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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

DOWNHILL RACER (1969)

Michael Ritchie flirted with major director status for much of his career, but never quite made it.  Even here, in his first feature, the strain of heightened expectations bumps up against a bad case of missed opportunities.  Robert Redford plays a sort of anti-golden boy on the American ski team who joins late and sticks to his own game plan.  But can his winning ways make up for his self-centered narcissism?  The film is at its best, and its funniest, when Bob comes up against a European beauty (Camilla Sparv) he can’t trample over.  (She turns out to be a bigger shit than he is.)  But the dramatic structure demands we get back to the quasi-documentary racing scenes with opponents to demolish, team members to rub the wrong way & some unwanted advice from plain-talking coach Gene Hackman.  Here the low-budget both hurts and helps with nice unfaked racing footage to set against the painfully unconvincing atmosphere on what must be the tinniest Winter Olympic Games ever seen on screen.  Maybe a younger leading man would have made this play. At 33, and looking every day of it, Redford is a decade too old to get away with this much rotten behavior just cause he's the good-lookin' new kid on the block.  He’d be eaten alive before he got out of the starting gate.

DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Redford’s sometime co-star & pal Paul Newman go thru similar trials (holding a cue stick instead of a ski pole) in THE HUSTLER/’61.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

STAR OF MIDNIGHT (1935)

Once you subtract Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles from William Powell’s Nick in THE THIN MAN Series, what’ve you got? Something like this little knock-off from RKO, which tries to fill the gap with Ginger Rogers’ worshipful helpmate and twice the alcohol. It’s not really bad, just blah. What made those THIN MAN pics so distinctive didn’t spring from the casual detective work, but from the idea of marriage as permanent date, less wedded bliss than wedded fun. In this story, Powell plays a man-about-town lawyer who’d rather solve crimes than defend criminals. But when he tries to help an old friend find his missing fiancé, bodies start piling up and his pal starts looking awfully guilty, especially when a mysterious musical comedy star pulls a real-life vanishing act mid-performance. J. Farrell MacDonald shows some classy reserve as a chief police dick who’s knows the territory, but there's precious little chemistry elsewhere. (Even Gene Lockhart, usually so reliable, is somehow all wrong as Powell’s valet.) Halfway thru, the swanky look and indecipherable plot run out of steam, but everyone just goes on talking.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: There’s always THE THIN MAN, or get Powell in the best of the Philo Vance detective pics, Michael Curtiz’s THE KENNEL MURDER CASE/’33.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The real mystery in here is its little-known director, Stephen Roberts, dead of a heart attack the following year at 41. Known principally for his daringly raw adaptation of William Faulkner’s SANCTUARY (THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE/’33), played with remarkable sexual abandon by Miriam Hopkins, there’s little he can do on this star vehicle.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

20,000 YEARS IN SING SING

1932 was the year Hollywood got past the Talkies. Capra’s AMERICAN MADNESS over @ Columbia; Von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI LILY @ Paramount; and this dynamite prison drama from Michael Curtiz @ Warner are all fully up to speed, even without background scores yet in the mix. Spencer Tracy & Bette Davis, in their only pairing, play wiseguy & moll who can only grab moments together during brief prison visits. Even so, the heat is palpable. The gimmick of the thing has prison warden Arthur Byron breaking down Tracy’s tough-guy attitude before eventually trusting him with a one-day pass when Davis gets critically injured. But things go wrong on the outside and Tracy knows if he honors his pass and returns to Sing Sing, he’s sure to get the chair. (It’s a Pre-Code pic so someone does in fact get away with a murder, but it ain’t Tracy.) Coming in at 77 minutes, Curtiz never lets you dwell on the plot contrivances and gets exceptional (and exceptionally modern) perfs out of his leads while offering textbook examples of action stuff that makes today’s directors look like mugs. Check out that fight between Tracy & Louis Calhern’s corrupt lawyer by Bette’s bedside. Tracy, never a whiz at these physical maneuvers, is completely believable and even seems to be doing all his own stunt work. Even better is a prison-break from earlier in the pic, led by Lyle Talbot in one of his first gigs*, which is brilliantly handled by Curtiz, lenser Barney McGill, and Warners’ fabulous design man Anton Grot who turns the bars, gates, stairs & cell blocks of his studio fabricated Sing Sing into fierce, dramatic abstract patterns.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Arthur Byron, who plays the prison warden, had just starred on B’way as the City Editor in FIVE STAR FINAL. But the 1931 film (squib directly below) gave the role to Edward G. Robinson . . . and thank goodness, he turned out to be just the spark plug that film needed.

READ ALL ABOUT IT:  *The NEW YORKER published a smart remembrance of Lyle Talbot by his daughter Margaret in the Oct 1, 2012 issue. Here’s a link for NY’er subscribers:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/01/121001fa_fact_talbot

Monday, October 22, 2012

FIVE STAR FINAL (1931)

Edward G. Robinson is in great form as the city-editor of a sleazy tabloid who lives to regret bowing to the gods of circulation & dropping his principles when he runs a feature series that drags up a twenty year-old murder case. The play it’s taken from isn’t exactly a subtle thing, Robinson spends half the film washing his ‘dirty’ hands. (Who needs symbolism?) Anyway, the film is so loaded with tasty Warner Bros. character types that the pacey interplay & verbal smackdowns leave little time for second-guessing. 1931 was still early Talkie days and there’s a fascinating discrepancy in the acting styles that has the newspaper guys & gals all talking like mugs (Aline MacMahon a particular stand-out as Robinson’s secretary*) while the nice family who are being victimized by a mother's sordid past still play in a stiff, stage-bound style. Our immediate response favors the slangy locutions of those ink-stained wretches, but don’t sell those old-fashioned elocutionists short. Once you adjust to the pearly vowels, they really come thru with a big confrontation scene for the wronged, blameless daughter at the climax, and a truly dazzling/desperate split-screen phone conversation for Mom as she fights for her family’s reputation while cracking up before our eyes in the middle panel. It’s a fine imaginative touch from megger Mervyn Leroy who was at his considerable best in the early Talkie years, before moving on to bigger budgets & a bland corporate style. He really put lenser Sol Polito on his toes with serpentine moves for that bulky camera.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Little remembered these days, Aline MacMahon was a stage & screen actress of unusual looks & ability. (At the end of FSF she looks ready to pick up Robinson & tote him away.) Try HEAT LIGHTNING/’34, Mervyn Leroy’s fascinating early feminist drama set in a desert garage about half a block down from THE PETRIFIED FOREST . . . and equally stage-bound. Aline’s the mechanic, natch.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

THE JAYHAWKERS (1959)

Melvin Frank took a break from his Bob Hope & Danny Kaye comedies to make this large-scale Western. And it sure looks great with Loyal Griggs’ VistaVision lensing giving the locations a depth & clarity that unfortunately expose the soundstage exteriors as mock-ups. But handsome outdoorsy views can’t make up for the amateurish action sequences and a dark, misshapen story that might have used a touch of comic relief. Perhaps Frank thought if he was humorless it would, ipso facto, make his pic serious. Fess Parker, tall, dark & dull, dull, dull, is an escaped prisoner who joins a gang of Kansas marauders led by Jeff Chandler’s would-be Nietzschean superman who is planning to take over the territory. With a few too many loving glances at Napoleon’s bust & Fess’s torso, the prematurely grey Chandler doesn’t know he’s headed for a fall since Parker’s secretly working to take him down and win himself a full pardon. He’s hoping to restart his life with a pretty widow & her kids. But he’d better hurry since Henry Silva (trying for that Jack Palance SHANE/’53 mojo), jealous at losing Chandler’s trust, is right on his tail. Hey, this sounds pretty good! Alas, Frank has zero feel for the genre; you keep expecting dialogue to take a turn toward Bob Hope’s cowardly character. But give Frank credit for hiring Jerome Morross to write the score, then closing his eyes & ears when he got leftovers & reworkings from the music Morross wrote for William Wyler’s THE BIG COUNTRY/’58, about the best damn traditional Western score ever written.

Friday, October 19, 2012

SUZY (1936)

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT/’74, that popular compendium of M-G-M musical clips, has a charming bit from this film where Cary Grant impresses Jean Harlow with a spontaneous reprise of her nightclub song. Turns out, it’s the only charming thing in the movie. Harlow’s a showgirl in London, out of work and on the hunt for a millionaire, when she mistakes Franchot Tone, out in a borrowed Rolls-Royce, for a likely object for her affection. They fall in love anyway, but when he’s mysteriously shot after stumbling on a WWI spy ring (!), she gets scared and runs off to Paris. There she meets a rich Frenchie, Cary Grant, an ace flier with a wandering eye. But when Tone shows up, alive, well and with a new war plane for Grant to fly, things get complicated. Say, again? The story bumps along from one ridiculously bad idea to another, with the stars showing mere glints of their usual appeal. Tone speaks with an odd Irish lilt; Grant looks thick & slightly bored; Harlow puts on Norma Shearer’s posh voice; and the brief flying dogfight footage is lifted from other pics. Director George Fitzmaurice, who made a fine silent WWI fly-boy romance in LILAC TIME/’28 and a laughable MATA HARI/’31 with Garbo, now seems ready to surrender.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Harlow did much better on both her previous pic (WIFE VS. SECRETARY) and her next (LIBELED LADY). Try the lesser-known WIFE, an underrated title that plants her between Clark Gable & newbie James Stewart. Even with a cop-out ending, it’s a beaut.

CONTEST: SUZY opens backstage with Harlow all but repeating a famous comedy bit from one of her best films. Name the gag and the earlier film to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

CARMEN JONES (1954)

After twelve uneven years in Hollywood, Otto Preminger found the signature shooting style (long unbroken ‘takes,’ fluid camera movement, ‘invisible’ staging) that would set him up for a decade’s worth of his still under-rated work. Working in CinemaScope for the second time, the addition of Sam Leavitt’s lensing (just off George Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN/’54), the uncredited choreography & general stage movement of Herbert Ross and a typically arresting credit sequence from debuting Saul Bass bring a level of visual sophistication that wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. Just look at those opening reels! The mosey texture of military camp life; the crisscrossing character introductions; the serpentine tracking as Carmen stalks Joe in the lunchroom: all the work of a master. The show, taken from Oscar Hammerstein’s clever adaptation that reformatted Bizet’s opera as a B’way ‘numbers’ musical finds unexpected power out of the segregated military traditions of WWII, nicely balanced against some outstanding comic support, especially from Pearl Bailey. Pearly Mae ‘steals’ one of Carmen’s arias for ‘Beat Out That Rhythm On A Drum’ and does all her own singing, as do her fellow conspirators, Diahann Carroll, included, in the exceptional lyrics Hammerstein worked up for the quintet. Harry Belafonte as the tragic soldier & Joe Adams as the boxing champ (Bizet’s Toreador) are hampered by the unlikely voices coming out of their mouths, but Cindy-Lou’s Third Act pastorale is an astonishment while Marilyn Horne’s dubbing for Dorothy Dandridge is spectacularly successful. (Horne’s deep-think CARMEN @ The Met under Leonard Bernstein hasn’t half the charm.) And how many years would pass before a black couple got so sexy on camera? (Note the caption on our poster.)

DOUBLE-BILL: Otto Preminger’s PORGY AND BESS/’59 should be the perfect match, but something went horribly wrong on the film. (No Leavitt? No Ross?) Anyway, the unhappy Gershwin estate keeps it out of the public eye. But you can follow the next career step of Pearl Bailey & Diahann Carroll in the magnificent original cast album of the flop Truman Capote/Harold Arlen musical, HOUSE OF FLOWERS, produced right after this. Choreographed by this film’s uncredited Herb Ross, he also went uncredited on that show. Not for his choreography, but for taking over direction when Peter Brook was fired.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D'ITALIE / THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1928)

While only a handful of René Clair’s films live up to his reputation for technical innovation & savvy social commentary, this is one of that handful. His best work appeared just as the silents gave way to the Talkies, and these films (one silent, three early sound) all demonstrate his complete belief in a limitless world of filmic possibilities. This exceptional farce, his last silent, moves the original 1860s story to 1895, letting Clair celebrate cinema's birth-year just as sound was about to take over. It starts when a bridegroom’s horse chews off a chunk of a lady’s hat. He’s in a rush; it’s his wedding day! But, the Lady in question must have a replacement chapeau since her escort is not her husband, but her lover! That’s the set up for the spiraling comedy of errors & frustration Clair loads with tour-de-force running gags, physical jokes played as comic fugues (via parallel editing or on different planes of action in a single shot), and lots of tight shoes & impotent chases. Magically, he avoids the deadening effects of the farcical straitjacket simply by treating his cast with 3-dimensional affection. And he freshens things up visually with surrealistic touches you’d expect to find in Dziga Vertov’s Soviet showcase MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (out the following year), or by giving us a brief story recap in the style of a 1905 short. A good looking new edition from Flicker Alley restores the full running time of 105 minutes (at a convincing 19 fps) and lets you choose between soundtracks from the Mont Alto chamber ensemble or, even better, Philip Carli’s solo piano score.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

LEON MORIN, PRETRE / LEON MORIN, PRIEST (1961)

Best known for gangsters & existential hitmen, French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville’s two films set during the WWII occupation took almost four decades before opening Stateside. His revelatory Resistence pic, ARMY OF SHADOWS/’69, got more attention, but this adaptation of Béatrix Beck’s Goncourt-winning novel is equally successful. It’s a clear-eyed look at a charming, handsome young priest who can’t help but win the hearts & souls of the town’s lonely women. He’s chaste with his spiritual charges, but in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hands, he also seems fully aware of the devastating physical effect he’s making in his well-cut priestly cassock. The main relationship develops between Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva’s secretarial teacher who comes to mock the man after reluctantly baptizing her daughter (just to be safe), but stays the course for intellectual discussion, surging religious belief & displaced sexual yearnings. Melville brings a startling technique to the film, ably abetted by Henri Dacaë’s rich b&w lensing, but it’s his view of how life goes on amid war’s circumstance that gives this film its special flavor. (*CORRECTION-11/04/14: A third WWII occupation story from Melville, his recently restored debut pic, SILENCE OF THE SEA/’49, about a German officer with a love of French culture billeted in a country home.)

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Most of those Deleted Scenes on your DVD Extras got chopped for darn good reasons, but this new Criterion edition has a shocking, and shockingly good, outtake that sees Belmondo’s priest offering tacit approval for an upcoming hit by the local Resistance. It certainly adds complexity to his character, perhaps too much. Melville would return to this theme, brilliantly, terrifyingly, and to the suggested moral conundrum in ARMY OF SHADOWS.

Friday, October 12, 2012

HANNA (2011)

Joe Wright took a break from directing tony literary adaptations (PRIDE & PREJUDICE, ATONEMENT, ANNA KARENINA) to have a stab at this Pop action piece. It’s like a junior-league BOURNE project about a DNA-altered teen (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her polar training camp to hunt down the CIA operative responsible for the program. Cate Blanchett, with an on-and-off Dixie Carter accent, has a jolly time playing the smooth villainess, and Eric Bana is hunky & sympathetic as father-figure to the girl, but nothing in here seems worth all the bother. Wright throws in lots of stylish sets & camera moves, but everything looks fashionable rather than dangerous or exciting. And though he lays on creepy ambient sound effects, trying for some of that Stanley Kubrick atmospheric mojo, he hasn’t got the action chops to make much of the chases & violence. Too often, he elides the pivotal shot needed to carry us from Point A to Point B, even botching the big fun-house finale. And do we ever really swallow willowy Saoirse Ronan as a strong, ruthless killing machine? The only tough thing about this kid is pronouncing her first name.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Many find the slice & dice editing of the BOURNE pics distracting, but the second in the series, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY/’04, works awfully well.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969)

This musical remake of the well-remembered 1939 film is better than you may recall. And why not? The rejiggered script is by Terrence Rattigan, a past master on repressed British Prep School Masters* (though he skimps on much actual teaching) while designer Ken Adams & cinematographer Oswald Morris revel in the countryside school settings and the scores of adorable boys in spiffy blazers, straw hats & school ties. The casting is unexpectedly deep with smart star turns in all the supporting roles, and a scene-stealing one from Siân Phillips (Mrs. Peter O’Toole at the time) as a campy actress. As the cold-blooded teacher, warmed to life by his late marriage to a spirited gal, O’Toole, playing older, finds all the sentiment without making a meal of it. Petulia Clark, playing younger, is disadvantaged in being exactly as old as O’Toole in real life, but she largely holds up her end. The best surprise is Herbert Ross, bumped up to full director after almost two decades specializing in musical numbers. He succumbs to a couple of dreamy song montages, but elsewhere shows confidence, and real daring toward the end with a measured pace that gives O’Toole all the time he needs. If only things didn’t keep stopping in their tracks for one of Leslie Bricusse’s punitive (or is it putative?) songs. Clark’s intro is a faithfully awful Music Hall ditty, but that hardly excuses the rest. Even the one nice musical moment, with Clark belting out the school anthem at assembly, is ruined by a final lyric that asks us ‘to fill the world with love my whole life through.’ Oy! Give it a try anyway, just keep the remote handy for emergency Fast-Forwarding.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Of course, there’s always the honest sentiment of the 1939 original with Robert Donat and young Greer Garson. But why not discover Terrence Rattigan’s quietly devastating Prep school masterpiece, THE BROWNING VERSION/’51, starring the Head Master from this film, Michael Redgrave, in his signature role. (The Albert Finney remake from ‘94 isn’t in the same league.) Or, if you must see a musical set in a traditional British Public School there’s MERRY ANDREW/’58 with Michael Kidd’s inventive directing, a tunefully witty score from Saul Chaplin & Johnny Mercer, an immensely charming perf from Danny Kaye . . . and a circus.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

SANBIKI NO SAMURAI / THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (1964)

Hideo Gosha made a remarkably assured directing debut with this ultra-stylish, ultra-entertaining samurai pic about a peasants’ revolt against their local magistrate, and the trio of freelance samurai warriors who take separate paths before joining the fight. Shot in richly textured WideScreen monochrome, it’s put together with a control that paradoxically lets Gosha keep his compositions loose enough for surprises. And he’s already mastered the sliding doors & boxy frames that make traditional Japanese architecture so great for staging action & suspense. The story has wandering samurai Tetsurô Tanba finding a beautiful female kidnap victim and her misguided takers by chance. She’s to be held until her father, the local magistrate, gives in to their demands for food & tax relief in their starving village. But when the magistrate reneges on a deal, the samurai (and eventually a couple of independent-minded hired samurai warriors living at court) takes on the whole magistrate’s army. Gosha shows plenty of action chops, but also natural story-sense in keeping his narrative lines straight with the three fighters all nicely characterized as Good Samurai, Bad Samurai & Ugly Samurai. The final battle suffers from the usual illogical problems of forty-to-one odds, but you’ll be too exhilarated to mind.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: That’s quite a prominent nose on Tetsurô Tanba's handsome face. Might he be part French action film star?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

THE SAPHEAD (1920)

Just as Buster Keaton was taking on full creative control with his own two-reel comic shorts (1920-23), he found himself co-starring in this innocuous feature-length comedy, very much without any control at all. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ THE LAMB/’15, from Doug’s own B’way hit THE NEW HENRIETTA, it’s awfully tame stuff that finds little use for Buster’s great gifts. He plays a clueless scion not far off the rich dopes he’d play in THE NAVIGATOR/’24 and BATTLING BUTLER/’26, but without the turn-around that lets him triumph over his adversaries & himself; and with precious little of the Keaton physicality called upon. Not that it’s anything but a pleasant little nothing. The plot consists of Buster’s disappointed dad giving right-of-attorney to his dastardly son-in-law until Buster saves the day & wins his girl largely thru happenstance. Not much for the non-completist here, though there’s some nifty frame masking and a bit of fun when Buster visits the expensive ‘seat’ he’s bought on the Wall Street Trading Floor. The latest KINO edition, from 2012, contains an Alternate Cut taken from a very clean second negative that comes up with a bit more visual detail (less color tinting, too) and features a good piano score from Ben Model. Both versions capture a rare near-smile from Buster just a bit past the 20 minute mark; the only surprise in the whole movie.* NOTE: Where’s Buster on this original poster? (see above) Look down here to see one for a (much) later foreign release that features ONLY Buster.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *Louise Brooks, in her unmatchable, unconventional memoir, LULU IN HOLLYWOOD, notes how effective that Keaton smile could be on ladies who’d never seen it on screen.

DOUBLE-BILL: Douglas Fairbanks’ early comedies pair up nicely with Keaton’s early work. Try the remarkable WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY/’19, Victor Fleming’s assured helming debut. With its natural disasters & gravity-defying rotation walks, it looks forward to Keaton’s STEAMBOAT BILL, JR./’28 and Fred Astaire in Stanley Donen’s ROYAL WEDDING/’51.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

SHENANDOAH (1965)

Hitching up the anti-Civil War sentiments of FRIENDLY PERSUASION/’56 to the nuclear family drama of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY/’41 should work like a charm, but this is an Andrew McLaglen pic, a director who can make bricks & mortar look fake . . . to say nothing of story, acting & dialogue. James Stewart, in alarmingly hammy mode (he might be doing a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast), is the exceedingly avuncular paterfamilias of the Anderson clan, a never-ending line-up of enormous menfolk, a girl or two and Phillip Alford (‘Jem’ of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD/’62) as the runt of the litter. Somehow or other, they’ve kept their vast Virginia farm totally out of the war, but just as ‘the cause’ seems lost, they’re drawn in. And you know what you’re in for right from the start between the cute going-to-church routine (out of FP) and the family dining scenes (via HGWMV, but with colorful outfits from SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS/’54). Later, after multiple tragedies, we’re back at the dining-room table, now with a few empty chairs & subdued fabric colors. But damned if they aren’t still all color-coordinated, now in drab pastels. To its credit, the second half is less cornpone, even Jimmy tones it down to smoldering anger & regret. But the sentimentality factor goes thru the roof as little Phil is saved on the battlefield by his old slavey pal (now in the Union Army) and then shows up at the curtain like some Confederate Tiny Tim.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Some of the acting defies belief. Patrick Wayne (son of you-know-who) gets a final close-up that’s one-for-the-books, and the film’s new ‘discovery,’ Rosemary Forsyth, quickly headed to tv land. On the credit side, this is Phillip Alford’s only feature pic other than MOCKINGBIRD. Anyone who feels they were sitting with Greg Peck on that porch and eavesdropping on Jem telling his sister stories about their late mom will melt at the sight. Heck, he doesn’t get a mom in this one either. And who can keep from grinning whenever Doug McClure pops up on screen. Talk about Friendly Persuasion.

CONTEST: An integrated Army Unit seen in one scene is certainly unlikely for the period, but there’s something just as questionable in the film’s wedding scene. Name it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.

Friday, October 5, 2012

NAVAHO JOE (1966)

Sergio Corbucci, an ultra-prolific megger of ultra-violent genre fare for the Euro-market, may soon expand on his cult following with Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming DJANGO UNCHAINED. Corbucci’s 1966 ‘Spaghetti Western,’ DJANGO, may have inspired Tarantino, but his best known Stateside release is this effective low-budget affair from the same year. Burt Reynolds, in an early starring role*, sports an orangey glow as the eponymous Native-American out for revenge against a gang of savage cutthroats. (With ‘Injun’ scalps no longer being redeemed, they’re moving on to railroad robbery.) Corbucci can’t do anything about some of the absurdities of the genre, but for those who can accept the crass dubbing (Fernando Rey gets an Irish accent), the doubtful logistics needed to keep the plot going, and staging that goes flat whenever Corbucci moves away from violence & vistas (some of the townie scenes could come from Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES/’74), the film surprises in pulling off a fair share of tricky action sequences. By the end, you can (almost) buy into the idea of Burt’s Navajo Joe taking on a veritable army of gunslinging hombres all on his own. And a little cheer for a script that dares to kill off the usual suspects at unexpected moments all thru the pic. (If exec-producer Dino De Laurentiis had more money invested, he’d never have allowed it.) NOTE: Viewer Alert! This Spanish/Italian production was almost certainly still using 'trip wires' on the horses.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-I: The reason the score by Leo Nichols sounds like Ennio Morricone on a bad day is because it is Ennio Morricone on a bad day.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY-II: Reynolds claimed to have signed on for a Sergio Leone movie and badmouths the pic to this day. His mop of hair is a bit much, yet it’s actually one of his better perfs. (BTW, is that Burt’s voice in the release prints? What an odd accent for a Navaho.)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

SOULS AT SEA (1937)

This handsomely produced seafarin’ historical never makes it to port, but the pieces hold some interest. Bookended with Gary Cooper on trial for murder, it flashes back to his stint on a slave ship only to quickly reveal his true purpose as an abolitionist who gets pulled in by British authorities to help demolish a ‘human traffic’ conspiracy. Helmer Henry Hathaway puts on a brief, but vivid look at the slave quarters below deck, but the big theme is soon sidelined to concentrate on the buddy/buddy relationship between Coop & shipmate George Raft. In a twist, Cooper winds up sailing to America for British authorities anxious to stop Henry Wilcoxon’s human trafficking cabal, but he’s just as concerned about Frances Dee, Wilcoxon’s out-of-the-loop sister. It sounds promising, and Cooper lays on as much poetic charm as heroics, reciting HAMLET, pondering the classics, even harmonizing with Raft. But the whole third act goes missing, replaced by a big ship explosion. Meanwhile, an impressive sounding supporting cast (Robert Cummings, Joseph Schildkraut, Harry Carey) have almost nothing to do. Presumably, Paramount was trying to repeat on LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER/’35 which established Cooper’s action chops & made Henry Hathaway an A-lister. But where that film’s male trio of Cooper, Franchot Tone & Richard Cromwell had derring-do to spare; this trio of Coop, Raft & the all-but-missing Cummings left their ‘do’ on the cutting-room floor.

DOUBLE-BILL: Over @ Warners, Michael Curtiz & Errol Flynn set the bar for seafarin’ swashbucklers. The first, CAPTAIN BLOOD/’35, which also has an eye on the slave trade, isn’t as polished as later collaborations, and maybe the better for it. And what a difference those impossibly lush Erich Wolfgang Korngold scores made in putting them over!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Paramount stuck half their contract players into this waxworks version of the nonsense classic, but you’d hardly know it since most are all but unrecognizable under elaborate get-ups & papier-mâché heads. Whimsy & charm are equally hard to find in the rush to move all those famous characters thru sets that honor the letter but not the spirit of the famous Tenniel illustrations. Obviously, comedy megger Norma Z. McLeod was the wrong guy for the job, only a bit of vaudeville from Edward Everett Horton’s Mad Hatter & Charles Ruggles’ March Hare, and Gary Cooper’s touchingly unsteady White Knight make brief contact with the audience. A legit release from Universal DVD greatly improves on the look of previous Public Domain editions, but the film remains a dog.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In this adaptation, the similarities with THE WIZARD OF OZ/’39 are quite striking. And so are the leaps in film craft a mere six years later.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Those who find the famous Disney animated version from 1951 too bland and the Disney-Tim Burton adaptation of 2010 too . . . er . . .too Tim Burton, should check out the delightful 1949 version that features fabulous stop-animation from Lou Bunin and a damnably catchy Gilbert & Sullivan-esque score. That’s should check out. The Disney lawyers couldn’t suppress a Stateside release, but they did manage to screw up the film processing for a color-compromised product that was always problematic and now has aged poorly. Those with Lewis Carroll’s powers of imagination may wish to view the remains via HULU or short clips on YOUTUBE. A MoMA restoration from a decade back brought slight improvement, but the film desperately needs a full digital ressurection.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

COWBOYS & ALIENS (2011)

The title promises a romp, but the tone is more ALIENS than THE WILD, WILD WEST in this painfully misconceived High Concept pic. The basic idea puts desperado Daniel Craig (the ‘good’ Badman) and cattle king Harrison Ford (the ‘bad’ Good-man) together with the usual small town posse to fight off an interplanetary ‘forward column’ invasion. They manage to pull in a Native American tribe by the third act, but apparently COWBOYS & INDIANS vs ALIENS wouldn’t fit on the marquee. (Don’t worry, the story still lets a loyal ‘Injun’ give his life to save the our tough, but misunderstood boss man, and Adam Beach pulls off the cliché with dignity intact, as do Sam Rockwell as the town’s bar-keep & Keith Carradine as a smooth sheriff.) Megger Jon Favreau, fresh off IRON MAN I & II, presumably wanted the dark, realistic Old West grime & moral compromise (as seen on HBO) to play off the CGI alien attacks, but he seems largely unaware of what a pointless downer this all is. Why the sorrowful tone for such a dopey idea, for a goof? Heck, there’s not an inspired rodeo trick against the space monsters in the whole damn film. And, when he puts away his Post-Production technical crutches and tries for an old-fashioned bit of Western fisticuffs & gunplay, he doesn’t know how to stage it or the shot-sequence that would sell it. Paging Raoul Walsh!

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Is this really such a new idea? A lot of Sci-Fi pics are Westerns in disguise. You may have heard of one that starred . . . er . . . Harrison Ford. It was released a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. (And yes, the first climax in STAR WARS/’77 is straight out of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS/’56. How much more Western can you get?)

Monday, October 1, 2012

LUCKY DEVILS (1933)

Here’s a story of close-knit men in a dangerous profession. They take crazy risks as a matter of course; laugh in the face of death; and when bad news comes, they order another round and cross the name of the departed off the chalkboard. That’s what they’re paid for. Women? Sure, a man needs a squeeze now & then. But don’t get too close or you might grow sentimental, hesitate on the job and put your partner in jeopardy. Sooner or later, she’ll become a jinx to you and maybe the whole outfit. So, toss your ‘lucky’ coin to see who grabs the next suicide mission. You know, the coin that's 'heads' on both sides. ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39? Howard Hawks in his prime, right? No such luck. It’s LUCKY DEVILS, a B+ programmer that’s not about stoic Hawksian pilots, but daredevil Hollywood stuntmen. Made six years before with the same damn two-headed coin. Still, when they give the personal stories a rest, the stunts are a treat. There’s good behind-the-scenes backlot stuff and a wild opening that sneaks an ultra-violent bank robbery past the censors in the guise of a film-within-a-film. William Boyd & William Gargan don’t exactly generate a lot of heat as the leads, these eternal buds are just peppy boys at play. Where’s the homoerotic subtext? But there’s some pleasing gravitas from the supporting players and real, unexpected moviestar presence from a nice looking lug who goes by the name of Creighton Chaney. He’d (unfortunately) soon lose the lanky frame and switch his name to Lon Chaney, Jr. Typically, the big climax is the only scene that fakes the stunt work and uses miniatures, almost everything else is the real deal. And be sure to check out the fast-panning camera and zoom-lens work in the big fire disaster sequence. Most unusual for the day.

DOUBLE-BILL: ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS lets you compare this decent Hollywood programmer against a real cinematic champ. Or stick with this film’s occupation on Richard Rush’s over-wrought, but devilishly entertaining THE STUNT MAN/’80.