Monday, June 30, 2008

The Vampyr: A Soap Opera (BBC, 1992)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Vampyr (notice the spelling), based on an 1827 opera by German composer Heinrich Marschner, who because even in his own day he was considered a second-tier talent (for decades he was the resident composer in Hanover and never quite made it in Berlin) has largely been forgotten since even though opera historians consider him a significant figure, the most important German opera composer between Weber and Wagner. The story has one of the most convoluted textual histories of any opera: it began at that legendary soirée in Switzerland between George Gordon, Lord Byron; his traveling companion, John Polidori; Byron’s great rival Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, during the weeks they spent on vacation at Lake Geneva and one night they decided they would each write a ghost story.

As Mary Shelley recounted in the preface to her 1831 revision of Frankenstein — her contribution to the group’s efforts and the only one that was actually finished — “the noble author [Byron] began a tale, a fragment which he printed at the end of his poem of Mazeppa. Shelley, more apt to embody ideas and sentiments in the radiance of brilliant imagery … commenced one founded on the experiences of his early life. Poor Polidori had some terrible idea about a skull-headed lady, who was so punished for peeping through a keyhole — what to see I forget — something very shocking and wrong, of course.”

Byron’s “fragment” was a story about a young man (the narrator) who became the traveling companion of a mysterious older man named Lord Darvell; they toured Greece together (as Byron and Polidori in fact had) and then Darvell mysteriously got sick and died, but just before his death he swore his companion to an oath of secrecy that he was not to divulge his existence or the manner of his death. Byron’s fragment never mentions vampirism, but Polidori recorded in his diary that Byron had told him the reason for Darvell’s actions was that he was a vampire and therefore could not really die, but also did not want his true identity revealed when he revived and set out in the world looking for fresh victims.

Polidori expanded on Byron’s fragment and published a story of his own, The Vampyre, in 1819, a gruesome tale in which the vampire, now called “Ruthven” (an in-joke since that was the name used for an unsympathetic character based on Byron in the novel Glenarvon by Byron’s former mistress, Lady Caroline Lamb), returns to life and starts courting the sister of his former traveling companion, here called Aubrey (he was nameless in the Byron fragment). Aubrey is torn between his oath to the vampire and his desire to save his sister from becoming his latest victim, and at the end Aubrey’s sister and Ruthven are married, Aubrey reveals the vampire’s identity but too late to stop the wedding, and eventually Aubrey goes mad and dies of a burst blood vessel from his grief while his sister becomes Ruthven’s latest victim. (To get his story published, Polidori hinted that Byron was the actual author, but the piece is so dreadfully written — especially by comparison to the eloquence of the fragment Byron actually wrote — that’s impossible to believe.)

The Vampyre was an instant sensation — it was translated into French at least three times and into German twice — and in 1820 a trio of French authors, François Adrien Carmouche, Charles Nodier and Achille de Jouffroy, did a stage adaptation of it, changing the story so that the vampire actually dies twice — first as in the Byron and Polidori versions, then posing as his brother, Count Marsden, in which guise he courts Aubrey’s sister Malwina and extracts the vow of secrecy from Aubrey after Aubrey recognizes him and a subsidiary character, Edgar (Malwina’s former boyfriend), shoots Ruthven out of jealousy (though Ruthven’s second “death” turns out to be as temporary as his first), but in this version there’s a happy ending in which both Aubrey and Malwina delay the wedding long enough so that Ruthven misses his 1 a.m. deadline to recruit his latest victim or return to hell forever; Malvina is saved, Ruthven is taken to hell (like Don Juan in a story Byron wrote as a poem after Mozart had done it as an opera to da Ponte’s libretto) and Aubrey lives.

Marschner’s opera was composed in 1827 and made a few significant changes to the story: Aubrey became Malwina’s boyfriend instead of her brother; Malwina’s father, Davenaut, arranges the marriage between her and Ruthven to get his hands on Ruthven’s fortune; instead of being attracted to Ruthven as in the French play, Malwina loathes and fears him from the first and the conflict is within her — between filial duty to her father and her own heart. Marschner’s librettist, Wilhelm August Wohlbrück (also his brother-in-law; and Wohlbrück’s sister/Marschner’s wife was also a diva who frequently took leading roles in his operas, like such other famous composer/singer couples as Gioacchino Rossini and Isabella Colbran, Giuseppe Verdi and Giuseppina Strepponi, and Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears). In this version, there’s a prologue set in hell that spells out the conditions for Ruthven’s continued existence on earth; he must kill and drink the blood of three female victims in as many days, and if he fails he will be dragged down to hell forever.

The BBC took on this project in the early 1990’s when they decided they wanted to do an English-language modern-dress adaptation of an opera; they wanted the work to be something from the 19th century so it would sound like audiences expected an opera to sound, but they also wanted a work sufficiently obscure that almost nobody watching the program would have heard it before and therefore they wouldn’t be coming with preconceived notions as to what it should sound like and how it should be staged. They hired writer Charles Hart to do the English text, which I gather was not an attempt to translate Wohlbrück’s literally but to tell the same story in words which would fit both Marschner’s music and the updated modern-dress setting.

In this version, Hart changed the characters’ names but kept close to the sound of the originals: “Ruthven” is now Ripley (a reference to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley? The famous film of Highsmith’s novel didn’t come out until 1999, seven years after this movie, but the book was a well-regarded, popular work that had spawned at least four sequels and had previously been filmed in France, and like Highsmith’s Ripley, Hart’s is also a sinister villain with a young, basically decent but almost terminally naïve man in tow), and after being accidentally exhumed from his tomb when a construction crew disturbed his grave, he’s summoned to a Satanist gathering led by a Black high priestess (played by a woman identified only as “Winston” who I assume was a British supermodel) and given the three-victims-in-three-days-or-else instruction.

Previously he had used his unexpected resurrection to make himself a fortune in businesses both legitimate and otherwise, and Aubrey becomes his assistant Alex, who’s fought his way back from a drug habit Ripley gave him and is secretly dating Malwina, who’s here called Miranda but is still subject to pressure from his father, who lost his money through bad investments and sees Ripley’s fortune as his route back to good financial health — though the idea of a formerly rich man essentially selling his daughter into an arranged marriage to restore his financial standing dates badly in a 19th century London setting. The victims Ripley claims before he sets his sights on Miranda are changed from Janthe to Ginny, a young woman Ripley picks up after she’s left alone on the streets at night following an argument with her boyfriend; and from Emmy to Emma, an office assistant Ripley picks up in a singles bar.

It’s pretty clear that the BBC picked this of all operas to revive in this format because of the continued popularity of vampire stories and the iconography behind them — indeed, Hart rather uneasily grafted some of the Dracula iconography onto a vampire story that predates Bram Stoker’s, notably the way Ripley changes to a wolf (a quite effectively done digital effect) just before he actually attacks his victims — and for the most part Hart deserves points for writing English that’s intelligible even when sung to 19th century music (only in a few of the vocal ensembles — always the biggest trap for libretto writers — did the text disappear into the musical mass) and for translating Wohlbrück’s characterizations and situations into modern equivalents.

The one key point he blew is the vow of silence, which simply disappears from the story — Alex gets into his sports car and drives away from the wedding between Ripley and Miranda in disgust, then thinks better of it and drives back in a scene that rather jarringly resembles the end of The Graduate — a mistake because the twisted loyalties of the 19th century versions would have made Alex a more sympathetic character and his dilemma far more understandable. Director Nigel Finch applied an appropriately over-the-top visual style to this story, and though I’d heard of only one of the cast members before (bass Richard Van Allan, who plays Miranda’s father Davenant), the principals were excellent singing actors who also benefited from looking their parts: Omar Ebrahim is a dangerously charismatic presence as well as having a strong “belt” baritone that fits the music and Hart’s text well; Philip Salmon is a solid lyric tenor as Alex; and Fiona O’Neill is a bit more heavy-set than one would expect in the female lead in a 1992 horror film, she’s certainly curvaceous enough and her voice is also a good one, though she has a bit of a problem with Marschner’s coloratura.

About the only risible element was the narrator, Robert Stephens (Billy Wilder’s Sherlock Holmes), whom Charles thought came off too much like the criminologist in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and added an element of risibility to what was intended as straight blood-freezing horror. There was a rather quirky credit to the Stuttgart Opera — did they stage a modern-dress Vampyr and were some of the props and costumes from that production used here? For some reason called The Vampyr: A Soap Opera (though its only commonality with soap opera was that it was broadcast as a five-part serial — and whoever uploaded it to OperaShare was working from a videotape made off the air, and the fifth and last part had inferior reception to the others and frequently the colors faded out completely and the film became black-and-white), this is actually a quite appealing production, even though judging from what I’ve read about the Marschner/Wohlbrück original and the English translation of Wohlbrück’s libretto I’ve downloaded, Ruthven is a far more conflicted character than Ripley, wracked by guilt and wishing for a normal death, whereas Ripley is an amoral psychopath with no compunction about what he’s doing,

It makes me want to hear the German original (and apparently CD’s of this and Marschner’s other most popular opera, Hans Heiling — also about a supernatural being who makes a deal with the devil for the love of a woman, but ultimately loses her to a normal and decent human being — are readily available from the usual private sources), and it’s quite obvious where Der Vampyr fits into the evolution of German opera, neatly between Weber’s Der Freischütz (which also features a rustic German country setting, a wedding and a deal with the devil) and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (whose protagonist is similarly under a curse, though Wagner’s character is sympathetic and seeks the love of a woman, not her murder, to redeem him).

Robot Holocaust (Independent, 1986)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I started a movie for Charles and I, the next in sequence on his Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with episodes of the Republic serial Radar Men from the Moon (though this one abruptly broke off in the middle — there was even a slide reading “Film Break”! — to make room for the feature): Robot Holocaust, which since it was on the same disc as their take on Robot Monster seemed likely to be a sequel to it, and while the world hardly needed a sequel to Robot Monster, one would have been considerably more fun than Robot Holocaust actually turned out to be. The central premise of Robot Holocaust is that there was an enormous worldwide civil war between humans and their robot creations, and the robots kicked our butts, in the process making the above-ground atmosphere way too toxic for the surviving humans to breathe.

They’ve impressed some of the surviving homo sapiens into being “air slaves,” a job which consists mainly of throwing burlap sacks into giant holes in the floor which supposedly fuels the machines that give the robots their energy, while they’ve made others into gladiators who wrestle ceaselessly in loincloths — which if nothing else at least gave us some nice beefcake views of hot-looking young (or at least youngish) men who were nice fantasy objects. Meanwhile, a race of mutant humans lives out in what’s called the “Wasteland,” a particularly polluted part of Earth (called “New Terra” in this film for some reason, even though it looks like just a badly wrecked version of the same Old Terra to us), where they can dwell above the surface since their bodies have adapted to breathing the otherwise toxic air.

The writer and director is someone named Tim Kincaid (Thomas Kinkade’s black-sheep brother? Their visual senses are actually rather similar), the producers are Charles Band (uncredited) and Cynthia DePaula (the MST3K crew couldn’t resist the temptation to make a pun on her name and DePauw University) and the “V” designating this title on makes it seem like this movie went straight to video (and didn’t stay there long; lists it as available on VHS but not on DVD), the musical score is by Richard Band (presumably the producer’s brother) and Joel Goldsmith, and the cast is full of a bunch of people you never heard of — Norris Culf, Nadine Hartstein, J. Buzz Von Ornsteiner, Jennifer Delora, Andrew Howarth, Michael Downend, Rick Gianasi — whose boring non-acting throughout the entire film (we’re talking porn-star level incompetence here!) makes it all too clear why you never heard of them.

Aside from its possible influence on The Matrix — not only is the plot centered around a race of machines who have enslaved their human creators, but the protagonist is even named Neo! — about the only thing interesting about Robot Holocaust is one genuinely good performance, by Angelika Jager as Valeria, servant of “The Dark One,” the never-seen ruler of New Terra, who’s represented only by a glowing yellow light fixture on the wall and a deep, booming voice (sort of like what HAL would have become if he had survived the events of 2001). Despite her utter inability to say the letter “r” — a speech defect she’s shared with such genuinely talented performers as Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis and Barbara Walters (and for which the MST3K crew ribbed her mercilessly) — Jager is the one genuinely charismatic and appealing performer in the entire film, ably communicating both the character’s true belief in the Dark One’s system and her increasing exasperation as the Dark One starts threatening her for letting the resistance fighters (such as they are) get closer and closer to the “Power Station,” the central headquarters of the Dark One and his minions (and though it’s a cheap cardboard mockup the exterior of the “Power Station” at least looks like one).

There’s also an intriguing subplot of a race of Amazons who seem to embody the worst aspects of radical feminism’s wet dreams: they don’t permit men to enter the kingdom at all, and when one does they use him as a stud service just long enough to reproduce their race (after first cutting out his tongue because, as the leader of this tribe explains, “men talk too much”) and then kill him. The rest of it is just dull, with the various characters (some in human garb, some wearing ill-fitting and tacky-looking robot costumes) walking around, occasionally having at each other with cardboard swords and (except for Jager) delivering their lines with such total absence of expression your average porn performer sounds like Olivier by comparison — and by far the most risible scene is one in which the resistance fighters, on their way into the Power Station, have to go through an underground cave lined with pink serpent-like creatures who, though fixed to the wall, have lethal teeth and a sweet tooth for humans. With a director of Guillermo del Toro’s imagination (and budget!) this might actually have been frightening, but with Tim Kincaid at the helm and his props seemingly limited to what he and his crew could buy at a 99¢ store, the pink monsters are all too obviously sock puppets (though at least his film isn’t quite as tacky as that Sci-Fi Channel Alien ripoff I saw a bit of once, in which the “alien” that burst through the guy’s chest was so obviously a glove you could see the fingers of the person working it through the all too sheer material). Robot Holocaust was so relentlessly dull not even the MST3K crew’s clowning could make it interesting or entertaining!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Teen-Age Crime Wave (Clover/Columbia, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Teen-Age Crime Wave (the hyphen is part of the title on the original credits), a Sam Katzman production for Columbia in 1955, directed by Fred Sears from a script by Ray Buffum and Harry Essex — I’d never heard of Buffum before but Essex is a writer with some genuinely respectable genre pieces on his résumé: Kansas City Confidential, The Las Vegas Story, It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them; it’s basically Rebel Without a Cause meets The Desperate Hours.

It opens in a sleazy bar where Freddy (George Cisar), a portly, middle-aged horndog who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Guy Kibbee, is being cruised by Terry Marsh (Molly McCart), who’s supposed to be a teenager (though the actress, born on February 24, 1929, was already 24 when this film was made, and looked it); she gets him to leave with her and then, once he’s outside the bar, the other members of her gang, her boyfriend Mike Denton (Tommy Cook) and Mike’s friend Al (Jimmy Ogg), jump Freddy and steal his well-filled wallet — only to get caught almost immediately by the cops. Also arrested is Jane Koberly (Sue England), a nice girl who accepted a blind date to go to a movie with Al and proved she was a nice girl by resisting his post-cinematic advances: “Just because you took me to a movie doesn’t mean you own me!” Jane’s dad (James Bell) is willing to listen to her side of the story, but her mom (Helen Brown) washes her hands of her and calls her a “sinner.”

Jane is sentenced to one year in a dreary-sounding institution called the “industrial school,” and I was rather looking forward to seeing it because it sounded so much like something from a Charles Dickens nightmare — only we never get there; after a scene in county jail in which it looks as if Terry (whom the authorities have inexplicably allowed to room with Jane) is going to make a Lesbian pass at Jane and then laments that she’s been sentenced to stay in the “industrial school” until her 21st birthday (which quite frankly from Molly McCart’s appearance looked like ancient history!), Mike runs the car taking them there off the road, kills the sheriff’s deputy who was driving it and attempts to drown the prison matron who was guarding Terry and Jane by pushing the car into a lake — only she gets rescued in time and reports the escape to the police.

Needing a place to hide out pronto, Mike takes them to the farmhouse where Thomas and Sarah Grant (Guy Kingsford and Kay Riehl), a middle-aged couple, live; they’re awaiting the arrival of their son, war hero Ben (Frank Griffin) for Thanksgiving the next day. There follow several reels of the J.D.’s holding the Grants (including sonny boy, when he finally shows up — and seems just as dull, boring and offensive as the bad guys) hostage and terrorizing them, following which they manage to get word to their friend Al (ya remember Al?) to meet them there and take them away and over the border to Mexico, only Al is shot down by the police and the bad guys steal Ben’s car and end up at — of all the possible displays of chutzpah on the part of writers Buffum and Essex — the observatory at Griffith Park, famed as the site of two of the most important sequences in Rebel Without a Cause.

Mike and Ben confront each other in the observatory’s rotating dome (something Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern never thought of!) and Terry gets shot down — with her dying breath she exonerates Jane, which was dreadfully nice of her — while Mike, who seems to have wanted to die a great big romantic death under a hail of police bullets, seems incredibly disappointed when he’s actually taken alive. The weird thing about Teen-Age Crime Wave is that there are isolated moments in which all the elements click — the dialogue (especially when Mike and Terry are talking about their backgrounds and Mr. Grant is concerned about his sick wife) occasionally hits notes of real pathos and the actors are good enough to make us feel for them — before the script carts them all right back into the familiar grooves of J.D. cliché and the movie takes on an air of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 badness (and I believe MST3K actually did do this one).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Our Relations (Hal Roach Studios, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My partner Charles and I finally settled in at about 10:50 and, after looking for a suitably short film, found it in Our Relations, a 1936 Laurel and Hardy comedy feature that was one of the two he made for Hal Roach that were billed as “Stan Laurel Productions.” (As is well known, Oliver Hardy took no creative role in their films — he was just a performer — but Laurel worked with the writing staff before the movies were filmed and also helped edit them afterwards, for which services he was paid twice as much as Hardy was.)

Loosely based on a story by W. W. Jacobs called “The Money Box,” which Felix Adler and Richard Connell turned into an “original” screen story, Jack Jevne and Charles Rogers adapted into a script and Laurel, Mauri Grashin, Clarence Henneke and Harrington Reynolds made uncredited contributions to (then as now, comedies were especially susceptible to the writing-by-committee process on the ground that jokes get funnier if a number of different people in a room are bouncing ideas off each other and offering “toppers” for each other’s gags), this one cast Laurel and Hardy in dual roles: as Stan and Ollie and their no-good twin brothers from Britain, Bert Hardy and Alf Laurel, who ran away to sea after cutting up and establishing themselves as no-goodniks in the small British town where all four were born (so this is one movie in which Stan Laurel is playing his true nationality and Oliver Hardy isn’t!).

Supposedly they were executed following a mutiny, but in fact they’re alive, well and ready to cruise for drink and girls in the small town where Stan and Ollie live with their wives Daphne Hardy (Daphne Pollard) and Betty “Bubbles” Laurel (Betty Healy). (In a nice casting touch, the actress playing Hardy’s wife is a diminutive woman and the one playing Laurel’s wife is a big battle-axe type who towers over him.) The film was directed by Harry Lachman, an obscure figure who was a friend of cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who’d come to the U.S. after shooting The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr for Carl Theodor Dreyer — and who for some reason got work here only because Lachman put him on his movies as a favor, and Maté acquitted himself magnificently in the photography of the Spencer Tracy vehicle Dante’s Inferno at Fox in 1935. Maté also shot Our Relations — a far more prestigious cinematographer than usually associated with Laurel and Hardy (though George Stevens had got his start photographing the early Laurel and Hardy shorts that Leo McCarey directed) — and he got a couple of unusual camera angles into it, including an interesting shot from above as Laurel, Hardy and Arthur Housman (an inebriated husband desperate to call his wife and tell her he’s bringing home some milk) crowd into a phone booth simultaneously in what appears to be Laurel and Hardy’s answer to the stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.

All the principals end up at Denker’s Beer Garden, where the manager of the establishment (Alan Hale) is trying to collect a bill Bert and Alf have run up lavishing food and drink on two gold-diggers they’ve picked up there, Alice (Iris Adrian) and Lily (Lona André). Bert and Alf can’t pay it because they’ve given their money for “safe-keeping” to Fin (James Finlayson), a fellow crewman on the S. S. Periwinkle who rips them off by saying that he’ll “invest” their money and make them both millionaires, and when they seek him out and try to get the money back he gets them to undress and traps them both in the room he’s rented at a boarding house — which they flee by dressing in blankets and towels and passing themselves off as Singaporean grandees.

Our Relations isn’t one of the most highly regarded Laurel and Hardy vehicles, and indeed it misses almost as many opportunities as it makes — the two Laurels and Hardys don’t even meet until the final scene, a neat slapstick sequence in which the two have been kidnapped by gangsters (Ralf Harolde and Noel Madison), taken to a dock and had their feet encased in concrete that for some reason developed a convex curve at the bottom so they look and act like those life-size inflatable pop-up dolls that pop back when you punch them. There’s a lot of business involving a pearl ring of appalling tastelessness which the captain of the Periwinkle (Sidney Toler, out of his “Asian” Charlie Chan makeup and almost unrecognizable) asked Bert and Alf to pick up from a delivery person at the ship and then take to Denker’s to give to him there — which, of course, they give to the manager as security for their bill — and of course when Stan and Ollie stumble into Denker’s with their wives, the two floozies accost them and the manager presents them with Bert’s and Alf’s bill and demand that they pay it, giving them the ring that Bert and Alf left for security and which really belongs to the captain.

It’s the sort of movie that has way too much plot to be funny, but the drunk scene with Housman is hilarious and the finale is at least amusing — though too little is made of the obvious mistaken-identity gimmick. (There is one nice shot of a cop doing a double-take when Stan and Ollie walk past him just seconds after the indistinguishable Bert and Alf have done so.) Still, second-rate Laurel and Hardy is still a lot funnier than first-rate just about anybody else (especially in 1936, when after the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields one didn’t have much in the way of great screen comedy — the Three Stooges? The Ritz Brothers? Give me a break! Undoubtedly, though, the funniest film released in the U.S. in 1936 was Chaplin’s masterpiece, Modern Times). It did occur to me that Stan Laurel’s naming his cinematic alter ego Alf might have been a tribute to Alf Goulding, the manager of Fred Karno’s comedy troupe when both Chaplin and Laurel worked for them (and him), and incidentally the brother of director Edmund Goulding.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Assignment — Paris (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

What Charles and I finally ended up watching was Assignment — Paris (the listing on the film separates the two words in the title with a colon, but the opening credit clearly indicates a dash, just as well because you can’t use a colon in a file name), a 1952 anti-Communist “thriller” (the word in quotes because one thing this movie was decidedly not was thrilling) made by Columbia from a short story called “Trial of Terror” by Paul and Pauline Gallico (who themselves had been threatened with being blacklisted and probably wrote this story to get themselves off the blacklist much the way Shostakovitch wrote his Fifth Symphony, and called it “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” to keep himself out of the gulag), adapted by Walter Goetz and Jack Palmer White with a screenplay by William Bowers — and yes, this seems like a textbook example of my general-field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers.

The central character — though he’s only billed third — is Nicholas Strang (George Sanders), editor of the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune. He’s an unusual Sanders character in that he’s on the side of good, at least politically, though that doesn’t stop him from hitting on the female help; he was formerly in a relationship with secretary Sandy Tate (the marvelous and here underused Audrey Totter) but dumped her when reporter Jeanne Moray (Märta Torén — that’s how lists her; the actual credits strip her of her diacriticals) showed up and attracted his attentions instead, and she’s trying to get him to take her seriously as a reporter while he only wants to get in her pants. The top-billed performer in this movie is Dana Andrews, playing hotshot reporter Jimmy Race, newly arrived from the States, and of course he and Jeanne meet-cute when they’re both being kept waiting by the Hungarian ambassador to France and they don’t realize they’re working for the same news organization. They’re there to cover the fate of Paul Anderson, an American accused of espionage by the Hungarian government, whose premier, Andreas Ordy (Herbert Berghof) — the one fictional world leader in the story; all the other countries’ leaders mentioned have their real names — is in the process of breaking with the Soviet Union and allying himself with Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Nonetheless, Ordy is very much a chip off the old Stalinist bloc(k); when the movie opens he appears on Hungarian radio to announce that Anderson has confessed to espionage and been given a 20-year sentence, and the people at the New York Herald-Tribune even get to monitor the broadcast of Anderson’s taped confession, in which he says he’s giving the confession freely and without duress and Dana Andrews’ character snarls, “I’ll bet!” The film alternates between Paris and Budapest and centers around the Hungarian authorities’ search for the mysterious dissident Gabor Czeki (Sandro Giglio), whose miraculous escape from a Hungarian concentration camp while the Hungarian authorities thought he was dead recalls Victor Laszlo from Casablanca (which is about the only aspect of this movie that evokes a film of genuine quality). What neither the heroes nor the villains know until about three-quarters of the way through the movie is that Czeki is hiding in the New York Herald Tribune office as Grisha, the seemingly unimportant and ineffectual office assistant, factotum and comic-relief character — not that there’s much drama in this movie for you to want comic relief from.

Meanwhile, and despite the fact that his predecessor on this assignment was returned badly beaten and near death, Race volunteers to sneak into Budapest to see if he can find out what happened to Anderson (in one of the few interesting inventions of the writing committee, he sends back a coded message mentioning two cemeteries and a famous author of fairy tales, from which Nicholas and Jeanne deduce that Anderson is dead) and also to contact the Hungarian underground and collect a photo of Ordy meeting with Tito — which he does, though there’s no clue on the picture as to the date it was taken. (By now I was expecting them to pull the Call Northside 777 gimmick of having a newspaper in the photo yield the date on which it was taken.) Eventually a couple of Hungarian thugs come to Paris and start shoving people around, including holding Czeki’s children hostage, until they finally flush him out and take him back home — only they’re ambushed by the police and an exchange is arranged by which the Hungarians will get Czeki and the Herald Tribune will get back Race, who in the meantime has been arrested, brainwashed and forced to record his own “confession.” That’s right; though top-billed, Dana Andrews almost totally disappears for the last third of this film, reappearing only at the end and, when the Hungarian authorities turn him over, he looks either hypnotized, drugged or both — but the implication is that he’ll recover, and meanwhile the Western authorities have a piece of information they can hold over Ordy’s head to make sure he and his regime leave Czeki alone and allow him to get on with his life.

Assignment — Paris is one of the most plodding films ever made in its genre; the committee-driven script required the skills of Alfred Hitchcock and got Robert Parrish instead (though credits Phil Karlson as second director, indicating that even the “suits” at Columbia realized that Parrish’s work wasn’t cutting the mustard); there are a few noir compositions of heart-stopping beauty that may represent Karlson’s contribution to the film, but other than that the film is quite plainly shot. Charles ridiculed the movie for making tape editing one of the keys to resolving the plot (I don’t recall that, but then I was nodding off on occasion) — which probably in 1952 had the high-tech patina that, say, the computer scene in the first Mission: Impossible movie had to audiences of our time, but also recalled David Sedaris’ comment on how he respected the use of computers to make digital effects shots but resented it when the computers themselves were shown on screen and became part of the plot. Like a lot of the other anti-Communist movies of the time, Assignment — Paris suffers from the fact that Hollywood knew only one way to depict contemporary urban evil: like their Nazi predecessors in World War II-era movies, the Communists in these films behave exactly like the gangsters of the 1930’s crime classics like Little Caesar and Public Enemy, shoving guns around, getting in people’s faces, looking brutal and intimidating and snarling out their lines. (Also, one weird quirk about this movie is that just about everyone playing a Hungarian has really bad hair.)

But what really sinks Assignment — Paris is how dull it is; whatever potentials for excitement and suspense exist in the story are muffed, and Parrish plods along at a soporific pace that plays against Dana Andrews’ acting style and offers George Sanders a chance to chew the scenery — which he does in that delightfully droll way of his that puts the scalp of this film on his well-filled wall of movies he easily stole from the rest of the cast — but doesn’t generate the thrills you expect from a thriller. Charles said that only the professional competence of the acting on this one raised it above Mystery Science Theatre 3000 level; I didn’t dislike it that much, but it was still a disappointment, the sort of bad movie that could easily have been quite good with a bit more coherence in the writing and care in the direction.

The Slime People (Independent, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My partner Charles and I squeezed in a movie before we went to bed, only we quite frankly needn’t have bothered! It was the next in sequence on the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc that included the latest Radar Men from the Moon serial episode (number 6, “Hills of Death” — one quickly gets the idea about the writers’ obsessions and the genre conventions from how often the word “Death” appears in serial chapter titles) from Republic and a really horrible movie called The Slime People from independent sources, produced by Joseph F. Robertson and directed by Robert Hutton, who also cast himself in the leading role of Tom Gregory, TV newscaster who allies himself with scientist Prof. Galbraith (Robert Burton) and his two pretty young daughters Lisa (Susan Hart) and Bonnie (Judee Morton) to fight the titular menace, a group of monsters that look sort of like a combination crawfish and lizard — though, since they’re being played by humans (Jock Putnam and Fred Stromsoe) in very bad monster suits, they walk upright and their human faces are all too visible through their monster makeup.

The gimmick is that these monsters came from beneath the earth and lived inside the ground — hence their (alleged) sliminess — and also they have the ability to harden water to the consistency of rock and get it to stay that way at normal, well-above-freezing temperatures (so the writers of this film, Blair Robertson and Vance Skarstedt, thought of something similar to “ice-nine” two years before Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published Cat’s Cradle!). The film opens with a head-on shot of the monsters emerging from the bowels of the earth — a bit surprising in a film of this genre since we’re used to a slow build-up giving exposition and establishing suspense before we find what the monsters look like, but in this case it’s explained by the fact that another side effect of the Slime People’s attack strategy is to cover everything in dense fog, to the point where through most of this movie we’re looking at a basically grey screen in which vaguely shaped blobs — some human, some slimy — are moving about and doing actions discernible only with great difficulty.

The slime people have supposedly annihilated all of L.A. except for our central characters — the ones mentioned above; Cal Johnson (William Boyce), a U.S. Marine who’s been wandering around the countryside; and Norman Tolliver (Les Tremayne, second-billed), a prize-winning author who resolutely refuses to believe in the slime people — indeed, is planning to write a book about the mass delusion that they exist — until, predictably, they eat him in the course of the film. (It’s a pity to lose him because he’s the only interesting character in the film.) Eventually the slime people start dying for reasons as mysterious as the ones that launched their attack in the first place — all while the human characters are holed up in a TV studio, which is different, to say the least — and Tom and Lisa are paired off, as are Cal and Bonnie. This was one of those films that was so bad — so unutterably dull — that even the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew couldn’t work their magic on it; when one of the MST3K robots asked, “Why was this film made?,” that was our question exactly …

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Number Seventeen (British International, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Earlier in the evening, after I got back from the Rainbow Congress, I watched one of the Hitchcock videotapes I bought last week at the Wherehouse: Number Seventeen, an odd 1932 film from one of his rare career slumps, when he was burned out working for John Maxwell at British International and Maxwell shoved him this horrible old stage play as his next project just to be perverse. (Ironically, the movie Hitchcock wanted to direct at that particular time was a romantic drama, John van Druten’s London Wall, and not a thriller at all!)

According to the credits, Number Seventeen (the play) was written by J. Jefferson Farjeon and “presented” by Leon M. Lion (an interesting name, to be sure), who is also the star of the film and therefore presumably was an actor/manager who commissioned this dreadfully stagebound drama as a vehicle for himself. Number Seventeen might be described as Hitchcock’s The Old Dark House, with its similar old-house setting — though the reason the characters in Number Seventeen have gathered together in the deserted residence whose address gives the film its name, involving a stolen necklace which both the original thieves and a couple of detectives (one male and one female) are trying to recover, is a much more prosaic one than the oddly assorted motives guiding the marvelously eccentric characters in Whale’s film — and its similarly nervy imbalance between comedy and thrills. (Interestingly, on his next film, Lord Camber’s Ladies — Hitchcock’s last British International project — Hitchcock worked with Old Dark House screenwriter Benn W. Levy, on a film Hitch merely produced and Levy directed.) John Russell Taylor interpreted Number Seventeen as a comedy, an intentional spoof on this type of thriller in which Hitch, his wife Alma Reville and their friend, screenwriter Rodney Ackland:

“ … decided to get their own back by tearing the play apart and piling nonsense on nonsense until no one could take it seriously. The talky, stagy bit of the film … is actually shot with some enterprise and imagination — long moving-camera shots, a lot of chiaroscuro, dark shadows and flashing lights. Which all serves to highlight the general ludicrousness of the plot, where everybody is in the dark all the time, no one knows who are the good guys and who are the bad, and people keep saying things like, ‘Just like the pictures, isn’t it?’ as one melodramatic absurdity is piled on another. Gleefully elaborating, Hitch and Ackland decided that since the heroine in such stories is always pretty dumb anyway, they would go one stage further and make this heroine completely, literally dumb. And when at the end she suddenly proves able to speak, obviously no explanation is necessary other than the hero’s crisp dismissal of it as ‘some crook’s trick.’ Despite which, nobody it seemed noticed what Hitch was up to: the front office accepted the film as a routine thriller, no better or worse than most such, and no one else tumbled to the parodistic intent — a Hitchcock private joke which really remained private.”

If Number Seventeen was genuinely intended as a parody, the fact was Hitchcock simply wasn’t an assured enough director to pull it off at that time. The “enterprise and imagination” Taylor refers to seems less an organic part of Hitchcock’s approach to the story and more bits of high style grafted onto a story the director didn’t care a fig about just to relieve his boredom with the film as a whole. Also, the supposedly mute girl is not the heroine, but rather one of the villains, though she turns good at the end — and since she reveals her ability to speak midway through the movie instead of at its end, and given that it’s as much a surprise to the bad guys as to the good guys, it’s anybody’s guess what purpose her pose as a mute served her or anyone else.

This film looks backwards to such Old Dark House precursors as The Cat and the Canary and The Bat (and shamelessly copies The Bat’s ending, as the chief villain pretends to be a detective to escape capture — only to be caught by the real detective), but also forwards to such Hitchcock masterpieces as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. After running two-thirds of its length inside that dreadfully boring house at Number Seventeen (we’re never told what street it’s number 17 of) — a house which just happens to be located next to a major train station, which gave Hitch an excuse to cut from the heroine’s scream to a train whistle (as he did much more powerfully in The 39 Steps) — the film suddenly becomes a long chase sequence through the south of England, in which the villains are on a train to Germany (via a giant cross-Channel ferry large and massive enough to carry a whole train — such a ferry had just opened and Hitch capitalized on the novelty of it) and the hero commandeers a bus (with a full load of passengers) and has it chase the train. (Thus it turns out that Sabotage wasn’t the only Hitchcock movie the makers of Speed ripped off!)

Most of the chase is done with models (and quite obvious ones, at that), but it’s still easily the most exciting scene in the movie, and it evokes The Lady Vanishes not only in the by-play on and around the train but also in the way the woman involved in the villain’s plot shifts loyalties with a kind of bittersweet sadness that indicated she was pretty much a decent person after all. Eventually there’s an exciting climax as the speeding train (the crooks have shot the engineer and fireman, and have no idea how to run the train themselves) crashes into the cross-Channel ferry because it’s running far too fast to slow down and board the ferry the way it’s supposed to — and the hero’s dumb (not in the sense of unable to speak; more in the sense of unable to think) assistant turns out to have the stolen necklace (remember the stolen necklace?) literally on him (wearing it around his neck, under his coat, to conceal it from the villains). It’s a pretty good Hitchcock movie after all, though a far cry from the near-masterpieces of his early period (The Lodger, Blackmail, Murder, Rich and Strange) — something more like Stage Fright, actually, made 18 years later but at a time when Hitch was in a similar “holding pattern” in his career, working for a studio where he felt uncomfortable and “running for cover” with a conventional story in which he tried to insert some unconventional techniques. — 5/31/95


The film we watched was Number Seventeen, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s unhappiest assignments during one of the greatest mistakes of his career: his five-year (1927 to 1932) association with John Maxwell’s British International Pictures. Hitchcock made his first films as a director — including his breakthrough film, The Lodger (1926) — for Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough company, and after their success Maxwell lured Hitchcock away with a far better offer financially than Balcon could afford to pay him. Unfortunately, the big (at least by British standards) money came with severe restrictions on what Hitchcock could do and forced him to accept some highly uncongenial assignments, including dubious “comedies” like The Farmer’s Wife and highly theatrical filmed plays like Juno and the Paycock and The Skin Game.

Hitchcock did manage to make two first-rate films at BIP, Blackmail (1929) and the awesome Rich and Strange (1931), but for the most part he was laboring in the salt mines there and a number of his BIP credits (including the framing sequences for their 1930 musical revue Elstree Calling and the 1932 film Lord Camber’s Ladies, which Hitchcock produced and Benn W. Levy, usually a writer, directed) didn’t end up on his official résumé. After his masterpiece Rich and Strange was a box-office flop, Maxwell punished Hitchcock by taking him off the company’s prestige production of John Van Druten’s hit play London Wall and instead assigning him to make Number Seventeen, which at 63 minutes’ running time was little better than a “quota quickie” based on a stage play by J. Jefferson Farjeon that had been a vehicle for character actor Leon M. Lion, who had not only starred in the stage production but had produced it as well. (He’s credited as the stage producer in the film version, in which he repeats his on-stage role.)

Stuck with a story he didn’t want to do and which made virtually no sense — the title refers to a now-closed residence which a bunch of jewel thieves are using as a base of operations while they try to smuggle a stolen necklace out of the country, an undercover detective is after them and Ben (Leon M. Lion), a homeless tramp, ends up mixed up in it when he picks That House to squat in and he and a mysterious stranger (John Stuart) discover a (presumably) dead body on the house’s inside stairs — Hitchcock took refuge in sheer style. The opening sequence is pure Gothic, full of nighttime shadows and eerie lighting through banisters, with a camera in almost constant motion and the kind of rapid-fire cutting Hitchcock would make better use of in his later, greater films. There’s also an effective musical underscore by Adolph Hallis and virtually no dialogue — this film is seven minutes into its running time before any audible speech is heard.

Alas, once the people do start talking the film’s quality dips precipitously: Leon M. Lion’s role is clearly a comic-relief part inflated into the lead because (on stage, at least) he was paying the bills — and he’s so broad he’ll leave you wishing for the relative subtlety of Frank McHugh — and the rest of the males in the cast tend to look alike, not only making them difficult to tell apart (especially in the washed-out prints that have survived, despite the multiplicity of credits on the front of this version — the French Studio Canal, British Film Institute and Peiper-Heidseck champagne company all claimed partial credit for the restoration job, which sounds like a whole lot of cooks trying to resuscitate this weak broth) but also adding to the confusion Farjeon seems to have been out to foster deliberately, since his plot turns on us not knowing until the end quite who everyone is.

The “murdered” man in the opening, who’s supposedly the father of the heroine (Anne Grey), turns up alive midway through and is played by Garry Marsh; he claims to be Barton, the undercover detective after the jewel robbers, but he’s really Sheldrake, the mastermind of the theft, and he’s “outed” by John Stuart, whom we’ve first believed was an innocent bystander, then were led to believe was one of the gang and who turns out to be Barton himself. What’s more, one of the robbers, Mr. Ackroyd (Henry Caine), has a female companion with the same last name (wife or grown daughter? Farjeon and the film’s scenarists — Hitchcock himself, Alma Reville a.k.a. Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock, and Rodney Ackland — never bother to tell us) who spends a reel or two pretending to be mute before it’s revealed that she can actually talk, though what purpose her masquerade as a mute served either the criminals or anyone else remains a mystery.

Eventually all the principals end up on a German train that runs across the English Channel on a large ferry — apparently Number Seventeen, the house where all this started, connects to a train station in its basement so all the people have to do to catch the train is to walk downstairs and keep walking; and what’s more, the tickets to the train are elaborately decorated playing cards with “Number Seventeen” written on them in script (?) — and there’s a 20-minute chase sequence that’s genuinely exciting and well cut but would be more exciting if a) the closeups of people fighting on top of the train weren’t obviously process shots on a stationary set with the background moving behind the actors, b) the long shots of the train racing to the ferry and a bus the (real) detective has commandeered to give chase to it weren’t so obviously models — and bad models at that; it looks like they were made by a nine-year-old and when the train “crashes” at the end it’s clear they were made of balsa wood so they would break picturesquely, and c) Hitchcock had deployed composer Hallis to write music for this scene as well as for the opening (as it is, it looks like John Maxwell just ran out of money in his music budget and sent the poor composer home).

Number Seventeen actually has some germs of ideas Hitchcock used far better later — the shock cut of a train setting off as its whistle is heard on the soundtrack (The 39 Steps), the heart-stopping action climax of the catastrophic train crash (The Secret Agent), and even the gimmick later used so beautifully in Notorious of having the object everyone’s after be hidden in a wine bottle: here it’s in a shipment of wines Ben the homeless guy stumbles upon in the ferry’s hold, starts drinking and notices the necklace in one bottle like a Cracker Jack prize. It’s not much of a movie but it is dorky fun at times. — 6/18/08

Election Day (Arts Engine/PBS, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I went to the San Diego Public Library for a showing of what turned out to be an uncommonly interesting documentary — a good deal better than I thought it was going to be from the promo — called Election Day, a story of the Presidential election day of November 2, 2004. The overall direction was by Katy Chevigny, though by the very nature of her project — a series of scenes taken on one day in widely varying locations (11 cities, towns and communities across the country — she could be involved in very little of the actual shooting and most of her “directorial” work was in post-production, picking out the most interesting shots and weaving them together in the kind of temporal tapestry she wanted.

The film isn’t hysterical and doesn’t get up on a soapbox screaming fraud about how the election (or American elections in general) was run, but Chevigny — who said in a director’s note on her Web site that when she began editing “I had become inspired by Spencer Overton’s book ‘Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression,’ which illuminates patterns in many of these devilish details that our footage, and now the film, reveals,” she manages to work some of this perspective into her movie. “A former member of the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, Spencer Overton explains how seemingly insignificant practices at the local level can control the outcome of elections and weaken the real power of voters.” Chevigny wrote. “As an advisor to Election Day, Spencer screened footage and threw ideas around with us, providing valuable insights into how our footage fit into a larger picture of the election system pressure points that are under scrutiny today.”

We see some fascinating insights into how the election system works — or doesn’t — including an insurgent African-American sheriff’s candidate in Gadsden County, Florida (site of some of the worst abuses in the 2000 election, including 12 percent of all the county’s ballots being rejected as defective) squeaking out a victory by 70 votes over a white-cracker type so perfect they might as well have ordered him from Central Casting; and a reservation in South Dakota where Democratic operatives (though the only way we know they’re Democrats is their literature urges a vote for Tom Daschle) encourage people to vote both in the national election and in their tribal election the same day, and one man says he’s only going to vote in the tribal election because he doesn’t trust anyone in Washington and if they were trustworthy the Native Americans would still own all the Black Hills.

The “star,” to the extent this film has one, is an almost maniacally determined Republican operative in Chicago named Jim Fuchs, who’s leading a squad of observers to pop into polling places and make sure the election is being conducted fairly. He nearly gets a Democratic poll watcher at one precinct arrested for sitting at the same table with the poll workers (apparently illegal under Illinois law) and has a hissy-fit at his own precinct when he becomes convinced that the Votomatic unit he’s been given is defective because his pin-pricker won’t go through to cast his vote for Bush. (One of the election officials later demonstrates that, whatever went wrong with it in Fuchs’ hands, when they do it the unit is working fine.) It's not at all surprising that the credit roll at the end informs us that Fuchs is now running for the Illinois State Senate himself.

Indeed, one genuine surprise in this movie is how, even though the Votomatic system was blamed for the abuses and failures in Florida in 2000 and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was designed, among other things, to phase them out completely, all but about two of the jurisdictions shown in the film were still using it (and nobody was using those paper-less touch-screens in-person voters had to deal with in this county, which in 2004 were being hailed as the wave of the future and by 2008 had been pretty well discredited).

The most chilling part of the film was hearing Fuchs and one other person — a matronly-looking woman who ran one of the polling places in the fabled “battleground state” of Ohio — describe voting as a “privilege,” not a right. They were quite explicit about this (the woman said she considered it a “privilege” to be a U.S. citizen as well), which was frightening given that the legal definition of a “privilege” is something the government bestows upon you and can take away under whatever circumstances they choose (driving a car is the classic legal example of a “privilege” in this sense), whereas a right is inalienable.

There are also characters such as the Australian (an aborigine? She looks awfully dark and flat-nosed to be white) who’s sent over from an international NGO to observe the balloting in Ohio (and comes away with the impression that the vote was more or less fair but there were things she was concerned about) and the African-American man in New York who’s a convicted felon who’s just completed his parole and is looking forward to voting for his first time in middle age — but whose vote isn’t counted because someone forgot to process his registration. (He’s contrasted to an even older African-American with a felony conviction who’s working as a dishwasher in a restaurant and is pissed that, as is well known, Florida never restores the voting rights of felons unless they make special application to the government and win an elaborate approval process.)

All in all, Election Day is an oddly moving film, sensitive to the power of the ritual of election day (which I somewhat miss since I’ve been voting by mail — it’s easier and surer but somehow the collective coming-together to exercise the franchise has important ritual significance; as Chevigny said in her notes, “Election Day is one of the few days in the United States on which so many Americans are collectively engaged in a common activity” — only, increasingly, they don’t) and managing to get us to care about a surprising number of people given what a wide canvas they’re depicting and what a short running time (84 minutes) they have to depict it.

Robot Monster (Independent, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles had brought another download disc from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — this one still with series creator Joel Hodgson as the host but during the show’s era on the Comedy Central channel, when Joel and his writing staff had honed their approach and were supplying genuinely funny lines to ridicule the movies instead of the rather dull ones from the show’s early days as a local program in Minneapolis. This episode featured two more of the Radar Men of the Moon episodes, which were really just more of the same, and as the feature it included Robot Monster, the legendarily and almost surrealistically bad film made by director Phil Tucker in 1953 and famously featuring his friend George Barrows in the title role(s).

With too small a production budget to make or rent a robot costume for his robot monster, Tucker (who was his own producer as well, though someone else wrote the script — more on that later) called on Barrows, whose regular gig was wearing a gorilla costume to impersonate a great ape. Tucker had Barrows wear his gorilla suit, and his only concession to “roboticity” was replacing the gorilla head with a deep-sea diving helmet and a body stocking over his head under it. A few wires were stuck on the outside of the helmet to make it look like Barrows, as “Earth Ro-Man” — the on-earth representative of an interplanetary invasion force whose weapon, the “Calcinator Death-Ray,” is so powerful that with a few waves of his arms (and a few reversals of the image into negative film and back) he has annihilated all of humanity except the six members of the on-screen cast — is in constant communication with “Great Guidance” (also Barrows, though both characters are voiced by radio announcer John Brown), his controller back on his home planet, which is variously referred to as the moon, Mars and a planet called Ro-Man in another solar system.

The film is full of gimmicks, including the fact that the entire movie is shot outdoors, ostensibly as part of a system the father of the family at the center of the action, “The Professor” (JohnMylong), has rigged up to protect himself and his loved ones from the fearsome calcinator death rays, but actually so Tucker and his cinematographer, former PRC stalwart Jack Greenhalgh (a pity that after PRC went out of business he had to get even tackier jobs to stay alive!), wouldn’t have to rent lights — and that the entire story is presented as a dream of the Professor’s pre-pubescent son, Johnny (Gregory Moffett), who wakes up at the end — only after that there are three, count ’em, three, glimpses of Ro-Man coming out of the cave where he’s been headquartered for the entire duration of the film.

The closest thing this film has to a “star” is actor George Nader (whose presence here puts George Barrows one degree of separation from Hedy Lamarr!), who plays “The Professor”’s assistant and also the main squeeze of the Professor’s post-pubescent daughter Alice (Claudia Barrett) — who, in an all too obvious rip-off of King Kong, is the object of a crush from Ro-Man as well. When I first saw this film I looked at the outrageously fake-seeming name of the credited screenwriter, “Wyott Ordung,” with its references to “dung” and “Ordnung” (“order” in German), and assumed it was a pseudonym for director Tucker, but when Charles and I were watching an episode of the 1950’s TV series Dangerous Assignment there was an actual person named Wyott Ordung serving as an actor in the cast. Robot Monster is a grandly silly movie, and Tucker’s rather plodding direction has nothing in common with the crude vitality Ed Wood brought to his equally stupid scripts, but what makes the film worth considering (sort of) is the sheer bizarre incongruity of the monster’s appearance.

Had Phil Tucker made his robot monster look like the ordinary conception of a monster robot, his film might have done better when new but wouldn’t have acquired the cult audience it has from the sheer, outrageous risibility of the sight of George Barrows in a gorilla suit topped by an old-fashioned diving helmet waving his arms in the air and pretending to be able thereby to destroy virtually the entire human race — or, for that matter, the added bit of madness that Tucker spliced in old clips of dinosaurs from the Hal Roach production One Million B.C. (a go-to film for people needing dinosaur action for their movie and lacking the special-effects money to stage any themselves) for reasons that died with him on December 1, 1985.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mr. and Mrs. North (John W. Loveton; TV, 1952-54)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the last two nights my partner Charles and I watched all four episodes of the early 1950’s TV series Mr. and Mrs. North on “volume three” of Critics’ Choice’s reissue of these shows. (In my last order from them I bought volumes three through seven, since I’ve always liked mystery shows.) Mr. and Mrs. North were a married couple who got involved in criminal investigations — sort of The Thin Man lite, very lite (as Charles pointed out after the first two shows on this disc, they make The Thin Man seem like Tolstoy by comparison!) — and they were created by Richard and Frances Lockridge and first filmed in a 1941 movie from MGM with William Post, Jr. as Mr. North and Gracie Allen as Mrs. North (to my knowledge, the only time Gracie was ever cast as the wife of someone other than her real husband, George Burns).

The TV cast was Richard Denning (tall, blond and a hunk to die for! I hadn’t realized he was this good-looking, and the TV producers gave him ample changes to appear in swimsuits to show off his hot bod) as Mr. North and Barbara Britton (Edmond O’Brien’s girlfriend/secretary back home in the 1949 D.O.A.) as Mrs. North, and the writers of this series (who included some semi-major names: the “Nosed Out” episode was co-written by Mary Orr, whose story “The Wisdom of Eve” was the basis for the film All About Eve, and “Target” was written by M. Coates Webster, who wrote Strange Confession for the Universal “Inner Sanctum” film series in 1945) generally had Mrs. North either figure out the case or actually bop the villain and subdue him (or her — the writers also had a penchant for female baddies), giving her a more active role than most women in 1950’s TV shows.

The first episode on this disc was “Nosed Out,” an interesting choice to be the next item we watched together after the 1937 film "Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry" since it also dealt with horse racing, and specifically with a jockey who got a syndicate of gamblers mad at him because he refused to throw a big race. Only in this version, instead of getting him thrown off the track, they just kill him and stuff the body in Mr. and Mrs. North’s car because it happens to be parked next to the jockey’s own car and be the same make, model and color. They also stick gasoline-soaked rags in it and set it on fire, hoping to burn up the body, but a security person at the track notices the car smoldering and the Norths are alerted and able to get to their car in time to save it. (Mr. North is depicted as regularly parking his car and leaving its windows wide open — a real sign of how much the times have changed!) The immediate suspect is the jockey’s wife, an ex-circus acrobat played by the marvelous Veda Ann Borg (I like her as an actress and I love the sound of her name) who was planning to divorce him to marry a much older man, a Texas oil millionaire who owned some of the horses her husband rode, but the Norths trace the crime to a syndicate and prove that the owner of their garage is part of it. “Nosed Out” was the best of the episodes we watched over the last two nights.


The second show on the disc was “The Third Eye” — the title refers to a miniature camera with which an unscrupulous model is taking pictures of the garments she’s modeling for Suzi’s haute couture salon so she can sell them to someone else for knock-off purposes. This wasn’t as much fun because, typically for Hollywood when they’re dealing with the fashion world, they ramped up the camp factor: the owner of the salon whose designs are getting ripped off (and whose clothes actually look both pleasing and functional, a far cry from the ridiculously impractical garments that get shown at high-fashion shows today!) is a woman with a very bad fake French accent, and the victim is the go-between between the model who was shooting the knock-off photos and the people paying her for them — and the photographer, whom the Norths put up because she formerly lived with the victim and made a big show about not wanting to go back to that apartment, turns out to be the real killer.


Last night’s episodes were “The Frightened Night” — another campfest, a haunted-house story with all the trimmings, including a Seven Keys to Baldpate-style author who came to the deserted house to write a book (the Norths enter the story because the owner is the aunt of one-half of a honeymooning couple and she offered the house to them, and the Norths accompanied them there to see they got there safely in a storm as nasty as the producers’ limited effects budget could make it) and a crazy rustic who’s out to shoot as many people as possible out of some twisted sort of revenge of which the writers don’t bother to give us much of an explanation.


“Target” was from a later season of the series, and their print had the original commercials (for Revlon, whose products were actually integrated into the series’ action and shown on screen with the stars — Barbara Britton had to do a pitch for one) whereas the others had had the commercials spliced out (I suspect that in the interim the show acquired a sponsor and a network berth instead of just being syndicated); it was fun not only for the choice glimpses it gave us of Richard Denning in swimwear (I said it before and I’ll say it again: the man was hot!) but also because it had a good story: the Norths are sunbathing at a local beach when from out of nowhere a sniper tries to pick them off. Mr. North sees the man escapes but catches only a glimpse of him and his car, and the rest of the show features a cat-and-mouse game between the Norths and their police homicide inspector friend (a continuing character) to find out just who is trying to kill them and why.

The killer crashes their apartment in the guise of a grocery delivery man (another sign of how much the times have changed!) and the finale is suspenseful, though otherwise the direction by Paul Landres (who eventually became house director fot the Sam Katzman-Alan Freed rock ’n’ roll movies at Columbia) is pretty flat, as the Norths and the hidden killer confront each other and the Norths hope they can stay alive long enough for the cops to arrive and arrest the guy. Mr. and Mrs. North isn’t one of the great series of 1950’s television, and given his druthers Richard Denning would probably have preferred to do the TV version of his hit radio sitcom My Favorite Husband with Lucille Ball (instead, as everyone knows, she insisted on changing the title to I Love Lucy and the actor playing her husband to her real one, Desi Arnaz) but he’s quite good in the role even though most of the stories make him the butt of the humor and require her to save him — a surprisingly proto-feminist conception for 1950’s television! — 2/6/08


I showed two more episodes in the Mr. and Mrs. North series. One was called “Million Dollar Coffin” and was a quite inventive tale about a rather seedy old man who claims to be the direct descendant of a Revolutionary War hero who was buried with a packet of letters from the Founding Fathers that would be worth a bundle to an enterprising publisher like Jerry North — only the cemetery where he’s buried also happens to be the locus where a gang of bank robbers, whose plot included burying the money in an out-of-the-way place and not divvying it up until three years later, once the statute of limitations had run out, buried the money inside a coffin along with the body of a person they murdered on the beach simply to supply a corpse. (Since this episode was made in 1953, pre-dating the original Ocean’s Eleven by seven years, they didn’t realize the obvious danger of hiding the “take” from a big robbery in a coffin.)

One member of the gang gets his girlfriend to pose as the murdered man’s daughter and get the authorities to exhume the body (she’s played by Veda Ann Borg, and she deliberately adopts a wooden, porn-like line delivery when she’s playing her character attempting to act and failing miserably), and another gang member sneaks into the action and switches the tombstones (which are properly heavy and ponderous-looking when he tries to lift them — this isn’t an Ed Wood movie where the “tombstones” are clearly made of light wood), so the bad guys dig up the coffin of the Revolutionary War hero (what happens to the letters is never made clear, though since Jerry North warned us earlier that they’d evaporate if exposed to light too suddenly we’re evidently supposed to think these historical treasures are lost forever) and the good guys dig up the coffin with the more recent corpse and the bank robbery proceeds — which they conveniently open in the vault of the very bank from which the money was stolen in the first place, making it easy to return. This improbable tale was told with a delightfully insouciant air that suited the Thin Man-lite premise of the show, and Richard Denning and Barbara Britton are personable in the leads even though this one didn’t show him topless or in swim trunks (I hadn’t realized until I saw the episodes in volume three what a hot hunk Denning was!).


The other episode we watched, “Dead Man’s Tale,” was mopier, dealing with a Mafioso who calls in a death threat to the Norths — only it turns out he’s dialed wrong and really means to kill somebody entirely unrelated. Needless to say, the Norths immediately get dressed (the phone call had disturbed them while they were just about to go to sleep) and go to the cigar store where the murder is supposed to take place — and the murder duly happens, after a false alarm in which the victim fakes his own shooting because he thinks the Norths are the gangster’s hit people.

Eventually the gangster is proven innocent — of the murder, anyway — and the writers alter him from a figure of menace to a charming Runyon-esque lowbrow, while establishing that the owner of the cigar store actually committed the killing, which had something to do with his wife’s bookie debts to the victim (the writers of these 25-minute crime shows were often more concerned with simply explaining whodunit than delving into whydunit; obviously if you’re strapped for running time, the easiest thing to leave on the cutting-room floor is the discussion of motive). It was an O.K. episode but the character of the threatening gangster got pretty oppressive and it didn’t have the charm of the “Million Dollar Coffin” episode or some of the other shows we’ve watched (I bought five DVD’s of this show — 20 episodes in all — mainly because on the Critics’ Choice list they were $4 apiece). — 2/10/08


Afterwards Charles and I settled in and ran the remaining two episodes of Mr. and Mrs. North from volume four of the Critics’ Choice collection (I got volumes three through seven). One was called “Dying to Live” and was quite intriguing even though at times it seemed like the screenwriter was trying to see how many noir clichés he could crowd into a 25-minute show: it’s all about George Tuttle, an accountant who’s just been diagnosed with a fatal disease and told he has only a few more weeks to live. He decides to use this knowledge to blackmail his boss (Alan Mowbray), who embezzled $76,000 from the company to support the expensive tastes of his wife (Lee Patrick). For $10,000, Tuttle offers his boss, he will sign a confession naming himself as the embezzler and it will be found on his body.

To get back his money, the boss and his wife hire an adventuress (Ann Savage, the marvelous femme fatale from Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour) to meet up with him in a fancy bar, seduce him, get him drunk and steal back the money — which she does, only when the boss confronts the drunken Tuttle he kills Tuttle and then helps himself to a bottle of Napoleon brandy Tuttle had bought as his final thrill in life. Mr. and Mrs. North enter the action because in addition to his regular job, he also works on their taxes (the original air date of this episode was March 13, 1953 and back then the IRS deadline was March 15, not April 15 — at least according to this script), and he happens to drop his phony confession on their floor. They discover it and confront the principals, and in the end it turns out that Tuttle had spiked that bottle of Napoleon brandy with poison and therefore the Mowbray character unintentionally killed himself: a neat, chilling ending to a quite well-written, well-done episode whose only flaw is that the Norths, nominally the show’s leads, seem almost totally irrelevant to it.


After that, the last show on the disc, “The Man Who Came to Murder,” seemed anticlimactic; set at a honeymoon lodge where Mr. and Mrs. North take a vacation every year, it involves a county sheriff who gets murdered; a former racketeer who says he’s quit the criminal life; his fiancée, who backs out of their planned marriage at the last minute because she’s not so sure that he’s really quit (especially when she learns he’s deposited a good chunk of his ill-gotten gains in their joint safe deposit box, fueling her paranoia that his activities will get her arrested as an accessory); and a French cook with a really bad accent who’s married four women without bothering to divorce any of them in between. The gangster killed the sheriff, it turns out totally unsurprisingly in a dull episode with too many suspects and too few motives, and once again too little of Mr. and Mrs. North — though at least in “Dying to Live” (a show that in addition to its macabre plot twists also brought to Tuttle some of the pathos of the Lionel Barrymore plot line in Grand Hotel) that didn’t matter so much because the rest of the episode was so good. — 2/12/08


I ran the next episode in sequence from the Mr. and Mrs. North DVD’s: “Breakout,” an unusually good one in which the Norths (Richard Denning and Barbara Britton) visit a prison where a famous gangster who was busted for income-tax evasion is ready to discuss writing his memoirs. Two other convicts use the Norths’ presence as the excuse to break out and use them as hostages, and the show (directed by Ralph Francis Murphy, whose name consistently appears on their best episodes) turns into a quite exciting suspense drama in which the Norths vanquish the bad guys by feeding them coffee spiked with a sleeping pill Mrs. North had previously bought for her husband. Interestingly, the gangster whose memoirs the Norths were going to publish (and who is killed by the other cons before the final denouement) was played by a padded and virtually unrecognizable Lyle Talbot (the one degree of separation between Bette Davis and Ed Wood!), — 3/8/08


It was even more ironic, after watching such a thought-provoking but mostly anti-war movie, to come home and (after I nebulized John P. and Charles and I had ice cream for dessert), that the film we showed as a nightcap was a Mr. and Mrs. North TV episode, “Salt in the Blood,” featuring a story about a young man who joins the Navy because he’s so anxious to serve his country in the Korean war (which was just lurching to a close when this episode aired on May 29, 1953), only to be mustered out when his mother reports him for being underage. Thinking that if he can get hold of $150 he can go to the West Coast and re-enlist under another name, he goes to a sailor’s bar where the bartender is a man who calls himself “Boats” and gets into an argument with a drunken sailor, Sloan, who is flashing around a big bankroll and loudly and drunkenly proclaiming his intention of spending it.

Sloane is ultimately found mortally wounded in an alley near the bar (as Mr. and Mrs. North walked down the representation of the alley I couldn’t help but joke, “Down these cheap sets a man must go … ”) and Our Hero, Chuck Walker, is naturally wanted and ultimately arrested for the crime, but the Norths find a ferrule (the metal band at the base of a walking stick) and with that Mrs. North finds out that the real assailant (who ultimately killed Sloane) was the tattoo artist who hangs out at the bar and who clubbed him with his cane. It’s a nice show that was well written and, for the budget, reasonably well directed by Ralph Francis Murphy, and with a good performance by Dick Jones as the sailor (even though he looked well over 18 and therefore more than old enough to serve!), and some interesting members in the rest of the cast: Sara Haden, all-purpose mother type, as Chuck’s mom; Claudia Barrett from Robot Monster as his girlfriend Dorothy (who looks even older than he does!), old silent-era star Monte Blue as Boats, Phil Tully as Sloan, John Gallaudet as Eddie Pink (Sloan’s business partner — in a mysteriously unstated “business” — and briefly a suspect in his own right), and Percy Helton as Needles, the tattoo artist who turns out to be the real killer (did writer Herbert Purdum have to give all his characters such obvious names?). — 3/11/08


It was the next in sequence on volume 5 of the Mr. and Mrs. North series on Critics’ Choice, and this episode, called “Reunion” and first aired February 9, 1954, in which Jerry North (Richard Denning) returns to his alma mater and meets up with his old roommate “Stuffy” Barton (Douglas Kennedy in a very tough performance reminiscent of Fred MacMurray’s in Double Indemnity), who’s now an atomic scientist. The university, under the leadership of professor Nielsen (Leonard Mudie) — who puffs away so enthusiastically on his pipe he looks radioactive — has developed an atomic bomb so small it can fit into a suitcase, and Barton — horrified at what this could mean to world peace — has made a duplicate version and planted it in the college gym, set to go off when the big basketball game is scheduled to start as a way of dramatizing his cause.

He’s also given himself radiation sickness from trying to build a bomb on his stony lonesome and having to handle the fissile material without help, and when he’s captured he claims to have made three other bombs and planted them in New York City and Washington, D.C. (the fact that this fictional character picked the same target cities as the real 9/11 plotters was probably pretty obvious but still struck me), though he finally agrees to disarm the bomb (with two seconds to spare!) and admits that the additional bombs didn’t really exist and were just a bluff. This was a very tough, well-done melodrama, expertly directed by Gordon Blair and with a script by Donn Mullally and Lee Erwin that was particularly noteworthy for avoiding the obvious Cold War tropes: the villain was crazy but sympathetic (much like the socially conscious mad scientists Boris Karloff played in the Columbia films we’d been watching recently) and the writers did not take the easy route (for the time) of making him a closet Communist deliberately trying to destroy America. — 3/14/08


Charles and I crashed and I ran him the final Mr. and Mrs. North episode on Critics’ Choice DVD volume 5: “Loon Lake” (inescapably associated for me with E. L. Doctorow’s rather grim novel of that title), aired the week after “Reunion” (February 16, 1954) and a chilling suspense tale of the Norths being held hostage in a mountain cabin by outlaws Matt Weber (Jack Elam), who’s just escaped from jail (the escape is shown in an appealingly noir-ish wordless opening in which he’s smuggled out in a coffin-like box, which made me joke, “Dr. Frankenstein, call your office”), Doc Randall (Ross Elliott) and Clay (John Doucette), the usual mentally retarded triggerman associated with stories like this. (The “Breakout” episode, also on this DVD, in which the Norths were held hostage by escaping convicts in prison, also featured a retarded triggerman who constantly had to be coddled and psychologically stroked by the ringleader.)

The gimmick is that Randall has been brought in to do plastic surgery on Weber, who accordingly goes through most of the episode wearing bandages on his face — only Randall is also attempting to seduce Weber’s girlfriend Bonnie (Pamela Dumcan, doing a good hard-bitten portrayal), and judging from the surprisingly (for 1950’s television) passionate open-mouthed kissing Mrs. North catches Randall and Bonnie doing in the kitchen, he’s got considerably farther than first base with her. Apparently Randall (or at least the show’s writer, Lee Erwin) had seen the 1935 RKO gangster film Let ’Em Have It, in which gangster Bruce Cabot similarly (stupidly) inveigled a plastic surgeon with a grudge against him to change his appearance, for Randall has carved scars with the letter “M” into both of Weber’s cheeks the way the surgeon in Let ’Em Have It did with Cabot — so he’d be easier, not harder, for the cops to identify.

Erwin also borrowed a plot gommick from an earlier Mr. and Mrs. North episode, “Dying to Live,” in having the principal villain essentially murdered by someone who was already dead — this time Weber kills Randall and Bonnie and then drinks a cup of coffee Bonnie had made before he shot her, spiked with rat poison in hopes of killing him so she could run off with Randall. Despite an odd and inappropriate comic tag scene, this Mr. and Mrs. North episode — directed with unusual élan by “B”-movie veteran Lew Landers — was one of their best, and proved that even the rather superficial premise of this show could be used as an excuse for good suspense drama. — 4/15/08


I screened another episode of Mr. and Mrs. North, “The Silent Butler,” in which Gerald North (Richard Denning), tired of being mistakenly awakened on Sunday mornings by the Norths’ maid Millie, decides to hire a male servant instead and end up with Oliver (Edgar Barrier, coming across very much as a graduate of the Arthur Treacher School of How to Play a British Butler), not realizing that Oliver is taking the job only to get away from a decidedly unrequited crush on him from Mrs. Bentley, owner of the employment agency that referred him. Oliver is also having an affair with the maid working for the Wentworths next door, even though the Wentworths have a maid and a butler as well, the two are married to each other and the Wentworths hired them as a couple. By pretending to be Gerald’s private secretary, Mrs. Bentley lures Oliver down to the basement of the Norths’ (and the Wentworths’) apartment building and stabs him — only it turns out Oliver is very much alive and she’s really killed Edgar by mistake. It takes about half the show’s running time before the crime actually materializes, and until then it’s a nice, sprightly domestic comedy, and the whole thing is a lot of fun — Mr. and Mrs. North was obviously derivative of The Thin Man (as was the 1980’s TV show Hart to Hart) but at least it was well derived, and it was a treat to see the writing credit at the end and find George Oppenheimer’s name at the top for a change! — 4/18/08


I also managed to squeeze in the final episode on volume six of the Mr. and Mrs. North DVD’s. It was called “Stranger than Fiction” — which couldn’t help but remind us (me, anyway) of that marvelous recent film with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, written by Zach Helm and touchingly directed by Marc Forster — though about all this had in common was that it was also about a writer. Since the print Critics’ Choice mastered from was missing the show’s closing credits, I wasn’t able to do a cast list, though I’ll say the acting was quite good all around. The plot deals with an excessively macho writer who’s made his mark with a grittily realistic novel about World War II (the show originally aired on February 20, 1953) — I was wondering just who the screenwriters were modeling the character after (Hemingway and Mailer were my two main guesses) — who’s spending an alcohol- and bitterness-fueled weekend with his trophy wife, an old Army buddy from his own war service and his soft-spoken “secretary,” whom he continually browbeats and has made into a house servant, who it turns out actually wrote the best-selling war novel Gerald North (Richard Denning) published.

He’s the only likable character in the bunch, which no doubt is why he’s dispatched after the first act — the other people in that house are all so hateful he’s sorely missed in the rest of the program — and the Norths not surprisingly find that the writer killed him, especially since he lusted after the writer’s trophy wife (who was actually, natch, having an affair with the war buddy). I didn’t realize while we were watching it how clichéd this plot was, but the story was genuinely fun and enjoyable and the actor playing the writer made him properly loathsome. — 4/23/08


I trotted out the last of the five Critics’ Choice DVD’s I ordered of the Mr. and Mrs. North show and we watched the first episode, “Trained for Murder,” a far less exalted mystery than the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode I’d screened for myself earlier but a good one even though this was one 1950’s TV episode that suffered from the brevity of the half-hour drama format. This was a story about a mean-spirited boxer, Vince McKay (a good slimeball performance by Hal Baylor) — a sort of white version of Mike Tyson — whose avocations are womanizing and pissing off everybody in his circle, from his manager Whitey Malone (Ray Roberts) to his sparring partner to his manservant Joe (Christopher Dark), whose girlfriend Ruth (Gloria Henry) has got the hots for Vince. Joe is poisoned and drops dead in the ring during a practice session for his upcoming fight that would put him one bout away from the championship in his weight class, and for a moment we’re led to believe that one of the women in the cast — either Ruth or Art’s blonde-bimbo wife Edna (Nancy Valentine), who’s also succumbed to Vince’s dubious charms — by spiking a pie they were baking him with rat poison, but the killer turns out to be Joe, who in addition to his own jealousies over Ruth hates Vince because one of the women Vince seduced and abandoned previously was Joe’s sister Sharon.

The Norths get there through a plot gimmick this series used several times — the Norths are given a proposal for a book about Vince to be written by sportswriter Art Davis (Robert Carson) and they come to spend the weekend at a remote house in the country where Vince and his entourage are holing up in preparation for his big fight — indeed, I think this was the same remote-house-in-the-country set they’d used previously for stories like this (all they did to make it look like a prizefighter’s training camp was to put a ring up on the backlot and hang a heavy bag in the living room) — and writer Erna Lazarus went out of her way to give the various dramatis personae motives for knocking Vince off, though the show’s 25-minute running time (not counting the original commercials, left off of this edition) was way too short to build much suspense about the revelation, especially since Vince didn’t even get killed until 16 minutes in.

This was the first Mr. and Mrs. North we’d seen that contained an actual sponsor’s announcement (for Colgate toothpaste, lather shaving cream and a spray-on deodorant called Veto — and what was the Colgate marketing department thinking when they came up with that name?) as well as plugs for next week’s episode (“Murder on the Midway”) and other shows Colgate was sponsoring then — and it can be fun to watch these old TV shows with the original commercials (if only to remember how tacky they were compared to the production values of TV ads today!) even though the gimmick of Martin Kane, Private Eye — where the sponsors, U.S. Tobacco (now just a chewing and pipe tobacco manufacturer but then a cigarette company as well) actually worked their spots into the plots of the shows — was more than a bit excessive. — 5/23/08


I ran him a nice Mr and Mrs. North episode called “The Placid Affair.” This was considerably better than the usual run of these programs in that it featured a genuinely terrifying villain, Mills (John Hoyt), a tubercular clerk at the Brewster company who cracks the company safe and steals $150,000 in payroll money, then tells his live-in nurse/lover/slave Betty (Hillary Brooke) the he embezzled a considerably smaller amount but didn’t get away with the money. She finds out differently when she sees a newspaper headline about the theft while the two are on their way to Lake Placid (so the title turned out to be geographical, not emotional), where they end up in a cabin next door to the Norths, who recognize Betty because she once nursed Jerry North (Richard Denning) through an illness.

Directed by Lew Landers from a script by Mortimer Braus, this one turned out to be one of the tightest and most convincingly noir-ish episodes of this series, which was generally interesting but sometimes turned too campy for its own good. This time, though, the only trace of camp was the bizarre conceit that because Mrs. North (Barbara Britton) breaks the heel of her high-heeled shoe running down the stairs while Betty was presumably fleeing in the elevator (but actually set it to go down while she herself remained on the fourth floor where the apartment she shared with Mills was located), she discovers her and they have a quite graphically staged fight on a table and a bed before the men in the cast — series regulars Denning as her husband and Francis de Sales as a cop — figure out what happened, take the stairs up (why they didn’t take the elevator up only Mortimer Braus would know!) and come in the nick of time to take Betty into custody. The years had been hard on Hillary Brooke — she was now pretty hatchet-faced instead of the alluring femme fatale she’d played in the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes film The Woman in Green — but her marvelous ability to play thinly controlled menace remained vividly intact, and Landers actually directed this with more care than he showed in a lot of his features! — 6/5/08


I showed him our next-to-last Mr. and Mrs. North episode, “Mark of Hate,” directed by Lew Landers (again!) from a script by Lee Erwin and featuring actor Willis Bouchey in an absolutely chilling performance as Gordon Lane, an old friend of the Norths who two years earlier was involved in an automobile accident that left him crippled and bedridden. The Norths still think he’s the kind man who became their friend years before, and are impressed at how well he seems to have adapted to life without mobility — but in fact he’s become bitter and filled with hatred, directed partly at himself but mainly at his wife Marion (Eve Miller), who was drifting away from him even before the accident and since then has started an affair with Barry Weston (Harry Lauter), the art director at the magazine Gordon owns and Marion worked for when they met. Bouchey’s depiction of this role — particularly the vicious crabbiness with which he orders around the people supposedly taking care of him and the bitterness perched on the thin edge between wanting to take his own life and lashing out at the people near him — was absolutely accurate.

The gimmick is that, unbeknownst to everybody else, Gordon has actually regained enough of his ability to walk that he’s able to take down a gun from the gun rack on his bedroom wall, load it with a bullet and use it to shoot and kill Barry and frame Marion for the crime — and when Mrs. North, all smiles and innocence, comes in to look after him, she catches on when a newspaper she was reading to him has mysteriously moved from the end table where she rested it to his bed. It was ironic that this disc (volume 7 of the Critics’ Choice series of Mr. and Mrs. North DVD’s) should contain two consecutive episodes about deathly ill individuals who lash themselves and summon up their last reserves of energy to commit crimes and screw over the women in their lives (though in fact the two shows originally aired four weeks apart, “The Placid Affair” on April 27, 1954 and “Mark of Hate” on May 18), and once again this was a solid thriller with the comedy aspects of the formula well under control this time. — 6/6/08


We ended up playing the last of our 20 episodes of the early-1950’s Mr. and Mrs. North series, “Climax” — which, even though the script by Herbert Purdum (a name otherwise unknown to me) doesn’t bother to explain the title, turned out to be perhaps the best of all 20 episodes on these five Critics’ Choice DVD’s, a neat, taut half-hour mini-drama about a serial killer who particularly targets sailors — not for sexual reasons but because he’s a Navy vet himself, he spent 10 years in the brig for a carefully unspecified crime, and he’s decided that the deaths of six naval officers will be appropriate payback for the decade of his life they cost him. The actual central character, though, is “Clipper” Hale (Steve Brodie), yet another old friend of the Norths the writers on this show introduced willy-nilly as needed, whose lifelong friend and fellow sailor Doug Parrish (Russ Conway) is lured into a trap and becomes victim number five of the killer, Carl Denver (Paul Richards).

The main dramatic issue becomes whether “Clipper” will yield to his killer instincts and murder his friend’s murderer or whether he’ll step aside and let the law take care of him — and at one point the series regular who usually represented the police, homicide inspector Wigan (Francis De Sales), gets so worried that “Clipper” will turn vigilante he arrests him and holds him as a material witness until the Norths agree to be responsible for him if he’s released — whereupon he gives Jerry North the slip and traces the killer to the dirty-spoon restaurant where he’s a dishwasher. The episode is effectively staged by director Lew Landers, who along with cinematographer Kenneth D. Peach (who did a peach of a job photographing this — bad joke) sets the scene with a strikingly noir-ish shot, though the next scene — inside the restaurant, introducing Denver (though we’re not yet aware he’s the killer) and his co-worker and friend (girlfriend, maybe?) Katie (Monica Keating) — is photographed all too flatly in what would become the standard “look” of black-and-white television.

Still, this is an excellent show and one which ably caught the balance between drama and comedy that often eluded producer John W. Loveton and his directors and writers on this show (usually the trap was they overdid the comedy and produced shows that only worked as camp, but not this time), and an excellent finish to our travel through 20 episodes of this very interesting and often entertaining program. — 6/15/08

Saturday, June 14, 2008

First Yank Into Tokyo (RKO, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was First Yank Into Tokyo, a 1945 production from RKO which Turner Classic Movies recently offered as part of their series on “Asian Images in Film.” In their introduction, Robert Osborne and his guest commentator, Peter X. Feng, pointed to this film as a successor to such previous RKO war-exploitation movies as Hitler’s Children, Behind the Rising Sun and The Master Race, and also as an interesting variation on the so-called “yellowface” practice of casting white actors in Asian roles (Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters as Charlie Chan; Oland and Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu; Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto and virtually the entire casts of MGM’s Pearl S. Buck-based epics The Good Earth and Dragon Seed) in that the story deals with a U.S. military pilot, Army Air Corps Major Steve Ross (Tom Neal, in the second-twitchiest performance of his career and probably his only other good movie besides Detour) who, because his father was an industrial engineer selling technology to Japanese companies, lived in Japan from age one until he was ready for college and therefore knew Japan’s language and customs intimately.

Because of this, he’s selected for a top-secret assignment to infiltrate a Japanese concentration camp and make contact with an American prisoner, Lewis Jardine (Marc Cramer), who has an all-important secret that could hasten the end of the war — and in order to “pass,” Ross is given plastic surgery to make him look Japanese as well. RKO had registered the title First Yank Into Tokyo in hopes that they would make a killing by releasing a film of that name at the same time the American armed forces actually invaded Japan — which, of course, they never did because in the meantime the U.S. developed the atomic bomb, used it on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus induced the Japanese to surrender without having to launch a war of conquest on the Japanese homeland. No problem: RKO merely called a few of their actors back and reshot a couple of expository scenes to make the atom bomb (or at least the triggering mechanism for it) the precious secret Ross has to get out of Jardine before the Japanese either torture or kill him.

It’s a really kinky movie in ways I suspect its writers, J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater, didn’t intend, from the almost kabuki-like appearance of Neal’s Asian drag (RKO’s makeup artist, Maurice Seiderman — who’d done Orson Welles’ age makeup in Citizen Kane but hadn’t yet joined the movie makeup union so he couldn’t be credited on screen — succeeds in making Neal look non-white but at the cost of slathering so much makeup and tape on his face he loses the ability to act with his expressions and has to convey emotion through voice and body language alone) to the bizarre coincidences with which they powered their plot. We’re supposed to believe that when the Pearl Harbor attack happened Ross was stationed in Hawai’i and dating an Army nurse, Abby Drake (Barbara Hale, later Della Street on the Perry Mason TV show, who here has such perfectly plucked eyebrows it’s hard to believe in her as a nurse), who’s shipped out to Bata’an before the two can get married and who is presumably killed there — only she wasn’t really killed, she survived and was impressed by her Japanese captors into serving as a nurse at the concentration camp Ross has been sent to infiltrate, whose commandant just happens to be Ross’s old college roommate, Col. Hideko Okanura (Richard Loo, here acting even more than usual like an Asian version of Erich von Stroheim), who in the big scene at the end recognizes and “outs” Ross because he saw him run through the camp’s grounds when a dog was chasing him and display the same broken-field running skills he’d used as a star football player back in college.

Bren and Atwater are even inventive enough to work a romantic triangle into their film — thinking that Ross was dead (as he did with her as well — what were they going to say to each other? “We’ll always have Honolulu”), Abby fell in love with Jardine while she was nursing him to health in the prison camp — and by far their quirkiest invention was the character of Haan-Soo (Keye Luke), a Korean and part of an underground resistance movement who’s also stationed in the camp (this is a very claustrophobic movie — once Ross makes it into the camp the film never leaves it until the very end) and is helping Ross, indeed is the only other person there who’s supposed to know his real identity. Even the ending is more than a bit Casablancan: Ross sends Abby and Jardine to the British submarine that’s parked off the Japanese coast to take Jardine to safety and back to the Manhattan Project and tells her she belongs with Jardine now — at least partly because he’s been warned the plastic surgery is irreversible and he’ll look like an Asian the rest of his life — while he and Haan-Soo use a couple of captured machine guns to hold off the Japanese hordes long enough for the sub to submerge and escape, thereby giving up their own lives for the mission.

First Yank Into Tokyo has its share of the racist conventions of war films of the period — the Germans were occasionally shown as cultured brutes but the Japanese were just animals, what we hear of their own language reduced to almost guttural growls (much the way Michael Cimino did with the Viet Namese characters in The Deer Hunter 33 years later, without even the excuse that the war was still going on!) while about all they talk about in English is greed (just about everyone in the camp administration is stealing supplies from the prison hospital and mess and selling them on the black market) and lust (just about everyone in the camp administration has the hots for pretty little Abby and her nubile white body) — but it’s also a good deal more complex than its makers intended, at least partly because of the Production Code and what it forced them to leave out. The details of Abby’s ordeal on Bata’an, especially the “comfort woman” aspects it probably involved, were strictly (to borrow a word from one of Japan’s wartime allies) verboten, and so was any suggestion that Haan-Soo’s services to the Japanese (his cover while he’s really resisting them) involved anything (homo)sexual — yet Keye Luke plays the character as a screaming queen and a sort of prototype for the Sal Mineo role in Exodus (“They used me like a woman!”). Certainly you’d be hard pressed to realize that this bizarrely mincing man is the same actor who played Number One Son in the Warner Oland Charlie Chans!

First Yank Into Tokyo — a film I’d seen only once before, on commercial TV in the 1970’s — holds the interest for its sheer kinkiness and quirkiness (including the obviousness with which the references to the atomic bomb were spliced in, and the almost orgasmic tone the announcer assumes at the end when describing the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and suggesting it was what the Japanese deserved for killing off poor Tom Neal), as well as galvanic direction by Gordon Douglas, who was clearly destined for biggers and betters (his best-known credit is probably the 1954 Young at Heart, wth Frank Sinatra and Doris Day). It’s not a great movie but it’s better than a cheap war exploitation film with a hideously racially stereotyped script and a no-name (white) cast had a right to be!