Sunday, April 15, 2018

A GUY NAMED JOE


It's not hard to see why A GUY NAMED JOE (1943), ranks as one of legendary American director Steven Spielberg's favorite films. This wartime fantasy/drama is full to bursting with sentimentality, humor, romance, and aerial action. In fact, Spielberg remade GUY in 1989 as ALWAYS, updating the setting from WWII pilots to aerial firefighters. It's an impressive, well made film but as always (you'll pardon the pun), the original is the best.

Spencer Tracy stars as cocksure, devil-may-care bomber pilot Pete Sandidge. Pete believes he's the best there is and takes many reckless chances on his missions over Europe. His squadron mate, Al Yackey (Ward Bond who, as you probably know, appeared in every movie made), keeps an eye on Pete and tries to keep him grounded and level-headed. Pete constantly butts head with squadron commander "Nails" Kilpatrick (James Gleason) but Pete, despite his braggadocio, has fallen head over heels in love with a female pilot, Dorinda Durston (the lovely Irene Dunne). Cue the theme song, "I'll Get By (As Long as I Have You)".

But fate steps in when Pete is killed during an attack on a German aircraft carrier (there were no such vessels in WWII). Pete finds himself in aviator heaven where is he befriended by fellow dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson). The commanding officer in this otherworldly realm is "The General" (Lionel Barrymore). He sends Pete and Dick back to earth in the form of invisible "angels" to watch over two young pilots. Dick is assigned to ex-football star, James Rourke (Don De Fore), while Pete draws wealthy young Ted Randall (Van Johnson). All goes well until Ted's path crosses Dorinda's. The two fall in love and Pete is helpless to interfere. Or is he?

A GUY NAMED JOE is a handsome, glossy MGM production, directed by veteran maestro Victor Fleming. One of the cinematographers was the legendary Karl Freund (he shot Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS). The aerial sequences are well-staged combinations of stock footage, miniatures and full-scale mock-ups. The breathtakingly beautiful Esther Williams, although prominently billed on the lobby card above, appears in only one scene as a canteen hostess.

Schmaltzy and sentimental, A GUY NAMED JOE is full of wartime propaganda and paeans to sacrifice and the need to let go and move on. As corny as it all may sound, the cast, script (by Dalton Trumbo and Frederick Hazlitt Brennan), first rate production design and Fleming's masterful direction, sells this hopelessly romantic tear-jerker. Highly recommended.

By the way, I'm convinced that either Stan Lee or Steve Ditko (perhaps both), were fans of this film. The story in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #38 (the last issue drawn by Ditko) was entitled JUST A GUY NAMED JOE. While the story has nothing to do with WWII pilots, I can't believe the film's title didn't influence the comic book creators.




Saturday, April 14, 2018

DIE, MONSTER, DIE!


Mad scientist Nahum Witley (a wheelchair bound Boris Karloff), finds out the hard way that it's probably not a good idea to keep a radioactive meteorite in the basement of your ancient family estate. Especially when said basement was home to forbidden rites practiced by your ancestors in an attempt to call forth the dark gods from beyond space and time. The meteorite mutates the local plants and animals, wreaks havoc on Nahum's wife Latetia (Fred Jackson) and the maid, Helga, and ultimately transforms Nahum himself into a jug-eared, bald-headed, silver skinned monster who emits a greenish glow. In fact, he kinda looks like the old Marvel Comics villain, The Radioactive Man.


It's up to puzzled American scientist Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams), to put a stop to the unearthly menace, saving Susan (Suzan Farmer), Nahum's comely young daughter, from her father and the burning mansion.

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), with a screenplay by science fiction writer Jerry Sohl,  is loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft story THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE.  American International Pictures had enjoyed a great deal of success with their series of Roger Corman directed films based on the works of Edgar Alan Poe and sought to strike an equally profitable vein with a series of films based on Lovecraft stories. Daniel Haller, who had worked as an art director on the Roger Corman Poe pics, was given his first directorial job on DIE and he does an admirable job.

Unfortunately DIE didn't do well enough at the box office to warrant an immediate Lovecraft based film as a follow up. That would have to wait until 1970 with the release of THE DUNWICH HORROR, also directed by Haller. In the interim, Haller directed two biker flicks, DEVIL'S ANGELS (1967) and THE WILD RACERS (1968).

DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is a straight-forward B horror film that despite it's pedigree, never fully captures the otherworldly feel of Lovecraft's prose. Nick Adams is stuck with playing a one-dimensional character, an outsider to the strange English village who is shunned by one and all when he asks directions to the Witley house. Seems there's a history of devil worshipping at the manse, to say nothing of the heavily irradiated countryside surrounding the estate. Suzan Farmer makes a lovely damsel in distress and the sets, make-up and special effects are all passable.

The real joy to be found in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! is seeing the legendary Boris Karloff give 100% in a role that finds him confined to a wheelchair for the entirety of the film. This was probably not a matter of characterization. Karloff, who suffered from a variety of physical ailments towards the end of his life, needed the wheelchair as a matter of mobility. He's a true professional from beginning to end in a part that, while generic and cliched, is still fun to watch.

Dell Comics published a comic book adaptation of DIE, MONSTER, DIE! which I remember reading as a kid (although I never saw the film when it was originally released). I'd love to have a copy of that comic. If anyone reading this has one they'd like to sell at a reasonable price, let me know.





DIE, MONSTER, DIE! isn't a great film by any stretch of the imagination but it's worth seeing if you're a fan of Karloff, Lovecraft and '60s horror films. Check it out.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

BACK FROM ETERNITY


One of the last films produced at RKO, BACK FROM ETERNITY (1956) is a remake of FIVE CAME BACK (1939). Both films were produced and directed by John Farrow (father of Mia) and while I haven't seen FIVE, BACK FROM ETERNITY is a solid adventure film.

A violent storm forces a plane to make an emergency landing in an uncharted South American jungle. The crew consists of pilot Bill Lonagan (Robert Ryan) and co-pilot Joe Brooks (Keith Andes). The passengers include an elderly couple, Professor and Mrs. Spangler (Cameron Prud'Homme and Beulah Bondi), gangster Pete Bostwick (Jesse (Maytag Repairman) White), detective Crimp (Fred Clark), a little boy, Tommy (Jon Provost, LASSIE's Timmy), the young couple of Jud Ellis (Gene (BAT MASTERSON) Barry) and Louise Melhorn (the lovely Phyllis Kirk), the blonde bombshell Rena (a smoking hot Anita Ekberg) and looming above them all, a convicted political assassin, Vasquel (Rod Steiger).

The stranded group soon discover that they have landed in head hunter country and it becomes a race against time to make the necessary repairs on the plane and fly out of the valley they're trapped in. But once the repairs are made, it's determined that only five people can safely take off on the plane, leaving four of the group behind. Who stays? Who goes?

Farrow directs the action with a sure, crisp touch and cinematographer William C. Mellor brings a noir atmosphere to many of the scenes. The miniature work is solid and the immense jungle set (containing towering rock cliffs and a full size airplane mock-up) is impressive.

Allegiances and alliances shift throughout the course of the film. Rena falls for Lonagan while Louise jilts Jud (who proves to be an asshole) and turns her affections towards Brooks. The Spanglers become friendly with Vasquel, while Pete becomes a father figure to Tommy. A couple of the characters die before the final choose up of winners and losers and the film ends on a decidedly grim note.

The cast is uniformly solid. It's a good mix of recognizable stars and veteran character actors. But the real pleasure here is watching the insanely over the top performance by Rod Steiger. Sporting an unknown accent, Steiger steals every scene he's in, even when he's doing nothing but standing in the background. He's also the only one of the stranded men to grow a beard during their ordeal, a visual marker that draws further attention to this enormous ham of an actor. I've never seen Steiger play any part in a subdued manner. The man was simply incapable of doing so. I suspect Steiger told Farrow "this is how I'm going to play this character" and Farrow, on a tight schedule and budget, said yes just to get the film finished.

BACK FROM ETERNITY is the type of story you might have found in the pages of a 1950s era men's adventure magazine and as such, it's a well crafted and nicely mounted adventure film.

Thumbs up.

.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

FIRST TRAIN TO BABYLON


I finished a Max Ehrlich trifecta of sorts last night. First, I read his classic, vintage biker novel THE HIGH SIDE a couple of weeks ago. Then, I happened to watch THE APPLE last night, a second-season STAR TREK episode written by Ehrlich. This morning I finished reading FIRST TRAIN TO BABYLON,  a thriller he wrote in 1955 (the paperback edition, pictured above and which I bought years ago, was published in 1959).

The cover blurbs give away the gist of the story but Ehrlich manages to start the narrative off in one direction before getting to the meat of the narrative. A down on his luck mail sorter, desperate for money to aid his fatally sick son, decides to rob a mail car on it's early morning run from New York City to Babylon on Long Island. He scoops envelopes from various bags, places them in an unlabeled pouch and throws it out of the train window into a culvert. The heavy snowfall will cover the bag long enough for him to recover it later. But two young brothers, out playing with their early Christmas gifts of bright new sleds, find the bag. When they are unable to open it, they hide it in a deserted barn where it remains for the next ten years. The scheming mail carrier, unable to find his bag later, takes his own life only days before his sick son dies.

Flash forward ten years. A developer has purchased the land upon which the deserted barn sits. The barn is demolished and the mail pouch discovered. The post office decides to complete the delivery of the long delayed mail, an act that garners a great deal of publicity. One of the delayed letters turns out to be a blackmail note intended for one George Radcliffe, a successful businessman with a beautiful home, a bride-to-be daughter, a son about to become a military officer and a loving and faithful wife, Martha. When Martha receives the letter, she opens it and discovers that a blackmailer had intended to put the squeeze on George ten years earlier for a robbery and murder at his workplace. At the trial, George had positively another employee as the guilty party, a man who was sentenced to life in prison because of George's testimony. Could George have lied on the stand, committed the murder himself and stolen the money? How else to explain his coming into a great deal of money ten years ago?

Martha refuses to believe that George could be guilty of such a heinous crime but as she starts to pick at various threads, the carefully woven fabric of their tranquil and blissful suburban life begin to unravel. More and more, the evidence points towards George as the real killer. What will Martha do? Is George really the bad guy she has come to believe?

I won't spoil the ending of this one except to say I wish it had turned out a different way. The story reminded me of Hitchcock's SUSPICION (1941), with Cary Grant playing the is-he-or-isn't-he murderous husband of frightened wife Joan Fontaine. At times, the novel also recalled John D. MacDonald, especially when he peeled back the veneer of comfortable mid-century middle class life to expose the darkness and demons lurking just below the surface.

FIRST TRAIN doesn't quite reach the heights of any given MacDonald novel but it's a solid, well-constructed thriller nonetheless. It would have made a nice little film in the 1950s with, say, Fred MacMurray and Vera Miles in the title roles.

Thumbs up.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

"Nature has many secrets man mustn't disturb and this was one of them."

The best thing about THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES (1955) is the poster art pictured above. And it should be since this is one of those legendary title-and-artwork first, script-and-movie second quickies distributed by American Releasing before it morphed into American-International Pictures.

There were literally hundreds of science fiction films produced during the 1950s. Some of them are enduring classics, touchstones of the genre that still hold up more than sixty years later. Others are minor but fun and worth watching at least once. Many others are complete duds. Still, I continue to watch any and all of these types of films in the hopes that I might discover a diamond in the rough, an unheralded gem.

I'll have to keep on watching because PHANTOM is one truly terrible film. From a misleading title (there's no "phantom", only a third rate sea monster and the producers don't seem to realize that "leagues" is a term for distance traveled underwater, not depth), to a script by Lou Rusoff that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to a handful of cheap sets and Southern California beach locations, this one is a stinker from beginning to end.

The story revolves around an underwater uranium deposit off of the California coast that has become active. The deposit is guarded by the aforementioned monster who kills anyone who comes close to the glowing light. A mad oceanographer, Professor King (Michael Whalen), is intent on conducting experiments with the radiation to determine its' effects on the local sea life. This activity (and some murders) have caught the attention of government agent Grant (Rodney Bell) and another oceanographer, Dr. Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor, sporting a jet black widow's peak that would do Prince Namor proud).

While investigating, Stevens falls for King's daughter, Lois (the lovely Cathy Downs). King's secretary, Ethel (Vivi Janiss), is up to no good, as is his assistant, George (Philip Pine), who brandishes a spear gun for most of the film. George is in league with Wanda, a sexy Soviet spy played by Helene Stanton.

When a freighter passes over the uranium deposit and blows up (using footage from some other film), King feels guilty and decides to put an end to the underwater mayhem.

This is the kind of movie where men walk around on a beach at night (it's shot day-for-night but work with me here people), in coasts and ties and utter inane dialog that makes no sense either scientifically or dramatically.

Released as the bottom half of a double bill with DAY THE WORLD ENDED (a far better film), PHANTOM nevertheless turned out to be a profitable film for the dynamic film making duo of Dan (director) and Jack (producer) Milner.

They're the only people who benefited from this turkey.


Friday, March 30, 2018

CROSSFIRE


" The snakes are loose."



Back in the '70s, film director Edward Dmytryk did a one semester director in residency program at the University of Texas. In addition to working with film students he also did guest lectures and hosted screenings of several of his films. I was lucky enough to have Dmytryk speak to my film class one afternoon and I recall attending screenings of THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) and CROSSFIRE, his hard-hitting film noir from 1947. I watched this film the other day for the first time in almost forty years and thoroughly enjoyed it. I had forgotten just how good it is.

Adapted by John Paxton from Richard Brooks' 1945 novel THE BRICK FOXHOLE (note: Brooks would go on to a distinguished film directing career), CROSSFIRE deals with a group of World War II vets with time on their hands and, for one, insane hatred in his heart.

Several of the men, including Mitch (George Cooper), Montgomery (Robert Ryan) and Floyd (Steve Brodie), meet Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) in a bar. They strike up a conversation and before you know it, Samuels has invited Mitch back to his apartment for more drinks and conversation. Montgomery and Floyd show up, Mitch leaves and eventually Samuels is murdered. Sergeant Keeley (Robert Mitchum) gets involved in the investigation spearheaded by Detective Finlay (Robert Young). Keeley believes Mitch is innocent and sets out to find him and clear his name over the course of one long night that is fraught with tension (and another murder).

Mitch makes for a very plausible suspect however. Clearing suffering from what we know now as PTSD (at the time, it was described as battle fatigue or combat shock), Mitch is a broken man, lost and confused who eventually turns to the arms of Ginny (Gloria Grahame), a B-girl floozy who takes sympathy on the wounded man and serves as a possible witness to clear his name.

Keeley and Finlay slowly piece together the puzzle and set a trap for their number one suspect. It's not a huge surprise as to the identity of the killer but what is interesting is the killer's motive. One of the men is a rampant anti-Semite whose hatred for Jews drives him to kill a man whom he believes sat out the war (Samuels is actually revealed to be a veteran himself). In the original novel, the killer hated homosexuals, a theme that just wouldn't have played in 1947 Hollywood. Anti-Semitism was raw enough and the subject is superbly handled by Dmytryk and a stellar cast.


CROSSFIRE was produced at RKO studios with a relatively small budget and short shooting schedule. Nevertheless, it managed to earn five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Ryan), Best Supporting Actress (Grahame) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was unheard of at the time for a genre B picture to win this much acclaim. It lost the Best Picture Oscar to GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, another film about anti-Semitism from major studio 20th Century Fox.

For my money, CROSSFIRE is the better film. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

THE THING: LIBERTY LEGION


I know I've mentioned here on my blog that Jack Kirby is my all time favorite comic book artist. And I'm pretty sure I've stated that Roy Thomas is my all time favorite comic book writer. If I haven't, consider it told here and now. Also among my favorite comic book characters are Ben Grimm, The Thing. I'm a huge fan of Thomas's wonderful mid-70s Marvel series, THE INVADERS, in which Captain America, Bucky, The Human Torch, Toro and Namor, the Sub-Mariner (along with other Golden Age stalwarts), fought Nazis and other menaces in World War I EuropeI. And boy, would I love to see an INVADERS movie on the big screen. It was established in the film CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER that the original android version of the Human Torch exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, there's two out of the big three characters you'd need to make this work. It'll probably never happen but this movie is very high on my wish list.

I'm also crazy about Golden Age comic book heroes in general and anything having to do with World War II. So you just know I had to love the handsome hardcover volume pictured above. I sat down and read this beauty yesterday and enjoyed every page of it. The volume collects a series of various issues of Bronze Age comics that, taken all together, tell one big, more or less, connected story. The narrative takes place in INVADERS #5 & 6, MARVEL PREMIERE #29 & 30, FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #11, MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE ANNUAL #1 and MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #20.

The cast of characters include the already established Invaders and Marvel's royal family, the Fantastic Four and introduces to the world for the first time, the home front superhero team dubbed The Liberty Legion. Led by Captain America's junior partner, Bucky Barnes, the team consists of such Golden Age Timely Comics second bananas as The Patriot, Miss America, The Whizzer, Red Raven, The Thin Man, Jack Frost and The Blue Diamond.

Roy Thomas wrote each issue collected here and the artwork is provided by such stellar Marvel artistic talents as John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Frank Robbins and Don Heck.

Boy, is this one fun collection of WWII super heroic shenanigans!