Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The notorious ranch

Another of the movies I finally got around to watching off of my DVR that just happens to be available on DVD is Rancho Notorious.

The movie starts off the opening credits, over some some about the "legend of Chuck-a-Luck"; more on that later. After that, we get to some town in Wyoming where Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) in town at the bank, where he sees his fiancée. However, she's not long for the world, as some criminal comes into the place and while she's alone in there, gets her to open the safe, at which point the criminal steals all the gold and kills Vern's fiancée! Needless to say, Vern is none too happy about this.

So Vern vows to find the man who murdered his fiancée. His initial investigations run in to the murderer's partner in crime, who has just been shot for wanting to split the gold now instead of at Chuck-a-Luck. Vern meets up with the shot partner-in-crime just before that guy finally kicks the bucket, and his last action is to whisper the word "Chuck-a-Luck" to Vern. Obviously, this is a reference to something other than the gambling game, but what?

Vern goes around the West, getting from one place to another amazingly quickly it seems and eventually finding out that there was some woman named Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and that apparently, Chuck-a-Luck is her ranch near the border, a place where various criminals hide out from the authorities in exchange for giving a portion of their loot to her. Vern only learns the story in dribs and drabs, until one night in prison he meets outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Frenchy is on his way to Chuck-a-Luck to escape the authorities as well as to see Altar again, since he likes to think of himself as her romantic interest.

Things change, of course, when Vern gets to Chuck-a-Luck. He's trying to find the guy who killd his fiancée, but while at the ranch, he begins to fall in love with Altar, which needless to say causes all sorts of problems, since Frenchy is none too happy about it and all the other outlaws there don't exactly trust Frenchy for having brought Vern here. Eventually Vern does find the guy who killd his fiancée and there's a showdown....

Rancho Notorious is a film that, I think, should be better than it is. It's a western directed by Fritz Lang, a fact which by itself ought to make the movie an interesting proposition. And yet, I was underwhelmed by it. I think part of the problem is with the casting. I find Mel Ferrer and especially Arthur Kennedy to have all the charisma of a wet sponge. Kennedy is supposed to play the romantic lead here? Seriously? The plot also came across to me as a bit pedestrian, and not in a good way. Sure there are a lot of formulaic westerns (well, in every genre) that manage to be quite entertaining; the last western I blogged about, The Train Robbers, is one that I think ultimately succeeds more than it fails. Rancho Notorious, on the other hand, never game me that vibe.

Which brings me to the other big problem I have with the movie, which is that theme song. It's terrible, and badly used. There are odd songs that can make a movie interesting; the song about the "woman with a whip" in the Barbara Stanwyck western Forty Guns, and its placement in the movie, is a good example. But the "Legend of Chuck-a-Luck" is didactic at best and heavy-handed at worst.

Start with Lang's other two westerns, The Return of Frank James and Western Union.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Anybody got a pair of 3-D glasses?

Tomorrow morning at about 11:35 AM, TCM is running the short Audioscopicks, following The Broadway Melody (9:45 AM, 100 min). This is a Pete Smith short, looking first at the way human vision works, and then showing us the magic of 3-D, using those old glasses, I suppose. TCM obviously doesn't provide anybody with the glasses when they show this, but a good story doesn't need to be in 3-D to tell it. Not that a Pete Smith short is a good story, so here you probably would be better off with the glasses. As I've stated on several occasions, I'm not the biggest fan of the Pete Smith style of narration.

The Broadway Melody was one of the movies parodied in the old Dogville shorts, as The Dogway Melody. That short wasn't nominated for an Oscar since the Academy wasn't honoring shorts yet. There are several clips available on Youtube, but not the full thing, apparently.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Mark

I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to do a full-lengnth blog post on the 1961 film The Mark before. It's airing tomorrow at 1:15 PM on TCM, and is certainly worth seeing.

Stuart Whitman stars as Jim Fuller, a man living in the UK who has just been released from prison after a couple of years after being convicted for attempted child molestation. Back then, they didn't have registries they stuck people on for every "sexual" offense under the sun, and once somebody had served one's sentence, there wasn't all that much the authorities could do. Except that at least in this case, Jim has spent a lot of his time in prison in group therapy led by Dr. McNally (Rod Steiger), woh thinks that Jim is ready to be re-integrated back into society. Jim has been found a job at a firm where the only two people who know about Jim's past are his boss Clive (Donald Wolfit) and his secretary Ruth (Maria Schell) who knows he was in prison but not why.

Jim tries to turn his life around, and seems to be doing reasonably well. He's found a nice place to stay, lodging with an older couple (Brenda de Banzie and Maurice Denham), doing a capable job at work, and even starting a tentative relationship with Ruth. There's a bit of a problem, however, in that Ruth is a widow, a Swiss woman who married an English man, and who has a daughter who is about the same age as the little girl Jim tried to molest back in the day. Compounding the issue is that the little girl genuinely seems to like Jim.

But, of course, you know that something is going to go wrong. Jim still feels uncomfortable if he goes past a schoolyard, but it's really events on the outside that are going to come after him. There's a brutal case of a child being lured and ultimately killed by some sort of adult male predator, so the authoities start calling any leads they can think of for questioning, which pretty much includes anybody who had been in prison for predatory actions against children, something which includes Jim. That's an inconvenience, but far worse is the fact that there's a newspaper reporter around who sees Jim and puts two and two together. Jim doesn't want the reporter to cover the story, but the reporter writes for one of those British-style tabloids where scaremongering stories are the order of the day, so of course the story becomes public, turning Jim's life upside down.

The Mark is, I think, the sort of movie that would never get made these days. We are clearly meant to have sympathy for Jim despite his past, especially because he's trying to put his life in order and deal with whatever it is inside him that caused him to do the things that sent him to prison. Today, he'd be on a register and doomed for life, and anybody who suggested he should be would be hectored by bunches of mothers screaming why do you hate children. Still, Whitman gives an excellent performance, one which earned him an Oscar nomination. Ironically, he lost to the brother of his co-star, Maximilian Schell, for his performance in Judgment at Nuremburg. The story in The Mark also has an ending that I think is a bit too pat, but the way the story gets where it's going is still pretty darn good.

I don't think The Mark is in print on DVD, so you're going to have to catch the all-too-rare TCM showings.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Trail of '98

Another movie that I finally got around to watching off of my DVR is the late silent The Trail of '98. As an MGM movie, it's been made available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive MOD service, so I can feel comfortable doing a full-length blog post on the movie.

The '98 in the title refers to 1898 which of course was the most recent '98 at the time the movie was made. But let's go back one year further than that, to 1897. Up in distant Alaska, gold was found in the Klondike region. Due to the remoteness of the location and the difficulties of transport, it wasn't until 1898 that the new took America by storm. But as with Sutter's Mill 50 years earlier, once it was reported that there was gold in them thar hills, there were a lot of people who decided that trying to make a fortune in Alaska was no worse than the reality of the daily life they were living down in the lower 48 (technically lower 45 since there were still three territories, but that's neither here nor there). So, the first 20 minutes or so of the movie involves people in various parts of the country learning about the gold strike and deciding that they were going to make their way to San Francisco, from which the boats would leave for Alaska.

Once we get on the boat is when the characters begin to get a bit more fleshed out. Larry (Ralph Forbes) is stowing away on the boat which is how he meets Berna (Dolores Del Rio), who is travelign with her grandfather in order to make it up north with some other distant relatives who are going to be not gold panners, but the people serving the gold panners. Lars (Karl Dane) winds up with a "partner" who is really a lazy git willing to let Lars do all the work. Jack Locasto (Harry Carey) is the villain of the piece as we'll really learn in the third act; he wants Berna and all the gold claims for himself.

Eventually the boat gets to Alaska, which is where the good part of the movie comes: the trek to Dawson and the Yukon. It's an incredibly difficult overland passage, with people having to walk through the long winter carrying a mass of supplies on their back, making it over mountain passes and frozen rivers, at least until the spring came. Once spring hit and the river ice started thawing, there was the even more daunting task of making it down the swollen river and its rapids. (Apparently four stunment died doing some of the stunts we see, although we also see some pretty bad rear-projection photography.) Eventually they do get to the Klondike, only to find that the odds of them striking gold are incredibly long.

It's in the Klondike that we get the third act. Larry fails at striking gold, and is ready to go back to the States with Berna, until he hears of another strike, leading him to leave Berna alone while he goes off looking for that gold. Jack sees this as his chance to get at Berna, who is left with little means to support herself other than the old one you can probably guess. This time, Larry does strike gold, but will his friends be able to save him and get him back to town? And what will happen with him and Berna?

The Trail of '98 is a movie with a lot of well-conceived visuals, but unfortunately is fairly lacking in plot. I found it a bit hard to keep all of the characters straight, and the best action is in the middle third of the movie. (Well, OK, there is a finale involving fire and a big fight between Jack and Larry.) Still, that middle third, with the overland trek across Alaska, more than makes up for the flaws in the other two sections of the movie. In addition to the rapids scene, there's an avalanche and several long shots of a cast of thousands truding through the snow. Overall, if you haven't seen The Trail of '98 before, it's well worth a watch.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

All This and World War II

When I mentioned the death of Earth, Wind, and Fire frontman Maurice White the other day, I of course pointed to his band's work in the movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. That's a reworking of a whole bunch of Beatles songs. But it's not the strangest use of Beatles music on screen. And no, I'm not counting Yellow Submarine. In 1976, somebody had the bright idea to make the movie All This and World War II.

Made at Fox, the movie combines clips from old Fox movies about World War II with documentary footage from the war. All of this is performed to a soundtrack of Beatles songs, or should I say covers of Beatles songs. The result? Judge for yourself. The movie has, as far as I know, never been released to home video, probably because of all the rights issues with the music. But a very poor copy has made it to Youtube:

Note that the Youtube video is only 82 minutes long, while IMDb claims the movie had a runtime of 88 minutes, so I don't know what if anything was cut out.

Friday, February 5, 2016

A couple of lesser obituaries

I think I've stated quite a few times that I visit Wikipedia's deaths page every time I log on to my desktop computer. Being a movie blogger, I need to see when classic cinema-related people die so that I can blog about it. A couple of deaths of people with greater or lesser ties to the movies have been announced:

I don't remember Kristine Miller, although she appeared in about 20 movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the most notable of the films being From Here to Eternity. Apparently she was also in Too Late For Tears, which I have on my DVR. She died late last year at the age of 90, but her family didn't announce the death until a few days ago, presumably in order to maintain their privacy.

Maurice White died yesterday aged 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. White is of course best known as a singer and songwriter, having founded the band Earth, Wind, and Fire and fronting it until his illness hit. The band appeared in the movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hears Club Band, doing a wonderfully funky cover of the Beatles' song "Got to Get You Into My Life". This is the sort of movie that really needs to show up on TCM Underground at some point.

Finally, there's Joe Alaskey, who died on Wednesday at the age of 63. If you don't recognize the name -- and I know I didn't -- that's because he was a voice actor, taking on the Looney Tunes roles that Mel Blanc had done up until his death in 1989. Spare a thought for the voice actor. It seems that nowadays whenever I see the latest animated movie being advertised, they're also advertising the famous names who are lending their voices to the movie. The people who do multiple voices and did the voices in the old animated movies don't seem to get as much credit. Look at the cast list of any of the Disney movies from when Walt was still alive, and ask yourself how many of the names people recognize. (Yes, I know Sterling Holloway did the voice of Winnie the Pooh.)

Another set of FXM Repeats

I said the other day that there were some movies coming back to FXM Retro after a long absence; indeed, I think one of today's selections might not have been on the channel since the switch from the Fox Movie Channel to FXM Retro.

Today's selection begins with the one airing of The Purple Heart, at 9:15 AM. My satellite box guide doesn't show this one coming up again in the next two weeks or however far out the box guide goes.
That will be followed at 11:00 AM by The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Joan Collins stars as a woman at the turn of the last century involved in a love triangle with Ray Milland and Farley Granger that turns fatal for one of them.
Finally, at 12:50 PM, you can cath The Black Rose, re-teaming Tyrone Power and Orson Welles, this time in China, not Renaissance Italy. Not bad, especially for those who like the Tyrone Power formula.

The last two movies will be getting another airing on FXM Retro tomorrow, with The Black Rose showing up at 6:00 AM and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing coming on at 9:30 AM. In and around those movies, you can catch repeat showings of:

White Feather at 4:00 AM and
A Blueprint For Murder at 8:10 AM.

I have a feeling somebody at FXM tried to come up with a lineup putting all these colors together; it's not as if they do much else in the way of putting thought into their programming, though.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

I don't think I've ever done a full-length post on White Heat before

I notice that the classic movie White Heat is on the TCM schedule tomorrow morning at 10:15 AM. A search of my blog suggests that I've never done a full-length post on the movie, which isn't that surprising since I've always felt a bit uncomfortable blogging about movies that are so well-known that it's kind of pointless rehashing the plot. And I think the famous photo of James Cagney at the end of the movie, with the oil tank burning behind him while he says, "Made it, Ma, top of the world!"

So as I was thinking about the movie today, I found myself thinking whether one should try looking at it once as a character study. Oh, the plot is a pretty good one, but Cagney as Cody Jarrett so overrides all the proceedings that I don't think the nature of the heist at the end is that important. Anyhow, for a brief plot summary, Cody leads a gang that at the start of the movie holds up a mail train. Eventually he gets arrested and sent to prison for another crime; one of the prisoners Vic (Edmond O'Brien) is actually a plant by the cops to infiltrate Jarrett's gang, which happens when Vic helps Cody break out of jail. Jarrett then organizes that climactic payroll heist.

But along the way there are a couple of things that are much more important. One is that Jarrett is exceedingly brutal, and the other is that he is incredibly devoted to his mother (Margaret Wycherly). During the train hold-up, one of the underlings is burned by steam, and Jarrett doesn't seem to care. In fact, even though he's married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), he doesn't seem to care for anybody in a positive way except for his mother. Everybody else, he only cares that they don't get on his bad side. Watch, for example, what Jarrett does when a fewllow prison escapee complains about being stuck in the trunk of a car.

But it's that devotion to his mother that gives Cagney as Jarett the other defining moment of the movie. Jarrett is in the prison mess hall when he learns that his beloved mother has died, and he goes mental, climbing atop the table and more or less losing it emotionally. Trying to do away with her is just as bad as trying to do away with him.

In some ways, it's almost a shame that James Cagney so dominates White Heat. The reason I say this is because the other basic story is pretty good, and the other performances are even better. In terms of mothers dominating to a bad end, Margaret Wycherly is up there with Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate or Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom. Virginia Mayo, as the woman who comes second in Cody Jarrett's life to Jarrett's Ma, is coldly calculating when she needs to be, too. O'Brien does well, as does Steve Cochrane, playing the guy in Jarrett's gang who has too much of an eye on Verna for his own good.. Still, it's Cagney whom you'll remember long after the movie ends, for a host of good reasons.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

And coming up on TCM

I did a post the other day about movies coming up on FXM Retro after a long absence, something I do from time to time when I can't think of anything else to blog about. Normally, when I mention what's coming up on TCM without doing a full-length blog post, it's to mention some of the shorts.

There are a couple of interesting shorts that I've blogged about before showing up in the next 24 hours or so. London Can Take It!, which was filmed during the Blitz at the beginning of World War II before the US got involved and is clearly designed to elicit sympathy from American audiences to the plight of the British, can be seen overnight at 3:18 AM, or following Joan of Paris (1:45 AM, 92 min). I have not actually seen Joan of Paris before as far as I am aware.

The other short is Romance of Radium, airing at 9:19 AM tomorrow. This is a Pete Smith short which looks at the discovery of radium, the first of the radioactive elements to be isolated. In addition to its discovery, the short looks at its use in medicine, which as I mentioned once before is something I think would have been a novelty to the audiences of the late 1930s when this short was made. The short would be well paired with the 1943 feature Madame Curie, but instead it comes on after The Green Goddess. This is another movie I haven't seen before, starring George Arliss as a raja in British India (gotta love the casting!) who holds a couple of Brits hostage when their plane crashes. The TCM schedule claims the movie is in color, but IMDb says it's in black and white, and I presume they'd be correct. I've always found George Arliss interesting to watch so I'm going to have to clear some space from my DVR to record this one.

Following The Green Goddess is Stage Door at 9:30 AM, which probably would have been the subject of a full-length post today if I hadn't blogged about it back in 2012. Lucille Ball vs. Katharine Hepburn. Nice.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Train Robbers

Yesterday, I mentioned that none of the movies I've watched recently seem to be available on DVD. It turns out that I was wrong. The Train Robbers does, in fact, seem to be available on DVD, so I can feel comfortable doing a full-length post on it.

The movie starts off in some desolate place that is apparently a town where somebody lives, since there's a hotel there, and the train does make a stop. In fact, there are two people waiting for the next train to stop, Jesse (Ben Johnson) and Ben (Bobby Vinton). The train eventually arrives, and off get Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret) and Lane (John Wayne). It is these two for whom the two men have been waiting, becuase Mrs. Lowe has a job for all of them.

It seems as though a few years earlier, Mrs. Lowe's husband was part of a group of 10 people who robbed a train of its Wells Fargo strongbox, with a large amount of gold in the box. Needless to say, while the robbery itself did go well, the aftermath didn't go so well, and Mr. Lowe wound up being killed. However, his murder wasn't before Lowe was able to hide the money somewhere, and Lowe told his wife about the location. Now, Mrs. Lowe wants to go get the gold and... return it to Wells Fargo so that she can claim the reward and clear her husband's name for the sake of her son! Lane and the rest of the men she's hired will get a cut of the reward.

Of course, such a scheme is not without its problems. Mr. Lowe was killed, but he was part of a group of 10 people, and not all of those 10 are dead. So when Lane and company head south into Mexico to get the location (which not even Lane knows precisely) where the gold has been hidden, the other people who were in on the robbery are bound to take an interest in getting that gold for themselves. And sure enough, every time we get a sequence of the Lane gang on their horses, it seems to be followed by the people chasing Lane and his crew. But there's also one person who seemingly stands alone, as though he may be following both groups, a man played by Ricardo Montalbán who doesn't get any speaking lines until the film's finale.

Eventually, Lane and his group get to where the gold is stashed, and the other men get there too, so there's a shootout as each group tries to get the other group's horses to run off, which would mean the other group can get away and get a good head start. But since Lane is the good guy here, we can probably guess who's going to get the money.

The Train Robbers is entertaining, if nothing new. Well, for the most part it's entertaining. If you've seen a bunch of westerns before and are a fan of John Wayne, then you'll probably enjoy this one just fine, like sitting down with an old friend. If you're the sort of person who's new to westerns, I think I'd recommend quite a few other movies first, only because there are other westerns that are notable, while The Train Robbers is more like pleasant background music. The by-the-numbers production is one of the few problems the movie has; the other one is that it has too many long scenes of the players on horseback. The Train Robbers is only about 90 minutes, and you could probably shave a good 10 minutes off fast-forwarding through all those montages, which have no dialog so you won't miss anything.