Ghost Goes West, The (1935)

“There isn’t a ghost here or anywhere else, because ghosts simply don’t exist outside of mystery stories!”

Ghost Goes West

Synopsis:
The daughter (Jean Parker) of an American businessman (Eugene Pallette) falls in love with the destitute owner (Robert Donat) of a Scottish castle, which is haunted by Donat’s doomed ancestor (also Donat).

Genres:

Review:
Rene Clair’s first English-language film (produced by Alexander Korda) was the highest grossing film of the year in Great Britain, and received glowing reviews from the New York Times, which labeled it “gay, urbane and brilliantly funny”. These days, however, it pales somewhat in comparison with Jules Dassin’s superior The Canterville Ghost (1944) — also about a ghost doomed to haunt his castle until he’s able to commit a specific deed. In this case, Donat’s “Murdoch Glourie” — killed while kissing a lass rather than paying attention to a battle — must avenge his family’s honor against a rival clansman; meanwhile, Jean Parker’s sweet Peggy Martin falls for the modern-day (“real”) Donat, though mistaken-identity plot complications ensue (naturally) when Parker believes the ghostly Murdoch is merely Donat dressing up. The script also incorporates some rather pointed barbs about American mores, as Pallette’s blustery millionaire arranges to have Donat’s castle shipped over to America brick by brick (!), and engages in petty one-upmanship with a business rival over “ownership” of the castle’s ghost. Donat — whose Scottish accent noticeably slips in and out — is appropriately handsome and charming as the lady-loving Murdoch, but rather bland and forgettable when playing his modern-day heir, Donald; Murdoch should have been given more screentime. While it holds some historical interest given its enormous popularity, this one is no longer must-see viewing for all film fanatics.

Note: Elsa Lanchester is sadly underused in a tiny role as a paranormal enthusiast showing up for dinner during the film’s final climactic scene. Was this meant merely as a cameo?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Donat as Murdoch Glourie
    Ghost Goes West Donat
  • Atmospheric sets and lighting
    Ghost Goes West Sets

Must See?
No, unless you’re a fan of the ghostly genre.

Links:

College Confidential (1960)

“I want you to abandon this dangerous project, which people are interpreting in the worst possible way!”

College Confidential Poster

Synopsis:
A sociology professor (Steve Allen) under fire for corrupting his students (including Mamie Van Doren) is investigated by an inquisitive journalist (Jayne Meadows).

Genres:

Review:
Albert Zugsmith directed and produced this tepid exploitation flick meant to capitalize on both the success of 1958’s High School Confidential (also co-starring Mamie Van Doren) and the era’s infamous Kinsey Reports. Unfortunately, Irving Shulman’s screenplay tries so hard to be sensationalistic that it comes across more like a loosely focused series of vignettes than a compelling narrative. Numerous characters — including Elisha Cook, Jr. as van Doren’s irate father, Pamela Mason as Allen’s jealous fiancee, Herbert Marshall as Allen’s sympathetic supervisor, and Ziva Rodann as a lusty “foreign” bombshell with the hots for Allen — are introduced for a scene or two, then disappear completely from the story; meanwhile, the identity of the person “framing” Allen is patently obvious to anyone half paying attention. The dialogue throughout is laughably campy (“Now I’m going to shock you good people even more than before: I’m going to reveal the source books of my questions — first of all, the Bible itself”), and while Zugsmith aims for stylistic creativity in his direction, it’s often simply clumsy — as when he positions the camera from inside a refrigerator for a lengthy scene, or awkwardly shifts perspective time and again during van Doren’s heated argument with her father and mother. According to TCM Underground‘s article, Allen apparently signed on to this project thinking he was giving himself a rare non-comedic role to bite into; little did he know that he would instead be starring in what Peary refers to as a “camp classic”.

Note: While College Confidential is no great shakes as entertainment, it’s infinitely more watchable than the other college-themed Mamie Van Doren film Zugsmith directed and produced (later that same year): the utterly abysmal Sex Kittens Go to College.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some amusingly campy dialogue: “Have I ever stopped you from being strong and silent?”
    College Confidential Dialogue

Must See?
No. Listed as a Camp Classic in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Left Handed Gun, The (1958)

“I don’t run, I don’t hide. I go where I want, I do what I want.”

Left Handed Gun Poster

Synopsis:
When his new employer (Colin Keith-Johnston) is gunned down, Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) vows revenge against the men who killed him — but he alienates his mentor, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), when his vengeance disrupts Garrett’s wedding.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Adapted from Gore Vidal’s TV play “The Death of Billy the Kid”, this feature film debut by Arthur Penn blends “myth-legend and history” by creatively interpreting Billy the Kid’s ascendancy to bad-boy culthood as “a modern-day psychological examination of a troubled youth”. Indeed, as Peary notes, despite being “set in the West”, … Gun actually “fits in with fifties juvenile delinquent pictures”, given that it deals “with a rebel outcast who is in conflict with society”. It’s notable for Penn’s “audacious camera work”, which effectively broke with traditional Western conventions and paved the way for a new wave of “anti-Westerns”, directly inspiring “Sam Peckinpah, Marlon Brando (in One-Eyed Jacks), and other western directors”. Unfortunately, “Newman’s heavy-handed Method acting” contributes to “the film seeming dated”, and the screenplay (featuring an obligatory love interest for Billy, played by Lita Milan) is far too stagy and contrived for its own good. Most film fanatics will likely be curious to check this film out once, given its historical relevance on several accounts, but Left-Handed Gun isn’t must-see viewing.

P.S. As in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), …Gun explicitly features a character meant to show how a Western legend came into notoriety: in this case, Hurd Hatfield’s ‘Moutrie’, a “dime store novelist who adores Billy and wants to make him into a hero”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • John Dehner as Pat Garrett
    Left Handed Gun Dehner
  • Hurd Hatfield as the pulp novelist who immortalizes Billy
    Left Handed Gun Hatfield
  • Effective, innovative camera work
    Left Handed Gun Still1
    Left Handed Gun Still2
    Left Handed Gun Still3

Must See?
No, though it remains of interest.

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White Zombie (1932)

“You don’t seem to realize what this girl means to me. Why, I’d sacrifice anything in the world for her!”

White Zombie Poster

Synopsis:
A covetous plantation owner (Robert Frazer) in Haiti seeks the help of a voodoo practitioner (Bela Lugosi) in wooing the newlywed bride (Madge Bellamy) of his friend (John Harron) into his clutches.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately notes that this “impressive early sound shocker” has “marvelous visuals, some that are extremely poetic” — much “like something from a classic silent horror film”. Indeed, director Victor Halperin employs an astonishing array of creative visual techniques in his telling of this spooky “fairytale”, which possesses thematic parallels with “Snow White”: just as “Snow White tasted the poisoned apple, Bellamy falls victim to a poisoned rose”, and must be “roused” awake by her lover. There are many “lengthy non-verbal passages in which the emphasis is on character movement, set design, creating atmosphere through light and shadow, and music (there’s a fine, varied score)”; in general, if there’s a way to frame a scene creatively, Halperin does so. Lugosi — with truly wicked eyebrows and goatee — is note perfect in the lead role as evil Murder Legendre (that name!); watching him carve voodoo dolls of his victims out of candles is truly chilling. As Peary notes, while “some scenes are static, [and] others silly”, this “‘sleeper’ is guaranteed to please the true-blue horror fan” — and, I would argue, most all-purpose film fanatics as well.

P.S. A number of classic horror fans have pointed out this film’s historical relevance as the first appearance of zombies on film — and it’s certainly an atmospheric precursor to Val Lewton’s RKO horror classics as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre
    White Zombie Lugosi
  • Truly atmospheric sets, cinematography, special effects, and framing
    White Zombie Framing
    White Zombie Cinematography
    White Zombie Effects
    White Zombie Sugar Mill

Must See?
Yes, as an historically relevant and most enjoyable early horror film.

Categories

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Incredible Torture Show, The / Blood Sucking Freaks (1976)

“Look on in awe at a man who has turned all his fantasies into realities.”

Incredible Torture Show Poster

Synopsis:
When the sado-masochistic director (Seamus O’Brien) of a theater macabre show kidnaps a prima ballerina (Viju Krem), her boyfriend (Niles McMaster) hires a detective (Dan Fauci) to investigate.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately describes this egregious inclusion in his book as a “reprehensible film”, one which, sadly, has a “strong underground reputation based on its … sickening violence and torture scenes”. While it’s true that “some of the scenes are too ridiculous to be taken seriously” (the voluminous “blood” and amputated body parts throughout are very clearly fake), it’s equally true that “others” — many others — “are nauseatingly tasteless”. To describe them here would simply perpetuate their inexcusable titillation value, so I’ll leave it to you to read other reviews (see links below) for a blow-by-blow recap of the many ways in which women — and a couple of men, for good measure — are tortured and maimed throughout this film. Peary notes that part of the film’s notoriety comes from the fact that it was the “object of protests by women’s groups”, and argues that “if any film deserves to be banned, this [one] deserves strong consideration”; I must agree.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nothing.

Must See?
Absolutely not; be duly forewarned.

Links:

Dead Reckoning (1947)

“Didn’t I tell you all females are the same with their faces washed?”

Dead Reckoning Poster

Synopsis:
A war hero (Humphrey Bogart) investigates the mysterious death of his buddy (William Prince), who was accused of murdering the husband of his lover (Lizabeth Scott).

Genres:

Review:
Dead Reckoning is often dismissed as merely one of Humphrey Bogart’s “lesser” noirs — perhaps due to the presence of Lizabeth Scott (in lieu of Lauren Bacall) as Bogie’s femme fatale love interest, or perhaps due to its meandering storyline (scripted by no less than five authors), which occasionally lacks focus. Yet director John Cromwell and cinematographer Leo Tover do a fine job establishing an atmosphere of tension and intrigue throughout, and there’s enough deliciously hardboiled dialogue (“Stalled again — like a jeep on synthetic gas.”) to keep fans of the genre happy. Meanwhile, Bogart is as dependable as ever, and husky-voiced Scott isn’t nearly as bad as some reviews would lead you believe. While it’s not must-see viewing, Dead Reckoning is certainly recommended for one-time viewing.

P.S. Be sure to check out David Sterritt’s insightful analysis of the film for TCM.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Rip Murdock
    Dead Reckoning Bogart
  • Lizabeth Scott as Dusty Chandler
    Dead Reckoning Scott
  • Fine noir cinematography
    Dead Reckoning Cinematography
  • Plenty of hardboiled dialogue:
    “Maybe she was all right; maybe Christmas comes in July.”

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973)

“I didn’t join this here army to fight.”

Ten From Your Show of Shows Poster

Synopsis:
Ten sketches from Sid Caesar’s television program “Your Show of Shows” are highlighted in this theatrical release.

Genres:

Review:
Ten sketches from Sid Caesar’s 90-minute television variety show “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) — co-starring Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner, among others — were selected for a 1973 theatrical release entitled, aptly enough, Ten From Your Show of Shows. Included in this film were the following titles:

1. Auto Smashup
2. Big Business
3. The Recital
4. Bavarian Clock
5. German General
6. From Here to Obscurity
7. This is Your Story
8. At the Movies
9. The Sewing Machine Girl
10. Airport Interview

While “Ten From…” is no longer widely available to purchase or rent, most of the above sketches are available to watch either on YouTube or one of Sid Caesar’s recently released DVD compilations (from his personal archives). “From Here to Obscurity” (a spoof of From Here to Eternity, featuring a hilarious riff on the infamous beachside scene) and “The Sewing Machine Girl” (a silent movie spoof) will likely be of most interest to film fanatics, for obvious reasons, but all are enjoyable; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. With that said, those truly interested in getting a sense of what “Your Show of Shows” was like should simply check out one of the compilation DVDs; fortunately, there’s plenty available for fans to enjoy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An enjoyable glimpse at highlights from a classic television series
    Ten From Your Show From Here
    Ten From Auto Smashup

Must See?
No — but I think most film fanatics would enjoy checking out this classic variety show, which was a forerunner of both “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Saturday Night Live”. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Hercules/Hercules Goes Bananas/Hercules in New York (1969)

“Hercules goes where he wishes!”

Hercules New York Poster

Synopsis:
Greek demigod Hercules (Arnold Schwarzenegger) defies his father, Zeus (Ernest Graves), by leaving Mt. Olympus and heading down to Earth, where he befriends a nebbishy pretzel seller (Arnold Stang) and impresses mortals with his superhuman strength.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary isn’t nearly derisive enough of this unbelievably “lame-brained comedy”, which he labels merely a “disappointment”, noting that “not only is there no wild humor, there are shamefully few jokes and gags at all”. Indeed, the only humor to be had at all comes from the sheer ineptitude of the acting, script, and direction — bad movie aficionados may want to check it out simply to watch for all the goofs that are made, including the sound of cars in the distance during scenes supposedly set on “Mt. Olympus” (actually a NYC country club), or fleeting evidence of shoes on the “bear” Hercules wrestles in Central Park (which is so clearly… oh so clearly… a man in bear costume). With that said, this film remains of marginal historical interest given that it was the film debut for Schwarzenegger (going by the screen name “Arnold Strong”), eight years before he starred in the infinitely more interesting body-building documentary Pumping Iron (1977); watching him here makes one appreciate how far he eventually progressed (relatively speaking) with his acting abilities.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Not much of anything

Must See?
No; definitely free to skip this tedious clunker — but if you’re curious, it’s available for viewing on Hulu here.

Links:

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

“Lost in the night, you can’t stop the shadows from moving in.”

Shoot the Piano Player Poster

Synopsis:
A pianist (Charles Aznavour) with a troubled family and a tragic past falls for a waitress (Marie Dubois) and begins a tentative romance.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is an enormous fan of this second feature by Francois Truffaut, which was adapted “from a melodramatic [American] crime novel” by David Goodis, and “borrow[s] from such diverse sources as American ‘B’ gangster pictures … [and] fatalistic noir films made in America and France.” He argues that “it is one of [Truffaut’s] finest achievements, a picture that still seems excitingly original”, “still deeply affects the true movie lover”, and is “full of unforgettable moments”. He claims that “no film better juxtaposes comedy and dark tragedy”, and that “no film is more romantic” despite making “a strong case for not falling in love”.

While I’m not sure I would agree with Peary that NO other film does any of these things better (!), his overall sentiment is well-taken — and it’s true that this remains one of Truffaut’s most cinematically innovative and provocative films. In his insightful analysis of the film’s thematic arc, Peary notes:

“In one sense the film is a comical look at a timid man trying to sneak through life in a loud, dangerous world and, if he can muster up the courage, buy a drink for or hold hands with a pretty girl… But on a sadder level it’s about the destructiveness of love, how men treat women as sexual objects, how men’s actions contradict their thoughts, and… how the continuous passivity of men like Aznavour can keep them ‘alive’ but result in [death all around them].”

Adding to the film’s enduring enjoyment is Aznavour’s “oddly moving performance” in the title role; an enormously popular French singer in real life, here he plays a “meek pianist who works in a bar”, a former “successful concert pianist” who has “withdrawn into anonymity” after the suicide of his wife (Nicole Berger). While nursing his considerable emotional wounds, he’s faced with life-threatening trouble on the homefront, given that “gangsters [are] trying to get revenge on [his] two adult brothers for double-crossing them after a robbery”. He gains temporary comfort from a friendly neighborhood hooker (Michele Mercier), and attempts a tentative romance with barmaid Marie Dubois (lovely in her first credited film debut) — but it’s clear that more trouble than joy is in store for our “timid” protagonist, whose desire for a life of simple contentment continues to elude him.

Note: Peary gives away major spoilers in his review, so be forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Charles Aznavour as “Charlie”
    Shoot the Piano Player Aznavour
  • Marie Dubois as Lena
    Shoot the Piano Player Dubois
  • Creative direction
    Shoot the Piano Player Creative
  • Raoul Coutard’s cinematography
    Shoot the Piano Player Coutard

Must See?
Yes, as one of Truffaut’s most celebrated films.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Categories

Links:

Hercules (1958)

“Deceit does not go with a man of such quality.”

Hercules Poster

Synopsis:
Legendary strongman Hercules (Steve Reeves) romances the daughter (Sylva Koscina) of King Pelius (Ivo Garrani) and assists Jason (Fabrizio Mioni) on his quest to secure the Golden Fleece.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this enormously popular “muscleman epic”, starring former Mr. Universe Steve Reeves, “doesn’t compare to Ray Harryhausen’s epics”, but is “much better than its imitators”. He argues that while it’s “hurt by dubbing, lack of wit, and extreme earnestness”, it’s “still fun”. Maybe so, but for my money, I’d much rather rewatch a Harryhausen flick any day — namely Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which even Peary concedes covered “the same ground… much more spectacularly”. The dialogue in Hercules is laughably corny (“My heart has reached the crossroads of destiny.”), and the dubbing is highly distracting — yet it remains one-time must-see viewing given its historical importance as the film which “spawned [a] wave of Italian-made, myth-based, sword-and-sandal films”.

Note: Reading the film’s amusingly bombastic tagline (available on IMDb) gives one a sense of the excitement kids at the time must have felt about this flick:

SEE the heroic Hercules rip down the Age of Orgy’s lavish palace of lustful pleasure! SEE the Mightiest of Men fight the Mightiest of Beasts, the killer Cretan Bull! SEE Hercules fight off the savage love-starved Amazon women! SEE the seductive Amazons lure men to voluptuous revels and violent deaths! SEE the powerful Hercules crush the savage ape-men who guard the shrine of the Golden Fleece!

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Steve Reeves’ appropriately ripped body (it’s worth a look!)
    Hercules Reeves
  • Mario Bava’s cinematography
    Hercules Lighting
  • Effective historical sets
    Hercules Sets

Must See?
Yes, but only for its historical importance.

Categories

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