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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

THE SEA WOLF (1941)

The narrative confidence & sheer technical bravura of this film’s opening (at just over a reel) is so brilliantly handled by all hands (on deck & on set), you’ll want to hit pause for a round of applause. It’s classic Golden Age Hollywood at its most assured, spinning a complicated story into clear, continuously exciting entertainment; with leads, supporting players & crew all at the top of their game. And note the well-deserved solo credit card to composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, second only to director Michael Curtiz. Robert Rosson did the fine job on Jack London’s tricky tale of sadistic ship captain Edward G. Robinson & a cutthroat crew, as well as John Garfield’s anarchist-on-the-run. Add-in Ida Lupino’s desperate streetwalker & Alexander Knox’s literary intellectual, both plucked out of the sea.* The speed this gets put into place is thrilling, along with Anton Grot’s production design & Sol Polito’s fog-bound atmospherics. Told with a vicious, grown-up tone & nihilistic attitude that can still shock, there’s something to make you jump or gasp every few minutes as the ship reveals what the bloody hell is really going on. WOLF has taken ages to show on DVD, largely because of a re-release that clipped nearly a reel & a half off the original running time, with inestimable damage to Curtiz’s editing rhythms. Part of this was simply a trim for a double-bill with the similarly trimmed SEA HAWK/’40. But in WOLF’s case, there was also a bit of politically tinged ‘lefty’ speech-making to worry about from Rosson (an ‘admitted’ Communist who ‘named names’) and an acting line-up of Blacklisted & Grey-listed actors like Howard Da Silva & even Eddie G. You really couldn’t trust Eddie. Not only was he what was known as a ‘Pre-Anti-Fascist (meaning various liberal/humanitarian causes supported before war broke out), but he also had a world-class collection of impressionist & modern art. An obvious danger to society.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Golden Year of the Golden Age of Hollywood is always awarded to 1939, a year where one director (Victor Fleming) could turn out GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ. But ‘41 has it champions, what with CITIZEN KANE; HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY; HOLD BACK THE DAWN; LITTLE FOXES, MALTESE FALCON; SERGEANT YORK; SUSPICION; HERE COMES MR. JORDAN; BALL OF FIRE; TOM, DICK AND HARRY; THE LADY EVE; NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH; MEET JOHN DOE; THAT HAMILTON WOMAN; STRAWBERRY BLONDE; SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS; 49TH PARALLEL; DUMBO; HIGH SIERRA; and yet another wolf, THE WOLF MAN; to name but a few. (And that’s only English-language pics.) Take that 1939! Heck, take that 2017.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Knox & Lupino’s meeting is a gender reversed swipe from Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll’s in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS/’35.

Monday, November 20, 2017

HER CARDBOARD LOVER (1942)

The trailer crows ‘Grand New, Brand New,’ but it’s M-G-M’s third go at this puerile French Boulevard play, seen on B’way in 1927 with Jeanne Eagles & Leslie Howard in roles now inadequately taken by Norma Shearer (in something of a humiliation) and Robert Taylor (working too hard). The main gag has Shearer, in her screen swansong, stuck on caddish lover-boy George Sanders and hiring Taylor to keep her from acting on her worst instincts. The job fits Taylor fine since he’s already positively, if inexplicably, twitterpixed over M-G-M’s time-tarnished doyenne of original contract players. No surprise to find her coming ‘round to him in a slightly more action-oriented third act added to the sedate play script. It’s meant to be very ‘La-Di-Da’ (a first act all about evening clothes restrictions), and if you watch how Sanders throws his lines away rather than holding forth like the two leads, you can see how this just might have worked in ‘40s New England Summer Stock with Leading Ladies of a certain age and fascination. Kit Cornell? Ina Claire? Gertrude Lawrence? Tallulah? Heck, director George Cukor had over-seen a stage revival with none other than Laurette Taylor. So, he certainly knew the score, but maintained something of a soft spot for Shearer in what was their third film together. Perhaps he admired her sheer persistence & work ethic from time on ROMEO & JULIET/’36. Alas, traits largely unsuited to this gossamer material.

DOUBLE-BILL: Cukor was fresh off similar unhappy career-ending duties with Greta Garbo on the ill-fated TWO-FACED WOMAN/’41. He’d return to form (and then some) with GASLIGHT/’44.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964)

More like The Fall of Producer Samuel Bronston who channeled hefty profits, goodwill & much creative talent from EL CID/’61 into this hubristic deadweight; then never recovered. There’s plenty of wrong to go around here, but the main problem is that the writers (even with ‘your free gift’ historian Will Durant as ‘Consultant’*) could neither whip up nor lick the storyline. And the film trailer promises ‘A World . . . An Empire . . . A Motion Picture!’ Not quite. First half of a three-hour slog has Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius crawl his way to chilly death while daughter Sophia Loren (in Balmain on the Tiber fur) longs for preferred successor Stephen Boyd (in unbecoming blond locks) and stares daggers at nutso brother/would-be heir Christopher Plummer’s Commodus. (Plummer gives the fruitiest perf in the pic; atrocious, but lively.) To everyone’s relief, blind philosopher Mel Ferrer pulls the ol’ poisoned apple gag on Aurelius, hastening his demise to keep the line of succession in the family. And with Plummer installed as a new mad emperor, the usual Bread & Circus Sword & Sandal tropes take over as we move from frosty Germanica to a massive Roman Forum reconstruction of truly spectacular scale. You feel bankrupt just looking at it. (Not since Henry King & Lillian Gish rebuilt Renaissance Florence in ROMOLA/’24, without resorting to miniatures, mattes or trompe l’oeil, has anything so gobsmacking been seen on screen.) Plus, grunting stars (Anthony Quayle; John Ireland); speechifying poetic types (James Mason; Omar Sharif; even old Finlay Currie), all to little purpose, while Dmitri Tiomkin’s odd score enters in its own aural acoustic with pastiche Bach (an organ sonata for the opening credits); fake Rimsky-Korsakov (Eastern Empire revolt); and a Rossiniana tarantella for the dancing throngs finale. The film is not without defenders (I’m looking at you, Martin Scorsese), but it's no EL CID.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Orson Welles, with a fortieth the budget, was shooting CHIMES OF MIDNIGHT/’65 on the Bronston lot a stage or two away from all this mishegas. There’s the ‘consultant’ Bronston should have gone for.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In an attempt to liven up the first half, Yakima Canutt’s staged a very BEN-HUR like chariot race between brotherly competitors: Boyd, now as ‘good guy’ & Plummer doing the sub-textual/suppressed gay ‘bad boy’ honors.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ridley Scott must have taken notes on this when he was working up GLADIATOR/’00.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

LA TORTUE ROUGE / THE RED TURTLE (2016)

Michael Dudok de Wit’s Man vs Nature/Man with Nature survival tale, the first non-Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli, is stunning stuff. Beginning as a Robinson Crusoe shipwreck fable, it neatly switches gears into something of a Creation myth with an Eve who appears . . . let’s just say, not via man’s rib. Told as a near-silent film*, without any dragging or artsy manners, de Wit avoids even a hint of the overly precious or pretentious, finding a rhythm (of life) in his pacing with just a few big action-oriented set pieces. (Yet, there’s a gasp-worthy moment or two of beauty or suspense in every reel.) An opening storm at sea, with waves out of a Japanese period print, sets the tone, but merely hints at the range of superb backgrounds & vistas that envelop these simply drawn characters and the whimsical atoll wildlife who lift the mood as needed. Very special, with unexpectedly broad appeal.

DOUBLE-BILL: *The silent film storytelling technique isn’t too far from the island sequence for Boy and Horse alone in THE BLACK STALLION/’79.

Friday, November 17, 2017

CHINA SKY (1945)

With its all-star cast of ‘YellowFace’ principals, the 1937 adaptation of Pearl Buck’s magnum opus THE GOOD EARTH/’37 makes uncomfortable modern-day viewing. (Same for DRAGON SEED/’44.) But this relatively modest effort is hardly an adequate substitute. Here, China & its people are merely exotic background to a love triangle between a female doctor at a Chinese clinic and the American doctor who got the hospital up and running, now returned from America with a new wife. Even as WWII erupts around them, and ‘Japs’ threaten to overrun the town, these three play out romantic jealousy tropes until Randolph Scott’s handsome doc notices he married the wrong dame! Under journeyman megger Ray Enright, lady doc Ruth Warrick & bitchy bride Ellen Drew telegraph their entire character arcs at first glance, so the film drags even at 80 minutes. Anthony Quinn & Carol Thurston get the only two Yellowface spots (she almost passes; Tony’s cosmetic Asian eye-lid crease defeats his face), but at least the other Asian roles are cast with actual Asians, so that’s something. Just not enough.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Quinn, in real life Mexican/Irish, got away playing almost every ethnic type out there, generally without serious prosthetic help. Not here.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Buck’s THE GOOD EARTH, especially in its first half, still an impressive watch, though anyone under 35 may find the whole YellowFace concept not so much insulting as bizarre. Yet, even in dramatic roles, the custom lasted decades after the far more stylized BlackFace was laid to rest. It still shows up in comic mode, but does seem to have died out for drama back in the ‘80s.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

GET OUT (2017)

Often as not, on their Comedy Central sketch show, Jordan Peele & partner Keegan-Michael Key were more wicked sharp than wicked funny taking on edgy race & social issues. But now, working solo in his feature debut as writer/ director, Peele finds a way past hit-and-miss results by pivoting to the dark side, adding a strain of horror folded into awkward social commentary. It’s an effective mix, gleefully setting off discomforting laughs to stick in your throat. Daniel Kaluuya & Alison Williams play a young interracial couple off for a first-time visit with her folks & kid brother. It’s post-Obama GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER/’67, but double-barrel loaded as the normal stress of a family gathering gains added tension from racially biased behavior (either too polite & too rude) to be sweep under the heirloom rug. And here Peele pulls his big switcheroo pivot, bringing in echoes of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/’56 as re-imagined by Shirley Jackson.* Yikes! It’s deliciously nasty stuff. Even with an outlier character phoned in (literally) for an audience-pleasing coup de théâtre Peele may regret a few films down the line. Just now, he’s more assured as writer than director with some stiff staging & uneven results in smaller roles. But a big, deserved success, leaving you hungry for his next clever audacity. (Another Not-For-The-Kiddies Family Friendly label. But a stealth bomb of social issues for teens . . . and adults.)

DOUBLE-BILL: *In 1969, Jackson’s classic short story, THE LOTTERY was made as a two-reel short. Then, in ‘96 at five times the length, stretched into a tv-movie. (Neither seen here.)  OR: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/’68, the presumed reference right at the end.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)

Exemplary noir. A typically taut, modest, effective crime meller from Phil Karlson with John Payne looking for payback after he’s unjustly implicated in Preston Foster’s ‘Perfect Crime’ bank robbery. A trifecta of thugs (Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam; fresh, startling faces in ‘52) are the real culprits, hired by Foster and forced to wear masks to hide their identities even from each other before going separate ways after the job and a yet-to-be-announced meet-up in Mexico for the split. Framed by circumstance as an accomplice, Payne is quickly cleared, but not before he’s brutally hammered by confession-hungry cops and fired from his job. With only a clue to go on, Payne tracks down one of the gang and follows up on this lead to a modest Mexican resort. He’s on the verge of a breakthru when a wild card in the form of Foster’s grown daughter (Coleen Gray) makes a surprise visit that threatens the final double-twist payoff. Karlson was doing his best work in the ‘50s, with a gift for clarifying tricky plot turns and envelope-pushing taste in violence. Add on special rapport for the undervalued Payne, a mid-list/mid-weight ex-20th/Fox star who turned tough after his contract days; much like Dick Powell & Robert Montgomery, though less stylized. An Everyman type, sweating his way in and out of jams.

DOUBLE-BILL: Payne & Karlson reteamed for 99 RIVER STREET/’53 and HELL’S ISLAND/’55.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

ZERO HOUR! (1957)

Famous (well, infamous) as the principle source for the hit spoof AIRPLANE!/’80, this little Canadian-based indie is, on its own terms, hokey, suspenseful thru the snickers & good fun. Pieces of business & dialogue used almost verbatim in the classic parody ricochet in your brain and can give you a case of the giggles as Dana Andrews’ distressed ex-bomber pilot takes the controls of a passenger plane after both pilots (plus half the cabin) choose tainted halibut over lamb chops as their entrée. (Halibut? Only in Canada.) Andrews replayed these terror tropes to risible effect in THE CROWDED SKY/’60, but here the inadvertent laughs almost feel integral under Hall Bartlett’s hack megging.* Sterling Hayden’s the tough-talking ground liaison guy; Linda Darnell the runaway wife, with halibut eating son, trusting Andrews to bring them in; and Jerry Paris makes like Senor Wences with a sock puppet to distract the sick kid. Some model plane effects are anything but special, while simple suspense elements (a dash panel from hell; knocked-out radio frequency) do most of the work. And it doesn’t hurt to be in-and-out in a speedy 80 minutes.

DOUBLE-BILL: Obviously, AIRPLANE! But which to watch first? Hint: ZERO is much funnier seen second.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Novelist Arthur Hailey, of AIRPORT/’70 fame, and not exactly known for his sense of humor, co-scripted. Any laughs are definitely inadvertent.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Dana Andrews’ speech sounds crisp & clear compared with last year’s BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT where his drinking problems made for difficult afternoon shoots. Was he newly on the wagon?

Monday, November 13, 2017

THE GOOSE AND THE GANDER (1935)

Charles Kenyon’s script (from his ‘original’ story) doesn’t sound too promising: Ex-Wife, overhearing Wife #2 plan an assignation with a new lover, tries to screw up all parties with a secret rendezvous of her own . . . with her Ex . . . at the same location! Oh dear, one of those ‘smart’ drawing room farces that stagger along between arch overacting & dopey misunderstandings. Worse, a comic mix-up brings in a ‘wrong’ couple, a misidentified pair of jewel robbers. Yikes! But wait! With skilled playing (Kay Francis, George Brent & Genevieve Tobin lightly skating on the surface); Kenyon’s cleanly parsed crisscross plotting; and Alfred E. Green’s unfussy megging (it helps that he’s unable to make much of things), the Pre-Code attitudes find their mark in a Post-Code film environment, coming across with spirit, elegance & fun. No undiscovered gem; but quite pleasant work from all hands. Good rainy day stuff.

DOUBLE-BILL: Kay Francis, Hollywood's ‘Queen of Decolletage,’ peaked @ Pre-Code Paramount. And that includes an early loan-out to Warners for William Dieterle’s Lubitsch-esque JEWEL THIEF (if only it had a third-act) made right before her pair of classics ONE WAY PASSAGE and TROUBLE IN PARADISE (all three 1932).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

SALUTE TO THE MARINES (1943)

Two acts' worth of blustery pre-war Military Service Comedy, for serviceable long-time M-G-M star Wallace Beery, makes an unlikely turn to the deadly serious in a post-Pearl Harbor third act with unexpectedly impressive action chops. The resulting film is schizophrenic, ridiculous & fascinating. Berry, long relegated to B-pics, gets a lux production here: Techni-Color, a class supporting cast, major battle scenes (tanks, planes, explosions, the works). Even a bridge to blow up. Yet the first two-thirds are all wheezy comic tropes as Sgt. Berry, a 30-yr vet who’s never seen battle, trains his last Marine Newbies & Filipino volunteers before retirement and the tricky adjustment to ‘civie’ life with wife Fay Bainter, daughter & suitor (Marilyn Maxwell; William Lundigan) and his peace-loving neighbors. But when the ‘Japs’ come ashore, and the Fifth Columnists come out of hiding, suddenly Berry’s military know-how & discipline come into play. Battle-tested, at last. The effect is weird, and also a little thrilling under journeyman director S. Sylvan Simon, who shows real aptitude for battle logistics & clarifying shot lists. (Or is it the Second-Unit?) And notice how they find a nice spot for Key Luke as a marine boxer (along with a lot of Filipino kids) to help differentiate between ‘good Asians’ and enemy ‘Japs.’

DOUBLE-BILL: John Ford covers this ground from a serious angle in THEY WERE EXPENDABLE/’45.  (And manages to play the Marine Anthem - ‘From the Halls of Montezuma’ - only occasionally.  Here, it’s the ONLY tune.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

TOWARD THE UNKNOWN (1956)

Unexpectedly muscular direction from Mervyn LeRoy (or someone*), along with a dark, near impasto look in Harold Rosson’s WarnerColor lensing, grab your attention in this SuperSonic Test Pilot story. William Holden’s a Korean war vet, working his way back to Top Flyboy at a jet testing facility after a notorious P.O.W. breakdown. He’s also trying to rekindle an old romance with Virginia Leith, now secretary/Girl Friday/default ‘steady’ to General Lloyd Nolan, the hands-on base commander unwilling to give up the reins. Scripter Bernie Lay Jr., a specialist in airborne military saga (STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND/’55; TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH/’49) layers this 3-pronged drama to good effect between some excellent experimental flights, smartly letting the danger & heroism speak for itself. But you’ll see why the film is now little-known. Leith, her romantic episodes shoehorned in and coming to the end of a short-lived feature run, seems to have ‘looped’ all her lines. Odd coming from such a sexy, distinctive voice. You'd swear Paula Prentiss dubbed her. In a way, the whole film feels dubbed . . . dramatically dubbed. Not bad though.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *By this point, LeRoy was largely phoning it in. (Literally so per Alec Guinness on A MAJORITY OF ONE/’61 where LeRoy spent more time on the phone dealing with his stable of horses than with his stable of actors.) Here, with so much flying, there’s a high percentage of second-unit stuff. How much else did those guys shoot?

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Nice debut for James Garner: relaxed, charming, fully-formed.

Friday, November 10, 2017

THE HAPPY THIEVES (1961)

The ‘60s must have been the Golden Age of the Art Caper Pic: GAMBIT/'66; HOW TO STEAL A MILLION/‘66; THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR/’68; plus TOPKAPI/’64; DEADFALL/’68 and PINK PANTHER/’63 with jewels in for artwork. This largely forgotten specimen, from Richard (MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE) Condon’s novel, is a smartly plotted example of the form in three distinct tones. As plotter, courier & forger: Rex Harrison, Rita Hayworth & Joseph Wiseman* are forced to parlay a Velázquez they’ve ‘exchanged’ with a fake for an even more valuable Goya hanging in Madrid’s Prado, as the story moves from sophisticated comedy to Death-in-the-Afternoon grotesquerie, before landing somewhere in the vicinity of Ealing style comedy. But in spite of nice playing from the gentlemen, and John Gay’s witty, well-organized script, there isn’t an ounce of style or zest in the production values or in George Marshall’s tame megging. (Stanley Donen & Vincente Minnelli unavailable?) At least, he might have moderated Hayworth’s over-scaled comic playing. (Maybe not, her husband was the producer.) They surely could have replaced cinematographer Paul Beeson for someone with more sparkle to offer. Fortunately, the film works best in its final section, when it’s most like an Ealing Comedy. Think LAVENDER HILL MOB/’51, right down to its crime does not pay twist ending.

DOUBLE-BILL: More scam than caper, A TOUCH OF LARCENY/'60 (James Mason, Vera Miles, George Sanders; dir. Guy Hamilton) finds exactly the tone that’s missing here.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Wiseman, unusually relaxed & winning as the forger, all but steals the pic.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948)

Worth a look for the title alone. Good thing, too, since this handsome criminal-on-the-run meller doesn’t quite add up; close though, and compelling as you watch. Undersung helmer Norman Foster & lenser Russell Metty are on fire in the opening reel as Burt Lancaster's traumatized war vet (looking youthful & luscious at 35) strikes out & accidentally kills a pub-keeper, then chased thru back-alley London. Breaking into a second-floor flat to hide, he violently 'meets-cute' with Joan Fontaine’s lonely nurse and the two soon bond. But Lancaster’s past comes to call in the form of Robert Newton’s scamming low-life crook who was at the pub that night and now blackmails Burt into stealing hospital drugs to sell on the continent. Pacey & atmospheric, even when the storyline gets a little hard to buy, with exceptionally well run action along with an eye-popping 6-month prison term that includes a cat-o’-nine-tails whipping. (Yikes! A real thing in British prisons at the time?) The film also has a secondary use, or does for film mavens, serving nicely as a guide to the subtle differences between Hollywood post-war film noir and ‘30s predecessor French Poetic Realism, those fatalistic underworld crime dramas that more often than not starred Jean Gabin.* This one leans very much in that direction, or does until a truncated ending when the film writes itself into a corner and can’t get out. Instead, they punt, slap THE END on the screen, call it a day.

DOUBLE-BILL: Norman Foster does even better by Poetic Realism, and from a female perspective, in the superb, recently restored WOMAN ON THE RUN/’50 with Ann Sheridan.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It's hard to put a finger on the noir/poetic realism divide.  But, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on hardcore pornography, you know it when you see it.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

BOY (2010)

New Zealand writer/ director Taika Waititi (currently tearing up the Multiplex with THOR: RAGNAROK, his bubble-bursting MARVEL rethink) drew on personal memories to enrich this modest, fictional coming-of-age charmer. Set in the mid-‘80s, it’s Boy’s story (that’s the boy’s name, ‘Boy’), a 12-yr-old cut-up & Michael Jackson enthusiast thrilled to have a long absent father home during school break. (Q: Is ‘summer’ school break a winter event Down Under?) Boy lost his mom a few years back, and now lives with a kid brother & a gaggle of cousins under the care of their Grandmother. But she’s off to an out of town funeral and Boy's in charge of the household. Enter Dad, along with a pair of prison pals, hoping to find a cache of cash buried somewhere in a nearby field. It supplies the main action as the scales begin to fall from Boy’s eyes and fanciful dreams about Dad hit a brick wall of reality & personal shortcomings from a criminal past. That’s Taika Waititi himself as the wayward Dad, a striking screen subject, threatening & funny at one & the same time. (Quite an all-round entertainer, too, as seen in some fantasy elements, including a full-out musical number served up as encore.) Yet so immature, he’s less parent than irresponsible big brother. It makes some of the film’s more serious moments play out like pre-teen variations of Brandon de Wilde crashing up against the moral foibles of Warren Beatty in ALL FALL DOWN/’62 or Paul Newman in HUD/’63. (And give yourself extra points for spotting the Boo Radley reference.) Waititi gets some great work from his cast (the kid brother, Rocky, who believes he’s got suggestive powers, is a real find), though he sometimes overworks scenes with edits and a tendency to be too loosey-goosey for the film’s good. But tone & vision are nicely specific, touching & funny, with a real feel for local color & unforced composition. He’s the real deal.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Between the accents & some Maori patois, the dialogue can be a challenge. You’ll have to tough it out as the Kino Lorber DVD comes without English subtitles, but you’ll pick up what’s needed.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

THE SECRET OF DR. KILDARE (1939)

Surely all the DR. KILDARE movies can’t be quite as bad as this. Third in the M-G-M series of programmers with Lew Ayres as the interning doctor and Lionel Barrymore as his boss/mentor Dr. Gillespie, it’s awful in almost every way. The first Kildare, a one-off @ Paramount with Joel McCrea & Barbara Stanwyck (INTERNES CAN’T MAKE MONEY/’37) was a modest affair, but this shabby thing is phoned in from both sides of the camera. Or is except for the appallingly hammy Mr. Barrymore who you wish were phoning it in. (And such a striking performer when reined in.) The story is driven by many a secret: Gillespie’s cancer diagnosis; a heart condition for Lew Ayres’ visiting father; a neurasthenic heiress with hysterical blindness . . . and more! Plus, a middle-aged black orderly so the wheelchair bound Barrymore has someone to shoot craps with. Of course, most of the period elements, even the politically incorrect ones, will work with a bit of style & swing in the moviemaking. No such luck with Harold S. Bucquet’s flatfooted megging.*

DOUBLE-BILL: *Bucquet stuck mostly to programmers, but eventually got to helm two Katherine Hepburn duds: DRAGON SEED/’44, a ‘Yellowface’ embarrassment, and WITHOUT LOVE/’45, even with Spencer Tracy, the least of her Philip Barry vehicles. Yet somehow, over in England during the war, with much help from John Bryan’s art direction, Bucquet made the perfectly marvelous ADVENTURES OF TARTU/’43, with Robert Donat as a sort of proto-James Bond.

Monday, November 6, 2017

TALES OF TALES / IL RACCONTO DEI RACCONTI (2015)

As cruel & grotesque as any Brothers Grimm, Italian writer/director Matteo Garrone (GOMORRAH/’08) took a huge risk adapting three fables of 17th Century fabulist Giambattista Basile along the lines of a 1980s Taviani Bros pic, but technically up-to-date/well-budgeted. Our Tales: Toby Jones, an absent-minded King with an obscenely large pet flea, marries his daughter off to an ogre in a contest gone wrong; her only hope of escape a band of traveling acrobats. Vincent Cassel, a sex-obsessed King who won’t rest till he beds the mysterious lady with the loveliest voice in his land, unaware the singer & her sister are old crones. And when post-coital savagery transforms the old girl into a young beauty, the sister left behind grows unhinged. Enough to ruin the magical deception? Then there’s John C. Reilly & Salma Hayek, childless rulers who slay a sea monster to gain fertility at great personal cost; with an added story element straight out of The Prince & The Pauper. Fascinating, gruesome, gorgeous, it takes Garrone a reel or two to find his form, tone & working rhythm. (Or is it the viewer adjusting to the deep end of the pool?) But the film only grows stronger & more confident, gathering steam as it organizes its many elements. At first, the decision to intercut three stories as narrative fugue, rather than play consecutively, seems a misstep, but quickly starts to pay off, adding refreshing variety between darkness & light/comedy & romance; and lending unexpected emotion to a finale that’s moving, justly earned & satisfyingly inexplicable. Technically the film is a gem, in design & detail as much as effects, deservedly all but sweeping the 2016 David di Donatello Awards. (The great lenser Peter Suschitzky seems to have retired with it.) And might also have picked up Best Pic had it not flopped in such spectacular fashion.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Apparently cast & shot with the English-language market in mind, the film was then barely released Stateside and seems to have even bombed in Italy, immediately positioning it as one of those classic Movie Folly Projects (think METROPOLIS/’27; INTOLERANCE/’16; LOLA MONTÈS/’55) that take decades to be properly acclaimed.

DOUBLE-BILL: TALE is precisely the film Pier Paolo Pasolini didn’t have the filmmaking chops to bring off in his DECAMERON/’71; CANTERBURY TALES/’72; ARABIAN NIGHTS/’74 trilogy.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

THE POWER AND THE PRIZE (1956)

It's flatly directed by Henry Koster (there’s exactly one interesting shot, pivoting in a foyer on an exit); with a pair of unengaging romantic leads in worn-looking Robert Taylor & failed star-in-the-making Elizabeth Müeller, but any look, even a superficial one, at fast-changing American business ethics in the post-WWII era of world dominance bumps up interest in the overused Executive Suite milieu. Taylor, a high-level exec under Burl Ives’ steamroller capitalist, is set to wed the boss’s niece & eventually take over. But a business trip to London opens his eyes to niggling personal & professional doubts as he accommodates Ives’ dicey business practices and confronts the headstrong refugee (Müeller) running a charity service for displaced foreign artists. He’s checking up on the place at the request of Ives’ wife Mary Astor, a classic sexually frustrated ‘office widow’ who has ‘good causes’ instead of children. For Taylor & Müeller, their awkward meeting is an instant case of ‘opposite attraction,’ but some nasty rumors back at the office (Commie ties?/Prostitution ring?) may douse the flames. This is all far less interesting than the goings-on back on the business side of things, thanks to some exceptional perfs from vets like Charles Coburn & Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Easy to imagine more bite in the Howard Swiggett novel this is taken from. Check out that paperback cover!

DOUBLE-BILL: M-G-M had a tradition of business dramas going from DINNER AT EIGHT/’33, THE HUCKSTERS and EXECUTIVE SUITE/’54, even NETWORK/’76. But the businessman movie of ‘56 was Nunnally Johnson’s adaptation of Sloan Wilson’s THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT with Greg Peck.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

BLADE RUNNER (1982)

Much Hollywood head-scratching after BLADE RUNNER 2049 opened earlier in 2017 to relative indifference. Vats of pre-release puffery, social-media buzz, hot young lead/returning star, deep-think rehash essays, yet nothing jumpstarted a sequel 35 years late. And a look at the underperforming original (in any of three iterations: Initial Release; Director’s Cut; Final Cut) shows this was always a film (and concept) to be adored & fetishized, but more ‘acolyted’ than liked. At heart, it’s no more than a futuristic hard-boiled Raymond Chandler pastiche, imagined by a team that’s seen, if not digested, more Stanley Kubrick than is good for them. (Think 2001/’68; CLOCKWORK ORANGE/’71.) Today, you’re apt to notice unconvincing, stiff miniature model work & glossy, but dated ‘80s Tokyo Neon ‘Pop,’ as a prematurely exhausted/grumpy Harrison Ford hunts down rogue ‘Replicants’ (animatronic beings) who’ve gone ‘off the grid.’ A fashionably distressed look in surfaces can still pull you in thru the incessant city rain, at least superficially, but director Ridley Scott (than as now) indulges atmosphere over plot. (Always dicey as storyteller; hence the three re-edits.) Though you probably can’t blame him for the Christ-like trappings of main adversary Rutger Hauer (dove of peace; nail thru hand; Yikes!). As for the new 2049 fable of man, model & mortality (directed by Denis Villeneuve; not seen here), expect growing cult following and three profit-making re-edits.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: As Ford’s replicant consort, Sean Young sports a Joan Crawford look for most of the film before letting her hair down (literally), winding up with no personality at all and killing the big romantic/fatalistic walk-off finish.

DOUBLE-BILL: Instead of moving forward with BLADE RUNNER 2049, why not fall back to the beginning, the Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe beginning, with MURDER, MY SWEET/44.

Friday, November 3, 2017

JULIE (1953)

After brilliantly playing the suspense/terror card for Alfred Hitchcock in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH/’56, Doris Day hit replay for husband Martin Melcher in his producing debut on this OTT thriller.* It’s ‘Suspense That Never Lets Up,’ per Ad Copy & trailer, from indie writer/director Andrew Stone, creating an instant problem since the film opens at such a fever pitch, he leaves himself no place to go but ludicrous, piling one terror trope after another on tormented Day. You see, it’s her insanely possessive Husband Number Two, piano-playing psychopath Louis Jourdan, embracing the role. He’s already killed hubby Number One, making it look like suicide; and when Day learns the truth, she’s instantly next up. Yikes! Not even old pal Barry Sullivan, homicide cop Frank Lovejoy or passage as ‘air hostess’ on a pilotless Douglas DC-6 passenger plane will keep this murdering creep away. (And guess who winds up piloting that plane.) Stone, along with co-producer/editor wife Virginia, had a talent for big suspense on small budgets, but his blunt approach to characterization & interaction comes off as ridiculously over-scaled, especially with Day’s constant voice-over explanations of plot & motivation. Things improve once he drops the narration in the last act. But by then Doris is about to board her flight-of-doom, and things go a little nuts. Fun, but nuts.

DOUBLE-BILL/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: There's a similar ending in AIRPORT 1975/’74, the one with Karen Black taking the controls. But note how much better F/X tech work is here. Typical of the shoddy production standards @ ‘70s Universal under ‘Last Hollywood Mogul’ Lew Wasserman, especially with a hack like Jack Smight megging.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Day husband Martin Melcher must have been some piece of work. Signing her up for most of her lousy late films without telling her (including her relatively successful, but painful tv series) while losing much of her fortune thru bad investments.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

RAGE AT DAWN (1953)

Made between Westerns Randolph Scott was already producing with Harry Joe Brown, and not long before their superior series with director Budd Boetticher, this one-off over @ R.K.O. feels like a big project that got shrunk. Running a mere 83", it’s odd holding back your leading man for 25, but that’s how it plays out in this fact-inspired story of the bank-robbing Reno Brothers, and Scott’s ‘Peterson’ agent (think Pinkerton) who worms his way in with them by posing as a slick train robber. Those Reno boys are a mean lot, but no worse then the town Mayor, Sheriff & D.A. who let it all slide as long as they get their cut. A neat set up, with some real history to it; plus Scott falling for Reno sister Mala Powers and a tasty supporting cast (Forest Tucker, J. Carrol Naish, Edgar Buchanan, Denver Pyle, red-haired Kenneth Tobey) in some pretty beat up TechniColor in the available Public Domain DVDs. Director Tim Whelan does journeyman’s work, at best (some of proscenium-like set ups are from dullsville), but you can still make out a good story behind the indifferent execution.

DOUBLE-BILL: Elvis Presley played a ‘good’ Reno Brother in next year’s LOVE ME TENDER/’56. Not seen here, but one of his better reviewed serious pics.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

JOHNNY ANGEL (1945)

It’s like a sub-genre: ‘JOHNNY’ crime pics of the ‘40s: JOHNNY APOLLO; JOHNNY EAGER; JOHNNY O’CLOCK; JOHNNY ALLEGRO.* And here’s another, a sort of maritime noir that sees George Raft declining from A-list to B+. (Even further down on his next ‘JOHNNY,’ JOHNNY ALLEGRO/’49.) This one comes fully-rigged with plot & atmosphere (crawling ships at sea, foggy docks), but promises more than it delivers in a tale nearly as head-scratchingly twisty as next year’s GILDA/’46. Raft’s a second generation sea captain who spots an unmanned ‘ghost ship.’ And not just any ship, his dad’s, who's missing along with the crew. Taking on the investigation himself once he lands in New Orleans, he tracks down the sole living link to the mystery, Signe Hasso. Turns out, she’d been hiding on the ship when he found it at sea. Unmanned, but not ‘unwomanned!’ Claire Trevor is on hand, an old flame from shore, wooing Raft with one lie after another femme fatale style. Less typically noirish is melodic cabby Hoagy Carmichael, offering his service as Raft’s personal chauffeur in a search that reveals smuggled gold and a massacre at sea. Journeyman megger Edwin L. Marin & lenser Harry Wild stylishly pretend this all adds up. And, for about two-thirds of the short running time, you may, too.

DOUBLE-BILL: *First & probably best of the JOHNNYs is JOHNNY APOLLO/’40, with Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour & director Henry Hathaway all in top form. (see below)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Seven decades ahead of the curve, Hoagy Carmichael works a nifty fidget spinner all thru the pic.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955)

Rough-edged writer/director Samuel Fuller never quite hit the A-List, but had a fine run of what might be called B+-pics @ 20th/Fox in the ‘50s. (Mostly indie B-pics before & aft.) This mob drama, superbly shot on location in Japan, may be the slickest, most entertaining from those prime years.* Working smoothly in his 2nd CinemaScope pic, after the claustrophobic submarine espionage of HELL AND HIGH WATER/’54, Fuller, unlike so many Hollywood helmers in Japan, picks right up on the possibilities of using the small boxy apartments & sliding panel doors as framing/editing devices. (Cinematographer Joe MacDonald’s doing?) With his typically blunt style in characterization & storytelling giving the film a special insider/outsider feel, only some overly coy bath scenes date. Robert Stack is stiff, but fine as the undercover police agent who infiltrates Robert Ryan’s Tokyo protection racket. On the way falling for the Japanese widow of one of the gang while, apparently having Ryan fall for him! Ryan suppresses this into bromance, but something’s going on between these guys; and second-in-command Cameron Mitchell sniffs it out. Good stuff. Better than the police contingent, who get a bit lost in the action, though it’s fun to hear Sessue Hayakawa, two years before BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, speak with a generic dubbed voice. It all ends in a thrilling, slightly berserk shoot-out, high above the city on a revolving marque. With an A-lister’s budget, Fuller could have shot this as dusk turned to night and the pulsating lights came on.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Academics & auteurist wags go for Fuller’s more extreme low-budget indie work, even when it spills over into self-parody. But his best may be his first @ Fox, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET/’53.

Monday, October 30, 2017

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939)

Classic Tudor drama opens in thrilling fashion as pomp & splendor from Anton Grot’s superb physical design feeds into swift interlocked introductions of character & plot, with Sol Polito’s rich TechniColor lensing bathed in a sumptuous Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, gallant, propulsive, plushly romantic. And though the film sustains interest & momentum, after the opening reel, once the main drama kicks in and the royal quarreling begins, the effect does level off. The fault, dear viewer, lies not in the stars (or the Warners staff), but in our playwright, Maxwell Anderson. Not enough to sabotage enjoyment, the pic remains loaded with wonderful acting opportunities which Bette Davis, especially, makes the most of, see the Act One finale (straight from the play) as she gives Errol Flynn’s robust Essex a ring of forgiveness. But Anderson’s blank verse dramas try too hard to rise above his natural abilities. These days, he’s mostly remembered for a handful of lyrics to classic Kurt Weill songs. Not so at the time when he was thought fit companion to Shakespeare! (See book cover with original play title.)

The print sourced for the DVD has a few problems in TechniColor registration alignment, but is generally quite good & very bright, giving welcome respite to current preferred styles of eternal gloom & darkness in period pieces. Here, such effects are reserved for tragic moments; the ending on this one, unforgettable in lighting, stage design and in a pair of dolly shots Curtiz gives to Davis’s devastated Queen. A visual poetic effect with no need of Anderson’s blank verse.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Like many bio-pics, the most unbelievable moment invariably turns out to be one of the few true things on screen. Here, it’s when Essex turns his back on Elizabeth and she impulsively slaps him in front of the court. A real event.

DOUBLE-BILL: Anderson’s verse plays were mostly de-versed on screen. (KEY LARGO/’48; MARY OF SCOTLAND/’36; ANNE OF A THOUSAND DAYS/’69.) To hear one that was largely left alone, try his Sacco & Vanzetti-inspired WINTERSET/’36. OR: Davis had a second go at QE in THE VIRGIN QUEEN/’55. Lesser, but still watchable, there’s a classic line reading when a rival reveals her pregnancy and a bald-headed Bette haughtily says, ‘BE . . . VERY . . . PROUD.’ (OR: Look fast to catch the play’s original stars, The Lunts, no less, take a curtain call as Elizabethan & Essex at the start of THE GUARDSMAN/’31.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: As part of a loan-out deal to David Selznick for GONE WITH THE WIND, Olivia de Havilland accepted a supporting role here that asks for little but a ravishing look. She never looked better. Friendly with both, she also undoubtedly served as buffer between Davis & Flynn, chalk & cheese personalities whose differences likely worked in their dramatic favor.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

MAJO NO TAKKYÛBIN / KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Bookended between the family warmth & formal compositional integrity of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO/’88 (John Ford might have chosen the camera set ups) and the energetic genre conventions & muscular escapades of daredevil fliers in PORCO ROSSO/’92 (Howard Hawks might have sketched the storyline), it’s easy to underestimate the charms of this less audacious teen coming-of-age puberty allegory. Heroes & heroines always seem to lose some magical power as trade-off to maturity (sexual & otherwise) in these things. (Its why Peter Pan refuses to grow up.) Here, master anime-tor Hayao Miyazaki, smoothly taking over a project about an adolescent high-flying witch-in-training, lets KiKi have her cake and eat it too, regaining lost powers in a spectacular climax with a runaway dirigible. As action tour-de-force, it’s only challenged by a wallapalooza ride on a bicycle fitted with an airplane propellor and a cute neighbor boyfriend to pedal, steer & hold on to. The rest of the film is gentler as KiKi & cat companion JiJi (wonderfully voiced in the English dub by Phil Hartman) find their place in the Old Euro-style town they’ve chosen: KiKi, with a special talent in airborne delivery; JiJi, with a lady cat on the next door roof; and Miyazaki, with a perfect pitch & rhythm for each episodic adventure. Be sure to watch the end credits which run over some exceptionally lovely cityscape scenes.

DOUBLE-BILL: Miyazaki certainly has a flying fetish, going up in all his films and then ending his career with THE WIND RISES/’13 about a airplane designer. (Maybe not ending! A new Miyazaki film, BORO THE CATERPILLAR, has recently been announced.)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

BRIGHT ROAD (1953)

Not enough meat on the bones of this well-meant tale of newbie teacher Dorothy Dandridge learning on the job at a segregated elementary school down South. While only tangentially dealing with racial issues (a nice departure for the period), the subject does come up in a natural manner when the lead student, a tough to teach character named C.T., wonders if God is black or white since we’re all created in his image. And the subject comes into focus again when a student falls ill and the visiting doctor is Robert Horton, the film’s sole white character. But the main focus is on Dandridge trying to get thru to C.T. (something of a blank in Philip Hepburn’s perf) and how she interacts with school principal Harry Belafonte, making his film debut. The two are distractingly gorgeous, but don’t get your hopes up, the story doesn’t go there. With more texture & better observation (the Southern locales are backlot stuff); greater attention to his inexperienced cast; and a bit of coaxing to bring out the story’s implied poetic tone (lots of singing already built into the scenes); tv director Gerald Mayer might have made something of this. Quick example: when C.T.’s little friend dies suddenly from a viral infection, he stops by her makeshift grave to reflect. How much better, and more natural, to have him note her passing by coming upon her empty desk in class. Too many missed opportunities like this.

DOUBLE-BILL: Follow Belafonte & Dandridge into the sexy fatalism (and dubbed operatic voices) of Otto Preminger’s stunningly realized CARMEN JONES/’54 (see below).

Friday, October 27, 2017

SUNRISE (1927)


Given near carte blanche to relocate from Germany to Fox Studios, F. W. Murnau lavished Hollywood resources & technical dazzle on what basically remained UFA cred & sensibility. His initial project, more tone poem than story, has straying husband George O’Brien tempted from rural life & family (Janet Gaynor & child) by a wicked sensualist from the big city. Mad with lust, yet unable to follow thru on the vamp’s horrifying suggestion of murder, the farm couple rebond (and rebound) over a day lost to the joys of the city’s teeming humanity, only to be literally blown apart (temporarily?) by a storm at sea. With German Expressionism tempered into a style that would look & play in a heightened, but more naturalistic manner (in both set design & acting), Murnau still stuck closer to the Old World than the New. This countryside has a Europa flavor, and the long amusement park sequence is less Coney Island than Vienna Prater. But Gaynor & O’Brien bring homely, emotional charge to their roles, without condescending or making them cute hicks. (It’s why O’Brien needs coaxing at a city café before joining his wife in a traditional country dance.) But what gives the film its well-deserved classic status is an all but continuous line up of jaw-dropping visuals. From Murnau’s signature camera movement & still astonishing trick shots (legendary lensing from Charles Rosher & Karl Struss), to his equally important command of mise-en-scène in modes showy and ‘un.’ (The floors alone could support a college thesis.) Famous for influencing a couple of generations of filmmakers at the time (from John Ford to Frank Borzage just @ Fox), it also haunts in unexpected places like the marsh in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO or the woods toward the end of Fellini’s CABIRIA. The film is both a one-off wonder and a culmination late silent era cinema. Indispensable.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: The film also has unique status as that rare Best Pic Oscar® winner (Best ‘Artistic’ Production) no one grouses about. (Same goes for that year’s fellow nominees CHANG and THE CROWD.) OR: Murnau’s still little known CITY GIRL/’30 which shows him picking up a real American vibe in another rural vs. city drama. Murnau walked off the pic rather than turn it into a Part-Talkie, so the ending is a bit truncated. But another phenomenal, indelible beauty.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

NANCY DREW . . . REPORTER (1939)

Fun. Second of four Nancy Drew programmers from Warners’ ‘B-unit’ has Bonita Granville as an exhaustingly energetic, pint-sized teenage crime solver. (The influence of M-G-M’s Andy Hardy/Mickey Rooney series hard to miss.) This entry has Nancy conniving so lawyer dad John Litel (he's like the opposite of a helicopter parent) will work a hopeless murder case Nancy’s written up for the local press. But she’ll need exculpatory evidence to bring Pop around, so plays detective with three neighborhood pals: little Dickie Jones (who does a great Donald Duck*), young Mary Lee (with ‘swinging’ vocal chops) and boy-next-door Frankie Thomas (a ringer for FAMILY TIES’ Jonathan Taylor Thomas in looks & demeanor). These three pretty much steal the pic, especially Thomas who even faces the probable killer in a boxing ring. With decent production values and a solid storyline, delivered in pacey style by journeyman megger William Clemens & sharply lensed by Arthur Edeson, this is just what you hope for (and rarely get) from one of these little things. And that includes a spiffy DVD from Film Detective sourced from a near mint print.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Dickie Jones may have picked up a few Donald Duck vocal pointers over at Disney where he was recording the voice of PINOCCHIO/’40 at just about this time.

DOUBLE-BILL: Hard to separate Granville from her signature role as the terrifying lying school-girl in William Wyler’s THESE THREE/’36. A perf she never came close to matching.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE (1958)

While Philip Barry’s cynical reporter in PHILADELPHIA STORY could ironically note ‘the prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,’ old-school British playwright William Douglas Home took him at his word. And here his play, a trifle about an American girl finding a match as she runs the Debutante gauntlet of British Society, is so expertly handled by Vincente Minnelli directing Rex Harrison & Kay Kendall in a masterclass of heightened comic underplaying, it’s a featherweight delight. Sandra Dee, before she became a teen icon, is charming, and staving off ‘the cutes,’ as Harrison’s Stateside daughter from a first marriage, forced onto an uppercrust treadmill of balls, fancy dress & dinner party dates. While John Saxon, as her seemingly inappropriate beau, and Angela Lansbury as a gossipy busybody with her own child playing the debutante circuit for spousal material, have style to spare. But it’s the married team of Harrison (right between his legendary B'way & London runs in MY FAIR LADY) and Kendall who blast into some sort of cosmic comedy heaven, turning Douglas Home’s modest mots into consistent laugh bombs. You’ve got to go back to Carole Lombard to find a natural comedienne with equal style, clothes-sense, timing & drop-dead gorgeousness. And to Lucille Ball for the physical skills. Watch near the end as Kendall collapses into a heap as she navigates a half-flight of stairs.* And Harrison, disproving the idea that married couples fail to spark on screen, matches her note for note when he’s not beaming with pride.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *You’d never know Kendall was in remission from the leukemia that would kill her the following year, only 33. Her final film, Stanley Donen’s ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING/’60, doesn’t really come off, but she was spectacularly funny for George Cukor in LES GIRLS/’57 the year before.

DOUBLE-BILL: Harrison made a graceful tv film of Douglas-Home’s THE KINGFISHER/’83 (see below). He’d done it on B’way with Claudette Colbert, but Wendy Hiller did the screen version.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Blame producer Pandro Berman for the film’s one goof up, using only M-G-M owned music material for all the balls. A dance arrangement of ‘The Boy Next Door’ at a formal British ‘coming out’ reception? Other ‘pop’ selections only slightly less obtuse.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

KANSAS PACIFIC (1953)

Producer Walter Wanger was still working his way out of Hollywood purgatory (for taking a shot at wife Joan Bennett’s putative lover) when he put out this large-scaled B-Western.* And it’s not oversold or half bad. Facelessly megged by Ray Nazarro, it stars a relaxed, even charming Sterling Hayden as an undercover army officer sent West to help construction boss Barton MacLane finish the new cross-Kansas rail line before the oncoming Civil War breaks out. But with half the State leaning South, work is in constant danger from sabotage within & deadly attack without. With a good supporting cast & Reed Hadley’s smooth, attractively conflicted villain on board, only love interest Eve Miller feels generic. (Fun to see hard-working bit players like bulbous Irving Bacon & saturnine James Griffith with something to chew on.) Too bad the Film Detective DVD is sourced from such a faded CineColor print. Watchable, other than in the nighttime scenes, you’d never know the process had recently improved before quickly going out of business against various EastmanColor/Tri-Pack systems.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Quite an extravagant production for a 70" Oater, with the money up on screen in men, horses, railroad ties, track & dandy explosions.

Monday, October 23, 2017

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956)

Fritz Lang ended his Hollywood run with a pair of crime mellers for producer Bert Friedlob @ RKO. Far more engaged here than on BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT/’57, his phoned-in follow-up, this one’s darn good (late) Lang, recalling earlier themes & even managing a partial return to the richly textured chiaroscuro of SCARLET STREET/’45 & UFA days (Ernest Lazslo lensed). It’s a dandy story, neatly handled by vet writer Casey Robinson, as Vincent Price takes the reins of his late father’s news syndicate and runs his three top editors (Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, James Craig) against each other on a serial murder case (The Lipstick Killer) to become second in command. John Barrymore Jr. is amateurish as the psychotic mama’s-boy perv, but Ida Lupino, handling the paper’s women’s angle, and Dana Andrews, as the heavy-drinking independent star commentator, capture the intense sexy/sleazy rapport of workplace frenemies. At times, the small budget shows, especially in the newsroom (what a quiet work environment!), but Lang comes thru on any number of confident action set pieces: apartment stair diagonals & subway tracks showing his typical graphic/architectural compulsions. At 66, it would have made a classy exit for the fading one-time giant.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

THE GREEN SLIME (1968)

Sort of like ALIEN(S) . . . if the monster aliens were bean bags. Consistently energetic, typically ‘60s Japanese Sci-Fi Monster Horror, but with an All-Western Cast rather than a couple of Hollywood ‘ringers’ plugged in to gain Stateside commercial release. Instead, Robert Horton & Richard Jaeckel take off from a TinkerToy Space Station to save our planet from an Earth-bound asteroid. (And to fight over Luciana Paluzzi’s Med Officer.) It’s a suicide mission that goes so well, they make it back in time for the celebration (Day-Glo outfits swinging to a cool, hip beat), unaware they’ve accidentally brought back a speck of active Green Slime material which grows, splits, replicates & evolves into waddling monsters that look like Hallowe’en-themed bean bag chairs with deadly tentacles. Yikes! With its bright plastic look, rhythm-and-blues title track, telephone receivers that bump against space helmets and zippy, logic-free helming from Kinji Fukasaku, what’s not to like?  (Note the ludicrous WARNING on our U.K. poster!)

DOUBLE-BILL: Best Japanese slime pic, on an all together different plane, Ishirô Honda’s THE H-MAN/58.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

B.F.'s DAUGHTER (1948)

That’d be Barbara Stanwyck, daughter of mega-millionaire/ industrialist Charles Coburn, whose life-plan is upended when she ‘sees plain’ long time fiancé Richard Hart (proper, conservative, handsome but dull) and falls hard, fast & unexpectedly for cash-strapped Van Heflin’s left-wing econ prof & radical lecturer. And at the height of The Depression. Not a bad set-up, from the John P. Marquand novel, known for uppercrust Bostonians & MR. MOTO, with scripter Luther Davis fresh off a hit on THE HUCKSTERS/’47. But the film hasn’t an ounce of imagination in presentation, M-G-M vet megger Robert Z. Leonard doggedly going thru the motions with exactly one interesting shot in the whole pic. (Heflin seated uncomfortably on a couch outside Coburn’s stadium-sized office where a ‘30s-style mural shows a laborer with a sledgehammer apparently ready to strike.) The drama comes out of Stanwyck’s & Heflin’s lifestyle compromises, and when she does something in secret with Papa’s money to either help his career or sabotage his political principles. It almost comes across. But the last act, when he makes a success & spends WWII working for FDR, plays out as a dramatic dodge. Perhaps at a studio less relentlessly Republican, this might have added up.

DOUBLE-BILL: Philip Barry’s HOLIDAY/’38 tackles similar issues with class, style, tenderness & laughs. Plus an unbeatable cast (Grant, Hepburn, Ayres, Horton) under George Cukor & lenser Franz Planer.

Friday, October 20, 2017

CENTURION (2010)

Pretty lousy, but fun if you’re in the right mood. No surprise that hack writer/director Neil Marshall went on to helm a couple of GAME OF THRONE episodes, as tone, pace & gore level all demonstrate.* (That includes the use of unconvincing digital blood splatter effects that look like animated applique.) Michael Fassbender, lithe & cut as a disco dancer, is the second-in-command Roman centurion who survives after the Picts of Northern Britain massacre his legion. With the handful left, he heads into enemy territory, hoping to rescue captured General Dominic West. It doesn’t quite work out, and soon they are back on the run from a gaggle of handpicked Picts, including Olga Kurylenko, ultra deadly wolf-lady. Yikes! She some scary gal!! Much slash & burn along the way. (The usual sound & fury, signifying the usual nothing.) Fortunately, when rest is needed for the wounded & weary, a blonde bonnie lassie is conveniently stumbled upon. She’s got her own beef with those Picts, so takes them in, feeds them tasty, non-poisonous mushroom stew and even speaks their language . . . with a Scottish accent. It's all coming out as English, of course, but presumably standing in for Latin. (What a missed opportunity! Rome-era Latin with a Scot’s ‘burr!’) And since everyone, savages & invaders, seem to have come straight out of some RSC production, you barely notice that the story makes the local underdogs villains and the occupation force good guys. (But they noticed, tacking on an ironic twist to even things out. All that’s missing is a heap of haggis on the dinner table for a coda fit for a hero.)

DOUBLE-BILL: While this barely opened Stateside, the storyline was picked up the following year in THE EAGLE/’11 (not seen here - w/ Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell/dir.-Kevin Macdonald). It also flopped, but after a proper release.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Indeed, GoT withdrawal might be the best reason to watch this. Then again, GoT without Peter Dinklage is like GoT . . . without Peer Dinklage.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

EXTRAORDINARY TALES (2013)

Raul Garcia’s varied (and variable) animation of five Edgar Allan Poe short stories comes across more portfolio than program; a quick, easy watch, if not an especially memorable one. The contrasting styles, done via CGI, but not always looking it, fit the morbid moods, and the well-known vocal roster even more. For introductions, Poe’s famous Raven debates ‘Death’ in a style that recalls paper cut-outs before Christopher Lee comes in to narrate THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER which apes the look of wooden puppets in faux 3D effect. This is followed by an amazing ancient recording of Bela Lugosi reading TELL-TALE HEART, visually the least effective item, built over live-action filming, digitized into high-contrast (solarized?) b&w images; a technique that works better for architectural detail than for characters. Julian Sands handles more traditional vocal acting in the lesser-known CASE OF M. VALDEMAR. Backed by a graphic/comic book look, this story of death-bed hypnotism is exceptionally creepy. Guillermo Del Toro’s accent adds Spanish Inquisition savor to PIT AND THE PENDULUM which gets much of its force from a restricted, autumnal palette . . . and prison rats. Yikes! While the animation in MASK OF RED DEATH has a more traditional hand-drawn vibe, a vivid watercolor look and an impressive sense of court life bustle with figures suggesting Egon Schiele. (Also, a single line of dialogue read by Roger Corman in homage to his Poe anthologies). It’s the one you can imagine being expanded. Or could if Garcia, with lots of experience in the field of animation, not so much in animation direction, were better able to unlock the narrative potential hiding behind Poe’s elegant prose. Instead, objets d’art with occasional shivers.

DOUBLE-BILL: Disney took a whack at this sort of thing adapting THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, in the first half of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD/’49. Don’t be fooled by Bing Crosby’s folksie manner, the final ride is the real deal. Plus, it comes with an opportunity to see Mr. Toad (& Co.) from THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS. Never pass up a chance to revisit Toad Hall!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

TARGET ZERO (1955)

Set in 1952, this Korean War pic is better than you expect from a programmer, just not better enough. Demerits come with Arizona locations which hardly look foreign, let alone Korean; a lazy sense of logistics in actions sequences (until an excellent climactic big battle probably not from director Harmon Jones, but sterling second-unit work); and a script that stops too often for philosophical speechifying. (What does it all mean? Every man dies alone. You fight to survive. Unconvincing talk at best.) Too bad, since the character mix & basic situation show potential. We open behind enemy lines, not that U. N. Medical aide Peggie Castle knows it. But a trio of Brits in a tank, along with gruff Lt. Richard Conte and his small unit of war-tested men fill her in before heading back to see what might be left of Conte’s base company up in the hills. There are nice touches: a South Korean soldier takes off his boots to enter a Buddhist Shrine; friendship signified by whether you share cigarettes or smoke your own; and rising names like Charles Bronson, Chuck Connors & L. Q. Jones. Just not enough distinctive elements amid boilerplate stuff until they reach Conte’s slaughtered company and try to hold the position by calling in air & sea strikes. Those low-flying jet bombers are something to see. But then they take on hordes of Red Army Regulars as if they were shooting fish in a barrel (or Indians in a serial Western) and the film gets a bit silly.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Instead, try a personal, even eccentric Korean war film like Anthony Mann’s MEN AT WAR/’57.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934)

Famous, fascinating, ultimately unsatisfying, John Cromwell (working from credit-shy Lester Cohen’s lumpy script) tries cramming Somerset Maugham’s 450 page auto-biographical novel into a spare 83 minutes. Cromwell, already an experienced director, seems out of sorts here, with odd positioning on reverse angles & needlessly fussy out-of-focus dissolves between scenes. Even with half the book lopped off, it’s all bare-bone highlights and little connective tissue as Leslie Howard’s cash-poor/club-footed med student gets knocked down in life & love from low self-esteem & even lower expectations. Howard nails the crippling kindness & personal embarrassment of the part, but at 41, the masochism & self-abasement come across as fatigue. To see a real Maugham character come to life, keep your eyes on Reginald Denny as fellow student/ frenemy. And, of course, Bette Davis in her breakout role as the Cockney trollop Howard can’t shake. Much of her work now looks like Hollywood period stuff and may not fly for a modern audience, starting with the wavering accent, but YOU - CAN’T - TAKE - YOUR - EYES - OFF - HER. And when she does lets go, in some brief, intense scenes charting her rapid dissolution, she goes places actresses hadn’t touched since the silent era. Two later attempts at the book fail badly; afraid of an unsympathetic Mildred: with Eleanor Parker in ‘46 & Kim Novak in ‘64, both over-parted. (Though in the latter, Laurence Harvey, in theory, if not quite in practice, is perfectly cast in the Howard role.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Attention to your DVD edition. Lots of dreadful Public Domain discs out there. Best of a bad lot is on KINO, sourced from the Library of Congress archive.

DOUBLE-BILL: Howard & Davis made two more films together, poetically stranded in THE PETRIFIED FOREST/’36 (Humphrey Bogart’s breakthru, thanks to Howard who insisted he repeat his B’way perf - and Bogie does seem to be repeating it) and a delightfully unexpected comic backstager, IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER/’37, with Olivia de Havilland as a junior third wheel.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: With Maugham’s rep in a well-deserved rebound these days, maybe someone will give this the space demanded via cable/streaming format and not have to skip over so much of the book. Come to think of it, same goes for THE RAZOR’S EDGE.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

THE WHITE DAWN (1974)

Philip Kaufman’s not-quite-good-enough fact-inspired film is a culture clash from the turn-of-the-last-century about a trio of Arctic-stranded whalers saved by a tribe of Inuit Peoples. Often exciting, with a fine documentary favor, the film is hobbled by character attitudes & cinematic tics that smell more of 1974 than 1896. So Timothy Bottoms’ open-hearted hippie kid is the one eager to join in tribal ways; Lou Gossett, an exotic outsider to his mates and the Eskimo, can see both sides; leaving gruff Warren Oates as the unaccepting conservative old guard, twisted by his debt to damn savages. (Note how Oates reacts in disgust to a polar bear hunt when he should find common ground in a simlarity to whaling.) And the inevitable infection of Inuit ways (alternating the pure & honorable with religious superstitions inimical to the whalers’ understanding) with contaminating foreign influences (booze, gambling, ownership) is too commonplace to hold up against the unusual locales. It leaves the film’s better set pieces (igloo construction, tribal dance, hunting) working as stand-alone episodes. Still, the use of real Native Peoples and incredibly difficult Arctic locations is a bump up from Anthony Quinn in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS/’60 or the soundstage fakery of ICE STATION ZEBRA/’68.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: An old Hollywood maxim has it that films set in cold climates struggle at the box-office. True enough for the films mentioned above.  (Paramount not even bothering to come up with a halfway decent poster on this one.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017

TRIAL (1955)

Appalling. Glenn Ford just off the ‘daring’ social-issues of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (inner-city school violence; racial tension; generation gap), double-dips into 'problem pics' with this courtroom drama, larded with tacked on raw political trimmings (HUAC; Commies; KKK types). A law prof, but a courtroom virgin, his first case in the real world finds him handling front-page/ LOOK Magazine stuff, defending a Hispanic kid on a trumped up death-penalty/murder charge. Seems new partner Arthur Kennedy is off with the boy’s mom, raising cash on the Communist Speaking Circuit, offering up the boy as a fresh ethnic martyr. If only the dead girl hadn’t simply keeled over after flirting with the kid due to a bad heart (rheumatic fever), as testified to by her personal physician was also happens to be the coroner. There’s really no case against the kid, so naturally, they force him onto the stand so John Hodiak’s high-powered D.A. can trip him up. The plot is plenty idiotic, made worse by helmer Mark Robson, who pitches it all way too high, like a Center-Right Stanley Kramer on steroids. At a husky 39, Ford is well past playing this stuttering courtroom novice, and fails to connect with assistant Dorothy McGuire. But why pick on these talents; victims all to Don Mankiewicz, whose novel & screenplay call his famous lineage (son of Herman, nephew of Joseph) into question.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Bad as he is here, Ford had yet to hit bottom. See next year’s TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON/’56. Then, major comeback in 3:10 TO YUMA/’57.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Hiding in plain sight is our all-time favorite storyline! The one where an unappreciated guy finally gets a shot at his dream job, unaware he’s only being hired for his supposed incompetence. But he turns the tables, proving he’s got the right stuff after all.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: In one of his strongest films before he was effectively BlackListed out of the country, Joseph Losey handles similar issues in the little-known knockout THE LAWLESS/’50.

Friday, October 13, 2017

THREE STRANGERS (1946)

After a fortuitous pairing in THE MALTESE FALCON/’41, Peter Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet became a sort of team @ Warners, co-starring in high quality B-pics & lending support on bigger-budget items. This crackerjack suspense yarn may be the best of the ‘Bs,’ a winner-takes-nil lottery fever tale with Geraldine Fitzgerald holding up her end (and then some) in third position. Jean Negulescu, in one of his nifty early directing gigs, stretches a thin budget for a crepuscular London, where our three strangers interlock on the fate of a lottery ticket & a bit of luck off an exotic statue. There’s Fitzgerald’s furtive, estranged wife, trying to foul her husband’s exit; Greenstreet’s solicitor, playing with a client’s investment money; Lorre’s petty crook, drinking his way into a pal’s murder charge. Beautifully orchestrated, probably by co-scripter Howard Koch working off an initial draft from John Huston which already touches on favorite themes of riches slipping thru fingers.* Fitzgerald, who never quite broke thru to major stardom, may have her best role here, at least as leading lady. And if Greenstreet does little fresh (he gives much the same perf later this year in THE VERDICT), Lorre is a mini-revelation, touching & sweet, as a compromised good guy. But everybody shines on this one.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Note FALCON holdovers lenser Arthur Edeson & composer Adolph Deutsch.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Huston’s first film after war service, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’48, might well be titled THREE STRANGERS; and ends with nearly the same ironic twist.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

WHILE NEW YORK SLEEPS (1938)

With the recent death of CHARLIE CHAN’s Warner Oland (replaced by Sidney Toler) and the Peter Lorre MR. MOTO series facing demise over Japanese war rumblings (and Lorre wanting out), 20th/Fox B-pic production head Sol Wurtzer was hurting for a new series.*  But this try, the second of three NYC crime-reporter yarns featuring newsman Michael Whalen & sidekick photog Chick Chandler (The Roving Reporters) just doesn’t click. Faceless direction from H. Bruce Humberstone can’t clarify a silly plot (practical joking nightclub owner is killed for real soon after one of his dancers plugs him with a blank), but races along so we don’t much notice. The real problem is Whalen. As a character he’s an unmitigated jerk (we’re meant to find him breezy & spontaneous); physically he’s saddled with one of the worst caterpillar mustaches in the biz. Ick! While everybody else tries covering things up with ladles of forced, hearty laughter, like gravy on a Blue Plate Special. Order something else. Currently out on a subfusc DVD from ALPHA.

LINK: As taster, a rival Public Domain print (pretty lousy) on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeWjBI7ez9k

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Wurtzel soon came up with the slightly better MICHAEL SHAYNE series (seven films/’40-‘42) for Lloyd Nolan as a lighthearted Private Dick (see below). They improve as they go along, cutting back on the lame comic tone.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

KRAFTIDIOTEN / IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2014)

Wicked (and wicked funny) revenge tale from Norway sees Stellen Skarsgård’s Citizen-of-the-Year, a Nordic legend in snow clearance, hunting down the men responsible for his son’s death. The police write it off as a drug overdose, but Skarsgård knows better, and with a lead from his dead son’s pal is soon murdering his way up the chain of command in a big-time drug organization with surprising ease . . . and gory violence. But it all becomes much more complicated when the attacked gang mistakenly blames a rival outfit of Serbian drug suppliers for the deaths, inadvertently killing the competitor’s son to get even. That makes two gangs & one revenge-minded father all out for bloody justice; hoods dropping like flies. Director Hans Petter Moland manages the mayhem with grim hilarity & a tip-top cast (that’s Bruno Ganz using a cracked voice as the Serbian Godfather), violent afterbeats often alarmingly funny. You know you shouldn’t laugh, but can’t help it. All in the midst of such magnificent snowy beauty. Copy on the packaging mentions Tarantino & the Coen Bros. for comparison, but the tone & technique (amused, even elegant, with graphic violence waning rather than waxing) is more Don Siegel meets Aki Kaurismäki. (Imagine that pair on a Liam Neeson kickass revenge pic to get the idea.*) A token Stateside release didn’t pan out, but don’t let that stop you.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Sure enough, Moland is announced for an English-language remake next year, retitled HARD POWDER, with (yep) Liam Neeson attached. Don’t let that stop you from watching this first, either.