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

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Thursday, December 9, 2021

HITCHCOCK AND THE CENSORS

HITCHCOCK AND THE CENSORS. John Billheimer. University Press of Kentucky; 2019. 

This fascinating volume looks at the work of the brilliant Alfred Hitchcock, and focuses on how his films -- and the episodes of his TV shows that he directed -- fared with the censors. The book is divided into sections on his British films; his films with Selznick; the films he did after he ended his association with the producer; his golden period, which included such as Vertigo and North By Northwest; the TV years; and the final period when he regained some lost ground with the critics with Frenzy (but who also did such interesting works as Marnie and Torn Curtain). 

After going into the formation of the production code, the book relates the censors' initial reaction to scripts that Hitch submitted and the changes they recommended, as well as the often clever way that Hitch would get around those changes. Censors were especially worried by the lengthy kisses of Notorious, the depiction of a toilet flushing in Psycho, possible lesbianism in Rebecca, the too-efficient Nazi of Lifeboat, the gay murderers of Rope, a potentially suicidal priest in I Confess, and much more. While examining the censorship of Hitch's films and both its positive and negative effects on the movies, Billheimer takes a fresh and interesting look at the Master's films in general. 

Verdict: Excellent tome for the serious Hitchcock admirer and film enthusiasts in general. ***1/2.  

THE CORRUPT ONES

Anti-hero: Robert Stack
THE CORRUPT ONES (aka Die Holle von Macao/1967). Director: James Hill. 

Photographer Cliff Wilder (Robert Stack of The Last Voyage) escapes from Red China and makes his way by boat to Macao with an adventurer named Danny Mancini (Maurizio Arena), who tells him of a certain "Peking Medallion" that can point the way to a fabulous treasure. Danny has the medallion in his possession, but not for long, as he is brutally murdered. Others interested in the medallion include his widow, Lily (Elke Sommer); a mobster named Brandon (Christian Marquand); a sort of wealthy "Dragon Lady" named Tina (Nancy Kwan); and even the Chief of Police, Pinto (Werner Peters of Phantom of Soho). Dodging enemies right and left and not knowing whom to trust, Wilder tries to retrieve the medallion and lay claim to the treasure. 

Elke Sommer with Stack
There are no actual spies in The Corrupt Ones, but it has a lot of the same elements that you find in international eurospy productions. "Elliott Ness" -- Stack's most famous role -- comes on to every woman he meets within seconds, takes on numerous opponents in assorted fight scenes, is dragged behind a speeding power boat at one point, saves Lily from torture at the hands of Tina, and carries on in many ways like a "super-spy" without actually being one. Stack generally handles this with aplomb, and while Sommer and others in the cast are dubbed, we can hear his real voice throughout. 

Nancy Kwan, Werner Peters, Christian Marquand
The production values in the film are above average, with Tina's gorgeous home being of special distinction, along with the cavern set where the treasure is located. The musical score is effective and appropriate. An amusing sequence has Stack turning down one proffered prostitute after another in a club and telling the startled madam "I'm waiting for a man" -- although he's actually referring to an appointment with Danny. The characters in this are unpleasant and one-dimensional but the picture is quite entertaining. James Hill also directed A Study in Terror.

Verdict: Not exactly The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but fun. ***

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART EIGHT

ROUND UP OF NEW AND RECENT FILMS PART EIGHT


Changing Lanes (2002). Director: Roger Michell. A corporate lawyer (Ben Affleck) and a reformed alcoholic businessman (Samuel L. Jackson) get in a fender bender, and the former, late for court, pretty much blows the other guy off. Then he realizes he's accidentally given the man some important papers. However, Jackson, trying to get his family back, is also late for a court date, and is furious with Affleck. Things between the two men spiral out of control and at one point nearly turn murderous. This is an absorbing, very well-acted movie in which race relations do not take center stage. (With the exception of one sequence, this could have been about two white guys or two black guys.) The movie features two very interesting character studies, although some abrupt character reversals aren't convincing. You have to suspend disbelief for the feel-good ending -- and pretty much gloss over an act of attempted murder (!) -- but the movie is quite entertaining and does end on a high note. ***.  

Serenity
 (2019). Writer/director: Steven Knight. Just when you're getting pleasantly involved with and  invested in this film noirish story of a man (Matthew McConaughey) who is importuned by his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) to murder her distinctly unpleasant husband (Jason Clarke) while on a fishing charter, the picture does an 160 degree turn and becomes a fantasy-science fiction story. I've no doubt some viewers will give Serenity points for being something different, but it's not the most original concept, and it sort of forces you to suddenly stop caring about the characters. There are certainly interesting notions in the basic premise, but I, for one, felt a bit cheated. This would have been a better movie had it remained a late entry in the film noir sweepstakes. McConaughey is excellent, however, and everyone else in the cast is right on target. **1/4. 

The Ides of March
 (2011), which co-stars, was co-written and directed by George Clooney, focuses more on Stephen (Ryan Gosling), a second-in-command for a presidential campaign for Clooney's governor. Stephen finds himself being played by opposing forces and also discovers that his married hero had a one-night-stand with a pretty intern. Ides is generally well-acted and fairly absorbing but its cliche-ridden screenplay puts it in the minor leagues. Gosling has given some very good performances in other films but in this he mostly displays cool attitude, seems bored half the time, and doesn't even seem to be acting; Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others, are better. As political movies go, this one just isn't in the running. **1/4. 

Closer
 (2004) deals with two couples in London. Photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) gets involved with dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) when the strange author Dan (Jude Law) pretends to be a woman online and arranges a date between him and Anna. Meanwhile Dan, who is obsessed with Anna, already has a girlfriend in Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from New York. Anna is torn between the two men and Alice can't seem to live without Dan. Based on a play, this has characters that aren't dimensional enough to help us care about them, although the four solid actors give it their all. There really isn't much of a story to this, which is a problem as the movie is not character-driven so much as plot-driven. The frank language and profligate bed-hopping probably fooled young audiences -- and 73-year-old director Mike Nichols -- into thinking they were seeing something deep -- they weren't. However, the film is undeniably entertaining and absorbing thanks to the performances. **1/2. 

Primary Colors (1998), also directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by Elaine May, deals with a fictionalized version of the Clintons. John Travolta never quite seems like a real person in his portrayal of the amiably piggish "Jack Stanton," but Emma Thompson is absolute perfection as his strong-willed wife, Susan (Hilary). I was not as carried away as others by Kathy Bates as the lesbian Libby Holman, although she is good, but Adrian Lester definitely impressed me with his likable and evocative portrayal of the Stanton's African-American coordinator, Henry. There are also nice turns by Larry Hagman, Tony Shalhoub, Rob Reiner, and others. While hardly perfect, the fast-paced, and entertaining picture is amusing and disturbing in equal measure. ***. 

HEARTBURN

Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep
HEARTBURN   (1986). Director: Mike Nichols. 

Food writer Rachel (Meryl Streep of Postcards from the Edge) and political columnist Mark (Jack Nicholson of Carnal Knowledge) get married, buy a house that needs a great deal of work, and eventually have a cute little daughter (played winningly by Streep's own daughter). Gossip at parties tends to revolve around which spouse is cheating, but Rachel -- who is pregnant again -- is shocked to discover that Mark is fooling around with a notorious Washington hostess. She is importuned to come back to Mark -- but do they really have a chance or should she face the fact that she may have married the wrong person?

Kevin Spacey 
Based on Nora Ephron's autobiographical novel, Heartburn has its amusing and poignant moments, and the acting is adequate -- Nicholson had already entered the familiar "Nicholson mode" by this time -- but director Mike Nichols favors overly long takes that throw off the pacing and actually make the film kind of tedious at times. Because this is based on Ephron's book -- she also wrote the screenplay -- we don't learn that much about husband Mark (the real-life Carl Bernstein) or whatever reasons he may have had for embarking upon affairs (not that some husbands necessarily need reasons). Steven Hill, Maureen Stapleton, and Stockard Channing have solid featured roles, but the supporting cast member who really stands out is a very young Kevin Spacey [Beyond the Sea] as a subway rider who later on robs Rachel's therapy group at gunpoint! 

Verdict: Carly Simon's music may be the best thing about the movie. **1/2. 

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND FIVE

FILMS I JUST COULDN'T FINISH ROUND FIVE. 

As noted previously, these are not reviews, per se, but notes on films that I watched or suffered through until I just gave up on them for one reason or another. Sometimes I skipped to different sections just to get a sense of what was going on or to see if the film became more entertaining. Not all of these pictures are necessarily bad, they just didn't hold my attention. If you see one on the list that you think deserves another look, let me know.

The Spider's Web (1960) is based on a play by Agatha Christie but I could hardly finish a quarter of it when I turned it off. Glynis Johns is irritating and the whole flick comes off as a witless sitcom. I couldn't care less who murdered the man found in a closet.  

FX-18 (1964) is a poor Eurospy film with Ken Clark of Attack of the Giant Leeches playing a womanizing agent sent to Majorca to smash a spy ring that operates out of a yacht. Clark is okay in the part but the picture's pace is too slow and there is no style whatsoever. 

Secret Agent FX-18 /aka The Exterminators/1965)-- not to be confused with the just plain FX-18 -- stars Richard Wyler as another Eurospy who deals with sinister Egyptian agents, a French rocket, assorted thugs and the like, but the picture never amounts to much in spite of a lot of running around in different locales. 

Fireball 500  (1966) teams Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte as rival race car drivers with songs, giggling gals, romance, and the like thrown into the mix but after awhile you realize there really isn't much to this picture. 

The Spy with Ten Faces (1966) stars Paul Hubschmid ("Paul Christian" in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) as "UpperSeven," a super-spy who wears so many masks that his enemies don't really know what he looks like. This device, borrowed from old pulp stories and serials, might be the only really interesting element of this mediocre eurospy flick, directed by super-hack Alberto De Martino. Although Hubschmid is fine in the lead and there are some good scenes, this is not a contender. 

I gave up on The Man from O.R.G.Y.  (1970) rather quickly, although I did try to stick it out for my customary quarter of the running time. This stars Robert Walker (Jr.) as a weird agent for a sex-based organization called O.R.G.Y. Walker is assigned to find three young heiresses who have a strange tattoo and gets involved in ludicrous, allegedly kinky scenarios. A complete waste of celluloid. 

I had wanted to see the strangely-titled Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Me?  (1971) for decades but was sorry when I did. With a poor and silly script by Herb Gardner, and an off-putting style from director Ulu Grosbard, this movie about a singer (Dustin Hoffman) who is supposedly bedeviled by a person saying bad things about him to his friends, never becomes remotely compelling. Leading Lady Barbara Harris shows up very late in the film but although she was inexplicably nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for this stinker, she's hardly enough to save this mess. 

The Sender (1982) is about a strange young man who tries to drown himself and winds up in a mental hospital where a woman tries to treat him despite his odd, almost supernatural, abilities. Despite the presence of Shirley Knight and the talented Zeljko Ivanek in his first starring role, this movie is so slowww and dull that I gave up on it halfway through. 

Fatal Instinct (1993) was meant to be a spoof of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, and I must say Armand Assante, Kate Nelligan, and Sean Young are right on-target in their performances, but this is basically a Carol Burnett Show spoof stretched out to over an hour and a half  -- after awhile this Carl Reiner-directed comedy begins to wear very thin. 

The Nurse (1997) stars Lisa Zane as a woman who comes to care for a paralyzed man she feels is responsible for the death of her father. No one in the movie seems to realize how awful the situation is for the patient, who can't move or speak but is able to think constantly about his horrible predicament. Eventually this whole situation becomes irritating, but in any case the movie doesn't grip.

The Woods (2006) has a young lady being sent to an exclusive girls' school where she has to contend with bitchy classmates, weird teachers, and the possibility of witches in the woods. This horror film may have been intended for a teen audience, but it just didn't hold the interest of this adult viewer. 

Triangle (2009) features a young woman with an autistic son who goes on a yachting party with a guy she's dating and his friends. They wind up on a deserted ocean liner where someone appears to be killing them off. Instead of a linear and tense suspense film, which this could easily have been, writer-director Christopher Smith gets metaphysical, silly, and unoriginal -- and creates a mess, The movie is professionally shot, acted, and directed -- quite well made, in fact -- but seeing the same scenes from multiple points of view quickly becomes tedious. The movie attempts to add some depth and poignancy relating to the little boy, but the screenplay is awkward, and all told, poor. After an hour I skipped to the end.

Nerve (2013) concerns a man who learns his wife is having an affair shortly before she is killed in a car crash. He becomes friends with a hooker and visits his psychiatrist regularly after having a nervous breakdown. I gave this alleged thriller more than twenty dull minutes waiting for something of interest to happen, but the placid style and slow pacing was so off-putting that I found myself longing to switch to anything, even an umpteenth rerun of Dr. Phil. I skipped ahead to see what the "alleged" twist was all about and am glad I didn't waste another full hour actually sitting through this.

The Last Days on Mars (2013) has astronauts planning to leave the "red planet" when they come across some kind of dangerous contagion. When the actors began foaming at the mouth and attacking everyone like something out of Night of the Living Dead I figured this was another trip to the well I didn't need and switched it off. 

78/52 Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) is a documentary about Psycho, especially the famous shower murder sequence. Well after about fifteen minutes I gave up on this. I mean, there was some pretentious film journalist babbling on about the movie along with minor celebrities like Elijah Wood and Bret Easton Ellis offering their opinions and whose observations were neither insightful nor interesting  -- who cares? 

Normally I love monster movies but I quit Rampage (2018), despite some good FX work, about a quarter of the way in because it came off like just another "Rock/Duane Johnson" action movie that I felt I had seen once too often. Just had no great desire to see it to the end. 

Although I did like Inglourious Basterds (with reservations), I still don't count myself among the fans of Quentin Tarantino. Nevertheless I checked out Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood  (2019) because people I know and whose opinions I generally trust recommended the film, so I gave this tedious and meandering movie a try. Everyone said that the ending was a knock out, and that may be the case, but I just couldn't stick around until it got there -- there were too many other films I really wanted to look it. I may return to this some day, but for now ... Besides, even if the ending is good that may not justify how long it takes to arrive there. 

Other pictures I stopped watching or skimmed through include: I'm From Arkansas with Bruce Bennett; Carnival Lady (1933); and the "eurospy" pictures Red Dragon with Stewart Granger; Secret Agent Fireball with Ray Danton; Agent OO3: Operation Atlantis with John Ericson; Dick Smart 2.007 with Richard Wyler;The Big Blackout; Kommissar X: Death Trip; and Kommissar X: Operation Pakistan.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Great Old Movies is taking a week off to enjoy some turkey (I eat a lot of turkey).

So there are no turkeys to review this week.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Thursday, November 11, 2021

THE OSCAR

THE OSCAR
(1966). Director: Russell Rouse.

Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) is a low-level garment worker who sort of falls into acting because he "impresses" a lady talent scout named Sophie (Eleanor Parker). Sophie gets him a top agent in "Kappy" Kapstetter (Milton Berle), who manages to convince studio head Kenneth Regan (Joseph Cotten) to sign him to a contract even though Regan senses something off about the guy. Fane becomes a star, but keeps biting the hand that feeds him -- even though some of his remarks to those who helped him have a point. When his career starts slipping badly, he has nightmares of going back to being nobody, and hitches upon a desperate plan to nab an Oscar and put himself back on top. The Oscar does show how undeserving louts can become movie stars simply because somebody has the hots for them -- which has happened more often than anyone imagines. The movie might have had more bite had Fane been someone desperately committed to the art of acting, but this can't be confused with the far superior Career -- it's basically entertaining trash with mostly one-dimensional characters and often hokey dialogue -- and not a few tedious moments. Once Fane begins to slide, however, the pic picks up. The fact is that the narcissistic, ambitious, self-absorbed Fane is all too typical of most Hollywood actors.

Elke Sommer and Boyd
Although miscast as some low-bred tough guy, Boyd is not at all bad as Fane, and has his best moment at the very end of the movie (you almost feel sorry for him). As his pal and procurer, Hymie, Tony Bennett seems amateurish until he has some powerful moments at the climax. Jill St. John gives it a good try, but she hasn't the real acting chops to make the most of her scenes as the girlfriend Fane stole from Hymie. Elke Sommer is okay as Kay Bergdahl, a designer Fane makes a play for and eventually marries, and Berle is at least flavorful as Kappy. Eleanor Parker gives the sauciest performance as Sophie, and makes St. John and Sommer look like a couple of kittens in comparison. But Edie Adams and Ernest Borgnine almost walk off with the movie as a husband and wife who are celebrating their divorce in Mexico when they encounter Fane and Kay and re-enter their lives in an unexpected fashion. Peter Lawford has a small but significant scene where he plays a once-famous actor who is now a headwaiter at a Hollywood restaurant; Lawford is excellent and this is probably the best scene in the movie. There are some celebrity cameos and Hedda Hopper as well. One of the screenwriters was Harlan Elison, who became better known as a science fiction writer.

Verdict: Not exactly Eugene O'Neill but fun. ***.

TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)

Hugh O'Brian and Shirley Eaton
TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965). Director: George Pollock. 

Ten people, including two servants, are given invitations to work or play at an isolated estate located high atop a mountain and accessible only by cable car. They discover the strange nursery rhyme about "ten little Indians" in each of their rooms The mysterious voice (Christopher Lee) of their unseen host declares that they have each gotten away with killing someone, and now it is time to pay the piper. The first to go is singer Mike Raven (Fabian), who ran over two people and barely got a slap on the wrist -- he dies by arsenic -- and then more murders occur, somehow each corresponding to the method of death mentioned in the rhyme. Will anyone be left alive? 

Leon Genn and most of the group
George Pollock had previously directed four Agatha Christie "Miss Marple" adaptations, and he does a good job adapting her "And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians" to the screen. While I might have preferred a little more tension, this is not quite as "cutesy" -- for lack of a better word -- as the forties film And Then There Were None. Hugh O'Brian pretty much smirks his way through the movie, as if he were above it all (which he isn't), but his performance is adequate, although the other cast members are more on target. Stanley Holloway, Shirley Eaton, Dennis Price, Leo Genn, and Mario Adorf (as the houseman) deliver adept performances, while Fabian gets an "A" for effort and Wilfrid Hyde White seems to think he's back in that forties adaptation and can best be described as annoyingly impish. Surprisingly Daliah Lavi has a very good turn as the high-maintenance actress Ilona Bergen, and comes through in her scene when she admits all about her past. As the cook and housekeeper Marianne Hoppe is, perhaps, a bit too hysterical. 

Dennis Price and Wilfrid Hyde White
This version transplants the story from an island to a mountaintop and two of the murders center on falls from great heights, one in a cable car whose cable snaps, and the other while a character attempts a climb down the mountain to get help; these are well-handled, and the film has genuine suspense. O'Brian and Eaton are given a love scene that seems a bit out of place. Malcolm Lockyer's jazzy score does little for the picture, but the lensing is sharp thanks to cinematographer Ernest Stewart. This was George Pollock's last theatrical feature. 

Verdict: Very entertaining Christie picture with some fine performances. ***, 

SPY IN YOUR EYE

Dana Andrews
SPY IN YOUR EYE (aka Berlino appuntamento per le spie/1965). Director: Vittorio Sala.

Colonel Lancaster (Dana Andrews) assigns two of his men --  Bert Morris (Brett Halsey) and Willie (Mario Valdemarin) -- to rescue Paula Krauss (Pier Angeli), the daughter of a deceased scientist who has invented a "super death ray." Both the Russians and Chinese want Paula in the hopes that she knows her father's secret formula. As the woman is shuttled back and forth from spy to spy and country to country, Colonel Lancaster has his missing left eye surgically replaced with a micro-telecamera that looks like a human eye. Lancaster thinks that only he can see out of his mechanical eye and doesn't realize that enemy agents are seeing and hearing everything that he does, and therefore have full knowledge of his agents' plans. 

Brett Halsey
This last aspect of the story is really the only point of interest in the movie, but little is done with it. Because Dana Andrews was still a name, and Brett Halsey a recognizable "B" actor, American filmgoers were fooled by a major ad campaign and saturation bookings into thinking they were seeing some kind of James Bond-type adventure. Instead they got a mediocre eurospy film  Aside from the fake eye, the movie is pretty low-tech, with Bert using special dehydration pills to get two bad guys to talk, and another bad guy employing a supposedly devastating weapon to shoot down a bird. 

Consultation: Halsey and Andrews
There is some mild excitement at the climax, in which the walls of a clinic move back and forth, creating new rooms to fool secret agents, a femme fatale is crushed, and the heroes and villains shoot it out amidst the melee.  The real voices of Halsey [Return of the Fly] and Andrews [Night of the Demon] are used, while the Italian actors are generally dubbed. Both actors had many, many more credits after this film was released, although this was not one of the better films that either performer appeared in. 

Verdict: Better than some eurospy movies but not great. **1/4. 

THE VIOLIN CASE MURDERS

Sylvia Pascal and George Nader
THE VIOLIN CASE MURDERS (aka Schüsse aus dem Geigenkasten/1965). Director: Fritz Umgelter. 

FBI agent Jerry Cotton (George Nader) is called in, along with his partner, Phil Decker (Heinz Weiss), by their boss, Mr. High (Richard Munch) to investigate what becomes known as the "Bowling Gang,' due to the location of their hide-out. The gang seems to be run by Christallo (Hands E. Schons) but he takes his orders from the nasty Dr. Kilborne (Franz Rudnick). These fellows, including a man named Percy (Helmut Fornbacher), carry weapons in violin cases (like something out of the forties) and think nothing of murdering without mercy anyone who gets in their way. Pretending to be a drunk who witnessed the group's activities and wants to join up, Jerry infiltrates the gang and discovers that they plan to blow up a school to create a distraction for their latest caper. 

Jerry and Percy (Helmut Fornbacher) after a fight
"Jerry Cotton" was a character as popular in Germany and Finland as James Bond was in the US or UK. He appeared in a huge series of novels over many decades, written by a variety of authors. When it was decided to make a film of his exploits, an American actor was chosen to play the U.S. agent, and many sequences were filmed on American locations, such as New York City, where that bowling alley HQ is located. George Nader, who had previously played the insurance investigator on the TV show Shannon, is fine as Jerry, and there are a host of excellent German supporting actors. Sylvia Pascal is cast as Christallo's girlfriend, and Heidi Luplot is her ill-fated sister, Mary. Nader uses his real voice in this English version while the other actors are dubbed.

Nader with Heinz Weiss
The Violin Case Murders
 is a treat, a fast-paced, very well-directed, and skillfully edited action-suspense film with some taut and beautifully choreographed fight scenes. There's also a clever bit with the bad guys using rolling oil cans, set on fire, to try and trap Phil Decker. One problem with the movie, however, is the music with its martial Jerry Cotton theme (which Jerry even whistles at one point) and jazzy carnival-like rifts that threaten to dissipate the exciting atmosphere at any moment. One can imagine how good this might have been with a different, more suspenseful score. Nader appeared in several more Jerry Cotton movies. 

Verdict: Despite the music, this plays. ***.  

CRACK-UP

Herbert Marshall, Pat O'Brian and Claire Trevor
CRACK-UP (1946). Director: Irving Reis. 

Art lecturer George Steele (Pat O'Brian) breaks into a museum, acting all crazy, and insists that he was just in a tremendous train wreck and barely survived. Cops, museum staff, and sort-of girlfriend Terry (Claire Trevor) are worried by his behavior, even more so when they learn that there has been no news of any train wreck. George tries to retrace his steps, and even takes a train from Grand Central, the same train he thinks he took earlier, to try and figure out what happened to him. There is talk of a missing or forged art masterpiece. When his friend and colleague Stevenson (Damian O'Flynn) is found murdered, George goes on the run. 

Ray Collins ministers to O'Brian
Based on a short story by Fredric Brown, Crack-Up is a fair suspense story that in the long run doesn't really deliver. This is too bad, because the picture begins very well, is well-acted, and has a couple of terrific scenes, especially a creepy one when George goes back on the train, sees another train slowly approaching from the other direction, and is terrified -- as is the audience --  that there is going to be a crash. But the rest is just a ho hum mish mosh that just doesn't distinguish itself from the competition, despite good photography by Robert De Grasse and a score by Leigh Harline that adds heft to certain sequences. The climax is criminally flat as well. 

O'Brian and Trevor
In addition to the actors already named, we've got Herbert Marshall wasted as an alleged romantic rival for Terry's affections, Ray Collins as a concerned colleague, Wallace Ford as a not-so-concerned police officer, Dean Harens as a handsome art aficionado, Mary Ware as the timid secretary, Mary, and Robert Bray as a silent and sinister figure on the train and elsewhere. While there are good performances and sequences in the movie, one can also understand why this is one bit of film noir that is almost completely forgotten. 

Verdict: Initially intriguing but ultimately minor crime drama. **1/4. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

HAPPY HALLOWEEN -- AGAIN!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2021.

Make some pumpkin pie -- so easy even I can do it -- put some whipped cream on it, cook up the cocoa (with more whipped cream) and watch a nice scary horror movie on Halloween! Maybe one of the movies reviewed in the posts below.

Have fun! 

 

HOUSE OF THE DAMNED

Merry Anders 
HOUSE OF THE DAMNED (1963). Director: Maury Dexter. 

Architect Scott Campbell (Ron Foster of The Music Box Kid) is hired to survey Rochester Castle and bring his wife and partner, Nancy (Merry Anders), along. Eventually lawyer Joseph Schiller (Richard Crane of No Man's Woman) and his excitable wife, Loy (Erika Peters), also arrive on the scene. There are 13 keys for the house and a variety of rooms, as well as strange people skulking about in the shadows. Then Loy is chased by a giant figure (Richard Kiel of "To Serve Man" on Twilight Zone) and disappears, until Merry seems to find her headless corpse ...

Peters, Crane, Foster, Anders
Be warned that the above description makes House of the Damned sound a lot better than it is. The whole project just seems so languid and mediocre. It was as if this great location, the castle, were chosen first and then a script was hastily -- very hastily -- scripted around it, so there are no real characters and only one genuinely creepy moment, when some thing sneaks into the bedroom and borrows those keys. The house is beautiful, but it's not enough to save the movie. You might groan when you discover exactly who or what is behind the "horror." 

Ron Foster was a handsome and talented actor who chiefly appeared in "B" movies, and despite the fact that this was produced by 20th Century Fox in CinemaScope, this is no different; he couldn't catch a break. Henry Vars has contributed a nice and eerie theme, but otherwise the score is just too lethargic.   

Verdict: Promises a lot but delivers very little. **.   

MAN BEAST

Lloyd Nelson, Asa Maynor, Tom Maruzzi
MAN BEAST (1956). Director: Jerry Warren. 

Connie (Asa Maynor), has come to the Himalayas with her friend Hudson (Lloyd Nelson) in search of her brother, who is on an expedition with Dr. Erickson (George Wells Lewis). They hope to find a Yeti, or abominable snowman, in the higher altitudes. Connie and Hud, with the aid of Steve Cameron (Tom Maruzzi), manage to catch up with the expedition, but instead of her brother they find a man named Varga (George Skaff), who they deem suspicious. They are right to feel this way, as Varga turns out to be have a special relationship with the Yeti who turn up and threaten the others. And Varga has special -- and rather horrifying -- plans for Connie. 

One of the Yeti
Man Beast can't compare to the British Abominable Snowman that came out the following year, but while it's not a particularly good movie it does have its points of interest. The acting can best be described as adequate but George Skaff actually turns in a more than decent performance. Out of all of the performers he unsurprisingly racked up the most credits, although Maynor and Nelson also had more work after appearing in this picture. This was the sole film appearance for both Maruzzi and Lewis, and "Rock Madison" was just a made-up marquee name with producer/director Jerry Warren hoping audiences would think they were getting Rock Hudson or Guy Madison for their money -- there is no such actor. The picture's main strength, aside from its short length, is the atmospheric filming (with the slopes of California filling in for the Himalayas) of snowy vistas, deadly crevasses, avalanches, and the like, although undoubtedly stock footage was also employed. A scene when the Yeti come after the group inside a cave (there is no set, just surrounding blackness) is amateurishly staged and awkwardly shot, although I must say the first appearance of the Yeti is a mite startling. The soundtrack consists of very well-chosen stock musical cues. Jerry Warren also directed The Incredible Petrified World, which was similarly low-budget but a much better picture. 

Verdict: Not nearly as awful as its reputation, but not worth missing an episode of your favorite TV series. **. 

WEB OF THE SPIDER

Klaus Kinski and Anthony Franciosa
WEB OF THE SPIDER (aka Nella stretta morsa del ragno/1971). Director: Antonio Margheriti.

While Edgar Allan Poe (Klaus Kinski of Slaughter Hotel) is visiting London, he is approached by an American reporter named Alan Foster (Anthony Franciosa of Tenebrae). Lord Blackwood (Enrico Osterman) offers Foster money if he can spend one night in his supposedly haunted estate from which no one has ever returned. Once there, Foster meets two beautiful women: Elisabeth (Michele Mercier) and jealous Julia (Karin Field), who has a hankering for the former. Dr. Carmus (Peter Carsten) appears out of nowhere and shows Foster visions of what transpired in the past: the sexual intrigues of Elisabeth, her husband, William (Silvano Tranquilli), her lover Herbert (Raf Baldassarre), and, of course, the horny Julia. It slowly dawns on Foster that he may be in a house of ghosts, or worse, vampires ... 

Franciosa with Mercier
Web of the Spider begins in an intriguing fashion, but it soon becomes apparent that its mess of a script is a stew of barely coherent cliches that hardly holds together. By the final quarter you're just hoping it will hurry up and end already. The tenuous connection of Poe -- who only appears at the opening and the very end -- is almost insulting, as this has nothing to do with the writer, despite the creepy house and the screwed up family who inhabit it -- this is no Fall of the House of Usher

Karin Field
Franciosa gives a decent, if dubbed, performance, the other actors are all fine, and the film can be quite good to look at. The trouble is that the movie is so over-lit that the atmosphere evaporates and it becomes comical how bright everything is when you're in a house at night with a couple of candles (sometimes no candles), and there isn't much moonlight, either. Sure, you want the audience to get a look at the sets, the superior art direction, and the attractive color schemes, but a few realistic shadows wouldn't have hurt that much. For all the ghosts running around the house, the film never works up an especially spooky ambiance. The picture does have a satisfactorily ironic conclusion for those willing to stick around until the end. Antonio Margheriti also directed Battle of the Worlds and many other lousy movies.

Verdict: Watch Tony in Career instead. **. 

THE WASP WOMAN -- IN COLOR!

Wasp woman goes on the attack! 
THE WASP WOMAN (1959). Colorized. Directed by Roger Corman. 

Sales for Janice Starlin's (Susan Cabot) cosmetic company have been dropping since she stopped using herself in advertisements, but as she's on the wrong side of forty, she figures she has no choice. But when elderly Professor Zinthrop (Michael Mark) tells her that he has come up with an age-defying formula using royal jelly from wasps, she has hope and insists he use her as a guinea pig. At first the results are miraculous, with Janice looking as if she's in her twenties (Cabot was 32 at the time), but when she uses more and more of the formula to remain young, the results are less than felicitous. Janice turns into a horribly mutated wasp woman who attacks and feeds upon various people around her, including a solicitous nurse (Lani Mars) and a very obese night watchman (Bruno VeSota). 

Susan Cabot with Michael Mark
I have always gotten a kick out of this fun Corman cheapie-creepy, and I enjoyed it even more in well-done color! In addition to Cabot's excellent performance, this time around I appreciated Lynn Cartwright as the saucy secretary Maureen, who is given some amusing dialogue and runs with it. Fred Katz' jazzy musical score is a little odd, but it works well enough, and the film is full of a whole host of interesting B movie players: Anthony Eisley of Hawaiian Eye; Roy Gordon from Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman; Barboura Morris from Bucket of Blood; the aforementioned VeSota; and even Aron Kincaid [The Girls on the Beach] as a briefly-seen beekeeper, Roger Corman himself also shows up briefly as a doctor, so briefly that I didn't even notice him! I love the scene when Cabot and Morris have excited, happy girl talk over Janice's new youthful appearance. 

Verdict: Be careful what you wish for! ***.

I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER

I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1998). Director: Danny Cannon. 

Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt) has tried to forget the bloody events of I Know What You Did Last Summer (the epilogue to which turns out to be a dream). Julie's friend, Karla (Brandy Norwood), wins a radio contest which is amazingly simple, and the two women -- along with Karla's boyfriend, Tyrell (Mekhi Phifer) and pal Will Benson (Matthew Settle) -- find themselves on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. Unfortunately, the resort is practically empty because the rainy season is about to begin, the manager (Jeffrey Combs) is a weird-looking grump, and someone is stalking the few people who remain on the island. Meanwhile back on the mainland, Julie's on again/off again boyfriend, Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.), learns something that propels him to take off pell mell to the Bahamas to warn her and save her life. The mysterious fisherman from the first film is back and using his big hook to slice and dice employees and guests. Potential victims include not only the main foursome but also a likable doper (Mark Boone Junior) and sassy, attractive bartender (Jennifer Esposito).

Jeffrey Combs as the weird Mr. Brooks
I Still Know is an entertaining and generally fast-paced slasher film, but it is so ridiculously contrived that it almost seems like a cartoon parody. The killer or killers in the film have come up with such an absurdly convoluted and elaborate revenge scheme that you wonder what they might have accomplished had they put all this energy and money to something that might have actually improved their lives. I must say that the cast in this is likable and enthusiastic, which helps put the whole thing over; Matthew Settle makes a particularly good impression. Muse Watson also has fun as the man with the meat hook. 

Verdict: Sequel goes in a bizarre direction to put it mildly but is fun if you're not in a discriminating mood. **1/2. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

GASOLINE ALLEY

Scotty Becket and Susan Morrow
GASOLINE ALLEY (1951). Written and directed by Edward Bernds. 

Corky Wallet (Scotty Becket) is out of college and newly married to Hope (Susan Morrow). Corky's father, Walt (Don Beddoe), hopes that Corky will join his father's firm, but Corky wants to make his own mark in the world. A stint as a dishwasher leads to him buying his own diner with financial help from his brother, Skeezix (Jimmy Lydon), and waitress assistance from Hope. When a businessman makes the landlord an offer he can't refuse, Corky has to come up with a plan to save the diner after all of his hard work. 

Don Beddoe and Jimmy Lydon
"Gasoline Alley" was a very long-running newspaper comic strip by Frank O. King in which the characters aged normally as they would in the real world. The strip began with bachelor Walt Wallet discovering an infant boy, Skeezix, on his doorstep. Walter eventually got married and had two more natural children, including Corky, who also married. Skeezix  married and had children as well, including Skipper the sailor. Reading the strip as a child I remember it as being a pleasant comedy-drama but nothing out of the ordinary. I'm afraid the same is true for this low-budget theatrical version of the comic strip.

Director Edward Bernds keeps the pic moving but he should have allowed someone else to do the script, which is mediocre and full of old gags. Scotty Becket, the very talented child actor of My Son, My Son and others, is fine and sympathetic but kind of wasted, as his was a very strong talent. Jimmy Lydon [Strange Illusion], famous for the Henry Aldrich films, is also good but isn't given much to do. The other assorted players are all okay -- especially Byron Foulger as a customer -- but the material is pretty much beneath everyone. There was one sequel, Corky of Gasoline Alley. These were Beckett's last starring roles although he did a few pictures afterward until tragically succumbing to a drug overdose at age 38.

Verdict: Probably not as good as the comic strip. **. 

RAIDERS OF GHOST CITY

Wanda McKay, Joe Sawyer, and Dennis Moore
RAIDERS OF GHOST CITY (13 chapter Universal serial/1944). Directed by Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor. 

Near the end of the Civil War an organization of Confederate spies is actually the front for gold thieves operating out of Oro Grande, California. But even these desperadoes are being double-crossed by a couple of Prussian agents who need the gold so that they can buy Alaska! Trying to thwart their efforts is Captain Steve Clark (Dennis Moore) of the U.S. Secret Service, aided by Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer), a Wells Fargo detective, and Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), a Wells Fargo county agent. 

Lionel Atwill and Virginia Christine
Their main antagonists are Erich von Rugen (Lionel Atwill of Captain America) and the deliciously ruthless Countess Elsa von Merck (Virginia Christine of Three Brave Men), who doubles as a saloon singer named Trina Dessard. They report to a Count Manfried von Richten (Emmett Vogan of Docks of New Orleans). Regis Toomey is Captain Clay Randolph, a legitimate rebel who doesn't realize what the others are up to and only wants the gold to aid the war effort.

Moore, Christine and Sawyer
Westerns have never been my favorite serial genre, but I must say that Raiders of Ghost City -- the title refers to a ghost town not far from Ora Grande -- has made a believer of me, for this is quite well-made, with an especially flavorful screenplay. In cliffhanger sequences a runaway stage coach falls into a river, and Steve is trapped in a cave with rapidly rising water. Chapter eight features a thrilling, expertly-edited chase scene with an entire gang in pursuit of Idaho. The first and tenth chapters have the best cliffhangers: an uncoupled car begins rolling backwards towards disaster during a frantic fist fight; and Idaho is nearly drawn and quartered by Modoc Indians in a very suspenseful sequence. The four main players are all excellent and the supporting players are well cast. 

Verdict: Very exciting, well-made, and well-played Columbia serial. ***1/4. 

THE BRIEF, MADCAP LIFE OF KAY KENDALL

THE BRIEF, MADCAP LIFE OF KAY KENDALL. Eve Golden with Kim Kendall. University Press of Kentucky; 2002.

Since most if not all of the major stars have been covered ad nauseam, many publishers have come out with books on 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier celebrities. British actress and comedienne Kay Kendall [Les Girls; Wings of Danger), who did indeed have a brief life and career, fits into the lattermost of those categories. Kendall was talented and tragic, dying young of leukemia, which her husband and family tried very hard to keep her from knowing until nearly the end. Her husband was Rex Harrison, and Kendall would have probably been forgotten by all but her most obsessive fans, however many, if it had not been for that association with a much bigger star. Kendall's marriage to Harrison played out during a time when the latter was ascendant due to his triumphs in both the stage and screen versions of My Fair Lady. Eve Golden's entertaining and page-turning book won't necessarily have you admiring Kendall's character, although she was probably no worse than a lot of other husband-stealing, rather "trampy" and superficial starlets; Kendall also became full of herself. (Kendall stole Harrison from Lilli Palmer, who had herself broken up an earlier marriage to Harrison. Harrison claimed that he primarily married Kendall only because she was dying.) Kendall was great friends with Dirk Bogarde and his partner, Anthony Forwood. Biographer Golden does a very good job dissecting Kendall's films and performances while never neglecting her interesting personal life. 

Verdict: Good read for those interested in this talented if minor British actress. ***. 

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)

Leonard Nimoy and Donald Sutherland

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978). Director: Phil Kaufman.

San Francisco health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is carrying a torch for his colleague Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams). Elizabeth is convinced that her live-in boyfriend, Geoff (Art Hindle), is not himself, that he's actually become a different person. Matthew's friend, David Kidner (Leonard Nimoy), a pop psychologist and author, says that other people are also claiming their loved ones are not their loved ones. Things take an even darker turn when a weird body turns up in the mud baths operated by Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), a half-finished body that greatly resembles Jack. It seems that virtually everyone in the city has succumbed to this ghastly invasion of space seeds, which destroys humans and replaces them with unemotional duplicates ...  

Veronica Cartwright
On its own terms this remake of the classic fifties film of the same name is entertaining, and if this is one's first introduction to the story -- based on "The Body Snatchers" by Jack Finney -- it will probably give you a bit of the chills. But be forewarned that if you watch it back to back with the original it greatly suffers in comparison. Switching the locale from a small town to a big city does not do too much damage, but a bigger problem is that the film too often resembles a clumsy parody of the first film. Sutherland, Nimoy and Adams are okay, but Goldblum is irritating and Cartwright overacts almost from the first (compare her to a splendid Carolyn Jones in the first film). Some of the chase scenes just seem so stilted. 

Brooke Adams
Aside from the electronic noises during sequences with the pods -- the FX here are quite good -- the musical score only detracts from the film's effectiveness. Some of the other changes in this version are welcome: Elizabeth's "transformation" is handled much better and much more logically than Becky's "conversion" in the first film, and the weird way the aliens point and screech at ordinary humans is acceptably unnerving. A clever bit -- although it doesn't quite work -- has Elizabeth screaming when she sees a dog with a man's head (as opposed to Becky screaming when a dog is nearly run over), but the inclusion of Kevin McCarthy, acting much the way he does at the climax of the original film, while cute, also ruins the mood, coming off more comical than anything else. Director Philip Kaufman tries to create an air of disquiet by putting odd people in the backgrounds -- the aliens beginning to assert themselves, one supposes -- the oddest of whom is Robert Duvall, herein cast as a non-speaking priest on a child's swing. The director of the original, Don Siegel, plays a cab driver.

Verdict: Nice try, but the original is much, much better. **3/4. 

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (1985). Director: Peter Masterson. 

A lovely, low-key movie and character study about an elderly woman, Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page, who won and deserved an Oscar), who desperately wants to go back to her childhood home for at least one last look. Carrie lives with her son, Ludie (John Heard) and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn) in a small home and sometimes there is a definite strain. Based on Horton Foote's play (he also wrote the screenplay), the mood piece is moving because it invokes feelings of lost youth, distant times of (alleged) happiness, past regrets and wasted chances, and all the things that most human beings feel as they grow older. Still, the film primarily works because of Page's superb performance. She makes a woman that many of us would find quite tiresome in real life (what with her hymns and dumb religious assertions) perhaps more interesting than she deserves to be. Still she comes off as a very real person. Heard and Glynn are also quite good. Rebecca De Mornay and Richard Bradford are also notable as a fellow bus passenger and the local sheriff, respectively. One could quibble about certain things, but this is all about mood. 

Verdict. Quietly touching. ***.