Topkapi (1964)

“I’m going to have it — it has to be mine.”

Synopsis:
A nymphomaniac, jewel-obsessed thief (Melina Mercouri) enlists the help of her former lover (Maximilian Schell) in pulling together a crew — including a mechanical genius (Robert Morley), a mute “human fly” (Gilles Segal), a muscleman (Jess Hahn), and a driver (Peter Ustinov) — to steal the emeralds on a dagger in Turkey’s Topkapi Palace. When bumbling Ustinov is captured by Turkish government officials, he becomes a double-agent — but whose side will he eventually land on?

Genres:

Review:
Jules Dassin’s playfully comedic re-visioning of his earlier heist masterpiece Rififi (1955) was this colorful but oddly uninvolving adventure flick, starring Dassin’s real-life wife (Melina Mercouri). The problem with light-hearted caper flicks is that there’s no gravitas: we know the protagonists won’t suffer serious harm, so the main fun is in watching their antics. To that end, I find neither Mercouri nor Ustinov particularly appealing or amusing — however, the final heist sequence is inspirational and well worth a watch, and the cinematography throughout is solid. Be forewarned that the ending is especially abrupt and unsatisfying.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The fun, colorful opening titles
  • Henri Alekan’s cinematography
  • The impressively filmed heist sequence

Must See?
No, though of course fans of heist flicks will certainly want to check it out.

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Giant Behemoth, The (1959)

“The ocean is my province, gentlemen, but how little we know about it. We only touch the surface with our lines and our dragnets, our diving suits and bathyscapes. For all we know, what we have started may have already matured… And who can tell when this — this — whatever it is, will rise to the surface and strike back at us?”

Synopsis:
Several scientists (Gene Evans, Andre Morell, and Jack MacGowran) investigate the presence of a deadly atomic creature roaming the coast of Cornwall.

Genres:

Review:
This rehash of director Eugene Lourie’s earlier mutant monster flick The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is an atmospherically filmed but narratively dull tale of radioactive dangers along the coast of Cornwall. Potential romantic interest between a hunky scientist (Morell) and the beautiful daughter (Leigh Madison) of a fisherman (Henri Vidon) who was the Behemoth’s first casualty goes nowhere, essentially vanishing by the second half of the story. The film’s settings are its primary redeeming asset, with gorgeous cinematography of rocky shores — but otherwise, there’s little here to distinguish this from other monsters-on-the-rampage flicks. This film is primarily of note for featuring direction by stop-motion guru Willis O’Brien — best known for his work on The Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine use of authentic sets in Cornwall

  • Ken Hodges’ b&w cinematography

  • Edwin Astley’s at times creative score

Must See?
No, though fans of the genre will probably want to check it out once.

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River’s Edge (1986)

“That’s it? He murders Jamie and we just ignore it?”

Synopsis:
When a teen (Daniel Roebuck) tells his friends (Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye Letch, Roxana Zal, and Josh Richman) that he just murdered his girlfriend (Danyi Deats), they react with surprising nonchalance — until Layne (Glover) decides they need to protect their friend from the law, and enlists the help of an ex-biker (Dennis Hopper) in keeping Roebuck safe.

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Review:
Based on a real-life murder that occurred in Milpitas, California in 1981, this bleak, nihilistic teen-flick is intentionally shocking, and has maintained its potency many years later, when social media would surely add an entirely new layer to the tragedy (indeed, River’s Edge serves as an important reminder that anomie, apathy, and group-think aren’t the result of online technology taking over youths’ lives — they’ve long existed). Screenwriter Neal Jimenez situates this group of aimless teens between two key adults: their former-activist high school teacher (Jim Metzler), who can’t seem to get over the loss of his era, and his counterpart (Hopper), an openly disturbed yet oddly sympathetic one-time murderer who finds solace in a life-size female doll (21 years before Lars and the Real Girl [2007] became the best-known movie to cover this territory). Reeves and Skye — who strike up a steamy affair in the midst of the central conflict over “to tell or not to tell” — are presumably meant to serve as the film’s moral compass, but the presence of Reeves’ demonic younger brother (Joshua John Miller) indicates that generations aren’t trending in the right direction — and their pot-smoking, overwhelmed, divorced mom (Constance Forslund) is simply one clear symptom why. Crazed Glover ties with Hopper as perhaps the film’s most memorable character — a stoner and would-be leader with a passionate (if dysfunctional) sense of loyalty to the living.

Note: Click here to read more from a reporter’s perspective on how the original murder case deviates from what was depicted on-screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Crispin Glover as Layne
  • Dennis Hopper as Feck
  • Frederick Elmes’ cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a dark cult favorite. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Kongo (1932)

“My one purpose in life is to see that sneer turn into fear!”

Synopsis:
A crippled, monomaniacal magician (Walter Huston) who holds sway over a tribe of African natives seeks revenge on his wife’s lover (C. Henry Gordon) by torturing Gordon’s daughter (Virginia Bruce), who was raised in a convent before being brought to Africa as a white slave, and seeks solace from her life of misery through the love of a kind but drug-addicted doctor (Conrad Nagel).

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Review:
This “talkie” remake of Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928) — itself based on a 1926 Broadway play — is primarily notable as one of a handful of films that led directly to Hollywood’s self-censoring Production Code. As noted in TCM’s article, “The plot alone was enough to cause controversy as it had every element the Hays Code would later list as unmentionable: rape, torture, drug addiction, alcoholism, and sado-masochism” (not to mention “white slavery”). Huston is appropriately menacing and maniacal in the lead role — though Lon Chaney was perhaps even more memorable, which points to the fact that the original (silent) film basically achieved its goal well enough, and Kongo thus remains simply an equally-sordid retelling. However, this version is worth a one-time look to see Lupe Velez in a pre-“Mexican Spitfire” role, and for its historical notoriety (it’s a potent reminder of what used to be considered acceptable narrative fodder).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography


Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance and notoriety.

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Colossus of New York, The (1958)

“It would have been inhuman to deprive the world of his genius!”

Synopsis:
When his scientist-son (Ross Martin) is tragically killed, a surgeon (Otto Kruger) enlists the help of his other son (John Baragrey) in transplanting Martin’s brain into a robotic body so he can continue his research — but what will happen when Martin’s wife (Mala Powers) and son (Charles Herbert) learn he’s still “alive”?

Genres:

Review:
Director Eugene Lourie’s follow-up to The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was this disappointing Frankenstein-esque tale of a man (Kruger) determined to preserve his son’s (Martin’s) genius and altruism at all costs. Unfortunately, the film’s intriguing premise outweighs everything else about it — including the script (by parapsychologist Dr. Thelma [Schnee] Moss), the characterizations, the performances, and the costume design. We’re shown an impossibly brilliant, young, kind, altruistic family man killed JUST before receiving a Nobel Peace Prize (darn timing), while running pell-mell after his son’s paper airplane and not noticing a truck barreling down the road — at which point his father (Kruger, who apparently couldn’t NOT be typecast as a baddie) inexplicably finds a way to preserve his brain, and his bland brother (suffering from lifelong insecurity in his sibling’s shadow) just happens to know how to craft a clumsy robotic body that will house Martin’s brain and allow him to continue his invaluable work. However, the pesky reality of being disembodied from his former self and no longer able to live with his wife and son — and generally unable to control his own existence — shifts Martin’s entire mindset, making him dangerous rather than beneficial to society. I suppose the moral of the story is that you can’t expect a man to live by his brain alone, but there are far too many unanswered questions here to fully engage us in this premise — and the robot suit is just silly looking.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some effective cinematography
  • Creative filming of the opening titles (reflected in water)

Must See?
No; skip this clunker.

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Double Life, A (1947)

“I know if we ever got mixed up in an Othello kind of thing, it would be — the end.”

Synopsis:
An actor (Ronald Colman) with a history of becoming dangerously over-invested in his roles decides to perform as Othello opposite his ex-wife (Signe Hasso), who still loves him but fears his moodiness. While rehearsing, Colman has an affair with a sexy waitress (Shelley Winters) and becomes increasingly unhinged, leading Hasso and Colman’s manager (Edmond O’Brien) to wonder if his neurotic engagement with the play will lead to dire consequences.

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Review:
While the premise of this theater-centric flick (scripted by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin) appears a bit overly “tidy” at first — it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for a beloved actor raking in money and applause, who (poor thing) must make challenging decisions about which roles to take on next — the storyline quickly turns satisfyingly dark, as we understand that Colman’s neuroses are deep-seated, and his situation represents the ongoing metaphorical challenge of balancing a “double life” in any context. Colman won an Oscar for his performance as Tony/Othello — but in his Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the award instead to Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), noting that while for years he was “impressed by Colman in almost all his films, dating back to the silent era”, he eventually came to the “sad realization that this handsome and dignified screen presence wasn’t a particularly good actor”. He further argues that “in A Double Life, he’s not convincing as the actor or as the crazed killer the actor becomes”, and that he “looks impressive but is dull in the stage scenes”.

I disagree with Peary, and find it challenging to understand how Colman’s “award-guaranteeing scenes as Othello, which critics of the day loved as much as did the audiences in the movie, reveal his limitations as an actor”. While I’m not a fan of snooty theater actors or blindingly possessive husbands, Colman’s conviction and pathos in both roles is compelling. Actors are temperamental creatures (to say the least!), and Colman takes that archetype to the hilt here. Winters, meanwhile, does a stand-out job in her break-through role as Colman’s mistress, and Hasso is poignant as well. Milton Krasner’s cinematography makes the entire shadowy affair a noir-ish treat to watch. Watch for Betsy Blair in an unexpectedly humorous (though poignant) scene as a would-be actress desperate to convince O’Brien she’s right for a real-life part in his investigative sleuthing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ronald Colman as Tony/Othello

  • Signe Hasso as Brita/Desdemona
  • Shelley Winters as Pat
  • Milton Krasner’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, to see Colman’s Oscar-winning performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Gorgo (1961)

“This is the 20th century — there must be some way of handling an overgrown animal!”

Synopsis:
A pair of merchant seamen (Bill Travers and William Sylvester) capture an ancient, dinosaur-like sea monster off the coast of Ireland, and bring him to London to exhibit in a circus — but scientists soon discover that “Gorgo” is merely an infant, and his mother is on a rampage to retrieve him.

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Review:
Russian-born French director Eugene Lourie made four “genre flicks” about mutant monsters, all of which are listed in Peary’s book: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Colossus of New York (1958), The Giant Behemoth / Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959), and this — a British take on King Kong (1933) and Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) (not technically a “mutant monster” film, but, close enough). Gorgo is decently filmed, with excellent cinematography by Freddie Young and plenty of atmospheric special effects and sets, so it will surely appeal to those who enjoy giant-creatures-on-a-rampage flicks. It’s especially freaky seeing Gorgo’s mum (“Orga”) handily destroying Big Ben and the Tower Bridge, and tramping through the Thames. The idiocy of people willing to take any risk to see a spectacle is also handily highlighted here: as circus-going Londoners munch on puffy pink cotton candy, we can’t help musing that their brains are made of a similar substance. There are plenty of laugh-worthy elements throughout Gorgo — click here for a compilation of best moments from MST3K — so it can be enjoyed on that level as well. The final scene is surprisingly touching.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Freddie Young’s cinematography

  • Fine special effects

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance.

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Merry Widow, The (1934)

“Have you ever had diplomatic relations with a woman?”

Synopsis:
When a wealthy widow (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves for Paris — thus threatening her small nation’s financial livelihood through loss of tax revenue — the King of Marshovia (George Barbier) orders a playboy captain (Maurice Chevalier) to court her and bring her back.

Genres:

Review:
Based on an oft-filmed, beloved operetta by Franz Lehar, this romantic musical by director Ernst Lubitsch features Jeanette MacDonald in one of her best-known roles, starring opposite an actor (Maurice Chevalier) she detested in real life — thus making their on-screen romantic challenges all the more believable. The storyline is pure fluff, as perhaps it should be, with Chevalier’s playboy apparently so desirable he can bed any woman he wants — including the King’s wife (Una Merkel) — while not instilling a shred of possessiveness or jealousy in a one of them. (It’s quite extraordinary — see still below; click to enlarge.)

Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope’s Oscar-winning art direction, and Adrian’s gorgeous gowns (according to TCM, MacDonald’s 24 gowns alone “were so lavish it took 12 seamstresses four months to build them”) make this a treat to watch, and fans of MacDonald won’t want to miss it — but it’s not quite must-see viewing for all film fanatics. I recommend seeing MacDonald in Naughty Marietta (1935) instead.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Stunning gowns by Adrian
  • Lavish sets

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed in the back of Peary’s book as a film with Historical Relevance and a Personal Favorite.

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Maniac (1934)

“Doctors and scientists often have some queer things on their mind.”

Synopsis:
Mad Dr. Meierschultz (Horace Carpenter) enlists the help of his assistant, an ex-vaudevillian (Bill Woods), in stealing corpses to bring back to life. After killing Woods in self-defense, Carpenter assumes his identity and continues his work, going mad himself in the process.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is a huge fan of this “legitimate challenge to Plan 9 from Outer Space as the worst film ever made”, calling it “unbelievable and unforgettable”, a “consistently hilarious Poverty Row sleaze masterpiece”, and “the camp-lover’s dream come true”. He argues that it “manages to be tasteless and ridiculous the entire way through”, and notes that the “acting is sublimely bad”. I’ll admit I’m not nearly as enamored by this Z-grade flick as Peary is; sure, it’s ludicrous through-and-through, but it comes across merely as a pastiche of inept scenarios “interrupted throughout with text describing various forms of mental illness”. The two most infamous scenes show Wood wreaking gory vengeance on a cat who has eaten a preserved heart by “squeezing out its eyeball and swallowing it”, and an unlucky visitor (Tod Andrews) who is accidentally shot up with the wrong solution and “goes into an astonishing dying routine, rubbing his hands over his body and then his head, distorting his face, and speaking of terrible burning pain”, then imagining “himself as the orangutan murderer from Murders in the Rue Morgue” and picking up a “revived but catatonic ‘dead’ woman as she just happens to walk through the office”, carrying “her through the woods — her bare breasts show! — and then put[ting] her down and… strangling her”. If this all sounds like your cup of tea, go for it — but truly, this one simply belongs to the annals of early cinematic ineptitude.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some creepy imagery and reasonably effective low-budget cinematography

Must See?
No, though you may be curious to view it once for its cult status — and it’s easy enough to find as a public domain title.

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Valley of Gwangi, The (1969)

“Just think what you and Miss Breckenridge could do with a dozen Eohippi!”

Synopsis:
A stuntman (James Franciscus) and a rodeo star (Gila Golan) accompany a paleontologist (Laurence Naismith) and a young guide (Curtis Arden) to Forbidden Valley, where prehistoric creatures roam.

Genres:

Review:
Cowboys meet dinosaurs in this impossibly hokey fantasy-western featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen and an adorable ancient horse known as an Eohippus. Everything about the ridiculous screenplay — including a gypsy (Freda Jackson) muttering an inscrutable curse, Franciscus and Golan’s terribly dubbed hot-and-cold romance, and Naismith’s cliche-worthy eager-scientist — is merely an excuse to feature Harryhausen’s creatures, and eventually show a dinosaur (“Gwangi”) roped into a Wild West show. Will Gwangi stay put for the crowds? (What do you think?) Creatures “co-existing” (er, battling it out) together in the valley include a Pteranodon, an Allosaurus (Gwangi), and a Styracosaurus, and they’re all nicely animated by Harryhausen. But this flick — loosely based on The Lost World and King Kong — is really only must-see for Harryhausen’s followers.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harryhausen’s animation


Must See?
No — this one is only must-see for Harryhausen completists.

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