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

Thursday, January 31, 2013

THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955)

Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson












THE END OF THE AFFAIR (1955). Director: Edward Dmytryk.

"It's quite simple really. One just does one's best."

"Are we to be children all our lives?"

In war-torn London, writer Maurice Bendrix (Van Johnson) has an affair with Sarah Miles (Deborah Kerr), the wife of a colleague, Harry (Peter Cushing). After Maurice is nearly killed in an explosion, he gets the paranoid impression that Sarah would have preferred he died so that the affair could end with ease, He becomes obsessed with finding out why she broke things off immediately afterward. He's unaware that Sarah, fearing he was killed, made a certain promise to a God she doesn't quite believe in ... The End of the Affair, based on a novel by Graham Greene, gets points for at least attempting to be adult fare and dealing with [semi] intellectual matters instead of merely blowing out the soap bubbles, but it is so talky and so smothered in awful religiosity that it's nearly a complete misfire. A supposedly atheistic character seems dragged in for balance, but he's really just an embittered, disfigured man who hates God, the movies' misconception of an atheist. The End of the Affair is the kind of picture that thinks talking about God and theology is somehow profound, giving it a pretentious and heavy air just when you should be getting caught up in the drama [what there is of it] and the characters. Speaking of which, both Maurice and Sarah are rather unsympathetic; neither ever gives a thought to husband Harry, who may be dull but seems a decent sort after all. Although The End of the Affair does illustrate the torments d'amour rather well at times, at other times it's almost comically awful, wasting some very good acting, a fine score by Benjamin Frankel, and moody cinematography by Wilkie Cooper. Deborah Kerr gives the best performance, better than the movie deserves, and Van Johnson, while not on her level, is quite good for the most part as well. Peter Cushing, in one of his rare non-horror parts, also acquits himself nicely as Harry, and John Mills has a good turn as a private detective hired by Bendrix. Greene's novel was again adapted as a film in 1999 with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in the Kerr-Johnson roles.

Verdict: A for effort, maybe, but this just doesn't work. **. 

WICKED WOMAN

















WICKED WOMAN (1953). Director/co-writer: Russell Rouse.

"Mexico City. A-Ca-pul-co!"

Statuesque, vivid actress Beverly Michaels was first seen by movie-goers in East Side, West Side as a tough blonde carrying a torch, but wound up in cheap melodramas like this instead of "A" pictures. Billie Nash comes to town [probably from jail], gets a job as a cocktail waitress, and sets her sights on the bartender, Matt (Richard Egan of View from Pompey's Head), who co-owns the bar along with his dipsomaniac wife, Dora (Evelyn Scott). Billie not only has a yen for Matt but craves a trip to Mexico, and convinces Matt to sell the bar behind his wife's back to bankroll the getaway; she impersonates Dora in a lawyer's office. This leads to a extremely tense scene when the buyer comes to the bar when both Billie and the real Dora are on hand -- will one of the customers give it away? Say what you will about Wicked Woman, the picture is suspenseful as hell at times, quite entertaining, and boasts some very good performances, especially from a saucy and superlative Michaels, who snaps out her lines with both sexy authority and a blase callousness. Percy Helton, who has one of his all-time best roles in this [he even gets to have sex with Michaels, albeit mercifully unseen], plays a boarding house neighbor of Billie's who resorts to blackmail to get a date and more. "You're nothing but a repulsive little runt," she tells him, "and if you don't get out of my hair I'm gonna step on you like a bug!" Now, now. Director Rouse was Michaels' husband and co-wrote the screenplay with Clarence Green, The pair also did the screenplay for the far superior classic D.O.A. Scott also played a bar owner on the TV series Peyton Place.

Verdict: Zesty melodrama with good dialogue and some very good performances. ***. 

JEAN ARTHUR: THE ACTRESS NOBODY KNEW

JEAN ARTHUR: THE ACTRESS NOBODY KNEW. John Otter. Limelight; 1997.

This excellent biography of the star of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and many other films not only examines Arthur's famous and not-so-famous roles, as well as her early life and career, but goes behind the scenes of her movies and delves into the personal life of this very private individual. Otter, who obviously admires Arthur, reveals the actress with all her good points and bad without ever being unbalanced or relentlessly negative. The bio is bolstered by many interviews with those who were close to Arthur and knew her well, or who worked with her, and were witness to her often contradictory nature. Arthur was on the short list to play Scarlett O'Hara, was an early feminist and individualist, but she also suffered from almost pathological stage/camera fright and could be difficult to deal with, to say the least. Otter offers interesting explanations for the woman's behavior. Arthur is another star whose sexuality was been called into question, and the author examines rumors of an alleged affair with Mary Martin. [Apparently many people think Martin modeled herself on Arthur, but to me they were so different -- and Martin was basically a musical stage star and singer whereas Arthur was a film figure  -- that I've never seen the connection.] Otter theorizes that Arthur's husband wouldn't have stayed with her for so long [they eventually did divorce] if he knew she supposedly preferred the ladies, but mixed marriages of that type often last for decades, especially if one partner gets something out of the alliance. In any case, the author doesn't uncover any lesbian liaisons so the verdict is still out on Arthur, and who cares? More importantly, this book gives her her due as a unique screen presence and a highly talented actress.

Verdict: Informative, authoritative, and highly readable. ***1/2. 

ONE GIRL'S CONFESSION

















ONE GIRL'S CONFESSION (1953). Writer/producer/director: Hugo Haas.

Waitress Mary Adams (Cleo Moore) steals money from her guardian-employer, whom she feels cheated her late father, confesses the crime [without giving up where the money is] and goes to jail. When she gets out she gets another job as a waitress, this time working for Mr. Damitrof (Hugo Haas). When the latter gets into serious financial trouble, she tells him where the stolen loot is, leading to some very ironic complications. This is one of seven films Haas directed that starred Cleo Moore, who was not his wife but was obviously one of his favorite co-stars. Moore is okay, but let's just say she's no Barbara Stanwyck and leave it at that. Haas proves to be a better actor than he was a writer or director, although this picture is at least unpredictable and entertaining. Glenn Langan [The Amazing Colossal Man] plays a fisherman Mary dallies with, and Mari Lea is snappy as Damitrof's girlfriend "Smooch."

Verdict:  Perfectly okay B movie melodrama. **1/2.


THE GLASS TOMB

John Ireland
















THE GLASS TOMB (1955). Director: Montgomery Tully.

"Now turn around and watch the man starve like a good boy."

It's impossible to understand why anyone on earth would have wanted to actually film this hopeless screenplay, nor why anyone wanted to adapt the novel it was based on in the first place. Get this: Pel Pelham (John Ireland) is a promoter who has one act, a "starving man" who won't eat for several weeks. While one can imagine some morbid people lining up to see this guy in the final stages of starvation, why would anyone pay good money to see him at the start of his campaign? A young woman, Rena (Tonia Bern), who was blackmailing a friend of Pel's, is found murdered, and Pel suspects the friend, Tony (Sidney James), of doing the deed. The audience knows he's wrong, because we see the actual murderer dispatching Rena about twenty minutes into the picture, meaning the movie has absolutely no suspense or surprises.The performances by Ireland, Honor Blackman as his wife, and others are good, but they have absolutely no decent material to work with. The movie is only about an hour long but seems longer. This is one of Hammer studios B mystery films released in the U.S. by Lippert.

Verdict: Staggeringly stupid and pointless. *.

FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2

"A black bloodsucker of indeterminate sex"
FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 (1988). Director: Tommy Lee Wallace.

In this sequel to Fright Night, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is seeing a psychiatrist and has almost convinced himself that his bloodsucking opponent, Jerry, in the first film was not a vampire but merely a homicidal maniac. Unfortunately the dead Jerry's sister Regine (Julie Carmen) is in town hoping to get revenge against Jerry and Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), and she's got a whole host of vampires with her, including one who is given to turning into a wolf, a hulking strong man, and a black bloodsucker of indeterminate sex. Fright Night Part 2 is reasonably entertaining, but it doesn't blend its scares and laughs as well as the original, and it lacks the first film's originality and charm. However, it does have some good FX work and interesting scenes, and the acting is fine. Charley has a new girlfriend, Alex, played by Traci Lind.

Verdict: No Fright Night, but has its good points. **1/2.

TRAFFIC (2000)

Michael Douglas as Judge Wakefield













TRAFFIC (2000). Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Compressing a long BBC mini-series [Traffik] into a two and a half hour movie, this feature deals with different aspects of the drug traffic, from Mexican cops and dealers, to American drug lords and narcs, to a Judge or "drug czar," investigating the problem who discovers his own daughter is an addict. Michael Douglas is the judge; Steven Bauer is the businessman who turns out to run a drug cartel, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is his initially unknowing wife who ultimately proves as ruthless as he is, wanting to take out a witness played by Miguel Ferrer. Others in the cast include James Brolin [The Car], Albert Finney [Tom Jones], Dennis Quaid [Legion], Benicio Del Toro [The Wolfman/2010] , and Don Cheadle [Iron Man 2] as a cop. The acting is okay and sometimes better than that, but the movie is disjointed [you get a sense that an awful lot was left on the cutting room floor] and badly directed. The movie holds the attention but it should be riveting and it isn't. Worse, some of the developments stretch credulity; certainly there is enough drama in the subject without contriving improbable sequences, such as the judge hitting the streets instead of calling the cops to find his daughter? This is not great movie-making by any stretch of the imagination.

Verdict: A movie on this subject shouldn't be so blah. **.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

LAURA

Clifton Webb and Gene Tierney
LAURA (1944). Producer/director: Otto Preminger.

"For a charming, intelligent girl you've certainly surrounded yourself with a collection of dopes." -- Waldo Lydecker.

"I write with a goose quill dipped in venom." -- ditto.

"This is beginning to assume fabulous aspects!" -- ditto.

Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is put on the case when a lady advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), has her face blown off by a shotgun blast from an unknown killer. The suspects include her alleged fiance, Shelby (Vincent Price), her Aunt Ann (Judith Anderson), who is in love with Shelby, and Laura's patron Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who was not so much in love with Laura as he wanted to possess her because he feels she owes him everything. [A very important flashback sequence that was stupidly deleted but can now be seen on the DVD shows the early evolving relationship of Lydecker and Laura.] Preminger's direction is strictly routine, but the movie works because of the dialogue and acting; everyone [including Dorothy Adams as the rather neurotic maid, Bessie] is at their best and Webb, in his first major screen role, is magnificent; his trading bitchy barbs with Vincent Price is, eh, priceless. One especially stupid moment occurs when a certain character, knowing that a killer is on the loose who shoots people in the face point blank and that she might be next on his list, opens a door without even asking who it is. For all its flaws the picture is quite entertaining, and if nothing else, it turned the wonderful Webb into a major star.

Verdict: At least it doesn't have Lee Radziwill, who played Laura in a 1968 telefilm. ***.


NOBODY LIVES FOREVER

NOBODY LIVES FOREVER (1946). Director: Jean Negulesco.

Nick Blake (John Garfield) is fresh out of the army, and discovers his girl, Toni (Faye Emerson) hasn't exactly been idle during his absence. He leaves for Los Angeles with his buddy Al (George Tobias), and is offered a lead role in a new scheme by fellow low-life, Doc (George Coulouris): he is to romance a recently widowed and wealthy woman named Gladys (Geraldine Fitzgerald) with the aim of parting her from her newly-acquired dough, a percentage of which he'll turn over to Doc and his racketeer cronies. But what happens if Nick genuinely falls in love with Gladys? Nobody Lives Forever is a surprisingly dull suspense drama with a shoot 'em out climax that seems to last an hour. Garfield is fine, but his character is unreal and uninteresting, and while Fitzgerald gives a good performance as the very naive and lady-like Gladys, it has no spark or fire, and neither does her character. The whole story is contrived and unbelievable in many respects to start with. George Coulouris (Womaneater; Citizen Kane) is excellent but George Tobias is irritating and adds absolutely nothing to the picture. Emerson [Lady Gangster], Walter Brennan [A Stolen Life] and Robert Shayne [The Neanderthal Man] are all fine in smaller roles. Again Brennan plays a character who is much older than he was at the time of filming.

Verdict: Phony and lifeless. **.

FRIGHT NIGHT

Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent













FRIGHT NIGHT (1985). Writer/director: Tom Holland.

High school student Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) becomes convinced that his new next-door neighbor Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire who is preying upon women in the neighborhood, but he has trouble convincing his girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), let alone the police. When Jerry tells Charley that his days are numbered, the desperate boy appeals to local television celebrity Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), who hosts a movie program called "Fright Night" and played a vampire hunter countless times in the cinema. Unfortunately, Vincent has no real skill at killing vampires and is horrified at the whole situation, first thinking Charley is unhinged, and almost becoming unhinged himself when he discovers the lad is telling the truth. When Amy is kidnapped by Jerry, these two unlikely vampire hunters have to gather up their courage to take action ... Fright Night skillfully blends suspense, scares, sensuality and humor in an absorbing and very entertaining movie that features top-notch performances from all of the named principals, as well as good work from Stephen Geoffreys as Charley's friend "Evil" Ed, and Jonathan Stark as Jerry's non-vampire but hardly human helpmate. One clever scene has Amy dancing with Jerry in a disco, glancing in the wall-length mirror, and seeing that she's apparently dancing with herself -- vampires cast no reflection. Excellent special effects throughout as well. Followed by Fright Night Part 2 and remade in 2011; this version was also good but had a lot less charm.

Verdict: Rousing, light-hearted horror thriller. ***.

MADAME CURIE

Greer Garson
MADAME CURIE (1943). Director: Mervyn LeRoy.

"Four long years in this shed!"

A young Polish woman named Marie (Greer Garson) comes to France to study and is introduced to a scientist, Pierre Curie (Walter Pidgeon), who will have great impact on her life. Although the early sections of the movie are a little tedious with all the scientific jargon, eventually Madame Curie builds up interest and an emotional current. After her marriage to Pierre, Marie is convinced that she has discovered a new active element, radium, and Pierre drops his own research to assist her. In a poorly heated, leaky shed the two spend years trying to isolate this element, performing literally thousands of experiments, and even then seem to be met with failure... There is a certain amount of dramatic license taken, time and events juggled, altered and compressed, but the basic facts are there, and the movie is well-done and well-acted, especially by a marvelous Garson. Pidgeon, though never in her league, is better than usual. Robert Walker has a small role as Pierre's lab assistant, and Van Johnson has practically a bit as a reporter who interviews Marie when she is on vacation. Madame Curie is decidedly a woman of historical and scientific importance for many reasons, although nowadays the practical uses of radium are rather limited. [She also discovered polonium, named after her native Poland.]

Verdict: Garson is always watchable. ***. 

THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE

A dramatic moment in Evelyn
THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE (aka La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba/1971). Director: Emilio Miraglia. 

This zesty Italian horror film combines several sub-genres to good if weird effect. First we learn from the very first that the "hero," Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is a serial killer who brings prostitutes to his mouldering castle so he can slay them. Alan proposes to Gladys (Marina Malfatti) the first night that he meets her, and she winds up ensconced in the newly refurbished manor as Lady Cunningham. Then the movie becomes a ghost story as she and others swear that they see the spectre of Evelyn, Alan's first wife, haunting the castle. If that weren't enough, the picture metamorphoses into a whodunit as someone [other than the obvious suspect, Alan] begins wiping out the rest of the cast one by one. Poor Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis), in the film's most vomitous scene, becomes pet food for the family foxes. Suspects and victims include Albert (Roberto Maldera), Evelyn's sleazy brother; George (Enzo Tarascio/Rod Murdock), Alan's cousin; family retainer Farley (Umberto Raho); and the handsome family physician, Dr. Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). While at times Evelyn plays like bad softcore porn, it is quite absorbing, unpredictable, and  suspenseful, although you may still be a bit confused when the movie is over. 

Verdict: Like an Italian verismo opera on uppers. ***.

LOVIN' THE LADIES

Rita La Roy vamps Richard Dix
LOVIN' THE LADIES (1930). Director: Melville W. Brown.

Useless rich popinjay Jimmy Farnsworth (Jimmy Kearns) has such a cynical attitude that he thinks he can take any two people and get them engaged to each other in a week or so, and love has nothing to do with it. For his experiment he chooses an electrician named Peter (Richard Dix) and a somewhat plain and haughty woman named Betty (Renee Macready). Unfortunately, Peter falls for Joan (Lois Wilson), whom Jimmy hopes to marry, while in the film's funniest scene Jimmy is vamped by the highly aggressive Louise (Rita La Roy). Dix [Seven Keys to Baldpate] has about as much sex appeal as Ernest Borgnine, but he gives a good performance. Another cast stand out, after La Roy, is Virginia Sale as the saucy maid, Marie. This old drawing room comedy is fairly creaky and only intermittently amusing.

Verdict: Horny La Roy is a riot. **.

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (2009)

Michael Douglas confronts Jesse Metcalf
















BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (2009). Writer/Director: Peter Hyams. From the 1956 screenplay by Douglas Morrow.

C. J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe) is a young, ambitious reporter who thinks he's got a great story: he's convinced that district attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas) has won a long string of cases because he and a cop confederate are manufacturing last minute evidence and convicting defendants regardless of guilt or innocence. C. J. gets help from Ella (Amber Tamblyn), an associate of Hunter's, and from buddy Corey (Joel David Moore), who plays a particularly important part in his scheme. C. J. arranges to get himself arrested for a murder he didn't commit, figures that Hunter will do his usual trick with fake evidence, and at the last minute Corey will rush in with proof that said evidence was manufactured. Obviously, things don't work out the way C.J. intended. This is a highly interesting and adept updating of the 1956 Fritz Lang movie of the same name. While Metcalfe may need a little more seasoning before he can carry a whole picture [Douglas is excellent but has only a supporting role], he has his moments, the other actors are fine, and the movie has some clever and ingenious twists and turns.

Verdict: A rare case of a remake being perhaps slightly -- and arguably -- better than the original. ***1/2.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE

THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (1968). Director: Robert Aldrich.

"I make movies -- not films!"

Apparently this movie was based on an old TV drama, with the script rewritten and turned into a theatrical feature. Dying agent Bert Langner (Milton Selzer) has discovered another young woman, Elsa (Kim Novak), who resembles the late, great [Garbo-like?] movie star Lylah Clare (also Novak). He takes her to Lylah's old producer, Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch), who lives with Lylah's old dialect coach Rossella (Rossella Falk), and they concoct a scheme to have Elsa play Lylah in a filmic biography of her life. But what to do about Lylah's death scene? Apparently she fell off of a balcony after discovering that the man she was about to go to bed with was actually a woman, but that's too scandalous to ever tell the truth about. Making matters worse, Elsa seems to be possessed by the spirit of Lylah at inopportune moments. There's a lot of intriguing material in Lylah Clare, but it's all junked up by a very trashy and utterly superficial screenplay. The sexual ambiguity of many of the characters makes the film seem dated instead of hip. Lewis and Rossella, both of whom seem to have been in love with Lylah, make disparaging remarks about each other's sexuality. [When it comes to the subject of homosexuality, this movie is definitely of the "sick, sad, ashamed and repressed" variety.] Another problem with Lylah Clare is that it says cynical things about Hollywood that have been said many times before even by 1968.

Kim Novak is not bad as Elsa/Lylah -- she appears to have been dubbed as Elsa -- but she's saddled with the fact that both characters are one-dimensional. Peter Finch has just a little more to work with as Lewis, and he's fine, as is Milton Selzer, who was probably given one of his best movie roles in this. Ernest Borgnine as a hollering producer is excellent, and Rossella Falk is equally vivid, but the actor who makes the best impression is Coral Browne, who plays venomous entertainment/gossip columnist Molly Luther (modeled on The Hollywood Reporter's Radie Harris, who also had a leg brace).The scene when Elsa/Lylah tells off Molly at a party is the best one in the movie, but, sadly, Legend of Lylah Clare is generally not even as entertaining as it should be.

Verdict: More a freak show than a serious drama. **.

LOVE LETTERS

Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten and Cecil Kellaway
LOVE LETTERS (1945). Director: William Dieterle.

"Most people aren't happy. They wait all their lives for something to happen to them."

"Women must understand that the returned soldier is not the man she knew and loved before he went away."

Allen Quinton (Joseph Cotten) does a favor for a callow Army buddy, Roger (Robert Sully), by writing love letters to the latter's girl back home, a woman named Victoria. Allen is disturbed because he fears when Victoria marries Roger, she'll be thinking he's an entirely different sort of man because of the letters. Years later Allen hears that Roger was killed by his wife during an argument, and is told that she, too, is dead. But is she? Allen meets a mysterious woman who goes by the one-word name "Singleton" (Jennifer Jones) at a party and at first barely notices her. But who is she really? And will the truth of her identity drive her to a nervous breakdown? Love Letters may sound intriguing, but be warned that it's a deadly bore, very slowly paced as if everyone concerned thought they were summoning up something deeply profound here. There were certainly possibilities in the premise, but Ayn Rand's un-cinematic screenplay fritters them all away with much talk and some truly suspect developments that make little sense -- it's almost as if she was writing a parody of a romantic film! Cotten is excellent, as usual; Jones has to deal with playing a very irritating character [but she received an undeserved Oscar nomination  anyway]; and Cecil Kellaway and Gladys Cooper (in a truly thankless part) are as wonderful as ever. But this is a misfire that even a pleasant score and some good dialogue can't save. File this under "Bad Hollywood Amnesia Movies."

Verdict: Leave "Singleton" to herself! **.

BRING ON THE GIRLS

BRING ON THE GIRLS (1945). Director: Sidney Lanfield.

"You're a real tin horn. First you tried to buy me off and now you're trying love. Well, that won't work, either."

J. Newport Bates (Eddie Bracken), who has twenty million dollars, is sick of people liking him just because he's rich, so he joins the Navy incognito with Phil (Sonny Tufts) as a kind of chaperon. Just his luck to run into a gold digger, Teddy (Veronica Lake), on his first night out, although Sonny, who was once involved with Teddy, mistakenly thinks his charge has actually fallen for society singer Sue (Marjorie Reynolds). There are a few complications before everything is worked out. Sonny Tufts sings a couple of novelty numbers, and Reynolds also does a couple of songs, all of which are forgettable. Lake is saucy, Reynolds is pretty and competent, Bracken is Bracken, and I'm not sure what to make of Sonny Tufts, who doesn't disgrace himself but who lacks a certain something. In any case as the butler, August, Alan Mowbray steals the whole movie away from everyone else in one brief scene when he thinks Bracken is deaf and tells him what he really thinks of him. Huntz Hall and Noel Neill have smaller roles and Marietta Cantry is fun as the maid, Ida. Joan Woodbury of Brenda Starr, Reporter plays another gold digger and Norma Varden plays Bracken's Aunt Martha with her customary aplomb. There are a few amusing moments.

Verdict: At least it's in Technicolor. **1/2.

HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE

Evelyn Brent and Jack Holt
















HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE (15 chapter Columbia serial/1941). Director: James W. Horne.

Jack Holt of the Secret Service (Jack Holt) is assigned to getting back some valuable plates stolen by counterfeiters, so to that end he pretends to be gangster Nick Farrell, and takes along agent Kay Drew (Evelyn Brent of Daughter of Shanghai) to pretend to be Farrell's wife. The most unusual feature of this serial is that the two leads are not typically "young and pretty" but are both middle-aged -- Holt, who'd been acting since silent movies, was 54 [and looks much older] and Brent was 43. Still, their performances are top-notch for this type of material, so their casting can not be faulted. Holt has a lot of gravelly presence as the secret service man, and Brent is saucy and thoroughly convincing both as agent and moll. Of the supporting cast, Tristram Coffin makes the best impression as a member of the counterfeit gang, and Stanley Blystone is effective as Garrity. The other henchmen and comparatively colorless leaders are all satisfactory if not especially memorable. After much rushing around with different factions trying to get their hands on those plates, the last few chapters take place on an island where the bad guys try to rile up the natives to their own ends, and thieves fall out. There are a few lively fight scenes and some more-than-decent cliffhangers. Holt of the Secret Service is entertaining, but not outstanding.

Verdict: Solid, enthusiastic lead performers never hurt. **1/2.

FELLINI SATYRICON

The pictorial splendor of Satyricon
FELLINI SATYRICON (1969). Director: Federico Fellini. 

"Better to have a dead husband than to lose a living lover."

Petronius' episodic novel "Satryicon," which survives in fragments, is one of the oldest works of literature that still survives in any form. Fellini's film version, which is "freely adapted," is just as episodic and fragmented as the book. The film is full of pictorial splendor and often striking settings and scenic design, making it rather good to look at for the most part, but its lack of a strong narrative structure occasionally makes it exasperating and eventually tedious. The story, such as it is, takes place in ancient Rome and concerns Encolpio (Martin Potter), who tries to wrest his lover, a sixteen-year-old slave boy named Giton (the unprepossessing Max Born), from his, Encolpio's, former lover, Ascilto (Hiram Keller). Unfortunately for Encolpio, when asked to choose between the the two men, the fickle Giton decides upon Ascilto. Giton eventually disappears from the film as the two other men have a variety of bizarre adventures, including attending the garish feast of a pretentious rich man, and becoming slaves of the weird Lica (Alain Cuny). whom Encolpio has to marry before the former is beheaded. In scenes that were not in the novel, Encolpio and Ascilto murder the guards of a hermaphrodite with magical powers, and kidnap her, basically turning into two thugs. Another added Fellini-sequence has Encolpio battling a man made up as a minotaur in a maze beside an arena. Although Encolpio's bout with impotency and attempts to cure it are in the novel, it doesn't seem to occur to him or anyone else that he might regain his potency by bedding a male [after all the only one he is in love with is Giton] instead of the typically grotesque females paraded across the screen by Fellini. It's strange that Fellini made a film with so many homoerotic aspects to it, although most of the characters in it seem bisexual, if not pansexual. Apparently in the novel Encolpio was a former gladiator, so his begging for mercy from the "minotaur" in an almost cowardly fashion -- he says he's just a student and not a fighter -- makes little sense and might even be considered homophobic to a degree. [But the movie seems as confused on that subject as the novel probably was. ] The sudden collapse of a Roman apartment building is an effective sequence, and there are others. The film has sub-titles but because of the international cast it is also dubbed -- and quite badly. Among the many attractive and hideous faces on view, the only recognizable actor is Capucine [The Pink Panther]. 

Verdict: Sometimes this resembles a really bad Russian sci fi flick but if it's more artistic it's not necessarily more successful. **1/2.

CRAZE

Jack Palance
CRAZE (1974). Director: Freddie Francis.

Antiquities dealer Neal Mottram (Jack Palance) belongs to a witchcraft cult and worships an idol of an African deity known as Chuku. After the accidental death of a woman in his shop, whose neck is pierced by sharp protuberances from the idol, Mottram finds his fortunes taking a turn for the better; so he keeps making sacrifices to Chuku by killing people, including his elderly Aunt Louise (Edith Evans), who's left him just about everything in her will. Mottram is assisted by his young associate and ward, Ronnie (Martin Potter of Fellini Satyricon), who is not exactly a willing participant. Palance and Potter are both fine, as is the now zoftig Diana Dors [The Unholy Wife] as an old girlfriend of Mottram's who provides him with an alibi. Trevor Howard [Brief Encounter] appears briefly as a higher-up in the police, but Hugh Griffith [Tom Jones] has a chance to make more of an impression as Aunt Louise's slightly eccentric solicitor. Suzy Kendall [Torso] also scores as a prostitute-victim. The picture is minor but entertaining, although devoid of style.

Verdict: Chuku proves a fickle god. **1/2.

THE LETTER (2012)

Josh Hamilton and Winona Ryder deserve better












THE LETTER (2012). Writer/director: Jay Anania.

Here's how not to make a movie. According to IMDB.com, Jay Anania "heads the directing program at the graduate film school at New York University" and actor James Franco was one of his students. Which is probably how Franco, a talented actor, wound up in this mess along with a bunch of other talented actors, including Winona Ryder [who's gotten even prettier with the years]. She plays Martine [who is apparently directing her own play, it is never quite made clear] and who invites strange Tyrone (Franco) to join the cast. The other actors in the play-within-the-movie are Martine's boyfriend Raymond (Josh Hamilton), Anita (Marin Ireland), and Julie (Katherine Waterston -- and yes she's the daughter of Sam Waterston). Tyrone is a little obnoxious, and the others are confused by Martine's obvious lack of directing skills and her abrupt changes to the play. The only interesting development has to do with a woman who interviews Martine, who is later told by police officers that she was hit by a car and is in a coma; yet she calls Martine the next day and apparently nothing happened. Huh? Martine is unraveling, seeming to have a nervous breakdown, and there's a last minute explanation for her actions. Even if you hadn't been misled into believing The Letter was a suspense film or thriller by the promotion, you would still be disappointed by this basically plot-less and pointless exercise in minimalism. One shudders to think what kind of dreadful movies the students at NYU will be churning out with Anania as their teacher! The Letter is deliberately paced, to say the least, and tedious to the extreme, with no pay-off of any kind. Anania wastes five good actors who should have been given a real storyline to emote for. How on earth did this ever get released?

Verdict: This would probably be a complete bore even if you watched the whole thing on fast forward. It gets * strictly for the acting and for a depressing but somewhat evocative score. Watch William Wyler's The Letter if you want to see a real movie!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956)
















BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956). Director: Fritz Lang.

After viewing an  execution in a prison, writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) and newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) have a discussion in which the latter wonders if the dead man, convicted on purely circumstantial evidence, could have been innocent. While Spencer is very much opposed to the death penalty, Garrett is thinking more of what a great book it would make if the two of them conspired to make it look as if the latter were responsible for the unsolved murder of a show girl. The idea is to get the innocent Garrett convicted and then whip out photographs Spencer has taken of Garrett planting phony evidence. (It doesn't occur to either of them that by tampering with evidence and obstructing justice they would both be committing serious crimes.) The biggest problem is that the two men don't include Spencer's daughter Susan (Joan Fontaine), who is engaged to Garrett, in the loop. While the whole movie has to be taken with a grain of salt, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt moves at a brisk pace and is quite entertaining, offering a neat twist that most viewers won't see coming. Andrews' stoicism serves him well as Garrett, Blackmer is as good as usual, and Fontaine is simply outstanding in her strongly emotional scenes as Joan. Arthur Franz, Shepperd Strudwick, Barbara Nichols and Philip Bourneuf are also solid in supporting roles. Remade -- quite well -- in 2009.

 Verdict: Invigorating suspense film with neat finale. ***.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST

Jack Nicholson and company
















ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975). Director: Milos Forman.

Author Ken Kesey reportedly hated this film version of his novel, which takes place in a state mental institution. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), arrested for statutory rape, is sent from a work farm to the institution, but it is suspected that he is faking his alleged mental illness. McMurphy provides some inspiration and leadership for other inmates, and finds himself in a deadly tussle with head nurse Rachet (Louise Fletcher). The odd thing about the movie is how conventional it is in many ways, despite the lead character being an anti-hero [and despite some intelligence and good qualities he is basically a loser -- I mean look where he is!] Some of the sequences are dramatically dubious to say the least, and the movie comes off [deliberately, I believe] as more of a black comedy than a serious expose of conditions and attitudes in mental hospitals. Nicholson won an Oscar and is fine, although the role is not in any way out of his range. Louise Fletcher also won an Oscar and is excellent as the nurse, who is less evil than misguided. The film introduced Brad Dourif as young Billy, and he's been playing odd types in the movies ever since. Danny De Vito [who is only adequate] and Christopher Lloyd later wound up on Taxi, where their talents, especially the former's, were better served. William Redfield, Scatman Crothers, and especially Sydney Lassick are all quite good in important supporting roles. The movie presents women and black men, traditionally oppressed and victimized, in positions of authority over the exclusively Caucasian patients, but really does nothing with the premise, and the other female characters, such as hooker friends of McMurphy's, are presented basically as cartoons. Fletcher's next film was the ill-received Exorcist 2: The Heretic.

Verdict: At times quite arresting, but nothing really special here. **1/2.

RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN

RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN: A History of the Filmed Works. Matthew R. Bradley. Foreword by Richard Matheson. McFarland; 2010.

While perhaps not a household name like Stephen King [whom he influenced], Matheson has secured a reputation among genre fans for his works "The Shrinking Man" [filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man], "I Am Legend" [three disappointing film versions so far], "Hell House" [filmed as The Legend of Hell House], among others, including numerous short stories, and his screenplays for The Night Stalker, Roger Corman's Poe adaptations such as Pit and the Pendulum, and other horror-fantasy works. Matheson's non-genre contributions include The Morning After telefilm, with Dick Van Dyke as an alcoholic, and De Sade starring Keir Dullea. Like King, Matheson's first prominent novel became a highly popular film, and there has been a synergistic relationship between his film and literary work ever since. Bradly looks not only at the films whose screenplays were written by Matheson, but also at the film adaptations of his work that were written by himself and others. His book is bolstered by interviews with and comments from Matheson himself and others who worked on the films. In addition to being an excellent reference source, Richard Matheson on Film creates an interest in many of Matheson's print and film works, and also serves to illustrate the often maddening twists and turns that occur during the knotty path from book to movie, as well as the disasters that often result when one person's vision doesn't jell with another's. Ironically, one Matheson movie [which he scripted from his novel "Bid Time Return."] that has become a cult item is Somewhere in Time, probably because of John Barry's evocative score, as Jeannot Szwarc's direction is mediocre at best. Even if you're not as enthusiastic about Matheson's work as Bradley is -- and he doesn't rave about everything -- you''ll find this book a good, entertaining and noteworthy film study. Illustrated.

Verdict: Exhaustive and informative. ***1/2. 


DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE

Christopher Lee as Dracula
DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968). Director: Freddie Francis.

In this sequel to Dracula Prince of Darkness, the blood-lusting count (Christopher Lee) is freed from his icy prison but discovers that Monsignor Mueller (Rupert Davis) has placed a big cross against the door to his castle as part of his efforts of purification. Enraged, the count mind-controls a pliable priest (Ewan Hooper) and enlists his aid in getting revenge. Dracula sets his sights on the monsignor's pretty niece, Maria (Veronica Carlson), who has a boyfriend, Paul (Barry Andrews), who shocks the monsignor and her mother (Marion Mathie) by admitting he's an atheist [this development takes a predictable route in some ways but not in others]. The busty barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing) has a yen for Paul but instead winds up the lover of Dracula. [The scene in which the count stalks her just before dawn is well handled except it appears to be daylight already!] The main problem with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave is that it follows the excellent Prince of Darkness [directed by Terence Fisher] and must suffer by comparison. Otherwise, it's effective enough on its own terms and boasts some very good acting from all the principals. Lee is given some dialogue this time around, but only interacts with others when he is controlling or attacking them.

Verdict: Not the best of the Count, but not bad. **1/2.

FELLINI'S ROMA

The ecclesiastical fashion show!












FELLINI'S ROMA (1972). Director: Federico Fellini.

In his love-valentine to the wonders, joys, excesses and beauties of Rome, Fellini has fashioned not a true documentary -- many scenes are staged -- but a mock documentary that expresses his conflicted feelings about the great world capital. The film bounces back and forth in time, with the main 1940's "storyline" involving a young man (Peter Gonzales Falcon, apparently playing a young Fellini) who comes to board with a family and attends a delightfully vulgar variety show with a rowdy audience (one mother just lets her child piss right in the aisle), experiences an air raid, and goes to a brothel or two. In one "low-class" whore house the hookers are almost as old and unattractive as the madames, and the situation in the more expensive brothel isn't much better. In modern sequences an underground chamber with ancient frescoes is uncovered during an excavation for a new subway, but the fresh air destroys them. There is a scene showing busy traffic entering Rome from the airport, and a more memorable sequence showing dozens of motor cyclists zooming all around the city. The highlight of the film, of course, is the ecclesiastical fashion show [see photo], an irreverent look at the clergy in all their popinjay finery.

Verdict: A mixed bag, interesting, but hardly a masterpiece like I vitelloni . ***.

NIGHT TIME IN NEVADA

NIGHT TIME IN NEVADA (1948). Director: William Witney.

Farrell (Grant Withers) doesn't want to share the booty with his mining partner Andrews (James Nolan), so he murders him and hides his body. Many years later Andrews' daughter, Joan (Adele Mara), shows up hoping to get her hands on some of the money in her father's trust fund -- of course there isn't any. Sheriff Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers, of course) suspects that Farrell is a bad 'un, and his suspicions prove correct when he and his hench men try to rustle some cattle off a train, leading to an exciting climax with Roy and Farrell having a battle on a speeding truck. If this sequence reminds you of a cliffhanger serial, it's because the movie was directed by serial specialist William Witney. Aside from the climax and Withers' good performance as the nasty, murderous Farrell, Night Time has little to recommend it. Rogers made over one hundred similar features in addition to his TV show. Andy Devine [A Star is Born/1937] and Trigger the horse [who had a notable part in Son of Paleface, along with Rogers] are Rogers' co-stars and they are both about as usual. Adele Mara later wound up in Curse of the Faceless Man.

Verdict: A good-looking hero never hurts. **.

THE WHIP AND THE BODY [AKA WHAT]















THE WHIP AND THE BODY [aka What/La frusta e il corpo1963]. Director: Mario Bava [attributed to "John M. Old"].

The Menliff family is disturbed by the reappearance of errant son Kurt (Christopher Lee), who went away after his dalliance with a maid led her to take her own life. Her mother (Harriet Medin), another domestic, keeps the bloody knife her daughter used to kill herself under glass as a morbid memento, and it is used when people in the Menliff castle start getting murdered. Is someone human behind the slayings, or is it a ghost from beyond the grave? The title is apparently explained by more than one sequence in which Kurt whips his sister-in-law Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), who was once affianced to him but then married his brother Christian (Tony Kendall), and who seems to enjoy the sadomasochistic foreplay. Like most of Mario Bava's movies this one has atmosphere, good photography and settings, and is drenched in the usual bizarre and colorful lighting schemes, but it's also a bore, with lots of walking around and brooding that amounts to very little; there's nothing remotely scary about it. However, the film has one of the best dubbing jobs of an Italian import, and the voices are well chosen, especially the actor who dared to dub Christopher Lee.

Verdict: Another bad Mario Bava movie. Watch his superior Blood and Black Lace instead. **. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

FRIENDLY PERSUASION

"Will Pleasure you:" Suggestive ad for the movie
















FRIENDLY PERSUASION (1956). Director: William Wyler.

Although the Quakers in a small town in South Indiana are warned that they may have to defend themselves and their homes against rebel soldiers, Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) is determined that his grown son, Josh (Anthony Perkins), will not fight in the Civil War as it's against his religion. Although the one battle scene late in the picture is well done, the war almost seems like an after-thought in this movie in which Cooper plays it too cute by far in a role that cries out for a more talented and appropriate character actor. Perkins is quite good, however, as is Phyllis Love as his sister Mattie; Mark Richman as her boyfriend Gardner; Richard Eyer [The 7th Voyage of Sinbad] as Josh's younger brother; and Robert Middleton as a friend and rival of Jess's. Dorothy McGuire is all wide-eyed and beatific as Jess' wife, Eliza. Although Marjorie Main is as good as ever, the whole business with her and her three marriage-minded daughters [see photo] seems dragged in from an Abbott and Costello movie. Wyler's direction is solid, and there is excellent photography courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks/Fredricks -- he used both spellings -- and a nice score by Dimitri Tiomkin. Joel Fluellen [Monster from Green Hell] and Robert Fuller [Brain from Planet Arous] have smaller roles. The talented Phyllis Love appeared almost exclusively on television. A goose named Samantha has nearly as much to do as Gertrude the Duck in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Verdict: Not bad for what it is, but not for every taste. **1/2.



THE CHINA SYNDROME

Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda














THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979). Director: James Bridges.

Reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is doing a routine story at a nuclear power plant in Southern California, when an "accident" occurs that has everyone working there quite nervous. Kimberly and her brash photographer, Richard (Michael Douglas), are convinced that there was more to the incident than anyone is saying, but Kimberly's superiors are understandably afraid of lawsuits or worse. Still, it develops that plant employee Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) has uncovered certain unsafe conditions that could lead to disaster if the facility goes back up to full power, leading to a tense confrontation with the higher-ups and a delicate situation in the control room. The China Syndrome became famous when the incident at Third Mile Island happened not long after its release, turning the picture into a must-see at the time. Although it's well-made and well-acted -- Lemmon is especially good, with Fonda on the money as well -- time has somewhat blunted its impact. Scott Brady [Mohawk] is fine as one of Lemmon's associates at the plant, and for better or worse Wilford Brimley, as another plant employee, also got a higher profile from this picture. Michael Douglas is okay, but doesn't make that much of an impression. The Stephen Bishop song that plays over the opening credits is pretty awful and almost sinks the movie from the start.

Verdict: Has its moments. ***.

THE FALLEN SPARROW

John Garfield















THE FALLEN SPARROW (1943). Director: Richard Wallace.

John Garfield enters Alfred Hitchcock territory with mixed results in this story of John "Kit" McKittrick (Garfield), who escaped from a Spanish prison and has something [the "MacGuffin"] that Nazi agents are after. In New York he investigates the death of a close friend who fell or was pushed from an upper story window during a party. Kit gets embroiled with three women: Toni Donne (Maureen O'Hara); old girlfriend Barby (Patricia Morison); and young singer Whitney (Martha O'Driscoll), none of whom he can trust any more than the men he encounters. Then there's the mysterious limping man who was a torturer in the Spanish prison and is now skulking around New York [his identity comes as no great surprise]. Garfield, Morison and O'Hara are all fine, and Walter Slezak scores as a strange professor in a wheelchair. Nestor Paiva [Mr. Reckless] and Hugh Beaumont [Larceny in Her Heart] have small roles as well. The movie is only sporadically interesting and can hardly be considered one of Garfield's more interesting pictures. What this needs is Alfred Hitchcock and a stronger script.

Verdict: Watch Body and Soul instead. **1/2.

BELLES ON THEIR TOES

BELLES ON THEIR TOES (1952). Director: Henry Levin.

Cheaper by the Dozen was so successful that a sequel was inevitable, despite the fact that the main character played by Clifton Webb died at the end of that movie. In Belles Myrna Loy and Jeanne Crain take center stage as the wife and oldest daughter. Loy's Mrs. Gilbreth, who we learn was also a doctor and engineer like her late husband, is sort of reinvented as an early feminist; Loy seems a little more at home playing the woman than she did in the first picture. Much of the movie details the romantic adventures of daughters Ann (Crain). Martha (Debra Paget), and Ernestine (Barbara Bates). The illegally good-looking Jeffrey Hunter plays a doctor who falls for Ann, and Martin Milner [13 Ghosts] has a smaller role as Al Lynch. The weird butler, Tom (Hoagy Carmichael), seems to have wandered in from a different movie! Verna Felton and Edward Arnold also have roles, the latter as a man who reluctantly goes into business with Loy and has romantic aspirations toward her. Little Jimmy Hunt, who was charming in the first movie, is given no dialogue in the sequel.  At one point the movie threatens to turn into a musical when the whole gang sings a forgettable song about, of all things, beans!

Verdict: Where is Clifton Webb when you need him? **1/2.


VAN JOHNSON MGM'S GOLDEN BOY

VAN JOHNSON: MGM'S GOLDEN BOY. Ronald L. Davis. University Press of Mississippi; 2001.

It's hard to figure out exactly where author Davis was coming from when he wrote this book on Johnson [seven years before Johnson's death at 92]. When you write a book on a Hollywood legend for a university press it usually means you admire that performer [even while not being blind to his or her flaws] but this book seems more borderline contemptuous of its subject than anything else. It's hard to say if Davis is chiding Johnson for spending most of his life in the closet, or if he simply has trouble with his subject's homosexuality. [Johnson's ex-wife told Davis that she was pressured to marry Johnson by studio head L. B. Mayer after her marriage to his buddy Keenan Wynn fell apart, because Mayer threatened to drop the latter's contract.] Davis' chief sources for his book seem to be this embittered ex-wife and a wannabee former stepson of Johnson's with drug problems and other issues who wrote his own book about his screwed up family (Davis quotes some fairly homophobic passages from that book). Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy does provide details of Johnson's life and career, and how important and famous he was during his heyday, but there always seems to be -- something -- between the lines. Johnson's marriage did produce a daughter whom -- according to this book -- he neglected after the divorce. Davis should be commended for not doing a white-wash, but his prissy disapproval seems to radiate from every page. Perhaps the tell-all tome would have been better-suited to a commercial press than a university publisher, although Johnson was undoubtedly not considered "B.0." enough for the former. Davis also wrote a much better biography entitled Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream, which is recommended.

Verdict: Interesting and readable but just a little too odd. **1/2.

THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

A zombie on the attack!
THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966). Director: John Gilling.

This Hammer horror movie has the distinction of presenting pasty-faced zombies two years before the more infamous Night of the Living Dead, but it hasn't much else going for it. People are mysteriously dying -- and then being seen alive -- in a small Cornish village and the local doctor, Tompson (Brook Williams), can't figure out why. Sir James Forbes (Andre Morrell of The Giant Behemoth) arrives to help investigate the matter with his daughter, Sylvia (Diane Clare). Do all these living dead men and women have something to do with activity at a supposedly abandoned mine at the edge of the village? Jacqueline Pearce plays Tompson's wife, but the best performances are from the ever-excellent Morrell and John Carson as Squire Hamilton. The movie has no real style or tension and doesn't hold the interest. Maybe if Terence Fisher had directed it?

Verdict: It's all a rather dreary mish mash.**.


DON'T DARE MISS THE NEXT THRILLING CHAPTER

DON'T DARE MISS THE NEXT THRILLING CHAPTER.-Anthony L. Fletcher. Undercliff/Mill City Press; 2009.

Fletcher's enthusiasm for the cliffhanger serial comes through in this book that looks at many serials of different genres -- science fiction, costumed heroes, jungle action and the like -- rating movies from two to five stars. Fletcher is knowledgeable about these movie serials, and this book would be a good bet for newcomers to the genre who are looking for some recommendations; it has less value for the more "seasoned" cliffhanger enthusiast. Fletcher gives all of the best serials, such as The Adventures of Captain Marvel their due, but be forewarned that some of his five star choices are a little  bizarre [I'm still scratching my head as to what he sees in the stinker Hawk of the Wilderness -- but to each his own!] Nevertheless, this is a good introduction to the genre, and Fletcher's prose is not bad. The book is an somewhat unwieldy over-sized trade paperback, which would make sense if it was illustrated, but the only photos are on the front and back cover. [Apparently this is self-published.]

Verdict: Good for fans seeking to learn more about the great and not-so-great cliffhanger serials. ***.