Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 11: Five from the Fifties

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The 1950’s were a time of change in movies. Television was providing stiff competition, and studios were willing to do anything to fend it off. The bigger budgeted movies tried 3D, Cinerama, wide-screen, and other optical tricks, while smaller films chose to cover unusual subject matter. The following five films represent a cross-section of nifty 50’s cinema:

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BORDERLINE (Universal-International 1950; D: William A. Seiter)

BORDERLINE is a strange film, straddling the borderline (sorry) between romantic comedy and crime drama, resulting in a rather mediocre movie. Claire Trevor plays an LAPD cop assigned to Customs who’s sent to Mexico to get the goods on drug smuggler Pete Ritchey (Raymond Burr , being his usual malevolent self). She’s tripped up by Ritchey’s rival Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray , channeling his inner Walter Neff), and taken along as he tries to get the dope over the border. What she doesn’t know is he’s also an agent, and thinks she’s a smuggler! The movie usually gets shoehorned into the noir category, but besides the drug smuggling angle, it’s just an average ‘B’ flick. Fun Fact: Claire’s husband Milton Bren was the film’s producer.

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THE NARROW MARGIN (RKO 1952; D: Richard Fleischer)

Highly influential ‘B’ noir about a tough cop escorting a mobster’s widow from Chicago to Los Angeles via train to testify on corruption, with hired killers onboard out to stop her by any means possible. Gruff-voiced Charles McGraw and sexpot Marie Windsor deliver Earl Fenton’s hard-boiled dialog with gusto; the film was Oscar-nominated for Best Story, but lost to THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (they were robbed!). Director Richard Fleischer and DP George Diskant create a textbook example on how to make a tense, exciting movie for under $250,000, with a big plot twist I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t seen this gem. The ambient sounds of the train travelling take the place of the usual music score, making the violence even more ultra-realistic. A must-see! Fun Fact: Marie Windsor was once a gag writer for Jack Benny. When the comedian finally met her in the flesh, he was stunned by her good looks and helped her secure a Hollywood contract.

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THE BIGAMIST (The Filmakers 1953; D: Ida Lupino)

San Francisco couple Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine want to adopt a child, but when the child welfare investigator (Edmund Gwenn) looks into the case, he discovers O’Brien has another wife (Ida Lupino) in LA. O’Brien gives a sympathetic performance as the man leading a double life, and Lupino handles the sensational material with depth and sincerity. Watch for the scene where O’Brien meets Lupino on a Hollywood tour bus for glimpses of the homes of stars Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Jack Benny, and Gwenn himself! A quiet but powerful film that’s worth your time. Fun Fact: Producer/screenwriter Collier Young was married to Fontaine at the time; before that, he had been the husband of director/star Lupino! Ah, Hollywood!

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THE WILD ONE (Columbia 1953; D: Laszlo Benedict)

The granddaddy of all biker flicks! Marlon Brando is leather clad Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels MC, who terrorize a small California town. Brando’s existential, iconic performance dominates the film, but Mary Murphy is equally good as Kathie, the girl who falls for him. Lee Marvin also deserves a shout-out as Chino, leader of rival gang The Beetles. The scene where Murphy is chased down by the bikers, saved by Johnny, still retains its power. Jerry Paris, Alvy Moore , and that great oddball actor Timothy Carey are among the cyclists; Jay C. Flippen, Ray Teal, and Will Wright represent some of the “straight’ citizens. A bona fide cinema classic, not to be missed! Fun Fact: Brando’s Johnny was the basis for Harvey Lembeck’s goofball Eric Von Zipper character in all those “Beach Party ” movies.

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ROCK ROCK ROCK (DCA 1956; D: Will Price)

13 year old Tuesday Weld makes her film debut as a teenybopper trying to raise money to buy a strapless evening dress for the prom, but you can forget about the dumb plot and enjoy a veritable Rock’n’Roll/Doo Wop Hall of Fame lineup: LaVerne Baker, Chuck Berry (“You Can’t Catch Me”), Johnny Burnett Trio, The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers (“I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), The Moonglows, Big Al Sears, and others, hosted by pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed. Tuesday’s vocals are dubbed by Connie Francis, and co-star Teddy Randazzo was a minor singing star who later wrote the hits “Goin’ Out of My Head” and “Hurts So Bad”. Lots of energetic teenage dancing; just sit back and have a foot-wiggling good time! Fun Fact: This was the first film for the production team Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, better known for their Amicus horror anthologies.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 10: Halloween Leftovers

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Halloween has come and gone, though most people have plenty of leftovers on hand, including your Cracked Rear Viewer. Here are some treats (and a few tricks) that didn’t quite make the cut this year:

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ISLE OF THE DEAD (RKO 1945, D: Mark Robson)

Typically atmospheric Val Lewton production stars Boris Karloff as a Greek general trapped on a plague-ridden island along with a young girl (Ellen Drew) who may or may not be a vorvolaka (vampire-like spirit). This film features one of Lewton’s patented tropes, as Drew wanders through the woods alone, with the howling wind and ominous sounds of the creatures of the night. Very creepy, with another excellent Karloff performance and strong support from Lewton regulars Alan Napier, Jason Robards Sr, and Skelton Knaggs. Fun Fact: Like BEDLAM , this was inspired by a painting, Arnold Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead”.

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THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (Allied Artists 1954, D: Edward Bernds)

Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the gang  get mixed up with the creepy Gravesend family in a spooky old mansion, complete with mad scientists, vampires, a man-eating tree, a robot, and of course a killer gorilla in this above-average series entry. Sure it’s low budget and derivative as hell, but it’s also a lot of fun, with a better than usual supporting cast that includes John Dehner, Lloyd Corrigan, and Ellen Corby. Director Bernds and his co-screenwriter Ellwood Ullman put their Three Stooges experience to good use, and the result is a silly scare farce that even non-Bowery Boys fans will probably enjoy. Fun Fact: Ex-bartender Steve Calvert bought Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s old gorilla suit and appeared in JUNGLE JIM, THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (written by Ed Wood), and the awful BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA .

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THE OBLONG BOX (AIP 1969, D:Gordon Hessler)

AIP tried to continue their successful Edgar Allan Poe series with this film. Roger Corman was long gone, so Gordon Hessler took over the director’s chair. Vincent Price is still around though, as the brother of a voodoo victim who was prematurely buried, then dug up by graverobbers to seek revenge. Christopher Lee has “Special Guest Star” status, but isn’t given much to do as a Knox-like doctor using bodies in the name of science. The movie seemed a lot scarier when I saw it as a youth; unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up very well. The 24 year old Hillary Dwyer is much too young to play 58 year old Price’s fiancé. Fun Fact: Michael Reeves (THE SORCERERS , WITCHFINDER GENERAL) was scheduled to direct before his untimely death; this probably would’ve been a better film with him at the helm.

HAMMER FILM PRODUCTIONS 'HANDS OF THE RIPPER' (1971) STARRING ERIC PORTER, JANE MERROE AND ANGHARAD REES. Dir: PETER SASDY ABOUT TO BE RELEASED ON BLU RAY. THEBLACKBOXCLUB.COM

HANDS OF THE RIPPER (Hammer 1971, D: Peter Sasdy)

Minor but effective Hammer chiller about the daughter of Jack the Ripper (Angharad Rees) who’s possessed by daddy’s evil spirit, and the psychologist (Eric Porter) who tries to help her by using the then-new Freudian therapy techniques. It’s science vs the supernatural, with some good moments of gore, but the slow pace makes it definitely lesser Hammer. I must admit I loved the ending, though. Fun Fact: Director Sasdy filmed several Hammer horrors in the early 70’s, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and COUNTESS DRACULA. He also was responsible for the Pia Zadora vehicle THE LONELY LADY, winning himself the prestigious Razzie Award in 1983!

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BURNT OFFERINGS (United Artists 1976, D: Dan Curtis)

A family rents an eerie old country home for the summer, and are soon pitted against an evil force. With all that talent in front of (Bette Davis , Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckert) and behind (producer/director/writer Curtis , co-writer William F. Nolan, DP Jacques Marquette) the camera, I expected a much better film. Even the great Miss Davis can’t help this obvious haunted house story to rise above the level of a made-for-TV potboiler. Disappointing to say the least. Fun Fact: Production designer Eugene Lourie directed the sci-fi flicks THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH , and GORGO.     

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

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THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

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THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

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THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

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Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 8: All-Star Comedy Break

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Tonight I’ll be watching the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, but for those of you non-baseball fans, here’s a look at five funny films from the 1930’s & 40’s:

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IT’S A GIFT (Paramount 1934, D: Norman Z. McLeod) The Great Man himself, W.C. Fields , works his magic in this delightfully demented domestic comedy about hen pecked grocer Harold Bissonette, who dreams of owning an orange grove in California. His wife (Kathleen Howard) is a domineering battle-axe, his kid (Tommy Bupp) an obnoxious, roller skating brat, and daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral) doesn’t want to leave her “true love”. This sets the stage for some of Fields’ funniest surrealistic scenes, including his grocery store being demolished by blind Mr. Mickle and perennial nemesis Baby Leroy; poor W.C. trying to get some sleep on the porch while being constantly disturbed by noisy neighbors, a wayward coconut, a man looking for “Carl LeFong”, and Baby Leroy dropping grapes through a hole in the porch (“Shades of Bacchus!”); and a wild picnic on private property. One of Fields’ best movies, an absurd comic classic! Fun Fact: Kathleen Howard was a former opera singer who costarred in three of W.C.’s films.

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GENERAL SPANKY (MGM 1936, D: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas) Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the “Our Gang” kids star in this Civil War era comedy that plays like a few shorts strung together. There’s not really any overt racism, as some critics claim; except for the use of the derogatory term “pickaninny” early on, it’s simply a product of its era. The story is told from the Southern POV, making it sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the slaves are treated with more dignity by the Southerners than the invading Yankee army! The warm relationship that develops between the two orphans Spanky and Buckwheat rarely gets mentioned. Still, this ain’t GONE WITH THE WIND; if it sounds offensive, just don”t watch. Fans of Our Gang/Little Rascals shorts will want to catch it, though. Fun Fact: Irving Pichel, who I’ve discussed here in past posts , plays the mean Yankee captain at odds with Spanky and friends.

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TURNABOUT (United Artists 1949, D: Hal Roach) Gender-bending screwball comedy about a constantly bickering couple (John Hubbard, Carole Landis) that have their wish to swap bodies granted by a Hindu idol come to life. Ultimately the film tries a little too hard at being wacky and is a letdown considering it’s groundbreaking theme. Adolphe Menjou, William Gargan, Mary Astor, Joyce Compton, Verree Teasdale, Franklin Pangborn, Marjorie Main, and especially Donald Meek head a game supporting cast. Based on a novel by Thorne (TOPPER) Smith. Fun Fact: One of a handful of feature films directed by comedy pioneer Roach.

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BLONDE INSPIRATION (MGM 1941, D: Busby Berkeley) Minor but amusing screwball comedy concerning an idealistic unpublished writer (John Shelton) who’s conned out of $2000 by two broke publishers (the unlikely but funny comedy team of Albert Dekker and Charles Butterworth !) to write Western pulp fiction when their drunken star scribe Dusty King (Donald Meek again!) quits. Shelton’s bland in the lead,  but the rest of the cast makes up for it, with a wisecracking script by Marion Parsonnet and swift direction from musical maestro Berkeley. Virginia Grey plays the publisher’s cynical secretary who ends up falling for the dopey, naïve Shelton. Reginald Owen, Alma Krueger, Byron Foulger, and Charles Halton all add to the fun. Fun Fact: Marion Martin, former Ziegfeld showgirl, is the “blonde inspiration” of the title, playing the dumb-blonde companion of Butterworth.

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WHO DONE IT? (Universal 1942, D: Erle C. Kenton) Abbott & Costello play two soda jerks (emphasis on “jerks”) and wanna-be radio mystery writers who get caught up in a real-life murder mystery at the station. This was Bud and Lou’s first effort without the usual musical interludes (no Andrews Sisters, no swing bands, etc), and allows them to unleash their comic mayhem uninhibited. The radio setting gives them good material to work with, like their “watts are volts” wordplay riffing (they even have a bit disparaging their classic ‘Who’s On First?” routine). There are some genuinely scary touches between the slapstick from horror vet Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN ), and a solid supporting cast featuring William Gargan and William Bendix as a pair of dopey detectives, Mary Wickes as Lou’s love interest (!!), and Universal’s Familiar Face Brigade: Patric Knowles, Louise Allbritton, Thomas Gomez, Don Porter, Jerome Cowan, and Ludwig Stossel. Cadaverous Milton Parsons even shows up as the coroner! Fast and fun entry in the A&C catalog. Fun Fact: The page boy constantly getting over on Lou is Walter Tetley, a radio actor known to TV affecianados as the voice of Mr. Peabody’s favorite boy, Sherman!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged, but I could do without Trevor’s sporadic narration. Fun Fact: Whit Bissell (BRUTE FORCE ) has a brief role as a killer on the run.

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THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (RKO 1947, D: Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s first film tells the tale of two young lovers (Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell) on the run who try to but can’t escape his life of crime. Ray’s directorial flourishes aid tremendously in making this a good, but not quite great, movie. It bogs down about halfway through, and probably could’ve used some editing, but producer John Houseman gave Ray free rein to create his feature debut. Ray would go on to direct some great films (IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR, and of course REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and influence a generation of filmmakers. Character actors Howard DaSilva, Jay C. Flippen, Byron Foulger, Ian Wolfe, and Will Wright offer fine contributions, and lead actress O’Donnell gives an outstanding, subdued performance as Keechie. Fun Fact: Remade in 1974 by Robert Altman as THEIVES LIKE US, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as the young lovers.

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BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (Columbia 1950, D: Gordon Douglas)

Programmer following two squad car cops (Edmond O’Brien, Mark Stevens) out to get the goods on gangster Garris (Donald Buka). The cops are also rivals for Gale Storm’s affections, and who can blame them…. I’ve had a crush on the sweet Miss Storm since adolescence! Not really a noir though it usually gets lumped with to the genre. A good cast can’t quite over come the hokey, clichéd script. Fun Fact: Be on the lookout for Madge Blake (BATMAN’s Aunt Harriet), Roland Winters (the last Monogram Charlie Chan), and Phillip Van Zandt (nemesis in countless Three Stooges shorts).   

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THE STRIP (MGM 1951, D: Laszlo Kardos)

You’d think a film noir with a jazz club setting would be perfect, and you’d be right… but this isn’t it (it’s 1941’s BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which I’ll be reviewing at a later date!). Mickey Rooney stars here as a jazz drummer fresh from the Korean War who gets involved with an aspiring actress ( Sally Forrest) and a gangster (Clark Gable wanna-be James Craig). The movie’s saving graces are it’s location scenes inside L.A nightclubs of the era, and some jazz numbers from legends Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Vic Damone, and Monica Lewis (the “Chiquita Banana” girl). Otherwise, pretty disappointing. Fun Fact: THE STRIP was nominated for (but didn’t win) an Oscar for the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”.

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INFERNO (20th Century Fox 1953, D: Roy Ward Baker)

Red haired sexpot Rhonda Fleming and lover William Lundigan leave her husband Robert Ryan to die out in the desert with a broken leg. They think they’ve committed “the perfect murder”, but didn’t count on Ryan’s sheer willpower and McGyver-like ingenuity. INFERNO was 20th Century Fox’s first 3-D movie (in Technicolor), and DP Lucien Ballard’s location shots in the Mojave Desert lend it a rugged feel (I would love to see this one on the big screen as intended). Director Baker also made the Marilyn Monroe noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK , and went on to direct some chilling Hammer films later in his career. Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) appears as an old desert rat, and the climactic fight between Ryan and Lundigan in a burning cabin will definitely hold your interest, as indeed will the whole movie. A neat film about survival and revenge, well worth watching! Fun Fact: Remade twenty years later as the TV Movie ORDEAL with Arthur Hill, Diana Muldaur, and James Stacy in the Ryan/Fleming/Lundigan roles.

I’ll leave you with wonderful Louis Armstrong and his all-star band swingin’ the tune “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo” from THE STRIP:

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 6: All-Star Horror Edition!

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As many of you Dear Readers know by now, classic horror has always been my favorite genre. From the Universal Monsters to Bug-Eyed Aliens to Freddie Krueger and friends (fiends?), a good scary movie is a good time! Even a bad scary movie can be fun, if I’m in the right mood. So here are six (count ’em), yes six horror films I’ve recently watched, with some great horror actors and directors at their best (and worst!):

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MIRACLES FOR SALE

(MGM 1939, D: Tod Browning)

The first great horror director, Browning teamed with Lon Chaney Sr. in the silent era to shock audiences with films like LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE UNHOLY THREE. He kicked off the Golden Age of Sound Horror with DRACULA, followed by the controversial FREAKS. MIRACLES FOR SALE was his last film, and while it’s more of a locked-room mystery, it’s loaded with those bizarre Browning touches. Robert Young stars as The Great Morgan, ex-stage magician who now devises tricks for others, in this occult-flavored whodunit involving a beautiful blonde damsel in distress, a phony mystic, a demonologist’s murder, and magic tricks aplenty. There’s some chills to be had here, and Browning fans will enjoy seeing the old master at play one last time. (Fun Fact: Universal horror vets Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) and Gloria Holden (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER) play key roles in the mystery.)

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SCARED TO DEATH

(Screen Guild 1947, D: Christy Cabanne)

Move over, Ed Wood…this may very well be the worst movie ever! A dead woman on a morgue slab narrates the tale of how she died. The story’s told in flashback, with occasional annoying cuts back to the corpse for a brief sentence. Bad acting, non-existent direction, rotten writing…even the cheap Cinecolor process is atrocious. Horror icons Bela Lugosi and George Zucco are wasted, as are character actors Douglas Fowley, Nat Pendleton, and Joyce Compton.  And I have no idea what midget actor Angelo Rossito is supposed to be doing except being a midget! SCARED TO DEATH may bore you to death! (Fun Fact: It’s your only chance to see Lugosi in a color film…but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

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FRANKENSTEIN 1970

(Allied Artists 1958, D: Howard W. Koch)

Boris Karloff  plays a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein instead of the monster in this quickie. A television crew visits Castle Frankenstein to shoot footage for the 250th anniversary of The Monster’s creation. There’s a strong Hammer influence, as we see onscreen body parts, though they’re kept in a fridge and gotten rid of via garbage disposal! Karloff slices up the ham pretty thick here, but the spooky atmosphere and some creepy scenes almost make up for his overacting (almost). The King has done far better films, but this one’s OK for a rainy day with nothing better to do. (Fun Fact: Former cowboy star Donald “Red” Barry plays the obnoxious TV director.)

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THE VALLEY OF GWANGI

(Warner Bros 1969, D: James O’Connelly)

This sci-fi-Western hybrid is much more fun than the recent COWBOYS & ALIENS, thanks to the genius of special effects master Ray Harryhausen . A failing Wild West Show  travelling through Mexico stumbles upon the Forbidden Valley, where prehistoric dinosaurs still roam the Earth, and capture a T-Rex in this film that owes a lot to KING KONG . James Franciscus loses his Texas accent about halfway through, Gila Golan’s Israeli accent had to be dubbed, and Lawrence Naismith camps it up as a British paleontologist, but it’s not about the acting, it’s about those marvelous Harryhausen monsters. Always fun to see his Dynamation dinosaurs engage in a roaring battle. A good if not great little gem. (Fun Fact: 50’s sci-fi icon Richard Carlson (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE ) plays rodeo boss Champ in his last film role.)

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SHOCK

(Laser Films 1977, D: Mario Bava)

Mario Bava directed some classic Italian horror and giallo films (BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE…hmm, I sense a pattern here!) and his last, SHOCK, is an eerie and uncomfortable thriller about a creepy little kid (David Colin Jr of BEYOND THE DOOR) who’s possessed by the spirit of his dead junkie father and tries to drive his mother crazy. Bava’s familiar themes of sex, death, and horror are in play, as is his eccentric cinema wizardry.  A truly twisted swan song from one of the world’s most unique filmmakers, well worth checking out. (Fun Fact: Daria Nicolodi who plays the mother, is the real-life mother of actress/director/cult figure Asia Argento)

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THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY

(Fulcia Film 1981, D: Lucio Fulci)

Believe it or not, this was my first time viewing a Lucio Fulci film. It won’t be the last!! THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY took me back to the days when I’d go see movies like DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, great loopy masterpieces of cinema schlock. A family rents a home in a quaint suburban Boston town while the husband completes some research by a colleague who committed suicide. Unfortunately, the house is still occupied by Dr. Freudstein, a disgraced (and deceased) turn-of-the-century surgeon who lives off his victim’s body parts. There’s gore galore and plenty of frights to be had here, and Fulci does a good job with the New England atmosphere, including nods to local supermarket giant Stop & Shop. And that scene with the bat scared the piss outta me! (Fun Fact: this was the final entry in Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy…you know I’ll be looking for the other two!)

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series: