Films: Drama/Romance


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.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM – Christmas Holiday. Doubleday Doran & Co, hardcover, October 1939. Reprinted many times.

CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY. Universal Pictures, 1944. Deanna Durbin, Gene Kelly, Richard Whorf, Dean Harens, Gladys George, Gale Sondergaard, David Bruce. Screenwriter: Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Director: Robert Siodmak.

   Raymond Chandler once commented favorably in passing on Somerset Maugham’s 1939 novel Christmas Holiday, which I happened upon at a flea market a week after reading Chandler’s comment. Okay, it has Murder in it, and even a bit of detective work, I guess, but it’s no more a Mystery than Anna Karenina is a Joke Book.

   A young man goes to Paris over the Holidays to sow a wild oat or two, gets set up with a prostitute, and is so moved by her devotion and her personal tragedy that he forgets to sow any oats at all. Seems she was a poor working girl who got married to a nice young man who turned out to be a thief and a killer. And she’s working now as a hooker, partly to help him out in prison and partly because of the guilt she feels over his failures.

   It’s a damfine novel, and I can see why Chandler enjoyed it; the central theme of a decent fellow doing a little bit of good without making a fuss about it must have appealed to him a lot.

   Christmas Holiday was turned into a movie, kinda, by Universal in 1944, one of those films that runs roughshod over the source, then comes out completely different and quite enjoyable by its own lights.

   The basic elements of Maugham’s novel are all there — a sardonic reporter introduces a callow young man to the prostitute wife of a convicted killer; the young man does her a small favor and learns something in the process — but the Universal execs, with the wisdom of their breed, hired writer Herman Mankiewicz to add lots of lurid bits to the proceedings, and got director Robert Siodmack to layer on dollops of sinister noir stylistics. The result is rather a far cry from what Maugham actually wrote, but it’s also an engagingly perverse and chilling film, despite the off-key casting of musical stars Gene Kelley and Deanna Durbin.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SHAKES THE CLOWN. IRS Media, 1991. Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Blake Clark, Paul Dooley, Kathy Griffin, Florence Henderson, Tom Kenny, Adam Sandler, Scott Herriott, LaWanda Page, Jack Gallagher, Robin Williams. Written & directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

   I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found Bobcat Goldthwait kind of easy to resist. He’s in the same funny-irritating mould as Sam Kinison and Gilbert Gottfried, only not as funny. Or as likable, for that matter. So I was much surprised to find myself enjoying this pleasantly off-kilter comedy-mystery.

   Goldthwait plays Shakes, an alcoholic Party Clown whose progress of steady decay is suddenly interrupted when he’s framed for murdering his boss and must rally his feeble wits and willpower to avenge his old friend and save his own grease-painted hide.

   Okay, nothing much too new here so far, It’s just the old down-on-his-luck PI story fitted out with big shoes and a shiny red nose. But Goldthwaite adds a soupcon of eccentricity to the proceedings, and — somehow — keeps it deftly balanced just below the surface for the entire film. It starts almost imperceptibly, with lines like: “You know, when we first built this place, there were no Clowns in this neighborhood.”

   Then after Shakes has barely survived a kiddie party, he makes his way to his favorite bar, The Twisted Balloon, where Clowns — in full makeup — sit around drinking, swearing, and talking about getting laid.

   A Villain Clown is introduced (I don’t know who plays him, but he makes Jack Nicholson look like Pinky Lee) with a couple of Rodeo Clowns for Hired Muscle. Clearly now, we are in someplace not quite where we thought we were.

   And so it goes as the story slowly orbits around the edges of the Planet. The Cops all dress like 40s Detectives and talk about Health Food. Clowns drive around in gaudy cars and harass mimes, whom they view somewhat like Blacks view Koreans. Very gradually, the film develops an understated loopiness all its own like a toned-down take on Roger Rabbit. It even has Guest Stars: Robin Williams turns up as a loquacious mime, and I’d swear (it’s hard to tell behind all that makeup) Tom Hanks plays one of the Baddie’s minions!

   Whatever the case, Shakes the Clown emerges as a surprisingly inventive and intelligent piece of film-making, and not a bad Caper Movie either. Catch it.

SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT. Columbia Pictures, 1935. George Raft, Joan Bennett, Walter Connolly, Billie Burke, Lloyd Nolan, Wallace Ford, James Blakeley, Alan Mowbray, Donald Meek. Director: Tay Garnett.

   Like the definition of film noir, and perhaps even more so, the concept of the screwball comedy has always been nebulous to me. Some films definitely fall in the category, beginning perhaps with It Happened One Night (1934), while other comedies are most clearly not. She Couldn’t Take It, as the case at hand, I’m going to say is; that is to say, if categories are important.

   What the film most definitely is not, is a classic. The members of a screwball family make the headlines so often with their upper class escapades and spending habits that the father (Walter Connolly as patriarch Daniel Van Dyke) would rather go to prison than have to deal with their debts any longer.

   And jail, as it turns out, suits him well, and it is where he meets former bootlegger and racketeer Spot Ricardi (George Raft), whom be befriends and on his deathbed, makes hm the guardian of the family. The comedy comes into full play then, and so does the romance, as Ricardi falls in love with daughter Carol Van Dyke, most fetchingly played by a young and very lovely Joan Bennett.

   The criminous aspect of this film comes when Carol, in order to have some money to spend, arranges with a rival of Ricardi’s (Lloyd Nolan) to have herself kidnapped so she and he can split the ransom. Naturally things do not work out nearly as well as she planned. Very badly, in fact.

   What takes place on the screen during this movie is obviously very contrived and the story does not flow as well as it should as a result, but as I say, Joan Bennett is always worth watching, and even George Raft turns in a performance in which he seems to be much more relaxed than he was in later films. Available on YouTube for free (see below), at least for now, this is far from being a “must see” film, but you may find as many moments worth watching as I did.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


UNION DEPOT. First National PIctures/Warner Brothers, 1932. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Alan Hale. Director: Alfred E. Green.

   What makes Union Depot particularly worth watching is the commanding screen presence of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell as a would-be romantic couple. “Would-be” being the operative phrase here, as the movie takes place in one eventful day, both in and around a train station where numerous passengers come and go in the urban hustle and bustle. (The film’s British title, Gentleman for a Day, does the movie more justice.)

   Although there’s simply not enough time between the two leading characters to end up as lovebirds, the characters they portray — flawed and all-too-human sorts doing the best they can during the Great Depression — are well constructed enough to keep you engaged with the proceedings.

   “Chick” Miller (Fairbanks) is a low-rent criminal with a heart of gold. One day, while hanging around with his perpetually drunk pal, “Scrap Iron” (Guy Kibbee), he manages to steal a uniform belonging to an Information Desk worker at the local train station. Chick thinks that the suit, along with some cold hard cash he acquired along the way, will be enough to get himself a good, hot breakfast at the diner inside the station.

   All well and good, until he both meets up with Ruth (Blondell), a chorus girl who is neither as innocent nor sinful as she appears, and haphazardly comes into possession of some counterfeit greenbacks belonging to one Bushy Sloan (Alan Hale, Sr.) From then on, it’s a romantic comedy/melodrama/crime film all in one and, while the film occasionally begins to feel considerably dated, it’s overall a rather enjoyable pre-Code feature.

   For those looking for something a little extra, Union Depot also benefits tremendously from having a surprisingly action-packed and violent nighttime chase scene. It takes place in the rail yards just outside the station, and it looks as though it was taken straight out of a film noir from the late 1940s. Talk about ahead of its time!

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY. BBC Films, UK, 1990. Samuel Goldwyn, US, 1991. Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman, Jenny Howe, Carolyn Choa, Bill Paterson, Christopher Rozycki, Keith Bartlett, David Ryall, Stella Maris, Ian Hawkes, Deborah Findlay. Screenwriter-director: Anthony Minghella.

   You could not do much better than Truly Madly Deeply, a film I urge you all to rush right out and rent or buy. Now I realize I may be a well-known sucker for Love Stories, but I tell myself I’ve toughened up some in the last few years. Bushwah: This thing had me choking back big wet sobs almost as soon as it started.

   Plot-wise, Truly is sort of like Ghost for Grown-ups: Juliet Stevenson, a remarkably sensitive actress of whom I’ve never heard, has the Demi Moore part, a woman whose lover has been suddenly and senselessly taken from her. The film takes rather a bit of time detailing the crippling Blue Funk into which she’s fallen, but she’s a good enough actress that I didn’t mind.

   Then, back into her life, for no apparent reason whatsoever, and with a burst of absolutely no special effects at all, comes the ghost of her Departed played with quirky relish by Alan Rickman, who is best known as the baddie in Die Hard, Quigly Down Under and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Given a chance to do an out-and-out Good Guy for a change, Rickman wisely plays it cool and slightly aloof, never actually reaching out for the sympathy Patrick Swayze demanded in Ghost, but getting it anyway.

   The similarities don’t end there. Truly even revives an obscure 60s Rock ‘n’ Roll song, and the duet/dance that the two leads do to it is every bit as memorably bittersweet as “Unchained Melody” was in Ghost.

   The major difference, in fact, is in the Plot. There’s no fast-paced pulp-novel, edge-of-the-seat story moving Truly to a gripping conclusion. Instead the movie turns into sort of an allegory for the heroine’s adjusting to Loss and getting on with her Life. She simply learns (Warning!) that you just can’t keep on loving someone who’s dead the way you loved them when they were alive. (End of Warning!)

   Hmmm. Like most Great Revelations, this one’s obvious enough to seem profound when you put it right. And Truly, Madly, Deeply puts it across beautifully.

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