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Short reviews of the other stuff I watch

 

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The Girl Of The Golden West (1938)

Mary Robbins (Jeanette MacDonald) is the lone woman in a remote section of the California gold-fields, where she operates a saloon called “The Poker”. The area is plagued by bandits led by Ramirez (Nelson Eddy), an American posing as a Mexican. Sworn to capture him is the local sheriff – and professional gambler – Jack Rance (Walter Pidgeon), who is in love with Mary. Mary evades Rance’s marriage proposal and sets out for her yearly visit to Monterey, where she sings in the church belonging to Father Sienna (H.B. Warner). On the road, Mary’s carriage is held up by a masked Ramirez. Unable to forget her, he follows her to Monterey, where he courts her in the guise of a young army officer. Soon afterwards, Ramirez learns that most of the gold mined in the area is held at a local saloon. He goes to reconnoitre the situation – and to his dismay finds that Mary is the owner of the establishment he plans to rob. As she warmly welcomes “Lieutenant Johnson”, Ramirez realises he must make a grave decision, while his presence at The Poker arouses both the jealousy and the suspicions of Jack Rance.... Adapted from a play by David Belasco, and an opera by Puccini, this is an overlong but quite enjoyable outing for Jeanette and Nelson, in which they play a terribly distracting game of “competing accents”. He wins, because his, ahem, “Mexican” accent is a fake, assumed as part of his disguise; while Jeanette is supposed to be genuine in her effort to sound like a grizzled 1890s prospector....consarn it. Starting out as the usual light-hearted fare, The Girl Of The Golden West takes an interesting sobering turn into a more western-like movie (although still with the occasional musical interlude), climaxing in a tense scene at Mary’s snow-bound cottage, where after trying to hide the wounded Ramirez, she offers to play cards with Jack Rance for the bandit’s life – and for her hand in marriage. Walter Pidgeon is oddly cast but effective as Rance, while the supporting performance from Buddy Ebsen as “Alabama”, the shy blacksmith also suffering from unrequited love for Mary, matches the shifting tone of the film itself, starting out perilously close to Odious Comic Relief-dom, and ending up both serious and touching. Obviously a film like this is not for all tastes, but for those who like this kind of thing, I think it’s one of J&N’s better efforts.

Gold-Diggers Of 1933 (1933)

Living under an assumed name, Boston blue blood Robert Treat Bradford (Dick Powell) tries to make it on his own as a Broadway songwriter, only to have his cover blown when he is forced to replace the “juvenile” lead of the show he’s written, who’s come down with lumbago. Outraged older brother J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and family attorney Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) come to town to try and break up Powell’s budding romance with aspiring chorine Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), but end up being taken for a ride by the real gold-diggers, Keeler’s pals Carol King (Joan Blundell) and Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon). Warners’ follow-up to the smash hit 42nd Street has certain points over its famous predecessor (there’s less of Ruby Keeler singing, for one thing) and more than its share of bizarre and unexpected touches, like Ginger Rogers singing We’re In The Money in pig-Latin, or the fact that the Pettin' In The Park number very casually features a black couple amongst its petters; you wouldn’t get that from any studio but Warners. Also typical Warners is that this essentially frothy mixture of show tunes, cynicism and sexual innuendo proceeds to blindside its audience by climaxing in the shattering Depression era anthem, My Forgotten Man.

The Gorilla Man (1943)

During WWII, a group of British commandos carry out a daring raid in France, learning in the process German plans for an invasion of England. The leader of the men, Captain Craig Killian (John Loder), is injured in the raid, and to save time is taken to a sanatorium on the English coast. However, unknown to the authorities, the sanatorium is a front for a nest of Nazi spies headed by Dr Dorn (Paul Cavanagh) and Dr Ferris (John Abbott), along with an Englishwoman, Nurse Kruger (Mary Field), whose husband and son in Germany are being used to compel her obedience. Dr Dorn is unable to prevent Killian from passing on his information to General Devon (Lumsden Hare), but concocts an elaborate plan to discredit Killian by making it seem that his experiences have left him mentally unbalanced and violent. Soon, wherever the Captain goes, a dead body is sure to be found.... This is one weird little effort – sort of a war movie, sort of a horror movie, and sort of a suspense movie. It is supposed to be about Killian’s battle to attend a meeting of the brass at General Devon’s house – and to convince his superiors of his sanity – but it is the script’s amazingly gruesome details that linger when the film is over. Most of these come courtesy of Dr Ferris, who is both a Nazi and wanted as a “psychopathic killer” in Glasgow. Inflicted with the most unnerving pair of glasses ever, Dr Ferris has a habit of experimenting on anyone unfortunate enough to be brought to the hospital....all for “the advancement of science”, you understand. (“I see,” says Dorn, when Ferris admits to working on “nerve reflexes”, “that’s why you didn’t administer an anaesthetic.”) It is also Ferris who is responsible for the bodies left in poor Killian’s wake – “their heads almost torn from their bodies”. The really unsettling thing about all this is that it’s just a side-plot, with these particulars tossed at the viewer in the most casual way imaginable. The film’s inappropriate title, by the way, is the newspaper nickname bestowed upon Killian in reference to his extraordinary climbing abilities (he scales a near-sheer cliff in the course of the raid). Not that gorillas are known for their climbing abilities....but I guess “The Gibbon Man” didn’t give off quite the right vibe.

Hand Of Death (1976)

During the Qing Dynasty, betrayal from within their own ranks sees the disciples of the Shaolin Monastery and their master slaughtered and the few survivors scattered through the land. Yun Fei (Tan Tao-liang) is given the mission of killing the treacherous Shih Shao-feng (James Tien Chung), who has made himself master of a strategically located town and surrounded himself with both Manchu officers under the leadership of Tu Ching (Sammo Hung Kam-po) and a personal bodyguard of eight fighters, each skilled in a particular style of deadly combat. Hand Of Death is one of those films that gains importance retrospectively. It was one of the period martial arts films made early in his career by John Woo, and unites him for the only time with both Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan (who, this early in his career, is billed as Chen Yuang-long). Jackie has a supporting good guy role as a woodsman who has “played dumb” for three years while waiting for a chance to avenge his elder brother, killed by Shih’s men; while Sammo, dressed in less than flattering Manchu robes and afflicted with the scariest set of fake teeth you ever will see, is Shih’s chief flunky and a right bastard. John Woo himself plays Chang Yi, the leader of a local revolt whom Yun Fei must escort to safety. Hand Of Death is, frankly, a fairly clunky effort, particularly during the early martial arts scenes, which look more like blocking exercises than the real deal. (It doesn’t help that the print I saw is heavily overdubbed, with every arm movement, sword passage and spear thrust accompanied by thunderous WHOOOMP WHOOMP noises.) Things improve as the film goes on, thankfully, and the two major battles between Tan Tao-liang and James Tien Chung are both very enjoyable. Despite its age and setting, Hand Of Death is a typical John Woo film, with men finding redemption, women nearly non-existent, and most of the likeable characters dead by the end. For myself, the highlight of the film is when Yun Fei, having been left hanging upside-down and bound hand and foot after being beaten by Shih’s guards, manages to free himself by undoing the ropes around his feet with his teeth. Damn. I wish I had abs like that....

The Heavenly Body (1944)

Astronomer William S. Whitley (William Powell) is at the peak of his professional success, discovering a comet and predicting its collision with the moon. Whitley’s night-work puts a strain upon his marriage to Vicki (Hedy Lamarr), who despite her husband’s certain disapproval, allows her neighbour Nancy Potter (Spring Byington) to take her to astrologer Madame Sybil (Fay Bainter). To Whitley’s horror, Vicki soon becomes an unshakable devotee of astrology – going so far, when Mme Sybil predicts a new love in her life, to start planning the divorce.... Ugh! This “comedy” is so painful in so many different ways, it’s hard to pick which is the worst. We can start, though, with how plain unlikeable all the characters are. For a start, William S. Whitley is a condescending know-it-all. At the same time, Vicki is an annoying idiot. So far, they deserve each other. When James Craig shows up as the answer to Mme Sybil’s prediction, foreign correspondent turned air raid warden Lloyd Hunter, you feel rather sorry for him getting caught between these two....only then he turns out to be just as obnoxious as they are. (He’s the kind who, having travelled in other countries, thinks he knows more about them than the people who live there – and likes to correct them.) The film never bothers to explain Vicki’s sudden devotion to astrology; there’s not even any real implication that this is her passive-aggressive way of hitting back at her constantly absent husband. In the worst Bad Comedy way, her abrupt conversion is just ’coz. The curious thing about all this is that despite Whitley’s, and by extension the film’s, rude and jeering dismissal of astrology, as far as we learn Mme Sybil is generally correct in her predictions. As if realising belatedly that it has written itself into a corner in this respect, the script’s way of dismissing her is via an odd double-play: she is exposed not as a cheat, but as – gasp! – a hoarder. Yes, this was a war-time film, although you’d never guess it from the calm opulence of the characters’ lives; I suppose you’d call it “escapism”. The Heavenly Body does liven up for about five minutes during its home run, with the otherwise pointless introduction of a dozen vodka-swilling Russians and one disgustingly cute dog, but by then it’s far too little, far too late.

Hedda Gabler (1981)

Like the curate’s egg, it’s good in parts.... I actually have no idea what that expression means, but it is nevertheless a good description of this rather perfunctory rendering of Henrik Ibsen’s famous play. Diana Rigg is Hedda, dwindling into marriage with professorial hopeful George Tesman (Dennis Lill), allowing him to devote his life to making her happy, and imagining she is conferring a great favour on him by so doing. Already bored and disgusted with her oblivious husband, faced with a future of provincial visits and dinners, Hedda longs for “power over someone’s destiny”. Opportunity presents itself when she becomes the confidante of an old school acquaintance, Thea Elvsted (Elizabeth Bell). Thea has left her husband, discreetly, while she searches for her new love, Eilert Lǿvborg (Philip Bond), who is both Hedda’s former lover and Tesman’s professional rival. Having long wasted his talent in alcoholism, Lǿvborg has sobered up under Thea’s influence and produced a work of astonishing originality and power. Resenting Thea’s power over Lǿvborg, resenting even more her own comparative impotence, Hedda makes up her mind to play a significant role in the fates of these two people. A stag party at the house of Judge Brack (Alan Dobie) leads to a shameful relapse for Lǿvborg and, as Hedda sees her chance to strike, to disaster, scandal and death.... While never beginning to get at the ambiguities and mysteries of the play, this version of Hedda Gabler is just good enough to frustrate the hell out of you by not being better. It pulls off some scenes but not others; brings the characters to life at times, but not always. For example, Elizabeth Bell and Philip Bond are fine in their scenes together; but as Thea, Bell never manages to suggest the kind of desperation that could lead her to trust in Hedda, who she knows from bitter experience is manipulative and a bully and, frankly, not to be trusted. Similarly, Diana Rigg and Alan Dobie strike sparks as Hedda spars with the judge, mistakenly believing herself in charge of the situation; but at the same time, Dobie never really succeeds in conveying the selfish malevolance underlying the surface bonhomie of this petty power-broker. Still, the wreck of lives that comprises the final acts of the play cannot help but affect the viewer, whatever one makes of Hedda in general, and this Hedda in particular. A nice bonus in this version is a supporting performance by Kathleen Byron, as Tesman’s devoted Aunt Juliana – and while good manners prompts a reference to Black Narcissus here, honesty provokes a cry of, “Ooh, Twins Of Evil!”

Hero And The Terror (1988)

A Chuck Norris film with emotional depth!? Gedouddahere! In this one Chuck is Danny O’Brien, a cop unimaginatively nicknamed “Hero” after single-handedly taking down serial killer Simon Moon (Jack O’Halloran) – even more unimaginatively nicknamed “The Terror” – who killed twenty-two women, keeping their bodies hidden in order to “play with them”. As Moon serves out his time in a psychiatric facility, O’Brien must undergo therapy, unable to shake the memories and suffering recurrent nightmares over his discovery of Moon’s lair. Three years later, O’Brien’s life seems in order. His pregnant girlfriend, Kay (Brynn Thayer) – formally his therapist – moves into his apartment, and O’Brien proposes marriage. But then comes word that Moon has escaped. The van he was driving crashes into a river, and although his body isn’t found, he is presumed dead. But O’Brien knows better.... This was Chuck’s last collaboration with the Go-Go Boys, and it’s kind of an uneven send-off. There is less action than normal, and an uncertain air pervades the touchy-comic tone of the relationship between O’Brien and Kay; but the straightforward attempt to give this story more heart that usual is unexpected and interesting, if not always successful. However, there are parts of it I like: particularly its admission – and in a Chuck Norris film, too! – that experiences like Danny O’Brien’s are not just shrugged off with a laugh and a beer, but take a brutal toll. The high point of Hero And The Terror comes when O’Brien literally finds himself inside his nightmare, as he stumbles into Moon’s new lair; while the final chase/confrontation is quite tensely staged. I also like the heavily pregnant Kay’s restaurant meltdown, in which she declares herself to be “old, and fat, and ugly”, and has a cold-feet attack encompassing everything from the baby to her moving in with O’Brien to the sabbatical she’s taken from work. Of course, there are groan-inducing moments, too – plenty of them – like O’Brien fainting when Kay goes into labour, and the demise of O’Brien’s partner (Steve James). It’s not like the white hero’s black partner has to work all that hard to get himself killed, even under normal circumstances; but here Danny has Bill spend the night alone at the restored theatre that he’s pretty certain is the killer’s new hideout – and then Bill rushes to meet his manifest destiny by taking off his gun and leaving it lying on a seat while he works out by running laps of the auditorium. Where this film really crosses the line, though, is its absolutely shameless theft of four of the most famous chords in horror movie history: Simon Moon’s scenes are all underscored by the unmistakable sound of Harry Manfredini’s chh-chh-chh-chh. They don’t even pretend they aren’t doing it! – and it completely punctures the film’s efforts to be taken seriously. Still – points for trying.

The Heroes Of Telemark (1965)

Anthony Mann’s penultimate film as director is an account of the Norwegian underground’s attempts to destroy the German production of deuterium oxide, “heavy water”, needed in the creation of the atomic bomb. This compressed account of events, a year and a half’s conflict whittled down to three onscreen months, opens with resistance fighter Knud Straud (Richard Harris) coming into possession of microfilm detailing operations within the German-controlled Vemork plant near the town of Rjukan. Insufficiently knowledgeable himself, Straud takes the film to physics professor Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas) who, despite his lack of interest in the resistance movement, recognises the grim significance of the film’s content and allows Straud to recruit him. The two men lead a band that commandeers a ferry, making a perilous journey to England. Their information is examined, and sent to America – to Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein – for final confirmation. Joining forces, the British and the Norwegian resistance plan a raid to destroy the plant. Disaster strikes when the gliders carrying the British commandoes crash when landing. The Norwegians go ahead anyway and by torturous effort, scale the unguarded cliff faces at one side of the plant, infiltrate it, and blow up the heavy water production room. But the Germans have contingency plans; and within two weeks production has resumed. As time passes and the heavy water accumulates, the Allies must consider ever more desperate alternatives.... The Heroes Of Telemark is an uneven film, suffering particularly from some clumsy scripting and insufficiently detailed characterisations. (And while this may be petty, it also suffers from Kirk Douglas’s accent. With Douglas surrounded predominantly by Brits and Scandinavians – and even the occasional authentic German, most notably Anton Diffring, being all steely-eyed and threatening as usual – his New York-bred tones are like the proverbial sore thumb.) Still, the film is not without its merits, and the subject matter certainly deserves attention – even if history now argues with some of the events depicted. (The documentary The True Heroes Of Telemark has much to say about the film’s inaccuracies – which, it might be pointed out, occasionally plays down rather than exaggerates the facts: the film has the British paratroopers all killed in the glider crash, when some of them were captured, tortured and executed.) The film was shot on location in Norway, at the actual site of events, and although the result is spectacular, it is also a mixed blessing, dramatically speaking, as the sheer grandeur of the story’s setting threatens to overwhelm its characters. One extraordinary sequence is an in-action ski-pursuit, achieved by hiring the Norwegian Olympic ski coach and putting him in charge of the camera; while the cliff-face assault upon the plant is depicted with tense and painful realism. Ultimately, however, the film’s primary virtue is its detached depiction of the shifting personal moralities of the main characters; its recognition of the difference between recognising the need for action, and taking action; and its investigation of where, in war time, a line can be drawn – or whether it can be drawn at all. Rolf Pedersen is at first quite cynically passive, content to ride out the Occupation without rocking the boat; his initial response to Knud’s attempt to recruit him is to point out that the main outcome of Knud’s own activities is a lot of shot hostages – a charge the film never refutes, by the way. But Pedersen far more than the others understands the magnitude of the danger; and over time it is he who becomes the truly ruthless one, set upon destroying the heavy water at any cost; while Knud and Anna (Ulla Jacobsson), Rolf’s ex-wife and another resistance fighter, begin to question the necessity of the mission, unable to accept the civilian casualties that must result from pursuing it, or Rolf’s word-picture of a world where Germany has the bomb. The final attack upon the heavy water requires the bombing of the ferry on which it is being transported – and upon which two of the local passengers are the widow of the one man killed during the original raid on the plant, and her new baby. Even Rolf, it turns out, has his limits....

Highly Dangerous (1950)

British entomologist Frances Grey (Margaret Lockwood) is contacted by government official Hedgerley (Naunton Wayne) and asked to undertake a dangerous mission into Eastern Europe, where reports indicate a new form of biological warfare is under development, using a particular strain of insect. After some hesitation, Frances agrees, and sets out posing as a travel agent investigating tourism in the area. Almost immediately, however, she attracts the attention of a man who turns out to be Commandant Anton Razinski (Marius Goring), the head of the local police. When Frances reaches her destination, her contact is not there to meet her; unbeknownst to Frances, he has already met a grim fate. Instead, Frances falls in with American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark), who has been banished to this gloomy region by his editor as punishment for a politically unwise article. Recognising Frances from a magazine article, Bill decides, to her frustration, to stick with her, scenting a story that will put an end to his exile. Things take a bleak turn when Frances falls into the hands of Commandant Razinski and must suffer through imprisonment and interrogation. Having stood up to the treatment, Frances responds not by running away with her tail between her legs, but swearing that she will carry out her mission – to the horror of the bewildered Bill, who rapidly finds himself in way over his head.... Yet another spy thriller about amateurs outdoing a literal army of professionals, Highly Dangerous is ridiculous, of course, but still quite a lot of fun – not least because, let’s face it, how many films do you know where the hero is a female entomologist?? Anyway, we’re certainly not meant to take any of this seriously. The film signals its intentions early on by treating us to an episode of a radio serial to which Frances’s young nephew is devoted, featuring the adventures of “Frank Conway and his sidekick, Rusty”....and later has Frances masquerading under the name “Frances Conway”. (Bill is understandably puzzled when she starts calling him “Rusty”.) Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark make a likeable couple, while Marious Goring is both sinister and charming as Razinski. Naunton Wayne and Wilfrid Hyde-White are the British officials mixed up in all this, both of them so very proper in the midst of all the scheming and violence. Highly Dangerous is worth watching purely for the sequence in which Frances, having withstood interrogation, is drugged – presumably with sodium pentathol – in order, as Razinski puts it, “to plum the very depths of your mind”....only for the startled police officer to discover that the depths of a female entomologist’s mind can be a very scary place indeed....

Hitler’s Children (1943)

In pre-war Germany, Professor “Nicky” Nichols (Kent Smith) runs the American Colony School, which is next door to a German school. To Nicky’s growing worry, his students and the German youth fall ever more frequently into fights. Particularly hostile – at least at first – are the German boy Karl Bruner (Tim Holt) and the American girl Anna Miller (Bonita Granville). Attracted to each other against their will, the two become friends and spend much of their time together; but it is not long before their ideological differences drive them apart. Years later, while Anna is working as a teacher at the school, she is claimed by the Nazis as a German citizen by birth, despite her American breeding, and sent to an indoctrination camp. As Nicky works feverishly to win her release, he discovers to his horror that Karl is now a Gestapo officer. Reminded of his past, Karl must fight his feelings for Anna, while the girl’s rebellion against Nazism puts her life in dire danger.... It’s hard to know how to react to these mid-war propaganda pieces. On one hand, we know now that the various horrors depicted are not only true, but grossly understated. On the other, such films still come across as uncomfortably exploitative and, somehow, dishonest. It’s probably the selective vision that makes them seem this way: Hitler’s Children is desperately concerned for the American Anna, but hasn’t too many thoughts to spare for the “undesirables” – non-Germans – taken at the same time as her. Concentration camps rate a mention only in passing – at this time, American films were still propagating the notion that these were just a more severe kind of labour camp – while the J-word is never used, of course. Another problem is the indiscriminate nature of the film’s moral outrage: it is just as horrified by the thought of a girl having an illegitimate baby as it is by a state-run program of enforced sterilisation as punishment for “incorrect political thought”. The plot, such as it is, is undermined by its own contrivances. Why on earth Anna’s German-born parents, safe in New York, don’t get her the hell out of there years earlier is a mystery that is never addressed. Nor is Karl’s own American birth, which is brought up at the beginning, ever mentioned again: given the wavering of his commitment to Nazism, you’d think his superiors would be using this “flaw” as a stick to beat him with. The film’s ending is also absurd, but absurd in a way very popular with screenwriters of the time (see This Land Is Mine for another example of it). Tim Holt and Bonita Granville are quite good as the film’s Romeo and Juliet. The ubiquitous Kent Smith has another thankless “everyman” role; Otto Kruger really lays it on as Karl’s Gestapo boss; and H.B. Warner has a moving cameo as a Christian bishop who makes a fatal stand. Made for only $200,000, Hitler’s Children was a surprise smash hit for RKO, grossing well over $3,000,000. (Just to put that in context – it out-grossed King Kong!!)

Holiday Affair (1949)

War widow Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), working as a comparison shopper to support her young son, Timothy (Gordon Gebert), inadvertently gets toy salesman Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum) fired. Feeling guilty, Connie agrees to have lunch with Steve – hotdogs and peanuts at Central Park Zoo – and as she spends time with him, finds herself beginning to be torn between her growing feeling for him, her almost-commitment to long-time beau, lawyer Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), and her memories of her tragically brief marriage.... This is a rather sweet example of one of the oldest tropes in romantic comedy film-making, the woman meeting her “soul mate” after becoming engaged to Mr Steady. Where it scores points over most of its competition – and I can think of quite a few recent films that could have learnt a lot from this one – is in playing entirely fair by all of its characters. This is particularly true in the case of Carl Davis. Instead of taking the soft option of making Carl obviously the wrong man for Connie, he’s an attractive marital prospect: nice, and smart, and genuinely attached to Timothy. He just....isn’t the right guy. The casting of Wendell Corey is interesting here. Corey could be terribly dull on screen, but they don’t even play that card: instead, the screenplay generously pitches to his delicious way with a sardonic line of dialogue; a talent not exploited nearly enough over the actor’s career. Holiday Affair is highlighted by two marvellous set-pieces, first what ought to be, but miraculously isn’t, the world’s most uncomfortable Christmas dinner – attended by Connie, her son, the two men who want to marry her, and her late husband’s parents – and secondly, a scene at a police station after Steve is mistakenly arrested as a mugger, a sequence stolen by Harry Morgan as the desk sergeant who has to sort the whole mess out. There is never really much doubt about how the various relationships in Holiday Affair are going to work themselves out, but the journey is a lot of fun.

Hotel Reserve (1944)

In 1938, French-Austrian medical student Peter Vardassy (James Mason) is on the verge of obtaining his French citizenship when his holiday is abruptly interrupted, and he finds himself accused of espionage. The bewildered Peter is interrogated by intelligence officer Michel Beghin (Julien Mitchell), and learns to his horror that on the roll of film he put in for development were photographs of French military installations. Peter is initially relieved to learn that he is not the real suspect, but that, as Beghin knows, his camera was somehow swapped with that of the real spy, who is one of Peter’s fellow guests at the Hotel Reserve. However, Peter’s relief turns to dismay when Beghin compels him to act as his inside man, threatening him with deportation back to Austria if he refuses.... Based on an Eric Ambler novel, Hotel Reserve is an uneven effort that can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s a light-hearted or serious spy thriller, and vacillates fatally between the two attitudes. There’s certainly nothing funny about the threat used by Beghin to coerce Peter into co-operation – “First jail, then deportation, then the Gestapo” – or about the subplot involving a hotel guest who turns out to be living under a false name; but for the most part this is a fairly trivial exercise following Peter’s blundering efforts at playing spy, and the “colourful characters” who make up the rest of the hotel’s guests. Moreover, the real spy turns out to be exactly who you expect, and the ending is one of those annoying set-ups where there are a dozen professionals around, but only the amateur hero manages to catch the bad guy.

I’ll Wait For You (1941)

The proverbial luck of mob strong-arm man Jonathan “Lucky” Wilson (Robert Sterling) runs out when Lieutenant McFarley (Paul Kelly) and Sergeant Brent (Don Costello) persuade some of his monetary victims to sing. Apprehended, Wilson makes a break for it, only to take a bullet in the shoulder as he flees. He nevertheless makes it as far as the Connecticut countryside before collapsing, where he is found and taken in by the Millers, a farming family. Ordered by his boss, Tony Berolli (Reed Hadley), to stay where he is – what could be a better hideout? – Wilson unexpectedly finds himself drawn to the Millers and their simple lifestyle, and particularly to the lovely elder daughter, Pauline (Marsha Hunt).... The plot’s been done to death, of course, but the main problem with this re-working of the old hood-with-a-heart-of-gold chestnut is trying to believe baby-faced Robert Sterling as an intimidating mobster. He may talk like Bogart, and dress like Robert Montgomery – both of whom did much better in similar roles – but really, he’s not fooling anyone; he comes across like a kid playing dress-up in his big brother’s clothes. Moreover, the film asks us to accept not just the magnitude of the Millers’ countrified blindness, but also Wilson’s equally staggering citified ignorance – would you believe he doesn’t know where eggs come from? Still, this slight comedy-drama is worth sticking with for the sequence when Wilson’s police adversaries catch up him, but in the face of the Millers’ sheer niceness, find themselves quite unable to give their quarry away. Trapped on the wrong side of a swollen creek, the three men end up sitting down in company with their oblivious hosts to the world’s most uncomfortable luncheon. Marsha Hunt is certainly worth a man’s reformation as Pauline; Henry Travers and Fay Holden lend credibility to the Millers; and Virginia Weidler has another of her trademark “kid sister” roles. However, it is Paul Kelly as the sardonic McFarley and Don Costello as his boater-hatted, sad-eyed offsider who come away with the honours.

Invader (1996)

More than twenty years after it was sent to Mars and subsequently disappeared, a Viking 2 lander is located in the Californian desert in a highly restricted military zone. The lander is transported to an abandoned army testing facility, where NASA scientist Case Montgomery (Cotter Smith) calls in exo-biologist Dr Grazia Scott (Deidre O’Connell) to help him investigate. The two, along with Case’s NASA colleague, Michael Perkett (Leland Orser), examine the lander and determine that it has been modified, with extra housings attached to the outside. Gracia analyses the dust from the outside of the lander, and confirms that it has indeed been on Mars – and that its presence on Earth can only be the result of extraterrestrial intervention. As the scientists are struggling to come to terms with this realisation, the military arrives. Colonel Pratt (Robert Wisdom) announces that the lander is a matter of national security and that the scientists are forbidden to have any further contact with it. They respond by barricading themselves in with it. A furious Pratt orders his men to cut open the door. As Case tries to download the contents of the lander’s computer into NASA’s system, Grazia hears a noise....and something erupts from one of the housings on the lander. Grazia shrieks for the men outside not to open the door, but they take no notice; and the next moment, an alien life-form is loose within the facility.... Yes, Invader is yet another post-Alien dark-corridors-and-ducts film – but for once you shouldn’t let that put you off. Lacking a budget, a name cast, expensive special effects, impressive sets – well, lacking pretty much everything, really – the film-makers compensated as best they could by serving up – an intelligent script. No, honestly! Perhaps I can best praise Invader by telling you what it doesn’t have: career professionals who behave like tantrum-throwing children; characters advancing the plot by acting stupidly; a male and a female scientist who have, or had, a personal relationship; a psychotic and/or homicidally hard-line senior military officer; explosions in place of ideas. It’s also unusually free of references to other films, even the one it’s clearly inspired by. Well, almost free. There’s an alien autopsy scene that suggests a fondness for John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, and the two scientists are called “Montgomery” and “Scott”, which might be an allusion, or just simple word association. No, what we have here is a thoughtful and interesting little film – with the emphasis on “little”. The budget for this thing must have been nearly non-existent, and what money they did have obviously went on the alien, which in its adult form is pretty damn cool. (In the end they give us too clear a look at it for its own good, but the visual power of that shot, as the newly escaped alien stops and stares up at the full moon in the night sky, more than makes up for any revealed shortcomings.) The story progresses through logical steps, some good tension is generated, and the characters react intelligently as their circumstances alter. I particularly like the evolving relationship between Grazia Scott and Colonel Pratt: initially the two diametric poles, with fairly clichéd viewpoints (she wants to save it for science and communicate with it, he wants to blast it off the planet in the name of national security), both of them soften their stances as the emergency worsens, develop respect for one another’s views and abilities, and end up working together to solve a crisis. Invader does a lot right – a lot – and then.... And then it goes and ruins everything, with an incredibly abrupt and downbeat ending. Well, perhaps “ruins” is putting it a bit strongly; within the context of the story, the ending is actually valid; but it sure isn’t the one we wanted. The performances of the three leads are all solid and convincing, with Deidre O’Connell making a very refreshing female scientist. I also like Raoul O’Connell (related?) as poor Private Jeffers, who’s having the worst day of his entire life.... Invader also features a baby-faced Ryan Phillippe as – get this – “Private Ryan”!

The Unknown Movies Page provides both a review (under the film’s alternative title, Lifeform) and an explanation for the ending. To which I can only respond – “Bugger....”

I Take This Woman (1940)

Georgi Gragore (Hedy Lamarr) travels to the Yucatan with her married lover, Phil Mayberry (Kent Taylor), where he plans to get a quick divorce; but he reneges when his wife, Sandra (Mona Barrie), threatens a divorce suit of his own that will ruin both his name and his career. On the journey home, a despairing Georgi attempts suicide, but is stopped by Dr Karl Decker (Spencer Tracy). Back in New York and at as loss, Georgi finds her way to Decker’s free clinic on the East Side and gets a job there. Decker, already smitten, soon falls in love with her. Georgi agrees to marry Decker, but their relationship is endangered when he feels compelled to try and give her the lifestyle she is accustomed to, and when his insistence that she not run away from her past throws her into company with her old society friends – including Phil Mayberry, who has obtained his divorce.... I Take This Woman had a disastrous production history: the shoot dragged on for over eighteen months as it lost first Josef von Sternberg and then Frank Borzage as director, ending up with journeyman W.S. Van Dyke II, who re-shot nearly the entire thing but was unable to enliven this rather tired tale of a woman who knows her husband is worth a hundred of the heel she’s stuck on, but goes on being stuck on him anyway. The real problem with this film is that it needed to be made by Warners, not MGM. Everything’s fine as long as the story is being played out in nightclubs and at premieres, but it falls on its face as soon as it tries to present us with “the East Side”. MGM never could do poor convincingly: everything’s far too spacious and clean, and the people are embarrassing stereotypes. (Case in point: Willie Best as – God help us! – “Sambo”, opening line: “I’ll be an ape’s uncle!”) In fact, you can tell this is an MGM production from the moment Georgi puts on her mink coat to commit suicide! Actually, all jokes aside, this film enters some fairly worrying territory with its implication that the “correct” response of any “sensitive” woman to male treachery is a suicide attempt. Still, Tracy and Lamarr are worth watching, and the supporting cast is terrific, particularly Verree Teasdale as Georgi’s hyperactive best friend (she gets all of Charles MacArthur’s best lines), and Frances Drake as an elegantly parasitic nightclubber. Larraine Day has a brief early role as the film’s second suicidally-inclined female, and Jack Carson gets one line as the husband of one of Decker’s patients.

Kansas City Bomber (1972)

Single mother Diane “K.C.” Carr (Raquel Welch) struggles to make a living as a professional roller derby skater, having to deal with her constant separations from her children and her mother’s disapproval of her lifestyle. Catching the eye of lecherous businessman Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy), K.C. is transferred to his Portland-based franchise, where she finds herself locked in a bitter struggle for supremacy with fading former star Jackie Burdette (Helena Kallianiotes). This overlong and over-obvious sports drama is sickly compelling as long as the women are out on the rink kicking the shit out of each other, but grows tiresome whenever it focuses instead on the personal travails of its heroine. The screenplay tries to posit K.C. as an innocent abroad, the one nice and sincere person in a world of corruption and violence, but overplays its hand by making her naive to the point of stupidity – and beyond. She’s astonished that the skaters she’s brought in to headline over resent her; she’s astonished that her team mates have a problem with the fact that she’s having an affair with their boss. (The best bit, though, is when her boss-lover gets rid of K.C.’s room-mate, who was kind enough – or dumb enough – to take her in, by trading her without warning. Henry’s “explanation”, that he just wanted to be alone with K.C., is evidently enough to soothe her qualms about this arrangement – so much so, she goes on living in her friend’s now vacated house.) While K.C. is an annoying “heroine”, Kansas City Bomber nevertheless presents a fascinating if depressing portrait of the world of lower-tier sports, and the people who fight to make a living at them. The uncertainty of the life, the boredom and loneliness of the road, and the terror of the future for the aging athlete are all vividly sketched. (This film may well have influenced George Roy Hill’s infinitely superior Slap Shot.) Raquel isn’t a good enough actress to make K.C. credible, but she does a pretty good job on skates. (When it’s her: sometimes it’s obviously a double.) The film’s memorable performances come from its victims: Mary Kay Pass as Lovey, K.C.’s former room-mate; Helena Kallianiotes as borderline alcoholic Jackie; and Norman Alden as roller derby’s eternal butt, “Horrible” Hank Hopkins. A ten-year-old Jodie Foster appears as K.C.’s tomboy daughter.

King Of The Damned (1935)

In a Devil’s Island-like penal colony, Deputy Commandant Montez (Cecil Ramage) learns of valuable mineral deposits on the island, and takes advantage of the illness of his superior, Commandant Courvin (C.M. Hallard), by turning the convicts into a personal road-building and mining crew. Courvin’s daughter, Anna (Helen Vinson), who is also Montez’s fiancé, travels to the colony to nurse her father, unaware that the island is teetering on the brink of a full-scale revolt led by the erudite Convict 83 (Conrad Veidt). Based upon a play by John Chancellor, King Of The Damned works better as a straight drama than as a political allegory, which, given the year of its production, the behaviour of the convicts post-revolt and the colony being Spanish (at least by implication) rather than the usual French, it was certainly intended to be; the film’s ending is so naive in its optimism, you could just cry. (Then again, perhaps we’re supposed to recognise the characters’ hopes as delusive.) Politics aside, the film is an enjoyable example of this odd sub-genre, particularly when it focuses upon 83 and his torn loyalties (on the very eve of the revolt, he learns that he has been pardoned); while the growing attraction between 83 and Anna – conveyed primarily through a series of covert longing glances – pays off marvellously when the naval officer who comes to rescue her discovers to his bemusement that she doesn’t want to be rescued. (“No, no, you don’t understand....I’m with him.”) Also of note are the scope of the production – the huge number of extras employed here makes the revolt more credible than usual – and the fact that one of the main architects of the revolt is a black convict, who is treated without a breath of separatism or condescension. Alas, conditions in the penal colony were apparently a bit more advanced than those operating in the British film industry at the time: the actor playing the black convict is unbilled, and I have been unable to discover his name.

King Solomon’s Mines (1937)

In Africa, the eternally optimistic treasure-hunting Irishman Patrick O’Brien (Arthur Sinclair) and his loyal and loving daughter, Kathleen (Anna Lee), finally admit defeat and decide to head home to Ireland. Through some quick talking, they manage to secure transport part of the way to the coast with hunter and explorer Allan Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke). On the way, they encounter another oxen train. With it is a mysterious native, Umbopa (Paul Robeson), while inside the wagon lies a dying man, who speaks feverishly of the fabulous treasure of King Solomon’s Mines. O’Brien’s imagination is immediately fired, and he determines to seek this treasure, but also to leave Kathy with Quatermain, who promises to escort her safely to town. Discovering her father’s departure, the frantic Kathy pleads with Quatermain to go after him, but Quatermain refuses, explaining that he must return to town to meet Sir Henry Curtis (John Loder) and his friend, Commander Good (Roland Young), who have hired him to take them hunting. Determined to go after her father, Kathy tricks Sir Henry into giving orders for his expedition’s wagons to “go on ahead” in the direction she wants. Realising the deception, Quatermain, Sir Henry and the Commander go after Kathy, finding her and the wagons in charge of the enigmatic Umbopa. When Kathy declares her intention of going on regardless, the men capitulate and agree to go with her. A perilous and near fatal journey across the desert follows, while beyond the desert lies a land of mountains and a tribe ruled by terror and violence.... This is a brisk and enjoyable version of H. Rider Haggard’s venerable tale. There has been some tampering with the text, of course – there’s no white girl along in the book, and the person the expedition is looking for is Sir Henry’s brother – but otherwise it follows the novel with reasonable accuracy. It certainly reproduces all the expected set-pieces: the journey across the desert, the revelation of Umbopa’s true identity and the war that follows, and the discovery of the not-so-mythical Mines. This adaptation is, in its way, rather subversive, inasmuch as the white woman and the black man spend much of their time conspiring together and rebelling against the white male authority figures – and not only are they not punished for it, they are both ultimately rewarded! Paul Robeson – who, remarkably, was top-billed – is believably regal as Umbopa (and yes, he sings); Anna Lee makes a likeably feisty heroine, as usual; and Cedric Hardwicke is an acerbic Quatermain. The two that everyone remembers, however, are Robert Adams as the psychotic usurper, Twala, and Sydney Fairbrother as Gagool, the terrifying witch-hag who “sniffs out” the enemies of the king.

Lady On A Train (1945)

One of Deanna Durbin’s better efforts to (i) grow up; and (ii) change her image. Travelling from San Francisco to New York, heiress Nikki Collins (Durbin) witnesses a murder from the window of her train, but of course no-one believes her. Learning via a newsreel that the dead man was a shipping magnate who supposedly died after falling from a ladder, Nikki decides to solve the murder herself. Lady On A Train takes a while to get going, and Deanna rather overdoes the scatterbrained heiress routine at the outset, but once Nikki has infiltrated the family estate of the murder victim by posing as the dead man’s fiancée, the film really picks up steam, becoming a veritable parade of vignettes from some wonderful character actors: domineering Elizabeth Patterson, milquetoast Ralph Bellamy, ne’er-do-well Dan Duryea, cat-clutching George Coulouris and all-purpose henchman Allen Jenkins. Oh, and Edward Everett Horton is there, too, being Edward Everett Horton. Best of all though, is the triumvirate of David Bruce as the long-suffering mystery novelist recruited into the investigation against his will by Nikki; Patricia Morison as his even more long-suffering fiancée; and, most long-suffering of all – because she has to listen to her boss’s prose – Jacqueline deWit as his secretary. (“Tear it up, did you say?” “Type it up.” “Oh.”) And, yes, of course Deanna sings – what do you think? A nightclub scene gives her the chance to do a lovely rendition of “Night And Day”, but the highlight is when – it’s Christmas Eve – Nikki sings “Silent Night” down the phone to her father, thereby unknowingly saving her own life by reducing Allen Jenkins, who’s there to murder her, to a blubbering emotional wreck.

 

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