Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cover Up (1949) Alfred E. Green

Meet “a small town with big secrets.” Dennis O’Keefe is the insurance investigator who arrives to gather information about an apparent suicide before his insurance company will pay out benefits.

He immediately suspects something is afoot. The gun is gone, the bullet is gone, and there is no coroner’s report. William Bendix as the town sheriff is less than cooperative and acts more like a brick wall.  O’Keefe starts to believe foul play and sets out to prove the death was murder, not suicide.
The first thing O’Keefe finds, or senses, is a town-wide conspiracy of silence. He doggedly persists and gradually discovers that many of the town’s people had a motive to kill the man. “There are too many people in this town that wanted Philips dead.” 

Clues and red herrings are tossed every which way, and you’ll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Bendix and O’Keefe play well off each other, and throughout the movie you’ll be wondering where Bendix falls on the good/evil line.
At the center of the film is the Weatherby family, with stalwart actor Art Baker as its titular head. His beautiful, older daughter is played by Revlon Girl, Barbara Britton. And Ann E. Todd is the younger daughter who has a very amusing scene with O’Keefe while she was flirting with him.
But as Hilda the housekeeper, Doro Merande, takes over every scene in which she appears. She’s caustic, funny, and rules the household. Virginia Christine (Folger Coffee’s Mrs. Olson) also appears in a pivotal role.
Cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, who had a lengthy career that culminated in eight  Academy Award nominations and one Oscar in the 1960s and 70s. Original music was composed by Hans Salter, and the musical score falters only at the end when it cheesily moves into “O Come All Ye Faithful” (but it was Christmas time).
Combine “Bad Day at Black Rock” with “Double Indemnity,” make it ‘lite’, and you have this film. It’s nowhere near the caliber of those two films but it’s an interesting little mystery that will take up only 80 or so minutes of your time.

“I hoped with everything I had that it wasn’t you.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Them (1954) Gordon Douglas

“It’s them all right.” This is another wonderful 1950s science fiction film that spawned many subsequent radiated/mutated creature movies. It’s the cold war era, and this movie was one of the earliest to look at possible effects of nuclear technology, with a good, well-acted cast.

James Whitmore and Chris Drake (one of whom stays with us for a while) are officers on patrol in New Mexico when suddenly they see a young girl (Sandy Descher) carrying a doll, wandering alone in the desert. She can’t speak and has apparently been traumatized. It’s a memorable beginning and you won’t forget her face. “She’s a classic case of hysteria conversion.”

The little girl is a mystery but when the owner of a general store is found dead, with nothing stolen but sugar, the mystery deepens. Here is the coroner’s report:
“He could have died five ways. His neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed, his skull was fractured, and here’s one for Sherlock Holmes - there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.”  Now we have a real murder mystery.

The professionals are brought in, scientists Edmund Gwenn and his daughter, Joan Weldon (how nice to see a smart woman who doesn’t become a screaming victim). They have their suspicions, which are quickly and terrifyingly confirmed. And now, what to do about it? Gween is terrific as the eccentric but brilliant doctor. Before his Gunsmoke fame and after playing the creature (Thing from Another World, 1951), James Arness is here as an FBI agent.

Mary Alan Hokanson has a small role as Mrs. Lodge, the mother of missing boys that may or may not be alive. Olin Howland is remarkable as an alcoholic ward patient who reveals crucial information, along with his repeated line: “Make me a Sergeant in charge of the booze!” And look quickly for Leonard Nimoy as a Telex Sergeant in army headquarters. Noted character actor Lawrence Dobkin plays a Los Angeles City Engineer. Before his TV fame as Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, Fess Parker appears here in a small but very effective role as a patient in a mental ward, institutionalized because of what he claims he saw.

You will hear the famous Wilhelm Scream four times in this movie so listen for it. The musical soundtrack was composed by Bronislau Kaper, a well-known Hollywood composer with more than 100 credits to his name (Green Dolphin Street, Life of Her Own). Cinematography by Sidney Hickox is excellent. (Hickox made one more film after this and then moved successfully into television.) Los Angeles in the 1950s is the final star of the movie. The settings, including downtown and a river basin, are beautifully photographed.

Viewers today may find the special effects less than adequate, but in 1954 they were nominated for an Academy Award (no individual credited). Don’t miss this movie if you are a fan of old science fiction films. It has an exciting conclusion down in the storm drains of Los Angeles.

“We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.’ "

Monday, January 10, 2011

This is the Night (1932) Frank Tuttle

The night you watch this film, it will be the night for laughing.  Perhaps known more for being Cary Grant’s full feature film debut, it’s a delightful movie with witty dialogue and clever farce.  Adultery and suspicion of same are the themes that make up the plot, and they are lightly bandied about.

Grant is memorable but plays a supporting role to the other four main characters, the first of whom is Lili Damita. The French actress’ career was brief but she is superb in this role. Besides being beautiful, she puts in an effective performance, mastering two characters, and does comedy very well.

Charles Ruggles and Roland Young are incredibly funny and masters of comic timing.  Thelma Todd is visually stunning and owns the running gag, “Madam has lost her dress!” When the gag is being set up in the beginning of the film, it’s accompanied by a melody that’s frequently repeated, and a crowd chanting. It’s a bit of comic opera. Listen for that melody throughout the film, and also for the lovely “This is the Night”, composed by Sam Coslow and Ralph Rainger.

Irving Bacon is the last piece of this hectic puzzle and plays ‘Sparks,’ the chauffeur of Roland Young. He always happens to be present whenever Thelma Todd loses a piece of clothing. (Bacon’s roles were always small but he was a prolific character actor with hundred of movies to his credit.)

There are so many humorous scenes in this movie that it’s difficult to choose highlights. But nonetheless, watch for the few minutes when luggage is being loaded onto a train, and also for the drinking scene with Young and Ruggles. “This problem’s going to be very absorbing.” What are you going to absorb it with?” “Scotch, I think.”

Cinematography is very well done (Victor Milner) and noted director, Jean Negulesco, worked uncredited on the film as a technical director. 
There are several interesting back stories to mention. Lili Damita would later become better known as the first wife of Errol Flynn. And Thelma Todd died in 1935 at age 29 under mysterious circumstances, either accidental death or murder. The incident was never solved and rumors still abound about mob ties and her violent live-in boyfriend, director Roland West.

But murder, mayhem, and notoriety aside, this is an entertaining 80 minutes that will be well worth your time.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) Jules Dassin

I stumbled upon this 20 minute film on Turner Classic Movies and was instantly mesmerized. Directed by Jules Dassin, the movie stars Joseph Schildkraut as the Young Man, and he is wonderful to watch. Most film fans will know him as Frank Otto in 1959's Diary of Anne Frank, or as Ferencz Vadas in the 1940 Shop Around the Corner.

The Old Man is played by Roman Bohnen, The First Deputy Sheriff is Oscar O’Shea, and Will Wright plays the Second Deputy Sheriff. And that rounds out the cast.

Cinematography is very stylish and beautifully filmed in black and white by Paul Vogel. The musical soundtrack was composed by Sol Krandel and consists primarily of the beating, thumping heart. It’s very effectively done.

Unfortunately, the screenwriter (Doane R. Hoag) and the director completely changed the relationship of the Old Man and the Young Man. The short story can be read in less time than it takes to watch the film and it’s pretty straight forward. The other objection I have is that the last lines of the Young Man, and the film, were changed.

Other works by Poe have been filmed, and greatly modified from his original writings, but in a tight film like this, why don’t we let genius of Edgar Allan Poe speak for itself.