Thursday, September 20, 2018

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is being followed by investigators, so he skips town and visits his sister’s family. They are thrilled to have him visit until his niece (also Charlie) starts to suspect that he isn’t the man everyone believes him to be.

The Doubt I was to have a Shadow of was removed by the streaming services description of the movie. I know it’s seventy five years old, but shame on Amazon. There’s no excuse for it. Anyhow, the movie is set and filmed in a small California town as young Charlie slowly pieces together the clues to Uncle Charlie’s past. Teresa Wright was downright charming as the small town girl. Young, naive, but strong. Hume Cronyn was also there. So there’s that.

This drama unfolding in idealistic small town America is not short on atmosphere. Director Alfred Hitchcock called it his favorite of his films, and Shadow of a Doubt has a lot to offer. Hitch's first fully Hollywood production, it feels more polished than some of his earlier work. It’s not my favorite of his, but it is in the top five. My mom would have loved it. AMRU 4.
“Forty thousand dollars is no joke, not to him, I bet. It's a joke to me. The whole world's a joke to me.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

The Villain Bat Haines plays two ranches off each other so he can rustle cattle from both sides. Oh, and everybody are dwarfs.

This low budget exploitation flic was inspired when the producer overheard someone saying "if this economy doesn't turn around, we'll have to start making pictures with midgets." The result is a film with little value beyond this novelty.

Many little people in films of this era sport thick Austrian accents. Hollywood apparently put out word that they were hiring and they didn't need much encouragement what with racial purity being on the march.

While the majority of the cast lacked acting talent, our hero (Billy Curtis) had better than fair horsemanship skills. His physicality was noticeable compared to the rest of the cast, who had difficulty with the full sized set. They rode ponies and Curtis being tall for a dwarf (4’2”) seemed over sized on his mount. His love interest, if IMDb is to be believed, celebrated her 101st birthday in January.

I felt a few of the actors appeared to be children, and I discovered that I wasn’t too far off. Fern Formica (that cannot possibly be her real name) would have been thirteen when the film was released, making her randy barroom song all that more inappropriate.

Poor acting, throw-away story, and bad diction. Other than the actors short stature and the films short run time, The Terror of Tiny Town has little to offer. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Woman in Green (1945)

Young women of London are being killed and mutilated (had a finger cut off) and Scotland Yard (or whoever) has yet to find a single clue. Not one single clue! So, quite predictably, they turn to Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), and to a lesser extent, Watson (Nigel Bruce).

A significant plot point was spoiled by the TCM description and I hid this from the son that watched it with me. I won’t pay it forward. There is no reason for this to happen. This is the only one of the original Holmes films to fall into the public domain, which may explain the noticeably poorer audio and video quality.

Here again the studio used the same actors in different roles. Our titular Hillary Brooke, Henry Daniell, and Paul Cavanagh each appeared in two other episodes. This may have helped in keeping a consistent tone and quality.

The Woman in Green is not much of a mystery, isn’t as funny as the others, and has a less interesting story. Son and I both agreed it was the the worst of these so far. The poor audio quality likely didn’t help. I started these with my mom early last year and after brief hiatus when my boys went to camp for the summer, then got a few more in last fall. I had wanted to see the rest with her but fate didn’t allow it. Bowing to my completionist instincts, I’ll watch the rest. Not sure if my boys will bother. So, we were supposed to know that her gray dress was actually green? AMRU 3.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Meet Boston Blackie (1941)

Reformed jewel thief Boston Blackie (whitey Chester Morris) returns from abroad and is under close watch by Inspector Faraday who would love to pin a pearl heist on him. He tries to catch the eye of a pretty blonde by defending her from a rude man. Later that rude man turns up dead in Blackie’s cabin and he now has to solve the mystery to clear his name.

Smarmy and wise cracking, Blackie is helped by his trusty servant “the runt” without any explanation why. Much of the story revolves around a carnival, because why not. Pretty blond vaguely outlines part of the drama he stepped into in the tunnel of love. Will love last? Hey, here’s Schlitze! Old friends will remember him from Freaks (1932). Here he plays a pinhead.

Meet Boston Blackie is a paper-thin mystery with cheesy-ass dialog. But it’s short run time (61 minutes) and upbeat tone made for a pleasant watch. They did fourteen of these things in nine years and I’ll see at least one more. Thin Man it’s not, but enjoyable nevertheless. AMRU 3.5.
“We’ve got Faraday in a cage for you. Just like a canary. Come on, maybe he’ll sing for us.”

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

The services of a proper English man-servant Ruggles (Charles Laughton) are won in a poker game by a course American couple, and he is headed to Red Gap, Washington. Hilarity ensues.

Husband Egbert (Charles Ruggles - no relation) is a fish out of water in 1909 Paris what with his checkered suits and outlandish olde-timey mustache. His social climbing wife Effie is trying to bring civility to him and her frontier hometown. Once back on the range it’s Ruggles (not Charles) that’s the fish out of water, what with his understanding of his status in society. Problem is, Egbert introduces him around using the honorary title Colonel and people take it literally. Ruggles becomes a society hit, and a problem for Effie and her equally ambitious brother-in-law.

Ruggles of Red Gap hits on a couple themes, primarily the equality of men in America compared to polite, aristocratic English society (in Paris). Filmed in slapstick style by Duck Soup director Leo McCarey, the understated Laughton and super-understated Roland Young stand in comedic contrast to all the hootin’ and a-hollerin’. It also, however, does not shy from more poignant moments like when Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address, something he’d do frequently in life.

ZaSu Pitts has a small but important role as an American servant that catches the Colonel’s eye, but the filmmakers stop short of giving her enough screen time to do something truly memorable. Similarly with old friend Leila Hyams, who's job here is to be pretty and desirable. Remember from Island of Lost Souls and Freaks.

Not laugh out loud funny but amusing with some clever bits, Ruggles of Red Gap is a fairly charming light comedy. We overlook the deep south stylings of our Red Gap friends from the Pacific Northwest. All we care is that they are uncouth ‘mericans for us to identify with. So, mission accomplished there. AMRU 3.5.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kansas City Confidential (1952)

Mr. Big carefully plans a bank heist, recruiting three desperate criminals (Jack Elam, Neville Brand, and Lee Van Cleef) to do the heavy lifting. They all wear masks so that no one can rat out the others. They each carry a torn King playing card as identification. Things go well except that an ex-con (John Payne) takes the fall and his life is in tatters. He goes looking for the men who set him up.

Film-Noir of the 50’s was much grittier than the more stylistic films of the 40’s. Here no femme fatal, no European director, and no Bogart-esque dialog. Not as much, anyhow. Jack Elam is the crazy-eyed character actor from so many westerns. Here as a young man he was quirky and amusing. Lee Van Cleef is best remembered as the Bad, with his buddies Good and Ugly. Still have to see that film. Our hunky hero Payne was the romantic lead in Miracle on 34th Street. He eked out a better than fair career with such roles.

With the exception of the heist and immediate aftermath, very little of the film is set in Kansas City. In fact with the exception of the opening establishing shot of the city (likely taken from stock footage) not a single frame was shot there.

Clearly not a high budget production. In one scene our hero is walking near some fake shrubbery when it moves before he reaches it. I backed up the film and rewatched and realized that the camera man must have brushed by them. This happened a second time later in the film. The filmmakers failed to renew the copyright and it lapsed into the public domain. Lucky for me because my DVR choked for three minutes and I missed a critical scene. I paused, jumped into YouTube, and watched the section before continuing. Ah, technology.

Maybe not very high on my favorites for Noir but Kansas City Confidential is still quite enjoyable. The end provided a nice twist and it will withstand rewatching. AMRU 3.5.
“It don't take no big thinking to figure a couple of guys like us ain't in this bananaville on a vacation!”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Ball of Fire (1941)

Nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) must hide out until the heat is off her gangster boyfriend (Dana Andrews). She stumbles upon a group of professors (NNNNNERRRRRDSSSSS!!) working on an encyclopedia, and they want her help studying modern slang. The cops would never think to look for her there. Will love bloom?

Much of the story makes no sense but it doesn’t matter. It is just a framework for the fish out of water to fall in love with the head nerd … I mean professor (Gary Cooper). The seven other professors are modeled after the seven dwarfs, presumably with Stanwyck as Snow White and Cooper as the prince. Billy Wilder wrote the story prior to the release of the Disney movie and in one shot a marquee can be seen showing the Disney flick.

Because the plot revolves around our nerds … I mean professors trying to learn modern slang, the dialog is chuck full of exaggerated or completely made up terms, sounding silly or awkward. This is to heighten the sense of the other fish being out of the other water. Unfortunately our two leads didn’t show much on-screen chemistry. Maybe because their characters were from such different universes or maybe because Cooper acts with all the panache of an uncooked potato. Plus, the 40ish never-been-kissed Cooper looked old enough to be 34ish year old Stanwyck’s dad.

Some prolific character actors make up the the seven dwarfs, most notably S.Z. Sakall from Casablanca and most recently Christmas in Connecticut. Also here is the prolific Charles Lane, whose career spanned from the early 30’s until the mid 90’s. If ever you needed a grumpy lawyer, he was your man. His docket is even longer than Ian Wolf’s, whom I detailed recently. Between the two they appeared in almost 700 movies and TV shows, with only a half dozen titles in common, maybe because they played similar character types.

I wanted to like this film a bit more but I simply didn’t buy either character actually falling for the other. There were funny parts and Stanwyck was as charming as ever, but I have yet to see Cooper in something I liked. That said, mom would have enjoyed it. AMRU 3.