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

Thursday, August 25, 2011


BLONDE ICE (1948). Director: Jack Bernhard.

Claire (Leslie Brooks) is a hard-boiled dame who has many men in love with her and uses all of them right and left to get the life she thinks she deserves. The men include Stanley (Michael Whalen) a probate lawyer; Les (Robert Paige); Blackie (Russ Vincent) a pilot and blackmailer; Al (James Griffith); newspaper reporter Hack Doyle (Walter Sande); and let's not forget her unfortunate husband, Carl (John Holland). While there's some fun in watching Claire try to commit mayhem and outwit the police and pursuers, the fact is that the picture really suffers because lead actress Brooks simply isn't up to the demands of the script. Blonde Ice needs a Stanwyck or Davis -- or at least someone a little zestier and more talented -- to make it riveting. Brooks, who passed away just last month at 88 years of age, made a few film appearances before Blonde Ice, made one other film the same year, and then didn't return to films until 1971.

Verdict: Bad girls should be more fascinating than this. **.


THE KING'S SPEECH (2010). Director: Tom Hooper.

"Bertie," the Duke of York (Colin Firth), who eventually becomes King George the 6th of England, has a stammering problem that is especially noticeable whenever the poor man has to give a speech. In desperation his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) takes him to an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who has unusual methods of dealing with the problem. As strong-willed in his own way as the King, he and Bertie seem to become both friends and adversaries as the years progress. This is a superb film, completely absorbing from start to finish, that gives us an insider's view into a neglected aspect of history and does so brilliantly. Firth and Rush are magnificent, and there are also notable performances from Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce as Bertie's brother, Edward, who abdicates, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop, and others. In addition to the great acting, the film's direction, photography and editing are also all first-class. Deservedly won Best Movie Oscar for 2010.

Verdict: Yes, they can still make great movies. ****.



This was the final season of the half hour Hitchcock program; the following year it became The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Although AHP remained an entertaining series, and there were quite a few B+ episodes, it might have had the least "A" episodes of any season. These extra-good episodes include: the classic and suspenseful "Bang, You're Dead!" where little Billy Mumy walks off with a loaded gun; the taut "Profit Sharing," in which retiring Henry Jones steals money from his company and tries to run off to Havana with a blonde; the very interesting "Kerry Blue," directed by Paul Henreid, in which a man (Gene Evans) blames his wife (Carmen Mathews) for the death of his beloved dog [both Evans  and Mathews are excellent]; and "Sorcerer's Apprentice," in which a carnival tramp (Diana Dors) takes advantage of a simple-minded runaway (Brandon De Wilde) -- Robert Bloch's story is predictably gruesome but fun.Guest-stars for this season included Robert Redford, Hugh Marlowe, Barbara Steele, and many others.

Verdict: Not the best season but hardly boring. ***.


THE MYSTERY SQUADRON (12 chapter Mascot serial/1933). Directors: Colbert Clark and David Howard.

Down in San Juan, New Mexico, a "mystery squadron" led by an unknown villain called the Black Ace flies over an area where a dam is being constructed and performs acts of sabotage. Fred Cromwell (Bob Steele) and his buddy "Jellybean" (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) try to get to the bottom of this mystery and uncover the identity of the Black Ace, although both of them are accused of being the culprit at one point. Other suspects include Superintendent Collins (J. Carrol Naish) and Doc Flint (Robert Fraser), both of whom offer the most notable performances in the serial [although Jack Mulhall is also good]. There is a lot of urgent exclaiming by the cast members throughout the movie, and more running around than you've ever seen, but the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter aren't very memorable. Nonetheless, the serial is entertaining and does manage to work up some suspense over the identity of ... the Black Ace!

Verdict: Not one of the best but still fun. ***.


TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (aka My World Dies Screaming/1958). Director: Harold Daniels.

Philip Tierney (Gerald Mohr) has just married a woman he met in Switzerland named Sheila (Cathy O'Donnell). She is plagued with nightmares about a strange haunted house but hopes to leave all that behind her when she and new hubby leave for America. Unfortunately, the house Philip takes her to is the exact same house that she's been dreaming about! William Ching plays a cousin who seems to know more then he's telling. Among several problems with this movie is that Sheila is such a wimpy heroine, literally screaming at every noise and shadow -- although O'Donnell is a very good actress. This is a rare starring role for Mohr of Angry Red Planet. Ching mostly did television work but he was also in Buck Privates Come Home, Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap and The Mysterious Mr. M. This is actually a Gothic romance masquerading as a horror film. O'Donnell, who sometimes spelled her first name with a "K," also appeared in The Miniver Story, Amazing Mr. X and Ben-Hur. Sensitively scored by Darrell Calker.

Verdict: In spite of everything it holds the attention. **1/2. 


Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin (original title) (2004/Chinese). Director: Jinglei Xu.

"If you were to call me, even if I were in my tomb, I would gather my strength, get up, and go to you."

"There is nothing more terrible than to be alone with people all around."

In this adaptation of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig's story "Letter from an Unknown Woman" -- already filmed under that title by Hollywood in the 40's -- a young woman named Jiang (played by the director Jinglei Xu) develops an intense, life-long romantic obsession with a writer who lived near her when she was a girl. Although the story has moved from Austria to China and has been updated to a pre and post-WW2 period, this version is somewhat more faithful to the print source than the Hollywood version. The settings are colorful, and the production is well-served by handsome photography and a lovely musical score -- not to mention wonderful acting from the director-star and others in the cast. One problem with the movie is that, even given cultural differences, it is hard to believe that the object of the woman's obsessions, as portrayed by Wen Jiang, would inspire fantasies in pretty young girls. Jiang is not unattractive, but he's not exactly Louis Jourdan, either. Officer Huang [Haung Jiao], who romances the woman, is a bit more on the mark. [Admittedly romantic obsession often has little to do with looks.] Whatever its imperfections, this deliberately-paced movie is moving and altogether admirable. Some may even prefer it to the Hollywood version.

Verdict: A little gem from China. ***.


Greg Wise and Juliet Stevenson
PLACE OF EXECUTION PBS Masterpiece Contemporary/2008. Director: Daniel Percival.

This was shown in three parts in the U.K. and in two parts here in the U.S. Based on a novel by  Val McDermid, this concerns a journalist, Catherine Heathcote (Juliet Stevenson), who is putting together a television documentary about the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl forty or so years earlier in the isolated town of Scardale. Her chief witness to these events is the former Detective Inspector George Bennett, who is played by Lee Ingleby in the frequent flashback sequences and by Philip Jackson as his older self [both are excellent, and indeed the acting in the mini-series in general is very good]. The chief suspect back in the day was the girl's stepfather, the snide Philip Hawkin (Greg Wise), but there were others as well. But now the formerly cooperative Bennett suddenly wants to pull out of the film, and Catherine doesn't know why, only that the townspeople seem to know more than they're telling. This is an absorbing, well-made telefilm for the most part, but it sort of falls apart with an ending that stretches credulity. Fans of the novel who were surprised by the final twist SPOILER ALERT have probably never seen Laura. Instead of being a real clever surprise that makes sense, the ending is merely contrived.

Verdict: Not bad, but was the novel [or this film] really a masterpiece? ***.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948). Director: Max Ophuls.

"I came to offer you my whole life -- but you didn't even remember me."

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a movie that it seems you either love passionately or feel complete dispassion for, although on previous viewings I've always held the middle ground. I've finally begun to see this as a very good picture, but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. To those people who feel that there's no such thing as a one-man woman (or vice versa) -- or that such women are mentally diseased [and they may be right] -- Letter from an Unknown Woman  may seem more of a pathological study that a moving romantic movie.

The film is based on a story of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, which is one of the most powerful and moving studies of unrequited love and romantic obsession ever written. [It is highly recommended for any lover of the short story/novella. It also explains a lot of Lisa's decisions that have appalled the film's detractors.] This Hollywood film version changes the object of desire from a writer to a composer and makes some other changes as well -- Lisa never gets married to anyone in the story --  although the basic substance remains the same. Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) has loved a neighbor Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) since childhood. At first she worshiped from afar, but when she becomes an adult she has an affair with Brand, and even gives birth to his son (unknown to him). Unfortunately, Brand goes away for "two weeks" and she never sees him again ... until years later. The title refers to a letter Lisa sends Brand which forms the story of the movie, told in flashback.

Jourdan is excellent as the not evil but simply unknowing Brand. Fontaine is also excellent, although she's perhaps too sophisticated in the second half of the movie to make us believe she would fall for the same old lines from Brand [once bitten, twice shy, and all that].

Letter from an Unknown Woman was remade twice, first for French television in 2001 as Lettre d'une inconnue and then in 2004 in China. I will post about these in the near future, but for now I'll say that the Chinese version, despite changes in setting and era, is a actually more faithful to Zweig's story. 

Verdict: Memorable and moving. ***1/2.


THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Director: Steven Spielberg.

I've never been overly impressed by most of Spielberg's films, but I have to admit he knocked one out of the ball park with this impressive adaptation of H. G. Well's wonderful novel. This compares favorably to George Pal's 1953 version. Updated to modern times, this details what happens when meteors fall all over the Earth and unleash tripods [with martians inside] that destroy or capture human beings. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) does his best to protect his daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) as some truly horrifying events, including an attack on a boat full of people, happen all around them. There are excellent special effects and also some pretty creepy and scary aliens on view. Well-acted [by Cruise, Tim Robbins in a supporting part, and others] and very well-directed by Spielberg. My only quibble is that some may feel that two hours of a little girl being terrorized doesn't add up to entertainment, but Spielberg always feels compelled to put children in danger in his movies.

Verdict: Eye-popping, thoroughly absorbing, and highly intense.***1/2.


LITTLE GIANT (1946).Director: William A. Seiter.

Bennie (Lou Costello) leaves his mother (Mary Gordon), gal Martha (Elena Verdugo), and farm and heads for the big city to find fame and fortune. An uncle gets him a job at a vacuum company where his unpleasant boss, Morrison (Bud Abbott) is secretly married to his secretary, Hazel (Jacqueline deWit). Morrison has a much nicer cousin, Chandler (also played by Abbott) who runs another branch of the same firm. Naturally Bennie has assorted misadventures trying to sell the firm's product. The best scene has him demonstrating a vacuum cleaner to Margaret Dumont, but why oh why isn't the sequence longer  -- I mean Lou Costello and Margaret Dumont! You would think they would have given the lady a little more screen time. Brenda Joyce makes a nice impression as a kind secretary, Ruby, who befriends the hapless Bennie.In a sub-plot wherein Hazel tries to get information from Bennie, the two sort of wind up in bed together!

Verdict: Good-natured, pleasant, and occasionally amusing as well. **1/2.


LOST CONTINENT (1951). Director:Sam Newfield.

When a firebird rocket designed by ex-Russian scientist Michael Rostov (John Hoyt) goes awry, Major Joe Nolan (Cesar Romero) is assigned to finding it so that they can figure out what went wrong. He takes Rostov and others along with him to the South Pacific and discovers the rocket, which terrified the natives, landed at the very top of a high mountain covered by fog. Although no one else seems interested in the rocket, Nolan decides everyone has to ascend to the mountain top immediately, even though they haven't got decent climbing shoes let alone any other standard equipment. In another bit of illogic, the oldest man on the team, Rostov, looks after the least athletic, Briggs (Whit Bissell), even though there are several younger, able-bodied men in the group. The interesting thing about Lost Continent is that the climbing scenes are quite well-done, and have some suspense, which dissipates for the most part the minute the men reach the top [where everything is bathed in a greenish tint] and some crudely animated stop-motion dinosaurs appear. These include a charging brontosaurus and two triceratops who get into a bloody battle. Hugh Beaumont (Michael Shayne, Leave it to Beaver), Sid Melton, and Chick Chandler are in the cast, as are Hillary Brooke and even Acquanetta, however briefly. The acting isn't bad and neither is the movie, all told. The movie with its plateau of monsters was obviously influenced by Doyle's The Lost World, filmed in the silent era and again in 1960.

Verdict: This could have used Ray Harryhausen FX, but it's still minor-league fun. ***.


Raymond Burr as Mason and Karl Held as law student David Gideon

The 5th season of this durable series didn't begin too auspiciously with a few unexciting episodes, but it began to hit its stride with such stories as "The Meddling Medium" [a phony psychic with Kent Smith]; "The Left-Handed Liar" [intrigue at a health spa, with Les Tremayne and Joan Banks];  "Brazen Bequest" [strange doings at a college hoping for a huge cash gift]; "The Mystified Miner" [with Josephine Hutchinson as a kidnapped writer]; and "The Lonely Eloper" with John Dall and Jack Ging, among several others. The two best episodes of the season were arguably: "Renegade Refugee" [is a businessman a renegade Nazi or an American coward? --  with a fine performance from Dick Foran and an especially good script]; and "Counterfeit Crank"--  with Jeannette Nolan, Burt Reynolds, and an excellent Otto Kruger in one of the very best performances of his career. Another great episode, "Ancient Romeo," featured the stars of This Island Earth -- Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow -- as actors in a theatrical troupe [with Donald Curtis of It Came from Beneath the Sea along for good measure].

The character of law student David Gideon (Karl Held), who had been a defendant on the previous season, became a semi-regular. One assumes CBS hoped to ensnare some younger viewers, particularly females, with Held's youth and considerable sex appeal. He first shows up in "Missing Melody," appears in several episodes for a varying length of time, and has the most to do in the aforementioned "Left-Handed Liar." Held, who was appealing and professional, also called himself Christopher Held and Carl Held in later years, when he appeared on such programs as Falcon Crest.

Verdict: Perry is just unstoppable. ***1/2.


HENRY ALDRICH HAUNTS A HOUSE  (1943). Director: Hugh Bennett. 
"Things are looking up for this town -- murder and everything!"  -- Dizzy.
 Henry Aldrich (Jimmy Lydon) is up to his usual tricks in this zany installment of the comedy series.  When school principal Bradley (Vaughan Glaser) disappears while going through an allegedly haunted house, Henry is convinced that his is responsible for his murder due to a certain formula he imbibed; he's certain it temporarily changed him into a hulking ghoul. Henry has fallen for the oh-so-intellectual daughter, Elise (Joan Mortimer), of a scientist, and both she and his pal Dizzy (Charles Smith) help Henry investigate the house and discover the truth. And who's that mummy in the basement? John Litel and Olive Blakeney play Henry's long-suffering parents adeptly; Lydon and Smith are just wonderful. While this isn't quite Hold That Ghost, it does have its moments.

Verdict: Suspenseful and amusing. ***.


DISTRICT 9 (2009). Director: Neill Blomkamp.

An alien race that has been sequestered in a slum in Johannesburg learns that they are to be forcibly moved from their homes. In charge of their relocation is a man named Wikus (Sharlto Copley), but in an accident he begins to mutate into one of the "prawns," as the crustacean-like aliens are called, and needs to ally himself with them. Told in documentary fashion, this supposed sci fi version of apartheid seems derivative of  a lot of other movies [such as Robocop] and despite some interesting elements is a tedious effort to sit through. Produced by Peter Jackson. Whatever you want to call it, this is not good movie-making.

Verdict: Pretty awful. *