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Month: September 2009

Outlaw Blues (1977)

Outlaw Blues (1977)

“I’ve done more living in the past two weeks than I did in the last six years.”

Outlaw Blues Poster

Synopsis:
When an ex-convict (Peter Fonda) accidentally shoots a country-western star (James Callahan) who has stolen his song, he goes on the lam with a sympathetic singer (Susan Saint James) who hopes to make him a star.

Genres:

Review:
Much like Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter (1984), this comedic sleeper exposes the surprisingly cut-throat underbelly of the country-western scene, in which hit songs are truly a hot commodity, and unscrupulous wolves are eager to take advantage of “naive” talent wherever they can find it. In Outlaw Blues, Peter Fonda’s renegade actions ultimately lead him to folk hero status in the eyes of Austin’s liberal-minded music lovers; we root for him as well, because he’s so clearly been wronged on every level. Unfortunately, the story itself is rather implausible — would Callahan really be so dumb as to steal someone else’s song when it was recorded in front of countless witnesses? — and Callahan (much like Richard Sarafian’s unscrupulous agent in Songwriter) is frustratingly one-note; in addition, the numerous chase scenes become rather tiresome (look for evidence of Roger Ebert’s ubiquitous Fruit Cart Rule). But Susan Saint James is charmingly feisty as Fonda’s partner-in-crime, and director Richard Heffron makes good use of diverse locales in Austin and surrounding areas. The film’s overall air of infectious lightheartedness makes it worth a look, once, if you’re interested.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Susan Saint James as Tina
    Outlaw Blues Saint James
  • Fine use of authentic Texas locales
    Outlaw Blues Austin
    Outlaw Blues Lake

Must See?
No, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Private Affairs of Bel Ami, The (1947)

Private Affairs of Bel Ami, The (1947)

“I do not think it is easy to be a successful scoundrel.”

Synopsis:
A caddish social climber (George Sanders) in 19th century England woos a series of women, then discards them — all while remaining in love with a penniless widow (Angela Lansbury).

Genres:

Review:
George Sanders starred in all three of director Albert Lewin’s literary adaptations: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and this film (based on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami). With his droll delivery and arrogant demeanor, Sanders at first seems perfectly cast in the title role as corrupt journalist George Duroy, whose monetary and social aspirations lead him to cruelly manipulate the countless women who fall for his charms. Yet we never fully understand why Sanders’ “Bel Ami” is so appealing to females: he’s handsome, but not irresistibly so, and is ultimately too icily self-contained to convince us of his persuasive powers as a lover. With that said, the women he woos — particularly Angela Lansbury as his one true love, and Ann Dvorak as the wealthy wife of his consumptive best friend (John Carradine) — give fine, empathetic performances, allowing us to vicariously experience the suffering he inflicts. Beautifully shot, with striking cinematography by Russell Metty, and creative period detail.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Angela Lansbury as Clotilde
    Private Affairs Lansbury
  • Ann Dvorak as Madeleine
    Private Affairs Dvorak
  • Atmospheric cinematography by Russell Metty
    Private Affairs Cinematography
  • Creative set designs
    Private Affairs Set Designs

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once.

Links:

Slight Case of Murder, A (1938)

Slight Case of Murder, A (1938)

“Sure, I’m legit. I’m in favor of law and order.”

Slight Case Murder Poster

Synopsis:
At the end of Prohibition, a bootlegger (Edward G. Robinson) goes legit but struggles to sell his awful-tasting beer. As his business tanks, he goes more and more into debt, and soon owes nearly half a million dollars. Meanwhile, his daughter (Jane Bryan) becomes engaged to a state trooper (Willard Parker), and he must deal with four dead bodies that show up in his summer house after a local heist.

Genres:

Review:
Edward G. Robinson has great fun spoofing his infamous gangster persona in this light-hearted Warner Brothers satire, based on a play by Damon Runyon and Harold Lindsay. In an extended plot device that defies all logic, Robinson’s tee-totalling crime boss Remy Marco is so feared by his minions — and apparently by the world at large — that not a soul is willing to tell him how truly awful his bootleg beer is. As a result, his post-Prohibition sales rapidly plummet over a period of several years, at which point Robinson — who has been eagerly embracing the opportunity to “go legit” and climb the social ladder — finds himself broke, but apparently not too broke to host a gala affair at his second house in the country, where all sorts of trouble ensues. It’s silly, innocuous fun, with plenty of Damon Runyon’s distinctive dialogue thrown in to move things along at a zany clip. Ruth Donnelly is drolly amusing as Robinson’s wife, who struggles to affect an air of distinction befitting her new station, while Robinson is simply delightful. This one’s worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Edward G. Robinson as Remy Marco
    Slight Case Murder Robinson
  • Ruth Donnelly as Mrs. Marco
  • Consistently clever dialogue

Must See?
Yes, for Robinson’s humorous performance

Categories

Links:

Songwriter (1984)

Songwriter (1984)

“I got cheated, and I wanna get even.”

Synopsis:
A country-western songwriter (Willie Nelson) tries to get out of a corrupt contract with his agent (Richard C. Sarafian) by having an aspiring singer (Lesley Ann Warren) put her name on his songs.

Genres:

Review:
Alan Rudolph was called in at the last minute to direct this amiable, rambling tale about politics and survival in the country music industry, and his influence shows. More concerned with character than narrative, Songwriter introduces us to a host of quirky individuals — Willie Nelson’s “Doc” (essentially a variation on himself), Kris Kristofferson’s Blackie Buck, Rip Torn’s Dino McLeish, and Lesley Ann Warren’s Gilda — and then explores their interactions with one another as Doc attempts to get around the constraints of his binding contract with buffoonish bad-guy Rodeo Rocky (Richard Sarafian). Meanwhile, Doc rekindles a romance with his first wife (Melinda Dillon) and two young daughters, while Warren struggles to calm her stage fright by tippling hard liquor on the sly. Songwriter is the kind of movie that slowly grows on you, thanks in large part to Nelson’s sympathetic performance as Doc (he’s a genuinely nice guy) and Warren’s bold depiction of Gilda as a lost and nervous soul. (Strangely, Kristofferson’s character isn’t written very strongly, and he fails to make much of an impact.) The film is least effective when it’s explicitly aiming for broad laughs — whenever Sarafian and his henchmen are on-screen, for instance — but these moments are mercifully few.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lesley Ann Warren as Gilda
    Songwriter Warren
  • Willie Nelson as Doc Jenkins
    Songwriter Nelson

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look, particularly for fans of country-western music.

Links:

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Experiment Perilous (1944)

“I’ve been living that diary tonight — living the strange, distorted lives of Nick and his sister.”

Experiment Perilous Poster

Synopsis:
A psychiatrist (George Brent) falls in love with a woman (Hedy Lamarr) whose husband (Paul Lukas) is possessively jealous of her.

Genres:

Review:
Released the same year as George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), this Victorian-era melodrama by Jacques Tourneur (his first A-level picture for RKO studios) is similarly concerned with the deadly ramifications of marital distrust and psychological manipulation. Its opening sequence, taking place on a train, is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), as George Brent encounters and befriends a mysterious older woman (Olive Blakeney) who offers him her “special brand of tea”. Blakeney is superb in her all-too-brief supporting appearance, but her character is killed off in order to set in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to Brent’s infatuation with Blakeney’s lovely sister-in-law, the equally mysterious Allida Bedereaux (Hedy Lamarr, giving a haunting performance). Unfortunately, despite plenty of atmosphere, the rest of the story remains disappointingly conventional: the mystery of who exactly is insane — Lamarr or her husband — is resolved fairly early on, so that the bulk of the narrative is simply concerned with Brent’s obsessive quest to rescue Lamarr from her controlling husband. Fans of Tourneur will want to check this film out, and it’s certainly worth viewing once — but it’s not a must-see title.

Note: The film’s title is taken from the following provocative quote by Hippocrates (voiced by one of the characters): “Life is short, art is long, decision difficult, and experiment perilous.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Hedy Lamarr as Allida
    Experiment Perilous Lamarr
  • Olive Blakeney as Cissie
    Experiment Perilous Blakeney
  • Tony Gaudio’s cinematography
    Experiment Perilous Cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth viewing once.

Links:

Murder by Death (1976)

Murder by Death (1976)

“If you ask me, anybody that offers a million bucks to solve a crime that ain’t been committed yet has lost a lot more upstairs than his hair.”

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

Murder by Death Poster

Synopsis:
An eccentric millionaire (Truman Capote) invites a group of renowned detectives — including Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), and Milo Perrier (James Coco) — to his house on a stormy evening, challenging them to solve a murder mystery before it occurs.

Genres:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • David Niven Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Elsa Lanchester Films
  • Ensemble Film
  • Maggie Smith Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Neil Simon Films
  • Old Dark House
  • Peter Falk Films
  • Peter Sellers Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Satires and Spoofs

Review:
Neil Simon’s all-star spoof of literary detectives and Old Dark House murder mysteries was an enormous hit the year it was released, and remained a popular re-run on television for years thereafter. A host of big-name actors give boldly satirical performances playing humorous variations on Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe — with Peter Falk in the latter role given some of the best lines in the film:

Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is.

Alec Guinness, however, steals the show as an hysterically incompetent blind butler; his attempts to communicate with a deaf/mute maid (Nancy Walker) are priceless. Meanwhile, in his first and (mercifully) final acting role, Truman Capote gives a distinctly underwhelming and snively performance as millionaire Lionel Twain; fortunately, he’s not on-screen for very long. While the script itself isn’t quite as consistently amusing or clever as fans may remember from earlier viewings, I’m nonetheless including Murder by Death here as a Missing Title, given its enduring cult status — film fanatics will want to watch it at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Falk as Sam Diamond
    Murder by Death Falk
  • Alec Guinness as Bensonmum
    Murder by Death Alec Guinness
  • David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston
    Murder by Death Niven
    Murder by Death Smith
  • Eileen Brennan as Tess Skeffington
    Murder by Death Brennan
  • Plenty of clever satirical dialogue

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring cult favorite.

Categories

Links:

Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)

Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978)

“I am precisely what I am because I have eaten my way to the top.”

Who's Killing Great Chefs Poster

Synopsis:
A renowned pastry chef (Jacqueline Bisset) invited to France by a portly food connoisseur (Robert Morley) fears for her life when the greatest chefs in Europe are mysteriously murdered, one by one; meanwhile, her insistent ex-husband (George Segal) pursues her aggressively, and is determined to keep her safe from harm.

Genres:

Review:
Canadian-born Ted Kotcheff directed this innocuously enjoyable culinary mystery (based on Nan and Ivan Lyons’ novel Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe), which possesses plenty of mouthwatering sequences in which breathtaking dishes are meticulously prepared (my favorite is watching Bisset carefully sculpt her impressive Bombe Richelieu). There’s a generous serving of dark gore as well, given that each chef is killed according to his specialty (i.e., a lobster chef is drowned, and a chef renowned for his duck pate is ground up). While we’re fairly certain we know who the prime suspect is, and why, we’re nonetheless kept in suspense until the very end; meanwhile, the romantic subplot between Bisset and Segal gets somewhat tiresome, but at least helps propel the story forward. Robert Morley is delightful as a morbidly obese connoisseur whose love of fine food is putting his life at risk (he deservedly earned a Golden Globe nomination as best supporting actor for his performance here), and several noteworthy French actors (Philippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort) make welcome minor appearances.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Morley as Max
    Who Is Killing Morley
  • Several enjoyable sequences of culinary wizardry
    Who Is Killing Cake

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended.

Links:

Countdown (1968)

Countdown (1968)

“You have to wear that capsule like you wear your own skin.”

Countdown Poster

Synopsis:
When a scientist (James Caan) is chosen over his more experienced military friend (Robert Duvall) to be the first man sent to the moon, rivalries ensue.

Genres:

Review:
After making two feature-length films in 1957 (The Delinquents and The James Dean Story), Robert Altman spent a number of years working in television before returning to the big screen with this adaptation of Hank Searls’ novel The Pilgrim Project. It’s very much a film of its time, given that it depicts the extreme anxiety felt by Americans during the Cold War, when NASA was doing its best to beat the Russians to the moon; in reality, America wouldn’t send its first man to the moon until July of the following year, so audiences in 1968 were surely intrigued by this dramatic simulation of what feasibly might have occurred. Modern devotees of space race movies and documentaries (such as Apollo 13 and the mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon”) will doubtless find fault with many of the technical details as presented here, but the rest of us will likely find Altman’s use of authentic props and settings refreshingly realistic.

There’s little to distinguish Countdown as an “Altman film”, though he does utilize some overlapping dialogue, and there’s a bit more emphasis on relationships than plot; the following year’s M*A*S*H (1970), however, would be his true breakthrough film. With that said, Countdown is a competently made, solidly acted drama: Duvall is in prime form as an embittered astronaut who is justifiably pissed off that his less-experienced friend has been given his spot (simply for political purposes), while Joanna Moore stands out in a thankless role as Caan’s worried wife. Women aren’t given much due in the screenplay (Barbara Baxley as Duvall’s wife is practically non-existent), but Moore manages to expertly convey the shift her character undergoes once she realizes that she really has no control over her husband’s decision to pursue the dangerous mission; she’s the epitome of pre-feminist wifely survival, and surprisingly intriguing to watch.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Duvall as Chiz
    Countdown Duvall
  • James Caan as Lee
    Countdown Caan
  • Joanna Moore as Mickey
    Countdown Moore

Must See?
No, though Altman fans will surely be curious to check it out.

Links:

Captive Wild Woman (1943)

Captive Wild Woman (1943)

“What will you have? A human form with animal instincts!”

Captive Wild Woman Poster

Synopsis:
A mad scientist (John Carradine) transforms an ape (Ray Corrigan) into a beautiful but mute woman (Acquanetta) with a strange power over wild animals. She provides invaluable assistance to a circus performer (Milburn Stone) working with lions and tigers, but seeks jealous revenge when she realizes he’s already in love with his fiancee (Evelyn Ankers).

Genres:

Review:
The first of three “ape woman” sci-fi/horror flicks made for Universal Studios during the early ’40s, this innocuous potboiler features statuesque B-actress “Acquanetta” — a.k.a. “The Venezuelan Volcano” (despite being born in Cheyenne, Wyoming) — co-starring with character actor Milburn Stone (cast because of his resemblance to real-life trainer Clyde Beatty) and the ever-reliable John Carradine as a villainous medical kook determined to commit glandular manipulation on his “patients”. There’s little to the hour-long story, which is essentially concerned with relating the folly and danger — a la The Island of Lost Souls (1933) — of attempting to merge animal and human “forces”; it evokes the general aura of Val Lewton’s RKO films, but without their psychological depth. Instead, it’s padded out by plenty of footage of Stone (actually Beatty) working with wild tigers and lions — footage which at times seems to go on for a bit too long. With that said, director Edward Dmytryk manages to add some atmosphere to the proceedings, and fans of the genre will certainly be curious to check it out once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Carradine as Dr. Walters
    Captive Wild Woman Carradine

Must See?
No – but it’s worth a look by fans of Universal horror flicks.

Links:

Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

“We cannot always do what we wish without harming others.”

Mysery Edwin Poster

Synopsis:
An opium-addicted choirmaster (Claude Rains) is jealous of his nephew’s (David Manners) betrothal to a beautiful young girl (Heather Angel). When a stranger (Douglass Montgomery) comes to town and falls in love with Rosa (Angel), further rivalries ensue, and Edwin Drood (Manners) suddenly disappears.

Genres:

Review:
Charles Dickens never finished his final serialized novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, about a young man who goes missing and may or may not have been murdered. For this cinematic adaptation, Universal Studios came up with a feasible ending, one which ultimately turns …Drood into a spooky murder mystery. The first half of the film is fairly standard fare, as we’re introduced to the trio of “suitors” interested in sweet Rosa Bud: it’s clear that while she has some affection for her life-long fiancee (Manners), she’s genuinely smitten with the handsome new arrival in town (Montgomery), and finds the covetous stares of her fiance’s uncle (Rains, excellent as always) utterly creepy. It’s not until the second half of the film that the story’s more atmospheric horror elements come into play, as we question how and why Drood has disappeared, all while suspecting that Rains — given his shadowy dealings with a cemetery caretaker, and his addiction to opium — may play a critical part in the mystery. While Mystery of Edwin Drood isn’t essential viewing for all film fanatics, it’s certainly recommended, particularly for Dickens fans — and Rains’ performance is, as always, well worth a look.

Note: Director Stuart Walker, who died of a heart attack in 1941, also helmed the Peary-listed titles The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) and Werewolf of London (1935).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claude Rains as John Jasper
    Mystery Edwin Rains
  • Zeffie Tilbury as “The Opium Woman”
    Mystery Edwin Tilbury
  • Fine period detail
    Mystery Edwin Period Detail
  • George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography
    Mystery Edwin Cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links: