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

Thursday, August 20, 2020


Bette Davis
ANOTHER MAN'S POISON (1951). Director: Irving Rapper.

Janet (Bette Davis) is a well-known English author of mysteries who finds herself with an unwelcome guest at her country estate. George Bates (Gary Merrill of Mysterious Island) tells her that he and her husband pulled off a bank robbery during which a guard was shot. George wants to see hubby immediately -- but there's a problem: he's lying dead, murdered, in the study. George helps Janet get rid of the body but he decides to impersonate her husband for both of their sakes, a decision that leaves Janet most uncomfortable. For one thing Janet is madly in love -- or lust -- with Larry (Anthony Steel), the very handsome fiance of her secretary, Chris (Barbara Murray of Operation Bullshine). And then there's the nosy next-door veterinarian, Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams), who is simply asking way too many questions ...

"You Killed Fury!?
Bette Davis -- although she finally has a chance to do a full-on British accent after doing a half-assed one for most of her life -- is not the best casting choice for Another Man's Poison. Fortunately, towards the end of the movie she is afforded some chances for her intense and formidable acting pyrotechnics when she learns that her beloved horse, Fury, is dead.  "You killed Fury!" she screeches at George before launching into a great speech in which she fervently expresses that the horse meant much more to her than any human being possibly could. I suppose she can't be faulted for being stagy when the movie is based on a stage play, even if there are attempts to open it up and get her away from the basic house set. But for much of the movie's length Davis seems to be doing an impression of a drag queen doing an impression of Bette Davis!

Gary Merrill
But Davis is magnificent compared to her then-husband Gary Merrill. Merrill had certainly given some fine performances in other movies, but in Another Man's Poison he seems like a college student merely reciting lines with little emotion or nuance and hoping that he's making a decent impression. True, his character is never well-delineated, which gives him a handicap right from the start, but even so he is utterly mediocre. The only problem with Emlyn Williams is that his character, the Nosy Parker who lives down the road, is so irritating. It's also hard to believe that George would even humor the man. He'd be more likely to tell him to screw off.

Anthony Steel
Barbara Murray gives a pleasant enough performance as the secretary who fears that she just can't compete with her boss, who has decided that she wants her Larry and that's that. As Larry, the very handsome Anthony Steel provides hunk appeal, but his acting is nothing to rave about. As with Merrill, his character is very under-written. In any case, his on-again/off-again dalliances with his fiancee's employer make Larry seem like a sleazeball. Reginald Beckwith and Edna Morris are notable in smaller roles as a villager who pursues George for an appearance with a local club, and the family housekeeper. Another Man's Poison is modestly entertaining, but despite a somewhat ironic and amusing (if not unexpected) wind-up, it's too contrived and even silly to be that memorable. Anthony Steel was one of the husbands of Anita Ekberg. Irving Rapper also directed Davis in two much more memorable movies, Now, Voyager and Deception.

Verdict: Latter-day Davis in a mediocre vehicle that is not without some points of interest. **3/4. 


COME BACK TO THE 5 AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982). Director: Robert Altman.

In a small town in Texas twenty years have gone by since the last meeting of a James Dean fan club in 1955, the year of Dean's death. Incredibly, several of these "disciples" come back to the Woolworth "5 and Dime" store, where the members used to congregate, for a 20th anniversary reunion. Two of the members -- big-boobed Sissy (Cher) and decidedly weird Mona (Sandy Dennis), who supposedly has a son fathered by Dean -- never left town and still work for Juanita (Sudie Bond) at the store. Then there's big brassy Stella Mae (Kathy Bates of Misery), sweetly naive Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), and a newcomer, Joanne (Karen Black), who knows everyone and claims she was once a member of the group -- but no one remembers her. As the day progresses, the ladies share revelations and bear their souls.

Kathy Bates with Karen Black in the background
Originally presented on stage with (mostly) the same cast, and with Altman as director, the play had its fans -- primarily due to the presence of Cher and perhaps its camp/transgender factor -- but was not a big hit with the critics, finding it awfully contrived and sitcom-like, which it is. As with the stage production, Altman decided to use the same actors playing themselves twenty years earlier in sometimes poorly delineated flashbacks, and it not only doesn't work but just confuses the viewer. The frequent jumps in time eventually become tiresome. But while the play and movie, both written by Ed Graczyk, have some interesting elements to them, the story ultimately comes off more like a stunt than serious theater. The film never quite makes up its mind if it's a drama or a black comedy. The dialogue doesn't come naturally from the situations, but seems forced just so each character can have her big moment

Settling scores: Karen Black
Then there's the acting, which is frequently over-rehearsed (understandably) and over-emphatic. Cher was originally supposed to play a transsexual character, but decided she'd rather play Sissy (ironic that her daughter became a trans man years later). She is okay, but it's not much of a stretch from what she used to do in sketches on The Sonny and Cher Show. Sandy Dennis is somewhat good as that ultimate loser, Mona, but she's a positive riot of pauses, tics, nervousness, and grotesque facial expressions. Mona manages to get over her own mortification rather quickly. Karen Black [Invaders from Mars] comes off the best as Joanne, who has come to town to settle a few scores, and she has quite a few bravura moments. Kathy Bates is also quite good, as are Sudie Bond, Marta Helfin and Mark Patton [A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge] as Joe, the one male member of the Disciples, whose character manages to run virtually the entire LGBT gamut before the play is over.

I believe the play is meant to be liberal and kind-hearted, and it can be appreciated on that level, but I think some of the same elements could have been reworked into something with a stronger premise and more interesting situations and characters.

Verdict: It is not true that a remake with Caitlyn Jenner is now in pre-production. **1/2. 


Ruth Roman and Dick Wesson
STARLIFT (1951). Director: Roy Del Ruth.

Movie star Nell Wayne (Janice Rule of The Swimmer) gets the notion that Air Force Corporal Rick Williams (Ron  Hagerthy) and his buddy Sgt. Mike Nolan (Dick Wesson) are being shipped overseas for combat in Korea when they are merely picking up wounded soldiers and piloting them home. Nell feels betrayed when she learns the truth, but the press come to the conclusion that she and Rick are engaged and the two are forced to go along with the deception. Meanwhile Nell and other celebrities take part in "Operation: Starlift," which brings movie stars and others by plane to visit wounded servicemen.

Ron Hagerthy and Janice Rule
This is the slender plot for another all-star war movie that starts out as a Doris Day film -- Day plays herself and does a couple of numbers -- but then dismisses her in favor of Ruth Roman (also playing herself) and assorted guest-stars. These include everyone from Louella Parsons to Peter Marshall to Patrice Wymore. Jane Wyman warbles a pleasant tune and is acceptable. Gene Nelson dancers with his customary flair and aptitude in a ballet with Rule. Phil Harris [The Patsy] shows up and does little but repulse everyone with his hideous smile. He also appears in a singing sketch with Gary Cooper playing a Texas Ranger. James Cagney puts in a brief appearance and there is a sketch about a chef that you can miss.

Virginia Mayo does her dance
Starlift does have a couple of highlights, however. There's Gordon MacRae splendidly singing "Good Green Acres of Home" backed by a military chorus. And Virginia Mayo [The Kid from Brooklyn] does a kind of Polynesian dance number and proves herself to be quite skilled in the terpsichorean arts. Ruth Roman is on screen almost as long as Janice Rule but she apparently can neither sing nor dance. As for the two Air Force men, Dick Wesson was generally comedy relief in a few movies and TV shows. After this film, most of Ron  Hagerthy's many credits were on television. Others in the cast include Richard Webb as Colonel Callan and William Hudson as a soldier.

Verdict: Some memorable moments, but generally not one of the better "all-star" war films. **1/2. 


Loretta Swit, Sandy Dennis, Valerie Harper
THE EXECUTION (1985 telefilm). Director: Paul Wendkos.

In San Diego in 1970, several women who were survivors of the Birkenau concentration camp and who somehow met up with each other years later, get together each week to play mah jongg. Elsa (Sandy Dennis) spots a restaurant owner named Walter Grauman (Rip Torn of Sweet Bird of Youth) on a TV ad and is afraid that he may actually be Wilheim Gehbert, who raped and brutalized the women at Birkenau and was responsible for several thousand deaths. Marysia (Loretta Swit) agrees to find out if Walter has a certain scar on his back, and winds up sleeping with him when he doesn't. However, she is in for a rude awakening the next morning. The ladies decide that one of them will secretly murder Grauman, but things get complicated when an innocent man is arrested for the crime ...

Rip Torn with Loretta Swit
The Execution has an excellent premise but in its second half it becomes overly complicated, ignores points of law, and is almost sunk by its contrivances; even a final twist doesn't quite make up for the script deficiencies.  In fact, it becomes ridiculous at times. Loretta Swit, however, gives an outstanding performance, giving 150% to the role. The other ladies -- including Valerie Harper, Barbara Barrie and Jessica Walter  -- are good but a notch below Swit. Dennis indulges in her usual quirky all-tics-and-mannerisms acting style and is actually not that compelling. Of the male actors, Torn gives a good if second-rate performance, although Alan Miller and Peter White are fine as two of the spouses. Paul Wendkos also directed theatrical films such as The Burglar.

Verdict: No one expected Judgment at Nuremberg, but a film with this premise should have been much, much, more powerful -- Swit can not be faulted, however. **3/4. 


John Archer and Margaret Lindsay
EMERGENCY HOSPITAL (1956). Director: Lee Sholem.

Dr. Janet Carey (Margaret Lindsay of Club Havana) is a very busy doctor at a state-run hospital during the night shift. Ben Caldwell (Byron Palmer of Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki) is a race car driver and playboy who wants Janet to give it all up and marry him, while Dr. Herb Ellis (John Archer) seems to be carrying a torch for Janet as well. Sgt. Paul Arnold (Walter Reed) is the police liaison with the hospital and he is on hand when his son, Jimmy (James Noah), is brought in after an accident and nearly winds up in a nasty incident between father and son. There are other assorted crises and patients during one long night.

James Noah and Walter Reed
Emergency Hospital looks like an especially gritty TV production, and in truth it's the kind of stuff that later wound up in many episodes of assorted medical shows -- life, death, accidents, diseases, assorted mini-dramas with some life lessons passed out by the staff. Lindsay is puffy-looking but gives a good performance, and Reed has some very good moments in the sequences with his son. Archer makes a positive impression as a decent guy who may just have to take a back seat to the flashier Caldwell, who is well-played by Palmer. Rita Johnson [Forty Little Mothers] scores as head nurse Norma Mullen.

The large cast also includes Rhodes Reason and William Boyett as traffic cops; Vera Francis as a lovely African-American nurse also named Vera; and Mary Carver, Maxine Gates, and Jan Englund as semi-hysterical patients.

Verdict: Too bad Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare don't put in an appearance. **3/4. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020


Jean Simmons
HOME BEFORE DARK (1958). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

Charlotte Bronn (Jean Simmons of Dominique) returns home after a year in a mental institution due to a nervous breakdown. Married to the cold fish Professor Arnold Bronn (Dan O'Herlihy), Charlotte had imagined that her husband was really in love with her stepsister, Joan (Rhonda Fleming of The Nude Bomb), and allowed her alleged delusions to get the better of her. When the Bronns got married Arnold moved into Charlotte's house, and the couple lived with Joan and Charlotte's stepmother, Inez (Mabel Albertson). Bad idea!

Simmons with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. 
Trying to adjust to her new state of freedom, Charlotte finds her husband as cold as ever, and she is somewhat drawn to their boarder, Jacob Diamond (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), a Jew who was championed  by Arnold against anti-Semitic colleagues until it no longer suited his purposes. Jacob has feelings for Charlotte, as does her old boyfriend, Hamilton  (Stephen Dunne). Their attentions, however, do not prevent additional feelings of paranoia for Charlotte over a possible relationship between Arnold and Joan. Although Home Before Dark is not a thriller, it does work up some suspense over whether or not there is anything between husband and stepsister-in-law before the final revelations.

Rhonda Fleming, Dan O'Herlihy, Mabel Albertson
Home Before Dark is decidedly overlong at nearly two and a half hours. One could argue that there's really not enough plot for such a lengthy motion picture, but despite some tedious moments the picture manages to be absorbing, in no small part to a superb performance by Jean Simmons. There is a particularly good scene worth waiting for in which Charlotte shows up in a Boston restaurant trying to look like a grotesque imitation of her stepsister. Dan O'Herlihy is fine in the thankless role of a seemingly passionless husband; Dunne scores as the cast-off boyfriend from years ago; Fleming and Albertson are memorable as Charlotte's other family members; and even Zimbalist is okay as Jacob, although it's a wonder why this rather sexless and bland actor was constantly cast as a romantic figure in movie after movie. In smaller roles one can find Joan Weldon [Them], Eleanor Audley, and Lucy's mother Kathryn Card in the peppery role of the housekeeper Mattie. Oddly, the score for the film consists of snippets from various previous films by a variety of composers. Photographed by Joseph F. Biroc.

Verdict: Love-starved wives are always entertaining in these kind of movies, but this is on a somewhat higher level than a soap opera. ***.


Van Johnson as the disheartened playwright
23 PACES TO BAKER STREET (1956). Director: Henry Hathaway.

Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) is a playwright who has temporarily relocated to London where the British production of his latest show is a hit. Phillip lost his eyesight in an unspecified accident a few years before and remains bitter and unsatisfied with life. His former fiancee, Jean (Vera Miles of Tarzan's Hidden Jungle), comes to see him -- it was not her idea to end the engagement -- but he still seems determined to keep distance between them. He has a likable butler named Bob (Cecil Parker of The Ladykillers) who looks after him. One evening Phillip overhears a conversation between two people -- a man named Evans and a woman named Murch who wears a distinctive perfume -- and realizes there is a strong possibility she is being forced into some kind of criminal mischief. With the help of Jean and Bob, Phillip goes about trying to find this Miss Murch so he can help her and prevent the possible child kidnapping or other skulduggery that might take place. But while he's looking for Murch, Evans is looking for him ...

Johnson with Vera Miles
23 Paces to Baker Street comes off like a combination of Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, although it lacks the Master's touch, Henry Hathaway not being in the same league as Hitchcock. In spite of that, 23 Paces is a memorable suspense-thriller, with a nifty scene when Phillip is caught on a crumbling roof in a diabolical trap, and an exciting climax when he squares off with the mastermind in his apartment. The performances can not be faulted: Johnson is square-on in his portrayal of the disheartened and embittered blind man who finally allows love in the door, Vera Miles is warm and sympathetic as the woman who adores him, Parker makes a likable helpmate, and Estelle Winwood is winning as a barkeep who also tries to help Phillip in his quest. There are also notable turns from Patricia Laffan as a nurse and Martin Benson [The Cosmic Monsters] as a man who runs an agency for same, among others.

Cinematography by Milton R.. Krasner
The movie greatly benefits from an evocative score by Leigh Harline and impressive CinemaScope photography by Milton R. Krasner; his sweeping shots of London are especially beautiful.  This was hardly the first depiction of a bitter blind man, nor is Phillip the first blind "detective." Edward Arnold played a blind private eye (much more accepting of his impairment) in two films. Years later James Franciscus starred as a blind insurance investigator on the TV series Longstreet, which lasted one season. An Italian giallo film named The Crimes of the Black Cat has a lot of plot similarities to 23 Paces, also featuring a blind man who overhears a plot in a bar, a rooftop trap, and the like. 23 Paces is far superior to Wait Until Dark, which had a blind heroine in a tough spot at the climax.

Verdict: Highly watchable suspense film with some excellent performances. ***. 


Highly punchable: David Niven
TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT (aka Happy Ever After/1954). Director: Mario Zampi.

"We could be very happy in an unhappy sort of way." -- Jasper.

Aged General O'Leary of Rathbonie Ireland is determined to make a dangerous jump on his horse as he does every year, but this time he has an accident and eventually dies. His estate goes to relative Jasper O'Leary (David Niven of Death on the Nile), who sets the entire town against himself by refusing  to honor his uncle's death bed bequests and the old man's forgiving of certain debts. Meanwhile the recently widowed Serena (Yvonne De Carlo), who had hoped to snare handsome former fiance Dr. Michael Flynn (Robert Urquhart of The Curse of Frankenstein) against her sister Kathy's (Noelle Middleton) wishes, deides that it might be better to set her cap for the obviously interested new Squire, Jasper. But now all of Jasper's many enemies decide the only thing to do is to assassinate Jasper ...

Barry Fitzgerald and David Niven
Black comedies can work --witness the wonderful The Wrong Box -- but Tonight's the Night is an appalling concoction and only has three solid laughs throughout its ninety minutes running time. For one thing the two lead characters, the  heartless priss Jasper and the gold-digging Serena, are too loathsome to be amusing. Character flaws can make people funny, but these two, Jasper in particular, are utterly worthless individuals. One feels sympathy for the wronged townspeople -- Jasper wants to evict one elderly man out of the home he's lived in for decades -- until they start indulging in IRA tactics including bombs and the like. One plan to kill Jasper has to do with tying a rope across the road in the hopes that Jasper will be beheaded when he drives by in his motorcar! Such lovely people!

Robert Urquhart and Yvonne De Carlo
Much of the second half of the film is taken up with the town folks' bumbling attempts at murder, which makes them resemble especially malevolent variations on the Bowery Boys but with even less laughs. Niven, although playing someone whose face you want to punch almost from the first, gives a good performance (nobody could be more obnoxious than Niven when playing a detestable prig); De Carlo is snappy and has an okay Irish brogue; the supporting cast does its best; and Barry Fitzgerald nearly steals the picture -- not that he would necessarily want it -- in his portrayal of Thady, the tippling butler. Niven and De Carlo don't have that much chemistry, and the characters of Kathy and the doctor are never sufficiently developed. A highlight of the film is when a talented Irish tenor sings the lovely ballad "My Heart is Irish." Mario Zampi also directed The Naked Truth, another dark comedy that was much, much better than this..

Verdict: Essentially unfunny and atrocious but for Fitzgerald and the tenor. *1/2. 


Trapped but determined: Olivia de Havilland
LADY IN A CAGE (1964). Director: Walter Grauman.

Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland of Not as a Stranger) is a determined lady who has apparently been rather stifling towards her probably gay son, Malcolm (William Swan).  Malcolm goes off for a few days, leaving a letter basically telling his "darling" to let him live his own life, while Cornelia -- who has broken a hip -- gets trapped in her home elevator when there is a power failure. Her attempts to draw attention with an alarm system fail, and in short order she is "visited" by everyone from a wino (Jeff Corey of Bright Leaf) and a sluttish friend of his named Sade (Ann Sothern of A Letter to Three Wives) to three young mentally-defective "troglodytes" -- Randall (James Caan), Essie (Rafael Campos) and Elaine (Jennifer Billinsley) -- all of whom are looking for booty. Then Randall gets the idea that the wino, Sade, and Cornelia should all be done away with ...

Billingsley, Caan and Campos
Lady in a Cage is a decidedly repellent film on many levels, but it is also well-directed and well-made, and has many effective and suspenseful moments. The acting is a little more problematic, with virtually everyone seeming stagy and obvious at times as if they thought they were in a play. In spite of this, de Havilland is generally good, and Corey and Sothern are mostly on-target as well. Caan and Billingsley, who were "introduced" in this film (both had previous TV credits), are less impressive, as is Campos as the decidedly weird Essie, as probably none of them had a clue as to what their characters were all about. William Swan, who is fine, mostly had television credits.

Slattern and wino: Sothern and Corey
This pre-Stonewall film tries to suggest that this dominant mother figure "turned" her son into a homosexual, a dated notion to be certain. Arguing that Malcolm is not gay, Cornelia mentions all of his "charming women friends," to which Essie -- who may have sexual identity issues himself -- responds "'women' friends he met in public shower rooms!" When this film played on television years ago, that line, among others, was excised, as was the shot of a certain individual's head after being crushed under the wheels of a motor car.

Verdict: Whatever you think of the movie it gets points for being unpredictable. ***. 


The Joker meets Boy Batman

Joker (2019). Not a "super-hero" film as such, Joker looks at the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and shows how he transformed into Batman's arch-enemy, the clown-faced, maniacal Joker. Essentially this is a slow if absorbing study of a lonely and mentally-unstable outsider with show biz aspirations, a horrible mother, and a childhood full of abuse. Batman is still a child at the time this takes place, and Arthur wrongly imagines that he is Bruce Wayne's half-brother. Made fun of by talk show host and comic Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), he winds up a guest on the show with predictable results. Arthur is presented as an angry victim with some legitimate grievances, but his being turned into a champion of the poor and downtrodden is utterly ludicrous and just doesn't work. Very well-acted by Phoenix and De Niro, Joker is by no means a bad movie -- although it's not always well-paced -- but Best Picture ...? No. Directed by Todd Phillips, this has an interesting score by Hildur Guanodottir. Unless you're a total geek, you'll probably forget about the movie five minutes after you see it. **3/4.

Downton Abbey (2019) revisits the Crawley family from the very popular TV series and works effectively as an especially long episode. The King and Queen are going to spend the night at the estate, and everyone is thrown into a tizzy, especially the servants, who are told that the King's staff will take over and that even the cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), will have to temporarily turn in her apron. They aren't going to take that lying down! Meanwhile handsome butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is also temporarily shunted aside by retired Carson (Jim Carter), but Barrow finds a like-soul after he's caught in a raid on a gay bar. (Barrow is a much more sympathetic character in this than when he was first introduced.) Violet (Maggie Smith) is appalled that a relative is going to leave her fortune to a maid -- goodness! -- instead of Violet's son, but discovers the reason why. And a sneak thief is stealing various items from the household. One could quibble about certain aspects of the story, but for the most part Downton Abbey is delightful and beautifully acted, with equal parts charm, class and sentiment. Directed by Michael Engler. ***1/4.