Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

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one last quickie for a while

Posted by martinteller on November 23, 2014

Tomorrow morning I’m off to Maui for a week, so this’ll probably be my last review until December.  My lady found Three Fugitives, one of her childhood favorites, on Netflix.  It was not as joyous as she remembered.  It’s not all bad… Short and Nolte have decent comic chemistry, I liked the grenade gag, Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is too good for this mess, and the ending is so nutso you have to give it credit.  As predictable as the rest of the movie is, I never in a million years would have expected it to end that way.  But too much of the film is loaded with dumb gags and formulaic beats, not to mention drenched in sap.  Most egregious is David McHugh’s awful, awful score.  I was not surprised to see that writer/director was also responsible for the abysmal The Dinner Game.  Rating: Poor (47)

Be back in a week!

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two quick ones

Posted by martinteller on November 22, 2014

Murder on the Home Front is a British made-for-TV noir of sorts, involving a forensic scientist (Patrick Kennedy) and his gung-ho new assistant (Tazmin Merchant) trying to find a serial killer in the middle of the London blitz.  It starts out promising, but gradually reveals itself to be a pile of well-worn clichés.  The thin characters are not helped by the uninteresting actors, and the plot follows such familiar tropes that it feels wholly unoriginal.  The climax was so predictable that I actually cried out “Come on!” at the television.  The film does achieve a certain level of noir-ness, but also at times I felt it was trying too hard to be dark and cynical.  Rating: Poor (53)

Showing M. Hulot’s Holiday to my lady — her first brush with Jacques Tati — was a mixed experience.  Aspects of it still delight me: the gentle charm, the serene mood, the catchy musical theme, and Tati’s sense of egalitarianism with the comedy.  He makes sure it isn’t all about him and his character… Keaton and Chaplin were never so generous.  However, the movie never felt so slow to me before, which is perhaps one of the pitfalls of watching with someone else.  It’s not that the pacing is so sluggish (although sometimes it is), it’s that a lot of the gags just aren’t that great.  They’re not terrible (I won’t say there’s a dumb gag in the whole movie) but there are too many which elicit little more than “eh”.  Nonetheless, some portions of it still manage to put a huge smile on my face.  Rating: Good (78)

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Noir-vember 2014: The Unfaithful

Posted by martinteller on November 20, 2014

“You’re no different than all the other cheating, conniving women who parade through my office. Except that you’re more of a hypocrite.”

Bob Hunter (Zachary Scott) has just returned to Los Angeles after a trip to Oregon, where he was working on a new housing development.  He expected his wife Chris (Ann Sheridan) to pick him up at the airport, but she isn’t there.  He comes home and finds his house swarming with cops… and a corpse on the living room floor.  Chris says the man was a stranger who confronted her last night after she came home from a party.  She claims he demanded her jewelry and attacked her, and she stabbed him in self-defense.  Friend and attorney Larry Hannaford believes her, but the dead man’s widow (Marta Mitrovich) is adamant that he would never do such a thing.  And then an opportunistic art dealer (Steven Geray) contacts Larry, with a damning piece of evidence that suggests a history between Chris and the victim.

The Macguffin is different, but this is a remake of The Letter (itself an adaptation of a W. Somerset Maughm play) from 7 years earlier.  That film had a better director (William Wyler) and star (Bette Davis).  Vincent Sherman doesn’t have much flair or directorial stamp to his work, and Sheridan — although sometimes a fine actress (see Woman on the Run) — can’t hold a candle to Bette’s screen presence.  Furthermore, this film isn’t nearly as noir as its predecessor.  But I still rate them equally… in fact, I’ll give this one a slight edge.  For one thing, The Letter didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me, and for another, this is the best I’ve seen from Sherman yet.

It isn’t really a great film, but it has a few very good assets.  The use of Los Angeles locations is quite nice, including iconic places like the steep “Angels Flight” railway and the always photogenic Bradbury building.  While I like Sheridan and Scott and Ayres, the shining star of this picture is Eve Arden as Scott’s gossipy cousin.  She gets most of the best, funniest lines in the movie, and also a wonderful heart-to-heart with Scott late in the story.  The film doesn’t cram a “family values” message down your throat… at times it’s cynical about marriage and at times it’s cynical about divorce.  But in the end, it has a very sweet and understanding outlook on the institution of marriage, and a thoughtful take on infidelity… especially as it concerns women whose husbands went off to war, often after knowing them for mere days.  There is a warm humanist slant to it which you don’t often see in movies of this type… I was actually quite touched at times.

The movie needs more style in almost every aspect to stand out, from the photography to the dialogue to the performances.  But it doesn’t truly fail in any area either, and is a worthwhile watch.  Rating: Good (77)


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Noir-vember 2014: Cry Terror!

Posted by martinteller on November 16, 2014

“I’m the man that duped your husband into the making the bomb, that makes him the patsy. It’s as short, sweet and simple as that.”

Jim Molner (James Mason) has a meeting with Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger), his buddy from the demolition squad in the Army.  Hoplin offers a golden opportunity: if Molner can come up with a new detonation device, Hoplin can get him a government contract.  But the whole thing was a ruse.  Hoplin uses Molner’s device to plant on passenger jets, extorting half a million dollars from an airline while innocent lives hang in the balance.  To add insult to injury, Hoplin kidnaps Molner, his wife Joan (Inger Stevens) and their young daughter.  Hoplin and his crew — nervous henchman Vince (Jack Klugman), daring gal Kelly (Angie Dickinson) and sex-crazed Benzedrine addict Steve (Neville Brand) — plan to use Joan to pick up the money, with Jim and their child as insurance.  FBI Agent Frank Cole (Kenneth Tobey) and his men work feverishly to track down the terrorist, but Hoplin’s figured out all the angles.

This is the fifth noir I’ve seen by director Andrew L. Stone (working here with his wife Virginia as editor, as he often did).  None have been either terribly bad or terribly impressive, they range from blah (A Blueprint for Murder) to pretty decent (The Night Holds Terror).  This is somewhere in the middle of that not very exciting range.  On the plus side, most of the cast is quite good.  Brand — as he did in the otherwise disappointing D.O.A. — absolutely steals the show.  He’s one of noir’s great heavies, and can convincingly pull off dangerously deranged without going full psycho.  The scenes where Stevens is left alone with him (even his cohorts call him “the creep”) are the most memorable by far.  But Steiger is pretty great as the cold, calculating mastermind, reminiscent of Wendell Corey’s performance in The Killer is Loose (maybe it’s the glasses).  Klugman, Dickinson and Tobey are also enjoyable to watch, and Mason is good if not doing anything especially noteworthy.

But man, Inger Stevens is tiresome in this.  Her character is a frenzied mess of hysteria, always in panic mode.  It doesn’t take long before you wish they’d just shoot her already.  The film also includes a lot of contrivances and too-close calls, an action sequence that is not only tedious but has no effect on the plot whatsoever, and scads of unnecessary narration (first from the usual voice of authority, then Stevens, and later Mason).

There is occasional tension, but you never feel too invested.  The best parts are Brand, the use of New York locations, and the last two minutes.  Most of the rest of it is misguided or routine or merely okay.  Rating: Fair (67)


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Noir-vember 2014: Split Second

Posted by martinteller on November 16, 2014

“Don’t show up, and you’re a widower. Show up with anyone else, you’re still a widower. I’ll blast her in two right in front of ya. And don’t try to get smart with me. Play it straight, you got yourself a wife. Get cute, you got yourself a corpse.”

Sam Hurley (Stephen McNally) is on the run in Nevada.  He’s an escaped convict, and with him are his buddy Bart (Paul Kelly) and his mute henchman “Dummy” (Frank DeKova).  They’ve got a date with a half million bucks stashed away, but Bart’s got a bullet in his belly.  The criminal trio take over a service station and get themselves a car with a couple of hostages: Kay Garven (Alexis Smith), in Nevada to get a divorce, and her beau Arthur Ashton (Robert Paige).  When the car runs out of gas (“Did you think I stopped at that filling station for perfume?”) they flag down another car and another pair of hostages.  This time it’s Larry Fleming (Keith Andes) and Dottie Vale (Jan Sterling).  Dottie is a penniless drifter on her way to a nightclub job in Reno.  Larry is giving her a ride, he’s a reporter who was on his way to cover Hurley’s escape.  Hurley calls Kay’s husband (Richard Egan) — a doctor — and instructs him to rendezvous with them in a ghost town so he can fix up Bart.  But who knows whether the doc will show up to save the woman who just left him, and there’s a deadline hanging over them: this ghost town is going to be obliterated tomorrow morning by an atomic bomb test.

This is the directorial debut of actor Dick Powell, the song-and-dance man of Busby Berkeley pictures and by this time an established face in crime dramas from movies like Murder, My Sweet and Cornered and Cry Danger.  This film is arguably more a straight thriller than noir, although I think it covers enough of the bases.  You’ve got the desperation of both the criminals and the hostages.  Especially Kay… and after watching The Sleeping Tiger the other day, it’s interesting to see Alexis Smith once again cozying up to the bad guy.    You’ve got some cold war atomic paranoia, and a little bit of the veteran blues in Hurley (when asked how many people he’s killed, he replies: “Legally or illegally?”).  You’ve got excellent photography by ace Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, need I list more?).  Maybe it doesn’t delve much in the dark side of humanity — Hurley is more simple bully than force of evil — but it’s noir enough for me.

A large part of that is the shimmering dialogue.  There are dozens of quotable lines here, full of bite and wit and clever turns of phrase (“between the devil and the bright red bomb”).  The screenplay by William Bowers, Chester Erksine and Irving Wallace is crackerjack stuff.  And the actors, for the most part, make it sing.  McNally is tough and uncompromising, Sterling is world-weary and on her toes, Andes has a sarcastic charm reminiscent of Dick Powell himself, Smith is all about looking out for herself, the most intriguing character of the bunch (one of the more interesting facets of the film is that Kay and Dottie each imply the other is a whore).  The one sour note in the cast is when Arthur Hunnicutt pops in on the group as a colorful old prospector.  Too damn colorful, if you ask me.  But even he manages a few good moments, once he starts to dial it down.

The movie works with familiar tropes for a hostage drama, but does so with enough style to make it really enjoyable.  The bomb angle lends enough tension to offset the rather predictable plotting… and also provides one hell of an ending.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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Noir-vember 2014: The Good Die Young

Posted by martinteller on November 15, 2014

“What have I got for my trouble? Stone deaf in one ear, half blind and only one hand! What sort of a man does that make me?!”

Four men meet in a London pub and become friends.  Joe Halsey (Richard Basehart) is an American clerk who has abandoned his job to fetch his wife Mary (Joan Collins), who has been trapped in the emotional clutches of her poisonous, manipulative mother (Freda Jackson).  Mike Morgan (Stanley Baker) is a boxer who has just fought his last bout, but a broken hand leads to gangrene and it has to be amputated.  Now Mike has few prospects, especially after his wife Angela (René Ray) has used their nest egg to bail out her no-good brother.  Eddie Blaine (John Ireland) is an Air Force officer about to be stationed in Germany… but he goes AWOL when he suspects his actress wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is having an affair with her co-star (Lee Patterson).  Lastly, there’s Miles Ravenscourt (Laurence Harvey), a “gentleman” who depends on his wife Eve’s (Margaret Leighton) wealth to maintain the lifestyle to which he is accustomed.  But she cuts him off, tired of paying for his extravagant spending and gambling debts.  All four men are in a tight spot, but Miles has a plan.  A criminal plan.

Another Brit-noir, this one a heist-gone-wrong movie.  But the film takes its time getting there… in the intro we see the four men in a car, arming themselves with pistols.  Then we go into flashback and it’s well over an hour before we return to this scene.  The movie is more interested in studying how good people (well, three good people and Miles) get into a situation that causes them to make bad decisions.  These are down-to-earth guys with the best of intentions, but circumstances — and the slick-talking Miles — drive them to desperate measures.  Like many noirs, it focuses on the struggles of returning veterans (or in Eddie’s case, active servicemen).  It’s like The Best Years of Our Lives with a darker edge.  The film also makes the point that the most unscrupulous of the men (Miles, obviously) got his military honors via dishonorable means.

I mainly wanted to watch this for Gloria Grahame, who gets second billing in the cast.  But clearly her high-ranking credit was mainly for her star appeal.  She has maybe eight minutes of screen time in all, although she makes the most of it.  Or maybe I’m blind to her weaknesses… the screen just seems to crackle when she’s on it, all sass and seduction with the sharp edges poking through.  Ireland holds up well against her, though, trying to hold on to something he’s not sure he should have ever wanted in the first place.  The rest of the cast acquit themselves quite well also, with Stanley Baker as a particular highlight.  Mike’s thread is the most compelling, and also seems to claim the best cinematography (boxing scenes are always good for dramatic shots), but each is captivating to some degree.  I like Basehart and Collins is an appealing presence, but Freda Jackson runs away with the scene any time she appears, boiling with resentment.  Harvey (top-billed) is perhaps too slimy and I would have liked a little more restraint in regards to his character, and while Leighton is fine as his long-suffering wife, she fails to leave much of an impression.

Director Lewis Gilbert, perhaps best known for his 007 films (all during the terrible Roger Moore era, but we won’t hold that against him), doesn’t give the movie quite enough oomph.  As interesting as these characters are, it does take too long to get to the action.  When the heist finally comes, it’s a bit too rushed.  Perhaps this lends itself well to the chaotic nature of the event, but a little more care in the pacing would have given the climax more tension.  In all, though, this is an enjoyable work with good writing and generally strong performances.  It just needs a dash more style to stand out from the pack.  Rating: Good (79)


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Noir-vember 2014: The Sleeping Tiger

Posted by martinteller on November 14, 2014

“Alright, you’ve told me now I’ll tell you. You’re a phony, Mrs. Esmond. You’re all safe and sound and smooth on the outside, you’ve got everything you want, that’s what you tell yourself. But inside you’ve got nothing. You’re empty, you’re hungry. I know your sort. I know you so well. You act as if nothing could shake you, but in actual fact you’re a tight wire. And it wouldn’t take very much to break you. Not very much at all.”

Noted psychoanalyst Dr. Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox) is walking the London streets late one night and is accosted by Frank Clemmons (Dirk Bogarde), a hooligan with a gun trying to mug him.  Esmond’s army training allows him to easily get the best of Frank and disarm him.  But rather than take him to the police, Dr. Esmond welcomes Frank into his home, with the idea of studying him (and hopefully “curing” him of his criminal tendencies) over the next 6 months.  Frank opts for the lesser of two evils and agrees.  While Dr. Esmond tries to pierce Frank’s protective layers, his wife Glenda (Alexis Smith) finds herself strangely drawn to the young thug.

The first of five collaborations between Bogarde and director Joseph Losey, though it would be nearly 10 years until the next one… the masterful The Servant.  Losey, blacklisted at the time and operating under the radar, is credited as “Victor Hanbury”.  He may have considered it a blessing in disguise that his name wasn’t attached to this mediocre effort.  Losey is no stranger to noir (he seems to pop up for me every Noir-vember) and there are a few nice noir elements here.  The dramatic angles, the down-and-dirty jazz nightclub, the theme of big city evil invading the quiet home, the psychological aspects.

But it’s pretty lame psychology and the film’s third act is loaded with a lot of phony melodrama that’s hard to swallow.  Smith overacts her ass off, and while her character goes through an interesting arc, the performance makes a mockery of it.  Bogarde is surprisingly ho-hum here and Frank never really comes off like the dangerous presence that he should.  Or maybe he shouldn’t… if Glenda is the real tiger, then maybe Frank is just a kitty cat with an attitude problem.  Still, the film feels like it’s trying to go one way with Frank, then veers off down a path that’s both hokey and unconvincing.

The first time we see Bogarde’s face is in a mirror, a precedent for the multitude of reflections seen in The Servant.  That’s a far superior work.  This movie has some occasional sparks but gets lost in overblown melodrama, not to mention buried under a bombastic score.  Rating: Fair (63)


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Noir-vember 2014: Ivy

Posted by martinteller on November 10, 2014

“He’s in a bit of a hurry to get that rope around his neck, isn’t he?”
“So is she.”

Ivy Lexton (Joan Fontaine) has her eyes set on the wealthy Miles Rushworth (Herbert Marshall).  There’s only two things standing between her and the object of her ambitious affection.  The first is her husband Jervis (Richard Ney), unemployed and constantly struggling to keep up with his wife’s extravagant tastes.  The other is her lover, the possessive Dr. Roger Gretorex (Patric Knowles).  How do you get rid of two men while still making yourself available and desirable to a third?  Poison one and frame the other, of course.

Victorian noirs are a little tricky to fit into the genre.  For one thing, you miss out on all that juicy hard-boiled lingo.  I like to find a sharp quote to kick off my Noir-vember reviews, but for this one I had to settle for something without much sizzle.  And you don’t have the urban settings or the contemporary social issues as a factor.  But this type of film does lend itself nicely to dark themes — especially operating outside the law — and a lot of gothic stylization.  Director Sam Wood (probably best known for comedies like The Devil and Miss Jones and two key Marx Brothers movies) brings in some oppressive shadows and off-kilter angles to give it a noir feel.  The movie opens with a startlingly offbeat scene of Ivy visiting a fortune teller (a great character performance by Una O’Connor) while an assistant creepily plays the harpsichord.

The movie doesn’t ever quite live up to the unsettling tone of that opening scene, but it’s anchored by a fine femme fatale performance from Fontaine.  Ivy perhaps isn’t one of the most memorable dangerous dames of noir, but she’s a master manipulator.  She exploits men’s perceptions of her as a fragile, helpless creature.  When her husband confronts her about her reckless spending, she turns on the waterworks and bemoans her own incompetence.  It only takes a few seconds before he’s begging for her forgiveness, and when he leaves the room her tears turn into a sly smile.

None of the other actors are worth singling out, but they’re all fine (we can give a nod to Cedric Hardwicke as the obligatory detective whose suspicions are never satisfied with the story he’s being fed).  The plot moves at a satisfying clip and culminates in a fitting end.  Not a must-see by any means, but enjoyable, especially for fans of Fontaine.  Rating: Good (74)


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The Black Stallion (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on November 8, 2014

I don’t have a great memory.  That’s one of the reasons I keep a movie blog, because I often forget details about a movie, or what I thought of it, or even ever having seen it.  One memory that has stuck with me for a long long time, however, is seeing The Black Stallion in the theater with my mom and my sister.  One reason is that because of a complicated family situation, I didn’t get to go to the movies a lot with my mom, so it was a special occasion.  But another reason is that the movie sticks with you.  I’m not sure when the last time I saw it was… has to have been at least 12 years though, since there’s no record of it on my blog.  Probably much longer.  And yet, there were scenes and lines and images from this film that have lingered with me all these years.  Alec (Kelly Reno) and his father (Hoyt Axton) sorting through the night’s poker winnings, and the father telling the story of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus (Alec’s incredulous “smoke coming out of his nose!” line stuck with me too).  The bond between boy and horse slowly growing, as they take tentative steps towards each other.  The underwater shot of the horse being hoisted onto the rescue boat.  And so much more.

Carroll Ballard, who would later direct Fly Away Home, has a natural talent for portraying relationships between children and animals.  The horse (played by “Cass Ole”) is a gorgeous creature, but an imposing one.  And yet the friendship between small Alec (a marvelous, annoyance-free child performance by Reno) and The Black is deeply touching, developed with care and graceful simplicity.  Although the rest of the film is also really good, it’s the lengthy island sequence that serves as the movie’s most impressive and memorable section.  With stunning cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and a lovely score by Carmine Coppola (whose father Francis produced the film), it’s almost a disappointment to leave this remote paradise.

But then it isn’t, because the story continues to hold the viewer’s interest once back in civilization.  Ballard maintains a Malickian sense of gentility and wonder no matter what the setting.  Mickey Rooney’s performance is just gruff enough to be endearing without getting cantankerous, and Teri Garr makes a fine impression despite relatively little screen time.  If you just look at the barebones structure, the story of the Big Race follows a formulaic path (as a sidenote, it’s interesting to observe some plot parallels between this and Breaking Away from the same year).  But it rarely feels like a rote underdog (underhorse?) sports story because always the relationship between boy and horse has the primary focus.  Even though it happens at the end, the race isn’t the culmination of the tale, what everything’s been building up to.  It’s one more chapter in the tale of this bond.  And Ballard wisely — brilliantly — cuts away to those island scenes as the race reaches its climax.  A masterful touch.

The one sour note is the way the only “evil” character in the film is an Arab (the role is actually credited simply as “Arab”).  It’s bad enough that he’s mean to the horse, does he have to steal a child’s life vest as well?  It comes off as uncomfortably xenophobic.  But that’s really the only gripe I have.  I showed this to my fiancée — who had previously showed me Fly Away Home — and she said we’ll have to show it to our kids one day.  I couldn’t agree more.  Family films are rarely so beautiful, elegant and moving.  Rating: Great (90)


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Noir-vember 2014: Crashout

Posted by martinteller on November 6, 2014

You gotta kill to go free and you gotta kill to stay free.  The first one of you guys forgets it won’t even live long enough to regret it.

Six convicts have escaped prison and are hiding out in a cave, waiting for the search party to move on.  The ringleader Van Morgan Duff (William Bendix), a no-nonsense brute who caught a bullet en route to the hideout.  Pete Mendoza (Luther Adler) considers himself a ladies’ man.  Luther Remsen (William Talman) a.k.a. Swanee Rawlins a.k.a. Reverend Remington is a murderer with an odd sense of religion.  Monk Collins (Gene Evans) is your run-of-the-mill thug.  Billy Lang (Marshall Thompson) is a kid in over his head.  And then there’s Joe Quinn (Arthur Kennedy), who was not invited but caught wind of the plans.  As Duff bleeds out, the others want to move on without him, but Duff promises to lead them to $180,000 if they help keep him alive.

Look at that screenshot.  Talman, Bendix, Kennedy.  Three of the toughest, roughest, slimiest, darkest hoods to grace the silver screen.  If you’re casting a movie about escaped cons, these are the guys you want (Lawrence Tierney and Tim Carey would be pretty sweet too, though they’d threaten to steal every second).  Bendix growls and glares through the role, his character constantly trying to reaffirm his dominance over the others.  Talman is creepy and unpredictable, just as likely to gouge your eye out with a broken bottle as he is to preach at you.  And Kennedy seethes, aware that his role as an outsider means he’s gotta be on alert at all times.  If the others are less impressive, it’s only because they share the screen with three greats.  Adler serves as a sort of comic relief, but it’s offset by a dark edge… his clowning isn’t quite so amusing after he forces his lips onto those of a hostage.  Thompson has the least exciting part as the “good guy” of the group, but he handles it well, without overdoing the naiveté at all.  Evans doesn’t have a lot to do, but he holds his own and makes his presence felt.

There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of brutality, and some gripping use of tension and action.  Things slow down a bit for two sequences involving women.  The first is when Thompson chats up a young lady (Gloria Talbott, All That Heaven Allows) on a train, the second is when Kennedy makes a connection with a single mom (Beverly Michaels) who reluctantly helps them hide out.  These scenes give the film a bit of the existential weight it’s lacking elsewhere (the movie being mostly concerned with how they go about evading the law while dealing with strife within the group) but they also feel like they’re getting in the way a little.  Still, they do add something and aren’t terribly long.

A mean and brutal film, not a classic but it’s put together nicely.  It doesn’t feel like a B movie, it’s got heft to it thanks to the strong cinematography, biting script and lead performances.  Rating: Very Good (84)


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