Films: Drama/Romance


THE NAKED VENUS. Beaux Arts Films, 1959. Patricia Conelle, Don Roberts, Arianne Ulmer (as Arianne Arden) and Wynn Gregory. Written by Gabriel Gort and Gaston Hakim, who probably didn’t use their right names either. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (as Ove H. Sehested!).

   Over the years Edgar Ulmer has come in for a great deal of critical attention, mostly well-earned. Responsible film scholars, though, have ignored this opus from late in his career, probably because The Naked Venus represents Ulmer outside the legitimate cinema, directing a “Nudie”: the sort of film that played at seedy theaters to audiences of desperate men… and curious teenagers like me, when we looked old enough to lie about our age and sneak in. Or perhaps no serious critic wanted to admit they’d seen it.

   Well I have no such reservations, but I have to say The Naked Venus must have disappointed a lot of lonely men and curious boys, not to mention scholars of the Cinemah.

   The early scenes gave me some hope: Two detectives with a camera stalking through the woods find two women skinny-dipping and start taking movies. The stalking scenes are well composed, and the skinny-dipping is mildly sensuous; good so far….

   Then we cut to Paris at night, and we know this because we get about a dozen establishing shots of Parisian landmarks for ten minutes — ten very long minutes.

   When the Plot finally commences, it’s pure Soap, with a misunderstood young Nudist fighting her nasty mother-in-law and her weakling husband in a divorce case to keep custody of their daughter and redeem her reputation. And I’m here to tell you it’s a half-an-hour of nothing but Daytime Drama: no nudity, nothing sexy, just bad acting on cheap sets, done so haphazardly you can almost hear Ulmer saying, “Just shoot the damn thing and kill me.”

   Finally the heroine decides to get away from it all by visiting a Nudist camp run by Ulmer’s daughter Arianne… who keeps her clothes on. So I imagine the lonely old men and curious youngsters perked up (if that’s the right word) for fifteen minutes of documentary-style scenes of happy, healthy, good-looking naked people artfully keeping their crotches hidden as they swim, hike, have archery contests and — yes — play volleyball.

   But alas, this is followed by another forty-five minutes where our heroine goes to court. Things look dark as her naked life-style is dragged before the Judge. Then, when all seems lost, her lawyer brings in an Art Critic(!) who explains that the naked form is the basis of many highfalutin’ masterpieces. And that convinces the judge.

   The Divorce case is dismissed and her weakling husband breaks away from his domineering mother for a happy ending—for everyone but the paying customers, who suddenly realize they’ve sat through all this in vain: Not even a glimpse of epidermis for the last third of the film, just a movie shot as if the director were contemplating suicide.

   Now I am well known as the Boston Blackie of bad movies (“Friend to those who have no friend”) and I watched this with some anticipation, but even my love of awful filmmaking could not encompass this effort. The best thing I can say about The Naked Venus is that it will probably do Ulmer’s reputation no damage.

   Or not too much, anyway….

WITHOUT LOVE. MGM, 1945. Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Carl Esmond, Patricia Morison. Director: Harold S. Bucquet.

   When a wartime inventor comes to Washington, he finally finds a room with a young widow who is also a great admirer of science. He has had experiences with love; she has had enough love to fill a lifetime. Result: a platonic marriage. You can take it from there.

   While Tracy tries to be as hard as nails, and can’t, Katharine Hepburn combines a certain kind of buoyancy with girlish primness. In 1945 she was also extremely beautiful, and it’s worth wading through all the stagey dialogue and moth-eaten plot just to see her.

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

THEY CALL IT SIN. First National Pictures, 1932. Loretta Young, George Brent, Una Merkel, David Manners, Helen Vinson, Louis Calhern. Director: Thornton Freeland.

   The biggest attraction this small unprepossessing pre-Code film has is luminously beautiful Loretta Young, only 19 years old at the time and an actress you just knew was going somewhere, even in 1932.

   It’s kind of a silly film, but with themes I’m sure resonated with audiences at the time, in the depths of the Depression. When a traveling salesman of sorts (David Manners) hits a small town in Kansas, he’s already engaged to a girl back in Manhattan, and he has no idea he’ll find himself so completely smitten by the girl he finds playing the organ in church on Sunday morning.

   Her parents have small town values, but Marion Cullen doesn’t share them. There is a reason for that, which I won’t go into, and she sees in Jimmy a way to leave her particular small town behind, and she does, following him to New York, thinking that he loves her.

   Which he does, deeply, but as I mentioned up above, he already have a fiancée, and reluctantly he does the honorable thing. But what this does is leave Marian on her own in the big city, a theme of forbidden fruit, I imagine, to small-town audiences.

   She does all right, though, and I doubt that you will be surprised to have me tell you that. First she hooks up with another would-be Broadway starlet named Dixie Dare (Una Merkel), but then has to fend off the advances of a lecherous but well-known producer.

   Nor is he the only one. A doctor friend of Jimmy (George Brent) has his eyes on her, too. Beauty, it seems, is not to be denied.

   It is around this point of its running time that the film takes on a somewhat darker tone, but even though this film has been released on DVD as part of a box set of pre-Code movies, there are only hints of really dastardly stuff. We do get to see the charming Dixie Dark romping around in her room in her lingerie, though, which is a fact that seems well worth mentioning. Mostly, though, this is entertaining fun, a film that today would be hard-pressed to even make it into the PG category.


TO PLEASE A LADY. MGM, 1950. Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Will Geer, Roland Winters, Frank Jenks. Director: Clarence Brown.

   The two lead characters were bound to clash. Clark Gable portrays Mike Brannan, an amoral racecar driver who will do anything to win. Barbara Stanwyck appears as Regina Forbes, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist who isn’t afraid to use the written word to make and break men.

   When they first meet at the racetrack, it’s natural that there’s going to be some tension between these two strong personalities, and before you know it, “tension” is an understatement. When Regina lays into Brannan in one of her columns, all but accusing him of negligently murdering a fellow racecar driver during a particularly aggressive race, that all but ends Brannan’s career. Somehow, though, Regina can’t keep her mind off the man whose career she ruined, and thus begins an unlikely love-hate relationship between the two. No explanation is given, of course. The plot goes where it has to.

   Putting aside the plot for a moment, the most important thing to know about To Please a Lady is that it has immense star power. The names Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck on the marquee were sure to fill the seats. Unfortunately, aside from the screen presence of these two Hollywood giants, this rather formulaic romantic drama really doesn’t have all that much to offer.

   Sure, the movie hits all the proverbial beats that one would expect in such a film: initial hatred between the two leads, tension, falling in love, falling out of love, tension, conflict, and ultimate reconciliation and permanent love. Unfortunately, these plot turns are as dizzyingly predictable as the final race scene filmed in Indianapolis, all of which makes this movie about speed a rather turgid affair.


FOUR HOURS TO KILL. Paramount, 1935. Richard Barthelmess, Joe Morrison, Gertrude Michael, Helen Mack, Dorothy Tree, Roscoe Karns, Ray Milland, Charles C. Wilson, Henry Travers, Noel Madison. Screenplay by Norman Krasna, from his play, “Small Miracles.” Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A taut and fast-moving Grand Hotel style film, set almost entirely in a theater lobby and done up with superlative Paramount polish.

   Gangster Richard Barthelmess is being escorted to the death house by kindly detective Charles C. Wilson, and having four hours to wait between trains, the cop decides they should take in a Broadway show. We never see the show (someone at Paramount had the good sense not to turn this into a musical) but there’s enough drama going on in the lobby to fill four hours and then some.

   For starters, the hat check boy (Morrison) is studying to get a law degree and marry his sweetheart (the lovely Helen Mack) but he’s being blackmailed by usherette Dorothy Tree, who wants him to cough up $200 for an abortion or marry her — this film has some surprising elements for a post-code flick.


   Meanwhile, no-good Ray Milland is romancing the wealthy and married Gertrude Michael, Roscoe Karns keeps calling the Hospital to see if his wife has delivered their first baby, manager Henry Travers needs money, and Barthelmess is determined to get away and rub out Noel Madison, the hood who squealed on him. Amid all this, check-boy Morrison gets a chance to steal Miss Michael’s diamond pin, but gets caught and…..

   The wonder is that writer Krasner and director Leisen manage to keep all this straight (it’s a much easier film to watch than synopsize) and put it across with speed and grace. Of course Mitchell Leisen was a past master of nimble direction but here he shows unusual suppleness in getting his characters onstage and off at opportune moments and moving the camera unobtrusively to catch the action at just the right moment.

   Barthelmess’s escape has a fine, gritty quality to it, and there’s real suspense as he sneaks through the opulent corridors toward the end we all knew was coming. Even better though are the moments when the characters seem to really relate to each other, like a quiet conversation on the backstage steps as detective and hood share a cigarette and talk about family life, or the moment when Miss Michael realizes what a rotter Milland really is.

   Remarkably, though Leisen and Krasner “open out” the play a bit with excursions to the men’s room, shots of the audience and bits of action outside the theater, it never looks like they’re moving just to be moving. This is a film I’ll remember and one I recommend highly. Still, I’m glad it wasn’t filmed in real time.


THE ARNELO AFFAIR. MGM, 1947. John Hodiak, George Murphy, Frances Gifford, Dean Stockwell, Eve Arden, Warner Anderson. Screenwriter/director: Arch Oboler.

   Perhaps you’ve never had occasion to watch The Arnelo Affair. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For despite the potentially interesting premise – a suburban Chicago housewife named Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford) gets caught up in a romantic entanglement with a sleazy nightclub owner named Tony Arnelo (Hodiak) – this movie is far more of a tedious soap opera than it is a crime film.

   Let me be perfectly honest. The melodramatic acting, the incessant and overwrought soundtrack, and the truly dismal dialogue made this one a tough one for me to get through.

   Directed by Arch Oboler, who was known primarily for his work in radio, The Arnelo Affair is a flat, lifeless composition that offers little in the way of distinguished direction or photography.

   That’s not to say that Oboler didn’t have talent on hand. John Hodiak was a terrific actor, and he did his best with what he had to work with, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make his performance as the eponymous Tony Arnelo anything particularly memorable.

   The one small bright spot in this rather tepid affair is the presence of Warner Anderson as a police detective tasked with solving the murder of an actress. His trail leads him directing to both Arnelo and to Anne and her boring-as-dirt lawyer husband (George Murphy). Convincing in this role, Anderson gives a little bit of gritty reality and gravitas to the soap opera proceedings.

HERO. Columbia Pictures, 1992. Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, Andy Garcia, Joan Cusack, Maury Chaykin, Tom Arnold. Director: Stephen Frears.

   I’ve never seen Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie, but in every other movie he’s been in that I have seen, he’s stolen the show. This one’s no different.

   You probably know the story. He’s the petty crook (dealing in stolen goods) who, in spite of his own basic cynical outlook on life, helps rescue all of the passengers on a downed airliner, then sees someone else steal the glory while he’s spending time in the pokey.

   One of the passengers is hard-nosed newslady (Geena Davis) who’s just won an award for her (um) hard nose for news. I know the story itself is meant to be satire, and TV news is a pretty easy target, but I think they might possibly have ladled it on a little more lightly.

   Some of the zingers pack a pretty good punch, but most of them suffer from a surfeit of superciliousness, shall we say. (This comment does not apply to Dustin Hoffman. He’s one who makes the film as watchable as it is, no doubt about it.)

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).


WALTER TEVIS – The Hustler. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1959. Dell D434, paperback, 1961. Rerinted several times since.

THE HUSTLER. Fox, 1961. Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott. Screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen. Directed by Robert Rossen.

   I started watching this last week and remembered I had read the book back in High School. A quick check of my shelves turned it up: the same movie tie-in edition from 1961, and I settled in for a few days of doing the book/movie thing, where I read a few chapters through the day, then watch the corresponding minutes that evening.

   Both are fun.

   Walter Tevis worked his way through college in a pool room, and he writes is a hard-boiled classic here that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gold Medal wrapper. It also shows all the best earmarks of a First Novel: craftsmanship, passion and the sense of personal experience that makes the milieu come alive on the page. His portrait of pool hall culture and pool-hustler life-style comes across with the precision and color that only come from having lived and observed it

   Tevis seems to instinctively know how to get drama from his characters in a natural, unforced way. He brings life and depth to Fast Eddie Felson and his alcoholic college-girl companion. He also does a fine fast job with the minor characters and offers a brilliant portrait of the sinister-heavy-as-mentor, Bert Gordon, who seems at first to be in it just for the money — in the best pulp tradition — but his real motives come out toward the end in a scene of surpassing toughness. No fan of Hammett, Chandler or John D. MacDonald should miss this one.

   Robert Rossen’s film works some changes on the book: not bad ones, not improvements, just changes. Mostly he draws a dichotomy between Piper Laurie’s sensitive love and George C. Scott’s calculating reserve. Scott’s very presence makes his relationship with Eddie (young Paul Newman at his most virile and charming) more Faustian, and as the drama draws them into opposition, it’s… well it’s like seeing a kitten wander into the path of a speeding truck.

   Indeed, as the movie progresses the drama gets heavier —much more so than the understated narrative of the book — and it provides some Oscar-worthy moments for some very capable players, the sort of thing we go to the movies to see.

   And speaking of Oscar-worthy, it’s just not possible to review this film without mentioning Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats. For once in his life, The Great One doesn’t try to be the star here; he’s content to sit back and provide solid support in a role he was born to play. And doing that, he shines all the brighter in a brilliant cast working for a director who knows how to get the most from them.

MEDICINE MAN. Buena Vista, 1992. Sean Connery, Lorraine Bracco, José Wilker, Rodolfo de Alexandre. Director: John McTiernan.

   When a biochemist who’s isolated himself in the Brazilian rain forest for several years finally finds a flower which promises to be a universal cure for cancer, he has to call on his supporting foundation for help. He can’t duplicate his results. They send a woman. She’s his superior. He’s cantankerous and crabby; she’s young and feisty. Sparks fly almost immediately.

   Predictable, you say, and I wouldn’t disagree. But I’d watch Sean Connery in anything, including a ponytail, and that his character would fall for someone who can stand up to him like Sr. Crane from the Bronx, that certainly comes as no surprise at all. The scenery is what’s really magnificent, however, even on the TV screen, without Panavision.

PostScript:   I seem to have missed he boat on this one. Both Maltin and Scheuer agree, for once, that as far as this movie concerned, Lorraine Bracco is an absolute disaster. Reluctantly, given only the presence of Sean Connery in the film, do they finally each give it two and a half stars.

   Scheuer calls her “frenzied,” while Maltin settles for “abrasive.” I think that since (so far as I know) Katharine Hepburn never played a research scientist, Lorraine Bracco is as close as the movies have ever come to portraying an attractive woman with brains, that’s what I think.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, very slightly revised.

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.

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