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Mystery Street (1950)
Engaging little mystery
'Mystery Street' is a solid drama, with some nice little 'film noir' touches. The script is knowingly cynical. "She called everybody 'honey'. I wonder if that meant she liked them," muses the detective.
It's nice to see Montalban so young and in a good early role. Jan Sterling nails 'trashy blonde' down in this role, as she would in the later 'Ace in the Hole' by Billy Wilder.
A truly bizarre moment occurs when the killer is caught carrying the lifeless body of the Sterling character out of her car by a passing motorist. For a moment, he must feign making love to the lifeless corpse to allay the onlooker's suspicions. I think even the great Sir Alfred Hitchcock would have appreciated a moment like that.
The forensics scenes are quite good for a 1950 movie, and rather graphic. The skull image superimposed over the face of Jan Sterling is unsettling, disturbing. Although never an exact science, the process of facial recognition to a skull goes on today and remains fascinating.
This movie is well worth a view.
The Beat Generation (1959)
A most interesting Zugsmith....
The cast is strange, the movie is all over the place. Any film that features Louis Armstrong, Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren, Jackie Coogan, Fay Spain and Vampira can't be ALL bad. It's pretty bad, but in an interesting way.
You want beatniks? You got 'em. You want dixieland jazz? You got it. You want bad beat poetry read by Vampira AND frank discussion about abortion by erstwhile character actor William Schallert? It's all here. There's even a kitchen sink and Jackie Coogan in a blonde wig and a dress.
In short, this is one strange flick. A few of the in-jokes: The rapist writes down the cop's address, revealing that he lives on 'Danton' Avenue. (Ray Danton plays the rapist, get it?) Ray Anthony has a short bit as Mamie Van Doren's bitter ex-husband. (In real life they were husband and wife.)
It's a bit sad to see Steve Cochran resorting to this schlock. Danton, handsome devil that he is, has always appeared quite wooden to me as actor. I don't believe him as the violent misogynist he plays here, either. And Mamie Van Doren once again plays the part she was born to play: Mamie Van Doren.
It fails on just about every level...as crime drama, morality tale or beatnik movie. But it's an interesting failure. There's something fairly amusing about Ray Danton in his white turtleneck playing bongos. And how can you miss with a hit song like 'Don't Bug Me, Daddy-O'?
I don't recall ever seeing this film on television as a youth. Like Zugsmith's classic 'Sex Kittens Go To College' (never on TV because of its topless scenes), this movie may have been considered too violent (the abortion subplot remains controversial to this day) and thus not considered acceptable television fare.
One strange film.
They Won't Believe Me (1947)
Underrated dark film
I had long ignored this title, as I noted Robert Young's name as leading man, and I certainly do not associate Young with film noir. Young was so much typecast as a pleasant, genteel man, that it is hard to shake the Jim Anderson/Marcus Welby goodness of Young's presence.
But much like Fred MacMurray's wonderful portrayal of 'Walter Neff' in 'Double indemnity', Young as 'Lawrence Ballantine' is a revelation in 'They Won't Believe Me'. Many have dismissed Young's performance here, saying that it was an obvious example of miscasting.
I disagree....Young's performance is a wonderful example of a sociopath hidden behind calm, smiling eyes. Young's performance is a fine example of 'less is more' when it comes to acting -- and I don't mean this in any derogatory tone.
Jane Greer (the fabulous Jane Greer) and Susan Hayward are standouts. I've never seen Hayward look so sexy and Greer so elegant. It's interesting to see these strong women humiliate the weak-willed Young in their scenes.
The screenplay is intelligent; quite knowing of human relationships. This film may not be as 'sensational' as 'Double Indemnity'. but I feel it as every bit as well filmed and acted.
It's a shame that both MacMurray and Young opted for the easy life of television. Then again, they were veteran actors by this time, and they had certainly earned the comfortable (and profitable) life of TV stardom.
Unless my memory fails me, I do recall one of the first directors to cast Robert Young as the 'villain'. None other than Alfred Hitchcock, in "Secret Agent' (1936). At one point, in a comic visual bit, Robert Young actually draws a cartoon 'villain' mustache on his own picture in this film.
It was a long way from Jim Anderson of 'Father Knows Best'.
The ending of 'They Won't Believe Me' is Ironic Cliché. What Film Noir is all about.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Political correctness destroys original 'Twilight Zone' episodes
It's amazing how the mindset of screenwriters changed in a little over twenty years. This movie remakes a few of the classic 'Twilight Zone' episodes from the original series. It's incredible how political correctness has taken the edge off of these stories.
The prime example of this is 'It's a Good Life', which I consider to be one of the best of the original 'Twilight Zone's. Based on an inventive short story by Jerome Bixby, it's a chilling story of a world ruled by one omnipotent child, Anthony Fremont (played perfectly in the original episode by talented child actor Billy Mumy).
The story poses a simple, terrifying premise: one child has wished away most of the United States, and most of the people wished away into 'the cornfield'. Anthony Fremont has the power of life and death, and you'd better not think bad things about him lest you wind up in 'the cornfield' (the burial ground for Anthony's victims).
Despite some clever visual effects in this new version, the story is all but undone by the addition of a teacher at the end of the tale, who is going to teach Anthony to use his powers for good, not evil. Apparently, the writer's felt the need to tack on some sort of happy ending to this story. Why this was done I do not know.
But it comes down to this: don't remake 'classics'. Why Gus Van Sant 'remade' 'Psycho' in color (stealing Hitchcock's camera shots) is beyond me. You leave classics alone. It's amazing how well the old 'Twilight Zone' episodes hold up after all these years.
The original story's ending, with Anthony suddenly making the world snow (thus ruining his father's crops) leaves Anthony's dad furious, but still having to say 'it's a good thing you made it snow'. This is terror. If television audiences in the sixties could handle a dark theme like this, why, some twenty years later, do movie audiences need a disingenuous 'happy' ending to the tale?
In another botched attempt at a classic 'Twilight Zone', 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' is all but destroyed by John Lithgow. Lithgow is a fine actor, but he is so wrong for the part that was played quite effectively by William Shatner. Shatner LOOKS sane, as he is a man just recovering from a nervous breakdown. Lithgow looks like a loose cannon, so it's not surprising to see him act like a lunatic. The upshot is that the story has been compromised, and once again Serling's original treatment still rings true.
If anything, this movie only makes true fans of the original 'Zone' series fondly remember the old episodes and possibly inspire them to buy 'Twilight Zone' DVDs of the original series.
I will not even discuss the terribly unfortunate filming of the Vic Morrow episode. Morrow literally lost his head (and his life) while making this silly story. It appears in his last roles, Morrow was type-cast as some sort of white supremacist. I happened to catch 'Humanoids From the Deep' (a hilarious horror film) in which Morrow is cast in pretty much the same part.
This is years before the emergence of 'Law and Order', in which many times minorities are made out to be the criminals, but in the last ten minutes, it is usually revealed that all of the evil came from some Caucasian character.
Of course, this is all part of the political correctness that has seeped into our lives since the seventies.
I love the old 'Twilight Zone' series. I hate this movie. Even the 'humorous' scenes with Danny Aykroyd and Albert Brooks fall flat. Best to stick with the black and white TV program.
Deadly Is the Female (1950)
Overrated film noir
I don't know what fans of this movie see in this story. Cummins is too pretty to play this early 'La Femme Nikita'. And the fact that John Dall is light in his loafers doesn't help the film either. Perhaps feminists view Cummins' role as some early hero. This film has never engaged me on any level.
I rarely see any bad reviews of this film, so I thought I'd spread a little gloom on this celebrated 'classic'. Best thing about the movie is its title, but the film isn't 'crazy'. Robbing a bank dressed as Jesse James and Annie Oakley is just plain 'silly'.
So if the fey Bart Tare marries the aggressive Annie Laurie Starr, does he become Bart Starr?
Haunting, lyrical, poetic
I was casually viewing this film, and found myself delighted by one close up shot: that of an inebriated pig! Murnau's camera takes what might have been a mundane scene by any other director, and turns it into something sublime.
A big part of what worked in this movie for me was the acting skills of Janet Gaynor. With a face that could look utterly sweet and genuine, she could just as easily look stupidly naive. This suits her role in 'Sunrise' perfectly, as the innocent country wife. It suited her well in what I consider the ONLY version of 'A Star is Born', in which she played star-struck country girl Esther Blodget to Fredric March's alcoholic and dissipated Norman Maine.
As another reviewer stated, Murnau freely experimented with special effects. The country couple walk into a dreamy field of clover, only to be brought back to reality -- they are not in a field, they are on a crowded city street, holding up traffic with their passionate embrace as car horns honk and a policeman blows his whistle.
George O'Brien's performance may echo the histrionics of the Silent Era, but I see none of this in Janet Gaynor's (nor Mary Livingston's) performance. And to be fair to O'Brien, he succeeds quite well in the scenes that matter (the reaffirmation of his wedding vows to his wife in the church, his jealousy of the city slicker who makes a pass at his wife).
I watched the movie over again, and I was convinced that this is one of the great silent films. Murnau clearly understood the power of cinema. There is wonderful subtlety here. A shot of the rushes in the water, carrying some dead branches, resembles what could be the wife's dead clinging hand. O'Brien's prideful refusal to join in the 'Peasant Dance' with his wife is softened by the loving face of his wife, and he promptly joins her in the dance enthusiastically.
Janet Gaynor left the motion picture industry for all practical purposes in the late thirties. Her persona may not have been 'glamorous' enough to suit the movie-going public, but her performances in both 'Sunrise' and 'A Star is Born' show her to be one of the finest actresses of early Hollywood cinema.
Murnau is probably best known for his expressionistic 'Nosferatu' (one of the earliest vampire films). I have watched it several times, but the early horror film does not elicit the strong emotional response that I got from 'Sunrise'.
'Sunrise' is visual, poetic and unforgettable, much like Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast'. Some images stay in your mind while others leave. Cocteau's and Murnau's images are etched forever in the viewer's imagination.
Grim, effective story, perfectly cast
I've been viewing many of the Hitchcock hour episodes, and 'The Second Wife' stands out as one of the excellent episodes from this rather uneven television series. I admire the restraint of Robert Bloch, who wrote the teleplay. Bloch is usually about as subtle as as train wreck, but he respectfully leaves the original story alone, and adds some of his own touch.
John Anderson presents a very creepy character here. Short on words and stoic in manner, there is an 'Ed Gein' strangeness about him. (At the train station, one of Anderson's acquaintances is seen wearing one of those goofy 'Ed Gein' ear-muffed hats.)
Anderson is a talented actor, and Hitchcock had used him in 'Psycho' as the nosy and talkative car dealer 'California Charley'. He is playing quite the opposite character in 'The Second Wife', but sports the same face--a face that always looks like its up to something.
June Lockhart gives a solid performance as Anderson's lonely bride. In moments, the camera catches her in a pretty light, and then at once it disappears into a plainness.
The atmosphere is dark. As has been commented on by a previous reviewer, there is powerful cinematography presented here, certainly a cut above the usual television fare.
The ending, which I will not detail here, is quite good. A twist ending that rings true. The drama is presented with integrity...there is no feeling that the script or what you have seen previously has lied to you.
Basically, anytime I'm watching a 'Hitchcock', a 'Zone', a 'One Step Beyond', I'm asking myself if there is a 'payoff'. Is the story believable? Do you forget the actors are acting? 'The Second Wife' is an episode I remember from childhood, and, unlike other titles, I appreciate it more now that I'm older.
Grip of the Strangler (1958)
Lusty, lurid AND talky!
I had to check the date of this production, as it seemed to look more like a mid-forties' horror feature. But no, this movie was made in 1958. Which to my mind, was one of the more charming features of this film. I see a particularly negative review disparages the 'Todd Slaughter' quality of the film, but I disagree with the writer. Todd Slaughter was the supreme ham of all hams, and I actually find Karloff quite good here. (Then again, I do enjoy Slaughter's scene-chewing gastronomes!)
There is a good film in here, but it is talky and slow-going. I enjoyed the opening hanging scene, with the wicked wench at the window taking bites of her apple. The scenes at the 'Judas Hole' offer lascivious glimpses at the dancers, and, pushing the envelope even further, the director has a dead woman uncovered, and the face is shown with her eyes wide open in terror. Not exactly the Val Lewton 'touch' of subtlety that might have helped the film.
There is the obvious parallel to Stevenson's 'Jekyll and Hyde' in Karloff's 'Doctor Rankin'. The psychic connection to the strangler's knife is interesting (the scene in which Karloff sees the flame in the lamp and imagines his knife brings a welcome remembrance to James Whales' masterpiece "The Old Dark House").
But the story is not told well, and the movie seems longer than its seventy-eight minute run time.
Karloff's change into the strangler is subtle, a la Spencer Tracy's in 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'. It leaves the viewer wondering why no one noticed that it MIGHT be the good doctor, but Karloff pulls it off well. Any major transformation might be unbelievable. (As great an actor as Fredric March was, his 'Mr. Hyde' make-up is ludicrous...much too ape-like.)
Highway 301 (1950)
Good stuff in Steve Cochran's "White Heat"
I will always have fond memories of Steve Cochran's portrayal of the scheming but doomed "Big Ed" in Raoul Walsh's classic "White Heat".
Cochran gets to play the brutal lead gangster in "Highway 301". I wonder how much Cochran absorbed watching Cagney play the criminally insane "Cody Jarrett". Cochrane has a brutally handsome sinister face, but not much else. To be fair to Cochran, the script is hardly of the caliber of "White Heat". Steve is one mean son of a gun here -- he seems to get a real kick out of murdering women and bank guards. But whereas Cagney's performance in "White Heat" is a fleshed-out fully alive personality, Cochran's Legenza is a cardboard villain whose sadism is never explained.
There are some good moments. Director Stone crafts a scene that is worthy of Hitchcock (and no doubt inspired by the Master) when Gaby Andre's character uses a piece of paper and a hairpin to unwedge a key, drop it onto the paper and slide it over to her side of the door. It doesn't sound like much on paper -- but the editing is well done and the scene becomes that overused term "Hitchcockian".
Cochran's death is fairly hideous, a brutal affair involving a freight train, but the scene only reminds me of how great Cagney was on "top of the world'.
If you can get past the slow opening with three fine governors from the states bordering "Highway 301" (this film is supposedly based on a true story) pontificating about what a wonderful film you are about to see, you are in for a rough brutal ride.
Actually, thinking of Cochran, he was fairly effective as "Big Ed" in "White Heat". Even though we have seen his character in a love affair with Cody's wife Verna, there is still a curious admiration for this young gangster when he declares to Verna that he must take a stand against Cody Jarrett. As I said, had the script been better, Cochran could have done something more interesting on "Highway 301".
Oliver 'Twists' JFK
Oliver Stone is a very talented movie director and a tad paranoid. This movie is littered with misconceptions and for the lack of a better word, lies. Kevin Costner (one of the most boring actors in the world) does his usual cardboard impression (remember his take on the very flawed Eliot Ness in 'The Untouchables'?) of the 'valiant' Jim Garrison.
In truth, Garrison was a couple beers short of a six-pack. It is fairly amusing that the Hollywood left decries the John Wayne cowboy and Indian movies, and then proceeds to rewrite history with its stirring 'docudramas'. Never mind the facts, just shoot the movie. Hollywood's love letter to Erin Brockovich overstated her role in the PG and E mess. In 'JFK', Oliver Stone points his finger at just about everybody in regards to assassination of Kennedy. I went out of the theater feeling culpable myself!
Which is not to say that 'JFK' is not entertaining. The story is easily one of the greatest 'mysteries' of our time, and Stone's film engaged me despite all of its half-truths. The big problem is that a whole generation of moviegoers who saw this film no doubt accept Stone's version as some sort of historical document. This film should come with the horror show admonition: 'It's only a movie'.
Costner seems to have taken over Robert Redford's mantle: always play the hero. His 'Eliot Ness' in 'The Untouchables' is so noble and good it's enough to make one wretch. Again, never mind the facts, that the real Eliot Ness had his share of problems and peccadilloes. The movie is only interesting because of the Sean Connery character (no doubt made up of whole cloth).
Then again, I have had problem with 'docudramas' ever since the putrid 'The Greek Tycoon'. It's obvious what they are doing with these films, and it's obviously just 'entertainment' but unfortunately, these films leave lasting impressions in one's mind about real people and real history and the end result is the proliferation of lies.
Hollywood seems to be getting desperate. The recent news is that Jane Fonda will portray Nancy Reagan in an upcoming film. What Hollywood doesn't seem to understand is that not too many people are watching anymore. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher? Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin? I'm not even angry anymore with the Hollywood left. I just ignore them.
'JFK' is a well-crafted movie, but I would not want to sit through it again. I'm one of those nuts that actually believes that the born loser Lee Harvey Oswald took aim at Kennedy from a bookstore depository window. And that he pretty much acted on his own.
Call me naive. The Kennedy assassination was the mother of all conspiracy theories, and she has begotten many moronic children since then. I don't buy into many of them.