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

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Chad Allen and Robert Gant of Save Me
In honor of New York's Gay Pride March this Sunday June 29th, 2014, we present our second annual round-up of gay-themed movies (or at least films with gay characters). This year we focus on a drama about the ex-gay industry, Save Me; a political thriller with a gay lead character, The Walker; a Lifetime telefilm about a young woman's coming out, The Truth about Jane; the cable biopic about the flamboyantly stereotypical Liberace, Behind the Candelabra; the first major Hollywood movie on gay relationships, Making Love; the first telefilm to deal with homosexuality, That Certain Summer; and the controversial The Dying Gaul, which has been called a "gay revenge fantasy" -- among other things.

More reviews on their way! [including The Jones Family Go to Provincetown].


Too much sympathy? Judith Light and Stephen Lang
SAVE ME (2007). Director: Robert Cary.

When a gay drug addict named Mark (Chad Allen) nearly dies, his brother puts him in a Christian facility named Genesis House. The place, which tries to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals through faith and prayer, is run by Gayle (Judith Light) and her husband, Ted (Stephen Lang). Gayle turned her son out of the house at sixteen after he came out; six months later he committed suicide -- she blames his sexual orientation instead of her narrow-minded rejection of same. Mark begins to fall -- rather quickly -- for some of the homophobic spirituality at Genesis House, even as fellow resident Scott (Robert Gant) begins to rebel; more importantly, the two begin to fall for each other. Will they give in to the negative attitudes of Gayle and Ted, or have the strength to break free and be themselves? Save Me is an interesting movie but in trying so hard not to present Ted and especially Gayle as formulaic hateful villains, the movie doesn't come down nearly hard enough on the thoroughly discredited "ex-gay" movement -- these people do serious damage to hundreds of innocent and confused youths. Lang and Light both give excellent performances -- Light is especially outstanding playing a woman who is both dangerous and self-deluding and in some ways pitiable -- and Allen and Gant are also terrific as the lovers. Robert Baker is also notable as the sad Lester, who has never given in to his "impulses" and probably never will due to the "loving," misguided notions of Ted and Gayle. Save Me does illustrate the horrors of homophobia, and has some good sequences and poignant moments, especially at the upbeat but nevertheless depressing conclusion. Unfortunately director Cary feels a need to "resist the temptation to judge Judith .. or any of the people at the ministry" as if he was completely unacquainted with the sheer, lying viciousness of anti-gay bigots. In trying to humanize them --- not necessarily a bad thing in of itself as far as characterization is concerned -- he seems to be excusing their behavior. But these people are no different from racists or anti-Semites; it's hard to keep a balance when dealing with such evil. The screenplay -- which is good but doesn't go nearly far enough -- is by Robert Desiderio, the husband of Judith Light, who served as co-producer. NOTE: As if to make up for the film's failure to more sharply condemn the ex-gay industry, the DVD has information on it as well as resources for people who want to reconcile their orientation with their religion.

Verdict: Not bad, but it needs a much edgier script. ***.


THE WALKER (2007). Writer/director: Paul Schrader.

Carter Page (Woody Harrelson) is the third in a line of powerful politicians, but he himself is on the outskirts: as a "walker" in Washington D.C. he escorts the wives of important men to social functions and art events that the husband would rather not be bothered with. When one of these lady friends, Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas), finds her lover butchered in his apartment, Carter is importuned to say that he found the body, and therefore becomes embroiled in scandal and mystery. The Walker certainly has an interesting cast --  Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin [Shadows and Fog] are two of the other ladies that Carter knows -- and the premise is an intriguing one, but while the movie is entertaining, it doesn't quite cut it. Having a gay man as the lead character is a step in the right direction, but Schrader won't let Carter be entirely comfortable with his lifestyle, and even adds a wistful postscript involving one of the ladies that almost gives the movie a homophobic subtext. But a bigger problem is that this is, in part, a thriller, and the basic plot is not that original or involving. Carter is an interesting character, however, and Harrelson gives a very good performance, even if at times he seems to be channeling his inner Liberace. Scott Thomas [Mission: Impossible] is also splendid, as is Ned Beatty as Tomlin's husband. Willem Dafoe [Daybreakers] plays Scott Thomas' husband in a brief bit, and Moritz Bleibtreu scores as Carter's sometime boyfriend, Emek.

Verdict: This might have been better if Schrader hadn't written the script. **1/2.


Ellen Muth as Jane
THE TRUTH ABOUT JANE (2000 Lifetime telefim). Writer/director: Lee Rose.

Jane (Ellen Muth) is a sixteen-year-old high school student who realizes for sure that she is gay when she is intimate with, and falls for, another student named Taylor (Alicia Lagano). Although Jane's parents are liberal and have gay friends, they don't react well when their daughter comes out of the closet. The Truth About Jane is well-intentioned and well-acted -- Stockard Channing [Twilight] and James Naughton are excellent as the parents, and Muth and Lagano are also terrific -- but it has an oddly dated quality, although it does expose the evils of homophobia and bullying. There is an unfortunate underscoring of "pity those poor gays" that doesn't quite mesh with modern day Gay Liberation attitudes, and it's interesting that the Parents of Gays in the group PFLAG introduce themselves the way alcoholics do at AA, creating an probably unintended corollary between homosexuality and alcoholism! Kelly Rowan plays a sympathetic teacher who also turns out to be a lesbian, and a comparatively subdued, out of drag RuPaul [Charles] has a nice turn as Jane's mother's gay friend, Jimmy.

Verdict: Nice enough as far as it goes... **1/2.


Matt Damon and Michael Douglas
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013 telefilm). Director: Steven Soderbergh.

There seems to be no way around the fact that popular entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas) was a big, flamboyant, outrageous gay stereotype, and this telefilm makes no attempt to get around it. It is also based on the book by Liberace's [ex] lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), so really has to be taken with a grain of salt. Thorson appears to be a type of [supposedly bisexual] hustler who moves in on Liberace even as Liberace moves in on him -- and suggests he move in with him. The movie suggests that the promiscuous entertainer eventually wanted to replace Thorson with a younger model, making him little different from a lot of straight guys. The one thing the telefilm has going for it is the acting, with Douglas [The China Syndrome] giving an outstanding performance that almost makes Liberace likable, and Matt Damon [The Departed] is not far behind him. Rob Lowe is also quite good as the shady "feelgood" Dr. Startz. Dan Ackroyd and Cheyenne Jackson [The Most Happy Fella] also have significant roles, and Debbie Reynolds is fine as Liberace's mother. Soderbergh also directed Douglas in Traffic.

Verdict: It's well-acted and certainly holds your attention, even if it often comes off like a gay dirty joke. ***.


Robert clacks away at that keyboard
THE DYING GAUL (2005). Director: Craig Lucas. Screenplay by Craig Lucas from his play.

"You can do anything that you want as long as you don't call it what it is." 

Robert (Peter Sarsgaard), a struggling screenwriter, is inexplicably offered a million dollars for his script called The Dying Gaul, even though the producer, Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), thinks he should rewrite the gay lead characters as a straight couple. Robert takes the money, and doesn't exactly put up much resistance when the closeted "bisexual" Jeffrey comes on to him. Before long the two have entered into an affair behind the back of Jeffrey's wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson of Carrie). Elaine, intrigued by Robert, enters a gay web site to chat with him, and then creates a phony identity with which to send him texts and emails, pretending to be his dead lover. Then things get even more warped ... The Dying Gaul has a lot of problems, not the least of which is that Hitchcock himself would have trouble wringing drama out of a movie in which characters seem to spend most of the time clacking away at their keyboards; in fact the movie becomes tedious after awhile. However, the three leads all give good performances, although Sarsgaard's [Blue Jasmine] stereotypical "queeniness" seems to come and go like a bad accent. One scene when he starts crying when he and Jeffrey are having sex borders on camp. An even bigger problem with the movie is that these are not likable people, and the ending makes one of them, no matter how justifiably angry, seem almost psychotic. Lucas could have taken this premise, as contrived as it is, and said something about a lot of things, but this muddled movie doesn't really seem to be saying anything about anything. On the stage, this may have worked, but presented all too literally on the screen it just doesn't.

Verdict: There are times when this almost seems homophobic! **.


Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean
MAKING LOVE (1982). Director: Arthur Hiller.

A successful oncologist, Zach (Micheal Ontkean) seems to be happily married to his wife and best friend, Claire (Kate Jackson) -- they both love Gilbert and Sullivan, and poet Rupert Brooke --  but all of his life he's been fighting his attraction to men. He is less interested in having a very active sex life as he is in having a romantic, lifetime relationship with another man, and falls (rather quickly) for a foot-loose writer named Bart (Harry Hamlin of Clash of the Titans), who is much more comfortable with his sexuality. As Zach's marriage to Claire approaches its end, will Bart turn out to be the man that Zach's been hoping to find? Making Love, released by Twentieth Century-Fox, was the first major Hollywood film on homosexuality, and was heavily promoted as well. [That Certain Summer tackled the subject on television ten years earlier.] Although it could be argued that they give telefilm-type performances, the three leads are all good, and the film is interesting, with a moving conclusion. The casting of Kate Jackson as the very likable Claire was a smart move. Hamlin at times tries too hard to play it "gay" but Ontkean is fine, although the important sequences when he finally comes out to Claire are a bit awkward in both scripting and performance. Whatever its flaws, Making Love is to be commended for being one of the first films in which gay characters were neither maniacs nor corpses. Wendy Hiller [The Cat and the Canary] plays Winnie, an elderly friend of Zach and Claire's. A particularly charming scene has Zach and Claire entering a singing contest and being really bad just to spare a friendly young lady who was booed from getting the booby prize. Lovely score by Leonard Rosenman.

Verdict: Intelligent if imperfect gay love story -- of sorts. ***.


Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen
THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (1972 telefilm). Director: Lamont Johnson. Written by Richard Levinson and William Link.

Contractor Doug Salter (Hal Holbrook) has divorced his wife and is in a relationship with musician Gary McClain (Martin Sheen). When his teenage son, Nick (Scott Jacoby) comes for a visit, he has to deal -- although he doesn't want to -- with the boy's eventual realization of his father's sexual orientation. This was the first made-for-TV movie to deal fairly positively with the subject of gay relationships. The focus is perhaps more on the father-son relationship than it is with the lovers, although they are portrayed as normal human beings and not losers or freaks. It is likely that Broadcast Standards and Practices (the TV censors of the time) probably imposed a speech in which Doug wonders if homosexuality is a "sickness" and says "if I had a choice it's not what I would choose for myself." In spite of this, the gay relationship is in no way presented as being abnormal, and it is made clear that Doug is much more conservative than the younger and more liberated Gary. The entire cast gives excellent performances, including Hope Lange [Peyton Place] as Doug's ex-wife; Jan Shepard [Attack of the Giant Leeches] as Gary's sister; Joe Don Baker [Criminal Law] as his brother-in-law; and Marlyn Mason as a client of Doug's who has romantic feelings for him.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws -- and it has them -- this frank, mostly intelligent film was certainly a step in the right direction. ***.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


LOVE HAS MANY FACES (1965). Director: Alexander Singer.

Wealthy Kit Jordan (Lana Turner) is living in Acapulco and married to ex-beach bum, Pete (Cliff Robertson of Obsession). When an old flame of hers, another beach bum named Billy, washes up dead on the shore, it causes tension in her marriage, a situation that isn't helped by the arrival of Carol (Stefanie Powers of Die, Die My Darling), who once cared for Billy, and who attracts the attentions of Pete. Meanwhile half-naked hustler Hank (Hugh O'Brian) and his buddy, Chuck (Ron Husmann), zero in on two middle-aged tourists, Margot (Ruth Roman) and Irene (Virginia Grey). Although the movie is in general well-acted [by Hollywood standards] -- with an especially noteworthy and reptilian O'Brian -- the actors still aren't brilliant enough to make these stereotypes come to life. Marguerite Roberts' thrice-removed screenplay moves the characters around in allegedly interesting tableaux but nothing of consequence ever happens, and the dialogue is as empty as the people. The sub-plot with O'Brian and the ladies really goes nowhere.

Verdict: Go to the beach instead -- or Acapulco! *1/2.


Lana Turner and Lew Ayres
THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS (1939). Director: S. Sylvan Simon.

"Darling, I'm in the most awful man-jam!"

Upper-crust Philip (Lew Ayres) sort of has a fiancee, but when he's inebriated he invites a dance hall girl, Jane (Lana Turner), to the big dance on campus over the weekend. It's a little awkward when she actually shows up where she has to deal with all the college snobs. Other characters include man-hungry Daphne (Anita Louise); stalwart Carol (Jane Bryan); chatty Mary Rose (Ann Rutherford); Jane's roommate, Mavis (Dennie Moore); Betty (Marsha Hunt), who hangs around college in desperate fashion even though she's older than the rest; and Joe (Richard Carlson), who isn't too proud to be a waiter in the dining hall. The movie leads into highly melodramatic developments concerning the character of Betty. Most of the performances are good, with Turner, Hunt [Raw Deal], and Moore getting top honors. Rutherford [Fighting Marines] basically plays Polly Benedict in college -- where's Andy? Simon also directed The Fuller Brush Man and many others.

Verdict: This glamor you can keep. **.


Talia Shire, Richard Dysart and Robert Foxworth
PROPHECY (aka Prophecy: The Monster Movie/1979). Director: John Frankenheimer.

Dr. Robert Vern, who usually works in the ghettos of Washington D.C., accepts an assignment to do a survey for the Environmental Protection Agency in the timber lands of Maine, where a dispute is raging between the Original People [Indians] and factions in the lumber industry. Not only does Vern discover that the natives are being seriously affected by something in the area, with an alarming number of still-births and deformed babies, but he suspects a huge mutant creature has already resulted from toxicity caused by the sawmill on the river. To make matters worse, his wife Maggie (Talia Shire) hasn't yet told him of her pregnancy, but she's eaten the same fish the Indians have; it contains a poison that "jumps the placental barrier" and lodges in the fetus. Then that monster comes a'calling ... David Seltzer's paperback novelization of his own screenplay for Prophecy was released several months before the film came out, and it was such an excellent horror novel that monster movie fans awaited the movie with anticipation. The trouble is, there hasn't been a more disappointing monster since The Giant Claw. The FX people came up with a mere lumpy and unconvincing disfigured bear instead of the creature described in the book or depicted in the movie's poster, something that bore traces of every step of the evolutionary ladder. But despite this serious deficit, Prophecy is not a complete waste because the story pulls the viewer along, the acting is solid, and the movie has genuine suspense in good measure. Along with Foxworth [Falcon Crest] and Shire, Richard Dysart [The Thing] is notable as a lumber man and Armand Assante [Human Target] scores as a militant Native American known as John Hawks. In real life methyl mercury poisoning did have very adverse effects on Indians in Canada, though so far no monsters have been sighted. John Frankenheimer also directed Seconds and other first-rate movies. NOTE: You can read more about movies like this in Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Good in spite of itself. ***.


Franchot Tone and Shirley Temple
HONEYMOON (1947). Director: William Keighley.

David Flanner (Franchot Tone). the American consulate in Mexico City, is besieged by a young lady named Barbara (Shirley Temple) who has lost her fiance, Phil (Guy Madison of Hilda Crane). David eventually reunites the two lovers but every time he turns around there's a new obstacle to their nuptials. Barbara eventually imagines that she's really in love with David, which doesn't sit well with his girlfriend, Raquel (Lina Romay). Raquel's wise, beautiful mother (Corinna Mura) tells her she was worried that things between her and David were going a little too smoothly. Will Barbara get over her crush on David and will she and Phil ever get married? It could be argued that Honeymoon is more frenetic than funny, but it does have some very amusing sequences, and if the movie works at all it's because of the very good performances of the entire cast, with Tone proving an adept comedian. Not to be confused with Lost Honeymoon, in which Tone also starred. Since Barbara and Phil hardly seem to know one another, you get the impression their desperate desire to get married has more to do with their need to get laid than any genuine romantic feelings. Keighley also directed the far superior The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Verdict: Some laughs. **1/2.


Max von Sydow and Stefano Dionisi
SLEEPLESS aka Insomnio/Non ho sonno/2001). D: Dario Argento.

"I haven't slept for seventeen years."

A maniac called the dwarf killer goes on the rampage in Turin in 1983, then seventeen years later his reign of terror begins again -- even though he's supposed to be dead. Moretti (Max von Sydow), the original detective on the case, although retired, begins an informal investigation with Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), the now-grown boy whose mother was one of the first victims. Turned off by the demands of one of her clients, a prostitute, Angela (Barbara Lerici), accidentally grabs a folder containing incriminating information regarding the "dwarf" murders, but the killer somehow catches up with her on the train she is fleeing on, and she is only the first of many victims; the deaths seem to be related to nursery rhymes. Like the best of Dario Argento's thrillers, Sleepless mixes together a lot of elements on its convoluted but suspenseful path to revealing the truth about what's going on, and there are many effective sequences, such as the aforementioned train murder. Sydow is excellent, Dionisi credible, and Roberto Zibetti scores as his friend, Lorenzo. Sleepless is almost as good as Trauma and has plenty of gruesome moments; one of his better latter-day movies.

Verdict: If you're an Argento fan, this is macabre fun -- others beware. ***1/2. 


Vince Edwards
CITY OF FEAR (1959). Director: Irving Lerner.

Vince Ryker (Vince Edwards) has managed to escape from San Quentin with what he thinks is a fortune in heroin, but he doesn't realize that the white powder is actually deadly cobalt 60. People who come into contact with Ryker become ill and Ryker himself is feeling rather poorly. This premise certainly could have made a good movie, but the pedestrian direction creates not a dollop of suspense or tension. This is a shame because the acting is good, with Edwards far from his Ben Casey TV characterization and quite convincing as a bad guy; Patricia Blair effective as his hard-bitten girlfriend, June; and Lyle Talbot [The Vigilante] stronger than usual as Police Chief Jensen. Steven Ritch, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays the doctor who clues everyone in on the dangerous properties of cobalt, and Kathie Browne has a small role of a sales clerk who gets embroiled in the action. The score is an early one by Jerry Goldsmith [Outland], and Lucien Ballard [The Undying Monster] did the photography, but even that's not enough to save this.

Verdict: Edwards fans will enjoy this the most. *1/2.


Jude Law in a tense moment
SIDE EFFECTS (2013). Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Emily (Rooney Mara) welcomes her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) home from jail after his incarceration for insider trading, but the changes in her life depress her and cause her to attempt suicide. A sympathetic shrink named Dr. Banks (Jude Law of Alfie) prescribes a new drug recommended by Emily's previous analyst, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When Emily apparently slaughters her husband while sleepwalking, it is not only the drug that is called into question, but Dr. Banks himself. As he finds his life unraveling, he uncovers disturbing information about Emily -- maybe she wasn't sleepwalking when she murdered her husband? Or is he clutching at straws? Side Effects is a twisty thriller, with a good idea and interesting sequences, but it's not that well done all told. One of the characters sort of comes off like an old-fashioned evil lesbian [perhaps for no other reason than to show some girl-on-girl action]. Jude Law and Mara give good performances, but the most impressive is Zeta-Jones [Ocean's Twelve], with Ann Dowd also making an impression as Martin's concerned mother. This modern version of the old Lauren Bacall thriller Shock Treatment is quite contrived but has a satisfying conclusion and a nice score from Thomas Newman.

Verdict: Always read the label. **1/2.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


REVEILLE WITH BEVERLY  (1943). Director: Charles Barton.

Beverly Ross (Ann Miller) wants to work on the radio in the worst way, so she connives to steal away Vernon Lewis' (Franklin Pangborn) morning program devoted to classical music and replace it with a pop music program. A wealthy man, Barry (William Wright) joins the Army at the same time as his chauffeur, Andy (Dick Purcell), and both bet on whether or not this new Beverly gal on the radio is pretty; she later confuses the two of them with one another. This was one of many wartime alleged morale boosters with a slim plot and many guest appearances by such artists as the Mills Brothers, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Crosby and his band. Irene Ryan has a funny turn as the secretary, Elsie, and Larry Parks plays a soldier named Eddie. Movies from this era either celebrated both pop/swing and classical/opera, with guest stars from various musical genres, or they do what this one does and turn it into a competition, chortling about how people prefer Bob Crosby to Mendelssohn. Franklin Pangborn is as wonderful as ever, cynically cast as the Mean Old Effeminate Classical Music Lover. With her perky, ruthless demeanor and out-sized cheeks, Ann Miller tap dances her way into infinity -- and not a moment too soon. Charles Barton directed many Abbott and Costello movies as well as The Shaggy Dog.

Verdict: No better nor worse than most of these things. **.


Lansbury, Fonda and Finch amidst scenic Grecian splendor
IN THE COOL OF THE DAY (1963). Director: Robert Stevens.

"Murray and I already call each other by our first names. It happens fast in America." -- Christine

"I hear everything does." -- Sybil

Murray Logan (Peter Finch) is married to a bitter woman, Sybil (Angela Lansbury), who was scarred in the car accident in which their son was killed. Murray becomes friendly with Christine (Jane Fonda), the wife of his old friend Sam Bonner (Steven Hill); both men are in the publishing business. Sam treats Christine, who has major medical problems, as if she were a fragile child, and this is threatening their marriage. Christine gets the idea that the two couples should go off to Greece and have a great vacation. Surprisingly, Sybil agrees, but at the last minute Sam can't make it. Will the attraction that Murray and Christine feel for each other move up a notch when they're in Greece? What do you think? In the Cool of the Day could be dismissed -- and probably was -- as a soap opera or travelogue or both, but it's actually not a bad movie, in large part due to the interesting characters and the performances of the ladies; Fonda is simply outstanding and Lansbury, although she has a less sympathetic role, is also excellent. Finch was a fine actor but he doesn't have that much chemistry with Fonda (luckily she makes up for this) and at times seems completely disinterested in the proceedings. Constance Cummings is Christine's mother and Alexander Knox plays Sam's father, Frederick. If you don't care for the story you can always enjoy Peter Newbrook's photography of Athens and Delphi, as well as Francis Chagrin's flavorful musical score. It's hard for movies like this, based on novels where the author can describe the internal feelings of the characters, to work, but this is quite effective at times.

Verdict: Very interesting picture with a wonderful lead performance from Fonda. ***.


LADIES MAN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Paul Henreid with Julius Fast. St. Martin's; 1984.

Debonair and suave without being especially handsome in the Hollywood tradition, Viennese-born Paul Henreid nevertheless became a romantic leading man in such pictures as Now, Voyager, Deception, and Casablanca, among others. In his autobiography, written with Julius Fast, Henreid is fairly frank about those days and the more difficult days afterward, when he was unofficially blacklisted and then simply became too old to be a leading man. He writes of his television assignments -- acting but especially directing --  the motion pictures he directed (such as Dead Ringer), touring with "Don Juan in Hell" with Agnes Moorehead and Ricardo Montalban, and his happy marriage and children. Along the way he relates anecdotes of the many different actors that he worked with along the way, such as leading ladies Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ingrid Bergman. Henreid also appeared in Stolen Face and Exorcist II: The Heretic, among many others.

Verdict: Very interesting insider bio. ***.


THE HOUSE OF SECRETS (1936). Director: Roland D. Reed.

Barry Wilding (Leslie Fenton) performs an act of chivalry for a young lady, Julie (Muriel Evans), on shipboard, but the woman refuses to divulge her identity or ever see him again. When Barry learns that he's inherited his uncle's estate, Hawk's Nest, and 10,000 pounds, he goes to the house and is thrown off the property by two men while Julie watches from the shadows. Barry and his detective friend, Tom Starr (Sidney Blackmer), are convinced that crooks have taken over Hawk's Nest, but the truth is much more idiotic. When the "secret" is revealed, you can't understand why everyone couldn't have simply told Barry what was going on and avoided all the angst. There are secret passages, a hidden basement, and a fairly exciting climax when everyone is nearly wiped out by poison gas. As a leading man, Fenton wasn't handsome by Hollywood standards, but he was adept and had authority and charisma. Evans and the others are fine, and Blackmer is, as usual, notable in the role of the detective.

Verdict: Barely acceptable hokum but it strangely holds the attention and has some suspense. **1/2.


Robert Shaw, June Carlson, Kenneth Howell, Helen Ericson
QUICK MILLIONS (1939). Director: Malcolm St. Clair.

Just when the Jones Family has returned from their adventure in Hollywood, they discover that an uncle has died and left them a house and a mine -- in the middle of the Grand Canyon! What's worse, the notorious bank robber, Floyd "Bat" Douglas (Horace McMahon) and his gang are using the place as a hide-out. The gun moll Daisy (Helen Ericson) passes phony money to Mayor Jones (Jed Prouty) and the cops think he's one of "Bat's" confederates. Then there's the question of whether or not there's any gold in the mine or just new cans of pork and beans. Robert Shaw -- not the actor from Jaws -- plays a ranger that Lucy (June Carlson) is attracted to and Eddie Collins is the alleged lawyer, "Beaver." Funny, while I wasn't overly impressed with Jed Prouty the first time I saw him, I have to say he grows on you and is especially good in this installment. As usual Granny (Florence Roberts) nearly walks off with the movie. Collins was also in the Jones Family film Down on the Farm.

Verdict: Actually quite pleasant and amusing. ***.


Joseph Allen and Lynn Bari
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE (1942). Director: Robert Siodmak.

"There goes "Malicious." 

George Nordyke (Joseph Allen) is an insecure husband whose manhood is threatened by the fact that his wife, Lynn (Lynn Bari of Shock), is better at everything and even bagged the moose, Stinky, that hangs in their game room. When George almost literally runs into a more demure blonde named Lola May (Mary Beth Hughes of The Lady Confesses), he falls in love with her and he and Lynn decide to divorce, against the better judgment of their friend, Inspector "Camp" Campbell (Truman Bradley). Lynn winds up dating a radio musician named Victor Roselli (Nils Asther of Storm at Daybreak) and things get weird -- but still dull -- after one of the group gets murdered. Allen and Bari give it their all, but the script is horrible and there are few if any laughs. Kay Linaker tries to inject some life as Lynn's friend, Hedda, as does Thurston Hall as her hubby, and Mary Treen is as adept as ever as yet another maid, Olga. This doesn't even have the courage of its convictions.

Verdict: Not as much fun as clipping your toenails. *.


Invisible Woman, Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch and the Thing
FANTASTIC FOUR (aka Fantastic 4/2005). Director: Tim Story.

Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd of Sanctum), his ex-girlfriend Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans of Captain America: The First Avenger), and buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) all participate in a space experiment with college acquaintance and scientist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Unfortunately things go a little awry and they all wind up with strange, super-human powers. Sue can become invisible and create force fields. Johnny becomes a flying, blazing Human Torch. Reed can stretch any part of his body like a latter day Plastic Man; and Ben turns into a lump of orange rocks with incredible super-strength. Together they become known as the Fantastic Four and save the city when Von Doom [aka "Dr. Doom"] mutates into a metallic maniac and goes on the rampage. Despite some changes to their origin, this often captures the feel of the old Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comic books of the silver age. There's a generous amount of humor, but it generally comes from the situations and isn't forced, as well as some pathos concerning the situation of "the Thing," as Ben becomes known, who loses his sweetheart when she can't deal with his ugliness. The movie presents the inter-relationships of the foursome along the lines of the comic, with a callow, often insensitive Torch goading the Thing into destructive rages, and so on. All five of the actors, including McMahon, while they may not at first seem like perfect casting, do a fine job bringing these super-heroes to life. Alba received a lot of knocks, but she has authority and gives a perfectly good performance. The only problem with the movie is that the climax is rather short. For more information on the Fantastic Four comic see The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: Fun Marvel Comic Book Movie. ***.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


That's a mighty bigggg country, all right!
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). Director: William Wyler. Produced by Wyler and Gregory Peck.

Easterner James McKay (Gregory Peck) goes west to meet the family of his fiancee, Patricia (Carroll Baker). There he discovers that her father, Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), has been embroiled for years in a feud with the Hannassey family, which is led by grizzled but proud Rufus (Burl Ives). James also finds he has a rival in foreman Steve (Charlton Heston), who doesn't believe he makes a fit mate for Patricia. While Steve needs to impress Pat and flaunt his machismo on a regular basis, the more secure James wants to be loved for other reasons than his ability to fight (at which he happens to be quite good). As the feud that James wants no part of heats up, he is drawn to a lovely friend of Pat's named Julie (Jean Simmons), who owns the land where both families send their cattle for water, and who has the unwanted eye of Rufus' crude son, Buck (Chuck Connors). Eventually all the intense rivalries boil over ... Franz Planer's widescreen photography gets across the vastness and beauty of the countryside in panoramic style, and even the comparatively "petty" quarrels are set against the hugeness of the "big" country. A major fight scene between James and Steve is photographed mostly in long and medium shot, where their struggle is contrasted with the epic majesty of their impressive surroundings. Other memorable scenes include James trying to tame a spirited horse that pulls the blanket off its back with its teeth [although you sort of wish he would just let the horse retain its independent spirit]; James and Julie trying to outdo one another with gross and grisly stories of sharks and red ants; a pistol duel between two characters late in the movie; and a  moving climactic scene between Rufus and his son, Buck. Gregory Peck, although a little too cool at times, gives an excellent performance in a role that was made for him. Heston also gives one of his best performances and Baker [The Carpetbaggers] and Simmons [Angel Face] are similarly perfect. As the blustering patriarchs who hate each other Bickford and Ives nearly walk off with the movie; the latter is especially effective in his entrance scene when he comes to a party at the Terrill estate to tell off Henry in no uncertain terms. Although he's saddled with a stereotypical role, Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya scores as the Terrill servant, Ramon. And Chuck Connors offers an outstanding turn as the nasty but somehow likable Buck, who seems as lonely as he is horny. The Big Country has a fairly predictable plot but somehow it doesn't matter, as you are anxious to see the confrontations and developments that you know are coming, and Wyler's expert direction not only adds an artistic sheen to the production but insures that you're never bored for the nearly three hour running time. [It might have been more interesting if James weren't quite so adept at fighting and everything else.] Jerome Moross' theme music is wonderful and I believe was later re-used for a western TV show. It's very strange that this movie -- considering its major stars and director -- seems to have been almost completely forgotten. It's arguably more successful than Peck's other big western, Duel in the Sun.

Verdict: Rousing, absorbing, Grand Old Western with superior direction and some fine performances. ***1/2.


THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948). Director/writer: John Huston.

Down-on-their-luck Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Curtin (Tim  Holt) encounter an old prospector in Tampico named Howard (Water Huston) who tells them there's gold to be found in those hills if they only want to do a little hard work and dodge bandits to get it. The three men, quite friendly, set out to find their riches but once they begin prospecting doubt and suspicion begin to gnaw away at them. Other threats come in the form of a man named Cody (Bruce Bennett of Mildred Pierce), who wants to share in future booty, and the bandit "Gold Hat" (Alfonso Bedoya), who robbed a train the men were on and now wants them to turn over their rifles and everything else. Even some friendly Indians cause a bit of a problem when they want Howard to go with them to save an little boy who nearly drowned (in an affecting sequence). But once they have enough gold to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, will they manage to hold onto it, or will paranoia become their undoing? One of the great strengths of this wonderful movie is that it's almost completely unpredictable and continuously suspenseful and fascinating. The three lead actors are all excellent, bolstered by fine performances from Bennett; Bedoya (playing a very different role from his part in The Big Country); Barton MacLane [The Mummy's Ghost], as a man who tries to fleece them early in the picture; and even the director, John  Huston [Annie], as an American who gives Bogie a hand-out on more than one occasion. Bobby Blake plays a cute little Mexican kid selling lottery tickets. One of Huston's best pictures and aside from a couple of stilted moments possibly Bogie's most memorable performance. Notable also for Ted McCord's photography and Max Steiner's evocative score.

Verdict: A classic. ***1/2.


HOLLYWOOD ENIGMA: DANA ANDREWS. Carl Rollyson. University Press of Mississippi; 2012.

While perhaps not in the top tier of movie stars, Dana Andrews did have a long, successful career and starred in a great many movies, the most famous of which is probably Laura. Due to what Rollyson describes as a "minimalist" acting style, Andrews could at times be unfairly seen as a Great Stone Face, although some of his performances belie that impression; he got his characters' feelings across with less showy effects. Andrews' big problem was alcoholism, which began to affect his life and his work as the years went by, until he got on the wagon and went public with his affliction in a public service TV spot against drunk driving -- certainly an act of courage. Andrews was no great fan of the phony Hollywood lifestyle, and avoided such rockbound Republicans as Wayne and Heston. Written with the cooperation of Andrews' family -- much of the info on his early life comes from a series of letters, perhaps related in a little too much detail -- the negative elements of his life are mentioned if downplayed. Basically this is a solid look at the actor's life and times. Some of Andrews' most memorable films and performances include Boomerang, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and an episode of the TV series Checkmate

Verdict: Compelling bio of an interesting man and performer. ***1/2.  


Stephen McNally and Linda Darnell
THE LADY PAYS OFF (1951). Director: Douglas Sirk.

Evelyn Warren (Linda Darnell), an unmarried teacher who's sick of the men who want her just to be a mother to their children, has just won a "Teacher of the Year" award. She goes off to Nevada for a vacation and tries her hand at gambling, not realizing that the chips she's playing with are each worth $100 instead of a buck. Before long she's in the hole for $7000! Fortunately, the manager, Matt Braddock (Stephen McNally) offers her a chance to pay the money off by temporarily becoming a companion and tutor to his young daughter, Diana (Gigi Perreau). But still Evelyn won't let go of her dislike for Matthew, although things may be percolating behind her unpleasant demeanor. The Lady Pays Off is a contrived comedy-drama with good performances from the three leads, as well as good support from Ann Codee as the housekeeper, Virginia Field [Dial 1119] as Matt's old girlfriend, Kay, and especially Nestor Paiva [Mr. Reckless], who is a riot as a crazy captain of a fishing boat. The ending is completely unconvincing. McNally also played a pit boss in the superior The Lady Gambles with Barbara Stanwyck.

Verdict: Easy to take if instantly forgettable. **1/2.


SHADOW ON THE WALL (1950). Director: Patrick Jackson.

Early in Shadow On the Wall we learn that Celia (Kristine Miller), the wife of David Starrling (Zachary Scott), is having an affair with her own sister's fiance, Crane Weymouth (Tom Helmore). When sister Dell (Ann Sothern) learns of this ultimate betrayal, all of her pent-up sibling rage spills out and she shoots her sister dead; she then lets David take the rap. When she learns that David's young daughter Susan (Gigi Perreau) might have seen her commit the murder, she comes to the conclusion that the child must follow her stepmother into the grave. In the hands of a Hitchcock or any superior director, Shadow on the Wall might have been a nail-biting suspense item, but not only is it flaccid but it never quite recovers from its many improbabilities. For instance, little Susan is not an idiot and she's not that young, so she probably would have known her aunt Dell was responsible for the murder all along. And it's hard to believe that David would get the death penalty for a crime of passion that most likely would have been pled out as voluntary manslaughter. But at least the story holds your attention and the performances are good, including Nancy Davis-Reagan [East Side, West Side] as a child psychologist whose methods are bizarre to say the least, and John McIntire as her associate. Little Jimmy Hunt [Pitfall] has an amusing scene with Perreau [Journey to the Center of Time] where he covets a glass of chocolate milk she refuses to drink.A bathtub resuscitation sequence that is shot strictly from the victim's point of view in two shots and closeups is one of the more effective moments in the picture.

Verdict: Psychologically dubious. **.


Robert Wagner steals a kiss
IT TAKES A THIEF Season One. 1968.

The telefilm Magnificent Thief served as the pilot for this nominal spy series, which had a clever premise. Alexander Mundy (Robert Wagner), a gifted burglar, is told that he can stay out of jail if he goes to work for the government, herein personified by his liaison Noah Bain (Malachi Throne). As Bain tells him, "I don't want you to spy -- I want you to steal." So in the first brief season of sixteen episodes -- It Takes a Thief was a mid-season replacement -- Mundy has to snatch, under frequently impossible circumstances, everything from children accidentally left behind the iron curtain when their parents defect to a rare, extremely valuable DaVinci. None of the episodes are outstanding, but a few were better than average. "It Takes One to Know One" introduces a rival thief-impersonator played by Susan St. James (who'd show up again) and has a highly suspenseful climax when the two each try to snatch some royal jewels in a casino packed with booby traps. "One Illegal Angel" features an exiled dictator and a forged DaVinci and the necessity of getting the real painting away from said dictator. "Totally By Design" features a notable Mari Blanchard [Twice-Told Tales] as a vain princess who has fashion designer Mundy create a new trousseau for her even as he schemes to rob the palace safe. Celeste Yarnell and Marti Stevens guest-star in "Locked in the Cradle of the Keep," in which Al has to figure out just what he's supposed to steal before he can actually steal it. The show needed some better directors and better scripts, but it was basically mindless fun. Katharine Crawford [Kraft Suspense Theatre] appeared twice as another government agent. Wagner gets across his slightly amoral character without straining himself, and Throne is just fine as Noah Bain. In any case, the series is much better than the telefilm that spawned it.

Verdict: Acceptable time-waster. **1/2.


Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman
PRISONERS (2013). Director: Dennis Villeneuve.

The young daughter of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman of The Wolverine) and her friend disappear, and the main suspect is a geeky guy, Alex (Paul Dano), with a van and the mind of a ten-year-old. The police haven't found enough evidence to arrest Alex, so Keller and his friend, Franklin (Terrence Howard of Iron Man), whose daughter also disappeared, kidnap him in an attempt to get him to talk, a situation that leads to horrible torture that appalls Franklin and his wife (Viola Davis of Doubt) even as Keller reminds them of how their children are also suffering. There's also a priest (Len Cariou) who has a corpse in his basement, which may or may not figure in with the main case. Jake Gyllenhaal [Source Code] is the detective trying to figure out what Keller is up to, and Melissa Leo is Alex' horrified mother; both are quite good. Jackman offers an outstanding performance as the tormented, enraged and desperate father; he has a particularly good scene in tears in the police station. Prisoners is absorbing and thought-provoking, but the mentally deficient suspect is a cliche, and there are improbable moments, such as when cops don't call for back-up or ambulances. Still, it certainly holds the attention and has some powerful sequences.

Verdict: This probably won't work for everyone. ***.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014


GREAT OLD MOVIES will be back to its regular schedule next week. This week I'm proofreading my latest, rather long, book.

See you next week with another selection of reviews and more!