Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A couple more obituaries

Actress Patricia Morison died on Sunday at the ripe old age of 103. Morison had a more substantial career on Broadway where she originated the lead in Kiss Me, Kate. Among her films were playing the French Empress Eugenie in The Song of Bernadette, and the lower-budget (but still quite good) story of the Reinhard Heydrich assassination Hitler's Madman. One role that wound up on the cutting room floor was as Victor Mature's wife in Kiss of Death. The story called for the character to commit suicide while Mature's character was in prison, and that apparently was too much for the Production Code. So the scenes were deleted and the suicide was only referenced.

Bill Gold, a name I'd never heard of, also died on Sunday, at the age of 97. Gold wasn't seen on screen, because his work was well away from the studio, instead designing posters for movies. Among the posters are for Casablanca at the beginning of his career, Strangers on a Train, A Clockwork Orange, and a whole slew of movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Gold's is one of those jobs we don't normally think about when we think about the movies, but that in some ways are almost as important as the ones we see on screen. Not to denigrate the work of a Saul Bass, but why for example is his name better remembered just because his art design is actually in the movie?

Monday, May 21, 2018

One Third of a Nation

Tomorrow morning TCM is running some Sylvia Sidney films, including one I've only briefly mentioned before, One Third of a Nation, at 9:15 AM.

Sidney plays Mary Rogers, who lives in a New York tenement with her kid brother Joey, played by a 14-year-old Sidney Lumet (yes, that Sidney Lumet who would go on to become a renowned director). When there's a fire in the building, rich benefactor Peter (Leif Erickson) happens to be there and offers to pay for Joey's medical bills. Peter and Mary fall in love.

There's a catch, however. Everybody in the tenements hate the slumlords who own the buildings and let them deteriorate the way they have. And it just so happens to be Peter's family that owns the building where Mary and Joey live. Boy is Mary going to be pissed when she finds this out. Mary and the other tenants want improvements to be made to the building, but can this happen before disaster befalls the people living there?

One Third of a Nation is hilariously awful propaganda. It was produced under auspices of the Federal Theater Project, a New Deal scheme that was instituted in no small part to produce propaganda favoring the ideas of the New Deal. (Even if this wasn't the express purpose, it doesn't take a genius to understand it was going to be taken over by people who wanted to use it to produce their own brand of propaganda.) Everything is the fault of the tenement owners, and all the problems are going to be resolved by destroying the buildings and building government housing projects that are going to be perfect. In fact, we've seen over the past 60 years how perfect government housing programs are. And never mind what's going to happen to the people while those projects are being built.

It's hard to judge the acting when the actors are being asked to spew agitprop, although honors have to go to young Sidney. (Sidney's father Baruch, a mainstay of the Yiddish theater, has a role as Mr. Rosen.) It's not Sidney's fault, though. His standout scene involves a fever dream in which the tenement talks to him, and shows him how tenement life has always been thus, and always will be unless the government takes over. It was the cinema's great gain that Sidney took up directing.

One Third of a Nation deserves to be seen once, for how awful the propaganda is. The movie did get a DVD release, although it's out of stock at Amazon and the TCM Shop. However, the DVD was put out by Alpha Video, and they still have it at their site, oldies.com.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Evil Angels

Another recent viewing off my DVR was A Cry in the Dark, which was released in Australia (where it was made) as Evil Angels. This is one of those odd movies that seems to be available on DVD (and in print) at Amazon, and also available on streaming video

A Cry in the Dark tells the story of the family of Azaria Chamberlain. Azaria's father Michael (Sam Neill) was a Seventh-Day Adventist minister in Queensland, Australia, living with his wife Lindy (Meryl Streep borrowing the wig Robert Wagner wore in Prince Valiant), their two sons, and infant daughter Azaria in 1980. The family goes for a vacation to Ayers Rock, and we see in a bit of foreshadowing as the film shows us a dingo looking down on everybody that the Outback can be a dangerous place.

At night, Lindy and Mike are talking with some of the other campers assembled at the popular tourist spot, when Lindy decides to go back into the tent, only to discover that the baby is missing. Lindy then sees a dingo darting off into the night, so she reaches the obvious conclusion: "The dingo took my baby!", a line that has been parodied ever since. A large search is conducted, and eventually all that's found is a bloody onesie; a jacket Azaria had on over it isn't found, which will be important later in the story.

The family eventually goes home to suffer the death of their baby alone, except that the incident has become a national case. The Chamberlains are weirdo Seventh-Day Adventists, after all, and their faith in God means that they don't show the sort of repulsive emotion that the media engendered after Princess Diana died because she was too stupid to wear a seat belt. So the media decide to start a campaign against her, but for a while the law is on the Chamberlains' side. The coroners' inquest backs up the Chamberlains' story that the baby was most likely taken by a dingo, and the judge presiding has a blistering attack on the media's handling of the case.

Somewhere along the way, however, the Chamberlains must have made some powerful enemies, because the authorities decide to reopen the case based on circumstantial forensic evidence, allowing the media to resume their Two Minutes' Hate against the Chamberlains as Lindy is put on trial for murdering Azaria. The amount of prosecutorial grandstanding during the trial is also shocking. All of this also puts a huge strain on Michael and Lindy's marriage. (They divorced in 1991, a few years after the film was released.)

A Cry in the Dark is an excellent study in the media circus that forms around prominent events and how mob mentality can doom people. It's helped in part by being based on a real case, and in part on using more of a docudrama style of filming than what had been done back in the Hollywood studio days. Films like Spencer Tracy's Fury are well-made looks at the same sort of mob mentality that surrounded the Chamberlain case, but they, and even a relevant Fox docudrama from the 1940s like Boomerang! seem to be too Hollywood-bound. A Cry in the Dark has an ugly underside that's needed to make the movie work.

It's also a big plus that the two leads, Streep and Neill, both give excellent performances in difficult roles. Streep has a difficult task, both in seeming emotionless and then having to stand up for herself when both her husband and her attorneys are trying to get her to act in a stereotypical way. Neill's character has to break down on the stand, not in a crying way, but in a way that he's not mentally able to handle questioning that's designed to be deliberately confusing and catch him in a trap. This too is a difficult portrayal that Neill pulls off well.

A Cry in the Dark is strongly recommended.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Seven Sinners

A good two years ago, I recorded a movie called Doomed Cargo on TCM and watched it. For some reason I thought it wasn't on DVD so I never did a post on it. It turns out I was wrong and that the movie is on DVD under its original title, Seven Sinners. So I watched it again last night to be able to do a post on it.

Edmund Lowe plays John Harwood, who in the opening of the movie is on vacation on the French Riviera. He meets another man and, when he later goes to that man's room, he finds the man dead! Fortunately, Harwood is a detective, so he could work on the case if need be. But he's more needed by the American insurance company he works for, who have snet Fenton (Constance Cummings) to fetch him. In the meantime, the body Harwood saw has disappeared!

Anyhow, Harwood and Fenton take the overnight train to Calais to get to England where the insurance company wants him for that job. The train, however, gets in a crash, and it turns out that the signals were deliberately swtiched to cause the crash! Much more interesting is that Harwood swears he sees among the dead bodies the guy who he had seen in the hotel. He concludes that apparently somebody killed the guy down in Nice, and then disposed of the body by staging a train crash.

It's a bizarre idea, and Harwood's investigation takes him first to Paris, and then to London where he investigates a "peace" group that may or may not be on the level. Since the original killing took place in France, there's also a French investigator Turbé (Thomy Bourdelle) on the case. There's another train crash that kills a key witness, and then the possibility of a third crash, leading up to the climax and the reveal of who's behind these train crashes and why.

The screenplay for Seven Sinners/Doomed Cargo was written by Launder and Gilliat from a 1920s play; they're the same writing team that did Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. So it's not surprising that watching Seven Sinners that one notices a lot of things that make the movie look as though Hitchcock could have directed it. It plays out in many ways like The 39 Steps, which is really more about the various set pieces than the plot of what those steps are. Seven Sinners is even more confusing, however, and more abrupt in its ending.

Still, I'd say that Seven Sinners is entertaining enough for a 1930s programmer. I think that anybody who's interested in movies of the era, and especially pre-war British movies, would enjoy Seven Sinners.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Briefs for May 18-19, 2018

Actor Joseph Campanella died on Wednesday at the age of 93. He was mostly a TV actor, but he made some movies sprinkled throughout, including quite a few 70s and 80s things I've never heard of. I'd guess his most notable movie appearance is as the police detective investigating in Ben, which is a terrible movie, but not because of Campanella. There's also The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which is certainly worth a watch.

Tonight's prime time lineup on TCM is devoted to Alastair Sim, best remembered for playing Scrooge in the early 1950s version of A Christmas Carol. The night begins with what I think is the TCM premiere of School for Scoundrels at 8:00 PM. There's also Laughter in Paradise at midnight.

A few months back I mentioned a two-reeler whose title I couldn't recall about a girls' school where the administrators were virulently opposed to the new jazz dancing styles. Looking through the past posts, it was called Somewhat Secret. (Shows how memorable the short was.) Tomorrow morning at around 7:36 AM TCM is showing the short Public Jitterbug No. 1, which is obviously a different short, but another one with an anti-dancing theme. Then in the 8:00 AM to 9:30 AM slot, one of the shorts TCM is running is Desi Arnaz and his orchestra, one of the Vitaphone shorts highlighting various bandleaders of the 1940s. Desi had already married Lucy by the time this was made, but this was also well before I Love Lucy.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks #201: Twisty Thrillers

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week, the theme is "Twisty Thrillers". It's easy enough to think of thrillers, although the question of just how twisty they are is a good one. Still, I came up with three movies that I think fit the theme, more or less:

The 39 Steps (1935). Robert Donat plays a Canadian in England who is followed home from a music hall by a woman who, it turns out, is a spy in fear of her life. She warns him about "the 39 steps" before getting stabbed overnight. Donat, realizing nobody will believe his story, has to set off to find the murderers himself, and figure out what those 39 steps refer to. The twists take him to Scotland, a political campaign, handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, and back to London.

The Liquidator (1965). Rod Taylor plays a man who saved Trevor Howard's life in World War II by killing a couple of Nazis, so when Howard needs somebody to do some secret killings of some double agents in the current day, he calls on Taylor. The only thing is, Taylor never considered himself a hero, and frankly has little competence at killing people. But he keeps up the ruse and gets himself involved in a big spy case.

The Eiger Sanction (1975). Clint Eastwood plays an art professor who used to be a killer for a secret government agency, and is "asked" out of retirement to kill two men who killed a fellow agent. There are two twists. The first of which is that finding the second killer is going to involve making a dangerous ascent up the north face of the famous Swiss mountan the Eiger. The second twist is how the second killer is identified and ultimately dealt with. I won't give away more.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Scream Blacula Scream

Some months back I did a blog post on Blacula. The movie was successful enough that, despite the apparent death of Blacula in the movie, American International put a remake into production. The result is Scream Blacula Scream.

The movie starts off not with Blacula, but with the death of the matriarch of a group of voodoo practitioners. Mama Loa is dying, and the people around her are arguing over who should be the next head of the group. Her son Willis (Richard Conrad) suggests it should be him since he was her son after all. But apparently the head has to declare a successor, or else the matter is put up to a vote. Everybody clearly has something (never really mentioned) against Willis, and they'd like Lisa (Pam Greer) to be the next leader. She seems to have a much better knack for voodoo anyway.

Willis, suitably ticked off, is given a bunch of sacred bones that are supposed to hold the secret of a powerful voodoo curse, which is just what Willis needs to get the leadership of the group. The only problem is the he doesn't really understand what he's doing, and what the result of the curse is going to be. The curse awakens Blacula (William Marshall reprising his role from the first movie) from the dead (or is that the undead?), and Blacula is even more pissed about that than Willis was about getting passed over for the voodoo sect's leadership. Hell hath no fury like a vampire scorned, and Blacula responds to his raising by biting Willis and turning him into a vampire.

Blacula has that insatiable desire for human blood, which results in his turning a bunch of people into vampires. But he also chances upon a party where a local professor has some African artifacts. Remember from the first Blacula movie that Blacula was really Prince Mamuwalde 200 years earlier, so he knows those artifacts intimately. It's there that he meets Lisa and learns about her aptitude for voodoo. It's here that Blacula gets a startling idea: perhaps he can use voodoo to remove the vampire curse!

Meanwhile, there are dead bodies mounting up, and the police are investigating, along with Lisa's boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell), who used to be a police detective. He's the one who figures out that it must be a vampire doing the killings, but unsurprisingly, he's unable to get anybody to believe him. Will Blacula be able to go through the voodoo ritual, or will the police get to him first? And what about all those other vampires?

Scream Blacula Scream is about as intelligent as you can expect from a vampire movie. This isn't to say that vampire movies are necessarily bad, but come on, they are vampire movies. Some large suspension of disbelief is required. Still, in both this and Blacula, the whole plot strand of trying to get people to believe there's a vampire is handled well. There's also a rather humorous scene when Willis first realizes he's a vampire. The whole mixing of voodoo and vampirism is something that, for a blaxploitation movie, also makes logical sense.

I didn't find Scream Blacula Scream to be particularly high in the horror area, but much more good-natured fun. Some people may find that a flaw, but I didn't. In fact, I think it made the movie better in my eyes. It, along with the original Blacula is just a rollicking fun ride.

The two movies are available together on both DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Ride Lonesome

A few weeks back I recorded a night of Randolph Scott westerns since I hadn't blogged about any of them before and they're all on DVD. Second up is Ride Lonesome.

Scott plays Ben Brigade, who in the opening scene is approaching a man he's clearly been following for some time. That man is Billy John (James Best), and he's clearly a wanted criminal. Ben plans to bring him into town some distance away for the reward. That distance, however, is going to cause some problems. This isn't a courtroom drama, after all.

Some of those problems come into stark relief when Ben reaches the stagecoach station. The wife of the stationmaster, Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele), is there, but not her husband. Two other men show up, and they're both criminals: Sam (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn). But for the time being they're going to be a lesser problem as everybody has to deal with an attack from the Indians who, as it turns out, also killed Mr. Lane.

Eventually they all set out for town, with the looming question of whether Sam and Whit will try to take Billy John themselves. There's an amnesty for whoever captures him, and the two could obviously use it. However, there's an even bigger problem in that Billy John's brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) is in pursuit. Strangely to Sam and Whit, Ben seems to be taking his own sweet time in getting everybody to town. It's almost as if he wants Frank to catch up....

Ride Lonesome is solid entertainment. I didn't have any problem with it, other than the western not being my favorite genre. Reviewers who are western fans, however, generally praise the movie quite highly, and my comments are in no way a criticism of the movie. About the only criticism I could give is that it travels familiar territory: The Naked Spur and Along the Great Divide both came quickly to mind. If you want a familiar western, though, Ride Lonesome is a great place to start.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Margot Kidder, 1948-2018

Margot Kidder, who came to prominence in a string of movies in the 1970s before health issues cropped up in the 1990s, has died at the age of 69.

Born in Canada, it shouldn't be a surprise that one of her earlier starring roles was in the Canadian-produced Black Christmas, which I reviewed here last year. Margot plays a college co-ed who has to deal with an obscene caller at her sorority, and then with somebody killing the sorority sisters. But Kidder would probably be most famous for playing Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve in Superman in 1978.

Kidder was seriously injured in a car accident in 1990, and then had mental health issues come to the fore later in the 90s, most notably when she went missing from her home in Montana for several days before being found among the homeles in Los Angeles. What a sad fate.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Test Pilot

Another recent movie watched off the DVR that's available from the Warner Archive is Test Pilot.

The movie starts off with Gunner (Spencer Tracy) checking a plane to make certain it's in good working order. Gunner's best friend Jim Lane (Clark Gable) is goin gto be getting in that plane to try to fly it across the country to set a new coast-to-coast speed record, these still being the days when aviation was young enough that coast-to-coast records and aviation records were still a thing. Anyhow, Gunner goes to get Lane, only to find that he's got one woman waiting for him, with Jim eventually showing up with another woman hanging from one arm. You get the impression that these aren't the only two women by any means.

Sadly for Jim, the attempt at the speed record is doomed to failure, as an oil line is going to break and Jim is going to be forced to crash land in a field somewhere in the middle of the country. As he's trying to fix the plane, he's approached by young Ann (Myrna Loy), a college graduate who lives with her parents on the farm where Jim crash landed, 20 miles outside Wichita KS. Jim immediately falls for Ann and the feeling is mutual. Ann, however, has conflicted feelings as she doesn't know whether she should go off with a pilot or take the safe way out of going with the man who's been pursuing her.

We all know there wouldn't me much of a movie if a leading lady like Loy walked off with the third wheel 20 minutes in, so we shouldn't be surprised that Jim and Ann elope and Jim shows up back at the office of his airplane-manufacturing boss Drake (Lionel Barrymore) with a wife, much to Drake's chagrin. Drake wants Jim to test a new plane before the big race, but Jim wants a honeymoon. Eventually, it leads to Jim quitting despite the financial hit he's going to take.

Being in constant financial straits is just one problem that Ann finds she's going to have in the marriage. There's a bigger problem, however, in that Ann is in many ways not Jim's wife but his mistress -- the real love of Jim's life is the sky, and Ann worries that the sky is never going to let Jim go, ultimately leading to Jim's doom. It goes on like this for the better part of two hours.

Test Pilot is the sort of movie that left me with no small amount of mixed feelings. It's well made, and yet there was something about it that just didn't seem quite right, and I couldn't quite put my finger on that something. One definite problem is with Jim's character, who for much of the movie comes across as a spoiled jerk. He wins a big air race, and then immediately squanders every last cent of the prize money on the bender to end all benders. If I had been in Gunner's position on finding Jim at the end of the bender, I probably would have beat the shit out of him and looked for a better job elsewhere, probably back with Drake.

Yet that I don't think was the only issue I had with the movie. For what is for large stretches an action movie, it has a very sterile feel to it. There's also a pretty big plot hole in the climactic flight also saying what it is gives some plot points away. The problem wasn't with the performances, I don't think. Gable does well in a caddish role; Spencer Tracy was still in his pre-Hepburn persona; and Myrna Loy is good as a wife who suffers a lot more than Nora Charles ever did. Ultimately, I can recommend the movie, although I think it could have been rather better.

Test Pilot is one of those movies that probably would benefit from being in a box set than only as a stand-alone DVD from the Warner Archive. It also looks as though they've increased the prices on the Warner Archive DVDs, as this one is listed at $21.99, although it's on sale at both Amazon and the TCM Shop.