Tuesday, May 11, 2021

THE PASSAGE (1979)

 





THE PASSAGE is another one of those 1970s international productions that have a action-war element to the storyline and a star-studded cast. It was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had made two excellent WWII films--ICE COLD IN ALEX and THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. THE PASSAGE is a far cry from those films, and despite the poster above, it's not a battle-filled exciting adventure. 

Sometime during the Second World War, a Basque sheepherder (Anthony Quinn) is hired by the French Resistance to guide an American professor wanted by the SS (James Mason) and his family through the mountains into Spain. The shepherd doubts the plan will succeed--the Professor and his wife (Patricia Neal) are elderly, and their son and daughter (Paul Clemens and Kay Lenz) are not very enthusiastic. Nevertheless the shepherd risks his life to bring the family to safety, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of a fanatical SS officer (Malcolm McDowell) determined to catch them. 

THE PASSAGE tries to be a nail-biting thriller, but whatever suspense there might have been is ruined by Malcolm McDowell's ridiculously bizarre performance. One expects a bit of weirdness whenever McDowell shows up on-screen, but he's so loopy here that one wonders whether the actor thought he was appearing in a Mel Brooks movie. 

The film is also hurt by the fact that we get almost no information about the main characters--we never even learn the shepherd's name. We are never even told why the SS is so obsessed over capturing an old, tweedy professor. Because of this, the viewer isn't able to get fully involved in the characters' plight. 

Quinn's shepherd is helped along the way by a French Resistance member played by Michael Lonsdale and a gypsy camp leader played by Christopher Lee. Both men receive a horrible fate from McDowell's SS officer. Lee gets special billing in the credits, but his fans will note how small (though important) his role is. (I'm sure that Lee at least was happy that he didn't have to play a Nazi this time). 

Quinn, Mason, and Neal are all very good, but it's hard for them to make an impression when so much of the film is focused on McDowell and his psychotic antics. The SS officer gets to torture people and he also gets to rape the professor's daughter in a sequence that is crass and unnecessary. 

Michael Reed (THE GORGON, ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE) was the cinematographer on this film, but the visuals do not resemble his earlier efforts. For most of the time the picture looks dark and murky, and there is a lot of handheld camera work. (I do have to say that I viewed this film on the Tubi streaming channel, but it was a decent uncut widescreen print.) Michael J. Lewis does provide a music score which harkens back to the WWII action-adventure films of the 1960s. Maurice Binder, who is best known as the creator of most of the title sequences for the James Bond films, was an associate producer on this movie. 

THE PASSAGE does feature some impressive Pyrenees locations, but the film is notable for all the wrong reasons. If it didn't have so many gratuitous elements, and a more realistic portrayal of the main villain, it might have turned out to be a decent WWII melodrama. 




Thursday, May 6, 2021

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE

 




The best film in the 3-disc "Carole Lombard Collection II" Blu-ray set from Kino is HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, a 1935 romantic comedy co-starring Fred MacMurray and directed by Mitchell Leisen. 

Carole Lombard plays Regi Allen, a manicurist at a ritzy hotel. Regi is unhappy with her life and hopes to snag a rich husband. She encounters Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy), a wealthy man living at the hotel who is paralyzed from the waist down, and Theodore Drew (Fred MacMurray), a gadabout whose family has fallen on hard times. Regi and Theodore are attracted to each other, but he's engaged to marry an heiress. Allen wants to marry Regi, but he realizes that she and Theodore are meant for each other, despite the both of them supposedly wanting money over love. 

HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE is usually lumped into the "screwball comedy" category, but I would define it as more thoughtful than screwball. There's very few outlandish moments here--Mitchell Leisen plays things for the most part in a subtle manner, with several intimate close-ups. Regi, Theodore, and Allen are not caricatures, they are real human beings with real emotions and feelings. 

Lombard is delightful as Regi--the actress is very natural and unaffected here. She tries to act as if she's a cynical golddigger who wants the easy life, but she isn't (something that Ralph Bellamy's Allen surmises right away). Regi is actually a hard-working responsible person who just yearns for more out of her situation. She's attracted to Theodore, but put off by the fact that he appears more cynical than she does. Ted has never really worked for a living, nor does he want to--a fact that exasperates Regi. This was Lombard and MacMurray's first film together, and they make a great screen couple. This was also very early in Fred MacMurray's acting career, and in later interviews he gave all the credit to Lombard in helping him come off as well as he does. 

Ralph Bellamy plays the "other guy" role again, but he almost winds up stealing the film as the kindly Macklyn. (In all honesty I thought Regi would have been better off if she had wound up with him--but there's no way any 1935 movie made in Hollywood would have allowed a star like Lombard to be with a guy in a wheelchair at the end.) Marie Prevost is notable as Regi's best friend. 

The transfer of HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE on this Blu-ray is very good, although there are times where it seems too bright. The main extra is a new audio commentary by Allen Arkush and Daniel Kremer, who also did the honors for THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS in this same Kino set. The duo give a lively talk, and they spend a lot of time discussing Mitchell Leisen. 

To sum up the "Carole Lombard Collection II" Blu-ray set--it has better films than the first set, with both THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS and HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE being among Carole's top films. It also has what I feel are better audio commentaries. 

It is disappointing that all three of the films in this set had been released on home video before--there's still plenty of Lombard movies that have never gotten an official release, especially from her Paramount period. Hopefully if Kino comes out with a third Lombard set, they will pick some of these titles, no matter how obscure they might be. 

If one is a major Carole Lombard fan, this certainly is a worthy purchase--and, if enough people buy this set, Kino might actually decide to make more of them. 








Sunday, May 2, 2021

WIVES UNDER SUSPICION

 




In February I wrote a blog post on Kino's Blu-ray of James Whale's THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR. That 1933 film was remade by Whale, and Universal, in 1938 under the title WIVES UNDER SUSPICION, which I saw for the first time last night. 

THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR is a tale about a defense lawyer, played by Frank Morgan, who is defending a man who killed his younger, beautiful wife in a fit of jealous anger. The lawyer begins to feel that his own younger, beautiful wife is cheating on him, so he begins to believe that if he can get his client off on a charge of temporary insanity, he might be able to dispose of his own spouse the same way. 

As I said in my post on it, THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR is more of a "Will he do it?" than a whodunit. WIVES UNDER SUSPICION flips the scenario a bit--the lead character is a district attorney who is in charge of prosecuting a man who has killed his cheating wife. 

WIVES UNDER SUSPICION stars Warren William as hard-charging D.A. Jim Stowell, a man who takes great pleasure in punishing criminals. He even has an abacus (made up of tiny skulls) on his office desk, so he can keep track of all the people he's sent to the electric chair! Jim's obsession over his rough brand of justice makes his young glamorous wife Lucy (Gail Patrick) uneasy. Stowell is about to take a much-needed vacation with his wife when a meek professor (Ralph Morgan, the brother of Frank Morgan) is brought in after killing his unfaithful spouse. The professor tells Jim about how he was driven to murder when his wife refused a kiss before her vanity mirror--and the D.A. starts to suspect that the same thing will happen between him and Lucy. Jim's suspicions start to affect his mind and manner. 

According to James Curtis' fine biography of James Whale, it was the director himself who suggested remaking THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR. It says a lot about Whale's position with Universal at the time that he was doing a minor remake of one of his earlier films instead of working on something fresh and inventive. WIVES UNDER SUSPICION runs about 69 minutes, and it feels like a B movie instead of a major A-list production. 

THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR was a moody, intriguing Pre-Code thriller, set in Vienna, with several impressive visual elements. WIVES UNDER SUSPICION is set in contemporary America, and it doesn't have James Whale's usual quirky touches. There's nothing here to rate it above the dozens of other programmers coming out of the Hollywood studios at the time, and the ending wraps things up way too easily.

The best thing about the film is Warren William's performance. The actor's energetic arrogance is perfect for Jim Stowall, and while the character may be unlikable, he's never unwatchable. Gail Patrick is merely okay as his wife, and while there are plenty of familiar character actors in support (such as Samuel S. Hinds and Milburn Stone), none of them stand out. Way too much footage is given to Lillian Yarbo as the Stowalls' annoying "comedic" African-American maid. 

If you didn't know that WIVES UNDER SUSPICION was directed by James Whale, you certainly wouldn't have guessed it. It's hard to believe that the man who made the likes of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and SHOW BOAT could have turned out such an adequate film. It does need to be mentioned that Whale was quite disillusioned by the people who were running Universal at this time. After WIVES UNDER SUSPICION, James Whale had only a few films left in his erratic but sometimes brilliant movie directing career.   


Saturday, May 1, 2021

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST

 





The next film I will be examining from Kino's new "Carole Lombard Collection II" Blu-ray set is LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST, a 1936 romantic comedy that is not one of the actress's better movies. 

LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST was made at Universal, and it was directed by Walter Lang, who would soon marry Madalynne Fields--who happened to be Carole Lombard's best friend and confidant. The film used cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff and costume designer Travis Banton, who had both done much to show off Lombard's beauty in her films for Paramount. Unfortunately what was needed was some screenwriters from Paramount. The comedy in LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST isn't very comedic, and the characters are more annoying than interesting. 

Socialite Kay Colby (Carole Lombard) is engaged to the hard-working Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero), but she's still being pursued by rich businessman Scott Miller (Preston Foster). Miller even goes to the trouble of buying the company that Bill works for, and then has him transferred to Japan. Scott then drives Kay crazy with his attentions, but when he stops, she feels disappointed. Kay then agrees to marry Bill, but he decides to bring Bill back to see what feelings she has for him. 

The story is basically about two people who go out of their way to annoy one another instead of just having a normal relationship. This happens a lot in romantic comedies, especially older ones, and in the right circumstances it can work. But here the mind games Kay and Scott play on each other become tiresome, and the supposed humor isn't all that funny. Lombard's appealing personality helps greatly, but her character still comes off as a flighty rich girl (she has a butler and a maid) who doesn't have anything better to do. Preston Foster doesn't come off too well in a light comedic role, and even Cesar Romero as the other man isn't very likable. 

I have to discuss the ad art used on the LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST disc cover. I'm surprised it was used for this release, but it certainly does get attention. (In the actual film, Lombard is popped in the right eye--and not by any of the leading men, but by accident in a bar fight.) The art makes one think that LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST is a wild, slapstick screwball farce, but that picture has more vitality to it than the entire screenplay. 

The transfer Kino has used for LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST is mediocre. It has a dull look to it--the black & white picture lacks sparkle--and it has a lot of scratches on it. The main extra is a new audio commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Joshua Nelson. The duo spend a fair amount of time discussing the image used on the disc cover, and they go into how Lombard's persona has been analyzed by various authors--but they don't have all that much to say about LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST. 

I'm a bit disappointed that Kino included LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST on this set. The movie has been released on home video before, and there's several better Lombard movies that could have been taken its place. LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST runs only 70 minutes, and it feels like a B picture instead of a major production for a big Hollywood star. 




Monday, April 26, 2021

THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS

 




Kino has released the "Carol Lombard Collection II", a Blu-ray set containing three of the great lady's films. As in the first set, released last summer, each movie gets its own disc case. The three films in the set are HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, LOVE BEFORE BREAKFAST, and THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS. 

I have to start off by saying that all three films in this second collection have been released on home video before (I was hoping we'd get some titles that have never had an official release). But any Lombard product on Blu-ray is a plus. I'll be writing a blog post on all the films in the second set. 

We start off with what I consider is one of the most underrated films Lombard starred in--THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS, a 1936 film made by Paramount and directed by William K. Howard. This is not a wacky screwball farce--it is a lighthearted mystery. 

Lombard stars again here with Fred MacMurray, after they appeared in the excellent HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE. Carole plays Brooklyn-born would-be actress Wanda Nash. Wanda is so desperate to get a movie studio contract, she poses as a Swedish royal named "Princess Olga". The "Princess" takes a suite on a luxury liner going from France to New York. There she encounters bandleader (and concertina player) King Mantell (Fred MacMurray). Unsurprisingly, King becomes smitten with "Olga", and he tries to get to know her better, while Wanda, afraid of giving herself away, tries to avoid falling for him. Five internationally famous detectives happen to be traveling on the ship, along with an escaped criminal. The body of a blackmailer winds up in Wanda's suite, and both she and King become suspects. The duo attempt to avoid being charged with murder, and getting murdered themselves. 

This is the second of four films that Lombard and MacMurray appeared in together, and they make a great screen team. (MacMurray was one of Carole's best overall leading men.) Lombard is in fine form here, playing the "Princess" as a Greta Garbo type (with a touch of Dietrich thrown in). Other performers would have overdone the Princess bit to the point of absurdity, but Lombard does it in a way that is funny without being cartoonish. Ted Tetzlaff's photography and Travis Banton's costumes make Carole look exquisite (although one has to wonder how an unemployed actress is able to have such a fantastic wardrobe). 

MacMurray is very good here--his King is a good guy, but he also has a bit of a shady past. Both stars are given older sidekicks in the picture--Carole is traveling with Alison Skipworth, and Fred's buddy is William Frawley. The two veterans are quite amusing in support. 

Some have said that the comedy and mystery elements do not mesh well here together. I happen to disagree. The five inspectors (played by character actors Douglas Dumbrille, Lumsden Hare, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer, and Tetsu Komai) could have rated a film of their very own. The movie doesn't play the mystery elements as a joke--many of the scenes play out on shadowy deck corridors. When Lombard and MacMurray are in danger, they react like believable human beings. 

THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS isn't on the same level as, say, MY MAN GODFREY, but it's a fun, entertaining movie that showcases Carole Lombard particularly well. 

Kino's Blu-ray of THE PRINCESS COMES ACROSS presents a very sharp transfer that shows off the black & white cinematography. The sound is distinct and clear. 

The main extra is a new audio commentary by filmmakers Allan Arkush and Daniel Kremer. While listening to them it doesn't take long to realize that they both are hard-core classic Hollywood buffs who know their stuff. The duo enjoy themselves immensely while discussing the cast & crew of the film. There's also some trailers from other Lombard films released by Kino. 





Sunday, April 25, 2021

THE HIGH COMMAND

 





One great thing about having a Roku device is all the free movie channels one has access to from it. I've found plenty of obscure, rare films on these channels--titles that I think are far more interesting than the brand-name stuff on HBO Max or Netflix. 

I recently discovered THE HIGH COMMAND, a 1937 British film starring Lionel Atwill. Ironically, this was the only English-made movie Atwill ever appeared in (the actor was born in Croydon in 1885). 

In THE HIGH COMMAND Atwill plays a British army officer named Sir John Sangye. At the start of the film, he's posted in Ireland during the troubles of 1921. During an attack by Irish rebels, Sangye is confronted by another British officer. Sangye has had an affair with the officer's wife, and he's also the father of what is presumed to be the man's daughter. Sangye shoots the man in self-defense, and blames his death on the Irish rebels. An officer named Carson becomes suspicious after examining the man's body. 

15 years later, Carson arrives at a military post in West Africa, where he finds Sangye, now a general, to be the commanding officer. Carson also finds that Sangye's now grown daughter (who he calls his step-daughter) has no idea about her true parentage, or what happened in 1921. Carson starts to annoy her, while at the same time he develops an interest in the glamorous wife (Lucie Mannheim) of a local industrialist. Carson's young cousin and fellow officer (James Mason) also is attracted to the woman. Carson is eventually shot and killed, and his cousin becomes the main suspect...but during the trial Sangye's past starts to come up. Sangye must find out who the true murderer is, while at the same time prevent his daughter from finding out what really happened years ago. 

The script of THE HIGH COMMAND could have easily been the basis of an Agatha Christie novel. A group of English characters, each with something to hide, gathered at an exotic location, where a murder is committed, and everyone is suspect....the only thing missing here is a quirky detective to solve the case and reveal everyone's backstory. It's not hard to guess the murderer (the man actually explains how the deed was committed as an example). The suspense comes from whether Sangye can save his and his daughter's reputation. 

I'm sure Lionel Atwill enjoyed his time back in England while making THE HIGH COMMAND, and no doubt he enjoyed being in the movie itself. He gets first billing, and the role is a bit of a departure for him. His General Sangye isn't the wild-eyed Atwill one sees in the horror thrillers. Atwill is far more deliberate and subtle here. Sangye is a very officious military officer, but he's not a pompous buffoon. Sangye is basically the story's hero. 

A very young James Mason (who sports a mustache here) plays the dashing young officer who is Carson's cousin. Even at this very early stage in his career, Mason has enough presence to stand out from the rest of the cast. Lucie Mannheim (who was in Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS) brings some glamour to her role, and Steven Geray gives a Peter Lorre-like performance as her husband. Playing a bit role as a hotel clerk is the creepy Skelton Knaggs--he and Atwill would cross paths at Universal in the 1940s. 

THE HIGH COMMAND was directed by Thorold Dickinson, who gives the story a few visual flourishes. I doubt that the main cast went to Africa, but there is some stock footage from that country. 

THE HIGH COMMAND gives Lionel Atwill a chance at a starring role in a non-horror film, and it's a good movie. It will be appreciated by those who like classic courtroom/mystery dramas. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

DOCTOR X On Blu-ray From Warner Archive

 






Following last year's magnificent release of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, Warner Archive gives us another restored horror film classic on home video--the 1932 film DOCTOR X. This movie is a gloriously insane example of a Pre-Code thriller, and it is historically important as well. It was the first horror film for genre legends Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. 

A murderer called "The Moon Killer" is stalking New York City. Among the suspects are esteemed scientist Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) and the staff at his medical research facility. The staff (Preston Foster, John Wray, Harry Beresford, Arthur Edmund Carewe) all act as suspiciously as possible, and Xavier himself seems to have something to hide. The Doctor decides to bring the staff to his remote large estate on Long Island, where, with the use of his laboratory, he will attempt to prove which one is the killer. As expected, things don't go as planned, with a meddling sarcastic newspaper reporter (Lee Tracy) injecting himself into the proceedings, and Xavier's beautiful daughter (Fay Wray) getting caught up in the drama. 

I have to admit that I prefer MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM to DOCTOR X, but the latter has plenty of crazy charms of its own. Despite the fact that this was Lionel Atwill's first horror film (and second sound film), you'd think he had been doing this sort of thing for decades. Atwill's impeccable diction and emotional intensity were perfect for the classic horror film. He elevates the material here, as he did in just about every film he appeared in. 

As she did in last year's MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM Blu-ray, Fay Wray looks breathtaking here, and she gets to let out her very first (but certainly not the last) scream in a horror film. Lee Tracy as the reporter is, in my opinion, far more annoying than Glenda Farrell was in WAX MUSEUM (he's also not as easy on the eyes). 

The biggest highlight of DOCTOR X is the off-the-rails climax, where the Moon Killer is revealed--but not before the fiend disguises himself by slopping on a gooey concoction to transform his features ("SYNTHETIC FLESH!!"). This madcap sequence has a disturbing tinge to it--there's nothing like it in this period of 1930s Hollywood. 

DOCTOR X was filmed in the same two-strip Technicolor process as MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, and it receives a brilliant restoration on this Blu-ray. The movie has a far more greenish tone to it than it did on the DVD release a few years ago, and the picture clarity and sound are vastly improved. 

The major extra on this Blu-ray is the black & white version of DOCTOR X, which has been unavailable for years. For the most part, the camera set-ups, shot compositions, and scenes are basically the same--but it appears that a few alternate takes were used. (It also appears, to my untrained eyes, that the better takes were in the color version.) Being able to see the black & white DOCTOR X is a major monster movie buff highlight (the print is quite sharp at times). I felt that the story didn't come off as lurid as in the color version.

A brand new audio commentary is presented, with author Alan K. Rode, biographer of Michael Curtiz, the director of DOCTOR X. (I wrote a blog post of Rode's Curtiz book earlier this year.) It's an engaging talk, with plenty of facts and anecdotes on Curtiz's life and work. Scott McQueen's excellent commentary for the DVD edition of DOCTOR X is thankfully included here as well. 

A new featurette on the horror films of Michael Curtiz is also here, with clips from the titles and on-camera analysis from Rode and McQueen. Scott McQueen also gives audio insight during a program which compares scenes before and after the restoration of DOCTOR X. There's also an original trailer, which is in black & white. 

Overall, this is an amazing release for an amazing movie. There's been all sorts of rumors lately about the future of the Warner Archive program. Whatever its fate may be, in the last year Warner Archive has presented three incredible Blu-ray releases and restorations of three important films: MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and now DOCTOR X. Everyone who was involved in these releases deserves the utmost congratulations.