Saturday, December 16, 2017

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After discovering her Thanksgivings Day Parade Santa is drunk, pretty Doris (Maureen O’Hara) hires a spectator who looks the part. He does such a good job that he is hired by Macy’s to be their regular store Santa. But rather than talk children into Macy’s overstock product, he refers them to competitors to get the exact toy they want. Initially this goes over poorly with management until it becomes a public relations boon. Things get complicated when they realize that Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) actually believes himself to be Santa. Like, for real!

So, the objects in play are the stern realist Doris with a precocious daughter (Natalie Wood). They have little time for such fantasies like Santa. Also, the neighbor Fred who wants to know Doris a little better, nudge nudge. He also happens to be a lawyer, which will come in handy later. Macy’s has a psychiatrist who thinks Kris Kringle ought to be locked up. Finally there is R.H. Macy himself who wants to keep the goodwill train rolling, and heads will roll if it doesn’t. They couldn’t get the real R.H. Macy to play the part because he’d been dead seventy years before filming began. It’s been another seventy years since so you can see how long the “Christmas is so commercialized nowadays” mantra has been going.

Gene Lockhart, whom I saw most recently as Bob Cratchit, is the judge caught in the position of determining Santa's sanity. Here also is Thelma Ritter’s first role. Also is possibly Jack Albertson’s first screen role. He was Charlie’s granddad but I remember him most from television.

Macy's and Gimbel's department stores play a significant part in the film. They agreed to have their names used only if they liked the finished product. This means if either one vetoed, significant parts would have to be reshot. As such, many of the references to the stores were cut-aways. Fortunately, both parties liked the movie and it was released in time for ... summer solstice? What the hell, people ...

Miracle on 34th Street is a charming film that holds up very well. That is, if you overlook the ‘frigid woman must learn to love so she can catch a man’ angle. Also, the part about the little girl being left in the care of a 30-something stranger living next door. Yea, that wouldn’t fly today. But apart from that, it still hits all the right notes. Edmund Gwenn (remember him from Them!) is the best Santa analog we can hope for, Maureen O’Hara is a wonderfully charming ice queen, and Natalie Wood basically steals the show. Few child actors were as impactful as she was here. AMRU 4.
“The DA's a Republican”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Onibaba (1964)

A young woman and her mother-in-law, waiting for the return of their husband/son, survive in war-torn medieval Japan by killing soldiers and selling their armor. After learning from a neighbor that he has been killed, the neighbor takes an interest in the young widow. Mother-in-law disapproves.

Onibaba is a film about jealousy and manipulation. It is frequently put into the genres of fantasy and horror, but I feel it defies categorization. It’s a simple story (essentially just three characters) with a strange, fantasy-like tone. A scary mask is involved but I resist giving too much away. The three characters relationship, and that of the dead man, are slowly revealed as the story unfolds.

Interesting tone, abrupt and ambiguous ending, Onibaba (which means Demon Hag or Devil Woman), is simple in story and complex in content. It’s a film that’s difficult to talk too much about, lest we go down a rabbit hole. AMRU 4.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Move Over, Darling (1963)

Five years after the death of Nick’s (James Garner) wife Ellen (Doris Day), he marries Bianca (Polly Bergen). Everything is all well and good until Ellen returns from the dead to foul things up.

This was the studio’s second attempt to remake the 1940 Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film. Notoriously they tried filming with Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, and Cyd Charisse when Monroe’s erratic behavior caused serious delays that the studio could not tolerate. Then she died. They had about a third of the film in the can before shutting everything down. Here is attempt two with a completely new cast, new title, and a modified script.

Lots of studio contract actors to be seen here. First is Thelma Ritter, whom old friends will remember from Rear Window and All About Eve. Our disgruntled hotel manager today is Fred Clark, who I’ve seen in Sunset Blvd and surprisingly nothing else. He also did a lot of television. Also here is John Astin (you know, Sean’s dad), and Don Knotts who was a TV staple for me growing up. Speaking of TV, Schneider had a small role.

There is something about Doris Day’s body language. She is so wonderfully expressive and you can’t take your eyes off of her. Several years older and never the sex kitten Marilyn was, she was nevertheless much more relatable. I did watch the 37 minutes of Something’s Got to Give edited to a final film as much as possible. While it’s impossible to judge what a completed version would have been, it seemed like I was watching an overall crappier version of the exact same movie. While Marilyn certainly had her charm, she was miscast as a loving mother/sexpot and her acting talent could not hold a candle to Day.

Move Over, Darling is a fine romantic comedy. If I were to criticize it, I’d say it could have been funnier. Also, the entire situation could have been resolved if Nick just told Bianca about Ellen’s return. And I didn’t buy that James Garner would be too timid. Not Jim Rockford. Also, the premise that the marriage would not be consummated until the honeymoon may have been plausible back in 1963, but it was head scratching today.

Slightly better than the original but brings nothing new to the table. Pleasant and easy to watch. AMRU 3.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ghost Story (1981)

Four old rich men, friends since college, get together to tell each other ghost stories. When one of their sons dies mysteriously in a horrible green-screen effect, his brother tries to unravel the mystery. Spoiler alert: ghosts are involved.

This film is famous for bringing together four stars of classic Hollywood in what was the final film appearance of three of them. Fred Astaire was a Hollywood legend who revived the musical genre in the 1930’s, Melvyn Douglas has a huge and diverse body of work, John Houseman was famous for being John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, was famous for being the son of Douglas Fairbanks.

Legend more to my liking Patricia Neal had a supporting role. Old friends will remember her from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She didn’t appear in many feature films but I will see her again. Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from First Contact, plays the spoiler alert role. Over the decades she has appeared in a whole pile of stuff that I’m utterly unfamiliar with.

During the climax, with four minutes left on the film, just before the big reveal, the public library DVD failed. Amazon Prime to the rescue. It was free with membership all along.

Ghost Story is a peculiar film. Every scene is a mystery for the viewer to figure out. Awkward dialog, overt sexuality, oppressive score, oddly expressive lighting, and an overall style that had an early-80’s artsy-trippy feel. I found it somewhat reminiscent of the much worse Cat People (1982). Both were films that would make a little more sense on a second viewing, but neither will get that opportunity. AMRU 2.5.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cape Fear (1962)

After eight years, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is released from prison. His first order of business, well his only order of business, is to punish the man responsible for his conviction, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), an attorney who testified against him.

Peck and Mitchum make for an interesting contrast of styles. About the same age (Peck was 16 months older), started in acting about the same time (1944 and 1943 respectively), both ruggedly handsome leading men. Peck, however, was a more traditional leading man with a slightly more illustrious body of work, if quite a bit shorter. Mitchum, on the other hand, played more morally ambiguous characters in more unconventional films. To me, Peck seemed to be from an earlier era. Maybe because of style, or maybe because Peck’s major film roles ended in the 1970’s while Mitchum continued into the 90’s.

Old friend Martin Balsam is the police chief. There is a scene where cops ascend a staircase that resembles quite closely the one in the Bates’ homestead, but Marty isn’t with them. Kojack himself Telly Savalas has a sizable role. I know he’s been in a fair number of notable movies, but I had never seen him in anything except his TV series. No, who loves YOU, baby.

A couple things annoyed me here. First is how much the cops harassed poor Max. Sam and family are appropriately alarmed by Max’s behavior, but he doesn’t break any laws. So the cops interrogate him at every opportunity and try to run him out of town. Total civil rights violations by the protagonists. Another thing was that nobody closes the goddamn doors. I think a lot of problems could have been easily avoided.

Cape Fear is a better than fair horror film. Max is a smart and unrelenting monster. But maybe because of its reputation I was a little disappointed. Also some of the acting performances were painfully terrible (I’m looking at you, Barrie Chase!) and little about how the story plays out will surprise anyone. Still, it's a good watch. And Mitchum's performance is quite impressive. AMRU 3.5.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Zombies on Broadway (1945)

Two men hired to promote a new nightclub owned by a gangster promise a zombie for opening night. Gangster forces them to produce a real one so that he is not embarrassed. Gangsters can be so sensitive. So, our comedic duo journey forth to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian. Tropical hijinks and sad stereotypes ensue.

The comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney were a poor man’s Abbott and Costello act. They did eleven films together, about half using the same character names as here. Afterwords they both went on to do television, but not together as far as I can tell.

Bela Lugosi played the evil scientist character in the spooky mansion. Past sixty, he still displayed a fair level of physicality. With his Universal features behind him, he took just about every acting job offered. Becoming a parody of himself, he effectively weakened his brand and hurt his reputation in Hollywood. Please take note Nic Cage. Old friend Ian Wolfe appears as a museum curator. I believe this makes eight films. Our ingenue this evening was pretty Anne Jeffreys, who has fairly little to do in the film. She performs a musical number, catches Wally’s eye, and gets captured. She appeared to have some acting chops, not that this was the venue to display them. She had played Tess Trueheart in Dick Tracy. Her movie career never approached A list level and went on to do a steaming pile of television. She passed away just this past September.

Zombies had a few more things in common with I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Both are set on the same fictitious Caribbean island. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot and head zombie Darby Jones all but recreated their earlier roles. Darby (and others turned zombie) wore prosthetic bugged out eyes. The effect was actually quite effective.

Zombies on Broadway wasn’t even as amusing and entertaining as the title suggests. At no moment did I giggle, even the slightest. The frady Abbott and Costello bits were tedious at best and insulting at worst. 1945 was far too late in the game for blackface to be either clever or funny, but there we have it. I also felt sorry for the black extras who had to dress as “natives” and jump around. At least they had work. AMRU 2.
“A great scientist. Yes, some people say he is crazy. I don't think he is crazy... well, ah, not very crazy, anyway.”

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Radio big mouth Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) angers a mobster who asks to meet him at his hotel. When Larry visits, he witnesses an unrelated mob hit and mistakenly believes he killed the guy. He hides in the apartment of pretty Mary (Paulette Goddard) who inherited a spooky mansion on an island off of Cuba. Hiding in her luggage, they set sail.

Pretty Mary also has a back story. Spooky mansion is haunted and people say her life is in danger if she goes there. A man tried to warn her but was killed outside her apartment in a related mob hit. Larry likes pretty Mary so he decides to help her.

Playing Larry’s man servant is veteran racial stereotype Willie Best. I have seen him (and barely remember him) in the abomination General Spanky (1936) and the eminently forgettable The Monster Walks (1932). Speaking of minorities being allowed minor roles, Zorba the Mexican himself Anthony Quinn makes two brief appearances.

Somewhat similar to its predecessor The Cat and the Canary (1939), which I rewatched just prior, it pales somewhat in comparison in a couple ways. Primarily there were too many characters. It is not uncommon to introduce many possible suspects early in a film but they became hard to track. Also, red herring suspects are not a substitute for a good story. There are many story elements at play here, but the actual story is rather simple. The elements at best are a distraction.

But this is not to say The Ghost Breakers is a bad movie. It’s ok. Hope is as amusing as he was prior and Goddard just as charming. The pointless running around the haunted mansion seemed gratuitous, but in the end the film served its purpose. Bob and Paulette didn’t do any more films together probably because Hope already started his Road Movies with Bing. I like The Can and Canary better, but I liked this better than Road to Singapore. AMRU 3.
“Oh, you look like a black out in a blackout. This keeps up, I'm gonna have to paint you white.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Penalty (1920)

A young doctor makes the fateful decision to amputate the legs of an injured boy. His mentor sees that the younger doctor has made a rash decision but covers for him to the parents. But the boy knows the truth and grows up to be an evil criminal mastermind, bent on revenge.

Lon Chaney had his lower legs bound to achieve the illusion of being an amputee. Although he could not have them bound for more than ten minutes at a time, the illusion was quite successful. And his character was quite evil.

I waffle on calling The Penalty horror. I have a clear definition that grows muddier as time passes. An element of the supernatural is needed and regular old evil just won’t do. Chaney’s evil, however, is something special. Normally one can identify with his characters, even if just a little. Compassionate, flawed, and tragic. Here, not so much. Maybe as a boy who just lost his legs, but not during in the story proper. He bad.

Ethel Grey Terry played an agent sent undercover to get close to Chaney’s Blizzard, and there are strange parallels in the two actors real lives. Ethel was born six months before Lon and about four months after he passed she died from “an illness she'd suffered for over a year”, whatever that means. Both were veterans of silent cinema with one talkie credit each. Chaney’s a lackluster remake of a film he had done five years earlier, and Terry’s was a short done with her husband. Crime stories both. Terry’s Husband, it’s worth noting, retired from acting very shortly after her death, never remarried, and would commit suicide on the 35th anniversary of her passing. Chaney’s widow would die three years after him, on Halloween.

The Penalty strikes the right horror tone and Chaney’s performance is among his best. Overall, not among his best movies, but effective. AMRU 3.5.
“He’s gathered up his dance hall girls and he’s put them to work in his house - making hats - thousand of hats.”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Red Shoes (1948)

A talented young ballerina (Moira Shearer) and a 40ish college student composer (Marius Goring) are given career breaks by the difficult head (Anton Walbrook) of a great ballet company. Soon young Victoria must choose between the man she loves and becoming a great ballerina. Can’t do both. That’s all explained in detail.

Despite the film’s initial lack of success, Moira Shearer became a sensation and parlayed that success into six more movies. One of which, fans may remember, was director Michael Powell’s other masterpiece flop: Peeping Tom. You remember, the film that ruined his career. All he did here was almost bankrupt the studio with a film that would take forever to break even. Had it not been for film nerd Martin Scorsese, The Red Shoes may have been forgotten.

Fans may remember Anton Walbrook as the husband in the 1940 version of Gaslight. Born in Germany, he high-tailed it out when the Nazis moved in. It seems he was 50% Jewish is 100% gayish. Nazis weren’t his crowd. Many of the ballet company members were actual dancers and not actors. This lent a certain air of authenticity.

The Red Shoes is a fantastic looking film. Still very early in the Technicolor era, it was heralded as its best example. The photography, the cinematography, and the performances were spot on and dazzling to look at. The story parallels that of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the same name, that was also performed on screen near the end of the second act. It is clear why audiences of the day did not take to it. It is unconventional in tone especially for 1948. But it is a wonderful film to watch and I will again. AMRU 4.
“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The House of Fear (1945)

Members of a rich mans club that meet in a spooky mansion in the Scottish country one by one receive an anonymous letter that contain only orange seeds. Shortly thereafter, they die tragically. Also, they have a spooky housekeeper. Holmes and Watson investigate.

It seems that each member had their life insurance policies changed so that the rest of the club is the beneficiary. Holmes recognizes one as a Doctor who was acquitted for killing his wife, so he becomes the all-too-obvious suspect. The House of Fear is based on but does not at all resemble Doyle’s “The Five Orange Pips”, which is a story and not the name of the world's most caucasian R&B band.

Other than our heroic duo the only recurring character in these films is the incompetent cockney Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey). Why a London cop is investigating a Scottish crime is the real mystery. In all he appears in six episodes. Doctor Suspect is played by Paul Cavanaugh, who made a career of playing dapper Englishman with a questionable past. He’ll be in a couple more of these.

Better than some and sure not to disappoint, but Boy-Howdy am I tired of these films. Time to move on for a while. With six more left, my self-imposed end of year deadline is in question. I shan’t lose sleep over it. October is for Horror and that will begin shortly. But for now, AMRU 3.5. I want a spooky mansion in the Scottish country.

Friday, September 22, 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.

Thursday, September 7, 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

Monday, August 28, 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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Out of the Past (1947)

A former detective … or gangster (Robert Mitchum) tries to start a new life as a small town gas jockey when he is found by his old boss (Kirk Douglas) who has one more job for him.

Told partially in flashback, Jeff is trying to make a fresh start with a good girl when his past catches up with him. Seems old Jeff left his prior job on rather poor terms, with a backstory involving his boss’ two-timing, thieving girlfriend (Jane Greer), and it’s unclear if Whit wants to make amends or get revenge.

Out of the Past is a complex film chuck full of noir-speak that sometimes left me scratching my head ("Now, do you wanna talk business, or do you wanna play house?" or "You know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle"). Just about everyone was duplicitous and its unclear if they are ever telling the truth, even when talking to their co-conspirators. Add to that two femme-fatals (Greer and Rhonda Fleming) looked alike making me mistake the first for the second. My head got a lot of scratching done that day.

Overall, Out of the Past was nice but not spectacular. It holds your attention well, so AMRU 3.5. It's held in high esteem as a great Noir film, but man was it confounding. Mitchum joked that a few pages of the script were lost in the mimeo department. But still, I'll give it another watch. The Maltese Falcon was way better the second time around. This may be as well.
“Joe couldn't find a prayer in the Bible”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Libeled Lady (1936)

A newspaper editor (Spencer Tracy) is about to be married when his newspaper accidentally sends out an early edition with an unconfirmed story that Libels a Lady (Myrna Loy). Rich lady threatens to sue for five million bucks and put the paper out of business. So he hatches a plan. He hires a playboy ex-reporter (William Powell) to marry his own fiancee (Jean Harlow) then has him seduce the rich lady and get caught. Then she’ll have to drop the suit, because, reasons. Things don’t go according to plan.

What this all adds up to is a fairly generic 30’s rom-com except for a few things. First, it’s funny. Very funny. Secondly, the cast all seemed to be having a great time, and that’s because they were. The four principles became fast friends on the set and that easygoing atmosphere transferred well to the screen. This was the fourth pairing of Loy and Powell (of fourteen), so their chemistry was well known. Additionally, Powell and Harlow were dating (the old dog), so you got that there. Plus, everyone liked Tracy.

There is fairly little to say about Libeled Lady. Standard Rom-com story, but it was well crafted, well written, and funny. And it works. Better than some better known ones. If that sounds good, and you don’t have an aversion to the transatlantic accent, then it won’t disappoint. AMRU 4.
“Driver, can't you go any faster?
I can, lady, but the cab can't.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Godfather (1972)

Well, you see, there’s this family. And they are in business. No, not the Mafia. We don’t use the M word here. Let’s just say they take care of their friends and take care of their enemies. It doesn’t make sense for me to summarize the story as I was the last person on earth past 30 to have seen The Godfather. Goomba mobsters whacking each other? Didn’t interest me.

The Godfather takes place over many years, from the end of World War II into the 1950’s. It covers many events and does not have a consistent central character. It illustrates how characters change over time, and sometimes fail to change. It launched (or solidified) the careers of a great many actors like James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and of course Al Pacino. Even 50 year old and victim of 2016 Abe Vigoda. But mostly it turned director Francis Ford Coppola into a directorial force to be reckoned with. He would go on to direct Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, then a whole pile of shit.

Simonetta Stefanelli plays Michael’s first wife and has a delightful nude scene, if you’re into that sort of thing. If IMDb is to be believed, she was 17 when the film was released. If her scenes were done four months prior, she wouldn’t have been that. Ah, the benefits of shooting in Italy. Hey, look, there's old friend Sterling Hayden! Once again proving he's not afraid to take acting chances. The baby being baptized at the end was director daughter Sofia Coppola, who would prove to be a far better director than actress.

Make no mistake: these are not good people. They are not heroes by any measure, even if some will see them as such. But neither are their victims. It's bad on bad and one cannot feel sorry for any of the deaths. There is no pristine protagonist to rally around and you shouldn't try to find one.

At just under three hours with no singular storyline, The Godfather does not lag, never fails to keep you enthralled. I was totally wrong to ignore it for so long. It is one of those films that everyone says is great, and that is because it is great. Solid cast, great acting, great script, great cinematography, and incredible storytelling. It has crept into popular culture in so many ways, and it forever changed the genre and film making as a whole. I will never doubt a film recommendation from my wife ever again. AMRU 5.
"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

American Graffiti (1973)

While cruising around their town, a young couple (Opie Cunningham and Shirley Feeney) come to terms with college and the direction of their relationship, a geek tries to be cool and score with a hot blond, a dork (Matt Hooper) becomes a criminal while searching for the perfect girl (Chrissy Snow), a thug tries to score with an under-aged girl (Julie Cooper), and an out-of-towner (Han Solo) wants to be top dog, set to a classic soundtrack hosted by Wolfman Jack.

I would go further into the details of the story, but really there isn’t much. This is simply a story of young people doing what young people so often do, and because of that it has a very authentic feel that is not often found. In this way alone it reminds me of Clerks (1994).

Happy Days, which premiered the following year, was not based on or directly inspired by American Graffiti as many people think. A year and a half earlier there was an episode of Love, American Style with a segment called “Love and Happy Days” which featured the Cunningham family and included Ron Howard, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams (Potsie). Fonzie didn’t exist yet. It was a failed TV pilot that nobody wanted to take a chance on, until this nostalgic piece of yesteryear became a box office smash. I remember seeing that rerun of that Love, American Style while Happy Days was still on the air (I’m very old, but you should have known that) and was completely confused by what I was watching.

Likely because of the Happy Days link this film was associated with the 1950’s but it was in fact set in 1962, ten years (or so) before it was released. The Wolfman got a huge career boost from his appearance and I have a memory of hearing his syndicated radio show circa 1980. My dad said it sounded like Wolfman Jack. I said it was, and he replied it couldn’t be. He was on the radio when he was a kid. In fact both my dad and he were born in the same year.

American Graffiti succeeds because it didn’t try to do, or to be too much. It was what it was, and the chord it struck was pitch perfect. It was a moment in time and comes across very sincere. That sounds easy to do, but it is not. The ash bins of Hollywood are filled with cliched and contrived teen comedies. Very watchable, very enjoyable, and worthwhile, even if you weren’t around in the 1960’s. Or 1990’s. AMRU 4.

I leave not with a quote but a YouTube video. It's creator later dismissed it as little more than the rantings of a fanboy, but I felt it summed up the film and it's success very well. Besides, that's more than I even aspire to do.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Modern Times (1936)

A factory worker tweaks out at his menial job, is mistaken for a communist, winds up in jail, then out of work, and finally falls in love with a “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature. Roll credits.

Modern Times is definitely the last ever silent film, absolutely, sorda, kinda, not really. Released nine years after the birth of sound cinema, it has a synchronized soundtrack with sound effects, music, and even some spoken words. The principle story, however, unfolds in pantomime with title cards. Just like The Jazz Singer (1927). Go figure.

It’s hard to exaggerate the influence of Modern Times. It was at once forward thinking while also giving cinema goers one last look at the silent era. And doing it in a way that entertained audiences of the day. Chaplin’s comedic bits would be referenced and imitated for decades. The Lucy Chocolate Conveyor Belt bit, itself referenced countless times, owes direct inspiration. And Chaplin appears to have taken inspiration from Metropolis (1927), a much more serious film.

But my modern eyes struggled with a few issues. If we sympathize with him when he cracks up from the monotony and frantic pace of factory work, how do we feel when he desperately tries to find work in the same factory? Also, played for laughs, he essentially screws up at everything he tries to do. But he somehow manages to win the heart of a young “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature.

Modern Times lacks a clear point of view. Is the Tramp to be associated with the communist marchers? Does he side with the cruel factory or the strikers who closed it? In the end the Tramp takes no position. He is a leaf in the wind with no direction of his own. All he wants is to be happy, and be with a hot young “Gamin”, which is some sort of small woodland creature. For my purposes, I wasn't amused by the comedic bits and wished there was more of a message other than "Modern life is hard". We knew that. Paulette Goddard was hot.  AMRU 3.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Man who Knew Too Much (1956)

A vacationing couple (Stewart and Day) and their son have a chance encounter with a strange french man in Morocco. Soon he is murdered but delivers a critical message to husband Benjamin. The authorities want to know the message, but the baddies have his little boy. So, the befuddled doctor husband and hottie singer-wife run around amateur sleuthing to save the day, and their boy.

Those familiar with Hitch’s 1934 film of the same name pretty much know the story. Bits were added and things were given to the wife to do, but the basic story line is intact. While the original was somewhat unpolished and suffered from poor audio and video quality, this version suffered from pacing issues and too familiar of a story. I think I’d have liked it better had I not seen the original.

Hitch called the first Man the work of a talented amateur, but preferred it over this, the higher budget and more polished version. My issue here however has to do with certain scenes being dragged out way too long. We see the thing, we understand what might happen, we hear the music build, then stare at my watch. Building suspense, Hitch would say. Just get on with it! I would.

What worked was Doris Day, who is utterly charming in every scene. Her signature song Que Sera, Sera came from here, which Day initially wasn’t very fond of. What didn’t work was Stewart, who is very Jekyll and Hyde with me. Love him in some movies, not so much in others. This one not so much. It's not that he's a poor actor, it's just that he can be so one-note. In so many films he plays exactly the same character in different circumstances, and I don't find it charming.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is a serviceable film, but brought little original to the table. Much more watchable than the 1934 version, but simply not that interesting. Especially compared to the other films Hitch was making at the time. AMRU 3.
“If you ever get hungry, our garden back home is full of snails. We tried everything to get rid of them. We never thought of a Frenchman!”

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Black Cat (1934)

A young, newly married couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) honeymoon in Hungary when they meet up with the creepy Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). They share a carriage ride that crashes in the rain. So, creepy doctor, creepy assistant, and our young couple walk to the creepy house of the creepy Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Our creeps have a backstory that involves a prisoner of war camp that stood exactly where the creepy house now does. Oh, and something about stealing Vitus’ wife and daughter. And there’s this deal where Vitus is terrified of cats. Black cats, specifically.

Based on the title of the Poe story of the same name, The Black Cat bears no resemblance to the source material. Fans may remember Manners as the dashing leading man from Dracula and The Mummy films. He also played supporting characters in better films. His lack of real acting talent encouraged him to leave Hollywood before he reached forty. Fans might not remember Julie Bishop or Jacqueline Wells, or Diane Duval, or whatever other name she acted under. I had never seen her in anything before. This is the first of eight films starring the two biggest names in horror at the time (Boris and Bela, that is), and was a huge commercial success despite, or maybe because of, its controversial, satanic themes.

What a weird-ass film! Not too sure what to make of it. Director Edgar G. Ulmer was becoming recognized for his work when he started seeing the wife of a studio producer, who also happened to be the nephew of Carl Laemmle himself. Maybe it was that, or just being a strange dude, but he walked away from his contract and concentrated on independent projects. He would later do The Man from Planet X and Detour.

Strange tone, ambiguous story elements, and reasonably short. If you are looking for a good, atmospheric early horror film other than the biggies, and before they became parodies of themselves, The Black Cat fits the bill. AMRU 3.5.
“Come, Vitus. Are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures? You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead? And now you come to me, playing at being an avenging angel, childishly thirsting for my blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game, Vitus. A game of death, if you like…”

Monday, May 29, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

What, Sherlock again? There’s fourteen of these suckers and I am determined to get through them by years end. So, this time Holmes and Yo-Yo transport a scientist out of Switzerland before he and his Secret Weapon fall into the hands of the Gestapo. This proves difficult because even eccentric scientists need a booty call every now and again. So when man and machine turn up missing, our heroes must track down both before the Evil Moriarty discovers their secrets. Based ever so loosely on The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Ah, the middle section where I find something interesting about an actor or behind-the-scene happening. Yea, this is totally where I do that. It seems this Holmes series was factory production and they click off like clockwork. So …. good job, guys!

Crossing studios and eras, the Sherlock Holmes series is amazingly consistent in quality and tone, which is especially surprising as they don’t yet share writers or directors. In fact, different actors have played Moriarty. The story, humor, and atmosphere are what we come to expect. Chalk another nice watch for Holmes. AMRU 3.5.
“Brilliant man, Sherlock Holmes. Too bad he was honest.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

The inner council requests the help of Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) because the citizens of London are being terrorized by radio broadcasts from Nazis. Wait, what?

That’s right, Nazis. Holmes and Watson (Nigel Bruce) are transported about fifty years to the (then) present day to do their part in the war effort. This is possible because “the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging”, so, yea. That. Not sure how a modern day Sherlock played to audiences back then, but since it’s been seventy five years since the movie came out, it still plays somewhat as a period piece.

Anachronisms aside, The Voice of Terror is a better than fair mystery (there's a spy) with all the wit and charm of the earlier films. Given my druthers, I’d prefer it set in Victorian London, but while America escaped the war to the cinemas, England had no such option. We had difficulty getting meat and gasoline, they were eating acorns. Universal did a good job picking up the franchise. AMRU 3.5.
“There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson. And a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind nonetheless and a greener, better, stronger land that will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Troubled but talented screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is assigned to adapt a terrible novel for the screen. Hot coat check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart - No, not THAT Martha Stewart!) loves the book, so he invites her back to his place for her to describe the story to him. Or whatever else. He gets nowhere with the girl or the script so he sends her packing via taxi. When she turns up dead, Dix is the prime suspect. The only witness for his whereabouts is a hot neighbor (Gloria Grahame) who noticed him from her window. Love blooms.

So, rather than a who-done-it, we’ve got a did-he-do-it. We’re used to the old and decrepit Bogart playing the romantic lead, and he is no stranger to morally ambiguous characters, so this is right up his alley. But maybe a bit more morally ambiguous than we are used to. At the onset the audience and his alibi-then-lover are certain of his innocence but soon we both become unsure as his darker nature reveals itself. His relationship with too-young-for-him Graham rings true. Besides, she was about a year older than his real life wife.

Speaking of Graham, perhaps you recall me retelling of a certain friction between her and her second husband, director Nicholas Ray. Graham and Ray’s marriage was on the rocks while he was directing her here. You remember, dabbling with the step-son. That's a recipe for disaster.

Despite being the sole suspect for the murder, and Dixon’s violent tendencies which frequently get him into trouble, his friends all repeated say how much they love Dix. They love Dix so much! They'd never say no to Dix. Yea, sometimes I’m twelve.

In a Lonely Place is sometimes dark, sometimes amusing, and has great atmosphere. Don’t expect Bogart to be his regular hero character. He is far more real here. An excellent film-noir. AMRU 4.
“There's no sacrifice too great for a chance at immortality.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Dr. Moriarty (George Zucco) is released from prison because, you know, reasons, and vows one last plan to ruin Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) before retiring. Why he says this to Holmes directly is beyond me. Anyhow, Holmes is appropriately suspicious when two cases cross his desk. The captain of Scotland Yard asks for help when he receives a vague threat regarding the Crown Jewels. But that’s not nearly as interesting as the hot young woman (Ida Lupino) who fears for her brother’s life because of a silly drawing. Suspicious boyfriend is suspicious.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was based on a 1899 stage play which starred a young Charlie Chaplin in a small role. Cratchit boy Terry Kilburn plays that character here. I understand the two stories bear little resemblance. One strange thing here is that Holmes lives not at 221B Baker street with boy-toy Watson (Nigel Bruce) but instead in a great mansion with servants and stuff. The films opening was overshadowed by the Nazis invading Poland the same day. Way to ruin a party, Hitler!

Despite this story being new to me, it falls short of The Hound. There was the atmosphere and amusing moments, but little mystery. Because of some inside information it’s not hard for us to guess the outline of Moriarty’s plan. Sherlock, however, is mostly perplexed. Rather than solve the mystery, he follows all the wrong leads, then runs to the climax to wrestle with Moriarty.

Amusing and entertaining, The Adventures is a fun watch and worthy successor to The Hound. It was the last for 20th Century, the franchise being picked up by Universal three years later (with some changes!) AMRU 3.5.
“You've a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I'd like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rebecca (1940)

A pretty young woman (Joan Fontaine) is the travelling companion of a wealthy busybody (Florence Bates). While in Monte Carlo they cross paths with dashing rich man (Laurence Olivier). He is mourning his dead wife and thus acts aloof and antisocial. Despite this, pretty woman and dashing widower spend time together and get married. He takes her back to his expansive estate

Skittish and unsure, the new Mrs. de Winter has to contend with a distant husband, a household staff that seems not to embrace her, and the spectre of the dead OLD Mrs. de Winter (Rebecca). George Sanders plays the George Sanders character, Leo G. Carroll played the Leo G. Carroll character, and Nigel Bruce plays the Nigel Bruce character. Nice when that all works out.

What a peculiar film! Apparently faithful to the source material, the pace was hurried to get all the facts in place. Also, the extensive use of matte paintings and miniature sets, while impressive, were very apparent. But it was the film’s frantic pace that initially troubled me. Over time, however, it slowly won me over to this, Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film only Best Picture.

Rebecca is one of the earliest Hitchcock films I’ve seen and it has the polish characteristic of his later work, but somehow feels a little different. Set in the modern day (1940), it seems a little like a period piece. Austere mansion, polite society, elevated language, and not expressly a genre picture. That said, it does resemble Suspicion a bit, Fontaine’s (and Bruce’s) other Hitch Flick.

In the end. as I said, I did come around. It’s an interesting and very good picture. The scene between Fontaine's unnamed character and Mrs. Danvers is truly bizarre. For my money, not THE best picture of 1940, but up there. AMRU 3.5.
“I've been thinking...
Now why would you want to go and do that for?”

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Entitled bitch Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) learns that the man she is infatuated with (Leslie Howard) is marrying his cousin (Olivia de Havilland), then the war of southern aggression takes the men’s attention away from her, and all the while she is pursued by the cad Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). After losing her precious way of life she learns to be self sufficient, saves Tara, gets her man, and lives happily ever after. Promise.

Chalk this up as another ‘How the hell did I not see this until now’ film. I’m sure this is because I have seen bits and pieces and, well, I have issues. Costume melodramas aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse and I have reveled in my dislike for this kind of film. I have called the Wizard of Oz the greatest bad movie ever and this the worst great movie ever. Not that anyone could say the line Fiddle-dee-dee without sounding like a complete fraud, but some of the acting was horrendous. But mostly I have an extreme distaste for the idolization of the old South, where the idle rich live in lavish comfort on the backs of unimaginable cruelty. And make no mistake, some of that is here, but more on that later. So, after seeing fifty candles on my cake I actually sat down and watched all seventy hours of this epic, romantic, quasi-historic costume melodrama. Here is what I have to say.

There are no likable characters in the film, said one son, with the exception of de Havilland’s Melanie, and she was just a paper-thin generic goodie character used as a foil for horrid Scarlett. To disagree somewhat, I did like the cad Rhett Butler. He knew who he was and owned up to it. He pursued Scarlett because she was just like him. Selfish, manipulative, and driven. Oh, and she was hot. And rich. This may be Gable’s best roll, even though he dismissed it as a woman’s picture. But if you really liked Scarlett as a protagonist, then you are a terrible person.

The third leg in this love triangle is Ashley Wilkes, played by a middle aged ugly man. I guess they didn’t want people rooting for him too much. Seriously, Howard was pushing fifty during filming! He loves Scarlett (I guess) but marries his cousin because that’s what the Wilkes always do. I suppose. Then the war, then all hell breaks loose, then our story resolves. Back to my principal issue.

Slavery is the single greatest evil my nation perpetrated on other humans, and that is saying something. The best thing you can say about the institution is that it was worse in other places. America didn’t need to continuously import slaves to replace the ones dying in the fields, like in the Caribbean. They lived long enough to produce new slaves. If that’s your saving grace, then, again, you are a terrible person. Slavery is never justified by the gifts of civilization and Christianity. And you cannot reminisce for the old south without acknowledging the great and terrible evil that allowed it to exist. The Old South needed to die just as the aristocracies of old Europe. Let’s get back to the film.

What I had missed about Gone With the Wind was there is more than one way to enjoy the story. You could feel sorry for Scarlett or the loss of plantation society as many people do. But the events depicted are not necessarily a treatise on the loss of something grand or the cruelty of the North, but a statement that War is Hell and here are events that happened. Enjoying the story does not necessitate sympathy with slaveholders.

Stepping away from the heavy narrative for a moment, I'd like to shout out to Scarlett's dad played by Thomas Mitchell. He also appeared in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington all in the SAME YEAR! Olivia de is pushing 101, almost as old as my uncle.

Gone With the Wind is an amazingly beautiful film. The sets, the photography, the editing, it all comes together wonderfully. And the copy I saw was a fairly poor transfer. I can only imagine what a fully restored 4k edition would look like. And for a film that’s two minutes shy of four hours, it never drags. That’s coming from me, charter member of Short Attention Span Theater fan club. I will see it again. AMRU 4.

I don’t leave you with a film quote (of course there were many to choose from), but one from Leslie Howard, who died four years later, a causality of the war:
“I hate the damn part. I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Young Henry (Richard Greene), heir to the Baskerville Estate, gets to move in early when uncle Charles dies of a heart attack. Or was he eaten by a phantom hound? No, it was a heart attack. Anyhow, Charlie’s good buddy Dr. Mortimer thinks the family is cursed (you now, by a hound) and young Henry’s life is in great danger. He goes to the legendary Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) for help.

Remember when I covered the 1959 Hammer version? You do? I don't, to be honest. That was almost seven years ago, and yes, I still haven’t read the source story. I may have gotten details wrong there, so hopefully I’ll do better here.

In a pre-Cumberpatch world, Holmes and Watson were synonymous with Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. (Remember Nigel from Suspicion?) The pair did fourteen Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. Impressed? Twelve were between 42 and 46, plus they even made an appearance in an unassociated comedy. Now THAT’S a production schedule! As such, their style and performances became the standard for all future versions.

The character of Watson (in a pre-Martin Freeman world) was that of a portly, somewhat pompous windbag. A complete foil to Holmes’ understated genius. That characterization comes from Nigel Bruce. The Watson from the stories was the admiring and frequently confounded narrator, not dissimilar to Freeman’s depiction.

Veteran studio hack John Carradine played the suspicious butler. This was just about when his career was taking off. That same year he’d appear in Stagecoach and eventually build a reputation in the world of horror. Also appearing is Lionel Atwill as the good Doctor. He too would spend time working the Universal horror circuit. Come to think of it, Basil himself also had a brief spell there.

The Baskerville estate lies, apparently, on a rocky asteroid, far from civilization but with unusually fast mail delivery. Anyhow, they hold dinner parties,  perform seances, and fall in love while waiting for the mythical hound-beast to eat them all. Or not. Hard to tell.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was a lot of fun. A better than fair mystery with great atmosphere, the kind Old Hollywood sometimes did well. There were red herrings and amusing moments, and a good time was had by all. Except those who died. The next one won't be too far off. AMRU 3.5.
“Oh, Watson - the needle!”

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Seven Year Itch (1955)

In the summer, wives and children of the well to do escape the Manhattan heat for lakeside paradises, leaving husbands and fathers behind to behave like unsupervised delinquents. Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) wants to be good, yes he does, but, you see, this hot blond (Marilyn Monroe) just moved upstairs, and you know …

Originally a play, the story revolved around a man’s affair when the wife is away. No, actual affairs just won’t do, says the Hays office. Instead of feeling guilty for having an affair, good old Sherman has to feel guilty about WANTING to have an affair. So Ewell plays the aging, dorky, ladies-man-wanna-be to Monroe’s ditzy sexpot confused why men react strangely to her baby-doll act. We, the audience, grin and pretend to be wiser.

For reasons that escape me, now that I’ve seen the film, I don't understand how Marilyn’s subway skirt scene became so iconic. It is shorter and less sexy than I expected, and, well that’s all I have to say about that. Hey, look! It’s Carolyn Jones, again in a tiny role. She played Morticia …. nevermind.

The production code turned a very provocative stage play into a somewhat confounding film. Billy Wilder and George Axelrod did their level best to create a viable comedy out of a redacted screenplay, but the end result is only mildly amusing and eminently dated. Compare this to Irma la Douce made seven years later also by Wilder (and originally was to star Monroe) after standards were loosened quite a bit. Neither were fantastic films, but Irma at least had sex appeal. In a very giggling-twelve-year-old sort of way, but still. I would be curious what a faithful adaptation would look like.

The Seven Year Itch isn't uninteresting, but it is somewhat strange (Sherman has fantasy conversations and narrates his own life). There is humor, but nothing to evoke an actual laugh. AMRU 3.
“Miss Morris, I'm perfectly capable of fixing my own breakfast. As a matter of fact, I had a peanut butter sandwich and two whiskey sours.”