Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and the rest is screen history. Thanks, Al!

THE BLUE GARDENIA (Warner Brothers 1953; D: Fritz Lang ) – Minor but well done film noir with Anne Baxter, after receiving a ‘Dear Jane’ letter from her soldier boyfriend, falling into the clutches of lecherous artist Raymond Burr ,who plies her with ‘Polynesean Pearl Divers’, gets her drunk, and tries to take advantage of her. Anne grabs a fireplace poker, then blacks out, wakes up, discovers his dead body, and thinks she killed him. Did she? Veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuracra’s shadowy camerawork helps elevate this a few notches above the average ‘B’, as does a high powered cast led by Richard Conte as a newspaperman out to solve the case (and sell papers!), Ann Southern and Jeff Donnell as Anne’s roommates, George Reeves as a dogged homicide captain, and Familiar Faces like Richard Erdman, Frank Ferguson, Celia Lovsky, Almira Sessions, Robert Shayne, and Ray Walker. Based on  short story by Vera Caspary, who also wrote the source novel for LAURA. Not top-shelf Lang, but still entertaining. Fun Fact: Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title tune in a Chinese restaurant, but the real ‘Fun Fact’ is the guy playing violin behind him… that’s Papa John Creach, who later played rock fiddle in the 70’s with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna!

ILLEGA(Warner Brothers 1955; D: Lewis Allen) – ‘Original Gangster’ Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough, erudite DA who sends the wrong man to the chair, crawls into a bottle of Scotch, and crawls out as a criminal defense attorney working for racketeer Albert Dekker. EG’s practically the whole show, though he’s surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Nina Foch as his protege, Hugh Marlowe as her husband, Jan Merlin as Dekker’s grinning torpedo, Ellen Corby as EG’s loyal secretary, and Jayne Mansfield in an small early role as Dekker’s moll. Keep your eyes peeled for some Familiar TV Faces: DeForest Kelly (STAR TREK) as EG’S doomed client, Henry “Bomber” Kulky (LIFE OF RILEY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) as a witness, Ed Platt (GET SMART) as the DA successor, and sour-voiced Herb Vigran, who guested in just about every TV show ever, as a bailiff. Fun Fact: Co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett wrote the novel LITTLE CAESAR, which Warners turned into Eddie G’s first gangster flick back in 1930!

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century-Fox 1974, D: John Hough) – The late Peter Fonda costars with sexy Susan George in this classic chase movie from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. Fonda and fellow AIP bikesploitation vet Adam Rourke (a personal fave of mine!) are a down-on-their-luck NASCAR driver and mechanic, respectively,  who pull off a robbery and are saddled with ditzy George, with Vic Morrow as the maverick police captain in hot pursuit. The stars are likable, the cars are cool (a ’66 Impala and a ’69 Charger), and there’s plenty of spectacular stunt driving in this fast’n’furious Exploitation gem, with an explosive ending! Fun Fact: Roddy McDowell has an uncredited role as the grocery store manager whose family is held hostage.

BONUS: Now kick back and enjoy the noir-flavored blues of Papa John Creach and his band doing “There Ain’t No More Country Girls” from sometime in the 70’s:

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Gone With The Whaaat?: MANDINGO (Paramount 1975)

If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!

The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family name, so he sends son Hammond to court his cousin Blanche. Along the way, Hammond and cousin Charles are treated to having sex with a couple of slaves. While the cruel Charles beats his with a belt, Hammond develops feelings for his, Ellie, and purchases her. He also buys a Mandingo slave called Mede, “a fightin’ n*gger” who he plans to use to wager on in to-the-death battles and breed with the other slaves.

On his wedding night, Ham discovers Blanche is no virgin – seems she’s already been had by her brother Charles (“It was just once!”). Disgusted, Ham turns to his “bed wench” Ellie for comfort, and she soon becomes pregnant. While Ham’s off pitting Mede in a brutal contest against a slave named Topaz (a no-holds-barred, hardcore battle straight outta Paul Heyman’s late, lamented Extreme Championship Wrestling!), a drunken Blanche whips Ellie with a riding crop, forcing the slave to tumble down the staircase and lose her baby.

 

Ham, who no longer touches Blanche, heads to Natchez to sell some slaves, and while the cat’s away, Blanche will play… with Mede, whom she forces to have sex with her by threatening to tell Ham he raped her (a lie, of course). Warren, tired of waiting for a grandbaby, locks Ham and Blanche in the bedroom together until they do the wild thing and produce a kid! Blanche soon announces she’s with child, and a baby is born at last… a black baby! Mede’s! The not-so-kindly family doctor allows the child to bleed out and die, Ham sees the dead black baby in it’s crib, poisons Blanche, and goes after Mede with a gun! Forcing Mede to fill a cauldron with boiling hot water, he tells his Mandingo, “GET IN!”. Of course Mede refuses, and Ham shoots Mede into the pot and runs him through with a pitchfork! Head slave Agamemnon grabs the gun and aims at Ham, Warren commands him to stop, so Agamemnon shoots Warren instead and runs off, and… and our film abruptly ends right there!

The distinguished actor James Mason plays family patriarch Warren Maxwell waaay over-the-top, complete with a terrible Southern accent. Mason seems to know he’s trapped in a bad film, and compensates by hamming it up mercilessly as the old slave owner. Whether delivering lines like (to his daughter-in-law) “You actin’ zany! Zany! You actin’ like a Georgia bitch!”, or trying to cure his “rheumatis” by pressing his bare feet on a little black child’s belly, Mason earns a spot in the Bad Acting Hall of Fame.

If Mason is over-the-top, Susan George as Blanche takes a full  leap into the abyss as Blanche. Her character is a drunken, horny harridan, vicious as the devil, and George is a real hoot! Perry King tries to play it straight as Hammond, but eventually gets caught up in the overblown theatrics. Brenda Sykes is good as Ellie, and the great Richard Ward shines in the role of the smarter-than-they-think Agamemnon  (“Why, a lazy, no account, stupid, God-forsaken n*gger like me cain’t have a soul, Massa”). Also in the cast are Paul Benedict (Bentley on THE JEFFERSONS), Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Lillian Hayman (the soap ONE LIFE TO LIVE), former Mr. Universe/pro wrestler Earl Maynard, Debbie Morgan (ALL MY CHILDREN), and Roy Poole.

Then we’ve got heavyweight boxer Ken Norton in the pivotal part of Mede. The muscular 6’3″, 200+ pounder, who handed Muhammad Ali his second professional loss in 1973 and held the WBC title in ’78, makes an imposing presence. Norton wanted to be an actor, but lacked the talent. He did star in the sequel DRUM, and had some other film and TV credits, but as a thespian, he was a good boxer. Norton tries, I’ll give him that, and he’s great in the fight scenes, but let’s just say dialog wasn’t his strong point!

Director Richard Fleischer throws any sense of subtilty out the plantation window in this lurid little Exploitation number. The movie’s based on an equally lurid 1957 book by Kyle Onstott, which must have shocked the socks off of readers back then. Dino De Laurentiis produced, a sure sign of big-budget schlock (though to be fair, he did make his share of good films). And Executive Producer Ralph Serpe claimed MANDINGO would “bring about a better understanding between the races”. Who you kiddin’ bud? There’s no deep sociological message to MANDINGO – it’s strictly Exploitation fare, and should be treated as such. If you’re in the mood for some trashy fun in a “so-bad-it’s- good” kinda way, then MANDINGO is right up your alley. Don’t expect any more than that!

The Old Master: Boris Karloff in THE SORCERERS (Tigon, 1967)

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Boris Karloff had been in movies for almost fifty years by the time 1967 rolled around. The King of Horror hit it big in Universal’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, and went on to star in some of the genre’s true classics: THE MUMMY, THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE BODY SNATCHERS, and BEDLAM. While THE SORCERERS isn’t quite in the same league as those films, it gives Boris a chance to shine in the twilight of his career, ably assisted by the direction of young Michael Reeves (THE SHE BEAST, THE CONQUEROR WORM).

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Karloff plays Professor Monserrat, an elderly “medical hypnotist” living in a flat with wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). When bored young Londoner Mike (Ian Oglivy) meets the old gentleman, he’s promised “something new, something you’ve never done before….intoxication without hangover, ecstasy without consequences”. Mike is hooked up to the professor’s machine, a psychedelic light and sound trip that lets the aged couple control his mind and experience everything he does – sound, touch, taste. The professor wants to use this new gift to help older people, but once Estelle has gotten a taste of vicarious living, she craves more and more new experiences.

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Estelle has Mike rob a furrier, steal his best friend Alan’s (Victor Henry) motorcycle to go speeding down the road, causing a fight between the two. He doesn’t remember a thing about these incidents, which worries his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy). Professor Monserrat realizes Estelle’s gone too far and tries to stop her, but she bashes him with his own cane and ties him up. To prove her will’s stronger than his, Estelle has Mike stab his ex-girlfriend (Susan George) to death. Giddy with her newfound power, she has Mike kill a rock singer. Nicole and Victor saw him leave the nightclub with the girl, and confront him. A scuffle breaks out, and Mike goes on the run. The professor and Estelle engage in a battle of wills for control of Mike, leading to a doomed conclusion for all three of them…

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Boris Karloff gives a sympathetic performance in THE SORCERERS as the professor. Though crippled with arthritis and in obvious pain, the old master hadn’t lost any of the skills he learned from a lifetime of acting. Karloff still had his chops, and holds his own against stage and screen actress Lacey’s showier role. He would go on to star in Peter Bogdanovich’s debut TARGETS (1968), which is on my bucket list of films to see. After appearing with fellow horror icons Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and four Mexican lensed quickies, Boris Karloff passed away in 1969, acting right up til the end. There’s a reason he’s known as The King, and THE SORCERERS is a great example of a master actor doing what he does best.