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

Thursday, April 26, 2018

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Silent movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has been teamed with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen of Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn) in movie after movie. Don doesn't particularly like Lina, but she has not only convinced herself that they are in love but engaged. This comes to a head when Gene falls for Kathy (Debbie Reynolds of The Gazebo), who has "theatuh" aspirations but for now spends her time jumping out of cakes. When the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, becomes a tremendous hit, Don's studio insists his latest film with Lamont be turned into a sound picture. The only trouble is -- what to do about Lina's fish-wife screech, which is hardly suitable for sound? Paging Kathy ... but Lina isn't going to take the dubbing lying down, while Kathy is interested in her own career. Singin' in the Rain deservedly has a reputation as one of Hollywood's most memorable musicals with wonderful performances, nice tunes by Freed and Brown, a funny storyline, and a hilarious ending that gives the witchy Lina her full comeuppance. The highlights include Kelly and Donald O'Connor tap dancing to "Fit as a Fiddle;" Kelly, Reynolds and O'Connor performing "Good Mornin';".the "Broadway Melody" production number ("Gotta Dance") with Kelly and Cyd Charisse; and other numbers, such as "You Were Meant for Me," and "You Are My Lucky Star." Then there's Kelly's famous and iconic dance to the title tune. O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" is cute if less successful, and others have noted that the song is very much like "Be a Clown," but I'm not certain which came first. Kathleen Freeman has a brief funny bit as a vocal coach who tries to help Lina talk like a human being, and Millard Mitchell [Thieves Highway] is solid as the studio head, R. F. Simpson.

Verdict: Really a delightful movie. ***1/2.

PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES

David Niven and Doris Day
PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES (1960). Director: Charles Walters.

Kate MacKay (Doris Day) and her husband, Larry (David Niven of Enchantment) are raising four adorable if rambunctious boys and planning a move to the country. Larry, a professor of drama, is made a theater critic for a top newspaper. In a contrived event, he is assigned to review his best friend, Alfred's (Richard Hadyn), new musical, and not only slams it, but prints that the leading lady, Deborah Vaughn (Janis Paige of This Side of the Law), has no talent. This leads into amusing encounters between Larry and Deborah as well as an opportunity for Alfred to get a kind of revenge on Larry. Meanwhile Kate is worried that her husband is turning into the kind of justifiably-abhorred critic who is more interested in making clever jokes at a playwright's expense than in writing serious and fair-minded theater reviews. If you take some of the improbable developments (they move into a house that resembles a castle) with a grain of salt, Please Don't Eat the Daisies is a delightful comedy, with the two leads in top form. Day and Niven work very well together and seem to be having as much fun as the audience. Some of the critical words that come out of the mouth of Doris' mother make her seem like a monster, but the casting of sweet Spring Byington makes her character more palatable.  Patsy Kelly plays the housekeeper but isn't given much of a chance to shine, although Hadyn scores as the angry Alfred, and Paige is just wonderful and very sexy as Deborah. Jack Weston is also fine as a taxi-driving wannabee playwright, and Kathryn Card of I Love Lucy appears briefly as a principal. The business with the baby being kept in a locked cage would raise eyebrows today and frankly makes little sense. (The rationale is that he can pick locks, but wouldn't that include the locks on his cage?) Please Don't Eat the Daises -- the title comes from a reference to one of the boys eating flowers -- is based on a novel by Jean Kerr, a playwright who was married to Walter Kerr, best-known as a theater critic for the N.Y. Times; the couple had six children. Doris does a reprise of "Que sera, sera" from The Man Who Knew Too Much and also nicely warbles the title tune and "Anyway the Wind Blows."

Verdict: Very amusing and well-acted comedy with an especially winning Day. ***.

THE UNFORGIVEN (1960)

Audie Murphy, Lillian Gish, Doug McClure, Audrey Hepburn and Lancaster 
THE UNFORGIVEN (1960). Director: John Huston.

A mysterious man named Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman) wanders around the ranch of the Zachary family, and his presence causes consternation in old Mattilda Zachary (Lillian Gish). Apparently Abe is spreading stories that Mattilda's adopted daughter, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), is not white but a "red injun." Members of the Kiowa tribe seem to think the stories are true, and want Rachel returned to them. Neighbor Zeb Rawlins (Charles Bickford) wants the truth, too, or there'll be no more business dealings with the Zacharys. Then one of Zeb's sons is murdered, Abe Kelsey is captured, and the whole thing comes to a boil ... The Unforgiven has a fascinating but ultimately contrived premise that doesn't make nearly enough of the situation and operates on an almost shamefully superficial level. There are some powerful scenes in the movie, but too many questions.remain unanswered. It all ends in a bloodbath wherein the one-dimensional Indians are pretty much picked off like flies.and a supposedly "happy" ending is tacked on. For a movie that some feel is about racial intolerance, it is staggeringly racist itself. The acting is generally good, although of the once-removed Hollywood variety. which is particularly evident in the climax. Wiseman is excellent as Abe, demented by loneliness and grief, and Gish [The Cobweb] has a tremendously good moment confronting him for what turns out to be the final time. Burt Lancaster plays Rachel's step-brother, who is secretly in love with her, this being one of the new breed of psycho-sexual westerns (while still being stubbornly old-fashioned as regards Native Americans). Doug McClure overdoes the boyish posturing a bit as Lancaster's youngest brother, but Audie Murphy is effective as his other brother, Cash. John Saxon also makes his mark as a cowboy who may be an Indian, as does Carlos Rivas [The Black Scorpion] in a nearly silent role as a tribe member who may be Rachel's true brother. Kipp Hamilton [War of the Gargantuas] is also good as Zeb's daughter, who is anxious to marry one of the Zacharys, and June Walker is excellent as her mother, Hagar. For obvious reasons, Audrey Hepburn was hardly the best casting choice for the role of Rachel. The attack on the ranch at the climax is admittedly exciting and well-staged, but in some ways unconvincing, while Franz Planer's widescreen cinematography doesn't make the most of the settings, and Dimitri Tiomkin's score, aiming for the unusual perhaps, is one of his worst, only serving to muff some sequences that could have been moving. Apparently director John Huston was hampered from really making the film he wanted to make, resulting in this rather hypocritical exercise.

Verdict|: Hollywood Cowboys and Indians -- when it could have been so much more. **.   

DARIO ARGENTO

DARIO ARGENTO. James Gracey. Kamera Books; 2010.

This interesting book looks at the oeuvre of Italian giallo  specialist Dario Argento, beginning with his work on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and on to the appropriately named Giallo. Gracey is obviously a big fan of Argento's but he can also see the man's flaws and can readily confess that Phantom of the Opera is "an absolute mess of a film." Gracey divides the discussion of each movie into general comments on the production; the pictures'  themes; notes on its technical style; and the verdict on each movie. There are also sections on Argento's work for television and the films that he has produced, such as Demons. He recognizes Deep Red as one of Argento's most memorable films and also admires Trauma much more than others do (I think Trauma is easily the equal of Deep Red.)  Although there are times this sort of resembles a term paper, for the most part Dario Argento is a worthwhile, informative, and well-written study of a flawed but talented director's career and work. Contains an insert of black and white and color photographs.

Verdict: Recommended for fans of Argento. ***.

HALLOWE'EN PARTY

The Perfect Poirot: David Suchet
HALLOWE'EN PARTY (2011). Director: Charlie Palmer. (This is episode 2 of season 12 of Agatha Christie's Poirot.)

Mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker of Mrs. McGinty's Dead) contacts her friend, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (David Suchet), when a murder occurs in a village where she is visiting. The victim is a young girl who was drowned in a tub meant for the bobbing of apples at a Halloween party. Shortly before she was killed, the child, Joyce (Macy Nyman), was telling people that she had once witnessed a murder. Poirot investigates any past occurrences and accidents that may have been homicides, and uncovers a number of village secrets. Along with Ariadne, Poirot is a guest of widowed Judith Butler (Amelia Bullmore), who has a daughter named Miranda (Mary Higgins). Joyce's brother, Leopold (Richard Breislin) confides that he never much liked his sister. Other characters include Rowena Drake (Deborah Findlay), whose home was the sight of the Halloween party; Michael Garfield (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who designs fabulous gardens for wealthy clients; the town gossip Miss Whittaker (Fenella Woolgar); and others. David Suchet is simply superb as Poirot, the only actor to ever completely capture the character as Christie describes him. All of the performances are good (although Wanamaker seems bored through much of the telefilm and doesn't remind one at all of Christie's character), but Findlay and Rhind-Tutt are especially notable. This adaptation makes it explicit that a certain character is a sympathetically-drawn lesbian. This is one of the rare occasions when a Christie adaptation (written by Mark Gatiss) may be even better than the original novel. Christian Henson's score is suitably eerie and effective.

Verdict: Clever, suspenseful, and very well-acted. ***.

FATAL BEAUTY

Just out in epub from Cemetery Dance publishers is another of my vintage horror novels, Fatal Beauty. This over-the-top, black comedy-like thriller is a bit of a departure for me, but I hope people will find it ghoulish fun. The premise has to do with a remarkable new makeup that can be used on everyone from burn victims to the homely to the disfigured, and also has the miraculous ability to turn anyone into their heart's desire (which could -- and does -- have some weird consequences, if you think about it). The great cover is by elderlemon design, a firm run by author Kealan Patrick Burke. Several other titles of mine are available as well. It can be ordered on the CD website, from Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.

"**As Featured in PAPERBACKS FROM HELL** They called it porodyne. A bizarre by-product of bio-engineering, porodyne has been found -- quite accidentally -- to have some very special properties. Properties that could render cosmetic surgery obsolete. Properties that could turn Barrows Industries into a billion-dollar gold mine. The changes porodyne makes in human skin are permanent. It could mean new life for burn victims, people scarred by accidents, old folk yearning to be young again, models who insist on being more beautiful... But the miracles it promises its first human test subjects rely on one all-important -- and totally unpredictable -- element: their desire to become beautiful. And if beauty results from beautiful thoughts -- what unnatural horrors must await those consumed by evil?" 

JUSTICE LEAGUE

The heroes of the Justice League
JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017). Director: Zack Snyder.

A demonic figure named Steppenwolf (Claran Hinds) sends monstrous para-demons to Earth in order to claim three "mother boxes" (sort of an alien computer) secreted in Atlantis, on Paradise Island, and somewhere among ordinary humans. When the three boxes are connected, it could signal the end of mankind. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) gather together other heroes to combat this menace: a teenage super-speedster, the Flash (Ezra Miller of We Need to Talk About Kevin); Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who is more at home under the ocean; and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), who is mostly mechanical. The team (never really referred to as the "Justice League") use one of the Mother Boxes to resuscitate Superman (Henry Cavill), who was killed at the end of Batman V Superman. One of the best scenes in the movie features the battle between a confused, newly awakened Man of Steel with the other heroes as they try to get through to him in his confused and hostile state. While Justice League is an improvement over Batman V Superman, it's still disappointing considering the talent involved and all the hard work and fine FX that went into the production. While there is some excitement and suspense to the action sequences, they still often look like confused and cluttered video games. There is an admirable attempt to add some flesh and blood to these heroic and colorful characters, not only by the screenwriters but by the actors who play them; Affleck and Gadot are especially notable, and Jeremy Irons makes an excellent Alfred, Batman's butler and aide-de-camp. It is also strange that the minor character of Steppenwolf should have been chosen as the primary antagonist when his nephew Darkseid would have been a much better choice. Many of the concepts in the film are based on ideas by writer-artist Jack Kirby, who created the "Fourth World" mythos that is referenced in the movie. Changes from comics to film are numerous: Barry Allen was not a teen when he became the Flash and the business with his father being in jail for murdering his mother was carried over from the TV series. Aquaman was brusque, bearded and long-haired only for a brief period in the comics. Lois Lane and Ma Kent are nearly unrecognizable. For more about the comic books see The Silver Age of Comics.

Verdict: Now that the characters and the team have been introduced, perhaps the sequel will be a more memorable movie, although this has its moments. **3/4.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

DRACULA AND HIS PALS

DRACULA AND HIS PALS,

This week Great Old Movies looks at films starring the venerable old baddie, Dracula. You can already find reviews of the original 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, as well as posts on Dracula's Daughter; the first Hammer Dracula film starring Christopher Lee, The Horror of Dracula; and one of the best follow-ups, the excellent Dracula, Prince of Darkness; among many others. Just type in "Dracula" in the search bar above.

Now this week we have Francis Lederer in The Return of DraculaJack Palance doing his version of the count for Dan Curtis; Ingrid Pitt doing a turn as Countess Dracula; and even William Marshall as Blacula. There is also Italian director Dario Argento's version of the classic story; among others. Just scroll down to enjoy. And feel free to leave a comment whether you agree with my assessment or not.

Thanks for reading!

THE RETURN OF DRACULA

Francis Lederer as Dracula
THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958). Director: Paul Landres.

When a young artist named Bellac Gordal (Norbert Schiller) begins a journey to America, he is waylaid and murdered by Dracula (Francis Lederer of Terror is a Man) --having just escaped from his pursuers --  who takes his place in modern-day California. Pretending to be a cousin, Dracula enters the household of young Rachel Mayberry (Norma Eberhardt of Live Fast, Die Young), along with her mother and little brother, Mickey (Jimmy Baird). Dracula/Bellac tries to keep to himself, although the others keep pestering him, but he is much more interested in, say, drinking the blood of Rachel's blind friend, Jenny (Virginia Vincent of I Want to Live!). He also sets his sights on Rachel, but her boyfriend, Tim (Ray Stricklyn), may have something to say about that. Meanwhile a policeman from Europe continues his hunt for Dracula in the U.S. I wouldn't be surprised if this film was rushed out as an answer to Hammer's Horror of Dracula, released the same year, but the films are miles apart in quality. Lederer was always a kind of oily leading man, even in comedies like Midnight, but in this he seems more charming than menacing, mostly due to his underplaying, as if he were afraid to seem too hammy. The production is widescreen and in black and white, except for a quick color insert showing a stake going into somebody's heart with blood spurting. Only of passing interest, The Return of Dracula has little style or excitement and proved no threat to Hammer's Dracula production. Paul Landres also directed The Vanpire the following year and it was slightly better than this.

Verdict: Stick with Christopher Lee. **.

COUNTESS DRACULA

Sandor Eles and Ingrid Pitt
COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). Director: Peter Sasdy.

After her husband dies, Countess Elisabeth (Ingrid Pitt) bemoans her fading beauty, but accidentally discovers that fresh blood acts to rejuvenate her skin. Before long she can impersonate her own daughter, Ilona (Lesley-Anne Down), whom the countess has imprisoned in a cottage when she shows up in town. Elisabeth begins a passionate affair with Imre Toth (Sandor Eles of And Soon the Darkness), and he proposes. But each time her beauty fades she turns into a more hideous hag, and she needs to continually bath in the blood of virgins. Sooner or later this will catch up with her  ... Countess Dracula is loosely based on the life of the historical 16th century Hungarian figure Elisabeth Bathory, who apparently did murder and torture numerous servant girls, although other acts are shrouded in legend and there have been attempts to salvage her reputation and blame it all on men. (In one interview Ingrid Pitt claimed Bathory "was a wonderful mother. All this stuff they say about her I do not believe." Well ... ) Filtering her story through Hammer studios, you come up with an absorbing and very well-made Gothic horror tale that has handsome settings and excellent acting, especially from Nigel Green [The Face of Fu Manchu] as Elisabeth's long-time lover, Captain Dobi; Patience Collier as her generally loyal and complicit  lady-in-waiting, Julie; Maurice Denham as the scholarly Fabio, who seems deceptively gentle; Eles; and others. It is hard to judge Pitt's performance because she was dubbed by British actress Olive Gregg, which seems strange since Pitt's Polish accent would not have been out of place and she was a competent actress -- in any case, she is quite effective in the lead. Countess Dracula reminds one of earlier films in which women killed to regain their youth and beauty such as The Leech Woman and The Wasp Woman. Harry Robertson's (aka Harry Robinson) score also adds to the picture's impact. Some viewers were disappointed that the film wasn't gorier and didn't have many more murders.

Verdict: Excellent Hammer horror production. ***.

DRACULA A.D. 1972

New Blood: Christopher Neame as a young vampire
DRACULA A.D. 1972 (also known as Dracula A.D./1972). Director: Alan Gibson.

A prologue set in 1872 shows the deaths of both Dracula and Van Helsing after a final, furious battle, then the film jumps ahead 100 years in this first of Hammer's 20th century Dracula flicks. Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) is the grandson of the great vsmpire hunter, living in modern London with his granddaughter, Jessica (Stephanie Beacham of Schizo). Jessica is friends with a man named Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame), who is apparently the reincarnation of one of Dracula's human slaves. Johnny enlists his friends in a black mass, the sole purpose of which is to revivify the ancient, blood-sucking count (Christopher Lee). Dracula snacks on several of Johnny's nubile friends and turns a decidedly willing Johnny into a vampire, but Drac wants revenge on the Van Helsing family and sets his sights on Jessica ... Dracula A.D. 1972 with its jazzy score is like a pop version of Dracula but it mostly works, primarily because of a fast pace and some excellent acting. Cushing and Lee give their usual classy and committed performances, and Neame is a real find as the dynamic and evil Alucard. Michael Coles makes an effective Inspector Murray and Caroline Munro [The Spy Who Loved Me] is fine as one of the count's first victims. The action sequences are well-staged by director Gibson. The vampire folklore in the film is confusing, as Dracula turns people into vampires with one bite without their dying first, and his other victims never rise from the grave. The group Stoneground perform the catchy enough "Alligator Man" in a party sequence. Neame has amassed nearly 100 credits and is still working today. Followed by The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Verdict: Fun Dracula flick with excellent performances. ***.

BLACULA

William Marshall
BLACULA (1972). Director: William Crain.

Mamuwalde. an African dignitary (William Marshall), and his wife, are on a mission in Europe to protest the slave trade when they wind up guests in the castle of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay of The House of Seven Corpses). Dracula ignites the ire of Mamuwalde when he claims to have no problem with slavery and would even like to have the man's wife for himself, and the angry count responds by turning him into a vampire. In modern-times, two interior decorators, Bobby (Ted Harris) and Billy (Rick Metzler). get a consignment of items from Transylvania and make the mistake of opening up "Blacula's" coffin. Blacula sees a woman, Tina (Vonetta McGee of The Eiger Sanction), who he swears is his dead wife, and insinuates himself into her company. Meanwhile, some of Mamuwalde's victims are waking up in the morgue and attacking people. Tina's sister, Michelle (Denise Nicholas), has a boyfriend, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), who investigates the strange deaths  ... Given the popularity of the "blaxploitation" pictures of the period, Blacula was probably inevitable, and it's actually not a bad idea. The storyline is more than workable, but the character of Manuwalde has been reduced to a one-dimensional villain. A bigger problem is the film's leaden direction and pacing, which strips most of the fun out of it, although audiences may have gotten a kick out of the scene when the crazed lady cab driver bitten by Blacula jumps out of the morgue and rushes down the hall in slow motion to chomp on the halpess attendant, played by Elisha Cook! The two likable gay decorators are raging stereotypes and are referred to as "faggots" in several instances, but then blaxploitation pictures could be merciless toward gays. With his dramatic demeanor, handsome features, and magnificent baritone, one would imagine William Marshall [To Trap a Spy] would make a great Dracula, but he's less effective than others in the role. The other cast members are generally good, with Ted Harris being amusing. A trio sings a couple of snappy numbers in a nightclub, including "There He Goes Again," during which the lady vocalist exhibits some amazing terpsichorean gyrations. Followed by Scream, Blacula, Scream. From American-International Pictures.

Verdict: Not as much fun as it sounds. **.

THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA

Christopher Lee as Dracula
THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973). Director: Alan Gibson.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) is alive and well and masquerading as the Howard Hughes-like millionaire recluse Denham. When his nemesis, Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), learns that Dracula has joined together a group of prominent men into a satanic cult, and that one of them, Professor Keeley (Freddie Jones of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) has grown cultures of bubonic plague -- the "Black Death' -- he postulates that Dracula wants to end all life on earth and realize final peace. By Van Helsing's side are his granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley) and Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who break into a sinister estate from which the cult operates and find themselves in a cellar full of slavering vampire women! The Satanic Rites Of Dracula, which takes place in modern times, is one of the better latter-day Hammer Dracula offerings, with both Lee and Cushing expert in their portrayals, and with top-notch supporting performances as well. This is bolstered by an intriguing plot line, although the use of nasty motorcycle thugs as the cult's assassins and the like is a notion that doesn't always work too well. As much as I love Bela Lugosi, I think Lee makes the more commanding Dracula. This was Lee's last appearance as the traditional Dracula in a Hammer film, although he also played the Lord of the Undead in the 1976 comedy Dracula and Son. Alan Gibson also directed the thriller Crescendo.

Verdict: Pretty terrific Hammer flick. ***.

DAN CURTIS' DRACULA (1974)

Jack Palance
DRACULA (aka Dan Curtis' Dracula/1974 telefilm). Produced and directed by Dan Curtis.

Jonathan Harker (Murray Brown) travels to Transylvania in Hungary to meet with Count Dracula (Jack Palance of Sudden Fear) at his castle. Dracula needs property in London to carry out his plans, which include meeting up with the reincarnation or lookalike of his lost love, who in this century is named Lucy (Fiona Lewis). Dracula's plans go awry thanks to the interference of Professor Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport), and the hunt is on for the vampire before he can destroy Lucy's friend Mina (Penelope Horner). Well-produced for a TV movie, this version of Dracula still smacks more of sunny California than Transylvania, but its main problem is a slow pace and a general lack of suspense and excitement. Palance has his moments as the evil count, but he is borderline hammy and not as effective as one might have imagined. Lewis is solid, but Simon Ward [The Chosen] generally doesn't bother to work up much emotion in his portrayal of the doomed Lucy's fiance, Arthur. Davenport [Mary Queen of Scots] is okay as Van Helsing, but frankly neither he nor Palance can wipe away the memory of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the same roles. Murray Brown is quite good as Harker, however. This version of the story eliminates the crazy Renfield, there are no scenes of Dracula socializing with his victims as in the Lugosi version, and the supposedly romantic sub-plot (which is not in Bram Stoker\s novel) is entirely out of place. Sarah Douglas plays one of the vampire women who prey upon Jonathan Harker. A more interesting if much less faithful TV version appeared on Masterpiece Theatre in 2006. Dan Curtis was the man behind Dark Shadows, which also had a vampire obsessed with a lost love.

Verdict: Barely acceptable version of the famous story. **.

DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA

Thomas Kretschmann as Dracula
DRACULA (aka Dario Argento's Dracula and Dracula 3D/2012). Director: Dario Argento.

Jonathan Harker (Unax Ugalde) arrives in the town of Hapsburg to do work for Count Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann), who has a sinister reputation. Waiting for his wife, Mina (Marta Gastini), to join him, Harker renews his friendship with Lucy (Asia Argento), who begins withering from the attacks on her by Dracula. Apparently Dracula is primarily interested in Mina, whom he believes to be a reincarnation of his wife, who died 400 years earlier. Will Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) be able to save her from the fatal "love" of the vampire? Argento's version of Dracula seems to take its cue from the earlier Dan Curtis telefilm (and other versions), adding an unconvincing pseudo-romantic subplot that barely amounts to anything. The film's main strength is Kretshmann's excellent portrayal of the undead count -- attractive and compelling he makes the best Dracula since Christopher Lee. If only Argento's picture had the entertainment value of the best of the Hammer Dracula films. There is one striking scene when Dracula forms from a swarm of bees then rapidly dispatches several men who are conspiring against him -- naturally this has its share of gore a la Argento -- but otherwise the film is relatively lethargic and minor, with no real justification for yet another version of the story. The other actors all give good performances for the most part, although a fatigued Hauer seems rather uninterested in the proceedings. The picture is not especially scary, but there are some good FX, including a giant preying mantis that seems dragged in as an extra added attraction. This version takes place entirely in Hungary. The following year Kretschmann played Van Helsing -- not Dracula -- in the TV series, Dracula.

Verdict: Paging Peter Cushing. **.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989). Written and directed by Woody Allen.

"When I grew up in Brooklyn, nobody committed suicide. Everyone was too depressed."

Opthamologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau of Mission: Impossible) has a wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom), and children, as well as a mistress, a stewardess named Delores (Anjelica Huston of Manhattan Murder Mystery). Delores is making noises that she wants to "have it out" with Miriam, and keeps pressuring Judah to leave his wife, which Judah will simply not do. Fearing that his life and reputation will be shattered, in desperation Judah turns to his much less respectable brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), who suggests a certain final "solution"... As this plays out, we also meet documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), who has an unhappy marriage to un-supportive wife, Wendy (Joanna Gleason), and finds himself falling for producer Halley Reed (Mia Farrow), who is working with Cliff on a film about his brother-in-law, a borderline obnoxious TV personality named Lester (Alan Alda of Same Time, Next Year). Crimes and Misdemeanors is in some ways an odd and very Allen-like movie, with the two different story lines never quite merging, but the picture is still compelling, amusing, and ultimately horrifying. Its exploration of moral complexities is a little uneven because Judah's solution to the "problem" of his mistress is on a much darker level than Cliff's contemplation of an affair when it is clear that neither he nor his wife are in love with each other. Still, the picture features some wonderful performances (from virtually everyone, although Landau and Huston are cast stand-outs), Allen's typically trenchant dialogue and observations, and a depressing but sadly realistic wind up. Initially seen as a benevolent figure, it is clear that Judah is a selfish and self-justifying monster. There are no dramatic fireworks or revelations concerning his immoral actions, but the ending is nevertheless sickening. The theme of the film seems to be, as Judah states, "only in Hollywood are there happy endings."

Verdict: One of Allen's more memorable and entertaining pictures. ***.

TWIST OF FATE

TWIST OF FATE (aka Beautiful Stranger/1954). Director: David Miller.

"Johnny" (Ginger Rogers), an ex-show girl, is living on the Riviera with her wealthy husband, Louis Galt (Stanley Baker). When she discovers that Louis already has a wife, Marie (Margaret Rawlings), Johnny seeks comfort in the arms of handsome potter, Pierre (Jacques Bergerac of The Hypnotic Eye). But Louis has no intention of letting Johnny go, and matters are complicated by the interference of Johnny's alleged friend, Emile (Herbert Lom), a creep who is out to get what he can. The trouble with Twist of Fate is that its minor twists are generally telegraphed and in any case don't add up to an especially intriguing story line. Rogers gives a decent dramatic performance, Baker and Bergerac are fine, but Lom walks off with the movie with his intense portrayal of the desperate Emile. But when this supporting character seems to be in more danger than the heroine, it's clear that there are decided script problems. David Miller also directed the far superior Midnight Lace with Doris Day and the even better Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford. Rogers was married to Bergerac at the time this film was made. Like all of her five marriages, it lasted only a few years.

Verdict: Not enough twists to save it from its fate. **.

CHARLES WALTERS: THE DIRECTOR WHO MADE HOLLYWOOD DANCE

CHARLES WALTERS: THE DIRECTOR WHO MADE HOLLYWOOD DANCE. Brent Phillips. University Press of Kentucky; 2017.

This excellent biography looks at the life and work of Charles Walters, who started out as a dancer, became a choreographer for both stage and film, and then directed many notable movies at MGM and elsewhere. Walters lived with a male partner, his agent, for many years, was good friends with everyone from Judy Garland to Esther Williams to Lucille Ball (working with the latter on TV specials as well as Du Barry Was a Lady, for which he did the choreography), and by all accounts was a likable and amiable Hollywood presence. The movies Walters directed include Good News, Easy to LoveSummer Stock, Jumbo, LiliTorch Song with Joan Crawford, High Society, The Glass Slipper, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, among others. Well-researched and bolstered with interviews, this bio has amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes a'plenty,and also explores Walters' approach.to "cine-dance" -- dance in the movies. 

Verdict: First-rate look at an unsung Hollywood figure. ***1/2.

LIFE FOR RUTH / WALK IN THE SHADOW

Michael Craig
LIFE FOR RUTH (aka Walk in the Shadow/1962). Director: Basil Dearden.

"You put your personal faith before her welfare -- you let her die!

John Harris (Michael Craig) and his wife, Pat (Janet Munro), have an eight-year-old daughter named Ruth (Lynn Taylor). John has to rescue Ruth and a young friend when they go out on a boat in choppy waters to get the girl's ball. The boy is saved, but John is told that only a blood transfusion will save Ruth's life. John's religion, similar to Christian Science (although never named) is against transfusions and medical intervention and fears Ruth will be denied everlasting peace in the next world. Dr. Brown (Patrick McGoohan) is utterly appalled by Harris' attitude -- even Harris' wife eventually asks the doctor to do all he can to save Ruth but it's too late. Brown decides to see that Harris is prosecuted for his actions -- or lack of same -- and he is arrested on a charge of manslaughter under the "cruelty to children" act. Brown wants no more children to die because of simple-minded religious dogma so the whole thing will have to be resolved in a courtroom ... What makes the picture even more interesting is that Harris is not really portrayed as some kind of monster, but genuinely thinks he's doing the right thing, until he has a powerful epiphany in the courtroom. Michael Craig, who could play doctor playboys [Doctor in Love] and Civil War heroes [The Mysterious Island] with equal aplomb, proves his versatility yet again with his excellent portrayal of the simple yet tormented John Harris. Munro, McGoohan and the supporting cast, including Megs Jenkins as Pat's mother, are all excellent as well. Cinematography by Otto Heller [Richard III] and a score by William Alwyn [She Played with Fire] add to the film's quality.

Verdict: Powerful, well-acted, and completely absorbing. ***1/2.

IN THE MEANTIME, DARLING

Jeanne Crain and Frank Latimore
IN THE MEANTIME, DARLING (1944). Produced and directed by Otto Preminger.

Maggie (Jeanne Crain of State Fair) is a somewhat spoiled, upper-class gal who arrives at a seedy hotel off base to marry Lt. Daniel Ferguson (Frank Latimore). Maggie loves Danny, but she is dismayed by the lack of privacy and living conditions in the hotel, which is run by the widow Armstrong (Jane Randolph), whose husband was killed overseas. Maggie tries to pitch in with the other gals but finds she has little training for anything. Then Danny mistakenly believes that Maggie has gotten pregnant ... In the Meantime, Darling is a minor but still significant film that looks at the problems of women who every day have to face the fact that their husbands may go off to war and never come back, and there is an air of poignancy and sorrow because of it. There is an especially lovely and sobering scene when Maggie goes into Mrs. Armstrong's apartment and sees the wedding pictures and other photos, then comes upon the announcement of her husband's posthumous awards from the Army. Crain and Latimore both give excellent performances as the lead couple, and there is nice work from Gail Robbins [The Fuller Brush Girl] as another wife named Shirley. (One can't realistically imagine this marriage lasting, however, as Shirley's husband, Phil, played by Stanley Prager, is not only fat and homely but rather insensitive to his wife's needs as well.) Clarence Muse is also notable as Henry, the black porter for the hotel, who does not play in a subservient fashion and whose character's son is also in the Army overseas. Henry is treated as a three-dimensional African-American character, a rarity in this time period. Other cast members include Eugene Pallette, Mary Nash (as an especially disagreeable mother-in-law), Olin Howland, Elisabeth Risdon, Glenn Langan, and even Blake Edwards in the acting phase of his career in an uncredited bit. This was the first picture for Latimore, who also appeared in 13 Rue Madeleine with James Cagney, Shock with Vincent Price, and ultimately amassed 70 credits.

Verdict: Warm and sentimental in the right way, and very well-performed. ***.

JEALOUSY

Nils Asther and Jane Randolph
JEALOUSY (1945). Director: Gustav Machaty.

Peter Urban (Nils Asther of Storm at Daybreak) was a successful author before he fled Europe, but in the U.S. he has become a bitter, alcoholic and suicidal failure. His wife, Janet (Jane Randolph of The Mysterious Mr. M) drives a cab to make ends meet. One afternoon she meets a kindly doctor, David Brent (John Loder), and the two fall in love. Although she feigns happiness over this development, Brent's assistant, Monica (Karen Morley of The Mask of Fu Manchu), is secretly heartbroken. Then someone gets shot in the head ... Jealousy is an interesting romantic melodrama with some poetic touches that just misses being really special. The screenplay could have used more development (and more running time) and the two leads -- Randolph and Loder -- are barely adequate as the lovers. Asther is more effective as Peter, and the best performances come from Morley as the complicated Monica and Hugo Haas (who directed quite a few cheap thrillers) as Peter's amiable friend, a minor actor named Hugo Kral. There's a lovely scene when Monica first learns that David is in love with someone else, and she goes into the bedroom to change, making happy talk for his sake, but we see in the mirror a true reflection of her inner feelings. Another interesting moment occurs when Monica, who has written a medical tome, inscribes it lovingly to her "friend," Janet, as Janet and David talk of their plans in the next room. Director Machaty, who was responsible for Hedy Lamarr's Ecstasy, does his best to add some stylish camera angles and the like to the low-budget production. The story was by Dalton Trumbo. Machaty also directed Within the Law, but much of his directorial work in the U.S. went uncredited.

Verdict: Interesting entry from Republic pictures. ***.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Armie Hammer
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017). Director: Luca Gaudagnino.

In 1983 Italy, 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) lives with his parents in a small village. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor of archeology, and each summer a graduate student spends time with the family and assists him. This summer it's 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), who on the surface at least seems sunny and confident. Elio has a sometime girlfriend, but while initially standoffish to Oliver, he eventually seems to focus much more on him than the girl. Elio and Oliver eventually begin a romantic and sexual relationship, but (alleged) true love doesn't always run smoothly. Coll Me By Your Name is based on the novel by Andre Aciman, a middle-aged family man who thinks there's no such thing as "gay, straight or bi" and is possibly not the best person to write a supposed gay love story. The film version is similarly confused when it isn't being tedious. Chalamet, who was actually 20 during filming and could pass for fifteen, gives a very good performance (he is especially good at the very end, when a long take focused just on his face shows the conflicting emotions Elio feels -- from heartbreak to anger to wry understanding of sorts) but Hammer is more problematic. At 31 he is too old and too tall and his very awkward and unconvincing love scenes with the boyish Chalamet are less erotic than they are discomfiting. (While not effeminate, Hammer does seem to play the role at times like a borderline languid queen as if he thought that's how he should play a gay guy.) Others have noted that Oliver is not a child molester -- that Elio is of legal age in Italy -- but the sex scenes still look like ads for NAMBLA. (We do have to remember, however, the innumerable movies that have had adult men involved with 16 or 17-year-old girls without anyone raising an eyebrow.) Others have also noted that Call Me By Your Name comes off less as a love story between equals as it does the story of an older man who gets off on a boy's adoration of him and pretty much takes advantage of it, especially when one considers what he does at the finale. A bigger problem is that Elio and Oliver are simply not that interesting. Perhaps the best scene in the movie is when father and son have a very frank talk without ever quite coming "out" with what they're talking about (pun intended), but which they manage to get across in spite of it. Still, one might wonder if the sequence is really that believable. Call Me By Your Name also has a dated quality, as if it came out in the seventies instead of 2017, and there have certainly been many -- too many -- tales of boys who fall for older men only to have the older guy go off and get married. While I've no doubt many conservatives will see this film as a Gay Lib movie -- not to mention prettified Chickenhawk crap -- the fact is that Call Me By Your Name is not as gay-friendly -- nor as gay --as it may seem, in some ways suggesting (intended or not) that homosexuality is just a phase. Another "minimalist" movie that has no really great or memorable dramatic sequences. 

Verdict: If it doesn't put you to sleep you may find some if it interesting, but otherwise, this is a MAJOR disappointment. **. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

EASTER SABBATICAL

Behemoth, the giant bunny rabbit
HAPPY BELATED EASTER from Great Old Movies

We're taking a week off to catch up, but please enjoy the old April Fool's movies that I re-posted on Sunday. What's that? -- you say you thought these movies were real, and have already ordered your copy of She-Serpents vs the Forces of the Dragon Witch from Amazon. Wait a minute -- does this serial actually exist? Excuse me while I go check this out!

See you next week!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

PUKEY REPEATS

PUKEY REPEATS (1946). Director: Federico Fellini.

Although the studio deemed the June Allyson comedy Pukey to be unreleasable, famed Italian director Federico Fellini caught a special screening of it during a trip to Hollywood and was -- bizarrely enough -- totally enchanted. He contacted Allyson and arranged to make another Pukey film which can be considered a sequel or a remake or both. In this the cookie-tossing singer Pukey (Allyson) decides to take up opera, with completely unamusing results. Although she can't even sing normally, she somehow manages to acquire a contract with La scala in Milan, where much of this was filmed. Keefe Braselle, who appeared in the first film, absolutely refused to be associated with the second, so he was replaced by Broderick Crawford, who makes a highly unlikely love interest for Allyson. You have to hear Allyson attempting to croak out "Nessum Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot to believe it! Fellini filled the film with his usual interesting and exotic faces, but the script -- based, believe it or not, on a play by Italian artist and WW 1 hero Gabrielle D'Annunzio -- is just abysmal.

Verdict: Dreadful! *.

LIBERACE VS. LEATHERFACE


LIBERACE VS. LEATHERFACE (1981). Director: Toby Hooperman.

Fans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are probably unaware that this incredible film, never released, was actually the first sequel to the famous horror film. Liberace did the film as a lark, and good-naturedly spoofs his flamboyant, very stereotypically gay image. In the movie Leatherface and his family are driving to Atlantic City to meet relatives -- killing and eating people along the way -- when their car breaks down. They wind up at an old mansion wherein they find Liberace, greeting them at the door in all his finery and holding the all-important candelabra. Leatherface and his pals have no idea what to make of the star, while Liberace seems completely unfazed by the weird assortment of cannibals he finds on his door. He even attempts a makeover on Leatherface, and calls in Phyllis Diller to do everyone's hair. It all ends in a riotous free-for-all between police and the freaks, with Liberace wondering why the cops should be so brutal to "such nice friendly people."

Verdict: Well, it's certainly different. **1/2.