Jul 29, 2016

On DVD: Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey Reunite in Count The Hours! (1953)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) stars Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey are reunited a decade later in the thriller Count the Hours (1953), now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

When an intruder murders a farmer and his housekeeper, his handyman George Braden (John Craven) is wrongfully accused of the crime. Anxious to protect his pregnant wife Ellen (Teresa Wright) from the strain of interrogation, Braden confesses to the crime, only to revert to the truth when lawyer Doug Madison (MacDonald Carey), considers taking his case. The sympathetic attorney's decision to defend the man angers the townspeople, who are certain of his guilt, and threatens Madison's way of life.

What follows is a familiar story: a wrongfully incarcerated man frets in jail while the woman who loves him tries to save him, helped by a man who is at first skeptical of the innocence of the accused. A film with a plot that well worn needs something to distinguish it, and here it is the cinematography and a heart wrenching performance by Wright that make it more intriguing.

Wright is vulnerable, but steely as a wife desperate to save the father of her child. She speaks passionately in defense of her husband, and the power of her belief shines in loving close-ups which lend her a gentle dignity. It is that memory of her essential self-belief that makes her moments of despair so devastating. Wright shows Ellen crumbling into despair, looking like a lonely child and she makes you feel her hopelessness.

Director of photography John Alton (He Walked by Night, Raw Deal) heightens the tension with his trademark gloomy, but shimmery film noir style. With lighting and angles, he makes a man attempting rape look like a looming monster in a horror flick. In a courtroom scene, a close-up is arranged in such a way that you are suddenly looking at a character with greater clarity. These moments, and a generally shadowy atmosphere, lend a fairly routine film excitement, amping up emotions and lending the production an artistry that goes beyond the routine script.

MacDonald Carey seems looser than usual in this part, even managing a bit of light comedy in a scene where he flirtatiously tries to get information from a suspect's girlfriend who responds to flattery. Craven doesn't particularly distinguish himself in his role as the husband, but he doesn't have much to work with, and he fits the part well. Adele Mara has a completely unnecessary and thankless role as Braden's fiancée, while Dolores Moran steals scenes as an opportunistic country girl with her eyes on the sweet life.

Though it doesn't build up enough momentum to be a truly high-tension thriller, Count the Hours has enough starpower and style to make it worth the watch, and is especially recommended to fans of Alton and Wright.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jul 28, 2016

Book Review--The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best

The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best
Peter L. Winkler, Ed.
Chicago Review Press, 2016

In his six years in Los Angeles and New York, James Dean packed in several decades-worth of living. Many who knew him would comment on his morbid world view and how he seemed to foresee his own early death. Perhaps that his why he lived so passionately and without restraint.

In The Real James Dean, Peter Winkler (Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel) has gathered a compilation of pieces from those who knew the actor: from his family and early influencers to the friends and co-workers he encountered on the way to the top. While the memories shared here are of varied depth, length and veracity, they all agree that Dean was a fatalistic man in a great rush to succeed. The degree to which these accounts diverge and unite is one of the many fascinating elements of this diverse collection of stories.

While the book's sections are easily browsable, it is essentially arranged in chronological order. The first portion is devoted to mostly uncomplicated loving memories of the young Dean, including his grandmother and high school drama teacher. These stories focus on his childhood spent on the Indiana farm of his aunt and uncle and the distant relationship he had with his father.

Once Dean begins college, and soon after when he begins his quest to become an actor, his eccentricities emerge. Some of the memories shared from that time, like that of his former classmate and close friend William Bast are loving and for the most part accepting of Jimmy's moods a bizarre behavior. Many are more skeptical. In his memories of the actor, friend John Gilmore acknowledges his charms, but doesn't give him a pass for his rudeness and inconsiderate habits. There seems to be a general consensus that whether or not a person liked him, he was difficult to know.

Among the actor's habits: recklessness, sulking, refusing to adopt normal social behavior and even endangering the lives of others. He was self-absorbed, aware of his egotism, but always reaching out for affection and mentors who could satisfy his enormous curiosity about life. And yet, he could also be open and encouraging, allowing neighborhood kids curious about the emerging star to explore his home and devoting great energy to increasing the self-esteem of a struggling jazz singer who lost her leg in a motorcycle crash.

The essays gathered here are all previously published, though many are no longer available in print. Winkler has presented them without edits, adding his own notes to elaborate or fill in the blanks in some accounts and correct errors due to lack of knowledge or dramatic storytelling on the part of the author.

Among the shorter pieces are memories and interview excerpts drawn from the autobiographies of former co-stars and actor friends. Hume Cronyn, Raymond Massey and Rick Hudson share their irritation with the unpredictable actor, while Natalie Wood relates a glowing account of her time with him on and off the set of Rebel Without a Cause (that the piece was for a movie magazine undoubtedly has much to do with the upbeat tone). Some of the most interesting memories come from those with mixed feelings about Dean, like his Giant co-star Mercedes McCambridge and his dance instructor Eartha Kitt, who found him interesting, but puzzling.

There are a couple of wild stories excerpted from Shelley Winters' memoirs which, while probably enhanced by her sense of drama, provide an amusing perspective on Dean's recklessness. While Winters drove home from a Hollywood premiere with a friend and her roommate Marilyn Monroe, the actor swerved around them on his motorcycle, nearly killing himself at one point. Amusingly enough, fellow mega-legend Monroe was disgusted by Dean.

Common themes explored here include Dean's experiments with homosexuality, his often inscrutable behavior and the childish, boisterous way he would express joy. His appetite for music, books and new experiences are also examined from several angles. Perhaps the actor could try the patience, but he was never boring, and it is astounding how much he learned and experienced in so few years.

I've read several books about Dean and this compilation is among my favorites, because of the variety of perspectives it offers, while also digging deep into his life and personality. It captures so many aspects of the actor, and reveals how he could be simultaneously complex and simple. He doesn't come off as a hero, but you can see how his lust for life drew friends, lovers and influential people to him. It's a fascinating exploration of a unique talent and a tragedy of what could have been.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Jul 26, 2016

On DVD: Dopes Sell Dope in Stakeout on Dope Street (1958)

With an off-kilter jazzy score, hapless young anti-heroes and a slightly sensational edge, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958) is a classic Roger Corman production. The music and slick photography are the strongest elements of this teen crime and drug flick. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, it is notable for being the first film directed by The Empire Strikes Back (1980) helmer Irvin Kershner and featuring for featuring the early work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler

A trio of teens come into possession of a two pound can of uncut heroin tossed aside during a police raid. They are essentially good kids, but impatient for the finer things in life, so they decide to sell the drugs. It should come as no surprise that things don't go well; the shocker here is a surprisingly frank extended sequence that tackles heroin addiction.

Of the leads Jonathon Haze, Yale Wexler and Morris Miller, Corman regular Haze is the most memorable, with his doofy manner, but incongruously dangerous-looking eyes. It isn't so much the way he handles a line, but his presence that distinguishes him. He's such an unusual performer, sometimes seeming to have simultaneously millions of faraway thoughts and absolutely nothing on his mind. However, he doesn't have much to do here and is essentially the third wheel to Wexler and Miller.

Neither Haze nor anyone else distinguishes themselves as a performer though. The acting here is generally awkward, and lends the production an oddly intriguing theatricality, as if you are watching a dramatic marionette show. No one seems to know how to speak a line like it hasn't been written or make a move without showing the thought behind it. As a sad sack heroin addict, Allen Kramer is especially wooden, which is unfortunate as he is featured in one of the film's major sequences.

There's a chatty, rambling narration that drones on over much of the action. I'm guessing there's so much of it because it was cheaper to film scenes silent and fill in explanations later, because in many sequences it would have been just as easy to have the characters speak for themselves. In one of the more extended narrative passages, the audience is given a lengthy list of the different names for heroin ("mooch" was a new one for me).

This fascinating clumsiness is at odds with the slick camerawork which lends the action an extra bit of momentum. Fast, sometimes unpredictable edits and eccentrically arranged close-ups add to the uneasy feeling that something is going to go very wrong. These jittery scenes are offset by quirky longshots, like a mesmerizing, if somewhat drawn-out scene of the three boys searching a dump when they have mistakenly discarded the can holding the drugs.

The frantic, but hip West Coast jazz soundtrack is a standout. Performed by The Hollywood Chamber Jazz Group, it's a frenzied compilation of snappy hi-hats and staccato horns.

These stylistic elements, and some interesting Los Angeles area location footage, are the highlights in what is essentially a routine film with little to distinguish it. While the heroin addiction sequence is remarkably frank for an age when even marijuana was barely mentioned on the screen, it is so different from the rest of the film that it barely seems a part of it. It is as if an educational short were dropped in the middle of a teenage delinquent drama.

It feels like the work of filmmakers who have something to offer, but haven't quite worked out what that is yet. Lacking in unique appeal and draggy in spots, the film is worth the watch for fans of Haskell and Kershner.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jul 14, 2016

On DVD: George Hamilton and Joseph Cotten in Jack of Diamonds (1967)

Joseph Cotten is master and teacher and George Hamilton is the protégée jewel thief in this cheerful caper comedy, now available on DVD from Warner Archive. The pair are notorious as Ace of Diamonds and Jack of Diamonds respectively; in public life the Jack is known as Jeffrey Hill. In Jack of Diamonds (1967), Ace emerges from retirement for one last great heist with Jeffrey.

Before diving into the plot, the film begins with an extended scene featuring jewel theft victim Zsa Zsa Gabor, who plays herself with evident glee. When she discovers her empty jewel drawer, the actress seems mildly disappointed, as if she has forgotten to buy champagne. Much more exciting is the arrival of the police and the press, an unexpected, but welcome audience.

In a pair of brief segments as previous victims of Jeffrey, Carroll Baker and Lilli Palmer in similar cameos seem equally delighted to be the center of attention. There's nothing more flattering to an actress than being hired to make an appearance as herself.

Hamilton is also full of self-confidence, envisioning himself as more sexy than he is. He's too eager and says his lines too loud to be especially slick. Whenever he tries to flash a sly smile, rather than appearing sophisticated, he looks like a teenager giggling about silently breaking wind at a fancy dinner party.

The actor is interesting to watch though, with a well-placed mole over his lip, an elegantly pointed nose and hair so thick it looks like a shiny brown hat. He doesn't take himself too seriously either. Perhaps Hamilton isn't all he'd like to be, but he's never dull.

Jack of Diamonds is a goofy film, much more so that it intends to be. It's always reaching a bit for effect, but full of things that must be seen, like Hamilton shimmying into a zip-up tux, swinging nonchalantly across his living room on a trapeze bar and skiing down a mountain with a sexy lady in pursuit, the soundtrack blaring with singers yodeling and belting out enthusiastic "do do's" over mariachi-like horns.

It begins to slow down by the half point, getting a bit too engrossed in the police procedurals, making you wonder if Jeffrey is still up on that trapeze, or if perhaps he's doing flips on a fold-out trampoline normally hidden in his couch. Things eventually perk up with a groovy nightclub dance scene which has some awesomely awkward dancing (check out the guy constantly thrusting his arm in the air: mad? or hot moves?). As long as there aren't extended stretches of dialogue, it keeps moving well enough.

While the big heist drags, and doesn't add much to the genre, the continually odd soundtrack adds to the amusement. In an apparent attempt to emulate Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin, the staccato sounds of a man either gagging or quacking like a duck are punctuated with jazzy horns and jaunty flutes.

The accomplices in the heist: Wolfgang Preiss as Nicoli Vodkine and Marie Laforêt as his daughter Volga, don't feel entirely necessary. As Jeffrey's Man Friday Helmut, Karl Lieffen is more entertaining and adorably in love with his employer.

For the most part, the picture is of VHS quality, with light dirt and scratches, some washed out color, and a bit of fuzziness in spots. While it isn't a pristine image, its faults don't detract from the viewing experience.

Though not an entirely brisk ride, Jack of Diamonds offers plenty of fun for fans of lightweight sixties caper and spy flicks.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Jul 10, 2016

Doffing Dresses and Drinking Cocktails in Three Broadway Girls/The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)

This post is my entry in the Hot and Bothered: The Films of 1932 Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch. A lot of great films are being covered, so go check out the rest!

Gold-digging, boyfriend stealing, drinking all night and yes, dress doffing. The three ex-showgirls at the center of Three Broadway Girls (also known as The Greeks Had a Word for Them) were the inspiration for many movies about girlfriends on the make. Few of the films to come would have the sizzle and snap of this one though. Most famous as the inspiration for How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), this comedy of acquisitions, friendship and frenemies has a naughty sparkle that is firmly pre-Code.

The movie is all about the ladies. As the love interests, David Manners is blandly handsome and unexciting as usual and Lowell Sherman (also the film's director) is a snob and has an unsettling habit of wearing eyeshadow all the way up to his eyebrows. Stars Ina Claire, Madge Evans and Joan Blondell, as the ex hoofers Jean, Polaire and Schatze respectively have the best quips and the most fun.

The trio is in the business of finding wealthy benefactors, and it is implied that they've made a better success of that than show business. Schatze and Polaire live in a fancy apartment beyond their means so that they can better lure wealthy suitors. Jean is more freewheeling in her pursuit of wealth, which leads to her being forced to leave her steamer trunk and a large hotel bill and jump on the next boat out of France.

Manners, Evans, Blondell and Claire
Each of the ladies is an easily definable type. Polaire is the good girl, who uses gold-digging to survive, but is close to marrying the wealthy Dey (Manners) for love. Schatze is seemingly a ditz, but dumb like a fox, and lusts over large club sandwiches as much the riches of her elderly sugar daddy. These two are essentially kind-hearted, unlike Jean, who is the ambitious party girl and not to be trusted. She'll do anything to get her man, apologize and go right back to causing trouble again.

While Polaire and Schatze scope out millionaires with survival and a little fun in mind, Jean does whatever she wants, whenever she wants, just because she feels like it. She doesn't care about anyone but herself, but it's hard not to admire how free she is. Maybe you wouldn't trust her as a friend, but she'd be fun over cocktails (for which you would end up paying).

Jean is also the one of the trio who brings the most Hot and Bothered pre-Code zing to the film. Her sexuality is a tool that she uses with all the emotion and zeal of a carpenter wielding a hammer. The pursuit of wealth is serious business for her.

When Polaire's boyfriend Dey (Manners) introduces Jean to the concert pianist Boris Feldman (Sherman) while she is out with Polaire and Schatze, she threatens to leave, thinking he's an ivory tickler for a jazz combo. When she finds out how wealthy he his, the crafty dame is suddenly on the market. Boris is so sure of the sexual potency of his playing that he bets her the price of a mink that she will fall in love with him when she hears him perform. Her interest aroused, she agrees to the pact like a businesswoman closing a deal.

The group moves on to Boris' apartment, where Jean's progress is slowed when his playing makes her fall asleep and he in turn becomes fascinated with Polaire after she plays for him. Claiming that he can make her wealthy and famous, he manages to convince her and Dey to give each other up so he can take her on tour. Boris offers her the price of the coat, but Jean is having none of the golden egg if she can get the goose.

As Schatzi and Dey prepare to leave, Jean wiggles out of her dress. Polaire discovers the slinky garment hanging out of the back of her fur coat when she complains of being cold. Suspicious of her ambitious friend's motives, she nevertheless leaves to prepare for her travels with Boris.

With the apartment cleared out, Jean gives Boris a peek at what's under her fur coat. The pianist realizes he may not like her, but he'd sure like to give her a try. Polaire doesn't take long to figure out why Boris doesn't answer the bell when she returns.

In the end, sex doesn't hold Boris. No musician can handle his lady constantly snoozing through his performances. If she'd managed to prop her eyelids open long enough, maybe a missing dress would have been enough.

This episode does nothing to discourage Jean. She goes after Dey, and failing that, goes after his father. When she realizes she doesn't want to marry Papa either, she escapes with Schatzi, and the reunited Dey and Polaire to a Paris-bound ship. There she finds her next conquest, and hints that there will be plenty of dress-doffing to come.

Three Broadway Girls is a lot of fun, and thanks to Ina Claire, it also is a perfect example of what made Hollywood films in 1932 so Hot and Bothered.

The film is in the public domain, and unfortunately in desperate need of restoration, but if you'd like to take a look, it can be found at Internet Archive and is free to stream for Prime customers at Amazon.

Jul 8, 2016

On Blu-ray: Bogie and Bacall in Dark Passage (1947)

The four film partnership between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall worked because the growing affection they felt for each other off-screen translated so well to the characters they played. That love is most evident in Dark Passage (1947), which despite all its bitterness and hard edges is also an intensely romantic film. Joining The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948), this Bogie and Bacall noir is now also available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Bogart is Vincent Parry, a recently escaped convict on the run. Once Vincent gets free from prison, he hitches a ride, only to be exposed when the car radio reports the man hunt. Acting in panic, he knocks out the now suspicious young man (Clifton Young, a former Little Rascal and still looking it) who has picked him up. As Vincent deals with the fall-out, a mysterious young woman insists that he get in her station wagon and she safely transports him to her apartment.

Her name is Irene Jansen (Bacall) and she thinks that Vincent may be innocent of killing his wife, just as her own convicted father was years ago. Determined that not another man should suffer a wrongful conviction, she dedicates herself to saving the bewildered Vincent. Her efforts are stymied by persistent beaux wannabe Bob (Bruce Bennett) and the high strung Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who coincidently has a lot to do with Vincent's dilemma.

Dark Passage is perhaps best remembered for its extensive use of point-of-view camera. For the first forty minutes of the film everything you see is through Vincent's eyes. You don't even get a full look at his face until an hour into the action. This segment is filmed with remarkable smoothness by what was at the time a newly-developed handheld camera.

Though a gimmick like point-of-view can be an awkward distraction, it is an asset here, because you get to watch Bacall's character falling hard for Vincent and she is beautifully effective. The actress has long had a reputation for being a tough, if essentially friendly dame. Here she demonstrates how tender she could be.

While the Bogart and Bacall chemistry sizzled in all four of their films, in Dark Passage they are at their most intimate. It made me think about the passages in Lauren Bacall's 1978 autobiography By Myself, where she describes the development of her romance with Bogart. You get the feeling that she saved him from despair and that resonates in the film as well.

The Blu-ray debut of the film looks gorgeous, with sharp, clean images. Dark Passage is famous for its liberal use of San Francisco location shots, and that aspect of the film is now particularly striking. The restoration also made me more aware of the complexity of the sound and what an important role it played in building tension and telling the story during the point-of-view scenes.

Special features include a trailer for the film, the Bugs Bunny cartoon short Slick Hare (1947), and Hold Your Breath and Cross Your Fingers a TCM-produced featurette about the making of the film, which includes interviews with Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.