Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bardelys the Magnificent (MGM, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually got to watch another movie from the backlog; Bardelys the Magnificent, a recently rediscovered 1926 swashbuckler from director King Vidor at MGM starring John Gilbert in the title role, a Don Juan-esque French aristocrat in the time of King Louis XIII (played in the movie by future New Orleans director Arthur Lubin, which puts Gilbert one degree of separation from Billie Holiday) who makes a bet with a fellow Great Lover at the French court, the Count de Chatellerault (Roy D’Arcy, reunited with Gilbert from the Stroheim Merry Widow the year before), that within three months he can seduce and marry the standoffish Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman, who seems to have got the part more because she was then Mrs. King Vidor than from any actual acting ability).

Bardelys was long thought lost for a really quirky reason: the story came from a novel by Rafael Sabatini, and instead of selling the film rights outright to MGM Sabatini leased them for 10 years (a practice that would become common after World War II because it had tax advantages for both writer and studio, but was highly unusual in 1926). The arrangement was that if MGM wanted to continue to show the film after 1936 they would have to pay Sabatini an additional fee to renew the rights; otherwise they were contractually obliged not only to withdraw the film from circulation but to destroy the negative and all the prints. When 1936 rolled around the powers that were at MGM decided that a silent film starring a dead actor had no further commercial value, so they let the lease expire and destroyed the negative and all extant prints — and it was only in 2006 that one copy turned up in an archive in France, missing most of the third reel (which was here filled in with production stills to cover the two important plot points contained in that section of the film).

That story was told by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne in his introduction to the film, and what was really surprising about it was that in 1935 Warner Bros. had just released Captain Blood, a remake of a Sabatini novel previously filmed as a silent — and they’d had an enormous blockbuster hit that had elevated its previously unknown lead, Errol Flynn, to instant stardom. One would have thought that MGM would not only have paid to renew their lease on their own Sabatini story but put a remake into production — perhaps even borrowing Flynn from Warners to star — but in 1936 MGM’s front-office politics were unsettled because of studio head Irving Thalberg’s ill health (he died in September of that year), and maybe the prospect of a Bardelys remake with sound and either Flynn or Ronald Colman in the lead simply fell through the cracks.

The plot of Bardelys is pretty pretextual — to get close to Roxalanne, Bardelys has to befriend her parents (Lionel Belmore and Emily Fitzroy), and since they’re part of a plot to overthrow the king, Bardelys assumes the identity of the dying René de Lesperon (Theodore von Eltz) and romances Roxalanne in that guise — including a beautiful scene in a rowboat on a lake (pretty obviously influenced by similar footage in von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives) that Vidor liked so much he included a clip from it in his 1928 comedy Show People, which for years was the only place you could see any footage from Bardelys.

His love affair comes to a screeching halt when someone at the Lavedan castle finds a letter to (the real) René from his girlfriend Lisette, and Roxalanne is so pissed off at being “the other woman” that she turns René in as a traitor; Chatellerault is a judge on the court that convicts him and sentences him to hang, and it’s only the intervention of the King, who recognizes Bardelys, that spares his life and sets up the final duel. Roxalanne reveals that she actually married Chatellerault on condition that he spare Bardelys’ life — and though the final shot of the film is John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman in the obligatory clinch, Chatellerault’s fate is a bit ambiguous: he survives the final duel with Bardelys, is arrested by the King’s men, and then as he’s giving his sword to the people taking him into custody he puts it in front of him and falls on it. This was apparently supposed to kill him — in the next scene he’s being carried out prone — though director Vidor cuts away so quickly the glancing blow we see doesn’t seem like it could have killed anybody. At least Chatellerault’s disappearance (even if he survives the suicide attempt he’ll almost certainly be hanged) means Bardelys will be able to marry Roxalanne and get back the estates he lost to Chatellerault in their bet.

Vidor didn’t think much of this film in later years — he told Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse, “I was a little ashamed of it, and it wasn’t very successful” — but he certainly threw a lot of his skill into making it, livening up the pretty traditional story with vertiginous camera angles (at one point Bardelys takes a fall off a balcony and Vidor films it from above; later on there’s a long, acrobatic action scene featuring John Gilbert — or his stunt double — swinging back and forth on a long rope à la Tarzan, again filmed from above, as he engages in swordplay with various baddies; though Gilbert had to be doubled in scenes Douglas Fairbanks, the obvious model, could have done on his own, the cutting back and forth between the double’s long shots and Gilbert’s close-ups is really artful) and scenarist Dorothy Farnum approached the story with a surprisingly light touch.

I hadn’t thought anybody bothered to do a deliberately campy swashbuckler until the early 1950’s, yet here one is from a quarter-century earlier; the titles (I’m presuming Farnum wrote them as well since no title-writer is credited) are full of dry wit and the whole movie benefits from the filmmakers’ refusal to take their story too seriously. The acting isn’t all that interesting — Gilbert was a much stronger personality than he was an actor, and it didn’t help that he had the insensitive Eleanor Boardman as his leading lady instead of Shearer, Gish or Garbo — but the movie as a whole is filmed with such brio and dash it’s fun to watch and a welcome rediscovery.

Do You Know Me? (RHI/Lifetime, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched Do You Know Me?, a 2009 TV-movie Lifetime showed last weekend right after Mom at 16. Alas, after the beauty and power of Mom at 16 (despite its dull and clinical title), Do You Know Me? came closer to the common run of Lifetime movies: a preposterous plot, insanely melodramatic screenwriting and a decent damsel-in-distress performance by the lead (Rachelle Lefèvre from the Twilight movies) that doesn’t make up for what the screenwriters (Susan Hoffman and Oliver Butcher) and director (Penelope Buitenhuis) put her through in what’s a perfect example of what Maureen Dowd called Lifetime’s “pussies in peril” genre.

Basically it’s a wanna-be film noir in which Lefèvre’s character, Elsa “Ell” Carter, a recent college graduate with an interest in becoming a newspaper photographer, returns home to a suburb of Seattle and her parents David (Ted Whittall) and Anna (Lynda Boyd) Carter and their other (younger) daughter Isabel (Victoria Duffield). She’s spending a lot of time in Seattle trying to get a newspaper job and also seeing her boyfriend Chris Mayfield (Nic Rhind), son of a media magnate who offers to get her dad a better job than the one he has editing a small suburban throwaway. Then her life changes when she sees a cardboard milk carton with a picture of a three-year-old girl and the slogan, “Do you know me?,” while she’s at Chris’s home with him and a mutual friend, a young Asian woman who disappears from the story from then on.

They joke that the picture of the three-year-old girl on the milk carton (did anyone bother to tell Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Butcher that the vogue for putting missing children’s pictures on milk cartons ended about a decade ago?) looks like Elsa, and they put a drunken call into the hotline number on the milk-carton ad — setting into motion a very nasty series of events in which Elsa’s parents instantly get mean and defensive; her boyfriend Chris is murdered in his apartment; Elsa is instantly suspected of the crime and has to flee, first to White Rock (a fictitious California town which appears to be in north San Diego County, since the announcement that the train is going there is followed by a listing for genuine North County towns like Carlsbad and Encinitas, followed by San Diego itself — and the paper Elsa reads while there is the fictitious San Diego Globe) and then back north again to San Francisco. She ends up mixed up with Alec Rooker (Dean Wray), apparently a hit man hired by her dad; Donald Kentor (Malcolm Stewart), a candidate for U.S. Senator ( mistakenly lists the character as a Senator already); his chief of staff, Joe Drescott (Kevin McNulty), who turns out to be Elsa’s birth father (earlier she’s had her DNA checked against her parents’ by a sympathetic physician at the hospital where she works and find that they’re not biologically related at all); and Drug Enforcement Agency agents Jake Farber (Jeremy London) and Fred Lashley (Adrian Dorval), who are apparently after a 20-year-old open case of a major quantity of cocaine that had been shipped in from Mexico.

The plot has the predictable reversal in that Farber turns out not to be a DEA agent at all, but the principal villain — he’s Elsa’s estranged brother, who was left to take the rap in a Mexican prison (and was raped the first day he was there — given how cute Jeremy London is I don’t doubt it), while a second brother died when the balloon of cocaine he was told to swallow to avoid detection burst inside him and led to his O.D. Lashley is a real DEA agent but he’s decided to go corrupt and provide Farber a fake DEA identity in return for half the money from the stash Farber is going after — only Farber, who already murdered Elsa’s boyfriend Chris (ya remember Chris?), shoots Lashley and Drescott to avoid having to share the money with them and holds the Carters hostage, stringing up Elsa’s sister Isabel (ya remember Isabel?) until Elsa rescues her sister by getting hold of a gun and drilling Farber with a perfect policeman’s shot to his heart. (Where’d she get that good with guns? Had Hoffman and Butcher established early on that she was a markswoman as a hobby — the way Charles Bennett and D. B. Wyndham-Lewis did with Edna Best’s character in the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much — at least this part of the plot might have made sense.)

Do You Know Me? has one genuinely poignant scene — when Elsa traces Tina Baseli (Gina Chiarelli), who turns out to be a crack addict, having drifted into drugs following the disappearance of her daughter (which she never got over), and who righteously refuses to cash any of the guilt checks her ex-husband Marsaretti (a.k.a. Joe Drescott) sends her because they’re blood money — and had the writers been able to tame the melodramatics and give us more scenes like this one, Do You Know Me? might have been genuinely moving and exciting instead of just another mindless Lifetime thriller.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Big City Blues (Warners, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Big City Blues, a quirky 1932 Warners programmer that’s essentially the old story about the hayseed from rural America coming to the Big City — New York, in this case — and getting in over his head and beating a hasty retreat, head between his legs, to whence he came. The hayseed is Bud Reeves (Eric Linden) from Hoopersville, Indiana, and he can’t say he hasn’t been warned: when a relative dies and leaves him an inheritance of $1,100 he buys a train ticket to the Big Apple and the station agent who sells it to him (Grant Mitchell) recalls his own attempt as a young man to make it in New York and how he, too, turned tail and came home. He has one contact in New York: his cousin, Gibboney — called “Gibby” for short and played by Walter Catlett as a smooth-talking con-man who claims to know everyone from then-Mayor Jimmy Walker to actress Constance Bennett (though why Bud should have expected Constance Bennett to be hanging around New York when at the time she was a major movie star and thereby was living in Hollywood is a bit of a mystery) and who always is on the point of throwing a major party or taking Bud and friends to a nice restaurant when he opens a wallet, suddenly “discovers” that it’s empty, and of course Bud leaps in to assume the bill.

Bud’s sojourn in New York lasts just three days — that’s all the time it takes for New York and its sharpies to separate him from his bankroll — and leaves him involved in a wild party in his hotel room, a murder investigation when one of the guests at the party clubs another with a beer bottle and kills her, and finally a casino where the scene that seems to be obligatory in every movie involving gambling — the hero has a fabulous run of luck at the gaming table until he stakes it all on one last roll and loses everything — duly occurs. Big City Blues was based on a play called New York Town by Ward Morehouse, which was copyrighted January 5, 1932 — just eight months before the film was released — though there’s no history of it ever being performed on stage. Morehouse was actually given the rare (for the movie industry in 1932) privilege of being allowed to work on the screen adaptation of his play — he and Lillie Hayward are co-credited with the script — and the director is Mervyn LeRoy, still using some of the quirky camera angles he indulged in during the early 1930’s but gave up later.

What’s interesting about Big City Blues — aside from the performance of Walter Catlett, who dominates the film even though one wants to walk into the screen and try to shake some sense into Eric Linden (“Hey! Your cousin’s ripping you off!”) — though Linden at least looks naïve and dumb enough to fall for his cousin’s schemes — is the extent to which it seems like almost a compendium of Warners’ Greatest Hits. There’s an elaborate nightclub (in which Clarence Muse, who otherwise isn’t in the film at all, appears as a crooner — he’s only shown in long and medium shots and when he first bounded on I thought it was a white singer in blackface, but as the camera dollies in and as we hear his voice it’s readily apparent he’s genuinely African-American), a crime subplot, Guy Kibbee as a leering house detective and top-billed Joan Blondell as Vida Fleet, a chorus girl with a heart of gold with whom Bud falls hopelessly in love.

The other aspect of Big City Blues that makes it historically important is that it was Humphrey Bogart’s first film for Warner Bros., six years before he would sign a long-term contract with them to do The Petrified Forest and nine years before High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon would make him a star. He’s Shep Adkins, accountant for the producer of the show in which Vida and her friend Faun (Inez Courtney in the sort of part that usually went to Glenda Farrell) work, and he only shows up in two scenes: the big party in Bud’s room and the sequence in the police station later on in which Detective Quelkin (Thomas Jackson, again cast as a cop!). Bogart’s part is too small to earn him screen credit (he would get credit in his next film, Three on a Match, also for Warners and also featuring Lyle Talbot — who, when Bogie showed up to make The Petrified Forest and the people in Warners’ publicity department insisted, “He’s never worked here before,” pointed out to them that indeed he had; Talbot is in Big City Blues as well, as the person who actually committed the murder Bud is briefly suspected of). He doesn’t make much of an impression but he’s still easily recognizable.

There’s also a marvelous in-joke at the party, in which the one woman there who isn’t with a man is shown in a corner reading a book, and the camera gets close enough to show us the title — Radclyffe Hall’s underground classic about Lesbians, The Well of Loneliness (so a reasonably sophisticated filmgoer in 1932 would have known why this particular woman wasn’t with a man!) — and a marvelously ambiguous ending: Bud returns home to Hoopersville, collecting the dog he left behind for the station agent to take care of but swearing that as soon as he saves up enough money for a return ticket to New York he’s going to go back because he’s in love with Vida and wants to get back with her. Will he ever make it back to the Big Apple or will he live the rest of his life in Hoopersville, his New York sojourn becoming only a subject of distant memories as it is for the station agent now? He doesn’t know, and neither do we: a nicely open-ended finish for a film in an era in which the studios generally demanded that every plot strand be neatly tied up at the final fade.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Mom at 16 (Lifetime, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched my recording of an unusually good 2005 TV-movie from Lifetime, Mom at 16 (I missed the opening credits; has the title as Mom at Sixteen — spelled out — but Lifetime’s site had the numeral), which had some of the melodramatics and cheap plot contrivances of the typical Lifetime film — especially the typical Lifetime “problem” film (this was shown last weekend as one of a series of movies they were doing about teen pregnancies and the allegedly cavalier attitude modern teenagers, especially female ones, take towards the whole subject of sex and pregnancy, including a bizarre — given that this is the generation that has been sex-educated up the ying-yang — failure on the part of many of these girls to discern the connection between the two). But it also had some quite intense and moving aspects and had an unusually well constructed script by Nancey (that’s how the name is spelled on Silvers that effectively linked a main plot and a subplot that reflected and amplified it.

The central character is 16-year-old Jacey Jeffries (Danielle Panabaker), who got pregnant by Brad (Tyler Hynes), the 18-year-old engineering student she was dating. Since she had no way to raise a child herself, didn’t feel she could ask Brad the dad to give up his dreams of college and a high-paying career to marry her and help raise their son, and didn’t want to give up the child for adoption, her mom, Terry Jeffries (Mercedes Ruehl), agreed to pass off the child as her late-in-life baby — and to do that she hid Jacey away from the world for six months until she gave birth (leading at least one of the other characters in the film to guess that she had had a drug problem and was doing a major stay in rehab) and then moved the family — including Jacey’s 14-year-old sister, Macy (Clare Stone) — to another city and forced them to start anew in a new high school where they didn’t know anybody. Counterpointed to that is the story of the new high school’s swim coach, Bob Cooper (Colin Ferguson), and his wife Donna (Jane Krakowski) — who’s also a teacher there, though exactly what she teaches remains a bit of a mystery since about the only thing we actually see and hear discussed in her class is her students’ sex lives. The gimmick is that Bob and Donna are desperate to have a child, but have been unable to do so through normal means; their attempt to adopt got short-circuited when the birth mother decided at the last minute to keep her baby; and as the plot progresses Donna is undergoing an attempt to implant embryos following in vitro fertilization. To facilitate this she has to inject herself with hormones at least once a day — and there’s a grimly humorous scene in which Jacey stops by Donna’s office and sees her teacher shooting up.

Eventually the implantation fails, but in the meantime Jacey has made Donna her confidante, largely as a result of the horrible attitudes Jacey is having to deal with from her own mother, whose relentless judgmentalism and constant demand that her kids reassure her that she’s the most wonderful parent in the world and every decision she makes is 100 percent right (she reminded me of my mother!) is only making a dreadful situation even worse. From the moment the Coopers are revealed to be searching so desperately for a child we know that they’re going to end up adopting Jacey’s baby — which indeed happens at the end (though a major slip-up in Silvers’ script makes it seem that it’s sheer coincidence that an adoption agency happened to provide the Coopers with Jacey’s son; the ending would have worked better if Jacey herself had decided that these people, whom she had come to know well and trust, would be the right people to raise her child).

What made Mom at 16 unusually good for a Lifetime movie is its extraordinary dramatization of the way America’s culture, at once hypersexualized and hyper-prudish (something Charles pointed out to me not long ago), impresses its adolescents and how it leaves them virtually clueless in reconciling the drives of their hormones and the attempts by parents, teachers and other formal authority figures to convince them that sex is a big deal and shouldn’t be entered into without cognizance of the potential consequences, including pregnancy. (One of the girls in Donna’s class rather fliply tells the group that if she got pregnant she’d immediately arrange for an abortion — and the others chide her for her callousness, underscoring that unlike many of the social and values issues, abortion is one in which the younger you are the more anti-choice you’re likely to be.)

Director Peter Werner gets the film on and off the screen with a great deal of welcome restraint — no flanging effects, no hyper-cuts, a bit too much mediocre rock music on the soundtrack (and, since this is a 21st century youth movie, mediocre rap music as well) but otherwise a commendably low-keyed approach that trusts the story and Silvers’ script to tell themselves. Even the outrageously manipulative flash-forward at the end — where we see Charlie, now five years old, and his sister who is (unlike himself) the natural offspring of their previously childless parents — can’t entirely vitiate the good impression left by all that’s gone before. And Mom at 16 also deserves credit for working its moral lessons into the movie itself rather than dragging out a character actor or a real-life person on whom the story was based to give a little lecture at the end.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Invention of Lying (Warners, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The Invention of Lying, an engaging farce from 2009 co-written by, co-directed by and starring Ricky Gervais, the British comedian who, though he created the hit show The Office (whose U.S. version stars Steve Carell), was relatively little known on this side of the Atlantic until he made this movie and signed on to host this year’s Golden Globes. The premise is not exactly fresh, but it’s engaging: the film takes place in an alternate version of our own world but one in which all humans are compelled to tell the truth at all times. Lying is so totally unknown that when Gervais’ character, Mark Bellison, finally discovers his inner prevaricator and spits out a lie that he has $800 in his bank account (he only has $300) and collects the money from a teller who can sooner believe the bank’s computers are malfunctioning than that a customer is actually telling her an untruth, everyone else in the movie is a sitting duck for whatever crazy story Mark chooses to feed them.

It’s basically a two-joke movie — one joke being the bizarreness of seeing a world otherwise like our own but without the little social graces and “white” lies to lubricate things (when Mark first takes the female lead, Jennifer Garner saddled with the ridiculous character name “Anna McDoogles,” on a date, she says that she’s not interested in him sexually and therefore there’s not likely to be a second date — and the waiter who serves them comes out point-blank and tells her, “I think you’re hot, can I get your phone number?”) and the other joke being the superb ease with which Mark, blessed or cursed with the ability to lie, takes advantage of everyone around him, in the process literally becoming a prophet when he makes up a religious fantasy to comfort his mother, who’s dying in a nursing home and wants the reassurance that death is not the end.

The whole religious subplot — in which Mark spins an elaborate fantasy of “the big guy in the sky who’s in charge of everything” and the nice afterlife you get to go to unless you do three bad things in life, in which case you go to the nasty afterlife instead — is clearly a spoof on the Judeo-Christian concepts of heaven and hell and offers a glimpse into a much more satirical and incisive a movie than the one that got made. One could imagine what Preston Sturges could have done with this concept — or, for that matter, what Lenny Bruce could have done with it (imagine Sarah Palin going on TV and saying, “We were going to tell you that the new health care bill has a provision for ‘death panels’ that will kill your grandmothers when they get too expensive to take care of, but that wouldn’t be true; we want to defeat the bill just because we don’t like it and we think that will help us at the polls with the next election” — and Barack Obama saying, “The health bills passed by Congress are really terrible, they don’t represent much of what I was hoping for at all, but I want the Congress to vote for them anyway because it’s going to kill us politically if we don’t get anything passed”) — compared to what Ricky Gervais did with it, which was basically make a quite entertaining little comedy about a worm-turning milquetoast whose invention of fiction in a society that had none makes him a success both with his employers — “Lecture Films,” a studio that makes long lecture movies about famous events in history (since there’s no such thing as lying in this world, there’s no such thing as fiction either and therefore no drama, no actors and no narrative film in the sense we know it) — and with Anna, whom he woos away from the stuck-up fellow screenwriter Brad Kessler (Rob Lowe in a delightfully smarmy cameo) she was about to marry at the end when Mark shows up.

There are some nice bits in it — including a corrupt policeman (though one contributor pointed out that a society that did not have lying couldn’t have corruption either) offering to take a bribe to let off Mark and his friend Greg (Louis C.K.) from a drunk driving charge Greg is willing to admit to until Mark denies it for him; and a scene in a bar in which the bartender is made up to look like alternative AIDS researcher David Rasnick and who turns out to have been Philip Seymour Hoffman in another almost unrecognizable cameo — as well as some good signs posted during the movie (the nursing home where Mark’s mom is living — and dying — is heralded as “A Really Boring Place for Old People Nobody Wants,” and a Pepsi billboard reads, “For when you can’t get Coke”). The squad contributing to the “goofs” section on The Invention of Lying ironically — and unwittingly — showed off just how many instances of truth-shading there are in the movie even from characters who aren’t supposed to be able to lie — thereby underscoring how remote the fiction of this film is from our own reality. There are precedents for this movie — notably the 1950 film Tea for Two, in which Doris Day was obliged to answer every question “no” for 48 hours to win an inheritance she was going to invest in a show she was in — as well as odder, less specific ones like H. G. Wells’ The Man Who Could Work Miracles (another story about a milquetoast suddenly acquiring a mentally driven superpower) — but overall The Invention of Lying is a good concept and a charming movie, but so much more could have been done with it …

Seven Miles from Alcatraz (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I did manage to squeeze in a movie the night before last: Seven Miles from Alcatraz, an intriguing “B” from RKO in 1942 that managed to upend some of the most hallowed movie conventions and clichés and create an original and surprisingly powerful entertainment. Directed by Edward Dmytryk — his first credit after leaving Columbia for RKO and actually a much better movie than Hitler’s Children, the later wartime propaganda piece that made him a star director — from a script by Joseph Krumgold based on a story by John D. Klorer, Seven Miles from Alcatraz is a story about two convicts, Champ Larkin (James Craig) and Jimbo (Frank Jenks), who are serving sentences at Alcatraz when Pearl Harbor is attacked and, with all the fear of a Japanese (or other Axis) attack on the U.S. mainland that surfaced after that incident, they’re worried that they’ll be sitting ducks in case an air raid aims for and hits the prison.

So they escape — “trade secret,” Champ says in his narration (the whole movie is narrated from his point of view — a technique Dmytryk had used before in The Devil Commands and would use again in his masterpiece, Murder, My Sweet), to obviate the need for Dmytryk and producer Herman Schlom to stage an escape on a “B”-movie budget — though the film is explicit on how the two cons get to safety through the waters of San Francisco Bay: they grab onto a shipping crate (addressed, in a nice little in-joke, to “H. Schlom, San Francisco”) and let it float them across the water until it lands them on a lighthouse occupied by Captain Porter (George Cleveland), his daughter Anne (Bonita Granville) and two helpers, Paul Brenner (Erford Gage) and Stormy (a thoroughly obnoxious comic-relief character played by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, making a semi-comeback after being the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Disney-RKO release Pinocchio).

Needless to say, it’s hate at first sight between Champ and Anne — he’s got the sexual hots for her (he hasn’t seen a woman in five years, he makes sure to tell us, and of course a strict-Code era movie like this was going to stay mummer than mum about what he might have done for sexual release in the meantime!) and she thinks he’s a despicable convict and won’t have anything to do with him. The plot thickens when Captain Porter receives a message in Morse code that sounds like so much gibberish — only Jimbo, who it was already established back on Alcatraz was a whiz at puzzles, figures it out and eventually the people on the lighthouse realize the truth: that the message was code from a German submarine and Brenner — whom Jimbo has already killed when he got in the way of their plan to steal the lighthouse’s supply boat and escape — is a German agent who’s their contact. Wondering why Brenner hasn’t answered their call (and not knowing that he’s been killed by an escaped convict), three incredibly obvious German spies — the Baroness (Tala Birell), Fritz Weinermann (John Banner) and Max (Otto Reichow), all with heavy-duty German accents that in the iconography of early-1940’s movies immediately established them as baddies and made us wonder why the characters were so much slower to realize that than we were — show up at the lighthouse.

The cons realize that the newcomers are German spies well before the Porters and Stormy do — and much of the suspense comes from whether or not the Porters and Stormy will unwittingly help the spies thinking they’re helping them catch the cons. This is one of those neat little films that tosses the usual clichés into a Mixmaster and emerges with something fresh and original — and Dmytryk directs with a real flair for atmosphere (which he’d also shown in The Devil Commands, another movie set largely at a lonely old manse on a coast!) that would have marked him for biggers and betters even if he hadn’t proceeded to make RKO a ton of money with Hitler’s Children and Behind the Rising Sun (doing his part, along with Val Lewton, to help bail RKO out after all the money they wasted on Orson Welles, William Dieterle, Pare Lorentz and other cinematic artistes whose RKO movies, if they got made at all, were generally artistic successes and commercial flops) even though one can’t help this film could have been made with a bigger budget and better actors: the role of Champ Larkin cries out for Humphrey Bogart (or at least future RKO star Robert Mitchum) and gets James Craig.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Registered Nurse (Warners as “First National,” 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Registered Nurse, a 1934 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag, turned out to be a quite impressive movie: on the cusp of the so-called “pre-Code” era (it was filmed in December 1933 and released in March 1934), it opens at a country-club party at which Sylvia Benton (Bebe Daniels) is getting increasingly appalled at the antics of her husband Jim (Gordon Westcott), a far-gone alcoholic who, when she asks him to dance, angrily brushes her away because he’s more interested in finishing his drink. When another man, Bill (Philip Reed, who at first I thought might be the young Ray Milland — who did turn up in some pretty quirky roles in his early years, including a small part in the marvelous The Man Who Played God, with George Arliss and Bette Davis in her first Warners film), dances with her, Jim takes umbrage — even though he was so drunk I thought he was going to say, “Who are those two guys dancing with my wives?” In fact, Jim takes such loud, obnoxious umbrage that the management throws him out, and he insists on Sylvia leaving with him. Sylvia suggests that it would be better if she drove their car, but he insists on driving himself, grinning madly as he speeds up the car towards the inevitable accident.

Before the crash we get a neat piece of exposition in which she says she’s had enough of him and wants a divorce, he says she’ll never get any alimony, and she says she doesn’t mind because she’s still got a valid R.N. license and can always get a job as a hospital nurse. When the crash happens we get to see a few of her professional skills as she stabilizes her husband’s condition and checks his pulse; we’re not told his fate but it’s left carefully ambiguous whether he’s alive or dead. Then Sylvia relocates to New York City and gets a hospital job, telling the people who hire her, including Dr. Hedwig (John Halliday), that she is unmarried. (In the 1930’s and 1940’s companies frequently had employment policies banning the hiring of married women on the ground that it was their husband’s, not an employer’s, duty to support them. Some things have changed for the better.) She works in as a nurse and soon the film — based on a 1930 play by Florence Johns and William Lackaye, Jr. alternately called Miss Benton, R.N. and Night Duty, scripted by Lillie Hayward and Peter Milne, and directed by the almost always interesting Robert Florey — turns into a sort of Grand Hotel with white dresses and bedpans, as Sylvia and her fellow nurses — Sadie Harris (Irene Franklin) and Schloss (Minna Gombell), who’s dating a cop called (I kid you not!) Pat O’Brien (Edward Gargan — odd that a character in this story would have the name of a real actor, especially one under contract to the same studio at the same time!) — treat all manner of patients.

Wrestling promoter Frankie Sylvestrie (Sidney Toler pre-Charlie Chan) and his girlfriend McKenna (Beulah Bondi) get into a fight and both end up in the hospital, he with a broken leg and she with three cracked ribs — he’s ready, even with a broken leg, to beat up any nurse that tries to take care of him, but Our Sylvia is able to calm him and get him to accept treatment (though even she can’t persuade him to go under anaesthesia). Two of his wrestlers, Sonnevich (Tor Johnson, considerably younger and with less of a thick accent than he was in his Ed Wood days 20 years later) and El Humid (Harry Ekezian), visit him and get into an argument over which one is supposed to win their next (fixed) bout — which ends up with them fighting an unscheduled event in Frankie’s hospital room and both needing medical attention themselves. Sylvia, who somehow gets the nickname “Ban” after the first half of her last name, also ends up calming an anxious husband worried about his wife, and there’s a tear-jerking bit in which she loses Dickie (Ronnie Cosby), a cute, tow-headed kid being treated in the children’s ward.

At times this movie seems to be a compendium of Warners’ Greatest Hits — not only the love triangle between Sylvia, Dr. Hedwig and the younger, hunkier and playboy-ish Dr. Greg Connolly (Lyle Talbot — odd to see a 1930’s movies featuring two actors who later worked for Ed Wood!) but the troop of various proletarian types that go in and out of the hospital seeking and receiving care. About the only opportunity they missed was having Dorothy Brock, the character Bebe Daniels played in 42nd Street, show up at the hospital to have her broken leg set; the sight of Bebe Daniels setting Bebe Daniels’ leg would certainly have had a quirky appeal! Then, just because the movie has to build to a climax sometime, we get the big revelation that Sylvia can’t marry either of the two doctors who admire her because she’s still married — after the car accident in the first reel Jim Banton turned violently insane and has spent the last three years in an asylum, and since he’s not in his right mind Sylvia can’t divorce him — when Jim escapes from the institution and turns up at the hospital where Sylvia works. Dr. Hedwig examines him and declares that he can perform a delicate brain operation that has a good chance of restoring him to sanity, and he agrees to do so with Sylvia assisting.

Dr. Connolly, who earlier used the shooting death of Schloss’s cop boyfriend Pat O’Brien to try to persuade Sylvia that she should become his lover, marriage or no, proves himself the asshole he is (well, Lyle Talbot is playing him, after all!) when his only concern for Jim Banton is the hope that he’ll croak so Sylvia will be free to marry him. Frankie pushes his wheelchair into Jim’s hospital room and, pretending not to know who he is, says that Sylvia’s estranged husband should do her the favor of hurling himself out of the hospital window (I guess back then hospital windows still opened!) and allowing her to be happy with someone else. Just before the operation is supposed to take place, Jim climbs to the edge of the window and indeed hurls himself off it — I would have rather seen the plot resolve with the operation being a success, Jim returning to sanity and then voluntarily agreeing to give Sylvia a divorce — and Sylvia, having seen through Dr. Connolly, accepts the much older Dr. Hedwig and they embrace at the fade-out. (Offhand I can’t think of another movie in which John Halliday actually gets the girl.)

Though Daniels is playing a part that on another week in Warners’ history might have gone to Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis, she’s an underrated actress (I still think she played the female lead in the 1931 Maltese Falcon better than Mary Astor did in the remake, and she also turned in an awesome performance as Baby Doe Tabor, or whatever they called her, in the 1932 film Silver Dollar) and she’s just fine here, at once authoritative and sufficiently kind and gentle that one can readily believe she has an unusually good bedside manner. The acting (save for one obnoxiously drawn comic-relief character who does the dishes for the hospital) is generally quite good, and while this isn’t a script that allows Florey to do anything especially creative behind the camera, he stages the action effectively and keeps the film moving so fast (a specialty of the Warners hands) that it packs an awful lot of plot into just 62 minutes.

The film also has quite a lot of people lighting each other’s cigarettes; though there’s a “No Smoking” sign in the nurses’ break room, the nurses themselves show their contempt by striking their matches on it — and with the standards of the modern age it’s hard to believe that in 1934 a doctor and a nurse could eat together in a hospital cafeteria, both of them would be smoking like chimneys and nobody would notice or care.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Karla (Quantum/Monterey, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday morning I watched a pretty incredible movie from one of my Lifetime recordings that turned out to be a good deal more intense than one of Lifetime’s usual woman-in-distress movies. It was called Karla and was based on a notorious real-life serial-killer couple from Canada in the 1990’s, Paul Bernardo (Misha Collins) and Karla Homolka (Laura Prepon, top-billed and a regular on the former series That 70’s Show even though I’d never herd of before). The film is framed as a flashback narrated by Karla to her prison psychiatrist, Dr. Arnold (Patrick Bauchau), who after she’s served eight years of her 12-year sentence is evaluating whether he should recommend that she be paroled. That means we see the events mostly from her point of view — a fact which made this a highly controversial film in Canada, especially in the areas where Paul and Karla had lived and committed their crimes. Indeed, there was such revulsion against this movie in Canada that even though a Canadian company made it, it had to be filmed in Los Angeles because no Canadian provincial government wanted the production in their area — an ironic reversal of the innumerable number of Lifetime films in which Canada has “played” the U.S.!

Even after it was finished, certain provinces didn’t allow it to be released there and a lawyer representing the families of two of the couple’s victims first announced plans to file a lawsuit blocking the release of the film, then relented after he saw it. The main argument against it was that, by presenting the events from Karla’s point of view and narrating the film in her voice, the filmmakers — director-co writer Joe Bender and his writing partners Manette Beth Rosen and Michael D. Sellers — had essentially whitewashed her and portrayed her more as Paul’s psychological victim than as his willing co-conspirator. There’s something to those allegations, though even with Karla delivering the narration and thereby attempting to shape our understanding of what happened there are enough hints — especially in the flat, affect-less and utterly remorseless tone with which Prepon speaks Karla’s self-serving explanations and several details she drops that make it seem like she was more culpable than she was letting on — that there is another way of seeing this story even though the only other living witness was her criminal partner.

Karla is 18 when she and a girlfriend are eating at a restaurant; in walks Paul and his male friend, and Karla is instantly smitten with Paul even though he’s no more than ordinarily attractive (in fact, it’s probably just as well they didn’t cast a drop-dead handsome hunk in the part; it makes Karla’s attraction to him and desperation to keep him more ambiguous and therefore more of a dramatic issue). He’s an aspiring musician and filmmaker, and the first night he meets Karla he takes her back to his room and they have sex — and insists that both their friends stay and watch, which right there should have warned her that this guy was more than usually kinky. Nonetheless, she’s turned on enough that for their second date (and their first one without an audience) she brings a pair of handcuffs and invites him to restrain her and pretend to rape her. What she doesn’t know — and neither do we, though we find out considerably sooner than she does — is that he really is a rapist, known as the Scarborough Rapist (after the town where most of his crimes were committed), though the police haven’t caught on to him yet.

Their relationship proceeds on two tracks, one normal and one both psychologically and morally sick; they do all the regular couple things — they move in together, talk about getting married, eventually do get married and then talk about having kids — while they also get involved in murder early on when Paul says he’s obsessed with the idea of having sex with Karla’s virginal sister Tammy (Cherilyn Hayres, reasonably credible as kin to Laura Prepon but considerably more zaftig than her on-screen “sister”), and what’s more he wants to have sex with Tammy without Tammy knowing about it. Accordingly, Karla steals some anaesthetic from the veterinary clinic where she works and drugs her own sister so Paul can have his wicked way with her, while Paul is running the camera for his film of the occasion (one thing that amazes me about serial killers is how many of them are obsessed with documenting their crimes and thereby create the evidence against them themselves) — only the anaesthetic proves too strong (not designed for humans, it literally burns Tammy’s cheeks when Karla applies a rag soaked in the stuff to her) and Tammy dies, and from then on Paul has a hold over Karla that if she reports him to the police, he’ll turn over the videos and she’ll go down with him.

From there both the “normal” and criminal parts of their relationship proceed apace, as our criminal couple kidnap two young students, Tina McCarthy (Kristen “Honey” Swieconek) and Kaitlyn Ross (Sarah Foret), hold them captive in their home and ultimately torture them to death. Paul also beats up on Karla regularly for the usual stupid reasons abusive spouses invent, and the former owners of the clinic where Karla works try to intervene — thinking she’s merely a domestic violence victim and not realizing she’s participating in murders — and it’s when Paul is picked up and held overnight on a domestic violence charge (which, of course, Karla doesn’t press against him) that some savvy person in the police tech lab runs his DNA and realizes he’s the Scarborough rapist. Eventually he’s arrested for the murders — as is she — and Karla is the one who offers to turn state’s evidence first, so she gets a 12-year sentence while Paul gets life in prison. (He doesn’t get the death penalty because, as a civilized country, Canada doesn’t have it.)

Paul, of course, tries to get leniency by offering his own version of the murders that makes Karla seem like the prime mover — and Karla the movie would have been considerably stronger if Bender and his co-writers had told the story from both Paul’s and Karla’s point of view, intercutting between them and allowing each to react to the other’s version as they recount the events — but even as it is, it’s a pretty chilling tale that stays ambiguous as to What Made Karla Run but is honest about the lack of remorse that leads Dr. Arnold to warn against giving her parole. (A few written titles at the end explain that she served the remaining four years of her sentence and left prison in the company of a man she’d met while there — he was serving a sentence for murder in the prison’s male wing — much to the obvious consternation of people in the parts of Canada who had felt terrorized by Paul and Karla in the day.)

Karla is a chilling tale that manages to be less than it could have been but still considerably more than the usual blend of light horror and heavy titillation with which serial-killer stories are usually told today (does the name “Hannibal Lecter” mean anything to you?), and the biggest flaw in it as presented on Lifetime is the constant hiccupping in the actors’ voices throughout the movie where the words “fuck,” “shit” and their derivatives were bleeped out for American television.

The Big Hangover (MGM, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was The Big Hangover, a very strange movie written, produced and directed by Norman Krasna at MGM in 1950 (certainly with Louis B. Mayer’s departure and Dore Schary’s appointment as sole head of production, auteurs were looked on at least a bit more fondly at MGM than they had been in the past!), starring Van Johnson as a recent law-school graduate with a bizarre allergy towards alcohol. He’s about to graduate at the top of his law class and has a job waiting for him at a big law firm as the protégé of John Belney (Percy Waram). He’s also attracted the attention of Belney’s daughter Mary (Elizabeth Taylor), who when she realizes his problem — he’s served a cup of punch at a surprise birthday party for Mr. Belney in the office and he (via a voiceover) is dubious about whether or not he should drink it, but he does and immediately goes into severe intoxication at the first taste.

It turns out that he went to law school on the GI Bill of Rights after serving in Italy in World War II, and his problem with alcohol stems from an incident in which a building he was in was attacked; he was eventually rescued, but not before he spent several days in a cellar full of 100-year-old brandy (it had been bottled but the shock of an air attack had broken all the bottles and thus the cellar had become full of free-flowing booze). Supposedly so much of the alcohol seeped into his system while he was trapped there that he ended up working through his drunk for two weeks in a military hospital after he was rescued — and he was written up in a medical journal (complete with his photo, which shows how much Norman Krasna knew about medical journals) as having had the biggest hangover in recorded medical history (hence this weird film’s title).

Liz’s character decides that, since she once worked in a psychiatrist’s office, she has the knowledge to help him over his problem and cure him so he can once again drink socially (today so many people are “in recovery” from one thing or another that people who go to social functions like this and request non-alcoholic beverages have no problem getting them and aren’t looked down upon therefrom, but in the early 1950’s booze was considered an indispensable social lubricant and turning down an offer of a drink was considered a grave insult) and continue his potentially brilliant career as an attorney without the embarrassment of frequent episodes. Some of his drinking spells are lulus — he starts talking to his dog (and Krasna gives us a point-of-hearing gimmick in which the dog talks back — it’s Van Johnson’s own voice, of course, recorded in a more echoey acoustic than the lines he speaks as a human, and the effect is particularly delightful when Van as Van and Van as the dog talk at once) and, at a hotel banquet honoring the law firm’s alumni, a particularly obnoxious partner named Charles Parkford (Gene Lockhart) deliberately spikes dish after dish of his food with alcohol, hoping he’ll do something embarrassing — which he does, singing loudly, lustily and totally off-key as the hotel band and the Country Gentlemen vocal group attempt to perform Walter Donaldson’s “At Sundown.” (For some reason, even though this film is set in 1950, the band only performs songs from the 1920’s — like “At Sundown” and “Sleepy Time Gal” — as well as a medley of football fight songs and U.S. military anthems.)

There’s also an intriguing subplot featuring a character named Dr. Lee (played by the great Chinese-American actor Philip Ahn, who as usual shames all the white actors in his movie with the quiet dignity and strength he brought to all his roles; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the makers of the Charlie Chan movies in the 1930’s and 1940’s had wanted to do the right thing and cast a real Chinese in the role, Ahn is the person they should have cast), who for some reason is being thrown out of his house and the law firm at the center of this story is handling the eviction. The lawyer for Dr. Lee, Carl Bellcap (Leon Ames), crashes the banquet and chews the big-firm lawyers out for taking a case that will screw the little guy — and Our Hero decides he’s right and quits the big firm to take a job as a government attorney. (Bellcap’s lament that the salaries of government workers are so low he can only get the lawyers who barely graduated because the ones at the tops of their law-school classes take the lucrative jobs with the big private firms rings true today, especially after the recent Bill Moyers’ Journal episode in which Thomas Frank talked about how from at least 1928 to today the Right has always sought to keep the salaries of government workers low to make sure they’re the least competent to take on the highly paid executives, attorneys and lobbyists of the private corporations.)

This weird little excursion into liberal social commentary is typical of the films involving Dore Schary throughout his career, but overall The Big Hangover suffers from an all too common failing that has nothing to do with its politics. Krasna, who could write seriously (he cooked up the story that became the basis of Fritz Lang’s intense 1936 anti-lynching film Fury, though it was Lang and The Racket author Bartlett Cormack who actually did the script) but was best known as a comic writer, tries to do both at once and comes up with something that’s neither fish nor fowl, neither a serious drama of alcoholism à la The Lost Weekend nor a spoof of addiction dramas (not that addiction dramas were anywhere nearly as ubiquitous in the 1950’s as they’ve become since — and even the comedies of today dealing with addiction and recovery, like the otherwise marvelous film You Kill Me with Ben Kingsley, don’t dare satirize the principles and pretensions of 12-step programs even though one would think there’d be plenty of room for ridicule there).

Instead, it’s a film that resolutely sits there, neither dramatic enough to be moving nor comedic enough to be particularly funny — and it doesn’t help that the plot device that “explains” the alcohol allergy (that’s the term used in the script!) of the Van Johnson character is so preposterous, or that most of the gags turn on the sadistic use of Johnson’s condition against him by the practical jokers who infest the dramatis personae. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Big Hangover is the precision with which Elizabeth Taylor acts the part of the co-dependent — a role she would later play all too often in her real life!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ride the Wild Surf (Columbia, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie I hoped would be considerably more entertaining than it turned out to be; Ride the Wild Surf, a 1964 attempt by a major studio (Columbia) to do their own version of a beach party movie. It’s a pretty straightforwardly plotted film about a trio of continental U.S. surfers who fly to Hawai’i to surf the big waves at Waimea Bay, supposedly the all-time primo surf site in the world (even though the bay, or what we see of it, doesn’t look like much more than a small cove): Jody Wallis (Fabian, top-billed), Chase Colton (Peter Brown) and Steamer Lane (Tab Hunter). Jody is the proverbial (straight) guy who doesn’t want to be tied down; Chase is the heir of a major Hawai’ian family who wants to go to college in the continental U.S. instead of face the ribbing he’d have to deal with at a school formed by and named for his family; and Steamer loves the surfing life but also wants to find the right girl (odd, given that one of Hollywood’s legendary real-life Gays is playing him!) and settle down.

There’s supposedly a sort of official-unofficial surf contest at Waimea every year — the person who’s able to ride the big waves the longest gets a specially made surfboard as a prize — and of course Our Heroes enter it and also attract the attentions of some of the girls who hang out at the beach. (I was hoping for a female character who would actually enter the contest á la Gidget, but no such luck.) Ride the Wild Surf suffers from a peculiar in-between status, an attempt to combine a straight surfing documentary like Bruce Brown’s legendary The Endless Summer (released two years later but filmed over a 10-year period) with a plotted beach movie — down to the necessity to clad the stars in exactly the same swimwear as the stunt surfers in the action scenes (Pat ‘Sonny’ Gleason, Phil Sauers, Mickey Dora, Greg Noll and Dick Ziker), including giving Fabian a nice two-toned red-and-yellow number that showed off his ass very well. (Aside from Tab Hunter, who was getting a bit long in the tooth for these sorts of roles, none of the males in this movie are all that hot; they’re easy enough on the eyes but this is not the sort of movie that is going to give straight women or Gay men much in the way of sexual thrills.)

The long-shot footage of the professional surfers is by far the most exciting element in the movie; the problem is it’s not matched all that well to the main action — in the newly shot footage both sky and ocean are a far more azure sort of blue than they are in the real deal, and the scenes of the actors posed in front of process-screen images of waves that are supposed to make them look like they’re actually surfing are as obvious as anything American International came up with. Nor are the romantic intrigues all that interesting — Steamer’s story arc (he falls in love with local rich girl Lily Kilua — her last name is pronounced “Kahlua” and one wonders why she’s named after a drink — played by Susan Hart, and hires on as a ranch hand to help the Kiluas take care of their horses, appropriate because that was Tab Hunter’s favorite avocation in real life; but her mom, played by Catherine McLeod in an authoritative, fervent, powerful manner that’s the only real piece of acting in the movie, is against their match because Lily’s dad was also a beach bum and he left them three years earlier for Bora Bora) is hackneyed but at least interesting, while the other two (Chase gets dared to do a dangerous dive into a lagoon by his girlfriend, kooky martial-arts student Augie Poole — played by Barbara Eden in what was probably one of her more embarrassing credits — suggesting that writer-producers Jo and Art Napoleon had seen A Damsel in Distress; and Jody and Shelley Fabares as Bree Matthews — quite a contrast with Jane Fonda’s call-girl role in Klute, the only other film character I can think of named “Bree”! — have a relatively carefree relationship that goes off the rails only briefly when Jody drains most of the gunpowder out of a spectacular fireworks rocket she wanted to set off in his honor on New Year’s Eve) are just dull.

It also doesn’t help that, unlike the American International beach parties, Ride the Wild Surf is not a musical; virtually all the music we hear is underscoring in the instrumental version of “surf music,” by a studio band led by guitarist Tommy Tedesco, a perfectly fine player but several ticks down from Dick Dale in the excitement department. The Napoleons even commissioned a title song from Jan and Dean (Jan Berry wrote it with Brian Wilson and Roger Christian) but stupidly didn’t use it until the closing credits — had it opened the film as well, it would at least have started things with more of a bang and benefited the film artistically and commercially. Ride the Wild Surf simply isn’t as fun as the movies that were its model — as schlocky as the American International beach-fests were, with their over-the-hill actors playing disapproving adults and their campy villains contrasting oddly with the dewy-eyed innocence of Annette Funicello (who was under contract to Walt Disney, who as a condition of loaning her out stipulated that she could not wear a bikini — so there she is in a one-piece all-over swimsuit while the other girls in the movie are showing off midriffs), they’re a good deal more fun than this earnest but rather plodding attempt to wed surf documentary and beach movie.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Musketeer (Universal/Miramax, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie last night: The Musketeer, a 2001 offtake of the classic Alexander Dumas père novel The Three Musketeers (which sounds like a disgraceful instance of 17th century downsizing!) written by Gene Quintano and directed by Peter Hyams — who probably has a better reputation as a director than he deserves (he did the 1984 sequel to 2001, 2010) — which at least two commentators on regarded as an attempt to remodel The Three Musketeers into a martial-arts story. The version of the plot presented here opens with D’Artagnan as a child whose parents are abruptly murdered by Febre, the Man in Black (Tim Roth, stealing the acting honors with a superb performance as a psychopathic villain), an agent of Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea from The Crying Game) who’s hoping to use him to keep tensions high between Britain, France and Spain.

The film then flashes forward 12 years and D’Artagnan (Justin Chambers) is a young man traveling with his guardian, Planchet (Jean-Pierre Castaldi), who raised him after his parents were killed. He wants to follow his father into service as one of the Royal Musketeers, only the Musketeers have been outlawed and most of them imprisoned by order of Richelieu, who’s been able to take advantage of the weak King Louis XIII (Daniel Mesguich) to have the Musketeers disbanded and his own Cardinal’s Guards substituted as the royal security force. Among the few who have stayed out of prison are Athos (Jan Gregor Kremp), Porthos (Steve Speirs) and Aramis (Nick Moran), who meet up with Our Hero in a disreputable tavern and are distinctly unimpressed until they pick a fight with him in a wine cellar, and either Justin Chambers or (more likely) his stunt double (indeed, I had the feeling throughout the movie that this time they hired the stunt double first and then looked for an actor who resembled him instead of the other way around!) does a spectacular performance, doing dancer’s splits across the rolling wine barrels and turning in a splendid action scene hampered only by past-is-brown conventions.

According to his entry on, Peter Hyams likes to shoot scenes — even nighttime scenes and interiors — with as little artificial light as possible, thereby frequently getting accused of making his films so dark you can’t tell what’s going on. Here there are some ravishingly beautiful exteriors that look like French academic paintings of the period, as well as a couple of shots of D’Artagnan riding his horse against a flaming orange sunset that look straight out of Gone With the Wind or Duel in the Sun — but most of the interiors, including the big action scenes, are insufferably dark and it’s not always easy to tell what’s supposed to be going on in them.

Hyams doesn’t have the sense of pace a story like this needs to work — it sort of plods along between the action set-pieces (becoming a bit more “action porn” than usual for the genre!) and one misses the relentless energy brought to the earlier versions of Dumas’ tale — but the movie is fun almost in spite of itself, thanks partly to the finely honed performances of Tim Roth and Catherine Deneuve, who plays Louis’ Queen and is top-billed (in fact the top two slots on the cast list go to women, Deneuve and Mena Suvari as the hero’s love interest, Francesca Bonacieux, daughter of one of the Queen’s maids, an oddity in a male-oriented action film) and gets to play a quite active (and activist) role, making up for her husband’s weakness in her determination to foil Richelieu’s schemes to gain control of France and get Febre either arrested or killed. (Febre, intriguingly, wears a patch over his left eye through most of the film — not because he’s lost the eye but because D’Artagnan’s father scarred him there while trying to defend himself.)

Roth’s cool villainy is a highlight of the film; in one sequence he and his men massacre a coach full of diplomats from the Spanish court, and when Richelieu upbraids him — saying he only wanted to scare the Spaniards, not kill them — Febre responds with a heartless indifference that makes it clear he’s a psychopathic monster whom Richelieu will not be able to control. Febre also burns down an entire library full of laboriously copied manuscripts to get information from the scribe (whom he leaves to die in the blaze) and threatens to kill a child if Francesca won’t tell him where the Queen is hiding — and at one point he calmly takes out a gun and shoots Francesca (this is one Three Musketeers movie that actually acknowledge where the Musketeers got their name and that handguns, as well as artillery, existed in the 17th century — though Hyams makes the same mistake James Whale did in another Dumas-derived movie, The Man in the Iron Mask, of having the guns fired much more rapidly than they could have been at the time, when they had to be carefully and laboriously reloaded after each shot).

Naturally, we expect this movie to end with a climactic swordfight between D’Artagnan and Febre, and we’re not disappointed — indeed, the final battle takes place largely in a basement with row upon row of ladders, some of which tip picturesquely and raise or lower one of the combatants into or out of the other’s range; one ladder even becomes a see-saw and the two men fence while attempting to keep their balance on this gigantic teeter-totter, a scene that reminded me of the final fight between Robert Taylor and Duncan Lamont in the 1955 film Quentin Durward (the climax in that took place with the combatants swinging on bell ropes — and clinging for dear life to them, since below them was a blazing fire that would instantly incinerate either of them if they let go — having to carry on like twin Tarzans and do a swordfight while leaping from one rope to another!) and Charles of some of the more gravity-defying feats in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Musketeer is the sort of film that could have been a good deal better — it almost totally misses the insouciance of the best movies of the Dumas story and characters — but it’s still a lot of fun. Interestingly, the credits indicate it was a co-production of Universal and Miramax — back in the bright days before Miramax got bought out by Disney and became nothing more than a stepchild in the Disney machine!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Since Charles and I screened all 15 episodes of the 1943 Batman serial in two successive nights, I’ve elevated that (probably unfairly) to the position of the Citizen Kane of serials. It was helped by a topical plot line (Batman and Robin fighting a Japanese Fifth Column operating clandestinely in the U.S.), incisive direction by Lambert Hillyer (an important horror director and not a serial hack), a well-written (by serial standards) and genuinely imaginative script (in only one of the cliffhangers did Our Heroes escape by jumping, a trick the writers of Republic’s serials went to the well with so often I’ve joked that anyone who saw a Republic serial could have written a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before the car went off the cliff, they jumped out of it), the full production infrastructure of a major studio (one especially well-appointed nightclub set was originally built for the 1937 comedy classic The Awful Truth) and a good cast: Lewis Wilson as Batman (not exactly Mr. Universe material but movingly vulnerable, especially after the action scenes when he genuinely looked tired, and more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any screen Batman since), Douglas Croft as Robin, and J. Carrol Naish as the principal villain contributing a rare degree of understatement at a time when most serial bad-guys snarled their way through their parts and left no stick of scenery unchewed.

Alas, for the 1949 version Columbia lowered both their budget and their vision; they cast Robert Lowery as Batman (he was perfectly fine in ordinary juvenile leads but that compact little frame was not to the superhero’s mantle born — according to he was a last-minute substitute for the larger Kirk Alyn, whom Columbia had playing Superman but who probably backed out at the last minute because he realized it would be too confusing for audiences to have him playing both, which is why his Batcostume is so baggy) and the offensively awful John Duncan as Robin (he comes off as a refugee from the Bowery Boys and is so out-of-place he makes the miscast Lowery look O.K. by comparison). The plot deals with an industrialist named Norwood (James Craven) whose company is about to market a device that allows cars to be moved by remote control (when he demonstrates this with models in his office it seems quite unimpressive — “Radio-controlled model cars? Been there, seen that!”), only the man who actually invented it, a disabled scientist named Hammil (William Fawcett) got increasingly “eccentric,” we’re told, and left the company.

Hammil crashes the meeting Norwood is having with Batman and Robin, and when next we see him he turns out to be yet another in that long line of Hollywood’s villains who pretended to need wheelchairs to throw people off their scents: he gets out of his chair, sits in something that resembles a D.I.Y. electric chair surrounded by neon tubes, and this apparently cures him of any hint of disability because he’s up, walking around and, when we next see him, he’s in an underground grotto (obviously the same set, re-dressed, as the Batcave) dressed in a baggy and totally unimpressive black outfit, complete with hood, and calling himself “The Wizard,” in which capacity he’s leading a gang of crooks aimed at stealing back his own invention and also grabbing hold of the industrial diamonds needed to make it go. (The writers — George Plympton, Joseph Poland and Robert Cole — evidently intended to “surprise” the audience at the end with the Wizard’s true identity, but they made it so obvious in chapter one that unless they’re going to throw a real curveball at the end and turn him into the mother of all red herrings, they’ve already given away the plot.) Columbia gave the direction to Spencer Gordon Bennet, a serial hack if there ever was one (though they billed him without his middle name), and they also gave Lowery a ridiculous Batsuit with risibly tall ears that make him look more like Black-Rabbitman than Batman.

It also doesn’t help that, as in the 1943 serial, Batman and Robin drive an ordinary car instead of a Batmobile — this time around it’s a convertible and they “cleverly” conceal their changes from street clothes to superhero drag simply by putting the top up. If the 1943 Batman serial was an object lesson in how good a serial could be and how honest it could play with the audience while still delivering on the action that was the genre’s principal appeal, this one is a virtual compendium of what could go wrong with a serial. — 12/8/09


I ran chapters three and four of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Robin’s Wild Ride” and “Batman Trapped!” (the chapter titles have precious little to do with the actual contents), and they proved to be pretty much more of the same: a lot of fooforaw about a secret explosive called “X-90” stolen off a hijacked train by the Wizard’s henchmen, who fail to get the detonators without which the stuff is useless — so the Wizard has them kidnap the stuff’s inventor, Wesley Morton (Marshall Bradford), and take him to a cabin in the woods that looks like the place the titular characters were taken and essentially enslaved in the 1940 Columbia “B” Girls of the Road. Batman and Robin seems to anticipate much of the campy appeal of the TV series from the 1960’s — particularly the stentorian narration used, instead of titles, to bring viewers up to speed on the story so far at the beginning of each episode, and little details like the big block letters reading “X-90 EXPLOSIVE” on the box containing it when it’s thrown off the train (with considerably rougher handling than one would expect from a box containing high explosive — though since it’s supposed to be totally unexplosive unless detonated with the special detonators, maybe that isn’t as silly as it seemed at first).

There’s a clever visual trick by which the Wizard, clad in his stupid-looking black gown and hood, mysteriously appears in his associates’ hideout; they’re instructed to dim the lights in preparation for his arrival — and it turns out he’s literally doing it with mirrors; when someone takes a shot at his image, the mirror shatters in a scene that suggests either director Spencer ex-Gordon Bennet or someone on the writing committee had seen Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, released by the same studio one year earlier. Batman and Robin is an engaging enough serial, beset by the problematic casting of the heroes, and though it’s hardly anywhere near as good as the 1943 Columbia Batman it’s a decent if overly impoverished serial that fulfills the action requirements of the genre. — 12/14/09


Charles and I got a little movie-watching in last night, including the fifth episode of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Robin Rescues Batman!” (a chapter title at least more indicative of its contents than most of them, since in the opening Robin rescues Batman from an encounter with an electronic gadget that would have fried him on the spot if he hadn’t happened to be holding an iron bar at the time, which served as a ground and drew away the current from his body — it’s an awfully far-fetched resolution of the episode four cliffhanger and it’s the sort of plot twist people who write about serials make fun of, but after watching some of the Republic serials I still feel a sort of relief every time a serial writer manages to get the hero or heroes out of danger without having them jump!), a bit better than the norm for this production mainly because of the interesting character of Jimmy Vale, brother of Batman’s friend (and sort-of girlfriend), photographer Vicki Vale, who turns out to be a getaway driver for the gang led by “The Wizard” — and though the idea of a black-sheep relative wasn’t exactly fresh serial (or gangster-movie) plotting, at least it gives this episode more of a dramatic issue to be about even though the resolution is preposterous.

Jimmy induces Vicki to meet her in the park by Grant’s tomb — it is, of course, a setup for the Wizard’s gang to ambush her and grab the photo she took of them speeding away from the scene of their latest crime — and though Batman and Robin learn of the rendezvous in time (Vicki tells Batman in his Bruce Wayne identity), the photo is blown into a convenient campfire and burned to a crisp. No matter: Batman simply picks up the pieces, puts them in an evidence kit, and then subjects them to a remolecularizer — a treatment that enables him to reconstitute the photo in its original form, rephotograph it from the suitably rearranged ashes and thereby identify the people within it. In some ways the extension of Batman’s (and the villain’s) capabilities far beyond what the science of 1949 (or 2009, for that matter) could do is annoying, but it’s also fun in a campy way. — 12/27/09


We ran a couple more episodes of the 1949 Batman and Robin — which, somewhat to my surprise, seems to be getting better as it goes along: the action sequences are more exciting and the exposition between them somewhat less pachydermous and dull — even though the way they got out of the cliffhanger from episode five at the start of episode six (the villains trapped Batman and Robin off a pier and lit a flame so gasoline floating on top of the water would burn and they would be killed — only they simply swam under it) seemed to be a cheat. This one had Batman disguise himself as one of the Wizard’s henchmen to crash their hideout and find out what they were planning next — only he’s “outed” when the very interesting character of Barry Brown, radio newscaster who keeps spilling crucial information about the police efforts against the Wizard (to the point where by the end of episode seven, “The Fatal Blast,” he’s being presented as suspect number one in the hunt for the Wizard’s identity), says that the real crook Batman is impersonating is still in police custody. (Robert Lowery’s years of playing small-time gangsters stood him in good stead in these scenes.) — 1/1/10


We ran episodes eight and nine of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial — which hasn’t got an especially good reputation (especially by comparison with the marvelous first Batman serial Columbia made in 1943, with J. Carrol Naish refreshingly understated by serial-villain standards, a handsome production and Lewis Wilson as one of the best screen Batmen ever — indeed, better in the character’s Bruce Wayne identity than any of his successors) but is getting better and better as it unwinds. The action scenes (the real “meat” of a serial) are snappy and well staged (Republic is usually considered the ultimate serial studio for the staging of their action scenes, but in Batman and Robin serial veteran director Spencer Gordon Bennet proves as adept as his Republic colleagues in staging entertaining, high-tension action), the exposition is terse and to-the-point, and the physical production is quite convincing (the fire that supposedly consumes Batman at the end of episode eight is utterly believable even though the resolution of the cliffhanger isn’t).

On the down side is the acting — Robert Lowery as Batman is a decent enough hero but he suffers from long years of typecasting as a crook (which made him unexpectedly convincing in the episode in which he disguised himself as one of the Wizard’s men to crash their meeting and find out what they were going to do next), and John Duncan is too chipper, too much the comic-relief player to make him believable as Robin. (It also doesn’t help that Batman’s costume is awfully ill-fitting and baggy; according to, it’s because the part of Batman was originally planned for Kirk Alyn, who had just played Superman in another Columbia serial, and when Alyn withdrew at the last minute Lowery, a much smaller man, literally stepped into his Batsuit.) The overall show is engaging, and the Wizard is a genuinely imposing serial villain even though, like most of them, he tends to overact — especially when he’s in full “Wizard gear” (a black robe and matching hood that covers up everything except his eyes) — though conceits like the secret, remote-controlled submarine that takes the Wizard’s men to him without letting them know where they are going are a lot of fun and the sort of thing for which one watches old-time serials. — 1/3/10


I ran Charles episodes 10 and 11 of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Batman’s Last Chance!” and “Robin’s Ruse!” (Every chapter title in this serial has an exclamation point at the end, at least in the original credits, though on the DVD menu the exclamation points have been jettisoned as serial overkill.) This is one serial that’s getting better as it goes along — I’m somewhat surprised that I’m liking it better this time around than I did when I bought the VHS pre-records of it in the early 1990’s — even though it’s hardly the equal of the 1943 Batman serial, which had a better pair of actors as Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft vs. Robert Lowery and the terminally nerdy Johnny Duncan), a bigger production budget and a better director (Lambert Hillyer vs. Spencer Gordon Bennet), as well as a more interesting villain: the 1943 Batman’s villain was Dr. (or sometimes Prince) Daka (J. Carrol Naish), a Japanese agent who was portrayed as a black-hearted monster but also a courtly character whom Naish actually underacted, while in 1949 the principal bad guy is the Wizard, a generic dark-cloaked, dark-hooded serial villain whose secret identity is supposed to be a whodunit-style surprise.

Nonetheless, director Bennet was an old serial hand with a flair for staging effective action scenes on a small budget, and screenwriters George H. Plympton (note the “y” in his name that sets him apart from the later journalist and socialite), Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole came up with some clever exposition scenes and some unusually creative cliffhangers: while the one between episodes nine and 10 is a pretty conventional they-jumped-out-of-danger in time (the Wizard used his remote control gizmo to take control of the car Batman and Robin commandeered from a passer-by and drive it off a cliff, but, you guessed it, they jumped out in time), the one between 10 and 11 is genuinely surprising: Jimmy Vale, brother of heroine Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), finds the unconscious Batman in the Wizard’s hideout and is shown lifting the cowl on Batman’s costume and recognizing its occupant as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Then the scene cuts to a fight in the hallway of building in which the crooks take on Batman and one of them shoves him out the window to certain death below — only at the beginning of the next episode it turns out that the person in the Batsuit who took the header out the window was not the real Batman but Jimmy Vale, who stripped Batman and put on the costume himself, only to be attacked and killed by the criminals who thought he was the real Batdeal.

Bruce Wayne escapes in mufti, driven away in a van by Robin — which leads the crooks seeing them together to reach the obvious conclusion that Bruce Wayne is Batman and forces him to stage a meeting between Bruce Wayne and Batman with butler Alfred Pennyworth (Eric Wilton) in the Batsuit — a gimmick that startled Charles, who remembered it from the 1960’s TV show but hadn’t realized they’d used that early (and they did it fairly often in the comic books as well). Though episode 11 ends with yet another scene of Batman’s car going out of control and hurtling him towards a (presumably) fatal accident, for the most part these two chapters are quite creatively and engagingly done, and overall the Batman and Robin serial is proving quite appealing and genuinely exciting as it enters the home stretch. It’s only a pity that they killed off the character of Jimmy Vale, the most multidimensional character in the piece whose moral dilemma and divided loyalties between the Wizard’s gang and his sister displayed a sort of emotional complexity one doesn’t expect to see in a serial. — 1/10/10


I ran us episodes 12 and 13 of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial — just two episodes to go until we’re finished! — which, as I’ve noted earlier, has proven to be surprisingly good even though there have been a lot of rather lame cliffhangers (a far cry from the creativity with which the writing team of the early 1943 Batman serial approached the cliffhangers), including one in which Batman and Robin lose control of their car (thanks to a smoke device the Wizard has installed on the back of his car — anticipating the James Bond Goldfinger gimmick by 15 years!) and run it off the road into a tree … and emerge at the start of the next episode with both themselves and their car relatively unscathed (indeed, they’re still able to drive the car afterwards). There was also an inevitable one in which Robin escaped from a speeding, out-of-control car (what was the “thing” these writers had for cliffhanger climaxes involving cars?) by, you guessed it, jumping out in time. Columbia’s serial writers didn’t rely on jumping as an escape mechanism as much as their confreres at Republic did, but they did fall back on it a few times. Columbia’s serial crew also relied on some of the same locations as Republic’s, and I wonder if the two studios’ directors didn’t get together and draw straws — “O.K., you got the long straw. You get to film at the narrow gap between those two rocks today!”

Still, the 1949 Batman and Robin is a nicely done serial, with especially well-staged fight scenes and other action highlights, as well as one quite clever gimmick: when the incognito villain “The Wizard” wants his gang members to meet him at his headquarters, he takes them there via an underground river in a small submarine so even his longest-standing associates won’t know where his headquarters are. “The Wizard” also is an interesting villain — though hardly a patch on the quiet, understated performance of J. Carrol Naish as Dr. (or Prince) Daka in the 1943 Batman serial — mainly for his elaborate command of science and technology, even though his supposedly “secret” identity (assuming he does indeed turn out to be who Charles and I think he is) was readily apparent from episode one. I’m certainly looking forward to wrapping this show up with the final two episodes! — 1/15/10


I decided to run the last two episodes of the 1949 Batman and Robin serial, “Batman vs. the Wizard” (which made Charles wonder what they thought all the other episodes had been about!) and “Batman Victorious,” and quite frankly after a serial whose middle chapters had been quite well made, the last three were disappointing. Not only did they decide at the very end of this story to give the Wizard, the super-villain at the heart of the story, the power to be invisible (supposedly the remote-control device and the neutralizing mechanism would turn something invisible if aimed at it at the same time) — though they hardly did the invisibility gags with the same precision or inventiveness as Universal had in their Invisible Man movies (or even their 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, in which Bela Lugosi developed invisibility at least as early as chapter three), and the invisibility gimmick came at a cost: the Wizard was dependent for his continued invisibility on his henchmen back in his cave hideout keeping both gizmos on, and they kept turning them off, worried that the circuits would short out and one or the other device would get fried and be rendered useless.

So the Wizard’s men keep turning off the switches and he keeps returning to visibility at the most awkward imaginable moments. It gets worse: after 13 chapters during which it’s been carefully established that Prof. Hammil (William Fawcett) is carefully concealing the fact that he can walk — publicly he’s in a wheelchair but he’s got a neon-lit chair that enables him, at least for limited times, to get out of the chair and have normal mobility — from everybody, including his manservant Carter (Leonard Penn), in chapter 14 he’s up and around, walking all over his home and neither Carter nor Batman and Robin, who are there to quiz the professor about the case, comment on it or show any signs of noticing. What’s more, in chapter 15 Hammil is back in the wheelchair again, likewise without explanation. In episode 14 Batman recovers a right glove the Wizard lost from his costume, torn on the outside of the hand, and therefore intuits that the Wizard will have an open would on the top of his right hand — and the writers (George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole) go out of their way to give all three of the Wizard suspects — Hammill, private detective Dunne (Michael Whalen) and radio reporter Barry Brown (Rick Vallin) — open wounds on the tops of their right hands.

And to add further to the incredulity, the Wizard turns out to be none of the above, but rather manservant Carter — or, rather, a previously unheard-of identical twin to Carter, who impersonated his brother to steal Hammil’s inventions and set himself up as a scientific criminal mastermind. This plot twist was pretty preposterous in Monogram’s 1944 thriller Phantom Killer (in which the villain was posing as a wealthy philanthropist and in some scenes he was deaf but in others he could hear — and the solution to the mystery was that there were two of them, also identical twins), a remake of an even earlier (1933) Monogram called The Sphinx — and it certainly hadn’t improved with age: a disappointing ending to a serial that started slow but was quite slickly produced and had a lot of good action scenes in the middle. — 1/16/10

A Hatful of Rain (20th Century-Fox, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

A Hatful of Rain was a movie I had high hopes for, but it was a major disappointment. It started life as a stage play, a breast-beating drama about a Korean War veteran who’s so severely injured in the war that he spends nine months in the hospital recovering after he’s discharged and is given so much morphine that when he’s released he finds himself addicted — like Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Edith Piaf, all of whom started using opiates medicinally and ended up “hooked” — and soon is in hock to a gang of unsavory street dealers. The original play was written by Michael V. Gazzo (which probably explains why the central characters are all Italian-Americans living a proletarian existence in New York City) and the stage production featured Ben Gazzara as Johnny Pope, the addict; Shelley Winters as his wife Celia; and Anthony Franciosa (the future Mr. Shelley Winters) as Johnny’s brother Polo (that’s right: not Paul, not Paolo, but Polo!). If this trio sounds familiar it’s because Gazzo was pretty obviously ripping off The Lost Weekend — a central addict character and his brother and lover as his enablers — with heroin instead of booze (though the angst of having to take care of his brother has turned Polo into a pretty brutal alcoholic himself, saddling the family with two big-time substance abusers).

TCM showed this as part of a festival dedicated to Method actors in film, though the only real Method performers in the movie are Franciosa, repeating his stage role, and Eva Marie Saint taking the part of Celia. What makes the Method designation more ironic is that the plot is precipitated by the sudden arrival of John Pope, Sr., father of Johnny and Polo, from Palm Beach, Florida — where he’s about to graduate from being a bartender to buying his own bar — to New York to pick up the $2,500 Polo is supposed to have saved for him, which he needs to complete his deal. John, Sr. — who insists throughout the movie on being called “Pop” — is played by old Hollywood pro Lloyd Nolan, and he makes mincemeat out of the Method crew in every scene he’s in, winning the acting competition from this film hands down. The film was produced by Buddy Adler and directed by Fred Zinnemann for 20th Century-Fox — the two had previously worked together on From Here to Eternity for Columbia (also with a major Method star, Montgomery Clift), but the magic didn’t come together this time.

Part of the problem with A Hatful of Rain is it’s simply a horrific downer; there aren’t any characters you can relate to or even like — Johnny, aside from being a drug addict (which, given his circumstances, you can forgive him for) comes off as a helpless idiot; Polo as someone barely in control of his own addictions as well as his emotions; Celia as a woman who’s so overbearing and obnoxious one would think that if her husband hadn’t already been a substance abuser, her constant carping at him would have turned him into one; and Pop, despite his status as the most sympathetic of the bunch — we want him to succeed and do his deal and we feel his anguish when he realizes that Polo has spent the $2,500 and it’s all gone into Johnny’s arm — himself is such a nag, and reacts to Johnny’s revelation with such insane machismo (his first instinct is to find someone to blame so he can attack them), we don’t really like him either. The film is stolen by Nolan, and also by the villains of the piece — Henry Silva (also a carryover from the stage cast) as “Mother,” the principal drug dealer who supplies Johnny; and his confederates, Gerald S. O’Loughlin as “Chuch” and William Hickey as “Apples” (the indication is that Mother is the only one of the trio who’s not a user himself, and Hickey’s so slight of build and has such an improbably squeaky voice he seems to be channeling Jerry Lewis) — who manage to create an impression of terror every time they appear.

They actually provide some vitality into a movie that’s otherwise way too depressing to be particularly entertaining — the sense of struggle we got in The Man with the Golden Arm is absent here, as is the promise, implicit in that film, The Lost Weekend and virtually all other genuinely good addiction films, that the central character can look forward to a better life if he can just get himself off the stuff. Part of the problem with this movie is the actor they picked to play Johnny — Don Murray, the almost impassive hunk who did so much to weaken the film Bus Stop (and took away from Marilyn Monroe’s masterly performance in that film) and is equally weak here, stumbling and fumbling around in a part that really required James Dean — even though not only was Dean dead by the time this film was made, but because of clashing contracts he probably wouldn’t have been able to do it even if he had still been alive.

Murray does his level best to look like a Method actor — he seems to think that if he hangs his head down a lot and mumbles his lines, he’ll pass — but it doesn’t work, and while Eva Marie Saint is a superior performer the role gives her absolutely nothing to work with — neither the crack-brained innocence she played in On the Waterfront nor the sexual sophisticate of her role in North by Northwest. A Hatful of Rain is the sort of movie you want to like — it’s clearly coming from a good place and the intentions behind it are noble — but it just won’t cooperate.