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Wednesday, July 29, 2015


A few years after Judy Garland was dropped by M-G-M, Jack Warner orchestrated her studio comeback in A STAR IS BORN/’54. A great, if troubled film, it effectively ended her mainstream Hollywood career. Two years later, Jack Warner was at it again, this time with Mario Lanza after M-G-M dropped him. Once again, Jack effectively ended a Hollywood career, here on a perfectly lousy film. Both stars had their weight problems, both grew erratic on set, but whereas Garland was professional to her core, Lanza was always the talented amateur tenor, with only four features under his belt before eating his way out of THE STUDENT PRINCE/’54. (Edmund Purdom took over the role and the soundtrack, lip-synching Lanza better than Lanza ever did.) Here, the beefiness is noticeable, but not really the problem. (Hey, every big-voiced tenor can’t look like Franco Corelli or Jonas Kaufman!)

Franco Corelli
Jonas Kaufmann

The Lanza voice, with its strenuous Life Begins At Forte swagger, still has the raw material, if a bit rawer on top even under the haze of echo-chamber acoustics. No, it’s the storyline, an insultingly, insipid affair (reduced from the James M. Cain novel) which makes Lanza choose between Joan Fontaine’s castrating rich blonde bitch and Sara Montiel’s nurturing wealthy brunette senorita, that kills this before it gets going. That, and Lanza’s woeful acting. (Anthony Mann takes directing credit, but you’d never know it.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Opera fans will get a kick seeing the great Lucia Albanese (dead last year at 105!) partnering for a minute or two as Desdemona to Lanza’s Otello. (Otello, Mario? Really? You’re supposed to be singing Verdi’s OTELLO @ The Met?) Unlike Lanza, whose voice ‘took’ to recording, Albanese’s discs tended to overemphasize a slight acid tang in the voice that let it cut thru the orchestra. Not here! For once, she sounds like the major singer she must have been live @ The Met. If only she had made all her recordings on the Warners’ soundstage!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Though he spent much of his career at the top of the Hollywood food chain, William Wyler made his bones helming dozens of low-budget silent Westerns @ Universal for ‘Uncle’ Carl Laemmle. After sound came in, he made just three more (HELL’S HEROES in ’29; this one; THE BIG COUNTRY/’58), all superb, all variously underappreciated, all reveling in an unhurried, but flowing pace and a high comfort level working the landscape that Wyler must have picked up on those early films. This one uses your basic Free-Range Ranchers vs. Homesteaders storyline as scaffolding (much like SHANE/’53), and is saddled with one of producer Sam Goldwyn’s typically ho-hum leading ladies (Doris Davenport). But what makes it special, and it’s very special, is the incredible yin-yang/Laurel & Hardy call-and-response act Wyler, along with scripters Jo Swerling & Niven Busch, worked up for Gary Cooper’s good-guy drifter & Walter Brennan’s not-quite bad-guy Judge Roy Bean. Watching them toss back drinks while making mordant cracks about hanging in a long dialogue scene might have earned Samuel Beckett’s approval. (Timed to a 'T' by Wyler and wonderfully shot, as is the entire film, by Gregg Toland. Check out a little sidle he uses to ‘dolly in’ on Brennan for emphasis.) And Wyler doesn’t skimp elsewhere: a fine dusty fistfight for Coop & Forrest Tucker, a devastating crop fire, and a great theatrical finale where the Judge finally gets to meet his idol, Lily Langtry. Brusquely violent, eccentrically funny, perfectly proportioned story construction (as always with Wyler*), this mid-sized gem ought to be much better known.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cooper got his big break on another Goldwyn Western, THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH/’26, stealing the pic from Ronald Colman & Vilma Banky before director Henry King gets to open the flood gates & flatten half the West.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Credit film critic Terrence Rafferty for noting Wyler’s invariably impeccable story construction.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

SALVO (2013)

After establishing major action chops with an opening that finds Mafia bodyguard/hitman Salvo (Saleh Bakri) singlehandedly taking out the members of a double-pronged attack on his boss, debuting directors Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza switch gears, turning this Palermo-set gang rivalry story into a deliberately paced, mesmerizing art-house character piece. Hunting down the man behind the assassination attempt, Salvo sneaks into his house and finds a kid sister counting stacks of cash. Vision-impaired to near blindness, she doesn’t see him, but feels a presence just as her brother comes in. The rest of the film, which reaches unexpectedly intense levels of slow-burn suspense & romance, plays out in a laconic fog of unspoken emotions that are allowed to frustrate (make that encouraged to frustrate) in near dialogue-free episodes before things begin adding up, seemingly without external prompts, to deepening dramatic satisfaction. And if the relationship struggles between Salvo and the blind woman (Sara Serraicco) lean toward classic ‘two-handers,’ Grassadonia & Piazza, who also co-scripted, neatly stir in a host of vivid characterizations beyond those contours. Especially in a mother/son pair of caretakers who worry over Salvo’s lack of appetite when they aren’t informing on his behavior or fixating on his lean handsome form.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: This is what Nicolas Winding Refn (DRIVE/’11) thinks he’s up to.

DOUBLE-BILL: Unsentimental in the real world, hitmen often fall for their targets in the movies. Try Ophüls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT/’49 with Joan Bennett in pearls & white gloves and James Mason worrying about her smoking habits.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


Looking strikingly handsome & fit, Orson Welles has a whale of a time barnstorming his way thru this period twaddle. Made in Italy, with catch-as-catch-can ‘synched’ post-production dialogue (an unhappy portent of Welles projects to come), it’s one of those grand, loopy Alexandre Dumas revenge tales indie producer Edward Small specialized in. This one, all about Count Cagliostro, once a gypsy boy with a natural talent for hypnotic suggestion, now all grown up and out to get the aristo who had his parents unjustly hung. Energetically directed by Hollywood hack Gregory Ratoff, with what looks like occasional assists from Welles, the film is both lux and lumpy, dropping scenes when interest (or budget) wanes before pouring on atmosphere & nifty plot turns. It’s pretty irresistible stuff if you don’t mind a little roughness in execution and a few distinctly undercast roles. A description that most certainly does not apply to Akim Tamiroff, that slightly mad Russian character actor (and character) in the first of many appearances in Orson Welles projects.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The recent DVD edition from Hen’s Tooth, officially sourced from Edward Small Productions, shows some damage (especially on the lower right side of the screen), but gives a reasonably good picture most of the time.

DOUBLE-BILL: Welles was equally effective playing similar roles as second lead to Tyrone Power in PRINCE OF FOXES/’49 and THE BLACK ROSE/’50.

Friday, July 24, 2015

NO WAY OUT (1950)

Even the film poster is progressive for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s racially-charged urban drama. Sidney Poitier made a splashy debut as the new hospital staff doctor who loses a patient and gains a fierce enemy in the dead man’s brother, bigoted Richard Widmark. Playing a sort of medico-Jackie Robinson, Poitier’s main job is to keep a lid on it as he goes about his business under the wing of his white mentor Stephen McNally. Often as not, ‘daring’ socially progressive dramas date with alarming speed, but this one holds up pretty well. A big race riot for Widmark’s clan from White Trash Town and Poitier's neighborhood defenders (hey!, it’s Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee in uncredited supporting roles!) feels tacked on to add a bit of street action. And you can always count on Mankiewicz to stop dead in his tracks so we can all admire his flights of stage-worthy dialogue. But Robert Krasker’s lensing reveals visual interest whenever he gets the chance while a couple of strong perfs, an expected one from the snarling Widmark and an unexpected one from a deglamorized Linda Darnell as his ex-sister-in-law, help to keep things lively. (NOTE: A Family Friendly, not a Kiddie Friendly rating. Lots of 'N' words in here: 'Nigger' and the even more rarely heard 'Negro.' And 'coon,' just for good measure. Teenagers of all races: Discuss.)

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Five years later, Poitier regressed into high school for BLACKBOARD JUNGLE/’55.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


No doubt, it sounded like a good fit; Hollywood film noir specialist Robert Siodmak, back in Germany since the mid-‘50s, taking on a ripped-from-the-headlines story of East Berliners digging their way to freedom in the West under the recently erected Berlin Wall. With an American ringer as box-office insurance (Don Murray with a hard-to-locate accent), Siodmak has little trouble running this moderately thrilling suspenser with its nicely varied cast and atmospheric lensing by Georg Krause, best known from Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY/’57. Retitled TUNNEL 28 (presumably to catch the draft off NBC’s just-aired Emmy-winning documentary THE TUNNEL), the film only partially hits its potential. There’s a phony misunderstanding near the start that hobbles everything that follows, and further losses in verisimilitude as each neatly-groomed plot beat & carefully balanced character flaw kicks into place. Without a plain surface and a ban on got’cha narrative tricks, the bedrock story starts to cancel itself out dramatically. Though full credit for the visually effective twist at the end. But it could have/should have been better, as it was when that documentary was made into an excellent tv film, also called THE TUNNEL/’01*, released theatrically outside Germany.

DOUBLE-BILL: *In addition to the 2001 German film mentioned above, there’s also Billy Wilder’s off-the-chart Cold War farce, ONE, TWO, THREE/’61 which was actually being shot on location in Berlin as the Wall was going up.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


One of those famous film titles everybody knows, but no one seems to have seen. That’s been the fate of this sweet-natured bio-pic about how Don Ameche invented the telephone. Turns out, it’s a darn good historical entertainment, at least for the first two acts, with Ameche losing his signature mustache to claim his signature role as teacher of the deaf & master of the traveling sound wave. Lots of good support, too, with Loretta Young and her lovely real-life sisters, and a stand-out perf from Henry Fonda, relaxed & funny as second banana/lab assistant. Too bad about that last act; the storyline switches from the miracles of modern science to the patents rights court docket and then the pregnant wife rides to the rescue. Yikes! But more fun, more accurate, and less hoke than you expect. Well paced by light-weight megger Irving Cummings and superbly shot by Leon Shamroy.

DOUBLE-BILL: M-G-M must have paying close attention, coming out with a double dose of American Inventor biography the next year with Mickey Rooney as YOUNG TOM EDISON and Spencer Tracy as EDISON THE MAN. (Neither any great shakes.) Rooney couldn’t have grown up to look like Spence, but he might be Ameche’s kid brother. Maybe Young Tom Edison became Don Ameche!


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DISNEY'S AMERICAN LEGENDS (1948; 1959; 1958; 2000)

Repackaged to include a new ‘legend’ (the demographically inclusive African-American JOHN HENRY), those indomitable Disney ‘marketeers’ repurposed three earlier American Tall Tales to make this kid-friendly omnibus DVD (uselessly intro'd by James Earl Jones). It might as well be titled The Decline and Fall of Disney Animated Americana, though it’s unlikely the target audience will spot the gratis history lesson in hand-drawn animation. JOHNNY APPLESEED, pinched from feature length MELODY TIME, turns this eccentric figure into a Midwestern St. Francis of Macintosh.

Oldest of the quartet, it’s gently styled as a Grandma Moses sampler, pleasant & uneventful like its vocals by Jack Benny regular Dennis Day. But what will kids make of this rara avis of a wandering agra-monk? Released as a stand-alone short subject two years later, THE BRAVE ENGINEER salutes Casey Jones in a near-addendum to the grand train sequences from DUMBO/’41. Strongest of the bunch, and saved for last, it has twenty giggles/minute, with old-fashioned Disney inanimate-to-animate transfiguration jokes and Jerry Colonna as our steam-whistle voiced guide.

Eight years later, PAUL BUNYAN uses U.P.A.’s limited animation style to flatten out Disney’s signal roundness. In the right hands, a freeing style, but Disney ‘corporate think’ freezes everything up. And how to react to its deforestation glorification? Or how its Man vs. Machine storyline is largely repeated in the recent JOHN HENRY film, placed first to hide its weakness.*

It can be tough to locate some of the rarer Disney shorts, so it’s a shame to get only one and a half 'finds' in this bunch. Oh well, Disney’ll repackage them again before too long. (PECOS BILL, anyone?)

LINK: *For a purer JOHN HENRY moment, try Paul Robeson’s classic agit-prop (with Pro-Union trimmings).

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Katherine Hepburn & director George Cukor laid a very large egg when they released this infamous cross-dressed romance. Awkward, but rather charming, it eventually managed to find its audience a few decades too late. Disguising herself as a young man in order to flee France with her embezzling Dad (Edmund Gwenn), Hepburn finds herself stuck in drag after they join forces with Cary Grant’s slick Cockney conman. Along the way, Gwenn finds an unfaithful maid for a mate, and Hepburn a confused admirer in Brian Aherne’s bohemian artist. The film’s a bit of a head-scratcher, not from Hepburn’s boy act, she’s deliciously androgynous, a young David Bowie with good teeth, and audiences of the time certainly had no problem when Garbo played out similar gender identification/sexual innuendo games with John Gilbert in QUEEN CHRISTINA/’33. More likely, it was the wildly fluctuating tone of the thing that set them off. It jumps all over the place, from country pastorale to suicide to bedroom farce, then back again, and Cukor isn’t able to adjust fast enough. (Who could have? Lubitsch? Renoir?) But even when things don’t add up, there’s something going on here. And in Cary Grant’s atypical raw openness, something fresh & rare.

DOUBLE-BILL: Three & a half decades later, this film’s appalled producer (Pandro Berman) S.O.S.’ed Cukor to rescue him from a fresh disaster of his own making when indie director Joseph Strick was sinking fast on JUSTINE/’69. That film turned out problematic & intriguing, much like this.

CONTEST: Catch the goof on our Spanish poster to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Dick Powell, the light-tenor juvenile of many a ‘30s Warner Bros. musical, successfully reestablished himself as tough guy/private eye in Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER, MY SWEET/’44 and its even better, goofy follow up, CORNERED/’45.* But this next film casts him as a shady character who runs a high-class gambling joint, and all the usual suspects & troubles he comes up against (dames, murder, gun play, nosy cops) lose the structural backbone the classic P.I. formula supplied. Instead, Powell tries to get by on what might be called his inner Humphrey Bogart and comes up a few tropes short. He gets good support from Evelyn Keyes in one of her stronger perfs as good-girl sister to one of the victims, but much less from scripter Robert Rossen in his directing debut. Paceless and visually inert, the staging & camera set-ups struggle to reach functional, a struggle Rossen never would completely beat. Nervous at the helm, he’s too preoccupied to even tame the already florid acting styles of supporting hams like Thomas Gomez & Lee J. Cobb. And if those two aren't getting your attention . . .

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *Those Dmytryk noirs really hold up, especially the knowing, if lesser known, CORNERED.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Joan Harrison started out writing for Alfred Hitchcock during his U.K-to-Hollywood transition, then moved on to her own production deals (one of the few females to do so at the time) before re-upping with Hitch on his long-running tv series. So, it’s no surprise to find this neat little thriller playing out like an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode. Smoothly, if rather impersonally helmed by Robert Siodmak, and atmospherically shot by Paul Ivano, it’s an eccentric all-in-the-family murder tale (veddy British even if it takes place in the States) with George Sanders as a resigned bachelor living a sort of half-life in the old family manse with his two bickering sisters (Geraldine Fitzgerald & Moyna MacGill) & housekeeper Sara Allgood. Much reduced from their former position in town, Sanders designs humdrum patterns at the local textile mill where he meets the effervescent Ella Raines, in from New York and unexpectedly delighted by Sanders’ steadiness, quiet charm & humor. (Raines, who never quite connected with others on screen, uses that deficit as a plus here even if Sanders can’t really turn off his sexual knowingness. Listen as he refers to his nine-inch telescope. Yikes!) But their budding relationship throws kid sister Fitzgerald into a panic. Always a delicate thing when feeling pressured, she takes/fakes a turn for the worse. Everyone sees thru her, but Sanders either won’t or can’t act on the information. But there are limits. That, along with the remains of a bottle of poison your sister bought are apt to change things. Because of the Hollywood Production Code, the film can’t quite end as you know it should/wants to; and the cop-out ending (one of five tried by the studio) led Harrison to break her contract though it really doesn’t screw up the good work in here.* Fitzgerald has fun playing up Katherine Hepburn inflections, and Sanders gets to sing a little bit of close harmony on his night out with the boys. (LINK: That’s his own voice he’s lip-synching to. Really. Sanders’ rich bass-baritone was rarely called upon. Here he is on the reprise in a ballad with a delightfully subdued Ethel Merman from CALL ME MADAM/’53. What a lower extension!)

DOUBLE-BILL: *Fritz Lang had much the same Production Code problem (and much the same solution) trying to end WOMAN IN THE WINDOW/’43. He figured it out, and got away doing it, when he made SCARLET STREET/’45.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Something of a cult figure in France for his wartime Occupation pics, Jean Grémillon remains little seen outside Gallic circles. This film, made after censorship problems with LUMIERE D’ETE/’42, while unsatisfying, is intriguingly odd even when it doesn’t seem know what it’s about. Madeleine Renaud & Charles Vanel have just moved their auto-mechanic garage into town when they’re offered a chance to work for a big outfit in the city. Business savvy Madame takes the plunge, while Monsieur, more of a dreamer with his head in the clouds (literally, he’s an aviation buff), stays put with their two kids. The once happy marriage is ready to collapse when Madame hits the airfield looking for her errant husband and winds up taking a flight on a dare. It’s a life changing experience that renews the couple’s passion . . . for chasing record-setting flights. The two ignore everything, even their gifted piano-playing prodigy, to bet the bank on a record-setting flight and possible catastrophe. Grémillon, working from Charles Spaak’s script, seems to approve each time the couple reverse course, sending on & off behavior signals that let them have their cake and eat it too. Ultimately, there’s something vaguely monstrous about the selfish behavior, yet it’s consistently rewarded. And all during wartime. Technically, Grémillon is more comfortable handling Spaak’s conventional cause-and-effect storyline than the scripted poetic realism of Jacques Prévert’s LUMIERE D’ETE, but the total effect remains underwhelming.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Subtitled ‘Her Fall and Rise,’ you can add in a couple more Falls & Rises for good measure. All that really matters is that Greta Garbo’s fourth Talkie finds M-G-M still playing footsie with CAMILLE, the classic courtesan story she’ll finally film in ‘36. In this variation, she runs away from a cruel father & a forced marriage to find protection & kindness in young Clark Gable. But fate sends her back on the road: to a traveling circus; as a pampered penthouse mistress to the rich & powerful; finally to some swampy Sin City in South America. It ought to make a lively 76 minutes, but the film goes to sleep after its stylish opening reel, shot by William Daniels & helmed by Robert Z. Leonard with the flair & economy of late silent film. Alas, the starry pairing of Garbo & Gable never finds a working rhythm, though it’s fun to watch Garbo laboriously come to grips with acting thru dialogue. (And there’s a parallel struggle going on with Garbo’s hair.) Things come fully to grief with an ending that shows the micro-managing ways of M-G-M production chief Irving Thalberg at their worst. Editing nips & tucks to make mincemeat of a scene that was never going to come off in the first place. Not Garbo’s worst pic, but possibly her most needlessly disappointing.

DOUBLE-BILL: Garbo’s next had her playing CAMILLE as SPY in MATA HARI/’31 before finally letting her matriculate via toe shoes & John Barrymore for GRAND HOTEL/’32.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: There’s a hilarious montage to cover Garbo’s search for Gable. Churning train wheels fill the screen as town names are super-imposed: PHILADELPHIA . . . . ST LOUIS . . . . NEW ORLEANS . .. PUERTO SACATE.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Fun, though 80+ frenetic minutes may prove exhausting for the older set. This time ‘round, the theft that drives the plot is a stolen secret recipe for those delicious Krabby Kakes SpongeBob flips to perfection. And the culprit proves tricky to pin down because the story is anything but a closed book. Literally! It’s an open book, available for emendation & addition by anyone with pen & ink. Life: it’s one erratum after another. (It's not all deep philosophy, lots of loud, rude, silly jokes for the kids, too.) Under the sea, or what passes for it here, the film sticks to the familiar hand-drawn animation style of the tv series. But up on dry land, where the film mixes in Live Action to medium result, it’s computer animation, a switch which helps blend the images to better effect. The swap in technique may confuse an old fogey or two, but kids will have no problem. Pleasant enough, but no match for the series.

DOUBLE-BILL: Peak traditional animation techniques combine with 3-strip TechniColor Live Action to striking effect in Disney’s wartime THE THREE CABALLEROS/’44.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


Without the giddy atmosphere that accompanied the end of post-WWII British rationing, there’s probably no way a modern audience, even a modern British audience, can hope to understand how liberating, posh & fun this wildly popular Med-School comedy once seemed. With multiple sequels and tv series as confirmation , you expect something to stick, but it’s depressingly mediocre on every level. Dirk Bogarde is the handsome new student on the block, trying to be serious while his three pals concentrate on girls, rugby or flunking tests to keep milking the inheritance. But in grey Great Britain, this rare dose of TechniColored romance/bromance was embraced as if the whole country had been waiting to exhale since 1939. Hold your breath for 15 years to get the effect.

DOUBLE-BILL: TechniColor dazzle in British rom-com trifles made a post-war return in GENEVIEVE/’53, a modest pleasure still celebrated for Christopher Challis’s lensing and Kay Kendall’s comic aplomb. (She’s the best five minutes in DOCTOR.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A couple of gasp-worthy racial/racist moments may give you pause here. First, a boarding house flyer that requests No Irish Gentlemen! And later, a gag that pays off when a series of possible brides zeroes in on the one black nurse. (Common enough back in silent slapstick days, but in 1954? Yikes!)

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Ludicrous, yet not despicable, this Grade-Z Sci-Fi thriller looks as if some local industrial film outfit made a feature film on a dare. Cultists will be pleased to see it out on a decent looking edition from IMAGE DVD. (Mastered in Full Frame, it probably was cropped to 1.85:1 for most showings, so feel free to bump it up a notch, just don’t use the 16x9 setting.) It might well have been titled TWO BRAINS FROM PLANET AROUS(E) since atomic researcher John Agar turns power mad and crazy horny when possessed by one of two disembodied brains from outer space. He got trapped by the ‘bad’ brain, but there’s another one floating around, a ‘good’ one who finds Agar’s pretty fiancé (Joyce Meadows) and promptly takes possession of . . . her dog! With an intriguingly odd score from Walter Greene and lots of embarrassingly ill-timed attacks of hyper male libido (the kiddie matinee boys must have squealed at every kiss) the usual control-the-universe storyline is really a fake out to a big wet hormonal attack from beyond our planet. Improved title: HORMONAL ATTACK FROM OUTER SPACE!! Note that BRAIN was the Main Attraction over TEENAGE MONSTER/’58 on our Double-Bill poster.

Friday, July 10, 2015


Shallow, but fun. Dan Gilroy’s feral comedy is a sick, slick look at cutthroat capitalism in the local tv newsroom, as relentlessly pursued by Jake Gyllenhaal, a morally bankrupt, high-functioning Aspergers-tinged ambulance-chasing video reporter. The story runs out of gas & surprises, but you’ll stay to see the old analogue model of Godfather-as-CEO replaced by the new digital model: Techno-Nerd-Creep as CEO. Gilroy finds lots of noiry nighttime L.A. atmosphere, yet never shoves it picturesquely in your face a la Michael Mann. That, along with some elegantly designed, if not particularly exciting set pieces (car chases, shoot outs, restaurant confrontations), may be the best things in here. Good as he is, Gyllenhaal isn’t quite able to make us buy into his string of easy victories. Finding (even creating) the next bit of gory Nightly News footage would never stop big city news-desk jockeys from laughing off his boilerplate self-improvement gabble & sun-deprived pallor. (It's L.A., ya know.) But a game cast (Rene Russo has a good role as Gyllenhaal’s mentor/victim - Hurrah!) carries us over a lot of built-in implausibilities. If only everything weren’t foreshadowed to death. Still, nice watching someone let out their inner Billy Wilder cynicism, even if the final product lands closer to Brian De Palma.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *Speaking of Wilder, Gilroy obviously took a long hard look at ACE IN THE HOLE/’51 with Kirk Douglas’s amoral reporter. OR: For a De Palma bounce, try BLOW OUT/’81.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Frank Capra picked up this unlikely project from Herbert Brenon, a major silent director who lost his mojo when sound came in.* (See early announcement poster below.) A fatalistic East-meets-West romance, it flaunts a daring, erotic interracial edge as Barbara Stanwyck’s forthright, naive missionary is separated from her fiancé in a Shanghai riot and finds herself rescued (or is it held prisoner?) by Nils Asther’s General Yen. At first, Babs puts her trust in Toshia Mori, Yen’s unfaithful mistress, then in fellow American Walter Connolly, Yen’s financial advisor. But her real struggle is with her own growing emotional attachment to the mysterious warlord, expressed in a startling Freudian dream. The film is like a fever that needs to break, with stylish ‘oriental’ detail and masochistic sacrifice that dips into Josef von Sternberg territory. Joseph Walker’s atmospheric cinematography deserves extra credit, as does Stanwyck, rarely more effective or beautiful. Columbia lavished money on this, note the fresh footage for the war & riot montage scenes. Modern audiences may have trouble with some non-P.C. elements, though Asther is a believable General Yen even when not a wholly believable Asian, but the film must have been very challenging at the time. During a late, passionate audience between Stanwyck & Asther, a jump in the editing must be a bit of late post-production censorship. A kiss removed? No matter, intent & emotion get thru.

DOUBLE-BILL: The central relationship and a surprising number of plot points from YEN point straight to ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM/’46, later musicalized as THE KING AND I/’56.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Some of Brenon’s major silents include a superb BEAU GESTE/’26 with Ronald Colman; and Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH/’28 where he loves, but loses 15 yr-old Loretta Young to . . . Nils Asther.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


This mash-up of FRANKENSTEIN, THE COLLECTOR, ROSEMARY’S BABY and 2001 was laughed off the screen so quickly, it was a cult fave before its abbreviated first-run ended. And it's easy to see why it earned both reactions. Child psychologist Julie Christie, just separated from artificial intelligence whiz Fritz Weaver, is losing control of their automated house. Turns out, Fritzie’s meta-computer project has started thinking on its own, found a vacant computer station in his basement workroom, and spotted Christie at her morning ablutions. Naturally, he now wants to have a baby with her. Hey, even computers got eyes!* (Good thing this disembodied electronic mind landed in such a mechanically well-stocked workroom!) Some of the gizmos used to entrap the game Ms Christie are imaginatively designed, if only Donald Cammell had the directing chops to help us suspend a little disbelief. He did get lucky with lenser Bill Butler whose glistening surfaces were even more effective at pulling you in on the big screen. Plus, a ‘got’cha’ trick ending that, for once, really ‘gets ya.’

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *In case you were wondering, artificial intelligent sex looks just like a third-rate light show at a ‘60s Rock Revival show.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Mexican/Irish Anthony Quinn had his first leading role playing a prosperous, happily married Native-American who bonds on the road with abandoned, just orphaned Chinese-American ‘Duckie’ Louie. Turns out they’ve each lost fathers to murdering white men. Together with Quinn’s wife (his real wife, Katherine DeMille), they adopt the boy, luck into an oil strike on their modest ranch, become bashful millionaires and raise a thoroughbred horse who wins the 1924 Kentucky Derby. All in glorious (slightly headache inducing) CineColor!* It’s an unusual plot, and loaded with unusual ethnic leads for 1947, even if ‘ringers’ play the Native American couple. Too bad the film’s a complete stinker. A try at reasonably budgeted respectability from Monogram Pictures, and released under their new Allied Artists label, this fact-inspired, but largely fictional story is all hooey, with painfully overdrawn acting, especially from Quinn who aims at simple salt-of-the-earth and ends up as simpleton. Not even Phil Karlson, one of the great B-pic directors, can save it. The biggest mystery is all those first-rate supporting players in bit roles. Somebody (Quinn’s father-in-law C. B. DeMille?) must have called in an awful lot of favors.

LINK: Excellent web-ticle on CineColor -

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Maybe a better film is hiding under the facts. Much as Shirley Temple’s THE STORY OF SEABISCUIT/’49 improved into SEABISCUIT/’03.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Rocky Western from Ralph Nelson only finds its form in the last act when an army of Apache warriors take on a U.S. cavalry unit, forcing the diminished company into a boxed-in desert canyon called Diablo. (Sounds like a ballad lyric, no?) Swapping their normal screen personae, James Garner is hair-triggered to implode as an ex-soldier hunting the man who murdered his Native-American wife; while Sidney Poitier, in his first colorblind casting, plays the easy-going ex-sergeant selling ‘unbroken’ horseflesh to the army. Bill Travers does particularly well as the Fort Commander leading the drive of rookie soldiers while Dennis Weaver & Bibi Andersson tag along as a troublesome, unhappily married couple. Some of the big set pieces, with scores of horses and fierce fighting across vast Utah landscapes, are really something to see. But they can’t make up for the many scenes back in town made up entirely of ill-composed shots. (Was the last act done by the second-unit?) And what’s up with Neal Hefto’s odd spotting of inappropriately jolly music cues? Leftovers from his usual light comic gigs? Many faults, then, but still worth seeing. And a tip of the hat to 'silent' co-producer Garner who takes first billing, but gives Poitier the last shot. (Note: Rated Family Friendly, but this is no Kiddie Pic!! In fact, quite violent for its period. Think Middle-School and up.)

DOUBLE-BILL: B-pic legend Val Lewton’s APACHE DRUMS/’51, helmed by Hugo Fregonese, tackles similar situations to better, more unified effect staying largely in town and setting the siege inside a church.

Saturday, July 4, 2015


In spite of its stiff, reverential tone, and cringe-worthy Male Chorale underscoring, Robert Montgomery’s docu-flavored WWII bio-pic, with James Cagney as Admiral Halsey, makes for an unusual, and unusually interesting, war pic. Told almost entirely behind-the-scenes, it’s an action-free look at war’s boardroom decision makers, talky as hell, believably so. What else would these officers do other than talk thru the ramifications of a strategic move to the right or the left? The acting is deliberate, carefully parsed out, and when the staging threatens to go flat, the constricted space of shipboard situation rooms keeps the players nearly on top of each other. As Halsey, freshly appointed, with the Guadalcanal crisis already closing in, Cagney’s portrait is all balance, determination & decency; a company man not averse to risk, and comfortable with his instincts. Calmly powerful, with no grandstanding, Cagney still has what he called ‘a goodie’ up his sleeve, making Halsey an awful lot like Harry S. Truman, the little man in the big job. It’s an acting choice that must have amused his director/co-producer, Robert Montgomery, a longtime Hollywood Republican who had been Eisenhower’s White House image consultant. The film is never quite as good as it wants to be, and the constant narration (some by Montgomery) drones on nearly as much as the four-part a cappella harmonies, but it’s not your typical war pic. You root for it to work.

DOUBLE-BILL: Montgomery co-starred with John Wayne in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/’45, John Ford’s remarkable (and remarkably underappreciated) WWII/Philippines drama.

Friday, July 3, 2015

THE ROVER (2014)

Solemnly slow and pretentious, David Michôd’s post-apocalypse road pic is a revenge Western with cars instead of horses, much like one of those critically-favored, audience-starved New Age Westerns Monte Hellman toiled over nearly fifty years ago. Now, it’s tough, taciturn Guy Pearce in relentless pursuit of a trio of car thieves, tracking them down thru depopulated towns & desert landscapes. He ‘meets cute’ (okay, ‘meets nihilistic’) with Robert Pattinson, who’s been shot and left for dead, before continuing his Homeric journey with this new partner; together a regular George & Lenny out of OF MICE AND MEN/’39; ‘92. Yep, Pattinson plays a mentally challenged character, and he sure makes a meal of it, as if he were still auditioning for the part. Worse, Michôd cheats by letting Pattinson's I.Q. rise & fall as needed to get to the next plot point. It's all handsomely wrought in a minimalist way, and Pearce is a marvelous actor even playing a paper-thin cliché. But this existential yawn of a yarn feels all used up before it ever gets going.

WATCH THIS,NOT THAT: Serious or ‘Pop,’ Bela Tarr’s THE TURIN HORSE/’11 makes most of these recent post-apocalypse/end-of-days pics look like kiddie fare.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


For a couple of reels at the beginning, and a couple of reels at the end, this backstager from 20th/Fox pulls off a reasonable facsimile of a decent, second-tier, Warner Bros. Depression-era musical. It’s the five reels in the middle that let the side down. Warner Baxter, of 42ND STREET fame, is the hard-charging, ambitious producer of 14th Street burlesque revues who moves up to B’way with his tawdry, talented crew (Alice Faye, Jack Oakie,, Kenny Baker). Then, nothing but hits till Baxter goes ‘high hat,’ marrying a classy dame (Mona Barrie) and putting on a series of tasteful flops. Golly, if only that old gang of his could get him to drop the society facade and save himself with a swell old-fashioned show.* Faye, still showing a bit of baby-fat, is a real charmer here (she even gets a good number in the dead middle reels), while Oakie has better material than usual. Baxter, a natural at neurasthenic exhaustion, strains at being dynamic under director Sidney Lanfield who got a better rhythm going with Bob Hope in the ‘40s. But even musical-phobic types may want to catch the parade of acts that close the film, including goofy-looking/sweet-voiced Kenny Baker and goofy-looking/raspy-voiced Fats Waller.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The plot of THE BAND WAGON/’53 really isn't all that different. And it’s just about the greatest film musical ever made.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Robert Aldrich was shifting from tv to film production on this quickie feature with Dan Duryea as star, something of an extension of their CHINA SMITH series. Lousy stuff, it’s a poorly plotted espionage/kidnap story, supposedly set in Singapore, with atomic scientist Arthur Shields nabbed on his way to a conference and held for ransom by Gene Lockhart. The big gimmick has Lockhart (in Sydney Greenstreet mode) hoping to start a bidding war between nuclear powers for his release and Duryea racing to keep ahead of all parties. Very weak tea, yet just watchable thanks to a nifty action climax that shows Aldrich’s already considerable technical chops in a well managed raid sequence, and also from a fun cast of middle-aged ex-contract players finally able to play inter-league catch. From Warners: Gene Lockhart & Patrick Knowles; from 20th/Fox: Key Luke; from M-G-M: Douglass Dumbrille & Reginald Denny*; and Nigel Bruce from Universal. Too bad the pic isn’t up to snuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Of course, the Holy of Holies would be if Reginald Denny, Reginald Gardiner & Reginald Owen all showed up in a film together. Preferably under the combined direction of Henry King, King Vidor & Charles Vidor.