Thursday, April 5, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: THE WRONG ARM OF THE LAW (1963)

Directed by Cliff Owen, The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) provides a genial, humorous look at the symbiotic relationship of cops and crooks in mid-century London, with Peter Sellers appearing to great effect as a criminal gang boss and Lionel Jeffries co-starring as an ambitious officer of the law. The picture is primarily a heist plot with plenty of comic twists, including the disruption of the "natural order" by a group of Australian interlopers who pose as coppers to make off with the bandits' boodle. Sellers gives a delightful performance that puts his chameleon talents on display, while Jeffries bumbles hilariously behind and beside Sellers' quick-thinking crook. Bernard Cribbins also makes a memorable appearance as one of Sellers' partners in crime, while the lovely Nanette Newman plays Sellers' duplicitous girlfriend.

Sellers stars as Cockney crime boss Pearly Gates, who masquerades by day as a legitimate French businessman who makes ladies' dresses. When his criminal jobs are repeatedly upended by a trio of "cops" who make off with the haul and leave the crooks behind, Pearly realizes that a new gang is using police uniforms to rob the robbers. Meanwhile, the determined but incompetent Inspector Parker (Lionel Jeffries), tries to nab Pearly's men but can't find any of the stolen goods. Pearly and his fellow crime boss, Nervous O'Toole (Bernard Cribbins), propose a collaborative effort with the police to shut down the fake cops once and for all, but Pearly doesn't suspect that the interlopers' inside informant is his own girlfriend, Valerie (Nanette Newman).

It's great fun to watch Sellers shift between his refined French persona and the Cockney patter of Pearly Gates, especially when other characters force him to switch gears quickly. Pearly is clearly the smartest person in the room, except when Valerie is around, and then he discloses all his plots and jobs without ever suspecting that he himself is being played. Inspector Parker, inevitably teased as "Nosy" by everyone else, is a bumbling foil and eventual sidekick to Pearly, with Sellers and Jeffries playing off each other in several key scenes, especially in the third act.

Most entertaining, however, is the absurdly orderly world of London's criminal gangs, an inoffensive set, really, who surrender without a fuss when caught and never hold a grudge against the police for arresting them. Cops and robbers is just a game here, without real danger or consequences, and thus a cat burglar can enter the room of a sleeping young woman and steal only her valuables and perhaps a secret kiss (one that also slips her earring from her ear!). The London thieves are easy pickings for the fake cops because it doesn't occur to any of the crooks to fight back against men in uniform, and when given the opportunity the thieves simply make their escape. Their adherence to order reaches its ridiculous height in the scene where Pearly calls a meeting of all of London's criminal elements, and the gathered crooks and cons religiously observe Robert's Rules of Order. They are, in fact, much more organized and effective than the police, a fact that becomes clear when the cops botch their parts of the plan to catch the Australian gang in the act.

The action in The Wrong Arm of the Law zips along and keeps the viewer guessing about where all of these shenanigans will lead, and if you've exhausted the available stock of Ealing comedies this film makes a great follow-up. Peter Sellers is best remembered today for the Pink Panther films, Being There (1979), and Dr. Strangelove (1964), but you can also see him with Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers (1955). Watch for John Le Mesurier as the Assistant Commissioner, along with Dennis Price and a young Michael Caine in uncredited roles. Cliff Owen went on to direct The Vengeance of She (1968) and No Sex, Please: We're British (1973). Catch Lionel Jeffries in Camelot (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968); Jeffries also directed Bernard Cribbins in The Railway Children (1970). Nanette Newman appears in The Stepford Wives (1975) and as the adult Velvet Brown in International Velvet, a 1978 sequel to the original film starring Elizabeth Taylor.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

FLASH GORDON and Sam Jones in Huntsville

The 2018 Huntsville Comic Con opened with a screening of the 1980 cult classic Flash Gordon with a Q&A featuring special guest Sam Jones, who played the title character in the film. An excited audience gathered on Thursday, March 29th, to see the movie on the big screen and ask its star a few questions.

The screening itself was a big success, with a good crowd for a town like Huntsville and an excellent sound system that blasted the Queen soundtrack in all its glory. The vibrant colors of the sets and costumes still pop, and the audience cheered as Flash played football with a giant egg, fought future 007 Timothy Dalton on a hazardous tilting platform, and saved the Earth from Max von Sydow's sneering Emperor Ming.

Nearly forty years after its original release, Flash Gordon continues to be a campy sci-fi delight, with stand out performances from Dalton, von Sydow, Brian Blessed, and Topol. Other memorable actors in the cast include Melody Anderson as Dale, Ornella Muti as Princess Aura, Peter Wyngarde as Klytus, and Richard O'Brien as Fico. Along with Dale and Dr. Zarkov, Flash travels to an alien world and fights to save his own planet after Ming the Merciless makes Earth his latest plaything. While Ming lusts after Dale, Flash struggles to unite the warring factions of Ming's court in a rebellion against the tyrant, but his efforts are complicated by Princess Aura's attraction to him and Prince Barin's resulting jealousy. The heroic adventures conclude in a grand battle to take down Ming and rescue Dale from her forced marriage to him. Queen's earworm theme for the film punctuates key moments with campy enthusiasm, while Danilo Donati's costume designs fill the eye with vivid color and quite a bit of female flesh. The final effect is more Barbarella than Star Wars, full of S&M undertones and visual hyperbole, but clearly reveling in both.

After the screening, Sam Jones took the stage to answer questions from the audience, but he was less interested in talking about the making of the film and more focused on his personal life, later career, and thoughts about acting in general. He discussed his appearance in Ted (2012) and his current film project, The Silent Natural, which does not yet have a release date. Those looking forward to an in-depth talk about the origins of Flash Gordon, its history as a comic strip and serial, and personal anecdotes about Timothy Dalton, Max von Sydow, and Brian Blessed were disappointed, but the audience was treated to Jones' positive opinion of Steven Seagal and lingering grudge against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For those who really want to learn more about Flash Gordon, the Blu-ray release features an interview with Alex Ross and the first episode of the 1936 serial starring Buster Crabbe in the title role. You can also explore the history of the comic strip online. Empire Online has a detailed article about the 1980 film called "Gordon's alive! The untold story of Flash Gordon."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DECOY (1946)

Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy (1946) is one of those film noir gems that lacks the glitter of a big budget and A-list stars but nonetheless shines with its own devilish light. Jean Gillie makes her penultimate screen appearance as a femme fatale so fixated on claiming a stolen fortune that she'll literally bring a man back from the dead to get it, with Robert Armstrong, Edward Norris, and Herbert Rudley as the men who will kill and die in service to her schemes. Those who love a twisted tale of murder and greed will relish this dark delight, which begins at the finale and then rewinds to unfold its sordid story. We know from the start that this is going to end badly.

Gillie plays the beautiful but deadly Margot, the girlfriend of death row inmate Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong). Margot knows that Frankie is sitting on a pile of stolen cash, but she doesn't know where it is, so she arranges for Frankie to be resurrected after his date with the gas chamber. Gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) helps her because he wants to recoup the costs he incurred paying for Frankie's defense, while Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) is seduced into the plot by Margot's charms. Once Lloyd resuscitates Frankie, avarice drives both Margot and Vincent to extremes, while Lloyd is drawn ever deeper into their crimes.

There's no budget or time for fancy flourishes, but Decoy works with the materials at hand, especially Gillie's mesmerizing performance as one of the coldest, most ruthless dames to grace the noir genre. She doesn't love any of the men she uses; she will happily see every one of them dead twice over if it means the bag of cash belongs to her alone. Plotting to resurrect Frankie just to betray him is mean even for a femme fatale, but Gillie does it with a grim determination that never veers into hysteria or camp. She approaches the elimination of the equally faithless Vincent the same way, running him over with their car and then coolly collecting the tools he had been using to fix a flat tire. Lloyd, horrified into a frozen stupor, can only hiss, "I'd like to kill you," as Margot carries on with her single-minded quest. She finally cracks up when she thinks she has the cash at last, laughing maniacally while Lloyd digs up the box in Frankie's hiding spot. Frankie, however, will have the last laugh, and the ending is a gut punch of irony that knocks the viewer flat.

The film is a pitch black study in the ways a man can be ruined by a woman like Margot, a siren so powerful and deadly that she lures even men who don't trust her to a horrible fate. Frankie is a criminal but not a monster; he adores Margot and wants money only to lavish gifts on his girl, but he's smart enough to take steps against an inevitable betrayal. Vincent is a cold-blooded snake; he clearly means to get the upper hand, but he doesn't realize that Margot is a python in comparison until it's too late. Tragic Lloyd is a good man undone by this serpentine beauty; he loses everything because of Margot until all that's left is a dying wish to take her out with him, which is where the picture begins. The only man who survives contact with Margot is Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), a cop with a gangster's face who feels an attraction to Margot even though he knows what she is. "People who use pretty faces like you use yours," he tells her, "don't live very long anyway." The film opens and closes with the fulfillment of his prediction.

Jean Gillie made only one additional film, The Macomber Affair (1947), before her premature death in 1949, but she can be found in earlier pictures like The Gentle Sex (1943) and Flight from Folly (1945). She was married to director Jack Bernhard when Decoy was made, but they divorced in 1947, and Bernhard went on to direct Blonde Ice (1948) and Appointment with Murder (1948). Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for King Kong (1933), and you can also see him in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Herbert Rudley found success primarily in television, but he makes appearances in Brewster's Millions (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), while Sheldon Leonard earned numerous Emmy nominations and two wins for his work behind the camera on Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964). You might also recognize Leonard as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955).


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) offers a chance to see the directorial talents of Dorothy Arzner, one of very few women to direct films during the classic sound era. Not surprisingly, the movies Arzner directed were mostly "women's pictures," but quite a few iconic classics fall squarely into that category, and Dance, Girl, Dance has plenty to recommend it besides a nod to women's cinema history. Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball star as the two dancing girls, the first an aspiring ballerina and the second an opportunistic burlesque queen, and each gives a compelling performance that mixes humor, drama and musical numbers. Along for the ups and downs are Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy as potential romantic leads, with Virginia Field and Maria Ouspenskaya appearing in supporting roles.

O'Hara has the more sympathetic heroine in Judy, who gets by as part of a nightclub dancing troop but longs to join the ranks of serious performers. Her mentor, Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), hopes to help by introducing her to ballet producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), but a tragic twist of fate prevents the meeting. Meanwhile, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is happy to climb a different kind of ladder, embracing burlesque stardom for the money and comfort it brings. Bubbles sometimes helps her former troop mate and sometimes betrays her, depending on what Bubbles herself can get out of it. That includes poaching unhappy playboy Jimmy (Louis Hayward) and setting Judy up as a stooge in the burlesque show, where leering patrons boo her ballet routine.

It's important to note that, although the movie makes Judy and Bubbles foils for one another, it never really paints Bubbles as the villain of the piece. She can be generous and forgiving, but she is clearly a student of the hard knocks school who has learned to look out for herself. Judy is more naive, but even she is realistic enough to keep the stooge job and endure the humiliation if it means paying the rent. No character is really a bad person; even the drunken Jimmy misbehaves mostly because he misses his ex-wife, Elinor (Virginia Field), whom he really does love. Ironically, the only person Judy shuns turns out to be the one who can help her achieve her dream, and poor Steve spends most of the picture trying to get Judy to realize that he isn't another masher looking for a date. In a movie without actual antagonists, Judy is often her own worst enemy, although she and Bubbles ultimately have to resolve their differences with a spectacular fight that lands Judy in court.

O'Hara is lovely and sweet as Judy, and we feel for her struggle to preserve her dignity, especially during the excruciating stooge performances. She finally triumphs over her tendency to be a human door mat when she tells off the abusive audience in grand style and then flattens Bubbles with a couple of punches. A blonde Lucille Ball is having more fun, though, as saucy, selfish Bubbles, who has the oomph that gets gigs for the troop. The film doesn't deride Bubbles for her professional choices; she's good at burlesque and clearly enjoys it, and the role gives Ball a chance to demonstrate the comedy talent that would eventually make her a television legend. Both actresses play characters who aren't primarily interested in romance but are dedicated to pursuing their careers, and that shifts the focus of the narrative toward a feminist sense of self separate from male protection and domesticity. It leaves Louis Hayward's Jimmy as something of a red herring, to be sure, but Hayward does a fine job balancing the charm and dissolution of his character, and Jimmy's troubled romance with Elinor gives us a different perspective on the choices a woman might make about her life.

Dorothy Arzner's other films include Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Christopher Strong (1933), and The Bride Wore Red (1937). For more of Maureen O'Hara's work from this era, see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Try noir films like The Dark Corner (1946) and Lured (1947) for a different side of Lucille Ball before Lucy. Catch Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday (1940). Maria Ouspenskaya, a truly great character actress, earned two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), but most people will remember her as Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941).

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966)

With its lurid title and eerie opening credits, Queen of Blood (1966) promises a delirious sci-fi phantasmagoria that, sadly, it never delivers. Even Basil Rathbone and Dennis Hopper get bogged down in the picture's ponderous pace and refusal to pivot away from the pseudo-science that typically fills the slow parts of 50s and 60s science fiction films. It's a shame, too, because writer and director Curtis Harrington's ideas might have made for a truly unnerving narrative; the last third of the movie, with the predatory title character and her secret intentions, has a lot in common with Alien (1979), but you'll never worry about whether they can hear you scream in space when you're watching Queen of Blood.

Rathbone plays Dr. Farraday, the lead scientist for a space exploration group that mounts a rescue mission to Mars when an alien ship crashes there. Among the astronauts are alpha male Allan Brenner (John Saxon), his girlfriend, Laura James (Judi Meredith), and Paul Grant (Dennis Hopper). Once the astronauts locate the sole survivor of the alien wreck, they attempt to bring her to Earth, but the small crew gets smaller each day the alien stays on board. The remaining astronauts struggle to complete their mission without becoming the vampiric stranger's next meal.

Queen of Blood is set in the far future of 1990, where women finally get to be astronauts but still wear 60s hairstyles. Lots of references to moon bases and science are meant to show how far humans have come since 1966, but the movie is in no hurry to introduce its title character or even get its astronauts to Mars to look for her, and most of the scenes take place in small control rooms or the sterile, confined space of the rescue ship. The flashes we see of the aliens, who sport clear plastic crowns that look a bit like rabbit ears, are intriguing and vaguely disturbing, but they also remind us how deadly dull the humans are in comparison. It's never really clear if the aliens are the same species as the bloodthirsty queen; Dr. Farraday speculates about their intentions but doesn't give us solid answers. That ambiguity persists right to the end, when we're left with the distinctly unpleasant expectation that the humans are making a colossal mistake, but there's no effective build up of dread that would have given the ending a truly horrific punch.

The slow pace, closed spaces, and dry dialogue don't allow Basil Rathbone or the other actors to shine, and they rarely do anything except talk. Judi Meredith is more or less the lead as Laura James, and as the only woman Laura stands out among the very typical masculine characters who make up the rest of the crew. We don't get much sense of the individual personalities of the astronauts played by John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Robert Boon, and Don Eitner, and as a result we don't really care if they live or die. When she finally does appear, the Queen of Blood, played by Florence Marly, has no lines and never even makes a sound, yet she still manages to be the most interesting character in the whole film. The male characters blithely assume that she isn't dangerous because she is so obviously female, and they treat her with patronizing kindness until they realize that she sees them as tasty snacks. Laura has to come to the rescue against this seductive predator, but it's a disappointing confrontation that wraps up much too quickly.

Curtis Harrington also wrote and directed Night Tide (1961), which handles its slow burn horror with more skill and gives young Dennis Hopper a more interesting role. For better late career performances from Basil Rathbone, see Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1963). John Saxon, who is still working in 2018, is known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series but can also be seen in Blood Beast from Outer Space (1965). You'll find both Saxon and Judi Meredith in Summer Love (1958). Be sure to note sci-fi icon and superfan Forrest J. Ackerman in a small role in Queen of Blood as Dr. Farraday's assistant.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: FALLEN ANGEL (1945)

Otto Preminger directs this top-notch noir tale of misplaced love and murder, which stars Dana Andrews as a small-time grifter who falls for luscious Linda Darnell but woos wealthy Alice Faye. It's a love triangle with a couple of kinks thrown into it, and the title, Fallen Angel, might equally apply to Andrews or Darnell, both of whom exhibit the cynical worldview born of hard knocks and bitter disappointment. In addition to the trio of excellent leads, the picture boasts an impressive supporting cast that includes Anne Revere, Percy Kilbride, Bruce Cabot, Charles Bickford, and the always entertaining John Carradine as a traveling spiritualist who pretends to talk to the dead.

Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) blows into town on his last dollar and promptly gets an eyeful of Linda Darnell's sultry Stella, sometime waitress at the diner run by Pop (Percy Kilbride). Like every other mook in the joint, Eric goes for the dark-haired beauty but can't convince her that he's not just another two-bit loser. In order to get enough money to marry Stella, Eric courts the maidenly June Mills (Alice Faye), much to the consternation of her elder sister, Clara (Anne Revere). Eric intends to marry and divorce June, but when Stella turns up dead on his wedding night, Eric finds himself on the list of suspects being pursued by Mark Judd (Charles Bickford), another of Stella's admirers who happens to be a cop.

Harry Kleiner's screenplay is adapted from the novel by Marty Holland, who also wrote the story of The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), and it shades Stella in particular with more nuance than we often see in a femme fatale. She never encourages Eric or any of the other men who hang around her like flies, and she makes it clear that she wants a wedding ring and a home before she'll take any guy into her arms. She steals a little cash from Pop's till, but she's no monster; Eric is the one who hatches the plan to seduce and betray June, not Stella. Nonetheless, the film sets Stella up as the fallen angel, the beautiful but bad girl, especially in the way it introduces her. We're encouraged to think of her that way even as the picture slowly reveals how little Stella deserves her fate and how much more fallen Eric is than Stella has ever been.

Andrews is in fine noir form as Eric; it's the kind of role that lets him use both his charm and his edge of jaded ruthlessness. He talks his way into Professor Madley's spiritualist racket and then into June's good graces, but he has a lot more trouble sweet-talking the justly skeptical Stella. Perhaps that's why he likes her so much in the first place. The audience is left to wonder if June's virtuous love is enough to reform Eric, especially when we know he only marries her for the cash. Alice Faye, of course, is perfect as June; if Eric and Stella are both fallen angels, June is still wearing her halo in Heaven. Faye is one of the few actresses who can make such a good girl role appealing, and late in the film she gets a chance to reveal the sturdy spirit that Junes possesses in addition to her virtue. June might have married a man she barely knows, but when she takes a vow she means it, and that comes as quite a revelation to Eric.

Take time to savor the performances by Carradine, Revere, and Kilbride in their supporting roles; Kilbride has a particularly fine moment right at the end, when the depth of Pop's devotion finally transcends the pathetic. For more Otto Preminger noir with Dana Andrews, see Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Preminger also directs Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947) and The 13th Letter (1951). Alice Faye is remembered more for films like In Old Chicago (1938), That Night in Rio (1941), and the colorful wartime musical, The Gang's All Here (1943). You'll find Charles Bickford and Anne Revere in The Song of Bernadette (1943), while Percy Kilbride is best known today for his starring role as Pa Kettle in the Ma and Pa Kettle films, starting with The Egg and I (1947).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: ANOTHER MAN'S POISON (1951)

Adapted from a stage play by Leslie Sands, Another Man's Poison (1951) offers a wickedly ironic title and a chance for Bette Davis to sink her teeth into another maneater role, this time as the femme fatale protagonist of a devious noir plot. Irving Rapper directs Davis and her real-life husband at the time, Gary Merrill, as two unscrupulous people entangled in their own lies, and they do have a palpable - if violent - chemistry. Despite the location shoot at the brooding Malham Tarn Estate, the movie never quite shakes its stage roots, but Davis and Merrill make up for that in spades with their knack for driving each other into a rage. The lies and violence build to a pitch-black finale that will satisfy the most cynical film noir fan.

Davis schemes as Janet Frobisher, a mystery novelist occupying a grand home in a remote English village. When bank robber George Bates (Gary Merrill) comes looking for Janet's long absent husband, he finds that Janet has already dispatched her criminal spouse. George decides to fill the vacancy by pretending to be the man of the house, a plan Janet doesn't appreciate, especially when George suggests it's a permanent arrangement. Janet has her own plans regarding her secretary's handsome fiance, Larry (Anthony Steel), and she worries about keeping up the deception with her neighbor, Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams), who is constantly dropping by.

It quickly becomes apparent that Janet has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which enables Davis to play her villainous nature to the hilt. There's no moral gray area here; the only thing Janet gives a damn about is her horse, Fury, and everyone else in the world can go to Hell for all she cares. She has no pity for her innocent secretary, Chris (Barbara Murray), from whom she steals the attractive Larry simply because she can. She poisons her husband not because he's a criminal and a terrible person but because she just doesn't want him around, and then she gets George to dump his corpse into the tarn. Later, she works hard to get rid of George, too. When karma catches up with Janet, it's a delicious bit of payback that the audience relishes, and Davis knows exactly how to exploit our loathing for her character.

Merrill's George is also reprehensible, especially in his sexist assumption that he can outfox Janet, but he's never as clever as she is. He develops a strange jealousy of Larry, seemingly buying into his own usurped rights as Janet's husband; he's furious that she keeps the door joining their bedrooms locked even though he's a total stranger. George is not quite as cold-hearted as Janet when it comes to murder; he first shows up because Janet's husband shot the policeman in the bank heist that went wrong, and George wants his name cleared in the killing. He pales when Janet suggests that her husband was actually alive when George pitched him into the tarn, and he's shocked when he realizes that Janet is trying to kill him, too. He even offers a little romantic advice to Chris to help her hold onto Larry, but that doesn't make him a good guy. When he takes out his anger on Janet's horse, he crosses a line with her and the audience's sympathy. We all know from there that there's no going back.

Enjoy the more subtle twists of Emlyn Williams' performance as the neighborly vet who keeps asking for his deadly horse medicine back; he's as close as we get to a detective in this film. Davis and Merrill made three pictures together; the other two are All About Eve (1950) and Phone Call from a Stranger (1952). Irving Rapper also directed Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942), The Corn is Green (1945), and Deception (1946). Look for Emlyn Williams in I, Claudius (1937) and Ivanhoe (1952), and see Anthony Steel in The Master of Ballantrae (1953)