Thursday, August 13, 2020

High Sierra (1941)

After being released from prison, Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) does one last job to set himself up for life. From his hideaway High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, he plans the robbery of a California resort. Along the way he helps a man and falls in love with his underaged granddaughter, and has to deal with incompetent co-conspirators, a floozy tag-along (Ida Lupino), and a cursed dog.

Bogart’s Roy Earle was loosely based on John Dillinger. It was Bogart’s performance in Petrified Forest that made studio heads consider him for a lead role, but that too was hard fought. Paul Muni and George Raft had to first turn down the role. Bogie’s ability to make this role his own convinced them to cast him in the Maltese Falcon. The rest is cinema history.

Joan Leslie played the good girl that Roy wants to love. Throughout there is a theme of keeping with your own kind, and Velma’s wholesome goodness contrasted too much with Roy’s hardened criminal nature. Besides, Joan turned sixteen the day after the film was released. Ida Lupino’s Marie with her hard knock life was more his type.

Not in real life, however. Ida didn’t like working with Bogie and would refuse in the future. Too bad because she spent the bulk of her career in lesser film-noirs and might have seen a bigger hit had they got along. But at this point the 22 year old Lupino was the bigger star and got top billing. After climbing the studio ropes in B movies (frequently as an underaged love interest - I sense a trend) she would get better roles and better movies through the later 1930’s and 1940’s, some of which she directed. In the 50’s she would retire from movies and act and direct in television before returning to cinema in the 1970’s.

High Sierra plays more like a melodrama than a crime film. Roy is the great guy/hardened criminal who goes out of his way to help some people, and plug others. He wants to be good but it’s just not in the cards for him. The old man he befriends was Clarence the Angel, Henry Travers. He shows up whenever an affable old man is needed. Unrecognizable in Colonel Sanders cosplay is Henry Hull, the Werewolf of London himself. I thought he was a Brit but being from the Bluegrass state I suppose his country gentleman character is closer to reality. On the topic of Colonels, or more precisely Cornels, the Wilde variety appears here in his first credited role. Too far to go for that one? I may edit it out later.

A film on the cusp between traditional Gangster flick and film-noir, it clearly sits in the former category. Which may explain why Raft and Muni were uninterested. They had been making this kind of film for a decade. While the end result is somewhat unremarkable, it’s not uninteresting. Bogart makes for a compelling character, hero and villain alike. AMRU 3.5.
"Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him. Said you were rushin' toward death. Yes, just rushin' toward death."

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Konga (1961)

Dr. Decker (Michael Gough) was lost in Africa for a year and returns with witch doctor secrets to grow animals to enormous size. With the help of his trusty cook/housekeeper/lab assistant/lover Margaret, he recreates the formula. They injects it into a baby chimp causing it to grow into a regular sized chimp! Once again and Konga grows into a man in a gorilla suit! The commercial applications are limitless, and by applications I mean to murder people he sees as a threat.

I’ve hit quite a few giant ape films and I heard this one was terrible. Then I watched it and saw that it was terrible. I playfully knocked the others for playing fast and loose with scale. Here, the filmmakers don’t appear to be trying at all. With his third injection Konga grows out of control, but nothing is consistent. See exhibit A, before he crashes out of the house. Notice the doll victim compared to the counters behind him. And who has a basement laboratory with ceilings this high? Jealous. His size varies up and down through the conclusion of the film.

Gough’s Decker simply shouts exposition about the relentless pursuit of science, except all he seems to do is sic Konga on personal rivals. There is a side plot where he gracelessly tries to upgrade his cook/housekeeper/lab assistant/lover with an air-headed hottie student we are to believe is smart. In fact none of the acting performances are terribly good. Except for Konga himself. Acting principally with his eyes, I thought the ape man did a pretty fair job.

Sadly, Dr. Decker is an uncompelling villain. Projecting his lines at the top of his vocal range makes for a very two dimensional character, with no flesh and blood. His year in the jungle was rather mysterious but is not explored. Konga brings little new to the giant ape story, except maybe cool puppet plants. Sorry, Alfred. AMRU 2.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

When the good King Richard is taken captive during the crusades, his treacherous brother Prince John (Claude Rains) does what all monarchs do and seizes control. He taxes the poor Saxons to the brink of starvation while Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) makes friends. Oh, and steals from the rich. Stuff like that.

Our villains hatch a plan to capture Robin by holding an archery competition. They would arrest the winner, who would obviously be Robin Hood. Seeing the obvious trap, Robin hatches a plan of his own. He will win the competition but when they try to capture him, he will try to run away. Despite the plan’s brilliance, it doesn’t go off all that well. It is up to pretty Lady Marion (Olivia de Havilland) and daring swashbuckling action to rescue him.

Claude Rains is delightful as the tyrannical Prince John, and Basil Rathbone seemed born to play Sir Guy. For the record, Alan Rickman played the Sheriff, not Sir Guy. Skipper’s Dad Alan Hale played Little John in this and the 1922 version. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., son of the 1922 Robin Hood, turned down the lead role because he didn’t want to be remembered as his father’s son. Too bad because if he were successful, he might be remembered as something other than his father’s son.

The effect of having arrows stuck into extras was accomplished by having an archer ACTUALLY SHOOT ARROWS AT THEM! They were paid $150 per arrow that hit them. Where is OSHA when you need them? The character Much is the catalyst of the story, being saved by Robin after arrest for killing the King’s deer. After that point he is mostly comic relief. The much older Una O’Connor played his comedic love interest. Friar Tuck too is mostly comic relief, as is Little John. Will Scarlet is mostly forgotten.

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a fun romp. The story is so well worn that it’s a bit threadbare, but we can’t blame the most famous version for that. It was a lot of fun. Goodbye, Olivia, and good job. AMRU 4.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

A one-armed stranger (Spencer Tracy) arrives in a tiny, remote town asking about a farmer. The locals are none too keen to city slickers poking their noses where they don’t belong, but this Macreedy fellow doesn’t take hints.

The war had just ended and back at the beginning something bad happened at Black Rock. This film acts as an unconventional mystery. We understand the broad strokes but can’t be sure exactly what. Who knows, who was involved, and who can be trusted.

Set in 1945, war vet Macreedy is played by 54-going-on-100 Spencer Tracy, and this stretches credibility more than a little. The studio recruited Tracy hard who wasn’t initially interested. Making his character crippled seemed to have cinched the deal. The studio threw every talented character actor on the payrolls into this vanity project. Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin play principal antagonists, Anne Francis was adorable, Ernest Borgnine in an early role, Dean Jagger as a toothless sheriff, and Walter Brennan to argue politics with Tracy.

Bad Day at Black Rock isn’t actually a mystery but like any good film the details unfold over time. What specifically happened is less of a question than what Macgreedy’s backstory and motivation is, which isn’t explained until the final minutes. But this is an engaging story and an impulse watch. It came on right when I wanted to see something new (and not the dozen or so films I’ve already recorded), and I had never heard of it. Very progressive for it's time, I found it a pleasant surprise. AMRU 4.
“I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad. Nobody around here seems big enough to get you mad.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

8½ (1963)

Movie director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is working on his latest film but nobody seems to know what it is about. Guido deals with studio people, difficult actresses, his mistress, wife, and a rich fantasy life.

is a masterpiece. Everyone says so. But the problem with a subtitled film (especially one with overlapping dialog) is that you spend more time reading and less time observing the context of the conversation. And at two and a quarter hours, this dance becomes tedious. I may have napped.

In a perfect world I would watch each film twice, several days apart, preferably with someone to discuss it with. I have no such luxury. Many films would have benefited from this tact, 8½ in particular. It is hard to take in all that is going on, but what I did take in was bizarre. Guido has these issues, personal entanglements, and demands on his time. He slides seamlessly into and out of fantasy, and sometimes it’s hard to determine which is which. All the while, the film doesn’t appear to be getting any closer to completion.

Guido is Federico Fellini. This was an examination of his life and his creative process. Maybe an indictment of both, hard to say. Second billed Claudia Cardinale was radiant and barely in the film. Old friend Barbara Steele had a small role as someone else's trophy girlfriend.

I didn’t actually miss any of the film, having stopped it prior to my snooze. 8½, though, must have a second viewing. There it so much to take in. I felt each conversation had context and nuance I wasn't 100% picking up on. I will watch it again. I may still not completely understand it, but I'll get out of it what I can. AMRU 4.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Star of Midnight (1935)

A lawyer (William Powell) helps a buddy find a lost love, gets a pretty woman (pretty Ginger Rogers) out of trouble with a gangster, deals with a disappearing stage star (of the Midnight variety), and solves a murder that happens in his living room. Personal complications complicate things. Don’t worry. It’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be.

If a witty and urbane Powell solving mysteries with a beautiful sidekick sounds familiar, it’s because RKO wanted to clone The Thin Man using the same star. Nobody will mistake this for the genuine article but it works and did make money. Despite this no sequels were made.

Reliable Gene Lockhart played in a ton of films. Here he played Powell’s put out butler. Our paths have crossed four other times and I’m sure they will again. J. Farrell MacDonald was amusing as the police inspector. Our paths crossed only seven or eight times which is surprising because the dude appeared in almost three hundred feature films. Many of them the classic Hollywood bulk B films, and frequently uncredited, but better stuff as well.

Ginger Rogers is delightful as the Myrna Loy stand in and they had genuine chemistry together. She is twenty years Powell’s junior and has been badgering him to marry her since she was eleven. The less we speak of that the better.

Star of Midnight succeeds as a fun, clever mystery, but it’s central problem is that the story is unfocused. There are too many characters, some of which are never seen, and I sometimes found myself confused who Bill was talking about. A second viewing would definitely clear things up but I’m not certain it deserves the time. AMRU 3.
“Now, listen Tim, you're free, white, and twenty-one. You can do as you choose.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Deathsport (1978)

Authorities from a city capture “guides” to compete in a thing called Deathsport because, but these guides have competing story elements like mutants, talk in cryptic circles, and boy does this movie stink.

I didn’t come into this film with any great expectation, but it was the follow-up to Death Race 2000 so I was hoping it was a little fun. David Carradine returns as our hero and had it not bombed, the trilogy would have rounded out with Deathworld. While it featured some gratuitous nudity, it was completely lacking in humor. There was an attempt to save this film with reshoots and clever editing, but it failed. What we have is an overly complex story that makes no sense and goes nowhere.

Let’s talk about Claudia Jennings. She was a Playboy playmate that went on to do a string of cheesecake films during the 1970’s. She did pretty well, I thought, considering her pedigree, but apparently she had to be removed from the set once because she was coked up and unruly. She would die in a car crash shortly after the film’s release. Drugs, it would seem, were not involved.

Filming a convincing fight scene is difficult. The audience needs to know who the combatants are and how the fight is going for them, all the while being compelling to watch. Jackie Chan was the master at blocking a fight. So many of these low budget films do it poorly and Deathsport is no exception. And sadly, there are a lot of fight scenes.

Deathsport is a movie that started filming with little more than a premise. They hired a straight from film school director who was promptly fired. This stands as his only directorial credit. Allan Arkush was brought in to fix it, but the soup was already spoiled. The viewer is never sure what is going on, what the character’s motivation is, and why they should care. It’s just a string of pointless and poorly shot action scenes, tedious motorcycle chases, and punctuated with terrible dialog. No humor, no point, and no fun. AMRU 2.