Saturday, May 27, 2023

#2,911. Stripped to Kill (1987) - Thrillers of the '80s and '90s


When you see Roger Corman’s name attached to a movie titled Stripped to Kill, you have a pretty good idea what to expect. Yet even by the legendary producer’s standards, this 1987 film has a lot of nudity! I didn’t pull out a stopwatch, but I’m guessing more than a third of its runtime is dedicated to watching strippers strut their stuff.

To investigate the recent murder of a stripper named Angel (Michelle Foreman), detective Cody Sheehan (Kay Lenz) goes undercover, posing as Sunny, an amateur stripper. Cody lands a job at the Rock Bottom, a dingy dive owned and operated by Ray (Normal Fell). The dead girl worked at this very club, and before long another of the Rock Bottom’s dancers is also murdered.

As Cody’s partner, Heneman (Greg Evigan), continues the investigation on the outside, with suspicions falling on “Mr. Pocket” (Peter Scranton), one of the club’s creepy regulars, Cody befriends Roxanne (Pia Kamakahi), Angel’s lover, who herself may be hiding a secret or two.

Kay Lenz delivers an exceptional performance as the undercover cop turned stripper, as does Evigan as her partner. The two have a definite chemistry, even if the film has no idea how to handle their relationship (they go from antagonistic one minute to cozy and familiar the next). There is an underlying sexual energy between the two that occasionally rises to the surface, only to retreat again for no real reason.

The dancers at the Rock Bottom, including Athena Worthey as Zeena, Caryle Byron as Cinnamon, and Debbie Nassar as Dazzle, are also quite good, both when on-stage (their acts are damn creative) and backstage, while Pia Kamakahi shines in what proves to be a very difficult role. As for the violence, Stripped to Kill isn’t overly bloody, but the killings it does show are fairly intense, especially Angel’s (she is pushed off a bridge, and as she lays bleeding on the concrete the killer douses her with gasoline).

Unfortunately, the film’s story is often forced into the background by the strip routines. We get one during the opening credits, and at what seems like 5-minute intervals from that point forward. Even the tense finale, when Cody is on the run from the killer, has a few moments with a stripper edited into it.

Flashy and sexy, Stripped to Kill has its charms (from an ‘80s perspective, anyway. Audience members with modern sensibilities will likely cringe at some of what transpires). I recommend a viewing, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering if you are watching a crime / thriller or a strip show that occasionally pauses to try and tell a story.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 20, 2023

#2,910. Heroes for Sale (1933) - The Films of William A. Wellman


I thought I had William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale pegged in its opening scenes, which are set during World War I. Soldier Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) is ordered by his superior and good friend (in both civilian life and the trenches) Roger Winston (Gordon Westcott) to accompany him, as well as a few other troops, on what appears to be a suicide mission: an assault on a German machine gun nest.

Tom and Roger are to lead the frontal assault, but once they crawl into no-man’s land, Roger chickens out and refuses to budge from the safety of their foxhole.

Left on his own, Tom moves forward, destroys the machine gun with a grenade, and even manages to take a German prisoner. Unfortunately, while returning to the foxhole, Tom is shot in the back. A wounded Tom tosses the prisoner in next to Roger, informs his friend that he’s a goner, and tells Roger to make sure the prisoner is delivered to their commanding officer.

Though ashamed of his cowardice, Roger is declared a hero. Roger knows it was his now-deceased friend who is the true hero, yet takes the credit for it anyway.

But, miracle of miracles, Tom is not dead! The bullet lodged in his back, he is taken prisoner by the German Army, who put him in a hospital tent, where his wound is treated. When, some time later, the armistice is signed, Tom is returned to the U.S. front lines. On a boat home, Tom meets Roger, who is surprised his pal is still alive, and confesses everything. No matter, says Tom, and tells Roger to continue playing the hero.

Back in their home town, Roger, son of a prestigious banker (Berton Churchill), is given a hero’s welcome, while Tom has a cozy but affectionate reunion with his widowed mother (Margaret Seddon). But Tom received more than a wound in the back during the war; the German doctor who treated him also informed Tom that there is still metal shrapnel very close to his spinal cord, and gave him a bottle of morphine to ease the pain. Now working in the very bank controlled by Roger and his father, Tom has developed a Morphine addiction, which is affecting his job performance. Though Roger pleads for his buddy once the addiction is made public, his father fires Tom and reports him to the authorities, who lock Tom away in an asylum for treatment.

This entire ordeal had me thinking about another film released that same year, Gold Diggers of 1933, specifically the musical number “Remember My Forgotten Man”, in which Joan Blondell relates the plight of the returning soldier, and how America seems to have forgotten their sacrifices. With its opening scenes, and a title like Heroes for Sale, I figured this is exactly the topic Wellman’s movie was going to tackle as well.

Boy, was I wrong!

This is not a movie about society ignoring veterans of World War I, or at least it's not entirely about that. Tom not only recovers from his morphine addiction, but also moves to Chicago and takes an apartment above a soup kitchen operated by Mary Dennis (Aline MacMahon) and her kindly father (Charles Grapewin, aka Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in 1939's The Wizard of Oz). Tom also meets and falls in love with fellow tenant Mary (Loretta Young), who gets Tom a job at the laundry service where she works.

Tom quickly becomes a star employee and moves up the ranks, even helping the laundry's owner Mr. Gibson (Grant Mitchell) automate his service using an invention developed by his neighbor Max (Robert Barrat), a self-proclaimed Communist sympathizer.

I don’t want to go any further into the film’s plot… I feel I may have revealed too much already. But rest assured that all of the above happens before the movie’s halfway point!

Heroes for Sale is, indeed, about veterans returning home, but it is also about capitalism and greed. It is about drug addiction, wrongful imprisonment, workers riots, the Red Scare (decades before McCarthy), and, eventually, the great depression. It is a movie about America, a glimpse at 14-15 years of a man’s life, and how a changing country affected him, both for the better and the worse. As Tom, the protagonist forced to endure all the turmoil, Richard Barthelmess delivers a strong performance. We feel his defeats, we cheer for his successes, and the actor’s work is a big reason why.

But the real stars of Heroes for Sale are director William Wellman and writers Robert Lord and William Mizner, who have seemingly done the impossible. They made a film that plays like a big-screen epic, a snapshot of American history every bit as grand as How the West Was Won or Saving Private Ryan, and squeezed it into a motion picture that runs for only 76 God-damn minutes!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 13, 2023

#2,909. Wild Boys of the Road (1933) - The Films of William A. Wellman


In the DVD commentary for Wild Boys of the Road, William A. Wellman, Jr., son of the film’s director, said his father considered this 1933 movie one of the ten best he ever made. Now, I haven’t seen enough of Wellman’s work to make a similar claim, but what I can say is that this movie is something special.

As the film opens, high school buddies Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) are escorting their dates to a dance. When Tommy is caught sneaking in without paying, they all decide to leave. Later that night, Eddie learns that Tommy’s mother hasn’t been working, and money is tight. So, Eddie agrees to talk to his father (Grant Mitchell) about finding Tommy a job.

But when Eddie returns home, le learns that his dad has been laid off, and they have to cut back. To help out, Eddie sells his beloved car, but as the weeks drag on, both Eddie and Tommy decide to try their luck at finding work in another town, in part because it would mean one less mouth for their folks to feed. Once they land a job, they will send money home to help out.

After sneaking aboard a freight train heading east, they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan), a fellow teen who is headed to Chicago to live with her aunt. Before long, Eddie, Tommy, and Sally are part of an entire gang of kids, all of whom hang out in railway yards in the hopes of hopping a train without drawing attention to themselves. Harassed at almost every stop by the railroad police, the kids do what they can to keep moving, all the while believing the next town will be better.

A freak accident that eventually cripples one of their number leads the kids to set up their own town in an abandoned steam pipe yard. But how long will the authorities allow them to stay there?

This won’t be the last stop for Eddie, Tommy, or Sally, or for any of the kids, and one of the best things about Wild Boys of the Road is how wonderfully director Wellman and screenwriter Earl Baldwin (who was inspired by Daniel Ahem’s book Desperate Youth) bring us into the world of these youngsters. At the start, Eddie and Tommy are regular high schoolers from an average middle class town. Eddie is particularly bright and intuitive; upon learning that his dad is out of work, he convinces his mother (Claire McDowell) to cancel the new suit they ordered for him because he “didn’t want it anyway”. The scene where Eddie sells his car is especially moving, and leads to a touching moment between he and his father. All of the young actors deliver fine performances, but Darro stands above them all, and it isn’t hard to figure out why the “Wild Boys” look to Eddie as their spiritual leader.

As touching as the early scenes are, the rest of Wild Boys of the Road is difficult to sit through, as the gang (which includes a young Sterling Holloway) continually heads east, all the while drawing the ire of the railroad workers. A scene where the kids finally realize they outnumber the workers and fight back is particularly satisfying. Of course, this is one of the few high points; a scene in which a character is injured is jarring, to say the least, as in one where another girl is raped by a railroad worker.

The film’s final 5-10 minutes may come off as schmaltzy to some viewers, wrapping things up a little too neatly, but having spent time with these kids on their journey, I couldn’t help but smile, and might have even shed a tear or two in these closing minutes.

I know William Wellman has directed some classics over the years, and what I’ve seen from his filmography I have enjoyed, from the silent Best Picture winner Wings to Cagney’s star-making movie The Public Enemy, and from Beau Geste to The Ox-Bow Incident. I hope to see a lot more of his work in the coming years. That said, regardless of how strong any future film might be, it will have to go a long way to bump Wild Boys of the Road from my top 10 Wellman list!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 6, 2023

#2,908. Safe in Hell (1931) - The Films of William A. Wellman


Plenty of pre-code films pushed the envelope, but director William Wellman’s Safe in Hell is a particularly nasty little movie.

In the opening scene, we meet the lead character Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a New Orleans prostitute who, after a call from her Madame, throws on a slinky dress and heads out to meet her next “client”. To Gilda’s surprise, her “date” for the evening is Piet (Ralf Harolde), a former employer who had forced himself on her. Piet is a married man, and when his wife found out what happened, she not only blamed Gilda, but made the poor girl’s life a living hell from that point on.

Naturally, Gilda wants nothing to do with Piet, and when he grabs her, she breaks free, throws a bottle at him, and believes she has killed him (the incident also sparks a fire, which burns down the hotel). Now wanted for murder, Gilda is shuttled out of the country by her sailor fiancé Carl (Donald Cook), who stows her away on his ship and drops her off on the island of Tortuga, the only place in the world that doesn’t have extradition laws.

Naturally, being a safe haven for fugitives, poor Gilda must share a hotel with some pretty shady characters, all of whom intend to cozy up to their pretty new “neighbor”. Carl pays for one month’s rent and hands Gilda enough cash to live on, then hops back on his ship, promising he will send more money as soon as possible.

Alone and surrounded by a bunch of horny criminals, Gilda spends her days shacked up in her room, with only the hotel’s employees, Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and Newcastle (Clarence Muse), tending to her needs. Weeks pass, and Gilda, who hasn’t heard from Carl, goes a little stir crazy.

But she has bigger problems: Gilda has also drawn the attention of Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace), the local jailer, who has taken a keen interest in the island’s prettiest resident. But that’s nothing compared to the surprise she receives when the hotel’s newest occupant / criminal on the run checks in!

Can Gilda stay out of trouble long enough for Carl to return, or will the island’s misfits get the better of her?

It’s a sordid tale, yet is bolstered by the fine performance of Mackaill as Gilda, the fallen woman who, whenever she tries to pull herself out of the muck, seems to get dragged down into it again. We feel for her throughout the movie, and we root for Gilda and Carl (also well played by Cook) to somehow live happily ever after.

Alas, the story is not on their side. Gilda is constantly hounded by the men on Tortuga, all of whom lust after her. Try as she might to fend them off, they never give up, with Mr. Bruno being the most dangerous of the bunch. As the jailer, he attempts to frame Gilda for a crime that will keep her behind bars for six months, with the intention of keeping her safe and comfortable in exchange for certain “favors”.

Under the crisp direction of Wellman, Safe in Hell features a number of twists in the final act that will keep audiences on their toes, never quite sure which direction the story will go, or how the film will end (the conclusion turns out to be the biggest surprise of them all).

I always marvel at how far some of these pre-code films go, taunting the censors with steamy tales and characters of questionable morals (in a nice twist, two of the most likable supporting characters in Safe in Hell are played by African-Americans McKinney and Muse, who avoid stereotypes that were prevalent at the time to deliver heartfelt turns as Gilda’s only friends on Tortuga). Yet even by pre-code standards, Safe in Hell manages to shock the hell out of us!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, April 29, 2023

#2,907. The Long Ships (1964) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends


Inspired by the success of 1958’s The Vikings, and with Jack Cardiff, the cinematographer of that earlier classic, assuming directing duties, producer Irving Allen’s The Long Ships is one of the damnedest epics I have ever seen.

Shot in Yugoslavia on the cheap, the film nonetheless has the feel of a big-budget adventure, with quite a cast to support it. But there are moments of comedic chaos tossed into the mix that feel more like Benny Hill than Ben-Hur!

Loosely based on a best-selling Swedish novel of the same name, The Long Ships centers on a Viking named Rolfe (Richard Widmark), who is not above lying and cheating to get what he wants. After losing his ship and entire crew in a storm, he is rescued by monks, who nurse him back to health. While there, he is reminded of a fable from his childhood, about a solid-gold bell several stories high, one so big and so loud, it was dubbed the “Mother of Voices”. What’s more, Rolfe discovers that the fable might be more than a tall story.

Unable to return North, he attempts to impress the local Muslims in a Moorish city with stories about the bell, only to draw the attention of King Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), who has made it his life’s goal to find and possess the bell. He holds Rolfe prisoner, demanding he reveal the location of the bell.

Rolfe manages to escape and somehow swim home. He is chastised by his father Krok (Oscar Homolka) for losing his boat and crew, especially since Krok recently put all his money into building a funeral ship for King Harald (Clifford Evans), only to be swindled during the negotiation (the King paid exactly two gold pieces for it).

Convincing both his father and younger brother Orm (Russ Tamblyn) that the bell is real, Rolfe devises a plan to steal the King’s funeral boat, kidnap his daughter, Princess Gerda (Beba Loncar), and, with a hastily-raised crew, sail off in search of the fabled bell.

Alas, their journey carries them into Moorish territory, where Rolfe once again encounters Aly Mansuh. Despite the protests of his main wife Aminah (Rosanna Schiaffino), Mansuh is as determined as ever to locate the bell, and will use Rolfe and his Viking crew to find it.

That’s a pretty involved, even wild story right there, but that’s not the half of it! There are a handful of well-staged battle scenes (one set on a beach is especially exciting); a few storms at sea (not the greatest miniature effects, if I’m being honest, but far from the worst); a wild Viking party with plenty of ale and scantily-clad serving wenches; and a scene in which Rolfe’s Viking crew assaults King Mansuh’s harem! This last sequence is especially bizarre and over-the-top, with comedy so broad it reminded me of the Busby Berkeley-inspired fight scene at the end of Blazing Saddles!

If The Long Ships has one problem, this is it. Tonally, it is all over the place. Widmark plays Rolfe in a light-hearted manner, proving him a liar, a swindler, and a con artist every chance he gets, only to get deadly serious in a pretty intense scene, where he is breaking a “curse” that has frightened his crew. Sidney Poitier and Russ Tamblyn seem to be taking it seriously, while Oskar Homolka’s turn as Krok was played almost entirely for laughs (especially prevalent in the final act).

That said, I had a lot of fun watching The Long Ships, and enjoyed how many times the movie surprised the hell out of me. Seriously, I don’t know how they got away with some of this in 1964!
Rating: 7 out of 10

Saturday, April 22, 2023

#2,906. Trancers (1984) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends


Charles Band, the creative force behind Full Moon Productions (Puppet Master, Subspecies), has, throughout his career, conjured up some fascinating cinematic worlds, and nowhere was this talent more evident than in his sci-fi action movie Trancers, which Band himself directed.

This 1984 film opens in the future, the year 2247. Trooper Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) has been on a one-man crusade to wipe out “Trancers”, beings who look like you and I, but are under the control of a ruthless criminal named Whistler, who is intent on taking over “new” Los Angeles (the old city flooded long ago, and is now submerged in the Pacific Ocean).

Deth assumed he had killed Whistler some time back, and quit the force so he could continue to hunt the remaining Trancers (one of whom murdered Deth’s wife). But he is informed by his old boss, Chief McNulty (Art LaFleur), that Whistler survived, and has traveled “down the line”, back to 1985, where he intends to wipe out the ancestors of the current city’s ruling council (played by Richard Herd and Anne Seymour), thus preventing them from ever being born. Ordered to protect Whistler’s intended victims at all cost, Deth is sent to 1985 as well.

And here is where the movie reveals a very cool concept, one of the most fascinating I have ever seen in a time travel film. In order to exist in 1985, Deth must inhabit the body of one of his own ancestors, taking over their consciousness to carry out his mission!

His particular ancestor is a photographer, and with the help of some cool gadgets beamed to him from the future, Deth teams up with his however-many-great-granddaddy’s teenage girlfriend Leena (Helen Hunt) to track down the council’s ancestors and protect them.

But it won’t be easy: Whistler’s ancestor, and the man whose consciousness he now controls, is well-respected L.A. police detective Weisling (Michael Stefani)!

As I said, that’s one of the coolest time travel concepts I’ve ever seen, yet it’s just one of several attributes that make Trancers such a fun movie. Thomerson is perfectly cast as the tough-as-nails Deth, a throwback to the grizzled lawmen of film noir with a bit of Dirty Harry thrown in for good measure (he takes some pretty extreme measures right off the bat to ensure Whistler will never return to the future). Helen Hunt is also quite good as Leena, who, once she realizes what is actually going on, becomes Deth’s perfect ally / love interest.

Along with the way the film handles leaping through time, the Trancers themselves (who, once their identity is blown, look and act like zombies that can talk and even reason) are formidable foes. The opening scene, a surprisingly violent showdown between Deth and a Trancer set inside a 23rd century diner, is matched only by a 20th century battle in a shopping mall (it’s as funny as it is tense). Then there’s Deth’s wristwatch, which can slow down time, stretching one second for everyone else into 10 seconds for him. The world still moves at a regular pace, but Deth’s actions are sped up, allowing him to escape a dangerous situation, but only once (the watch disintegrates after use). The pace of Trancers is also perfect, with its 76-minute runtime feeling half that long.

From the sci-fi complexities of Dollman to the bad-ass fantasy of Doctor Mordrid, Band and his team know how to create an engaging world, then flesh it out with interesting characters and a damn fine story. Trancers is his masterpiece.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, April 15, 2023

#2,905. Rough Night in Jericho (1967) - Quentin Tarantino Recommends


Dean Martin is a total prick in director Arnold Laven’s 1967 western Rough Night in Jericho.

Starring as Alex Flood, a former lawman who has set himself up as the boss of the town of Jericho, Martin plays against type, and is downright ruthless in the film. It’s to his credit, though, that, even when we hate what his character is doing, the famous crooner still brings enough charisma to the part that we can’t take our eyes off of him.

Backed by his hired guns, including Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Flood rules Jericho with an iron fist, and prides himself on owning 51% of damn near every business in town.

Fed up with Flood’s reign of terror, longtime resident Molly (Jean Simmons) writes to retired sheriff Ben Hickman (John McIntire) and his former deputy Dolan (George Peppard), asking for their help. Unfortunately, Hickman is shot and injured (by Flood) on his way to Jericho, leaving Dolan to assess the situation on his own.

Unlike Hickman, Dolan doesn’t seem interested in taking on Flood or bringing down his empire. But when he falls for Molly (who is also a former lover of Flood’s), the callous deputy may just change his mind.

While it has the look and feel of a classic Hollywood western, Rough Night in Jericho is a lot more violent than many of its predecessors. In the opening scene, before he ever says a word, we watch Flood ambush the stagecoach carrying Ben Hickman to town, shooting the unsuspecting lawman in the leg from a few hundred yards away.

Immediately after this, Yarbrough informs Flood (who just arrived back in Jericho) that one of their hired guns was killed by a shop owner. The merchant did it in self-defense (the gunman was roughing him up at the time), but Flood and his men march on the jail anyway, where the shopkeeper is being held, and demand that deputy Jace (Don Galloway) turn him over. When Jace refuses, Flood orders one of his lackeys to climb onto the roof with some dynamite, and tells the deputy he will blow the jailhouse sky high. Jace backs down, and the store owner is lynched.

It’s a brutal opening few scenes, but the violence only escalates from there. At one point, Dolan and Yarbrough get into a fistfight that is positively vicious; and one poor guy even gets a shotgun blast to the face… at close range!

I’m not going to say that Dean Martin gives his strongest performance as Alex Flood. There are times he seems to be phoning it in. Still, his character is the film’s most interesting. We may not like him (we don’t, actually), but damned if he isn’t a lot of fun to watch. A scene in which Flood and Dolan are playing cards is especially engaging.

Peppard and Simmons fare better, delivering solid performances. Simmons is especially outstanding as the iron-willed Molly, a widow who isn’t afraid to stand up to Flood. She was the only one, in fact, who tried to prevent the shopkeeper’s lynching. Slim Pickens is also good as Yarbrough, Flood’s second-in-command and a guy who is pretty handy with a bullwhip, while McIntire is appropriately grizzled as the aged lawman trying to help Jericho out of a jam.

A movie with the look and feel of a 1950s western that takes a very late ‘60s approach to its story, Rough Night in Jericho is a winner through and through.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10