Jan 212015
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

FOG ISLAND. PRC Pictures, 1945. George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Jerome Cowan, Sharon Douglas, Veda Ann Borg, John Whitney, Jacqueline DeWit, Ian Keith. Director: Terry O. Morse.

   It’s a bit of a jump from the mega-million conceits of The Firm [reviewed here ] to the marginal virtues of Fog Island, which cost about a buck-ninety-five to churn out and looks it, but here is a film to sink your teeth into; a stylish creaky Old-Dark-House thriller directed at penurious pace by someone named Terry Morse and offering a hand-picked cast of cinematic lesser-knowns including George Zucco, Lionel Atwill, Ian Keith, Veda Ann Borg and Jerome Cowan (best remembered as the short-lived half of the Spade-Archer partnership in The Maltese Falcon) at his slimiest.

   Before going on to rave about this thing, I should add perhaps that by nomic standards, Fog Island doesn’t amount to much. The script makes very little sense at ail, the sets – when there are any – seem about to topple any moment, and the whole affair is served up with a rushed look that seems cheap-jack even by PRC’s bottom-of-the-trash-can standards. But all of this detracts not a whit from the energy and charm of this little effort.

   Indeed they even help. Like the best efforts of Edgar Ulmer (a workhorse in the PRC stable himself), Fog Island amazes the viewer by the very fact of its existence. Watching it is like seeing a derelict car chug its clanking way down a super-highway – you can’t believe it’s actually moving right there in front of you much less understand what Keeps it going.

   For the record, Fog Island concerns itself with the efforts of recently-paroled embezzler Zucco to revenge himself on his unindicted co-conspirators, and their efforts to prise out of him the money they’re sure he squirreled away.

   As the plot unspools, hints are dropped here and there that Zucco and/or some of his cronies may or may not be guilty, but these are mostly left unresolved in the haste to get this thing in the can. What’s left is brilliantly atmospheric and astonishingly grim as Zucco, Atwill et. al. struggle, grasp and claw at each other to see who will emerge Wealthy… or Alive, anyway. Oh there’s a romantic sub-plot stuck in there somewhere, but Director Morse and writer Pierre Gendron (who worked on Ulmer’s masterful Bluebeard) clearly save most of their interest for the Baddies – who are all played by much more interesting actors anyway.

   The big Confrontation scene where Zucco and Atwill pull out all the dramatic stops and hammer away at each other (accent on Ham) with histrionic abandon has – no kidding – Real Chemistry, made all the more compelling by being shot practically in the dark to hide the cheapo sets. With nothing to distract us, the eyes are drawn irresistibly to the spectacle of two full-blooded (to put it mildly) performers face-to face and toe-to-toe in the thespic equivalent of a Knock-down drag-out prize fight.

   After this emotional high point, Fog Island drags,lurches and stumbles a bit to a conclusion that as I say, is surprisingly grim and well-realized for a B-Horror/Mystery Movie. The glimpse of impressive artistry someone heaped on this obscure thing while no one was looking makes me despair of facile, expensive things like The Firm.

   Which is not to say that Fog Island is as entertaining as the other. It isn’t. The only thing it has going for it is the gratuitous energy and enthusiasm of its creators. Which is enough for me.

 Posted by at 3:52 am
Jan 182015

RAW DEAL. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, John Ireland, Raymond Burr. Phototography: John Alton. Director: Anthony Mann.

   Claire Trevor, who narrates the film in her husky, bruised voice, helps O’Keefe escape from prison, and they head for the Big Bad Guy (Burr), taking with them O’Keefe’s sympathetic correspondent, Marsha Hunt.

   The film’s brutality is still startling, especially a scene in which effete gangster Burr, angry at a girl who has spilled liquor on him, ignites a warming-dish and throws it at her face.

The girl is off-camera but the shock of that gesture, in which almost everything is left to the viewer’s imagination, is still powerful.

   O’Keefe is an actor of limited resources, and Hunt is too pert and glossy, but Trevor is very fine as the rejected girl-friend. It’s a film of multiple betrayals, and is less smooth than The Big Combo [reviewed here ], but its very rawness adds to the impact.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.

 Posted by at 7:14 pm
Jan 182015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:          

STOLEN FACE. Hammer Films, UK, 1952. Paul Henreid, Lizabeth Scott, André Morell, Mary Mackenzie, John Wood, Susan Stephen. Director: Terence Fisher.

   An English thriller with an unmistakably Gothic sensibility, Hammer Films’ Stolen Face stars Paul Henreid as Dr. Philip Ritter, an eminent but lonely physician, a plastic surgeon who believes that his scalpel will lead him down a path of happiness. Lizabeth Scott, in a dual role, portrays Alice Brent, an American pianist with whom Ritter (Henreid) falls in love and the facially reconstructed Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie), a recidivist criminal.

   Directed by Terence Fisher, Stolen Face is a story of love, loss, and madness. When Ritter he learns Alice has supposedly chosen David (André Morell) over him, he is heartbroken and despondent.

   Enter the scalpel. Dr. Ritter is part of an experimental program at a local prison in which he reconstructs the faces of habitual criminals, sociopathic lowlifes. Give them a new face, a prettier face, a less ugly face and maybe, just maybe they won’t resort to a life of crime.

   If he can’t have the real Alice (Scott), Dr. Ritter will have a simulacrum. He chooses the grotesquely scarred Lily Conover as his target, for she will benefit from his surgery. But the price is that she will have a stolen face — Alice’s face.

   But Dr. Ritter isn’t done just yet. He ups the ante in his Frankenstein game. Not only does he give Lily Conover Alice’s face. He marries her. And let me tell you. It’s a rough marriage, for despite the new outward appearance Lily (now portrayed by Scott) goes back to her old ways, shoplifting, drinking, and chasing men. It’s all enough to put a murderous rage into Dr. Ritter.

   The final scenes of the film could be categorized as noir. There’s a train hurdling through the night, a death, and a tragic ending for one of the main characters.

   All told, Stolen Face is quirky little British thriller, a journey through a man’s descent into despair. It may be a journey where you pretty much know where you’re going from the outset, but it’s still an enjoyable ride.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Jan 152015
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT. Warner Brothers, 1933. Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Tully Marshall, Harold Huber, Dorothy Burgess Directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley

   Made on the cusp of the code, this one is almost as tough as it wants to be, with Stanwyck as Nan Taylor, a smart moll who ends up in San Quentin for a bank robbery she aided a hood named Don (Lyle Talbot) in committing.

   This is typical women in prison, and exactly what you would expect from Warners in this era. Stanwyck sets up to con radio crusading do-gooder David Slade (Preston Foster) in order to keep out of prison, and he arranges for her pardon to keep her from prison and falls for her (mutually). But when he finds out she was conning him originally the sanctimonious fool refuses to vouch for her, and she is off to prison. Now the idiot realizes he loves her but it’s too late.

   Apparently women who look like Stanwyck are disposable in his life.

   Foster does what he can with Slade, but among all these colorful types, Clark Gable couldn’t make him anything but a stiff. Casting a tough guy like Foster helps, just not enough.

   I should point out I’m editorializing. The film is much kinder to the noble Slade. I personally found him a huge pain in the lower rear anatomy. Dumb and sanctimonious, the perfect hero.

   Prison is the usual Grand Hotel collection of types: the Duchess, the grand dame of the place who put ground glass in a rival’s food; the aging madam who ran a ‘beauty parlor’; the cigar smoking butch, the rival who will do anything to keep Stanwyck from Slade; and of course the instant best friend (Dorothy Burgess).

   The women’s wing of San Quentin is no cake-walk, but it’s damn glamorous for a prison. There is no shortage of sheer nighties, baby dolls, frilly undies, make up, perms, nylons, suspender belts, and high heels. Save for the ‘butch’ (“Watch out, she likes to wrestle”) there’s not a sensible flat heel in the joint.

   Hard hitting realism, Hollywood style.

   An embittered Stanwyck helps Don (Talbot) and pal Dutch (Huber) plan an escape, and when Dave visits even slips a note in his pocket for him to mail unwittingly helping. When the escape goes wrong and Don is killed she thinks Dave found the note and betrayed her. She swears to kill him.

   When she’s released (short sentences for bank robbery back then) she tracks Dave down to a revival where he is speaking. There she gets him alone and shoots him, but then realizes she loves him and he didn’t betray her. You know how women with guns are. He’s willing to forget the bullet, he loves her, but plainclothes cop Tracy shows up (Tully Marshall, and it’s a full year before Plainclothes Dick appeared in the Chicago Tribune).

   “You ought to have that seen to … gunshots can be tricky,” but suspicion or not, Dave finally grows a pair and stands by his woman. Final clench and they live happily ever after producing little jail birds and revivalists — after a proper period of marital bliss of course. Considering Nan, they better wait at least three years, she is clearly a lady they talk about.

   Ladies They Talk About is a typical little Warner’s picture from the era, with Stanwyck always good in these tough but vulnerable broad roles. Like her, the movie is smart, quick, sassy, and nice to look at.

   The problem is she is alone in this film. There is no one here who can match her. She’s Stanwyck, and at best they are Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot. I like both actors, but matching them up with Stanwyck is like putting Pee Wee Herman in the ring with Ali. They don’t stand a chance in hell. This is a bit lightweight for Warners from this era, not quite one thing or another, and leaves Stanwyck standing center ring alone for most of the movie.

   Bette Davis could have at least loaned her George Brent.

   That said, if you buy the happy moral ending, no doubt code imposed, I have some land in New Mexico next to the White Sands testing grounds you might want to purchase. Nice place save for the black glass.

   Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor is always going to be smarter, classier, and more volatile than her bland do-gooder reformer. Even in a pinafore, gingham, and a pink bow you know Nan will have a flask under her garter and be sneaking cigarettes when Dave isn’t looking. While Dave leads revivals Nan’s going to be nostalgic for bathtub gin, speakeasies, and flash types she used to twirl around her fingers. It’s hard to imagine the pious women of Dave’s revivalist movement are going to welcome an ex-con who matriculated at San Quentin to the fold.

   But then, come to think of it, considering the wan, pale, types Dave spends most of his time with, maybe he’s a very lucky man to come home to Nan’s flash and hidden cigarettes. What’s a little bullet now and then compared to love?

   At least she won’t be dull, and at a fast sixty nine minutes neither is the movie.

 Posted by at 1:19 am
Jan 112015

THE BIG COMBO. Allied Artists, 1955. Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Brian Donlevy, Jean Wallace, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman. Screenplay: Philip Yordan. Cinematography: John Alston. Director: Joseph Lewis.

   Wilde, a detective investigating mobster Conte’s activities, is obsessed with breaking up Conte’s operation and winning his mistress (Jean Wallace) for himself.

   Superbly scripted, directed, and photographed, this film by a director I had never heard of reminded me how little I know about this period. There is a brilliant beginning as Wallace runs down an alley with the fluidity of a trapped moth in beautifully composed and lighted frames.

   One of the strongest performances of his career is given by Brian Donlevy as a deposed monster chief who’s now relegated to backing up Conte. He wears a hearing aid, and Conte likes to torment him by turning up the mechanism and shouting, but he turns it off when Donlevy is gunned down by the Conte’s two henchmen (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman). The guns blaze in complete silence as the shots light up the dark and the film.

   The reaction of the more knowledgeable members of the audience was that this is certainly a fine film but the Lewis’s masterpiece is Gun Crazy (1950).

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.

 Posted by at 7:16 pm
Jan 102015
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

HORACE McCOY – Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye. Random House, hardcover, 1948. Paperback reprints include: Signet 754, 1949; Avon, 1965.

KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE Warner Brothers, 1950. James Cagney, Barbara Payton, Helena Carter, Ward Bond, Luther Adler, Barton MacLane, Steve Brodie, Rhys Williams, Herbert Heyes, John Litel, William Frawley. Based on the novel by Horace McCoy. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   In 1948, just two years after Lindsey Gresham wrote Nightmare Alley, successful novelist and screenwriter Horace McCoy penned the unforgettable Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which is the sort of thing you’d get if Proust wrote for Black Mask: a head-long, careening, totally amoral thriller about an escaped con on a crime spree — typical hard-boiled stuff, but couched in syntax that requires a dictionary close at hand.

   Ralph Cotter, the anti-hero of the piece is an alienated super-intellect (or a Sadistic Grad Student) and his first-person narration bandies terms like propliopith-ecustian (primitive) once or twice a page. McCoy laces the tale with ramblings like:

   “…this was what else there was to uncover; this girl, this ghost, Alecto, the unceasing pursuer, born of a single drop of the God-blood Uranus dripped upon the earth, had stripped my memory integument by integument until now there was no layer at all, nothing between my eyes and the pool of horror that was spinning faster and faster, climbing the insides of my skull….”

   That sort of thing. And lots of it. Incredibly, McCoy also provides a fast, taut violent tale set in a vivid background of casual corruption and dreamy decadence. An exchange early on, between our “hero” and the cell-mate he will shortly kill before escaping from the chain-gang, sets the tone:

   Budlong, a skinny, sickly sodomist turned on his side facing me and said in a ruttish voice: “I had another dream about you last night, sugar.”

   It will be your last, you Caresser of Calves, I thought. “Was it as nice as the others?” I asked.

   And so it goes. McCoy parades his cast of killers, bought cops, paid-off politicos and shady ladies with an alluring personal style I found hard to put down and impossible to forget. Like Nightmare Alley, this is not to every taste, but for those who like this sort of thing, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is required reading.

   By the way, there’s a bit in the book where the wealthy daughter of a powerful politician, intrigued by Cotter’s deadly charm, runs away with him for what they called in those days, a night of illicit passion. When her Dad and his rented cops burst in on them, they claim to have been married, then hustle to an out-of-state chapel before he can check up on them.

   Hold that thought a minute, we’ll get back to it. Meanwhile, I should add that this review is based on the unabridged Avon reprint from 1965. The Signet edition is abridged by about a third and includes a snide comment from McCoy on Paperbacks and their readers.


   Someone called the film of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, “Vicious and uncompromising.” Well, it is enjoyably vicious, thanks mainly to the punchy direction of Gordon (Tony Rome, Rio Conchos, etc.) Douglas, and there are some dandy turns from the likes of James Cagney, Luther Adler, and especially Ward Bond and Barton Maclane (who performed similar function in The Maltese Falcon) as a pair of badly-bent cops, but Harry Brown’s script throws w-a-a-y too many sops to the censors to keep its integrity.

   For starters — literally — McCoy’s tale is presented within a frame, showing, the denizens of his shady universe brought to trial for their misdeeds. During the course of this proceeding, the characters get on the Witness Stand and relate the story in flashback, testifying to things they couldn’t possibly have seen and incriminating themselves and others with cheery abandon. And the Night of Illicit Passion? In the film, when Daddy bursts in on the young couple, they’ve already had their quickie wedding, and are lying in twin beds wearing pajamas looking about as depraved as Ozzie and Harriett.

   I sometimes think only an artist of unflinching vulgarity like Gordon Douglas (who also directed Liberace’s only movie, Sincerely Yours, and did it with a straight face) could have taken material as gutless as this and still made a fairly worthwhile film out of it, and only with a cast as good as he got. Recommended, but with reservations.

 Posted by at 2:41 am
Jan 062015
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE FIRM. Paramount Pictures, 1993. Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Terry Kinney, Wilford Brimley, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Gary Busey, Steven Hill. Based on the novel by John Grisham. Director: Stanley Pollack.

   The Firm takes stabs at evoking a fairly interesting dichotomy between the monied privileged college-degreed Haves vs. the working-stiff Secretaries, Truck Drivers, Small-Time Operators and other Have-Nots, but director Sidney Pollack soft-pedals this, lest he offend the upwardly mobile types the film (and the book it rode in on) is marketed toward.

   After his promising early efforts, like the beguiling, pretentious Castle Keep or the fitfully elegiac Jeremiah Johnson, I’m disappointed to see Pollack work so hard at being slickly professional, but he does accomplish one pleasantly quirky effect: The whole theater cheered when lovable, crusty old Wilfred Brimley got the tar beat out of him. And I never thought I’d see that in a Movie.

 Posted by at 8:53 pm
Dec 282014

DIVA. Les Films Galaxie, France, 1981. United Artists Classics, US, 1982. Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Frédéric Andréi, Richard Bohringer, Thuy An Luu, Jacques Fabbri, Chantal Deruaz, Anny Romand, Roland Bertin. Based on a novel by Daniel Odier (as Delacorta). Director: Jean-Jacques Beineix.

   I am beginning to think that recommending films to friends should be relegated to the same, ill-advised category as counseling friends who are battling toward divorce or who want to prevent their teenagers from making the same mistakes yours did.

   E. T. made me feel better about children and aliens than anything since Close Encounters, and the newly released French import Diva provoked in me similar feelings about opera singers, French postal workers, and fourteen-year-old Vietnamese flower children. I thought it the most exhilarating thriller in my recent memory, the most stylish, the most imaginative in its use of fairy-tale elements to grace an unlikely mix of operamania/record pirating/corrupt police officials/drugs and prostitution with wit, affection and visual beauty.

   I also liked the references to other film directors (of which the most engaging was the Renoir sequence involving a “blind” beggar) and wallowed in the sentimental ending.

   The friends to whom I had recommended the film stared glumly into space when I asked them what they had thought of it. One of them muttered something about the film being too “self-conscious,” while the other was more to the point: “Why when I see only two films a year, does one of them have to be Diva?”

Well, I will say no more except to add that I think that Diva may be a movie buff’s delight, but too special for some people’s tastes, and if you happen to see it and don’t like it, don’t complain to me. I’m only recommending it to myself, and I am going to see it a second time.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 4, July-August 1982.

 Posted by at 4:23 am
Dec 242014

ILLEGAL. Warner Brothers, 1955. Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Dekker, Howard St. John, Ellen Corby, Edward Platt, Jan Merlin. Screenplay: W. R. Burnett and James R. Webb. Director: Lewis Allen.

   When District Attorney Victor Scott (Edgar G. Robinson) discovers that he’s sent an innocent man to the chair, not only are his ambitions for a higher office (governor) gone up in smoke, but soon after so is his political career altogether. He resigns, finds he can’t make a go of it as an attorney dealing in civil law, and in spite of the concern of his former assistant (Nina Foch), begins spending more time in bars than he does practicing law.

   But as chance would have it, Scott discovers that his skills in the courtroom on one side are just as good on the other, and soon the money is rolling in as one of the best defense attorneys around, with some of his performances on behalf of his clients putting to shame even the wildest ever dreamed up by the previous master of them all, Perry Mason.

   This attracts the attention of not only the local crime boss but the new D.A., who suspects an inside man is leaking information out of his office. This leads in turn to Nina Foch’s character being accused of murdering… Well, it is complicated, but to the screenwriters’ credit, the story is clearly presented from beginning to end, perhaps to the extent of being at times a little too obvious.

   This is Edgar G. Robinson’s role all the way. The triumphs and failures of the character he plays need someone with a super-sized sense of the extravaganza, and Robinson is just the person to do the job. The rest of players are mere moths flitting around his constant flame.

   Save, just maybe, Jayne Mansfield’s character, a wasp-waisted singer and live-in companion for the aforementioned crime boss makes her a perfect witness on the stand, her breathy whisper-like Marilyn Monroe voice making everyone in the courtroom sit up and take notice.

 Posted by at 10:14 pm
Dec 062014

  DETOUR TO DANGER. Planet Pictures, 1946. Britt Wood, John Day, Nancy Brinckman, Eddie Kane, Fred Kelsey, Si Jenks, Eddie Parker, Ashley Cowan, Bud Wolfe, Ken Terrell. Screenwriter: Alan James. Producer-directors: Harvey Parry & Richard Talmadge.

   I’m not going to kid you. This is one really bad movie, put together by a group of amateurs, I’d bet you think by looking at the credits, but you’d be wrong. Not about this being a bad movie, since it is, but the men behind it, from the producers-directors on down, all had lengthy careers in the movies. Almost all of them have long lists of movies they were involved with in some way or another, some of them up to 300 entries long, perhaps more, going back to the silent days.

   Mostly in bit roles, to be sure, or as stunt men. The leading man, John Day (John Daheim) and both directors did stunt work in loads of movies. They must have decided to put up the financing together to form Planet Pictures, which made only one other movie, Jeep Herders, also in 1946, and while they also probably went broke very quickly, they must have had a lot of fun doing so.

   The plot is nothing, and it’s poorly told. A gang of payroll robbers are forced to land their getaway plane near a summer resort spot somewhere near Big Bear Lake in southern California, where they mingle with the guests until two fishing buddies, Speedy (Britt Wood, and the funny one) and Steve (John Day, the husky clean-cut one) save the day.

   While the crime solving is inept, the romance is even worse. Things are livened up a little when a runaway excursion wagon filled with screaming girls is saved by the two heroes in their beat-up old jalopy, and a fight scene that lasts the final five minutes, much of it taking place in an another runaway truck careening its way down a narrow mountain road.

   What’s remarkable is that this movie was filmed in color. What’s even more remarkable that this movie still exists today, but only Alpha Video would believe it was worth releasing on DVD.

 Posted by at 4:49 am