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Now or Never (1935)
Breezy little indie shot on the streets of Los Angeles
Stunt man Richard Talmadge starred in this ultra-low-budget film that's short on plot, shorter on logic, but packed with action filmed on the streets of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. Let's see, there's something about a guy who's passing through town on a train, who's mistaken for a local man who looks just like him. The local guy is supposed to sell some hot jewels, or something, I don't know, it doesn't make much sense. In fact, Talmadge's flicks were supposedly very popular in Stalin's USSR because the stories were so simple and childlike. But the action scenes are great, beginning with a foot chase and a free-for-all fight all around one of L.A.'s downtown train stations (the Santa Fe, I think). Most other shots were done in the Hollywood hills, particularly all around the Beachwood village, including a shop at 2961 Beachwood and the nearby Beachwood Market. With all the car chases and rolling down hillsides and fisticuffs--filmed on the streets and not on some phony back lot--who cares about plot anyway? The film is available in a not-too-bad print from Alpha Video.
The Fat Spy (1966)
It's only a movie!
That's what I kept repeating: "It's only a movie." How else do you think I got through this movie with my sanity intact? It's bad on so many levels I wouldn't know where to begin. The real humor is imagining how anybody involved with making "The Fat Spy" thought it would be watchable. In fact, if there had been a documentary filmmaker hanging around the producers from the very beginning, I'll bet THAT would have been a world-class comedy. I see a bunch of fat old guys with cigars, sitting around talking about how "the kids'll love it, it's the bee's knees." In the end, nobody wanted to claim this movie. That's why it's available on cheap DVDs. Nobody renewed the copyright. I'll bet the names of the director and writer are pseudonyms. Even the best thing in the movie, beach babe Lauree Berger ("Nannette"), who's now a psychologist and the wife of a famous film and TV producer, has renounced this turkey by simply ignoring its existence.
City Streets (1931)
Sylvia Sidney's face!
I've only seen a couple of Sylvia Sidney's early films, but they all seem to feature at least one closeup of her face that reveals what's really going on in the picture. In Hitchcock's "Sabotage," there's a fascinating shot of her working at a theater box office when a guy she likes suddenly shows up unannounced. Hitchcock went in tight on her face as it slowly changes from a blank expression to a glow of sheer joy. I've never seen anything like it in any other film. And here, in "City Streets," the director dollies in and lingers on her face for a full minute while Hollywood cinema's first "voiceover" tells us what's going on in her thoughts. But really, the words are superfluous, because her brown, luminous eyes tell us everything. Sidney was perhaps too exotic and unconventional to compete for major stardom with the Clara Bow flappers and Jean Harlow blonds of her time. She was also difficult to get along with, according to some sources. But she is more timeless than most. Dashiell Hammett, who wrote "City Streets," said she was the best part of the movie. For me, she's the best part of any movie she's in.
Ask the Dust (2006)
Who's L.A. is this?
As a fan of John Fante's 1939 novel I've tried to watch this film several times, but I'm never able to get through it. I don't like the characters as presented here, and not for a second did I believe I was in 1930s Los Angeles. On the DVD commentary track, Robert Towne says he built the set in Cape Town, South Africa, because he couldn't find any parts of Los Angeles suitable as locations for the film. That's funny, because when Roman Polanski made Towne's "Chinatown" twenty years earlier, he had no trouble finding local places that effectively evoked the period. To make matters worse, the "Ask the Dust" movie set didn't even depict the Bunker Hill neighborhood--a real character in the book--but rather showed it only in the background as a distorted Third Street tunnel and the adjacent funicular, Angels Flight. Frankly, the Los Angeles of "Ask the Dust" couldn't have been less authentic if Towne had saved himself all the trouble and simply shot it on the Paramount back lot.
The Clay Pigeon (1949)
File this one under "Knucklehead Knoir."
It's never good in these type of mysteries when the viewer gets way ahead of the protagonist. It's even worse when the clues are slapping the fall guy, the clay pigeon, in the face and yet he still can't see them. Bill Williams and Barbara Hale keep getting ambushed by murderous thugs. Only one guy, Williams's fellow ex-POW, Dick Quine, knows where they are because Williams keeps calling him on the phone. Yet neither Williams nor Hale tumbles upon the idea that maybe the bad guys always know where to find them because Quine is tipping them off. Duh! And then there's the wild coincidence of Williams running into his old Japanese prison camp guard within a couple of hours after they arrive in Los Angeles. Worse, this Japanese guy seems to be an insider within the local Chinese community, even though the Chinese and Japanese hated each other (google Nanking). The only real pleasure here was spending time at the China City Plaza in L.A.'s Chinatown.
Dead Ringer (1964)
Henreid re-imagines a film he made in 1948.
Back in 1948 Paul Henreid produced and starred in "Hollow Triumph," a.k.a. "The Scar," the story of a criminal on the run who murders and disposes of a psychiatrist he closely resembles, in order to assume the man's identity. But soon he discovers there are people out to kill the psychiatrist. And now, in 1964, Henreid reworks the same basic story, this time with aging Bette Davis playing twin sisters, one of whom kills and replaces the other, only to find that her sister has a fatal secret of her own. Like so many B-movies of the 1960s, "Dead Ringer" has the flat look and glacial pacing of a TV mystery, which is no surprise since Henreid by this time was a busy television director. It would have been a much better picture if he had trimmed about twenty minutes.
Get Outta Town (1960)
Not a bad little pulp drama!
When ex-small-time criminal Kelly Olson returns to Los Angeles for his kid brother's funeral, not many people are happy to see him. Not his mother, not his ex-girlfriend, not the cops, and not local hood Rico Lanari. Kelly insists he's gone straight, but nobody believes him. Convinced his brother was murdered, he slips back into his thug ways to get a few answers from a bunch of low-lifes. The acting is okay, the dialog is snappy, and the characters (all unknowns) are realistically sleazy. At a crisp 63 minutes, it feels like one of those high-velocity short stories by guys like Paul Cain and Dashiell Hammett in Black Mask magazine circa 1933. The film gets great support from its gritty locations, namely Bunker Hill and the rooms, corridors, balconies and stairways of the faded Dome Hotel on Grand and Second streets, which would soon afterward be destroyed in a mysterious fire that killed a number of people. Doug Wilson, who plays Kelly, and director Charlie Davis produced "Get Outta Town" with their own money, supposedly, and Beckman Film Corp. released it at some point under the name "Gangster's Revenge." The film credits say: "Get Outta Town," not "Get Out of Town." It's been released on DVD, but it's hard to find, but that shouldn't stop you from looking. It's a lot more convincing than many studio gangster films I've seen from the forties and fifties.
Key Witness (1960)
Good Los Angeles Locations
By the late 1950s film noir was dead but the juvenile delinquent thriller, originally inspired by the novels of Hal Ellson from ten years earlier ("Duke," "The Golden Spike," etc), was thriving on the B-movie circuit. But MGM and producer Pandro Berman, perhaps hoping to repeat their 1955 success with "Blackboard Jungle," tried to blow "Key Witness" up into an A-movie, widescreen Cinemascope, "Rebel Without a Cause" alumni (Hopper, Corey Allen), and all. Though the plot relies on sometimes ridiculous turns (in one maddening scene, a deputy runs into a courtroom interrupting testimony) and the characters are mostly cartoons (Muggles certainly lives up to the first syllable in his name), director Phil Karlson's decision to shoot on the streets of Los Angeles keeps everything moderately realistic. The opening scene, set in a hilly slum neighborhood just north of City Hall in the Chinatown area (though it looks like old Bunker Hill and is referred to as "East L.A." in the film), immediately puts the viewer into the middle of the action and the period. If this film had been shot on a soundstage, as "Blackboard Jungle" was, it would have fallen apart within the first ten minutes, but once again L.A. saves the day. If you love the atmosphere of on-location films from this era, you'll enjoy the sensation of sitting through "Key Witness."
Crime in the Streets (1956)
Trapped in its time!
I don't want to elaborate too much on what's already been said, but 1956's "Crime in the Streets" becomes claustrophobic very quickly because of the shabby, back-lot "New York street" that screams artificial 1930s Hollywood set a la "Dead End" and "Scarface." Since this is an Allied Artists film, I'm guessing it was shot at the old Monogram Studios on Sunset Boulevard in East Hollywood, which was shabby even in the 1930s. Perhaps Don Siegel was looking for claustrophobia and delapidation to enhance the atmosphere, but more likely they were simply a product of a low budget. (After all, Siegel had already used the real-life streets of Hollywood and the nearby town of Sierra Madre to great effect a year earlier in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers.") Though no source material is given for "Crime in the Streets" except for the original teleplay, it owes quite a lot to Hal Ellson and other social workers-turned-writers who cranked out top-selling novels in the late '40s and early '50s, such as "Duke" and "The Golden Spike," that explored the tribulations of growing up in poor, urban, ethnic American neighborhoods. Also unacknowledged is Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters' rhythm and blues hit, "Such a Night," which provided Mark Rydell's character (clearly the movie's most interesting) with the "ba-dooby-dobby-doo" riff that became a jazz motif when the boys were awaiting their big crime in the alley.
The Death Kiss (1932)
An interesting artifact from the pre-Code years.
These 1930s murder mysteries are generally pretty tedious. They introduce a cast of characters and then slap you with red herrings until the final denouement. This film is no different. But being low budget, as well as a film about life on a film set in 1932, "The Death Kiss" has its fascinating moments. Though most of Hollywood's golden-age moguls and studio executives were Jewish, it's hard to find distinctive Jewish characters in their movies, so it was interesting to see the studio head, Mr. Grossmith (Alexander Carr), speaking with what passed, at first, as an Eastern European accent and on two occasions grabbing his head as he kvetched an "Oy!" But then, as the film progresses, his accent seems to wander all over the place. There's also a gay character, Grossmith's male secretary ("sissie" specialist Harold Minjir), who shamelessly minces through his scenes and even, at one point, lets out a shriek when he accidentally sits down in the studio guard's lap. (I won't comment on leading man David Manners' fairly prominent lisp, other than to say that during his conversation at a rendezvous inn with a bellhop (Harold Waldridge) who has a comic lisp, you have to wonder what the filmmakers were thinking. Unfortunately, we lost those little gems when the 1934 Hays Office Code kicked in and, in the name of decency, ended the careers of actors like Minjir.) The story also lets us watch the film-within-a film's technicians, especially the sound and boom men, do their jobs during the set-ups. Overall, not a bad movie as long as you don't expect much from the plot. As an addendum, "The Death Kiss" was one of the last films shot at the Tiffany Studios at the corner of Sunset and Virgil, which is now a supermarket parking lot. The Tiffany Studios should not be confused with the Monogram Studios just two blocks east, on the north side of Sunset, where the KCET-TV Studios are now located.
The Naked City (1948)
An Odd Duck
Though credited as being a groundbreaking movie that brought documentary-style film-making to the stylized genre of film noir (thanks to smaller cameras that were developed during the war, as well as the popularity of the Italian neo-realists), "The Naked City" seems very old-fashioned until it rushes toward its denouement on the streets and bridges (well, the Williamsburg Bridge) of New York. The victim's apartment is very much a studio set, as is the police station, and their artificiality clashes with the exhilarating location footage. Also, much of the dialog and the overall acting styles, as well as the stock character of the "Oi-rish" cop played by Barry Fitzgerald, are straight out of thirties Hollywood. It can be very jarring at times. Fortunately, the film becomes more of a real police procedural toward the second half, and spends more time on real locations, culminating with the exciting chase above the East River. "The Naked City" is often called a classic because it changed the direction of American film-making, but on it's own merits it's a flawed classic.
Hard to believe that Maureen Stapleton was only 50 when she made this movie. Charles Durning was two years older. Yet they're portrayed as a couple of frumpy and hopeless old fogies--especially her--grabbing for some last romance before they reach the graveyard. I felt also that even though most of these characters appeared to be Jewish, their ethnicity was played down too much--perhaps to appeal to a general television audience. Regardless, the story realistically portrays a woman rescued at the last moment from her family and friends' expectations. Her children want her to be a sexless grandmother-cum-babysitter living in their spare bedroom, and her sister and friends think she should be a proper widow without an emotional life. Naturally they're disappointed when she decides to live the rest of her life as a free woman who still has desires and dreams. (Durning, on the other hand, was more of a cipher. He confides that he has a wife, but nothing more is said about her. Is she an invalid? Are they living apart?) The ending was a little abrupt, but I liked the film's message that we're never too old for romance. Who would make this movie today? More important, who would go see it? Well, how about all those aging boomers who are wondering about the many loves they found, lost, or never explored in the first place when they were younger.
Cry Danger (1951)
Location! Location! Location!
Thanks to lighter, smaller film cameras developed during World War II, B-movie directors on a low budget often took their productions into the streets of Los Angeles (and elsewhere), adding a kinetic and exhilarating realism unavailable on the back lot. So-called films noir, particularly the documentary-style police procedurals, were especially enhanced by location shooting. I can name several films--"Crime Wave," "Kiss Me Deadly," "Angel's Flight" and this one, "Cry Danger," among others--that would have been far less interesting if the producers had kept them studio-bound. "Cry Danger" was shot at two locations on Bunker Hill, one at the corner of Third and Olive (the Amigos Club, where William Conrad had an upstairs office) and the other at the New Grand Hotel complex on the northwest corner of Third and Grand (where Conrad tricked Dick Powell into winning a bet with hot money from the robbery that had sent him to prison). But the most atmospheric scenes were shot several blocks away, at the top of Hill Place north of Sunset Boulevard in what is now a Chinatown neighborhood, where Powell moved into the Clover Trailer Park. (To see film stills matched with 2010 photos, check out www.electricearl.com/bh.) I recently (April 2010) saw the restored film version of "Cry Danger" at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood (where, incidentally, Rhonda Fleming and Richard Erdman were on hand to talk about the movie), and I can attest that the location scenes drew audible breaths and exclamations from the audience. Don't get me wrong; "Cry Danger" has great dialog and interesting characters, but without that wonderful personality called postwar Los Angeles it would have been much less of a movie.
The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
Nobody Said It, So I Will
Tom Conway was one of those natural actors, like Bob Mitchum or Dean Martin, who could stroll through the most low-budget and sometimes unworthy movies without losing his aplomb. Of Conway's Falcon movies this is certainly one of the better ones, but its claim to fame is not another smooth performance from its star but rather the twist at the end. If you don't want to hear it, read no further. I repeat: Stop reading this review. Okay, for the rest of you, let me just say this: Mel Brooks must have seen "The Falcon in Hollywood" before he wrote "The Producers." The big difference is that the Falcon (and the viewer) don't tumble to the shady accountancy until the end, which explains why the investors were killed off.
Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983)
Looking for noir but can't find it.
I wanted to enjoy HBO's mid-eighties attempt to revive Phillip Marlowe, but the series never quite worked for me. The producer's self-conscious attempt to recreate a time and place and style of film-making remained just that: self-conscious. What may have also thrown me off was that the first episode I watched, "The King in Yellow," begins with a disc jockey playing a twelve-inch vinyl LP, a format that Columbia Records introduced in 1948 for long-form music, such as classical and Broadway; pop music and the kind of jazz the DJ was playing came out that year on ten-inch LPs and didn't graduate to twelve-inch till around 1950-51. So naturally I'm thinking the story takes place in the early fifties, until the cars and a few other things make it obvious that the time is really a dozen years earlier. Why didn't somebody realize the guy should have been playing a 78-rpm record? You can find them at any Salvation Army shop. The whole point of recreating a period piece is that you have to get the period right and not make obvious, boneheaded mistakes. I was also struck by how poorly the filmmakers generally used Los Angeles, a city with many evocative old neighborhoods and wonderful buildings that haven't changed much in the last seventy years. One "King in Yellow" scene, shot at the tower apartments near the Hollywood Bowl where Eliot Gould's Phillip Marlow lived in Robert Altman's 1973 "The Long Goodbye," showed that somebody had the right idea, but maybe the low budget kept most of the action confined to sound stages, which are rarely convincing. Oh, and some of the actors were amateurish and the dialog was often weak. Since a real noir hound could have had great fun with this show, HBO's Marlowe seems more like a missed opportunity than anything else.
Flame of Calcutta (1953)
Fun in color, better than expected.
On September 3, 2009, I saw this film at the Cinecon Festival in Hollywood, at the Egyptian Theater. It was the first time it had been shown in color since the early 1950s; somehow it ended up in black and white for TV. Seen in its original luscious Technicolor, it was much better than what I expected from a Sam Katzman B-movie. Sure, the acting is grade B (most of the actors later ended up on television), but the action is fun and the plot is easy to follow. The star is French actress Denise Darcell, who was also (at age 85) on hand at the Egyptian to talk about it after the screening. Apparently she was being hyped by Columbia as "the French Marilyn Monroe," but on screen she has very little charisma and even less va-va-voom. Joseph Mell and Ted Thorpe steal the show as a couple of bungling beggars and spies, always willing to change sides at the drop of a silver coin and seemingly always just one step ahead of being hanged. Still, I can't imagine how anyone sat through this film when it was in mere black and white.
Trial Marriage (1929)
Effective love story thanks to Sally Eilers
Trial Marriage is a late silent movie (it was also done as a talkie) with much of the charm of Hollywood films before the Production Code neutered the studios in 1934. Playgirl Connie (Sally Eilers) drops her devil-may-care fiancé Oliver (Norman Kerry) when she falls in love with Thor (Jason Robards Sr) and steals him away from socialite Grace (the tragic Thelma Todd). The film follows various marriages, infidelities and misunderstandings (think When Harry Met Sally) until the four settle into what should have been the proper marriages all along. The dialog (on cards) is very direct and modern. The real pleasure for this reviewer was watching Sally Eilers, a willowy, dark-eyed brunette who is so forthright in her emotions and absolutely sexy in the way she moves and caresses her lover. Despite the 82 years that have gone by since this film was made, she's as contemporary as any actress today. I was mesmerized. But somehow, although Sally Eliers continued to work for another decade, she never quite made the successful transition to sound. I haven't seen the sound version, but I've been told it's missing some of the scenes included here.
All Jazzed Up (1920)
An early adventure on Los Angeles's Angels Flight funicular
Bobby Vernon and Helen Darling are newlywed rubes honeymooning in downtown Los Angeles. While Bobby gets involved with a couple of city slickers hoping to relieve him of his money, Helen discovers Angels Flight, a famous funicular that ran up and down the side of Bunker Hill on Third Street (google Angels Flight to look it up, or simply visit Angels Flight Goes to the Movies at www.electricearl.com/af). For a country girl, the little trolleys are like a giddy carnival ride. She takes a break from the fun by running back to the hotel and leaving her husband a note telling him she's "gone up Angels Flight." When Bobby returns to the hotel, he's heartbroken because he's lost all their money. Seeing his wife's message about Angels Flight, he mistakes it, in his own miserable state, for a suicide note. He rushes out and tries to kill himself, unsuccessfully, until a couple of good Samaritans inform him that Angels Flight is a twin-trolley system, not a stairway to heaven. Elated, he rushes to Third Street, catches one of the trolleys going up, and leaps to the other trolley midway up the hill to join his wife. Overall it's an entertaining experience.
The Big Night (1951)
Too stage bound!
As someone who knew John Barrymore Jr. 25 years ago, I was heartbroken to see him early in his aborted film career. Though not as charismatic as James Dean would be just a couple of years later, he was certainly Dean's prototype in The Big Night. Perhaps with a better film and a less disturbed personality, Barrymore might have been a working Hollywood actor for many years to come. Anyway, what director Joseph Losey lacked here was the Los Angeles cityscape he used to full effect that same year in his retelling of Fritz Lang's M. The Big Night was screaming for a location project on downtown L.A.'s seedy, beaten down Bunker Hill, a neighborhood of crumbling Victorian mansions and apartment buildings with vertiginous stairways that provided so much atmosphere to other films, such as Kiss Me Deadly, Criss-Cross, The Exiles and, yes, M. Instead, the movie is stage bound and hemmed in by sets that never look convincing. With its rambling "a night in the life" plot line, The Big Night needed another character: a dark city of real streets, background lights, rambling old house, and dingy clubs and bars. In other words, the kind of verisimilitude that transports the viewer into the protagonist's world. The back lot, unfortunately, was a poor stand-in.
Johnny Apollo (1940)
Dorothy Lamour Won My Heart
"Johnny Apollo" is a better than average film for 1940, and it's worth watching if for no other reason than a four-minute segment in which sultry Dorothy Lamour, all dark eyes and pouty lips, sings "This Is the Beginning of the End" in a stunning, torchy alto. The song was a 1952 hit for singer Don Cornell, but his version pales beside Lamour's soulful rendition here. Her role as "Lucky" completely trumps her best known role as a foil for Hope & Crosby in the Road pictures. I have a whole new respect for her now as a singer, an artist and a sex symbol.
The Swimmer (1968)
Flawed But Still Powerful Aquatic Breakdown!
The past 34 years have taken a toll on "The Swimmer," but it's still a powerful indictment of the postwar suburban lifestyle that John Cheever loved to skewer. As Burt Lancaster swims and runs home through the swimming pools and back lanes of Westchester County, we gradually realize that he's suffered a psychic break following the loss of his job and the dissolution of his marriage. At one time he was a young lion who had everything, but now, in middle age, his youthful powers, promises and dreams are deserting him. Perhaps he can get them back in this ritualistic baptism, by returning to the sunlit, water-lapping summers of his youth, if not the womb itself. The film has some wonderful cameos by such character actors and other personages as Jan Miner (best known as manicurist Marge in a famous dishwashing detergent commercial), Marge Champion, Bill Fiore and Cornelia Otis Skinner. After the low-budget indie film wrapped, Lancaster himself paid to bring in director Sidney Pollack and actress Janice Rule to shoot an extra scene about a former mistress in hopes of giving the story an added poignancy, but it seems disembodied, perhaps because most of the poolside dialogue was dubbed in later and lacks any real intensity. The scene remains, along with some of the hippy dippy kaleidoscopic tree-gazing interludes, one of the weakest parts of "The Swimmer." In 1993, Michael Douglas remade "The Swimmer" as "Falling Down," substituting himself for Lancaster and the mean streets of Los Angeles for the wet and wooded environs of Westchester. It sucked!
Going Hollywood (1933)
Exhilarating Start, Enervating Finish!
"Going Hollywood" is one of countless 1930s musicals that Hollywood made about itself, or rather about its own myths. It begins with Marion Davies being so enchanted by Bing Crosby's voice on the radio that she rebels against the stuffy girls' school where she teaches French and goes looking for Der Bingel. The film has all the era's cliches, including Patsy Kelly's butch buddy with a heart of gold, Ned Sparks' caustic sidekick with a heart of bronze, and the usual compliment of corny songs and soft-shoe chorines, but there's no surprise about where this film is going. Marion Davies, enjoying perhaps a 2002 reappraisal because of Kirsten Dunst's fine portrayal of her in "The Cat's Meow," is not all that interesting here and, frankly, is upstaged by her rival Fifi D'Orsy, whom I'd rather spend a night with if I had the choice. Crosby is saddled with mostly forgettable songs (with the exception of "Temptation"), but at least his character shows a dark side behind his easy charm. But overall the flaccid story, Hollywood hokum and badly dated entertainment sink "Going Hollywood" like a stone.
Now If We Kin Jest Git Hasil Adkins Out Cheer!
I'm a West Virginia hillbilly who came to Hollywood 25 years ago, but I still got that ol' mountaineer spirit in me, so naturally I loved the two Jesco White short films, "Dancing Outlaw" and "Jesco Goes to Hollywood." Jesco is generally treated like some white trash savant, but in fact he's not all that unusual if you go up into the hollers of southern West Virginia. Jesco doesn't live too far from Hasil Adkins in Von (near Madison, WV), who was similarly "discovered" about 20 years ago when the Cramps recorded one of the crazy songs he recorded in his bedroom back in late '59 or early '60s. Picture a guy singing about cutting off his girlfriend's head and putting it on the wall, so that she "cain't eat no more hot dogs." That's Hasil Adkins, and he's just as much an unpredictable and volatile backwoods character as ol' Jesco. As for Jesco having "LOVE" tattooed on the fingers of one hand and "HATE" tattooed on the fingers of the other, well, that's a West Virginia prison tradition. Check out a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb (or see the film) called "Night of the Hunter," in which the antagonist, a jackleg West Virginia preacher who kills people (Robert Mitchum in the 1954 movie) has those words tattooed on his fingers so that he can use his hands to demonstrate the eternal battle between God and Satan. What is this review all about? Simply that Dancing Outlaw I & II are freak shows that allow us sophisticated folks to see and smirk at true hillbilly culture in all its glory, and it ain't purty. But it's sure entertaining. Jesco could teach us a thing or two about keeping it real.
It Came from Outer Space (1953)
Not As Creepy As It Tries To Be
First of all, we see the monster too soon. There's way too much screeching Theramin (I think that's the spelling of the Russian-made electronic gadget that creates this film's spooky music). The story's not very tight or suspenseful after the first 20 minutes. And the special effects, including the electronic distortion of the actors' voices after they've been "taken over," are pretty hokey. When I saw this movie in 3-D in '53, it was a great movie, but at age 9 what the hell did I know? Some of the scenes are distinctive enough that I remember them clearly, but overall "It Came From Outer Space" doesn't hold up even remotely as well as, say, "Them," which also took place in the barren Southwest but used the desert's lonely, windy and foreboding landscape much more effectively. Also, instead of shooting in a real desert town, the producers settled on backlot facades, which look like backlot facades--not a good idea if you're cutting between them and real desert. The terrain also doesn't match up half the time, the crater caused by the fireball doesn't look anything like a crater, and the landslide that almost kills Richard Carlson is simply black rocks being shoved off the top of a brown ridge. These are small things, you might say, but they consistently undermine the requisite suspension of disbelief.
Play It Cool (1962)
Routine Rock 'N' Roll Flick Enhanced By Helen Shapiro
With 1962 being a strange time for rock 'n' roll in both America and England, it's a wonder that "Play It Cool" is as entertaining as it is. British rock star Billy Fury plays an Elvis wannabee named Billy Universe who curls his lip and moans just like his hero, but exaggerates his hand movements to the point where he looks like a spastic Bobby Darin. When Billy and his wacky band members get stranded in London with an heiress who's looking for her no-good boyfriend, they make the rounds of the city's pubs and clubs, stumbling upon a place where a trio is singing the squarest music imaginable, then heading on to a spot called The Twist where everybody's twisting (the latest dance craze when "Play It Cool" was being filmed, but stone dead by the time the film was released), then dropping in on a Chinese-themed restaurant called the Lotus Club where pop star Helen Shapiro is crooning in front of a phalanx of violinists. A visit to another club finds American teen idol Bobby Vee (who began his career as a Buddy Holly sound-alike) spooning drivel in front of another bank of violins. Through it all, Billy Fury gets to sing a handful of songs, including a sappy ballad, a twist, an uptempo number called "I Think You're Swell" and a fairly good rocker called "Play It Cool." In other words, this movie is musically all over the place, because the producers were trying to please everybody at a time when the music was rapidly changing. To bind all the musical interludes together, there are lots of little subplots and shots of Billy and his boys running through Gatwick Airport and Houston Station (more than a year before the Beatles did the same thing in "A Hard Day's Night"), but in the end it doesn't add up to much simply because the music is so uniformly unmemorable. Billy Fury is a sympathetic presence, but perhaps the most intriguing artist in "Play It Cool," at least for Americans, is teenage star Helen Shapiro, who sings two numbers, including one of her singles, "I Don't Care." America never really had anything like this bouffant contralto, unless you combine Annette Funicello with the foghorn voice of Timi Yuro. Helen is one of the most awkward performers I've ever seen (more so here than in her film debut, "It's Trad, Dad"), and yet I couldn't take my eyes off her strange beauty. Her career was fading fast by the time she appeared in "Play It Cool," but she's probably the best reason to watch it.