Friday, May 4, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)

After the Thin Man (1936) reunites director W.S. Van Dyke and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy for a sequel to the 1934 hit, The Thin Man, in which Nick and Nora Charles first cracked wise and drank heavily through a crime-solving adventure. We pick up right where we left off at the end of the first movie, with Nick, Nora, and Asta on a train to California, which makes the first two films a great double bill, even though they were released two years apart. After the Thin Man offers more of everything that made the first picture such a success, with the wealthy couple boozing their way through the new year and a series of homicides. Along for the ride are a number of familiar classic stars, including James Stewart, Joseph Calleia, and George Zucco, as well as Elissa Landi as Nora's troubled cousin, Selma.

Nick and Nora (Powell and Loy) arrive in San Francisco for New Year's Eve only to find that Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi), is in distress after the disappearance of her faithless husband, Robert (Alan Marshal). Nick has no trouble locating Robert and his mistress at a crowded hot spot, but then Robert turns up dead in front of Selma's house, and it looks like Selma might have killed him. Her longtime admirer, David (James Stewart), arrives on the scene to help, but Robert is just the first corpse of the mystery, and two more rapidly follow. With plenty of suspects on hand, including sketchy businessman Dancer (Joseph Calleia), jealous loser Phil (Paul Fix), and sinister Dr. Kammer (George Zucco), the police have their work cut out for them, even with Nick and Nora's help.

Much of the comedy of this outing lies in the contrast between Nick and Nora's social sets, whom we first see set against each other and then brought together thanks to Robert's shady habits. Nick knows every low-life, ex-con, and purse snatcher in town, and even the guys he sent to prison seem to like him. When Nora is greeted by a well-heeled couple in a passing car, she wryly tells Nick, "Oh, you wouldn't know them, darling. They're respectable." It turns out, however, that Nora's relations are not all that respectable themselves; they merely preserve the appearance of respectability while engaging in coercion, blackmail, adultery, and obstruction of justice. Selma's philandering husband is up to his neck in self-made trouble, but Selma's mother (Jessie Ralph) bullies and manipulates Selma into keeping quiet about his disappearance and his behavior. The rest of Nora's relatives are just antiquated bores; poor Nick has to make up both sides of the conversation when he's left alone with a table full of snoring, elderly gents after a family dinner party. It's little wonder that both he and Nora prefer Nick's more exciting acquaintances.

Asta's domestic woes feature as an odd running gag throughout the film, creating a canine version of the plot's themes of adultery, betrayal, and romance gone wrong. Asta returns from his Christmas travels to find that Mrs. Asta has produced a litter of puppies, but one of the bunch looks suspiciously like the Scottish Terrier who keeps sneaking onto the property. Asta chases his rival off repeatedly but never seems to get rid of him for good. Perhaps it's the stress of his romantic frustrations that makes Asta snatch and then eat part of a vital clue. Nick and Nora, who lavish attention on Asta, never seem to give the slightest thought to Mrs. Asta and her children, which might explain why the neglected pup, shut up in her backyard pen, has gone looking for affection elsewhere. At least the dogs don't resort to murder to solve their problems with each other, and on the whole they're better behaved than most of the movie's humans.

Powell and Loy continue the series with Van Dyke in Another Thin Man (1939) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) before moving to other directors for The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). For more of a very young Jimmy Stewart, see Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Born to Dance (1936). Look for Elissa Landi in The Sign of the Cross (1932), By Candlelight (1933), and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Penny Singleton, billed as Dorothy McNulty, proves quite a scene stealer as nightclub singer Polly; she would go on to play the title character in more than two dozen Blondie films and provide the voice for Jane Jetson in the cartoon TV series, so be sure to appreciate her early appearance here.

Want to watch The Thin Man series? All of the films are currently available for streaming on FilmStruck.

Related Reviews:

LIBELED LADY (1936)
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

Monday, April 30, 2018

FilmStruck! Finally!

I'm delighted to announce that FilmStruck has finally arrived at our house. While I have been watching the development of this new streaming service since its early days, I had to wait for it to be available for Roku devices to enjoy it myself. Travel and commitment schedules made the first few months of 2018 too busy to take full advantage of the free trial period, but now that I'm finally signed up I look forward to watching lots of TCM Selects and Criterion Channel films through the long, hot summer.

I hope that FilmStruck will fill a gap that mainstream services have left yawning of late. I haven't been able to get my classic movie fix from Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. (Prime is the worst in some ways; it tantalizes and then disappoints with its muddy, unwatchable copies of public domain fare.) The spouse will also be able to watch his fill of Godzilla movies and cult horror, which ought to make him happy to pay for me to indulge in my own favorite genres.

Now that we've joined the FilmStruck family, let me know what you've been watching there and what you think I ought to add to my watchlist. It's already bursting, but there's room for more!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: THE WRONG ARM OF THE LAW (1963)

Directed by Cliff Owen, The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) provides a genial, humorous look at the symbiotic relationship of cops and crooks in mid-century London, with Peter Sellers appearing to great effect as a criminal gang boss and Lionel Jeffries co-starring as an ambitious officer of the law. The picture is primarily a heist plot with plenty of comic twists, including the disruption of the "natural order" by a group of Australian interlopers who pose as coppers to make off with the bandits' boodle. Sellers gives a delightful performance that puts his chameleon talents on display, while Jeffries bumbles hilariously behind and beside Sellers' quick-thinking crook. Bernard Cribbins also makes a memorable appearance as one of Sellers' partners in crime, while the lovely Nanette Newman plays Sellers' duplicitous girlfriend.

Sellers stars as Cockney crime boss Pearly Gates, who masquerades by day as a legitimate French businessman who makes ladies' dresses. When his criminal jobs are repeatedly upended by a trio of "cops" who make off with the haul and leave the crooks behind, Pearly realizes that a new gang is using police uniforms to rob the robbers. Meanwhile, the determined but incompetent Inspector Parker (Lionel Jeffries), tries to nab Pearly's men but can't find any of the stolen goods. Pearly and his fellow crime boss, Nervous O'Toole (Bernard Cribbins), propose a collaborative effort with the police to shut down the fake cops once and for all, but Pearly doesn't suspect that the interlopers' inside informant is his own girlfriend, Valerie (Nanette Newman).

It's great fun to watch Sellers shift between his refined French persona and the Cockney patter of Pearly Gates, especially when other characters force him to switch gears quickly. Pearly is clearly the smartest person in the room, except when Valerie is around, and then he discloses all his plots and jobs without ever suspecting that he himself is being played. Inspector Parker, inevitably teased as "Nosy" by everyone else, is a bumbling foil and eventual sidekick to Pearly, with Sellers and Jeffries playing off each other in several key scenes, especially in the third act.

Most entertaining, however, is the absurdly orderly world of London's criminal gangs, an inoffensive set, really, who surrender without a fuss when caught and never hold a grudge against the police for arresting them. Cops and robbers is just a game here, without real danger or consequences, and thus a cat burglar can enter the room of a sleeping young woman and steal only her valuables and perhaps a secret kiss (one that also slips her earring from her ear!). The London thieves are easy pickings for the fake cops because it doesn't occur to any of the crooks to fight back against men in uniform, and when given the opportunity the thieves simply make their escape. Their adherence to order reaches its ridiculous height in the scene where Pearly calls a meeting of all of London's criminal elements, and the gathered crooks and cons religiously observe Robert's Rules of Order. They are, in fact, much more organized and effective than the police, a fact that becomes clear when the cops botch their parts of the plan to catch the Australian gang in the act.

The action in The Wrong Arm of the Law zips along and keeps the viewer guessing about where all of these shenanigans will lead, and if you've exhausted the available stock of Ealing comedies this film makes a great follow-up. Peter Sellers is best remembered today for the Pink Panther films, Being There (1979), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), but you can also see him with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955). Watch for John Le Mesurier as the Assistant Commissioner, along with Dennis Price and a young Michael Caine in uncredited roles. Cliff Owen went on to direct The Vengeance of She (1968) and No Sex, Please: We're British (1973). Catch Lionel Jeffries in Camelot (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); Jeffries also directed Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children (1970). Nanette Newman appears in The Stepford Wives (1975) and as the adult Velvet Brown in International Velvet, a 1978 sequel to the original film starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

FLASH GORDON and Sam Jones in Huntsville

The 2018 Huntsville Comic Con opened with a screening of the 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon with a Q&A featuring special guest Sam Jones, who played the title character in the film. An excited audience gathered on Thursday, March 29th, to see the movie on the big screen and ask its star a few questions.

The screening itself was a big success, with a good crowd for a town like Huntsville and an excellent sound system that blasted the Queen soundtrack in all its glory. The vibrant colors of the sets and costumes still pop, and the audience cheered as Flash played football with a giant egg, fought future 007 Timothy Dalton on a hazardous tilting platform, and saved the Earth from Max von Sydow's sneering Emperor Ming.

Nearly forty years after its original release, Flash Gordon continues to be a campy sci-fi delight, with stand out performances from Dalton, von Sydow, Brian Blessed, and Topol. Other memorable actors in the cast include Melody Anderson as Dale, Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, Peter Wyngarde as Klytus, and Richard O'Brien as Fico. Along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov, Flash travels to an alien world and fights to save his own planet after Ming the Merciless makes Earth his latest plaything. While Ming lusts after Dale, Flash struggles to unite the warring factions of Ming's court in a rebellion against the tyrant, but his efforts are complicated by Princess Aura's attraction to him and Prince Barin's resulting jealousy. The heroic adventures conclude in a grand battle to take down Ming and rescue Dale from her forced marriage to him. Queen's earworm theme for the film punctuates key moments with campy enthusiasm, while Danilo Donati's costume designs fill the eye with vivid color and quite a bit of female flesh. The final effect is more Barbarella than Star Wars, full of S&M undertones and visual hyperbole, but clearly reveling in both.

After the screening, Sam Jones took the stage to answer questions from the audience, but he was less interested in talking about the making of the film and more focused on his personal life, later career, and thoughts about acting in general. He discussed his appearance in Ted (2012) and his current film project, The Silent Natural, which does not yet have a release date. Those looking forward to an in-depth talk about the origins of Flash Gordon, its history as a comic strip and serial, and personal anecdotes about Timothy Dalton, Max von Sydow, and Brian Blessed were disappointed, but the audience was treated to Jones' positive opinion of Steven Seagal and lingering grudge against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For those who really want to learn more about Flash Gordon, the Blu-ray release features an interview with Alex Ross and the first episode of the 1936 serial starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. You can also explore the history of the comic strip online. Empire Online has a detailed article about the 1980 film called "Gordon's alive! The untold story of Flash Gordon."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DECOY (1946)

Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy (1946) is one of those film noir gems that lacks the glitter of a big budget and A-list stars but nonetheless shines with its own devilish light. Jean Gillie makes her penultimate screen appearance as a femme fatale so fixated on claiming a stolen fortune that she'll literally bring a man back from the dead to get it, with Robert Armstrong, Edward Norris, and Herbert Rudley as the men who will kill and die in service to her schemes. Those who love a twisted tale of murder and greed will relish this dark delight, which begins at the finale and then rewinds to unfold its sordid story. We know from the start that this is going to end badly.

Gillie plays the beautiful but deadly Margot, the girlfriend of death row inmate Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong). Margot knows that Frankie is sitting on a pile of stolen cash, but she doesn't know where it is, so she arranges for Frankie to be resurrected after his date with the gas chamber. Gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) helps her because he wants to recoup the costs he incurred paying for Frankie's defense, while Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) is seduced into the plot by Margot's charms. Once Lloyd resuscitates Frankie, avarice drives both Margot and Vincent to extremes, while Lloyd is drawn ever deeper into their crimes.

There's no budget or time for fancy flourishes, but Decoy works with the materials at hand, especially Gillie's mesmerizing performance as one of the coldest, most ruthless dames to grace the noir genre. She doesn't love any of the men she uses; she will happily see every one of them dead twice over if it means the bag of cash belongs to her alone. Plotting to resurrect Frankie just to betray him is mean even for a femme fatale, but Gillie does it with a grim determination that never veers into hysteria or camp. She approaches the elimination of the equally faithless Vincent the same way, running him over with their car and then coolly collecting the tools he had been using to fix a flat tire. Lloyd, horrified into a frozen stupor, can only hiss, "I'd like to kill you," as Margot carries on with her single-minded quest. She finally cracks up when she thinks she has the cash at last, laughing maniacally while Lloyd digs up the box in Frankie's hiding spot. Frankie, however, will have the last laugh, and the ending is a gut punch of irony that knocks the viewer flat.

The film is a pitch black study in the ways a man can be ruined by a woman like Margot, a siren so powerful and deadly that she lures even men who don't trust her to a horrible fate. Frankie is a criminal but not a monster; he adores Margot and wants money only to lavish gifts on his girl, but he's smart enough to take steps against an inevitable betrayal. Vincent is a cold-blooded snake; he clearly means to get the upper hand, but he doesn't realize that Margot is a python in comparison until it's too late. Tragic Lloyd is a good man undone by this serpentine beauty; he loses everything because of Margot until all that's left is a dying wish to take her out with him, which is where the picture begins. The only man who survives contact with Margot is Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), a cop with a gangster's face who feels an attraction to Margot even though he knows what she is. "People who use pretty faces like you use yours," he tells her, "don't live very long anyway." The film opens and closes with the fulfillment of his prediction.

Jean Gillie made only one additional film, The Macomber Affair (1947), before her premature death in 1949, but she can be found in earlier pictures like The Gentle Sex (1943) and Flight from Folly (1945). She was married to director Jack Bernhard when Decoy was made, but they divorced in 1947, and Bernhard went on to direct Blonde Ice (1948) and Appointment with Murder (1948). Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for King Kong (1933), and you can also see him in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Herbert Rudley found success primarily in television, but he makes appearances in Brewster's Millions (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), while Sheldon Leonard earned numerous Emmy nominations and two wins for his work behind the camera on Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964). You might also recognize Leonard as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955).


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) offers a chance to see the directorial talents of Dorothy Arzner, one of very few women to direct films during the classic sound era. Not surprisingly, the movies Arzner directed were mostly "women's pictures," but quite a few iconic classics fall squarely into that category, and Dance, Girl, Dance has plenty to recommend it besides a nod to women's cinema history. Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball star as the two dancing girls, the first an aspiring ballerina and the second an opportunistic burlesque queen, and each gives a compelling performance that mixes humor, drama and musical numbers. Along for the ups and downs are Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy as potential romantic leads, with Virginia Field and Maria Ouspenskaya appearing in supporting roles.

O'Hara has the more sympathetic heroine in Judy, who gets by as part of a nightclub dancing troop but longs to join the ranks of serious performers. Her mentor, Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), hopes to help by introducing her to ballet producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), but a tragic twist of fate prevents the meeting. Meanwhile, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is happy to climb a different kind of ladder, embracing burlesque stardom for the money and comfort it brings. Bubbles sometimes helps her former troop mate and sometimes betrays her, depending on what Bubbles herself can get out of it. That includes poaching unhappy playboy Jimmy (Louis Hayward) and setting Judy up as a stooge in the burlesque show, where leering patrons boo her ballet routine.

It's important to note that, although the movie makes Judy and Bubbles foils for one another, it never really paints Bubbles as the villain of the piece. She can be generous and forgiving, but she is clearly a student of the hard knocks school who has learned to look out for herself. Judy is more naive, but even she is realistic enough to keep the stooge job and endure the humiliation if it means paying the rent. No character is really a bad person; even the drunken Jimmy misbehaves mostly because he misses his ex-wife, Elinor (Virginia Field), whom he really does love. Ironically, the only person Judy shuns turns out to be the one who can help her achieve her dream, and poor Steve spends most of the picture trying to get Judy to realize that he isn't another masher looking for a date. In a movie without actual antagonists, Judy is often her own worst enemy, although she and Bubbles ultimately have to resolve their differences with a spectacular fight that lands Judy in court.

O'Hara is lovely and sweet as Judy, and we feel for her struggle to preserve her dignity, especially during the excruciating stooge performances. She finally triumphs over her tendency to be a human door mat when she tells off the abusive audience in grand style and then flattens Bubbles with a couple of punches. A blonde Lucille Ball is having more fun, though, as saucy, selfish Bubbles, who has the oomph that gets gigs for the troop. The film doesn't deride Bubbles for her professional choices; she's good at burlesque and clearly enjoys it, and the role gives Ball a chance to demonstrate the comedy talent that would eventually make her a television legend. Both actresses play characters who aren't primarily interested in romance but are dedicated to pursuing their careers, and that shifts the focus of the narrative toward a feminist sense of self separate from male protection and domesticity. It leaves Louis Hayward's Jimmy as something of a red herring, to be sure, but Hayward does a fine job balancing the charm and dissolution of his character, and Jimmy's troubled romance with Elinor gives us a different perspective on the choices a woman might make about her life.

Dorothy Arzner's other films include Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Christopher Strong (1933), and The Bride Wore Red (1937). For more of Maureen O'Hara's work from this era, see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Try noir films like The Dark Corner (1946) and Lured (1947) for a different side of Lucille Ball before Lucy. Catch Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday (1940). Maria Ouspenskaya, a truly great character actress, earned two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), but most people will remember her as Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941).

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966)

With its lurid title and eerie opening credits, Queen of Blood (1966) promises a delirious sci-fi phantasmagoria that, sadly, it never delivers. Even Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper get bogged down in the picture's ponderous pace and refusal to pivot away from the pseudo-science that typically fills the slow parts of 50s and 60s science fiction films. It's a shame, too, because writer and director Curtis Harrington's ideas might have made for a truly unnerving narrative; the last third of the movie, with the predatory title character and her secret intentions, has a lot in common with Alien (1979), but you'll never worry about whether they can hear you scream in space when you're watching Queen of Blood.

Rathbone plays Dr. Farraday, the lead scientist for a space exploration group that mounts a rescue mission to Mars when an alien ship crashes there. Among the astronauts are alpha male Allan Brenner (John Saxon), his girlfriend, Laura James (Judi Meredith), and Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper). Once the astronauts locate the sole survivor of the alien wreck, they attempt to bring her to Earth, but the small crew gets smaller each day the alien stays on board. The remaining astronauts struggle to complete their mission without becoming the vampiric stranger's next meal.

Queen of Blood is set in the far future of 1990, where women finally get to be astronauts but still wear 60s hairstyles. Lots of references to moon bases and science are meant to show how far humans have come since 1966, but the movie is in no hurry to introduce its title character or even get its astronauts to Mars to look for her, and most of the scenes take place in small control rooms or the sterile, confined space of the rescue ship. The flashes we see of the aliens, who sport clear plastic crowns that look a bit like rabbit ears, are intriguing and vaguely disturbing, but they also remind us how deadly dull the humans are in comparison. It's never really clear if the aliens are the same species as the bloodthirsty queen; Dr. Farraday speculates about their intentions but doesn't give us solid answers. That ambiguity persists right to the end, when we're left with the distinctly unpleasant expectation that the humans are making a colossal mistake, but there's no effective build up of dread that would have given the ending a truly horrific punch.

The slow pace, closed spaces, and dry dialogue don't allow Basil Rathbone or the other actors to shine, and they rarely do anything except talk. Judi Meredith is more or less the lead as Laura James, and as the only woman Laura stands out among the very typical masculine characters who make up the rest of the crew. We don't get much sense of the individual personalities of the astronauts played by John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Robert Boon, and Don Eitner, and as a result we don't really care if they live or die. When she finally does appear, the Queen of Blood, played by Florence Marly, has no lines and never even makes a sound, yet she still manages to be the most interesting character in the whole film. The male characters blithely assume that she isn't dangerous because she is so obviously female, and they treat her with patronizing kindness until they realize that she sees them as tasty snacks. Laura has to come to the rescue against this seductive predator, but it's a disappointing confrontation that wraps up much too quickly.

Curtis Harrington also wrote and directed Night Tide (1961), which handles its slow burn horror with more skill and gives young Dennis Hopper a more interesting role. For better late career performances from Basil Rathbone, see Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). John Saxon, who is still working in 2018, is known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series but can also be seen in Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965). You'll find both Saxon and Judi Meredith in Summer Love (1958). Be sure to note sci-fi icon and superfan Forrest J. Ackerman in a small role in Queen of Blood as Dr. Farraday's assistant.