Saturday, October 29, 2016

20,000 EYES (1961)


This tolerable—only sixty-one minutes—film opens with a driving, big band score by Albert Glasser, the king of B-movie composers. Against automobile headlights cutting through night streets there are interesting title designs giving one the feeling of a cutting edge crime drama. And with three beginning words, “The Beast with,” absent, I was relieved. The lobby poster might have you believe this is a science fiction movie but it is not. A misleading movie title to be sure, but 20,000 seemed to be a popular round number during this era and flows better than 37,000. Imagine that many eyes watching you. The dialogue is well memorized, always on cue and disappointing.

Singer and hoofer, Gene Nelson, tries again to step out of his musical background with another crime movie. He is not unique enough to notice and coming in late to the noir party. Nelson is in the spotlight right from the first scene. Though a legit diamond mine investor, he needs capital to cover a failing mine in Brazil. He swindles rotund John Banner’s  investment money to do it. Banner feeds Nelson a knuckle sandwich as his introduction to the movie. Nelson intends to pay him back but he needs time. Much more than the five days Banner gives him. The poor sound quality coupled with Banner’s thick German accent and fading volume make it difficult to understand his every word. I could have used subtitles.


Nelson’s secretary and girl is Merry Anders. To help with Nelson’s predicament, they contact Nelson’s old Army buddy and mining partner—and Anders’ old flame—James Brown. Brown brings some diamond samples at Nelson’s request as promotional investments. His plan involves stealing valuable diamonds from a museum and then returning them after an appropriate appraisal. With a lot of persuading they both help make the theft a success. Nelson (or his stunt man) sneaking across rooftops and into the museum before dawn is a nice touch. It has the momentary feel of a high quality caper. It continues so dark one cannot see Nelson’s time-consuming detail work he goes through to steal the diamonds from the museum case. Unless one has stolen jewels before from a case with alarms, you will have no idea what he is doing. I think he may have done a super professional job (for his first time) but we will never know for sure what he did exactly. But the director sure devoted a lot of film for it.

It is easy to lose track of which diamonds were samples, switched, stolen, stolen again or returned in Nelson’s shell game. His meeting with diamond appraisers is interrupted by Brown disguised as a robber. In the planned struggle with Brown’s gun, Nelson is supposed to take a bullet in the arm. Also part of the plan is a prior injection of Novocain into Nelson’s forearm so he does not feel the bullet as much. I have never tried that. Handling diamonds with a limp hand would seem to be draw suspicion, though.

In the director’s attempt to explain away “the why” for the theft—the logic behind it—Robert Shayne is given a useless part as the police lieutenant who tries to piece together Brown’s presence at the bank. The whole scene, filmed with the echo of an area microphone, lasts less than two minutes. Everyone gives contradicting remarks about the bandit’s identity and reasons for him arriving at that precise moment. Shayne is stumped, gives up and it is the last we see of him.

The phony theft of the diamonds means Nelson’s insurance policy will pay off. But it will take six weeks to get the money returned to Banner. Nelson pays Banner a visit poolside with a twenty-two inch television console nearby. After Nelson’s attempt to explain, Banner threatens Nelson, who pushes Banner backward, tipping over the console on the way down. Never mix electricity and water.

This B-movie has the qualifying attributes. Dark filters for night scenes. Abrupt editing. Many interior scenes filmed with an area microphone. Showing Nelson in his 1961 Chrysler pulling curbside a few times at the same location supplements the film’s location action and cements a low budget. The music score, so promising at the beginning, inserts itself in some scenes as if the composer never saw the rushes. Except for the poor lighting, questionable script and directing, it may likely satisfy an hour, however.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL (1958)


This United Artists film uses periodic voice over narration akin to a documentary newsreel. The Robert Kent Production sounds authenticated and unfolds the story with the smallest studio sets, looking more like an early television play. Yet in one scene they manage to squeeze in a current model Ford through one tiny street, leaving little room for the studio lights let alone the Asian extras to walk about on cue. It is a tale of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and the special government agents assigned to resolve an unusual case.


The Communists “new weapon” is to kidnap the son of an Arab King to pressure him into not signing an agreement with the United States to build a missile base in his small Arab nation. Assigned to find the prince is undercover agent, Gene Barry, who is posing as a lounge singer in a tiny Hong Kong nightclub set. This is the standout moment in the film. Barry had a voice but his body rhythm here is hilarious. Stiff and corny. His left and right arms doing whatever they want as if, in his mind, he planned moving right but his body suddenly felt compelled to move left. Cannot fault him for trying his best to sell a lame song about himself. But he is definitely a “footloser.” Few would ever guess he is an intelligence agent, so in that regard he is in deep cover. His love interest and accompanist is played by Beverly Tyler in her last film before transitioning to television. She is not undercover yet her faked piano playing made me suspicious.



After Barry’s informant is killed, King Calder, the intelligence agent recommending Barry for the prince retrieval, shares evidence that the informant had ties to Allison Hayes, who is under surveillance for gold smuggling to the Communists. Hayes can play untrustworthy through makeup and wardrobe alone. She resides in another small Asian film set called Macao. So Barry has about forty feet to travel, not forty miles. In the hopes of flushing out the kidnappers, Barry sells her on his smuggling plan of mass producing souvenirs, yet after the cheap metal is burned off, is solid gold underneath.


Barry discovers a medallion belonging to the kidnapped prince in the office of Noel Drayton and the kidnapping mastermind is revealed. Hayes sets up a meeting with Drayton but double-crosses Barry at gunpoint, forcing him to a cellar where Drayton awaits with the kidnapped prince. Smugly, he tells his plan to pin the kidnapping on the American Barry. He and the prince will be killed after the Arab King signs the papers to let the Commies establish their own missile base. All wait impatiently for that important phone call. But Barry comes up with a plan to disrupt the telephone service that is right out of a Bond playbook. In the standard secret agent ploy, he needs to stand and stretch and is granted that relief. With outstretched arms he casually picks up one of several pointed, thick metal pins lying near the telephone. Really not sure what they are, yet it is pretty obvious he is up to something. I am surprised Barry was not whistling a random tune. Drayton is oblivious. Suspended disbelief at its best. When he sits back down, one arm dives between the cushions where the telephone line is and pokes the pin through the rubber encased telephone cable and not his thumb. Drayton must call from an upstairs phone to confirm the signing. He leaves Hayes alone with Barry. Uh-oh. Moviegoers knew what was coming next. In her “duh” moment, Barry volunteers to light her cigarette but overwhelms her with his charms...uh...arms, knocking the gun from her hand and as she stumbles hits her head in the fall. Drayton returns and graciously accepts a bullet. Barry and the prince escape.


One evil-doer is holding Tyler as Barry leverage. Barry kicks open the door, stands back as Asian bullets shoot the hallway full of lead. Without looking, Barry shoots around the door frame, killing the man. Yes. He is that good. At that very moment, another man is ready to shoot Barry in the back but he is shot in the back by Calder. This could have gone on a few minutes in a Zucker Brothers film. Tyler’s suspicions about Barry’s dancing abilities become clearer when she learns of his real occupation.

Barry handles suave with the best of them and this film highlights his talents. It is all fairly silly and predictable but the secret agent premise beats the Bond pictures out of the starting gate. Still, I would love to hear Simon Cowell’s comments about Barry’s dance moves. I can almost hear the buzzer. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

THE LONG HAUL (1957)


This film opens ominously late at night behind a contemporary, driving score with modern fonts. It has the intriguing feel of a possible Cold War drama. An Army truck comes to a halt near London and out pops Victor Mature with his trademark countenance of superior sarcasm. His heavy eyelids not from an all night drive. This will be his last delivery for the U.S. Army and with his discharge sets his sights back to America. His British wife would rather stay put to raise their family. After a moment of heated discussion, Mature realizes staying put is best for their marriage.

His lorry driving comes to an abrupt end, through no fault of his own, after an incident places Mature on Britain’s “do not call list.” Desperate for living money he gets involved with a smuggling operation run by Patrick Allen. Allen’s girl, Diana Dors, has been under his wing for some time. He made her and treats her like any of his property. Keeping her looking cheap is anything but. In an intense exchange she walks out on him and hides in Mature’s lorry. Oh boy. Mature opens the driver’s door and is not liking the arrangement. She insists he take her any place else. She prefers Mature (men) much to Allen’s ire and they begin an on-again, off-again affair with Mature’s marriage taking the brunt.



Always scheming, Allen wants to complete a money-making long haul and a sizable cash reward persuades Mature to drive. The middle seat is cushioned by Dors. How the three of them continue to get along is a wonder. The time sensitive delivery through forest and mountain shortcut is exciting with literal cliffhangers at every turn. They cross a stream but get stuck on the embankment coming out. While Mature is trying to free up a wheel, Allen diabolically lets the lorry roll backward, hoping to mash Mature. A fist fight ensues with neither actor appearing to use a stunt double as they slosh around the shoreline. Allen is hit by a sliding box from the truck bed and then smothered under a mountain of falling fur boxes and drowns.

After making the delivery of some soggy furs to the cargo ship on time, Mature and Dors take a cab back to town. Their route was the better one for that fur delivery in hind sight. She begs him to run away with her. The money he got from the long haul is meant for his wife as a final goodbye gesture. Dors delivers it and his wife delivers a slap across her face. Dors overhears talk of Mature’s son’s health (an earlier blow to the head from a fall has turned serious) but she is hesitant to mention it upon reentering the cab, which is a pretty low-down. He knew nothing of the illness and will not leave his wife and son despite his impending arrest. Dors returns to her nightclub gig and all live not so happily ever after.



Mature was more than halfway down the slope of his long haul career and with a couple exceptions, this might be his best late-career serious role. It is hard to fault Mature in any of his prior projects where he usually dominated the screen. Although self-deprecating of his career, he turns in a solid performance for a script that takes its time to unravel. Dors’ acting is fine and her vocal range can be taken more seriously than the weak, breathy Monroe. In her early scenes, she seems out of place in a trucking industry setting, however. Like burning magnesium, she is not hard to spot.

Hollywood continues churning out this tired premise of the weak male having an affair. They now leave the weak part out, suggesting it is inevitable behavior. The guilt has disappeared. Not so in a late Fifties Hollywood.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

PATTERNS (1956)


Flawless. Compelling. Stunning. Select words that describe this movie from a revised script and screenplay by Rod Serling from a “Kraft Television Theater” production the year before. The lack of music carries over from the television series. If you were told the crux of the film revolves around boardroom meetings, one might think it would be boring. There is nothing here to bore the mature viewer. From the beautiful opening cinematography by Boris Kaufman, the way it weaves around between skyscrapers, the movie intrigues like a creative art film. We see graphic patterns right before us, but Serling’s script deals more with personal patterns of behavior and political moves of movers and shakers.

Each actor gives a tour de force performance, but I cannot say enough about Everett Sloane. He is extraordinary as the intimidating, iron-fisted company president on facial features alone. His work day begins with crowded ground floor elevators. To get an idea of Sloane’s status, the elevator operator, Ed Binns, forbids anyone in one particular elevator. The one reserved for Sloane himself. He expects no less and few words are ever exchanged. When the door opens, his staff are at his beckon call.

Van Heflin and his wife, played by Beatrice Straight, arrive in New York City by invitation from Sloane after Heflin’s successful career as an industrial designer. He is a bit overwhelmed by the transition from his small Ohio town until he meets Ed Begley, the long-tenured Vice President, who reassures him with a calm demeanor. Begley has a soft spot for people. Their welfare is his first priority and that is where he is at odds with Sloane.


Heflin’s first board meeting is an eye-opener. As he has done for many years, Begley voices his concerns over one of Sloane’s business plan in full earshot of fellow board members. Building up a head of steam, remaining cordial, Sloane suddenly and repeatedly nails him to the wall in vicious verbal attacks challenging his competence, tenure and value to the company. Watching the board members sit uncomfortably staring at their folders even made me a bit uneasy. And as explosive as a conversation can possibly be, Sloane smoothly settles tensions down with reasoned foresight and a brief smile. No one dare challenge him without good reason and Begley never has had one according to Sloane. His desire is to get Begley to resign through humiliation. As if not shocked enough by his initial board meeting, Heflin is further jolted to learn his joining the company is to replace Begley. Heflin aligns himself too closely with Begley, lending support to him to the explosive ire of Sloane. Sloane is not in a popularity contest. He is there to make a profit. For his verbal support of Begley, Sloane lays into Heflin with the same viciousness for not recognizing his own potential. The shocking scene packs a wallop, and of course, completed without the habitually used R-rated language of today’s films. There is no waste of words that have no meaning or that lack self control.

Heflin later spots Begley working late into the night. Begley, perhaps with one too many shots of whisky, gets so upset referring to Sloane one thinks he is going to kill him at the next board meeting. Heflin begs him to calm down and seriously consider resigning. He is also angrily at rope’s end with stubborn Begley, who refuses to ever give Sloane any satisfaction. Begley’s path is crumbling beneath him. And he knows it.

For the next board meeting, he again gets lambasted by Sloane. So relentless and severely that Begley stands up in a rage, though speechless. He slowly and quietly apologizes to Sloane and the board as he has done for nearly thirty years. He walks out of the adjourned meeting in a trance and collapses in the hallway. He will not need to resign. Heflin believes Sloane is the catalyst for Begley’s death, knowing of his heart condition. Alone in his office, Sloane appears to briefly show sadness at this outcome but a new day of business is upon him.

The final scene is astounding. Heflin confronts Sloane, seemingly for the last time before returning to Ohio. He has had enough of New York City, the company and Sloane personally. In no uncertain terms he tells Sloane how much he hates every inch him. Heflin would do everything in his power to remove Sloane as president if he remained, however. Sloane has no problem with that and Heflin is welcome to try. Sloan defends himself by fiercely laying out his reasons for his behavioral pattern, continually challenging Heflin’s work ethic. Still in fiery conversation, out of the blue he immediately doubles Heflin’s salary and stock options. Without even a blink, Heflin also wants to inherit Begley’s “single dream” of breaking Sloane's jaw someday. Slightly amused, Sloane agrees and adds a rider giving him the same privilege to Heflin's jaw.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

THE PROWLER (1951)


Louis B. Mayer once looked at Van Heflin and said, “You will never get the girl in the end.” This movie supports Mayer’s assessment. Heflin takes another turn playing a scoundrel. A deceiver “disguised” in a policeman’s uniform. His past has been a series of disappointments which led to his career as a disgruntled cop. The viewer is not sure who the prowler is at the beginning of this ninety minute film but the first suspect could very well be Heflin himself. He is not likeable from his first scene to his last. Co-starring with Heflin is the lithe Evelyn Keyes. Her marriage is rocky due to a possessive, jealous husband, nearly twice her age. Keyes timid, hesitant performance makes Heflin seem even more controlling.

Heflin and his squad car companion, John Maxwell, are called to investigate a prowler by Keyes. She is typically alone most nights because her husband is an overnight radio personality. By the way, he is voiced on the radio by screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. Instantly, Heflin starts wondering what her “game” is. As if she is just wanting attention. He becomes completely obsessed with her. After checking the premises, Maxwell suggests she keep the shades drawn until she is fully dressed. There were those who did not have any common sense back then, either.


In the guise of a follow up call to check on Keyes safety the next evening, Heflin comes right in her home and immediately sits down on the couch. Keyes must be thinking, “Please, won’t you have a seat?” She is very uncomfortable with his intrusion, not understanding why he keeps showing up. He apologizes with all the fake sincerity Heflin can muster. In another return visit, he needs a smoke but they are locked in a cabinet for her husband’s use. Heflin simply picks the lock in front of her, with her hairpin, then snoops around the cabinet to discover an insurance policy on the husband's life.

She feels guilty about the possible affair, as well she should, and decides to call it off. It will never work. Heflin knows how to deal with this. As days pass she gets lonely. When she calls him he lets the phone ring extra long before answering. Repeatedly. Everytime she calls. He tells her she is right. Nothing he can do. It will never work out. And hangs up with regrets. Heflin falls back into his bed and a high placed camera catches him with a huge smile. She is hooked. Despite her initial reluctance the two begin an affair in the days to follow. I know. This rarely happens in Hollywood movies.

Heflin concocts a late night scheme at Keyes’ home. In official police uniform, he first slits a screened door, then repeatedly bangs the fence gate to arouse the husband. When Heflin sees him he shouts, “Halt!” then opens fire. The murder becomes “a tragic accident” for the coroner's jury based on Heflin’s well planned phony story. Helping convince the jury is Keyes’ shaky testimony (under fear of Heflin’s glare) that they never met prior to her husband's death. Due to this “tragedy,” Heflin resigns from the police force and never wants to see a gun again. Heflin becomes somewhat of a hero to his friends and associates. Even though Keyes suspects Heflin of foul play, his convincing lies and her naivete convinces he surely is innocent.

They happily marry then the honeymoon surprise. Heflin learns she is four months pregnant. The date of the child's conception would prove the two had lied to cover their previous relationship. It would also nail him for the murder of Keyes’ husband. The final turning point for her is when he blurts out in anger about the life insurance policy he was counting on. Oops.

Having the baby in a hospital would establish a record of the child’s birth. So they hide out for five months in a desert ghost town that his partner, Maxwell, always talked about when gem collecting. Five months! Keyes goes into premature labor and Heflin seeks a doctor in a nearby town. Keyes discovers Heflin’s disavowed gun in his suitcase and realizes he also intends to kill the doctor to keep their secret. She warns the doctor who returns to town with the newborn. Keyes’ makeup is quite effective nearing the child’s birth. She looks positively ill with death a distinct possibility.

Realizing the doctor will send the police, Heflin drives away in panic leaving his beloved in “ghost city.” The gravel road is blocked at a narrow passage by his former partner, Maxwell, who was coming to pay a visit. After a five month disappearing act, he guesses Heflin might be there! Heflin bolts from the car and attempts to run up a one hundred foot mound of steep, loose stone. Not sure where he was planning to go but in that closing metaphor of his life, the harder he tries running up the hill the more futile it becomes. He is as stationary as if on a treadmill. Makes for an easy target.

This might seem like just another oft-told story of greed, a seducer and a co-star who gets entangled in a web of deceit. It is. But with only a few implausible moments, Heflin and Keyes make this film quite watchable. Yet the authorities never did find that prowler.