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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

WILD AND WOOLLY WOODY ALLEN

Two faces of Woody Allen


WILD AND WOOLLY WOODY ALLEN.

Woody Allen turns eighty-one on December 1st, 2017.

Love 'im or hate 'im, he has been an influential filmmaker for many years, and has come out with a great many movies, some wonderful, some awful, some in-between. He has had an interesting, some would say scandalous, personal life, mostly centered around his relationship with significant other Mia Farrow (who he was not married to), and her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

Whatever one's thoughts about that bizarre triangle, this week Great Old Movies looks at a slew of Woody Allen movies, from near-masterpieces like Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo to stink bombs like Stardust Memories to the merely mediocre like Bullets Over Broadway and Zelig. We also look at a recent biography of the man.

Whatever his flaws as a man and a filmmaker, Woody Allan was rarely if ever boring.

You can read posts of Allen's films that have been reviewed on this blog in previous months by using the search bar above.

STARDUST MEMORIES

Woody Allen realizes what a lousy picture he's made
STARDUST MEMORIES (1980). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

Filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen), a Woody Allen-clone, goes to a retrospective of his work at the Stardust Hotel and encounters manic fans while he contemplates his past and several of the women he has loved or wants to love. These include actress Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling of 45 Years); French Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault of Swann in Love), who wants to marry him; and Daisy (Jessica Harper of Suspiria), a violinist with issues. Stardust Memories is Allen working in a Fellini-esque mode (with a bit of Bergman thrown in) and coming up so short that it's laughable. Not only is Allen no Fellini, but Stardust Memories is a rarity among Allen films -- it's criminally boring. There's no real plot to the movie -- and while there are the usual stand-up quips and interesting observations -- the dream sequences are tiresome and the real-life sequences aren't much better. There's limited fun in picking out which actor is playing which real-life person in Allen's life. If Allen thinks that peopling his movie with interesting faces will turn him into Fellini, he's sadly mistaken. Not only is this possibly the worst of Allen's films, it's one of the worst movies ever made. A self-indulgent mess.

Verdict: A tedious embarrassment for all concerned. *.

ZELIG

Zelig is examined by doctors
ZELIG (1983). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"[Freud] and I broke up over penis envy. He thought it should be limited to women. -- Zelig.

This fake documentary looks at the life of weird Leonard Zelig, who takes on not only the personality of whoever he's with but even the physical appearance, becoming fat if he's with an obese person, and turning into a "Negro" if he's with a black man, and so on. Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) becomes his chief doctor and eventually begins a relationship with him, but just when he seems cured, it turns out that he's been rather busy while he was in other personalities, and the public affection for him begins to disappear ... Zelig is too long even at just 80 minutes, as we're asked to enjoy this stunt movie long after the basic premise has been sufficiently explored. The film mixes actual file footage with recreated 1920's scenes or cleverly inserts Allen into real-life newsreels. As usual, there are some funny lines and good performances, and there are those who will claim this is a masterpiece, but to me the movie is distinctly minor.

Verdict: Woody Allen's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. **1/2.

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE

Woody Allen as Danny Rose
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

A group of well-known comics sit around and talk about the past, and one of them (Sandy Baron) tells a long story about the theatrical agent, Danny Rose (Woody Allen), which comprises most of the film. Danny is a struggling agent who is now pinning his hopes on one client, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who had one hit record in the fifties and has been trying to make a comeback ever since. Things are finally going Lou's way, thanks to Danny, but there are complications. The very much married Lou has fallen in love with his mistress, Tina (Mia Farrow), and Tina is coveted by another man whose gangster brothers mistake Danny for her boyfriend. But there's an even worse betrayal in store for Danny. Broadway Danny Rose is one of Allen's best films, in which he portrays one of his most sympathetic characters, a decent man who cares perhaps more about his clients than he should and has a good heart. Mia Farrow and Forte are also right on the money in their portrayals of a hard-boiled woman who develops a conscience, and a vain man who gets a second chance and to Hell with everyone else. Allen's use of gangsters in his movies can be, as I've noted, tiresome, but that doesn't seem to be a problem in this picture. There are numerous fine supporting performances in the movie, but I especially liked Herb Reynolds as Barney Dunn, one of the world's worst ventriloquists. This was Forte's first and only film (he also had two television appearances, playing himself on Billions) and he's quite good -- he was basically a lounge singer and piano player when he was discovered by Allen; like Lou, he had one recording yeas in the past.

Verdict: A lovely movie. ***1/2.

THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO

Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985). Writer/director: Woody Allen.

"In New Jersey, anything can happen."

In a dreary small town in 1935, Cecelia (Mia Farrow) has an unhappy marriage with the often out-of-work Monk (Danny Aiello of City Hall). Cecelia seeks refuge in the movies, where she especially loves a film called The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the lead character, Tom Baxter, played by actor Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels). In an astonishing turn of events, "Tom Baxter" walks right off the screen and into the real world, leaving the other actors/characters in the movie standing around wringing their hands. "How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he leaves the movie just to meet her," muses Tom. Just as Cecelia, who begins a romance with the charming Tom, is trying to make sense of all this, the real Gil Shepherd, who has heard what's happened, shows up in town ... This movie and its look at how influential movies can be on real life and the necessary escape they offer may not work for everyone, but I found it charming, absorbing, and ultimately moving. The actors offer sensitive and dead-on portrayals. Van Johnson, Edward Herrmann, Zoe Cladwell, and Milo O'Shea, among others, appear in the film-within-a-film.

Verdict: Not perfect perhaps, but it remains one of Allen's most likable movies. ***.

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

Farrow, Hershey, and Weist
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"I particularly love the mother, just a boozy old flirt with a filthy mouth." --Hannah's mother basically talking about herself.

Hannah (Mia Farrow) has a happy life with her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). but she's unaware that he has fallen in love with her free-spirited sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey of Black Swan). As Lee and Elliot begin a guilt-wracked affair, Hannah's other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), a struggling actress, starts a catering business with her friend, April (Carrie Fisher), and the two both fall for married architect, David (Sam Waterston). Hannah's ex-husband, Mickey (Woody Allen) is drawn to Holly years after they had a disastrous first date. Like most of Allen'\s films, Hannah and Her Sisters is quite entertaining, with some fine acting from virtually the entire cast, but Allen himself -- who comes off like a stand-up comic sprouting lines, many of which are admittedly amusing -- doesn't really fit that neatly into the picture. I\m not sufficiently interested in exploring Allen's psyche to delve into any so-called deep meanings in his movies, but Hannah is engaging enough but no real masterpiece, despite its popularity. The business with Mickey thinking he may have a brain tumor is tasteless. As usual, many of the characters, admirably cultured, do what's expedient, not necessarily what's right. Max von Sydow shows up briefly as an older man that Lee discards once things heat up with Elliot, and Maureen O'Sullivan [Tarzan Escapes], Mia Farrow's mother in real life, plays Hannah's mother, with Lloyd Nolan [Portrait in Black] as her husband. Julie Kavner, who has a small role as a co-worker of Mickey's, does the same tiresome shtick she's been doing since she played Rhoda's sister on TV.

Verdict: Interesting and fun, but also kind of minor all told. **1/2.


BULLETS OVER BROADWAY

Dianne Weist and the ensemble 
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994). Director/co-writer: Woody Allen.

"I just pity any poor folk who have to pay to see this play."

In order to get his play mounted on Broadway, David Shayne (John Cusack of City Hall) allows in an inappropriate cast member, Olive (Jennifer Tilly of Seed of Chucky), because her mobster boyfriend, Nick (Joe Viterelli), decides to back the show. Nick assigns a bodyguard to Olive, a hit man named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who starts making impromptu critiques of the play .. only his criticisms are valid. Before long it's a question of who is the true artist behind the show. But what can one do about the screeching and awful Olive? Woody Allen does not appear in Bullets Over Broadway -- which is a plus or minus depending on how you look at it -- and it's another of Allen's pastiche films inspired by superior forties movies with a "modern"-type sensibility. It's another in a long line of movies that present sympathetic hit men, for one thing, while also showing him committing several murders. The movie takes place during the roaring twenties but it doesn't have much period atmosphere. Dianne Wiest won a supporting actress Oscar for her role of the diva Helen Sinclair, but while she is good, it's hard not to notice that she's simply trading off of decades of previous actresses who have played affected, breathless theater and movie stars; nothing new here. John Cusack is fine, although this is an actor who through no fault of his own is just hopelessly bland no matter what he's in. Tracey Ullman [Into the Woods] has a nice turn as an ever-laughing cast member who always carries her little dog with her, and Jack Warden is good as David's agent, but no one else is especially impressive, except perhaps Annie Joe Edwards, who is snappy as Olive's maid, Venus, but whom Allen doesn't allow to become a character in her own right. The movie is fairly entertaining and has some good twists and humor, but it's also kind of stupid, with the whole notion of a sensitive, artistic hit man being a little too precious for this critic to swallow. Allen may have been thinking of himself when he has Rob Reiner say "An artist creates his own moral universe." For those who hate Jennifer Tilly's voice and think she's a freak of nature, you'll especially enjoy one scene that comes late in the movie. To be fair, Tilly's performance is good even if she herself is a little flesh-crawling.

Verdict: The actors seem to be having more fun than the audience. **1/2.

CAFE SOCIETY

Jesse Eisenberg
CAFE SOCIETY (2016). Writer/director: Woody Allen.

"First a murderer, then a Christian -- what did I do to deserve this?" -- Rose.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from Brooklyn to try his luck in 1930's Los Angeles, where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent. Bobby becomes friends with Phil's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), unaware that she is his uncle's mistress. Later Bobby opens up a New York nightclub with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll of Dark Places). But can Bobby outrun his heart and Ben the law? Cafe Society is a pleasant Woody Allen movie without Allen in the cast. Wisely recognizing that he could no longer play the naive young man starting out in life, Allen cast appealing Jesse Eisenberg as his surrogate, and it was a smart choice. You can just hear Allen saying the dialogue in his inimitable way as we watch Eisenberg play his part, and play it well, although the better-looking man plays the real, shrewd Allen more than his usual nebbish on-screen persona -- another wise choice. The gangster stuff is as tiresome as it generally is in Allen's movies, but there are some fine performances, especially from Jeanne Berlin [The Heartbreak Kid] as Mother Rose and Ken Stott as her husband. The picture is handsomely produced, with Vittorio Storaro's cinematography especially breath-taking. Cafe Society is a nice enough picture, but it's still a minor effort with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion and a protagonist who can be annoying at times. The cast-off spouse of one character is completely forgotten, which is pretty typical of Allen since his split from Mia Farrow and even before. Eisenberg is certainly better in this than he was in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Storaro's exquisite work was also seen in such films as Exorcist: The Beginning.

Verdict: Great to look at, with a highly pleasant lead actor, but no great shakes when all is said and done. **1/2.

WOODY THE BIOGRAPHY

WOODY: THE BIOGRAPHY. David Evanier. St. Martin's; 2015.

This "biography" of filmmaker, comic and actor Woody Allen is much more of a rumination on the man than a full bio, although Evanier does his best to hit all the important bases. The author doesn't really start to get into his subject's life story until a quarter of the way into the book, and focuses on certain key films while virtually ignoring many others. In more or less chronological order he also looks at Allen's relationships with wives, girlfriends, and children -- Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and others --  and ends up the book with a long dissection of the sordid Woody-Mia Farrow mess. clearly coming down on Allen's side. Evanier doesn't necessarily gloss over Allen's failings as both filmmaker and man (he deservedly hates Stardust Memories, for instance, as well as Interiors, and isn't blind to Allen's character flaws) but the book does function primarily as a defense of some of Allen's actions and especially of Mia Farrow's charges of child molestation. (We must remember that his lover Soon-Yi, was an adult at the time their affair began, but still one has to wonder at the inappropriateness, vulgar audacity, and staggering lack of sensitivity that led to Allen having a relationship with his girlfriend's daughter, who was also the sister of his own children. Soon-Yi's motivations for taking up with a comparatively homely middle-aged but famous and wealthy man I'll leave to others to ponder). Woody: The Biography has some interviews with people who know and worked with Allen, and an interview with Dick Cavett is reproduced in its entirety but functions more as padding than anything else. Although Allen did not cooperate with the book as such, he did agree to answer some of Evanier's questions via email, but these don't seem to have provided that much enlightenment.

Verdict: Interesting read, but only an average bio. ***.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

HAPPY THANKSGIVING TELEFILMS AND MIGHTY JOE YOUNG

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

This week Great Old Movies takes a look at some of the memorable and not-so-memorable made-for-TV movies of the 1970's. It was in the late sixties that the networks started producing films directly for the television market (some of these were released as theatrical features overseas) and eventually they began showing them on a regular basis, such as on ABC's "Movie of the Week." These films tended to be in the thriller-mystery-suspense genre, with occasional horror and supernatural stories as well, but there were exceptions. They featured up and coming players, TV stars who were between gigs on their own series, and older actors who found employment on TV and not for the movie studios.

Some of these flicks were pretty bad, like The Cat Creature (although it did feature Gale Sondergaard!), and others, such as A Cold Night's Death, were quite memorable. One gets the impression that every other TV flick starred Kate Jackson or was directed by Curtis Harrington although this is probably not the case!.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG EXHIBITION:

I also want to call your attention to an exhibition on the wonderful classic fantasy film Mighty Joe Young put together by my friend Harry Heuser. You can read about the exhibition here. And below is the poster for the event. If you happen to be in Wales from now until February 2nd 2018, check it out!


HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN

Anthony Perkins
HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN (1970 telefilm). Director: Curtis Harrington. Executive producer: Aaron Spelling.

Legally blind, if only psychosomatically, Allan (Anthony Perkins) is released from an institution and comes back to the house where he lived with his sister, Katherine (Julie Harris). Allan was unable to save his father when fire broke out in their home, and Katherine was disfigured during a rescue attempt. Needing money, Katherine takes in a mysterious boarder who rarely speaks and whom Allan can hardly see. He is convinced that there is something sinister about this stranger, and that he is trying to kill him. Allan's former fiancee and neighbor, Olive (Joan Hackett of Dead of Night), does her best to convince him that his worries are all in his head. But Olive may have no idea what Allan is really dealing with. How Awful About Allan certainly has an intriguing premise (taken from a novel by Henry Farrell, who also did the teleplay), and the cast is very interesting, but the developments, besides being psychologically dubious, are not as compelling as one might have hoped for. Giving an unremarkable, even disinterested, performance, Perkins [Pretty Poison] makes Allan completely unsympathetic, and the best work comes from Harris and Hackett -- the former, however, being too true to her character, does little to keep the audience from figuring out the final revelation. Producer Spelling and author Farrell also teamed up for The House That Would Not Die with Barbara Stanwyck the same year.

Verdict: It's understandable why this flick is pretty much forgotten. **.

WHEN MICHAEL CALLS

Elizabeth Ashely gets a call
WHEN MICHAEL CALLS (1972 telefilm). Director: Philip Leacock. An ABC Movie of the Week.

Helen Connelly (Elizabeth Ashley of The Carpetbaggers) begins getting phone calls from a boy who claims he is her nephew, Michael -- unfortunately Michael died in a blizzard fifteen years before. Helen tries to dismiss the phone calla and what they may signify from her mind, but then some of her friends and acquaintances wind up dying in mysterious ways. Did Michael somehow survive and is he out for revenge, or is someone else carrying out a grudge plot against the townspeople? Based on a novel by John Farris, When Michael Calls is minor but suspenseful and well acted, with good performances from Ashley, Ben Gazzara [Bloodline] as her concerned ex-husband, and especially Michael Douglas [The China Syndrome] as Michael's older brother. John Farris turned to directing the same year for Dear Dead Delilah with Agnes Moorehead.

Verdict: Holds the attention. **1/2.

A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH

Robert Culp and Eli Wallach
A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH (1973 telefilm). Director: Jerrold Freedman.

A man named Vogel is conducting high altitude tests on primates for the space program at the Tower Mountain research station. When he begins sending messages that appear to be gibberish, Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) and Robert Jones (Robert Culp) -- accompanied by another test chimp -- are sent to investigate. They find Vogel frozen to death with a look of horror on his face, but they can't understand how he wound up in this condition when he could have easily gotten out of the frigid room. Other strange things begin to happen, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia among the two arguing men. Jones seems to have figured out what may be going on, but Enari can't accept it, and it's a question of just who is experimenting on whom. A Cold Night's Death is a very memorable telefilm with two excellent performances by Wallach [The Hoax] and Culp [Calendar Girl Murders] and a decided feeling of claustrophobia and creepiness. Christopher Knopf, who co-wrote the screenplay for 20 Million Miles to Earth, has fashioned a unique story that is both suspenseful and harrowing, and it also has a very clever and darkly amusing wind-up. Freedman, whose directorial assignments were mostly for television, does a good job building tension. Michael C. Gwynne has a small part as a helicopter pilot at the beginning and is effective.

Verdict: Monkey see, monkey do. ***1/2.

THE CAT CREATURE

Gale Sondergaard and Meredith Baxter
THE CAT CREATURE (1973 telefilm). Director: Curtis Harrington.

Joe Sung (Keye Luke) steals a cat-medallion from a recently opened Egyptian casket, and begins a chain of deaths from a clawed creature that counts him among its victims. The trail leads to Hester Black (Gale Sondergaard), a shady lady who runs an occult shop. Lt March (Stuart Whitman of Eaten Alive), aided by egyptologist Roger Edmonds (David Hedison of The Lost World), investigates the case, which also embroils Hester's new assistant, Rena Carter (Meredith Baxter). While it's fun at first seeing such veteran actors as Kent Smith [Cat People], John Carradine, Luke, Milton Parsons (as a coroner, naturally), and especially an excellent and criminally wasted Sondergaard [The Letter], The Cat Creature is pretty bad, with one of Robert Bloch's least inspired scripts. Tabbie cats are not exactly fearsome animals, for one thing. "Peter Lorre Jr." -- actually a man named Eugene Weingand who pretended to be Lorre's son -- has a small role as a murdered pawnbroker. Baxter is given a pretty embarrassing role to play.

Verdict: Great to see Sondergaard still in top form, but the movie is terrible. *1/2. 

SCREAM PRETTY PEGGY

Bette Davis
SCREAM PRETTY PEGGY (1973 telefilm). Director: Gordon Hessler. An ABC Movie of the Week.

Peggy Johns (Sian Barbara Allen) is a college student who takes a part-time job as a housekeeper for the aged, tippling Mrs. Elliott (Bette Davis) and her sculptor son, Jeffrey (Ted Bessell). Jeffrey tells the very curious -- indeed nosy and rather pushy -- Peggy that his sister, Jennifer, is insane and living in an apartment above the garage. A barely-seen female sneaks out at night to puncture people with a knife. George Thornton (Charles Drake of The Pretender) comes looking for his missing daughter and also encounters "Jennifer." Very aggressive Peggy makes up her mind to find out what's going on even though she hasn't got a clue. Scream Pretty Peggy, co-written by Jimmy Sangster, has some interesting, if unoriginal, macabre elements to it, but the ending is painfully obvious almost from the start, and Bessell [Billie] is given the most embarrassing role of his career, although his performance is better than you might expect. Allen is overly perky, but competent, and Davis phones in her performance aside from her well-delivered final speech. A far cry from Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte indeed. Hessler's direction provides little help although the pic is entertaining enough.

Verdict: Fun to see Davis but this is a bit of a "drag." **1/2.

THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO ...

Ugly Duckling: Stockard Channing
THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO ... (1973 telefilm). Director: Lee Philips. Co-written by Joan Rivers.

Miriam Knight (Stockard Channing) is a bright, energetic young woman with a great sense of humor who has, unfortunately, committed the crime of being unattractive. She is cruelly taunted by men and women alike, but when a twist of fate offers her an opportunity to become good-looking, she uses her new appearance to take revenge on her tormentors. The Girl Most Likely To ... is a black comedy that greatly benefits from the performance of an excellent Channing [The Truth About Jane], who continued to show off her acting chops in role after role on screen and on stage later on. As the movie is played for laughs and is often quite funny, one can ignore the fact that Miriam becomes slightly sociopathic and doesn't seem to care about any innocents who may become embroiled in her schemes, but it's fun, frankly, to see her abusers get their just desserts and then some. Ed Asner [Gunn] is also terrific as a cop investigating the murders, and Susanne Zenor makes an impression as Miriam's roommate, who has a horrendous voice to go along with her bosomy blondness. Warren Berlinger, Fred Grandy, Ruth McDevitt, Larry Wilcox, and Joe Flynn, among others, also have nice turns in the pic. The film scores points for making trenchant observations about the dark side of human nature in a humorous fashion that never quite disguises the understandable bitterness underneath,. Director Lee Philips was also an actor [Peyton Place]; most of his acting and directorial assignments were for television.

Verdict: The worm turns ... ***.

KILLER BEES (1974)

Gloria Swanson and her little darlings
KILLER BEES (1974). Director: Curtis Harrington.

Semi-estranged from his family, who own vineyards as well as a town, Edward van Bohlen (Edward Albert) brings his pregnant fiancee, Victoria (Kate Jackson), home to meet the family. This consists of his father, Rudolf (Craig Stevens), brother Helmut (Roger Davis of House of Dark Shadows), and Uncle Matthias (Don McGovern), not to mention his grandmother-matriarch Mrs. van Bohlen (Gloria Swanson). Victoria has a hard time being accepted by the van Bohlens, and matters are made worse by attacks from bees swarming all over the vineyards. Seems the van Bohlens have a strange connection to the bees that came with the family decades ago from Africa. Given bizarre roles to play, both Jackson [Night of Dark Shadows] and Swanson [Beyond the Rocks] manage to acquit themselves nicely, with the latter clearly enjoying herself as she puts on a rather hammy show at times. The movie could easily have been called Queen Bee if it hadn't already been used for a Joan Crawford movie. The bees themselves never actually seem to "attack" anyone but there is a macabre climax in the mansion's attic. Curtis Harrington also directed Queen of Blood.

Verdict: If you take the absurd developments with a grain of salt, this is one of Harrington's better latter-day movies. ***.

DEATH CRUISE

Kate Jackson and Edward Albert
DEATH CRUISE (1974 telefilm). Director: Ralph Senensky.

Three couples have won an all-expenses-paid, three week cruise on an ocean liner. Sylvia Carter (Polly Bergen) is distressed by her husband Jerry's (Richard Long) philandering. Elizabeth Mason (Celeste Holm) is concerned that her children are grown and may not need her, and then learns that her husband (Tom Bosley) wonders if there's any point in their even staying married. Mary (Kate Jackson of Making Love) is bitterly disappointed when her husband James (Edward Albert) insists that he doesn't want children. Then one by one all of them begin dying. The ship's doctor (Michael Constantine) discovers that the company which paid for the three couple's cruises doesn't even exist. Screenwriter Jack B. Sowards channels his inner Agatha Christie to come up with a suspenseful, twisting, and diabolical plot, and all of the actors do their best to bring their characters to life as well as to conceal who may or may not be behind it all. Everyone is good, but Holm [All About Eve] and Long [Follow the Boys] make the best impression. Albert and Jackson also played a couple in the previous year's Killer Bees.

Verdict: Absorbing TV puzzler well worth the watching for mystery fans. ***.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

LA STRADA

Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn
LA STRADA (aka The Road/1954). Director: Federico Fellini.

After her older sister, Rose, passes away, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina, wife of Fellini) is sold by her mother to the strong man Zampano (Anthony Quinn) for 10,000 lira. The odd couple travel around the countryside while Gelsomina aids him in his act, which simply consists of his breaking a chain across his chest. Zampano is brutish and insensitive, while Gelsomina is a fragile, child-like (although not necessarily simple-minded) creature  -- in some ways self-absorbed as only a child can be -- who only wants to be loved. The twosome arrive at a circus where they encounter "the fool" (Richard Basehart), an ever-laughing, sarcastic man who does a top-drawer high wire act and in his own way can be just as insensitive to Gelsomina as Zampano is. The conflict between the two men leads to tragedy, and traumatizes Gelsomina. Her half hysterical half-numb state gets on Zampano's nerves and only adds to his guilt so he makes a perhaps unwise decision ... La strada is early Fellini from the director's truly great period (which includes Nights of Cabiria and I vitelloni), before he became FEDERICO FELLINI and every picture had to be a grotesque, overblown spectacle (such as Fellini Satyricon) in which the human drama got lost. In La strada Fellini never forgets that he is doing a character study of two disparate individuals and the film is all the better for it. Quinn offers another magnificent portrayal in the movie, and he is matched by Masina, who may seem at first like a distaff Harpo Marx but who finally etches a very affecting and convincing portrait. Basehart [Tension] is given a less defined role but is fine. With excellent photography from Otello Martelli [Stromboli] and a poignant and lovely score by Nino Rota, La strada is a very moving experience. One could quibble about certain aspects (what exactly happened to Rose, for instance?), but this is still a remarkable motion picture. Some people feel sorry for Zampano at the end, but considering his behavior I ultimately find him much more pathetic than sympathetic.

Verdict: Fellini at his best. ***1/2.

THE SCARLET HOUR

Thomas Tryon and Carol Ohmart
THE SCARLET HOUR (1956). Produced and directed by Michael Curtiz.

"If I were dead, you don't take me to the morgue."

E. V. "Marsh" Marshall (Thomas Tryon) works for real estate developer Ralph Nevins (James Gregory) and is having an affair with Nevins' sexy wife, Pauline (Carol Ohmart). The lovers overhear a plot to rob a mansion while the owners are out of town, and Pauline cooks up a scheme to steal the booty from the robbers so she and Marsh can run away together. After an initial wariness, Marsh consents to the plan, but there are all sorts of complications and developments the night this double-cross is to take place, and someone winds up dying ... The Scarlet Hour is by no means on the level of such superior Curtiz films as, say, Mildred Pierce, but it is a snappy and absorbing crime drama whose interesting twists and turns keep you watching even as you wish there was some more character development and a better script. This was the first movie for both Tryon and Ohmart, who were "introduced" in this picture, and they deliver, especially Ohmart. Ohmart [Caxambu!] was quite talented and distinctive with her sexy, breathy voice but she never quite ascended from B movie cult status. Tryon {The Unholy Wife] later became a very successful author [Crowned Heads]. Gregory is fine as the husband, and there's good work from Elaine Stritch [Monster-in-Law] as Pauline's pal; Phyllis; Jody Lawrence as Kathy, Nevins' secretary, who has a crush on Marsh; and especially David Lewis as the owner of the robbed mansion, who turns out to be one of the most interesting characters in the movie. A sequence involving some incriminating evidence on an audio tape could have been handled with much more suspense. A strangely amusing scene has Marsh encountering a cop played by E. G.Marshall, and telling the cop "I am E. V. Marshall." Nat King Cole sings "Never Let Me Go" in a nightclub sequence. This cries out for a much better score than the one offered by Leith Stevens. Marsh's sanctimonious tone towards Pauline is hypocritical to say the least, but movies like this tend to let the man off the hook and put most of the blame on the woman.

Verdict: "A" director Curtiz helms a "B" movie but it mostly works. ***.

RIFIFI

Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Mohner 
RIFIFI (aka Du Rififi chez les hommes/1955). Director: Jules Dassin.

Three Parisians -- Tony (Jean Servias), Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario (Robert Manuel) -- all of whom have been in prison, decide to knock off a jewelry store. They bring in a fourth player, a "macaroni," (an Italian) named Cesar (Jules Dassin), who is a noted safe cracker. Tony lost his girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret), to a crooked club owner named Pierre (Marcel Lupovici) and now wants her back, but Pierre will deal with Tony in his own fashion. Jo has a wife, Louise (Janine Darcey), and little boy, Tonio (Dominique Maurin), a connection which Pierre will take cruel advantage of. Rafifi is well-known as one of the more notable "caper" films. although there's probably more suspense in a scary, climactic car ride involving the little boy than there is in the robbery itself. The picture's greatest strength is the acting by the entire cast, including director Dassin; Robert Hossein as Pierre's drug-addicted brother, Remi; and Claude Sylvain as Ida, who sings the "Rififfi" tune in Pierre's nightclub. I might argue that Rififi is not quite a  masterpiece, but it is a good and absorbing picture with some interesting developments. Dassin also directed The Affairs of Martha and another famous caper film, Topkapi. Dassin was born in Connecticut; after being blacklisted in Hollywood, he went to France to find work. Carl Mohner was an Austrian actor.

Verdict: French burglars on the loose! ***. 

THE YELLOW CANARY

Patty Boone and Barbara Eden
THE YELLOW CANARY (1963). Director: Buzz Kulik. Screenplay by Rod Serling.

Now here's a strange one. Pat Boone plays a popular singer and neglectful husband, Andy Paxton, who has difficult relationships with his wife, Lissa (Barbara Eden), and associates, Hub (Steve Forrest), his bodyguard, and "Bake" (Steve Harris) his pal and right-hand man. Things get even more complicated when Paxton's baby boy is kidnapped right out of their mansion. While at first it may make sense that the terrified couple are scared that police intervention could kill their child, when days go by it seems utterly absurd for them not to let the authorities handle things. Believability goes completely out the window when the Paxtons set off to rescue the child themselves from dangerous people who have nothing to lose. The picture has unusual casting with Boone going against his pleasant milk-fed image just as Eden [Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea] is contrary to her usual perky demeanor. They offer generally good performances although  at times the script may make too many demands on them. Steve Forrest [Mommie Dearest] is the cast stand-out as Hub, and there is also good work from Harris as the jealous, heavy-drinking buddy and Jeff Corey as a bartender. Jack Klugman [I Could Go On Singing] is pretty awful as the cop assigned to the kidnapping, a performance which isn't helped by the fact that he is often given ridiculous things to say to the parents. Boone does several numbers and has a nice voice. but the poor quality of the film probably jettisoned his chances of establishing himself as a serious dramatic actor after the previous year's appearance in The Main Attraction. Rod Serling's screenplay is one of his least memorable concoctions. Steve Harris was primarily a television actor.

Verdict: This canary just doesn't sing. **.

THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW

Just begging to die?
THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (1972). Director: Pete Walker.

A group of young British actors are invited to appear in an avant garde production that will hopefully make its way to the east end. The rehearsals take place in a nearly condemned theater on an off-season seaside pier way outside London. Gathered together in the creepy building are the director, Mike (Ray Brooks), handsome Tony (Tristan Rogers), budding starlet Julia (Jenny Hanley), gregarious Simon (Robin Askwith), and several others. Other characters include Mrs. Saunders (Elizabeth Bradley), who runs the local boarding house, and Major Bell (Patrick Barr), a lonely old man with takes an interest in the players from a younger generation. Naturally, an unseen somebody begins killing off the cast ... The Flesh and Blood Show is not without interest and intriguing plot developments, although its relatively tasteful murders are mostly off-screen, and there's a dearth of real suspects. Brooks and especially Barr give the best performances, with the latter actor proving he can do Shakespeare quite well.  Barr also appeared in Walker's House of Whipcord. Walker's films, such as The Comeback, always just miss being really notable horror items. Australian actor Tristan Rogers later became a very well-known soap star on General Hospital and other afternoon serials.

Verdict: Modestly entertaining Pete Walker horror movie. **1/2.

THE SAINT: A COMPLETE HISTORY

THE SAINT: A COMPLETE HISTORY IN PRINT, RADIO, FILM AND TELEVISION, 1928 - 1992. Burl Barer. McFarland; 1993.

The threat of a brand-new Saint film probably ignited the publication of this look at the venerable character down through the decades. Barer's exhaustive tome looks at the origins of the character, created by Leslie Charteris, along with a complete publication history of the Saint novels, stories, and reprints, as well as a rundown of each Saint film, the radio series (Vincent Price was one of the actors to portray the Saint), the TV series with Roger Moore and later Ian Ogilvy and others, not to mention The Saint comic books! Throughout the book it is made abundantly clear that Charteris' strangely moral if slightly shady character pretty much made the mold from which other, similar adventurers -- The Falcon, the Lone Wolf,  and many others -- were birthed. The Saint may not pre-date certain pulp characters of the 1920's, but these heroes were nothing like him in any case. The amazing thing about this very informative and entertaining book is that I'm, frankly, not the biggest Saint fan and have never read any of the novels, but I still found the volume very readable and interesting. There are lots of behind-the-scenes details, and Charteris' often acerbic estimations of the movie and TV scripts are amusing. Like all books of this nature written by enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans, it makes you anxious to hunt down the old novels and watch the Roger Moore TV series on Hulu. Alas, the new film version that was in the making when this book was published, finally came out four years later with Val Kilmer playing the part. It was a mediocre movie that didn't make much of a splash.

Verdict: Good show! ***1/2.

THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY

Helmut Berger
THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (aka Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate/1971). Director: Duccio Tessari.

A 17-year-old girl is found stabbed to death in a park. Newscaster Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia) is arrested for the crime and put on trial. Marchi has a reason for keeping silent about where he actually was that day, but he doesn't know that his lawyer, Giulio (Gunther Stoll) is having an affair with his wife, Maria (Ida Galli). Meanwhile, his daughter, Sarah (Wendy D'Olive), is fooling around with a moody pianist, Giorgio (Helmut Berger). While Marchi is on trial, there are more murders of young women ... This dubbed Italian thriller has a too leisurely pace and no real thrills, but it still manages to be absorbing for the most part and summon up some suspense, although the modestly surprising wind-up is a little too far-fetched. Although top-billed, Helmut Berger walks around looking strange and haunted, makes love on occasion, but hasn't really been given much of a character to play. The business with an associate of the police inspector always giving him coffee that is either too hot, cold or bitter quickly becomes tiresome. Tessari also directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Verdict: Passable mystery film with some twists. **1/2.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

THE CULT OF ULMER

Edgar G, Ulmer
THE CULT OF ULMER: DIRECTOR EDGAR G. ULMER, KING OF THE "B'S"

I don't remember why, but years ago when I was in grade school, our teacher let us watch a movie on television. It was called The Man from Planet X and we children were enthralled. Unfortunately, we weren't able to see the ending, and decades went by before I finally got to see the movie in its entirety.

It turned out to be a not-bad B movie, and I guess it got me interested in seeing Ulmer's other movies -- at least when I'd see his name listed as director of an unfamiliar movie, I would sit up and pay attention. Ulmer seemed to specialize in genre films: horror, mystery, science fiction, which especially interested me as a kid, although he did other types of pictures as well. I enjoyed Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, which I found atmospheric and creepy, and Bluebeard with John Carradine has its moments. Murder is My Beat is a notable example of film noir. His best picture, however, may be the Zachary Scott melodrama, Ruthless.

Ulmer did more than his share of stinkers, such as Girls in Chains and the oddly-admired but perfectly awful Strange Illusion. He may have directed all of them, but the Ulmer pictures that work the best are the ones with the best scripts. One could argue that this is true of any director, of course. Ulmer's fans have argued that he was a great director who only needed better opportunities and the bigger budgets of major studios. In my opinion, Ulmer was a workmanlike director who had moments of inspiration, and who managed to helm some rather interesting pictures along the way.

Some members of what I call "the Cult of Ulmer" find genius in every frame. They wildly overpraise such movies as Strange Illusion. There has been more than one book on Ulmer, and some film scholars are taking his work very seriously. I like Ulmer -- at least many of his movies -- but I'm not necessarily convinced of his "greatness." He did come out with one certified near-classic, the fascinating Detour, the film he is most famous for.

Anyway, you can make up your own mind. His films tend to be hit or miss. This week you can read about some of these films, good or bad, as well as an excellent biography of the director.

DAMAGED LIVES

Charlotte Merriam and Lyman Williams
DAMAGED LIVES (1933). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Donald Bradley Jr. (Lyman Williams) is the somewhat haughty son of a shipping magnate and is destined for great things. One night he goes off to a club for a business appointment with Nat (Harry Myers) and winds up bedding the other man's date, Elise (Charlotte Merriam of Night Nurse). Donald confesses his indiscretion to his forgiving fiancee, Joan (Diane Sinclair), and the two are married. Then Donald gets an urgent call from Elise, who tells him she has learned she's "infected" and he might be as well. Some time later Donald and his pregnant wife get rather alarming news from their doctor (Murray Kinnell of The Public Enemy) ... Damaged Lives, a cautionary tale about venereal disease, is not a camp classic like Reefer Madness, but is a serious and rather good drama that builds to a powerful conclusion. Although such diseases as syphilis are certainly no longer talked about like AIDS, they could ruin lives, and if untreated, lead to extremely serious complications, although it's unlikely someone could get infected from, say, a pipe, as the doctor suggests. If the film is taken as a study of the challenges to a young couple's marriage, including infidelity and illness, it works quite well, and there are unexpected developments. Williams and Sinclair are far from perfect, but they play with conviction and strong emotion, and the other actors, especially Charlotte Merriam, are also notable. Williams plays with a sensitivity that doesn't quite disguise a certain hardness underneath, but this is not the kind of movie to build a career on and he never had another starring part; Sinclair did not fare well, either. Classical music is used quite appropriately in the final sequence. Jason Robards Sr. [The Woman Condemned] plays Bill, another doctor and a friend of the Bradleys.

Verdict: Surprisingly effective and frank. ***.

ISLE OF FORGOTTEN SINS / MONSOON

Sidney Toler and Gale Somdergaard
ISLE OF FORGOTTEN SINS (aka Monsoon/1943)./ Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Marge (Gale Sondergaard) runs a shady casino and nightclub in the islands, where she waits for her lover, Mike (John Carradine), to arrive. Mike has a love-hate friendship with Jack Burke (Frank Fenton of Lady of Burlesque), and Mike tells him where they can find three million in gold on a sunken ship in a lagoon. The two men plan to steal it away from Krogen (Sidney Toler) and his partner, Johnny Pacific (Rick Vallin), but are unaware that these two men know what Mike and Jack are planning and have their own scheme in mind. After a shooting at the club, which is called the "Isle of Forgotten Sin," Marge importunes Mike to take her and some of her shady ladies to the lagoon to avoid the prying eyes of the law. Bur there will be a lot of skulduggery and double-crosses, not to mention a climactic storm, before anyone gets their hands permanently on the gold. Isle of Forgotten Sins not only features the novelty of a rare starring role for Sondergaard [The Spider Woman Strikes Back], but also gives her an unlikely pairing with Carradine (although that's not as strange as her teaming with Andy Devine in Never Say Die). Sidney Toler, who frequently played the venerable Charlie Chan, nearly steals the show playing the kind of nasty adversary that Chan would have had fun out-witting. Veda Ann Borg is cast as Luana, the native girl who is the lover of Johnny Pacific. There are a couple of good songs sung at the club -- "Tango" and "Moon Madness" -- but most of Leo Erdody's score sounds like it was borrowed from classical themes and is hardly ever appropriate. Despite the cast and situations, Isle of Forgotten Sins only really comes alive in the final minutes, but the low-budget of a PRC production could hardly approximate a really astonishing monsoon at the end so we're left with some heavy winds and a few water-logged actors in a tank.

Verdict: Nice to see Toler and Sondergaard and a few others, but the movie is strictly minor-league. **1/2.


MY SON THE HERO

Patsy Kelly and Roscoe Karns
MY SON THE HERO (1943). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

"Big Time" Morgan (Roscoe Karns) is not exactly in the big time, and is afraid that his son, Michael (Joseph Allen of The Night Before the Divorce), who is a well-known war correspondent, will think less of him if he knows his dad is a failure. Big Time manages to set up an elaborate scam by moving into a wealthy man's mansion, and before you can say "apple Annie," he's ensconced there with a fake wife, Gertie (Patsy Kelly) and daughter-in-law Linda (Carol Hughes of Meet the Boyfriend), and his pugilist client, "Kid Slug" Rosenthal (Maxie Rosenbloom). Then there is the arrival of Morgan's ex-wife, Cynthia (Joan Blair), as well as Nancy (Lois Collier of Weird Woman), the daughter of the man who actually owns the mansion. As Michael tries to sell $100,000 in war bonds at a fete in the mansion, Linda and Nancy both find themselves attracted to Michael, even as Morgan and his ex-wife rekindle their relationship -- and so on ... My Son the Hero is amiable enough thanks to the actors, and it isn't terribly boring, but somehow it never quite emerges as anything even remotely worthwhile. The script seems to have been cobbled together even as the low-budget PRC production was being shot.

Verdict: You'll forget this even as you're watching it. **.

STRANGE ILLUSION

Jimmy Lydon and Regis Toomey
STRANGE ILLUSION (1945). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon of Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid), who believes his father was murdered, has been having strange dreams of death and disaster for his family. His widowed mother, Virginia (Sally Eilers of The Campus Vamp), has taken up with a smooth-talking man named Brett (Warren William) who wants to marry her and who has charmed Paul's sister, Dorothy (Jayne Hazard). Paul is afraid that Brett may be using an alias, and that he is really a man who murdered his first wife. Paul seeks help from sympathetic Dr. Vincent (Regis Toomey) but winds up in an institution run by sinister Professor Muhlback (Charles Arnt). Is his family in danger or is he losing his mind? You probably won't care because Strange Illusion is a pretty dull and terrible picture. It might have been one thing if the script tried to work up some suspense by keeping the audience in the dark about whether Brett was a good guy or a bad guy a la Hitchcock's Suspicion, but this lets the viewer in so early that there are absolutely no surprises and not a dollop of suspense, even at the ending. Although Lydon comes off like his character Henry Aldrich a few times, his performance is good, and William is as excellent as ever, but the movie is a real stinker. Leo Erdody's score helps a little. Sally Eilers had been in films since the silent era, but she had only two more film appearances after this. Now in his 90\s, Jimmy Lydon had many more credits after this, mostly on television, and worked as an actor until the late 80's before going into the production end. Strange Illusion got surprisingly good reviews at the time of its release, making one wonder if the critics were inebriated or in a particularly charitable mood. Nowadays some Ulmer fans go on about this film as if it were on a par with Hitchcock and suggest it was influenced by no less than Hamlet! Give me a break!

Verdict: Great to see Jimmy and Warren but they need a much better vehicle. *1/2.

CLUB HAVANA

"Isabelita" (Lita Baron) does her stuff
CLUB HAVANA (1945). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

"You know darling, even when I hate you the most I still love you."

In a fashionable Latin-themed nightclub that could be anyplace, several people converge. Newly divorced Rosalind (Margaret Lindsay) discovers that her lover, Johnny (Don Douglas), no longer wants her. Piano player Jimmy (Eric Sinclair) realizes that he can smash the alibi of mobster and accused murderer, Joe Reed (Marc Lawrence) and calls the police, causing consternation for his girlfriend, the entertainer Isabelita (Lita Baron). Wealthy old Mrs. Cavendish (Renie Riano) proposes marriage to borderline gigolo, Rogers (Paul Cavanagh), who obviously needs an income. A middle-aged separated couple decide whether or not to reconcile, and an intern (Tom Neal) goes on his first date with the nervous Lucy (Dorothy Morris). Myrtle (Sonia Sorel), the switchboard operator, tells Joe Reed what Jimmy has done, leading to a dramatic climax. Hovering over everything are the host, Charles (Pedro de Cordoba) and the ladies room attendant, Hetty (Gertrude Michael). Club Havana is a snappy and entertaining picture with music that could have benefited from another twenty or thirty minutes of character development and background. Using the same name as her character, Isabelita (which she also used for other pictures), Lita Baron [Jungle Jim] sings s nifty version of "Besame Mucho." The picture is smoothly directed by Ulmer and quite fast-paced. The performances are all good, with Michael [Flamingo Road] and an emotional Lindsay [Dangerous] taking top honors.

Verdict: Fun movie with nice music and some very good sequences. ***.

DETOUR

Companions in nightmare: Ann Savage and Tom Neal
DETOUR (1945). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a talented pianist with Carnegie Hall aspirations who instead tickles the ivories in a cheap nightclub. His girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake), sings at the same club and is sick of her life and the way they are both going nowhere. Sue decides to postpone her marriage to Al and move to California, and a heartsick Al makes up his mind to follow her there by hitchhiking. Unfortunately, Al's life takes a sharp turn for the worse when he encounters two people on the highway: Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald of The Mysterious Mr. M), who offers him a lift but carries a lot of secrets; and Vera (Ann Savage), another hitchhiker who proves more than a match for any man. When Al first meets Vera he thinks she has "a beauty that's almost homely because it's so real." Vera wants to get the basically decent Al involved in a crooked scheme and blackmails him, and he can't see any way out ... Detour is a fascinating bit of low-budget film noir that moves swiftly and features two terrific lead performances (as well as an adept if small supporting cast). Neal is intense and anguished, a poor slob who only wants his gal and a decent life and doesn't know how to extricate himself from a difficult situation. Savage is so hard-boiled that she borders on caricature, but her performance is skillful and vicious, full of nuance, and works every step of the way, whether she's literally spitting out an insult at Al or purring at him in a way she imagines is sexy. Leo Ordody's score makes good use of the songs "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" (from Chopin) -- which is especially appropriate -- and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me." Detour is well-directed by Ulmer, who makes the most of a limited PRC budget, The film is almost constantly narrated by the hero, but somehow it is not that intrusive. Martin Goldsmith's screenplay is full of good dialogue and interesting observations. I doubt if either Neal [Bruce Gentry] or Savage [Apology for Murder] ever had another part as good.

Verdict: PRC's finest hour? ***.

EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS

EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS. Noah Isenberg. University of California Press; 2014.

This excellent biography of a well-known low-budget filmmaker posits the theory that Ulmer would have been one of the giants of the film industry if he had only had a chance with major studios, bigger budgets and stars, and been a more entrenched part of the Hollywood "scene" he had little use for. Born in the Czech Republic, Ulmer was raised in Vienna and had a much more cultural background than the average studio director. Ulmer was taken under the wing of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle, but was quickly thrown out of favor when he fell for the wife, Shirley, of Laemmle's nephew; Shirley and Ulmer were later married. Umer found himself persona non gratis in Hollywood. Instead of working for the more prestigious Universal or another major studio, Ulmer instead toiled for PRC, where he eventually directed the minor classic Detour, along with other less distinguished pictures. Ulmer did get to direct fading stars such as Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman and Victor Mature in Hannibal for other studios. Ulmer also helmed foreign productions, Jewish films, "race" (or all-Black) films, and the famous VD movie Damaged Lives as well as such notable pictures as The Black Cat, Ruthless, The Man from Planet X, Bluebeard, and others. A Filmmaker at the Margins is well-researched and well-written. Although it may not convince everyone of Ulmer's genius, it is a first-class biography.

Verdict: Does right by Ulmer. ***1/2.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

ANNA LUCASTA (1949)

Wickes, Goddard, Crawford, and a sleeping Homolka
ANNA LUCASTA (1949), Director: Irving Rapper.

The Lucasta family of Mayberry, PA. consists of daughter Stella (Mary Wickes); her husband, Frank (Broderick Crawford); her brother, Stanley (Whit Bissell); his wife, Katie (Gale Page); the mother, Theresa (Lisa Golm); and her husband, Joe (Oscar Homolka), a rather nasty alcoholic. When Frank discovers that Rudolf Strobel (William Bishop), the son of Joe's old friend, is coming to town to look for a wife and has money to burn, he and Stella come up with the idea of marrying him off to Stella's sister, Anna (Paulette Goddard), who was thrown out of the house because of a simple kiss with a date. Joe is violently importuned to go to Brooklyn to get his daughter back to Pennsylvania, so she leaves her sort-of boyfriend, sailor Danny (John Ireland), and comes back to the crowded suburban home. Just when things seem to be going well between her and Rudolf, whom she genuinely loves, Danny shows up, and her father shows his daughter just how utterly loathsome he can really be.

Anna Lucasta was based on a play of the same name that was originally about a Polish-American family, but which was turned into a play about a black family before its Broadway debut. (Playwright Philip Yordan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Laurents, was himself Polish-American). It was inspired by O'Neill's Anna Christie in many ways. (It also has some similarities to Miller's later A View from the Bridge.) A London production reinstated the Caucasian family and Paulette Goddard played Anna as she does in the film. Almost a decade after the movie version was released, there was a superior remake with a black cast starring Eartha Kitt.

This version is more of a comedy-drama than the subsequent film. Goddard offers an okay Hollywood-style performance but she can't compare to Kitt who really lives and feels the part. It is made very clear that Anna has become a streetwalker even in this earlier version. If anything, her father's probably incestuous feelings for his daughter seem more overt than in the remake.

The supporting performances are the film's saving grace. You wouldn't think that Broderick Crawford and Mary Wickes would make a convincing husband and wife, but they sure do. Oscar Homolka is outstanding as the father, and there is fine work from Golm as his long-suffering wife. Gale Page makes a perfect, understanding sister-in-law to Anna. Two smaller roles are also of note: Dennie Moore [These Glamour Girls] in a marvelous turn as the bar waitress Blanche; and Grayce Hampton doing a wonderful dignified drunk routine as the soused patron, Queenie.

Verdict: Imperfect if interestingly-cast study of a clearly dysfunctional family. **1/2,

THE BLOB

THE BLOB (1958). Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.

An old man (Olin Howlin/Howland) finds a piece of meteor that has fallen near his cabin and discovers it is filled with a flesh-eating substance that quickly begins engulfing his arm. He is picked up off the roadway by two "teens:" Steve (Steve McQueen of The Towering Inferno); and his kind of drippy date, Jane (Aneta Corsaut of The Toolbox Murders), who initially thinks he's just a masher. Alerted to the danger represented by the blob, they try to warn the police and the town as the creature floats through suburbia and finally enters a movie theater during its midnight matinee. The Blob isn't well-directed and isn't the fright classic it could have been, but it has enough creepy moments and tense sequences, such as a bit with a meat locker and the climax in a diner completely covered by the blob, to make an effective enough monster movie. The two leads offer more than competent performances, although you might not have guessed that major stardom was in the cards for McQueen. The Blob itself seems to be brought to life in certain sequences with stop-motion, and its a neat touch how it often transforms into a kind of slithering tongue or powerful club. Slow-paced for the most part, this is a Teen Thriller decked out in widescreen and TechniColor. A crazy scene has a doctor persistently asking Steve what's wrong with the old man's arm instead of simply taking off the jacket the arm is wrapped in and seeing for himself. This was remade thirty years later but it was not that big an improvement. Followed by Beware! The Blob. This was undoubtedly inspired by The Creeping Unknown even as it influenced Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. Yeaworth also directed 4D Man; he made few films. For more on this and other monster movies see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Not bad, but not nearly as much fun as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. ***.

BEWARE! THE BLOB

Gwynne Gilford and Robert Walker Jr. 
BEWARE! THE BLOB (aka Son of Blob/1972). Director: Larry Hagman.

Chester Hargis (Godfrey Cambridge) brings home a frozen specimen that defrosts and turns into the Blob, and it rapidly devours the residents of a small town, including bowlers and ice skaters. Beware! The Blob could have been a perfectly good sequel to The Blob if the approach had been different. Larry Hagman, who was in-between I Dream of Jeannie and his career-reviving role on Dallas, decided to turn this into a free-wheeling borderline parody despite the fact that the whole premise already has black comedy aspects to begin with. So Hagman cast some friends and character actors and guest-stars -- such as Carol Lynley, Burgess Meredith, and Shelley Berman -- all of whom seem to be having fun, but not one of whom is actually funny. Most of the death scenes are also played for laughs. The shame of it is that the script is workable and there's genuine suspense in the situation at the climax, with hero Bobby (Robert Walker Jr.) trying to freeze the monster while the cops outside start to set fire to the building. Walker and Gwynne Gilford [Fade to Black] as his girlfriend, Lisa, wisely play their roles straight and are all the more effective for it -- there's also a good scene when their car is engulfed by the creature. The special effects are, if anything, even more low-tech than in the original. Veteran Richard Webb [The Invisible Monster] plays Sheriff Jones and Cindy Williams is a party guest who has one excruciating scene with a guy singing and playing guitar. Hagman directed a few television episodes, but mercifully this is the only film he ever helmed.

Verdict: Almost makes the original look like a masterpiece. *1/2.