Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Last Trimester (Front Street/Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve watched a Lifetime TV-movie I recorded a few weeks ago called The Last Trimester, a quite good if rather overwrought thriller that has a somewhat misleading title — yes, it’s a movie about pregnancy, but the central characters, Tracy Morland Smythe (Chandra West) and her husband Eric Smythe (Jim Thorburn), are unable to reproduce either au naturel or with the help of in vitro fertilization. The film opens with a prologue in which they’re as happy as can be with their newly adopted baby son Alex — Tracy and her best friend are even clutching their babies and pledging that the boys will continue their mothers’ lifelong friendship — when sinister music is heard and the camera tracks to the red front door of the Smythes’ home and we just know something dire is going to happen. The something dire turns out to be a visit from Child Protective Services, or whatever it’s called in the state of Oregon (where this film nominally takes place even though it was filmed due north of there, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada), announcing that unbeknownst to them the baby’s birth mother was actually married and her husband has pulled rank on them and cancelled the adoption.

A year passes, and the Smythes are now more desperate than ever for a child. One night over dinner Eric announces that a 50-something woman who works at the same company he does has a 29-year-old niece, Gabriella “Gabby” Paige (Lara Gilchrist), who’s pregnant from a one-night stand and totally uninterested in being a mother but also doesn’t want an abortion, so she’s willing to carry her baby to term and let the Smythes adopt it. Tracy’s father, Arthur Morland (Gary Hetherington) — who’s always looked down on Eric and thought his daughter could have done better — wants to put his attorney Jack Meldon (Kurt Max Runte) on the case, but Eric is too proud to take his father-in-law’s help (he’s already embarrassed enough that the Smythes live in a beautiful beach house Arthur bought them, which they couldn’t possibly have afforded on their own) and insists they can take care of the legal details on their own. As just about anybody who’s watched more than one Lifetime TV-movie in their life could have guessed by now, Gabriella turns out to be a mental basket case, telling sob stories about a roommate who ripped her off and extracting about $11,000 in sympathy money from Tracy (who doesn’t tell anybody, not even Eric). She also seems considerably friendlier towards Eric than she does towards Tracy, which leads us — and, eventually, Tracy as well — to suspect that he had an affair with Gabby and he is in fact the child’s biological father. (This suspicion is only reinforced when Tracy discovers that the “aunt” at Eric's workplace who supposedly introduced them does not exist.)

Tracy invites Gabby to live with them for the last two months of her pregnancy, only Gabby has a jealous hissy-fit and slashes every picture of the two of them the Smythes had hanging on their walls. She also hurls herself down the stairs between the two stories of the Smythe home — apparently she, or writer/director Mark Cole, had seen Leave Her to Heaven — and both she and the baby survive, but the shock sends her into premature labor and the baby, a girl named Sarah, is born and delivered to the Smythes but Gabby refuses to sign the all-important papers terminating her parental rights and finalizing the adoption. The Smythes keep the baby and start raising her, but they’re confronted with a demand from Gabby for $100,000 or she will take the child back. Meanwhile, Tracy has been involved in a minor automobile accident with a police detective, Nick Hanford (Matthew Harrison), who tells her he doesn’t mind if she doesn’t report it to her insurance company, and the two strike up a friendship when she learns that they actually could be in trouble with the law as well as risking losing their baby, since Tracy’s previous payments to Gabby could be considered baby-buying, illegal under Oregon law. Tracy becomes convinced that Eric and Gabby had an affair and Eric is the actual father of the baby — and Gabby leaves a phone message for them that just reinforces that impression, as well as making it clear that as the birth mother who never signed adoption documents, they may have physical possession of the baby but she has all the legal rights.

Then Gabby is found strangled in the bathtub of her hotel room, and at first I thought Mark Cole was ripping off the original director’s-cut ending of Fatal Attraction (Glenn Close’s character commits suicide but sets the scene to make it look like the Michael Douglas character murdered her), but when detective Nick Hanford appears on the scene, dripping with solicitude, we finally catch on (though it takes the characters another reel or so) that Nick is the father of the child. Gabby and Eric did indeed have an affair — a decade earlier when they were in college, well before Eric met Tracy — and she and Nick hatched this plot after a previous event wrenched his character off the rails. It seems that Nick and his wife were about to have their first child when complications ensued in the delivery room; not only was their child stillborn but the doctors, attempting to revive the baby, missed a hemorrhage in the mother, so Nick lost both his wife and their child at the same time. He swore off sex until he met Gabby, had an affair and expected her to respond to the news of her pregnancy with the joy he did — that he was finally getting a second chance at fatherhood after being so cruelly denied his first one. Instead she had utterly no interest in giving birth and told Nick in no uncertain terms that she wanted an abortion — and Nick, who’d uncovered Gabby’s record, including an old DUI arrest from her college days which documented her former connection with Eric (he’d been a passenger in the car when she was popped), hatched the plan to extort $100,000 from the Smythes and split it with Gabby.

What he didn’t reckon with was that Gabby would fall (back) in love with Eric and try to use the baby as a way of pulling him away from his wife and into a relationship with her — so instead Nick killed her by strangling her with the belt from a bathrobe of Eric’s Tracy had loaned her when she was staying with them, and then sneaked into the Smythes’ backyard to frame Eric for the murder. What’s more, Nick lured Tracy to his cabin in the woods and seemed to be intent on seducing her — he’d already killed Gabby and seemed to want Tracy to take her place as his girlfriend and his child’s mother once Eric was imprisoned or executed for Gabby’s murder — only Tracy unsurprisingly resisted, so he tied her up, only she used a blade on a bottle opener to saw herself loose and, in one of Lifetime’s typical over-the-top climaxes, Eric comes with the police (the honest ones, the two detectives who were actually assigned to Gabby’s murder), and when he arrives at the cabin he and Nick get into a fistfight and Eric is losing — but Nick’s gun slipped away in the melée and it’s Tracy who finally eliminates him with two well-armed shots to the body just as he’s about to stab her husband.

The Last Trimester is burdened with a silly title and a rather melodramatic plot resolution (though that is part of the fun of a Lifetime movie!) but it’s also compelling drama, and Mark Cole proves a far more adept constructionist than most Lifetime writers — so many of the principals are motivated by their attitudes towards babies and childbirth it becomes a running theme, and he makes good on the irony between the woman who can’t get pregnant and desperately wants a child, and the woman who is pregnant and desperately doesn’t want to be. It also helps that, though Chandra West is a typical Lifetime blonde bimbo — hot to look at but not much as an actress — the two men are both highly skilled actors and far better looking than the Lifetime male norm: Jim Thorburn is medium-height, wiry, dark-haired and hot instead of the tall, lanky, sandy-haired and blankly handsome type that’s Lifetime’s usual leading man, and blond, lean, cute Matthew Harrison is even hotter (well, the villain is usually more interesting than the hero, both physically and as a character). Nice drama!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thor (Marvel/Paramount, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Charles and I had uncharacteristically gone to movie theatres to see three first-run blockbusters — Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Green Lantern and now Thor — I can unhesitatingly say that Thor was by a wide margin the best of the three. It’s true that we weren’t seeing it in 3-D (we were catching it towards the end of its theatrical run and the 3-D showings had long since ceased — ironically had we seen Green Lantern at the AMC Mission Valley instead of the Regal Horton Plaza, we could have seen it in 3-D instead of “flat” and on a relatively small screen that’s not that much bigger than some people’s modern-day TV’s), but the movie gripped me in ways that the fourth Pirates movie and Green Lantern hadn’t.

And this despite a committee-written script — J. Michael Strazcynski and Mark Protosevich are credited with “story” and Ashley Miller & Zach Stentz and Don Payne with “screenplay,” aside from the three people (Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby) credited with coming up with the concept for the Marvel comic book on which the film was based — and a director, Kenneth Branagh, who at first may have seemed like an odd choice for a comic-book superhero movie. Then again, even though Branagh has done several films based on Shakespeare, his Shakespearean adaptations have shown some of the same over-the-top spirit as one wants in a comic-book movie: whereas almost 400 years’ worth of Hamlets starting with Richard Burbage, who premiered the role (we think) under Shakespeare’s direction, had been content to stab Claudius with a sword in the final scene, Branagh had hurled it like a javelin and impaled him with it. (I also can’t forget his version of Frankenstein, which claimed fidelity to Mary Shelley’s novel but also went over-the-top in the ending and offered less of the real spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than the James Whale movies had, even though the Whale Frankensteins had been even less faithful to the letter.)

As things turned out, Branagh was a virtually ideal director for Thor; the story offered him room for his melodramatics in ways the classics hadn’t, and he managed to put together an impeccable cast and thread the thin needle between reality and fantasy in ways that had totally (I think) eluded Christopher Nolan in his two Batman films and that Sam Raimi, director of the first three Spider-Man movies, had only sporadically got right. Thor begins in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods, and the conceit behind it is that there are actually nine key planets in the universe that sustain life, and they are linked by a series of Einsteinian wormholes of which humans are barely aware, but the Norse deities (who aren’t really deities; in a gimmick that’s been used by everyone from H. Rider Haggard in King Solomon’s Mines to the writers of the “Who Mourns for Adonis?” episode of the original Star Trek, they were really beings with vast, but still naturally limited, powers who were mistaken for gods when more primitive peoples encountered them) have intuited them and used them as the basis for the legend of Yggdrasil, the world-ash tree that links the nine planets.

In the prologue, Odin, head of the Norse gods, beats back an invasion from the Frost Giants from the world of Jotunheim and takes the casket which holds the secret of their power. When the film proper opens, Odin is about to pass the reins of power to his favorite son Thor, only his other son Loki has a jealous hissy-fit and opens the gate to Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that connects the various worlds, thus allowing a raiding party of Frost Giants to invade Asgard. Thor organizes some of the other Norse warrior gods to repel them, but Thor’s insistence on an aggressive pre-emptive strike against the Frost Giants to destroy them once and for all pisses off Odin, who banishes Thor and goes off into a state of self-willed suspended animation called “Odinsleep,” whereupon Loki takes over Asgard. Later it turns out that Loki isn’t Odin’s son at all, but a Frost Giant baby whom Odin took to Asgard and raised as his own. Odin’s wife Frigga (Rene Russo, making her first film in six years and her first comic-book movie ever) isn’t happy about this, but there’s nothing she can do about it.

The scene then shifts to New Mexico, where a scientific team headed by Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) and female lead Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is investigating meteorological disturbances that may be key to proving the existence of the wormholes Einstein predicted in theory. They run into the fallen Thor — literally; Jane crashes their all-terrain vehicle into him, not once but twice — and of course they have no idea who he is, especially once he starts telling them his name is Thor and starts babbling names like Mjölnir (Thor’s magic hammer, which no one else can wield) and Bifrost that it takes about half an hour of the film’s 115-minute running time before anyone (Dr. Selvig, actually) associates them with Norse mythology. (There’s a nice in-joke: a water tower in the small New Mexico town where the researchers are headquartered has a high-school sports logo that proclaims it “Home of the Vikings!”) Thor is determined to get to his hammer, which has also descended to earth and lodged itself in a stone in the center of a blasted-out crater (where it’s proved resistant to the efforts of a truck driver, played by Marvel head honcho Stan Lee, to dislodge it) — only the U.S. government has seized control of the site and the secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has set up a perimeter around it. In one of the film’s action highlights, Thor crashes through the S.H.I.E.L.D. defenses, gets to the hammer in the middle of a driving rainstorm — and [surprise!] can’t lift it. He can’t lift it because Odin is still comatose and without him, no one can set aside the curse on Thor that limits him to the strength of a particularly well-toned but still ordinary Earthling.

Meanwhile, back at Asgard Loki is running a plan to take full control of the kingdom by allowing the Frost Giants in, giving them the impression they’re going to be allowed to take over, then double-crossing them. Meanwhile, back in New Mexico (the film rather arbitrarily cuts back and forth between the two locations) S.H.I.E.L.D. has seized all Jane Foster’s equipment and records, citing national security, and also seized the iPod of her comic-relief assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — and as befit that previous role, in this one Darcy can’t shut up about the loss of the 30 songs she just downloaded!), and Thor is stranded there until Odin comes to long enough to shed one tear, thereby taking the curse off him and allowing him to lift his hammer and high-tail it back to Asgard, where he leads the familiar deities in a triumph (at least a temporary one, since one of the purposes of movies like this is to set up sequelae) even though he has to destroy the Rainbow Bridge to do it, thereby cutting himself off from Jane Foster, the earth girl he’d started to grow fond of (at least in part because she reminded him of Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the warrior goddess who was his main squeeze back in Asgard. (Then again, given how much Odin/Wotan — like his Greco-Roman counterpart, Zeus/Jupiter — screwed around in his periodic trips to Earth it’s not altogether unfitting that Thor should have, shall we say, a girl on every planet.)

Thor has its problems, including all too many spectacular CGI visuals that don’t seem to have a point other than, “See how cool we are? We can do this!” and some oddly jerky cuts from Earth to Asgard and back (and frankly the Thor as fish-out-of-water on Earth plot line was more interesting, at least to me, than the palace intrigue in Asgard), as well as minor annoyances like the Rainbow Bridge being flat instead of rainbow-shaped and some odd casting of the Norse gods as making Heimdall (Idris Elba), the gatekeeper of the Rainbow Bridge, Black (which actually worked!), and one of the other Norse gods Asian (which didn’t; one wondered, “What’s a guy from a kung fu movie doing in Asgard?”). But Branagh cast the film superbly, striking a balance between well-known actors (Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Natalie Portman as Jane) and unknown ones — and his two leads, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, were just right for the roles.

Hemsworth bulked up for the role with a six-month exercise routine and a strict diet to match, but fortunately he didn’t go overboard into Schwarzeneggerian dimensions; he’s not as hot as the Thor of the comics but he’s still a genuinely attractive, masculine man who’s fully credible as both action hero and (ultimately frustrated) lover. Hiddleston is also excellent: sometimes reminiscent of an Anglo John Lone, he’s tall, dark and handsome enough, moving through Asgard with an enigmatic air — instead of either the trickster god of the original legends or the faithful, if underhanded, servant of Wotan he’s portrayed as in Wagner’s Ring (let’s face it, I had to mention it sometime!), he’s a tough-minded, close-to-the-vest politician, surprising both the other characters and us with his shifts in loyalties and keeping us unbalanced as to just what side he is on. There are some of the usual weird references to other movies — the skyline of Asgard looked so much like the Emerald City (albeit yellow instead of green) that I started singing “Optimistic Voices” under my breath (sotto voce so only Charles could hear) — but there’s also a sense of richness that bespeaks Branagh’s background in the classics: there’s quite a lot of King Lear in the machinations around the dying Odin’s throne, and in the relationship between Odin and Thor I also sensed a parallel with the two Presidents Bush: the more level-headed, moderate father who stopped the first Gulf War before it became a quagmire and the crazier, more hot-headed son who if given his druthers would have embroiled Asgard in a mutually destructive war with the Frost Giants.

Patrick Doyle’s musical score falls short in the inevitable comparison with Wagner (and it might have been stronger if he had borrowed some motives from the Ring, especially the “Heda! Heda! Hedo!” aria Thor sings in Rheingold, under the god’s German name, Donner), but it’s certainly far superior than the atrocious one Anne Dudley provided for the big-screen adaptation of Tristan and Isolde and it does its job well, bolstering the action and providing appropriate moods for the quieter scenes. Though the writing committee hardly got as much out of the Norse myths than either Wagner or Thea von Harbou (screenwriter for Fritz Lang’s two films based on the Nibelungenlied), overall Thor is a quite good movie that’s everything a superhero film should be: the action scenes (except for a rather confusing opener) are well staged and also relate to the plot instead of just being there as set pieces like numbers in a Busby Berkeley musical, and despite the plethora of writers the script is surprisingly well constructed and the story, given the fantastic premise, actually makes sense. Thor is proof that it’s possible, even within the rules of a modern-day blockbuster, to make a film that is both genuinely moving and viscerally exciting, and has depth far beyond what we expect from the action-hero genre without getting so deep (as the Nolan Batman films did) that we lose the sense of sheer joy that’s a major part of the appeal of comic-book movies.

Beautiful but Broke (Columbia, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an engaging little movie on TCM: Beautiful but Broke, a 1944 Columbia “B” musical featuring comedienne Joan Davis, who plays Dottie Duncan, secretary to broke theatrical agent Waldo Main (John Eldredge), who decides to unload his agency on her and join the Marines (and perhaps the writers, Arthur Housman — yes, the famous actor who specialized in comic drunks, and if I wanted to be uncharitable I could speculate on his state of inebriation when he wrote this movie — Manuel Seff and Monte Brice, intended as ironic humor the idea of such an ineffectual upper-class twit type as Eldredge joining the most iconically macho of the services).

Her one chance of earning a commission and keeping herself and the agency in business is to supply a Cleveland cabaret owner with a band — an all-woman band, since all too many of the male bands (in this film as well as in real life) were being broken up by the war: either their leaders enlisted (like Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Jay McShann) or their top musicians were drafted or they were working in defense plants and making more money (like Red Nichols) — and the movie is about her struggles to get her musicians (she originally tries to book a hot all-woman band from 1929, then finds that they’re all middle-aged; then she has the Some Like It Hot-anticipating idea of booking a male band and having them wear drag; finally the writing committee rips off Babes in Arms and has her form a band from the daughters of the band she originally submitted) to Cleveland when she can’t get an advance, which includes selling the agency to the tacky Maxwell McKay (Byron Foulger) for the money for her train tickets — only her band members are “bumped” from the train by 12 military pilots who have priority, so she ends up stranded in San Rafael, Nevada, where at first she and her bandswomen are put up and treated to a first-rate meal at the railroad’s expense, only to be thrown out of the hotel and forced to wash its dishes (and of course there’s a big slapstick scene in which they break them all!) when Dottie realizes she left her handbag, including the tickets and all her money, inside the train.

The girls have to hike through the woods (wearing high heels!) until they find a seemingly abandoned house — what they don’t realize is that it’s a structure set up to serve as a test target for a new explosive-firing cannon — and the women end up stranded in San Rafael, where they get drafted to play a benefit for a day-care center for the women employees of the local defense plants and ultimately the women, attracted to all the hunky men in town — the male defense-plant workers and the servicemembers stationed nearby — decide they don’t want to go to Cleveland after all and Dottie ends up with a fraction of the income she was counting on but a sense that she’s doing something for the war effort. This isn’t much of a story, and one can sense the writers reaching for the nearest of the available clichés at every turning point of their plot, but it’s an entertaining movie, partly because there’s lots of great swing music (at least as great as the Columbia studio musicians could play), including songs that were hits for other people like “Mama, I Want to Make Rhythm” (actually a 1938 hit for Cab Calloway!), “Shoo Shoo Baby” and “Pistol Packin’ Papa” alongside new pieces like “Mr. Jive Has Gone to War” (which Frazee and Clark sing “live” into a telephone while playing a record for the man in Cleveland who’s supposed to hire them — supposedly the band is playing at a ship’s launching but actually the band doesn’t yet exist at all — only the record sticks, in an uncanny premonition of the live performance glitch that undid Milli Vanilli (when the record they were synching to got stuck similarly and they tried to improvise their way out of it), “Take the Door to the Left” (a propaganda song attacking anyone who criticized the war or any of the people fighting it), and “Just Another Blues” (in which an old song is essentially drafted for the war effort).

There’s also a bizarre Laurel and Hardy-esque slapstick scene at the end, with Joan Davis (whose big physical comedy gag was a pratfall that landed her prone and on her ass) and a team called Willie West and McGinty in what looked like a one-reel silent short spliced on this movie just to pad out its running time. It’s not much of a movie but it is good fun, and when she’s not taking tumbles onto her ass or dealing with a bratty kid (Danny Mummert as “Rollo”) at the day-care center, Joan Davis is a surprisingly authoritative screen presence, reminding me of Rosalind Russell in her comic roles — one could readily have imagined her playing Mama Rose in Gypsy if she hadn’t died a year before the film was made (at 53, rather young), and early in the 1950’s she had a TV sitcom called I Married Joan that was considered a rival to I Love Lucy as a woman-centered laugh-fest. TCM was showing this as part of a two-film tribute to her on her birthday (just before they showed three films with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy as a tribute to his birthday, which is also today!), and I watched about 15 minutes of the next one, Kansas City Kitty, as well — it should be fun!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sing, Sinner, Sing (Majestic, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I finally watched last night turned out to be surprisingly good, a 1933 indie from Majestic called Sing, Sinner, Sing that appears to be the first movie inspired by the brief marriage of tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and torch singer Libby Holman. They were wed on November 26, 1931 just days after his divorce from his previous wife, heiress Anne Cannon, became final. Holman, a major star on Broadway and in New York nightclubs, gave up her career to become hostess at Reynolds’ North Carolina estate, Reynolda, where he was found shot to death on July 6, 1932 after a 21st birthday party for his friend Charles Gideon Hill, Jr. At first the death was ruled a suicide — Reynolds’ friend and assistant Ab Walker testified that he had heard a gunshot and then momentarily afterwards heard Holman say, “Smith’s shot himself!” — but a later coroner’s inquiry decided it was murder and Holman and Walker were both threatened with prosecution, though neither was ever brought to trial due to lack of evidence after the Reynolds family lobbied the prosecutor to drop the charges. Reynolds’ family also pulled strings to get most of their dead relative’s fortune back from Holman — though she had enough left that she was able to bankroll some later avant-garde productions featuring herself, including the 1947 film Dreams That Money Can Buy — and she returned to her stage career.

This sordid real-life tale inspired several subsequent movies, including Brief Moment (made at Columbia later in 1933 and starring Carol Lombard as the singer and Gene Raymond as the heir), Reckless (a 1935 MGM musical originally intended for Joan Crawford but recast with Jean Harlow at the last moment, possibly after one of the “suits” at MGM noticed the similarity of the plot to Harlow’s own brief, ill-fated marriage to producer Paul Bern), Crisis (1949) and Written on the Wind (1956), but Sing, Sinner, Sing was the first of them all and is quite good on its own merits. Based on a play called Clip Joint by Wilson Collison — a credit we’ve seen on several other quite good movies, including Three Wise Girls and the Gable-Harlow classic Red Dust — it casts actors with major-studio connections, Paul Lukas and Leila Hyams, in the lead roles.

It opens on the Queen of Joy, one of the infamous gambling ships that were anchored off the coasts of New York and Los Angeles during Prohibition on the theory that if they were kept just outside the U.S.’s territorial waters the American laws against drinking and gambling wouldn’t apply. Lela Larson (Leila Hyams — singing with an obviously dubbed voice, though neither the American Film Institute Catalog nor lists her voice double) is the star entertainer aboard the Queen of Joy and she’s also involved in a relationship with the ship’s owner, Phil Carida (Paul Lukas). A young, rather nerdy rich guy, Ted Rendon (Donald Dillaway), comes to the Queen of Joy often to cruise Lela — but she gives him the cold shoulder until she catches Phil in flagrante delicto with one of the chorus girls (they’re fully clothed on a couch but it’s obvious what they’re doing, in that refreshing honesty about human sexuality that marked the films of the so-called “pre-Code” era), whereupon she takes the advice of her friend Margaret Flannigan (Ruth Donnelly), the comedienne in the Queen of Joy’s floor show, and marries Rendon on the rebound and quits the Queen of Joy. Since there’s also a subplot about a scheme to rob the Queen of Joy and the robbery attempt — which ends with Phil shooting the leader of the gang — this isn’t really Phil’s night.

Lela soon finds out that life as Mrs. Ted Rendon isn’t any more fulfilling than her previous existence as the star and girlfriend of Phil Carida; for one thing, Ted is cheating on her, too (we find this out when she calls a bar where he drinks and he’s canoodling with a floosie and tells the bartender to tell the missus he’s not there); and when he is home he’s bringing a retinue of friends, girlfriends and drinking buddies who laugh her off when she tries to throw them out. This happens while Ted has passed out in his bedroom, and when he comes to he gets out a gun and apparently shoots himself — writer Edward T. Lowe and director Howard Christy deliberately and powerfully keep it ambiguous how he actually does die — only his family, which have already ensured that Lela won’t inherit any of Ted’s money, seek her prosecution for murder. She’s put on trial and actually convicted, but the trial is disrupted by Phil Carida, waving a gun and claiming that he shot Ted, so the verdict against her is set aside. She tries to talk Phil out of his confession — she’s sure Ted committed suicide — but eventually Phil is convicted and sentenced to death for the crime, and his last request is that the prison authorities play Lela’s record of “He’s Mine” (one of the two songs she sang on the Queen of Joy, actually written by George Waggner and Howard Jackson) as he walks the last mile. (The record is on the Brunswick label — a rare appearance of a real label, or for that matter a real brand name of anything, in a 1930’s movie.)

Sing, Sinner, Sing is a marvelous film, ranking alongside The Phantom Broadcast, Sensation Hunters and Safe in Hell among the important early-1930’s proto-noirs both visually (Majestic used their usual cinematographer, Ira Morgan, and he and director Christy created some quite beautiful and atmospheric chiaroscuro images) and thematically, with morally ambiguous characters and emotions evocative of real life instead of movie clichés. Phil’s finding his conscience at the end stretches credibility more than a little bit, but up until then it’s been an intense and uncompromising film that used the relative freedom of the “pre-Code” era to illuminate human behavior, including its sordid sides, instead of just to titillate. It also goes on that surprisingly long list of movies that dealt with alcoholism (more or less) seriously well before The Lost Weekend — though the celebrated comic drunk Arthur Housman is also in the cast — and it’s an excellent film with a major-studio “look” (Majestic was known for their resourcefulness in getting access to major-studio facilities and shooting on sets built for bigger-budgeted films, as well as getting access at least to A-minus actors) and an honesty and thematic richness rare in movies even today.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Green Lantern (Warner Bros., De Line Pictures, DC Entertainment, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Green Lantern, the 2011 movie incarnation (oddly, though the character has been around since 1952 there’s only been one previous feature film, the animated one Green Lantern: First Flight from 2009, directed by Laura Montgomery from a script by Alan Burnett and with my hero, Christopher Meloni from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, voicing the Green Lantern, though the character has made cameo appearances in some of the TV shows that have drawn on the DC Comics characters), turned out to be enjoyable but not overwhelming. Charles and I saw it at the Regal (formerly UA) Theatres in Horton Plaza, in a screen that isn’t actually all that big (let’s face it, the size gap between movie theatre screens and TV’s is narrowing fast and I’m not sure this movie would lose anything if we watched the forthcoming DVD on a large-screen digital TV!).

There’s an odd article by veteran film critic David Thomson in the current Harper’s that suggests that after 100-plus years of movies, the current audience has abandoned interest in plot and construction and reverted to the state of moviegoers in the Lumière theatre in the 1890’s, interested only in sensation — then it was the sensation of a train bearing down on them (the camera and its operator dug a hole under the tracks so they could film an oncoming train without either being run over or having to worry about getting out of the way) and now it’s spectacular, digitally created action scenes that exist on their own without the necessity of more than a token connection between them. Thomson exaggerates his point a bit — even during the 1930’s audiences flocked to see the Busby Berkeley musicals for the same reason they go to CGI extravaganzae today: to watch the spectacular numbers, and either patiently sit through or nod off during the plot portions that supposedly set them up. (As I pointed out regarding the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, its director, Rob Marshall, was most famous for his musical Chicago and described the Pirates action sequences as “numbers,” indicating he didn’t see much difference between directing a musical and an action film.)

According to the “Trivia” entries on it, the 2011 Green Lantern went through several incarnations — including a proposal that Jack Black star in it, which would have been even more bizarre than Seth Rogen playing the Green Hornet — and writers and directors rotated onto and off the property for a decade or so before the version we have finally came together. The Green Lantern is actually not a solo superhero in the mold of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man or Iron Man; he’s a member of an entire Green Lantern Corps stretching out throughout the universe. They are the products of the Guardians, who look like giant flower vases with Quentin Crisp-like heads sticking out on top of them and run the entire Green Lantern Corps from a planet called Oa (pronounced “OH-uh”); they’ve learned to harness the power of will and turn it into a compound of energy and matter that can materialize in any form the user imagines and is colored green, the color of will. Their big problem is that a renegade Guardian named Parallax figured out how to use similar techniques to harness fear, which works similarly to will but is yellow, and Parallax was able to visit various planets, scare the hell out of their inhabitants, absorb their fear to make himself stronger, and annihilate them — until a Green Lantern named Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) managed to trap Parallax onto a planet in a remote, isolated zone of the universe … only Parallax manages to escape and is working its way towards earth, which is in the sector of the universe that Abin Sur is responsible for.

Meanwhile, a hot-shot test pilot named Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who flies for the Ferris Aviation Company and has an off-and-on relationship with Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), the daughter of its owner Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders), takes up an expensive new plane in a contest against two drones and wins but is forced to abandon the plane and bail out. Then he suddenly founds himself surrounded by a giant green ball of energy and transported hundreds of miles to where Abin Sur lays dying on Earth, having lost his last battle with Parallax, and the ring that’s the instrument by which the Green Lanterns channel their powers flies off his finger and onto Hal’s as Abin Sur dies. After Abin Sur’s body is discovered by the military, Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard, made up to look surprisingly homely for the guy I remember as the hunk from Kinsey), son of Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins), is summoned to give Abin Sur an autopsy — only he’s infected by a bit of the yellow energy and turns into Parallax’s incarnation on earth. That’s basically the plot; Hal Jordan gets to do a lot of hemming and hawing as to whether he should accept the responsibility of saving earth from Parallax or just keep carousing, drinking, screwing women he barely knows and teasing Carol Ferris while resisting anything resembling a commitment, either romantic or career-wise.

Eventually he shows up on Oa and gets run through a drill-instruction style training by a couple of Green Lanterns called Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (a CGI creation voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan — parts of the Green Lantern training program seem like ordinary military “basic” but parts of it seem to have been patterned after the Nazi rallies and for a little while Green Lantern starts to look like Leni Riefenstahl directed a superhero movie (not inappropriately since “will” is the source of the Green Lanterns’ power and Riefenstahl’s most famous, and most openly propagandistic, movie was called Triumph of the Will) — before Jordan seemingly washes out of the training program, only to knuckle down to it and persuade the Guardians that they ought to let him go against Parallax solo rather than risk the lives of more Green Lanterns going after him/her/it as a group force. Of course, Our Hero finally vanquishes Parallax, though in the meantime Sinestro has invented a yellow “fear ring” and in a sequence most of the audience at our showing missed because it occurs midway through the credits and all too many modern-day moviegoers respond to the start of the credit roll as if it were the starting gun of the 100-meter dash at the Olympics, Sinestro puts it on and thereby suggests (not too surprisingly even if you didn’t see Green Lantern: First Flight, in which Sinestro was the principal villain) that there’s going to be a sequel in which he’s going to be the bad guy.

Green Lantern is a good superhero movie in the modern manner — it doesn’t have much in the way of camp (the funniest scene is the one in which Hal Jordan is trying to figure out how to use the green lantern itself — it’s the device that recharges his ring when its energy runs low — only you have to say the oath of the Green Lantern Corps as you recharge, and Abin Sur croaked without telling Hal what the oath was, so Hal starts making stuff up until the actual oath steals into his subconscious and works its way out of his mouth: “In brightest day, in blackest night / No evil shall escape my sight / Let all who worship evil’s might / Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!”) but it’s also not as mind-numbingly serious as the Spider-Man movies or Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films. The problem is with the script, which even more than usual in a modern-day action epic is just an excuse to set up the action scenes; I actually found Green Lantern: First Flight more entertaining, not only because Christopher Meloni voiced the character with a power and authority that far eluded Ryan Reynolds (though Reynolds wasn’t bad casting at all: he’s hunky and does well as the irresponsible hot-shot pilot even though he’s clearly channeling Tom Cruise in Top Gun — there’s even a scene in which he romances his girlfriend in a sleazy restaurant by singing along with a rock ’n’ roll oldie! — and he’s certainly competent as an action figure, though spend enough on CGI and motion-capture and a film crew could probably make me look like a superhero) but also because it had only one screenwriter: Green Lantern’s writing credit is screen story by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim, and script by those ampersanded three plus an “and,” meaning the next-named writer replaced them instead of directly collaborating, and the name of Michael Goldenberg, and once again the comparison of Alan Barnett’s strong, well-constructed story for First Flight with the lame pretexts Messrs. Berlanti, Green, Guggenheim and Goldenberg came up with to set up the action scenes offers further evidence for my general-field theory of cinema that the overall quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers.

Green Lantern isn’t a bad movie at all, though, and I admire the chutzpah of the “suits” at Warners for green-lighting and spending between $150 and $200 million on a film that goes so far against the modern-day Zeitgeist: in an era in which the very idea of people (or beings) joining together for a collective purpose and assuming responsibility for each other is being relentlessly trashed and we’re being told that there is no such thing as “society,” there are only individuals and we are all in competition with everyone else 24/7 and have to screw them before they screw us, the idea of a superhero who actually has to function as part of an intergalactic team, work together with his peers, accept the leadership of a collective council and acknowledge a responsibility to the entire corps is a positive and progressive one (despite the hissy-fit of the American Prospect writer who was upset that the film was cast with a white Green Lantern character who, in the comic books, has long since been replaced by a Black one) — which may account for the relatively disappointing box-office turnout for this film: it’s drawn people to theatres but hasn’t been the mega-blockbuster Warners was clearly hoping for. Or maybe, as the “Overrated/Underrated” columnist in the Los Angeles Times joked in today’s paper about the disappointing grosses of both Green Lantern and The Green Hornet, maybe it’s the color green — with its acutely unfashionable (these days) environmentalist connotations — that’s the politically incorrect aspect of these films.

Skyway (Monogram, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled in for the night and I ran him another download from Skyway, a 1933 production from first-iteration Monogram that, though it wasn’t as good as Jane Eyre, The Phantom Broadcast or Sensation Hunters, was certainly a capable and entertaining piece of work even though its script by Albert E. Demond is little more than a grab-bag of clichés. The title Skyway obviously heralds a movie about aviation, though there’s surprisingly little flying in this film (probably because a Monogram budget couldn’t pay for much of it; a long-shot that supposedly represents the central character’s stunt flight might well be a stock clip from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels, for years a prime source for producers needing scenes of World War I aircraft in action and not having the money to stage them themselves), and it seems to have been Monogram’s attempt to do their own version of a James Cagney movie.

Robert “Flash” Norris (Ray Walker, top-billed) is a pilot for an airline that flies mail deliveries for the U.S. Post Office in World War I-era biplanes. He’s also an Irish-American hothead with a penchant for getting into fights whenever any fellow male, no matter his age and state of health, gets in his way or says something even remotely insulting. Walker doesn’t do this sort of character as well as Cagney did — who could have? — but within his limits he’s quite good and fully credible at portraying both the character’s hot-headedness and his underlying decency and charm. He’s arrested after having knocked out an old man at a carnival, and when he comes into court he meets spoiled heiress Lila Beaumont (Kathryn Crawford, attractive but surprisingly zaftig for a female lead in a movie even by 1933 standards, let alone by today’s!), daughter of Second National Bank president John Beaumont (Claude Gillingwater). Robert and Lila start dating — it’s one of those typical 1930’s movie courtships that begins with them insulting each other and thereby lets us know they’re supposed to be together — and eventually they decide to get married.

Her dad isn’t upset about her marrying “beneath” her social class — though his assistant has been after her for years and is disappointed she’s found someone else — but dad is concerned about having a son-in-law pursuing such a dangerous profession as aviation. So he offers his son-in-law-to-be a job at the bank, and Robert starts work and rises quickly — not because he’s that good, but quite the opposite: every department that employs him gets so sick of his mistakes so quickly they end up promoting him until he’s finally working in the investment department under his fiancée’s former boyfriend. Robert gets contacted by George Taylor (George Hayes), his old boss at the airline, who needs $25,000 in venture capital to start a service using amphibious planes to take mail deliveries off ships and fly them into cities well before the ships dock. Neither John Beaumont nor his assistant Baker (Jed Prouty) wants to invest money in anything as chancy as airplanes, and Robert quits the bank in disgust and is hired back to his old job as a pilot. Then Baker comes to Robert and offers to invest $10,000 in the air mail project — and he gives Robert the money in cash and suggests he deposit it in another bank.

We have it figured it out well before the characters do: Baker is an embezzler and he’s decided to flee to South America (he’s told his bosses he’s going there to liquidate some shaky bonds from the local governments the bank is holding — plus ça change … — but he’s really fleeing with a vampy blonde who spends the cruise laying about in a couch in their stateroom, smoking cigarettes from a long holder and inquiring about how much Baker still has in his bankroll); he’s really stolen $400,000, but he’s decided to plant $10,000 on Robert to make it look like he’s the embezzler. Robert seems like he’s on the hook for the frame until Beaumont’s other (honest) assistant realizes that the shortages started two years earlier, well before Robert started working at the bank. Robert offers to take one of his airline’s amphibious planes, fly it to South America, land it alongside the ocean liner and literally kidnap Baker off of it, then fly back to New York so he can be brought to justice and the bank can recover his loot (fortunately he and his vamp have only run through a few thousand dollars of it) — and the whole incident convinces Beaumont that the aviation industry is worth backing financially after all. The film ends with Robert and Lila taking one of the airline’s planes from Los Angeles (where most of the film took place) to Yuma, Arizona, apparently because Arizona law allowed people to marry immediately. Skyway isn’t much of a movie, but it’s a good solid time-filler of the period, and while it doesn’t have the sheer weirdness of something like Air Hawks it’s also at least based around the sorts of crime one can imagine real people committing!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Beast of Yucca Flats (Cinema Associates, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of The Beast of Yucca Flats, a particularly bizarre and inept 1961 production from co-producer/director/writer Coleman Francis (one of those marvelously reversible names, like Nelson Eddy or Elton John), who’s been compared to Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the pantheon of wretchedly bad directors. Actually, Francis makes Wood look like Fellini by comparison; for all their ineptitude — their bad acting, weirdly elliptical writing, mismatched cut-ins of stock footage and overall technical crudity — Wood’s films have a crude energy to them that makes them considerably more watchable than the total dreck from a lot of sub-“B” directors of his time. Wood also had access to a first-rate cinematographer, William C. “Big Bill” Thompson, who made his movies look good — clear and well-lit (which doesn’t always work to their benefit: the beauty of Thompson’s lighting in the graveyard scenes of Plan Nine from Outer Space just makes the cheapness and tackiness of the set, including the cardboard markers at least one actor actually knocks over, that much more obvious) — and Wood also had something of a story sense: as silly as some of the plot events are in Wood’s films, at least they have some degree of dramatic coherence.

Besides co-producing (with Anthony Cardoza, who backed him on two later films, The Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba), directing and writing, Francis also edited The Beast of Yucca Flats (as “C. Francis”) and cast his wife and their two pre-pubescent sons in key roles. Though Francis was an actor himself — his most famous credit in that profession was in a small supporting role in the John Wayne Viet Nam war epic The Green Berets — he fortunately refrained from giving himself anything more than two bit parts and the task of narrating the film. Yes, Creeping Terror fans, this is another movie in which virtually all the dialogue we hear was recorded after the film was shot (with silent cameras); Francis wrote a narration that would supposedly clarify what was going on (though it’s so elliptical one gets the impression he was trying to emulate Allan Ginsberg — including repeated references to “a flag on the moon” that anticipate the real event by eight years but otherwise have no relevance to what passes for a plot in this film) and delivered it himself in the most pretentious, hammy tones he could muster in front of the recording mike.

Much of this film does have dialogue in the ordinary sense — voices on the soundtrack representing conversations between the people we see on screen — but those, too, were post-recorded; and Francis, a laughably inept director in almost every other function of filmmaking (and an even worse editor!), at least was savvy enough to station his camera miles away from the people supposedly talking, and often station them with their backs to the camera, so he wouldn’t have to worry about having to match lip movements with dialogue. The “plot” of The Beast of Yucca Flats, to the extent it has one (narrative incoherence is actually an acknowledged Coleman Francis trademark!), concerns Russian nuclear scientist Joseph Javorsky (Tor Johnson, practically defining “miscast”), who is flying into Yucca Flats in a small general-aviation plane (are we supposed to believe he flew all the way from Russia in that?) to meet his American handlers so he can defect — only the appointed rendezvous place is also the site of a U.S. nuclear weapons test that’s about to go off any moment, and sure enough that ol’ debbil radiation gets hold of Dr. Javorsky and turns him into the titular Beast, though all Francis does to represent that is have his makeup man, Larry Aten (who’s also an actor in the film), plaster Tor Johnson’s face with something that looks like cottage cheese (which seems to be the standby for moviemakers anxious to create an on-screen monster but without the resources to do a genuinely convincing one).

Johnson hobbles along and moves slowly to suggest “beast-ness,” but that doesn’t matter much because he hobbled and moved that way before his supposed transformation — and one has to feel embarrassed for him, not only that Plan Nine from Outer Space isn’t the worst movie ever made, it’s not even the worst movie Tor Johnson ever made! In the opening sequence, a woman is strangled in a hotel bedroom to the sound of a ticking clock (which the MST3K crew mocked by doing a 60 Minutes announcement!) — we never find out by whom, or what this has to do with anything else in the movie (is it the Beast? Supposedly he hadn’t even been created yet!) — and later the Beast encounters a couple on the road, murders both the man and the woman, then takes the woman to his hideout in a secret cave (which he’s somehow established in the hour or so he’s been in the U.S. at that point) and seems, if not positively necrophiliac, at least utterly unconcerned that his new girlfriend is dead. Later she’s rescued by two cops, Jim Archer (Bing Stafford) and Joe Dobson (Larry Aten, who’s a better actor than he is a makeup artist), who seem to spend most of their time doing cliff-climbs because Yucca Flats is so craggy that seems to be what they have to do to have a chance to catch the local crooks. (At least Francis gives us a lot of choice footage of their asses.)

Yet another couple, Hank and Lois Radcliffe (Douglas Mellor and Barbara Francis), pull up at a ratty gas station in Yucca Flats, and their sons Randy (Ronald Francis) and Art (Alan Francis) run off and stage an embarrassing chase scene with the monster — and the cops nearly shoot Hank thinking he’s the monster even though he’s a lot smaller, younger, has hair and doesn’t have cottage cheese plastered all over his head. The film creaks to a close with the Beast getting picked off by a rifle shot from an unseen shooter — which Filmfax contributor Matt Sanborn describes as “another Francis motif — shooting someone from off screen so the audience has no idea who did it, even though it is crucial to the film’s resolution.” The “dead” Beast gets his face licked by a rabbit — an accident during shooting — and Tor Johnson is clearly alive in the final frames, which in a modern movie one would assume meant they were setting up a sequel but in this one only leaves one regretting that Barbara Francis wasn’t as hip to the technical side of filmmaking as Alma Hitchcock (who noticed that Janet Leigh was shown swallowing after she was supposed to be dead in Psycho, so her husband re-edited the film to put a freeze-frame on Leigh’s face before the footage of her swallowing).

Though only 57 minutes long, The Beast of Yucca Flats seems to go on twice as long — its page credits two cinematographers, John Cagle and Lee Strosnider, whose collaboration produces one of the most physically murky movies ever made, its black-and-white images blurring into an indistinct gray that makes it quite hard to tell what’s supposed to be going on — and in order to fill it out the MST3K crew showed a couple of shorts that seemed to turn them on far more than their feature did. One was a 1951 high-school educational short in which a dorky-looking student laments that he’s $1.50 short of the ticket he needs to go to the high-school dance that weekend, and he gets a nocturnal visit from Benjamin Franklin who lectures him about the need to budget and save his money; the other was a promotional film for Puerto Rico that seemed to be pushing it both as a tourist destination and a giant open-air sweatshop for U.S. employers looking for cheap labor costs while still being able to slap their products with a “Made in U.S.A.” label (plus ça change … only now the favorite destination for this sort of thing is Saipan), shot in runny picture-postcard color and with dorky narration, ill-synchronized music and an overall air of desperation that inspired the MST3K crew to more and funnier jokes than their feature did!

Crime, Inc. (PRC, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Crime, Inc., a 1945 old-style gangster melodrama from PRC which we downloaded from, in a version that was reduced from the original 75-minute running time to 71 minutes by the simple expedient of lopping off the opening and closing credits. Crime, Inc. was basically the sort of film Warner Bros. could have made in the 1930’s but it had some intriguing “wrinkles” that made it interesting, including a cast that was probably as close to “all-star” as PRC could get: Tom Neal as the protagonist, crime reporter Jim Riley, who’s convinced that all major crime in New York City (the locale is unnamed in the script but a couple of stock shots of Times Square at night give it away) is controlled by a syndicate that runs it as efficiently as a legitimate business; Leo Carrillo as Mobbed-up nightclub owner Tony Marlow; Lionel Atwill, ill used (he’s only on screen a few minutes) but still authoritative as Pat Coyle, the Syndicate’s mouthpiece; Sheldon Leonard not as a gangster but as a Dirty Harry-ish cop, Captain Ferrone; Danny Morton (a tall, handsome and surprisingly personable actor who should have had a major career at studios beyond PRC; this was his first film and for his remaining career he stayed stuck in cheap adventure movies and serials — where were the major-studio casting directors when he needed them?) as Bugs Kelley, t/n Mike Egan, an independent gangster fighting a desperate battle to stay in business and resist either joining or getting killed by the Syndicate; and Martha Tilton, ex-Benny Goodman band singer seeking a career of her own, as Bugs’ sister Betty Van Cleave (both have abandoned the last name “Egan” for fear someone will find out the connection between them), who performs a series of mediocre songs at Marlow’s club (neither the material nor the grainy, distorted sound recording of the print we were watching does justice to Tilton’s voice, and as an actor she was a very good singer — she’s personable on screen but Doris Day needn’t have worried about the competition).

The basic plot is that Riley is trying to expose the gang and also put together enough material for a book; Captain Ferrone is trying to bust the Syndicate but doesn’t know who he can trust on his own force, so deep have the Syndicate’s hooks reached and so many cops are on its payroll; and Bugs is attempting to stay in business as an independent, to the point where he kidnaps Marlow and extracts a ransom payment for him from Coyle after he discovers that Marlow has ordered his execution. Bugs duly gets knocked off (one contributor to the film’s Web page suggests that the character was based on Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel — s/he identified as the giveaway a line in which the character says, “Don’t call me ‘Bugs’!” — which would make the screenwriters, Martin Mooney and Raymond L. Schrock, prescient, since they had a Siegel character killed by his fellow gangsters two years before that happened for real) and his sister and Riley unsurprisingly fall in love — there’s a minor hiccup in their relationship after her bro gets killed and she briefly suspects he was dating her only to get information about his gang and their rivalry with the Syndicate, but within less than a reel she’s reassured that he’s genuinely interested in her after all. Towards the end Crime, Inc. gets more interesting; instead of a pretty straightforward gangster movie, so much in line with the genre conventions of the 1920’s and 1930’s there’s some uncertainty as to when it’s supposed to be taking place (the new footage features 1945-vintage cars but there’s plenty of stock footage of older ones — “Help is on the way!” — and, as Charles noted, the President pictured on the wall of Ferrone’s office is Woodrow Wilson), it takes on some interesting quirks.

Some of them have to do with Martin Mooney’s involvement in the project; Mooney had achieved his 15 minutes of fame in the mid-1930’s when, as a crime reporter in Chicago, he had gone to jail rather than testify before a grand jury and give away the sources for his stories. When Warners signed Mooney as a writer to do the script for the 1936 film Bullets or Ballots, the trailer used Mooney’s background as a selling point for the film and advertised it, “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!” To come up with a denouement for Crime, Inc., Mooney put Tom Neal’s character in the same predicament he himself had been in a decade before: Riley finally publishes his book, only to be hauled before a grand jury and questioned by a prosecutor who demands to know who his sources were and also the real identities of the people he wrote about under false names.

Meanwhile, a Secret Six-like crime commission has been formed to put the racketeers out of business once and for all — only, as anyone who’d seen The 13th Man, Law of the Underworld or other films that used that basic premise could have guessed, one of the secret members of the commission, Wayne Clark (played by officious character actor Grant Mitchell), is also the head of Crime, Inc. And the final exposure of the gang is carried out through high-tech surveillance: their office is bugged not only by an audio recorder but a film camera as well, and therefore the good guys have actual movie footage of Clark and attorney Coyle proposing the elimination of Riley and his girlfriend the nightclub singer, and the other gangsters approving the motion without audible dissent. The Syndicate is broken and, in a cute ending, Riley and Betty are married then and there by a judge attached to the grand jury which has just taken their testimony.

Crime, Inc. is a pretty straightforward movie but it’s dark enough that it’s on the cusp between ordinary gangster film and noir; the director is the usually hacky Lew Landers, but he was on his best behavior that week — the acting (especially Morton’s; the authority with which he plays the most ambiguous character in the film — a gangster, yes, but one with a fiercely independent streak that leads him to take on the Syndicate — should, like his boyish good looks, have marked him for biggers and betters at major studios) is first-rate and the plotting is quirky enough it’s a cut above your average gangster cheapie. Landers and cinematographer James S. Brown, Jr. shoot most of it straightforwardly but there are quite a few shots that look like film noir, dark and shadowy. Had Bugs Kelley been a more important character and had the writers focused the story on him, Crime, Inc. would be a better movie than it is — but even so it’s quite good, and also surprisingly brutal for a Code-era film: after a while the bodies pile up so quickly (the Syndicate’s favorite method of murder is drive-by shooting, which itself makes this film seem surprisingly contemporary — as does the reporter’s finding himself put on the spot by the grand jury and giving a ringing defense of journalistic confidentiality) one wonders how PRC got the sheer level of the carnage past the censors.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Columbia/Mandate/Depth of Field, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a movie I wasn’t all that interested in, but I decided to take a gamble on it for two reasons. One was the obvious old-movie allusion in its title — to Nick and Nora Charles, the hard-drinking husband-and-wife detective team of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man and the six movies (and one TV series) MGM made based on the characters — and the other was that the star was Michael Cera, the male lead of the film Juno, and though Cera didn’t do all that much for me aesthetically (he’s very young and very twinky), he has a nondescript sort of cuteness that fits him for these sorts of roles: not so homely one can’t imagine him getting a girl to have sex with him, not so hot that we don’t think he’d have any trouble getting any girl he wanted to have sex with him. (And, quite frankly, I was hoping for at least one image of Cera that would be the equivalent of the marvelous one from Juno of his cock flapping around under the running shorts he was wearing, which the Juno heroine explained was what turned her on to him in the first place — and I wasn’t disappointed, even though the scene showed him in his underwear and didn’t last that long.)

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a story about adolescence and the power of music to define one’s life and give one a template on how one should be managing one’s emotional, romantic and sexual issues. It’s also a quite charming (one doesn’t usually think of a modern-day youth movie as “charming,” but this one is) romantic comedy that uses, but gets a lot out of, the old convention of showing two people who we know from the get-go are made for each other and letting us share the chancy and often frustrating process by which they come to realize that. When it opens, Nick (Michael Cera) is using his phone, leaving a long, self-pitying phone message to his girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who chose Nick’s birthday a few weeks before to make herself his ex-girlfriend. At the high school she attends he slips her a mix CD and she immediately pitches it into the nearest wastebasket — whereupon Norah (Kat Dennings) fishes it out of the trash: apparently she’s done this before because, though she doesn’t know who’s making the discs, she does like his musical taste and also the hand-drawn artwork he does on the sleeves.

The film revolves around Nick’s involvement in a band of his own — he’s in a group called The Jerk-Offs with Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron), and of the three of them he’s the only one who’s straight. What’s more, they sing about Gay sex — giving a lot of people the wrong idea about Nick (though, refreshingly, writer Lorene Scafaria, adapting a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levitan, does not push the gag of having Gay guys cruising Nick and refusing to believe him when he said he wasn’t Gay). They also haven’t been able to find a drummer — though their band van contains a full drum kit — and when they finally get a gig the other band members come up with a children’s toy drum machine and tell Nick to play it onstage as well as doing his guitar parts. They get a gig opening for a better-known band and make it through one song before Nick blows it by being unable to figure out how to turn off the drum machine when they’re done — every button he presses just changes the rhythm pattern but leaves the bloody thing on.

They also find out that that night in New York City, one of the rare live performances by the mysterious band Where’s Fluffy? is going to take place — Where’s Fluffy?, whose logo is a cartoon rabbit surrounded by question marks, is notorious for releasing their records on LP instead of CD (at least we only see LP’s, not CD’s, of them) and for staging all their live performances at hidden locations, with only enigmatic clues broadcast on radio giving their fans the information on how to find them. Needless to say, Where’s Fluffy? is the all-time favorite band of both Nick and Norah. Nick and Norah meet at Nick’s band’s gig, where she asks him to be her boyfriend for five minutes in order to pull a trick on Norah’s alcoholic friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) — at one point, when they lose Caroline and are traversing New York City trying to find her (the plot establishes that the principal characters live in New Jersey but do their club-hopping and partying in the Big Apple), Norah recalls, “You know how some people go to the same places to eat? Well, Caroline goes to the same places to throw up.” Nick and Norah instantly find themselves convenient cover — Tris has shown up at the Jerk-Offs’ gig and Norah’s sort-of boyfriend (she describes him as a “friend with benefits”) is the lead singer of the headline band — and they go driving off together in Nick’s Yugo (the writers’ idea seems to have been to give Nick the dorkiest car he could possibly drive, and a 1980’s-era Yugo seemed to fill the bill) when it works and ride in the van of Nick’s bandmates when it doesn’t, which is often.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is one of those movies where the overall atmosphere is more important than the plot, and the script is actually well constructed in putting its characters into predicaments just exaggerated enough from real-life ones to be both believable and funny. It’s also marvelously acted and directed by Peter Sollett with a welcome degree of restraint; for a modern-day youth comedy it’s refreshingly low on raunch, and even more surprisingly it doesn’t have that damnable post-modern sense of “cool” towards its characters that afflicts all too many current movies: we sympathize with the characters (it helps that there really isn’t a villain, though Tris comes close), understand their frailties and flaws and want to see them overcome them. It’s also well scored; Mark Mothersbaugh, the leader and principal songwriter of Devo, is credited with the music, though he seems to have come up with only the background score — I didn’t spot his credit on any of the actual songs — and, interestingly, most of the music (aside from the Jerk-Offs’ song, which is Gay-themed punk) runs towards the softer singer-songwriter end of rock.

There are some wonderful touches in the script, including having Caroline emerge from her alcoholic daze long enough to be the one who figures out the final clue to where Where’s Fluffy? is going to play (a radio D.J. barks out a series of numbers and she realizes that it’s an address) and having one of Nick’s bandmates go into a drunken rant about the Beatles and how great they were. At first I thought it was going to be a reference to the difficulty the Beatles had finding a drummer in their early days in Liverpool (at first they didn’t have one at all, then they went through three of them — Tommy Moore, Norman Chapman and Pete Best — before finally firing Best and hiring Ringo Starr just before they started recording for EMI and became stars), but it turns out that he’s become convinced that modern-day rock has become too overtly sexual (a weird rant indeed from someone who’s in a band that sings openly about men fucking other men and is considering such names as Shit Sandwich and A Fistful of Assholes!) and they need to go back to the relative innocence of songs about people holding hands.

There are a few tentative couplings and recouplings along the way — Tris comes back into Nick’s life and tries to vamp him (to, of all songs, the early-1970’s proto-disco hit “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate) until he gets disgusted, strands her and goes back to Norah — and in the end it turns out that not only is Norah the daughter of a rich father (as was Nora Charles in The Thin Man, the only actual parallel between the original character and her namesake), he happens to own the fabled Electric Lady Studios (built by Jimi Hendrix in 1970 — though he only got to do a handful of sessions there before he died — and later used by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and other rock ’n’ roll royalty) and has offered her a job working there, though she’s undecided whether to take it or go to Brown University because she’s worried that she might lose her love for music if she’s involved with it professionally. Nick and Norah, in the film’s most lyrical scene, finally have sex together on a couch inside the hallowed halls of Electric Lady Studios, though we don’t see them; apparently she’s turned the tape machines on, because we see the level meters move as she moans in a signal that, though she’s not a virgin, she’s nonetheless having the first orgasm of her life: a rare bit of classic-era style indirection in a modern movie and a much sexier scene than it would have been if we’d seen them pounding away at each other, even though, reflecting on Michael Cera’s most famous role, I couldn’t help but joke, “You had your first orgasm — that’s the good news. The bad news is you’re going to end up pregnant.” Eventually Nick and Norah, along with the other principals, find the location of the Where’s Fluffy? concert — and Norah angrily breaks off with Tal when she finds out that he’s been dating her for three years only so he could get her to give his band’s demo CD to her dad, and Nick and Norah actually leave the venue before Where’s Fluffy? perform, deciding that what’s happened to them earlier in the evening is far more important than seeing the elusive band.

The ending was a bit disappointing, but I could see the logic of it — especially since it would have been virtually impossible for Mothersbaugh or anyone else connected with this movie to create a final song as awesome as we’ve been told Where’s Fluffy?’s music is. As things turn out, it’s the song for Randy (Jeremy Haines) of Are You Randy?, a lame band Where’s Fluffy? sometimes send out as a false lead, that sounds the most like Devo of any of the songs in the movie. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is a marvelous film within the limits of its genre, a real charmer (there’s that word again!) that works on every level it attempts: as a romantic comedy, as a satire on the music scene (particularly the wanna-bes that inhabit its lower levels, dreaming of mega-stardom without the chops to pull it off) and as a nice little teen melodrama with that rarity in modern movies — characters we really care about and want to see prevail — and that even greater rarity in modern movies (especially those aimed at the youth market): a director and a screenwriter who trust the basic appeal of their story and don’t feel a need to drown it in music-video effects (an especially dangerous temptation in a film about modern popular music!), jarring cuts and tasteless gags about body functions.

Two Spirits (PBS “Independent Lens,” 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched Two Spirits, a PBS Independent Lens documentary on the murder of Fred Martinez, a 16-year-old man — though I use the term “man” advisedly because though he was born biologically male he was about as non-binary as one could imagine, so much so that he not only presented as a man in some settings and a woman in others but even when he was buried, the coffin at his memorial service was adorned with two photos, one of him as a man and one as a woman — who grew up on the Native American reservation near Cortez, Colorado and as a Navajo Indian (oddly filmmaker Lydia Nibley uses the term “Navajo” throughout most of the program even though Martinez himself and his mother identified themselves by the older traditional name of their tribe, “Diné”) identified with the tradition of the naheedli, or men who act out and/or take the gender roles of women, including having sex with men.

Native American traditions about variant sexual orientations and gender identities are usually identified with the term “two-spirit,” but though Nibley uses that as the title of her film she also acknowledges that Native American tribes that accepted homosexuality and Transgender identities had a much more sophisticated concept; in Navajo, the film explains, there are four genders — male-identified men, female-identified women, female-identified men and male-identified women. What’s most striking about this concept is that, despite the view in the mainstream (white) Queer community that sexual orientation and gender identity are two distinct phenomena, the Navajo tradition directly links them: a Gay or Lesbian sexual orientation necessarily implies one of those in-between gender identities as well — which leaves me to wonder what these societies would have made of most people who consider themselves Gay or Lesbian today: male-identified men who love men and female-identified women who love women. (This strikes home to me because there isn’t a damned thing female about me; I may not ever have cultivated the super-butch view of masculinity but I’ve never had any question about my gender identity — yes, I briefly went through a period in second and third grade where I wished I were a girl because it was considered O.K. for girls to be smart, to do well in school and not to be particularly athletic, but as an adult I’ve come to an understanding of myself that includes a Gay sexual orientation and a decidedly male gender identity.)

The narration in the film includes reference to the way younger Queer folk are less likely to regard either their sexual orientation or their gender identity as hard and fast — and yes, the word “fluid” gets used — and though there’s nobody profiled in the movie who’s as hard-core non-binary as to use the word “they” to describe themselves as an individual, there are quite a few people (and not all of them Native!) who see something of the Native concept of “two-spirit people” to describe themselves not only as Queer but as between or “other” than traditionally male or female. Two Spirits is a fascinating program because it really does explore a different way of looking at sexual orientation, gender identity and the interchange between them from the orthodoxy either of the mainstream straight community or the so-called “LGBT” community (an unlovely set of initials that draws harder and faster distinctions between Lesbians, Gay men, Bisexuals and Transgender people than the facts warrant — and also tries to shoehorn Bisexual and Transgender people into a biologically determined concept of sexual orientation, this whole nonsense about how we’re supposedly “born this way,” that the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people disconfirms).

The first two-thirds of Two Spirits is a fascinating bit of exploring these different sexual and gender possibilities — along with the usual enemies, Christianity and the education programs Native American children were forced into (often literally at gunpoint!) once their ranks had been decimated by the genocidal campaign the U.S. waged against them in the name of Lebensraum (when Adolf Hitler told Edward R. Murrow, “I’m just doing to the Jews what you did to the Indians,” he was 100 percent right!!); they were forced not only to accept a moralistic anti-sex and anti-Queer religion but were put into schools with others from different tribes to make sure they couldn’t talk to each other (since the schools also did a piss-poor job of teaching them English), so not only were the two-spirit traditions virtually lost but a whole generation of Native Americans grew up internalizing the anti-sex and anti-Queer values of Christianity (and, indeed, the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — what Gore Vidal calls “the sky-god religions” — in general) and shunning and sometimes disowning their Queer children just like Euro-Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans did — and the final third is the tragedy of Fred Martinez.

His fate has uncanny similarities to Matthew Shepard’s — he was targeted by a straight meth dealer who gave him a ride during Cortez’s annual rodeo/carnival, then for some reason the killer ran into him again later that evening, took him to an isolated canyon and bashed his head in with a rock, incapacitated him, then got a larger rock and finished the job, then boasted to his friends, “I just bug-smashed a faggot” — and his body was left in such a remote place it wasn’t found for five days. But it didn’t become a nationwide cause célèbre the way Shepard’s did, and I suspect it was because Matthew Shepard was white, cute and easily moldable into a pathetic victim image (ignoring Shepard’s own history of involvement with meth and his dealers/killers); Fred Martinez was a person of color, occupying a flexible concept of both sexual orientation and gender identity way beyond the limits of what mainstream Queers accept as legitimate, and therefore hardly the stuff poster children for hate-crimes legislation are made of: plenty of mainstream Gays and Lesbians are sufficiently Transphobic they would read a male-presenting Gay man like Matthew Shepard as an innocent victim while seeing Fred Martinez as someone who “brought it on himself” by being gender-indeterminate in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I consider myself fairly well informed on these issues and watching this show was the first time I had ever heard of Fred Martinez, Jr.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Devil Diamond (Conn, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Devil Diamond, a 1937 indie from something called the Conn Pictures Corporation (headed by someone named Maurice Conn and, to my knowledge, with nothing to do with the Conn Instrument Company that produced the short Mr. B Natural as a promotional film) and starring Frankie Darro in what I was hoping would be a 1930’s version of Blood Diamonds. Instead it was a melodrama based on a story by Peter B. Kyne (whose most famous work, The Three Godfathers, has been filmed several times, including once by William Wyler and twice by John Ford) which, as adapted by Charles Condon and scripted by him and Sherman L. Lowe, rather confusingly glued together two plot lines which really didn’t have that much to do with each other. The film opens in what looks like a corporate boardroom but is in fact a gathering of criminals debating how best to get rid of the Jarvis Diamond — obviously, given all the dialogue about how this stone (shown in supposedly uncut form) has been cursed through the years, Messrs. Kyne, Condon and/or Lowe were thinking of the Hope Diamond here — in such a way as to realize its value while at the same time not allowing potential buyers to be discouraged by that little matter of the stone supposedly being cursed.

The strategy they cook up is to get a retired diamond cutter, Peter Lanning (Burr Caruth), to cut it into smaller gem-quality stones so they can sell it as fully finished diamonds and can beg off any explanation of where the raw diamond came from. To do this they have to get the diamond to San Juan — which at first I thought meant the one in Puerto Rico but turned out to be a town in California notorious as the hideout of the legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta (who interesting was enjoying a brief vogue as a film subject just then — MGM had made an entire movie about him, plus a pseudo-documentary short to promote their fiction feature, and in the 1940 film Virginia City Humphrey Bogart’s character was obviously supposed to be Murrieta even though, probably to avoid a lawsuit from MGM, Warner Bros. “Anglicized” the character’s name to “John Murrell,” though they still had Bogart talk with a Latino accent that, like his attempt at a brogue in Dark Victory, proved that as versatile an actor as Bogart was, one thing he couldn’t do was accents) — and in order to have an excuse to descend on San Juan while waiting for Lanning to cut the stone and their buyers to arrive and take it off their hands, they seize on Lee “Kid” Harris (Frankie Darro), a hotel doorman with ambitions to be a prizefighter. Supposedly they’re taking him out to San Juan so he can train — though, in one of the film’s few good scenes, the people driving the car supposedly pacing him on his roadwork get tired and call a halt to the proceedings while the Kid himself is rarin’ to go for more!

The writers get so bored with the plot involving the diamonds — Darro’s Life of Jimmy Dolan-esque training routines and boxing ambitions clearly interest them more than the diamond story, and the same is true of director Leslie Goodwins (himself on his way to a berth in the RKO “B” department, where he directed most of the comedies featuring Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s attempt to synthesize their own Abbott and Costello), whose future as a comedy director is shown by the fact that the gag scenes obviously turn him on more than the rest of the movie. There’s a nice bit in which Darro gets rid of a girl whose goop-eyed admiration of him is getting to be too much by having her hold the end of a jump rope he’s supposedly using in one of his exercise routines … and then he disappears and leaves her literally holding the rope forever, or at least until she finally realizes she’s been had. Other than that, the film is little more than an excuse to involve Frankie Darro in a whole bunch of fight scenes — and not prizefight scenes, either, but amorphous him-against-everyone-else brawls — and also a series of romantic rivalries in which Yvonne Wallace (Rosita Butler) and her sister (Fern Emmett) — identified only as “Miss Wallace” and the girl at the wrong end of that jump rope — both cruise Darro while Lanning’s granddaughter Dorothy (a personable June Gale) sets her cap for Jerry Carter (Kane Richmond, later a regular Republic serial hero), who’s ostensibly in San Juan to research a history article he’s writing on Joaquin Murrieta but is in fact an agent for a jewelers’ exchange there to recover the Jarvis Diamond (though he doesn’t seem at all put out when he recovers it, not intact but cut up).

Byron Foulger is there — his last name spelled without the “u” in the credits — but he’s merely playing a Swedish houseboy, complete with the standard stereotypical “Swedish” accent, rather than the nerdy little crook he usually played (this was his first film and he hadn’t yet been “typed”). Some of the independent “B”’s that have turned up in public-domain sources like and boxes like The 50 Greatest … of All Time (which usually turned out to be far from that, though the 50-film Dark Crimes box has had some engaging thrillers) have been surprisingly good, and others at least watchable, but Devil Diamond is just a pretty empty waste of time.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Arson, Inc. (Lippert, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Arson, Inc., released by Lippert Pictures in 1949 and boasting considerably more talented help both in front of and behind the cameras than Bob Lippert’s organization usually had access to. The stars are Robert Lowery (one year after he played Batman in the second Columbia serial, Batman and Robin) and Anne Gwynne, with supporting players including Ed Brophy, the marvelous Douglas Fowley (wasted as usual in a generic bad-guy role; he got to shine as a twisted hero in PRC’s marvelous 1944 Lady in the Death House because most of the hotter-looking actors were away fighting World War II, and he got to appear in a major musical as the director in Singin’ in the Rain, but mostly he got “typed” as a slimy gangster, as he is here), Marcia Mae Jones and the great Maude Eburne.

The film is introduced with a top official in the Los Angeles Fire Department giving a Crime Does Not Pay-style exposition at a desk as he narrates the story of firefighter Joe Martin (Robert Lowery), who’s convinced the supposedly “accidental” fire in the warehouse of furrier Robert Peyson (the wonderfully oily Byron Foulger) is arson and Peyson either started it himself or hired someone else to do it in order to submit a false insurance claim. He’s even more convinced that there’s dirty work afoot when another firefighter, arson investigator Bob Halloran, is killed when a chunk of the ceiling of Peyson’s building falls on top of him — that too is ruled accidental but Our Hero is convinced Halloran was murdered, since the leather notecase he always carried with him is not on his body when it’s found. He and his boss, the deputy fire chief (William Forrest, who’s also the narrator), hatch a plot to get Joe fired from the fire department and disgraced, so the head of the gang will pick him up and hire him.

The head of the gang is Fred Fender (Douglas Fowley), who’s also an insurance representative — so he’s the one processing the phony claims and splitting the awards with the clients — and he also runs a whole empire of criminal enterprises, including a bookie joint, with which he lets his marks run up debts so he can blackmail them into taking part in arson for insurance fraud. While at the Peysons’ apartment to interview Robert and his wife (Lelah Tyler), Joe meets their babysitter, Jane Jennings (Anne Gwynne), and they fall in love virtually at first sight, though when Joe first comes to Jane’s apartment he encounters her grandmother (Maude Eburne), who gives him a hug on his way in and then says it’s been a long time since she was hugged by such a hot man. Later, as the two come closer to penetrating (no pun intended) the gang, Fender invites Jane to his home for obviously illicit purposes — much to the disgust of his secretary and previous mistress, Betty (Marcia Mae Jones) — only Jane double-crosses him by sending her grandmother instead.

The plot kicks into high gear when Joe notices the man Fender has assigned to tail him, Pete Purdy (Edward Brophy, much less obnoxious than usual and actually playing a character with some definition), and not only discovers but actually befriends him; they end up together at a bookie joint (we assume it’s one of Fender’s enterprises), where the bettors get to watch the races in real time on a 1948 Stromberg-Carlson TV set (it was rare this early to see a TV set in a movie, especially given how much the major studios feared TV as competition!); the police stage a raid and Joe punches out a police officer, thereby getting his picture in the papers in a decidedly negative fashion, and being forced to resign from the fire department. Of course, it’s all a setup to give him bad-guy cred — though for a whole his girlfriend Jane doesn’t know that and understandably wonders why the seemingly nice guy she fell in love with is taking her to sleazier and sleazier locations and introducing her to nastier and meaner people — until the finale, when Fender figures out he’s being set up and leaks an address that supposedly contains all the furs that were reported as destroyed in the various fires (but were really removed before Pete torched the buildings and replaced with worthless pelts like rabbit and muskrat), thereby sending Joe into a trap, though things go awry; Pete tries to burn the place down and kill Joe, but Our Hero escapes, while Fender, speeding to the scene and trying to outrun a cop (the police had their own agent on the case and were in constant contact with the fire department — though nowadays suspected arsons are investigated by a joint force containing both police officers and firefighters who are trained to work together), crashes his car and he and Betty are both killed … a disappointment, since one wants Fender to get his comeuppance at the hands of the law rather than an accident ex machina.

It isn’t much as a movie, and it was a real stretch for writer Arthur Caesar to take credit for an “original” story (worked up into a script by Maurice Tombragel), but Arson, Inc. is ably directed (by William Berke, who started out making indies and finished with them, though in between he was an RKO contractee who turned out most of the later Falcon films with Tom Conway) and is an effective thriller that maintains a fast pace and at barely over an hour doesn’t overstay its welcome. Maybe a longer running time could have filled in some of the plot holes (we never know just how the fire department investigators identify Fender as the brains behind the arson gang) and got more out of the pathos of Betty’s plot line, but Arson, Inc. as it stands is a nice bit of unpretentious entertainment that offers Robert Lowery as a more prosaic crimefighter than Batman but also a much more believable one!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Scarlet Clue (Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I managed to squeeze in a short movie last night: The Scarlet Clue, made in 1945 and one of the better Charlie Chan films from Monogram, at least in terms of production values (like it had some; at least one could watch it and not worry about the sets falling down on the hapless actors), a few bits of genuine visual inventiveness from director Phil Rosen (who’d made two genuinely great movies in the 1930’s, The Phantom Broadcast and Dangerous Corner, but then fallen into a level of slovenly hackdom from which he seldom emerged) and a script with real potential that didn’t get realized. Chan was played by Sidney Toler, who hadn’t quite reached the level of desperate ennui of his last few films in the Chan cycle (where it was all too obvious he was dying of cancer, and likely that whatever he was being paid was going out immediately to his doctors) and still managed to toss off the famous Chan aphorisms with something of his old aplomb (and screenwriter George Callahan, though ordinarily as slovenly and hacky as his director, could still come up with some good ones, like the one quoted on the site in which Chan’s number three son Tommy, played by Benson Fong, says he had an idea about the case but “it’s gone now,” and Chan fires back, “Possibly could not stand solitary confinement”).

The plot deals with a radio station located in a building that seems to be a beehive of high-tech activity, since the proprietors of the radio station are also running an experimental TV studio (using some of the same Frankenstein-ish gimcrackery as the TV labs shown in Murder by Television and Trapped by Television a decade earlier) and doing research in radar. The McGuffin, natch, is a super-secret radar device which is so powerful that the outcome of World War II (which was still going on, albeit in its dregs, when this was being shot) could depend on whether the U.S. can keep it secret from its enemies. The manager of the radio station is Ralph Brett, who’s “Anglicized” his name from Rolfe Brant and who’s played by I. Stanford Jolley, a taller and lankier actor than Monogram usually liked for its villains (in virtually all the Mr. Wong mysteries with Boris Karloff from the late 1930’s the murderers had turned out to be portly middle-aged men with thin moustaches, and one wondered if this reflected some sort of personal hang-up on the part of Monogram’s casting director), and he’s in charge of a German spy ring but he actually gets his instructions from a secretive “Big Boss” who communicates only by phone on a special line in a secret room.

The Scarlet Clue — and no, there’s no reason given in the script why it should be called that — opens with a nice scene of Brett/Brant being tailed by two people, who are in turn being tailed by two other people, one of whom turns out to be Charlie Chan and the other an old friend of his, police captain Flynn (Robert Homans). The two intermediate people are two of Flynn’s officers and they’re there to arrest Brett — earlier than Chan had planned, since he wanted Brett at liberty in hopes they will lead him to the secret ringleader — only Brett gives them the slip in a car licensed to radio actress Diane Hall (Helen Devereaux). Diane is part of the cast of what sounds like an utterly ghastly soap opera sponsored by Mrs. Marsh (Virginia Brissac), who resents it when Chan and the police crash the rehearsals and gives the producers a hard time about the awfulness of the show they’ve sold her. Diane is eliminated by a truly bizarre murder method that had its origins back in the Chan series’ Fox days with Charlie Chan in Egypt — a gas in a thin glass vial or (as here) a plastic capsule which is immediately deadly when an outside stimulus breaks the container and the victim inhales it (Monogram had already ripped off this one in the first Wong movie, Mr. Wong, Detective) — but this time Callahan rings an intriguing variation: the gas is actually harmless in itself but it immediately reacts to nicotine to produce a toxic gas, meaning that if the victim inhales it and then lights a cigarette immediately afterwards, he or she is a goner. In case that doesn’t work — and also, one presumes, so he or she can target victims who don’t smoke (but then, let’s face it, in 1940’s movies everybody smoked) — the killer also has booby-trapped the building elevator, rigging a secret switch that makes the floor of the elevator car lift up so anyone in the elevator instantly falls down the shaft to his or her death.

The movie doesn’t have much more of a plot than that, but it’s fun, largely because Mantan Moreland is in it (as is his nightclub partner Ben Carter, with whom he does one of those hilarious double-talk routines in which they respond to each other without letting each other finish a sentence), though it’s not too exciting as a mystery and not the movie it could have been with so compelling a central premise. About a reel or two before the end I guessed — correctly — that Mrs. Marsh would turn out to be the big cheese running the spy ring, if only because she was being so consistently bitchy towards everyone else in the movie, though in one of Rosen’s and Callahan’s mistakes she dons a “horrific” costume (actually it looks like a trick-or-treater’s rendition of Lon Chaney, Sr.’s Red Death get-up in The Phantom of the Opera) for some weirdly ineffective attempts by Rosen to stage a final shoot-out that seems to consist merely of a few bullet noises on the soundtrack without much indication of who’s trying to shoot whom. The Scarlet Clue was a typical example of a Monogram Chan — slow and mostly dull but with a few exciting moments and some inventive plot devices that deserved a better movie — but it was still an entertaining Chan movie even though well below the level the series had achieved at Fox.