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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Houston Story (1956)

An unscrupulous driller (Gene Barry) concocts a plan to steal oil from Houston oil fields. To this end, he enlists the aid of a mobster (Edward Arnold) to help him pull off the scam. Directed by William Castle (HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL), this inexpensive noir is undercooked and needed a stronger script. The lead role was originally intended for Lee J. Cobb who suffered a heart attack while filming and was replaced by Gene Barry. Cobb might have given the part some needed authority as Barry comes across as a sleazebag way over his head. The most interesting character is the mobster moll played by Barbara Hale in a rare against type hard-bitten glamour girl usually played by the likes of Lizabeth Scott or Gloria Grahame. At a brief running time of one hour and 21 minutes, the film moves quickly. Perhaps too quickly as it could have used some more detailing. Still, for what it is, it's a passable piece of cinematic pulp. With Paul Richards, Jeanne Cooper and John Zaremba. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

What Mad Pursuit? (1985)

Set in the 1930s, a well known British author (Paul Daneman) on a tour of America is invited by a Manhattan socialite (Carroll Baker) to her Long Island mansion for a weekend of rest and quiet. However, it turns out that rest and quiet are the last things he gets as the weekend turns out to be a disaster. Based on the short story by Noel Coward and directed by Tony Smith. This amusing if lightweight piece of fluff is practically a throwaway. The characters are typical Noel Coward characters, tossing off witty and bitchy one liners but who would exhaust you in real life and in this story, they exhaust the writer who just wants to rest and sleep but is prevented at every opportunity by rather shallow and self centered social butterflies. With Neil Cunningham, Jacqueline Pearce, Jane Carr and Phillip Joseph.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Tomorrow Is Forever (1946)

At the end of WWI, a pregnant wife (Claudette Colbert) receives a telegram that her soldier husband (Orson Welles) has been killed in Europe. Jump 20 years later and she has remarried and her second husband (George Brent) is raising her son (Richard Long) as his own. But when an Austrian refugee (Orson Welles) comes to work for her husband, she begins to slowly suspect that he might be her first husband. Based on the novel by Gwen Bristow and directed by Irving Pichel (DESTINATION MOON). This is one corker of a tearjerker! Shamelessly intent on milking every tear it can from your ducts, you should resent it but when it's this determined, it's best to just give in! A suspension of belief is necessary to make the narrative work. When Orson Welles returns 20 years later, he is indubitably Orson Welles yet Colbert shows no signs of immediate recognition. That aside, it's a well done piece of melodrama. Max Steiner contributes one of his more restrained scores. With Richard Long, Lucile Watson, Joyce MacKenzie, Ian Wolfe and an adorable 7 year old Natalie Wood. 

Die 3 Groschen Oper (aka The Threepenny Opera) (1931)

In late Victorian London, the leader (Rudolf Forster) of a criminal gang impulsively marries the daughter (Carola Neher) of the self proclaimed King of beggars (Fritz Rasp). This infuriates both the beggar King and the gangster's mistress (Lotte Lenya) and trouble brews. Based on the acclaimed musical by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (itself adapted from the 18th century John Gay English ballad opera) and directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst (who also directed a simultaneous French language version). Despite the direction of the respected Pabst and the presence of Lotte Lenya in the cast, this is far from the definitive version of the Brecht/Weill musical. Musically, the film has excised most of the songs to the point that I would call this version a semi-musical. The plot is re-arranged and the remaining songs are not in the order they were in the play. Pirate Jenny sung by Polly in the play is now given to Jenny to sing. Alas, the wonderful Jealousy Duet is one of the songs jettisoned. Still, it remains the most "authentic" of the film versions and its wonderful to have an archival record of the great Lenya singing Pirate Jenny. With Reinhold Schunzel, Valeska Gert and Ernst Busch. 

Mudbound (2017)

Set in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s, a dirt poor white farmer (Jason Clarke) and his family and his black sharecropper tenant (Rob Morgan) and his family must deal with the physical elements that determine their fate and for the black family, there's the deep rooted racism. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan and directed by Dee Rees. Although the pacing of the film often feels too methodical (or slow if you prefer), ultimately it proves to be a powerful if disturbing experience. This being set in the racist Jim Crow South, you just know where it's heading and sure enough, it does. But director Rees infuses the film with a reality and a truth that elevates it above the usual films of its ilk. Rees doesn't have to hammer us as if we were unable to grasp it, she simply shows it as it is. And when she ends the film on a note of hope, it's not of the "we are all brothers, Kumbaya" kind but a glimmer and that's enough. I found myself more interested in the black family's story and slightly annoyed whenever we had to go back to the white family's although I had a great empathy for Carey Mulligan's unhappy wife. With Mary J. Blige (excellent), Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Jonathan Banks.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

September (1996)

Set in the Scottish highlands, as the town's leading citizens prepare for a ball given by one of the village's social butterflies (Judy Parfitt), long buried secrets come to the fore when a woman (Jacqueline Bisset) who had fled the town 20 years before returns for reasons of her own. Based on the best selling novel by Rosamunde Pilcher and directed by Colin Bucksey. At a running time of slightly over three hours, the film plays out like a nice juicy read. It opens with the discovery of a body but we have to wait until the end to discover whose body it is. It's pure soap opera of course but done very well and there are some nice performances. Notably that of Jacqueline Bisset, an actress usually cast for her beauty rather than her acting ability. No need to seek it out but if you run across it, don't be surprised if it hooks you in. In addition to the performances, a shout out goes to Peter Sinclair's cinematography that makes the Irish locations (standing in for Scotland) look gorgeous. With Michael York, Mariel Hemingway, Edward Fox, Jenny Agutter, Virginia McKenna (just wonderful), Paul Guilfoyle and Angela Pleasence in a really creepy performance.

Sissi: Die Junge Kaiserin (aka Sissi: The Young Empress) (1956)

As the new Empress of Austria, a young girl (Romy Schneider) finds it difficult to adjust to palace life especially when confronted by her daunting mother in law (Vilma Degischer) who attempts to control her. Directed by Ernest Marischka, this is the second entry in the hugely popular (in Germany) SISSI trilogy which began in 1955 with SISSI and ended in 1957 with SISSI: FATEFUL YEARS OF AN EMPRESS. It's a highly romanticized version of the actual Elizabeth of Austria early years as Empress and certainly not to be taken as historically accurate. One can see why the film became so popular. This was the film that made Romy Schneider a star in Germany and while she's still in Sandra Dee mode rather than the international actress she would become in the 1960s, she's absolutely charming. The film benefits from the sumptuous production design of Fritz Juptner-Jonstorff and detailed costume design of Leo Bei and Franz Szivats as well as Bruno Mondi's lush cinematography which takes full advantage of the beautiful Austrian landscapes. I could have done without Josef Meinrad's unfunny comic relief and the film's last 10 minutes which seem to drag on forever. With Karlheinz Bohm (PEEPING TOM) as Franz Joseph I, Magda Schneider and Erich Nikowitz.   

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Un Carnet De Bal (1937)

A wealthy recent widow (Marie Bell) finds herself lonely and cut off. When she discovers an old dance program from a ball 20 years earlier, she decides to track down her young suitors to see how life has treated them. Directed by Julien Duvivier (PEPE LE MOKO), this is a charming yet often poignant rumination on how our memories are not always reliable and how a single incident can often determine what path our lives will take. Bell's journey through her past is both comedic and tragic and encompasses suicide, murder, card tricks, avalanches and the priesthood. The film tends to dwell a bit too long on some of the episodes, notably the mayor's (Raimu) wedding. The performances are fine right down the line with Louis Jouvet as the former law student now turned mob boss standing out. The film should have ended when Bell returns to the scene of the crime, where the ball took place but we get an unnecessary coda. With Fernandel, Francoise Rosay, Harry Baur, Sylvie, Pierre Blanchar and Pierre Richard Willm.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cape Fear (1962)

After being released from prison for eight years, a sadistic psychopath (Robert Mitchum) begins terrorizing the family of the lawyer (Gregory Peck) he considers responsible for sending him to prison. While the police are helpless to do anything, the attorney takes matters into his own hands. Based on the novel THE EXECUTIONERS by John D. MacDonald and directed by J. Lee Thompson (GUNS OF NAVARONE). This is a killer of a thriller! Thompson's film is one of those movies where Hitchcock's influence hovers over the entire project. Perhaps not coincidentally many of Hitchcock's collaborators participated in the film: art director Robert F. Boyle (THE BIRDS), editor George Tomasini (VERTIGO) and composer Bernard Herrmann (PSYCHO). Thompson keeps a tight rein on the suspense and cinematographer Sam Leavitt's (EXODUS) evocative B&W lensing is rich with shadows and mood. But perhaps the most important element of CAPE FEAR is Mitchum's bone chilling performance. Using the less is more method, all Mitchum has to do is lower the lids over his cobra eyes and your blood runs cold. You just know the unspeakable horrors this monster is capable of!  Remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese. With Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam, Lori Martin, Jack Kruschen, Joan Staley and a terrific performance by Barrie Chase as one of Mitchum's victims.

The Tunnel Of Love (1958)

As their fifth anniversary approaches, a Connecticut couple (Doris Day, Richard Widmark) that have trouble conceiving apply to adopt a child. But after passing out after a night on the town with a beautiful social worker (Gia Scala), the husband discovers that he might have conceived without his wife! Based on the Broadway play by Peter De Vries and Joseph Fields by way of the novel by De Vries and directed by Gene Kelly. This racy sex comedy is one of the better examples of its genre. Despite being top billed (and singing the title song), the film belongs more to Widmark than to Doris Day. It's a treat to see Widmark playing against type and treading into Jack Lemmon/Rock Hudson territory. Widmark brings an actor's gravitas to the part and underplays the comedic hijinks which makes his character more believable than if he were just going for the laughs. Unfortunately, the public at that time weren't taken with Widmark stepping outside his comfort zone and the film wasn't a success. With Gig Young, Elisabeth Fraser and Elizabeth Wilson.