Films: Drama/Romance


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

FOUR HOURS TO KILL

   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.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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).


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


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.

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.

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