sweepstakes and she gives it her all, although it is unfortunate that she sounds like Daffy Duck most of the time. Powers is a bit affected, but she's more than competent as the harried young woman, and Vaughn and Joyce are as professional as ever. Donald Sutherland plays another servant who is mentally deficient, the kinds of roles he specialized in before he was somehow reinvented as an unlikely romantic lead. Die, Die, My Darling holds the attention, and has some very effective moments, but in general the direction is uninspired and the whole production has a kind of cheapjack feel to it. It's ironic that Bankhead, who was certainly a free spirit in real life, plays a woman who is repulsed by sensuality. A Hammer film released by Columbia. Screenplay by Richard Matheson from the novel "Nightmare" by Anne Blaisdell.

Verdict: Tallulah at her naughtiest. ***.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


INHERIT THE WIND (1960). Director: Stanley Kramer.

"Fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding!"

In 1925 John T. Scopes was arrested in Tennessee for teaching the theory of evolution to his students. Clarence Darrow defended him and William Jennings Bryan acted as prosecutor, while H. L. Mencken covered the "monkey" trial for a newspaper. In a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, which fictionalises the story. the characters were changed into Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) for Darrow; Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) for Bryan; Bertram Cates (Dick York) for Scopes; and E. K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) of the Baltimore Herald for Mencken. The play and this film version thereof adds a further complication: Scopes/Cates is engaged to the daughter, Rachel (Donna Anderson), of the local preacher (Claude Akins), who is a borderline fanatic. The main strength of this film, besides the exchange of ideas and the notion of casting off narrow minds, is the acting by the two leads, both of whom are superb. March, in particular, possibly gives the best performance of his career, full of nuances, and giving his character enough charm to understand why people like and enjoy him even when they think he's dead wrong. [Florence Eldridge, who was married to March in real life, is also notable as Brady's wife, Sarah. And Gene Kelly is so good as Hornbeck that he proves to be far more than just a song and dance man and a fine dramatic actor. ] There is, perhaps, a little too much dramatic license; for instance, it doesn't make sense that Drummond wouldn't ask for a recess after Brady's brutal examination of Rachel. The movie is serious and sickening under the amusement and banter, as timely today -- if not more so -- than it was in 1960. It's weakest moment is the sop to the religionists with Drummond carrying a bible out of the courtroom at the end. Still, it was brave of Kramer and the others to make the film way back in 1960. Leslie Uggams sings "That Old-Time Religion" over the credits.

Verdict: Powerful stuff with two massive lead performances. *** [half a star taken off for that compromised ending].


THE THING THAT COULDN'T DIE (1958). Director: Will Cowan. 

Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) is a young lady who can divine things. When her power discovers that there's something buried beneath the ground on her Aunt Flavia's (Peggy Converse) ranch, she warns everyone that it's evil -- but her aunt is hoping for buried treasure and ignores her. Well, they find a chest all right, but what's inside is hardly the treasure Flavia was hoping for. Soon the hands and guests at the ranch find themselves at the mercy of a force that dates back to the days of Sir Francis Drake. This is an entertaining and fast-paced horror flick that doesn't take itself too seriously but never descends into outright camp, either. There are amusing moments, and the actors are all credible. David Duncan's script provides characters who have some dimension to them as well. The score is an effective mish mash of other scores from a host of Universal's horror and sci fi films. William Reynolds is probably the best-known cast member, and we've also got the durable Thomas Browne Henry [Earth vs. the Flying Saucers; Blood of Dracula] in a small role. Villain Robin Hughes had a great many credits. David Duncan also wrote The Leech Woman, The Time Machine and Monster on the Campus. Not to be confused with The Brain That Wouldn't Die. This was the last of 119 movies directed by Will Cowan [who also produced this and about 140 other films]; he lived for another 36 years. 

Verdict: You can't keep a good head down. ***.


STAR TREK NEMESIS (2002). Director: Stuart Baird.

This was another big-screen movie using the characters not from the original Star Trek, but from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) has his hands full when he encounters a megalomaniac, Shinzon (Tom Hardy), who is a clone of Picard and wants revenge on the Federation and everyone else for his horrible childhood. [Hardy, a fine actor, practically walks off with the picture, although his full lips -- as opposed to Stewart's thin ones -- would make him an unlikely clone, shaved head or no.] Shinzon is a member of the Remans race, who are treated like slaves and inferiors. There are some zesty battle scenes in this [the characters show no shock or remorse after extras are "killed" in front of their eyes], and an intriguing opener when the members of a council are killed by a gas that putrefies them, but all in all it's nothing especially memorable. It is fun to see Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, now promoted to Admiral Janeway, in a cameo. Apparently this did so poorly at the box office that it pretty much killed off the theatrical franchise.

Verdict: Holds the attention. **1/2.


THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945). Director: Roy William Neill. 

"By the way, you may have noticed all through time that prominent men have prominent noses." 

Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is called in when Scotland Yard is stymied by a series of "finger murders," in which young woman are killed and then have one of their fingers removed and taken away. Today we would think a serial killer is at work, carrying off "trophies," but there's a more fiendish motive to the murders which Holmes, of course, uncovers. This is an entertaining modern-dress Holmes outing, but it's less atmospheric than others in the series. Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Watson are excellent, but Hillary Brooke makes a comparatively colorless villainess. Henry Daniell is a fine actor, but his portrayal of Moriarty doesn't compare to that of Lionel Atwill or George Zucco. Paul Cavanagh is as solid as ever as Sir George Fenwick, who comes afoul of the villains. Tense climax on a roof top and many amusing sequences. Brooke appeared on My Little Margie for several years. 

Verdict: Watson to the rescue! ***


DR. CYCLOPS (1940). Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack. 

"In our very heads, we have the cosmic force of creation itself!" 

Very mad scientist Alexander Thorkel (Albert Dekker) uses radium ore to shrink animals and people to doll size. His victims include Dr. Bulfinch (Charles Halton), mineralogist Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley), Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), mule owner Steve Baker (Victor Kilian), and houseman Pedro (Frank Yaconelli). The picture features a still-impressive combination of back projection and excellent out-sized props to create a credible illusion as the five shrunken humans try to outwit and stay out of the hands of Thorkel, as well as to avoid becoming victims of now giant-sized cats and alligators. One wishes, however, that the film had a lot more intensity, better actors (although Dekker is fine, and Halton almost as good), more dramatic direction, and a different score. A remake would be in order. Compared to other films with miniaturized humans, this is better than Devil Doll, much better than Attack of the Puppet People (which it clearly inspired), and not as good as Fantastic Voyage or The Incredible Shrinking Man. Kilian also appeared in Unknown World

Verdict: Lightweight sci fi, but reasonably entertaining and well-done. ***.


I LOVE YOUR WORK (2003). Director/co-writer: Adam Goldberg.

Non-linear and confusing movie about a movie star, Gray Evans (Giovanni Ribisi), who has marital problems and who, like the movie, goes in and out of reality. Joshua Jackson is an envious fan wannabee filmmaker who works in a video rental store, and whose girlfriend Evans admires. Then there's another fan who seems to be stalking Evans. Who cares? There have certainly been interesting movies made about the alleged price of stardom and all that, but this isn't one of them. The acting is generally good -- Ribisi is a talented fellow -- but the virtually plot-less, underwritten movie with its paper-thin characters doesn't serve them well. Ribisi deserves a better script.

Verdict: Forget it! *1/2.


THE NORLISS TAPES (1973). Director: Dan Curtis.

"Every time the house creaks, my skin crawls."

Publisher Sanford Evans (Don Porter) wonders what happened to his author David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) who was writing a book debunking the occult until he ran smack damn into a genuine supernatural incident: a woman's (Angie Dickinson) husband has come back from the dead and is attacking people, draining their blood like a vampire. The acting from the principals and supporting cast -- which includes Claude Akins as a sheriff and Hurd Hatfield from The Picture of Dorian Gray and Mickey One as an art dealer-- is good, and the movie has its creepy moments. The problem is that just as it begins getting interesting, the darn thing is over. This attempt to make a new series for Thinnes [similar to The Night Stalker] after The Invaders ended its run didn't pan out.

Verdict: Always nice to see Angie. **1/2.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


SUPERMAN (1948 serial). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet. 

The first Superman cliffhanger serial from Columbia pictures stars Kirk Alyn (pictured) as the super-hero from the doomed planet Krypton. Although most of the really great villains of the comic book didn't appear until after this serial was released -- Braniac, for instance -- surely the writers could have come up with a more interesting antagonist than the witchy Spider-Lady (Carol Forman). Although Forman wasn't bad as The Black Widow, and she doesn't actually stink in Superman, she comes off more like an especially bitchy cocktail waitress or B girl than a serious super-villainess. Noel Neill is appealing as Lois Lane -- Neill was one of the more distinctive serial heroines -- and Tommy Bond, while initially off-putting, grows on you as Jimmy Olsen. Alyn doesn't exhibit much more charisma as Superman than he does as Clark Kent, but at least he doesn't portray Kent as a coward. There are a couple of decent cliffhangers in the production, but for long stretches Superman is pretty dull stuff. Not the worst of Columbia's serials, but a far cry from the best. 

Verdict: The Man of Steel deserved better. **1/2.


THE HOUSE OF FEAR (1945). Director: Roy William Neill.

"No man goes whole to his grave."

Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is called in when members of a club in Scotland called the Good Comrades are being murdered off one by one. The bodies are always found in a deplorable condition as the victims are crushed or burned and so on. Loosely based on Doyle's story The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips -- which was about the revenge of the Ku Klux Klan -- this is basically an original screenplay which is bizarre and intriguing [even if today it might not hold up forensically]. Paul Cavanagh may not have appeared in every Sherlock Holmes movie, but it certainly seems as if he did -- in this he's Dr. Simon Merrivale, who may have gotten away with murdering his wife. Sally Shepherd is creepy as the cook and housekeeper Mrs. Monteith. Rathbone and Bruce are as wonderful as ever.

Verdict: Eerie and quite entertaining. ***.


THE VIRGIN QUEEN (1955). Director: Henry Koster.

Ambitious Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) makes his clever way to the court of Queen Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and becomes one of her favorites, all the while hoping she'll give him some ships to sail seeking treasure from the New World, and dallying with a pretty lady-in-waiting and ward of the queen, Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins). Although he is not billed above the title with the others, Herbert Marshall, who co-starred with Davis in The Letter, plays Lord Leicester. This is an interesting and entertaining movie, but the central performance is a bit problematic. Davis has her moments, certainly, but sometimes you get the impression that the queen is not being played by Bette Davis, but by Baby Jane Hudson! A definite problem is that Davis, despite the quasi-British accent she always affected, is not English, and she seems to be giving an impression of a queen rather than simply becoming the part. In a word, she's almost awful at times, but not enough to sink the picture. Todd, Marshall, Collins [who actually out-acts Davis] and the other cast members are all terrific.

Verdict: Hardly Bette's finest hour, but not without interest. ***.


THE INCREDIBLE PETRIFIED WORLD (1957). Director: Jerry Warren.

A group descends in a new-type diving bell which breaks loose from its cable at 1700 feet. Escaping from the bell, the four people inside somehow make their way into an underground cavern (the logistics of this are never made clear, and it is never explained why they didn't make their way to the surface.) Inside these immense caverns (actually the Colossal Cave in Tucson, Arizona), which are illuminated by phosphorescence in the walls, the group discover an old man who claims to have been trapped there for fourteen years! Although this is a very cheap movie, it does manage to work up a disquieting sense of claustrophobia and despair, and the acting -- especially from Phyllis Coates of The Adventures of Superman TV fame, again playing a reporter -- adds to its veracity. Robert Clarke from The Man from Planet X and John Carradine are also in the cast. The battling monsters in the ads are in reality represented by a quick cut of a lizard that is not only not in the same frame as the actors but doesn't really seem to be in the same movie!

Verdict: Not for people who hate cheap movies, but this has atmosphere to spare. ***.


YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1984 telefilm). Directed by Ellis Rabb and Kirk Browning.

This is a filmed version of a stage production of the famous comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In the year 1938, Alice Sycamore (Maureen Anderman) is dating and hopes to marry her boss, VP Tony Kirby (Nicholas Surovy), but she greatly fears that his comparatively stuffy parents might disapprove of her highly unconventional and eccentric family. This includes her mother, Penny (Elizabeth Wilson), who began writing bad plays when she accidentally got a typewriter; her father Paul (Jack Dodson), who makes firecrackers for a living; her sister Essie (Carol Androsky), who has been practicing dancing for eight years, but according to her instructor, "stinks;" and her grandfather (Jason Robards Jr.) who dropped out and stopped paying taxes many, many years ago. George Rose is hilarious as the Russian dance instructor and Colleen Dewhurst has a nice turn as the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina who is now working at Shraft's. Anderman and Surovy make a nice pair of lovers, and Richard Woods and Meg Mundy are swell as Tony's parents, who arrive on the wrong night and find the household in its usual chaos. Wilson, Dodd and Robards are fine, and there's also nice work from Rosetta LeNoire as Reba and Arthur French as her boyfriend, Donald, as well as Alice Drummond as the dunken actress Mrs. Wellington. The entire cast is splendid in fact.

Verdict: Very funny and well-acted. ***1/2.


SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE GIANT RAT OF SUMATRA. Alan Vanneman. Carroll and Graf; 2002.

The untold case of the giant rat of Sumatra was referred to in Doyle's stories and in at least one Holmes movie, but this is the first time the entire story has been revealed-- sort of. This is an entertaining pulp-type novel, but the Holmes and Watson it presents seem to come from an alternate dimension. For one thing, Holmes accepts supernatural and bizarre occurrences much too quickly and easily, and Watson not only beds a married lady and others, but writes gleefully about it in the narrative -- hardly the actions of a gentleman. [Besides, who cares about Watson's sex life?] These are ill-advised attempts to "modernize" or jazz up these famous characters, and they don't work. However, the story itself -- in which Holmes and Watson investigate when a widowed client is murdered, and find themselves embroiled in a far-flung conspiracy as well as with an unknown race and its grotesque leader -- is generally well-written and quite entertaining. The ending is a bit abrupt but for the most part this is fun and rather suspenseful.

Verdict: Certainly imperfect but not a bad read -- but not for Holmes purists. ***.


WHITE COLLAR (2009 TV series). Created by Jeff Eastin.

FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) manages to track down an elusive thief Matthew Bomer (Neal Caffrey) and puts him in jail, whereupon he is given a special deal: work with Burke to find and entrap other crooks and he can have limited freedom. In the meantime, Bomer is desperate to locate his lost girlfriend. This is an interesting idea for a television series, it's well-acted (DeKay and Caffrey have a good rapport), but somehow each episode becomes just a little plodding and you lose interest long before the conclusion. Right now the series gets by on the charisma of its lead actors, but it needs better scripts. An openly lesbian agent seems to have been written out of the series, and Burke's remarks about her in the first episode were kind of insulting in any case. You need more than a clever idea to make a show really entertaining.

Verdict: Not must-see by any means, but it has its good points, including the actors. **1/2.