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

Thursday, December 7, 2017


Ben Gazzara and Fredric March
THE YOUNG DOCTORS (1961). Director: Phil Karlson.

Dr. Joseph Pearson (Fredric March) is an experienced pathologist who finds himself with a new, younger colleague, Dr. David Coleman (Ben Gazzara). David sees a lot that's wrong with the operation in the hospital, but Pearson tells him that he has tried to do the things he suggests but is always told it costs too much money. Experienced, but hopelessly set in his ways, Joseph scoffs at the thought of a certain blood test for a pregnant woman that David feels is crucial, and he prevents the test from being made. Even as this is going on, David discovers that a nurse he is falling for, Cathy (Ina Balin) may face the loss of a leg due to bone cancer. While some of the medical information in The Young Doctors has to be taken with a grain of salt due to advances in medicine over the past fifty years, the picture works on an emotional and dramatic level and is not just a schlocky soap opera like many of the subsequent doctor movies that were made afterward. March is excellent, although he perhaps makes some odd choices in how he plays some of the final sequences. Gazzara [A Rage to Live] is also quite good, although he's never what you could call a charm boy in his romantic scenes, but Ina Balin [The Patsy] is as lovely and efficient as ever as nurse Cathy. Another fine performance is from Eddie Albert, doing some of the best work of his career as another doctor, particularly in a tense, beautifully-done sequence when he  operates on a baby that nearly dies. There's also surprisingly good work from Dick Clark as yet another doctor who is the father of said baby, and Aline MacMahon [Babbitt] scores as Dr. Lucy Grainger, who ministers to Cathy. Elmer Bernstein has contributed a nice score as well. Based on "The Final Diagnosis" by Arthur Hailey. The same year that this popular film was released came the debut of two famous TV medical dramas, Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey.

Verdict: Very absorbing drama with several expert performances and decided emotional impact. ***1/2.


Albert Finney and Susan Dey
LOOKER (1981). Written and directed by Michael Crichton.

Cosmetic surgeon Larry Roberts (Albert Finney) does work on several beautiful women who obsess over certain "imperfections." You would think that he would wonder where these women got the exact-to-the-centimeter measurements of their alleged flaws, but Roberts only worries about it after they start being murdered. The murders are traced back to a sinister TV test group, Digital Matrix -- although it is never really explained why the women are murdered -- who plan to use computer-generated images to replace real people not just in commercials but in political ads -- or something like that. They have also invented a gun that freezes people in their tracks so to them it appears as if time has passed by without their being aware of it. While the technological stuff is not without interest  -- although by now it's rather dated -- Looker is still an astonishingly dull movie despite all the running around. There's one decent, fairly suspenseful scene in which Larry and his surviving patient, Cindy (Susan Dey), break into a lab, but the chase sequences which make up most of the movie aren't that exciting and Finney [Shoot the Moon] looks ridiculous playing action hero, especially when he dresses up like a cop  -- he's wasted in the movie anyway. Dey is appealing enough, and James Coburn and Leigh Taylor-Long are appropriately reptilian as the couple who run Digital Matrix, but -- typical for Crichton -- they aren't given actual characters to play. Darryl Hickman [The Tingler] plays Larry's associate, Jim, and looks good with a beard. Michael Crichton's attempt to have himself another hit like Westworld didn't work this time. Some of the pretty women who play Larry's patients can't act to save their lives -- literally.

Verdict: Not worth a "look." *1/2.


MARCELLO MASTROIANNI: HIS LIFE AND ART. Donald Dewey. Birch Lane/Carol; 1993.

In this absorbing and well-written bio and career study of the actor, there are few first-person interviews, but Dewey makes up for this with an intensive look at Mastroianni's work and its context in the changing political and sexual landscape of Italy. Like many actors, it comes across that there wasn't much to Mastroianni beyond being an actor, but considering his talent and achievements that's more than enough. Mastroianni's often conflicting opinions on movies, the thespian profession, women, co-stars, politics and religion are prodigiously quoted (often too much so), but it is made clear that the actor had little use for the religious dogma of, say, Italian censors. Mastroianni was married to the same woman for many years but had numerous affairs, most famously with Catherine Deneuve. The book also goes into his work and relationships with such famous directors as Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio de Sica, Mastroianni hated being seen as the Latin Lover, but he happened to be quite good-looking and that was that. It's interesting that the actor became internationally famous despite the fact that he only appeared in one full-fledged American production, and -- frustratingly -- most of his films are unseen and unavailable in the U.S. However, his fine work in such films as La dolce vita and Le Notti bianchi are evidenced on DVD. It's strange that the photos of the actor used for the front and back covers are not flattering. Mastroianni died at 72 three years after this book was published.

Verdict: Exhaustive look at a fine Italian actor. ***1/2.


Allen Jenkins, Virginia Sale, Pamela Blake, Tom Neal
THE HAT BOX MYSTERY (1947). Director: Lambert Hillyer.

Russ Ashton (Tom Neal of Detour) isn't doing too well as a private investigator, but he has an assistant-fiancee named Susan (Pamela Blake of Highway 13) and another associate named 'Harvard" (Allen Jenkins). The three of them are kept in hamburgers by Harvard's restaurant-owning girlfriend, Veronica (Virginia Sale of Those We Love), who also loans Russ money to go to Washington on a case. Meanwhile Susan takes an assignment herself, to photograph a straying wife as she exits a building for her husband (Leonard Penn) to use in a divorce case. The husband supposedly conceals a camera in a hat box for Susan to use, but she winds up shooting the woman for real -- as it's actually a gun that is hidden in the hat box! Susan finds herself in pretty hot water with the police, while the "husband" disappears ... The Hat Box Mystery is mediocre filler with a mystery that poses no threat to Agatha Christie but it does benefit from the enthusiastic playing of the main quartet of actors -- Sale is especially appealing in this.

Verdict: At least it's only 44 minutes long! **.


Richard Denning and Marie Windsor
DOUBLE DEAL (1950). Director: Abby Berlin.

Buzz Doyle (Richard Denning), a new arrival in town, almost immediately winds up embroiled with two warring women. Terry (Marie Windsor) wants Buzz to work with her and her friend Reno (Carleton Young) on an oil well that she hopes will turn into a gusher. Meanwhile, Reno's sister, Lily (Fay Baker), who hates her brother because she feels he was responsible for her lover's death, tries to lure Buzz over to her side and work against the others. Then there's a murder or two, and the surprise unveiling of the killer. Double Deal is distinctly minor, but it features some likable players, and there's especially zesty work from Baker [The Star], Taylor Holmes [Caged] as the drunken if helpful, "Corpus" and James Griffith [The Amazing Transparent Man] as the slimy Walter Karnes, Lily's plaything. Thomas Browne Henry plays the cop on the case.

Verdict: Ho hum meller that doesn't even have a decent "cat fight" between the ladies. **.


Barbara Bach and Jean Sorel
SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS (aka La corta notte delle bambole di vetro/1971). Director: Aldo Lado.

In Prague  journalist Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) discovers that his fiancee, Mira (Barbara Bach of The Spy Who Loved Me), has gone missing. He enlists the aid of his boss, Jessica (Ingrid Thulin), who also has a yen for the handsome reporter. The police seem to think Mira has simply gone off on her own despite the fact that her clothing and possessions are still in her apartment. Most of the story is told in flashback from the bizarre pov of Moore, who is supposedly found dead and put in a morgue, where we can hear his thoughts but he is unable to communicate that he is still alive. (This is reminiscent of a famous Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode with Joseph Cotten.) That is really the only interesting element of this dull and confusing movie that features an inexplicable scene when Moore's friends come to witness his ... well, that would be telling. Sorel [Sandra] and Thulin [Cries and Whispers] both deserved much better assignments than crap like this. Ennio Morricone's eerie musical score is much better than the picture deserves. You have to see the orgy of elderly nudists to believe it! This could have used some gruesome murder scenes. An Italian-West German-Yugoslavian co-production, which tells you something.

Verdict: A real stink bomb. *1/2.


Lawyer and client: Brooke Shields and Scott Glenn
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (2005 telefilm/mini-series). Director: Armand Mastroianni.

Defense attorney Betsy Tannenbaum (Brooke Shields of Communion) receives a large retainer from wealthy developer Martin Darius (Scott Glenn), who tells her he may at sometime be needing her services. He sure does -- when he's arrested for the serial murders of several women. Prosecutor Alan Page (Lou Diamond Phillips) is contacted by a lady cop named Nancy Gordon (Marilu Henner) who tells him that Darius, under another name,  managed to get away with several murders in another town ten years earlier -- his own wife and child were among the victims. Apparently there was a cover up in the other case, and Betsy must not only learn what happened a decade earlier, but figure out if her client is guilty of these new murders as well as the older ones. Based on an absorbing bestseller by Phillip Margolin, Gone But Not Forgotten is a suspenseful and entertaining telefilm, and the satisfying ending actually improves upon the novel. Shields makes a more than capable leading lady. Glenn underplays a bit too much to come off like the dynamic figure of the book, but the other performances are good, especially Robin Riker in the supporting role of a reporter doing a story on Betsy. Mastroianni also directed Grave Misconduct.

Verdict: Creepy cable movie with interesting, if far-fetched, twists. ***.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Two faces of Woody Allen


Woody Allen turns eighty-one on December 1st, 2017.

Love 'im or hate 'im, he has been an influential filmmaker for many years, and has come out with a great many movies, some wonderful, some awful, some in-between. He has had an interesting, some would say scandalous, personal life, mostly centered around his relationship with significant other Mia Farrow (who he was not married to), and her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

Whatever one's thoughts about that bizarre triangle, this week Great Old Movies looks at a slew of Woody Allen movies, from near-masterpieces like Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo to stink bombs like Stardust Memories to the merely mediocre like Bullets Over Broadway and Zelig. We also look at a recent biography of the man.

Whatever his flaws as a man and a filmmaker, Woody Allan was rarely if ever boring.

You can read posts of Allen's films that have been reviewed on this blog in previous months by using the search bar above.


Woody Allen realizes what a lousy picture he's made
STARDUST MEMORIES (1980). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

Filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen), a Woody Allen-clone, goes to a retrospective of his work at the Stardust Hotel and encounters manic fans while he contemplates his past and several of the women he has loved or wants to love. These include actress Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling of 45 Years); French Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault of Swann in Love), who wants to marry him; and Daisy (Jessica Harper of Suspiria), a violinist with issues. Stardust Memories is Allen working in a Fellini-esque mode (with a bit of Bergman thrown in) and coming up so short that it's laughable. Not only is Allen no Fellini, but Stardust Memories is a rarity among Allen films -- it's criminally boring. There's no real plot to the movie -- and while there are the usual stand-up quips and interesting observations -- the dream sequences are tiresome and the real-life sequences aren't much better. There's limited fun in picking out which actor is playing which real-life person in Allen's life. If Allen thinks that peopling his movie with interesting faces will turn him into Fellini, he's sadly mistaken. Not only is this possibly the worst of Allen's films, it's one of the worst movies ever made. A self-indulgent mess.

Verdict: A tedious embarrassment for all concerned. *.


Zelig is examined by doctors
ZELIG (1983). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"[Freud] and I broke up over penis envy. He thought it should be limited to women. -- Zelig.

This fake documentary looks at the life of weird Leonard Zelig, who takes on not only the personality of whoever he's with but even the physical appearance, becoming fat if he's with an obese person, and turning into a "Negro" if he's with a black man, and so on. Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) becomes his chief doctor and eventually begins a relationship with him, but just when he seems cured, it turns out that he's been rather busy while he was in other personalities, and the public affection for him begins to disappear ... Zelig is too long even at just 80 minutes, as we're asked to enjoy this stunt movie long after the basic premise has been sufficiently explored. The film mixes actual file footage with recreated 1920's scenes or cleverly inserts Allen into real-life newsreels. As usual, there are some funny lines and good performances, and there are those who will claim this is a masterpiece, but to me the movie is distinctly minor.

Verdict: Woody Allen's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. **1/2.


Woody Allen as Danny Rose
BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

A group of well-known comics sit around and talk about the past, and one of them (Sandy Baron) tells a long story about the theatrical agent, Danny Rose (Woody Allen), which comprises most of the film. Danny is a struggling agent who is now pinning his hopes on one client, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who had one hit record in the fifties and has been trying to make a comeback ever since. Things are finally going Lou's way, thanks to Danny, but there are complications. The very much married Lou has fallen in love with his mistress, Tina (Mia Farrow), and Tina is coveted by another man whose gangster brothers mistake Danny for her boyfriend. But there's an even worse betrayal in store for Danny. Broadway Danny Rose is one of Allen's best films, in which he portrays one of his most sympathetic characters, a decent man who cares perhaps more about his clients than he should and has a good heart. Mia Farrow and Forte are also right on the money in their portrayals of a hard-boiled woman who develops a conscience, and a vain man who gets a second chance and to Hell with everyone else. Allen's use of gangsters in his movies can be, as I've noted, tiresome, but that doesn't seem to be a problem in this picture. There are numerous fine supporting performances in the movie, but I especially liked Herb Reynolds as Barney Dunn, one of the world's worst ventriloquists. This was Forte's first and only film (he also had two television appearances, playing himself on Billions) and he's quite good -- he was basically a lounge singer and piano player when he was discovered by Allen; like Lou, he had one recording yeas in the past.

Verdict: A lovely movie. ***1/2.


Jeff Daniels and Mia Farrow
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985). Writer/director: Woody Allen.

"In New Jersey, anything can happen."

In a dreary small town in 1935, Cecelia (Mia Farrow) has an unhappy marriage with the often out-of-work Monk (Danny Aiello of City Hall). Cecelia seeks refuge in the movies, where she especially loves a film called The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the lead character, Tom Baxter, played by actor Gil Shepherd (Jeff Daniels). In an astonishing turn of events, "Tom Baxter" walks right off the screen and into the real world, leaving the other actors/characters in the movie standing around wringing their hands. "How many times is a man so taken with a woman that he leaves the movie just to meet her," muses Tom. Just as Cecelia, who begins a romance with the charming Tom, is trying to make sense of all this, the real Gil Shepherd, who has heard what's happened, shows up in town ... This movie and its look at how influential movies can be on real life and the necessary escape they offer may not work for everyone, but I found it charming, absorbing, and ultimately moving. The actors offer sensitive and dead-on portrayals. Van Johnson, Edward Herrmann, Zoe Cladwell, and Milo O'Shea, among others, appear in the film-within-a-film.

Verdict: Not perfect perhaps, but it remains one of Allen's most likable movies. ***.


Farrow, Hershey, and Weist
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"I particularly love the mother, just a boozy old flirt with a filthy mouth." --Hannah's mother basically talking about herself.

Hannah (Mia Farrow) has a happy life with her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). but she's unaware that he has fallen in love with her free-spirited sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey of Black Swan). As Lee and Elliot begin a guilt-wracked affair, Hannah's other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), a struggling actress, starts a catering business with her friend, April (Carrie Fisher), and the two both fall for married architect, David (Sam Waterston). Hannah's ex-husband, Mickey (Woody Allen) is drawn to Holly years after they had a disastrous first date. Like most of Allen'\s films, Hannah and Her Sisters is quite entertaining, with some fine acting from virtually the entire cast, but Allen himself -- who comes off like a stand-up comic sprouting lines, many of which are admittedly amusing -- doesn't really fit that neatly into the picture. I\m not sufficiently interested in exploring Allen's psyche to delve into any so-called deep meanings in his movies, but Hannah is engaging enough but no real masterpiece, despite its popularity. The business with Mickey thinking he may have a brain tumor is tasteless. As usual, many of the characters, admirably cultured, do what's expedient, not necessarily what's right. Max von Sydow shows up briefly as an older man that Lee discards once things heat up with Elliot, and Maureen O'Sullivan [Tarzan Escapes], Mia Farrow's mother in real life, plays Hannah's mother, with Lloyd Nolan [Portrait in Black] as her husband. Julie Kavner, who has a small role as a co-worker of Mickey's, does the same tiresome shtick she's been doing since she played Rhoda's sister on TV.

Verdict: Interesting and fun, but also kind of minor all told. **1/2.


Dianne Weist and the ensemble 
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994). Director/co-writer: Woody Allen.

"I just pity any poor folk who have to pay to see this play."

In order to get his play mounted on Broadway, David Shayne (John Cusack of City Hall) allows in an inappropriate cast member, Olive (Jennifer Tilly of Seed of Chucky), because her mobster boyfriend, Nick (Joe Viterelli), decides to back the show. Nick assigns a bodyguard to Olive, a hit man named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who starts making impromptu critiques of the play .. only his criticisms are valid. Before long it's a question of who is the true artist behind the show. But what can one do about the screeching and awful Olive? Woody Allen does not appear in Bullets Over Broadway -- which is a plus or minus depending on how you look at it -- and it's another of Allen's pastiche films inspired by superior forties movies with a "modern"-type sensibility. It's another in a long line of movies that present sympathetic hit men, for one thing, while also showing him committing several murders. The movie takes place during the roaring twenties but it doesn't have much period atmosphere. Dianne Wiest won a supporting actress Oscar for her role of the diva Helen Sinclair, but while she is good, it's hard not to notice that she's simply trading off of decades of previous actresses who have played affected, breathless theater and movie stars; nothing new here. John Cusack is fine, although this is an actor who through no fault of his own is just hopelessly bland no matter what he's in. Tracey Ullman [Into the Woods] has a nice turn as an ever-laughing cast member who always carries her little dog with her, and Jack Warden is good as David's agent, but no one else is especially impressive, except perhaps Annie Joe Edwards, who is snappy as Olive's maid, Venus, but whom Allen doesn't allow to become a character in her own right. The movie is fairly entertaining and has some good twists and humor, but it's also kind of stupid, with the whole notion of a sensitive, artistic hit man being a little too precious for this critic to swallow. Allen may have been thinking of himself when he has Rob Reiner say "An artist creates his own moral universe." For those who hate Jennifer Tilly's voice and think she's a freak of nature, you'll especially enjoy one scene that comes late in the movie. To be fair, Tilly's performance is good even if she herself is a little flesh-crawling.

Verdict: The actors seem to be having more fun than the audience. **1/2.


Jesse Eisenberg
CAFE SOCIETY (2016). Writer/director: Woody Allen.

"First a murderer, then a Christian -- what did I do to deserve this?" -- Rose.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from Brooklyn to try his luck in 1930's Los Angeles, where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an agent. Bobby becomes friends with Phil's secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), unaware that she is his uncle's mistress. Later Bobby opens up a New York nightclub with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll of Dark Places). But can Bobby outrun his heart and Ben the law? Cafe Society is a pleasant Woody Allen movie without Allen in the cast. Wisely recognizing that he could no longer play the naive young man starting out in life, Allen cast appealing Jesse Eisenberg as his surrogate, and it was a smart choice. You can just hear Allen saying the dialogue in his inimitable way as we watch Eisenberg play his part, and play it well, although the better-looking man plays the real, shrewd Allen more than his usual nebbish on-screen persona -- another wise choice. The gangster stuff is as tiresome as it generally is in Allen's movies, but there are some fine performances, especially from Jeanne Berlin {The Heartbreak Kid] as Mother Rose and Ken Stott as her husband. The picture is handsomely produced, with Vittorio Storaro's cinematography especially breath-taking. Cafe Society is a nice enough picture, but it's still a minor effort with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion and a protagonist who can be annoying at times. The cast-off spouse of one character is completely forgotten, which is pretty typical of Allen since his split from Mia Farrow and even before. Eisenberg is certainly better in this than he was in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Storaro\s exquisite work was also seen in such films as Exorcist: The Beginning.

Verdict: Great to look at, with a highly pleasant lead actor, but no great shakes when all is said and done. **1/2.


WOODY: THE BIOGRAPHY. David Evanier. St. Martin's; 2015.

This "biography" of filmmaker, comic and actor Woody Allen is much more of a rumination on the man than a full bio, although Evanier does his best to hit all the important bases. The author doesn't really start to get into his subject's life story until a quarter of the way into the book, and focuses on certain key films while virtually ignoring many others. In more or less chronological order he also looks at Allen's relationships with wives, girlfriends, and children -- Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and others --  and ends up the book with a long dissection of the sordid Woody-Mia Farrow mess. clearly coming down on Allen's side. Evanier doesn't necessarily gloss over Allen's failings as both filmmaker and man (he deservedly hates Stardust Memories, for instance, as well as Interiors, and isn't blind to Allen's character flaws) but the book does function primarily as a defense of some of Allen's actions and especially of Mia Farrow's charges of child molestation. (We must remember that his lover Soon-Yi, was an adult at the time their affair began, but still one has to wonder at the inappropriateness, vulgar audacity, and staggering lack of sensitivity that led to Allen having a relationship with his girlfriend's daughter, who was also the sister of his own children. Soon-Yi's motivations for taking up with a comparatively homely middle-aged but famous and wealthy man I'll leave to others to ponder). Woody: The Biography has some interviews with people who know and worked with Allen, and an interview with Dick Cavett is reproduced in its entirety but functions more as padding than anything else. Although Allen did not cooperate with the book as such, he did agree to answer some of Evanier's questions via email, but these don't seem to have provided that much enlightenment.

Verdict: Interesting read, but only an average bio. ***.

Thursday, November 23, 2017



This week Great Old Movies takes a look at some of the memorable and not-so-memorable made-for-TV movies of the 1970's. It was in the late sixties that the networks started producing films directly for the television market (some of these were released as theatrical features overseas) and eventually they began showing them on a regular basis, such as on ABC's "Movie of the Week." These films tended to be in the thriller-mystery-suspense genre, with occasional horror and supernatural stories as well, but there were exceptions. They featured up and coming players, TV stars who were between gigs on their own series, and older actors who found employment on TV and not for the movie studios.

Some of these flicks were pretty bad, like The Cat Creature (although it did feature Gale Sondergaard!), and others, such as A Cold Night's Death, were quite memorable. One gets the impression that every other TV flick starred Kate Jackson or was directed by Curtis Harrington although this is probably not the case!.


I also want to call your attention to an exhibition on the wonderful classic fantasy film Mighty Joe Young put together by my friend Harry Heuser. You can read about the exhibition here. And below is the poster for the event. If you happen to be in Wales from now until February 2nd 2018, check it out!


Anthony Perkins
HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN (1970 telefilm). Director: Curtis Harrington. Executive producer: Aaron Spelling.

Legally blind, if only psychosomatically, Allan (Anthony Perkins) is released from an institution and comes back to the house where he lived with his sister, Katherine (Julie Harris). Allan was unable to save his father when fire broke out in their home, and Katherine was disfigured during a rescue attempt. Needing money, Katherine takes in a mysterious boarder who rarely speaks and whom Allan can hardly see. He is convinced that there is something sinister about this stranger, and that he is trying to kill him. Allan's former fiancee and neighbor, Olive (Joan Hackett of Dead of Night), does her best to convince him that his worries are all in his head. But Olive may have no idea what Allan is really dealing with. How Awful About Allan certainly has an intriguing premise (taken from a novel by Henry Farrell, who also did the teleplay), and the cast is very interesting, but the developments, besides being psychologically dubious, are not as compelling as one might have hoped for. Giving an unremarkable, even disinterested, performance, Perkins [Pretty Poison] makes Allan completely unsympathetic, and the best work comes from Harris and Hackett -- the former, however, being too true to her character, does little to keep the audience from figuring out the final revelation. Producer Spelling and author Farrell also teamed up for The House That Would Not Die with Barbara Stanwyck the same year.

Verdict: It's understandable why this flick is pretty much forgotten. **.


Elizabeth Ashely gets a call
WHEN MICHAEL CALLS (1972 telefilm). Director: Philip Leacock. An ABC Movie of the Week.

Helen Connelly (Elizabeth Ashley of The Carpetbaggers) begins getting phone calls from a boy who claims he is her nephew, Michael -- unfortunately Michael died in a blizzard fifteen years before. Helen tries to dismiss the phone calla and what they may signify from her mind, but then some of her friends and acquaintances wind up dying in mysterious ways. Did Michael somehow survive and is he out for revenge, or is someone else carrying out a grudge plot against the townspeople? Based on a novel by John Farris, When Michael Calls is minor but suspenseful and well acted, with good performances from Ashley, Ben Gazzara [Bloodline] as her concerned ex-husband, and especially Michael Douglas [The China Syndrome] as Michael's older brother. John Farris turned to directing the same year for Dear Dead Delilah with Agnes Moorehead.

Verdict: Holds the attention. **1/2.


Robert Culp and Eli Wallach
A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH (1973 telefilm). Director: Jerrold Freedman.

A man named Vogel is conducting high altitude tests on primates for the space program at the Tower Mountain research station. When he begins sending messages that appear to be gibberish, Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) and Robert Jones (Robert Culp) -- accompanied by another test chimp -- are sent to investigate. They find Vogel frozen to death with a look of horror on his face, but they can't understand how he wound up in this condition when he could have easily gotten out of the frigid room. Other strange things begin to happen, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia among the two arguing men. Jones seems to have figured out what may be going on, but Enari can't accept it, and it's a question of just who is experimenting on whom. A Cold Night's Death is a very memorable telefilm with two excellent performances by Wallach [The Hoax] and Culp [Calendar Girl Murders] and a decided feeling of claustrophobia and creepiness. Christopher Knopf, who co-wrote the screenplay for 20 Million Miles to Earth, has fashioned a unique story that is both suspenseful and harrowing, and it also has a very clever and darkly amusing wind-up. Freedman, whose directorial assignments were mostly for television, does a good job building tension. Michael C. Gwynne has a small part as a helicopter pilot at the beginning and is effective.

Verdict: Monkey see, monkey do. ***1/2.


Gale Sondergaard and Meredith Baxter
THE CAT CREATURE (1973 telefilm). Director: Curtis Harrington.

Joe Sung (Keye Luke) steals a cat-medallion from a recently opened Egyptian casket, and begins a chain of deaths from a clawed creature that counts him among its victims. The trail leads to Hester Black (Gale Sondergaard), a shady lady who runs an occult shop. Lt March (Stuart Whitman of Eaten Alive), aided by egyptologist Roger Edmonds (David Hedison of The Lost World), investigates the case, which also embroils Hester's new assistant, Rena Carter (Meredith Baxter). While it's fun at first seeing such veteran actors as Kent Smith [Cat People], John Carradine, Luke, Milton Parsons (as a coroner, naturally), and especially an excellent and criminally wasted Sondergaard [The Letter], The Cat Creature is pretty bad, with one of Robert Bloch's least inspired scripts. Tabbie cats are not exactly fearsome animals, for one thing. Peter Lorre Jr. has a small role as a murdered pawnbroker. Baxter is given a pretty embarrassing role to play.

Verdict: Great to see Sondergaard still in top form, but the movie is terrible. *1/2. 


Bette Davis
SCREAM PRETTY PEGGY (1973 telefilm). Director: Gordon Hessler. An ABC Movie of the Week.

Peggy Johns (Sian Barbara Allen) is a college student who takes a part-time job as a housekeeper for the aged, tippling Mrs. Elliott (Bette Davis) and her sculptor son, Jeffrey (Ted Bessell). Jeffrey tells the very curious -- indeed nosy and rather pushy -- Peggy that his sister, Jennifer, is insane and living in an apartment above the garage. A barely-seen female sneaks out at night to puncture people with a knife. George Thornton (Charles Drake of The Pretender) comes looking for his missing daughter and also encounters "Jennifer." Very aggressive Peggy makes up her mind to find out what's going on even though she hasn't got a clue. Scream Pretty Peggy, co-written by Jimmy Sangster, has some interesting, if unoriginal, macabre elements to it, but the ending is painfully obvious almost from the start, and Bessell [Billie] is given the most embarrassing role of his career, although his performance is better than you might expect. Allen is overly perky, but competent, and Davis phones in her performance aside from her well-delivered final speech. A far cry from Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte indeed. Hessler's direction provides little help although the pic is entertaining enough.

Verdict: Fun to see Davis but this is a bit of a "drag." **1/2.


Ugly Duckling: Stockard Channing
THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO ... (1973 telefilm). Director: Lee Philips. Co-written by Joan Rivers.

Miriam Knight (Stockard Channing) is a bright, energetic young woman with a great sense of humor who has, unfortunately, committed the crime of being unattractive. She is cruelly taunted by men and women alike, but when a twist of fate offers her an opportunity to become good-looking, she uses her new appearance to take revenge on her tormentors. The Girl Most Likely To ... is a black comedy that greatly benefits from the performance of an excellent Channing [The Truth About Jane], who continued to show off her acting chops in role after role on screen and on stage later on. As the movie is played for laughs and is often quite funny, one can ignore the fact that Miriam becomes slightly sociopathic and doesn't seem to care about any innocents who may become embroiled in her schemes, but it's fun, frankly, to see her abusers get their just desserts and then some. Ed Asner [Gunn] is also terrific as a cop investigating the murders, and Susanne Zenor makes an impression as Miriam's roommate, who has a horrendous voice to go along with her bosomy blondness. Warren Berlinger, Fred Grandy, Ruth McDevitt, Larry Wilcox, and Joe Flynn, among others, also have nice turns in the pic. The film scores points for making trenchant observations about the dark side of human nature in a humorous fashion that never quite disguises the understandable bitterness underneath,. Director Lee Philips was also an actor [Peyton Place]; most of his acting and directorial assignments were for television.

Verdict: The worm turns ... ***.


Gloria Swanson and her little darlings
KILLER BEES (1974). Director: Curtis Harrington.

Semi-estranged from his family, who own vineyards as well as a town, Edward van Bohlen (Edward Albert) brings his pregnant fiancee, Victoria (Kate Jackson), home to meet the family. This consists of his father, Rudolf (Craig Stevens), brother Helmut (Roger Davis of House of Dark Shadows), and Uncle Matthias (Don McGovern), not to mention his grandmother-matriarch Mrs. van Bohlen (Gloria Swanson). Victoria has a hard time being accepted by the van Bohlens, and matters are made worse by attacks from bees swarming all over the vineyards. Seems the van Bohlens have a strange connection to the bees that came with the family decades ago from Africa. Given bizarre roles to play, both Jackson [Night of Dark Shadows] and Swanson [Beyond the Rocks] manage to acquit themselves nicely, with the latter clearly enjoying herself as she puts on a rather hammy show at times. The movie could easily have been called Queen Bee if it hadn't already been used for a Joan Crawford movie. The bees themselves never actually seem to "attack" anyone but there is a macabre climax in the mansion's attic. Curtis Harrington also directed Queen of Blood.

Verdict: If you take the absurd developments with a grain of salt, this is one of Harrington's better latter-day movies. ***.


Kate Jackson and Edward Albert
DEATH CRUISE (1974 telefilm). Director: Ralph Senensky.

Three couples have won an all-expenses-paid, three week cruise on an ocean liner. Sylvia Carter (Polly Bergen) is distressed by her husband Jerry's (Richard Long) philandering. Elizabeth Mason (Celeste Holm) is concerned that her children are grown and may not need her, and then learns that her husband (Tom Bosley) wonders if there's any point in their even staying married. Mary (Kate Jackson of Making Love) is bitterly disappointed when her husband James (Edward Albert) insists that he doesn't want children. Then one by one all of them begin dying. The ship's doctor (Michael Constantine) discovers that the company which paid for the three couple's cruises doesn't even exist. Screenwriter Jack B. Sowards channels his inner Agatha Christie to come up with a suspenseful, twisting, and diabolical plot, and all of the actors do their best to bring their characters to life as well as to conceal who may or may not be behind it all. Everyone is good, but Holm [All About Eve] and Long [Follow the Boys] make the best impression. Albert and Jackson also played a couple in the previous year's Killer Bees.

Verdict: Absorbing TV puzzler well worth the watching for mystery fans. ***.