Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.
Thursday, November 22, 2018
|Victor Jory as the Shadow|
Pulp magazines were called such because of the cheap paper they were printed on, and these digest-sized publications featured such heroes as The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, The Black Bat, and several others in snappy, fast-paced, and often violent novels. Many of these characters influenced the comic book super-heroes who came later, such as Batman and Superman (for whom Doc Savage was a major influence). The Shadow and the Spider were take-no-prisoners vigilantes, with the Spider, in particular, always leaving behind a very high body count of bad guys with no benefit of trial or council -- still, they were generally trying to kill him at the time, and he ultimately saved many more lives than he took.
The three pulp heroes covered this week on Great Old Movies -- Shadow, Spider, and Doc Savage -- have endured far beyond the life of the pulp magazines whose adventures they graced. Over the decades since the thirties there have been radio shows, TV shows, cliffhanger serials, comic books, and theatrical movies devoted to the characters, and the original pulp novels have all been reprinted in paperback -- from such major publishers as Bantam Books and various smaller presses -- innumerable times. You can still thrill to the adventures of Doc Savage and his band of scientific and heroic assistants; the Spider with his blazing guns and truly fiendish antagonists; and the Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and does his best to stamp it out. Generally the film versions of these stories can't compare to the original books, but some manage to come close.
NOTE: Shadow movies that have already been reviewed on this blog include The Shadow Strikes and The Invisible Avenger.
|Rod La Rocque, supposedly playing the Shadow|
This is the second of two films, following The Shadow Strikes, in which Rod La Rocque plays the pulp character, Lamont Cranston, aka the Shadow. Or rather he plays a pallid imitation of the Shadow. In this Lamont Cranston is not a costumed adventurer with the power to cloud men's minds, but merely a dull, rather obnoxious criminologist who writes a column and broadcasts a radio show in which he spends much of his time making fun of the alleged ineptitude of Commissioner Weston (Thomas E. Jackson). Instead of Margo Lane, we get the equally obnoxious Phoebe Lane (Astrid Allwyn of Love Takes Flight), a dilettante who got a job as a reporter only because her uncle owns the paper. The scenes of Lamont and Phoebe dickering are meant to be cute, but are merely tedious beyond measure.
|Astrid Allwyn and Rod La Roicque|
Verdict: One can only imagine what the millions of Shadow fans thought about this mess. *.
|Iris Meredith, Warren Hull, Richard Fiske and Kenne Duncan|
The Spider was a pulp character, a take-no-prisoners vigilante, who appeared in a great many action-packed, gruesome, and hard-hitting novels in the thirties. The Spider was actually criminologist Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull of The Green Hornet Strikes Again), and he was aided in his work by his fiancee Nita (Iris Meredith of Caught in the Act), and his associates Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), Jackson (Richard Fiske), and even his butler Jenkins (Donald Douglas). Wentworth is good friends with Police Commissioner Kirk (Forbes Murray), who can't help but notice that Wentworth and the Spider are often in the same place at the wrong time. His suspicions of Wentworth often led to some tense sequences in the novels, and this situation develops at least once in this serial.
|The Octopus contacts his men|
|Lester Dorr and Warren Hull as "Blinky"|
|Iris Meredith and Warren Hull|
Verdict: Thrilling and action-packed. ***.
|Victor Jory as the Shadow|
Criminologist Lamont Cranston (Victor Jory), who also masquerades as the underworld scourge the Shadow -- as well as Lin Chang, who owns a shop and is acquainted with many criminals -- is in a war with a mysterious figure known as the Black Tiger. Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue), does not suspect Cranston of being the Shadow, but he's convinced that the Shadow and the Tiger are one and the same and is constantly trying to capture the former. The Black Tiger, who can make himself invisible, is one of a group of industrialists who are being targeted by the fiendish villain, who doesn't care how many lives are destroyed to achieve his goals.
|Victor Jory as Lamont Cranston|
|Victor Jory as Lin Chang|
Verdict: Another of Columbia's superior serials. ***1/2.
|The Spider in action!|
When The Spider's Web proved successful for Columbia, a sequel came out with most of the original players reprising their roles. In The Spider Returns, Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull) has pushed aside his plans to retire and settle down with girlfriend Nita (how played by Mary Ainslee), so he can tackle a group of saboteurs out to destroy America's defense structure. The head of this group is a masked, unknown figure known only as the Gargoyle, but it later develops that he is one of the men whose industries are being targeted by the villain.
|The Gargoyle plots|
The Gargoyle has a number of schemes in play, the first of which is to secure some important government plans. Then the villain spends a lot of time sending out men to destroy his enemies, especially the Spider, Wentworth, and Commissioner Kirk (Joseph W. Girard). It is interesting that Kirk objects to the violent vigilantism of the Spider, but doesn't seem to mind that Wentworth, his alter ego (although Kirk is unaware of this), is always playing undercover cop despite his not being a member of the force. At one point in Kirk's office, Wentworth immediately countermands Kirk's orders to two police officers, who obey the former without hesitation! I mean, just who is the commissioner anyway? Of course the fact that Kirk seems to be bordering on senility at times doesn't help.
|O'Brien, Hull and Duncan|
Warren Hull is energetic as Wentworth and the Spider, although -- as in the previous serial -- he is way too jaunty at times. In one chapter Wentworth mis-identities the wrong suspect as the Gargoyle, which ultimately results in the innocent man's death, but Wentworth doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed or regretful but as flippant as ever. Nita emerges as her own woman in the serial, not afraid to mock her lover if she thinks he's making a fool of himself, but otherwise being strong and supportive. Associates Jackson (Dave O'Brien), Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan), and Jenkins (Stephen Chase) aren't given that much to do, especially Ram, who seems to sit around looking bored most of the time when he isn't driving the car.
|Anthony Warde as "Trigger"|
One very notable supporting player is Anthony Warde, who gives a very adept and flavorful performance as "Trigger.," the head man in the Gargoyle's gang. Warde played a similar role in King of the Forest Rangers and other serials and features. Warde has especially good scenes interacting with Wentworth when the later is in disguise as low-life "Blinky" McQuade -- on two occasions he tries to kill Blinky and winds up begging for his life. As for Blinky, although Hull does a great job portraying him, he is seen so often throughout the serial that he begins to wear out his welcome. 70-year-old Joseph W. Girard also gives a vigorous performance as the commissioner, although -- not to be ageist -- you can't overcome the feeling that he goes off to take a nap as soon as he steps out of camera range.
|Girard, Ainslee, and Hull|
There are some zesty fisticuffs and terrific cliffhangers in The Spider Returns. The floor of a room suddenly hangs down at an angle to reveal a fiery pit below. Wentworth is tied up and left on top of the tracks as an express train approaches. Testing a new experimental plane, Wentworth crashes, and surprisingly, doesn't manage to bail out but survives nevertheless. The best death trap has Wentworth, Nita and her Uncle (Charles Miller of Phantom of Chinatown) trapped in a room with fire on each end and spiked walls closing in from either side as the Gargoyle cackles. In the final chapters the serial builds up some considerable suspense over the true identity of the Gargoyle and whether or not his various dastardly plans will be stopped in time.
Verdict: Despite a variety of imperfections, this is one of Columbia's very best and most thrilling serials. ***1/2.
THE SHADOW RETURNS (1946). Director: Phil Rosen.
By 1946 pulp stories had been pretty much replaced by comic book heroes, but somebody at Monogram studios apparently figured there was still life in the character, and hired Kane Richmond of Spy Smasher serial fame to play Lamont Cranston in what would be the first of three features. While nowhere nears as dynamic a figure as the Shadow of the serial with Victor Jory, at least the Monogram series actually put Cranston in a costume and made him more than an amateur criminologist. By and large The Shadow Returns, while no world-beater, was an improvement over the two Shadow films with a completely miscast Rod La Rocque.
|Kane Richmond as the Shadow|
The Shadow Returns has our hero, along with Margo Lane (Barbara Read of Three Smart Girls) and comedy relief driver Shrevvie (Tom Dugan), having an adventure that mostly takes place in the mansion of gem dealer Michael Hasdon (Frank Reicher of Son of Kong), who apparently commits suicide. There are other murders as Cranston and his pals investigate from one end, while dyspeptic Inspector Cardona (Joseph Crehan) and Commissioner Weston (Pierre Watkin) -- who in this is Cranston's uncle -- investigate from another, and it's no secret who will come up with the solution first. There's a formula for plastic that's worth millions, and a series of men falling off of balconies to their deaths. There are a number of colorless suspects, but there isn't much fun in finding out who the killer is.
|Kane Richmond and Barbara Read|
Like the La Rocque movies, there's way too much supposedly comical banter and the whole approach is lightweight and mediocre. Instead of a cape, the Shadow wears a long coat with a belt. Richmond is okay as the flippant hero but he lacks distinction, which is also true of the comparatively plain Barbara Read as Margo. The inevitable Pierre Watkin is as mediocre as ever as the commissioner. Followed by Behind the Mask.
Verdict: The Shadow Lite. **.
|Kane Richmond as the Shadow|
The day before Lamont Cranston's (Kane Richmond) marriage to Margo Lane (Barbara Read), he learns that an impostor has broken into the office of the Daily Bulletin and murdered blackmailing reporter Jeff Mann (James Cardwell). Angered by this impersonation, Cranston leaves the pre-wedding party to investigate, incurring the extremely childish wrath of his fiancee. To make matters worse, Margo's maid Jenny (Dorothea Kent) is just as shrill and immature as Margo is, and has a vendetta against her boyfriend, the hapless Shrevvie (now played by George Chandler).
|George Chandler, Barbara Read, Kane Richmond|
|Marjorie Hoshelle with Bill Christy on left and Kent and Crehan on the right|
Verdict: This has little to do with the Shadow pulp stories. *1/2.
|Jo-Carroll Dennison and Kane Richmond|
When a series of murders occur that center on a stolen statue called the "Jade Lady," Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond) investigates and tries to find out just who is killing whom. This is the third and last of the Monogram "Shadow" pictures and it's a very slight improvement over the first two even if Cranston never appears in costume and "The Shadow" is never even mentioned; Cranston is simply a criminologist, which is why he can hold his own in a fight with one man but is helpless against two guys, one of whom has a gun. For most pulp heroes, even a gang of men would be no problem!
|Richmond in the elevator with Almira Sessions and Nora Cecil|
Verdict: Stick with The Shadow serial and forget these forgotten "Bs" **.
|Tom Helmore as Lamont Cranston|
Lamont Cranston (Tom Helmore of Let's Do It Again) and his girlfriend and assistant Margo Lane (Paula Raymond of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) investigate when Commissioner Weston (Frank M. Thomas of Arkansas Judge) asks them to look into the shooting murder of a young woman, Cissy Chadwick (Peggy Lobbin). Detective Harris (Norman Shelly) is convinced that the killer is Cissy's boyfriend, Alex (William Smithers), and even goes so far as to frame him. Another suspect is Cissy's vocal coach. Rollo Grimbauer (Alexander Scourby), who refuses to let Cranston ask him any questions. Then there are more murders ...
Verdict: Interesting curiosity found on youtube. **1/2.
|Ron Ely as Clark "Doc" Savage Jr.|
Handsome adventurer Doc Savage (Ron Ely) goes into action when he learns that his philanthropic father has died and possibly been murdered. Together with his colleagues -- lawyer Ham (Darrell Zwirling); chemist Monk (Michael Miller); engineer Renny (William Lucking); geologist Johnny (Eldon Quick); and electrical wizard Long Tom (Paul Gleason) -- he travels to the country of Hildago to investigate, and then journeys to a lost land with a fabulous treasure of molten gold.
|Doc's pals in peril: Lucking, Quick, Zwirling, Gleason and Miller|
Verdict: How to make sure there will never be a profitable franchise. **.
THE SHADOW (1994). Director: Russell Mulcahy.
A very disappointing adaptation of the famous Shadow pulp character for the big screen is tricked up with special effects and the like but never has the right panache to bring it all to life. Not only is Mulcahy's direction off the mark, but David Koepp's script, although it has good aspects, is sometimes just too campy. (And why is the tragic death of a young sailor who is mind-controlled to jump off the Empire State Building practically treated as if it were comedy?) Why should anybody take the character seriously if the film's creators don't? In this The Shadow is actually Lamont Cranston, who was originally a fiendish, dissolute murderer and criminal before being transformed by an Oriental mentor into an agent of Good, the price for his redemption (of course his evil past makes him a bit of a hypocrite when confronting criminals).
|Alec Baldwin as The Shadow|
One thing the picture gets right is the look of The Shadow; when Alec Baldwin [The Departed] puts on the cloak of his alter-ego, FX make his face elongate and change into the well-known hawk-like visage of the pulp hero. Baldwin is not at all bad in the role, but he's much too “contemporary” an actor to get across the proper thirties “feel.” The plot has to do with the emergence of Shiwan Khan (John Lone) the last living descendant of Genghis Khan, who wants Cranston to revert to his evil ways and help him conquer the world. To this end Khan needs a “barillium sphere” to build an atomic bomb. A clever if improbable bit has Khan somehow building a skyscraper which is not visible to anyone in Manhattan. A knife whose hilt comes alive and bites The Shadow, and a doom-trap involving a room full of rushing water, are among the better moments in the movie. A scene with a giant rolling time bomb is like something out of the Batman TV show, however, and there are other stupid moments. Tim Curry and Jonathan Winters (as Cranston's uncle) are excellent performers, but neither of them belong in this movie. Penelope Ann Miller is fine as Margo Lane, but Ian McKellen [X-Men] is wasted as her scientist father. Russell Mulcahy also directed Prayers for Bobby.
Verdict: The really great Shadow movie has yet to be made, and the serial is lots more fun than this. **1/2.
Thursday, November 8, 2018
|Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains|
"Oh, Jeff, what's going to become of us?"
Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is a young, compassionate doctor who is called upon one evening to treat a woman who has attempted suicide. Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue of It Came from Beneath the Sea) seems to have everything to live for -- beauty, wealth, a luxurious home -- but the man she calls father (Claude Rains of The Passionate Friends) seems a little too dominating. Although Jeff already has a girlfriend in nurse Julie (Maureen O'Sullivan), he soon falls under the spell of sexy Margo, and wants to run away with her. But he discovers there's a major complication and that Margo hasn't exactly informed him of everything ... Before long they're taking a wild journey to Mexico.
|Domergue and Mitchum|
Verdict: Zesty film noir with sexy Domergue not having to share billing with a giant octopus. ***.
|Friends or enemies? Mark Damon and William Campbell|
Stephen (Mark Damon of Young and Dangerous) is a writer who discovers that his fiancee, Monique (Beatrice Altariba), has been seduced and abandoned by a famous Grand Prix driver named Joe Machin (William Campbell of The High and the Mighty). Stephen's initial intention is to write an expose of the married, womanizing sleazeball, and to that end befriends the man and even joins his team. Joe is unaware of Stephen's history with Monique, but discovers it just before the climactic race, with surprising results.
|Marie Versini and William Campbell|
NOTE: Francis Ford Coppola, who has a bit in this film and was assisting Corman, was allowed by the boss to shoot his own movie with the same crew, set and actors -- Anders, Campbell, and Magee -- as long as it didn't interfere with the shooting of the main picture. The result was the aforementioned Dementia 13, which is lots better than Young Racers.
Verdict: Even Vincent Price couldn't have saved this one. **.
|Chris Lee as Fu|
Fu Manchu (Christopher Fee) has not only decided to bring together all sorts of international criminals, including American gangsters, to form a group that he will lead, but has also concocted a diabolical scheme for revenge against his British nemesis, Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer of Unman, Wittering and Zigo) of Scotland Yard. Smith has concluded that a group to be called Interpol should be formed to unite law officers from various countries and combat the criminal scourge. But he is unaware that Fu Manchu has created a double of Smith whose actions will destroy his reputation even as Smith himself is taken captive by his enemy. Dealing with the zombie-like double are FBI agent Mark Weston (Noel Trevarthen of Escort for Hire) and Smith's long-time friend and colleague, Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford).
|Horst Frank, Christopher Lee, Lin Tang|
Verdict: Disappointing Fu movie you might want to say "foo!" to. **.
16-year-old Ann Winters (Jane Withers) is sick and tired of playing 12-year-olds in her movies, and runs off to be a woman. She winds up staying at the home of playwright Oliver Lawrence (Henry Wilcoxon of Cleopatra), and gets the wrong idea about his feelings for her. Meanwhile Penelope Ryan (also Jane Withers), the winner of an Ann Winters lookalike contest, comes to visit Ann and is importuned to temporarily replace her by Ann's manager, Harry (Willam Demarest). A group of has-been child actors, played mostly by, well, has-been child actors, want the real Ann to take part in a show they want to do for soldiers; they've been told that they can only go on if a "real" star also participates. Penelope tries to appeal to the spoiled Ann's better nature to get her to do the show, but it may be a losing battle.
|Alfalfa, Jack Boyle Jr, and Spanky McFarland|
|Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer does his singing routine|
Verdict: Another amiable Republic musical. **1/2.
Literary creation The Saint -- a slightly shady adventurer who generally was on the side of the angels -- first appeared in a series of films in the forties and fifties, and then became the star of this sixties British series that ran for six years and over 100 episodes. Roger Moore played Simon Templar, famously known as "the Saint," and played him well, with that certain charming insouciance that was also a hallmark in Louis Hayward's theatrical portrayal in such films as The Saint in New York. Moore himself became famous with this series, which was also a hit on American television, and it was undoubtedly for this reason that he was later chosen to play James Bond in 007's more cartoonish adventures. The Saint was first produced in black and white then switched to color episodes for the later seasons. Each episode was an hour long including commercials. Simon would address the audience right before the credits rolled. The character of Inspector Teal was perfectly friendly to Simon in the first couple of seasons, then became the more (over) familiar unpleasant adversary of the movies.
Paranoiac] and Jackie Collins, Joan's author-sister -- a producer of a movie about Simon's exploits is murdered. Rival female race car drivers really hate each other in "The Fast Women," while an unknown enemy wants ultimate revenge on Simon in "The Time to Die." The exciting "Old Treasure Story" has Simon and a shady group searching for Blackbeard's booty on one of the Virgin Islands.
|"The House on Dragon's Rock"|
Verdict: Some good mysteries and adventure in this series, although it's not quite on the level of a true classic. **1/2.
Dan Gillis (James Farentino) is the sheriff at the small town of Potter's Bluff, which suddenly seems to have an epidemic of homicide. Mutilated corpses are turning up, and we see that the perpetrators are gangs of ordinary citizens attacking outsiders. Dan, however, is even more perplexed than the audience, especially when one of the victims turns up alive with a new identity. Dan's paranoia increases when he suspects that the town's old mortician, Dobbs (Jack Albertson), who is also the medical examiner, may know more than he's saying, and when he finds that his wife, Janet (Melody Anderson), has been reading a book on witchcraft. Then he gets a piece of film that reveals the true horror of the situation, and one especially shocking revelation ...
Verdict: Very creepy picture with a disquieting premise. ***.
When the wealthy and elderly Aristide Leonides is found dead in his bed, his grand-daughter, Sophia (Stefanie Martini), importunes old boyfriend and private eye Charles Hayward (Max Irons) to look into things and discovers the man was poisoned. Suspicion immediately falls upon Brenda (Christina Hendricks), Leonides' much, much younger wife, who was having an affair with the tutor, Laurence (John Heffernan), but there are other suspects as well: Leonides' sons Philip (Julian Sands) and Roger (Christian McKay), and his grandson Eustace (Preston Nyman); their respective wives Magda, the actress (Gillian Anderson), and Clemency (Amanda Abbington); and the spinster aunt, Lady Edith (Glenn Close). Trying to assist Charles as he interviews everyone in the house is young Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who is keeping a journal as she tries to find out "who-dun-it" before Charles does, but her efforts may get her into trouble -- or worse.
Verdict: Creditable Agatha Christie adaptation is not as good as the book, but worth viewing in any case. ***.