Saturday, May 27, 2023

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2023

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy, was I wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2023

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6, 2023

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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