Sunday, July 30, 2017

#2,397. Beauty Parlor (1932)

Directed By: Richard Thorpe

Starring: Barbara Kent, Joyce Compton, John Harron

Trivia: For a time, this film was considered "lost"

The setting is a barber shop, situated on the ground floor of a swanky hotel. An elderly customer, Mr. Burke (Albert Gran), tells Sally (Barbara Kent) the manicurist that she’s looking good. Sally immediately zips up her blouse, covering her cleavage (which Burke was clearly staring at) and says, sarcastically, “Thank you”. The barber then asks a now-nervous Burke if he’d like a hot towel. Better make it a cold one, Burke says. Then, looking at Sally again, he adds “a very cold one”. 

Based on the above scene (which opens the film), it’s obvious that 1932’s Beauty Parlor is going to be yet another bawdy pre-code drama / romance. Too bad it’s not a very good one.

Sally and her best friend / roommate Joan (Joyce Compton) work for the same barber shop. Sally is happy to have the job, even if it means she has to fight off guys like Burke (who proposes marriage every time they meet). Jeffrey Colt (John Harron) is another of Sally’s amorous customers, and even though she kind of fancies him as well, she knows better than to mix business with pleasure. 

As for Joan, she’s tired of being a manicurist. So, when one of her clients, John Fremont (Wheeler Oakman), offers her a higher-paying job, she quickly accepts. Though happy for Joan, Sally and their other roommate Lou (Betty Mack) have their doubts about Mr. Fremont, especially when Joan tells them he’ll be paying her $75 a week just to “hang out” with rich, older men.

Sally’s fears are soon confirmed: Joan’s new job is, indeed, too good to be true, and before long she’s in trouble with the law. Though she desperately wants to help Joan, Sally knows that doing so may require her to cozy up to Mr. Burke in ways she swore she never would.

Story-wise, Beauty Parlor is a little dull; even the later scenes set inside a jailhouse fail to generate excitement. The film’s biggest problem, though, is in the acting department. Most of the performances are mediocre, to say the least, but the movie’s star, Barbara Kent, is downright awful (she often delivers her lines as if she was reading them for the first time). 

With no real tension or drama to speak of, and a lead actress who just doesn’t seem to care, Beauty Parlor is one of the few pre-code films I’ve seen that falls flat on its face.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

#2,396. Ex-Lady (1933)

Directed By: Robert Florey

Starring: Bette Davis, Gene Raymond, Frank McHugh

Tag line: "So frank . . so outspoken... so true..."

Trivia: A scene from this film was featured early on in 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

After playing minor characters in such pre-code dramas as Waterloo Bridge and Three on a Match, Bette Davis finally stepped into in the spotlight with 1933’s Ex-Lady, a movie that takes more than a few jabs at the institution of marriage.

Helen Bauer (Davis), one of New York’s most prestigious fashion artists, enjoys her independence, and has stated on many occasions that she has no desire to be tied down to one man. Initially, Helen’s steady boyfriend, advertising executive Don Peterson (Gene Raymond), said he felt the same way about marriage, but has recently had a change of heart, and wants Helen to become his wife. At first she refuses, but after realizing she too is deeply in love with Don, Helen says “yes”, and the two are married.

But it isn’t long before Helen’s worst fears are coming true, and she and Don are dealing with problems they never experienced before, including money issues, jealousy, and even infidelity. All at once, Helen and Don realize they made a mistake, but can they return to the way things used to be, or has marriage ruined their relationship forever?

With Ex-Lady, Bette Davis got a chance to show Hollywood what she could do with a lead role, and she’s entirely convincing as the confident Helen, a woman who wants her freedom, yet is willing to risk it for love. As for the men in Helen’s life, Gene Raymond is strong as Don, while Monroe Owsley has some good scenes as playboy Nick Malvyn, who tries on several occasions to lure Helen into his bed. Also interesting in supporting roles are Frank McHugh and Claire Dodd as Hugo and Iris Van Hugh, one of the few married couples in Helen’s circle of friends (Iris is unhappy because her husband takes her for granted, and she even flirts openly with a man just to get Hugo’s attention).

Though tame when compared to other pre-code films (the sexual innuendo is kept to a minimum), Ex-Lady does feature scenes that insinuate both premarital and extramarital sex. That said, the movie’s most heinous violation of the Hays Code is its rather frank assertion that marriage is the end of romantic love. “The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld”, the code states, and from its opening scene Ex-Lady doesn’t just challenge the “sanctity” of marriage; it stomps it into the dirt! Early on, when Helen’s father (played by Alphonse Ethier) barges into her apartment and confronts Don for spending the night with his daughter, Helen stands her ground, telling dear old dad that two people in love don’t need a license to tell them it’s OK to be together. As if to prove this theory, Ex-Lady then reveals what happens when Helen and Don do tie the knot, and from day one it changes their relationship for the worse (even taking a honeymoon leads to marital strife).

While its stance against marriage does get a bit heavy-handed at times, Ex-Lady is solid enough to warrant some attention, and is a movie that every Bette Davis aficionado will want to add to their queue.

Friday, July 28, 2017

#2,395. Secrets of the French Police (1932)

Directed By: A. Edward Sutherland

Starring: Gwili Andre, Gregory Ratoff, Frank Morgan

Tagline: "This marble image that was once a living form"

Trivia: This film re-used some of the sets from RKO's The Most Dangerous Game

Here’s a hidden gem for you: 1932’s Secrets of the French Police, a murder mystery peppered with a dash of political intrigue that is also, at times, quite brutal.

Inspector François St. Cyr (Frank Morgan) of the Sûreté has been assigned to track down the killer of a fellow officer named Danton. The case takes an unexpected turn, however, when a former associate of Danton’s, Anton Dorian (Christian Rub), is also murdered, and Dorian’s adopted daughter Eugenie (Gwili Andre), a twentysomething flower girl, is nowhere to be found. Eugenie’s boyfriend, petty thief Leon Renault (John Warburton), is enlisted to help St. Cyr locate the young woman, who may very well be able to identify her father’s killer.

Meanwhile, General Han Moloff (Gregory Ratoff), a Russian émigré currently residing in Paris, is claiming that he’s found the Princess Anastasia, daughter of the late Czar Nicholas (who was shot dead during the Bolshevik Revolution). As Moloff tries to convince the world that his new protégé is, in fact, the rightful heir to the Russian Monarchy, St. Cyr and Renault are intrigued by reports that the long lost Princess bears a striking resemblance to Eugenie, their missing flower girl!

Frank Morgan, best known to audiences as the title character in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, is quite good as the mostly-serious Inspector (he lets his comedic side shine through, albeit briefly, when posing as a drunk buying cigarettes, but other than that his St. Cyr is all business), and John Warburton makes for a likable crook (his Renault is a patriotic thief: he steals only from foreigners, never his fellow Frenchmen). The most memorable personality in Secrets of the French Police, however, is undoubtedly Moloff, the sinister Russian General whose methods are… shall we say… a bit extreme (at one point he even encases a former accomplice in plaster, then places her among the statues that adorn his Paris residence).

While most of the violence in Secrets of the French Police occurs off-screen, the bodies of the murder victims discovered by the police are often described in graphic detail (According to St. Cyr, Anton Dorian’s death was caused by a severed windpipe, while another corpse found floating in the river couldn’t be identified because its face had been smashed in). The most shocking scene, however, comes late in the film, and involves a car crash that kills a driver and two passengers (a scene staged incredibly well by director A. Edward Sutherland).

A smartly-written pre-code motion picture that moves along at a brisk pace, Secrets of the French Police might be a movie you’ve never heard of, but it’s also one you won’t want to miss.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

#2,394. The Sin of Nora Moran (1933)

Directed By: Phil Goldstone

Starring: Zita Johann, John Miljan, Alan Dinehart

Tag line: "Straight to every woman's heart!"

Trivia: The movie's poster, by Alberto Vargas, was #2 of "The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever" by Premiere

I’ve talked about “pre-code” movies before, but for those who aren’t familiar with this era of filmmaking, here’s a (very) brief history:

Following a series of scandals that rocked Hollywood in the 1920s (from the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle murder trial to Clara Bow’s alleged sexual promiscuity), the studios tried to regain the trust of the American people by implementing the Hays Code. Named after Will Hays, former Postmaster General of the U.S. and the man hired by the studios to be their “moral compass”, the code was a list of “dos” and “don’ts” that filmmakers were expected to follow. Under the code, sex, profanity, and violence were strictly forbidden, and there were even guidelines as to how groups like the police and the clergy could be depicted on film (other rules forbade things such as illegal drugs, white slavery, and scenes of actual childbirth).

But from the very start, there was no real power behind it; neither Hays nor his chief censors, Jason Joy or Dr. James Wingate (who were assigned the task of “enforcing” the code), could actually remove objectionable material from a motion picture. They simply “recommended” its removal to the studios, which often ignored their advice. Clearly, the powers-that-be saw the code as nothing more than a public relations ploy, a smokescreen designed to satiate those who feared the cinema was becoming a morally bankrupt form of entertainment. And, for a while, it worked: to forget (albeit temporarily) the hardships they endured as a result of the Great Depression, the public flocked to movie houses in large numbers, spending what little money they had on films that were as risqué as ever.

With no watchdog to keep them in line, the studios pretty much did what they wanted until July 1934, at which point everyone from the Catholic League of Decency to the federal government said “Enough is enough”. Threats of boycotts and government restrictions loomed heavy, forcing the studio bigwigs to finally bow to the pressure. As a result, every movie produced after July 1934 adhered to the code’s strict guidelines.

Yet despite Tinseltown’s rather shabby treatment of Will Hays and his code between the years of 1930 and 1934, this particular era turned out some of the most fascinating pictures ever to emerge from the studio system. It was during this 4-year span that genres such as horror (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man), the gangster film (Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Scarface), and musicals (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade) took Hollywood by storm, while sexually-charged movies like Red-Headed Woman and Three on a Match proved that audiences were still hungry for entertainment with an edge. From adventure (Tarzan the Ape Man) to religious epics (The Sign of the Cross) and so-called “message” films (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) to zany comedies (Duck Soup), the Pre-Code era was, in my opinion, the single most creative period in the history of the American cinema.

So over the course of the next week or so I’ll be delving into some of Pre-code’s lesser-known titles, movies that, for one reason or another, raised a few eyebrows when they were initially released, and the first film on the docket is the provocatively-titled 1933 drama The Sin of Nora Moran

Dancing girl and former circus performer Nora Moran (Zita Johann, who also played the apple of Boris Karloff’s eye in 1932’s The Mummy) is on death row, convicted of murder. Through a series of flashbacks, some of which are recounted by John Grant (Alan Dinehart), the District Attorney who put her away, we learn that Nora has led a miserable life: orphaned at an early age, she was adopted by a loving older couple (Otis Harlan and Aggie Herring), who were tragically killed in an auto accident eight years later. Following the advice of Father Ryan (Henry B. Walthall), Nora tries to make her own way in the world, yet her dreams of becoming a Broadway dancer are thwarted at every turn (mostly due to her lack of experience). The only job available is with the circus, which Nora quits soon after her boss, the lion-tamer Paulino (John Miljan), rapes her. 

Nora does eventually find work as a dancing girl, and before long meets the man of her dreams, Dick Crawford (Paul Cavanagh). Dick convinces Nora to move to the country, where he puts her up in a small house and visits her every Monday and Friday. But Nora’s happy world is turned upside-down when it’s revealed that Dick is actually a married man, and what’s more, he’s running for Governor! The very night she learns the truth about Dick, Nora gets into a fight with Paulino, who had forced his way back into her life. By the time the police arrive on the scene, Paulino is dead (Nora tells the cops that she hit him on the head with the butt end of a whip, a blow that supposedly killed Paulino outright). 

Found guilty of murder, Nora is sentenced to die in the electric chair. But is she truly a killer, or simply taking the fall for someone else? 

Produced by Larry Dalmour Productions, the same Poverty Row company that gave us 1933’s The Vampire Bat, The Sin of Nora Moran does tackle several issues that the code strictly forbade, including the positive portrayal of an extramarital affair (there’s no question that Nora and Dick are truly in love) and rape. The movie is also quite creative in the way it handles flashbacks, some of which are treated as if they were dream sequences (with Nora trying to change the very past that she’s re-living), and at a breezy 65 minutes the film moves along at a decent pace, keeping us engaged from start to finish. 

I did have issues with the ending (which is a bit too sappy) as well as the overall depiction of the title character (throughout the movie, Nora is portrayed as if she’s a saint, which makes her seem kinda bland at times). But on the whole, The Sin of Nora Moran is a fine example of a pre-code film, and features a story that undoubtedly gave poor Will Hays and his associates a few restless nights.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

#2,393. Hellblock 13 (1999)

Directed By: Paul Talbot

Starring: Gunnar Hansen, Debbie Rochon, Jon Miller

Tagline: "Once Inside You'll Pray For the Chair!"

Trivia: The original title, "Hellblock 666", was changed to Hellblock 13 because of the heavily Christian area the movie was being shot in

In most anthologies, the wraparound is there simply to ease the transition from one segment to the next. But in Troma’s 1999 horror compilation Hellblock 13, the wraparound is the best part of the whole damn film!

Serial Killer Tara (Debbie Rochon) is on death row, waiting for the Executioner (played by Gunner Hanson) to take her to the electric chair. To pass the time before the switch is thrown, Tara reads the Executioner a few of the short stories she wrote during her incarceration, tales of the macabre that she believes will one day make her as immortal as Poe and Lovecraft.

In the first (titled “Watery Grave”), a mother (Amy R. Swain), hoping to hold on to the new man in her life (Kirk Bair), drowns her two children, then tells the police they’ve been kidnapped. But the little tykes refuse to stay dead, and every night their bloated corpses rise from the lake, determined to take their revenge.

Next up is “White Trash Love Story”, about a battered wife (Jennifer Peluso) who’s tired of being her husband’s (David G. Holland) punching bag. To end her misery, she visits the elderly witch (Michael R. Smith) who lives across the street. Sure enough, the witch provides a spell that’ll cut the woman’s husband down to size. But if the wife isn’t careful, this spell might just backfire on her.

Finally, we have the tale of “Big Rhonda”, a biker chick who died years earlier and has since become a religious icon, worshipped by her former gang members. To initiate their newest recruit (Bill Kealey), the bikers make their way to the cemetery where Big Rhonda is buried and perform a ritual that is supposed to bring them good luck (for their upcoming drug run into Mexico). At first, the recruit doesn’t buy into all this hocus-pocus, but he has a change of heart when the spirit of Big Rhonda (J.J. North) pays him a visit during the night... 

Unmoved by her trio of horror fables, the Executioner informs Tara that, the minute she’s dead, he’s going to burn her notebook, thus ensuring nobody will ever read her work. But Tara has already taken steps to guarantee that both she and her stories will live forever.

Despite my rather bold statement concerning the wraparound, the three segments that make up the bulk of Hellblock 13 have their strengths as well. Though clearly inspired (at least in part) by the “Something to Tide You Over” sequence in 1982’s Creepshow, “Watery Grave” is genuinely scary, and “White Trash Love Story” features a respectable (at times even comedic) performance by Jennifer Peluso as the wife who’s been pushed too far. The most uneven of the three is “Big Rhonda”; I did like the nighttime ritual that the bikers performed in the graveyard (which began with them exhuming Big Rhonda’s rotting corpse), but the segment runs a tad long, and I saw the twist at the end coming from a mile away.

As for the wraparound, it works on just about every level; Debbie Rochon is excellent as the batshit crazy serial killer who is convinced her spooky yarns will make her a literary legend, and Gunner Hanson’s Executioner is the perfect foil for her delusions of grandeur. Also, the location chosen for this segment is as eerie as it is fitting (it was shot in an abandoned prison in South Carolina), and there are some decent special effects, not to mention a surprise or two that takes the story in a direction I wasn’t expecting.

On the whole, Hellblock 13 is an entertaining horror movie, and is worth a watch. But thanks to Rochon, Hanson, and company, it’s the wraparound that will linger in your mind well after the film is over.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

#2,392. The Monster that Challenged the World (1957)

Directed By: Arnold Laven

Starring: Tim Holt, Audrey Dalton, Hans Conried

Tagline: "Crawling up from the depths... to terrify and torture!"

Trivia: The majority of the underwater scenes were shot at Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles

The Monster that Challenged the World, a sci-fi / horror film directed by Arthur Laven, has the look and feel of a “B” picture (it was released as part of a double bill with 1957’s The Vampire). Yet thanks to an engaging story this movie manages to overcome the limitations of its budget, and, in the end, is a very entertaining creature feature.

Based on a story by David Duncan (who would later write the screenplays for The Time Machine and Fantastic Voyage), The Monster that Challenged the World is set in the Salton Sea area of California, and concerns the U.S. Navy’s battle with a group of underwater creatures, man-sized mollusks that act (and eat) like the common snail. 

Shortly after a minor earthquake rocks the coastline, a Navy skydiver, testing a new parachute, lands safely in the sea, and a boat, piloted by Seamen Johnson (Jody McCrae) and Sanders (William Swan), heads out to meet him. When Johnson and Sanders fail to report in, John Twillinger (Tim Holt), the hard-nosed Lt. Commander of a nearby Naval base (from which the parachute test originated), leads a rescue party to their last known coordinates. Once there, they find seaman Johnson dead aboard the vessel, and the remains of the parachutist floating in the water, looking as if all the blood had been drained from his body. Adding to the confusion is the appearance of a sticky substance on the side of the boat, which is taken to Dr. Jess Rogers (Hans Conried), head of the base’s research department, for analysis.

The next day, Commander Twillinger, along with Dr. Rogers, Sheriff Peters (Gordon Jones), and two of Rogers’ assistants, sail to the spot where the bodies were discovered. Rogers’ men dive to the bottom of the sea, and while there come across what looks to be a large, gelatinous sac, which is promptly pulled to the surface. Moments later, one of the divers, George Blake (Dennis McCarthy), is killed by a giant creature, which then attacks the others. Commander Twillinger fights it off, and they speed away to safety.

Based on his analysis of the substance recovered from the boat, as well as what he’s seen of the creature, Dr. Rogers is confident that they’re dealing with some sort of oversized mollusk, and that the sac they pulled up is actually one of the monster’s eggs. Dr. Rogers believes there are many more of these enormous snails (which can also live on land) down there, each capable of laying thousands of eggs, and if they aren’t destroyed soon they will overrun the entire area, and, eventually, the world.

With no time to lose, Twillinger, Rogers, and Sheriff Peters put every man they have on the case, hoping that they’ll uncover the mollusks’ secret lair before it’s too late.

As with many low-budget sci-fi movies produced during the 1950s, the creatures in The Monster that Challenged the World look a bit flimsy when in motion (i.e. – the attack on the boat carrying Commander Twillinger and the others). Yet , despite this, the giant mollusks still pose a convincing threat (there’s even a fairly effective jump scare involving one of the creatures). The film’s real strength, though, isn’t so much its monsters as it is the story that surrounds them. Tim Holt, a former cowboy star who also played Humphrey Bogart’s partner in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is quite good in the lead role, and the hunt that his character initiates to find these mammoth snails has its moments (especially later on, when the creatures make their way into a nearby canal system). Not even an out-of-place romantic subplot featuring Holt’s Commander Twillinger and widow Gail McKenzie (Audrey Dalton) is enough to sink this otherwise solid motion picture.

Though not as memorable as 1954’s Them! or ‘55s Tarantula, The Monster that Challenged the World is nonetheless one of the decade’s more intriguing monster movies.

Monday, July 24, 2017

#2,391. Sweet Georgia (1972)

Directed By: Edward Boles

Starring: Marsha Jordan, Barbara Mills, Gene Drew

Tagline: "She made plowboys into playboys!"

Trivia: In Belgium this film was released as The Passion Ranch

He was the Sultan of Sexploitation, the King of Camp. Whether producing his own films (The Dirty Mind of Young Sally, Rituals) or distributing foreign sleaze (The Sinful Dwarf), Harry H. Novak left an indelible mark on the world of exploitation cinema.

One particular subgenre that Novak helped create was “hicksploitation”, adult-themed movies (set in rural areas) that usually featured beautiful women getting it on with ugly slobs. Admittedly, I have very little experience with hicksploitation. In fact, 1971’s Sweet Georgia is the first of these films that I’ve actually seen.

And if it’s any indication of what I can expect from other movies of this ilk, it will probably be the last as well.

Georgia (Marsha Jordan) is married to the hard-drinking Big “T” (Gene Drew), but that doesn’t stop her from sleeping with their live-in handyman Cal (Chuck Lawson) or the dim-witted cowhand Le Roy (Bill King Jr.). Virginia (Barbara Mills) is Big T’s daughter from a previous marriage, and when he’s drunk Big “T” likes to heap abuse (both physical and emotional) on the poor girl. Georgia does what she can to keep Virginia safe, but the sexual tension between the two beauties soon gets the better of them both.

Georgia has to watch it, though, because if Big “T” ever finds out how promiscuous she is, he’ll probably end up killing her.

Sweet Georgia doesn’t waste any time; in the opening scene a completely nude Virginia rides her horse through the desert while Georgia looks on (rubbing herself in a provocative manner). As we’ll soon discover, Georgia is one very horny lady; even drinking a cup of water seems to turn her on, and the first line she utters in the movie is “Just shut up and lay me” (spoken to Cal, who asked why she was undressing in front of him).

Virginia, on the other hand, is a novice when it comes to sex. She likes to occasionally tease Le Roy by showing off her voluptuous body, but Big “T”s abusive behavior has made it difficult for her to trust any man. In an effort to ease the girl out of her virginal shell, Georgia seduces Virginia (a sequence that runs for about 10 minutes). In fact, the only person not having sex in this movie is Big “T” (until the finale, that is; a scene that’s about as icky as they come).

Without a doubt, both Jordan and Mills are drop-dead gorgeous, and their lesbian encounter is the closest this movie gets to a genuinely erotic moment. Aside from that, though, the so-called “sex” in Sweet Georgia is about as interesting as watching grass grow. Which is a shame, because, in the end, Sweet Georgia is nothing more than a 79-minute hump session, moving quickly from one soft-core scene to the next with nary a story in sight.

Director Edward Boles (who also wrote the screenplay) does try to sneak a twist or two in towards the end, but by that point I just didn’t care anymore.

And neither will you.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

#2,390. His Name was King (1971)

Directed By: Giancarlo Romitelli

Starring: Richard Harrison, Anne Puskin, Goffredo Unger

AKA: In the Philippines this film was released as Bullet King

Trivia: Quentin Tarantino used a portion of this film's theme song for a scene in Dhjango Unchained

This morning I found myself in the mood to watch an Italian western. So, to satisfy this craving, I grabbed Mill Creek’s 12-film set “Ten Thousand Ways to Die: The Spaghetti Western Collection” and looked over the titles on the back cover, hoping one would jump out at me. 

Some were promising: 1970’s God’s Gun has a cast that includes Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance, and Sybil Danning (quite a trio, eh?). But the moment I started reading about His Name was King, I knew it was the movie for me.

What was it about this 1971 film that caught my eye?

Three little words… “Starring Klaus Kinski”!

John Marley, aka “King” (Richard Harrison) is on a mission to wipe out the Benson brothers (Goffredo Unger, Lorenzo Fineschi, and Federico Baldo), who murdered King’s only brother George on his wedding day moments after they raped George’s new bride Carol (played by Anna Puskin). Leaving Carol behind with his good friend, Sheriff Brian Foster (Kinski), King sets off for the border, where rumor has it the Bensons are stealing guns for a ruthless gang of Mexican banditos.

Teaming up with Major Ericson (Tom Felleghy) of the U.S. Cavalry, King does what he can to stop the Benson brothers from delivering their ill-gotten gains (the most recent weapons cache they swiped included six Gatling machine guns). It isn’t until much later, however, that King realizes the Bensons are actually working for someone else… 

Aside from its kick-ass title song (“His Name Is King”, written by Luis Bacalov and performed by Edda Dell’Orso), a portion of which Quentin Tarantino borrowed for a key scene in Django Unchained, His Name was King is a serviceable, if unspectacular spaghetti western. There are a few tense shootouts, a high body count, and a gang of baddies you love to hate (the Bensons are an ornery bunch, and even piss off their Mexican cohorts when they demand a couple of young senoritas as part of their payment). If I had one issue with the movie, it’s Richard Harrison as the title character. He’s not bad, per se... just bland, and more often than not the scenes without him are more engaging than those in which he appears.

And how about Kinski? Well, as opposed to the manic performances he delivered when working with Werner Herzog (Aguirre The Wrath of God, Fitzcaraldo, Cobra Verde), his Sheriff Brian Foster is a pretty laid-back guy. In fact, Foster might be the most easy-going lawman I’ve ever seen in this sort of film (he only loses his temper once, though it’s for a good reason). Maybe “laid back” isn’t the right term; more than anything, Kinski looks bored. His character spends a great deal of time shuffling, ever so slowly, around his office, and the actor even pauses occasionally in the middle of delivering a line (perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps not).

It’s the kind of performance that Werner Herzog would have never allowed. But Kinski is Kinski, even when he’s phoning it in. And he’s still one of the more interesting elements of His Name Was King.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

#2,389. Muscle Beach Party (1964)

Directed By: William Asher

Starring: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Luciana Paluzzi

Tagline: "10,000 Biceps Meet 5,000 Bikinis..."

Trivia: Marked the screen debut of music prodigy "Little" Stevie Wonder, who receives an "introducing" credit

Back in the day, my father used to watch the Frankie Avalon / Annette Funicello “Beach” movies on TV, but I myself never cared enough to join him (after a scene or two I usually got up and left the room). So this 1964 film marked the first time I’ve seen one from start to finish, and while I wouldn’t say I made a mistake skipping this sort of fare, Muscle Beach Party is an occasionally humorous slice of mindless fun, and features one hell of a supporting cast.

It is Easter vacation, and everyone’s favorite surfing couple, Frankie (Avalon) and DeeDee (Funicello), along with a few dozen of their closest friends, are spending it on the beach, where they’ll ride waves, carouse, and dance the night away. The house they rent is right next door to a bodybuilding center owned and operated by Jack Fanny (Don Rickles), who tells the kids, in no uncertain terms, to keep away from his muscle-bound goons.

Into this picture of near-tranquility comes the Countess Juliana (Luicana Paluzzi), whose yacht is anchored offshore. With the help of her business manager S.Z. (Buddy Hackett) and attorney Theodore (Peter Turgeon), the Countess hopes to land yet another husband: “Mr. Galaxy” himself, Flex Martian (Rock Stevens), who, coincidentally, happens to be Jack Fanny’s star attraction. While S.Z. and Theodore negotiate to buy Flex’s contract, the Countess spends the day getting to know her new boyfriend.

But moments after Jack Fanny signs the agreement, the Countess spots Frankie on the beach, singing a sad song (he and DeeDee just had an argument). All at once, the Countess has a change of heart, and decides she doesn’t want Flex anymore; she wants Frankie! She tells Frankie she’ll make him a recording star, and together they’ll sail around the world. But is Frankie ready to abandon his carefree life, not to mention his relationship with DeeDee, to become the plaything of a beautiful heiress?

Muscle Beach Party is actually the second in what would be a series of twelve movies produced by Samuel Arkoff’s AIP between 1963 and 1968. Seeing as it’s a sequel, Muscle Beach Party does, on occasion, reference the previous film, 1963’s Beach Party; Morey Amsterdam (of TV’s Dick Van Dyke Show) reprises his role as Cappy, owner of a beachside nightclub that the kids frequent, and every so often he talks about “what happened the last time” Frankie and company hung out at his place.

Still, the fact that I haven’t seen Beach Party didn’t ruin Muscle Beach Party for me in the least, and I couldn’t believe the supporting cast they assembled for this film. Along with its trio of comedy legends (Hackett, Rickles, and Amsterdam), this 1964 sequel featured the screen debut of “Little” Stevie Wonder (though only 13 at the time, Wonder brings the house down with the song “Happy Street”, which he performs on-stage at Cappy’s). Also along for the ride are Dick Dale (the “King of Surf Guitar”) and his Del Tones, who perform a few tunes (including the title number), and keep an eye out as well for a Hollywood horror icon, who makes a cameo appearance towards the end.

Muscle Beach Party does have its flaws, chief among them the movie’s female lead, Annette Funicello, who has zero charisma (along with her bad acting, Funicello clearly couldn’t sing. Her brief rendition of “A Girl Needs a Boy” is so heavily processed that it sounds like she was in a tunnel when she performed it). In addition, the early surf scenes are a distraction: footage of actual surfers in the water is spliced together with shots of Funicello, Avalon, and the rest standing in front of a terrible rear projection (to make it look as if they’re the ones actually riding the waves).

These issues aside, Muscle Beach Party was a passable comedy / musical, and while it hasn’t exactly inspired me to rush out and watch the other films in the series, I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Friday, July 21, 2017

#2,388. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Directed By: Frank Oz

Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia

Tagline: "Don't feed the plants"

Trivia: "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" (written for this film) is the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity

It started, as many things in Hollywood do, with Roger Corman.

It was in 1960 that Corman, along with screenwriter Charles Griffith, devised a little movie about a man-eating plant and the nerdy young florist who took care of it. 

Did I say “little” movie? Make that miniscule; The Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days, utilizing sets that had been built for another film. Corman is notorious for keeping a watchful eye on a production’s bottom line, but with The Little Shop of Horrors he managed to outdo even himself (the final cost was about $22,000). Not only has this “little” movie become a cult classic; it also featured one of the earliest big-screen appearances of an actor named Jack Nicholson, who, as I understand it, went on to have a decent career (not to mention 12 Academy Award nominations and three Oscars).

For most low-budget pictures, this is where the story usually ends. But, 22 years later, the songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken would transform this 72-minute black and white flick into an off-off-Broadway musical. After debuting in 1982, Little Shop of Horrors the stage show enjoyed a 5-year run at New York’s Orpheum Theater, and has played to packed houses across the world ever since.

David Geffen, one of the producers of the stage show, then decided to bring the entire project full-circle by making yet another movie titled Little Shop of Horrors, this time turning it into a big-budget musical extravaganza, with stunning special effects, a top-notch cast, direction by Frank Oz (long-time collaborator of Muppeteer Jim Henson and the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars series), and cameos by well-known comic stars such as Jim Belushi, John Candy, and Bill Murray, just to name a few.

And, like all the previous renderings of this “little” story, Geffen’s version was a smash hit, and is a movie I fell instantly in love with the first time I saw it on cable in the late ‘80s.

Seymour (Rick Moranis) is an underpaid employee of Mushnik’s Flower Shop, a tiny store situated in the heart of Skid Row. In an effort to drum up some business, Seymour convinces his boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) to put a new flower he’s been cultivating in the front window, a plant so exotic that it’s bound to draw customers. Seymour named this plant (which appeared suddenly during a recent, unexplained solar eclipse) “Audrey II”, in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene), who he’s loved since he first laid eyes on her. Unfortunately for Seymour, Audrey is already dating Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin), a sadistic dentist who treats her like dirt.

Sure enough, “Audrey II” is a big success, and people come from all around just to see it. With business better than ever, Mr. Mushnik orders Seymour to take extra special care of his new plant. But as the lovesick young man will discover, this is no ordinary flower; it's a creature from outer space! Instead of water and sunlight, “Audrey II” needs human blood to survive, and the more it gets, the bigger it grows. After a while, “Audrey II” even starts to talk (voiced by Levi Stubbs), and what it’s telling Seymour to do could land him in some very hot water.

But even if it can help change his life for the better (as "Audrey II" promises), will Seymour actually listen to a talking plant?

One of the strongest attributes of this 1986 comedy / musical is its superior cast. Rick Moranis is flawless as the nebbish Seymour, as is Ellen Greene as Audrey, a role she originated on Broadway. Topping the list, though, is Steve Martin as the psychotic dentist, an over-the-top performance that fits the character to a “T”. 

In addition, director Frank Oz utilizes the “Greek Chorus” (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) to perfection; along with being backup singers on practically every musical number, this trio pops up occasionally in small roles (street toughs, etc). The star cameos, including Christopher Guest (as a customer), John Candy (a radio DJ) and Bill Murray (a masochistic dental patient), are equally fun, while Motown legend Levi Stubbs provides the voice of “Audrey II”, whose foul-mouthed manipulation of Seymour results in some of the movie’s most entertaining sequences.

And then there’s the music, composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (who, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, helped restore Disney’s animation department to its former glory with their work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). Every single song the duo created for Little Shop of Horrors, from the opening number to "Suddenly Seymour" to "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space", is a classic. 

Rounding out this list of superlatives are the film’s outstanding special effects, which, by bringing an oversized plant so convincingly to life, did their part to make Little Shop of Horrors an unforgettable motion picture experience.

But the story still isn't over...

Like many films that make their way through the Hollywood system, Little Shop of Horrors was initially screened for a test audience, and while they loved the characters, they absolutely hated the original ending, which was lifted directly from the play. Based on their reaction, the producers felt a change was needed, and told director Oz and company to shoot a more upbeat finale.

It’s certainly not the first time such an alteration was forced on a filmmaker, but what made this particular change so heartbreaking was that Richard Conway, supervisor of the movie’s model unit, spent an entire year of his life working on that end scene, putting together a special effects-laden extravaganza that Frank Oz himself called “masterful”. Twelve months dedicated to a single sequence, and nobody would ever see it.

The Little Shop of Horrors blu-ray that I recently purchased has rectified this injustice by restoring the original ending, giving audiences the choice of watching either the theatrical version or the movie that Oz, Ashman, etc. intended all along. 

But while praising the hard work and technology that helped re-assemble this lost footage, Frank Oz issued the following warning in a brief note he penned for the blu-ray release: “Be Prepared. (The ending is) not pretty”.

As someone who believes strongly in the French Auteur Theory, I have always made it a point to watch the director’s cut, regardless of how much or how little it differed from the theatrical release (Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II changed that movie completely, while George Miller’s preferred version of The Road Warrior contains only one additional minute of footage). But with this most recent viewing of Little Shop of Horrors, I made an exception, and watched the theatrical cut instead.

My reason for doing so is simple: I fell in love with this picture when I first saw it all those years ago, and I wanted to re-live that experience one more time. 

The next time I watch Little Shop of Horrors, I’ll check out this director’s cut, and it will undoubtedly change the entire movie for me. So, as if saying goodbye to an old friend, I allowed myself one final encounter with the version I adore.

Is that so wrong?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

#2,387. Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

Directed By: Michel Levesque

Starring: Steve Oliver, Donna Anders, Gene Shane

Tag line: "If you're hairy you belong on a motorbike!"

Trivia: A quote from this movie can be heard in the Rob Zombie's song "Sick Bubblegum"

Man, is this one trippy motion picture!

Directed by Michel Levesque (who co-wrote the script with David M, Kaufman), 1971’s Werewolves on Wheels tags along with a gang of bikers - known as the “Devil’s Advocates” - as they traverse the highways of California, looking for a little fun. Their leader, Adam (Stephen Oliver), is a free spirit whose girlfriend Helen (D.J. Anderson) rides with him. One of Adam’s closest pals is Tarot (Deuce Berry), who believes his trusty deck of Tarot cards can see into the future.

And what Tarot has seen recently has made him very, very nervous!

The trouble begins when the gang rests on the grounds of a monastery, where the monks, under the watchful eye of high priest “One” (Severn Darden), worship not God, but Satan. First they knock the bikers out with drugs, which they hid in bread and wine. Then, the monks lure Helen into the bowels of their priory, where, in a trance-like state, she participates in one of their rituals, dancing (naked) with a snake and eating bread that has been dipped in cat’s blood. When Adam wakes up and discovers Helen is missing, he and a few others storm the monastery, rescuing her before the ceremony is over.

But in the days that follow, Adam, Tarot, Helen, and a few others realize something strange is happening to them, an overwhelming feeling that intensifies when a handful of their gang are murdered overnight. What the gang doesn’t know is that the monks put a curse on the Devil's Advocates. Now, whenever the moon is full, several of their members become bloodthirsty werewolves!

In its opening scenes, Werewolves on Wheels has the look and feel of a typical biker movie. Along with the standard shots of the gang flying down the highway on their cycles, there’s a scene where the driver of a pickup truck runs one of them off the road, and is beaten to a pulp when the rest of the gang catches up to him.

The moment the action shifts to the monastery, however, Werewolves on Wheels shifts gears and becomes a bizarre supernatural horror film. The satanic ceremony performed by the monks is shown in detail, and, to be honest, it’s pretty damn cool!.

From that point on, Werewolves on Wheels is a combination of the two subgenres, blending elements of a biker film with a werewolf movie, complete with jump scares and plenty of gore. Yet what’s truly amazing is how effective this mix is, creating a unique hybrid of action and horror that is far too entertaining to ignore.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#2,386. Double Exposure (1983)

Directed By: William Byron Hillman

Starring: Michael Callan, Joanna Pettet, James Stacy

Tag line: "Smile and say die!"

Trivia: Michael Callan's younger sister appears as an extra in the mud wrestling scene

The pre-title sequence that opens 1983’s Double Exposure, in which an undercover cop, posing as a hooker, is stabbed to death by an unknown assailant, convinced me I was in for yet another ‘80s slasher film. The very next scene, however (which plays during the credits), had a dream-like quality to it (slow-motion, stuttered movements, etc), and all at once I changed my mind; clearly, Double Exposure was going to be a psychological thriller.

Ultimately, the movie has elements of both subgenres scattered throughout it, and there are moments when it is simultaneously chilling and brilliant.

But more than anything, Double Exposure is a Goddamn jumbled mess.

On the surface, things seem to be going well for Adrian Wilde (Michael Callan). His job as a freelance photographer affords him the opportunity to hang out with a bevy of gorgeous models, and he’s dating the beautiful Mindy (Joanna Pettet), a younger woman who might just be the love of his life. But appearances can be deceiving; in fact, Adrian is tormented nightly by violent dreams in which he murders the very models who work for him. To make matters worse, these nightmares seem to be coming true; several girls have turned up dead, all finished off in the manner his dreams predicted.

Adrian opens up to his psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Curtis (Seymour Cassel), in the hopes he can somehow make sense of the situation. Adrian also tries talking to his brother B.J. (James Stacy), a professional stunt driver, but B.J. is busy dealing with his own issues, including a failed marriage and the loss of an arm and a leg in a recent accident.

As AdrIan wrestles with his subconscious, the bodies continue to pile up, and it’s only a matter of time before the detectives investigating the murders, Sgts. Fontain (Pamela Hensley) and Buckhold (David Young), will come knocking on his door.

But is Adrian really a serial killer, or is he a victim of circumstance?

The various kills in Double Exposure are inspired, to say the least; aside from the pre-title sequence mentioned above, we’re also treated to an impressive POV scene (shown from the killer’s perspective, of course) during which a hooker (played by future Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland) is murdered. Yet as good as these moments (and several others) are, the film’s best kill takes place in the middle of the woods, and is so gruesome that you won’t soon forget it.

Along with the violence, Double Exposure also works as a psychological thriller, with Michael Callan turning in an extraordinary performance as a man on the edge, wondering if he’s actually committing murder, or if it’s just his mind playing tricks on him. Also strong is James Stacy as Adrian’s troubled brother B.J., and while I didn’t think the film’s romantic subplot was particularly well-developed, Joanna Pettet shines as Adrian’s love interest.

Unfortunately, even when taking its better elements into account, Double Exposure is a hard film to recommend. There are times when we’re not sure if what we’re seeing is a dream or reality, and large chunks of the movie feel as if someone spliced scenes together in random order, hoping they’d make sense. In addition, the police investigation into the killings (established during the pre-title sequence) is practically ignored until the final 20 minutes, and Cleavon Little, who portrays Fontain’s and Buckhold’s foul-tempered superior, is totally wasted in what proves to be a very insignificant role (he’s on-screen exactly 3 times, and in his last appearance his character has a pointless argument with Sgt. Fontain).

Some of the issues that plagued Double Exposure can be easily explained: initially, the goal of its director, William Byron Hillman, was to shoot a new movie that would also feature sequences from a little-known film that he and star Michael Callan made 10 years earlier, called The Photographer (which had a plot similar to this film's). When the studio behind The Photographer threatened to sue, Hillman and company found themselves with several plot holes that needed filling... and fast! According to an interview he did for the DVD release of Double Exposure, Callan, who also produced the movie, did some uncredited writing as well, and the additional scenes he’d concoct at night were often shot the very next day.

Naturally, with a production as frenzied as this one seemed to be, it’s no wonder the movie has its problems. But knowing this doesn’t make Double Exposure any less disjointed or perplexing, and while I admire Hillman and Callan for cobbling together some truly remarkable scenes, the film, as a whole, still falls short of the mark.

Friday, July 14, 2017

#2,385. Club Paradise (1986)

Directed By: Harold Ramis

Starring: Robin Williams, Peter O'Toole, Rick Moranis

Tag line: "The vacation you'll never forget -- no matter how hard you try"

Trivia: Peter O'Toole replaced John Cleese in the role of Governor Anthony Cloyden Hayes

I hadn’t seen Club Paradise in what must be 25 years, yet my opinion of it has not changed one iota: the movie is sporadically funny, but with such a talented cast it should've been much better.

After being injured on the job, Chicago fireman Jack Moniker (Robin Williams) receives a large insurance settlement from the city, enough money for him to retire and move to the Caribbean island of St. Nicholas. Once there, Moniker befriends musician Ernest Reed (Jimmy Cliff), who owns (and performs at) a popular night club. 

Unfortunately, Ernest is a bit behind on the club’s taxes, and the Prime Minister of St. Nicholas, a man named Solomon Gundy (Adolph Caesar), is demanding that they be paid immediately. To help Ernest, Jack pays the back taxes, and together the two pals, along with Jack’s new British girlfriend Phillipa (Twiggy), turn Ernest’s hot spot into a tropical resort, which they call “Club Paradise”.

Before long, Club Paradise is welcoming it’s first-ever guests: Dr. Randy White (Steven Kampmann) and his wife Linda (Andrea Martin); business partners Barry Nye (Rick Moranis) and Barry Steinberg (Eugene Levy); co-workers Mary Lou (Robin Duke) and Jackie (Mary Gross); and Terry Hamlin (Joanna Cassidy), travel writer for the New York Times. As Jack works frantically to fix some of Club Paradise’s bigger problems (no running water, bug infestations, etc), the guests settle in, determined to have the vacation of a lifetime.

Unbeknownst to them all, Prime Minister Gundy is conspiring with Volt Zerbe (Brian Doyle-Murray), owner of the largest hotel on St. Nicholas, to sell the entire island to an Arab Prince. When Jack and Ernest refuse to turn Club Paradise over to him, Gundy uses every means at his disposal to drive them out of business, and not even Anthony Croyden Hayes (Peter O’Toole), the British Governor of St. Nicholas, can stop him.

Just look at that cast: Robin Williams, Peter O’Toole (who proved he could be funny in films like The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year), Brian Doyle-Murray (who also co-wrote the script), Robin Duke (Saturday Night Live), as well as four former cast members of SCTV (along with Martin, Moranis, and Levy, Joe Flaherty makes a brief appearance as the slightly odd pilot of a small plane). That’s an all-star comedy team right there. In addition, Jimmy Cliff provides a handful of cool Reggae tunes, and Adolph Caesar hams it up to perfection as the shifty politician looking to get rich.

Together, these actors and actresses manage to generate a few laughs; Moranis and Levy, as two very Jewish playboys on the prowl, have their moments, as does Robin Williams, whose rapid-fire delivery occasionally hits the mark (especially during the opening scene set in Chicago). There’s also a scene involving a helium tank that had me laughing out loud, and I got the distinct impression while watching Club Paradise that the cast had a great time making it (and why not? Most of the movie was shot on-location in beautiful Jamaica).

But it wasn’t enough. For every funny scene, Club Paradise had two that went absolutely nowhere (i.e. - an extended sequence in which the guests visit a nude beach), and some cast members were woefully underused (Peter O’Toole, Joe Flaherty, Joanna Cassidy).

I really wanted to love Club Paradise. In the end, though, it was, at best, a “middle-of-the-road” comedy; it made me laugh, but not as much as it should have.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

#2,384. Blue Water, White Death (1971)

Directed By: Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb

Starring: Tom Chapin, Phil Clarkson, Stuart Cody

Tag line: "The Most Frightening and Fascinating Sea Adventure Ever"

Trivia: One of the few documentaries shot in the wide screen 2.35:1 format

A 1971 documentary co-directed by Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb, Blue Water, White Death chronicles the exploits of a team of underwater photographers (Stanton Waterman, Ron & Valerie Taylor, and Gimbel himself) as they attempt to do something that's never been done before: capture images of a great white shark in its natural habitat. 

Joined by researchers and technicians alike, as well as folk singer Tom Chapin (who provides the music for the film), the group will spend five and a half months at sea, beginning their journey with a whaling expedition in South Africa before sailing to Madagascar, Grand Comoro, Ceylon, and Western Australia, all in the hopes of finding the elusive - and very dangerous - great white.

Locating a great white shark may have been the ultimate goal of Blue Water, White Death, but it’s the crew’s additional adventures that make the movie so fascinating. During their time with the whaling fleet in South Africa (a sequence that includes a fairly graphic whale hunt that some viewers may find difficult to watch), the photographers spent several days filming sharks of various species, which fed on the carcasses that the whalers left behind. At times, hundreds of these predators were swarming around, and to get a closer look at the feeding frenzy, the photographers left their protective cages to swim among the sharks, a decision that, though quite risky, resulted in a handful of amazing images.

But this wasn’t the only danger the group would face. While in Grand Comoro, the rough currents nearly pulled one diver out to sea; and in Ceylon, Peter Gimbel suffered a case of the bends, a condition that, if untreated, could lead to paralysis or even death. 

More than anything, though, Gimbel and company wonder aloud throughout the film what might happen when they do finally encounter a great white. At the start of Blue Water, White Death, the narrator, Wally King, reminds us just how deadly this creature can be by recounting some real-life shark attacks (according to King, a great white once swallowed a man whole in the waters of La Jolla, California, while another victim was bitten in half off the coast of Western Australia). 

Most of the photographers had never seen a great white shark up-close, and had no idea what to expect. Yet, despite the potential threat, they couldn’t wait to find one. For some (especially Peter Gimbel), locating a great white had become an obsession.

The movie has its quiet moments as well; Ron & Valerie Taylor frolic with seals in Australia, and we’re treated to some beautiful underwater shots of sea turtles, eels, and barracudas. But for most of its runtime, Blue Water, White Death is as much a thrilling adventure as it is a documentary, and, like those who took part in the journey, you will be swept up by the excitement of it all.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

#2,383. The Don is Dead (1973)

Directed By: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, Robert Forster

Tagline: "Power built an empire. Passion destroyed it."

Trivia: First Hollywood-based motion picture production in nine years for star Anthony Quinn

Released a year after The Godfather, The Don is Dead is yet another movie that throws the spotlight on organized crime. But unlike Coppola’s award-winning epic, this 1973 film takes a “down-and-dirty” approach to the material, telling the story of a bloody mob war fought not for money or power, but for love.

The trouble begins when Don Paolo, the head of the Regalbuto crime family, dies unexpectedly. As a result of his passing, the Regalbuto empire is split in half, with Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) assuming control of one part and Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi), the consigliere for the imprisoned Don Jimmy Bernardo (Barry Russo), taking over the other. 

With no heir of his own, Don DiMorra also agrees to take Don Regalbuto’s son Frank (Robert Forster), under his wing, promising Frank that he will one day inherit the DiMorra crime family and all of its assets.

But Luigi Orlando has plans of his own, and together with Jimmy Bernardo’s girlfriend Marie (Jo Anne Meredith) attempts to drive a wedge between Don DiMorra and Frank by setting DiMorra up with Frank’s girlfriend, a singer named Ruby (Angel Tompkins). Not realizing that Frank has been seeing Ruby on a regular basis, Don DiMorra falls in love with her, causing a surprised Frank to lose his temper when he learns of the affair. 

Before long, the two former friends are engaged in an all-out war, with Don DiMorra and his family on one side, and Frank and his pals the Fargo brothers - Tony (Frederic Forrest) and Vince (Al Lettieri) - on the other. 

Both Frank and DiMorra suffer major losses as the war rages on, while Luigi Orlando sits back, waiting patiently for the right moment to swoop in and take control of the city. But when the smoke finally clears, will it be Orlando who comes out on top, or someone else entirely?

The cast that director Richard Fleischer and his team assembled for The Don is Dead is certainly impressive; Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, and Robert Forster deliver top-notch performances, as do a pair of Godfather veterans, Al Lettieri (as one half of the Fargo brothers) and Abe Vigoda (who appears briefly as Don Talusso). 

Yet what makes The Don is Dead such a treat is the manner in which screenwriter Marvin H. Albert (who also penned the novel the movie is based on) structures the story, hitting us time and again with shocking violence while also taking us behind-the-scenes, where we watch as the two sides use strategy and deception to gain the upper hand. And like most stories that involve a war, we’re never sure who is going to be the next to die.

While it doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights as The Godfather, The Don is Dead is nonetheless an entertaining crime film, and packs a fair number of surprises into its 115 minutes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

#2,382. Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) - The Films of Kirk Douglas

Directed By: John Sturges

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Carolyn Jones

Tagline: "The mightiest double-barreled excitement to blaze across the screen !"

Trivia: Hal B. Wallis bought Les Crutchfield 's story in March 1954 and planned it as a possible starring vehicle for Charlton Heston or Burt Lancaster

Last Train From Gun Hill, a 1959 western directed by John Sturges, gets off to a brutal start; a Native American woman (Ziva Rodann) and a young boy, presumably her son (Lars Henderson), are enjoying a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn wagon when they pass a couple of cowboys resting by the side of the road. 

Looking to have some fun with the pretty squaw, the two cowboys hop on their horses and, after catching up to the wagon, try to convince the woman to slow down. Instead, she hits one of them with her riding whip, leaving a gash on the man’s cheek.

The wagon speeds up, only to capsize when it tries to make a sharp turn. The injured man, none too pleased about the wound he just received, dismounts his horse and corners the squaw, who tells her son to run away as fast as he can. The cowboy rips her top off, and she lets out a scream. Frightened, the woman’s son jumps on one of the assailant’s horses and rides for help, which, unfortunately, won’t arrive in time to save his mother.

But this was no ordinary woman. She was the wife of Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), a federal marshal stationed in nearby Pawley. And her attacker was no everyday cowboy. His name is Rick Belden (Earl Holliman), the only son of cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), a man so powerful that he practically owns the town of Gun Hill. To complicate matters, Matt Morgan and Craig Belden are the best of friends, former partners who spent many years riding together before going their separate ways.

To bring his wife’s killers to justice, Morgan hops the next train to Gun Hill, and during the trip meets former saloon girl Linda (Carolyn Jones), who, it turns out, is also close to Craig Belden (though, as we will soon discover, she’s no fan of his son Rick).

Once in Gun Hill, Morgan visits the Belden Ranch, and tells his old pal that he’s going to arrest both Rick and the cowpoke who accompanied him to Pawley, a ranch hand named Lee Smithers (played by Brian G. Hutton) who is himself employed by Craig Belden. Morgan intends to bring the two back to Pawley to stand trial for rape and murder. 

Despite their friendship, Craig Belden warns Morgan not to take his son away, promising that, if he does, all of Gun Hill will stand against him.

With 6 hours to go before the train back to Pawley arrives, it looks as if there’s going to be quite a showdown on the streets of Gun Hill, and seeing as the sheriff (Walter Sande) is in Craig Belden’s pocket, Matt Morgan will have to fight this particular battle alone.

The theme of a hero (or heroes) facing insurmountable odds is one that director John Sturges has returned to time and again throughout his career, whether it be in a western (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), a war film (The Great Escape), or a drama (The Old Man and the Sea). In Last Train from Gun Hill, Matt Morgan finds himself taking on not just his friend and the men he employs, but everyone in Gun Hill. Once the reason for his coming to town is made known, Morgan can’t walk down the street without drawing stares from every front porch and window, and the sheriff of Gun Hill refuses to sign his warrants or provide Morgan with deputies to help him serve them. “Isn’t there anyone in this town not afraid of Craig Belden?” Morgan asks the local bartender (Val Avery). “Sure”, the bartender replies. “The graveyard’s full of them”. Morgan does eventually take Rick Belden into custody, resulting in a final act that is as intense as they come.

Yet what makes the showdown in Last Train from Gun Hill so intriguing is that its two major combatants are old chums, and, despite being on opposite sides of this fight, neither man really wants to hurt the other. Though desperate to save his son, Craig Belden gives Morgan several chances to leave town quietly, a courtesy he doesn’t extend to many people (as witnessed earlier when he handed Lee Smithers his walking papers). 

As for Morgan, the anger he feels towards Rick Belden is tempered - at least in part - by the respect he has for Craig. Douglas and Quinn are superb in their respective roles, and by way of their performances we can tell that their characters are damn near heartbroken to be facing off against one another.

But with so much on the line, neither is going to back down, and it’s because of this that Last Train from Gun Hill is as much a tragedy as it is a western.