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

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman
NOTORIOUS (1946). Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is the daughter of a German-born traitor who is imprisoned after a trial. The government, in the person of Devlin (Cary Grant), persuades Alicia to spy for them on an old admirer, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who is one member of a Nazi enclave in Rio, where he lives in a big house with his termagant mother (Leopoldine Konstantin). Although Devlin is falling in love with Alicia and vice versa, he can't forget her past as a good-time party girl and, not wanting to get hurt, keeps throwing it at her. [One has to suspend disbelief over the whole business of a government agent having a relationship with a woman  for which he is an official liaison!] Each victims of their own pride, neither Alicia nor Devlin protest when it is suggested that she actually marry Sebastian so she can enter the household itself and accrue more information as to their plans. But if Sebastian or his mother should find out the truth ...? Bergman, Grant, and Rains -- not to mention Konstantin and the supporting cast -- all give excellent performances in this smooth Hitchcock thriller with a tense, rewarding climax. Hitchcock subtly maintains a sinister aura greatly aided by Rains and Konstantin and their unpleasant associates. Fay Baker, playing a partying friend of Alicia's, was Bette Davis' greedy sister in The Star and was a Mother-from-Hell in Sorority Girl.

Verdict: Definitely a strange romance with a fascinating heroine. ***1/2.


Peter Sellers
BEING THERE (1979). Director: Hal Ashby.

"Nobody likes a dying man, Chance, because nobody knows what death is."

"You always gonna be a little boy, ain't ya?"

"It's a white man's world in America for sure" -- Louise, the black maid, after she sees Chance on TV. 

Based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, this is the story of the simple-minded gardener Chance (Peter Sellers), who has to move out of the house where he worked after his elderly employer dies. By chance -- no pun intended -- his is hit by a limo, injures his leg, and is taken in by the very wealthy Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) and her ill, much older husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas) who is friends with the President (Jack Warden). Before long Chance is "advising" the leader of the free world on policy, even though he really has no idea what he's talking about and can only relate everything to a garden. Instead of recognizing that Chance is mentally challenged, everyone thinks he's the height of profundity and he winds up on TV and being toasted by the media and intelligentsia. In this variation of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- which essentially said the same thing with more economy -- Ashby skewers the stupidity and superficiality of the rich, powerful, political, and influential, although one has to suspend disbelief that no one he meets after leaving his home seems to get that Chance is, well, just plain stupid. Sellers is fine, although he isn't really given the opportunity to go wild as he does in the Inspector Clouseau films. MacLaine and Douglas are marvelous, and there are notable supporting performances from Jack Warden, Richard Dysart as Ben's doctor, and Ruth Attaway as the maid, Louise, among others. As for the ending -- everyone can make up their own mind what that's about.

Verdict: Absorbing and sadly amusing satire. ***.


Michael Craig sports a gal's seal of approval

DOCTOR IN LOVE (1960). Director: Ralph Thomas.

"You're the least incompetent of this cretinous bunch in the slaughterhouse."

After falling for a nurse named Florence Nightingale (Moria Redmond) who disappears, Dr. Richard Hare (Michael Craig) and buddy Tony Burke (Leslie Phillips) leave the confines of St. Swithin's Hospital and the grumpy Sir Lancelot Spratt (James Robertson Justice) and look for greener pastures. First they participate as test subjects in clinical studies of the common cold, but get thrown out when they fool around with two drunken strippers. Then Hare winds up working with the established Dr. Cardew (Nicholas Phipps, who also wrote the screenplay), but has to hire a doctor assistant when Cardew goes off for a few weeks to America. Dr. Nicola Barrington (Virginia Maskell) takes over for Burke after the latter breaks his arm. Richard and Nicola fall in love, but there are still a few pitfalls to overcome. For this installment of the British "doctor" series, Michael Craig takes over from Dirk Bogarde, who usually played the lead in these things as "Simon Sparrow," but Craig is not playing the same role. Craig is no Cary Grant, but he's not bad in the part. James Robertson Justice is sort of the poor man's Monte Woolly, but he has his moments; Redmond and Maskell are attractive and competent. Some of the supporting players almost steal the show: Reginald Beckwith as Wildwood, Cardew's butler; Ambrosine Phillpotts as Lady Spratt; Ronnie Stevens as Harold, who's finally reached puberty at age 28; Carole Lesley as the adorable "Kitten" Strudwick whom the lucky Harold snares; and Fenella Fielding as the bosomy Mrs. Tadwich who has palpitations, especially when the handsome Hare is examining her. A sequence in which Hare tries to get a new serum to save a little boy's life is melodramatic and unconvincing, as is the scene when Nicola spots a lipstick print on Richard's face and reacts as if she found him in bed with a boy! [The fact that she gets so jealous over a mere thank-you kiss doesn't portend well for the marriage.] Whatever its flaws, the movie is often quite amusing and in general good-natured [with a few tasteless lapses]. Craig made Mysterious Island the following year. Maskell was with Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play and Moria Redmond appeared in A Shot in the Dark. Fielding was the voice of the loudspeaker on the TV show The Prisoner and is currently on the series Skins. Phillpotts was in A Room at the Top and Berserk with Joan Crawford. Phillips is a very busy actor up until today. Perhaps the funniest thing about the movie is that the young doctors are named Burke and Hare after the grave robbers!

Verdict: Amiable silliness with an attractive cast and some very good performances. ***.


THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (1975). Director: Blake Edwards.

12 years after making The Pink Panther [and its sequel A Shot in the Dark] Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards revived their careers by re-teaming in another Inspector Clouseau comedy. The Pink Panther diamond has again been stolen, and fingers point at the Phantom (now played by Christopher Plummer), who is married and retired and innocent of the crime. He determines to discover who it is, just as Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is put on the case at the request of the museum from which the gem was lifted. [There's no attempt at continuity with the original films. Clouseau is seen as the man who "solved" the pink panther case, even though he was actually arrested for the crime at the end of The Pink Panther.] Catherine Schell is the Phantom's wife, and Herbert Lom is back as Inspector Dreyfus (his murder spree in A Shot in the Dark being similarly forgotten). Sellers and Lom are wonderful, Schell is competent, and Plummer, running around breaking fingers in a sadistic fashion you can't imagine David Niven [who played the part originally] employing, exhibits all the charm of a rabid skunk. Despite that, the movie is a welcome addition to the Clouseau filmography.

Verdict: Imperfect but very amusing. ***.


CONVICTS AT LARGE (1938). Directors: Scott E. Beal; David Friedman.

"I'm gonna take electrocution lessons" -- a thug who wants to improve his speech. 

Thanks to the DVD video revolution and the joys of public domain, just about any old piece of crap can be resuscitated for the unwary film enthusiast. Convicts at Large is a case in point. ["Classic Collector's Series," indeed!] David Brent (Ralph Forbes) is an amiable dufus who has an idea to create "Happy Homes" for everyone -- all "scientifically-adapted" and the like. He has a crush on a pretty singer named Ruth (Paula Stone), whom he's never actually met. He's also mistaken for a jewel thief who just got out of prison and robs him of his clothing. Nevertheless he winds up at a roadhouse with a gang of thugs -- associates of the runaway thief -- and, of course, Ruth. Convicts at Large is presumably a comedy -- it certainly can't be called a dramatic film of any kind -- but it only has one laugh, the line quoted above this review. More often the humor is like this: "If she doesn't show up soon I'm gonna get my lawyer to habeas my corpus out of here." Oy vey! Stars Forbes and Stone have pleasing personalities, but not the dynamism to make something out of this turkey, but probably Peter Sellers, Danny Kaye, Jean Harlow and Red Skelton together couldn't have done much with the script. Forbes had a long list of both British and American credits; he was born in London and died in Brooklyn. Stone only did a few other movies; her singing and dancing in this are pretty mediocre.

Verdict: Less than an hour long but it seems like three. 1/2*.


A manic Claude Rains
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (aka Il pianeta degli uomini spenti/1961). Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti.

"It's a terrible, drawn-out agony for the whole world!"

How the great actor Claude Rains wound up in this Italian cheese ball is anybody's guess, but here he is -- and despite some justifiably hammy moments he's better than the film deserves. One could argue that Rains is giving Professor Challenger from The Lost World one more run, as his Professor Benson in Battle is a similarly rude, gruff scientist who is convinced he's always right. This time there are no dinosaurs [unfortunately] but a large astral body that is heading for the earth -- until it stops at 74,000 or so miles and begins circling the globe. For some reason it takes everyone more time than it should to realize that this satellite must have a governing intelligence behind its movements. In the meantime, there are some awkward romances going on, such as between Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini) and Eve Barnett (Maya Brent), although Mrs. Collins (Jacqueline Derval), who seems to have no other purpose than to serve coffee, keeps putting her hands all over the hunky doctor. But there are bigger problems when the "outsider," as the professor calls it, begins to send out flying saucers to attack earth spaceships. Battle of the Worlds isn't completely terrible -- Rains is always enjoyable no matter what he's in - but its budget precludes the film's developing some of its scenes and concepts with more impact. The spaceships seem to have been made for ten cents, but there are some effective enough sets for the climax, located on the alien world from which the saucers come. Ultimately it's like one of the lesser Star Trek episodes. With the exception of Rains and the busy Orsini, most of the actors had few other credits.

Verdict: Not quite a "terrible, drawn-out agony," but close. *1/2.


Nicolas Cage
GHOST RIDER (2007). Director/writer: Mark Steven Johnson.

"I feel much better now that I know I'm the devil's bounty hunter."

Stunt rider Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) makes a deal with a weird character who turns out to be Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) when he discovers that his father (Brett Cullen) is dying of cancer: his soul in exchange for his father's cure. The Devil does indeed make the elder Blaze healthy, but he still dies the next day -- after all the trickster only promised he'd cure him of his cancer, which he did. About twenty years go by and Johnny -- now played by a middle-aged Nicolas Cage -- discovers that he can transform into a character with a fiery skull riding on a sleek, high-concept motorcycle and is supposed to collect souls of evil men and send them to Satan. Trouble is, Mephistopheles' son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) is taking on dear old dad and wants Blaze to work for him, and he's got a posse of demons in long black coats and with lots of attitude to help him [although everyone's motivations seem kind of foggy.]

When Marvel's Ghost Rider comic book debuted in the 1970's Johnny was a confused twenty-something struggling with the cosmic concepts he was embroiled in and hating and conflicted by his night life as a demonic force of nature. Making the character much older doesn't make much sense -- why would Satan wait twenty years for one thing? --  especially as actor Matt Long [a "heart throb" who can also act] would have been perfect for the role, but, alas, he hasn't as bankable a name as Cage's. Cage seems to be stoned through much of the movie, and the audience may wish it was, because Ghost Rider -- despite some good effects  and design work -- is pretty much a bore with both script and direction lacking that certain veracity and elan. Eva Mendes is along for the ride as Johnny's supposed girlfriend, Roxanne. Fonda is okay as the devil, as is Wes Bentley as his son; Brett Cullen is fine as Johnny's father. Sam Elliott of Frogs fame shows up as a mystical "caretaker" and former Ghost Rider. Followed by a sequel that was even more disliked by the fans.

Verdict: A ride you need not take. *.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


MEET JOHN DOE (1941). Director: Frank Capra.

"For the John Does all over the world, many of whom are homeless and hungry."

When her paper is sold and streamlined and she gets fired, columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) decides to fake a letter from a "John Doe" threatening suicide for her last submission. The column causes a big stir, increases circulation, and gets Mitchell her job back -- now they have to find someone who can pretend to be the real John Doe. [Only in a Hollywood movie will the man they choose just happen to be as handsome as a movie star!] The guy who gets the job is unemployed, hungry John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who gives a speech -- written by Ann -- in which he suggests people should act toward one another as if it were Christmas 365 days a year [not exactly a radical idea]. This leads to the formation of John Doe clubs, neighbors helping neighbors, people finding jobs instead of hand-outs and getting off relief, and so on. Then publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) wants to start a John Doe party with himself as presidential nominee, which does not sit well with Willoughby. Worse, what happens if perchance "John Doe" is exposed as a phony...?

Meet John Doe takes a while to get going and its simplistic premise is never quite as solid as, say, that of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but eventually the movie and its various elements begin to click. Although Robert Riskin's screenplay doesn't really give Cooper a fully dimensional character to play, the actor nevertheless gives one of his best performances. Barbara Stanwyck is as terrific as she always is, impassioned and dynamic in equal measure. The movie has some lovely scenes: editor James Gleason talking about his father dying in front of his eyes during the war; Regis Toomey telling Cooper how he and his wife (an uncredited but excellent Ann Doran) reached out to a grumpy old neighbor and it snowballed into a committee of neighbors helping one another with their problems, and "John Doe" begins to realize what might actually be accomplished by his deception. [On the debit side, Walter Brennan's character, who thinks a man is "free" when he's broke, is an idiot and a pure Hollywood concoction.] Irving Bacon and Spring Byington are also in the cast. Capra wasn't able to use the bittersweet ending that he wanted, but the alternative he came up with works nearly as well. 

Verdict: Despite obvious flaws and perhaps an unreal air about it, this is another Capra winner. ***1/2.


THE PINK PANTHER (1963). Director: Blake Edwards.

The "Pink Panther" is an enormous diamond with a flaw that resembles the title animal. There is an ongoing legal debate as to whether it belongs to the people or to Princess Dahla (the smoky-voiced Claudia Cardinale). In any case, stealing it is the next project for a master thief known as the Phantom, but -- as we learn really on -- is really the dapper Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven). Bumbling French inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) is assigned to protecting the jewel, completely unaware that his wife (Capucine) is not only having an affair with Sir Charles but is the Phantom's accomplice! Complicating matters is Sir Charles' American nephew, George (Robert Wagner), who makes a play for Mrs. Clouseau when she accidentally winds up in his bed. Although this film introduced Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau character, it is by no means an "Inspector Clouseau" movie as he's just one of several characters -- one could argue that Niven is the star [although he has equal billing with Sellers] and gets more screen time. There are amusing scenes and good performances in the movie -- Sellers is marvelous -- but for a farce the pace at times is much too leisurely. And on occasion the comedy gets pretty desperate, with not one but two men running around in that tired old standby, a gorilla suit! The film was extremely popular, however, and eventually engendered a great many sequels both with Sellers and without. One of the best was the immediate follow-up, A Shot in the Dark

Verdict: Amusingly frenetic at times, but chiefly memorable as introducing Sellers' Clouseau. **1/2.


Guy Williams as Sindbad
CAPTAIN SINDBAD (1963). Director: Byron Haskin.

In the mythical kingdom of Baristan, the evil El Karem (Pedro Armendariz), who's taken the throne from the elderly king, tries to kill off the Princess Jana's (Heidi Bruhl) lover, the dashing hero Captain Sindbad (Guy Williams). Easier said than done, although El Karem puts Sindbad in an arena with an invisible monster [we only see its footprints a la Forbidden Planet] and has the distinct advantage of being unkillable. Commanded by El Kerim, the court wizard Galgo (Abraham Sofaer) has magically placed the former's heart in a tower in the middle of a swamp, protecting him from death. Sindbad and his men brave the swamp and face hungry gators, whirlpools that suck down the men, man-eating vines, and a mechanical hydra [this last creation is a well-made and busy beastie but it takes a far second to the stop-motion Ray Harryhausen hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, which came out the same year]. The movie wisely intercuts from the desperate race to smash El Karem's heart in the tower to the approaching execution of the princess, whose head is to be stepped on by an elephant! Although the effects aren't in the same league, this is one of the better fantasy films made in the wake of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [the correct spelling of the Arabian nights hero's name is actually with a "d"]. Williams makes a properly dashing Sindbad, Bruhl is very pretty and capable, and Armendariz is a fairly zesty bad guy. Sofaer's comedy relief antics are somewhat tiresome. Colonel Kabar, El Karim's right hand man, is well played by the incredibly versatile Henry Brandon: Barnaby in Babes in Toyland, Fu Manchu in Drums of Fu Manchu, and the hermit in The Land Unknown. The musical score seems to be a steal from a Borodin piece popularly known as "Stranger in Paradise." Excellent scenic design, especially in the colorful and sinister swampland. Bruhl appeared mostly in German films, while most of Williams' appearances were on television. After making a great many Mexican and American films, Armendariz died the same year of this film's release at 51 [he committed suicide to avoid a painful death from cancer, possibly contracted while working on The Conquerer] after making a final screen appearance in From Russia With Love.

Verdict: Highly entertaining fantasy with some decent effects work and generally good performances. ***.


Gordon Jones and Keye Luke

THE GREEN HORNET (13 chapter Universal serial/1940). Directors: Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor.

Britt Reid (Gordon Jones), who has inherited control of the Sentinel newspaper from his father, wages a war against incredible corruption in his city in the disguise of The Green Hornet. With his faithful butler.chauffeur and action partner Kato (Keye Luke) by his side, the Hornet smashes one racket after another in this episodic serial. The two men ride around in a car called Black Beauty and use a gas gun to put opponents quickly to sleep. The police and many of the crooks believe the Hornet is also a criminal eliminating rivals. Sentinel reporter Michael Axford (Wade Boteler) is one of the Hornet's detractors, convinced he's a bad guy, while Reid's secretary Lenore Case (Anne Nagel) insists that the Hornet is a true hero -- neither has any idea that they're working for the very fellow they're arguing about. There are protection rackets, flight school insurance scams where students are deliberately killed for insurance [an especially heartless business], and other nefarious schemes, headed by a guy named Monroe (Cy Kendall) who spends most of his time sitting behind a desk and -- judging from his size -- eating; he is a colorless antagonist. There are no great Republic-type fist fights [this would have been an even better serial had it been made for Republic studios instead of Universal] but there are some lively scenes, including a bit with a runaway bus, and some thrilling business involving an uncoupled train. Jones and Luke are excellent, with the former affecting a more dramatic voice when he puts on the mask of the Hornet [some sources say the Hornet's voice was actually supplied by Al Hodge, who played the character on the radio, but he is uncredited]. Boteler is amusing in his exasperation, and Nagel [The Secret Code] -- although not beautiful in the conventional Hollywood sense -- classes up this production as she does so many others. Alan Ladd and Anne Gwynne [Honeymoon Deferred] have bit parts. Ann Doran [The Man They Could Not Hang, among many others] plays a woman who pretends to be the dead men's fiancee in the flight school chapter. Gene Rizzi makes an impression as one of the mobsters.[NOTE: The Green Hornet first appeared on the radio, then appeared in comic books [as he still does today] then was made into two serials, a TV show, and finally a dreadful Hollywood feature film.

Verdict: More than acceptable serial fun; much better than the 2011 Hollywood version. ***.


THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS COMPANION. Martin Grams, Jr. and Patrik Wikstrom. OTR Publishing; 2001.

This is a thick entertaining, informative reference work that pertains to all things Hitchcock and television, but also has sections on Hitchcock's anthologies of mystery stories, other suspense shows of the period, Psycho and lots more. There is an entry for every single episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and the color remake Alfred Hitchcock Presents done in the 80's with cast and credits, production notes, plot synopses, and comments from cast members, director/actor Norman Lloyd, and other people who worked on the shows. There are lots of notes, interesting factoids, and a wealth of material for the Hitchcock-TV fan. Not to quibble, but the book, as good as it is, sometimes reads like a rough draft that was not only not proof-read, but wasn't even edited by the authors, let alone a copy editor. But while this is occasionally distracting, it doesn't really take away from the book's readability and value. I have to thank the authors for one thing. Thanks to them I'm finally getting to read Ethel Lina White's short story "An Unlocked Window," the basis for one of the best Hitchcock Hour episodes. [I mean, I even emailed the late author's agent in England to try to find a copy of this story, but Grams and Wikstrom provide the names of not one but two anthologies it appears in -- which the agent apparently wasn't aware of!]

Verdict: Despite flaws and some awkward syntax, the book is a treasure trove of info and an obvious labor of love. ***1/2.


GUEST WIFE (1945). Director: Sam Wood.

Chris Price (Dick Foran) and his wife Mary (Claudette Colbert) are about to depart for Manhattan for a second honeymoon when in blows Chris' best friend, reporter Joe Parker (Don Ameche). Parker has told his boss, the unctuous and moralistic Arthur Truesdale Worth (Charles Dingle) that he has a wife, even going so far as to send him Mary's photo. Mary is importuned to pose as Mrs. Parker in New York, which leads to embarrassing complications, and so enrages Mary that she pretends she's fallen for Joe just to get even with both men, one of whom is a creep (Joe) and the other a thoughtless fool (Chris). Colbert's spirited performance is the only reason to watch this fairly leaden "comedy" with unlikable and unsympathetic male characters. There is a mildly funny bit with a nosy shoe salesman in a nightclub, as well as a sequence wherein a bartender assumes the three principals are having a menage a trois, but otherwise this is pretty much a waste of an hour and a half. Sam Wood may have directed A Night at the Opera, but he couldn't do much with this script. Ameche is okay and Foran is as amiable as ever.  

Verdict: Don't be a "guest" in this movie. **.


THE CARD PLAYER (aka Il cartaio/2004). Director: Dario Argento.

A maniac who kidnaps women wants to play poker with the police with the stakes being the life of the woman he holds captive, all played out over the Internet. Rome police inspector Anna Mari (Stefania Rocca) and John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) from Interpol are the team trying to find the women and stop the "card player;" they enlist the aid of a young poker expert named Remo (Silvio Muccino). The Card Player is different from a lot of Argento's shockers in that it's a fairly straight-forward crime thriller, which boasts a tense, exciting climax on the train tracks. It is also a lot better than some of the other films Argento made during this later period.Some Argento fans -- gore geeks -- hated it because it wasn't gruesome enough.

Verdict: Absorbing and suspenseful for the most part. ***.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Claudette Colbert
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932). Director: Cecil B. DeMille.

"I'm the emperor's most urgent business."

In 64 A.D. Marcus, (Fredric March), the prefect of Rome, falls in love virtually at first sight with Mercia (Elissa Landi). The problem is that Mercia is a Christian,as is her entire household, and Marcus causes all of Rome to gossip and watch in dismay as he defends her, although he doesn't share her beliefs. Another problem is that Emperor Nero's wife, Poppea (Claudette Colbert), has a thing for Marcus and is perfectly willing to commit adultery with him, which he refuses to do; she is not thrilled by his interest in Mercia. In the meantime hunky Tigellinus (Ian Keith), who should certainly pique the empress's interest but apparently doesn't, is already plotting against Marcus before the latter gives him plenty of ammunition due to his passionate interest in Mercia. If you can get past the pious nature of some of the scenes -- and some of the Christians do seem nuts -- this can and should be taken as a study of cruel oppression. The scenes of Christians being herded into an arena only to be mauled and eaten by lions are still quite raw and disturbing (if not as graphic as they would be today) and one can't help but think of the later Holocaust and its atrocities. [Ironically, Hollywood parties were probably more like Roman orgies than Christian prayer meetings.] Charles Laughton is excellent, as usual, in his brief appearances as Nero. Charles Middleton has a small role as the panicking Christian Tyros, who feels that God has forgotten his people. Tommy Conlon is excellent as the boy Stephen, who is tortured until he gives away the Christians' location. Colbert is as good as she was in Cleopatra, but March, frankly, never quite seems to get a handle on his character, perhaps because as written Marcus is a little unreal. There's a supposedly "lesbian" dance in which a woman seductively drapes herself around Mercia to music. The coliseum scenes are intense and harrowing and even if you're neither Christian or even religious it's hard not to be affected by the awful deaths of so many innocent people. [Ironically, many Christians today are similarly intolerant towards others.]

Verdict: DeMille has his cake and eats it, too! ***1/2.


Hayley Mills meets Hayley Mills
THE PARENT TRAP (1961). Director: David Swift. Walt Disney Studios.

"You must bring mother to California. Boston is no place to rekindle a romance."

Two girls at a summer camp named Sharon and Suzie (Hayley Mills) look exactly alike. Initially hating each other, they eventually become friends, compare notes, and discover they are sisters raised on separate coasts. The two decide to switch places so they can each get to know the parent the other one lives with. When it develops that their father Mitch (Brian Keith) is about to get remarried, they contrive to rekindle a romance between him and their mother, Margaret (Maureen O'Hara). The film starts badly with a horrible title tune sung not at all well by Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello, but the opening scenes in camp are very funny. Hayley Mills reminds everyone that she was one of the most talented child stars ever. Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara make a good team, even if Keith is a more natural actor; O'Hara looks stunning. Joanna Barnes and Linda Watkins are the scheming fiancee, Vicky, and her overbearing mother, Edna; Cathleen Nesbitt and Charlie Ruggles, the maternal grandparents -- all are fine. Ruth McDevitt is fun as the dithery head of the summer camp, Miss Inch, and Nancy Kulp appears briefly as a counselor. Una Merkle plays Mitch's housekeeper, Verbena, and Leo G. Carroll, a few years before The Man from U.N.C.L.E., has a very amusing turn as the reverend Dr. Mosby. The most hilarious scene occurs when Margaret meets Vicky and her mother for the first time and mischievously confuses the two of them. At over two hours, this is a little overlong, but entertaining for the most part. However, the plot and its holes will not hold up to much scrutiny [why not tell the girls they have a sister, for instance?] The girls perform the snappy "Let's Get Together." Mills starred in the very different Twisted Nerve seven years later.

Verdict: Amiable Disney comedy with some good performances. ***. 


Michael Ansara and Tony Curtis confront the Unknown
THE MANITOU (1978). Director: William Girdler.

Fake San Francisco spiritualist Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) learns that an old girlfriend of his, Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg), has a little bit of a problem. She has a tumor growing on her back, it's getting larger, and it appears to be a fetus! Erskine discovers that the fetus is the reborn spirit of a nasty Indian medicine man, and enlists the aid of a modern-day equivalent, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), to fight the medicine man and the evil gods it conjures. Their only allies are the spirits -- or "manitous" -- of the objects around them. Before long the hospital has become a battle zone as they fight for Karen Tandy's soul amidst corpses turned inside out, frozen, decapitated nurses, and other signs of murder and mayhem. The movie, based on a novel by Graham Masterton, has an interesting cast: Besides the aforementioned actors we've got Ann Sothern (a medium), Stella Stevens, Burgess Meredith (anthropologist Dr, Snow), Lurene Tuttle (a client of Erskine's who takes a tumble) and even Jeanette Nolan. Jon Cedar, who associate-produced and worked on the screenplay, plays Dr. Hughes. Curtis' pants are almost as tight as the ones worn by Robert Conrad in The Wild, Wild West! There are a lot of interesting elements to this movie, and it holds the attention, but somehow it doesn't completely jell. Cedar was also in Girdler's Day of the Animals.

Verdict: Not without interest, but somehow less than the sum of its parts. **1/2.


BARBARA STANWYCK: THE MIRACLE WOMAN. Dan Callahan. University Press of Mississippi; 2012.

If you were hoping this would be an in-depth major biography of Barbara Stanwyck, the disappointing news is that this isn't really a biography and has only a few, non-revelatory details about her private life. The good news is that Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman is still a highly entertaining book written by someone who is an obvious enthusiast for the actress and her work. Callahan has chosen to focus strictly on Stanwyck's work and films, and fortunately he's a good enough and knowledgeable enough writer to make his dissection of the movies and Stanwyck's thesping in them be absorbing. The book is divided into chapters that look at different phases in her career -- say the western phase or the film noir phase -- or films are grouped together by directors, such as Frank Capra. Of her later period, Callahan writes about Stanwyck's wonderful delivery of her heart-rending speech to Father Ralph in The Thornbirds. You won't agree with everything in the book -- he dismisses Lionel Barrymore as a "dreaded ham thespian" and uses the supposedly cute term "dyke-alicious" [when will people realize that "dyke" and "fag" are "n words" for the gay community] for a sequence in Night Nurse. Overall, however, this is a good book and a good bet for Stanwyck fans.

Verdict: Very worthwhile for Barbara Stanwyck fans. ***.


MEMORIAL VALLEY MASSACRE (1988). Director: Robert C. Hughes. 

George Webster (John Kerry) is trying to develop a campsite called Memorial Valley when strange disappearances and deaths begin to cause consternation.Big boss Alan Sangster (Cameron Mitchell) sends his son David (Mark Mears) in for some on-the-job experience. There's also a general played by the ever-intense William Smith. It's no big revelation that the killings are caused by a kid who was left alone to fend for himself in the woods (John Caso) and has become feral and homicidal. The murders are not especially graphic. Kerry gives a good performance and the other cast members are perfectly competent, but Memorial Valley Massacre is not very memorable. Director Hughes had few other credits, but Kerry remains a busy actor. Mears and Caso only appeared in this film.

Verdict: There will be no memorial for this movie. **.


Lucy and a bleating sheep

After the end of I Love Lucy as well as the dissolution of Lucille Ball's marriage to Desi Arnaz [although not the end of their professional relationship due to their involvement in Desilu], Ball and Vivian Vance re-teamed without the boys as a widow and a divorcee living together with their children in a small town. Although The Lucy Show had the same writers as I Love Lucy, the show -- which also ran several years before turning into Here's Lucy -- was not in the same classic league. [One problem was that the writers couldn't resist re-using some classic I Love Lucy bits and plot lines.] There are, however, some funny moments and memorable scenes in the first season, such as "Lucy and Viv take Up Chemistry" and "Lucy Buys a Boat." The two best episodes are "Lucy Builds a Rumpus Room," which has a very funny finale, and "Lucy is Kangaroo for a Day," which has a priceless bit in which a strand of her suit is caught in an elevator and completely unravels her outfit, as well as some hilarious scenes in a restaurant. Dick Martin is okay as the girls' neighbor and occasional date, Harry, but Charles Lane [later replaced by Gale Gordon] is terrific as the severe banker Mr. Barnsdahl. The three children in the cast are all talented and appealing as well. However, there are too many mediocre episodes to make most people want to look at later seasons, although they had their moments.

Verdict: Lucy can still make you laugh -- with reservations. **1/2.


GIALLO (2009). Director: Dario Argento.

Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) is horrified to learn that her sister, Celine, a model, is the latest in a line of women kidnapped by a disfigured, unknown maniac. She teams up with an American F.B.I man working in Rome, Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrian Brody), to try to save her sister and trap her abductor. This is Dario Argento treading water, as the film is well-acted [hard to figure how or why Brody wound up in this but he's made other bad film choices after winning an Oscar for The Pianist in 2002] but not very absorbing or interesting. Argento has made much, much better films than this, but at least it's slightly better than his tedious 2005 telefilm Do You Like Hitchcock? Brody also appeared in Predators, Hollywoodland --which showcased him much more as an actor -- and the most recent King Kong, all of which, despite their flaws, are better than this disappointing "thriller."

Verdict: Not the Argento you remember. **.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Claude Rains
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943), Director: Arthur Lubin.

Handsome Technicolor version of the silent classic stars the great Claude Rains as Erique Claudin, who loves the pretty singer Christine (Susanna Foster), paying for her lessons in secret, but has a tragic and fateful misunderstanding with a music publisher that results in the latter's death and Claudin getting a face full of corrosive acid. Thereafter he haunts the Paris Opera in a cloak and mask committing murders to advance the career of Christine. Nelson Eddy, in fine voice, plays lead baritone and love interest, Anatole. Edgar Barrier has what is probably his best and biggest part in movies as Inspector Doubert, who not only investigates the murders but is Anatole's rival for Christine. Fritz Feld, Fritz Lieber, and Steven Geray all have supporting roles and all are good. The horror aspects of the story are fairly muted with the exception of a well-executed scene with the chandelier crashing into the audience; Lubin was hardly the best choice for director. Still the film is good to look at, Rains is as excellent as ever [Barrier and the others are also more than acceptable], and there's some wonderful music and singing. The French opera [actually a German opera sung in French] is the third act of Flowtow's Martha. The Russian opera was cobbled together from Tchiakovsky's 4th symphony even though there were plenty of Russian operas, including Tchiakovsky's, to choose from.Very attractive settings.

Verdict: Not all it could have been but quite entertaining. ***.


Gilbert Roland and Barbara Stanwyck
THE FURIES (1950). Director: Anthony Mann.

Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), daughter of rancher T.J. Jeffords (Walter Huston) on a ranch called the Furies in 1870, certainly has her problems. She's in love with swaggering banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey, not exactly the swaggering type, but not bad), who'd rather have her father's money. Her friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), one of a family of squatters, is in love with her but he doesn't quite make her engine rumble. Worst of all, daddy has brought home a strong, conniving lady named Flo (Judith Anderson), who threatens Vance's status on the ranch -- watch for those fireworks! Anderson, Huston and Stanwyck are splendid in this fascinating sex-western dealing with the [nearly incestuous] love and hatred between equally strong father and daughter. As Juan's sharp-shooting mother, Blanche Yurka is nearly as vengeful in this as she was in A Tale of Two Cities. Albert Dekker of Dr. Cyclops shows up briefly and Beulah Bondi has a small but effective bit late in the picture. John Bromfield has one of his more significant roles as Stanwyck's brother, Clay, although his character is never developed that much. Franz Waxman's excellent score, and Victor Milner and Lee Garmes' striking widescreen photography make this a pleasure to look at as well as to hear. Although some scenes, such as a hanging in which the victim goes meekly to the rope, don't quite come off, The Furies is consistently absorbing and -- best of all -- unpredictable. Written by Charles Schnee from a novel by Niven Busch.

Verdict: Highly satisfying western melodrama. ***1/2.


Gale Sondergaard
THE BLACK CAT (1941). Director: Albert S. Rogell.

In this entertaining comedy-thriller, the relatives of elderly Henrietta Winslow (Cecelia Loftus) are gathered inside the obligatory spooky mansion waiting for her to die and wondering how much they'll each get. Naturally murders and weird goings-on ensue. The Black Cat certainly has an unusual collection of actors: everyone from Bela Lugosi (as a groundskeeper) to Broderick Crawford to Alan Ladd to Gale Sondergaard [who at least you expect to see in stuff like this] and even Gladys Cooper [whom you don't]. Sondergaard is very amusing as the sinister housekeeper, Abigail, and Gladys Cooper practically steals the picture in her turn as Myrna -- her husband is played by no less than Basil Rathbone, and he, too, is excellent. Anne Gwynne, Claire Dodd, and John Eldredge also have roles and Hugh Herbert is comic relief -- or something. Some may find this a little too humorous to sustain any kind of real atmosphere but it's fun and has an exciting climax.

Verdict: Any picture with this cast can't be all bad. ***.


FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956). Director: Fred M. Wilcox.

A spaceship helmed by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) lands on the planet Altair-4 to see if there are any survivors of an expedition that landed there almost twenty years before. He and his crewmen discover only two: Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). But there's something else on the planet as well -- an invisible, hulking monster with odd clawed feet that tore apart most of the members of the expedition years ago and is now attempting to do the same to the new arrivals. It would be easy to pick apart the flaws of this movie, which was supposedly inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, but it works for most of its length because of its interesting ideas and some genuinely scary sequences involving the monster. The most fascinating parts of the film have to do with the Krell, the race that formerly occupied the planet, built a huge machine inside its core, and were wiped out in a single night by "monsters from the id." The "electronic tonalities" that serve as the film's score add immeasurably to its impact and there are some effective widescreen sets and matte paintings. The acting, unfortunately, is strictly of the second-rate Hollywood variety. Pidgeon, Francis, Nielsen etc. have all given decent performances elsewhere -- Francis made a snappy Honey West some years later -- but they are all rather light weight in this; Pidgeon is okay at first but becomes pretty hammy. Another problem is the dated fifties sensibility of much of the script. Still, this was an influential movie and its best scenes are quite entertaining. The crew men's costumes were later used in the dreadful Queen of Outer Space, and Fiend Without a Face had a similar concept, although it was based on an older short story. Director Wilcox did a smattering of minor films before this, and afterward did only I Passed for White in 1960; he died in 1964.

Over the years remakes of the film have been announced -- the last was in 2008, I believe -- but none have materialized. I always thought it would be a good idea to do a prequel in which we see what happens to the original expedition, which could be quite eerie and terrifying. Who knows? Maybe someday.

Verdict: It may not hold up under intense scrutiny but it is not without its shuddery charms. ***.


Elke Sommer and Peter Sellers go au natural
A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964). Director: Blake Edwards.

"I know I fell off the sofa, madame -- everything I do is carefully planned."

The second "Pink Panther" film with Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau is an amusing trifle that may just tickle your funny bone if you're in the right mood. Clouseau is called in when the chauffeur of Mssr. Ballon (the ever-wry George Sanders) is found dead in the bedroom of the maid, Maria (Elke Sommer). Maria is the chief suspect, but Clouseau -- smitten by her beauty and with no real facts to back him up -- is convinced that she is innocent. Highlights of the film include Clouseau's visit to a nudist colony where he wants to arrest someone for indecent exposure until he realizes where he is; a darkly comic segment wherein several innocent bystanders are wiped out by someone trying to kill Clouseau who has really lousy luck -- and aim; and the climax when clueless Clouseau confronts all the gathered suspects in the drawing room. Sellers is wonderful, matched if not bettered by Herbert Lom's hilarious turn as his apoplectic boss, Charles Dreyfus, who is literally driven mad by Clouseau's ineptitude. Martin Benson of The Cosmic Monsters plays a butler. Probably inspired by Sellers, Sommer [The Money Trap] is better than usual

Verdict: Some very funny stuff here. ***. 


BURN 'EM UP BARNES (12 chapter Mascot serial/1934). Directors: Colbert Clark; Armand Schaefer.

Race car driver "Burn 'Em Up" Barnes (Jack Mulhall) decides to seek other employment after his friend, a photographer, dies on the race track. He joins up with Marjorie Temple (Lola Lane) to form the Temple and Barnes school bus transportation company. Marjorie is unaware that there is oil on her property, which is why Lyman Warren (Edwin Maxwell) desperately wants to buy it and will stop at nothing to put her in the position where she needs to sell. Early in the serial Warren and his associate Drummond (Jason Robards Sr.) frame Barnes for vehicular homicide, but his young buddy Bobby (Frankie Darro) has film that proves his innocence -- naturally this film passes among many hands before the serial is through. At one point Barnes starts doing stunt work for a movie company [just when the serial begins running out of skimpy plot] with the bad guys still trying to kill him off via assorted accidents. The cliffhangers in this serial are generally well-done and quite credible with none of the "cheating" that often occurs in serials. Mulhall seems like a vaudeville entertainer who wandered into the wrong set and is a terribly obvious actor. Lane is lovely and reasonably competent, and Darro is just swell. Maxwell, Robards and Francis McDonald are credible enough villains, and Julian Rivero does the comedy relief as grease monkey Tony as well as anyone. This is not a terrible serial, but it's not on the top of Mascot's cliffhanger list to be certain.

Verdict: A lesser serial but not without some entertainment value. **1/2. 

THE THING (2011)

THE THING (2011). Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

This is not so much a remake of the classic The Thing from Another World from the 50's, but a prequel to John Carpenter's remake of that film, The Thing. [This film opens and closes with Ennio Morricone's "music" for the Carpenter film.] At the Thule station in the Arctic, a group of Norwegian scientists stumble across a spaceship in a crevasse, and thaw out the alien creature inside of it. Bad idea -- this creature can mimic anyone or anything, and before long the scientists are paranoid as to which among them has been taken over and is no longer human. There's a good scene when they look for fillings in their mouths to see who's changed, and some grotesque encounters between the alien and its victims. Mary Elizabeth Winstead  makes an impression as Kate, with the chief male characters being portrayed competently by Joel Edgarton (pilot Sam Carter) and Ulrich Thomsen (Dr. Halvorson). It's interesting that John W. Campbell's source story "Who Goes There?" actually has an upbeat ending [as does the first film version] while the two subsequent versions, while more faithful to Campbell's concept, are much darker. If you've seen Carpenter's film you already know that this prequel ain't gonna end happy.

Verdict: Some good scenes and effects if ultimately quite depressing. ***.