AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
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Short reviews of the other stuff I watch
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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.

 

At Sword’s Point (1952)

In 1648, the evil Duc de Lavalle (Robert Douglas) uses his private army to become de facto ruler of France, planning to consolidate his position by marrying the Princess Henriette (Nancy Gates) and then murdering her brother, the young King Louis XIV (Peter Miles). An ill and aged Queen Anne (Gladys Cooper) sends a desperate secret message to the men who were once her Musketeers, their organisation having been disbanded by the Duc. The message reaches not the original Musketeers, but their sons: D’Artagnan (Cornel Wilde), Aramis (Dan O’Herlihy) and Porthos (Alan Hale Jr). The three meet at an inn, their fathers’ old haunt, where they are joined by someone claiming to be the son of Athos – but whose violent objection to the cosy sleeping arrangements soon reveals her secret.... At Sword’s Point is tremendous fun, a throwback to the swashbucklers of the 1930s, with sword-fights, kidnappings, chases, impersonations and hairsbreadth escapes as far as the eye can see. The real surprise here is the way the film handles “Claire, the daughter of Athos”, as she laboriously calls herself, who most unexpectedly is allowed to be just as good a swordsperson as her three comrades, and to stand up where women in films are generally “supposed” to display their femininity by caving in. (Lavalle tortures D’Artagnan in front of Claire to make her reveal the whereabouts of the king; although in love with him, she doggedly stays silent.) The notion that anyone, ever, even for a second, could mistake Maureen O’Hara for a boy is absurd, of course, but that’s just part of the joke. The action is non-stop, the bad guys eminently hissable, the costumes gorgeous and the Technicolor spectacular. Recommended.

 

Sword Of The Valiant (1982)

At a Christmas gathering, an old and crusty King Arthur (Trevor Howard) berates his knights for growing lazy and complacent. The festivities are further interrupted by the Green Knight (Sean Connery), who proposes a game: one of those present will strike at him with an axe. If they succeed in decapitating him with one blow, they win; otherwise, he will get one strike back. To the disgust of both Arthur and the Knight, no-one speaks – until Gawain (Miles O’Keeffe), a mere squire, steps forward. After being knighted by the king, Gawain strikes at the Green Knight and severs his head at a blow – then looks on in horrified disbelief as the body picks the head up and re-attaches it. Impressed by Gawain’s courage, the Green Knight stays his hand, giving the young knight a riddle and a year in which to solve it – and a warning that if he fails, the fate deferred will be meted out.... Released in the wake of successful fantasy productions such as Excalibur and Conan The Barbarian, Sword Of The Valiant is a pretty minor effort. (It’s a Golan-Globus, which speaks for itself.) A definite product of the “one damn thing after another” school of story-telling, the film suffers badly from the fact that, well, Gawain’s adventures just aren’t that interesting. It’s also badly paced – there’s no sense of time passing, or of Gawain’s gruesome fate drawing ever nearer – and we are given no particular reason to care about Gawain and Linet, whose love story is resolved (sort of) with comical abruptness. Cursed with the worst wig in the history of film-making, and wearing a puffy shirt that could make your eyeballs bleed, Miles O’Keeffe turns Gawain into a “hero” to weep for. His first two acts out in the big wide world are to attempt to kill a unicorn for food (!!), and to realise that he should have asked for instructions on how to “relieve himself” before he put the armour on. It goes downhill from there. The film brightens up a bit with the arrival of Brian Vosper as a criminally inclined friar and John Rhys-Davies (of course) as the evil Baron Fortinbras – a graduate, evidently, of the Brian Blessed School of Bluster – but Peter Cushing is criminally wasted as Fortinbras’ chancellor. Trevor Howard gives us an interesting Arthur, though, and the film is probably worth watching just for the chance to see Sean Connery in green face-paint and spangles. (Of course, those of you who have just seen him in a nappy might disagree.)

 

The Barbarian (1933)

Sometimes a film comes out of nowhere and just....blindsides you. Ramon Novarro stars as Jamil, “the best dragoman in Cairo”, who in fact earns his living playing gigolo to footloose female tourists, and whose sights become set upon Diana Standing (Myrna Loy), who has come to Egypt to marry Gerald Hume (Reginald Denny), an Englishman in charge of a local engineering project. The Barbarian starts out looking like a typical pre-Code effort, with Jamil courting Diana right under her stuffy fiancé’s nose; and while it’s not particularly funny, it’s certainly risqué enough to hold the attention (we see most of Myrna’s left breast while Diana is dressing, and there’s an amazingly explicit bathing scene). Then, about halfway through, we take an abrupt turn into a replay of The Sheik, only without the Valentino-coloured glasses. Jamil is revealed to be the prince of the local Bedouin tribe, whose sons are sent to the city as a rite of passage to earn a living in trade – except that Jamil chose to be a prostitute instead (okay, he doesn’t use that word). We have already heard a great deal from Jamil about “Occidental women” and their “preferences” (for the record, they are “incapable of admitting their feelings” and therefore like to be “compelled”), and he acts on his beliefs when Diana allows him to kiss her and then strikes him out of disgust with herself. His first act is to deliver Diana into the hands of Achmed Pasha (Edward Arnold!!), who also desires her; but then he decides he’s going to punish her himself. In short order, Diana is kidnapped, force-marched across the desert, taught the local pecking order (“First the horse drinks, then the man, then the woman!”), and finally raped. Jamil follows this up with a proposal of marriage, which Diana accepts in order to humiliate him by walking out in the middle of the ceremony. Jamil responds by taking a bull-whip to her. If you’ve guessed that all this ends in passionate love and marriage, give yourself a gold star. This film is amazing. Every time you think it can’t possibly get any more offensive, it finds a way – like the “concern” shown by Gerald’s mother over what public charge is to be brought against Jamil when the police catch up with him: she relaxes once she’s told “piracy”. I’m inclined to think, however, that the real rock bottom is hit with the care taken to let us know that Diana’s mother was Egyptian, the inference apparently being that all this is really okay: she isn’t one of us, she’s one of them. I’ll say this for The Barbarian, though: it keeps it up right to the very last exchange of dialogue. (She: “Did you know that my mother was Egyptian?” He: “I wouldn’t care if she was Chinese!”) Unbelievable.

 

Midnight Lace (1960)

After an embassy party, American wife in London Kit Preston (Doris Day) is taking a shortcut home through a fog-shrouded park when a strange, high-pitched voice suddenly speaks to her from the darkness – and threatens her by name. The terrified Kit makes it home to her businessman husband, Tony Preston (Rex Harrison), who manages to convince her that it was probably just a sick practical joke. But then the obscene phone-calls start – and the death threats. The Prestons report the situation to Scotland Yard, but the investigation stalls when Kit is unable to prove her allegations. To her horror, she soon realises that not only are her husband and her Aunt Bea (Myrna Loy) beginning to doubt her word, they may be beginning to doubt her sanity.... Midnight Lace represents a fair entry in the “persecuted woman” school of thrillers, and Day, although occasionally over the top in Kit’s hysteria scenes, does a better job with her mingled fear, frustration and indignation upon realising that even her nearest and dearest are starting to suspect she’s making the whole story up. (Married to a workaholic and still waiting for her honeymoon, Kit “gets a phone-call” every time something interferes with her and her husband’s romantic plans.) Of course, it’s Doris, so we believe her – right? Midnight Lace does a fair job of setting up possible suspects – slimy Roddy McDowall, financially desperate Herbert Marshall, kind passer-by John Gavin, mysterious scarred stranger Anthony Dawson – but no-one experienced in this kind of film should have any difficulty picking the guilty party. John Williams lends good support as yet another easy-to-under-estimate Scotland Yard inspector. (Curiously, both he and Anthony Dawson play almost the same roles in this as they did in Dial M For Murder six years earlier.)

 

Code Two (1953)

Three young men, Russ Hartley (Robert Horton), Harry Whenlon (Jeff Richards) and Chuck O’Flair (Ralph Meeker), attend the Police Academy in Los Angeles. After their graduation, each of the three, for reasons of his own – the pay, his personal history, a desire for excitement – elects to join the motorcycle squad. Code Two is a film of two halves, the first a look at the operation of the police academy in the early 1950s, the second devoted to the tracking down of a group of cattle thieves (no, really), who also become cop killers. Although this is a neat little B-film, these days it is certainly the first part of the film that is the most interesting. Here, as in other semi-documentary MGM productions of the same era, such as Kid Glove Killer and Mystery Street, we are given a realistic look at the functioning of the police force, in this case at how young policemen are actually trained. We follow the usual disparate trio of friends – family man Hartley, family-of-cops product Whenlon, and cocky blowhard O’Flair – and their relationship with the experienced cop, Sergeant Culdane (Keenan Wynn) – “Jumbo” to his friends – who takes them under his wing. Most of the focus is upon O’Flair, in whom Culdane takes a special interest on the traditional grounds that “he reminds me of me” (in which case, Keenan, you used to be a real jerk). Ralph Meeker’s Chuck O’Flair is a throwback to the kind of obnoxious characters so often played by James Cagney in the 1930s, who think they know it all and never learn anything until tragedy strikes....and of course, it always strikes someone else. Unlike those earlier films, however – and most refreshingly – O’Flair’s antics do him no good at all in the romance department: when he turns his Neanderthal charms upon Jane Anderson (Elaine Stewart), Russ Hartley’s sister-in-law, she is quite repulsed, and takes up instead with the shy, good-natured Harry Whenlon. (O’Flair has more luck “charming” women who are trying to dodge traffic tickets.) Of course, in time O’Flair does prove himself, and even grows up in the process – a bit, anyway. This interesting slice of history was directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, three years before Forbidden Planet.

 

Bloodline (1979)

Adapted from the Sidney Sheldon novel. Millionaire businessman Sam Roffe falls to his death in the Alps, and his pharmaceutical empire is inherited by his estranged daughter, Elizabeth (Audrey Hepburn). The board of directors – known collectively as “the cousins”, family by birth and marriage – does its best to pressure the inexperienced Elizabeth into making the company public, but with the support of her father’s former right-hand man, Rhys Williams (Ben Gazzara), she decides to try and run things herself. Before long, however, “accidents” begin to occur, while the Swiss police discover that Sam Roffe’s death was murder.... A bad adaptation of a bad novel, Bloodline is chiefly interesting for the unjustly out of work actors it managed to rope into its supporting roles – and for the way it asks us to believe that Audrey Hepburn, James Mason, Irene Pappas, Omar Sharif and Romy Schneider are related to each other! Audrey Hepburn is too old for the role she’s playing, but that’s not as important as her evident discomfort with her character as this tasteless story meanders along. Dramatically, the problem here is that there’s no real mystery about the story’s mystery. Let me put it this way: Elizabeth’s new husband is behaving oh-so secretively, and all but one of the “cousins” is openly hostile towards her, while one of them is sweet as pie – who do you think the killer is? (The film was cut significantly, and with no particular judgement, prior to its release, meaning that the endless flashback recounting Sam Roffe’s origins stayed, but the nasty serial killer – and snuff film? – subplot was pruned into incomprehensibility.) It also doesn’t help that Elizabeth, in imminent danger of her life and with the whole world to choose from, keeps going back to the same old places, so that the killer will always know just where to find her – although credit where it’s due, I did like her deliberately wrecking her room as (she thinks) the killer approaches: “Try making it look like an accident now!” The only bright spot in this mess is the performance of Gert Fröbe as Inspector Hornung, while the single real point of interest is the Interpol computer, circa 1979, which takes up an entire floor of the building....and talks. (And nothing in this entire film, I may say, intrigued me so much as our very first glimpse of Elizabeth, busy cleaning dinosaur bones at the New York Museum of Natural History; a – career? hobby? – never referenced again.)

 

Fighting Father Dunne (1948)

In turn of the twentieth century St Louis, Father Peter Dunne (Pat O’Brien) devotes himself to rescuing the city’s homeless boys, many of whom eke out a living selling newspapers. Before he knows where he is, Father Dunne has more than twenty boys on his hands, and must exercise all of his ingenuity to house and feed them. Meanwhile, the newspapers continue their exploitation of their young employees as a brutal circulation war escalates; while some boys simply won’t be helped.... RKO does Boys Town, only with Pat O’Brien instead of Spencer Tracy, and Darryl Hickman instead of Mickey Rooney. This was also based on a true story, so you are more or less obliged to rein in the cynicism reflex – and perhaps also to quell your knee-jerk reaction to some of the good Father’s more dubious money-raising tactics. (Did you know, for instance, that it is standard Catholic Church practice to run up huge bills you have no way of paying, and then, when the merchants ask for their money, to lay a guilt trip on them?) There is some historical interest here, in the strong-arm methods employed by the newspaper owners of the time, while the story’s denouement is, unexpectedly, a real downer. I have no idea whether the subplot concerning the fate of Matt Davis (Hickman) is true or not, but boy, oh, boy! The ultimate moral of these films seems to be, if a Catholic priest tries to help you, you’d damn well better let him.

 

Sinbad Of The Seven Seas (1989)

Well, I was going to review this, but Keith Allison beat me to it. Thanks a lot! I’ll merely add grumblingly that Alessandra Martines, who was so good in Fantaghirò, is wasted in this.

 

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril (1938)

Let’s see, where were we? Well, Hugh Drummond and Phyllis Clavering are trying to get married – again. This time they’ve made it all the way to Switzerland, where Phyllis’s Aunt Blanche (Elizabeth Patterson) is hosting the wedding at her villa. The wedding gifts pour in, including that of Algy (Reginal Denny) and Gwen Longworth (Nydia Westman), an artificial diamond of remarkable size and, even more remarkably, indistinguishable from the real thing. This stone is the work of Professor Goodman (Halliwell Hobbes), Gwen’s scientist-father. Present when the gift is received is Sir Raymond Blantyree (Matthew Boulton), the head of a major international diamond syndicate. Blantyree hurriedly summons his secretary, Roberts (Austin Fairman), warning him of the “diamond’s” existence and insisting that they must examine it – “At all cost!” The result is a missing diamond, a dead body, and Phyllis left at the altar yet again.... Although the Hugh/Phyllis set-up is getting tiresome, Bulldog Drummond’s Peril redeems itself somewhat with a bizarre plunge into the world of science fiction, and with a couple of movie scientists to make your hair stand on end, Professor Goodman and his professional rival, Dr Botulian. As the movies so often insist, “scientists” here are just private citizens who work out of their home laboratories, with no employment or affiliations to be seen. (Kind of makes you wonder where that “professorship” came from, doesn’t it? Out of a cereal box?) Professor Goodman has turned to making artificial diamonds for no reason the film ever bothers to confide to us – except that he wants to show off by presenting his work to “the Royal Society” – and does so using “scientific equipment” that would make Kenneth Strickfaden weep with envy. “I could probably make these diamonds for a shilling each,” he confides to the appalled Sir Raymond, adding cheerfully that, “In a few weeks, my process will be free to everyone!” Not surprisingly, the Professor’s life is soon in danger. Someone dies – but who it is and how it was done was something that requires some considerable paying of attention.... John Howard, Louise Campbell, John Barrymore, Reginald Denny and E.E. Clive are all back on board for this next entry in the series, which also sees Porter Hall (the baddie from Bulldog Drummond Escapes) return as the evil Dr Botulian. Also starring a dubbed penguin in a top hat.

 

Quote: “You mean to say you value your name on a scientific paper more than half a million pounds in cash!?”

 

Bulldog Drummond In Africa (1938)

As the wedding of Hugh Drummond and Phyllis Clavering draws near again, this time in England (?), their plans are disrupted by the kidnapping of Colonel Nielson (H.B. Warner) by Richard Lane (J. Carroll Naish), a decorated WWI hero turned traitor and spy. Lane’s objective is a “radio wave disintegrator”, a device intended to prevent the interception of signals by the enemy. Phyllis arrives at Graystone Manor just in time to see Nielson being hustled away by two men. She alerts Drummond and Tenny (E.E. Clive), and soon the two men – and Algy (Reginal Denny), who showed up at the critical moment, and Phyllis, who stowed away – are on their way to Morocco in pursuit. Meanwhile, Nielson is being subjected to a novel form of torture in an effort to get him to talk: being tied to a tree with a savage lion chained up nearby, its claws falling only inches short and its tether starting to give.... One of the shorter entries in the series, and substantially padded even to get that far, Bulldog Drummond In Africa is nevertheless boosted by its cast. Some changes have been rung here. John Barrymore missed this one, being replaced by H.B. Warner, which actually works well: Warner is more convincing as the stiff upper lipped old buffer type ready to die gruesomely for his country. J. Carroll Naish is another returning villain (he was Mikhail Valdin in Bulldog Drummond Comes Back), while Anthony Quinn has a good early role as a British official who’s actually working for Lane. Importantly, though oddly, Heather Angel is back as Phyllis. I don’t know whether it’s the actress herself, or whether the writers picked up their game when she was around, but Angel makes a much better Phyllis than Louise Campbell, less whiny and better able to take care of herself. The plot is more than a little ridiculous, but the sequence with the lions is effective, as is a nasty bit of business about a bomb and a timer attached to the underside of Our Heroes’ plane. Conversely, the comedy relief is pretty appalling (I’ll spare you a word-picture of Drummond and Tenny doing a kilt dance), and there are also some odd continuity errors: wasn’t Graystone Manor Phyllis’s house? And no, Hugh and Phyllis still aren’t married by the end of this one. We – like Phyllis – keep hoping.

 

Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939, 12 episodes)

This serial opens with a little history – kind of – with Benito Juarez leading Mexico to independence and becoming President about thirty years before he actually did. Never mind. They get the next bit right, with Juarez’s followers stabbing him in the back as soon as he turns it. Juarez wants to fund his Republic with gold from the rich San Mendolito mines, but some of the members of the San Mendolito Council have other ideas. The loyal Don Francisco (Guy D’Ennery) warns Juarez that the local Indian population is being stirred to revolt by “Don Del Oro”, the personification of a Yacqui god, but adds that he has gathered “a troop of patriots” to guard the gold shipments. The other council members, meanwhile, secretly toast their plan – and Don Del Oro.... Before long, Don Francisco is tricked into a duel and mortally wounded. His ward, Ramon (William Corson), fights back, but is struck down from behind. Before he can be killed, a masked figure dressed in black intervenes.... The dying Francisco tells Ramon that the masked man, known as Zorro, is actually his nephew, Diego Vega (Reed Hadley). Telling Diego to take his place on the council, Francisco warns him that there are traitors there, but dies before he can reveal the true identity of Don Del Oro. Later that day, Francisco’s sister, Donã Maria (Helen Mitchel), and her ward, Volita (Sheila Darcy), are appalled, and the members of the council pleased, when Ramon introduces the foppish and blasé Don Diego, who grumbles about everything from the fatigue of his journey to having to join the council. That night, however, Zorro gathers Don Francisco’s troop, pledging to fight the traitors and prevent the Yacquis from revolting. The men cheer him, declaring themselves to be “Zorro’s Fighting Legion”.... Whew! And that’s not even the end of the first episode! Most of the serials I’ve been watching up to this point were produced by Nat Levine’s threadbare Mascot Pictures, but Zorro’s Fighting Legion was made by Republic, and has actual – gasp! – production values. (That Republic looks classy by comparison should tell you all about Mascot.) It’s actually a pretty good adaptation of the Zorro story, and Reed Hadley has a blast in his dual role. His Zorro makes an amusingly flawed hero, though, forever tripping over or falling into traps, while his method for summoning his “legion” has to be seen to be believed: in an episode called “The Flaming Z” – no, honestly! – he lights a gigantic ‘Z’ on a hillside, which, apart from nearly burning down the whole area, is seen and simply copied by the bad guys! Other off-beat touches include the accurate adoption of single shot pistols, meaning that most fights consist of one missed shot and then swords drawn, while second-billed Sheila Darcy is only in three episodes as the “heroine”, Volita (whose exclamations of “Saints protect us!” suggest that the writers were confusing their Catholics). Perhaps the greatest mystery here is where Zorro hides his gleaming white horse between adventures: you’d think someone would notice it. The best part of this serial is the cliffhangers: there’s a distinctly different ending to each episode, and most of the “outs” are pleasingly non-cheaty. The weakest part is the secret identity of Don Del Oro: we know it’s one of the councillors, but since they’re pretty much interchangeable, what does it matter? The Halloween costume meant to represent Don Del Oro is a hoot, though. Truthfully, at the beginning of this I was rather on “Don Del Oro’s” side, as he made speeches about the dispossession and exploitation of the Yacquis....only then he started in with that whole “I shall be Emperor of all Mexico! Mwoo-ha-ha-ha-ha!” stuff. Oh, well....

 

Read the Stomp Tokyo review of Zorro’s Fighting Legion here.


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----updated 27/01/2008