Happy Birthday Vincent Price: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (AIP 1960)

I’ve covered Vincent Price’s film work 17 times here, which must be some kind of record. Can you tell he’s one of my all-time favorite actors? Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was born May 27, 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. The elegant, eloquent Price was also an avid art collector and gourmet cook of some note. He’s justifiably famous for his film noir roles, but Price etched his name in cinematic stone as one of filmdom’s Masters of Horror.

Price starred in his first fright film way back in 1940 with THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS . But it wasn’t until 1953’s 3-D outry HOUSE OF WAX that he became tagged as a horror star. Later in that decade, he made a pair of gimmicky shockers for director William Castle ( THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL , THE TINGLER), and in 1960 began his collaboration with Roger Corman on movies based (loosely, mind you) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The first in the series, 1960’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, helped usher in (sorry!) a whole new genre of horror…  Vincent Price Movies!

The story: a rider approaches a fog-shrouded, gloomy, decaying mansion. He’s Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon), betrothed of Madeline Usher, come to fetch his fiancé. Bristol, the Usher’s faithful servant (Harry Ellerbe), tells him Miss Madeline is ill and confined to her bed by brother Roderick. Enter our star, a blonde Price, as Roderick, a sensitive, tortured soul who suffers “an affliction of the hearing… sounds of an exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives”. Roderick warns Phillip to “leave this house” and forget about Madeline, for “the Usher line is cursed”, afflicted with madness.

Madeline (Myrna Fahey) arises from her sick-bed to greet Phillip. The beautiful but haunted girl is “obsessed with thoughts of death”, and leads Phillip downstairs to the family crypt, filled with dead ancestors and two coffins waiting for the last living Ushers. Roderick appears, and upstairs he later explains to Phillip the wicked legacy of his forbearers, whose macabre portraits hang on the walls of the house of Usher. He intones that “the house itself is evil now”, the sins of his family “rooted into its stones”.

Madeline dies following an argument with Roderick, dies, unable to take the strain of her situation. She’s buried in the family crypt, finally at peace… or is she? Bristol lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy, and a frantic Phillip rushes down to the crypt to find her coffin locked! He takes an axe to the lock, only to discover the casket’s empty! The angry suitor, axe in hand, confronts Roderick, demanding to know where she is. Roderick confesses she lives, telling Phillip, “Even now, I hear her, alive, deranged, in fury… twisting, turning, scratching at the lid with bloody fingernails… can you not hear her voice, she calls my name!”….

A subdued, understated Price left his trademarked ham at the table to play the tortured Roderick Usher. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when Price hams it up (see the Dr. Phibes films  , for example), but he could tone things down when the role warranted it. The cultured actor was a Poe aficionado, and his performances in this and the subsequent Corman/Poe films rank among his best work. This was also Corman’s first movie with scenarist Richard Matheson, who does a bang-up job despite taking some liberties with the source material. Surprisingly (or maybe not), American-International honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff didn’t like the idea, wanting Corman to stick to their profitable low-budget double features. “There’s no monsters”, he complained, and Corman had to explain that “The house IS the monster” before being given the green light*. The rest is horror history.

If Boris Karloff was the King of Horror and Lugosi its Dark Prince, surely Vincent Price has an exalted rank in the horror hierarchy as well. High priest, perhaps? He and his British compatriots Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (who was also born on this date) kept the torch of Gothic horror burning well into the 1970’s, before gore and slasher shockers started dominating the marketplace. Happy birthday, Vinnie, and thanks for the nightmares!

(BTW, those weird paintings of the family Usher were done by Burt Shonberg, a little known artist whose feverish works have never been truly appreciated. Since Vincent Price was an ardent collector of art, here’s a sampling of some of them. I think Vincent would approve!)

*according to the book “The Films of Roger Corman” by Alan Frank, pg. 88 (BT Batsford Ltd, 1998)

Vincent Price Goes to Camp in DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (AIP 1972)

Since 1971’s THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES  was such a big hit, American-International Pictures immediately readied a sequel for their #1 horror star, Vincent Price. But like most sequels, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN isn’t nearly as good as the unique original, despite the highly stylized Art Deco sets and the presence of Robert Quarry, who the studio had begun grooming as Price’s successor beginning with COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE. The murders (for the most part) just aren’t as monstrous, and too much comedy in director Robert Feust’s script (co-written with Robert Blees) turn things high camp rather than scary.

Price is good, as always, bringing the demented Dr. Anton Phibes back from the grave. LAUGH-IN announcer Gary Owens recaps the first film via clips, letting us know Phibes escaped both death and the police by putting himself in suspended animation. Returning with loyal servant Vulnavia (who’s now played by Valli Kemp, replacing a then-pregnant Virginia North), Phibes plots to travel to Egypt with his deceased wife Victoria to the ancient Pharaoh’s Tomb where flows the River of Life. Seems the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter’s aligned with Mars… no wait, that’s from the rock musical HAIR! Anyway, there’s some sort of astrological phenomenon involving the moon that will allow Phibes to revive his dormant bride.

Phibes’ home in Maldeen Square is in ruins, and he discovers his safe emptied of the Scared Scroll he needs to locate the tomb. It can only be the work of Darrus Biederbeck (Quarry), who has his own reasons to find the River of Life. This gives the good doctor an excuse to commit a series of gruesome murders in order to achieve his fiendish goal. The best is when Biederbeck’s manservant (actor/wrestler Milton Reid) is attacked by snakes (and you know how much I hate snakes! ) and gets the old hidden-spike-in-the-telephone-receiver-through-the-ears! Phibes’ other ghastly deeds involve having a man eaten alive by an eagle, stung by scorpions, squished between two blocks of granite, sandblasted to death, and thrown overboard inside a giant bottle of gin (Oscar winner Hugh Griffith gets that dubious honor). Ingenious yes, but not as cool as the previous movie’s ten curses of Egypt murders. You just can’t beat that Old Testament-style torture!

I thought Valli Kemp was misused as Vulnavia; instead of a silent-but-deadly assassin, she’s more like a spokesmodel from THE PRICE IS RIGHT (no pun intended). Scotland Yard’s finest, Inspector Trout and Superintendent Waverly (Peter Jeffries, John Cater) return, as do Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards. But the intrepid cops are basically comic relief, and the robotic Wizards are wasted. Peter Cushing  , Terry-Thomas, and Beryl Reid are also wasted in too-small cameos, though Fiona Lewis  has a good turn as Biederbeck’s fiancé Diana. Victoria Regina Phibes is still played by Caroline Munro, who can’t do much but look beautiful as a corpse. DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN is gorgeous to look at, but suffers the same fate as most sequels. The formula has worn thin, and though a third Phibes film was announced (THE BRIDES OF DR. PHIBES), it was never made. This entry did well enough at the box office, but Dr. Anton Phibes would rise no more.

 

 

 

 

Fall in Love with LAURA (20th Century Fox 1944)

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably watched LAURA more than once. It’s one of the top film noirs, indeed one of the top films period of the 1940’s. LAURA is unquestionably director Otto Preminger’s greatest achievement; some may argue for ANATOMY OF A MURDER or even ADVISE AND CONSENT, and they’re entitled to their opinions. But though both are great films, only LAURA continues to haunt the dreams of classic movie lovers, its main themes of love and obsession transferring to its fans even 73 years after its initial release.

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Preminger, along with scenarists Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, and Betty Reinhart, weave an intricate, sinister tapestry around the violent death of beautiful New York ad exec Laura Hunt. Cynical police detective Mark McPherson is determined to solve this particularly gruesome murder; Laura was killed at close range by a buckshot-loaded shotgun blast to the face. McPherson begins by questioning Waldo Lydecker, the acerbic newspaper columnist who relates via flashback how he “discovered” Laura and became her mentor, aiding her career and introducing her in high society circles, circles that contain lowlifes like the freeloading Shelby Carpenter, living off Laura’s Aunt Ann’s ‘generosity’ while becoming Laura’s fiancé.

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McPherson grills both Shelby and Ann, as well as Laura’s loyal housekeeper Bessie. He reads her intimate diary and letters from admirers, immersing himself in Laura’s life so deeply he becomes obsessed, falling in love with the dead woman. Waldo calls him on it, and McPherson lets on he’s uncovered Waldo’s own obsession and outright jealousy through the letters. McPherson gets drunk, falling asleep in the chair under a huge portrait of Laura.

Then Laura Hunt walks through the door, alive and well, and his entire world turns upside down….

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Now the fun really begins, as McPherson must discover who the dead girl was, and who knew what. The first comes easy, the second a bit more complicated. In the midst of all this mystery, McPherson and Laura fall in love, and the killer shows his hand in the exciting conclusion. LAURA has more twists than a pretzel, and is twice as tasty in its unfolding of the tale. The dark, moody cinematography by Joseph LaShelle deservedly won the Oscar that year; LaShelle was also nominated eight other times for films like MARTY, THE APARTMENT, and THE FORTUNE COOKIE. David Raskin’s haunting score includes Laura’s theme, which became a 40’s juke box hit with added lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Louis Loeffler’s skillful editing aids in ratcheting up the suspense.

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Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are the most romantic couple in noir, and both became genre icons. The pair again teamed with Preminger for 1950’s WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. Vincent Price is the sleazy gigolo Shelby, and Judith Anderson is good as Ann. But it’s Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued Waldo Lydecker who walks away with acting honors. The columnist “with a goose-quill dipped in venom” is simply stunning to watch as a man obsessed, going to any lengths to make Laura his and his alone, resorting to murder to achieve his goal. Webb had appeared in a handful of silent films, but this was his first foray to Hollywood since 1930, and he totally dominates every scene he’s in. He was nominated for, but did not win, Best Supporting Actor; the Oscar went to Barry Fitzgerald for GOING MY WAY. But LAURA put Webb on the map in Hollywood, and he went on to star in films like THE DARK CORNER,   THE RAZOR’S EDGE, TITANIC, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and his signature role as Mr. Belvedere in three film beginning with SITTING PRETTY.

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LAURA was also nominated for Preminger’s direction, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black & White Art Direction, for a total of five. It should have won more, but Leo McCarey’s sentimental GOING MY WAY dominated the Oscars that year. Both are classics, but for my money LAURA’s the better film, its dark look at love, lust, and obsession way ahead of its time. This is Otto Preminger’s masterpiece, a true cinema classic that stands up to the test of time and deserves its reputation. Definitely must viewing for readers of this blog!

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Elvis!: THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS (MGM 1969)

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Elvis Aron Presley was born on this date in 1935. The King of Rock’N’Roll got the older generation “All Shook Up” when he burst on the national scene in 1956 with hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”. He also made his first film that year, the Western LOVE ME TENDER, and was an immediate box office sensation. His following three films, LOVING YOU, JAILHOUSE ROCK , and KING CREOLE, were well done, but after his stint in the Army, and the success of 1961’s BLUE HAWAII, Presley’s 60’s movies followed a strict formula, thanks to manager Col. Tom Parker, with interchangeable titles like KISSIN’ COUSINS, HARUM SCARUM, and DOUBLE TROUBLE.

By the late 60’s, things had changed. The Beatles  were top of the pops, the psychedelic revolution was in full effect, and Elvis hadn’t had a hit record in a few years. The movies were still profitable, but lacked energy. Presley’s 1968 Comeback TV Special put The King back on his throne, and he ready to move with the times. Reportedly, he was offered the Jon Voight part in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which the Colonel adamantly refused to let him do, and Glen Campbell’s role in TRUE GRIT, the Colonel again vetoing on the basis of being billed lower than John Wayne (really, Colonel?). One of Elvis’ last movies was THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, a departure from the usual formula casting Presley as the boss of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 Iowa.

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Elvis is the white-suited, cigar smoking Walter Hale, leader of the troupe of actors, orators, and musicians who pull into the sleepy town of Radford Center. His “Story Lady” who runs the children’s pageant, Charlene, is a union-advocating proto-feminist, refusing to give the mayor’s daughter the lead, preferring the much-more talented Carol. Carol’s mother Nita is constantly being sexually harassed at work by her druggist boss Wilby, and wants a better life for her kid. Young Betty wants to leave small town life behind too, and is eager to get noticed.

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There’s also an illegal blackjack game going on by the riverbank, run by Chautauqua worker Clarence, and when Wilby gets in a fight after accusing the dealer of cheating, his body’s found floating in the river the next day. Clarence is arrested for murder, but Walter discovers Nita did the deed, and finds a way to help her and profit from it by having her confess before a live audience. Charlene is appalled at his exploitation of her, and Walter’s charlatan attitude in general, and quits the company, but sly Walter figures out a way to get her thrown out of town and back on the train for the next stop.

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Walter Hale is a change of pace role for Elvis, as is the film. He does get to sing, but his musical moments are few and far between. His lead Bible Singer gets ill, so he fills in on the traditional Gospel number “Swing Down Sweet Chariot”. He does a bluesy rendering of “Clean Up Your Own Backyard”, and does an introspective “Alone” at the piano near the end. There’s a few bits and pieces of vocalizing, but mainly Elvis acts, and while Walter Hale’s no Joe Buck or Ranger LaBoeuf, it’s certainly different than his usual leading roles, and Elvis does a fine job.

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Presley’s surrounded by a cast of pros. Marlyn Mason (Charlene) is best known for her TV roles. Sheree North (Nita) was a 50’s starlet in HOW TO BE VERY, VERY POPULAR and THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS, and later appeared as The Duke’s ex-love in THE SHOOTIST Edward Andrews (Walter’s assistant Johnny) is always good. Dabney Coleman’s at his sleazy best as Wilby. Nicole Jaffe (Betty)may not look familiar to you, but you’ll recognize her voice… she’s the voice of Velma from SCOOBY DOO! (Frank Welker, who voiced Fred, is also in the cast) Anissa Jones (little Carol) was Buffy on TV’s FAMILY AFFAIR.

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There are some fun cameos here. Vincent Price plays the erudite Mr. Morality, giving the crowd a lecture on the evils of sin as only Price can. John Carradine pops up as Mr. Drewcolt, a Shakespearian actor (Betty: “Do you think Romeo and Juliet had pre-marital relations?” Drewcolt: “Only in the Des Moines company”). Carradine even gets to recite a snippet of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet”, which must’ve pleased him no end! Joyce Van Patten is comical as distance swimmer Maude, who discovers Wilby’s body.

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THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS is entertaining, though anachronistic in places (all the women wear mini-skirts, for example), a solid comedy-drama that gave Elvis Presley a chance to break out of the formulaic “teen musicals” he was getting too old for anyway. There was one more movie on the way, CHANGE OF HABIT with Mary Tyler Moore, before his film career ended, with only a couple of tour documentaries in the 70’s before his tragic death in 1977 at age 42. Elvis left an indelible mark on the world of music, but in movies only a handful tested his mettle as an actor. THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS tries to break the “Elvis movie” mold, and will satisfy even non-Presley fans. Happy birthday, King Elvis, long may you reign!

Flight of Fancy: Vincent Price in MASTER OF THE WORLD (AIP 1961)

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MATSER OF THE WORLD is AIP’s answer to Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA . Both are based on the works of Jules Verne, and involve fanatical protagonists commanding futuristic ships (an airship in this case). The difference is in budget, as studio honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson didn’t have the financial means to compete with the mighty Walt Disney. They did have Vincent Price though, and within their monetary constraints came up with an entertaining mini-epic enhanced by another solid Richard Matheson script.

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Price stars as Captain Robur, who’s fantastic flying airship Albatross rules the skies of 1868. When his amplified voice bellows some scripture from a mountain (does this make Vinnie the Voice of God?), balloon enthusiasts Mr. Prudent, daughter Dorothy, and her fiancé Phillip Evans, along with government agent John Strock, investigate, only to be shot down by Robur’s rockets and taken prisons aboard his flying fortress.

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Robur and his crew (dressed in striped shirts ala 20,000 LEAGUES) plan to force the nations of the world to end war by bombing the crap out of any warships they fly over. This “peace through strength” tactic doesn’t go so over well with the prisoners, whose escape attempt winds up with Evans and Strock being dangled from the Albatross at high altitude. To make matters worse, there’s a budding rivalry between the two men for Dorothy’s affections.

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The fact that Strock is played by Charles Bronson   and Evans by little-known British actor David Frankham should tell you who wins in that department! Bronson’s good in an early good-guy role, especially his impassioned “honor be damned!” speech. Mary Webster, another Brit, is the object of their affections. Veteran Henry Hull overacts as bombastic munitions manufacturer Prudent, but it’s still good to see the former WEREWOLF OF LONDON onscreen again. Vito Scotti is the supposed comic relief as chef Topage, and muscleman Richard Harrison and AIP vet Wally Campo are Robur’s main crewmen.

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Vincent Price stated this was one of his favorite roles. As the Nemo-like Robur, Price tones it down and offers an intelligent portrait of a man who uses his genius to try to end the folly of war. His end soliloquy, quoting from Isaiah 2:4 (“All the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never shall they learn war anymore”) while the Albatross descends to its inevitable doom, is stirring stuff. I know, Robur’s supposed to be a madman and the nominal villain of the piece, but I found myself rooting for him more often than not.

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I couldn’t root for the not-so-special special effects of Tim Baar, Wah Chang, and Gene Warren though, but hampered by the low-budget, I guess they did their best. There’s tons of stock footage interspersed throughout the film, including an opening montage of early attempts to fly you’ve seen a hundred times. Director William Witney puts his experience with serials (CAPTAIN MARVEL, SPY SMASHER, MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN) and B-Westerns to good use, moving things along at a brisk pace. Daniel Haller’s art direction stands out, but Les Baxter’s score is intrusive. MASTER OF THE WORLD is an uneven film, certainly not in the category of Disney’s Jules Verne classic, but an okay way to spend an hour and a half. If you shut your brain off and don’t expect too much out of it, you just might enjoy it.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: Jane Russell in THE LAS VEGAS STORY (RKO 1952)

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Jane Russell’s  sexy as always, but THE LAS VEGAS STORY falls flatter than the proverbial pancake. This dull little crime drama boasts a good cast and some good moments, but on the whole doesn’t satisfy. One of the problems is Jane’s co-star Victor Mature, who tries but can’t match the cynicism frequent Russell co-star Robert Mitchum would’ve brought to the role of Jane’s jilted ex-lover, now a cop in the City of Sin. The most interesting thing about THE LAS VEGAS STORY is it’s screenplay credits, which we’ll get to later.

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When ex-lounge singer Linda Rollins (Russell) returns to Vegas with husband Lloyd (a subdued but still sarcastic Vincent Price ), she visits her old stomping ground the Last Chance, where she’s greeted by piano player Happy (Hoagy Carmichael) and former boss Mike Fogarty (Will Wright), who’s been bought out by new owner Clayton (Robert J. Wilke). Police lieutenant Dave Andrews (Mature), Linda’s ex, comes along and is still angry over being dumped by Linda.

Lloyd’s got problems of his own, having embezzled big bucks from his firm in Boston, and uses Linda’s $150,000 diamond necklace to get a line of credit from Clayton, which results in him losing both the dough and the necklace. Sleazy insurance investigator Hubler ( Brad Dexter ) has been following the Rollins’s, keeping his eye on the prize. When Clayton is found murdered late one night, Dave arrests Lloyd for the crime, but the real killer is still on the loose…

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Jane’s undeniable charms make the movie watchable, whether it’s in flashback singing “Of Course I Do” (complete with Bettie Page-style ‘do!) or a brief but sexy shower scene. RKO boss Howard Hughes knew how to use her attributes to maximum effect, and her acting ability didn’t suffer for it. When it comes to Victor Mature, he’s good when given the right role (see MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or I WAKE UP SCREAMING for example), but here he’s just dull. Robert Stevenson’s pedestrian direction doesn’t help matters, as even the chase scene through the desert, culminating in a climactic duel at a shut-down army base, fails to kick into high gear. It’s a shame, because the movie had potential, but the lackluster effort put into it causes it to sink under its own weight.

Hoagy Carmichael is good as Happy, and brightens up the proceedings whenever he’s on screen. The composer of standards like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Stardust” acted in films before, most memorably with Bogie and Bacall in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and wrote the songs for this one, including a funny ditty called “The Monkey Song”:

Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (left) at HUAC hearings
Screenwriter Paul Jarrico (left) at HUAC hearings

Earl Fenton and Harry Essex are credited with the uninspired screenplay, but Paul Jarrico also contributed. Jarrico’s name was taken off the credits by Hughes because he’d been named as a communist sympathizer by HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) during the blacklist era. Jarrico, who wrote the films THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , THOUSANDS CHEER, and SONG OF RUSSIA (a film named pro-Soviet propaganda by HUAC), sued to restore his name and lost, the court ruling Jarrico was in violation of the studio’s morals clause. This in turn gave studios free rein to use blacklisted writer’s work without crediting them, or paying them fairly for their toils, either. Jarrcio was booted out of Hollywood, later making SALT OF THE EARTH with fellow blacklistee Herbert Biberman (which became the only FILM to be blacklisted because of its writer and director!) and moving to Europe to ply his trade for another twenty years.

All this behind-the-scenes bullshit didn’t matter to moviegoers, as THE LAS VEGAS STORY bombed at the box office. The film’s definitely minor league, despite a fine cast, and I really don’t think Mr. Jarrico should’ve wasted his time on it. Neither should you; go watch Jane steam up the screen with Mitchum in HIS KIND OF WOMAN or MACAO instead.