Saturday, April 21, 2018

THE DIAMOND WIZARD (1954)



Dennis O’Keefe’s character in this forgotten film may seem familiar. His excellent performance in the gritty, “T-men,” seven years before was a much tougher portrayal of a U.S Treasury agent, however. Perhaps that role gave him insight to write this film’s story as well as share in directorial duties. There is very little to fault here from an acting standpoint. O'Keefe again displays his ability to be a real charmer. Especially when it comes to a stewardess, Margaret Sheridan, whom he has met on previous flights. It is not hard to imagine that his character would be fun to be around or that he rarely has a totally bad day. He is always trying to lighten the moment with a quip. Or persistently trying to get a date. This eighty-three minute film was produced by Gibraltar Productions and released through United Artists. Somewhat pointless to mention today, the film was released in 3D. Unfortunately, moviegoers really never got their 3D money’s worth with limited opportunities to use the process.

After a million dollars is stolen from a treasury vault, the trail takes O’Keefe to London and with the assistance of Scotland Yard, they attempt to break up the racket. He and Philip Friend, the British detective he is teamed with, hit it off right out of the departure gate. They are always on the same page, each having an eye on Sheridan. The film is a procedural account of the authorities trying to find who is behind the profiteering from the sale of synthetic diamonds.

Sheridan transferred to a London hub to be with her father, a renowned atomic scientist, busy making synthetic diamonds for industrial research in a spooky mountain top castle rented from Dr. Frankenstein. The process is a dangerous mix of towering flames, giant dials, lights and switches. These laboratory scenes are in stark contrast to the mundane search by O’Keefe and Friend. A few abrupt edits back and forth between the scenes can be jolting and irritating. O’Keefe’s accumulating evidence suggests the scientist’s integrity may be in doubt. Sheridan refuses to believe it.

The film is a routine investigation with a slow beginning, but it is nonetheless an entertaining effort. Starring less competent actors, there might be a channel change in the first thirty minutes. But hang on for a worthwhile explosive ending. 

Note: A couple of scenes to mention. One, in a later Peter Yates style, has O'Keefe at the top of an escalator returning fire at a criminal holding a drawstring bag full of fake diamonds. The thief first falls backwards but the escalator slowly brings him back to the top as the diamonds spill out of his bag and roll to O’Keefe’s feet. Another is the filming of a ship's funnel as her steam whistle blows. Clever if not original, the camera then pans backward to reveal simply a model on the bridge of the real ship they are on.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CONTRACTIONS: THE SILENT ERA


"FRANKLY, MY DEAR, I DO NOT GIVE A 
THOUGHT TO CONTRACTIONS"

I digress. In every movie I have commented on, not one actor had a problem pronouncing contractions. The apostrophe was recognized as having a reason. It eliminates a letter. That letter is silent because, not surprisingly, it is missing. The contraction was pronounced as it was spelled. They never invented a word to override the apostrophe, which defeats the purpose of a contracted word in the first place. I am not a grammarian. It is as simple as right and wrong. Two words that are highly debatable or at least controversial, today.

"OF ALL THE WORDS IN ALL THE TOWNS IN ALL 
THE WORLD, SHE PRONOUNCES 
CONTRACTIONS LIKE THAT"

Oddly, most contracted words are not mispronounced. The annoying habit typically contains an ending “d” of the first non-contracted word. Two common examples are the words, “didn’t” (did not) and “wouldn’t” (would not). They are not pronounced “dident” or “wouldent.” Nowhere is the word “dent” included in the spelling of the contracted word. Jane Greer “dident” say it. Sterling Hayden “wouldent” say it. Claire Trevor “dident” say it. The fabricated word is so beloved, however, some young females cannot resist its usage. Regardless of which sex dominates its usage, can we at least assume this “affliction” only affects those under forty? In a word. Yes’m. 

Thankfully, only a portion of a select group fall prey to this aberration. The few. The oblivious. The Millennials. Generation Y make up the majority of the offenders. Logically, we assume that they have no idea why an apostrophe is in a contraction or have never seen the word in print. Attempt to advise them on the proper pronunciation, their response is similar to a deer in headlights. If the “practice” were more widespread I might accept it, like I have accepted the combining of two words to make a confusing one, as in “Online,” “Linkedin” or “Login.” One can imagine the time I have saved by doing this. There may be some crossover offenders in Generation X but you cannot go back before that generation and expect contractions to be ignored. 

"WHAT WE'VE GOT HERE IS FAILURE 
OF COMMUNICATION"

I suspect technology and societal change can be rightfully blamed, given the increase in non-verbal communication. It takes time to search for an apostrophe on a Smartphone. Just spell it in a letter arrangement of one's choosing. Not caring fits in there somewhere. Unintelligible, rapid speech does, indeed, gloss over them. Lack of educational discipline has to share some blame or maybe a parent with the same anomaly. These offenders have never been taught how to correctly pronounce certain common words at an early age. Teachers will no longer correct a student's “preference” for mispronouncing a word, fearing a lawsuit or defamation of character. If society has taught certain Millennials anything, it is that there are no rules which cannot be broken. 

There is no shortage of grammar guidelines on the Internet. Yet, apparently, they are very hard to find. I suspect this speech malady will not correct itself. One generation will screw it up for the next one. Abandoning the contraction altogether would solve these grating, airhead errors but I suspect mispronunciation may be due to one fact. It is physically easier. One needs the innate ability to place the tip of the tongue behind the front teeth, near the roof of their mouth, for that apostrophe. “That’s hard, dude. You can't make me do that!”

Note: One lame excuse would be to blame the, sometimes illogical, American way of spelling. To illustrate, the “t” in “often” is silent as is the second “d” in “hidden.” It is never two words, “hid den.” Though there is nothing odd about the spelling of "important," the curse of the "Ds" continues. One cannot replace the first "t" or the "a" in the word with a "d" and an "e." It is not, "impordent."

Saturday, April 7, 2018

TOWARD THE UNKNOWN (1956)



This is Warner Brothers first attempt to cash in on Paramount’s superior, “Strategic Air Command.” The film takes a serious look into the unknowns of supersonic flight research. Warner Color was back at it again the next year with a more sudsy air force story, “Bombers B-52,” which was primarily a project for rising star, Natalie Wood. Director Mervyn Leroy weaves this film dangerously close to a soap operacheck out the poster abovewhere long-term personal commitments are harder to come by with someone in a very dangerous occupation. Assuming you like aircraft of this era, this film works well thanks to an intelligent script by Beirne Lay, Jr. who also penned Paramount’s film as well as “Above and Beyond,” “Twelve O'Clock High” and others. The accuracy of the Air Force lingo, flight gear and location filming are spot on. Yet despite the famous lead actor, the casting mix places the film in the B-movie barracks. With the possible exception of Lloyd Nolan, the cast is a flight line of “bees” from Virginia Leith, Charles McGraw, Paul Fix, Karen Steele with a brief appearance by the ever-present, Bartlett Robinson. William Holden's own production company, Toluca Productions, may have been responsible for a tight casting budget. Though viewers did not know it then, James Garner’s brief film debut will catapult him into a Hollywood "A-lister." Considering Holden's overall body of work, this film falls nearer the bottom. Toward the unknown part.

With an enviable name for a legendary aviator or NFL quarterback, Holden is excellent as Lincoln Bond. The Major's charm and self-deprecating wit make him quite likable. But he has psychological issues. Holden returns to Edwards Air Force Base in hopes of being selected for the test pilot program. The story takes awhile to unfold but we eventually learn of Holden’s past as a Korean prisoner of war. Holden has an impressive early scene when he enters the headquarters building. He walks over to a wall full of famous test pilot hand prints. Among the likes of Chuck Yeager and Glenn Edwards we see Bond’s hand print. Holden presses his hand firmly over the inked impression as a supporting musical chord solidifies the scene. It also reveals wrist scars from his attempted suicide under those unimaginable atrocities. His cracking under those conditions does not bode well for a living-on-the-edge test pilot.


Nolan is always perfectly cast when carrying a good deal of authority. Here, as a commanding officer who is so wrapped up in first-hand test piloting, he does not know when to move on. His good friend and biggest supporter is McGraw, who pleads with Nolan to give him a second chance. Also from Holden's past is Leith. I have mentioned the occasionally strange vocal quality of this attractive actress before. Considering the era, one might think the studio would have provided (demanded?) voice training to eliminate her dark, goofy vocal moments. Today, this training would rarely, if ever, be considered. Unfortunately. She is feminine enough in a soft voice. But her voice placement retreats to the back of her throat when emoting or speaking while smiling. A distracting sound, even on an Air Force base. But I digress. She seems to be attached, off hours, with her boss, Nolan, whose age gap could pass him off as her uncle. She and Holden were an item before the war—speaking of niece and uncle—but she is reluctant to make any commitment. Her character is a bit puzzling. She would seem to be happy enough with Nolan unless Holden comes around. Maybe any dependable guy.


Given a number of second thoughts, Nolan cautiously eases Holden in on some testing. He gets his chance at the Martin XB-51, masquerading in this film as the Gilbert X-120. Character actor, Ralph Moody, plays H.G. Gilbert who assumes his plane is perfect and is arrogantly opposed to Holden's blunt assessment about a specific design flaw. When Garner loses his life because of this flaw, Moody is sheepishly humbled. Off camera. In private. We assume.


Nolan expects to pilot a research rocket plane, the Bell X-2. It is his baby. But unknown to Nolan, Holden witnessed his dizzy spell after an earlier test flight. Holden, being about a decade too old himself for this kind of thing, bluntly tells him, off the record, he would risk his life if he goes through with it. Reluctantly, he lets Holden take the flight. It becomes a troubled test with a necessary bailout. The hard parachute landing bangs Holden up with needed physical therapy in the aftermath. Reporting on Holden's progress, the base doctor also informs Nolan he would not have survived that high altitude bailout. Nolan gallantly takes a position in Washington DC with McGraw filling the base commander’s shoes.

Notes: Paul Baron provided an appropriately sensitive background score. He also weaves in the opening bars of “The U.S. Air Force” song with interesting arrangements. There are two instances, though, he or the studio creates a slightly humorous and startling “electronic” sound during two scenes of aircraft soaring high in the sky. A sound as if guitar strings are progressively tightened for a gradual higher pitch. It seems to be more appropriate for the famous Warner Brothers cartoons than a dangerously serious saga of test pilots.

For aviation historians, the Martin XB-51 and the other aircraft or stock footage, are the main draw of this movie. Never chosen for production, there were only two XB-51s built, both destroyed in crashes. An impressive flying sequence is a particularly unique head-on takeoff view along side its chase plane. Taken from a third plane already in the air, we watch both planes accelerate upward toward the unknown, zooming over the camera aircraft.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

THREE BLONDES IN HIS LIFE (1961)


This apparently single Golden Film Production—this poster is golden—surely struggled at the box office on its second weekend. The jazz-pop title song performed by a male vocal group gives this a lighthearted comedic setting but Tony Randall is not in this movie. Perhaps fair warning the film should not be taken too seriously. Though overlong at eighty-six minutes, it seems longer.

Famous stuntman, Jock Mahoney, plays an insurance investigator, aka private detective, who is hired to find out what happened to his company's missing detective and operative in Los Angeles. An airline ticket awaits from New York to Los Angeles aboard an American Airlines 707 Astrojet in classic red-orange lightning bolt livery. Black and white film does not do it justice. According to his inner thought voice-overs, the only thing on the investigator's mind are the women he has encountered throughout his travels. Handsome Mahoney goes by the name of Duke. Of course. He is not easily ruffled with the confidence and swagger to take on anything or anyone. He joins forces with his Los Angeles contact, cigar-chomping Jesse White. A guy who really loves apples. He is always eating or offering one. In the same token, we learn Mahoney's favorite alcoholic drink because he is either ordering one or being offered one. There is good chemistry between them and White's distinct delivery helps a very talkative script.


White picks up Mahoney at the airport in a convertible which becomes one of the most faked, budget-strained prop cars I have seen in film. No suggested car, windshield frame or dashboard. Just two guys sitting in front of a camera on an upholstered automotive bench with a steering wheel and column in front of rear-projected highway traffic. While “traveling” on a 4-lane freeway at speed, the production uses background recording of songbirds chirping as if they were sitting on a bench in a quiet, leafy park. Hilariously out of place. Doubly embarrassing for screenwriter and director, Leon Chooluck. A horn honk or two never crossed his mind.

There is so much explanatory dialogue your ears may shut down completely. Time is spent filming the principle cast members reading lengthy accident reports related to the case. Unless you are taking dictation, you may not keep things straight. Three blondes were involved with the missing investigator. When his cold body turns up it becomes a murder case. Mahoney's first blonde interview, Elaine Edwards, wife of the murdered detective, provides a backstory of major proportions. He is only able to stay awake by her seduction attemptsbeing so distraughtover her husband's recent demise. His second encounter, Valerie Porter, seems to have borrowed the same script. The silliest by far is Greta Thyssen in an ostentatious, fire-retardant wig. On cue, whenever she appears, we hear Hollywood's stereotypical sultry saxophone. She has a lot of “something more comfortable” wardrobe suggestions.


We do get to see Mahoney's stunt work as he is pushed down a stairway head first. Anthony Dexter shows up near the end of the film as the suggested pushee. Their later fight scene has Mahoney knocked to the floor on his back. As Dexter approaches, Mahoney sends him halfway across the room in a ninety degree squat position with his legs. Dexter is soon out of his element and his stand-in takes over. From one stuntman to another, the energetic fight is well choreographed. Police are called to the scene in a 1950 Nash traveling so fast in time it transforms into a 1956 Ford at the scene. Additional bad editing again comes from the sound department when Mahoney’s short voice-over line is obliterated by the sound of the company car’s engine starting up. The film ends with another “exciting” reading of the official report in an effort to explain the movie's outcome.

Note: This appears to be a television pilot movie which every network rejected. Speaking of television, this film may be the only indirect reference to the then popular, Gerald “Kookie” Kookson, III of “77 Sunset Strip” television fame. With a wry smile, Mahoney questions a young “cool cat” parking attendant if he ever watches television. The hipster's reply indicates he is familiar with the show.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954)



This eighty-one minute noir centers on two detective pals coming to odds when one turns to the noir side. Outside the opening, this is about the extend of any real noir in this film. It is an independent film produced by “The Filmakers” team of Ida Lupino and Collier Young. Directed by Don Siegel, do not expect anything ground-breaking but it will not disappoint, thanks to a competent cast. The opening, in particular, is excellent as it leads to an off-duty detective stumbling perilously upon a store robbery. Leith Stevens' score with muted trumpets at the beginning add a jazzy, low key element and never overpowers the scenes. Unfortunately his best bit, the bouncy, multi-faceted tune entitled, “Daddy Long Legs,” is hidden in barely audible background music a couple of times in the film, the last being the meeting of the detective pals at a diner near the ending. The number 36 refers to a trailer park address, revealed in the closing minutes of the film.


Detectives Howard Duff and Steve Cochran are tasked with tracking down fake fifty dollar bills from a three hundred grand robbery. Their investigation first encounters two famous character actors and one less famous. King Donovan is one of the robbers and frequent guest of the police department. His face and torso hurting after a one-sided fight of realistic proportions with Cochran in that opening sequence. Dizzy, Donovan has trouble keeping his aliases straight. Another stolen fifty ends up with pharmacist, Richard Deacon, who is questioned about it. Though famous as the comic foil in the popular Dick Van Dyke television show, he is well cast in the meek, unassuming role. His prescription payment from a gall bladder patient, Marvin, leads them to one of the best character actors in the business, Dabbs “Marv” Greer. He is, as usual, one hundred percent believable. This time as a local bartender who thinks the cops are accusing him of a crime because he had one of the bills. He is quite defensive about it. Duff has a funny line here to reassure they are just asking where he got the fifty. He tells Greer, “Uh-uh, mind your bladder, Marv.”


The duo turn next to money enthusiast, Lupino, a nightclub singer, questioning her at length about how she came upon her fifty. She delivers a few witty lines at the expense of the detectives which Cochran finds very appealing. Against her preferred judgment, she is convinced to go along with their plan and ultimately identifies the man with the phony bills. A realistic car chase ensues with the period automobiles racing to the edge of tire adhesion. The fleeing thief is killed in a crash, learning too late the mountain's “Road Closed” sign was not a mere suggestion. You might say Cochran goes over another cliff when he pockets part of the stolen loot at the crash site. Most of it, he hopes, going to keep Lupino happy. Lots of luck there, pal.


Police Captain, Dean Jagger, who also opens and closes the film with sonorous voice-overs, calmly asks the cops later about the shortfall from the thief's suitcase. Cochran concocts a likely scenario. Duff sits silently fuming over his partner's blatant dishonesty. Obviously, the partners have a falling out with Cochran taking his obsessive downward spiral even lower with murder not out of the equation. The final scene offers a twist, all explained by Jagger's script.

Note: Ida Lupino performs part of one number, “Didn't You Know?,” yet she really does not sing it. She talk-sings it, never really zeroing in on any particular note. Unlike others who must talk their way through a song because they cannot carry a tune—Eva Gabor's “Green Acres” television theme is a prime example—she was musically talented. Her song interpretation simply was a bit humorous as Cochran goes off in dreamland listening to her “talk” while the piano plays.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

VICE SQUAD (1953)



United Artists distributed this Gramercy Pictures (II) production. Not a great film on the whole but the script has good pacing. Judging by the dynamic, dangerous opening score by Hershel Burke Gilbert one would get the idea you are about to watch a hardened crime story. But it is as lighthearted as it is gritty. And it is not gritty. Sterling Hayden is not in the cast. It portrays a busy day in the life of the police department with enough characters and sub-plots to suit a typical episodic television drama show some fifty years later.

The principle characters revealed in the film are related to one another in some way. The film lays all this out to resolve the main plot for the film, the murder of a police officer. Playing the police captain is Hollywood stalwart, Edward G. Robinson. It is a joy to watch him juggle the script's characters in and out of his precinct. The captain has experience on his side. Calm and compassionate, he can be tough if necessary, breaking with police protocol in order that justice be served. He deftly prioritizes the cases that arise and handles each with appropriate timing. Some encounters are rather humorous.


Known for his befuddled, confounded characters, Porter Hall is simply exasperating here as a “respected” community businessman with no spine. His credentials usually can mask his illicit female encounters. He is not funny but his predicament is. He witnessed the murder of the police officer. His attorney, Barry Kelly, assures him of an early release from custody. Both get a few slick runarounds by Robinson with Kelly at his wits' end. Robinson is not letting Hall go until he gets the truth.


Jay Adler is perfect as the quintessential, nervous weasel with a season pass to the vice squad's interrogation room. Adler has information relevant to identifying the possible killers but his memory is foggy in fear of his own life. Robinson lets him sweat it out until his “fog” clears. With great reluctance he lets it slip about an upcoming bank robbery. Gilbert's pounding score is effective as the robbery is set to take place. Officers are placed throughout the bank thanks to the Adler tip. This scene is fairly tense and exciting leading up to the attempted robbery. Laid back ladies man, Adam Williams, had his part to play. But when he finds out about the earlier police murder, his commitment to the robbery wanes. He skips out via taxi and thinks he is freedom personified.


Paulette Goddard gets second billing here. I got the feeling she relished the part. The police captain and Goddard's character have a long mutual understanding. Each providing the other with valuable information over the years. She runs a ladies escort “bureau.” Bureau sounding much more legit. Robinson gets the lead he needs to track down Williams, the young buck in the gang with a thing for one of Goddard's ladies. This cool, quiet guy suddenly becomes a blue ribbon champion at a state fair's “Angry Yelling” contest once apprehended and questioned about who may have committed the policeman's murder. Perhaps he was bipolar all along.

The clichéd bank hostage gave Ed Binns a safer exit from the bank than his partners. There is wasted footage of him peering out his hideout window with a camera cut to the female hostage. Each staring back at one another. No dialogue. Interspersed between other scenes, it repeats about three times. Silly with no added suspense. She comes up with a plan to distract him and thanks to a good bit of script timing, he leaves the warehouse silently horizontal.

Note: Percy Helton (top image) turns in a brief and memorably humorous performance as one who is followed by shadows. Television pictures all over him. Especially on Wednesdays. Because of more pressing issues, Robinson keeps Helton patiently waiting. He is aware of Helton's condition and compassionately states he simply needs a “witness” to legally have the police look into the matter. Helton sincerely has no clue how to find one. Robinson suggests someone, a local doctor of psychology. Helton is highly encouraged.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

THE MIAMI STORY (1954)



Columbia Pictures distributed this Clover Production noir crime film. Directed by Fred Sears with a story and screenplay by Robert Kent, it features a less than convincing introduction by Florida's then Senator, George Smathers. He assures us that Miami has finally cleaned out the mobsters. These docu-crime style films, with melodramatic narration, typically tell of a crime wave in a big, out-of-control city and how the crime is throttled. The actual Kefauver Senate hearings being their inspiration. There are not many surprises to this oft-told gangster tale, including the unlikely way this “clean-up” actually happens. There is a mix of studio sets and automobiles with some location filming for automobile buffs. You will need your suspended disbelief seat belt cinched tight, though. Fortunately the cast saves this film from being a total disappointment. The film perks up with Barry Sullivan's first appearance.

A former Chicago gangster and now widower, Sullivan, has spent twelve years under an alias with his young son on a Midwest farm. Sullivan's former attorney, with the help of local businessmen, devise a plan to lure him out of hiding, as he is their only hope of putting the mob boss before a grand jury. Yes. He was quite a gangster. Sullivan is angry that a fake news headline purports he is back in Miami on “business.” He resists all pleas for his help until he learns that it was the mob boss, Luther Adler, who framed him for his prison term for murder. Sullivan is now committed to the plan, live or die, possibly leaving his son to review adoption papers. He is given unlimited resources and authority to do whatever it takes as local law enforcement await his every command in a far-fetched scenario. After twelve years running a farm he has not lost his hoodlum self.


Not wasting any time, Sullivan confronts Adler's authority, threatening to shut him out with his own Cuban-enforced crime “family.” Adler is quite convincing in this role, uncompromising with a Teflon record. A bitter pawn of his and a wee past her prime, is partner, Adele Jergens. who looks the clichéd part. Appearing about fifteen puffy pounds overweight, I think when she is angry—which is most of the time—she eats. Which she loathes. Which in turn makes her eat. John Baer is the handsome, cold blooded killer and right hand man to Adler. His opening scene is also far-fetched as he shoots, from a great distance, two rival Cubans exiting an airliner. The gun is hidden inside a piece of carry-on luggage and equipped with a pop-up sight. Suspended disbelief takes center stage as the crowd never hears the two shots. Some may have assumed it was coming from the grassy knoll. Previously exiting was Beverly Garland who now fears for her own life. The two were friends of hers.



In about the only real noir scene, Sullivan returns late to his apartment to find a seated female, whose face is in shadows, pointing a gun in his direction. She seems cool. Calculating. Dangerous. How Garland got the gun or access to his apartment we do not know. But you know what is about to happen. Sullivan overpowers her with an authentic gangster backhand. Garland's subsequent sobbing is a bit much and seems inappropriate to drag it out. She is not sobbing for the backhand so much as her frustration to find out what is going on and where her dear sister is. They become sort of team to get Adler although she is not sure Sullivan is leveling with her. To his advantage, he finds out her sister is Jergens. When the sisters meet after a long absence, the hugs and kisses are soon replaced by Jergens' self-loathing and vile remarks to her baby sister. She wants something to eat. Garland eventually puts two and two together, Adler and Jergens, who then betrays her dear rotten sister while still recovering in the hospital from a vicious beating by Adler's muscle.


Sullivan is about to put the screws to Adler when he spots an actual newspaper headline that his son has been kidnapped. It is Adler's retaliation for the authorities shutting down his illegal gambling house. Sullivan backs off the threats in order to save his son and agrees to reopen the casino. Speaking of far-fetched, he then orders the police to place forty-pound hidden cameras inside the casino before it reopens. Ironically hidden in the exact location of the film's studio cameras. Exactly where the action will take place. The clarity of the feed on the four inch remote monitors in the nearby bushes is of extraordinary quality. Maybe give another tug on your seat belt.

After a slow motion boat chase, of sorts, in a cove between the police and Adler's yacht, Senator Smathers is pleased with the film's outcome. Miami is finally safe for the whole family. He ain't seen nothin' yet. In a rather abrupt and slightly humorous narrated closing scene, father and son are duck hunting, reminiscent of their first scene. Our narrator wraps up the film like an old film travelogue as Garland is standing by her new stepson, each in matching plaid coats. Garland came to visit and never left. All part of Sullivan's master plan.