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 clich├ęd 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.