Friday, December 6, 2019

RADIO DAYS

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"He deserves an enema" 

RADIO DAYS (1987) is Woody Allen's valentine to the Golden Age of American radio. This is an era, having been born in 1956, that  I know about only through books and recordings. But Allen grew up in the late 1930s and early '40s and brilliantly captures the look and sounds of a lost day and time. 

Allen plays Joe, the adult narrator of this sweet exercise in nostalgia while Seth Greene portrays Joe onscreen as a youth. Joe lives in Rockaway Beach with his large, extended family, all of whom are regular radio listeners, each one enjoying his or her favorite program. Young Joe is enamored of the MASKED AVENGER show, only to learn years later that the square jawed hero of the adventure program was played by a short, bald actor (Wallace Shawn). 

Joe's family is portrayed as a working class Jewish clan who bicker and fight amongst themselves but are ultimately a tightly bound family unit who truly love each other. Their lives of unrequited love and dreams yet to be achieved are contrasted with the glamour and style of the celebrities that are heard on the radio shows, swells in the studio by day, and later, part of the see and be seen crowds at  impossibly stylized night clubs. Radio, as Allen presents it here, is truly the stuff that dreams are made of, whether for young Joe or ditzy cigarette girl Sally (Mia Farrow), who dreams of becoming a radio star, an ambition that she finally realizes through a colorful series of events.

Allen uses such now legendary radio touchstones as Orson Welles's  WAR OF THE WORLDS 1939 Halloween broadcast and the sudden news bulletin of the attack on Pearl Harbor ("Who's Pearl Harbor?" Sally wants to know), to build comic scenarios around. Joe and his young friends spy upon a naked woman in her apartment, later to discover she's their substitute teacher ("We are all, without a doubt, going straight to hell"), and muse about their favorite female movie stars. One lad favors Rita Hayworth, another Betty Grable while a third has the hots for Dana Andrews ("Dana Andrews is a boy? With a name like Dana?")

The cast is excellent. Allen uses a lot of his regular players to great advantage, often in just bit parts and cameo appearances. The cast includes Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Larry Davis, Julie Kavner, Diane Keaton, Kenneth Mars, Josh Mostlel, Don Pardo, Tony Roberts, Michael Tucker, and Dianne Wiest. 

The art direction by Santo Loquasto received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. His brilliant recreation of New York and surrounding environs is spot on. Carlos Di Palma (another regular Allen collaborator), gives his cinematography a slightly golden hue when depicting the fabulous night clubs and Radio City Music Hall ("It was like entering Heaven") while Joe's home is shot with a subdued color palette. 

But it's the music that is the real star of RADIO DAYS. Tons of great, big band songs are heard throughout the film and provide touchstones and memory markers for many of the characters. Like Joe says, whenever he hears "Marzy Doats" he can't help but remember the time his neighbor had a nervous breakdown and ran out into the street in his underclothes brandishing a butcher axe. 

 Joe admits that he can't help but romanticize the past but that's no crime.
 
We all do. 

And Woody Allen does so beautifully in RADIO DAYS. 

Highest recommendation. 




BLACK ALIBI

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Cornell Woolrich's BLACK ALIBI (1942), is a master class in the art of the psychological suspense novel. Set in Ciudad Real (the third largest city in South America), ALIBI finds a black leopard, originally intended as part of a publicity stunt, escaped and on the loose in the dark passageways of the ancient city. 

No sooner does the giant beast escape than deaths start occurring, all of which are attributed to the cat. But something about the killings (all of the victims are beautiful young women alone on the streets after dark) just doesn't add up. Manning, the publicity agent who cooked up the leopard stunt in the first place, suspects a human hand and mind behind the killings while police chief  Robles is 100% sure that the leopard is the killer. 

To prove his theory, Manning sets a trap using a beautiful young woman as bait. The trap is sprung however, and the young woman is whisked away into the night, leading Manning on a frantic race against time that climaxes in an ancient underground torture chamber in a sequence dripping with pure pulp horror. 

Woolrich presents each killing as an entire chapter, taking the time to develop the character of the victim and the locale and atmosphere of the city. He slowly ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable degree before finally releasing the tension. 

The first killing is that of a young girl, sent by her mother to a late night market to buy food. The girl is followed back to her home by something which attacks her just outside of the family's front door. It's a brilliant sequence, punctuated by wild screams of terror, the sound of something immense hitting the door and capped off by a slow trickle of blood under the threshold.

The next victim is trapped in a gated and locked cemetery after dark. The girl here has come to meet her lover but finds unbearable terror lurking in the darkness. Clo Clo, a "B" girl and semi prostitute is the next victim, followed by an American tourist who is savaged alongside a pastoral lake on the outskirts of the city. 

To say anything more about the ending of BLACK ALIBI would ruin the final narrative twist that Woolrich employs to tie everything up. No spoilers here, except to say that it's a shocker.

Shortly after publication, BLACK ALIBI was sold to RKO and producer Val Lewton's low budget horror film unit. The novel was filmed under the title of THE LEOPARD MAN in 1943. The setting was changed from South America to a small village in New Mexico but director Jacques Tourenur effectively uses the scene of the blood under the door to establish the mood and atmosphere early on in the film. It's a fine film, one that's well worth your time but if you want the real, unadulterated original thriller, you must read BLACK ALIBI.

Highest recommendation.




Thursday, November 28, 2019

FRIGHT

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FRIGHT (1950) is the first book I've read by the legendary Cornell Woolrich. It won't be the last. In fact, as soon as I finished FRIGHT last night, I started reading BLACK ALIBI (1942 and the basis for the classic 1943 horror film THE LEOPARD MAN). So far, so good. I'll post a review when I finish it. 

But for now, FRIGHT.

 Wow. 

This book is permeated with a palpable sense of paranoia in every paragraph. Every page is soaked with doom. Bleak House may have been a novel by Charles Dickens but it's where Woolrich's characters live their lives of impending annihilation. 

FRIGHT is set in the New York City of 1915, an odd choice for a noir novel, but Woolrich makes the time period work to his advantage. Young Prescott Marshall, a successful Wall Street broker is scheduled to marry the love of his life, the incandescently beautiful Marjorie Worth. But a drunken night on the town finds Prescott saddled with a blackmailing vixen who will stop at nothing to bleed the young man dry. In a furious fit of anger, Prescott murders the woman, just hours before his wedding ceremony. 

Prescott and his bride immediately move from New York to a never-named city somewhere in the heartland. Prescott gets a job at less pay than he made in New York and things are going okay until a strange man shows up in Prescott's office. Prescott is convinced that the man is a detective from New York who is following Prescott's trail. Prescott's paranoia leads him to commit two murders before he and Marjorie return to New York where more lives are ended. 

Just when you think this is the bleakest, most depressing ending to a story you've ever read, Woolrich pulls his trump card from up his sleeve by delivering a sucker punch, never-saw-it-coming epilogue that pulls the rug out from everything. 

To say any thing more about the twists and turns that this brilliant novel takes would spoil the delight of discovering them for yourself. No spoilers here.

Read FRIGHT and prepare to be plunged into a nightmare world in which one bad deed leads to another, and another, and another. 

Highest recommendation. 





Tuesday, November 26, 2019

STOP ME BEFORE I KILL!

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Val Guest paid his dues in the British cinema as a screenwriter beginning in 1935 before getting his first directing assignment in 1943. Guest helmed a number of films over a period of forty plus years but he's best remembered for the science fiction films he made for Hammer studios: QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), QUATERMASS 2 (1957), THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957), THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961) and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970).While Guest never achieved the heights of fellow Hammer director Terence Fisher, he was nonetheless an imminently capable and competent director. 

Case in point, STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! a 1960 psychological thriller starring David Hasselhoff look alike  Ronald Lewis as race car driver Alan Colby. Colby and his newly wedded bride Denise (Diane Cilento aka Mrs. Sean Connery) are involved in a horrific traffic accident, the aftermath of which plays out under the opening credits. A truck driver is dead, Colby suffers serious injuries while Denise is unhurt. Colby soon develops a severe case of PTSD, experiencing bouts of murderous rage in which he wants to strangle his wife. 

A chance meeting on the French Riviera with psychiatrist David Prade (Claude Dauphin) leads Colby into rounds of psycho-analysis in which Prade "cures" Colby. But when all evidence begins to point to Colby having actually murdered his wife, Colby snaps and goes on the run. 

A third act reveal exposes the answers to what has really been going on (note: it's not hard to figure out), resulting in the death of the villain in a small cable car (a conveyance that was solidly set up as possibly dangerous in the first act.).

STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! is nothing special but it is well made and well acted. The suspense quotient is rather small but the professionalism of all involved make it worth seeing for genre fans. 



Thursday, November 21, 2019

THE TAKE

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Years before he played Lando Calrissian and Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent, Billy Dee Williams headlined the mediocre and morally ambiguous crime film, THE TAKE (1974) .

Looking for all of the world like a made-for-television movie with a TV-centric cast to boot, THE TAKE is the story of San Francisco police detective Lt. Sneed, who is sent to Paloma, New Mexico to help take on the burgeoning organized crime ring (hereafter referred to as "The Syndicate") muscling in on the city. Sneed arrives in town just in time to take part in a courthouse shoot-out that leaves several dead, including three cops. Sneed is under the command of harried police chief Berrigan (Eddie Albert). Another cop, Captain Dolek (Albert Salmi) sticks close to Sneed and with good reason. 

Come to find out that Sneed and Dolek are bent cops, with both of them on the payroll of mob boss Victor Manso (Vic Morrow). Sneed plays both ends against the middle as he continues to take money from Manso (money which he launders through real estate developer Oscar (Sorrell Booke)) while heading up a strike force to bring down Manso's drug and counterfeiting operations. 

The best cover for a crooked cop is to be a good cop is Sneed's philosophy and he not only succeeds at this but he gets away with it. That's right, a crooked cop is the hero of this run-of-the-mill crime film. Sneed not only pockets the cash at the end of the film, he's promoted to captain for his troubles. 

I don't know if director Robert Hartford-Davis and screenwriters Franklin Coen and Del Reisman wanted to make some kind of a "statement" film about how corrupt many American police departments were in the mid '70s or if they wanted to try to cash in on the DIRTY HARRY phenomenon by having a cop who breaks all of the rules but is, in the end, the only man who can do the job. 

Either way, THE TAKE is a lackluster effort from all involved. A couple of decent action scenes and beautiful New Mexico locations can't save this one. 

Thumbs down.



Wednesday, November 20, 2019

THIS GUN FOR HIRE

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Alan Ladd, who had already appeared in bit parts in several films (including CITIZEN KANE (1941)), became a bonafide movie star with his role as hired killer Raven in THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). Although short and skinny, Ladd brought a simmering intensity to this and many other roles that followed. Although best known for the immortal SHANE (1953), Ladd starred in several classic film noirs including THE GLASS KEY (1942), THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955).

In GUN, Ladd was teamed for the first time with Paramount studios' "It" girl of the 1940s, blond bombshell Veronica Lake. Ladd and Lake strike genuine sparks in GUN and they worked together in several subsequent films including THE GLASS KEY, THE BLUE DAHLIA and SAIGON (1948). 

Based on a novel by Graham Greene, THIS GUN FOR HIRE opens with contract killer Raven (who has a soft spot for cats), gunning down not one, but two people. Can't leave any witnesses, you know. He's paid off by slimy Willard Gates ( Laird Cregar), in marked money, which means that as soon as Raven tries to spend any of the bills, he'll be spotted. 

Raven goes on the run to track down Gates who works two jobs. By day, he's an executive with Nitro Chemical Corporation in Los Angeles while by night, he's the impresario of The Neptune Club. He's hired Ellen Graham (Lake), a sexy, singing, sleight of hand magician for his nightclub. Ellen, it turns out, is the girlfriend of police detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) who is on Raven's trail. And she's also been asked by a U.S. Senator to find out the inner workings of Gates and his boss, Alvin Brewster (Tullly Marshall), both of whom are planning to sell a formula for poison gas to the Japanese. 

All of these various plot threads eventually weave together with Ellen, first taken hostage by Raven, then rescued by him and ultimately aiding him in his quest for revenge. There's a well staged action set piece in a Los Angeles rail yard before the climax in the headquarters of Nitro Chemical. 

Part film noir, part wartime spy thriller, THIS GUN FOR HIRE is a first rate film all the way. Ladd and Lake are both top notch but it's Laird Cregar who steals the show. Creger, who died incredibly young at the age of 31 in 1944, comes across as the illegitimate love child of Sidney Greenstreet and Raymond Burr with Charles Laughton serving as the midwife. The rotund, oleaginous actor oozes plummy menace in every scene he's in. Cregar was a standout in other film noirs: I WAKE UP SCREAMING (1941), THE LODGER (1944) and HANGOVER SQUARE (1945).

With a screenplay by  Albert Maltz and the legendary W.R. Burnett and ace direction by Frank Tuttle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE is a winner. 

Recommended. 




Sunday, November 17, 2019

THE ANDERSON TAPES

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Based on the bestselling novel by thriller writer Lawrence Sanders, Sidney Lumet's THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971), is a slick-as-a-whistle, first rate, New York City set crime film, a viable sub-genre of films that dominated the cinematic landscape of the 1970s. 

Sean Connery, anxious to avoid typecasting and shed his image as British super spy James Bond, stars as veteran criminal Duke Anderson. Freshly released from prison, Duke is already busy plotting his next caper and it's a doozy. He plans to rob all of the units of a swank New York City apartment building, a structure in which his girlfriend Ingrid (the smoking hot Dyan Cannon), resides as a kept woman. 

Of course, Anderson will need a team to execute the heist. He recruits Tommy Haskins, a gay antiques dealer (Martin Balsam in a terrific against-type performance), young ex-con The Kid (Christopher Walken in his first film role, and getaway driver Edward Spencer (Dick Anthony Williams). For old times sake, Anderson includes Pop (Stan Gottlieb), another ex-con, as lookout. 

But Anderson's caper is financed by mob boss Pat Angelo (Alan King, in another bit of offbeat casting) who insists that Anderson include loose cannon muscle man Socks Parelli (Val Avery), a goon that Anderson has orders to kill during the robbery. 

The second half of the film follows the crime itself but at various points in the narrative, Lumet flashes forward to the aftermath of the robbery, feeding us bits and pieces of information from the point of view of various robbery victims and making us wonder, who the guy on the stretcher (seen in numerous scenes) is. 

The police get wind of the robbery while it's in progress and launch a SWAT team assault on the building. The commander of the SWAT team is Captain Delaney (Ralph Meeker, playing his part broadly and for laughs) and a very young Garret Morris as patrolman Everson. 

Throughout the film, Lumet shows us various police and federal agencies that have all of the various players in the drama under constant surveillance through cameras, microphones and wire taps. Despite this constant monitoring by Big Brother, all of the data the various agencies have collected through the course of the film is ultimately worthless because it was all gained illegally. 

Filmed entirely on location in New York City and with a jazzy/electronic score by the great Quincy James, THE ANDERSON TAPES is a masterfully executed work by one of the greatest American filmmakers of the latter half of the twentieth century. 

Highly recommended.