Friday, February 1, 2013

Movies viewed in January

I am inspired by one of my favorite blogs, Video Junkie Strikes Back from Beyond the Grave, to list the films I watched every month. Because I often revisit films I've seen, these are just the films I watched for the first time in January. These marked in gold are the films I enjoyed the most. Looking at the other titles below may give you a good idea of how many films I wade through to find the great ones.

Great Capers:
My write-ups of Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Seven Thieves (1960) are available here.

Loretta Young:
My write-ups of Play-Girl (1932), Employees' Entrance (1933), The Hatchet Man (1933),
She Had to Say Yes (1933), and Born to Be Bad (1934) can be found here. But in addition to these, I also saw two more of her pre-Code films, Life Begins (1932) and Taxi! (1932), and a compact little thriller produced before she began her well-remembered TV show, Cause for Alarm! (1951). I intended to cover every Loretta Young night on TCM this month, but I honestly lost interest after the network moved past her 1930s performances into the 1940s and 1950s. For my money, Young's best work was during the pre-Code era, when she played strong-willed working women, roles that she didn't approach very often after 1934. To be fair, in Taxi!, she plays second fiddle to star James Cagney, as his star was taking off, playing a hot-headed taxi driver who won't take organized crime hassling independent cab drivers laying down. But she is given much more interesting material to work with in Life Begins, a melodrama taking place entirely in the maternity ward of a metropolitan hospital. We meet a variety of women, including a prostitute expecting twins she hopes to sell to the highest bidder, a middle-aged woman adding yet another addition to her overgrown household, and Young as a woman in prison for life on a murder charge expecting her concerned boyfriend's child. There are some over the top moments, to be sure, but for the most part the performances are spot-on, including always-wonderful Aline MacMahon as the head nurse and blonde bombshell Glenda Farrell as the lady of ill repute. This being the early days of sound film production, the stage-bound origins of the source material (a play by Mary McDougal Axcelson) are a little obvious at times, avoiding a dynamic mise-en-scene and giving characters lengthy monologues. A superb little film.

Not to gloss over Taxi!, though; everyone in this film is tough and street wise, including Young, introduced as the head strong daughter of a cabbie who won't take being muscled out of business and uses a pistol to right the wrong done him. At first she and Cagney butt heads, but of course they find love and compliment each other beautifully in a marriage tied together by their mutual drives to succeed.

Cause for Alarm!, clocking in at 74 minutes, plays almost like a slightly super-sized version of an episode of a 50s television anthology, with "special guest star Loretta Young" as Ellen Jones, a nervous woman dealing with her new husband's building mental illness. This might sound like an overwrought melodramatic plot device, but it transforms into one of edgy tension as Ellen is wrongly accused by hubby of trying to kill him and spends the greater part of one bright sunny day attempting to stop an incriminating letter from reaching the district attorney describing her alleged murder attempts. At this point Young was an Oscar-winner (for 1947's The Farmer's Daughter), and she brings a lot of talent and moxie to this performance. You give a damn what happens to Ellen, as her cuckoo husband accuses her of infidelity and her nerves are run through the wringer for the better part of the film. In an interesting twist of production history, producer Tom Lewis, who was also Young's husband at the time, wanted Judy Garland for the leading role, and our Loretta actually took her husband to court for casting discrimination and won! Hmm...that must have been an awkward home life, not to mention movie set, in the aftermath, though there must have been no lasting effects because the pair collaborated on her famous TV show almost directly after production of this tremendous nail biter!

Columbia Classics:

The TCM Vault Collection released a collection of six films in the DVD set Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection, and unfortunately most of them are duds. The best of the group, and one of the finest pre-Code films of all, is Virtue (1932), a street-wise melodrama starring Carole Lombard and Pat O'Brien, both borrowed from other studios, as a reformed prostitute and the wisecracking taxi driver who falls in love with her. The pair are given some fine one-liners during their unlikely courtship, but are also compelling when the film calls for their marriage to be disturbed by the discovery of Lombard's past. Lombard, one of the most versatile actresses of the 1930s, is best-known for her screwball comedies, but proves here that she could balance comedy and drama in one film.

Columbia, for a long time considered a B-studio, even after its films began sweeping the Oscars, was responsible for some of the most entertaining quickies of the studio era. Two of these are prison pictures separated by a decade, Convicted Woman (1940) and Convicted (1950). The earlier film stars Rochelle Hudson (no relation to Rock, but a marvelous actress none the less), as an unemployed woman who, while in a department store applying for a job, is mistaken for a thief wearing her same outfit and with the same haircut. She is railroaded into women's prison, where there aren't lesbians to be found (this was between pre-Code films of this type and 1950's Caged), but she becomes a bitter cynic after butting heads with an icy blonde inmate who lures our heroine into an escape attempt and rats on her to get in good with the female guards. Hudson's lawyer becomes the new warden of the prison, intent on making it a house of rehabilitation and not a place of punishment.

Convicted seems developed as a star vehicle for Glenn Ford, still a reliable, if not bland, character actor who was also in Convicted Woman, but the film belongs to gruff Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford as the district attorney who unsuccessfully tries to stop Ford from being imprisoned for an accidental death following a bar brawl, and then becomes the warden of the prison where Ford is serving time. This is no revenge tale, though, as Ford's droopy dog character is perked up by interactions with Crawford's daughter, Dorothy Malone (before her vivacious Oscar-winning turn in Written on the Wind). In fact, these two films are oddly similar, with their wrongly convicted protagonists being confronted in prison by people from their courtroom pasts, and make for an interesting double feature. However, while the Ford-Crawford film will be coming to DVD in a couple of months as part of a TCM Vault Collection, Convicted Woman is one to watch for when it airs on TCM, usually during the morning hours.
I'm familiar with Anthony Mann's films noir, but his westerns are new to me. They have always intrigued me because of their casting Jimmy Stewart, light years from his Capra days, as angry wanderers with a dark side. Sony's on-demand movie channel is where I finally caught up with The Man from Laramie (1955), and if this is what all Mann's westerns are like, I am in for a viewing binge. Stewart is Will Lockhart, a man with a mission, namely to find the villain who was behind an Apache attack that killed his brother outside of a town run by the Waggoman family. The Waggoman family patriarch, Alec (Donald Crisp), is having trouble with his hot-headed egotistical son Dave (Alex Nicol) and his ranch's foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy), who believes the ranch will be his when Alec passes on. At 104 minutes, the pacing is quick, the emotions highly volatile, and photography, sound, and editing top-notch. It's a pleasant surprise to see Aline MacMahon, a character actress extraordinaire in the 1930s (see Life Begins above), as a fierce female owner of a neighboring ranch with a romantic past involving Waggoman. It's high time to check out the rest of Mann's work.

International Exploitation:
The sequel to a low-budget Mexican superhero flick, based on a popular comic book series, Kaliman and the Sinister World of Humanon (1976) is a cheap gaudy delight. Kaliman and his pipsqueak child sidekick Solin are invited to Brazil to speak at a convention (the subject? who knows), but learn that a series of murders of scientists in the area is connected to a mysterious super villain, Humanon, who hides out in the jungle with a comic relief dwarf assistant. Most of the film takes place in the wilderness, with goofy wannabe kung fu fight scenes clashing with "cute" moments of Solin playing with his adopted monkey pal. Oh yeah and the female love interest is some kind of Muslim hybrid who must hide her face "because of her religion" but can still go to the beach in a revealing bikini. When Kaliman reveals his sinister work reanimating the dead and creating monsters, the film kicks into high gear and never lets up. Tremendous fun, which is all you can ask for from any exploitation film. This is a prime candidate for Mondo Macabro treatment, if that company is still around...

Of the surprisingly lucrative European exploitation subgenre of Nazisploitation, it may be difficult to pick the most unbelievably tasteless entry. I submit Liebes Lager (1976), a black comedy (yes, that's right) set in a Nazi concentration camp for political prisoners. "Hogan's Heroes" this ain't. There are hangings, rapes, murders, and an almost Animal House-esque scheme to pimp out female prisoners to paying officers as a way to earn money to escape the Allies when the inevitable end of the war comes knocking at the gates of the camp. It's an uneasy mix of gallows humor (in several scenes, literally), Nazi violence, and, believe it or not, sociopolitical commentary that is very difficult to see, but worth the search. It showed up in Italian TV at some point and that is the version that has been making the rounds over the years. If you're a member of Cinemageddon, some kind soul there added subtitles to it.

With a sizable cult following, Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass (1970) is perhaps most notorious for footage that is often cut in video versions: a vicious rape of mother and daughter by bikers and a live childbirth. If that perks your ears up, this movie is for you. Wilde revisits the post-apocalyptic themes found in fellow actor Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero! (1962), but with much more liberal doses of sex and violence, as well as a bleak vicious streak familiar from other films of the Vietnam era. An architect and his family, including neurotic wife, virginal teen daughter (future Mrs. Peter Sellers Lynne Frederick), and adolescent son, flee from the city during a worldwide food epidemic and pick up an irritable gunman and a gaggle of other survivors en route to a family estate in Scotland. The editing is awkward (and in some spots obviously inspired by the flash-forward moments in Easy Rider), the performances and characterizations inconsistent, and the message heavy-handed, but Hell if this isn't one of the best modern science fiction action films.

Other Favorites of January:
Cleanflix (2009)
Pitch Perfect (2012)
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (review here)

Le magnifique (1973) [Sure I would have loved this better in French with subs vs. the English dub I saw]

The Abduction of Kari Swenson (1987)
Adventure in Baltimore (1949)
Arizona (1931)
The Betrayal (1957)
Beverly Hills Vamp (1989)
Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Blood on My Shoes (1983)
Born Reckless (1938)
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)
California Split (1974)
Chain Lightning (1950)
The Connection (1962)
Cry Danger (1951)
Cry Tough (1959)
Danger Route (1968)
The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960)
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966)
Deep Space (1988)
The Devil's Bed (1978)
The Devil's Eight (1968)
Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970)
Fanfare for a Death Scene (1964) 
5 Against the House (1955)
Five Golden Dragons (1967)
The Flight That Disappeared (1961)
The Frisco Kid (1935) 
From Headquarters (1933)
Gaily, Gaily (1969)
Girls Town (1996)
Greetings (1968)
The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957) 
Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) 
How to Score with Chicks (1994)
Hong Kong Emmanuelle (1977)
Hot Rod Gang (1958)
Hyena in the Safe (Una iena in cassaforte) (1968)
I Escaped from Devil's Island (1973)
The Idol (1966)
The Immortalizer (1990)
Is There Anybody There? (1975)
Kaleidoscope (1966)
The Killer is Still Among Us (1986)
Lady in a Corner (1989)
Land Raiders (1969)
The League of Gentlemen (1960)
Legion of the Nile (1959)
Lost Flight (1970)
Midnight Mary (1933)
Mixed Company (1974)
Monique (1970)
Moonfire (1970)
The Mudlark (1950)
The Murder Clinic (1966)
Mutiny in Outer Space (1965)
Naked Over the Fence (1973)
The Neon Ceiling (1971)
New Prison Walls of Abashiri 3 (1969)
Night of the Scarecrow (1995)
The Obscene Mirror (1973)
Ocean's Eleven (1960)
Oh Those Nurses! (1982) [adult]
Once Upon a Spy (1980)
Parents (1989)
Pleasure Island (1975) [adult]
Possessed (1983)
The Prime Minister (1941)
The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960)
Pull My Daisy (1959) 
The Racketeer (1929)
Revolt of the Zombies (1936)
Riffraff (1936)
The Rites of Fall (1989) [gay adult]
Rottweiler: Dogs of Hell (1982)
The Ruling Voice (1931)
The Scarf (1951)
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)
Sexsations (1984) [adult]
Shopworn (1932)
The Spooky Bunch (1980)
Teenage Cowgirls (1973) [adult]
Ten Cents a Dance (1931)
Tenth Avenue Angel (1948)
That's Adultery (1975)
They Call It Sin (1932)
The Thief (1952)
Tiger Shark (1932)
U.N.C.U.T. Club of Los Angeles (1986) [gay adult]
The Unnamable (1988)
The Vampire's Ghost (1945) 
Ways to Strength and Beauty (1925)
The Witness Chair (1936)

1 comment:

  1. Awesome write ups, Casey! I love the eclectic mix and the reviews of the precode films (a time period I still haven't fully gotten into). Plus, any list that has BEVERLY HILLS VAMP on it along earns my seal of approval.

    PS: If VJ is one of your favorite blogs, you need to read more blogs! ;-)