Sunday 31 January 2021

The Mole People (1956)

Director: Virgil Vogel
Writers: Laszlo Gorog
Stars: John Agar, Cynthia Patrick and Hugh Beaumont

Index: 2021 Centennials.

I have to admit that The Mole People surprised me. Sure, some of that was because I had memories of watching this colour Universal monster movie, memories which turned out to be of something else entirely that I can’t figure out, as this is emphatically black and white. A large part is because of how it unfolds, because, while it’s often the poorly researched B-movie nonsense I expected, with a heck of a lot of ancient Egyptian iconography populating a supposedly Sumerian story, but there’s actually a lot of thought given to science in something I’d classify more as fantasy than science fiction. Most of all, though, it was the introduction that surprised me, because I’m used to the “scientists” gushing forth in them about whatever subject is to come having even fewer credentials for that role than the actors playing the parts they were paid to interpret. Maybe I’ve seen too many pseudo-educational flicks by showmen like Dwain Esper and Kroger Babb and far too much Criswell. But this introduction is by someone who’s really a big deal.

His name is Frank C. Baxter and he’s introduced as the Professor of English at the University of Southern California that he actually was. His spiel is pure Forteana, explaining to us that we know so much about the surface of our world and that we’ve reached out to the stars but we know very little about what might be hiding beneath our feet. “What’s inside this globe?” he asks us, launching into swift explanations of Victorian Hollow Earth theories by people like Cyrus Teed and John Cleves Symmes, Jr. The former suggested that we don’t live on the surface of our planet at all but inside it, with the heavens a giant sphere, the sun a gigantic battery and the stars mere refractions of its light. The latter believed that there are five concentric spheres inside our planet, each habitable and lit by the one above, with light getting in through giant holes at each of the poles, surely entranceways for us to visit our subterranean brethren within our Hollow Earth. These theories are pseudoscientific nonsense, of course, but Baxter is no pseudoscientist.

Wednesday 27 January 2021

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Director: Phil Karlson
Writers: Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling & James Poe, from the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller
Stars: Broderick Crawford, Donna Reed and John Derek

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Any opportunity to review a Sam Fuller picture, I will happily take without hesitation, and, while Scandal Sheet isn’t either directed or written by Fuller, it is based on his novel, The Dark Page, published in 1944. It’s also a story about newspapers, something that he knew very well, having been part of the news industry since the age of twelve. He became a crime reporter at the New York Evening Graphic at seventeen and his film set in that world, Park Row, is possibly my favourite of all his movies; it was certainly his. Oddly, it was also released in 1952, though that was coincidental; he’d sold the rights to The Dark Page to Howard Hawks during the war and had even written a treatment of it as it wound its way slowly towards the screen. A young John Derek on the ascendant played the lead initially aimed at John Payne, playing a reporter who’s very sharp but not very principled, mostly due to his being mentored by his editor, in the form not of Orson Welles, as planned, but Broderick Crawford, Derek’s screen father in All the King’s Men.

The relationship arc between these two is one good reason to watch this movie, as it’s the only one that allows me to look past such an observant character as Steve McCleary, ace newshound for the New York Express, having a notable blindspot when it comes to his mentor, Mark Chapman. However, I’m watching in January 2021 not for Derek or Crawford but for Donna Reed, the other star who got prominent billing on the poster, because the 27th would have been her one hundredth birthday. This isn’t her best role or her best known, let alone her best regarded, but it is an appropriate one, given that Julie Allison is both McCleary’s love interest and his (and our) moral compass through this film, as well as an accomplished journalist in her own right. That sort of combo worked well for the future Golden Globe-winning star of The Donna Reed Show, which, only six years on, would become the first family-oriented sitcom to revolve around a capable woman instead of a capable man.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Gang War (1958)

Director: Gene Fowler, Jr.
Writer: Louis Vittes, from the novel The Hoods Take Over by Ovid Demaris
Stars: Charles Bronson, Kent Taylor, Jennifer Holden and John Doucette

Index: 2021 Centennials.

21st January marks the centennial of character actor John Doucette and it took me a long while to figure out what I could review in his memory. The problem is that he was such an effective character actor, stealing moments and scenes out from under the leads, often as a tough guy, whether sheriff or villain, that he was rarely given a lead of his own, even with credits in a hundred and forty films and even more TV shows. Eventually, I tracked down this picture, a relatively straightforward gangster flick released by 20th Century Fox in 1958. He’s not the lead here, either, that honour going to a young Charles Bronson, who was newly ascended to top billing himself. Doucette is fourth billed, after Kent Taylor and Jennifer Holden, but he dominates the entire film, because he’s the gangster that it’s all about, Maxie Meadows. This is his story just as much as it’s Bronson’s, even if his character has less depth and substance, and it’s easier for him to make his presence known in emphatic fashion.

We’re in Los Angeles and, to highlight what the City of Angels was like at this point, we’re treated to a montage of mayhem right at the start. Machine guns unloading their rounds directly at the audience! Cars screaming round corners at high speed! Barber shops exploding in the night! Even the title explodes onto the screen at us in military capitals: “GANG WAR”. And when our story begins, Louis Vittes’s script, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s novel, The Hoods Take Over, gets right down to business. Slick Connors slaps down his girl, Marsha, because she doesn’t like him becoming a stool pigeon. He’s turning state’s evidence against Joe Reno so that, when the syndicate moves in, he’ll become Mr. Big. “Glad to know you while you’re still alive,” she tells him, with prescience, because he leaves her apartment to find Joe and Bernard “The Axe” Duncan outside, waiting to murder him in cold blood. Which they do. Slick betrays himself to be a coward, but Joe isn’t. He takes care of business and that’s Leonard P. Geer’s uncredited performance over.

Sunday 3 January 2021

Fort Massacre (1958)

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writers: Martin M. Goldsmith
Stars: Joel McCrea, Forrest Tucker, Susan Cabot, John Russell and George N. Neise

Index: 2021 Centennials.

Fort Massacre is an odd movie in a lot of ways, not least because it’s well worth seeking out but it’s frustrating to watch. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, but it takes root in your brain and stays with you, because it also does quite a lot very right indeed. The lead is Joel McCrea, playing very much against type as the story’s bad guy, though oddly he’s also one of the good guys; the explanation of that sentence would count as a good synopsis of the film. There are other easily recognisable character actors here too, like Forrest Tucker and a very young Denver Pyle, but I’m watching for John Russell, who would have been a hundred years old on 3rd January, 2021 and he’s arguably the best thing about the film. He’s one of four highlighted co-stars and he’s the only one with a story arc, as his character is just as important to this story as McCrea’s, important enough that he literally gets the last word. His story arc both goes in the right direction and in the direction of right, making him our moral compass in a complex situation.

As you might imagine, this is a western, set entirely in the deserts of the southwest, and we begin on 28th July, 1879. Capt. Cole had command of C Troop, Second Regiment, Sixth Cavalry, but Capt. Cole is dead, along with half his men, after the troop was attacked by seventy Apache braves. His lieutenant survived but was seriously injured and he dies shortly into the film, having done nothing but fall off his horse, another corpse to bury. That leaves Sgt. Vinson in charge, as the only officer left alive. They’re somewhere in the southwestern corner of New Mexico and he figures that means about a hundred miles or so east of Fort Crain and safety. Their first task is to find the regiment’s main column that’s escorting a wagon train. It’s probably fair to say at this point that they never do, because this isn’t that sort of story. As expansive as the desert is, this really isn’t about what’s out there, whatever that may be, as this is a psychological western and the real story takes place inside the heads of Sgt. Vinson and Pvt. Robert W. Travis.