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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Charge Of The Light Brigade (1936)

In 1854 India, a young British officer (Patric Knowles) and his brother's fiancee (Olivia De Havilland) are in love. Neither wants to hurt the brother's (Errol Flynn), also an officer in the Indian army, feelings but an insurrection lead by a local rajah (C. Henry Gordon) puts personal issues aside. The film uses the title of the famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson but not much else. Even the film makers state in an opening foreword that what follows is fiction. Historical inaccuracies aside, it's a fairly agreeable hokum and the famous charge itself is extremely well done (though apparently enough horses were killed that even the U.S. congress protested). Still, Tennyson's poetic sentiments aside, it's hard to find much to cheer about such "bravery" when the disastrous charge at Balaklava seems the result of military ineptitude. The trite score is by Max Steiner. Directed by Michel Curtiz. With David Niven, Donald Crisp, Spring Byington, Nigel Bruce, Henry Stephenson, J. Carrol Naish and Scotty Beckett.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Madame X (1966)

A shopgirl (Lana Turner) marries above her station when she weds the son (John Forsythe) of a prestigious Connecticut social register family. But due to her husband's increased absences due to business, she has an affair with a playboy (Ricardo Montalban). When he is accidentally killed during one of their rendezvous, the mother in law (Constance Bennett) uses it to blackmail the wife out of the family, forcing her to abandon her husband and young child. Eventually she sinks into a life of alcoholism, promiscuity and murder. The 1908 soap opera by Alexandre Bisson has been made into a film at least seven times that I'm aware of. It's just a juicy role that it seems to attract actresses. In addition to Turner, the role has been played by Ruth Chatterton, Gladys George and Tuesday Weld. This one gets the lush Ross Hunter treatment with Turner wearing Jean Louis and bedecked with jewels and furs. But the film is like a Douglas Sirk movie without Douglas Sirk at the helm and it could have used him, reputedly Hunter asked him but Sirk turned him down. Turner is handicapped in the first half of the movie, mostly because she's clearly too mature to pass as a 20 something and she poses rather than acts. But in the film's second act, stripped of a glamorous wardrobe and make up, she doesn't have anything to fall back on and she does a credible job with some of her most effective acting on screen. Directed by David Lowell Rich. With Burgess Meredith, Keir Dullea, Virginia Grey, John van Dreelen, Warren Stevens, Carl Benton Reid, Joe De Santis and Kaaren Verne.

Broadway (1929)

A hoofer (Glenn Tryon) in a nightclub finds his partner (Merna Kennedy) being wooed by a bootlegger (Robert Ellis). When the bootlegger kills a rival (Leslie Fenton), he compromises the girl by giving her a diamond bracelet and asking her to not to "remember" the incident. Based on the Broadway show by George Abbott and Philip Dunning, this is a very stagnant backstage musical. The director Paul Fejos brings almost nothing of interest to this static early example of Hollywood's transition from silent cinema to the talkies. Visually, the only interesting thing about it is the massive Art Deco nightclub set which is very impressive and which Fejos and cinematographer Hal Mohr (THE WILD ONE) display to effect by the extensive use of a long shots via a large crane. The acting save one is pretty amateurish. The stand out is Evelyn Brent (von Sternberg's UNDERWORLD) who gives a solid performance as a gangster's moll. The production numbers are pretty shabby (Tryon is not a musical performer) and one almost wishes Busby Berkeley would take over and give the numbers some splash and kick. The film's finale is in two strip Technicolor. It's a curio for the film archivists among us, nothing more. But I was slightly taken aback when one of the characters referred to Kennedy as a professional virgin, some 23 years before THE MOON IS BLUE controversy.

The Conspirators (1944)

After committing various acts of sabotage against the Nazis, a Dutch resistance fighter (Paul Henreid) escapes to Lisbon where he finds romance with a mysterious woman (Hedy Lamarr). But while working for the underground in neutral Portugal, he is framed for murder. By the Nazis? Or a traitor among the underground? The success of CASABLANCA wasn't lost on Warner Brothers, hence this pale concoction of WWII romance and intrigue with Lisbon subbing for Casablanca. In addition to Henreid, other CASABLANCA veterans include Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. But it's a plodding affair with an unnecessarily complicated plot. Henreid was never very interesting as a leading man and he's certainly no substitute for Bogart and while Lamarr is as beautiful as Bergman, she doesn't have anything else to offer. Directed by Jean Negulesco (JOHNNY BELINDA) with a score by Max Steiner (who seems to think he's in Spain rather than Portugal). With Joseph Calleia, Vladimir Sokoloff, Eduardo Ciannelli, Steven Geray, Anthony Caruso and George Macready.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Waltz Of The Toreadors (1962)

In 1910 England, a General (Peter Sellers) faces a less than desirable retirement. Unhappily married to a shrewish hypochondriac (Margaret Leighton) and with two annoying daughters (Prunella Scales, Denise Coffey), he is surprised when his French mistress (Dany Robin, TOPAZ) of 17 years shows up and demands he leave his wife and marry her. Based on the acclaimed play by Jean Anouilh (MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT), Wolf Mankowitz' BAFTA nominated screenplay changes the emphasis from the darker bittersweet aspect of the play toward a more farcical element. Surprisingly, the opposing dramatic and comedic components balance each other out nicely. Despite being some twenty years too young for the part, Sellers does a commendable job in portrayal of an aging romantic who never grew up and finds himself at a crossroads he finds difficult to cross. Leighton brings some sympathy to her harpy, a woman turned bitter only because her husband turned away from her and found other outlets for amorous inclinations. Directed by John Guillermin (TOWERING INFERNO). With Cyril Cusack and John Fraser.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Jayhawkers (1959)

Set in pre Civil War Kansas, an escaped convict (Fess Parker, OLD YELLER) is offered a pardon by the governor (Herbert Rudley) if he will cooperate in luring a notorious renegade (Jeff Chandler), who first raids the town then offers to protect it for money and power, into the arms of the law. Directed by Melvin Frank (BUONA SERA MRS. CAMPBELL), this is a fairly engrossing western. Principally because of the relationship between Chandler and Parker. Chandler is the film's villain yet he has his own moral code of ethics. He also appreciates loyalty and is intensely likable. Which makes it hard for us, the audience, to hate him and hard for Parker's character to betray him to the law. The moral ambiguity of the situation, that of becoming a "friend" to someone with the intent to deceive them and does the end justify the means, is at the heart of the film. The rousing score is by Jerome Moross (THE BIG COUNTRY). With Nicole Maurey (DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST) as the widow who provides a moral anchor for Parker, Henry Silva, Frank DeKova, Jack Kruschen, Leo Gordon and Harry Dean Stanton.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Haunting (1963)

A parapsychologist (Richard Johnson) takes a lease on Hill House which has a reputation for being haunted. The house's owner (Fay Compton) insists that her nephew (Russ Tamblyn) be in attendance as part of the agreement. Two women: a lesbian psychic (Claire Bloom) and a fragile woman (Julie Harris) who had a paranormal experience as a child are part of the study. It doesn't take long for the house to come alive. One of the great horror films of all time, Robert Wise shows all he learned from his mentor Val Lewton. Shot in crisp atmospheric black and white, Wise avoids showing us anything. But the sophisticated sound design and Davis Boulton's off kilter cinematography and especially Elliot Scott and John Jarvis' production design and set decoration give the film an unsettling distinctive style. The performances of Harris and Bloom rank with their best screen work and are among the greatest performances in a horror film. If the film has any flaws, it's the clumsy score by Humphrey Searle which adds nothing to the proceedings. Based on the novel THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson. With Lois Maxwell and Rosalie Crutchley.

Joyful Noise (2012)

When the musical director (Kris Kristofferson) of a small town church choir in Georgia dies of a heart attack, his wife (Dolly Parton) is passed over and the reins handed over to his assistant (Queen Latifah). This causes an animosity between the two women that is exacerbated by a budding romance between Parton's grandson (Jeremy Jordan) and Latifah's daughter (Keke Palmer). The idea of a gospel musical with Latifah and Parton as two feuding members is rife with and ripe for possibilities. None of which is taken advantage of and what we get is an uninspired SISTER ACT clone. Fortunately, Latifah and Parton are exceptionally likable personalities and first rate musical performers which makes the bumps and potholes (and there are lots of them) in the script seem smoother than they are. The musical numbers are all winners and they are frequent so that helps too. Parton's plastic surgeries are painfully obvious and, indeed, thee are several jokes about it in the script. Directed by the actor Todd Graff (THE ABYSS). With Jesse L. Martin, Joe Morton, Courtney B. Vance and Kirk Franklin.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Trap (1959)

An attorney (Richard Widmark) for the mob returns to the small desert town of his birth to ask a favor of his estranged father (Carl Benton Reid), the local sheriff. A mobster (Lee J. Cobb) wanted by the FBI is arriving and wants to use the town's airstrip to take a plane out of the country. The father reluctantly agrees but his other son (Earl Holliman) wants the $15,000 reward instead. What follows, to put it mildly, is a disaster of epic proportions. It's always a treat to discover some unsung piece of film and this taut tightly put together thriller exceeded my expectations. Well, actually I didn't have any expectations but I just wasn't expecting anything this good. I don't want to oversing its praises. It's not an undiscovered gem, just a good solid piece of movie making. The director Norman Panama is normally associated with Danny Kaye comedies (though he did the underrated ABOVE AND BEYOND) but he really keeps the wheels turning here, leaving very little flab. With Tina Louise as Holliman's unsatisfied wife and Lorne Greene.

Grace Of My Heart (1996)

In 1958, a budding singer/songwriter (Illeana Doulgas) moves to New York but while no one is interested in her as a singer, a producer (John Turturro) hires her as a songwriter working out of the famous Brill building. The film follows her journey, professionally and personally, through the pop girl groups, English invasion, psychedelic era and eventually the singer/songwriter she set out to be. Some films have hit written all over them but then, inexplicably, it never happens. This film never found its audience though almost everyone I know who's seen it seems to have an affection for it. The film draws from real performers, songwriters and music producers of the era. Douglas's heroine is an obvious stand in for Carole King, Turturro is clearly doing Phil Spector, Matt Dillon a stand in for Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Bridget Fonda's barely closeted lesbian is Lesley Gore (who wrote Fonda's song), Patsy Kensit and Chris Isaak are songwriters Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Dave and Andrew Williams (Andy's nephews) are doing the Everly Brothers etc. The songs which were written by several songwriters (Burt Bacharach, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Carole Bayer Sager among them) are a terrific pastiche of songs of their period but work on their own too. Directed by Allison Anders. With Eric Stoltz, Bruce Davison, Lucinda Jenney and Jennifer Leigh Warren.

Sampo (aka The Day The Earth Froze) (1959)

In a small Finnish seaside village, the town awaits for a maiden (Eve Kivi) to fall in love because it is foretold when she marries then the village will received a magic mill that makes gold, flour and salt. But an evil witch (Anna Orochko) in a far away land wants the mill so she kidnaps the girl as ransom. Her fiance (Andris Oshin) and brother (Ivan Voronov) go to recover the girl. This Russian-Finnish co-production is apparently based on a well known Finnish folk tale. The version I saw is an American dubbed version retitled THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE and eliminates almost a half hour from the film and the transfer was bad so it's perhaps unfair to call it dreadful. But honestly, I can't imagine a pristine restored print would change my mind. It's just a lame, heavy handed fantasy that makes little sense even for a fairy tale. Okay, a mill that makes gold, sure, but flour ... and salt (and they live on the sea!)? Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965)

Due to a traumatic experience in his past, a young man (Sal Mineo) is sexually maladjusted and finds himself both attracted to yet repulsed by female sexuality. He becomes obsessed with the disc jockey (Juliet Prowse) at the disco where he works and begins a series of obscene phone calls to her. The detective (Jan Murray) assigned to the case has his own issues. His wife was raped, mutilated and murdered by a sexual psychopath and his obsession with the psyche of sexual perverts makes him almost a brother under the skin. This low budget B&W exploitation movie sounds more interesting than it is. It's really an opportunity to exploit the subject with plentiful shots of Juliet Prowse and Sal Mineo in their underwear and dashes of lesbianism, sexy 19 year olds with the minds of 10 year old children, murder and rape. Indeed, this may be the first American film to show a full on rape scene without cutting away. The film seems more intent on titillation than insightful psychological insights. It also shares the typical 60s mentality toward homosexuality, when Elaine Stritch's lipstick lesbian is murdered, it's barely mentioned in passing despite her being a major character. Shot on the cuff and on location, the film is a marvelous look at New York City circa 1965. Directed by Joseph Cates (father of Phoebe). With Daniel J. Travanti and Bruce Glover.

Torch Song (1953)

An iron willed Broadway musical star (Joan Crawford) alienates almost everyone around her including her long time pianist (Benny Rubin) who finally quits. The pattern continues when she immediately clashes with the blind pianist (Michael Wilding) who replaces him. This piece of over roasted corn signified Crawford's return to MGM after over ten years. As hokum, it's quite pleasurable. It's fun watching Crawford playing the barking bitch to the manor born but when she starts suffering for us, it ceases to be pleasant. Crawford looks terrific in Technicolor and has ample opportunity to show off her sensational legs and her dancing is above average. This is the film that contains the infamous Two Faced Woman number performed by Crawford in blackface. Directed by Charles Walters. With Marjorie Rambeau as Crawford's mother whose performance here was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar, Gig Young, Nancy Gates, Harry Morgan, Dorothy Patrick, Maidie Norman and Eugene Loring, who also choreographed the film.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fellini Satyricon (1969)

In ancient Rome, a young student (Martin Potter) has had his boy toy (Max Born) stolen from him by his ex-lover (Hiram Keller) who has sold him to an actor (Fanfulla) and he is determined to get him back. Thus begins a surreal fantasy and journey through the decadence of imperial Rome. Two words: freak show. If one realizes that it's pointless to attempt to try and make any kind of narrative sense of this mess, one can enjoy the slumming like strolling through a carnival. Visually, it's a sumptuous feast with Giuseppe Rotunno's stunning wide screen imagery, Danilo Donati's handsome costumes and Luigi Scaccianoce's dazzling art direction. It's not the kind of film where acting matters a whit so the amateurish performances of the two leads can be ignored (if you didn't, you'd go batty). People always talk about those "Fellini faces" and Fellini must have had his posse on overdrive to populate this film with all the weird and bizarre types he could grab off the street. Some of them look like they don't have their wits about them which gives the film an uncomfortable exploitative feel. I can't recall a film with more leering faces and flicking tongues (was Fellini's direction, "act like a snake!"). The large wasted cast includes some well known names as Capucine (whose beauty is deliberately sabotaged), Alain Cuny, Lucia Bose, Magali Noel and Donyale Luna.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Eve Of St. Mark (1944)

On leave from basic training, a young solider (William Eythe) brings his girlfriend (Anne Baxter) home to meet his parents (Ray Collins, Ruth Nelson). A few months later, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and he's shipped off to the South Pacific. Based on a play by Maxwell Anderson (KEY LARGO), this is a rather odd duck among WWII Hollywood films in that there's a certain mysticism to it: the young soldier is able to communicate with his mother and girl through dreams. It plays rather mawkishly and I think we're supposed to be moved by it but it's all too pedestrian to be effective. There's a reason Maxwell Anderson's play are rarely revived these days. Directed by John M. Stahl who's done far better work (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, FOXES OF HARROW) but with material like this, there's not much one can do but plod away. With Vincent Price as a Shakespeare quoting Southern solider, Michael O'Shea, George Mathews, John Archer and Harry Morgan.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Endless Night (1972)

A young man (Hywel Bennett) working as a chauffeur has aspirations beyond his status. When he meets and falls in love with a young heiress (Hayley Mills), the future looks bright but when they move into their dream house in the country, a series of mysterious incidents threaten to turn their idyllic life into a nightmare. Based on the best seller by Agatha Christie, this isn't one of Christie's better novels. It's not so much a whodunit as a psychological thriller. The director Sidney Gilliat is mainly a writer (Hitchcock's THE LADY VANISHES) but he's directed a decent film or two (GREEN FOR DANGER). Here, both the screenplay and direction are lackluster though most of that can be traced to the Christie source material. The "twist" is so obvious it can be unraveled long before we get to the end. Even the Bernard Herrmann score sounds like a tired rehash of his more notable scores. With Britt Ekland, George Sanders, Per Oscarsson, Lois Maxwell, Patience Collier and Helen Horton.

The Buccaneer (1938)

It's the 1812 war and the pirate Jean Lafitte (Fredric March) offers the services of he and his men to the Americans. But he is betrayed and in desperation, he seeks out General Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern). At his worst, the films of Cecil B. DeMille can be a ponderous lot. His loopiness can make some of his biblical epics like SAMSON AND DELILAH and the 1956 TEN COMMANDMENTS great fun but when played straight like THE BUCCANEER, it's a laborious watch. Even the battle scenes are heavy going. As Lafitte, March is the most unpirate like buccaneer the screen has ever seen. A good half hour could have been cut out of this bloat. The film's leading lady is Franciska Gaal, a Hungarian cabaret singer who did a few films, and she's the film's most irritating element. With Akim Tamiroff (the best thing about the film), Margot Grahame (THE INFORMER), Walter Brennan, Beulah Bondi, Spring Byington, Douglass Dumbrille and Anthony Quinn who would go on to direct the somewhat superior 1958 remake.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Le Voleur (aka The Thief Of Paris) (1967)

After his uncle (Christian Lude) spends his inheritance, a young man (Jean Paul Belmondo) steals some jewels out of retaliation. He finds he gets a thrill and embarks on a life as a professional thief. I don't know why but with its elegant turn of the century setting, I was expecting this Louis Malle film to be a romp along the lines of VIVA MARIA. Far from it, the film is a painstaking look at the life of a professional their, there are stretches without dialogue as we watch Belmondo and his comrades applying their skills. The film also shows us the underbelly of a "secret" society of thieves, who help each other and form deep bonds with each other, honor among thieves as it were. While I appreciate the effort, it eventually becomes soporific (though that might have been the flu). With Genevieve Bujold looking like a Dresden doll in her 19th century costumes, Charles Denner, Marlene Jobert, Francoise Fabian, Julien Guiomar and Bernadette Lafont.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dead Of Winter (1987)

A young actress (Mary Steenburgen) travels from New York City to upstate New York to audition for a film. But she slowly begins to realize that her "producer" (Jan Rubes, WITNESS) has a deadly ulterior motive that involves murder and blackmail and she is, in fact, his prisoner. An uncredited but very loose remake of the 1940s thriller MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, director Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE) whips up a tense thriller that provides an opportunity for Steenburgen to play three roles (though if my ear is to be trusted, one of them is dubbed by Amy Madigan): the actress, the homicidal sister and an ill fated patient. If one can suspend disbelief at the overactive plot, there are minor pleasures to be had. Steenburgen is quite good and one forgets how really good Roddy McDowall can be, here playing Rubes' odd but faithful man Friday. The effective score is by Richard Einhorn. With William Russ as Steenburgen's husband.

5 Fingers (1952)

Based on a true story. In 1944 neutral Turkey, the valet (James Mason) to the British ambassador (Walter Hampden) is selling secret documents to the Germans for large sums of money. But the Germans are suspicious about the accuracy of the documents, suspecting he might be a British plant. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a screenplay by Michael Wilson (based on the book OPERATION CICERO), this is a well crafted spy thriller. The film eschews action pieces and heroics instead concentrating on the meticulous day to day existence of an ordinary man taking extraordinary steps. Still, one wishes Mankiewicz could have tossed in at least one thrill or two. Mason gives an impeccable performance. The insistent score is by Bernard Herrmann. With Danielle Darrieux as an impoverished Polish countess who uses Mason to her own end, Michael Rennie, Michael Pate, Konstantin Shayne and Herbert Berghof.

Not With My Wife, You Don't! (1966)

During the Korean war, two air force pilots (Tony Curtis, George C. Scott) are very competitive with each other over women. But when they both meet an Italian nurse (Virna Lisi, looking stunning), their competitive natures go into overdrive. One would hate to think 1966 audiences actually found this flat homage to the Crosby/Hope ROAD movies funny. Curtis and Scott give manic performances while Lisi effortlessly outclasses them both. Curtis practically made a career in the 1960s with these sex comedies but, at least, he knows how to do comedy. Scott seems uncomfortable with the material and who could blame him, there's something surreal about Scott awkwardly shaking his booty in a disco! Pushing the two hour mark, the film is overlong as it thumps away, dragging its recycled situations around the room. Directed by Norman Panama (THE COURT JESTER). The sparkling score is by John Williams, easily the best thing about the film. With Carroll O'Connor and Ann Doran.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Come And Get It (1936)

A callous but ambitious lumberman (Edward Arnold) is in love with a bar girl (Frances Farmer) but abandons her to marry the boss's daughter (Mary Nash, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) which allows him to inherit the company. His best friend (Walter Brennan) marries the heartbroken girl. 23 years later, now the head of the corporation, he revisits his old friend, now a widower, and immediately falls in love with his daughter (also played by Farmer). Based on the best selling novel by Edna Ferber (GIANT), the film was begun by Howard Hawks who was fired after completing 2/3 of the film by the producer Samuel Goldwyn and replaced by a reluctant William Wyler. Surprisingly, unlike other films with a turbulent history, it doesn't show in the final product. The film is decent enough soap opera but I don't think either Hawks' or Wyler's acolytes could make much of a case for it. Arnold, who rarely played leads, isn't bad but he's simply miscast. He's just not the kind of man a young girl would pine over till the day she died. The two most memorable things about the film are the appealing Frances Farmer and Walter Brennan in the first of his three Oscar winning supporting roles. With Joel McCrea, Andrea Leeds (STAGE DOOR), Mady Christians and Cecil Cunningham (despite the male name, she's a woman).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Victory At Entebbe (1976)

On June 27th 1976, an Air France flight going from Tel Aviv (with a stop in Athens) to Paris was hijacked by four terrorists (two Germans, two Palestinians) and rerouted to the Entebbe airport in Uganda. The terrorists were sheltered by Idi Amin (Julius Harris, LIVE AND LET DIE) while awaiting word whether their demands would be met by the Israeli government. On July the 4th, a daring rescue was made by an Israeli task force. That's just five months between the actual incident and the December airing of this film. The film is a rush job, hastily put together and it shows it. It doesn't help that its heavyweight all star cast throws the picture out of whack. Coupled with Ernest Kinoy's trite dialogue, the film is more akin to an all star disaster movie rather than a serious docu-drama along the lines of UNITED 93 whose cast was made up of unknowns. A handful of the actors (Helmut Berger as a terrorist, Jessica Walter as an Israeli hostage, Christian Marquand as the plane's French pilot, Harris as Idi Amin) manage to acquit themselves admirably but almost everybody else sinks. The massive cast includes Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hayes, Linda Blair, Theodore Bikel, Harris Yulin, David Groh, Bibi Besch and Kristina Wayborn (OCTOPUSSY).

I Love You Again (1940)

A prissy and penny pinching businessman (William Powell) is hit on the head while on an ocean voyage. When he wakes up, he realizes that he is, in fact, a suave crook and gambler and that for the last nine years he's had amnesia. It was during this period of amnesia that he lived his life as this uptight person. But when he discovers that his amnesia identity had money and a beautiful wife (Myrna Loy), he reverts to his old ways and makes plans to swindle the town. The material is a lightweight diversion but both Powell and Loy are such a joy to watch that it doesn't really matter. The film has none of the wit of their THIN MAN franchise but it's amiable and friendly and doesn't insult one's intelligence (well, maybe just a wee bit). Directed by W.S. Van Dyke from the novel of the same name by Octavus Roy Cohen. With Frank McHugh, Edmund Lowe and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Timbuktu (1959)

In 1940 French West Africa (in what is now the nation of Mali), the new commander (George Dolenz) of the French Foreign Legion must deal with an insurrection by hostile tribes against French colonial rule. An American adventurer (Victor Mature) plays both sides of the fence by selling guns to the Arab rebels yet spying on the rebels for the Foreign Legion. This rather dreary desert adventure can't even be bothered to be consistent with the authentic desert locations (shot in Utah) interspersed with a clearly studio bound desert with unconvincing painted backdrops. Mature looks tired and can barely summon up much enthusiasm for his love scenes with Yvonne De Carlo (looking great) as the wife of the Legion's commander. The film has an uncomfortable pro-colonialism bent as the film's message seems to be that the Arabs aren't ready for self rule. It's directed by Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST) but without much conviction. With Marcia Henderson, Robert Clarke and John Dehner.

Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

A young woman (Audrey Hepburn), who lives off men, becomes friends with a struggling writer (George Peppard) who moves into her New York apartment building. As he falls in love with her, she resists his attempts at romance as she has her eye on catching a rich husband. Perhaps Hepburn's most iconic performance, this is an almost irresistible film. Drastically altered from the Truman Capote novella on which it's based (this is one film that really demands a "remake"), the film is elegantly charming and sophisticated that one can excuse the cleaning up of Capote's material: Hepburn's character is essentially a call girl while Peppard's character is gay. The entire film rides on Hepburn's shoulders and she carries it like a champion. The director Blake Edwards (in his breakthrough film) gives us a fantasy New York where everyone is tres chic, the streets are pristine and one can live off $50 tips to the powder room. The gorgeous Oscar winning score is by Henry Mancini and introduced the haunting Moon River. With Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Martin Balsam, John McGiver, Jose Luis De Vilallonga, Joan Staley and Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, whose performance remains controversial.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Salvation Boulevard (2011)

An ex-Deadhead (Greg Kinnear), as in The Grateful Dead, becomes a born again Christian and marries a woman (Jennifer Connelly) with a young daughter (Isabelle Fuhrman). Together, they become part of a Christian community lead by a charismatic evangelist (Pierce Brosnan). But when he witnesses the evangelist shoot a renowned atheist (Ed Harris), his whole world turns upside down. Religious satires are often difficult to pull off because religion is such an easy target that religious fanaticism is almost a parody of itself anyway. Based on the novel by Larry Beinhart, the director George Ratliff (probably best known for the demon child horror flick JOSHUA) can't seem to blend the satirical elements with the darker thriller aspects of the narrative. The two facets fight each other all the way until the film's third act crumbles completely. It doesn't help that Kinnear's character is or appears to be dim witted. If it's the wrong thing to do, he does it. Not without interest but it's a pity that it's bungled because the premise is so provocative. With Marisa Tomei as an ex-Deadhead groupie now working as a school security guard and Ciaran Hinds.

The Wicked Lady (1945)

A bride to be (Patricia Roc) invites her scheming and treacherous best friend (Margaret Lockwood, THE LADY VANISHES) to be her bridesmaid. Instead, the friend steals the nobleman groom (Griffith Jones) for her own husband. Bored with married life in the country, she enters a secret life of thievery, adultery and even murder. Never has a movie been so aptly named. Not even Stanwyck's calculating femme fatale in DOUBLE INDEMNITY was as evil. British audiences of the day lapped this costume melodrama up making it one of the biggest box office hits of its year. Lockwood's toxic minx may have the conscience of a cobra but at least she's exciting and in the end, I found myself having more sympathy for her than her dull and sanctimonious husband and the prissy faithful friend. This being the 1940s, of course, she has to pay for her sins in the end but she (and the audience) had a whale of a time till then. James Mason is the heroine's dashing highwayman lover who feels the wrath of her vengeance and Michael Rennie pops up as the man who undoes her. Written and directed by Leslie Arliss. With Enid Stamp Taylor, Martita Hunt, Jean Kent and Felix Aylmer. Loosely and ineffectively remade in 1983 by Michael Winner.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

La Mala Ordina (aka The Italian Connection) (1972)

A New York mafia kingpin (Cyril Cusack) sends two cold blooded assassins (Henry Silva, Woody Strode) to Italy to kill the man (Mario Adorf) responsible for hijacking a heroin shipment. But in actuality, the man is just a not too bright small time pimp, who's not even a member of the mafia. He's an unknowing pawn in a power play between the New York and Italian mafia leaders. Strongly directed by Fernando Di Leo, this brutal crime thriller is part of the Italian poliziottesco genre which is to crime films what giallo is to horror. Di Leo perfectly captures the paranoid confusion of a man on the run who has no idea what he's done to generate the hunt and the hulky goofy faced Adorf does a wonderful job going from a loser no one takes seriously to a man pushed into the revenge game. In fact, that's one of the reasons this film stands out. Unlike most films of this type, Adorf's character doesn't take any pleasure in the killing, in fact, he's repulsed by it, he's just a dumb animal trying to stay alive. It's a ruthless film and Di Leo takes no prisoners. Not only are innocent women and children murdered but even a kitten gets shot to death! But unlike Tarantino, never once are we invited to laugh at death. Speaking of Tarantino, the Silva and Strode characters are alleged to have been the inspiration for the John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson characters in PULP FICTION. With Luciana Paluzzi, Sylva Koscina, Adolfo Celi and Femi Benussi.

Love Among The Ruins (1975)

When an aging former actress (Katharine Hepburn), now a socially prominent figure in London society, is sued by her younger ex-lover (Leigh Lawson) for breach of promise, she retains a famous solicitor (Laurence Olivier) to defend her. While she doesn't recognize him, the barrister remembers her and the three day affair they had in their youth. The prospect of seeing Hepburn and Olivier, two iconic actors and among the greatest of their generation, acting together in their only teaming is mouth watering. They don't disappoint, they play off each other expertly. Still, one wishes they had a more dimensional vehicle instead of this (very) modestly charming piffle which hardly taxes their substantive talents. The chatty script by James Costigan is serviceable but it's unlikely to have much spark without its two lead actors. Directed by George Cukor. Hepburn looks sensational in her Margaret Furse gowns and there's a score by John Barry. With Colin Blakely and Richard Pearson.

The Crooked Web (1955)

An ex-soldier (Frank Lovejoy), now running a drive in restaurant, is in love with one of his car hops (Mari Blanchard) who refuses to marry him because he can't offer the security she wants. But when the car hop's brother (Richard Denning) suddenly arrives with a plan to recover a stash of gold that was hidden during WWII in Berlin, the lure of easy wealth is too hard for all three to resist. This tight and efficient "B" noir has a few unexpected twists that turn its plot on end that come pretty early in the game that make it a few steps above the ordinary. Directed by Nathan Juran (ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN), the plot is overly complicated and stretches one's suspension of disbelief to the maximum but for what it is, it's pretty solid. The film's tight jawed leading men are colorlessly efficient but the brassy Blanchard (sort of a Dorothy Malone without the vulnerability) makes the most of her role. For noir buffs, it's work checking out.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Absolute Beginners (1986)

In the London of 1958, teen age culture is taking over the music and the fashion of the day. A 19 year old photographer (Eddie O'Connell) attempts to cover the scene without compromising his integrity while his girlfriend (Patsy Kensit) attempts to break into the fashion world at whatever the price. Meanwhile, racial tension is brewing in the slums. Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes, the film has been turned into a pop/rock musical with many of the characters "cleaned up" so to speak for the movie version. The director Julien Temple has given the film a vividly lush Technicolor look reminiscent of the MGM musicals of the 1950s but the musical numbers are clunky. They feel and are shot like music videos (not surprising since Temple directed music videos in the 80s) inserted into the film proper. David Toguri's choreography is awkward and clumsy and with two exceptions, the songs are a sorry lot. The exceptions are the title tune written and sung by David Bowie (who also acts in the film) and a nightclub number sung by Sade Adu. Chalk this one up as a bold experiment that fizzled out. With James Fox, Anita Morris, Steven Berkoff, The Kinks' Ray Davies and Mandy Rice Davies (not related).

Zardoz (1974)

It's 2293 A.D. and an elite but effete society of intellectuals rule the devastated planet behind the protection of the Vortex which separates them from the barbaric masses. An exterminator (Sean Connery), they kill potential breeders to curb overpopulation, hops into a flying stone head and penetrates the Vortex. Now, the plot makes the movie sound a lot more fun than it is. What could have been a splashy sci-fi adventure is a pretentious piece of rubbish. What spawn hath 2001 wrought? This is one cockamamie film! A beefy Connery runs around in a red diaper for the majority of the movie until he exchanges it for a white wedding gown! Yep, it's that kind of loopy movie. After awhile, one drops all pretense of following the silly plot and its pseudo intellectual babble and grasps at whatever unintentional laughs there are to be had. After the critical and box office success of DELIVERANCE, apparently the director John Boorman was given carte blanche to make whatever film he wanted and wrote, produced and directed this! He topped this lulu with his next film, EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC. Not surprisingly, the film has developed not one but two cult followings. One that revels in its badness and another that sees something profound in it. With Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton and Niall Buggy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Without Reservations (1946)

A best selling author (Claudette Colbert) is taking the train from New York to Hollywood where a film version of her book is being made. But when the film's leading man (Cary Grant) drops out, she meets a Marine (John Wayne) on the train that she thinks would be perfect to replace him. The only trouble is that the Marine hates the book and the philosophy it espouses. This romantic comedy is more enjoyable that it has any right to be. It's yet another of those films where an independent and smart career woman sees the light at the end and compromises herself to get her man. Wayne is probably the last actor one would think of for romantic comedy but his rugged reactionary makes for a welcome contrast to Colbert's insistent sophisticate. The film takes several detours (literally) that unnecessarily pad out the film's running time instead of being quickly paced. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. With Jack Benny, Dolores Moran, Don DeFore, Dona Drake and Louella Parsons playing herself.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Scarlet Coat (1955)

In 1780 at the height of the American Revolution, an officer (Cornel Wilde) goes undercover to the British as a turncoat and convinces them of his willingness to spy on the Americans. In reality, his mission is to discover who the high ranking traitor on the American side that is supplying the British with inside information. Loosely based on the relationship of the British Major John Andre (Michael Wilding), who was hung by the Americans, and the American Benjamin Tallmadge (Wilde's character who is called Bolton here) with more speculation than fact. Films on the American Revolution haven't fared well but this one is provocative enough to get a pass. The relationship between Wilding (who's surprisingly good) and Wilde provides the film with a moral conundrum regarding duty, honor, loyalty and friendship that elevates the film somewhat over the usual historical adventure. Even the romance subplot between Wilde and Anne Francis, as the daughter of a British loyalist but with rebel sympathies of her own, doesn't follow the usual angle but instead is unresolved with a poignant ambiguity. Directed by John Sturges (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). With George Sanders, John McIntire, John Dehner, Rhys Williams, Bobby Driscoll and as Benedict Arnold, Robert Douglas.

The Glory Guys (1965)

A Captain (Tom Tryon, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE) in the U.S. Cavalry is transferred against his will to a platoon under the command of an ambitious, somewhat sadistic General (Andrew Duggan whose character is loosely based on Custer) with whom he has previously clashed. The Captain s also a romantic rival with an Indian scout (Harve Presnell) for the hand of a pretty widow (Senta Berger). Based on the novel THE DICE OF GOD by Hoffman Birney, the screenplay is by Sam Peckinpah. There's a good western in there somewhere but considering Peckinpah's history with the studios at this time, I wouldn't be surprised if his script had been tampered with. For the most part, it's a somber western so that its silly Fordian comic barroom brawls seem out of place. While a couple of the actors (Presnell, Berger) manage not to disgrace themselves, the acting is pretty poor, especially Tryon who's so inadequate that perhaps Otto Preminger did movie audiences a favor. James Caan with an inept Irish accent plays the Victor McLaglen part is cringe worthy. The film's chief asset is the excellent wide screen cinematography by the great James Wong Howe. Except for the battle sequences at the end of the film, Arnold Laven's direction is negligible. With Peter Breck, Slim Pickens, Jeanne Cooper, Wayne Rogers, Laurel Goodwin and Michael Anderson Jr.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Young In Heart (1938)

A family of con artists (father Roland Young, mother Billie Burke, son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., daughter Janet Gaynor) make a living of swindling wealthy people out of their money. When they get kicked out of the French Riviera because of their activities, they encounter a lonely but rich old lady (Minnie Dupree) on a train and set a plan in motion to not only sponge off her but get her to make them her heirs in her will. This is an exceedingly delightful comedy that manages to have some genuine heart without getting too sentimental on us. It's the kind of feel good movie where that you can feel good about without the guilt. The attractive cast are all in top form, playing to their strengths as actor. Burke molding her ditzy persona to perfection ("Both my children were born in India. I've never been there myself!") and I've never been sold on Janet Gaynor's alleged charms but she's eminently appealing here and toss in the pert and sexy Paulette Goddard and you've got a winner. Directed by Richard Wallace. With Richard Carlson (in his film debut) and Henry Stephenson.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Glass Slipper (1955)

A young girl (Leslie Caron) is treated like a servant by her stepmother (Elsa Lanchester) and her haughty stepsisters (Amanda Blake of TV's GUNSMOKE, Lisa Daniels). She fantasizes about living in the palace of the Duke (Barry Jones, BRIGADOON), who is giving a grand ball in his son's (Michael Wilding) honor and there's an eccentric old woman (Estelle Winwood) who insists that she attend the ball. This slightly revisionist take on the Cinderella story never materializes into the promising fable its beginnings suggest. Instead of the sweet little maiden, Caron's Cinderella is a bit of a hellraiser, the years of mean spiritedness from her family and the townspeople have made her anti-social. The magic elements are kept to a minimum, Winwood's dotty old kleptomaniac (she steals Cinderella's ballgown) subbing for the wand waving fairy Godmother. The film's biggest problem is her Prince Charming in the form of the uncharismatic Michael Wilding, so dull to make one rethink becoming a royal. A borderline musical in that while there are no songs, there are several ballet numbers but Roland Petit's choreography is unimaginative. Directed by Charles Walters. With Keenan Wynn, Lurene Tuttle, Liliane Montevecchi and the narration is done by Walter Pidgeon.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Moderato Cantabile (1960)

In a working class seaside town, the bored bourgeois wife (Jeanne Moreau, whose performance here won her the best actress prize at the Cannes film festival) of the town's factory owner (Jean Deschamps) takes her child (Didier Haudepin) to his daily piano lesson (which provide the film's title). One day, a woman is murdered by her lover in a local cafe and she becomes obsessed with the killing and finds herself attracted to a witness (Jean Paul Belmondo) to the murder. Based on the best selling novel by Marguerite Duras (HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR) (who co-wrote the screenplay), the film is a detailed look in the week of the life of a "woman under the influence" to borrow from Mr. Cassavetes. I couldn't help but be reminded of Antonioni's RED DESERT, the similarities between's Moreau's and Monica Vitti's discontented characters and situations are too analogous not to. This is a cerebral rather than tactile film which may frustrate the casual viewer but there's a near mesmeric quality that compensates for the lack of fire. The stunning B&W CinemaScope images are courtesy of Armand Thirard (DIABOLIQUE). Directed by the theater director Peter Brook (MARAT/SADE).

The Black Cat (1934)

A young American (David Manners) and his bride (Julie Bishop, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY) are on a Hungarian honeymoon when they encounter a doctor (Bela Lugosi in a rare sympathetic role), a political prisoner recently released from a notorious prison. A bus accident on a rainy night causes them to seek shelter at the mountain top home of an architect (Boris Karloff), the leader of a Satanic cult. "Inspired" by the famous Edgar Allan Poe short story, in reality the film has very little except its title in common with the Poe work. Plot wise, it's rather ludicrous but the inventive director Edgar G. Ulmer imbues the film with a queasy ambience and Karloff and Lugosi face off like two veteran prizefighters (it's a draw). The Art Deco art direction of Charles D. Hall is a sight to behold and as much a star of the film as Karloff and Lugosi. Manners and Bishop (acting under the name Jacqueline Wells) are rather irritating as the young lovers but the film has some great lines including the oft quoted, "Superstition, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not". With Lucille Lund and Egon Brecher.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Safari (1956)

Set in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion, a hunter (Victor Mature) returns home to find his home burned out and his child (Christopher Warbey) killed by a family servant (Earl Cameron, SAPPHIRE), who in actuality is a leader in the Mau Mau rebellion. When a wealthy English adventurer (Roland Culver), accompanied by his chorus girl fiancee (Janet Leigh), hires the hunter to help him track down a dangerous lion, he accepts but his real mission to get revenge on his son's murderer. "Exotic" African adventures were a staple in 1950s cinema and this one, though ultimately routine, manages to stand out a bit more though the film's finale seems confused and abrupt. The Mau Mau rebellion was still very much in force when the film's exteriors were shot in Kenya. It's the usual "Bwana" stuff but despite some crude rear projection shots, it's nicely shot in CinemaScope by John Wilcox (THE MOUSE THAT ROARED). Directed by Terence Young (THUNDERBALL). With John Justin (THIEF OF BAGDAD), Liam Redmond and Juma as Odongo, a character he would reprise in ODONGO the same year.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Wings (1927)

In a small town, two young men (Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen) are unfriendly rivals for the same girl (Jobyna Ralston). But when WWI happens, the two men become pilots and bond. This epic action/adventure film, the first film to win the best picture Oscar, holds up today mainly because of the still stunning aerial sequences. The aerial photography is remarkable. But it's not just in the sky that the cinematography impresses. The director of photography Harry Perry is just as fluid on land. One shot with the camera passing over a series of tables in a restaurant until it finds our protagonist is just incredible. The film is rather racy for its day. Clara Bow briefly goes topless, surely a first for a major American actress and if you're halfway decent at reading lips, the fliers use some choice curse words. As for the acting, Rogers tends to overdo it in contrast to Arlen's subtle underplaying. Despite top billing, Bow's role is really supporting, she's there for box office insurance. The film's last 20 minutes or so pack a powerful punch from Arlen and Rogers' tender (and homoerotic) goodbye to Rogers' heartbreaking meeting with Arlen's parents. Strongly directed by William A. Wellman. With a lanky looker by the name of Gary Cooper in a small part, who would soon become a major star in his own right.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Death Ship (1980)

When an ocean liner is struck by a mysterious freighter, a handful of survivors adrift at sea board the ship. But the abandoned ship, which was used as a torture ship by Nazis during WWII, has a mind of its own and attempts to systematically kill the survivors one by one. One of the most inept horror films I've seen, so crudely edited that you one might think they used a cleaver. For example, a husband (Richard Crenna) and wife (Sally Ann Howes, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) are in the ballroom when the freighter strikes while their two children (Jennifer McKinney, Danny Higham) are below in their cabin. The freighter strikes (the sequence is pretty tacky looking) and the next scene shows the few survivors in a lifeboat including the parents and children with no explanation of how the parents managed to retrieve the children! Meanwhile, once aboard, several of them discover an old projector and decide to watch an old B&W movie. Yeah, that's what you do when you've been stranded without food or water on the high seas. Once you get aboard a ghostly freighter, you watch old movies! Then there's the cruise ship's captain (George Kennedy) becomes possessed by some demon (a Nazi?). It's a mess! Directed by Alvin Rakoff. With Kate Reid (ATLANTIC CITY), Nick Mancuso and Saul Rubinek.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ada (1961)

A guitar pickin' Alabama hayseed (Dean Martin) is used by a corrupt political mastermind (Wilfrid Hyde White) as a front for his own political ambitions which include putting Martin in the governor's mansion while he pulls the strings. But when the governor to be marries an ex-prostitute (Susan Hayward), she has her own political ambitions which surprises both men. I've not read the source material ADA DALLAS by Wirt Williams but judging from this film, it seems like one of those juicy and lurid potboilers that are impossible to put down and can be read in a day. The film is also irresistible in that trashy Jacqueline Susann/Harold Robbins "pop another bon-bon in your mouth and turn the page" way. Hayward is surprisingly good here in a role tailor made for her particular brand of star acting but the smoothly urban Dean Martin as an Alabama hick? I guess Andy Griffith wasn't available. Directed by Daniel Mann (who directed Hayward to an Oscar nomination in I'LL CRY TOMORROW). With Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Larry Gates and Ray Teal.

Slattery's Hurricane (1949)

An arrogant self centered ex-Navy flyer (Richard Widmark) works as a private pilot for a candy manufacturer (Walter Kingsford) whose company is actually a front for drug smuggling. Although he's dating an ex-junkie (Veronica Lake), the pilot seduces the wife (Linda Darnell) of his good friend (John Russell). Based on a short story by Herman Wouk (THE CAINE MUTINY), Wouk's story is watered down for the screen due to the censorship restrictions of the day regarding adultery and drug addiction. What remains seems rather contrived and Widmark's transformation from heel to hero is too rapid to feel authentic. The film's one likable character, Lake's emotionally tenuous waif, is so ill treated by Widmark that her acceptance of his abuse finally makes her unappealing too. Widmark's likability as an actor does much to too hold off apathy toward his character though as previously remarked, his redemption feels phony. The crude hurricane sequences are effective. Directed by Andre De Toth (HOUSE OF WAX). With Gary Merrill, Joe De Santis, Morris Ankrum and Amelita Ward.