Sunday, July 31, 2022

#2,792. Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) - Lone Wolf and Cub Series


The second entry in the Lone Wolf and Cub series gets off to a great start! Before the opening title flashes on-screen, our hero, Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), is attacked by two members of the Yagyu clan, both of whom eventually wish they’d stayed at home. It is a bloody, amazing introduction to a film that is non-stop bloody and amazing.

Still roaming the countryside of Feudal Japan with his young son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), Itto is eventually hired by a clan that has perfected a formula for indigo-colored dye, which nets them a small fortune each and every year. It seems that one of their members plans to sell the clan’s formula to the Shogun, so they pay Itto to make sure this traitor never gets a chance to do so.

Along with trying to complete his mission, Itto must also continue his fight against the Yagyu clan, which has recruited Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo), leader of the Akari Yagyu, to finish him off once and for all. But are Sayaka and her highly-trained female assassins up to the challenge?

Having already given us Ogami Itto’s backstory in Sword of Vengeance, director Kenji Misumi hits the ground running in Baby Cart at the River Styx and never once lets up, providing wall-to-wall action and plenty of bloodshed (aside from the opening, Itto and his trusty sword polish off damn near everyone the Yagyu clan throws his way, and usually in brutal fashion). Misumi also brings plenty of style and flair to the movie, with close-ups galore and frantically-paced showdowns that feel as if they were lifted straight out of a Sergio Leone western.

As he was in Sword of Vengeance, Wakayama is superb as Ogami Itto, speaking even less this time around but only because he lets his sword do the talking for him; his battles in this entry are among the finest in the series. In addition to its more intense scenes, Baby Cart at the River Styx boasts several dramatically effective sequences. At one-point, young Daigoro must care for his wounded father, and a scene in which Itto, Daigoro and Sayaka try to keep from freezing to death (after escaping a burning ship) takes the story in a new and unexpected direction.

I’m a fan of the entire Lone Wolf and Cub series, but when it comes to balls-out action and severed limbs flying through the air, it’s hard to top what transpires in Baby Cart at the River Styx. It is, hands-down, my favorite of them all.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Friday, July 29, 2022

#2,791. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972) - Lone Wolf and Cub Series


Based on a manga series initially published in 1970, the Lone Wolf and Cub films (six in all) center on the exploits of Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a former Samurai from Japan’s Tokugawa period (which spanned the 17th to 19th centuries). Once the respected executioner of a powerful Shogun, Itto falls out of favor when the Yagyu clan, led by Retsudo (Yunesuke Ito), frames him for treason.

Itto’s already-crumbling world is further turned upside-down when Yagyu assassins, intent on killing the disgraced Samurai, break into his home and murder his wife Asami (Keiko Fujita), leaving Itto as the sole caretaker for his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa).

Vowing revenge against those who destroyed his family and his reputation, Itto travels the land as a Ronin (a masterless Samurai), pushing a wooden baby cart and offering his unique “services” to the highest bidders, all the while fending off a steady stream of killers sent by the Yagyu clan to destroy him.

As played by Wakayama, Ogami Itto is a total badass, a deadly swordsman who never smiles and rarely speaks. He has the bearing and the skills of a superhero, and 1972’s Swords of Vengeance serves as his origin story. Combining flashbacks with the first leg of his journey through Feudal Japan, Swords of Vengeance brings us up to speed, showing Itto’s initial role as the Shogun’s executioner (in the very first scene, he must behead a child whose family offended his master); his eventual downfall and the murder of his wife; and his showdown with the Yagyu family (in one of the film’s coolest scenes, he agrees to face off against the Yagyu’s best swordsman, rushing into battle with Daigoro strapped to his back).

Topping all, however, is the extended sequence in which Itto and Daigoro visit a Hot Spring, situated in a village that has been taken over by a band of escaped criminals. Itto was hired by a Chamberlain to foil an assassination plot (the conspirators have enlisted the escapees to assassinate the Chamberlain), and with no knowledge of Itto’s background or his true identity, the criminals confiscate his Dotanuki sword the moment he arrives and lock he and Daigoro in a room with other travelers, one of whom is a prostitute (Tomoko Mayama). Throughout this entire ordeal, we the audience know it’s only a matter of time before Itto makes his move. We actually laugh as the criminals insult him, and cannot wait for the moment Itto finally strikes back.

Despite its copious amount of blood - which gushes from open wounds like a geyser - Swords of Vengeance is also a beautifully shot film (especially striking is a scene involving a suspended bridge, which Itto and son must cross to get to the Hot Spring), with each and every battle staged as if it were a ballet (the showdown with the Yagyu swordsman is especially breathtaking).

All this, plus the introduction of one of the most intriguing, most hardened anti-heroes ever to grace the big screen (Itto’s code of honor has led him to believe that, by breaking his oath to his Shogun, he will spend eternity in hell, making him doubly dangerous: a skilled swordsman who feels he has absolutely nothing more to lose!) make Swords of Vengeance a must-see motion picture.

Watch Ogami Itto’s exploits in Swords of Vengeance and I guarantee you’ll be chomping at the bit to check out the rest of the series!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

#2,790. Blue Hawaii (1961) - The Films of Elvis Presley


Blue Hawaii delivers everything you’d want to see in an Elvis Presley film, and everything you’d expect from a movie set on the picturesque isles.

Elvis plays Chadwick “Chad” Gates, who as the movie opens is returning home to Hawaii following a 2-year stint in the Army. He’s met at the airport by longtime girlfriend Maile (Joan Blackman), but instead of going home to see his parents (Roland Winters and Angela Lansbury), Chad spends a few days hanging out at the beach with his island buddies.

Knowing his parents will pressure him to join the family business – a lucrative fruit company – Chad instead gets a job as a tour guide, working for Maile’s boss, Mr. Chapman (Howard McNear). Chad’s first customers are school teacher Abigail Prentice (Nancy Walters) and four of her teenage students, including bratty Ellie Corbett (Jenny Maxwell). As Chad spends his days showing the attractive Miss Prentice and her charges all that Hawaii has to offer, Maile can’t help but feel a little jealous, convinced that Chad and Miss Prentice are doing more than just seeing the sights together.

Directed by Norman Taurog, Blue Hawaii is breezy, lightweight entertainment, but make no mistake, it is entertaining. Elvis belts out a number of catchy tunes, including “Aloha Oe” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love (With You)”, the latter of which would go on to become one of his all-time biggest hits, going platinum in 1962. There are some 14 songs in all throughout Blue Hawaii, and each and every one of them is a winner. Blue Hawaii also takes advantage of Hawaii’s beautiful locales, with scenes shot on-location in, among other places, Waikiki and Diamond Head.

As it is with most of his movies, Elvis is more convincing when he’s singing in Blue Hawaii than when he’s trying to act, though the supporting cast makes up for his shortcomings. Lansbury is especially memorable as Chad’s airhead Southern Belle mother, while a late scene featuring Jenny Maxwell’s Ellie, where she steals a jeep and runs away, gives the film its lone dramatic moment (and an effective one at that).

Sun, sand, music, and pretty girls; that sums up Blue Hawaii in a nutshell, and while it won’t linger in the mind long after its over, it’s plenty of fun while it lasts.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Monday, July 25, 2022

#2,789. G.I. Blues (1960) - The Films of Elvis Presley


Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 and for a time served as a private in the 3rd Armored Division in Friedberg, Germany. He was discharged two years later, and what better way to celebrate his return to Hollywood than by appearing in 1960’s G.I. Blues?

Spec5 Tulsa McLean (Presley) spends the days with his tank crew in Germany, and nights dreaming of becoming a singer and opening his own club. Needing money to make his dream a reality, he bets $300 that fellow soldier Dynamite (Edson Stroll) can win the heart of German dancer Lili (Juliet Prowse), a woman who has thus far rejected the advances of every American G.I.

When Dynamite is transferred to another base, Tulsa himself, urged on by his pals Cookie (Robert Ivers) and Rick (James Douglas), reluctantly agrees to stand in for Dynamite and woo the elusive Lili. Things go well at first, with Lili falling hard for Tulsa’s country charm, but the closer the two become, the more Tulsa’s conscious bothers him, and though he has developed feelings of his own for Lili, the guilty G.I. considers calling the whole romance off.

That’s about as trite a plot as you can get, but director Norman Taurog somehow pulls it off, delivering a fun, breezy musical romance. As for Presley, his performance as Tulsa was a definite step down from the fine turn he delivered in 1958’s King Creole, but fans were undoubtedly happy that his singing voice was as strong as ever. And while many of the songs he performs throughout G.I. Blues are forgettable, the film’s final two numbers, "Big Boots" (a lullaby he sings while babysitting for Rick’s son) and "Didja Ever" (the rousing finale performed in front of his entire battalion) are excellent.

As for the rest of the cast, Juliet Prowse is certainly an impressive dancer (she performs a couple of numbers during the movie), but only a so-so actress, while Robert Ivers (as the conniving Cookie) and Arch Johnson (as Master Sergeant McGraw, who keeps loaning money to Tulsa and rarely gets it back) are quite good in support. This, plus the beautiful technicolor footage of Germany (much of which was shot by Producer Hal Wallis while Elvis was still in the Army) make G.I. Blues an entertaining, if somewhat slight, entry in Elvis’s filmography.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Saturday, July 23, 2022

#2,788. King Creole (1958) - The Films of Elvis Presley


Elvis Presley may have been the King of Rock and Roll, but as an actor he was average at best. Put him in a movie with a good story, however, and surround him with an all-star supporting cast, and he could sometimes surprise you.

That’s exactly what happened with 1958’s King Creole, a black-and-white drama / musical directed by the great Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood).

After getting into yet another scuffle at school, Danny Fisher (Presley) is told by his teacher that, for the second year in a row, he won’t be graduating. Ignoring the wishes of his father (Dean Jagger), who wants him to give school another chance, Danny decides he has had enough and follows his dreams of becoming a professional singer.

Quitting his job as a busboy, Danny agrees to perform nightly at the King Creole, a club owned by Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart). But LeGrand’s chief competitor, Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), who controls most of New Orleans, wants Danny to work for him. When Danny refuses, Maxie first orders his steady girlfriend Ronnie (Carolyn Jones) to seduce Danny, and when that doesn’t work Maxie and his henchman Shark (Vic Morrow) start playing rough, threatening to reveal a secret to Danny’s father that could potentially tear his family apart.

Presley performs a number of toe-tapping tunes throughout King Creole, including the title song (which is my favorite), “New Orleans”, and “As Long as I Have You”. And while his performance as Danny wouldn’t have won him an Academy Award (his scenes with Delores Hart, who plays Danny’s new girlfriend Nellie, are hit and miss), Presley did impress me through much of the film, especially during the scenes in which Danny and his father butt heads (Danny is embarrassed that dear old dad won’t stick up for himself, and as a result vows to never let anyone push him around).

Solid in support are Jagger as Danny’s father, Matthau as the loathsome crime boss Maxie, and Vic Morrow – who made a career out of playing the heavy – as Maxie’s henchman, Shark. Standing head and shoulders above them all, however, is Carolyn Jones, who delivers what might be her greatest performance as Ronnie, the alcoholic former singer who eventually falls in love with Danny (her scenes are easily the best in the entire movie).

Presley was on record as saying that of all his films, King Creole was his favorite. Thanks to its solid performances, the crisp direction of Michael Curtiz, the catchy musical numbers, and the stunning cinematography of Russell Harlan (portions of the film were shot on-location in New Orleans), I’d have to say it’s my favorite Elvis Presley film as well.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, July 21, 2022

#2,787. Murder by Decree (1979) - Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s


Sherlock Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper in director Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree, a film dripping with atmosphere and suspense that also features one hell of a cast.

A number of women have turned up dead in London’s Whitechapel district, and with the police unable to stop the killings, a group of concerned citizens asks the great Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) to investigate. With the help of his loyal companion Doctor Watson (James Mason), Holmes is determined to track down the killer everyone is calling Jack the Ripper and find out why he is only targeting prostitutes.

But as Holmes and Watson delve deeper into the case, they realize it stretches well beyond the confines of Whitechapel, and might even involve a conspiracy orchestrated by some of England’s most respected officials.

With a script penned by John Hopkins, Murder by Decree is a dark, sometimes frightening Sherlock Holmes mystery; no stranger to horror, director Clark even presents the film’s first murder from the killer’s POV, as if we were looking through the Ripper’s eyes (a similar technique to the one he used in 1974’s Black Christmas, and would eventually become a staple of ‘80s slashers).

In addition, the set design throughout Murder by Decree is superb, especially the darkened streets of Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson spend quite a few nights traversing. Clark even manages to squeeze all the tension and intrigue he possibly can out of the story, which twists and turns in a number of fascinating directions.

Then there’s the cast, led by Plummer’s humanistic approach to the role of Holmes, playing him as a master sleuth who is nonetheless concerned about the safety and well-being of those he’s trying to protect; a scene in which Holmes is talking with Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujoud), a key figure in the case who has been hidden away in an asylum, is particularly heartbreaking.

The supporting cast assembled by Clark features a number of England’s most prestigious actors, including Anthony Quayle as Sir Charles Warren, the standoffish chief of Scotland Yard; David Hemmings as the enigmatic Inspector Foxborough; Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade; and John Gielgud as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Also on-hand are Donald Sutherland as Robert Lees, a psychic who claims he’s had visions of Jack the Ripper, and Susan Clark as potential victim Mary Kelly. Topping them all, however, is James Mason, who plays Watson not as the bumbling sidekick, but a strong-willed investigator in his own right who also occasionally makes us laugh (a scene involving a green pea on Watson’s dinner plate is absolutely hilarious).

If Murder by Decree has one weakness, it’s the finale; the exposition-laden sequence in which Holmes addresses Lord Salisbury about his findings dragged on a bit too long, and was followed by not one, but two false endings. Even with its lackluster climax, however, Murder by Decree has a hell of a lot going for it, and is a movie I wholeheartedly recommend
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

#2,786. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) - Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s


The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is an extraordinarily entertaining motion picture, and the credit for that must go to its screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer. Along with also penning the best-selling novel his script was based on, Meyer was the creative mind behind such smart, savvy movies as Time After Time and all of the good early Star Trek films (including fan favorite Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

And with a premise like the one Meyer devised for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, teaming the great Sherlock Holmes with renowned psychologist Dr. Sigmund Freud, it’s no wonder that this 1976 movie is so much damn fun!

It’s been several years since Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) last visited his good friend Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson). Alas, when he does finally swing by 221-B Baker Street, Watson is shocked to discover Holmes has become a full-fledged cocaine addict, and is convinced the kindly Doctor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier), his former tutor, has become a master criminal.

With the help of Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Charles Grey), Watson tricks Holmes into “following” Dr. Moriarty to Vienna, where the great Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin), who has successfully treated other drug addicts, is waiting to cure Holmes of his cocaine dependency.

Though it takes some time and a great deal of effort, Freud’s treatment is successful. And, it seems, just in the nick of time, because a former patient of Dr. Freud’s, Miss Devereux (Vanessa Redgrave), is in the hospital, having only recently escaped the clutches of a kidnapper. With Holmes’ mind once again clear, he joins forces with Dr. Freud and Watson to find out who abducted Miss Devereux, and why, knowing full well that until they solve this case, she will continue to be in the greatest of danger.

As Meyer pointed out when discussing both his original novel and the screenplay for The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it is not so much a Sherlock Holmes mystery as it is a story about Sherlock Holmes, a man whose past traumas have not only shaped his career as a master detective, but his drug dependency as well. Williamson delivers a remarkable performance as Holmes, perfectly conveying the legendary character’s sharp mind and his desperate struggle with cocaine; the scenes in which Holmes is battling his addiction, suffering a series of horrific hallucinations as the drug leaves his system, are the film’s most harrowing.

Equal to Williamson’s portrayal of Holmes is Alan Arkin as Freud, whose mind is every bit as sharp as his star patient’s. He even gets to test his athletic prowess at one point; after being insulted at a gym by Baron von Leinsdorf (Jeremy Kemp), Freud, instead of fighting him in a duel, challenges the Baron to a tennis match! Rounding out the excellent cast is Duvall, who, despite his suspect British accent, does a fine job as Watson; and Redgrave as the film’s “damsel in distress”, who may not be as helpless as she first appears.

Working as both a cautionary tale and a pretty nifty mystery, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a whole mess of fun! I had a great time watching it!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, July 17, 2022

#2,785. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - Sherlock Holmes in the 1970s


Four years after directing the hilarious comedy The Fortune Cookie, Billy Wilder once again stepped behind the camera to helm The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a movie he co-wrote with longtime associate I.A.L. Diamond. And as its title would suggest, the resulting movie was far from a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery, giving audiences a more intimate look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, starting with the fact that he was occasionally just as human as the rest of us.

After refusing an embarrassing proposal from famous Russian ballerina Madame Petrova (Tamara Toumanova), who wanted the great detective to sire her child, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Stephens) waits patiently at his residence at 221-B Baker Street - in the company of his good friend Doctor Watson (Colin Blakely) - for the next case to fall into his lap.

As it turns out, he wouldn’t have to wait long; one night, a Belgian woman named Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page) is brought to see the incomparable Sherlock Holmes. It seems that Ms. Valladon’s husband, who’s been working in London for several years, has gone missing, and she is anxious to find him.

Though warned by his brother Mycroft (Christopher Lee) not to take the case, which he calls a matter of “national security”, Sherlock and Watson follow the clues to Inverness, Scotland, where, along with closing in on the elusive Mr. Valladon they have a close encounter with the fabled Loch Ness Monster!

With The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, co-writers Wilder and Diamond managed to slip in a few personal details about their title character, whose exploits, even at this point in 1887 (when the story is set), are renowned; in the opening scene, Holmes chastises Watson (the author of many published articles about his good friend) for exaggerating everything from his height (“You have me at 6’4”, when I’m barely 6’1””, Holmes laments) to his occasional use of drugs (“You’ve painted me a hopeless dope addict just because I occasionally take a five percent solution of cocaine”. When Watson retorts that it’s actually a seven percent solution, Holmes replies, dryly, “Five percent. Don’t you think I’m aware you’ve been diluting it behind my back?”).

Even more revealing are the allusions to Holmes’ homosexuality; the entire sequence with Madame Petrova brings his sexual preferences to the forefront, and even Watson seems a bit taken aback by the notion that his friend does not enjoy the company of women (Wilder would say in hindsight that he wished he took the homosexual subtext further than he did).

Once the case involving Gabrielle Valladon is in full swing, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes feels more like a standard Arthur Conan-Doyle mystery, with both Stephens and Blakely delivering top-notch performances as they follow one lead after another. Christopher Lee is also solid in support; his Mycroft tries to dissuade Sherlock from getting involved with Gabrielle Valladon. And, it turns out, for good reason, because one of the more revealing facets of this 1970 film is that, despite his reputation as a master detective, we find even Sherlock Holmes can make a mistake now and again.

So while The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes features elements that will appeal to the super sleuth’s most ardent fans, it’s kind of nice to discover that Holmes wasn’t always perfect.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, July 15, 2022

#2,784. Meteor (1979) - Natalie Wood 4-Pack


I’m an unapologetic fan of ‘70s disaster films. I love The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, even Earthquake, so as you can imagine I was excited to check out 1979’s Meteor, a movie that, like its predecessors, featured an all-star cast and the promise of some very intense action scenes.

Unfortunately, where Meteor came up short is in the special effects department. In fact, “came up short” is putting it mildly: the effects in this movie suck!

A comet collides with the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, causing a 5-mile-wide rock to break orbit and hurtle towards earth. Hoping to prevent an impact, which would likely extinguish all life on the planet, former NASA scientist Paul Bradley (Sean Connery) and the administrator’s current chief Harry Sherwood (Karl Malden) try to convince the U.S. President (Henry Fonda) and military leaders such as General Aldon (Martin Landau) to fire the nuclear missiles from the orbiting Hercules satellite directly at the meteor.

Realizing that even this firepower won’t be enough to destroy it, Bradley and Sherwood coerce the President into contacting Russia in the hopes they, too, will fire their missiles from a similar satellite and end the threat. To this end, Soviet scientist Dr. Dubov (Brian Keith) and his interpreter Tatiana (Natalie Wood) fly to New York, where they will work closely with their American counterparts to obliterate the meteor. They all watch in horror as smaller, “splinter” asteroids hit earth, resulting in the total destruction of some key cities around the globe, but work diligently nonetheless to save the planet from total annihilation.

There are a few things I liked about Meteor, starting with its cast. Connery, Malden, Wood, and Keith (not speaking a word of English… all of his dialogue is in Russian) manage to convince us that the threat is real, while Fonda, Landau, and Trevor Howard (as Sir Michael Hughes, who is tracking the path of the meteor in England) are solid in support. There are also moments throughout the film, especially in the last half hour, when the tension reaches a fever pitch, and the filmmakers did get a bit creative with the “splinter” asteroids, which cause everything from avalanches to tidal waves.

Most (or all) of these positives are undermined, however, by the film’s shoddy effects, from the shots in space of the approaching meteor and the launching of the missiles (thanks to Star Wars, which was released only two years earlier, audiences undoubtedly expected better outer space sequences than this film delivered) to the devastation caused by the smaller asteroids (neither the above-mentioned avalanche nor the tidal wave look the least bit convincing).

Meteor isn’t a total waste of time, but not even its amazing cast is enough to rescue this film from its technological mediocrity.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

#2,783. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) - Natalie Wood 4-Pack


Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a rarity, an American comedy that works just as well today as it did in 1969.

Documentary filmmaker Bob Sanders (Robert Culp) and his wife Carol (Natalie Wood) attend a 24-hour group therapy session, and come away with an entirely new outlook on life. Over dinner one evening, they share what they’ve learned with good friends Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon), whose traditional approach to marriage and relationships makes it a bit of tough sell.

Bob's and Carol’s new way of thinking is put to the test almost immediately when Bob has a fling with a pretty blonde production assistant. Far from getting angry, Carol openly accepts Bob’s infidelity, but when she tells Ted and Alice what happened, it puts a strain on their friendship.

Bob and Carol continue to practice what they preach, being totally honest with one another, Ted and Alice find themselves at a crossroads in their own marriage.

Though smartly written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker, it’s the cast that makes Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice such a memorable experience. Culp and Wood shine as the new-age couple whose openness and honesty brings them closer together, while Elliott Gould delivers a strong performance as Ted, whose own unfulfilled marriage has him wondering if Bob & Carol are on the right track.

The standout, however, is Dyan Cannon as the uptight Alice, who gets so angry upon learning of Bob’s affair that she becomes physically ill. In her first major screen role, Cannon practically steals the movie away from her more experienced co-stars, and the scene in which Alice opens up to her psychiatrist (Donald F. Muhich) is easily the film’s most potent.

The final scene of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a bit uncomfortable to watch, but then the entire movie seems to revel in getting its audience to squirm a little in their seats. By examining marriage and relationships in a truthful, often humorous, sometimes brutal manner, Mazursky and his extraordinary cast occasionally have us laughing simply because it’s the only way to break the tension.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, July 11, 2022

#2,782. Penelope (1966) - Natalie Wood 4-Pack


I always thought of Natalie Wood as a fine dramatic actress, but in 1966’s Penelope she proved she was just as adept at comedy, holding her own alongside some of the era’s best funnymen.

Penelope (Wood) is married to successful banker James Elcott (Ian Bannen), who dedicates every waking moment to his job. Hoping to get James' attention, Penelope disguises herself as an elderly woman and holds up a teller at his bank, escaping with around $60,000 in cash!

Later that same afternoon, Penelope tells her psychiatrist Dr. Mannix (Dick Shawn) what she’s done, and even accompanies James when he and Police Lt. Bixbee (Peter Falk) review the bank’s surveillance footage to get a glimpse of the robber.

But when Penelope decides to come clean and confess to James and the police, she is both surprised and a little hurt that nobody believes her!

Directed by Arthur Hiller, Penelope features an impressive supporting cast. Dick Shawn is at his manic best as the psychiatrist who has fallen in love with his patient, and does whatever is necessary to help her get out of this mess (even going so far as to volunteer to return the money for her). Peter Falk is also strong as the inquisitive police detective who finds he, too, is falling for Penelope, while the great Jonathan Winters makes a silent cameo as a randy college professor (it was a reunion of sorts for Shawn, Falk, and Winters, all three of whom appeared in Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy masterpiece It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).

Equally good is Ian Bannen as Penelope’s workaholic husband, while Lila Kedrova and Lou Jacobi get their share of laughs as husband / wife con artists Madame Sabada and Ducky; a late scene where they attempt to blackmail Penelope is arguably the film’s funniest.

But as solid as Shawn, Falk, and company are, it’s Natalie Wood who steals the show, playing the title character as a ditzy yet oh-so adorable thief who doesn’t take her life of crime as seriously as she should. Within hours of robbing her husband’s bank, Penelope drops the yellow outfit she wore off at a second-hand thrift store, then, sporting a blonde wig and a fake French accent, places a $1,000 bill in a Salvation Army collection plate! Wood is simultaneously funny and alluring, and it’s easy to see why just about every male character in the movie (aside from her husband, of course) develops a crush on Penelope.

This 1966 film may boast an all-star supporting cast, but when all is said and done, Penelope wouldn’t have been half the movie it is without Natalie Wood.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, July 9, 2022

#2,781. Inside Daisy Clover (1965) - Natalie Wood 4-Pack


Hollywood is front and center in director Robert Mulligan’s 1965 film Inside Daisy Clover, a movie that takes more than a bit of the shine off of Tinseltown.

Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood) is a 15-year-old tomboy who lives in a beachfront trailer park with her loopy yet charismatic mother (Ruth Gordon). But Daisy has a particular talent that might very well take her places: she can sing. In fact, she sent one of her recordings off to Hollywood producer Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer), who was so impressed that he offered Daisy a 5-year contract, promising to transform her into a movie star.

Far from making her dreams come true, however, Daisy’s newfound success causes nothing but trouble. First, her estranged sister Gloria (Betty Harford), anxious to become Daisy’s legal guardian (and thus benefit from her newfound popularity) has their mother committed to an asylum, while Swan and his assistant Walter Baines (Roddy McDowall) create an entirely new - and incredibly fictitious – backstory for their newest protégé.

Then fate throws a monkey wrench into the works in the form of handsome movie star Wade Lewis (Robert Redford), who sweeps young Daisy off her feet and even marries her. It’s at this point that Daisy’s “career” begins to unravel, and the once-precocious teenager finds herself dealing with issues and emotions that she’s ill-equipped to handle.

The cast assembled for Inside Daisy Clover is as impressive as they come. Redford, in an early screen role, plays the romantic cad quite well, and there’s even a few hints dropped that his character is bisexual (certainly a hot-button topic for 1965, yet the film handles it tastefully enough). Redford won a Golden Globe (Most Promising Newcomer) for his performance in Inside Daisy Clover, as did Ruth Gordon (Best Supporting Actress), whose humorous and occasionally tragic turn as Daisy’s mother also netted her an Academy Award nomination. Both awards were well-deserved, but equally as good is Christopher Plummer as Raymond Swan, the heartless producer whose only concern is the bottom line; and Katharine Bard as Shaw’s wife Melora, a woman whose carefree attitude and cheery optimism masks a heartbreak of her own.

And then there’s Natalie Wood, who perfectly captures every nuance of her inexperienced character, from the tough, no-nonsense young lady who takes care of her mother to the starlet, whose joy of being “discovered’ slowly dissolves as the harsh realities of being “owned” by a studio drain her of her ambition. Daisy Clover is forced to grow up quickly once fame and fortune come knocking, and Wood wonderfully conveys every aspect of her character’s changing personality (elated, confused, smitten, even depressed).

In addition, there are a few musical numbers scattered throughout Inside Daisy Clover, and the film is crisply directed by Mulligan, who keeps things moving along at a nice pace. And while I would have liked to see them spend a little more time on Daisy’s initial entry into the Hollywood elite (her transition from a rough-around-the-edges kid to a refined, perfectly coached actress seems to happen overnight), Inside Daisy Clover proved a pleasant surprise.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Thursday, July 7, 2022

#2,780. They Were Expendable (1945) - The Films of John Ford


By 1945, the war in the Pacific had ended. John Ford’s They Were Expendable, released that same year, takes us back to the beginning, with an opening scene set on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was the event that kicked off the Pacific campaign, and while the United States would eventually emerge victorious, this movie serves as a reminder of those early days, when victory was anything but certain.

Based on a book of the same name that chronicled the exploits of Lt. John D. Bulkeley, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service during World War II, They Were Expendable stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. Brickley, commander of a ragtag group of PT boats stationed in the Philippines. When war breaks out between the U.S. and Japan, Brickley and his second-in-command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), expect to see some action. Unfortunately, Navy Brass isn’t convinced that PT Boats will be effective against the Japanese Armada, so Brickley, Ryan, and their crew are given menial tasks to perform, like running messages and shuttling officers between posts.

Even when they prove their worth in battle (at one point single-handedly taking on a squadron of Japanese planes), Brickley’s PT crew, which also includes BMC Mulcahey (Ward Bond), Ensign Garnder (Marshall Thompson), and Ensign Andrews (Paul Langdon), find themselves on the sidelines. As the war in the Pacific rages on, Japan wins victory after victory, even going so far as to force the Commanding General of the Pacific Theater, Douglas MacArthur (played here by Bruce Kellogg), to flee to Australia.

And while Brickley and Ryan fight effectively (when permitted to), the Japanese continue to gain ground, making it anyone’s guess as to how long U.S. forces will be able to hold out.

John Ford, who served in the Navy’s photographic unit during World War II, hadn’t directed a feature-length movie since 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, yet you wouldn’t know it watching this film. From start to finish, They Were Expendable features all the bravura, humor, and drama we’ve come to expect from the legendary director. Also good is star Robert Montgomery, who was himself a PT commander during World War II; his turn in what is essentially the lead role is one of the strongest of his career. Wayne is also believable as Lt. Ryan, who is more than ready to face the enemy, while the rest of the cast is solid in support. And while they are few and far between, the battle scenes featured in They Were Expendable are well-executed, especially the squad’s first encounter with Japanese aircraft.

But make no mistake; They Were Expendable is no flag-waving propaganda film. It is a raw, sometimes harsh account of the early days of the Pacific campaign, when the U.S. was outnumbered and outmatched by the Japanese. Yes, the United States would eventually win the war, but as They Were Expendable reminds us, we lost our share of battles along the way.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

#2,779. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) - The Films of John Ford


Young Mr. Lincoln marked the first time Henry Fonda and John Ford collaborated on a motion picture, and the outstanding job they did bringing this story to the screen stands as a testament to them both.

While Young Mr. Lincoln does dwell a while in it’s title character’s past, from the moment he first picked up a law book to his ill-fated love affair with Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) and first meeting with future wife Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver), the main thrust of the movie centers on a murder trial, in which new lawyer Abe Lincoln (Fonda) defends the Clay brothers, Matt (Richard Cromwell) and Adam (Eddie Quillan), who stand accused of murdering deputy Scrub White (Fred Kohler Jr.) during a late-night scrum. The accused’s mother, Abigail (Alice Brady), was the only witness to the fight, but refuses to say which of her boys wielded the knife that ultimately killed Scrub White.

Though the odds are stacked against him, and everyone in Springfield wants to see the Clay brothers hang, Abe Lincoln pulls out all the stops, doing whatever is necessary to save his clients from the gallows.

Though not a factual account of Lincoln’s early years, Young Mr. Lincoln is faithful to the spirit of the man, with Fonda flawlessly interpreting honest Abe’s self-effacing humility, his down-home common sense, and his determination to see justice prevail. In what is the film’s most potent scene, Abe convinces a large lynch mob, which was storming the jail house to get at the Clay brothers, to let justice run its course.

To complement Fonda’s performance, Ford infuses the film with just the right amount of humanity, forging a link between character and audience without over-sentimentalizing the man; even a sequence set at a society dance, where Lincoln and Mary Todd first spend time together, doesn’t seem as superfluous as it might in another movie. In addition, Ford mixes in a few touches of humor to make it all palpable. Especially funny is the tug-of-war scene, during which Abe, acting as his team’s anchor, gets a bit “creative” with his rope work (though I laughed a little harder when Abe was judging a pie-baking contest, and had a hard time deciding between Apple and Peach).

The supporting cast is equally good, especially Alice Brady (in her final screen role) as the distraught mother, Donald Meek as Prosecutor John Felder (making him Abe’s main adversary in the picture), and the always-reliable Ward Bond as J. Palmer Cass, who acts as the prosecution’s key witness. But it is Abe himself, perfectly portrayed by Fonda, who makes Young Mr. Lincoln a bona-fide classic, and a motion picture you simply must see.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Sunday, July 3, 2022

#2,778. The Hurricane (1937) - The Films of John Ford


There are times when watching old movies can be… awkward, especially when the stories and themes of said film are in direct conflict with modern sensibilities. Usually, I try to take into account the time period in which a film was made, and while classics such as Tarzan the Ape Man, Disney’s Dumbo, and 1968’s The Party feature a number of racially-insensitive sequences, all of which would make today’s audiences cringe, these films have their strengths as well, so I recognize their shortcoming while also remembering they are a product of a less enlightened time.

And yet, I found it very difficult to get through John Ford’s The Hurricane. Set in the South Pacific during the height of European colonialism, The Hurricane had me rolling my eyes on more than one occasion, which definitely influenced my overall opinion of the movie.

Terangi (Jon Hall) is a native of the South Seas island of Manukura, a French colony. Having just returned home from a long voyage, Terangi is reunited with his fiancé Marama (Dorothy Lamour), and within hours the two are married by French priest Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith).

Their honeymoon is short lived, however; Terangi and the rest of his crew are ordered by their skipper, Captain Nagle (Jerome Cowan), to sail for Tahiti the very next day. While there, Terangi gest into a fight with a French citizen and breaks his jaw. He is sentenced to six months in prison, but due to repeated escape attempts eventually finds himself facing a stint of 16 years!

Captain Nagle, Father Paul, and the colony’s physician Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell) try to convince DeLaage (Raymond Massey), the Governor of Manukura, to intercede on Terangi’s behalf and get his sentence suspended. DeLaage, who believes strongly in the letter of the law, refuses, and not even the pleas of his wife Madame DeLaage (Mary Astor) can sway him.

Terangi does eventually escape, resulting in a massive manhunt on both Tahiti and Manukura. Even the approach of a major storm, one strong enough to potentially destroy Manukura, won’t dissuade DeLaage, who is intent on recapturing Terangi and returning him to prison.

To their credit, John Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to great lengths to paint the natives of Manukura in a positive light while, at the same time, demonizing the French authorities; Terangi’s trouble began when a drunk Frenchman ordered him and several other Manukurans to leave a bar, simply because they weren’t white (Terangi refused, and punched the loudmouth across the jaw). Equally as loathsome is the sadistic guard played by John Carradine, who takes pleasure in making Terangi’s time in prison a living hell.

Alas, on more than one occasion, the people of Manukura are also depicted as childlike, and happy to submit to the rules of their French overseers. Even more problematic is the fact that the film’s most sympathetic native characters, Terangi and Marama, were played by Caucasian actors! It wasn’t until about 10 minutes into the movie that I even realized these two were supposed to be Islanders!

The Hurricane does feature a handful of strong performances, including Massey as the by-the-books Governor, Astor as his more sympathetic wife, and Mitchell as the oft-drunk doctor who admires the locals and does what he can to help them. Also, the final 20 minutes, when the titular hurricane finally strikes, are both tense and thrilling, and feature some nifty special effects.

Still, even with its strengths, The Hurricane is a movie that will likely rub 21st century viewers the wrong way. That’s the effect it had on me, anyway.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Friday, July 1, 2022

#2,777. The Iron Horse (1924) - The Films of John Ford


A silent epic directed by John Ford, 1924’s The Iron Horse chronicles the birth of the American Transcontinental Railroad, and does so in a way that makes its 150-minute runtime seem to fly by.

George O’Brien stars as Davy Brandon, who, years after witnessing the murder of his father, agrees to help his old neighbor, engineer Thomas Marsh (Will Walling), save some money by finding a shortcut for the railroad through the Black Hills.

Though still in love with Marsh’s daughter Miriam (Madge Bellamy), who was his childhood sweetheart, Davy discovers that she is now engaged to Peter Jessen (Cyril Chadwick), an employee of her father’s. What none of them realize, however, is that Jessen is in league with Deroux (Fred Kohler), who, though pretending to assist Marsh, wants nothing more than to see the railroad fail.

Delayed time and again by Deroux’s treachery, dissatisfied workers, and raids by the Cheyenne, Marsh and his team, which includes former Union soldiers Slattery (Francis Powers), Casey (J. Farrell MacDonald) and Schultz (James Welch), remain undaunted, and are determined to see the job through to the end.

The first major production of John Ford’s career, The Iron Horse is a grand motion picture that features all the drama, all the excitement, and plenty of the humor that would become staples of the great director’s later works. There are sweeping panoramas of the western frontier, and plenty of big, sprawling scenes, including cattle drives, buffalo hunts, and a number of battles between railroad workers and the Cheyenne.

Ford even gets a few opportunities to show off his artistic eye; I was especially impressed by a scene in which the shadows of Cheyenne warriors, riding up the crest of a hill, are cast against the side of a locomotive car. As for the laughs, most come courtesy of Slattery, Casey and Schultz, who have known each other since the war and get into all sorts of mischief, but I also enjoyed the sequences in which bartender / “judge” Haller (James A. Marcus), who, though clearly not qualified (a sign outside his saloon mentions the fact his papers from the Governor were stolen, but he’s going to practice law anyway), dispenses immediate justice (with a gavel and all) whenever there’s a fight in his establishment.

Along with the main cast, a few historical figures pop up throughout The Iron Horse, including Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull), both before and after he became President, as well as Buffalo Bill Cody (George Waggner) and Wild Bill Hickok (Jack Padjan).

Not everything about The Iron Horse works. In one particularly Schmaltzy scene, Miriam puts down a workers’ revolt simply by asking them to “do their country proud”, and like many movies from this time period, the treatment of non-whites is less than sympathetic. The Cheyenne are depicted as the villains, and, worse still, the puppets of Deroux, while the Chinese workers, many of whom gave their lives to complete the railroad, get a brief mention at the beginning of the movie and only appear in a scene or two after that, usually in the background. But getting a chance to see an early film by John Ford, and a western to boot, makes The Iron Horse a movie that’s definitely worth seeking out.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10