Back in the 1980s, I spent a great deal of money to purchase my first VCR. It was manufactured by JVC and it was a large block of a machine, a top loader with those oh-so-handy large colored buttons on the front. The player makes an appearance in the opening titles of ABC-TV's currently running sitcom THE GOLDBERGS (which Judy and I have watched since the first episode). Here's what it looked like.
Raise your hand if you remember it. After shelling out around $500 for the player, I immediately started acquiring classic movies on VHS. These too were not cheap as the market for actually owning movies in a permanent (ha!) format was just beginning to gain traction. Among the movies I bought on tape were several early Alfred Hitchcock films such as THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, SECRET AGENT, THE LADY VANISHES and THE 39 STEPS. These were all films he made in Great Britain prior to coming to the United States in 1940. At the time, it was the only way a film fanatic like myself could acquire and view these early classics but truth be told, the prints and transfers weren't the best with the resulting product being full of pops and hisses and a sub-standard picture quality. The films were most likely in the public domain at the time and not much care was given to making quality recordings. It wasn't great but it was all we had and besides, this was a technological achievement far beyond my wildest dreams. Imagine being able to own copies of classic movies forever and ever without having to stay up way past midnight to catch a heavily edited and commercial filled broadcast of the same material. This was nirvana. Sheer bliss, bad transfer and all.
Until the other day I had only ever seen THE 39 STEPS in this primitive format and that was some thirty-odd years ago. My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched the film in the Blu-Ray format on the Criterion label this week and I was absolutely blown away. Not only did this film look and sound fantastic, I had forgotten what a marvelously entertaining film it is, a visually sophisticated adventure that adroitly combines laughs and thrills with touches of many of Hitchcock's major thematic concerns, themes and motifs that would inform the vast body of his work for years to come.
By the time Hitchcock made THE 39 STEPS in 1935, he had already directed twenty silent and sound films in Great Britain, beginning with THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925). This makes STEPS the work of a veteran filmmaker who was already incredibly skilled and gifted and who, astonishingly enough, only got better over the course of his career. THE 39 STEPS plays heavily on the idea of an innocent man suddenly thrust into a mysterious world of danger and intrigue. The hero here is one Richard Hannay (the dashing Robert Donat), who is given a scrap of information from a dead female secret agent. With only a map and the words "the 39 steps" to go on, Hannay sets out to solve the mystery in a race against time to prevent something dreadful from happening. He is, of course, suspected of murdering the female spy and must first elude the police. As Hannay gets closer to the truth (even though he doesn't know it), he's also menaced by enemy agents.
Hannay eventually winds up in the company of the lovely Pamela Shaneakwa (Madeleine Carroll), a Hitchcock blonde whom Hannay first meets on a train early in the film. The two find themselves handcuffed together and running for their lives before finally discovering the truth about the 39 steps and foiling the plot.
The action in the film begins and ends in a theater (the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) also takes place in a theater). Hannay meets a variety of couples throughout his journey, some of them help him in his flight, while others stand in his way. It's only when the two singles, Hannay and Pamela become a trusting couple themselves that the day is saved. The 39 steps are a bit of a McGuffin, a plot device that drives the narrative without being the real truth of the matter. Hannay and Pamela's handcuffed escapades have an air of screwball comedy about them and the scene where Hannay gives a political speech full of double talk is genuinely funny.
But make no mistake about it, THE 39 STEPS is a flat out thriller from beginning to end. It's clearly a template for NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and while that film is, in my opinion, Hitchcock's most entertaining film, THE 39 STEPS is not far behind. If you're going to watch this one, it's worth the effort to track down the Blu Ray edition on the Criterion label. You won't be disappointed.
There's only one reason to watch MONTANA BELLE (1952), an utterly routine RKO western. And if you think the reason is either George Brent, Scott Brady or Forrest Tucker, you're really not paying attention.
The lovely Jane Russell, who is one of my all-time favorite Golden Age movie stars, headlines as notorious lady outlaw Belle Starr. She crosses paths with the infamous Dalton Gang, led by Bob Dalton (Brady), before forming her own outlaw band with Mac (Tucker) and Ringo (Jack Lambert). Belle gets in good with Tom Bradfield (Brent), the owner of the Birdcage saloon and casino. Belle becomes part owner with an eye towards eventually cleaning out the joint. But true love interferes and complicates Belle's plans.
There are a couple of unintentionally hilarious musical numbers in which Belle sings and struts through songs like she's in a 1950s nightclub rather than an Old West saloon. Her dresses are slit up to here, showing an awful lot of Miss Russell's lovely legs, her hand gestures are odd, the orchestration too full to be supplied by the bar room band and the lyrics distinctly modern. These two scenes are the highlights of the film.
MONTANA BELLE was shot in "Trucolor", RKO's color photography process. It's a faded, washed out color process which gives everything a pastel tint rather than the rich, super saturated color of Technicolor. The process reminds me of those ghastly colorized black and white films of the 1980s. I would have rather seen this film in black and white than this tepid color photography.
The supporting cast is full of players who appeared in dozens of films and television shows. Among them are Andy Devine as a peddler playing both ends against the middle, Ray (BONANZA) Teal as Emmett Dalton and Dick (Mayor Pike on the ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) Elliott as Jeptha Rideout.
MONTANA BELLE was directed by veteran director Allan Dwan, whose career began in the silent era. The screenplay by Horace McCoy and Norman S. Hall, pays absolutely no attention to the history of the real Belle Starr. As a western, MONTANA BELLE is strictly average. But for Russell fans like myself, it's a gold mine.
Filmed in five days , BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966) is a thoroughly craptastic waste of time. This western/horror hybrid has the production values of GUNSMOKE (actually, GUNSMOKE looked better) combined with all of the sheer, naked horror of an episode of SCOOBY-DOO.
This cheap exploitation quickie was helmed by legendary director William "One Shot" Beaudine. Billy Beaudine got his start in the silent era and he was well known for knocking out films quickly, shooting the majority of scenes in one take. BILLY shows this admittedly efficient method of film making with all of the exterior shots taking place in the same location (the Corriganville Movie Ranch in California) and a handful of sets at Paramount Studios. Shoot the exteriors one day, all of the saloon scenes the next, all of the cave scenes on Wednesday, etc. Oh, that action sequence where a stagecoach is pursued by Indians on horseback? That's lifted from another movie.
The legend is that when the production would stop for lunch, star John Carradine would take his break at a bar down the street from the studio. He'd go in in full Dracula costume and make-up, belt down a few stiff drinks and return to the set for an afternoon's work. I suspect Beaudine tried to get the majority of Carradines' scenes shot before lunch.
BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA was shot at the same time and on the same sets and location as its' companion western/horror film JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER The shoot for both films lasted eight days. The two were released on a double bill. I haven't seen JESSE but after sitting through BILLY once, I'll pass.
You know a movie is bad when the only other recognizable name actor in the cast besides Carradine is Virgina (Mrs. Olsen!) Christine. Billy is played the incredibly stiff Chuck Courtney, while the object of Dracula's desire is Melinda Plowman, a cute blonde with girl-next-door appeal whose hair styles belong more to the 1960s than the 1860s. The script plays fast and loose (really, could it play any other way?) with established cinematic vampire lore with Dracula often appearing in broad daylight in several scenes.
The scariest thing about BILLY is this. John Carradine, who was pushing sixty at the time this film was made, lusts after a young woman who is stated to be all of eighteen-years-old in the script. Of course, actress Plowman is older than that but the sight of Carradine literally slobbering with lust and desire over a girl young enough to be his granddaughter is sad and repellent. I know, I know, he's supposed to be a vampire but let's face it, he's really just a creepy old man with a drinking problem.
Following upon the heels of the critical and commercial success of THE TIME MACHINE (1960), the powers-that-be at MGM desperately wanted producer/director George Pal to do another film as quickly as possible. Given enough time, a large enough budget and, most importantly, a decent script to work with, Pal could have produced a film comparable to THE TIME MACHINE. But Pal didn't have those three key ingredients at his disposal, which resulted in ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT, which is considered by many to be Pal's worst film as a director. Remember, he was only the producer of DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE.
ATLANTIS plays like any one of dozens of other low-budget sword and sandal films filling early '60s movie screens. It's colorful enough with some occasional flashes of imagination but it's also deadly dull with a cast of no-name actors (some of which are obviously dubbed despite this being an American production). There's decent miniature, model and matte work but the film relies heavily on lots of footage from bigger and better historical epic films (I'm looking at you QUO VADIS (1951)).
Sal Ponti (aka Anthony Hall but a stiff by any name) stars as Demetrius, a Greek fisherman who rescues Atlantean princess Antillia (the lovely Joyce Taylor) from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea. They soon set sail for her home continent of Atlantis where Demetrius becomes a slave. He eventually leads a revolt of the imprisoned men from many other lands and destroys the entire continent in a spectacular climax. There's a sub-plot about turning men into animal-headed beasts (a steal from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)) that goes nowhere. The villains of the piece, Zaren (John Dall) and a mad surgeon (Berry Kroeger) are more than slightly effeminate and pose no real threat. You know a film's in trouble when Edward (GET SMART) Platt is the sole voice of reason in the story. Platt plays Azar, the High Priest, who has come to believe in the existence of one, true God rather than the many gods worshiped by the Atlanteans.
If you look quickly, you'll spot control panels from FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) in the background of a laboratory. Veteran voice actor Paul Frees does triple duty as the film's narrator and the speaking voices for Demetrius's father and King Cronus (Edgar Stehli). The giant crystalline death ray projector is a well-designed prop as is the fish-shaped submarine used by the Atlanteans.
A note about that submarine. In January, 1994, I had the honor of visiting the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman at the fabled "Ackermansion" in Los Angeles. Along for the ride were my buddies Kelly Greene and Walter Hausner, along with "Kookie" Kent Deluga and a couple of other "monster kids" whose names I don't recall. Forry met us at the front gate of his house and led us down a narrow walkway along the side that ended on a small patio. There on the patio was the submarine pictured above, a full size prop about six feet in length if I recall correctly. Forry asked us if anyone could identify the film it was from and only one of us knew (sadly, it wasn't me). The submarine from ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT was the first piece of fantasy film memorabilia I saw (other than Forry himself) on that memorable day. I'll relate the full story of our visit to Forry's at a future date. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT is worth seeing by only the most devoted genre enthusiasts. Pal could and did make much better films than this one.
Let's get this out of the way right now. When CRACK IN THE WORLD was first released in February, 1965, I guarantee you that every boy in my third grade class at Bryker Woods Elementary School referred to this disaster epic as "Crack In My Ass". What do you want? We were nine-years-old.
How to solve the world's energy problems? How to tap into a near limitless source of free energy? Hey, how about all that magma floating around in the middle of the earth? Tap into that and we'd have free energy for years. Problem is, there's an immense barrier of rock between us and the magma which can't be penetrated by anything short of a nuclear bomb.
That's just what crack-pot scientist Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews), proposes to do. He wants to fire a missile with a nuclear warhead on the tip of it down a bore hole. The resulting explosion will bring magma to the surface and voila, free energy!
Sorenson is opposed in his mad scheme by his second-in-command at Project Inner Space, Ted Rampion (the square jawed Kieron Moore). Rampion warns of dire consequences if Sorenson's plan is put into motion but Sorenson sells an international scientific commission on the idea and proceeds with his plan. To make matters more interesting, Sorenson's lovely young wife Maggie (Janette Scott), used to be involved with Rampion and still harbors some feelings for him .
And if all of that wasn't enough to make the plot messy, Sorenson is suffering from a terminal disease. What disease? We don't know but it's pretty bad because Sorenson is forced to hold his hands between two plates that emit X-rays for minutes on end. Eventually he is forced to wear white gloves on both hands, truss one arm with a sling and wear dark glasses indoors and out. Yeah, that kind of disease. Truthfully, I suspect that Dana Andrews must have injured himself on the set while on a drinking binge and the screen writers (Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet), wrote his infirmities into the script.
Sorenson's experiment succeeds at first but quickly goes wrong when a crack is discovered in the crust of the earth. It's up to Rampion to drop a bomb down an active volcano in order to stop the spread of the crack. He succeeds and the world is saved. But wait, there's more. The crack is still growing, threatening to split the earth apart.
It's in the third act of the film that production designer Eugene Lourie gets a chance to show his stuff. Earlier scenes in the film used a lot of stock footage and a few matte paintings and miniature sets but it's in the big cataclysm at the end that we see some fairly decent effects work. Rampion and Maggie return to the Project Inner Space headquarters to rescue Sorenson. He refuses their help but before they can escape, they're trapped underground and forced to climb their way back to the surface through a ruined elevator shaft. The two emerge on the surface in time to witness a huge chunk of earth explode into space where it settles into orbit as Earth's second moon.
Set in Africa but filmed in Spain in seven weeks, CRACK IN THE WORLD is a modest disaster film that does the best it can with limited resources. The science is wonky but everything is played straight. The underground headquarters set is impressive, Lourie's effects work are adequate and the leads are solid. It's an entertaining B movie that pales in comparison to the slicker, bigger budgeted disaster films that came later in the decade and beyond.
I first discovered 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine, which is where I found out about a lot of 1960s era horror, fantasy and science fiction films. FACES looked incredibly weird, mysterious and appealing. I desperately wanted to see it but even though it played at the Austin Theater on South Congress (a venue that later, sadly, became a porno house), somehow I never got to see it. For years I had to make due with stills and various clips from the film until TCM ran the film a few years back. I watched it then and once again a couple of days ago.
7 FACES is a whimsical western-fantasy film that I suspect is much lighter than the original source material, the novel THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles G. Finney. I have not read the novel (I have a copy on my shelf) but the screenplay by noted mid-century American fantasist Charles Beaumont walks the fine line between the truly outre and something that's a bit more palatable and family friendly since, after all, FACES is a George Pal film.
Pal had a long and illustrious film career beginning as a special effects technician before moving into producing and directing live action feature films. Pal's work includes such genre touchstones as DESTINATION MOON (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1955), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT (1961), THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962), THE POWER (1968) and DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE (1975). WAR OF THE WORLDS and TIME MACHINE are arguably his best films but anything with Pal's name on it is worth seeing. Pal, along with Ray Harryhausen and, to a lesser extent, Irwin Allen, were all genre auteurs who could be counted on to deliver entertaining and imaginative films with good production values and special effects. In short, Pal's name on a film became a dependable "brand" for the cinema of the fantastic.
FACES takes place in Abalone, Arizona in the early years of the 20th century. Rich land baron Clinton Stark (Arthur O'Connell), makes a bid to buy up all of the property in the town. He's opposed by crusading newspaper publisher Edward Cunningham (John Ericson) and his assistant Sam (Noah Beery, Jr.). Into this small town turmoil rides the mysterious Dr. Lao (Tony Randall, who insists on pronouncing his name as "Lo"). Lao is an ancient Chinese wizard whose accent comes and goes. He advertises a mysterious circus on the outskirts of town, an attraction that draws the entire populace including attractive young widow Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden, who also appeared other genre films including VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961), THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962) and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)).
Once inside the strange looking circus tent (which appears to be larger on the inside than from out), various townspeople confront different characters (all played by Randall), who reveal deep secrets and hidden truths about the men and women of Abalone. Among the characters in the circus are Merlin, the Great Magician, Pan, the God of Love, the Serpent, Medusa, Apollonius of Tyana, the blind fortune teller and the Abominable Snowman (who resembles a Morlock from Pal's TIME MACHINE). All of these characters are wonderfully depicted by Randall and makeup wizard William Tuttle (who received a special Academy Award for his work).
Stark's motivation for his attempted land grab is eventually revealed and thwarted in a climax that involves the Loch Ness Monster (a stop motion animation creature brought to life by Jim Danforth and Wah Chang). The town is saved, relationships are restored and renewed and Lao rides off into the sunset with young Mike (Kevin Tate), doing his best Brandon De Wilde imitation from SHANE (1953): "Dr. Lao, Dr. Lao, come back Dr. Lao!"
7 FACES OF DR. LAO belongs entirely to Tony Randall as he demonstrates his considerable acting chops portraying fantastic characters with humor and pathos. The role of Lao was originally going to go to British actor Peter Sellers before the powers-that-be at MGM stepped in and insisted upon Randall. The supporting cast is good, the production values solid and the special effects serviceable. FACES is a gentle, wistful fantasy film about finding the wonder in everyday life and is well worth seeing by both genre aficionados and those looking for a film that has something for viewers of all ages.
Pity poor Ross Martin. As one of the stars of Eugene Lourie's noir-tinged 1958 science fiction film, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, Martin has only about five minutes of screen time at the beginning of the film. For the rest of the picture, only his voice is heard. It's no wonder that he received fifth billing, even though his character, scientist Jeremy Spenser, is the focus of the narrative.
Jeremy, a brilliant young scientist and humanitarian, receives the "International Peace Prize" for his work at the beginning of the film. Returning to New York, he's tragically struck and killed by a truck while trying to retrieve his son Billy's (Charles Herbert), toy airplane. Jeremy's father, William (Otto Kruger), a skilled scientist himself, is determined to keep Jeremy's brain alive in order to benefit humanity. Jeremy was simply too great a genius to be lost to the world. William coerces his other son, Henry (John Baragrey) and Jeremy's friend, scientist Robert Carrington (Robert Hutton), to aid him in his quest to build a gigantic, robotic body in which to house Jeremy's brain.
The experiment works and everything looks good for awhile but you just know that things must go wrong eventually. Henry falls in love with Jeremy's widow, Anne (the very lovely Mala Powers) leading Jeremy to murder his brother in cold blood using heretofore unknown and unmentioned death rays from his eyes. Jeremy, now completely insane, decides to destroy humanity rather than work to save it and attacks a meeting at the United Nations where he slaughters several innocent people with his optical death rays. It's up to young Billy to throw the torso-mounted switch on the robot's body that will shut him off forever. And when the monster is dead, the movie is over. William, Anne and Robert somberly exit the United Nations with not a word said about the massacre which just took place and for which William and Robert share some degree of culpability.
THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK isn't a great science fiction film. The screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Thelma Schnee, depends too heavily on other genre touchstones such as THE GOLEM (1920), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1953) to bring anything original or innovative to the formulaic proceedings. The cinematography is moody and atmospheric, lending a film noir atmosphere to some of the scenes, the design of Spenser's laboratory is unusual, the look of the robot, while visually striking, is enormously impractical (no attempt is made to hide the "screens" under the illuminated eyes which allowed stunt man Ed Wolff to see out of ) and the score, a solo piano arrangement by Van Cleave seems grossly out of place. It's far too jazzy and avant garde for such a pedestrian effort as this one.
The cast ranges from good to adequate. Martin is probably the best player here, despite his limited screen time. Otto Kruger is an actor that I've always found interesting and a pleasure to watch. Could be because he reminds me of our family physician from my childhood. Baragrey and Hutton are cliches, Mala Powers is fetching and young Charles Herbert is annoying. Director Eugene Lourie had a long career as both a production designer and director. As a genre director, he made the same film three times over beginning with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) and GORGO (1961). As a production designer, he worked on such varied fare as CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965), KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1969) (for he which he won an Oscar for Best Special Effects) and Clint Eastwood's BRONCO BILLY (1980).
THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was shot in two weeks under the auspices of producer William Alland who served in the same capacity on THE SPACE CHILDREN the same year. Both films were released by Paramount on a double bill. If you're a fan of 1950s science ficiton films, you should see COLOSSUS once but there's nothing here to recommend to non-genre fans.