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Short reviews of the other stuff I watch


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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.

The Lost Express (1925)

Four years after marrying against the wishes of her father, steel and railway magnate John Morgan (Henry Barrows), Ruth Standish (Elita Proctor Otis) is involved in a bitter custody battle with her estranged husband over their young daughter, Alice (Lassie Lou Ahern)---who is also her grandfather’s heiress. Morgan is furious when he discovers that his plan to carry the child out of the country, out of her father’s reach, has been leaked to the newspapers, along with the site of his arranged meeting with his daughter. As Morgan anticipates, the newspaper article brings Arthur Standish (Fred Church) to Cedar Springs, where he angrily confronts Ruth and her brother, Alvin (Jack Mower). However, a new crisis forces the three of them to put aside their differences and work together: John Morgan is kidnapped by three criminals, who hijack his private, one-carriage train. Fortunately, railway agent Helen Martin (Helen Holmes) is on the case... During the 1920s, directed chiefly by her husband, J. P. McGowan, Helen Holmes became famous for her intrepid characters and daring stunt-work in such vehicles as the serial The Hazards Of Helen. At this time, a whole subgenre of “railway thrillers” emerged, of which the McGowan-Holmes films were among the most successful. These films were notable for casting Holmes as the hero, not merely the heroine; far from needing to be rescued, her characters spent most of their time rescuing other people. Generally, Holmes would be cast as a railway employee called upon to thwart a criminal enterprise of some sort: a venture requiring much frantic dashing about, chases, gunplay, and any amount of stunt-work, including death-defying leaps between cars and trains. The Lost Express is a typical example of the genre, with Helen Martin teaming up with Arthur and Ruth Standish and Alvin Morgan (the latter being immediately smitten by her), to discover where the kidnappers have taken the train carrying Morgan, his secretary, Valentine Peabody (Eddie Barry), and the train’s steward, George Washington Jones (Martin Turner), and to devise a plan to rescue the hostages from their gun-wielding abductors. Their efforts to trace the missing train eventually pay off...but the investigators discover that Morgan’s kidnapping is a story with a twist in its tail...

The Lost Zeppelin (1929)

In the mid-1920s, airship design was dominated by the Italian engineer Umberto Nobile, whose semi-rigid ship, Norge, reached the North Pole in 1926 in an expedition planned and executed in collaboration with Roald Amundsen and the American explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth. Nobile then designed and built the Italia, intending it for a series of exploratory flights out of a base in Norway. During the ship’s third flight, dangerous weather combined with equipment failures and poor decisions led to a partial crash in which ten of the expedition (one dead) were left stranded on the ice after the gondola was ripped away from the envelope; the envelope itself, relieved of the weight of the gondola, lifted and blew away: neither it nor the rest of the crew have ever been found. After various rescue efforts that varied from the lethargic to the self-defeating to the disastrous (one costing Amundsen his life), the survivors were eventually rescued: eight out of a crew of eighteen, including Nobile himself; nine, counting Nobile’s dog...

Two films made over the next few years were directly inspired by these events, The Lost Zeppelin and Dirigible---although neither, alas, can strictly be called a disaster movie; and alas yet again, both of them are built around tiresome love triangles.

On the eve of his departure as head of an airship expedition to the South Pole, Commander Donald Hall (Conway Tearle) discovers that his wife, Miriam (Virginia Valli), has fallen in love with Tom Armstrong (Ricardo Cortez), another member of the expedition – and he with her. There is a bitter scene, but the expedition must go ahead. As the zeppelin Explorer sets out, the whole world listens in to broadcasts from the ship, reporting its position and the conditions of the flight. Almost immediately, the airship runs into dangerous, damaging weather, but it survives and makes it to the South Pole. Around the world, the crew are acclaimed as heroes. However, on the return journey, weighted down with snow and ice, the ship plunges to the icy ground... The Lost Zeppelin is a talking picture from 1929, with all the horrors that implies: actors so afraid of the microphone they barely move a muscle, awkward dialogue, static visuals, and props that suggest the backdrop of a play rather than a real room; at least, so it is during the framing scenes. Nevertheless, in spite of a surfeit of boring character stuff, the film is worth watching for the special effects sequences of the zeppelin flight itself, the storm it encounters, its crash, and the survivors’ desperate attempts to find help. Of course, along the way, Tom Armstrong turns out to be a snivelling coward and Miriam realises she’s been a fool; while Donald, oblivious to everything but the stiffness of his upper lip, forces Tom onto the rescue plane that can only hold one passenger, thinking that’s what Miriam would want... It had been quite a long time between viewings of The Lost Zeppelin, and truthfully the only thing I remembered with any clarity was that Donald Hall took his dog along on the expedition; or rather, I remembered my indignant cries of, “What kind of idiot puts his dog in that kind of danger!?” Well, now I know that the answer is “Umberto Nobile”. Of all the details to be accurate...!



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----tidied up 28/06/2014