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Poor script and cast for last of the early PM films
As with "The Case of the Black Cat," this film has an almost completely new cast, including the lead. Some reviewers have panned the plot of this one, but I think it is an excellent story and the only reason I give it six stars. But what the producers did to the plot is a mess. As with Black Cat, this is the case of a good actor just not fitting in the part. Donald Woods comes across as Wooden at times. And, again, the acting seems very amateurish, and the directing and editing are poor.
"The Case of the Stuttering Bishop" is one of the dozens of Erle Stanley Gardner's mysteries. All of which were made into great episodes of the Raymond Burr Perry Mason series in later years, and/or TV movies. I too enjoyed the long run of Perry Mason on TV, and the many movies through the early 1990s. But I can't agree with those reviewers who pan these early mystery films comparing them to the later Perry Mason.
I think the first four, with Warren William, were very good and highly entertaining. Yes, they were much more comedic, and not the way Gardner wrote the character. But I enjoyed the humorous approach of those first four films. Had the makes been able to stay with William and keep the humor but refined it some, I think many more of the early Perry Mason films could have been made and would have been successes. We only have to look at other films that were hits during the rest of 1930s and into the 40s. MGM had real winner with the Nick and Nora Charles films of the Thin Man series. And, William himself was excellent in some later films as detective Philo Vance and as the Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard.
I'm one who enjoyed the Raymond Burr Perry Mason, with the steadier cast over the years. But I also find very enjoyable and entertaining the earliest four the Perry Mason mysteries that starred Warren William. I think anyone will enjoy the first four films for themselves if they don't try to compare them to the later films and TV series.
Unfortunately, the last two of the early films, weren't up to the standards of the sharp, crisp and witty scripts of the first four.
The Case of the Black Cat (1936)
Early Perry Mason series takes a nose dive
This is the fifth film of the early Perry Mason series of movies made by Hollywood, and the first without Warren William in the lead role. Ricardo Cortez was an OK actor, but movie-goers were used to seeing a quite different character as Perry Mason. That, and a script that was very poor, an entirely different cast with some really stinking acting and very poor direction, and it's no wonder this one failed at the box office. Some scenes in "The Case of the Black Cat" make one wonder if the film was edited at all. It has some pauses or freezes in action and then abrupt changes in scenes. Several of the supporting cast seem to be rank amateurs.
I don' know what the producers were thinking of with this film. The only reason I give it six stars is because of the mystery itself. This is one that played many years later by Raymond Burr and was a very intriguing and entertaining movie. But here, the lackluster approach, script and change in character just leave this film flat. Again, it rates a 6 in my book only because of the fine plot.
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)
Perry and Della tie the knot in this early Mason mystery
After a couple of seasons of the Perry Mason TV series (1950s-1960s), viewers were waiting and watching for the episode in which Mason would finally marry his secretary, Della Street. But the wait continued through more than two dozen TV movies in the 1980s and early 1990s. And Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale never did tie the knot. Actually, that was true to the Mason story as written by Erle Stanley Gardner in some 82 novels. Gardner wrote his novels up until his death in 1970, two of which were published after his death. And, while his readers knew that the criminal lawyer and his trusted right-hand woman would never marry, there was that hope among viewers that somehow the union would be made in one of the last films.
The reason for that hope sprang, no doubt to some extent, from the earliest Perry Mason movies. Way back in 1936, Perry and Della did marry, and it was in this, the fourth film which was made in 1936. Warren William and Claire Dodd had the roles in a script that was built around the couple's marriage. Gardner may not have liked the way his hero was portrayed in the early films, but William made an excellent Mason who was more sleuth and detective than lawyer. And the Warner Brothers team that wrote the marriage into this film made it work well.
The mystery of the book is still in "The Case of the Velvet Claws." But here it is cleverly developed around Perry and Della's marriage. And the marriage, honeymoon night with many interruptions, and periodic reunions of the newlyweds add wonderful humor to the story. This is a very enjoyable film, start to finish. I especially enjoyed how Perry handles a double-cross. Not just once, but twice. I think others will too. The only sad thing about this film was that it was to the be the last with Warren William in the lead role.
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)
The most "unlike" Perry Mason, but a very funny film
I wonder what the younger audiences thought who saw the first Perry Mason movies in the 1930s, and then saw the Perry Mason TV series that began in 1957. Were they disappointed by the changed character and his venue? As some people seem to be today with the earlier films those being people who grew up on the TV series that starred Raymond Burr. A number of other viewers have related that author Erle Stanley Gardner didn't like the direction, scripts and characters of his first books put on film. And this one, "The Case of the Lucky Legs," got his ire up the most. Supposedly, that led to his eventual efforts to serialize his stories on TV.
So, now we're stuck watching with the audience of 1935 this third film about Perry Mason, and the third starring Warren William. We've already seen considerable changes in character and his venue in these three films. He started off with a big office, law partners and his own investigative staff. In Lucky Legs, he's almost down and out, and a one-man show, but with sidekicks and friends.
This third film is the weakest of the mystery genre, mostly because the mystery is almost lost in the comedy. Indeed, there's so much comedy here, that the mystery is clearly an adjunct to the comedy with all its antics, witty exchanges and hilarious scenes. On second thought, the comedy may well have been invited because the mystery in this film is not that good or complicated. Plus, Warner Brothers had seen by then the success that MGM had with "The Thin Man," and how audiences loved the comedy of the Nick and Nora Charles mystery.
This film opens with a changed Perry from the earlier two films. He's a boozer whose health is in jeopardy. So, his friend, a doctor down the hall (played wonderfully by Olin Howland) prescribes rest and puts him on a heavy liquid diet that excludes anything alcoholic. Perry asks, "Are there any other liquids?" Della (played to maximum hilarity by Genevieve Tobin) replies, "Milk." Perry says, "Milk. You mean that unpalatable by-product of the cow?" Doctor Croker (Olin Howland) says, "Exactly! No excitement whatsoever, and no stimulants." Perry: "Did you get that, Miss Street? No stimulants and no excitement. I'll have to get rid of you." Della: "Thank you, you flatterer."
This film in places borders both on slapstick and on screwball comedy. It doesn't quite get there for either sub-genre, but the result is a mix of all types of humor with nice doses of slapstick and screwball throughout. Perry is at his height here for flirting and womanizing, but this is done only by insinuation and suggestion.
I rate this film a notch lower than the first two of the series because I think it loses its mystery appeal. To the point that the comedy almost dismisses the crime of murder. But, as a very good comedy, this film stands on its own. Here are some snippets of dialog to tickle one's funny bone.
District Attorney: "Bizzy, why do your men always arrive at the scene of a crime just after Mason?" Police Chief: "Well, I suppose it's because before they decide to a commit a murder, they hire Perry Mason to defend 'em."
Police Sergeant: "Who was that on the phone?" Della: "The garbage man. I told him to send up enough for four."
Airport steward: "I dropped him in a bus for the Lakeview Hotel." Perry: "You haven't got a lake here, have you?" Steward: "No, but the hotel has beds for you lie down on." Perry: "That's a very clever remark." One can see that the other two men are almost cracking up which leads me to think that there may well have been some impromptu lines at times especially from Warren William, that the director kept in the film. One has to love and laugh at exchanges like this. A Lakeview Hotel, but no lake. And that's OK because the hotel still has beds.
In a scene toward the end, Della is exhausted and is lying on the office sofa with her head turned toward the sofa back. Perry unlocks his back door and enters the room. Without turning her head to look at Perry, Della says, "Come right in and sit down, please. If you're looking for Mr. Mason, I don't know when the gentleman will be back." Perry says, "The gentleman is here." Della replies, "Oh, ha, don't lie to me. You're no gentleman. You're Perry Mason."
Cooking and stewing with Perry Mason on a case
This is the second of Erle Gardner's Perry Mason mysteries put on film. Warren William again stars and does a great job in the role. This is also the first of two appearances of Claire Dodd in the role of Della Street. She is by far the best in the early film roles. This Street plays off Mason's witticisms with equal wit. The repartee between the two is quit good and sprinkled throughout this film. Dodd's Della is equally attractive, intelligent and quick on her feet, yet also proper and not so flirtatious as others who play her in the early films. Dodd also imbues her character with a deep attraction to her boss.
"The Case of the Curious Bride" is also the first look with some depth at Mason's epicurean side. The opening scene has him with a friend selecting the best crabs probably at the Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. He later is going to prepare a dish he calls "Crab ala Bordeaux." Those are huge Dungeness crabs they are picking over. In my years of crabbing on the Oregon Coast, we seldom got crabs that large. A note for those not familiar with these Northwest crabs they are cooked as soon as possible. The crabs Mason and friend are looking at and handling have all been cooked already. The audience can clearly see steam and the top of the cooking pot to the left.
The mystery in this film is another excellent brain-twister that only Perry Mason and his team of detectives can unravel. And all the cast are very good in their roles. Allen Jenkins is a hoot as Spudsy Drake and Olin Howland is very good as Coroner Wilbur Strong. One other small smile comes with a very short appearance of Errol Flynn. I won't give away any of the story here, but have to mention that there is a tear gas scene that is riotously funny.
True, these first movies of Gardner's famous lawyer-detective have a quite different character than millions of TV viewers and later movie fans saw with Raymond Burr. And, the Mason creator, Gardner, apparently didn't like these early films. But he was developing the character as he went along, and Perry Mason evolved after a few books into the courtroom centered mysteries that millions became familiar with from the 1950s on. But I think these early films especially the first four with Warren William at the helm, are great entertainment. They provide some spice and humor. And they may more accurately reflect the people, customs and behaviors of the various social groups of the time. Toward the end of this film, Margaret Lindsay's character, Rhoda, says to Perry: "You're so wonderful. If only you couldn't cook."
The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
Earliest Perry Mason movie is a delight
Earle Stanly Garden wrote his first Perry Mason book in 1933, and his fourth in 1934. The latter, "The Case of the Howling Dog," would become the first made into a movie. So, this film introduced the super lawyer- detective-sleuth to movie audiences. And, Warner Brothers couldn't have chosen a better lead than Warren William to play the part.
William was cast in the first four Perry Mason movies, and all did very well. Only he among the cast remained constant. His secretary, Della Street, was the only other constant character in the first four films, but she was played by three different actresses. Gardner wrote 82 Perry Mason mystery novels in all from 1933 through 1969. The last two were published after his death. Two other early films were made in the mid- 1930s, with Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods in the lead role. But those two were sufficient reason for Hollywood to take a break from Perry Mason films.
That is, until author Gardner hooked up with NBC for the 1957-1966 TV series, "Perry Mason." Raymond Burr had risen slowly as an actor, but this role ensured his success for life. Besides the TV series, Burr was to star in the whole new batch of full-length films made for TV. From 1985 to 1993, NBC aired 26 Perry Mason movies that starred Burr, with a cast of regular characters from the TV series that seldom changed from film to film.
The TV series and later movies had a completely different Mason. Not only in the character but in his routines. Most people today will remember the Mason played by Burr on TV and film. He was a clever attorney with the mind of a detective, who solved baffling cases usually with some brilliant discovery brought out in the courtroom. That is quite a different character than appeared in the first four films that starred Warren William.
In those, Perry Mason had varying degrees of an office staff, with other attorneys and with his own detectives. But his character was humorous with any number of eccentricities. He drank too much, loved gourmet cooking and did some of that himself. And, knew his way around. He was as at home on the streets as he was in the courtroom. He would push the envelope at times and walk the thin line between legal and illegal methods. And, this Mason was as much or more a detective than he was a lawyer. These cases weren't solved in courtrooms but in other dramatic venues before they went to court.
The scripts were excellent as well. Genuine humor dotted all the scenes. William carried this off beautifully without detracting from the seriousness of the crimes. But the entertainment in these early films was a splendid mix of humor, mystery, cleverness and wit of the leads and the many other characters. The exchanges between Mason and Street were always crisp and often very funny; and the various sidekicks were also adept at humor.
While neither William nor Burr fit the persona of the Mason in the early novels, Gardner explained that he was evolving the character over time. He came to favor the dramatic courtroom scenes for exposing the solutions to the crimes. Thus, the Perry Mason that most people today remember from TV and the 1980s and on movies.
The screenplays in the first four films were masterfully done to bring out the first Perry Mason character as played by William. Having watched the TV programs for years, and all of the later movies, I find these earlier films especially entertaining. "The Case of the Howling Dog" is the best of these four, but all are quite good. At one point in this film, Dells says to Perry: "You're a cross between a saint and a devil." Perry replies: "Mmm, hmm. How do you like it?"
Battle of the Coral Sea (1959)
Misnomer has a good plot but little else going for it
The few other reviewers at the time of my writing this review point out some of the goofs in this film, and it had many. I think that's inexcusable for a war movie so close in time to the end of WW II. Were there no Navy veterans among the production company? Were there no Navy experts to advise on the film?
Others have noted also, the misnomer in the name of the film. What was supposed to be the Battle of Coral Sea was maybe five minutes at the very end of the movie. It was film footage of naval battle action.
Now, all that aside, the plot for the story we see unfold in this film is a good one. That is, it could have been made into a very good movie. But the script is quite horrible almost written in stiff, wooden segments. The characters are unbelievable. Aussie captives who immediately try to talk the newly arrived captured American sub commander into giving the enemy the information they want. I really suspected the Aussie nurse, Lt. Peg Whitcomb, to be a Japanese spy, and even thought the Aussie Major Jammy Harris was a plant.
The direction is equally bad. And the acting is weak at best. This is surely one of weakest roles and poorest performances Cliff Robertson ever had. My six stars for the film are because of the plot, with its possibilities. And, there was just enough intrigue, in spite of a poor script, to keep one interested in the outcome.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
A dark, gruesome mystery that borders on the horror genre
Can modern-day authors no longer write great mysteries? So many movies today that Hollywood pans off as mystery-crime flicks might better be called crime-horror shows. Or, they are so gruesome as to border on that category. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is just such a film -- however the industry chooses to label it. I haven't read the book that this film is based on, so I don't know if the book is weak, just the film is weak, or if both are weak.
A few of the best mysteries of all time have been dark and brooding in their plot. But, in those very good stories and movies, the dark and brooding don't detract from or overpower the mystery. The reverse is true in most of the modern gruesome mysteries when the gore and horror overwhelm the plots. This film isn't quite that far off track, but the gruesomeness of the film takes over the attention of the audience before it's halfway through. So, the solution of the "mystery" comes with little impact. It's almost off-hand that Neeson's character, Matt Scudder, announces the conclusion that he has reached. There, to me, went the gist and substance and purpose and enjoyment of a mystery. Poof! And it was just made known. So the rest of this film fills out with more gore and horror as the "good" guys track down the two insane butchers.
The acting is generally good in this film. But the script is choppy at times, and the cinematography is not that good. I don't get the suspense or intrigue or whatever was supposed to be conveyed by the several camera shots of the bad guys that didn't show their faces. Apparently, that was supposed to add mystery. But it only works in films when the characters are someone we see elsewhere in the plot, and when showing a face would reveal the bad guy prematurely to the story. Instead, here it gives an impression of simple hand-held camera shots. So, this and other "conventions" or nuances of making mysteries are used but out of place and of no substance. It's almost as though the producers tossed in some red herrings here and there to keep our interest up, and fill out an otherwise simple plot.
I stayed until the end because Neeson's character begged the question: "Will he stay sober or will he go back to the bottle?" To the film makers' credit, the main character stuck to his guns and stayed sober throughout the ordeal. So, we were at least spared an old movie cliché of so many films of the past, where the hero or a main character slips back into demon rum. The value in this film is in Neeson's character and his friendship with the young homeless TJ.
I can't recommend this film to mystery aficionados. And, I don't know why anyone watches such films for gore. That would seem to be something that this film's two culprits would do watch the gore for enjoyment. So, why did I watch this in a theater? Because it starred Liam Neeson and it sounded to me as though it would be an interesting mystery film. But I was just half right. Give me a good old Dashiell Hammett or Agatha Christie mystery book or film any day. They will engross and intrigue me right up to the last, and it will be a time spent most enjoyably.
Air Force One (1997)
Excellent action-thriller about terrorism hits close to home
"Air Force One" is among the best and one of my favorite action-thriller films. Harrison Ford fits to a tee the image of a modern-day Errol Flynn. Of course the plots for these types of terrorist-criminal-action films are quite far-fetched. So to make them at all believable, the script writers have to find ingenious ways that such capers might be pulled off. And that makes for a lot of mystery and fun entertainment in the movie.
The plot and script for this film are excellent, and all the cast play their roles very well. The cinematography, CGI and special effects are tops. "Jurassic Park" was the first film to gross more than $1 billion worldwide in 1993, and "Titanic" in 1997 was the first film to gross more than $2 billion in worldwide box office receipts. Only four other films that year grossed more $300 million, and "Air Force One" came in fifth at just over $300 million.
I don't know if it was intended or not, but one aspect of the film clearly harkened back to a recent global event that was the shame of world leaders, including the U.S. and United Nations. This was a poignant scene in this film.
Ford, as U.S. President James Marshall, attends a celebration banquet in Moscow. It is honoring him for his efforts to capture a former Soviet general who was now a tyrant dictator of a former satellite country, Kazakhstan. General Alexander Radek was a threat to freedom and world peace. Ford said he visited refugee camps that day, and he departed from his prepared speech. "We were too late," he said. "The Radek regime murdered over 200,000 men, women and children as we watched it on TV. We let it happen. People were being slaughtered for a year. We issued economic sanctions and hid behind the rhetoric of diplomacy. How dare we! The dead remember. Real peace is not just the absence of conflict, it's the presence of justice. Tonight I come to you with a pledge to change America's policy. Never again will I allow our political self- interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right."
The description in this scene had an uncanny resemblance to an actual event just three years earlier. The Rwanda genocide took place in 1994. Some 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered by a majority ethnic group in that nation while the U.S. and United Nations looked on. The movie, "Hotel Rwanda" in 2004 is about that genocide. It portrays UN peace-keeping troops who are standing by as the carnage takes place in front of them. They were not permitted to use force to stop the killing. In one poignant scene in that film, we hear a radio broadcast in the background with U.S. President Bill Clinton talking about diplomatic efforts to try to stop the genocide. But the killing continued for nearly three months.
The White House had known about the uprising before it started, but kept quiet about it to justify its inaction. Clinton later said that the failure of the U.S. to intervene in the genocide was one of his main foreign policy failures. In 2000, the UN explicitly stated that its reaction to the situation in Rwanda was a failure. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said "The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret."
One must wonder about the state of terrorist activities in the world today. Will force be necessary to stop the killing and carnage? Will the U.S. president and other world leaders have the gumption to use force to stop the tyranny, to save thousands of lives, and to protect innocent people? As a world super power, does the U.S. have a moral duty to help protect our brother human beings in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and elsewhere?
Today, whole cultures and ethnic groups are under attack and being killed in several nations around the world. But, so far, there seems to be little humanitarian interest among world leaders to use force if necessary to stop the carnage. So, we impose economic sanctions, and use diplomatic gestures while thousands of innocent children, women and men are being murdered or driven from their homes.
Ford's talk in "Air Force One" was an inspiring moment that would make any American and most other people proud of being human. I'm glad that Hollywood at times can come up with social dialog that's so fitting for our times. It's too bad when the film industry sees the reality of the world, but our political leaders don't or they don't have the courage and strength to act for the protection of the innocent. Will we learn from our past or not?
Lo sbarco di Anzio (1968)
What if George Patton had been in charge?
I agree with the bulk of reviewers about the plot for this film and quality of the production. My above average rating is based on the action in the film, and its historical reference to the failed assault plan with the Anzio landing in WW II. Others have commented as well on the level of acting by the main figures. The movie is based on a book, but I can't understand why Hollywood changed the names of the generals to fictitious ones. Sure, that whole fiasco was an embarrassment to the U.S. and our military leadership. But let's see and hear the truth, look at our mistakes, and learn from them not cover them up or play them down. I wonder why there has not been another movie made about the Allied landing, Operation Shingle, and the Battle of Anzio, to lay out the whole story.
In hindsight, it's easy to pick the right choices for actions and plans to succeed in any matter. But, in the case of Anzio, the generals, high command and even the public learned of the error early on. The Allies stopped to build a beachhead. Most know the story. Major General John Lucas was wary of getting pinned down as had happened at Salerno. He didn't want to lose as many lives. But the plan for this landing was to advance and take the Alban Hills above the beaches and then to proceed to Rome if possible. Instead, he moved a few miles inland and dug in short of the hills.
What is befuddling is that common military sense seems to have gone out the window. First, Lucas didn't pursue the orders to take the hills. Second, when the Allies encountered no resistance at all in the landing, why didn't he push forward until they encountered resistance? That's a basic rule about finding where your enemy is and what is his strength. Third the importance of the hills was obvious because they commanded overview of the entire beach area. That would be the place to dig in to protect the beach.
As the movie shows, a jeep actually reached the outskirts of Rome with no resistance and reported back. But Lucas still chose to dig in and wait. So, this paranoid, fearful general gave up the element of surprise that the landing had been, and instead entrenched and allowed the Germans to move in and surround the area with heavy artillery and armored power. The result was a five month battle that was among the bloodiest of WWII, with 30,000 casualties. Equally bad, it gave German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring time to later pull his troops from the southern barrier and regroup all his forces north of Rome to continue to hold the Allies at bay with costly encounters.
One wonders if this operation under General George Patton wouldn't have turned out much different. Wouldn't Patton have seized the moment, cut off Kesselring's defensive line in the south, freed Rome, and prevented a German regrouping north of Rome? He could have done that in a few days. So could Lucas have done, if only he hadn't been so timid and paranoid. And, that would likely have had the Allies pushing toward Paris by the time of the D-Day landings at Normandy five months later on June 6, 1944. Instead, the worry about too many casualties led to many more and further ensured the dragging on of the war.
Apparently the U.S. military leadership has not learned an important lesson from the Anzio fiasco. We have had other instances since WW II of weak generals who fail to take initiatives with much more costly results. This isn't to pick on generals. But when we consider that just a few guys at the top make decisions that affect the lives of thousands of men under their commands, perhaps we need to find a better way to pick our battle leaders and weed out or bypass those who can't make bold and clear command decisions.
This film, "Anzio," is about the unopposed landing at Anzio, and the Allies decision to dig in. It's not about the bloody battle that results. It gives us a little taste of action with some Ranger forces. But it's enough to raise questions in the viewer's mind about the poor leadership and failed opportunities, and the consequences they had at Anzio and in the war. For that, this film has some value as well.