Sunday, November 29, 2020

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Obsessed with putting the pinch on a big time hood, Detective Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) sometimes steps over the line. When investigating the murder of a whale, he accidentally bumps off the suspect. He covers up his mistake and becomes infatuated with a witness (Gene Tierney).

Based on the novel Cry Night and not the Shel Silverstein poem, we are treated to a dangerously unstable protagonist. Demoted for shaking down suspects, he seethes with anger and daddy issues. Tierney’s Morgan is the sweet girl with a taste for bad men. Both starred in 1944’s Laura and their characters share some similarities.

Gary Merrill is our decongestant-addicted mister big. He played a very different character this same year in All About Eve. There he got his comeuppance when he decided to marry Bette Davis. In real life, that is. What was he thinking? Smooth, smart, and ruthless, he makes for an excellent villain. Karl Malden is the straight-laced detective, but let’s talk about screenwriter Ben Hecht.

Hecht has writing credits on 135 films (according to IMDb) ranging from Hitchcock to horror, Marx Brothers to Gone With the Wind. He had his hands on so many films, so many great films (and some stinkers too) that he deserves his own keyword. I’ll need to find a bio of him someplace. His characters are rich and the dialog rings true. He has two academy awards and four other nominations.

With attitude and atmosphere, Where the Sidewalk Ends is an excellent film. Again, well written background characters leave an impact. The diner owner almost deserves a film of her own. Not often recognized in the top of the genre, it deserves to be in the conversation. It is better than some that are. AMRU 4.

“Look at ya! You're all bunged up like a barrelhouse vag!”

Friday, November 27, 2020

I Love You Again (1940)

Boring businessman Larry (William Powell) gets konked on the head during a water rescue and wakes up as George (William Powell), a charismatic con man who lost his memory after a similar konk nine years earlier. Larry was a tight-fisted t-totaller who chairs community organizations, leads scout troops, and stuffs wildlife. George is as appalled by this as wife Kay (Myrna Loy) is bored with it. He goes about trying to fleece his former life and hometown, and to patch things up with his hot wife.

Not too bad of a premise for a rom-ish comedy, and Powell and Loy’s on-screen chemistry is second to none, Tracy/Hepburn included. Powell’s Larry/George cleverly navigates his mysterious former life, looking for scams to pull, and trying to re-woo his wife.

Edmund Lowe played Larry/George’s co-conspirator from his previous con-man life. He was in a ton of things but I only saw him as the luke-warm hero from the otherwise interesting Chandu the Magician. But let’s talk about his other co-conspirator Doc, played by Frank McHugh. He too was in an absolute ton of things and I remember him from a few of them. He was the go-to guy for a particular type of wisecracking sidekick. He was great in this role and I must pay closer attention in the future.

Two Little Rascal actors had small roles as scouts. Carl Switzer, better known as Alfalfa, and Robert Blake, better known for murdering his wife. Carl would be killed at age 31 over a $35 argument. Blake beat his murder charge and is pushing 90. There is no god.

I Love You Again is a charmingly good member of the genre, if not among it’s very best. We know Powell will be witty, Loy will be adorable, and both will be charming. We care about the leads and thus about their situation. It was reasonably funny and a very enjoyable watch. AMRU 3.5.

“Boy! Eighteen days alone on a boat is certainly a long time to be alone on a boat for eighteen days!”

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The 39 Steps (1935)

Regular everyman leaves a show when someone fires a gun. In the rush a strange woman asks to go home with him, and she does. Turns out, she is some sort of spy and needs to hide out for the night, safe in his apartment. Well, maybe not too safe. Our hero travels to Scotland based on her vague explanation. Cops want to arrest him, bad guys want to kill him, and the nation’s security hangs in the balance.

Hitch’s follow up to his successful Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps solidified his reputation as a hit maker. Similar in tone, both films feature the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, a theme he would repeat many times. Also on display is his love of trains and hot blonds.

Hitchcock directed 58 films including a few collaborations and an incomplete film. This is my twentieth and I have maybe five more recorded, so running out of Hitchcock films is not a far off reality. Many of his early silent films, if not lost, are hard to find.

The 39 Steps has a more than passing resemblance to It Happened One Night, both featuring a couple who don’t care much for each other, travelling with some danger. The story is different but the vibe is similar. Happened is clearly the superior film but 39 Steps is also fun to watch. There are a couple plot holes that I admit vexed me while watching, but I got over it. AMRU 3.5.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Winchester ‘73 (1950)

Dodge City is holding a shooting competition and the winner gets a Winchester rifle. But not just any Winchester. One in a thousand Winchesters comes out so perfect that it would be a shame to sell it. Instead they give it away. Makes perfect sense.

Lin McAdams (James Stewart) enters the competition because he knows it will attract Dutch Henry Brown, a man he needs to kill. He can’t kill him in town, so … there’s a plan someplace. Anyhow Lin wins the rifle, Dutch steals it, and off they go again.

Lin wants the MacGuffin but really needs to kill Dutch. But along the way is a hot dance hall girl (Shelley Winters) engaged to a coward with a heart of gold, Dutch’s criminal gang, and those terrible injuns! I felt the Indians were actually depicted somewhat respectfully, by 1950 standards anyhow. They were murderous warriors and the leader was played by Rock Hudson, but still. It could have been a lot worse.

Wyatt Earp was played by Grandpa Walton. A young Tony Curtis played a cavalryman. Shelley Winters didn’t think much of her role as all the men were desperate to get their hands on some gun instead of her bod. This is not entirely true, but as she is almost the only female ever on screen, she isn’t entirely wrong either.

A strength of the movie is it’s background characters. Dan Duryea is a compelling secondary villain, maybe a bit too charismatic to be the principle. He is despicable but almost likable. The cavalry sergeant, the indian trader, Marshal Earp, and many others are fully fleshed out minor characters that fit perfectly in the story’s world. Also, the details of Lin/Dutch grudge are slowly revealed changing the context of earlier conversations. Early on they both aim their rifles in the same quirky way implying a shared history.

Stewart credits Winchester ‘73 with reviving his career. He built his career in romantic comedies but that role fit him less and less. Westerns did not seem a natural fit for his erudite city-boy persona but it worked and he was reinvented. His best work was to follow.

Winchester ‘73 is essentially a revenge/man hunt film with all the Western trimmings. There is a certain awkward directness to the dialog but that’s not to say it’s poorly written. While parts are cringeworthy cliched, most is quite good. It is quite odd how everyone immediately recognizes the gun as something rare and priceless. Way sexier than Shelley. AMRU 4.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

At The Circus (1939)

Zeppo-analog disinherits himself so he can run a circus with his horse singing love. He is robbed of the ten grand he needs to buy it outright and Antonio (Chico) enlists the help of a lawyer (Groucho) to save the day.

I am growing tired of bits where Chico and Harpo just clown around with no real comedic inventiveness. Here, the boys search for the money in the strong man’s quarters while he sleeps. Nothing particularly funny happens and it doesn’t advance the story. Along with the reintroduction of musical numbers, At the Circus tends to be a little tedious.

That said, it does bring back a little of what Room Service lost. Margaret Dumont for one, if in a lesser capacity (and past the 50 minute mark), and Groucho is his wisecracking self, at least to a degree. Room Service was a non-Marx Brothers film starring the Marx Brothers, and it was clear how well that worked. Circus felt like it was their film, though you can sense that their heart really wasn’t into it anymore.

A young Eve Arden has a sizable role. Older audiences will remember her as Miss Brooks, but she will always be Principle McGee to me. Famous gorilla performer Charles Gemora played a gorilla. He had a thirty year career mostly playing apes or ape-like monsters, including The War of the Worlds and Island of Lost Souls.

While At The Circus does not stand with the best of the Marx Brothers films, it’s not among the skippables either. It contains no fondly remembered comedic bits, but it’s funny enough and very watchable. Cut a couple of the songs and it would be more so. AMRU 3.

Friday, October 30, 2020

The Blob (1958)

“Teenagers” see a shooting star that is revealed to contain some sort of growing mass, a “Glob” if you will, that attaches itself to flesh and dissolves its victim. Local authorities won’t listen to our heroes because they are “teenagers”, not that they did a terribly good job trying.

A half step above the regular sci-fi/horror drive-in fare of the era, The Blob is remembered mostly because it was Steve McQueen’s first starring role. I don’t myself as a McQueen fan but there is something about his performances that draw your attention.

Another thing that makes The Blob stand out is the uniqueness of a non-Newtonian monster. I can’t think of a precedent. The low budget special effects were quite good. The only problem points are the cringe-worthy scenes where “teens” try to behave like teens. Once past that, we have a fairly good paranoia monster movie with a pretty good climax.

The Blob rises above its budget and makes for an enjoyable watch. Maybe it would not be a classic if not for the casting, but it's fun and we do get very good performances from McQueen and the prettiest girl in Mayberry. AMRU 3.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

A family on vacation gets lost and mistakenly stays at a cult leader’s compound. Low budget antics ensue.

Insurance salesman Harold Warren bet that he could make a film on an extremely small budget. Say what you will about this turd, it most definitely is a film. Low budget and no talent permeates all corners of it. The script, story, acting, score, and photography were all terrible. The actors didn’t seem to know how to react in dramatic scenes, or even where to look. Their community theater troupe would totally have fired them.

A classic amateur writing mistake is to have characters repeat points the writer feels are important. This happens throughout. Also, as the film was shot silent and dubbed later, some of The Master’s wives made exaggerated motions figuring dialog would be inserted later. Yea, that would have been a good idea. But probably most damning is the speed at which the film was edited. When it takes three hours to digitally edit a twenty minute youtube video, it is quite revealing that it took only “three to four hours” to edit a 70 minute, 16 mm film. Clearly Manos wasn’t as much edited as stitched together.

I was annoyed that the Dad character was easily twenty years older than his very pretty wife, but later realized he was the director, so that made sense. Also, he was a real dick, declaring he will stay at the cult compound despite the caretaker being against the idea, his wife's protests, and enough red flags to cancel the Nascar season. Then he orders poor Torgo around like he’s their servant. That man’s poor knees! Dad deserves to die, just saying.

But let’s not focus on the negative. What about this film wasn’t the absolute worst? Well, the narrative was understandable. That’s a plus. There was a theme. It’s hands! Also the ending was somewhat satisfying.

Manos: The Hands of Fate would have faded into obscurity had it not been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. There really is no enjoyment to be had here other than to goof on it. That said, it wasn’t the worst film in the world. It’s fourth. AMRU 1.5.