Action Adventure movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SECRETS OF THE FRENCH POLICE. RKO, 1932. Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff, Frank Morgan and John Warburton. Written by Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker from magazine stories by Ashton Wolfe. Director: A. Edward Sutherland

SECRETS OF SCOTLAND YARD. Republic, 1944. Edgar Barrier, Stephanie Bachelor, C. Aubrey Smith, Lionel Atwill, Martin Kosleck, John Abbott and Mary Gordon. Written by Denison Clift. Directed by George Blair.

   Two very different films, each lots of fun in its own way.

    French Police is a lavish Selznick production, with splendid sets, moody photography and lots of lurid pre-Code mischief as it weaves the tale of General Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) a Russo-Chinese criminal mastermind (you know the type) who schemes to abduct an innocent young flower girl (the lovely Gwili Andre) and pass her off as Princess Anastasia, using hypnosis and drugs.

   That would be plenty for any self-respecting super-villain, but Moloff goes the extra mile, murdering inconvenient witnesses and leaving notes written in the victim’s blood incriminating other inconvenient witnesses — and that’s just when he’s in a hurry; given time and leisure, he drains his victims’ blood, covers them with plaster, and displays them as statues in his sinister palace, guarded by malevolent Orientals and surrounded with death traps.

   In short, a villain who takes his arch-fiendishness seriously, with the sort of old world polish one just doesn’t find in scoundrels these days.

   All of this is off-set knowingly by Frank Morgan as a sharp police inspector who recruits the flower girl’s burglar-boyfriend (John Warburton) to penetrate Moloff’s fiendish lair and unhatch his diabolical plots. And though I’m not sure “unhatch” is actually a word, Morgan and Warburton underplay their parts beautifully (I particularly enjoyed the scene where Warburton explains to Morgan why he thinks the World owes him a living), adding a touch of cynicism to the theatrical goings-on that keeps it slightly — very slightly—grounded in reality amid the cliffhangers and killings.

   The result is a film that seems part pulp-magazine and part send-up of pulp magazines, and an immensely satisfying blend of both.


   Scotland Yard, on the other hand, is a cheap little thing from Republic, a studio that knew how to do cheap movies just right, with a better than usual cast for them.

   We start with the defeat of Germany in World War I, with the German High Command already plotting their next strike by planning to get a mole into the decoding unit of the British War Department. Fast-forward to 1939, and the decoding unit run by C. Aubrey Smith (he of the lantern jaw and eyebrows like blunt instruments) and staffed with familiar character actors. Edgar Barrier plays the star decoder, but they no sooner break the code than he’s found dead on the floor, with his work erased.

   So it seems that the Germans got their mole in place, and the question is, which one is it? And how to find out? Fortunately for the allied cause and the film’s title, Barrier has a twin brother who works for Scotland Yard, and he steps into the dead man’s shoes to find out.

   What follows is fifty agreeable minutes of cat-and-mouse, helped along considerably by a cast of suspects that includes Lionel Atwill, John Abbott and Martin Kosleck at his sinister best, the whole thing — punctuated by vigorous fist-fights in the Republic manner.

   But there are also some telling bits of atmosphere rare for Republic: fog-shrouded streets, country cottages, and even Mary Gordon on leave from Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series as a cheerful housekeeper. And perhaps best of all, a quiet moment in the decoding office as the staff solemnly listens to King George VI’s halting radio speech declaring war, and everyone stands at attention when the radio plays “God Save the King.”

   It’s one of those little touches that lifts Secrets of Scotland Yard out of the B-Movie rut, and, together with that quintessential movie cast, help to make it memorable.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


THERE’S ALWAYS A WOMAN. Columbia, 1938. Joan Blondell , Melvyn Douglas, Mary Astor, Frances Drake, Jerome Cowan, Robert Paige, Thurston Hall. Director: Alexander Hall.

CHANDU THE MAGICIAN. Fox Films, 1932. Edmund Lowe (Chandu/Frank Chandler), Irene Ware (Princess Nadji). Bela Lugosi (Roxor). Based on the radio serial of the same title. Cinematography by James (Wong) Howe. Art direction by Max Parker. Directors: William Cameron Menzies and Marcel Varnel.

   The high point of Monday morning’s screenings was There’s Always a Woman, starring Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas as a husband-and-wife team who split up professionally and then, separately, have a go of solving the murder of Mary Astor’s husband (played by Lester Mathews), Blondell’s scatterbrained zaniness proved to be a good match for Douglas’s more conventional detecting as an investigator for the D.A.


   My choice of top overall pick for the convention, however, would probably be Chandu the Magician. Edmund Lowe stars as Chandu, with Bela Lugosi, lithely clad in close-fitting black sweater and slacks, as Roxor, the “malignant” super-villain, ready to reduce humanity to an anarchic mob, which he would command as ruler of a (much-reduced) universe.

   Not for Roxor the imperial trappings of Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials. It’s power he wants, and it’s his burning ambition — along with his magnetic eyes — that makes Roxor a more menacing villain than Charles Middleton’s Ming.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE. Twentieth Century Fox, UK, 1970. National General Pictures, US, 1971. Robert Shaw, Malcolm McDowell. Screenplay: Robert Shaw. based on the novel by Barry England. Director: Joseph Losey.

    Figures in a Landscape isn’t exactly the type of movie to grow on you, but it’s one that lingers in your mind for a while after you’ve finished watching. Part of this has to do with the fact that, at least on one level, not all that much happens in the movie.

   There are two primary characters – the only two characters with real dialogue – and the movie follows their journey through fields, villages, canyons, and mountain peaks as they attempt to outrun a mysterious black helicopter in a deadly game of cat and mouse. The other reason that the film lingers in your mind’s eye after watching is because there’s actually a lot happening in the movie, albeit on a symbolic level. Indeed, much of the movie is an extended metaphor about the basic human quest to be free from constraints and rules. The movie also has a lot to say about warfare, borders, and government power.

   Robert Shaw and a young Malcolm McDowell portray two British men in a hostile territory. We don’t know who they really are or why they are on the run and who may be on their trail. The movie opens with the two of them in handcuffs trying to evade an omnipresent black helicopter constantly hovering above them. It soon becomes clear that the helicopter, operated by two men dressed all in the black, is not simply interested in capturing the duo. It, or at least its pilot, wants to torment them.

   As the film progresses, the viewer learns that Shaw’s character, Mac, is a gruff, crude sort, while McDowell’s character, Ansell, is a more sensitive type whose good with the ladies and who isn’t afraid to cry. Both men need each other to evade the helicopter and, even though they clearly have little in common, decide to forge a partnership for the time being.

   Their journey takes them through all sorts of terrain. It’s here that Joseph Losey’s direction really shines. The natural vistas presented here are breathtaking, and all serve to remind the viewer that duo are small figures upon a larger naturalistic canvas.

   But what is the point of all this? For a movie rich with existential themes and which attempts to say a lot by saying very little, the dialogue is eminently forgettable. Although the banter between the two at times resembles that of a bickering old married couple, neither of duo has all that much interesting to say about their plight. More is said by their actions than by their words. This is particularly true for Mac (Shaw). By the time the two men are almost free from the helicopter, he is increasingly mentally unbalanced and erratic.

   All told, Figures in a Landscape definitely isn’t a great movie, but it’s a good one. It’s boldly experimental and benefits from not only Losey’s direction, but from exceptional cinematography and a haunting score by Richard Rodney Bennett.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. American International Pictures, 1977. Burt Lancaster (Dr. Paul Moreau), Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Director: Don Taylor.

   Burt Lancaster puts in a superb performance as the Dr. Moreau in this 1977 cinematic adaptation of the extraordinarily influential H.G. Wells novella about a mad scientist turning animals into men on a remote Pacific island.

   Unlike Charles Laughton in the pre-code sleazefest Islands of Lost Souls (1932), who never seemed to be a comfortable fit for the role, Lancaster portrays Moreau as a vaguely sympathetic antihero who genuinely wants to do good for the work, but who gradually transforms into a bestial, hateful figure. Lancaster had a way of just using his eyes to convey emotion and he does it wonderfully here. His Moreau is a great movie villain. Why? Because he has reasons for doing what he is doing and, more importantly, deep down he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   That’s not to say that Michael York, whose performance I absolutely loved as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973), isn’t good in this film as well. He portrays Braddock, the shipwreck survivor who washes up on Moreau’s island, totally unaware of what he is about to encounter. But there’s something a little too innocent about the Braddock character. He’s nowhere near as formidable a figure as Moreau.

   Which leads me to the film’s plot. In many ways, if one were to view Braddock (York) as the protagonist, the movie would be a meandering mess. This is mainly because, for most of the movie, it’s not clear exactly what Braddock wants. To escape the island? Unlike in Island of Lost Souls where the shipwrecked man was truly trapped on the island, Braddock actually still has his rowboat. It’s a little worse for wear, but he’s safely hidden it on the island.

   So escaping is not what he wants. Is it that he wants to discover what Moreau is up to? Well, it doesn’t take him long to do so and Moreau is more than willing to fill in the blanks. It’s only toward the tail end of the movie that he actually wants something – to escape from Moreau’s captivity after the mad doctor performed a sick experiment on him – but that’s too little too late.

   What makes the movie work is not York’s character, but Lancaster’s. The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly the story of Dr. Moreau, about his ambitions and his downfall. In that sense, the film is as much as horror story as a tragedy. And that’s where Lancaster’s stellar performance comes in. Portraying Moreau as a man capable of great things, but who succumbs to his own bestial nature, is what makes this adaptation, despite its numerous flaws, a chilling portrait of a scientist who defies the laws of nature and pays the ultimate price for it.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE RIFT. Trimark Pictures, 1990. Also released as Endless Descent. Jack Scalia, R. Lee Ermey, Ray Wise, Deborah Adair, John Toles Bey, Ely Pouget, Emilio Linder. Director: Juan Piquer Simón

   Judging from some of the comments that exist online, The Rift (aka Endless Descent) seems to have its fair share of detractors. In the DVD commentary at the end of the movie, one learns that even R. Lee Ermey seems to have a negative feeling toward the movie. To be honest, I think a lot of this scorn is undeserved. True, it’s a low budget feature. That much is obvious. And there are also the unescapable comparisons with much higher end creature features like Alien (1979) and Leviathan (1989).

   But do you know what? For a cheapie made in an old movie studio on the outskirts of Madrid and that was never released in the theaters, The Rift is actually a solid and downright enjoyable action-adventure movie with science fiction and horror themes running throughout. The plot is compelling, the action never lets up, and there special effects really aren’t half-bad. And the music by Joel Goldsmith, who went on to do the music for the television show Stargate, definitely adds to the suspense and the general air of creeping dread.

   Jack Scalia portrays Wick Hayes, an American scientist/engineer tasked with a mission. He’s to assist the U.S. Navy in a rescue and retrieval mission for Siren 1, a submarine he designed. Apparently the vessel has been lost at the bottom of the sea. With a crew lead by Captain Philips (R. Lee Ermey) and the scheming Robbins (Ray Wise), along with his ex-wife, scientist Lt. Nina Crowley (Deborah Adair), the Siren 2 gang embarks upon a daring rescue operation.

   The crew, along with Hayes, will soon discover that what caused the Siren 1’s disappearance wasn’t an accident at all, but rather the result of a grotesquely botched attempt to conduct biological warfare experiments underwater. Cue the monsters, animals and plants alike!

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SABAKA. United Artists, 1954. Originally released as The Hindu in 1953. Nino Marcel, Boris Karloff, Lou Krugman, Reginald Denny, June Foray, Peter Coe, Jay Novello. Several sources say that The Hindu was an outgrowth of the “Gunga Ram” episodes originally seen on TV’s Smilin’ Ed’s Gang (later known as Andy’s Gang). Written produced & directed by Frank Ferrin.

   A real cut-and-paste job by a guy who also wrote, produced & directed two episodes of Andy’s Gang featuring this film, and how’s that for street creds?

   Actually Sabaka isn’t all that bad. Not very good either, but… well we’ll get to that later. For now, just to dispense with the preliminaries, the story such as it is, is about young elephant jockey Gunga Ram, played by Nino Marcel, a young actor in the Sabu mold, who gets involved with a cult of fire-devil worshipers. When the baddies kill his sister and her husband he vows to track them down — does some of this anticipate The Searchers? — which he (SPOILER!) manages with the aid of his loyal elephant and pet tiger.

   On the plus side, this was photographed in color, entirely in India amid some splendid scenery and a few rather tacky sets. The costumes splash gaudily across the screen, crowd scenes loom truly epic in scope, and the animals seem to actually interact with the people around them. Someone took care too to make the fake forest fire seem not-quite-so-fakey, and Boris Karloff as a sinister-looking police type delivers his lines with accustomed relish — unlike many cheap foreign films, this one features the actual actors saying their lines.

   Also to its credit, Sabaka offers some obscure bit players doing their thing skillfully as usual. Lou Krugman, Peter Coe (in his 2nd film with Karloff) and Jay Novello aren’t exactly household names, but they pitch right in there along with better-known Reginald Denney and Victor Jory, strutting their stuffy and evil acts respectively.

   But alas, there’s a movie to contend with here, and Sabaka ain’t much. The story moves in fits and starts, pausing frequently for the characters to stand around and explain the plot to each other, and it stops dead still for several minutes whenever a parade goes by.

   Sabaka, however, offers one unique treasure to delight in: a rare live screen appearance by the remarkable June Foray, in a meaty role as the evil high priestess of the Flame Devil. She gets to kill Victor Jory, gloat at the hero, preach violence to her minions and try to immolate an elephant, all with enthusiasm that far outstrips the meager movie around her.

   I can’t really recommend Sabaka, but I have to say I enjoyed it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE. Warner Brothers, 1953. Errol Flynn, Roger Livesey, Anthony Steel, Beatrice Campbell, Yvonne Furneaux, Felix Aylmer, Mervyn Johns. Screenplay: Herb Meadow, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Director: William Keighley.

   I didn’t go into this one with the highest of expectations. After all, the Errol Flynn of the 1950s was a far cry from his earlier more exuberant self. Similarly, while I can appreciate costumers for what they primarily are – escapist entertainment – I can’t say that I find many of them to be among my favorite movies. Still, with a script loosely adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name, there were reasons to be hopeful that this feature would surpass some of Flynn’s other movies from the same era.

   So consider me pleasantly surprised. For The Master of Ballantrae happens to be an entertaining, fun, and thrilling adventure film that has something to offer everyone apart from the most jaded cynic. Flynn, despite being significantly older and heavier than he was when he portrayed Robin Hood, is in top form. He’s charming, daring, and yes, has a thing for a lady. Or ladies.

   Flynn portrays Jamie Durie, the titular Master of Ballantrae. He’s a Scottish nobleman who decides to fight for the Scottish side in the Jacobite rebellion. It’s also the losing side.

   Forced into exile in the West Indies along with his right-hand man, Irishman Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey), Jamie plans his return to Scotland wherein he will seek revenge for his brother Henry’s (Anthony Steel) alleged betrayal. He also has his mind set on reuniting with his fiancée, Lady Allison.

   Although the plot is rather formulaic and predictable, it nevertheless moves forward at a steady pace. Flynn’s character is a totally likable rogue, one the audience will be rooting for throughout his many escapades. As I said, it’s a fun escapist adventure that benefits greatly from its own location photography, especially in the Scottish Highlands.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


ESCAPE TO ATHENA. ITC Films, UK, 1979. Roger Moore, Telly Savalas, David Niven, Stefanie Powers, Claudia Cardinale, Richard Roundtree, Sonny Bono, Elliott Gould. Director: George P. Cosmatos.

   In the past several years of writing movie reviews, I’m more than certain I’ve used the word “uneven” to describe a movie. In fact, I’m sure I’ve used it fairly often, because let’s face it: a lot of movies are uneven. Some are even “highly uneven.” But nothing prepared me for the unevenness exhibited in the comedy/war film/adventure film mash-up that is Escape to Athena.

   Take the first half hour of this movie, for example. It’s a cross between a gritty WW2 thriller and a lighthearted imitation of Hogan’s Heroes.

   A bunch of Americans, as well as an Italian cook and British scholar, are being held captive in a German prison camp on a Greek island. The stalag commandant, Major Otto Hecht (Roger Moore) utilizes his prisoners’ free labor to dig up ancient Greek artifacts. Soon enough, he’s got two more prisoners on his hands: two recently captured USO performers, the wisecracking Charlie (Elliott Gould) and his traveling companion Dottie (Stefanie Powers). Gould plays it for laughs, more than once speaking in Yiddish. Mel Brooks was able to pull this type of balancing act off. It simply doesn’t work here.

   As far as the gritty thriller aspect, that’s also a focal point of the film’s first half-hour. Those scenes feel as if they were set in a different cinematic universe entirely. In the local town on the same Greek island, local resistance leader Zeno (Telly Savalas) is hoping to prevent the SS from executing more civilians. The contrast between these rather downbeat sequences and the lighthearted humorous (although decidedly not funny) moments in the stalag could not be greater.

   But somehow, despite all expectations on my part, the two distinctly different films eventually mesh into one somewhat enjoyable action film, following Zeno as he begins to work with the escapees from the prison camp to stop the Nazis from repelling an Allied invasion. Unfortunately, it takes about an hour until there’s a consistent tone to the movie. At that point, Escape to Athena becomes a standard action film, albeit one with an extraordinarily well-filmed motorcycle chase through the narrow alleyways of Rhodes.

   A couple of final thoughts. (1) Roger Moore, while always a delight to see on the screen, is not well cast in his role as a German officer. His faux accent isn’t convincing anyone and (2) Lalo Schifrin’s score, which includes Greek influenced renditions of American patriotic tunes, works quite well. It is one of the things that is consistently good in this otherwise extremely uneven film.

THE WRATH OF GOD. MGM, 1972. Robert Mitchum, Frank Langella, Rita Hayworth, John Colicos, Victor Buono, Ken Hutchison, Paula Pritchett, Gregory Sierra. Screenplay by Jack Higgins, based on his book of the same title, but written as by James Graham. Director: Ralph Nelson.

   To tell you the truth, I liked this movie more than I thought I would, but if Robert Mitchum hadn’t been in it, and if it hadn’t been the last movie Rita Hayworth ever made, I wouldn’t have watched it at all. The story takes place in an unnamed Central American country (circa 1930?) currently plagued with generals, revolutionaries, gun runners and hordes of poor peasants whose only role is that of beng raped, taken hostage or simply getting underfoot.

   What my problem is, though, is that I don’t care much about seeing priests with machine guns, whether they’re fake priests, excommunicated priests, or whatever. That’s Mitchum’s role, his task that of killing the leader of a band of renegades who have taken over a town, which he does, with a bloody vengeance.

   Rita Hayworth, who plays the mother of the outlaw leader, seems confused about her part; she certainly should be. On the other hand, Paula Pritchett is very pretty as the mute Indian girl. What other movies was she ever in?

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990.



UPDATE:   When I wrote this review, I did not know that when she made this movie Rita Hayworth was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, so that line about her being “confused about her part” is now very unfortunate. It is not what I intended — only that her part as written and filmed was not well established.

   As for Paula Pritchett, in those pre-IMDb days, questions such as the one I ended this review with often went unanswered. Now all one has to do is to click here to discover that she made two movies before this one, and none afterward.

HURRICANE SMITH. Paramount Pictures, 1952. Yvonne De Carlo, John Ireland, James Craig, Forrest Tucker, Lyle Bettger, Richard Arlen. Screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on the novel Hurricane Williams by Gordon Ray Young (1922).

   Yvonne De Carlo was a special kind of beauty, the kind that turns men’s minds to mush. (If not lust.) She is the only woman in this movie, and when she wears a low-cut of-the-shoulder blouse, there is very little mystery as to what keeps it up.

   And watching her stay inside her clothes provides for about 95% of the suspense involved. This sailing adventure of the South Seas is filled with slavers, sharks, mutineers, and a fortune in buried gold, but of actual story, there is very little.


— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990. (very slightly revised).


Editorial Update:   Of the book this movie is said to be based on, I have not been able to find an actual copy for sale, only several Print on Demand versions. Hurricane Williams appeared in several short stories and serialized novels in the pulp magazine Adventure between 1918 and 1931, but none with this specific title.

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