Saturday, February 27, 2016

THE CROOKED WAY (1949)


This is a dandy film noir set in Los Angeles. Dark shadows and odd camera angles abound. But it is John Payne’s search for his identity which makes it a little out of the ordinary. He plays a WWII veteran who’s past is completely wiped away by a piece of shrapnel in his brain. Permanent amnesia. He was treated by Dr. Kimble at the Letterman General Hospital. Not amusing then. He leaves the hospital with his correct first name but a new last name.

Almost immediately he is recognized and apprehended by police Lieutenant, Rhys Williams. Payne plays along with no idea where it will lead. His initial meeting with Ellen Drew is an eye-opener. She is his former wife. Payne levels with her about his amnesia but the trust is not there. She knows his past too well. Drew looking somewhat like a cross between Jane Greer and Loretta Young.


Crime boss, Sonny Tufts, had a long-time friendship with Payne until it turned sour when Payne betrayed him. Tufts figures it is payback time. His performance is one to remember and he is rarely credited for it. Payne is whisked away to Tufts home not knowing who he is. After being pummeled, Payne is kicked down the fire escape stairs. That sort of behavior from a total stranger sends the message that Tufts has some sort of beef. Payne begins to realize that his past has some kinks to work out.

The two encounters between Tufts and Williams are fun. Tufts looking quite calm and content during his self-manicures. Their cat and mouse conversations are gems. Each holding their disdain for one another in check. Seeing Williams “accidentally” knock over a pitcher of water in Tuft’s lap is beautiful.


Rotund, sandpaper-voiced tenor, Percy Helton, has a history with Payne. And pain. A man with no courage and a nagging cough. Or is it a fur ball shared with his cat, Samson? Under duress, he tries to shelter Payne but with little success. Near the end of the film, the police have Helton’s shop front riddled with bullets to get Tufts’ and Payne’s attention. The latter, half unconscious after several blows to the head from the former. Tufts drags Payne out the front door using him as a shield. The police demand his surrender. With no such intentions, Tufts’ maniacal rage is captured nicely in tight, sweaty close-ups. Now, in full view of the police, out crawls Helton through the door after being shot by Tufts’ men. He is the only human moving during that scene. How he could go unnoticed is funny. The police do not ask him to stop or why he was crawling through the front door with gun in hand. Helton manages to get a shot off toward Tufts. The police take it from there.


On amnesia’s positive side, Payne is indeed a new person. Drew finds him so different, so tender, it rekindles her affection for him.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

THE PARIS EXPRESS (1952)


This British color film, released in 1953 for the American market as, “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By,” opens with a group of bicyclists waiting a train’s crossing. Claude Rains is one of the bike commuters. He gazes down the tracks after it passes dreaming of travel to far off cities. He is a meek, senior citizen head clerk at a highly respectable company, spending his entire working life slaving over the firm’s accounting books. And they are perfect. A dull man with predictable habits, his employer, Herbert Lom, is the antithesis. An arrogant, self-possessed scoundrel who treats Rains like a subordinate. A mere office boy.

Rains soon learns Lom’s secret of embezzling the entire company’s fortune on a Paris love interest, played by Marta Toren. Rains has caught them in an intimate embrace once before. Moments before Lom makes his final departure for Paris, Rains confronts him. He demands an answer. The two men push and shove until Lom accidentally trips backward into a canal and drowns. Consumed with temptation and a rye smile, Rains takes Lom's suitcase with the company's fortune and catches the film’s title train. The train on which he has dreamed of someday riding.



Thus begins his downward spiral into a dark and seedy world in which he has no experience. Not very convincingly, Rains’ lies about why he is in Paris. Mild mannered people can also commit crimes but they do not make good liars. He dreams that Toren will fall in love with him. She laughs at the old man until she discovers all that cash. At which point she fawns over him. She assumes he has killed Lom and enlists her boyfriend to cook up a plan to get the cash whatever it takes. An inspector is on the trail of both. Toren, for her part in an ongoing investigation.

“The Paris Express” is not great. Rains’ transformation from meek bookkeeper to dangerous villain is not well developed so the implausibility factor is high. The very ending seems unresolved if not plain confusing. The inspector ruled Lom’s death accidental. But we are not sure if Rains is totally innocent. However, as mild and child-like the opening, it journeys to places you would not expect a routine life could go. Listening to and watching Rains’ performance makes it the worthwhile stopover.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

WICKED WOMAN (1953)


Any old film buff should have enough time for a Beverly Michaels film festival. One evening should do it. This role is one of her more popular as she uses her self-serving curves to fire up the male ego. The film opens with  “Larry Lounge-Singer” performing the title song for this sordid tale of a deceitful woman who is on the last rung of life’s ladder. Traveling by commercial bus is not exactly first-class so the opening scenes set the tone for the title character. Her reputation on display as soon as she steps off the bus.



Michaels, with her occasionally obvious overbite, checks into “Hotel Carcinogen.” A tenant across the hall is that handsome Percy Helton. A lady magnet. A creepy weasel lady magnet. All the chairs in his apartment have been stolen from a first grade classroom. With legs crossed, Michael’s knees are above the table with help from an unusual, low camera position. The table’s top above Helton’s chest. He hits on her as only Helton could in his trademarked, suspendered, hunched fashion. She entices him because there is something she needs. He is a seamstress. Michaels certainly puts the man in manipulative.



In her early shopping scenes, Michaels is filmed in slow motion, looking like those old silent Blackhawk 8mm movies. A weird director’s idea perhaps. She even exhales tobacco smoke in slow motion when trying to seduce Richard Egan. Yeah. That will do it. He and his wife are owners of the local bar where Michaels is hired as a waitress. In slow motion, she is very popular with the gents. On the cusp of stupidity, Egan, looking quite beefy in a white T-shirt, falls for her and she immediately suggests he sell the bar, take the money and both head for Mexico. She is apparently on a tight schedule. Egan’s wife is the financial boss of the bar and that causes concern. Since the buyer has never met the wife, Michaels fills in. What seems like an editor’s miscue, because nothing comes of a single hand close-up, Michaels is not wearing a wedding ring. But a tight shot of Egan’s face suggests there may be trouble ahead. 



Helton eavesdrops on Egan’s visits to the hotel. He threatens to blackmail Michaels unless he gets his way with her. Helton is a very lonely man. A man of sewability. Egan barges in, catching him caressing her and goes ballistic. He realizes his stupidity and turns his anger on Michaels. She takes the brunt of some seriously effective shoving by Egan. The audience cheers. A kind of Egan and the Tramp. Michaels plays out the scene on her bed, sobbing and beating her pillow into submission.

The film closes with Michaels buying a new bus ticket to any town, hoping for a few more men who are attracted by a bleached blonde who could have used braces when she was a kid. She flashes a big “one-off” grin at a male traveler but he has no dental fear. He is hooked. Larry Lounge appropriately ends this ugly, and quite amusing, story with a shortened title song.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955)


During the Fifties, when you saw the colorful Paramount title screen with its ring of stars surrounding a mountain you expected a spectacle. So it is a bit surprising to find this B-movie on their project list. Predicting what thirty years in the future will be like, this George Pal production also predicted that his phone would not ring much after this disappointment.

With nearly an all male unknown cast, it does star some familiar faces destined for future television fame. So unknown are these actors, the cast is not listed until the very end. Perhaps guilt pushing the producers to add them during their final editing session. Phil Foster, not surprisingly miscast as the “in your face” Brooklyn electrician, is the one actor most hope will not make it back to Earth  He is repeatedly complaining or questioning their mission in a desperate attempt at levity. How this dimwit passed the space program no one knows. Eric Fleming and Ross Martin also star, the latter garnering fame a decade in his future.




In an amazing turn of events, their moon mission changes overnight by an order from command headquarters. They are to go straight for Mars. That is at least an extra two-day drive, buddy! The beauty of science fiction is you can propose anything dreamed up. Still doing that today with the Marvel franchise or the WWF.

Walter Brooke plays the general of the space station and its designer. Now there is an envious resumé. After spending untold millions for the circular station, he now questions their purpose. In Hollywood’s subtle jab at those “odd religious people,” he eventually goes a bit psychotic, thinking man has no right to invade God’s creation and attempts to destroy their spacecraft. His judgement actually impaired due to an illness called, “space fatigue.” I know the feeling after watching this film.




George Pal’s spaceships appear to be created from a Revell modeler’s kit and gleam white against a dark solar universe. These colorful scenes probably provided a bit of awe for baby boomer's parents. Some of the weightless effects do work well and the facial distortions speeding through space are effective, if a bit disturbing. But the Mars landing and landscape is very childlike. The dials on the space station are as big as automobile steering wheels with levers and toggle switches appearing to be built by Fisher-Price.

There is no fantasy quality about this film. If it had such it may have helped all the dreamers become believers. Instead, the approach was to get technical about space travel which only a few brilliant minds could only speculate about in the mid-fifties. Not the worst science fiction movie of the era, it simply went where no movie should have gone. Theaters.