Saturday, August 12, 2017

ROSES ARE RED (1947)


Twentieth Century Fox agreed to distribute this tidy sixty-seven minute noir despite a lead cast that has been mostly forgotten. Okay. Totally forgotten. Giving the viewer some common ground is a supporting cast of more familiar faces whose careers were gaining momentum, Jeff Chandler, James Arness, Joe Sawyer and Charles McGraw. Other than the ridiculous premise of identical twins from different mothers, there is not much to fault here.

The title refers to a murder case where the victim is found with a single rose in her hand. It does not make up the crux of the film, however. Sawyer is first seen smelling the rose at the crime scene. He sniffs up the aroma with great nostalgia as he recalls, as a child, his mother's rose garden. Lovely.

Don Castle, at times looking like a cross between Rory Calhoun and Robert Taylor, plays a dual role of the new D.A. and a criminal with the exact same appearance. Establishing both characters with matching mustaches and hair color and style makes for one gullible audience. If that is not confusing enough, pretty Peggy Knudsen and Patricia Knight play, respectively, the good guy's fiance and bad guy's wife. Of similar height, hairstyle, clothes and hooked up with—in reality—the same guy, it may take a few minutes to sort things out. Knudsen, a crack newspaper reporter, appears to be wearing wax lips when not talking or with a lower lip that could burst at any moment. The ladies have no trouble identifying their man, however, as each have a kiss that is more distinct than fingerprints.


A wheelchair-bound mob boss is filled in about the new D.A. by crooked cop and rose smeller, Sawyer. He informs him that the new D.A. will not “cooperate” like the last D.A., who was apparently voted out for that very reason. After bad Castle is released from prison, he spots a photo of the new D.A. in the newspaper and recognizes himself. Posing as the real D.A., he visits the mob boss in the hope of convincing him he could play the new D.A. since he is the same person. However, the boss is not fooled. He recognizes bad Castle from a program cover for his performance in “Othello” by The Prison Players with a talented supporting cast! Obviously, bad Castle has the acting chops to pull it off. They initiate a prison revolving door plan and manipulate the judicial system.


A mob goon, Chandler, abducts the real D.A., taking him to a secluded location for a few days until the bad D.A. is ready to roll. Good and bad Castle finally meet, always with a blank door between them in the background, a safe distance apart. When the opportunity arises, the D.A. jumps corrupt Castle, knocks him out and places him in an upright position as Chandler's automobile pulls into the drive. The D.A. exchanges clothes with the unconscious twin. How timely...how ridiculous. Dressing himself and a limp body in less than a minute is suspended disbelief at its briefest. Through his own initiative and just for fun, the goon (unknowingly) shoots the corrupt Castle. After pushing the real D.A.'s car over a roadside embankment, Chandler roughs him up and shoves him down the slope to make it believable that he was thrown clear of his car. While recovering in the hospital the real D.A. keeps his kidnapping and bad driving skills vague to the authorities and his girl while a smug Sawyer looks on.

Knudsen, however, smells something rotten in this Castle. Later at gunpoint, she questions him until he reminds her of their first kiss. After their third date. They kiss and she instantly knows he is the real deal. Well, he is at least alive. The real D.A. assumes the persona of the “dead D.A.” for Sawyer's sake. Oh brother! Knight unexpectedly drops by his office and expects a familiar kiss from her husband. Upon leaving, she lets Sawyer in on what a kiss means to her as they motor away. A little too personal for Sawyer. His face turns red as a rose. I imagine. The real D.A. is now her fake husband. Or something. She disappears in the film for a while. The audience not too concerned since they are way ahead of the script.

The jailbird accused in the murder agrees to turn state’s evidence on his crime family. Meanwhile, the mob boss will pay Sawyer to get out of the country but Sawyer turns the table and threatens the boss at gunpoint in his own plan to come out smelling like a rose. With an armed wheelchair Ernst Blofeld would envy, the mob boss mortally wounds Sawyer. Police arrive to haul off the dead and charge one with the illegal use of a wheelchair. Knight is called in to sign papers and divest herself from her late husband. As she goes out the door, she reminds Knudsen that her fiance’s kissing needs some practice. Well, of all the nerve!


Saturday, July 29, 2017

NO ESCAPE (1953)


A limited budget movie with opening narration is sometimes a clear signal the film is going to stall out somewhere along the way, not sustaining its “docudrama” set up. There is no escaping that reality here where escape has a double meaning. One, of having all roads out of the city blocked by police for any fleeing fugitive, and the other, trying to escape a homicide rap. This is a rare crime B-movie where none of the principles die. There is a lot of faking in this film, from dubbed singing to a rooftop escape which looks particularly manufactured. One might relish the scenes of vintage San Francisco but only if you grew up there.

The film starts off fairly optimistically thanks to Lew Ayres in a likable role well suited some five years later for a young Jack Lemmon, perhaps. He appears to be a flippant, carefree songwriter who is eking out a living playing piano at a nightclub. Actually he cannot get his composing mojo back and wallows in self-doubt and drink. His dubbed vocals being way off the believability chart. To say nothing of the piano “playing” before his hands get near the keyboard.


Marjorie Steele, girlfriend of Sonny Tufts, is adequate in her role. Her trumpeted, curling upper lip when talking is annoying as if she continued as a thumb sucker through sixth-grade. But I digress. While chatting with Ayres in the nightclub, she is whisked away by a wealthy James Griffith, in possibly his briefest role ever. A quarrel later ensues with a lamp base going to Griffith's head. All of which is assumed but never filmed. Fearing she has killed Griffith, she becomes an over-the-top bundle of nerves, jumping three feet whenever a phone rings or a siren blares. Ayres later stumbles into Griffith's apartment to return the “pity cash” he received from Griffith in the nightclub. He leaves enough fingerprints to incriminate himself. It eventually occurs to Ayres that she only knocked out Griffith with someone else returning for the kill.


Tufts as a policemen seems a stretch, as one gets the feeling he will go into a jealous, maniacal rage at any moment. Slightly unstable roles like this seemed to be more the norm for him in the Fifties as his career self-destructed. But I digress again. Tufts would prefer to pin the crime on Ayres but Steele feels guilty about that. She helps Ayres escape—without leaving town—but there is no escaping the mundane sections throughout this film which are not integral to the plot and make it seem a lot longer than it is. There are a few clever close calls or two but hardly worth mentioning. In a moment to catch their breath, Steele pointedly challenges Ayres to snap out of it and return to being the composer he once was. In the end, he sees a fresh horizon with a newly written song and encouragement from his new girl.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1969)


This film is perhaps better titled, “The Film that Blew Too Much.” For a supposed secret agent spy yarn it is bogged down for a lack of action, a lot of talk and a convoluted plot, tiresome script and boring performances by the principle players. The opening music reminds one of the typical Sixties beach party films. The score gets more appropriately “007ish” as the credits role, however. The music editor’s blew it, though, with some repetitious themes with no benefits to the action. None worse than when our hero is walking through the inside of an airliner while a burping brass score sounds as if the players were sight reading. Funny, wobbly, if not out of tune. The choreographed scuffles using obvious stuntmen and paper furniture keeps the realism dangerously low. The faked high performance engine sound effects from the (apparently) “Ferrari” knock-offwhatever it iswas probably mandatory coming a year after “Bullitt.” On the other hand, the gunshot sound effects are rather impressive in a film where everyone apparently carries a .44 Magnum.


Former CIA spy, Adam West, with the cheesy name of Johnny Cain, spends his retirement running a nightclub and is reluctant to leave his comfortable lifestyle. But the CIA's David Brian needs him more than ever. A committee known ironically as, WEST, also want his services. There is a big build up of his credentials as if they are expecting to hire Rambo. But one gets the feeling West is about as menacing as Woody Allen.

West's job is to find out who murdered a mob kingpin unceremoniously and literally dumped at his nightclub. The killing is an early step by the committee to have the Communists methodically take over the crime syndicate. So West is out to bring down WEST. We find him bouncing from one co-star to another to solve the crime and stay alive. Location filming normally helps these spy movies and that is one redeeming quality. Yet in “all this excitement” West remains quite comatose. A character that is so laid back he simply appears to be lacking sleep most of the time. But what a tan!


The film gets no lively help from deadpan co-star, Nancy Kwan, either. Bland Kwan relies on her attractiveness to the end. So it is up to Buddy Greco's performances to resuscitate the film, doing what he did best in this, the first of his two films. A Buddy Greco Film Festival making for a short evening. Always available and dependable, Nehemiah Persoff, hangs in there throughout the film as the police lieutenant and West's part-time protection.

Despite fawning “Batman” fans, Adam West simply does not sell the role in this supposed career upgrade. He never completely leaves Bruce Wayne behind. West fans will probably love it for that very reason. Being filmed in color may be its most noteworthy quality. Filmed in grainy black and white, it would be another B-movie. Which it is, of course, in any coloration. The film may not rank as the worst budgeted film of 1969 but it still ranks.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

DANGEROUS MISSION (1954)


There is no faulting the cast of this colorful B-movie with A-list actors produced by RKO Radio Pictures. Outside of these stars its main claim to fame was its use of 3D technology of the era. In a final climatic scene, an out-stretched arm to retrieve a revolver may have elicited a few oohs and ahhs. In whatever dimension it is not hard to recognize the early Fifties RKO touches. Back projected scenes and less than realistic special effects. It would appear most of the money was doled out on the cast. Which was a wise move. Nearing the peak of his career, Victor Mature gets top billing, followed by Piper Laurie, William Bendix and RKO's go to man, Vincent Price.

While working in New York, Laurie stumbles onto the murder of a mobster. She hits the rails to Chicago, transfers onto the Great Northern Railway's “Empire Builder” and gets a job at the Glacier National Park gift shop. I assume. Who could possibly find her there? Mature, for one, who descends rather quickly after her arrival. His suave demeanor, pants with no rear pockets and heavy eyelids are attracting to Laurie. She is also fond of Price, who is doing his best impression of a sincere amateur photographer. Both are gentlemen as each trade date nights with fairness and civility. Her dangerous mission is staying alive to the end of the film as the authorities want her to testify for what she witnessed. Never mind the silly sub-plot involving the ever-charming Price with an Indian maiden, Betta St. John, who is evidently from the local Naive Tribe.


The title is broad in meaning. “Dangerous Mission” does present a number of dangerous sequences. All of which have nothing to do with the plot. Like so many current movies or television dramas, this film assumes the viewer has the attention span of a gnat. A trait for which Irwin Allen honed. There is an avalanche during a party in the mountains. A party essentially intended to further introduce characters to square dancing. The crushing avalanche brings down power lines. Mature does not hesitate to climb one utility pole to curtail a dangerous live wire in the likes of Angus MacGyver. He did this frequently as an Marine. Apparently. Then there is a forest fire in which untrained civilians, Mature and Price, are enlisted into fighting by stuffed uniformed ranger, Bendix. All seems quite dangerous. Finally, a frame-eating Indian ceremony to perhaps capture Montana's heritage or to bump up tourism for the coming summer of 1954.


The opening and early scenes set the viewer up for a potential crowd-pleaser. The cast is entirely responsible for this potential. Overall, I found the movie's pacing pretty good at holding your attention. But it is a routine drama except for the aforementioned “surprise” scenes. Some of which inserted to show off the 3D effects, I imagine. One can thank the poor editing for these. The ending, amid sets with glacier paint and studio lighting, brings few surprises though it is fairly exciting. The hit man to take Laurie out (not on a date) shows a lack of skill under pressure. By this point most viewers had already chosen the cast member they hoped would not survive a fall to an icy abyss. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

THE HOUSTON STORY (1956)


William Castle offers up his final noir about an ambitious oil driller who discovers a way to steal oil then sell it to distributors or foreign interests for huge profits. The film's first half is the stronger section as we are not sure of the main character's intent nor occupation. Whether legit or crook. The opening morgue scene involving a female's body gets the intrigue award. The script can be complicated about the benefits of underworld “investing” and whose pipes are being gleaned. It starts to disintegrate during the last third of the film, however, offering a commonplace resolve.

Gene Barry puts the con in conniving. A greedy, unscrupulous businessman who romances a nightclub singer to infiltrate a Houston mobster's organization. With handsome, hero looks, Barry more often than not left the crooked roles behind. He is a decent enough fit in this role as a womanizer. More believable in this aspect than the original choice, Lee J. Cobb, might have been. Most women in the audience would prefer to be kissed by Barry over Cobb.


Barbara Hale—the aforementioned morgue lady—is the newly identified nightclub singer and mistress of local mob boss, Edward Arnold. Her facial features are a standout from any angle. Hale plays the role well despite her obvious, yet convincing, dubbed vocal number. She has cheating plans of her own. Escape town with lots of oily dough, leaving Barry barren. She will need to wash the platinum from her hair before Perry Mason would ever consider her as his assistant.


There is enough backstabbing in this film to be another Castle horror movie. Arnold, in his next to last movie, could play corrupt like few others. Barry needs his financial backing. Arnold goes along with Barry's scheme, vouching for their newest board member, chaired by “Mr. Big,” John Zaremba. But Arnold never wavers from his plan to dispose of Barry once the funds start rolling in. Apart from Houston's temperatures, Barry begins taking heat from investigators. He sets up nightclub owner, Paul Richards, another Arnold associate, to take the fall for an oil well sabotage to get them off his back. But Richards shifts the blame to Arnold, putting him on an slippery slope. For the first time in his career, he is a hunted man with no place to go. Out of nowhere, instantly, mister tough guy spits out his startling confession to Barry. “Now I gotta run! I never had to run before! I don't even know how to run!” At his size, he was accurate about the running. His rapid escape out the front doors where the police are waiting will not even allow him be arrested for jay-walking. Sensing trouble, Zaremba wants Barry removed “peacefully” from his “board of elders” and sends two gangsters to...uh...find him.

With all his shrewd and detailed planning, Barry would have made an excellent professional organizer some fifty years later. Organized for him will be a trial. A sentencing for graft, corruption and an itty-bitty murder. Digging himself out of prison might be his next drilling adventure.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

THE SCARLET HOUR (1956)


This ninety-five minute film's premise is what God meant about his Tenth Commandment. Though the title is a bit of a mystery—no scarlet noted and the film is over an hour—the suspense is pretty well handled by director, Michael Curtiz. The only thing new about this film is its debut of some future television regulars. Paramount's Vista Vision gamble, Carol Ohmart, stars with Tom Tryon, Elaine Stritch, David Lewis and James Gregory in their first film, along with seasoned actors, Ed Binns and E.G. Marshall. In fact, this movie might have played better on the small screen. At least it would have been free. Of note is a smooth vocal performance by Nat King Cole.

Ohmart's successful husband, played by Gregory, knows his wife will do just about anything behind his back. Straight-arrow Tryon proves to be a real sap by succumbing to the devious female and her plan to have him intercept jewels after thieves steal them. A plan she originates after they both secretly overhear a conversation between Lewis and his two operatives. The house to be burglarized? It is Lewis' own home.


On the night of the theft-intercept, the abusive Gregory follows his wife, catches her, and spots Tryon. Obvious to her, he would like to kill her as he has threatened to do before. He pulls his gun and enters her car. They struggle as Ohmart pleads with him. Gregory's gun goes off in the wrong direction and he is shoved out onto the pavement. Though she despised him, she plunges into hysterics, calling out his name in sorrow. How could her plan possibly have gone this wrong? This segment is hard to fathom as she drives off, arms shaking, with Tryon trying to figure what happened back there as he was dodging burglar bullets. Surely Gregory was shot with a stray one. 

Ohmart has the brazenness to be jealous of Tryon guessing he is secretly seeing her late husband's secretary, played by Jodie Lawrance. She, by the way, had more movies under her waist before 1956 than the other stars combined. Lawrance wants to protect him for the decent man he really is as she hopes for a future together. Ohmart drops a none-too-subtle suggestion to the police that she might have killed Gregory. When Tryon finds this out he is...how to put it...livid. He arranges for the police to gather at Ohmart's estate as he gives her a big dose of verbal reality. She stares out a second story window as Lawrence and Tryon embrace in the courtyard below. As for Ohmart, I am not sure how severe the charges will be, given her husband's accidental death and the theft of stolen fake jewels. Perhaps a series of counseling sessions and a year of community service. She has issues.


Hard to believe today there would not have been a script change, so I found this amusing. When the police come to the office of Tryon for questioning—Tryon portrays E.V. Marshall—he meets the lieutenant, played by E.G. Marshall. I thought I saw E.G. smirk a bit but really only wishful thinking. E.G. seems to have sucked some helium before filming certain scenes.

At least for this film, Ohmart is Madame Tussaud's Barbara Stanwyck. Given her resemblance along with a similar story line, one might assume it is a re-think of a famous Stanwyck role. But in this case, “Double Dumbdidy” might be a better title. To be more accurate, her face is a mash-up of seventy percent Stanwyck and thirty percent Meryl Streep. Even at one-hundred percent it would not have helped Ohmart's movie career who quickly transitioned to television. Her over-the-top acting quirks come off as if she is trying to steal any scene she is in. Constantly fidgeting some part of her body. None worse than her scene poolside with Lewis as her character, with all the femininity of Marlon Brando, nervously shakes in between severe drags on a cigarette. She is the weakest link in the movie and Hollywood noticed.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

PAROLE, INC. (1948)


Equity Pictures presents this uninteresting film about a federal agent's undercover mission. The Orbit Production is split between studio sets and location shooting with the obligatory train steam whistle sound track in the distance. The opening title credits are accompanied by an Alexander Lazlo score, a B-movie composer and music director for NBC Radio at the time. The music has a slight documentary angst about it and the opening roll of introductory text seems to support this. Yet the score could be used for many dramas with a burlap background beneath the titles. l cannot imagine many talked about the film after its initial run, although Michael O'Shea was popular. This movie's lack of suspense or any surprises makes for a long seventy-five minutes, including the minimum fist-a-cuffs action.


The film opens from O'Shea's hospital bed as we see him verbally, still gasping for air, transcribe his thoughts over a Dictaphone about his recent investigation. His head looking like it was bandaged by Miss Winthrop's third-grade class using masking tape indiscriminately. While his character sets up the film's premise through flashbacks, each time cutting back to his hospital bed, O'Shea's bandages begin to look a tad more medically approved. The nurses got a real chuckle with those third-graders!

O'Shea goes undercover to flesh out the gang responsible for buying paroles for convicted criminals. His lackluster voice-over narration has all the raw toughness of Danny Kaye. Evelyn Ankers, owner of a dinner club, employs several of her “boys” to do her bidding. The film plays out in slow motion as it cuts between informative scenes and the lull of O'Shea's narration. The Police Commissioner, Lyle Talbot, looking particularly oily in a pencil thin mustache, arranges a fake news headline which reassures the gang about O'Shea's supposed criminal history. Soon enough we are back to the hospital and by now, bed sores are probably O'Shea's biggest concern.


Turhan Bey plays the gang's attorney—hunk of Ankers—who is the kingpin of buying paroles with inside help from two crooked parole board members. In pinstriped suit and dark Vitalis hair, Bey looks every bit the matinee idol and stands out from all the other average looking people in the film. Harry Lauter, always on hand for supporting role, plays the well-reasoned board member whose discerning vote is constantly dismissed by the overriding committee.

The excitement nearly crescendos. The ending is the least imaginative as we quickly learn how O'Shea ended up in the hospital in the first place. It also supplies the moviegoer with his current status. He is finally out of that “Craftmatic” bed with dreams of going dancing again. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A WELL-KNOWN HOLLYWOOD SHORT LIST

I am breaking from my usual comments on low budget movies to address five high budget actors and actresses for the “Five Stars Blogathon” hosted by http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/. There were some solid performances in the B-movie genre in spite of being saddled with a poor production or a bad agent. A few of those seemingly forgotten actors might appear on anyone's expanded list. But my candidates stand the test of time and are universally accepted as some of the best of Hollywood regardless of the era. Despite starring in a few less than successful films, their performances were not at fault. Each are impossible to ignore on screen and in their best films the running time is not quite long enough.


Edward G. Robinson
Except for the ubiquitous carnival fun house distortion mirror, your average mirror never confused Edward G. Robinson with Errol Flynn of the Thirties. With handsome leading men being hand-picked by studios, it may be hard to figure how E.G. made it onto a soundstage at all. Not hard to figure are the polished performances of this tremendously dedicated, classically trained actor. His talent resuscitated many a script, transforming the movie into a memorable encounter. There have been those who seem fully aware or intimidated by camera and crew a few feet away. Their acting is turned on and off by their presence, perhaps trying too hard to make a good impression. There was never any hint of this in Robinson's acting. He inhabited his characters to become one of the most famous actors of any era. His distinctive voice and small stature was a polarizing magnet to audiences. From light comedy to heartfelt dramas or a crime story, he made it look so easy. His funny asides in “Larceny, Inc” to his amusing character in “The Whole Town’s Talking,” to his performance in “The Stranger,” each illustrated an actor of great versatility. He returned to his crime roots in a believable role for, “Key Largo.” In his book, “The Actor's Life: Journal 1956-1976,” Charlton Heston wrote about Robinson’s last screen appearance in “Soylent Green.” Though E.G. was terminally ill, "He never missed an hour of work, nor was late to a call. He never was less than the consummate professional he had been all his life.” Yet, to go throughout his entire career without an Oscar nomination after appearing in nineteen academy nominated films is a bit mind-boggling. He did receive a Cleo award which included a self-parody ending line for a 1964 Maxwell House television commercial. Finally a career fulfilled! “Listen here, Hollywood. May a pox be cast on ya', see!”


Gregory Peck
With his commanding voice, female-weakening smile, angular good looks and stature, he was definitely someone to watch in the Forties. Peck was destined for screen immortality almost out of the gate and his fifty-four years of excellent performances catapults him to the top of any actor’s list. He will forever endure as one of the best representatives of Hollywood’s Golden Age. “Spellbound” may have solidified his career but he was just getting started. From his interpretation of a good-natured father in, “The Yearling,” the undercover reporter in, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” to the stressed-out combat pilot in, “Twelve O'Clock High,” each role fit him perfectly. His Oscar performance as the wise father and patient lawyer in, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” stands singularly alone. Critics complained about his stiffness in certain roles or in general. Maybe stoicism was a more positive moniker. Most thought he was miscast in “Moby Dick.” Though Peck apparently agreed, I find his Captain Ahab scary, commanding and appropriately stiff. The versatile actor rolled on. Who would have figured the western star of such classics as, “Yellow Sky” and “The Gunfighter,” or an Army lieutenant in “Pork Chop Hill,” as the unassuming professor with spy, Sofia Loren, in “Arabesque,” Peck's last outing for light comedy. When one considers Peck's entire body of work, comedy does not readily come to mind. But his first meeting with Loren’s character is funny because of his authentic delivery and charm. She enters the room and says hello. Peck, without looking up responds with a short, unconcerned, “Hello.” He does a double take, and astounded by her beauty, cannot compose a sentence, only excitedly repeating, “Hel-lo, Hello! Hel-l-l-o Hello!” Few actors could make such an effective use of a single word.  


Jean Arthur
The list of genuine comediennes with as many classics gets very narrow after considering Arthur at her nearly “ten-year zenith.” Adorable, thy name is Jean Arthur. Her characters of strength may be one reason her movies seem so relevant some seventy-five years later. Her silent films are now forgotten because she had no voice. A voice distinctly suited for comedy, wacky or not. Her child-like voice doubled her charm as if part tomboy and dainty ingenue. That voice gave her an “everyday girl” appeal, someone smart but still a bit confused about relationships yet always talking to men on equal terms. There were moments her voice sounded like her impression of an octogenarian as her voice crackled with her pitch squeezed to new heights. She interpreted her roles with a unique delivery that remains singularly endearing. Arthur was delightful as the savvy reporter when,“Mr. Deeds goes to Town,” and is hilarious as the out-of-work secretary mistaken for a millionaire's mistress in, “Easy Living.” For “The Talk of The Town,” she again plays a single, well educated female amid two male suitors with a few hilarious twists. For, “The More the Merrier,” her legendary voice and subtle facial nuances were both funny and alluring, especially to McCrea who was powerless to resist. Their scenes are innocent and pure yet may have set new standards for screen chemistry. She was worthy of the Oscar nomination. Other females of the Golden Age handled comedy well enough, which may have as much due to a great script than anything else. But to be flummoxed, smart, sassy, sympathetic, empathetic, resourceful, sad and funny in a single character, you need to be Jean Arthur.


Spencer Tracy
Tracy always elevated a film several floors simply by showing up. Adept at comedy or drama, with his natural style he seemed to walk through his roles as if he knew his part from birth. That he was destined to do one thing perfectly in his life. Act. His early Thirties films helped jump start his career but by the end of that decade, his Hollywood stardom was planted firmly for ions with excellent films too numerous to mention. I have always defended his performance as Jekyll and Hyde. Coming off his first Oscar performance and the enjoyable, “San Francisco” or “Boom Town,” maybe it was a shock for Tracy fans and critics. Tracy's Hyde was not a physically grotesque creature, in the likes of John Barrymore or Frederic March, but a disgusting, psychological menace of terrifying proportions. His constant threatening of Bergman —”I am such a tease, aren’t I?”— as he calmly eats fruit, spitting the seeds on her apartment floor. All the while planning another “fun” evening together purely for selfish desires and ego. His performance, sometimes subtle, is a beautiful thing to watch. He would later team up with March for, “Inherit the Wind,” where Tracy wins the audience and court case over his costar in their respective roles. If his private life was not joy-filled, his comic timing is of course, legendary. Especially with Hepburn. Tracy could be the favorite father, a saintly priest or a despicable criminal. One can almost imagine him listening to his fellow costars deliver their lines, as if he just dropped by, then recite the appropriate lines in response in a most natural way. As his stocky stature seemed to allude, his acting was solid year after year.


Claudette Colbert
Though at times her high cheekbones and big wide-set round eyes gave a slight quirkiness to her face, there is no denying her appeal. Her slender body was much simpler to reason with and her skin was the envy of every porcelain doll. Her charm and sophistication were unequaled as was her insistence to be fashionable at all times on screen. All of which may account for her appearing taller than her rather short stature. Colbert’s silky, alto vocal range was another of her engaging qualities which could melt through any script. Her comedies are legendary and rank as some of the best of the Golden Age. Even if critics neglect it, “It’s a Wonderful World” is one of my favorites which includes her most memorable and charming line, “I swear by my eyes!” Keeping her sophistication intact, she held back on pure physical comedy. But she fit right in responding to it. “The Egg and I” came close with her character tackling the unknowns of farm living. Sort of a “Green Acres” predecessor, you might say. After World War II her success continued with a mix of highly regarded dramatic roles and comedies, culminating her career with a Golden Globe for the television miniseries, “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.” Colbert was a smart business woman. She stood firm on her professional demands, of which there were many. She was shrewd enough to choose roles to maintain her Hollywood image. But what really mattered to audiences at the time was her flowing charm, self-assured characters, effortless acting and the uncanny ability to personify the expression of revelation. If Clark Gable was a man’s man, Colbert was, indeed, a woman’s woman.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

THE JUDGE (1949)


This odd, shoestring budgeted film is told with voice-overs through the eyes of a judge, Jonathan Hale, who has witnessed a defense attorney’s career rise and fall. The odd use of Gene Lanham's wordless a cappella choral effects instead of an instrumental score gives it an eerie, avant-garde science fiction feel...if it were the Sixties. To finish out the Forties with it is just weird. Couple the narration with the choral score, the opening suggests an early television Sunday morning inspirational film. Other than the opening melody a mixed vocal ensemble sets the mood with cued chords only. Like a macabre “Swingle Singers.” You might recognize the first few measures of the opening theme as sounding like a cross between, “The Adventures of Superman” television theme and John William’s “Superman” movie theme. Perhaps a bit ironic that John Hamilton (The Daily Planet's Perry White) is in this film as a police lieutenant.

Milburn Stone plays the noted criminal attorney whose practices are at least unethical if not illegal. “A waste of a mind misused,” so says the judge. He is infamous for his loopholes in the law, springing the guilty. This takes a toll on his conscience after seeing his picture beside the word “shyster” in the dictionary. He now wants restitution for his actions and for all those he has maligned in the process. Speaking of maligning, enter his disloyal wife, Katherine DeMille. She is having an affair with the county police psychiatrist, Stanley Waxman, in his first credited film. This is no secret any longer to Stone, whose performance sets him apart from his co-stars. He is compelling. DeMille is not, though adequately irritating.


The opening apartment scenes between a mental patient and a boy’s violin practice in the next room is disturbing. Continuity takes a hit in the early stages with the best bits past the halfway point with an oddly used flashback dream sequence near the film’s end. Perhaps a last minute idea to pad the film. While Stone lies unconscious on the floor from a blow to the head, he experiences a dreamnightmareabout his wife. In his mind, he settles the score on their psychic rift between them. At the end of this sequence is the funniest use of the chorus, when Stone is slapped across the face by DeMille. As soon as her hand makes contact we hear a rapid, “Whaah Ohh,” two-note eerie descending chord.

Stone’s unsettling use of a straight-jacket on his hired killer, played by “under the radar” actor, Paul Guilfoyle and Stone's implementation of Russian Roulette is pretty intense. He seems possessed by a demon at this point, with the viewer not knowing who might be killed, who wants to be killed or who will be framed for either. The ending resolve is both ridiculously rapid and implausible. Still, “The Judge,” is a unique seventy minutes of film though few would call it successful. The a cappella chorus is its defining element. “Honey, let’s go and see that film that uses only an a cappella score!”


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. The scenes where 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 first major 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. Wink, wink. 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 it twenty 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.