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

Thursday, May 27, 2010


LIFEBOAT (1944). Director: Alfred Hitchcock. 

The survivors of a freighter that was torpedoed by a Nazi U-boat discover that the German they have on board was actually the captain of the submarine that not only destroyed the freighter but ordered the lifeboats shelled. Despite this, he manages to take over the ship until ... Absorbing Hitchcock suspense film has plenty of both dramatic and thrilling episodes, and despite its one location is quite cinematic for the most part. Walter Slezak does not play a cartoon Nazi spitting out "schwein!" all the time but one who is fairly ingratiating and therefore more troubling. Among some powerful and moving sequences in the film one that stands out the most has a young mother (Heather Angel) who's lost her baby, awakening with her hands still "holding " the missing infant. Although Tallulah Bankhead nearly steals the show as reporter Connie Porter [first seen in the lifeboat in her mink], the entire cast is excellent, including Slezak, Angel, William Bendix as a poor sap who loses his leg; Mary Anderson as a nurse; John Hodiak as the commanding Kovac; Henry Hull as the wealthy Rittenhouse; Canada Lee as Gus; and Hume Cronyn as Sparks. [Hull was the Werewolf of London years before.] The movie has many lovely and interesting touches throughout. Characterizations and dialogue in Jo Swerling's screenplay [apparently taken from a story idea or treatment by John Steinbeck] are excellent. You could quibble that there's too much talking and card-playing, that there's not enough of a reaction to the realization that Slezak was the captain of the U-boat (although Hitchcock may have been saving the fireworks for a later moment), but essentially this is a fine and fascinating classic. Great ending. 

Verdict: Strong stuff. ***1/2.


NO OTHER WOMAN (1933). Director: J. Walter Ruben.

Anna (Irene Dunne) is in love with steel worker Jim (Charles Bickford), but she despises their environment and wants to have a life without soot and noise and comparative poverty. Jim has no such ambitions, but Anna marries him anyway. When a friend named Joe (Eric Linden) develops a new dye formula, Anna importunes Jim to go in with him, although at first he stubbornly resists. But eventually he succumbs and before you know it he and Anna are living on easy street -- and then the real troubles start, especially in the form of slinky vamp Margot (Gwili Andre). This rags-to-riches soap opera would be forgettable were it not for the performances and an exciting court room scene where Anna pulls out all the stops to get her man back. [One may wonder why she would want him, as he proves to be a first-class stinker.] J. Carrol Naish has a small role as Jim's lawyer, Bonelli, another Italian role for the Irish actor.

Verdict: There have been worse. **1/2.


TCM SPOTLIGHT CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION. Warner Home Video. Available on BLU-RAY/DVD June 8th, 2010.

Charlie Chan is back! And Mantan Moreland's got him!

This collection includes four Charlie Chan movies from Monogram studios. Sidney Toler plays Chan in the first three films, and Roland Winters takes over for the fourth film. Moreland is cast as Chan's chauffeur/assistant Birmingham Brown in three of the films, paired with one of Chan's sons for added merriment.

The films include Dark Alibi, Dangerous Money, The Trap and The Chinese Ring [with Winters as Chan]. Dark Alibi is the best of the four, but all four films are quite entertaining and suspenseful. Dark Alibi has Chan trying to save the life of a man on death row; Dangerous Money features murder on shipboard; The Trap features a series of strangulation murders of young showgirls; and The Chinese Ring has Chan investigating when a princess is murdered in his domicile.

The black white images on the four DVDs -- one for each film -- are crisp and clear, and there are sub-titles in English, French and Spanish.

This DVD collection can be bought here.

Verdict: Chan and Mantan are an unbeatable combination. ***.

Get the inside scoop on WB movie and DVD releases.


DARK ALIBI (1946). Director: Phil Karlson. 

"Is this the shortest way to prison?" -- Birmingham Brown. 
"No, the shortest way is to commit crime." -- Charlie Chan. 

A bank is robbed and a guard is killed, and fingerprints on the scene match those of Thomas Harley (Edward Earle), who swears he was somewhere else at the time. Nevertheless the fingerprints are enough to get Harley arrested, convicted and sent to death row. Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler), who comes to believe in Harley's innocence, has only 9 days to prove it and save the man's life. But what about those fingerprints? Chan's investigations center on the boarding house where Harley lived with his daughter June (Teala Loring) and such suspects as the typist, Miss Petrie (Janet Shaw), the brassy blond dancer Miss Evans (Joyce Compton), Johnson, the cadaverous CPA (Milton Parsons, who always looked like Death Warmed Over), and of course, the blunt landlady Mrs. Foss (Edna Holland). Benson Fong plays Charlie's Number 3 son, Tommy, and the wonderful Mantan Moreland is Chan's associate/chauffeur Birmingham Brown. A highly gifted comic actor, Moreland gives one of his best and funniest performances in this movie. His scenes with his jailed brother Ben (Ben Carter), where both goggle Tommy's mind with the way they each seem to know what the other is talking about despite the incomplete sentences, is a scream -- even Charlie joins in at one point. However, although there's a lot of comedy relief in the picture, Dark Alibi never forgets it's a mystery. The film is well-directed, briskly edited, and the identity of the villain behind the scenes comes as a complete surprise. Dark Alibi is proof that the Chan pictures made by Monogram were not forgettable. NOTE: This film is included on the new, recommended TCM Spotlight Charlie Chan Collection from Warner Home Video. 

Verdict: Prime Chan. ***.


THERESE RAQUIN(1953). Director: Marcel Carne.

Therese (Simone Signoret) has a boring life married to her cousin, Camille (Jacques Duby), and waiting on him and his mother (Sylvie), when into their shop comes handsome truck driver Laurent (Raf Vallone) who is attracted to Therese even as she is struck by his virility. The two begin an affair, and wonder how they can have a life together when Camille is in the way. This adaptation of Emile Zola's novel plays more like cinematic James Cain, and while Carne is certainly no master of suspense, the film still holds the attention without ever really sizzling. Vallone, Duby and Sylvie offer very good performances -- the picture is nearly stolen by a blackmailing sailor -- while the icy-cold, passionless Signoret eventually heats up a bit near the conclusion. Overall, Therese Raquin is no better than Hollywood movies on the same theme and is probably not as dramatic or entertaining as some.

Verdict: Warmed over Zola with some appeal. **1/2.

GET SMART (2008)

GET SMART (2008). Director: Peter Segal.

CONTROL Analyst Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is overjoyed to be promoted to field agent, and finds himself working with the famous Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to stop a fiendish plot by the forces of KAOS. Some may find that this updating of the old television series with Don Adams and Barbara Feldon may not quite work in these post 9/11 days where terrorism is hardly a laughing matter, but aside from that problem Get Smart is not a film without entertainment value. Carell and Hathaway are not as perfect for their roles as Adams and Feldon were, but they aren't bad, and although Carell isn't exactly a lovable performer, he grows on you a bit by the end. Dwayne Johnson is another agent, Alan Arkin is the Chief, James Caan is the president, and Terence Stamp, of all people, is the evil Siegfried, who's planted a bomb at a concert in Los Angeles. There's an exciting skydiving scene when Smart jumps out of a plane without his parachute, and a cute, basically good-natured dance routine with him and a rather large, glamorous female -- Max also shares a quick kiss on the lips with The Rock -- and the climactic chase/battle/race to disarm the bomb is quite well done. Still, many might feel the TV series was funnier.

Verdict: Not bad at times, but a sequel isn't warranted. **1/2.



In this entertaining eighth and final season of Fox's popular series 24, the president of the U.S., Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones), is so bent on bringing a peace plan between the U.S., Russia, and a certain Arab nation to finalization, that she winds up dealing with the devil -- former president Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) -- and compromising her ideals, bringing her into conflict with super-agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). That squinty-faced Chloe O'Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub) has even more to do in this story arc than in previous seasons, taking over the whole CTU [Counter Terrorism Unit] at one point, and continuing to help her friend Jack even after everyone else -- and she -- thinks he's gone crazy, going on a rampage and against the orders of his president.

The thing is that President Taylor has learned that the Russians were behind the assassination of King Hassan, the Arab at the peace summit, but apparently feels that even a treaty signed by faithless connivers still has value, while our Jack thinks it won't be worth the paper it's printed on. He wants everyone to know the truth; Taylor does not.

You've always had to take 24 with a grain of salt. Jack, like every other super-hero -- and he is a super-hero -- has an incredible capacity for survival against overwhelming odds. He's able to pull so much off that it seems unconvincing when he can't save someone or do something. [For instance, surely he could have come up with a way to save the life of a CTU associate who had to sacrifice his life in one season.] Despite the fact that you may agree with some of his actions -- or at least his reasons for taking them -- at times he seems as hypocritically above the law as everyone else. But that's what makes him a maverick.

Of course the gimmick of having the storyline proceed in real time had its drawbacks: there were lulls, many lulls in the action, times when you felt like grabbing a book and reading until things started heating up again. Maybe it wasn't lulls so much as the fact that it just took so darn long to tell the story. Still, 24 managed to keep you in suspense more often than not.

Kiefer Sutherland gave an intense and effective performance on the show. Although stage actress Cherry Jones ["The Heiress; "Doubt"] lacked authority at first, in time she grew into the role and gave a terrific performance that will hopefully garner her an Emmy. Gregory Itzin was splendid, and I admire Mary Lynn Rajskub for remaining true to her character of Chloe, showing us her inner strength while remaining true to her nerdish exterior. There were other swell supporting performances as well. The show was always very well cast.

Whatever happens next in the life of Jack Bauer will reportedly be told on the big screen.

Verdict: Well, I probably won't rush to see 24:The Movie but this was overall a fun ride. ***.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945 ). Director: Henry Hathaway.

When American William Dietrich (William Eythe) is contacted by German agents who want to train him for espionage in the pre-WW2 period, he notifies the FBI and agrees to become a double agent for them. Gradually he infiltrates a German spy ring that is trying to get atom bomb secrets or the like. Concurrently the US enters the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. What transpires is presented in documentary fashion -- there are even real shots of actual spies taken during the period -- as this is a fact-based story. FBI agents even play bit parts throughout the movie. Lloyd Nolan plays agent George Briggs, whom Dietrich reports to, and Leo G. Carroll is Colonel Hammersohn, a higher-up in the spy network, which also employs Elsa Gebhardt (Signe Hasso). Years later Carroll gave orders to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Hasso mostly did television work. Which is appropriate since The House on 92nd Street is like a long television episode. The only lively scene has the Nazi gals slapping around Dietrich when he refuses to talk.

Verdict: Truth isn't always more interesting than fiction. **.


BATMAN (15-chapter Columbia serial/1943). Director: Lambert Hillyer. 

"Don't be absurd! That simpering idiot could never be the Batman!" -- Dr. Daka. 
"Another Batman killed, eh? I hope that is the last of them." -- Ditto. 

Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) tangle with the members of the League of the New Order, who are after supplies of radium for their special gun -- and worse -- an atom disintegrator. The League consists of American traitors being led by Japanese spy Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who has a brain machine that turns men -- and women -- into slaves, as well as two pet gators [Nojo-nojo and Soko-soko] waiting hungrily beneath a trap door in his interesting headquarters (which is located inside a chamber of horrors). The league has a getaway car that cleverly changes color via the use of a special gas, and at one point Daka employs poisoned cigarettes to off some of his enemies. An amusing scene has a Japanese man in suspended animation arrive in a case to deliver a brief message and then die. Bruce Wayne's friend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) gets involved when her wrongly accused Uncle Marty (Gus Glassmire) gets out of jail and becomes one of Daka's first mind-slaves. The Batman -- the article is always used in classic fashion -- works out of a "Bat's Cave" and leaves a bat insignia on the foreheads of thugs in the manner of pulp [and serial hero] the Spider. Wilson and Croft are fine as Bruce/Batman and Dick/Robin, and William Austin is excellent and amusing as their plucky butler Alfred. Charles Middleton -- Ming the Merciless himself -- shows up in a sympathetic role of the old miner, Ken Colton, illustrating Middleton's versatility. Shirley Patterson is swell; under the name Shawn Smith she appeared in such nifty items as It, The Terror from Beyond Space, World Without End and The Land Unknown. While it may not be considered his best performance and he is hardly Japanese, J. Carrol Naish is terrific as Daka and seems to be having a lot of fun as well. The fisticuffs in the film don't compare to the well-choreographed fight scenes in Republic's cliffhangers, but they get better as the serial proceeds. There are some nifty cliffhangers, including a descending freight elevator in chapter 7, and closing walls with spikes -- even as Linda faces a mind-blowout -- in chapter 13. Lee Zahler's dramatic theme music is also memorable. The "Bat's Cave" of this serial was later carried over and put in the comics, as was the secret entrance to it inside a grandfather's clock. Alfred in the comics was made thinner to look more like William Austin. 

Verdict: Fast-paced and atmospheric for the most part, this captures some of the flavor of the comics of the period. ***.



This is a just-released four DVD set which includes three movies based on the works of writer Louis L'Amour [I always thought that was a funny name for a writer of westerns, but what can you do?].

Two of the movies were originally made for television, while the last -- Catlow -- is a theatrical film.

The Sacketts, a mini-series, is on two DVDs and stars Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott. In "untamed New Mexico territory" the Sackett brothers herd cattle and prospect for gold, each of the three trying to make their fortune.

Conagher stars Sam Elliott (Frogs) again, this time as a cowhand who is drawn to a young widow (Katharine Ross), who owns a ranch threatened by "ruthless rustlers."

Catlow stars Yul Brynner, Richard Crenna and Leonard Nimoy. Brynner plays an outlaw who wants to pull off a major gold heist, but finds a whole lot of obstacles in his way.

Verdict: A good bet for Western and Lous L'amour fans.


J. CARROL NAISH (1896 - 1973). NOTE: In his early credits Naish's name was spelled "Carroll" with two "l"s.

The great character actor J. Carrol Naish had over 200 film roles to his credit in his long and distinguished career, and he acquitted himself admirable in virtually every single role.

After many bit parts, one of his more memorable early roles was as Sun Yat Ming in the Loretta Young/Edward G. Robinson starrer The Hatchet Man. Naish played a friend of Robinson's who doesn't realize that the latter has been sent to kill him. He supported Robinson again in Two Seconds, and once again was excellent. When he did Crooner, playing the manager of a nightclub that employers David Manners as a singer, he showed his flair for comedy.

Although Naish was of Irish ancestry, he seemed to play more Italians and other ethnic types, although he had at least one Irish role.

Naish appeared in everything from Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and Mr. Moto mysteries to more prestigious films such as Anthony Adverse with Fredric March and Charge of the Light Brigade. You could find him in musicals (Down Argentine Way), dramas (Tales of Manhattan), horror films (Dr. Renault's Secret) and serials (Batman as the sinister, cackling Dr. Daka).

He did a lot of television work in the sixties; his last film was Dracula vs. Frankenstein in 1971, about which the less said the better. Better to remember that he was Chief Sitting Bull in Annie Get Your Gun, John Garfield's father in Humoresque with Joan Crawford, worked with everyone from Mario Lanza to Frank Sinatra to Barbara Stanwyck in Clash By Night. In House of Frankenstein Naish stole the picture from all the other actors and monsters with his striking portrayal of the tormented hunchback Daniel.

Naish was one of that rare breed of character actors of whom it can be safely said : They just don't make 'em like that anymore!


OPRAH. A Biography by Kitty Kelley. Crown; 2010.

You might want to set a couple of hours or three aside when you start this book, because you may not want to set it down until you're done. Oprah is a fascinating look at the talk show queen, actress, and billionairess, Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey emerges as a terribly human human being, with both good points and bad, someone who's done good for many and is beloved by many more, and has also ticked off those who find her unintellectual, cold and phony, super-egotistical, or simply unbearable in all respects. Who's right? Probably everyone.

Winfrey is one of those celebrities who says she always felt she was destined for greatness. Of course, this is often said in hindsight -- the world is littered with wannabees who were equally sure they were destined for greatness but it just didn't happen. Failures like Native Son and the Brewster Place TV series [not the mini-series] prove that everything Winfrey touches doesn't always turn to gold. Winfrey doesn't seem to think that luck or timing might have had anything to do with her success, but the fact is that if she had come onto the scene ten years earlier or ten years later, none of the good stuff might have happened for her. This doesn't take away her energy or whatever hard work she may have done. Nor that is is amazing and a little wonderful that it happened to a black female. Oprah gives the woman credit for her good works and charitable donations, although Kelley also notes that Winfrey -- like Bob Hope -- makes sure everyone knows exactly what she's done. And her gifts to charity seem rather small up against her tremendous income.

Some of the book's most interesting passages are quotes from members of Oprah's family who were interviewed by Kelley [and she's got the pictures to prove it]. You get mixed emotions reading some of these passages. Some of her relatives are right to be annoyed by the way Winfrey casually distorts, even lies about, her early life and background, yet you also sense that Winfrey was completely right in getting away from some of these narrow-minded bible-thumpers. Although Winfrey remains religious, her views have broadened on many topics, such as Gay Rights. Her relatives can't forgive her for essentially "living in sin" with her companion, Stedman. Yet, conversely, much of what they say about Oprah sounds like simple common sense.

The book shows the journey Winfrey took to become the person she is today, and also examines certain interesting aspects of black culture. It shows how Winfrey became increasingly private and paranoid the bigger she became, with even guests on the show forced to sign confidentiality clauses. Oprah certainly illustrates the notion that "power corrupts." But can any human being in this superficial, celebrity-driven world become a wealthy, influential power, a brand name, like "Oprah" and remain merely human?

One debit: There isn't very much in the book about the sex scandals embroiling Oprah's school in Africa, possibly because they happened too recently. Maybe in the paperback?

Verdict: Both fans and detractors should eat it up. ***1/2.


HUMAN TARGET (2010 Fox television series).

The Human Target, Christopher Chance, was originally a 1970's comic book series that appeared in Action and Detective comics. He never had his own comic book, just a back-up series.

In the comic book original, Chance was a master of disguise who took the place of people whose lives were in danger and ferreted out the bad guys -- or gals. The latter part of this premise was preserved for this TV series, but the former was dropped -- we never really see Chance in any clever disguise. [This is just as well for star Mark Valley, who would have been off-screen most of the time with other actors taking his place when Chance is in disguise.]

In this reboot, Chance was actually a gun for hire -- okay, a hit man -- who fell for one of his female targets and decided to get out of the game at great personal cost. Still, the idea that he was a hired killer is a bit ... disturbing.

Valley is excellent in the role, and he gets good support from Chi McBride and Jackie Earle Haley as his associates. Valley with his square jaw looks like he stepped right out of a comic book.

In the season finale -- the show will be back in the fall on Friday nights -- we met Chance's father figure [played by Armand Assante], who is not exactly happy with his "son." We also learned that there have been other "Christopher Chances" and that it is only an assumed name.

The last "Christopher Chance" was played -- and played well -- by Lee Majors. Assante was also good and intense, as usual. Majors' character tells the new, younger Chance "I won't be much good to you" but Majors still looks like he can handle himself.

This season's episodes included an assignment and attempted assassination on a bullet train; a search for gold bullion in the jungle; and Chance becoming a boxer to get a real boxer out of debt to a hood; etc. Then there's an old associate named Baptiste (an effective Lennie James) who has turned up more than once and is out to get Chance, but so far has not succeeded. [No surprise there.]

Human Target is no Alias, but it's not bad on its own terms, and it has a lot of potential.

Verdict: Definitely worth a look for action fans. ***.


First in a series

Do you ever notice how some celebrities appear, have their fifteen minutes of fame, their moment in the sun, fade away [as inevitably happens with most celebrities] but just never disappear entirely, even though you want them to. The more sensible get jobs behind-the-scenes or in real estate; the rest just keep hanging on and on and on ad nauseam ... We all have our "favorites."

Jamie Lee Curtis is the daughter of Janet [Psycho] Leigh and Tony Curtis. Get it? "Jamie Lee" -- cute, huh?

Although she did some television before that, Curtis became well-known after she starred in the over-rated horror film Halloween. After that she did a number of mad slasher movies. She made a few more movies that got some minor attention [Dominick and Eugene] but most of her film credits weren't especially noteworthy. Her scenes were cut from Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai -- lucky gal! -- and now, when she does a film, it generally has a title such as Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008). It's safe to say that being the daughter of two movie stars not only opened the door for Jamie -- who was blessed with neither great looks nor incredible acting talent -- it provided for her entire career.

When the film thing wound down, Curtis tried writing, and is now spokesperson for the woman's digestive supplement Activia. [What's next -- Depends?]

Curtis is only 52, so unfortunately she can't get social security, so we will have to watch her hawking products, attempting book projects [God no -- not an autobiography!], and everything else until she feels satisfied that being celebrated isn't such a big deal after all.

We wish her well.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO 45TH ANNIVERSARY DVD. (1965). Director: David Lean.

"The 1965 film captures the essence of Boris Pasternak’s Russian novel of remarkable passion and sweeping grandeur, presenting an intimate and deeply emotional story against the enormous backdrop of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution.

Omar Sharif stars in the title role of Doctor Zhivago, portraying the surgeon-poet over a half-century period. Zhivago, who is married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), an aristocratic girl with whom he raises a family, is also in love with Lara (Julie Christie), a nurse whose life has been destroyed by tragedy. Repeatedly brought together and separated from each woman by war and revolution, Zhivago is torn apart by conflict. He loves Tonya deeply but his poetic soul belongs to Lara. Much like his beloved country, Zhivago’s spirit becomes battered by the devastation of war as he struggles to maintain his individualism in the face of overwhelming odds."

New Special Features:
Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration Part 1 & 2 (all-new production)

Additional Special Features:
Commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Lady Sandra Lean
(wife of David Lean) Part 1 & 2
Introduction by Omar Sharif
Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic
11 Vintage Featurettes
Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean
David Lean's Film of Doctor Zhivago
Moscow in Madrid
New York Press Interviews Omar Sharif
New York Press Interviews Julie Christie
Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test
This is Omar Sharif
This is Julie Christie
This is Geraldine Chaplin
Chaplin in New York
Blu-ray Exclusive: 8-Song CD Soundtrack Sampler of the Oscar®-winning score

Available on DVD: May 4, 2010

Official Site click here.
The DVD set contains two discs and the film is shown in wide screen.
For a review of the film click here.


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965). Director: David Lean.

"What happens to a girl like that when a man like you has finished with her?"

It is the 45th anniversary of the release of this epic film by David Lean, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak.
At the beginning we learn that the two main protagonists, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a doctor and poet, and Lara (Julie Christie), whose boyfriend is a revolutionary, have had a child. As the film progresses the two are married to other people, so you wonder for quite a while how the couple are ultimately going to get together. Their love story is set upon the background of WW 1 and the Russian revolution and all the chaos that ensued during and afterward.

As an epic, the film is quite effective with some memorable scenes: the dragoons charging on horseback and attacking the marching band of revolutionaries; an officer lecturing to tired, disgusted soldiers who falls into a barrel of water and then is shot dead in an instant; most of all the long, detailed journey that Yuri takes with his family to the country by railroad, dozens crowded into each car that buckle and sway as if any moment they'll fall to pieces.

As a romantic drama, be forewarned that David Lean is no William Wyler, but perhaps the main problem is Maurice Jarre's muscial score. Jarre layers the soundtrack with attractive music [although Lara's theme wears out its welcome pretty quickly] but it doesn't embellish and compliment the emotions of the characters or what's going on on-screen like a score by, say, Max Steiner. Hence, despite all the grim and indeed heart-breaking stuff going on, you may never be especially moved by the proceedings.

The movie is over 3 hours long -- the new 45th anniversary has the complete film, which is shown in letterbox format, thank goodness -- but it is never boring because Lean, whatever his deficiencies, keeps things moving, and the plot and characters are always interesting. Of course, like other long films, undoubtedly a lot of important stuff got left on the cutting room floor --for instance, the scene wherein Yuri's wife and mistress finally meet is only referred to in dialogue [!] -- so the film at times seems a trifle disjointed. It helps to know Russian history to understand fully what's happening, and you may find yourself checking the novel out of the library to fill in some missing details.

Omar Sharif may never have been considered a great actor, but he's effective enough in the title role, and has a particularly good scene when he looks in the mirror after a harrowing journey and realizes to his horror how much he's aged. Julie Christie is also good -- although neither performer compares to the greats of the golden age. The best acting comes from Ralph Richardson as Alexander, Yuri's father surrogate [and father-in-law]; Rod Steiger as the ferocious Victor Komarovsky; and Tom Courtenay as Lara's husband. There is also fine work from Geraldine Chaplin as Yuri's wife, Rita Tushingham as his probable daughter, Alex Guinness as his half-brother, and Klaus Kinski as a mad man on the train. Omar Sharif's young son Tarek plays Yuri as a boy and does it well-- what a great face! Petya, Alexander's servant, is played by Jack MacGowran, who appeared in everything from The Giant Behemoth to The Exorcist.
All in all, whatever its flaws, Doctor Zhivago is a very interesting picture. The hard work that went into the film is obvious.

Verdict: Worthwhile historical drama with frustrated romance at its heart. ***.
NOTE: To read about the recommended 45th Anniversary DVD release click here.


A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959). Director: Roger Corman. 

 Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) is a weird if likable little busboy in theYellow Door cafe who tries to take up sculpting. When he accidentally kills his landlady's cat, he covers it in clay and offers it up as his first work of art -- and garners praise. Before long he's turning up with full-size sculptures of people -- unfortunately deceased. This House of Wax variation is very similar to Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors, which he made a year later, except that Paisley definitely becomes a murderer whereas Seymour of Little Shop does not. The title refers to the gruesome scene when Walter hides the dead body of a cop (Burt Convy) up near the ceiling and his blood drips into a bucket [a buzz saw scene is even more gruesome]. This film offered a rare starring role for both Dick Miller and Barboura Morris [of The Wasp Woman and Sorority Girl] and both come through with flying colors. Jhean Burton also scores as hefty Naolia, as does Judy Bamber as bitchy Alice. Ed Nelson is also in the cast and the landlady is played by Myrtle Vail, who played Seymour's mother in Little Shop. Fred Katz' jazzy musical score adds to the film's strangeness. The finale is a little flat but the picture is an effective black comedy. 

Verdict: Don't kick this bucket. ***.


NOWHERE MAN 1995 TV series. Created by Lawrence Hertzog. 

Thomas Veil (Bruce Greenwood) goes out to dinner with his wife Alyson (Megan Gallagher) when his entire life changes in a moment. Coming back from the rest room he looks for Alyson, and is told by the manager that neither she nor he were even dining there, and that he's never seen them before. Alyson is back home -- but when he knocks on the door she claims that she doesn't know who he is. He can't get access to his bank accounts as his entire identity seems to be erased bit by bit. No one at the gallery where his photographs were exhibited remembers who he is. And so on and so on. It apparently all has to do with a controversial photo of a hanging that he took some years before. Or does it? In any case, Veil winds up in a nuthouse temporarily. 

This ultra-paranoiac suspense thriller lasted for one season and 25 episodes, and it did have an ending [albeit one that was somewhat unsatisfying.] But it was also creepy, extremely well-acted, well-written, and consistently intriguing and entertaining. Some episodes would come along and make you realize that what you suspected or thought you knew wasn't true at all. Most of the episodes -- despite the somewhat "fantastic" premise, were reasonably logical, although at least one story about a pirate TV show is so completely illogical, indeed impossible, that it's almost surrealistic. This mistake wasn't repeated for the most part. 

The best episodes were: "Paradise On Your Door Step," where Thomas winds up in The Prisoner-like town of New Phoenix; and "Forever Jung," where aging women who have been made young again -- including Alyson -- are turned into operators for whatever sinister organization is behind everything. [This episode probably influenced the later Alias.] Other memorable episodes had Thomas working as a janitor in a boy's school; encountering a computer nerd who never leaves his house; going back into the nuthouse to discover that one of the former patients is now a doctor; meeting a man (Dean Jones), who claims to be his father; traveling to a small town in the midst of a UFO craze; apparently waking up from a coma to discover everything is back to normal -- or so he thinks; and meeting an FBI man and discovering the aforementioned controversial photo was doctored and taken not in Nicaragua but in Washington D.C. 

Out of 25 episodes only two were mediocre, and only one -- Tom mixes it up with street gangs and the homeless -- was terrible. Generally the scripts for the series were of a high order, with strong characterizations even of the supporting roles and a generous amount of sensitivity. Whatever its flaws, Nowhere Man was compulsively watchable, and was one of the most memorable TV shows of the 90's. Bruce Greenwood's performance as Veil was superb, and there were fine guest performances from such actors as Ted Levine, Richard Kind, Carrie Ann Moss, Rafael Sbarge and others. Good eerie music helped tremendously as well. 

Verdict: Nowhere Man may have ultimately gone nowhere, but it was a hell of a fun ride while it lasted. ***1/2.



If there were ever an actor who classed up every production he was in, it was British genius Ralph Richardson.

His first movie was The Ghoul in 1933, a frankly awful Boris Karloff vehicle in which Richardson only had a supporting role, but was in fine form in any case.

After that he appeared in a number of well-received British films such as The Citadel, although this King Vidor film was really a vehicle for Robert Donat.

Appearing in American films as well as British, he gave a superb performance in The Heiress in 1949. Other notable roles were in Exodus, Long Day's Journey Into Night as James Tyrone, and Alexander in Doctor Zhivago, although as the years rolled by he sometimes appeared in comparative junk such as Who Slew Auntie Roo? and Tales from the Crypt (as the devil), wherein his talents were pretty much wasted.

One of his more interesting latter-day roles was as Ulrich the magician in Dragonslayer in 1981, where he combined frailty, bravado and grandeur in equal measure to create a memorable portrait of an aging sorcerer up against almost overwhelming odds. It wasn't easy to steal scenes from that magnificent dragon, but he managed it.

Richardson was knighted in 1947, when he still had many more triumphs ahead of him.

Verdict: They just don't make actors like him anymore.


TALES TO ASTONISH: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution. Ronin Ro. Bloomsbury; 2004.

NOTE: As previously noted, Great Old Movies will occasionally run reviews of comics and comics-related projects due to the similarity of the mediums of comics and film -- and the fact that more movies are inspired by comic books than is ever admitted!

While most people expect there to be all sorts of internecine quarrels behind the scenes of, say, an opera company or sitcom set, they may be surprised at all the squabbling that goes on behind the scenes of a comic book company. This highly entertaining and readable book, ostensibly a biography of Jack Kirby, documents the heady early days and troubled later years of Kirby, his frequent collaborator Stan Lee, Marvel Comics, and the other firms, including DC Comics, that they, especially Kirby, were also involved with as time went by. With Joe Simon, Kirby created Captain America back in the Golden Age of Comics during the forties. In the sixties, he and Lee collaborated on such characters as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, and many others. Kirby became disillusioned, then enraged by the perception that Lee – which he felt Lee fostered -- was the sole creator and writer on these various strips, when Kirby did much of the plotting and creating himself. Eventually Kirby left Marvel for rival DC Comics where he created his own “Fourth World” of comics characters such as The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and The New Gods – but DC Comics was dissatisfied with the books and canceled them prematurely. (Ironically, The Fourth World proved a major influence on the Star Wars movies and most of Kirby's characters, particularly the villainous Darkseid, are now a big part of the DC Comics Mythos.) It was also noted that Kirby's books suffered without the deft scripting of Lee, whose contribution to the Kirby-Lee comics could not, in truth, be underestimated. Still, Lee got too much of the credit as far as Kirby, and many others in the comics industry, felt. Ro's book is full of fascinating details such as how Kirby and Lee disagreed vehemently on the direction taken by the character the Silver Surfer, who had a brief popularity, and the way that DC Editors had another penciller replace Kirby's drawings of Superman's face so that the image would conform to the accepted version of the Man of Steel. While it is utterly ludicrous to compare Kirby to the likes of Michelangelo(!), as one person does, this book makes clear that he was an extremely talented and very influential artist whose imagery and style has resonated throughout the comics industry for generations and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years to come

Verdict: Darn good read for comics and pop culture fans. ***1/2.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


QUEEN BEE (1955). Director [and screenplay]: Ranald MacDougall. From a novel by Edna L. Lee.

"Never come between me and my liquor. You might get knocked down." -- Avery.

"You can't imagine the things they've made me do trying to protect myself." -- Eva.

Well ... what to make of this picture? We have a bitter Eva Phillips (Joan Crawford), who is still smarting over the way her southern in-laws treated her when she came from Chicago; her heavy-drinking husband, Avery (Barry Sullivan) who has a big scar on his cheek from a car accident and is nicknamed "Beauty;" cousin Lucy (Jennifer Stewart), who comes for a lengthy stay and is caught between neurotic factions; sister Carol (Betsy Palmer), who only wants to marry Eva's cast-off lover Jud (John Ireland), but is tempting fate; and poor batty Sue (Fay Wray), who was literally left at the altar on her wedding day when Avery ran off with Eva. This is the kind of over-baked melodrama in which characters stand around and talk about the problems that define them at the drop of a hat. To say it lacks subtlety is a massive understatement. At the same time it's quite entertaining and oddly riveting, and works itself up to a dramatically horrifying climax. Everyone in the film seems to have studied at the School of Unnatural Acting, but most are effective, with Crawford being quite authoritative and giving her fans a good show. She is wise enough to show the vulnerability beneath her character's bitchiness. After her, Betsy Palmer comes off best, but both Ireland and Sullivan have their moments, and Katherine Anderson makes a mean nurse in Miss Breen. Years later Palmer played deranged maniac Mrs. Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th.

Verdict: Not exactly Tennessee Williams, but strangely compelling. ***.


THE VERDICT (1982). Director: Sidney Lumet.

Lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) takes a medical malpractice case -- the wrong anesthetic was administered -- even though he was offered a settlement and the hospital is owned by the Catholic church. Initially he wants a chance to salvage his wrecked career, but eventually he comes to the conclusion that his comatose client deserves to be fought for. James Mason is great as opposing counsel, and Jack Warden scores as Galvin's associate, Mickey Morrissey. Charlotte Rampling is, as usual, the ice princess to end all ice princesses, and walks through the movie -- again as usual -- with one expression. Newman gives a solid performance. But somehow this never quite becomes the explosive classic you might have hoped for.

Verdict: Okay, but nothing really special. **1/2.


THE GIRL IN ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S SHOWER. Robert Graysmith. Berkley Books; 2010.

Because of carelessness and the fact that she wasn't aware of what people were saying about her, Marli Renfro, the body double for Janet Leigh in the shower scene in Psycho, was reported murdered -- there was even a book about it. However it turns out the real victim was Myra Davis, a supposed stand-in for Leigh who did not take her clothes off and therefore did not "stand-in" in the shower. [People thought that "Marli Renfro" was Davis' stage name.] It was irresistible, of course: the body double in the shower in Psycho winds up being murdered by a psycho herself. Only it didn't really happen.

The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower purports to be a biography of the very-much-alive Marli Renfro, but author Graysmith doesn't seem to know if he wants to write a bio about a pin-up queen [with a great body but not a great beauty] that he idolized in college [time to grow up, maybe?]; a book about the making of Psycho; or a true-crime tome about "Sonny" Busch, who was strangling women around the time that Psycho was being made. And boy does this book suffer because of it!

Just as the story of Sonny Busch reaches fever pitch and you're anxious to know what happens next, Graysmith suddenly switches to a chapter about Renfro and her negligible "career" in men's magazines and in sex comedies. This happens again and again. You're anxious to find out how Sonny is going to get caught, and Graysmith expects you to give a shit about some old movie with Marli because Francis Ford Coppola was supposedly involved with it. Marli Renfro's life and career might have been worth an article, but a book? It's almost as if all the stuff about Hitchcock and Psycho and Sonny Busch on his murdering spree is padding for the life story of Marli Renfro! Who cares? The real story is Sonny Busch and his murder spree, but Graysmith keeps pulling away from it to concentrate on the tedious adventures of Marli, even dragging in Hugh Hefner and others for some added name-dropping. I suspect Graysmith was trying to create a book that was a big tapestry containing several elements, but it doesn't work -- the separate elements simply don't jell.

Worse, there seems to be only a couple of paragraphs about the actual murdered woman. We learn virtually nothing about her! The other victims are pretty much given short shrift as well.

While some parts of The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock's Shower are readable, the fact remains that this is a disjointed and ill-conceived project cobbled together for the 50th anniversary of Hitchcock's film. If Graysmith had wanted to write about Renfro and the world of men's magazines and cheap sex films of the sixties, he should have stuck to that. It seems to me that a book about Sonny Busch -- a psycho on the loose who even murdered two victims after seeing the film -- would have not only included the Psycho connection but made a far more interesting tome.

Verdict: Half of this book should have been left on the cutting room floor. **.


X (aka X, The Man with X-Ray Eyes/1963). Director: Roger Corman.

Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) is obsessed with developing a formula that will enable doctors to immediately diagnose a patient without x-rays, as their own eyes will be able to see through a person's skin and examine bone, tissue and organs [apparently a kind of "x ray vision" that doesn't contain any actual dangerous x-rays; the film is vague on this point]. Xavier puts the droplets in his eyes, then learns that his experiments will no longer be funded. He is able to see through people's clothing, and then their skin, but is frustrated by the lack of money to continue his work.The movie then veers in a different direction with a fatal accident, Xavier on the run, and his various misadventures leading to tragedy. The movie has a good enough premise but it isn't well-developed. The film seems disjointed, poorly edited, and Corman's usual adroit direction is mediocre. We're asked to believe that Xavier can sit playing 21 in a Las Vegas casino wearing huge black goggles and no one wonders what's up with that until he tries to leave with the cash. A scene when a character falls out of a window is comically under-written and under-played. Milland's performance is not bad at all, and his supporting players -- Diane Van der Vlis, Howard J. Stone, and John Hoyt as other doctors, and Don Rickles as a sideshow promoter -- are fine. Morris Ankrum, Barboura Morris, and Dick Miller appear in smaller roles. Les Baxter's score is nothing special.

Verdict: There are good things in the movie, but it just doesn't quite jell. **1/2.


THE CHARMER (1987 PBS mini series).

"It's a very hard world if one is without money."

I believe this excellent mini-series was first presented on Masterpiece Theatre in the U.S. It is based on Patrick Hamilton's novel Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse, but takes certain liberties with the story, which may be why the name was changed to the more provocative The Charmer. In pre-WW2 London [the later chapters take place after war has broken out] Ralph Gorse (Nigel Havers), an attractive, likable mountebank, hopes to live like a gentleman even though he unfortunately wasn't born to the class. He befriends, romances, and steals from a variety of women, gaining the enmity of Donald Stimpson (Bernard Hepton), a stolid, small-town stick-in-the-mud who had always hoped to marry one of Ralph's victims, Joan Plumleigh-Bruce (Rosemary Leach). All the while Ralph is pursuing the unconventional upper-class Clarice Mannors (Fiona Fullerton), whom he initially assumes is a hooker when she was really just looking for her brother in a whorehouse [but sleeps with Ralph there anyway]. Later Ralph marries a sweet young thing named Pamela (Abigail McKern), and begins an affair with a war widow named Alison (Judy Parfitt). But the stalwart Stimpson is still on his trail. I have not read the novel in quite some time, but if I remember correctly neither Stimpson nor especially Plumleigh-Bruce had as much to do in the second half of the book as they do in the latter chapters of this mini-series, although it's understandable why they were included. This is an absolutely fascinating, darkly humorous [although never "comic"] portrait of a borderline sociopath and the people whose lives he crosses [some to their regret; some not] with a psychologically penetrating script by Allan Prior and some superb acting, especially from Havers, Hepton and Leach. The others already named are also top-notch, as are Gillian Raine and George Baker as Pamela's heart-broken parents. This has been released on DVD and is certainly worth tracking down.

Verdict: Nearly six hours well-spent. ****.


WATCHMEN (2009). Director: Zack Snyder.

This is based on an influential comic book mini-series by Alan Moore that examines what would happen should super-heroes appear in the "real" world and they turned out to be as screwed up as everyone else. According to this there was a super-group called the Minutemen that first appeared in the 1940's. But now super-characters have basically been banned from operating, and someone is going around killing them off one by one. A psychotic character named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is on to the plot, which comes to embroil Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and seems to point in the direction of one of their own. This has some effective scenes, but basically it's long and somewhat tedious, with the same dumb ending of the mini-series. The acting is okay; Matthew Goode has some flair as the wealthy hero Ozymandias. Even comic book fans, however, may find this a big disappointment.

Verdict: You can miss it and still have a full life. **.


THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES VOLUME 1. Introduction and Notes by Kyle Freeman. Barnes and Noble Classics; 2003.

Every Sherlock Holmes -- and classic mystery -- fan should have this book and its companion volume 2 on his or her book shelf. This volume includes the novels A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles [filmed in 1939 and 1959], as well as the collected Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (which includes "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Red-headed League" and the gruesome "Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb") and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which includes the anti-racist "Yellow Face" and the story in which Doyle [temporarily] killed off his famous detective and introduced Professor Moriarty, "The Final Problem." Excellent introduction and footnotes by Freeman. If you love the old movies with Basil Rathbone, then you'll especially find these very accessible stories a treat.

Verdict: Indispensable. ****.