Saturday, April 29, 2023



THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER is a 1953 period tale from Universal, starring Tyrone Power. It's a film that is usually included alongside the many Westerns made by Universal in the 1950s, although personally I don't think it belongs in that genre. 

Tyrone Power plays the dashing Mark Fallon, an expert gambler who arrives in New Orleans seeking to make his fortune. Fallon falls for the high-spirited Angelique (Piper Laurie), the daughter of an aristocrat who was an old friend of his father. Angelique's hard-to-get attitude and her ne'er-do-well brother cause Fallon plenty of problems as he tries to build his own casino while staying above the treachery of the pre-Civil War South. 

Getting Tyrone Power for THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER was something of a coup for Universal at the time. The part of Mark Fallon is absolutely perfect for him. What makes Fallon different from Power's many other costumed adventurers is that the man is an honest gambler with a strong sense of fair play. The problem is that nearly everyone else in the movie doesn't follow Fallon's standards, putting him in a number of complicated situations. Tyrone Power was a real movie star, and his overwhelming screen presence allows him to make the material better than it is. He also looks incredibly handsome in Technicolor (he has as many costume changes as the leading ladies do). 

Piper Laurie is a good foil for Power, although her character's pouty attitude gets tiresome. Julie Adams doesn't show up until about 50 minutes in the film, but she still manages to make a big impression. Adams plays a woman who is given help by Fallon, and she (understandably) comes to adore him. (One problem with the script of this movie is that Fallon treats Adams' character like a kid sister, while still going through all sorts of trouble in dealing with Piper Laurie. I'm sure most viewers would say Fallon went after the wrong lady.) Adams' adoration of Power was genuine--in her autobiography she states that Power's magnetism was just as potent off-screen as on, but despite that, he never acted like a big star on set, and he treated everyone with courtesy. 

The great character actor John McIntire plays Power's gambling associate, while Dennis Weaver has a small role as another wayward brother, this time Adams'. 

THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER has a few action scenes--Power gets to do a couple fencing matches, takes part in a duel, and he has a few fistfights. But this is not a tough adventure saga. Power spends most of his time dressed to the nines, sitting at a card table or in a salon with one of the leading ladies. The movie was written by Seton I. Miller, who had a long career as a screenwriter on a number of famous classic Hollywood films, and it was directed by Rudolph Mate, who was better known as a cinematographer. Despite Mate's camera credentials, THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER has a no frills to-the-point visual style. The colorful wardrobes and fine set designs do liven things up. 

Kino's Region A Blu-ray of this film looks very good overall, but it wouldn't say it's a spectacular transfer. The main extra, other than a trailer for the movie, is an audio commentary by Toby Roan. He spends most of his time reciting biographical facts about the cast & crew. He does take time to mention that the movies Rudolph Mate directed were not as expressively visual as one would expect. 

THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER is Tyrone Power's show all the way, and it's a great example of a story tailored for a true classic Hollywood star. Julie Adams fans will want to see this, even though her part is small and underwritten. 

Saturday, April 22, 2023

THE TRAP On Blu-ray From Kino


Kino continues to release notable silent features on Blu-ray. This time it's a disc featuring Lon Chaney and his 1922 film THE TRAP. 

Chaney plays Gaspard, an earnest, if somewhat naive, French-Canadian trapper. Gaspard is a bit of a country bumpkin, and his mine is taken over by city slicker Benson (Alan Hale). Benson also winds up marrying the woman that Gaspard loves. Seven years go by. Benson's life becomes a shambles, while Gaspard plots to hurt the man even more. Gaspard sets Benson up and gets him thrown in prison, while also taking custody of Benson's young boy after the death of his wife. Gaspard wants to hurt the boy as well, but he comes to love him. When Gaspard learns that Benson will be released early from prison, he fears that he will take the boy away--so the trapper decides to use a wild wolf in a plot to finish off his nemesis once and for all. 

THE TRAP is a very melodramatic and very sentimental tale that is mainly worth seeing just for Chaney alone. The actor doesn't use any of his famous makeup tricks here (other than sporting a wig), but he once again plays a man tortured by an unrequited love. Chaney plays the simple Gaspard in a broad manner (maybe too broadly for some tastes), but it must be pointed out that this is not meant to be a subtle character. Chaney is best in the second part of the film, when he shows that Gaspard is far more cunning and clever than one would expect. 

It's strange to see famed character actor Alan Hale Sr. as a upper-class romantic rival to the roughneck Gaspard. (If this movie had been made in the mid-1930s, Hale would probably have been cast in Chaney's part.) The movie is helped by the scenic California locations that double for Canada, but I wouldn't say it's one of Chaney's better films. The story is very slight (the entire movie only runs about 53 minutes long). The intertitles try to mimic a French-Canadian accent for Gaspard, and due to this they are hard to make out sometimes. The music score is provided by Kevin Lax, and it thankfully works with the film instead of attracting attention to itself.

A text after the film states that the print used is from a 4K restoration by Universal of 16mm surviving elements. The print (which has some subtle tints to it) looks very well for the most part. 

Included on this Region A Blu-ray is a very early short film in Lon Chaney's career called BY THE SUN'S RAYS. It's a 1914 Western which runs about 11 minutes. There's nothing all that notable about it, other than Chaney playing a clerk who schemes to steal from the mining company he works for. From the very first time he's onscreen, Chaney acts as suspicious as all get out, and he even gets a chance to assault the heroine. 

Also included is a 1995 documentary by Kino entitled LON CHANEY: BEHIND THE MASK. It runs a little over an hour and focuses mostly on Chaney's early film career, and his portrayals of criminals and the physically disabled. This film has plenty of rare footage, but it will be best appreciated by those who do not have a major knowledge of Chaney and his career. 

The fact that Kino has released a Universal restoration of a rare Lon Chaney title makes me hope that there will be further collaborations between the companies involving the Man with a Thousand Faces. THE TRAP isn't one of Chaney's best showcases, but it does provide more evidence that he was one of those rare breeds--a true character actor who could play outsiders but still carry the lead in a film and make the audience feel for him. Any Lon Chaney movie on Blu-ray, no matter what it is or what he plays in it, is worth appreciating. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023



Last week I wrote a blog post on the 1930 film version of MOBY DICK, starring John Barrymore. This movie is actually a sound version of an earlier film adaptation of Melville's novel called THE SEA BEAST. Both MOBY DICK and THE SEA BEAST were made by Warner Bros., and they both had Barrymore playing the role of Captain Ahab. 

Both MOBY DICK and THE SEA BEAST have basically the same storyline--one that has almost nothing to do with Herman Melville's book. In both films Ahab is given a backstory that involves a love affair with a prim minister's daughter, and a treacherous younger brother. After Ahab loses a leg trying to harpoon the giant white whale Moby Dick, he becomes bitter and vengeful, leaving his lady love and going off on his own ship to hunt down the beast that has crippled him. 

If anything, THE SEA BEAST is more of a romantic melodrama than the 1930 MOBY DICK. THE SEA BEAST runs over 2 hours, and it is rather heavy going at times. (The very rough-looking print of the film I viewed on YouTube didn't help matters.) The 1930 MOBY DICK runs about 80 minutes. At about that mark in THE SEA BEAST, Ahab still isn't a captain yet, and he and his beloved are still swooning over each other. 

Almost all of the first half of THE SEA BEAST concerns Ahab's romance with his real-life passion at the time, Dolores Costello. (The two would later marry.) In this version, the love interest character is named Esther, and she and her missionary father are based on Mauritius. There's several scenes of Ahab and Esther wrapped in an embrace, or staring moodily at each other. The many sappy romantic scenes might have made Barrymore and Costello happy, but it doesn't do much for the film. (Barrymore was so smitten with Costello at the time that he gave her the role of Esther over Priscilla Bonner, who was originally hired for it. Bonner later sued Warner Bros. over being replaced and got a financial settlement.) 

The pacing of THE SEA BEAST borders on the glacial. There's a well-done storm sequence on Ahab's ship, but there's very little action other than that. As for Moby Dick, he barely appears, making the title of this film a misnomer (unless it was also referring to Barrymore's Ahab). 

John Barrymore does manage to make an impression once he's into full Captain Ahab mode. One thing that struck me while watching THE SEA BEAST was how much John looked like his brother Lionel when Ahab was on his vengeful quest--see photo below. (Lionel Barrymore, by the way, would have made a great Ahab himself.) I also felt at times Ahab resembled Barrymore's Mr. Hyde, especially during the storm sequence.

John Barrymore as Captain Ahab in THE SEA BEAST

THE SEA BEAST was directed by Millard Webb, whose film career I am not familiar with. I'm sure Webb had plenty on his hands to deal with, what with Barrymore and Costello's affair, sailing ships, and sequences on the water. Considering all the elements one could showcase in THE SEA BEAST--adventure and danger on the high seas, and a man obsessed with revenge--Webb (or those that edited the movie) chose to focus mostly on the Ahab-Esther romance. There's also not much visual ingenuity in THE SEA BEAST. 

Perhaps if I saw a fully restored version of THE SEA BEAST, with a proper music score, I would have looked upon it more favorably. (The version I saw on YouTube had plenty of shots where it was hard to even see what was going on, and it sounded as if a bunch of random music cues had been slapped on it.) Perhaps not--there was just way too much Barrymore-Costello wooing going on for my taste, and I thought the film moved too sluggishly. 

I must point out that, according to multiple sources on the internet, THE SEA BEAST was a huge success for Warners--apparently a romantic Ahab was what audiences wanted back in 1926. 

John Barrymore must have been quite keen on the role of Captain Ahab, considering he played it twice on screen. Unfortunately neither the 1930 MOBY DICK or THE SEA BEAST gives his performance as Ahab--or Melville's legendary story--justice. 

One of the great "what-ifs" in classic cinema would be if John Barrymore, in his prime, got to play Ahab in a proper, effective, and true adaptation of the novel MOBY DICK. Could you imagine, for example....Barrymore as Ahab in a MOBY DICK directed by--Orson Welles?? 

Sunday, April 16, 2023



As I have mentioned in an earlier post, this month the Turner Classic Movies cable channel is having a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. by having a marathon of movies made (or at least released) by the company. 

Among the lesser-ones being shown is LOVE IS A RACKET, a 1932 story about a New York City gossip columnist. I had high hopes for this one, considering that it was directed by the legendary William Wellman, a man who made some of the most notable productions of the Pre-Code era. I have to say that in my opinion it's not one of Wellman's better entries. 

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays Jimmy Russell, gossip columnist for a major NYC newspaper. Jimmy's status makes him almost as famous as the celebrities he covers (especially with the ladies). Jimmy's latest flame is ambitious actress Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee). Jimmy wants Mary to be his wife, but she's more interested in getting a major part on Broadway. Mary's high spending leads to her writing a series of bad checks, and that gets her involved with notorious gangster Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot). Jimmy will do just about anything for Mary, which worries his friends Stanley (Lee Tracy) and Sally (Ann Dvorak). 

What hurts LOVE IS A RACKET the most is the casting. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was only in his early 20s when he made this film, and at this time in his acting career he seems too proper and clean cut to be a popular newspaper columnist who knows everything about everyone, and isn't all that worried about ethics. Lee Tracy would have much better suited for the role (except for the idea that Jimmy is a handsome ladies man). 

The female casting could have been improved as well. Frances Dee acts too soft and simpering as Mary--I think the role needed a performer who had an edge to her. Ann Dvorak would have improved the character considerably. Dvorak had the undefinable ability to draw the viewer's attention whenever she's on the screen. Dvorak's character in LOVE IS A RACKET is smitten with Jimmy, but in time-honored classic Hollywood movie fashion, he doesn't notice, although it's made abundantly clear to the audience. 

It's strange that Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak are given underwhelming supporting parts in this movie, considering that not too long before the duo had the lead roles in Warners' THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, a much better film which gave both of them plenty of chances to show their stuff. 

Ann Dvorak in LOVE IS A RACKET

I also believe that LOVE IS A RACKET lacks the zip that the early 1930s Warners product usually has. (It also lacks the expected snappy dialogue.) Lyle Talbot isn't much of a threat as Eddie Shaw--he seems more like the type of guy who would work for a tough gangster instead of actually being one. 

Toward the climax of the film, a murder is committed, and successfully covered up. One expects that at the end some of the characters suffer some consequences over this, but nobody does, leading to a weak finale which also has Jimmy finally come to the conclusion that "love is a racket". (You would think with all that Jimmy has seen and heard as a big city gossip columnist, he'd have learned that lesson a long time ago.)

To be fair, William Wellman and Warner Bros. were cranking out movie after movie in 1932--not all of them were going to wind up being excellent. Stronger, more assertive performers in the roles of Jimmy, Mary, and the gangster would have made LOVE IS A RACKET much better, along with a much more dramatic ending. 

Friday, April 14, 2023



This is not the same-named TV show starring Dick Van Dyke that seemingly plays on every other basic cable channel. This is a very rare British mystery movie with Christopher Lee and Judy Geeson. I've been looking for it ever since Geeson told me about it when I met her at a convention a few years ago. 

Lee plays psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Hayward, whose wife has gone missing. Detective Inspector Lomax (Jon Finch) is assigned to the case. Lomax immediately suspects Hayward, while the doctor's devoted secretary (and mistress) Helen (Judy Geeson) tries to find out what happened on her own. There's plenty of the expected twists & turns along the way, and the grimly ironic ending personally affects all the main characters. 

It's fitting that this film has a title of a later well-known TV series, since (according to some sources) it was apparently originally intended for broadcast, even though it was released theatrically in a few spots. It feels more like an episode of a mystery series instead of a full-length feature film (Laurie Johnson's music score has a very distinct small-screen vibe to it). Jon Finch's investigator is the quirky type one expects to carry a TV show--except his quirks are a sarcastic, sullen, and opinionated nature (it would be hard to watch a guy like this week after week). It has to be said that Finch (and the script) certainly does something different with the lead detective role, but the viewer wonders why Lomax has such a bad attitude. 

Lomax's mood might have to do with the fact that he's having an affair with a woman (Jane Merrow) who's married to a disagreeable fellow confined to a wheelchair. This subplot (at first) seems to do nothing more than detract from the main storyline. 

As for Christopher Lee, I assume the major reason why he did this project is that it gave him a chance to play a contemporary person in a real-life situation. (He also got a chance to wear his favorite suit jacket--see photo below). Lee is more mysterious than menacing here, but there's a few scenes that show how Hayward isn't the most lovable person in the world. The most appealing character in the story by far is Judy Geeson's Helen, but the actress doesn't get all that much to do, other than look pensive and glance out of a window over and over again. 

DIAGNOSIS: MURDER was directed by Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS). He starts out the movie well, with a lone woman walking in a rocky, craggy location being menaced by a sniper. There's also some creativity with the main credits, which are shown in the form of letters cut out from a newspaper, like ransom notes. Despite the opening, the film isn't an action-packed thriller. It was made in England during the fall of 1974, and the grey, drab locations perfectly fit the tone of the story. 

Judy Geeson and Christopher Lee in DIAGNOSIS: MURDER

DIAGNOSIS: MURDER will appeal mostly to TV mystery fans--there's a few novel twists that the viewer won't see coming (or at least I didn't). It will also be of interest to Christopher Lee fans--it's one of the more obscure projects Lee worked on, and it gave him a chance to play a more real-to-life character. It's a decent story, but I think it might have worked better with more personable characters. 

*By the way....getting back to my meeting with Judy Geeson--her main memory of this production was that Christopher Lee would practice his golf swing in between scenes. 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

MOBY DICK (1930)


This month of April, the Turner Classic Movies network is holding a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. Studios. Every film that TCM will show this month will be one produced by the company, or at least released by it. 

As expected, most of the roster of films TCM has scheduled are among Warners' most famous--I don't even need to tell you the titles. But there are a few rare entries here and there. One of them is the very strange 1930 adaptation of MOBY DICK, with John Barrymore as Ahab. There's many reasons why I consider it very strange. One, it's an early sound film, and it has a sort of "in-between" quality--it probably would have worked much better as a silent feature. Two, it has very little to do with Herman Melville's famous work--it turns Ahab into a romantic hero, and it gives the story a happy ending!!

Actually the 1930 MOBY DICK is a sort of remake of 1926's THE SEA BEAST, which also starred Barrymore as Ahab. (I have not seen THE SEA BEAST--yet.) At the beginning of the film, a whaling ship pulls into the port town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Among the sailors disembarking is a boisterous fellow named Ahab (John Barrymore). Ahab is a lively ladies man (!) who attracts the attention of young Faith (Joan Bennett), the prim daughter of the local parson. 

This is supposed to be a "younger" version of the future Captain Ahab. (Barrymore was almost 50 when this film was made, and he looks it.) Yes, this version of MOBY DICK gives Ahab a totally needless backstory--which proves that even over 90 years ago, Hollywood was doing this sort of thing. At this point in the story, Barrymore plays Ahab in a broad, comic manner. (While on shore, Ahab asks a pretty girl how old she is. She replies that she turns 18 next Tuesday, which prompts Ahab to say he'll see here next Wednesday.) To get the audience to like Ahab even more, he's given a relationship with a friendly dog (how can you mistrust a guy who likes a dog??). 

Why Joan Bennett's character--a beautiful, stately, innocent young woman--would be attracted to the brash Ahab is something one never figures out, unless she really goes for bad boys. (Bennett, by the way, would turn 20 the year this movie was released.) Not only does Bennett fall for Ahab, she promises to marry him, and wait around for him while he goes off on another whaling trip that could take years. (Where can I find a woman like that??) 

Ahab goes off, and the ship he's on encounters the legendary (and deadly) great white whale Moby Dick. While attempting to kill the beast, Ahab loses his right leg. He later returns to New Bedford a changed man, and when Faith sees him for the first time without a leg, she screams and runs away. Now Ahab truly goes over the bend. He wants nothing more to do with Faith (even though she tries to apologize), and he spends the next few years going around the world on his own, getting enough money to buy his own ship. Ahab intends to use the vessel to hunt down Moby Dick, and get his revenge on the animal. Meanwhile....Faith lives up to her name by still waiting around for Ahab to return. 

By this time Ahab has become absolutely obsessed, and he has to shanghai men to even form a crew. After fighting off mutinies and horrible weather, Moby Dick is finally sighted, and Ahab achieves his objective by personally killing the beast. Ahab returns to New Bedford to be happily reunited with Faith (and the dog). 

Not exactly Melville, is it??

I have to give the 1930 MOBY DICK credit for major audacity, at least. To take one of the most famous works of literature in the world, and change the plot in such a manner....of course, one could say that most Americans in 1930 didn't know much about the plot of MOBY DICK--heck, I doubt most people today know all that much about it. 

The 1930 MOBY DICK was obviously meant to be a vehicle for John Barrymore. Just the very idea of Barrymore as Captain Ahab gets the imagination flowing. It would have been great to see Barrymore in a proper, realistic version of MOBY DICK. In the last part of the 1930 version, he gets to play Ahab the way most people view the character--as a sullen, driven and dangerous man, obsessed on the great white whale beyond all else. The scene where Ahab finally kills Moby Dick is quite explicit for the time--as Barrymore, laughing maniacally, plunges his iron into the great beast, he's splattered with huge streams of the whale's blood. But after all the pain and anguish Ahab has put so many people (and himself) through, he's allowed to go back to New Bedford and marry a woman he's stayed away from for many years (and who still looks like she's 20 years old). 

What hurts the 1930 MOBY DICK even more is a ridiculous sub-plot involving Ahab's younger brother (Lloyd Hughes). The brother, who is named Derek (!), is a staid, respectable fellow, the antithesis of Ahab, and he also has an interest in Faith. In a wild plot contrivance, Derek gets shanghaied and placed on Ahab's ship, and he winds up trying to lead a mutiny against his brother. 

Lloyd Bacon directed this version of MOBY DICK, and while he tries to inject some early 1800s atmosphere into the proceedings, he can't overcome the weakness of the script. As I've mentioned before, this is an early sound film, and it's very creaky and disjointed at times. The sound quality is also mediocre at best--Ahab's ship goes through a major storm in the last part of the film, and due to all the wind and crashing water the dialogue is about impossible to make it. It also didn't help that the print of this film TCM showed was in bad shape (but that's probably due to the fact that was all they had to work with). 

The special effects are decent for the time, but Moby Dick is represented by what appears to be a bizarre-looking puppet mechanism. (Film historian Greg Mank has compared it to a giant suggestive-looking balloon.) It would have been a lot better if the great whale was barely shown, or portrayed as a shadowy, suggestive figure. But if you're going to make a version of MOBY DICK, the audience is going to want to see the whale. 

I have to give credit to TCM for showing a obscure movie like this during the Warner Bros. celebration--I get more excited seeing something like this for the first time instead of watching one of the studio's more famous classics for the umpteenth time again. (One other thing I must mention about the 1930 MOBY DICK--cult character actor Noble Johnson plays Queequeg, and he's way more interesting than Ahab's love interest or brother.). One thing the 1930 MOBY DICK proves is that the more things change in Hollywood, the more they stay the same. I intend to view Barrymore's other cinematic take on Ahab, the 1926 THE SEA BEAST, in the near future (it's available on YouTube), and yeah, I'll more than likely write a blog post about that as well. Doesn't that give you something to look forward to? 

Saturday, April 8, 2023



WINGS OF THE HAWK is a 1953 Western produced by Universal and directed by Budd Boetticher. Set during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th Century, the movie was originally released in 3-D. I recently watched it for the first time in 2-D, but that didn't matter--it's a rousing fast-paced adventure filled with plenty of impressive stunts. 

The year is 1911. In northern Mexico, American "Irish" Gallagher (Van Heflin) is mining for gold and hoping the troubles that have enveloped the entire country don't wind up affecting him. Local warlord Colonel Ruiz (George Dolenz), however, decides to confiscate Gallagher's mine. The American attempts to oppose this, and his life is saved by a group of revolutionaries. Gallagher joins up with the band, hoping that they can help him get his mine back. He soon starts to take up their cause, especially when he gets to know the tough (and beautiful) rebel leader Raquel (Julie Adams). 

WINGS OF THE HAWK was the last in a series of pictures that Budd Boetticher directed for Universal in the early 1950s (most of these were Westerns). The Westerns that Boetticher made for Universal don't get nearly as much credit or attention as the ones he made with Randolph Scott later in the decade. That's somewhat unfair, as Boetticher's Universal Westerns are entertaining and very well made. WINGS OF THE HAWK may not be "serious" enough for some critics, but it was designed to be enjoyed by a mainstream audience, and that's exactly what it accomplishes. 

Actually the story anticipates several of the spaghetti westerns made in the 1960s and 70s that used the plot device of a mercenary gringo getting involved with the violence and chaos of the Mexican Revolution. WINGS OF THE HAWK isn't anywhere near as hard-edged or explicit as those Euro Westerns, but it does have a few dark moments, such as a group of peasants being executed by Ruiz's men. What makes WINGS OF THE HAWK stand out is its energetic pace. There's all sorts of chases on horseback, fights, gunplay, and a lot of explosions--especially at the climax. All the action is backed by Frank Skinner's sweeping music score. 

Characterization is kept to a minimum in this film, but most of the performers involved manage to bring a little extra to the story. Van Heflin is surprisingly good as a rugged heroic type. Julie Adams plays what is one of the most unusual roles of her film career as the determined Raquel--she even gets to wear bandoliers and a sombrero. I have to say it's hard to believe she's a Mexican revolutionary, even with the major tan makeup and black hairpiece that has been applied to her. (For some reason she sports bright red lipstick throughout the picture.) Adams does well in the role, but I honestly think someone like Katy Jurado would have been much better suited. George Dolenz (father of Monkees band member Mickey) makes the despotic Ruiz into a multi-dimensional character, and Noah Beery Jr. has a cameo as a Mexican bandit-general who really existed (and who isn't Pancho Villa). Abbe Lane plays Julie Adams' sister, who is the mistress of Colonel Ruiz, and she's more miscast than Julie is. 

It would have been nice to see WINGS OF THE HAWK in 3-D, but I think the movie is still effective enough without it. (Apparently Budd Boetticher had no interest in the process.) It's exciting and fun to watch, but it's not mindless--Budd Boetticher always gave every one of his films a few extra ingredients to make it notable. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

COUNSELLOR AT LAW On Blu-ray From Kino


I had never seen this film before, and not only was I impressed with it, I believe it's one of the best Pre-Code movies ever made. COUNSELLOR AT LAW contains one of John Barrymore's greatest screen performances, and it also gave a young William Wyler a chance to show off plenty of directorial flair. 

Barrymore stars as George Simon, a man who came from a poor Jewish background and drove himself to become one of the most powerful and well-known attorneys in New York City. Simon has a fabulous art-deco suite of offices in the Empire State Building, he's married to a woman well-placed in high society, and he's got plenty of people at his beck and call. But over the course of a couple days, things start to unravel for him. An old case involving perjury threatens to come back and haunt him, and his marriage is beginning to come apart. Simon is driven to wonder if his supposedly successful life is really worth continuing. 

The entirety of COUNSELLOR AT LAW takes place inside the offices of George Simon and his partner, but the viewer never feels hemmed in, due to the quick visual rhythm from director William Wyler and cinematographer Norbert Brodine. The movie is 82 minutes long, but it feels even shorter, due to the fast editing, snappy dialogue, and roving camerawork. With so many people popping in and out of Simon's offices, and so many connections between them, it does become a bit confusing at times on a first viewing, but things sort themselves out very neatly. Despite all the visual & audio back-and-forth, Wyler still finds plenty of chances to let a shot linger on a performer and let their expressions tell you exactly what they are feeling. 

John Barrymore really shines here. This isn't the hammy (but entertaining) Barrymore of SVENGALI or TWENTIETH CENTURY. His George Simon is real human being, and Barrymore gets to show the man's entire emotional spectrum. According to the audio commentary on this disc, Barrymore was having trouble remembering his lines, due to his alcoholism, and William Wyler resorted to the use of cue cards. If Barrymore was having problems on this film, it certainly didn't show to me, other than the actor looking somewhat haggard on some close-ups (to be fair there's plenty of reasons for Barrymore's character to look haggard at times). 

Like most Hollywood movies of the early 1930s, there's a fine supporting cast, with Bebe Daniels as Simon's loyal secretary, and Doris Kenyon as his snooty wife. There's also Melvyn Douglas, Onslow Stevens, Thelma Todd, Mayo Methot, John Qualen, and Isabel Jewell, who gets attention as the spunky office switchboard operator. Ironically, three different future movie directors appeared in this film as actors: Vincent Sherman, Robert Gordon, and Richard Quince. 

Kino's disc case claims that the print used here comes from a brand new 2K master. The black & white image looks a bit soft at times, and there are a few instances where the dialogue is hard to make out...but this is after all a 90 year-old movie. For the most part, the picture and sound quality is good. This is a Region A disc. 

The main extra (other than a few trailers of other early 1930s films released by Kino) is a new audio commentary with Daniel Kremer and William Wyler's daughter Catherine. It's more of a general discussion on William Wyler's life and career. I wish there had been more of a focus on COUNSELLOR AT LAW (Kremer in particular veers away from the movie rather easily). 

COUNSELLOR AT LAW is an energetically paced standout picture with plenty of Pre-Code drama and sass. It feels more like something made at Warner Bros. instead of Universal. It's also a major highlight in the careers of both William Wyler and John Barrymore. 

Sunday, April 2, 2023



I became aware of this film due to a post in the Seductive Cinema Facebook group. What mainly attracted my interest in it was that it stars Hammer Films veteran Barbara Shelley. 

It's fitting that Shelley does appear in this picture, since THE END OF THE LINE (1957) has several things in common with the type of films Hammer was making in the early 1950s. It's a short, black & white crime/noir story dealing with an American (played by a past-his-prime actor), who while in England has his life turned upside down due to a duplicitous female. If you didn't know any better, you'd think that THE END OF THE LINE was one of Hammer's earlier productions. 

Alan Baxter plays Mike Selby, an American writer who has just arrived in London from Paris in order to do rewrite work on a play. At the hotel Selby is staying at, he runs into Liliane (Barbara Shelley), an old flame who walked out on him--and took $100 of his money in the process. Liliane is now married to the owner of the hotel, a man who is also involved as a fence for stolen jewelry. Against his better judgement, Selby starts to fall under Liliane's spell again, and he agrees to go in with her on a plan to steal the collection of jewels in her husband's safe. As expected, things don't work out well, and Selby suffers the consequences. 

Alan Baxter had a decent career in 1930s-40s Hollywood, mostly playing supporting parts as bad guys and gangsters. Here he's very much a fish out of water as an American who knows exactly what he's getting into by being smitten all over again by Liliane, yet going right into it just the same. Baxter isn't really the leading man type, which actually makes him more suited for the role. You totally believe that this guy would allow himself to get wrapped around Barbara Shelley's finger (and her character knows it too). Mike Selby's poor sap attitude is enhanced by Baxter's self-deprecating voice-over narration. 

Barbara Shelley is a far stronger screen presence than Baxter here. Shelley is cool, calculated, and icily gorgeous--even when the game is up at the end she barely shows a flicker of emotion. Shelley would play a similar character later on in BLIND CORNER (aka MAN IN THE DARK). 

Among the supporting cast are horror film veterans Ferdy Mayne (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) and Jennifer Jayne (DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS). 

THE END OF THE LINE was efficiently directed by Charles Saunders. I wouldn't say anything in it is superb, but it does its job as a hour-long B feature. It's a fine example of Barbara Shelley's talents, and it's a perfect film for late-night viewing.