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. 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.  


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. ***



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. ***.  

 (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. 

 (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. ***. 


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. 



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.