Thursday, September 20, 2012


So I cast my dvr net this week and caught a few oldies on Turner Classic Movies and wanted to share my thoughts. Some were good, some were not so good and some were great.

LOST ANGEL (1943). Ok, I admit it, Margaret O’Brien has the power to make me weep instantly. O’Brien is orphaned at birth and raised by a group of professors at a science institute. They love her but she‘s been very sheltered. At the age of 7 she’s a genius but completely unfamiliar with what goes on in the real world. James Craig is a cynical reporter sent to do a story on her and O’Brien immediately develops a crush on him.

She escapes the institute and makes her way to the newspaper to talk Craig into showing her more of the world. A measles outbreak at the institute keeps O’Brien from returning home so she is forced to say with Craig. O’Brien also makes friends with gangster Keenan Wynn. Wynn is falsely accused of murder and forces Craig to find the real killer “or else”. Of course Wynn’s iceberg heart is no match for O’Brien’s supernova of precocious adorability. I felt invisible fingers pulling up the corners of my mouth into a sappy smile, helpless as I watched O’Brien scold Craig for refusing to help crime lord Wynn and giggled as I watched Wynn grudgingly give in to O’Brien’s charms as he helps O’Brien with her studies. O’Brien is so cute she makes Shirley Temple look like Jack the Ripper. Naturally O’Brien’s heart (and mine) breaks as she is taken from Craig and forced to return to her family of scientists and sniffled with a runny nose of happiness when she ends up with Craig and his nightclub singer girlfriend at the end.

I’m not crying! I just have something in my eye.

THUNDERBIRD 6 (1968) Globe spanning Airship! Awesome Rocket Ship rescues! Super cool island headquarters! The daring, sexy and implacable Lady Penelope! Supermarionation! Need I say more? I’m a big fan of Sylvia and Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds series so I was surprised to discover that I had not seen this entry. The movie centers around the efforts of Thunderbirds engineer “Brains” to develop a new addition to the set of 5 rescue ships currently used by “International Rescue”, Thunderbird 6. Meanwhile, the New World Aircraft Corporation is about to debut Brains newest creation, Skyship One, which will go on a trip around the world. On board is super secret agent Lady Penelope, her loyal butler and sidekick Parker, Thunderbird Alan and girlfriend/pilot Tin-Tin. But their vacation is interrupted by the villainous agents of White Ghost! Good, clean, nostalgic fun. Yeah, it’s a little slow and the voice acting is hilariously bad but it’s still fun to watch this group of good hearted puppets try to save the world. 


THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER(1945). This was a pretty fun little mystery. Let me say that these movies aren't the best movies ever made. But for an adaptation of a 40 minute radio show mystery, they're not bad. Add RD to the formula, and you have something very watchable. The title character is the Rod Serling/crypt keeper type narrator, only seen as a shadow in the films or a physical person hiding in the shadows. The Whistler introduces us to Richard Dix. As the film opens, Dix is walking down the street, intense but distracted enough to be hit by a car as he crosses the street. The accident leaves him with amnesia. All he has to solve the mystery of who he is are some seemingly innocuously items in his pockets. An expensive lighter, a doctors prescription and a receipt for the delivery of a cake.  He gets a little help from a perky blonde amateur fortune teller (Janis Carter) who reads the cards for Dix and sees death in 24 hours.  However, Carter soon realizes that Dix is more than just a nice guy with problems who is doomed to die. Those innocuous items along with the disturbing amount of small animals that end up dead after crossing Dix's path, lead Carter to discover that Dix is a psychotic killer who has recently escaped from a mental institution and has plans to send a poison filled birthday cake to the judge who sent him there. 

I like these small films based on radio shows. They often seem to have scripts that are taken directly from radio due to a more exposition driven narrative rather than a visual one. This one moved along quickly and was pretty easy to figure out the mystery. The appeal here is Dix who slowly changes from a nice guy to a psycho in a rather fascinating and subtle fashion. Dix can change his face in such a subtle way to change from kindness to downright scary. Dix was in all but one of the Whistler film series. They’re being shown in chronological order every Saturday morning on TCM.
Meanwhile, over in the WW2 propaganda department, we have Edward Dmytryk's BEHIND THE RISING SUN(1943). The story is about a young Japanese man (Tom Neal) from a prominent family who has become Americanized while at school in the US but who changes into an absolute monster after becoming a Japanese soldier who is forced to partake in the horrors of Nanking. The movie is narrated by the mans father (J Carroll Naish). Naish goes through the reverse of what happens to his son. While Neal slowly loses his soul, Naish’s is slowly restored. As the film opens, Naish goes on and on about the power of Japan and their inevitable domination of the world like a villain from a James Bond movie. Over time he changes his tune as friends of his are labeled enemies of the country, tortured and executed. Some of these friends are an American spy, a Russian Spy, a businessman, an American journalist and a baseball player.
Highlights of the movie are the rather graphic for their time Nanking scenes. The most shocking moment shows a soldier tossing a baby up in the air as he prepares to catch the child with his bayonet(not shown of course). The fact is, if you know anything about Nanking then you know that this was probably the most tame thing they could show and still make the point.

There's a nice romantic subplot about the Journalist (Gloria Holden) who is about to leave the circle of friends to work in a dangerous area of the country and who fears she will soon die and the businessman (Don Douglas) who she loves and proposes to. The two, along with all their friends, end up being held and tortured in a Japanese prison until an American air strike bombs the prison, leading to their escape.
My favorite moment had to be the showdown between Robert Ryan as a baseball pro turned boxer in order to take on Kung Fu master Mike Mazurki in one of the longest and (unintentionally) funniest fight scene I've ever watched on film, nearly rivaling the now classic fight scene in John Carpenter's THEY LIVE. The film is interesting in that it's the only movie I know of from that time period that tackles the subject of Nanking. That said, it's not that well made. Lots of bad acting, bad make-up jobs, bad dialogue, sloppy editing. But it does have it's moments, unintentionally funny though some of them may be.

SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ (1942) was another low budget Dmytryk propaganda vehicle. James Craig and his pal escape Alcatraz FAR too easily. In fact, Dmytryk seems to purposely avoid drawing attention from his "message" with a complex escape as Craig tells the audience in his narration that escaping from Alcatraz is so complicated that it's best if he not waste the audience’s time by telling them how he did it! The two prisoners swim to some conveniently accessible driftwood and float to a lighthouse in which lives Bonita "Nancy Drew" Granville, her dad and a friend of the family. After some resistance, Craig and his pal manage to take them all captive. There's a lot of discussion between Craig and Granville's father about the threat of Nazism. But Craig is a cynic who just doesn't care. That is until three German spies turn up at the lighthouse to meet a "friend" who will take them to their submarine rendezvous. How a Nazi sub gets into San Francisco Bay unseen is obviously not elaborated upon. Turns out that the family friend of Granville is really a dirty traitor. The Germans try to seduce Craig and his pal with a Sub ride to freedom and lots of money. But Craig finally sees the light and he and Granville capture them all. Craig turns himself in but it's hinted that his patriotism will lead to some subtraction of time from his sentence.

This one was downright horrible. I don't know what Dmytryk's problem is here but you would never know that this was the guy who gave us Murder My Sweet. This isn't even as good as the worst entry in Granvilles Nancy Drew series. Nor is it as well written or acted.


The highlight has to be 1945’s CONFIDENTIAL AGENT, based on the Graham Greene novel and sporting some lovely James Wong Howe photography. Charles Boyer is a former concert pianist turned “confidential agent” for the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. He’s fighting off all sorts of vile Fascists in order to keep them from getting their hands on British coal. Even his own contacts (Peter Lorre, Katina Paxinou) have been bought off and are intent on killing him. His only allies are a 14 year old hotel maid (Wanda Hendrix) and a bratty drunk with serious daddy issues (Lauren Bacall).


Boyer doesn’t fare too well in his mission. He gets beat up, charged by police with just about everything under the sun and framed for murder. It seems the Fascists are unstoppable. This is a good role for Boyer who isn’t quite his usual unflappable self here. He plays a man who is so battle worn that he hardly resembles his own passport photo. He’s also still stinging from the loss of his wife and daughter, killed by Fascists. He plays the part of a cautious, worried man who definitely does not underestimate the enemy and who is slowly losing his faith in his fellow man. Yet he faces his foes with the courage of a man who has accepted that he will probably die for the cause. As Bacall falls for both Boyer and his cause, she starts to see her self respect restored and her entitlement melt away. Katina Paxinou is terrific as the monstrous villain whose death you cant help but delight in. Lorre is pretty much Lorre. The film builds up a nice suspense as we see Boyer’s (and our) frustration build and build as the fascists keep him and victory at arms length. This makes the pay off at the end even more rewarding.


I think I like John Huston’s HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON even more than his film African Queen. The two are similar in theme. A tough guy teamed up with a woman of God who find themselves facing off against representatives of one of the Axis powers. I think what works for me in this film that didn’t in African Queen is that Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum have much better and much more believable chemistry than did Bogart and Hepburn.


Shipwrecked Mitchum washes up on the shore of a south pacific island whose only inhabitant is a young and attractive nun played by Kerr. I loved watching Mitchum’s orphan turned Marine interact with the innocent but refined Kerr. These roles fit the characters like a glove. I also enjoyed the sexual tension as Mitchum slowly falls in love with the seemingly oblivious Kerr. I delighted in watching Mitchum’s hopes rise as Kerr confides that she hasn’t yet taken her final vows as well as the hurt on his face as Kerr must painfully reject his proposal of marriage as she tries in vain to explain her love and dedication to God.


Kerr is simply a joy in this. She glows with happiness as she wakes up to Mitchum’s gift of a hand carved comb wrapped in leafs and flowers. The movie has a wonderfully peaceful quality to it. There is no intrusive musical score. There are moments of music that highlight certain scenes. But for the most part, it’s a quiet film that focuses on these two terrific characters. It’s been about 20 years since I last watched this movie. I recently watched the equally entertaining Mitchum/Kerr film The Sundowners. As in Heaven Knows, Sundowners shows that the chemistry between Kerr and Mitchum was no fluke. These two are one of the most criminally underrated, romantic screen pairings of the classic film era.

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