Saturday, May 25, 2019

Chase a Crooked Shadow

My latest movie viewing was the 1958 thriller Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Produced by an international company headed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and distributed by Warner Bros., the movie starts off with a couple of people watching film of a villa on the Spanish Mediterranean coast somewhere south of Barcelona. The villa is owned by Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter), who's returning there after a difficult period in her life, but more on that in a bit, especially because her life is about to get a whole lot more difficult.

Kimberley was at a party of some sort and returns home late one night. Following close behind is some strange man who worms his way into her house! She doesn't recognize the guy at all, so after having enough of it, she calls the local police chief, Vargas (Herbert Lom), who comes out to the house. After a shrill back-and-forth between Kimberley and the unknown man, he hands his documents to Vargas, which show that the man is... Ward Prescott (Richard Todd), Kimberley's brother! How can that possibly be, Kimberley asks. Quite rightly, too, since Ward died in a car crash back in their native South Africa and Kimberley had to identify the body. This, combined with the fact that the guy didn't just come out and say he was Ward leads any reasonable viewer to conclude he's an impostor.

Kimberley of course continues to insist that Ward is an impostor, even if Vargas doesn't believe her because all the evidence including a tattoo in the right location checks out. She gets the idea that Ward is trying to drive her crazy, Kind Lady style, and that would seem to be another obvious implication when you consider that Ward tries to do things like take away Kimberley's access to car keys and install new staff as well as his friend Whitman (Faith Brook).

As this Ward who probably isn't Ward continues putting the screws on Kimberley, we learn that the family had a rather complicated dynamic. Dad was the head of a business in South Africa but was old and frail. Fearing losing control of the business, combined with his son's death, caused him to commit suicide. Ward, meanwhile, had stolen a bunch of diamonds from the company safe and was absconding with them at the time of his death, so when Kimberley got Ward's effects she got the hidden diamonds -- and couldn't bring herself to put them back in the safe or otherwise inform the authorities! So now whe know why a fake Ward would show up, to get those diamonds.

Or is there more? Kimberley discovers that Ward is trying to force her to sign an amended will to get those diamonds, and has the brilliant insight that if she can get this guy's fingerprints, they won't match Ward's and she'll be safe. By the same token, Vargas has surely been doing some investigating and learned that this can't really be Ward. After all, a few short calls to the national authorities and getting in touch with the South African embassy would have to yield news stories about Ward's death, wouldn't it?

How it all winds up, I can't tell you, as you'll understand why once you get to the end credits. I have to admit that as I was watching it I found myself thinking of a louder, less appealing version of Kind Lady (hence my mentioning it above). Baxter is shrill and too many of Ward's actions should be something that could be seen through. However, the ending does wrap things up and answer questions in an interesting way. just about redeeming the movie and making it passable if not great.

Chase a Crooked Shadow is available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Christmas in May

Tonight's TCM Underground lineup is two Christmas movies with a reputation for being a bit odd. First up is an import from Mexico by way of an American producer, Santa Claus at 2:00 AM. That will be followed at 4:00 AM by Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I had recorded the former the last time it ran in TCM Underground, and as far as I could tell at the time it was out of print on DVD, so I decided to watch it now since it's on the schedule.

The first thing you have to understand is that the movie was originally made in Mexico for domestic audiences, and as such it takes a Mexican look at jolly old St. Nick (who was, after all, a Catholic saint), one which is rather different at times from the American image of Santa. The American rights to the movie were bought by American producer K. Gordon Murray, who had previously brought an edited version of The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy to America.

This version of Santa lives not at the north pole, but above it in a castle on a cloud, and has child "helpers" instead of elves, although I wondered where he got the helpers from. Santa being a Catholic saint is opposed by Satan, who sends one of his minions Pitch to try to turn all the good little boys and girls naughty. And if that doesn't work, he'll try to prevent Santa from delivering all those gifts. Now, Santa has a lot of tools at his disposal courtesy of the wizard Merlin (seriously), such as a magic key that opens all locks, and a flower that makes him disappear so people don't see him.

The main story revolves around a couple of children, a poor girl who wants only a doll for Christmas, but her parents can't afford even that. There's also a middle-class boy who only wants his parents to be there to spend more time with him. They even dress up to go out on Christmas Eve, and I figured they were going to a midnight Mass, but actually they were going to a restaurant! Late on Christmas Eve, no less. Wouldn't everything be closed down?

The climax of the movie comes when Pitch cuts the pouch containing Santa's flower of invisibility and his sleeping dust, rendering him helpless from being spotted. Pitch sends a mad dog after Santa, treeing him, and then whispers in people's ears to get them to call the cops on an intruder who is of course Santa.

I had heard of the movie and its reputation for being spectacularly strange and bad. In fact, the movie's main sin is being incredibly bland. The idea of Santa vs. Satan, which apparently does have a tradition in Mexico, is actually not a bad one. But the color is washed out, the acting is bad and not helped by the dubbing, and the plot is threadbare and glacial. It's a shame the movie isn't more interesting, either in a good or a bad way.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #254: Movies adapted from movies in a different language

This being Thursday, it's time for another edition of Thursday Movie Picks, the blogathon run by Wandering Through the Shelves. This week's theme is movies adapted from movies in a different language, which I'm going to assume means English-language movies that are remakes of a foreign film. Otherwise, I could mention how in the early days of sound, Hollywood would often make multiple versions of a film in different languages for various markets. Greta Garbo, for example, appeared in both an English and German-language version of Anna Christie. Garbo spricht! Anyway, I still picked three relatively old movies, with all three foreign films having been made in the 1930s:

The Long Night (1947). A remake of one of the seminal French noirs, 1939's Daybreak (or Le jour se lève), this movie stars Henry Fonda as a man who, at the start of the movie, is holed up in an apartment surrounded by the police. It turns out he's wanted for murder, and he spends the long night thinking back on how he wound up here, a story that involves his girlfriend Barbara Bel Geddes; the woman who leads him astray (Ann Dvorak); and the man controlling her (Vincent Price).

M (1951). This remake of Fritz Lang's 1951 classic is moved from Berlin to Los Angeles and starts David Wayne as the man with a compulsion for little girls and their shoes, and a compulstion to kidnap and kill them. The resulting police investigation (led by Howard da Silva) puts a crimp on organized crime (led by Martin Gabel), so they try to find the murderer before the police and administer their own justice.

Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939). Ingrid Bergman came to Hollywood to remake her earlier Swedish film Intermezzo. Bergman plays a pianist who is selected by a prominent violinist (Leslie Howard) to be his accompanist on his next tour. The two fall in love, but Howard is already married, so any thought of them winding up together is questionable. Ingrid continues to pine for Leslie, however. I actually have the Swedish version on DVD as part of the Criterion box set of Bergman's early Swedish films, so I'll have to get around to doing a review on it some day.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Brief notes on Lady Street Fighter

Some time back, TCM ran Lady Street Fighter as part of TCM Underground. I wasn't aware of the film's provenance, but recorded it to do a post here.

There's not much of a plot. It starts off with a woman getting tortured to death being asked about the location of a Macguffin. More specifically, it's a stuffed dog that contains a list (I'd guess on microfilm) of hired killers for Assassins, Inc. The dead woman's sister, Linda Allen (Renee Harmon), flies in from Amsterdam to investigate and gain revenge. Any number of baddies are trying to kill her.

Also in on the case is the FBI, who have put their agent Pollitt (Jody Mcrea) on it. What the FBI doesn't know is that he's one of the hired killers, and is out to kill Linda. Meanwhile, they find out that a man who organizes bizarre sex parties might know something about the whereabouts of the dog, so Linda wangles her way into that party.

Or that's roughly the plot, if you can follow it. I found the plot a mess, and reading the IMDb reviews, I'm not alone. But the bad plot isn't the only problem. The dialogue was added in in post, and sounds terrible for it. The lighting is awful. Some of the scenes are obviously supposed to be shot day-for-night, which in and of itself isn't a big deal because lots of movies did that and even François Truffaut knew what he was doing. But these scenes shift between looking dark and looking like daylight!

Lady Street Fighter was apparently made in the late 1970s, but couldn't get a cinematic release, so it went straight to video in 1981, hence IMDb's listing of it that way. (Indeed, the image quality made me think it was done on the sort of videotape that professional TV programs of the time used.) I wouldn't normally think about doing posts on videos, well, not counting movie clips and trailers posted to Youtube. But when I watched it, I didn't know it could be considered straight-to-video.

In any case, Lady Street Fighter is an absolute mess, but one I'm glad I watched once. It has since gotten a DVD release, but it seems rather pricey if you ask me.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tony Rome extras

A few weeks back when I did a post on Tony Rome, I mentioned that the cheap box set DVD I got it on has a bunch of trailers to other movies included. Not having anything else to write about today, I decided to pop in the DVD and take some screeshots to see the quality of the trailers.

I think I've stated before that a lot of the old trailers that TCM runs when they're promoing a movie coming up look relatively poor compared to the original movie. With that in mind, I was refreshingly pleased to see that the trailers I selected didn't look too bad.

Here's one from the beginning of the trailer to Lady in Cement, the sequel to Tony Rome. The trailer also had underwater shots that looked surprisingly good on my computer monitor. This one is also in the box set so someday I'll get around to it.

Next up is One Million Years B.C.. You thought I was going to select a screenshot of a scantily clad Raquel Welch, didn't you? Instead, I decided to go with a wide shot of a giant turtle courtesy of Ray Harryhausen (who else?).

Finally is the grainiest of the shots, from Bandolero!. This trailer had some shots that looked surprisingly good, and some that looked this sort of grainy that I would have expected. In all of the trailers I watched I didn't notice the sort of washed-out color that I see in a lot of other trailers or featurettes, which again I thought was unexpected.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Shake Hands With the Devil

Another recent movie watch for me was the 1959 drama Shake Hands With the Devil.

Don Murray plays Kerry O'Shea, an American medical student in Dublin in 1921. This is the era when the IRA was still fighting for independence from the UK, so even when Kerry is at his parents' grave, he runs into a contretemps between the two sides, as the IRA tries to smuggle weapons through the cemetery. Kerry, for his part, is neutral in the conflict, having served in World War I and gotten his fill of fighting in France. He's in Ireland strictly to repatriate his late mother's body, and stayed to study medicine under professor Sean Lenihan (James Cagney).

Of course, events are going to come for Kerry regardless of what he wants. One night when he and his roommate are walking home from the pub, they encounter another skirmish between the IRA and the British forces, known as the "Black and Tans". Gunshots are fired, and Kerry, being a medical student, tries to help while the shooting is still going on. Admirable, but also kind of stupid. Kerry's roommate gets shot, and in the resulting confusion Kerry drops one of his textbooks that has his name on it. The British are going to be able to find him.

So it's either join with the IRA or try to get himself smuggled out of Ireland, and Kerry opts for the latter. He's taken to a safe house on the coast somewhere south of Dublin, an action organized by Lenihan, who is apparently in cahoots with the IRA. Kerry's about to find out it's only the tip of the iceberg. The safe house is on a farm and populated by a bunch of fugitives, helped out by go-between and provider of other comforts Kitty Brady (Glynis Johns).

One day, the thoroughly neutral and virtuous Lady Fitzhugh (Sybil Thorndike) goes to Dublin for the flower show. Of course, it turns out that she's not nearly so neutral, as she's being given the task of smuggling a prominent IRA leader out of Dublin in the trunk of her Rolls-Royce. However, the Black and Tans stop every car, including hers, and when they search, they find the IRA guy, so of course it's off to prison for Lady Fitzhugh. The local IRA cell retaliates by taking Miss Curtis (Dana Wynter), daughter of a prominent British official, hostage. Kerry starts to fall in love with her while she's in captivity.

Lenihan is having none of it, as he finds everybody around him is getting increasingly disloyal. Or at least, in his eyes, not as if it's actually going on. As for Kerry, he's trapped in the safe house with no real way to get out of Ireland, and finds himself getting drawn further into the conflict....

Shake Hands With the Devil is a well-made drama with mostly good performances. Cagney is quite good as the increasingly nasty IRA man. Murray is a bit bland, although there's enough going on around him that it doesn't matter. Glynis Johns is really good too, in a much less wholesome role than anything else I've ever seen her do. There are a lot of other people I haven't mentioned, such as Michael Redgrave as the head of the IRA, or a young Richard Harris as one of the men at the safe house.

I have to admit that I'm not too terribly interested in that period of Irish history, but even I liked Shake Hands With the Devil. I think you will too.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sweet and Low-Down

A movie that FXM too out of the vault a few months back and still has in its rotation is Sweet and Low-Down, which is going to be on FXM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Benny Goodman plays Benny Goodman, which is a good thing because he couldn't play anybody else. This movie gives him the back story of having grown up around a settlement house and learning there how to play the clarinet. Now that he's a successful bandleader, he wants to give back to the house by giving a free concert there whenever he's in town. One of the kids in attendance has an older brother who he thinks is an excellent trombone player, but who has never gotten a chance to show off his ability since he works at a factory all day. So the kid steals Goodman's clarinet, with the obvious idea of staying just far enough ahead of Goodman so that they'll all wind up meeting the older brother.

That brother, Johnny Birch (James Cardwell), turns out to be an excellent trombonist, and Goodman offers him a place in the band right then and there because of his fondness of people who came through the settlement house. Not only that, but Goodman plans to start building Birch up. (One wonders what the other musicians really think.) Their first gig is at a military school, where Birch meets Trudy (Linda Darnell), who is there passing herself off as a teenager for her nephew who is one of the cadets. Johnny thinks she's too young for him and too forward, but you know they're going to meet again in New York. The other woman is the band's singer Pat (Lynn Bari).

Eventually the band does get to New York, where Trudy is able to patch things up with Johnny. But Pat is jealous. She's got an agent who is constantly trying to wheedle more out of Goodman, so the two of them get the idea to drive a wedge between Johnny and Trudy, as well as between Johnny and Benny. Johnny's going to have to learn some lessons before he can truly become successful....

Sweet and Low-Down is the sort of feel-good movie that studios were churning out during World War II, relatively light and undemanding with a happy ending and a lot of good music. In fact, the music is the best part of the movie. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the two male leads are both incredibly wooden when they're not playing music. Johnny is also too stupid if he thinks he's going to get success right away, but that's what the plot requires. The running sub-plot about Jack Oakie's character wanting to make it into the band is supposed to provide comic relief but really doesn't.

If you want nice music, you'll get that here. If you want a great movie, you won't.

I believe Sweet and Low-Down is available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The cities around Alice

Continuing my futile quest to free up space on my DVR, I decided to watch Alice in the Cities to do a post on it here.

Rüdifer Vogler plays Philip, a German journalist who is doing a feature story on America and as part of that story driving through the country, seeing the parts that tourists don't see. He seems bored by it all, not doing much writing but taking a whole bunch of Polaroid shots. (Did anybody ever get Polaroids to come out looking this good?) Philip gets to New York with a whole bunch of photos but no story, pissing his boss off to no end. Philip wants to go back to Germany to write the actual story.

Unfortunately, Philip is going to have to take a detour to get back to Germany, since the air traffic controllers are on strike, effectively closing off German airspace. He'll have to fly to someplace like Amsterdam and get to Germany from there. At the airport, he meets Lisa (Elisabeth Kreuzer), a woman who's obviously got a complicated life with a huge back story that's never fully revealed. She's got a daughter Alice (Yella Rotländer) and no husband, instead having lived in various places with various men, and deciding she needs to get out of her current situation in New York.

Philip helps them get their tickets since their English is very limited, and in exchange Lisa eventually lets Philip spend the night in their hotel room since he's quite short on money. Philip takes Alice to the Empire State Building, while Lisa goes presumably to break off the relationship with her current partner. But the result is that Lisa doesn't show up for the flight, saying instead that she'll meet up with Philip and Alice a day later in Amsterdam.

Philip and Alice have a day to spend in Amsterdam, and on the next day, he waits for the incoming passengers... and Lisa is not among them. What to do with Alice? She supposedly remembers having grandparents somewhere in Germany, but she's not quite certain which city, or what her grandparents' surname is, these being Mom's parents. The two set off for Germany to find the grandparents.

Eventually Philip gets the right idea and takes Alice to a police station to let them handle things, but Alice decides to run away and join up with Philip again in her quest for her grandparents. Frankly, at this point I would have taken her right back to the police, but Philip decides he'd rather help Alice and ignore the fact that the police might get the wrong idea and arrest him.

To be honest, Alice in the Cities was not my kind of movie. It's talky, slow, and frankly, I found myself not liking any of the characters, which is a big problem when there are only two main characters. There's some interesting cinematography, such as places in the US that probably aren't there any more, and also the Wuppertal monorail. But that was about it for me. Other people praise the movie, however, for whatever message they perceive it as trying to put across.

Alice in the Cities is available on DVD as part of a Criterion box set of movies from its director, Wim Wenders. That means it's pricey and not something I'd drop money on. But as always, judge for yourself, especially if you can do the streaming thing and it should show up on the Criterion Channel.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Alias French Gertie

Not too long ago, TCM ran a new-to-me early talkie, Alias French Gertie. It's been released to DVD by Grapevine Video, so I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

Bebe Daniels plays the title role, a woman who at the start of the movie is a maid for a wealthy couple, speaking French and with apparently limited English. This is of course a ruse; this maid is actually "French Gertie" Jones, a known jewel thief. She's planning to take her boss's necklace, but she's stopped when another crook comes into the picture. This is safe-cracker Jimmy Hartigan (Ben Lyon), and he stops her from taking the necklace. However, the cops, led by Detective Kelcey (Robert Emmett O'Connor) show up. Jimmy takes the fall for Gertie.

It's love at first sight, but second sight is going to take a while because Jimmy has to go to prison. He gets out and Gertie decides she's going to try to make Jimmy go straight. And it looks like she may be able to succeed. The young lovers meet an older couple, the Matsons (John Ince and Daisy Belmore). Mr. Matson is a stockbroker, and needs a new partner who has money to invest. Supposedly Jimmy has some money saved up from his past life of crime or something, so he does have the money to invest.

And things actually go well -- at least until it turns out that Mr. Matson is a criminal himself, fleecing Jimmy out of all his life savings. It's almost enough to make Jimmy turn back to crime. But dammit, Gertie doesn't want that at all.

In some ways, Alias French Gertie is a typically creaky early talkie. But it's also reasonably entertaining. Daniels and Lyon work well together, and would wind up getting married and staying together for 40 years until Daniels' death. For people not used to early sound, I'd recommend other stuff first, but for people who already like movies of the period, Alias French Gertie is a worthwhile watch.

Schedule notes for May 18, 2019

A couple of weeks back, I blogged about the 1935 version of Les Misérables and mentioned that it seems to be out of print on DVD. I hadn't noticed at the time I watched that it was going to be on FXM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM. If I had, I probably would have held off watching it so that I could do the full-length post on it today for tomorrow's airing.

Last Saturday morning on TCM saw the final chapter of the 1940 Flash Gordon serial, which means there's going to be a new serial starting this Saturday, that being 1946's Lost City of the Jungle. There are 13 chapters which I think means that due to Summer Under the Stars, the last chapter should be airing on September 14. This was also the last film for Lionel Atwill, who died during filming.

Also in the Saturday matinee block, have fun with the Three Stooges in an early one as they appear with Ted Healy, at 11:30 AM. You may recall Healy showing up with "his" stooges in the 1933 movie Dancing Lady starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.