Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Last Voyage: A Review (Review #1751)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Woody Strode.

The Last Voyage promises "91 minutes of the most intense suspense in motion picture history". To be fair, The Last Voyage does pretty much start with the crisis about to burst open. Oddly, it felt like more than 91 minutes, but that is the smallest of its issues.

The SS Claridon Captain Robert Adams (George Sanders) receives an urgent message while lunching with some passengers, "Fire in the engine room". Charming his way to the engine room, Captain Adams sees that the fire was put out, but the damage to the boiler and its fuel is a powder keg ready to erupt. Adams is concerned but not alarmed.

He does not want to cause panic among the Claridon passengers, including the Hendersons: Cliff (Robert Stack), his wife Laurie (Dorothy Malone) and their daughter Jill (Tammy Marihugh). Laurie is a little trepidatious about sailing altogether, but things come to a head when the Claridon experiences its great crisis. Second Engineer Walsh (Edmund O'Brien) urges Adams to at least stop the ship for a couple of hours to look over the damage, but the captain still thinks the crisis is manageable. 

Not until the boiler explodes, ripping the Claridon several stories high. Laurie is trapped beneath the debris, with Jill screaming and crying her way across the sinking ship. Cliff requires torches to get Laurie out, and eventually he gets help from Hank Lawson (Woody Strode), an engine room worker who eventually joins him to save Laurie. The Claridon keeps on sinking, with the bulkhead finally breaking. Adams finally orders the evacuation. With the Claridon on death's door, will this really be The Last Voyage for some? 

I give writer/director Andrew L. Stone credit for this: he does not waste time building the situation. We start right away with knowing that there is a fire in the engine room. He does give a bit of a backstory with Cliff, Laurie and Jill, who should be the center of The Last Voyage. They are in love, care about their daughter, and she is a bit worried about the seaworthiness of the Claridon. As this is The Last Voyage, we know that they will face an issue. 

Once we get the explosion, The Last Voyage does pick up a bit. We even get a bit of humor when while things are spinning out of control, a woman calmly orders two glasses of sherry. I give credit to Malone, who spent most of The Last Voyage trapped under rubble while still looking pretty good. We also get some good performances from Malone when she is with Strode. As Laurie contemplates suicide given her situation, Strode makes Hank's genuine shock and concern effective. Stack was fine, but nothing great.

Where The Last Voyage went a bit astray is how on many levels, it is not original. You have the ship captain more concerned about keeping to a schedule than on the passenger and crew's safety. You have the gruff second forever warning of the danger. There's the imperiled woman. There is a lot of stock characters that you pretty much expect to pop out. You have the captain who goes down with the ship. 

Sometimes the plot points seem to be a bit bizarre. Walsh is forever angry at the captain because his father died on the Titanic. This is mentioned twice, but for some reason O'Brien's delivery made it sound like he was joking. I did think it was some kind of sarcastic quip about why he did not want the Claridon to keep sailing. 

As much as I dislike beating up on children, Marihugh's Jill came across as a whiny brat. Yes, the ship is sinking, and her mother is trapped (which is where the drama is supposed to be). Yet one wants to almost spank her for refusing to understand the severity of the situation. Laurie, Cliff and Hank all work desperately to get Jill to safety, and all Jill can do is cry, scream and all but beat up everyone around her.

The worst part of The Last Voyage is the unnecessary voiceovers in a faux Cecil B. DeMille intonation spouting off such grandiose statements as to border on farce. "This was the death of the steamship Claridon," the voice says. "This was The Last Voyage". The film starts and ends with such ponderous, almost laughable voiceover that just intrudes on the goings-on.

On the whole though, The Last Voyage is passable entertainment if you can tolerate Jill. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Passage to Marseille: A Review (Review #1750)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Humphrey Bogart.

Passage to Marseille is an interesting picture in that I do not know many films that dive further and further into flashbacks, like a cinematic Russian doll. Almost amusing in its Free France flag-waving, Passage to Marseille has some good points but is almost punishingly long and now comes across as slightly silly despite its good intentions. 

A plot summary is a bit hard because Passage to Marseille has up to three flashbacks, one wrapped within another. The present-day story is of reporter Manning (John Loder) who wants to do a report on the Free French Air Force stationed in England. Granted permission to look in at the secret FFAF base, he meets Captain Freycinet (Claude Rains). He gives Manning Flashback Number 1 of when he met FF pilot Jean Matrac (Humphrey Bogart).

Freycinet was an officer aboard the ship Ville de Nancy when the ship comes across a canoe with some men. First claiming to be French miners in Venezuela attempting to return to France to fight the Nazi regime, Freycinet learns the truth from one of the men, Renault (Philip Dorn). 

We now enter Flashback Number 2. Renault and the other men are really escaped prisoners from the notorious Devil's Island in Cayenne, French Guiana. He had joined the French army illegally due to lying about his age but who became a deserter that regretted his decision. Renault feels a fire for France despite his incarceration. He eventually encounters an old former prisoner nicknamed Grandpere (Vladimir Sokoloff). He has saved his money and can get access to a canoe for an escape. Renault agrees, with four other prisoners. He also suggested as their leader Matrac. 

Now we go to Flashback 3. Matrac is a crusading French journalist, condemning the Munich Pact and getting grief for it. He also loves a woman, Paula (Michelle Morgan). Matrac finds joy and love with Paula, but the collaborationist forces get him convicted for murder. He is sent to Devil's Island.

Working our way back from Flashback 3 to 2 to 1, Matrac, Grandpere and Renault leave the island along with a giant named Petit (George Tobias), a small man named Marius (Peter Lorre) and a man in the middle named Garou (Helmut Dantine). Freycinet believes they are patriots, and they eventually join forces to stop the evil Major Duval (Syndey Greenstreet) from mounting a mutiny that would send them to Vichy France. That, however, meant that Matrac would not return to Paula. Freycinet tells Manning that Matrac flies over her home to drop off notes to her and Jean, Jr. This time, however, things may not be the same.

You cannot go home again, or so the saying goes. Watching Passage to Marseille, I got that feeling as the film went on that people involved in the film were trying to echo that film. You have a good number of Casablanca players in the film (Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet, Lorre and Dantine) directed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. Certain scenes and characters echoed Casablanca, intentionally or not. Early in the film, we have a man in a trench coat and a French captain observe a plane taking off. Perhaps the wildest Casablanca/Passage to Marseille connection is when Casablanca's Renault (Rains) talked to Passage to Marseille's Renault (Dorn). As one who loves Casablanca, I never thought I would see Renault Meets Renault.

You also have Corinna Mura, the singer at Rick's Cafe Americain, singing in the same way at a French cafe where she sings what I figure is Passage to Marseille's unofficial theme, Someday I'll Meet You Again. I think even the fussy Italian from Casablanca was in Passage to Marseille too. 

Someday I'll Meet You Again is no As Time Goes By, and Passage to Marseille is no Casablanca. You cannot force a love story into a war film and think that you can get the audience to connect with it by virtue of it just being there. The Matrac/Paula romance is wildly underdeveloped and takes so long in getting there that it seems almost an afterthought.

It does not help that the performances were a bit weak. I found Morgan so overwrought in her declarations of love that they seemed a case of she doth protest too much. Bogart too seemed to be in love with Paula because the script said he was, not because he thought it was true. Passage to Marseille spends so much time going from present to past to further past that we can't invest in the last story we get (the Jean/Paula romance). 

Bogart, unlike almost everyone else, did not bother to sound like anything other than an American. Granted, many of the cast was foreign, but Greenstreet at least tried for a French accent. Bogart's New York sound made the idea of him being this passionate Frenchman laughable. 

Not that a lot of the acting seemed up to par. There were times when I was close to chuckling seeing some of the performances. I get the idea that Passage to Marseille is close to propaganda, but the "WE LOVE FRANCE" schtick grew tiresome. So many characters go on and on about how they love France that it becomes slightly comical. Sydney Greenstreet should have twirled his mustache as the EVIL Duval, his performance as broad as his waist*. His lackey went overboard in his sycophancy to where you did not take it seriously.

As a side note, given how Duval was pro-Vichy, why neither Freycinet or Captain Malo (Victor Francen) did not just place Duval and those around him under guard makes them look like idiots. Having Hans Conreid as fellow Vichy supporter Jourdain is already silly enough; the thought that Uncle Tonoose being described in voiceover as "a treacherous youth and wildest officer" is flat-out laughable. Conried was pretty much a comic actor, so casting him in what should be a tough role in a gritty war film is too hard to accept. How can I take seriously the crazed band leader from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T being in fisticuffs with French convicts?

I give Curtiz and screenwriters Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt credit in the flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks moved well. I do wonder though if perhaps fewer flashbacks and a more straightforward story would have worked better. Credit should also go to James Wong Howe's brilliant cinematography. Certain sequences, such as Matrac's imprisonment, are almost works of art. 

Other parts, though, seemed curious. Paula and Jean, Jr.'s home seemed quite pleasant and bountiful for living in occupied France. Jean, Jr. is also supposed to be five years old, which makes me wonder exactly how long Matrac was on Devil's Island. 

Certainly, Passage to Marseille did what it set out to do: ennoble the Free French cause. To my mind, it went overboard in that department, but given the war I think I understand where it came from. Not exactly a Casablanca sequel, Passage to Marseille wasn't above echoing some memories of Morocco.  It did not work, but in case anyone wondered, the Free French Air Force LOVED France.

*Anyone who thinks that quip is "fat-shaming" should be aware that Passage to Marseille takes potshots at Greenstreet's girth too. In voiceover, Claude Rains remarks that Duval filled the seat of honor "and amply so". 


Saturday, August 26, 2023

Love Me or Leave Me: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Doris Day.

Doris Day, by her own choice, rarely ventured outside the sunny confines of musicals and romantic comedies. The few times she did, such as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace and the Ruth Etting biopic Love Me or Leave Me, Day proved that she could do strong dramatic roles. Perhaps a bit longer than it should have been, Love Me or Leave Me is a fine showcase for two great actors.

Ruth Etting (Day) wants to be a singer, but in 1920's Chicago, all she can find is work as a dime-a-dance girl. One night, she fights back against a particularly aggressive customer. While she gets immediately fired, her fiery nature and beauty attract the attention of powerful hoodlum Martin Snyder (James Cagney), better known as The Gimp due to his limp. Snyder is openly attracted to her, but like Anne Boleyn, she won't submit to Snyder sexually or romantically but is not above taking his patronage. 

Snyder puts her in the chorus of a club that is part of his extortion racket, but she keeps pushing to be allowed to sing. Snyder does not understand why she is so adamant about singing when to him there is no difference between singing and dancing, but he agrees to let her have a shot. Under the tutelage of pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), Etting becomes a great success. Snyder becomes Etting's manager, and he does get her good bookings even if he bullies and threatens everyone to get them. That includes Alderman, of whom he is suspicious of over his intentions. Alderman, who has fallen in love with Etting and vice versa, eventually quits her orchestra to go to California.

His bullying includes Etting, whom he initially calls "Etling". Her star rises to even make it to the Ziegfeld Follies, but Snyder cannot abide her taking any direction or career advice from anyone other than himself. Ruth Etting is a hit in the Follies, while Martin Snyder just hits anyone in the Follies. Out of a mix of fear and misguided gratitude, Etting marries Snyder. Snyder continues to book Etting in clubs, which are financially successful but at a cost to Etting's emotional wellbeing and Snyder's shady dealings. 

Fate turns her way when Snyder gets Etting a film contract. While initially reluctant, she gets a call from the film studio's musical director: none other than Johnny Alderman. While their budding romance is missed by her minder/Snyder's right-hand-man Georgie (Harry Bellaver), Snyder sees it instantly. He decides to pull Etting from her film career and book her at his new club on a permanent basis. She cannot stand it anymore and asks for a divorce. The lives of Snyder, Etting and Alderman all collide in a shocking but oddly happy conclusion.

Love Me or Leave Me is a little over two hours long, probably due to the number of musical numbers that Day performs. I am a big Doris Day fan, so I am not complaining about her voice and some of the musical numbers. Of particular note are the Shaking the Blues Away from her Follies performance. It is cinematically impressive, with the use of shadows and monochromatic opening. When she starts singing Everybody Love My Baby (But My Baby Don't Love Nobody but Me), director Charles Vidor does something incredibly clever and character revealing. He puts the focus on Cagney's Gimp as he watches the headless Etting singing, her figure gyrating to the music. It is clear that The Gimp is looking at Etting with a mix of lust and pride at his protege. Her head is quickly shown, but I found this brief moment quite revelatory about Snyder's perspective.

Other numbers, however, were pretty static, consisting of just her singing in one wide shot. At times, it made sense, such as when she sings I'll Never Stop Loving You (one of the two original songs for Love Me or Leave Me which was singled out for a Best Original Song nomination). It does take place at a rehearsal, so that staging makes sense. However, given her early start as a dime-a-dance girl, I think the film lost a great opportunity when she sings Ten Cents a Dance. Day delivers this tragic song exceptionally well, as she does with every song she sings. However, I think the film could have explored Etting's memories of her time when she did have to live off Ten Cents a Dance. The chance to reveal her experiences was there, but it was not taken.

That Doris Day can sing is not in doubt. What about her acting? Day was known for her sunny persona but Love Me or Leave Me reveals a strong dramatic actress. As Ruth Etting, Day showcases a stubborn survivor, one who is determined to get ahead no matter the opposition. We also see a slightly ruthless side to Etting through Day's performance, such as when she casually suggests that she could be a main performer should the usual club performer happen to miss a performance. Her Etting is tough, not afraid to take charge if it is to her own benefit. However, we also see the vulnerable, even conflicted figure. 

One of her best scenes is when Snyder demands she quit the Follies despite her triumph due to Snyder getting kicked out after he punches someone out backstage. As Snyder reminds her of all he has done for her career, the conflict between her gratitude for him paving the way and her desire to be successful overwhelm her. The emotional conflict comes through, and one deeply admires Doris Day for the dramatic strength she has.

It is surprising that Day was not nominated for Best Actress in Love Me or Leave Me while James Cagney was nominated was nominated for Best Actor. That is not to suggest that Cagney did not deserve recognition. His Martin "The Gimp" Snyder draws from his gangster persona, but he is more than a hood who takes a shine to this torch singer. Cagney makes his Snyder almost sympathetic in his mix of bully and baby. He is someone who just wants to be a success, someone whose bark can be sometimes worse than his bite. 

Cagney is deeply compelling as Snyder. Driven but easily wounded, desperate for respect from everyone. Snyder is nobody's fool. In one of the best scenes for Cagney, we see him observing Etting and Alderman rehearsing a song. At the end of it, he turns to Georgie and angrily says, "You stupid jerk". He sees clearly that they are in love and is infuriated by that. Cagney makes Snyder into both a fierce brawler and an almost frightened boy. He and Day work well together as this doomed couple.

Mitchell had little to do except be the love interest, but he was fine in the film.

In a strange turn of life imitating art, Love Me or Leave Me may be Ruth Etting's life story, but it could also be Doris Day's life story. Day's third husband was not only also named Marty (Martin Melcher) but like Snyder had near-total control of her career. Worse, after Melcher's sudden death, Day discovered not only that he left her millions of dollars in debt but had signed her to a television series without her consent or knowledge. Ruth Etting makes film for Paul Hunter Productions. Some of Day's biggest hits were directed by Ross Hunter. That might be stretching things, but it is an odd coincidence.

Another song from Love Me or Leave Me seems more apropos to both Ruth Etting and Doris Day's tumultuous lives: Mean to Me. Love Me or Leave Me perhaps could have been trimmed in its running time, and there is a strange suggestion of a happy ending. However, with two strong performances by James Cagney and Doris Day, it is well worth watching.



Friday, August 25, 2023

The Black Hole (1979): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Ernest Borgnine.

Star Wars brought a science-fiction mania to film studios. Even James Bond jumped on the outer space bandwagon. Not to be outdone, the Walt Disney company opted for its own sci-fi epic. The Black Hole is a beautiful looking film with a great score. It is also a bit dull, longer than it should be and with some naked toy figures masquerading as characters that raise the cute factor to slightly comical levels. 

The spacecraft Palomino is exploring the deepest reaches of space when it comes upon the largest black hole the crew has ever encountered. Even more shocking is a spaceship that somehow manages to stay close to the black hole without being swept inside of it. An investigation reveals it is the USS Cygnus, thought long missing.

The Palomino crew decides to go and investigate the Cygnus. Led by Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), the crew is astonished at what they find. The Cygnus appears to be run by robots, under the command of Dr. Hans Reinhart (Maximilian Schell). Save for Holland, Lieutenant Charles Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) and Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), everyone else from the Palomino is somehow connected with Dr. Reinhart. Cynical reporter Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) knows Reinhart to be an egotistical mad scientist. Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) is the daughter of the Cygnus' second-in-command Frank McCrae, who according to Reinhart died years ago.

Reinhart has decided to take the Cygnus into the black hole itself and wishes the Palomino crew to document it. Durant, convinced that Reinhart is a genius, is besotted with the idea of joining him. The others, however, are suspicious. Booth sees one robot limping, while Holland sees what appears to be a robot funeral. The Palomino's robot, VINCENT (Roddy McDowell) encounters an earlier model of his named BOB (Slim Pickens), who eventually gives him the shocking truth.

The "robot" crew is really the reprogrammed Cygnus crew, transformed into cyborgs after a failed mutiny against the mad scientist. Dr. Frank McCrae, leader of the mutiny, was killed by Reinhart's monstrous robot henchman, Maximilian. Now, these clashing forces must face off in an ultimate space battle for their survival.

If The Black Hole has any positives, they are two. The first is the film's production design. The Black Hole showcases how matte paintings can still be more visually impressive than CGI, for this is quite a beautiful, even spellbindingly visual film.  The Cygnus is filled with vast, open spaces, particularly the Central Control Room. That is not to say the early CGI was not used in The Black Hole. Now, a shooting game between VINCENT and a laser gun spinning robot named STAR looks like a pirated Pong game, but that is really judging something made in the late 1970s with today's standards.

To be fair, the visuals did still have the issue of being able to see the strings holding up VINCENT and BOB.

The Black Hole also went strong, if perhaps obviously cutesy, with VINCENT and BOB. Both looked like ready-made toys that would appeal to children. They are adorable, though one wonders if the filmmakers did not go overboard with the adorable factor. Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day's screenplay (from a story by Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard Landau) also made things a bit complicated by giving rationales for VINCENT and BOB's names. VINCENT is supposed to stand for Vital Information Necessary Centralized. BOB is for BIO sanitation Battalion. It might have been easier and better to have just named them "Vincent" and "Bob" because the crew liked calling them "Vincent" and "Bob". 

As a side note, I don't think BOB's acronym makes sense. Also, naming the villain "Maximilian" seems now almost funny when you think that Maximilian Schell is constantly calling out for "Maximilian". I figure it was just a coincidence that the monster robot and the actor who played the villain shared a name, but I digress.

The Black Hole's second quality is John Barry's score. I think we as a society have failed to give Barry his due as one of cinema's great composers.  He seemed the go-to guy for crafting great music in schlock films (case in point, the 1976 King Kong). The Black Hole starts with a two-minute overture, and once we plunge into the opening credits, Barry's music is eerie and otherworldly, suggesting a deep and thrilling adventure. To be fair, I think the triumphant music at the battle between Holland, Pizer, VINCENT and BOB against Reinhart's robot army was trying too hard and came across as comical. However, I think it has less to do with Barry's score and more to do with the music and the visuals being wildly at odds with each other.

Where The Black Hole goes wildly off track is in the script. Despite the promising premise, we get a standard "mad scientist" movie. It does not help that The Black Hole wants to be two different things simultaneously. With VINCENT and BOB floating about, the film wants to be cutesy and kid friendly. With Maximilian chopping up someone, the film wants to be dark and adult oriented. The schizophrenic nature of The Black Hole cannot and does not hold. 

In retrospect, The Black Hole may actually be going for a third thing. The ending is one of the most whacked-out, psychedelic, trippy film endings outside 2001: A Space Odyssey. If I understood things right, Reinhart and Maximillian somehow meld into one in Hell (apparently located inside the black hole) where they will rule over the robot clones Reinhart created on the Cygnus. As if that weren't wild enough already, the Palomino survivors are guided to safety by a celestial being as they hear echoes of their thoughts while apparently coming close to dissolving. Even VINCENT gets in on the act, making for something that goes beyond the surreal into the flat-out bonkers. 

I think The Black Hole's ending is as close as one can come to an LSD trip while being perfectly sober. That such a sequence is in a Disney movie aimed in part at kids makes it all the more looney. It won't make any sense to children. It doesn't make any sense to adults either, come to think of it. The final moments of The Black Hole must be seen to be believed. Yes, they are visually splendid. They are also quite insane.

That is to say nothing of the VINCENT/STAR battle, which ends with the latter having a robot version of a temper tantrum.

Performance-wise, I think with at least three exceptions the cast did their best to make things work. Forster and Bottoms played their parts as if they were action heroes, though not as believable as they could have been. Mimieux was blank, but I got the sense that she at least was trying to get through this with some dignity. 

The three exceptions were Perkins, Schell and Borgnine. Perkins gave a laughably bad performance as Dr. Durant. He appeared comatose throughout the film, as if were a zombie. Every line delivery was spoken with a weirdly detached tone, as if he did not understand what he was saying, let alone trying to communicate the words. There were times when I literally thought that Perkins was drugged. It is really bad, with Perkins reciting the script with absolutely no conviction over what his character says. His character's end is flat-out hilarious, which I figure was not director Gary Nelson's intention.

As if to counter Perkins' deadness, Schell went all-in on the cray-cray with his Dr. Reinhart. Constantly shouting for his Maximilian, he went from channeling James Mason's Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to ranting hippie lunatic. Borgnine, to my mind, at least had some fun as the renegade reporter who is probably the sanest member in the film. Suspicious of Reinhart from the beginning, Borgnine's Booth is not above some shady dealings in an effort at self-preservation. Still, Borgnine works to make Booth into a cynical, suspicious man that knows something is wildly off about everything going on around him.

The Black Hole is something I would put in the "noble failure" column. It does have some positives such as impressive visuals and arresting score. What it does not have is real direction in more ways than one. I am surprised that it runs only 98 minutes, as it feels infinitely longer. 

A bit like the Cygnus, The Black Hole just floats out there, held together by strange forces that ultimately do not hold. 


Thursday, August 24, 2023

Taxi! (1932): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Loretta Young.

Taxi! is a curious James Cagney pre-Code film in that he plays someone on the right side of the law. He's still a brawler, but Taxi! gives Cagney a rare chance to show a slightly less belligerent side. 

Shady men are trying to muscle in on legitimate taxi drivers in New York City, leading to a turf war. One cab driver, Matt Nolan (James Cagney) is able to stand up to the mobsters. However, another cab driver and acquaintance of Matt's is not so lucky. Older driver Pop Riley (Guy Kibbee) fights for his spot, but in the melee he ends up killing the gangster. Sent up the river, Pop dies in prison. His daughter Sue (Loretta Young) is with Matt's de facto union in spirit, but is also against the eye for an eye philosophy Matt espouses. Matt for his part is both cold towards Sue's views but hot for her, and despite themselves they fall in love and get married. 

Things by this time settle into an uneasy truce between the legitimate and illegitimate taxi drivers. As Matt and Sue celebrate their wedding with a night out with Matt's brother Danny (Ray Cooke), there is someone else at the nightclub that spells trouble for the Nolans. It's Buck Gerard (David Landau), the man responsible for muscling in on Pop Riley's spot who still holds a grudge against Matt. Despite the best efforts of Sue and Marie (Dorothy Burgess), Buck's girl, there is a killing that threatens Matt and Sue's happiness. Will Matt end up following Pop's path in his thirst for revenge? 

What makes Taxi! work well is the overall acting. Of particular note is Guy Kibbee. Known for playing mostly comic characters like sweet sugar daddies, Kibbee is quite effective and tragic in his few moments on screen. 

The film's two stars are also excellent in their roles. While Loretta Young eventually became the embodiment of class and fashion through her eponymous television series, early in her career she played working class women, some of easy virtue. In Taxi!, she is simultaneously gentle and firm as Sue. Young shows Sue's spine when standing up to Matt at the taxi drivers' meeting, but she also shows a vulnerable side when attempting to save Matt by trying to get Buck out of town. Young blended a strength and vulnerability to Sue, which made for great viewing.

James Cagney, as stated, was not playing the gangster but the mob victim here. It's a nice change of pace, but we still saw the fiery, short-tempered but charming figure he played in his pre-code films. He is rakish, even devilishly sweet when working with Young. When facing Buck or in an early role George Raft as a rival dance contest participant, Cagney is the tough, brutal figure. His scene where he sees someone close to him die, however, will break your heart.

Taxi! even allows for Cagney to show humor, such as when he manages to pick up a fare who speaks only Yiddish. A little-known fact is that Cagney himself spoke Yiddish, which he used to his advantage when the Warner brothers attempted to keep things secret from him in his presence. It gives Taxi! a realistic manner, with Cagney as what he was: an authentic New Yorker.

Taxi! is a surprisingly short film, running a little over an hour. However, it packs a lot into its running time. This gritty story of tough men and the tougher women they love is a strong film. The Kubec Glasmon and John Bright adaptation of Kenyon Nicholson's play moves fast, with director Roy Del Ruth putting things together well. Well-acted by the cast, Taxi! is a strong film.  


Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Theater of Blood: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Vincent Price.

It was Shakespeare who wrote "the play's the thing". Theater of Blood is something of an homage to The Bard, part horror film, part comedy that is a personal favorite. Witty enough to be self-aware, though at times more violent than maybe necessary, Theater of Blood allows the chance for actors to have fun at critics' expense.

Theater Critics Guild member George Maxwell (Michael Hordern) is brutally murdered at a warehouse he owns by a group of squatters. His death is eerily reminiscent of how Julius Caesar was murdered in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. At last a headline, instead of a byline, quips fellow critic Hector Snipe (Dennis Price). Snipe, however, himself is offed in a manner not unlike another Hector: the Trojan hero in Troilus and Cressida.

Are the members of the Theater Critics Guild being targeted for death? Who would want to kill these critics, and why? As the murders start piling up, TCG head Peregrine Devlin (Ian Hendry) suspects the killer is a dead man. That would be Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart (Vincent Price), a theatrical actor who jumped off Devlin's balcony after a confrontation with the Guild. He had gone there to collect the Best Actor award Lionheart was convinced he deserved by right. Never mind that his Shakespearean performances were always so broad and hammy. He, in his mind, was a theatrical genius. Despite Lionheart's daughter Edwina's (Diana Rigg) pleas, Edward recites Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy to the mocking critics before plunging to his death.

Or did he? Could Edward Lionheart be alive? Certainly not alive are more critics. Horace Sprout (Arthur Lowe) finds himself headless like Cymbeline's Cloten. Randy Trevor Dickman (Harry Andrews) is given a leading role in a revamped Merchant of Venice where Shylock gets his way. More crimes inspired by Richard III, Henry the Sixth Part 1 and Titus Andronicus all leave Inspector Boot (Milo O'Shea) and his loyal aide Detective Dogg (Eric Sykes) flummoxed. It will take a lot of twists and turns until our King Lear meets his end.

Like Edward Lionheart, Vincent Price never got much if any respect from critics. Like Edward Lionheart, Vincent Price was going deep into camp in Theater of Blood. However, unlike Lionheart, Price neatly balanced the grandiosity of the character with an almost gleeful comedic touch. Price manages to be both firmly in on the joke and still deliver surprisingly strong dramatic monologues. The Hamlet monologue is delivered perfectly straight, with a strong, dramatic manner that is surprisingly moving. Yes, Price is far too old to play the part, but he would work wonders in an audio recording.

Moreover, Price has perfectly funny moments by keeping things mostly straight. The Sprout killing is a fine example of this. As he dons medical gear, he at one point calls out "BASIN!" when blood starts spouting uncontrollably. As his assistant procures one quickly, Price gives an eye roll that is true to the character while still being funny. Price has the right amount of hammy and serious, making this an impressive performance.

Part of me suspects that Price was having a ball in Theater of Blood. He could recite Shakespeare and recite it extremely well. He could also indulge in being simply outrageous. One of Theater of Blood's wildest moments is when we see a literally wigged out Vincent Price as flamboyant hairdresser "Butch". While the film does not skimp out completely on the horror of this killing, the whacked-out sight of Price in a hippie-like outfit and Afro has to be tongue-in-cheek. 

Theater of Blood is a horror-comedy based on the trailer, which bills the actors playing critics as "Guest Victims". Each actor gets a little bit as the murders average every ten minutes. Some can be quite horrifying, but they are not graphic. 

A fine standout is Diana Rigg as the loyal daughter. In one sequence, she is a playful sex kitten in order to lure a victim to her father's lair. She too, however, can recite Shakespeare well. Rigg also does mostly balance the at times overdramatic moments with the horror elements. Her confrontation with Devlin early on is a bit broad, but I think that was the role, so I am not too harsh.

The most curious element in Douglas Hickox's film is Michael J. Lewis' score. Theater of Blood has a lush, romantic score that plays counterpoint to the sometimes violent and loopy imagery. Going back to the Cymbeline recreation, Lewis' music is quite romantic and elegant. It is almost bizarre to hear this beautiful music playing as someone is having their head sawed off. 

Theater of Blood is a great way for actors to get their resentments about critics out. What actor has not imagined going after critics or organizations that did not give them acting awards? Price as Lionheart has a long rant about the trials and tribulations of the actor to Devlin, and one wonders if the actors were nodding along. Perhaps at times Anthony Greville-Bell's screenplay (based on an idea by Stanley Mann and John Kohn) is a bit too much on the nose about the Shakespearean connections. The Julius Caesar-inspired murder takes place on March 15, with a wife who has dreamt of a violent death. The swishy characters of Butch and Meredith Merridew probably would be issues today. 

Those are minor points. Theater of Blood is entertaining, amusing and delightfully gruesome. 


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor. The Television Movie



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Geraldine Chaplin.

Mother Teresa has become an icon of compassion and care, a woman driven by faith to improve her world. Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor, chronicles how she went from cloistered nun to global heroine.

Covering the era from the last days of the British Raj to her Nobel Peace Prize win in 1979, In the Name of God's Poor starts with Sister Teresa (Geraldine Chaplin) as a simple geography teacher in the Calcutta* Catholic school and convent she is cloistered in. The chaos of Partition forces the nuns to go into the city, where Sister Teresa sees not just the horrors of violence but the horrifying poverty and death all around. The stress and agony she witnessed firsthand is not helped when she goes on Retreat. A beggar at the railway station calls out to her, "I'm thirsty", echoing the words of Christ in Matthew 25:35 (I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink). She now has the conviction that Christ has called her to work among the poor and dying to alleviate their pain.

Telling her spiritual guide Father Van Exem (Keene Curtis) that she has heard "a call within The Call", she makes the shocking request to be allowed to leave the convent but remain a Loreto nun. To everyone's shock, the Vatican grants her request. With that, she goes to Moti Jihl, a mass slum near Calcutta. She is initially not welcomed as a woman, a white woman and a Christian among the residents. However, by working to teach the children to read and eventually standing up to government officials on their behalf, she wins them over to her side.

She not only wins over the locals, but some of her former students, enough for her to apply to create a new order, the Missionaries of Charity. Again, defying logic, the Vatican grants this request. More opposition comes from the Hindu community, shocked and appalled that a former rest home for pilgrims has become her de facto hospice. Cynical war reporter Harry Harper (William Katt) is not easily won over, but the story is too irresistible. Finally, when her efforts are rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she goes to Oslo, albeit reluctantly, to continue advocating for the destitute and dying.

Sometimes, some people become so iconic, so revered, that it becomes hard to see the person behind the legend. In the Name of God's Poor does not create a Mother Teresa who is thoroughly saintly and aware from the get-go. More often than not, Teresa is frightened but quietly stubborn. What Teresa has is a mix of quiet determination and confidence that God will somehow provide, though she knows not how. 

For example, Teresa has taken a bold step to apply for release from cloister with no guarantee that she would be allowed to remain a Sister of Loreto. In fact, it would be more likely that she would have to choose to either remain within the convent or leave as a lay person. While not hiding her fear, Teresa opts to hold to the mission she believes God has given her. The reaction Chaplin shows when Father Van Exem reads the letter granting her request is one that reveals Teresa's relief and confidence in the rightness of her choice. 

Over and over, In the Name of God's Poor has a set pattern. Teresa makes a decision on some issue: going to Moti Jihl, opening the hospice on Hindu sacred ground. Indian Catholic Church officials are unwilling to believe this simple nun can get what she wants, with on Father Van Exem championing her. The local community fervently opposed to Teresa's actions until they see the results and they are won over. Mother Teresa gets her way.

Perhaps this is how it was. I don't think this is a flaw, but I can see how some might think it gets repetitive. On the whole though, In the Name of God's Poor works because of this repetition because it guides viewers in following her story. 

In terms of performances, Geraldine Chaplin does not have Mother Teresa's Albanian/Indian accent, but she does make up for it by showing a Teresa whose faith carries her despite her fears. Chaplin does well when delivering expositionary dialogue, such as when she tells someone that as a child, she thought the various faith communities in Albania prayed to the same god, so she found nothing odd about using a Hindu shelter for her missionary work. This is clearly against Catholic and general Christian theology, but by stating that this was her belief as a child, Teresa can be absolved of heresy. 

In many points, we see that Mother Teresa has many converts, but not in the faith but in action. Over and over, by quietly doing the work, Teresa wins those who initially opposed her. That should be a model for all who advocate for change. At one point, a police commissioner tells her that something is not his responsibility. "Then make it your responsibility," she retorts. 

At one point, as she speaks to the older, cynical Harper, she does show a flash of anger. As he takes a Christopher Hitchens-like critique over how she does not tackle the root causes of poverty but merely treats the symptoms, she counters by saying that perhaps her actions would inspire those in power to do that. At that point, she does say that she does get angry, but that she also has to forgive. "I forgive, but I do not accept," she states.

In smaller roles, Curtis' Father Van Exem as her advocate and spiritual adviser brings a gentleness and quiet strength to his performance. Katt does well as the reporter who is initially not interested in her story until he sees her work. He is the closest to a counter voice to the legend of Mother Teresa. 

Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor was released a month after now-Saint Teresa's death though obviously made before her death. As a film, it is entertaining and respectful, with good performances all around. It has moments of clear symbolism that are obvious without being overwhelming. For example, there is a moment when a dying Brahim is brought into the Missionaries of Charity hospice he opposed. He is placed under a sign that reads "Body of Christ", a clear connection between the Catholic Christian faith and the Brahim's status. 

Many times does Mother Teresa tell someone, "Come and see". That is a good way of looking at both the world and Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor.


* Calcutta was renamed Kolkata in 2001. I used the city's name at the time of both the events and the film's production.


Monday, August 21, 2023

Harvey: A Review (Review #1745)



This review is for the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is James Stewart. 

You can always rely on your friends, even if they are invisible rabbits. Harvey is amusing if not laugh-out loud funny, but with some strong performances the film can be amusing if in the right spirit.

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a wealthy, pleasant enough man who has one apparent eccentricity. He insists that an invisible six foot rabbit named Harvey is with him at all times. He and his bestie Harvey will walk around town, where Elwood will introduce people to Harvey. Some accept the reality of Harvey, some merely stare in puzzlement to downright terror.

Two women who are not amused by Harvey's presence, real or not, are Elwood's sister Veta (Josephine Hull) and her daughter Myrtle (Victoria Horne). They are not in much position to argue, being the poor relations to the wealthy Elwood. Veta, however, is frustrated because Elwood's insistence on Harvey continuously puts a damper on marriage prospects for Myrtle.

After an effort to get Elwood out of the house so they can entertain a group of women fails disastrously when Elwood and Harvey return unexpectedly, Veta finally decides it's time for both her brother and his bunny to be in the booby hatch. However, due to wild circumstances it is Veta that ends up locked up. From there, Elwood and Harvey cause both chaos and comfort for the asylum staff. Could Harvey be real? Will Veta see the error of her ways? Where and with whom will Harvey end up with?

Harvey is one of James Stewart's most defining roles, the affable man with a six foot invisible rabbit as his BFF. Stewart exceled in two types of diametrically opposing roles: the nice, clean-cut young man and the darker, morally complex older man. Here, he is meant to be the former but looks like the latter.  

One of my difficulties with Harvey is with regards age. Stewart was 42 when the film was released, and to my mind, he looks a bit too old to be Elwood. How someone that old could be at the least, naïve and at most, bonkers is unclear. It does not help that Hull was 73. How someone visibly old enough to be Stewart's mother could be his sister is loonier than either of them seeing invisible rabbits. 

That is not to say that Harvey is a bad film. Far from it, as both Stewart and Hull do quite well despite allegedly being related. Of particular note is Hull, who won Best Supporting Actress in recreating her Broadway performance. She is delightful as the forever flustered Veta. Hull has a long monologue where she attempts to explain the situation to junior Chumley's Rest Asylum Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake). In turns tearful and flummoxed, her ultimate confession that she too on occasion sees Harvey leads Dr. Sanderson to conclude that she is the patient. As she is forcefully sent to her room, Hull's growing desperation and horror make for a wonderful comedic performance. It is not every day that a woman manhandled so awfully could make it amusing.

Stewart does well in quieter moments, such as when he tells Sanderson of how Harvey came into his life. Here, he is plausible as someone who can genuinely believe Harvey is real. Other times though, he does not quite pull off the aw-shucks manner that Elwood would have. It is not that James Stewart did a bad job as Elwood. It is that his face looks a bit too weathered to be believed. I simply could not shake the idea that Elwood should have been at least a decade younger to make things plausible. Given he's already middle-aged, Stewart's Elwood did not look like someone who was certain Harvey was his pal.

I found Harvey not a roll on the aisle laughing film, but a nice, pleasant film. A bit too forced at times from many of the cast save Stewart and Hull, you will like Harvey even if you literally can't see him.


Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Lady Eve: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Barbara Stanwyck.

Feminine wiles meet up with genuine romance in The Lady Eve, a sharp, delightful film where the cons end up falling for their own marks.

Naive ale heir and snake expert Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is returning from his year-long expedition in the Amazon, where he has acquired a rare snake. Unbeknownst to him, also aboard the ship he is taking are a trio of con artists. There's "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), his accomplice Gerard (Melville Cooper) and Harrington's daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck). This trio of card sharks think Pike is the perfect dupe to fleece. Jean manages to hoodwink Charles and basically seduces him, playing him for the fool that he is.

Then something unexpected happens: she genuinely starts falling in love with her "Hopsie". She decides to go straight, with the reluctant blessing of her father. Unfortunately, Charles' unofficial bodyguard Muggsy Murgatroyd (William Demarest) suspects what is going on and provides proof. Charles cuts Jean off but is unaware that Colonel Harrington kept the check Charles had written to pay off his card game losses.

Sometime later, Jean learns that Charles is staying in Connecticut with his family thanks to Pinkie aka Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), a fellow fraudster masquerading as an English nobleman. She decides to get even by masquerading herself as the Lady Eve Sidwich, Sir Alfred's niece. Charles is so bamboozled by Lady Eve's resemblance to Jean that he keeps tripping and falling over himself. Sir Alfred feeds him a wild story of how Eve and Jean are secret sisters, which sells Charles on the idea that they are two different women. A quick marriage to Eve turns disastrous when the Lady Eve confesses her wicked, wicked past. 

The Lady Eve agrees to a divorce with no settlement on condition that Charles tells her to her face that the marriage is over. He refuses and goes on a cruise to forget the Lady Eve. By wild coincidence, Jean and Colonel Harrington are also on board. Will Cupid find a way to reunite our lovers?

The Lady Eve is an incredibly bright and witty film right from the start. The symbolism of the serpent terrifying our Lady Eve is a clever point. Granted, maybe I am reading too much into things, but I find it hard to believe that writer/director Preston Sturges did not have somewhere in the back of his mind the idea of "Eve" being terrified by the serpent. The callbacks to the Biblical story of the creation of the first man and woman gets another touch when Jean drops an apple on Charles as he comes aboard. 

The film is filled with witty dialogue that the actors all deliver excellently. Early on, Colonel Harrington is appalled at something his daughter says. "Let us be crooked but never common," he intones. As Jean gets Charles to pick out a pair of shoes for her in her stateroom, she quips, "See anything you like?". Later on, Colonel Harrington is giving Charles an absurd story about his and Jean's family. "All the men in our family are missionaries except me. I'm the exception". Without missing a beat, Jean replies, "And what an exception". 

Perhaps the most daring line in the film is when Jean tells Charles, "Don't you think we ought to go to bed?". She clearly is saying that they should go to sleep in their separate rooms, but I think even contemporary audiences knew that she was saying something else entirely. 

Among the quips there is an absolutely sensational scene with Stanwyck and Fonda in closeup. As Jean slowly tells Charles the effect he has on her, she plays with his hair and holds him dangerously close. It really is one of the most erotic moments in The Lady Eve, teasing without being anywhere near vulgar. One can almost sense Charles becoming completely aroused. It is not hard given that Stanwyck looks breathtakingly beautiful.

This scene ends wonderfully. As Jean tells Charles that she will sleep well tonight, he replies, "I wish I could say the same". The undertone of sexual frustration that he won't get anything that night is so well played.

The Lady Eve is a remarkably clever screenplay, but high praise should go to the acting. Barbara Stanwyck shows that she could play any role with equal ability. Her Jean is alluring, slyly humorous but also deeply moving. As she goes to her stateroom after Charles gives her the proof of her con artists family, she falls on her bed and weeps uncontrollably. Stanwyck really breaks your heart here, knowing that as she previously told Charles, "The best ones aren't as good as you probably think they are, and the bad ones aren't as bad". She was clearly talking about herself: the "bad girl gone good". The look of hope that she will come up a winner as we know she won't just win you over.

Stanwyck is deftly able to handle the humor with the heartache, but some of her best work is when she is passing herself off as the Lady Eve. Speaking with an English accent, she gives such a good performance that the dimwitted Charles could possibly believe that contrary to Muggsy's insistence, she was not the same dame. As she "reveals" her past, Stanwyck shows that her character is secretly delighting in tormenting the man she loved but lost. 

Fonda was not known for doing many comedies, but The Lady Eve shows that he could do it exceptionally well. As the hopelessly unaware Charles, Fonda is hilarious whenever he keeps taking pratfalls. The look of shocked befuddlement whenever he survives a humiliating moment is brilliant. Fonda, however, also manages to make Charles believable in his naivete and general obliviousness to anything outside of serpents of both animal and human variety. In the bedroom scene, you can see Charles completely falling for Jean. 

The Lady Eve also allows for the other actors to have their moments. Charles Coburn is a treat as Colonel Harrington, a shrewd huckster who does love his daughter enough to let her go. His scenes with Fonda as Harrington tries to con Charles work well, with Stanwyck working to keep her father from taking advantage of the man she loves. Melville Cooper has a sly yet courtly manner as the fellow shyster, and Demarest's Muggsy is forever crabby and suspicious in a humorous way.

What is really extraordinary about The Lady Eve is how fast and short the film is. Running a breezy 94 minutes, it packs so much wit and wisdom into its story. Surprisingly, half of the film takes place before we get to the Lady Eve con. The film flows quickly but smoothly, a credit to Sturges' writing and directing.

The Lady Eve is a funny and sharp romantic comedy, with excellent performances from the cast. Flirtatious and hilarious, one will easily fall in more ways than one for the wisdom of this Eve. 


Saturday, August 19, 2023

On the Beach: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Fred Astaire.

It's the end of the world as we know it, but no one feels fine in On the Beach. Dour, hopeless and hopelessly long, On the Beach drags good actors into its message. 

The world has gone to war with nuclear weapons, and the poisoned nuclear air is starting to drift to the Southern Hemisphere. Melbourne, Australia is the last major city to feel the impact of the nuclear fallout, so the citizens live their lives as best they can, awaiting the inevitable end. 

The American submarine Sawfish comes unexpectedly to Melbourne, having been out at sea and thus unaffected by the nuclear war. The Sawfish's captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) is later tasked by the Australian Navy to investigate the possibility that the fallout is lessening. There is also the possibility that there may be survivors in San Diego, as a garbled Morse code message is coming from there. Joining him on the voyage is Australian Naval lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire).  Peter's wife Mary (Donna Anderson) still insists that there is hope. Seductive Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who has been asked to keep Captain Towers company, does not know what to think.

The Sawfish sails to Point Barrow, Alaska, only to find that there is no hope for humanity. The ship stops briefly in San Francisco, where a crewman swims off to die with his family. In San Diego, they find that the Morse code message is really a Coke bottle caught up in a window shade pull cord that has been hitting the button whenever the wind blows through.

With Australia now doomed, the residents all accept that death is inevitable. They quietly take their suicide pills, and Mary finally accepts to not only take the suicide pill but give another to their infant daughter. Julian commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The Sawfish crew vote to return to the United States to die there, and Moira, with whom Towers has had a brief affair, watches them sail away. As the streets of Melbourne now turn silent, we see in the town square a Salvation Army sign declaring, "There Is Still Time...Brother".

Producer/director Stanley Kramer apparently wanted audiences to think about the dangers of nuclear war (On the Beach is set in January 1964). That is all well and good. What I cannot figure out is why an experienced filmmaker like Kramer decided that such a fatalistic, if not downright nihilistic film like On the Beach would be embraced by the public. The total sense of hopelessness and misery in the film is not going to make for even educational viewing. 

Everything in On the Beach is so dour and miserable that it is a surprise that there weren't mass suicides going on already. I'm also surprised that the Australian government here didn't just go and bomb their cities in an act of mercy killing. 

As a side note, given that Australia veered dangerously close to creating quasi-concentration camps for those infected with or coming into/back to Australia during the COVID-19 era, I am surprised the Australian government did not offer its citizens government-issued suicide pills. I am more surprised that Aussies weren't begging for such pills for themselves and their families "if it saves just ONE life".  

Everyone in On the Beach is so serious as to make it almost parody. There is not even any gallows humor allowed in the film, just an endless parade of misery and quiet despair. To be fair, there are a few little bits of life, but even those are tinged with the despair Kramer and screenwriter John Paxton (adapting Nevil Shute's novel) are determined to drown the audience in. 

On the Beach is so heavy-handed with its message that it grows tiresome and boring. Such lines as "There was a choice. It was build the bombs and use them, or risk the United States, the Soviet Union and the rest of us would find some way to go on living" are so blatant, almost pompous, that they turn the viewer off with their messaging. Ending the film with the "There Is Still Time...Brother" sign is equally eye-rolling in its call to metaphorical arms. 

Its nearly two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime does not help matters. I could not help thinking that a lot of On the Beach could have been cut or trimmed for a more palatable runtime. We could have started with the Sawfish arriving in Melbourne and the crew learn that the nuclear fallout was coming. We could have had them skip the San Francisco visit, or at least let the crewman swim off to his fate without going back to him. I thought that Kramer would have done better to reveal the truth behind the Morse code message by having Towers read the response from the crewman sent to investigate versus seeing the crewman make his discovery and then having the Sawfish crew discover the truth.

Kramer also was rather fond of two things with his filming. He either loved spinning his camera around or having many medium shots. He also struggled to get some of his actors keep their Australian accents. Perkins started with one, but somewhere along the way he forgot he was not American. He was a bit blank as Holmes.

Fred Astaire did better with his Australian accent. It is nice to see him show he could do drama, and to be fair to him, he had to read some terrible and heavy-handed lines. Astaire did well when playing an angry drunk, full of dissolution by how humanity blew it up to coin a phrase. He was rarely given a chance to do drama, but he could do it well. 

Gardner was somehow Australian by way of North Carolina, but she did give a surprisingly strong dramatic performance. She is here still a great beauty. However, I found this to be a deeper, richer performance. As she talks about her past and the regret of never having the chance of walking down the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, she does move the viewer. Peck was his usual moral rectitude self, up to where one wonders why, even drunk, Moira would want him.

On the Beach is long, boring and preachy. It has little to recommend it, and outside The Deer Hunter may be the worst date movie ever. 


Friday, August 18, 2023

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny: A Review




I am not so enamored of Indiana Jones that I have a fierce attachment to the character. My first encounter with Indy is when my Mom took me to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in theaters. My memories of this are extremely vague, but apparently, I ran out of the theater screaming at one particular point. I'll let you guess at exactly what point in the movie had me flee in terror. I might have done better to have repeated this after watching Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Simultaneously trying to recapture the pasts and move forward into the future, Dial of Destiny is more like an unwilling zombie forced out of its tomb when it would rather just stay buried. 

Nazi Germany, 1944. As World War II is coming to a fiery close, Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), aided by British archaeologist Basil Shaw (Toby Jones) is deep in German territory looking to take the fabled Spear of Destiny from the Nazis. While the Spear of Destiny is a fake, Nazi fellow traveler Dr. Jurgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen) tells the Nazis that another object they posses is genuine. It is the Antikythera: the Dial of Destiny created by Archimedes. Jones and Shaw manage to eventually outwit the Nazis and dump part of the Dial of Destiny.

New York, 1969. Dr. Jones is now alone, depressed and on the verge of total collapse. His wife Marion has left him, his son Mutt has been killed in Vietnam, and he is about to formally retire from teaching college. Enter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Basil's daughter and Jones' goddaughter. Claiming to want to merely investigate the Dial of Destiny, we learn that she is really an antiquities smuggler and steals the half that Jones kept at the college to sell on the black market.

It is now a chase to get this piece, as Voller now works for NASA, is also on the quest to retrieve it. He believes putting together the Dial of Destiny will allow him to go back to Nazi Germany to correct Hitler's mistakes and win the war. It then becomes a wild hunt through Tangiers, the Aegean Sea and Greece to locate the other half of the Dial. Once obtained, our heroes and heroines face death and time travel before their adventure ends.

Truth be told, I think I skipped a lot of plot in Dial of Destiny because Dial of Destiny has a lot of plot. Far too much in this two-and-a-half-hour plus film. The Tangiers chase scene, for example, introduces an Indian tycoon who got screwed over by Helena (in more ways than one). Who was he? Why was he there? Why was he never brought up again? After he failed to capture her in Tangiers, he evidentially just gave up looking for her. 

What was the point of all that?  Was it to set up some Helena spinoff that audiences will most likely never see, let alone care about? Same with Helena's sidekick Teddy Kumar (Ethann Isidore). He is just there to serve as Helena's aide, but does his existence show a tender, dare I say, motherly side to her? More and more, Dial of Destiny did not know what it wanted us to think of Helena. Is she an adventuress, living off her wits? Is she a shameless hussy, sleeping her way through the world to get what she wants? Is she a daughter seeking to redeem her father's memory?

She can't be all of the above. If Dial of Destiny had settled on one trait for Helena, we would have had a better film. Her character could have been Indy's eager but naïve protégé. She could have been a bright but inexperienced student caught up in the adventure who can fill in information for and to Indy. She could have been the daughter seeking her father's redemption. Alas, because we are in the "Girl Boss/Slay Queen" Era, we have to have a female character who overpowers the male lead at every turn. She even manages to have a punch strong enough to knock Indy out for apparently days. 

Reducing this to a battle between an "aging graverobber" (which is how I think Helena refers to her godfather) and a "international woman of mystery" (as Helena clearly sees herself) does not build up her character.  

Come to think of it, the character of Teddy, Helena's Boy Friday, could also have been cut. This effort to give Helena her version of Short Round failed for a variety of reasons. I think the primary reason is that Teddy seemed far too contemporary for the film. Granted, the film takes place in 1969, but somehow both Isidore's performance and Teddy the character felt like they were from 2023. Teddy openly saying that he thought Indiana Jones knew the Wright Brothers personally felt less like he was a naïve kid and more like a mean-spirited one.

So much bloat dooms Dial of Destiny. John Rhys-Davies is pointless as Sallah, a way to needlessly insert him into things. Why have him in New York as a taxi driver when he would have fit in better as his man in Tangiers? The entire sequence where Indy, Helena and Teddy visit his until now unknown friend Renato (Antonio Banderas) could also have been cut entirely. As a side note, at the Dial of Destiny screening I attended, the audience burst out into laughter when Banderas came on the screen. Read into that whatever you like. 

Dial of Destiny has four credited screenwriters, including director James Mangold. It is impossible for me to believe that there were not more people attempting to put things into the film. Even if there were only four writers, how any of them failed to avoid a great cinematic sin is beyond me. That sin is telling and then showing. Early in the film, Jones tells us how Basil was driven bonkers by his obsession with the Dial of Destiny. About an hour into the film, when Jones and Helena are flying to Tangiers, we get a flashback where we see exactly what we were told. Why, oh why did the filmmakers opt to tell and later show?

A lot of Dial of Destiny makes no sense. Jones does not recognize Helena until she mentions Basil, then he starts calling her "Wombat". Indiana Jones is shot and appears close to death, but once he's up in the air about to fly back in time, he has the strength to fight Nazis, save Helena from falling out of a plane before jumping out with her himself. Once he's back on the ground, I guess he remembered he had been shot and was bleeding profusely, so he's dying again.

As another side note, I was unaware that the CIA was not only hiring black female agents in 1969, but giving them prominent assignments. I support representation in film, but not to where it veers close to historical inaccuracy. When Agent Mason (Shaunette Renée Wilson) is killed, it's a sign of the film's misguided nature that it thinks we will care. 

Curiously, an element that has been highly criticized is one of the film's few saving graces. As I watched the pre-title sequence (which to be fair ran longer than I think it should), I thought it was the bright spot in the film. The de-aging of Ford was not perfect, but it was better than I thought it would be. Moreover, I thought how this section would have made for a good short film, closer to the Indiana Jones Chronicles series. If Dial of Destiny had been just the World War II section, we could have had a good short film.

Even if they had opted to cast a younger actor as the young Dr. Jones, we could have had a good film. Instead, the filmmakers had to kowtow to fans who would accept no one other than Ford. Yet the same fan base apparently would embrace the empowered Helena? 

Ford looks bored throughout all of this, as if he wants us to know his heart is not in this. Waller-Bridge is unsettled in her role, but she is not a charming rogue or femme fatale or plucky sidekick. Instead, she's an obnoxious, smug, almost sadistic know-it-all who belittles Jones at every opportunity. Even when she is shown to be wrong, like when Jones is able to fix the tuk-tuk, she does not want to admit she could be wrong. 

Mads Mikkelsen doesn't go far as the Nazi Voller/Schmidt (his new name when working with NASA). He probably is the best of the cast, but that's an awful low bar to cross.

For a film that cost a purported $300 million (though I suspect it was more expensive), it has shockingly bad visual effects. The chase through Tangiers in particular is terribly fake-looking. 

If not for a surprisingly good opening section, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny would be a bigger disaster than it already is. There is no reason to have made Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Fortunately, neither Harrison Ford nor Phoebe Waller-Bridge will get the chance to demolish Indy's already wrecked legacy. 

Pity those involved in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny cannot use said dial to turn back time and have us forget the horror that was this film. 


Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941): A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Carole Lombard.

While Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense, there is one outlier in his oeuvre that still puzzles people today: the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Short and breeze, Mr. & Mrs. Smith works well despite its questionable logic. 

David Smith (Robert Montgomery) and his wife Ann (Carole Lombard) are a battling but ultimately couple. After their last three-day fight ends, Ann asks a rhetorical question: if he could do it over again, would he marry her?

David goes for the honest route and says No. While he loves her, he would keep his freedom first and for a bit longer. This is an exceptionally dumb answer, but it turns out to be prophetic. The clerk from where they got married comes to New York and tells David that, due to a legal technicality, their marriage is invalid. Unfortunately for David, the clerk is an old family friend of Ann's, and he stops by to see her and tells her the same.

David thinks he'll get a mistress first, then a wife. He did not count on Ann's rage at his attempted seduction. Soon, Ann is living the single girl life while David is relegated to living at his club. She also is wooed by Jefferson "Jeff" Custer (Gene Raymond), a Southern gentleman who is also David's law partner. As David continues his efforts to win his wife back, Ann has growing and conflicting feelings for her potentially former husband. Will our cuckoo lovebirds find each other's love nests?

I figure many would be astonished at the idea that Alfred Hitchcock could make a straightforward screwball comedy. However, Mr. & Mrs. Smith proves that Hitchcock was capable of working in this genre. The movie moves quite quickly to where one is surprised that so much can fit into a breezy 94 minutes. 

One can see how well Hitchcock could work within this genre in certain scenes. For example, there is a great moment when both David and Ann end up in a swanky nightclub. A clearly embarrassed David is already aghast at the girls his club friend Chuck (Jack Carson) whipped up for them. His first attempts to fool Ann by miming a conversation with the more attractive female next to him is amusing. That is followed by his disastrous efforts to get out of the club by giving himself a bloody nose.

Not to be outdone, Lombard has a great moment herself when Ann and Jeff go to the World's Fair and are stuck on a ride where they must endure the rain. Seeing the elegant Ann all wet and flustered, followed by her efforts to be coy with a courtly but drunk Jeff show Lombard's skills as a comedienne. She has another great moment when she expresses some puzzlement over why her wedding suit no longer fits three years later. The gag works, and Lombard sells her mix of embarrassment and attempted befuddlement well.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith has not only amusing comic bits but a surprising amount of risqué moments. Early on, Ann is playing a version of footsie with David, pulling away as soon as he says he would not remarry her. David at one point writes, "Miss Krausheimer" when thinking about his unexpected situation with Ann. He then crosses it out and substitutes "Mistress" for "Miss". While "mistress" is technically used correctly, the implications around "mistress" are all but poking at the censors. The film ends with her skis crossing each other, which is as overt a suggestion of sex as the censors would allow (or miss).

Lombard and Montgomery work well together as this oddball couple. Lombard had an exceptional ability to be simultaneously glamourous and silly. Here, she does wonderfully as Ann, who has something of a childlike innocence when it comes to David but who is also understandably angry at his behavior. She has a wonderful moment late in Mr. & Mrs. Smith when she attempts to hoodwink him by pretending to be with Jeff by making a lot of noise and carrying a one-sided conversation with him. 

Montgomery too does great work as David. To be fair, it is hard not to see David as a jerk, forever doing or saying idiotic and insensitive things. That we like him at all is a credit to his abilities as an actor. In smaller roles, Gene Raymond and Jack Carson were amusing. Raymond's Jeff had a great moment when playing drunk. The Southern accent was not overdone, and even allowed for some humor at his expense. David, upon learning that Jeff has asked Ann out, calls him a "hillbilly ambulance chaser". Not to be outdone, Jefferson's parents are horrified when learning of the Ann/David situation. "What kind of white trash are your going around with?", Jeff's parents angrily ask.

Carson's more genial and randy Chuckie was equally amusing and almost stole the film in his few scenes. His telephone call to one of his girls, complete with blowing kisses, was light and enjoyable.

Norman Krasna's screenplay flows well, even if the logic of the plot is extremely thin (it's highly dubious that the marriage would be invalid due to a geographical dispute over who could perform the ceremony). Still, a film like Mr. & Mrs. Smith does not exist out of logic. In fact, it is the illogic that makes it more amusing.

Finally, Mr. & Mrs. Smith was the final film released in Carole Lombard's lifetime. Her tragic early death in an airplane crash is still one of the greatest losses to film. One can only imagine how, had she lived, she might have become one of Hitchcock's cool blondes in a more dramatic role. 

Alfred Hitchcock had comedy bits in some of his films and at least one other film, The Trouble With Harry, is more comedic albeit of a black variety. As the only pure comedy in his filmography, Mr. & Mrs. Smith more than stands on its own as a nice, pleasant film. 

Hitch, we hardly knew you...