|by Alex Paquin
This is a collection of capsule reviews organized in the manner of a film guide. Some of the films listed below have not been reviewed elsewhere on eFilmCritic or Hollywood Bitchslap; this is meant to fill this gap. In other cases, the films have been reviewed at length by others, and another full review, would be a waste of time.
Needless to say, this is a work in progress, and new titles will be added to this page over time. If you have comments, or if you want a specific title reviewed (preferably one with long-dead actors in it), please leave me a note on the EFC/HBS forum. Entries with an existing page on this site provide a link to it.
Current number of entries: 158.
A NOTE ON RATINGS:
The ratings included in this feature are mine alone. In keeping with the scale used by reviews on EFC/HBS, the highest score is five stars, and the lowest is one. However, a rating of two stars in this here is more ambiguous than two stars on the rest of the site; here it indicates a film with some points of interest but otherwise unremarkable. Four stars, likewise, mean that a film is worth watching and is entertaining/important indeed, but lacks something, or has faded; perhaps I can't even pinpoint what this "something" is, but I can sense it.
Where I choose to change a rating, I will mention the previous rating as well, and maybe a small note to explain the change. If I choose to change either the description or the assessment but not the rating, the previous version will be discarded without mention.
A NOTE ON ORGANIZATION:
For convenience, films are listed alphabetically; however, the articles "a", "an", and "the" at the beginning are not considered. Films with identical titles or numbered sequels are listed chronologically. In the case of two films with identical titles released the same year, additional information will be provided.
Titles beginning with numbers will appear as if the numbers had been spelled out. For example, 55 Days at Peking is listed as if its title were "Fifty-Five".
Acronyms appear at the top of listings for their first letters. For example, D.O.A. would be at the top of the "D" section, ahead of films beginning with "Da--".
Foreign-language films are identified as such, and will be listed under their most famous title among English-speaking audiences, either in the original language (e.g.: La Dolce Vita) or translated (Seven Samurai), but always using the Roman alphabet. This list will not specify whether a film is available subtitled, dubbed, or in both methods of translation. Sometimes there might not even be an English-language translation.
The placement of films with alternate titles will be left to the discretion of this reviewer, but will include alternate references redirecting the reader to the entry under the selected name.
-SOUND: Every feature film released before 1927 is silent; after this, until about 1930, there was a strange coexistence of pure silents, silents with synchronized sound, part-talking and full talking pictures. The Jazz Singer, often called the first talking picture, was in fact part-talking. Silents with synchronized sound had recorded music and sound effects, but no dialogue. Silent versions of sound pictures were also released for foreign markets and theatres without sound equipment. A handful of sound-recording processes existed; most were sound-on-film processes, with the exception of Warner Brothers' Vitaphone sound-on-disc system. Because of Vitaphone, it is not unheard of for the soundtrack to survive where the picture has been lost, or vice versa. This period also yielded multiple sound versions of the same film in different languages. Entries below will either be marked "silent", "silent with synchronized sound", or "part-talking" where applicable. A film with no mention will be a full-talking picture. In the case of silents, unless there is conclusive evidence that a musical score was commissioned for the initial release of the film, and that this score was used in the copy I saw, I will not review the musical tracks.
-SCREEN FORMAT: Most pictures released before 1953 are filmed in the Academy ratio (4:3). There are rare exceptions from the late 1920s and early 1930s, when widescreen experiments on 65/70mm film were carried out; the most famous of these are Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, starring a young John Wayne, and Roland West's The Bat Whispers. The technology was perfected enough that the cameras were reportedly brought back in use when the widescreen format became popular in the 1950s, but it was a failure at the time because of the need for special projectors, when sound was still an expensive but popular novelty. The films using the process were simultaneously shot in regular 35mm to ensure wider circulation; it was often the only version which survived. When, twenty-odd years later, the studios started dusting off their widescreen patents, the Academy ratio gradually died out. Because of the various processes introduced in the early-to-mid-1950s, entries will not include the screen format except when historically important. Readers who want to know more on this subject are invited to go to Martin Hart's American Widescreen Museum website.
-COLOUR: Natural colour processes existed before the First World War, but the first truly practical colour process was Technicolor's Process 3 (1928), which perfected the two-colour system the company had introduced in 1922 by adding dye imbibition and doing away with the cumbersome method of cementing two prints. A few two-colour features were made, but the process was mostly used for specific scenes. Some of these films are now lost, and many of those that survive only exist in black-and-white prints. Process 4 (1932) would be the first three-colour process, first used by Walt Disney, who secured a three-year exclusivity for animation films; the first live-action feature film using it would be 1935's Becky Sharp by Pioneer Pictures, a company created by Technicolor investor John Hay Whitney. As with two-colour films, some of the more obscure three-colour pictures may only exist in black and white. Pioneer Pictures' next Technicolor film, for example, was Dancing Pirate (1936). Whitney later sold the rights to his films to a company later acquired by Cinecolor, a competitor still using a variation of its two-strip system. New prints were struck in Cinecolor, and this version was apparently available on home video. The copyright on the film has expired, and the version available at the Internet Archive is in black and white. In such cases, I will explicitly state it in the review. I will also mention cases of part-colour films, a rarity after 1935 (a classic example would be 1939's The Wizard of Oz). As with music tracks of silents, I will not mention tinted frames, as these may vary from print to print. The colour status of films released after 1970 will only be mentioned if they are in black and white.
AFFAIRS OF CAPPY RICKS (1937). Rating: ***. B&W. A sea captain sets about solving his family and business problems. Typical low-budget escapism of the 1930's, but done well. Good performances by W. Brennan and a supporting cast of B actors make this paper-thin picture quite endearing. Not bad at all.
ATLANTIC (1929). Rating: *. B&W. The ocean liner Atlantic strikes a berg. Prevented from being called after that other ship by legal reasons, this British International Pictures film by the German E.A. Dupont was produced in English, French and German versions. Primitive sound was to be expected, but the acting makes it unintentionally hilarious. Three types of thespians are on display, even though they all draw out their lines to ridiculous extents for dramatic emphasis: those who still think of themselves in the silent era and exaggerate their physical reactions; those who think their lines are modern-day Shakespeare; and John Longden, who is in a class by himself thanks to such masterpieces as "they are e-qual-ly cer-tain. to. be. lost", "it. will. be. bad. enough. as. it. is" and "this ship has. three. hours. to live" (the last one with his back to the camera). Lavish sets were built, but are rarely seen until they are flooded. The scenes on deck were obviously shot silent at 16 frames per second and were sped up to 24 frames when the soundtrack was added. Only the last fifteen minutes convey a real sense of terror and desperation.
BEAU GESTE (1939). Rating: ***. B&W. Three brothers enlist in the Foreign Legion after one of them steals a sapphire. Good acting by the main actors, especially G. Cooper, but something is missing. The film (as with the book) begins with the famous scene in which a relief column of the Legion arrives at a fort where all the soldiers are dead at their post, and most of the story is consequently an extended flashback. Still, it is not so much the knowledge of the conclusion that mars the picture, but its lack of scope. William Wellman is a talented director, but the picture takes too much time on the Gestes' youth and fails to capitalize on the romantic aspect of the Legion which played a large part in the popularity of the book. Conversely, it is not gritty enough to exploit the other facet of popular portrayals of the Legion, that of a band of petty thieves and criminals given a choice between serving the country and a one-way ticket to Devil's Island. In other words, in spite of an eerie opening and a strong climax, the film mostly lacks impact.
BIG TRAIL, THE (1930). Rating: ****. B&W. (Both 35- and 70mm versions exist; the latter is reviewed.) A trapper investigating a murder helps a caravan reach Oregon. The plot is serviceable, but the story is not why this film is worth watching. First, it is the first starring role of one John Wayne in the genre that would make him famous. Second, it is one of the few surviving films shot in Fox Grandeur, a 70mm widescreen process. Director Raoul Walsh displays a masterful understanding of this then-new technology (at a time when even sound was not quite perfected), and his shot composition still holds its own against westerns from the fifties. It was entirely filmed on location, but failed at the box office because few theatres were equipped for widescreen projection, and Wayne would not rise to stardom until Stagecoach in 1939.
BLACK KNIGHT, THE (1954). Rating: **. Colour. A blacksmith seeks to become a knight of the Round Table, and acts anonymously as the Black Knight. For those who thought there could be an Arthurian film that made less sense than the Bruckheimer version, this is the film to watch. Released amidst a slew of medieval pictures (Knights of the Round Table, with Robert Taylor, was released the same year), the screenplay, not particularly concerned with coherence, makes King Arthur face a Cornish-Saracen (!) alliance disguising their actions as Viking raids and making human sacrifices at Stonehenge. Alan Ladd's apathetic performance as the Black Knight (who wears a white suit of armor, good for deflecting projectiles and reflecting projectors) doesn't help. Directed by Tay Garnett, who had previously filmed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with Bing Crosby.
BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH, THE (1954). Rating: ****. Colour. The son of an earl executed for treason whose family is under a sentence of death is secretly groomed for a knighthood by his father's friend. Tony Curtis is hardly the first name that comes to mind to play a medieval knight, but his performance, while not really good, does not detract from the film, whose appeal is in its details. Putting aside the corny romance between Curtis and real-life wife Janet Leigh, this is a surprisingly mature picture that takes the time to mention the scarcity of books, the weight of plate armor, and the nobility's table manners; while costumes are as outlandish as one can expect from a fifties medieval picture, the representation of the Middle Ages on display is credible.
BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). Rating: ****. Colour. Nuns in the Himalayas set up a mission on a windy cliff above a small village. This is one of the films (by the Powell & Pressburger team) that made Jack Cardiff's cinematography famous. As for the story, one knows from the start that the mission is doomed, and everything thereafter details the hardships, temptations and failings of the nuns.
BRIDGE TOO FAR, A (1977). Rating: ****. In 1944, British troops are parachuted behind enemy lines to hold a bridge for a major advance. In style, this film by independent producer Joseph E. Levine and directed by Richard Attenborough is reminiscent of the star-studded three-hour war films of the sixties such as The Longest Day (both are based on books by Cornelius Ryan). In keeping with that tradition, no English is spoken where it does not belong, and the action reduces famous stars to little more than glorified bit parts. For this film, according to screenwriter William Goldman, the essential American actor was Robert Redford, while Gene Hackman was reduced to playing a Polish general absent from most of the film. This being said, it is overlong, occasionally confusing, and not particularly memorable.
BUCK PRIVATES (1941). Rating: ***. B&W. Two crooked pedlars enlist by accident in the army. Three stars for historical interest rather than the quality of the film. This was the first feature starring Abbott and Costello, and set the pattern for most of their films over the next fifteen years: comedy routines, musical interludes (here by the Andrews Sisters), and a love story involving a more classic leading man. As for the humour, it is the usual army jokes, with the film being released before the U.S. entered World War II.
BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME (1946). Rating. **. B&W. Sequel to the previous entry; Abbott and Costello somehow survive World War II and take an orphaned French girl back to the U.S. One did not exactly expect the depth of The Best Days of Our Lives, but this film seems somewhat too concerned with the orphan, and not enough with the veterans themselves. As with the rest of the comedians' vehicles, this is thin, but at least devoid of musical numbers; a good ending chase and a strong antagonist in the former sergeant make it occasionally interesting.
CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER (1951), a.k.a. same plus "R.N." at the end. Rating: ***. In 1807, a British frigate carries a cargo of arms intended for a South American aristocrat rebelling against Spain. Episodic adaptation of three Forester novels, not particularly concerned with historical accuracy (consider this exchange: "We drink a spirit distilled from molasses which you probably do not know. We call it rum. Would that do?" "If there is nothing better, it will have to do."), and occasionally unconvincing in small details. The ship's deck looks like a sound stage, one French character speaks his native language with a distinctly English accent, and so on. Still, it is decently directed (by R. Walsh), and Gregory Peck passes muster as the eponymous character. Evocative score by Robert Farnon.
CAPTAIN KIDD (1945). Rating: **. B&W. A former pirate obtains a commission to escort a treasure vessel through perilous waters, but the temptation is too strong. Cinematic seafaring can rarely be done effectively on the cheap, and this film is no exception to the rule; it might have been far more exciting with a proper treatment, and with an additional 20 minutes. Charles Laughton made enough of an impression as Kidd for the character to be met by Abbott and Costello in 1952.
CAPTAIN PIRATE (1952). Rating: ***. Colour. Captain Blood, having retired from piracy, is accused of having sacked an allied Spanish port, and returns to his former trade to clear his name. Typical seafaring action film of the period, pleasant but forgettable, and deserving of a better title. Louis Hayward is no Errol Flynn.
CARRY ON ABROAD (1972). Rating: **. British tourists stay at a hotel in construction on the Mediterranean island of Els Bels. An uneven mix of innuendos and ethnic stereotypes made in the beginning of the series' decline; nothing particularly offensive but nothing particularly worth seeing.
CARRY ON AT YOUR CONVENIENCE (1971). Rating: ****. Workers at a bathroom fixtures factory go on strike. Nobody ever claimed that toilet humour could be art (Marcel Duchamp excepted), but this film, unlike most others in the Carry On series, decided to take on a relatively serious subject, that of labour relations, raising it above the status of fluff. It was a box office failure at the time, and the series never attempted something this serious again, retreating into double entendres and smut. Its views on organized labour are close to reactionary, but the incidents in the film ring true: a flash walk-out organized to coincide with a football match; a strike being called because the company introduced bidets combining two features previously made separately; the parent union's industrial relations committee being "back from Rio" but the action committee having "gone off to Russia"; striking workers returning to the factory just in time for the annual company outing, and complaining -- none louder than the union leader, a paragon of hypocrisy and intimidation -- when they discover they can't be served food at their hotel because the restaurant staff is on strike. There are, however, too many asides, and the film gets distracted from the labour dispute in the last half-hour.
CARRY ON BEHIND (1975). Rating: *. Two archeologists attempt to dig up Roman remains in a camping park for trailers. Sometime in the early seventies, the Carry On franchise moved from innuendo-laden working-class humour to white-trash smut. Its abandonment of subtlety was undoubtedly meant to stay ahead of relaxing social mores, but in so doing it has also lost its dignity, and, by the time this film was made, the formula had become so threadbare that this became a raunchier version of Carry on Camping. Why Elke Sommer appeared in this film is anyone's guess.
CARRY ON CAMPING (1969) Rating: *. Colour. Two men bring their wives to a camping ground they are expecting to be full of nudists. Unmemorable and trashy, with peeping toms, chaste schoolgirls, and a finale involving a hippie concert.
CARRY ON COLUMBUS (1992). Rating: *. The Carry On franchise takes on the discovery of America. The latest and presumably last Carry On film, released 14 years after the penultimate picture in the series. To its credit, it did not betray its pedigree; unfortunately, while Carry On never changed, everything else did, making its failure all the more predictable.
CARRY ON CONSTABLE (1959). Rating: **. B&W. A grizzled police sergeant must cope with new recruits. Rather enjoyable but empty comedy in which the police force seems almost used as a metaphor for a Great Britain on the cusp of social change; undoubtedly fresh in its day.
CARRY ON COWBOY (1966). Rating: ***. Colour. Marshal P. Knutt ("Marsh" to his friends), a sanitation engineer, is sent to "clean up" Stodge City after the last marshall was gunned down by the Rumpo Kid. Effective send-up of every Western cliché, but the necessarily American setting seems rather ill-suited to the British comedy team.
CARRY ON CRUISING (1962). Rating: **. Colour. The captain of a liner bound for the Mediterranean has to cope with new staff on his well-trained crew. Mild entry in the series, the first in colour. One is almost tempted to regard it as an early version of The Love Boat, with English humour.
CARRY ON ENGLAND (1976). Rating: *. During World War II, a by-the-book commander is assigned to an experimental unit where men and women serve together. This late Carry On entry (only Carry On Emmanuelle and Columbus followed it) exhibits all the worst traits of the series: an over-reliance on sexual humour and military clichés, a franchise that outlived its time with few of the regular actors involved. As for its subject matter, M*A*S*H did it much better, for it understood that, in spite of the hijinks, war was indeed hell. In comparison, one might conclude from this film that war is boredom; this assertion might also be true, but one does not watch this expecting to find cinéma-vérité.
CARRY ON FOLLOW THAT CAMEL (1966): See FOLLOW THAT CAMEL.
CARRY ON HENRY (1971). Rating: ****. Henry the Eighth seeks to sire an heir with his new French bride, but garlic gets in the way. Arguably the best period film in the Carry On series, capitalizing on the costume drama fad of the late sixties; it features some inspired puns (the Queen, after being told by Cardinal Wolsey that her husband went outside with a nubile woman because he wanted "to get a little air", wonders "how many more airs does he want?"), delightfully ironic twists (torturing a man for his confession that he slept with the Queen, then for his retraction when news of the large dowry reaches the King, then for his confession again when Henry realizes he does want a divorce after all), and strong characterization.
CARRY ON IN THE LEGION (1966): See FOLLOW THAT CAMEL.
CARRY ON JACK (1963). Rating: ***. Colour. A newly commissioned midshipman has his identity usurped before he can join his ship and finds himself impressed as a common sailor. The jokes are corny, the set-ups hackneyed, and one might even say it is exactly what one can expect from a Carry On film; but there is something intangible about it -- perhaps bordering on "almost intentionally bad" -- that makes it quite pleasant to watch.
CARRY ON LOVING (1970). Rating: **. Colour. Goings-on at a dating agency. Not as smutty as one might have expected from the title; the franchise is still chasing the zeitgeist with a butterfly net, though.
CARRY ON REGARDLESS (1960). Rating: **. B&W. Unemployed workers sign on with an agency doing odd jobs. This film is a collection of sketches on a similar theme, which deviates from the Carry On model. In itself, this is not a problem -- Carry on Constable did this somewhat-- but most of the sketches fall hopelessly flat. One exception is the "Forth Bridge" sketch because, unlike most others, it takes the time to build up suspense before reaching the punch line.
CARRY ON SCREAMING! (1966). Rating: ***. Colour. A police sergeant investigates the disappearance of a young woman in a sinister park. Convincing parody of Hammer horror films, with the texture faithfully replicated down to the gaudy cinematography. Not quite Carry On material, though.
CARRY ON UP THE KHYBER (1968). Rating: ***. Colour. In the British Raj, the soldiers of 3rd Foot and Mouth, a Scottish regiment known as the "Devils in skirts" among the natives, are found, contrary to their fearsome reputation, to be wearing undergarments underneath their kilts, promptly leading Indian nationalists to revolt. Not exactly a sustained critique of imperialism in spite of its subject matter, it still features a noteworthy climax that encapsulates the British "stiff upper lip". Despite strong performances from the regular cast, too much time, as is customary with this series, is spent on dalliance.
CHEAP DETECTIVE, THE (1978). Rating: *. A hard-boiled private detective in 1940 Shan Franshishco attempts to solve the murder of his partner. All flavour and no substance. What started out for all intents and purposes as a spin-off of Murder by Death (same producer, writer and director, and Peter Falk reprising the same archetype under a new name) ends up as an aimless spoof of pretty much every major film in which Bogart starred. In spite of a good eye for period detail, it is too busy cramming in as many references to film noir as it can to bother with an attempt to weave a cohesive scenario.
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970). Rating: ****. At the height of the Cold War, an American supercomputer contacts its Soviet counterpart; they jointly decide they do not need human supervision. Chilling film on the effects of technology that still works today despite its dated setting (watch it after Fail-Safe, as this is the future glimpsed at in the 1964 film); it is even rather well served by its bleak sets and lack of stars. The attempts to insert humour into the story, especially the scenes involving the captivity of the chief designer, are nonetheless superfluous.
CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT, A (1949). Rating: **. Colour. A twentieth-century blacksmith is sent back in time to King Arthur's Britain. Colourful and innocuous adaptation, unfortunately flaccid, of the execrable novel by Mark Twain. Bing Crosby is starring, so it also has musical numbers, but the songs are not from the classic score by Rodgers & Hart, but the instantly forgettable contributions of Van Heusen and Burke.
CORSAIR (1931). Rating: **. B&W. A former Wall Street broker turns to boarding bootleggers on the high seas and stealing their cargo. Rather unpleasant and cheaply made pre-Code picture, where one is encouraged to regard a booze-running pirate as preferable to a Wall Street shark, because thugs stealing from thugs who break a morally motivated law nobody respected anyway is apparently better than swindling old ladies out of their savings. A few imaginative twists in the story can be noted, and its noirish theme of a crook trying to earn a living in a world ruled by dishonesty might have been years ahead of its time, but they hardly make up for the picture's questionable message.
COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, THE (2002). Rating: ***. A wrongly imprisoned merchant mariner escapes, discovers a treasure, and embarks on a course of revenge against those who framed him. Not as bad as I thought it would be, but it remains an unremarkable, even somewhat dull, adaptation of the Dumas novel (which at any rate would require a mini-series to be accurately transferred to the screen). This version unfortunately prefers sword points to public humiliation.
CRUEL SEA, THE (1953). Rating: ***. B&W. A Royal Navy captain commissioned from the merchant marine is assigned to North Atlantic convoys. Exactly what one expects of a British-made drama from the fifties: subdued, attentive to details, respectful of hierarchy, more interested in accuracy than style or even patriotism; this is In Which We Serve with the flag-waving removed. It remains too episodic to be entirely successful; screenwriter Eric Ambler could do much better. Excellent performances from the cast, led by J. Hawkins, mitigate this.
DAY OF THE JACKAL, THE (1973). Rating: *****. The French police tries to prevent the assassination of President de Gaulle by a hired professional known as the Jackal. Exemplary thriller with a worthy treatment of police procedure, crisp to the point of using little to no music, and making good use of natural locations. Solid performances by E. Fox as the Jackal and M. Lonsdale as the police investigator.
DOCTOR X (1932). Rating: ****. Colour (2-strip). A newspaperman attempts to discover the identity of a serial killer who is believed to be on the staff of a nearby medical institute. A sister film of sorts to Mystery of the Wax Museum (this one came first, but the other is more famous), having in common their principal actors (Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray), director (Michael Curtiz), music, and the relatively rare use of two-colour Technicolor; for that matter, the colour prints of both were believed lost until they were recovered in Jack Warner's private collection. In spite of an absurd climax that turns the murderer into a deformed creature for little more than to highlight the ingenuity of the makeup department, this suspenseful drama takes its inspiration from expressionism, uses colour to its limit, and leaves a doubt as to the identity of the guilty party until the very end.
DODGE CITY (1939). Rating: ****. Colour. A cattleman attempts to clean up the title town. Western starring the by-then familiar pair of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland -- even though the romance is remarkably subdued -- directed once again by Michael Curtiz, with the appearance of the jocular Alan Hale Sr. as Flynn's sidekick. As a western, it features all the clichés of the genre, and the story of Wyatt Earp seems to have influenced part of the plot. Had the film acknowledged its influences, it might have been considered an homage, and had it been tongue-in-cheek, it could have been called a pastiche, but it is none of these; with the exception of Hale, the entire film is played straight. It is a remarkable yet unimaginative film, and the use of colour was perhaps too early for this genre; the picture tends to be too pretty for its own good. Also of note: a scene involves a singing battle between Dixie and Marching Through Georgia; that was three years before Curtiz' Casablanca made use of a similar situation.
DRUM, THE (1938). Rating: ***. Colour. A British officer strikes up a friendship with a young prince, whose duplicitous uncle had murdered his father and now intended to betray the British. The very first scene depicts a rotating globe with British possessions in red, to the strains of Rule, Britannia; indeed, a subtle film, featuring a very subtle performance by Raymond Massey as the villain. (Roger Livesey, as the British officer, and Sabu as the prince, are much better.) Queen Victoria would have been proud, perhaps even amused, but it is mostly an oddity for a modern audience.
EAGLE HAS LANDED, THE (1976). Rating: ***. Towards the end of World War II, a German officer devises a plan to send undercover paratroopers to a small English with the aim of kidnapping Churchill, who is planning to visit the area. The film shares some elements with The Dirty Dozen (the German troops are under a suspended death sentence for insubordination), as well as other sixties film involving covert actions behind enemy lines (Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone, for example). There are some misplaced attempts at comedy (Larry Hagman as an inept American colonel) and romance (the entire subplot involving the affairs of Donald Sutherland as an Irish nationalist who helps the Germans), but Michael Caine and Robert Duvall play their roles with the gusto one expects from them.
EL CID (1961). Rating: *****. Colour. Don Rodrigo kills his betrothed's father in a duel, is exiled from Castile, and takes Valencia from the Moors. An astounding picture where the salient theme is, refreshingly, abnegation. If Sophia Loren annoys, Charlton Heston demonstrates incredible talent in the title role. Flawless direction by A. Mann, and good performances from J. Fraser and H. Lom.
ENEMY BELOW, THE (1957). Rating: ***. Colour. In the South Atlantic during World War II, the commanders of an American destroyer escort and a German submarine are engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase. Decent war film with strong performances by Robert Mitchum and, especially, Curt Jürgens, but occasionally lacking in tension.
ERIK THE VIKING (1989). Rating: *. Colour. A Viking goes on a quest to restore the sun. Half-saga, half-comedy, entirely dreary; more evidence that the Monty Pythons, separately, have been a major disappointment (this was written and directed by Terry Jones; John Cleese plays a minor part).
FAREWELL MY LOVELY (1975). Rating: ****. A private investigator is hired to find the ex-girlfriend of a released bank robber. Deft adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, with everything in place to create a memorable film noir, from the voice-over narration to Robert Mitchum's performance as a jaded, past-his-prime Philip Marlowe.
FAT MAN, THE (1951). Rating: **. B&W. A private detective with a fine palate obviously kept active investigates the murder of a dentist. Now, there was a novel idea to be exploited there, and indeed this film was adapted from a radio programme, which, in turn, allegedly drew on characters by Dashiell Hammett; however, the only involvement the crime writer probably had was to have created characters of whom the detective is the exact opposite (see The Thin Man below). The first ten minutes provide a glimpse of what the picture might have been: we see Brad Runyan, the Fat Man (played by J. Scott Smart, who physically is not unlike John Candy with a moustache, reprising his radio role), discussing haute cuisine with French chefs before taking on the case of the dentist's assistant. From there, however, the picture swerves away from the detective to jump from flashback to flashback starring a still unknown Rock Hudson, and becomes a standard crime caper. What this film really required, I think, was a plot about gastronomy -- Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, for example -- for, as it stands, there is a disconnect between the protagonist and the story; Runyan might be a bon vivant, but he never comes alive.
55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963). Rating: ***. Colour. During the Boxer Rebellion, the international legation quarter in Peking is besieged by Chinese rabble, with the support of the Empress. A worthy subject for adaptation is marred by longueurs. Charlton Heston is his usual self as an American major, but there is too little David Niven (cast as -- what else? -- a British diplomat) and too much Ava Gardner. It was filmed in Spain with Chinese extras, but all the main Chinese characters are played by white actors, including the Dowager Empress (by the excellent Flora Robson).
FLAME OVER INDIA (1959): See NORTH WEST FRONTIER.
FLYING DEUCES, THE (1939). Rating: **. B&W. Laurel and Hardy's adventures in the French Foreign Legion. The comic duo had been there before (in Beau Hunks), but this was turned into a feature film by stringing together various elements that don't quite fit; why one would choose to set a film climaxing in aerial mishaps -- the only justification for its title, more appropriate to a parody of, say, Dawn Patrol, Wings, or Hell's Angels -- in an infantry unit is anyone's guess, but it says that somebody's not even trying.
FOLLOW THAT CAMEL (1966), a.k.a. CARRY ON FOLLOW THAT CAMEL, a.k.a. CARRY ON IN THE LEGION. Rating: **. Colour. A British lad disgraced at a cricket match enlists in the Foreign Legion. This film is part of the Carry On canon (as was the case for Don't Lose Your Head, the name was excluded because of legal uncertainty after a change in distributors), but the cast is led by American comedian Phil Silvers in an attempt to secure an international audience. If the relative failure of the film is not the result of Silvers himself, it might well be because of his spectacles: the picture is set in 1906, but Silvers wears his usual black-rimmed glasses. It is not as much Carry On that joins the Legion as Sergeant Bilko (in all but name), which is exactly how they sold the film to audiences. At a time when tightfisted producer Peter Rogers was paying the principals of his lucrative franchise a mere £5000 per picture, Silvers was paid six times that amount for a film in which he and his style of humour did not belong. One admires the attempt to film desert scenes in England, even though the realism is lacking (too many telltale clouds), and the final half-hour is quite exciting.
FOUR FEATHERS, THE (1939). Rating: ****. Colour. An ex-English officer accused of cowardice goes to the Sudan in disguise to prove his accusers wrong. Good old glorious British imperialism at work, but at least this is not the Hollywood version of it; even though the film is not devoid of romantic longings for exotic lands (it is shot on location) it follows a more calculated and subdued approach. Excellent performance by Ralph Richardson.
FRESHMAN, THE (1925). Rating: ****. Silent; B&W. A meek go-getter hopes to make the college football team. The ancestor of all college sports comedies. It features some classic routines by Harold Lloyd, who was convincing as a college student in spite of his age (he was over 30 years old), and perfectly captured the ebullience of mid-twenties America.
GHOST GOES WEST, THE (1935). Rating: *****. B&W. The ghost of a Scottish aristocrat is condemned to roam the ancestral castle until he can get even with a rival clan; meanwhile, his debt-ridden descendent sells the property to an American financier who intends to move it brick by brick to Florida. Wonderfully whimsical comedy directed by René Clair (his first film in English), with Robert Donat as the ghost and his descendent, and Eugene Pallette as the embodiment of American crudity.
GHOST TRAIN, THE (1941). Rating: **. B&W. Stranded passengers at an isolated train station are told of the legend of a phantom train rushing by at night. Fourth film adaptation of a 1923 British play, here given the war propaganda treatment. Decently made, and in keeping with suspense-comedies of the era, but of little more than historical interest. Good starring performance by Arthur Askey.
GO-GET-'EM, HAINES (1936). Rating: **. B&W. The president of a collapsing utilities company flees from creditors by traveling incognito on a liner, but a newspaperman is in pursuit. There is not much to be said about this B-picture. In spite of a running time of less than an hour, it still includes a superfluous musical number instead of expanding on its somewhat interesting plot. Actor William Boyd gets top billing, on the same card as the title, but the Internet Movie Database does not list him in the cast, nor does it list the picture in his filmography; still, this is the last film in which he played a character not called Hopalong Cassidy, which made him very famous (and very rich).
HAPPY TIME, THE (1952). Rating: **. B&W. The adventures of a French-Canadian family in 1920s Ottawa. A picture in an unusual genre for Richard Fleischer, who directed a bit of everything but is hardly remembered today for coming-of-age comedies. The film's failure is hardly his fault, nor that of the actors (except perhaps for Bobby Driscoll's gratuitous French, not to be attempted when one cannot pronounce it convincingly). It is all so quaint now, not without charm, but hopelessly passé, adapted as it is from a play adapted from an obscure novel.
HARD LUCK (1921). Rating: **. Silent; B&W. A starving man attempts to commit suicide, then rescues a hunting party from a band of outlaws. Long considered lost, this Buster Keaton short subject includes a few inventive scenes, but lacks direction.
HELL'S ANGELS (1930). Rating: ***. B&W with colour sequence (2-strip). Two brothers enlist in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. Splendid action sequences and an impeccable attention to technical detail are wedged between inane dialogue and wooden acting, to the extent that the best performance comes from Jean Harlow, who never was noted for her thespian abilities. She is not often on screen after the first half, limiting the impact of her decidedly un-British line delivery, but one has to constantly remind oneself that the siblings are former Oxford students and not barnstormers from the Midwest. Overall, a strange amalgam of realism and schmaltz.
HIT THE ICE (1943). Rating: **. B&W. Two photographers are hired by bank robbers because of their "shooting" ability, then run from the police to Sun Valley. Overlong and padded with musical numbers, this Abbott and Costello film nonetheless includes a few good moments and a memorable action climax, after which they insert yet another song. Really, Universal, you spoil us -- or your pictures.
HOLD THAT GHOST (1941). Rating: ***. B&W. Two gas station attendants inherit an abandoned nightclub from a gangster. Abbott and Costello tended to be better than their routines, but here the musical interludes, often humourous (one is an imitation of Maurice Chevalier), are kept to a minimum, allowing for a greater continuity than what is usually found in the two comedians' pictures. It was the first time an A&C film (this was their third starring film after Buck Privates and In the Navy) was given the horror-comedy treatment, one that Universal would repeat with even more success by involving its other stars and intellectual properties: the "Meet" films.
HOT PURSUIT (1987). Rating: *. A student planning to go to the Caribbean with his girlfriend's family is delayed and tries to catch up with them. Starts out decently before turning into a ludicrous thriller. If you're into that sort of thing, Captain Ron -- yes, Captain Ron -- is better. Starring John Cusack.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1968). Rating: ****. Colour. A black police investigator passing through a small town in the Southern US is asked to assist the local police chief in solving the murder of an industrialist. A captivating but dated study of racism in the United States, whose appeal, apart from that of a historical curiosity, now derives almost exclusively from the conflict between the two main characters, played by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, as well as from a strong sense of atmosphere.
IN THE NAVY (1941). Rating: **. B&W. A popular singer joins the navy incognito with the help of two hapless sailors. In few words, Buck Privates at sea. Comedy routines by Abbott and Costello, crooning by Dick Powell, musical filler by the Andrews sisters. Typical of its time and its stars.
IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942). Rating: ****. B&W. Memory flashbacks by survivors of a sunk destroyer. Quintessential piece of British propaganda written by and starring Noel Coward, directed by Coward and David Lean, with mandatory antebellum reminiscences and patriotic-speech conclusion, even though Coward is hardly believable a battle-hardened commander.
INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, THE (1958). Rating: **. Colour. A British maid goes to China as a missionary, becomes a citizen, and saves local children from the invading Japanese. If you can picture Ingrid Bergman as a British maid, congratulations, your imagination is more elastic than mine. (For that matter, she is playing the same archetype she would reprise some 16 years later, in Murder on the Orient Express, as a missionary to Africa, but at least that character was Swedish.) This is based on the life of Gladys Aylward, who was flummoxed over the inaccuracies and the liberties taken in the film, but it might have come right out of Pearl Buck. As usual, this is Hollywood's picturesque version of China, replete with mysterious exoticism, in which all the principals are played by whites; the best of those, for what it is worth, is Robert Donat, who would die shortly after filming.
ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD, THE (1974). Rating: **. Colour. A British diplomat, with the help of a Scandinavian professor, searches for his son who vanished in the Arctic and discovers an island inhabited by descendents of Viking settlers. Drab seventies adventure film leaving little to imagination. Interesting premise, flawed execution; Maurice Jarre's score fared better. Serviceable special effects.
IVANHOE (1952). Rating: ***. Colour. A Saxon knight attempts to raise the ransom to free King Richard the Lionheart. Another M-G-M adaptation of Great Literature that takes every step to bank on its pedigree while treating it as just any other property to be processed through their movie-making factory -- in this case, their British studio. Robert Taylor looks so heroically right for the title role that it's a pity he couldn't act; Elizabeth Taylor, who could, is miscast as a Jewish girl (even though the actress would convert to Judaism in 1959); and the script is particularly stilted and florid in addition to being desperate for humour ("bid them enter and depart in peace, or else depart in pieces"). There is some good acting among the secondary players, especially the saturnine George Sanders, who alone in the cast seemed to understand that sometimes one needs to underplay a part to fulfill a picture's epic potential.
JFK (1991). Rating: **. President gets shot; film exposes conspiracy. Irritating picture that seems all too aware that whatever "evidence" it can come up with is so skimpy and circumstantial (when not outright fabricated) that a victory in even such a lowly place as the court of public opinion requires dollops of suspenseful sequences where everyone looks shady, scared, or a combination of both. Not surprisingly, this is Oliver Stone's stock in trade.
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1952). Rating: **. Colour/sepia beginning and end. A peasant is given magical beans that produce a gigantic beanstalk leading to a giant's castle. Abbott and Costello are out of their depth with this film ostensibly aimed at children. More sad than embarrassing, because there is a certain quality to it, if one can excuse the too many songs and the frugal production values.
JOLSON SINGS AGAIN (1949). Rating: **. Colour. The second film on the life of singer Al Jolson (after The Jolson Story), from his wartime involvement in entertaining troops to the release of the first film. A rare case of a biopic sequel that had not been envisioned from the start. The first film had covered every important period in the singer's career, including sound films, up to his decline; so what happened to justify a sequel? The first film became a box-office success and resurrected Jolson's career, so part of this film became a biopic about making biopics, including a scene where Larry Parks as Larry Parks, soon to play Jolson, was introduced to Larry Parks as Jolson. As if that were not enough, the real Jolson made a cameo appearance. (It is also worth mentioning Parks' later blacklisting as a Communist.) This is incredibly thin, but worth watching to witness how brazen Hollywood could get at milking a cash cow and glorifying itself in the process.
JOLSON STORY, THE (1946). Rating: ***. Colour. The life of singer Al Jolson. Typical whitewashing of its subject aside (only one wife remains, based on his third, Ruby Keeler), this film benefited from Jolson re-recording his repertoire, which in turn resurrected his career (see Jolson Sings Again). Rather too sweet to be entirely palatable by today's standards, but it features strong performances by Larry Parks and W. Demarest.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961). Rating: ****. An American judge presides over the trial of four judges accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Compelling but padded courtroom drama written by Abby Mann and directed by Stanley Kramer which has some points to make on hypocrisy and the corruption of justice for national expediency. Consequently, it is too eager to shock (footage of death camps which was irrelevant to the charges, as the judges were on trial for their application of the law) and too heavy-handed. Still, Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark and Maximilian Schell deliver a solid performance as the American judge and the American and German lawyers, respectively.
JUST VISITING (2001). Rating: *. A twelfth-century knight and his servant are sent to modern-day Chicago. Bowdlerized remake of a French film, with the same actors, for the American market. Jean Reno can't really act in English, and Christian Clavier loses most of his charm in translation, but the writers (including John Hughes, hence Chicago) deserve most of the blame, for throwing out some of the best characters of the original film while retaining every toilet joke (and even adding some). Falls somewhere between what the French believe holds sway in American cinema and building a film around a topic that Americans can't be expected to understand.
KEEP 'EM FLYING (1941). Rating: *. B&W. Two unemployed workers are assigned to a civilian flying instructor in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Another Abbott and Costello vehicle taking place in another branch of the service, with songs, military jokes, empty patriotism, the works. Routine and tiresome despite good aerial stunts.
KID FROM BROOKLYN, THE (1946). Rating: *. Colour. A milkman becomes a pugilist after accidentally knocking out a champion boxer in a street fight. A film typical of Samuel Goldwyn at his worst: polished to the point of unrealism, saccharine to the point of nausea, exuberant to the point of Danny Kaye.
KING ARTHUR (2004). Rating: *. "Revisionist" take on the Arthurian legends that proposes a version of Arthur as a Roman officer in Britain during the collapse of the empire. Bruckheimerian absurdity that goes out of its way to include every manner of historical and theological reference, even though it is riddled with inaccuracies and anachronisms. One could not avoid thinking of The 13th Warrior, with more pretention and, mercifully, no Antonio Banderas.
LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE (1963): See SWORD OF LANCELOT.
LAST REMAKE OF BEAU GESTE, THE (1977). Rating: **. The adopted sons of a military family, disgraced over the theft of a sapphire, enlist in ze Foreigne Légion. Hit-and-miss parody by Marty Feldman which is too frantic and clever by half. The only actors who hit the right note -- one which pokes fun at outdated social customs with bombast -- are Trevor Howard as Sir Hector Geste, Peter Ustinov as a sadistic Legion sergeant, and, on occasion, Michael York in the title role, who for the most part reprises his devil-may-care performance from The Three Musketeers. Feldman does manage a few innovative touches, such as including footage of Gary Cooper and Rudolph Valentino for the stars to interact with, and could perhaps have delivered a masterpiece of genre deconstruction had he been left without studio interference; nonetheless, its impact ensured that there would be no release of seemingly serious Foreign Legion films for an entire three weeks. (See March or Die below.)
LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, THE (1971). Rating: **. A lighthouse keeper fights off pirates on a remote island in Tierra del Fuego. Ghastly adventure film (adapted from a Jules Verne novel) with two actors past their prime (Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner) not really trying to make the most of this large-budget opportunity. There is plenty of scenery, but very little chewing indeed. Instead, cruelty upon cruelty is inflicted upon the audience for little reason, but not much of it is any good; if you care for such things, Papillon is better.
LONG AND THE SHORT AND THE TALL, THE (1961). Rating: **. B&W. British soldiers in the Burmese jungle in World War II try to make their way back to camp, but only seem to get closer to the Japanese. Routine adaptation of a popular play, with artificial-looking locations. All that is seen here has been done more effectively elsewhere.
LONG ARM, THE (1956), a.k.a. THE THIRD KEY. Rating: ****. B&W. Scotland Yard investigates a series of safe crackings. Good British-made police procedural, starring J. Hawkins.
LONG GOODBYE, THE (1973). Rating: ***. Private detective Philip Marlowe is drawn into the investigation of a friend's death. Robert Altman's modernized adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel is not entirely successful (and was heavily criticized in its day). Elliott Gould is an unorthodox but surprisingly effective choice as Marlowe, but the rest of the picture suffers from a certain seventies bleakness which fails to gel with its traditional noir narrative (The French Connection is a far more effective film).
M (1931). Rating: *****. German film. B&W. The underworld joins the hunt for a child murderer. An influential masterpiece by director Fritz Lang which, sadly, lost some of its freshness as a result, but also indirectly captured some of the restlessness associated with the years just before the Nazis took power. Noteworthy performance by Peter Lorre.
MAGIC BOX, THE (1951). Rating: ***. Colour. The life of William Friese-Greene, a cinema pioneer. As with radio or television, every major country tends to come up with a native inventor of cinema to appropriate its paternity. The French have the Lumières, the Americans have Edison, and the English hoped that Friese-Greene could be their national contender, and this picture was released as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. Unfortunately, the film, most of which takes place in flashback, does not mount a particularly convincing case in his favour. He devised an early film camera, and later dabbled in colour photography (he won a lawsuit against the creators of Kinemacolor, who claimed that every film colour process infringed on their patent, but this is not shown in the picture), and died, fitting the old romantic mold, penniless and in obscurity. There could have been a much better film here: Robert Donat is splendid as Friese-Greene, and Jack Cardiff contributes the photography; unfortunately, it all fizzles quite rapidly.
MAGIC SWORD, THE (1962). Rating: **. Colour. Knight in shining armor must rescue princess from evil sorcerer. Low-budget fantasy with mediocre special effects based on St. George. Basil Rathbone and Estelle Winwood are the only people in the cast who could remotely be called actors.
MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER, THE (1949). Rating: ***. Colour. A French police inspector investigates the death of a wealthy woman. Modest but effective adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel starring his famous detective Jules Maigret (Charles Laughton in the part, surprisingly good), with excellent if occasionally too eager use of location; the City of Paris even gets a credit. It concludes with a chase on a landmark (I'll let you guess which one) that may remind of Hitchcock, but the direction, by actor Burgess Meredith, is lackadaisical, and the colour (for the copy I saw), second-rate. Deserves a viewing, and the film is now in the public domain, making it easy to obtain; unfortunately, for this reason, it is unlikely we will ever see a restored version.
MARCH OR DIE (1977). Rating: **. A detachment of the French Foreign Legion escorts an archeologist in North Africa. The picture, which takes itself seriously enough -- it even received the Maurice Jarre musical treatment -- features every cliché of the genre: the jaded officer with a death wish; the petty thief who grows into the very embodiment of the Legion's mystique; the unsuited recruit who kills himself when he realizes how much of a burden he is for his comrades; a romantic English youth of aristocratic extraction whose only regret is to have been too young for the First World War; the isolated desert fort; a romantic interest that never goes anywhere; and an Arab rebellion led by Ian Holm. Beyond nostalgists for the glory days of the French Empire, one wonders who was the film's intended target audience; not surprisingly, a major box office flop at the time.
MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006). Rating: **. Shopping is easy; statecraft is hard. Social commentary on whatever (I presume on the dangers of nepotism), by Sofia Coppola. Occasionally interesting, always pretty, but whoever resurrected Jean Harlow for the title role should have given her acting lessons in the meantime.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939). Rating: ***. B&W. A naive U.S. senator is framed for a graft scheme he uncovers. Yes, I know, James Stewart is superb in the title role, and his final scenes belong in every anthology of Hollywood, but its views on democracy don't really make a lot of sense. Director Frank Capra seems to consider it inviolate, but inadvertently shows it does not work. SPOILER. In many ways, Capra's It's a Wonderful Life has a similar problem: both feature a David versus Goliath fight, and both end with David winning, but everything points to Goliath's logical victory in the long term, perhaps just after the end of the picture. In the case of this film, Senator Paine, the other senator from the same state (played by Claude Rains) is involved in the graft, but proves more than willing to let his younger colleague be indicted. The political boss back in their home state, Jim Taylor, starts a devastatingly effective media campaign to get Senator Smith expelled from the Senate. Finally Rains' character, overwhelmed by guilt, walks off the Senate floor and tries to shoot himself. He misses, returns to the floor, admits everything and exonerates Smith. Victory, end of film. But nothing has changed. Smith might have been vindicated, but Taylor still controls the state, and nothing indicates that his grip has loosened. What are Smith's re-election odds? In fact, without Paine falling apart after an appeal to emotion -- and luckily failing to commit suicide --, Smith would have been found guilty. It is also worth considering this: The graft scheme involved land around a creek that the government wanted to purchase for a dam. This plan was in the works long before Smith was named to the Senate as a result of his predecessor's death; Smith was not even involved in politics before his surprise appointment. How could he have been involved? Then Senator Smith, unaware of this plan, proposes his own bill for a scout camp on that same land, to be bought with a government loan. Why does the Taylor machine object to Smith's proposal when they would have profited either way? And why was not Smith simply told about the existing bill? And if Smith does own land around the creek (this is how they frame him), why would he object to the dam in the first place?
MOBY DICK (1956). Rating: ***. Captain Ahab, seeking revenge, chases the infamous white whale. A noble failure by director John Huston. This film looks exactly the way it should, with desaturated colours attempting to replicate contemporary chromolithography, and the special effects are fine; unfortunately Gregory Peck was unsuitable to play Ahab and later admitted he was uncomfortable in the role. Watching this, one could not escape thinking that the role Peck was meant to play (and did so decades later) was that of Abraham Lincoln; unfortunately, here Peck looks like someone trying to act like Ahab, and never quite hitting the right note. (Someone like Kirk Douglas might have been far more successful.) The most memorable scene is the church sermon delivered by Orson Welles.
MOON IS BLUE, THE (1953). Rating: **. B&W. A young woman falls in love with two men, one of whom is the father of the other's ex-fiancée. A bore it is today, but an important piece of Hollywood history, as producer-director Otto Preminger, with the backing of United Artists, chose to release it without a seal of approval from the Production Code office. Oh, there is nothing risqué in it, unless one takes offense at such words as "pregnant" and "virgin" (but, unfortunately, no pregnant virgin); by today's standards, it looks sickeningly respectable, so much so that those words do stand out and look out of place. There are only five characters: the girl (Maggie McNamara), the two men (William Holden, David Niven), the girl's father, and the ex-fiancée, and only one set for the most part: Holden's architect character's apartment. Yep, that's right, it's a stage play on film (Preminger, who had directed the Broadway 1951 production, also produced a German version of the film).
MURDER AHOY! (1964). Rating: ***. B&W. Miss Marple investigates murders surrounding a naval organization for young delinquents of which she is a trustee. After taking so many liberties with the Miss Marple character (adding a few here as well, making her an expert blade as well as an amateur chemist whose knowledge of poisons could rival Sherlock Holmes'), the makers evidently decided they no longer needed to rely on an Agatha Christie novel; hence we get an original story for this fourth and last Marple film starring Margaret Rutherford, who is her congenial self. More enjoyable for the humour than the mystery.
MURDER AT THE GALLOP (1963). Rating: ***. B&W. Miss Marple investigates the murder of a woman who claimed that her brother's recent death had not been accidental. Second Marple film starring Margaret Rutherford, based on the Agatha Christie novel After the Funeral, originally a Poirot mystery. While all four Marple films are of similar quality, this might be the best, thanks to an above-average supporting cast, led by Robert Morley playing his trademark upper-class twit. This being Ye Olde England, most of the action takes place at a riding club; not surprisingly, the equestrian arts hold no secret from Miss Marple.
MURDER BY DECREE (1979). Rating: ***. Sherlock Holmes is on the trail of Jack the Ripper. If Sherlock Holmes never fails to solve a case, and if the Ripper's identity is still unknown, the corollary must be that the matter was covered up if one wants to avoid a departure from history; hence a conspiracy was at work. To the filmmakers' credit, the specific conspiracy theory the film is built around was not of their invention -- by that time, everybody knew those Victorians were hypocrites anyway -- but in spite of a remarkable attention to period detail, the picture lacks strong performances.
MURDER MOST FOUL (1964). Rating: **. B&W. Miss Marple joins a theatrical company to investigate the murder of a former actress. This third Marple mystery starring Margaret Rutherford is perhaps the weakest of the series, adapted, very loosely, from Agatha Christie's Poirot novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead. Here more liberties are taken with Miss Marple; we now learn that she is a crack shot, and when she auditions for a part, she chooses to recite a poem by, of all people, Robert W. Service, not to mention that a play seen in the film is Agatha Christie's Murder, She Said, the first film of the series.
MURDER SHE SAID (1961). Rating: ***. B&W. Miss Marple gets hired as a maid at a manor where she thinks the body of a woman she saw being murdered on a train might have been hidden. Agatha Christie reportedly did not think much of this film, and in a way one can understand her reaction. Her character, played by Margaret Rutherford, was turned from a frail spinster who derived her considerable powers of observation from scrutinizing life in her small village into a stout, athletic woman who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of cheap detective novels and is in a platonic relationship with a close friend (Rutherford's husband Stringer Davis) -- but, surprisingly enough, the changes work. This moderately suspenseful and somewhat humourous adaptation of 4:50 from Paddington would lead to three further Marple films with Rutherford.
MUTINY (1952). Rating: ***. Colour. A disgraced English naval officer becomes second-in-command of an American frigate in the War of 1812. Quite an impressive achievement for an independent producer (King Brothers Productions), with an ambitious treatment of a serviceable story that includes naval battles and -- one would never have guessed -- a mutiny, but a below-average effort from director Edward Dmytryk, for whom this was the first post-blacklist picture to be released.
MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935). Rating: ****. B&W. Captain Bligh's expedition to the South Seas ends in a revolt of the crew. Account of a historical event that was, to say the least, heavily fictionalized; based on the available evidence, Bligh was not the martinet that the film (based on the Nordhoff & Hall novels) portrays, and all was not well for the mutineers once they reached the Pitcairn Islands. What we instead get, in this decidedly Anglophile picture, is a retelling of the mutiny as a formative event for the modern Royal Navy. It can be enjoyed most as a duel of actors: Charles Laughton as Bligh, and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. Directed with flourish by Frank Lloyd.
MYSTERY LINER (1934). Rating: *. B&W. An invention that promises to revolutionize naval warfare is put through trials on an ocean liner, but foreign agents are at work on board. The unimaginative plot could have been redeemed by audacious handling and/or superb acting; as was often the case with films from Poverty Row studios, it wasn't.
MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, THE (1933). Rating: ****. Colour (2-strip). An American reporter investigates strange occurrences that point to a local wax museum. One of the better-known pre-1935 films of Michael Curtiz that earned him widespread recognition. A classic horror plot, quite satisfyingly presented, but one almost wishes for more, as the tension slackens every now and then. Good acting by Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, though, and the lurid two-colour Technicolor serves the setting well.
NIGHT TO REMEMBER, A (1958). Rating: *****. B&W. The ocean liner RMS Practically Unsinkable sets sail for her maiden voyage. The best film to date on the Titanic. Unlike the 1953 or 1997 versions, no characters were created in a vain attempt to elicit sympathy from the audience; it is a strict, austere picture, filmed with quasi-clinical detatchment, with an obsessive attention to accuracy and small details (the one major inaccuracy is the ship sinking in one piece, which was based on contradictory testimonies until the discovery of the wreck in 1985 settled the question). Music is used sparingly but always to great effect,and Kenneth More, who has top billing, is worthy of mention as Second Officer Lightoller, the closest to a main character the picture has.
NORTH WEST FRONTIER (1959), a.k.a. FLAME OVER INDIA. Rating: ****. Colour. (Version seen: pan & scan) In 1905, British army officer must escort a young Indian prince to safety on a train pulled by an antiquated engine. Kenneth More is provided with the chance to get all heroic in this picture set in British India. The film pursues a half-hearted attempt at a whodunnit -- there is a traitor on board -- but it is far more effective in its action scenes (especially one on a half-collapsed bridge). It was filmed in Spain, but the picture makes excellent use of terrain.
ONE THAT GOT AWAY, THE (1957). Rating: ****. B&W. The story of Franz von Werra, the only German prisoner of war to successfully escape back to Germany during World War II. Straightforward but tense account of close misses and hardships, culminating in a memorable winter escape from Canada to the still-neutral United States.
OPERATION PETTICOAT (1959). Rating: ****. Colour. At the outbreak of World War II, a damaged submarine attempts to reach an American base, rescues nurses and gets painted pink. Blake Edwards' first noteworthy comedy plays on familiar themes, with Cary Grant as a by-the-book commander stuck in an unorthodox situation (see You're in the Navy Now with G. Cooper for a similar treatment) and Tony Curtis as a resourceful young officer not above thievery to obtain what he wants. Strangely enough, it works.
OUR MAN IN HAVANA (1959). Rating: ****. B&W. A timid vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-revolutionary Cuba joins the British secret service for the money, but proves so inept at recruiting contacts that he decides to make them up. Adaptation of a Graham Greene novel partly filmed on location with the blessing of the Castro regime, which had just taken power. This being said, the picture can hardly be called a piece of propaganda, as it seems, above all, to be driven by a light form of British self-deprecation. What sets this picture above average status is not only its strong eye for location, Carol Reed's direction, or the cast led by Alec Guinness, but its humour. A subplot would even be mirrored by the Cuban Missile Crisis three years later.
PARDON MY SARONG (1942). Rating: **. B&W. Two bus drivers on the run end up on a Pacific island. What starts out as an above-average Abbott and Costello film quickly runs out of ideas and fills its spare time with musical numbers. One has come to expect Abbott to persuade Costello to take the blame for every situation, but here this is carried to the extreme of Abbott trying to talk Costello into committing suicide with a revolver, and chiding him for missing his aim.
PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949). Rating: *****. B&W. Residents of a street in London learn that their area is still part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and find it in their interest to maintain their independence. Brilliantly hilarious film capturing the zeitgeist of the postwar era, even throwing in references to the Berlin blockade. The ending seems somewhat rushed, but the escalation of diplomatic tensions between Britain and Burgundy -- including a fake newsreel and a customs check in the London Underground -- is splendidly managed throughout.
PEOPLE OF NO IMPORTANCE (1956). Rating: *****. B&W. French film. (Original title: DES GENS SANS IMPORTANCE) An aging truck driver trapped in a failed marriage falls in love with a young truck stop waitress. Unassuming film by Henri Verneuil that, thematically, came out twenty years too late, belonging in the tradition of poetic realism rather than in the infamous Tradition of Quality which marked the French cinema of the fifties (and objected to by the New Wave). Jean Gabin, perhaps the actor most associated with poetic realism, also appears here, in the same doomed working-class role that marked the genre, except that his fate here is one worse than death: he lives on. Verneuil is no Jean Renoir, but he tries his best. Memorable score by Joseph Kosma.
PERILS OF PAULINE, THE (1947). Rating: **. Colour. The life of silent film star Pearl White, who appeared in the famous serial of the same name. Typical Hollywood biopic of its own, starring the irrepressible Betty Hutton. Predictably, expurgation was the order of the day: no mention of the film industry's dismal working conditions that left her injured from her stunts except for the usual Big Accident climax, or of her alcoholism, as the biopic's subject never dies in this sort of film (which ends at the beginning of her decline), while her list of husbands is pared down to just one. Not bad, but not memorable. (For a similar approach, see Million Dollar Mermaid, with Esther Williams as Annette Kellerman, or The Jolson Story, perhaps the flagship of this tradition, and Jolson Sings Again.)
PIRATES (1986). Rating: *. Two castaways are enslaved on a Spanish ship but lead a mutiny of the crew. An adventure-comedy film by Roman Polanski, which is really all that needs to be said. Polanski is a good director, and the pirate genre was in dire need of being stripped of its romantic twaddle, but the makers thought that the best way to achieve this was to aim for that particular variety of eighties slapstick that emphasizes the grisly and the repulsive and expects to be rewarded with laughter. Yellowbeard did the same and was a failure as well; but this is Polanski, hence a major embarrassment. He has an eye for detail, but no sense of timing, and his direction lacks verve for this sort of picture; instead, we get hints of cannibalism, a rat-eating sequence and no less than two separate instances of attempted rape.
POPEYE (1980). Rating: **. Popeye the Sailor searches for his missing father and discovers an abandoned baby. It's a Robert Altman film, so it must be art; it's based on a cartoon character, so it must be colourful; it stars Robin Williams, so it must be funny. It is none of those things. Altman is out of his depth; the sets would have been more appropriate to a harrowing tale of hardship and loss in a fishing community during the Great Depression; and nobody could have played Popeye effectively. As if that weren't enough, it's also a musical, seemingly at its best when it appears to know it is bad. Two stars for just trying, and Shelley Duvall is half decent as Olive Oyl.
PRIVATE BUCKAROO (1942). Rating: **. B&W. Entertainers enlist in the army. After appearing as filler in so many films, it was only a matter of time before those Norman Rockwells of close harmony, the Andrews Sisters, would be given a starring vehicle. Other attractions include a drafted trumpeter (Harry James, as himself) who can't play the bugle, a tough sergeant (Shemp Howard), and a singer who is so eager to be dodging bullets that he insists on being given a new medical examination in spite of his flat foot.
PRIVATE EYES (1980). Rating: **. Two American detectives working for Scotland Yard investigate the double murder of a lord and his wife. Dim-witted vehicle made in the same mold as Murder by Death, only stupider and without the acting talent. The earlier film had Sellers, Niven, Guinness (and Truman Capote, but let's overlook him); this has Don Knotts and Tim Conway.
PROFESSIONAL, THE (1981). Rating: ***. French film. (Original title: LE PROFESSIONNEL). A French secret agent sent to assassinate an African dictator is betrayed by his superiors for political reasons. Escaping back to France, he intends to carry out his mission during the dictator's upcoming official visit. Rather average tale of revenge achieved by pitting the secret service against itself (compare this to the comedy The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe and its sequel). Jean-Paul Belmondo is memorable, but the most famous element of the film is the score by Ennio Morricone.
QUENTIN DURWARD (1955). Rating: ***. Colour. The nephew of a Scottish nobleman falls in love and becomes involved in French-Burgundian intrigue. Competent but stolid adaptation of Walter Scott's novel, filmed in England by MGM, starring the competent but stolid Robert Taylor and a cast of British actors (Robert Morley, as the king of France, being the most memorable). It rarely rises to meet one's expectations, but the climactic fight involving jumping between ropes in a belfry was rather original in its day. (Today, the same would undoubtedly be done with wire tricks and present no interest whatsoever.)
QUO VADIS (1951). Rating: ***. Colour. A Roman commander recently returned to the capital falls in love with a Christian, but Nero intends on stamping out the new religion. Robert Taylor's Marcus Venicius was undoubtedly impressed by the Greek philosophy of stoicism, which is a polite way of saying the actor is a great block of wood in practically every scene. But in such epics where the lead is leaden there always arises a character actor with a proclivity for chewing scenery, and indeed there is plenty of scenery to chew; here, this would be Peter Ustinov as Nero, the highlight performance of the film. As a result of this, it is definitely more epic than the more famous Ben-Hur, but was filmed before the advent of widescreen; one can just imagine what the burning of Rome would have looked like in CinemaScope. Nonetheless, it was one of the first fifties films from that select category of large-scale spectacles in which the Roman setting is but an excuse to get talking about Christianity from the margins (besides Ben-Hur, see The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators.)
RAISE THE TITANIC (1980). Rating: *. The US Navy provides assistance to raise the wreck of the Titanic, as a rare radioactive metal was stocked on board. Dirk Pitt in the Twentieth-and-Four-Fifths Century. The book launched Clive Cussler's career as a man of letters, but the film was a notorious and expensive flop, and was decidedly part of that tradition of dreary seventies films (I was reminded of Gray Lady Down). You can see the entire plot being constructed backwards -- Q: The Titanic must be raised, but how do we justify such a costly undertaking? A: Get the government involved. Q: How do we get the government involved? A: Make it a matter of national importance, and get the Russians breathing down their necks. -- and I guess that's fine, if you can excuse the recourse to such an unimaginative MacGuffin. Still, it is rather tasteless, not to mention pointless. Cussler and the filmmakers can be forgiven some of the various technical inaccuracies, as the wreck had not yet been located, and it was thought that the ship sank whole instead of breaking in two, making such a salvage operation impossible, but are we seriously to believe that a ship that had foundered sixty-odd years before still had wooden floorboards? Jason Robards (top billing) is a fine character actor, but was not enough to carry an entire film; the other actors are interchangeable, with the exception of Alec Guinness, who appears for only a few minutes.
RED BADGE OF COURAGE, THE (1951). Rating: ****. B&W. A youth in the Union army in the American Civil War fears that his courage will fail him. It would be natural to be wary of a film that seems particularly insistent on its literary origins, or that casts Audie Murphy, a mediocre actor who just happened to have been the most decorated American soldier of World War II, as a young soldier doubting his courage; but this taut offering, directed by John Huston, convincingly expresses both the soldier's anguish and the grim reality of the battlefield in a remarkably restrained manner. This was produced at MGM during the tenure of Dore Schary, which might explain why the film's texture is quite similar to that of Schary's earlier project Battleground. The making of this film is detailed in Lillian Ross' Picture.
RIDDLE OF THE SANDS, THE (1979). Rating: ***. At the turn of the 20th century, an English yachtsman vacationing in Germany comes to believe that not all is on the level in the Frisian Islands. Competent but limp adaptation of an early British spy potboiler. M. York and S. MacCorkindale offer decent performances.
RIDE 'EM COWBOY (1941). Rating: *. B&W. Two hot-dog vendors take up employment on a ranch visited by a phoney cowboy star trying to live up to his legend. Pointless Abbott and Costello comedy constantly interrupted by musical numbers (including one by a certain Ella Fitzgerald) without the slightest justification; the plot could be boiled down to twenty minutes.
ROYAL FLASH (1975). Rating: **. Harry Flashman, British officer and coward extraordinaire, is embroiled in a plot by Otto von Bismarck to impersonate the prince of a small country. Not a bad film in itself, just a tad more tedious than such a plot would suggest (it is a retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda that purports to have been its real-life inspiration). More inexplicably, it captures nothing of the flavour of the Flashman books, even though the novelist, George MacDonald Fraser, penned the screenplay; a voice-over narration might have restored some of the missing charm, but star Malcolm McDowell lacked the roguish quality of the character.
RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE (1966). Rating: **. Colour. The crew of a Russian submarine take over the isolated American island on which they have run aground. Occasionally funny Cold War comedy that builds up momentum and, having no place to go where it wants to go, throws it all away in the end instead of leaving audiences with an all-out conflict with the Soviet Union. The saccharine deus ex machina was perhaps indicative of the need for international détente, but it definitely makes one cringe now.
SASKATCHEWAN (1954). Rating: ***. Colour. Fresh from the massacre of Custer's troops, the Sioux move to Canada, where the Royal Mounted must stop them. Historical fantasy that proves the old rule that Americans only care about the rest of the world when it is an extension of their little preoccupations. While Sitting Bull did seek refuge in Canada, he did absolutely nothing to disturb the peace when he was there, and definitely never tried to enlist the Cree in a revolt against the British government. Other standard Western clichés are in evidence -- the pretty girl who flees a wrongful accusation of murder in the United States, the métis guide, the insubordinate officer who saves the day. The locations are pretty, full of mountains -- of which there are none in Saskatchewan; the real landscape is about as flat as Alan Ladd's leading performance. Director R. Walsh deserved better material.
SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC (1948). Rating: ***. Colour. The last journey of Captain Scott, who died on his return from the South Pole. A standard British biopic but a rare drama from Ealing Studios, which would soon produce a string of classic comedies. Even though it attempts to be faithful to the basic facts of the expedition to the extent of quoting from the explorer's notebooks, Scott's reputation has been largely debunked since the late 1970's, from which time his tragic heroism has been replaced with caprice and ineptitude. Starring John Mills; music by R. Vaughan Williams; photography by J. Cardiff.
SHERLOCK, JR. (1924). Rating: *****. Silent; B&W. A projectionist accused of stealing a watch dreams he is a detective investigating a jewelry theft. Magnificently memorable film starring Buster Keaton, technically innovative (including a famous scene where the protagonist literally enters the screen), and topped by a spectacular chase scene.
SILENT ENEMY, THE (1958). Rating: ***. B&W. Royal Navy divers in Gibraltar during World War II dismantle an Italian underwater operation organized from neutral Spain. Not particularly exciting, not particularly memorable, rather bloodless, but faithful to its subject matter; a typical British film of the period. Laurence Harvey stars.
SINK THE BISMARCK! (1960). Rating: ***. B&W. In World War II, the Royal Navy coordinates efforts to sink the elusive battleship Bismarck, pride of the German fleet. A would-be naval epic that strives to avoid water as much as possible, opting instead for the cheaper locales of Admiralty offices and ship bridges, spliced with model shots and stock footage. The explosion of the HMS Hood (with only three survivors) during an engagement with the Bismarck should have been a major event in the film, but its treatment was so underwhelming that it might as well have taken place off-screen. Nonetheless, the film does have its moments, and even manages to build up enough tension to sustain the viewer's interest. Star Kenneth More displays his usual range.
SLEEPING CAR MURDERS, THE (1965). Rating: ****. French film. (Original title: COMPARTIMENT TUEURS). B&W. A murder takes place in a train compartment, but the killer then turns his attention to possible witnesses. First directorial effort of Costa-Gavras, based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, starring Yves Montand as the police investigator and Simone Signoret as one of the passengers. The director already displays a good timing for shock; for instance, one of the victims is gunned down after other characters read one of her letters, interrupting the voice-over narration as she fantasized about her new life after meeting her lover. The cast is likewise impeccable.
SLEUTH (1972). Rating: ****. A wealthy detective writer invites his wife's lover for a stay at his country manor. A great duel of actors (Olivier and Caine) cannot entirely mask the stage origin of this admittedly (perhaps exceedingly) intelligent material, but the professionalism involved is beyond reproach. Never entirely exciting, but never dull either.
SOLOMON KANE (2009). Rating: **. A mercenary who renounced violence returns to his old ways, with the vague promise of salvation if he rescues a captive girl. Never mind that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was already developing cracks through the veneer just a few years after it was released, its influence on lesser films is undeniable, as it is here on Michael Bassett's effort, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. With only a fraction of Jackson's budget, the result is as predictable as it is disappointing. The omnipresent computer graphics seem rather without polish, the cinematography is an annoying variation on a theme of blue, and there seems to be too much in the way of catering to hypothetical fans of the series (are there any still alive?). To be honest, I was thinking of Courtney Solomon's notoriously bad Dungeons & Dragons. The comparison is unfair in one respect -- Kane features a solid performance by James Purefoy, and is a marvelously atmospheric film -- but Dungeons & Dragons at least was fun in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way; this could have been a much more exciting film.
STAGECOACH (1939). Rating: ****. B&W. A stagecoach attempts to cross territory teeming with hostile Apaches. Yes, I know, this is a classic, and an important piece of Hollywood cinema. Leaving aside the particularly obvious rear-projection effects, it could have been more effective as a thriller -- the tension slackens along the way (compare it to, for example, The Wages of Fear once the trucks leave) -- and far more introspective as a character study. Director John Ford claimed this was an adaptation of Maupassant's short story Boule de Suif, but this has been disputed; if, however, the French story indeed served as the inspiration for the film, where is the sharp social commentary? While Ford's film does include a prostitute (already a feat in those days), if it had been a faithful adaptation, the entire action would have revolved around her; while Claire Trevor, the actress playing her, had top billing, even above the unknown B-actor John Wayne, the latter was indeed the star of the film. More importantly, the prostitute in the short story faces a dilemma where she is encouraged by others to sleep with a Prussian officer so that the coach can move on, and, after she does so, finds herself scorned by her traveling companions; here, one can almost picture the reaction of the Breen office if the screenplay had mentioned something to the effect of Trevor's character spending time in Geronimo's teepee. This being said, the film does include memorable sequences, legitimized the western genre, and made Wayne a star.
SWORD OF LANCELOT (1963), a.k.a. LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE. Rating: ****. Colour. Sir Lancelot falls in love with King Arthur's wife Guinevere. Obscure but surprisingly good adaptation of the Arthurian legends, starring, produced and directed by Cornel Wilde, with his wife Jean Wallace as Guinevere. Suffers somewhat from low production values, and what it does well, El Cid did better, but nonetheless offers a nice balance between action and romance; more or less Camelot with neither the singing nor the budget, but less studio-bound and more sincere. Robust score by Ron Goodwin.
TERROR BY NIGHT (1946). Rating: ***. B&W. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson investigate a diamond theft and a murder on a night train to Scotland. One of the modernized Holmes films made by Universal with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The small budget tends to show, but the story proceeds briskly and includes a few nice twists along the way.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974). Rating: ***. Colour/B&W. Anthology of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood. hosted by their stars. I harbour an ambivalent attitude towards M-G-M's output. Technically, it is competent and often unsurpassed, but it is too bright, too lavish, nauseatingly wholesome, and unabashedly escapist to the point of frivolity (two words: Esther Williams). When this was released, it was once again sold as escapism; the tagline read "Boy. Do we need it now!" No, we do not "need" it, at any time, as this merely encourages society to play the ostrich. That footage from escapist films should be resurrected thirty years later to serve the same purpose, regardless of context, is a tad too conservative to my liking. There is also too much nostalgic self-reverence at work here, leading to attempts to capitalize on major artists without acknowledging that their fame rested on pictures not made by M-G-M. Bing Crosby, for example, appeared in segments from Going Hollywood and High Society, but most of his famous pictures were made at Paramount; Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were all made at RKO except for M-G-M's The Barkleys of Broadway (worse, Rogers was a last-minute replacement for Judy Garland); and a Garland pairing with a young Deanna Durbin came with a mention that the studio passed on signing up the latter, but no mention that she did all right under contract to Universal.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! Part II (1976). Rating: ***. Colour/B&W. Same as the first, but now covering other genres. This film did away with the multiple hosts and only retained Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Some of the sequences on display here are noteworthy, but the content is more representative of M-G-M's complete output than just musicals; films covered range from Tarzan to Marx Brothers vehicles to even FitzPatrick's Traveltalks. At least this meant that famous stars would not appear in musical sequences where their talent was wasted (Clark Gable) or be overlooked because they did not sing in the first place (Greta Garbo), but everything non-musical still tends to be glossed over.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! III (1994). Rating: ****. Colour/B&W. Same as the first, but with archival footage, unused sequences and screen tests. This third installment did away with much of the M-G-M self-congratulation that permeated its predecessors, and aimed for historical relevance. Because of the large number of discarded sequences, it added some basic but much-needed contextualization. A segment from the scrapped March of Time pointed to the backlash against musical films in 1930; Lena Horne's failure to get cast in Show Boat, for which she tested, introduced audiences to the vagaries of the Production Code, which prohibited miscegenation; Judy Garland's scenes for Annie Get Your Gun forced the narration to acknowledge her increasing instability. It still aims for the glossy finish, but at least it acknowledges the cracks.
THIN MAN, THE (1934). Rating: ****. B&W. A missing inventor is sought for the murder of his former girlfriend. Wisecracking film that, at its best, is as dry as the martinis the two protagonists -- the husband-and-wife team of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), socialites who solve crimes out of boredom -- can be seen sipping throughout. It was popular enough to lead to a series of films with the same stars, but Dashiell Hammett, on whose book this was based, famously never wrote another novel.
THE THIRD KEY (1956): See LONG ARM, THE.
THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (2006). Rating: **. A documentary on the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America. It is in films such as this that we can see the influence of Michael Moore: muckraking, an emphasis on editing, and attempts to keep it entertaining throughout regardless of the simplicity of its message. Here director Kirby Dick indicts the MPAA for being prudish, secretive, inconsistent and self-interested in its application of ratings, but most of his examples are dragged from the gutter of filmmaking -- sex, sex, and more sex, and just a passing comment on how violence is relatively left unscathed; some additional time is wasted on a discussion of copyright law, which even though it concerns the MPAA is ancillary to his topic. Left practically unaddressed are two key points: First, that a ratings system should not be left to industry self-regulation and ought to be the work of a government agency -- unlikely in a country where kneejerk paranoia of state intervention reigns supreme. Second, that ratings might deal with how specific elements are portrayed in films, but they do nothing for or against Hollywood's creative bankruptcy; if anything, the studios now seek to shock their audience, but they never want to challenge it. This documentary could be best called a wasted opportunity.
THREE AMIGOS (1986). Rating: *. Three fired silent movie stars are hired by Mexican peasants mistaking them for the heroic gunslingers they played on the screen to fight local bandits. Good actors, bad script, awful direction. Oh, and Mexicans are so funny.
THREE MUSKETEERS, THE (1948). Rating: ****. Colour. A young swordsman goes to Paris to join the King's Musketeers. The film tends to be overly polished and colourful, in keeping with the M-G-M style of this period; however, it is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of Dumas' novel, for it carries the story beyond the usual ending point of film adaptations, the recovery of the Queen's diamonds (which takes place halfway through the original novel), to its more grisly and bittersweet conclusion. Gene Kelly was a talented actor, but he was too old for the role of d'Artagnan, and Van Heflin's Athos is the most fascinating of the musketeers because of his complexity.
THREE MUSKETEERS, THE (2011). Rating: **. Very loose remake of the familiar story, with airships. Paul W.S. Anderson, well-known director of video games on film, now gives a classic novel the same treatment. Not as bad as one could have thought, but unmemorable. Milla Jovovich appears as Milady, and the toothless Orlando Bloom tries to chew scenery as the Duke of Buckingham, with predictable results. Logan Lerman is a non-entity as d'Artagnan, and his companions are interchangeable. The muddled screenplay doesn't help.
TITANIC (1943). Rating: **. German film. B&W. Speculators hope to capitalize on the launch of the Titanic to take control the White Star Line. Notorious piece of Nazi propaganda, in which Anglo-American capitalism is held responsible for the ship sailing at a reckless speed in spite of ice warnings and strong protests from a German officer. The fate of the Titanic was later deemed such an unintended metaphor for Germany by the Nazis that they repudiated the film, which has even been called subversive for this reason; its director, H. Selpin, was arrested and found hanged in his cell shortly thereafter. If this context is not enough to make it impossible to enjoy this film, the ship used for the shooting, the Cap Arcona, was later sunk by the Allies with thrice the casualties of the ship it stood in for, most of them concentration camp survivors. Nevertheless, some shots are known to have been re-used in the British film A Night to Remember, and James Cameron has been called out for taking plot points to make his version; this attests to both the quality of the special effects and the mediocrity of the story.
TITANIC (1953). Rating: *. B&W. Yes, it sinks; at least the film got that part right. 1953 was the year 20th Century-Fox introduced CinemaScope, but this Fox film was not shot in widescreen; it was not even filmed in colour. Instead, it could be called a visionary throwback. Stylistically, it belongs to the thirties, down to its unconvincing ship sets, attitudes, and anachronistic wardrobes (fedoras in 1912?), but, thematically, it anticipated the disaster films of the seventies with its cardboard characters (we get, for example, a "suspended" priest) whose job is just to survive the credits but for whom half the running time is spent trying to make us care. The inaccuracies throughout are bound to rankle more than Titanic buffs; for a start, the ship is shown to collide with the iceberg on the port side after trying to bypass it on the starboard side, making this both historically inaccurate and a continuity error. Even the sinking is marred by a persistent electric siren and two boiler explosions, neither of which happened; for that matter, the film is conspicuously lacking water in the sinking scenes. A Night to Remember, released just five years later, was a superior film in all respects; this one just insults the intelligence of the audience.
TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, THE (1953). Rating: ****. Colour. When railway service is discontinued in Titfield, the residents decide to run their own train; sabotage from the rival bus company ensues. Topical scenario given the Ealing treatment, with the typical Old England postcard setting rendered in vivid colours, but which is perhaps a little too whimsical for its own good. Pleasant ensemble cast.
TREASURE ISLAND (1950). Rating: ****. Colour. A boy, a doctor and a country squire discover a treasure map, but their progress is impeded by pirate captain Long John Silver. This adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name was Disney's first foray into live-action feature films, and already bears the traits of the genre espoused by the studio. It remains memorable mostly because of the legendary performance by Robert Newton as Long John Silver (who returned to the role in an Australian-made sequel and a television series), aided by Bobby Driscoll. Good cinematography by F. Young; efficient direction by B. Haskin.
TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE, THE (1960). Rating: ****. Colour. The Marquess of Queensberry accuses the famous playwright of "posing as a sodomite"; Wilde sues him for libel, until overwhelming evidence of the claim's veracity leads to criminal prosecution against him. One of two films on Wilde released in the same week, and a box office failure that was one of the last, and most ambitious, pictures produced by Warwick Films. While the trial scenes are, paradoxically, too subdued to leave much of an impact, the film conveys a very good impression of late Victorian Britain, with all its gaudy decadence and hypocritical propriety. Was Wilde, first lionized then ostracized by this society, a symptom of or an antidote to its excesses? The film never really seeks to answer the question, let alone ask it. What we are left with are a good ensemble cast (led by Peter Finch in the title role) and a solid biopic done in the traditional style.
TWELVE ANGRY MEN (1957). Rating: ***. B&W. A lone juror on a murder trial persuades his colleagues to change their verdict to "not guilty". As a one-set drama, it is peerless; but there is something grating about seeing Henry Fonda acting as though he were Socrates on jury duty. Convinced of the innocence of the accused, he proceeds to do the job of the counsel for the defense, sanctimoniously cutting through bigotry and expediency conveniently placed in his way, applying revisionism to testimonies and the evidence even if it means flouting the law (see, for instance, the scene with the knife). A verdict based on his arguments, many of which are backed by mere circumstantial evidence, would have been considered specious and enough to declare a mistrial in a real court of law. One almost wishes, out of schadenfreude, that it had been given the ending of another courtroom film released in 1957 that shall remain un-named.
TWO TARS (1928). Rating: **. Silent; B&W. Two sailors on shore leave pick up girls and start a fight among motorists. Tiresome Laurel and Hardy two-reeler where road rage is played as slapstick. Two stars.
UNDERCOVER MAN, THE (1949). Rating: ***. B&W. A treasury agent attempts to arrest a mobster on tax evasion charges Film à clef on Al Capone, competently made. Starring Glenn Ford, directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
UP IN ARMS (1944). Rating: ***. Colour. A hypochondriac is drafted in the army. Danny Kaye vehicle which has a few nice touches, but tends to be smothered by its star.
USUAL SUSPECTS, THE (1995). Rating: ***. A band of crooks is blackmailed into working for the mysterious Keyser Soze. Would-be noirish mind-screw of a story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler but without his inventiveness, written by Christopher McQuarrie and directed by Bryan Singer. Without the flashbacks, this would be a very conventional and forgettable plot, but at no time does it reach the level of annoyance of a David Lynch film.
VIKING, THE (1928). Rating: ****. Silent with synchronized sound; colour (2-strip). An English lord enslaved by the Vikings accompanies Leif Ericson on his journey to North America and falls in love with his master's betrothed. While the film offers a cornucopia of Hollywood clichés about the Vikings, down to horned helmets and the conflict between paganism and Christianity, it successfully maintains interest thanks to the efforts of director Roy William Neill, its art direction and its notable use of two-colour Technicolor (the company produced the film).
WHISKY GALORE! (1949). Rating: ***. B&W. In wartime Britain, a ship with a cargo full of whisky is wrecked on a remote Scottish island where supplies had run out. A classic Ealing comedy based on a true incident that pits the local population against the government, but which never quite succeeds in making either side sympathetic. The islanders end up looking like self-indulgent drunkards, and officials like humourless bureaucrats who rewrite the rules to their advantage. Still, there is a strong sense of place, and it could have been worse.
WHITE SHADOWS IN THE SOUTH SEAS (1928). Rating: ***. Silent with synchronized sound; B&W. A disgraced doctor begins a new life among the natives of a tropical island. The film is a textbook example of the noble savage way of life that must be protected from the corrupting influence of the white man, but it is far better as a character study. The legendary documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty was the director of the film, shot on location in Tahiti, until he left the project as a result of creative differences.
WHO DONE IT? (1942). Rating: **. B&W. Two inept canteen attendants investigate the murder of a radio executive. Abbott and Costello vehicle with noirish lighting effects which is at its best when the two comedians do not attempt to make jokes (do we need yet another reminder of "Who's on First?"); moderately successful as a mystery.
WILLOW (1988). Rating: ***. A dwarf escorts a baby girl back to her kingdom, where the malevolent queen seeks her death. The raison d'être for this film had to be as predictable as the plot: a nondescript film directed by a self-effacing director (Ron Howard) and unmemorable actors (with the exception of Warwick Davis), but co-written by George Lucas, produced by Lucasfilm and involving Industrial Light and Magic could only exist for the special effects, which here are not a means to an end but purely exist for their own sake. Characterization is cookie-cutter or absent; its oscillation between the grim and the facetious is annoying. Only occasionally does it seem to remember that it was supposed to be a fantasy film in the first place.
WINGS (1927). Rating: ****. Silent. B&W. Two small-town boys become pilots in World War I. A film now mostly remembered for being one of two winners of the first Oscar for what we now call Best Picture (the other was Sunrise), it featured impressive air sequences (including an air raid), a few technically complex shots, decent acting, and a strong if clichéd climax. It launched the careers of both director William Wellman and Gary Cooper, who appears in a small part.
WITHOUT A CLUE (1988). Rating: ****. Doctor Watson is a crime-solving genius; Holmes is his creation, played by a washed-up actor. The two have a falling-out, but must unite to solve a matter of national importance. Thin but pleasant comedy with a good sense of the period. Excellent performances by Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley.
X THE UNKNOWN (1956). Rating: ****. B&W. From a crack in the earth emerges a shapeless creature that feeds on, and kills by, radioactivity. Unassuming but effective sci-fi horror following a well-known formula but inserting elements from the Cold War atomic scare. This was originally intended as an installment in the better-known Quatermass franchise, but the studio could not secure the rights.
YELLOWBEARD (1983). Rating: *. The fearsome pirate Yellowbeard is sent to prison for tax evasion, and attempts to find his buried treasure twenty years later. An embarrassment throughout, whose main point of attraction is the desire to understand why so many renowned comedians (from both sides of the Atlantic) could not keep this film afloat.
Z (1969). Rating: *****. French film. Colour. In a fictitious country which is not at all Greece, a young and honest prosecutor investigates the murder of an opposition politician. Penetrating political thriller of a style that has become a specialty for director Costa-Gavras, with a properly realistic ending. Good but predictably brief performance by Yves Montand as the assassinated politician. SPOILER. The elation of watching the prosecutor peel back layer after layer of official coverup abruptly ends when we discover, through a news bulletin in the last minutes of the film, that he has died of a "heart attack" before the trial started, that key witnesses also died shortly before the trial, and that the public officials accused were all released. Not that it mattered, because the army seized power and put an end to the travesty; no need to lie or resort to covert actions anymore when raw force can be applied.
ZORRO, THE GAY BLADE (1981). Rating: ***. Don Diego Vega inherits the duties of Zorro from his late father, but sprains his ankle, making it impossible to keep on saving the pipples from the harsh rule of Captain Esteban; luckily, his, er, flamboyant twin brother Ramon is back and ready to take his place. "They say the navy makes men. I'm living proof, they made me." Yes, we get it, Ramon is homosexual, which is oh so funny. Still, it is an effective send-up of the Zorro genre, before it was turned over to the likes of Antonio Banderas. At least this version has some respect for old Hollywood films (or even the fifties television series); it even borrowed its musical theme from the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Don Juan. George Hamilton as both Zorros and Ron Leibman as Captain Esteban are a delight to watch.
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originally posted: 08/01/11 21:56:55
last updated: 09/12/12 06:32:28