Devil’s Disciple, The (1959)

“We don’t arrest them unless we’re going to hang ’em.”

Synopsis:
During the American Revolutionary War, a priest (Burt Lancaster) rides with a local parishioner (Neil McCallum) to the imminent hanging of McCallum’s father, wrongly accused of treason by Major Swindon (Harry Andrews) and his superior, General Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier) — but they are too late to save him. McCallum’s prodigal brother (Kirk Douglas) rescues his father’s hung body and returns it to his childhood home, where Lancaster insists on allowing Douglas safe haven despite the protests of his wife (Janette Scott). When Lancaster is called away to oversee the sudden funeral of Douglas’s mother (Eva Le Gallienne), Douglas is mistaken by British soldiers for Lancaster, and taken away to be hanged. How will Lancaster respond when he returns and learns what has transpired — including his wife’s sudden affection for Douglas?

Genres:

Review:
This adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1897 play is one of four Peary-listed titles co-starring Douglas and Lancaster — including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), and Seven Days in May (1964). It’s a curiously told story, with Lancaster’s wife experiencing a rapidly shifting hate-love relationship with Douglas that doesn’t ring realistic, and the final sequences exhibiting more slapsticky physical humor than one would expect in an historical drama about war, treason, and executions. Most noteworthy is Olivier’s supporting performance as a gentlemanly Brit who, along with inept Andrews, represents the distance and disdain that led to England’s eventual defeat in the war. Also of note are the clever, unexpected animated sequences using maps and stop motion, and Jack Hildyard’s atmospheric cinematography.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Olivier as General Burgoyne
  • Jack Hildyard’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

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Macabre (1958)

“We’ve got to think like the man who did this — it’s the only way that we’re going to find Marge.”

Synopsis:
With help from his loyal nurse (Jacqueline Scott), a widowed doctor (William Prince) whose blind and pregnant sister-in-law (Christine White) has just passed away receives a message that his daughter (Dorothy Morris) has been buried alive in a coffin and has only five hours to live before asphyxiating.

Genres:

Review:
William Castle’s breakthrough “gimmick horror” film — in which he offered audience members “death by fright” life insurance policies — was this race-against-the-clock thriller, which provides plenty of atmospheric sets and shadows while maintaining genuine suspense about Morris’s well-being and who the actual culprit is. Scott is a plucky sleuth-in-waiting; hard-working character actress Ellen Corby (check out her resume on IMDb!) is appopriately mysterious as a long-time nanny; and Jonathan Kidd is nicely cast as an anxious funeral director with a chip on his shoulder. Jim Backus’s character, on the other hand, feels out of place, and a flashback tale about Prince’s blind sister-in-law seems like a subplot from another movie. Overall, however, this is a solid horror outing, worth a look for fans of Castle’s work.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

  • Fun credits
  • Les Baxter’s score

Must See?
No, but it’s got some nice thrills, and is must-see for Castle fans.

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House on Haunted Hill (1959)

“Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here.”

Synopsis:
An eccentric millionaire (Vincent Price) and his embittered wife (Carol Ohmart) invite five strangers — a secretary (Carolyn Craig), a pilot (Richard Long), a journalist (Julie Mitchum), a psychiatrist (Alan Marshal), and the owner of a haunted house (Elisha Cook, Jr.) — to spend the night in Cook’s house, promising them each $10,000 if they can last the night.

Genres:

Review:
One of gimmick-meister William Castle’s best-known and loved films was this Old Dark House flick (remade in 1999 and apparently in development as another remake), featuring Emergo — a skeleton “emerged” from the theater and descended upon audiences — and plenty of twists and turns to keep audiences screaming in fright. The storyline, centered around Price’s contentiously bitter arguments with fourth-wife Ohmart, keeps us guessing about who’s up to what, and it’s relatively easy to forgive some egregious lapses in logic (isn’t that what horror films are known for?). Price, Ohmart, and Cook, Jr. are especially well cast, and the other actors acquit themselves nicely.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography
  • A number of effectively spooky moments

Must See?
Yes, for its historical importance as a film that inspired Hitchcock and was beloved by audiences of the day. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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North Star, The (1943)

“We’re the younger generation, and the future of our nation!”

Synopsis:
Ukrainian villagers — including high school graduate Marina (Anne Baxter), her college-bound fiance Damian (Farley Granger), her best friend Clavdia (Jane Withers), Clavdia’s brother (Eric Roberts), and Damian’s older brother (Dana Andrews) — must deal with the sudden invasion of Nazi soldiers in their nation, including heinous crimes against children led by Dr. von Harden (Erich von Stroheim).

Genres:

Review:
This Oscar-nominated Hollywood production — featuring Lewis Milestone as director, Lillian Hellman as screenwriter, Aaron Copland as composer, James Wong Howe as ciematographer, William Cameron Menzies as producer, and a bevy of major stars — remains a most curious wartime entry, made during the 1941-1945 U.S.-Soviet alliance when some were keen to tell the Soviets’ tale of patriotic resistance against the Nazis. Interestingly, the directorial style — especially during the surreal first third, which is designed like a sound-stage operetta — bears much in common with early Soviet cinema, yet with the added cognitive dissonance of seeing well-known American stars populating the screen. There is unfortunately very little to commend during these opening scenes, which are set up simply as a starkly idyllic, drawn-out counterpoint to the hell that’s about to descend, complete with corny musical interludes. There’s a hinted-at romantic triangle established between Baxter, Granger, and Andrews — which later turns into an opportunity for Granger to show his worthiness as more than “simply” a university student — and for Withers (oh-so-poorly miscast) to be dumped upon as a fat (?) and pathetically lovestruck young woman who is also eventually given a chance to show her mettle. Once fighter planes ruthlessly bomb civilians on a road — a Nazi pilot grins with evil glee — the film becomes almost shockingly brutal, including sequences taking place under the supervision of von Stroheim’s calmly evil doctor. Will the villagers prevail? Wait for Anne Baxter’s final speech to find out.

Note: The history behind this film’s production, release, reception, and subsequent Red-sanitized re-release under a different name (Armored Attack) is well worth reading about.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • Skilled camera direction
  • Shockingly realistic scenes of wartime brutality

Must See?
No, though I suppose it’s worth a look as a historical curiosity.

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Flame and the Arrow, The (1950)

“A man who knows what he’s dying for only seems to die.”

Synopsis:
In medieval Hessian-occupied Italy, an archer named Dardo (Burt Lancaster) loses his son (Gordon Gebert) to his estranged wife (Lynn Baggett), who is cohabitating with Count Ulrich “The Hawk” (Frank Allenby). With the help of his loyal sidekick (Nick Cravat), Dardo kidnaps The Hawk’s niece (Virginia Mayo) for ransom, and attempts to bargain for his son.

Genres:

Review:
Jacques Tourneur directed this Waldo Salt-scripted historical adventure flick, co-starring Burt Lancaster and his former circus partner Nick Cravat (the duo would go on to co-star in The Crimson Pirate two years later). The Flame and the Arrow — the top-grossing film of its year — is prime escapist fare, filmed in Technicolor and featuring both swashbuckling fights and daring acrobatic feats performed by Lancaster and Cravat themselves. Indeed, it’s easy to see how audiences of the time would appreciate its colorful sense of fun, daring, and rebellion, with beautiful and feisty Virginia Mayo included as well. With that said, it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics, but rather recommended for those who enjoy well-told tales of this time period and genre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colorful sets and fight sequences

  • Ernest Haller’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worthy viewing for fans of swashbucklers.

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Conqueror, The (1956)

“I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her.”

Synopsis:
With assistance from his loyal brother (Pedro Armendariz), a Mongol warrior (John Wayne) soon-to-be-known-as Genghis Khan attempts to conquer neighboring tribes while also winning the heart of his captive wife (Susan Hayward).

Genres:

Review:
“John Wayne as Genghis Khan!” What sounds like a joke is actually a reality, as borne out by this notoriously awful mash-up of westerns and 13th century Mongolian history. According to Hollywood legend, Wayne walked into producer Dick Powell’s office, saw this script in the trashcan, pulled it out, and decided he wanted to have a go at it (and who says no to the world’s top box office star?). Wayne’s flat accent and performance-a-la-cowboy are the first and most obvious sacrificial elements one notices, but there’s plenty more to hoot at: the elaborately colorful and creative “historical” costumes; the florid script by Oscar Millard; the lack of actual Asians playing any of the lead characters; the number of horses that seem to simply topple over during the battle sequences (none were hurt in real life); the surreal dance performance; and the horrifically offensive seduction-through-rape romance depicted between Wayne and Hayward (who thankfully reports she simply laughed hysterically after each take). In addition to being cringeworthingly bad, this film is infamous for its (literally) toxic filming circumstances: three times as many cast and crew participants died of cancer than would normally occur in a population of its size. According to Wikipedia:

Parts of the film were shot in Snow Canyon, Warner Valley, Pine Valley, Leeds, and Harrisburg, Utah. The exterior scenes were shot near St. George, Utah, 137 miles (220 km) downwind of the United States government’s Nevada National Security Site. In 1953, 11 above-ground nuclear weapons tests occurred at the site as part of Operation Upshot–Knothole. The cast and crew spent many difficult weeks at the site, and Hughes later shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood in order to match the Utah terrain and lend realism to studio re-shoots. The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests but the federal government assured residents that the tests caused no hazard to public health.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many laughably terrible and/or ill-conceived elements

Must See?
I’ll weigh in with a Yes on this train wreck, simply because film fanatics won’t be able to curb their curiosity, and may get some laughs.

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Home of the Brave (1949)

“You either like a guy or you don’t. That’s all there is to it; that’s all there’ll ever be to it.”

Synopsis:
During World War II, a paralyzed war veteran (James Edwards) tells an army psychiatrist (Jeff Corey) about his experiences as the only black man in an otherwise all-white platoon — led by a young major (Douglas Dick) — tasked with reconnaissance work on a Pacific island held by the Japanese. While his former high school buddy (Lloyd Bridges) is genuinely thrilled to see him again, a bigot (Steve Brodie) is open in his disdain, and a troubled sergeant (Frank Lovejoy) observes their conflicts with concern.

Genres:

Review:
Based on a play by Arthur Laurents (in which the protagonist is Jewish), Home of the Brave is a refreshingly bold if dated and still-troubling depiction of racism in mid-century America. The flashback narrative structure reflects simplistic notions that psychoanalysis can cure enormous ills: if only Edwards can remember exactly what happened the night his legs stopped working, he will surely be well. Setting this dramatically dubious convention aside, Edwards’ challenges come across as all too realistic, aptly demonstrating the insidiousness of what it’s like to endure chronic racism, both blunt and subtle, on a daily basis. The main problem with Edwards’ travails is that they are presented as simply Edwards’ own deeply internalized belief in what he’s been told for years — that he’s inherently lesser than whites on every level. Bridges tries to convince Edwards to move past this toxic brainwashing, but slips up himself at one point, almost using a derogatory term and demonstrating that racist sentiments really are just a tongue slip away. As noted in TCM’s review, which cites directly from Donald Bogle’s Blacks in American Films and Television: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (1989)

… there is a tinge of patronage because it is the white man offering his hand to the black man. Yet there is still something decent about the film’s sincerity and its optimism.

Indeed, Home of the Brave is a rare attempt to face uncomfortable race relations head on, and is worth a look for its unusual and unflinching storyline.

Note: It’s telling that the NY Times referred to racism as “the urgent and delicate subject of anti-Negro prejudice”; this was about the level of engagement possible at the time in mainstream media.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • James Edwards as Moss
  • Lloyd Bridges as Finch
  • Robert de Grasse’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical value.

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Moon and Sixpence, The (1942)

“I tell you, I’ve GOT to paint – I can’t help myself!”

Synopsis:
A writer (Herbert Marshall) recounts the tale of a self-absorbed Brit (George Sanders) who leaves his wife (Molly Lamont) and children for a life of solitary painting in Paris. Once there, Strickland (Sanders) is idolized and cared for by a meek acquaintance (Steven Geray) whose wife (Doris Dudley) abandons him for Strickland. Will a life in tropical paradise — where a matchmaker (Flora Bates) convinces him to marry a lovely young maiden (Elena Verdugo) — change Strickland’s misogynistic and anti-social ways? Does this even matter, as long as he continues to secretly make Great Art?

Genres:

Review:
Albert Lewin’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel — loosely based on an outline of Paul Gauguin’s life — afforded Sanders his second-most-hated cinematic character after Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950), and remains an insufferably misogynistic apologia for Artistic Male Geniuses as Permissible Bastards. There is very little to commend in this tale about an admittedly revolting man who nonetheless is lionized by the end (final title card notwithstanding). Perhaps the most egregious of many exchanges occur once Strickland is on Tahiti, where he deigns to consider marrying a beautiful and adoring 15-year-old girl with flowing hair and limited English. The local matchmaker, Tiare (Bates, having fun in a florid role), explains to the ever-inquisitive Marshall (as Geoffrey Wolfe):

Tiare: I was only 15 when my father found out that I had a sweetheart. He was 3rd mate on the Tropic Bird. Oh, he was a good looking boy.
Wolfe: What did your father do?
Tiare: He thrashed me within an inch of a life, then made me marry Captain Johnson!
Wolfe: Were you very unhappy?
Tiare: Oh, I didn’t mind — he was handsome, too! He used to beat me regularly — I was black and blue all over for days at a time. HE was a man! I cried when he died.

And shortly after this:

Strickland [agreeing to marry Ata]: I shall beat you, you know!
Ata (Verdugo) [lovingly and meekly]: How else shall I know you love me?

Meanwhile, the narrative crutch of having Marshall-as-Maugham (or in this case, another random novelist) telling the story of a seeker-in-exile feels forced and stale, especially after having just watched The Razor’s Edge (though to be fair, this Maugham adaptation was released first). Feel free to skip this one unless you happen to be a particular fan of Maugham’s work.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
Oh heavens, no.

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Benji (1974)

“We don’t want any kind of dog — we want BENJI!”

Synopsis:
Two motherless siblings named Paul (Allen Fluzat) and Cindy (Cynthia Smith) try unsuccessfully to convince their father (Peter Breck) and housekeeper (Patsy Garrett) to let them adopt a stray dog named Benji, who makes daily visits to a local policeman (Terry Carter), a cafe proprietor (Edgar Buchanan), and the owner (Fracer Bavier) of a prissy cat. Soon, however, Benji proves invaluable in uncovering a plot by four young hoodlums (Deborah Walley, Christopher Connelly, Tom Lester, and Mark Slade) to kidnap Paul and Cindy for ransom.

Genres:

Review:
This self-described “family film” by writer-director Joe Camp — the first in a franchise of five flicks about an intrepid mutt named Benji — may have some nostalgic fans who recall it from their childhood, but it’s terribly acted, notably dubbed, and melodramatically conceived; I would be proud if my 10 year old pulled this off as a student film-making project, but big-screen material it simply ain’t. Just when you think things couldn’t get any campier or more shoddily made about the production, the ante is upped in the final third with ever more slow-motion sequences and dizziness-inducing rapid-fire flashbacks designed to tug at hearts. Special “amusement awards” go to the ’70s soundtrack, which revs up at all the key anticipated moments and will (annoyingly) stick in your head. Benji is presumably listed in Peary’s book because of its box office success as the little-film-that-could (it rated #3 in 1974), or perhaps because he actually found it an enjoyable G-rated family film — but it hasn’t held up well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many unintentionally hilarious sequences, especially the doggie romance montage

Must See?
No; definitely skip this one unless you’re morbidly curious.

Links:

Saxon Charm, The (1948)

“The Saxon charm is always turned on full the next day.”

Synopsis:
A best-selling novelist (John Payne) eager to have his first play produced by a notoriously self-absorbed theatrical guru (Robert Montgomery) ignores misgivings from both his wife (Susan Hayward) and Montgomery’s loyal girlfriend (Audrey Totter), and finds himself struggling to maintain artistic autonomy over his own work.

Genres:

Review:
It’s difficult to find much to appreciate in this tale of a narcissistic theatrical producer whose “charm” lies exclusively in his facility with conning — and his ability to believe his own confabulations without hesitation. I could easily imagine George Sanders in the title role, though perhaps his droll affect wouldn’t adequately capture Matt Saxon’s frantic mania and baseless optimism. The moral of the story seems to be that one shouldn’t trust in gurus or mentors, instead relying on one’s own sense of artistic integrity and common sense — but the side story of Totter (very appealing despite it all) being given a lesson on nightclub singing seems to belie this, since she’s actually much more effective after Saxon’s input. Regardless, everything about this film represents such a dismal downward spiral that one wonders what the original novelist (Frederic Wakeman)’s point was: do returning veterans (like Payne) need to stop listening to their “elders” and simply get on with their own life choices? So it seems.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Audrey Totter as Alma

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one.

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