Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

LA STRADA

Giulietta Masina and Anthony Quinn
LA STRADA (aka The Road/1954). Director: Federico Fellini.

After her older sister, Rose, passes away, Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina, wife of Fellini) is sold by her mother to the strong man Zampano (Anthony Quinn) for 10,000 lira. The odd couple travel around the countryside while Gelsomina aids him in his act, which simply consists of his breaking a chain across his chest. Zampano is brutish and insensitive, while Gelsomina is a fragile, child-like (although not necessarily simple-minded) creature  -- in some ways self-absorbed as only a child can be -- who only wants to be loved. The twosome arrive at a circus where they encounter "the fool" (Richard Basehart), an ever-laughing, sarcastic man who does a top-drawer high wire act and in his own way can be just as insensitive to Gelsomina as Zampano is. The conflict between the two men leads to tragedy, and traumatizes Gelsomina. Her half hysterical half-numb state gets on Zampano's nerves and only adds to his guilt so he makes a perhaps unwise decision ... La strada is early Fellini from the director's truly great period (which includes Nights of Cabiria and I vitelloni), before he became FEDERICO FELLINI and every picture had to be a grotesque, overblown spectacle (such as Fellini Satyricon) in which the human drama got lost. In La strada Fellini never forgets that he is doing a character study of two disparate individuals and the film is all the better for it. Quinn offers another magnificent portrayal in the movie, and he is matched by Masina, who may seem at first like a distaff Harpo Marx but who finally etches a very affecting and convincing portrait. Basehart [Tension] is given a less defined role but is fine. With excellent photography from Otello Martelli [Stromboli] and a poignant and lovely score by Nino Rota, La strada is a very moving experience. One could quibble about certain aspects (what exactly happened to Rose, for instance?), but this is still a remarkable motion picture. Some people feel sorry for Zampano at the end, but considering his behavior I ultimately find him much more pathetic than sympathetic.

Verdict: Fellini at his best. ***1/2.

THE SCARLET HOUR

Thomas Tryon and Carol Ohmart
THE SCARLET HOUR (1956). Produced and directed by Michael Curtiz.

"If I were dead, you don't take me to the morgue."

E. V. "Marsh" Marshall (Thomas Tryon) works for real estate developer Ralph Nevins (James Gregory) and is having an affair with Nevins' sexy wife, Pauline (Carol Ohmart). The lovers overhear a plot to rob a mansion while the owners are out of town, and Pauline cooks up a scheme to steal the booty from the robbers so she and Marsh can run away together. After an initial wariness, Marsh consents to the plan, but there are all sorts of complications and developments the night this double-cross is to take place, and someone winds up dying ... The Scarlet Hour is by no means on the level of such superior Curtiz films as, say, Mildred Pierce, but it is a snappy and absorbing crime drama whose interesting twists and turns keep you watching even as you wish there was some more character development and a better script. This was the first movie for both Tryon and Ohmart, who were "introduced" in this picture, and they deliver, especially Ohmart. Ohmart [Caxambu!] was quite talented and distinctive with her sexy, breathy voice but she never quite ascended from B movie cult status. Tryon {The Unholy Wife] later became a very successful author [Crowned Heads]. Gregory is fine as the husband, and there's good work from Elaine Stritch [Monster-in-Law] as Pauline's pal; Phyllis; Jody Lawrence as Kathy, Nevins' secretary, who has a crush on Marsh; and especially David Lewis as the owner of the robbed mansion, who turns out to be one of the most interesting characters in the movie. A sequence involving some incriminating evidence on an audio tape could have been handled with much more suspense. A strangely amusing scene has Marsh encountering a cop played by E. G.Marshall, and telling the cop "I am E. V. Marshall." Nat King Cole sings "Never Let Me Go" in a nightclub sequence. This cries out for a much better score than the one offered by Leith Stevens. Marsh's sanctimonious tone towards Pauline is hypocritical to say the least, but movies like this tend to let the man off the hook and put most of the blame on the woman.

Verdict: "A" director Curtiz helms a "B" movie but it mostly works. ***.

RIFIFI

Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Mohner 
RIFIFI (aka Du Rififi chez les hommes/1955). Director: Jules Dassin.

Three Parisians -- Tony (Jean Servias), Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario (Robert Manuel) -- all of whom have been in prison, decide to knock off a jewelry store. They bring in a fourth player, a "macaroni," (an Italian) named Cesar (Jules Dassin), who is a noted safe cracker. Tony lost his girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret), to a crooked club owner named Pierre (Marcel Lupovici) and now wants her back, but Pierre will deal with Tony in his own fashion. Jo has a wife, Louise (Janine Darcey), and little boy, Tonio (Dominique Maurin), a connection which Pierre will take cruel advantage of. Rafifi is well-known as one of the more notable "caper" films. although there's probably more suspense in a scary, climactic car ride involving the little boy than there is in the robbery itself. The picture's greatest strength is the acting by the entire cast, including director Dassin; Robert Hossein as Pierre's drug-addicted brother, Remi; and Claude Sylvain as Ida, who sings the "Rififfi" tune in Pierre's nightclub. I might argue that Rififi is not quite a  masterpiece, but it is a good and absorbing picture with some interesting developments. Dassin also directed The Affairs of Martha and another famous caper film, Topkapi. Dassin was born in Connecticut; after being blacklisted in Hollywood, he went to France to find work. Carl Mohner was an Austrian actor.

Verdict: French burglars on the loose! ***. 

THE YELLOW CANARY

Patty Boone and Barbara Eden
THE YELLOW CANARY (1963). Director: Buzz Kulik. Screenplay by Rod Serling.

Now here's a strange one. Pat Boone plays a popular singer and neglectful husband, Andy Paxton, who has difficult relationships with his wife, Lissa (Barbara Eden), and associates, Hub (Steve Forrest), his bodyguard, and "Bake" (Steve Harris) his pal and right-hand man. Things get even more complicated when Paxton's baby boy is kidnapped right out of their mansion. While at first it may make sense that the terrified couple are scared that police intervention could kill their child, when days go by it seems utterly absurd for them not to let the authorities handle things. Believability goes completely out the window when the Paxtons set off to rescue the child themselves from dangerous people who have nothing to lose. The picture has unusual casting with Boone going against his pleasant milk-fed image just as Eden [Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea] is contrary to her usual perky demeanor. They offer generally good performances although  at times the script may make too many demands on them. Steve Forrest [Mommie Dearest] is the cast stand-out as Hub, and there is also good work from Harris as the jealous, heavy-drinking buddy and Jeff Corey as a bartender. Jack Klugman [I Could Go On Singing] is pretty awful as the cop assigned to the kidnapping, a performance which isn't helped by the fact that he is often given ridiculous things to say to the parents. Boone does several numbers and has a nice voice. but the poor quality of the film probably jettisoned his chances of establishing himself as a serious dramatic actor after the previous year's appearance in The Main Attraction. Rod Serling's screenplay is one of his least memorable concoctions. Steve Harris was primarily a television actor.

Verdict: This canary just doesn't sing. **.

THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW

Just begging to die?
THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW (1972). Director: Pete Walker.

A group of young British actors are invited to appear in an avant garde production that will hopefully make its way to the east end. The rehearsals take place in a nearly condemned theater on an off-season seaside pier way outside London. Gathered together in the creepy building are the director, Mike (Ray Brooks), handsome Tony (Tristan Rogers), budding starlet Julia (Jenny Hanley), gregarious Simon (Robin Askwith), and several others. Other characters include Mrs. Saunders (Elizabeth Bradley), who runs the local boarding house, and Major Bell (Patrick Barr), a lonely old man with takes an interest in the players from a younger generation. Naturally, an unseen somebody begins killing off the cast ... The Flesh and Blood Show is not without interest and intriguing plot developments, although its relatively tasteful murders are mostly off-screen, and there's a dearth of real suspects. Brooks and especially Barr give the best performances, with the latter actor proving he can do Shakespeare quite well.  Barr also appeared in Walker's House of Whipcord. Walker's films, such as The Comeback, always just miss being really notable horror items. Australian actor Tristan Rogers later became a very well-known soap star on General Hospital and other afternoon serials.

Verdict: Modestly entertaining Pete Walker horror movie. **1/2.

THE SAINT: A COMPLETE HISTORY

THE SAINT: A COMPLETE HISTORY IN PRINT, RADIO, FILM AND TELEVISION, 1928 - 1992. Burl Barer. McFarland; 1993.

The threat of a brand-new Saint film probably ignited the publication of this look at the venerable character down through the decades. Barer's exhaustive tome looks at the origins of the character, created by Leslie Charteris, along with a complete publication history of the Saint novels, stories, and reprints, as well as a rundown of each Saint film, the radio series (Vincent Price was one of the actors to portray the Saint), the TV series with Roger Moore and later Ian Ogilvy and others, not to mention The Saint comic books! Throughout the book it is made abundantly clear that Charteris' strangely moral if slightly shady character pretty much made the mold from which other, similar adventurers -- The Falcon, the Lone Wolf,  and many others -- were birthed. The Saint may not pre-date certain pulp characters of the 1920's, but these heroes were nothing like him in any case. The amazing thing about this very informative and entertaining book is that I'm, frankly, not the biggest Saint fan and have never read any of the novels, but I still found the volume very readable and interesting. There are lots of behind-the-scenes details, and Charteris' often acerbic estimations of the movie and TV scripts are amusing. Like all books of this nature written by enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans, it makes you anxious to hunt down the old novels and watch the Roger Moore TV series on Hulu. Alas, the new film version that was in the making when this book was published, finally came out four years later with Val Kilmer playing the part. It was a mediocre movie that didn't make much of a splash.

Verdict: Good show! ***1/2.

THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY

Helmut Berger
THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (aka Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate/1971). Director: Duccio Tessari.

A 17-year-old girl is found stabbed to death in a park. Newscaster Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia) is arrested for the crime and put on trial. Marchi has a reason for keeping silent about where he actually was that day, but he doesn't know that his lawyer, Giulio (Gunther Stoll) is having an affair with his wife, Maria (Ida Galli). Meanwhile, his daughter, Sarah (Wendy D'Olive), is fooling around with a moody pianist, Giorgio (Helmut Berger). While Marchi is on trial, there are more murders of young women ... This dubbed Italian thriller has a too leisurely pace and no real thrills, but it still manages to be absorbing for the most part and summon up some suspense, although the modestly surprising wind-up is a little too far-fetched. Although top-billed, Helmut Berger walks around looking strange and haunted, makes love on occasion, but hasn't really been given much of a character to play. The business with an associate of the police inspector always giving him coffee that is either too hot, cold or bitter quickly becomes tiresome. Tessari also directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Verdict: Passable mystery film with some twists. **1/2.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

THE CULT OF ULMER

Edgar G, Ulmer
THE CULT OF ULMER: DIRECTOR EDGAR G. ULMER, KING OF THE "B'S"

I don't remember why, but years ago when I was in grade school, our teacher let us watch a movie on television. It was called The Man from Planet X and we children were enthralled. Unfortunately, we weren't able to see the ending, and decades went by before I finally got to see the movie in its entirety.

It turned out to be a not-bad B movie, and I guess it got me interested in seeing Ulmer's other movies -- at least when I'd see his name listed as director of an unfamiliar movie, I would sit up and pay attention. Ulmer seemed to specialize in genre films: horror, mystery, science fiction, which especially interested me as a kid, although he did other types of pictures as well. I enjoyed Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, which I found atmospheric and creepy, and Bluebeard with John Carradine has its moments. Murder is My Beat is a notable example of film noir. His best picture, however, may be the Zachary Scott melodrama, Ruthless.

Ulmer did more than his share of stinkers, such as Girls in Chains and the oddly-admired but perfectly awful Strange Illusion. He may have directed all of them, but the Ulmer pictures that work the best are the ones with the best scripts. One could argue that this is true of any director, of course. Ulmer's fans have argued that he was a great director who only needed better opportunities and the bigger budgets of major studios. In my opinion, Ulmer was a workmanlike director who had moments of inspiration, and who managed to helm some rather interesting pictures along the way.

Some members of what I call "the Cult of Ulmer" find genius in every frame. They wildly overpraise such movies as Strange Illusion. There has been more than one book on Ulmer, and some film scholars are taking his work very seriously. I like Ulmer -- at least many of his movies -- but I'm not necessarily convinced of his "greatness." He did come out with one certified near-classic, the fascinating Detour, the film he is most famous for.

Anyway, you can make up your own mind. His films tend to be hit or miss. This week you can read about some of these films, good or bad, as well as an excellent biography of the director.

DAMAGED LIVES

Charlotte Merriam and Lyman Williams
DAMAGED LIVES (1933). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Donald Bradley Jr. (Lyman Williams) is the somewhat haughty son of a shipping magnate and is destined for great things. One night he goes off to a club for a business appointment with Nat (Harry Myers) and winds up bedding the other man's date, Elise (Charlotte Merriam of Night Nurse). Donald confesses his indiscretion to his forgiving fiancee, Joan (Diane Sinclair), and the two are married. Then Donald gets an urgent call from Elise, who tells him she has learned she's "infected" and he might be as well. Some time later Donald and his pregnant wife get rather alarming news from their doctor (Murray Kinnell of The Public Enemy) ... Damaged Lives, a cautionary tale about venereal disease, is not a camp classic like Reefer Madness, but is a serious and rather good drama that builds to a powerful conclusion. Although such diseases as syphilis are certainly no longer talked about like AIDS, they could ruin lives, and if untreated, lead to extremely serious complications, although it's unlikely someone could get infected from, say, a pipe, as the doctor suggests. If the film is taken as a study of the challenges to a young couple's marriage, including infidelity and illness, it works quite well, and there are unexpected developments. Williams and Sinclair are far from perfect, but they play with conviction and strong emotion, and the other actors, especially Charlotte Merriam, are also notable. Williams plays with a sensitivity that doesn't quite disguise a certain hardness underneath, but this is not the kind of movie to build a career on and he never had another starring part; Sinclair did not fare well, either. Classical music is used quite appropriately in the final sequence. Jason Robards Sr. [The Woman Condemned] plays Bill, another doctor and a friend of the Bradleys.

Verdict: Surprisingly effective and frank. ***.

ISLE OF FORGOTTEN SINS / MONSOON

Sidney Toler and Gale Somdergaard
ISLE OF FORGOTTEN SINS (aka Monsoon/1943)./ Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Marge (Gale Sondergaard) runs a shady casino and nightclub in the islands, where she waits for her lover, Mike (John Carradine), to arrive. Mike has a love-hate friendship with Jack Burke (Frank Fenton of Lady of Burlesque), and Mike tells him where they can find three million in gold on a sunken ship in a lagoon. The two men plan to steal it away from Krogen (Sidney Toler) and his partner, Johnny Pacific (Rick Vallin), but are unaware that these two men know what Mike and Jack are planning and have their own scheme in mind. After a shooting at the club, which is called the "Isle of Forgotten Sin," Marge importunes Mike to take her and some of her shady ladies to the lagoon to avoid the prying eyes of the law. Bur there will be a lot of skulduggery and double-crosses, not to mention a climactic storm, before anyone gets their hands permanently on the gold. Isle of Forgotten Sins not only features the novelty of a rare starring role for Sondergaard [The Spider Woman Strikes Back], but also gives her an unlikely pairing with Carradine (although that's not as strange as her teaming with Andy Devine in Never Say Die). Sidney Toler, who frequently played the venerable Charlie Chan, nearly steals the show playing the kind of nasty adversary that Chan would have had fun out-witting. Veda Ann Borg is cast as Luana, the native girl who is the lover of Johnny Pacific. There are a couple of good songs sung at the club -- "Tango" and "Moon Madness" -- but most of Leo Erdody's score sounds like it was borrowed from classical themes and is hardly ever appropriate. Despite the cast and situations, Isle of Forgotten Sins only really comes alive in the final minutes, but the low-budget of a PRC production could hardly approximate a really astonishing monsoon at the end so we're left with some heavy winds and a few water-logged actors in a tank.

Verdict: Nice to see Toler and Sondergaard and a few others, but the movie is strictly minor-league. **1/2.


MY SON THE HERO

Patsy Kelly and Roscoe Karns
MY SON THE HERO (1943). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

"Big Time" Morgan (Roscoe Karns) is not exactly in the big time, and is afraid that his son, Michael (Joseph Allen of The Night Before the Divorce), who is a well-known war correspondent, will think less of him if he knows his dad is a failure. Big Time manages to set up an elaborate scam by moving into a wealthy man's mansion, and before you can say "apple Annie," he's ensconced there with a fake wife, Gertie (Patsy Kelly) and daughter-in-law Linda (Carol Hughes of Meet the Boyfriend), and his pugilist client, "Kid Slug" Rosenthal (Maxie Rosenbloom). Then there is the arrival of Morgan's ex-wife, Cynthia (Joan Blair), as well as Nancy (Lois Collier of Weird Woman), the daughter of the man who actually owns the mansion. As Michael tries to sell $100,000 in war bonds at a fete in the mansion, Linda and Nancy both find themselves attracted to Michael, even as Morgan and his ex-wife rekindle their relationship -- and so on ... My Son the Hero is amiable enough thanks to the actors, and it isn't terribly boring, but somehow it never quite emerges as anything even remotely worthwhile. The script seems to have been cobbled together even as the low-budget PRC production was being shot.

Verdict: You'll forget this even as you're watching it. **.

STRANGE ILLUSION

Jimmy Lydon and Regis Toomey
STRANGE ILLUSION (1945). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Paul Cartwright (Jimmy Lydon of Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid), who believes his father was murdered, has been having strange dreams of death and disaster for his family. His widowed mother, Virginia (Sally Eilers of The Campus Vamp), has taken up with a smooth-talking man named Brett (Warren William) who wants to marry her and who has charmed Paul's sister, Dorothy (Jayne Hazard). Paul is afraid that Brett may be using an alias, and that he is really a man who murdered his first wife. Paul seeks help from sympathetic Dr. Vincent (Regis Toomey) but winds up in an institution run by sinister Professor Muhlback (Charles Arnt). Is his family in danger or is he losing his mind? You probably won't care because Strange Illusion is a pretty dull and terrible picture. It might have been one thing if the script tried to work up some suspense by keeping the audience in the dark about whether Brett was a good guy or a bad guy a la Hitchcock's Suspicion, but this lets the viewer in so early that there are absolutely no surprises and not a dollop of suspense, even at the ending. Although Lydon comes off like his character Henry Aldrich a few times, his performance is good, and William is as excellent as ever, but the movie is a real stinker. Leo Erdody's score helps a little. Sally Eilers had been in films since the silent era, but she had only two more film appearances after this. Now in his 90\s, Jimmy Lydon had many more credits after this, mostly on television, and worked as an actor until the late 80's before going into the production end. Strange Illusion got surprisingly good reviews at the time of its release, making one wonder if the critics were inebriated or in a particularly charitable mood. Nowadays some Ulmer fans go on about this film as if it were on a par with Hitchcock and suggest it was influenced by no less than Hamlet! Give me a break!

Verdict: Great to see Jimmy and Warren but they need a much better vehicle. *1/2.

CLUB HAVANA

"Isabelita" (Lita Baron) does her stuff
CLUB HAVANA (1945). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

"You know darling, even when I hate you the most I still love you."

In a fashionable Latin-themed nightclub that could be anyplace, several people converge. Newly divorced Rosalind (Margaret Lindsay) discovers that her lover, Johnny (Don Douglas), no longer wants her. Piano player Jimmy (Eric Sinclair) realizes that he can smash the alibi of mobster and accused murderer, Joe Reed (Marc Lawrence) and calls the police, causing consternation for his girlfriend, the entertainer Isabelita (Lita Baron). Wealthy old Mrs. Cavendish (Renie Riano) proposes marriage to borderline gigolo, Rogers (Paul Cavanagh), who obviously needs an income. A middle-aged separated couple decide whether or not to reconcile, and an intern (Tom Neal) goes on his first date with the nervous Lucy (Dorothy Morris). Myrtle (Sonia Sorel), the switchboard operator, tells Joe Reed what Jimmy has done, leading to a dramatic climax. Hovering over everything are the host, Charles (Pedro de Cordoba) and the ladies room attendant, Hetty (Gertrude Michael). Club Havana is a snappy and entertaining picture with music that could have benefited from another twenty or thirty minutes of character development and background. Using the same name as her character, Isabelita (which she also used for other pictures), Lita Baron [Jungle Jim] sings s nifty version of "Besame Mucho." The picture is smoothly directed by Ulmer and quite fast-paced. The performances are all good, with Michael [Flamingo Road] and an emotional Lindsay [Dangerous] taking top honors.

Verdict: Fun movie with nice music and some very good sequences. ***.

DETOUR

Companions in nightmare: Ann Savage and Tom Neal
DETOUR (1945). Director: Edgar G. Ulmer.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a talented pianist with Carnegie Hall aspirations who instead tickles the ivories in a cheap nightclub. His girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake), sings at the same club and is sick of her life and the way they are both going nowhere. Sue decides to postpone her marriage to Al and move to California, and a heartsick Al makes up his mind to follow her there by hitchhiking. Unfortunately, Al's life takes a sharp turn for the worse when he encounters two people on the highway: Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald of The Mysterious Mr. M), who offers him a lift but carries a lot of secrets; and Vera (Ann Savage), another hitchhiker who proves more than a match for any man. When Al first meets Vera he thinks she has "a beauty that's almost homely because it's so real." Vera wants to get the basically decent Al involved in a crooked scheme and blackmails him, and he can't see any way out ... Detour is a fascinating bit of low-budget film noir that moves swiftly and features two terrific lead performances (as well as an adept if small supporting cast). Neal is intense and anguished, a poor slob who only wants his gal and a decent life and doesn't know how to extricate himself from a difficult situation. Savage is so hard-boiled that she borders on caricature, but her performance is skillful and vicious, full of nuance, and works every step of the way, whether she's literally spitting out an insult at Al or purring at him in a way she imagines is sexy. Leo Ordody's score makes good use of the songs "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" (from Chopin) -- which is especially appropriate -- and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me." Detour is well-directed by Ulmer, who makes the most of a limited PRC budget, The film is almost constantly narrated by the hero, but somehow it is not that intrusive. Martin Goldsmith's screenplay is full of good dialogue and interesting observations. I doubt if either Neal [Bruce Gentry] or Savage [Apology for Murder] ever had another part as good.

Verdict: PRC's finest hour? ***.

EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS

EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS. Noah Isenberg. University of California Press; 2014.

This excellent biography of a well-known low-budget filmmaker posits the theory that Ulmer would have been one of the giants of the film industry if he had only had a chance with major studios, bigger budgets and stars, and been a more entrenched part of the Hollywood "scene" he had little use for. Born in the Czech Republic, Ulmer was raised in Vienna and had a much more cultural background than the average studio director. Ulmer was taken under the wing of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle, but was quickly thrown out of favor when he fell for the wife, Shirley, of Laemmle's nephew; Shirley and Ulmer were later married. Umer found himself persona non gratis in Hollywood. Instead of working for the more prestigious Universal or another major studio, Ulmer instead toiled for PRC, where he eventually directed the minor classic Detour, along with other less distinguished pictures. Ulmer did get to direct fading stars such as Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman and Victor Mature in Hannibal for other studios. Ulmer also helmed foreign productions, Jewish films, "race" (or all-Black) films, and the famous VD movie Damaged Lives as well as such notable pictures as The Black Cat, Ruthless, The Man from Planet X, Bluebeard, and others. A Filmmaker at the Margins is well-researched and well-written. Although it may not convince everyone of Ulmer's genius, it is a first-class biography.

Verdict: Does right by Ulmer. ***1/2.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

ANNA LUCASTA (1949)

Wickes, Goddard, Crawford, and a sleeping Homolka
ANNA LUCASTA (1949), Director: Irving Rapper.

The Lucasta family of Mayberry, PA. consists of daughter Stella (Mary Wickes); her husband, Frank (Broderick Crawford); her brother, Stanley (Whit Bissell); his wife, Katie (Gale Page); the mother, Theresa (Lisa Golm); and her husband, Joe (Oscar Homolka), a rather nasty alcoholic. When Frank discovers that Rudolf Strobel (William Bishop), the son of Joe's old friend, is coming to town to look for a wife and has money to burn, he and Stella come up with the idea of marrying him off to Stella's sister, Anna (Paulette Goddard), who was thrown out of the house because of a simple kiss with a date. Joe is violently importuned to go to Brooklyn to get his daughter back to Pennsylvania, so she leaves her sort-of boyfriend, sailor Danny (John Ireland), and comes back to the crowded suburban home. Just when things seem to be going well between her and Rudolf, whom she genuinely loves, Danny shows up, and her father shows his daughter just how utterly loathsome he can really be.

Anna Lucasta was based on a play of the same name that was originally about a Polish-American family, but which was turned into a play about a black family before its Broadway debut. (Playwright Philip Yordan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Arthur Laurents, was himself Polish-American). It was inspired by O'Neill's Anna Christie in many ways. (It also has some similarities to Miller's later A View from the Bridge.) A London production reinstated the Caucasian family and Paulette Goddard played Anna as she does in the film. Almost a decade after the movie version was released, there was a superior remake with a black cast starring Eartha Kitt.

This version is more of a comedy-drama than the subsequent film. Goddard offers an okay Hollywood-style performance but she can't compare to Kitt who really lives and feels the part. It is made very clear that Anna has become a streetwalker even in this earlier version. If anything, her father's probably incestuous feelings for his daughter seem more overt than in the remake.

The supporting performances are the film's saving grace. You wouldn't think that Broderick Crawford and Mary Wickes would make a convincing husband and wife, but they sure do. Oscar Homolka is outstanding as the father, and there is fine work from Golm as his long-suffering wife. Gale Page makes a perfect, understanding sister-in-law to Anna. Two smaller roles are also of note: Dennie Moore [These Glamour Girls] in a marvelous turn as the bar waitress Blanche; and Grayce Hampton doing a wonderful dignified drunk routine as the soused patron, Queenie.

Verdict: Imperfect if interestingly-cast study of a clearly dysfunctional family. **1/2,

THE BLOB

THE BLOB (1958). Director: Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.

An old man (Olin Howlin/Howland) finds a piece of meteor that has fallen near his cabin and discovers it is filled with a flesh-eating substance that quickly begins engulfing his arm. He is picked up off the roadway by two "teens:" Steve (Steve McQueen of The Towering Inferno); and his kind of drippy date, Jane (Aneta Corsaut of The Toolbox Murders), who initially thinks he's just a masher. Alerted to the danger represented by the blob, they try to warn the police and the town as the creature floats through suburbia and finally enters a movie theater during its midnight matinee. The Blob isn't well-directed and isn't the fright classic it could have been, but it has enough creepy moments and tense sequences, such as a bit with a meat locker and the climax in a diner completely covered by the blob, to make an effective enough monster movie. The two leads offer more than competent performances, although you might not have guessed that major stardom was in the cards for McQueen. The Blob itself seems to be brought to life in certain sequences with stop-motion, and its a neat touch how it often transforms into a kind of slithering tongue or powerful club. Slow-paced for the most part, this is a Teen Thriller decked out in widescreen and TechniColor. A crazy scene has a doctor persistently asking Steve what's wrong with the old man's arm instead of simply taking off the jacket the arm is wrapped in and seeing for himself. This was remade thirty years later but it was not that big an improvement. Followed by Beware! The Blob. This was undoubtedly inspired by The Creeping Unknown even as it influenced Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. Yeaworth also directed 4D Man; he made few films. For more on this and other monster movies see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Not bad, but not nearly as much fun as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. ***.

BEWARE! THE BLOB

Gwynne Gilford and Robert Walker Jr. 
BEWARE! THE BLOB (aka Son of Blob/1972). Director: Larry Hagman.

Chester Hargis (Godfrey Cambridge) brings home a frozen specimen that defrosts and turns into the Blob, and it rapidly devours the residents of a small town, including bowlers and ice skaters. Beware! The Blob could have been a perfectly good sequel to The Blob if the approach had been different. Larry Hagman, who was in-between I Dream of Jeannie and his career-reviving role on Dallas, decided to turn this into a free-wheeling borderline parody despite the fact that the whole premise already has black comedy aspects to begin with. So Hagman cast some friends and character actors and guest-stars -- such as Carol Lynley, Burgess Meredith, and Shelley Berman -- all of whom seem to be having fun, but not one of whom is actually funny. Most of the death scenes are also played for laughs. The shame of it is that the script is workable and there's genuine suspense in the situation at the climax, with hero Bobby (Robert Walker Jr.) trying to freeze the monster while the cops outside start to set fire to the building. Walker and Gwynne Gilford [Fade to Black] as his girlfriend, Lisa, wisely play their roles straight and are all the more effective for it -- there's also a good scene when their car is engulfed by the creature. The special effects are, if anything, even more low-tech than in the original. Veteran Richard Webb [The Invisible Monster] plays Sheriff Jones and Cindy Williams is a party guest who has one excruciating scene with a guy singing and playing guitar. Hagman directed a few television episodes, but mercifully this is the only film he ever helmed.

Verdict: Almost makes the original look like a masterpiece. *1/2.

FINGERS AT THE WINDOW

Laraine Day and Lew Ayres
FINGERS AT THE WINDOW (1942). Director: Charles Lederer.

In Chicago a series of seemingly unrelated individuals are slaughtered by an ax, and each time the killer is a different person. Actor Oliver Duffy (Lew Ayres) sees Edwina Brown (Laraine Day) being followed one night and comes to her rescue, determining that someone is definitely out to get her. Edwina, who doesn't seem very bright, scarcely seems to understand that someone wants to behead her. As the police focus in on Oliver himself as the killer, he tries to pin down the true architect behind the gruesome murders. If there is one major problem with Fingers at the Window, which has a splendid premise, it's the dopey character of Edwina, who seems half-demented throughout most of the movie. We are also clued in as to the identity of the mastermind very early on, although it must be said that for once he is given a motive that makes absolutely perfect sense. The conclusion is also suspenseful. Ayres [Johnny Belinda] and Day [And One Was Beautiful] are too "cutesy" by far, and the picture is stolen by an excellent Basil Rathbone [The Black Sleep] as Dr. Santelle.

Verdict: Creepy idea sort of frittered away but it has its good points and a great Rathbone. **1/2.

TOUGH KID: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF FRANKIE DARRO

TOUGH KID: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF FRANKIE DARRO. Lulu; 2008.

This look into the life and career of actor Frankie Darro is a labor or love for author John Gloske, who knew the man in his final years when the author was just a star-struck youngster. Darro's father pushed his son into show business, but didn't set aside any of the boy's income for a rainy day. Frankie had a successful career in silent films as a child star, and because of his short stature remained a "juvenile" well into adulthood. The book goes into Darro's cliffhanger serials such as Burn 'Em Up Barnes and The Phantom Empire; his team-ups with Kane Richmond [Anything for a Thrill] and Mantan Moreland [The Gang's All Here]; his starring role in Wild Boys of the Road for William Wellman, who always admired the man's talent; his three marriages; and his descent into poverty row productions and alcoholism. The jobs got scarcer and Darro drank more than ever, and even ruined one possible opportunity for a TV interview show by showing up soused to the gills. He guest-starred on numerous TV shows, including a memorable part on Peter Gunn; his two Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes were "I Can Take Care of Myself" and "Ten O'Clock Tiger." Darro also appeared in a series of "Teen Agers" films, and some of the Bowery Boys programmers, and played more jockeys than you can shake a stick at. Darro was hired to move around inside Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet but was fired for drunkenness when in truth the hot and heavy outfit would have been difficult for anyone to tolerate. In his later years, Darro looked years older than he actually was due to his alcohol consumption. The sad thing about Darro is that he was genuinely talented, which was noted by critic after critic no matter what kind of production he was in. Tough Kid gets credit for being very well-researched, as the author digs up much more information on Darro (some of which, of course, came from Darro himself) than you might expect for a C-list actor. If the book ever has a new edition, however, careful proof-reading is a must. With many personal photographs and a complete filmography.

Verdict: Good, informative, enthusiastic, sometimes fascinating, and ultimately moving look at the often bizarre life and career of Frankie Darro. ***.

BURY ME DEAD

June Lockhart and Hugh Beaumont
BURY ME DEAD (1947), Director: Bernard Vorhaus.

"I'm sorry you're alive -- I wish you were dead."

Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart) is supposedly burned to death in a barn fire, but she shows up alive and well at her own funeral. Now she and her husband, Rod (Mark Daniels), have to figure out which woman's body is actually buried in Barbara's grave, and whether it was Barbara or this unknown woman who was the killer's target. Suspects include Barbara's neurotic and hateful sister, Rusty (Cathy O'Donnell); Barbara's boxing paramour George (Greg McClure); Rod's girlfriend, Helen (Sonia Darrin); Barbara's lawyer, Michael (Hugh Beaumont); or even the butler (Milton Parsons). Bury Me Dead is one of PRC's better movies, with a neat premise, plenty of plot twists, and interesting characters and performances. The main problem with the movie is that it mixes far too much foolish domestic comedy in with the suspense. Lockhart makes a good heroine, and Mark Daniels [The Invisible Avenger], a handsome and pleasant leading man with charm to spare, deserved a much bigger career. Cathy O'Donnell [Ben-Hur] certainly makes her mark as the nearly-demented Rusty, and Hugh Beaumont's work is on the money as well. McClure [Sky Liner] is fine as the boxer who seems at least one bulb short of a chandelier. The picture consists mostly of flashbacks, and there's a brief if fairly exciting "cat fight" between Lockhart and Darrin. Vorhaus also directed So Young, So Bad with Paul Henreid.

Verdict: PRC nearly presents a real winner. ***.

THE BLACK RAVEN

Old pros: Charles Middleton; George Zucco
THE BLACK RAVEN (1943). Director: Sam Newfield.

"He's suffering from rabid delusions aggravated by a moronic mentality." -- Amos.

Amos Bradford (George Zucco), once known as the criminal the Raven, now runs an inn called The Black Raven. On a dark and stormy night he gets a variety of guests, many of whom have some ulterior purpose. Mousy Horace (Byron Foulger) is running away with $50,000 in embezzled money. Winfield (Robert Middlemass) is a crooked political boss whose daughter, Lee (Wanda McKay), wants to run off with the man she loves, Alan (Robert Livingstone of Borrowed Wives). Mike Bardoni (Noel Madison) is another crook, and Whitey Cole (I. Stanford Jolley) is an escaped con who's out to get vengeance on Amos. When someone gets murdered -- the first death of several -- the Sheriff ("Charlie" Middleton) is called in and matches wits with the acerbic Amos. While it's fun watching Zucco and Middleton working together, The Black Raven is a forgettable picture. Glenn Strange, who played Frankenstein, is cast as the half-wit handyman Andy, and is fine. Zucco [Fog Island], Middleton [Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise] and Foulger are also excellent.

Verdict: Another cheap PRC timepasser. **.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

HAPPY HALLOWEEN HORRORS!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN HORRORS!

We've got a new crop of horror movies of all types and from different decades on tap this week on GREAT OLD MOVIES. Creepy old house thrillers, stalker movies, human-animal transformations, Satanism and paganism, human sacrifices, man-eating hogs, and terror on ebook.

Enjoy!

NIGHT MONSTER

"It is extremely bad form to gossip about your employers!"
NIGHT MONSTER (1942). Director: Ford Beebe.

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is a crippled recluse on an old estate with a sister, Margaret (Fay Helm of Captive Wild Woman), who thinks she's crazy; a housekeeper, Sarah (Doris Lloyd) who acts like she owns the place; a house guest named Agor Singh (Nils Asther of Storm at Daybreak), who can supposedly teleport old bones from graves into the living room; and a leering chauffeur, Laurie (Leif Erickson), who makes a pass at any pretty woman who walks by. Two household staff members include maid Milly (Janet Shaw), who comes to a bad end; and the butler Rolf (Bela Lugosi), who observes and smirks with equal finesse. Into this hot bed come the three doctors who were unable to prevent Ingston's paralysis -- King (Lionel Atwill), Timmons (Frank Reicher), and Phipps (Francis Pierlot) -- as well as the lady psychiatrist Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey) who has come in response to Margaret's call for help. Then the murders begin ... Night Monster is absurd and has some ridiculous moments, but while it has some humor, it can't be accused of the awful "comedy relief" that cheapens all too many of these old horror films. Although he is top-billed, Lugosi has only a supporting part, but manages to tower over everyone in spite of it. Don Porter plays a family friend who teams up with Lynn to find out who is responsible for the series of deaths. There are clever aspects to the story, and a rather creepy finale. All of the actors are on top of things. Ford Beebe was famous for directing cliffhanger serials, but he also does a good job with this moody suspense flick. Hervey and Lloyd were both in Motive for Revenge.

Verdict: At times the film threatens to fall apart, but it has suspense, good performances, and several interesting sequences. ***.

THE CAT GIRL

Barbara Shelley
THE CAT GIRL (aka Cat Girl/1957). Director: Alfred Shaughnessy.

Leonora Johnson (Barbara Shelley) is married to the unfaithful Richard (Jack May), but is secretly in love with former paramour, Dr. Brian Marlow (Robert Ayres of Battle Beneath the Earth), who is now married to Dorothy (Kay Callard of The Flying Scot). If that weren't enough of a mess, Leonora's crazy uncle (Ernest Milton), who keeps a leopard in the house, has convinced his niece that she is under a family curse and can turn into a leopard, or that she has a bond with it that can cause it -- or her -- to kill. Who the hell knows? In any case, when Brian tries to convince Leonora that she isn't really crazy and isn't growing claws, she decides it would be best to rid the world of her rival, Dorothy. This confusing mish mosh is a blatant rip off of Cat People, and while it's all overwrought and entertaining in a modest fashion, its chief strength is an excellent, intense performance by Barbara Shelley [The Gorgon] as the highly unlikable Leonora. Lily Kann is also effective as the uncle's housekeeper, Anna, and the various supporting performances are adept. But the movie is not really worth much in the long run.

Verdict: A monster movie with a most disappointing "monster." **.