Saturday, January 30, 2010

A monarch rests uneasily in 'The Royal Bed'

The Royal Bed (1931)
Starring: Lowell Sherman, Mary Astor, Anthony Bushell, Nance O'Neil, Robert Warick, Gilbert Emery, and Alan Roscoe
Director: Lowell Sherman
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The kindhearted and reluctant king of a small nation (Sherman) is forced to start weilding his power when power-hungry and corrupt ministers in his government (Roscoe and Warick) bring the country to the brink of revolution and concoct a scheme to marry off the king's daughter (Astor) to the prince of a neighboring kingdom.

"The Royal Bed" is an interesting look at the ideal of what members of a noble or royal class should be like. Lowell Sherman's down-to-earth King Eric VIII may want to do nothing more with his time than play checkers with his butler, but when push-comes-to-shove, he steps up to his responsibilities and takes charge. He is also willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for the inherited responsibilities that come with his title and he is willing to put the safety and security of the people ahead of his own.

The same can be said Eric's shrewish wife (effectively played by Nance O'Neil), although her acceptance of the burden of royalty at the expense of personal happiness has caused her to become bitter and she takes her frustrations out on her family and servants... although, ultimately, like her husband, she puts the needs of the country ahead of her own. (Her bitterness causes her to constantly demand respect and obedience from those around her, and this causes her to ally herself with elements in her kingdom that do not have the best interest of the people at heart.)

Finally, the film contrasts King Eric against the worst kind of nobles, the ones who feel entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want, and who are more interested in expanding their own power than what is good for the people they lead and government. In the end, the king is able to outmaneuver them because he is in touch with the people and because he understands not only how government is supposed to function, but because he understands his place in it.

All in all, it's a nice little fantasy, and I'm sure there would be fewer revolutions in the world if royals were like King Eric and his family.

On the acting front, the two leads--Lowell Sherman and Mary Astor--to their usual fine jobs. Sherman's style isn't quite as modern as I've observed it to be in other films, but he shows a good sense of comic timing. No one in the cast embarrasses themselves, but they underscore the stage-play feel of this movie far more obviously than Astor and Sherman. (In fact, I doubt much was changed in order to adapt this film from the play it was based on; you can even tell where the acts break.)

Speaking of the script, it's a fun and breezy little effort that actually put me in mind of Marx Brothers movies like "A Day at the Races". If you were to remove the Marx Brothers' slapstick set-pieces and musical numbers from those films, you'd be left with farces featuring the same tone and pacing as "The Royal Bed".

If you enjoy classic farces, I think this film is worth seeking out. The copy I viewed had some audio problems beyond the usual--such as sudden and inexplicable changes in volume--but with a film this old and neglected, there aren't going to be many options around. (I screened the one issued by good old Alpha Video.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

'Sundown' is lit up by gorgeous Gene Tierney

Sundown (1941)
Starring: Bruce Cabot, Gene Tierney, and George Sanders
Director: Henry Hathaway
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

As World War II rages, District Commisioner Crawford (Cabot) and British Army officer Major Coombs (Sanders) get wind of a plot by the Nazis to arm violent North African tribes and set them upon the Allied forces. An exotic, mysterious caravan mistress (Tierney) arrives at their isolated outpost, but is she a friend, or is it her extensive trading network that the Nazis are using to move their weapons shipments?

"Sundown" is a fairly run-of-the-mill drama, with the steadfast British colonial troops and their valiant native allies standing fast against those who would bring low Britain. It's got a more interesting cast of characters than many of these films--with the liberal minded Crawford standing outin particular--and the cast is mostly excellent. The film also benefits from a more exotic locale than many of these films, and the gorgeous photography takes full advantage of this, as does the script. (One bit of repetition that made me scratch my head: why did the bad guys always get gunned down in pools of water?)

Aside from the great camera work, another reason to see "Sundown" is the presence of the absolutely gorgeous Gene Tierney. She truly is one of the most beautiful actresses to ever appear on film, and she doesn't do a whole lot more than walk around looking exotic and gorgeous here. If you haven't seen Tierney do majestically beautiful, you need to see this movie.

Picture Perfect Wednesday with Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy started her career playing femme fatals in silent films and early talkies, with this phase of her career culminating in her role as Fu Manchu's sadomasochistic daughter, Fah Lo See. She eventually made a transition to romantic comedies. Her most famous role is that of Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" series.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Marx Bros mock fascist Europe
in 'Duck Soup'

Duck Soup (1933)
Starring: The Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern, and Raquel Torres
Director: Leo McCarey
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Zany dictator Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) leads his country to war against its neighbor, Sylvania, for the fortune of the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Dumont).

"Duck Soup" is possibly the craziest of comedies made in the 1930s, and during its breakneck pace of non-stop gags, comedy routines, and rampant silliness, it manages to spoof the fascist states of Europe, musical comedies, war movies, and aspects of every day life at the time, such as street vendors. The film is full of scenes and gags that are imitated and copied to this very day, such as the mirror image sequence and Groucho's many rants.

A mark of a true classic is its timelessness. "Duck Soup" is as funny as it was in 1933, with a story that even speaks to modern-day politics and world events.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's Blade... in black and white

Blade: Black and White (Marvel Comics)
Story: Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, Christopher Golden, et. al.
Art: Tony DeZuniga, Rico Rival, Gene Colan, et. al.
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics published one of the finest horror comics series, ever... "Tomb of Dracula." In issue #10 of that series, writer Marv Wolfman added a tough-talking, black vampire-slayer to the line-up of Dracula's enemies--Blade. A rough-and-tumble streetfighter, this character's trademark was a bandoleer of wooden daggers with which he dispatched vampires with unrivaled efficiency and brutality.

A couple years after his initial appearance, Marvel Comics gave Blade his own solo-series in their "mature" black-and-white comics magazines. The series moved from title to title, as Marvel gradually whittled their commercially unsuccesul magazine line down to nothing, but the lack of readership wasn't the fault of the "Blade" series... those pages were some kick-ass vampire tales (in every sense of the phrase).

The main plotline of the stories collected in "Blade: Black and White" was written by Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont. It sees Blade pitted against an emerging vampire organization that calls itself "The Legion." These vampires have chosen to target Blade where he lives--by killing his friends, his loved ones, and framing him for murder. It's only with the help of Katherine Fraser, a psychic Scotland Yard detective (another 'Tomb of Dracula' supporting castmember, featured mostly in the 'Giant-sized Tomb of Dracula' series') that Blade will even have a prayer of clearing his name.

This storyline occupies about 2/3rds of the book, and it illustrated primarily by the vastly underappreciated Tony DeZuniga, with some assistance from Rico Rival. The illustrations are top-notch, bringing the sort of gritty reality to the proceedings that the Blade character requires.

The collection is rounded with three additional 'Blade' tales. Two are illustrated by Gene Colan--one dates from the 1970s and in it we see Blade for the first time unable to bring himself to kill vampires... and that hestitation may cost him his life! The second tale was a one-shot issue scripted by novelist Christopher Golden that teamed Blade with his old partner, Hannibal King (who, like Blade, is a far better character in his original comic book incarnation that he is in "Blade" flicks) to take on an emerging vampire threat in New Orleans and confront ghosts from their past. Both tales are great reads, but I think Colan's art has started to degrade a bit. (It doesn't help matteers that the second tale was inked by someone who does't look to be a good match for Colan's pencils.)

Sandwiched between the two Colan stories is a pathetic little 14-pager that 's got bad art, a bad script, and doesn't really fit in with anything else that's been printed about the Blade character. Further, the way Blade is presented is closer to the movies than the comics. I recommend skipping that story entirely, or reading it after you've read the rest. (It should be placed in that order anyway, as there's a reference on the very first page to Blade being in New Orleans.)

"Blade: Black and White" is a collection of some fine horror comics (with one noted exception) from a time when vampires were monsters and men's men were devoted to their destruction. If you like horror comics and vampire tales, I recommend this book. (I'd leave the movies for when you have seen everything else interesting at the videostore. They are but pale reflections of the original source material.)

Note: The illo at the top of this article is by the great Gene Colan. To see more of his artwork, visit his webiste by clicking here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

It's Cowboys vs. Robots and Mole People!

Radio Ranch
(aka "Men With Steel Faces") (1940)

Starring: Gene Autry, Betsy King Ross, Frankie Darro, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, and Frank Glendon
Directors: Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Western singer Gene Autry (Autry) and his teenaged friends (Ross and Darro) find themselves caught up in the middle of the machinations of a scretive, highly advanced underground civilization led by Queen Tika (Christy), a group of crooked scientists led by Prof. Beetson (Glendon) trying to ruin Autry's career so they can mine the land of Radio Ranch for the rare mineral Radium, and Tika's rebellious high priest, Argo (Oakman).

"Radio Ranch' is the sort of bizarre mix of pulp-magazine science fiction, singing cowboys, clever kids, and naked villiany that only children (or those with the hearts of children) can enjoy. A condensed version of a 12-part serial titled "Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire", this is a entertaining bit of nonsense that totally collapses if you think about the plot elements in the slightest. (Why can't the people of underground Murania breath surface air, but Autry & Friends have no problem breathing in Murania is but one of many questions that occured to me while watching.)

Despite many gaping logic holes (and three too many Gene Autry musical performances) this film remained an entertaining until the very end where the story went completely off the rails. I understand why the creators would want to wrap the story up in a neat little package, but I was dismayed they felt the need to go as far as they did. It's a fun romp and a crazy mix of genres that must be seen to be believed. Just know, that there's a part to the ending that will seem excessive.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

'Notorious' is a great spy thriller
that includes feeble romantic elements

Notorious (1947)
Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Raines
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After tough American Intelligence agent Devlin (Grant) forces Alicia Huberman (Bergman), a young woman whose father was a notorious Nazi sympathizer to use the fact one of her father's former associates, Alexander Sebastian (Rains), loves her deeply to infiltrate a suspected group of post-WW2 Nazis in South America. Unfortunately for himself and the mission, Devlin finds himself falling in love with her.

"Notorious" is part romantic melodrama and part spy-thriller. The romance part I never did buy--the love between Grant and Bergman's characters seems forced--but the thriller side works beautifully.

Hitchcock uses camera angles, lightings, and even extreme close-up shots to heighten tension masterfully. (Alicia's confrontations with Alexander's posessive, shrewish, and master-Nazi mother are most masterfully done, as well as the climactic scene, and the final shot in particular.)

With the exception of the weakly done romance between Devlin and Alciia, the characters are all excellently drawn and brilliantly portrayed by the actors. One can actually feel Alexander's heart breaking when he discovers the truth about Alicia.

"Notorious" is another Hitchcock masterpiece. It has some flaws, but those are outweighed the overwhelming number of good parts.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: A Little Color....

Okay, so it's shades of green instead of gray, but it's a nice picture.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr. Poe!

In observation of Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, I'm reposting this review from the companion blog The Bela Lugosi Collection.

The Raven (1934)
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Irene Ware
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After saving young dancer Jean Thatcher (Ware) from certain death through a miraculous feat of neurosurgery, the mentally unstable Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) becomes obsessed with her. When her powerful father makes it clear that Vollin is to stay away from her, Vollin forces a wanted murderer (Karloff) into assisting him in eliminating Jean, her fiance, and her father in hideous death-traps modeled after gruesome scenes from the writing of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Raven" isn't really an adaptation of the Poe work by that name, but is instead the tale of a thoroughly evil and utterly insane man so rich and so obsessed that he's built a house full of secret doors, secret basements, and entire rooms that serve as elevators... all so he can reenact scenes from Poe's writings.

There is plenty of potential in this B-movie, but tepid direction and mostly uninspired lighting and set design leave most of it unrealized. Lugosi is completely over the top in this film, taking center stage as the perfect image of a raving madman. He is ably supported by co-star Karloff who plays the role of the tortured, remorse-filled murderer trapped into serving Vollin with the promise of a new life in the exact opposite direction of Lugosi--remaining subdued as he slinks through each scene he's in. Ware is very attractive in the scenes she's in, but that's about all she is. In fact, the only actors in the film who aren't just so much set decoration are Lugosi and Karloff.

The "torture room" is nifty, and the climax where Dr. Vollin has house guests trapped in a Poe-world of his making is excellent. All in all, an entertaining film, but it would have been much better with a more inspired supporting cast and more creativity on the technical side of the camera.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

'Tarzan's Revenge' is not as bad as They say

Tarzan's Revenge (1938)
Starring: Eleanor Holm, Glenn Morris, George Meeker, George Barbier, Hedda Hopper, Corbit Morris, and C. Henry Gordon
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Eleanor Reed (Holm) is on a safari with her parents (Barbier and Hopper) and her fiance Nevin Potter (Meeker) are on an African safari to capture animals for a zoo, except the shiftless,gun-happy Nevin is more interested in shooting everything he sees. When a villainous Arab sultan (Gordon) who rules a feifdom deep within the jungle decides he wants to add Elanor to his large harem by any means necessary, it's up to Tarzan to rescue her.

"Tarzan's Revenge" has been labeled by some critics as the worst Tarazn movie ever, As usual, critics who engage in such hyperbole are wrong and the truth of the matter is that it's not a bad little movie.

Yes, it tries too hard to copy the vastly superior MGM series of Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Hara (even the point where it gives Tarzan a chimp sidekick, copies the scene where Tarzan and Jane first meet, and also tries to copy the famous underwater shots of Jane and Tarzan swimming--with Elanor standing in for Jane. The film fails miserably at copying these scenes and instead just manages to call attention to the fact that it is NOT as good as the MGM-produced Tarzan films.

What is also not as good as the MGM films is the actor playing Tarzan. Glenn Morris certainly has the physique to play Tarzan, but he was an athelete and not an actor... and, boy, does that show! He hs virtually no screen presence whatsoever, only generating a little bit of excitement in the scene where he rescues Elanor from the fortress of the evil Sultan Ben Alleu Bey (played with plenty of smarminess by C. Henry Gordon. Otherwise, everyone else outshines Morris in every scene he's in, even Elanor Holm who was just as inexperienced (also an athelete, hired mostly for her good looks and physical ability) but who shows far greater talent than Morris... which is probably why Holm is the defacto star of the movie with Tarzan getting less screen time in this flick than perhaps any other Tarzan film I've seen.

There is one exceptional element to the film, and it's one I wish more Tarzan movies would do more with. (Joe Kubert would occassionally explore this side of Tarzan's personality in his run on the Tarzan comic book in the 1970s, but I've rarely seen it portrayed as clearly and charmingly as it is in this film. In "Tarzan's Revenge", Tarzan's actually a pretty peaceful man, a man who is concerned first and foremost with the happiness, safety and well-being of the animals in his jungle, and he only gets into fights when he absolutely has to. The gentle-demeanored Tarzan is a pretty cool take on the character, and it's one that makes this relatively dismal movie interesting to watch.

In fact, the biggest dissapointment in the film is that Tarzan is so gentle that he doesn't even give Nevin Potter the thrashing is so richly deserves. If there ever was a character in a movie who deserved to be tossed off a cliff by the Ape Man (or otherwise meet some horrible fate), it's this guy. Cowardly, stupid, and so bloodthirsty he guns down any animal he spots without even making an effort to collect a trophy, my disgust with him grew as the film unfolded. I really hoped a native would spear him, or a hungry crocodile would kill him. But, alas, not even Tarzan would finish him for me. (At least Elanor develops enough sense to not marry him.)

By the way, this film is completely revenge free, despite the title. As mentioned above, Tarzan doesn't even give Nevin Potter the asskicking he so richly deserves, and he even gives Tarzan plenty of reason to want revenge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Weird terror in small packages

Attack of the Puppet People
(aka "Six Inches Tall" and "The Amazing Puppet People")(1958)

Starring: John Hoyt, June Kenney and John Agar
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Mr. Franz (Hoyt), a demented puppeteer turned dollmaker invents a machine that will shrink living beings to the size of dolls. He uses it on anyone he likes who appears to be exiting his life and keeps them in his workship. When his secretary (Kenney) prepares to leave his employ to marry a likeable traveling salesman (Agar), the couple become his latest victims.

As the title of "Atack of the Puppet People" implies, the main storyline of this film involves a small group of shrunken men and women attempting to escape their captor, and, hopefully, return to their full size. It's an engaging movie--assuming you can buy into the whole "puppeteer shrinking people with mad science wonder-tech" aspect of the story--that is fast-paced and well-acted. Unfortunately, the script isn't quite up to snuff, and it features a number of plot threads that don't go anywhere and an ending that not only just sort of peters out but which leaves the fates of the majority of the puppet people a mystery.

(Even more annoying, for me at least, was that we never got to see the Jekyll/Hyde marionnette in action after all the talk that revolved around it. The scene with the tiny John Agar trashing the marionette was pretty cool, but I still would have liked to see the supposed transforming puppet actually tranform.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

'Beast of Berlin' offers negative 1930s view of Hitler's Germany

Someone call Oliver Stone and/or forward him a link to this post.

As he sets about showing us how Hitler has been unfairly slandered by history and how we can't judge him to be "good" or "bad," he might want to take a look at "The Beast of Berlin." (For background on what I'm referring to, click here.

It's a film made while Hitler was laying the foundation for the death camps and the purges. It's a film that shows that, while many Americans and Britons were turning a blind eye to the evil of Hitler and his National Socialist Party, a few filmmakers were trying to call attention to the truth of Germany and to the evil growing in strength there.

It's too bad that Oliver Stone is apparently committed to be on the side of history's idiots. He could actually do some good with his movies instead of white-washing evil movements and men of the past and lending support to their equals today.

The Beast of Berlin (aka "Hitler: Beast of Berlin" and "Hell's Devils") (1939)
Starring: Ronald Drew, Steffi Duna, Alan Ladd, Hans von Twardowski, Walter Stahl and Henry von Zynda
Director: Sam Newfield
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A German veteran of WWI and civil engineer (Drew) works quietly with other intellectuals resisting the oppression of Nazis and trying to spread the truth to the people about Hitler and his evil regime. When his wife (Duna) becomes pregnant, he struggles with the choice of continuing his resistance efforts or flee Germany to raise the child in freedom.

"The Beast of Berlin" was one of the very first American movies to present the full truth about Hitler's Germany to the public. It showed the Nazis as a mixture of mindless brutes and embittered soldiers who were still smarting from the humiliation that was dealt Germany by the world following WWI. It also showed that Hitler and his goons were successful to a large degree because the European nations and America were ignoring Hitler's evil or trying to appease him.

Like with Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" from 1940, Nazi sympathizers and appeasers on film boards in New York and elsewhere tried to prevent this film from being seen. The excuse used in both cases was that the films were inflammetory and would be insulting to Germans in general and Hitler in paticular, but the truth is that the only people who would be insulted by this movie or Chaplin's film would be admirers of the Nazis who wouldn't want the truth spoken about them and the world they were attempting to usher in.

It's a rather a shame that no one seems to have learned the lessons that Hitler and WWII in general tought us.

Today, we have people bending over backwards to appease Muslim fanatics and to avoid insulting them and their admirers by calling them what they are: Brutal subhumans who are bent on imposing a murderous dictatorship on all but themselves. Just like Hitler's Nazis. Hell, they even want to kill the Jews and Catholics, just like Hitler's Nazis. Unfortunately, we're even worse off today than we were in the 1930s, because it isn't censorship boards chaired by Islamo-fascist appeasers and admirers, but the creative community itself who is too stupid and ignorant to see the truth that is taking shape before their very eyes, playing out on cable TV, twenty-four hours a day.

"Beast of Berlin" is a film that actually casts a good light upon the German people; it shows the majority of them as being held captive by Hitler's jackbooted psychos. It shows their brutality and evil for what it was... it even soft-pedals it, as I don't think anyone in America truly believed the depths of evil and depravity that Germany was reaching by 1939.

This is a film that's a bit too preachy at some points and almost laughably melodramatic at others, but, like Chaplin's "The Great Dictator", it's a heartfelt work of art about a subject too few people were willing to discuss at the time it was created. That passion shines through, and it makes the film worth seeing even today.

(Trivia: Ben Judell, the producer of this movie, was forced out of the film company he founded due to the distribution problems the film suffered because of censorship boards nervous about offending Nazis. He went onto independently produce other films geared toward showing the true face of Hitler's Germany, such as the comedy anti-Nazi films, such as the comedy "Hiter, Dead or Alive.")

"Beast of Berlin" is avaliable from for less than $9. It's interesting to see what the contemporary thought was among those who recognized the evil of the Nazis early on. And it might even be interesting for Oliver Stone to see. Maybe someone can buy him a copy of the film as a present?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Don't duck 'Shoot to Kill'

Shoot to Kill (1947)
Starring: Edmund MacDonald, Russell Wade, Luana Walters and Robert Kent
Director: William Berke
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A corrupt Assistant Distric Attorney (MacDonald) starts to aspire to true political and criminal greatness when his new secretary (Walters) encourages him to think big. But, she has an agenda of her own, and even as the ADA is playing various criminals against each other so he can emerge as the last man standing, other plans are being set into motion.

"Shoot to Kill" is a fairly standard crime drama that's made interesting by some nice plot twists and a Big Reveal that is actually rather surprising. (I spent most of the film thinking that it was borrowing from Shakespear's "MacBeth", but it turned out I was wrong.)

With fine performances by all actors (MacDonald and Walters in particular excel as a pair of devious, two-faced schemers that can't be trusted under any circimstances), and a fast-paced, clever plot where the standard issue wise-cracking reporter (Wade) has mercifully little actual screen-time, I think fans of classic crime dramas and film noir will find this a nice way to spend an hour.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Ninjas...

This image was borrowed from Click on the link to check out thousands of similar amusingly captioned photos.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bates Motel is a little like Hotel California

Psycho (1960)
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin and Vera Miles
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Marion Crane (Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer and heads off to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (Gavin). Before she can meet up with him, however, she vanishes without a trace. Sam and her worried sister, Lila (Miles) track her to the isolated Bates Motel, where a soft-spoken young man named Norman (Perkins) struggles under the heavy hand of his shrewish, possessive mother. But Norman is a man who has many dark secrets....

I think everyone reading this knows what Norman is hiding, as well as where Marion and the $40,000 vanished to... but in case someone hasn't seen one of the greatest horror films ever made, I'll keep to my policy of not offering any spoilers.

Suffice it to say that I think this movie must have been absolutely, jaw-dropping in its audacity with the plot-twist that happens about 15-20 minutes in. I doubt anyone could have been prepared for it, and "Psycho" is still remarkable for flawless way it pulls it off... few films can take such a shocking left turn and not spill the audience on the curve. Instead, after the shock wears off--and it IS shocking if you aren't expecting it, even in this day and age when movies go back for reshoots to add violence and nudity--the audience is even more captivating. Where can the movie go from there, they're asking themselves.

"Psycho" is one of Hitchcock's finest movies. The cast is perfect; the script is perfect; the sets are amazing; the camerawork and creative use of lighting is astonishingly creative and effective; and the Bernard Hermann score is absolutely mindblowing (even if I'm not as fond of the "Murder Theme" as so many others are... there are far better bits of music in the film).

If you haven't see it, or if you've seen the pale imitation that was released in 1998 under the guise of a "remake" (and it was an imitation... to call that travesty a "remake" is an insult to genuine remakes, no matter how bad they might be), you need to see "Psycho". It's a film every movie lover should experience.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A killer lurks in the Monte Carlo night

Monte Carlo Nights (1934)
Starring: John Darrow, Mary Brian, George Hayes and Kate Campbell
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After being convicted for a murder he didn't commit, adventurer Larry Sturgis (Darrow) is on his way to prison when a lucky coincidence gives him a chance to not only escape, but also to cover his trial by appearing to be dead. Following the only lead to the real killer--a system for playing the roulette wheel--he travels to Monte Carlo in hopes of tracking him down. Here, he reunites with his fiancee (Brian) and a police detective (Hayes), both of whom never gave up on proving his innocence. Will they find a killer before he strikes at them from the shadows of the Monte Carlo night?

"Monte Carlo Nights" is among the best-looking films that prolific low-budget mystery director William Nigh ever helmed. With three gorgeous and talented actresses in key roles, a decent leading man, and a bigger budget than average for a Monogram production--as evident in the sets, costumes, and crane shots featured in the film--Nigh delivers a decent little thriller that holds up nicely some 75+ years later.

The film has two weaknesses that causes me to rate it at the lower end of average, one of which is direction, the other a script issue. First, the film starts slowly, forcing the viewer to sit through an entire horse race while an ineffective attempt at establishing the lead characters takes place; it is such an obvious bit of padding that I had low hopes for the rest of the film... but it quickly got better. Second, the script is too sloppy to be truly effective in the "innocent man accused" genre that it belongs to. While it's a subgenre that was still taking shape--and Alfred Hitchcock wouldn't perfect it in movies until a few years after the release of "Monte Carlo Nights"--there's no excuse for the incompetent way the film's red herrings are served out (and then barely adressed as the film moves along).

Still, despite its flaws, this is one of those pleasant surprises that emeges while one digs through the piles of neglected or completely forgotten films that have received new life with the coming of DVD.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oliver Stone promises to show how Hitler has been vilified and misunderstood

Everyone praise Oliver Stone! He's going to join some brave souls--like Hamas leaders, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and great Neo-Nazi thinkers through the decades--to put Hitler in context by bringing us the Truth about him and his life. Stone promises to show us that Hitler can't be judged as "good" or "bad" and that he has been unfairly scapegoated by smallminded bigots (not to mention nerfarious agents of the Zionist Conspiracy)! Click here to read about the forthcoming Showtime series "Secret History."

While we wait for Oliver Stone's magnum opus to reveal the True Hitler, here is a video that might well embody his thinking on this unjustly tarred Man of Greatness:

And here's my attempt at putting Hitler "in context" (although I'm no Oliver Stone) using captioned photos borrowed from

Friday, January 8, 2010

'A Face in the Fog' not worth chasing after

A Face in the Fog (1936)
Starring: Lloyd Hughes, June Collyer, Al St. John, Jack Mulhall, and Lawrence Gray
Director: Robert Hill
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When society reporter-trying-to-become-a-crimebeat-reporter Jean Monroe (Collyer) claims to have seen the face of the mysterious killer who is poisoning theatre people in the city, and that she intends to reveal his identity in a future column, she becomes his next target. Her fiance and fellow reporter Frank Gordon (Hughes) teams with criminologist and playwright Peter Fortune (Gray) to catch the killer before he claims Jean's life.

"A Face in the Fog" is one of those weakly written mysteries where there is only one possible suspect, who, after concocting a really brilliant method of committing his murders, subsequently behaves so stupidly that even Barney Fife could have caught him while in the middle of a three-day moonshine bender. The plot also doesn't make a lot of sense, nor do the reasons for who the killer chooses as his victims.

However, the actors perform with such charm and sincerity, and the film moves at such a break-neck pace that you'll hardly have time to notice its shortcomings--which means my criticisms probably amount to no more than nitpicking. June Collyer as the stubbornly brave, career-minded journalist is especially good, in what proved to be her last movie before she left acting for some 15 years to raise her chiklren.

Although this is an entertaining enough movie, with an excellent cast and sharp direction, the script is just shaky enough that I can't give it a wholehearted recommendation. Admirers of June Collyer or Lloyd Hughes should certainly check it out, and I think it's worth adding to the line-up of any in-home film festival you might want to hold centering on either one, but it's not quite a must-see if you're just looking for something to pass the time with.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

It's always the little things that trip up a killer....

The Scar (aka "Hollow Triumph" and "The Man Who Murdered Himself") (1948)
Starring: Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett
Director: Steve Sekeley
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

John Muller (Henreid), a career criminal on the run from vengeful gangsters after a botched casino robbery, finds the ultimate hideout: He remakes himself to take the place of a successful psychoanalyst who bears a strong resemblence to him. However, John fails to take into account that when you take over someone's life, you get the good with the bad.

"The Scar" is a somewhat far-fetched film-noir crime drama, but it's well-filmed, well-acted (with a couple of slips into over-the-top melodrama), and tense from beginning to end.

Henreid gives an interesting performance as a sociopathic schemer who finds an apparent path to safety and a new life; while co-star Bennett gives a nuanced performance as John's love interest--a character who starts out seeming like a fairly typical secretary for this kind of movie, but which ends up as one of the deeper and interesting characters in the film. What's more, the romance between the two characters actually feels genuine--something very rare in movies--and this makes the viewer feel true sympathy with Bennett's character at the end of the movie.

Another thing that makes the film interesting is the recurring theme that no one really cares enough about anyone but themselves to truly notice the world around them. This is what lets John Muller steal a man's life in every sense, and in a suitably ironic twist, this tendency toward total self-centeredness also ends up contributing to John's undoing.

After a near-perfect execution of everything leading up to it, the movie falters a bit at the ending. Given that crime hardly ever pays in movies, John clearly will not manage to live happily ever after in his stolen identity. However, the main reason for his Bad End comes about due to what feels more like Script-Dictated Character Stupidity rather than a natural consequence of events; John had the information and means to solve the biggest probem facing his new identity, yet he doesn't even make an attempt to do so before it's too late. (I could justify this lapse with some character psychology and the overall themes of the film--John was too arrogant and greedy to deal with the issue, or he was too self-centered for the full magnitude of the problem--but it still doesn't make the ending feel quite right.)

This is a near-perfect crime drama with an excellent script and decent performances. It's well-worth seeking out, particularly if you're a fan of the film noir subgenre.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ginger Rogers is excellent in this obscure thriller

A Shriek in the Night (1933)
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Purnell Pratt, Harvel Clark, Lillian Harmer, Louise Beaver, and Arthur Hoyt
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A series of murders take place in an upscale apartment building, and reporters Pat Morgan (Rogers) and Ted Kord (Talbot)--working for rival newspapers but involved in a romantic relationship--are hot on the trail of the killer, or killers. Morgan happened to be working on an investigative piece about one of the victims, so she is in a perfect place to help both her career and the police... so long as she doesn't end up a murder victim herself.

"A Shriek in the Night" is, for the most part, a fairly typical early 1930s low-budget mystery, with dimwitted maids, cranky police detectives (although in this one the detective is not incompetent, just cranky), and wise-cracking reporters running circles around everyone and ultimately providing the clues needed to solve the mystery. The acting is above average here, and the characterizations of the two reporters and the police detective are also a bit more intelligent and three-dimensional than is often the case in these movies. (The comic relief maids are still as annoying as ever; if this is what American-born house-servants were like, it's no wonder we took to importing illegal aliens to turn down our beds and clean our homes!)

What really sets the film apart from others like it is its villain, and a surprisingly chilling sequence where he prepares to burn Pat Morgan alive. This character feels in many ways like an ancestor to the mad killers who came into vogue during the 1970s, and which continue to slash, strangle, and mutilate their way across the movie screen to this very day.

Another thing I found interesting in this film is how different Ginger Rogers' character was from the one she played two years later in "The Thirteenth Guest".

Many actors and actresses that appeared in these B-movies gave pretty much the same performance in movie after movie--for instance, there's very little difference between the smart-ass character Lyle Talbot plays here and the one he played in "The Thirteenth Guest." I haven't seen enough of Rogers' performances to really know why there is this difference--was she lucky enough to have a chance to show different facets of her acting ability, or did she make each part she played different somehow?--but it was an unexpected surprise.

Those of you out there with more than just a passing interest in suspense and horror movies may want to check this film out for its very modern, proto-"maniac killer" character/sequence. Those of you who just enjoy this style of movies--mysteries that get solved by wise-cracking reporters who take nothing seriously--should also check it out. It's a fun way to spend an hour.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
The Right to Keep and Bear Arms

The United States Bill of Rights states that "... the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." And here is Louise Brooks practicing her Constitutionally protected right.

Louise Brooks was an American actress who started out as a chorus dancer but became one of the silent movie eras most popular stars. However, Brooks strong personality also put her at odds with the aspects of American culture in general and the Hollywood elite in particular--she was disatisfied with the restrictive role that women had in American society and insisted on having things her way or not at all.

Although Brooks only appeared in 25 movies, she set a number of fashion trends (foremost of these being her bobbed hairstyle) and became the inspiration for Guido Crepax's comic book heroine "Valentina." She retired from film in 1938, weary of fighting the studio system. She later worked as a dance instructor and writer, publishing numerous books and essays about Hollywood and the film .

Louise Brooks passed away in 1984 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 78.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Forgotten Comics: GoGirl

GoGirl! (Graphic Novel #1, Dark Horse 2001)
Writer: Trina Robbins
Artist: Anne Timmons
Rating: Eight of Ten Tomatoes

When the GoGirl! comic book debuted a few years back, I posted a rave about the title on my website. It was a fun read, with charming, non-teeth-gritting and chestpounding and angstily ranting characters. Unfortunately, already by issue #2, I knew the title was not long for the world... I couldn't get my hands on it, and I was already seeing net-rumours about how the book was on the verge of cancellation. Typical... no comic book I like seems to lasts long.

With the publication of the GoGirl trade paperback, I can read all the fun little tales of Lindsay, the daughter of a Seventies superhero who inherited her mother's ability to fly, in a compact package. I can even get to read the issues I never could find, despite my comic shop's insistence they ordered them repeatedly (#2, #3, and #5).

In addition to some well-done stories, the brief introduction from writer Trina Robbins is an interesting read. Apparently, what short life the comic book series had was breathed into it by anger from internet critics when it seemed the title was going to be discontinued even before it saw the light of day due to low pre-orders. Robbins mentioned that part of the motivation behind the title was to prove that girls read comics. Whether Image (the publisher of the single issues) dropped the ball, of if there was some other problem, or if GoGirl! actually helped prove that girls DON'T read comics, unfortunately, the title seems to have failed commercially. The title continued in two additional graphic novels from Dark Horse, but the last one appeared in 2006--and was released with such stealth that it is only just now that I discovered it was even published. I'll be ordering a copy, and posting a review down the line.

Tone-wise, GoGirl! reminds me of some of my favorite comics from when I was a kid--the Cary Bates-scripted issues of Superman. I wish more titles had the sort of light touches present in GoGirl! these days, but, given how such stories don't seem to work for the majority of comic book readers, I doubt it's going to happen.

Monday, January 4, 2010

'The Lonely Man' seeks company in a weak western

The Lonely Man (1957)
Starring: Jack Palance, Anthony Perkins, Elaine Aikin, and Neville Brand
Director: Henry Levin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Jacob Wade (Palance), an aging gunfighter, who, among his many other problems, is going blind, seeks out his estranged son, Riley (Perkins), in a final attempt to forge a normal, peaceful life. But Jacob's past won't be put to rest so easy, and if psychotic gambler King Fisher (Brand) has his way, Jacob will be laid to rest.

"The Lonely Man" is a fairly run-of-the-mill western, with the plot being driven primarily by Jacob's desire to put violence behind him and attempt to up make up for all the years he wasn't part of Riley's life by teaching him all about busting broncos. The performances are about par for this sort of movie (which means they're pretty decent all around), and the film makes decent use of the natural surroundings. Unfortunately, the melodrama is slathered on so thick (particularly in the relationship between Jacob and Riley) that it drags the whole film down a notch. The horrendously stilted dialogue that is exchanged at many points during the film and pacing stumbles both near the beginning and at the middle hurt the film almost as much.

I've seen worst westerns than "The Lonely Man", but there are far better out there as well. The funnest part about the film are the presence of some of the bit-players, such as Lee Van Cleef (who has more hair on his head here than I think he ever appeared with in any other film), Elisha Cook (whose character doesn't whine even once in his repeated scenes) and Claude Akins (who plays a former partner of Jacob, and who makes for a far more sinister character than the lead villain).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

'Murder at Glen Athol' is a mystery worth investigating

Murder at Glen Athol (aka "The Criminal Within") (1936)
Starring: John Miljan, Irene Ware, Iris Adrian and James Burtis
Director: Frank Strayer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Well-known gentleman detective Bill Holt (Miljan) is called upon to solve the murders of the VERY liberated Muriel Randall (Adrian) and her ex-husband before an innocent man is condemned.

"Murder at Glen Athol" is interesting primarily for some of its unusual characters. First, we have a comic relief character (Burtis) who is actually a competent assistant to the hero. Second, we have the character of Muriel Randall, a relatively typical murder victim in the sort of Agatha Christie-style mystery that this film represents... although she's far more aggressive and far more liberated and even sexually charged than anyone who ever sprang from the pages of Christie.

The overall plot is solid enough, and the acting and writing is also pretty decent. There's nothing that'll make you sit up and say "Wow!" (except the presence of the two unusual characters noted above, and you'll only be impressed by them if you've seen a lot of early mystery and horror movies), but everything here is competently done.

With one minor exception. I like mystery movies to play fair, that give the audience a chance to guess who the murderer is while the detective investigates. This film plays more fair than most mysteries of the time; generally speaking, the solution to the mystery is a "cheat"--it's based on something that the audience never had a chance to see, like something the detective discovers off-camera.

In fact, "Murder at Glen Athol" may even play a little too fair, as I guessed who the killer was as soon as the rather heavy-handed hint to when the murder was committed and by whom appeared on screen. I don't mind guessing the killing, and it didn't ruin the movie for me, but it did have me expecting there would be another twist coming.

Perhaps the clues provided aren't as heavy-handed as all that. Perhaps I've just seen waaaay too many mystery movies. For me, the overplaying of the hint of the killer's identity is the one weak spot in this otherwise average movie.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Decent mystery ruined by not-as-clever
as all that writers

The Limping Man (1953)
Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Moria Lister, Alan Wheatley, and Helene Cordet
Director: Cy Endfield
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A WW2 vet, Frank Prior (Bridges), travels to England to reunite with his wartime sweetheart (Lister). As he leaves the plane at the airport, a fellow passenger is gunned down. When the investigating Scotland Yard inspector (Wheatley) discovers a connection between Prior's sweetheart and the dead man, he becomes suspicious of both of them, so Prior sets about to uncover the truth.

I have tried, but I am unable to think of another movie I've seen that is so utterly and completely ruined by an incompetent ending the way "The Limping Man" is destroyed. The ending here is so lame that it spoils whatever enjoyment the viewer may have been deriving from what seemed like an average thriller that was building toward a decent conclusion. The ending is so thoroughly botched--on every conceivable level--that I can't even say "stop the DVD player at THIS point, and you'll preserve what you liked about this film".

The first sign of trouble is an illogical plot-twist that relates to the blackmail effort directed at Prior's thrill-seeking sweetheart. It's the sort of twist that makes you wonder if perhaps the filmmakers were in trouble as far as coming up with a good ending. This is confirmed when the second twist presents itself, and pretty much undoes the entire story. (I can't go into details without revealing the ending, but, believe me, it will ruin the film for you.)

If there ever was a movie that could have been saved by a competent writer handling rewrites, "The Limping Man" is it. And if you've seen it, and if you know of another otherwise decent film so completely ruined by its ending, I'd love to hear about it.

It's that time again:
Mohammed Cartoon Festival

This past Friday, a psycho armed with an axe and a knife broke into the home of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. It should come as no surprise that the psycho was Muslim and that the police believe he, like so man other Muslim psychos, wanted to kill Westergard in revenge for drawing a cartoon. Click here for the details.

(By the way, through his lawyer, the Muslim psycho claimed that he did not break into the house armed with a knife and an axe with the intent of killing Westergaard. Perhaps this was all a big cultural misunderstanding. Perhaps breaking into a person's home while armed with deadly weapons is the way Somali Muslims ask, "Would you like a copy of a pamphlet describing the benefits of Islam--complete with sexy drawings of the 72 virgins that will be your reward for butchering the sub-human Infidels?")

The irony here is that these psychos, in their drive to appease their blood-thirsty god and their own mental derangements, are underscoring the truth portrayed in those cartoons. The Cartoon Festival applies equeally as a description of the drawings and the Lions of Islam.

Speaking of which... here are three of the cartoons that, if you're a psychotic Muslim, justify murder and mayhem. There were nine more in the series, but I am just reposting the ones that fit the format of this blog. (Along with a cartoon drawn as a reaction to the reaction by the Muslim psychos.) Click on the images to see larger versions.

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