Saturday, April 15, 2017

BOMBERS B-52 (1957)


This CinemaScope production is Warner Brother's answer to the more successful and realistic 1955 release, “Strategic Air Command,” filmed in Paramount’s VistaVision format. It was superior in cinematography and for a script of accuracy by Bernie Lay, an airman himself who came to the table with first-hand details. Victor Young's opening male ensemble song and dynamic flying score captures the United States Air Force grandeur during this period. Highly renowned composer, Leonard Rosenman, on the other hand, wrote a soap opera opening theme (aside from the few exciting opening measures) which goes against the bold, two-dimensional title graphically spelled out on the screen. He does write a dynamic B-52 theme which I address below. Some big bucks spent here and it shows. The film gets high points for location filming on an active SAC base and the ground camera crew's work is to be applauded. The draw of Natalie Wood, Karl Malden and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.―all on career up-swings, especially Wood―helps it escape the B-movie category. Barely.


The film gets low points for Irving Wallace's soap opera screenplay which I already warned you about. Perhaps because of this, there are some authentic USAF procedural details which are ignored. Another low point is an over-the-top performance (once again) by Malden. He can be hard to stomach in this bull-headed, self-centered character. His performance as the over protective father and devoted husband dominates the movie, despite Wood receiving top billing. The sequence of antsy Malden awaiting Wood's pre-dawn return from a date with Zimbalist is a bit embarrassing. He already had a narrow-minded assumption of Zimbalist from the Korean War. Now he paces the floor, blowing off steam to his wife, Marsha Hunt, while downing eight cans of beer between trips to the bathroom, is humorless. A big dose of suspended disbelief will be necessary when considering the twenty-year age gap between the real Zimbalist and Wood. Yet it works on screen if you mentally subtract and add five years, respectively.

Zimbalist, in his screen debut, and Wood were contracted to Warner Bros. It would have been unlikely to have replaced either. As many film buffs know, Warner's original choice was Tab Hunter. This would have solved the age gap but probably made it implausible to believe he had achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel at such a young age. Given a larger role, maybe the better solution would have been for Wood to have had a romance with handsome co-pilot, Stuart Whitman, with only ten years between them. Just let Malden and Zimbalist come to terms on the B-52 story line. Curious to consider, too, three up-and-coming actresses cutting the age gap about a decade: Anne Francis, Tippi Hedren or Elaine Stewart. Either would have eliminated the “stay at home” daughter premise and in turn saved us from Malden's clichéd father performance.

If you are an aviation enthusiast of this era, the B-52, as was the B-36 in the “SAC” movie, will be your highlight and main reason for remembering the movie. It is a visual aviation history lesson of the USAF's formative years. The takeoffs and flybys are exciting, if not spectacular. The banter between tanker and bomber pilots is fun in one sequence. Zimbalist's “travelogue” comments and the accompanying back screen projected visuals during their twenty-four hour mission should have been left on the editing floor, however. Unless one has piloted Boeing's bomber, the interior mockups appear to be well done.


Rosenman wrote a majestic theme for brass and strings in a march-like rhythm. Though it takes nearly half the film before we see a B-52, the theme, along with an elevated camera position, is all goose-bumpy. The plane casting long, early morning shadows making for an impressive debut. Once the B-52 is front and center we hear the theme frequently. The theme should have debuted with this sequence. But just prior, it is hilariously misplaced during a sequence of Malden riding a ubiquitous scooter several hundred feet. With the gallant theme blasting away, we expect him to end his ride next to a B-52 as it fills the screen. Instead, he simply stops at the base barracks after putt putting past the base gate. Piloting a scooter is just not very majestic.


While blowhard dad is in the base hospital recuperating from a bail-out injury, Wood, sobbing, apologizes for being only nineteen and confesses she is no longer embarrassed by her dad's occupation. Planes are keen. Wood's constant crying is a bit tedious, but she and her father finally have an understanding. We assume Wood will marry, move out of the house and Malden will cut back on the beer volume. To end the film, Wood looks reward from Zimbalist's T-Bird, finally understanding the point of the eleven-ship B-52 formation roaring overhead. A large formation which would realistically never be done.

I have always found the film’s title a bit strange. Not normal speak. As if stating, “Automobiles Ford.” The alternate title used in some outlets, “No Sleep Till Dawn,” makes more sense for this flying soap opera. The title would have covered the airmen's twenty-four hour missions and Malden's twenty-four hour angst over his daughter's dates until dawn. For Paramount’s “Strategic Air Command”―Air Command Strategic―recruitment went up about 25% because of its inspiring screenplay. I doubt the air force got that much of a jump following this movies’ premiere. Who wants to enlist and be supervised by a character like Malden? Most would gladly choose flight engineer, Harry Morgan.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

FLIGHT TO NOWHERE (1946)


When the Golden Gate Pictures trademark logo appears on screen my knuckles start to sweat, on the outside, in anticipation. The film starts on a fast pace but soon settles into a talky, mundane script, stifling interest. The over abundance of abrupt edits may give you whiplash as few scenes ever seem to finish a thought before cutting to another character’s scene then back to where the whirlwind began. Music accompanies one scene then abruptly cuts to another without music. One scene may be at a bar then a restaurant. They are outside with martinis. Inside with martinis. The camera filter making it hard to distinguish night from day.


FBI agent, Jack Holt, needs to retrieve a map containing the location of uranium deposits which was stolen from a Korean national who was subsequently murdered after leaving a dinner party. Certain guests at the party are all suspects and Holt arranges for them to be on a flight piloted by his trusted friend and former FBI agent, handsome Alan Curtis. The washroom scene where they reunite provides some witty comments by Curtis. Their dialogue simply supplies background of their espionage days during World War II. Holt pops up throughout the film to keep the viewer and Curtis abreast as the story drags on. Curtis’ witty comments are the only spark to an otherwise droll script to nowhere. He gets hit over the head more than the average charter pilot, each time accounting for his loss of the map. If the map is stolen there is a music cue from a harp to confirm it. 


Women seem attracted to Curtis and one gets the feeling he is not a bit surprised. He is attractive to Micheline Cheirel and Evelyn Ankers, both of whom are in a hat war of grand proportions upon their screen entrances. Cheirel’s headwear gives her a “MST3000” Crow T. Robot look while Ankers went with a breakfast-themed, fifteen inch, ten dollar pancake. There are more than enough characters bouncing from scene to scene in disjointed fashion so why not add another. Inez Cooper, playing Curtis’ ex-wife, arrives to complete the character maze which include Ankers’ brother, two other male suspects, plus a few other males that muddy the story. Cooper’s purpose in the film appears to highlight her trade secret, that of a professional pickpocket. This might explain Curtis' divorce. She is so good, a large, valuable ring disappears from Ankers’ finger, who is none the wiser. 

All the filming was done on location in Chatsworth, California and Iverson Ranch, reflecting a budget reminiscent of the films which made Hoot Gibson famous. His minuscule appearance as the sheriff is notable for his cowboy hat and a cue-perfect performance. The ending is precisely nineteen minutes later than it should have been as the atomic secrets are secured and the murderer is apprehended.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

NIGHTFALL (1956)


This Columbia Pictures release stars Aldo Ray, James Gregory, Anne Bancroft and Brian Keith. Television’s everyman, Rudy Bond, has a standout role, one of only a few films he made, three of which starred Marlon Brando. His sister, Joceyln Brando, plays Gregory’s wife. This fits into the little known “B+ movie” category because of top notch performances, solid cinematography and direction by Jacques Tourneur. His use of seamless flashbacks provide the most interesting segments of this film. However, despite his success with “Out of the Past,” Tourneur’s directing here can be a little uneven. One cannot fault the studio art department for slacking on the promotion of the film. Of note is the yellow teaser text in the poster.

I found Stirling Silliphant’s script ponderous at times. Many segments go by slowly with a lot of character development dialogue. It took awhile to figure what was up with Ray's character, whether he was innocent or guilty of something. His incessant vague comments about the source of his troubles barely squeezes through. The homey scenes with Gregory revealing to his wife how his insurance investigation is progressing ate up a lot of film for a character we do not need to know that much background. Then, Keith’s extended cat and mouse verbal threatening of Ray is also a frame eater. Thankfully, flashbacks make sense of why Ray is being hunted, how he, Keith and Bond collided and why the latter two cannot find their stolen loot.


I was not buying “truck-driving” Ray as a freelance commercial artist. I could have supported Bancroft as a Montgomery-Ward catalog model, however. The novel that the film is based on may be the culprit. Bancroft's first appearance with Ray in a local bar is also a wee cumbersome until thieves and noir-do-wells, Keith and Bond, enter the picture. Their abduction of Ray was a surprise. None more so than for Ray, who thinks Bancroft set him up. She thought they were police.


Keith once again seems to be holding himself back from a sudden outburst of violence. A one-dimensional character played well with clamped jaw. But it is Bond...Rudy Bond, (second from left above) who steals the film as the sadist who enjoys killing people by games of (no) chance. His laugh from an individual with a screw loose upstairs. I imagine him watching Wile E. Coyote cartoons endlessly―as an adult―always laughing hysterically at every pratfall, however repetitive. His demise is well worth waiting for. Then, there is a lot of waiting in this film. Waiting for Ray and Bancroft to become an item. Waiting for Gregory to explain himself to Ray. Waiting for Keith and Bond to come to an understanding and waiting for that snow plow to make itself useful. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

BEHIND THE HIGH WALL (1956)


You will want to overlook the familiar script in this Universal International production. Just enjoy the superb acting of the lead actors. It is another prison break story of a good guy gone bad, destroyed by temptation and a doomed driveway. More about the latter, later.

Accomplices on the outside facilitate a prison escape, kill a guard and kidnap the warden, Tom Tully, and force an inmate, John Gavin, to accompany them. A car crash kills everyone except the aforementioned. Considering their short screen time, the other actors were just happy to be given a role. Before the police arrive, Tully buries the gang's money with a plan to finally live in financial peace. If that is not dishonest enough, he shamefully attempts to pin the guard’s murder on Gavin by uncomfortably never coming to his defense.


Flawlessly, Tully catapults from supporting to lead actor without a hitch. He is excellent as a prison warden with financial problems, a crippled wife, and decisions that change his life through layers of lies. Tully’s understated and subtle performance―his tender voice when trying to comfort his wife―reflected an actor of great range. Sylvia Sidney's role as the wheelchair-bound wife seems a good choice. An interesting detail is that she is able to drive her car equipped with handicap controls. Not common in any movie of the era. Continuing to work after her debut may attest to Sidney's flexibility as an actress. Yet she was never confused with any of her more attractive peers. She certainly had a face for radio. Even though her wrinkles had multiplied twelve-fold―oddly, still wheelchair-bound―she carried on forty years later in “Mars Attacks!”

John Gavin gives a solid performance but the handsome actor, with a face fresh from a J.C. Leyendecker Arrow Shirt illustration, is out of place in this role of a down-and-out loser. With his snarling upper lip, Elvis Presley would have worked better. If Gavin was ideally cast, then his girlfriend should have been Elizabeth Taylor. Betty Lynn was attractively cute but not a classic beauty. For the record, I have no idea who the lady in the poster with the red skirt is since she was not in this movie. But her face has an uncanny resemblance to Miss Taylor.


Dependable and versatile actor, John Larch, is on hand as a prison inmate who sticks close to Gavin until the end, implausible as it is. In order to flush out both men hiding in the garage of Lynn’s father, Tully confesses his sin over a bull horn―in the formerly quiet neighborhood―and testifies to Gavin's innocence. Larch wants no part in any surrender and blasts through the garage door without opening it, hitting Tully in his escape. How anyone that near the garage―on that driveway of doom―could not hear the engine start and accelerate is beyond reasoning.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER (1960)


Admittedly, this American International film might be on many must-see lists. Unintentionally for reasons the production company would not understand. Directed by Edgar Ulmer, of “Detour” movie fame, every penny of its $125,000 budget can be accounted for. And much of the expense went into hiring actors. Handsome Robert Clarke, with his commanding voice, is well known for his low budget science fiction movies of the Fifties. He was a busy actor on television who seemed to love acting no matter what the project. Clarke probably found it a fun way to make a living.


On a test flight, Clarke pilots his X-80 (Convair F-102 fighter) through a time barrier then returns to the airbase finding it deserted with buildings showing decades of neglect. He wanders alone from one building to another. What the...hey! Check out his expression above. He looks off in a distant forest to see a dark projected painting...uh...futuristic city. Clarke is soon captured and taken to an underground city called the Citadel. Triangles are the dominant architectural design theme in this dystopian society. A fantastic city right off a 1938 Popular Science magazine cover. Tall beacons use the pulsating sound effect of the martian laser ray appendage from the original “The War of The Worlds.” The not-so-special effect of what sounds like a sophisticated party favor slide whistle is used for an elevator’s ascent and descent. This was probably not included in the budget.


Vladimir Sokoloff, in one of his last movie roles, plays the Supreme of the Citadel who is suspicious of any outsiders. His muted granddaughter, played by Darlene Tompkins, has the singular ability to read minds and affirms Clarke is quite a catch. The Supreme trusts her telepathy. Planning to stay at least overnight, Clarke is provided sleeping arrangements in an open concept area the size of a small airport terminal. The bed is an enormous, double queen-sized mattress placed on the floor. A servant brings him dinner, of which he is grateful because he has not eaten since who knows when. He takes a bite out of a “donut hole” and proceeds to explore his surroundings. He is stuffed and never eats again. Clarke and Tompkins get along triangularly. So well, she slaps him for what he is thinking after their first kiss. At least she is not sterile like all the other peop...uh....

Apparently, America’s nuclear bomb testing in the Seventies damaged the Earth's atmosphere, letting dangerous cosmic rays fall back to earth causing a plague of massive mutants and stupendous sterility. Tompkins somehow escapes the latter part and the Supreme hopes Clarke can regenerate their society. Nudge, nudge. Speaking of sterile—unfortunately not mute—Boyd “Red” Morgan’s performance as the Captain is just that. A former NFL player and Hollywood stuntman, his delivery lacks any professionalism. What better film to showcase his talent.


To help him understand the year 2024―no wonder he was starved―the Citadel’s complete history is stored in a Zenith record player console cabinet painted in sterile white. A chronicle only a few geniuses could ever possibly interpret. Tompkins pulls out shoulder-width portrait images which Clarke, without hesitation, guesses the detailed story behind each. She nods excessively in approval. He is so dreamy! Oh, he has more questions. She brings out another portrait to remedy his curiosity. She nods excessively. I was getting a headache watching her shake her head so enthusiastically.

Other time travelers are revealed to be living in the Citadel which conflicts with Clarke’s plan. Each wants to return to their time and will stoop low enough to make it happen. One traveler releases underground mutants who look hilariously harmless with choreographed attacks resembling a Kung Fu gymnastics event. The bare-footed bald mutants, with pant legs slit from ankle to knee, laugh maniacally. Truly frightening.

The Supreme helps Clarke escape, albeit alone, via the X-80 and return to his air base with a hard-to-fathom story to log. Time travel is risky business. In a common “Twilight Zone” twist, Clarke ages, mysteriously, only on his return trip. He warns them about the dangers of nuclear testing and of course, man-made global warming.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE VIOLENT ONES (1967)


The first thing of note about this Madison Productions, Inc. production, aside from the production company name itself and a misplaced detail of a steam locomotive whistle in 1967, is a driving score by Marlin Skiles befitting a major military operation with tanks rumbling through the North African desert. Yet what we see is a sheriff’s 2-door Impala Sport Coupe [first-class all the way] being driven within the speed limit through town and country. A lengthy segment which eats up enough film to include all the credits and then some. The film was not expected to be a Golden Globe nominee but the star and director, Fernando Lamas, manages this drama fairly well despite some unlikely sequences, a clichéd script and overlooked editing. Perhaps to ease some directing complications, there is plenty of driving in this film. A strange vignette is used once during a road sequence to break the apparent monotony. An ineffective experiment that hopefully was an editing oversight. This ninety-five minute film would have benefited by trimming to around seventy minutes.

The low-budget melodrama, set in a New Mexico border town, concerns three apprehended white men, Aldo Ray, Tommy Sands and David Carradine. A casting director’s dream. One is guilty in the rape and death of a local girl. Lamas, no fan of gringos, is the deputy sheriff who interrogates each individually, starting with a big smile and cordial questions as if he intends to release them once he hears their story. In reality, he is waiting for each one to say something to set him off so he can verbally assault or slap each around. Also on his conscious is the possible lynching of the three prisoners by the townspeople. The “mob” seems particularly uncommitted to string up anything as they sheepishly gather in small groups around the jail quietly discussing what to do next.


With a lynching eminent, a townsperson punctures Lamas’ car tire so they cannot escape. But Lamas has a agricultural truck backup. He and his chained-together prisoners escape out the back as no one covered that exit. I mentioned the mob was not very committed. However, very committed is a car load of locals trying to bump Lamas’ two-ton truck off the road. Traveling around twenty-five miles per hour they are not very believable nor is it plausible. They constantly lay on their horn as if taunting them like high school rivals. The truck makes a move off-road and their slow synchronized chase in the desert is pretty silly. Not being a fair fight, the truck maneuvers to ram the car, flipping it over. The truck soon runs dry with their subsequent escape through the desert on foot being tedious and time consuming for them and viewer alike. They spot coffee-brown water and immediately ingest some. Seizing an opportunity to overwhelm Lamas, the four-man choreographed fight scene is supported by solo piano and percussion sounding a bit like a halfhearted Keystone Cops routine only in slow motion.


All three prisoners eventually feel their life slipping away from dehydration and each one's story begins to reveal the murderer through a process of elimination. Another scuffle and Lamas' gun ends up at the back of the bad gringo. An injured Lamas gets flanking leg support from the remaining gringos as he proudly hobbles toward a nearby town. The three now appear to be buddies as if they were successful in their defeat of Rommel. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

DIAL 1119 (1950)


This MGM feature might have been a startling film in its day and critics generally seemed to like it. A powerful opening score by André Previn suggests a winner. But despite an obvious low budget, the movie still lost money at the box office. There were no big name stars to draw an audience and it is almost entirely filmed on studio backlot sets. I also wonder if audiences accepted a nice looking boy, Marshall Thompson, in this early lead role. His getting on a bus to “Terminal City” might have been an omen, yet hardly justifies shooting the bus driver with his own personal security device. The script somewhat awkwardly addresses mental illness. Initially, Thompson appears only to be in a sleepwalking trance and it is hard to figure if he is innocent or guilty of something. Past or present.


Thompson's cold, unemotional search for his former psych doctor, Sam Levene, goes nowhere and he eventually wanders into a bar where we meet a slice of society with their own personal foibles. Virginia Fields, Leon Ames and Keith Brasselle (bartender) make up the more notable actors for this story. Finally, there is bar owner, William Conrad, who knows each patron well, holding contempt for a few regulars. On the bright side, his bar is equipped with a state-of-the-art, remote controlled television monitor suspended over the counter that would equal the size in most sports bars today. This had to cost a pretty penny. And for what? Wrestling. And of course, the news break about an escaped mental patient who Conrad recognizes at the end of the counter. When he calmly goes to the back to call the police, Thompson is right behind him, putting Conrad’s life on permanent hold with a bullet. This instantly gets the attention of all the patrons and the previously invisible Thompson becomes larger than life itself. This innocent looking, unassuming and perspiring man happens to have no regard for human life. Especially his own. Thus initiates the stereotypical hostage situation with the police plotting their next move to end the situation.

Through clichéd interaction between killer and hostages, Thompson lays out his mental disqualifications, blaming the military for teaching him to kill. The Army was referring to the enemy, by the way. In his eyes all the patrons are pitiful excuses and he is not impressed with their petty problems. His comments put the patrons in a reflective, albeit terrified, mood. Thompson's only demand, other than having the patrons not move a muscle, is that he talk to Dr. Levene. Though unadvised repeatedly by the police, Levene sneaks inside the bar where Thompson confronts him about his historic bad advice. The doctor’s blunt assessment quickly regresses Thompson into a frightened child. He shoots Levene when pushed too far.


A revolver that Conrad kept behind the counter is spotted by Fields, whose character seems to know her way around firearms. She wounds Thompson who then tells her she had no right to do that. The patrons disagree wholeheartedly with his assessment. After a seventy-five minute running time, all hope seemingly gone with the words, “The End” approaching, he slowly escapes out the back entrance that is very well covered by the police. Welcome to Terminal City.

Some today find this film some sort of lost treasure but it is really not innovating in any aspect. It is well acted and there may be enough to hold the viewer in suspense but not surprising in any hostage situation.