Sunday, October 31, 2010

LIZZIE (1957)

The Hugo Haas-directed Lizzie (1957), based on the 1954 novel The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson, was adapted for the screen by Mel Dinelli. Lizzie's producers (which included actor Kirk Douglas) sued to have the release of a similar-themed production, the bigger-budgeted The Three Faces of Eve, postponed. Both dealt with a woman harboring three distinct personalities. The major studio (Fox) release was delayed for six months, but it did the bare-boned-budgeted Lizzie no good. Joanne Woodward received an Academy Award for her portrayal in Eve, while Eleanor Parker’s riveting, edgier performance was shut out of even a nomination. Some blame this slight on Hugo Haas’s direction of Parker’s “bad girl” personality. They claim he encouraged her to overact. Watching the film today, however, the extremes work against each other perfectly. Haas’s subtle, no-nonsense handling of the trance scenes have a raw, in-your-face intensity that was lacking in the glossier Eve. The movie is stark, the atmosphere bleak and uncompromising. The week-long shoot was key in keeping Lizzie's story tight and nervy. Hugo has a nice supporting part as a sympathetic neighbor. His banter with Joan Blondell, playing Lizzie’s stewed-to-the-gills aunt, has charm, and he shows genuine concern for the plight of the young girl. Richard Boone attractively plays the doc who wrestles with Lizzie’s cluttered mind. Ric Roman plays the usual Haas hottie, while Marion Ross, years from TV’s Happy Days, plays Lizzie’s co-worker and friend. The working titles for this film were Hidden Faces and Woman in Hell.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


“WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE UNGUARDED YOUNGSTERS? Learn the truth in RKO Radio's fearless drama.” Vastly different than anything producer Val Lewton had done before, Youth Runs Wild mixes elements of exploitation, social commentary, and crime drama into an uneasy concoction. Lewton, after guiding along the inventive, soon-to-be influential horror classics Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), wanted a change of pace, and RKO gave it to him with this atypical feature. First titled The Dangerous Age, about children running amok during wartime, the screenplay was ostensibly based on a Look magazine photo essay, "Are These Our Children?,” which appeared in the September 11, 1943, issue. RKO released a "This is America" short subject, Children of Mars (1943), with the same theme in October; it would be highly lauded and be nominated for an Oscar. Youth Runs Wild wasn’t so lucky. The story was topical and with the film’s minimal budget it should have struck a chord with audiences and been at least a modest success. Lewton employed as his technical advisor 18-year-old Ruth Clifton, an Illinois teenager who had founded a youth recreation center in her hometown of Moline. Her work inspired similar movements across the country to combat wartime juvenile delinquency. Monogram studios had a similarly-themed movie released at the same time, Where Are Your Children? (1943), a movie starring Jackie Cooper advertised as “The first drama of Juvenile Delinquency to reach the screen!”

Good intentions came to naught. Reportedly, test screenings went poorly and censorship issues were so strict that the studio re-cut Lewton’s version and renamed it. The film still lost money at the box office. Look was so disgusted with the final product that they severed all ties to the film; the magazine’s name doesn’t appear in the movie credits. Youth Runs Wild remains a curiosity piece amongst Val Lewton’s classic work. He had wanted the studio to remove his name from the release print; they refused.

Initially, Edward Dmytryk was set to direct, but was reassigned to another production, Tender Comrade, starring Ginger Rogers. Mark Robson took the assignment instead. This is the film debut of Tessa Brind, better known later as Vanessa Brown, whose performance was uncertain at best. With the exception of Bonita Granville, Jean Brooks, Lawrence Tierney, the rest of the film's performances were routine. Essaying his first substantial film role, Tierney, soon to become Dillinger on screen, is a standout, seething with seamy charm and malcontent. He hangs around the neighborhood leading local lambs astray. Apparently, before cuts were made by the studio, drugs were a part of that as well. Tierney remembered in an interview that his character peddled drugs, although that factor is missing in prints today.

While not a very good film, Youth Runs Wild is an interesting curio, and worth a look.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Torrid Zone contains perhaps the quintessential Ann Sheridan performance. A down-on-her-heels, tough dame getting by with her wit and sass. She's been around, but no one is gonna put anything over on her.

Co-starring James Cagney (taking over for George Raft) and Pat O’Brien, the quip-filled screenplay, written by Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald, incorporated (uncredited) elements from both Red Dust and The Front Page. Cagney, who almost turned the film down, felt that the script had “no real substance or importance,” and referred to the finished product as “Hildy Johnson Among the Bananas.” I have a feeling that Torrid Zone is as underrated as it is today because of Cagney's low opinion of it. While the film was a hit at the time, boasting lively exchanges between the characters and a breezy script, making it one of Warners’ best comedies ever, it really isn't considered the classic it should. “Nice little park you got here,” Annie considers, surveying the plantation, “if you like bananas.”

Sheridan is a cardsharp/nightclub entertainer (she sings “Mi Caballero”) who gets mixed up with a South American banana plantation owner (O’Brien, talking a mile a minute) and his reluctant foreman (Cagney). Cagney is attracted to Annie - that is, until she takes him for $300 (“Lucky at cards, unlucky in love”). The rest of the film finds her trying to win him, while swapping barbs with her rival for his affections, Helen Vinson.

Cagney and Sheridan, seen also in the classic Angels with Dirty Faces and City for Conquest, score again as a team and Cagney has never seemed sexier (this despite his mustache, grown out of defiance). They spar throughout, and the great thing about Annie was her ability to never take him seriously. The fun between the two was the empathy they exuded while verbally clashing; their exchanges were playful instead of nasty or abrasive. O’Brien walks in on one of their passionate kisses, scolding them for “acting like a couple of high school kids.” Sheridan, without missing a beat, tartly responds, “You just interrupted a postgraduate course.”

Likewise, in a different way, the uppity Vinson and the down-to-earth Sheridan make terrific, sharp-tongue competitors for Cagney:

SHERIDAN (Picking up Vinson’s discarded cigarette): I understand the Chicago fire started from something like that.
VINSON: The Chicago fire was started by a cow.
SHERIDAN: History repeats itself.

The best line is the tagline, written by the film’s associate producer Mark Hellinger. At the fadeout, Cagney, clutching Sheridan to him, for their final kiss, grumbles, “You and your 14-Karat Oomph!” Cagney disliked the line, requesting that it be cut. Hellinger bet him that the line would get the biggest laugh in the picture. A few days after Torrid Zone premiered, Hellinger received his check for $100 from the actor.

Annie’s likable feistiness (“You push me one more time and you’ll wear this suitcase as a necklace”) made everyone take notice. Torrid Zone’s importance to Annie’s career cannot be overemphasized. “Ann Sheridan really comes into her own,” announced Screenland. “She’s not only more Oomph-ish than usual, but gives a tangy performance of the girl whose morals, despite her way with cards and Cagney, are above reproach.” The New York Times raved: “[She] steps up a notch or two in our estimation as the femme fatale of the piece . . . But if the males are two-fisted, Miss Sheridan meets them blow for blow, line for line,” and The New York World-Telegram added: “Miss Sheridan is entirely at ease as the hard-boiled torch singer, and when the occasion demands sentiment and simplicity that too, is at her command.”

Producer Mark Hellinger became an early Sheridan booster and lover. It has been reported that (the married) Hellinger had a private phone in his office, one that only Ann had the number for. When Hellinger died suddenly in 1947, Ann reportedly was sobbing so strongly, she had to leave the church where the funeral was held.

Regardless of the nature of their personal relationship, it is very obvious that Hellinger thought enough of Ann to provide her with substantial roles at Warners, roles that propelled her to stardom: It All Came True, Torrid Zone, and They Drive by Night. His presence in her life and career at this point was crucial to her development as a leading star.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Washington Melodrama (1941) is a good, solid MGM B about a married lobbyist (a sedate Frank Morgan) implicated in chorus girl's murder and blackmailed by real killer. Kent Taylor is good as the fast-talking newspaper publisher trying to solve the case. Helping him is an engaging Lee Bowman as a reporter. Dan Dailey, in an early role, is okay as a cad and Virginia Grey, underused as usual by the studio, sparkles nonetheless and shows off some dancing steps. Ann Rutherford, playing the daughter of Morgan, has good chemistry with the underrated Taylor. One jarring note: the seemingly endless water ballet (staged by Sammy Lee) in the beginning. Anne Gwynne's stunt woman executes a doozy of a backwards fall over a table that has to be seen to be believed. Bravo. Working titles of this film were Tabloid and She Takes the Wheel.


"After the sun has set and the night wind has died comes the hour of the bat people." While not the best exploitation movie ever made, The Bat People is not as bad as everyone says. For one, Stewart Moss is excellent in the main role as the doctor who is bitten by a bat. Are the murdereous flash-memories of killing he's having just that, dreams? Or are the horrific murders around the neighborhood his handiwork? Moss' real-life wife, beautiful Marianne McAndrew, co-stars, and both make the central relationship of husband and wife on the edge believable. Most of the movie is taken up by Moss' anguished reactions as he's about to change from man to bat. (The viewer starts feeling the same pain, so excruciating does Moss make it seem.) Two scenes stand out in this Jerry Jameson-directed horror: The way-cool murder of the slimy sheriff in a small car by hundreds of bats is very bloody and fitting. More memorable, and totally hilarious, is the sex scene between Moss and McAndrew. In the throes of passion, she looks up to the squeaking, hideously hairy and ugly face of a bat. She screams and gets hysterical as Moss flees like a bat outta hell. How could you NOT love this movie? This was the first feature film for makeup artist Stan Winston.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Eight Iron Men (1952) should have been a tense, exciting WWII movie about a squadron trying to save one of their own trapped behind enemy lines. The cast is good: Lee Marvin, Arthur Franz, Richard Kiley, James Griffith, Bonar Colleano, and Dickie Moore. But it's all talk, talk, talk ... understandable since it was based on the 1945 play A Sound of Hunting, the stage production that got Burt Lancaster noticed by Hollywood. Talky movies are only good when they have something to say that is interesting ... if it builds suspense. This movie does not. The production of the movie was to start in 1949. At that time, Franchot Tone was to direct and star alongside Glenn Ford and Lew Ayres. When that fell through, Edward Dmytryk directed the final low-budget product. The various flashbacks featuring Mary Castle as the girl of Colleano's dreams add an absurd touch to the proceedings. (Castle is best known as the actress who bore a striking resemblance to Rita Hayworth, contracted by Columbia as a "threat.") The best scenes in Eight Iron Men are the ones featuring the tenuous bickering of Marvin and Kiley. The two characters' conflict on following orders adds an interesting dimension to the stale comedy and other trifles. The film's working titles were The Sound of Hunting and The Dirty Dozen. Marvin, of course, starred in another Dirty Dozen in 1967.

Friday, April 23, 2010


GUN DUEL IN DURANGO (1957). It's been told before: An outlaw, "the last of the fast-guns," wants to break with his old gang and go straight. Add in a cloying child (Bobby Clark) and a pretty girl (Ann Robinson) and it becomes cliché central. An unlikely George Montgomery, as the former outlaw, is solid but seems preoccupied. His performance only steps up near the end when he finds he has no choice but to confront his former crime cohorts with violence. As the main villain, Steve Brodie briefly steals the show with his welcome ruthlessness, shooting a man in the back, kicking dirt in his face, growling and verbally sparing with Donald Barry. The short spurt of stunting is good (an excellent dive through a window, a fight in some brush, some nice jumps) and the final gunfight, with Montgomery, perched on a roof, holding two guns, is nice. Alas, what comes before is dull and uninspired. Even the title is a sham. Better was the working title, Last Gun in Durango. Location filming took place in the Santa Susanna Mountains, California.

VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945), fourth in the series (1944-48) of noirish Columbia mysteries (inspired by the radio show) starring Richard Dix. This series was unusual in that Dix (and later Michael Duane in one film) played a different character in each film, alternating as hero and villain. Each film opened with a shadowy figure, The Whistler, voiced by Otto Forrest, intoning mysteriously, "I am The Whistler, I know many strange tales," while popping up during the hour running time to comment on the proceedings. Voice of the Whistler, also starring Lynn Merrick and James Cardwell, starts off conventionally, but makes up for it when the scenario of the perfect murder is planted in Cardwell's head. Atmospheric thriller, with an excellent lighthouse setting. Directed by (and co-written by) William Castle, its working title was Checkmate for Murder.

DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973). "The Day The Insane Took Over The Asylum." An inmate, posing as a nurse (we don't know she's bogus until near the end), controls the other inmates, treating them roughly at times. When a new nurse comes to stay at the asylum, the bogus nurse goes (even more) off the deep end (who knows why), kills some inmates and tries to kill the new nurse. Finally, at the end, bogus nurse is murdered by the other inmates. One inmate helps the legit nurse escape, then goes and slays the other loonies. The movie weirdly ends with him crying over bogus nurse's dead body as he eats a damn popsicle! Crazy. The screenplay was written by Tim Pope, whose sole writing credit this is; he is more known as a director of music videos. It all has the proper feel of disjointed, confused madness, suitable for this 12-day production. The movie's cheap, stilted, amateur atmosphere is its very selling point; the movie wouldn't work otherwise. Director S.F. Brownrigg helmed some laughably similar-sounding movies: Don't Open the Door! (1975) and Keep the Grave Open (1976). Original title of this "chiller" was The Forgotten and it is also known as Death Ward #13.

NIGHT OF THE BLOODY HORROR (1969). Film about an unstable young man (Gerald McRaney) and his maybe-maybe not tendency to ax his girlfriends. (No, they didn’t ax for it.) This has been touted as one of the “goriest films of its time.” I’d like to take an ax to whoever misled me. There’s some tame gore here: After sex, a girl goes straight to a confessional to receive absolution. Her penance? The priest stabs her in the eye; a girl on the beach has a hatchet shoved into her chest; and a doctor has his hand sliced off. The latter scene is the best; the close-up of his blood flowing out of his amputated hand looks as if he’s artisticly airbrushing the door. Not a scary movie, not even slightly, but it features a psychedelic rock group called “The Bored” and a very unorthodox police method of interrogation (“Are you a fag? Are you a fruit?”). McRaney, pre-Major Dad, baldness and Delta Burke, is supposed to be hot stuff to the ladies, but he’s scrawny and hysterical. (“Boy, you’re touchy,” says one girlfriend, in an understatement.) Rough-hewn Evelyn Hendricks, as the koo-koo, smothering mother, comes off best. Her final scene is a wonder of manic dementia as she does a call-and-response conjuring up her dead husband. (Shades of Psycho, perhaps, but still effective.) Most disturbing scene: McRaney has a dream of having sex; he turns to see the staring, creepy-smiling face of his old crone mother in his arms instead. Naturally, he begins to choke her out, waking up screaming. That, my friends, is the true night of the bloody horror!

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (1991). British Gary Daniels, whose “hands are faster” than guns, plays an underground kickboxer framed for murder. With the help of blonde, sassy DEA agent Linda Lightfoot, Daniels takes on myriad baddies. Originally called Kickbox Terminator, not a bad title, this bone-snapping, violent show lacks, unfortunately, many things, including something essential to action/martial arts movies: Good fight scenes. The fights, although violent and usually ending in death, are slow and repetitive. You just want the action to speed up a little bit. One funny moment occurs when Daniels wields two lit flashlights and uses them to knock the crap out of an opponent. It’s still dopey, very badly acted "fun," with drugs, promised deformed babies (that never come), kewpie dolls that might or might not contain said drugs, etc. David Carradine is wasted in his smallish role; he seems to have filmed his scenes in one small, dark, cramped room. Daniels has THE most unreal line-reading delivery EVER. He looks okay, but is pretty awful. “Memorable” quote: “You’re one punch away from death.” I felt the same way after I watched this.

FINAL ROUND (1993). Grungy-looking Lorenzo Lamas is a tattooed, overall-wearing, ex-middleweight champ who falls immediately for Kathleen Kinmont when she needs her motorcycle fixed. During sex with Kinmont (after he saves her in a barroom brawl), Lamas is hijacked by Anthony De Longis’ henchman. In the tradition of The Most Dangerous Game, De Longis heads a gambling corporation hunting men for sport. The stalking arena is “two miles long, a half-mile-wide, the entire complex surrounding by a 600-volt electric fence,” as De Longis’ “bad-ass” hunters utilize the latest technology to hunt their “prey” as viewers on satellite place bets. “You make it to the gate, you are free to go,” he sneers. The acting is atrocious, with Lamas thinking he’s a real jokester; his attempts at humor are discomforting. Kinmont (the real-life daughter of a better actress, '50s starlet Abby Dalton) is not very attractive and her reasons for being with Lamas are dubious. (The two were married from 1989 to 1993, the year this movie was "released.") The movie tries for dialogue cleverness, even using some lame, very obvious double-entendres. The action scenes are repetitive, with Lamas, supposedly a boxer, overusing (very) wide karate kicks. When a character asks at one point where he learned to fight, Lamas scoffs, “I’m a big fan of Chuck Norris.” Whatever.