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

Thursday, September 30, 2021


 MURDER SHE SAID (1961). Director: George Pollock. 

Jane Marple (Agatha Christie) is on a train when she happens to glance out the window and see a couple on another train passing by. She witnesses the man strangling the lady just before the train moves on ahead and is lost to view! Miss Marple can't convince the authorities that anyone has actually been killed -- there's no body, for instance -- so she decides the corpse must have been thrown off the train at a certain point and may be secreted at a nearby estate. The plucky oldster decides to get employment as a maid at this estate, find the dead body, and figure out which of the people associated with the estate could be responsible for the murder. We have crusty old Ackenthorpse (James Robertson Justice), his daughter Emma (Muriel Pavlow), his sons Cedric (Thorley Walters) and Harold (Conrad Phillips), and son-in-law Eastley (Ronald Howard). Others involved with the family include the creepy hand Albert (Gerald Cross); the cook, Mrs. Kidder (Joan Hickson, who later played Miss Marple herself and probably offered the best interpertation of the character); the family doctor, Quimper (Arthur Kennedy); and Eastley's strange son, Alexander (Ronnie Raymond; dubbed by Martin Stephens). Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) doesn't appreciate Miss Marple's poking her nose into things, and she has a couple of nasty moments -- and more murders -- before she uncovers the truth. 

Margaret Rutherford with husband Stringer Davis
Murder She Said
 was the first of four films starring Rutherford as Miss Marple. Agatha Christie did not approve of the casting and didn't especially care for the movie, but she eventually became an admirer and friend of Rutherford's. Rutherford cast her husband, Stringer Davis, as Miss Marple's friend and romantic interest Mr. Stringer in all four of the movies, three of which were based on Christie novels. This film was based on "4:50 from Paddington." The American title was "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw," as it was this character, an old friend of Jane's, who actually sees the murder on the train. 

Joan Hickson later played Miss Marple to great effect
Murder She Said
 is an entertaining, well-played picture and it doesn't stray that far from Christie's novel (except Miss Marple has a helpmate take the position on the estate, reporting to her, instead of doing it herself, and there's an additional murder). While not as good as Christie's book, it is a worthwhile picture, and may offer up a surprise or two for those unfamiliar with the original. While not the perfect representation of Miss Marple, Rutherford is still marvelous. The novel was more of a black comedy than anything else, so it makes sense that the tone of this picture is similar. 

Verdict: Fun! ***


Maria Richwine and Gary Busey

THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978). Director: Steve Rash. 

In Lubbock Texas in 1956 Buddy Holly (Gary Busey in an Oscar-nominated performance) and two friends -- Jesse (Don Stroud) and Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith) -- perform at the local skating rink but their "Negro"-influenced music may be too much for the advertisers on the radio station. Buddy and the "Crickets," as the other two fellows are called, travel to Nashville but discover they will have to sing for a studio band of country musicians who pretty much ruin a great song like "That'll Be the Day." Buddy almost has the same problem in New York, but is able to convince record executive Ross Turner (Conrad Janis) to produce the group's albums and maintain the correct sound. As the group has one hit record after another -- "Love Like Yours," 'It's So easy to Fall in Love' "Oh, Baby!" and others -- Buddy falls for and marries secretary Maria Elena (Maria Richwine) and he and the boys have a falling out. One night on a fateful tour with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, Buddy meets his tragic destiny ... 

Charles Martin Smith and Busey
While it helps if you like this kind of old-time rock 'n' roll -- which I do -- I found The Buddy Holly Story to be quite entertaining, if minor. One could argue that you don't necessarily get to know any of the people in the film all that well, but the acting across the board is excellent. One could also argue that Gary Busey is much more charismatic and energetic than the real Buddy Holly, but I admit this is only based on seeing a couple of the latter's live performances. Dick O'Neill as Sol Gittler and Paul Mooney as Sam Cooke, among others, are also notable. One of Holly's last compositions was the very lovely, even touching, ballad "True Love Ways," for which his voice -- which works on loud rock songs -- wasn't that well suited. I believe it was released posthumously. 

Verdict: Upbeat rock biopic with a downbeat conclusion. ***.


CECIL B. DEMILLE'S HOLLYWOOD. Robert S. Birchard. University Press of Kentucky; 2004. Reissued in trade paperback in 2021.

Not a biography in the formal sense, Cecil B. Demille's Hollywood nevertheless presents much information about the famous director's life, films, working methods and career high and lowlights in this excellent volume. The movies he directed include everything from the silent Ten Commandments to its color and sound remake, other biblical spectacles such as Samson and Delilah, masterpieces such as Cleopatra and near-masterpieces like The Sign of the Cross, as well as the occasional mediocrity such as The Greatest Show on Earth and the rare stinker like Four Frightened People (which author Birchard makes a stab at defending). The book makes clear DeMille's influence on Hollywood and filmmaking in general, and goes behind the scenes of every single one of his movies. Although there are some critical notes in the text, this is not quite a work of film criticism as much as it is a career study, and works very well on that level. For some of the films, I would have liked more of a synopsis to fully understand the picture under discussion, but that's a quibble. This is a well-written, very well-researched tome that will ignite the reader's interest in the late director and his films even as it keeps the pages turning. 

Verdict: Be ready for your close-up with this book! ***1/2.  


Prince, Hewitt, Gelar, Phillippe
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997), Director: Jim Gillespie. 

Two teen couples in the fishing village of Southport -- Barry (Ryan Phillippe) and Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar); Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) -- are out celebrating 4th of July when they accidentally run over a man on the road. They not only cover up the crime -- Barry, who was driving, is especially adamant -- but even throw the body in the ocean -- although the man is still alive! A year later Julie, the only one of the foursome who has any kind of conscience, gets a note saying "I Know What You Did Last Summer;" she and the others are then stalked by a fisherman in a slicker wielding a meat hook. Now the race is on to unmask this killer and save all of their lives. 

Watch out for that hook!
I Know What You Did Last Summer
 is based on the notable seventies young adult novel of the same name by Lois Duncan. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson has taken the four main characters and the basic premise and turned the story into a slasher film for the nineties. The fisherman killer is not in the novel, which may not have enough suspects but also does not have the incredible moments of illogic that are in the movie -- typical of the genre. The screenplay does offer up some intriguing moments, and Anne Heche scores as a woman who is related to the dead man -- the four main characters are also well-acted for the most part, as is the killer. 

the cast of Last Summer
Whatever its flaws, I Know What You Did Last Summer is suspenseful and exciting and emerges as one of the better slasher films of the period, with a more involved storyline and better characterization. It is not a black comedy like the Scream movies. There are some well-handled sequences, such as a murder in an alley with a parade passing by only a few few away, a sequence with a cop car and the killer, and a desperate chase inside an empty store. Despite some revelations that develop before the end of the film, the main romantic couple is still rather morally bankrupt. The movie was successful enough to engender two inferior sequels, and a new TV series, presumably based on the book, will debut on Amazon Prime in October 2021.

Verdict: Imperfect but safisfying teen thriller. ***.


Mary Tyler Moore and Christine Lahti
JUST BETWEEN FRIENDS (1986). Written and directed by Allan Burns. 

Holly (Mary Tyler Moore), who is happily married to seismologist Chip (Ted Danson of Mad Money), becomes fast friends with Sandy (Christine Lahti), a woman she meets at gym class. The two women really bond, but both are unaware that Sandy's new lover is actually Holly's husband; an awkward situation develops when Holly invites Sandy to dinner. Holly is still unaware of the truth when tragedy strikes, but will the revelation of the affair destroy the two women's very real friendship?

Sam Waterston and Ted Danson
Just Between Friends was clearly inspired by the so-called "women's pictures" of the thirties and forties, and is just as clearly inferior to most of them. The death of a major figure undercuts the whole triangle situation, and the film even has the audacity to introduce yet another cliche -- when one of the other characters gets pregnant (guess who?). While initially entertaining, the picture utterly collapses with the pregnancy bit, turns into a bore that will have you longing to hit the fast forward button, and culminates in a sort of "feel good" ending that is completely contrived.  

Lahti and Danson
The acting helps put the whole thing over. Although she occasionally falls back on "Mary Richards" mannerisms from her sitcom (no surprise in that this is a sitcom), Moore is fine as the bushwhacked wife. (One big distraction is the cosmetic surgery that lifted Moore's face but widened her mouth to such a degree that it seems like the biggest maw in creation!) Lahti, whose appearance in this only led to a career on episodic television, is also quite good. Ted Danson is basically Ted Danson. Sam Waterston [Hannah and Her Sisters] does his best as Chip's co-worker and best friend, who cares for Holly and feels guilt over constantly covering for him. One senses Chip is not worthy of either woman. Salome Jens of Seconds is cast as the owner of the gym and Jane Greer makes the least of her role as Holly's mother. There is one nice moment, when Sandy lovingly touches Chip's suit hanging in the closet. 

Verdict: Director Allan Burns should have hired someone besides himself to write the script! **1/2.