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.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: FALLEN ANGEL (1945)

Otto Preminger directs this top-notch noir tale of misplaced love and murder, which stars Dana Andrews as a small-time grifter who falls for luscious Linda Darnell but woos wealthy Alice Faye. It's a love triangle with a couple of kinks thrown into it, and the title, Fallen Angel, might equally apply to Andrews or Darnell, both of whom exhibit the cynical worldview born of hard knocks and bitter disappointment. In addition to the trio of excellent leads, the picture boasts an impressive supporting cast that includes Anne Revere, Percy Kilbride, Bruce Cabot, Charles Bickford, and the always entertaining John Carradine as a traveling spiritualist who pretends to talk to the dead.

Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) blows into town on his last dollar and promptly gets an eyeful of Linda Darnell's sultry Stella, sometime waitress at the diner run by Pop (Percy Kilbride). Like every other mook in the joint, Eric goes for the dark-haired beauty but can't convince her that he's not just another two-bit loser. In order to get enough money to marry Stella, Eric courts the maidenly June Mills (Alice Faye), much to the consternation of her elder sister, Clara (Anne Revere). Eric intends to marry and divorce June, but when Stella turns up dead on his wedding night, Eric finds himself on the list of suspects being pursued by Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), another of Stella's admirers who happens to be a cop.

Harry Kleiner's screenplay is adapted from the novel by Marty Holland, who also wrote the story of The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), and it shades Stella in particular with more nuance than we often see in a femme fatale. She never encourages Eric or any of the other men who hang around her like flies, and she makes it clear that she wants a wedding ring and a home before she'll take any guy into her arms. She steals a little cash from Pop's till, but she's no monster; Eric is the one who hatches the plan to seduce and betray June, not Stella. Nonetheless, the film sets Stella up as the fallen angel, the beautiful but bad girl, especially in the way it introduces her. We're encouraged to think of her that way even as the picture slowly reveals how little Stella deserves her fate and how much more fallen Eric is than Stella has ever been.

Andrews is in fine noir form as Eric; it's the kind of role that lets him use both his charm and his edge of jaded ruthlessness. He talks his way into Professor Madley's spiritualist racket and then into June's good graces, but he has a lot more trouble sweet-talking the justly skeptical Stella. Perhaps that's why he likes her so much in the first place. The audience is left to wonder if June's virtuous love is enough to reform Eric, especially when we know he only marries her for the cash. Alice Faye, of course, is perfect as June; if Eric and Stella are both fallen angels, June is still wearing her halo in Heaven. Faye is one of the few actresses who can make such a good girl role appealing, and late in the film she gets a chance to reveal the sturdy spirit that Junes possesses in addition to her virtue. June might have married a man she barely knows, but when she takes a vow she means it, and that comes as quite a revelation to Eric.

Take time to savor the performances by Carradine, Revere, and Kilbride in their supporting roles; Kilbride has a particularly fine moment right at the end, when the depth of Pop's devotion finally transcends the pathetic. For more Otto Preminger noir with Dana Andrews, see Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Preminger also directs Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947) and The 13th Letter (1951). Alice Faye is remembered more for films like In Old Chicago (1938), That Night in Rio (1941), and the colorful wartime musical, The Gang's All Here (1943). You'll find Charles Bickford and Anne Revere in The Song of Bernadette (1943), while Percy Kilbride is best known today for his starring role as Pa Kettle in the Ma and Pa Kettle films, starting with The Egg and I (1947).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: ANOTHER MAN'S POISON (1951)

Adapted from a stage play by Leslie Sands, Another Man's Poison (1951) offers a wickedly ironic title and a chance for Bette Davis to sink her teeth into another maneater role, this time as the femme fatale protagonist of a devious noir plot. Irving Rapper directs Davis and her real-life husband at the time, Gary Merrill, as two unscrupulous people entangled in their own lies, and they do have a palpable - if violent - chemistry. Despite the location shoot at the brooding Malham Tarn Estate, the movie never quite shakes its stage roots, but Davis and Merrill make up for that in spades with their knack for driving each other into a rage. The lies and violence build to a pitch-black finale that will satisfy the most cynical film noir fan.

Davis schemes as Janet Frobisher, a mystery novelist occupying a grand home in a remote English village. When bank robber George Bates (Gary Merrill) comes looking for Janet's long absent husband, he finds that Janet has already dispatched her criminal spouse. George decides to fill the vacancy by pretending to be the man of the house, a plan Janet doesn't appreciate, especially when George suggests it's a permanent arrangement. Janet has her own plans regarding her secretary's handsome fiance, Larry (Anthony Steel), and she worries about keeping up the deception with her neighbor, Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams), who is constantly dropping by.

It quickly becomes apparent that Janet has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which enables Davis to play her villainous nature to the hilt. There's no moral gray area here; the only thing Janet gives a damn about is her horse, Fury, and everyone else in the world can go to Hell for all she cares. She has no pity for her innocent secretary, Chris (Barbara Murray), from whom she steals the attractive Larry simply because she can. She poisons her husband not because he's a criminal and a terrible person but because she just doesn't want him around, and then she gets George to dump his corpse into the tarn. Later, she works hard to get rid of George, too. When karma catches up with Janet, it's a delicious bit of payback that the audience relishes, and Davis knows exactly how to exploit our loathing for her character.

Merrill's George is also reprehensible, especially in his sexist assumption that he can outfox Janet, but he's never as clever as she is. He develops a strange jealousy of Larry, seemingly buying into his own usurped rights as Janet's husband; he's furious that she keeps the door joining their bedrooms locked even though he's a total stranger. George is not quite as cold-hearted as Janet when it comes to murder; he first shows up because Janet's husband shot the policeman in the bank heist that went wrong, and George wants his name cleared in the killing. He pales when Janet suggests that her husband was actually alive when George pitched him into the tarn, and he's shocked when he realizes that Janet is trying to kill him, too. He even offers a little romantic advice to Chris to help her hold onto Larry, but that doesn't make him a good guy. When he takes out his anger on Janet's horse, he crosses a line with her and the audience's sympathy. We all know from there that there's no going back.

Enjoy the more subtle twists of Emlyn Williams' performance as the neighborly vet who keeps asking for his deadly horse medicine back; he's as close as we get to a detective in this film. Davis and Merrill made three pictures together; the other two are All About Eve (1950) and Phone Call from a Stranger (1952). Irving Rapper also directed Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), The Corn is Green (1945), and Deception (1946). Look for Emlyn Williams in I, Claudius (1937) and Ivanhoe (1952), and see Anthony Steel in The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DODGE CITY (1939)

Michael Curtiz directs Errol Flynn in Dodge City (1939), the first of the swashbuckling star's forays into Western territory, with frequent costars Olivia de Havilland and Alan Hale along for the action, as well. Briskly paced and packed with excitement, Dodge City forgoes elegaic musings on the closing of the West and instead celebrates its taming as Flynn's cattle driver turned lawman fights to bring civilization to lawless Dodge. Flynn and de Havilland spark against a bright Technicolor backdrop while an excellent supporting cast fills out the archetypes of the genre, including Bruce Cabot as the ruthless villain and Ann Sheridan as his saloon singer girlfriend.

Flynn stars as Wade Hatton, a roving Irishman whose latest American adventure is running cattle from Texas to Dodge City. He meets Abbie (Olivia de Havilland) as a wagon passenger accompanying the drive, but the death of her feckless brother on the trail sours their budding romance. In Dodge Hatton finds an old enemy, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot), running the town with the help of his murderous lackeys, and Hatton eventually agrees to take up the sheriff's badge in order to beat Surrett and make Dodge safe for frontier families. Surrett, however, will stop at nothing to hang on to his power; numerous innocent people die as a result of his corruption and greed.

Flynn's accent marks him as a recent arrival to the West even if he doesn't sound a bit like an Irishman, but the good looks and vigor that make him so compelling in derring-do serve him just as well in a cattle driver's saddle. His character pursues romance and justice in equal measure, leaving the dirty work of a huge, comic brawl to sidekicks Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn Williams). The heroic Hatton is well-matched by the villainous Surrett, played to cool effect by Bruce Cabot, who always looks at home in a Western setting. The women, sadly, have less to do. Olivia de Havilland's Abbie endures some egregiously sexist chatter from Flynn in a wrong-headed attempt at flirtation, but we still get the sense that she has a durable, pioneer spirit that attracts him just as much as her luminous beauty. Ann Sheridan turns up for a couple of song numbers but seems to be missing the good girl/bad girl subplot that would give her character more development. In Destry Rides Again (1939) and Stagecoach (1939), both released in the same year, Sheridan's type of character shines, but there's just no room left to explore her motivations or even her fate in the bustling pace of Dodge City.

Small roles in the film feature a number of memorable actors turning in fine performances, most notably Victor Jory as Surrett's saturnine henchman, Yancey. The sympathetic characters tend toward tragedy, but adversity gives the performers an opportunity to make their scenes resonate with the audience. Frank McHugh is excellent as the feisty crusading journalist Joe Clemens, whom Surrett hates for daring to expose murder and corruption in the local headlines. Amiable Henry Travers appears as Abbie's uncle, Dr. Irving, a figure of respectability and the kind of man Dodge needs more of instead of the wild ruffians who roam the streets. The tragic Cole family includes John Litel as the father, Bobs Watson as the precocious Harry, and Gloria Holden as the grieving Mrs. Cole. Holden makes the most of her one big scene in the newspaper office, investing her few lines with all the suppressed suffering and resignation we imagine she would feel. Also making the most of a limited role is William Lundigan as Abbie's wastrel brother, Lee, who is too young and stupid to understand the danger of his actions until it's too late.

Santa Fe Trail (1940) reunites director Curtiz with Flynn, de Havilland, and Hale, along with a number of the supporting players, for another Western adventure, but for the best of the Flynn-Curtiz collaborations see Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940). For more of Flynn in Western wear, try Virginia City (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Ann Sheridan has bigger roles in Kings Row (1940), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), and Nora Prentiss (1947). Look for Bobs Watson in Boys Town (1938) and Men of Boys Town (1941), and see Bruce Cabot in King Kong (1933) and The Flame of New Orleans (1941). In later years Cabot became a regular in John Wayne Westerns, with supporting roles in The Comancheros (1961), McLintock! (1963), and The War Wagon (1967).

More posts about Errol Flynn:

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Friday, February 2, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940)

My Favorite Wife (1940) reunites stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant after their first pairing as a comedic couple in The Awful Truth (1937), and once again there's both love and trouble. Grant plays a husband flummoxed by the return of his supposedly dead first wife on the very day that he marries his second, a situation that creates plenty of laughs as the original pair try to account for themselves and straighten out the mess that fate has handed them. While The Awful Truth might be the more perfect example of screwball comedy, My Favorite Wife has its own peculiar charms, especially in Grant's hilarious jealousy of Randolph Scott, who plays a rival for Dunne's affections.

Grant stars as accidental bigamist Nick Arden, who has his first wife declared legally dead seven years after her ship wrecked so that he can marry second wife, Bianca (Gail Patrick). The original Mrs. Arden, Ellen (Irene Dunne), is very much alive, however, and promptly turns up looking to resume her old life. Chaos reigns as Nick tries to figure out how to break the news to Bianca, who begins to think that Nick is suffering from psychological problems. Ellen, meanwhile, has neglected to tell Nick that she wasn't alone on that island for seven years, or that her companion, Stephen (Randolph Scott), is a paragon of masculinity who also has a romantic interest in Ellen.

The story focuses on the comedic opportunities in this setup, so we get only the faintest hints at the grief Nick must have endured after Ellen's disappearance or the heartache Ellen feels at missing seven years of her children's lives. It can't have been all bad, though, since Ellen and Stephen look more like they spent those years at some cushy island resort rather than scrounging for coconuts on a deserted scrap of sand. It was such a nice island, in fact, that Stephen wants to go back and take Ellen with him. Most of the suffering we really see in the movie is meant to be laughed at, with Nick and his new bride, Bianca, enduring the worst torments. Ellen worries about telling the children that she is their long-lost mother, but she primarily functions as a chaos agent to upend Nick's life and push Bianca out of her usurped position.

Dunne dives into a series of zany antics while Grant reacts to them, and the arrangement serves both of them quite well. Nick's reaction on first seeing Ellen alive is a quintessential bit of Grant hilarity, as is Nick's final bumbling effort to bed down in an uncomfortable attic room when he wants to be in the bedroom with his wife. Nick's jealousy of Stephen is especially funny if you know that Grant and Randolph Scott were great friends who lived together off and on for twelve years (there is some speculation that they were lovers). It's therefore rather provocative, and also truly delightful, to see the image of the scantily clad Scott somersaulting around Grant's head as Nick obsesses over the "Adam" to his wife's "Eve." The only weak link in the quartet is Gail Patrick as Bianca, who isn't nice to enough to feel really sorry for but isn't mean enough to hate, either. We need to see her threaten the Arden children with boarding school or flirt with another man in order to feel that she deserves her humiliation and defeat, but she comes across as a rather ordinary girl baffled by her groom's mad behavior. She never has a chance against Ellen, but it would be nice to see the competition at least be interesting.

My Favorite Wife picked up three Oscar nominations for writing, art direction, and score. Garson Kanin, who directed the picture, was primarily a writer but also directed the very funny Bachelor Mother (1939). For more of Irene Dunne, see Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948) as well as her third and final collaboration with Grant, Penny Serenade (1941). Grant was busy in 1940; his other films that year include His Girl Friday and, of course, The Philadelphia Story. Rugged Randolph Scott is best remembered as the star of many Westerns, especially 7 Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), and Ride the High Country (1962). Look for Alabama native Gail Patrick in My Man Godfrey (1936). Scotty Beckett, who plays young Tim Arden, was a popular child star whose other films include Kings Row (1942) and A Date with Judy (1948), but his biography is another tragic tale of early stardom's awful price.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949)

Adapted from the novel by Marcia Davenport, East Side, West Side (1949) is more melodrama than murder mystery, although there always seems to be a noir plot lurking beneath its surface. Surprisingly, star Barbara Stanwyck appears in good girl mode as a wronged wife enduring domestic discord. It's not one of Stanwyck's greatest performances - her heroine is too nice even to reproach her philandering husband for most of the film - but the solid cast makes the movie worth watching, most notably Ava Gardner as the truly ruthless siren who woos James Mason away from Stanwyck. Mervyn Leroy directs a cast that also includes Van Heflin, Cyd Charisse, Gale Sondergaard, and future First Lady Nancy Reagan, as Nancy Davis, making one of her earliest appearances on the big screen.

Stanwyck plays Jessie Bourne, a wealthy socialite who has already forgiven her husband, Brandon (James Mason), for a previous affair as the story begins. Jessie is dismayed, however, when the seductive Isabel (Ava Gardner) returns and immediately pursues Brandon again, refusing to believe his assertion that he has turned over a new leaf. As a result of Brandon's scuffle with Isabel's jealous boyfriend, Jessie begins a friendship with a young model named Rosa (Cyd Charisse) and her childhood crush, Mark (Van Heflin). Soon Mark reveals that his feelings for Jessie are more than platonic, but when Isabel is murdered Mark helps Jessie by working to clear Brandon from blame.

The murder and subsequent investigation occupy only the third act, while the majority of the story focuses on Jessie's misplaced loyalty to Brandon in spite of all the evidence that he's a faithless cad who relies on her presumed forgiveness to keep up his shenanigans. It only takes Rosa two minutes to figure out that Brandon is no good; "If I were your wife, I'd cut your heart out," she says, and the audience agrees with her. Jessie, however, clings to her optimism. "He'll change, you'll see. He'll change," she tells her friend, Helen (Nancy Davis), but even Jessie doesn't sound like she believes it. Jessie's mother (Gale Sondergaard) is polite to Brandon in front of Jessie but fervently hopes that her daughter will leave him. With every other character both overtly and covertly urging Jessie to dump her cheating spouse, it's frustrating to watch the heroine stick by him for so long, especially because we aren't used to seeing Stanwyck play doormats.

The bad characters have more fun, particularly Ava Gardner, whose Isabel prowls the Del Rio like a panther in a backless gown. She's a true femme fatale, and she knows it; she taunts Jessie with her power over Brandon, bragging that she can disrupt any effort to extricate him from her clutches. James Mason, handsome but too cosmopolitan to be trustworthy, has a smoldering, debauched look whenever he's in a scene with Gardner. His Brandon glares at Isabel with equal measures of lust and loathing, and we know she's right that the two of them are more alike than Brandon cares to admit. Isabel's circle includes much rougher characters, too; her boyfriend, Alec (Douglas Kennedy) is a bruiser who resents Isabel's interest in Brandon but has his own jealous side piece, Felice (Beverly Michaels), to amuse him when Isabel isn't around. This dangerous crew threatens to push the story into noir territory, and the audience perhaps hopes that they will, but Jessie and Mark are so resolutely moral that we know they'll never be pulled into anything so shady.

If you want to see Stanwyck and Heflin together in really heated noir, try The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). Catch James Mason in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), A Star is Born (1954), and North by Northwest (1959). Ava Gardner burns up the screen in The Killers (1946), Mogambo (1953), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Cyd Charisse also starred in Tension in 1949, but she's best remembered for musicals like Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and Brigadoon (1954). Mervyn Leroy's other films from the 1940s include Random Harvest (1940), Madame Curie (1943), and Little Women (1949). The Valley of Decision (1945), starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck, was also adapted from a novel by Marcia Davenport.