Tuesday, August 21, 2018

It's the French Revolution, Film Noir Style!

The Black Book (aka "Reign of Terror") (1949)
Starring: Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl, Richard Hart, Arnold Moss, and Jess Barker
Director: Anthony Mann
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As the power-hungry Maximillian Robespierre (Basehart) uses a series of rigged show-trials and executions of his rivals to usurp the French Revolution and make himself dictator of the emerging republic, Charles D'Aubigny (Cummings) infiltrates Robespierre's inner circle to secure evidence of his corruption and evil. When he discovers that the most damning piece of evidence--a list drawn up by Robespierre of those marked for death--has already gone missing, he begins a desperate search for this other mystery operative and gain control of the list, before he himself is revealed as a traitor. The only person he can rely on in his mission is his ex-lover Madelon (Dahl)... but is even she trustworthy in a moment when the fate of a nation turns on who has possession of a single black book?

"The Black Book" is the sort of film that usually takes place on the mean streets and seedy dives of the Big City of the 1940s. Here, however, the look and tone of film noir and the frenetic pace of a spy thriller is applied to a story that unfolds in the back alleys and dungeons of 17th century Paris. It's a film noir historical costume drama spy thriller... and it's a heck of a ride.

Three film genres are intertwined in this movie and the result is a fast-paced, visually interesting drama with so many twists and turns to its plot that, even though the Good Guys and the Bad Guys are clearly defined, by the end of the movie, you'll be wondering if good really has won out in the end... especially given one ominous note that is struck when a young soldier introduces himself as Bonaparte.

One weak spot of the film is it's dialogue. To describe it as trite and uninspired is generous, but the rapid pace and gorgeously moody visuals of the film more than make up for this weakness. I suppose one could also complain that it's not historically accurate in many ways, but that should earn the response, "it's just a movie; you should really just relax."

If you enjoy spy movies, film noir, or costume dramas, I think you'll enjoy "The Black Book". It's one of many entertaining movies in "The Fabulous Forties" boxed set.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

'Hold That Ghost' has flaws but Lou Costello makes it lots of fun

Hold That Ghost (1941)
Starring: Lou Costello, Bud Abbott, Joan Davis, Richard Carlson, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Arthur Lubin
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two friends (Abbott and Costello) inherit a derelict roadhouse within which a gangster may have hidden a large fortune. Upon being stranded there one stormy night with several strangers (inlcuding Ankers, Carlson, and Davis), they discover it may be haunted by murderous ghosts as well.

"Hold That Ghost" is a spoof of once popular 'dark old house' thriller genre, which included such great early films as the original "The Cat and the Canary" and the straight-forwardly named "The Old Dark House". It is sort of a precursor to the many horror spoofs Abbott & Costello would make a decade or later involving the various iconic Universal Monsters.

Unfortunately, this film is flawed at its foundation. While all the actors are clearly game and do the best they can with the material, almost every character in this film feels flat and entirely too much of the plot only works because the characters are stupid even by comedy standards, or very forgetful. Even worse, while Abbott's character is often brusque and even mean toward Costello's character, he is often excessively so in this film. I think this may be the first Abbott & Costello film I've seen where I don't understand why the two main characters want anything to do with each other.

On the positive side, the weaknesses mentioned above are largely made up for by Lou Costello giving some really funny performances, especially relating to the running gag that he is almost always the only person who happens to see the mysterious going-ons in the creepy roadhouse the characters are stuck in. He also has a cute dance routine with Joan Davis, who, in an unusual twist for an A&B film, shows romantic interest in Costello without having an ulterior motive. Another positive of the film is the elaborate sets that make up the dilapited roadhouse and the moody lighting within it.

In the final analysis, "Hold That Ghost" isn't be best of Abbott & Costello's films, but it is still well worth your time, especially if you enjoy the creepy house horror/mystery films.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Happy birthday to Julie Newmar!

Catwoman turns 85 years old today!

The Wisdom of InspiroBot!

One of the greatest internet toys is InspiroBot, a website that randomly mixes phrases and pictures so you can create "motivational poster"-type graphics. Some may be seem insightful and profound, but most will be bizarre and make you smile or even laugh. (The conceit is that it's the world's first motivational A.I.... and if you click long enough, you'll get a surprise!)
Most of the InspiroBot's offerings are in color, but a few are in black-and-white and therefore suitabe for posting here on Shades of Gray. Here are some that I have generated during my many visits to the site... which has become a go-to activity when I'm feeling lazy or need a few grins.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Torchy Blane's 3rd adventure is a mixed bag

Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (1937)
Starring: Glenda Farrell, Barton McLane, Tom Kennedy, Anderson Lawler, Anne Nagel, Charles Foy,  Bobby Watson, and Natalie Moorehead
Director: Frank MacDonald
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Reporters at a rival paper (Foy and Watson) arrange a hoax murder to humiliate Torchy (Farrell) and expose what they view as favoritism toward her by her homicide detective boyfriend (McClane) when it comes to information. However, the hoax becomes very real when someone uses it as an opportunity to commit an actual murder.

"The Adventurous Blonde" is the third Torchy Blane movie, and it is a mix of really bad and really good material.

On the good side, we've got a back-and-forth subplot about Torchy and Steve's looming marriage. It was inching closer during the first two films, and it seems like it might actually happen in this one... but the various reasons for it being delayed--even as the magistrate stands ready to perform the ceremony--add to fun of the film. We're also treated to lots of witty dialogue, not only from McLane and Farrell as Steve and Torchy banter and bicker their way through the movie, but from the supporting cast as well. Even dimwitted Gahagan (Tom Kennedy) gets a couple good zingers. Finally, the intersection of Torchy and Steve's professional lives serves as a plot complication with both members of the media and the police department raising questions about the propriety of a crimebeat reporter and a police detective being in an intimate relationship with each other.

The intersection of police work and journalism is also what gives rise to some of the film's worst points. First, there's the hoax murder that Torchy's rivals stage. Initially, it makes sense within the rules that exist in the breezy, pulp-fiction universe of Torchy Blane... but as it continues, it becomes less and less believable. By the time the "corpse" is being loaded onto the coroner's transport vehicle, it has become downright stupid in its execution. How could the ambulance crew not notice the corpse wasn't dead? Or were they paid off to further the hoax? And if they were paid off, why didn't they give the hoaxters a heads-up that the hoax had turned real? But even before we get to that point, the number of people involved in the hoax beyond newspaper staff--people who will be serving jail-time for giving false evidence to the police--have gotten to the number where the intended reason for it was going to fail anyway. Finally, there's the "creative detective work" that Torchy engages in during the second half of the film. It's amusing, but it's doing things the hard way... and in a way that barely makes any sense and is as unethical (perhaps evenmoreso) than the hoax that set the events of the movie in motion.

In balance, "Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde" is a fun romp, but it's not one that you want to think too hard about while it unfolds. Ultimately, the best part of the film ends up being the will-they or won't-they about Steve and Torchy's nuptuials and the many caustic exchanages between characters.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Blondes and Redheads look for 'Bridal Bail'

Bridal Bail (1934)
Starring: June Brewster, Grady Sutton, Carol Tevis, George Lewis, Sam Appel, and Matt McHugh
Director: George Stevens
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When a local theater offers to pay a couple to get married in front of an audience, sisters June and Carol (Brewster and Tevis) concoct a plan to use the occassion for June to marry and elope with her boyfriend (Lewis). Everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

"Bridal Bail" is a wild comedy of errors that hits the ground running and keeps building speed and layering complications until almost the very last minute. The story features the perfect storm of good intentions going sideways that makes the best of these old short films so much fun. They're even more fun when, like here, the cast is all perfect in their roles and working with snappy dialogue. Grady Sutton and June Brewster are particularly funny in this outing, which was the third entry in a series of relationship-based comedies they starred in along with Carol Tevis.

This film belongs to Sutton and Brewster, with Tevis is in a supporting role in this outing. Still, she is excellent in her part, playing well off Matt McHugh (the boorish police officer who wants to marry June, but whom June wants nothing to do with) and George Lewis (the handsome gentleman June wants to marry), as she and the rest of the supporting cast becomes swept up in the swirling mess that June and Grady create after following through on a really bad idea suggested by Carol

"Bridal Bail" is one of four short films included on "Blondes and Redheads Volume 2" and it's worth the price of admission almost by itself.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018