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

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Pia Zadora and Orson Welles -- in the same movie!
BUTTERFLY (1982). Director: Matt Cimber.

In 1937 at the Arizona-Nevada border Kady Tyler (Pia Zadora) comes to live with the father she never knew, a man named Jess (Stacy Keach), who is the caretaker for an abandoned silver mine. Despite their biological connection, Kady and Jess are drawn to one another, something which bothers Jess but doesn't seem to bother the much too free-spirited Kady. Kady's dying mother, Belle (Lois Nettleton), comes calling, along with the man Belle ran off with, Moke Blue (James Franciscus). Then there's Wash Gillespie (Edward Albert), the son of the owner of the mine, and the father of Kady's baby and her fiance. How far will Jess go to get Kady for himself -- and is she really his daughter? Butterfly certainly holds the attention with its intriguing if bizarre situations, as well as some very good acting. Keach takes top honors, with Nettleton a close second, and Franciscus [Youngblood Hawke] also scores in some emotional scenes inside the mine. Pia Zadora [Hairspray] is not bad at all, although one couldn't necessarily call her a great actress -- her pouty looks and attitude fit the part. Orson Welles, of all people, shows up as a judge at two separate trials involving Kady and Jess, and is very effective and amusing. Edward Albert [Galaxy of Terror] is fine as Kady's boyfriend, and in one brief scene June Lockhart and Ed McMahon [!] play his parents -- McMahon is no actor. Stuart Whitman, however, makes his mark as a preacher. This forgotten movie is based on a novel by James M. Cain.

Verdict: Twisted, but interesting, love story. ***.


AS YOUNG AS WE ARE (1958). Director: Bernard Girard.

Kim Hutchins (Pippa Scott) gets a teaching position in a small town and becomes friends and roomies with another teacher, Joyce (Majel Barrett). One afternoon a handsome trucker named Hank (Robert Harland) stops to fix their car, and Kim accepts a date with him. She believes Hank is around her own age, but to her horror Hank shows up in her classroom! Kim wants to cut if off with him before the whole town starts talking, but it may not be as simple as it seems ... As Young As We Are is an interesting picture, and its bolstered by the acting, with Scott [Mr. Lucky], Barrett and Harland all taking top bows. Ellen Corby and Ross Elliott are also in the cast -- as a landlady and Kim's old boyfriend, respectively -- and Ty Hardin [Berserk] makes his mark as another student who is as hunky as he is rude and unruly. This was Robert Harland's first picture, and it's a surprise that this good-looking, sensitive and sexy actor didn't have a much bigger career, although he did much television work in the years after this picture's release; he gives an excellent performance in this as well. The pleasant theme song is sung well by Andy Russell [Copacabana].

Verdict: A nice, well-acted movie from Paramount. ***.


Albert Lieven and Lilli Palmer
BEWARE OF PITY (1946). Director: Maurice Elvey.

When Lt. Anton Marek (Albert Lieven) visits the home of the Baron Kekesfalva (Ernest Thesiger), he encounters the man's daughter, whom he at first doesn't realize is in a wheelchair. When he learns that the daughter, Edith (Lilli Palmer), doesn't get out much due to her affliction, he begins paying calls on her, and the two become friends. Unfortunately, Edith's feelings for Anton become intensely romantic, and she pins her hopes for a full recovery on his alleged love for her and on an operation whose efficacy might just be mythical. Beware of Pity is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, who also wrote Letter From an Unknown Woman, but in this dark romance the man is the protagonist instead of the woman. Beware of Pity is a compelling tragedy which features some fine performances, especially from sensitive Lieven, a German actor who is essentially unknown today but appeared in many British and German films. Thesiger is fine as the concerned father; Gladys Cooper scores as a doctor's blind wife, who urges Anton to marry a woman he doesn't love out of compassion; and Cedric Hardwicke [The Winslow Boy] is also excellent as the doctor. Lilli Palmer [The House That Screamed], on the other hand, is unconvincing as Edith, and this greatly weakens the picture as a whole. An interesting aspect of the film is that when the final tragedy finally occurs, one isn't certain if Marek is heartbroken or relieved.

Verdict: Interesting psychological anti-romance with a fine lead performer from Lieven. ***.

ROADSHOW: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s

ROADSHOW: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s. Matthew Kennedy. Oxford University Press; 2014.

If you've reached a certain age you may remember going with your parents to see big, splashy, over-produced versions of Broadway musicals such as The Sound of Music, which I saw at the Rivoli in New York when I was a kid. You may not remember that many of these films were released as "roadshows" -- you got tickets and reserved seats in advance -- and while most of these roadshows were musicals, a few were not. They were long, often had intermissions, and, of course, higher ticket prices. [The last roadshow I remember seeing was, of all things, Last Tango in Paris.] In any case, with wit, solid research, and large doses of amiability, Matthew Kennedy traces the birth and death of the roadshow musical in this marvelously entertaining and very well-written volume. Once upon a time Julie Andrews [Darling Lili] was seen as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but that was before she appeared in Star! and others and soon her "mega-star" days were over. Then we have all the musical adaptations -- Paint Your Wagon, Camelot, Goodbye Mr. Chips -- in which most of the lead performers could not sing.  When producers ran out of Broadway shows to adapt (Funny Girl, Hello Dolly) they made musicals out of films that originally had no music in them  (the aforementioned Mr. Chips) or adapted films, such as Dr. Dolittle and The Happiest Millionaire, from other medium. And we mustn't forget the hilarious "feud" between Barbra Streisand [A Star is Born] and Carol Channing [The First Traveling Saleslady] when the former got the coveted part in Hello Dolly which Channing felt should have been hers. Roadshow dissects what went wrong with most of these over-bloated pictures, whose musical values were often lost behind inappropriate actors and overblown budgets, as well as producers and directors who often had no idea what they were doing, such as Joshua Logan of Paint Your Wagon. Broadway adaptations of the previous decade may have been more effective (Carousel, The King and I etc.), but  in the sixties for every Sound of Music there were half a dozen or more critical and financial mega-turkeys.

Verdict: Compulsorily readable! ****.


THE SECRET PLACE (1957). Director: Clive Donner.

Gerry Carter (Ronald Lewis) is the head of a gang planning a diamond heist. Knowing that a little boy, Freddie (Michael Brooke), has a crush on Gerry's girlfriend, Molly (Belinda Lee), he asks her to importune Freddie to "borrow" his father's cop uniform. This all leads to numerous complications. The best thing about The Secret Place is the robbery itself, which is quite suspenseful and well-handled. Unfortunately, the bulk of the movie is turned over to a lot of running around after the boy through "secret places." The performances are good, with the very talented little Brooke taking top honors, although Lewis is sharp, as usual, and Michael Gwynn [Never Take Candy from a Stranger] scores as Steve, an associate of Gerry's. Belinda Lee [Blackout] is not bad as Molly, and neither is David McCallum [The Man from U.N.C.L.E.] as her rather weird brother. But this falls apart because the second half drags so much and has little suspense.

Verdict: One half of a good crime thriller. **1/2.


STRANGE AWAKENING (aka Female Fiends/1958). Director: Montgomery Tully.

"When she was in college she was voted the girl most likely to exceed."

Peter Chance (Lex Barker of Tarzan's Savage Fury) kisses his wife, Iris (Monica Grey) goodbye, drives off, gets in an accident, and winds up waylaid by strangers who take him to their mansion and insist he is really the son of a wealthy man who just died. Having amnesia, Peter isn't certain what to believe, but he meets the ladies in "his" life: His mother, Mrs. Friend (Nora Swinburne); his sister, Marny (Lisa Gastoni); and his wife, Selena (Carole Mathews of The Monster and the Ape). Then there's the attractive maid, Isabella (Malou Pantera), and Dr. Rene Norman (Peter Dyneley of The Manster), the family physician who seems to know a lot more about what's going on than he's saying. Since we know from the first that Peter is not the man everyone is telling him he is, the only suspense is from figuring out the purpose of the deception, which of course has to do with wills, inheritances, and lots of money. As it draws to its not entirely predictable conclusion, there is a little more tension, and the film is well-acted by everyone. This is based on "Puzzle for Fiends" by the prolific Patrick Quentin (Hugh Wheeler). Montgomery Tully also directed Paid to Kill.

Verdict: Hardly classic film noir, but entertaining. **1/2.


Gene Hackman and Tom Cruise
THE FIRM (1993), Director: Sydney Pollack.

Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is signed up with the law firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke at a six figure salary with lots of percs. He and his wife, Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), are ecstatic, but there's a serpent in paradise. Partners in the firm seem to die on a regular basis, and Mitch realizes there's something not quite kosher about the outfit. Before long he finds himself between a rock and a hard place where his employers and interested agents of the FBI are concerned. Can he manage to help the agents without getting himself killed? Years ago there used to be thrillers that lasted maybe 80 or 90 minutes, included lots of plot twists and turns, and even at times a bit of characterization. The Firm clocks in at over two and a half hours, doesn't really have enough plot to sustain it, doesn't retain a grip on the suspense, and doesn't even include that much characterization. One problem is that the vastly overrated Sydney Pollack couldn't direct a true thriller if his life depended on it, and his attempts in that area always fail. The movie starts off quite well and sets up an interesting situation, but then it just plods along its dreary course until you lose interest in the proceedings. Cruise isn't bad, although he sort of just walks through it looking "concerned." Tripplehorn is better, and Gene Hackman [The French Connection] really steals the picture as a conflicted associate of Mitch's as well as his mentor. There are also nice turns by Gary Busey [A Star is Born] as a private eye, Holly Hunter as his secretary-lover (the murder scene involving both of these characters is one of the best things in the movie); Hal Holbrook as a law partner; Ed Harris as an FBI agent; David Strathairn as Mitch's convict brother; Steven Hill as another agent; and John Beal [The Vampire] as another of the partners.

Verdict: Too many characters and detours eventually add up to tedium. **1/2.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Claude Rains and Ann Todd
THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949). Director: David Lean.

Professor Steven Stratton (Trevor Howard) has always been in love with Mary (Ann Todd), and vice versa, but she's afraid of losing her identity and freedom in a romantic match with him and marries the wealthy Howard Justine (Claude Rains) for practical reasons instead. Years later, Mary and Steven reignite their passion and Mary's marriage almost ends, but she decides to stay with Howard. In what could only be termed an improbable and utterly amazing coincidence, Mary and Steven inadvertently wind up in adjoining rooms in the same resort at the exact same time, leading a disbelieving (of their innocence) Howard to file for divorce, even though Steven has since married another. This leads to some powerful and emotional sequences as husband and wife face the worst crisis in their lives, and an older-but-wiser Mary must make a supreme sacrifice. With direction from David Lean [Doctor Zhivago], and a script by Eric Ambler (from one of H. G. Wells' non-science fiction stories) The Passionate Friends isn't as good as Lean's earlier romantic drama Brief Encounter, but comes close. The performances by Claude Rains and Ann Todd [The Paradine Case] are simply superb, and Trevor Howard, while a cut below the other two, is also excellent. (It is probably because of the strength of the cast that it was decided not to use different actors for the varying ages of each character.) The film also boasts outstanding cinematography by Guy Green, and a fine score by Richard Addinsell, as well as a quite moving conclusion. The film is so good and so well-acted, in fact, that one can forgive the incredible coincidence that leads into the dramatic events that follow.

Verdict: Superior romantic drama with top talents involved. ***1/2.


THE BOSS (1956). Director: Byron Haskin.

Matt Brady (John Payne) comes back from WW1, and has a love-hate relationship with his older brother, Tim (Roy Roberts of Oh, Susannah!). Driving away his girlfriend, Elsie (Doe Avedon) with his drunken behavior, Matt impulsively marries a sad barfly named Lorry (Gloria McGhee), while his best friend, Bob (William Bishop of Harriet Craig), marries Elsie. After Tim's death, Matt rises as a crooked political boss with the aid of Bob, who's become a lawyer. A reformer named Millard (Rhys Williams) represents a problem to Brady, even as his ill-advised marriage to Lorry proceeds on its dismal course. John Payne gives perhaps the best performance of his career as the bitter, unpleasant, unhappy if powerful Brady, and there are also fine performances from McGhee, Bishop, and Roberts, as well as from Robin Morse as gangster Johnny Mazia, and William Phipps [Five] as the killer, Stitch. Percy Helton and Joe Flynn have smaller roles. One of the best scenes is a massacre of hoods in Union Station. Albert Glassers' score is also effective. Neither Gloria McGhee (also spelled McGehee) or Doe Avedon amassed too many credits.

Verdict: Payne makes his mark in an absorbing crime drama. ***.


BLOWING WILD (1953). Director: Hugo Fregonese.

When Mexican bandits drive them off from their new well, Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper) and Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) look for work. They get hired to drive some nitro over bumpy roads. Before this can turn into The Wages of Fear or Violent Road, they next run into old pal Paco (Anthony Quinn), a wealthy fellow who hires them to work on his latest well. Two women get involved in the action: Paco's wife Marina (Barbara Stanwyck), who still has a hankering for her former lover, Jeff;  and stranded nice gal Sal (Ruth Roman), who develops feelings for Jeff as well. This domestic situation is not a good one, and there are still those pesky bandits to deal with. Blowing Wild has its moments -- the bandits chasing after Jeff and Dutch as they careen inside their truck with the nitro; a race between Paco in his car and Marina on her horse -- but the movie can't overcome the fact that the storyline has been done too often and is a little stale. At fifty-two Cooper looks and acts much older, and his semi-love scenes with Stanwyck are never convincing. As for Stanwyck, she really delivers in key scenes, but by and large she (surprisingly for her) just walks through her other sequences with that typical once-removed "Hollywood" acting that often afflicted other stars. Roman and Bond are okay, while Quinn almost walks off with the picture. Juan Garcia is vivid as the slimy bandit leader. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is a decided asset. Frankie Laine sings the title song in his usual over-wrought style.

Verdict: The script nearly defeats this before it begins. **1/2.


VINCENT PRICE: THE ART OF FEAR. Denis Meikle. Foreword by Richard Matheson. Afterword by Roger Corman. Reynolds and Hearn; 2003.

This is a very thorough, well illustrated look at the highly interesting career of Vincent Price, focusing primarily on the horror and suspense pictures that made him famous. There are looks at both versions of Tower of London, earlier films such as The Invisible Man Returns and Dragonwyck, his career-altering stardom in House of Wax, his collaboration with Roger Corman in several Poe adaptations such as Pit and the Pendulum, and the mixed bag of terror films that he made in his later years, including the near-classic Theater of Blood and the Dr. Phibes movies. Author Meikle takes a critical look at both the films and the performances -- he's not in love with every movie nor every performance by Price -- and there's much background information about the pictures as well. Meikle is on less firm ground when he writes somewhat awkwardly about Price's sexuality, but the book is attractively packaged, well-written, and noteworthy.

Verdict: You may not agree with every assessment, but this is a real treat for Price enthusiasts. ***1/2.


Unidentified player with Jean-Pierre Aumont
CARNIVAL OF CRIME (1962). Director: George Cahan.

"He has a marvelous sex potential."

A French building contractor named Mike Voray (Jean-Pierre Aumont) lives in Rio with his wife, Lynn (Alix Talton). As he goes to Brasilia to supervise a project, she runs off with an unknown man. Now Mike cooks up a scheme to not only find her but find out who her lover is. But before he can do so, fate takes a hand ... This odd movie begins very badly, with stock footage and a long tedious sequence (that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie) in which two men wait in the jungle to kidnap someone. After that protracted and amateurish waste of time, the story proper begins and it is at least faster paced and has some interesting elements, although ultimately it isn't very good. Other characters include Mike's mother-in-law and her much younger boyfriend;  a photographer and his model; Mike's hard-drinking associate and pretty secretary; and so on. Except for the two leads (although Talton has little to do) the actors are dubbed. The zero-budgeted film winds up with what appears to be a travelogue of Brasilia with background music like you would hear in a skating rink. Had Talton [Deadly Mantis] dyed her hair blond years earlier she might have had a bigger career. She and Aumont [Hilda Crane] both give more than acceptable performances. The title refers to the "Carnivale" in Rio of which we see some footage. This is a co-production of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and the good ol' USA.

Verdict: See Brasilia and die! **.

FRIGHT (1956)

FRIGHT (1956). Director: W. Lee Wilder.

A woman, Ann (Nancy Malone), who witnesses the capture of a deranged killer, Morley (Frank Marth), is comforted by a psychiatrist, James (Eric Fleming), with whom she becomes involved. During hypnosis, Ann reveals a second identity, that of Countess Maria Vetra, who was the ill-fated lover of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria (see Mayerling). Is this a case of reincarnation, or has Ann been influenced by something else? As Maria's personality takes hold of Ann, James searches for the (real or imagined) reincarnation of the crown prince, and focuses on the crazy Morley, leading to a climax that is nearly as dull as the rest of the movie. This very low-budget picture has a completely idiotic script and presents a lead character who is one of the least ethical psychiatrists I've ever seen in a movie. One unintentionally hilarious scene has a reporter imagining that he'll win the Pulitzer prize for writing a story about Ann! Frank Marth and Nancy Malone aren't bad, but star Eric Fleming (Queen of Outer Space) is wooden, and some of the other actors are amateurish. There is absolutely nothing scary or even especially suspenseful about the movie, making it possibly the worst picture helmed by Wilder, who did several other poor ones but came up with a winner with Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons. Nancy Malone starred in the "Stopover in a Quiet Town" episode of The Twilight Zone.

Verdict: Watching paint dry could be more exciting. 1/2*.


CRIMES OF PASSION (made-for-television/2005). Director: Richard Roy.

Jerry Dennings (Jonathan Higgins) foolishly makes a borderline sexist comment about an attractive new co-worker, Rebecca (Dina Meyer), who later claims that he sexually assaulted her later in the evening. Jerry hotly denies the charges, and before long there are dueling law suits. The big and very unexpected twist in this movie is not at the end but halfway through the picture, and it's a neat one. In addition, Crimes of Passion is bolstered by two excellent lead performances from the equally sexy Higgins [Thirteen] and Meyer. There is also notable thesping from John Robinson as lawyer James Corbin; Amy Sloan as Jerry's wife, Shannon; Louis Phillippe Dandenault as Jerry's alleged friend, Donald; and Vlasta Vrana as Jerry's boss, McBradden; and others. Crimes of Passion is distinguished by a nifty plot, good acting, a fast, suspenseful pace, and the weird friggin' names of some of the cast members!

Verdict: Worthwhile telefilm. ***.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


THE BIG COMBO (1955). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

"A woman doesn't care how a man makes a living, only how he makes love."

There's a ferocious struggle going on between two determined men: Lt. Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) and his crooked antagonist, gang boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Caught up in this struggle are three women: Brown's unhappy, cultured paramour, Susan (Jean Wallace), whom Diamond cares for from afar; dancer Rita (Helene Stanton), who cares for Diamond; and the missing Alicia (Helen Walker), whom Diamond is trying to find. Add to this mix the jealous underling McClure (Brian Donlevy), who used to be the one in charge and now covets Brown's position, and the two gunsels Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), the latter of whom seems to have real feelings for the former. There are murders, double-crosses, twisted feelings, and betrayals galore, all bolstered by excellent acting from the leads and most of the supporting cast. Particularly good scenes include Diamond's torture-by-hearing aid, and a murder later on in which the same hearing aid figures. Wallace [No Blade of Grass], Stanton, and Walker [Nightmare Alley] are all vivid and compelling in the roles of the three ladies. Ted de Corsia has a notable cameo as a scared former gangster; Jay Adler [99 River Street] and Robert Middleton score as Diamond's police associates; and John Hoyt makes a believable Swedish captain turned antique dealer who knows more than he should. Conte is deliciously slimy, and handsome Wilde also turns in an outstanding performance; Donlevy is also terrific. Well-directed by Lewis, The Big Combo is film noir at its best.

Verdict: Crackling good crime drama; one of the finest of the fifties. ***1/2.


Olivia de Havilland and Rosanno Brazzi
LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (1962). Director: Guy Green.

Meg Johnson (Olivia de Havilland) is in Italy with her daughter, Clara (Yvette Mimieux), when the latter meets and falls for a young Italian named Fabrizio (George Hamilton), who returns Clara's feelings. The problem is that not everyone is aware that the free-spirited, fun-loving Clara, who is in her mid-twenties, never advanced emotionally beyond ten or so years of age due to a childhood accident. Clara's father, Noel (Barry Sullivan) wants to put Clara in a home in an attempt to repair his marriage, while Meg thinks the real answer is for Clara to marry Fabrizio. But there may be other roadblocks to their nuptials. Light in the Piazza features some especially good performances from Mimieux [Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm] and Hamilton (in the days before he turned himself into a smarmy joke), but Sullivan [Forty Guns] mostly walks through his smaller part and de Havilland is terribly affected and a bit unreal. Rosanno Brazzi [Legend of the Lost] is better as Fabrizio's father. This is a movie that you want to like and be moved by, but there's just something off about it, especially a strange business involving a man killed by cannon fire during a sporting exhibition. Nice location footage of Florence. Many years later this was turned into a musical.

Verdict: Some good performances help ... **1/2.


SHOWGIRLS (1995). Director: Paul Verhoeven.

"Must be weird -- not having anybody cum on ya."

Tossed around by life, Noni Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) plops down in Las Vegas where she winds up in a competition with an established star named Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), leading to a sudden eruption of violence and a new, temporary career for Noni. If this had been a cheapjack "B" movie directed by Hugo Haas and starring Cleo Moore or Beverly Michaels, it might have had somewhat more entertainment value than this bloated vehicle that is over two hours long and never develops a clear cut plot or characters despite the huge amount of money paid to Joe Ezsterhas for his cliche-ridden screenplay. For the first twenty minutes or so it looks as if Showgirls might at least be fun, but after awhile you realize that the movie is really going nowhere, and that the writer and director are just throwing things at the audience without any real regard for coherency. Does this movie dissect the debasement and objectification of women, or is it a prime example of that very thing -- Showgirls doesn't have enough on its mind you make you care either way. Cristal seems to have a decided hankering for Noni, leading to her jealous bitchiness, but why then do they practically have a love scene together near the end? [Noni's actions at the very end of the movie are even more inexplicable, but then the movie is often not logical.] The filmmakers obviously want to see lots of naked female flesh and girl-on-girl action (or at least the suggestion of same) but there's no real intelligent attempt to explore lesbianism or bisexuality, or anything else in the movie. [Ezsterhas' take on lesbianism is about on the level of his Basic Instinct. This is the kind of movie in which women are "allowed" to have sexual relationships with each other only if they also fool around with men. ] The movie is less sexy than vulgar (and not in a good way) and one supposedly erotic pool scene between Noni and producer Zack Cary (Kyle MacLachlan) is unintentionally hilarious. [Zack practically sneers at Cristal because of her feelings for Noni.] The "dancing" in the movie is all motion, calisthenics, and attitude, and nothing that would give Fred Astaire any competition. Some of the acting is okay. Berkley has basically a whole movie to carry on her shoulders, and acquits herself competently, even if it can't exactly be called a great performance. Gina Gershon can do little to make her character any more than a stereotype and a dirty joke. Gina Rivera scores as Noni's friend, Molly, who is gang-raped in a horrible scene late in the movie. On the other hand, Lin Tucci is quite disgusting as an obese entertainer, Henrietta, fond of snapping her breasts out of her dress in a topless club whose customers in real life would probably upchuck at the sight or at least head for the men's room. Alan Rachins is on target as an utterly loathsome self-described "prick" who seems to enjoy demeaning his showgirls, but every (straight) man in the movie is a complete asshole, making the movie almost as offensive to guys as it is to the ladies. There's the nice touch of two of the male dancers being a romantic gay couple (mostly in the background), but that's not enough to make this picture seem like anything even remotely progressive. NOTE: For another interesting take on this picture, click here.

Verdict: Some colorful moments, but pretty dreadful. **.


FLAME OF THE ISLANDS (1956). Director: Edward Ludwig. In Republic Trucolor.

Rosalind Dee (Yvonne De Carlo) is given a substantial check by the widow, Evelyn (Frieda Inescort), of her boss, with whom Evelyn believes Rosalind was "involved." Insulted, Rosalind takes the check, quits her job, and uses the money to buy into a club-casino in the Bahamas. Alas, little does she know that her partner, Cyril (Kurt Kasznar), who has a hankering for her (as does every other man she meets), is in league with a pack of gangsters. She brushes off wanna-be boyfriend Wade (Zachary Scott), when she re-encounters old flame Doug (Howard Duff), who once got her pregnant but now doesn't even remember her. Then we have Doug's disapproving mother, Charmaine (Barbara O'Neil of Stella Dallas), and even the Widow Evelyn shows up again at an inopportune moment. We also mustn't forget the island captain and part-time preacher, Kelly (James Arness), who also develops a longing for Rosalind. Which man will Rosalind wind up with, or will her gangster partners make sure she winds up at the bottom of the sea? Flame of the Islands, which has enough plot for ten movies, is very entertaining and well-acted by all. Lester Matthews [Life Begins for Andy Hardy] plays the lead hoodlum, Gus, and Donald Curtis is one of his associates. With a sexy De Carlo [Criss Cross] cavorting, singing and dancing, and of course, going after all the men (and vice versa), Flame of the Islands is a lot of fun.

Verdict: The Bahamas were never like this! ***.


HIDEOUT (1949). Director: Philip Ford.

City attorney George Browning (Lloyd Bridges) doesn't know that his girlfriend, Betty (Lorna Gray appearing as "Adrian Booth"), is actually in a gang headed by Arthur Burdett (Ray Collins). After stealing the famous Kaymeer diamonds, Burdett left Chicago for the small town of Hilltop, Illinois, where he masquerades as a dead alumnus of the local college. When a crooked gem expert is murdered by some of Burdett's disgruntled associates, George, hoping to become mayor, decides to investigate. Meanwhile, his new secretary, the highly efficient Edie (Sheila Ryan), mightily disapproves of her rival, Betty. Then Burdett decides that certain people who know too much have to be taken care of ... Hideout is a snappy and very entertaining "B" movie with some good performances and an unpredictable screenplay [John K. Butler]. Ray Collins [The Magnificent Ambersons] is terrific as the slimy and sinister, deceptively pleasant Burdett, and Gray and Ryan [Gold Raiders] are both on the money, with Bridges exhibiting both his competence and his winning personality as George. Chick Chandler has a smaller role as Burdett's associate and driver and is fine. Jeff Corey [Seconds] and Alan Carney make an impression as thugs.

Verdict: Snappy Republic crime movie. ***.


Joan Vohs and Marshall Thompson
LURE OF THE SWAMP (1957). Director: Hubert Cornfield.

Simon Lewt (Marshall Thompson), who takes people out for boat rides in the swamp, is suddenly meeting all sorts of strangers. There's Lister (Willard Parker), who takes a suitcase into the swamp with him and later turns up dead; Steggins (Leo Gordon), who is looking for Lister; Henry Bliss (Jack Elam), a creepy type who wants Simon to help him find loot from a robbery; and Cora (Joan Vohs), who claims to be a photographer doing a story on the swamp. Then we've got Simon's nutty gal pal, Evie (Joan Lora), who is fond of taking shots at him when she's upset -- no wonder he wants to get out of the swamp! Lure of the Swamp is an odd low-budget affair (in Regalscope) that seems to exist in another universe. The performances are professional, with a vivid and interesting Jack Elam [The Girl in Lover's Lane] and Willard Parker [What a Woman] taking top honors. Former model Vohs mostly did television work; ditto for Lora. As usual, Thompson [Fiend without a Face] is an appealing performer.

Verdict: Ersatz film noir set in a swamp. **1/2.


Katie Clarke and Aaron Lazar
THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. Live from Lincoln Center; 2006. Libretto by Craig Lucas. Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel. Directed by Bartlett Sher.

Vacationing in Florence, Italy in 1953, Margaret Johnson (Victoria Clark) is alarmed to see that her daughter, Clara (Katie Clarke), is falling for a handsome young Italian, Fabrizio (Aaron Lazar) and vice versa. Margaret is sure that there is bound to be trouble when Fabrizio's family realizes that Katie, kicked in the head by a horse, has not developed emotionally beyond a child, although she certainly looks like an adult. In spite of this the two seem perfect for each other, if only each one's father doesn't throw a monkey wrench into their plans. The genesis for this musical seems not to have been the 1962 film, but the original novel upon which it was based, as few would probably have thought of adapting the Olivia de Havilland picture into a musical. To say that this version (especially this production) is vastly superior to the film is an understatement for many reasons. First of all Tony-award winning Victoria Clark exhibits much more warmth and humor than de Havilland did in the movie; she's quite wonderful, and Katie Clarke also excels as her daughter. Lazar is perfect as the handsome, intensely passionate Fabrizio, and there's fine work from Chris Sarandon [Fright Night] as his father; Sarah Uriarte Berry as Fabrizio's mother; and Patti Cohenour as his sister-in-law, who enrages Clara when she appears to make a play for Fabrizio (a scene not in the movie); among others. It was decided to have several sequences where everyone speaks only in Italian to add European flavoring for the audience, but this device only serves to distance everyone from the [Italian] characters. Composer Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers, has fashioned a lyrical score which seems a bit blathery at first but emerges more melodious with repeated hearings. Some of the songs are quite memorable: ""Statues and Stories," "The Beauty Is," and "Dividing Day" in act one; and "The Light in the Piazza," "Let's Walk" and "Love to Me" in act two. The score -- sort of ersatz opera at times -- really grows on you, although it must be said that as good as it is there's nothing in it that has the aching beauty and emotional intensity of, say, Rodgers' "Younger Than Springtime," although "The Beauty Is" and especially "Love to Me" are quite lovely. Librettist Craig Lucas was also responsible for the rather horrible The Dying Gaul.

Verdict: A delightful and very moving experience. ***1/2.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


SYLVIA (1965). Director: Gordon Douglas.

"Before you can save the soul, you gotta feed the body."

Frederic Summers (Peter Lawford) hires private eye Alan "Mack" Macklin (George Maharis) to investigate the background of his fiancee, Sylvia (Carroll Baker). As Mack tracks down the woman's past, he learns about how she was raped by her stepfather, became a prostitute, then a poet, and has favorably impressed many of the people she met along her journey. This includes the librarian, Irma (Viveca Lindfors) and a former "hostess" named Jane (Joanne Dru), whose hospital bills were paid by Sylvia. Mack finally catches up with Sylvia herself, and is drawn to her -- but what will happen when she discovers the truth about him? At first Sylvia seems that it might have serious possibilities, and doesn't just seem like a tawdry exercise despite the subject matter, but as the film proceeds it's clear that it's pretty much junk that isn't lurid enough. The two leads are okay, but small-scale, and hardly give great performances. There is better acting from Lindfors (whose character has often been considered a lesbian although there's nothing in this to indicate it); Dru; and especially Ann Sothern [A Letter to Three Wives] as a slatternly former co-worker of Sylvia's. There are also nice turns by Nancy Kovack as a stripper, Jay Novello as a priest, Edmond O'Brian [Backfire] as a former client of Sylvia's, Connie Gilchrist as a madame, and especially Paul Gilbert [So This is Paris] as a drag queen entertainer/club owner known as "Lola." Lawford is actually quite good and there are appearances by Aldo Ray, Lloyd Bochner, and Majel Barrett, among other familiar faces, as well. Although the story bounces around from Mexico to New York and other places, there is never any sense of time or location, as if everything exists in that certain soap opera void that only Hollywood could produce.

Verdict: There's a reason why certain movies are completely forgotten. **.


Robbie (Oliver Robins) and his malevolent clown
POLTERGEIST (1982). Director: Tobe Hooper. Produced by Steven Spielberg.

"It's not another tribal burial ground. It's just people."

A very nice family living in a development in Cueste Verde are subjected to all manner of strange phenomenon in their home, culminating in their little girl, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) disappearing into a closet. Now most parents would at least try the police first -- after all a predator could have run off with the child during all the excitement (a tree with a hungry maw; a tornado etc.) -- but Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams) reach out to parapsychologists instead (if for no other reason than to get the plot moving). This is just as well, as the little psychic Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) discovers there's an evil presence inside the house. Just when you think things have calmed down and the child has been returned, there's a bravura climax in which the Freelings discover just why so many crazy things have been going on with a vengeance. Poltergeist is in its way rather silly and even schlocky at times -- it's much more of a black comedy than a true horror film, but works on that level -- but it has some well-done FX and creepy sequences. On the debit side, Poltergeist takes a while to get going -- the day to day details of the Freelings lives are simply not that interesting -- and sometimes the pacing is off. The movie does do a very good job of getting across childhood fears, however.The acting is fine -- the children are especially noteworthy -- but the actors take a back seat to the special effects. Jerry Goldsmith's score helps a great deal in key action sequences. One quick and disgusting gore sequence doesn't quite fit the tone of the movie, even though it turns out to be an hallucination. In the thankless role of another parapsychologist, Beatrice Straight does little but flap her lips together. Followed by two sequels and a remake. Tobe Hopper also directed the terrible Eaten Alive.

Verdict: No masterpiece, but fun. ***.


POLTERGEIST (2015). Director: Gil Kenan.

In this remake of the 1982 Poltergeist a family moves into a house that was built over a cemetery. It isn't long (less time than in the original) that strange things begin to happen, and then the little girl, Madison (Kennedi Clements), disappears into a closet and a dimension of lost souls. This version comes up with some new angles to the original film. In the 1982 version the kitchen chairs get stacked up on the table in seconds, while in this version the boy, Griffin's (Kyle Catlett), comic books get stacked up in the hallway. We get more of a view of the other-dimensional world of the dead, and there are striking images of corpses trying to force their way into our world from the child's closet. Oddly, however, the climax in this is rather abrupt and simply can't compare to the original's. The performances are okay -- Sam Rockwell [Iron Man 2] is the father, Rosemarie DeWitt is the mother, with Jared Harris as TV ghost hunter Carrigan Burke, among others -- but the picture is pretty much stolen by little Catlett, who gives a winning performance as the frightened little boy, Griffin. Ghosts or no ghosts, the parents seem even more irresponsible in not going to the police than in the 1982 version. One sequence with a drill and a terrified ghosthunter, Boyd (Nicholas Braun), nearly turns into torture porn but wisely shows restraint. Jane Adams and Susan Heyward play other psychic investigators.

Verdict: Okay, but a cut below the original. **1/2.


FIASCO: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops. James Robert Parish. Wiley; 2006.

This fascinating book looks at the back stories of some of Hollywood's most infamous flops, movies which were not only artistic disasters but in general lost literally millions of dollars for their respective studios. The movies covered include Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton; Ishtar and Town and Country, both of which starred Warren Beatty; Kevin Costner's two mega-bombs, Waterworld and The Postman; Showgirls; Cutthroat Island; and others. Parish explains in engaging and authoritative fashion why some of these movies were disasters-in-the-making, with bad decisions made by ego-driven movie executives who wanted to be the instigator of the Next Big Blockbuster but wound up with egg on their faces, dismal reviews and returns, and careers in tatters. What's amazing is how the green light was often given to projects in spite of the fact that similar films were turkeys of major proportions. Given the out-of-control egomania of both stars, directors, and executives, the vast number of people who tinker with each screenplay, the very bad casting decisions, and the who-gives-a-shit-let's-just-spend-and-spend attitude, it's a wonder that anything decent ever gets made. Part of the problem is the unbelievable salary demands of today's movie stars, who jack up the budget of every film to incredible proportions, sometimes sinking a property right from the start.

Verdict: Compulsory reading for every film enthusiast who wants to know more about the inner workings of Hollywood. ****.


John Ericson and Leslie Parrish
THE MONEY JUNGLE (1967). Director: Francis D. Lyon.

Four geologists are killed in suspicious "accidents" and it all seems tied in to whether or not a certain field contains oil. The board of directors of the Jumbo Oil Co. hire private investigator Blake Heller (John Ericson) to look into the murders and other matters. As he proceeds with his investigation the murders continue, until an unexpected assailant is revealed. The Money Jungle pulls you along without ever developing into a good movie. On the production level it resembles a failed TV pilot, but apparently that is not the case, and there's not a trace of style or panache to be found. Luke Heller is not your typical private eye with a seedy office, many bills, and hordes of panting women (although there are a couple). Heller lives in a large, expensive house, obviously makes big bucks dealing with corporate espionage and the like, and generally kisses women on the cheek or forehead. Frankly, this might have actually made a good series, it it had been well-handled. Ericson [Honey West] is okay as Heller, and the interesting cast includes Nehemiah Persoff [The Wild Party], Don Rickles, Lola Albright [Peter Gunn] and Leslie Parrish. Persoff and Rickles are fine, while Parrish offers an oddly subdued and relatively ineffective performance. Lola Albright is a lousy singer, but she's quite vivid in her turn as one of Heller's acquaintances. Charles Drake, Kent Smith and Michael Forest have smaller roles and are all good.

Verdict: Done with a bit of flair this might have amounted to something. **.


Frances Rafferty
MONEY MADNESS (1948). Director: Sam Newfield.

Julie Saunders (Frances Rafferty) has a dull life caring for her difficult Aunt Cora (Cecil Weston), when along comes a handsome and charismatic man named Steve Clark (Hugh Beaumont). Julie has no idea that Clark has stolen a great deal of money  -- this is revealed at the opening -- and needs a way to launder it. What if it turned out that the aunt had kept a fortune hidden in the attic, he surmises. Now all that remains is for Steve to marry Julie, get rid of her aunt, and claim the fortune. But how much will Julie go along with once she discovers the truth? Money Madness is a snappy bit of film noir whose main character is increasingly ensnared by evil and her own hidden desires until she's caught in a web that she can't cleanly get out of. Rafferty [Abbott and Costello in Hollywood] gives an excellent performance, as does Beaumont [The Lady Confesses], who is convincingly sociopathic. Harlan Warde plays the lawyer who advises Julie and tries to help her.

Verdict: Absorbing suspense film with fine lead performances. ***.


Hugo Haas and Cleo Moore
THE OTHER WOMAN (1954). Producer/ director/writer: Hugo Haas.

Film director Walter Darman (Hugo Haas) quickly needs a gal, any gal, to say three lines in a scene he's currently shooting. Ambitious Sherry Stewart (Cleo Moore), a member of the crew, is drafted, but does a pretty bad job and is replaced in the scene. Not tightly wrapped, Sherry's anger toward Darman and her allegedly lost opportunity for stardom is blown out of all proportion; she inveigles her boyfriend, Ronnie (Lance Fuller of The She-Creature) to help her get even with the man. It all leads to scheming, blackmail, and ultimately, murder. Yes, this is yet another Haas-Moore collaboration, and while it holds the attention, it never really sizzles as it should. Haas is fine, as always, and Moore is vivid but somehow second-rate. Darman and his father-in-law, movie producer Jack Macy (Charles Lester) have conversations about what constitutes a good movie, although Haas seems to have left out good characterization and dialogue. The movie has a very, very early use of the world "sexist." One character's attempt to come up with an alibi is laughably inept.

Verdict: Low level film noir. **.


DARK PLACES (2015). Director/writer: Gilles Paquet-Brenner.

Libby Day (Charlize Theron) was a child when her brother, Ben, murdered his mother and his two other siblings; she was the only survivor. Years later she is contacted by Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), head of an organization called the Kill Club, one division of which tries to solve crimes. Wirth and his colleagues feel that Ben (Corey Stoll of Ant-Man) might have been innocent. Could it have been their drunk, nasty father, Runner (Sean Bridgers) who did the deed, or some of young Ben's (Tye Sheridan) associates? Based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote Gone Girl, this has intriguing aspects to it and a solution that is far-fetched, to say the least. The movie is also a bit slow, and lacks the taut suspense that it needs (except for the climax). Charlize Theron [Prometheus] is okay in the lead, but no more than that, although there is some vivid acting from Chloe Grace Moretz [Carrie] and Andrea Roth, who plays Ben's girlfriend Diondra at different points in her life. Bridgers is quite effective as Runner, and Hoult [Jack the Giant Slayer] is fine as Lyle even though his part is very under-written. Tye Sheridan is very good as young Ben. Few of the characters in this are especially sympathetic or likable.

Verdict: Minor-league suspenser when all is said and done. **1/2.