FILM REVIEWS, COLLECTION UPDATES, COMMENTS ON CINEMATIC CULTURE

Monday, September 26, 2022

THE SKULL (1965)

Amicus, one of Hammer Films' chief rivals in the production of horror movies in the 1960's, combined the considerable talents of director Freddie Francis with that dynamic acting duo, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, to create THE SKULL. The result was a work of art that can be called a prime example of Gothic horror. 

The screenplay, by Milton Subotsky, is based on Robert Bloch's short story The Skull of the Marquis de Sade. The era is the 19th century. Cushing plays writer Christopher Maitland, whose main interest is the occult. He has a large collection of occult artworks. One of his sources for antiques is Marco (Patrick Wymark), a less than honest dealer. Marco brings him the skull of the notorious Marquis de Sade. Maitland is strongly drawn to the strange object. He learns that his friend and fellow collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) once owned the skull, but it was stolen from him. Phillips warns Maitland to get rid of the thing, as it is possessed by demonic powers. Maitland comes under the skull's power, leading him to his destruction.

There is so much to praise here. THE SKULL is a compelling and frightening meditation on the nature of evil and packs quite a bit of tension and atmosphere into its relatively brief 83 minute running time. The art design, the cinematography, and the musical score all work together to provide what may be called the typical ambience of so many Gothic horror films of the era. But this film is executed in such a superior manner that it can almost be regarded as a celebration of, a study of, the Gothic horror genre itself.

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

The performances are all excellent. Peter Cushing has done possibly his best work here. Much of his acting is done with no dialogue, so he has to convey the spiritual and mental degradation of his character with gestures and facial expressions, as if he were in a silent picture. Christopher Lee is as convincing and compelling as always in his supporting role. Patrick Wymark threatens to steal the picture with his nuanced portrayal of the crooked, creepy antique dealer who brings the accursed skull into Maitland's life. Also in the cast are Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Michael Gough, and George Coulouris. Jill Bennett manages to stand out in her brief screen time as Maitland's wife.





Thursday, September 15, 2022

CELEBRATION AT BIG SUR (1971)

 

There were two legendary outdoor rock festivals in 1969. In August, there was the out-of-control, soggy, mystical mess known as Woodstock. And in December, there was Altamont, the anti-Woodstock, featuring not only music, but also paranoia and murder, courtesy of the Hell's Angels. In between these two events, there was another, lesser known, communal gathering called Big Sur Folk Festival. It was held on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, a non-profit organization specializing in humanistic, alternative education. The festival wasn't a one-off production like Woodstock and Altamont. Esalen sponsored folk festivals from 1964-1971.

There were other details that set the Big Sur fest of 1969 apart from the other aforementioned gatherings. Approximately 10-15,000 people attended Big Sur, as opposed to over 400,000 at Woodstock and over 300,000 at Altamont. Big Sur was well-organized and had all of the necessary facilities and human comforts. In plain English, there was plenty of food and water. And restrooms that worked.

The documentary film showcasing the festival was directed by Baird Bryant and Johanna Demekrakis. It wasn't released to theaters until 1971, whereas the films about Woodstock and Altamont were both released in 1970. CELEBRATION AT BIG SUR focused on the musical performances, but also featured scenes of the mostly young, hip crowd enjoying themselves. Since Big Sur wasn't a qualified disaster like the two more famous rock festivals, there was no serious drama or hardship to document. It had more in common with the beloved Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 and the excellent film it inspired. 

John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills



The list of musicians was quite impressive. Joan Baez had appeared at most of the Esalen Folk Festivals. The film opens with her stirring rendition of I Shall Be Released. Other highlights: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young perform Sea of Madness and Down By the River. Stephen stills goes solo with 4 + 20 and jams with John Sebastian on Mobile Line offstage. Joni Mitchell sings her song Woodstock and joins with Crosby, Stills & Nash and John Sebastian for Get Together, the anthem of peace and love in the 1960's. Dorothy Combs Morrison (One of the lead singers in the Edwin Hawkins Singers.) and the Combs Sisters sing their single All of God's Children Got Soul. The sound quality of the musical performances is first rate. John Sebastian goes solo with Rainbows All Over Your Blues.

The only moment of discord in this laid-back film occurs when a man starts heckling Stephen Stills when the artist is trying to perform. Since the sound quality of conversations isn't nearly as good as that of the music, I wasn't able to make out what the guy was saying. but the altercation turns physical when Stills throws a punch. Who knew Stills had it in him? But in no time, the atmosphere of peace and love is restored. This very enjoyable film concludes with everyone clapping their hands together and singing Oh Happy Day. There were no rainstorms, no mud slides, and even the police were having a good time. Maybe it was all that fresh mountain air. Whatever the case, this film is a loving look back at some of the positive things about the culture of the 1960's. And, as a huge fan of CSNY, it's wonderful seeing the guys young, healthy, and getting along with each other!





Tuesday, August 30, 2022

ME, NATALIE (1969)

 

Patty Duke was a gifted actress who accomplished some important milestones in her long career. In 1963, at the age of sixteen, she became the youngest person to win an Oscar, for her role as Helen Keller in THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962). She then became the youngest performer to have her own television series, THE PATTY DUKE SHOW (1963-66). After her Oscar win, however, her career in feature films peaked. Most of her subsequent success would be found in television up until her death in 2016 at the age of sixty-nine. Miss Duke's aggressive, physically charged acting style in THE MIRACLE WORKER set the bar for her other films of the 1960's. In BILLIE (1965), she played an energetic teenager who excels at athletics and challenges the social standards of her community to be able to compete with boys. In VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967), partly due to poor direction, her aggressive style failed her. Duke's interpretation of self-destructive singer/actress Neely O'Hara was so overwrought that audiences, rather than being moved, were simply exhausted. 

Following the now legendary embarrassment of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, two years would pass before Duke would appear again on the big screen. This time it was in ME, NATALIE, directed by Fred Coe. Duke was once again playing a teenager. Natalie Miller is an unattractive girl living with her loving, working-class parents in Brooklyn. Natalie has become so used to her unfortunate looks (teeth slightly buck, nose too big) that she has grown up with a cynical outlook toward life and other people. Having learned to expect rejection, she lashes out with loud, unkind remarks and dark humor. She works hard to cover up her insecurity and loneliness. She's a lost soul, the kind who refuses to dance with an awkward, overweight boy at a party, calling him a loser, and then instantly regretting it. Natalie's one joy in life is her closeness to her Uncle Harold (Martin Balsam), who encourages her to believe in herself and that someday she will find love.

Following some dramatic events in her life, Natalie, at age 20, leaves her parents and gets an apartment in Greenwich Village. She finds a job as a waitress in a nightclub and slowly begins to find her own identity. And yes, she also finds love, in the form of handsome artist David Harris (James Farentino), who lives in her building. But Natalie learns that love can have its complications. 

Patty Duke and James Farentino

This film is an uneasy combination of character study and urban fairy tale. Soon after Natalie's move to the Village, she blossoms into a free spirit/fledgling hippie, riding around Manhattan on a motorcycle acquiring bizarre furnishings for her quirky apartment. And she becomes more attractive with each successive scene. Apparently, there is something magical in the atmosphere over the Village that gradually straightens teeth and causes noses to shrink. All of this wonderment is accompanied by a Henry Mancini score and songs written and performed by Rod McKuen. Patty Duke does a good job with a character that is irritating and unlikable much of the time. Natalie's incessant crankiness and loud, insulting comments almost take the character into Neely O'Hara territory. It is a credit to Duke's talent that she makes the most of Natalie's quieter moments and makes her more sympathetic as the story progresses.

There is a strong TV Movie of the Week feel to the production. That may be due to the fact that most of Fred Coe's work was in television dramas. The only other film he directed was A THOUSAND CLOWNS (1965). He was also a very successful Broadway producer. He produced both the stage and film versions of THE MIRACLE WORKER. 

James Farentino underplays the role of Natalie's handsome, complicated boyfriend, making a nice contrast with Duke's freneticism. Also featured are Salome Jens, Nancy Marchand, Philip Sterling, and Bob Balaban. Elsa Lanchester, always a welcome name on any cast list, has a cameo as Natalie's landlady. And Al Pacino, making his film debut in a party scene, manages to get your attention.

Patty Duke won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a motion picture musical or comedy.

Friday, July 15, 2022

COLLECTION UPDATE FROM KINO-LORBER

 


The Kino-Lorber Spring into Summer Sale is currently going on. (Also known as the Spring into Bankruptcy Sale.) Here are the titles I picked up.

TARNISHED ANGELS (1957) Starring Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone. Directed by Douglas Sirk.





WOMAN IN HIDING (1950) Starring Ida Lupino, Stephen McNally, and Howard Duff. Directed by Michael Gordon.



THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) Starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens. Directed by Dick Powell.



FOXFIRE (1955) Starring Jane Russell, Jeff Chandler, and Dan Duryea. Directed by Josheph Pevney.



HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) Starring Reg Park and Christopher Lee. Directed by Mario Bava.





THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES (1940) Starring George Sanders, Margaret Lindsay, and Vincent Price. Directed by Joe May. 




DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959) Starring Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, and Tina Louise. Directed by Andre de Toth.






THE WEB (1947) Starring Ella Raines, Edmund O'Brien, William Bendix, and Vincent Price. Directed by Michael Gordon.




DOWNTOWN 81 (2000) Starring Jean-Michel Basquiat and Debbie Harry. Directed by Edo Bertoglio.





BLANK CITY (2010) Starring Jim Jarmusch, Debbie Harry, John Lurie, and Amos Poe. Directed by Celine Danhier.





THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) Starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings. Directed by Josef von Sternberg.





ME, NATALIE (1969) Starring Patty Duke and James Farentino. Directed by Fred Coe.







KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948) Starring Joan Fontaine and Burt Lancaster. Directed by Norman Foster.




NOW AND FOREVER (1934) Starring Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, and Shirley Temple. Directed by Henry Hathaway.





THE MESSENGER (2015) Starring Erin Byne. Directed by Su Rynard.






THE SPECIALISTS (1969) Starring Johnny Halladay. Directed by Sergio Corbucci.






COBRA WOMAN (1944) Starring Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Sabu. Directed by Robert Siodmak.





JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY (1958) Starring Gerry Mulligan, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O'Day, and Thelonius Monk. Directed by Bert Stern and Aram Avakian.





GRANDVIEW USA (1984) Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, C. Thomas Howell, and Patrick Swayze. Directed by Randal Kleiser.




EASY LIVING (1937) Starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold, and Ray Milland. directed by Mitchell Leisen.






HORIZONS WEST (1952) Starring Robert Ryan, Julia Adams, and Rock Hudson. Directed by Budd Boetticher.




THE LODGER (1944) Starring Merle Oberon, George Sanders, and Laird Cregar. Directed by John Brahm.





JAMAICA INN (1939) Starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.






NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (1941) Starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. Directed by Elliot Nugent.




THE RAGING TIDE (1951) Starring Shelley Winters, Richard Conte, Stephen McNally, Charles Bickford, and Alex Nicol. Directed by George Sherman.




JOHNNY STOOL PIGEON (1949) Starring Howard Duff, Shelley Winters, and Dan Duryea. Directed by William Castle.





SINGAPORE (1947) Starring Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner. Directed by John Brahm.





LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962) Starring Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, and Walter Matthau. Directed by David Miller.





CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940) Starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew. Directed by Preston Sturges.





THE EUROPEANS (1979) Starring Lee Remick. Directed by James Ivory.







MIRAGE (1965) Starring Gregory Peck, Diane Baker, and Walter Matthau. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.




SHAKEDOWN (1950) Starring Howard Duff, Peggy Dow, and Brian Donlevy. Directed by Joseph Pevney.






THE GROUP (1966) Starring Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Joan Hackett, Jessica Walter, Candice Bergen, Larry Hagman, James Broderick, and Elizabeth Hartman. Directed by Sidney Lumet.



COMPULSION (1959) Starring Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell, Bradford Dillman, and Diane Varsi. Directed by Richard Fleischer.


















Thursday, June 30, 2022

STRANGE ILLUSION (1945)

 

In the same year he made the classic Film Noir DETOUR, Edgar G. Ulmer also made this 87-minute programmer at PRC. The film was intended to be a mystery, but instead resembles an Andy Hardy picture with a dark twist.

James (Jimmy) Lydon plays college student Paul Cartwright who, through a series of troubling dreams, is convinced that his family, especially his mother, is in danger from a mysterious, unscrupulous man. He then learns that his mother is engaged to marry a suave gentleman she barely knows. Paul sets out, with the help of family friends, to expose this man and save his mother from ruining, and perhaps losing, her life.

Mr. Ulmer usually has a talent for creating intriguing atmosphere despite budget limitations and time restraints. But, apart from s few interesting moments during the dream sequences, this film doesn't generate much mystery, and the story itself isn't all that involving. Jimmy Lydon was a talented, likable actor who was especially adept at comedy. In fact, he is mostly remembered for playing teenager Henry Aldrich in a series of popular B-movies at Paramount. But he overacts in this movie to the point where his character is hard to take seriously. Veteran actors Warren William, Sally Eilers, and Regis Toomey fare somewhat better. Still, STRANGE ILLUSION is a fun programmer to watch if you happen to like films of this type (I do!), but a big disappointment considering the director.

Jimmy Lydon continued his long career as an actor into the 1970's. He also worked in television production, and was instrumental in the creation of two hit series: 77 SUNSET STRIP and M*A*S*H. He died on March 9, 2022, at the age of 98.

Jimmy Lydon, left, in the 1940's, and right, at a screening of STRANGE ILLUSION in 2013.


Tuesday, June 28, 2022

BLACK LEGION (1937)

 

Humphrey Bogart had a long apprenticeship as a movie actor. Between his screen debut in 1930 in A DEVIL WITH WOMEN and his breakthrough into major stardom with HIGH SIERRA (1941), Bogart acted in thirty-seven films. He was in everything from comedies to Westerns, and even got to play romantic leading men a few times. His first big success was as gangster Duke Mantee in THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936), in which he repeated the role he had played on Broadway. His obvious talent at portraying complicated, conflicted characters was exploited again in Archie Mayo's BLACK LEGION. This serious drama was based on a real American hate group by the same name, an organization very similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Despite Warner Brothers inserting a disclaimer at the beginning of the film assuring the audience that no true characters or events were being portrayed, the film's story was based on a sensational murder trial involving the group. 

Bogart plays Frank Taylor, a factory worker. Frank and his wife, Ruth (Erin O'Brien-Moore) have a young son, Buddy (Dickie Jones). Frank is hoping for a promotion at his job, one he feels he deserves. But the promotion is given to a younger man, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), considered by Frank and some other co-workers as a "foreigner", not a true American. Frank's bitterness leads him to join a secret organization called the Black Legion, a group that preaches hate against foreigners who are seen as trying to take over the country. The group attacks Dombrowski and his father at their home, set fire to their property, and drive them out of town. Frank's involvement with the group causes a strain in his marriage. It also causes a conflict with his best friend, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) and Ed's fiance, Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan). 


When Ruth finds out the truth about the group's beliefs and actions, and decides to take Buddy and leave, Frank begins to pull away from the group. But he knows that he won't be able to break away completely. The members of the group swear to an oath that any attempt to leave or reveal information about the group will be punishable by death. This inevitably leads to tragedy.

I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't yet seen it. Suffice it to say there are a few surprises as the story comes to its climax, and there is no attempt to come up with a happy ending. In fact, I found the ending to this film nearly as haunting as the final scene in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932). 

The Black Legion holds an initiation ceremony.


It is a credit to Bogart's talent that Frank is sympathetic throughout most of the film, even though he engages in truly evil activity. Despite Frank's initially enthusiastic embrace of the Legion's hateful beliefs, it soon becomes clear that the man is tortured by what he's doing. Bogart is supported by a fine cast of actors, many of them Warner contract players. Erin O'Brien-Moore brings the right amount of tension and emotion to her role as Frank's wife. Dick Foran, adept at playing likable working-class men, is effective as Frank's best friend. Ann Sheridan, working hard in her own apprenticeship years before her "Oomph Girl" phase began, manages to standout as the second female lead. Good work also by Joseph Sawyer as Cliff Moore, Frank's co-worker who brings him to his first Legion meeting. Also featured are Helen Flint, John Litel, Dorothy Vaughan, and Samuel Hinds.