Reviewed by Jonathan Lewis: THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947).

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Mar 272015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Lawrence Tierney, Ted North, Nan Leslie, Betty Lawford , Andrew Tombes, Harry Shannon, Glen Vernon, Marian Carr, William Gould. Screenwriter-director: Felix E. Feist, based on a novel by Robert C. Du Soe.

   You don’t watch the crime film, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, for the rather formulaic plot about an outlaw on the run. No, you watch for it for the noir atmosphere, set as it is in the late 1940s on one shadowy and violent Southern California night.

   Most of all, you watch it for Lawrence Tierney. He portrays Steve Morgan, an inveterate liar, a forger, and a murderer.

   Directed by Felix Feist, The Devil Thumbs a Ride is a taut thriller, economical on time, but rich in black humor, cynicism, and suspense. Replete with believable, punchy dialogue, the film tells the story of the diabolical Morgan, who after killing a cashier in San Diego, hitches a ride with Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), a traveling salesman from Los Angeles who was in town for a drunken birthday celebration. The two men end up also giving a lift to two women they encounter in a gas station parking lot and off they go.

   There’s murder, mayhem, and madness a plenty. Look for the close up shots of Tierney’s eyes. It’s not fancy camera work by any means, but they tell you all you need to know about who’s the charming devil in this one. Tierney was one of a kind, no doubt about it.

 Posted by at 4:53 am

A Movie Review by Dan Stumpf: THE KEY MAN (1954).

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Mar 212015
Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE KEY MAN. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1957; United Artists, US, 1958, as Life at Stake . Lee Patterson, Hy Hazell, Philip Leaver, Harold Kasket, George Margo. Written by J. McLaren Ross. Directed by Montgomery Tully.

   Just another British-second-feature of its time, but a bit better than it needed to be and perhaps worthy of note.

   The film opens on joyous celebration scenes of VE-Day in London, then on to a lone figure walking, somber and purposeful, through the confetti and ticker-tape onto a quiet street and up to a mysterious door. He inserts a key and—all of a sudden three guys grab him! And next thing one of them is saying, “Arthur Smithers, you are under arrest for robbery and murder, and anything you say….”

   Flash forward twelve years. Smithers has been released from jail, and Radio Crime Reporter Lionel Hulme (Patterson) is trying to find him — and the whereabouts of the loot from the robbery he did time for. Hulme is also broke, fighting with his wife (Hazell) and trying to get an advance from his boss so he can follow this thing up. In due time, he gets a lead, finds out Smithers has died in mysterious circumstances, gets followed around a lot by a shadowy stranger, finds out Smithers is not dead, talks to a fatale-looking femme who may be Smithers’ wife, gets a call from an informant who has the information he needs and he’ll come right round with it (and we know what happened to that lot!) gets in a fight, a car chase….

   … all pretty much standard stuff, and it’s not helped by budgetary constraints that keep the background rather sketchy. We’re told, for instance, that Hulme is a Radio Crime Reporter, but all we ever see of the station is a couple of nondescript offices: no microphones, no bustling secretaries or sound engineers. Hell, Monogram did better than that!

   On the plus side though, the writer took some time to populate this with real-seeming people, the producer cast them rather well, and the director added some fine flourishes; there’s some well-judged camera-work here and there, including a nifty fight in a pitch-black barbershop fitfully lighted by an on-and-off neon sign outside.

   But it’s the characters that surprised me most. Our elusive criminal mastermind proves to be a fairly ordinary chap, podgy and middle-aged, with a pretty young wife who loves him anyway. The venal stool pigeon and phony tipster have moments of actual humanity, and when we go to the wrap-up, the final scene between the amateur sleuth and the mysterious lady, where I was expecting to hear “You’re taking the fall, Sweetheart,” I heard something instead very real and quite surprising. Check it out if you can.

Editorial Comment:   One should not confuse this movie (as I did, for a while) with a film noir released in the US in 1955 entitled A Life at Stake, starring Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes.

 Posted by at 5:38 pm

Review: Book and Two Films – Jim Thompson’s THE GETAWAY (1972/1994).

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Mar 112015

THE GETAWAY. National General Pictures, 1972. Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, Sally Struthers, Al Lettieri, Slim Pickens, Richard Bright, Jack Dodson, Dub Taylor, Bo Hopkins. Screenplay by Walter Hill, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Director: Sam Peckinpah.

   I’m going to disagree with Roger Ebert about the merits of this film. I think it’s terrific, a flawed masterpiece, if you will, and if you want to read all about the flaws, you can read Roger’s review, available online here. He seems to have picked up all of them.

   To tell you the truth, though, the first time I saw this movie, I was rather underwhelmed myself, but for two reasons that Roger doesn’t mention. Well, maybe three. I’d have to agree that Ali McGraw as never much of an actress, that Steve McQueen was always Steve McQueen in whatever movie he was in, and (playing My Grumpy here) the long sidebar with Sally Struther’s character (the wife of the veterinarian that McQueen’s fellow bank robber kidnaps to medicate his broken collarbone) was totally unnecessary and quite frivolous besides.

   The second time through, none of Roger’s quibbles mattered, nor any of mine as well. I enjoyed myself thoroughly all the way through. The photography is brilliant. The little bits of business tossed in here and there all came together, and the action is spectacular. It is not non-stop action, however, as the story takes the time to focus on the rocky romance that develops between the two leading characters for long stretches of time. And the ending was even more enjoyable the second time, maybe because of the anticipation. (If Slim Pickens ad-libbed his conversation between the runaway couple, as I’ve been told, my admiration for his ability as an actor is even higher.)

   I think Ali McGraw does everything that was asked of her, including not giving her a lot of dialogue. But the uncertainty in her face I saw the first time fit right into place the second time, as she does not know how Doc McCoy (McQueen) will react when he learns what she did in order to get him sprung from jail when after the parole board turns down an early release. And react he does, probably in a way that wouldn’t be permitted in a movie today.

   As for McQueen being McQueen, wasn’t Bogart always Bogart? Gable always Gable? Scott always Scott? McQueen’s presence on the screen is always a plus. What was I thinking? The business with Sally Struthers, well, I’m still not so sure about that, but in parallel and it contrast with the McCoys’ journey, I grew to accept it the second time around.

   The story, which I think it’s about time I got around to telling you about, is about a bank heist gone bad, and the problems that result when both big things and little things go bad. Mostly big things, such as having a con man steal the key of the train locker containing the loot, and hiding in a grbage dumpster just before the truck comes along to pick it up.

   This movie’s in my top twenty now, no doubt about it.

JIM THOMPSON – The Getaway. Signet #1584, paperback original, 1959. Reprints include: Bantam, paperback, movie tie-in edition, 1973. Black Lizard, softcover, 1984.

   I don’t own a copy of the Signet book; in fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a copy. (The least expensive one on is $60.) For some reason, and I’m not sure why I thought this, but I’ve had it in my head all these years that the Bantam edition which I’ve just read (after watching the film) was a paperback adaptation of the movie. Wrong. It was just the opposite. The movie was based on the Signet paperback published in 1959.

   And surprisingly enough, within the restrictions of big studio movie-making, the adaptation is reasonably well done. Up to a point, that is, and I’ll get back to that shortly.

   But the Doc McCoy in the book is a killer as well a bank robber, and a vicious one at that. There’s no way that Steve McQueen could play a villain as cold-blooded as his character is in the novel. In the movie, Doc McCoy is a killer when he needs to, and only then. His companion in crime, his wife Carol, who helped bring about his parole by sleeping with a member of the parole board, is also not as good-looking as Ali McGraw, nor do we have any feeling of sympathy or rapport with her. She (Carol in the book) has made her bed and all we’re waiting for is how far that will get her.

   The story of the two increasingly desperate movie stars fugitives on the lam eventually diverges from the book around page 132 with just over 50 pages to go. Or to better phrase that, this is where the movie ends. The movie has a much happier end than the book does, and that it putting it mildly. What follows is either a totally allegorical fantasy, or a getaway that only ends when the pair of fugitives reaches safety in Mexico pure hell.

   Let me tell you this. One “refuge” the couple on the run find themselves in is a pair of tiny cramped caves in a cliff along the California coast just above the water line. When Carol manages to maneuver herself around in the dark so she can sit up, then finds that she cannot move an inch to lie down again, it was two AM in the morning and I had to stop reading, right then and there.

   I’ve not read enough Thompson to say, but other people tell me that this is one of his best. Now I know why.

THE GETAWAY. Universal Pictures, 1994. Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, James Woods, David Morse, Jennifer Tilly, James Stephens, Richard Farnsworth, Philip Hoffman, Burton Gilliam. Screenplay by Walter Hill & Amy Jones, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Director: Roger Donaldson.

   There were a few changes made from the earlier version of the film, but in a way, only a few of any consequence. Instead of robbing a bank, Doc McCoy and two others hold up a dog racing track instead, and some additional back story was added, but not particularly for the better. Personally I think that when back story is added, it takes away from the mystery behind the characters. Not always, but often enough.

   Walter Hill was the screen writer of both films, with the addition of Amy Holden Jones on the second. Perhaps that helps explain why in the scene in which McCoy slaps his wife around when he learns what she had done to help free him from prison, Carol (Kim Basinger) slaps him right back.

   There are some subtle changes that are more difficult to put words to. Alec Baldwin, whatever his accomplishments, does not have nearly the screen presence of Steve McQueen, and while Kim Basinger is a much better actress than Ali McGraw, I somehow found Ali McGraw a more fitting actress for the character, at least the cinematic one.

   The sex scenes are far more explicit in the later movie, and the action seems more violent, but somehow I don’t believe either facts are to the second film’s advantage. The most striking difference between the two films [SPOILER ALERT] is that I found the happy ending rather appropriate [NOT IN THE BOOK], but in the second film, I wondered a whole lot more if I cared that these two rather unpleasant people were going to get away with it.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm

A Movie Review by Jonathan Lewis: MISS MEADOWS (2014).

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Mar 092015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

MISS MEADOWS. Entertainment One, 2014. Katie Holmes, James Badge Dale, Callan Mulvey, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Ava Kolker. Written and directed by Karen Leigh Hopkins.

   Miss Meadows, starring the very talented Katie Holmes, whose acting skills can’t save the movie from being a complete misfire, is not so much a feature film as it is a quirky premise caught on tape. Imagine a tap-dancing, prim and proper schoolteacher who is also — wait for it – a vigilante killer. She’s quirky, charming, funny, and deadly with a small pistol. She kills the bad guys because, you know, someone has to. Call her a softer, gentler, Charles Bronson.

   Intrigued? So was I.

   Which is why I decided to watch Miss Meadows in its entirety, unaware that the entire story is the premise. Well, that’s not entirely true. We get subject to an entirely forced love story between Miss Meadows and a law enforcement officer we only get to know as Sheriff (Yes, just Sheriff) and a series of flashbacks that show that Miss Meadows (Holmes) is the way she is because she witnessed her Mom being shot dead when she was an innocent child.

   Disclosure: I actually really like revenge and vigilante films and feel that they are continually under-appreciated as a film genre. When they work best, it’s mostly on a visceral level. We empathize with the protagonist, hoping he (or she) will achieve his necessary revenge. We very much want the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. Proportionally, of course. But we also are nuanced thinkers and realize that revenge has to have a cost. (Even Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish was forced to leave New York at the film’s end).

   Case in point: William Lustig’s brilliant Vigilante starring Robert Forster, in which Forster’s character succeeds in avenging the murder of his son, but at the cost of his wife leaving him. In some ways, it’s an exploitative and nihilistic film, but it’s a hell of a good one.

   That’s not the case in Miss Meadows, where the gun-toting vigilante ends up with a loving, quirky husband, a child, and a beautiful, large home in the suburbs. If this is meant to be satire or a black comedy, it falls flat. If it is meant to send a message, it’s an entirely nauseating one. Not so much because the bad guys didn’t deserve it, but because the film refuses to engage with the revenge/vigilante film genre in a serious manner and promotes the idea that a quirky premise should hold the viewer’s attention for nearly ninety minutes.

 Posted by at 10:39 pm

Inquiry about the film CIRCLE OF DANGER (UK, 1951).

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Feb 262015

Hi Steve,

I read in one of our newspapers yesterday a review of the film Circle of Danger out soon on DVD in the UK. Doing the usual thing I do and look on IMDB it says, Writer: Philip MacDonald (novel).

A little further googling says based on his novel White Heather. There’s no book I can find by him called White Heather or anything similar, nor can I find a book under that title by any other author. The plot does not remind me of any MacDonald book. Do you by any chance have it on DVD?


Jamie [Sturgeon]

   This is Steve. The reason Jamie asked if I had a copy on DVD was to check to see if White Heather is included in the opening credits. I don’t, but perhaps someone reading this does.

   I also Googled the book title in conjunction with Philip MacDonald’s name and got no farther than Jamie did. Almost every reference I came across copied the same wording from each other. The closest to a solid reference source is this one:

The Complete Index to Literary Sources in Film

   Any assistance from this point on would most certainly be welcome. The fact that the film was directed by Jacques Tourneur may be of some help, as quite a bit of critical attention has been directed his way.

 Posted by at 7:46 pm

A Movie Review by Jonathan Lewis: STREET LAW (1974).

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Feb 212015
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

STREET LAW. Capital Film, Italy, 1974. Hallmark Releasing, US, 1976. Original title: Il cittadino si ribella. Also released as The Citizen Rebels. Franco Nero, Giancarlo Prete, Barbara Bach, Renzo Palmer, Nazzareno Zamperla. Director: Enzo G. Castellari.

   Sometimes a man’s had just about enough of the crime that plagues his city’s streets. So he has no choice but to take the law in his own hands, to smoke out the criminal element and then eliminate it once and for all. Who knows? Maybe he’ll even inspire others average citizens to follow his path. Such is the formula for many an urban revenge thriller.

   And it’s definitely the formula utilized in Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law, a Euro-crime film starring Franco Nero.

   Nero portrays an engineer by the name of Carlo Antonelli, a man who, as his luck will have it, happens to be in a bank when armed robbers burst in and demand cash. When Antonelli’s own money is personally threatened, he not only refuses to let the thugs abscond with it, but he attempts to fight back against the masked men. Suffice it to say, this ends badly for our future anti-hero. But the bruised and beaten Antonelli isn’t done. Not by a long shot.

   After determining that the police either can’t, or won’t, do all they can to track down the robbers, Antonelli decides he’s going to do it on his own. This, of course, leads to a somewhat clichéd confrontation with his girlfriend, Barbara (Barbara Bach), who urges him not to take the law into his own hands. She does have a point, even if the fiercely resolute Antonelli won’t listen.

   Antonelli realizes soon enough that this is a job too big for one man, no matter how headstrong and reckless. So he teams up with a criminal named Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), who begrudgingly, then enthusiastically, helps him track down the bank robbers.

   There are some exceptionally well-choreographed action scenes, both fights and car chases. I also enjoyed the gritty urban setting, which made the film a time capsule of sorts, a glance backward into 1970s Italy. The movie also makes extensive use of music. Unfortunately, it often overwhelms the visuals and hence, the already somewhat uninspired plot.

   As a crime film, Street Law is perfectly satisfactory. It’s definitely light on character development and somewhat wanting on plot. But thematically, Street Law is quite strong. If you like revenge thrillers like Death Wish or Vigilante, you might find Street Law well worth your consideration.

 Posted by at 8:51 pm

A Movie Review by Mike Tooney: THE HONEY POT (1967).

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Feb 162015
Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:

THE HONEY POT. United Artists, 1967, 132 minutes (cut down from 150). Rex Harrison, Susan Hayward, Cliff Robertson, Capucine, Edie Adams, Maggie Smith, Adolfo Celi, Hugh Manning. Based on the play Mr. Fox of Venice (1959) by Frederick Knott, which was based on the novel The Evil of the Day (1955) by Thomas Sterling, which was based on the play Volpone (1605) by Ben Jonson. Screenplay and direction: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

   Anyone familiar with Ben Jonson’s play knows that Volpone (“The Fox”) spends a lot of the time pretending he is deathly sick in one way or another to acquire unmerited wealth. Cecil Fox (Harrison) seems to be on his deathbed, too, and has called for his three favorite intimate female acquaintances to gather round him in his villa in Venice.

   The consensus is that, since he has no heirs, Fox wants to bestow his worldly goods on one (or possibly all) of his mistresses. But before that happy event, murder claims one of them, with suspicion falling equally on everybody. It will take all the worldly wisdom of a mild-mannered Venetian detective (Celi) to sort it all out.

   Since The Honey Pot was creatively Joseph Mankiewicz’s baby, he can be praised what for what’s good and blamed for what’s bad about the film. The good stuff: the acting (overall everyone’s fine, especially Rex Harrison) and the plot (it moves along, with a couple of nice twists). The bad stuff: While Susan Hayward’s performance is good enough, she’s hampered by one of the most inauthentic Texas accents ever committed to film — and then there’s that egregiously smart-alecky dialogue that Cliff Robertson, in particular, is saddled with.

   American audiences will probably remember Alolfo Celi for his role as supervillain and adept H-bomb snatcher Emilio Largo in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball.

   If you’ve never seen The Honey Pot and you like your whodunits to have at least some mystery about them, you would do well to avoid the IMDb, Wikipedia, and TCM entries since they all give away those “nice twists” we noted above.

 Posted by at 3:53 am

A Movie Review by Dan Stumpf: FOG ISLAND (1945).

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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

A Movie Review by Walter Albert: RAW DEAL (1948).

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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

A Movie Review by Jonathan Lewis: STOLEN FACE (1952).

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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