Films: Drama/Romance


THE BLACK TENT. J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1956. Donald Sinden, Anthony Steel, Anna Maria Sandri, André Morell, Terence Sharkey, Donald Pleasence. Screenplay: Bryan Forbes & Robin Maugham. Director: Brian Desmond Hurst.

   Filmed in color on location in Libya, what you see on the screen in The Black Tent is often quite spectacular. Unfortunately this is one of those “travelogue” movies common in the late 50s — lots of great scenery in a far away location but not nearly enough story line to make you wonder if the effort in staying all the way to the end was worth the effort.

   As the movie opens, it appears that a British officer, thought lost in the war ten years earlier, just may still be alive. If so, he would resume his role as owner of a vast and very valuable English estate. His brother undertakes the journey to north Africa to investigate.

   The trail leads to a Bedoin tribe which, as it turns out, rescued Captain David Holland (Anthony Steel) during the war. Saving him from his injuries, he was gradually brought back to health, thanks to the loving care of the sheik’s daughter (a very young-looking Anna Maria Sandri).

   If I were to tell you that this is a romance novel more than it is a war novel, you can probably write the story yourself from this point on. I hesitate saying more myself, mostly because there is so little to tell.

   But if I were to say to you that the war scenes take up less than five minutes of the movie, while the marriage ceremony goes on for at least 15 minutes (or at least it seems that way), you will see what I mean.

   There is at the end a very large decision to be made, one that, when revealed, should come as no surprise to anyone watching. All it does. in spite of some very nice photography and one or two good scenes — no more — is to emphasize the overall lack of luster the movie had all along.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GAMBLING LADY. Warner Brothers, 1934. Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Pat O’Brien, Claire Dodd, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Barrat, Arthur Vinton. Director: Archie Mayo.

   You don’t watch Gambling Lady for the dialogue or the plot. Both of which aren’t all that bad. You watch it for Barbara Stanwyck. Because she’s absolutely great in this otherwise passable, albeit by no means exceptional, Warner Brothers programmer.

   True to pre-code form, this one’s got gambling, marital infidelity, and Manhattan high society. It’s into the latter that Lady Lee (Stanwyck) marries into after she falls in love with Garry Madison (Joel McCrea), a man determined that his new wife cut ties with her gambling friends from her past. But as any rags to riches story can tell you, it’s not always so easy for someone from the wrong side of the tracks to abandon her past friends and associates.

   That’s especially true for Lady Lee and her relationship with a bookie named Charlie Lang (Pat O’Brien). When Lang gets in trouble with the law, Lady feels as if she has no choice but to help him. But at the cost of losing her Garry to his meddling ex, Sheila Aiken (Claire Dodd) who is determined to get Garry back at all costs.

   Indeed, although there is a murder in the movie, this one is more of a drama – dare I say melodrama – than a crime film. It’s certainly not gritty. But Gambling Lady, much like Stanwyck, has spunk, making it a short, but entertaining programmer that’s nothing special. But it’s not half bad either.

SOUTH SEA WOMAN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Burt Lancaster, Virginia Mayo, Chuck Connors, Arthur Shields, Leon Askin, Veola Vonn, Bob Sweeney, Hayden Rorke, Paul Burke. Director: Arthur Lubin.

   In a word, disappointing. It starts out badly and goes nowhere from there. With a title like South Sea Woman and with Burt Lancaster and Virginia Mayo in it, you’d expect a comedy romp taking place with the two of them alone together on a deserted South Pacific Island, say, with all kinds of winks and nods going on.

   Not so. This one begins with Burt as a Marine sergeant being court martialed for some serious sounding offenses but refusing to speak up on his own behalf. As the testimony of others takes place, we go into flashback mode to what it was that happened.

   Turns out that a fellow Marine (Chuck Connors), a private, offered to marry a stranded young entertainer (Virginia Mayo) as a means of getting her out of Shanghai just before Pearl Harbor. As it so happens the two Marines and the young lady end up comically stranded on a small boat in the Pacific, considered deserters and eventually washing up on the small island Namou, by then controlled by an agent of the Vichy French.

   This is purported to be called Hi Jinx to the Max, but I demur. All Connors’ character wants to do is get hitched (can’t blame him for that) but Lancaster is gung ho to get back into action. Hence the constant conflict between the two characters, aggravated by the fact that Ginger Martin soon seems to have regrets about whom she chose to get her out of the jam she’s in.

   The courtroom setting, which the movie reverts back to every so often, simply does not work. It’s a stupid charade and utter nonsense. Burt Lancaster is pure Burt, Virginia Mayo is cute as a button, and Chuck Connors, in his first starring role, shows that he never did have the charisma or onscreen presence of his rival for the hand of Miss Mayo in this film.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE LAST TRAIN FROM MADRID. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Dorothy Lamour, Lew Ayres, Gilbert Roland, Karen Morley, Lionel Atwill, Helen Mack, Robert Cummings, Olympe Bradna, Anthony Quinn, Lee Bowman. Director: James P. Hogan.

   Finally the train. Close to an hour into a movie with a running time just under ninety minutes, the audience finally gets to see the titular train. That’s pretty much my first and greatest impression of this rather slow moving and melodramatic movie about a disparate group of people attempting to obtain passes for the last train out of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

   There are a few subplots involving romance during wartime, and how a lifelong bond of friendship takes precedence over political affiliations. But overall, the film is a rather talky affair, all leading up to the final sequence in which some of the main characters finally do end up on a train for Valencia.

   What The Last Train from Madrid does have going for it is its exceptional cast. Gilbert Roland, in particular, is always a delight to see on screen. And, love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Lionel Atwill is a distinct presence in any movie that he appears in. (Although, Atwill as a Spanish Army officer? Not believable.)

   On the other hand, a young Anthony Quinn and an even younger looking Robert Cummings are quite convincing as Spanish soldiers.

   It’s just unfortunate that, with a cast like this, there isn’t enough action in this stagey production to keep the viewer particularly engaged throughout the proceedings.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS. American International Pictures, 1958. Yvonne Lime, Bret Halsey, Jana Lund, Suzanne Sydney, Heather Ames, Nancy Kilgas, Rhoda Williams. Director: Edward Bernds.

   With a film title like High School Hellcats, you know you’re almost certainly in for a movie that is more exploitation than artistic. Did I mention it’s an American International Pictures production? They more or less had a corner on the teen and juvenile delinquent low budget market back in the 1950s. This particular product – er, film — is true to form. It’s got wild teenagers doing bad things, worried and strict parents who just don’t understand the younger generation, and a misbegotten romantic couple struggling to make things work despite the chaos that surrounds them.

   What makes this particular story different from many of the similar juvenile delinquent and hot rod movies churned out at the time is that the focus is on a female gang. You read that right. The leader of the gang may be mean, but her lieutenant is downright sadistic.

   When innocent, but rebellious Joyce Martin (Yvonne Lime) shows up at her new school, it doesn’t take long for her to be bullied by the Hellcats. Soon enough, she’s joining their ranks at a late night initiation ceremony at an abandoned movie theater. It doesn’t take long, however, for Joyce’s romantic life to be strained by her membership in the Hellcats. When the gang’s leader dies under mysterious circumstances, Joyce realizes that she has signed up for more than she has bargained for.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CHARLES EINSTEIN – The Bloody Spur. Dell 1st Edition #5, paperback original, 1953. Black Curtain Press, softcover, 2013.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS. RKO, 1956. Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Sally Forrest, Ida Lupino, James Craig, Vincent Price, John Drew Barrymore. Robert Warwick. Screenplay by Casey Robinson, based on the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. Directed by the one & only Fritz Lang.

   Okay. At the time of this writing, and from all I can tell, this is the earliest film to be based on a paperback original. I’m open to other suggestions.

   Einstein’s book is what I call a novel-novel: a diverse cast of characters interacting in a dramatic but realistic situation, having affairs, changing jobs, getting drunk, palling around, quarreling and otherwise getting some drama into their day-to-day lives.

   In this case the impetus is the death of the second-in-command at the Kyne Publishing empire (the book opens, in fact, at his funeral) and the hustling of high-ranking underlings to get promoted to his place. As a sub-plot, there is a serial killer terrorizing New York and the race to the near-top quickly devolves into a competition to be the first with the scoop on the identity of the killer, an undertaking that turns into detective work, seduction, betrayal, and more drinking — these newsmen all act like they think they’re in a Fredric Brown story.

   Einstein does a capable job of cutting between them, though: a crusty old newspaper editor, an ambitious chief of wire services, a lascivious female columnist and a philandering ad man, punctuating the story with some catchy lower-level lives: a smart crime reporter, another not-so-smart reporter, cops, secretaries… and the killer himself.

   I said “capable” not “brilliant.” The Blood Spur will keep you reading, but it’s not the sort of thing one remembers for long or with a great deal of affection: passable but not much more. Surprising then that the film made from it is (to use a hack’s pet phrase) so gripping and suspenseful.

   Well, maybe not all that surprising. Director Fritz Lang mastered the Movies in the 1920s, adapted to social commentary in the 30s, moved to international intrigue and film noir in the 40s, and the 50s found him still attuned to the times, with an edgy rock-and-roll tempo that seems to roar right out of The Wild One.

   Of course it helps that he had a cast like that. Dana Andrews and Sally Forrest play the reporter/secretary couple with affection that never turns to cuteness, George Sanders is his reliably scheming self, playing nicely off Thomas Mitchell’s ink-stained editor, and Vincent Price is agreeably slimy as the big boss manipulating them all. Also I should make special mention of Ida Lupino as the -um- flirtatious columnist radiating no-nonsense sex appeal that contrasts nicely with Rhonda Fleming’s duplicitous trophy wife.

   With a few exceptions (which I’ll get to later) Casey Robinson’s screenplay follows Einstein’s novel closely — sometimes eerily so. Little bits of business, place names and odd phrases like “in cold daylight” appear on the screen with surprising faithfulness in a medium that was never known for its fidelity. But the changes are even more significant.

   Starting with the ending, well, in the book it’s pretty prosaic; the killer tries to assault a stranger ”in cold daylight,” a chase through the subway tunnels ensues, and if you can’t guess the outcome I won’t spoil it for you except to say one of our intrepid newsmen gets the scoop. In the film however, reporter Dana Andrews decides that the best way to catch the killer is to use his fiancée as bait, putting a personal and more involving twist on the proceedings.

   (PARENTHETICAL NOTE: I don’t know about you, but to me having your betrothed use you as the potential victim of a mad killer is a sign that this relationship may be in trouble. I’m just saying….)

   Another note of interest: in the novel, the killer obsessively reads the Bible; in the movie, he’s had his mind warped by Comic Books, and thank you, Dr. Wertham; I don’t think the Legion of Decency would have let them get away with that anyway.

   And finally, there’s a delicious in-joke near the beginning: The book kicks off with the death of the second-in-command at Kyne Enterprises; in the film the story is kicked off by the death of the patriarch himself, leaving his son (Vincent Price) to select someone to actually run the damn thing. Price lets the competition hinge on a comment his late daddy made about catching the serial killer – thus making While the City Sleeps the second film centered around the last words of a dead publisher whose name starts with “K.”

   No prizes for guessing the first.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


FLOOD! Made-for-TV movie, NBC, 24 November 1976. Robert Culp, Martin Milner, Barbara Hershey, Richard Basehart, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, Cameron Mitchell, Teresa Wright, Whit Bissell, Ann Doran. Irwin Allen Productions. Director: Earl Bellamy.

   What sets Flood!, a made-for-TV disaster movie about a flood destroying a small Pacific Northwest town, apart from so many other disaster films, before or since, is its stellar cast. Rather than rely on unknowns or mediocre stars, this Irwin Allen production features some of the finest actors around. These professionals may never have had as much star power as some leading men and women, but they had distinct screen presences all the same.

   Take Richard Basehart, for instance. He portrays John Cutler, a real estate businessman and the mayor of the small town threatened by an aging dam. More concerned with preserving the lake for fishing and tourism than he is with repairing an obviously faulty dam, Cutler v does his best to play down the clear and emerging threat to the town. Basehart is perfectly suited to the role, portraying a man who is so set on being right all the time that he becomes blinded to the peril in which he is putting his community.

   But Basehart’s not the only great actor in this one. There’s Robert Culp, a familiar and welcome presence in any feature, who portrays Steve Brannigan, a roguish helicopter pilot who becomes the town’s unlikely hero. Then there’s Adam-12’s Martin Milner and Barbara Hershey, who portray a romantic couple whose very relationship is threatened by the torrent of water that submerges their small town in water. Cameron Mitchell, Carol Lynley, and (briefly) Roddy McDowell also have roles in the production. Mitchell in particular plays his part with gusto.

   Ironically, for a disaster film, Flood! really doesn’t have all that much special going on in terms of special effects. Maybe it’s because was made for television and there were budget constraints or maybe it was thought that the characters would carry the movie. If it’s the latter case, then they were right. Despite a rather predictable and truthfully a somewhat mediocre plot, this TV movie punches well above its weight simply due to its superb cast.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


HOT ROD GIRL. American International Pictures, 1956. Lori Nelson, Chuck Connors, John Smith, Mark Andrews, Roxanne Arlen, Frank Gorshin, Fred Essler, Dabbs Greer. Director: Leslie H. Martinson.

   For a movie that doesn’t have much of a story line, let alone any outstanding dialogue, Hot Rod Girl is a surprisingly enjoyable, if utterly juvenile and simplistic, little programmer. With a title like that, you’d think the whole movie revolved around the travails of an ambitious young female race car driver or something to that effect. But you’d be wrong about that, seeing how the main female character is, in many ways, only secondary to the whole affair and that she’s only seen driving a car once – in the opening scene, of course.

   Still, despite the somewhat misleading name, the movie’s got some flair to it. There’s some nice Southern California scenery, some great cars, and a youngish Chuck Connors who portrays Ben Merrill, an easygoing cop who is trying to find a way for his town’s young people to race their cars safely. Rather than have them drive fast around town, he worked to have them drive out on “The Strip,” somewhere out in the desert.

   But kids will be kids. Sometimes they just have to rebel. After a fatal accident takes the life of one of the local hot rod kids, things go from bad to worse for a small group of friends in the racing scene. Antisocial newcomer Bronc Talbott (Mark Andrews) shows up in town, taunts local mechanic Jeff Nothrup (John Smith) and hits on Jeff’s girl, “hot rod girl” Lisa Vernon (Lori Nelson).

   Matters spiral downhill when a car race up in the Hollywood Hills claims the life of a young boy on a bicycle. But with Ben Merrill on the case, and Jeff determined to stop the increasingly violent Bronc Talbott, it’s only a matter of time before things come to a head. And believe me, they do, when fisticuffs start flying in a local diner hangout called Yo-Yo’s. (It’s run by the eponymous Yo-Yo, an immigrant portrayed to perfection by veteran character actor Fred Essler.)

   With a jazzy score and some contemporaneous teenager slang, Hot Rod Girl is a fun, if clumsily executed, juvenile delinquency film. After watching it once, I can’t imagine I’d ever watch it again. But it wasn’t a particularly uncomfortable ride.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


POOR WHITE TRASH. Cinema Distributors of America, 1961; originally released as Bayou by United Artists, 1957. Peter Graves, Lita Milan, Douglas Fowley, Jonathan Haze and Timothy Carey. Written by Edward I. Fessler. Directed by Harold Daniels.

   Neither sleazy exploitation nor a great movie by any standard, Poor White Trash / Bayou is nonetheless a film like no other.

   The background here is that independent filmmakers Fessler and Daniels made Bayou in 1957 and released it through United Artists to general indifference, possibly because much of the dialogue is spoken in the Cajun dialect. Or perhaps because the film sometimes loses its way veering between drama and documentary in its story of architect Peter Graves trying for a job in New Orleans.

   He doesn’t get the job, but he hooks up with lovely Cajun girl Marie (Lita Milan, who soon afterwards left the movies to marry the billionaire son of a dictator). Unfortunately Lita is lusted after by swampland big-shot Ulysses (Timothy Carey) leading to the usual drama, a fist-fight and a pat wrap-up.

   So as I say, the movie drifted into obscurity, which is okay by me if it’s okay Bayou, and there it might have remained, but in the early 1960s an outfit called Cinema Distributors of America bought it outright, added a musical prologue and some murky nude scenes using doubles, and reissued the whole thing with a salacious ad campaign under the new title. Poor White Trash it became, and it continued showing at drive-ins and grind houses into the 1970s.

   That’s the film I saw and the one I’m reviewing now. It’s not a sleazy rip off, it’s not a classic movie, but it is a unique and interesting thing, due mainly to the performance of Timothy Carey as the local bad guy, Ulysses.

   Carey dominates this thing like Lugosi dominates Dracula or Barrymore Svengali, with a bravura performance placed center stage. He bullies, he wheedles, smirks, screams and even socializes. At one point he breaks into a dance like you wouldn’t believe: shaking, kicking, scratching himself and writhing like Nicholas Cage on speed. And through it all he dominates the film with sheer force of will.

   Almost as memorable is Lita Milan, who projects a vital liveliness that her hackneyed dialogue never dampens. We also get a couple of rather startling montages, as the camera pans around a simple Catholic church while curtains flutter and wave across the image like nothing else I’ve seen before, and a sensuous cross-cut between a raging storm and a couple making love.

   Amid all this, square-jawed Peter Graves makes an appropriately cardboard hero, Douglas Fowley puts in a typical character part, and a bunch of actors I’ve never heard of provide colorful and convincing Cajun background.

   The result is the sort of thing usually called a Cult Movie, and I recommend it to anyone out there whose movie tastes run to the unusual and haunting.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


JEWEL ROBBERY. Warner Brothers, 1932. William Powell, Kay Francis, Helen Vinson, Hardie Albright, Alan Mowbray, Andre Luguet, Henry Kolker. Director: William Dieterle. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The two leading stars of Jewel Robbery, aided a more than capable supporting cast, exhibited the qualities of charm, wit and style in the story of a bored society wife (Francis) who is attracted to a polished crook (Powell). He pulls off an elaborately staged robbery in which he completely clears out the stock of an elegant jewelry store.

   The fast-moving 70 minutes of high-toned fluff climax with an exciting rooftop escape by Powell, leaving Francis tied-up in an apartment to throw off the police. Someone said to me that the actors must have relished working with such a polished script and this had some of the flair of a vintage Lubitsch comedy-drama. In the final shot Francis, in a tight closeup, looks at the audience, smiles and puts a finger to her lips, inviting us to join her as accomplices in her complicity with Powell.

   Dieterle was fond enough of this device to use it again, as I was reminded the other day when while channel hopping. I happened upon the final scene of the Dieterle-directed All That Money Can Buy (also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster). Here Walter Huston (as Old Scratch), rubbing his chin thoughtfully, looks from one side of the frame to the other, then in an expected move, smiling diabolically and looking directly at the camera, points at the viewer.

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