Friday, December 31, 2010

The Perfect Marriage (Perfect Productions, S.V. Thrilling Movies 2 Inc., Lifetime, 2006)

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

It’s been a long morning. I spent much of it watching a movie on TV: The Perfect Marriage, one of the Lifetime “Perfect” TV-movies they showed all day last Sunday, all of them dealing with a person who seems to be “perfect” but in fact has an evil, scheming heart under their positive surface. This film opens with an illicit couple in bed together: the woman is Marianne Danforth a.k.a. Annie Grayson (Jamie Luner) and the man is a hot stud named Brent Richter (James Wilder), though through at least part of the movie he goes by the name “Christopher.” At first it seems like Double Indemnity with the genders reversed — he’s trying to persuade her to murder her husband and it seems like she’s going to go along with it out of sexual thrall to him (and James Wilder is the sort of hot stud — dark-haired, baby-faced, great hair, nice bod and big basket — Lifetime seems to cast only as villains), but the film then goes into a flashback and it turns out Marianne and Brent are old-time partners in crime — they married her off to a man they later killed before and netted a quarter of a million dollars, though he blew all but about $10,000 of it (it’s not specified how but it’s hinted that he gambled — we do find out that Marianne’s father was a compulsive gambler and it seems that Lifetime’s writers, ever-reliable Christine Conradt and the collaborator, “K. Taylor,” she had on this one, though Mr./Ms. Taylor’s only other credit is as “zombie wrangler” on the 2008 film Mutant Vampire Zombies from the 'Hood!, are hinting that she fell for a boy just like the boy that married dear old mom).

She’s hooked her partner in the supposedly “perfect marriage,” Richard Danforth (William R. Moses, who looks like a large middle-aged teddy bear — though he’s supposed to be playing a patsy in someone else’s crime plot, he’s unusually weak even by the standards of a Lifetime leading man), the son of a major real-estate developer, Donald Danforth (Lawrence Dane), who’s on the point of getting a multi-million dollar project approved and all he needs is the Philadelphia City Council (like The Perfect Teacher, this is set in Pennsylvania but Philadelphia is actually “played” by a city in Canada — Ottawa) and the Environmental Protection Agency. As I said before, at first Marianne appears to be an innocent victim of Brent’s sexual charms but later it turns out that even though he abandoned her in California after their last joint crime, he’s able to seduce her (physically and psychologically) back into his plot, though we’re also supposed to believe she hooked the Danforths on her own.

For someone who’s supposed to be an experienced criminal, though, she leaves a trail a mile wide; two of Richard’s office assistants, Tia Montgomery (Sophie Gendron) — who had an unrequited crush on him and was pissed that he married Marianne instead following the death of his first wife (though it’s not implied that Marianne knocked off his first wife — apparently she just died) — and Carrie Hollings (Lisa Langlois). Carrie catches Marianne in a lie — she said she was going to a meeting at the Hansen Gallery but Carrie knows from her brother, who works there, that it was closed for renovation and so she follows Marianne to her real errand, a bar called Grace O’Malley’s where she regularly meets Brent — only Marianne spots her in the bar, calls Brent on her cell phone, and he picks up on his and dispatches Carrie in the parking lot, killing her with a knife and making it look like a robbery gone bad. Marianne is in the Danforth home alone with her father-in-law when, in a scene Conradt and Taylor obviously ripped off from Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, the old man suddenly has a heart attack and Marianne briefly considers letting him die by denying him the medication he needs to survive, but later she gives it to him and calls 911 just in time, and when Brent chews her out for not letting him die, Marianne points out that she needs the old man alive long enough to pull strings at the EPA to get the big development approved and therefore swell the size of the fortune they’re going to inherit when they knock off both Danforths.

Marianne ultimately gives her father-in-law the fatal injection of potassium chloride Brent procured for her to use for that purpose — the opening scene turns out to be a “cheat” since she appeared to be giving her husband the injection and doing it in bed, when the victim is actually her husband’s father and he’s awake but in a wheelchair when he’s killed. Only Tia has heard from Carrie’s brother and learns where Carrie’s body was found, and from that information she puts together the truth and goes after Marianne — who in the meantime murders Brent in the guise of seducing him because she never forgave him for abandoning her back in California in the backstory — and they confront each other in a parking lot after Tia arranged to pick up Richard at the airport following a business trip, during which time she intended to brief him on the evidence that his wife was a murderess. Marianne calls her husband and finds out Tia has arranged to pick him up, and she traces Tia to a parking garage and goes after her with a knife — intending, she says, to make it look like “a carjacking gone wrong” — only Tia gets away in time because Marianne is run down by a van pulling out of the parking garage and dies.

There’s an ambiguous epilogue in which Richard announces that he’s promoting Tia to a partnership in the firm and then takes her to dinner and, over drinks, proposes to her — and there’s a weird little smirk on Sophie Gendron’s face that might or might not have been intended to signal that Richard is now in mortal danger from her, though that’s pushing the melodrama to a level even Christine Conradt and the director, her frequent collaborator Douglas Jackson, weren’t likely to go to. The Perfect Marriage is actually a nice, suspenseful entertaining movie, a typical piece of Lifetime trash but at least a fun typical piece of Lifetime trash — and the aesthetics of James Wilder’s body, especially in the substantial amounts of time director Jackson allows us to see it partially unclad, just add to its appeal.

Ghosts on the Loose (Banner/Monogram, 1943)

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

The film was Ghosts on the Loose, completing our recent run through the Bela Lugosi films for Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions, released through Monogram in what would become the most common way movies got made after the studio system started to collapse following World War II (“independent” producers shop projects to studios, and if they’re lucky they get approval and production money, with the studio taking a distribution fee off the top and then sharing the remaining profits, if any, with the producer) but was still quite unusual in 1943, when this was made. Ghosts on the Loose was the second film, after Spooks Run Wild, in which Katzman paired his two top attractions at the time, Lugosi and the East Side Kids (formerly the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys, later the Bowery Boys) — though in the two years between the films Katzman had obviously changed his mind regarding which was the bigger audience draw; where Lugosi got over-the-title billing in Spooks Run Wild and the individual kids — Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan — were billed below him, this time around the East Side Kids got the first title card all to themselves and Lugosi was billed after the title.

The priorities in the credits are reflected in the actual film itself: we have to wait through 15 minutes of this 63-minute film before we see Lugosi at all (in Spooks Run Wild we only had to wait 10 minutes), and he only has a handful of scenes, playing neither a monster, a mad scientist nor a red herring but an ordinary character-villain part just about anyone could have done. Ghosts on the Loose was also noteworthy because Monogram borrowed an actress from MGM named Ava Gardner who was then totally unknown (she’d played a few bits in MGM’s low-budget productions but nothing long enough to earn her screen credit) but in a few years would become a superstar. She plays Betty, sister of East Side Kids regular Glimpy (Huntz Hall), and that casting defies genetic probability even though the film’s cinematographer, Monogram hack Mack Stengler, does his best by shooting her so plainly she looks like an only ordinarily attractive young woman, totally lacking the glamour she had in her later, bigger movies.

The gimmick is that she’s about to marry Jack Gibson (Rick Vallin, a tall, personable actor better than the general run of Monogram leading men who should have had more of a career than he did) and brother Glimpy is going to be the best man — and for its first 20 minutes or so Ghosts on the Loose is actually a minor comic delight as the Kids rehearse “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” for the wedding ceremony, steal a horseshoe-shaped wreath intended for a gangster’s funeral and acquire Glimpy a tuxedo from a funeral director who needs it back to dress the gangster’s corpse. Then the plot rears its ugly head: it turns out Jack owns a bungalow to which he intends to take Betty on their honeymoon despite the warnings that the house next door is haunted. It is haunted — not by ghosts on the loose but by a batch of Nazi saboteurs and Bundists, headed by Emil (Bela Lugosi — who in real life had fled Hungary when he was involved in Bela Kun’s Communist revolution in 1919 and was marked for death when Admiral Horthy’s counter-revolutionary forces took over — Horthy was still in power in the 1940’s and not surprisingly allied Hungary with the Axis — but then there were plenty of other real-life refugees from the Nazis, including Conrad Veidt, who played Nazis on screen) and Hilda (Minerva Urecal) and involving henchmen Tony (Wheeler Oakman), Bruno (Peter Seal) and Monk (Frank Moran).

What’s left of the film involves the mixup the East Side Kids create when they get the two adjacent houses mixed up and think Jack and Betty are going to be honeymooning in the “haunted” cottage in which the Nazi fifth columnists have set up a printing press and are publishing leaflets with titles like What the New Order Means to You and How to Destroy the Allies. The Kids move the press back and forth from one house to the other, along with a good deal of the furniture, and at the end the Kids defeat the Nazis but Jack and Betty are denied their honeymoon because Glimpy has come down with “German measles” — depicted as crudely drawn swastikas all over his face and the exposed parts of his body — and thus Jack, Betty and the Kids are forced to stay together in the little cottage for a week because it’s under quarantine. “That was our standard of comedy,” Ava Gardner sniffed about Ghosts on the Loose in her 1991 autobiography, adding that the film was “a piece of sweet, unsophisticated rubbish” and what impressed (if you can call it that) her most about the film was the dramatic difference between the ways movies were made at MGM and Monogram.

“It was shot at such enormous speed, we had one film stage and it took one week,” she recalled. “Action — film — print! Even the little experience I’d had with Metro told me that this was not a quality film. In one scene the hero accidentally stumbled over a prop and fell. Nobody cared. No retake. Print it! All part of the glorious fun.” She also recalled Bela Lugosi off-screen as “a gentle man who wouldn’t frighten a nervous kitten” and said her best memory of the film didn’t come while it was being made, but afterwards when she and her sister Bappie saw, on the marquee of a theatre in a sleazier part of L.A., “‘GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE’ WITH AVA GARDNER” — the first time she’d ever seen her name in lights. Ghosts on the Loose isn’t a Lugosi vehicle, but as an East Side Kids movie it has its appeal and probably showcases them better than Spooks Run Wild — which isn’t saying a lot. In the appendix of his book Poverty Row Horrors! Tom Weaver got a bunch of film buffs together to assess the nine Lugosi Monograms for their relative quality (and in assessing these movies the word “quality” must inevitably be modified by “relative”!), and at the time I first read the book I hadn’t seen Return of the Ape Man at all and I hadn’t seen some of the others in decades. Now that I’ve run them all relatively recently, here’s my ranking of them (screwy idea, isn’t it?):

1) Bowery at Midnight. Its plot is stolen from the best sources tapped by Monogram and Banner for this series — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Blackbird (the 1926 Lon Chaney, Sr./Tod Browning silent) and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse — which makes up for some silly plot devices and Wallace Fox’s mediocre direction.

2) The Invisible Ghost. An even sillier story than the Monogram norm, but at least one quality actor besides Lugosi — Betty Compson — and inspired direction from up-and-comer Joseph H. Lewis.

3) Voodoo Man. A surprise this time around since I’d rated it low when I first saw it, but worthwhile performances from Lugosi and George Zucco and some genuine Gothic atmosphere lead me to move it up.

4) Black Dragons. A weak story — it’s supposed to be built around a final surprise “twist” but it’s so obscure and confusing the film is actually more entertaining if you know the “twist” in advance — but a nice combination of the old-dark-house schtick and a topical plot involving Japanese saboteurs and fifth columnists and a German plastic surgeon. The flashback sequence, far better directed than the rest of the film, makes it all worthwhile.

5) Return of the Ape Man. A good middle section knocking off the original 1931 Frankenstein (with a revivified caveman replacing the artificially created monster) and a nice supporting performance by John Carradine, as well as some spectacular stock footage of the Arctic, make up for sloppy plotting that fails to make the most of a potentially interesting story premise.

6) Spooks Run Wild. Not what it could have been if the script had tapped Lugosi’s own talents as a comedian (showcased in the Joe E. Brown vehicle Broadminded, International House and briefly in Ninotchka) but still a cute haunted-house romp uniting Lugosi and the East Side Kids.

7) Ghosts on the Loose. A second Lugosi/East Side Kids teaming but one which gives Lugosi a much less important role (though the Kids are more fun this time around). Worth it for some moderately amusing East Side Kids comedy and a glimpse of the young Ava Gardner.

8) The Corpse Vanishes. A premise far better used in the later Voodoo Man — Lugosi as a necromancer who kidnaps young women to revivify his old, catatonic wife — a heavy, ponderous, ridiculous movie whose makers thought Lugosi would look intimidating and frightening even doing mundane things like getting in and out of a van.

9) The Ape Man. The nadir of the Monogram/Banner Lugosi series: a dull story (essentially a reworking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but one that doesn’t let us see Jekyll, only Hyde), an insipid performance by Lugosi with utterly no flair to his villainy and nothing to recommend it but a cute meta-fictional gimmick at the end.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures, Marc Platt Productions, Big Talk Productions, 2010)

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

Our film last night was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which for some reason I thought was a Percy Jackson and the Olympians-style story about a (relatively) normal kid who suddenly has to develop or cultivate super-powers to defeat some horrible menace from an alien world. It turned out to be a much more creative film than that, a young-man-comes-of-age story that also managed to be an aspiring rock band story on the order of Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains and the more recent The Runaways — and it also managed to be the only film I’ve seen that managed to reflect and spoof the culture of video games instead of either outright adapting a video-game storyline to film or doing a typical sports-movie trope about video game players.

From the opening sequence, in which the current Universal logo theme is heard in the style of a cheap video game soundtrack — and the logo itself is seen in the lousy eight-bit resolution of an old-fashioned video game, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is refreshingly irreverent towards life, love, teen angst movies, video games, rock bands, vegans and everything else that fits within its compass. Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera, the kid who became a star knocking up Ellen Page in Juno) isn’t a kid, really, though he’s still behaving like one; he’s 22, he’s “between jobs” (that’s what he tells us) and he also plays guitar and bass in an aspiring rock band called Sex Bob-Omb whose red-haired (female) drummer, Kim Pine (Allison Pill), once had an affair with him and is still carrying the torch — only he dumped her for singer Envy Adams (Brie Larson), who left him just as her band, The Clash at Demonhead, suddenly landed a record contract and became successful.

That happened a year before the film begins, and Scott has remained mired in the past by refusing to have his hair professionally cut — instead he does it himself — and is currently seeing a 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl (this film takes place in Toronto, which for once in a U.S. movie actually plays itself rather than impersonating a U.S. city) called Knives Chau. Not that they’ve done anything sexual — or even that much physical besides holding hands and an occasional closed-lips kiss — but the people around Scott, including his sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), strongly disapprove of him dating a high-school girl. Scott lives in a ratty studio apartment with a Gay roommate named Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who’s clearly having better luck with his love (or at least sex) life than Scott is, since he’s constantly asking Scott to vacate the premises so he can entertain his latest fuck buddy — and at one point he even seduces Stacey Pilgrim’s boyfriend Jimmy (Kjartan Hewitt) away from her.

As for Scott, he’s instantly ready to dump Knives when he sees a spectacular apparition in pink hair who turns out to be Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whom he falls in love (or at least lust) with at first sight — only she comes with a big piece of heavy-duty baggage: she has seven ex’es and Scott must do battle to the death with all of them before he can have Ramona. This sets up a series of video-game style confrontations with the various ex’es — not all of whom, much to Scott’s surprise, are male (when he confronts Ramona’s former girlfriend, Ramona explains, “I was Bi-curious,” whereupon Scott replies, “I’m Bi-furious!”) — including a bizarre pair of twins who lead a synth band that battles Scott’s group in a round of the battle-of-the-bands contest around which much of the plot revolves, as well as Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman), the legendary record producer who’s going to sign the winner of the battle of the bands and is pretty clearly made up to look like the young Phil Spector.

After ragging on Inception because it offered no contact with the real world and was so arbitrarily plotted, it seems odd that I should have liked a movie whose plotting was just as arbitrary, but I did because Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright (who also co-wrote the script with Michael Bacall — any relation? — based on a series of “graphic novels,” i.e. book-length comic books, by Bryan Lee O’Malley) managed to keep us emotionally identified with Scott and his struggle essentially to grow up no matter how many fantastic elements the plot threw in his path. I can see why this movie became a cult favorite among certain critics (included whoever does the “underrated/overrated” feature in the Los Angeles Times Calendar, who definitely put this movie in the “underrated” category), and also why it was a failure at the box office: it’s so relentlessly genre-bending one gets the impression it’s the kind of movie Preston Sturges would be making if he were alive and working now, a mad jumble of coming-of-age, rock-band-wrestles-with-selling-out and life-is-just-a-video-game tropes that manages to be more entertaining, not less, than the sum of its parts (though I found the ending a bit unsatisfying — I think Scott ended up with the wrong girl at the closing credits), and it’s also clear that Wright and his collaborators don’t overestimate the importance of their tale: instead of the High Seriousness with which a lot of kids’ fantasies get told in the movies today (can you say The Dark Knight?), Scott Pilgrim is written and directed with a refreshing awareness of its own triviality. It’s a wild movie but one that works on just about every level it’s intended to.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eat Pray Love (Columbia Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, India Take One Productions, 2010)

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

The film was Eat Pray Love (a title that drives me nuts typographically since there should be a comma after each of the first two words!), based on the mega-best selling book by Elizabeth Gilbert and turned into an engaging vehicle for Julia Roberts, directed by Ryan Murphy (who has only one previous feature-film credit as director, the engaging adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors) from a script he co-write with Jennifer Salt based on Gilbert’s book. The DVD offered both the theatrical version and the director’s cut — we watched the latter, though according to it’s only five minutes longer — and the movie timed out to two hours and 25 minutes, almost the length of Inception, but for me it was considerably more entertaining not so much because it was based (more or less) on a true story but simply because it was about real people in a plane of reality in which I could believe, no matter how far removed it was from my own experience.

When the story begins, Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is burning out on her eight-year marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup) and is getting restive about her whole life. She takes a trip to Bali and meets a medicine man named Ketut Liyer (Hadi Subiyanto) who predicts that she will soon lose all her money but she’ll get it back, and she’ll take a trip to Italy and then to India before returning to him. (Has anybody but me noticed that the three countries Liz Gilbert visited on her grand tour all have names beginning with “I” — Italy, India and Indonesia?) When she returns she drifts into an affair with David (James Franco), a boyish actor who has produced and starred in a play based on a Gilbert story called Permeable Membrane in which the female character so totally gives up her identity to her lover that she proudly proclaims herself to be his permeable membrane, letting in anything he wants in while keeping out anything he wants kept out. (It’s a pretty sickening vision of a relationship and an oddly dated one — it seems more like something from the 1950’s than the 2000’s.) Her relationship, such as it is, with David disintegrates at about the same time that Stephen, originally reluctant to divorce her, agrees to do so only as long as he gets all the community property.

But through David she’s discovered the Guru Gita (Gita Reddy, though we see her only in a photograph propped up on a chair and used as an object of veneration by her disciples during their mass services — she never appears “live” in the film and we’re told that she’s in New York while Liz is in India hoping to meet with her!), and she does her Grand Tour, first in Italy — where she spends most of four months in a flat with no running water (when she asks how she can take a bath she’s told she needs to boil water in kettles — and when she complains about how little water that involves she’s told, “Enough to wash everything that’s important”) when she’s not visiting musea, listening to opera (though the one bit of opera we hear isn’t Italian but German — the Queen of the Night’s second-act aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, performed by Sumi Jo with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic) or eating, eating, eating, so much so that in a quite charming comedy scene she’s shown having a difficult succession of struggles getting her tight pants to close properly until ultimately she has to break down and buy new, larger clothes. (One thing that annoyed me about this movie is that for someone who had supposedly lost all her money in her divorce, she seemed to have a bottomless supply of ready cash whenever she needed it — but then it’s been common across several decades of moviemaking either to ignore or deny the struggle for money commonplace in the real world.)

Then she heads off to India and to Guru Gita’s ashram, where she’s required to scrub the floors as a love offering of voluntary work (the filmmakers could have done more with the idea of pampered, overprivileged Americans being required to do manual labor as a condition of supposed spiritual enlightenment) and learn how to meditate — like the real-life Ringo Starr at the Maharishi’s compound, she finds it impossible to concentrate on meditation without being distracted by the hordes of flies common in India — as well as attending services punctuated by high-energy Indian music that seem more like the Hindu equivalent of an African-American gospel church than what we usually think of as the rites of an Eastern religion. While there she meets Richard (Richard Jenkins), a refugee from Texas who joined the guru’s church after his wife threw him out when, following years of what he describes as “drinking, drugs and meaningless cheating,” he nearly ran over their son while coming home from one of his drinking jags (the boy was sitting in the driveway, waiting for dad, when dad just headed straight towards him; fortunately, knowing from previous experience what he was up against, the kid got out of the way in time but the incident was the final straw that ended his marriage and cost him the chance to see his son grow up from 8 to 18). Richard calls Liz “Groceries” based on how much food she helps herself to from the communal buffet and gives her sensible talk that helps her more than the spiritual fooforaw that surrounds her — though what makes Liz decide she’s had enough is that just when she’s ready to take a vow of silence, the guru’s staff presses her into service as a sort of social director for a new batch of Americans visiting the ashram.

She ends up back in Bali, where she experiences a meet-cute with Brazilian émigré Felipe (Javier Bardem) — though this is supposed to be a true story, their first encounter (she’s riding a bicycle when he, reaching to adjust a jammed cassette in his car’s tape player, loses control and runs her off the road) has all the contrivance of a carefully concocted Hollywood movie script. She’s cruised not only by Felipe but also by his son, who’s white, Anglo-looking and speaks English with an Australian accent (it turns out he is Australian, sired there by Felipe with his then-wife, a white Australian), and in order to treat the wound from the accident she hooks up with a traditional Balinese healer, Wayan Nuriasih (Christine Hakim), and befriends her and her daughter Tutti (Anakia Lapae). When Liz finds out that Wayan was divorced by her husband and, according to Balinese tradition, got absolutely nothing from the marriage except custody of Tutti, she sends a batch of e-mails to all her friends in New York saying that in lieu of birthday presents, she wants cash donations to a fund to build Wayan and Tutti a house — she nets $18,000, easily enough to finance the construction — and she makes a big deal out of the fact that “Tutti” is not only the little girl’s name but also the Italian word for “everybody” (incidentally, it also means “everything” and “all”), thereby making some sort of point about the oneness of all humanity. The film ends with Liz breaking down her barriers towards love, commitment and sex and going with Felipe for all three; he makes a proposal that they get together and spend half of each year in Bali (where he needs to be for the import-export business that supports him) and half in New York, and though the movie leaves it at that Elizabeth Gilbert recently published a sequel to her book, Committed, which is about how she had to put aside her intense skepticism about getting married again because legally marrying Felipe was the only way she could get him a visa so he could enter the U.S. as a documented immigrant.

Eat Pray Love isn’t a great movie by any means — there’s a part of me that wishes it could have been made in the 1930’s or 1940’s with Carole Lombard or my ongoing favorite actress of all time, Barbara Stanwyck, who could have brought a depth and richness to this rather shallow character that eluded Ms. Roberts — but it is an engaging one. At times it seems like a Lifetime movie, only with a major star and a bigger budget, which allowed the company to film on the actual locations where Ms. Gilbert’s story took place instead of having to find places in Canada that could stand in for them — though the decision to do that much traveling cost Julia Roberts the services of her preferred director, Garry Marshall, who didn’t want to do a film that would involve so many foreign locations. What I especially liked about it, despite some of the flaws of current films (including that maddening habit of modern cinematographers to film virtually all interiors as if the rooms, the clothes, the people and everything else were made of the most deeply burnished mahogany — if there were a way I could intervene and break the “brown control” on every color camera and roll of film in the moviemaking world, I would), was that its characters came off as real people, flawed but likable. At one point during the early New York sequences I joked that I half-expected Woody Allen to turn up any moment — let’s face it, no one in film has quite skewered the Manhattan pseudo-intellectual crowd as well as he has — but as the film progressed I not only didn’t miss him but I was captivated by the genuine warmth and richness of the characterizations.

Also, though I’m not normally a fan of Julia Roberts, I think she was perfectly cast here; the part of Elizabeth Gilbert is right in the middle of her rather narrow acting range, calling for perkiness, charm and an ability to remain likable even while depicting the almost maddening self-absorption that is the character’s single most annoying and unsympathetic trait. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Eat Pray Love to Inception because they’re in such different genres with such different histories and traditions, but I found the 2 ½ hours I spent with Eat Pray Love considerably more pleasant than the 2 ½ hours I spent with Inception because in Eat Pray Love I was spending it with characters I could relate to, ones who had rich emotional lives and whose flaws I could accept as those of real human beings — and because the story remained grounded in actual reality (albeit an upper-class or at least upper-middle-class reality far more affluent than anything I or virtually anyone I know actually lives) and I could accept these people and feel for them. Incidentally, Charles thought Julia Roberts was too old for the part — she said that she had her three children (by her current husband, whom she married in 2002) just under the wire of her biological clock — though according to their biographies on Roberts is less than two years older than the real Elizabeth Gilbert (Roberts was born on October 28, 1967, Gilbert on July 18, 1969).

Spooks Run Wild (Banner/Monogram, 1941)

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

I ran my latest $5 acquisition from Suncoast Video: Spooks Run Wild, a 1941 “comedy” which credited three production companies (a Sam Katzman Banner Production, copyrighted by Monogram Pictures and released for TV showing by Astor Films) and starred Bela Lugosi and the Dead End Kids a.k.a. East Side Kids a.k.a. Bowery Boys. Not that the boys were bad — Leo Gorcey could really act, and Huntz Hall was at least cute — but their scripts were, and Spooks is Katzman’s attempt at a shotgun wedding between Lugosi’s alleged “horror” films and the kids’ series. It’s all about the search for a “Monster Killer” who’s terrorizing the countryside in upstate New York (whence the kids have been shipped in an attempt to get them out of the street and teach them some traditional family values); Lugosi, of course, is a red herring (a stage magician), and from the moment the real killer enters 13 minutes and 40 seconds into the film, his “surprise” identity is readily apparent from the pince-nez glasses and absurdly fake beard he wears. — 4/10/93


After watching Inception the other night both Charles and I felt the need for a sort of cinematic palate cleanser — a nice, short, undemanding little movie — and we found it in Spooks Run Wild, a sort of appendix to our recent run-through of the supposedly “serious” Bela Lugosi vehicles for Banner/Monogram in the early 1940’s because it was the first of two comedies that teamed him with the East Side Kids. It was made in 1941, well after what had originally been known as the Dead End Kids — they’d been assembled to play the juvenile toughs in Sidney Kingsley’s play Dead End on Broadway and then hired as a unit for Sam Goldwyn’s 1937 film version, then snapped up by Warner Bros. for the film Angels With Dirty Faces (despite its klutzy title, a superb gangster film, justly regarded as a classic, with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart in the major adult roles) and a few other, less prestigious movies like Crime School (also with Bogart) and the sequel Angels Wash Their Faces (Ann Sheridan carried over but the male lead was Ronald Reagan).

Meanwhile, Universal hired some of the Kids and built them into a series attraction of their own called the Little Tough Guys, and in 1940 producer Sam Katzman signed members of both and put them together for what he called the East Side Kids, later the Bowery Boys. (They were still making Bowery Boys movies as late as 1956, by which time the “kids” were men in their 30’s and they looked silly in all the wrong, unintended ways in these parts.) When he made Spooks Run Wild Katzman seemed unsure about the continuing drawing power of the Kids, since he billed Bela Lugosi above the title and didn’t use the “East Side Kids” moniker at all — though the most familiar names among the Kids, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan, were billed as individuals below Lugosi’s name and the title on the same card. Spooks Run Wild begins with the boys being rounded up and sent off to summer camp by well-meaning reformer Jeff Dixon (Dave O’Brien, who’d worked with Lugosi before on his 1941 PRC film The Devil Bat) and his girlfriend Linda Mason (played by O’Brien’s real-life wife, Dorothy Short). Incidentally “Linda Mason” is also the name of Marjorie Reynolds’ character in Holiday Inn, and when she introduces herself to stars Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire as if they’re supposed to have heard of her and Crosby mocks her by saying, “Oh, that Linda Mason,” it’s nice to know that there was a real Linda Mason character in another, albeit far less prestigious movie (which is almost as amusing as the existence of a real-life Vicki Lester in several late-1930’s RKO “B” films just as David O. Selznick was producing the first version of A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor playing a fictitious “Vicki Lester”).

Anyway, the boys — including Black East Side Kid Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison (who gets saddled with some cheap jokes about his skin color but otherwise is treated far more equally than most Black sidekicks in major-studio films in 1941) — escape on their first night of camp and make it to a house on a hillside that had been deserted for 10 years before it was rented by sinister figure Nardo (Bela Lugosi) and his dwarf sidekick Luigi (Angelo Rossitto) — Rossitto, who got in a lot of Lugosi’s movies because when he wasn’t working as an actor he was a cigar seller and he apparently had access to a particular brand Lugosi especially liked, is costumed so much like Lugosi, with a miniature version of his hat and Dracula cape, that well before the Austin Powers series he seems to be Lugosi’s Mini-Me.

The kids, the reformer couple who got them into the country in the first place, the local cops (actually considerably brighter than the ones in Lugosi’s later Monogram, Voodoo Man) and everyone else are warned to be on the lookout for a sex-related serial killer who’s called “Monster Killer” in the newspaper headlines about him, and a man named Dr. Van Grosch (Dennis Moore) shows up claiming to be a criminologist trying to catch the “Monster Killer.” From the moment he shows up in one of the most outrageously fake-looking beards ever worn on screen, we just know he’s up to no good, and after the usual folderol of a haunted-house movie it finally turns out that Van Grosch is the “Monster Killer” and Lugosi is merely a stage magician who rented the old deserted house to work on a new act (a clear parallel to his role in the 1935 MGM film The Mark of the Vampire as a stage actor posing as a vampire to help police chief Lionel Barrymore catch a serial killer).

The weirdest thing about Spooks Run Wild is the writing credit to Carl Foreman and Charles R. Marion, with additional dialogue by Jack Henley — Marion and Henley had insignificant careers but Foreman went on to work on some great movies, including High Noon and The Bridge on the River Kwai (he won an Academy Award for the latter, but because he was blacklisted in the early 1950’s he wasn’t credited either on the original release of the film or on the awards citation — instead the official writer was Pierre Boulle, who had written the novel on which Kwai was based but was French, didn’t know English and therefore could not possibly have written, unaided, the script for an English-language movie, and Foreman and co-writer Michael Wilson, also a blacklistee, didn’t receive official credit for Kwai until 1984, after both were dead), an embarrassing early credit (Foreman’s only credit before Spooks Run Wild was on another East Side Kids Monogram, Bowery Blitzkrieg) to rival those of Academy Award-winning composers Elmer Bernstein and John Williams on Cat Women on the Moon and Daddy-O, respectively.

Like most of the Dead End Kids/Little Tough Guys/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies, Spooks Run Wild isn’t especially funny but is cute (the best gag is one in which Leo Gorcey is reading a book after lights-out in the camp bunkhouse, one of the other kids asks him how he can read in the dark and Gorcey says, “I went to night school”), though Lugosi is basically used as a human prop, going through a lot of Dracula-esque motions to preserve his red-herring status, ignoring his genuine talents as a farceur in supporting roles in major-studio productions like International House and Ninotchka. — 12/29/10

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inception (Legendary/Warner Bros., 2010)

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

The film was Inception, writer-director Christopher Nolan’s major-budget Warner Bros. movie that he got to do as a personal project following the blockbuster success of his second Batman film, The Dark Knight, and which I was curious about mainly because it’s a film about dreams and their manipulation and I was wondering where a director like Nolan, who in his non-superhero projects has been famous for his deliberate cultivation of the obscure, would take a concept like that. As it turned out, it was an overwhelming movie in all the wrong ways, a concept that triggered all Nolan’s worst impulses as a dramatist, a vividly filmed farrago of fantasies stacked on top of each other in a way that not only defeats but defies the very concept of narrative sense. I can’t call Inception a good movie and I can’t really call it a bad movie, either — it’s just two and one-half hours of striking images only intermittently related to the sort of thing we old-fogy fuddy-duddies call plot and still expect our movies to contain.

The basic premise is that Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) is a security expert who knows how to get information out of people by putting them to sleep and performing “extraction,” i.e., absorbing the content of their dreams and therefore getting their deepest and darkest secrets out of them by sucking them out of their subconscious. When he’s not doing that he’s coaching other clients into security measures that can prevent that being done to them — sort of like the firewalls put on a computer to prevent it from being infected by a computer virus. As the film opens Cobb is found on a beach in Japan and the people who find him start barking something in Japanese — we’re not given subtitles but I inevitably joked that they were saying, “Hey! This looks like that guy from Titanic!” It turns out Cobb has been hired by a Japanese industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to attack the subconscious of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), whose father Maurice (Pete Postlethwaite) is a super-rich industrialist who has willed his empire intact to his son, only Saito wants it broken up so he can grab major pieces of it and therefore he wants to reveal the existence of a second will, later than the first, in which Maurice disinherited his son for the Andrew Carnegie-esque reason that he wanted the boy to make it on his own rather than get a lot of money he’d done nothing to earn and which would just ruin him psychologically. (In writing this synopsis I am almost inevitably attempting to add a degree of clarity the film itself deliberately denies us, forcing us to pick out these details out of reams and reams of exposition.)

To do this Cobb and his team, including “dream architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), are going to attempt “inception” — not the mere “extraction” of a dream already within the subject’s subconscious but the actual planting of a new dream — though, as with so much about this maddening movie, Christopher Nolan made that much clearer in his promotional interviews for the film than he did in the film itself. What follows is 2 ½ hours of utter weirdness, spectacularly and powerfully done action scenes that have only the barest relation either to the overall plot or to each other, mainly because Nolan’s conceit is to keep the audience largely in the dark as to whether a particular sequence is supposed to represent objective story reality or one or another of the three dream levels in the characters’ consciousnesses — since for reasons that Nolan doesn’t bother to explain (Edgar Allan Poe, who ridiculed Ralph Waldo Emerson for writing books so obscure that people would read them and think, “This must be profound, for I do not understand it myself,” would have had a field day with this movie!), like so much else in his script, in order to do the inception on Fischer’s consciousness he has to go through three layers so he’s dreaming a dream within a dream within a dream. (If this doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s because it doesn’t.)

I can’t say I actively disliked Inception — Nolan is clearly a master filmmaker who knows how to stage an action scene, and I can’t really fault it because it doesn’t make sense since Nolan clearly designed it not to make sense, as if he were deliberately making a movie that would work for the adolescent audience and at the same time be taken seriously by intellectual critics who would mistake its incoherence for philosophical and psychological depth. The film reminded me very much of the Matrix movies, especially the last two, because the Matrices also played this silly game of keeping the audience guessing whether a particular sequence represented story reality or the projection of one consciousness or another — in the Matrices, the illusions the all-powerful machines created to control what was left of humanity (when the second Matrix movie, The Matrix Reloaded — the title itself referencing the world of computers — began with a quick bit of dialogue explaining that something that looked like a living, breathing human on screen was supposed to be a bit of computer software, I knew this was not my kind of movie) — and also because like the Matrices, Inception took the overall everything-is-brown look all too common in modern movies and ramped it up to the max, so much so that when one of the dream stories gave us an exciting sequence of a commando attack on a fortress in an icy mountain (don’t ask), it was a relief to get outside and away from the dank all-brown interiors in which virtually the whole film is set.

Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. remains my all-time favorite dream movie — how a man with a reputation as a comedian could make a film in 1924, with only the most primitive effects technology available, that threaded the balance between reality and dreams so much more effectively than this one is a mystery — but then Keaton, for all the stoicism with which he viewed the world (that strange childhood of his, which involved his parents including him in their vaudeville act and flinging him about the stage as “The Human Mop,” gave him an even more cynical view of the world and the possibility of happiness than Chaplin’s almost as bizarre one, with his dad deserting the family, his mom going crazy and his older brother Sidney essentially becoming his single parent), had a heart and wasn’t afraid to show it. Through most of the movie Nolan maintains that bizarre detachment characteristic of all too many modern films, the refusal to let the characters engage emotionally, and though he attempts to explain the alienation of Cobb’s character from normal human emotions through a subplot by which his inability to return to the U.S. is explained by the mysterious death of his wife, who got so wrapped up in her own dream world (one they more or less shared, sort of) that ultimately she killed herself and left behind messages framing him for her murder, the sequences late in the film in which the wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, best known for playing Édith Piaf in the biopic La Vie en Rose — which may explain the in-joke use of Piaf’s record “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” as part of the mechanism by which Cobb and his team move the other characters in and out of their dream worlds — though the song, with its message of triumphing through adversity by sheer force of will and refusing to look back, represents a philosophy quite the opposite of Nolan’s!), appears in Cobb’s own dreams and tries to win him back evokes comparison with the Russian version of Solaris (also about a man devastated by the loss of his wife and whose consciousness is tried when she returns to him in his mind as a result of his consciousness being altered by an outside force) but only goes to show that not only is Christopher Nolan no Buster Keaton, he’s not Andrei Tarkovsky either.

Inception is clearly a movie that does what it sets out to do — it’s just that what it set out to do was create a Chinese puzzle-box of a story in which nothing really “means” anything and therefore there’s nothing to hook an audience member’s (this audience member’s, anyway) emotional identification with the plot and characters. Indeed, like so many other modern filmmakers, Nolan seems convinced that he must actively discourage his audience from identifying with his characters, lest that blow his image as being “cool.” It also doesn’t help that Leonardo Di Caprio remains a stubbornly wooden actor with an ultra-limited emotional range — the boyish charm he had in Titanic that somewhat negated his woodenness has left him with the advancing years — making him perfect for a film in which we’re not supposed to identify emotionally with him or anyone else (though I must say that through most of it I was rooting for young Fischer to break away from all this craziness and regain control of his life, his consciousness and his fortune!) but lousy if you’re watching a movie with the conventional (at least the formerly conventional) expectation that you’re going to like the character the star is playing and want him to succeed and prosper.

The Interrogation of Michael Crowe (Lifetime, 2002)

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

I watched a quite impressive Lifetime TV-movie called The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, which though a dramatized movie based on fact rather than an outright documentary like Ofra Bikel’s recent Frontline episode, “The Confessions,” is based on the same theme: the degree to which police interrogation, even when conducted within constitutional due-process limits as the courts have defined them, is a search not for honest information about a crime, but is a tool used when the police have already satisfied themselves that they know who did it and are after them to confess. At least in Bikel’s documentary the victims of abusive interrogation were adults; in The Interrogation of Michael Crowe the person on the hot seat is a 10-year-old boy, Michael Crowe (Mark Rendall), and the person he’s accused of killing is his 12-year-old sister Stephanie (Anna Mary Wilson).

The Crowe family — they also consist of parents Stephen (Michael Riley, a rather dorky-looking but still cute actor whose very homeliness communicates the sense of his being a suburban Everyman, as if this nightmare tale could happen to anybody) and Cheryl (Ally Sheedy, top-billed — if you want to know what she looked like after she outgrew the Brat Pack, this is your movie) and a younger child, Shannon (Hannah Lochner) — have to contend with nightmare after nightmare, first the sudden death of Stephanie in their own home as the rest of them are either asleep or otherwise occupied (since Stephanie is stabbed, one would assume that her killing would have made noise and alerted the family, but perhaps the killer gagged her or otherwise ensured that she would not make a sound), then the insistence of the police on putting their two remaining children in foster care on the ground that it was “policy” to separate family members whenever a killing occurred inside a home, and then the tenacity with which the police fasten onto Michael as their suspect and refuse to believe in any other possibility.

I remember the case when it happened because it occurred in Escondido, in San Diego’s North County area, and it was a cause célèbre way back then in the late 1990’s (the killing happened on January 21, 1998) and early 2000’s (the movie story ends with Michael’s exoneration in 1999 and a brief title card says that in 2002 the California Attorney General’s office stepped in and prosecuted the actual killer, homeless drifter Richard Tuite, played in the film by Christopher Behnisch, though the copyright date on this film is 2002 and Tuite wasn’t convicted until 2004), but the film is an utterly amazing portrayal of a real-life Kafkaesque nightmare, communicating not only the implacability of the authorities — like the ones in the case dramatized in “The Confessions,” when the evidence didn’t support the idea that Michael Crowe had killed his sister alone, instead of questioning Michael’s guilt they simply added suspects and concocted the theory that two of his friends had been involved in it with him, and in the absence of any readily believable motive, the prosecution said the three kids had joined forces to kill Stephanie because they were all devotees of the video-game version of Dungeons and Dragons and wanted to fulfill the game’s violent fantasies in real life — but the degree to which the false allegations wrecked the Crowe family, eloquently symbolized by the scene in which the Crowe parents return to their house, which they had vacated (they had stayed with relatives and Michael was in juvenile custody while Shannon was still in the foster-care system), and find it totally wrecked by police searches, to the point where they have to move and can’t even think of reoccupying it even if they’d wanted to.

This is the sort of movie that makes Lifetime worth watching, the diamond in the rough fans of this channel sit through a lot of barely watchable crap in hopes of discovering: vividly written (by Alan Hines — did Christine Conradt have that week off?) and directed (by Don McBrearty, who deserves special kudos for the superb performance he got out of Mark Rendall as the boy Michael under heavy-duty police interrogation), impeccably acted and with the social-comment aspects of the story — particularly the point that very few people actually know or understand their legal rights with respect to police investigations, including the fact that if you are being interrogated under the U.S. Constitution you have the right to ask the police, “Am I being detained?,” and if you say no, you have the right to walk out of there, and that though the Miranda warnings are part and parcel of American criminal law (at least until the current Right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already been nibbling away at them, abolishes them outright), 80 percent of people accused of a crime don’t invoke their right to remain silent and let themselves get questioned by the police, who have broad powers to lie to them in order to get them to say what the police want them to say — subtly communicated in Hines’s script instead of being hammered home to us with the usual blatant obviousness.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ghost Patrol (Excelsior/Puritan, 1936)

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

The film was Ghost Patrol, a really quirky 1936 production from Excelsior Pictures, distributed by Puritan Pictures, which was almost exclusively a Western label. It was one of those weird genre-benders, a modern-dress Western with a sci-fi twist: star Tim McCoy (a performer I wish I’d seen more of — I watched a documentary about him in the 1970’s that mentioned the 1932 Columbia film End of the Trail, a pro-Indian Western in which McCoy played a Native American 20 years before the film Broken Arrow supposedly started the trend for Indian-sympathetic Westerns, and that’s a movie I’d dearly love to see) plays undercover federal agent Tim Caverly, who flies a plane to patrol the Western canyon lands (the ultra-familiar L.A.-area locations that appeared in literally thousands of these films) looking for a group of outlaws on horses.

When we first see the gangsters we assume they’re out to ambush a train and Tim is trying to spot them from the air before they can do so, but it turns out the plane is actually their target — that and the mail cargoes it carries, including half a million dollars worth of negotiable bonds. The head of the gang is Ted Dawson (Walter Miller), and he’s kidnapped a noted scientist, Brent (Lloyd Ingraham), and is holding him prisoner and forcing him to use his latest invention, a radium-powered ray gun (“played” by some of Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical equipment familiar to any Frankenstein movie buff), to bring down planes by conking out their engines, so they crash and the bad guys can help themselves to their cargoes. They bring down Tim’s plane in this fashion (though, oddly, the ray that manages to stop the electrical impulses that fire the plane motor’s spark plugs has no influence on the electrically powered radio, which Tim is able to use to warn his superiors about what’s going on) but he escapes, parachuting down to earth and later infiltrating the gang under the alias Tim Toomey, a known criminal, only (stop me if you’ve heard this before) the real Tim Toomey, an incarcerated convict, escapes and Our Hero is “outed” when the real Toomey’s escape hits the papers.

Meanwhile, Brent’s daughter Natalie (played by Claudia Dell, who was the female lead in the 1932 version of Destry Rides Again with Tom Mix and whose opening close-up looks appropriately Dietrich-esque, given that Dietrich played her role in the much more famous 1939 remake), shows up trying to figure out what happened to her dad, whom she hadn’t heard from in some time, and the action leads predictably to a shoot-out inside the lab where Brent has his ray set up and Tim shoots the mechanism just when it’s about to bring down another plane containing the government agents that are flying in to arrest Dawson and his gang. The direction is by Sam Newfield (needless to say, his brother Sigmund Neufeld was involved in the production) and the “original” story and script by Wyndham Gittens, who was almost certainly, shall we say, “influenced” by Air Hawks, the marvelous Columbia movie from 1935 (written by Griffin Jay and Grace Neville, and directed by Albert S. Rogell) that didn’t have the Western trappings of this one but also was about a gang using a scientist’s mysterious ray to bring down planes for criminal purposes (though in Air Hawks the scientist was himself a part of the gang and not an innocent victim forced to help the bad guys) and was much more interesting than Ghost Patrol.

Not that there’s anything really bad about this movie; it’s just mediocre, wasting a provocative premise on something that turns out to be yet another “B” Western with nothing but the ray-gun gimmick and the modern setting (interestingly, horses and planes figure prominently in this one but there are no automobiles — perhaps, as Charles suggested, because cars would have been useless in the rugged locations in which it’s set) to set it apart from a million other films being made in the genre and providing the bread-and-butter profits of many a movie company at the time.

The Perfect Teacher (Lance Entertainment/Lifetime, 2010)

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

I watched a Lifetime movie from a set of six they ran all day yesterday (well, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., anyway) called “The Perfect Sunday” because all but one of the six films had titles starting with “The Perfect … ” and the one that didn’t, the first one, still featured the word “Perfect”: Her Perfect Spouse. The others were The Perfect Assistant, The Perfect Wife, The Perfect Marriage, The Perfect Nanny and the one I watched this morning, The Perfect Teacher. As you might guess, given that this is Lifetime, all of the stories involved a stranger entering the life of a normal man, woman or family and seeming “perfect,” only turning out to be not only considerably less than perfect but positively demented — though instead of what I might have expected, which is a story about a new teacher taking an interest in a particularly troubled student and turning out to be a crazy asshole who just wanted to get into her (or his) pants, in The Perfect Teacher it’s actually the student who’s demented and the teacher, if not perfect, is totally innocent of any pernicious intentions.

The student is Devon Burke (played by Megan Park in a marvelously and deliciously evil manner — it’s true that this is basically Psycho Teenager 101 but she’s still damned good at it), who’s being raised by her wealthy father Donald (Andrew Johnston) following the mysterious death of her mom — at first we’re told it was an accident but later Devon says her mother committed suicide because she could no longer stand being married to her dad. Anyway, Donald has spoiled her daughter rotten in more than one sense of the word, while at the same time bringing home a succession of girlfriends de jour whose very presence pisses off Devon so much that she pours a bit of solvent into the eyeliner of one of them, just to be mean. Though she’s been pampered and given every material thing she could possibly want, from a cool car to a wardrobe that would have made Imelda Marcos drool, she can’t stand her father and she’s looking for an escape.

Her escape — or at least she thinks it in her demented mind — shows up at a school dance as a chaperone, and turns out to be Jim Wilkes (David Charvet, tall and lanky in the best Lifetime leading-man tradition but a bit better-looking than most of them — he gets to flash a nice, if not drop-dead impressive, basket in one sequence), who’s just been hired to teach trigonometry and coach volleyball. Devon immediately gets the hots for Jim, at first just for the kinky thrill of seducing a teacher but later because she really thinks she’s in love with him and he’s her destined deliverer. Jim, it turns out, has a pretty messy life of his own: he’s got a daughter, Annique (Keeva Lynk), whom he dotes on, though he divorced Annique’s mother Marissa (Judith Baribeau) two years or so earlier — one can’t imagine why, since in their scenes together they seem comfortable and still in love — and she’s gone on to make a major career for herself at a large corporation that wants to appoint her assistant CEO and move her to San Diego. When she insists that she’s going to take Annique with her when she relocates, Jim is devastated — and when she points out that San Diego has teaching jobs, too (though given the way the San Diego school budget is being eviscerated I’m not sure that’s true anymore!), he says he doesn’t want to move 3,000 miles away (it’s not clear where this takes place until the ending reveals it’s in Pennsylvania, though the Keystone State is “played” by Ottawa, Canada as is typical in Lifetime movies) because he’s already dating someone else, fellow teacher Rachel (played by an actress with the ludicrously improbable name “Boti Bliss”) and she doesn’t want to leave Wherever, Pennsylvania because she’s got a sick mother she’s looking after when she’s not teaching.

For about an hour of running time Devon tries every stratagem she can think of to seduce Jim, from getting hired as his assistant coach (which gives her access to his keys, which she has duplicated, leading to a delightfully kinky scene in which she’s hiding upstairs in his house while he’s fucking Rachel downstairs) to buying (with her dad’s money) a whole sushi meal for him and the entire volleyball team when they go out-of-town for a game, to showing up at his hotel room in the wee hours and complaining that her boyfriend has just broken up with her. When Devon decides that the reason she can’t have Jim is that his ex-wife is about to move to San Diego and he’s going to follow her so he can continue to have a relatively normal relationship with his daughter, she decides to take care of the problem by running the ex-wife down with her SUV, killing her. Then, when Devon shows up in scanty clothes at Jim’s house one night and finally comes on to him and declares her undying love, Jim tells her it’s all been a misunderstanding and she says, “I can be your best dream — or your worst nightmare.”

She exacts her revenge in the most obvious way either screenwriter Christine Conradt (whose name appears on so many of these productions she should probably be considered Lifetime’s principal auteur) or the audience could think of: she claims that Jim raped her on that out-of-town trip, and immediately Donald Burke pulls strings to have him suspended from school as well as arrested and charged with the crime — only that’s not good enough for Devon: she also kidnaps Jim’s daughter Annique, saying that the girl will be released unharmed if Jim will meet her privately. Jim pretends to go along with her demand that he pair up with her, she admits that she made up the rape charge, and then the police show up with Jim’s lawyer, who set the whole thing up, having him leave his cell phone on speaker function so the whole thing was broadcast to the cops and they now know that Devon, not Jim, was the real culprit and, what’s more, she’s confessed to murdering Jim’s ex-wife. In the final scene Devon is in a juvenile correction facility being interviewed by a young, hot-looking psychiatrist and is scheming about how she can seduce him.

If you can take the over-intense melodramatics typical of Conradt’s scripts, The Perfect Teacher is actually good guilty fun, directed by Jim Donovan with an effective use of suspense editing and a refreshing absence of some of the tricks other Lifetime directors have used to ramp up the intensity level of Conradt’s scripts from the 11 they were at when she pushed her computer’s “print” button to 15 or even 20. It’s also surprisingly well acted all around, though Boti Bliss (despite the charm of her real name) seems decidedly too mousy, both in looks and in personality, to win the heart of an attractive, young (he’s described as 34) man who’s already been married to one hot blonde and is currently being cruised by another.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Runaways (Apparition/Riverroad/Sony, 2010)

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

I showed the film The Runaways, about the short-lived all-female rock band from Los Angeles in the mid-to-late 1970’s that, at least according to the legend, helped legitimize the notion of women playing rock ’n’ roll and doing it on electric instruments. Though I wasn’t a major fan of the Runaways back in the day — and frankly 1975, the year the Runaways made their debut, was also the start of Patti Smith’s rock career and I think she was a much more important artist in the history of rock in general and did a good deal more than the short-lived and rather poppish Runaways in establishing rock music as a legitimate career for women (though she worked with male musicians) — it was a fun movie, and the Runaways’ music as sampled in the film (partly from the original records and partly new recordings with the film’s stars, Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and top-billed Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett) certainly impresses for its sheer energy and precocious sexuality.

The story is an all too predictable one that seems to belong more on VH-1’s old Behind the Music TV series than as the basis for a feature film, but here goes: Cherie Currie is the unhappy child of an alcoholic father and a mother who’s dating a German and is about to move the entire family to Indonesia, where her fiancé lives. She has vague ambitions to be an actress and a singer and makes a bad impression at her high-school talent show when she lip-synchs to David Bowie’s song “Lady Grinning Soul” while wearing her attempt to duplicate the red, white and blue thunderbolt makeup Bowie wore on the cover of Aladdin Sane, the album on which he recorded that song.

Joan Jett is a rebel kid who wants to play electric guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band, wear studded leather things, dress and sing like a man and have sex with women (at least it’s hinted — she’s shown kissing and necking with women but it’s unclear, to say the least, whether she ever goes beyond that; the real Jett never publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation, whatever it might be, but a lot of people assumed she was Gay simply because, for her first solo album, she covered Tommy James’s “Crimson and Clover” and did not change the words, “I don’t hardly know her/But I think I could love her,” though she said she left the lyrics alone simply because “love him” wouldn’t have rhymed with “clover” anymore). Kim Fowley is a hanger-on in the L.A. scene — the sort of person one writer described as “a has-been who never quite had been” — who goes to the English Disco nights at Rodney Bingenheimer’s club looking for musicians he can produce and who will perform his songs. He has the idea for an all-girl rock band and drafts Jett and drummer Sandy West to start it, then looks for other musicians, including a suitably sex-kittenish singer to front it, and signs Currie.He takes them, plus bassist Lita Ford and Jackie Fox, to a trailer in a deserted part of the L.A. area and tells them to practice incessantly, and they work out a set of songs centered largely around projecting precocious sexuality. Fowley also has them go through “hecklers’ drill,” saying that there are going to be audience members who will react quite violently to the whole idea of an all-woman band playing hard rock, and he teaches the musicians to use their instruments to bat back objects thrown at them.

The Runaways — a name thought of and owned by Fowley, who after the originals had broken up attempted to organize another Runaways in 1984 with none of the same members — then go out on the road, opening for all-male bands whose members are so snippy towards them that Jett and one of her bandmates get back at them by sneaking into their dressing room and literally pissing on their instruments. Eventually they win a contract with Mercury Records (not a particularly prestigious label in the 1970’s) and slog through a tour of Japan, and on their return Rolling Stone and other music and pop-culture magazines make a big to-do about them (the Rolling Stone article, reflecting their youth, is called “Life Begins at 16”). Needless to say, once they start making rock ’n’ roll money they start enjoying rock ’n’ roll excesses as well, including alcohol, drugs and sex (Cherie starts a more-or-less serious affair with the Runaways’ road manager and Joan is shown planting her lips — though little more — on virtually every female within range, including, at one point, Cherie, who’s too passed out from whatever combination of mind-altering substances even to notice, much less resist), until Cherie develops a bad case of diva-it is, walks out on the recording of the Runaways’ second album and ends up envying her sister Marie (Riley Keough), the grounded one in the family, who has a shit job at a fast-food place but still has that job while her sister has burned through a fortune and ended up virtually homeless.

The film ends ambiguously with the breakup of the band — though a series of American Graffiti-style titles let us know that Joan Jett went on to a major solo career (though she had to release her first solo album herself after 23 record companies turned it down), Cherie Currie struggled with her addictions for years (she and her sister Marie did record an album after the Runaways broke up, but it was bland girl-pop with little in common with the Runaways’ explosive rock ’n’ roll) and Kim Fowley continued on his picaresque career (in the movie he’s heard describing the Runaways as a “conceptual project” of his own, which failed), still looking for the elusive mega-success which would propel him to the rock big-time. (Jett was upset that the titles didn’t acknowledge drummer Sandy West, who died just before the film went into production.)

It’s anyone’s guess how much of this story was true — since both Currie and Jett contributed commentaries to the DVD, it should be more interesting than usual to re-watch the film with the commentary track — though both of them contributed to the project, Jett as one of the executive producers (though in today’s movie biz that could mean just about anything) and Currie as author of the book Neon Angel, on which the film is purportedly based — but it rings true, and the evocation of the mid-1970’s, though not flawless, is well done. It’s certainly a wrench to see an era in which young people listened to music on 12-inch plastic discs and didn’t have computers, the Internet, Facebook or the iPod! It’s also an interesting time for music in general because it was on the cusp between the glitter-rock fad and the punk movement — Currie copies Bowie’s look (including his hair — and yes, there’s a certain fascination to see a biological female copying the androgynous look of the biologically male Bowie, approaching the gender in-between from the other end!) while Jett makes herself a Sex Pistols T-shirt as soon as she hears them.

The film was both written and directed by one Floria Sigismondi, whom I’d never heard of before but who gets good performances from her cast and shoots a good enough atmosphere of grunge to deglamorize rock as a profession and an industry and set this movie apart from most of the ones that have been made about it (though I detected a certain influence from the 1981 film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains!, which in turn might have been influenced by the real-life Runaways’ story); there’s a bit of “first-itis” in her script (one would never guess that several years before the Runaways, another all-woman rock band, Fanny, recorded for a major label, Warner Bros.) but at the same time she slyly undercuts the Runaways’ claim to priority among the universe of women rockers when, while the young Jett is shopping in a leather-goods store (and the officious proprietors are trying to steer her over to the women’s section), we hear Wanda Jackson’s hit “Fujiyama Mama” and we’re reminded that there were women rockers long before any of the Runaways were anything more than gleams in their parents’ eyes. (We also hear Suzi Quatro, the British pop-rock bassist and singer whose records first hit U.S. stores in 1972, mentioned as a precursor: Jett idolizes Quatro and takes her as a role model, and Currie auditions for the Runaways with a song Quatro covered — though the song is “Fever” and she makes the mistake of copying Peggy Lee’s version instead.)

The Runaways
was a box-office disappointment, and in retrospect it’s hard to tell who the producers thought the audience would be (the production is credited to a company called Apparition — I joked, “It’s not a real movie, it’s just an Apparition” — one called Riverroad and Sony, which had the DVD rights) since a movie about a now largely forgotten 1970’s band in a style which itself is considered pretty much out of date (ironically, the descent of rock from its former heights of popularity and its replacement with pop at the more mellow music mainstream and rap as the “edgy” youthful-rebellion music has opened more opportunities for women musicians than existed in the mid-1970’s) would have been a risky commercial bet in 2010 even under the best of circumstances.

I suspect a lot of the appeal was thought to lie in Dakota Fanning’s first (almost) adult role, and while she doesn’t break through her image as a child star in quite the same explosive, burning-bridges-behind-you style Macaulay Culkin did in the marvelous Party Monster, she’s quite effective even though Kristen Stewart has the more interesting, less clichéd character (and it’s not surprising from the evidence in the movie that, aside from a brief success for Lita Ford, Jett was the only member of the Runaways whose career held up and even thrived after the band broke up) and delivers the edgier performance of the two. The Runaways is a fun movie that could have delved much deeper into the weirdness of the rock ’n’ roll world and its quirky definitions of “success,” but even as it stands it’s a lot of fun, albeit a movie that works a lot better if you actually lived through the period it depicts rather than — like most moviegoers today — being as young now as the protagonists were when the story was taking place.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Return of the Ape Man (Banner-Monogram, 1944)

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

The film I picked out was Return of the Ape Man, which I’d just ordered from Sinister Cinema because it was the only one of the cycle of nine Bela Lugosi movies produced by Sam Katzman and Jack Dietz for their Banner company, released through Monogram, between 1941 and 1944 that was not available on It was also the only one of the nine I’d never seen before at all, and while there’s some uncertainty as to where it fits chronologically (Tom Weaver’s book Poverty Row Horrors! says it was actually filmed before Voodoo Man but released afterwards), and it turned out not only to be a non-sequel to The Ape Man — though, as Weaver points out, “the title itself really isn’t a misnomer (the film is about an ape man who returns to life)” but a totally different story and one with a great deal of promise that got hideously botched in the execution.

After the relative quality of Voodoo Man, Return of the Ape Man is a return to the stupidity of most of the Monograms — and this despite the fact that some of the collaborators who entered the series with Voodoo Man returned for this one as well, including co-star John Carradine, screenwriter Robert Charles (who had actually written some genuinely witty lines for Voodoo Man but here sank to the usual dumb-cliché level of a Monogram writer) and cinematographer Marcel le Picard, who had brought a genuine touch of Gothic atmosphere to Voodoo Man but here shot the film in the usual flat, evenly lit and utterly unatmospheric Monogram house style. Philip Rosen was the director, and while he made two genuinely great movies in the early 1930’s — The Phantom Broadcast for the first iteration of Monogram and Dangerous Corner for a major studio, RKO — by 1944 whatever talent he’d had had been burned out by years of hackery and his presence really doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help that Monogram music director Edward Kay, who for Voodoo Man had found some genuinely interesting records in his stock collection (notably a surprisingly Stravinskian piece that sounds like the quieter moments in The Rite of Spring and proves surprisingly effective for the scenes inside the home of the “voodoo man”), here reverts to form (or lack of same) and plugs in some of the most ludicrously inappropriate underscoring any film has been cursed with since the early days in which silent movies were accompanied by whatever the nickelodeon pianist thought of on the fly.

It’s a real pity that Return of the Ape Man is so bobbled in the execution because the central premise — the rescue and bringing back to life of a caveman preserved in suspended animation by being frozen in ice way back when — is a potentially compelling one that’s been used since in films ranging in quality from Iceman to Eegah!, though it’s hardly original with Robert Charles — one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ last pulp stories, “The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw,” was about a caveman who was brought back to existence in the modern world and, in an ending that would have worked as pathos if Burroughs had been a better writer, wanders off to find his lost girlfriend, not realizing she’s been dead for hundreds of thousands of years. (There were probably earlier versions than Burroughs’ 1931 story as well.)

The film opens with a newspaper insert saying that the officials of the unnamed city where the action takes place are worried about the fate of “Willie the Weasel” (Ernie Adams), a homeless person who disappeared four weeks previously and was last seeing getting into a fancy car with two well-dressed men inside. (It’s indicative of the never-never land in which Monogram movies take place that the disappearance of a homeless person, even one with a colorful nickname, would merit front-page coverage.) In an establishing scene reminiscent of The Mad Doctor of Market Street, made two years earlier at Universal and also dealing with a mad scientist who used homeless people as guinea pigs, professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi, continuing the odd run of blandly Anglo-Saxon names Monogram’s writers kept giving him — “Brewster” in The Ape Man and “Marlowe” in Voodoo Man) and Gilmore (John Carradine) are shown in their lab in the basement of Dexter’s home (and yes, it’s the same basement lab Lugosi worked out of in Bowery at Midnight and The Ape Man), applying electrodes to Willie the Weasel’s head and then giving him an injection to bring him to after he’s spent four weeks under suspended animation with no apparent ill effects except he wakes up feeling oddly cold and with no recollection that he’s been unconscious for four weeks.

Dexter and Gilmore congratulate each other and Dexter says, “If I can suspend animation for four months, I can do it for four years, or perhaps 400 years!” Gilmore is skeptical, less about the theory than about their ability to prove it, but Dexter hits on the idea of forming a scientific expedition to the Arctic to see if they can find a frozen caveman who essentially was put into suspended animation by nature the way Willie the Weasel was by Dexter’s freezing process. The expedition itself is represented by a lot of stock footage of ships maneuvering their way through ice (mostly, according to, from a 1926 Pathé two-reeler called Alaska Adventure), while on the soundtrack we hear one of Edward Kay’s all-time worst musical selections: a bright, peppy piece of hotel-ballroom dance music that suggests that in addition to whoever they brought along as research help and general staff, Dexter and Gilmore also invited a society orchestra and are regularly holding dance contests aboard ship to relieve the monotony of the cruise. Then we see a scene of Dexter and Gilmore along with two natives hacking away at some ice while Gilmore complains that he’s been separated from his wife (Mary Currier) for nearly a year and begs Dexter to give up and return home. Just then a glacial avalanche (more stock footage!) occurs and throws forth the frozen caveman Dexter and Gilmore have been looking for.

They return home to an ambiguous reception, with plenty of front-page speculation that whatever they were attempting, they’ve failed — only they’ve succeeded: inside a block of ice they’ve brought back an unconscious but still alive specimen of prehistoric man. As Weaver noted, “Delicately positioning a heat lamp above the slab of ice containing the frozen Ape Man, Lugosi insists that the thawing-out process must be done with great care, although as soon as Carradine leaves the room, Lugosi shoots a dirty look in the direction of his departure, fires up a blow torch and starts going to town on the thing.” When the ape-man finally gets revived, he’s played by large stuntman Frank Moran (who’d already appeared in a Lugosi Monogram as Angelo Rossitto’s big — in both senses — brother in The Corpse Vanishes), though Monogram co-credited the performance to George Zucco in an attempt to maintain the “Gruesome Threesome” billing of Lugosi, Carradine and Zucco in the promotion of Voodoo Man. Producer Alex Gordon, who knew both Zucco and Moran, said both men had assured him that Moran plays the ape man throughout the movie and Zucco isn’t in it at all, but that hasn’t stopped fans (in the original sense of the word, short for “fanatics”) from claiming in various movie magazines that they can spot Zucco as the ape man in this shot or that.

He’s dressed in what appears to be a papier-maché loincloth and nothing else (I didn’t notice the 1940’s underwear he was wearing under it, but enough other people who’ve seen this film and written about it have that I’m sure it’s there), and though the costume and makeup are singularly unimpressive (except for the possibility that someone at Geico’s advertising agency saw this movie and decided to use a similar-looking caveman character in their ads), the initial scenes after the ape man is revived are the best in the movie, largely because they quite closely copy the 1931 Frankenstein, with Lugosi in Colin Clive’s role as the mad scientist who has masterminded the experiment, Carradine in the Edward Van Sloan role as the scientific voice of reason, and Moran as the monster. They attempt to tame the beast by whipping it (Dexter just happens to have a bullwhip lying around in his lab!), try to confine it to a cage (of course it just bends the bars open and escapes) and ultimately Dexter discovers that its one vulnerability is fire and that if he can keep his blowtorch at the ready, he can ward it off.

Dexter hits on the idea of slicing part of the brain of a living human out and transplanting it into the ape man’s head, with the idea of taming it and giving it the knowledge of human speech while retaining intact its memories of its former caveman existence. At a party given by Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore to celebrate the engagement of their niece Anne (Judith Gibson, later Teala Loring) to Steve Rogers (Michael Ames, later Tod Andrews), Dexter mutters about how “some people’s brains would never be missed,” and he decides that Steve’s is the brain that wouldn’t be missed: in something that comes off more like a Gay seduction scene than anything we expect to see in a horror movie, Dexter lures Steve to his home and gives him a drugged drink, and is prepared to do the transplant when Gilmore figures out what his plan is and arrives at Dexter’s home just in time to stop him. This leads to a confrontation scene in which Gilmore asserts traditional moral values while Dexter insists that science trumps all, including obsolete and quaint values like the sanctity of human life — “I see you and I do not theenk alike!” Dexter tells Gilmore — and Gilmore resolves never again to have anything to do with Dexter.

Only Dexter manages to lure him — surprisingly easily — back to the lab, where Gilmore falls for a trap Dexter has set (an electrically charged steel plate on his floor which instantly immobilizes anyone who steps on it) and Dexter slices out part of Gilmore’s brain for the super-transplant — after which, incidentally, Frank Moran’s head looks exactly the same as it has in the rest of the movie, without any sign of the scars or bandages worn by people who undergo brain surgery in the real world. Moran gains not only the power of speech but fragments of Gilmore’s identity — he breaks into Gilmore’s home and plays the “Moonlight Sonata” on the Gilmore family piano (as the real Gilmore had done in an earlier scene), strangles Gilmore’s wife and heads back to Dexter’s place. Steve sees all this and reports it to the police, who repeatedly shoot the hybrid ape man/Gilmore — of course, mere bullets have no effect on him — and the ape man then attacks Dexter and breaks his back, with Dexter (Robert Charles repeated H. G. Wells’ mistake in The Island of Dr. Moreau of knocking off the principal villain with a good chunk of story time — one whole reel of this 59-minute movie — still left to go) using his dying breath to tell Steve and the police that the only way to kill the ape man is by fire. The ape man opportunely reappears at Dexter’s after having fled, there’s a big chase scene obviously copied from Lugosi’s 1932 Universal vehicle Murders in the Rue Morgue (also about a murderous ape and a mad scientist, played by Lugosi, who attempted to control it), and ultimately the ape man is cornered inside Dexter’s house, where he’s brought the kidnapped Anne (a ripoff from yet another ape movie, King Kong), where he trips on some electrical wires, gets tangled in them and starts a fire that conveniently takes him out while Steve is able to rescue Anne from the burning house in the nick of time.

Return of the Ape Man had some interesting potentials that got totally neglected or ignored — though it’s unlikely anyone connected with the film had heard the name “Dr. Josef Mengele” when it was made, there were enough urban legends about murderous enemy doctors performing diabolical experiments on hapless civilian captives in occupied countries that perhaps Philip Rosen and Robert Charles did intend for their wartime audience to see Dexter as a sort of scientific Nazi, totally detached from normal reverences for life in his mad pursuit of whatever it was he was hoping to gain from his experiments — and the confrontation scenes between Lugosi and an effectively underplaying Carradine do seem to have some intent of a philosophical debate over just how far scientists have a right to go to extend humanity’s knowledge and how much harm real human beings can ethically be put through for the sake of scientific discoveries.

One aspect that totally gets ignored is the culture shock of a prehistoric man suddenly brought back to life in a modern world — Rosen and Charles couldn’t have been less interested in it — that even Arch Hall, Sr. managed to catch a bit of in Eegah!; they may have done it too sloppily and stupidly to evoke real pathos, but at least they tried. Return of the Ape Man is a fitting end to the Banner/Monogram Lugosi cycle — unwittingly silly, wretchedly produced from a physical standpoint, with good but formulaic acting from Lugosi himself (and, here and in Voodoo Man, from the other horror stars assigned to supporting roles) and a sense of potential unrealized in the movie we actually have.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blonde Ice (Martin Mooney Productions/Film Classics, 1948)

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

The film was Blonde Ice, a 1948 film noir from Martin Mooney Productions released through Film Classics after Mooney apparently lost his berth at PRC when it was absorbed by J. Arthur Rank and became a semi-respectable company called Eagle-Lion (the name symbolizing the union of the U.S. and Britain by including both countries’ national animals). Film Classics was mostly a reissue label (they acquired a lot of the Hal Roach catalog and made most of their money by selling the Laurel and Hardy films to TV) but they occasionally distributed new productions as well, and Blonde Ice turned out to be a quite good femme fatale story. It began as a novel called Once Too Often by Whitman Chambers (quite a few of whose stories had been filmed in the 1930’s, mostly by independents, including the excellent Sensation Hunters and the competent mystery Murder on the Campus) and was scripted by Kenneth Gamet, a former Warners contractee who had done the Nancy Drew movies in the late 1930’s, with uncredited contributions by Dick Irving Hyland (whom I hadn’t otherwise heard of) and Raymond L. Schrock (whom I had).

Directed by Jack Bernhard — competently, but without the demented inspiration Edgar G. Ulmer might have brought to it given his work on the Mooney-produced DetourBlonde Ice has a pretty wild plot: it opens with the wedding of San Francisco Sentinel society columnist Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) to wealthy industrialist (or something) Carl Hanneman (John Holland), only at the wedding reception she goes out on the terrace with the paper’s sports columnist, Les Burns (Robert Paige, top-billed), and gives him a long, lingering kiss that indicates where her romantic — or at least sexual — interests still lay. There’s also a third one of Claire’s boyfriends, Al Herrick (James Griffith), who also works at the Sentinel and in fact got Claire her job there, whom she’s long since abandoned but is looking on at her continued shenanigans with a bemused interest that indicates a lingering attraction coupled with a sense of relief that at least he’s not mixed up with her anymore. Les also has a secretary, June Taylor (Mildred Coles), who’s got a crush on him, and of course we’re rooting for him to dump the icy blonde golddigger and take up with the warm-hearted brunette who’s really a decent person and clearly would be far better for him.

On her honeymoon with Carl, Claire writes Les a letter calling her husband “stupid” and making it clear she only married him for his money, and when he discovers the letter and announces he’s going to leave her immediately, she kills him, then bribes a pilot, Blackie Talon (Russ Vincent, in a performance that’s one of the most convincing evocations of Humphrey Bogart I’ve seen without shading over into outright imitation), to fly her out of there and forget she was ever there, so she can pass off her husband’s death as a suicide. When Blackie comes around asking for more money and signaling his intent to blackmail her long-term, she shoots him. Later on she gets her hooks into an affluent Congressional candidate, Stanley Mason (Michael Herrick), and gets him to fall in love with her; he announces their engagement on election night and then catches her — guess what? — making out with Les on a balcony, tells her he’s going to dump her immediately, and she responds by stabbing him with a letter opener and then handing it to Les so the police will assume he killed Mason in a fit of jealousy. Only the cops and their consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Geoffrey Kippinger (David Leonard), figure out that she’s a psychopath and trick her into a confession, so she gets what’s been coming to her all along.

Blonde Ice could have been a better movie than it is with a director with more of a sense of pace and a stronger leading man than Robert Paige — one gets the impression the actor couldn’t convince us that this man would be obsessed with that no-good woman because he never figured out why himself — but it’s photographed by George Robinson (a veteran of Universal’s horror movies in the 1930’s and early 1940’s) with the appropriate noir atmosphere and it’s highlighted by an excellent femme fatale performance by Leslie Brooks. Yes, Blonde Ice might have been even better if Mooney had had the budget to get Barbara Stanwyck for the part — or if he’d hired Ann Savage, the even nastier femme fatale from Detour — but Brooks is quite good in the role, capturing the character’s descent from rational amorality to total psychopathology and giving the movie the spine it needs to work.

By 1948 independent companies had access to top-quality equipment and Blonde Ice is refreshingly free from some of the technical glitches that made some PRC’s almost unwatchable even if they were decently written, directed, edited and acted — the music is an original score by Irving Gertz that’s uninspired but at least competent, though set designer George Van Marter faithfully follows one bad PRC tradition: every interior wall in this movie is covered with the most hideous wallpaper patterns Van Marter could find. (There’s one set in which different walls have different wallpapers, all of them awful.) Though one could imagine ways in which Blonde Ice (the title comes from a speech Les gives her after he finally figures out her true character) could have been better, it’s quite nice as it is and reflects the cool competence major-studio filmmakers achieved in the 1930’s but which had finally filtered down to the indie level.