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

Thursday, November 25, 2010



Give thanks for all the great movies out there and watch out for those turkeys!


PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961). Producer/director: Roger Corman. 

Francis Barnard (John Kerr) arrives at the castle of his brother-in-law Don Medina (Vincent Price) and his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders), after hearing of the supposed death of his own sister, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). Medina is the son of a notorious torturer of the inquisition, and the cellar is full of the sinister implements that he used in his work. As Kerr struggles to find the truth from Don Medina and Catherine, there are disturbing indications that Elizabeth may still be alive. Richard Matheson's screenplay doesn't really have much to do with Edgar Allan Poe's excellent short story upon which this is very loosely based, instead being a tale of marital and familial discord and mental illness with a dollop of "The Fall of the House of Usher' [which Corman had previously filmed] thrown in. (Corman apparently liked the basic plot of this film so much that he used it again for Premature Burial.) This is a handsomely appointed production with superior art direction and scenic design by Daniel Haller and an effective score by Les Baxter. Price is also effective as Medina, borderline hammy but dramatic and fun. For some reason Barbara Steele is dubbed. Kerr is fine, as is Anthony Carbone as Dr. Leon, and Luana Anders scores in a very different role from the one she played in Dementia 13. Not much is done with the "pit," but the sequence with the deadly pendulum is very well done and the best thing in the movie. Great ending! 

Verdict: Don't expect much Poe, but on its own terms this is quite vivid and entertaining. ***1/2.


ALL MY YESTERDAYS: An Autobiography. Edward G. Robinson with Leonard Spigelgass. Hawthorne; 1973.

"For male actors it is possible, though not easy, to slip gradually from leading man into character roles. For me, it just came naturally, since I was never Tab Hunter ..."

In this posthumously published autobiography, the great actor, who became a star with Little Caesar, writes frankly of his life and career and relationships with friends, actors and other co-workers. He gives candid, honest -- but not mean-spirited -- assessments of such co-stars as Bette Davis and Kay Francis, and describes his love of art and how he set out amassing his great collection of masterpieces. He also writes about the brutal days when he was unfairly accused of being a communist. Robinson died before he could complete his recollections, so the book was finished by his collaborator Spigelgass, who provides some interesting footnotes and a compilation of Robinson's opinions on various subjects. He also writes of Robinson's divorce, how he lost most of his great art treasures, and his troubled relationship with his only son.

Verdict: Compelling reading from a great star and superb thespian. ****.


THE COSMIC MONSTERS (1958/aka The Strange World of Planet X and The Cosmic Monster.) Director: Gilbert Gunn. 

"Insects! Oh mon dieu -- No!" 

 Gil Graham (Forrest Tucker) and sexy French computer expert Michele Dupont (Gaby Andre) suspect that something is going wrong with an experiment by a colleague who is altering the molecular stability of metals with a field that is expanding far beyond the confines of the laboratory. Boy, are they right! -- which is confirmed by a visitor from outer space (Martin Benson) who warns them of their potential destruction. The field not only drives men mad, but has mutated all manner of yucky insects into slavering, hungry giants! The best scene has Ms. Dupont caught in a giant spider web even as pretty new teacher Miss Forsythe (Patricia Sinclair) is trapped in the school house by crunching, aggressive creepy-crawlies. The Cosmic Monsters is talky at times and very low-budget, but it has a certain unsavory zest in its insect scenes and is generally well-acted. Based on a novel by Rene Ray. 

Verdict: You can't beat those bugs! ***.


HONEY WEST (1965) ABC-TV series.

This series about a female private eye only lasted one season and thirty episodes, but it could be very snappy stuff. The TV incarnation of Honey was introduced on an episode of Burke's Law. The show was based on a series of exploitation novels by G. G. Fickling (a husband and wife writing team) with the emphasis on sex. Things are toned down a bit for the TV show, although the emphasis remains on Honey's shapely charms, as personified by actress Anne Francis. Although occasionally on the "cutesy" side, Francis is pretty much perfect as Honey, and John Ericson is similarly excellent as her partner, Sam Bolt. Honey inherited the detective agency from her father, and Sam -- who used to work for the old man -- now works for her, although in general they function as a team that now and then has a prickly relationship (this was in the days before "sexual tension" was coined). Most of the episodes were fun and well-acted, with plenty of action in a compact half hour minus commercials. There were only a couple of clunkers and even these episodes aren't really awful. The best episodes include "The Swinging Mrs. Jones" (a blackmail ring preying on wealthy married women); "Whatever Lola Wants" (a sinister society hostess); "Little Green Robin Hood" (Edd Kookie Byrnes as a crazy thief, with Allen Jenkins and Eleanor Audley -- who was the voice of Malificent in Disney's Sleeping Beauty -- also in the cast); and "An Eerie, Airy Thing" (a man out on a ledge wants to talk his wife, unaware that she's been murdered). Irene Hervey shows up now and then as Honey's likable and helpful Aunt Meg.

Verdict: Honey with some spice and humor to it. ***.


IRON MAN 2 (2010). Director: Jon Favreau.

Antony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as the armored hero in this sequel to Iron Man. The plot doesn't really matter, but Stark mixes it up with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), all of whom first appeared in the Iron Man comic books. The Widow pretends to be an employee of Stark Industries, Hammer has a sinister plot afoot involving dozens of Iron Man clones, and Whiplash is really Ivan Vanko, a Russian scientist who uses electronic whips to slash automobiles in half. However, the best sequence has a drunken Iron Man [Stark is a reformed alcoholic in the comics] battling his pal Rhody (Don Cheadle) as the latter is dressed in his own armor as War Machine. Iron Man 2 is colorful and has some exciting sequences, although it's too long and drags at times. Downey is fine as Stark; ditto for Gywneth Paltrow as his assistant Pepper Potts [whom he makes head of Stark Industries] and the rest of the supporting cast. Mickey Rourke looks fairly grotesque but he nearly steals the picture with his intense portrayal of Ivan Vanko. Nice theme music by John Debney.

Verdict: Noisy and splashy and at times entertaining. ***


DON'T MIND IF I DO. George Hamilton and William Stadiem. Touchstone; 2008.

George Hamillton has always come across as a vaguely likable if decidedly superficial personality and he's pretty much true to form in this entertaining memoir. You read about his trips to this country and that and his friendships and dalliances with famous people, but you won't read much about culture or anything of real substance. Hamilton started out as a highly promising actor with a strong and sensitive performance in Home from the Hill, but he didn't build on that promise, more interested in being the suave if old-fashioned playboy than a serious actor. [Yet I have never once heard anyone say they thought Hamilton was "hot." But nobody says that about Hugh Hefner either.] Hamilton writes a lot about his colorful mother and gay brother, Bill, both of whom seem more interesting in some ways than Hamilton. Hamilton does get points for honesty, as he doesn't gloss over some of the bad movies he's made as most other actors do, but has fun writing about them. [Oddly, he doesn't mention such creditable film projects as The Power.] Don't Mind if I Do can also be very witty, and is well-written by Stadiem. All in all, this is a bit of fluff like the actor himself but not without its charms.

Verdict: Not a bad read if you're so minded. ***.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


THE MAN WITH TWO FACES (1934), Director: Archie Mayo.

"The second act is still a fine piece of Limburger."

Actor Damon Welles (Edward G. Robinson)is appalled to learn that his brother-in-law Stanley Vance (Louis Calhern), isn't dead after all, but has come back into his sister Jessica's (Mary Astor) life and is exerting a seriously unhealthy influence over her. So he cooks up a scheme to disguise himself and ... This dull and predictable movie, based on a minor stage play, wastes the talents of its excellent cast, who give it more than it deserves. Ricardo Cortez plays a theatrical producer and John Eldredge is a playwright. Robinson has such a distinctive face, figure and aura that, fine actor that he is, it's difficult for him to successfully disguise himself. Crisp, well-composed photography is another bonus but nothing can overcome that creaky plot.

Verdict: Robinson is always worth watching. **.


TEENAGE DOLL (1957). Producer/director: Roger Corman.

A young lady is thrown off of a roof and killed, precipitating a series of events among some tough and not-so-tough slum gals. Female gang leader Helen (Fay Spain) is convinced that the killer is a vague young woman named Barbara Bonney (June Kenney) and is out to wring a confession from her come hell or highwater. Barbara has an upright father and a bizarre mother (Dorothy Neumann) who wears pigtails and looks demented. Another of Roger Corman's "bad girl/juvenile delinquent"films, similar to Sorority Girl, with its own twists, but, if anything, much duller. June Kenney was introduced in this film; she later wound up in Earth vs the Spider and similar low-budget films in addition to other Corman productions; she's not bad at all. In general the actors are much better than the material. John Brinkley [as bad boy Eddie] and Barboura Morris [as Janet, who hopes for a better life] display genuine acting ability and charisma, as do most the actors, in fact. But the script is entirely forgettable. Screenwriter Charles Griffith generally did much better with Corman's horror items.

Verdict: Watch Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters -- also written by Griffith --instead. *1/2.


Arch Johnson [on the right] or Gene Evans [on the left]?

It happens all the time. I'll be watching an old TV show or movie and I'm convinced that the actor I'm looking at is Gene Evans, who starred in The Giant Behemoth, Samuel Fuller's Park Row, Devil Times Five, Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and many others and when I look at the cast list it will turn out that "Evans" is really an actor named Arch Johnson, who could be his brother. [Keep in mind that in these two pictures Evans is much younger than Johnson. When they were the same age they looked even more alike.]

Evans and Johnson not only resembled one another, but they were born on the same year, 1922. Johnson lived until 1997 and Evans died just a year later. Evans, who won a purple heart as well as the Bronze star in WW2, arguably had the higher-profile career, appearing in many more movies than Johnson, including Donovan's Brain and Walking Tall, but Johnson was no slouch. In the sixties and afterward, both actors appeared primarily in television productions, and both had long, busy careers appearing on one TV show after another. Evans appeared in the film Operation Petticoat and Johnson appeared in the TV show based on the movie.

So remember, the next time you're watching an old movie or show, if you think it's Evans it's probably Johnson -- and vice versa!


CLORIS: MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Cloris Leachman with George Englund. Kensington; 2009.

Ms. Leachman -- with the help of ex-husband Englund -- writes pleasantly of her life and career in this memoir done in the style of Bette Davis' This 'n' That: instead of proceeding chronologically, Leachman jumps around from subject to subject on her whim, but she manages to cover most of the bases. One senses, however, that she could have had a lot more to say about her life with, and divorce from, Englund, the father of her children, as well as about some of her co-workers. Leachman writes of how -- despite having perhaps [in my opinion] one of the worst names in show business -- she became successful on Broadway, in films and on television, garnering a host of Emmys, Tonys and an Oscar along the way. She also describes her devastation at the death of one of her sons to drugs. Then there are amusing stories of awkward things that happened on live television. At times Leachman comes off as dithery as her character "Phyllis," especially when she relates how Ed Asner basically stopped speaking to her because of her public references to his weight -- but she repeats the anecdote he hated in the book! When she writes of ex-husband Englund -- "I'm number one with him. He has a girlfriend now .. [who] takes wonderful care of him, and he loves her. But I'm still the one" -- you have to wonder if this is enduring friendship of ex-spouses or the words of a woman who just won't let go. In any case, the book is entertaining, and Leachman remains a very gifted actress.

Verdict: Easy to take. ***.



The delightfully droll Hitch introduces 39 more half hour episodes of mayhem, mischief, murder, and macabre comedy. The two best episodes are "Reward to Finder" in which a husband and wife [Jo Van Fleet and Oscar Homolka, both of whom are superb] battle over the cash that was found in a lost wallet; and "Return of the Hero," an ironic item about a soldier (Jacques Bergerac) who apparently wants to bring home a disabled friend who saved his life, and is surprised at his family's negative (and ultimately heart-breaking) reaction. Other memorable episodes include: "Heart of Gold" [an ex-con "adopted" by his cell mate's family]; "Together," with Joseph Cotten locked in an office with his dead mistress; the famous "Lamb to the Slaughter," with Barbara Bel Geddes using an unusual weapon on her unfaithful husband; "Post Mortem" [sweepstakes ticket on a corpse]; "The Canary Sedan" [Jessica Tandy in a tale of a psychic]; "The Impromptu Murder" [a very ironic tale in which Hume Cronyn murders an old lady]; and "Little White Frock," in which an actor (Herbert Marshall) "auditions" by telling a very tall tale. 

Verdict: One of the most entertaining TV series ever. ***.


CELL Stephen King. 2006; Pocket.

King has come up with a creepy thriller in which cell phones are used to mount a massive attack against the human race. One afternoon a signal goes out that drives everyone on a cell phone mad in an instant, turning them into homicidal maniacs and mindless drones to some cyber-intelligence. People unaffected immediately pick up their cell phones to call for help and also get zapped by the pulse. The only ones unaffected are those who don't have cell phones at all, including graphic artist Clayton Riddell, who hopes to be reunited with his wife and son; a gay man named Tom; and a teenage girl named Alice; the three team up to try to survive and find out what happened. Cell is one of King's best books, with an irresistible [and chilling] premise, and lots of suspense, harrowing action, and pretty good characterization. A page-turner to be sure. Cell is being made into a TV film that will probably debut in late 2010 or 2011. It should make a gripping film if it's directed well and handled with some intelligence and sensitivity.

Verdict: Stay off the friggin' cell phone!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


THE BANK DICK (1940). Director: Edward F. Cline.

W. C. Fields is simply splendid as Egbert Souse [pronounced Sousay, and don't you forget it!], who inadvertently foils a bank robbery and is given a job as a bank guard as a reward. Egbert's future son-in-law, Og (the wonderful Grady Sutton) borrows money from the bank for an investment opportunity and discovers to his horror that the bank examiner J. Pinkteron Snoopington (the superb Franklin Pangborn) is in town to look over the books! Egbert does what he can to prevent Snoopington from discovering the missing loot until Og can return it and has other assorted misadventures as well, even winding up directing a film. Una Merkel and Cora Witherspoon are terrific as members of Egbert's family. Jan Duggan from The Old-Fashioned Way has s cameo as a customer in the bank, and Pierre Watkin [Atom Man vs. Superman] is excellent as the bank president.

Verdict: This is a very funny and well-acted movie. ***1/2.



A solid bio of Lancaster, who had a long and interesting career [more interesting than you might imagine, as this book reveals] and made many movies, including Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, Elmer Gantry, Birdman of Alcatraz, and many others. Fishgall describes how Lancaster got his start as a kind of acrobat, and used this early training for flamboyant performances in certain pictures. There may not seem to be enough personal detail in the book, but that's probably because Lancaster was, unlike some actors, rather private, and that, like many other stars, his career was essentially his life. Fishgall goes a bit into allegations of physical brutality against women and bisexuality [not to compare the two] -- more out of inclusiveness than sensationalism, one suspects -- but the evidence is too scanty to arrive at any conclusion, especially in the latter case. Against Type is well-written, well-researched and rather absorbing, not only a good bet for Lancaster's fans but for movie fans in general.

Verdict: Substantial bio of a star of long-standing. ***1/2.


X2 (aka X-Men 2; X2: X-Men United/2003). Director: Bryan Singer.

This sequel to X-Men is another winner. Seems a bad guy named Willam Stryker (Brian Cox) had a mutant son named Jason, and his experiences with him so embittered him that he now wants to wipe out all mutants. To do this he intends to use Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the professor's Cerebro machine (which detects mutants and connects Xavier to everyone's minds). Professor X is given God-like power in this, but his opposite number, Magneto (Ian McKellan) is along for the ride and then some. X2 has some terrific sequences: Magneto using the iron in a guard's bloodstream to make his escape from prison; Pyro's (Aaron Stanford) fiery assault; the X-Men's plane being pursued by missiles. Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), Roque (Anna Paquin), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) all get plenty of screen time, as does Alan Cummings, who is as good as the others as Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner. The entire cast, including Shawn Ashmore as Iceman, play with conviction, and the direction, photography [Newton Thomas Sigel] and musical score [John Ottman] are of a high order.

Verdict: Exciting, amusing, and moving. ***1/2.


THE OTHER MAN (2008). Director/screenwriter: Richard Eyre.

"Losers are brilliant at making things pretty."

Peter (Liam Neeson) is convinced that his wife Lisa (Laura Linney) is having an affair, so he goes to Milan to confront the other party, an Italian man named Ralph (Antonio Banderas). Meanwhile Peter's daughter Abigail (Romola Garai) tracks him down and thinks he should just come home -- you wonder why she seems to treat the matter so casually. The Other Man plays fast and loose with time so that you won't see the final twist coming, but the main problem with this male variation of wife-meets-mistress is that the characterizations are insufficient. You want to like it better but Eyre doesn't make it easy. The acting is professional, acceptable, but one senses there's not really enough meat for the cast to chew on.

Verdict: A little bit different but ultimately routine. **1/2.


SPEED RACER (2008). Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowksy.

This bizarre movie is an updated, live-action version of a Japanese [shown in America] cartoon show of the sixties. "Speed Racer" [the creditable Emile Hirsch] is obsessed with racing from an early age, and becomes a racer despite the alleged death of his older brother on the race track [the sub-plot about whether or not the brother is still alive makes little sense]. The plot has Speed turning down an offer for corporate sponsorship because he feels that corporate attitudes have corrupted racing. Naturally the fairly repellent bad guys have to go after him. The actual races are depicted almost entirely through computer animation, so that the movie mostly resembles a cartoon in which live actors have been inserted literally into the driving seat. This makes the races more "fantastic" -- and impossible -- than suspenseful and exciting. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, who once had decent careers, have somehow been cast as Speed's parents. The movie has interesting scenic design, highly vivid color schemes, and is stylish but stupid. There are some cute little kids, an adorable chimp, and some nasty animated piranhas. Matthew Fox appears as "Racer X," whom Speed suspects is actually his "dead" brother. It's hard to imagine who the audience was for this film.

Verdict: For Nascar fans on acid? **.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


THE GIRLS OF PLEASURE ISLAND (1953). Director: Alvin Ganzer.

Towards the end of WW2 a contingent of marines come to a small island to build an air field. Among the island's inhabitants are a man named Roger Halyard (Leo Genn) and his three nubile daughters. Halyard is afraid his girls will get involved with one or more marines, but nature will have its way... If only this movie were the riotous, sexy romp that the poster suggests [pictured]. Instead it's a mildly pleasant and not-very-entertaining light romance that never rises above a superficial level and isn't even very funny; maybe songs would have helped. Elsa Lanchester is cast as the dithery housekeeper and alleged comedy relief. Don Taylor isn't bad as a marine who romances daughter, Hester (Audrey Dalton, who is better in this, her second screen appearance, than in several subsequent pictures) and Gene Barry of War of the Worlds, Burke's Law and Amos Burke Secret Agent fame, puts in an appearance or two as well. Dalton and the other "sisters" were introduced in Girls as "new Paramount personalities," but Dorothy Bromiley and Joan Elan -- the other two sisters -- had very low profile careers afterward.

Verdict: 1500 marines -- and still not a lot of action! **.


SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Director: Clyde Geronimi. Walt Disney Studios.

In the 14th century the evil witch Maleficent (expertly voiced by Eleanor Audley) puts a spell on the baby princess Aurora that will have her prick her finger and die before her 16th birthday. Luckily some good fairies are able to alter the spell so that she will only go into a deep sleep, to be awakened by the kiss of a prince. Sleeping Beauty is not without its pleasures, but it isn't in the league of such Disney masterpieces as One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Princess and the Frog. While the film's animation is fluid, the drawings are disappointing, although the movie comes alive in an exciting, well-directed climax where Prince Phillip hacks his way through a forest of thorns created by Maleficent, and then battles the woman herself after she transforms herself into a fire-breathing dragon. The lilting theme song is taken from the "Sleeping Beauty" ballet by Tchaikovsky. This movie may be made for children, but the all-important kissing scene seems to be over in two seconds flat!

Verdict: The definitive version of this fairy tale is yet to be made. **1/2.


W. C. FIELDS A biography. James Curtis. 2003; Alfred A. Knopf.

This is an excellent biography of the great comedian W. C. Fields, from his childhood to his early success as a juggler in vaudeville, to his early film performances, and on to his various successes [and failures] in motion pictures. Curtis describes how certain of Fields' life and career experiences later informed his film portrayals. The book also examines Fields' difficult relationships with his one wife and several mistresses, as well as with his two sons, one legitimate and one not. Curtis goes behind the scenes of such memorable films as The Bank Dick and The Old-Fashioned Way and relates the touchy working relationship between Fields and Mae West on My Little Chickadee. Curtis does a great job of getting across Fields' essentially lovable but often mercurial nature, which was exacerbated by his extreme alcoholism in later years. Sympathetic, incisive and well-researched, this is one superb biography.

Verdict: You'll want to rush out and see every one of Fields' movies! ****.


THE MIST (2007). Director: Frank Darabonte.

David Drayton (Thomas Jane) finds himself locked in a living nightmare when he and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) are trapped in a huge food mart with dozens of other people when a mist containing monstrous, man-eating creatures envelopes the area. It seems that a scientific project has opened a door into another dimension. Based on a fairly cheesey if effective Stephen King novella, The Mist delivers a lot of dramatic intensity and admirably eschews the obligatory campiness and comic relief of most modern-day horror items. The FX work, which includes thick wriggling tentacles that come out of the mist, horrible spider-like creatures, a gargantuan six-legged horror that towers over the landscape, and more, are excellent, and there are some solid performances from Jane, little Gamble, and the rest of the cast as well. Mrs. Carmody, enacted by Marcia Gay Harden with some aplomb, is a chilling portrait of the mindless, compassion-less fundamentalist. Jeffrey DeMunn, an appealing Laurie Holden, Frances Sternhagen, and Sam Witwer as a terrified soldier all give stand-out performances. The ending packs an emotional wallop but is a bit illogical [not to give anything away, but surely anyone trying to escape in a car would have driven directly to a gas station!] More gruesome than the novella, but also a lot better.

Verdict: Unremittingly grim but entertaining in spite of it. ***.


NANCY DREW (2007). Director: Andrew Fleming.

The venerable girl detective, Nancy Drew (Emma Roberts), leaves River Heights for California with her father (Tate Donovan) and discovers culture shock, bitchy valley girls, and a mystery involving a famous actress who once lived in the mansion she and her father are renting. Barry Bostwick and Bruce Willis have cameos in the film, which is more light-hearted than the novels and geared for younger viewers. Josh Flitter and Max Thieriot are effective as, respectively, Corky and Ned, the two boys who vie for Nancy's attention. Pat Carroll plays a landlady, and Caroline Aaron is the real estate agent, "Barbara Barbara." Bonita Granville played Nancy years ago in such films as Nancy Drew, Detective and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. For more on the girl detective as well as the Hardy Boys, click here.

Verdict: Okay for kids but the books are better. **1/2.