Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Signpost to Murder


Many years back, I watched a movie that had a very distinctive water wheel in it, but in more recent years I had forgotten the title, forcing me to look it up with IMDb's keyword search. It turned out the movie in question was Signpost to Murder. It was on TCM again recently, so I watched it to do a post on here.

Stuart Whitman plays Alex Forrester, who is locked up in a criminal insane asylum in a small English town, and has been for the last five years after murder his wife and kids. He thinks he's finally sane enough to be released, although that's going to be difficult, despite some support from the psychiatrist managing his case, Dr. Fleming (Edward Mulhare).

Unsurprisingly, at the competency hearing, Alex's application is turned down, leaving him wondering what to do next. That is, until Dr. Fleming rather stupidly drops a hint that the laws on criminal insanity in the UK have only been haphazardly updated, such that there's still a Victorian-era provision on the books that if someone escapes from the insane asylum and isn't caught for fourteen days, that person by law has the right to another competency hearing. So of course you know Alex is going to start thinking about escaping.

That night, he conks Fleming over the head and takes Fleming's coat, helping him to escape into the woods around the asylum. Except that in his haste to run to freedom, he accidentally runs into a branch, temporarily dazing him and giving a convenient excuse for him to not be certain if he really remembered something later in the movie. After a fair amount of running, he winds up at this isolated house with the water wheel, although why it's attached to a residential building I don't know.

Alex breaks into the house, and it turns out that there's currently only one occupant, Mrs. Molly Thomas (Joanne Woodward). Her husband goes on frequent business trips to the Continent as a diamond dealer, and he's away right now, although he's supposed to be back later in the evening. It's a bit of serendipity for Alex, who takes Molly hostage.

The hostage situation that would give rise to the term "Stockholm Syndrome" wouldn't occur for another decade, but Molly seems to begin to develop a bit of a relationship with Alex as the night goes on. In any case, it's clear that her marriage isn't all that it's cracked up to be, once she calls the airport and finds that there was no plane at the time she said her husband was supposed to be arriving.

Perhaps he took an earlier plane, but that would be just as worrying, since then he should be at the house by now. Things take a much more alarming turn when Alex sees a dead body on the water wheel, slashed across the throat just like he had done to his wife all those years ago. And it was supposedly the habit of Molly's husband to take the same lonely forest path back home that Alex was running on, so perhaps that could be Molly's husband and Alex killed him? Not that Molly saw the body, and she naturally begins to wonder whether Alex really is still insane.

Signpost to Murder is an interesting little programmer. It's got a surprisingly star-powered cast for a 1960s movie that runs a little under 80 minutes. Having been made in England, I'm wondering whether MGM had funds they had to use in the UK, or whether Woodward followed her husband over to Europe when he made Lady L and spent her time making this little film instead. The movie is based on a stage play, and the scenes at the house with the water wheel strongly imply that. However, the asylum scenes and some other stuff in town do open up the movie fairly well.

Unsurprisingly, Whitman is good here, although underrated as always. Woodward is good as well, and the supporting cast of British actors make Signpost to Murder a fairly good movie that's well worth a watch. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Old Fashioned Way


Some time back I picked up a box set of W.C. Fields movies. One that I hadn't heard of before buying the set is The Old Fashioned Way.

Fields plays The Great McGonigle, the head of a traveling troupe of actors at the turn of the last century. (Any similarity to The Dresser ends right there.) McGonigle is a bit dishonest, although that's in part because the theater managers weren't always scrupulous either. McGonigle is trying to get out of town not having paid room and board, and the landlady has gotten a sheriff to look for McGonigle as he boards the train. McGonigle burns the summons he's about to be served with his cigar as the sheriff has his head turned the other way.

Eventually the troupe gets to their next stop, where they're going to be putting on a temperance play called The Drunkard. But there are problems. In addition to trying to get the money to put on the play, they're also short one cast member. However, a college boy, Wally Livingston (Joe Morrison), wants to be an actor, so he's willing to accept a tryout. Wally also falls in love with McGonigle's daughter Betty (Judith Allen). But neither Betty nor Wally's father thinks marrying into an acting troupe is a good idea.

There's also Mrs. Pepperday (Jan Duggan), whom McGonigle is trying to get the money from. She has no talent, being able neither to sing nor dance, but is insisting on getting a part in the play. She's also got an infant grandson who makes McGonigle's life hell over lunch.

Eventually the show gets put on, and it's interesting for audiences of today to see such a hoary old production. But there's an encore after the play that's even better: Fields comes back out and does some his old vaudeville stuff, juggling balls, followed by manipulating cigar boxes, the latter of which is really a sight to see.

There's not all that much to the plot of The Old Fashioned Way; like a lot of Fields' work it seems more a hook on which to hang a bunch of sketches than a fully coherent plot. But it all works more or less, and the vaudeville act at the end is worth the price of admission.

The box set as a whole is cheap, so even if you don't like this one, it's not as if you're out very much. But I can certainly recommend it more than some of the other Fields movies in the set.

Monday, September 16, 2019

None But the Brave


I mentioned a week or two ago that I had happened inadvertently to watch several movies set in World War II in short order. One of them was None But the Brave, which I have on DVD as part of a five-film box set of Frank Sinatra movies.

The first thing I noticed was in the opening titles:



My first thought was that the box set must have been produced for the Asian market and that Amazon was selling it on the gray market or something, but a look at IMDb revealed that the movie was a co-production between Warner Bros. (via Frank Sinatra's production company) and Japan's Toho Film:



The movie starts off with the Japanese point of view, narrated by Lt. Kuroki (Tatsuya Mihashi). A bunch of Japanese soldiers are on an isolated island in the South Pacific, abandoned because they have no radio contact with Japan, so they try to build a boat to get off the island. As with Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, though, the war is about to come back to them in the form of an American transport plane that's stricken and forced to crash land, which it does right on their island. The pilot, Capt. Bourke (Clint Walker) tries to keep command of the Marines he's been piloting, as well as a medic, Mate (Frank Sinatra).

However, Bourke and the Marines are about to encounter a bunch of problems, since there are all those Japanese on the island. Lt. Blair (Tommy Sands) wants to attack, and do so in a way that's liable to get them all killed -- and Bourke knows it as does Mate. Eventually, the Americans and Japanese encounter each other, and fighting does break out.

But Lt. Kuroki isn't too thrilled by the prospect. He wasn't a particular fan of war to begin with, since he tends to believing it's futile. But trying to fight the Americans now is going to kill everybody on both sides. More pressing is that the Americans have a medic -- and the stranded Japanese don't. And Kuroki has a man with gangrene that absolutely has to be treated. So the two sides arrange a truce for the time being, so that Mate can treat the Japanese soldier, and all of them can focus on survival. The truce should only end when one or the other country's external forces show up to re-take the island, at which point both groups on the island should feel honor bound to fight with valor.

Not that Lt. Blair likes it, but Bourke isn't about to let Blair scupper things. Slowly, the two sides begin to learn to respect each other, knowing however, that the time is going to come when their little respite from the war is going to be broken from outside.

None But the Brave is a really interesting little movie, showing the war in a way Hollywood hadn't done much up to this point. That's partly because of the co-production, I think. In any case, I think it's greatly to the movie's benefit. Frank Sinatra directed, the only time he did so. He's not terrible as a director, but I think there's a reason that he didn't keep directing. He's also not helped by a shrill and obnoxious performance out of Sands. I don't know if Sands was that incompetent of an actor or Sinatra didn't know how to get a better performance out of him.

Despite the movie's flaws, None But the Brave is definitely worth a watch because of the much more human perspective on the Japanese soldiers.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Zandy's Bride


Another of the stars to get a day in this year's Summer Under the Stars was Liv Ullmann. One of her movies that I hadn't blogged about before is Zandy's Bride, so I recorded that to watch.

Ullmann plays the bride, a woman named Hannah. She's a Swedish immigrant in Minnesota sometime in the mid-to-late 19th century (I don't think an exact date is given, although I'd guess it's before the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869) who is going to become the mail-order bride of Zandy Allen (Gene Hackman). Zandy lives in a remote part of the Big Sur area of California, working a small plot and raising a small herd of California. He doesn't want a bride so much as he wants a second person to work the place and sons to help him in future years.

So when Hannah gets to California, there's no love, just a professional relationship. Indeed, Zandy is disappointed at first to learn that Hannah is past 30. Hannah wants to be respected as a woman and a wife, but Zandy isn't ready to do that just yet, treating Hannah rather badly. Zandy has even had another girlfriend in Maria (Susan Tyrrell), and might be willing to keep up his relationship with her. Zandy's mother (Eileen Heckart), however, understands Hannah and understands how much less than a man Zandy is being.

Zandy is selfish enough to buy a bunch of cattle and then let them trample all over Hannah's garden. But when she finally gets pregnant he begins to change and warm up to her a bit, something that's seen even more when he goes to San Francisco to buy provisions.

There's really not much going on in Zandy's Bride, and that makes it a bit hard of a movie to review. It was directed by Jan Troell, who had worked with Ullmann in The Emigrants and The New Land, and in some ways Zandy's Bride feels as though it could have been a continuation of those two films. It's got a languorous pace that works here because the movie doesn't overstay its welcome. Hackman seems like someone you'd think would be out of place in a western, but he does well.

Zandy's Bride is more of a character study than a movie with a fully fleshed-out plot, and if you know that going in I think you'll like it. It's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

What happens when you DVR the wrong movie

June Allyson was part of this year's Summer Under the Stars. One of the movies I thought about putting on the DVR was The Girl in White. Unfortunately, I recorded the wrong title, instead getting Two Sisters from Boston. They're both on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection, so I sat down to watch Two Sisters from Boston to do a post on it.

June plays Martha Chandler, one of the two titular sisters along with Abigail (Kathryn Grayson, so you should know from seeing her name in the cast what sort of movie you're getting) at the turn of the last century. Their family is one of those Boston Brahmin types like in The Late George Apley, very proper and doing things like sponsoring musical recitals. They've also helped support Abigail in her desire to become an opera singer in New York.

But word comes to Martha and Abigail's uncle Jonathan (Harry Hayden) that Abigail has been seen working in a burlesque house in the Bowery! That's bad enough for any patrician family, but Uncle Jonathan is running for mayor, and if the news comes out it would torpedo his candidacy. So they go to New York to find out if this is true, and get her back to Boston if so.

Abigail is in fact working as "High C Susie", at the Golden Rooster, a club run by Spike (Jimmy Durante), although she's not about to tell any of her family this. Her family's support money ran out, and she needed to support herself, after all. She insists that she's had small roles in legitimate operas, and even makes the claim that she's got one tonight. So of course the rest of the family plans to stay on to see her in the opera, which is going to blow the ruse.

Except that Spike is a Jack Carson-level schemer, and knows who the biggest patron of the opera is, Mr. Patterson (Thurston Hall). He uses this info to get Abigail backstage, and from there she works her way not only on stage, but to upstage the lead tenor, Olstrom (Danish opera singer Lauritz Melchior), in a way that causes a whole lot of consternation. Olstrom would like to black-ball this unknown member of the chorus, while Mr. Patterson's son Lawrence (Peter Lawford) thinks she's carrying on an affair with Dad since she used Dad's name to get into the chorus.

Complications ensue, but in the end Abigail gets her chance to be a star while the Lawford and Allyson characters wind up together as you could probably guess. It's the sort of story that offers nothing groundbreaking, but in the right context can be more then entertaining. Unfortunately for me, this time the context is opera, something which in the movies I really don't care for. Grayson isn't bad here when she's not singing, and I suppose opera singers would like her singing. I also have to admit I've never really been a Peter Lawford fan.

Still, this isn't meant to pan the movie. It's more that it's going to be an acquired taste, appealing much more to people who like opera than to people who don't care for it so much. To be fair, I also find Grayson less irritating that Jeanette MacDonald, and either of them far less irritating than Nelson Eddy And Durante is as good here as he always is, although I'll admit that there are probably people who don't care for his shtick. So Two Sisters from Boston is one I'll give a qualified recommendation to -- if you know in advance what it's about.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels


DirecTV had a free preview of the Epix package of channels over the summer, which gave me the chance to DVR several more recent films. Among them is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which is going to be on Epix2 on Sunday morning at 9:50 AM, and is also available on DVD if you don't have the Epix package.

Michael Caine, looking almost unrecognizable with his hair slicked back, plays Lawrence Jamieson, a British man living in a ritzy town on the French Riviera where he plies his trade of fleecing rich women out of their money. He's got the help of the local police chief, Inspector Andre (Anton Rodgers), at least in the form of looking the other way and not doing anything about it. His latest scam has him pretending to be a prince trying to get money out of Fanny (Barbara Harris).

On a train back from depositing money in his Swiss bank account, Lawrence meets Freddy Benson (Steve Martin). Freddy is also a con artist, but much less suave than Lawrence. Lawrence has heard of a criminal called "the Jackal", but doesn't know anything about the Jackal's identity, only that apparently the Jackal is about to set up shop in the same town where Lawrence has been working. The town isn't big enough for two con artists, and Lawrence doesn't really like Freddy anyway, so Lawrence gets Freddy on a plane out of town.

The only problem is that Freddy meets Fanny on the plane. So now Freddy has something to blackmail Lawrence with, which he's bound to do. Freddy persuades Lawrence to try to teach him how to be more elegant, and the two pull off another con. But Lawrence still doesn't care for Freddy, so the two make a wager. They'll find a new mark, and the one of them to con her out of $50,000 will get to stay in town while the other is forced to leave.

They soon meet a suitable mark in Janet Colgate (Glenne Headley), an American soap heiress. Freddy tries to pass himself off as an American navy officer paralyzed from the waist down with some sort of mental condition, needing $50,000 to see a specialist to get better. Lawrence passes himself off as Dr. Emil Schaffhusen, a Liechtensteinian doctor who could treat Freddy for that $50,000. So the game is on.

Or, at least, it is until the two find out that Janet is not in fact a soap heiress. She's the "soap queen" because she won a contest in the States, and is only on an all-expenses paid trip presumably promoting an American detergent. In fact, the only way she could get the $50,000 is to sell off a bunch of her assets. On top of this, it doesn't help that Freddy is beginning to find himself falling in love with her, while Lawrence has a strict thing against bilking people who can't afford to be the victim.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a fun little movie with a lot of twists and turns, aided enormously by the two leading men. Both of them fit their parts extremely well, Caine as an elegant con and Martin with his more stereotypically American brashness. Headley is also a treat as the woman between them. It's a shame that she died much too young. The movie is also helped by the gorgeous location shooting and a really nice score.

I can most definitely recommend Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Thursday Movie Picks #270: Non-English movies






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 a repeat, non-English movies. I assume it means English as in the language, or else it would be too easy to pick any three Hollywood films -- after all, Hollywood is American, not English! The only difficulty with a a theme like this is picking movies I haven't used recently, and don't want to use in the near future. So I picked three films I watched relatively recently:

Dollar (1938). Made by Ingrid Bergman before she came to Hollywood, this one has her as the wife of a business man angling for an investment in his company. The two are also involved in a complicated series of love triangles involving two other married couples. All of the couples go to a ski resort in northern Sweden, where they're supposed to meet the American cousin of one of them, who might have some money to invest, and who teaches them all a few things about relationships.

Alice in the Cities (1974). Wim Wenders' tedious movie about a photojournalist returning from America to Germany, who gets stuck with a bratty, faux-precocious child in tow when another traveler says she'll meet up with him on a flight the next day but doesn't. The journalist tries to find the little girl's grandparents, not having much information to go on. I didn't care for any of the characters, and wondered why the man didn't take the girl right back to the police after she escaped and returned to him.

Andrei Rublev (1966). A series of short stories involving 15th century Russian icon painter Rublev, who lived in Russia at a turbulent time in its history. This is considered one of the all-time greats by a lot of people, but I have to admit I found it underwhelming. It doesn't help that it runs a good three hours.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Mother Didn't Tell Me

Another movie that I watched over the weekend was Mother Didn't Tell Me, which is available on DVD from Fox's MOD scheme.

Dorothy McGuire plays Jane Morgan, a working girl who gets sick with a hacking cough one day and has to see a doctor right away, which is how she ends up at the office of Dr. William Wright (William Lundigan). Jane comes across as a bit selfish, as she's ticked at how long she's made to wait, never mind how many other patients were in the waiting room. She's also selfish enough that when she gets home, she calls up trying to get the doctor to come over for a house call!

It's obvious, however, that she actually is just falling in love with the doctor despite having only seen him the one time. They start seeing each other, but the good doctor often seems to get called away on important calls. Still, Jane thinks she'd be willing to get married to him. His mother (Jessie Royce Landis), however, isn't so sure. Apparently, it takes a special class of woman to be a doctor's wife, dealing with all the sudden absences, and Mrs. Wright doesn't think Jane has it in her. Plus, there's the fact that William knows a female medical student Helen (Joyce Mackenzie) that Mom thinks is better suited to being a doctor's wife since Helen is planning to become a doctor herself.

Still, Jane eventually does get married to the doctor, figuring she can make herself such an important part of his life that it will paper over the hurt of all those sudden house and hospital calls. Unsurprisingly, things go bad the very first time Jane tries to host a dinner party and William isn't able to make it. It's up to another doctor's wife, Maggie Roberts (June Havoc) to try to comfort Jane and get her to see the reality that she's going to have to make compromises.

Eventually, Helen finishes her residency, comes back to town, and takes a job as Dr. Wright's partner! Jane gets the distinct idea that William is going to leave her in favor of Helen, so decides to take matters into her own hands by leaving William first, a decision which makes no logical sense.

In fact, much of the movie makes no logical sense. It's dated, which is no big thing since I'm used to watching old movies. The idea that it takes some special class of woman to marry a doctor seems silly, yet it's the entire premise of the movie. Jane is so flighty that you just want someone to shake some sense into her, while Mrs. Wright's motivations seem to take a sudden turn in the final act.

Mother Didn't Tell Me may be an interesting time capsule, but it's not a particularly good movie. As always, however, you should probably judge for yourself.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Northwest Passage

Another of my recent DVR watches was Northwest Passage.

Robert Young plays Langdon Towne, who is returning to his hometown of Portsmouth, NH in the late 1750s after having been expelled from Harvard. He and town drunk "Hunk" Marriner (Walter Brennan) decide the best way to deal with their troubles is to drink them away, so the two get good and drunk, saying some insulting things to a couple of British soldiers that requires the pair to beat a hasty retreat.

The two go out into the wilderness, Langdon being a budding artist who wants to do sketches of the Indians. But if you'll remember your history, this is during the French and Indian War, when the British and French (who still owned Quebec) were using various tribal groups as proxies to attack each other. Langdon and Hunk run into Robert Rogers, who had been given the task by one of the British generals of training a raiding force, eventually known as Rogers' Rangers, to help deal with the Indian raids. The big problem is that they'll be going into fairly inhospitable territory in what is now the Lake Champlain region as well as northern Vermont.

Eventually the plan is to raid a settlement at St. Francis, on the St. Lawrence River downstream of Montreal, which is probably supposed to be more of a psychological victory than a real military victory. Langdon and Hunk, having joined the Rangers, set out with Rogers on the dangerous march north. They have to watch out for both the Abenaki tribe as well as any French in the area, while also having to deal with a lack of food. Indeed, part of the plan for the mission is to raid the fort at St. Francis to get food for the return voyage.

In what is probably the high point of the movie, Rogers' men raid St. Francis and rout the inhabitants, also freeing some English settlers who had been taken prisoner. But they find that there's almost no food to take with them. And Langdon has been shot in the belly. Rogers' plan is to go overland to Fort Wentworth, in what is now northern New Hampshire, a march of about 150 miles. But can the men, who are growing increasingly disaffected thanks to the lack of food and what they see as Rogers' dictatorial ways, handle the march?

Northwest Passage is based on a 1936 book of the same title that deals both with this campaign and Rogers' later time out west looking for the Northwest Passage, hence the full title of the movie, Northwest Passage (Book I - Rogers' Rangers). The movie only deals with the French and Indian War, with a closing scene in which he tells his men they're going to be going out west (in real life, Rogers did go west to quell the Indians in the area around what is now Detroit). Apparently there were plans to make a second movie that never materializes, probably due to the intervention of World War II.

As for the movie we have, Northwest Passage isn't a bad movie, but one that I felt could have been a lot better. The big problem I have is that it runs 128 minutes, with a lot of nothing happening since the soldiers have to make a long march north to St. Francis, followed by one back to New Hampshire. The march back goes on and on, and still relatively little happens. I can't help but think they could have come up with a way to make this 20 to 30 minutes shorter which would suit the movie artistically. Of course, the location shooting and Technicolor probably demanded a longer movie to make a spectacle the public would want to go see.

Northwest Passage has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection. The TCM Shop claims it's on backorder, which has never made sense to me with the MOD titles; it seems to be readily available at Amazon.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Marlowe


My attempts to free up space on my DVR continued over the weekend; this time one of the movies watched was Marlowe.

The movie starts off with a sequence of a man hiding in the bushes taking photographs of a man and a woman together. You get a fleeting glimpse of the photographer, and you might think you've just seen Philip Marlowe. But you'd be wrong. Marlowe is back in Los Angeles and is only going to have anything to do with all this later. Philip Marlowe (James Garner) is Raymond Chandler's private detective who appeared in other movies like The Big Sleep, and back in Los Angeles Marlowe is approached by Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell). She's looking for her brother Orrin, who moved out west from Kansas and hasn't been heard from by his family for quite some time.

Marlowe finds that he was supposed to have been at a hotel, but when he searches through the register and goes to the room Orrin is supposed to be in, only to find another man, Grant Hicks (Jackie Coogan). The manager hadn't been much help, and was trying to call some guy named "Doc". Marlowe pumps Coogan for information and gets none. When he goes to leave the hotel, he finds that the manager has been stabbed to death, with an icepick to the base of the brain! But it turns out that Hicks does have information, calling from a hotel closer to Los Angeles.

That information turns out to be a check receipt to pick up a bunch of photographs after they've been developed. But Marlowe gets attacked by a woman and when he comes to he finds that Hicks has also been killed with an icepick. Fortunately they're able to get the license plate of the woman's car, and Marlowe gets the photographs, which are of TV star Mavis Wald (Gayle Hunnicutt) and gangster Sonny Steelgrave (H.M. Wynant). Presumably Orrin is trying to blackmail somebody and that or another somebody is killing either to get the photos or to stop the blackmail some other way.

Also investigating the case are the police, in the form of detective Lt. French (Carroll O'Connor) and his second-in-command, Sgt. Beifus (Kenneth Tobey). Mavis doesn't want Marlowe involved, but the advertiser backing her TV show wants no controversy so gives Marlowe carte blanche to keep going. It all gets complicated, but Marlowe eventually does get the case to unravel.

Marlowe is a reasonably good movie, for two main reasons. One is James Garner, who fits the role well. This was several years before The Rockford Files, but Garner hits the right tone of sarcasm and cynicism for an updated version of the character. The other stars add nice support. I haven't mentioned Rita Moreno as Mavis' friend Dolores, or Bruce Lee in a cameo who gets to do his martial arts before coming to a stupid end.

The other reason to watch Marlowe is for the look at late 60s Los Angeles. Marlowe's office looked darn familiar, which is because it's in the Bradbury Building, a frequent location for shooting. Classic movie fans would probably most recognize it as the building where David Wayne hides in the 1951 version of M. But the seedy hotels of the era are well depicted, as is the set design.

Just don't try to pay too much attention to the mystery plot of Marlowe, which I found wasn't quite satisfactorily wrapped up. It's also too complex for its own good. But the movie as a whole works if you want to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch.