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The Letter (1929)
Jeanne Eagels Is Fired Up
Left alone on her husband's rubber plantation, four miles from Singapore, neglected Jeanne Eagels (as Leslie Crosbie) sends a letter to handsome Herbert Marshall (as Geoffrey Hammond), hoping for a romantic evening. Desperate for attention, Ms. Eagels is instead told, "All good things must come to an end," as Mr. Marshall tells her their affair is over. Eagels is told she disgusts Marshall, who has replaced his blonde English mistress with a Chinese woman. Eagels thinks the native woman is "common" and "vulgar." Declaring she still loves Marshall, Eagels decides to take matters into her own hands. This gets her in trouble with the law. Covering herself, Eagels convincingly hides her secret but her Asian rival "Lady" Tsen Mei holds "The Letter"...
For her first "talking" motion picture, Eagels wisely agreed to star in W. Somerset Maugham's "The Letter" for producer Monta Bell and debuting director Jean de Limur. Eagels' greatest Broadway success had been in Maugham's steaming "Rain" (1922-26), which was filmed with Gloria Swanson as the hit silent "Sadie Thompson" (1928). Considering her success with this film, Eagels would have likely been considered for the sound version of "Rain" (the part went to Joan Crawford) and further acclaim. However, she had addictions and overdosed after one more film (the presently unavailable "Jealousy"). Notably, Marshall appeared in both the 1929 and 1940 versions, but as different characters...
As many have noted, Eagels shows the effects of drug use in her final films, but it works for the character she plays in "The Letter" she is desperate and wasting away in a remote location. While employing some stage overplaying at times, Eagels still delivers an electrifying performance. She certainly earned her "Academy Award" consideration, and had the skills to continue into the sound era. This film was famously re-made in 1940 with William Wyler directing and Bette Davis starring. That version is much more polished, and Ms. Davis is likewise stunning. This 1929 version is incomplete and rough in spots, but still enjoyable. The racism is much less confusing, herein; there are scenes and situations which seem to be white-washed for the 1940 version.
******* The Letter (3/17/29) Jean de Limur ~ Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen, Herbert Marshall
Call of the Flesh (1930)
Novarro Sings Again
In a Spanish convent, girlish-acting Dorothy Jordan (as Maria Consuelo Vargas) is thinking about taking her final vows when she hears handsome Ramon Novarro (as Juan de Dios) singing in a nearby cantina. She sneaks away from the nunnery to watch Mr. Novarro sing. The seemingly aroused Ms. Jordan looks like she may never become a nun. Novarro playfully turns down some after-hours bedtime with attractive dancing partner Renee Adoree (as Lola) proving "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets" is not correct, this time. Next, Novarro sups with operatic mentor Ernest Torrence (as Esteban), steals a few things at the market, and then meets Jordan. The two become mutually attracted...
Hoping to advance his career, Novarro moves to Madrid with Mr. Torrence going along as singing coach. They take love-struck Jordan along to serve as cook. Back at the convent, Ms. Adoree jealously informs Jordan's brother Russell Hopton (as Enrique Vargas) about her association with Novarro. The nuns say Jordan never took her final vows, but Mr. Hopton expects his sister to remain holy he is understandably upset about her running away with a young man. We're supposed to think there is some danger in this, but there is none...
"Call of the Flesh" is a silly piece of fluff. Jordan was capable of much more here, she's stuck impersonating a giggling novice. Adoree does better with her role. Sadly, this was the last film for Adoree, who often appeared supporting bigger stars like Novarro, John Gilbert and Lon Chaney. She became ill during production and succumbed to tuberculosis in 1933. His female co-stars have a fine rapport with Novarro. Greater as a villain, Torrence is out of sorts as Novarro's loving mentor. The cameras adore Novarro. There are clearly times when director Charles Brabin is unable to reign him in, but Novarro is charming in spite of it all. Most important to his new generation of fans, he looks terrific.
***** Call of the Flesh (8/16/30) Charles Brabin ~ Ramon Novarro, Dorothy Jordan, Ernest Torrence, Renee Adoree
High Wall (1947)
Climbing the Walls
After a lonely drink (in a beautiful black-and-white barroom), religious book publisher Herbert Marshall (as Willard Whitcombe) goes to his office and inquires about pretty secretary Dorothy Patrick (as Helen). He is told her husband, World War II bomber pilot Robert Taylor (as Steven Kenet), has returned to the USA from Burma. Next, we see Mr. Taylor driving his apparently dead wife off the road, toppling their car. It turns out the beautiful blonde was strangled and Taylor is suffering from post-War stress and a brain injury. Taylor has a blood clot on the brain, causing some theatrical hands-on-his-headaches. Although he doesn't recall killing his wife, Taylor confesses and is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Attractive (and single) psychiatrist Audrey Totter (as Ann Lorrison) is assigned Taylor's case. She wonders if he's aiming to get off on "temporary insanity" or, perhaps the (handsome) widower is innocent...
As of this writing, we are in an era where many filmmakers consider the "shaky camera" technique (called "hand held camera" by insiders) a high form of cinematic art. If you're dizzy after watching one of these wobbly movies, "High Wall" is a perfect antidote...
Cinematographer Paul Vogel's eloquence camera movements begin swirling through the opening bar scene, and are marvelous throughout. Guided skillfully by director Curtis Bernhardt, the camera helps tell us about the characters, and moves the story. Producer Robert Lord's team also know when to stop, as in the extra second we are given to read the words on the door of Mr. Marshall's office. Marshall gets one of the film's highlights watch how he handles handyman Vince Barnett (Henry Cronner) with the hook of an umbrella. Marshall is worthy of a "Best Supporting Actor" award. It's also nice to see veteran H.B. Warner as a loony mental patient. The romance is routine and ending questionable, but "High Wall" is well worth scaling.
******* High Wall (12/17/47) Curtis Bernhardt ~ Robert Taylor, Audrey Totter, Herbert Marshall, Vince Barnett
The Wrong Woman
On a noisy evening, beautiful British stage player Norah Baring (as Diana Baring) is found with the bludgeoned body of a rival actress and a bloody fireplace poker. After a short investigation, Ms. Baring is charged with murdering the other woman. However, the accused can't recall a thing she did, and nearly admits guilt on the witness stand. Actor, playwright, producer and juror Herbert Marshall (as John Menier) thinks Baring may not have committed the crime. Calling the defendant "pretty," Mr. Marshall sets out to prove the attractive young woman did not commit "Murder!" Obviously very well-versed, Marshall mentions Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" and quotes Shakespeare. "The play's the thing" (from "Hamlet"), he decides which will help identify the real killer. Marshall decides to write a story about the murderer and engage suspects in the role...
This early "talkie" is most notable for being directed by Alfred Hitchcock, eventually acclaimed as one of the 20th century's greatest filmmakers. After a nice (tracking) opening, Mr. Hitchcock gets a little cluttered and almost loses the fact that there is a murder victim somewhere near the bottom of the screen. However, this being Hitchcock, we do get a good look at tea and women's underwear. There is more experimentation here than in some of the master's other early films which should interest the academic viewer. It's fun to see him developing skills. In one of the supporting roles, Esme Percy (as Handel Fane) stands out. He plays an actor who assumes both masculine and feminine roles into adulthood, due to a high-pitched voice. He's also seen on the flying trapeze in a circus act. Moreover, the character is apparently bisexual. That's versatility!
***** Murder! (7/31/30) Alfred Hitchcock ~ Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Esme Percy, Edward Chapman
The Ship from Shanghai (1930)
Adrift in a Sea of Sound
In far eastern Shanghai, wealthy westerners enjoy singing and dancing to the hit song "Singin' in the Rain" (a contemporary hit then, memorably revived for MGM's 1952 musical). Among the party-goers, American playboy Conrad Nagel (as Howard Vazey) romances British socialite Kay Johnson (as Dorothy Daley). With three other upper-class passengers, they get on board a yacht bound for San Francisco. Brutish and angry steward Louis Wolheim (as Ted) is on "The Ship from Shanghai" and, as you quickly know, he hates snooty rich people with a passion. "Willowy English girls, fair and pink" arouse Mr. Wolheim, who plans to take over the ship and abduct Ms. Johnson...
Making his "all-talking" feature debut, director Charles Brabin is clearly getting his feet wet under the new microphones. He is unable to lead an interesting cast to good, consistent performances. New to motion pictures, Johnson comes across best; she had just co-starred with Mr. Nagel in Cecil B. DeMille's "Dynamite" (1929). Watching Nagel's career falter is sad; he was an engaging and popular actor. "Silent" film stars Carmel Myers and Holmes Herbert (as Viola and Paul Thorpe) attend to the secondary roles, with veteran stage actress Zeffie Tilbury on board as an old society lady. Some of the acting works better with the sound turned down, but some is just overwrought, period.
**** The Ship from Shanghai (1/31/30) Charles Brabin ~ Louis Wolheim, Kay Johnson, Conrad Nagel, Carmel Myers
The Last Angry Man (1959)
Around the Rugged Rock, the Ragged Rascal Ran
In a seedy section of Brooklyn, NY, juvenile delinquent teenagers dump a young woman on the doorsteps of 68-year-old Paul Muni (as Samuel "Sam" Abelman), a doctor they know will care for the woman with no concern for her race or socio-economic status. After the incident, Mr. Muni's copy-boy nephew Joby Baker (as Myron Malkin) writes an article about his uncle's good deed for the "New York Mirror". The story makes page one and catches the eye of "Americans USA" TV producer David Wayne (as Woodrow "Woody" Thrasher). He wants to star the "Good Samaritan of the Slum" on his show, but Muni declines. Concerned about his uncle's financial security and tempted by an offer to work in television, Mr. Baker agrees to help Mr. Wayne get Muni on TV...
This was the last feature film for Paul Muni, an acclaimed actor from the "golden age" of Hollywood. There were notable TV drama appearances both before and after "The Last Angry Man" airing in 1958 and 1962. Interestingly, Muni played a character named "Sam" in these last three appearances. During this time, Muni had several health challenges. An instinctive and dedicated actor, he wisely chose few roles and excelled always. He succumbed in 1967. For this film, Muni placed second (after James Stewart in "Anatomy of a Murder") in the "New York Critics" annual "Best Actor" contest; he was likewise nominated for the "Academy Award". Muni had previously won both, as well as others. Among good support is a very green Billy Dee Williams (as Josh Quincy).
******** The Last Angry Man (10/22/59) Daniel Mann ~ Paul Muni, David Wayne, Joby Baker, Luther Adler
Eight Days to Live (2006)
Nineteen-year-old Dustin Milligan (as Joseph "Joe" Spring) likes fast cars and fast women. He's reckless behind the wheel, but mother Kelly Rowan (as Teresa) thinks Mr. Milligan has become a "good driver" now that he's back on the road, after losing his license for six months. Milligan wants to take the car out to a party for the weekend. While they have some reservations, mother Rowan and father Shawn Doyle (as Tim) disagreeably give him permission to make the trip. However, he loses his cell-phone during a pre-trip sex date and doesn't call home as promised. Rowan calls the police, but they can't declare Milligan a missing person right away. Beginning the investigation on their own, the family soon discovers something has gone terribly wrong...
"Inspired by a true story," according to the introduction, this starts out as a very believable drama. Milligan is convincing as a good looking young man interested in sex and cars. Rowan is fine as his increasingly frantic mother. For a supposedly true story, there are some notable problems, however. Matthew Matheson (as Powell River) plays a young boy who stands in the middle of an oncoming car this suicide attempt (?) and his later solo (?) trip to the police station are not credible. Younger (?) siblings Tegan Moss (as Becca) and Ryan McDonell (as Will) seem older. Perhaps most puzzling is a crash victim's exposed body not attracting wild life. Still, director Norma Bailey and the crew manage to keep the story engaging and the music is terrific.
****** Eight Days to Live (4/2/06) Norma Bailey ~ Kelly Rowan, Dustin Milligan, Shawn Doyle, Tegan Moss
Doomsday Prophecy (2011)
In northern Bulgaria, researchers are puzzled by a strange series of "earthquake clusters." They are more dead than puzzled when an earthquake strikes their own little group. Over in New York City, publishing house proofreader A.J. Buckley (as Eric Fox) discusses a doomsday prophecy just before an earthquake strikes. Up in Mount Rainier, Washington, blonde archaeologist Jewel Staite (as Brooke Calvin) pooh-poohs prophecy. She is in for a rude awakening. It appears as if Armageddon is underway. Because they are the co-stars, Mr. Buckley and Ms. Staite are meant to team-up and save the planet. If they don't, the planet may not be saved...
The otherworldly villain is a "Dark Star" with powers like a black hole. In reality, the world would end quickly and without fake earthquakes. Buckley and Staite are assisted by a magic rod given to Buckley. The magic rod enables him to see into the future in a story about the end of the world, seeing the future is always encouraging. They meet wise old Native American Indian Gordon Tootoosis (as John). Interesting how Indians began their movie career as savages out to rape white women and now appear as helpful elders with near supernatural wisdom. The mission is to find some magical statues. "Doomsday Prophesy" is sheer nonsense.
** Doomsday Prophecy (8/13/11) Jason Bourque ~ A.J. Buckley, Jewel Staite, Bruce Ramsay, Alan Dale
Killer Reality (2013)
Red Riding Hoodie
In a "teaser" opening, we see a red-hooded perpetrator attack a sexy blonde in her car. After the credits, we're in Los Angeles to meet our "Lifetime" TV Movie heroine. She's beautifully brown-skinned model-type Annie Ilonzeh (as Hayley Vance). A reality show producer, Ms. Ilonzeh is assigned to work on a "Bachelor"-type series entitled "Love Ever After" being shot in picturesque Mexico. After receiving a startling welcome, Ilonzeh goes out for a drink and meets muscular model-type handsome Parker Young (as Ross Freeman). They lock their model-type faces together and save the other parts for later. As you might have guessed, Mr. Young turns out to be the handsome shirt-shedding star of Ilonzeh's reality show. As if that wasn't enough of a problem, Young's beautiful bachelorettes begin to get killed. The emphasis is on comedy, then suspense; neither mixes very well, but the cast looks beautiful.
**** Killer Reality (8/31/13) Jeff Fisher ~ Annie Ilonzeh, Parker Young, Lola Glaudini, Brandon Jones
And Then There Were None (1945)
Agatha Christie Plays Dead
On a cold and windy afternoon, eight strangers arrive on isolated "Indian Island" off the southern coast of England. They join two newly hired servants for a dinner hosted by the mysterious couple known only as "Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen". The ten people settle into Owen's mansion and prepare for dinner. Strangely, they seem to be the only ones on Indian Island. Their host and hostess are discovered to be absent, but Owen leaves a recording which accuses each guest of murder in various degrees. Understandably, most want to leave the island quickly but there is no boat. Then, the "Ten Little Indian" islanders begin to drop dead, one-by-one. Like the nursery rhyme, a figurine on the dining room table features "Ten Little Indians". Every time a guest dies, one of the small Indians is broken...
The ensemble must discover what is happening before they are all gone, thus ending the rhyme, "and then there were none"...
This is a marvelous adaptation of Agatha Christie's stage play, itself based on her novel. Trying to solve the mystery is nearly impossible, especially if you've read the book. The differences, originally approved by Ms. Christie and brought to a witty screenplay by Dudley Nichols, make the plot perfect for the big screen. One character difference works especially well in the movies in fact, this version delivers the story with a keen awareness of the medium (used as the singular of media; in this case, the movies). Giving character actors Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston top-billing, while casting lower case stars Louis Hayward and June Duprez in the romantic roles Director Rene Clair guides the cast and cameras around with elevating intrigue. This is the best of his short "Hollywood" career.
********* And Then There Were None (10/31/45) Rene Clair ~ Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, June Duprez