Friday, December 8, 2017

2017 WRAP UP PART 4



You don't for one second buy the premise that the lovely Ava Gardner is a part British, part Indian woman but that's the role she's cast in in BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956). Directed by George Cukor, this is an old-fashioned exotic melodrama set in India in the days immediately after World War II. India has won its' independence from Great Britain and the British military is beginning its' gradual withdrawal from the country. This leaves a power vacuum that will be filled by either the pacifistic followers of Gandhi or the more violent Communist forces. Victoria Jones (Gardner) has three loves during the course of the film. The first, Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers), is another part British, part Indian outcast, a man who doesn't belong to either country. That relationship ends when Victoria sees him a bigoted racist. Her second paramour is Ranjit Kasel (Francis Matthews), a Sikh who desperately loves Victoria and wants her to convert to his religion. She admires and respects him but can never quite come to fully love him. Finally, she falls for Colonel Savage (Stewart Granger), who not only wins her heart but rescues her from the clutches of a Communist terrorist. MGM wanted to film BHOWANI JUNCTION on location in India but the Indian government demanded complete script approval and a percentage of the box office, neither of which the studio would agree to. Instead the film was shot on location in Pakistan and sound stages in Great Britain. BHOWANI is a colorful, widescreen historical epic with a compelling story and two very appealing leads. Thumbs up. 

Following immediately upon the surprise success of BLACULA (1972), SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973) finds the titular vampire (once again played by the magisterial William Marshall), revived by a Los Angeles voodoo cult. There's plenty of the usual hugger mugger in this second and final entry in the BLACULA series. Bonus points for featuring beautiful blaxploitation icon Pam Grier, while straight arrow Don Mitchell is the hero and Michael Conrad is a police detective investigating the craziness. There's more vintage music, cars and clothes and while everyone gives it their best, SCREAM isn't as fun as the first film. The lovely Barbara Rhodes (who would have made a great Pat Savage in a DOC SAVAGE film), is wasted early in the film as a vampire's victim. She's given nothing to do except scream her head off. Worth seeing if you're a fan of the first film or '70s blaxploitation cinema in general but not for everyone.

Friday, December 1, 2017

2017 WRAP UP PART 3



By the time director Phil Karlson made BEN (1972), his best work was far behind him. Although his cult classic WALKING TALL (1973), offered some redemption, Karlson's best work was in the 1950s when he made a series of tough, two-fisted films noir including KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), 99 RIVER STREET (1953), TIGHT SPOT (1955), 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), and THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955). His two Matt Helm films, THE SILENCERS (1966) and THE WRECKING CREW (1969), were smarm fests for star Dean Martin. And BEN? Lord help us, BEN was a movie about an intelligent rat. A direct sequel to the surprise hit WILLARD (1971), BEN finds the title rat befriending an uber obnoxious lonely young boy, played by Lee Montgomery. Ben and his rat friends protect young Danny from bullies and cause other mayhem in Los Angeles before finally being roasted in the sewers beneath the city by LAPD cops with flame throwers (shades of THEM! (1954)). Genre vet Kenneth Tobey has little to do, Joseph Campanella is a frustrated police detective with a smoking problem, Arthur O'Connell is a newspaper report who is never seen reporting, young Meredith Baxter is Danny's older, teenage sister and Michael Jackson sings the Academy Award nominated title song. Thumbs down.


I grew up in the sixties and seventies and I've always had a special fondness for the cycle of "blaxploitation" films that were produced in the 1970s. I was a teenager at the time and while I didn't have access to all of the films (some of which never made it to Austin area movie houses), I loved the ones I was able to see. Sure, most of them are bad but they're a fond reminder of some of the best years of my young life and I unabashedly and unashamedly admit to liking them. Even the blaxploitation horror film BLACULA, a modern day spin on Dracula with a largely black cast. William Marshall is actually quite good in the title role. He brings a commanding presence to his portrayal of a cursed African prince resurrected into 1970s Los Angeles. The women, Vonetta McGee and Denise Nicholas, are lovely, there's a square jawed hero played by Thalmus Rasulala while Gordon Pinsent (a really bad actor and the token white man among the leads) is a hapless police detective. Extra points for featuring the great character actor Elisha Cook, Jr, as a hook-handed morgue attendant, who becomes a victim of one of the vampires. With wild clothes, vintage cars, and a decent amount of "soul music" on the soundtrack, BLACULA is a first rate guilty pleasure. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

2017 WRAP UP PART 2


Although it suffers in comparison to Jules Dassin's masterful French crime/caper film RIFIFI (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 film LE CERCLE ROUGE (THE RED CIRCLE) is nonetheless a first rate film. Slowly paced and with a running time of 140 minutes, Melville takes his time in setting up the story of three strangers Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonte and Yves Montand, who come together to plan and execute a daring jewel heist. The men are doggedly pursued both by a tenacious police inspector and a murderous mob boss. Although it takes awhile to get where it's going, the trip is definitely worth it. Thumbs up.


By 1971, Hammer Studios had already reached its' peak and was beginning a long, slow slide into mediocrity. The studio put increased emphasis on blood and breasts in their Gothic horror films and BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB is a perfect example of upping the sex and violence quotient to sell tickets. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir stars as an archaeologist obsessed with the mummy of ancient Egyptian queen. His daughter, the incredibly hot Valerie Leon, bears a startling resemblance to the deceased monarch, whose body is kept in a family basement remade to resemble an ancient tomb, replete with sacrificial altar. Ancient relics are gathered one by one for a resurrection ritual with each person who possesses the relics meeting a gruesome end. You can no doubt see exactly where this is going. Keir is solid but he lacks the screen presence that a Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing could have brought to this production. Nevertheless, Valerie Leon is absolutely spectacularly gorgeous and it's a sincere pleasure to watch her for 94 minutes.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

2017 WRAP UP PART 1


I've got a stack of notes for films I've watched over the last few months, all of which I fully intended to write individual reviews for. But it's become increasingly apparent that that's not going to happen, especially now that I'm headed into an extremely busy time of the year, a period in which my writing time will most likely be severely curtailed. So in the interest of playing catch-up and clearing some of this material off of my desk, I'm going to try to provide short, capsule reviews of these films. We'll see how successful this is. I'll take the films in chronological order beginning with:

BARBARY COAST (1935), an early Howard Hawks film set in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. Miriam Hopkins is a gold-digging woman come west to marry a rich miner only to find out he's dead. With no prospective husband and in need of a means of support, she takes a job as a roulette wheel operator in the Bella Donna casino, a shady business run by crime boss Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson). Hopkins doesn't mind fleecing the customers until she meets straight-arrow prospector Joel McCrea. She falls in love with the too-good-to-be-true miner and the two decide to leave San Francisco. Trouble ensues. With Walter Brennan as a toothless coot named "Old Atrocity" and Brian Donlevy as Chamalis's main enforcer, BARBARY COAST is good, old-fashioned fun. Thumbs up.


CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY (1969), is a lackluster British science fiction/fantasy film. The best thing about this film is the design of Nemo's submarine, The Nautilus. Robert Ryan looks pained and strained in the role of Nemo (he's no James Mason), while Chuck Connors has little to do other than play a square jawed hero. Nemo's no villain, he only wants to be left alone in his city beneath the sea and he wants Connors and the other members of his party to remain with him rather than return to the surface and tell the world about Nemo and his city. Connors, a U.S. Senator is determined to return to the surface world. That's what passes for conflict in this slow moving sunken adventure. The film has the look and feel of an Irwin Allen production but without the bombast and giant undersea monsters. Connors was considered to play the part of Doc Savage in a proposed 1960s film, a project that never saw the light of day. His lovely co-star in CITY, Luciana Paluzzi, would have made a good Pat Savage. Or, better yet, some smart producer should have signed Connors and Paluzzi to play Aquaman and Mera in either a television series or movie. This proves how bad and boring CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY is because while I was watching it with part of my brain, another part was busy playing casting director for an imaginary project. Thumbs down.


More to come.


 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

THE RACKET


At the beginning of John Cromwell's hard-hitting film noir THE RACKET (1951), we see a state-wide crime commission meeting with the governor of an unnamed state. The investigators on the commission are out to clean up a corrupt city (again, unnamed) and need subpoena power to do the job. The governor agrees and it's the last we'll see of two of the commission investigators, Les (SHAZAM!) Tremayne and Milburn (GUNSMOKE) Stone until the end of the film.

Cut to the city where tough but fair police captain Tom McQuigg (Robert Mitchum) has just been put in charge of one of the worst precincts in the city. McQuigg has two objectives: to run a tight, clean and by-the-book operation and to bring down psychotic gang boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). Scanlon has had the run of the town for years but now he has to answer to higher-ups for the first time in his career as "the syndicate" has moved into town, fronted by suave but vicious R.G. Connolly (Don Porter). There's also an alleged "Mr. Big" (who is never seen or heard), behind the scenes but it's left up to the viewer to determine if he really exists or if it's just an alias of the cold-blooded Connolly.

In order to solidify the mob's control of the town, they're backing a crooked candidate for judge, District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch (Ray (PERRY MASON) Collins). There's also a bent state cop, Detective Sergeant Turk (William (CANNON) Conrad), on the take.

McQuigg enlists the aid of straight-arrow beat cop Officer Bob Johnson (William (PERRY MASON) Talman), in his quest to destroy Scanlon. Caught in the crossfire are nightclub singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott) and young newspaper reporter Dave Ames (Robert Hutton). 
Things come to an explosive climax at the precinct station after which Tremayne and Stone show up with subpoenas for Collins and Conrad. 

Based on a play (with Edward G. Robinson as Scanlon) and filmed previously in 1928, Cromwell's version of the material hews close to the original narrative while opening the action up for more dramatic impact, The screenplay by William Wister Haines and W. R. Burnett, tosses in a house bombing, a rooftop fight to the death between McQuigg and a trigger-man, a chase between a locomotive and a car and other bits of mayhem and violence to liven things up. There's still a lot of scenes of characters just standing around and talking but with a cast and material like this, you're never bored.

Tough, two-fisted and unflinching, THE RACKET is a first rate film noir. Recommended.


Friday, November 17, 2017

THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT


Knowing my fondness for pulp fiction, my buddy Dennis gave me this copy of Fredric Brown's THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT recently. I'm familiar with Brown as both a science fiction and mystery writer and I have several of his books on my shelves but CLIPJOINT is the first of his books that I've read. And it's a good one.

Published in 1947, THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT  won the Edgar Award for Outstanding First Mystery Novel. The story centers on young Ed Hunter, a teenager in Chicago. When his father is killed in a dark alleyway late one night, young Ed sets out to catch the killer. He's aided by his Uncle Ambrose, "Am" as he's called, his father's brother who is currently a carney worker. Ed and Am make a good pair of amateur detectives as they explore the seedy underbelly of the city. They discover secrets about Wally Hunter that neither knew, cross paths with murderous gangsters, solve the mystery and hop a train together at the end of the novel for parts unknown.

Ed is the narrator of the story and CLIPJOINT often reads like a crime story told by Holden Caulfield. It's part coming-of-age novel, part mystery thriller. Ed and Am meet boozers, bartenders, a crooked cop, a nympho step-sister, a cougarish femme fatale, and other assorted and colorful characters along the way to solving the mystery.

THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT moves at (you'll pardon the expression) a good clip and Brown knew how to make a reader keep turning the pages. He wrote other Ed and Am mysteries over the course of his career and if they're all as good as CLIPJOINT, I've got some book hunting to do.

Recommended.



Friday, November 10, 2017

BLOOD AND SAND


It's not every night that you get to watch a movie starring Zorro, Superman, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Batman villain Dr. Daka. What the hell kind of movie is that, you ask? It's Rouben Mamoulian's lush Technicolor bullfighting melodrama BLOOD AND SAND (1941).

Okay, so none of those characters actually appear in the film but the actors who played them do. Dark, handsome and dashing Tyrone Power starred as Zorro (with BLOOD co-star Linda Darnell) in Mamoulian's THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940). Supporting player George Reeves went on to play Superman on television's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1952-1958). John Carradine was Dracula in two Universal Studios monster mashes: THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and THE HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), while Laird Cregar was Jack the Ripper in THE LODGER (1944). Anthony Quinn went on to play Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1956) while J. Carroll Naish was Dr. Daka, Batman's first on-screen foe in the 1943 serial BATMAN. In addition to those great actors, BLOOD AND SAND features not one, but two drop-dead gorgeous leading ladies, the dark haired Linda Darnell and the ravishing red head Rita Hayworth.

That's an impressive cast for this compelling drama which charts the rise and fall of a brash young Spanish bullfighter. Juan Gallardo (Power), dreams of becoming a bull fighter like his dead father. He faces many obstacles but eventually achieves his goal, becoming the greatest bullfighter in all of Spain. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Carmen (Darnell) and all seems well. But Gallardo's fame carries a heavy price as he's soon seduced by the rapacious Dona Sol des Muire (Hayworth). Before you know it, Gallardo's lost everything but Carmen who still loves him, no matter what. Gallardo is determined to fight one last bull and then retire to live the rest of his life with Carmen. But things do not go well for Gallardo. After all, the title is BLOOD AND SAND.

BLOOD AND SAND is a handsomely mounted production, overseen by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. The studio spared no expense to bring the story (previously filmed in the silent era in 1922 with Rudolph Valentino in the lead) to lush and vivid life. The story takes time to develop, starting with Gallardo as a young boy with a "posse" of friends, one of whom grows up to be John Carradine while another later becomes Anthony Quinn. There are several well staged bullfight sequences (coached by Budd Boetticher, who would later go on to direct several outstanding Westerns with Randolph Scott). Rotund character actor Laird Cregar practically steals the show as the flamboyant newspaper critic Natalio Curro. But ultimately, BLOOD AND SAND belongs to the love triangle of Power, Darnell and Hayworth, which simmers with real erotic tension.

BLOOD AND SAND is an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, the kind of picture you can get lost in for 125 minutes. I'd never seen it before watching the other night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended.