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A campy talkie that showed up at Capitolfest 2014, 3 October 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is an anti-war film as so many were of this particular period. England lost a generation of young men in WWI, and in the end nothing seemed to be really accomplished and thus their films reflected the attitudes of the times.

The year is 1950 and the world has been divided into large continental and in some cases multi-continental federations. Problems begin during a card game gone bad between guards of the United States of Europe and the Empire States of the Atlantic along the border. The dispute enlarges as prohibition has apparently continued in the land controlled by the United States and a couple smuggling liquor is killed at the same border where the guards are fighting when they are discovered and try to make a run for it. The guards then begin to shoot each other.

Munitions companies take advantage of the unrest and perform acts of sabotage, blaming it on the other federation. Meanwhile, in London, the Federation of Peace - I guess this is a take on the failed League of Nations - tries to stop war. At the center of this is pacifist Dr. Seymour and his daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume), who is also a pacifist and in love with Michael Deane, a commander of European forces. The President of Europe orders a mobilization, which includes the women. However, apparently women are not drafted into combat but manufacturing of armaments.

Evelyn limits her efforts first at trying to convince Michael, and when that fails, she then mobilizes the women against cooperating with the war effort. Her dad, however, is more ambitious, when the president refuses to not declare war, Evelyn's pacifist dad shoots him! Dr. Seymour goes on trial for "high treason" - and the dead president doesn't help matters. Seymour refuses to speak in his own defense with the sun casting a shadow of a cross near Dr. Seymour in the courtroom. Excuse me, but if the film is trying to equate Seymour with Christ, let me remind folks that as far as I know, Jesus never killed anybody when he didn't get his way. I'll let you watch and see how this all turns out.

It is always fun to see how folks from the distant past picture the world of the more recent past. They usually get things so wrong. They get television right, but they get the fact that prohibition has lasted 17 years longer than it did wrong, and they certainly get wrong that you could ever hold together a federation made of Europe, India, the Middle East, Canada, Africa and Australia. There would be any number of civil wars among these peoples alone. These futuristic people have machines that dress them and machines that play musical instruments for them in the night clubs, but nobody ever thought of simulating the musical instruments themselves? I'd give this one a try if it ever comes your way. The assumptions about the future, the naiveté, the camp symbolism, and most of all those marvelous miniature models of flying machines are worth your time even if the whole thing is a hoot.

A great docudrama of which I never tire, 3 October 2015

What is presented are the facts - from both the American and Japanese perspectives - of what led up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack itself. It doesn't attempt to add any fictional characters to the extent that this is possible or add steamy love scenes (2001's Pearl Harbor, I'm looking at you). The lesson here is never underestimate your enemy, and how easy that is to do when layers of bureaucracy are in the way, layers of bureaucracy that just can't believe that a nation of people that Americans then thought racially inferior would actually decimate Pearl Harbor to the degree that they did. Did you realize that in 1941 many Americans thought that Asians had poor eyesight because of the shapes of their eyes? I didn't learn that from the film, but it helps explain why so many prewar dramas were aimed at the Germans while the Japanese were practically ignored.

Central to the plot is that U.S. Army Col. Bratton (E. G. Marshall) and U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Kramer (Wesley Addy) decipher the Japanese Purple Code and from the messages that they intercept, believe that attack is imminent. They pick the wrong week, but they have the right idea. As the warning goes up the chain of command so many things go wrong on the American side. Key generals or people reporting directly to the president are out riding horses or walking their dogs or doing what people do on weekends. Finally, Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark (Edward Andrews) is notified and urged to call Hawaii, but no, he says he wishes to call the president first. He asks everyone to leave the room. After everyone leaves Stark is staring at the phone but it is not clear if he ever called anyone. Why??? Meanwhile, Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) is quite afraid of attack in the months leading up to December 7, but his reaction is counterproductive. He orders all aircraft placed as close together as possible so they can be easily monitored for acts of espionage. That's fine, but it also makes it easy for the Japanese to destroy all of them with a few bombs.

The morning of December 7th, two ordinary soldiers are ordered to be up bright and early to man the new Radar Center that is only operational from 4AM to 7AM. They spot the entire airborne Japanese contingency via their equipment, inform their superiors, but are told it is probably just a malfunction - go have breakfast! And on and on it goes. When the Japanese planes finally do appear over the top of the harbor everyone believes they are American planes until the bombs start dropping.

I haven't mentioned much about the Japanese mistakes, but there were a couple of doozies. The first being that the Japanese - due to a slow typist - did not deliver their ultimatum to the Americans in Washington until AFTER the attack on Pearl Harbor began. The second mistake is mentioned in the final line of the film, delivered by General Yamamoto, whose idea it was to stage this attack in the first place. He mentions that many think that the Americans are soft, that they love only luxury, that they are not hard and war-like as the Japanese are but he mentions he fears "We have only awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve".

Something never mentioned in the film that helps explain some of the inertia on the American side is the anti-war and isolationist sentiment that was prominent in America up to Pearl Harbor itself. WWI was looked back upon as a gigantic waste of time and lives, and America was just emerging from a decade long Depression. Perhaps if Harold Stark never made that phone call it was because he thought that the Japanese dropping a few harmless bombs on Hawaii might get Americans into the fighting frame of mind necessary to fight a two front war. I don't think from anything I've ever read that anybody right up to Roosevelt believed that the Harbor and its contents would be completely destroyed.

If you've never seen it, please do. And realize it was meant to be as close to a documentary of what actually happened as possible. Highly recommended.

This is telling a story on two levels..., 3 October 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

... and it's a rather smart story at that, although I seem almost alone in that opinion given the other reviews. I remember the commercials for this when it first came on - I was not quite 17 - and the commercials gave the impression that the victim was some kind of male chauvinist who was raped by a woman and thus given a lesson in empathy. Those commercials were completely misleading.

Everyone else is right about one thing - this will never be on DVD and NEVER be given another run on any TV channel, cable or broadcast. That was why I was grateful somebody put it up on youtube, where anything goes that is not pornographic.

Paul Sorvino plays Harry Walters, and the initial scene has him dressing for a Rotary Club dinner with complete instructions from his wife. He lives in a big house he does not like because his father-in-law wants his daughter to look successful, his father-in-law made the sizable down payment, and we later learn that Harry wanted to be a teacher, but again, the father-in-law interfered and convinced him to join the family business and sell real estate. In short, Harry Walters has spent the last 20 years of his life being a complete doormat to the wishes of his wife and in-laws.

Then comes the life changing moment. When his car breaks down on the way back from the Rotary Club dinner a beautiful well dressed "respectable looking" woman offers him a ride. However, instead of taking him home, she drives on a deserted road, forces him to remove all of his clothing at gunpoint and rapes him. Like so many women, Harry would probably have said nothing to anyone about this, but she dumps him in the middle of nowhere completely naked. He steals an apron from a woman's clothesline to cover himself. The homeowner sees this and calls the police who wind up arresting Harry!

So Harry goes to the police station as a perp not a victim, and here is where there are so many parallels to what happened to women then, and still happens 41 years later. Nobody believes his story. He wants to talk to a male officer about the rape - request denied. Nobody shows any compassion. He is asked if he liked it. He is asked details about a crime he would rather forget. People question how he was dressed when he was picked up by the woman and how he was acting. Does any of this sound familiar ladies...and gents? Worse, a local newspaperman who hangs out in the police station gets wind of the story and prints all of the details, and Harry's name, on the front page. At work he is greeted by snickers and pointing. His boss yells at him for making the firm look bad. At home his wife SAYS she believes him but she is treating him "damaged goods" although that phrase is never used.

The epiphany moment comes when Harry is faced with a choice. He can plead guilty to the indecent exposure charge and get a small fine, or he can fight. He chooses to fight against all advice and pressure from his attorney and wife. He says - and this is one line that would never get on TV today - "I've allowed it (rape) to happen my whole life." This time he is fighting back. He goes back to the police station and files charges against a woman whose identity is unknown, he pleads not guilty to his own charges, and gets the reporter who outed him in the papers to help him find the rapist with a composite sketch. How will this all work out? Watch and find out.

So the theme of this film is working on two levels. It is saying that if men were (commonly) raped rather than women, maybe the system would work better and more compassionately. It is also telling people to "not sell out", go for your dreams, don't be a doormat, which was a common 60's-70s message. If you do ever see it, watch it in the context of its time, don't get offended like you are watching a film made last week. And also watch it for an early Paul Sorvino performance. He was so unknown when the film aired on TV that I didn't even remember he was the leading man until I recently watched it again.

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A great thriller brought down a bit by its early sound pedigree..., 27 September 2015

but is it really fair to downgrade this film because of that? Would you downgrade Star Wars because the creatures were men in rubber suits rather than CGI creations not technologically possible in 1977?

It is WWI, and Constance Bennett plays Frances Hawtree / agent Z-1, assigned to go to England by the Germans. She is to claim that she and the oldest son of Lord Winston Chamberlain and Lady Katherine Chamberlain were in the same POW hospital, fell in love, and that he died before she could escape. (He did actually die.) She brings some of his personal effects back to them. This way she can work her way into their trust, their hearts, and their home and thus abscond with some important allied secrets. Eric Von Stroheim plays Valdar, Frances' superior and contact, and is also masquerading as a butler. "Three Faces East" is the phrase that they use to recognize one another as fellow agents. I can tell you this because Von Stroheim is seen early in the movie receiving a medal from the French army. If he was a soldier there is no way he would now, a short time later, be working as a butler in the Chamberlain estate.

The rest of the movie is a series of double crosses, tricks, and surprises that have stood the test of time as far as keeping you guessing as who is really who and what happens next. Plus one thing that almost trips everything up is a piece of information that was a secret between the dead older Chamberlain son and the younger Chamberlain son, Arthur, who is home recovering from a shoulder wound. I'll let you watch and find out what happens.

Just a couple of things seem a bit silly to me. First, why is this carefully guarded information of Allied troop movements being carried by armed guard via attache case to the Chamberlain estate, then just dumped in the safe where it is completely unguarded at night where anyone could get it? Why isn't it under lock and key and under guard at a military installation, not a private estate which apparently has no security, not even a dog or alarm system? If this is the security set-up, why does Frances/Z-1 even need to be there? Couldn't Valdar sneak downstairs in the middle of the night and get the information himself? Well the answer to the this last question is probably that audiences would much rather look at Constance Bennett for 71 minutes than Erich Von Stroheim.

One more odd thing - Both young Arthur AND Valdar declare their love to Z-1, knowing only the sketchiest details about her. What if the girl has insanity in her family, lay about relatives, or annoying or spendthrift habits? But I digress.

For a well paced tale of wartime intrigue, with good dialogue and good performances, and very good direction that makes you forget that the camera still can't move much at this period in time, I highly recommend it. Plus I just love the final scene - it is not what you are expecting.

For some reason I can watch this film over and over..., 26 September 2015

... and not get tired of it. Ray Milland's performance is riveting and, if you are watching for the first time, the first scene will do nothing but raise questions, getting you involved. How did Don (Ray Milland) get to be such an alcoholic? Why does his brother have a right to say how he lives? What does he do for a living? Why does such a seemingly together woman like Helen (Jane Wyman) stay with this guy for three years? All of these questions get answered slowly as the movie unravels over one long weekend that Don was supposed to spend in the country with his brother, but instead spends alone, but thanks to ten dollars that Don's brother left behind, he does not spend it completely alone - he's got money to buy booze.

And yet Don doesn't plan ahead. He thinks enough to cover up the two bottles he buys at the liquor store with some apples that he buys to put up on top of the bag as he walks home so neighbors cannot see the booze, but the urgency doesn't come until he is completely out of liquor and out of the ten bucks to get more. And he is willing to do ANYTHING to get that liquor - he'll pretend to be interested in a girl in a local bar who is obviously crazy about him in order to get a few bucks, he tries to trade his typewriter (he's a failed writer) to a local bar owner for a drink, he steals money from a woman's purse in a nightclub to get booze, he even stages a faux hold-up (he has no gun) to get a bottle from a liquor store.

And that's it for the entire movie - Don Birnham and his quest for the next bottle eats all of his time and energy. Other characters are just instruments in that quest or are in the form of flashbacks to tell you how Don got to where he was in the first scene. And then there's that haunting score that runs the length of the film. Everything is brutal realism UNTIL the last scene. Maybe it was the censors, but today it could have cost the film some Oscars.

A couple of questions never raised. How did Don's brother Wick manage to support himself AND Don all of these years IN New York City? Didn't Wick ever long for a life and family of his own? There's got to be a limit to anybody's patience and charity, even if they are kin. Another question from an old film buff like me - Isn't it odd how the Great Depression and World War II magically disappear from sight in the past that Don is recollecting. 15 years of American history that effected everybody seems to have no place in Don's story. To look at this film, this shiny bustling post-war world has always been there. This is the turn of film from Depression and world war - collective struggles - back to the struggle of the individual with himself, the beginning of noir.

The acting is great, the story is mediocre.., 26 September 2015

So I'm actually averaging a 5/10 story with 9/10 performances to give this one a 7. Barbara Stanwyck (Lady Lee) is well cast as the daughter of an honest gambler who has been raised to be an honest gambler. When her dad, Mike Lee (Paul Barrat) is being pressured by the syndicate to join their dishonest rackets, he kills himself rather than give in.

So Lady Lee is on her own, using what her dad taught her and the motto of "honesty,always" in gambling to make money for herself and her backers. She cleans up in every game using honest methods. Along the way she meets a rich young man, Garry Madison (Joel McCrea) who falls for her and wants to marry her. So far this is the stuff of any mundane 30's programmer.

What makes it unique are the performances. This film is still technically a precode, released just a few months before the code, and I had to look it up to see. It rides both sides of the fence. It makes gambling look like an honorable pursuit, as long as you are honest about it. Heck, by the end of the film you even don't look badly at the criminal gambling syndicate that drove Mike Lee to suicide and likely killed one other person besides that. The person you want to hiss at is Claire Dodd as one of Gary's rich ex girlfriends. She really makes some underhanded moves.

An oddball performance comes from C. Aubrey Smith as Garry Madison's dad, Peter. He gambles, he knew Lee's dad, and he likes Lee, yet he is willing to pay her off to not marry Garry. He has the audacity to want to cut cards over whether they marry or not, AND ask Lady "isn't that how Mike would have handled it"? OK, you rub the suicide of a girl's father in her face AND you think that your son would be better off in the clutches of some underhanded hussy like Clair Dodd's character? Color me bewildered by Garry's dad. It's just weird to see such unlikable words and attitudes coming from a character who is largely playing someone cuddly and paternal.

I'd give this film a shot. At 66 minutes it moves at a very brisk pace with good performances by everybody involved. Just be prepared to scratch your head a great deal and ask "Why did THAT person just do THAT???".

Hollywood - from Vitaphone to the winds of war, 20 September 2015

This is the time period covered with probably the most change in film due to the changes in society and technology. The beginning of the documentary talks about how the sound revolution - starting with The Jazz Singer but really taking about three years - threw both actors and directors out of work and a fresh new wave of talent descended on Hollywood. As one of the narrators said - Talking film was not a hybrid that evolved from silent film, it was a new creation entirely that choked out the existence of the former. Sound coupled with the Great Depression brought the money men - pure bankers - into the business and imposed a new discipline. It also greatly shrank the number of studios.

Independent African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's contributions are brought up, although I thought it was odd to do that in this installment since Micheaux had been writing, directing and producing films since 1920. It seemed to be brought up here in parallel with Hattie McDaniel winning her Academy Award to note that progress was being made in race relations on film, but the documentary did mention that there was still very much progress to be made.

New moguls entering the field include David O. Selznick and Walt Disney, and it is mentioned how Louis Mayer used Irving Thalberg's illness to dilute his power during his recovery. New stars entering the field that are mentioned include Bette Davis, James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow. Although Columbia was formed in the 20's, this is the episode in which Columbia is first mentioned, primarily because their premiere director, Frank Capra, rose to prominence during this period.

As Hitler rose to power in Europe, it is mentioned that the moguls - many Jewish - did not put out any films remotely criticizing the Nazis because they did not want to lose German audiences. The only exception was the Warner Brothers.

The end of the documentary makes a very interesting observation - that perhaps people identified with Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind because of her going suddenly from a life of abundance to poverty to the point of hunger and her promise to never go hungry again mirrored audiences' own experience in having just come out of the Depression.

The production code is mentioned briefly, but in my opinion it can't be emphasized enough how the production code changed films from being realistic sometimes to the point of pain to so idealistic and neutered that many studios turned to period pieces in the mid 30's, many of which were inconsistent, silly and even boring disasters, just because the moguls figured the now all powerful censors would not object because nobody could be having sex if so many layers of petticoats were involved.

Again, as in all of the episodes, an after-discussion is held with Robert Osborne presiding. You only get to see this if you recorded the original broadcast in 2010 or if you bought the DVD of the series. Recommended as a good overview, but you'll need to dig deeper for the details, and in the after discussion the panel even admits this.

Great old Western series, 19 September 2015

I remember seeing this show in syndication years ago as a child and teenager, and I had no idea Mr. Powell had had such a diverse career. Starting out as a crooner in Busby Berkeley musicals in the 1930's, evolving into a star in film noir, and then transitioning to television in a number of shows including this one from the golden age of TV westerns in the 1950's. He was in good company with other stars such as Robert Montgomery, who hosted his own first-rate TV show in the 1950's.

This show is not really a series. Instead it was in the mold of the weekly playhouse kind of show that was so popular in the 1950's. Each episode stood alone and featured different stars each week, some being quite popular figures from the silver screen. The show first used material from Zane Grey, but as time passed material had to come from elsewhere as well. The following is a listing of the episodes of the first season as well as the stars that were featured. Why do I have this list? Because I have the first season on DVD. Hopefully this list will give you an idea of the talent involved.

1.01 - You Only Run Once - Robert Ryan, Cloris Leachman

1.02 - Fearful Courage - James Whitmore, Ida Lupino

1.03 - The Long Road Home - Mr. Powell, Ray Collins

1.04 - The Unrelenting Sky - Lew Ayres, Phyllis Avery

1.05 - The Lariat - Jack Palance, Constance Ford

1.06 - Death Watch - Lee J. Cobb, BobbyDriscoll

1.07 - Stage for Tucson - Eddie Albert, Mona Freeman

1.08 - Quiet Sunday in San Ardo - Wendell Corey, Gerald Mohr

1.09 - Vengeance Canyon - Walter Brennan, Ben Cooper

1.10 - Return to Nowhere - John Ireland, Steven McNally

1.11 - Courage is a Gun - Mr. Powell, Beverly Garland

1.12 - Muletown Gold Strike - Rory Calhoun, Barbara Eiler

1.13 - Stars over Texas - Ralph Bellamy, Gloria Talbott, James Garner

1.14 - Three Graves - Jack Lemmon, Nan Leslie

1.15 - No Man Living - Frank Lovejoy, Margaret Hayes

1.16 - Time of Decision - Lloyd Bridges, Diane Brewster

1.17 - Until the Man Dies -Stuart Whitman, John Payne

1.18 - Backtrail - Mr. Powell, Catherine McLeod

1.19 - Dangerous Orders - Jack Elam, Mark Stevens

1.20 - The Necessary Breed - Sterling Hayden, Jean Willes

1.21 - Village of Fear -David Niven, George D. Wallace

1.22 - Black Creek Encounter- Ernest Borgnine, Jan Merlin

1.23 - There Were Four - John Derek, Dean Jagger

1.24 - Fugitive - Eddie Albert, Celeste Holm

1.25 - A Time To Live - Ralph Meeker, Julie London

1.26 - Black is for Grief - Mary Astor, Beulah Bondi, Chester Morris

1.27 - Badge of Honor - Gary Merrill, Tom Tully, Robert Culp

1.28 - Decision at Wilson's Creek -John Forsythe, John Dehner

1.29 - Man on the Run - Scott Brady, Nancy Hale

Each episode is 30 minutes in length and features such diverse talent as James Garner at the beginning of his career and Chester Morris near the end of his career. Mr. Powell does appear in some episodes, as you can see from the listing of season one above. Highly recommended if you like the old westerns of the 1950's.

Deathtrap (1982)
The whole film is a spoiler..., 19 September 2015
9/10 how do I write a review without one? I'll try. I saw this when it first came out in the theater, and it was so much fun, with so many plot twists and double-crosses--some you can see coming and some not.

I've recently seen it on Turner Classic Movies a couple of times, and it is still entertaining as far as the performances, even if you know what is coming. The set-up is this: Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine), a playwright, has just written a flop. He returns to his country home from Broadway after phoning his wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), about the bad news. He has been giving seminars on writing for aspiring playwrights, and when he gets home he opens a package sent to him by one of those students. It is a play entitled "Deathtrap", and the student sends a note asking if Sidney thinks it is any good. Sidney's analysis is that it is excellent, a sure fire hit, and then he starts to do and say little things that make the audience - and Myra - think that maybe Sidney is contemplating stealing the play, and doing away with the student who sent it in order to score a success for himself after a long stretch of flops. He calls the student and asks him to come to his house and in such a way that nobody will know where he has gone. Past that point I'll let you watch and see what happens.

Now the student turns out to be played by Christopher Reeve, and given his devastating injury 13 years later that eventually took his life, seeing him walking around so young so healthy and never showing even a glimpse of his Superman persona - the only role he was really known for at the time - is worth the price of admission. Dyan Cannon is excellent as the nervous and hovering wife Myra. Michael Caine, who has given so many good performances over the years, seemed to work an awful lot during the 1980's, sometimes in good films sometimes in bad ones. This is one of the good films and he gives a very good performance. No doubt all of these good performances had something to do with director Sidney Lumet.

Some people say the first half is great, the second half not so great, that it bogs down. I beg to differ. The pace between the two halves is just very different, but the whole thing keeps you on your toes. Make sure you notice everything that is going on.

If I had to say anything negative it might be that the German psychic, Helga ten Dorp, is overdone and campy just a little bit. Plus it is a stretch that she makes a habit of shining flashlights through her neighbors' windows at night during rainstorms, and then wandering through their houses uninvited. If she is so psychic, can't she perceive she has overstayed her welcome from the minute she said hello? The original trailers had a Rubik's Cube with the faces of the cast members on different sides of the cube. I'd say that's an excellent visual description. Do give it a try. It's one of my favorite thrillers.

Silent film matures as an art form and then.., 18 September 2015

... well, that's for the next installment. Primarily, this series is about the Hollywood moguls and how they created their individual studios, created the studio system, and maintained that system in some form or another until the 1960s. This episode does a good job of paralleling the stories of the big stars of the 1920's with those of the moguls, because, let's face it, a series JUST about business mergers and acquisitions will get dull eventually. So it is spiced up with details about the moguls themselves and with information about the stars of that era. For example, there is a lot here on Samuel Goldwyn, and how he was basically just a crap shooter, at work and at play, because he thought anything he did would get him in a better position than the position in which he started. This was the era of the big movie palaces, of Valentino's rise and then sudden death and the spectacle of his funeral, and of Greta Garbo. It is funny how the series will just throw an interesting tidbit out there like mentioning that there were no photos taken of Greta between October 1926 and April 1927, and how that was unprecedented given her quick rise to stardom. Was she perhaps pregnant? The series just throws that out there and leaves the viewer to ponder it. At any rate, this episode very much gives you a feel of how the 20's roared, how the movies roared right along with them, and how the men in charge of the movie studios - men who largely had the impoverished Jewish immigrant experience in common with each other - so well read their American audiences.

The post documentary conversation presided over by Robert Osborne with a variety of film historians is worth the price of admission. I miss the days when Mr. Osborne did more of these kinds of projects, but I'm just glad he's still with us as I am writing this, and that he is still the face of Turner Classic Movies.

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