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

Thursday, December 22, 2022


Helmut Berger as King Ludwig II
LUDWIG (1973). Director: Luchino Visconti. Original four-hour Italian version.

"The greatest gift you can give to your people is to enrich their souls." -- King Ludwig II

King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Helmut Berger of The Bloodstained Butterfly) has much more interest in art, culture, and architecture than he does in matters of state. Supposedly in love with his cousin, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), he gets engaged to Elisabeth's sister, Sophie (Sonia Petrovna). Elisabeth suspects where her cousin's true interests lie, but feels that Ludwig will grow out of these feelings with Sophie's help; the two never get married, however. Ludwig is Catholic and tells his priest that he will subdue any "unnatural" feelings he has, right after which he is playing footsie with his footman, Richard Horning (Marc Porel). Whether it's the King's erotic tendencies or the alleged "degeneration" of his mind that are the problem, the members of the Bavarian government are determined to get "Mad" King Ludwig out of his castle. This leads to two deaths that are still a mystery today.

The real King Ludwig
Ludwig is a fascinating look at a fascinating historical figure. Although quite Wagnerian in length, the film is never boring (something you can't say about every Visconti film), although cuts could have been made in the second half. Berger, dubbed by Giancarlo Giannini, plays the role with his customary intensity -- alas his hairstyle looks better on the real Ludwig than on Berger --  and there are also good performances from Romy Schneider (reprising her role from the Sissi films) and John Moulder-Brown (of The House That Screamed) as the ill-fated Prince Otto, Ludwig's younger brother. Also notable are Helmut Griem (who screwed both Liza Minelli and Michael York in Cabaret) as Count Durckheim and Trevor Howard as Richard Wagner. (Opera fans owe Ludwig a great debt as his financial assistance helped the great composer finish his Ring cycle.) Silvana Mangano is cast as Wagner's mistress and later wife, Cosima. 

There is no doubt that Ludwig was homosexual, but whether he was "tormented" or not, despite his Catholicism, is debatable. I believe his alleged romantic love for Elisabeth  -- which is like that of a child -- was invented for this film, as Visconti wanted his hero to be at least perceived as bisexual, be it true or not, for the director's own reasons. (As for Helmut Berger, he was married to both a man and a woman so you can come to your own conclusions. He was Visconti's companion for many years.) 

The king and squire at rest
Some might be disappointed that the homoerotic content in the film is rather limited. The gay love scene mentioned above is in the shadows and very brief, and there is an all-male party (left) which could hardly be called an orgy. 

Ludwig was filmed on location and the settings are simply magnificent. The movie doesn't always hit the mark emotionally, but it is literate, opulent, romantic, and generally tasteful. King Ludwig was criticized for building numerous beautiful castles, most of which he never lived in, but today they are great tourist attractions and have certainly enriched the Bavarian coffers. 

Verdict: My next vacation will be in Bavaria. ***1/4. 


Virginia Christine, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner
THE KILLERS (1946). Director: Robert Siodmak.

Torpedoes Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw) come to the town of Brentwood and (improbably) announce to people in the diner that they are going to kill a guy known as the Swede or Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster), which they do. The rest of the film presents assorted flashbacks from various points-of-view as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien) tries to find out more about "Lund" and the reasons for his murder. Reardon hooks up with former cop Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) and discovers that the latter's old friend the Swede, actually Ole Anderson, a former boxer, was mixed up in a robbery plot as well as with a beautiful if duplicitous female named Kitty (Ava Gardner). But before Reardon's investigation is over, those two torpedoes just may have more work to do. 

Waiting for death: Burt Lancaster
The Killers is a fine and memorable piece of film noir. In his very first film, Lancaster gives a strong performance and he is backed up by an old pro in O'Brien. Conrad and McGraw certainly make in impression in their brief but chilling appearances. Levene and Virginia Christine (Anderson's old girlfriend and now Lubinsky's wife) are solid as well. And then there's Ava Gardner in her 27th film, but clearly still growing as an actress. She makes a good impression in the early scenes but doesn't quite cut it in her climactic moments. There are good turns from Phil Brown [Weird Woman] as Nick Adams, Vince Barnett as old Charleston, Albert Dekker as the architect of the robbery plot, Donald MacBride as Reardon's boss, Jack Lambert [The Unsuspected] as a member of the gang, Queenie Smith as Queenie, Anderson's sole beneficiary, and especially Jeff Corey as Blinky. (Charles Middleton plays a farmer but I didn't spot him.) Although Anderson is in some ways an unsympathetic character, you can't help but feel sorry for the miserable way in which he is played for a sucker. The Killers boasts an evocative score by Miklos Rozsa and fine photography by Elwood (Woody) Bredell. 

Verdict: Totally absorbing, very well-acted crime drama. ***1/4. 

ELVIS (1979)

Kurt Russell as Elvis
ELVIS (1979 telefilm). Director: John Carpenter.

Elvis Presley (Kurt Russell), inspired by black musicians, develops his own singing style and frenetic dancing movements. He rises to the top of the recording and film industry with the help of Colonel Tom Parker (Pat Hingle), but is frustrated by the insipid scripts that he is given. Marrying Priscilla (Season Hubley), whom he meets when she is fourteen, he develops a dependency on prescription drugs that alter his personality and make him paranoid. He attempts a comeback by appearing at the International Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, but will this lead to a revitalization of his career or will he fall flat on his face as hundreds of fans await his entrance?

Russell with Shelly Winters
Kurt Russell gives a terrific performance as Elvis in this long but entertaining telefilm, which also stars Shelley Winters as Elvis' mom, and Bing Russell (Kurt's real-life father) as Elvis' dad. (To keep it all in the family Kurt Russell later had a short marriage to Season Hubley, who plays Elvis' wife). There's way too much of Winters in the first half of the movie, especially as she is giving one of her kind of twitchy  and breathless performances in what one could call her fat and whiny period. Pat Hingle isn't really given much to do as Parker, his character being shunted into the background most of the time, unlike in the 2022 Elvis

Russell with Season Hubley
The last fifteen minutes or so of the movie are given over to Elvis' triumphant concert at the International, where Russell performs the pants out of songs like "Burning Love" and displays the King of Rock at his most energetic. Credit also must be given to Ronnie McDowell, who does a fine job providing Elvis' singing voice. Ironically, the first movie Kurt Russell ever appeared in was an Elvis flick, It Happened at the World's Fair, where the king asks a boy (Russell) to kick him in the shins. This telefilm began a long association between Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, who also directed him in The Thing and many others. 

Verdict: Good approximation of the King. ***. 


Ron Moody and Margaret Rutherford
THE MOUSE ON THE MOON (1963). Director: Richard Lester.

A crisis develops in the little duchy of Grand Fenwick, the smallest nation in the world, when their chief and only export, wine, inexplicably develops explosive properties. The Prime Minister, Count Mountjoy (Ron Moody) hopes to borrow half a million from the United States to install modern-day plumbing throughout the duchy, but tells the government that they need the money for their space program so as not to sound silly. The U.S. gives Grand Fenwick a million dollars -- a ploy by the Secretary of State. Not to be outdone, the Russians send a rocket to the country, which Mountjoy hopes to transform into indoor plumbing. However, scientist Kokintz (David Kossoff) decides to use the wine as fuel so as to send the rocket on a trip to the moon. Delegates from the US and USSR arrive to see if the professor can actually pull it off. Going with him on the trip is Mountjoy's son, Vincent (Bernard Cribbins of Frenzy).

The Mouse on the Moon
, a sequel to The Mouse That Roared, has a cute idea, and there are quite a few laughs, especially in the first half, but it still comes off as second-rate. Margaret Rutherford as the dotty Grand Duchess is as fun and appealing as ever, but she isn't given nearly enough to do. Ron Moody gets the lion's share of the action, and he's fine, but not quite as amusing as you might hope. Once the rocket heads for the moon, the picture turns into a poor imitation of First Men in the Moon with its equally unscientific voyage into space. Terry-Thomas is cast as a spy, and June Ritchie is Mountjoy's niece, who gets involved with Vincent. Twenty years later Richard Lester directed Superman III. In The Mouse That Roared Peter Sellers played both the Grand Duchess and Count Mountjoy! 

Verdict: Very pleasant -- and pleasantly satirical -- in spots, but overall a disappointment. **1/2. 


Austin Butler as Elvis
ELVIS (2022). Director: Baz Luhrmann. 

"Every dream I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times." -- Elvis.

Influenced by black musicians, Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) rises from obscurity to become one of the most famous men in the world, his career as singer and actor guided by "Colonel Tom Parker" (Tom Hanks), a mysterious figure who turns out to be ripping him off and making bad decisions due to a secret he has. Elvis' devotion to his fans and his love of performing cause problems in his marriage to Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), and he may have more trouble breaking away from the Colonel than he thinks. 

Tom Hanks as the alleged colonel
There is only one way to take Elvis and that is as a tribute to a very influential and talented performer. That's really the only way the movie works as it is far too superficial to work as a biopic. Director Baz Luhrmann throws images at the viewer as in a rock video, and there is some creativity in the way the film is presented, although the overly busy style is initially off-putting. Austin Butler is a terrific Elvis impersonator -- although the real Presley has a better voice --  but if you're hoping to find a more in-depth look at Presley the Man you'll be disappointed. I'm not sure what to make of Tom Hanks, who affects a kind of Dutch accent that Parker actually did not have in real life (interviews with the man attest to this -- didn't Hanks do his research?) Other than that Hanks' performance is okay but it often seems little more than a stunt. 

Priscilla (Olvia DeJonge) with Elvis
Elvis is more interested in spectacle and presenting an overview of Elvis' life and career than anything else so there aren't that many truly dramatic scenes -- one of them, which is well played, has Elvis firing his manager, the colonel, while performing on stage in Las Vegas. The movie spends all of two minutes on Elvis' film career, which is strange as he did give some fine performances in early movies and even the later campy flicks had their highlights. Elvis recreates the singer's last performance singing Unchained Melody -- I believe halfway through the scene the real Elvis is substituted for Butler. The ending is undeniably moving, and Elvis fans will undoubtedly find themselves choking up. 

Verdict: Not really a  great biopic but admirable as a tribute to Elvis. ***.  

Thursday, December 8, 2022

M (1931)

Peter Lorre pleads his case
M (1931), Director: Fritz Lang.

In Germany a series of young girls have been abducted and presumably murdered. The police. headed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), are using all of their resources to track down this fiend, but can't zero in on him. Members of the underworld, represented by Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens), himself a murderer, gather together to try to deal with the fact that the search for the child-killer is drastically and negatively interfering with their own operations. The crooks determine to find the maniac themselves, and employ the beggars of the city to help them do so. A blind balloon seller who recalls a man whistling when one child goes missing is able to direct the thieves and cutthroats to one Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), and he is put on trial by the city's underworld. 

Determined to catch the killer: Otto Wernicke
Frankly, M, long considered a classic and a masterpiece (I never held with the latter opinion), does not hold up well. The movie is rather slow, often primitive -- with long stretches of silence (sometimes strikingly interrupted by noise) -- although there are certainly touches of mild cinematic virtuosity. The final section of the film, the underground trial, presents Beckert as mentally ill and unable to control himself, an attitude that would not be that well-received today. (Some people would rather shoot themselves than hurt a child, and why couldn't Beckert have sought help when he realized he had these impulses?) The sequence can also be taken as a plea against capital punishment, with three mothers at the very end saying "it won't bring our children back." Having the killer judged by criminals also enables the film to supposedly take a moral high road it doesn't deserve. At times M has a light touch that is at odds with the proceedings. Peter Lorre gives a very good performance, however. Lohmann apparently played the same role two years later in Lang's Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The prolific Fritz Lang directed everything from genuine masterpieces like Clash By Night and Scarlet Street to stinkers like Secret Beyond the Door ... There was an American remake of M twenty years later. 

Verdict: I don't care what some so-called film scholars say -- this is a bit dull all told. **, 


BURT LANCASTER: An American Life. Kate Buford. Knopf; 2000. 

Tracing his pathway from the rough streets of New York's Harlem to a stint as an acrobat to his making his mark in motion pictures rather quickly, pretty much attaining stardom in his first film The Killers, this well-written and very absorbing biography offers a fascinating portrait of a complex individual. Lancaster was driven to succeed, something he achieved, but not without cost. Some friends and co-workers describe him with lavish affection while to others he was cold, distant, and occasionally cruel. While his wife nearly drank herself to death, Lancaster apparently did little or nothing to help her while he had numerous affairs and a long-time mistress (a passed-out spouse can be a convenience). On the plus side, Lancaster was dedicated to his art and tried his best to make worthwhile pictures instead of just appearing in junk for money (although eventually he would have to do that as well). 

Although Lancaster was not a kid when he became a bona fide movie star, he was young enough -- and it happened quickly enough -- for such rapid success to go to his head. There was one shocking report of violence against women while under the influence. The term "bisexual" is used over and over again in the book, but  Buford never really deals with it head on or provides any solid evidence of homosexual relationships, although eyebrows were raised in certain instances. Lancaster did have several gay friends and co-workers, and did an ad for AIDS awareness -- "Think Before You Act -- Don't Get Aids." Lancaster had several children but his relationship with his children isn't really examined that significantly (and we never learn the contents of his will). 

Whatever good or bad points Lancaster had, he made some memorable, or at least, famous motion pictures during his career, and gave some solid performances. From Here to Eternity, Come Back Little ShebaThe Swimmer (my favorite Lancaster film and performance), A Child Is Waiting, Elmer Gantry, and many, many others. However Buford is not a film critic, so don't expect in-depth analysis of his films, although she does go behind the scenes of many of the movies. 

Verdict: Imperfect but notable bio that delves a bit more than others into the life of this enduring star. ***1/2. 


Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson
ALL MY SONS (1948). Director: Irving Reis. Based on the play by Arthur Miller.

Industrialist Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson) was acquitted of deliberately selling defective plane parts to the army during WW2, but his partner, Herb Deever (Frank Conroy), wound up in jail.  21 planes crashed, killing the pilots and crews, because of the faulty parts. Now Deever's daughter, Ann (Louisa Horton), is engaged to Keller's son, Chris (Burt Lancaster). Adding to the awkwardness of the situation is the fact that Ann used to be engaged to Chris' late brother, who died fighting overseas, a fact which his mother, Kate (Mady Christians), refuses to acknowledge. Into this gathering comes Ann's angry brother, George (Howard Duff), who believes that Joe is the true guilty party and let his own father take the fall. With so much at stake Chris confronts first Herb and then Joe, but what he finds out may not be at all to his liking. And then there's a letter written to Ann from Chris' brother overseas just before his death ... 

Lancaster, Horton, Fraser, Morgan
All My Sons
 is a powerful, well-written and well-acted drama of the kind you rarely see these days. An outstanding Edward G. Robinson heads the cast and etches a strong portrait of a man who just doesn't get it until he finally does. The other cast members, including Lancaster, are all impressive as well. The supporting cast includes Arlene Francis and Lloyd Hough as one set of neighbors and Elisabeth Fraser and Harry Morgan as another; these are also interesting characters even if their appearances are brief. Howard Duff is a pleasant surprise as George, a sad figure who only felt truly at home when he was with the Kellers and now must cut himself off from them forever. Louisa Horton, who was married to George Roy Hill for twenty years, debuted in this film and years later appeared in Alice, Sweet, Alice. Helen Brown has a nice bit as an alcoholic woman whose husband died, and who confronts Joe in a restaurant and calls him a murderer. Despite being opened up in an intelligent fashion, the film is at times stagey, with some wrong choices in line readings and the like, but mostly this is a superior and memorable drama. 

Verdict: Fascinating situations explored in depth and with compassion. ***1/4. 


Wary in the confessional: Donald Sutherland
THE ROSARY MURDERS (1987). Director: Fred Walton.

"We're saving souls -- not lives."

Father Robert Koesler (Donald Sutherland of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) discovers that someone is targeting members of the clergy, shooting a priest and faking a nun's suicide. In a steal from Hitchcock's I Confess, the killer confronts Father Koesler in the confessional, and after surviving the encounter, the priest does his own investigation. He learns who the killer probably is but doesn't inform the police, not wishing to betray the sanctity of the confessional. (While it makes sense that a more conservative priest, like Father Nabors, played by Charles Durning of Sisters, would adhere to canonical law, Koesler is portrayed as being more liberal.) Because of his inaction, there are several more deaths, for which Lt. Koznicki (Josef Sommers) clearly blames him. 

Charles Durning
The Rosary Murders, based on the novel by former priest William X. Kienzle, has an interesting storyline, but there's something strangely unsatisfying about the movie. The film is directed by Fred Walton, best known for When a Stranger Calls -- he also co-wrote the screenplay with Elmore Leonard -- but you get the feeling that he's holding back, that he really wanted to craft an all-out horror film instead of a suspense picture, but felt too restricted. There are a couple of creepy scenes in the movie, but a kind of almost amateurish sheen that makes the whole project seem second-rate, despite its good points and the fact that it is fast-paced and absorbing. The movie completely lacks a sense of urgency, even though people, including police officers, are dropping like flies! (I would have loved to have seen what Italian giallo director Dario Argento could have done with this material!)

James Murtaugh
Another problem is that Donald Sutherland isn't well cast and gives an unremarkable performance, possibly because the character is irritating in some ways and contradictory. Durning is fine, as always, and James Murtaugh scores as a parishioner whose teenage daughter committed suicide. Belinda Bauer is given the thankless role of a reporter who becomes friends with Father Koesler and apparently falls in love with him -- one of the least convincing "romances" in the history of the movies ( and which should have been left on the cutting room floor). The movie at times seems vastly over-scored. Kienzle wrote many more books in the Father Koesler series, turning the priest into an amateur sleuth, and engendering the Protestant Reverend Randollph novels as well. 

Verdict: Intriguing plot carries this along despite deficiencies. ***.


Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Lizabeth Scott
I WALK ALONE (1947), Director: Byron Haskin.

Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) and Noll "Dink" Turner (Kirk Douglas) were partners in a bootlegging operation that went south. Frankie went to prison for fourteen years while Noll opened up his own successful nightclub, and got a girlfriend in singer Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott). Despite his relationship with Kay, Noll plans to marry bitchy socialite Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) for business reasons. Frankie makes it clear that what he wants is not just 50% of what's coming to him, but something to make up for all of those years he spent in jail. But even as Frankie and Kay grow closer, Noll may have other, less admirable plans for his old friend ... 

Kirk Douglas in a dramatic moment
I Walk Alone is fair-to-middling film noir. Frankly, it just never becomes as interesting or as explosive as you might hope. The performances are on target,  however, with especially good and slick work from Kirk Douglas, although Lizabeth Scott is a little odd and her romance with Frankie is never quite convincing. Wendell Corey is fine as a friend of Frankie's and an associate of Noll's, and there is also good work from George Rigaud as Maurice, who also works for Noll but isn't quite so  subservient; Mickey Knox as gunsel Skinner; Mike Mazurki as doorman/bodyguard Dan; and Kristine Miller as the delightfully predatory Alexis. When she manages to get Noll to agree to take her to the altar, she suggests that Kay sing "I Lost My Man" to the nightclub patrons -- what a bitch! Corey's death scene on a city street is quite well-handled.

Verdict: Comes so close but somehow misses. **1/2. 

Thursday, November 24, 2022




Jump for joy as you eat some turkey, pie, stuffing, potatoes -- stay off the bathroom scale for at least three days -- and watch some damn good GREAT OLD MOVIES. 

Thursday, November 10, 2022


THE BIG CIRCUS (1959). Produced by Irwin Allen. Directed by Joseph M. Newman. 

Circus owner Hank Whirling (Victor Mature) has just split off from his former partner and is determined to make a go of it on his own. Randy Sherman (Red Buttons) is assigned by the bank that loaned him money to keep him on the financial straight and narrow and also hired a public relations woman named Helen (Rhonda Fleming). For reasons that are never quite explained, Hank objects to having a woman doing publicity for him, and the two come to figurative blows almost immediately. A bigger problem is that an unknown person working with Hank's former partner is committing dangerous acts of sabotage. A variety of problems seem to be working against the circus' success as the bank keeps threatening to foreclose ... 

Red Buttons and Victor Mature
Producer Irwin Allen later became famous for his disaster flicks but The Big Circus is no disaster. The film is well-paced and quite entertaining, with some very satisfying performances. Red Buttons and Gilbert Roland as a first-class high-wire aerialist, come off best, along with Kathryn Grant, saucy and sexy, as Hank's sister. Mature saunters through the movie with his usual aplomb and Fleming is also appealing as his very feminine combatant. Vincent Price is adept if under-utilized as the ringmaster, and David Nelson [The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker], although he has little to do until the climax, plays a role very different from his part on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Peter Lorre is as lovable as ever as a clown in greasepaint. Although the process work isn't always great, the best and most suspenseful scene has to do with Roland's thrilling walk on a cable across the entire length of Niagara Falls! 

Verdict: This is superior to Jumbo and The Greatest Show on Earth. ***. 


The Batman in a contemplative mood
THE BATMAN (2022). Director: Matt Reeves. 

In a Gotham City wracked by corruption and vice, the determined Batman tracks down a serial killer whose victims include the mayor. That's the essentials of the plot of this movie, which turns out to be far better and more entertaining than I would have imagined. Effectively directed by Matt Reeves, The Batman boasts a terrific look -- thanks to cinematographer Greig Fraser and some excellent art direction -- and despite a few variations manages to get into the spirt of the comic books. Michael Giacchino has also contributed a creepy score that adds immeasurably to the picture.

Pattinson as Bruce Wayne
And then there's Robert Pattinson, who plays the Batman and Bruce Wayne and is incredibly intense in the part. One could argue that Pattinson makes absolutely no distinction between Bats and Bruce -- in the comics Wayne did his best to act like a frivolous playboy to keep people from suspecting the truth -- but The Batman makes it clear that Batman is the real person and Bruce is the phony identity. In any case, Pattinson's performance works beautifully. In this movie Batman is so grim that he often scares the very people that he's just saved (as often happened in the comics). 

Pattinson with Zoe Kravitz
There are other good performances as well. Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle (Catwoman); Andy Serkis as Alfred the butler; Paul Dano (of Prisoners) as the Riddler; Jeffrey Wright (of Casino Royale) as Lt. James Gordon; and John Turturro as Carmine Falcone. Colin Farrell makes a weird, unrecognizable Penguin. The film has a deliberate pace -- and one too many anti-climaxes -- but it held my attention, and I have to say I was delighted to see not a trace of camp. Matt Reeves also directed Cloverfield

Verdict: The Dark Knight done right. *** 1/4. 


TRAPEZE (1956). Director: Carol Reed.

Bitter former acrobat Mike Ribble (Burt Lancaster) is working as a rigger for a Paris circus after falling and injuring himself while attempting a "triple" flip while performing high in the air. Tino Orsini (Tony Curtis) is an aspiring performer who talks Mike into teaming up with him for an act, hoping he can teach him to do the triple. Then there's the highly ambitious and beautiful Lola (Gina Lollobrigida of Woman of Straw) who manages to secure a position in their act while bouncing back and forth between both men. 

Lancaster, Lollobrigida and Curtis
While it's certainly understandable that both men would get the hots for Lola -- in my opinion Lollobrigida was always the sexiest and most beautiful of the Italian sex bombs -- falling in love with such a fickle and manipulative person is something else again. And one can't really see Lola falling for anyone but herself. But Trapeze is essentially a melodrama, and as such feelings are created in and discarded by the characters simply to serve the needs of the plot -- that's all there is to it. As a circus picture, Trapeze is only fair to middling. However, it comes alive during the aerial sequences, which are thrilling, skillfully intercutting the three main actors into the actions of real circus performers. Clearly they were each willing to be photographed doing some aerial work, although not high above the ground one supposes.

The performances are good. Curtis and Lancaster would reteam for Sweet Smell of Success the following year when Curtis would really come into his own. This is not Lollobrigida's first American film, but probably the biggest English role she'd had to that date. Her character is kind of impossible, and her transformation from opportunist to someone sincerely in love with one of the men isn't believable, but for that I'd blame the script. Others in the cast include Minor Watson (of Beyond the Forest) as a man from Ringling Brothers; Thomas Gomez as the fat and rather obnoxious boss of the Paris circus; Katy Jurado as Rosa, who is carrying a torch for Mike; and Gerard Landry as her husband. There are interesting and flavorful moments in the movie, but it's nothing very deep, although one senses everyone working on the film thought it would be. Malcolm Arnold's score is so overwrought at times that it approaches the comical.

All of the homoeroticism of the novel, The Killing Frost, upon which the film is based, was eliminated, although if you watch it carefully ... In the novel Tino is executed for murdering Lola, although she was actually killed by Mike, who was in love with -- you guessed it -- Tino! 

NOTE: It has been said that Lancaster, because of his background, did all of the trapeze stunts in the film except for the Triple. I think this has been very exaggerated. For one thing, Lancaster is clearly in front of a blue screen in some shots and if one freezes the film the aerialist playing Lancaster is clearly a different person in the long shots. 

Verdict: Stick with The Big Circus. **1/2. 


STRAIGHT SHOOTING Robert Stack with Mark Evans. Macmillan; 1980. 

Robert Stack was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Written on the Wind, appeared in many other film and TV vehicles, but will always be best-remembered as Eliot Ness on The Untouchables. Stack seems to come from the old school of macho-type actors who feel they must do something braver than emote for the camera, so he writes about going on safari and similar  experiences. A champion skeet shooter, Stack spends a chapter writing on the sport, although this is not as interesting as his musings on show biz. Although born in the U.S., Stack was raised in Europe and didn't speak English for quite a few years. A more cultured man than you might imagine, Stack was introduced to opera at an early age. Stack writes of his relationships with women and his happy marriage, as well as his friendships with the likes of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. Stack goes behind the scenes of such films as The Bullfighter and the Lady but doesn't even mention co-starring with Joan Crawford in The Caretakers, for shame -- that might have been interesting! Stack has a tendency to cover old Hollywood folklore, which most readers will already be familiar with, too much, as he had a long career and doesn't need to pad the book, but his biggest gaffe is thinking that the film Detective Story (with Joseph Wiseman) was an episode of The Untouchables! (Wise appeared twice on the show but not in the role he played in Detective Story.) One suspects that it was Stack's co-author who keeps him up to date on such matters as Gay Lib; the actor was not thrilled when a comedian thought he was a "faggot" early in his career. Stack, who died in 2003, actually reprised the role of Eliot Ness in a telefilm that aired eleven years after this book was published. 

Verdict: Interesting if imperfect look at the career of the man who gave Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss! ***. 


(1932). Director: William Dieterle. 

Linda Gault (Ruth Chatterton) grew up very poor and is determined that she'll never be poverty-stricken again. Her husband Geoffrey (George Brent) drinks and importunes her to get stock tips from a man (Henry Kolker) who's smitten with her. When Geoffrey goes broke after the Wall Street crash of 1929, Linda takes what money she can gather and goes off to a sun and fun retreat where she meets millionaire Ronald Sanderson (Paul Cavanagh). Should she go for the loot or settle for love? Who cares? This is a minor film with Chatterton giving a surprisingly stiff and obvious performance. A secondary love story concerns Linda's French maid Celeste (Barbara Leonard) and her lover Arthur (Hardie Albright). 

Verdict: Watch Dodsworth [with Chatterton in fine form] instead. **.

Thursday, October 27, 2022



Enjoy some pumpkin pie while perusing these reviews of horror flicks, and then put on one of your favorite fright films!


And if you're looking for a creepy read, don't forget the SCHOELLECTION: four volumes of paperback books with two vintage Schoell horror novels each. Also available as e-books from Cemetery Dance publishers. 

Not to mention my non-fiction books on THE HORROR COMICS and CREATURE FEATURES. Kindle and book editions available on Amazon!


Unraveling: Terry O'Quinn
THE STEPFATHER (1987). Director: Joseph Ruben. 

A man who calls himself Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn) is married to a lovely woman named Susan (Shelley Hack) and is stepfather to a teenage girl named Stephanie (Jill Schoelen of Billionaire Boys Club). Widowed Susan is starry-eyed in love, while Stephanie is much more wary of her new "dad." Neither of them know -- as we do -- that "Jerry" slaughtered his previous family and changed his appearance and identity. When Stephanie finds out about the horrible murders in another town, and that the perpetrator is still on the loose, she determines to discover exactly who "Jerry Blake" really is -- if she lives that long. 

Jill Schoelen and Terry O'Quinn
The Stepfather
-- scripted by Donald E. Westlake -- is an absorbing suspense film that is greatly bolstered by the performances, especially that of O'Quinn. who makes a highly compelling sociopath. Jerry also has to deal with Steph's psychiatrist, Dr. Bondurant (Charles Lanyer) -- and deal with him he does! -- and Jim Ogilvie (Stephen Shellen), the brother of Jerry's last, dear departed wife. The film builds to a very dramatic and explosive climax. If there is one problem with the movie, it's that there are an awful lot of loose ends and the police seem incredibly inept. This was followed by two sequels and was remade in 2009. 

Verdict: A cut above a slasher flick. ***.       


TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER (1976). Director: Peter Sykes.

Author John Verney (Richard Widmark), who frequently writes on the occult, is importuned by a frightened man named Beddows (Denholm Elliott) to look after his daughter, Catherine (Nastassja Kinski), after she arrives in London. Catherine is a nun who belongs to the Church of the Children of the Lord, a sect that worships Astaroth. The leader of the church, Father Michael (Christopher Lee), is anxious to get his hands on Catherine because of certain bloody rites that must be performed. Initially sweet and compliant, Sister Catherine eventually becomes a danger to Verney's friends, including his literary agent Anna (Honor Blackman) and her boyfriend David (Anthony Valentine). Catherine makes her way to Father Michael as her own father writhes in terror and Verney learns what he can do to fight against the god -- or devil -- Astaroth's entry into earth via Catherine (or something like that). 

To the Devil a Daughter is a co-release of Hammer Studios but don't expect a Hammer classic with this atrocious movie. Most of the actors give it their all (one suspects Widmark wishes he had stayed in America) but they're fighting a losing battle with a hopelessly erratic script and sequences that are so bad they have to be seen to be believed. The last quarter of the film is hilarious, especially a sequence when a character is embroiled in fire and reduced to ashes so quickly that it is more comical than frightening. A bit of business in which a woman commits suicide by draining all of her blood into those special plastic bags turns hysterical when Chris Lee intones with consummate understatement: "she gave her life's blood." An orgy sequence is equally laughable. It's hard to imagine how anything could have been made out of this awful movie, which even Chris Lee can't save. 

Verdict: One of the worst Hammer movies ever made. *1/2. 


THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM (aka Die Schlagengruber und das Pendel/1967). Director: Harald Reinl. 

35 years ago Count Regula (Christopher Lee) murdered 12 virgins in an attempt to gain immortality. For his trouble, he was drawn and quartered as his two chief accusers stood watching. Now the descendants of these people, Roger Mont Elise (Lex Barker) and Baroness Lillian (Karin Dor), have received an invitation to the crumbling old Castle Regula, both unaware of what transpired in the past. Accompanying them by coach are Lillian's maid Babette (Christiane Rucker) and the rather shady Father Fabian (Vladimir Medar). 

The first half of the film is a protracted journey through a creepy forest in which trees have limbs growing out of them and skeletons are hanging from nooses. At the castle the group run into the long-dead Anatol (Carl Lange), the count's major domo, who plans to bring the count back to life. Wanting his revenge, the revived count places Roger under a slowly descending pendulum even as Lillian is nearly thrown into a pit full of writhing snakes. Yes, this is a very loose adaptation of Poe's classic The Pit and the Pendulum

Pitiful victim of "Dr. Sadism"
Although one could certainly quibble with some aspects of the screenplay, Torture Chamber not only holds the attention but has some classy and macabre art direction and is colorful in every sense of the word. Lex Barker appeared in several West German films and eurospy movies after he wrapped up his run as Tarzan. Karin Dor was a German actress who appeared with Barker more than once and was also in You Only Live Twice. Christopher Lee only appears in the prologue and at the very end and probably did all of his scenes in a couple of days  -- he appears to be the only actor who isn't dubbed. Carl Lange certainly makes an impression as Anatol.

Verdict: Fun horror film from West Germany that has some of the qualities of Italian horror features. ***. 


 NEW YEAR'S EVIL (1980). Director: Emmett Alston. 

Diane Sullivan (Roz Kelley) is a famous Los-Angeles based DJ known as "Blaze." During a New Year's Eve celebration at a hotel, she gets a phone call from a man with a disguised voice who tells her that he will kill one person each time it strikes midnight in a different time zone (he himself stays in Los Angeles). Blaze isn't certain whether or not to take the call seriously but calls in the police, who tell her that a dead body was discovered just where the killer said it would be. As cops try to track down the maniac and guard Blaze, the killer proceeds to put on one disguise after another as he dispatches women and the occasional man who gets in his way. 

New Year's Evil is a fairly zesty slasher that relies on some suspense and interesting developments instead of extreme gore. There's a clever bit involving a dumpster, an amusing protracted sequence when the murderer has to run from a gang of motorcycling morons, and a good twist as to the identity of the mad slasher. A decided weakness is the lackluster performance of Roz Kelly, who isn't even convincing when she is supposedly dangling from the bottom of an ascending elevator car. She is best known as Fonzie's girlfriend Pinky Toscadero on Happy Days, although she only appeared in three episodes. After this film, she had only five more credits. Kip Niven and Grant Cramer [Killer Klowns from Outer Space] are better as Blaze's neglected husband and son. 

Verdict: Minor but entertaining psycho-thriller with some exciting sequences. **3/4. 


INVISIBLE GHOST (1941). Director: Joseph H. Lewis.

Charles Kessler (Bela Lugosi) lives in his creepy mansion with his daughter, Virginia (Polly Ann Young), and a household staff which includes the black butler Evans (Clarence Muse). Kessler's wife (Betty Compson of Escort Girl) ran off with a lover who was killed in an accident even as Mrs. K's body disappeared. She is presumed dead, but actually the gardener (!), Jules (Ernie Adams), has somehow managed to hide the woman in a chamber below the garage. Periodically she escapes confinement, and when her husband spots her poking in the window or prowling the grounds, he has a psychotic episode, throws his cloak over his victim, and suffocates or strangles them. (This is revealed very early on in the film.) As the movie  opens there have already been a number of murders and the latest is of the maid, Cecile (Alice Dahl). Virginia's very handsome fiance, Ralph (John McGuire, who also plays Ralph's twin brother), becomes a suspect when it is discovered that he argued with Cecile, a former girlfriend, shortly before her death. There are tragic consequences to this but the murders continue.

Lugosi in a contemplative mood
You don't expect all old movies of this nature to necessarily proceed upon a logical course or have any veracity when it comes to police investigations, forensic evidence and the like, but Invisible Ghost -- one of Lugosi's cheapie creepies for Monogram studios -- is especially ludicrous, with huge dangling loose ends that pretty much make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. Lugosi manages to hold on to his dignity despite this, and the others are generally on target. I was impressed by Clarence Muse [In the Meantime, Darling], who also plays his role with dignity -- no jabbering or eye rolling for him, typical of this talented performer. (The artwork for the poster gives him a bug-eyed appearance that he never displays in the film itself.) While some may feel that McGuire's chief asset seems to be his good looks and wavy hair, he actually gave a very good performance in Stranger on the Third Floor the year before. The film is more than competently directed by John H. Lewis, but the screenplay is a true stinker. Lugosi and company deserved better.

Verdict: Lugosi gives this a professional gloss but the script is hopeless. *1/2. 

Thursday, October 13, 2022


On the moors with Holmes and Watson
(1939). Director: Sidney Lanfield. 

"Oh, Watson, the needle." 

This is the first of two Sherlock Holmes films made by Twentieth Century-Fox and the first in which the wonderful Basil Rathbone created perhaps the definitive movie portrayal of the famous detective -- he is simply outstanding. The plot has to do with Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) trying to save the life of an heir (Richard Greene) while dealing with rumors of the huge title beast roaming the foggy moors where the story takes place. John Carradine has a small role as a servant, and Wendy Barrie is the love interest. Lionel Atwill, who played Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty in a later film, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, is excellent in the more sympathetic role of Dr. Mortimer. Mary Gordon played Mrs. Hudson for the first time in this picture. Barlowe Borland scores as the cranky, litigious old Frankland. Morton Lowry is fine as John Stapleton. The 1959 color remake is also quite creditable, and some may feel it has the slight edge. Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 

Verdict: Fine introduction to the Rathbone portrayal. ***.


Bill Carter and Catherine |McLeod
I'VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU (1946).  Director/producer: Frank Borzage.

Famous pianist and conductor Leopold  Goronoff (Philip Dorn of Zeigfeld Girl) , who is quite a chauvinist, takes pretty Myra Hassmann (Catherine McLeod of So Young, So Bad) under his wing and teaches her everything he knows, although he seems to feel that no woman could ever be a true artist. At her first concert at Carnegie Hall, the audience seems to feel differently and Goronoff's jealousy causes him to make a foolish decision. Myra marries handsome farmer George (Bill Carter) and settles down, but years later her daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) starts on her own career. Will Myra's path cross with Goronoff's, and what will happen to all concerned when they do? 

Dorn and McLeod at Carnegie Hall
I've Always Loved You, like many romantic movies, throws logic to the wind and glosses over so much that it almost seems like a fantasy film. The ending, although satisfying in some ways, is especially ridiculous -- someone who played one concert 17 years ago gives another at Carnegie Hall without any rehearsal or prior announcement -- sure! Dorn gives a good performance in one of his largest roles, although James Mason might have done more with it. Catherine McLeod, who acquits herself quite nicely, did mostly television work. Bill Carter is appealing, but at times he's so nice that he's borderline cloying. One suspects he was trying to cover up his English accent as he is playing an American farmer. Apparently he didn't impress the right people because this was his last film role for over fifteen years.  

Bill Carter
There are also some excellent supporting performances in this, including Fritz Feld as Goronoff's long-suffering manager; Elizabeth Patterson as Myra's nanny and housekeeper; and especially Maria Ouspenskaya as Goronoff's very loving and wise "bubushka" or grandmother. The film moves at a good pace and is filmed in truly gorgeous Technicolor. But no matter how good the acting, the fact remains that most of the movie's power comes from Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, which of course was also used the year before in the far, far superior Brief Encounter. I've Always Loved You came from Republic Studios, once famous for its serials. In fact one of Catherine McLeod's earliest roles was as a dancer in The Tiger Woman

Verdict: Beautiful concert sequences tied to a rather contrived and foolish plot. **1/2.