snapshot: The China Lake Murders (1990 TVM)

US / 89 minutes / color / Papazian-Hirsch, MTE Dir: Alan Metzger Pr: William Beaudine Jr Scr: N.D. Schreiner Cine: Geoff Schaaf Cast: Tom Skerritt, Michael Parks, Nancy Everhard, Lauren Tewes, Bill McKinney, Lonny Chapman, J.C. Quinn, David Crowley, Doug Mears, Gary McGurk, Mary Maldonado, Jack Kehler, Tom Dahlgren, Lara Parker.

China Lake, a small town in the middle of the Nevada desert. Sheriff Sam Brodie (Skerritt) arrived here not so long ago after years policing in the Big City in hopes the move would save his marriage; it didn’t, but he stayed anyway . . . and now he’s ripe for seduction by the lovely secretary at the China Lake PD, Cindy (Everhard), who’s hot for him even though he’s twice her age. Because that’s how things happen in derivative cop movies like this one.

 

Tom Skerritt as Sam.

Traveler Helene Harrelson (Parker) is found dead in the trunk of her car in the midst of the desert, someone having murdered her by the simple method of Continue reading

snapshot: Murder in a Small Town (1999 TVM)

US / 92 minutes / color with some bw / A&E, Granada, Fred Berner, Crystal Sky Dir: Joyce Chopra Pr: Fred Berner, Craig McNeil, Steven Paul Scr: Gilbert Pearlman, Gene Wilder Cine: Bruce Surtees Cast: Gene Wilder, Mike Starr, Cherry Jones, Frances Conroy, Deirdre O’Connell, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Elisabeth Rosen, Matthew Edison, Carlo Rota, Terri Hawkes, David Fox, Ben Bass, Terry O’Quinn, Kate Hennig, Sten Eirik, Fulvio Cecere.

It’s 1938 in Stanford, Connecticut, and the new movie you’ve just got to see is ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) dir Michael Curtiz, and starring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan and the Dead End Kids. (We see a brief clip from this movie.)

Gene Wilder as Cash Carter.

Until nine years ago, when his wife was murdered in NYC, Lawrence Carter (Wilder) was a hugely successful Broadway producer—hence his nickname of “Cash”; now he’s living in relative seclusion as director of the Stanford Repertory Theater. When a rich, antisemitic, homophobic local businessman, Sidney Lassiter (O’Quinn), is gunned down one night, no one sheds too many tears. As the victim’s unloved, unrespected wife Martha (Conroy) coldly remarks, Continue reading

The Bad Sister (1931)

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Well, baddish . . .
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US / 65 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Hobart Henley Pr: Carl Laemmle Jr Scr: Edwin Knopf, Tom Reed, Raymond L. Schrock Story: The Flirt (1913) by Booth Tarkington Cine: Karl Freund Cast: Conrad Nagel, Sidney Fox, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Winninger, Emma Dunn, ZaSu Pitts, “Slim” Summerville, Bert Roach, David Durand, Helene Chadwick.

This was the third time Booth Tarkington’s novel The Flirt had been brought to the screen—the precursors had been

  • The Flirt (1916) dir Phillips Smalley, with Lois Weber, Marie Walcamp, Grace Benham and Juan de la Cruz, and
  • The Flirt (1922) dir Hobart Henley (who also directed The Bad Sister), with Eileen Percy, Helen Jerome Eddy and Lloyd Whitlock.

The movie has many great strengths and a few weaknesses, but really The Bad Sister is one of those pieces whose significance goes far beyond the artistic creation itself. Here we have the first screen role for Bette Davis and an early screen role for Humphrey Bogart, and it could so easily have been the last screen role for both. It was also the first screen role for poor Sidney Fox, the Star Who Never Was.

Sidney Fox as Marianne.

In Council City, Ohio, realtor John Madison (Winninger) is respected throughout the community as a man of utmost probity. With his wife (Dunn) he has raised three daughters: Amy (Chadwick), now married to plumber Sam (Summerville), vivacious, “highly strung” Marianne (Fox) and the drabber Laura (Davis). Much younger is son Hedrick (Durand). Rounding out the household is the long-suffering maid, Minnie (Pitts).

Although her parents cannot see this, Marianne is a Continue reading

She Devil (1957)

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The fruitfly serum transforms her into a femme fatale!
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US / 78 minutes / bw / Regal, TCF Dir & Pr: Kurt Neumann Scr: Carroll Young, Kurt Neumann Story: “The Adaptive Ultimate” (1935 Astounding) by John Jessel (i.e., Stanley G. Weinbaum) Cine: Karl Struss Cast: Mari Blanchard, Jack Kelly, Albert Dekker, John Archer, Fay Baker, Blossom Rock (i.e., Marie Blake), Paul Cavanagh, Helen Jay.

Dr. Richard Bach (Dekker)—who appears to be both a brilliant surgeon and president of Grand Mercy Hospital—arrives home from a foreign business trip to discover that his protege, close friend and housemate, medical researcher Dr. Dan Scott (Kelly), has developed a new serum, one that in animal tests has effected miraculous cures for what should have been terminal illnesses/injuries.

Hannah Blossom Rock (i.e., Marie Blake) welcomes Richard (Albert Dekker) home.

The theoretical underpinning of Dan’s work could be regarded as a sort of bastard offspring of various pseudo-Lamarckian theories of evolution:

Dan: “. . . the new research I mentioned before you left. It’s a project designed to prove that the cure of any disease or injury is essentially a product of adaptation.”
Richard: “Oh, yes. You were proceeding on the theory that all living organisms possess the ability, in more or less degree, to heal themselves.”
Dan: “By adapting themselves to any harmful change in their environment. A lizard, for example, will shed an injured tail—grow a new one. A chameleon will change its color for self-protection.”
Richard: “And you hope to develop a cure-all serum from insects, since they are the most adaptive of all living organisms?”
Dan: “Exactly. So I have developed a serum from the most highly evolved and most adaptive of all insects—the fruitfly. It’s the one insect that’s known to produce a higher percentage of mutants—or changelings—than any other.”

A fruitfly (uncredited).

Incidentally, that sentence of Dan’s—“It’s a project designed to prove that the cure of any disease or injury is essentially a product of adaptation”—contains multiple misunderstandings of the way that science works. First, unlike mathematics, science doesn’t deal in proofs. Second, any project that decides its desired result from the outset is profoundly unscientific, for reasons enlarged upon in my book Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science (2007; new, revised and vastly expanded edition expected *koff koff plug plug* in March/April 2018 from See Sharp Press).

Dan (Jack Kelly) explains his breakthrough to Richard (Albert Dekker).

Likewise, fruitflies are not at all “the most highly evolved of all insects” (it’s precisely because they’re so rudimentary that insecticides are so ineffective against them) and I don’t think it’s the case that they’re especially adaptive: it’s just that individuals have short lifespans and thus there are more generations within any particular period of time; more generations per (say) month means more mutations per month, making fruitflies a good experimental subject for students of heredity.

But I digress.

Returning to the plot: As noted, Dan’s experiments on animals have been highly successful, the only oddity being that the leopard he cured has now turned black. He’s keen to experiment on a human subject. Despite initial concerns about the ethics, Richard agrees to set him up with a patient who, while facing imminent, inescapable death, is yet compos mentis enough to give consent to the experiment.

Kyra (Mari Blanchard) was on the brink of death . . .

. . .  but now look at her!

That patient proves to be Kyra Zelas (Blanchard), at death’s door because of tuberculosis. Within hours she’s not just cured but Continue reading

The Laws of Motion (2014 TVM)

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Eh? Father Brown goes noir?
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UK / 43 minutes / color / BBC Dir: Paul Gibson Pr: Jonathan Phillips Scr: Tahsin Guner Based on the character created by G.K. Chesterton Cine: Alan Beech Cast: Mark Williams, Sorcha Cusack, Alex Price, Nancy Carroll, Tom Chambers, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Amelia Lowdell, Cian Barry, Oliver Mellor, Lisa Jackson, John Burton.

What’s this? An episode of the BBC’s Father Brown TV series on a site called Noirish? I know I have a deliberate policy of casting my net as wide as possible here, but surely this is ridiculous. Have I gone bonkers?

Probably yes, but in this instance there’s a rationale behind the seeming madness.

Honest.

A while ago I read—I’ve long forgotten where—that this particular episode is a DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) riff, and so, eager as ever to find noir-related curios, I tracked it down. Certainly the cast list backed up the claim—two of the characters are called Walter MacMurray and Phyllis Stanwyck, which seems a bit of a dead giveaway.

And yet . . .

Audrey (Tracy-Ann Oberman) receives a slap in the face.

Audrey MacMurray (Oberman) is a ruthless businesswoman of middle years and a person of great cruelty in her private life; as one character observes, she chews people up, spits them out and delights in so doing. Her hobby is driving racecars, and today, somewhere in Gloucestershire, she’s partaking in the Continue reading

Dick Barton: Special Agent (1948)

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The first Dick Barton movie!
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vt Dick Barton, Detective
UK / 69 minutes / bw / Marylebone-Hammer, Exclusive Dir: Alfred Goulding Pr: Henry Halsted Scr: Alan Stranks, Alfred Goulding Based on: Dick Barton—Special Agent (1946–51 BBC radio series), devised by Norman Collins and scripted by Edward J. Mason and Geoffrey Webb Cine: Stanley Clinton Cast: Don Stannard, George Ford, Jack Shaw, Gillian Maude, Beatrice Kane, Ivor Danvers, Geoffrey Wincott, Arthur Bush, Alec Ross, Farnham Baxter, Morris Sweden, Ernest Borrow, Janice Lowthian, Campbell Singer, Billy Howard.

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The first and the least of the three movies based on a hugely popular BBC radio series, Dick Barton—Special Agent (1946–51). The radio series appeared in the form of a nightly 15-minute episode Monday through Friday, with an hour-long omnibus version broadcast on the Saturday. Dick Barton was a sort of cleaned-up Bulldog Drummond; alternatively you might think of him as a prototypical James Bond. In his radio incarnation the stories were action-packed stuff. In this first of the Hammer screen adaptations, the studio made the foolish mistake of Continue reading

The Dummy Talks (1943)

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Who slew the philandering ventriloquist?
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UK / 82 minutes / bw / British National, Anglo–American Dir: Oswald Mitchell Pr: Wallace Orton Scr: Michael Barringer Story: Con West, Jack Clifford Cine: James Wilson Cast: Jack Warner, Claude Hulbert, G.H. Mulcaster, Beryl Orde, Ivy Benson, John Carol, Evelyn Darvell, Max Earl, Gordon Edwards, Manning Whiley, Charles Carson, Derna Hazell (i.e., Hy Hazell), Eric Mudd, PLUS

  • Ivy Benson’s All-Ladies Orchestra
  • Frederick Sylvester & Nephew
  • Tommy Manley & Florence Austin
  • Cecil Ayres with the Skating Avalons
  • The Five Lai Founs

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A wartime morale-booster set inside a London variety house/music hall (about the same as a US burlesque theater, but without the, er, disrobing) and relying heavily on the BBC radio popularity of three of its major cast: Jack Warner, Claude Hulbert and Beryl Orde. The movie presents itself as a murder mystery with the added elements of some flippant humor and quite a lot of stage presentations. Despite some genuinely clever moments, it seems today—although fans of music hall might disagree—a tad leaden in places.

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Joe (uncredited) knows a thing or two.

Comedian Jack “Blue Pencil” Warner (Warner) and impressionist Beryl Orde (Orde) are the current headliners at the variety theater, drawing the crowds because they’re well known radio personalities, but plenty of other high-profile acts are on the bill: Marvello (Carson) and Maya (Hazell) with their mentalist act; ventriloquist Russell Warren (Whiley); and singer Peggy Royce (Darvell), who performs with the big band Ivy Benson’s All-Ladies Orchestra (one of several genuine variety acts to feature). Behind the scenes we have stage manager Marcus (Edwards); the theater’s managing director, Yates (Earl); Joe (bafflingly uncredited), the stage-door keeper; and a stutteringly unorthodox cop, Victor “Vic” Harbord (Hulbert), who hangs around the theater a lot because he and Peggy are—improbably—enamored.

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Vic (Claude Hulbert) and Beryl (Beryl Orde).

Beryl knows the ventriloquist, Warren, of old, and despises him as a heartless womanizer. She also recalls how one time, when they shared a bill up north, Warren beat to a pulp a husband who objected to Warren’s seduction of the luckless man’s wife. Beryl is thus dismayed to notice that Peggy is seeing rather more than is appropriate of the ventriloquist; Vic may be no Adonis, but he has a good heart and a genuine adoration for the singer. The truth is that Warren has learned that Continue reading

Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)

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Boris Karloff stars in a triple locked-room mystery!
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US / 69 minutes / bw / Monogram Dir: William Nigh Assoc pr: William Lackey Scr: Houston Branch Based on: characters created by Hugh Wiley in 12 stories published 1934–38 in Colliers Magazine Cine: Harry Neumann Cast: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Maxine Jennings, Evelyn Brent, George Lloyd, Lucien Prival, John St. Polis, William Gould, Hooper Atchley, John Hamilton, Wilbur Mack, Lee Tong Foo, Lynton Brent, Grace Wood, Frank Bruno, Wheaton Chambers.

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The first of a series of six movies about the San Francisco PI James Lee Wong, created in print by Hugh Wiley; the first five movies starred Boris Karloff as Wong, while the sixth starred an actual Chinese-American in the role, Keye Luke. Depressingly, that sixth movie, Phantom of Chinatown (1940), flopped and so the series came to abrupt end. (When I get a chance, I’ll add it to this site. But it seemed silly to start watching a series with its final entry.)

I confess that for years I’ve avoided the Mr. Wong movies—as I generally do the Charlie Chan ones—because I find it just as creepy to watch a white actor play what I suppose we have to call Yellow Face as I do watching white actors play Black Face. I have to report, though, that the experience wasn’t as grueling as I’d expected. There is no mockery at all of Chinese culture or mannerisms. To the contrary, Wong is the most respected character in the movie; at one point the romantic lead compares the elderly Wong so favorably to her police-detective boyfriend—“Mr. Wong, it’s been such a pleasure meeting a detective with such charming manners”—that the cop’s eyes narrow in jealousy.

The Dayton Chemical Co. is planning to ship a consignment of toxic chemicals to Europe aboard the good ship Orinoco. The operation is spied upon by Lescardi (Bruno), an enforcer working for a pair of activists embedded in European politics, Anton Mohl (Prival), who goes by the name Baron von Krantz, and Olga Petroff (Evelyn Brent), who goes by the name Countess Dubois. They’re eager to divert Continue reading

Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

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So many seedy secrets behind a boarding house’s doors!
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vt Murder on the Second Floor
US / 62 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: D. Ross Lederman Pr: Bryan Foy Scr: Anthony Coldeway Story: Murder on the Second Floor (1929 play) by Frank Vosper Cine: Allen G. Siegler Cast: Frieda Inescort, Paul Cavanagh, Heather Angel, Bruce Lester, Miles Mander, Lumsden Hare, Turhan Bey, Charles Irwin, Phyllis Barry, Mary Field, Paul Renay.

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London, 1937, and on the surface Mrs. Armitage’s boarding house appears tranquil enough. But, as we soon find out, not all is as it seems . . .

The movie opens at the docks. One of Mrs. Armitage’s lodgers, Joe Reynolds (Cavanagh), observes as another, Ram Singh (Bey), helps smuggle a small trunk onto the dock and away. Back at the boarding house next morning, it’s clear that the two are in uneasy, mutually suspicious cahoots.

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Ram Singh (Turhan Bey) awaits the arrival of the smuggled box.

Not all is well among the building’s other occupants. Startled while clearing away the breakfast things, the maid, Lucy Timpson (Barry), drops a tray of dirty dishes and is promptly and viciously fired by the landlady, ex-actress Stella Armitage (Inescort). Joe has been carrying on a long-term affair with Stella—in fact, it was he who bought the boarding house for her to run ten years ago when her acting days were over. Stella’s chess-fiend husband Tom (Mander), likewise an ex-actor—he boasts he once played the aunt in Charley’s Aunt—is oblivious to the pair’s shenanigans even after a decade. On the other hand, Stella is equally oblivious to the fact that her lover Joe has been canoodling on the side with Lucy.

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Lucy (Phyllis Barry) is startled by various goings-on.

Also living in the house are Miss Phoebe Marcia St. John Snell (Field)—“I usually leave out the Marcia”—a spinster who sublimates her unmentionable yearnings by reading an endless string of fevered romance novels; and a young, would-be playwright, Hugh Bromilow (Lester). Hugh is carrying on with Stella’s daughter Sylvia (Angel), but at least for the moment in what we might call Continue reading

All That I Have (1951)

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Courtroom drama as an elderly doctor goes on trial for generosity!
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US / 62 minutes / bw / Family, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), Presbyterian Church in the USA Dir: William F. Claxton Scr: Charles Francis Royal, Herman W. Gockel Idea: Leete Renick Brown Cine: Joseph Biroc Cast: Houseley Stevenson Sr., Donald Woods, Onslow Stevens, Robert Stevenson, John Eldredge, Tom Neal, Paul Cavanaugh, Russell Hicks, Alan Bridges, Effie Laird, Joe Devlin, Esther Howard, Houseley Stevenson Jr., Chester Clute, Tim Ryan, James Lloyd, Emory Parnell, Franklin Parker, James Guilfoyle, Clark Howat, George Pembroke, Lee Phelps.

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A genuine curio: a courtroom drama made by and for the Presbyterian Church in the USA. Even more curious, there’s quite a lot to like about it. Unfortunately, most of those likeable bits happen in the first half, with the second half being more of a challenge (at least to this incorrigible rationalist).

The premise is that genial elderly Dr. Charles “Charlie” Grayson (Houseley Stevenson Sr.) decided a while ago to start giving some of his accumulated wealth to people in need and to the church. His nephews Bert (Neal) and Ken (Houseley Stevenson Jr.) have brought a court case on the grounds that he must be mentally incompetent, and should be Continue reading