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!”