Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Pearl of Death (1944)

Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) learns that notorious thief Giles Conover intends to steal the famous Pearl of Death (think Hope diamond except it’s a grey marble). And through his bumbling (you heard me right!) Conover manages to do just that. Conover ditches the pearl before being apprehended and our heroes try to locate it before the bad guys do.

One of the better episodes, but not a solid mystery in the traditional sense. The only real mystery was where Conover hid the pearl, and we were in the process of figuring that out fairly early. Still, a better story and me sleeping through the midsection is no reflection on it.

Evelyn Ankers plays the bad guy’s blond helper chick. She did a lot of Universal during the 40’s. She was the love interest in The Wolf Man, Elsa Frankenstein in Ghost of, and also in another Sherlock flick. Sadly, she would turn 40 and have to retire. Now I turn your attention to prolific character actor Ian Wolfe.

Ian Wolfe played the elderly shopkeeper, doctor, councilman, whatever in just about everything. If you don’t immediately recognize him then get yourself checked for face blindness immediately. He has over 300 acting credits, more than half feature films. This is the seventh film of his I’ve covered here and has appeared in a bunch more I should see, and also another Sherlock flick. Fourteen of his films were nominated for best picture with three winning. He played different characters in two episodes of Star Trek. He started doing TV in the late 40’s and continued until the late 80’s. His last film was Dick Tracy at age 94. Seriously, he was in everything.

The Pearl of Death (no Sherlock Holmes and ...) provides a fair amount of mystery along with the regular elements we have come to expect. I would be negligent if I didn’t admit that I am growing a little tired of the series, but on the whole they are solid entertainment. AMRU 3.5.
“If it isn't, I shall retire to Sussex and keep bees.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

A British secret agent flies to Washington DC to deliver top secret plans but is captured along the way. Sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), and to a lesser extent, Doctor Watson (Nigel Bruce). George Zucco plays a bad guy yet again.

Not much of a mystery this time. No big third act reveal. Minor mysteries, like where did he hid the microfilm, are revealed early in the second act. From that point all we have is a cop drama. Since we know Homes wins in the end (oh, spoiler alert!) it’s not terribly interesting.

Henry Daniell plays a secondary baddie to Zucco’s big boss. I’ve seen him in six other films including Voice of Terror. He’ll be in another Holmes film. I presume its The Sea Hawk (1940) he is most known for, but he has appeared in a ton of excellent films.

The real headline here is that our heroes actually visit America. He even takes a tour of DC. I still find it slightly jarring to see him in the twentieth century, so I wasn't charmed by their jaunt across the pond. I am guessing WWII had something to do with that decision.

The consistency of tone of these films makes it much like a TV show. Even the background actors return in different roles. As remarkable as the consistency is, clearly some episodes are better than others. In Washington was fine, but otherwise unremarkable. AMRU 3.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) volunteers at the spooky Musgrave Mansion which was opened up to returning soldiers recovering from physical injuries and shell-shock (simple, honest, direct language - two syllables). First his assistant is attacked, then members of the Musgrave family. Holmes (Basil Rathbone) is brought in to solve the mystery.

Here is a better than fair mystery. Every character except our heroes are suspects. Add to that the mysterious Musgrave family ritual, and how it all ties together. Once the story resolves, everything makes sense and we aren’t left feeling cheated. Sadly, this isn’t often the case with B movie mysteries. I’m looking at you, Charlie Chan.

Loosely based on Sir Doyle's The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, it takes many elements and invents many more. Principally regarding the injured war veterans. Originally the mystery revolved around disappearing domestics, which also happens. A young Peter Lawford can be seen in a bar. In the movie, I mean.

The tone and humor we have come to expect are all present in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and the mystery element is very satisfying. Maybe the best in the series so far. AMRU 4.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

An old southern mansion is slated to be demolished but the loony shut-in (Bette Davis) who lives there isn’t playing nice. Her trusty doctor (Joseph Cotten) and her cousin (Olivia de Havilland) offer their guidance while Charlotte goes completely off the rails.

Back story: young Charlotte’s domineering dad disapproves of her running off with a married man (Bruce Dern). When the breakup he engineered goes bad (read: the head was never found), Charlotte is presumed to be the killer. So hide in the spooky mansion she does.

Hush Hush has a few things in common with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane made two years earlier, besides the hag-like Bette Davis in a spooky house. First, they both were directed by Robert Aldrich, who is totally not Robert Altman. Not even a little. Secondly, the Cousin Miriam character was initially played by Joan Crawford. In fact her arrival scene is still included in the final print, before she is visible. Crawford and Davis’ notorious animosity made that pairing unworkable and Aldrich made a trek to the Swiss mountains to convince de Havilland to replace her.

Endora herself Agnes Moorehead was wonderful as a nutty housekeeper. Very different role than what I’ve seen her in before. Victim of 2016 George Kennedy had a small role. Mary Astor appears in her final role. Big Daddy was played by King Tut himself Victor Buono, who also appeared in Baby Jane.

Because style and setting were so similar to Baby Jane, had Crawford stayed in the film it almost would read like a sequel. And part of me would want to see that film. As it stands, it has an excellent story, excellent acting (save Cotten’s terrible accent), and an all around first class production. But I give it a half tick lower. Maybe if I had seen it first … AMRU 4

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

While in the county lockup a dubious preacher (Robert Mitchum) with a troubled past learns that a man slated to be executed (Peter Graves) hid ten thousand stolen dollars. Once freed, he decides to pay the grieving widow a visit. The son is wise.

The Shelley Winters I remember was a fat, obnoxious, busybody who gossipped endlessly on talk shows about better actors she had worked with. I remember her badmouthing Marilyn Monroe and found that distasteful. Maybe I was too harsh. I later learned what a train-wreck Monroe really was. And Winters’ personal story was one of a hard working actress being type-casted out of more challenging and coveted roles. Until roles like the one here came along. I will, as I have done before, put aside what I know. While her character wasn’t terribly deep or complicated, her performance was. And nothing like what I expected her to be.

Mitchum’s Harry Powell was seldom unhinged but frequently on the cusp. He is single minded, almost Terminator like, in finding the money and capturing the kids. I haven’t seen too much of his work but he’s usually the protagonist. He lobbied hard for this role that director Charles Laughton wanted for himself. That would have been a disaster!

Silent film giant Lillian Gish was delightful as a stern but kindly woman who took in troubled street children. She sets the tone with an opening monologue despite not showing up in the story until the third act. I haven’t seen her silent work yet but she was in the snoozer Follow Me, Boys. Billy Chapin was absolutely fantastic as the suspicious boy and parlayed this success into a life of substance abuse. He wouldn’t appear on screen after the 1950’s.

The Night of the Hunter is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, perfectly paced film. Shot like a silent film, it defies categorization. Is it Horror? Maybe. Film-Noir? I suppose. Genius? Absolutely. But apparently it was a critical and commercial failure and Laughton would never direct again. This is a real shame because Hollywood seemed to have lost its way during the 1950s. So many of the big films were shallow, two dimensional vanity projects. Much like today. Hunter, however, was inspired, innovative, and refreshing. And it kept you on the edge of your seat. AMRU 4.5.
“Don’t he ever sleep?”

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

World Famous Detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) takes The Orient Express back to London when a man is murdered in the night. He is urged to solve the mystery while the train is stuck in snow so that the Czech authorities don’t become involved. Hercule soon learns that many of the passengers in the train car had a connection to the deceased and maybe reason to do him harm.

Murder on the Orient Express has an amazing ensemble cast. Sean Connery was the biggest name at the time so they signed him up first. Everyone else followed along. Ingrid Bergman is almost unrecognizable as a nutty nanny. Anthony Perkins and Martin Balsam are together again for the third time, having done Psycho and Catch-22 together. No toilets were involved with this pairing. The older, unsexy Lauren Bacall makes her first appearance here. First appearance of Michael Redgrave’s daughter. Oddly, I am more familiar with her sister. Apparently I used to watch House Calls. One of these days I'll watch Blow Up.

I saw Murder on the Orient Express as a kid and remembered key elements. Like who done it. Still, this is a very well made, very entertaining film that was faithful enough to the source material to get the approval of Agatha’s herself. And it holds up to a second viewing, at least when thirty years separates the two. AMRU 4.
"Bianchi, Doctor, has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room?"

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Return of the Fly (1959)

After his mother’s funeral, Philippe, son of the scientist Andre from the first film, learns what really happened to father. Spoiler alert: he accidentally turned himself into a bug then killed himself. Despite his debilitating fear of flies, he decides to complete dad’s work. Guess what happens? Vincent Price plays the disapproving uncle.

Written specifically to reuse the sets and props of the previous film, the filmmakers cut just about every corner they could. While The Fly was in color, Return Of was in black and white. The only corner they chose to keep was Price, who saw a few things in the script he liked. Unfortunately for him (and us) the filmmakers chose to cut that as well. What we end up with is essentially the same film, done worse, with slight modifications.

I don’t automatically discredit cash-grab sequels. I understand the forces at play, and sometimes poverty sparks creativity. Return of the Fly, however, brings nothing new to the table (except, maybe, Bunny-Man). Much of the first act is exposition to explain the events of the first film, as if there could be a single audience member that hadn’t see it the year prior. Same sets, same props, and for the most part same story. Even the same giant bug prosthetics. Bug-Man runs away while police shoot at him (insert your own reason here) while he holds his bug head on with his free hand! Price is all but wasted, putting in his most forgettable performance so far.

Return of the Fly isn’t hard to watch but even if you don’t try to compare it to the original, it is uninteresting. Poor script, mediocre acting, predictable story. Please skip. AMRU 2.